Abroad: Part One

In the Fall of 1985, at the encouragement of my friend John Wren, then the finance director of Needham International, I put my name in the ring to accept a foreign assignment.  I wanted to be anywhere.  Going abroad was a sure route to advance more rapidly in the agency than remaining in New York, and the idea of expatriate life was appealing to both my wife and me. (Although later my wife would use our life overseas as a sharp criticism of her perceived loss of independence and ill-treatment at my hands.)

There were also more personal reasons to moving abroad than career advancement.  Traveling through Scotland and the Hebrides between my junior and senior years of college with a classmate friend had opened a window to the allure to being elsewhere, away from my family and its crushing mixture of disapproval, emotional dependency and cultural limitation.  Pittsburgh, with its history of industry and steel, and my father’s role in that world, was not a home I found either likable or the foundation to a future I wanted.  The private school I attended in Sewickley was a closed society of privilege and insolence in which I felt a visitor not a member.  My mother’s extreme behavior during Christmas holidays my freshman year in college, and her stifling, clinging behavior that resulted, only served to distance me further from any sense of home or familial security.

This culminated in my decision to pursue a graduate degree in literature outside the country, at Trinity College, Dublin.  I had written my senior thesis on Yeats and had all the images–and fantasies–of Anglo-Irish society and its romantic decline swimming in my head.  Not finding a flat near the college, I rented a nearly abandoned Georgian country house in Howth set in overgrown grounds above Dublin Bay, with the beam of Howth Lighthouse moving through my rooms with their curtain-less windows.  Very little furniture remained in the house and in a few of the twenty bedrooms the closets contained women’s clothes from the 1920’s.  I had no idea why these remained in the house or who had worn them.  That the entire situation was exactly what I wanted there wasn’t a doubt.  (The house had been built by John Jameson, of the whisky fame.) I felt distant and lonely and l liked it.  I read late into the night in front of the enormous fireplace which was the only source of heat and was the epitome of romantic isolation.  I longed, in fact, for real romance, but on the one occasion a possible girlfriend returned to Howth with me, the night ended in what I can only describe as failure and embarrassment. I remember her lovely Irish name and that experience (in too much detail) even today.

All those memories, and probably too many Henry James novels, formed the unspoken underpinnings of my active pursuit of an assignment outside the USA.

Advertising agencies rarely have an organizational policy of international training and rotation, unlike for example oil companies.  Assignments typically resulted from some crisis.  This was, in fact, my experience.  In December John, and his boss, the president of Needham International, John Bradstock (who would become my career-long mentor,) presented the opportunity to become the managing director of Needham’s agency in Barcelona.  The previous MD got embroiled in financial scandal.  An immediate change was necessary to stabilize the office and restore the confidence of clients.  I said yes to this assignment, not knowing then the drama that would unfold over the next five years.

I was needed in Barcelona immediately after Christmas.  My family could not move however, due to my wife being five months pregnant with our second child.  David, our first son, was not yet three at the time.  I made several trips to Spain alone, returning in early April a month before the expected birth.  Sam was born on April 23rd in Phelps Hospital in Tarrytown where we lived.

The morning after Sam’s birth, my wife’s younger sister arrived from Manhattan to see her new nephew, with a copy of that day’s New York Times with news that our lives were about to change.  The paper’s front page announced the creation of Omnicom, the first large communications holding company, formed by the global merger of Doyle Dane Bernbach, BBDO and Needham Harper and Steers.  This explained why, the day before, John Wren urgently called me to his office to sign my international agreement–an act for which I’m grateful to this day.

My new role, hardly begun, changed overnight. I was no longer stabilizing and growing a company.  I was negotiating on Needham’s behalf the merger in Spain.  There were no rules; it was the Wild West of corporate politics.  As a result of the holding company’s creation, senior leadership changed in all three agencies.  I no longer reported to John Bradstock, who was shifted to become the president of a new division of the company, Diversified Agency Services (DAS.)  John Wren went with him.  I now reported to John Bernbach, a man I had never met.  John was the charming though somewhat feckless son of the legendary Bill Bernbach, founder of DDB.  He was now president of DDB Needham International, having spent a large portion of his career in Paris and London.

Thanks to John Wren’s corporate generosity, and my lawyer wife’s skillful negotiation, my Needham contract protected me from reorganization and most likely termination along with my Needham role.  I returned to Spain for six weeks to begin the merger discussions, with my family moving in late June.  Although the company paid for daily help at home during these weeks away, I confess in hindsight that this wasn’t easy for my wife with a three year old and new born baby.

We moved into the large, empty apartment of the former managing director in an upper middle class neighborhood of Barcelona.  There were no other expats in that part of the city.  What furniture there consisted of left behind maids’ beds and several dozen what appeared to be ballroom chairs.  Most of these unceremoniously collapsed when sat on by an adult of any size.  The kitchen, having been designed solely for servants who shopped every day, had a nearly nonfunctional gas stove and cocktail size refrigerator.  There was a single unit washing machine/dryer that first scalded the laundry, then baked it.  Every item washed became two sizes smaller.  The kitchen windows looked out onto a back shaft that went the full height of the building, from which we could hear the other resident’s maids cleaning dinner dishes late into the night due to Spaniards’ late dining hours.  These kitchen arrangements became the source of tremendous marital discord, which badly colored not only the rest of our time away, but for the rest of our marriage.

Life in my office was similarly dysfunctional.  We simultaneously continued to service our clients and even–successfully–pitched new business, while I also met weekly with the management of the local BBDO and DDB offices, both larger than ours.  Another wrinkle at the time was that Needham was engaged in buying out the remaining shares of a local Catalan businessman.  This man, a banker with no experience or interest in advertising, became my savior and friend.  His name was Jose Gener and he had the looks of Cary Grant and an open-hearted generosity. He adopted my family as his own, to the extent that he even became my son Sam’s official godfather.  Jose enjoyed the role and delighted in the fact that as a nominal Catholic he stood in an Anglican church for Sam’s baptism.  He gave Sam the traditional Spanish (although he only and defiantly regarded himself as Catalan) godfather’s gift of a gold medallion engraved with Sam’s initials on a gold chain.  Thereafter he sent Sam a US Savings Bond on his birthday.

I’ll never forget my first client meeting in Spain.  It’s one of my favorite stories in my career in advertising.  We represented the country’s largest manufacturer of underwear: a line of men’s called Jim and women’s called Missy.  This client was located in the countryside  about an hour outside of Barcelona.  My first meeting with this client was scheduled to begin at 9:00am on a Monday morning in September.  As I possessed the only company car–a new red BWM 325i–we were all traveling together.  It was a large meeting involving both creative and media presentations. Five of us were attending.

I got to our office at 7:30 to be well prepared to leave by 8:00.  The office was dark and I was alone.  By ten minutes to 8:00 no one was yet there.  I was alarmed.  Around 8:00 my secretary arrived, seemingly unconcerned about the others’ absence.  I didn’t understand and asked her to call our client and tell them we would be late.  She said it wasn’t necessary, so in my bad Spanish I called and discovered the client’s receptionist spoke only Catalan.

Around 8:20 the others began to straggle in.  They, too, were unconcerned, telling me to relax.  I wasn’t relaxed.  We eventually set out at 9:00am, the time our meeting an hour away was to begin.  Only to humor me, our account guy phoned the client and reported our departure.  At least he said he did although probably didn’t.

My anxiety peaked when we arrived in the village–really just a crossroad–and my colleagues announced they had to have breakfast.  It was the 10:00.  I freaked and they said, well, go on ahead if I felt so concerned.  No way!  I had never met these clients and not only was my Spanish poor, my Catalan was nonexistent. We sat down in the only cafe where my workmates ordered the local staple, pan con tomat–thick cut toast rubbed with garlic and tomato–along with gulps of rough red wine poured directly down one’s throat from a long spouted leather wine cask.  Not to be prudish I, too, gave this a try and immediately spilled wine down the front of my suit.  Everyone thought this was hilarious.

At noon we finally walked into the client’s offices.  I had given up any hope of knowing what was going on.  I clearly wasn’t in New York anymore.

For the first half hour we had a spirited conversation about where to have lunch.  What type of food?  Which restaurant had the best of what we wanted?  That settled (open-pit grilled meat) , we proceeded with the business at hand for five hours.  “Lunch” began at 8:00pm.  I got home at midnight.  So much for a 9:00am client meeting!

There were compensations, too.  We lived in one of the most interesting cities in Europe–the home of Gaudi and Miro. We went everywhere.  During the late summer and early fall we spent many weekends on the Costa Brava at the wonderful Aiguablava Hotel on the rocky, pine-covered Mediterranean coast.  Later in the year we went several times deep into the mountainous La Cerdanya to stay at the Hotel Boix, which had a Michelin starred restaurant.  Once, to renew our visas in France, we drove over the Pyrenees, through Andorra, to stay in a tiny French spa town.  Hopes to have lunch in Andorra were foiled due to never finding a parking space in that miniature country.  The road over the mountains into France twisted and turned dramatically, resulting in David being sick in the car several times.  There was no place to pull off the road, making the situation worse.  By the time we arrived at the spa, my wife was not speaking to me.  David became ill during the night.  The spa doctor arrived, diagnosing an ear infection.  Together we drove through the deserted town to wake the pharmacist to get the necessary prescription.

During the time I was working in Barcelona before my family moved I made a trip to the northern part of Navarre to visit the ancient battlefield at Roncevalles.   This was the cite famous in history and legend for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of Roland–giving us the French classic La Chanson de Roland–in 778.


Identifying my next assignment following Barcelona was a an exercise in random, often venal, corporate politics, monthly changes and at times humiliation.  Had I not had my family in tow, it would have been humorous–a roller coaster of false starts, set-backs, changing European management, and new and usually brief reporting structures.

My first destination was to be London.  John Bernbach had once run the office and in our only phone call he assured me that this would be a great place to work and move my family.

However, before the London arrangements were underway, I was summoned to Paris to meet with the President of DDB Europe, Pierre de Plas.  I had never met Pierre.  His office made the arrangements, booking me in to the Plaza Athenee.  I arrived for my meeting and Pierre kept me waiting two hours: offense #1.  Eventually he called me into office.  I felt like I had been ordered into Louis XVI’s private suite.

After thirty seconds of semi-pleasantries, Pierre picked up the phone, dialed a number, and said to whomever was on the other end (I didn’t know), “I have this American who’s been in Barcelona and was supposed to move to our London office but isn’t now, could you use him? No?  Thanks.”  Then he dialed another number, went through the dialogue, with the same result.”  I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was calling the managing directors of DDB in a few other European offices.  When I told him John Bernbach had already decided I would go to London, Pierre replied, “Oh yes, I know.  I was hoping to find an office that actually wants you.”

Every week for over the next two months I went to London to sort out office and living arrangements, never exactly sure what my job was to be.  Shortly before my arrival the London offices of DDB and Needham had been merged.  It was an unhappy and contentious merger.  DDB regarded itself, accurately, as a premier creative agency.  Needham London on the other hand regarded itself, accurately, as the more financially successful office.  This was a culture clash–played out across both global networks–in the extreme.  My snobbish French pal Pierre characterized the London merger to the press as a merger between “gentleman” and “plumbers.”  So much for a warm welcome at the DDB offices on Baker Street.  I was viewed as a mixture of a home office spy, a Needham interluder and maybe worst of all, an American hillbilly.  They were universally rude and I had not one friend there.

Critical to the transfer was finding someplace to live and a school for my son David.  The agency provided me with a car and driver and together we would drive around the London countryside looking for an unfurnished house to rent.  All of our household goods and furniture had been shipped to London, waiting in a warehouse.  ( Our goods hadn’t been moved to Barcelona since my tenure there was uncertain.This also proved to be source of family unhappiness.)

We spent weeks looking for a house.  My driver was a cheerful and friendly guy, and together we would eat lunch in pubs and sometimes even dinners.  I was away from the office entire days.  Later I found out that the office had paid the driver never to bring me back. Nevertheless we eventually found an appropriate house in the charmingly named village of Chalfont Saint Giles.  I obtained the required residency permits, found a school for David, obtained a car, and prepared the family to move.

We never moved to London. The day before we were ready to set out, my soon to be boss in London phoned me to say he had just been fired and I no longer had an office sponsor and wouldn’t be transferring to the London office.  I called my mentor back in New York John Bradstock and asked him what he knew of this situation and what was I supposed to do.  I no longer reported to John but he always knew everything going on and was well connected to Keith Reinhard, the former Needham CEO who became the CEO of the new DDB Needham agency.  John was a man of no fuss and few words.  He simply said, “I’ll get back to you.”  He called the next day and asked how long could I remain in Spain.  I answered as long as necessary, assuming I was still employed!  He assured me I was and we then remained in Barcelona another seven months–without our furniture, toys for the boys, or winter clothes.  The new CFO of the international division in New York took pity on us and wired enough money to outfit the family for the cold winter months.

A few weeks later, I got a call from a man who said, “My name is Nicolai von Dellingshausen, do you know who I am?”  Not skipping a breath, “Baron Nicolai von Dellingshausen! “ as though that would clarify it.  I had never heard of him.  “I’m Chairman of DDB Europe and I’m coming to Barcelona tomorrow. Who gave you permission to merge the agencies in Spain?”  Permission?  How about everyone.

Once again I called John Bradstock.  He said, “Humor him.  His role’s changing.”

Nicolai arrived and was charming. He immediately decided I would come to work directly for him in Dusseldorf.  When I pointed out I didn’t speak German he assured me that wasn’t a problem, all the clients spoke English.  So once again we prepared for another move.  My wife was reasonably happy since she had majored in German in college and spoke German, as well as her mother having been born in Germany.

We never moved to Dusseldorf.  On the eve of moving I received another unexpected call: “My name is Alan Pilkington, do you know who I am?”  Here we go again!  I said no I didn’t know he was.  “Im President of DDB Asia-Pacific.  We need you in New York tomorrow.”  When I asked why he told me I was not going on to Germany but instead I was being sent to be managing director of the agency in Singapore.  All along my remaining staff in the Barcelona office joked that at least I wasn’t been sent to China.  Well, now I was on my way to South East Asia–close enough.


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