Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Adventures In Advertising: The Story Of How One Executive Inexplicably Self-Destructed By Insulting A Client

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.


  1. Great story Paul. I also worked at K&E for a while, before it became part of Bozell. Leo-Arthur was a true gentleman who really understood this business. He had a wonderful career, starting in an agency mailroom.

    1. I had lunch with Leo sometime in the early 1990's and he told me that he still couldn't believe that "Alan" did this. It was one of the most bizarre stories. Leo was a true gentleman.

  2. The best story Leo ever told me.

    Perhaps you know Leo was a Marine during WWII. He was wounded at the brutal Battle of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. I believe he was a Lieutenant at the time. (The wound is how he got his limp.)

    He was sent to recuperate at a hospital on Guadalcanal Island. There he met a Navy Lieutenant named John (Jack) Kennedy who was in a neighboring bed recuperating from a back injury he got when his PT boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. The two became friends.

    Also on Guadalcanal at the time was a naval officer named Ben Bradlee. Bradlee was doing PR work for an admiral named Halsey. “Bull” Halsey was the top dog in the South Pacific theatre in 1943.

    I can’t recall how Leo told me the three got together, but Leo, Jack and Ben became the three amigos.

    Years later in the fifties, Jack was in Washington as a Senator from Massachusetts, Ben was in Washington moving up the ladder at the Washington Post and Leo was (again my memory fails me) either in Baltimore or New York working in advertising with, I believe, a client in Baltimore, which is why he was able to frequently meet-up with his buddies in DC for partying and playing.

    This included a game they routinely played with Jack’s car, which as I recall Leo described as a late model convertible. It went like this. Ben and Leo would pile in in a way that blocked Jack from the driver’s seat. At which point, Jack would energetically say something like “get the f**k out of my car,” and Ben and Leo would move over.

    One day, Leo told me, Jack became President of the United States and got a new car, a big black limo. Then Ben and Leo saw Jack with his car after his inauguration. So they piled in and blocked Jack’s entry, as they had for years. As I recall Leo telling it, Jack let out a whooping “get the f**k out of my car. I’m the f**king President of the United States.”

    I was nine when Kennedy was shot. Even with what I now know about him, it’s hard to imagine such a playful frat-boy president. I’d say the same about Leo, but he did have a little twinkle in his eye, even in his seventies, which is when I worked for him.

    Leo shared a great story about a president, an agency giant, a newspaper giant and a friendship born in war.

    I miss him.

  3. Apropos of nothing, but since you mentioned BJK&E ... I once interviewed with Jim Heekin, now Global Chairman & CEO of Grey, who was Account Supervisor on Excedrin at the time. I was Account Exec at SSC&B on Bayer. We had a great meeting and I really liked Jim a lot, but I passed because I happy where I was at (LOL, a headhunter pushed me into taking the meeting.) But no regrets, because Jim was the same gentleman then that he is now. A class act.


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