Our beloved Brew.

Our beloved Brew.
R.I.P. Big guy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"It ain't music if the lyrics don't sing."

My friend Donna is in Chicago and called me from her cell phone the other day. "Hey Jim, how bizare is this? I just got a call from a guy who asked for you. His name is John Brown"

Now, while that is a fairly common name, I know only one John Brown. But why would he try to reach me through Donna? Of course -- Donna was once married to Steve, whose sister and I worked together in NY a lifetime ago with (wait for it . . .) John Brown!

Thirty years since I last saw the first (and one of the best) copywriters I've known, and instantly, I recalled his face and the line for which I will always remember him: "It ain't music if the lyrics don't sing."

It was my first job in advertising and as the rawest of assistant account executives, I was being paid $8750 a year. The company parking lot had reserved spaces where ranking individuals had an engraved nameplate neatly hung on the hedge row at their spot. There sat the Porsches, BMWs, and Jags of agency management. I wasn't assigned a spot when I first joined the agency. My aged, rotted-out mustard yellow and rust brown Ford Maverick resembled a discolored cow, and got towed once from the lot because someone thought it was an abandoned car. Nonetheless, John Brown treated me with no less respect (and at times, more) than he exhibited toward the agency president.

John taught me how valuable words are. His ability to craft a phrase and his respect for the English language was a profound lesson I took from my three years at that firm. I couldn't wait to call him back and dialed the number as quickly as I hung up with Donna.

"John Brown," echoed in my receiver and I smiled thinking to myself, his voice hasn't changed a bit in all these years.

"John Brown, huh?" was all I could think to say before he interrupted me.

"Fuck you, you fucking asshole." Yep. he left no doubt, this was the same John Brown.

"Just answer me one question, and don't lie -- How's your sex life?" As the host for our regularly scheduled porn film luncheons in the agency conference room, and as the keeper of the extensive library from which the videos were shown, I guess I could anticipate a comment like this from John. Was it more than coincidence that John called me within hours of the announcement of Marilyn Chambers passing? Her work made up a large portion of his collection.

Forty minutes later, we'd geven each other a snapshot of our life, and career, the comings and goings of many of our mutual contacts, the girls from the office we both pursued (unsuccessfully), and the state of the world.

As a junior person at the agency, my reputation was that of greenhorn. The agency president once called me into his office to tell me I was being promoted at a management position at the request of the client, but against his better judgement. he summed up my skills as that of "street fighter in the company of ballroom dancers." With a fair measure of satisfaction, I've used that expression to describe myself many times over the years.

"I think you have been elevated to your level of incompetence. I expect I'll have the privilege of proving my point, and calling you back into the office within the next year and firing your ass." Without a hint of insincerity in his voice, that was as close to congratulating me as the boss would come. I couldn't blame him. He was forced to promote me and remove one of his best friends, who by the way, was a very accomplished dancer both literally and figuratively.

He summed up my rapid rise at the agency this way: "See, you wouldn't be promoted this fast if the client didn't think you were the best account executive they'd ever seen. What neither you or they appreciate is that now you will be charged with getting others to perform better than you did."

I'll never forget what he said next. "You'll be charged with taking the client and the account somewhere they don't even know they need to go, and can't see from where they are at any moment in time." That message of the universal truth of management's (and an adviser's) role stuck with me.

A couple of years later, when I moved to Chicago to manage McDonald's national PR business, and I'll admit, in all the positions I've held since, those words of wisdom traveled with me.

"You were young back then, but I liked you and just wanted to see how your life turned out," was how John summed up his reason for reaching out to me. "You proved that you didn't have to be the smartest, the best educated, or the most experienced to succeed. You merely had to be willing to work harder than the rest." John seemed almost as pleased with my life as I've been.

After agreeing to stay in touch, we hung up.

Throughout the rest of the day I couldn't help but marvel at the trail each of leaves in life and how connected I remain to the people and the lessons learned in those early days of my career. I've seldom taken a job because of the company, the position, or the salary. Even as a young boy, I sought out people for whom I just knew could teach me things, and then I found a way to work for them. Being exposed to people like John Brown, who I consider a modern day poet, has been the real secret to any success I enjoy.