What Does It Take For A Secretary to Get Flowers?
To remind you that 2012 Administrative Professionals Day is coming—Wednesday, April 25—I’ll share how I prodded folks my first year in the ad business. It was unabashedly self-serving at the time, but also a lesson in persistence.
Although I was unable to land a copywriter job directly out of college, I did get an secretarial job in a big New York agency’s creative department. Perhaps the only path more classic would have been to start in the mailroom. Working for six creative directors, my responsibilities included included answering phones, filling out expense reports, making travel arrangements, and manually pasting up TV storyboards frame-by-frame. This last task helped me learn about TV narrative but since this was pre-everyone on computers, I can’t even explain how much I cringed every time someone had a minor change; I’d have to re-tape every single frame all over again.
But I loved my job and the folks who mentored me. Several would give me real writing assignments or let me sit in on presentations. I returned the favor by fetching low-cal lunches, making friends with their spouses, renting them red Mustang convertibles for shoots in California, and occasionally rounding up their taxi receipts. As much as I thought it was silly for me to answer their phones, I was insulted if they ever did do something themselves.
Still, I had to keep my ambitions to be a copywriter top of mind. One thing I did was turn my administrative job into a creative job. I put out a monthly newsletter for our group, the first issue promising “News You Can Use From An Assistant You Can — But Shouldn’t —Abuse.” In four pages, it covered recent campaigns my bosses did, observations about the conservative office (“What dark wood paneling in the conference room says about being modern”), personal horoscopes (One of my creative directors was obsessed by astrology) and a reminder them to all to do their time sheets (“Your time is so valuable everyone should make money off it”). I also did trend reports, research, and any writing assignment they’d give me whether it was jokes for a radio script or headlines for a coupon ad.
My manager Maureen cautioned that I still had to wait for a junior copywriter spot to open up. Then I could audition with my portfolio against outside candidates. I’d have an inside edge, of course, since everyone knew me — well, except the person who mattered: Ted, the head of the Creative Department.
Ted thought my name was Marc.
I saw on a calendar that Professional Secretaries Day (now Administrative Professionals Day) was coming in April and decided to pull a stunt to get the boss’s attention. On behalf of all the secretaries, with help from a senior art director, I’d run my own ad campaign. It’d be a series of posters based on iconic secretaries and how one should appreciate them.
The first had a photo of then-Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger caught lying about the Iran-Contra affair: “A Trustworthy Secretary Is Hard To Find.” The second was of Susan Ruttan, the secretary on the TV Series L.A. Law, with the headline: “Some Secretaries Earn $5,000 a Week. You Could At Least Pay Yours A Compliment.” The third was the most timely, using the recent death of the famous racehorse Secretariat that was all over the news. Under a photo of hundreds of flowers at Secretariat’s tombstone were the words: “What Does It Take for a Secretary to Get Flowers?” Each poster also ended with the tagline: “Say Thank You To Someone Important.”
Late at night, I hung posters on every floor, but especially along the walk from reception to Ted’s office. This, in advertising, is known as a targeted buy.
Around 10 a.m., Ted’s assistant summoned me to his office.
I was nervous. I didn’t know what Ted was like. He wore cowboy boots and was tall and used foul language, but what would he think? On my way, Maureen intercepted me, warning there had been complaints. I lurked outside Ted’s door until he motioned me in. The head of human resources was there along with the head of the secretarial pool. Damn, I thought, am I going to get fired?
“Mat, you did this campaign, right?” Ted asked, holding up a Casper Weinberger poster. His mustache blocked his expression.
“Yes,” I said. Turning to the H.R. folks, I could see they were not happy.
“He should have gotten permission for this,” complained the head of the secretarial pool, a matronly woman who only yesterday had told me her nephew was “A gay like me” and thinks it’s terrific the times we are in.
“A few of the girls are upset,” she said, which caused the room to flinch in a post-Mad Men era. “It makes them look bad, asking for attention.”
Ted squinted and put the poster down. “Well, I think it’s damn funny,” he finally said. “Especially the one about the dead horse. We should be encouraging this type of thing.” He winked at me and let me go back to my desk.
I passed Maureen’s office, and she looked up from her desk in anticipation. I gave her the thumbs-up sign, and she smiled back.
I felt good. Good about Ted, good about the agency, good about myself. And when I entered my desk area, I felt even better. There were three or four wrapped gifts, several cards — and from my creative directors, a dozen yellow roses.
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