Agency, Part One

21 September 2008

"How long have you been writing?" Fernandez asked.

"I've worked as a press release writer for KM for almost two years," Bryan replied. "I resigned last October"

"KM, the PR agency?"

"Yes. But I've made contributions to the school publication back in high school and college. And some freelance work here and there."

"What kind of contributions?"

"News articles. Feature write-ups. Short stories and poetry. Stuff."

"Do you have any sample now? Of any freelance work, I mean."

"It's there. The Love Satellites review."

"I didn't know you were a contributor to the Indie Times. You know Jake?"

"Yes. He's the one who usually coordinates with me."

"Cool. I did some editing work for him last summer. I may have come across your articles then. But the ad agency takes up most of my time now."

"He still contacts me from time to time."

"Really? You get paid?"

"For the last one — no."

Fernandez laughed. "Anyway, I don't think I should do more of this interview stuff," he said. "I know your work anyhow. Here, let me just give you something to work on. An assignment, if you will."

Fernandez stood up and walked towards the photocopy machine. A tall man in his mid-thirties, he moved with an easy gait. He wore his short hair blithely as if he didn't care much about hairstyle. He sported a maroon sweater over black denim pants that fit comfortably. Black sneakers nicely complemented his over-all garb.

Bryan took advantage of the distraction and looked around. The conference room was not much. Ash-gray blinds shielded the glass window from the three o'clock sun. Old magazines lay piled in one corner, rolled tarpaulins parked in another. Beside the heap, a shelf stood containing books stacked haphazardly. Marketing books, advertising books, graphic design books. A large table varnished in evening brown lay in the middle of the room's carpeted floor while a rattan couch was placed beside the glass door. Through the transparent panel, he could see Fernandez finishing up and approaching the room.

"Here. This is a creative brief for a client of ours. You should be able to get background information about the campaign. What you need to do is this: Give me at least three concepts or studies for a print ad copy. It's totally up to you what you want to do and how you want to present it. Just base your materials on the data at hand. Email it to that address there — I wrote it on the first page — before Friday. So you got about three days."

"Before Friday," Bryan confirmed.

"Yeah. And depending on what you can come up with — well, let me just see your work first and we'll go from there. Okay?"

"Okay." Fernandez stood and shook Bryan's hand. "Will be waiting for your email," Fernandez said and motioned to the door.

"Thanks," Bryan said and walked towards the front desk to retrieve his ID. While the receptionist was rummaging in her drawer for the ID, he took a careful look at the wall behind her. Emblazoned in gold, the sign displayed "P.M.C." in large, bold letters. Underneath, it read "Pendulum Marketing Communications." The receptionist found his ID and proffered it to him. He took it without a word and made it to the closing elevator just in time.


Barely three months but it feels like more than a year already, Bryan thought to himself as he took a Coke and headed towards the table beside the glass window. He sat and buried himself on the sheets of paper strewn on the table. There were seven pages in all. The first two pages contained a printed email from one of the account managers in the agency. It contained detailed requirements for a flyer project. On the first paragraph, the words "top priority" were written in bold-red font, followed by bulleted sentences in varying degrees of misspell and contractions. Bryan had the message printed earlier that morning. He had already underlined the important parts and key words and had written quick notes on the margins.

The other sheets on the table were mostly used documents he collected from the messy pile beside the big office printer. These were usually erroneously printed pages dumped beside the printer or old statements of account discarded by the Accounting department. Some of these were studies of ad designs. Bryan had five of these sheets in front of him. He took one and started writing notes on the flip side. He was already working on a few headline options when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

"I've been looking for you," said a woman roughly his size and height.

"Hi, Bench," Bryan greeted her. She was dressed in a black shirt with stylish corduroy sleeves. Her faded blue denim jeans had seen too many years but she managed to make it look cool, they hugged her slim, petite figure perfectly. She usually wore a lot of jewelry but this time she aimed for simplicity. Speck-sized silver earrings and an ethnic braided brown bracelet went along well with the bronze-colored crucifix necklace she was wearing. She was a bit relaxed with her hair — letting her bangs hang loose on her forehead, with longer locks casually draped over the sides of her small cheeks.

"Have you been here long?" Bench asked.

"Ten minutes, maybe fifteen. What's up?"

"I've got an accounting question."

Bryan laughed. "I'm not the accountant. I'm the copywriter, remember?" he replied. "Go ask Kyla."

She smiled, took off her fawn jacket and sat on the vacant seat. "She's busy," she said, her head collapsing on the table. "Come on, you know this stuff."

He laughed again.

"You graduated with an accounting degree, right?" she asked.

"Yeah, but I don't practice it, never did. I graduated more than five years ago. I'm not sure if I remember anything at all."


"What about you, Bench? Back in grade school, I remember you were always in the top of the class. We always thought you'd be running for president by now. But then nobody ever heard from you after graduation day. I mean, nobody even knew where you went to high school."

"It was some private school in Pasay. I went back to Cebu after high school. I got into deejaying back in college and then I quit school. I honestly figured I could do well at NU. I never thought they'd shut down the Cebu station. Anyway, Noel's wife Anne, she was a close friend of mine from the broadcasting days, she asked me if I'm willing to try advertising."

"How do you like handling accounts so far?"

"Almost four years now. It's tough. You know how it is."

"Not really. I'm still learning the ropes."

"You'll be alright. I have a good feeling you'll be okay, Bry. Besides, things have been looking up since you came in. Fernandez used to do all the copywriting himself but he's the creative director, he's supposed to be doing something else. Which reminds me, how are we doing with the flyer copy?"

"This is it."

"It doesn't look good."

"It will be by the time I collate all these. And you're hampering my progress."

"Sucker," she replied before taking a quick glance at her mobile phone. "Shit, three missed calls from you know who. I have to get back." She stood up to retrieve her jacket and turned to Bryan. "Tell me when you're done and I'll cajole Ken into doing a few lay-out studies."


"See you around." Bryan nodded as Bench headed towards the exit door.


The first three months had not been easy. True, he had done some extensive writing for KM but working as a press release writer for a PR agency pales in comparison to working as a copywriter for a small Cebu-based ad firm. When he got the job, Bryan had thought he'd be joining a company with an existing pool of veteran writers. How wrong he was. As the sole writer, he had to comply with every copywriting requirement that came up. In the first two weeks alone, he was already neck-deep in all sorts of copywriting requirements: three flyer studies for a national cable TV company; full brochure copy for a local real estate firm; 500-word advertorial for an international school; five-minute AVP script for a shipping company.

And that was not all. He also had to help Wilma, the business development officer, with her power point presentations, letters of intent, sponsorship proposals, contracts and memoranda of agreement. In addition to that, Kyla often bugged him to draft a demand letter to accompany overdue statements of account. Even Noel was pressuring him to come up with a better concept for an official agency AVP and brochure. The existing materials had a theme revolving around the concept of bowling and Noel had asked Bryan to think of something more institutional, but at the same time "accessible." Truth was, Bryan never really understood what his managing director meant.

He was close to being overwhelmed.

Good thing Bench was around. She and Bryan had gone to the same grade school together and that connection became the basis for a quick friendship. She became the perfect foil for his personality. While he was normally taciturn, she was constantly in high gear — monologue-ing, firing anecdotes here and there, and sometimes even breaking into out-of-key renditions of The Lion King songs.

Bryan was a bit of an introvert but he didn't mind the attention. He secretly wondered if Bench held a weird fascination for him. She had, on one occasion, mentioned that as a frustrated writer, she tended to have a trivial veneration for people who were good with words. At that time, he didn't take it seriously because she sounded like she was just fooling around.

Nevertheless, he welcomed her company. Even when he realized that the grown-up version has deviated so greatly from the twelve-year old he used to know. What was once a student achiever who had led her class during flag ceremony was now a near-chain-smoking dynamo. What used to be a crybaby in the playground had now become a force to reckon with in the conference room.

But he remained unfazed by these changes. Even when she had hinted to him that she was not straight, he wasn't as surprised as he thought he should be. In fact, he was quite ambivalent to her hints. Or he might have just been in denial, he had thought on later occasions. He found himself disturbed at this.

What they both clearly had in common was an eclectic taste in pop culture. They shared a weakness for musical artists that ranged from the likes of Cornershop to Portishead, from Sonic Youth to Urge Overkill, from Brilliant Green to Sugarcubes, from Ani DiFranco to Zarah Smith. He introduced her to Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman, while she recommended he read Amy Hempel and Alice Munro. When they were waiting for brainstorming sessions to start, they often discussed the merits of Wong Kar Wai's movies, Yann Tiersen's discography and Kelly Link's literature.

Amidst the relentless pace of advertising, many CDs and books were swapped, ideas were shared, fancies were indulged upon. He didn't want to admit it but he was close to conceding that he might not have endured those first few months without her company. All the same, he was beginning to feel comfortable with the frantic rhythm of agency work. He was beginning to feel comfortable with himself. He might have chosen the right path after all.


Bryan was late for the six o'clock meeting. When he got to Noel's office, several people were already seated in front of the managing director's desk. Fernandez took the seat nearest to the table, Steve the art director sat next to him. Farther from the table sat the two account managers, Lisa and Ellie. Bench stood leaning by the glass window panel. He approached her and occupied the space beside her.

Noel's office was the biggest room in the firm. The northern wall was one big glass panel where you can see the city skyline over various edifices in the Cebu Business Park. On two separate walls hung framed paintings done by the same local artist. Directly behind Noel's chair stood a glass cabinet which contained CDs from artists like The Cure, Belle and Sebastian, Sigur Ros and Tears For Fears. On the opposing wall stood a bigger glass cabinet containing Peter Drucker books, marketing textbooks, car magazines, software boxes and various models of miniature sports cars.

Noel was fiddling with his cell phone when Bryan entered the room. He sat cross-legged on his leather chair, unconsciously turning his seat a few degrees left and right. He was dressed in a white collared shirt, half-tucked in dark blue street shorts. He wore a pair of black trainers and he was absent-mindedly twirling his left foot to and fro while he was busy with his cell phone. A few years past forty, the managing director always looked and acted younger than his age. But on that day, the managing director looked tired — his lethargy somehow filtering through his week-old haircut and perpetually clean-shaven face. Noel cleared his throat loudly.

"Listen," he said. "The Adventure Caravan is moved earlier, October 20 to 24, according to their last email. That's three weeks from now." Silent expletives erupted throughout the room. He continued, "Bench, how are we doing with everything?"

"I spoke to Dwayne last week," Bench replied while looking at her Goth nails. "He's forming the Mindanao second unit as we speak. But he can't get commitment from his people unless he gets a go ahead on the budget."

"Do we already have a budget for his people?"

"I emailed the costs to you last Thursday."

"Where the hell is Kyla?" Noel asked, turning his head around the room.

"Bank errand, sir," Lisa replied.

"That was three hours ago. Where is she now?" Nobody replied. Noel cursed. "Are you sure you already emailed the costs to me, Bench?"

"Yep. I'll email it again to you for your convenience. As for logistics, Ellie's doing most of that." Noel turned to Ellie. "I got it covered," said Ellie. "What about the Halloween Fashion Show?"

"Peste oi," Noel muttered under his breath. He glanced towards the wall calendar and sighed.

"Have Lisa handle it for the meantime," he instructed. Lisa sat dumb-founded.

"Lisa can't do it on her own yet," Bench said.

"I know. That's why you're helping her out," Noel said with finality.

Kayata. Bryan heard Bench whisper.

"Let's move on to the collaterals," Noel said to Fernandez. "Same bunch of materials last year but I need a new look on the event logo and give me a better-looking race manual this year. Last year's was embarrassing. Do we have a full event script?"

"I sent Pam the second draft but she says she needs to review it again," Bryan called out weakly.

"How come?"

"She doesn't like that part where the teams chase after the ping pong balls in the river." Fernandez and Steve exchanged funny looks.

"Then give her another set of options. Work on it for the remainder of the week," Noel said before standing up. "I think that's all. We're done here. Fernandez and Ellie, you two get ready to come with me in fifteen minutes. We're dining with the Millennium guys tonight at Marko's Grill."

There was a collective scraping as the group stood up and started exiting single file out of Noel's office. Bryan was standing beside Steve when Bench caught up with him.

"Need to talk to you about something," said Bench. "I'll be having a smoke downstairs. Meet me there."

"I still need to finish something."

"God, Bry, it's almost seven. Can it wait until tomorrow?"

"It's Ellie's PR. Just need to tweak a few parts. Ten minutes tops."

"Okay. I'll wait for you outside. Make it quick."



Bryan was the last person to step out of the packed elevator. He sauntered through the ground floor's marble-tiled reception hall and took a quick glance at the wall clock. 7:23 PM. Damn.

She didn't see him descend from the condominium's front steps. She was facing eastwards, at the partially-finished skyway under construction at the corner of Escario Street and Archbishop Reyes Avenue, just a mere block away. She threw the used stick carelessly on the trash bin as Bryan approached.

"You said ten minutes," said Bench.

"Sorry, got hung up by Ellie," Bryan replied, "you know Ellie."

"She can't touch you, Bry," she sniggered, "you're the copywriter, remember?"

"I don't want to end up like Ken. You know what happened to him."

"B.S.! Ken deserved his suspension. You're not like him. Everyone knows that."

"Tell that to Ellie."

Bench murmured something as she took the last stick from her pack and lit it.

"You're already pushing seven months, right?" Bench asked.


"You like the work?"

He shrugged. "It isn't easy but it sure isn't boring."

"You really are at home in the firm now."

Bryan smiled, detecting the faint sarcasm. "At least it isn't as hard as my last job," he said. "Back at the PR agency, I had to do everything. Now, I'm just busy with the writing. And I'm okay with that."

Bench just nodded wordlessly.

"What did you want to talk to me about?" Bryan asked.

She didn't reply. Bryan shifted in his feet at the uneasy silence. "You want out," he said in realization.

"Yeah," she was slow in replying.

"That explains everything. The sudden irregularity of your attendance in the last two months."

Bench laughed weakly.

"Does Noel know?" Bryan asked.

"I talked to him last June, actually. I told him I wanted to resign effective by the end of August. I didn't even cite some reason, just told him I want out. I told him two months notice should be enough for him to find a replacement or train Ellie to replace me. You know him, he wouldn't hear any of it. Well, I wasn't backing out of my decision, either. I told him out I'm out before September starts, period."

"But you're still here."

"Yeah, because Anne intervened. She asked me if I could stay for a while, at least until the Caravan is over. She said backing out would be a mistake because Noel was considering me for partnership in the agency. That's what they told Jong back in 2003 but it never happened. Lucky for him, he still got the Dubai job one year later. Besides, I've seen the books and the numbers don't look pretty. But I still said yes. The thing is, I owed Anne big time. She once did something important for me back in the days and I've never repaid her for it. I figured that if I do this for her, we'd be quits. I promised I'd stay until the end of the year. That's why I'm still here."


"But I'm not staying beyond November, that's for sure. Noel is already bugging me for updates on December and January deliverables and like hell I'm going to commit to those. If I do, I'm never getting out, never. That's why I need your help."


"From here on, Noel isn't going to listen to any bullshit from me, about changing my mind on the deal and leaving the agency. Hell, I could even tell him that I got a job waiting for me in Houston but he's not going to buy it, I know he won't. I need a better reason, a different ticket out. And this is where you come in."

"You want me to think of a reason for you?"

"No, Bry. Listen, everyone in the office knows we get along really great with each other. You know me, I've had rows with Ellie, Ken, Kyla and even Noel. But I've never had a quarrel with you, not only because you're such a nice guy but because you're actually pretty cool. Now, what if we give them the idea that we got something going on that's more than just the usual we're-just-buds shtick? You know what I mean, right?"

"But you're not into guys — "

"I know, I know. But none of the office people know that except you. Listen, what if we give them the idea that I've gone AWOL because we've had an affair that went sour?"

"My God, Bench," Bryan muttered, shaking his head, "you've lost your mind."


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