I was busy, I was always busy, that’s what happens when you run a successful Media/PR Firm in downtown Toronto. I had more clients than I could handle and a staff that was eclectic. As an example, I enjoyed working with Laramie Daniels but she was crazy. ‘’Uh, Alan I uh, have to tell you. I got interviews for Jeb the Woodworker on CFRB, in the National Post, The Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, and The Globe & Mail.’’ I looked at her and was delighted, ‘’Great work Laramie’’, she shook her head. ‘’No, it wasn’t great work, it was sensational work. That Jeb is drier than the wood he works on. So you can expect him to say some pretty outrageous things during his interviews, I coached him. I know it will be controversial but everyone will be paying attention.’’ I was afraid to find out what kind of controversy she had coached into a guy who came from a town with a population of three hundred and was famous because his wood carvings had been purchased by some of the biggest names in the collecting world. ‘’We don’t need controversy, he doesn’t need controversy’’ Laramie laughed. ‘’I just told him to mention that if things don’t work out between Megan and Harry he’s ready to take her out. He has a thing for her.’’ I walked away shaking my head. How could that nonsense be brought up during an interview on woodworking? ‘’Okay then Laramie.’’
I was just about in my office when Allie the HR person came over. She had a serious look on her face which usually meant trouble. ‘’Uh, I hope you’re not going to get upset with me.’’ This was not a great way to enter into a conversation. Just as I was about to answer, Laramie came running over. ‘’Jeb’s interview in the Toronto Star just came out. It is superb. I am the best Publicist ever. Oh, uh there might be some blowback, but I’ll deal with it.’’ I stood there looking between Allie with the news that I was sure was going to be upsetting and a Publicist who thought blowback and negative press was somehow good.’’ ‘’What kind of Blowback?’’
Laramie smiled. ‘’Well he got a little carried away in the interview. He said how grateful he was to have his woodwork all over the world. The interviewer asked him, like having a carving in Buckingham Palace in England?’’ I took a deep breath. ‘’He replied, yeah I am happy the Queen can look at it. It is wood from Madoc, Ontario. You know I’m sorry Megan isn’t there. When I think of wood and the palace, I think about how much wood she gives me. I know she’s still married to that Harry guy, but who knows, one day maybe we can get it on.’’ Laramie then laughed, I didn’t think discussing sexual fantasies was a great idea and it came across as rude and crude. I just stared at Laramie and shook my head. She knew I was pissed. ‘’Don’t worry Alan, I’m sending out apologies right now. But you should see how Jeb’s Social Media is exploding.
I walked away with Allie at my side. and she seemed pensive. When we got into my office, I sat behind my desk and looked at her. I was already aggravated with Laramie, what other crappy situation was I about to deal with.
‘’So, Alan, you remember the International Shadow program. One person from another country comes to Canada to spend time with an Executive at a PR firm.’’ I was now starting to get really agitated. ‘’Uh, Allie, if you will remember correctly I told you to get us the hell out of that program, the last guy who came over from England, Devin, almost cost us one of our clients, and he was a royal pain in the ass.’’ Allie shuffled some papers. ‘’Well, apparently you signed a three-year commitment.’’ I thought about it and Allie was right. I had signed the Palmer Chocolate company as a client and they were multinational. They were sponsors of the International Shadow program and I had fool-heartedly offered my company as a participant once they became clients. Damn, I was stupid at times, greed can do that to a person.’’
‘’How long will my Shadow be with us?’’ Allie smiled. ‘’He arrives at the airport tonight at eight. Lois will pick him up. We booked him into the Shangra La. It was a long flight, so we gave him a day to acclimatize and he will be in the office on Thursday morning. He will spend Thursday and Friday with us and then he moves on to Peterson and McGregor on Monday.’’
‘’Holy Shit, the Shangra La, I don’t even stay there because it’s so expensive.’’ Allie was all smiles. ‘’Silly, we only pay a quarter of the bill, the other firms he’s visiting also kick in. It is a real group effort.’’ It was a bit of relief but I still didn’t trust my competitors. Somehow I had the feeling our Agency would be stuck with the cost of his stay. ‘’Okay, thanks Allie, but when our Shadow ‘’commitment’’ ends, I want out.’’
Allie was walking out the door and not looking back. Over her shoulder, she yelled ’Oh, the guy who will be following you around Thursday and Friday is from Sri Lanka and his name is Shevon.’’
Laramie passed Allie in the hall and burst into the office. ‘’Okay. I’ve already sent out Jeb apologies via Twitter, Insta, Tic Tok, and Facebook. I sent a Media Release to print and electronic. The truth is everybody wants to talk with him now, I just told him to cool his jets about the Royals and we’re golden. What do you think Boss?’’
I wanted to tell her I thought she was a loon, but she really was a good publicist and always got results. I also appreciated her loyalty to the firm. ‘’Next time, let’s stick to the facts, Jeb might not be Mr. Personality but he is a gifted craftsman. Let’s push that and forget about sensationalism.’’
Laramie walked out of the office, and we both knew she didn’t have one second of regret for using Jeb to create drama. The Royals were a big deal in the media and she had snuck our client into the conversation.
The next two days were filled with going over new clients with Account Executives, talking with our Digital people, and meeting with the Chief Executive Officers and Marketing Directors of a couple of our biggest clients. I was thrilled that everything was moving smoothly and it also worried me. There is always calm before the storm.
On Thursday morning I arrived at the office like I always do at six-thirty in the morning and grabbed a Tim Horton’s Green Tea and a toasted four-cheese bagel with butter from their restaurant in the lobby. I walked over to the elevator, swiped my magnetic card, and pushed the button for the eighty-seventh floor where our offices were located.
I was reading the article about Jeb in the Toronto Sun and I was grateful there were no references to Megan Markle or Harry. I was just putting the paper down when I looked across my desk at a huge guy sitting quietly across from me. He was like a Ninja I had no idea where he had come from or that he was there.
‘’Hello, Mr. Backus. I’m Shevon Ramasingha I’m from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Thank You for letting me visit your office and getting to know how you operate.’’ I looked at him and figured he was about twenty-three. ‘’You’re more than welcome Shevon, I’m going to take you over to Derrick Lawson. He’s an Account Executive and will discuss a new account we just landed. It’s called Klanton Bread and Bakery. They have small cafes where people can buy fresh bread and have a quick wholesome meal. He’ll explain how things get moving in our system. After you spend an hour with him, you’ll come back to my office, and I’ll show you another facet of our business.’’
Shevon nodded and slowly stood up, he followed me out the door and towards the other end of the hall, where all the Account Executives had their offices. ‘’There’s a little kitchen to your right if you want to grab a drink or feel hungry, please help yourself.’’ Derek came out to greet us and shook hands with Shevon. ‘’Pleasure to meet you Shevon, welcome to our company. Let me give you a tutorial on how we landed our client and what our plans are to raise their profile.’’ I wished Shevon luck saying he was in very good hands and started to head back to my office when Shevon followed and tapped me on the shoulder. ‘’Mr. Backus, can I ask you one more question before I go with Derek, are you a Jew?’’ I wasn’t sure how to answer or why he was asking me, so I turned around, looked at him, and said ‘’Time is of the essence, Derek is waiting for you.’’
Back in my office I felt pissed off. What kind of question was that from Shevon, what difference did my religious beliefs make to him. I was simmering when my secretary Beth Waldon came in. ‘’I’ve booked you and Shevon for lunch at 47. After lunch, you have a meeting with Tim Leflore about the new Condo development his company’s building on Bloor and after that, you have a meeting with Monica Turlway about her new fashion line. Finally, you have drinks with Fred Lanse at the Windsor Arms about the launch of his new pharmaceutical company, Canada Vaccine, and Supply. Any thoughts?’’ I responded immediately, ‘’Why would that kid from Sri Lanka want to know if I was Jewish?’’ Beth shrugged indicating that it wasn’t anything to be concerned about and walked out the door.
Shevon was back at my office an hour later and he seemed to be happy. He explained that Derek had given him some great insights into how to launch a bid to land a client and he felt it would be very helpful for his company. He explained that it was obvious his company had been doing a lot of things wrong. He felt he was now in a position to be more effective when soliciting new business.
I spent time discussing the maintenance and care of clients. I provided case studies of clients we had dealt with for years and the reason for our success and then I turned the subject to clients we had lost.
Losing clients always seemed personal and painful to me. I honestly believed that when we signed an agreement to represent a client, they would be with us for eternity. It’s a message I pitched to my team. ‘’Always treat the client right.’’ One of the big accounts that had slipped away was Neuron Clean. They were category leaders in pet cleaning. We helped them grow their business by over three hundred percent. They were getting recognized as a power in the pet category and were bringing new projects to market quarterly. Things were going smoothly until they brought in a new Ad Agency and that’s when the shit hit the fan. The Agency did everything in their power to squeeze us out. They asked us to do some Media/PR things across Canada with a very short window and we accepted. It was a huge mistake. At the time we just didn’t have the resources to pull it off. The Media coverage was solid, but there were a few problems regarding accurate material being disseminated about a new product that was coming to market. The Ad Agency said that we could announce it during the Media tour and we did. This rubbed the Marketing Director of the company the wrong way as she was planning a splashy release party, something we would have normally done.
When the tour was over, the Marketing Director released us from our contract, and the Ad Agency took over the Media/PR functions. It was a horrible feeling. We knew we had been set up, but life would have to go on.
Shevon listened intently and nodded his head. ‘’Yes, in my country it is the same thing, there are some competitors who are unmerciful in their approach. They will tell your clients lies to try and win them away. It is very upsetting when they leave.’’ I nodded and looked at my watch. ‘’We are off for lunch at a place called ‘’47'’, let’s get going as we have a heavy schedule.
‘’47'’ was only a couple of blocks from the office on Richmond Street West. We walked in and were taken to a table by the window. I ordered Tuna Nicoise and Shevon ordered a Greek salad. The waitress brought over a bottle of Perrier and I looked at my watch. ‘’As soon as lunch is over, we have more appointments. It is a busy day and tomorrow will be even crazier.’’
Shevon looked around the restaurant. ‘’Thank You so much for your tremendous hospitality. I am so grateful for this experience. But I have to ask you again, are you Jewish?’’
I could feel the anger rising up inside of me again. This apparently smart guy was fixated on my religion. I knew that in Sri Lanka the population was mixed between Buddhist and Muslim, so I wondered what he was after.
‘’Shevon, when we sign a client we don’t ask them what their faith is. When my Human Resources person hires somebody, she doesn’t ask them what Gd they believe in. It is not appropriate to ask someone their religion. In North America it is just not done, we live our lives based on meritocracy, not what Church, Mosque, or Synagogue you attend.’’ Shevon had an anguished look on his face as he picked at his salad.
I was frustrated and a little angry, why was this guy constantly trying to determine my religion. I was trying to mentor him on Media/PR and running an Agency but he kept losing the plot. His face was downcast as he looked over at me while putting a piece of feta cheese into his mouth.
‘’Do you know any Jewish people you could introduce me to, it is very important.’’ I wanted to lose it, I wanted to scream Fuck Off already with who is Jewish and who isn’t. What are you planning an attack? It was off-putting.
‘’I will tell you this for the last time. We don’t care what a person’s religion is in Canada. We all work and play together and religion shouldn’t matter. If you must know I am Jewish, but I have no idea how that has anything to do with you learning about the Agency business from me.’’
Shevon dropped his fork into his salad bowl. ‘’Thank Gd, I’ve been hoping and praying that you were Jewish. ‘’ A piece of Tuna lodged in my throat, I couldn’t believe that after all my haranguing the kid still didn’t get it. ‘’Why Shevon, why was it so damn important that you discovered I was a Jew?’’ ‘’Because I lost my Mother last year and I need to say Kaddish for her. I need to go to Synagogue tonight and tomorrow morning and tomorrow evening. I was very afraid I was going to miss her Yartzheit. I made arrangements with a Rabbi in Colombo to say Kaddish for her, but I would feel terrible if I didn’t do it myself.’’
I had a moment of self-revelation. I had misjudged the scene completely. I was one hundred percent wrong. I had only thought about not wanting to reveal I was Jewish to a stranger without realizing he could also have been Jewish. He was black and from Sri Lanka so I had made an assumption. I felt terrible.
‘’I will call Chabad Downtown for you. They’ll arrange everything. I’m sorry to hear about your Mother. You’re a good son. I’m surprised, I didn’t know there were Jews in Sri Lanka.’’
Shevon was now smiling. ‘’There’s not a lot of us. Maybe a hundred in the country, but we stick together and daven together on Shabbos. Thank You for arranging for me the opportunity to honour my Mother’s memory. I am grateful.’’ I humbly accepted his thanks, picked up my cell, called the Rabbi of Chabad Downtown, gave him all the details and he promised to look after Shevon.
‘’The Rabbi will be at your hotel at five o’clock. Meet him in the lobby. He says you can’t miss him. He’ll make sure you get to all the services and back to the hotel.’’ Again Shevon professed how grateful he was and we left for our next meeting, both of us feeling much better.
The afternoon and the next day were a blur. Shevon was attentive and in one case helped get a client to sign on with us. He left early as he was going to Shabbos dinner with a bunch of people from Downtown Chabad.
I received a note from Shevon a couple of weeks later, expressing his gratitude for everything he had learned while shadowing. He especially thanked me for letting him say the memorial prayers for his Mother properly. I felt good and it was a reminder to never judge anybody. Jews come in all shapes, sizes, and colours.
Allie came into my office and she was carrying some papers. ‘’I did it, I found a way to get us out of the Shadow program. If we donate five thousand a year, we don’t have to have any students visit with us. It is a four-year commitment. What do you think Alan?’’ I looked at her and smiled. ‘’Screw that, I like meeting these new energetic people who are anxious to learn. I’m already looking forward to the person who shows up next year.’’ She looked right through me. ‘’Okay, but I hope you don’t mind me telling you, you’re weird.’’ She then left.
As she walked away Laramie came flying in. ‘’Good News Boss, I just arranged to get Jeb a new WoodWorking show. You’ll never guess where it’s going to be broadcast UK TV, Isn’t that a blast.’’ I looked at her and couldn’t help laughing. ‘’Laramie, nothing surprises me anymore.’’