There was one very dismal period in my Agency career. Nothing I
wrote seemed good enough. Not good enough for the clients, not good
enough for the art department. My creative ideas sucked. Even the
20-year old gum-chewing receptionist said so. Regularly.

Just when I thought my morale had reached its nadir, I was given what I
considered the ultimate slap in the face. We had just landed what was
for us, a major supermarket account. Arlen Foods was a medium-sized
independent chain with an excellent management team and a top notch
customer service reputation. I had played a part in the acquisition of
the account so I assumed I was going to write and direct the campaign.
Not so. This was too important for one of us "locals" to handle so the
boss went to the big city of Toronto for the creative. I was to "suit"
the account. For the uninitiated, a "suit" is an ad agency account
executive. His job is to be verbally abused by both the client and his
agency colleagues. If the client doesn't like the campaign, he tells
the suit. The suit then returns, cap in hand to the creative people.
They quickly inform him that he is incompetent with an IQ one and a
half points above a cucumber, for not being able to sell such a
brilliant concept to his moronic client.

A further honor that
the boss conferred on me was that I would be allowed to "sit in" on the
initial presentation. A little salt for my wounds.

presentation was held in the fanciest and most exclusive private club
in our city. Beef Wellington and white linen. We flew in the two big
brains from the east and they, along with my boss and me, made up the
agency contingent. Phil Arlen, the president of the supermarket chain
came by himself. This fact should have been our cue to immediately
abandon any plans to impress him with jargon, rationales or airy
strategies. Company presidents who come to meetings without flunkies
are not impressed easily. We all vigorously ignored this warning and,
after the dessert and just the right amount of small talk, the campaign
was unveiled.

"The strategy here is deceptively simple," began
one of the stars from the east. "We feature you (indicating Phil) on
camera, in a television commercial. The reason . . ."

"Is that
you want to personalize my business," Arlen said. "My competitors are
corporate giants. I'm the owner of this company so putting a face to my
company will make customers more comfortable buying their groceries
from us. Please go on."

I liked him already.

"You'll be wearing a chef's hat and preparing chicken. You'll talk
about the high quality of your chicken and that it's locally grown.
Just as you are ready to pop it in the oven, a live chicken will run
across the table. You'll give the camera a shocked look and then turn
to look in the direction the chicken has exited and shrug your
shoulders. Freeze frame . . . squeeze zoom logo to bottom of screen . .
. fade to black." Then he sat back smugly and waited for a reaction.

"There's just one problem," said Phil. "All the research I've read
indicates people are uncomfortable seeing live animals in food
commercials." There was a heavy silence.

"Oh, that old myth," said the other eastern writer.

"Let's have some more wine," said my boss.

"What do you think?" asked Arlen. More silence. With a horrible sinking feeling I realized he was talking to me.

"I'm just a suit. I don't think. It's not what I do." I took a huge gulp of my wine and tried to become inconspicuous.

Arlen wasn't letting me off the hook. "You've been very quiet this
evening and I want to know what you think." My boss gave me a sign of

"Okay, I think it's a dumb idea. I like the
personalization strategy but most business people make lousy television
announcers. I'd sooner show you chatting with customers in different
departments of the store while a voice over personalizes the company
verbally . . . and professionally."

"Oh spare me," said one of the stars.

"We thought of that," said the other.

I watched my career begin turning into a little pile of dust to be swept away by the night cleaners.

"Let's leave it there," said Arlen, rising from his chair. "I'll be in touch."

The meeting in my boss's office the next day was frosty. Just as he was
getting to the I-may-very-well-be-doing-you-a-favor-by-firing-you part,
the receptionist walked in. "Phil Arlen is on the phone."

conversation was brief, with my boss mostly listening. He smiled at me
after he hung up. "And as I was about to say, I want you and everyone
else in this agency to feel free to speak your minds at any time. We
have a lunch meeting with Arlen. Just you, me and him. He'd like you to
put the campaign together."

Honesty sometimes works. Even in the ad game.