Art & Commerce: More Madventures

“Get your motor running, Head out on the highway. Looking for adventure …”*

Not that I was born to be wild or anything, but I’ve always looked for adventures in the ad business, and I found one years ago when I left the comforts of DMB&B for the badlands of Amsteryard, a New York-based “creative division of McCann Erickson.”

Before: DMB&B, rooted in the fabled Benton & Bowles, semi-tenured, global AOR for P&G and Mars and mega-merged with D’Arcy, a Midwestern font of seismic campaigns like “This Bud’s for you” and Pontiac’s “We build excitement.”

After: Amsteryard, McCann CEO John Dooner’s momentary bad boys, tucked in an East Side carriage house around the corner from Smith & Wollensky, proponents of Scotch whisky and Martini & Rossi, and discoverers of actress Charlize Theron (whose first-ever ad appearance on camera is in a European film noir Amsteryard commercial for Martini, and whose private part barely escapes full exposure, thanks to a last-second logo super. But that’s another story).

This move looks like the perfect antidote to my terminal boredom, plus it’s a chance to wear my two-tone, basket-weave, white-on-black shoes to work.

Besides, by the time I get surrounded by late-’90s “new management” at DMB&B, I’m ready to leave the shareholding, board-sitting haven of DMB&B for new territory.

Soon I’ve reconnected with a previous-life dude from JWT, an utterly unpredictable, semi-fascinating, risk anything loose cannon, Amsteryard’s creative director, Jeff Weiss, and he’s looking for a new partner with the impending exit of Lee Daley, then managing director. Like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn to the whole thing: the concept, the work, the badass culture and Jeff, including his affinity for retro hep clothes and his willingness to climb into a boxing ring once a week and scrap with guys bigger than him—which is most guys. He’s drawn to me somehow, too, based, I guess, on my combination of ad experiences and, more likely, the fact that I’m playing guitar in a kick-ass blues band. He insists to McCann’s management that I become his next enabler. The concept of sparking edgy creativity inside arguably the best global network at the time holds great appeal for me, and I’m ready to take on the frying-pan presidency of Amsteryard. All of which completely clouds any objective consideration of the larger picture here—including the prospect of walking away from personal DMB&B shareholdings that would eventually be worth $10 million(!), but that, too, is another story, and I’ve already told this one [Adweek, April 25, 2005].

But first I have to manage the switch. Which means I have to quit DMB&B. And then I have to formalize my new job with the power that be at McCann.

Point is, I’m motivated to move, and now I’m eager to get it done. Thing is, my wife and me have a holiday in Paris planned for two weeks out, a perfect segue, which is great except DMB&B’s CEO, Arty Selkowitz, the guy I need to resign to, is out of the country for these same two weeks, returning the very day I’m scheduled to leave. So I wait. Now he’s back, and I’ve got plane tickets and a passport in my pocket and the car’s down on Broadway with my wife and luggage and the engine running—but I can’t get to Arty. I tell him and his assistant it’s real important that we meet before I go, but to no avail. Time’s up. So, what the hell: e-mail. “Dear Arty, I’m leaving in five minutes for Paris and when I get back I’m not working here anymore, I’m working for McCann. Regards, love to Betsy, see ya, Tim.” Something like that. After 18 years, two tours with D’Arcy and 10,000 shares of DMB&B stock, I’m out of there.

Paris is wonderful. We road trip it around France. This is just weeks after I see Saving Private Ryan the first time, and we drive up north and visit the Normandy American Cemetery at St. Laurent. Incredibly, we actually meet a WWII vet who has brought his son and grandson over to the very place where he himself was part of the invasion of Omaha Beach with the very unit depicted in the film, and now he’s back honoring his fallen comrades. An amazing moment that puts advertising—and everything else—in perspective.

On the flight home I’m loaded with anticipation; I’m completely buzzed for the new job and I can’t wait to shed my neckties. But first I need to see Dooner. A formality, but a necessary one. The deal is done. But the deal’s never done until you have full papal dispensation. Hey, no problem. We know a lot of the same people. I actually played a round of golf with Dooner a couple years earlier—OK, I drove the cart, too. Anyway, first morning back from Paris I ascend up the elevator on Third Avenue and into McCann’s executive suites for a breakfast with John Dooner, Chief Executive Officer. I’m greeted with a business-not-casual reception of suits and ties, silver service and table linens—once I clear the receptionist and two assistants—and get shown into Dooner’s private suite. We exchange professional pleasantries for the next 45 minutes; I’m taken with his reputation and his bravado and he seems willing to grant me the benefit of the doubt.

And then it’s done. Formality. Breakfast. The new job. I gather the linen from my lap, fold it on the table next to the fresh-cut flowers and stand up to face the head of this multi-national. I offer my hand in the traditional, gentlemanly, clubby spirit of traditional, clubby gentlemanly spirit.

We shake on it. A good, firm handshake, a symbol of professional decorum and by any reasonable measure to be followed by some form of a hail fellow, well met salutation from my new boss: “Glad to have you; go get ’em; welcome aboard; we’re counting on you; thanks for joining us.” Instead, here’s what I get from Dooner: “Don’t fuck with me.” Which pretty much says it all.

Me and Amsteryard last less than two years; I’m one of a series of partners that would pass through the agency like shit through a goose before it eventually disappears up the orifice that was McCann Worldgroup or something. Too bad, it was a great concept. And hey, nothing adventured, nothing gained. Everything’s a learning experience. Have a nice day. Whatever. Meanwhile, DMB&B goes on to merge with Leo Burnett and was then acquired by Publicis. And I watch it all from the sidelines while the IPG options I’m holding go south by 30-40 points. Worthless.

I never did fuck with Dooner, so I never did figure out what the fuck he was talking about.

And what the hell, I tell my wife. We’ll always have Paris.

* “Born to Be Wild,” words and music by Mars Bonfire, Steppenwolf, 1968, MCA Music.