I was barely twenty-two years old and about three or four months into my first job at a highly reputed advertising agency in India. In those days you needed an MBA to get a job at an ad agency and because I only had an undergraduate degree I was designated a trainee, which was lower than the entry level designation of Junior Account Executive. This meant that I needed to prove my worth, sans MBA, during my first year just to be promoted to the entry level position.
In those days advertising was also still trapped in its mad men heyday with long hours at the office, regular weekend meetings with clients, smoke-filled conference rooms, and long boozy lunches. I remember our CEO telling me that if I really wanted to learn this business, I should stick around after 7 p.m. because this is when the magic happens.
One time I spent a whole week at the office, sleeping in conference rooms for a few hours, coming home every other day to shower and change clothes. Needless to say that my parents never understood what I was doing at work all hours of the day, night and weekend.
While by today’s standards this might border on exploitation, I remember it being a lot of fun, and I still rely on the valuable client and employee management skills that I acquired during these early years.
The agency was a fertile learning ground mainly because it was not just the junior people who worked these hours; our senior management would routinely be in the trenches with sleeves rolled up. I also remember that our bosses always had our backs, and never asked of us anything that they themselves were not willing to do. So it felt like we were part of a work family.
On the day in question I was in the final stage of one of those crazy work weeks, as the client I was working on was about to have a massive launch. They were launching a state-of-the-art factory, the first of its kind in India and senior executives from United Kingdom had flown in for the occasion. There were a massive number of things that went into a launch of this magnitude and our agency handled everything.
We were responsible for product naming, packaging, retail displays, collateral, PR events, launch brochures and finally TV, newspaper, outdoor and radio advertising. Naturally, the project had started more than ten months prior to launch day, given the sheer volume of materials we needed to produce and because of the importance of this event, we decided to leave nothing to chance.
We were four days away from the ribbon cutting and everything was on schedule. The final thing we needed to complete was the centerpiece of their PR blitz — a specially printed launch brochure that showed off the state-of-the-art machines at the factory in all their glossy glory. We had spent two days shooting the machines to get the perfect light and even had rearranged worker shifts to get the dramatic shots we needed to tell the story of this innovative facility.
It felt like we were in the homestretch and that evening I told my boss, who had been in the office three days straight, to go home and get some rest as I was fine to handle the last few things that needed to be done before dropping the final 24 page artwork off at the printers, so they could print the brochure and ship it in the next forty-eight hours.
Now, this was a time before we had computers and before cellphones. All ads and design work was done painstakingly by hand, with studio artists illustrating each page of the brochure and indicating for the printers where to place the copy and the various pieces of art on every page.
So during this final mile, I was due to shuttle from art studio to the photographers’ studio to pick-up the shortlisted images; then it was off to the client’s house to get final sign-off on the photo selection and back to the studio to finalise the layouts.
Given that these late-night travels were routine prior to any big and crazy launch, and the materials I was carrying were heavy and in a large artwork bag, I had perfected what I called my carry just-what-I-need method; in that rather than carrying all the pages, photos, copy pages and various other references, at each stop I would simply bring what I needed to complete the task and leave my big, heavy artwork bag in the taxi I had co-opted for the night. My system had never failed me. The cab driver got paid above the meter rate and everyone was happy.
This night, I got to my client’s place for final approval around two a.m. and was glad to be in the final stretch that entailed one final stop at the studio for them to complete the pages for which the client had just approved images. This was my last stop before I delivered everything to the printer’s office. I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
As usual, I took only the artwork pages I needed and left all the rest of my valuables in the taxi. I told the driver who had been with me since 10 p.m., when I started this odyssey, that I would be about fifteen to twenty minutes.
About thirty minutes into it the studio came across an issue which would require more time to resolve. So I decided to run down to tell my cab driver that we would need more time and to ask if he was okay to wait or wanted to be released. As I walked out into the empty street I did not see the cab double parked where I had left it.
I assumed he had moved the car because the cops had harassed him, or that he had parked so he could take a nap. Still calm, I walked up and down both sides of the street fully expecting to find my driver and the trove of documents that at that moment seemed like the crown jewels. He was nowhere to be found.
Now less calm, I tried going around the corners at both ends of the street, hoping he might have gone to get some tea or use the bathroom. Nothing.
I don’t remember exactly what transpired next but time seemed to stand still as I wandered aimlessly trying to hail down every cab I could see. It was only when one of the studio artists grabbed my shoulder that I regained consciousness. An hour had passed.
Since the phone at the studio was not working I came back to the office around four a.m. to call my boss and break the news to him. A couple of the studio guys insisted on accompanying me because they were so concerned about my present mental state. There were still about a half dozen people milling around at the office but none from my direct team.
My boss was silent for a few moments when I told him what had just happened and his frustration was palpable. However, instead of losing his temper he said this is a monumental cock-up and we will figure out how to fix it.
I guess my face and body language were telling because the same half dozen people who had been working gathered around and asked me what happened. Fighting back tears I explained the situation, convinced that I had ended my career and doomed the agency by losing one of their biggest clients.
Without hesitation, one of the guys said, okay then stop sitting around and let’s get to work fixing this. He asked the studio guys if they had duplicate artworks, which were often created during rounds of revisions, and if I had photocopies of the final copy. They did and I had photocopies. Next he asked someone to go to the taxi employees association to see if we could find the driver and secure our treasures, and he sent another person to the photographer’s studio to pick up copies of the images we needed and another to start finding magazines from which we could cut out images for reference.
In the end, this Herculean team effort allowed us to salvage 70% of the original brochure. While it was not the original masterpiece we had imagined, it was enough to save the day.
Twenty-four hours later when I got home, I cried. Not because I feared losing my job or not getting promoted, but because of the way a group of people had rallied. All of them went above and beyond. From my supportive boss who placated the client by taking responsibility for what happened, to random employees who pitched in, to studio folks who did double shifts and printers who held presses and worked with us on the fly to revise layouts.
I cried because I was grateful for a boss who recognised that this large client and their extremely important launch brochure were not worth destroying both the self-confidence and future of a kid who had just set foot in the industry.