Bible Belted. Tales of ego, greed and betrayal in the town of Springfield, MO.
Updated: Aug 1
I took a detour after Los Angeles because things had started to get a little dicey out there. And when you see the word dicey and Los Angeles in the same sentence, be sure to take the time to consider the infinite possibilities that particular combination could be alluding to.
The agency I was at wasn’t doing well. It would end up being shuttered a year or so later. Looking back, getting out early was probably the right thing to do. And doing the right thing occurs so rarely in my life that I hope you don’t mind if I pause to give myself a little pat on the back for it.
Los Angeles is certainly not without its many, many charms. But it wasn’t for me. All the Lamborghinis started to kind of get to me. The bad plastic surgery. The organic micro-greens with heirloom polenta. The constant, never ending, relentless sunshine. You might think I’m joking but you can get reverse seasonal sunshine disorder. I’d wake up every day, the sun pouring in through my windows, and after a while all I could think of was the desperate need I had building inside of me for a few clouds and some periodic rain showers. It started to really bring me down.
LA is an amazing place to go on production. Stay at a fancy hotel. Eat like a king on the company dime. And then get back to the real world where it rains and people have day jobs.
So after three years of living in the land of enormous sunglasses and tiny dogs, I decided to boogie. Didn’t really care where. Didn’t really care what. I just wanted out of LA. The thing about me is I hate to travel but I’ll move anywhere. So when a woman I used to work with told me the agency she was at was hiring and I’d be a good fit, I took the gig.
That agency was in Springfield, Missouri.
Now Springfield, Missouri is famous for many things. It’s the birthplace of Brad Pitt for one thing. His family still lives there and every once in a while he and Angelina would come to visit and the town would go absolutely batshit. I met his mom once and she couldn’t have been lovelier.
There are several Springfield’s in the United States. Springfield, Missourio is the largest. However, it is not the Springfield from the Simpson’s. That Springfield is based on the one in Oregon.
It’s known as “The birthplace of Route 66.” And Wild Bill Hickok had himself a winning shoot-out in the town square on July 21, 1865.
They had a heck of a lynching in 1906. A white mob of more than 2,000 citizens broke into the Springfield County Jail and pulled out two black men who were accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Then they came back for another black man who was being held on murder charges.
The employer of the first two men later testified that they both were at work during the time of the alleged sexual assault. Evidence also suggested the third man was innocent. No charges were ever brought. Virtually overnight the town’s African American population fled the city and went from over 20% to just 2%. Today, over 100 years later, it’s risen to 4.1%.
Springfield is about 3 hours from St. Louis but only 45 minutes from Branson. It has a robust evangelical population. And is overwhelmingly Republican.
What better place for a liberal Jew coming from Los Angeles to move to? Of course I took that fucking job. Why wouldn’t I?
And you know what? The people turned out to be absolutely wonderful. Those Bible belters were so God damned nice to me. No matter where I went I was always greeted with a friendly smile. The people I ended up working with were incredibly awesome and kind as well. They welcomed me with open arms. From the top down. The two owners of the agency were the nicest guys you could ever meet. The one I worked directly for was such a great guy. Amazingly creative dude. And his hobby was forging metal into these beautiful works of art. He was a very cool and interesting guy, and I admired him tremendously.
It was a tight knit group of people. Everybody got along well. The agency had just opened a new office that they built out of an old icehouse. And it was a really great space. From the day I started, across the board, they couldn’t have done more to make me feel at home.
So naturally, I fucked it up.
One would not assume it to be so, but the tiny town of Springfield, Missouri is a bonafied advertising mecca. It has not one but two fairly large agencies. They both specialize in business-to-business foodservice accounts. And both tout an impressive client roster of famous brands.
Yeah, I know. It’s all B2B. But I didn’t care. After Los Angeles I wanted to get as far away from anything cool as possible. I didn’t want to talk about directors anymore. Or who we could get for a celebrity voice-over. Or how much a Stevie Wonder song might cost. I was burned out on all that stuff. So it was fine that I’d be doing work that was way, way, way below the line. Plus, there was a really good micro-brewery down the street from the agency. I even became a member of the mug-club.
But back to the two agencies. One begat the other. They do exactly the same thing. And they absolutely hate each other.
The agency I was working for was the one that broke off from the first agency. They had grown significantly and had now become the more dominant of the two.
It was easy work. I wrote sell-sheets and shelf talkers. I wrote wholesale website copy. I helped brainstorm new product ideas. And at 5 o’clock every day I went home.
I decided to dig in. We bought a house and had our first kid. My now ex-wife, really went to town on the house. I did not know that Carrera Marble countertops were so expensive. I was not aware of the cost of all new top of the line appliances. I never thought to ask about whether or not we could afford the new furniture. I was in a mug club. I was campaigning for the position of block captain in the neighborhood. I had a lot going on.
When we had our first kid I realized the insurance plan we were on sucked. I ended up owing like 9 grand to the hospital. Along with the all the stuff for the house, shit was adding up. We started putting everything on credit cards. And I started getting broker and broker.
But I was also helping the agency win some pretty big new business pitches. We were growing. A lot. And it really started to piss off the guy who owned the other agency in town.
He was an interesting guy. He was probably well into his sixties. A tall man with a confident stature. Known to be a risk taker. He’d built his business from the ground up. By any and all accounts, he was a pretty amazing guy.
Also an eccentric one.
He was a rabid Republican. There was a story about him coming into the office dressed in rags the day after Obama was elected. I believe the intended message was that the newly elected President’s economic policies would hinder his ability to make money as a small business owner.
Which I totally understand. Trickle-down economics has worked out so well. Why rock the yacht?
He had built a sprawling estate for himself just outside of town. He called it Lake Crest. There were orchards and very large dogs. He’d tour his guests around the property in UTVs. There was a lake where you could fish. A professional kitchen. A caretaker whose name I can’t remember. And a guest house that had the same Carrera marble countertops my ex had insisted on.
Hanging over the fireplace was a Matisse. Not a copy of a Matisse. But a real one. He said it was a shitty Matisse and he had picked it up cheap. But that’s always what enormously wealthy people say about their Matisse’s.
So when he called me out of the blue and invited me to come out to Lake Crest for dinner and a talk, I wasn’t going to turn the man down.
When I showed up he was warm and welcoming. As were the dogs. He took me on the tour. We cooked steak Diane in the kitchen. And then after we ate he suggested we retire to the study to talk business.
“Jeff, I’ve had my eye on you since the moment you came to town.”
“Cool. Um. I’ve certainly heard many great things about you.”
“Jeff, I want to tell you about those two men you’re working for.”
“I’d love to hear what you have to say.”
“Those were my two best and brightest. I taught those boys everything they know about this business. I treated them damn well and I paid those two a lot of money over the years.”
“A lot of money. Yes. I understand.”
“But in this business there is little loyalty. You hand a man a glass of water and before you know it he’s drinking straight from your well. You follow me?”
“Yes. Water. I follow you.”
“One by one, over the years, those son of a bitches have taken all of my top talent. I know you admire the man you work for. But you too are a man to be admired, Jeff.”
And he looked directly at me. His eyes were piercing me. He could pierce. I can’t pierce. He, on the other hand, had powerful piercing abilities.
There wasn’t a lot of me, inside of me at this point. I didn’t know what to say. And I wasn’t really emotionally there anymore. This wasn’t real. I wasn’t actually there. I was watching this on TV. This was a movie.
After piercing me a bit more, he stared off into distance. It created a dramatic pause which he used to uncork a bottle of what he described as an incredibly expensive tequila that he then instructed me to sip not shoot.
“Well good for them.” He said. “I certainly don’t begrudge a man their right to put food on the table. But dammit Jeff, we have mouths to feed too. Why don’t you finish your tequila. I want to show you something.”
I tried to remember the sip thing but there was too much in there and it turned into a gulp. It went down the wrong pipe and I coughed up a little as I followed him into the next room.
We were now in the library. Which is different than a study but I’m not sure how. There was a big painting on the wall. It wasn’t a Matisse. I have no idea what it was. He walked up to it and reached around the back of the frame. There was some kind of release and then he swung it open.
“This movie is awesome.” I think to myself.
And of course, just like in the movies, behind the painting there was a big vault. When he opened it up it was like the scene in the Matrix. Every weapon that you could possibly imagine was in this vault. There was a whole section of black ones. And some of them had lasers on them. And then there was a whole section of silver ones. Those were really cool too. As were the brown ones, some of which had very fancy engravings on the handles. I’m not a gun guy. But it was frickin' amazing.
“What do you like to shoot with, Jeff?”
The last weapon I fired was a .22 rifle at Camp Champions in Marble Falls, TX.
“I like ‘em all.” I said.
“Excellent. We’ll take a few of these out to the range. You’ll enjoy this.”
I go to take another sip of tequila but it's all gone. Probably for the best.
We get back into the UTVs. This time with a shitload of weapons in the back. He had a very nice shooting range set-up on the edge of the property. There were moving targets that made a very satisfying ping when you hit them. Which was surprisingly difficult to do with an Uzi. I was much better with the Beretta. I didn’t know this about myself but I’m a fairly decent shot with a Beretta.
The interview ended with me being offered twice what I was making. Which of course, I immediately accepted. And, just like that, I screwed over all those nice people at the other agency. The ones who had been so good to me. So welcoming. So gracious with their hospitality. But also the ones who had screwed over my, as of five minutes ago, new boss.
It was very confusing for me. My ego had been so inflated by the experience. My greed for more money to pay off those countertops and the painter, the hospital bills and this incredibly expensive stroller that we now had to have for some reason. It all went straight to the lizard region of my brain.
It would end predictably. After all, the whole thing was total bullshit. He didn’t want me. He wanted to get back at them. He didn’t want me to reinvent his agency or champion great work or any of that bullshit. He just didn’t want me doing it over at the other place. He kept me for a year to the day. Just like the contract said. And I fell for the whole thing. Because I’m a sucker. So starving for any sort of recognition of my miniscule talent that I was sold like a total hayseed.
One of the things I really like about advertising is the fact that you can go get jobs in different places and experience different things. I’ve had a lot of fun exploring the country through advertising. And while I don’t think I’ll be heading back to Springfield any time soon. I’m glad I got the chance to live there for a little while. I went to ho-downs and drank moonshine. Met some interesting folks. And got to be the only Jew at two different advertising agencies. That in itself is something I’d consider an accomplishment. I mean come on, is it even legal to have an ad agency with no Jews?
Looking back on it now I can laugh at a lot of the things that happened to me while I was there. But I will always carry a tinge of guilt for leaving that other agency. Those people were really good to me. I screwed them. And for that, I deserve whatever the vengeful nature of the universe decides to throw at me.