The Sledgehammer Metaphor

It looks so metaphor-y.....ooooh

Matthew Paquin was dozing off in a conference room adjacent to his office. He was busily interviewing advertising firms looking for some group or someone who could interject from creative sunshine into his staid daily newspaper. As the new Managing Editor, the exhausted youngish-looking man was disappointed in all things metric: circulation was down, classified, display advertising was languishing, and competitors were chiseling away at the already too precious market share. It was a crappy time to be in the newspaper business and it was up to him to make some new moves.

He was hired to shake things up and his first decision was to bring in some professionals to tell him what to do. A journalist by trade, Matt had little patience for the so-called creative types and had learned to somewhat accommodate their jargon-saturated blatherings, as he had gotten older. The day was blocked off to bring in four leading groups for pitch meetings and Matt was halfway through the third one when he realized that he was slowly going crazy. The slideshow presentations were all done on Microsoft PowerPoint™ and so far, all three of the presenters had the grating habit of reading every word instead of showing an image and summary and talking around it. Two of the three went even farther and also read the title and supporting bullet points word for word.

The third presentation was led by a slicked haired sales type with strangely dull and small teeth. When he talked, Matt’s eyes were drawn to his mouth trying to differentiate the speaker’s strangely colored little rat teeth from the general pallor of his complexion. Each time the presenter would laugh or enunciate, Matt could see the two lines of nougat-colored teeth, lined up cooperatively in his mouth; giving the impression of a ecru colored cob of corn with a uniform split down the middle. The combination of the teeth color and his tendency to listen with his mouth open resulted in an odd image of slow-talking yet fast-looking person reading large words. The closest comparison was a poorly dubbed and boring foreign film narrated by an extra from Miami Vice.

He tried desperately to concentrate but the dull little man with the dull little teeth insisted on reading verbatim each of the slides, which Matt had estimated in the high thousands. Teased with a hard copy of the presentation, the actual slide count were cruelly omitted, thus forcing Matt and his lieutenants to deal with dispassionate and canned vocal stylings of a soulless incubus. Eventually the presentation labored to an end and Matt had made it quietly but abundantly clear that any follow-up questions by anyone on his staff would evoke his lifelong wrath. The presentation team asked several times, if anyone had any question whatsoever but eventually packed up and left as the audience sat there quietly hoping for their departure. Hands were shook, cards exchanged, and the agency team departed, leaving the team alone in the conference littered with expensive colored binders of the exact words that were still drilling their ways into the brain stems of the group.

The group saw the sales people leave and exhaled a collective sigh of relief.

“I can’t handle another one of these,” said Matt. “I find these canned presentations insulting and trite. Also, I get the impression that they think we are illiterate.”

“I figure they made one presentation two years ago and they keep trotting it out every time they get a chance,” said Mariah Johnese. She had been Matt’s top lieutenant and now was currently responsible for all paper operations. Not only smart and a great journalist, she was one of the most beautiful women within five states. Mariah was stop the clock, slap the baby stunning and when she walked down the street, people consistently would stop what they were doing and just stare. The extent of her beauty actually caused her more harm than good because no one could initially believe anyone that gorgeous had the journalistic chops to be in her position.

“Can things be this bad? Do we actually need a marketing strategy?”

“Yes. Good reporting isn’t enough anymore. We need to put together some sort of plan.”

“I know,” said Matt reluctantly. “But I can’t take any more PowerPoints. I see the template crap, complete with their cut and paste mentality and I want to scream. Doesn’t anyone care about function over form?”

“I will treat that as a rhetorical question,” said Felix Michaels. “Of course someone cares about that but I doubt if we will find them during this series of pitch meetings.”

“I agree. So, who is next?”

“I don’t have their handouts yet. They usually arrive via courier an hour or so before their show so as soon as I get them, I will hand them out,” said Mariah, “It’s time for lunch.”

When Matt came back after taking a long walk over lunch, he found Mariah and Felix in the conference room giggling.

“What is so funny?”

“This presentation starts off with a poem.”

“You are kidding, a poem? That is so juvenile, so tragically desperate and bordering on sophomoric.”

Mariah read several lines to provide context but did not take the time to slog through the two pages. The fact that the poem was there was good enough for the trio.

Matt usually used the word ‘sophomoric’ as a compliment. In fact, he stated using it after an old college girlfriend had accused him of being sophomoric; which he took as neither an insult nor a compliment. The accusation had ironically occurred when he actually was a sophomore but he had the good sense not to point that out to her nor accuse her of misusing the word. Officially immature, he did not argue that point but the actual definition of sophomoric also implies a combination of conceit and overconfidence while being poorly informed. She was legitimately frustrated with his obvious lack of maturity but he actually showed some odd maturity by not striking back and arguing the merits of the word even though he did resent the implication, that he was stupid. However, he took the criticism to heart and walked away, know that the relationship was rightfully over. They were not only going in different directions, the direction was now considered askew and likely never to cross socially again.

“I happen to love poems, if I was writing for a junior high school newspaper,” said Felix.

Matt was still fixating on the use of a poem as part of a pitch strategy when Felix commented about the high school newspaper. Felix’s comment rang a bell but he continued to think about the motivation for it. If the goal was to separate the presentation from the others, it succeeded but the risks introduced by such an odd move made the whole thing more peculiar than bold. Up until now, three groups had send in a standard template consisting of an executive summary, a PowerPoint presentation and some type of cutesy memento designed to reemphasize their pitched message. On his desk, he had calculator that looked like a mini-newspaper (signifying the multiple and yet-to-be mined uses for the newspaper), a cool rocket ship emblazoned with the masthead of the paper (signifying the move into the 21st century) and a kangaroo wearing a little newspaper carrier’s bag (the significance was still unclear). Obviously, the fourth group was going to worth seeing to figure out if they were crazy risk-takers or just crazy.

There was at least an hour before the presentation and the good part about being the client is that you don’t have to do anything but show up. The agency was already arriving next door and they were relieved they had an hour to tech out the room. Too often, poor presentations occurred when the technical magic fails to come about due to the failure of walking into a room cold without the benefit of some preparation in the actual venue. Thanks to a common air grate, Matt and his team heard the group running through the stages and at first listen, they seemed just like the other teams. Occasionally, one would scamper by in a dark suit over some appropriate but slightly chancy artsy-fartsy accessory or shirt color but at first blush, they didn’t look like poets.

“I am so glad the ponytail look is over with for the guys,” said Mariah. “I was officially sick to death of guys with ponytails and dark suits acting superior.”

“The ponytail will be viewed in the same vein as the bow tie, the cowboy hat and the shoulder-padded blazer,” said Matt. “But the few folks I have seen next door neither look like poets or Judith Light.”

“Yeah, that poem,” said Mariah. “I wonder how they fit that into the pitch.”

“Well, we’ll find out sooner than later,” said Matt.

When the time came, Matt was anxious to see what they had to say. The poem had energized him, from an absurdest standpoint, but fatigue-killing energy is better than many of emotions. He was still thinking about the ploy when him and his team trotted into the room and they took strategic positions in between the agency team. They had agreed upon spreading themselves around the room in order to see the agency’s communications dynamic and to avoid the awkward structure of placing the two groups on opposite ends of a table, acting like the Paris peace talks.

The presentation started as normally with general introductions of all the players. The graphics-rich pitch books were distributed ceremoniously and the PowerPoint™ was exactly like the other three. Drunk with bullet points and effective white space, the presentation climaxed with a repeat of their main points and the groups found themselves were they started: looking at each other, awaiting epiphany, sadness or euphoria.

“Are there any questions,” asked the agency lead. She was a pleasant attractive but semi-generic young woman in her late thirties, with hip glasses and stylized Mao suit. It was nicely accessorized with her own fashion choices and positioned in that fashion sweet spot of creative yet still benign enough not to offend.

The group didn’t say anything. Matt, Felix and Mariah were waiting for someone to reference the poem. Mariah knew the poems content the best of the three and she was embarrassed to be the one to own the knowledge. She had quietly read the whole thing twice during the presentation, to stay engaged, but didn’t have the heart to route it to the others. The poem went on and on, ruthlessly beating the “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” meter into the ground while beating the drum for this agency’s creativity and moxie.

Finally, Mariah could not take the silence. “What about the poem?”

“The poem?” The three agency flacks said in unison. “The poem?”

“The ‘Night Before Christmas’ poem. The one stuck in the pitch kit.”

When Matt had heard the words “night before Christmas,” his head snapped back and suddenly said, in an excited voice usually reserved for his inner dialogue, “Miranda Billings.”

Again, all three agency types said, “You know Miranda Billings?”

Matt waved his hand slightly, signifying that he would talk first. “I knew a Miranda Billings, in fact, I went to school with her.”

“Well,” said the fledging Maoist, “she might be a year or two younger than you but you appear to be both in the same age range.”

“That’s understandable,” said Matt. “I was the editor of the High School paper and Miranda was a cub reporter. Not only did she not do anything I had asked, she seems determined to use the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ in every journalistic situation imaginable.”

“That’s her,” said the Maoist. “She is the daughter of the agency’s founder and one of the perquisites of the lucky sperm club is to enjoy the title of Creative Director.”

The Maoist had just committed the cardinal sin of marketing magic: criticizing the man and the magic behind the curtain. However, this criticism was a tactical decision because she could tell that Miranda had begun annoying people long before she worked at the agency. Possibly leveraging that knowledge with this shared exasperation of her alleged skills and abilities, this could work in her favor.

Matt smiled. He had not thought of Miranda for almost twenty years. He recalled back in High School when flush with success of using the Night Before Christmas poem on her first story, she trotted it out with almost apocalyptical effects on a dance full of future farmers and homemakers. He continued to smile when he remembered her incredulous reactions to his complete re-write of her Iliad-inspired dance piece and how she stormed out of the newsroom, completely frustrated with his inability to recognize her genius.

He graduated a few weeks later and did not literally think of her again. Ironically, he never had cause to see the Christmas poem in his travels, as that would have guaranteed a memory or two, but he went on to college and into a succession of newspaper gigs starting with reporting, columnist and eventually made a conscious decision about five years ago to move into a formal editor role. This newspaper was a sleepy beast; a great history but a lack of interest in staying current with the times and the ever changing needs of its readers. He was growing a medium-sized paper in a medium-sized town when he got a call from the owner of a conglomerate of newspaper chains. This paper was his for the taking and he was guaranteed complete and total control. After a spirited round of negotiations, he took control of the paper and headed off on a goal to haul it into the next century.

He always liked being an editor and was comfortable about making decisions. In retrospective, a vast majority of his decisions were good ones and always slanted towards the readers’ perspective. He both supported and challenged his reporters and always preached accuracy and corroboration. Decisions on story lines were made quickly and Matt’s decisions were instinctive and on the mark. In only a few decisions did Matt second-guess himself; usually hindsight showed him other options but his gut and heart were in the right place and usually at the right time.

When he took over the paper, he spent a few weeks getting familiar with the operations; he spent time with sales, distribution as well as his editorial staff but he learned very quickly that the paper needed a face lift and needed that face lift quickly. Once of the first orders of business was to get some agency professionals in and help shape the overall message for the newspaper. Newspapers were always looked at old-fashioned and each day that perception became more solidified with twenty-four cable news stations, Internet sources and a constant, wide-open flood of information. Matt knew that each day, more and more of his subscribers were dying of old age and even more and more of the younger generation turned their cyber-noses up even at the mere mention of the old and inky method of information dissemination.

He made a few phone calls and eventually brought in the top four marketing agencies that specialized in media makeovers. Each one had a series of success stories but unfortunately, none had battle stripes in the specific task of blowing sunshine into an old concept like a newspaper. Personally, he had several ideas rolling around in his head including investing in more street reporters, improving the cosmetics of the paper’s look and feel and partnering with the local schools to get some excited, new readers into the fold but he felt it was time to bring in the professionals.

As he kept flashing back to the twenty-year old high school newspaper office images, he wanted to re-think the “hiring some professionals” strategy. These folks had likely been enduring Miranda’s countless attempts at reusing the poem at every opportunity.

The increase in conversational volume in the conference room brought him back to the present day; everyone was talking either to justify the presence of the poem or to position themselves one person away from the growing realization that this ad agency had its own internal issues. Matt’s eyes locked onto the Maoist’s and she motioned that she would call him after this meeting to either explain the world she was living in or to yet again draw distinction between the thickness of blood and water. Matt was pleased they could talk away from the literal maddening crowd and quickly concluded the meeting.

“Excuse me? Excuse me everybody?” Matt loudly said. The din was still pretty impressive but his second request for quiet seemed to turn the noise into a duller and more manageable roar.

“It appears that the poem got us all sidetracked. I am glad that the main points of the meeting were presented before the discovery and I want to thank you all for coming to see us and for all that hard work.”

Usually, that last sentence was shorthand for ‘thanks but no thanks,’ but in this case, the group was heartened with his final sentence.

Matt motioned towards the Maoist, still not having a clue what her name was, and said, “We will be talking off line and determining the next, best steps.”

The Maoist nodded and the team picked up all their material and Matt walked them to the door. At the elevator, he shook each one’s hand and thanked them individually, looking directly into their eyes. Finally, the Maoist was the last one and Matt took a moment longer.

“Thanks for coming in, it was certainly an interesting presentation.”

The Maoist smiled and said, “I will remember this one for a long time.”

“So, who calls who?”

The Maoist said, “I will be calling you. There is no sense wasting easy drama.” and handed Matt another card. 

He had the sense not to look down at it to finally get her name. He just smiled and pulled out another one of his cards. She smiled and placed it into her portfolio. Up close, the Maoist was far prettier that she appeared across the conference table. Her eyes were twinkling and he was picking up some type of vibe, origin or purpose unsure, but it did intrigue him.

Matt was single but was pretty careful not to date co-workers due to two main reasons: the first one was the general sexual harassment issue. He was in a supervisory role and most of the eligible women were of lower rank and thus, perfect representatives of why the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was penned in the first place. The second reason was more based on his own tendencies: an editor has to give orders, edit reporter’s stories and make tough decisions. These cruel responsibilities cause any opportunity for a social life to run and hide. If you want to strengthen a budding relationship, the thing NOT to do is to slash eighty percent of a potential girlfriend’s story.

“I will be in touch soon” said the Maoist with a glimmer of mischievousness in her eyes. And with that, the group entered the elevator and descended downward towards the lobby.

Matt turned around and looked at the card, it said “Miranda Billings, Creative Director.”

This title has been bugging me for years but the title is so good that I guess I better learn a few new tricks and
punch out something about sledgehammers and metaphors. I have no idea when this one will be out as the
challenge of working backwards looms large. This is almost done.

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