Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Man Who Hated Tide Advertising (fiction)

Ben Rodas was the typical ad man of the early seventies. He was brash, self confident to a fault, glib and was socially adept. He was an account executive of a large American advertising agency which was the second biggest in the local scene but occupies about the seventh position on a worldwide scale. He was quite new in the game, only a year out of a Jesuit college with a degree of Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Science. He was not really an outstanding student and barely passed from year to year. His saving grace was his glibness and a wide generalist knowledge of the arts, politics and business and an engaging sometimes contentious personality which leaves you either hating him or impressed at the extent of his grasp of subject matters but only on their breadth and not in depth. When he speaks he oozed with confidence and authority almost sounding dogmatic.

Still at the point of learning the trade he had modest ambitions and didn’t mind being assigned to small developmental accounts. These are accounts that are of smaller budgets and of products whose markets are still in its infancy. He found challenge in creating communications strategies for products and services which have niche audiences. He was not concerned about getting a move on in the organization as yet. It was if there was this conscious effort towards gathering as much experience as he can at the same time enjoying and relishing each one of them. Even if he did enjoy having an eclectic set of clients which ranged from banking to mass consumer products he preferred the new industries such as communications, real estate development, consumer banking and computer technology which at that time were comer industries.
Perhaps it was the desire for uniqueness and a knack for being at the forefront of new developments that had left him unnoticed by the agency bosses because what was high profile was the area of fast moving consumer goods where the agency derives most of its income and the high frequency campaigns of the products that make those involved in the production of their commercials, from account servicing, creative work and even media work gain a high level of stature not only in the agency but in the community of advertising practitioners, marketing clients and the media.

How he hated the ungrammatical, the prosaic copy and the vulgarity of grass roots lingo used in detergents advertising. He couldn’t stand the repetitiveness of the message delivery, the countless mention of the brand name, the commonness of the situations depicted and the bland expressions of ordinary talents. Creative work was reduced into a formula and this resulted into artless advertising. The occasional humor used in detergents advertising was of the slapstick variety and elicited a painful groan from him each time he sees them on television.
His talent and knack for presentation were not overlooked by his bosses. Year after year he was passed up for promotions because of his stubborn insistence in staying in his comfort area of creating advertising campaigns for the upper end and specialized audiences in the new industries and rejecting assignments in the lucrative area of mass consumer products. He was getting to be well known to be an advertising expert on the new industries but could not be monetarily rewarded because these assignments did not carry much financial impact to the company and are looked at as incremental revenue sources only.
After seeing his juniors succeed in the organization ladder while he remained where he was, for now, a good five years, discontent slowly crept up and he became bitter from the felt injustice. It was not the first time that his supervisor has told him in a career review why they could not move him up despite the good work he has done in his present account assignments. At each review he would say that he finds fast moving consumer goods (fmcg) advertising as a lowly activity and thinks that it was below his dignity to work on ad appeals to the washerwomen, hysterical moms, insecure adolescents and other plebeian assortments.
The seeming lack of appreciation of his talents by his peers and also the meager income that he derived from his work had affected his whole being. Gone were the exuberance, the energy and the youthful enthusiasm that he used to put behind his work. Still the arrogance remained. He could not put himself to doing advertising for the masses.

It was a day in early April that he was summoned by Lex Dipas, the president of the agency, to his office. Lex Dipas called him from the intercom while he was discussing with the media buyers the media strategy for one of his clients.

“Now! Ben, I need to talk to you now” Lex sounded a bit peeved for his not wanting to come immediately.“I’ll be there in two shakes” was his docile reply.

“Good morning, Lex “ he greeted as he cautiously pushed the door half peering through the slightly opened door.

“Come in Ben. Please close the door behind you and sit here beside me.” Ben didn’t know what to make of the scene before him. Something big must be up. All the company biggies were at the conference table. Mel Lumis, the account supervisor of Liberty Brothers, their premier account, was seated together with John Aguirre, Chief creative director and Tom Acero, the director for business development. Except for the empty chair on his right Lex was flanked by his senior executives in the richly textured molave conference table. Fom the head table Lex beckoned him to sit on the empty chair beside him.

“Ben, you know that we have recognized your mettle early in your employment but you seem to have fallen in love with your accounts and have thwarted every suggestion we had for you to move over to more lucrative accounts.”

“But sir, you know that…” Ben was quick to interject but Lex was quick to stop him from saying anything more.

“Just you keep still, listen and don’t interrupt me until I am finished with what I have to say.” Ben was used to the curt and overbearing style of Lex from previous encounters mostly on his being a recalcitrant naysayer to their entreaties to accept reassignments.

“We have this new account prospect, Protech Products, a new comer in the local detergents market, a small player now but soon to be a major one with a capital infusion from the head office in the offing. They have promised to give us a crack at their account and have asked for a credentials presentation as well as early stage campaign proposals, you know, on unpolished breakthrough ideas and some rough strategies on media as well as an account planning rationale. Not only I, think that you are the man who will bring in this account. Our senior colleagues all agree that your creativity, your flair for presentations and your adding a scientific approach to advertising will more than wow them over. You are our man, Ben.”

“Are you finished, sir?” was his almost rude getting in.
“No, not quite, but go ahead, say what you think of what I have just said and then I will continue with the rest of what I have to say.”

“What will Liberty Brothers say? Are we losing that account and lining up Protech Products as a possible replacement?" He was almost in disbelief in what his boss just said. “Besides, my aversion towards the kind of advertising these companies make is no secret to everyone in this room. So, why me?”

“My god Ben, you do ask the most obvious of questions. I wouldn’t have asked you to come if I believed that what I propose are impossible scenarios. But, anyway those are really the questions that really come to mind and your colleagues here would be more than willing to explain.”

“I will explain why it would be possible to have two major competing accounts under our wing” Tom Acero, the business development manager started to talk as if on cue.

“We are going to create a special group whose operations will be totally independent from our main organization. With the exception of administration, finance and other sundry services that are unrelated to the business of creating and disseminating advertising will be commonly shared. It is virtually creating another agency. It’s not a new concept at all. Sprint units as separate business unit of agencies have been practiced in the States since a few years ago. Besides, Lex had broached the idea to LibertyBrothers and they didn’t seem to have any serious objections to it. They have been very happy with our service for more than a decade now and are deserving of their trust. They know that if ever we get a competitive account it will always play second fiddle to them. On the other hand Protech Products have heard of our prowess in fast consumer goods advertising and the situation will not be unacceptable to them. The prospect of having these two major accounts under one agency would be a first locally. We will be the talk of the industry.”

“As for your unwillingness to do fast consumer goods advertising the kind of work that you will perform here will be far removed from what you hated most.” Mel Lumis jumped in as Tom, in his excitement, run out of breath and needed a moment’s pause.

“Now what do we expect from you in this project? We want you to present as if it was the only presentation you will make in your lifetime and we know that if you put your heart to it, it’s gonna be awesome. We expect you to write the most well-thought-out and most business like proposal. I’ve read some of the proposals you have done in the past and I’ve always said that it was a shame that such gems were prepared for such low yielding accounts.”

It was the Creative Director’s turn. John Aguirre was not your idea of a big time executive. Like most creative directors he sported a beard, wore loose t-shirts and sandals to office complete with an irascible temperament.

“Man, I will be your laborer, field vassal, grave digger and doer of the despicable things you hate most in our trade. You will not do a single line of copy, not a flicker of visuals nor any frigging thing that has got to do with the creation of commercials. I will not allow you to, even if you wanted. Your lily white hands will be spared from the grime expunged by the copious suds of detergent bars. All you do is give us general directions. I have some marketing savvy and I will know how to convert this blasé fodder into jewels of advertising thought.”

“Okay guys, let’s not overdo it. I think he is convinced already. So Ben what do you think? Lex looked at him and he gave the impression that there is no answer to this question but, Yes! “And Ben I must warn you. You are not leaving this room without deciding. We don’t have time.”
Ben gave the impression that he needed more time to think about what has been proposed and explained by the group before him. Sensing this Lex pressed the intercom button and told his secretary to bring in lunch now.

“You could think about it over lunch. I have arranged for this to be a lunch meeting and meanwhile please feel free to ask questions so that we can clarify things that don’t seem apparent enough.”
Lunch boxes were brought in by Lex’s secretary. He was a bit disappointed that lunch would be served in so pedestrian a manner. He has heard of sumptuous repasts served at business lunches in Lex’s office complete with wine, fabulous desserts and had thought that this was one of those.

“What happens if we don’t get the account?” expecting a lengthy answer Ben took a big bite of the roast beef and chewed it leisurely.
Rather cockily Lex replied “We never plan on failure, Even as now preparations are already afoot for the acquisition of Protech Products.”
With his mouth still with a chockfull of roast beef Ben had difficulty in marshalling an immediate reply. “Wwhat if I refused to go along?”
“Then I will think that you are a bigger fool than what I had thought…and fools do not have a place in my organization” said Lex with some finality.

“I think that it will be a shame if you turn down this proposition. An utter waste of talent…all these god given talents unused because of an ill-imagined elitist notion of superiority and a deprecating attitude towards the common tao,” uttered Mel with an unintended burp.

“Yeah, man. Don’t be so goddamn uppity. In our work we look for the shortest way to communicate and to convince people and we use the language they speak, the symbols that have meaning to them and cater to their aspirations lowly as they maybe. Don’t be such a pedantic ass and impose on people your literature, your music, your lifestyle, your culinary preference, your sophistication…your whatever” John was now at the toothpick stage of the lunch and was beginning to show impatience on Ben’s indecision.

He sort of resented the preaching tone of Mel who seemed so insincere with the words he used knowing that he was no more populist than the tsar of Russia was. And John, who does he think he is. Wasn’t he once the celebrated poet of the modernist clique in the state university who would not even offer to explain a line nor a punctuation mark in any of his poems. He now advocates vulgar street language, a language so prosaic and needing repetition to be memorable. What a mercenary! he thought.

But what about him, what of Ben Rodas…he was attacking Mel’s and John’s characters but not refuting any of their accusations. There was truth in what they are saying of him and he knew it full well. So what if he was all that they say. A man has a right to be whatever he wants to be for as long as it is anchored on a reasoned principle otherwise it would be plain stubbornness and pride. But why had he hanged tough on his view of advertising? He had reasoned that advertising must help in uplifting and ameliorating the lives of its audience, not entrenching them deeper in their commonness and ignorance. Advertising must waken aspirations, the desire for a better life, the enjoyment of things beautiful such as classical music, delightful images and fine language. He deplored the fact that selling soap had more precedence than all these.
“Guys don’t misunderstand me, I appreciate your having called me to this meeting, but it’s a pity that a powerful tool such as advertising, a tool that can be used to change positively the lives of our people and mend our fractured culture be used for something as utilitarian as selling soap. If only there would be a way that advertising could satisfy both,” it was a valiant effort to hold his ground. He knew that it was fool hardy to argue on the basis of ideals and motherhoods to these hardnosed business minded men.

“Oh, come on Ben, come down from your high horse. Our job is to sell our clients’ products and not to organize crusades against the world’s injustice or to teach the masses to read Shakespeare and listen to Bach and Mozart music,” Lex threw up his arms in the air and whirled his high back chair opposite all of them to express his exasperation and disbelief on what Ben just said.

Mel stood up and brusquely snatched the papers in front of him, “ Sorry Lex, I am not wasting my time here, I think that an advertising man with a messianic complex would be of any good use to this agency,” he walked towards the door hurriedly. This might have been the cue that Tom and John had been waiting for.

Even before the door closed Tom said, “Mel is right, he may be a talented son of a…but he will botch the job for the lack of conviction. Oh Lex, do you want me to call his guy I was talking about the other day, heard a lot of good things about him in the marketing circles. May be a bit expensive but, with these kind of stakes I am willing to gamble” and the door opened once more to let him out.

John Aguirre didn’t say a word. He stood up and raised both hands like a high priest as if imploring the heavens to hurl fire and brimstone on this nonbeliever. Ben noticed that his raised hands ended in two dirty finger signs pointed downwards at him.

The molave conference table loomed vast and threatening as it was emptied of three other occupants.

Ben muttered a limp “I am sorry Lex but I…”

“You should be,” he was not allowed to finish what he was going to say. “Go back to your pathetic little cell and reflect on your fate in this agency.”

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