Thursday, August 4, 2011

True Stories of a real Mad Man: Account executive jargon.

True stories of a real Mad Man:  Account executive jargon, or "wha'd he say?" ©Joel Baumwoll

A few years out of college in 1967 and oblivious to many of life's subtleties, I took enthusiastically to my first job in a fast growing agency that was known for the intellectual capacities of its people.  "Smart" was an often used adjective whenever Grey Advertising was mentioned. 

Meeting rooms often turned into arenas where account and research staff jousted for top honors in smarts.  In this highly charged atmosphere, the research staff considered themselves to be the top of the intellectual food chain.  

To prove our points, we could trot out arcane statistical formulas (called "algorithms") in the middle of a debate about the best way to sell jelly donuts or denture cleanser.  Regression equations, "q" and "r" analysis, "psychographics" and more were all part of our arsenal.

The account executives, not to be bested, had an ace in the hole when they were behind in the score and the clock was running out.  They "knew" what the client's problem was because they had just spoken to him.  And the recommendations that the research people were pushing were not "on target."   

This tug of war went on for hours, accompanied by shouting and other histrionics.  Miraculously, at the end of the day, an answer was found.  And it was usually brilliant.  The agency grew, as did the opinions the executives had of themselves.

One afternoon, I grew concerned after three calls to Peter Rossow, account executive, went unreturned.  I wanted to find out when we were going to meet to plan an upcoming presentation to a new client. Taking the bull by the horns, I asked my secretary to schedule a meeting for later that day. 

Moments later, the phone rang.  It was a senior vice president who had the reputation for being a ferocious political infighter.  His name was Hunter Yaeger, which in English is Hunter Hunter.  He spoke with an accent called Connecticut lockjaw.

"Hi Hunter," says I.

"Since when does the research department take it on its own to set up meetings for the account group?" he asked without preamble.

"I called Peter three times and he didn't return my call,
" I countered.

"The fact that Peter didn't return your call is not a defensible fallback position,"
he shot back. 

Defensible fallback position?  I'd never heard that expression before.  Was that what I was doing?  I figured discretion was the better part of valor, so I mumbled some reply and told him to let me know when he wanted to meet. 

Not surprisingly, we met at the time and place I had scheduled earlier that day. 

Several years later, my education in account executive-speak continued at J. Walter Thompson, where several gold-cup winners in such talk toiled in custom tailored suits and well-shot French cuffs.  There was one fellow, six feet four inches, blond, clenched jaw and fighter pilot glint in the eye we used to call a towel of strength.

This came from his tendency to fold his support for any agency position the second a client indicated the slightest doubt.  Rather than fight for what our "team" decided was the right thing to do, he would jump off the ship and move to the client's side of the table.  

A towel of strength.

One occasion I was due to make an important presentation to the advertising manager of Ford, and our towel was concerned that I was going to challenge their method of evaluating commercials.  

I was.

He fell in beside me one day as I walked the hallowed halls of the executive floor of JWT.  "Are you ready to make your presentation to Ablondi?" he asked quietly.  

"Yup," I answered, revealing nothing more.

"Well you've got to be tactful," he advised me.

"I hadn't planned to insult the man," was my cute reply.

"Well," he offered,  "we have the human elements of this thing all in sync now, I wouldn't want to mess them up."

"The human elements all in sync," I mulled that phrase over in my head.  Again, deciding discretion was the better part of valor, I replied "sure Glenn.  Don't worry."  

I was to learn that keeping the human elements in sync was what Glenn got paid the big bucks for, and a big part of that was being a towel of strength.

I have since learned lots of account executive jargon and how to translate it into real English.  And keeping the human elements in sync is no mean trick.