Part 5 of a 6 part serial from Lou Aronica and The Story Plant.
DB is a study in contradictions. It’s elegant and casual. Its menu sports the familiar in unfamiliar ways. And these menu items – many of which appear in different forms on other menus all over the City – cost much more here than they do in most other places. In fact, price seems to be part of the atmosphere, as though the numbers on the menu are an essential bit of decoration. The times I’d eaten there before, I loved it. Eating variations on chicken salad and steak frites and then signing a credit card bill for more than $150 (to be reimbursed by The Shop, of course) made me feel privileged. Yeah, I know it’s stupid.
The place was one of several run by the legendary chef Daniel Boulud and I’d been to each of the New York ones. It was hard to say you had your finger on the pulse of the City dining scene without doing so. And I really loved being plugged in like this. One of the huge upsides to a job like mine was that you often needed to take clients to lunch. And it was never for a slice of pizza. I made sure to stay on top of the latest, the hottest, and the best, a task I took to with tremendous enthusiasm. I loved eating in great restaurants of every stripe and variety. This was one of the few things my parents instilled in me that I took with me to my adult life. We went out to eat at least twice a week when I was growing up, and I found the exercise even more fulfilling when expanded to cover most days – and especially satisfying since my mother and father were no longer part of the package. Eating out this often was a bit of a challenge to my waistline, but I gladly maintained a strict workout regimen to keep it going. To me, an hour on a cross-trainer and another half-hour on weight machines three or four times a week was a perfectly fair tradeoff.
This was one of the few things that Daz and I absolutely did not connect on. I could drag him to a steakhouse or for ethnic food, but if the place had white tablecloths, used an immersion circulator, or had any relationship at all with microgreens, he recoiled. He literally could have popcorn or Doritos or his old standby Cap’n Crunch for dinner. I had to have a real meal, even if it was prepared at a cleverly disguised dive. This never turned into too much of a hassle, and I knew that if I compromised with him one night, I could often make it up on a date the next night – and usually make it up with a client the next afternoon.
I got to the restaurant five minutes early, but Keane was still there before me. His photograph on the Kander and Craft website didn’t do him justice. Where he appeared graying and doughy on the computer screen, he seemed fit and vigorous in real life. I put his age at somewhere in his early fifties, though I think he might have been a little older and simply trying to stay young. As I approached the table, he rose to shake my hand.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” I said.
“Not a problem. I was on the phone until just a moment ago. Sometimes it’s just easier to make calls when I’m out of the office.” He appraised me for a moment. “I’m glad to make your acquaintance,” he said after a pause.
A waiter came over and I ordered a bottle of sparkling water. Keane was drinking a glass of red wine. I had never been able to drink during the day, feeling like it took too much of my edge away. I often heard stories about the three-martini lunches of earlier days and wondered how anyone got any business done in the afternoon. Maybe that wasn’t the point.
“I’ve seen some of your work, Rich,” Keane said as he took a sip of his drink. “A lot of it is very impressive.”
“Thanks.” I knew he was here to recruit me and that part of the process was flattery, but I still felt warmed by a compliment like this.
“The latest BlisterSnax campaign is truly inspired. And those fifteen-second spots you did for Smack Racquets were hilarious.”
I smiled, thinking back on them. “That was the result of a particularly intense creative session.” Daz and I came up with the idea at three in the morning in my apartment after hours of video game tennis “to get in the mood.”
“Well, it bore fruit. And I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you so.”
I guess the difference between hollow praise and the real thing is how the person doing the praising backs it up. Whether Keane had good taste or not was still to be decided, but he left me with little doubt that he meant what he said. I started to find the prospects for this conversation just a little more interesting.
My water came and I took a drink. We took a quick look at the menus, though I already knew I was having the DB burger. I’m not sure that anyone would have been able to convince me that a hamburger was worth more than thirty dollars, even if someone else was paying, but I ordered one on a lark once and was absolutely knocked over. The burger – ground sirloin stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffles – was a singular experience. And the french fries were pretty great as well.
We ordered (Keane chose the skate) and then Keane took another sip of his wine and leaned forward in his seat. “The reason I asked to meet with you is because the Creative Director of our downtown office is moving to our London operation. I’d like to talk to you about the possibility of taking his spot.”
Though hopefully none of this showed on my face, I was floored. I’d expected him to pitch me on a copywriting position, trying to sell me on taking a backward step to move up to a big agency. At most, I thought he’d offer me a lateral move (which would of course constitute a significant increase in salary). Creative Director of the downtown office was not even on my dreamscape.
K&C had two offices in New York. The midtown one was for their mainstream corporate clients and had been around for decades. Then, during the original Internet boom in the late nineties, they opened the downtown office to accommodate the looser, more frenetic style of this new business and to create an environment more conducive to the offbeat flavor of the advertising these clients desired. Since the bust and then the mainstreaming of Internet commerce, there were persistent rumors of K&C boarding up the second office and focusing exclusively on their more traditional base. They cycled staff for most of the past three years, and hanging on at K&C Downtown was like riding a bucking bronco at a rodeo. It wasn’t a question of whether you’d be thrown off, only how long you could hold on before it happened and whether you got injured from the fall. There was more than a little bit of risk involved in getting involved with that operation – except that the K&C name looked great on a resume. When Keane mentioned the down- town office yesterday, none of this mattered particularly much to me since I assumed he was talking about a smaller job and I also assumed that this was only going to be a bit of meaningless flirtation anyway. The notion of a Creative Director’s gig changed the parameters.
“I hadn’t heard about the CD leaving,” I said.
“We haven’t announced it yet. We’re shaking things up a little.”
I nodded and didn’t say anything.
“So is this something you’re interested in talking about?” Keane said.
I took another drink of my water. “You know, I love it at The Creative Shop. The people there are great and I work on really good projects. It would take a lot to get me to leave.” I smiled. “But we can certainly talk.”
We did that for the next hour. While taking several opportunities to underscore the difference in scale between my current workplace and K&C, Keane outlined the nature of the downtown operation. He talked about the clients they had on board and spoke in broad terms about the clients they courted (some of whom I could identify because we’d courted them at The Shop as well). He talked about the resources the office had at its disposal and how they strove to give the place the feel of a small agency while at the same time backing it with the full power of their huge organization. He told me that they expected their creative directors to be precisely that – people who drove and directed creativity – and that they did their best to keep the administrative responsibilities of these people to a minimum. He was an excellent pitchman and it was difficult not to believe that K&C Downtown was a dream spot for a guy like me. Of course, I knew a thing or two about hype.
“This all sounds great,” I said, “and the fact that you’re even talking to me is very flattering. But I have a couple of nagging issues with this.”
“Put them on the table.”
“The first is the awful stuff I keep hearing about the downtown office. As I’m sure you know, the word on the street is that you guys are ten minutes away from shutting the whole thing down.”
Keane chuckled with the easy assurance of someone who wasn’t being challenged. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Look, I’m not going to pretend that the office has been unaffected by the downturn in the market and the overall change in the advertising landscape. To be completely honest, our current CD is being moved to London because he’s too valuable to let go. We have a much more stable client base there, and he’s more suited to that kind of environment. But we aren’t giving up on downtown. Not even close. In fact, we want to turn up the heat. The fact is, we need to get a little younger and a little fresher throughout the entire K&C organization, and we continue to be convinced that the downtown office can act as a pipeline feeding all twelve offices with this kind of talent.”
I gestured to acknowledge his point and then said, “But things aren’t exactly stable there.”
He smiled at me and looked down at his hands, extending his fingers outward. “If you’re looking for stable, you might want to seek a different profession.” He glanced up and snared me with his eyes. “But let’s look at the worst case scenario. You bomb out with us or we just decide to pull the plug on the whole office. In either case, you walk away with a hefty, pre-negotiated severance package. And it’s not exactly a blight on your record to fail at K&C Downtown. Plenty of successful people have. Some might even consider it a rite of passage.”
I nodded. “I can understand that.”
Keane smiled. It was clear that he liked winning people over. “You said there were a couple of nagging issues. What’s the other?”
For the first time, I took a more aggressive position in my chair. “The other thing is that I’ve kind of been part of a package deal my entire career. Eric Dazman is an amazing art director and we do our best work together. The prospect of making this move would be a whole lot more interesting if he came with me.”
Keane stiffened at the mention of Daz. “Have you met Carleen Laster?” he said.
I shook my head to indicate that I hadn’t.
“Carleen is the Executive Art Director of the downtown office. She’s as good as they get. I’m afraid we don’t have a place for your partner at this point. And if it means holding on to Carleen, I hope we never do.”
He certainly didn’t equivocate. I wasn’t entirely sure what to say. Whether he intended it or not, Keane made me feel like I’d mentioned the unmentionable. To argue for K&C to bring Daz along with me assumed many things that I couldn’t assume – including that I had any bargaining power. I looked down at the last french fry on my plate, picked it up and ate it.
“Do you have any other questions?” Keane said. His tone was a little brisk, his message clearly, Don’t bring up any subject even remotely close to the one you just brought up.
“Not really, no.” The waiter took our plates and Keane asked me if I wanted coffee. As much as I probably should have just let the meeting end, I wound up ordering a double espresso.
I felt a little foolish, like I’d been offered a free ticket to a sold-out concert and my first response was to say, “Can I have one for my friend, too?” I was sure that speaking about Daz and me as a “package deal” tabbed me as a minor leaguer. I was the kind of guy who just didn’t understand how big-time ad agencies worked, didn’t understand the rare opportunity I was being offered, and therefore couldn’t possibly have the constitution to take a major position at a huge shop. I was glad I mentioned Daz – I would have felt like a traitor if I hadn’t even tried – but I still felt a bit like Keane had told me to go sit in the corner.
Keane was polite and asked me a number of questions about my personal interests, which I tried to answer as comprehensively as I could to give him a sense that I had at least a modicum of substance. I talked to him about restaurants and about books that I read and about cultural events I saw mention of in the Times. I went into spin mode, something I did when I felt I needed to put on a show for a client.
When we parted a short time later, though, I was relatively certain that he’d crossed me off his list. He certainly didn’t say anything to suggest this, and he even told me that he enjoyed meeting me, but I couldn’t erase from my mind the look of disapproval on his face when I mentioned Daz.
It was a funny thing. I went into the lunch assuming nothing would come of it and certain that nothing Keane suggested would divert Daz and me from our long-term plans. Knowing that the position was in the downtown office, I was skeptical right from the start, not understanding how it possibly made sense to take on an almost-certainly futile challenge like that, regardless of his assurances. Still, when I felt like I blew it, that I showed I wasn’t ready for prime time, I found it upsetting that I wouldn’t get this thing I didn’t want in the first place.
I had been rejected by a woman I didn’t really want to date. I had lost a race I wasn’t all that interested in running. I had been turned away at a bar that I really didn’t want to get into. It left me feeling a little humiliated.
At least the burger was good.
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