The Work World

The Chance of a Lifetime

Every once in a while you encounter the chance of a lifetime. I’m not talking about an opportunity at fame or fortune, but those rare moments in life when you upstage someone who has more power and prestige than you. I had one of those moments early in my career and I lived to tell about it.

In the early 1980s I was hired by John Deere as a copywriter. I was in my early 20s and it was my first job out of college after receiving a degree in Journalism. I was thrilled to earn a regular paycheck even if I was only writing machinery brochures and advertisements. As I cranked out the copy month after month, I kept telling myself that I was building my portfolio for the next step up. Two years into the job, my opportunity came.

A headhunter called me. She was looking for a writer to work for the advertising agency that handled the marketing for Ford Tractor, a direct competitor to John Deere. There was something about going to work for a competitor that gave me a sense of adventure. I agreed to send her my resume and writing samples. Two weeks later I was sitting in the conference room of the ad agency across from the creative director and the vice president of the firm.

“Our client is beating us up about our work. He’s challenged us to hire a writer from their competitor,” the vice president told me. “You’re just what we need.”

Suddenly my ego was over-inflated. They actually needed me to keep their client happy. I would be their hero if I went to work for them. I agreed to their job offer and the following Monday I was back at my old job plotting my departure. I knew that the moment I told them I was going to work for a competitor, they would immediately escort me out the door for fear I would take trade secrets with me.

For two weeks I slowly cleaned out my desk, keeping only enough items on display so as not to create any suspicion. I also worked to wrap up as many projects as I could and assembled a list of pending projects. Someone once told me to leave a job on good terms because you never know when you might need your former employer. My wife and I also made arrangements for a moving van and a temporary place to live. After three weeks of preparations, moving day was upon us.

The moving truck showed up in the morning on schedule and I went to work. My plan was to tell my boss after lunch and then I would promptly be dismissed. Everything went as planned and the next morning we were off to a new city and a new job. Two days later I was sitting in my new office getting oriented to my new job. The vice president of the ad agency was anxious to have me meet their client. That opportunity arrived about a month after my arrival.

The Vice President (VP) of Marketing for Ford Tractor, the agency’s major client, was sitting at the head of a big table in the ad agency conference room with two of his staff members sitting on each side. The entire agency creative and account team filled the rest of the table. I was sitting at the back corner of the table almost directly across from the VP from Ford Tractor. The vice president of our agency wasted no time in introducing me.

“Here is the writer we hired from John Deere,” he proudly announced, pointing to me.

I nodded and smiled. The politeness abruptly ended at that point.

“So, you wrote advertising for our competitor,” the VP said as he frowned at me with a skeptical look.

“Yes,” I replied. My pulse quickened as I prepared for an interrogation by a seasoned professional. How could I possibly match wits with my meager three years of experience?

He quickly scanned a dozen or so John Deere product brochures he had spread out on the table in front of him. I watched as he grabbed a brochure and waved it at me.

“What makes you think you can write a brochure as good as this one,” the VP snapped.

“Because I wrote that brochure,” I replied with a smile.

To my amazement, he had selected a brochure that I wrote for John Deere a few months before joining the ad agency. The room was dead silent for a moment. With one sentence, a lowly writer had disarmed this executive in front of the entire ad agency staff.

Suddenly the VP broke out in laughter. The tension in the room immediately lifted and we began a productive discussion of the marketing strategy for the coming year.

I now realize that was a rare moment in my career. It’s not often we get a chance to disarm someone with position and power who is intent on tearing you down. It was a chance of a lifetime that I more fully appreciate now more than 30 years later.

© 2020, Chris G. Thelen

This post originally published March 4, 2020,

(Below: The infamous brochure.)

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