I survived a boardroom panic attack with a paper clip (and a tale to sell)


Mike Lubow ran some of the biggest ad campaigns of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s as a CLIO-winning creative director. In retirement, he’s written columns, short stories, and The Idea People, a recently published novel.

Long ago, in what seems like a galaxy far far away, I was a creative director in a major multinational ad agency. Chicago office, to be specific, but I often found myself presenting to clients and agency biggies in New York. Either place put me center-stage in high-rise boardrooms that were cathedral-sized, with tables like shining bowling alleys and a cast of characters who stared at me as I strutted my stuff.

My stuff was good, but I worried—and boy, did I, that I, myself, wasn’t good. I was a writer, not an actor. And like many writers, an introvert. Not a showboat, not a fun or funny guy, especially in front of a serious audience of what we in the creative department called the “suits.” Heavyweights who could make my career and influence my present and future income.

Now, creative directors are assumed to be cool. They direct the creativity and teams that fuel expensive ad campaigns. They are not just smart, well-spoken “idea people,” but also personable and worldly wise. At least that’s what they’re supposed to be. Truth is, good writers keep getting promoted up the agency hierarchy because their writing is good, not necessarily because of personality or theatrical style as demonstrated in a boardroom spotlight.

Soon you find your success has flung you forward into a role that requires different talents from the ones that got you there. Such as being glib and comfortable, calm and fluent in front of a room full of intimidating personalities, most a little older, and glowering at you with a scrutiny that says: “Entertain me, blow me away, sell me a winning idea, make me like you and your idea. Come on, kid—you’re on!”

And sometimes, in that moment, the work in your hands, the scripts, the storyboards, the background rap, all that stuff is secondary. The main thing is you and what you say, and you better not let them see you shake, and your voice better come out loud and clear and you should be at ease and even a little funny, the leader of this group of smart money, and the person who would earn them even more smart money.

What nerve-wracking words: “You’re on, Mike.” Well, sometimes, I’d do it okay. And sometimes I’d get a little tense and feel a buzz of anxiety. And sometimes that would turn into an incipient panic attack, and in the worst of times it would mature into a full-blown fight-or-flight thing. But you can’t show it! You have to hide the nerves. Hide the shakes. Hide the self-doubt.

That’s where I discovered the hidden value of a little paper clip. It happened by accident during one of those tense presentations. I’d been holding the clip, bending it around in my fingers nervously as I began my performance. And when I felt the drumbeat of my heart increase and sensed a hum of high tension in the wires of my mind, I was distracted by a pain in my hand. I’d inadvertently twisted the paper clip in such a way that its little pointy end stuck into my finger. Nobody could see this. But I could feel it, and it hurt a little.

Wait. A connection was made: I realized the slight hurt distracted me from becoming nervous about the show I was about to perform. I poked the clip’s point a little harder. Great. Now I could turn my concentration away from the burgeoning stage fright, feel the pain in my finger, and concentrate perfectly on selling my storyboard, explaining my ideas, dazzling the suits with my enthusiasm and the poetry of my powerhouse selling ideas. The slight poke in my hand chased away the annoying fear of screwing up my performance.

Distraction can be your friend at a moment like that. Or at least it was for me. I share this with anyone who fears freezing in front of a boardroom. But don’t poke too hard—keep it a private thing. And above all, don’t bleed on the storyboards. Yes. That was my private, and then public, debacle in a really big meeting. No matter, I joked about “blood and sweat” or something, and the moment moved into the past, the meeting succeeded, I survived.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The point came in my life where I decided to do what most ad copywriters really want to do. Write a novel. But what to write about? You know: “Write what you know.” We hear that every time the subject comes up. So—one day not so long ago, the paper clip came to my aid once again. When taking the plunge into novelist-hood, I simply made an anxiety attack in a major meeting into a “blood on the storyboards” bit of literary hilarity, and things proceeded from there.

Soon a novel was complete—a novel that took its hero (a guy I could really identify with!) out of boardrooms and into a world of adventure, mystery, sex, rugged mountains, gunfire, and arrow wounds, a real escape from the big city into the big adventure of fun fiction. My novel, The Idea People, was published and like the best of my ad ideas, it’s selling. I’m no longer an office lifer, but a guy who wrote a book. It started with a paper clip that saved the day in a blood-stained meeting. And made a catchy appearance again in The Idea People, where there’s not much blood, or meetings, but a lot of storytelling—which is really what a writer is supposed to be doing.  

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