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Wednesday, April 14, 2004
By Paul Ford
Back when we were cool, and flush, and full of ourselves.
I sat at a huge glass table in an office in New York, dressed in a black suit, my head freshly shaved, with my right hand handcuffed to a small plastic suitcase. All I could think was, I gotta get out of advertising.
Our company was in a tight spot. Pitch after pitch had failed, andwhen a big videogame company sent out a request to build their web site, my boss Jason, a warm, intense man who wrote plays on the side, called his team together and said to us, "I want to take this past the regular pitch. I want this client. We need this client to survive. I want this pitch to be a work of art, a piece of theater."
We felt his urgency, and agreed that something drastic was called for. This is how it would go: Jason would introduce the team. Then he would turn to one of my co-workers and say, Dave, the key. Dave would nod seriously, and spit the key into a handkerchief. My boss would take the handkerchief and say to me, Paul, the case. I would bring the suitcase to the table, and Jason would uncuff it from my wrist. I would shave my head and wear a dark suit, playing the heavy.
In the black suitcase were a dozen toys and gadgets, resting in hand-carved beds of foam. Each object had a little tag. The laser pointer had a tag that read, "Strategic Competition Targeting Tool." The plastic figurine of a wrestler had a tag that read, "Raw Marketing Muscle." The toy frog had a tag that said "Leapfrogging the competition."
Jason would hold up each in turn, explaining them, turning bland business concepts into something tangible, something the client could really see. They'll see that we are serious about being creative, he said. It'll work.
By pitch day we'd all been awake for three nights, writing, preparing, hot glue gunning. I splashed water on my face before putting on the cuffs, then slid into my seat. The client was late, 15 worn-looking people squinting under the fluorescent lights, worn down by visits to our competition, everyone trying to out-creative each other.
David stood and introduced himself. We're here today, he said, we're today, to. We're here today, to tell you. What we can do. His eyes went wide. He'd seen enough plays to sense a flop, so he pushed the script forward. Dave, he said, the key.
I've been to many black-box theater productions, amateur work put on by my friends. In those small rooms, you sit very close to the stage, and sometimes the performance is quite good. But often you find yourself staring straight ahead trying to show absolutely no emotion, because if the actor currently performing looks your way and catches on your face the expression of inner horror you are feeling watching them fail totally, they will be thrown off even farther from a decent performance. So you bite your inner cheek, and show no emotion, trying your best not to let anyone see how embarrassed you are.
As Dave spit the key into the handkerchief, I looked around the room, and saw 15 faces in that same posture, 15 cheek-biters trying not to look at the unfolding accident before them. Prompted, I produced the suitcase, and the thud as it hit the table was followed only silence. Mouths opened. People looked at the table, anywhere but at me.
Jason opened his toychest of metaphor, and began to go through the toys: This is a plastic frog, he said. And it's for marketing. Ah, this is a laser pointer, it's for-he stopped, cut his losses, and pushed the suitcase to the end of the table, toys falling out as it went, and went straight to the PowerPoint. But I watched the client's eyes, as they drifted back to the open case, over and over. There was an hour to go.
Within two years, both our company and the client would collapse, and the competitor who got the job would disappear, and the web site they built, the one we didn't build, would be shuttered. But in the meantime we all sat, myself with a handcuff on my right hand, in the gleam of the PowerPoint, our visitors stone-faced, and I knew that we had failed, that it was over, and that business was nothing like theater, unless you're talking about tragedy.