True Advertising Horror Stories
Funny, Sad, and Horrifying scenes from 30 years on the frontlines of Business Hell.
From the get-go, I was “in the shit” as they said in Vietnam (no disrespect to Viet Vets, including two uncles). My career started with me working at two start-up agencies, both from day one of their existences.
I started working right out of ad school at a new agency where I was the first copywriter hired. (I was more lucky than good at that point.). I went from making ads for Lego and the ASPCA to making ads for urine analysis machines. That was my first “real world” assignment—literally PISS.
Being a start-up agency with few connections, we adopted the “Throw Shit Against The Wall And See What Sticks” new business strategy (see above)—meaning we presented free spec work an average of twice every week. This was pre-software so all comps were hand-drawn = many many all-nighters, many many seven-day work weeks.
This insane breakneck pace went on for about three years until we all stopped getting paid. I kept working there unpaid for another year until I was $50,000 in debt (that’s in 1990 money). I finally quit. Then, the IRS seized the $200 in my checking account. Good times.
The Plus of this Hellish situation was I had to learn to be good, quickly. The Negative was I sold very few ads. Decaying in several landfills are hundreds of campaigns I created ranging from great to monkey shit. Sorry, Planet Earth.
All of the following scenes are 100% true
President's office of a small New Jersey bank. We are presenting ads for a new high-rate CD. The first four ads have been met with indifference. We pull the “ace-in-hole” out of a fake-leather case. The ad features a small illustration of a black ski mask (including dramatic drop shadow) with a big ALL CAPS headline:
IF YOU'VE EVER WANTED TO ROB A BANK HERE'S YOUR CHANCE.
The President stares at the ad for about five seconds then says, "All three of our branches have been robbed in the last month."
NYC conference room. The licensing group that owned the Starter Athletic Apparel name was meeting with a bunch of agencies to talk about a new campaign. Accompanying the client was New York Giant’s NFL Hall of Fame Linebacker Lawrence "LT" Taylor, who was an investor. Introductions are made between the 6 men. My Creative Director starts in with our credentials spiel, but LT interrupts with a pressing question:
"WHERE’RE THE BITCHES?"
The other five men in the room snicker nervously. Awkward silence follows.
LT: “No, really (flashes big LT smile), you got any bitches workin' here?"
POST-NOTE: We didn’t bring any of our “bitches” into the room. We didn’t get the business.
The Brooklyn offices of multi-billion dollar trash company BFI (First PISS, now GARBAGE). At the time, New York’s worst kept secret was that the City garbage business was Mob controlled. You’d send out for three bid requests and get three responses with the exact same inflated number. The challenge: How do you say “rigged pricing collusion” without saying it? The client agreed to kickoff their NYC campaign with the below ad. It rain in Crain’s New York.
The Mob were not amused, apparently. Cut to the Brooklyn stoop of BFI's president one week after the ad ran. Early morning. The head of a German Shepherd sits on the top step. Attached to the head is a note: “WELCOME TO NEW YORK”. Seemingly, this was connected to our ad and/or The Godfather.
My home work table, now fully a freelancer after getting fired from BuzzFeed. One of the first jobs I got was for a chain of cremation funeral homes in Australia. Below is one of the ads from the campaign. My first thought: BIG ASH SAVINGS! I included it in the presentation in the name of total transparency.
Now: I got this assignment exactly two weeks after we had my Father incinerated, dead from the cancer horribleness of multiple myeloma. Sitting on my work table was a modestly priced wooden receptacle full of his fresh ashes (see below) for inspiration as I “ideated.” Fucking hilarious, Karma.
I have many more True Horror Stories. Stay tuned.