Marketing: a Prologue

Published in Cherry Magazine, early 2017.

I bought an HD DVD
and it will not play
on my Blu Ray player.
DVDs appear
to be in good condition.

Anonymous Amazon Feedback from the
Goodwilliam Carlos Williams collection

They were a marketing firm with a name I don’t remember: something like Advantage Solutions Consulting. They provided a “direct marketing service” that was “results driven” and “client-focused.” The posting was a little fuzzy on the responsibilities of the job, but I thought I could picture a day in the life. Standing desks and headsets, I figured. Meetings around long, oval tables, almost certainly with a couple of those triangular telephone conference stations, maybe someone’s face projected on the wall: our partners in Seoul or Hong Kong, and we’re staying up late to meet them on their time, because that’s what happens in those jobs. Most importantly, they were hiring. They popped up in my search—keywords “writing” and “non-profit” and “public relations”—and I was just unemployed and uninformed enough to apply.

“Hi! Is this Jason? We loved your resume and wanted to invite you for an interview!” This was Carly. The face. I’d never met her before, but I knew her—that persistently-cheery, personable type who could force a meaningful conversation about anything. For my first interview, I showed up clutching my resume and cover letter in a small binder emblazoned with the United States Tennis Association logo. I’d snagged it from my fiancée’s desk a minute before I left, mostly so I’d have something to do with my hands.

“Oh, my God! Is that a USTA binder? I used to play tennis All. The. Time. For the past seventeen years, it’s been a tradition in my family to get together on the Fourth of July and have a little round robin tournament. Isn’t that fun? Do you play?”

This was the first time she took a breath. Carly was everything I expected.

“Yeah. I mean I used to. I took lessons as a kid, but didn’t really keep up with it. I like tennis, though. I should really go play sometime.” Top-notch conversing, kid. I’m well-practiced in the art of ruining small talk. Normally this would be the end, and I’d go back to fumbling with my binder. Carly either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

“I can totally relate,” she said, her tone softening as if I’d revealed some personal tragedy. “I was really, really serious about it in high school. Huge thing in my family. My sister is at college on a tennis scholarship right now. How crazy is that? But yeah, I don’t get out as often as I’d like. I’ve been trying to get a tennis group together here at the office, but nobody will really commit, you know? Hey! If you end up joining us, you should help me get that started! How much fun would that be!”

I was exhausted just trying to keep up. I tried to imagine what kind of person she was at home. I pictured a top-of-the-line exercycle, a wardrobe packed with tasteful Ann Taylor suits, a couple empty vodka bottles, shelves of unused Epsom salt bath mixes, a freezer full of Healthy Choice dinners, a boyfriend she only saw on Saturdays.

The interview only lasted about five minutes. Carly said she loved my public relations background, and that the rest of my resume really lent itself to the kind of marketing they did. Still couched in jargon, the position wasn’t any closer to coming into focus, so I couldn’t figure out how an English literature degree and one month at Ted’s Montana Grill did all of that. Nevertheless, I started to feel like I was nailing the interview. I thought I could probably do the job for a while, build up a war-chest, then find something more in my wheelhouse. Something with a non-profit. Something where I could write. That’s what I wanted, but I would be happy to play the game, start at the bottom, and climb my way up.

I left, enthused about the prospect of finally landing a job. On my drive home, I got a call from Carly. They wanted me back that week for a second interview.

Not getting paid
mentally not able

Anonymous eBay Message from the
Goodwilliam Carlos Williams collection

My second interview was with a man my age: Derek. He was business-suave, with well-concealed acne scarring, a suit that fit impeccably, and the shiniest black shoes I have ever seen. I was swinging hard between judgement and jealousy as he led me into the conference room, where I sat at one end of the long, oval table, right next to a triangular teleconferencing station.

“Alright, Jason. Carly had lots of good things to say about you, but let’s get one thing clear: this isn’t your typical ‘marketing firm.’” Derek went straight to the point, clearing up any misconceptions I may have had about the position, using an overabundance of finger quotes. “When you start, you’ll be pounding the pavement. ‘Direct marketing’ style. That’s what we do. Prove yourself with that for a few months, and maybe—‘maybe’—we fast-track you to management training. That’s also what we do. Let me lay it out for you.”

He pulled a piece of copier paper out of a folder that didn’t appear to hold anything else and proceeded to draw an equilateral triangle.

“This would be you. At the bottom. We need to make sure you ‘get it.’ Lots of people start here, and not a lot climb. But Carly thinks you’d be a great candidate, so I said, hey, let’s give the guy a shot.” He filled out the various levels of the triangle, describing the increasingly complicated job titles that were associated with larger and larger dollar signs the closer he got to the apex. He used the word “pyramid” no fewer than three times. And I got it. “Direct marketing” was door-to-door sales. I really needed a job.

He walked me through several “Role-Playing” scenarios, all of which had one correct answer, one character, and zero dragons. Imagine my disappointment.

Scenario One:

Verizon has appointed you the head of all marketing. Your boss brings you in and tells you the budget is being slashed, and if you want to keep that fancy new position and company car, you’ll find out how to get the best return on any money allocated to marketing. What methods are you going to use?

I’m not a total dummy. I knew he was looking for an answer that included the only thing the company does. I also took a few marketing classes, and wanted to give my answers a little pizazz. I quickly broke out a multifaceted approach about engaging existing customers who might be dissatisfied with their service, market research into regions where we could build our presence, and so on. After I said the words “social media,” Derek cut me off and told me my ideas were stupid.

“The only true way to market is with a firm handshake and a solid business proposition,” he said. “You can’t really measure the effectiveness of anything else.”

Scenario Two:

You just started your own business doing whatever you most want to do. Non-profit public relations firm? Great. Congratulations. You have a team of ten people you’ve personally selected, and you taught them everything you know about this field, passion, or discipline. After a while, you notice there are two members of your team who are your top performers, six who sit comfortably in the middle, and two who are your “bottom feeders.” Then, you discover that one of your top performers and one of your bottom performers are acting in a manner that violates this particular field’s code of ethics and—

I tuned out somewhere around there, but he kept going for another few minutes. I thought: “Is this my life now? If I signed on to this lifestyle, would I be on the other end of that table someday, sporting an ostentatious wristwatch and talking about incentive-based lifestyle enhancements?” I concluded the interview in a state of terror. I’d been sweating through my palms, and my responses to the WORST ROLE-PLAYING GAME EVER were increasingly monosyllabic.

Derek shook my hand as I left, and it was a little clammy for all the “firm handshake” game he talked. He looked me in the eye and said, with emphasis: “If we call you back for a third interview, you’ll hear from us today or tomorrow. If not, you will not ever hear from us.” Verbatim.

After five days, I felt I’d safely dodged a bullet.

Then Carly called: “HI JASON! We would LOVE to have you back for a third interview—a formality, really—and hopefully offer you a job! What do you say?”

Well, what do you say?

I’d been out of work, and was skimming by on the generosity of my fiancée. I said, sure. Why not? I’d come back in for another interview. Even though I couldn’t see myself fitting in with that aggressively-slick business culture, I could kind of see myself as a rebellious, fringe sales-guy: subverting the expectations of the door-to-door marketer, making record numbers in my district, buying my first house, grinding away the hours and months, climbing the ladder, learning golf, eroding into a person without identity, and selling, daily, winding up wealthy and retired, a surgically-enhanced grin affixed to my face, the firmest handshake in the west, with no connection to the world around me, but God damn can I close a deal.

The day before my interview, I called Carly and canceled. I dreaded this call. Carly of the unending enthusiasm. Carly of the tennis club. I built up a dozen excuses, but I ultimately told her I’d accepted another job. Thanks for everything. I braced for the blow.

She took me off the calendar and didn’t even seem mildly disappointed.

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