Sunday, June 5, 2022

Sweet Revenge

Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination (I was 24),  I landed a job at a Chicago marketing agency whose founder, Lee Flaherty, was brilliant, brash, politically incorrect long before anyone had coined the term, and was chauffeured around town in a Rolls Royce painted in his company’s colors. Lee was a publicity hound — he had his own PR lady — and every Chicago business leader, politician, even the cops, seemed to know him. 

He wore Pucci suits with silk linings custom-woven with the agency’s logo and had a regular table at Eugene’s where he entertained clients, members of Chicago’s high society, Archbishop John Cardinal Cody, and a succession of Chicago mayors. He drank like a fish, but the next morning, would run for miles along the shore of Lake Michigan. He loved running so much that in 1977 he founded the Chicago Marathon which is today one of the world’s six major marathon events. 

Lee started Flair Communications in 1964 with money his widowed mother had raised by mortgaging her house. By the time I was hired in 1976, Flair was one of America’s leading promotional marketing agencies whose clients included Tanqueray Gin, Wells Fargo, Olympia Beer, Borden Foods, Standard Brands and Bristol-Myers. 

Lee wasn’t wishy-washy about anything or anyone. He had strong opinions. If he didn’t like you or, God forbid, you had been stupid enough to cross him, he didn’t just dislike you, he despised you. If he liked you and, luckily, he liked me and my work, he would do anything for you. I was his employee for three years and continued to free-lance for Flair until I started my own agency in 1989. Lee and I remained friends for years after that. Every December he sent me the same holiday gift he sent his clients. I would call to thank him and we’d chat for an hour or two. 

Lee died in April at the age of 90. I wish I had told him how much I learned from him, and how grateful I was that he took a chance on me, a kid from Podunk, Mo. 
Just as Lee either loved or hated you, people either loved or hated him — there was no in-between. Speeding down LaSalle Street one morning, I was stopped by a cop who asked where I was headed. I told him I was late to work. He asked where I worked. When I told him, he handed my license back and said, “Tell Lee Flaherty I said hello.” When I told Lee about it, he laughed and said I got off lucky. “Half the cops in this town would have let you go. The other half would have shot your balls off." 

Among his many traits some found objectionable but those who "got" Lee, including myself, enjoyed, Lee could be as funny as all get-out when he was feeling vengeful. The year after I started, Flair pitched a whiskey brand — I can’t remember the brand, it might have been Jack Daniel’s. Lee and his creative and account teams worked on the pitch for weeks but brand management chose another agency. The day he learned his agency had been rejected, Lee took all the bottles of the client’s product he had placed throughout the building for the presentation and smashed them, one by one, onto the pavement of the alley next to Flair's headquarters. The alley reeked of booze for weeks. Some of my fellow employees were appalled. I thought it was great. 

Which brings me to the video below, produced by another brilliant marketing man who didn’t take rejection from a client lying down. It is four minutes long. Some of my readers will be offended. Others will find it hilarious. There is no in-between. Lee would have definitely loved this guy's response. So do I.  Simply click on the video or, if that doesn't work, visit