I love characters. They are truly a gift from God. This business used to be full if them, but like great ideas they were few and far between. My friend Tom Mooney is a true character. And I love him.
Last week, Joe Machak and I spent an afternoon together after the induction ceremony at the Smithsonian. It didn’t take long before we started talking about the great days at Leo Burnett and all the great characters that worked in the old Prudential Building. Without a doubt, the best character of all time was a wonderful art director named Bob Billings, who came to work in buck skin pants and a beaver hat and carved amazing ducks out of blocks of wood while sitting in his office. Once, while on a trip to LA, we went a couple days without hearing from Bob. We thought he was dead. So we finally had the hotel manager at the Belagio open the door. We expected the worst. What we found was Bob sitting in his underwear in the middle of a mountain wood shavings. He had been carving ducks for two days and “forgot what the hell time it was.”
Bob went two years without filling out a time sheet or expense report. He was called up to the seventh floor to explain his tardiness to the Rick Fizdale, the president of the LBC. Bob, from all reports, decided to take the offensive. “I’ve got more money buried underground than you will ever see in a lifetime,” he told Fizdale. “I’m thinking about buying this agency.” Fizdale quickly countered by asking his secretary to get the CFO on line line. Billings asked Fizdale what he was doing. “I’m going to sell you the company,” Fizdale said, “So if I were you, I’d grab a shovel and start digging.” Bob, for the first time, was at a loss for words!
Bob had a long white beard, that was full of tabacoo juice. He loved to tell everyone that he was an old “alcoholic” that had “blown his brain out with booze and drugs”. No kidding, Bob.
The first time I ever met Bob, Joe warned me, “whatever he says, divide by two or multiple by three”, if you want the real truth. I never put the formula to work, because I have been known not let the truth get in the way of a good story. Bob’s stories were amazing and I loved sitting in his office listening to outlandish bullshit.
This is a business that was built by great characters, but there aren’t that many left anymore. Why? Simple. Characters usually come with opinions and big personalities. And corporate America and holding companies, don’t like big personalities with opinions. If you don’t believe me, count the numbers of Bob Billings’ in your office. I am certain you won’t find any anymore.
Neither Joel nor I know what ever happened to Bob. The last thing I heard was that he had bought half of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.