Head in the Game
Sometimes, you have to look back before you can go forward.
11 Min Read Time
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Charlie had chosen the leg press machine simply because he hoped the motion might pump some blood back into his head. He’d spent the past two days being battered by waves of panic and self-doubt. Nothing he’d come up with was good enough. New enough. Smart enough. Nothing he’d come up with was innovative enough. In fact, he’d despised the word ever since it escaped his boss’s lips on Monday morning.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Monday had started off well enough for Charlie Batten. His commute was pleasantly uneventful. His hangover was manageable, and he’d been able to get all the way from the lobby to his desk without being asked about his weekend. Best of all, the only thing on his calendar for the day was a call with Burlingame Financial. A longstanding client, Burlingame was an asset management firm that no one had ever heard of, and they seemed to be fine with that.
Charlie’s point of contact there was an avuncular vice president of marketing with a slight wheeze and very little interest in doing his job. He had, some time ago, abandoned any pretense of reviewing the campaigns Charlie handed him. They both preferred to think it was because of the trust Charlie had built between them. The most common response to a meeting invite was, “Oh, I’m sure it’s fine.”
The tepid reaction was not surprising, or even uncommon. After three years at Hawley Partners, Charlie had grown accustomed to clients who liked to play it safe with their ad campaigns. When he’d joined, he had been thrilled to finally attain a creative director title. Back then, he liked nothing more than convincing makers of baby food and truck tires and nutritional supplements and, once, a pharmaceutical company whose flagship product promised to regrow long-lost hair while somehow burning belly fat, to take a chance.
Daring, controversial ad campaigns, he told them, would reinvigorate their brands and capture younger, hipper audiences. Why stick with the usual magazine spots, billboards, and banner ads? Why not do something unexpected, something interactive, something customers could actually use? He pitched microsites, mobile apps with product tie-ins, and interactive graphics again and again, but the constant battle with wheezy, risk-averse VPs taxed him mightily over the years. At some point—he couldn’t remember quite when—he’d just given up.
Now, a good day for Charlie was one in which his team could churn out small variations on the same stuff they’d done a hundred times for clients who were, at best, indifferent to originality.
Blowing the steam off a fresh cup of coffee, he scanned his inbox. Revisions from clients, questions from the accounts team, a payment question from a freelance designer. The usual. None of it was urgent, so he decided to play a few levels of Bunny Blast on his phone before the morning email cull.
He sat, blasting away at brightly colored varmints, when—“blunk”—a new email appeared. He glanced up and then stared, horrified, at the fresh hell that had just befallen him.
The title of the meeting invitation was actually “Something EXCITING!” Worse yet, it started in 16 minutes. Worst of all was the sender: Olivia. His boss loved nothing more than a cryptic message. She lived to catch people off guard. She gloried in it.
Charlie hadn’t even had time to click on it before two timorous taps came from his office door. It opened slowly, and a head emerged from behind it. This particular head belonged to Lucas, an account manager whose boundless enthusiasm and affinity for suspenders provoked in Charlie an irrational and inexplicable rage.
“Did you see Olivia’s email?” the head asked.
“I did. Care to fill me in?”
“You know how she is.” The head edged into the office, and the rest of Lucas followed. “She likes surprises. You can make it, right? Your calendar was clear.”
“I mean…” Charlie squinted at his laptop. “I’ve got the Burlingame call at one, and I still need to review the proofs. And Gorman/Grant is seriously riding me for revisions to their mobile ads. Any chance we could kick this to tomorrow?”
Lucas winced. “I doubt it, man. You know how she gets. I think it’s some…”
Before he could finish, Charlie’s phone gleefully chirped “Time’s up!”
“Is that…” Lucas began.
“Is that what?”
“I’ll see you in there, Lucas.”
Olivia had selected, as she often did, the largest conference room in the office, despite the meager attendee list. Seated at the head of the long conference table and wearing, per usual, the sort of ensemble one associates with wives of third world dictators, she beamed and motioned for Charlie to take a seat. Lucas sat on her right, hands hovering eagerly over his keyboard.
“When I joined Hawley way back when,” she began, “everyone told me the same thing about you.”
Lucas was off to the races, typing feverishly.
“Oh?” “Everyone told me that Charlie Batten used to be an innovator.”
Ouch. Right for the gut on a Monday morning, he thought.
“Used to be?”
She held up a printed copy of a Burlingame ad. “Trusted funds. Trusted friends,” she read.
“They loved that one!”
She held up another, this one from another mortgage client. “Reliable rates from a reliable source.”
“OK, first of all,” Charlie began, “they’re totally different markets. Second, one of them has a puppy.”
“Charlie,” she started.
“Third, our customers don’t want—”
“Our customers,” Olivia interrupted, her voice rising an octave, “don’t know what they want. That’s your job.” Pouting a bit for effect, she added, “Isn’t it?”
“At this point, I’m pretty sure my job is making us money and keeping our clients happy.”
“Happy, but not successful,” she replied. “Happy, but not wowed. Happy, but not ecstatic.”
Can hangovers develop personalities, Charlie wondered? Is that a thing? Because it was feeling very much like a thing.
“Hawley,” she continued, “is in shameful shape. Everything we do is stale.”
“Our clients are stale. They like stale. Stale is what they want.”
“That,” she said, “is exactly the problem.” There was a worrisome glint in her eye. He’d seen it before, and it always meant she was going to ask him to do something that involved actual work. She plucked a marker from the jar and rose.
“Have you heard of Snuggl.io?” she asked.
“Is that the blanket thing?” “Snuggl.io,” she said, waving a ruffled pink sleeve (Pantone D80076, he guessed), “is the next big thing in TotTech.”
“Toddler tech,” Lucas chimed in. “It’s tech for toddlers.”
“They’re looking for an agency,” Olivia said, “and a little birdie told me that they’ve already requested proposals from Suborbital and Colossal K.”
“But not us,” Lucas added.
“Not us, Charlie. Do you know why?”
Charlie massaged a temple. “Stale?”
Olivia nodded. “Stale.”
On the whiteboard, Olivia began drawing what looked like an angry amoeba under attack from words like “social” and “user generated content.” He didn’t like where this was going. He liked it even less when, inside the amoeba itself, she wrote the words “breakthrough creative.”
“I want you,” she said, turning on her heel for maximum effect, “to build me a time machine. I want you go back in time and bring back the Charlie Batten that used to try. The one that used to innovate. Because you, Lucas, and me are going to call on them in Chicago first thing Wednesday morning.”
You, Lucas, and I, he thought, but only nodded.
“You’re going to put together something so brilliant that they won’t be able to say ‘No’ to Hawley.”
“That’s in less than 48 hours,” Charlie said. “You can’t seriously expect—”
“We’ve already got you a plane ticket and a room at the Mag Mile Marriott,” Lucas added. “Right between ours.”
That was just two days ago, and Charlie had been panicrastinating (a word he used to denote the act of panicking about something while simultaneously not doing anything about it) ever since. He paced from one side of his hotel room to the other. He stared at the ceiling. He tried to divine some message from the Chicago skyline outside his window. He even wrote the word “innovative” on the hotel’s stationary over and over.
Maybe I have lost it, he thought. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to do this. Olivia and Lucas called, texted, emailed, or Slacked every hour on the hour. He stalled as best he could, claiming he was working through revisions or tweaking fonts and colors. But he hadn’t written a single word or sketched a single idea. All he could think about was the humiliation that awaited him in 12 short hours.
Hoping that a change of vista would do the trick, Charlie changed clothes, left his phone on the dresser, and headed to the one place he knew his colleagues would never follow — the hotel’s fitness center, especially when dinner and drinks were going on a corporate card.
He wiled away an hour with running, lifting, rowing, and running again. Exhausted, he lowered himself onto the leg press machine and closed his eyes. He was several minutes into a fantasy that involved faking his own death and starting a new life in a small logging town when a voice startled him.
“It only works if you push on that thing. You know, with your feet?”
He opened his eyes. Early 30s. Expensive workout gear. Yoga, he guessed. And probably Pilates.
“Didn’t see you come in,” he muttered. Definitely Pilates.
“I was here when you got here,” she said. “Look, it’s not my business, but are you ok?”
“Fine.” He took an ungraciously large gulp of water. “Why do you ask?”
Raking a hand through her ponytail, she said, “You look like someone who might be panicrastinating.” No ring, but a tan line from where one had been. Probably doesn’t wear it to work out, he thought.
“Well, Charlie, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get some reps in. So why don’t you take a seat on—she motioned toward the butterfly machine—that thing, and tell me about it.”
For the next several minutes, Charlie surprised himself by spilling every detail of what had transpired in the past 36 hours. And not just the bullet points—the whole backstory on Hawley, on Burlingame and the rest of his ho-hum clients, and on himself. He’d never been this honest with his therapist, and he paid the guy $200 an hour. He had never talked like this to a stranger, and he had no idea why she listened.
When he got to the bit about Snuggl.io, she snorted, let the platform clank to the bottom, and turned.
“My friends with kids won’t shut up about that thing. What does it even do?”
“That’s the thing,” he said. “I can’t figure it out. Their website, if you can call it that, is the most cryptic thing I’ve ever seen. No features, no product pictures. Just a pre-order button and a few lines about “changing how children do childhood.”
She grimaced. “Well, they clearly need marketing help. Anything else?”
“I think it involves a tablet, so maybe a mobile-first campaign makes sense?” he shrugged. “Otherwise, all I can find is that is their CEO is 24 and that they just raised $4.3 million.”
“I’m clearly in the wrong business,” Kate muttered. “Kids?”
Charlie shook his head. “You?”
“One. She’ll be two this September.”
Maybe I could learn to like kids, he thought. “OK, so what has your friends so worked up about this Snuggl.io thing? And why haven’t you joined them?”
“Real talk?” she said. “They’re afraid not to be. That’s the thing with young parents, at least these days. They’ve got social media bombarding them with a nonstop feed of other parents taking their kids to yoga, or playing their kids’ Tuvan throat singing CDs, or buying organic, hand-packaged baby food from the farmer’s market, and on and on. They never feel like they’re doing enough. Like, if some kid’s parents do something and they don’t, they’re failing. It’s the perfect storm of guilt and envy.”
“You might as well have a thing on your phone that goes off every time other parents do something extra-parenty, just so you can feel as guilty as possible. In real time.”
Oh. My. God.
“Wait.” Charlie stood slowly. “Would that work?”
“Not on me,” she said. “But for most folks? Yeah, probably. Like I said, they’d be too afraid not to use it.”
“Will you still be here tomorrow night?” he asked. “I’d like to buy you a drink. Not like a date drink, but just a drink drink. Like a thank—”
“I’ll be at the bar downstairs by 7,” she said. “Now get to work.”
Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile