A nice thing about being in the ad biz is that occasionally you get invited to some cool places -- especially, if you have any decision-making power. When I was a young art director at a Chicago agency I got invited to a very cool party at the Playboy mansion. How, or why, I'm not exactly sure. When you work at a big agency you're often the recipient of invites to great parties simply because you happen to be a name on a mailing list. Agency vendors (ie. photographer's reps, printer reps, etc.) use agency creative rosters to solicit their wares, often in the form of a party. So here I am, this low level dweeb, chugging vodka tonics with Playboy bunnies at the Playboy mansion. I'd love to describe the tete-a-tete I had with Miss May, but this is a book about the truth in advertising. Other than fondling my hi-balls the only tactile contact I had that evening was with the hors d'oeuvres.
A few years later I found myself in a similar modern-day castle -- the Helmsley Palace in New York. Aptly named, The Palace was fit for royalty. In fact, it was often the choice of royalty and top dignitaries from around the world. And, like the Playboy Mansion, The Palace was made famous by the person who inhabited it. I first met the notorious Leona Helmsley when we pitched the Helmsley Palace account. Like everyone else in New York at the time, I'd heard all the stories about "The Queen of Mean". The New York press was having a field day with her. Consequently, I couldn't help the mixed feelings I had about pitching the account. My partner, who got the meeting, didn't seem concerned. So, after pulling together a very strong presentation, we prepared for our appearance in the Queen's court as her business associates prepped us:
"Don't call her Leona...it's Mrs. Helmsley.
Don't sit down until she sits.
Don't speak until she asks you something.
And, Mrs. Helmsley is a very busy woman. She can give you 10,
Needless to say, the thought of having to deal with such pandering protocol on a regular basis was not appealing.
After what seemed like an hour of waiting, The Queen makes her grand entrance and I can honestly say that never have I seen grown men act so spineless. Everything is, "Yes, Mrs. Helmsley!" and "Of course, Mrs. Helmsley!" No sooner does she place her derriere on the velvet-cushioned chair when we are pointedly reminded: "Mrs. Helmsley does not have a lot of time". Either because I'm well prepared, or just not giving a shit, I'm actually becoming amused by the pompous display. The Queen seems to pick up on this confidence as I take her through a range of concepts. Some she likes, others she doesn't. Overall though, she is pleased. "You boys are very cleva," are her parting words as she exits as briskly as she entered, followed by her bumbling entourage.
I spend the next couple weeks making creative revisions, mostly minor ones, and soon we're off to another meeting with The Queen. This time, however, we are not so well received. In fact, she likes absolutely nothing -- not even the ads she was enamored with before. My partner and I are dumbfounded. When Leona gets up and abruptly leaves the room after only 10 minutes, we can only assume we're being dismissed. "This sucks" I think as I scramble to pack up my scattered ads and leave the premises. I know the work we presented is good, but as my partner and I lick our wounds we can only speculate about our abrupt dismissal. Our answer comes soon enough when we catch the latest NY Post headline: The Queen is off to jail.
That same year, while sorting through the daily deluge of junk mail, a square white envelope catches my eye. The return address, in gold embossed lettering, reads simply; THE WHITE HOUSE. Being the target of many gimmicky, job-seeking-student-promo-pieces, I open the envelope with a groan. To my utter amazement, it's no gimmick. It turns out that the First Lady and I have something in common -- child abuse prevention -- and apparently our agency's award-winning, national TV psa's have not gone unnoticed. As honored as I am to receive the invitation, my partner is not. His resistance is dumbfounding until I remind myself of his expressed problem with Democracy. And, without new business possibilities, he sees the visit as more a waste of time than an honor. It's also what he tells the press a week later. Hey, not everyone has the same opinion. That's cool. Unfortunately though, the press prints the story with his less-than-gracious comments beside my photo.
©2002 John Follis. All rights reserved.