Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, finds himself living each day twice. His Day As are spent travelling, his Day Bs on his career – and never has his power been more important than for his meeting at BNP’s headquarters in Paris. Will he be able to nail it?
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Chapter 12: When Pigs Learn to Fly
As soon as the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign turned off, I pulled out my laptop and got back to work on the presentation. Thierry looked over from the seat beside me.
“Making final changes?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, “I just have a feeling we need to hit a bit harder at the start.”
“Is this another ‘baby dolphin’ moment?” he laughed.
If only he knew. I had already been through the meeting with BNP’s Marketing team in their Paris headquarters yesterday, in Day A. It had not gone well. Just as I had with Alicante, I needed to fix this.
We had arrived at 11:00 a.m. sharp at BNP’s Marketing HQ located in the very center of Paris, number 3, Rue d’Antin. It was in a hidden street five minutes away by foot from the Louvre. The five-story stone building had an austere facade, made of uniform blocks of stone and the typical long and narrow Parisian windows. The entrance itself was imposing in its minimalism: a heavy iron door framed by stone carvings of cherubs. On either side, encrusted in the walls, were copper plates turned black with age with the inscription: ‘Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas’, Bank of Paris and the Netherlands.
This was the old name of Paribas, the bank BNP had bought out in 2000 after a prolonged financial battle with Société Générale, another giant French bank. BNP had kept the Paribas HQ, and moved its non-core activities there. Marketing was one of those.
We had entered and gone through the metal detector. Both Thierry and I had set it off, and had to be patted down by one of the two security guards in attendance.
“We have a meeting with Mr. Pabereau at 12:15,” Thierry had said to the stone-faced receptionist sitting behind a Louis XIV mahogany desk. I had looked around the lobby. There was no better adjective to describe it than royal. The floor was a cream-colored carpet and deep blue tapestries adorned the walls. Under century-old paintings lay art nouveau tables decorated with busts of historic French figures. Here Colbert, there Marianne.
I had approached one with a framed document and stood silently in shock until Thierry walked up beside me.
“It’s on the 2nd floor,” he had said, “Let’s go.”
“Did you see this?” I had asked, pointing at the document.
“Yeah, Napoleon’s marriage certificate. You didn’t know he married Joséphine here?”
“Wow,” I had said, stunned at the history of the building I was in. I had never realized just how influential BNP was. The building was a show of both financial and political power.
As we had made our way up the stairs to the meeting room, I had spied the inner courtyard through one of the windows. In the center stood a victorious statue of Louis XIV on a horse, surrounded by orange trees. It was an absolute symbol of opulence: orange trees couldn’t survive the rough Parisian winter.
At that point, I had been awed, impressed, but eager to shine. We had done our homework, and we were sure that together with the HQ’s team, we would be able to deliver a Marketing campaign that would set a new standard for the French banking industry.
But after waiting in the Rousseau meeting room for over thirty minutes, I had begun to wonder if this would really go as we had hoped. Thierry had fidgeted nervously in his seat and begun to obsessively check the time on his watch.
“Should you call them?” I had asked.
“I don’t have their number. I sent a text to Alicante and he told me to wait.”
We had waited some more.
“Hey Thierry,” I had asked, thinking back to the bombshell my dad had dropped on us the week before, “Did you lose your pension too?”
Thierry laughed. “That’s a bluff Leo,” he said, “Haven’t you been reading the news? The government is already working on raising the funds to bail AGRCOC out. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
“But isn’t that just kicking the can down the road?”
Thierry hadn’t had the time to answer, as eight men and four women had suddenly entered the room. They had all been in their forties, all impeccably dressed in black suits. Each had solemnly introduced themselves to us. Their names rang of nobility: compound first names and a de and du indicating that their ancestors had owned large swathes of land. Charles-Pierre Reuilly du Castillon d’Isolieres, Nicholas-Henri de Saint-Etienne, Anne-Charlotte de Dammartin. I had felt like a peasant.
“Shall we get started?” had asked Thierry.
“Let’s wait for Mr. Pabereau first,” had answered Charles-Pierre. Everything about him had seemed meticulously chosen: his light blonde hair was perfectly parted and combed, his pocket square was aligned with his tie and he always paused for an extra second before talking. We had all sat down at the giant wooden table and they had started to chat about lunch while waiting for the big boss to come in.
Fifteen more minutes passed before Mr. Pabereau had finally walked in. All twelve suits had risen up as one while Thierry and I had scrambled to our feet. Mr. Pabereau had walked straight to Thierry and shaken his hand.
“Thank you for coming Thierry,” he had said, using Thierry’s first name, “You’ll find that you’re in good hands with this team. Unfortunately I have a meeting I have to attend, so I’ll leave you to it, but I’m sure you’ll find it very instructive.”
And he had left.
The next two hours had been painful. It hadn’t at all been a discussion on how to do the September campaign. Rather, we had learnt, to our immense surprise, that it had already been outsourced to the very same agency that had come up with the terrible ‘Your Real Estate Empire’ slogan. Worse yet, the whole thing had already approved by Mr. Pabereau himself. For two hours, we had been lectured to on implementation guidelines for this campaign without a single opportunity to present what we had prepared.
Thierry had been so shocked that he had barely protested. I had tried to speak up, but was immediately ignored. As soon as the twelve had finished talking, they thanked us for coming and walked out. We had been completely stonewalled.
As we had sat in the cab in silence, I suddenly couldn’t hold in my frustration any longer.
“What the hell…?”
Thierry had kept looking out the window as he answered. “Politics,” he had said, “I was stupid to think they would relinquish even a fraction of their power to local teams. I should have known better.”
He hadn’t spoken another word for the entire flight back. Which was actually a good thing: my brain was already in overdrive. This was exactly why I had done the meeting in Day A. I had spent all night making plans, and when I had woken up at 5 a.m. on Day B, I had immediately gotten to work.
I put the finishing touches on the presentation right as the pilot announced we were beginning our descent towards Paris. As I slid my laptop back into my bag, I once again hit my foot hard against the chair in front of me. God, I miss Business Class.
I had spent hours trying to identify the key moment when things had gone wrong, and come to the conclusion that it was when Mr. Pabereau had walked out. By doing so, he had effectively locked us out completely. Any change needed his approval, and since he wasn’t there, we were powerless. If I wanted to change the outcome of the meeting, I needed to keep Mr. Pabereau in the room.
I reclined in the big leather chair in the Rousseau meeting room for the second time, making myself comfortable for the one-hour wait ahead of us.
“Do you think they’ll make us wait as a power-play?” I asked Thierry, trying to indirectly warn him.
I saw him hesitate.
“Paris can’t be too happy having us here, wresting control away from them right?” I pushed.
“That’s true,” said Thierry, “We’ll just have to wait and see.” I could tell from his reaction that he had suddenly begun to see that this meeting might not go according to plan. As the minutes ticked away, he started to tap his fingers on the table impatiently. I settled back in my chair and went over the plan in my head.
Just like yesterday, the twelve impeccably dressed members of the Parisian marketing team strode in. This time, as we sat down, I noticed details that I hadn’t seen the day before. They made an intentional effort to keep as much distance with us as possible. Two empty seats separated us, and they centered the conversation on topics we couldn’t join in on, such as local restaurants and Paris-based projects.
When Mr. Pabereau walked in, I jumped to my feet, and saw Thierry scramble to his besides me. Fuck, I should have warned him, I reprimanded myself.
Mr. Pabereau was an imposing figure. He had thick cheeks and a prominent stomach, but his perfectly tailored suit and bushy mustache with curled tips transformed that mass into an overwhelming aura of power. He walked over to Thierry, and shook his hand.
“Thank you for coming Thierry,” he said once again, “You’ll find that you’re in good hands with this team. Unfortunately I have a meeting I have to attend, so I’ll leave you to it, but I’m sure you’ll find it very instructive.”
“Bonjour Mr. Pabereau,” I said, jumping in with an outstretched hand, “I’m Leo Melikian.”
He looked at me, mildly confused at the intrusion, and hesitantly shook my hand. I felt rather than saw Thierry tense up beside me.
“Yes, well,” said Mr. Pabereau, slightly flustered, “As I said, proceed with my team.”
“With the utmost respect, Mr. Pabereau,” I said deferentially, “I really think that flying piggybanks is an idea that will, if you’ll pardon the pun, crash and burn in the South.”
Mr. Pabereau looked accusingly at Charles-Pierre, one of the suits, but Charles-Pierre’s face betrayed nothing but the utmost confusion. I took advantage of those few seconds to open my computer to the first slide of my presentation, and turned it to face Mr. Pabereau.
“Piggy bank visuals have been used by seven different banks over the past six months in marketing campaigns,” I said, “Shouldn’t BNP aim to stand out? Shouldn’t we strive to be a leader rather than a follower?”
I could see the tips of Mr. Pabereau’s mustache twitch with fury. Given the deeply hierarchical structure of BNP, my outburst was the equivalent of a slap in the face. According to the organizational chart, I was 6 levels under him, and yet I had just challenged him openly. My hands were shaking slightly. I was fully conscious that my career was on the line, but I had no other choice but to strike, and strike hard.
“Flying piggybanks. ‘Let your savings take-off’. That’s the gist of the campaign right?” I asked rhetorically, remembering yesterday’s terrible presentation, “It’s not only cheesy and kitsch, it’s terribly unoriginal.”
Mr. Pabereau’s face was quickly turning bright red, but I didn’t give him an opportunity to cut in and pressed forward. Thierry was looking at me with wide-open eyes. I had a feeling of déjà-vu. I simply hoped that it would end just as successfully as the Alicante meeting.
“In 2012,” I continued, changing slides, “Visa paid $50 million to sponsor the World Cup, yet 38% of consumers thought that the official sponsor was Mastercard. With this unimaginative campaign, we are setting ourselves up for the exact same failure.”
“Now I don’t know about the rest of France, but for the South, we have an opportunity to revolutionize financial marketing.”
I didn’t know if I was imagining it, but it looked like Pabereau’s mustache tips were twitching a little less. Maybe I had finally succeeded in piquing his interest. I could see Thierry about to jump in for damage control, so I cut him off and continued as fast as I could.
“If you’d just grant us five minutes of your time,” I said, softening my tone and pleading to him, “I would love to show you some of the insights Thierry and I have put together. I guarantee you won’t regret it.”
I looked at Mr. Pabereau expectantly. And waited. From the corner of my eye I saw Charles-Pierre open his mouth in protest, but Mr. Pabereau silenced him with one raised finger.
“You have five minutes,” he said.
I jumped on the opportunity, and launched into the presentation we had prepared with Thierry.
“The South has a different mentality than Paris, as I’m sure you’re all aware. We aren’t as fancy, we don’t come from old money, and we enjoy the sun and the beach. The term nouveaux-riches, the newly rich, was basically invented for us.”
“In the South,” said Thierry, picking up on his cue, just like we had rehearsed, “The richest people tend to be those who dress the most poorly. At our local BNP offices, the richest clients come in dressed in Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.”
“But,” I continued, “That’s where the opportunity lies. Because even though they aren’t from old money, and they don’t have names that ring of nobility,” I added, with a nod towards Charles-Pierre, “They want that. They want the respect. They realize that Parisians look down on them. They feel the condescension. And it just makes them want to belong to the elite even more.”
Our key slide popped onto the screen. It was nothing but a line of text: the marketing message we had endlessly fine-tuned over the past two weeks. A simple sentence with just the right mix of emotion.
‘We’ll take care of your savings for the next generation’.
“We change their mindset,” said Thierry, “We make them feel like they’re not nouveaux-riches. They’re the start of their own dynasty. They need to invest with us not for them, but for their kids. And their grandchildren.”
“Imagine the ads,” I said, “Instead of generic flying pigs, we have emotion. We’re genuine. We connect with them.”
This was our brainchild. I had indirectly gotten the idea from my conversation with Thierry. He had said he would sacrifice anything for Alina. When I pitched it to him, I saw it resonate immediately.
We started to show visuals we had mocked up using stock images. A three-year old boy holding his dad’s hand and looking up at him, off-screen, with the BNP logo and our tagline: ‘We’ll take care of your savings for the next generation’. A man holding his just-born child in his arms. A woman wishing her child goodnight through her laptop from work. It hit all the right notes.
Silence reigned. We looked at Mr. Pabereau, trying to see if our pitch had reached him. He twisted a tip of his mustache between his fingers pensively for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, he spoke.
“It’s not bad,” he said, “But it’s not the BNP spirit.”
“And flying piggybanks are?” I blurted out angrily. I couldn’t believe my ears. I was offering him gold and he was settling for coal.
“I beg your pardon? ” asked Mr. Pabereau, his voice heavy with outrage, “Young man, I have worked for BNP for the last 28 years. Do not presume to tell me what the BNP spirit is. I built the BNP spirit.”
“Well it’s not working!” I exploded, “Maybe before it-”
“-Leo,” Thierry cut in with a voice like ice. It silenced me in an instant. I looked at him, and he slowly, imperceptibly, shook his head. He turned to Mr. Pabereau.
“Please forgive Leo here. I’m sure you know how passionate young men can be,” he said, bowing his head apologetically, “I look forward to discussing the marketing campaign your team has come up with. I know we took up some of your valuable time, and I cannot begin to express how grateful we are for this opportunity.”
Mr. Pabereau was still staring at me, fuming. He took a deep breath, and extended his hand towards Thierry.
“Thanks for coming in Thierry,” he said, “We are always grateful to hear feedback from the ground.” He turned around and without another look to me, walked out the door.
I was furious. I seethed with anger. But Thierry gave me a look that made it clear I had to sit down and shut up, so I did. For the next two hours I listened to the same flying piggybank presentation as yesterday, but this time instead of protesting, Thierry enthusiastically jumped in and built on their ideas. When the meeting was over, we shook hands. I couldn’t meet their eyes. I could sense the malicious joy in them. I had been torn down by the big boss, and they had won. They were still in control, and we were going back to our countryside.
We got into a cab, and for the second day in a row, I blurted out the same line to Thierry.
“What the hell…?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Thierry asked angrily, “Why didn’t you tell me about the flying piggybanks?”
“I… I learnt about it this morning,” I improvised, “I have an ex-classmate in BNP Paris. I got it from him.”
“Next time, tell me,” he said, “You’re young and ambitious, and that’s why I like working with you. But this is first-class politics. It’s a different game. You don’t have the experience necessary. You still need to learn.”
“But his idea was shit!”
“And you think he was going to admit that in front of his entire staff? And shame them all?” asked Thierry angrily, “The flying piggybanks was already non-negotiable, don’t you see that?”
He ran a hand through his black hair, pushing his widow’s peak out of place.
“You actually scored a ton of points at first,” he said, “When Pabereau said: ‘Not bad’, that was a win for us. Not because we were getting the campaign, but because we had put our foot in the door. Pabereau would remember us as smart and innovative. It would have paid off with time.”
“I’m sick of time,” I said, “I’m sick of wasting it on stupid fucking ideas.” But I knew he was right. I saw it now. I was so obsessed with recreating an Alicante moment that I had forgotten that victory wasn’t always binary.
Thierry gave me a long and hard stare.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I messed up. I didn’t think.”
“It’s ok,” he said, rolling his eyes, “Tomber pour mieux se relever. Sometimes you need to fall to better get back up again.”
“I’m going to talk to Alicante,” he added after a moment’s thought, “He still really likes you. I’ll get him to smooth things over with Pabereau, describe you as passionate but a bit hot-headed. We still scored points here. It’s far from over.”
He smiled at me and laid a hand on my shoulder.
“You did good,” he concluded, and rested his head back on the seat, closing his eyes.
I stared out the window as we got onto the highway for the airport. Thierry really was a great boss. Even after I had messed up this bad, he was still looking out for me. We sat in silence for a few more minutes before Thierry spoke up from behind closed eyes.
“‘Let your savings take off with flying piggybanks’,” he said, “What a bunch of fucking retards.”
We burst out laughing.
~ End of Chapter 12 ~
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