The Most Bizarre Evening In Advertising History.

The movies have the Oscars. TV has the Emmys. And, for advertising, it's The Clios. To get a true sense of this particular evening, picture Rod Serling, in his Rod Serling voice, setting up a Twilight Zone episode...

            "Picture if you will, the top advertising minds in the world. They're huddled together in a sweaty room like a bunch of tuxedoed sardines. Something isn't right. Like the others, you've paid $125 for what's been billed as "The Biggest Ad Event of the Year." Yet, for some unexplained reason, you've been waiting in this steamy purgatory for over an hour. Welcome to the 1991 Clios."

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Like the others in the crammed lobby I've anticipated this event for weeks. The ticket isn't cheap, but it's the cost to find out if any of my three "finalist" entries have won a coveted Clio. It's incredibly odd for such a prestigious event like The Clios to be in such a state of confusion. Pre-paid-for tickets promised at the door are missing and no one has a good explanation why. Many of the sharply dressed guests have come from far away places including several foreign countries. It's a humid 86 degrees and tempers are beginning to rise.

Out of nowhere a perky young reporter approaches me. I notice her scribbling in her reporter's pad as we chat:

      "So, have you heard the rumors?"

      "Rumors?" I ask.

      "You haven't heard? About Bill Evans. Something about drugs and other stuff. Some say the show isn't going to happen!"

Bill Evans is the dapper Englishman and marketing genius behind the Clios. Like the rest of the American public I've enjoyed his Tonight Show appearances with the winning Clio spots from around the world. The shocking rumors I'm hearing about Evans, involving a police investigation, is news to me. We continue to chat as I keep on eye out for any sign of entrance. The young reporter scribbles feverously as we chat. Out of the sea of humanity I catch a glimpse of a familiar face from another agency. I finish with the reporter and push my way through the sweaty crowd to connect. Without a word the colleague, whom I barley know, thrusts a ticket at me. "Don't ask, just follow me!" she exclaims. As if stepping through the looking glass I'm suddenly transported into a spacious, air-conditioned ballroom with a few privileged others. I thank my angelic friend for the third time and then make a beeline for the nearest bar stand. As I gulp my vodka cranberry I notice the rest of the disgusted crowd shuffling in, disgruntled remarks still punctuating the air. Grabbing a second drink I begin wandering the huge space seeking familiar faces for the obligatory schmooze. Rumors abound about Evans and the event's disorganization which is now a full two hours behind schedule.

It seems the show is finally about to begin as the band strikes up an upbeat tune. However, the dapper fellow behind the podium is not Bill Evans, or anyone recognizable. I overhear a comment that it's the head caterer, but dismiss it as just another caustic remark. Moments later, I'm informed it's true. Considering that the guy is more familiar with Swedish meatballs than advertising, he does a reasonable job covering for Evans. I conclude that he may be motivated by the reality that if people leave without eating his food, he may not collect his fee. The caterer is doing his best to cover one slight problem -- no winner's list. Eventually, he's had enough and walks off stage to a chorus of boos from the stunned crowd. More problems ensue when a second unknown presenter (who turns out to be a PR guy) takes the stage. Unlike the charismatic caterer, this guy is far from smooth. It only takes a few off-color jokes to figure out that he probably spent a little too much time at the bar prior to his master of ceremony debut. Well- known agency names are mangled, slides of winning ads are backwards and out of focus, and winners are not even acknowledged. When the band plays a familiar Irish tune the well-lubed PR guy stops everything and breaks out in song. The evening is quickly digressing to a circus-like atmosphere. Some in the audience find amusement in the pathetic display. Most do not as the boos and hisses grow louder. What started as an evening of mere confusion is quickly becoming a major disaster.

With only about half the show completed, another bizarre thing happens. It just stops. After dodging bread rolls the disoriented PR guy finally staggers off the stage. But this time no one dares to step in. The audience now sits in stunned silence. To try to keep things moving the band leader takes the cue to play Hello Dolly for a fourth time. I begin to imagine how the passengers on the Titanic felt as the ship was going down. Only the unawarded Clios, poised on-stage like an army of gold soldiers, seem unaffected by the evening's events.

The disgusted crowd begins to make it's way toward the exits. And, as I join the exodus, I'm suddenly paralyzed by the sight of a tuxedoed man boldly strutting on stage and grabbing a Clio. He then struts off shamelessly flaunting his shiny award as a victorious consolation to the disastrous evening. Two others immediately follow suit. Some, in the crowd, gasp. Others cheer. And, what happens next can only be described as surreal. In seconds, the stage is rushed by dozens of normally dignified ad execs who literally push, shove and fight each other for the remaining Clios. It's a feeding frenzy and in 30 seconds it's over. So, it would seem, are the Clios.

The following week, ADWEEK documents the bizarre event with pictures and quotes, including a few of mine. As I reflect on the event I realize that the pre-show hype was accurate. It truly was The Biggest Ad Event of the Year. The article makes for entertaining reading, but at this point all I'm wanting to know is, "did I win?" I still don't know. After several frustrating phone calls to the Clio office, or what's left of it, I'm told that I did -- three awards. And, 22 months later, I actually receive them.

2002 John Follis. All rights reserved.

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