Chapter 1 – Background
It wasn’t my idea to get a proper job. I never wanted to make something of myself. I was happy just existing with Hannah, going to and from a dead-end job that required no mental engagement whatsoever.
She was my First Love – capital F, capital L – and I had a plan: earn enough money to buy a house; move in together; get married; have children; ride off into the sunset (well, Surrey).
It all seemed quite straight-forward until something changed. I don’t think it was me that changed, but maybe that was the problem.
Suddenly she wanted more; she wanted to be challenged, to try something different, to be taken out of her comfort zone. And yes, I did suggest anal.
She said she wanted to move up to London, and that I should come, maybe? But I knew she didn’t mean it, not really. She wanted to be by herself – no, she needed to be by herself – and I understood that, even though I couldn’t really remember what it was like to be by myself.
There was no big falling out, no fight, not even an exchange of non-sequitur insults. I guess that confirmed it was the right thing to do. I was almost begging for her to shout at me, to tell me I’d been wasting her time, that I was going nowhere, just to show she still felt something for me. We might as well have celebrated our break-up with a handshake.
When we got together, it was perfect for both of us; we were miserable and not having any luck with anyone else, so as a couple we could right the wrongs of The Failed Relationship and show everyone that had ever fucked us over what they were missing.
And you know what, it went pretty well for a while. Actually it went better than ‘pretty well,’ and for longer than ‘a while.’ We were the talk of the town at university; it seems grotesque to think about it in these terms now in retrospect, but we were almost local celebrities. We were inseparable and on the guest-list for anything we wanted to go to.
It seems finger-in-the-eye-clear now, but the fact that being a half-decent footballer with a fit girlfriend at university doesn’t mean shit in the real world was a shock at the time. I remember being told, in my first job post-university, that I had to feed more than 10,000 pages of A4 card into an industrial shredder. The look of shock on my face must’ve been pretty obvious because the request was quickly followed up with a smirking “if you don’t think that’s beneath you” from my it’s-not-fat-it’s-glandular whale of a supervisor.
But I did it, because at the end of the day, I just wanted to be with Hannah. But as I dedicated myself to her happiness, I just filled up with emptiness, and forgot what was most important in my life: me. James, James Spade. Pleased to meet you.
I could feel the rising tide of apathy, and I was powerless to resist. It became increasingly easy to ignore her, to make plans without her, and to find excuses to not see her for days on end.
I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t even remember the last time we had even kissed, let alone had sex, but the worst thing about it was that I just had no interest at all. The idea of touching her scared me a little bit, and actually started to kind of repulse me a bit in a way I can’t quite articulate. I don’t have a sister, but I imagine if I did, and I caught her wearing just a blindfold, trying to pierce her own nipples, while some guy paid to watch and jerk off over webcam, I’d feel about the same as I did every time Hannah started to get undressed.
It was clear that she just didn’t want me any more either, and that hurt.
Singledom was hard to embrace, despite the fact that, contrary to popular belief, the freedom to play computer games, smoke dope and wank all day is about as good as it gets. After twelve weeks straight, punctuated only by the odd nuisance day at work, it does start to get a bit depressing though.
And of course it wasn’t long before I heard rumours that she’d already found someone else in London – fucking London – where everyone is a rich banker with model looks and a ten inch cock that couldn’t go soft, even if you’d had three pills that night, and not a lot of sleep the night before, and an essay due soon, and a football match early the next day.
So yes, I finally realised that I too needed challenging and taking out of my comfort zone and yes, I had to make something of myself. Three months too late.
It was all her fault. Her beautiful, lovely, kind, fault.
It didn’t take long to work out what I was good at (writing). But what I was interested in (apart from football and music and girls and drugs), and who I would like to work for were mysteries.
So with minus one thousand six hundred pounds in my bank account I moved to London to pursue The Great British Dream of changing the world by writing about…something.
It should be noted here that I think Hannah was starting to feel guilty about how things ended between us. I’d stopped calling her, partly because she’s stopped calling me, but then to over-compensate she started calling me again every single night. That was more often than when we were actually going out! And it was always about nothing in particular, just to make sure in a roundabout way that I was alright, which was kind of sweet but it made me feel like even more of a charity case than I already did.
This one specific evening though, I’m glad I answered, because if there’s one thing charity cases are good for, it’s accepting charity.
“I’ve found you a job,” she said.
“Hello to you too,” I said.
“Seriously. You’ve got an interview tomorrow morning. It’s with Jonesys’ old company.” Jonesy is the name of a girl she lived with by the way. “Advertising agency. You’d be a copywriter. I told her you like words and stuff, and she put in a good word for you. Turns out they’re desperate for someone, ideally someone young who wants to learn.”
“You mean, ideally someone cheap.”
She ignores my comment.
“This is what you want right?”
I hadn’t even thought about it.
“Yeah, but…I mean, I hadn’t…what if they? Let me start that again. Thank you. I don’t know what else to say. You didn’t have to do this you know,” I offered plaintively.
“I did.” There’s a long silence. “I want you to be ok, I want you to be happy. You’ve been sat around in London doing nothing for three weeks now. Whether you admit it or not, you need help.”
She genuinely knows me better than I know myself, and it doesn’t so much sicken me as depress me. If I couldn’t make a relationship work with her, how the hell am I meant to with someone else? Someone that doesn’t know me; know the real me; know the stupid-lazy-selfish-prick me.
She’s still talking. It suddenly hits me that going to an interview dramatically increases my chances of actually getting a job, and so far, randomly e-mailing CVs has been an adequately abstract enough job application process. I’m gonna miss watching day-time TV, inventing increasingly adventurous ways to masturbate, bidding for damaged goods on ebay, going to the gym and occasionally cooking.
Seriously, I could easily become a housewife. Maybe I should just look into finding a nice old rich gay man to take care of me?
She’s still still talking. About what I’m not quite sure, I only tune into the odd word, but her tone of voice suggests it’s confidence-building stuff about how great I am.
Thanks, but when ‘talented’ and ‘genius’ and whatever else you’re saying aren’t good enough for you, it renders it all kind of meaningless.
I snap back to something approaching consciousness and hear:
“So good luck tomorrow, I know you’re gonna be great. This could really be the start of something for you!” For some reason the way she says it, it doesn’t sound condescending. “I’m so excited! If I had a glass I’d clink, but here’s to a fresh start.”
“To a fresh start.” I pause. “I miss you.”
She paused for a bit longer than I was hoping for.
“I miss you too.” The wavering electronic drone drilled deep into my skull while my brain played catch-up and struggled to process the fact that she had hung up.
All I was given was a brief and two weeks preparation to secure the job.
“Plenty of time for someone with your level of experience,” they said at the end of the first interview.
Shame I’d made all that experience up.
Two weeks preparation for a hypothetical pitch, for what was my own personal most-hated low-cost airline. But the more I thought about it, the more that was actually a positive thing. If I can think of something that would convince me that Shamrock Air have changed, that they are in fact not the biggest bunch of deceitful pricks currently operating in the 30-to-35-thousand-feet-above-the-air arena, then I’m probably doing something right.
I started to devour every book, TV series and movie I could find on advertising to teach myself a trade that I’d allegedly already been doing for three years. I started to put together a scrapbook of things I liked; ads, film posters, photographs, paintings, websites, everything.
Turns out that, artistically, history has repeated itself over and over again, either that or I just like the same one thing, in several different packages.
But I don’t want to be burdened with too much knowledge, too many ‘success criteria,’ as I keep seeing them described. Social economics, market access, added value propositions, all of things mean nothing to me.
If I can make someone think, or smile – or ideally both – then I think that’s the only criterion for success I need to worry about.
If something’s simple, and speaks to a core universal human truth, then it seems to work; probably differently to every person that looks at it, but that’s kind of the point.
Of course, making it rhyme or look beautiful helps, but when push comes to punch if something’s good enough it’ll get a whole platform of tube users smiling just written in black pen on a white wall. Also, I like it when I feel like I’m in the joke.
But back to the task at hand.
After 12 days of reading and setting myself little writing tasks, I found myself with two days before the presentation and just staring at a blank pad, spinning a pen absent-mindedly in my fingers trying to work out Shamrock Air.
I fucking hate Shamrock Air. More like Sham Air, I snort to myself.
When I think about them I steam at the time they changed my flight for no reason without telling me and made me pay for another one. I fume at the time they made me go passenger-to-passenger, begging to see if I could scrounge £1.50 just to afford to go to the toilet. And I broil at the time some bitch wouldn’t let me on a flight because I hadn’t got some non-existent stamp on my passport, that isn’t even a legal requirement, or highlighted anywhere on the boarding pass, or in the airport.
Not that I hold grudges.
A spark of an idea hits me and I remember something I read a couple of days ago.
I recreate my worst possible Sham Air experience. It was like a trip through the gates of hell, a masochistic thrill, shepherded by some blond mutton-dressed-as-lamb, with hair pulled back so tight that it seemed to be the only thing holding her eyes, nose and mouth in the right place.
It made me smile and it dawned on me that, fuck, I actually really wanted this proper job after all.
“When each of you sat down in this room you might have found that the chairs were a bit close together, that the table is encroaching somewhat on your leg-room, and that, if you were lucky, someone had charitably left some gum under the rim of it for you; gum which I imagine has now genetically fused itself with the fabric of your trousers. Sorry about that.”
I make eye contact with the two agency men in the room, Matt and Alex, and try to be as sincere as possible. I’m just about to launch into rehearsed-but-not-too-rehearsed spiel, when there’s a knock on the door. A man I’ve never seen before timidly pushes his way into the room.
“Oh hi, there you are, sorry I couldn’t find you, the receptionist wasn’t at her desk,” he says, looking at Matt and Alex. He notices me standing up and whispers: “Oh sorry, have you already started? Please continue.”
Matt and Alex look at each other, confused.
He sits down and stares at me. This is weird. My concentration’s broken.
“Maybe we should just pause for a second,” Matt says, turning to half-shepherd this late arrival back up and out of the room. “We weren’t expecting you till this afternoon.”
“Please! Carry on!” the man I don’t know says, ignoring Matt.
“But,” Matt starts.
“No, just be quiet Matt, it’s ok, let him continue.”
Now they all stare at me, but I shrug and find my place again.
“Outside this room, while you were waiting – and I’m sure you don’t mind – but I had to charge you for hot drinks and the toilet, just to, you know, cover my costs. I was running late so I had to get a cab over here. Oh, that reminds me actually, would you mind having a whip-round while I think about it? One of you requested a car back to the station after we’re done, so you all owe about £5.75 each.”
The three of them look at one another and I start to sweat.
“It’s fine, we’ll do that at the end, don’t worry. Oh finally, before we get started properly, did anyone find a note on their seat?”
The guy I don’t recognise sheepishly clears his throat and half-nods at me.
“Yes, you sir, great. Would you mind reading it out loud for us all?”
“Go fuck yourself. As in, it says, go fuck yourself.”
Matt and Alex look at each other again, aghast.
“Thank you sir,” I say, smiling.
The way he stared at me while reading that gives me the terrible feeling that he might never have actually said the word ‘fuck’ out loud before.
“Maybe we should just take a break,” Matt says, turning to this third-party.
“Yes,” Alex says, standing up. “Let’s pop outside for a second.”
“No, it’s fine, I’ll stay,” the man says. “This is interesting.”
I look at my audience, sweating more but feeling good. It’s all or nothing now Spade.
“Now, what is the point of this exercise in histrionics you might well ask. Well, to be blunt, this is how Shamrock Air customers feel. Insulted, extorted, sub-human.”
The man I don’t recognise coughs pointedly. Alex and Matt both look at him again.
“Is everything alright?” I ask.
“Sure,” Matt says. “John, maybe you and I have got things to talk about elsewhere?”
“No Matt, it’s fine,” the man called John says. “Please continue,” he smiles at me.
“Ok. Well, when people think about Shamrock Air, they instantly think about Aunt Mary or Dan-from-the-office, who got charged extra for wanting to wear clothes on the plane, or whatever ridiculous story that gets passed around. Did you know that there’s actually a website called ‘Hitler owns Sham Air – yes, they call it Sham Air! – dot com?’
“You know how much people love to complain! By the thousand, they log in purely to complain about the airline; about the service, the plane conditions, the hidden prices, even one particular air stewardess’ perfume for god’s sake. There’s detailed descriptions of lawsuits that people have tried to undertake against you, and failed because of technicalities and small print – and I mean small print; the kind you need a magnifying glass to read at the bottom of a 24 page terms and conditions document. It gets literally millions of hits every month.
“From a strategic point of view this is obviously quite a big problem. A problem that I know you know you have. But now something really has to be done.
“In an increasingly competitive environment, your price is no longer a differentiating factor. Customers who want to pay as little as possible to fly don’t have to put up with these quirks – in inverted commas – anymore; that’s the harsh truth about what’s going through their minds. By my reckoning, you literally could not go down any further in the general public’s estimation.”
The-man-called-John opens his eyes as wide as they can go. He’s maybe only a year older than me but dressed like someone called Graham.
“So what do you do? What do we do?
“Show that Shamrock Air has some self-awareness, and a sense of humour. We have to show we appreciate our customers and understand them somewhat. That way, we start to own that hatred and use it as a force for good. It’s no good saying things have changed, we have to show things have changed. We have to become the low-cost airline of the people again, and we can.
“Embrace the hate.”
“Online and in the press, there is so much negative information about Shamrock Air, right? So let’s create a repository website for all this negative reporting, attracting people with fake headline grabbers, in press and online.
“Here we encourage people to tell us their own ‘reliable sources’ and force people to recognise their error in believing this nonsense.
“Gentlemen, allow me to introduce I hate Shamrock Air dot com.”
I turn over the board I’ve had printed with the URL on to face them.
“We run ads ridiculing the mud that gets slung, and subvert people’s expectations of the brand at the same time.
“So, here’s the first one,” I say, turning another board over. “As you can see the headline reads: Shamrock Air were responsible for you finding out that the Easter Bunny isn’t real. Sorry about that.
“And the second one: Shamrock Air are the reason Mary never went home with you that night after the Christmas party in 2002. We messed up.
“To be honest, the possibilities are virtually endless.
“At the end of each of these ads – whether they’re online, or in press, or on a billboard, whatever – we ask people to tell us what else Shamrock Air is responsible for by visiting I hate Shamrock air dot com.
“There, you’ll find articles about Shamrock Air faking the moon landings, assassinating JFK, ruining the ending of ‘Lost,’ anything you want that you think is funny, or that will resonate and get a knowing smile.
“I hope that this new campaign will succeed in hitting all the main priorities of the brief.”
I start counting them off on one hand.
“It will generate intrigue and renewed interest in Shamrock Air. It will drive people to the new website. And it is certainly challenging and thought-provoking enough to get people talking about Shamrock – not Sham – Air again.
“Thank you for your time. Now, does anyone have any questions?”
“You did well James, really well.”
“That’s good, because my other idea was Sham Air Max, where the planes transformed into these kind of massive great running shoes.”
This is a couple of days later by the way. I’m sat back in the offices of the fastest-growing advertising agency in London, RJF, and I’m talking to the creative director, Alex. He’s some aging lothario-type who used to write for FHM in the late-90s. He’s nice enough but dresses like his wife has just left him. His face is warm though, and a small pot-belly peeking out from in between his shirt buttons tells me that enjoys life.
His face doesn’t seem sure whether I’m joking about Sham Air Max or not, but he continues: “I liked the creative angle, I liked the vitriol, and you’ve got guts to try and pull that kind of thing off in an interview. Ripping-off that old British Rail scam was a nice touch but unfortunately we’re all long enough in the tooth to actually remember that.”
It was worth a shot I think. That was what I remembered the other day. There’s this famous apocryphal tale in the advertising world about a British Rail pitch, where the agency in question (always changes depending on who you talk to) kept three clients waiting in a dirty reception, with old newspapers, cups of coffee, cigarette butts, everywhere. For half an hour they sat there, just waiting, constantly being reassured that the agency were nearly ready for them. Just as the clients were about to leave, they were ushered upstairs, and the point was made; this is what British Rail customers go through every single day. I just loved the theatre of it all.
“A few things need working on,” he continued, “particularly from the customer’s point of view – what are we actually asking them to do off the back of seeing this campaign, make a booking? – but overall it seemed to make sense.”
“Thanks, well, glad you liked it. I enjoyed working on it to be honest, came out alright.”
“One thing though. You will have recognised Matt, Leo and myself from the first time we met, but we had a special guest with us; John Tompkins. Through a bizarre set of circumstances – confusion about when he was coming in, seeing the room we’d prepared with their logo on, that sort of thing. Well, he was an actual Shamrock Air client.”
Oh fuck, I’m thinking. His face isn’t giving anything away though.
“A junior client, but a client nonetheless.”
I’m already preparing my thank you for the opportunity speech. I cannot believe I thought writing a note saying ‘go fuck yourself’ could ever be considered a good idea.
“Thankfully he had a sense of humour. In fact, more than that, he absolutely loved your idea and has spoken to his bosses already about running it as a one-off campaign towards the end of the year!”
I certainly didn’t see that coming.
“In other words, you’ve got the job. When can you start? How much notice are you on from your current role, with, er, M & L?” He glances back up from my massively fraudulent CV.
He doesn’t know ‘M & L’ stands for Mario and Luigi.
My brain quips that the Mario Brothers probably don’t have a contractual obligation to put me on gardening leave. Shut up brain.
“Say, a week on Monday?”
That’ll give me a good 9 days to find all the remaining stars Mario Galaxy 2 and finish that eighth. Plenty of time.
“Perfect. We’ll get all your paperwork ready.”
“Excellent. Can’t wait to get started here. I’ve got a good feeling about this.”
We enthusiastically shake hands.
This is good. I’m growing up.