Behind the Scenes
Barely Inside The Machine
Good Work For “Evil” Corporations
During the first five years of my career I lived in total squalor. I had been arrested twice and faced multiple charges in different states. The quarrelsome women I had surrounded myself with had all vanished to the margins of society, a caste I had inhabited for as long as I could remember. Somewhat of a petty criminal and drifter I decided that pure beauty must become my new mantra. The old bohemian ways and derelict charm gave way to sartorial pursuits and exquisite eastern landscapes.
Jon Leon, The Malady of the Century (2012)
At the beginning of the last decade there was a kind of moral fad in parts of the United States that spread almost immediately to the capital cities of Europe. The age old Anglo-European taboo of handling money was shoved offstage by the sheer force of events in the financial world, clearing the way for a new money culture.
Michael Lewis, The Money Culture (1991)
Nobody at my job lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Most people live in Manhattan or New Jersey. I can’t really imagine what they spend on rent, let alone at bars and in restaurants. Nobody pays what I pay for a two bedroom apartment. I pay almost nothing. Everyone at my job lives paycheck to paycheck. I wonder why. They certainly make more money than I do, as I am one of the most junior people at the company. I make almost nothing. Maybe my lifestyle is shitty. Whatever.
When the payroll taxes came back into effect again in January, I overheard a senior manager complaining that he couldn’t feed his kids, because he’d be making 300 dollars less per pay cycle. He probably makes three times what I make. I wonder how much his mortgage is.
The way corporations stay profitable (2008-2013) is by cutting costs when they see a decline in sales. Costs are usually a code word for payroll, since most companies have few other assets that can be disposed of without dramatically influencing their product. They don’t own anything they can sell. Compensation to employees is seen as a manageable expense, because in corporate culture, it is acceptable to lay off people so that the corporation can continue to exist. This is not the case in all business cultures, but most accept the premise of constant profit before constant workforce.
Normal consumers could benefit from this strategy. There are many expenses that are non-essential. When money gets tight, rather than using credit cards or student loans, people could just buy less shit. This has already happened a great deal in the last several years, possibly causing the recession to deepen. I see it as a game of chicken between companies and consumers cutting costs, each hoping the other will keep spending longer. Of course, corporations don’t need to feed families or rent apartments. They can just live quietly in legal documents and vacant board rooms. The ability of the consumer to downsize like a corporation is a useful and very rational way to ‘remain viable’ in a tough economy. The ruthless way that a company cuts employees can be responded to by cutting expensive name brand products – one ruthless dehumanizing act deserves another. Business goes on. Corporations can be people, broke-ass people.
Super Nice Dudes
I’m sitting at my desk. A few feet away, someone is talking about their dog. Someone is talking about their wedding videographer. And another person is saying that they “hate” working at this company and that we are underpaid. Someone comes up behind me and hits me hard on the ear while I’m wearing headphones. He does this at least once a day. Super nice guy otherwise. Actually, everyone is really really nice. Super nice dudes.
Maybe this was a West Coast thing. Maybe I grew up too close to twee startup culture in Seattle. Live your values. Constant politics. Aggressive environmental agendas. Anti-war rhetoric. The corporation was a battleground for the heart and soul of America. In college, I was concerned that working for large impersonal corporations would lead to changes in my personality. It has, but not in the ways that I expected.
I assumed that people who work for big corporations – advertising agency people and their clients – would either be very sympathetic to my personality (eccentric?) and politics (very radical, at times) or very actively ‘against me.’ So far, my experience is that everyone is really nice and that nobody gives a shit about anyone else’s background or politics. This is one of the things that makes me optimistic about corporations. American corporate ambivalence shines like a beacon of hope in a world torn apart by dramatic conflicts and disagreements. Put another way: a little money chills people out. This is good, as far as I can tell. Angry people have trouble doing anything (I know I did, at certain points in my life).
On the other hand, I have yet to find any significant number of people in corporate advertising who I deeply relate to when it comes to internet art, contemporary literature, or academic Marxism.
Sometimes, I roll in to work at 11 am with an energy drink, a hangover, and a smile on my face. A few minutes later, I start telling people wearing business casual what to do. I’m wearing jeans and a Jimmy Buffet tshirt. They all gnash their teeth and grind their axes and complain about the inevitable. A woman takes me aside and asks, “why aren’t you ever stressed out?”
Am too cool to care? Or am I just bad at caring?
In my previous article for TC on advertising, I discussed the irrelevance of coolness in advertising. I guess my opinions on this haven’t changed too much.
This point will be obvious to anyone who has known more than monoculture: what is cool to one group of people (annoyingly self aware internet writers, readers, and commenters?) might not be cool at all to the ‘cool’ people in big companies. Most cool advertising people I’ve met are more like… sneakers kids: people who go to DJ stuff in Manhattan with an open bar. Frequently Korean or Swedish. Maybe they know something about fonts. Maybe they have worked with a rapper or directed a music video. This seems narrow to me when I think about my life in terms of art and culture, but this is probably accurate when it comes to industry expectations.
‘Cool’ does matter – it gets you into certain spaces and conversations. But in the short term, trying to be cool isn’t useful.
From the point of view of clients, a creative in an ad agency must appear cool. This is essential. It also isn’t much harder than forgetting to shower, wearing a pair of sneakers, and not saying very much at meetings.
The only kind of cool that matters to me now, is the kind where people devote themselves to things they actually care about, for a long periods of time – perhaps through a series of jobs or even careers. That shit is very rare no matter what you do, but Midtown Manhattan seems especially removed from this devotion. Corporations are a desert in terms of people who actually have substantial interests beyond the surface of vocation. If you care about something that a small community of people also care about, and maybe build some kind of artistic or academic reputation around this interest, it will prove invaluable at some point down the road, maybe.
Think about underground music. Think about writers unknown in their own times. Think about art scenes. The websites that start small and become huge. Don’t repeat those objects or moments, just be mindful of the mechanics.
It’s cultural investing, and it’s one of the things that companies do terribly, and individual people do well. Companies don’t have side projects. Money can’t buy street cred, especially if the street in question is worth posting up on. Open up the store.
I should like to see the equivalent of Bernard Tapie in the world of business emerge in the world of concepts. Buying up failing concepts, swallowing them up, dusting them off (firing all the deadbeats who are in the way), putting them back into circulation with a dynamic virginity, sending them shooting up on the Stock Exchange and then abandoning them afterwards like dogs. […] It is perhaps better to save tired concepts by maintaining them in a super-cooled state like unemployed labour, or locking them away in an interactive data-banks kept alive on a respirator.
Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories (1980)
I’ve spent weeks on what was essentially retainer. Maybe you have too? Does it feel pointless? Not to me. Businesses don’t function on human suffering or (alternately) grind to a halt because of inactivity. The market is complicated. In information and culture jobs, the labor is often emotional. The ‘work’ you do can be twisted, understood, forgotten, inflated. Ask a CEO about what they’ve built with their hands lately.
It leaves me sipping coffee and waiting for something to happen. Some people in this position get worried, scared about their job security. I know this is exactly how business functions. I look out the window and think about the millions and millions of dollars at stake, and how mysterious and stressful they seem to people with more to lose than I have. These people would spend almost any amount (in terms cost-of-living dollars), for almost any absurd reason, to keep the business (as they understand it) moving forward, whatever that means. It’s not science. Not even close.
And it has nothing to do with the money it takes for the average person to live comfortably. This is the kind of horrible, magical, abstract wealth that global corporations have.
I’m going to save most of this for my book deal / ‘tell all’ novel. Let’s just say that making sausage involves a lot of hot air. Downtime. Excellence. The myth of merit and competition that we all developed in school (the abstraction of Cold War era anti-communist sentiment, Ayn Rand, Steve Jobs) is basically dying a slow death in America’s corporations. People don’t have time to listen to good ideas. They are too busy counting their last few dollars. Boardrooms echo with calls for simplicity. No idea is too simple. Good ideas aren’t good unless they are so obvious that everyone has already done them to death. Millions of people, all given the same task. It’s the opposite of competition. Much hard work is met with destruction. Much labor is expended for the good of the churning, frothing death machine. If you want to come up with a better way, we’ll all be in debt to you, eternally.
Showing Up, Hardly Working
Here’s what happens when most fresh-out-of-college people start new jobs in today’s zero-idea information economy: they work really hard pushing their agenda, get super stressed out, and hit their heads against a wall of perplexed people who’ve done the same job they just started, but for 15 years. Their new, seasoned co-workers know exactly how much needs to be done, and how much can slide. If they don’t wise up, they get fired, get promoted, or burn out. Usually the last one. They burn out and stick around. The office gets a little sadder. A little more toxic. Nobody at a big company likes being around a fit 23-year-old with high blood pressure and full calendar.
Young people, pregnant with the idealism of an American education, feel like they can infuse corporations with their new ideas. Older people, pregnant with reality, will tell them to please calm the fuck down and do their timesheets. It’s very hard to change a company from a junior associate desk. The best thing to do is show up, listen, and talk only when you have something interesting (better yet, interesting and positive) to say. Still, a lot of young people start pushing harder and harder, and will even change the direction they push, if it means moving the machine. That’s called being co-opted. It’s worse than doing nothing.
Are you better educated than your new coworkers? Probably; because you got a job in this fucked economy. Do you understand the world better than them? PERHAPS! You might be better-read and better-traveled and maybe you have a diverse and sparkling group of artistic friends and lovers. Fantastic, you’re going to have a full life outside of work. Thank your parents again and again.
At work in a mature market, in a large company, only one question matters: do you know shit about how widgets are made? Nope. Your company makes widgets for billion dollar companies. You make noodle paintings and livejournal posts.
Your ideas about widgets will need to wait a few years. Until then, party your face off and be thankful you’re not invited to the really terrible Monday meetings. Widgets aren’t selling. So, who can we let go?
I constantly feel like I have no idea what I’m talking about, when it comes to specifics of client and agency business. Nobody seems to mind.
Who was the smartest banker ever?
Doesn’t matter, does it?
Unless you’re going in for an interview at Goldman Sachs. And you actually want to work at Goldman Sachs. They ask insane interview questions, apparently. And hire people based on dazzling, intelligent answers, apparently.
I got my job by being funny humor. And think most people can relate. There was a portfolio review at my ad school. The recruiter from my current agency liked my work, maybe. The chemistry was more important I think. I was probably hungover. I was probably think that the whole thing was a joke and that I should just make whatever I could out of a desperate 20-something situation.
Later on, he introduced me to everyone at the office as someone with a good sense of humor. Then he mentioned my work.
I still have no idea who the most talented people at my work are. Really, I have no idea. I have suspicions.
Trust The Process
“Trust the process,” is a cliche from the world of advertising. It means that you shouldn’t tell people in other departments how to do their jobs. It also means that people in other departments are probably fucking up. But so are you. Do the work that comes across your desk. Don’t think about other desks. Your boss will put you in another desk if she feels like it.
The process is always elaborate. He it is for me:
Management and New Business find a project. Finance approves. Client and Account management draft project documents. Account and Strategy draft response documents. The client is shown something on paper. A proposal. Everyone signs off. The project is translated into something for the creative department. Client signs off on this. Account and Strategy show brief to Creative. Creative thinks over the brief. Project management holds their hands. They scribble down some ideas. They present to their boss. They make a photoshop file. Their boss has comments. They present to accounts. Account has comments. They present to the developer. They present to the client. They get feedback from the client. They present again. Development gets files. Maybe media signs off on a plan from strategy. Maybe they sell the media buy to a vendor. The vendor gets the files from Development. The banner ads run on some websites. Consumers click on less than one percent of the ads. Everyone at the agency bills their time. Project management approves. Creative management approves. Finance approves. The client pays the agency. The agency pays its staff. This is the simple, short version. I barely understand why everything that has to happen. Most of it seems like an ancient religious tradition.
And all for just one banner ad. Imagine a TV spot.
Where The Money I Make Comes From
The highest margin, most profitable businesses are the most mysterious: raw materials, shipping, oil, dark-pool finance, defense. A lot of these companies are private. They have no incentive to go public. They make enough money on their own, without an infusion of cash from Wall St. / mom and dad’s pension fund. These ruthless skeleton crews of people who service uber-profitable business models don’t hire outside help. I know next-to-nothing about that world.
On the other hand, public businesses, the kind that hire ad agencies, are designed around consumers. They are, um, less complex. They sell soap. They sell midsize cars to midsized Americans. And God bless them. Without these companies and their employees, midsize Americans would be driving compact cars, cleaned with inferior off-brand soaps. Don’t pretend you can’t appreciate the difference (even if you can’t afford it).
Fortune 500 companies have fairly open books. It’s required by law. Investors want to understand. These brands make money in all the obvious ways. Their leadership are smart enough to do their jobs, but not smart enough to set up a perpetual-money-machine website. If they were geniuses, they would be sending rockets into space, the writing energy policy at the State Department, or at least selling brand voodoo at Forrester Research – not thinking about consumer behavior at P&G.
I’m happy to be on the light side of the economy. Plodding along slowly with the people trying hard to play by the rules.
Fear is common in all classes of working people, but perhaps especially problematic in the middle class of American brand managers, with 2.4 kids and a fresh underwater mortgage in a 3rd tier housing market. Imagine having a dream, and then losing it. That’s the fear. There’s no point in scaring company people any more than they need to be scared. Unless you’re a cruel, reckless, manipulative sociopath of a post-industrial worker. In that case, you might want to understand fear, and use it when it suits you.
In sharp contrast, the company itself, doesn’t have fear. It can only exist or not. Bankruptcy and scandal don’t mean anything to a company charter. The brand changes, the market changes, the company is always a fearless, deathless organism. It can vanish without a trace, or balloon to the size of a national economy. You can probably learn something from this, the liquidity of a company, its impossibly convenient function.
Welcome Back To High School
College had academic standing. With the rare exception in technology, science, and engineering businesses, most companies don’t have this. And performance pay doesn’t usually have anything to do with merit. Making money for your division at the bank is not the same as getting an A on a term paper. Teachers unions know this. It’s why they fight performance pay. In the real world, there’s no way to know how you’re really doing. Performance reviews are based on office etiquette. Not being an asshole and working hard will keep you in good standing. There’s no way to really succeed in a grand sense. No grades. No gold stars. This wasn’t obvious to me before I started.
At every company, there is however, a lunch table and a principal’s office. Lots of people feel the need to sit at the lunch table. Quite a few have tantrums and end up in the principal’s office.
My last time in the principal’s office was when I asked for a raise. Imagine the shock on his face.
Corporations Are Evil Because People Are… Confused
Public corporations were designed so that rich people and institutional investors could easily make a little more money, with low risk. Simple enough. I’ve approached this idea from a few different angles. Money is something that is hard to get, unless you had it when you were born. Corporations, when born, usually have a little money. But they spend it fast. There’s no trust fund equivalent. Except maybe in the non-profit world, with endowments. For most companies, like everyone else, the easiest ways to get money you didn’t already have are 1) to steal it 2) to beg for it. These are the two ways most companies function year-to-year: government handouts (the money you pay in taxes that becomes military contracts, farm subsidies, and TARP funds) and consumer spending (the money you need to spend in order to live).
Money sucks. It’s ruthless. It doesn’t give a shit about you, unless you have something it wants. So, people cut corners to get it. People form alliances built on convenience. They have an idea about what the market will buy and get money for that idea, somehow. Companies build products that help bad things happen more easily. Or, sometimes, good things. They build space ships. They build soap. They build chemical weapons.
The idea that a company is evil, because it makes a profit, seems backward to me. Profit is the dark and mysterious element, the part that could be evil, wrong, or just confusing. People smarter than any of us will argue their entire lives what value is and how that relates to profit. For me, a company is just a bunch of idiots trying to make a living.
The idea that work can become substantial wealth is sort of recent. Most people lived in huts and ate their own labour. That was pretty chic for about 30,000 years. The idea that smart people – and not people chosen by magic and ordered by genetics – could and should control culture, is maybe a thousand years old. I’m not saying we should go back in extreme pre-industrial inequality based on the royal lineage, but let’s be steady at the helm. We’re still getting our footing on this proto-American capitalism thing, and making tons of mistakes, obviously.
OWS As A Corporation Against Corporations
For a moment in 2011, it seemed that the corporation-as-brand might have rapidly evolved, beyond anything previously imaginable: into a political organism that could fight inequality.
I’m a kind of snake when it comes to politics. I dabble in radicalism (Oakland-Berkeley, WTO Seattle, Zuccotti Park), while backing labor and industry together. I was a big supporter of Occupy Wall Street, until I wrote a TV commercial for them and learned (in private conference, a bar in Williamsburg, wild eyes, candlelight, just imagine it) that their senior leadership’s ultimate goal was to abolish all currency. Didn’t seem that plausible.
It was an idea of revolution without the means, without corporate backing, without collaboration. They refused any contact with Democratic leadership. The leaders of the leaderless OWS didn’t want to be recognized in public, let alone compromise. I offered to make phone calls, call out money favors. I took clandestine meetings in the park outside my office. They wanted to work completely outside of the established system of power and control (with the exception of their copywriter, producer, and 3D post-production, of course). No electoral politics. No unions. No ballot measures. And a few months later, the revolution was a memory. The commercial never aired. The totally revolutionary corporation was a mildly notable failure, another three-line FBI file with my name on it somewhere in Maryland.
So, I move forward, somehow. I am left with corporations, the social structures that they support, and that are supported by them: the bloody and essential military, the insipid civilian government, the law, national online culture, paid advertising, bodega potato chips.
If a corporation was capable of evil on it’s own – without the help of people – I think I’d be more scared. I guess there’s a Matrix A.I. scenario in there somewhere.
Thankfully, most people aren’t smart enough, or energetic enough to help corporations be supremely evil. The typical evil of a corporation is standard human negligence (which may end civilization via climate change, but that’s another economic conversation, one related to growth and ecology, not the fundamental corporate model).
We are bored and selfish, so we let companies commit these typically small evils on our behalf. Negligence gradually builds into a kind of dim future, one that our children will do battle with. It’s a classic story, as old as any crumbling kingdom.
If you don’t like something a company does, tell everyone how you feel, stop buying their shitty widgets, and for god sakes, manufacture and market something of your own. Pro tip: you’ll pay less taxes if you incorporate. Which leads me to my final thing:
If you make enough money so that you can pay someone to do your taxes, you will pay less in taxes. People representing big companies wrote the tax code and they will continue to re-write if for their own benefit.
We were sitting around in a small table in his camper, inside the garage, drinking Instant Maxwell House. The main part of the camper was plastic, designed to fit over the cab and back of a Ford F-250 pickup truck.
Don DeLillo, Americana (1971)