ONE thing I learned very early in my years in the advertising field is to never be surprised when the unexpected happens. But even so, I confess I was surprised to get the following memo from Human Resources one broiling Friday in the middle of August.
To: Daniel Richardson
From: Melissa Ward, Executive Senior VP
It is imperative you contact me as soon as possible about a new position in our International Division. This is in reference to your response on your intake form.
I read the memo several times, but it still didn’t make much sense. If it was so damn “imperative” I speak with Ms. Ward, why the hell didn’t she simply call me? Or have her assistant call me? Or, considering the fact she was an executive senior vice president, have her assistant’s secretary contact me? I had been at Solloway & Kaye Advertising for almost five years, so I had no idea what “response” she was talking about. Hell, I didn’t even remember an intake form. But another thing I had learned very quickly about the corporate world was that you don’t ignore memos from executive senior vice presidents. Those people don’t leave paper trails just for the sake of killing trees.
About the time I joined Solloway & Kaye they had expanded their operations into the international arena. Joining forces with some local agencies in places like London, Paris, Berlin, Milan, and Zurich had turned out to be nothing short of a gold mine, and the decision had been made (by Jason Solloway himself, it turned out) to expand the international division even further. And to do it now. It also turned out that, five years before, on my intake form, I had checked “International Division” under the question asking what other areas of the company interested me. I had also listed “Germany” and “Czechoslovakia” as places I would be interested in working. (I had also listed France, Italy, Austria, and Australia, but that, apparently, was irrelevant.)
It might have been the dog days of August in Manhattan, with most of the advertising world out sipping martinis or Punt e Mes in the Hamptons or on Fire Island, but it turned out a significant section of Solloway & Kaye was not only in our Park Avenue offices, they had a bee up their collective ass and were ready to roll. By noon that Friday I was beginning to think I had stepped into The Twilight Zone.
Our Berlin partners, the Arnheim Group, had convinced Jason Solloway that Eastern Europe was ripe for the plucking, at least from an advertising point of view, and among the new offices that ought to be opened immediately, if not sooner, was one in Dresden, Germany. Someone had decided that Dresden being only a hop, skip, and a jump away from Prague meant it would be a great base of operations from which to launch “the Eastern Offensive” (I swear that was the term Jason Solloway used) while at the same time greatly expanding our business in the former East Germany. And since I, on a whim, had indicated on a form I didn’t even remember filling out I would like to work in either Germany or Czechoslovakia, in Mr. Solloway’s mind that meant I was the right person to head Solloway & Kaye/Arnheim Group’s new Dresden branch.
True, I’d been very successful during my time with the company, but figuring out how to sell to targeted groups of folks in the United States, where I was a native, did not necessarily translate into doing the same thing to Germans, Czechs, and Poles. (Poland was stage three of “the Eastern Offensive.”) Those objections were waved away, as was my protest that I didn’t know German and had never worked in Germany.
“But you have international work experience,” Solloway insisted, waving my intake form in my face. Teaching English at the Berlitz School in Milan the year after college apparently counted as “international work experience” since it meant I “knew how to get along with the natives.”
Maybe Solloway still acted and thought like this was the 1950s, when Corporate America believed the entire world was just salivating to buy a house with a white picket fence around it and stock it full of American goods. I, on the other hand, knew it was one thing to hoist a beer in a Biergarten and enjoy listening to your neighbors sing lustily in a language you didn’t understand, but it was something else entirely to actually have to work, every day, in a different society and make money dealing with people who were, in some ways, quite different from you.
It turned out that before I had even sat down in front of Jason Solloway’s desk my boss had signed off on my possible transfer, assuring the Solloway that while he would miss me dreadfully, my work could be covered in an appropriate manner. (No surprise there, he’d been maneuvering to get rid of me for months if he could only find out how to do it without seeming to do it. This was his golden opportunity.) The salary I was offered was a whopping forty percent more than I was currently making, and the Arnheim Group was taking care of getting my work permit and all the legalities the German government required. Solloway & Kaye would have my things packed and moved at their expense and make sure my apartment was subleased so I could move back any time during the next two years. I was handed a check for five thousand dollars for “immediate expenses,” an airline ticket to Dresden, via Frankfurt, on Lufthansa, leaving JFK at nine o’clock Sunday night, which would put me in Dresden at one p.m. Monday, their time—three days away. I also had an open-ended reservation at the Radisson Gewandhaus Hotel in Dresden, with assurances Solloway & Kaye/Arnheim Group would pay the bill. Though it was suggested that I could surely find an apartment within three months, given the generous living allocation that was part of the deal.
It was all heady, to be sure. But part of me felt railroaded. Still, that night, as I looked around my beloved studio apartment on West 10th Street I knew, down deep inside, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. My best friend Kent agreed and, as usual, was not shy about expressing his opinion.
“Look, you’ve been chomping at the bit for some change in your life. You’re forty years old, you’re bored at work, your love life is in the crapper, you’ve fantasized about moving some place like California. Now you’ve got a great new job with ridiculously generous pay and benefits in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, which also just happens to have the best fucking orchestra in the entire fucking world. My God, Daniel, do you know that you’ll be able to hear the Staatskapelle Dresden any time you want to? And in their own fucking home? Jesus!” (Kent had studied and then lived in Germany and played the oboe in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, so he had some basis for his assertions.) “Besides, now I’ll have a place to stay for free on my next vacation. Yes, I’ll miss you, but it was just for situations like this that God invented e-mail and web cams. Have you finished packing yet?”
Apparently I really didn’t have much of a choice.