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Jobs for Hard Times

2. A New Kind of Ad Agency

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The Trib ad was "CAN'T WAIT! $350-450 weekly, hiring immediately: Project Managers, Public Relations, Marketing." My fingers wouldn't dial fast enough. The receptionist asked: "We have one opening today at three, can you make it?"

She gave me directions to the Chicago Research Company, in an industrial park in Elmhurst. Everything in the Spartan office was mauve or blue, including the paintings. A small boom box played Top 40. The job application I was handed asked for the last school grade I'd completed and my most recent hourly rate. It never asked for my resume (I turned it in anyway), references, or even previous work experience.

After waiting an hour, my name was called and I met Joey, a convivial, well-manicured middle-manager type. "This is a really exciting opportunity," he said. "We're a new kind of ad agency. We do mainly direct mail and print promotions. It's a tremendous concept! We're blowing the doors off!"

Joey glanced at my resume. "What a great resume! You look like project-manager material! Will you spend the day with our sales and marketing team? We get to know you, you get to know us! Can you come back tomorrow morning at ten?"

Next morning, when I met Joey again, he introduced me to Willy, a fellow applicant. When I reached out my hand, Willy just nodded and whispered hello. Then Joey introduced both of us to his CEO, John.

Near my age of 31, John was lanky and charming. He looked like a high school basketball star turned king of his fresh empire. "Joey just raved about how sharp you both are. We're always looking for people like you and Willy to be part of our team! You're spending today with my number-one fast-track closer--Susan!"

Susan bounced into the office wearing a bright red J. Crew sweater, a white turtleneck, and black stirrup pants. A petite brunette, Susan had ruddy cheeks and a wide smile. "I can tell we're going to have a great time out in the field!" she said. Before we knew it, Susan was leading Willy and me to her car, a new Honda Civic.

Susan didn't give us any details about our destination, but she did talk about how the three of us were already "establishing a bond." Willy didn't say much from the backseat. By the end of the day, I learned that Willy had just lost his factory job and had four mouths in a far-west-suburban home to feed.

During the interminable ride, I tried to grill Susan about the job. "Are you a project manager?" I asked her.

"You'll be training for that job for the next six to eight weeks," Susan chirped, cleverly avoiding my question.

"Who are the clients we'll be visiting?" I pressed.

"If you want to make money, this is a golden opportunity to make lots quick," she said. "John is 31 and he's almost a millionaire!" When a black 450 SEL passed us on the highway, Susan cooed, "I'll be getting mine soon! We all learn the business by starting in sales."

Wow, a Mercedes. This was sounding good!

Just before noon we drove into a residential section of Lansing, just this side of the Indiana border. We passed block after block of yellow and red brick bungalows, all within the area highlighted in pink on Susan's xeroxed map. "Are the businesses near here?" I asked. Susan announced, "We'll be canvassing this neighborhood today." I cracked my window for air.

As we cruised the pinked area, we spotted a gang of what looked like door-to-door salesmen, and Susan stopped the car and called one of them over. It turned out that they were a small family of Jehovah's Witnesses. One of them, a lanky teenage kid in a beautiful suit, leaned into my window and asked, "What are you folks selling?" Susan said, "These guys could destroy our credibility." It finally hit me: my "golden opportunity" to make "lots of money quick" ringing doorbells! But I still didn't know what we were selling.

Here was the drill: in order not to scare the customers, Susan had either Willy or me go to the door with her while the other one hid just out of view, usually behind a nearby tree. When the door opened, Susan would introduce herself.

"Hi, my name is Susan, do you like to eat out?"

If she didn't get the door slammed in her face, she'd continue. "Have you ever eaten at the Holiday Inn restaurant over on Route 4? The Holiday Inn knows money is tight, so they've put together a special offer! It lets your whole family enjoy 14 free meals for the price of 2!"

Susan seldom got to the close of her pitch before the mark would interrupt with "Hey, get outta here!" or, more politely, "Thanks, but I'm afraid we can't afford it today" or "I'll have to ask my husband [or wife] when he [she] gets home." Susan always thanked them for their time, grinned, and asked, "What time should we return?" She carried around a clipboard and methodically marked down the information: house number, day, time to return, and whom she spoke with.

"It's the law of averages! Every time a person says no I'm getting closer to the ten out of a hundred yesses," Susan said. By five o'clock we had swept the six-block stretch twice without making a single sale.

"We've just weeded out the weenies! After six the real action happens!" Susan cheered.

It was dark when Susan and I rang the four-hundredth doorbell. The porch light came on revealing a small wooden "welcome" sign. A woman wearing a Bears sweatshirt and rollers opened the door.

"Hi, my name is Susan, do you like to eat out?"

"Love to," the woman said over her TV.

"Have you ever eaten at the Holiday Inn restaurant over on Route 4?" Her husband came to the door and motioned us inside. Willy lurked outside like a prowler while we went in for the kill.

It was cold and dark outside and the warmth of their house filled me with envy. I smelled dinner cooking. On the orange couch an older woman watched Wheel of Fortune.

"With this today-only offer, you get one meal free every time you buy another meal," Susan was saying. "If you pay me $20 right now, you'll get 400 dollars' worth of meals free. Your twenty pays for your first two meals, a $40 value in itself!"

"That sounds pretty good," the husband said.

Waving the coupon book, Susan said, "You can take your husband out to dinner with this coupon book and he eats free. Great deal, huh? Will you be taking advantage of this terrific offer with cash or check?" Susan waited, smile frozen on her face, her hand cupped to receive the check.

The man fished a $20 bill out of his wallet. "Sign us up." Willy, Susan, and I finally had something to celebrate.

By seven we'd raked in a total of $14 from two sales. Susan's zombie smile never dimmed; in door-to-door you can't put a price on smiling.

Susan hadn't wanted to spill the beans about the real nature of the operation, but on the way home I wormed it out of her. She made money from her own door-to-door sales and also earned a percentage of each sale her recruits made. As a project manager, the more people Susan hired, the more money she made. She babbled a string of the astronomical figures she'd made in profits off her personal army of recruits. And when we got back to Elmhurst at 8:30, poor Willy returned with Susan to close the deal with John the CEO. I drove home.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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