In his tell-all memoir, author George Parker holds forth about what it’s really like to work in the steamy ad world, as popularized by AMC’s Mad Men. All it’s cracked up to be? Read to find out.
The latest installment in our series of extracts from George Parker’s new book, ‘Confessions of a Mad Man.’ One of the few surviving ‘Mad Men,’ George Parker has lived through more than forty decadent years in the world’s second oldest profession. He’s seen it all and done it all. And a great deal of what he’s done would make the TV show, ‘Mad Men,’ look like Sesame Street. Unless Kermit is caught in flagrante with Miss Piggy on the PBS boardroom table. Ah, the good old days… Sex, drugs, rock & roll… It’s advertising as you always imagined it.
Because I’ve been around the ad biz since Genghis Kahn invented the USP, I’ve had the misfortune to work with some of the biggest fucktards and douchenozzles a lethal combination of BDC’s and their BDA’s have been able to throw at me. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with one or two princes. This chapter contains a small, but representative selection. Dealing with the douchenozzles was often a giant pain in the arse, although, to be honest, occasionally it, turned out to be fun, particularly when it came to blowing their money on outrageously expensive TV shoots in exotic locations. But the overriding question I have always asked myself is how on earth these people managed to rise to the top of their respective organizations when so many of them were obviously cretins?
It isn’t so much that they are surrounded by hordes of arse kissing “yes men,” whose primary function is to keep reminding their respective Captains of Industry that they can walk on water, whilst simultaneously turning it into Chateau Lafitte. After all, that’s a given, and is common to all senior executives who have skimmed the scum covered ponds, known as “Business Schools,” to harvest the latest pool of newly buffed MBA’s. No, at some time, these future mega-millionaires had to start much lower on the totem pole, as a junior executive assistant, or whatever their entry point was at P&G, GM, or GE. And, speaking of GE, consider this… Exactly how did “Neutron” Jack Welch get his start, before rising to the ultimate, lofty, almost legendary CEO position at the top of the General Electric pile? Remember, this is a guy who dumped his first wife of twenty eight years, to marry wife number two, who was smart enough to have a titanium-clad pre-nup. One which allowed her to walk with $180 million after putting up with this wanker for fourteen years. Currently, Jack is on wife number three, who is the ghost writer of his excruciatingly bad, boiler plate, but best selling, business books. I’ll bet this lady has a pre-nup that would live through an atomic bomb explosion. But back to the subject of how this management legend got his start. Jack initially went to work at GE, as a junior chemical engineer, who achieved early notoriety when he blew the roof off one of their factories. However, this has nothing to do with his nickname, “Neutron.” That came about because of his uncanny ability to empty entire buildings of hundreds of people without damaging any part of the structure. When he became CEO, in 1981, within four years he had reduced GE’s headcount from 411,000 to 299,000. All without a scintilla of pain on his part.
So, now you would think that the old geezer has happily retired to one of his half dozen homes with a lifetime supply of Viagra, courtesy of the long suffering GE shareholders. I mean this is a guy whose net worth is considered to be in the region of $800 million, and who until the day he finally kicks it, will be drawing an $8 million a year pension. But no, now he has a consulting business, an executive business school, and is charging the hoi poloi of American industry an arm and a leg for his invaluable insights. Shit, where can I get a job like that?
But enough of “Neutron Jack,” let us move on to the first example of the truly weird Captains of industry, Lords of all they survey, and Emperors of the known universe, I’ve had the distinct pleasure, frustration and anguish to work with in my career.
As I explained in the last chapter, Geek Speak, when I returned from England to the US in the early eighties, it was to California. Apart from working with agencies in LA and San Francisco, I also freelanced for the large number of agencies that fed off the ever lactating tit of Silicon Valley, an area bursting at the seams with companies at the forefront of the IT revolution. Intel, Apple, 3Com, NEC and a shit load of others. The difference was that in those days, they all placed their accounts with specialist high tech agencies. It wasn’t until they got too big for their britches, drank the “Branding” Kool-Aid, and decided they needed to spend mega-millions to reach an audience that had no fucking idea they existed, let alone an understanding of what it was they actually made, that they hired BDA’s, and proceeded to blow dumpster loads of money.
One of the agencies I freelanced for was pitching the Sente Technologies account. This was a brand new company started by Nolan Bushnell, who even in the early eighties had already become a legend in the Valley as the inventor of the electronic game “Pong” and the founder of Atari. A guy who after founding more than twenty two companies, has been described in the ass kissing press as a “Serial Entrepreneur.” which to me is the closest thing you can get to being to a serial killer. But, don’t get me wrong here; I am not suggesting he goes around doing a Jack the Ripper on Silicon Valley geeks. He simply has a well proven track record of making investors money rapidly disappear. But what the hell, if the money is coming out of the slimy pockets of venture capitalists, I have no problem with that. Unfortunately, in the case of Sente, it came out of the pockets of the agency I was freelancing for.
Let me explain. After inventing “Pong,” and anyone long enough in the tooth to remember that this was the original video game to be found in arcades, bars and brothels, well, brothels south of San Diego, would know that this rudimentary device revolutionized gaming across the nation. Prior to the electronic game, a degenerate’s skill at pinball depended on his, (the odds are the vast majority of degenerates are male,) dexterity with flippers, plungers, and other mechanical devices that propelled the ball through various gates and channels to score enough to earn a bonus game. True masters also had a way of gently massaging the pin-table in a way that the ball could be caressed repeatedly in and out of a multi-scoring gate without tripping the dreaded “TILT” signal. Many is the pint I’ve enjoyed in the “Frog and Nightgown,” watching a true master make a single game last forever through the rhythmic bumping and grinding of his thighs against the Mild & Bitter encrusted machine. Ah yes, a pin ball wizard could fuck that thing ‘till it begged for mercy at closing time.
Nolan changed all that. Back in those days, virtually all games were played in amusement arcades, pool halls and bowling alleys, usually located at such insalubrious locations as Coney Island and Forty Second Street. Apart from the flashing lights, and bells and whistles sound effects, the machines were mechanical and expensive. In 1970, Nolan created the world’s first commercial video game, “Computer Space” which he licensed to a Mountain View arcade company. In 1971, he took the $150,000 he made in royalties and founded Atari. His first product was “Pong.” It changed gaming forever, as well as forming the foundation of the many millions of dollars Nolan has made, and pissed away, over the years. In 1976, Nolan flogged Atari to Warner Communications for $40 million. However, part of the deal was a seven year non-compete clause which kept him out of the gaming industry during a period when it was changing radically. So, he went off and founded Chuck E. Cheese, a chain of kid’s restaurants serving terrible food, but with lots of games for the kids, and plenty of cheap wine and beer to keep the parents happy. In 1983, Nolan’s non-compete clause had run out, and he was ready to get back in the “game” game. That’s when he founded Sente, and that’s when I met him.
Even though the Apple I & II and the IBM PC, along with early pioneers, Commodore, Kaypro, and even Atari, had started to introduce computers for the masses, they were rarely presented as something you could play games on; it was all about personal productivity, and keeping your wife’s recipes organized. Gaming was still something you did while hanging out in an arcade smoking a fag and scoring cheap weed. The problem was that by now, many of these games, and the massive consoles they were played on, had become very sophisticated, and horrendously expensive for both the public to play and the arcade operators to buy.
Nolan had a plan that was about to change all that.
Because the consoles were so expensive to buy, arcade operators had to keep their fingers crossed that they would recover the cost of their investment, before the next “hot” game grabbed the attention of the arcade habitués. As the games got more and more costly to design and produce, the ROI got harder and harder to achieve. Nolan had called a Sente Technologies distributer conference at a conference center in San Jose. This was where the game industry expected him to unveil the next “Ultimate Killer Game!” Something that the pre-launch ad campaign I had created actively encouraged. We shot pictures of Nolan at his humungous Woodside estate. This was the old Folger mansion, complete with a ten car garage to hold his collection of Ferraris and Rollers. We shot the pictures at night looking into Nolan’s den, a huge room complete with robots, electronic gear with flashing lights and a giant stuffed Chuck E. Cheese smoking his signature cigar. Nolan, smoking his signature pipe (cigars are for rats) was standing next to a giant, brown paper wrapped package that looked just about the right size for a game console. We used these visuals for all the ads and direct mail pieces (this was pre-Internet, remember?) With the whole thrust being that at the conference, Nolan would unwrap the future of the gaming industry by revealing the next “Ultimate Killer Game!”
On the great day, the curtains were drawn to reveal the giant package illuminated by strobing lights, electronic music, fog machines, the works. The crowd was abuzz. The music died down, and then explosive bolts on the package blew the sides off… And out stepped Nolan with his signature massive briar pipe clenched in his teeth. The crowd went nuts. Nolan calmed them down, and then explained that the future wasn’t to be a never ending escalation of more expensive games, but a radically new form of financing. The consoles would be free; operators would sign a licensing agreement that guaranteed four new software cartridges a year, low income generating games would be swopped for better ones, the other details I can’t remember, a lethal combination of booze and age will do that to you, but the concept was revolutionary. The crowd loved it and started signing up on the spot.
Meantime, Chuck E. Cheese was in deep financial shit, and Sente was rapidly running out of money to develop the promised software. In three months, Nolan’s new company went Chapter Eleven; the ad agency I was freelancing for was left with a ton of debt (same shit that happened to many BDA’s when the dot com bubble burst years later!) I was OK; I got half my money up front, ‘cos I’m not stupid, and managed to get the rest of it before Nolan pulled the plug. Interestingly, a couple of months later, I read that Bushnell had taken delivery of a giant, fucking yacht and was going to race it in the Transatlantic Yacht Race of 1983. I wouldn’t be surprised if the figurehead on the prow of the mega-million dollar boat was a grinning Chuck E. Cheese chewing on his rancid cigar.
Last I heard, Nolan is working on startup number twenty two. If any psfk investors have some loose change over from their Groupon flutter, I can put you in touch.