Read this short fiction with a coffee.

He was early even to his interview and he made a point of scheduling it for the end of the day so that he could linger about the area and, “soak it up,” to use his own words. One of the account directors thought that was cute, that it showed initiative, so it showed up as a tick on one of the forms they used to decide candidates but they didn’t fall back on the forms for him. He said all the right things and made all the right jokes and he came forward and prepared with a strategy that sounded whole and valid and so they ran with it and they ran with him and he started on the Monday of the week afterwards so they all had a little time but not a lot to get used to the office without him before a new person, like they always do, would change everything.

And he was fine to start with. Clients signed off on his ideas without fuss, presented with confidence and a straightforward direction as they were, and they trusted the executive teams to roll the campaigns out so they did as best they could. The account managers had no issue with him at this stage because everything was smooth and everything was okay and even his answers at the first Friday drinks when they threw the increasingly controversial round of get-to-know-yous at him were fine. Not a ten-out-of-ten but an eight and for what they paid him that was a pretty good run rate so they didn’t worry about it.

That lasted about six weeks. Around then cracks begin to show as strategies took too long to appear and came in an increasingly congealed sense; in a tiring sense, in the shape of documents that were hard to understand and harder to pitch if he wasn’t the one reading every line. And that wasn’t what they were after and it wasn’t what he was after because going meeting to meeting, pitch to pitch, sales call to sales call drained him of the time that he said he needed to get these documents looking as good as they could be. So they let him take a back seat and honed what he wrote and never told him and they pitched these edited versions instead and when it came back to him through a junior who was delivering a media buy that was, in their own words, “unwieldy,” our new strategist found himself furious.

“What do you mean, ‘unwieldy?’”

So the junior described the rollout and it turns out it was one of the pieces of the strategies that had gone untouched. A piece of this man’s purity that had made it through a client pitch and into out-of-home with a strange distribution method that the junior was curious about because they were a bit of statistics aficionado — to use their own description of themselves, which we should always initially disbelieve — so they were curious why they used some of the signage they did given the overall blah blah blah. Our strategist was, as you can imagine, displeased. He said he’d been into the office so early and staying back so late to get all of this work done and someone far below him in experience and salary and authority shouldn’t have the gall to speak back to him like that with concerns at the delivery stage. He said he’d be fine with it if it had come up before it had been sold. In the ideation process, he said, like that was a process that was open to everyone and like everyone else in the office had the same job he did to just work through decks and documents and to think and not to do.

Well, the junior took it to what counted for HR in an agency this size which wasn’t completely informal but it wasn’t a rigid, standardised structure and the remit for “the office” fell onto “HR”. But they wrote it down, raised it in a quiet 1:1 over a coffee in a meeting that never made it to the calendar so no one knew, and naturally our strategist remained incensed but he relented. He would apologise to the junior and he would make that early part of his work, when he was aggregating ideas and refining them into usable insights and briefs, more open to the rest of the team so they could provide input. “But they’re still selling,” he said, to drive the point home.

“Yes, well…”

But it turns out that more than a few of his campaigns had been spectacular failures. This isn’t to say that agencies are all success all the time but the business model requires more success than failure and it was starting to lean a bit too far the other way. And he made the same appeal to “HR”: that he was in early and out late, every day. That he was there before everybody else. And “HR” knew that was true because they’d heard it from many people around the office who, despite their own work ethics, had never seen him either come or go. So “HR” put to him studies that showed that less time working might actually produce higher quality output — which, they said, was, “invaluable to a qualitative role like yours,” which is a low interest rate kind of thing to say — and suggested that perhaps he do the standard set of hours for a while and see how that goes. By the gestures and the shuffling and the way he started to lose eye contact, he wasn’t comfortable with that but he agreed to it.

Shortly after the staff started to see him outside the building in the local cafés about as soon as he could be and then helped himself to a beer at the local pub every day after work. To each their own, that’s true, but as the quality of the work declined further in the months afterwards — thanking to god none of the staff believe in a half-year probation — they started to get suspicious and they tasked one of the new accounts people, thanks to a maternity leave not a letting go, with seeing what he was up to. So they reported for work for a week even earlier than he did and what they saw was that he would come in via the stairs every day, around 7.30am.

Presumably in the past this is when he began work but now he just meandered down them further, after having surveyed the office for signs of anyone, and he saw her, the new account director, at her desk and working already just after the brightest part of a nearly-winter dawn. He said his awkward hellos and then made his way to the foyer and then out where other members of the team saw him at a table in the morning cool. After work, others saw him with a pint or a wine glass through the window of the local. In either case: he sat by himself. And it wasn’t as if he hadn’t made friends at the agency. Perhaps it’s more true to say that he’d made loose allies but the tide was turning upon him in the building and he’d not decided to swim against it and find a way to redeem himself. So he let it carry him out to sea with the next step in his career — from which he would, as a smooth-talker, invariably recover.

But now they had to know: a failing fixture in the office, a man about whom they knew so little, and whose professional disagreements had turned to arguments and then to what might be described as a tantrum. They were inclined to more dramatic reveals.

It was a blow up with a client that fired it all off in the end. It is the nature of agency life to find yourself at loggerheads with your third-party paymasters from time to time but it is important to remind yourself that you are being paid for your expertise so wield it like you would a weapon to make statements and decisions and not simply to scratch egos. Which is what he did. The client had asked some simple questions about the placements of their advertising, like the junior had pushed for some months ago, and called into question parts of the strategy that hoped to press this strange buy into life.

He didn’t like that at all so he stood in the meeting and he didn’t shout but he wasn’t quiet and he made sure the room knew all about it and when the partners came to defuse the situation, to keep the client and the billables, he was wandered from the central glass office in front of everyone and he was escorted to the front doors and he was told not to return for the day or to come back again tomorrow or the day after and so on.

So he ventured across the road to the pub that had become his local and he had a pint like had become a habit but it was just after lunch and so the office took it upon themselves, drawing straws based on the schedule of their meetings for the afternoon, to see what else he got up to. What they saw around 3pm was miraculous because they’d heard about it as a fantastical device in stories and not as something real but what descended upon the roof around then was a large bird with a swaddle in its beak and its wings and its body tall and its proportions all wrong for a real bird with that burden. What happened instead was that as the bird arrived it squawked soft and some of the team were sure they’d heard that sound before. What happened instead was that our strategist heard that squawk and stood from his outdoor table in the cool afternoon sun and he gulped down the rest of his pint and he made his way up through the pub, through the fire escape that he’d been sure to scope out ahead of time, and he stepped out onto the roof before the bird. It lowered the swaddle to the ground for him, the blanket white and clean and soft and warm, and he climbed inside of it like he did every day from the roof of the office so that no one could see him and he got himself wrapped up so the trip was comfortable and secure and so he could pretend that no one could see. The bird’s wings came down hard and it pushed up fast and it was airborne in a moment and then up and away, over the skyline, over the city, Central London disappearing behind them both faster than you’d think.

He was heading home to Sussex where he’d always lived because it had never worked out and he’d never sat himself down to understand why.

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