Roger Bain’s memoir, Hardly Working” How I Found My Career and Kept My Soul, surprises and delights as it answers that thorny question: What do you want to be when you grow up? This coming-of-age tale, filled with a cast of colorful characters, is by turns thought provoking, amusing, and nostalgic as it describes the author’s quest for the American Dream, navigating as many twists and turns as Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building.
In the years immediately after college when most graduates are scrambling to reach the top of the food chain, Bain hatched a plan, “a life map where I would ‘retire’ at the beginning of adulthood. Of course, I would need to work, but as little as possible.” The candid description of the author’s unconventional journey does not disappoint.
Bain rivals participatory journalist George Plimpton in the variety of jobs he has held: golf caddy, drill press operator, Fuller Brush man, waterbed purveyor, itinerant hippie, song writer, store Santa, and cable TV adman, among others. He says: “Throughout my journey, I’ve always sought out that sweet spot: to have just enough without being possessed by my possessions, or by ‘the man,’ and to always have time for my own creative pursuits.” Ultimately, he draws upon his multi-faceted life experiences to establish a successful advertising agency that feeds his creative Muse while also paying the bills. Win-win.
Like other good memoirs, Hardly Working doesn’t simply chronicle the vicissitudes of Bain’s quixotic life; it also offers personal epiphanies: “I had a growing realization that my path was my own decision and to hell with expectations. . .” And “I knew I was lucky. I’d had a comfortable, trouble-free upbringing. But I wanted more from this life. I was on a quest, and the only way to discover what I was looking for was through experience.” And experiences he has had!
Hardly Working is well written and engaging. Unlike the spate of best-selling life stories later proven fraudulent, Bain’s account rings true, amply supplemented by photographs and an amazing level of detail. Fans of Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off will appreciate its nostalgic look at life from the 1950s to the present. Devotees of music from bebop to hip hop will resonate with Bain’s recollections of music culture and his contributions to it. And those seeking to “find” themselves will have an entertaining guidebook of do’s and don’ts.
If you’re looking for a memoir that is both comical and substantive, grab a copy of Hardly Working. Then buckle up for a rollicking ride.
Nancy Walker, PhD, professor of psychology (retired)
Author of The Child Witness, Children’s Rights in the United States, and Lost Opportunities: The Reality of Latinos in the U.S. Criminal Justice System
Note: A couple of years into starting my ad agency, Roger Bain Communications, I followed up on a lead that the Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana DQ account might be worth pursuing. Circa 1995:
Part I: The Big Meeting
I phoned the guy named John and before I could finish outlining my experience, he stated, “We need new blood.” I told him that my blood was in that category. The two of us then proceeded to have one of those animated conversations where you’re coming up with a new idea every thirty seconds and they’re all good and it becomes obvious you’re on the same marketing wavelength and the timing is perfect.
John wanted to give the lethargic local DQ ad program a kick in the ass and I would be the kicker. He arranged an introductory meeting with the Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana Dairy Queen ad committee. The local group was dissatisfied with their current advertising and appeared eager to try something new, but they were skeptical that Corporate would allow me to have the account. Wait a minute, thought I. Corporate? What? This was the first time I realized that it would not be the ad committee’s decision to engage me. It would be up to the corporation. John had failed to disclose that important bit of information. I had been speaking with committee members, not decision makers.
After some behind the scenes negotiating between John, the ad committee, and Corporate, the IDQ (International Dairy Queen) team begrudgingly decided to “allow” me to make a presentation at the big annual franchise meeting for Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana Dairy Queen. In attendance would be franchisees from 155 stores, a slew of folks from DQ’s corporate marketing department, and a half dozen account, media, and creative department representatives from the current DQ ad agency, Campbell Mithun.
Campbell Mithun and International Dairy Queen were both headquartered in Minneapolis. This client/agency relationship was as tight as it gets: two corporations holding hands. Representatives from each company sat on the other’s boards—a lot for me to overcome if I was going to get a piece of the account. The franchisees would have to exercise some newfound power instead of acquiescing to whatever the corporation dictated. My partner in crime, John, was wildly enthused at the new path he was spearheading. I looked forward to the opportunity with a mix of confidence and the anxiety of the unknown.
At least 150 people crowded into the large, generic meeting room at the Holiday Inn in the far south Chicago suburb of Matteson to witness this real-life David vs. Goliath showdown: a gigantic national ad agency with thousands of employees versus a solo ad agent. Six besuited C-M soldiers were prepared to do battle with me.
First up, the big agency boys. The Campbell Mithun suits gave their stunningly blasé presentation with pie charts and flow charts and stiff shirts and weak humor—basically the same presentation the franchisees had seen for years. They mailed it in. The room had little reaction. How much does a DQ operator want to hear about gross ratings points and cost per thousand?
After the Campbell Mithun presentation, John gave my introduction.” Here’s a guy with a different approach. I think we should hear what he has to say.” Showtime! I strode up to the microphone with my guitar slung over my shoulder. I was wearing slacks and a shirt, the only presenter not in business attire. The audience of franchisees was also casually attired. I was dressed like they were. Major franchise drama unfolding.
I stepped up to the microphone and surveyed the franchisees. “People already know who you are. You are an American icon. Dairy Queen means fun. Your advertising should be fun. Not contrived. It should be memorable and bring a smile to your face. Music on the radio is an efficient way to remind folks of your iconic, beloved brand. Rhyme, repetition, and melody are some of the most important tools we have to break through the drivel of advertising clutter. Songs about DQ will make people smile. Not jingles. Songs. sixty-second songs.” The franchisees were listening to the bald guy with the guitar.
And now I unveiled my secret weapon— Miss Rhoda Jean Kershaw. She was a redhead country singer I had previously collaborated with on a Tool TV song and she overflowed with genuine good spirit and a downhome voice. “Hi y’all”, she waved to the crowd. The room murmured “hi” back. I voiced a one-two-three countdown—just like at a corner bar gig—and Rhoda Jean launched into a song that I had just written, The Cake You Don’t Have to Bake, incorporating the current “Think DQ” tag line.
The room dug it! Whoops and hollers and applause. The franchisees were finding their voice. The suits at the back of the room conferred and huddled and attempted a vibe of indifferent nonchalance.
Other dramas were also playing out. During the performance, the bearded, truck driving, jeans wearing, outgoing local franchise ad committee chairman—he had just been voted out of office—was in the lobby bar sucking down his third beer, loudly and profanely getting in the face of some IDQ corporate players. This hubbub had wafted into the conference room and added a noticeable tension. When Rhoda and I began to sing and play, though, the room had lost its tension. The franchisees could sense something different brewing after years of corporate despotism. (With a tad of irony, Something Different became a new tag line a few years later.) I thanked Rhoda Jean, I thanked the franchisees, I thanked the corporation, I even thanked “the team from Campbell Mithun.” With my guitar again slung over my shoulder, like a working man with his pickaxe, I sauntered back down the aisle to the rear of the room as the sound of real applause delighted my ears. A successful performance. A successful song.
As I joined the crowd standing at the back of the room, a silver-haired account super for C-M—a guy with over thirty years of industry experience—complimented me with a bemused look of…envy? Or so I thought, though he may also have been thinking that it was not fair that I got to have more fun at my job than he did. “Nice tie,” I told him.
Especially abhorrent to the corpos was the fact that I was proposing that we use radio. This was sacrilege! IDQ and Campbell Mithun—and all big agencies— prefer TV because it’s “sexier” than radio, production budgets are more lucrative, it’s easier to buy and creative directors get to travel to LA for the commercial shoot. If you’re a hot shot creative director and you don’t have cocktails at the Chateau Marmont or the Polo Lounge a few times a year, why are you working?
IDQ and Campbell Mithun were singing from the same hymnal. I was singing a different tune. No matter how much the franchisees dug my presentation, there was still plenty for me to overcome.
I went on to create a couple of dozen DQ songs with my producing partner Chuck Kawal, Here’s a snippet of one of my faves, featuring Rhoda Jean and me in a call and response ode to the DQ Chili Dog.: