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After Work: Tough Boss

Dona Gibbs introduces us to the rough, gruff world of advertising - and a very tough boss who fired people over lunch.

Everybody has had one. The Tough Boss.

Working as an advertising copywriter I’ve had several. Goes with the profession, I suppose. I’m the first to admit creative people are tough to manage. Who knows when the Advertising Muse will come out of hiding and bounce down to inspire the creative team - the writer and the art director - with the Big Idea? Or any idea.

The Muse sleeps late so why shouldn’t her devoted acolytes - the writers and art directors - do the same? The Muse needs strong slugs of coffee. The Muse requires lunch, outside the office. The Muse sometimes even demands a little roughhousing in the hallway.

The Tough Boss understood all this. He had come up though the ranks himself. He sometimes threw beer bashes after work in his office. They were pretty glum affairs because he was Tough Boss but he tried to inject a note of frivolity, - a verbal poke at our clients here, a nudge at the account executives there - to lighten the leaden atmosphere. No one took the bait. We were too scared.

He seemed to abhor any show of emotion in himself. He had perfected the deadpan.

Once an impetuous art director took Tough Boss’s picture and posted three identical photos on the bulletin board. The first caption read Happy. The second was Sad. The third, Angry.

Everyone agreed. The man was next to impossible to read.

Presenting work is always nervous-making. But presenting to Tough Boss was enough to induce hyperventilation and an anxiety attack. People sometimes even shared little caches of pharmaceuticals before such an event.

Tough Boss hunkered way in the back of his long narrow office behind his desk. When the creative team entered, clutching layouts and dropping storyboards, he would very slowly unfold his very tall frame, walk over and then fold himself back up again on a mauve sofa, which he had inherited from his rather twee predecessor.

The creative team would show the work, layout by layout, searching his impassive face for a sign. A slight smile. A raised eyebrow. Anything.

“Alllllllright,” he’d drawl. in Tough Boss speak that was a no-go.

The creative team would giggle, yes grown men and women were reduced to nervous giggles, and stammer, “Moving right along,” and present the next piece of work.

“O.K.” was” O.K, show to the account group” a.k.a. The Suits and “A Home run” was a “Yes “and he’d even defend the work to the client. A big win.

After a while we understood.

Tough Boss had taken on his job at a difficult time. The stock market had dropped to historic lows. Advertising budgets were slashed. Agencies were scrambling to woo clients. Even clients with limited budgets were looking to cut deals.

I kept an old manual typewriter in my office as a sentimental oddity. One day the art director I worked with rolled in a sheet of paper and typed, “It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.”

Tough Boss’s job got tougher. He had to prune the creative department. Top management demanded it.

During this tense time he invited one of our number out to lunch. The guy was thrilled. One on one with Tough Boss. And at a fancy restaurant.

After the baby artichoke and shaved Parmesan salad, the squid ink blacked linguine, a fine dry white wine and a little industry gossip came espresso and a question from Tough Boss.

“So Dave, how do you think it’s going?”

“Great. We’re about ready to show you where we are with the insurance campaign.”

Dave told us later that Tough Boss never changed expression.

Tough Boss then leaned forward, Dave said, and intoned in that scary way he had, “Great? With all due respect, I beg to differ.”

And with that Tough Boss fired Dave.

There were more firings to come. All over lunch.

I worked for Tough Boss for five years. And although I thought I knew him pretty well, we never had a friendly give and take relationship.

When I became a Tough Boss (actually a push-over, hand-wringing, pizza-buying Mom boss) myself, he told me, “Never become friends with the people you supervise because one day you will have to fire them.” No “might have to fire, them” but “will have to fire them.”

The advice was chilling. And I never could get that deadpan look right.

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