The weird, hilarious, and surreal moments from 18 years in this job.
This year officially marked by 18th year with my creative agency – Maris, West & Baker. Since my MWB tenure is now eligible for Selective Service I thought it would be a good time for some reflection. First I thought it would be nice to list the accomplishments of the campaigns on which I’ve worked over the years. It’s been quite a ride – from anti-tobacco work, to electronics recycling, logistics tracking, nuclear power generation, tourism, public health, economic development, and education access. That would make a great article. But you know what would make an even BETTER article? Ranking some of the standout surreal, weird, and hilarious situations in which I’ve found myself since 1999.
So they are, in no particular order, Tim’s Top 6 Strangest Career Moments at MWB:
Give it up for STEVE!… STEVE!… STEVE!… STEVE!
Very early on in my career we were working on a large anti-tobacco effort across the state. The most significant portion of this campaign was focused on teens. As part of the grassroots marketing effort, we staged a series of concerts across our state as a draw, and then used interwoven anti-tobacco messaging throughout the performances.
One particular concert was on a Saturday on a beach in the south part of the state that faces the Gulf of Mexico. The point of this particular concert was that we were going to take messages teens had written to tobacco companies, package them up, and ship them to the headquarters of the top US tobacco industry CEOs. Kind of a “hey, stop targeting me” kind of message.
Well as it turns out, staging a “postal event” wasn’t exactly sexy back in 1999 (some things don’t change). So, being the good ad agency that we are, we had to figure out how to turn it into a spectacle (some things never change). It just so happened that at the time I had long hair…like really long. Like Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire long (some things REALLY change). Someone thought, “Hey, Tim would make a GREAT delivery guy! Let’s have him play that part!”
And it just so happened that one of my female co-workers at the time had an ex-husband (named Steve) who spent a stint as a mechanic. She also just happened to have in her possession one of his garage uniform shirts, adorned with a “Steve” patch on front pocket. The consensus was it looked like something a “delivery guy” would wear.
So I donned the Steve shirt, and marched on stage as the “Delivery Guy” to pickup the package that was going to be shipped to tobacco company CEOs.
As I trotted out from stage right, the emcee of the concert announced, “And here comes the delivery guy to send YOUR voices to the tobacco industry!” She glanced over at me, I guess saw the Steve shirt, and turned back to the audience to an yelled:
“Everybody GIVE IT UP FOR STEVE!!!!”
The crowd started to chant, fists pumping in air: “STEVE…STEVE…STEVE…STEVE…”
I glance out over what was now clearly MY audience. There were some teens in the crowd. There were also a sizable number of slightly overweight, shirtless (male), and insert-domestic-beer-brand-here-bikini wearing (female) folks. Ok, maybe they were actually the majority. They had NO idea what the concert was about, or what the hell this package was, but they were definitely giving it up for Steve! I took the box, offered a fist held high in the air (to thunderous applause), and walked-nay strutted-off stage.
That one was for Steve…whoever he may be.
2. I got AIS’ed by a VIP
I was doing some work with a large (Fortune 500) company that required I travel around the country and help stage communications events at which a huge VIP within the company was speaking. Part of this project was admittedly pretty cool, as the mode of transportation was the company’s private jet. And lemme tell ya, it has been really tough to fly plebeian commercial ever since.
Pretty cool, that is, other than when you’re running late.
One of the particular events I was helping produce was some distance from the airport. So I left before the event was over in order to have plenty of time to return the rental car and then make my way to the runway for private planes (said with aristocratic British accent). It just so happened that the hangar area for private jets was nowhere near the rental car return area. As I was trying to navigate my way back to where I needed to be, my phone rang. It was my client.
“He’s ready to go,” said the voice on the other end.
I’m sure you can guess who he was.
I won’t say that I panicked, or that I would make a different decisions today than I did…but I’d be lying on both accounts.
“Go ahead, I’m not going to make him wait. I’ll find another way.”
Yep, I got AIS’ed.
(If you’re not familiar with the acronym, it means “Ass In Seat.” I took it from an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond in which Frank explains that was the rule for his kids back in the day. If the parents were ready to leave, and the kids didn’t have AIS, they got left.)
So let me backtrack a bit and explain why this was such a big deal. I stated that I was traveling around the country helping to produce these events. It just so happened that I got AIS’ed on the front end of back-to-back events. So, yeah. It wasn’t like I could just hop a plebeian commercial flight back home. The VIP who AIS’ed me had an event the very next day, but also had to stop in NYC for a meeting prior to (which is why the AIS happened in the first place).
I was left to my own devices. I checked alternative plebeian commercial flights. At this point I need to tell you that the locations of all these events were somewhat, well, in the middle of nowhere. Or at least located some distance from major airports. My research told me I could have waited three hours to catch a flight that landed me another three hours away from my final destination. Googling the distance, it was about a five hour drive.
I said to myself, “Self, you’ll probably never have the reason opportunity to drive this region of the country again. Just go back, get your rental car, and hit the road.”
So I marched back to the rental counter to reclaim my car. Which I actually didn’t mind. They have given me this sweet Lexus on the first go around. But when I requested a one way rental to my final destination I was told that “The Lexus couldn’t go one way.”
“Ok…what are my options,” I asked.
“We have a Ford Focus,” I was told.
So within the span of a couple of hours I had gone from cruising on private jets and tooling around in a tricked-out Lexus, to slumming across three states in a bubble car.
I will say that it wasn’t awful. I drove through the New England countryside for the first time in my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to upstate New York, but it was really pretty.
And rural. Over one stretch I went 30 miles scanning through the radio dial without picking up a station.
Anyway, I made to the location of the next day’s event. In the morning I proceeded to set up the event, and the VIP who AIS’ed me walked in.
“You made it!” he said.
“Yes, sir.” I responded.
Later that day my client told me that the “important meeting” in NYC was actually dinner with the VIP’s son.
Oh well. At least the drive was pretty.
3. I might have accidentally worked for the mafia.
I was working with a fairly sizable client (the names have been changed to protect…ME!) who had partnered with a business interest located out of Long Island. We were holding a planning meeting at the main company’s southeastern headquarters, and it became clear we needed to have a follow-up planning meeting with another partner, at the Long Island location.
I liked these guys. Great NYC accents. Really funny. Possible organized crime ties.
The head Long Island guy looked at me and said, “You need to come to this planning meeting. Fly up, and I’ll have my guy Paul Castellano pick you up at the airport.”
I paused for a moment. Looked at him.
“Big Paulie???” I asked.
“How do you know about Big Paulie?” The Long Island guy asked.
“Because I watch the news,” I said.
If you don’t know, Paul “Big Paulie” Castellano was head of the Gambino crime family in the 1970s, prior to being bumped off in a car bombing outside an NYC steakhouse in 1979 (and yeah, John Gotti orchestrated the bombing.)
The Long Island Guy laughed.
“Nah nah nah,” he said. “It’s’ not THAT Big Paulie…they are related, though.”
I made the trek up to Long Island. Paul “Not Big Paulie” Castellano did indeed pick me up from the airport.
He was wearing Wranglers and cowboy boots and sporting an Alan Jackson-esque ‘stache.
Sometimes, life is surreal.
Fortunately I didn’t find myself taking a dirt nap or sleeping with the fishes. At least not at the time of this article’s publication.
4. I spend a day lying in the dirt learning not to trust Bluetooth.
As of 2014, every single state in the United States (and like three cities in Afghanistan) had hosted a TEDx (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference. If you’re not familiar with TED Talks, it is a conference at which leading innovators of the day give talks on ground-breaking subjects. TEDx events are individually organized TED-licensed conferences meant to bring the same innovative spirit and “ideas worth spreading” to the local level.
So I said every single state had hosted a TEDx conference…except my home state of Mississippi. A group of us decided to change that. We received a license, and set about organizing the event. Even though we would be the last state to host a TEDx, we were committed to hosting one of the best.
We worked really, really hard. Renovated an old theater in an artsy area of town. Secured GREAT set design. The theme was “Fertile Ground” so the designers outfitted the entire stage with sod and dirt. It looked awesome. And through a lot of coordination with Disney, we even got Kermit the Frog as one of our main speakers. The first TEDx talk ever given by a Muppet!
So the day came and we were set. Our first speaker of the morning was an author who wrote for such titles as Playboy, The New York Post, and Spin. He had a great presentation that we had previewed the day before. As he proceeded to the stage and began his presentation, he clicked through his slides efficiently and deliberately, hitting every single cue.
But something really really weird was going on with the sound. This awful feedback was occuring. I mean AWFUL. Basically ruining the presentation. We scrambled. We thought it must be a problem with the speaker’s headset. Then we noticed everytime he clicked to advance his slides, the interference was happening.
He finished (the sound quality virtually ruined his presentation), and we took a short break trying desperately to figure out the situation while the PACKED theater crowded looked upon us, all judgmental-like.
So the issue was happening as he was clicking. So let’s eliminate the clicking, we thought. This meant manually advancing the slides.
The computer that was running the slides was positioned on the floor of the stage. Remember I said how AWESOME the stage was, all covered with sod and dirt? Well, it was awesome, except that to manually advance the slides someone had to lay in the sod and dirt. So myself and one of the other organizers took turns, literally getting “down and dirty,” to operate the computer all day.
Soooo….the TEDx event was a HUGE success. After taking a shower and several antihistamines, I wanted to figure out exactly WHAT had gone wrong in the beginning. Turns out, that instead of grabbing the slide clicker at the very beginning, the presenter had accidentally grabbed a rogue bluetooth mouse. Apparently, Bluetooth signal can interfere with wireless mics. And by “can” I mean “will” and “did.”
Yep, it was actually THAT GUY’S fault. Anyway, we allowed him to redo his talk later in the day with someone manning the dirt computer, and it went off flawlessly.
The moral of the story? Don’t cover your floor with dirt and sod.
5. A New Respect for the Hearing Impaired
So here’s another “clicker” story for you. I was involved in producing another set of events, similar to the ones I got AIS’ed on (see above). And this involved yet another VIP.
These events were internal communications meetings and were staged in front of LARGE groups of company staff. By “large” I mean “literally fill a theater” large.
So the stage was set. All the staff members filed into and filled a theater. The VIP approached the stage, picked up the clicker, and started to talk.
He clicked to go to the first slide, and the presentation went blank.
I was in the projection room manning the computer, so I reloaded it and advanced to the first slide.
The VIP addressed the information on the first slide, and then clicked to go to the second slide. Only the presentation went back to the title slide. The VIP was visibly annoyed.
Have you guessed it yet? Yep, we was clicking the “back” button instead of the “advance” button.
This was an important presentation, and the VIP was new to the position. He needed to convey an air of “having it all together.”
Thinking on my feet, I decided that everytime he clicked the back button once, I would click the forward button twice. I had helped build the presentation and had it memorized. All I had to do was listen to his verbal cues to know when to offset his one back click with my two forward clicks to render the correct slide.
Only there was one problem.
The projection booth was soundproof. I couldn’t hear a single word the VIP was saying. Yeah.
I ended up having to watch, like a hawk, his fingers on the clicker from about 70 yards away. When it looked as though he clicked once, I would click twice, and hope for the best.
It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t seamless. At one point, I think the VIP got a little spooked because he didn’t know someone else was controlling the slides. He set the clicker down on a stool and I was told he remarked, “We’ll just see what happens.” I continued to use physical cues to determine when to click through to the next slide.
As it happened, the entire presentation went fine, and I think the VIP event scored some points with staff for being funny and a good sport about the whole thing.
Anytime I do this now, I put a piece of tape over the “back” button on a clicker and write “back button infected with pink eye” on it.
6. A frog, a governor, and a surreal change of clothes
This is another story from the aforementioned TEDx event. As I said, this TEDx event really was a big deal for my state. We had secured a big name speaker in Kermit the Frog, and the reception for the event was actually held at our state’s Governor’s Mansion, with the Governor in attendance.
A little background here. At our TEDx event, each organizer is assigned one of the event speakers to “coach.” One of my assignees was a highly noted innovator in the field of education, computer science, and robotics. She worked with MIT Media Lab, was faculty at another noted Northeastern University, and has several grants and patents to her name. Her Curriculum Vitae is literally 14 pages long. She is also a native of Argentina and speaks four languages. She flew into town late the day before the TEDx event and was the final rehearsal of the day. She finished up her rehearsal and we had less than an hour to get changed and ready for the reception I mentioned at the governor’s mansion.
My wife and I drove the professor to her hotel and she overhead me tell my wife I’d figure out somewhere we could get changed.
“You can come up and change in my room if you need to,” the professor said.
“Really?” I said.
“Sure,” she replied. “Just change in the bathroom.”
We did. While we were getting changed my wife remarked,”Uh, ok…this is a bit surreal, right?”
And that was only the tip of surreal iceberg land.
We attended the reception at the governor’s mansion. Kermit the Frog was there, along with his Disney-supplied travel entourage. My wife was wandering around the mansion, looking for a bathroom, when pair of pocket doors slide open. She almost ran into the governor, who stepped out from behind them.
“Excuse me,” she said.
The governor had a new grandson (few months old), and thought it would be neat for him to meet Kermit. So the infant took a photo with Kermit (we all did), and then went back to his grandmother – the First Lady. My wife was milling about the appetizer table when the First Lady walked by with the baby.
“Would you mind holding him for a second?” First Lady asked.
“Sure,” said my wife.
After several seconds the First Lady found something she was rummaging through a drawer for, and came back to retrieve her grandson.
As she approached my wife she said, “Hey, the private quarters of the mansion have just been redone. Would you like to see?”
“Uh, sure,” we both said.
So the First Lady gave my wife and I a tour of the private quarters of the State of Mississippi’s governor’s mansion. My wife held the Governor’s grandson the entire time.
It was an amazing event. As we were leaving, we got in our car and my wife remarked, “We changed clothes in the bathroom of a genius, took a photo with the most famous frog in the world, and I carried the Governor’s grandson around the governor’s mansion.”
“Yep,” I said. There was nothing else to say.
• Helping save a co-worker who was choking on a piece of melon during a client meeting (actually pretty proud of that one).
• Ending my first office Christmas party with an Italian art director holding back my really long hair (NOT proud of that one).
• Hitting 70+ mph in a boat over open water headed to do some photography.
• Visiting the Atlanta corporate headquarters of a regional speciality pizza chain on a “new business” call, only to have it quickly digress into a tour of the owner’s personal warehouse where they stored a YUGE collection of old Boy Scout tents, vintage gas pumps, and Shoney’s Big Boy statues.