Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Death by the numbers.

I loved math when I was a kid and I was very good at it. Without knowing too much about it, I thought I might grow up one day and become a mathematician. 

I could do numbers in my head like nobody else. I still can--almost always arriving at answers well-before media people, account people, planners and certainly other creatives. In fact, my facility with numbers freaks people out some times--to some people it's as weird as a sumo wrestler being a great high-jumper.

About 400,000 years ago, it was April 16, 1990 to be precise, I went to work for Mike Tesch, a recently-deceased Hall-of-Fame art director who was then Executive Creative Director of Harvard Business Review's Ad Agency of the 1980s, Ally & Gargano. (Read Mike's obituary here.)

I started there as a copywriter making just $56,000 a year. But in less than three years I had been promoted to Senior Vice President and Group Creative Director. I had moved up so far and so fast that senior executives--the money people--would talk to me about finances.

The partners who owned the agency had sold it to a small holding company, and to make their leveraged buy-out payments, had to pay the master owner something like $2.7 million a month, roughly $30 million a year.

One thing I've learned through the years is what so many today--especially republicans and supporters of the fraudster ex-president never learned. Just as science doesn't lie, numbers don't either. 

You don't want to owe money to Meyer Lansky.
You don't want to owe money to bankers.
You don't want to owe money to the holding companies.

In the end, they're not much different.

(Of course you can make them lie--just ask Meyer Lansky, the Koch Brothers and the like. Just ask Mark Twain who said, "there are lies, damn lies and statistics." But used properly, honestly math doesn't lie.)

What I saw happening at Ally & Gargano is what I see happening at another once vaunted agency I more recently worked at.

A $20 million account leaves. A $10 million account leaves. A $50 million account leaves.

A $500,000 account comes in. A $1 million account comes in. A $300,000 account comes in.

In other words things ain't looking good.

Mostly because you've got your nut to make.

Ally & Gargano, like this other agency whose name I'm not mentioning, could pick up an account here and there. That's a testament to the residue of creative talent that hasn't been shit-canned.

But you can't make up $100,000,000 of losses with $1,000,000 of gains.

And you can't make that payment of $2.7 million a month.

It's not me being Draconian about this. 

It's math.

I left Ally & Gargano in April, 1995. They closed for good just three months later. 

One night after its death, I had a couple of stiff ones in a smoky bar--I think the Bull & Bear in the Waldorf--with a friend if mine from Ally who had been there for decades.

"George," he said to me, maybe taking a bit too much whiskey in one draw "Ally had always been an up-and-down place. Carl Ally had a temper. Amil was uncompromising. Clients would get pissed off. They'd say, 'sure they're the best agency in the world, but they're just not worth the trouble.' And they'd fire us."

Now it was my turn to take too much whiskey. We each got a refill.

"When a client fired us, like IBM or something else that was large, it sucked. We might have to fire 100 people out of 200. We might have had to sublet a floor."

"That sucks," I answered almost entirely without wisdom.

"No, not really. When shit happened we could cut back--we could fire half the staff. Then we could redouble our efforts, pitch like hell, and come back stronger."

The burly waiter refilled us.

"Today, when you're owned," he passed me a small wooden bowl of salted peanuts the waiter had dropped on our small table. "When you're owned," he said, pointing at the legumes, "the owners got you by the nuts. You have to pay that $2.7 million come hell or hot water."

I had spent five years at Ally helping to run the Bank of New York account. At the time, they were the third biggest retail bank in New York.

My friend looked at me, "You know something about banking. You were running a $30 million account. When you left, they left."

I nodded.

"Some people think bankers and holding companies are kinder than the mob." He pulled at his Johnnie Walker.

I laughed.

He laughed.

"You know what's really funny. Mob, holding companies or white shoe bankers, when they're cutting off your balls, it doesn't much matter who's doing it."

We got up to leave.

I wished I had an expense account to charge it to. But I paid out of my own pocket.

It was the least I could do for the lesson.

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