Basic Instincts: We Became Pirates

By J. Michael Willard

”’Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. “ — Mark Twain.

One fine day we became pirates, swashbuckling rogues of commerce in the land of Kievan Rus, the place I have left — as the song about San Francisco goes — my heart.

But we were lovable rogues, and kindly pirates.

I write this some years later because — like many business adventures — it is both a historical footnote and a personal exclamation to a tumultuous life in risky markets of Moscow, Kyiv, and Istanbul.

Looking back: In 2005, we were once again in crisis. Our longtime partners, the mega ad conglomerate WPP and Young & Rubicam, wanted to gobble us up without a scintilla of compensation.

But, what the heck, we had weathered the 1998 economic meltdown and the 2004 Orange Revolution. After all, a crisis in Eastern Europe was a sun-coming-up occurrence. Bring it on Big Guys.

We had operated for years in a cocoon of security, wrapped in the wonders of regular cash from the likes of Philip Morris, Colgate, Kraft, and Dannon, to name a few. We were humming along, blissfully.

Then, things changed quite suddenly. We were under attack from our so-called “friends”. From that day forward, I said we would fly the skull and crossbones.

Managers must be predictable in matters of fairness but unpredictable when it comes to waging commercial war against a much larger foe.

This is why in the economic crisis earlier our agency charged instead of retreated, the philosophy is that the best time to advance the ball is when the other teams are in the locker rooms.

So, I named all aboard the good ship Willard pirates. We would henceforth act and be like pirates. If there were to be no loyalty to us after these years, then we would battle them toe-to-toe. And that we did.

Spoiler alert: We beat the invaders back, convincingly. It took innovation and a dose of moxie. But, we did it, and we did it by capturing the higher ground — corporate accountability.

We knew that the agency they wanted to partner with didn’t do business like we did in Eastern Europe or like WPP did in London. They did business the local way — paying and taking bribes.

The Willard legend goes like this: I awoke one morning with an oppressive feeling that the only way we could go into battle was to morph, to shape-shift.

The staff I had known from their early 20s were now approaching 40. I had seen their kids grow, had seen them through marriages, divorces, financial issues and occasionally, a serious illness. We were a family.

There was some resistance to the pirate thing. Perhaps some thought it childish when the skull and crossbones were put up around the agency, and my daily morning memo, Willard Notes, carried a pirate flag.

Some perhaps thought it corny when I handed gold plated imitation Spanish doubloons for great client work. I didn’t care. I wanted to focus attention on a threat that could take food off our tables and threatened our very existence as an agency.

To say that a gimmick is an unqualified success is often a contradiction in terms. It is by its very nature an act, a façade. It is sort of like chicken soup for a cold. Perhaps it won’t help, but it can’t hurt.

We needed to jump-start the agency. We needed to go from peacetime complacency to war footing in a fairly short time. I wanted our people to wake up in the morning wanting to beat the dog-tailed foes.

Over the years, there were many digressions and transgressions into management absurdities. There once was the time I gave everyone a $50 bonus with only one string attached: You had to spend it on someone else in the office, and, in doing so, it had to in some way benefit that person’s continuing life education.

Several bought books, but one inventive person purchased for another a full-body massage, feeling that this tension reducer would contribute most to one’s well being and education. I approved it.

When it comes right down to it, though, what I did in Ukraine isn’t different from what I did in my first tenure as head of an ad and PR agency. One afternoon I closed the office and took everyone to see the new Batman movie.

I have a philosophy of running a business, and I doubt it is Harvard Business School. It goes like this:

We need to make a profit, but we also have to have fun. If we make a profit, and there is no fun. I don’t want to be here.

The opposite is also true. If we have fun and don’t make a profit, I can’t be here.


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J. Michael Willard

I am a novelist but my day job is utilizing my years as a business consultant, journalist, and public service in the field of international development.