If there is one thing that has gone right in Ron Elgin’s life, it was marrying his wife “Beautiful Bonnie.” I say that after reading this advertising executive’s newest book The Man Behind the Curtain because more times than not, as he reveals in this collection of ninety-one short and laugh-out-loud funny stories, she has saved him from making an even bigger fool of himself.
But all joking aside—and I’m only half-joking—Ron Elgin is a seriously successful retired businessman from the advertising world. He was a partner in Elgin Syferd, the biggest ad firm in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest region for many years, which later became part of DDB Worldwide. In this follow-up to his first book Huckster: My Life as an Ad Man, Ron shares stories from the last fifty years of his life, from how he refused to wear an ROTC uniform in college and still ended up serving in the military during the Vietnam War to his return home with his new bride and his entry into the advertising world. One story after another tells of working with successful though sometimes zany clients, creating effective ads, managing quirky but ingenious employees, and doing good in the local community in the most unexpected of ways—like auctioning off vasectomies.
And then there are the trips to Europe…the rental cars like sardine cans…the Irish hotelkeeper who hates Americans…the cruises with insane people…the insane clients…the times when Ron’s sanity comes into question and Bonnie puts him in his place.
You have to love a man who knows how to poke fun at himself, but who also isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. Sometimes Ron had to fire obnoxious clients. Sometimes he lost sleep worrying that clients might fire him for being obnoxious. Sometimes he had to give in to clients’ wishes. And one time he even had to help a client run for President of the United States.
I don’t want to spoil all the fun by giving too many details, but here’s just a taste of what’s in store for you when you pick up The Man Behind the Curtain. This scene is like something out of an episode of The Office. In it, Ron has been invited to Germany to give a presentation for a client, but first he has to practice with some of the German members of the team:
I was given a very brief introduction to the director and the other members of the pitch team. Then I was told that I should give my presentation first and they’d figure out my actual slot later.
I was marginally better but still pretty bad. It didn’t matter, though, because the rest of the pitch team wasn’t paying any attention to me or any of the other presenters. No one was critiquing anyone. In fact, at one point, two people were practicing at the same time. Chaos.
Finally, it was time for the director’s part, so everyone fell silent. Without hesitation, he maniacally plunged forward. Although I knew a little German from the years I had lived there, the director was speaking so rapidly that I could hardly recognize words, let alone phrases. All the while, he was flipping boards so fast it was impossible to read a word or grasp an image. Suddenly, about thirty minutes into his performance, he burst into a very loud sob, followed quickly by uncontrolled sobbing. He was inconsolable for at least fifteen minutes. No one dared to say anything. Everyone was frozen. Then it was over and he began again, as maniacal as before. The timer clocked him at two hours and twenty-three minutes. I couldn’t take it any longer and left at 7 p.m. for schnitzel and beers.
Wow, what a scene! But that’s only a small taste of the book and it would be so very wrong not to share one more passage that shows Ron’s sense of humor. In this scene, Ron’s on a plane with a colleague, who just also happens to be named Ron, when the pilot announces that there may be some turbulence coming up:
“What’s happening?” asked a suddenly awake and terrified Ron. “What was that announcement?”
I turned to my left, looked into his panicked eyes, and couldn’t stop myself from saying, “He said, ‘Please assume the crash position.’”
I’d never before seen a man’s eyes roll into the back of his head. It really does happen. It was undoubtedly a shitty thing to do to my friend, but then again, maybe not. His body went from full stiff to limp slouch. I positioned him into as comfortable of a position as I could, poured his new drink into mine, and opened my book.
About two hours later, Ron bolted upright and asked, “Are we dead?”
I laughed and said the captain had miraculously saved us.
“Oh, thank God! Where’s my f—g drink?”
But it’s not all laughs and practical jokes. Nearly every story in this book also has a point to it—a lesson learned about advertising, about what is good business, about customer service, about how to treat employees, about how to balance work and family. Anyone who wants an inside look into the world of advertising will find it here. And anyone with constipation will be grateful that this is a long book.
In all seriousness, there are few books I have enjoyed reading so much. Ron Elgin is not only a hilarious writer with great timing for a joke, but after reading this book, he’s one of my favorite people too. The world would be a better place if we could all achieve such a sense of humor and a practical, positive outlook on life, plus have a Beautiful Bonnie to keep us in line.
For more information about The Man Behind the Curtain and Ron Elgin, visit the book’s website.