Ad agency people are eternal optimists and often complete suckers. Every time a client comes along with a wacky product concept and a good sales pitch, agencies line up for a chance to get in on the ground floor.
We were far from immune to this stupidity. Back in the late ’70s we had a client called Tri-Flon that had developed a Teflon-based lubricant. The damn stuff really worked and we were convinced that it would steal market share from WD-40 and that we would become immensely wealthy as the company’s fortunes skyrocketed and its advertising budget ballooned.
Tri-Flon was an underfunded start-up so instead of doing a big, national TV campaign we created a bunch of very small space print ads targeted at a number of industries. One of those ads, the one aimed at the agricultural industry, featured a farmer on a tractor. As you might expect of an underfunded start-up, budgets were extremely limited and we had to cut corners wherever we could.
When the art director complained that he didn’t have enough money in the budget to hire a model I said, ”No problem. I know someone who would be perfect for this ad.”
“What do you think he would charge us?” asked the art director.
“I can guarantee that he will work for free,” I answered.
“Can I see his portfolio?”
“Well,” I vamped, ”he doesn’t have a portfolio. But trust me on this. He’ll be perfect.”
I was his boss, so the art director nervously acquiesced. ”If you say so, but don’t blame me if it doesn’t work out.”
I called my dad that night and asked him if he’d like to be in a model in an ad.
“What does that mean?” he queried. ”What would I have to do?”
“Simple,” I replied. ”All you need to do is sit on a tractor.”
“Well, shit,” he exclaimed. “I’ve been doing that my whole life.”
“Just bring along a variety of your regular, everyday work clothes. We’ll look ’em over at the photo studio and decide what you should wear.”
“Sounds crazy to me,” he said in conclusion. ”But you’re the boss.”
My parents had never before visited me at work. They really had no understanding of what I did for a living nor how whatever it was I did could possibly generate enough income to survive. They understood brute physical labor but had no experience with the concept of getting paid to sit around and think.
The day of the photo shoot arrived and my mom and dad drove an hour from their home in solidly blue collar Colton, California to our offices in toney Newport Beach. I gave them a tour of our offices and introduced them to all our employees. They were a bit overwhelmed by it all.
When we got to my business partner’s office, he greeted them warmly and invited them in to sit down on his sofa. They’d never before met my partner. All they knew what that he was considerably older and far more sophisticated than their son and that — in their eyes, at least — he had taken me in, rescued me from inevitable failure, made me a partner, and set me on a path to success. To say they were intimidated would be a huge understatement.
“I know you have to get over to the photo shoot,” my partner began, ”but I’d love to talk to you for a few minutes. Jim’s told me some crazy stories about you, Bill, and I have a little trouble believing they’re true.”
“What did he tell you?” my dad asked timidly.
“Well, for one thing, he told me that you wear clothes you find lying in the street. Is that true?”
My mom was mortified. Here she was sitting uncomfortably on the sofa in this sophisticated man’s office, and he had just asked her to reveal the truth about what she considered a deeply embarrassing family secret. She was horrified that I had told the story and even more horrified that she was now being asked about it.
“Oh, no,” she blurted out. ”That’s not true.”
“The hell it’s not,” my dad interjected. And then, pointing toward his head, he said proudly, ”That’s where I got this hat.”
My business partner and I burst out laughing. My dad joined in because he felt absolutely no shame from picking up and wearing clothes he found on the road. He was a frugal man, a child of the Depression, and considered it wasteful to pass up a perfectly good article of clothing that he could acquire at no cost. My mom, on the other hand, turned a bright shade of red and lowered her eyes to avoid any further embarrassment.
That hat, the one my dad found lying in the middle of the road, is the one he is wearing in the Tri-Flon ad at the top of this post.
I had other work to do, so I could not attend the photo shoot but I knew our art director would take good care of my parents. When the shoot was over, he brought them back to my office and told me that my dad had been a big hit at the photo studio. The photographer, who had initially been wary of using a non-professional model, had asked the art director a question.
“Where did you find this model? He’s so natural that you’d think he’d spent his whole life on a tractor.”