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Chapter 1: Our Brand Is Our Butter
Denny Dash worked fast. He ripped the pencil drawer from his office desk and poured the debris of a once-glittering marketing career into a Felcher Communications Corp. travel tote: one leaky tube of 3-2-1 BlistOff lip balm, some loose change from no-count countries, a sample baggy of Quendle’s CheeseChumps, and a handful of Horvath for President buttons: “I Think Not,” “Thank God for That,” “Enough With the Slogans Already!” and the emotive core of the campaign: “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Wrong. But So What?”
And the crumpled envelope with the key in it. The one thing he was looking for.
It had been a week since CEO Harold Felcher, Denny’s ostensible boss, had thrust the key on him. Denny had been fingering through restive correspondence from the New York State Family Court when Harold padded in, waving the envelope over his head like Chamberlain bringing home the Munich Agreement. Had Chamberlain been a hundred pounds heavier, wheezed often and been unable to keep his shirttail tucked in, the resemblance would have been uncanny. Goering was a closer match.
Harold had correctly judged that Denny Dash, FC2’s erstwhile creative engine, had hurtled off the rails and plunged into a very deep, weed-choked mental gully that nothing less than an open-ended tropical sabbatical could hoist him out of. Thus, the key. He tossed the envelope onto Denny’s desk. Denny read the address: SoftHarbor at Pu’ukan®. Of course. Part of Harold Felcher’s nocturnal emission of transforming his Madison Avenue branding agency into a global conglomerate of unrelated businesses, including a luxury golf resort on a remote West Pacific island. He was offering Denny free use of the best bungalow on the property.
“Not interested,” Denny replied. Denny said he didn’t play golf and who the hell ever heard of the West Pacific? He tossed the envelope back without looking up and returned to sorting through subpoenas when Harold, suddenly beside him, hip checked Denny out of his chair, jammed the envelope into the desk, and then hustled off before Denny could regroup and punch him in the throat.
That was last week. Denny still had no interest in golf. But given the shit show that he was about to ignite, he now he had an urgent need for escape, and Pu’ukan was suddenly a great place to go.
He stuffed the key into his pants pocket and texted Jay Buckman at CNN the five-minute warning. He flung the tote onto his shoulder and flew out the door. Within twenty-four hours, Denny would be plotting his next move from SoftHarbor at Harold’s expense, while Harold would be on the balls of his ass, an odd idiom that Harold used often but was never able to adequately explain. “Very common expression” is all he would say.
Right now, Harold Felcher was in his own office a floor above, tearing the vacuum seal off a fresh tube of sour cream and chive DipChips and bathing in the mélange of scent, sound and sensation borne along the crack, whoosh and rip of the lid. He savored the aroma of factory-fresh snackness for a pregnant moment before lifting a single, wispy chip off the top of the stack and placing it gently onto his tongue like the Eucharist. That first tube of the morning was heaven. He allowed his eyes to close while he let the DipChip trigger a rush of digestive saliva.
When he made the mistake of opening his eyes, Harold saw Roni Bartels, FC2’s high-strung COO, barreling toward him like the Grim Reaper on steroids, her bulbous yellow earrings slapping against the sides of her neck. She slammed the printout of an article from MarketingMensch.com onto Harold’s desk.
“Did we know about this?” Roni demanded. “Because I did not know about this. I should have known about this, but I did not because I was not informed.”
Harold reclosed his eyes to expel Roni from his consciousness as he been taught in FC2’s corporate mindfulness class. All is impermanence. All that arises, dissipates. He opened his eyes. Roni was still there. The Buddha trick never worked.
“Well? Are you going to read it?” Roni demanded.
Harold looked at the printout. The headline made him choke on his DipChip:
Is Denny Dash Losing It? 6 Park Ave. Shrinks Say ‘Yes.’
If They’re Right, Whither FC2?
In the desperate aspiration that followed, Harold could taste his own death. It tasted of sour cream and chive. From the rest of the article, he learned that Denny, against Harold’s explicit orders, had spent FC2 money to produce six hundred sample baggies of his beloved CheeseChumps, deep-fried cheese plugs swathed in sodium. Potentially a big hit in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, but even Harold Felcher could see that it would be a transfat too far for the greater U.S. snack-food market. It was not a product he wanted to get stuck doing a campaign for.
“A La Brea cheese pit,” Harold called it. “No one’s gonna buy something called a ‘chump.’ No one even knows what a ‘chump’ is. I’d be a chump to sign off on the chump.” He chuckled at his word play. “That’s not bad: ‘I’d be a chump to sign off on the chump.’” He wrote it down on a sticky note before passing final judgment.
“Kill the curds.”
Instead of killing the curds, Denny sent a hundred sample baggies of the CheeseChumps to American Snacker magazine. But instead of the breakout review Denny had expected, the Snacker ran a smarmy brief on its “News & Chews” page. The Mensch picked it up and wrote the article that Roni just slapped on Harold’s desk—a think piece that predicted declining fortunes for FC2 now that its creative brain had collapsed in on itself.
“He’s pulling us down, Harold,” Roni said.
Harold knew she was right. He knew he had been too patient as Denny’s ideas began taking a very whackward turn. “SemperFiber,” Denny’s brainwave to leverage the synergies between The Great Northern Cereal Corporation and the United States Marine Corps (“We keep the Marines moving!”) fell flat with the Corps. Similarly, his concept to rebrand Sunday given its correlation with spikes in suicide rates died for lack of a client.
He should have fired Denny then and there.
And yet. …
And yet Harold had hesitated. Denny was the reason most clients came to FC2. He was lean, lithe, handsome, charming on demand, incessantly creative and had great metabolism. He could rope a prospect by presenting a fully formed creative campaign that he had dreamed up on the spot, right there in the pitch meeting a split second before his lips moved. He moved swiftly, talked quickly and dressed so colorfully that the FC2 interns called him “Roy” for “Roy G. Biv,” the hues of the rainbow.
True, Denny’s personal life was a wreck. His ex-wife was crushing him in divorce court, and his daughter, whose tuition Denny hadn’t paid in several semesters, was about to be barred from completing her coursework as a helicopter traffic pilot. He could be impulsive and erratic with clients and he was routinely abusive to colleagues.
On the other hand, he was dating a panty model with epic tits. She was filming a lingerie commercial in FC2’s basement studio at that very moment. A guy that lucky you keep around.
So instead of firing Denny, Harold had reassigned him to the easiest job at FC2: producing public service announcements, including apologies for corporate clients whose plea agreements required public atonement. How much damage could he do there? Not even the clients cared how those ads turned out.
But Denny was not grateful for the opportunity to decompress. He grew irritable, then hostile, then belligerent. There were rumors that he had a list of in-house enemies.
When Grace Dawes, Denny’s meek and worrisome secretary, asked Harold about the list, Harold assured Grace that it was a ridiculous rumor and that even if there were a list, he was sure that Grace wasn’t on it.
“Oh, OK. I guess. Thank you, Mr. Felcher.”
“Yes, Mr. Felcher?”
“In those rumors, did anyone say he has a gun?”
Judging from the Mensch clip, the offer of an extended, all-expenses-paid vacation at SoftHarbor hadn’t worked any better than the PSA reassignment. In fact, it may have backfired.
“Dump him,” Roni said. “Now. Before the Board meeting. Even you can see that he has officially snapped and enjoys no prospect of psychological, let alone professional, recovery. He’s ruining our brand, Harold.”
“Our brand?” Harold, trying to recover his voice from the mis-swallowed DipChip, asked.
“Our brand is our butter, Harold. I don’t have to explain this to you, do I? We are in the brand-building business. But if you need a lecture—”
Harold shook his head until his throat had more or less cleared. In a scratchy voice he assured Roni that he’d take care of it but that he had a few things on his plate at the moment. The only things Roni saw on Harold’s plate were a half-eaten everything bagel slathered with half an inch of creamed animal fat and an open tube of those sickening processed potato-food items that he consumed by the hectare.
“Oh for the love of Christ, I’ll do it myself,” Roni said. She picked up Harold’s phone, expecting to get his secretary. Grace Dawes answered instead.
“Grace?” Roni asked, surprised. “What are you doing out there?”
“I—I wanted to see Mr. Felcher. On a matter.”
Roni paused just long enough to convey impatience. “And?”
“And, well, I heard the phone ring. So I picked it up. Marie isn’t here. Is why.”
“Mr. Felcher isn’t available right now, Grace. He’s—” She looked at Harold, who was using a finger to excavate a slag of bolus from between his teeth and gums— “chewing over an important matter. So why don’t you get me Lou Dimitriov in Security in the meantime.”
“That’s right, Lou Dimitriov. Is there an echo out there, Grace?”
When Grace reached Lou Dimitriov, Lou asked Grace if she were crying.
“No.” Sniff, sniff. “Roni wants to speak with you.” Sniff, sniff. “Hold on.”
Too late. She had already put Lou through to Roni.
“Lou? Roni Bartels here. … Oh? What’s so good about it. … Lou, I’m in Harold’s office. He—Yes, Lou. Harold Felcher, our CEO. He wants Denny Dash cleared out by noon. Verstehen?”
Lou said that it was already after nine and that a Termination and Removal Process would take a day at least and that he’d need written authorization from Workforce & Talent Management for an emergency TARP.
“Lou, are we really having this conversation? Harold wants Dash out of the building mach schnell. CEO trumps W&TM, unless you think otherwise. Do you think otherwise, Lou?”
“Then wheels up, ass out.”
Roni understood the unspoken message of Lou’s silence. She held the phone out to Harold.
“Isn’t that right, Harold?” Roni said, loud enough for Lou to hear. Harold reluctantly nodded. “He can’t see you, Harold. He’s on the tell-ee-phone. You have to say something.”
“Yes that’s right, Lou,” Harold said loud enough for Lou to hear. “Wheels up, ass out.”
Roni put the phone back to her ear. “Results, Lou,” she said and hung up. “I’ll let you know when it’s done,” she said to Harold, and left his office, purple earrings bobbing.
Harold tipped a dozen DipChips onto his desk and finished reading the Mensch piece. He hoped to God that they didn’t readthe Mensch at the White House. If they did, Roni would be back with an emergency TARP for Harold.
Grace had returned to her own work station in time to see Denny fly out of his office, a purple blur spilling desk junk from a cheap corporate tote sliding off his shoulder: paper clips and staples and packs of sticky pads. All those bright colors Denny wore stabbed at her sensitive eyes and gave her headaches. Denny put a finger to his lips as he swept by Grace and two young copywriters he had recruited before being exiled to the PSA beat.
“Our secret, Grace.” He winked at the young copywriters—they loved office drama—and hustled off.
“But—Mr. Dash?” Grace said.
“Turn on Jay Buckman,” Denny called back. He headed for the north elevators, just steps ahead of Roni, Lou and Lou’s two-man security posse, leaving Grace to stare into the empty space Denny had passed through.
“What’s going to happen to me, Mr. Dash?” Grace said to the empty space.
Grace waited a moment then drew a breath and rose from her chair to peer into Denny’s abandoned office. She knew she shouldn’t look. She knew she should pack up her own FC2 travel tote and leave this Bedlam forever. Grace dreamed of leaving. She talked of leaving. She cried about leaving. Her husband begged her to leave. Her dermatologist advised her to leave. Her gastroenterologist ordered her to leave. Her therapist took no firm position.
So she stayed.
Poor Grace. The mess Denny left in his office spun her stomach. Again. She dipped her head to the side and clutched her gut. A slight moan seeped from her soul.
The two copywrighters stepped up behind her.
“What up with Roy, Grace?” one said.
Grace had no idea what “what up” meant or who Roy was.
“Dude’s breaking bad,” the other said.
“So’s Grace. Maybe we should call the nurse.”
“We have a nurse? Like, a company nurse? That is so decent!”
Grace felt as if she were about to land on the balls of her ass.