Tuesday, March 15, 2011

True stories of a real Mad Man: How I met Henry Ford.

True Stories of a real Mad Man: How I met Henry Ford. ©Joel Baumwoll

Ray Ablondi, advertising manager of Ford was known to reject any creative work presented to him the first time around.  These meetings were always scheduled for 8 o'clock on Monday mornings at the client's headquarters in a dreary midwestern steel town.

I always suspected that Ablondi got no small pleasure from making the agency team leave the comfort of home and hearth on Sunday afternoons in order to be at the client's office at dawn's early light on Monday.

This, I came to realize, was all part of Ablondi's subtle game of keeping the agency on the defensive at all times. He was a very insecure man.

Another ploy was the formation of client executives at the meetings. Though Ray had the authority and responsibility to approve all ad campaigns, he would invariably invite at least ten lesser executives from various departments under his wing to attend these presentations. 

They would arrange themselves behind the wide tables in descending order of importance in the corporate pecking order.  Ablondi always sat in the center.  To his right and left were two Vice Presidents.  Then came the department heads, assistant department heads and at the end of the line, a couple of trainees, whom Ray said "could bring some fresh eyes to the meeting."

Every time I saw this, I was reminded of the pictures we used to see of the grim men in heavy top coats lined up on Lenin's Tomb to watch the May Day parade of Soviet tanks and ICBMs.  The top guy always stood in the center.  Every year Kremlinologists carefully analyzed where each of the party apparachniks was placed in this line up.  Anyone who moved from close to the boss to the end of the line was expected to be absent at next years' festival of mega tonnage.

Such changes in the seating hierarchy behind the heavy tables in the football field sized conference room did not go unnoticed by the agency account supervisor.   The agency team sat in a long line at right angles to the clients' table.  For some unknown and unspoken reason, we too arranged ourselves in descending order of rank.  I was often close to end of the line, about a quarter of a mile away from the action.  I once thought of bringing a pair of opera glasses to a meeting, but thought that the humor might be unappreciated by the account director, whom we lesser beings used to call (in private) a "towel of strength."

One presentation stands out in my memory.  It followed a marathon session of days and nights working to come up with four or five knockout campaign concepts which were to be presented shortly after Thanksgiving.  Now you should know that to wind up with four or five home runs worthy of presenting to the BIG MAN, it is necessary to dream up no fewer than fifty campaign ideas. 

This prodigious process requires seven or eight teams of writers and art directors shuttling back and forth from their offices to that of the creative director carrying thick piles of foam boards on which are a drawn a collection of words and "key visuals."

Each team enters with a three-foot thick stack of foam boards and leaves with two or three under their arms for "further exploration and refinement."

The ideas that survive this exercise in creative Darwinism are then presented to the "account guys."  This rare breed of executive have the astonishing capacity to remember any and every unfavorable comment the client has ever said, or was rumored to have said, or was presumed to have thought about anything. 

They think their job is to find any hint of such unfavorable ideas, thoughts, words, pictures, melodies or people in the campaigns that "the creatives" (that's what they are called) have wrought.

Once cleansed of danger, the fruits of this toil and imagining are rendered into "story boards", packed into impossibly large black cases and flown off on Sunday to meet their fate in front of the Kremlin wall.

On this particular Monday, we presented an unusually exciting group of ideas, for we thought it was time to bring a new perspective to the client's brand; to reposition it in order to grab an ever larger share of what had become a shrinking market.  After a brief set up by the account director (the "towel"), Burt Manning, the creative director got up, moving the easel as close as possible to the client (which was difficult since a table the size of a tennis court stood between us and them). 

Manning made a stirring presentation.  It actually gave me the chills to watch him spin a collection of drawings and type-set words into a moving, soaring, inspiring set of images designed to make unsuspecting TV viewers unable to live another moment without the client's product.

As the last foam board was casually flung to the floor with a flourish, a silence descended over the room.  What would THE BIG MAN say?  Would it be Thumbs Up or, unthinkably, Thumbs Down?

All the faces at the Kremlin wall turned to the man in the center.  After what seemed like an eternity he spoke:

"Why don't you shake the tree a few more times and see what else falls down."

I was dumb struck.  Shake the tree?!!  I'd never heard anyone say that before.  What did he mean "shake the tree?"  Were we looking for coconuts.  Did he think these ideas just fell out of the sky?

The "towel" quickly jumped to his feet and pronounced that we would be back in just a week with new ideas.  Did he have a tree in his office?

Return we did.  The Kremlin wall reassembled.  Easel was placed.  I wondered if Manning could find it in him to repeat the tour de force of the previous week that the client had so unceremoniously shot down in flames.  I doubted that I could. 

What I fantasized doing was throwing a coconut cream pie right in Ablondi’s face.  But after all, this was the big leagues.  We would win the day with our brains and creativity (at least that's what we told ourselves in the locker room).

Manning approached the easel.  Suddenly, before he could say a word, the doors opened and six blue uniformed workmen walked in.  Their supervisor, a large burly man with a drooping mustache, pointed at the big table that stood between the Kremlin wall and the agency.  

"Mr. Ford needs these tables on the ninth floor," he said, oblivious to the goings on around him.  With that, the men began to carry the tables through the double doors.  

I watched in astonishment.  Never in my fifteen years of climbing the ladder of executive rank in the ad agency world had I seen such an exhibition of naked corporate power.  I doubt that Kruschev had ever pulled off a more brutal demonstration of who was the boss.

I watched our once powerful clients react with dismay, as they shrunk back, crossed their legs and folded their hands over their private parts, as if to protect them  from any further attack. Without the wall of tables between us, they felt vulnerable.

Manning, with great presence of mind, moved the easel into the newly created no mans land where the great table had stood.  Ablondi, who had probably had such things happen to him before, was nevertheless non-plussed.  He nervously crossed and uncrossed his legs and folded and refolded his arms across his chest, as if to ward off the charge of a linebacker on a blitz.

Manning now stood a few feet away from Ablondi and, with no less powerful technique than he used the previous week, presented the results of the latest tree shaking. 

It was the most successful meeting we ever had with Ray Ablondi.

1 comment:

  1. Just wonderful! I was sorry to see this blog end. Absolutely fantastic!