Bill Gates announced yesterday that he and his wife of 27 years are divorcing. We’ll get back to that a little later. Right after I seemingly go waaaaaay off subject.
Back in the early 1980s the small ad agency in which I was a partner landed a major software account located somewhere in Texas. Dallas, as I recall.
Sometimes client-agency relationships just don’t work out. It’s kind of like a marriage. Sometimes all the assembled guests watch the bride and groom exchanging vows and think, “This is a big mistake.” Sure, both sides go through the ceremony with the best of intentions, but then he finds out she only pretended to like baseball and she finds out he has an unnatural attraction to teenage boys. Or something like that. Nobody’s fault. Sometimes it’s just better that you get a divorce and move on with your lives.
That’s how it was with this client. Both sides knew pretty quickly that a divorce was in the offing but neither of us wanted to admit we had made a mistake. Luckily, we landed a huge account a few months later which allowed us the luxury of resigning the Texas account before they got around to firing us.
The bright spot in this otherwise mismatched marriage was a young woman named Ann Winblad. She had become part of this conglomerate when it acquired the software company she had founded a few years earlier. She was only in her late twenties, maybe her very early thirties, but that transaction had already made her a very wealthy young woman.
We liked Ann. She seemed to like us. And, personally, the two of us got along famously. She was very smart, had a great sense of humor, and knew good advertising from bad. Far as I was concerned, losing Ann was the only negative part of resigning the account.
Fast forward a couple years. I was attending the National Computer Conference in Las Vegas. Think of it as the nerd Oscars. Thousands of guys with socks that didn’t match, and with plastic pen holders in the pockets of their shortsleeved button down shirts, all scurrying from booth to booth to see the latest floppy disc drive from Shugart or the the new, upgraded Dumb Terminal from Lear Siegler. It was an almost exclusively male event and most of the attendees thought of women as alien creatures from another universe.
I stepped into the immense Las Vegas Convention Center, paused in the middle of the main aisle just long enough to get my bearings, and then surveyed my surroundings. A hundred feet down the aisle, a head of blonde hair caught my attention. A head of blonde female hair. This was something worthy of far more attention than any of the show’s incredible technological innovations.
Although I hadn’t seen her in several years, I immediately recognized that blonde head of hair as Ann Winblad’s. She had not yet spotted me, so I hurriedly weaved my way down the crowded aisle in her direction. By the time I approached her, she had turned in the other direction and was deep in conversation, probably negotiating another multimillion dollar software contract.
I approached her from behind, put a hand on each of her shoulders, then leaned in and kissed her on the neck. I don’t know why I did it. Ann and I had never done anything more physical than shake hands. There was no reason for me to think it was appropriate nor that she would appreciate it. But I did it. Blame it on my OCD. Or maybe call it temporary insanity.
Without missing a beat — and I swear this is 100% true — she blurted out, “Oh, my god. Is that you, Jim?” I have no idea how she knew who was doing the nibbling. I’d like to think she had sensed my raw animal magnetism, but it was probably something far more humdrum. The familiar scent of cheap cologne, perhaps. She spun around and gave me a big hug. We laughed. We talked. She told me she was doing well. I told her the agency was doing well. We both lied and said we’d get together the next time either of us was in the other’s area.
Then she said, “Hey, my new boyfriend is here at the show. We should go to dinner. I think you’d like him.”
“Sorry, can’t do it,” I responded. “I’m just here for the day. I have a five o’clock flight back to Orange County. Next time.” Truth is, much as I liked Ann as a client, I had no real interest in dining with her nerdy new boyfriend.
In 1998 Sean Connolly wrote a best seller called “Bill Gates: An Unauthorized Biography.” Gates had by then become The Richest Man in the World and it sounded like an interesting read, so I picked up a copy. It was revealed not too many pages into the book that Gate’s girlfriend of many years was none other than Ann.
Yes, I had turned down dinner with Bill Gates. What a moron. Me, not him.
Every article about Bill Gates’ newly-announced divorce mentions the fact that he negotiated a very unusual pre-nup agreement with his wife. Despite the fact that The Richest Man in the World was already a billionaire when he married Melinda, the pre-nup didn’t mention money. But it did spell out that he was allowed to spend one weekend per year in a North Carolina beach cottage with former flame Ann Winblad.
Now I’m pretty sure that if today you asked Ann about the time I nibbled on her neck at the National Computer Conference, her response would be, “Jim who?” I guarantee you that she would not remember me. Why should she? Very few of the women I’ve kissed in my life remember me.
I, however, would like to believe that I am now the answer to a cool trivia question in Ann’s life:
“Name someone not named Bill Gates who has nibbled on my neck.”
COMING SOME OTHER TIME: MY OTHER ONE-DEGREE-OF-SEPARATION-FROM-BILL-GATES STORY.