Risky Business

Most of us are in the ad business because we’re drawn to risk. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat—and nothing in between. And if you’re like me, taking risks and then getting away with it, or better—succeeding because of it—can give you a sense of inflated confidence, like step No. 7 in drinking, when you think you’ve become bullet proof. I have found it is smarter—and safer—to take risks in advertising than in life, and somehow I’ve lived to tell about it, so far.

Like late this summer, when I find myself up in Harlem, hunkered down on a corner curb under the el with a couple of homeless dudes, drinking beers. It’s 2 a.m. and I’ve just commuted up to MTA’s first stop and been invited off the train by the conductor and three cops. And like I’ve done every once in a while, I’m thinking, “I’m right, and they’re wrong”—only it’s me that’s screwed.

Earlier that night we were celebrating one of those great client meetings, and pretty soon, but not soon enough, I cab it up to Grand Central just in time to get on the 12:20 a.m. Hudson Line local. I work my way up to the last open car, which is totally jammed, and find a seat. No air conditioning.

Now here comes four guys up the aisle with MTA badges around their necks; they lift the security bar, walk through to the next car and spread out in the wide open spaces. And bask in the late-night calm of cool, conditioned air. “Hey!” I’m thinking, “Why them and not us?” And I’m looking around, asking, and everybody else is saying, “Damned straight, you’re absolutely Mr. Right,” followed by that classic shrug that’s pure New York and which means … go figure, not my problem, fuck you, have a nice day, or whatever.

Now I’m not only charming, I’m smart and convinced and, even worse, encouraged. And here comes the conductor, collecting tickets. I ask her, can she please explain what I just saw these MTA employees up there get to do? “Nope,” she says, “not my job. Ticket please.” “But, Ma’am, seriously, I just would like to know why we can’t sit up there and they can?”

“Either give me your ticket or I’ll have to call the police. You can ask them.”

Well, hell. I was always taught there’s no such thing as a dumb question—which I now know only applies in daylight. And anyway, I’m … right.

“Sure,” I say. “Bring ’em on.” And here comes three undercover cops from various parts of the train, and one of them, a heavyset woman, leans over in my face and says, “You got two choices: pay up, or get off.”

Now I have the opportunity to stand up for what is absolutely positively right—or wimp out. And I’m thinking, just do it. Like, you know, in advertising: we thought it up, we figured it out, we gathered the evidence, we understand the issues and, by golly, we’re right. If this sounds familiar, keep reading.

“But officer,” I say, “four MTA employees just went through to that nice air-conditioned car. Why can’t we, the paying customers?”

“Pay. Or get off the train.”

And suddenly I’m remembering something good: the time I stood in front of 50 people in the theater at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, and August Busch III asks me where we should run this anti-Miller Budweiser campaign we had developed and just presented. I grabbed myself by the cajones, out there all by myself, and tell him, “Nowhere. We should not run this campaign. The King of Beers does not stoop to the pretenders.” The entire room sucks in a collective gasp. August’s neck goes purple. Finally, he commands—if we decide to run it, where should we run it? I stammer the rehearsed answer, the theater empties and I’m reminded that it’s their money, not ours. A-B ultimately does not run it, which only makes me braver now.

So I do what any risk taker would do. I accept the cop’s offer and get off the train at the next stop: 125th Street, Harlem, USA. Understand, this is not new territory for me. Not the culture. Not the street. Not the dudes. Well, maybe it’s a new time for me to be there, but everything else is … familiar. Which only adds to my steely sense of right.

And get this: while I’m standing there on the platform at 1:30 a.m., watching the train’s doors close, what do I see? My fellow commuters passing through to the very air-conditioned mecca I was just pitching for! Without me! Damned straight: I’m right, and they’re wrong. I think they call that a Pyrrhic victory. At that moment, I call it … hosed.

Now I know two things for sure: a) right ain’t always right; and b) time for one more beer! Like that time back at the agency, now I’m looking for sympathetic characters who will understand how damned right I was. On 126th I find Bonito’s Lounge and have myself another one. Back out I go and run into two dudes who are only too glad to agree with me—long as I’m buying. I am about to be reminded that I am one lucky SOB, standing there under the watchful eye of You Know Who. This should be the last time I have to learn this shit—outside of advertising.

I ask my bros if they know where we can get some beers, and one of them says, “Sure, just give me some money.” So I do and soon he’s back with three cold ones and some change! We settle down on the curb and for the next 20 minutes—or my fifth life, if you’re measuring this night in cat terms—I get grounded in a reality few of us see face to face and all of us need to know about. These guys got nothing except themselves. I don’t ask why. I don’t care why. All I know is they are taking the Big Risk every day, just to survive. And they must be good dudes; we talked some serious shit in those 20 minutes that stays between us. They remind me to take my briefcase with me and point me in the direction of the train station.

I arrive home at 3:30 a.m., thinking “Honey, I’m home.” And she’s thinking, “I’m glad you’re not dead, so I can kill you myself.” Justifiable homicide—but she resists. I live to tell another story and promise to limit my risks from now on to smart ones, in advertising. Listen up. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere:

Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’re right.

Sometimes it’s the conductor’s train.