Working in advertising was supposed to be my escape from the fast food industry. As a teenager in Silver Lake, I’d taken orders through a headset and dunked frozen potatoes in a fryer, the grease baking into the webbing of my hairnet. Surrounded by movie studios and wannabe actors—well, mostly comedians who ordered double patties at four in the morning—I felt humiliated. I was an invisible, penniless, Cal State Northridge student, living at home with my mom. Life after I completed a bachelor’s degree in political science didn’t seem so incredible. My salary would be the same as I made at the Drive-Thru, if I could find a paying position at all. I remember burying my chin in the collar of my acrylic uniform, barely glancing at the passing BMWs. My sister, Rocío, had told me that the ad execs she worked with made six figures, sometimes seven. I made eight fifty an hour.
So the first week of my sophomore year, I took an extended break behind a dumpster to call Rocío in New York City. I told her, “I’m following in your footsteps!”
“Wha-? Chica, it’s after midnight here…”
I was so excited, I’d forgotten about the time difference. “Rocío, I’m switching my major from political science to communications!” I expected her to be thrilled, proud, flattered at least.
Instead, she said, “Carla, what about your passion?”
I sucked in my breath. We both grew up hearing stories about César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and Fred Ross, but while Rocío had rolled her eyes and fixed her lip gloss, I’d taken mental notes. I’d been the president of my high school’s debate team. My freshman year of college, I’d organized protests in front of the Federal Building. My main concern had been drones: drones decimating civilian populations overseas. But if I did what I loved, I might never move out of my childhood bedroom. I feared that those long hours at a nonprofit wouldn’t make the slightest impact.
“But if I make millions of dollars, then I could donate to any of the nonprofits I want,” I told Rocío. For once, I felt optimistic. I’d pay off my student loans and find an apartment. One day, I’d buy my mom a house in Santa Monica. Instead of being surrounded by negativity, I’d make humorous, beautiful, emotionally compelling ads. It would be fun. I imagined working with designers and producers to create legendary campaigns, hobnobbing with musicians and actors in commercials, increasing client sales, winning awards for Super Bowl spots. I loved the idea of being a high-powered female executive in a collaborative, creative industry. This dream involved a navy pants suit and shoulder pads. I’d be confident and respected.
My sister tried to warn me. “There’s no such thing as a perfect job. Las apariencias engañan.”
But I didn’t listen. In 2011, with a fresh communications degree in hand, I left my mom’s house and flew to New York City, where I slept on Rocío’s couch. As a recruiter for a large network of ad agencies, she was able to get me an “exploratory” phone interview at Hammerhead, LLC, a one thousand-employee-strong digital marketing and advertising agency. The head of Human Resources told me they had an open, temporary position for an Executive Assistant. “Carla, this is an opportunity to learn more about the industry while assisting senior executives at our company. We would expect you to schedule and attend meetings…interact with clients…draft announcements, presentations and other materials.”
Being an “E.A.” had to be a step up from deep fat fryer duty. I asked to be considered for the short term role.
Ad agencies in Manhattan have a type of glamor that’s difficult to explain, a mixture of Mad Men drinking and dotcom youth in casual dress. At Hammerhead, LLC, flat screen televisions were bolted into each wall. They owned the top five floors of a skyscraper on Madison Avenue, with panoramic views of Manhattan. The entirety of the forty-second floor was taken up by two major conference rooms. The first was a newly-renovated room for hosting prospective clients, ten times larger than my sister’s apartment. It was surrounded by fish tanks on all sides, including one with a live hammerhead shark. The second conference room was slightly smaller with a stained carpet and a battered conference table. The latter, I would learn too late, was for internal meetings only.
After a tour of the office, H.R. brought me to a beige cubical on the fortieth floor, surrounded by five other young women, none of them white, all wearing headsets and assisting older white men. Reading the disapproval on my face, H.R. left a welcome packet on my desk with a Scientific American article about how women in their twenties were better at multitasking than any other demographic. And I quickly learned that multitasking was the most important element of my job.
My first assignment was to play Tetris with the executives’ work calendars. Meetings would drop down or disappear and I would move and rearrange other meetings. Every meeting had to fit in perfectly, there could be no overlap. I did this for forty hours a week. And I was bored.
After a few weeks, I was trusted to attend meetings and take notes. This was where my education began. I learned about “Digital Disruption,” “Big Data,” B.2.B., B.2.C., C.R.M., C.P.C., C.A.C., C.M.O., C.F.O., C.O.O., C.E.O., S.E.O., S.E.M., and more. After my first meeting, I returned to my cubical and my fellow E.A.s huddled around my computer. We scrolled through dozens of pages of industry buzzwords and acronyms. “You can look up the definitions later,” an E.A. said.
“Ah, you see that?” One of the girls pointed to my screen and I stopped scrolling.
Another girl leaned in. “You have to remove anything that sounds negative.”
“Negative?” I asked.
“Negativity only holds back Hammerhead executives from reaching their full potential,” she said.
“Like, did Hammerhead have a bad first quarter?” Another E.A. bent over my computer and highlighted a specific line in the notes. “Were they unable to reach their targets? No problem, targets can be changed.” She deleted the line. It was gone, erased from the digital annals. She typed in new text.
So after each meeting, I removed negativity from the notes before emailing them to the executives.
Walking from one meeting to the next, all I heard were young people talking about young people. “Millennial” was on the tip of everyone’s tongue:
“What are Millennials thinking?”
“What are they buying?”
“Who can best decipher the needs of this demographic?”
Millennials sounded like a strange, alien breed. As a twenty-something, I initially thought my opinions would be valued, and that I’d rise quickly. I was wrong.
My managers, a series of ever-changing Vice Presidents, did not speak to me; they sent emails. When I was in the room with them, they did not look me in the eye. I remained invisible. If I dared to speak up, I was interrupted and ignored.
My work as an E.A. also involved a series of odd-jobs, completely different from the job description on the H.R. website. I thought I’d be putting my education to good use by preparing company-wide presentations, learning digital strategy, and communicating with clients. Instead, I bought lunches, ironed shirts, took suits to a dry cleaner, and figured out how to create new email addresses for the people who prepared presentations and communicated with clients. Upon closer inspection, most employees looked twenty but were actually forty. The office was filled with creative types desperate to pay the bills, wearing skinny jeans, neon socks, and mustaches.
If that wasn’t enough, I ran around the city finding luxury apartments, “corporate housing,” for the visiting V.P.s. I was expected to pay the first month’s rent and security deposit, five times what was in my bank account, on my personal credit card. I then expensed the cost to the company and got reimbursed thirty days later. Around this time, my sister asked if I could find a place on my own. Rocío had already done so much for me that I decided not to tell her: I’d started facing late fees on my credit card and my credit score dropped. As I made more friends in the city, I’d couch-surf for two weeks at a time.
My job was to make the senior management team happy. That involved buying different brands of tissues to see which they preferred the most. When cold and flu season approached, Arnold, the V.P. of Business Development, sent me an email marked “URGENT,” with the words, “come see me immediately.”
I rushed into his office. Arnold wore the typical V.P. uniform: a checkered oxford shirt, jeans, and brightly colored socks. Sometimes the colors changed, but otherwise this outfit remained the same. A month prior, when I’d tried to wear a similar outfit on a Friday, I was asked to return home to change and come back. I had an hour-long commute. There were “different wardrobe expectations” for an E.A., H.R. told me, and I would have to live up to them. Nobody complained when I wore a short skirt.
Arnold stood at his desk looking at two boxes of tissues. He pulled out one tissue from the first box. He rubbed the tissue between his fingertips. “Feel this.” He handed me another tissue from the same box. “Do you feel that?”
I looked at the box. “This tissue has built-in moisturizer.”
“Lotion? I don’t want lotion. Too soft. Too smooth.” He crumbled up the tissue and threw it at me. “Toss it. I don’t want this.” Then he pulled out a tissue from the second box, an expensive brand. “What is this?!” He examined the tissue closely and then handed it to me. “What are those blue dots?”
I looked at the second box. “I believe those are supposed to kill germs.”
“What tissues do you use?” He marched out of his office and walked toward my desk. He spotted the box from Costco, which I’d bought for myself. He grabbed one of the tissues and felt it with his fingers. “This is what I’m talking about. It has some grip.” He took my box and walked back into his office. I received his fancy tissues in exchange.
After half a year at the agency, I’d served every function: dog walker, cat herder, gift wrapper, messenger, H.R. coordinator, real estate agent, doctor, therapist, and mother. You name it, I did it. And for six months, I completed these tasks without complaint, without a hint of sarcasm or disdain. I was hired full time with benefits.
After I became a full time employee, I noticed that I took on a new role: scapegoat. If the client’s coffee didn’t come out of the machine warm enough, it was my fault. If the revenue for the year was down, it was because I hadn’t filled out an expense report correctly. Arnold asked me to schedule an hour-long meeting with the creative director in his office, but the day of the meeting, he sent me an email saying, “This meeting is too long.”
I asked if he wanted me to change the meeting time.
“No,” he responded. “You need to come in halfway through and make up an excuse for why I have to leave early.”
So halfway through the meeting, I barged into Arnold’s office. “Excuse me.” My cheeks felt so warm, I couldn’t stop blushing. “There is, um, an important call for you.”
“I’m in a meeting. Can it wait?” Arnold frowned.
“No, uh, you will have to end your meeting right now.”
After the creative director left, Arnold said, “You’re a bad liar. If you want to make it in this business, you have to improve. Come up with a better excuse next time.”
When Lester, the V.P. of Media, asked that I set up a meeting with his client in the fanciest shark-filled conference room, rather than his office, I did so. The morning of the meeting, I spent twenty minutes on my hair and wore my nicest black Old Navy dress. By my sixth month in the office, I discovered that if I wore anything other than black, Melinda, the sixty-year-old office manager, would call me a “farmer.”
The client came into the office wearing a Dolce and Gabbana dress and Vera Wang stiletto boots. “It’s so cute that you don’t have to dress up for work,” she reassured me as I took her Michael Kors coat. “You must be so comfortable.”
When I walked her toward the conference room, she looked pale and put her hand to her stomach. She gasped. “Aren’t we just going to meet in Lester’s office?”
“No, I’ve booked this conference room for you.” I left her in the room and walked over to Lester’s office. Although Lester wore the same plaid shirts and neon socks as the other VPs, he looked like a model. He was six feet tall, muscular, and tan. He spent every lunch break at the gym. He had a full head of hair and hazel eyes. I often wondered if his appearance let him get away with more than others.
After I brought Lester to the conference room, he kissed the client’s cheek. I was surprised. From the tidbits of conversation, I discovered that they were old friends. As I spent more time in the office, I realized that all of Hammerhead’s clients and senior employees were friends. They hung out on the weekends, visited each other in Nantucket during the summer, and sent their children to the same private schools. They liked hiring their friends, working with their friends. Perhaps that was why they looked so cookie-cutter.
The only issue with the aquarium conference room was that it wasn’t soundproof. Just as I was leaving, I heard the client complaining about Lester’s “idiot assistant.” Apparently, it was my fault that the client wasn’t meeting in Lester’s office, my fault for not remembering how chummy the client was with him.
While I was within earshot, Lester replied, “Yeah, she’s an airhead.” The worst part was not hearing Lester defend me in the least, although it was his request to meet with the client in that room.
But I was still loyal to the company. I had no intention of leaving. I even chaired the social committee, which involved more odd jobs like decorating the office with papier-mâché turkeys and snowflakes during the fourth quarter. Why did I do this? Because I was making more money than all of my friends, especially the ones who had majored in political science. My friends envied me. I had healthcare. I was paying off my student loans. Rocío and my mom were proud of me. Besides, I’d been working at the company for less than a year. Who wanted to see a position held for less than a year on a resume? I had my reputation to think about, and I’d only retain the company’s contribution to my 401k after two years.
Around this time, the requests from the management team became a bit more challenging. Arnold announced that a confidential, prospective client would be visiting the office in two weeks for a “pitch.” Hammerhead wanted to woo this client like the anglerfish in the aquarium lured shrimp: by creating a shiny presentation and keeping everything else in the dark. Everyone on the fortieth floor had to sign non-disclosure agreements, which I distributed. The client’s name was never to be mentioned, only their code name: Big Tuna, because they would be bringing in millions of dollars of revenue. As I was handing out the contracts, I noticed the name of the client, and I googled it on my company-owned phone. Big Tuna was a military supplier of drones, and they needed some positive PR.
Let me pause here and explain what “selling out” really meant. It meant leaving my morals at the door. It meant recognizing my culpability. My company would provide the fancy wrapping paper for the machines that killed people. I’d help them make death look sexy. If I didn’t feel torn about working for Hammerhead before, by this point, I knew I’d sold out.
That afternoon, Lester approached me, followed by two E.A.s in matching black cocktail dresses. I took out my company-issued smart phone to snap their picture for the monthly social committee newsletter. It always featured a fashion section.
The E.A.s smiled and posed with their arms around each other. The newsletter had to be “on brand,” capturing the company’s non-stop competitive spirit, so the title of the fashion section was: “Who wore it best?”
Lester slapped down the phone. “Carrie –”
“Carla,” I corrected him.
“Yeah, that’s what I said, whatever.” Lester looked at his phone. “We want to host an event in the office with Aloha.”
Aloha was famous, though I’d never heard of them. I only knew the Hawaiian greeting they were named after. The company was based in Seattle, the rainy opposite of any tropical islands. They started in the early nineties as one of the first email providers, but by 2012, few people still had email addresses ending in @aloha.com. Aloha was a digital platform, a network of websites publishing Hammerhead’s advertisements for cheap.
Aloha was coming to Hammerhead’s office to present some of their new online shows. They wanted to be known as a channel, not just an email provider. Wouldn’t Hammerhead’s clients want their advertising to be saddled against online reality shows like “Best County Fair Food” and “Why I’m Dating Your Mom”? I politely asked him for more information.
“There.” Lester clicked his phone and walked away. The E.A.s silently trailed behind him.
My company phone lit up: one new message. Lester had emailed me the contact information for Barbara, a senior events manager at Aloha, who would be “facilitating the event.” He added at the bottom of his email, “I don’t have time to explain to you how to do your job. My business trip takes priority.” Oh yes, how could I forget Lester’s upcoming “business trip”? He and his family were escaping the snow and packing for a month-long relocation to the company’s nonexistent Saint-Tropez Office, paid for on the company’s dime.
While I pretended not to know the meaning of the word “embezzlement,” I got Barbara in touch with Melinda. This involved a series of games reminiscent of Telephone. After I connected them, I thought my job would be done. Little did I know that Melinda, Barbara, and Lester expected me to run the show.
Here was the goal: Aloha would introduce the hosts of their most popular online shows. Each host would give a presentation about their content and target audiences. This would fill up the entire day. Surely, Hammerhead’s media team would love the presentations so much that they would want to encourage clients to spend millions of dollars to advertise on this online platform.
Several problems arose. First, Aloha wanted to build a set in one of the conference rooms on the forty-second floor. By set, I mean a week before the event, they wanted to bring in a series of two-dimensional cardboard cutouts of buildings and nail them into the floors, creating the atmosphere of New York City, inside a New York City office building.
Second, any caterers or deliverymen had to have outside insurance. This way, the building would not have to pay if they tripped and broke a hip. This involved hours of email exchanges, signed contracts, and arguments over the phone.
Third, Aloha had difficulty responding to emails quickly with relevant information. I would email Barbara to ask, “What materials and equipment do you need?” only to receive an email five days later stating, “Reserve 50-ft. area 4 crew.”
What materials were going in that fifty-foot area? How many people were in their crew? I needed their names for security, but I never got them. It appeared that there was only one conference room big enough for this: the conference room with the aquariums.
The night before the event, I packed up my purse and prepared to leave the office. Just as I entered the elevator, Melinda called out, “Hey Carla, you know Arnold’s pitch is tomorrow, right?” The doors closed before I could leap out.
Remember that confidential meeting with Big Tuna? It just so happened to be scheduled for the same day as the Aloha event. And no one thought to tell me in advance. Aloha had already nailed their New York skyline into the nice, larger conference room’s floors. Big Tuna would have to occupy the smaller, less-attractive conference room, which lacked the quintessential hammerhead shark. The rooms were right next to each other with no soundproofing in between. Aloha would have to be silent, while playing videos of their online shows.
Day of, I had to bribe another E.A. to help me, by agreeing to a) do her manager’s expense reports for a month and b) make sure that she always wore it best in the newsletter. I heard her heels click-clack down the hall as she took the elevator to the lobby. She would open the floodgates. More than twenty Aloha employees entered the building, all wearing matching Hawaiian shirts.
The cast and crew of “Why I’m Dating Your Mom” and “Best County Food Fair,” walked onto the forty-second floor. They were covered in makeup as though walking onto a Hollywood movie set. No one was filming this event. No one was even taking pictures. It was a private event for Hammerhead’s media team. The crew reminded me of people from home, and by that I mean superficial.
My job was to make sure that people were going to the right places. Hammerhead media planners, Lester, and Aloha employees were sent to the large conference room with the aquariums. Big Tuna clients, Arnold, and other senior executives were ushered to the small conference room. I kept walking back and forth between the two rooms. Within half an hour, the small conference was stuffed; some executives stood, leaning on the walls. The large conference room was half-full, mainly with people in Hawaiian shirts.
At the front of the large conference room stood the host of “Best County Food Fair.” She was a “celebrity chef,” but no one in the room had ever heard of her. Cordless mic in hand, she explained the show’s premise to a small group of media planners. “You probably recognize me from my many on-camera appearances. But don’t be shy, come say hello! I’m just a down-to-earth gal’ who loves country music and fried food. I travel from county fair to county fair, selecting the ‘best’ food in this great nation.”
I put “best” in quotation marks because I would never qualify fried pickles, cookies, and pork rinds using that term.
She continued, “Today, you lucky ducks get to sample some of this food!”
I could feel the blood draining from my cheeks; I began to sway. As an E.A., I had learned that if an outside company brought food to a meeting, twice as many people would show up. But Aloha had never told me that they were bringing in food. I had no idea how the food would be set up.
During a quick break, I asked this chef, “Where will the food crew be setting up? Do you know what materials they will bring into our office?” I asked these questions because before the event, Barbara from Aloha hadn’t responded to most of my emails. Silly me, I thought the chef would actually be involved with the cooking.
The “celebrity chef,” who had been smiling maniacally beforehand, suddenly frowned. She seemed upset that she had to look in my direction, instead of Lester’s. She responded, “Oh, I have nothing to do with the food.” She was just a pretty face. In fact, she had zero desire to talk to me, the lowly, non-celebrity who was supposed to be coordinating the entire event. Without another word, she walked back over to the diminishing crowd of media planners. They were running back to their desks to tell their coworkers about the free food. She turned on clips of her show: shots of her smiling while eating pulled pork and chugging a pickleback. Then she announced the menu we would be sampling from her show, a special from her trip to a county fair on the Big Island itself: “Spam donuts!”
The “food crew,” an army of assistants (not registered with the building’s security system) wore white chef hats. They spilled in and out of the conference room. They carried heavy metal equipment that I was never told they would be bringing. Suddenly, I saw an item that I was all too familiar with: a miniature deep fat fryer.
Before I could act, the caterer plugged the deep fat fryer into the wall and blew a fuse, frying every computer, speaker, and TV plugged into a wall. All of the lights on the floor, and possibly other floors, went off. This ended the video portion of Aloha’s event, as well as something else. Did I mention that we had a major pitch with Big Tuna in the conference room next door?
Honestly, I was relieved when the pitch was interrupted. I was gleeful. For once, I wasn’t a cog in the machine. I had disrupted it. And if Hammerhead had taught me anything, it was that disruption was all the rage.
By this point, Barbara had gone missing. Melinda was nowhere to be found. Lester and Arnold had walked into the hallway just outside the conference rooms. They silently typed expletives into their smartphones, and my cell buzzed with each incoming message. The building manager was running from conference room to conference room tallying up the electrical fees Hammerhead would have to pay. I stood in the large conference room, surrounded by an entourage of actors, media planners, building security, and E.A.s. All eyes looked at me to take action.
Although sockets had exploded in both conference rooms, Aloha’s caterers continued frying small spam donuts, blissfully oblivious of the damage.
It was then that I said something I never thought I’d have to say in an office: “UNPLUG THE DEEP FAT FRYER!”
The caterers turned off the fryer. They gathered the uncooked spam donuts and started to microwave them in the breakroom’s low-watt machines (circa the company’s creation in 1999). The smell of slowly cooking canned meat filled several floors.
Needless to say, barely anyone attended Aloha’s event except for the free food portion, so the whole office could witness the calamity. No one at the event ate the one hundred spam-injected donuts.
A few days after the event, I received a Hawaiian t-shirt two sizes too big in the mail and a half-hearted apology from Barbara at Aloha. The note started with, “I know that I put your job in jeopardy…” and didn’t get better from there.
But Hammerhead didn’t fire me. They barely ever mentioned the event. Perhaps they saw me as the hero in all of this, stepping in to save the day. More likely, Hammerhead feared that I might share this story with my next employer or the world. Negativity had to be erased after all or at least contained. I kept working at Hammerhead for a couple weeks, until they announced that despite the pitch fiasco, Big Tuna had given Hammerhead a large sum of money to complete a digital ad campaign. That’s when I quit. Later that night, I told Rocío everything. I couldn’t see myself serving coffee to those clients, smiling and pretending that I didn’t understand their brand. I was a bad liar after all.