The Dark Knight

All marketing is personal.  It begins with one individual’s vision, his worldview, his passion, his courage.  Brands are forged by these visions.  Nothing exemplifies this more dramatically than the story I’m going to tell.

In 1996 I assumed the leadership of the Philips Electronics business at Messner Vetere Berger MacNamee Schemetterer/Euro RSCG in New York.  The agency had already had a convoluted involvement with Philips, both in the US and at Euro’s Paris office.  If any client/agency relationship can claim to contain elements of high drama, both comic and tragic, it was Philips and EuroRSCG.  The agency began losing the business the day it gained it.  And the slow loss was due to one man.

GD was the worldwide marketing director at Philips.  He reported directly to Cor Boonstra, the Dutch CEO of Philips.  They were soul mates.  Through Cor, Gerard assumed strength beyond the mere reach of his position.

The story goes that years before, when GD was in charge of the Philips Lighting business at EuroRSCG in Paris, he and Cor, meeting for the first time in Hong Kong, were stranded in their hotel by a typhoon. There, over the course of several days, they fell in what amounted to professional love: mentor and mentee.  Father and son.

GD, by birth half French and half Catalan, by temperament romantic and mercurial, with matador looks and Gallic arrogance bordering on the megalomaniacal.  Married twice, engaged to his beautiful, and much younger, former assistant at Euro, he played his emotions like a piano, sometimes soft and lovely, at other times thunderous, angry, scornful.  He would have been at home in the Renaissance Vatican.  He counted few friends—though those he counted he lionized—and many enemies.  He once fired his loyal and excellent English advertising director, telling him, “You made friends with my enemies.”

Shortly after the portentous meeting in Hong Kong, GD left EuroRSCG to become the global head of marketing at Philips, thus setting in motion Euro’s eventual loss.

GD felt humiliated by the EuroRSCG management.  He believed his career was thwarted while other partners became rich and famous.  His smoldering anger centered on Bob Schmetterer, his senior colleague at MVBMS who went on to be the CEO of EuroRSCG.  It was a love/hate relationship that drove all future events.  Remember: all marketing is personal—some deeply personal.

GD’s ill humor was famous at the agency.  On the day before he announced his resignation to become the client, he had a terrible row with Louise MacNamee, the CEO at MVBMS, where he was at the time based.  Louise was from Memphis where she grew up down the street from Graceland and had been often been invited by Elvis for Coca-Colas in his garden.  She was the essence of Southern grace.  On the day of the argument, Louise heard GD shouting in his customary manner at one of the junior account people on the Philips business.  Louise stepped in and demanded he stop shouting. GD exploded.  His rancor against Louise ran deep. He harbored a grudge for not being provided with a suitably grand, and solitary, office when he arrived from Paris to 350 Hudson Street in Soho.  Everyone at MVBMS shared an office.  All of the partners shared offices.  I shared an office with the CFO.  Louise shared an office with Ron Berger, the chief creative partner.  With his immense Napoleonic pride, he could not stand this seeming insult.  To calm him down, he was eventually given a small single person office off the main Partner floor.  Of course this only added more insult to injury.

When I met GD for the first time, he asked me, “Where is your office?”  Not hello.  Not pleased to meet you.  I had no idea how politically charged the question was.  I told him I was on the 9th  floor with the CFO—a very large office overlooking Hudson Street.  This instantly provoked a torrent of outraged criticism about how he was abused by the Messner partners, especially Louise.  Still no hello.

GD’s presence was that of a Renaissance Prince.  He was totally captivating, totally commanding.  One didn’t cross GD lightly.  He was in all respects a one-man show.  His vision was to create a new global brand campaign that would replace all the regional campaigns then implemented.  Because of his intense relationship with Cor Boonstra, all the divisions and regions distrusted him at best, hated him at worst. His personality was so large, his grandeur so grand, he suffered no fools and needed few lieutenants.  Within Philips he was mostly despised.

Whether in envy of his relationship with Cor, which at the beginning was impenetrable, or as a defense against his little concealed contempt, the divisional presidents fought him, finding his talk of brand vision bewildering, something that undermined their quarterly sales.  They wanted to sell product.  He wanted to make Philips famous.  The management chafed at being made to follow this mad Frenchman, based in New York.  Taking no captives, GD engaged in hand-to-hand combat.  Very few were his allies; in the end, none were.

When he collapsed in that fateful meeting in Amsterdam in the fall of 1999, his death knell was rung immediately.  Abandoned by Cor, hated by his colleagues, wounded, in deep physical and emotional pain, he became Philip’s Lear.  Three times his heart stopped beating.  He was dead and resurrected.  He had surgery and a pacemaker attached to his heart, an irony even his harshest critics couldn’t escape without shame.

But that came later.  It’s the end of the story.  GD did in fact create his vision.  He made Philips famous.  He made the agency famous. His campaign won the gold medal at Cannes. He zealously pushed his vision of one company, one brand, indivisible, united by a common theme, common language, common imagery.  He was messianic in pursuit of his vision.  Only defenders of the faith were admitted to his inner circle.  He was the prophet anointed by God to lead Philips out of the wilderness.  He was willing to sacrifice everything, his friends, his family, his security, his health, to achieve his goal.  All marketing is personal.

This is also why GD was the ultimate romantic.  It was the romance of the doomed, yet it was romance that saved him.  The breathtakingly beautiful NLaF said yes to this fallen knight; their romance straight from the chivalrous courts of the Middle Ages.  Nearly old enough to be her father, he became her warrior and wounded lover. Without N, he would have died.

I need to say here that GD was the greatest client I ever had.  It would be too simple to say I liked him.  Like played no role in our relationship. I was in awe of the man.  I had never known anyone like him—and have never afterwards.  I wept when GD fell.  Like Richard III, deserted by his army, fallen and dying—but no country was at stake.  All this passion, this glory, this agony, began being about his brand and grew to be about his soul.

None of this is hyperbole.  The antics of Madmen are small and ridiculous in comparison.  This was real.

I remember the afternoon in Amsterdam, when Ron Berger and I went to present the new campaign to Philip’s board of management.  This was GD’s moment.  The campaign had tested brilliantly around the world.  The Beatles’s song “I’ve Got to Admit it’s Getting Better” had been licensed for $15 million dollars.  The board loved the work and endorsed the campaign.

The day was a total success.

But success combined with pleasure was not in GD’s DNA.  Never content to let success happen, he used the occasion to denounce publicly the head of Philips’ Communication Products division, present at the table.  The attack was bitter and personal, a Savonarola spiked denunciation.  The room was stunned.  My colleague in Paris and friend John Leonard, always GD’s ally, held his head in his hands, his tears falling on the table.  Again the end arrived before it even began.

The campaign ran around the world.  Twelve commercials were produced.  For a moment in time, Philips was famous.  It was the unequalled advertising experience of my life.  Everything that’s come afterward has been a diminishment.   A star exploded and was gone.

Everyone’s gone now.  GD recovered and retired to New York with N, who had his child.  John Leonard lost his job and moved to Chicago.  Louise left the agency and moved to Seattle with her husband.  I hear she’s in London now.  Cor left Philips after a highly publicized affair with the richest woman, after the Queen, in the Netherlands.  Kevin Green, GD’s global advertising director (who had made friends with Gerard’s enemies) went to live on Guernsey.  I moved on to other accounts at the agency.

This is just a story about an advertising campaign and the man who made it happen.  Nothing really could be less insignificant.  Campaigns come and go.  None stay very long.  A new chief marketing officer arrived and changed everything.

Or is it?

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: