Saturday, October 08, 2005

Our Ms. Smith

I’m still putting in the insane hours, folks — well, insane to me, anyway. I’ve heard tales of 80 hour work weeks and have been properly astonished by them, but the past week I recorded 60 hours on my timesheet and that, for me, is quite a row to hoe. One of the guys I work with tells me that back in the day he used to regularly put in 80 hour weeks. I can only comment that he’s rebounded nicely from his workaholic ways, as he nowadays is in the habit of scooting out of work at ten minutes to five. It seems he’s realized there’s more important things to life; his priorities are more in line with what really counts. I can only imagine one of those priorities is scooting out of work at ten minutes to five.

I’m nearly done with the not-for-profit agency’s annual report and am giving much more attention to the schoolbook publisher’s spring catalog. Our client, whom we shall call Ms. Smith, is a very interesting study. She’s young — only 31 or 32 — fit-looking and attractive in her way (she’s not exactly my type, but I can easily see how she can be others’ type). She has an oval face, nicely coifed blonde hair, large, intelligent blue eyes, and flawless porcelain skin. Her teeth are ruler straight and perfectly white. It’s easy to imagine her the subject of an old oil painting, a rich merchant’s wife perhaps, dressed in garments stiffened by a crinoline petticoat and wearing a frilly bonnet. Or maybe she could have been a contemporary of Madame X. When you meet her and sit down and talk with her, you find yourself in the presence of the most composed and placid creature on earth. Every sentence she utters is well-considered and spoken calmly and clearly. She never fails to look straight at you when she talks and you can’t help but notice that the whites of her eyes are untainted by even the smallest red capillary. She is sincerity personified. You know she can handle the most dire exigency with unruffled equanimity. Ms. Smith is the very portrait of order and cleanliness and rationality.

This same Ms. Smith has also quickly become the scourge of the graphic design industry. She’s acquired quite a reputation for being contrary-minded and particular to a fault. Two other design studios I know of have done catalogs and other creative work for her, and, after spending double the time estimated for the job and harassed nearly beyond endurance, have found, as a reward, the account wrested from their near lifeless fingers and given to the next victim. One design agency went so far as to sue her company and wouldn’t give us certain files we needed for a small job we were doing for her at the time until she settled with them. The polite word for her is that she’s “picky.”

We met Ms. Smith when she worked for Company A. She had us do two sales marketing kits for schoolbooks, one for kindergarten and the other for grades one through five. The kindergarten pack was of particular importance to her and we were instructed to make it fun and vibrant and colorful and other such adjectives. It just so happened that on this first job we hit the jackpot when the above mentioned 80 Hour Man designed exactly what she wished for — in fact, he even surpassed her expectations. Call it a fluke, call it what you will, but she was delighted with his concept and, since then, 80 Hour Man has been a great favorite of hers. (My bosses, not slow to pick up on her liking for him, always have 80 Hour Man be the spokesman for any project we do for her — as is the case now.)

During those heady days we could do no wrong, and, when she moved on to Company B, she gave us another project, this time marketing brochures (or mini-catalogs). Alas, here the magic failed — nothing worked. We tried and tried and tried. We put double and triple the usual energy into coming up with cover designs that would send other clients into throes of ecstacy, but for Ms. Smith — after having sniffed over them once or twice — it came down to the simple fact that none could be looked at and pronounced The Greatest Cover on Earth. The familiar phrase was, “I don’t love it.” Finally, on a Monday, we set an appointment for her to come to our office that Thursday. Then we rolled up our sleeves, boiled up some coffee, put our shoulders to the wheel, left no stone unturned, and pulled out all the stops (if I’ve forgotten a cliche, please supply your own). I hunched over my computer and hummed the theme from The Bridge Over the River Kwai as I worked, while, from across the way, 80 Hour Man opted for the theme from Rocky. I thought I heard Happy Days Are Here Again coming from the creative director’s office. The creative juices were flowing, baby. We were scaling Everest, we were going to plant our flag at the top. Ms. Smith wasn’t going to beat us.

On Thursday morning, we spread over the large, circular glass table in our bosses’ suite the finest collection of work my company has ever created at one time. That’s no lie. I looked at what we did — my contributions, 80 Hour Man’s contributions, the creative director’s contributions — and I could have shed tears of joy. We did ourselves proud. There must have been 15 layouts for Ms. Smith to choose from. The problem, as I saw it, wasn’t that she wouldn’t find anything she liked — the problem was choosing which one she’d like the most.

We collected the designs up into a neat stack and, after Ms. Smith arrived and pleasantries were exchanged, she seated herself and the president of the company went through each of the layouts one by one. Her face was inscrutable from beginning to end. She made noncommittal replies to all comments and questions and waited for the presentation to conclude. Finally, after giving only a cursory look at the last cover design, she gave her verdict without so much as a moment’s pause. “They just don’t work. I didn’t love any of them.”

The president of our company is, by nature, a fairly brusque man — or he is with us, anyway. He’s charming when in a good mood, but if things aren’t going well, it’s best to tread lightly. With clients, it’s usually fun to see him assume a bonhomie that very likely is not 100% sincere. You can hear him laugh heartily at a lame joke and know he’s thinking: what an asshole! Here his affability was put to its greatest test — the show of imperturbability he displayed at that moment surely drained nearly all his reserves of patience. His disappointment must have been immense, but he did his best to act as if he foresaw her reaction.

“So what is it you’re looking for?” he asked civilly. “Can you put it into words? Are there any designs here that might come close?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see any.”

“Surely out of all of these there must be two or three that can provide the basis for something. Here, let me spread them all out on the table.”

80 Hour Man and I jumped to our feet and we helped the president arrange them for her to review.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I understand this is all good work, but none of them do it for me.”

Here the president reseated himself and said in a reasonable tone of voice, “Look, say if someone held a gun to your head and told you to pick one, which one would it be?”

She paused a moment and then replied, “I think I’d rather get shot.”

The president smiled as if she just said a joke, while, for me, it took everything I had to restrain myself from standing up and walking out of the room. I mean that. I came within a hair’s breadth of walking right out. I knew Ms. Smith had gone to Harvard, I knew her income was quadruple mine, I knew she was in a whole other class, but at that moment I was sure I was looking at the silliest, most ignorant human being it was ever my misfortune to meet. It baffled me that someone who could do what she had just done — basically shit over what I considered top drawer creative work — should be entrusted with the position she had. It was irresponsible wasting people’s time this way. I was so angry I couldn’t trust myself to speak.

In the end, the president and creative director managed to drag out of her some vague direction that did us practically no good. We felt like a boxer who, after having gambled and expended all his energy trying to knock out his opponent out in one desperate round, finds himself obliged to answer the bell again with tapped out reserves. But this time we enlisted the aid of the studio’s young gun: Mr. Random Squeegee himself, John. And do you know what? He actually came up with a layout she liked! He cracked the Ms. Smith Code. We nearly hoisted him up on our shoulders and paraded him up and down the South End singing victory songs.

Now Ms. Smith works for Company C, and the job we have is daunting to say the least: a 200-some-odd page main catalog, several mini-catalogs, and an assortment of brochures and direct mail pieces. I’m in charge of the main catalog, but Ms. Smith keeps myopically sending comments about it to 80 Hour Man, so we’re letting her think 80 Hour Man is running the whole show. In fact, she was at the office last Friday with the idea of overseeing tweaks to the catalog’s first section, so we set 80 Hour Man up at the computer that’s just off the conference room. I briefed him on what he needed to know, and all day Ms. Smith sat next to 80 Hour Man and directed him while he worked on the computer. During this, I tackled the more troublesome spreads in the comfort and privacy of my office. Sweet deal.

So that’s where we stand, right in the thick of it. I’ve brought work home with me this weekend, so I’ll be slogging away in my slippers and jammies. I just hope there’ll be a bonus at the end of this.


Blogger Chloe said...

What a cunt! The best bonus would be her head on a platter.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

Oh! And also, you abso-freakin'-lutely should get a bonus for this! How is it that someone as young as she is such hot shit with each of these companies and keeps making more money? A rather vulgar thought popped into my head, however I shall refrain from sharing.....

4:36 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

I laughed at her "I'd rather be shot" line. Women in business are always looked down upon when they expect better. No one frowns upon Donald Trump's pickiness. I'm glad it worked out, either way.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Paul (rock star wanna be) said...

You had me on the edge of my seat reading this. Awesome post... Good luck on closing this deal.

9:57 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Chloe, one thing I neglected to mention is that I like her. I think she's a nice person. If I met her socially, we'd probably get on well together. Michele, your vulgar thought has also popped into my head, but how many high-powered execs would submit to her demand of washing themselves thoroughly with Neutrogena soap just prior to sharing a bed with her? Not very many, I think. And Beth, I understand where you're coming from, but the frustration becomes intolerable when "better" no longer seems possible — you've already achieved your best. The design John came up with was very good, but no better than what she had seen before. I'd feel the same way about Donald Trump — in fact, I already do.

Thanks for the good thoughts, Paul. We shall overcome.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Flash said...

I have a client like Mrs. Smith at my place of partial work. I do their car advertising, and when i get the details, it's just a bunch of facts on the car, no ideas on how they want it laied out, nothing on "flow".

Every ad I do for her is wrong, yet, she gives me no ideas on what she is looking for. When she does scrape some idea off the top of her brain for me, she usually changes it after the second proof meeting. Mr. Schprock, I know you of all can relate to this:

She hates white space and will do anything to fill it.

It drives me nuts.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Chloe said...

Mr. Schprock, you're kind to say such nice things about her after all she's put you and your coworkers through. As far as her personality goes, though, I just don't love it.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

I admit, it would crush me to be criticized to that extent, but I just think women get such a bad rap in business. I think she's making uber-bucks for a reason. She doesn't believe in emotional anything, I bet. I'd like to see what was turned down and what was accepted. Too bad you couldn't scan it. Haha.

6:19 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I can't stand people like that. They can't admit that they are unable to come up with an idea themselves, so they nitpick anything good that you figure out. They'll be criticizing their own coffin as they're lowered into the ground.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Jaxx said...

Wow, this chick is something else. I think there's a difference between being picky and just being impossible to please. What I would have found most irritating in that siuation is the fact that she didn't 'love' anything, but couldn't give you any ideas about what she would love. Unbelievable.

9:09 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"She hates white space and will do anything to fill it."

Oh yeah, oh yeah. We've got clients like that. The same ones who say, "Make this type bigger and bolder, and put it in a different color, so it stands out against all the rest of the type that's just bigger and bolder."

"They'll be criticizing their own coffin as they're lowered into the ground."

And saying, "This hole doesn't look six feet deep to me!"

9:14 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I think there's a difference between being picky and just being impossible to please."

Well said, Jaxx.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

What they said...
And "Company C" what sort of stupid name is that? Only someone so dumb as her would work for a place with a name like that.


9:48 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

What about the Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy from Company C?

10:14 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

Boogie woogie bugle bitch is more like it, huh

10:34 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

She's hard to love, Henry.

4:34 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

If you'd like, I'll smack her upside the head for you.

And I hate women like this because it makes a bad name for the rest of women in business. You don't have to be a contrary bitch to get ahead, but so many think you do.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

That was one hell of a post Mr. Schprock. Your description of the situation had a wonderful pace, and I was pulled in and didn't come up for air once. I was right there with you when she opted for a bullet in the head. I would have absolutely despised her also, but your boss is amazing. If he would have been anyone of lesser stature, her business would be at another firm. I have to say though, she is one tough person, much less a woman. It takes brass ovaries to dismiss a body of work done on your behest, to insist on only what works for you. I would have chosen the best of the bunch, even if I didn't like any of them. I am equally certain, however, that I wouldn't have been so picky.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Mona said...

Wow...that was heart-and-gut-wrenching. I've been in positions like that, in a company, where I secretly wished that the president would say, most sincerely, "Thank you, but we're not interested in your business."

But...if something is working, and if this pain brings good things later, then it's worth it. Right? Right, Mr. Schprock? That's the mantra we have to convince ourselves, right?

Secretly, I loved the response, "I'd rather be shot."

2:05 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"And I hate women like this because it makes a bad name for the rest of women in business."

Actually, I really don't mean this in any way as a diatribe against women in business, or Ms. Smith specifically as a "woman in business." This is just a story about someone who shouldn't be doing what she's doing. She's actually very bright and I admire her in other ways. She's a good person. But what I wrote really happened in the way I told it.

Having said that, Kathleen, there are some other people I know who could use a smack upside the head — if you're willing.

Scott — "brass ovaries"? Good one!

"But...if something is working, and if this pain brings good things later, then it's worth it."

Yes, Mona. I took a meditation class once and the instructor referred to the bumps and bruises of life as "teachers." How true. I'm sure my personal growth benefits from stuff like this . . . later, of course.

4:03 PM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

Bet she'd get along great with Emily Gilmore.
And yes, I made a Gilmore Girls reference. I'm not ashamed! :P

She sounds like a frustrating woman! Good luck.

12:22 PM  
Blogger :phil: said...

She paused a moment and then replied, “I think I’d rather get shot.”
That's funny. It's hard to please some people, I can relate

5:15 PM  
Blogger Shatterfist said...

It sounds like Mrs. Smith has no soul. That's probably why she can't appreciate art - like she's actually an android or something. If I were her, I wouldn't use the "I'd rather be shot" response too often in Boston.

4:26 PM  

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