Sunday, August 5, 2018

Stoddard Media & Chicago's The Second City ~ Brush With Greatness That Coulda Shoulda, Woulda Been

In the 1980's and 90's Stoddard Media founder Peter Stoddard toiled happily in Chicago selling a variety of services relating to conventions, trade shows and corporate public relations events.

Okay, enough talking in the stuffy journalistic 3rd person. I am Peter Stoddard. This is my brush with greatness and what coulda been.

In the mid 1990's I worked for Giltspur, a leading national builder of trade show exhibits. By chance clients kinda branched me off into diverse projects like Marshall Fields Christmas window displays, sponsorship events such as piglet races at the Illinois State Fair and high end permanent customer showrooms.

In other words, venues beyond the typical trade show halls of McCormick Place, Jacob Javits Center or the Georgia World Congress Center.

Within those trade show halls Giltspur had a marketing services division offering innovative stuff our competitors did not: exhibit staff training, lead management, special events and promotions. Also by chance, my clients were among the first to glom onto such services.

One example was a technical division of a global paint company. Store managers did not know how to sell the division's unfamiliar chemical coatings. Our mission was to hold those managers captive for 10 minutes at the national convention so marketing staff could drill the simplicity and profitability of chemical coatings into latex congested brains.

The solution was to hire 20 caricature artists placed at stations around the exhibit. As the store manager sat for their comical mug shot they had no choice but to hear and heed the chemical coatings gospel.

Within the Chicago office I stumbled into being the go to marketing services account executive, for better or for worse. There was no other candidate.

One day I got a call from "Betty" (not her real name), the head of this marketing services division, asking if I knew anything about a Joyce Sloane at a company called Second City. I replied "Sure. Don't you know anything about her?". Betty did not. She was based in Pennsyvania and claimed that as an excuse.

I had to dash to a client appointment and quickly summarized, "She's like a godmother to the cast of Saturday Night Live and a bazillion other stars. Why do you ask?" Betty answered, "You and I have an appointment with her next Thursday."

Driving to my appointment that day I almost forgot who requested it, the client or me, and why. After all, I had a meeting with Joyce Sloane to ponder. Highly unlikely The Second City needed a trade show exhibit. To my knowledge Ms. Sloane did not draw caricatures. What the heck was this about?

The next week Betty hastily filled me in somewhat, as she had to dash to an appointment. "We want to launch a new service, and a friend of a friend lined us up with Joyce Sloane to talk about it." Betty added that two ladies on her staff would also join us on the call.

Betty did not expect me to contribute much. "Take a lot of notes and be the token guy present. You're my Chicago person." That suited me fine, as I still had no clue what I might contribute about something that remained clear as mud.

I liked Betty, and she liked me, not only because we put money in each other's pockets. Yet at our meeting with Joyce Sloane I sensed something was amiss.

Whereas Joyce struck me as very laid back, the ladies on my team were pretty stoked up. I included that in my copious notes. What I also wrote down was my gut that Joyce was not buying the collaboration we were selling.

That afternoon we debriefed as I drove the others to O'Hare. Yet I finally understood why we met, and my head was spinning.

The group loosely referred to the concept in question as "business theater". I foresaw the perfect opportunity to launch it, but I was too busy taking notes and being a token guy to share it that day.

Early the next week I had the audacity to call Joyce and request a one to one meeting. To my astonishment she agreed to it.

When we sat down I dove in without much reference to the first meeting. I had to make my point fast. I figured, as relaxed as Joyce might be, she had no doubt endured a whole bunch of pitches.

"In September TS2, the Trade Show for Trade Shows, will be at McCormick Place. Attendees are event planning execs from top companies around the world. This would be the perfect audience for the introduction of business theater. I offer a script specific to exhibit hall experiences as a basis for what the presentation might look like."

I held my breath as Joyce took the script. Before glancing at it she commented, "We have a miserable history with scripts." But glance she did, while I almost hurled napalm. She smiled here and there, then explained further. To paraphrase:

"We are all about improv. Cast members and directors try scripted shows every now and then. We have yet to have one succeed. At that meeting I did not think improv would be good for a business client, because improv can be unpredictably offensive. In the case of this TS2 show it might be good to start with a script, at least to set boundaries. We have no idea what happens at a trade show. You obviously do, and I think we might be able to perform around themes you have here."

One scene she seemed to like:

An exhibit manager goes up to a McCormick Place teamster and asks, "Excuse me sir. How many teamsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?"

The teamster replies, "None you moron, dat's electrician work."

"Okay, how many teamsters does it take to hang a graphic?"

"None. If it hangs wit pinch cleats dat's carpenter work. If it hangs wit velcro dat's decorator work.

Youse is starting to piss me off."

Other proposed topics:

"Travel Expense Padding 101"
"Best Chicago Night Spots to Get Lucky"

"Refrigerator Magnets ~ Why Conventioneers Can't Get Enough"
"Hospitality Suite Hijinks"
"How to Close the Deal Hungover"

Joyce continued:

"This interests me because we have so much young talent and too few places to put them to work, even with touring companies. If this could grow into something it might be the difference between people staying with us or having to move on. Can I think about this?"

Even being the youthful salesperson I was, I gathered that was not the time to try any Zig Ziglar one call close. I got my napalm reflux back under control, and we agreed to talk in a week.

That next week Joyce said she met with staff who liked the idea. (She commented, "They like anything and everything that pays bills.") She was leaving the country for three weeks, and we would follow up when she returned. 

I pondered whether or not to share this development with Betty, who was also out of the country. This was before the days of email and Skype, and that was probably a good thing.

While Joyce was away I got a call from a former IMG exec recruiting me to come work for a startup selling corporate hospitality at the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four, Masters, Breeders' Cup and more. Time was short, I was immediately seduced, and I accepted.

I gave one week notice to Giltspur, all I could offer, vs the courteous two. I debriefed various salespeople assigned my accounts on Marshall Fields windows, pig races at the state fair and caricature artists. And business theater. I wrote a letter to Joyce Sloane and a memo to Betty. Then I left to dive into sales of sporting events.

I look back and wonder what could have been. Had I not veered might I have helped sow the seeds of business theater at The Second City?

I am not sure if this launched with Joyce at the helm or after she retired. Second City Works now puts young comedic talent to work for corporate clients. In other words, business theater.

Giltspur went on to merge with competitor ExhibitGroup, whose parent company was Greyhound Exposition Services, or GES. GES rebranded itself as today's Global Experience Specialists. Whether GES weaves satiric theater into corporate events I do not know. My guess is they try.

I will go ahead and claim they both stole these ideas from me.

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