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Archive for the ‘Recollections 9 to 5’ Category

In late 1967, I was still stationed at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, near Clovis, the “Cattle Capitol of the Southwest.” I was a 1st Lt. and Commander of the Supply Squadron, and I had moved off-base to an apartment in Clovis (where, incidentally, I met my future wife Deanna).

Here are some of my journal entries from those days. In them, you will meet:

Col. Frank Shepard, Base Commander
Col. George Doerr, Deputy Base Commander
Capt. John Thornton, Base Legal Officer and my roommate
Capt. Ted Mayo, Base Legal Officer

———

3 NOV 67

Well, I’m in trouble for sure. This morning, I testified in Airman Key’s administrative discharge hearing. Key is a bad apple, and Col. Shepard (the Rococo Toad) is hell-bent on kicking him out of the service. The pressure from the Toad to get it done has been intense. Ill-advised, if not illegal.

Thornton kept me on the stand for 45 minutes, and I said my piece. In the end, the board voted to retain Key in the Air Force. Shepard will go ballistic when he reads the transcript.

Originally, Mayo was appointed as Key’s counsel, but Key insisted on Thornton. Ted was livid. After the hearing, John being John, he sent a telegram to Ted in Ft. Worth, where he and Judy are attending a country club gala. The telegram read, KEY RETAINED STOP MAY HE COME TO THE BALL STOP

5 NOV 67

A few months ago, the City of Clovis installed a marble tablet of the 10 Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Yes, for real. Thornton and I went down there this afternoon to take photos.

And get this: the Clovis tablet has 11 (eleven!) Commandments. The line about not coveting thy neighbor’s house is presented as Commandment 10, and the rest of the shalt-not-covets are Commandment 11. You can’t make this stuff up.

I’m pretty sure the 10th Commandment is supposed to be something like this: “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s House, Nor his Wife, Nor His Manservant, Nor His Maidservant, Nor His Ox, Nor his Ass, Nor Any Thing That Is Thy Neighbor’s.”

The Clovis version also skips the “Nor His Ox” part, and “Nor His Ass” was changed to “Nor His Cattle.”

Maybe the cattle part is appropriate. Clovis has stockyards as far as the eye can see and the nose can smell.

10 Cs

6 NOV 67

I got a call this morning from SSgt Hinkle, who came home early from a TDY assignment to find an airman from my squadron living with his wife. Hink wants to confront the airman in my presence. The villainous airman is on leave for a few days, so I have that to look forward to.

Mayo got John’s telegram Friday night in Ft. Worth. It arrived while they were searching for a pearl and diamond bracelet Judy lost. They didn’t find it. Poor Ted.

7 NOV 67

Thornton got permission from 12th AF to release a summarized transcript of Airman Key’s board hearing. Thank God. I was really worried about how Col. Toad would react to my testimony, honest and accurate though it was.

John said he did it to save his own skin, not mine. In his closing argument, he called Shepard two-faced and a dupe. Why, Shep would kick John off the bowling team for that.

8 NOV 67

Hinkle came to my office today and said he changed his mind, he doesn’t want a come-to-Jesus meeting with the cuckolding airman. He just wants the guy transferred as far away from Cannon as possible, ASAP. If not, he will call his congressman and every officer at Cannon from the rank of bird colonel on up.

When I informed Col. Shepard, he summoned me to his office, where he was waiting with Col. Doerr (Commissioner Gordon). Doerr is a decent guy, but nobody considers him a mental giant. He had little to contribute.

Shepard finally decided it would be best to get the offending airman reassigned. He left to go talk to Personnel about it.

9 NOV 67

The Squadron Fire Marshals met today at 1400 hours. I had to meet with Col. Shepard and Hinkle at 1500, so at 1445, I got up and quietly excused myself.

Col. Stitt, always a favorite among the junior officers, said, “Where do you think you’re going?” I explained where. “Sit down, Lieutenant,” he said. Sir yes sir.

The meeting ran until 1530 hours. When I got to the Toad’s office, he chewed me out for being late. I apologized for being such a slug.

Col. Shepard told Sgt. Hinkle that the Casanova airman will get a fast assignment to somewhere else. Personnel is already working on it.

He then gave Hinkle a lecture on how to keep your family together. Ha. Last spring, the Toad’s wife threw him out for two weeks for some mysterious transgression. To our collective chagrin, we never found out what it was.

10 NOV 67

When I got back from lunch, Capt. Bryan from Civil Engineering was waiting in my office. Some major told him that the CE barracks is a disgrace and Bryan’s men are filthy pigs, which is true. The major said Bryan could learn something from Supply Squadron.

That was flattering. I wanted to ask which major it was, but Bryan wasn’t in a happy place, so I refrained.

In spite of being angry and insulted, Bryan was curious. And there he was, asking to see my barracks. I gave him the pass keys and sent him down the hall with a pat on the rump.

13 NOV 67

This morning, MSgt Smith popped in and said he couldn’t find the pass keys. Did I have them? Crap. That moron Bryan didn’t return them.

Smith asked what we should do. I said either pick up the phone and call Bryan or go over to CE and find him, your choice.

I’m amazed that Smith got to be a first sergeant. He always needs help or permission.

I’m beginning to think the Air Force is a haven for incompetents and loafers who can’t make it in the civilian world. Maybe the entire military is that way. I try to maintain my sense of humor about it. You could go mad if you let the daily nonsense and stupidity and petty dramas wear you down.

Now if I can just laugh my way through the next 264 days, I’ll have my DD 214.

DD 214

———

The Rocky Smith of those days honestly believed, I can attest, that the Air Force was a sanctuary for incompetents and loafers incapable of handling civilian life. To him, the evidence was clear.

On the other hand, he was still a young lieutenant, not long out of college, whose work experience was, in fact, limited to the Air Force. Not until he left the military and widened his experience would he learn the truth: all workplaces are the same, whether military, government, academic, privately-held, or whatever.

In reality, the world of Dilbert is the universal norm. Only the people change. And you might as well laugh as cry.

 

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When I got my Bachelor’s degree in 1964, I wanted to follow up with a Master’s in Journalism and Law. But there was a complication. I took ROTC as an undergraduate, and at some point, the Air Force would call me up to serve four years on active duty.

In reality, months could pass, even a year or more, before your orders arrived. Starting grad school in the meantime was not unreasonable.

But it didn’t happen. My orders arrived immediately. I graduated in early June and became 2nd Lt. Smith by the end of July. Indeed, life is like a box of chocolates.

My assignment was to Cannon AFB in eastern New Mexico. I lived in the Bachelor Officers Quarters and worked as an Administrative Officer, a deputy to one of the squadron commanders. Later, when the C.O. went to Vietnam, I moved up to his job.

Being a Journalism major and predisposed to writing, I quickly fell into the habit of keeping a journal about my life at Cannon.

Here are some entries from late 1965. All the names below are real except “Billy Joe Brown.” For him, a pseudonym seemed prudent.

———

3 DEC 65

The legal office called this morning and said to come running. They needed me on standby until we got a verdict in the court-martial of one of my airmen, Billy Joe Brown, alleged bad check artist, deserter, and car thief.

Billy Joe and I played double solitaire for an hour, and then the verdict arrived: a Bad Conduct Discharge, forfeiture of all pay, and six months confinement. I signed Billy Joe over to the APs and headed out to find some lunch.

6 DEC 65

Groan. 1st Lt. Jelley from Operations Support called. He said he had reason to believe that one of my men, A1C Wika, had stolen two parachutes while on the night shift and may have hidden them in his room in the barracks.

“You’re kidding,” I said. Jelley said no, he wasn’t kidding. With a sigh, I went up to Wika’s room and woke him up. I said, “Do you know your rights under Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice?” Nope.

I couldn’t ask questions until he acknowledged his rights, so I went back down to my office, got a copy of Article 31, and read it to him. He said he understood.

So I said, “Wika, don’t laugh, but did you swipe two parachutes while you were working last night, and if so, are they hidden in this room?” The room is barely large enough for me, Wika, and the bed.

“Yeah, Lieutenant,” he snorted. “I stuffed them in the pillowcase.”

7 DEC 65

I got to my office this morning to find 2nd Lt. Harkrider and MSgt Childress from Base Fuels waiting for me. Harkrider, who looks about 14, is trying to grow a mustache. It’s sort of a wispy blond thing. He said someone stole a parka, and he needed my advice on how to open an investigation.

That’s easy, I said. You don’t open an investigation. You call the Air Police, stand back, and watch them open it. Childress, who is twice as big as Harkrider and twice his age, never spoke.

8 DEC 65

MSgt Stricklan is a crackerjack first sergeant. I’m lucky to have him. Everyone at Cannon respects him, from the top brass to the latrine orderlies.

Strick and I have an unofficial arrangement: I don’t do anything without his tacit approval. That way, the squadron runs smoothly, and I get credit for having the sense to listen to my first sergeant. Mama didn’t raise no fool.

Usually, Strick is stoic and cool-headed, but this week he nearly blew a fuse. It happened during the barracks inspection when he discovered that Airman Lloyd hadn’t changed the sheets on his bed for about a year.

Apparently, Lloyd was out boozing the night before and was still sawing logs when Strick reached his room. Lloyd usually has the bed made and the room ready for inspection, but this time, he was sprawled out on the bed zonked, and the linens were exposed for all to see.

Something about it hit a nerve with Strick. He was appalled. Indignant. He said the sheets were brown, Lieutenant! Literally brown! He reamed Lloyd out and told him to (1) change the bed, (2) prepare for a re-inspection, and then (3) report to my office.

An hour later, a half-hung-over Lloyd knocked on my office door. He admitted he hadn’t changed the sheets since he arrived at Cannon this time last year, but he didn’t see what the big deal was. It was easier just to make the bed and be done with it.

I patiently made a hygiene case. Lloyd wasn’t impressed. No matter, I told him. I suspect you’re about to be put on a laundry schedule that will be personally monitored by the First Sergeant.

10 DEC 65

Maj. Colvard from Operations Support called. He wanted to know if I had reported the theft of the two parachutes to the APs. I said no, they aren’t my parachutes.

Maybe not, he said, but Col. Shepard wants you to handle it. And while you’re at it, report the loss of six aircraft tires. I have the paperwork. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.

———

In my next post, some journal entries from 1967.

Stricklan & Smith

MSgt Stricklan and 2nd Lt. Smith in the Orderly Room, December 1965. Note the many decorations Lt. Smith had earned at that stage of his military career.

 

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Finding My Niche

Before I retired and became a man of leisure, I was an ordinary working dude. A nine-to-fiver. A white-collar wage slave.

Over the years, I came to know a series of corporate cultures that were every bit as Kafkaesque as the world of Dilbert, but without the humor.

Some of those places — actually, most of those places — were dreadful, borderline dysfunctional organizations. Bureaucracy, politics, and incompetence were constant obstacles. In truth, the organizations were not so much managed as mismanaged, and everyone knew it.

And, oh, how I hated it. The pomposity of the corporate caste system, the norm of inefficiency and waste — everything about it was offensive. I was in a state of constant indignation.

Probably, eventually, I was destined to leave corporate life behind. I had no idea what I might do to make a living, but I wasn’t making peace with the life I was leading.

Then, in 1989, when I took a new job in metro Atlanta, I got a lucky break.

The job was in the advertising department at Lithonia Lighting, a national manufacturer of commercial, industrial, and residential light fixtures.

The position, it turned out, provided a niche that gave me unexpected protection from the worst of the corporate crapola. I was able to do my work in a manner I found acceptable. It was a gift from God.

The details are a bit tedious, but I’ll try to keep it simple.

Lithonia Lighting hired me as the company’s first professional copywriter. The Advertising Department staff included graphic designers and marketing types, but no writers.

I soon learned that, in large part, I was hired to fix a chronic and maddening problem: the higher-ups were tired of being sued, sometimes by their own sales reps, over typos and inaccuracies in the printed material describing the products.

For a long time, the bosses had been reluctant to hire a writer. This was a company of and for engineers — real men — not some useless liberal arts major.

But they finally relented, and there I was, a detail-oriented guy with a knack for writing, grammar, proofreading, and similar skills that the engineers, poor things, clearly lacked.

The inaccuracies in the sales literature were having real consequences. When a contract is signed to supply the light fixtures to populate an office building, a factory, a mall, or whatever, the financial commitment is significant.

And lots of variables are involved — wattage, voltage, light source, lumen output, fixture dimensions, and more. If the products delivered are not precisely as quoted, and don’t perform precisely as promised, the manufacturer (or the manufacturer’s rep) is legally liable.

Lithonia Lighting was capable of manufacturing countless product variations. The technical specifications for all those theoretical products were maintained in a vast set of central files. The files amounted to a blueprint of what could and could not be manufactured.

When the sales reps needed descriptions of specific products to facilitate a deal, the company would refer to the official files and furnish the necessary information to the reps. In effect, documents describing any version of any product were available on demand.

When a product was modified or a new product variation was created, the central files were updated. Thus, theoretically, the sales force always had access to the latest and most accurate information.

In the years before I came along, the central files had been maintained and updated by a succession of employees — product engineers, marketing trainees, sales people, and others.

They were, to be sure, sincere and capable folks in their areas of specialty. But ensuring the accuracy of a huge mass of constantly-changing data was not among their skills. Hence, they decided to try someone like me.

Owing to the scale of the task, I was allowed to hire a few young copywriters fresh out of college. Like most writers, they were naturally detail-oriented and undeterred by what others might see as overwhelming and unmanageable.

And it worked. Within a year or two, we brought discipline to the system and restored the data files to a state of accuracy that was, if not perfect, at least acceptable. The lawsuit problems faded away. The bosses were pleased.

As a result of all this, management tended to stay out of my way. They were happy to let me do my thing, more or less undisturbed.

Because I was important to them in this manner, I was exempt from many of the petty annoyances of corporate life.

When a stupid management fad came along — Six Sigma, Core Competency, Management by Objectives — I wasn’t forced to endure the training sessions as were my peers.

And never once was I assigned to the universally-hated duty of helping to conduct the periodic inventories of the main warehouse, which was the size of the Pentagon.

As time passed, the people changed, and the tools we used and the tasks we performed evolved. But the work remained interesting and fun.

The Advertising Department, an enclave of creative types amid a sea of math and science majors, was never dull.

And I stayed plenty busy. In addition to overseeing the product data, we produced product catalogs, prepared advertising and marketing material, wrote news releases and newsletters, and edited a steady mass of correspondence.

Yes, the place was still a typical large corporation. The bureaucracy was appalling. The mismanagement, at times, was spectacular and stultifying.

But I stayed anyway. For 25 years.

All because I got lucky and found my niche.

Managing

 

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On a balmy day in June 1964, I was handed two documents: my college diploma and my commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, the latter courtesy of ROTC.

Within two weeks, I was ordered to active duty. Before July ended, I was in uniform, serving at a base in New Mexico.

In those days, as you may know, the Vietnam War was at its height. One of the reasons I took ROTC in college was to avoid being drafted, handed a rifle, and sent into the jungles to my doom.

Yes, I dodged being drafted. But to my dismay, the Air Force still had plenty of chances to send me into the war. Fortunately, I was just a non-flight-status lieutenant, first an Administrative Officer and later a PR Officer. They decided they didn’t need me over there.

But plenty of my contemporaries got the call. How it was done was frightfully efficient.

In the Air Force, the usual practice with support personnel was to send you overseas on a TDY (temporary duty) assignment for three months. One day, everything was normal. The next day, you got the TDY orders. A few weeks later, you were in Vietnam.

What you did when you got there depended on your career field. If you were a Supply or Personnel Officer, you worked in Supply or Personnel. Had I gone, I would have remained in admin or PR.

My mentor and boss Major Walker was an experienced pilot. His Vietnam orders assigned him to fly military transports that sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange. Major Walker didn’t come home.

But in most cases, the person returned from TDY safely, greatly relieved to be back, praying that someone else would be sent next time.

However, there were exceptions. There were a few who salivated to get their orders. Who ached to be in the middle of the action.

One of them was my fellow officer Smokey Ellis.

In my experience, the non-flying junior officers were obliged to stick together. Most of us were young and single. We worked, lived, and socialized together because, as a group, we were disdained by everyone else; to the senior officers, the pilots, the NCOs, and the enlisted personnel, junior support officers are useless.

Smokey was an Air Police officer and a decent guy. He was cocky and loud, had a bit too much of a John Wayne swagger, but essentially, he was good-natured and good-hearted.

(Smokey had been his nickname since childhood. He was born Francis Charles Ellis. When he reached adulthood, because he was who he was, he had his name legally changed to Smokey Francis Charles Ellis.)

By the time I knew him, Smokey had a burning desire to get into the war while there still was one. And it wasn’t mere bravado. Like Mr. Roberts two wars earlier, he genuinely longed for his shot at glory.

He submitted Volunteer Statements. He sent letters up the chain of command. Nothing worked. There he sat, languishing in New Mexico.

Finally, he did something about it. He arranged to give up his Air Force commission and enlist in the Army.

Apparently, the Air Force saw no reason to turn him down. Knowing Smokey and his intense passion to be in the fight, I suppose it was the right decision.

Smokey left us rather hurriedly. He consented to a brief going-away party, but you knew his thoughts were elsewhere.

I last saw him in front of the Bachelor Officer Quarters as he walked down the sidewalk toward his car. Two large duffle bags were slung over his shoulder. He turned back toward us once, grinning and waving. You had to be happy for him.

We didn’t hear much from Smokey after that. There was talk that he was accepted for Green Beret training, that he went to Vietnam.

And eventually, the rumor went around that he had been killed in action.

Maybe the scuttlebutt wasn’t true. 56 soldiers named Ellis are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and neither Smokey nor Francis is one of them.

Maybe he met his fate in Thailand or Laos in some clandestine operation. Maybe he survived and is now a retired dude enjoying his grandkids.

Your guess is as good as mine.

the-wall

 

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Sometimes, a person needs to vent. And when you have a blog, you might as well use it.

It’s been nearly 50 years, and this one still sticks in my craw…

When I was in college in the 1960s, I was enrolled in the ROTC program, which was, and probably still is, the least painful way to become a military officer.

Back then, as you may know, guys my age were being handed a rifle and sent to get killed in Vietnam. I wanted no part of that, so I opted for Air Force officer training. Not the Army, and not the Marines, thank you very much.

I took a series of Air Science classes during college (in addition to the regular curriculum), and in a ceremony the morning of graduation, I was sworn into the Air Force as a second lieutenant.

Two months later, I was called up to active duty. I served from 1964 until 1968 and was, in succession, a deputy squadron commander, a full-blown squadron commander, a P.R. officer, and a squadron commander again.

I did a damn good job. As a young and unlikely boss, I tried to be as fair, impartial, and  non-dictatorial as possible. In general, the men seemed to like me, even respect me. Especially compared to other COs on the base, some of whom let power go to their heads.

Just so you’ll know, I was, at age 21, the youngest unit commander in the whole blooming Air Force, with 500 men reporting to me.

Although I knew right away that soldiering wasn’t for me, and one four-year term would be enough, I enjoyed the experience and was proud of my service.

However, in 1968, when I left the Air Force and returned to Atlanta and civilian life, armed with what any rational person ought to consider valuable experience in managing people and organizations…

… nobody cared.

Nobody.

To my dismay, the companies where I had job interviews considered my military service to be not just meaningless, but an actual detriment; to them, I was a college graduate with zero experience, AND I was four years older than the other greenhorns.

Had I served as a fighter pilot, or a tank commander, or a Green Beret — had I come home highly decorated or wounded or both — maybe my service would have meant something to them. Maybe.

The Air Force, however, had made me a desk jockey and assigned me to a training base in New Mexico. No medals or glory for me.

But the Air Force, God bless it, gave me enough responsibility to last a lifetime.

My job as a unit commander was to ride herd on the hundreds of airmen and non-coms in my charge; to see that they were housed and fed and trained; to praise, reward, and promote them when they earned it; and to mete out the appropriate discipline when they got into bar fights, ran up too many debts, went AWOL, or got drunk and decked their wives at the NCO Club on a Saturday night.

My First Sergeant and I, sometimes together and sometimes singly, stayed busy tending to an eclectic and unpredictable bunch of boys and men.

We pinned on their new stripes, got them out of jail, bragged on their babies, intervened with their creditors, met their wives and girlfriends, and went to their homes to try to patch things up after a spat.

When most of them were called on the carpet, the seriousness of the situation got their attention. They responded to straight talk and reasoning and thereafter stayed out of trouble.

With others, it took cajoling and more stern measures. Maybe placing a Letter of Reprimand in their files. Maybe with the understanding that if they behaved, the letter would get tossed.

More often than not, the infractions were minor, and things worked out. But not always. Some matters were either unsolvable or just too serious, and they had to be referred to the Base Legal Office.

Nobody wanted that to happen — to see a man going on trial, possibly demoted, discharged from the military, or locked up. During that four years, I was involved in 50 or more courts-martial and Article 15 (non-judicial punishment) procedures.

But when I became a civilian again, no, I couldn’t handle the entry-level copywriter spots at the ad agencies.

I wasn’t right for those marketing trainee jobs with Delta and Coca-Cola and Lockheed.

I was a bad fit for the beginner jobs with state government, the newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce, and all the rest.

At the time, I was married with a kid, and I had to find gainful employment. Finally, I took a job as a collection agent for an Atlanta insurance company.

Every day, I sat at my desk and, speaking into a Dictaphone, composed letters to poor saps who didn’t have the money to pay their policy premiums. They were in arrears and thus were in the company crosshairs for cancellation.

In the letters, I informed them that if this office did not receive the past due amount of (insert amount here) no later than (insert date here), we would have no choice but to (insert drastic action here).

Every afternoon, someone from the typing pool picked up my magnetic tape containing the day’s dictation. The next morning, a pile of typed letters appeared in my inbox. I signed them, placed them in the outbox, and commenced another round of dictation.

After a few months with the insurance company, I stumbled onto a curious classified ad in the newspaper seeking a “wordsmith” for an unspecified position in state government.

I applied, and it turned out to be the Governor’s Office, looking for a speechwriter. I got the job. I’ve been in the writing business ever since.

Nothing says life has to be fair. But after all this time, I still deeply resent having my Air Force experience dismissed and disrespected. The succession of people who turned me away back then — they blew it.

I wish I could magically sit them down, one by one, grab them by the lapels, and make them understand what clueless idiots they were.

But I guess I’ll have to settle for airing it out in a blog post.

That's me in 1966 -- 1st Lt. W. A. Smith, Commander, Headquarters Squadron, 832nd Combat Support Group, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

That’s me in 1966 — 1st Lt. W. A. Smith, Commander, Headquarters Squadron, 832nd Combat Support Group, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

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The cubicle, the familiar modular workstation used in offices everywhere, was invented in 1967. It was the brainchild of designer Robert Propst, head of research for Herman Miller, Inc., the American manufacturer of office furniture.

Cube-1

Propst was assigned to identify problems in the modern office environment and find sensible solutions. The project was a good-faith, objective, scientific undertaking.

Back in those pre-cubicle days, Propst said, “Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is a daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”

He and his team looked for ways to reduce material costs and use office space more efficiently, while at the same time, boosting worker productivity. That would be done by providing a degree of privacy, limiting distractions, and making the workplace more comfortable and more inviting.

The result of Propst’s efforts was the “Action Office,” which featured inexpensive modular components that could be changed easily.

The design facilitated interaction with co-workers, but allowed privacy when appropriate. The placement of the components encouraged workers to move around instead of remaining sedentary.

Propst was convinced his concept would transform the business world and lead to major increases in employee productivity.

Ironically, it succeeded at the former, but at the expense of the latter.

Capitalism, true to its mercenary nature, simply used the “cubicle” concept to pack as many workers as possible into the available space.

As the reality of the situation dawned, Propst was appalled and outraged. “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,” he wrote.

But the corporate world does not care what idealistic do-gooders think. Cubes and cube farms quickly became ubiquitous in the modern office — a symbol of enforced uniformity and the pitiful, stultifying life of the lowly office drone.

Today, Herman Miller still manufactures the Action Office and still promotes it as grandly envisioned by Robert Propst. But the effort is hollow and forlorn.

Cube-2

My own introduction to the scourge of cubicles in the workplace came in the late 1980s, when I was working as a copywriter in the advertising department of a large manufacturing company near Atlanta.

The company was Lithonia Lighting, which built residential, commercial, and industrial light fixtures. The company employed a few thousand people in several states. Business was excellent.

By that time, I had been with Lithonia Lighting for almost 10 years. I had joined them as their first-ever professional writer, and they liked the results — so much so that I was ordered to hire and train a few more of my kind.

The job of us copywriters was to write the sales material that went out to Lithonia’s customers and sales reps around the country — brochures, catalogs, product data sheets, etc.

Most importantly, we were expected to proofread everything with ferocious intensity to be sure it was accurate.

Before we wordsmiths came along, the company was taking constant heat from sales reps and customers about inaccuracies in the literature. Because of pointless typographical errors, the company literature couldn’t be trusted to provide accurate product specs — e.g., the precise weight and dimensions of the products.

When you’re dealing with an order of ceiling lights to fill a skyscraper, numbers count.

Because of earlier inaccuracies, the higher-ups had lost several painful lawsuits. They had become very unforgiving of typos.

I mention this to establish that proofreading was an important part of our work as copywriters. Our duties required close attention and concentration, and most  of the time, we worked quietly and alone. When a copywriter’s office door was closed, you knew to come back later.

Cube-3

That was the situation when plans were announced to renovate/upgrade/modernize the Advertising Department offices, for the first time in several decades.

As a manager, I would have a private office. But my copywriters and the rest of the underlings in the department faced wholesale cubicalization.

When I saw the schematic for the first time, my anguish was almost palpable. Surely — SURELY — I thought, the company wouldn’t needlessly hamper the ability of the copywriters to do critical work for the sake of some trendy concept.

Of course they would.

With no real hope of getting anywhere, I decided to lodge a formal objection to the plan.

Being mentally hard-wired as a liberal, I resolved to use logic. I would reason with them, appeal to them on a factual level, help them see the light.

Being mentally hard-wired as conservatives, the bosses had no logic gene to appeal to. Seeing the light was not in their nature, or their interest.

Well, that statement is not entirely accurate. Although I lost the war over the cubicalization of my staff, I won a minor victory in the initial battle.

Cube-4

When I approached my immediate boss to protest, I made the point that the proposed cubicles actually would cost more than standard offices with walls.

I knew that was true because I had talked to the construction guys. They said the cubes would be built by cutting off the plasterboard walls at a height of six feet and topping them with metal caps. In the end, that was more labor-intensive and more expensive than installing standard wall panels from floor to ceiling.

My second point, of course, was that the loss of privacy would be a detriment to doing our jobs.

I predicted flippantly that if the copywriters were allowed to have real offices, the ROI in productivity would be about two weeks.

My boss was sympathetic, but understandably impotent in the matter. Only the higher-ups could make exceptions to issues of such gravity.

Cube-5

A week or two later, time enough for the issue to float up to the decision-makers and come back down, I had an answer.

To my amazement, the copywriters would be allowed to have actual offices. With floor-to-ceiling walls.

But the doorways, they decreed, would be doorless.

Epilogue…

About five years later, in another wave of modernization, the copywriters were swept out of their walled-but-doorless offices and into a sea of standard cubicles, joining the rest of the rabble.

Cube-6

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I worked in the advertising business for many years, so I’m well acquainted with the tendency of corporate executives to meddle in ad campaigns.

When it comes to advertising and sales promotion, management is especially prone to overruling the staff — creating the themes, coming up with the slogans, writing the copy.

It’s easy to see why. Compared to the mundane crap the executives usually face, advertising work is SO much more fun.

And, as a rule, nobody in their employ has the fortitude to tell them the truth — that their ideas are almost always amateurish and lame.

Some years ago, when I worked at Lithonia Lighting, one of the senior vice presidents (we had lots of them) had a eureka moment and proudly announced to us a new company slogan that he, himself, personally had created. It was this:

Lithonia Lighting… A Place Where People Count.

He was so, so proud.

At that time, Lithonia Lighting already had two official slogans, both absolutely sacrosanct and untouchable: “Best Value in Lighting” and “Easy to Do Business With.” Those slogans dated back to the early years of the company and were as revered as Mother Teresa.

The “People Count” slogan certainly wasn’t intended to replace either one. No way. It was merely a tactical thing — something to hang an ad campaign on because, well, we were overdue for some kind of promotional paroxysm.

The SVP instructed us to go forth and promote the slogan throughout the corporation with great vigor. Which we did.

Now, fundamentally, A Place Where People Count is a perfectly nice sentiment. But as I explained to my boss, it had a fatal flaw.

“It will be ridiculed,” I told him. “People will begin literally to count — ‘one, two, three.’ The whole idea will be reduced to a joke.”

Maybe my boss didn’t believe me. Maybe he feared retribution from the SVP. Maybe he wanted the campaign to fail. For whatever reason, he wouldn’t take the matter upstairs.

So we went ahead with the campaign. Promotional items bearing the slogan appeared. It was promoted aggressively throughout the company.

Within days, the inevitable happened.

An employee would pass an acquaintance in the hall. After they exchanged greetings, one might say, in a deadpan manner, “One, two, three…”

To which his friend might reply, equally straight-faced, “38, 39, 40…”

And it quickly spread. Soon, similar exchanges were taking place in company offices as far away as California and Indiana.

The counting phenomenon lasted for a few weeks and eventually faded. After a time, the slogan and the campaign likewise died.

My guess is that upper management, and the senior vice president in particular, never knew that the mockery had taken place.

To the rank and file, however, it was a welcome and amusing distraction.

God knows, the poor wretches deserved it.

A Lithonia Lighting ad from 2010 that sticks to the basics.

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