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As a business development manager at Warc–a service devoted to helping advertising professionals create, buy and sell effective advertising*–I spend eight hours every workday talking to prospective clients about how insights (i.e. research) is the first step to building strategic ad campaigns that drive sales.

*Sorry for the elevator pitch but I couldn’t help myself!

My day job, combined with my friends Gil and Elliot’s recent interest in advertising, got me thinking about why I’m loyal to some of my own favorite brands.

*As savvy consumers, Gil and Elliot have begun to take notice of contemporary advertising platforms like product placement, native advertising and highly-paid YouTube celebrities, a.k.a. YouTubers.

And where better to start than a product I buy quite a bit of: beer.

I’d consider myself a bit of a beer snob, but I didn’t start that way. Ten years ago, then in my early 20s and always on a budget, I generally drank whatever was cheapest. My first question when I visited a bar was, “Do you have any specials?”

It wasn’t until a trip to visit my uncle Frankie in Arizona back in 2007 that I started to form a connection to one beer in particular.

When I got off the plane, happy to trade my heavy winter clothing I’d brought from New York for a t-shirt and jeans, Frankie picked me up from the airport and brought me to his favorite local sports bar, Zipps, for some wings and beers.

As I reviewed the bar’s domestic beer selection, Frankie suggested a beer I’d never heard of from a brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. The beer was called Fat Tire.

“Do you mean Flat Tire?” I asked.

“No man, it’s Fat Tire,” Frankie replied.

I ordered the beer with the odd name, and I liked it a lot. It wasn’t too fancy, just a simple, drinkable amber ale. It had more flavor than the cheap, light beers I was used to drinking.

Frankie and I had a great weekend together. Frankie is just six years older than me, so our relationship growing up had been sibling rivalry-esque. But on my visit we had a chance to hang out for the first time as adults. I was glad for the chance to bond with my uncle and, of course, try Fat Tire.

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I was disappointed when I returned home to New York and learned that New Belgium, the brewery that produced Fat Tire, didn’t distribute its beer in my area. I would continue to look for Fat Tire every time I visited Arizona, Las Vegas, or the West Coast. I enjoyed the thought of having a “go-to” beer when I traveled to the other side of the country. If a bar, restaurant or casino was serving Fat Tire, I ordered it.

When I got married a few years later, I was excited to learn that Fat Tire was available in Virginia, the state where my wife and I tied the knot. I made sure we were serving my favorite beer during the cocktail hour and reception.

Since that first visit to Arizona, I’ve tried many, many new beers, and have developed a fairly sophisticated palate when it comes to craft beers. Have I had better beers than New Belgium’s Fat Tire? Sure. But I still consider Fat Tire my favorite beer. It’s not because it’s the best beer I’ve ever had; it’s because I associate it with that positive memory of my visit to Arizona, the subsequent visits to see family Out West, and my wedding.

So, what does this have to do with advertising? What can an advertising professional–for example, someone at an ad agency whose job it is to figure out where and when to advertise on behalf of its client, a craft brewery–take away from my story?

Bud Light and Coors Light, which fall under the massive conglomerates Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors, have been associating themselves with the things Americans love for many years or years, particularly when it comes to sports. It’s just about impossible to consume an American sporting event–watching on TV or online, listening on the radio, or in-person–without seeing several ads for these beer brands. And whether you consciously notice it or not, you’re associating the (hopefully) positive experience of watching your team play with the brands that advertise alongside it.

Of course, an independent, employee-owned brewery like Fat Tire, or the many even smaller breweries like it, don’t have the budget to flood the airwaves with commercials to raise awareness for their beers. But when my wife and I attended a small music festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few years back, New Belgium was there with a sponsored tent and pouring four of its beers I’d never had before including a tasty summer brew, Snapshot. I’ve purchased Snapshot and other New Belgium beers since then, and I always associate their beers with positive memories.

As it turns out, New Belgium didn’t have to spend millions of dollars on a 30-second Super Bowl commercial to create an opportunity to earn my business.

Now, let’s be realistic: I don’t stand in the beer aisle at my local grocery store and stare blankly into the cold cases while I replay the Fat Tire-related highlights of my life every time I buy a six-pack. But on some level, I’m thinking that when I’m buying that beer, a positive feeling will come along with it.

The craft beer business these days is brutally competitive. While there are more tiny breweries making great beer than there have been in any point in American history, it also means they’re all vying for market share (from beer snobs like me) and, unfortunately, they won’t all get it. But with the limited marketing dollars they may have, I’d advise them to make their presence felt at local events. As Peter Sims suggests in his book, Little Bets, if you can cheaply and quickly test an idea, it’ll allow you to tweak a good idea until it’s great–or rule out a bad idea all together. Maybe that means hosting a beer tasting at a local food truck festival. Or sponsoring a tent and selling your best beers at a small concert. Or just pouring small cups of cold beer to sweaty volunteers on a hot day at a charity event, even a summer 5K.

Small craft breweries will never realistically compete with AB Inbev and Molson Coors. For most, the best case scenario is to gain enough national attention to get acquired by one of the “Big Beer” companies. Even the biggest American craft brewery, The Boston Beer Company (which brews Samuel Adams) isn’t close. As its founder, Jim Koch says, Budweiser pours more beer down the drain than his brewery produces in a year.

But if you can start small and local, and connect your beer brand with something positive that your prospective consumers can look back on and smile, you’re off to a pretty good start.

When my wife and I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, after a full day of traveling from our safari lodgings to a boutique hotel in the Camps Bay area of the city, we were surprised to learn we had been upgraded from our original room to a suite for the first four nights of our stay. However, we are also surprised to learn the suite wasn’t available on our fifth and final night, so we would have to move rooms.

Tired, hungry and cranky, we asked if there was anything that could be done to avoid having to move rooms. (We’re not the neatest unpackers, and didn’t want the hassle of having to pack up, unpack, and pack again a day later.) We asked if it was possible to cancel the last night’s reservation–we were thinking if we had to pack up everything anyway, we might try to find a hotel room in another part of the city for our final night in Cape Town.

The front desk staffer said he would call the owner, an American gentleman, about our situation. Shortly after, the same staffer found us and explained that no other rooms were available for our last night, and we would indeed have to move rooms our fifth night. He was nice and polite, and by then we’d settled into our room and were in better spirits. We said sure, it was no big deal, and the matter was over in our eyes.

About ten minutes later, while getting ready for bed, I received an email on my phone from the owner of the hotel, which I’ve included below. (I took out a handful of text from the original email to redact any personal information, about us and him, or impertinent comments.) We’ve decided to take the high road and not “out” him by revealing his name or which hotel in Cape Town he owns. But the email itself is too good not to share; it’s truly a master class in how not to speak to your hotel guests. Enjoy.

Oh, and despite this insane email, the hotel was actually really nice and we stayed all five nights.

Hello Bobby,

I just received a call from our night manager sayin that you are unhappy about having to move rooms for the extra night you added to your stay.

I probably should have spoiled the surprise at the time which you have done yourselves now.

I wanted to do something nice at the time upgraded you to our largest and most expensive suite. You added the extra night on and only a different room was available.

I feel really put out. Rather than a thanks for the upgrade you want to leave the last night you added on because you have to change rooms.

I turned away a guest who stayed with us twice before yesterday as we didnt have the [fifth and final night] available. We are not a 300 room Westin and I am now really upset with this and I have so much work to do just too upset to deal with guests full stop.

There will be no refund for the [fifth night] if you decide to leave. In fact I would rather you left and upgrade some other guests as your wife played up and is giving us difficulty after what I did. This is such a slap in the face. Do I dare ask who you are voting for?

It will be a long time before I do this again for a pair of American guests. I cannot keep up with our enquiries and I am very very put out to have my time wasted like this as well.

I dont care if you like this message or not. Let me make this clear! Yes I do take it personally as [this hotel] is my baby!

[Signed owner’s name]

The following travelogue details the first four days of a recent two-week trip my wife and I took to South Africa. This first post, in a series of, well, I’m not sure how many yet, describes our experience on safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa’s prodigious game reserve, in the northeast corner of the country. (All photos courtesy of Kimberly Calise.)

Each day of our three-night stay at Jock Safari Lodge began the same way.

We awoke at 5 am to a call from Lazarus (Laz for short), our safari ranger for the duration of our stay. From that point we had 30 minutes to get out of bed and get to the green open-air Toyota Land Cruiser where Laz was waiting.

dsc_1159With our eyes barely open we threw on the safari outfits we’d carefully picked out a few weeks before–breathable outerwear to keep us cool (which we’d learn would not be a problem on safari in September) and cover us the strong African sun and the persistent, (possibly) malaria-carrying mosquitoes. We’d step out of our room, spray ourselves down with bug repellent, head to the dining room for a quick cup of coffee* and a snack, and get going on the first of two three-hour game drives that day.

*On the advice of a friend who had been on safari in South Africa a few years before, I made a point not to have too much caffeine before we left. You don’t want to be the guy, my friend warned, who makes the ranger turn back so you can use the bathroom in the middle of a drive.

The Big Five

The goal of of a safari trip is, ostensibly, to see The Big Five: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. The Big Five (TB5, as I’ll refer to them) might seem arbitrary to the uninitiated, as it was to me; I was more excited about seeing, say, a giraffe than a Cape buffalo. But in fact these are the five animals that were historically the most difficult (and dangerous) to hunt on foot.* (We did see TB5. Kind of. More on that later.)

*These days, TB5 is essentially a marketing campaign, a brand, even. From the airport gift shop to the hundreds of small shops in between Kruger and Johannesburg and Cape Town, TB5 adorned kitschy souvenirs, from placemats to postcards. There’s also some historical context around TB5, as Laz explained to us one night over dinner: When European hunters would come to Africa to hunt dangerous and rare game, many were killed attempting to fill their trophy room with heads and hides. Laz says it wasn’t uncommon for European hunters to have safari tales about how a buffalo, or a rhino, killed one of their family members or friends.

It didn’t take long for us to see our first TB5 animal. In fact, we saw one from our cab from the airport to the park, 90 minutes before we arrived at Jock. Our driver, a part-time safari ranger himself, pointed to his left and matter-of-factly said, “Elephant.”

Sure enough, about 30 feet from our car was an adult African elephant. My wife, perhaps without realizing it, exclaimed “Oh my word!”–simultaneously channeling the wonderment of a 5-year-old and the phraseology of a 90-year-old. But I can’t blame her, because that’s why we were there: to see things we’ve never seen before, and see them up close. And we were off to a pretty good start.

But as exciting as it might have been to see that first elephant, Laz made sure the full Jock experience was worth the price of admission–and a massive upgrade from casual cab-side animal spotting.

Laz was undoubtedly looking for and finding clues that were going right over our heads. He would examine dung and tracks in the sand, listen for birds tipping off the location of land animals, scan the horizon for movement hundreds of yards away, and I imagine he was doing things we didn’t even realize, like smelling for clues. Even when it got dark, and the rest of us could barely make out an elephant if it was charging the vehicle, Laz was pointing out tiny rodents climbing up trees with nothing but a flashlight he waved back and forth in front of the truck like a windshield wiper. Laz and his fellow rangers–usually three or four trucks went out at a time–would communicate on the radio to let each other know if they spotted something that was worth taking their passengers to see. To be honest, I didn’t want to know how Laz was so good at his job. I thought of him as a safari magician. Telling me how he does the tricks would only detract from the experience.

On Safari in Kruger National Park
south-africa-mapOf Kruger National Park’s (KNP) 7,523 square miles (about the size of Israel), Jock had exclusive rights to game drives on 23 square miles, and could also track game on any public land within KNP.

While some animals, like cheetahs, are very rare in Kruger, others, such as impala, were everywhere.* The rangers call impala the fast food of the safari because a) they’re plentiful for any predator looking for an easy meal, b) they run fast, and c) the markings on their back side look a lot like an “M,” which might remind you of the golden arches of McDonald’s.

*There are about 150,000 impala in KNP, versus about 150 cheetah. Oddly enough, we saw 3 cheetahs at once–or 2% of the total cheetah population in KNP.

Elephants were fairly easy to find as well, both because they’re one of the more populous animals in the park (about 14,000 in KNP), and they’re huge. We were fortunate to see this scene a few times. We even had an angsty teenage elephant take a few threatening steps towards our truck and trumpet at us, before losing interest.

Giraffes, though not part of The Big Five, were one of the animals we had hoped to see. Kruger didn’t disappoint. Of course we knew what a giraffe looked like, and we’d seen then in zoos, but experience is amplified in their natural environment. (Fun fact about giraffes we learned on one of Jock’s daily nature walks: they eat upwind. Apparently the type of tree they typically eat releases bitter-tasting tannins as a defense mechanism to prevent animals from feasting on them. The wind can often carry the scent of those tannins to other trees nearby, which then triggers those trees to release their tannins. By eating upwind, i.e. in the opposite direction the wind is blowing, giraffes avoid the bitter leaves. They’re like the guy at the table who sends wine back.)

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About an hour into our morning drives, Laz would pull over in a safe-ish part of the park, pull down a little metal shelf attached to the front of the truck, put down a safari-patterned tablecloth, and set up a coffee and cookies for his passengers–my wife and me, a 40-something German couple, and a 30-something Swiss couple. He would carefully scoop two spoons full of instant coffee into each mug (ours first, then his once we all had a cup), the hot water from the Thermos, and even a splash of milk. (He also offered Amarula, a cream-fruit liqueur, if we preferred.) We would stand around the truck, sometimes asking him questions, other times just enjoying the quiet. What I enjoyed most about these little coffee breaks–besides not being at my desk at work–was that they forced us to stop, look around, and appreciate how lucky we were in that moment.

A few minutes after the coffee break on our first morning out, and not too far from the “safe” spot we were casually drinking coffee, we stumbled upon an adult male lion napping–our first lion sighting. While we certainly hoped to see more than just one lion, I think everyone in Laz’s truck silently checked off “lion” on their TB5 mental Bingo card.

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Big Five, Schmig Five

Though the TB5 is table stakes for a great safari experience, my wife and I were also hoping to see some “bonus” animals. After a relatively uneventful drive on our second day on safari–meaning we only saw elephants, impala, giraffes, kudu (essentially an African antelope), and buffalo–we stumbled upon a small body of water within the park. (Water is rare in Kruger during September and October, the end of their dry season. In fact, our bungalow at the lodge overlooked a river bed, but it was completely dry and we actually ended up using it as a road during our drives. Occasionally some rhinos or buffaloes would drop by to say hello to diners at lunch.)

In the water was a bashful hippopotamus who barely poked her head out a couple of times, enough for us to snap a few photos. Laz explained that hippos, despite being vegetarians, were actually the #1 human killers in Africa.* While not carnivorous, they’re very territorial. It doesn’t take much, just a poor soul in rural Africa washing up in some water, to motivate a hippo to defend her territory by crushing its perceived threat.

If being within spitting distance of a hippo wasn’t scary enough, a crocodile just happened to be hanging out nearby as well. Crocodiles, according to Laz, are the #2 killers of humans in Africa. And yet he didn’t make a move for his gun–all rangers carried a rifle in their truck, just in case–but instead took some video on his phone. That’s a sure sign you’re seeing something special: when the ranger gets excited about it. (Special was the word Laz would use in a whisper, if we asked about seeing something very rare, like a kill–e.g. a lion catching a zebra–or the live birth of an animal.)

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That night, we ate a boma-style dinner with our fellow drive passengers and Laz. When my wife asked him what a boma was, he explained its original was the “British Officers Mess Activity.”) He then explained that he was lying*, and that a boma was actually a traditional African meal in which a large group of people cook, eat and then go to sleep around a large fire. The boma buffet menu included kudu (very tender beef-like meat), buffalo pie (like shepherd’s pie) and sausage, warthog (tasted like chicken but gamier), plus some chicken and beef. I made a point to taste everything.

*Laz got us a couple of times like this. He also pointed out a small bird and pretended it was a baby ostrich before coming clean. “If I just said it was a regular bird, none of you would have wanted a picture!”

Big Cats

We spent our last three drives chasing a leopard.

One of the other rangers alerted Laz and the others that he had seen a leopard guarding a fresh kill, an impala carcass hanging from a tree. Leopards are solitary animals, and they don’t like to share their hard-earned meal–“fast food”–with wild dogs or other scavenger animals. (Fun/Gruesome nature fact: the impala carcass was wholly intact. I was expecting a bloody scene, but the leopard had apparently suffocated his prey without actually spilling any blood.)

When we arrived, the leopard wasn’t home. Laz thought he wasn’t far off, but now that we were on a public part of Kruger (as opposed to Jock’s exclusive land) there was a lot more tourist activity and the leopard wasn’t having any of it. We hung around for a bit, but the leopard never appeared.

Before our second attempt at spotting the leopard–see what I did there?–Laz suggested we try to track down Jock’s local pride of lions. (Think of it like the local chapter of an Elks Lodge, but, ya know, nothing like that.) I think he was hedging his bets that if we didn’t end up seeing the leopard that night, we’d settle for a bunch of lions.

Perhaps just to build up some drama, Laz stopped the vehicle in the middle of the arid river bed, took his rifle out of its case for the first time since we’d been there, and started walking towards the other side of the river bed, where he’d have a better view of the landscape. As my wife started to snap a few pictures of Laz walking away, he turned, and with his fake serious expression and tone of voice, said, “If I don’t make it back, send that picture to my kids and tell them I love them.” Then he smiled, and kept on walking.

He returned a few minutes later with the data he needed, and we were off to find the pride.

Most of our animal-spotting had been done from the side of the road, but the lions weren’t going to make it easy for us to see them. Laz pulled the Land Cruiser off the dirt road, warning us to duck our heads as we drove in between gangly trees and over dead branches to get a closer look. And just like that, there they were: 12 male lions.

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While the older male lions–the ones who had facial hair, a.k.a. manes–conserved their energy, the younger ones did battle. Against each other. My biggest takeaway from the safari is that animals are deliberate about how they use their time and energy. Everything they do is purposeful. For the older lions, napping was the best use of their time in that moment. But for the younger ones–think teenage Simba*–they were using the time to practice.

*Laz referenced The Lion King quite a few times on the trip, referring to warthogs as “Pumba,” or a mountain as “Pride Rock,” or working “Hakuna Matata” into the conversation. The Lion King, he said, was a common language among any of his guests, regardless of where they came from. 

The young lions, three or four of them, took turns walking away from each other, stalking slowly, and then running at and pouncing on one another. Once a lion was pounced on, a short wrestling match would ensue, and then another lion would start it all over again. It was remarkable how clear it was what they were doing, and how relatable it was to the behavior of human boys playfighting in the schoolyard.

As for us, we scored tons of pictures and video, and this sighting made our safari trip. Even if we never got a glimpse of the elusive (and quite frankly, rude) leopard, we had our lions. At that point we were playing with the house’s money, so Laz took another shot at finding Cousin Jeffrey’s favorite animal.

It was about a half hour drive from to the leopard’s refrigerator (a.k.a. the tree where he was storing his impala), and it was already dark by the time we got there. Laz shined his flashlight around the tree, and sure enough we could just barely make out a glimmer of the leopard’s eyes catching the light, betraying his location behind a bush directly beneath the tree. It was only a matter of time, we thought, before he came out of hiding, climbed up the tree, brought it down and started feasting.

But, as it turned out, a faint outline of the leopard behind the bush was the best look he’d allow.

With not much going on except us starting at a tree illuminated by a flashlight, Laz took the opportunity to serve our puza, or safari happy hour. (I asked him if puza, like boma, had a special meaning in African culture. “It means drinking.”) The leopard never came out of hiding, but at least now we had booze.

That night we went back to the lodge, recapping the day with the older German couple from Laz’s truck, and a younger German couple who were part of a different group. The younger Germans happened to be at the right place at the right time the day before, and actually had photos of the very same leopard we were chasing, bringing his kill up into the tree. Timing is everything on safari.

Still, despite a mild case of FOOMOS (fear of missing out on safari), we were satisfied with the day’s drives and Laz’s efforts to give us a special experience. On our final drive the next morning, we went directly to the same spot, hoping the leopard would seize the opportunity to dine in peace–besides the minor distraction of being there creepily watching him. But by the time we arrived the carcass was gone. He’d either eaten it and then the rest had been taken by scavengers, or more likely he had moved the stash.

I’d hardly say we’re disappointed by the leopard’s shyness, thought it would have been cool to see the last of our TB5 animals in action. But, as a fellow tourist told us a few days later at our next step, Cape Town, you don’t want to see everything a place has to offer on your first visit. Now you have an excuse to return.

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If this post wasn’t long enough for you, here’s some bonus material:

  • The male red-crested korhaan (a.k.a. “the baby ostrich”) has a unique mating ritual. To advertise its mad flying skills to its female counterparts, it performs an aerial display. The kurat shoots itself up into the air like a rocket, hits the peak of its flight, then drops like a rock down to the ground before parachuting its wings just a moment before landing.
  • Speaking of mating rituals, male rhinos defecate, then stamp on it track it on the ground around them to denote their territory. Female rhinos catch the scent, then they defecate nearby to advertise their own availability.
  • We often spotted large dirt mounds around trees. Our nature guide explained that these were termite mounds. Termites don’t actually eat wood. They eat mushrooms. So, they create these soil piles, under which mushrooms–and ultimately the trees themselves–grow.
  • On one drive we saw four or five male lions lazily sunning themselves, bellies up. Laz explained that they had just eaten a big meal, and turn their bellies up toward the sun because it apparently aids their digestion. Sounds like an old wives’ tale to me, lions.

Selling a Salesman

About five months ago I embarked on a new career path: sales. Up to that point I had no sales experience except for a few miserable months selling knives.

To get myself prepared, I watched my favorite movie about sales, Boiler Room (which, incidentally, is based on Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Wolf of Wall Street).

There’s a scene in Boiler Room when Seth, a young hotshot stockbroker played by Giovanni Ribisi, is sitting at home one Saturday morning eating breakfast when he gets a call from a guy named Ron, who’s trying to sell him a subscription to the Daily News.

Ron weakly gives his elevator pitch, mispronouncing Seth’s last name–though how does one mispronounce “Davis”?–and Seth says “not interested.” But before Seth lets Ron hang up, he gives him another shot at the call. “I get the same half-assed sales call from you guys every Saturday morning. If you want to close me you should sell me. Start again.”

Ron gives a stronger pitch (albeit clearly reading from a script), “feature-dumping” all the reasons why the Daily News is the best daily newspaper in the city, and even handling some objections from Seth.

At the end of the call Ron asks for the sale. Seth’s response: “Nah, I get the Times.”

As a new sales guy I’m hardly in the position to critique the technique of another sales guy, but on Thursday I was the recipient of a sales call from a rep at an online stock trading site where I’ve done a small amount of business in the past.

This wasn’t a typical cold call–i.e. a sales call in which no prior business relationship with that person exists–because I was already a customer of the site. But, it was most certainly a sales call in that the site makes its money when its customers make trades, and I was making none.

So the guy calls me on my cell phone in the middle of the workday, but I pick up–it was an area code I recognized. He introduces himself and asks “How are you?”–a surprisingly simple way to gauge the mood of the person on the other end of the phone, so you know how much time you’ll have to make your pitch.

He sounds a little “junior.” He explains that he’s noticed I haven’t been very active on the site lately. He’s right. I tend to pick stocks with little more sophistication than those people who fill out a March Madness bracket based on the mascots of the teams, and nothing has really inspired me to make a trade lately.

He goes on to ask me about my financial goals–am I saving for retirement, or do I just hope for a certain percentage return on my investment?–and shares some benchmarks based on other customers of the website. I’m reticent to share my financial goals with someone I don’t know so instead I ask, what does my account look like relative to those benchmarks he mentioned?

Now on a call like this, he’s probably making them at scale–he might make a couple hundred in a day. Most people won’t pick up, and the ones who do won’t talk to him for more than a few seconds. So it doesn’t make sense for him to learn everything about each customer he’s about to call, because it’s just not efficient to do so. I get it.

He takes a second to look up my account and shares some metrics. Fine. So, I ask him, what do you think I should do?

When a customer asks a salesperson this, the salesperson should be licking his chops. You better have a good answer. But this guy couldn’t give me anything specific. Again, because he probably didn’t think I’d pick up the phone, and because he was inexperienced, he certainly didn’t think I’d actually ask for his advice on how to invest my money.

I said, “If you have some ideas on any specific moves you think I should make, I’m all ears.” At this point, honestly, I just wanted to hear his reaction. He didn’t name a single stock, or type of fund, or anything he thought I should invest in. He agreed to follow up with an email (which he hasn’t yet) with some more information.

Obviously this guy wasn’t an experienced stockbroker–they had him calling down a list of people who weren’t using the site–but he’s got to go into the call with the mindset that if someone does answer, and they do ask him for a recommendation (more on “recos” in a moment), that he has something smart to say. This way instead of some jerk writing a blog post about this conversation with him, they’re investing money in a stock he suggested.

Early on in Boiler Room, when Seth is being trained on how to make cold calls by a senior broker, Greg (played by Nicky Katt), Seth asks what he should do if the person he calls wants to buy stock right there on the spot. Greg says, “You wanna go into every call expecting just that.” Greg instructs Seth to yell “reco” at the top of his lungs, at which point the first senior broker to get on the phone has the chance to close the sale. (See below. Semi-NSFW.)

I realize I’m hardly a “whale”–someone who invests massive sums–when it comes to stock trading. But if I was important enough to land on this guy’s call list, then I expect an idea, an insight, something from him that keeps me from uttering the five words every salesperson dreads: remove me from your list.

By Danny Calise

As my boss, Antony, spoke toothlessly through his beard while lighting an already-lit cigarette, I looked around at the empty beer cans and various pieces of trash surrounding me in the 75 square foot office/bedroom of the pedicab shop where I had been working and thought to myself, “How did I get here?” Originally, I had envisioned pedicabbing to be a healthy gig where I got to spend time outdoors and meet all kinds of people. It would be hip, profitable, even glamorous. Well, some of that was true.

* * *

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a pedicabber in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest (SXSW)?

Well, I’ll tell you from first hand experience: you wouldn’t hack it. That’s not to say that it isn’t possible, but much like the persistence and determination it takes to run a marathon, SXSW pedicabbing is as much of a mental feat as it is a physical one.

What exactly is a pedicab? you might be thinking. Well, a pedicab can take two forms: either a full bicycle with a trailer attached to the back with seating for 2-3 people, or a tricycle, which rides like a bicycle and has a front wheel and two wheels underneath the passenger seats in back. Pedicabs thrive in urban areas where points of interest are just beyond reasonable walking distance and streets are flat enough for the pedicab drivers to not have to work too hard to get riders from point A to point B.

Pedicab drivers, or Pedicabbers, can rent the cabs for a nightly fee of around $35 on Fridays and Saturdays or monthly for rates of around $325 to have free rein to take the cab out any time that month. Why not just buy a pedicab outright so you can collect all money and not owe anyone? Well, the benefits of renting the cab from a pedicab company are that they handle all cab maintenance, they possess the proper insurance and business license to handle any potential claims, and, quite frankly, pedicabbing isn’t a sustainable form of income, so the average rider doesn’t want to be invested in it for more than a few months.

* * *

A high school teacher by day, I sought a part-time weekend job where I would be rewarded for working quickly and efficiently. Pedicabbing seemed to fit the bill. From the moment I interviewed for the pedicabbing job at **** **** in Austin in January, 2016, there was talk of a massive gathering of the pedicabbers in March. It was the Super Bowl of Austin pedicabbing. This epic 9-day affair was known, to some, as South by Southwest. To pedicabbers, though, it meant hard work. I was told when I took the job that my body would surely give out physically at some point during the music, film and tech festival. That I’d be pedicabbing day and night, with people in constant demand of a speedy ride. Veteran pedicabbers shared forgettable lore and half-stories about times they…really needed a break, or spent upwards of nine dollars on a meal during South-by because they were just THAT hungry. “Whatever,” I thought to myself, nodding with polite faux-awe on my face as they spoke.

The weeks building up to South-by, I “got my legs,” so to speak, building up the stamina and strength to be able to pedicab straight through the 9-day festival. I went out on Friday and Saturday evenings, starting at around 9 PM and staying out until 2 AM. My cab was bare bones: I didn’t have any music-playing capabilities, nor did I have a blanket to shield riders from the cold weather. What I did have was conversation–I walked the fine line between funny/charming and intrusive/annoying, and what I learned in these weeks was that riders are 99% nice and understanding, and mostly just curious about what it’s like to ride a pedicab.

As someone with a short fuse when it comes to verbal altercations, it was easy to let myself be angered by smart-alec responses to my pedicabbing pitch. I’d shout out, “Hey guys, would you like a ride?” And a man walking with a woman would grab his thigh as he was walking and say, “Not while I’ve got these,” referring to his legs. The woman would make an embarrassed face, I would ride away silently, later thinking of all the comebacks I should have used on him. “You won’t have those for long if you keep wasting them on walking, buddy!”  The truth was there was nothing I could say. If someone didn’t want a ride, there was no reason to waste energy on a comeback, especially if I couldn’t think of a clever one.

* * *

I got the feeling that the pedicab company I worked for was past its heyday. The owner, Antony, a 28 year old toothless man appeared to be one step above homeless. Or, really it seemed like he just slept at the shop. For my first night of training, his excuse for being late was that his ride to the shop took too long, which didn’t make sense to me because he was apparently a business owner. But regardless, I didn’t question his lack of car ownership. I explored the shop, which was located in a bad neighborhood on the East Side of Austin, behind a train station where homeless men could be seen urinating before one’s very eyes. Inside the shop’s gate, there was a garage that could have fit four cars, but instead held 8 upright pedicabs and had many tools sprawled across the floor and various workbenches. Towards the back of the garage was a room with two floor mats, an acoustic guitar, dozens of empty beer bottles and cans and trash everywhere. That was presumably where some pedicabbers or just homeless people stayed nightly. Outside the garage around the back was a space for storage of more cabs and a workstation where the owner did some welding for some extra cash on the side. Even farther back was a shack where the shop’s resident artist lived and sometimes created art.

Once the tour of the shop was over, the owner invited me into his “office,” a room beside the garage towards the front of the shop. Inside was more of the same: beer cans everywhere, some empty, some half full, cigarette butts as far as the eye can see, and a bunk bed with trash on the top bunk and a dirty bedspread on the bottom. All of this was in a space of 75 square feet.

The owner himself, Antony, was a manic dude. He was a businessman, first and foremost, but had a soft spot for people in need, hence all of the opportunities for people to sleep at the shop. Throughout every conversation I’ve ever had with him, he would chainsmoke cigarettes, continually lighting the already lit cigarettes seemingly because he enjoyed the lighting process. When he needed to hold a document and a pen, he would put the lit cigarette in his ear for additional storage. Mid-conversation in the office, he would gently lift one of many beer cans and ask me, “Is this the beer I just brought in here?” and of course, I didn’t know or care. It didn’t bother him, though, and he sipped away.

How this man came to own this shop and all of the pedicabs therein is still something of a mystery to me. Essentially, I think he was just in the right place at the right time and took over for someone else. What I observed was that he certainly didn’t appear to me making any money off of the company, but enjoyed being in charge and made just enough to keep the shop afloat and the cigarettes burning. He alluded to a time in the future when he would have the money to open up a local boxing gym in the neighborhood.

He was a chronic story repeater. The first night I met him, he told me all about the benefits of becoming a “monthly rider” (renting the pedicabs from him on a monthly basis): that he would present me with better riding opportunities, that my cab would always be available, and that the South-by rates would be half-price for monthly riders. Several times after this he would give me the same pitch, even after I had already agreed to become monthly. I grew to hate interacting with him. Not only was he verbose, and always talking about things I cared nothing for, but he possessed a trait that I despised in someone: lack of appreciation for someone else’s time. One time after a South-by shift, he talked my ear off for over an hour, with his eyes half open (I suspected that night that he might be on drugs of some kind, but upon reflection I concluded that he was just insane), about how it would be great for the shop if I could make a run with my car to a used video game store and pick up a few games as well as wires in order for the guys to be able to play a four player game of Mario Kart the next day. He had me write down all of the items that I was to buy, and finally, at 3 AM, he let me go home. I threw the paper with the items away immediately, and cursed the day I ever agreed to work for this man. But after all of our long “talks” (he talked, I nodded), I realized that he was just a lonely man who had so much to say and no one to listen to him. Perhaps this was the case with many veteran pedicabbers.

Every night of South-by when I would return the cab to the shop, I was forced to meet with him one on one to hand him my nightly lease ($35), and listen to whatever he had to say that night. He would be constantly lighting his cigarette, touching his beard and face, tugging on his beltless pants and grossing me out to no end. Then he’d approach a group of pedicabbers sat on a bench outside the garage and shout an obligatory joke that they’d all laugh at out of respect. Yes, the heyday of the shop, if ever there was one, was long gone.

Before South-by, he had described a ritual gathering at the shop that took place the night before South-by started. Pedicabbers and friends of the shop would gather around a fire and burn a dollar in sacrifice to the gods of weather, as well as eat pizza in order to carbo-load in preparation for the great journeys ahead. I ended up sleeping through this ritual and didn’t hear any mention of it around the shop afterwards. It seemed more for Owner’s benefit than ours.

After South-by finished, the owner described an epic annual party that the shop threw. He’d get a great local band to play, and everyone from the neighborhood (did I mention who lived around this neighborhood?) would come together and party down. Impromptu boxing matches would occur, people would climb to the top of the garage, and all types of debauchery would take place. I didn’t attend this event. They held it on the Tuesday after South-by and didn’t get the word out until 10 PM Tuesday night. I asked a fellow pedicabber about this party a few days later and he told me that it was quite tame compared to previous years’ parties. “No one boxed,” he remarked.

* * *

The owner talked a lot about pedicabbing, while admitting at times that he hadn’t done it himself consistently in months. I learned that his advice was not useful because he was officially out of the pedicabbing game. Whatever he knew or had known about pedicabbing was no longer relevant.

On the fourth night of South-by, I had rolled by the shop around 9 PM to take a little break, charge my phone, have some dinner and gather my strength for the night ahead. Knowing that I was one of the few pedicabbers on whom he could rely, he entrusted me with the task of training his roommate, who had just been fired from his job due to his refusal to take a drug test. This was an enormous request on the owner’s part because South-by is the most profitable time of year, and training a new person would ensure a pedicabber that he wouldn’t make a dime for at least an hour. And knowing how much the owner loved talking, I knew that he would flap his toothless gums for a while before he’d let us go. A stingy businessman, he asked how much I’d like to be compensated for the hour and a half that I’d train his roommate. I thought about it, and determined that, in that time, I would make at least 50 bucks. So I told him that’s what I wanted. He sure didn’t trust that amount. He said, “Really? Because typically this night of South-by is pretty slow. The music hasn’t started and tech is just ending.” Utterly frustrated by this guy, I said, “You asked what I thought so I told you.” “Okay, how about this: If you’re out there and it looks decently busy, like you’d be missing out on rides, I’ll pay you $50. Otherwise, I’ll give you $30.” Knowing that I would be the one to tell him whether or not it looked busy, I agreed. He never stepped foot out of the shop so there was no danger in him seeing for himself.

So I trained his roommate, a nice guy with a decent work ethic. And in the end, I took him to a line on Brazos St. where we both lined up and eventually both got rides. I had impressed upon his roommate that the night looked busy, and that later, when the owner asked him, which I knew he would, how it looked out there tonight, he should say it was busy. When I returned to the shop that night, I reported to the owner that it sure was busy out there and that I expected to be paid $50. He skeptically looked me up and down, to read whether or not I was lying to him. “Really? Let’s ask around and see how it was. What time were you training?” “10-11.” He approached the bench where six or seven pedicabbers sat drinking and smoking cigarettes. “Hey how was it out there around 10-11 tonight?” They thought for a moment. It was currently 3 AM. No one had a good idea of what it was like that far back. They looked puzzled. “Uh, it was okay out there, not too crazy.” One pessimistic rider who I usually avoided talking to responded, “It was dead out there for me.” And the owner turned to look at me, convinced that he had correctly smelled a rat. My face didn’t change. “I could have picked up three rides in that time. I don’t know what you want me to say.” Then one of the pedicabbers shouted out, “Isn’t that when ACL Live let out?” And the pirate-like pedicabbers’ table all agreed. The owner conceded, “Okay, okay, that’s a big venue. You would have gotten some rides from that.” I hated him so much. But the cheap bastard walked into the office, walked out and handed me $50.

* * *

A typical night of pedicabbing during South-by might look like this:

5:00 PM – Report to pedicab shop to pick up cab. Check to make sure you have all of your essentials: a Square credit card swiper, a blanket in case riders get cold, a bike tire pump, a spare tire, an external phone charger, at least one bottle of water, food consisting of bars and fruit, and business cards with your name on them.

5:15 PM – Depart the shop and head for East 6th street, home of the Fader Fort and Spotify House. This means that big crowds will be milling around these two music showcase locations. Many people park around I-35 and walk to the shows. Depending on how hot it is (or how lazy people are feeling), this means that a group of two to three people might be looking for a lift for the half-mile uphill distance. Ride around East 6th for 10-15 minutes and if nothing’s doing, head west to the Convention Center.

6:00 PM – The next hour or two will be spent riding up and down Trinity Street, raising my hand and looking for groups of two or three that look like they don’t know where they’re going. During the music part of the festival, they might look like young hip hop artists or messy-haired British rock n’ rollers. Every musician must come through the Convention Center to pick up their badges, so a ton of people are constantly walking in and out. Riding beside the main doors of the Convention Center on the bicycles-only path, I was grateful every time someone opened the door and I got a whiff of powerful indoor air conditioning.

Bizarre protests were witnessed here. One where a group of people ages 8 to 68 were protesting against Netflix. Their signs read “Give us our movies back,” and their shouted slogans included, “What do we want? Movies. When do we want them? Now.” I gathered that they were of the belief that Netflix was somehow taking their movies away from them. Their protest lasted an hour and the constant foot traffic resumed unaffected. I wondered what the debriefing meeting of this protest consisted of. “I think we made our point.” And they all cheers their Blockbuster brand microwave popcorns.

Another protest was a group of punk rock types with tough looking dogs in tow who were protesting against gentrification…in general. They didn’t appear to have any goals other than to shout as loud as they could. Evidently, they measured their success based on the old protesting rubric, “If you change just one person’s mind, you’ve been successful.” I didn’t witness anyone volunteering to join their ranks.

8:00 PM – People are officially out drinking now. This means that people need rides to and from the nightlife hotspots: Rainey Street and the Dirty 6th.

On a typical Friday or Saturday night in Austin, the Dirty 6th (a stretch of East 6th Street that runs from I-35 to Congress Ave.) is the place to be for partygoers. It is notorious for its wild and crazy atmosphere, and its pedestrian-only walkway similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. For pedicabbers, the Dirty 6th is a great spot to pick people up, except that police block off certain streets and only allow us to line up on certain others. On ordinary Friday and Saturday nights, pedicabbers are permitted to line up on either side of Neches and Brazos Streets, and on one side of San Jacinto Blvd. and Trinity Street, while also being able to ride up and down Red River St., a popular route connecting Rainey St. and the Dirth 6th. During the 9 days of South-by, however, pedicabbers were limited to only Brazos and Sabine Streets.

On my first day of South-by, I wasn’t aware of these limitations, and I optimistically rode north on Red River up to 6th and was greeted by a police officer. Having been a pedicabber for two months previously to South-by, I learned through word of mouth and from my own experiences that the cops were not on our side. They loathed us due to our lack of regard for their ever-changing and ever-specific laws. They weren’t even the ones who might write us a ticket for not having a proper pedicabbing license or the right type of blinking lights on the backs of our cabs, that was reserved for special transportation officers. Instead, their role was to forcefully yell at us, and their frustrations were amplified by the fact that pedicabbers, too, were ever-changing. So every time they yelled at a pedicabber, there was no assurance that that pedicabber would spread the word amongst his co-workers because there are over 10 pedicab companies in downtown Austin, and missing among popular topics of conversation between us was the new and exciting restrictions now enforced by the cops. The fact was, we were arch nemeses my nature. All we wanted was to bend the very laws that they lived to uphold. So when I strolled up Red River and saw a brigade of 5 cops sitting in a golf cart next to a road blockade, I wasn’t surprised to get an exasperated reaction from their leader. He shouted angrily, “I already told you guys, you can only go on Sabine and Brazos.” I shrugged my shoulders non-communicatively, for, who were the “you guys” he was referring to? All pedicabbers? If so, I had not gotten the memo. I cursed said officer under my breath and rode down to Sabine to see if my kind were welcome there. We were.

Now, pedicabbers, for the most part, follow an unwritten code of rules among ourselves. Obviously laws like “Don’t ride on the sidewalk.” or “Don’t ride the wrong way on a one-way street.” are broken at the pedicabber’s discretion. But when it comes to breaking rules against one another, these rules are strictly followed and can be punishable in any number of ways such as a group of pedicabbers blocking you in or simply just kicking your ass if you cross the wrong pedicabber.

The foremost example of an unwritten pedicabber’s rule is that of snaking, a loathesome practice that involves a pedicabber stepping in front of a line of pedicabbers and stealing away their rider without regard to the established line for that area. Snaking also includes taking a ride when you are at the back of a line. The accepted practice if you are not first in line (some lines can have up to 20 pedicabbers on them) and a potential customer approaches you is to cease negotiating with that customer immediately and point him.her to the front of the line so that he/she may hire the first pedicabber in line. One can also shout audibly, “First up!” so that the first pedicabber in line can move towards the potential customer to expedite the process. During South-by, however, the rule of law is weakened and the new stance on snaking becomes “monkey see, monkey do.”

11:00 PM to 2:00 AM – On Rainey St., the pedicab lines grew long because pedicabbers weren’t allowed to ride through the street and must wait at the edge of the line of bars for potential customers. It’s a kick in the gut to optimistically ride up the hill to Rainey St., only to find a line of pedicabbers 20 cabs long. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when a break is needed and joining a line is a smart play. When you’re ready for dinner, it makes sense to join a line, ask the pedicabber behind you to look after your cab and jet over to a food truck to get some fuel, all the while building up to a guaranteed ride when you reach the front of the line. But when you’re full of energy and ready to ride, all thoughts of obeying laws and the right thing to do go out the window. If a couple comes up to you asking how much it would be for a ride to the Dirty 6th, you tell them 20 bucks and hurriedly usher them into your cab, first in line or not. This form of snaking became a reality during South-by, and by the second day, it was common practice. If people wanted a ride, you gave it to them.

But not all pedicabbers subscribed to the “monkey see, monkey do” logic of snaking. On 6th and Sabine, the line wasn’t 20 pedicabbers long, but rather 8 or 9. Each time “First up!” was called and the first pedicabber in line got a ride, we’d all have to re-maneuver our cabs so that we’d be closer to the front. By the time midnight rolled around, thousands of people were milling about around the cab line and people were hiring cabs left and right. I was fifth in line when three partygoers approached me asking if I can take them to Rainey St. This was a no-brainer. I told them to hop in. The pedicabber in front of me had a more traditional mindset. When he saw the trio about to hop into my cab, the older pedicabber shouted out “First up!,” and moved his head chicken-like, wondering if anyone else was watching me snake this ride. He asked me nervously as the trio sat down in my cab, “Are you part of this line or…,” and I just ignored him, only interacting with the customers. He continued to freak out, and I simply smiled at the customers, asking if they were ready to depart. They were, and we were off. Yet another successful snake.

2:00 AM to 3:00 AM – Power hour. All bars close at 2 AM, which means that every patron leaves the bars and needs a way to get back to their hotels or their cars. Sure, there is competition from Uber and Lyft, but pedicabbers can navigate through traffic legally and illegally, using bike lanes and riding on the opposite side of the double yellow lines. So we got plenty of business. On Rainey, the once long lines are non-existent. As quickly as you can ride up to the end of Rainey St., you can nab a duo or trio and take them to the East Side to their cars or to the JW Marriot downtown, or similar hotels. If you had the stamina to make it to this hour, you are rewarded with consistent rides back to back. I must admit that I didn’t make it to Power Hour every night, but when I did, my adrenaline carried me through to 3 AM.

3:00 AM to 4:00 AM – All pedicabbers ride back to their respective shops down East 4th street. I passed 4th and Attayac, a corner which houses four pedicab shops and where upwards of 15 cabs would be parked outside just chilling as their drivers sat around drinking beers and enjoying a well-earned break. I pull into the shop and park my cab. I pay my nightly lease to the owner and drag myself to my car, knowing that I’m in for the same tiring experience the next day. When I get home, I total up the day’s wages and add them to a post-it on my tv stand. I take a brief shower, dry my hair the best I can, stretch my legs while I brush my teeth and fall face first into my bed. I will wake up eight hours later with my legs feeling like Jell-O.

As I wrote last week, I’ve been trying to break into the competitive sports scene in the D.C. area since moving here from New York a few months ago.

So far, so good, in getting onto a softball team–though I recently learned the team is sponsored by a local gentleman’s club (I am begging you to read the reviews for this place. BTW, a business idea: a blog where people who write Yelp reviews of strip clubs are given carte blanche to just write a couple hundred words on literally anything. I’d read that.)

Okay, we got a little off track there, but onto the main event: the story of how I tried out for a local tennis team, and how things became much more serious than I anticipated.

In looking for ways to immerse myself in the community–taking the first of many steps to becoming Northern Virginia’s answer to Coach Taylor–I reached out to some of the local tennis organizations to see about either joining a team or a ladder* to keep in shape, meet some people, and play tennis with people of a similar skill level to my own.

*A ladder is essentially a list of people who can schedule matches with each other around their own schedules, rather than being scheduled by a league. After they complete a match, they report their scores to the ladder admin, who keeps track of everyone’s win-loss record. At the end of a pre-determined “season” there may be a playoff, and a winner is ultimately crowned. It’s a great way to play tennis competitively without the rigidity of a league situation.

During the process I guess my name ended up on a few lists and message boards, and every so often someone would reach out about meeting up to hit around, or a team they were on, or suggestions for leagues to join.

On February 29 I received an email from a team captain who had gotten my information from another captain who had reached out to me (that team was in a weeknight league, but I was looking for something on weekends):

I captain an excellent team in the DC USTA 4.0 Spring league that will start in April. … The last two years we have won the league and advanced to sectionals in Newport News. … This time we hope to win sectionals and advance to nationals. It seems like you would be a perfect fit for our team being a high end 4.0/low end 4.5 so to speak.

 

Not sure whether to be flattered as a “high end 4.0” or offended at being called a “low end 4.5,”* I wrote back, expressing interest. We agreed to meet the following Sunday morning so he could get a better sense of whether I could play.

*The United States Tennis Association (USTA) rates players based on skill level. I haven’t ever been officially rated, but based on my experience playing in college and asking people who know about these things, I’m around a 4.5. However, I’ve also come to realize that most tennis people in the know tend to play about half a level down from their true rating, so I should be looking at 4.0 leagues.

After 45 minutes of warming up, rallying, and playing a few points, The Captain had seen enough. My groundstrokes and serve had been solid, but my volleys and overheads were weak, having not played in a while. But I assured him it was just rust, and playing steadily would be sure to shake the cobwebs off my game. I had played both singles and doubles at a Division III college, and felt confident I could regain some of that form (albeit it was now 10+ years after graduating).

My day job is in sales, so I did my best to ask not-too-pushy questions that would get The Captain to betray his honest opinion on whether I was right for his team. Before seeing me play he said I would be a “perfect fit,” but now he didn’t seem so sure.

He told me he needed to see me play one more time to make a decision. He later arranged for me to hit with one of his teammates, but that session was rained out. And so I sat in purgatory, not knowing if I was going to make the team. (This was a very different experience from the softball tryouts I’d attend a week later.)

I reached out to The Captain (twice) via email about next steps. His reply, a few days later:

Sorry for the delay in responding. … The first thing you need to do is to join usta and self rate on the usta website. The computer will likely rate you at 4.5 as you are a former division 3 player under 36. Then click the appeal button to appeal down to 4.0. You highlight the factors in your background to make your case here, i.e., haven’t played competitively in 10 years, lost almost all of your doubles matches in Division 3, any injuries? I think the appeals committee meets on Tuesdays. If you are bumped down to 4.0 then I can consider you. There is alot of interest in our team so no promises yet. Once I find out that you are rated  a 4.0, we’ll regroup.

He was the one who reached out to me! Also, I was somehow too good (I needed to appeal to the USTA to decrease my rating) but also not good enough to be given a spot on The Captain’s team. What?

My initial reaction was to send him a scathing email–how dare he ask me to jump through these hoops just to be considered for his team! Instead I spoke to my tennis braintrust–two of my college teammates, and my father-in-law–who convinced me to “play the game.” The Captain was a little fanatical about his tennis, but maybe he was just being passionate. If I made the team, it could be a pretty cool experience competing for a regional or national title.

Gritting my teeth, I sent my reply:

Thanks for your detailed reply. … I’m happy to take the appropriate steps towards getting my USTA rating to make sure I’m qualified to join your team. But before I do, I’m hoping you can share your thoughts on whether I’m the right fit for your team.
As you noted, right now I’m a stronger singles player than doubles player–but I believe my doubles abilities will come back the more I play (I’ve also joined a ladder to get some extra strokes in during the week). Are you concerned about my flexibility to play both singles and doubles if needed? Or about my ability as a singles player? As I said I’d be happy to hit with you … this weekend as a second tryout, and if you’re still not sold on me I’ll withdraw from consideration for your team.
If you are seriously considering me for your team, I’ll go ahead and follow the steps you laid out re: getting rated a 4.0. But if you’re thinking I’m not a great fit without needing to see me play a second time, please let me know.
Thanks in advance for your candor.
If the team was not going to be a good fit for me, that was fine. At this point I wanted to know I was on the team, or to check this off my list and move on. The Captain replied:
Here is the situation. I run and play on a DC team 18+ and a [Maryland] 18+ team. Both teams are excellent. The DC team advanced to sectionals the last 2 years. The MD team advanced to state regionals the last 2 years and fell just short of advancing to sectionals. We think this year it will happen. Both teams are competitive and no one knows what will happen with either team until the matches are played. Both could advance or neither. Last year both of my DC 40 and MD 40 teams advanced to sectionals. In DC, the scoring is based on total courts won in the season so every court played counts. In MD, the scoring is based on total matches. So if a team won 3 of the 5 courts played in the match, it counts as 1 match won. You have nice strokes, but are still rusty and it will take some time to groove the strokes again and get back to your regular game. With the season starting so soon, I can’t take the risk in DC of losing any courts while working on consistency. In MD I can take the risk of losing a court in a match during this period of working on consistency because the team is strong enough to win enough other courts to win the match. As the season progresses, you will eventually be back in the groove. This enables you to get back in the game with competitive match play with no pressure. I might have one slot open on the MD team. If you are interested in the MD team, we can talk about that. Both seasons are during the same time frame starting in April. 
“I might have one slot open on the MD team.” We never once had spoken about playing for his team in Maryland! Rather than assuming this guy was baiting and switching me this whole time, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s managing so many tennis teams that he mistakenly did not inform me that my chances of joining his team were slim, and that he would likely end up having me compete for a possible (but not guaranteed) spot on his team in Maryland.
As you might guess, at this point I replied to let The Captain know I was no longer interested in pursuing a spot on any of his teams. If the right situation presents itself later this spring, I’ll consider it. But clearly it won’t be with The Captain.
Whatever. I bet his team isn’t sponsored by a gentleman’s club…

Over the last decade I’ve grown increasingly sensitive to advertising both as a consumer—now that more ads are targeted to me—and as a professional, since I’ve spent most of that time working in the advertising industry.

I’ve written before on this blog about how one form of advertising, product placement, can go from seamless—almost subliminal—messaging to get us thinking about a brand without directly being fed a commercial in the traditional sense, to something that feels so out of place and distracting that the entertainment value of the content suffers.

On my brother Danny’s recommendation, I recently started catching up on FX’s new-ish series Baskets, starring Zach Galifianakis (the show was co-created by Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K., and Jonathan Krisel).

Very early on in the series, the first episode in fact, one brand is prominently featured repeatedly on the show: Costco.

Galifianakis’s character, Chip Baskets, is a “classically trained” clown (he studied at an academy in France—which is in Europe, if you’re a fan of this show) who can only find clown work at a rodeo in California. As he climbs the walls to avoid being gored by a bull, his co-worker and fellow rodeo clown tosses him a t-shirt gun to help Chip win the crowd over. Inside the gun are Costco branded t-shirts. (The arena sponsor signage also includes Kirkland Signature, Costco’s private label brand.)

Later in the episode we meet Chip’s mother, played by Louie Anderson (yes, you read that correctly), goes on and on about the great deals she got at Costco, parading out a number of Kirkland Signature products for the camera to capture.

Furthermore, the insurance adjuster Chip meets when he crashes his motor scooter works for—you guessed it!—Costco. Did you know Costco offered auto insurance services? Me neither!

After the first couple of episodes I texted my brother: Baskets is kinda funny but it’s also a long commercial for Costco. So many Costco labels in every shot!

His reply: Haha yea I like to think of Costco as a character on the show.

As an advertiser, I suppose that’s the best possible outcome for such an overt product placement, isn’t it?

Later episodes take place partly at Costco, either with Martha talking to her boss there, or Mrs. Baskets taking Chip’s estranged wife Penelope there to shop. “A dollar fifty for a hot dog! Can you believe it?”

In another episode, Martha was on the verge of being fired because she hadn’t sold any executive memberships to Costco. After unsuccessfully trying to accomplish this feat, Chip’s mom eventually buys Chip the membership. “You don’t have a membership to Costco? What’s wrong with you?”

Oddly enough, as I was Googling to learn more about Costco’s paid product placement, I learned that this so obviously paid for season-long commercial for Costco was actually not paid at all! As it turns out, the agreement the show has made with Costco is that no money will exchange hands, Baskets will get access to a Costco store to film, and Costco will have no creative input. So while Costco–the character on the show–may at times be the butt of the joke, it is amenable to this condition in exchange for free screen time a.k.a. advertising.

So, whether it’s paid or unpaid, Costco’s heavy presence may have had a greater effect on me than I knew–despite supposedly being hyper-aware of advertising thanks to my profession.

Just today as my wife and I made a Costco run—a perk of moving to the suburbs!—we found ourselves at the checkout line when the cashier asked me if I was the primary cardholder on my account. Yes, I said, and so he introduced me to presumably his boss, who asked it me if I had considered—wait for it—an executive membership to Costco. My default reply was to ask what it was, but of course I was already familiar with it thanks to Baskets. After getting all the information I decided to pass on it, for now, but I was, let’s say, 10% more open to hearing more simply because I had known a little bit about it before I was approached.

And now here I am blogging about it, and you’re reading it, and you’re wondering what a Costco executive membership can get you. So the next time you say, “Advertising doesn’t work on me,” think about that for a moment longer and remember: It’s not always about getting you to open your wallet right now. Sometimes it’s just about planting the seed.

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