A few weeks ago, in one of my posts, I told the story about working for an abusive advertising executive who ultimately self-destructed. I thought the story of how he committed hari kari was worth telling. It is a jaw-dropping story.
I once worked for a brilliant ad executive. He may have been the smartest man I ever met in the business. I will call him Alan. Alan was a bully. But he and I got along. I was an account supervisor on the Helena Rubenstein Cosmetics account, Alan was my boss. We worked at Kenyon & Eckhardt, now part of IPG.
Rubenstein was a troubled business with mostly superior products. The brand was in desperate need of being refreshed. I spent six months working on a repositioning for them. I presented it internally and it was accepted without change. Leo-Arthur Kelmenson, then the President of the agency, called the client to arrange for me to present to them. It was an important meeting for both the agency and the client.
The meeting was attended by every single major executive at Rubenstein. Leo-Arthur even invited Oscar Kolin, who was Helena Rubenstein’s nephew and Chairman of the company (Mr. Kolin was invited because Leo thought the presentation was so good and so important that he should be involved). Leo also invited Mala Rubenstein, Oscar’s sister and Vice President of Creative Services and while she was rarely involved with advertising, he thought she should attend. The other HR executives who were there included the President, EVP and all the marketing people.
I can honestly say it was the best presentation I had ever made. When it was over I received a unanimous standing applause except two people – Oscar and Mala. The comments and questions around the room were intelligent and appropriate. I knew that they had bought my ideas and strategy. Then, Mr. Kolin spoke. He asked a question, speaking in his heavy Polish-American accent. Now you have to understand who he was. He was in his late seventies. He was exceedingly proper and immaculately well dressed with a carnation in his lapel. He was unmistakably very old world. He was a gentleman to the core and was Mr. Kolin to everyone, not Oscar. His was actually retired from the cosmetics company but was still chairman; his primary function was to run the Helena Rubenstein Foundation and he was treated with respect by everyone. And as an effective executive, in terms of the cosmetics business, he was absolutely harmless and always a gentleman.
However, his question, asked in his almost broken English, stopped the room cold. It was clear that he had not understood one word of the presentation. The room became silent. I had no idea how to respond, neither did anyone else. The truth is that one of the operating company executives should have responded. Instead, it was left up to the agency. I had no idea what to say but, fortunately Alan looked up and said, “Let me answer that”.
Now, Alan was brilliant, but he also had a mouth that could cut glass. And no one had a clue as what he would say to answer Mr. Kolin's comment. Everyone held their breath.
What came next was mystifying to this day. Alan looked at Mr. Kolin and said: “I will respond to your question, but first I have to say, Oscar, the issue is, that after all these years, you still do not understand English…” Everyone gasped and then there was silence. Well, you could have cut the silence in the room with a dull knife. Leo-Arthur somehow immediately somehow cut Alan off.
The meeting was clearly over.
While still in the conference room, the President of Rubenstein told me I had done a great job and brought the meeting to a close saying that they would get back to us (they did and my plan was approved; unfortunately, three months later the company was sold to Colgate. I have always thought that if Colgate had followed my direction, Rubenstein would still be in business in the United States.)
As we were getting up to leave, Leo-Arthur asked Alan to walk back to the office with him.
Twenty minutes later I was sitting in my office and Leo-Arthur walked in and congratulated me on the presentation and my promotion to Management Supervisor.
Alan had been let go.
Alan had been let go.