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the weekend my life flashed before my eyes (ok, maybe not my whole life)

April 23, 2012


It’s been an extravaganza of memories for me over the last 4 or 5 days.  It started with a blog I read, right here on WordPress, that took me all the way back to when I was 3 or 4 years old, reading and telling stories with my aunt.  That conjured up even more memories of wonderful times spent with Auntie “Nette:

There are tons of them, but the one I flashed back to this time, was when I was about 14 or 15.  Both my mother and aunt loved movies.  But to my eternal frustration, because there had been a fire in a Montreal movie theatre years and years before, where many children perished, they instituted a law where you had to be 18 to go to a movie.  Until the day Auntie Mame and her accomplice decided to take matters into their own hands.

I was a sophisticated teenager and didn’t look my age.  So they decided that they’d put some make up on me, find something of my mother’s that fit  and they’d sneak me into a movie.  In those days my mother wore stilettos, so they had me practice walking in them every day for a week.  Last thing we needed was for me to fall flat on my face at the theatre.  Because my father played cards with a group of his friends on Thursdays that was the chosen day of the week.

On the appointed Thursday I was a nervous wreck all day.  By the time I got home from school I was in a cold sweat.  They, on the other hand, were totally excited and looking forward to this little caper.  They did a fabulous job with my hair and make up — they did use discretion and thankfully I didn’t look like a drag queen on Hallowe’en.  They stuffed my bra with some tissues and put me into the tightest skirt my mother owned — which still required a belt — which one of my mother’s pullovers did a good job of hiding.  The heels, a purse, a string of pearls and we were good to go!

I was nauseous and wanted to call the whole thing off.  “No way”, they insisted.  Off we went.

They had a plan.  My aunt and I would stand in line and I would face the wall.  They didn’t want anybody staring at me too long — they might figure out I was only 14, after all.  My mother would stand in line to buy the tickets.  When it was time to go into the theatre I was simply to look straight ahead and keep walking.  We still had the ticket collector to get by.  Assuming we pulled that off, we’d find seats and then my mother would get the popcorn.

It was all going very well until a cousin of mine and her husband showed up unexpectedly.  Shocked to see me there, she was just about to say something that would have blown our cover.  But thankfully my aunt picked up on where this was going, and started shaking her head, rolling her eyes and then whispered, “Sshhhh!”  We all got a case of the nervous giggles but settled down by the time the line started to move into the theatre.

The long and short of it is, we pulled it off and the three of us had a standing movie date every Thursday thereafter.  And I will always remember the movie we saw that first time:  Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

Still enjoying this memory, on Saturday I got an email from a former colleague.  He founded a not-for-profit not too long ago, with the intent of stopping abuse.  He wanted to know if I’d write a fundraising letter for them.  “Of course”, I responded and he said he’d send me a brief one of his associates had written.  Within minutes I got an email from him telling me to ignore the brief — that he’d send me another one.

Of course I did precisely the opposite.  Whenever you’re told not to do something what do you do?  What I did.  I looked.  And laughed.  It wasn’t a brief.  It was sort of an outline and sort of a draft of a letter.  Took me right back to one of the first projects I did when I joined the ad agency, Ogilvy.  Because I was ‘new’, the creative director sat in on the briefing session.  It was a job for a trust company — a 3-wave direct mail campaign.  Within a couple of minutes of listening to the suit on the business read his brief, I put my hand up.

He had decided what each letter would talk about.  He had decided what point each paragraph would make.  He had decided how many pages each letter would be.  He had decided what else would be in each package.  He had decided the campaign would include 3 waves of mail.

Afraid I was going to go for the guy’s jugular, the CD pinched my thigh.  Ignoring him,  I asked why he (the suit) needed me at all, and suggested that he might like to do the writing as well.  He’d practically done it all, already.

That was when he challenged me, and asked if I had a better idea.  As it happened, I did.  And despite the egg on his face, he had to then ‘unsell’ and ‘resell’ the client on a new direction.  I won’t go into all the details but my idea was built around a memo, sent from the Chairman to all staff.  The client (Chairman) loved this idea so much, he decided to make it real.  And that meant that instead of just getting marketing department approvals, my work was going all the way up to the big Kahuna.  It also meant that he wanted to participate in the writing of that internal memo (fair enough — it was going to all staff, and it did have his name on it.)

I must have re-written that lousy memo a hundred bloody times!  But the worst of it took place one Friday night, just as we were getting to the end of what was rapidly becoming my worst nightmare:

I had concert tickets with friends.  At around 4 pm the Creative Director strolled into my office, slightly green around the gills.   It seems that the Chairman thought “we were almost there”, but wanted one of his ‘consiglieres’ to wrap up a few points with me.  That night.  So sad, too bad, no concert for me.

Somewhat miffed, off I trotted to the very top of a tower on Bay Street, where I was ushered into an office the size of a hockey rink.  We were there until 10 pm, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  These were pre smoking-ban days.  The instant I got there Consigliere, who was lounging in a huge leather executive chair that was tipped all the way back against the wall, with his feet crossed neatly on top of his desk, gestured at a chair across from him where I should sit and poured each of us the first of many stiff scotches we drank that night; and then he reached behind him to a sterling silver humidor, out of which he took 2 cigars — one for each of us.  Neatly trimming the end of both, he handed one to me.

Already gagging, I begged him to let me smoke cigarettes instead, but he was having none of it.  Twenty-seven years later I can still taste that wretched cigar.  I still feel the head-pounding, blinding migraine I had, too.  Not to mention the hangover.

But the campaign was an absolutely wild success and the client would never let anyone other than me near their work.  And the suit never made creative decisions again.

Seems I wasn’t done remembering, though.   Desperate for something decent to watch on TV Saturday night, I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled.  Suddenly I saw the name, Roberto Clemente on ESPN.  Well … I had to see what that was all about.

You see, back before I moved to Toronto, when the Expos first arrived on the baseball scene a friend and I rarely missed a game.  So let’s fast forward to 1971.  It was an unseasonably warm Sunday in late September.  Truth be told it was the second day of  Rosh Hashanah and it took a bit of convincing to get my parents to agree I could go.  Not that we were religious — it was more about appearances.  But the friend of theirs who had offered me the tickets finally convinced them.

In fact, it was a double-header; and he said I could have the tickets for the first game but then had to leave them for him at a motel about a 15-minute drive away from Jarry Park because he was going to the second.

It was the Expos versus The Pittsburgh Pirates and it was a very important game.  The pirates were leading the league and were headed to the World Series.  They were intent on wracking up as many wins as they could.  When my friend and I arrived at the stadium and settled into our seats I noticed a client of mine was there.  He came to say hello and asked if we were staying for both games.  I explained why we weren’t.

He said he had 2 extra tickets for the second game and we could have them.

Nobody has ever driven, in city limits, as fast as I did that Sunday.  Suffice to say we watched all 9 innings of the first game, got to the car, drove to the motel, left the tickets, drove back, parked and made it into our new seats before the first pitch of the second game was thrown!

No sooner were we seated, still slightly out of breath, the guy beside me tapped me on the arm and asked me for my name.  I looked at him like he’d just crawled out from under a rock.  Smiling, he pointed to the visiting team’s dugout — from which we were no more than 2 rows up.  Waving and grinning at me was #21, Roberto Clemente.  He wanted my name.  My girlfriend handed me a pen and a piece of paper.  Next thing I knew, I was holding a signed baseball, and a note he sent me, asking me to call him later.

The pirates won the double-header, and the World Series.

Roberto Clemente and I became friends.  Instead of taking the team bus to and from the airport I drove him.  Usually Dock Ellis and Manny Sanguillen came with us, as well.  At the time I thought nothing of it, but yesterday all I could think was, I had 3 of the greatest baseball players the world has ever known in my car!!!   Holy cow!

I remember being shocked at the news that Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash, on New Years Eve, while on his way to Nicarauga.  I had a boyfriend at the time who played bass guitar for a band based in Puerto Rico, where Clemente lived, and I was going to see him while I was there visiting KB.  Sadly, that never happened.  And the documentary I watched, brought it all flooding back.  What a great player he was, and what a great humanitarian he was.  And a great friend.

I still have the baseball.

thank you Auntie ‘Nette

April 19, 2012


So many of my posts are a result of a particular post I’ve read on Magnificent Nose I know it will come as no shock to see that I’m doing it again.  This latest one, “And Then What Happened?”, is a wonderful story about stories, and what makes a good one.  I’m not going to go into detail because I really think you should read it for yourselves, but it was when the author, Martha F., was telling stories to her 3 1/2 year old niece that she realized that the key to a good story is when it’s relevant to the listener — or reader.

Reading about how her niece kept asking “and then what happened?” every time she paused, I was instantly transported back to when I was 3 or 4 years old.  My mother had two sisters, one an identical twin and another, seven years younger.  They were all close, but the relationship between twins — especially identical twins — is like no other relationship.  They said the same thing at the same time, without consulting with each other they’d show up wearing the same clothes, and if they didn’t speak to each other at least twenty times a day they didn’t speak once.  Sometimes my father and I just shook our heads.  I’m an only child, so you can imagine how foreign this concept was to me.

Not long after my aunt was married (mere months before my parents) she got sick and wasn’t allowed to have children for five or six years.  She and I spent tons of time together and, to the day she died, she and I had a very special bond.  I always said I had two mothers, and to a large extent, I did.

When I was with my dad everyone always said how much I looked like him.  When I was with my mother everyone said I was the image of her.  So it’s not surprising that when I was alone with my aunt everyone assumed she was my mother.  And I’d always grab her hand and whisper in her ear:  “Ssssh, don’t tell them you’re not my mother, Auntie ‘Nette (her name was Annette but when I first learned to speak ‘Nette was as close as I could get, and it stuck).  It was our little secret, a private joke we shared.

Unfortunately my aunt had more than her fair share of sorrow.  She was finally able to have a child.  When Cheryl was just 13 months old my aunt’s husband, Cheryl’s father, died very unexpectedly.  My aunt was 32 years old.  I was five.  Needless to say, we all spent even more time together.  And in one woman, I had an adored aunt, a second mother, an older sister, a best friend and a confidante.  It stayed that way until the day she died, in 2000.

She always had the patience of a saint.  She would play with me for hours and hours.  We’d read.  She loved reading — always had her nose in a book.  Before I could read she’d read to me.  But what I loved the most were the stories she made up.  And like Martha’s little niece, I’d also always ask, “What happened next, Auntie ‘Nette?”

What I’ve never thought about, until Martha’s post sent me wandering down memory lane is, most of the time my aunt asked me what I thought should happen next.  She turned on the switch to my imagination.  She got me involved in the story.  She introduced me to storytelling.

She’s probably the reason I became a writer.

Thanks,  Auntie ‘Nette.  I just want you to know you’re still encouraging me to share my stories.

dedicated to the folks at Loomis Express

April 18, 2012


With brands, like most other things, who you want to be and who you are, are sometimes very different.

It’s human nature.  We rarely see ourselves as we really are.  We prefer to see ourselves as we’d like to be:  20 pounds lighter, 10 years younger, with a full head of hair, more attractive to the opposite sex, blah blah blah.  The same can be said for CEOs, CMOs and the like — as it relates to how they want their companies and their brands to be perceived:  Client centric (all about the customer experience in today’s parlance), innovative, nimble, approachable, likeable, blah blah blah.

But whether you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, visualizing a hot blonde in a mini skirt instead of a plump matron in a Hilary Clintonesque pant suit, or you’re a head honcho briefing the agency, wishing does not make it so!!

What I am talking about is ‘authentic’ brands.  The real thing.

Like Apple.  Yes, they are innovative.  Yes, they are all about the customer experience.  Yes, they are friendly.  Yes, they do make it really simple to use and enjoy their products.  Yes, they are insanely great.  At all of the above — and at customer service and problem resolution and anything else you might think of.  And yes, their advertising totally reflects their philosophy, their products, their commitment, their passion, blah blah blah.

Unfortunately there aren’t many Apples.

Think of the companies you do business with.  Who’s your wireless provider?  Who’s your telco?  Where do you bank?  What soap do you use?  What cereal do you eat?  Now think of their advertising.  Do you think it’s consistent with your experience with that company or brand?

Okay, while you’re re-running commercials in your head I’m going to tell you a story:

It’s tax time.  For many good reasons despite the fact that I’ve lived in Toronto since 1985 I still have an accountant in Montreal.  This past Monday (April 16) I was ready to send him all my tax stuff.  Because I wanted to give him as much time as possible (April 30 is fast approaching), I decided to send it overnight courier.  Usually I use FedEx or UPS, but on Monday I was rushing to get to a client’s office for a meeting.  On my way I passed a business supply store and thought:  “Hmmm, wonder if they have a courier depot in there.”  Some of them, like Staples, do.

Sure enough they did.  DHL (for overseas) and Loomis for domestic.  I arranged for, and paid for, overnight service with delivery before noon the next day.

I have to admit there were a couple of times during the transaction where that inner voice we often pay no attention to, was whispering in my ear.  But I ignored it.  So when I got home at around 5:30 I decided to go online and track my shipment — to see if it had actually been picked up from the store.  The url the guy in the store had given me was wrong.  So I called the store and was given an 800 number to call.

Here’s where the brand part comes in:

While I was on hold for 25 minutes (before I hung up) I was forced to listen to what I can only describe as ‘commercials’:  “Receive your shipment on time for your afternoon meeting”.  “Reliable service door-to-door”.  “Attention and careful handling”.

  • I called 3 times.  Each time I was on hold for at least 25 minutes before I hung up.
  • I finally figured out the correct url and on Tuesday went online 5 times to try and track my shipment.  The only information available was that the package was picked up from the store.  I called my accountant at 5:30 and he had not received it.
  • I called the 800 number and was on hold for 20 minutes before I hung up.
  • I called the store.  They called somebody and called me back with a reference number and an assurance that a ‘tracer’ had been put on the shipment.  I was also assured I’d be called within 4 business hours with news.
  • It is now Wednesday.  I went online this morning and this time instead of tracking by the waybill number I tried to track by the reference number.  No such number existed.  So then I tried the waybill number.  Same info as Tuesday.
  • I called the 800 number.  Definitely getting tired of their commercials that promise all that good stuff.  Thankfully I was only on hold about 10 minutes this time.
  • Told the rep my sad tale of woe.  Was told that the individual who was tracing my shipment would not be in for another 20 minutes.  I left my number.  65 minutes later he called me.  Asked for Monica.  Despite the fact that he was looking at a paperwork that had my name on it, he couldn’t get my name straight. That did not bode well for my package.
  • About 30 minutes later another ‘tracer’ person called me.  She asked for Ivan.  Seems she couldn’t get my name straight either.

Attention and careful handling?  Reliable service?  Are you kidding me?  But there’s more:

  • ‘Tracer’ person #1 assured me he would call me throughout the day to check in, even if he had no news.
  • At 2:30, having not heard from anyone, I called him and left a message.
  • At 3:30, I blocked the caller I.D. on my phone and called back.  Lo and behold he answered.  No news.  No information either because he informed me that his supervisor had taken over the case.  Probably because I told them I’d be giving them a free ad campaign on social media if they didn’t find my shipment — pronto.  Canada Revenue isn’t going to cut me any slack because Loomis lost my receipts.
  • Oh yes, ‘Tracer #1 also told me that they couldn’t do a thorough search of their facility because they didn’t have enough staff available; and they’d have to wait until they had more staff.  When might that be?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Attention and careful handling?  Reliable service?

What do you think?  Does Loomis Express have an authentic brand?  (Still haven’t heard a word, by the way.  It is now 5:20 on Wednesday).