The end of the asshole boss era is finally here.
“But he’s a good earner” Tony Soprano would say in the HBO series The Sopranos to justify not whacking one of his capos. The New Jersey Mafia might be an extreme example of a toxic workplace culture, but the same elements are at play. This “good earner” justification was used for infractions such as beating a stripper to death. The same justification has been used for decades to justify the boorish and insufferable behavior of asshole bosses.
The bad behavior of startup unicorn Uber, led by now ousted CEO Travis Kalanick went on for years with consumers ping-ponging back and forth between deleting the app and switching to Lyft before justifying its reinstallation “but it’s such a better service.” However, with Kalanick’s recent resignation, we may finally be seeing the Age of the Asshole coming to an end. He’s a good earner, yes. But enough is enough.
When a few female friends have recently posted articles about the poor behavior of men in everything from the workplace to dating, I’m know that while there’s still endless progress that can be made, we’re at least heading in the right direction. It’s hard to remember how things were 20 or 30 years ago, but in general, society has overall gotten more tolerant of all genders, races, and orientations.
My own experience with workplace assholes spans over twenty years of coke-addled narcissistic ADHD man-children who were 40 going on 16. As an introverted workaholic with endless patience, I was a magnet for these types of people.
In my first advertising agency job in New York City, I started in the production studio at BBDO. Officially Batton Barton Durstin and Osborne, the 100-year-old stalwart and, at the time, Agency of the Year for an unprecidented two years in a row was known internally to stand for “Bring it Back and Do it Over.” The high standards of perfection, encapsulated in the agency’s motto “The work. The work. The work. The work.” was also the justification of terrible behavior on behalf of the executives. If you worked at BBDO in the 90’s, you worked with some of the most talented people in the world, who were also the most broken, narcissisted assholes you could ever meet.
Skipping college, I had bounced around graphics production jobs on Long Island, eventually building my reputation via some freelance gigs in Manhattan that encouraged a recruiter to take a chance and place me in a subsidiary of BBDO they had created to compete with their own production department. Embedded within the creative department of the agency, this divide-and-conquer strategy of the top execs was meant to get the two redundant departments to try to outwork each other. Our group, called “RC” was allowed a distinct advantage. We could expense meals and drinks with our BBDO brethren because technically they were “clients” while the competing department at BBDO could do no such thing. The friction between the two groups was almost on the level of gang warfare. The creative department was divided into their loyalties: us or them. New hires were pounced on. Not only did I have to know Quark, Illustrator and Photoshop, but “pop in” and schmooze a new art director and tell him about our superior resources and model. There were a whole faction of creatives who just happened to saunter into our room during lunch time for small changes on their work because they knew we’d be ordering food soon.
Between being forced out of my introverted shell to sell sell sell, being the only production person to know all three of the major graphics programs and switch seamlessly between them (working with anyone else in the department meant having to book a person who only knew each program separately and then moving that work from person to person) and the fact that BBDO creatives made their living on TV, not print meant that I was suddenly art directing the print campaigns of over 20 different major brands on behalf of junior art directors who wanted to only work on their funny TV commercials. This meant I was working with nearly everyone in BBDO’s creative department, which was filled with assholes.
I’ll never forget my first day in the agency when I arrived a few weeks before my 21st birthday. Having cut my teeth on Long Island sweatshops, I was suddenly foisted into what I thought would be an even faster-paced Manhattan culture, only to find I was somehow making triple the money and doing half the work. The first thing I noticed were the women.
Immaculately dressed, beautiful in the model-quality standard that the very advertisements we produced held our society to. My first thought was “where do I start?” only to quickly realize that you had to be an associate creative director or higher to capture their attention. After getting to know some of my new coworkers, I realized that they were not, as I initially suspected, hired for their looks. Rather, they were all incredibly talented and successful. BBDO, as one of the best and most profitable agencies in the world, with all things being equal could afford to hire the best, brighest and most beautiful.
Conversely, the late-90s culture at BBDO at the top was one of male domination. There were two factions of 40s and 50s male creative executives: the hot shot creative leader who was crafting culture in his image. And the remaining holdovers of the Mad Men era from the late 60s and early 70s who had somehow clung to their lucrative jobs despite having to pull out yellowed old ads from the 80s, saying “Remember this campaign?” to justify their inflated paychecks and still would light cigars in their office long after it had been made illegal.
When you’re at the convergence of beautiful young women and powerful old men who hold the keys to any young ad creative’s dream job, you get a lot of bad behavior. All large agencies are divided into groups — clusters of accounts that are run by a Group Creative Director team of one writer and one art director. Each group consisted of 5–10 major accounts. The group that handled Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Mountain Dew had a creative director who kept a collection of pinups in his office, and likely had posters of Cindy Crawford in his bedroom growing up. Now he had the power to put her in a Pepsi commercial. Rumors said he was famous for sleeping with the female members of his team, and firing them if he stopped. The agency would allegedly settle the impending lawsuit out of court. He wouldn’t be fired. He’s a good earner.
The GCD on Diet Pepsi had a glass eye. Rumor has it, he would go to bars and walk up to an attractive female and hit on her right in front of her boyfriend, looking to get into a fistfight with anyone who said anything back. The story goes that he lost the eye when one intended victim smashed a bottle and stabbed him in the eye. We’d joke that if he wasn’t in advertising, he’d probably be in jail right now. Good earner though.
The GCD on Pizza Hut, Visa and HBO once had a meeting in his office and a female account executive joined late. There were no chairs left, so she went to go get one. “Where are you going?” he barked? “To get a chair.” “Baby, as long as I have a face, you’ll always have a seat.” Another lawsuit. Many others were settled out of court. Good earner.
There were power assholes too. The psychology of the toxic work culture was such that they tended to hire people who likely had some sort of parental history of never being good enough. The good workaholics of the creative department were there to please their new father-figures, the group creative directors, who would abuse these poor people with these “try again, this time really work on it” tactics. Just like in families with histories of abuse, it gets passed down through the generations. Except in this case, it was through the corporate structure of the agency. If a Group Creative Director was an asshole to his Associate Creative Director, he would lash out at his juniors, or me.
The ebbs and flows of agency work meant a lot of down time coupled with insane hours. Weeks would pass with us playing video games or browsing the beginnings of the Internet. Then suddenly at 6pm on Friday, we had to save the Delta account, which was under review. “You’re not going anywhere” the tortured ACD would tell me, as I was about to leave for the weekend with my friends. This was not an agency you got to say “But I have plans” in. They would frequently fire people for coming back a day late from vacation, or not making it into the city from the suburbs during a blizzard. (It once took 6 hours to get to work during a blizzard — I arrived at noon after leaving my house on Long Island at 6am and at 1pm they said I could take off.) I once worked with an ACD on storyboard revisions late into the night as four box seats to the Yankees World Series game playing that night wilted away on his desk.
With accounts like Pepsi, GE, Visa, AT&T, M&Ms, Snickers and Pizza Hut, BBDO produced more than 30% of the Super Bowl commercials in the 90s. The intense pressure to produce the best work in the world meant an insane six month creative development process that started around July and ended when the final tape was sent to the network, often hours before kickoff. This meant working 60 days in a row without a break during certain months of the year, and being called into a room and told how pedestrian our ideas were and how we were all shit and there was a line around the block of more talented people waiting to take our jobs for half of what we were making. The advertising version of Hell’s Kitchen meant somehow being told you’re absolute garbage and then trying to fire yourself up enough to go “Oh yeah? You don’t like that idea? How about this then?”
The sticktotitiveness of my colleagues is something that escapes the latest generation, high off their 11th place trophies in soccer and their art teacher telling them they have “talent.” Most agencies might assign 1–2 art director/copywriter teams per account. BBDO had, at times, 20 teams just working on Pepsi. With only a handful of commercials being produced each year, and careers being made or broken on producing work, the competition was bloody. And you competed not only against your department, but your boss as well.
The most frequent form of abuse besides sexual harassmant in an agency was blatant idea stealing. Whether it was your ACD taking credit for your idea because he “fixed it” or your Group Creative Director claiming “I just came up with that idea myself.” In the end, the boss either sold his idea, or stole yours and made it his own. People would burn out and leave. The GCD’s — again, good earners. One of my best practical jokes was when I found a disk that kept malfuctioning in drives and getting stuck. It would take forever to get it out and it didn’t have a label on it so I kept accidentally putting it in my computer. Finally I took a marker and wrote “cool Pepsi ideas” and left it by a workstation.
I had eventually made my way out of production and into the regular BBDO creative department as a junior art director, working for two ACD’s known as “The David’s.” Art director David looked like Thor. With long blonde hair, he’d obsessively work out. He wasn’t the same level of asshole as his other executive brethren — shy and reclusive like me, we became friends and he helped me put together enough of a creative portfolio to make the leap out of production, which meant technically I had just become the boss of my asshole boss.
David adhered to “the work” first mentality and used it to justify all sorts of ugly behavior, mostly yelling and screaming at anyone who didn’t meet his standards. This was totally acceptable behavior at BBDO, where the lowest creative person was considered to be above the highest executive at any other department. Once I was promoted, I went from having a turbocharged computer to the worst — company policy being that the top execs got the fastest machines, which sat on their desks unplugged and gathering dust, while the juniors, who did all the actual work, were getting the “hand-me-downs” from years past. My first asshole moment was throwing a shitfit over this, as it was physically impossible for me to finish my intense Photoshop work on Pepsi print ads. All it took was telling not the Group Creative director, but his staff assistant, who quickly lied to the IT department and said that I’d better have the best computer available in an hour or else.
David was unhappy at BBDO and wanted to run a group of his own somewhere. I also wanted to leave and after two-and-a-half Super Bowl Cycles, I needed a break from the intensity of agency life. He got a new job at a direct competitor. I quit BBDO to freelance and they brought me back to finish a project and paid me 5 times my old salary to finish it.
When that was over, I decided to see if I could find work outside of advertising. I had been talking to an animator who was the husband of an art director I worked with and he brought me in for some interviews, but they always went with freelancers because they didn’t have to wait out my two weeks notice. Once free, I joined his team as a character designer at the Emmy Award winning second season of Blue’s Clues.
Going from BBDO to Nickelodeon was like leaving the Navy SEALS and joining a hippie commune. Everyone got along with each other. The work couldn’t be more slow-paced. My job was to take photos of clay parts that had been sculpted, silhouette them and arrange them into the Salt and Pepper shakers, cash register, etc. into the weird Blue’s Clues world of forced-perspective scenes in Photoshop. From there, the whole show was animated in After Effects. The biggest complaint was that the host, Steve would miss his marks during the green screen filming, or that some of our favorite menu items at MTV’s subsidized corporate cafeteria, The Lodge were missing. We had beer at every meeting. It was an incredible experience, except for the fact that I was bored out of my mind.
So when David called me on a weekend and said “Are you done with your stupid advertising break yet?” I was out of there in a heartbeat. “Come in Sunday at 9am. I need you to help me with these GMC storyboards.” Sunday. Just like the old days. We did some work that day, we agreed on a rate similar to my paltry full time one at BBDO and he said he’d pitch me to the Chief Creative Officers. I quit Nickelodeon. On my last day they asked me to join a production meeting that involved going over the work for the next week. “This is my last day” I said. “But there’s beer at the meeting!” one of them said cheerfully. I had one last Corona at Nickelodeon, not knowing then that I was heading back to advertising for 20 uninterrupted years.
David had taken over as a Group Creative director at Ammirati Puris Lintas. Formerly Ammirati & Puris, one of the hot creative shops of the early 90s, it had been bought by the holding company Interpublic and merged with a behemoth called LINTAS. While boutique Ammirati had been famous for such seminal taglines as “Moving at the Speed of Business” for UPS or “The Ultimate Driving Machine” for BMW, LINTAS stood for “Lever Integrated Advertising Services.” Once the in-house agency for Lever’s packaged goods brands, it had been spun off into its own for-profit entity, known for pumping out pure dreck and garbage such as The Snuggle Bear or Ragu. The idea was to have Ammirati & Puris come in and “show them how it’s done.” Instead, it was like giving an improv troupe a division at the Department of Motor vehicles. Assimilate or die. The bureaucracy and tedium of the place broke most of the creatives, who left during the transition period. Hiring David to head up the flagship group containing mostly the old Ammirati acccounts was the key to turning it around.
But the most striking thing was that, with the exception of a few holdovers from Ammirati and Puris, no one seemed to care about the work, let alone “The work. The work. The work. The work.” When I went to the production department with a request, I was used to BBDO staffers to jump to attention like I had the Presidential suite at the Plaza. Instead, the team that was doing nothing but playing games on their computer refused to do anything without a job number, which due to an account exec being out of town, hadn’t been issued yet. Fearing David’s wrath, I thought about what to do. I went back to his office and told him. “That’s insane!” he said. “What is this, a goddamned Chinese laundry?” He marched down there and started screaming at the production guys.
After a few weeks of these encounters, the two Chief Creative Officers had a talk with him. Apparently, you had to be nice to people in this agency. Peole had feelings. And they mattered. Who knew. He was told “Don’t try so hard. Just do 80%.”
As opposed to having a meeting with the CCO’s at BBDO, which would be slightly less likely for a junior than getting an audience with the Pope, you could stroll into their office and say hi anytime.
While I certainly didn’t want to “just do 80%,” I saw the value in having a positive work culture. I had a great relationship with Tom and Mark, who were universally loved across the agency. I decided that, despite the obvious flaws, I would be loyal and stick with the agency for a long time. In an agency mostly filled with banal accounts like Tylenol, Compaq, Snuggle and laundry detergent, I was in the “cool group” consisting of UPS, RCA, Labatt’s Blue, Dos Equis and GMC. I had finally made it.
“Failing upwards” is another method by which asshole bosses gain their power. A close cousin of the Peter Principal, one of the Group Creative Directors at Ammirati had started his career designing brochures in the Navy. A swaggering Russel Crowe character, he evoked the confidence necessary to “fake it until you make it” as most people have done in an ad career. He started a small agency in Portland after leaving the military and supposedly freelanced at Wieden & Kennedy, perhaps the best agency in the world known mostly for its work on Nike. When that didn’t work out, he headed for NYC with the best agency in the world on his resume, got hired and then fired from an ACD gig before landing at our agency as a Group Creative Director. Failing upward works because the previous agency doesn’t want to say anything bad, so no one ever finds out what a nightmare the person is until it’s too late.
Martin Puris was in the process of retiring and rearranging the agency to the liking of the holding company. More than likely, he was positioning it to merge with another big agency as they did shortly after with Lowe and eventually Deutsch, therefore needing to cut some big salaries. Our beloved CCO’s were let go. And Roger, the swaggering GCD and his partner Rob were selected to take their place. Without the dozens of awards that David had, it was a peculiar choice until you did the math and realized they wanted to shed the salaries. Account execs suddenly started telling me I should just do as I say and not pay attention to what David wants — almost blasphemy if I was stil at BBDO. I stubbornly defended him.
David called me into his office. “I just got fired.” He had been given the smallest corner office available in a recent office shift orchestrated by the now-deposed CCO’s as punishment for his bad behavior. In retaliation, David had refused to unpack his boxes and quickly left. Now the new GCD’s, who didn’t have any real experience had just fired one of the most talented people in the business and replaced him with a buddy from Portland who had founded an obscure design magazine and when looking at my portfolio, ignored the concepts, instead using a ruler to make sure everything lined up properly. When I asked his partner, Adam what was next for me, he said “Well, if you get fired, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for you.” Being young and naive, I still didn’t see it coming.
Soon after, they moved me to one of the dreck-ridden groups to work on pain medication ads to seemingly to drive me crazy.
We found out we were pitching the one-billion-dollar Kellogg’s account. Roger leveraged my production background to be his right hand during the whole process. We endured a 48-hour long session ahead of the client meeting in Battlecreek, Michigan where Roger, with his military background would make impossible requests that you were simply not allowed to refute. And by impossible, I mean printing blow-ups on a machine that takes 4 hours per copy when we needed more blow ups than all the printers in Manhattan could possibly handle in one night to make the rapid shift to the new “Breakfast is Back” tagline that was written in the wee hours. Or authorizing $50,000 to silkscreen a dozen t-shirts with the new logo on it. “That seems high” I’d advise. “Do it!” he’d bark.
In the middle of the night, he decided to have a beer party in his office to give us a break. This triggered a colleague with a substance abuse problem to find a bottle of our client Bacardi’s rum, drink it all and call it a night. Now I’m down another worker, and waiting for Roger to finish his beer, get the 40 people out of his office so I can wait for his next instructions. When he finally was ready, he started frantically gathering the bottles, yelling “Marc!!! Marc!! I want to start an agency-wide recycling program!!!” “NOW?!?!?” was my reply.
After our team, led by a former probation officer who would yell things like “all points bulletin!” we lost the pitch. The agency we went up against, a nice bunch of folks in a mid-sized shop in North Carolina had also come up with “Breakfast is Back.” The difference maker? To Kellogg’s, we were assholes.
The following week I got called into Roger’s office by his executive assistant at 2:15pm. 2:15 seemed so specific a time, I dwelled on what it could possibly mean. Half of me figured I was being fired, the other optistic and naive half printed out my portfolio in case he just wanted to see where I was at. In my portfolio was the UPS poster I had written about how they had shipped the whale from Free Willy from Mexico to Iceland. Below an image of the whale were check boxes that read “[ ] letter [ ] box [ ] 4.5 ton sea mammal.” No one thought much of the ad or would give it any support, so my punk of a partner and I violated company policy of not talking to the press by issuing our own hand-delivered press release to Adweek and Adage where it was prominently and positively featured in a famous ad critic’s column. We also entered it into the ADDY awards where it won at the international level. No one seemed to be curious about how or why it happened, they were just glad it did.
I get to Roger’s office and he’s there with Rob and a crabby looking old lady. The close the door. It was option A. I was being fired. They read off a litany of petty little offenses like that I had hired the wrong illustrator for some storyboards or that I talked back to him during the Kellogg’s pitch or I had a negative attitude. “If you see a wall, you don’t run away! You climb over it, or dig under it, or go around it, or blow it up!” he yelled. After the lashing was over, he said “but hey man, keep doing work like that UPS ad. You’re going to do great somewhere, just not here.”
I had to go to a different office in our skyscraper across from the United Nations with the HR lady to continue being fired. The elevator broke, and we were stuck inside together for an hour.
I called deposed CCO Tom and told him what happened. He had me meet him at a conference room on Monday. There were a whole group of art directors, with him the writer. One of the nicest guys in advertising, and he invited me to help him start his agency along with deposed president Steve by pitching the first internet bank. I bought the first computers on his Amex card and set them up. But Tom wanted everything to be art directed in the Ammirati style, which was clean, white, Futura as the font, vignetted photos. I already had a portfolio filled with that look. It wasn’t going to do anything for my portfolio to stay there.
So I left and got a job at a boutique agency led by another asshole. This job I quit after a few months. He would do a lot of coke, and stop me while I was presenting work to scream at the soup place for screwing up his order and not including a cookie. “TOMORROW I WANT TWO FUCKING COOKIES, DO YOU FUCKING HEAR ME?” before turning to me in a calm voice and saying “Please continue.” One time I accidentally copied a page and didn’t replace the text, showing the same idea twice. What came from that was a half an hour paranoia-filled diatribe about how I was trying to make it seem like I had 10 ideas when I only had 9. When I gave my two weeks notice, he asked for five, and then abused me enough that I barely made it through three.
After 9/11 when there were no ad jobs in the city, I fled for rural Western Massachusetts to a small agency in the Berkshires where Bostonites vacation. They had a bunch of local accounts that they’d win awards for mostly because there was no other competition for at the ad club, and Spalding ads featuring Kobe Bryant, and seemed like a fine bunch of people until the creative director started screaming at me all the time. He had started as a junior illustrator, never working for an agency before or understanding the rough-comps-final approach of creative development. You show a lot of really rough sketches, get some direction and refine them, and then upon approval you produce the final. That’s how ads have been created in agencies forever. But this guy had no idea, and didn’t want to hear about it. “This isn’t even designed!” he’d yell when I showed him some rough ideas. After three months, he tells me I’m on probation because I’m not “getting it.” He only wants to see “final ads.”
Another four months goes by and I feel like I’m finally getting this bananas way of concepting down. The clients seem to like my work. I get called into the CEO’s office with him. “This isn’t working out.” They say. “It’s not you, it’s us.” I’m fired again, by another asshole. Good earner though.
I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere in Massachusetts with no friends, in a forgotten city called Pittsfield which was decimated by two plant closings and is a depressed wasteland just north of Lenox, a spa community where the agency was whose school football team was unironically called The Millionaires.
I return to New York in late 2004 after spending over a year saving money in this Massachusetts hellhole freelancing on the Internet to go back. One of my old studio-mates is still at BBDO and gets me a lucrative freelance gig. They’re about to lose Diet Pepsi and need all hands on deck in the studio. It’s been over 7 years since I’ve set foot in the agency. The same tired, beaten down mid-level creatives are there in a daze. They’d see me and say things like “Hey, you’re back? I haven’t seen you in a while.” Like I’d just been gone a month or two. It was the same old “I just produced a spot, my creative director hates me and thinks I’m a hack. But I’m going to get out of here one day, really I will.” A lot had already been fired, or quit but found it hard to gain footing elsewhere. Looking at their LinkedIn profiles, they all owned one-person “agencies” working on tiny accounts no one had heard of.
The two-studio system had been long abandoned. My department had been disolved, my old colleague had been adorbed into the internal studio and oddly, a formerly low-level illustrator had somehow become head of the whole thing through a series of Machiavellian political maneuvers, only to eventually get backstabbed and ousted at a later date. The computer I’m assigned is 10 times faster than the last one I had there and suddenly I’m pumping out Photoshop comps in seconds vs. hours. But they didn’t keep me on because the studio head was convinced that I was still loyal to my old department, even though it no longer existed and nothing I could do would damage them in any way. I tried to explain that I didn’t give a crap about anything other than being paid my day rate, but the old grudge was still there. No more BBDO for me. But in the process I learned that most of the asshole creative directors were gone. HR policies had been tightened. And people were actually nicer to each other. The end of the asshole era at BBDO was waning.
A few years later, Roger popped up in my “people you may know” on Facebook. I noticed his religious views said “what goes around, comes around.” I sent him a note and said “I sure hope so!” He wrote me back and it didn’t seem like he even remembered who I was and complimented me for being a fan of Nikola Telsa. He complained that he had been blackballed from all the agencies and was starting his own thing again.
I noticed he was friends with my friend Amanda, an art director in San Francisco. I asked her about him and she told me about how she couldn’t keep up with his drug-addled behavior and wanting to take everyone to strip clubs for tequila shots. He had become the ECD of her agency and was on a car shoot, doing one of those helicopter tracking shots down a winding road at the side of a mountain when he realized he was late for a new business meeting. So he commandered the helicopter, called the new client to ask if he could come land on their roof, and billed it all to the other client. He was fired soon after.
When I interviewed for my last full time job in Manhattan, my CEO told me that he had also fired him as a freelancer for drug use. I decided he has been punished enough, even though he had insanely put my award winning UPS ad in his portfolio despite having absolutely nothing to do with it. After 18 months at this last agency, I had burned out on office politics and New York life, but the levels of assholedom had gone from a 10 to a 3. They still wore me out, but it was more the collective two decade experience more than anything.
We have a long way to go before workplaces are asshole-free. But the end of the era is upon us. The latest political administration is an example of their last desperate grab for power before a younger, more tolerant and enlightened generation takes over. Now all they have to do is work on that work ethic thing. If only there were a few assholes left to whip them into shape.