The Confessions of a Publicity Agent

James Grantham April 1 1913

The Confessions of a Publicity Agent

James Grantham April 1 1913

The Confessions of a Publicity Agent—page 36

The Confessions of a Publicity Agent

The following is the first of a series of three articles on “The Confessions of a Publicity Agent. ’ ’ The series, which will run in MacLean ’s through April, May and June, is written by a leading Canadian journalist under a pseudonym, and purports to embody “the autobiography of one William Jennings Jones, formerly publicity agent for the town of Milham, and now Mayor thereof.” The opening story tells of the manner in which young Jones drifted from newspaper work into the publicity field and of the way he handled his first job.

James Grantham

I LEARNED all I know about town boosting—and I think I know quite a bit along that line—by being fired. A good many men have had the same experience. To be fired once is sometimes a god-send; to be fired twice is serious. It happened to me just the once, but it came hard and swift and good. I was thrown out without any money to light on. I hadn’t any reputation either. People were not waiting around outside waiting to offer me jobs. I remember that distinctly.

It hurt my feelings. It came close to breaking me for good and all, that is why, perhaps, it did me far more good than if someone had died about that time and left me a mint of money. The legacy, in the condition I was in, would have saved me from learning the lesson I needed to learn. It might have paid the rent and bought the grub for a little while, but it would not have taught me my business.

Before it happened I was an assistant financial editor on a Toronto morning newspaper. Twenty-two dollars a week was all that stood between me and my landlady, and I had more things to buy than board too. My prospects for an increase were about as bright as any man’s prospects are who thinks he has learned all there is to know about his job and doesn’t enlarge his vision. My work consisted of gathering financial news for my paper. As a side graft I had a stand in with the local vaudeville house and got free tickets once a week,

sometimes twice, if the man on the door wasn’t too sober. I had built up a fairly good business connection among the brokers down town and for a long time there were not many men who could get by me with a scoop in the financial columns. But that was about as far as I had climbed. I thought no one else could work up the same connection,— which was foolish because one day a new man came along on the Globe, a man with good manners and a pleasant address and I could see that even my connection wouldn’t last more than two months. Instead of getting busy and writing better stuff and playing up my stories better, I took to grouching because I wasn’t getting more money, and while I was grouching along came this offer from the town of Milham and I grabbed it — at fifteen hundred a year —that is where the story begins: at fifteen hundred a year.

I was engaged at the time to Mary, who was a stenographer in the business office of my paper. We used to spend our evenings figuring out how much money we needed to get married on. It was a pleasant occupation. We had heard that old story about two being able to live cheaper than one, but we were not foolish enough to believe it. We knew that if Mary cut out work and the strain all fell on my salary, there would be precious little time for domestic happiness between doing problems in arithmetic and dodging the collectors. We wanted a flat, rugs and some

nice furniture. Also we had a hankering for one or two little luxuries such as a gramophone and a piano player and an occasional holiday together, which we knew were not possible on twentytwo per week. So we had set our hearts on twenty-five. We were still counting on the twenty-five and I was thinking up a speech to make to the boss when I should walk into his office to make the touch, when I got a letter from an uncle of mine in the town of Milham saying the town had decided to engage a publicity expert and that he — being a man of some influence — had recommended me for the position. (Pie had heard once that I almost had a job as press agent for a moving picture theatre on Yonge Street. That was where he had gone wrong.) He went on to say in his letter that the aldermen did not feel like engaging an expensive man such as they heard some towns had, but they wanted a bright young fellow who would take an interest in his work — and fifteen hundred a year ! That meant thirty dollars a week. Would I take it? I made an excuse to go into the business office and show the letter to Mary. Mary pretty nearly cried she was so pleased—she used to cry easily, anyhow—and we went out to lunch together after I had turned in my morning story. She loaned me money enough—it was three days from payday and I was nearly strapped — to go down to Milham and see my uncle and the aldermen. That afternoon I was on mv way to cinch that thirty-dollar-aweek job. I was talking to myself all the way there : would I take fifteen hundred a year and give the town of Milham the benefit of my expert services? Would I! The train could not travel fast enough for me.

Although the name is a false name you would guess the town if I described it too closely, so I will disguise it. Milham wouldn’t like it if I didn’t. It was located in an old settled farming district, and was served by the Grand Trunk and the C. P. R., at least, these roads had so-called stations marked Milham, which were some distance from the heart of the town, also, the railways only gave what service they chose to

the importers and exporters of the town, whi h was not much. A large river flowed down past one side of the town and had once been the means of operating several old-fashioned water-mills. But with the advent of steam-driven machinery the mills had either been closed, or moved to other centres, or equipped, as in a few cases, with reciprocating engines. There were probably twenty thousand people in the town. It had never been talked about in all its life, except to be made the subject of old jokes, such as the one about the man in the balloon who asked his friends (presumably by wireless telephony) to have ^ a freight car moved a few feet in order that he could get a better view of—Milham. And these

stories used to make the Milham people mad. But that was as far as they ever went. They lived and died and were talked about year in and year out without once getting into print. If Milham had a few industries left, a couple of woolen mills and a tooth-pick factory, it was b) good luck and the grace of Providence, not by good management. Its one newspaper was merely a chronicler of petty gossip and patent medicine advertisements. Up until three years ago the only amusement the women of the town had was afternoon socials, but since then they have taken to Bridge. The town was, in short, a wealthy, healthy, but dead-as-a-door-nail burg, filled up with retired farmers and their savings accounts. The liveliest place in the town was the business college, which exported all the brightest children of the town to become stenographers at five dollars a week in Toronto. It was to this town that I was summoned as publicity agent. One of the aldermen had read an advertisement for advertising and he had communicated the idea to the rest of the council, who had listened to the advice of my relative the grocer, and so had appointed me. I was delighted. So were they. At one fell swoop, by voting a salary of thirty dollars a week and hiring a young man from the reportorial staff of a Toronto paper they thought they had lifted the town out of obscurity and set it upon the road to becoming a great city. No

wonder they were pleased. It was not their money they were voting away anyhow.

At heart, Milham wasnt a had little town. It meant well. It was kind even though it was fond of gossip. It would turn out to a funeral as heartily as it would shower a bride with rice down at the C. P. R. station. It drank a little, but not much. When a Milham man had had a drink he always munched cloves afterward, not necessarily that it would disguise the smell of the liquor, and so deceive his wife, but because it was Milham-ish to do things that way. It was strong on preachers and pretended great discrimination in the matter of pulpit style. It was a humble-minded, modest little town, but at the same time it had an underlaying conceit that Avould have put New York to blush if New York had ever seen it. It felt, in a complacent sort of way, that if it had only tried it could long ago have been a greater town than Toronto, and a rival of New York. But it had told itself that life wasn’t worth the struggle to fulfil so great a destiny, and it had sat down to enjoy home comforts, far from the excitement of trolley cars and menu cards printed in French.

It took me just about a week to realize that I did not know anything about the job I had undertaken. I had an office and a stenographer and a desk that had once done service for the city clerk, but I had no idea what was exactly expected of me or how I was to work it out. After drawing my first week’s salary I began to feel like a thief, a grafter. I went back to the hotel wondering how I was ever going to justify my existence as a publicity agent.

I went down to my relative, the grocer, and I asked him about it.

“Publicity !” he says. “Publicity. Oh that means newspapers and things and getting the town talked about. That’s about it. Get people all over Ontario thinking about Milham and it’ll help the town. You’re a newspaperman; you ought to know how to do it.”

“I know,” I said, “but how?”

He gave me one look and then began opening a crate of oranges with the

air of one who dismisses the town dolt from his presence.

“Don’t be a fool,” he said. “If I knew I’d maybe have got the job for myself. I thought you understood your own business.”

So I left. But I had commenced to think.

That night I visited the telegraph offices and had a chat with the managers.

“Ever send much news out over these wires?” I asked.

“News? Oh, stories for the papers. No, not since the Harburton murder trial, that was twenty years ago. "We sent seven hundred words that night and they were printed in all the papers. That was a big night for us. Harlem, him that’s general manager of the company now, he was our operator sending the stuff and he says-”

“Yes, I know, but I want to know if there isnt some regular line of news sent out of town. Isn’t there anybody gets the daily news and sends it out to the big papers?”

“Nope,” was the answer.

So that night I wrote to the three leading papers in Toronto, and to two Montreal papers and one London paper and proposed to be their local correspondent in Milham. I said there was lots of news in Milham that was missed, that I was an old newspaperman and so on and I made my price what I thought would suit each of the papers.

The Montreal S-I asked a good big

rate from because I knew they’d respect me all the more for that and think I was a good man, whereas if I asked them a low rate they would have turned me down flat. Anyway I got a whole string of pretty important papers and started sending them news about Milham.

Next day there was a fire in a store and an old lady was nearly suffocated in her bed-room under the roof. Her old husband was the one who remembered where she was and he had climbed all the way up a ricketty ladder and risked his life to get into the room and fish out his wife, insensible from the smoke. That made a nice little story. I wrote it up briefly, but as well as I

could and filed it with the telegraph people while the local newspaper reporter was still busy getting tne list of names at the Mayor’s wife’s reception the night before. There was only the one local paper. It was slow as tar and never by any chance caught the point

of any good human interest story like this one. Anyway, the next day the big city papers came

in with the account of the fire and everybody in Milham was

tickled. I showed it to the first aiderman who came into what we called “the city hall” that morning and he was

pleased from the ground up. I told him that was just a sample of what could be done, but that I would be ready next council meeting, or whenever the council was ready, to lay before them my plans for a publicity campaign. That pleased him too, and two days after-

ward I went in to the council chamber —which was really an old orange lodge over a superannuated livery stable — and I gave them my plans.

I remember this first time I ever talked to a town council because it was the beginning of an epoch with me. I remember also another time I talked to

them, a time when I was beginning another and a better kind of an epoch. But even in this first speech I felt 1 had done myself proud, and the old fellows who sat around the over-grown dining room table which served for their papers and books during meetings, glowed quite sympathetically up at me. Nice innocent old fellows, they thought I had already done wonders for the town by getting it into the Toronto and Montreal papers. They were prepared to back me to the limit just then.

I was proud of my scheme. I said, first of all, that we wanted to get people thinking about our town. Our town, said I, should be almost as close to every good citizen's heart as his own business was. He should be willing to give it his time and his thought and do his utmost to promote its interests because the interests of the town were also his own interests. Of course this was a stale line of talk but it sounded quite fresh and original to me and the old fellows grinned and took it all in and waited for me to come down to brass tacks.

I wanted an appropriation for advertising. I wanted one thousand dollars, —and nearly gasped at my own courage in asking so much. They looked a little taken a-back but kept on smiling encouragingly, and told me to keep on talking. What did I propose to do if they coughed up the thousand?

I said I wanted all the letter heads of the municipal offices to carry advertisements for the city, facts about its population and growth and assessment figures, and all that sort of thing. Then I wanted signs painted and erected along the railroad track so that people looking out of the train window as the trains approached Milham would read about Milham. I wanted the signs to be twelve feet high and be done in yellow and black, which Mary had told me was a beautiful combination.

They agreed to this.

They asked for small circulars containing information about Milham, to be folded up and enclosed with every official letter sent out to Milham. This was to carry also a map of Canada showing Milham placed almost directly in the centre. This was easily accomplish-

ed by twisting the map a little bit, and making the circle which was to represent Milham, about a thousand times the actual diameter of the dot which should ordinarily have represented Milham on the map. Then too, I took the railway lines and bent them a little bit straighter and made them look as though they radiated straight out of Milham like spokes from a wheel. Then I wrote underneath that Milham was the hub of eastern Canada. I felt no twinges of conscience about this matter whatever. I only thought that it was a pretty clever scheme all around. Besides I began to feel interested in my job and began to feel myself that Milham was in the centre of eastern Canada.

That map was a wonder to the aidermen when I presented it to them at a later committee meeting. One of them got up and pounded’the table and said he had never thought how good a town Milham was, until I had studied it up. He thought I deserved great credit for being such a shrewd observer of the points about the town. He said he had had several lots on hand which he was trying to get rid of but he had come to the conclusion that he wouldn't sell them now. Milham was bound to grow, according to my map. And he intended holding those lots.

Of course I was delighted and was in raptures when I got home to my wife. I went out into the kitchen where she was helping the red-headed maid get the dinner ready and I started to tell her all about it in front of the maid, just as though I were a school-boy instead of a man with a big and important position to live up to. Mary frowned at me and led me out of the kitchen so that I wouldn't make an exhibition of myself before the maid — who was a sister of the maid next door and therefore likely to tell all our family affairs all over the neighborhood — and I told her the rest of it, sitting straddle of a dining-room chair with my chin over the back, and Mary standing up stroking my hair.

“But is it such a good town?” she asked. “How is it that other people haven't seen it before this?” *

“Of course it is,” I answered, a little

bit nettled by her doubts. “You women must take the word of the men for that sort of thing. ^ But doesn’t the scheme for booming it sound alright, little woman?”

And being compelled she nodded brightly and said “Yes.” "Women, im-

mured between the four walls of their kitchens have a fashion of seeing through things that men take years to find out.

Now Alderman Parson’s lots did not rise in value. Parsons was the man who had decided to hold his real estate after hearing my glowing reports of the future of the town. We sent out our cir-

culars, printed our fancy letter-heads, erected our board signs along the railway approaches to the city, and got ourselves into print just as often as possible. But Parson’s lots remained a tangle of weeds and resting place for all the tin cans of the back street. He did

not even have offers to purchase. Our population stood still except for the natural increase, which kept just about one lap ahead of the undertaker. Milham went dreaming along, and so did I.

I had not been exactly idle, though. I had heard of a large American firm that contemplated establishing a plant in Canada. The plant was to employ

many hundreds of hands and would he of great importance to whatever community it joined. I drew some expense money from the cashier in the city hall, had Mary press my newest suit of clothes and pack it carefully while I set out for Buffalo, the head-quarters of the American firm. As a newspaperman I was accustomed to meeting men and to talking to men whose positions were a great deal higher than my own station in life, hut it seemed to be a different proposition to tackle a big manufacturer with a view to having him locate his firm in my town. I knew that as representative of the town I was a person of some dignity and entitled to respect and consideration from the big man, but I thought also that one was supposed — according to all the traditions I had heard — to buy the big man an extravagant dinner and expensive cigars and if possible get him drunk. You see I had mixed him up in my mind with the ordinary little purchasing agent, and a purchasing agent may— but not as you might think, mind you — be wheeled into placing orders with firms who send representatives to load him up with gifts and whiskey or wine, but the head of a big concern does not do that sort of thing. The moment I saw the fumed oak panel on the other side -of which was his sanctum, I knew better. The minute I got a glimpse of his face I got a tip whpre I was right and where I was wrong. Mostly, I was wrong.

He told me, with a kindly motion of his hand, to sit down while he finished some dictation, and that gave me still a further opportunity to get the false ideas out of my head. The very tone of the letters he was dictating, perfunctory sort of notes they were most of them, told me that nothing would go down with a man like that but straight business. I mentally consigned the expensive cigars in my pocket to the waste paper basket. I wished instead, that I had brought more figures and facts about our town.

“Good morning, Mr. Jones,” he said, glancing down at the card which lay before him on his wide-top desk. “You have something to say about Milham, I believe.”

He was a young man, not by any means of the type I had presupposed; large, fat and pompous. Instead of being like the cartoons of corporation ogres, he was pleasant to look upon, though underneath his clear skin and agreeable externals, was a certain lean, hardiness; nose that bespoke initiative and enterprise, controlled and directed by intelligent, far-seeing eyes; and a jaw that backed both of them with determination. Before this man all my pretences dropped. I was no longer a publicity agent armed with a cut and dried argument like a book agent. I was plain Jones, come to plead the case of a plain town — a darned plain town —before a great man. Somehow, as I walked up to ithe desk and looked my man in the face before taking the chair which he motioned me to, near his desk, I felt as though that one man were the greatest judge in all the world, and I the one man with the one case in the world.

I thought pretty quickly and I thought of two things. One was — let me confess — what did I care whether he took up Milham or not? It wasn’t likely he would, now that I saw just how great a firm he represented. And why should I worry about urging our forlorn hope upon him and being rejected. I would state my cut and dried case and get out. That was all there was to it. Milham couldn’t expect to get an industry like this one. But on the other hand I felt a sudden surge of loyalty to Milham and my job. I determined to make a fight for it anyway — and in this resolute frame of mind I stood firm. This man had to be made to see the importance of Milham with relation to his business.

“Mr. Mackenzie,” I said, “I represent the town of Milham, Ontario. We have information that your company proposes erecting a plant in Canada, probably in Ontario. My town is in the running to become a successful industrial town. It thinks it has a proposition to offer you or any manufacturer which cannot be bettered anywhere in Ontario, or for that matter, in Canada. If you have the time now I’d like to lay our proposition before you.”

“What do you mean by a proposition?”

“I mean I want to show you the advantages of Milham as a possible, in fact as the best possible point in Canada for the location of your plant.”

“You think you are that sort of a town ?”

“We do.”

“Well don’t you know that every town in Canada thinks the same and would like the chance to prove it to us. Tell me why we ought to go to your town, and if you have the town you say you have and you state its case without doing it any injustice, I’ll guarantee to erect our plant there. Frankly though, I think you’ll find your case isn’t as

good as you thought it was. We have already been studying the map of Canada. We noticed Milham.”

“Isn't it alright?”

“That's for you to prove now. I say we noticed it. We even got some of your advertising literature, I think, but unless you can do the convincing here and now we’ll have to pass it up. For

example, how does the town stand with the railways? What sort of a freight service can you get? What about using that river for transportation? What other industries are in the town? What class of labor is available? How near are you to Buffalo and what price must we pay on coke f. o. b. Milham?”

“But I-”

“Pardon me, Mr. Jones—but you thought what I would be interested in was assessment, tax-rates, bonus, perhaps free factory site and all that sort of thing. That is what a great many other publicity men have thought and what town councillors are in the habit of thinking. You are the ninth publicity man who has wanted to see me about locating a plant in Canada, You are the first I have seen because as a matter of fact my wife came from Milham and I have a sort of personal interest in the town for various reasons. I wanted to see how well you could put up your case. You were going to give me the same line of talk all the other men were going to give me. You thought this company was vaguely interested in tax-rates and assessment first and foremost. It isn’t. You must show me in arithmetic a concrete argument for your town.

I gasped.

“I will tell you something more,” he continued. “Our own agents have picked out a town that suits us. We shall spend two million dollars there next year. Year after next we expect to em

a young man. Milham is a good little town. It has possibilities.”

I left without having fired a single shot. I felt like a cream puff that has been run over by a motor lorry. I took a drink to get myself sufficiently pulled together again to face the hotel clerk and ask for my bill. I felt every atom of self-confidence and self-respect gone out of me. I was unpopular with myself, which is about the meanest feeling, a man can have. I felt that I was no good, and Milham was no good. I had a grouch seven feet deep, and there was no one to blame it on.

Parsons, with his lots still unsold, glared at me pretty savagely when we met in the street two days afterward. The entire aldermanic body was out of sorts. The local paper started to print letters from citizens who had complaints to make about a publicity agent and industrial commissioner that did not get results. Three months later I was fired, with a month’s pay in advance. I sent the wife home to her mother and made up my mind to go back to Toronto and the newspaper grind, even at twenty-two per. But the