Who knew years ago that the funny Scottish man who drew sardonic urban cartoons on business cards and grooved to Django Reinhardt would be a web 2.0 prophet today?
Hugh and I met in the fall of 1989 as the two newest employees of the Leo Burnett company in Chicago. Hugh had just graduated from the University of Texas and I was about ten years into a fairly successful advertising career. Our day of company orientation included hours of scintillating explanations of insurance plans, profit sharing plans and of course, an in-depth analysis of the ever important employee handbook. We didn't give a fuck about any of it and spent most of the day cutting up, asking inane questions and marveling at the sincerity with which our sophomoric behaviour was being responded to. The day culminated with a showing of Leo Burnett's now famous retirement speech, "When To Take My Name Off The Door". You can see it here:
And with that speech, we were actually inspired. Behind the mahogany veneered walls and shiny conference tables, here was something we could sink our teeth into. Common sense, uncommon honesty and heartfelt passion for the business of creating something. I've heard it said that in terms of people's respect for certain professions, that advertising people rate just above used car salesmen and somewhere below lawyers, but here was a man you could believe in. Too bad he was dead.
Hugh and I would work together for the next few years. At lunchtime we'd grab a sandwich and head for the Jazz Record Mart in The Loop, still the largest jazz record store in the world. The storefront was a small deceiving dusty affair with just a few rows of racks of old LPs and a tiny selection of CDs. But through the curtain on the back wall was a cavernous room with tens of thousands of records of all shapes and sizes. They even had LPs that were nearly a metre in diameter, commissioned by the US Army for use on Jeep-mounted turntables with overhead loudspeakers on the rollbar. These records were only grooved on one side with the theory being that nobody had time to turn a record over on the battlefield. The size was simply to insure the longest play possible.
Hugh was a huge jazz fan, his father having been one as well, and probably taught me more on the subject than anyone previously. But all along were the cartoons on the business cards. They were an integral part of Hugh. Sarcastic, sardonic, enlightening and decidedly un-PC in the ultra conservative environment of the Leo Burnett Company. Remember, this is the company that created the Jolly Green Giant, not the Blue Monster of www.Gapingvoid.com fame.
What the fuck were we doing there? Both of us were fairly well known for throwing shit in the company's face whenever given the chance and did so routinely, because that was actually our job. I am convinced to this day that companies in the precarious predicament that Leo Burnett was in, in the 1990s need to hire people who will come in and shake the tree.
From Wild Wild East:
"Burnett would struggle in the years after that, loosing client upon client, all for different reasons, but the message was clear: this was a company tied to the images of the Marlboro Man and the Keebler Elves struggling to come to grips with a vision and technology that was much more Mario and Pokemon."
I told people for years that my job was to be the exact opposite of everyone else at the agency, that by sheer force of individuality and a measured detachment I provided a service that they desperately needed – objectivity. But it's hard to maintain that kind of freedom once you become part of an organization because the organization won't let you. They hire you because your are different but then try to make you the same as they are. This is pure organizational psychology. There is little one can do about it – within the organization, that is.
Hugh and I continued to work at Burnett for the next few years. In the mid 90s I headed for Korea and Hugh moved to New York. After a year and a half in Korea, I started my own agency there and Hugh continued on the cartoons. in NYC. As fellow geeks I'm happy that technology has allowed us to keep in touch and stay creative.
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