The ‘Oh crap’ moments I’d like to forget

D. SriramIn this guest post, D. Sriram recounts the mistakes he’s made in his career and talks about what he’s learned from them.

Most of the time we like to write our resumes and Linked in profiles in ways that make it look like our lives have been a string of successes.

Well, maybe I’m just getting a little tired of it – for one thing, if all of us are so successful why is the economy still in the crapper and the world going to hell in a hand-basket?

So I decided to dig through my repressed memories and identify some of the most embarrassing things I did over the course of my working life – which is now coming up to 24 years and counting.

Accidentally sending a nasty email to a client

You know how this works. Someone forwards you an email, you open the attached email, read something that has you exploding and write an angry reply that was intended for the person who forwarded the mail – but ends up going straight to the client instead.

While I’ve done that once and survived it, nothing beats the time one of the people working on my team in Malaysia sent an expletive filled email to a client and ended with the phrase “F*** you very much!” Her explanation the next day was that as an anger management strategy, she’d draft angry replies to irritating clients, leave them in her drafts folder for a day and then delete them, but on this occasion she accidentally hit the send button.

Moral of the story – never type an angry email. Not even as a draft, not even to an internal colleague – no good ever came of it! Calm down, think it over and then respond professionally.

Showing up at the wrong place for a meeting

This happens when you’ve been going to meet a client at a very famous office location for years, end up not visiting them for a long time because you change jobs, and one day have to revisit them.

On this occasion I argued with a receptionist (the old office still housed other group companies so I wasn’t entirely wrong), then realized gloomily that I was on the wrong side of town and managed to convert the meeting into a phone interaction after apologizing profusely for my stupidity.

Always worth a quick Google search before you set off… or Baidu if you live behind the Wall.

Showing up at a meeting with all the wrong stuff

The real lesson here is not to let someone you don’t know very well organize a meeting. For complicated reasons I was standing in for the CEO of a sister company to meet a client they’d just won.

The person organizing the meeting at our end sent me two documents – one covering the China media scene, and another with company credentials on it, and I got on a plane and flew to Shanghai armed with this arsenal. The next day I showed up at the client dressed in my best pressed suit and smiling charmingly, asked “What do you want first, the credentials or the China media scene?” I was naturally somewhat disturbed to get the reply “Neither – today’s session was supposed to be about how you guys are going to set up and run our account.”

I did recover from that situation by saying that we hadn’t been given enough information about the number of brands and the complexity of the assignment (this was purely a guess on my part – luckily it turned out to be true). We turned it into a working meeting where I gathered all that information and the shreds of my dignity together before leaving.

Turns out the guy coordinating the meeting didn’t understand English very well – he’d proposed the ‘credentials and media scene’ agenda, and when the client wrote back to propose something different, he didn’t understand a word so he just went ahead and prepared what he’d originally proposed.

Showing up for an important meeting in casual wear

There was a time when I lived in Hong Kong and went to Beijing a couple of times a month to meet with my Mars client. We used to have to get in a car and drive out early in the morning to get to their factory in the suburbs so I’d normally fly in the previous night.

One time the marketing director arranged a meeting at which the China GM of Mars was going to be present – so it was a big deal. I flew in on Sunday night as usual, checked in, went to the gym, had dinner and so forth and went to sleep. I woke up at 0530 the next day so I could train again, showered, put on my suit and then realized I’d neglected to bring any formal shoes. I also realized this was because I’d worn my gym/casual shoes and planned to put formal shoes in my bag but forgotten.

This early in the morning there was nowhere to buy shoes. I now had two choices. Be the guy who went to a meeting in a suit and sports shoes. Or be the guy who went to a meeting in jeans – which had the slight advantage of being more in tune with sports shoes, although not by much.

Unfortunately Mars runs an open office, therefore I couldn’t count on not being seen in my sneakered splendor as I walked down the long corridor – otherwise I’d have risked the suit, got to a conference table and kept my feet out of view thereafter. I went with the jeans and a shirt and made sure I told everyone the story of how I’d forgotten to bring my shoes along so that nobody would think I was being flippant about the meeting.

Luckily the Mars GM was a bluff, cheery Australian with a sense of humor, so after ribbing me for a few minutes he forgot about it and we got on with our meeting.

Lesson for me – always wear the belt and shoes you need for meetings on the flight – you generally don’t forget to carry clothes but these items can get left behind in packing.

(By the way, that reminds me of the time a bunch of us had a meeting with some very senior P&G folks in Singapore and my boss showed up in jeans – all the rest of us were in suits – and when we look askance at him he goes “What, I’m wearing pants, aren’t I?”)

Not knowing that ‘automatic’ Swiss watches don’t need batteries

For most of my life I bought watches with an average price of 100$. Then at one stage my agency won the RIchemont-Cartier account and I promptly went out and bought a couple of nice watches from amongst their brands(a Baume & Mercier and a Cartier) that I could wear to client meetings.

We were scheduled to have a big meeting with the entire marketing team to introduce the agency, so I packed my nice watches in my bag and headed off to Hong Kong. The first day we had a dinner and as I dressed I took the watch out of the bag and realized it had stopped. “Darn luxury watch – why didn’t they sell it with a fresh battery?” I thought as I abandoned it and went to the dinner. At dinner I was seated next to the senior-most client, and as I ran out of small talk, I explained ruefully that I’d bought a Cartier watch but the darned battery was dead even before I’d worn it once. He gave me a strange look, but said nothing about it.

His look prompted me to research automatic watches that night and I then realized you don’t need to put batteries in them – just wind them up, and as long as you’re wearing one on your wrist, they’ll keep going. I did get a lot of wear out of my two nice watches, and I still have one of them – but to this day I’ll regret making my client think I was either an idiot or that I’d bought a fake Cartier that needed a battery.

The lesson there wasn’t so much about watches, but about making sure that if you buy your clients’ brands (which I always believe is good behavior provided your client isn’t Gulfstream or Rolls Royce) you should also make sure you do a little research about them, otherwise the money you spent on making a good impression is a waste.

There are probably more such cringe-worthy moments but first of all, I can’t remember them, and second of all, that’s enough weekend entertainment I’ve provided for now, so I’m going to stop. Please do feel free to share your stories in the comments, though.

D.Sriram is CEO, China for IMD, an advertising delivery company He is formerly the COO of Aegis China and APAC CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group.


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