Still reeling from my meeting with Miriam, I took my seat in the open plan part of the office where we all, except for Miriam and the Heads of Accounts and HR (who had their own rooms), sat and booted up my machine. Another victim of Miriam’s stubbornness was our IT system. Everyone was, I’m sure uniquely amongst magazine publishers in New York, still using ancient PCs instead of Macs. We had a subeditor once who had moved from another company and said she was amazed at us still using PCs. Her big mistake was that she had raised this in the open quarterly budget meeting, with a few of the Directors from the Board present. They were very supportive and would surely have agreed to the funding, but the poor girl was gone within the week as Miriam had considered it a public complaint about her management of the office which had caused her severe embarrassment. The perpetrator was clearly overly-ambitious and dangerous. She had to go. The HR Department had of course been hired by Miriam, who set their pay. So whatever (or whoever) Miriam said should go, went, without any filter.
Whilst I was waiting the 5 minutes it took my prehistoric PC to start up and stop churning its hard disk, which was especially long that day after the Christmas Break, I made myself a coffee in the small breakout room. There was a knock at the door. It was Jess. “Hi, hi, hi … how was Christmas? … Oh my god, actually, how was your 30th?”.
Jess really was lovely. She was the third Section Editor in addition to myself and Claudia and probably my closest friend in the office. She was a very rare thing in New York, too nice for her own good. Frustratingly nice sometimes, if I am honest. Her father had come from a big upstate New York farming family, and after an unsuccessful spell working in insurance in the City, he had moved back upstate to work as a church pastor. She seems to have had this idyllic childhood where her parents were both always at home, and where conflict or money problems just didn’t exist. Everyone was happy, healthy and wealthy, and it had all rubbed off on Jess in a good way. Someone could have pushed her under the subway and she would apologise and say she had been probably been standing in the wrong place. She might have struggled with her angelic approach to life in sharp-elbowed New York, were it not for her family name and contacts. One of her father’s big early investments of the inheritance he had received was in a small Cosmetics company, in which he remained a 10 % owner – Camberley Cosmetic. Camberley just happened to be one of the magazine’s biggest advertisers. This was Jess’s advertising account and an easy sell for her as her father was on the Board which controlled the company’s spending. There might have, in different circumstances, been accusations if impropriety, but this was a returned pastor from wholesome, local farming stock, so no accusations of impropriety would ever get any purchase to interfere with the relationship.
Our magazine made almost 75 % of its income from three big advertisers; Camberley Cosmetic (a natural skincare products firm, based in New York) was one. NEC (North East Carpenters – a manufacturer of fitted beds and wardrobes based in Maine), and Cora Kitchens (a luxury fitted-kitchens company) were the others. Miriam treated these three companies like royalty, and anything they said, however bizarre or unfair, was treated as the word of god and immediately acted upon. One thing you can’t say about Miriam is that she didn’t know on what side her bread was buttered! Each of the three Section Editors, like me, had one main client that we entertained. My client was NEC, as they were based in my home state, where they did most of their manufacturing. Although being a premium product, many of their customers were in New York, Boston, Chicago etc. They were great, and a dream client in comparison to some others I’d heard about. They got plenty of business from the magazine, and they were old fashioned, taking an ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ approach.
The remaining big client, Cora Kitchens, was looked after mainly by the dreaded Claudia; Claudia the super-bitch. Claudia was the colleague from hell. I generally got along with people and recall getting on with everyone in the office, and all the other teams, before Claudia came along. Her background was never entirely clear to me. Nor to anyone else as far as I could see. There was something about international travel, moving with her father’s job. It was all presented as very important, jet set and mysterious. Others were enthralled by the romanticism of it, but it always had a whiff of not quite adding up to me, and I didn’t like people who were not real.
You could not get a straight answer from her about where she actually went to school, what her parents did, or even where her family were originally from etc., and showing too much of an interest was enough to get you on the wrong side of her, as I had found out shortly after she joined. It didn’t help that she appeared to have worked her way up through two previous magazines by brown-nosing and sycophancy, on a scale even I had not encountered before. I had a friend at one of the places where she used to work, who was utterly convinced that her promotion there, from Assistant Section Editor to Section Editor, was a direct consequence of her sleeping with the Managing Editor. I’d met him too and he was sure enough a vile, lech who seemed to consider that he was god’s gift to women. So it seemed at least plausible to me.
Claudia had joined us as another upwards move. We had slightly higher circulation than her last magazine, and having no Managing Editor, it was essentially a promotion to be reporting directly to the Editor in Chief. Or so she told us all at the team meeting on her first day. I remember saying, which I meant as a joke for the whole team, including Claudia as our new arrival, “be careful what you wish for”. This got a laugh from everyone, as the team were well versed in the stresses of reporting directly to the top dog, and even Miriam happily acknowledged this fact. Claudia had not been so keen on the joke, flashing me the most brief, false smile and laughter I had seen since I was at senior school. She had responded “well, some people crack under pressure, and others use the pressure to propel themselves forward.” I was tempted to lean over and put both my fingers in my mouth but somehow resisted with just a smile. I could tell this new girl was going to be hard work, I just had’t realised how much.
When the time came for the morning meeting on my first day back, we all filed into the room, including Claudia, who had talked only to those in her own team since coming into the office. As I often did, I made a point of trying to be polite and courteous to her. She may not wish to maintain a civil manner, but I had long since decided that I would not be dragged down to her level, and my principles and manners would remain intact.
“Good morning Claudia” I said, as she walked into the room.
She pretended not to hear at first, and then performed a bizarre gesture, where she turned her head from left to right and back again, as if looking around the room to see where the comment had came from, despite there only being about 7 or 8 people in the room.
“Morning Claudia” I said again, louder.
“Oh… em … morning” she said, sticking her tongue into the corner of her mouth and holding it there, as if she had just eaten a chunk of toberlone.
“How was your holiday?” I asked.
Claudia glanced at her two assistants on either side with a vacant look. “Well, yes, it would have been more relaxed if it wasn’t for the Cora business … ”
“Oh, sorry to hear that, what Cora business? I haven’t heard anything.” I said.
“Oh it’s ok, I’ve put it on the Agenda for the meeting, so I don’t want to say too much and have to repeat it.”
Fine, I thought, it’s your account anyway. Anything going wrong with it can only be a bad thing for you. The meeting itself was generally fine – the Christmas issue had been our best selling ever, 30 % up on last year’s Christmas issue, and we were now being stocked more widely across all of the US, notwithstanding our title and traditional focus was in the North East. We were doing particularly well in California And the really good news was that my idea for a feature on unique designs on a budget had been a huge aid to our sales. The website tracker suggested it was one of the Christmas edition’s most popular sections.
Then it came to Any Other Business and Miriam said, “Claudia, you raised this point for urgent discussion and from what you have mentioned I am very concerned. It is regrettable that we cannot end the meeting on a high, but please…”
“Well, yes” began Claudia, as if she was dealing with the most delicate and enormous issue of worldwide importance, “I have been informed that Cora Kitchens, who provide us with 34 % of our advertising revenue, are considering a ‘beauty parade’”. This was industry parlance meaning they might reallocate their advertising budget, by asking a number of magazines and other media forums to come in and pitch for their business afresh. It was possible to lose entire accounts this way, especially as those with no work would be absolutely hammering down every aspect of their pitch, and their price. It was always hard for an existing client to conjure up the same level of energy or creativity.
“And part of the reason is actually something that was entirely avoidable.” Claudia continued, glancing all the time at her team-mates and making acknowledging faces.
“Basically Index Kitchens are one of their main competitors but are able to manufacture goods at a fraction of the price, as they are all preprepared in some factory in China and shipped to the US by container. They are of significantly inferior quality, potentially actually dangerous, and their price points are so low it could even force Cora Kitchens, with its traditional craftsmanship and US materials, out of business. They were therefore extremely upset to find that the Christmas Edition of our own magazine … ” Claudia lifted a copy onto the table in front of her and slid it towards Miriam, “promotes Index without them even having to pay us”.
This was bad. That piece was not just from my Section of the magazine but the featured kitchen was from my personal article about design on a budget. Index had been great and had agreed to let us shoot a show home and give a full price breakdown of the kitchen featured. Of course we often, naturally, featured many products which would have competitors amongst our advertisers. This was America, competition was competition, and if Cora Kitchens had been my client I would have informed them that, firstly, if we only featured articles with photos of the advertisers’ stock, we would’t have a magazine. And secondly, that no one who was in the market for a fourty thousand dollar kitchen like theirs, would dream of installing a six thousand dollar kitchen like that of Index. They were different target markets an they had nothing to worry about. However, way more upsetting than the actual allegation, which could be dealt with relatively easily I would have thought, with a bit of diplomacy and tact on our part, was the way in which Claudia had gone about this. Raising it at our (mainly) celebratory post-Christmas meeting, without having said a word to me first. It was classic Claudia. I just hoped Miriam wouldn’t fall for it.
Miriam stared at the picture, and tilting her head slightly to see the price noted. “Is that price for the Island bit?”
“No,” I said, “that’s the whole thing, including fittings. It’s an amazing price. Obviously you get what you pay for, so no one is going to expect polished marble worktops here, but it lets the magazine reach out to perhaps younger and less prosperous readers, saying that we’re not only about Wall Street guys decorating their country houses, but also for normal people, even young couples buying their first home and struggling to meet any costs for a new kitchen. People gradually move up over time, so if you can get the readers in younger and keep them over the years, it gives the magazine more reach.”
“Hmm,” Miriam said, tilting her head, as if in consideration.
At this point, innocent old Jess, came to my rescue without even trying. “I didn’t know we couldn’t feature competitors of our advertisers, I think I might have done it before from our team’s side”,
“Yeah, mmm” Miriam said, “that’s true, but perhaps this is worse as they are such a strong competitor and they basically have a centrefold spread for nothing, whereas Cora are paying big bucks for no editorial praise.”
“Look Kimberley” Miriam suddenly said, “you haven’t broken any rules in my mind and the public obviously loved the piece, but next time you’re giving one big kitchens company as much space as this, just run it past Cora first. They might want to feature somewhere else. Claudia will be able to help you smooth things over in advance, and stop this kind of stuff kicking off in future, and she’ll work with you to get this smoothed over now, ok?”
“Yes, all understood, apologies for any distress caused.” I said.
What Claudia hadn’t realised is that prior to her arrival, I happened to have spent a few months working on the Cora Kitchens account, and I knew Rob from Cora well, who generally placed their advertising orders with us. We had had a few business lunches and a very nice dinner after last year’s Ideal Home Show, at which Rob had drunk perhaps 3 bottles of red wine. I had even helped him into a taxi for the night. So at lunchtime that day, I called Rob on his mobile to get the story from the horse’s mouth. He barely remembered anything about a panel and said “Oh yes, Claudia, it was her who notified us of that Index piece actually, but we did poke a bit of fun at you for charging us and giving it to our competitors for free. Look I know what its like, so no big deal.”
“Didn’t you say you would be interviewing for new magazines though?” I asked.
“No, we were doing that anyway, it’s been on the cards from the business planning meeting back in February 2014. The new investors have demanded 20 % costs savings across the board, so it’s a budgetary thing. Claudia should know that it’s not related to the service, we’re happy with everything at the magazine – although between you and me the new team are not as quick in responding as you used to be Kim.”
I had thought as much, and toyed with the idea of just revealing the whole conspiracy to Miriam. But then that might make me look vindictive. I remembered of my dad’s advice, when I had once before confessed to having an open argument with Claudia in the office. “Claudia sounds like a bit of a clown. Don’t argue with clowns or you’ll be joining the circus. Just politely avoid her as far as you can”. Out for dinner that night, Geo’s advice was quite different. Wait until the next group meeting and then bring it up, without giving her any notice, ‘embarrass that bitch’ to the max’, make her look like a fool, she deserve’s it.
Geo’s advice made me feel better and was probably perfect for her, people knew where they stood with Geo, and it would have been quite natural for her to behave that way. But it would be been too uncomfortable for me. In the end I choose to seize the high ground and say nothing. This strategy was probably very impressive in terms of maturity, but it was not great for my mental health. I knew that Claudia probably suspected this and was conscious that if I were to resign, she would be another step up the pecking order. Jess was happy where she was, and probably wasn’t Editor in Chief material. But I was more experienced and had been there for longer than Claudia, so to get rid of me would have been a real bonus for her. Even thought I might prefer it part of me thought that I would have hated to leave and give her that little victory, even if I did have another job to go to. But at the moment I didn’t even have that option, and in the year of big change, maybe, I thought, just maybe I should have.