I’ve told this story many times in the past couple of weeks, though I still can’t quite believe it happened. But every word is true.
It started with a fairly normal day at work. Now, my employer features prominently in this story, but what happened that night happened as much to them as it did to me. So they’re not the bad guy. Honestly, they’ve been fairly decent to me and my family over the years. So even though working there sometimes feels like Game of Thrones Season 21 — where plotlines aren’t even trying to make sense anymore and all of my favorite characters have long since been killed off — I can’t really complain.
Anyhow. A normal day at work. The office is up in San Francisco, and there was a technology conference happening somewhere in the city. So like technology companies do, mine booked an event with the NASDAQ conference center, somewhere around 2nd and Howard. The idea is: since there’s a conference in town anyhow, invite conference goers and tech journalists to your cocktail and snack reception, listen to the corporate marketing pitch, chit-chat with some C-level execs, everyone goes home happy.
My role is a technical one at the company, so I don’t usually attend these grip & grin events. But corp marketing either didn’t get the invites out soon enough, or wasn’t getting the response rate they were hoping for, so they reached out to the engineers in the SF office and invited us to attend. Really, it was just to get some bodies into the room.
So I’m there in the NASDAQ event space, and it’s terrifically ordinary. There’s a couple of wine bars thrown together in the corners of the room, and a small stage area positioned in front of a floor-to-ceiling array of widescreen monitors, featuring our corporate logo blazoned across it. The cocktails and wine are fine, some servers working for the caterer are scurrying around with trays making sure we’ve all had some stuffed mushrooms, and I can see my CTO working out his interview speaking points with the marketing folk. So far, so good.
And then the show starts. For hosts, it seems NASDAQ hired a couple of MCs to lead the performance. There’s two of them, a man and a woman, both perfect caricatures of technology corporate marketing. That is, they’re middle-aged, wearing dark, inexpensive but unobjectionable business suits; they’re speaking with excessive perk, and are fluent in all tech-lingo and catch-phrases; and they have that universal look of good actors in a bad play, highlighted by a clear exhaustion in their eyes. The two of them take turns with each sentence, explaining that there will be three portions to the event: the introduction (“We’re doing that now, right Jim?” “You know it, girl!”), the interview, and then the raffle. I think the raffle was for an Oculus Quest VR headset; NASDAQ marketing events may be soulless and cloying, but they know what their audience will hang around for.
Everything goes fine through both the intro and then the interview. Our CTO did a good job responding to the journalist who recited his pre-agreed-to questions with the usual overly-serious false-sincerity of his profession. Most of my co-workers and execs, though, who’ve heard all of these talking points hundreds of times, drifted onto their phones and stopped watching. It went on for about fifteen minutes, and I got several pages into my Twitter feed. It’s important for me to communicate the general boredom pervading the room at this point, because none of us were ready for what happened next.
When the third and final portion of the night started, only MC Jim came back on stage, and he had taken off his suit jacket. He started then with the most dreaded words an MC can ever say: “For this next part,” he said, “I’ll need a volunteer from the audience! You there: come up here. What’s your name?”
My friend Joel was now up on stage. “Okay!” said the MC, “Now you work in the security division don’t you Joel? That sounds hard. That sounds complicated! Can you tell me, what do your customers think? Do they think security is easy? (Joel shakes his head.) Do they think it’s difficult? (Joel is nodding now.) Well it is! I’m sure it is, what do I know, but I think so! If I was one of your customers, I would think that working with security is difficult. I would think it’s confining. Do you think your customers think your products are confining?”
I think I looked up from my phone at this point to see Joel shrug in half-agreement. Something about the way he emphasized that word twice…
“But is it as confining as … a STRAIGHT JACKET?!?” said the MC, holding out hand towards the side of the stage, where the woman MC appeared carrying with her — I swear I am not making this up — an actual straight jacket. You know, the prop used in the movies, when the institutionalized get all wrapped up in straps before the detective’s interview.
Anyhow, Joel is now helping the guy into the jacket. “Be sure to make it tight! You might need help; lets get a friend up here. (Joel waves Mark up onto the stage.) Okay, now the two of you! Don’t forget that strap that goes between my legs. Yep, down the front, right through there, then up to the back, latch it up. Eeek, ouch! Not too tight!”
So here we are: MC on stage, bound up in a straight jacket, with my two friends chuckling along with him. “Okay! So now I feel like your customers might feel! But, security is important, and sometimes discomfort is necessary. (Joel and Mark shrug.) But what’s also necessary is balance, wouldn’t you agree? (They nod.) Because your customer has to balance their product concerns with their security concerns. So balance is important! (Still nodding.) But not easy. Let me show you!”
He looks to the side of the stage, where the woman MC emerges again, this time wheeling a SIX-FOOT UNICYCLE. The four of them quickly recruit some other audience volunteers, and they hoist the strait-jacketed MC up onto the unicycle.
If I were you, I would be demanding photographic proof at this point. I hereby oblige:
Several thoughts are now running through my head at the same time:
Am I high?
Did I have a stroke??
What was in those mushrooms???
Somehow, in the span of two minutes, the entire night transitioned from the inane to the surreal, without ever passing through interesting.
I look around the room, and almost everyone appears to be processing the same thoughts I am. I turn to my immediate left, where our director of corporate marketing is trying so hard to not laugh as hard as she wants to, that she’s struggling to breathe and is beginning to turn various shades of purple. To my immediate right is our Chief Marketing Officer, who’s staring — mouth agape — in horror, like he’s watching a slow-moving head-on car crash between two expensive, vintage cars, both decorated with our corporate logo, the one he lovingly designed.
“Well,” I ask him, “what do you think?”
“This …” He struggles for words. “This is not our brand.”
I turn back to the stage, where the MC is now pivoting, herky-jerk, back and forth on a six-foot unicycle, drooping one shoulder and then unslinging one of the straps, doing an entire escape routine, the whole time while bantering on about our products, our customers, the need for balance, some content he memorized from our website, and how working with our products is freeing our customers from the confines they usually experience with … you get the idea.
“This is not our brand.” I’m running that phrase through my head as I turn my attention back to the ridiculous, overwrought performance. This is not our brand.
Isn’t it, though?
POSTSCRIPT: Thanks for reading this far. If you made it to this point, please feel free to click the little clappy hand thing. That just feels good when I see it.
Also, since the event happened, I’ve gifted some items to help decorate the corporate marketing area in corp HQ. I wouldn’t want them to forget, after all…
POST-POSTSCRIPT: The same day I posted this story, a friend of mine read it while at the Santa Clara County Fair. And the MC-Jim-escape-artist was there performing. Of course, his name isn’t Jim, it’s Scott. Apparently he both juggles and bowls as well.