Back in the simpler days of Q3 of 2013, I attended Beautiful Minds, a competitive recruiting event at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, an English advertising agency with offices in Manhattan. "Mad Men" is generally indulgent fun, and I was eager to see how the ad business had changed, or if I was really lucky, not changed at all, over the years.
The competition, oddly, was a memorial tribute to Griffin Farley, a planner and strategist at the agency who died in February 2013. Happily, the dates coincided nearly perfectly with my vacation time, so Europe could wait, and I booked from Los Angeles to New York City instead. It felt like kismet, or at the cost of my flight-change fee, it had damn well better be.
We, the Beautiful Minds, rallied on the 19th floor of 32 Sixth Avenue. We were given the task of creating a media plan for CitiBike, the love-it, hate-it, or, at very least, keep-your-eye-out-for-it-while-walking-around-the-city bike sharing service, new to New York City back in May.
These were the things I discovered:
• Traditional Don Draper-esque ad men, like the grand and theatrical Richard Notarianni (Havas Worldwide) and the slick Brit Tom Morton (Goodby Silverstein NY), diluted handily by a small but potent cadre of women, led by BBH’s Sarah Watson, who ubiquitously shave the sides of their heads and gingerly sprinkle fuck into their vocab for credibility.
• Charming, childish in-fighting among groups of 20-somethings who scrambled to win the competition. Our group was five strong; three in their early 20s, myself 32, and one very hands-on fellow, with whom I clashed endlessly during the 24 hours of the development of our media plan. Like many type-A personalities, any ideas contrary to his own glided over the conversation water-over-duck-back style. I fast learned to sit on the desk, expect zero traction for my ideas, and offer up the occasional witticism or biting invective to earn what consolation laughs, if any, I could muster. Our team name was The Warriors, for reasons unknown (because we fought each other?). Our group temperament had the mood of a long ambulance ride at the bitter end of a dirty weekend.
• The ever-flowing alcohol from days of "Mad Men" yore was replaced with bottled water and bagels. The gender mix among supplicants was fairly balanced. The office halls of BBH held the sterile smack of a veteran’s hospital with the occasional black & white Platon portrait. While “even keel” would have been an appropriate moniker for the overall environment, it would be hard to imagine creativity doing little more than leaking out in fits and starts, the way a beach ball or inflatable doll makes an appearance in the crowd of a sporting event.
I quickly became immersed in a number of phrases: propagation planning; success metrics; the upper limits of retargeting; creative-centric. The stakes were high: “Brands today compete with everything ever made.” Who doesn’t love a good spell of crippling anxiety?
After two days working with four strangers, competing against the other applicants, winners were announced. We started in a BBH conference room, stopped in at Dos Caminos for a beer, and then my groupmate/nemesis balkanized off with one other group member and essentially devised his own presentation. I’ll spare you any potential suspense; The Warriors did not advance beyond the first round.
Krystal, our mentor from Anomaly, was patient, supportive, and offered up a charity laugh at one or two at my off-color jokes. Our two judges also doubled as jury and executioner. One gentleman, formerly of McCann Erickson, the other a CitiBike annual membership holder, saw right through our lack of group cohesion and remarked, in essence, that our hate-filled piñata of ideas had compromised too much with one another. Accurate.
On the final night, the advancing teams were slated to present to a standing room-only crowd. I watched who I would later discover was the winning team present their plan. Their catch-phrase, Bikes with Benefits, was led by a talented young woman named Rainbow Kirby—Twitter bio: "Social Media Addict. Integrated Marketing Strategist & Event Planner"—who sprinkled sexual innuendo throughout the presentation. (Such as: "Riding a bike." Top shelf, truly.)
That same night, I had to catch an overnight flight to London to attend a party. During my French exit (or Irish goodbye, depending on who you prefer to offend), to whom did I run in while waiting for the elevator but the head of human resources at BBH.
Fortuitous, I thought. Redemption?
Oh, I said, You're someone I'd like very much to meet. I presume BBH is hiring at the moment.
Actually we're not, she said, suddenly studying the vertical buttons of the elevator, but you're welcome to give me your email address.
Here’s what I really learned:
• Like absolutely everything else in New York, advertising is savagely competitive and there is always a bigger fish who can neatly reduce you to guppy-status, luck, talent, or circumstance permitting.
• The Warriors perhaps needed rebranding as the Prowling Hook-Handed Slashers At Large. Greatness is as much about brilliant ideas as it is about the appearance of brilliant ideas. To his credit, the member of our group with whom I repeatedly clashed had the loudest and most eye-catching shirt on the first day. Despite the fact that he hijacked the group, he also put solid time into our deck, purportedly into the wee hours of the night. The sides of his head were indeed shaved.
• Like most office jobs, advertising seems to have given way to neutered decorum and banal, declawed professionalism; the very reasons why creative people usually avoid office jobs to begin with.
Thanks to the constant connectivity of our digital times, I got in touch with Rainbow and discovered that she received an extra boost from her group’s win, leveraging it into an advertising job at Clear Channel.
My party in London was nice icing on a vacation cake otherwise baked with failure, perspiration, and middling despair. On my flight back home from London, I spotted one of the f-bombing female ad pros on the same plane, with a companion. Perhaps, in the interest of professional advancement, an appointment to an edgier barber is in order?
This whole digital business of creating memes, crafting tweets, and virally sharing ideas isn’t all too serious, yet should be handled seriously. It’s certainly not “real” in a tactile sense—but it benefits endlessly from authenticity.
My digital media job in Los Angeles is dependent on a relatively smaller business run by someone who “gets it,” but the it changes, almost daily. Rather than chasing some well-polished mirage of it—an actual dead man’s party—perhaps, next summer, that trip to Europe would be best.
Zach Urbina lives and labors in Los Angeles. Photo from the Bartle Bogle Hegarty offices by Amanda Kelso.