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September 14, 2023
The Rogue, The Ticketless Traveler & The Storyteller
“Lieutenant D. H. Rucker Leading the First Dragoons” by Samuel Chamberlain
For decades, I used airline boarding passes as bookmarks. That practice has ended with passes now being stored on my phone. Plus, even if I print a pass at the airport, it's produced on insubstantial thermal paper instead of the satisfying card stock of years ago.
I was reminded of this habit when I picked up a book I’ve not touched in years and two boarding passes for the same business trip in 1998 slipped from the pages. The book is brilliant – My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue, by Samuel Chamberlain* – but the boarding passes tell a story of their own.
I dislike business travel, especially the parts involving airports and airplanes. I’m quite happy being at a destination once I arrive (at least if the company and circumstances are good), and have enjoyed dozens of transatlantic crossings to many destinations in Europe as well as travels throughout most of the U.S. But air travel to me has always been, and remains, an anxiety-ridden burden.
The trip documented by my boarding passes was mercifully brief – from La Guardia Airport in New York City to the Opryland Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. At least, it was brief enough for me to endure a window seat (26F) on the flight to Nashville. It was to an internal meeting for those involved with the direct marketing profession at IBM, my employer at the time.
There must have been over 200 of us crowded into a hotel ballroom for the meeting, with black IBM Thinkpad laptops lining the classroom-style tables. (I recall one hapless IBMer being mercilessly razzed for a Toshiba laptop. Apparently, there was a brief window of time during which IBM Thinkpads did not support MP4 files, compelling him to use a machine that did so. Or so his story went. Thinkpads were sold to Lenovo, along with the rest of IBM’s PC business, in 2005. But for many years they were a defining sub-brand for IBM. And there lies another great story I promise to tell soon.)
Direct marketing as a discipline was an expansion of direct mail, the principles of which were defined by the late Lester Wunderman, founder of a marketing agency that bore his name and originator of such ground-breaking campaigns as Columbia House Records, Gevalia Coffee, and American Express Customer Rewards. Today, as media and tactics have continued to evolve and expand, direct marketing is generally understood as Demand Marketing (that term was just beginning to appear in the mid-90's).
In the mid-90s, the IBM Direct organization was a service function attached to IBM’s regional organizations that provided direct marketing services to the business divisions. Those services were executed by a sprawling group of agencies across the globe.
It was inefficient. The strategists of IBM Direct were working redundantly with strategists within their partner agencies. The dozens of individual agencies were operating independently under the gaze of IBM Procurement, but otherwise with little continuity. Plus, IBM divisions had dedicated professionals in every other marketing discipline; only direct marketing was staffed through an internal services team that, in turn, worked through external agency teams. As communication tactics were converging, with the Internet as catalyst, this model was too costly.
IBM addressed it by taking two actions:
The IBM Direct organization was folded into the divisions. Then, with the aid of McKinsey consultants, the marketing functions were integrated into dedicated teams.
The dozens of small, tactical agency relationships around the world were consolidated into a single agency partner (Wunderman Cato Johnson, as it was then called, was chosen for my division).
As I visited Nashville for the IBM Direct conference, it was to become the last such event at IBM. (The IBM Direct team members were absorbed into the divisional marketing teams.)
Looking back, I'm proud to have played a role, however small, in both the reorganization and consequent role and process mapping, and the global agency review with an award of $45 million in total budget. And I'm still a little staggered at the enormity of it. But how had it grown so great and costly to begin with?
Organizations, I believe, don’t grow through steady progression. They do so in fits and starts. This happens because every human entity, from the individual to any scale of organization, devotes a portion of its resources to sustaining its own existence.
IBM Direct wanted to continue because it resisted extinction – even when its value contribution was not keeping pace with its cost.
Sam Chamberlain continued with his bigger-than-life existence (he was six times wounded during the U.S. Civil War) because he relished every moment of life, as evidenced by his memoirs.
I endure the hazards of life in Corporate America because I love the journey of teasing out and telling stories of how my clients and companies deliver value to their customers and, sometimes, to the greater good.
Like this one about my years at IBM – and, hopefully my introduction of you to Samuel Chamberlain's wonderful storytelling.
Two 25-year-old boarding passes fell from the pages of a much admired book, and three stories converged. I hope you've enjoyed their telling.
*Chamberlain’s Recollections is a memoir of travels in Mexico and the American southwest in the 1840’s while its author served with the U.S. Army. Chamberlain, after the events in his memoir, deserted the Army in the 1850’s, reappearing during the U.S. Civil War as Colonel in command of the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry. He is said to have inspired the character “the kid” in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
Chamberlain, you'll find, was a great storyteller, unconfined by the constraints of reality. His memoir, written in the 1860’s, included his original paintings, such as the one at the top of this article. While they may fall short of perfection and are highly romanticized, so is his imprecise but equally colorful prose.
This book is out of print and damnably expensive when you can find it. (I stumbled across a copy in my late father’s eclectic library.) If you search diligently, though, you may discover digital copies in various formats online.