My Wife Doesn’t ‘Get How It Is In Advertising.’ (And Maybe Yours Shouldn’t Either.) - Mike Howard
Remember the whole Magnolia cupcake thing?
This isn’t an entirely rhetorical question. I have friends and colleagues now who were very possibly in their early teens when the Magnolia cupcake thing was a thing. I’m also willing to acknowledge that some of you will have never heard of the Magnolia thing, hence couldn’t possibly remember it. So for the sake of clarity, allow me to share what I’ve come to know:
At some point during the waning years of the 20th century, a little bakery opened in the West Village, and apparently they made some freaking epic cupcakes.
In fact, if you’ve currently got any sort of “upscale” cupcake concept littering crumbs on the floor of the food court at your local shopping mall, you owe a debt of gratitude to the Magnolia Bakery, 401 Bleecker at West 11th Street — Ground Zero of The Great Cupcake…Craze? Revolution? Thing? Whatever.
Of course, as with all great New York Things, by the time Magnolia cupcakes made cameos on Sex in the City, Saturday Night Live, and in the pages of US magazine, its cool had already chilled. As the Mainstream queued up to gobble their little pastel-frosted baked goods, those who arrived first to Magnolia party had already backed away from the table.
Be that as it may, my wife still wanted her some o’ them fancy New York City cupcakes, dammit! And I was tasked with securing them.
We were living in Miami at the time. Julie was seven months pregnant with our first daughter. I’d uprooted our little family from Boston just two short months earlier so I could take a job at what was arguably the most acclaimed and innovative advertising agency in the whole, wide world — Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
It was a dream opportunity — a potential career-maker, for sure, but much more than that, it was an identity. It was like being selected for the US Advertising Olympic Team. Or maybe more like being initiated into the Advertising Hell’s Angels.
CP+B was not the sort of place that hired established ad-industry rock stars. It was the sort of place that made them. Lots and lots of them. My friend Rob Strasberg, himself one of the most talented and awarded creative directors in the business, took great pride in the fact that CP+B was populated with creative mutts like him — people who couldn’t get hired at the more storied, “elite” creative agencies, but who’d instead found a special home with this scrappy upstart in South Florida.
Alex Bogusky, the creative heart, soul, brains, dreamy hair, and leader of the agency had a tremendous talent for recognizing these mutts, and was forever optimizing and streamlining the structure and the culture of his agency to remove every single, solitary obstacle standing in the way of the work we did.
And work we would. Harder than we’d ever worked in our lives. Harder than we ever thought we could. In return, the work we did would be some of the best of our careers.
Critics both inside and outside the agency, would decry CP+B as a “sweatshop,” but then, it wouldn’t be the first time a great creative culture had to bear that cross. Steve Jobs’ Mac development team, was the stuff of legend with its “90 Hours/Week and Loving It” tee-shirts. Indeed, Apple’s longtime ad agency, Chiat\Day was long characterized both with pride and derision by its infamous nickname, “Chiat\Day and Night,” and mottos like, “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.”
Ninety-hour weeks notwithstanding, dismissing these cultures as “sweatshops” just means you don’t get it (not to mention, you definitely don’t get the dynamics of an actual sweatshop). By the way, I’m not insane. I completely get why you wouldn’t get it. Especially if you aren’t in advertising or some other business like it.
Those who do get it will understand. CP+B was an opportunity factory. One colleague summed it up nicely when he told me, “You could build yourself a whole career just picking up the little assignments people drop on the floor here.” He was right. There were no piddly jobs. No dogs. Everything had the potential to be great. Everything was expected to be great. Those who do get it will understand how rare that is. Those who do get it will understand the weekends, the all-nighters, the double-all-nighters — they will understand no sacrifice is too great to be part of something so great.
I got it. My wife, however, did not.
She did not get, for example, that child birthing classes at 4:00 PM on a Thursday were simply not gonna happen for me. Newborn care classes? Baby CPR? Prenatal yoga?
“Yeah, kind of a pain in the ass, babe. I’m super slammed at work. Do I really need to be there for all that stuff?”
She didn’t get my point. Not one bit.
She didn’t get that when you go to the West Coast for production, there would sometimes be down weekends with nothing to do. She didn’t get why I couldn’t come home for those weekends, even though it meant a redeye on Friday night, a completely delirious Saturday, and a return trip on Sunday that would positively wreck me. She needed my support. She needed me home. And so no, she didn’t get my point.
And she didn’t get that when I traveled to New York for business, it was a business trip, not a cupcake-getting opportunity. She didn’t get that I could not, during the weeks I would spend away from home, commit to stealing away, even for a single hour, in the service of her cupcake errand. She didn’t get it, because it was our wedding anniversary, after all. Our fourth. Our first we’d spent without each other. And those cupcakes were all she’d asked for.
“It’s work, honey. I’ll try, but seriously I can’t promise.”
Nope, she didn’t get that. Not at all.
My wife and I have met plenty of advertising couples in our travels — there are plenty of them to meet. People fall in love with their co-workers all the time, of course. It happens in every profession, and I’ve got exactly zero statistical evidence to prove it happens at any significantly greater rate in the ad industry than in any other.
Still, there is some undeniable correlation between the demands, the pressure, the hours, the passion, the battle fatigue, and the abundance of of young hotties both male and female in our business that seems to make people more prone to making out with, and eventually marrying, their colleagues.
Sometimes, they continue to work with one another. Often, one of them takes advantage of the opportunity and bails on the business, leaving the other one to take it for the team. Some have children, others don’t. No matter what their current circumstance, some version of this exchange always seems to take place at some point:
Them: “Yeah, it can be rough sometimes — the hours and the stress (or some combination thereof) but I was/am in advertising, so I know how it is. I know how it goes.
I get it.
What about your wife? Was she in advertising? Does she get it?”
But no. No she wasn’t. And no she doesn’t.
No, our new, cute little ad-couple friends, we can’t offer you that convenient handhold. See, my wife and I met long before either of us had a career of any sort. I was an aimless college dropout and a (masterful) tender of bar who partied entirely too hard. She was an aimless hippie chick, smoking lots of weed and clerking at a little shop that sold silver jewelry.
When we finally got engaged we had only slightly more direction in life. I was back in school, still tending bar at night, and working as a secretary. (Full disclosure: I was secretary to the aforementioned Mr. Bogusky, but that’s another story.) When we got married, I was taking an ill-fated stab at law school (I quit after just four months). In short, we’d struggled through plenty of challenges in our relationship. The advertising business was only the latest of them. After all we’d been through together, my wife wasn’t about to let me off the hook now. She wasn’t about to let us, and the family we were building together, take a pass. She wasn’t about to simply lay back and “get it.”
Yet here it was, my last day in New York. My flight back to Miami was that afternoon. And I still had no cupcakes.
I was working with some friends at an edit facility up on W. 25th near Broadway. Again, my wife would not get it, but it was the middle of August, and it was well north of 90 degrees, which would make for an exceedingly sticky cab ride down to W. 11th and Bleecker. Not to mention that, when I finally gave in and embarked on the journey, my NYC cabbie insisted the two streets did not intersect. He insisted the address didn’t exist! I found this funny somehow. It imbued these cupcakes with a sort of talismanic quality, which to me, just added to the foolishness of it all.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself, because way before I ever considered getting in a cab, I was still back up on W. 25th, and I was a very, very important person. I was a very important client, in fact, working at a big-time editorial facility on a very important project on behalf of (lest you forget) perhaps the most acclaimed and innovative ad agency in the whole, wide world! But when I phoned Magnolia Bakery, they didn’t get it, either.
As it turns out, they didn’t deliver. I figured as much. No matter. I asked if they could pop a half-dozen or so of their finest cupcakes into a pastry box and I would send a courier down to pick them up for me. Because that is how playaz roll.
Their answer: “No sorry, we can’t.”
Me: “You can’t?”
Them: “We can’t put our cupcakes in a box.”
Me: “You don’t have boxes?”
Them: “We do, we just can’t do that?”
Me: “Still not following. You’ve got cupcakes. You’ve got boxes. Can you put six of one into one of the other?”
Them: “You could send a courier and he could do that himself.”
Now, I’ve been to bakeries before. Granted I’d never been to this one, but nothing I was asking seemed to deviate from standard bakery operating procedure as I’d understood it up to this point. So I still didn’t exactly understand what’s going on here.
Me: “But I don’t want sweaty, greasy courier hands on my wife’s cupcakes. Wait, did I mention these are for my wife? It’s our anniversary? She’s pregnant? First child? We live in Miami but I’m here on business and all she asked for were your Magnolia cupcakes?”
Them: “That's nice, sir, but we still can’t box them for you.”
Me: “Can’t? You mean you’re physically unable to place cupcakes into boxes?”
At this point, negotiations deteriorated rapidly. F-bombs were hurled from both sides. My favorite part was when I spat furiously that I would tell every single living organism I knew now, or would ever meet, about my abysmal Magnolia Bakery cupcake service experience!
The man on the phone scoffed, “Okay, you be sure to do that.” And just like that, he hung up on me. Magnolia Bakery Guy called my bluff. I should note this was the world as it existed a mere two months before Yelp was founded.
I realized I’d been shouting. So did all the other people in the edit facility. I was still shaking with the remnants of my impotent rage when some of the folks who worked there approached me cautiously to ask what was going on.
Magnolia is overrated, they assured me, and gave me the name of another bakery that produced a far superior cupcake product minus all the Magnolia hype.
Heartened, but still quaking with indignation (and somehow still completely oblivious to how ridiculous I was being), I called Julie.
I recounted the dialogue in detail, did my best to relate the rudeness — the nerve! — to which I’d been subjected. Who did these cupcake people think they were?! How dare they treat their customers like that?! My voice was getting shrill again, and I was working up a sweat.
“Can you believe that?!” I said, “I’ll be damned if I’m buying their fucking cupcakes!”
I suddenly realized I’d been going on for some time with absolutely no response from the other end of the line.
“I don’t care,” she said calmly.
“What?! Seriously?! I mean, you wouldn’t believe…”
“It’s not my problem, Mike.” Again, perfectly calm.
“Are you saying you still want me to go there and give our money to these assholes?!”
“I’m saying, it’s all I asked for. For my anniversary.”
“But the guys who work here — who live here in New York — they say there’s this other place that makes much better…”
“I didn’t ask for cupcakes, Mike. I asked for Magnolia cupcakes.” So calm. So…disappointed.
I spluttered something else, then just stood there, agape. She didn’t get it. She wasn’t going to get it. I didn’t get it.
Cut to me, at Magnolia, saturated with sweat. It was much tinier than I’d imagined. Modest. Cute, even. And even in August, even in the midday heat, the queue was formidable. I took my place in line and waited, just like everybody else. My self-inflicted 11th hour ticking away.
At the time, I recall actually cursing my wife for being such a diva about all this. I recall cursing myself for indulging it. And yet somehow, I don’t recall recognizing an ounce of irony in adopting this perspective.
All told, I spent a little more than three years working for arguably the most acclaimed and innovative ad agency in the whole, wide world. Then my wife decided she’d had enough. She didn’t lay down any ultimatum. She didn’t force me to do anything. She simply told me how she felt.
I’d just returned home from a long trip. We were at the beach watching our little girl try to fly a kite, when she told me she wasn’t sure, given the current state of things, whether she and our daughter would be better with me or without me, but she no longer felt she could count on me to be the kind of partner she wanted and needed in her life.
As it turns out, this had nothing to do with where I worked. It was a problem she had with me. In hindsight, she made that abundantly clear, but at the time, I was still convinced she just didn’t get it, and she never would. So I made the decision I believed I needed to. I quit. And for a long time, I would resent it.
As a couple, we would continue to struggle with our divergent sense of priorities and duties for years to come. We still do.
Only now, almost ten years after The Magnolia Cupcake Incident, am I able to say with genuine pride that my wife still steadfastly refuses to get it. I continue to do what I can to accommodate that fact. I continue to become a better and happier person as a result.
As a result, I’ve learned to be more efficient with my time. I’ve learned to pay closer attention to my patterns of productivity and spend less time banging my head against fruitless walls. I’m learning to put my worries in a box and lock them up at quitting time. I’m learning how to walk away.
As a result, I’ve attended lots more dance recitals, parent-teacher conferences, school events, sports practices, and holiday dinners. I’ve come to understand that I have very real obligations on a number of fronts, each of which needs to find its appropriate priority.
As a result I have a much clearer sense of what is important and the relative, realistic importance of the role I play within it all.
Could I have been more successful in my career if my wife hadn’t refused to get it? Could I have become one of those advertising rock stars? Fuck that. Nothing constructive can come from such speculations. Obsess over them and they either become part of the set of lame excuses you make for yourself, or they fester into resentment. Probably both. There is no way to answer those questions that isn’t some form of cop out.
A good friend once shared a very simple piece of advice with me — her own personal key to happiness: Mind your own business. We’ve all got our own circumstances. Some you’ve chosen. Some you’ve been dealt. But none of them will stand up to the scrutiny of hypotheticals or comparison. However you find success and happiness given your circumstances — that’s your own business. Mind it well.
When I finally made it inside the doors of Magnolia, I had to admit, I could kinda understand what the jerk to whom I’d spoken on the phone had been trying to tell me.
This was not some premeditated concept store designed for volume, calculated growth, and nationwide franchise. It was just a little shop.
They worked hard, they made great stuff, and they got really popular as a result. They baked their cupcakes one pan at a time, the way we all do it at home. Then they set them on their window sill across from the counter, in an honest-to-goodness vintage Tupperware® cupcake container. The opacity of the plastic covers had been dulled yellow with age.
People standing in line then grabbed a pastry box and snatched them up buffet-style, much faster then they could be replenished, hence the line outside. So no, they really couldn’t accommodate deliveries or phone calls from self-important fucks like me.
Suddenly I got it.
When my turn came, I collected my cupcakes and paid for them discretely, simultaneously wondering which of these people I’d traded barbs with, and desperately hoping he wouldn’t recognize my voice.
The cupcakes did not survive the trek back to W. 25th. The cake part was relatively intact. The pretty pastel frosting however, fell victim to the heat of Summer in Manhattan.
This piece originally appeared on Medium and is reproduced here with Mike's very kind permission.