Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Adventures In Advertising: The Most Expensive Client Dinner

This is one of my favorite family stories.  Back in the day, my dad and his brother had an agency. In those days it was called Lawrence C. Gumbinner (subsequently it became Gumbinner-North and then it was gobbled up by Interpublic).  Their biggest account was Tareyton cigarettes.  In the late 1950’s they spent, as I recall, about forty  million dollars to advertise the brand, making it a huge account, one of the biggest accounts in the country. (Remember, in those days agencies had about ten people per every million dollars in business – that meant four hundred people worked on the account.)

My dad and my uncle took the president of American Tobacco and his wife out for a luxurious dinner.  The dinner was at the now long defunct Forum of the Twelve Caesars.  Before I tell the story I have to explain the restaurant since there was nothing else like it before or since. The interior of the Forum was designed by a noteworthy architect and designer. It was opened by the Brody Company, which opened very elaborate restaurants at that time – including the Four Seasons.  At The Forum, the room won many awards for its grandeur.  Everything in it was themed along the lines of ancient Rome, including the wait staff uniforms, the menus and, of course, the food.. The table settings were immaculate and awesome; they included, salt and pepper cellars which were a sterling silver elephants with salt and  pepper on their backs. The room exuded power, wealth and opulence.  Caviar, which apparently was served often, came on a huge and elaborate ice sculpture which was wheeled to the table and then served elaborately (in those days a service of Beluga cost about $6 or $7).  Dinner, in those days, with wine, cost an unheard of $25 or so per person – an outrageous sum of money in the late 1950’s or early 60’s.  The food, the menu and the prices were extraordinary, probably the most expensive in the country.

They obviously had a wonderful dinner.  When the bill came, my father took it.  Instead of costing $150 or so, there was a $100 item on the bill, making it about $250 (to put it in perspective, this is equivalent to.over $1,800 in today's money)  My father called over the maître d’ and discretely asked what the outrageous item was.  The maître d’ whispered to my father and nodded in the direction of the client’s wife, “It is for the salt cellar which is in madam’s pocketbook.” My dad was floored but paid the bill without saying anything.

Knowing my dad, he spent the rest of the evening fuming. 

Shortly after arriving at the office the next day, my dad got a call from the president to thank him for the lovely dinner.  As my dad told me the story, he had no intention of saying anything about the salt cellar, but he was so angry it just came out; my father regretted saying anything since it was such a large and important account.  The president was gracious and apologized profusely. 

But, no kidding, about twenty minutes later, a messenger arrived with an envelope.  My dad opened it and found a personal check for $100.


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