Monday, October 10, 2011

Peter Smith's Lesser Horrors: Welcome to Dullsville.

Advertising may not seem like a dull business, but it sure has its mind-numbingly dull moments. As in Peter Smith's early ad-agency job.

This is the final installment of Peter Smith's series of "Lesser Horrors." Missed his previous entries? You can catch them here.


Lesser Horror: Any glimmer, thought, or memory from one’s personal past that for whatever reason causes a small, brief but recurring episode of psychic pain or piquancy.

Author and MPR contributor

It was a big, mediocre, post prime advertising agency full of has-beens and never-weres. And politicians. And people slumping under the weight of their consciences. We had, each and all, sold out.

We specialized in big accounts, and our clients came to meetings stacked five or six levels high—from lackey to product manager to marketing manager to senior marketing manager—all the way up to senior VP of marketing.

We matched them lackey for lackey, manager for manager, VP for VP until the long tables in the big conference rooms (there were several) were full, and the walls lined with overflow people sitting attentively, pens and pads poised. Meetings were our most important product.

There was always an overhead projector at one end of the table. Crisply starched agency people paraded up to it, one after another, showing charts and graphs.

Sales trends. Competitive spending analyses. Demographics. Psychographics. How many target viewers the spot would reach. How many times each viewer would see it. Eisenhower pulled off D-Day with a smaller staff and less information.

We simply wanted to sell more. More Golden Grahams. More Toro snow blowers. More Northwest Airlines passenger miles and Honeywell thermostats. More Northwestern National Bank Certificates of Deposit. More of any of the products and services of the big, clunky companies that had come to us for our unique, “Dare to be dull” brand of advertising.

We were known for our inoffensive, formulaic clutter—for commercials so bland they were basically invisible. Our safe, simplistic one-size-fits-all strategy was to have the client spend millions of additional dollars to air our invisible commercials thousands and thousands of extra times—to win a share of your mind through rote repetition rather than grabbing your attention with riskier, more memorable high profile spots that would get the client’s message across for cents on the media dollar.

We were dull. We were obvious. You could write our kind of crap in your sleep. On the plus side, it paid well. I’d taken the job because I’d thought it was time to cash in. I’d planned to disengage my brain, take the money, and ride the huge profit sharing plan as far as I could.

It was a terrible mistake, and I knew as much when, during orientation that first morning, the human resources lady handed me a company coffee cup with fifteen cents Scotch taped to the bottom.

“It’s for your first cup of coffee,” she said, looking like she’d just spiffed me fifty bucks. “It’s on the company.”

Fifteen cents. A nickel and a dime. Walking past the coffee machine on the way back to my new office, I caught my first glimpse of my new coworkers. They were queued up, company cups and nickels and dimes in hand, waiting for a cup of that nasty, tepid, “fresh brewed” instant the company fobbed off on them. At five that evening, the same people ran—actually ran—to the elevator lobby.

I thought there was a fire.


These people had logged their eight hours in hell. They had buses to catch and lives to resume.

In a matter of days, I had developed an absolute aversion to the place—an indignant sanctimony. What was wrong with these people? Didn’t they owe the client an honest day’s work?

The battle for my advertising soul had begun. I could shut up and join the army of the mindless or I could go out there and try to do what seemed right for the client.

In truth, I could not do either. I was still a young adman in a hurry. I was not ready to simply ride the profit sharing. I couldn’t shame that bunch into action either. The culture of the sold out was too ingrained, and the job of enervating the place into action was too daunting. The weight, torpor and inertia of the place would be impossible to overcome.

The whole shop had seen guys like me come and go before. So they smiled and nodded quite a bit. They didn’t budge, but they smiled and nodded.

Ultimately, I could not shoehorn myself into the organization, and 89 days after I arrived, I departed. I concluded my exit interview with the woman from human resources and ran for the elevator like a veteran employee at closing time.

The coffee was free at the agency where I landed. And, arriving home from the office around 10 PM one night, I found a check in the mail from the big dull agency. It was about forty bucks. The annotation said, “Profit sharing.”


Peter Smith is a thirty-year veteran of Twin Cities advertising and a regular contributor to Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio. He is author of A Porch Sofa Almanac and, more recently, A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors. He blogs at Peter Smith Writes and tweets at @petersmithwrite.

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