Wrong Side of the Bed

Can you remember your worst day on the job?

Mike Doherty didn’t know what happened. He and his team from Cole & Weber/ Red Cell began a presentation to a state-lottery client in the West with a jazz bassist accompanying the storyboards. Suddenly, the client manager burst into tears and ran out of the room.

“We thought, ‘Well, that can’t be good,’ ” says the creative director at the Seattle agency. The team kept going and only later learned that the woman had recently lost a brother in a car accident. He, too, had been a jazz bassist. “Of all the music we could’ve picked,” Doherty says.

The stories aren’t usually that tragic, but most people can relate in vivid detail their worst day on the job, perhaps proving Leo Burnett’s adage that great advertising just isn’t possible without plenty of “bent noses, irritation and downright cursedness.”

For Nat Gutwirth, cd at The Weightman Group in Philadelphia, it was his first new-business pitch. His job: to affix the ads to the walls. Simple enough. Since three of the walls were essentially huge windows, he chose to stick them up with low-tack tape. “This worked,” he says. “For 15 minutes. At which time the first ad came unstuck and smacked onto the carpet. Followed in rapid succession by ads Nos. 4, 7, 13, 26 and 8.” By the end, “every ad we showed, any hope we had of winning the business and every shred of dignity I woke up with that morning was on the floor.”

Michael Mark’s worst day came shortly after BDDP bought Wells Rich Greene, where he worked for a time. Meeting his French bosses for the first time, he went to sit down, but his creative partner, Patrick Flaherty, pulled his chair back as a gag and he tumbled to the floor, hitting his head on the chair. “Then Patrick tells these guys I have a drinking problem,” says Mark, who now runs his own shop, NYCA in San Diego.

They didn’t get the joke. In fact, they went to human resources. He got back in their good graces but never convinced them he wasn’t a drunk. “We’d go out to dinner, and I wouldn’t be drinking,” he says, “and they would say to me, ‘Excellent, Michael, we’re so proud of you!’ ”

Mother Nature is a tough boss, too. Tim O’Brien, cd at R&R Partners’ Reno, Nev., office, recalls a hairy shoot for tourism ads in Nevada’s Valley of Fire. The first day, the 132-degree weather gave one of the models heatstroke. The next day, as the team was wrapping a session in a dry lake bed, a spectacular light show erupted in the distance. “The clouds were turning purple,” O’Brien says. “There was this tremendous lightning.” It was great for photos. “We got the beers out. We were whooping and hollering. Then someone says, ‘Guys, you know lightning goes for the highest point, right?’ ” Everyone frantically piled the gear into the trucks as the storm crossed to the far end of the lake bed, not four miles away. “It was like Twister,” he says. “Lightning hit about 30 yards off to the side as we were doing 60 miles an hour. It was really a hair-raising experience.” Luckily, no one was hurt.

Chad Rea, founder of 86 the onions in Venice, Calif., did get hurt on the job. While working for Mother in London, he badly twisted an ankle as he ran for a taxi outside an editing house. He learned about British healthcare the hard way: The first hospital he went to was closed (“I had never heard of a hospital closing in my life”); the second gave him two aspirin and wrist crutches—on the condition that he return them. Rea did get revenge: Upon leaving Mother, he recorded a song for his colleagues titled, “No Wonder My Ancestors Left in the First Place.”

Finally, of course, there is the quintessential worst day: getting fired. Martin Bihl, now cd at New York’s Renegade Marketing, was let go from a job six days before his son was born. “Coming home to an extremely pregnant wife and a 5-year-old daughter and saying, ‘Guess what I don’t have anymore’ has been the touchstone of shit in my professional career,” he says.

Of course, being on the other side is no fun either. “The worst days are always the days you have to fire someone,” says Jef Loeb of Brainchild Creative in San Francisco. “I know there are people out there who can shrug it off, but personally, I’d rather be the firee than have to do the dirty deed myself.” —