Friday, 9 August 2013

09/08/13 - Office Parties

It’s common knowledge that Leo Burnett London likes to party. And last week, on an incongruously Mediterranean Thursday, a fleet of coaches spirited us all away from the railway lines and car parks of West Kensington and out into a bit of the country that had some green bits, basking in the shimmer of some vast, unidentified orb in the sky. We found ourselves deposited at a sprawling country pad that, contrary to the belief of everybody present, wasn’t the weekend retreat of the Finance Director, but in fact belonged to an affable old buffer in a sunhat who inexplicably roamed amongst as we got smashed in his garden. You know those TV shows Sarah Beeny does, featuring an old-money chap in a massive country house who can’t afford to keep the increasingly financially cumbersome family estate ticking over, and is desperate for a solution to get the electricity bills paid? And she always suggests either weddings or events in the grounds? Yeah, it smacked of that. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, of course – he had five grand in his pocket, we had a sizeable swimming pool and a bevy of impeccably manicured lawns to cavort and gambol around… the drinks were flowing, the sun was scorching, and all manner of unspeakable indiscretions presented themselves in the shadows. What more could you possibly want from a weekday?
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Leo Burnett London has enjoyed a hedonistic cavalcade of whimsy when they should have been high-fiving clients, writing pithy remarks about burgers and pushing numbers around spreadsheets. Here are some highlights from years gone by…

The midgets
Working in advertising is underpinned by a daily struggle to appear to be credible, sensible grown-ups who represent a safe pair of hands for the vast swathes of cash that the clients bring to the front door in an endless stream of wheelbarrows (I have nothing to do with the financial end of the business, I’m just guessing about that bit), while also trying to suppress the general public’s perception of the industry: that we’re positioned somewhere between Mad Men and a kind of nineteen-eighties pastiche of whisky, red braces, Porsche 911s and illicit Colombian substances. The validity of this perception varies from agency to agency, but it’s generally considered good form to tip the scales more toward the ‘we’re grown-ups’ angle than that whole hedonism bit.
…so, choosing ‘Studio 54’ as the theme for the Christmas party a few years ago was a bold move. There were fire-eaters, waitresses who were as close to naked as made no odds, and all manner of dark, secret corners. There were also midgets. Lots of them. Remember that old rock ‘n’ roll tale about Freddie Mercury having midgets circulating at his party with trays of cocaine on their heads? Yeah, it was like that (but without the coke, obviously). Some thought it was funny. Some thought it was cute. Some thought it was the most horrendous form of exploitation and were really rather cross about it. But hey, no-one forced the midgets to do it. Well, someone may have forced them to strip down to their pants and slather themselves in gold paint but c'mon, it was a party.

Giles’ Flowers fantasy
It’s very important in any workplace to have a genuine human connection with senior management. We’re fortunate in that the CEO is perhaps the most inappropriate and brilliantly awful pottymouth since… well, there’s no-one to compare him to, really… while the MD genuinely seems to believe that he’s The Killers’ Brandon Flowers. It was no coincidence that our 2012 Christmas party featured a sort of extended gig for in-house musicians, chief among which was said bigwig living out his Flowers fantasy on the stage.
Now, you want that kind of thing to be awful. You want it to be so heinously embarrassing that it’s thereafter referred to as ‘the incident’, and the boss in question is too busy cringing to ever make it to another company function. And at most workplaces, this would undoubtedly be the case.
…but not here. Not with Giles Hedger. He was magnificent, frankly. That man can shake a tambourine with Bez-like panache whilst singing like some kind of filthy angel, incongruously dressed in a Sgt Pepper jacket and Bono shades, hand-clapping like a lunatic. It’s tricky for a boss to pull that off.

‘Team-building’ is a horrible concept. The forced jollity of ‘all mucking in together’ to perform some arbitrary task in order to make you bond as colleagues is so much nineteen-nineties bullshit. And when ‘team-building’ is mentioned in the same breath as ‘summer party’, hearts sink.
However, we do know how to throw a good party. (Did I mention…?) Our summer bash around five years or so ago involved ferrying everybody out to somewhere near Heathrow, splitting them up into teams, and providing each team with the following: some oil drums, a length of rope, some planks of wood, and more alcohol than is physically possible for anybody to drink.
Sound like a health-and-safety nightmare? Yeah, possibly. But until you’ve tried riding a raft that you’ve lashed together yourself whilst sweating Jagermeister in the London sun, you’re really not in a position to judge.
The fact that most people got into the water fully-clothed – having not previously been informed of the afternoon’s activities – speaks volumes of their enthusiasm and tenacity. And those that didn’t get in fully-clothed? Why, they stripped down to their undies and dove in. But of course.

Harry Dromey taking a pounding
‘Mexican wrestling’ is a pretty unbeatable theme for a summer party. Particularly if you have a full-size wrestling ring, a selection of masks and costumes, and are positively encouraging people to leap in and hurt each other. Turns out that something you can’t describe as ‘unbeatable’ is Harry Dromey’s face. (For those not in the know, Harry is a chap who used to work here. An affable ginger chap – son of famous politicians, but you’d never know it. Despicable guy. Very nice, really good bloke but, y’know, filthy.) He burst into the ring – which is exactly the kind of thing he likes, oi oi etc – and challenged the entire room to, er, give him a pounding in the ring. (Heh – two ‘in the ring’ gags in one sentence. Brilliant.) And lots of people did. Over and over again. Christ, that dirty, lovely man can take a beating.

Paying with nifties
The summer party of 2011 (I think) took place at China Boulevard – a riverside Chinese restaurant in Wandsworth which happened to be five minutes’ walk from my flat. Handy. But that’s an irrelevant detail. Don’t know why I brought it up, sorry.
Anyway, as the summer party always happens somewhere near Founders Day, we’d all been furnished with a £50 note on arrival. (Founders Day being an annual Leo Burnett tradition - on the date of the company’s founding, every LB employee around the world gets the equivalent of one dollar for every year the company’s been around. By a weird quirk of economics, this converts into exactly fifty pounds for the London employees every single year. Funny that. What a coincidence.)
The parties are always, of course, all-inclusive, so everyone spent the afternoon getting smashed for free and eating Chinese food. And when it was time to vacate the premises, everybody migrated next door to The Ship – a lovely little pub with a huge barbecue for the summer months and a roaring log fire for winter – and continued drinking. And every single one of those 300-odd revellers tried to pay at the bar with a fifty pound note.
Not the most enthralling tale, granted. But if anything’s going to cement the common public perception that advertising people are wankers, it’s sending a large group of them to a pub armed with £50 notes.

Kicking the boss
The first summer party I went to at LB LDN happened a few months after I joined in 2006. Again it featured the dreaded ‘team-building’ concept, and again it turned out to be brilliant. It was basically a giant version of It’s A Knockout in Battersea Park, with enough gin-and-tonic to swim in and a great excuse, as if one were required, to writhe around in the mud like animals.
I was new to the industry as well as the company, and the parkland debauchery was like nothing I’d hitherto experienced. I also didn’t know very many people. The point at which I drunkenly slithered over a huge inflatable sausage thing and inadvertently kicked somebody in the face with my gloopily mud-caked shoe was, as you might imagine, rather embarrassing. And the red-facedness heightened when somebody subsequently pointed out that the recipient of my ham-fisted (er, ham-footed?) dirty protest was then-CEO and world’s-nicest-man Bruce Haines.
He didn’t fire me. He laughed. That’s advertising for you.

Stealing the MD’s Porsche
When a colleague and I stole the CEO’s 911 Turbo (well, he was the MD then; the hierarchy’s very complicated, no-one really understands it) during a Hallowe’en party about six years ago and parked it where he couldn’t find it, we swore we’d never discuss it. So I’m certainly not going to bring that up here.

The bin
Last year’s summer party was a corker – a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, set in a leafy square in West London, surrounded by Maseratis and people in deck shoes. It was very posh indeed. Folk were circulating with Martinis, I think I saw a bowler hat, nobody seemed to mind when a stray ball from the coconut shy took out the window of a passing car, there was moneyed cheerfulness in the air. Even us lowly paupers of the agency were made to feel as if we’d been part of something opulent, something magnificent, something that would happily bleed into the lifestyle of an oil sheikh, a footballer, a property mogul, even Jay Gatsby himself. Hell, no-one would have batted an eyelid if a waiter had emerged brandishing a tray with a glistening pyramid of Ferrero Rocher perched grandly atop.
It was something of a surprise, then, to receive an all-staffer from HR the following week, suggesting that we wouldn’t ever be welcome at that particular venue again, because somebody had done a poo in a bin.
Now, it’s not the JuicyPips remit to name names, and there’s no evidence to suggest whose poo it was. No DNA tests were conducted (that I’m aware of). So it really isn’t my place to suggest that it was probably Tim Harvey. (No, not the ex-Touring Car driver, the ex-Leo Burnett employee. I wonder why he doesn’t work here any more…?) 

Oh, there are other stories. But I’ll never tell.

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