Ninety-five percent of my professional energy is spent trying to avoid clichés. So it pains me that I won’t even get through the next sentence without revealing myself to be one.
I’m an advertising creative director, and my favorite client is a bar.
Hope the shock of that didn’t send anyone into atrial fib.
In all seriousness, the smart money says I really shouldn’t be admitting this. It would be better to whip up something frothy and unassuming about an airline whose industrial video unlocked the outer dimensions of my social consciousness. Or the accounting firm’s annual report that Hansel-and-Gretled me toward new heights of disciplined personal finance. I get it. The urge to spin that kind of “client-least-likely” yarn is tempting.
It’s just not true.
The not-so-sexy fact is, our degree of job fulfillment is oddly consistent: We meet up with nice people, stretch in all imaginable directions to get to the bottom of their situation, identify the opportunities therein, then work like hell to communicate that relevance in the most memorable way possible.
Cracking that nut is where the jollies lie. If you help a brand discover something about itself and get that thing noticed in the market, you feel good. If you don’t, well then, not so much. Still, nine times out of ten, the specific category of a client’s business is irrelevant to the ratio of smiles and frowns.
But this post isn’t about those nine times. So all I can hope is that an explanation of the tenth turns out to be less obvious than you might have thought.
In November of 2002, I arrived in Columbia from Morgantown, WV. Achingly homesick and too stubborn to admit it, I knew no one but the people who’d hired me. At that point, I was an all-together different cliché — 22 years old with the bank balance to prove it. So I moved into the kind of apartment complex whose parking lot is just as full on a Tuesday afternoon as it is on Sunday evening. Bed sheets hung in windows, beepers hung on belt loops, and folks paced bare spots in the grass waiting on the payphone to ring. The rent was right. But it became clear that unless I hoped to add “Miranda” to my small list of acquaintances, social needs would have to be met elsewhere.
Enter Yesterday’s Restaurant and Tavern. I walked in my first Friday night in town, knowing nothing about the place other than it was a RIGGS client – the first and oldest to be exact.
As in any decent pub, my approach to the bar was met with a smile and expectant expression from the young woman on the other side. Rounds passed and it became clear that the demeanor of this wait staff wasn’t the product of a well-studied handbook or strict managerial coaching. There were no scripted phrases, no upsell ploys or pandering stabs at personal conversation. Just a few kind words and the respect to leave patrons to their own private thoughts or company.
The result was a feeling of genuine acceptance, an easy belonging that sets drinkers and servers on truly equal footing. I knew my requests weren’t putting them out. They knew I assumed no sense of superiority accompanied a seat on the outside of the brass rail. This translates into an unspoken, organic equilibrium that is the hallmark of all Clean, Well Lighted Places — so many of which are literally neither. Settling my tab that first evening, I felt grateful to have located this in Columbia. But it wasn’t until I tried to leave that I realized what I’d really found.
Growing up in the rise of “casual dining” franchises, my generation has been long conditioned not to trust, or even notice, the “memorabilia” a restaurant nails to its walls. But something stopped me at the door that night.
Here I was, five hundred miles from home, awash in a sea of garnet and black and orange and purple. But just over the threshold were my own colors and this small salute to home. Trite as it sounds, I can’t tell you how validating that felt. Suddenly my new city seemed a little more open to its transplants.
Those ragged stickers snapped my funk long enough to hear just how loud the walls were talking. I registered the keepsakes from Michigan and Penn State. I read the hand written tributes to longtime customers and fallen Marines. I studied plaques and flags and oars and framed galleys of books that had presumably been written in the booths they now hung above. I began to understand that these weren’t decorations, but artifacts that told the age and history of this place as sure as the rings coiling to the center of an elderly tree trunk.
And then, of course, there were the photographs. For the next forty minutes I went to the walls.
I scanned the faces frozen in time, fixed in their celebration of birthdays, promotions, their own relationships and life in general. Here was proof that the allure of this place transcended most of the trivial ways we try to classify each other and claim there’s much difference between us. I saw white and black, locals and drifters, professors, dropouts, first loves and ex-wives. I saw folks who must look nothing like themselves now and some who were most surely gone all together.
But most importantly I saw reflections.
The majority of the snapshots chronicled Yesterdays late 1970s origins. And so the photos bore striking similarity to those in my parents’ old albums, the ones I used to spend hours examining, wondering what their lives had been like before me. These questions swirled even more now that I’d reached the age they were then. I took comfort in the belief that, just like all the strangers on the wall, the ones responsible for me had had their moments.
I pictured a time they may have drank too much or laughed too loud. I told myself they too were probably alone at some point, starting from scratch and hoping for the best. I used the faces on the wall and the loved ones they resembled to convince myself that things would work out for me too. And with that, a bar that claimed to be all about the past made it just a bit easier to face the future.
Several weeks ago, Yesterday’s asked for an appropriate way to celebrate its 35th anniversary in an outdoor campaign. For good measure, we took a few days and went in several different directions.
Then, of course, we went to the walls.
Hope you enjoy.