SalesRants 11: In Memoriam: The Three-Martini Lunch

Secret Sales Guy reminisces about a kinder, gentler era, when men used the table talk of business to hunker down over lunch and a cocktail… or three

Life can be incredibly cruel. You are violently birthed, thrust from your mother’s womb into an insecure world, passed through the meat grinder of primary and secondary school education, flung into puberty, tossed into college, and then unleashed—utterly naïve and likely scarred from years spent pursuing an ultimately useless degree—into the world of business. Once your parents kiss you off, you face the unappealing and scary business of marriage and, eventually, rearing children who will eventually face the same daunting journey described above.

The sickest part of it all is that, during the prime of your life, you will devote approximately 40 years of thankless labor to an uncaring corporation just so you can pay your mortgage and eat meat once in a while. Your wife will constantly nag you, as will your kids, once they reach about seven years old. Sure, you may take up a hobby such as golf or stamp-collecting to ease the tension, but you and I both know it: You are statistically bound to live a boring, stressful and annoying life.

“No, no, Secret Salesman,” you may protest. “Surely, life is what you make of it. Life is beautiful—there is love, art, writing, sex!”

Silly, silly media person. You do not hear the truth when it is shouted in your ear, but hear only your own fantastical whispers of hope. Except now—in a modern world where there is a pill to numb every discomfort and a self-help book to aid any perceived ailment—your nonsensical attitude can prevail. But life is a brutal endeavor. Even in this great country, families are starving, people are ravaged by untreatable disease and—worse yet—magazine employees continue to be underpaid and underappreciated. Such is the nature of this modern existence.

But, sit back, while I spin you a tale. There was a time not too long ago, a Golden Era, if you will, when life was better for the media salesman. We call it the 1980s. [I cannot speak of the 70’s or 60’s because, lamentably, I wasn’t in this line of work back then]. Back in the 80’s, there was a tonic—a soothing panacea—for the fear and ennui engendered by modern life.

They called it the Three-Martini Lunch.

You may have heard of it. Back in those Golden Days of media sales, there existed the time-honored tradition of the Three-Martini Lunch (or, as we practitioners like to call it, the TML). An oddly styled and peculiar ceremony, the TML was long heralded as one of the most effective tools in the intrepid media salesman’s bag. Suitable for use on new prospects and haggard clients alike, the TML was a way to spend quality time with a customer and talk a bit of business—all while idling away a good 50 percent of your actual workday. Should a return visit to the office be required after the TML, one was inebriated enough by that point to tolerate the rest of the afternoon. Although labeled with a somewhat misleading moniker—since the cocktail of choice didn’t have to be martinis, nor were participants limited to three of them, for that matter—the TML persisted as a serious business tool from the inception of print media until roughly 1988, when Reagan left office. Setting aside its restorative benefits to the media sales employee, the TML was, and remains, a potent tool for developing business relationships. What you don’t know, however, is that the TML was never merely about drinking.

 

Back in the very early days of the media (think beleaguered Bewitched ad exec Darren Stevens) there was no such thing as the Three-Martini Lunch. It was just lunch. Because men were involved and, incidentally, happened to run the universe at that time (or at least they thought they did), they had the freedom to order what they wanted—be it a glass of tomato juice, a refreshing lager, or an 8-ounce gin martini. Lunch was a time to get together with a trusted colleague or old client, ask him how his family was doing—and really mean it. It was just a couple of guys both facing roughly the same situation and able to commiserate about their jobs, college tuition, the wife, and just about everything else under the sun. It’s what men have done since the dawn of time: They gather over large hunks of blackened meat, knock a few back, and share something deeper and more profound than last night’s Yankees result.

Then when it came time to follow up with a post-lunch phone call, when you went through your Rolodex (since replaced by ACT, Goldmine, or some other equally annoying “CRM” application tool), you didn’t have to check your notes to remember that your client’s wife was named Sally, and he had two boys, a baby girl, and an affinity for power tools. TMLs gave you time to get to know your client—hell, maybe even like him—and share that most intimate of manly moments: an extended workday lunch.

These days, the TML is a thing of the past. On the odd occasion that you do have the time to sit down over a meal with a client or prospect, there are many things to be considered. First, there’s a 50 percent chance that your client/ prospect will be female. This can be beneficial if both you and your client are women, as you’re then likelier to have things in common. However, this puts the male salesman at a disadvantage. One potential wrinkle: Your client may be hot, which puts you immediately in the uncomfortable position of being in a somewhat intimate setting (a nice restaurant), and makes your ham-handed attempts at smalltalk seem (at least in your own mind) like the verbal fumbling of a first date. Due to the discomfort this spawns, talk tends to immediately shift to business, meaning that any chance of developing a strong personal rapport are sunk. There’s no opportunity to bitch about the wife or job (since don’t want to seem bitter or lame), and there’s less of a chance you’ll chat about sports, the conversational glue that holds male friendship together.

If (as a male) you’re fortunate enough to have a lunch meeting with a male colleague, the chance to bond and create a meaningful personal relationship remains exists, but it is still remote. The first moment of brutal, searing discomfort starts when the drink order is taken. As the host, you are obligated to glance at Jim, your client, and say, “What are you having Jim?” Jim, clearly pained, orders a Pellegrino with lime—or, worse yet, a Diet Coke (God forbid he go regular). The drink order takes a lap around the table and results in another sparkling water, and a “water’s fine, thanks.” So you, sitting at one of Manhattan’s better restaurants and about to order a steak that practically screams for a hearty Cabernet or Bordeaux, are stuck. The meal is already ruined.

Then, food ordering commences. Likely, you are sitting with two or three other men, all of whom are dying to have the steak, veal parmigiana, or some other extremely tasty and unhealthy dish (because Lord only knows what’s awaiting you at home tonight). Instead, Customer #1 orders a salad. Not even a Cobb, for Chrissakes. He orders something that, when it finally arrives at the table after 20 intolerable minutes of business conversation, looks like the weeds from my backyard with a Zabar’s gift basket spilled over them.

Be a man and order what you want. You wife is not here and, judging from the looks of you, this could be the first salad you’ve ever ordered in your life.

Come on! Be a man and order what you want. You wife is not here and, judging from the looks of you, this could be the first salad you’ve ever ordered in your life. Face it: You ordered the salad because you are a fat fuck, and you are too embarrassed to order the ribeye smothered in Gruyere. And, you know you want a beer. Yes, you do. How about you buck up, and have two of them? That way we can relax, and everyone doesn’t have to pretend that they are so indispensable that a few mugs of suds could steer the beloved Company off course when you return to your cubicle. Trust me on this—the stock price isn’t taking a hit because some mid-level marketing manager “let his hair down” at lunch and banged a few back with his rep.

You’ve been there, so you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s like the Blackberry phenomena—these days, your identity and self-worth is so tied up in your work, that to be human for a minute may tip someone off to the fact that you’re not the next Jack Welch. Well, you’re not. So relax, order a beer and a big plate of pasta, and forget about work for a few minutes. There’s plenty of time for that when we get back to the office—you know I’m going to be calling you for an ad in a few days, anyway. So for now, why don’t we try being friends, have some red wine over a nice, thick steak, and bitch about our home remodeling projects or the price of gas a little bit—anything but work. That way, when I call you up, it’s a lot less like someone trying to sell you an ad, and a lot more like two guys who happen to work in the trenches together doing a little business.

Waiter, a martini, please—and keep ’em coming!

[This post originally appeared in MediaBistro, 8/9/2006]

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