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“Secret Sex, A Book Alive Online,” written and lived by John Scott G.
Chapter 32 – “Career of Fear”
For a few years, I worked as a creative director or copywriter in ad agencies specializing in recruitment advertising, a truly funny period of my professional life, and by funny I mean disturbing and borderline illegal.
Up to that point in my career, I had been doing the kind of thing you normally think about when you hear the term “advertising.” I created ads for computer manufacturers, healthcare organizations, clothing distributors, broadcasting firms, and retail organizations like fast food franchises and auto dealerships. All the normal crap you see all the time.
Many of the ads, commercials, and billboards I worked on were good; others were, um, well, let’s just say they lacked greatness. But at least they were the result of some sort of logic. Since logic rarely makes an appearance in the world of what is called Human Resources (HR), it was a bit of a shift to try creating communications for these people. Did I say “bit of a shift?” Complete culture shock was more like it.
Chilling Words of Welcome
As soon as I came on board the first HR agency, a vice president at the firm took me aside and told me “There’s something you need to understand about HR clients. It’s an extension of an old saying and it goes like this: ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach phys-ed. And those who can’t even do that go into human resources.’ Get it?”
It was delivered without a trace of irony. I didn’t know whether to laugh or look serious. I tried to do both at once, which apparently was acceptable because the man nodded and headed back to his office.
After mulling that over for a few minutes, I called a friend of mine who was head of HR at a nationally-known clothing distributor and told her what I had just heard.
When she got through laughing, she said, “That can be so true!” She proceeded to tell me how she had joined her present organization as a part-time office assistant, quickly became full-time, then kept replacing the people above her as they left the firm. It had taken her less than 18 months to go from part-time freelancer to the head of the HR department, apparently because she possessed common sense and a good work ethic.
Over the next couple of years, we would laugh about what we called the “those who can’t even do that” speech. Or the TWCEDT speech, pronounced “twicket.”
People usually only end up in recruitment advertising because they aren’t good enough for real advertising, so most of the writers and art directors were second-rate. And for all I know, this applied to me as well, although I joined because I wanted to switch to a nine-to-five Monday-thru-Friday job instead of the normal ad industry routine of nine-to-whenever, every day. (The joke at real agencies frequently was: If you don’t come in Saturday, don’t bother showing up Sunday.)
The ideas for recruitment ad campaigns were often fairly good although the designs almost always sucked. But the 1947-style artwork wasn’t the big problem; the big problem was that there was no market for good ideas. True to the TWCEDT speech, corporate HR departments can be such a hotbed of mediocrity that it was often practically impossible to do effective advertising communication for their firms.
Sure, there are sharp, savvy and superb HR professionals working for corporations and ad agencies but I rarely encountered any of them, and I guarantee you that each one wishes there were fewer HR colleagues for whom TWCEDT is applicable.
The EEOE Alphabet Soup
There are areas of HR advertising that can drive sane folks crazy. Take the EEOE statement, for example. EEOE stands for Equal Employment Opportunity Employer. A fine principle, but equal opportunity statements seem awkward at best and unnecessary at worst. I’m not against equality; I’m just saying you don’t need to announce that you’re for it in every piece of communication.
After all, equal opportunity is the law, so why keep stating it in your ads? A company is either open to diversity or not. A company either supports equality or it doesn’t. Quoting an EEOE statement doesn’t change anything. Imagine a delivery van with a bumper sticker that says “We obey traffic laws.” If it’s true, great. It it’s not true, the bumper sticker doesn’t make it so.
The EEOE statements are especially silly in radio commercials. In an ad, billboard, or TV commercial, you can run the statement in tiny type. But in radio, the words take up valuable seconds. In a 30-second spot, saying “Blovaxionic Industries is an equal employment opportunity employer” takes up ten percent of the time available for the entire message.
Time for Silly Details
Speaking of time, the amount wasted in HR can be appalling. I once witnessed the exchange of e-mail after e-mail after e-mail between the ad agency and the HR department of a client as they debated two different diversity statements, both of which had been “approved by legal.”
One statement was “We are a diverse team” and the other was “(Name of Company) is a diverse team.” It took a full week until everyone involved received a four-page printed document explaining that “We are a diverse team” had been selected and approved for use. Oh yeah, that was time well spent. And by a diverse cadre of clowns, I am sure.
Writing the Book on Diversity
Carrying the EEOE line to absurd heights, a large software company kept adding to their statement of diversity until one ad actually had more words in the diversity “sign-off line” than in the body copy of the ad itself. Working out their frustration, the agency copy and art departments created a billboard with the company name in one corner and the following words filling the rest of the board:
“(Company) encourages people of diverse backgrounds to submit applications and does not practice discrimination of any kind on any basis, including race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, or disability and we welcome your resume even if you are the result of the mating of mutants in a country not recognized by the U.S., have not yet attained the age of majority even in Kentucky, have an I.Q. lower than a dung beetle, and practice worship only during intercourse using leeches and fried sunflower seeds every third Thursday at midnight by the light of tiki torches.”
For some unexplained reason, the suits at the HR agency did not get the joke.
Stating the Obvious to the Oblivious
I heard a consultant to a corporate HR department take five minutes of a conference call to explain how online recruitment efforts would be improved “if you can use a URL that leads candidates to a full job description or the application page.” Well. Yes. A URL that actually leads the user where they need to go. Brilliant. Makes you want to go into the consulting racket if it’s that easy.
Yet the fact remained that a large number of recruitment ads, e-mails and banners contained URLs that didn’t work very well. They took you to a page where you were forced to search for something relevant, like a heading reading Career, Employment, Jobs, Opportunities, or Join Us. But even then you may not reach your destination without going through some sort of Menu From Hell, complete with multiple pull-down choices and fill-in-your-zip-code registration devices.
Not the Brightest Bulbs
The HR industry does not always attract the smartest people. For example, I wrote an article on the diversity controversy in the ad biz and was contacted by the editor of an online publication specializing in HR issues. He asked if I would write something for their site and I agreed. Seven days later I e-mailed him a new article I had just written.
His e-mailed response was “What is this about? Who are you? What is the G?”
I sighed and sent him copies of our original e-mails. I also included the suggestion that he use Google to check on such terms as “John Scott G” or “G-Man Marketing.” I also included a few URLs of places that have run my columns, including eNewsChannels, Advertising Industry Newswire, Music Industry Newswire, and so on. An hour later, he turned down the article.
So I offered the article to TalentZoo and they ran it without changing a word.
Examples of idiocy and illegality happen over and over in the ad biz. Consider what I encountered when I was asked to help find a new member of the marketing team:
“He’s perfect for the spot you have open,” I told the VP at an ad agency. “He’s got experience in the field and he really wants the job.”
“Great,” was the reply. “How old is he?”
“Legally, we can’t ask that.”
“Oh sure you can,” he told me. “Just ask matter-of-factly.”
“He doesn’t have to answer,” I said.
“True, and we don’t have to hire him.”
Ageism is a problem that affects a great many people. Fear of aging leads to comics getting cheap laughs with moronic jokes about anyone who they deem beyond middle-age. But prejudices strike us in many ways. For example . . .
“The typical manager here,” a client explained to me, “has a broad range of acceptance of minorities. You’ll find we want our accountants Jewish, our baseball players Hispanic, our basketball and football players Black, our gardeners Japanese, our dry cleaners Chinese, and our wives’ hairdressers gay.”
So, is that reprehensible stereotyping or a nightclub comic’s zinger? Or both, depending on the timing and the style of delivery? Whatever your answer, the fact is that this type of thinking is right under the politically correct surface in American business.
Also in my first week at a recruitment ad agency was another shocker. A female employee claimed that a male department head promised her an easy time at the agency in return for sexual favors. That was a bombshell that brought work to a standstill. Lots of gossip. Lots of chatter in the hallways. Lots of earnest meetings. And then suddenly. . .
The woman was gone. Word was that the firm fired her. Wait, did I say fired? I mean “let go.” Which means fired. How could that happen? They claimed things like “she didn’t fit in” and “her work wasn’t up to par” and “she’s not a team player.” Gotta love those lines.
Through a fluke, I bumped into her a few weeks later in front of a cafe. I couldn’t help asking how things were going. She smiled and said that her lawyers were very confident that her settlement would be “quite satisfactory.” I told her I hoped so.
And what happened to the guy? He came into my office a week or so after the woman had been fired. He closed the door and said he wanted to talk to me.
“Um hmm,” I said.
He told me he sensed that his co-workers were avoiding him.
“Um hmm,” I said.
“Especially the women,” he said.
“Um hmm,” I said.
“I just want things to return to normal,” he said.
“Normal for who?” I asked.
Ignoring that, he continued, “I know I made a mistake but it will never happen again. I mean, I don’t think my career should be ruined at the agency because of one mistake,” he whined.
“What about the woman’s career?”
He didn’t seem to have an answer for that question. He then began telling me everything all over again but with different words, so I interrupted him.
“Why are you telling me all this? If you want to talk to anyone here, then go talk to them. And you might try working an apology into the conversation. That could help, if anyone is willing to hear it. Oh, and when you go to talk to any of the women, leave the office door open.”
John G, Meet Josef K
I was in and out of a whole bunch of agencies (real and recruitment) and corporate departments (real marketing and HR) and continually found ineptitude, prejudice, and balderdash. It is so very tempting to print the names of the firms and individuals involved with all this mismanagement, mischief, and malfeasance. But am I the kind of person who would do that? Of course not. Why, there is No Way that I would hint about the identities of these buffoons, even with nicknames and pseudonyms. Nope. Never.
Oh, okay. . .
There was the creative department head known as The Zero, who pretended to be hip but was a corporation man so unremittingly mediocre that everyone wanted to get him a whittling kit because they felt it would take him a year to figure it out and then he’d cut himself and bleed to death.
Or The Zero’s little toady, Charlie Brown-Nose, whose sycophancy was so palpable you could smell it.
Or the agency everyone called Hades.
Or the guy all my freelancer friends call Harry False, whose work at company after company consistently screwed both the public and those of us who were sometimes suckered into doing projects for him.
Or Mr. Ego, the owner of an agency who was paying one of his account executives 40% more than any of his other employees because he was having an affair with her. The really funny part was that this guy’s wife was the office manager in his agency and therefore interacted with the other woman every day. . .
“Good morning, Miranda.”
“Good morning, Sybil. Have a good weekend?”
“Uh, yes, very exciting, actually. My, um, boyfriend is very, ah, eager, shall we say. How was your weekend?”
“Oh, just so-so. Brad was out of town, so I didn’t have as much excitement as you did, I’m afraid.”
But look, if I mentioned all the twits, idiots, crooks, twerps, liars, cheats, dweebs, anal-retentive jerkoffs, and Jebus-freaks I’ve had to deal with in advertising, publicity, and many other sectors of business, this chapter might never end. Besides, revealing their names wouldn’t bother many of these people. First, they have no conscience or morality. Second, they consider any public listing of their malevolence as just another cost of doing business.
The sad fact is that by entering the workforce, many of us find ourselves inside a Franz Kafka novel.
“You can’t defend yourself against this court, all you can do is confess. Confess the first chance you get. That’s the only chance you have to escape, the only one. However, even that is impossible without help from others, but you needn’t worry about that, I’ll help you myself.” (from Kafka’s The Trial.)
Like Josef K, the lead character in The Trial, I felt trapped for all the years of my career and did not expect to escape. Except on weekends or when writing something like this book.
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“Secret Sex, A Book Alive Online,” written and lived by John Scott G, is Copr. © 2011-2012 by JSG, all rights reserved under U.S. and international copyright conventions. Commercial use in any form is forbidden without express written permission of the author. Originally published on eNewsChannels.com with permission. Credits: Book cover design: Phil Hatten.