Immediately after his Father’s memorial service, Jack had returned to work and been put on a pitch team for a new financial services product. Jack was excited to be on the team. The agency had been added to the pitch list relatively late in the day, and therefore had a short amount of time to prepare their proposals. This meant the work was all-consuming and Jack had to put all his other concerns out-of-mind for two weeks. The agency had only been invited to pitch because their well-connected chairman was a member of the same club as one of the senior bank executives. The chairman had managed to wheedle his way into contention by spinning a good line about the agency’s financial credentials.
Christopher “Birdbrain” Finch led the pitch team. There were times, during his two weeks working alongside him, that Jack felt such a nickname was slight on the intelligence of birds. Birdbrain was supremely confident that the business was already in the bag. When he summoned Jack into his office to tell him about the assignment, he said that, with their chairman’s connections and the award-winning financial services credentials of their creative director, it was a shoo-in.
Christopher Finch was one of those men on whom privilege and opportunity had always been bestowed, and who thus took it for granted that his good fortune would continue. Getting into Eton at a time when who you knew mattered more than what you knew, he somehow scraped enough O-levels to make the sixth form. There his academic career stalled in failure. Even the most expensive education in the country couldn’t help Christopher Finch scrape a single A-level.
The Finch’s had a noble lineage, where the distinction between what then constituted a good marriage and what would now be classified as incest was blurred. Christopher Finch, some might argue, was the inevitable consequence of generations of in-breeding. Not that he saw it that way. ‘School was simply not for me’, the Old Etonian would say breezily. He liked to present himself as a man of business and a natural entrepreneur, even though he had never started a business in his life. It was an embarrassment to many within the agency not only that Birdbrain was employed there, but that he held a senior position. He owed this to the fact that the chairman was his godfather and that his father’s business was the agency’s single most significant client by some distance. Birdbrain felt an affinity towards Jack because, as he saw it, both had started in the despatch department and were thus the only two self-made men in the agency. Unlike their colleagues in the account management department, he told Jack, they had no fancy degree certificates to thank for their job. Their achievements were all down to their natural talent. Jack was a little uncomfortable to be taken under Birdbrain’s wing and doubted the veracity of his self-made man story, but felt that there might be some advantage to be had in the early days of his career from his patronage. The chance to be part of the pitch team was one such opportunity.
‘So we need to compile all our financial services experience.’ Birdbrain had said to Jack. ‘What financial experience have you got?’
‘None.’ said Jack.
‘None? I thought you said you had worked at a bank.’
‘Only on a week’s work placement from school. I hardly think that counts.’
‘Of course it counts. It demonstrates you’ve worked in a bank and have financial experience. It’s only the procurement department at the bank who are asking for this. They simply want to be able to tick the box on their form. They don’t care what that experience is. Anyway, Matt’s awards for financial services advertising are all that matter. They show that we’re the right agency for the job.’
Jack was subsequently able to verify that their vaunted creative director had indeed won some awards for an Australian bank, but that campaign had been mired in controversy. The bank had subsequently disassociated itself from the advertising, which they said had only run for a short period in a small test region. The implication being that it had slipped through the approval process at the bank. The agency had been fired shortly afterwards, and several executives at the bank lost their jobs. Jack was shocked when he saw the ads and not at all surprised that the bank wanted nothing to do with their crude sexism, which may conceivably have passed muster in Australia twenty years ago, but would be completely unacceptable in nineteen nineties Cool Britannia. The ads had garnered plenty of publicity, which was all that the advertising industry cared about, but it wasn’t good publicity. Jack couldn’t understand how they had won any awards but thought perhaps that this was because of his lack of experience in knowing what constituted great advertising. One thing he was sure of though, no woman could have been on any jury that awarded this work. Jack doubted Birdbrain had even seen the ads and thought it extremely unlikely that they constituted a winning hand in a pitch for a new savings product aimed at young working women.
Jack was delighted to be invited to attend the pitch presentation. It was unusual for a junior member of staff to attend such a meeting. Jack realised it was because Birdbrain was an arch-delegator and avoided presenting or exposing himself to scrutiny wherever possible. This was unusual in advertising, where the usual frustration of those lower down the hierarchy was of the senior executives presenting their work as if it were their own. It was precisely the kind of opportunity that Jack had hoped might come from working with Birdbrain. His contemporaries at the agency were in awe that he was part of what was an unusually large presentation team. Birdbrain appeared to have invited everyone on the pitch team to present their work to the potential client. As a result, a row of five young men sat alongside Birdbrain and Matt in the cavernous marble reception that was the bank’s headquarters. When three smartly dressed women, one holding an art bag, walked past, Birdbrain turned to his assembled team and whispered, ‘that’s one of the other agencies. They must have just finished.’ Jack couldn’t help notice how pleased they looked, excitedly talking with each other as they walked out of the building. ‘Tokenism’, said Birdbrain, ‘blatant tokenism.’
‘Yeah’ added Matt in his broad Australian accent, ‘those chicks might look good, but how many awards have they won?’ Jack began to feel uncomfortable. He had plucked up the courage earlier in the week to ask Birdbrain whether it was sensible to have an all-male team, given that this was a product for women. ‘Men run banks.’ Birdbrain had pronounced with authority, brushing Jack’s concern aside. ‘And great advertising is always created by men.’ Sitting there in an atrium designed to make people feel small at the altar of Mammon, five minutes before they were due to go in, Jack began to have misgivings about his segment, a short piece entitled ‘What Women Want’.
To describe the meeting as a disaster would be an understatement. A smartly dressed young man summoned the seven advertising men and ushered them into a formal meeting room that contained a sizeable circular oak desk, around which there were seven chairs. Three very professional-looking women occupied three of these chairs. One of the women introduced herself with great civility to each of the admen, and then said, ‘It appears you are too many. We explicitly requested that you should bring no more than four people.’ Birdbrain blustered that he didn’t remember being given such instruction and then said that three of the team wouldn’t mind standing. The client told him that this was not possible; a maximum of four people were allowed in the room. Her calmness was inverse to the state of flummox that Birdbrain was beginning to display. Jack was surprised, and excited and terrified in equal measure, to be selected as one of the four. With the agency team whittled down to an acceptable size, they all sat down. Jack wondered who would cover the sections of the three who had been evicted. He doubted Birdbrain had any intention of doing it and knew he wouldn’t dare ask Matt, and so had a terrible foreboding that he was being set up as the fall guy. Oh well, he thought, what’s the worst that can happen?
The lady, who was clearly the lead client, took the opportunity to start the meeting by re-introducing herself, Angela Denmore, and her team. In different circumstances, Jack could see that she would be a lovely person. Her poise and cordiality reminded him of Marianne’s Mum, but from her next words, he knew she was about to conduct a ruthless emasculation. ‘As you know, we did not select you to be on our shortlist and, to be perfectly frank, I’m personally uncomfortable about being party to this. I thought the days of the old boy network were, thankfully, long gone. But it appears not, as we’ve been instructed to see you. Our director is insistent that your agency has impeccable credentials in financial services. If this is true, I must say you have been remarkably discreet about it, because nothing I have seen or read about your agency suggests it. So it would be fair to say that I’m a little sceptical. I am though open to the possibility that we might have missed something and so please do share your impeccable credentials.’
The agency team shifted uncomfortably in their chairs before Birdbrain said ‘we were planning to present our thoughts on the opportunity for your product first.’
‘I’m sure your thoughts on our product are fascinating, but because you are here on account of…’ Angela Denmore placed particular emphasis on her next three words, ‘…your impeccable credentials, I think we should see them first.’
Birdbrain said, ‘Well, the best demonstration of our capability is an award-winning campaign of Matt’s for a leading Australian bank. You might be familiar with it?’ The clients shook their heads, but Jack could tell, from a quick knowing glance between two of them, that they knew exactly what was coming.
Matt stood up. ‘Well, there’s nothing I like better than being asked to show off my credentials to three lovely ladies.’ Jack couldn’t believe it. He knew Matt’s reputation for being a crass unreconstructed male within the agency but assumed that was just an act. Surely someone of his seniority and experience would have had the gumption to adjust to the situation and present a more socially acceptable version of himself as warranted. But no, Matt really was that crass and unreconstructed. For a fleeting moment, Jack was envious of his three colleagues outside, but immediately dismissed that thought and decided to be grateful to be able to witness such a car-crash first-hand. The three clients were open-mouthed in astonishment. Not that Matt noticed. He pressed on. ‘I’m surprised you ladies haven’t seen my Sexy Sheilas campaign.’ He proceeded to pull a series of prints out of his art bag and display them around the room. Seen together, particularly in the august surroundings of a formal bank meeting room, they gave an unpleasant impression of cheap pornography. A silence descended the room, broken by one of the clients asking how the agency had persuaded the bank to run such a campaign. ‘We had a genius account man,’ explained Matt, ‘he could sell the arse off a donkey. I wouldn’t say he pulled a fast one exactly, but he surpassed himself when he got that one by them. They were all cunts anyway.’ Jack wasn’t entirely sure what Matt hoped to achieve with his charming little aside.
Angela Denmore carried on as if discussing the petunias over afternoon tea. ‘You said this advertising won awards. What was it about it that impressed the jury?’
‘What apart from the tits, you mean?’
At this point, Birdbrain jumped in and said, ‘you’ll have to excuse Matt’s coarse Australian humour. Although I can’t speak for the jury myself, I imagine they were impressed by the boldness of the work. It was courageous for a bank to run a campaign that featured its staff in this way.’
Angela Denmore’s eyes slowly tracked across the images of scantily clad bank staff and simply said, ‘or very stupid.’ Birdbrain put his hand on Matt’s arm to prevent him from reacting in defence of his work. ‘Now tell me, we’re much more interested in effective advertising than award-winning advertising. Was this campaign effective?’
‘It was mega-effective’ said Matt, the previous insult washing over him as he remembered his moment of triumph. ‘We had loads of requests for copies of the posters. People wanted to put them up at work.’
‘By people, I presume you mean men. I’m interested in the stats. What was the criteria of success for this campaign?’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t know about that. Anyway, it didn’t run for long. The bank lost its nerve over the publicity.’
‘So not effective.’ Angela deliberately wrote in her notebook. ‘You say there was some publicity?’
‘Yeah, loads. It was the headline item on the national news. Protests and boycotts. It was brilliant. Our media guys said it would have cost millions to buy that kind of exposure.’
‘It sounds as if it probably did cost the bank millions.’ One of Angela Denmore’s colleagues struggled to suppress a giggle.
‘You know that saying,’ Matt pressed on. ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity. All publicity is good publicity.’
‘I’m not sure that’s a view we subscribe to here. Now tell me’, said Angela. She might as well have added, “young man”, so rich in condescension was her tone, ‘is this what we might expect if we work with you? Sexism leading to protests and boycotts? Is this your fundamental promise?’
‘Well, yeah,’ said Matt, before Birdbrain could stop him, ‘if that’s what you want.’ The three bank clients looked at him in astonishment. ‘I do advertising that gets noticed.’
‘I have to say I’m not familiar with your work.’ Angela couldn’t resist the subtle jibe.
Birdbrain tried to get the meeting back on track. Can we start our presentation now? Jack here has got a great piece on what women want. It’s incredibly insightful.’
‘I don’t think we need to see your presentation, thank you, although I would dearly love to learn from a man what it is that we women want. You’ve demonstrated what you are about and what we might expect were we to work with your agency. However, I am interested in one thing. Jack, I couldn’t help noticing in your agency’s submission that you’ve worked at our main competitor. You look very young. Could you tell me about your experience and how it might be relevant to our needs?’
‘It was excruciating,’ Jack told Marianne on a phone call later that evening. ‘I had to admit that I’d only worked there for a week as a fifteen-year-old on placement from school. Angela Denmore put Birdbrain on the spot by asking him to explain exactly how this was relevant. It seems he had embellished my experience and made it a central part of our credentials in the submission. Birdbrain, being the complete and utter tosser that he is, tried to argue the point rather than admit defeat, which simply meant he dug himself deeper and deeper into the hole. One of the clients completely lost it and broke down into hysterical laughter. It was all I could do not to join her. It was very, very funny, Marianne, although right now it still makes my skin crawl to relive it.”
‘What happened afterwards?’ asked Marianne.
‘Matt strode through reception as if he owned the place, loudly proclaiming, “Fucking clients. Told you they were all cunts. They know fuck all about advertising.” Our creative director seems to be a man with a limited vocabulary. It made him look very small. An angry little man in a black leather jacket diminished in a large building. He then disappeared off in a strop to some bar.
‘What about Birdbrain?’
‘That was extraordinary. It was as if he had been in a completely different meeting. He wanted to play the experienced adman sharing the benefit of his wisdom with his juniors. We decamped to a local coffee shop, where he told us that he thought we had represented the agency well and stood up for our belief in the power of great creative work. “If we don’t win”, he said, as if that was still a fucking possibility, “it will be because they’re not brave enough”. Unbelievably, he genuinely thinks there’s a chance that we will be appointed. He seems to think our chairman’s influence will hold sway. He’s a fucking idiot. He thinks contacts are the only thing that matter and that content is irrelevant. Birdbrain then went on to say that it’s necessary to be able to improvise in meetings like that, as clients often throw in unexpected challenges or change the agenda. I honestly think he believes he handled the meeting well.’ As Jack told of the incompetence and ineptitude of it all, Marianne dissolved into laughter. It was implausible that a leading advertising agency could be quite so bad.
Jack’s friends at the agency didn’t know how to react when he handed in his resignation a few months later to go and work at the family firm. It was the first time anyone had ever left them to become a funeral director. They threw a wake for him, presenting with him a tombstone-shaped leaving card with the inscription, “Death of an Adman”. Birdbrain was particularly sad at the departure of his protege. He took the opportunity to remember the good times they had had together, such when they nearly won the bank pitch. This event had been rewritten within agency folklore as a heroic defeat; an inspiring example of when the agency stood its ground on creative principle.
Jack was surprised when Matt approached him during the party. The Creative Director hadn’t previously acknowledged his existence, even when they pitched to the bank together. ‘Hey mate, so you’re the one who’s becoming an undertaker. You’ve had proper preparation for that, working with some of the stiffs in this fucking place.’ Jack was surprised to hear a director talking so disrespectfully about his management colleagues. He smiled weakly at Matt, not knowing how to respond. Matt then said, ‘I created a great campaign for undertakers when I was in Australia.’
Jack could only imagine what such a campaign might involve. ‘Really? I’m surprised that any undertaker would have enough money to run a proper advertising campaign. Maybe its different in Australia, but they tend to be small local businesses here in the UK.’
‘Mate, that was the problem. I came up with this great idea, but we couldn’t find anyone to run it. I thought maybe you might be interested. I came up with it at my Nan’s funeral. Such a beautiful service; she was a lovely lady, my Nan. I owe her a lot. An inspiration to me.’ Matt’s semi-pornographic bank ads flashed through Jack’s mind, as he wondered to what extent Matt’s lovely grandmother had inspired his campaign idea. ‘The funeral director was a woman, which was unusual. It got me thinking.’ Jack swallowed as he tried to avoid imagining Matt’s possible train of thought on female undertakers. ‘Anyway, that led to me creating this brilliant campaign. It’s something that no-one else has ever done.’ Jack presumed there would be a million good reasons why no-one else had done whatever Matt might have dreamt up. ‘Yeah, it’s surprising really that no-one has ever sexed up the funeral business before. Like all great ideas, it seems so obvious once you’ve thought of it. Anyway, you should run it. You know what I’m capable of; it could make you famous. Put some time in my diary, and I’ll show it to you.’ With that, Matt clasped his hand on Jack’s shoulder in a gesture of male solidarity, before walking off to inveigle himself in a group of young female account managers.
Jack remained standing by himself for a few moments. He reflected on how such a brilliant creative mind might promote the business of death. Having seen how Matt tackled the financial sector he knew it would be entirely inappropriate and have his father spinning in his grave. Maybe I should ask them to pitch for the business he thought.