Yesterday, I tweeted that, in the interests of full transparency, the 45th president’s Twitter handle should be changed to @chaos. I thought it more accurately reflected what we’ve been witnessing since January 20th.
But, I am the first to admit that a Twitter Handle naming expert I am not. Ah, but when it comes to pure chaos, I’d like to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, when asked to describe pornography famously replied that he could not, “…but I know it when I see it.” Amen, brother. And, I know chaos when I see it.
In fact, I witnessed it up close and personal when I worked at a white hot integrated marketing agency in the early 1990s that, before a peaceful transfer of power, had been beautifully managed, highly profitable and twice named Adweek’s Agency of the Year. Heady stuff, no?
But, then the new administration entered office with a self-appointed mandate to turn this magical, regional player into a global powerhouse. Yes, friends, our new CEO predated Sir Martin Sorrell, Larry Weber and Richard Edelman in believing size trumped quality.
This Harvard MBA-minted wunderkind was also intent on making our firm great again (even though we’d been in business for 40 years and the agency was already considered to be among the creme de la creme.)
Regardless, the reckless new CEO had a mandate (or so he thought) to grow at breakneck speed. So, he went on a dizzying acquisition spree that even Kellyanne Conway would have had had a hard time explaining (much less promoting). Why, for example, did we need offices in Norfolk or Michigan (especially since we had no automotive accounts at the time)?
And, since we already had a superb group of in-house creative directors and public affairs specialists, why did we need to acquire more firms whose top dogs got along about as well with the existing staff as Pro-lifer’s do with those who advocate on behalf of Pro-choice?
Ah, but I’m only beginning to tell this sorry, sordid tale of Chaos, Inc.
Just like a certain world figure fond of comb-overs, out new CEO placed senior executives in formal functions while simultaneously creating a shadow government. He even had his very own Steve Bannon, except he was a she.
The result was internecine warfare played out right in front of our clients’ eyes. Offices fought one another to lead an account (and hog all of the billings). Disciplines attacked one another with glee. And, as has always been the case, advertising treated PR as the Aleppo of “under-the-line” services.
Ah, but we NYC-based PR types were exempt from the ad guys and their wicked put-downs. That’s because, led by a whacky, but gifted, group that included Bill Southard, Annie Pechaver, David Mandell, Edward Aloysius Moed, Peter Palmer Brown, Jurgen Hess, Stanley Unlucky and this blogger, were kicking ass and taking names. In fact, we were growing PR billings at triple digit figures while our sister disciplines were slipping rapidly under a sea of red ink.
It actually got to the point that, at one memorable all-hands meeting in the Big Apple, the office president (who doubled as the distaff Steve Bannon), began by saying, “I’d Ike the entire PR department to stand-up. Now I’d like the rest of you to give them a standing ovation. Why? Because they’re carrying your sorry asses and enabling you to put food on the table, that’s why!” The woman did have a way with words.
Needless to say, this sort of rhetoric only made the other disciplines hate us that much more. At the same time, it emboldened a whacky, but immensely talented group led by Bill Southard, and featuring the likes of Annie Pechaver, Jeyran Ghara, Dave “Dark Star” Mandell, Edward Aloysius Moed and others, to absolutely run amok.
We came and went as we pleased, chose first-class travel and accommodations for client and new business meetings alike and adjourned every Friday afternoon at 1pm for libations at P.J. Charlton’s. We were the wolves of Hudson Street.
But, we could also see Imperial Rome was splintering faster than a closely-held secret in the West Wing. Soon, the original 11 offices had dwindled to five. The best creatives had packed up and left and, to add insult to injury, the entire management and staff of the recently acquired public affairs firm bolted en masse in the wee hours of a K Street morning.
Bill, Annie, Ed and I sat down to begin mapping out what we were already calling Southard, Cody (I was far more humble in those days). But, fate interceded when J. Walter Thompson made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I dragged Ed along with me. Bill teamed up with Annie and Jeyran to create Southard Communications which, to this day, remains one of the best PR firms specializing in toys (the children’s variety).
I adored my time at Chaos, Inc., and will never forget the food fights, the wholesale pilfering of the Tumi product room or our dispatching Efrem Luigi Epstein, dressed as a toy soldier, to board a shuttle flight and hand deliver our Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association plan (we’re still waiting to hear if we won).
As George Harrison wrote, “All things must pass,” and this once great agency was eventually laid to rest in the St. Marketing & Communications Cemetery about 17 years ago.
The lesson? Chaos isn’t sustainable.
It can be a blast, but it can also be exhausting and alienating. So, while I most definitely am NOT interested in receiving a 140-character from @potus calling me a washed-up blogger with a so-so firm, I do think he needs to pay heed quickly. Very quickly.
We used to joke that, at our old agency, the inmates were running the asylum. In retrospect, we desperately needed adult supervision in order to survive the chaos. And so does the Trump White House.
Brilliant! Everything I learned about how to conduct business came from the first 2 Godfather movies. Everything I learned about surviving toxic office cultures comes from the above-named experience.
– Peter Palmer-Brown, AKA @gotopengel AKA Peter Ilan Engel