Navigating the Holiday Party Scene

Whether you work for an ad agency or in-house, you probably got into advertising for one of two reasons: You’re creative, or you love free food and booze. Luckily, many of us fall into both categories.

This is the time of year when the tinkling of glasses and the wafting of ’80s music ring out in restaurants and nightclubs around the world. Whether you are attending a big blowout bash for 1,000 people or an intimate thank-you luncheon with your creative team, I’ve found a few foolproof ways to navigate through it.

It’s an office event, not an office party. No matter how fancy the restaurant or aviation hangar, you are attending an office function. If you’ve just graduated from college and make $23,000 per year, you might look upon the office party as a great place to finally get even with your fat-cat bosses by eating a few thousand pounds of shrimp and downing a few dozen drinks. Pace yourself. You don’t want to be known as the knee-walking drunk who passed out in the shrimp bowl.

Be 20 percent more polite than you have to be. Your mother and father probably drilled this stuff into your head at a young age — and for a good reason. You can tell a lot about a person by watching him or her eat. If you’re dining with clients, you can impress them or seriously turn them off. Remember:

  • Don’t order alcohol unless they do. Nothing is worse than being the only one to order a drink.

    True story: While working at a New York agency at the tender age of 24, I was taken out to lunch by three paper reps. They were in their sixties and had burst blood vessels all over their faces. Lunch began at noon at a VERY expensive restaurant with seven rounds of Scotch on an empty stomach. I fell asleep on one of their shoulders as the entries were presented at around 3 p.m. The next day at work, everyone wanted to know how my big fancy lunch went. I replied truthfully, “I’ll never forget it.” A few other random thoughts:

  • Put your napkin in your lap. Not in your shirt, in your lap.
  • Waiting for a woman to join you at lunch? Stand up when she approaches the table. It may seem old-fashioned, but nobody ever looked bad using good manners.
  • Keep your order simple. Wrestling a lobster and spaghetti carbonara during a first meeting can put a huge strain on your sanity.
  • After the meal or party, send a handwritten thank-you note. Not an email, a personal note. When was the last time you received a well-crafted note? I’ll bet you remember it. So will the recipient.

Abortion, Charlton Heston, and school vouchers. Unless you know your client well, be careful about your choice of discussion topics. Things like abortion, gun control, and Gore/Bush (not a bad idea) can lead to shouting, stamping feet, and anger. Try to avoid these topics at the beginning of a relationship.

What do you talk about? The industry of the person with whom you’re meeting. People love to hear themselves talk. If you can ask a few general questions about the person’s industry, you can just sit back and say, “Hmm, interesting,” then repeat several times. The client will think you’re a brilliant conversationalist when all you’ve done is listen. Works especially well with men. All of us are an authority on at least one thing — just ask us!

Get to know your client’s city. If you work in New York, Seattle, L.A., Dallas, London, Miami, or any other media mecca, you hate the suburbs and the sticks (because most of you came from there and hate to be reminded). It’s a natural thing, so don’t fight it — unless you’re visiting a client in the suburbs and the sticks. Make sure you don’t insult his or her town when you visit.

Go online, and find out some interesting facts about the town. You could say, “Is Hartford really the capital of the insurance industry? Fascinating. Tell me more.” (I’m from West Hartford so I can say that.) With all of the web resources at hand, there’s no excuse not to have a few discussion items ready when you’re visiting out-of-town clients.

Gifts, gifts, gifts. This is always a tricky subject. What do you get someone three levels above you for the holidays? Check around the office before you do this. One way around it is to make a charitable donation to your boss’s favorite charity. If your boss is wealthy, he or she probably doesn’t need another “World’s Greatest Boss” coffee mug.

December can be a great time of the year in the ad business. Just remember that all of the year’s great work can be undone with one drunken rendition of “Louie, Louie” at the office party. Enjoy.

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