Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ads, yes. Ideas, yes. Wallpaper, no.

      When I decided to leave one of the biggest and most stressful ad agencies in Chicago to open my own small one, I got an unusual offer from a friend in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Come here and be a partner; we're already set up.

       I took him up on it and moved. I had gone to college in Ann Arbor. It's a lot like Berkeley. It even has two hills.

      The agency was located in ivy-clad Harris Hall, a former university building. We had grown to 16 people when something started bugging me. I was missing something, and finally figured out what it was: stress. Life at our bucolic agency lacked stress, and I missed it. If we were to ever grow, I'd better add it. And I knew how.

      I started making presentations for new clients 40 miles away, in Detroit. I was able to get some appointments, mainly because they were curious.  But our work was surprisingly good, and we started winning accounts. First the Metropolitan Detroit Convention & Visitors' Bureau, of all things. Then the tallest hotel in the world, the Westin Renaissance Center. Then the huge Renaissance Center itself!

      Jim Honick, the Marketing Director of Renaissance Center, took me aside. He said he'd like to do business with us, but they only do business with leaders and leaders have their offices in Renaissance Center. Which explains the office we opened on the 32nd floor of the 200 Tower. I loved it, and spent most of my time there.

       I would do anything for Jim and told all our people to do the same. That's what soon bit me.

       The first floor of the Center was being reconfigured, and raw wood construction walls were everywhere in all five buildings. Jim called up our account executive and told her that the owners of Renaissance Center would be there in a week, to check on the progress. Could the agency design and print wallpaper to cover the wooden walls? She said sure. We designed wallpaper with a step-and-repeat pattern of their logo, and had it printed quickly by a printer who owed us one. The Center's crew put it up.

       My phone rang at 4 p.m. the night before the big owners' meeting. It was Gail, Jim's assistant. She was in tears.

       "The wallpaper's falling off all the walls and rolling up on the floor. Could you come over and put it up by 8:30 tomorrow morning when the owners arrive?" I almost had cardiac arrest. I could see all our new Detroit clients firing us, going down like dominoes and leaving us with nothing to do in a beautiful suite of offices. And none of us knew how to put up wallpaper. Gail said she's try to figure it out.

       I didn't sleep all night, but the problem did get solved. The wallpaper glue hadn't stuck to the wallpaper because our production manager didn't know that wallpaper had to be a certain kind of paper. The client's crew found a thicker, stickier  glue, and worked all night to re-paper the walls in the five buildings.

       Two days later, I met with Jim who was laughing but perfectly clear. "Harvey, please. Stick to what you do; don't agree to do what you don't know anything about. Just say 'we don't do that'. You're not doing anybody any favors."

        That was the first of many good lessons, about real estate, about business, about friendship.  Jim's now in Atlanta and I'm in Berkeley, grateful that someone taught me to say sorry, I don't do wallpaper.

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