Clear your desk off by noon

lionnnnaaaaEdelman’s heavy-handed termination of their North American president, Mark Hass, and their pinning the blame for their recent social media gaffes on his shoulders struck a chord with this blogger.

Give or take a day, it was 19 years ago that my employment with J. Walter Thompson’s now defunct Brouillard Communications was terminated ‘without cause’ as they like to say.

Like Hass, I became the fall guy for the firm’s horrific performance (only Brouillard’s mistakes were financial in nature).

I’d been hired 15 months earlier as the CEO’s hand-picked successor. He told me he was 65, tired and ready to ride off into the sunset. He convinced me he wanted a change agent to come into the fully integrated agency and shake things up.

It didn’t take long for me to find out he’d lied to me. On my first day, for example, I suggested we launch an awareness campaign on Brouillard’s behalf since the firm personified the word stealth. Few industry professionals, much less prospects, had ever heard of it.

“We tried that once. Didn’t work. Won’t do it again,” the CEO sniffed.

Then, I mentioned something called the information superhighway, suggesting Brouillard begin construction of its own website. “That’s nothing more than a fad,” he proclaimed. “Print advertising (his pride and joy) will always be the currency of the realm in marketing.”

Even though we were an integrated marketing firm, the CEO openly despised PR, since he was anal retentive and PR, by its very nature is uncontrollable. He was also disdainful of our PR group and referred to the ghetto in which they were sequestered as a “rat’s nest.”

Last, but not least, he’d drop off biographies of various ‘underperforming’ staff members on my desk, chuckle, and say, “Fire them. They’re your problem now.” Nice guy, no?

Our showdown came when I began espousing the virtues of technology, digital and other then-emerging strategies in client and prospect meetings. I distinctly remember the time he openly scowled at me as I told a group of Deloitte prospects they needed to update their embryonic website.

After learning from others that I kept advocating for next generation marketing, the CEO simply erased my name from client and prospect meeting lists. I became Trotsky to his Stalin.

My secretary would come rushing into my office, panting and tell me “…the old bastard’s just removed you from another meeting!”

I demanded a show-down. I prepared a four-page document with my plan for moving Brouillard into the 20th century. The CEO came prepared with my two-page letter of termination. And, he was accompanied by his CFO henchwoman who, I was told, would help me fill out the paperwork.

I was told to clear off my desk by noon.

As we parted, the CEO unleashed one, last sneer and said, “Don’t worry, Cody. You’re the type who lands on his feet.”

And, I did. I washed up at the front door of Ed Moed’s squalid, one bedroom apartment 10 days later and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, don’t cry for Mark Hass. Something tells me that he’ll do very well in his next gig. Like me, Hass has to realize that victory has many parents while failure is an orphan. And when an agency fails, someone has to take a bullet for it. Hass’ execution differed from mine only in the sense it was covered by Stuart Elliott. And, for that, I feel very bad for Mark. At least, I could lick my wounds in virtual anonymity.

7 thoughts on “Clear your desk off by noon

  1. Steve: I enjoy your Rep Man blog posts and found this one particularly insightful. It always helps to know the back story behind corporate actions and their impacts. Enjoy your New Hampshire rock climbing adventures. Best regards, Eric Goldman

  2. Great question, Peter. Every now and then, Ed and I will discuss the What-Ifs. Since both EPB and Brouillard eventually imploded, we would have been forced to do something. But, who knows if it would have been a decision to start our own business? Btw, I plan to write a blog entitled, “The third partner,” in which I’ll discuss the other person who was intending to be one of Peppercomm’s founding partners. He ended up getting cold feet at the 11th hour.

    • Wow… the plot thickens! Look forward to reading that story! One of the lessons of success (and/or failure) is being brave enough to take calculated risks.

  3. Nice post. Life is full of “what ifs.” Have you ever thought about how long Ed and you would have manned the decks yelling “iceberg” at EPB, if Brouillard hadn’t come along with that sweet, arsenic-loaded offer? Or how long before you’d have started Peppercomm?

  4. Great points, Julie. In my case, the CEO was being pressurred to step down by JWT management but shrewdly forestalled those efforts by repeatedly picking change agents such as me that he set up for failure. The guuy prolonged his career by at leasat five years by doing to me what he did to several other, hand-picked change agent successors.

  5. It always amazes me when companies say they want change and progress; that they want to hire someone to “shake things us” and “change the status quo.” Every time I’ve seen that happen, the person who was hired got treated as poorly (if not worse) than you did. Why do companies continue to perpetuate this lie? They don’t want change; they want a highly-paid “yes man/woman” to endorse whatever cockamamie plans they already have in motion. “Change agents” always ruffle feathers; most employees who have been at a company for a long period of time resent said “change agent” and usually plot his or her demise.