Monday, January 12, 2009

He Will Call

A few months back, I was asked to write the story of how I once tried to get a job at Wieden + Kennedy. They wanted it for a book being published about all things W+K. Here is the long version of that story. The edited version is in the book. My blog doesn't have an editor.

He Will Call

As a freshman in high school I wanted to be one of three things. Above all, I wanted to be a professional golfer on the PGA tour. My sweet swing and my blond head would fit right in with my pre-Tiger tour heroes, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller. If I couldn’t make the PGA Tour I had a secondary dream of being the next Steven Spielberg. It certainly wasn’t his hair or even his movies that blew my mind as much as it was the fact that you could tell this guy was following his heart and doing everything he set out to do as a young kid. My third aspiration, and the one that seemed most attainable, was to be the next Dan Wieden, whom I think might well have been blonde, too, in his younger days.

I first learned of Dan Wieden when I was working on the staff of my high school newspaper, The Grantonian. As young journalists, we were expected to raise the funds for the printing of our paper each month. In order to do so, we were all required to meet a certain quota selling ad space. One of my major clients was the Fortune 500 company, Louisiana Pacific. My mom was a rising star in their public relations department, and she assured me I could depend on her. She agreed to pay a said sum of money each month and I would run her ad in a prominent section of each issue of the paper. Usually, I put it in the sports pages, right below my column, ‘Selis Says’. I was a sports junkie, and while I was never big or strong enough to make the football or basketball teams, my consolation was writing about them. Grant, being the perennial super power in athletics, always assured a strong readership in the sports section. At the bottom of the page I would layout the Louisiana-Pacific ad. They were simple, yet entirely inspiring. No image, just big bold type in quotes:

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” –Will Rodgers

The next issue would read, “One man with courage makes a majority.” –Andrew Jackson

And my personal favorite, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” –Walt Disney

And get this, at the bottom of each ad was the slogan, “Yes We Can!”

It was my first awareness of the power of advertising. I mean, it wasn’t even really advertising. I guess that’s what I liked. It was more like empowerment. It had a voice I wanted to listen to. It wasn’t telling me to buy anything or do anything, necessarily. It was just these quotes that inspired me and made me think. But mostly, it made me realize that maybe I could be that voice. Not the voice of Will Rodgers or Andrew Jackson, but the voice of the ad.

Who was the voice of the ad? Well, mom tells me it’s this guy named Dan Wieden. I didn’t know who he was, but I knew it was the first time I ever really felt a calling.

The PGA Tour became a pipe dream in the face of pressure packed three-foot putts. My dad said I had all the skills to make it, but it was the six inches between my ears that was the problem. After college I charted parallel courses to meet either Wieden or Spielberg, whomever came first would be the lucky one. If you can believe it, Spielberg was an easier get than Wieden. But I was young and dumbly blinded by love. I had the offer in hand to go be Spielberg’s assistant when my soon-to-be first wife gave me the ultimatum, “Well, it’s him or it’s me.”

If that was a sign of certain future divorce, I wasn’t willing to listen. I chose her. I toiled as a location manager on numerous feature films including a couple of Gus Van Sant movies and a horrendous Hollywood flick, which starred my dearly beloved Madonna. Getting a front row view of Madonna performing sex acts in the nude must have been my reward for passing on Spielberg. The way I saw it, God was taking pity on me.

While the movies were full of fun and adventure and too many stories to tell here, they also caused their fair share of stress. See, working on films is a feast or famine existence. The money is good when the circus was in town, but it dried up quick when they packed up and left. And that’s not what the wife signed up for. So, between jobs the first thing I would always do was send a note to Wieden. To my surprise he would always respond, however brief. Usually it was a scribbled note that said something like, “If your interests are creative, send us your book. If they are otherwise, talk to Luhr.”

Well, my interests were creative, but I had no book. And I had no idea what he meant by “otherwise talk to Luhr.” All I knew was that I wanted to work at Wieden +Kennedy and that I didn’t want to work in advertising to get my book. By this time, I knew enough to know that Wieden + Kennedy was where I had to be. Dan Wieden had gone from inspiring single sentence quotes in print ads to mind blowing TV shit like Revolution and Heritage and Air Jordan and Hare Jordan and Spike & Mike and Bo Knows and even Lou Reed on a freaking Honda Scooter. And that’s about the time desperation got the best of me.

The way I saw it, all I needed was to get my big fat personality in front of Dan and he would realize that experience could come second. You know, ‘on the job training’. I would show him that I am worth having around whether I come in changing the world right away or maybe, you know, a little later.

My big idea was born after I heard a tale that Dan used to sit up there in his 3rd floor office perched over the bustling intersection of 3rd and Washington and make phone calls down to the phone booth on the corner. As legend had it, he would place the call on unsuspecting loiterers who would answer. I was never told what Dan wanted to talk about, only that he liked to call and talk. Well, my wheels started spinning. To my way of thinking, if Dan Wieden had time to call the phone booth, he would have time to invite me up. And if he had time to invite me up, I would have time to sell him on me.

So here’s what I did.

I’m far from the religious type, but that didn’t prevent divine intervention from allowing me to learn of a little verse in the bible that reads: For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14 if you want to check it.)

I thought I’d hatched the perfect plan. I would dress as a Jesus freak — rainbow wig and all — and I would cobble together a sandwich board that I would wear over my body. On the front it would read: MATTHEW 22:14 and on the back, three simple words: HE WILL CALL. The HE, in this case, would be Wieden. And I would be there to answer.

Now, I did go to the University of Oregon where I majored in Journalism with an emphasis in Advertising. I had “a book” of sorts - a portfolio, if you will - and being young and full of piss and vinegar, and having delusions that my college assignments would be the best he’d ever seen, I was certain that HE would give me a shot. I was also under the influence of a former professor who was certain that being bold was the way to be remembered. He even championed someone who, when asked in an interview to give an example of an act of boldness, the woman stood up, asked to borrow some scissors, and promptly cut the interviewers tie right in half. 

Bold. That’s what I was going to be. The word ‘crazy’ never entered my mind.

Here was my outfit:

The classic rainbow wig(as seen on tv).

Mirrored Vaurnet sunglasses(so my eyes could see his, but his couldn’t see mine).

Baggy green sweatpants(to tie-in with the wig).

Air Jordans(the originals, of course).

And the body-billboard, which I’d made out of heavy art paper, not the traditional wood, which in hindsight would have been a more traditional look.

I arrived at the corner of 3rd and Washington at 8:30am. It wasn’t five minutes later that Dan walked into his office. It took maybe fifteen seconds for him to notice me, and another five for him to pick up the phone. My heart started racing. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. My first thought was, “What the fuck am I thinking?” My mouth started watering like I was going to throw up. I waited for the phone to ring. But it didn’t. I looked up to Dan’s window, hidden behind my mirrored Vaurnets. His lips were moving, which meant he obviously wasn’t calling me. He was looking down at me however, and his laughter indicated he was getting a kick out of my presence. Within minutes people were coming into his office and taking a peak at the freak on the corner. They stood against the window laughing and pointing. I began to think they were brainstorming to come up with the appropriate tact to take with me. After all, I was a man of God down there, and maybe they were hesitant to mess.

I waited them out. I suddenly felt a certain sense of calm. It was a strange calm. Almost like I belonged there on that street corner. Strangers hastily passed me by, avoiding any chance of eye contact or communication. I was harmless, but for the first time in my life I felt a sense of discrimination. So I decided to embrace it. The first hour passed without a call. People I knew would walk on by. I would say their name aloud, but they had no idea it was me and would skirt on by, pretending not to hear. I remember feeling ashamed of them. What were they so afraid of? That a man of God knew their name?

About two hours into it, a small, enthusiastic group of young people drove by in a beat up little car with a sunroof. One girl stood through it while another leaned out the passenger window. They both yelled words of encouragement. Moments later these same girls arrived on my corner and offered me scripture to pass out. “What the hell,” I thought.

They ran back to their illegally parked car and I began to pass out the leaflets they left me. I enjoyed handing them out. It gave me something to do, and I also decided it might balance out the blasphemy I was incurring against me. So I looked at the leaflets as a Godsend. Suddenly I had a purpose. I wasn’t just this young man of blind faith waiting for a call that would never come. I was spreading the gospel.

Lunchtime arrived and the streets began to bustle. Again, more people I knew walked right on by. I had transcended my own life. Such a strange feeling it was. Freeing, actually. For the first time in my life, I was able to observe life from an objective perspective. It was at the time of this little epiphany I was having that two homeless guys approached me. They stunk something awful, but there was a glimmer in their eyes. Was it hope they were seeing in me, or just a comrade of the streets? My feet were so sore at this point. Air Jordans were never meant for this. The two homeless guys parked it right there next to me and pulled out a fifth of Bacardi. So I sat down next to them and accepted their offer of a swill, my lame portfolio resting in the windowsill five feet above us.

We talked about their lives and how they got here. Their stories were far more worthy than mine. They were both vets from Vietnam. They’d seen too much too young and now they were fighting new battles at home. I felt lucky I’d missed the draft and the war. I felt kind of shitty and guilty about it too, I guess. Theirs was a terrible fate. Mine was a stark contrast, although they probably thought they were the lucky ones from the looks of the three of us.

We polished off the bottle before they walked off with intentions of raising funds for another. They each gave me a hug before they left. I handed them scripture. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon now and if Dan was going to call, I figure he would have by now. I was uncomfortably hot in my wig and feeling a little baked from the sun and the booze. I looked up one more time and spied Dan leaning back in his chair talking to some people on the couches across from him. Maybe I would sit on that couch one day, but not this day.

I headed back to my life as a Location Manager. I can’t remember the movie I was working on, but Peter Wiedensmith was an assistant cameraman on the crew. I hated him because he had married into the family. Why didn’t I think of that? Anyway, when I mentioned what I’d done in my desperation to get a job, he’d already heard the story from Dan. I was horrified. I just knew whatever Peter was about to tell me wasn’t going to be good.

And Peter says, “Yeah, Dan told me about this Jesus freak on the corner and I told him I knew the guy.”

And I say, “Oh no. Please no.”

And Peter says, “Yeah, and he told me to tell that guy he won’t ever work at Wieden + Kennedy.”

And that was pretty much that.

Or at least I thought.

Five years into the movie business and six months into a failing marriage, I managed to get an interview at Wieden & Kennedy with Bill Davenport’s assistant. I had sent Bill my resume hoping my film experience somehow applied to the mysterious process of making a tv commercial. His assistant told me a position might be opening up in three months and that they thought I might be a good fit. So I went and took an internship in the broadcast department at Border’s Perrin and Norrander. I was making zero dollars but gaining invaluable knowledge for the slight chance I might get the job at Wieden. My wife couldn’t believe she was married to a man with an internship and another pipe dream. Three months went by. My internship was over and Davenport’s assistant told me it’s going to be at least another three months before they make a decision. My wife had already made hers. She was done. “Why can’t you just get a normal job,” she asked, exhausted. I’d already given up Spielberg. I knew if I gave up Wieden I’d be bound for a life of resentment and misery. She moved out three months later. As we were packing boxes on a Friday for the big weekend move, the phone rang.

“Jeff?”

“Yes.”

“It’s Juli from Wieden & Kennedy.”

“Oh, hi!”

“How are you doing,” she asked.

“Oh, I’ve been better, I guess.”

“Well I’m wondering if you can start on Monday,” she says.

The irony of the moment was ridiculous. The timing of the call was downright cruel, but at the same time, it couldn’t have been better. I hung up the phone and wept like a baby.

My first desk was in a hallway perched above the main stairs of the Dekum Building. It was a perfect first desk, as all the agency traffic would ascend and descend the stairs all day long. Riswold would go down them. Kennedy would go up them. All these other legendary ad makers would go up and down and up and down and up and down. But whenever Wieden would go up or down I would hide my face. I didn’t want him to know I was in. I wanted to root myself as fast as possible. Bust ass and make these people in this broadcast department value me enough so that when Wieden finally found me out, maybe I would already have embedded myself enough to stay. Three months of successful avoidance passed before I finally stood before him in a hallway.

“Who let you in,” he asked.

I assume it’s the same greeting I’ll receive in heaven.

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2 Comments:

At January 12, 2009 at 11:34 PM , Anonymous Angie Maurer said...

That is an amazing story.

 
At January 22, 2009 at 2:09 PM , Blogger twotreemama said...

F**king inspiring brother! I am smiling!

 

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