By Pipo Virgós
I quit Law school on my third year. I got sick of laws, my girlfriend got sick of me and I was hit by an existential streak that took me to Barcelona, where my older brother Jorge was living already. The plan, if there was any, was earning a living while deciding whether to study either Journalism or Audiovisual Communication. By chance, my brother was working at a publicity agency called *S,C,P,F… (the asterisk and the dots are part of the name) and Toni Segarra, the “S”, thought it would be a good idea for me to work there as a trainee until I decided what to do with my life. I never asked him why. Although after a while there I understood that the correct question wasn’t that one, but rather the opposite one. And thus, by pure chance, on the day of my 21st birthday I started my career in the advertisement world. To me it seemed Disneyworld, in fact! I went in and out more or less as I pleased, I got out of there in the late hours, not always sober, and on Fridays we’d all go together to have lunch at El Pescadito at L’Illa Diagonal, from where we got back to the office, not always sober (again), to sing Tomeu Penya songs aloud. If we didn’t have a lot to do, then we’d stay there playing fictionary. If we had a lot to do, everybody worked as a team to get things done. Two years went by before I realised for the first time that it was a job; four until I decided I wanted it to be my job.
If I tell you all this it’s because it’s important to understand what went through my head when fifteen years later, on the eve of Epiphany day, I entered the offices of a multinational company with more than 400 employees, grey carpeted floor, white light and micro-perforated ceiling. I felt as if I’d trained myself on board of the Unicorn and now I was entering the Royal Navy. I would have run down the stairs, but they were escalators and I once fell off a running machine at the gym. Enough embarrassment for a whole life! And what came afterwards confirmed my suspicions that the new experiences I was looking forward to were not going to deceive me.
Right after I got to reception they handed me a security card that didn’t work, something to do with a computer problem that should be fixed in the next few hours. Or at least so they said. In such a building, with thousands of people going in and out every day, I understand that it’s important to be able to control who comes in and out, so each floor has its own set of doors with a card reader. What I don’t get is why the toilet is on the outside of such doors.
Once inside they abandoned me by an empty desk and asked me to attend a series of welcome meetings: with the IT department to become aware of security protocols, with the Human Resources department to go over all the documents I’d have to fill in and sign (including a form with the benefits I’d get in case of decease, a probability that seemed nearer than twenty minutes before), with the people in charge of the building’s maintenance to let them know my logistic needs and with the security guard for him to take the photograph that would go on my own security card (to those that think that you can never look uglier than on your passport photo, I’d like to ask you to pose for a portrait for a card you are going to use everyday and leave the job to the man God blessed with the talent that was left over on the day he created Richard Avedon, armed with a digital Panasonic from the times when megapixels were counted in fractions).
For each meeting I had to go to a different meeting room throughout the building: the Rogers room, the Golden Gate room, the fourth floor Human Resources department meeting room or whoever’s table. I spent the day crossing doors that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to cross again, because the provisional bloody card they gave me never worked. I was late to all meetings. And each time I left a floor I went to the toilet like you do before you jump in the car, just in case. Up until the last meeting, which consisted of a guided tour to let me know where everything was. They showed me where the Rogers room, the Golden Gate room and the Human Resources department were. Glorious! It seems the English not only drive on the other side of the road, but they also schedule things backwards…
Other relevant details I found out upon my first days here were that people take lunch between 12 noon and 2 pm, which doesn’t mean you can take the full two hours to lunch, but that between the two you have fifteen minutes to do it and, like in any good aircraft carrier, there is a kitchen able enough to provide for all the soldiers at cheap enough prices. All very well except for the Spanish tortilla; on the day they serve it I rather go and get myself a sandwich. Or fast. There’s also an internal messenger service, like in the old days. In the very old days! Each morning and afternoon, a guy goes up and down the corridors distributing letters and parcels throughout the building. He looks a bit like your typical prison librarian. I think one day I’m going to buy some cigarettes to see what he can get me in exchange of a few of them.
That same week the whole agency was summoned to an event in a South Kensington cinema. A huge cinema! And still, some people had to sit on the aisles. I saw all sorts of planners, project managers, community managers, designers, copywriters, art directors… the lot! And right there, with everybody reunited in fraternal communion, we went over last year’s work and found out about the agency’s plans for the following three-year period. It was quite a long presentation in which promotions, restructurings and business opportunities were mentioned. And, despite of everything, the most celebrated announcement was that the old carpet was going to be taken off, to be replaced by a new carpet. That’s how offices work and that’s how the majority of us publicists are: it’s funnier to look at the finger pointing towards the Moon than the Moon itself.
I made it to the first Friday with some suicidal thoughts in the back of my mind and asking myself whether in that case the benefactors of my life insurance would get their due or not. And all of a sudden, when I was counting my minutes to get out of there, I heard the unmistakable clinging noise of glass bottles. Through the doors of my floor I saw a trolley full of glasses, ice cubes, beers and liqueur. In Spain we would have all run to meet it like madmen to be there first. But not here! Here each one waited patiently for his or her turn, sitting behind their desks until the trolley got to their space. And then I saw it clear: this people turned piracy into an art. They know appropriate surroundings foster creativity in the same way that a synthetic carpet fosters static. But they also know that a pirate ship is much more than just its hull and its sails and its flag. A pirate ship is its crew. And a good deal of grog! So I got myself a London Pride and sat and waited. Who knows? Maybe someone would start singing aloud some Tomeu Penya songs.