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"This can't be happening. Not to me. Not now!" Amanda Stockenberg stared in disbelief at the television screen where towering red-andorange flames were engulfing the Mariner Seaside Golf Resort and Conference Center located on the Oregon coast.
"It is lousy timing," her administrative assistant, Susan Chin, agreed glumly. It had been Susan who'd alerted Amanda to the disaster, after hearing a news bulletin on the radio.
"That has to be the understatement of the millennium," Amanda muttered as she opened a new roll of antacids.
Hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, she'd left a meeting and run down the hall to the conference room.
Now, as the two women stood transfixed in front of the television, watching the thick streams of water prove ineffectual at combating the massive blaze, Amanda could see her entire career going up in smoke right along with the five-star resort.
She groaned as the hungry flames devoured the lovely cedar-shake shingled roof. The scene shifted as the cameras cut away to show the crews of helmeted firemen valiantly fighting the fire. From the grim expressions on their soot-stained faces, she sensed that they knew their efforts to be a lost cause.
And speaking of lost causes
"It's obvious we're going to have to find a new site for the corporate challenge," she said, cringing when what was left of the wooden roof caved in with a deafening roar. Water from the fire hoses hit the flames, turned to steam and mixed with the clouds of thick gray smoke.
"I'd say that's a given," Susan agreed glumly. "Unless you want to have the group camping out on the beach. Which, now that I think about it, isn't such a bad idea. After all, the entire idea of this coming week is to present the creative teams with challenges to overcome."
"Getting any of the managers of this company to work together as a team is going to be challenge enough." Amanda sank into a chair, put her elbows on the long rectangular mahogany conference table and began rubbing at her temples, where a headache had begun to pound. "Without tossing in sleeping in tents on wet sand and bathing out of buckets."
Advertising had been a cutthroat, shark-eat-shark business since the first Babylonian entrepreneur had gotten the bright idea to chisel the name of his company onto a stone tablet. Competition was always fierce, and everyone knew that the battle went not only to the most creative, but to the most ruthless.
Even so, Amanda felt the employees of Janzen, Law-ton and Young took the idea of healthy competition to unattractive and often unprofitable extremes. Apparently, Ernst Janzen, senior partner of the company that had recently purchased Amanda's advertising agency, seemed to share her feelings. Which was why the idea of corporate-management teams was born in the first place.
In theory, the concept of art, copy and marketing working together on each step of a project seemed ideal. With everyone marching in unison toward the same finish line, the firm would undoubtedly regain superiority over its competitors.
That was the plan. It was, Amanda had agreed, when she'd first heard of it, extremely logical. Unfortunately, there was little about advertising that was the least bit logical.
The agency that had hired her directly after her graduation from UCLA, Connally Creative Concepts, or C.C.C., had made a name for itself by creating witty, appealing and totally original advertising that persuaded and made the sale through its ability to charm the prospect.
Although its location in Portland, Oregon, was admittedly a long way from Madison Avenue, some of the best copywriters and art directors in the country had been more than willing to leave Manhattan and take pay cuts in order to work long hours under the tutelage of Patrick Connally. C.C.C. had been like a family, Patrick Connally playing the role of father to everyone who came for inspiration and guidance.
Unfortunately, two years ago Patrick Connally had died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-five, after a heated game of tennis. His widow, eager to retire to Sun City, Arizona, had sold the agency to another company. Eight months after that, the new owner merged the united agencies with yet a third creative shop.
Unsurprisingly, such multiple mergers in such a short span of time resulted in the dismissal of several longtime employees as executives trimmed excess staff. A mood of anxiety settled over the offices and morale plummeted as everyone held their collective breath, waiting to see who was going to be "downsized" next.
After the initial purge, things had seemed to be settling down until the advertising wars kicked up again. A six-month battle that played out daily in the newspapers and on the internet had resulted in an unfriendly takeover by the international mega-agency of Janzen, Lawton and Young, and those employees who'd been breathing at last, found their livelihoods once again in jeopardy.
Janzen, Lawton and Young had long had a reputation for the most artless and offensive commercials to run in America. But it also boasted the highest profits in the business. In order to keep profits up to the promised levels, a new wave of massive staff cuts had hit the agency.
Morale plummeted to new lows.
Unsurprisingly, the same creative people who had once been responsible for some of the most innovative-and effective-advertising in the business, turned on one another.
A recent case in point was today's client meeting. The creative group had been assigned to propose a new concept for a popular line of gourmet ice cream. From day one, the members of the recently established team had been at each other's throats like a pack of out-of-control pit bulls.
"I can't believe you seriously expect me to be a part of this presentation," Marvin Kenyon, the head copywriter, had complained after viewing the animated sequence proposed by award-winning art director Julian Palmer.
"It's a team effort," Amanda reminded him mildly. "And you are a valuable member of the team."
The copywriter, who'd won his share of awards himself, folded his arms over the front of his blue oxford-cloth shirt and said, "I categorically refuse to share blame for something as sophomoric and static as that animation sequence."
"Sophomoric?" Julian Palmer rose to his full height of five feet five inches tall. What he lacked in stature, he more than made up for in ego. "Static? Since when are you an expert on visuals?"
"I know enough to see that if we present your idea, we'll blow the account for sure," Marvin retorted. "Hell, a baboon with a fistful of crayons could undoubtedly create a more visually appealing storyboard."
Julian arched an eyebrow as he adjusted the already perfect Windsor knot in his Italian-silk tie. "This from a man who creates-" he waved the printed sheets Marvin had handed out when he'd first arrived in the presentation room like a battle flag "-mindless drivel?"
"Drivel?" Marvin was on his feet in a shot, hands folded into fists as he came around the long, polished mahogany table.
"Marvin," Amanda protested, "please sit down. Julian didn't mean it, did you, Julian?"
"I never say anything I don't mean," the artistic director replied. "But in this case, I may have been mistaken."
"There, see?" Amanda soothed, feeling as if she were refereeing a fight between two toddlers in a kindergarten sandbox. "Julian admits he was mistaken, Marvin. Perhaps you can amend your comment about his work."
"I was wrong to call it drivel," Julian agreed. "That's too kind a description for such cliche-ridden rubbish."
"That does it!" Marvin, infamous for his quicksilver temper, was around the table like a shot. He'd grabbed hold of his team member's chalk-gray vest and for a moment Amanda feared that the two men were actually going to come to blows, when the conference-room door opened and the client arrived with Don Patterson, the marketing manager, on his heels.
"Am I interrupting something?" the longtime client, a man in his mid-fifties whose addiction to ice cream had made him a very wealthy man, asked.
"Only a momentary creative difference of opinion," Amanda said quickly. "Good afternoon, Mr. Carpenter. It's nice to see you again."
"It's always a pleasure to see you again, Ms. Stockenberg." The portly entrepreneur took her outstretched hand in his. His blue eyes warmed momentarily as they swept over her appreciatively. "I'm looking forward to today's presentation," he said as his gaze moved to the uncovered storyboard.
Wide brow furrowed, he crossed the room and began studying it for a long silent time. Since it was too late to begin the presentation as planned, the team members refrained from speaking as he took in the proposed campaign. Amanda didn't know about the others, but she would have found it impossible to say a word, holding her breath as she was.
When Fred Carpenter finally did speak, his words were not encouraging. "You people have serviced my account for five years. I've dropped a bundle into your coffers. And this is as good as you can come up with? A cow wearing a beret?"
"Let me explain the animation," Julian said quickly. Too quickly, Amanda thought with an inner sigh. He was making the fatal mistake of any presenter: appearing desperate.
"Don't worry, the art can be rethought," Marvin interjected as Julian picked up the laser pen to better illustrate the sequence. "Besides, it's the words that'll sell your new, improved, French vanilla flavor, anyway." He paused, as if half expecting a drumroll to announce his message. "A taste of Paris in every spoonful."
"That's it?" the snack-food executive asked.
"Well, it's just the beginning," Marvin assured him. Moisture was beading up on his upper lip, his forehead. Another rule broken, Amanda thought, remembering what Patrick Connally had taught her about never letting the client-or the competition-see you sweat. "See, the way I envision the concept-"
"It's drivel," Julian said again. "But the team can fix that, Fred. Now, if we could just get back to the art."
"It's not drivel," Marvin exploded.
"Marvin," Amanda warned softly.
"I've seen cleverer copy written on rolls of novelty toilet paper," the art director sniffed.
"And I've seen better art scrawled on the sides of buildings down at the docks!"
Amanda turned toward the client who appeared less than amused by the escalating argument. "As you can see, Mr. Carpenter, your campaign has created a lot of in-house excitement," she said, trying desperately to salvage the multimillion-dollar account.
"Obviously the wrong kind," Carpenter said. "Look, I haven't liked how all these mergers resulted in my account being put into the hands of the same agency that handles my competitors. It looks to me as if you guys have been instructed by your new bosses to soften your approach-"
"The hell we have," both Julian and Marvin protested in unison, agreeing for once. Amanda tried telling herself she should be grateful for small favors.
"Then you've lost your edge," the self-proclaimed king of ice cream decided.
"That's really not the case, Fred," Don Patterson, the marketing member of the team, finally interjected. A man prone to wearing loud ties and plaid sport jackets, he was nevertheless very good at his job. "Perhaps if Julian and Marvin went back to the drawing board-"
"There's no point. We've had five great years working together, you fellows have helped make Sweet Indulgence the second-bestselling ice cream in the country. But, the team over at Chiat/Day assures me that they can get me to number one. So, I think I'm going to give them a try."
He turned toward Amanda, who could literally feel the color draining from her face. "I'm sorry, Ms. Stockenberg. You're a nice, pretty lady and I'd like to keep my account here if for no other reason than to have an excuse to keep seeing you. But business is business."
"I understand." With effort, Amanda managed a smile and refrained from strangling the two ego-driven creative members of the ill-suited team. "But Don does have a point. Perhaps if you'd allow us a few days to come up with another concept-"
"Sorry." He shook his head. "But things haven't been the same around here since all the mergers." His round face looked as unhappy as hers. "But if you'd like," he said, brightening somewhat, "I'll mention you to the fellows at Chiat/Day. Perhaps there's a spot opening up over there."
"That's very kind of you. But I'm quite happy where I am."
It was what she'd been telling herself over and over again lately, Amanda thought now, as she dragged her mind from the disastrous meeting to the disaster currently being played out on the television screen.
"You know," Susan said, "this entire challenge week isn't really your problem. Officially, it's Greg's."
"I know." Amanda sighed and began chewing on another Tums.
Greg Parsons was her immediate supervisor and, as creative director, he was the man Ernst Janzen had hand-selected for the job of instituting the team concept. The man who had moved into the executive suite was as different from Patrick Connally as night from day. Rather than encouraging the cooperative atmosphere that had once thrived under the founder of C.C.C., Greg ruled the agency by intimidation and fear.
From his first day on the job, he'd set unrealistic profit targets. This focus on profits diverted attention from what had always been the agency's forte-making clients feel they were getting superior service.
Apparently believing that internal competition was the lifeblood of success, he instigated political maneuvering among his top people, pitting one against the other as they jockeyed for key appointments.
Although such intrigue usually occurred behind the scenes, one of the more visible changes in policy was the conference table at which Amanda was sitting. When she'd first come to work here, the room had boasted a giant round table, the better, her former boss had declared, to create the feeling of democracy. Now, five days a week, the staff sat around this oblong table while Parsons claimed the power position at the head.
Although it might not seem like such a big thing, along with all the other changes that had taken place, it was additional proof that C.C.C. had lost the family feeling that had been so comfortable and inspirational to both employees and clients.
Desperate to salvage his foundering career, Parsons had come up with the idea of taking the teams to a resort, where, utilizing a number of outward-boundtype game-playing procedures he'd gleaned from his latest management-training course, the various independent-minded individuals would meld into one forceful creative entity.
"The problem is," Amanda said, "like it or not, my fortunes are tied to Greg."
"Lucky him. Since without you to run interference and do all his detail work, he'd undoubtedly have been out on his Armani rear a very long time ago," Susan said.
"That's not very nice."