April 13, 2010
 

Apprenticing for Mr. Trump, Off Camera

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On the occasion of last night's new season "The Apprentice" premier, we found ourselves thinking of a story one of our editor's shared with us about his experience with Donald Trump. Whether you like 'em or not, Mr. Donald Trump is memorable. Here's an interesting account of seeing Trump from the inside, long before he transformed himself from real-estate tycoon to successful Primetime TV entertainment icon.

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The media planning group I ran back 1989 consisted of a young bunch gals and guys who self-named ourselves "the vice squad" based on the fact that we were planning media for (1) a liquor brand, (2) a bad-credit high interest lending company (legalized loan-sharking) and (3)a vanity-based sunglasses account. Therefore, when we found ourselves with another new account, (4) a Trump Atlantic City-based hotel and casino, we laughed and thought it just the thing to round out the group, to capitalize on our unique experience!

It was a very different business then. Suddenly, one Thursday morning we were told that the Trump account had decided to move their business over to our agency, without a review! Around 6 months before the grand opening of his new hotel, we all knew we would need to move quickly to insure that the campaign would support - what was then - the largest half-built grand casino in the history of the gaming business. It was going to be a challenge.

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We had initially pitched the account earlier in the year, but came in second. No one gave the pitch one bit of thought once Trump selected the other agency, until that day in the conference room. Trump changed his mind about the shop he initially picked. They were fired and he was now going to award us the account to promote the fabled "Taj Mahal!" The launch was in less than six months, so much would be needed to plan for it on multiple levels. The first thing that would change was the name. It was re-named (of course) "The Trump Taj Mahal."

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The Taj had been cursed for years in construction, production and all sorts of problems before then. Before Trump had purchased it, the largest and most prestigious hoteliers in the business had each taken a shot at completing the project, with increasingly bad luck. The project had languished for years. What had caught the imagination of the gaming industry seemed a "suckers bet" for every company who tried to make it work.

For years, the news media reported about construction beginning and then ending, financing found and then lost. You didn't need know how to count cards at blackjack to understand the essence of the problem. Atlantic City was still very much known for corruption, bad management, union problems and one of the highest crime rates in the country. Some say it still has't changed.

Before Trump took over the Taj, it looked like a good bet that the Taj project would never see completion. Located near the end of the Boardwalk, its ever-growing steel skeleton was getting rustier by the day, as the rain blew in regularly, off the Atlantic Ocean coast.

We all left the conference room excited, feeling a certain celebrity buzz; and yet we also knew that we had little idea of what would be in store for us between then and the launch, assuming we were still part of the team.

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I admit I was skeptical. My own observations - when I cared to read some silly headline in the Post or the Daily News about Trump - who was buying and building everything in NY - including the prized "The Plaza Hotel" on 5th and 59th - was that he was some sort of media buffoon, who shrewdly had the last laugh all the way to the bank.

Though most people on MadAve and at our agency had previously heard about this Donald Trump, he was still known largely for always wearing a tux and seen or read about almost daily on Page Six of the Post.

Much to Trump's dismay, in 1980-something, Mrs. Ivana Trump, Mr. Trump's 1st wife had accidentally mentioned in an interview earlier that year that she referred to him as "The Donald" which the papers had a field day with, though we didn"t know much more.

He was, after Mr. Donald Duck - the most famous Donald around - based on his stellar abilities (even back then) to capture the imagination of various NY and national-based reporters and news organizations. Yet, once I became familiar with his organization, one of the first things I learned was that no one (and I mean NO one) referred to him by his first name. He was referred to 1st, 2nd and 3rd person only as "Mr. Trump." Being an agency guy, where none of our clients or associates asked to be referred in that way, it felt more than a little pompous.

Anyway, the next day, we got chauffeured to the Trump Super Chopper on New York City's west side by the Hudson River and were then flown down in style to Atlantic City for an up close and personal look at the building construction*s progress.

We had gotten to know his team somewhat before, when we were initially pitching the account earlier. However, now that we were suddenly part of his team, I was struck by the sincere respect this-only-too-buffoonish-public man had within his organization. He had been in the press for well over a decade by then, largely shooting his big mouth off, bragging about some cockamamie thing that was bigger and better than everything else on the planet; so for me it was very interesting as I began to work on the account to see whether it was a fear-based respect, simple kow-towing or if, if it was based on real reverence and respect, which at the time I thought had the greatest odds.

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Over the next few days and weeks, we worked hard to get up to speed. After an extremely rapid handoff of the account from the former agency to ours, as "the media guy," I began reviewing and canceling most of the former agency's contracts, since most assuredly we would be taking a different strategy.

Though the Taj was a project that seemed unlucky, on the first day as we began working on developing the new campaign, I met a woman who represented a trade magazine we were canceling from the schedule who would inevitably become my wife. Since then, we*ve often joked that we had Donald Trump to thank for us meeting. In a way, its true.

I began to spend many days and nights learning the gaming business, and saw first-hand the power of how one person could use the media in such a masterful way. Yet it more important for me to see what he and his team were like, when there was no camera running and how he could command such attention, respect and loyalty from his people. Perhaps I could learn something from him.

Mr. Trump was even then, covered by the press in 30 different ways, from Park Place to the Boardwalk. However, it became clear once I looked behind the curtain that there was not one Trump running the store, there were two. What most people did not see was that while Mr. Donald Trump ran the front-office, his brother, Mr. Robert Trump, ran the operations and managed the all important Wall Street financial relationships.

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While Donald was out there generating more excitement, sizzle and envy among his peers (as if he had any) Robert was the quieter one, who surrounded himself with an extremely small circle of influentials from Wall Street. This made good sense. After all, getting people to lend the Trump organizations $$millions, for a risky business at best; in of all places Atlantic City was no small feat.

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Even with a strong organization this was still no sure bet. Many had tried and failed. The feeling on the street was that the only reason the Trump organization even attempted to take over the Taj project was because - as the tallest building in all New Jersey (this dubious designation may still be applicable today) - it was rapidly becoming a major eyesore and symbolized all that was wrong with AC. With Trump already having two casinos in AC, the smart money said he was trying to protect his previous vested interests; the Trump Marina and the Trump Plaza, which were by no means any sure things. Sounded like a risky proposition.

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Regardless, many people were betting against Trump and he knew it, so when our agency took over the account, it had already been passed around like a pair of cold dice. There was more than a little sniggering that failure would once again, breed more failure.

Over the next few months, I spent much time down in AC with the Trump team there. We saw many exciting things. With the building skeleton still visually exposed, now just from the inside, I saw how a casino is actually structured. No expense was spared. For every level of gaming floor that consumers see, there's another one directly above it, for the KGB-like casino team and gaming commission people to watch literally every card dealt and each roulette wheel turn. We learned about how air ducts are extremely important to a casino's success. Air ducts? Sure, pure oxygen is pumped into the casino, in order to keep people refreshed so they stay more alert to gamble later into the evening.

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Many CPG companies, even ones located in Cincinnati could learn a few things about behavioral marketing from the gaming business. Between the high rollers who are flown in on private jets, to the mid-level gamblers (read: heavy users), to the senior citizen daily bus people, each had their own entrance, floor navigation plan and gaming preferences and restaurants. Everything was thought out, right down to the bathroom stalls; all pre-planned based on the level of customer you represented to the franchise. It was truly an educational experience.

With each person I was exposed to, the customary to "Mr. Trump" reference was universal. I thought either he was either paying people (extra) to refer to him like that or, ...could it be something else? All I knew was that I was having the time of my life. The Trump organization was so intense about our understanding their business that our agency even gave us money to gamble with, at the other Trump casinos. Over the next 6 weeks, I learned what the odds were on each type of game, the motivations that propelled each target group to visit AC vs. Vegas - which at the time were the only two choices gamblers had to legally gamble in the U.S - before Foxwoods and all the other casinos which inevitably sprouted up around the country. I quickly began to understand the business, like a "Pit Boss" managing a craps table. Lots of fun, indeed.

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Then, suddenly, things changed. Trump's dice cooled fast and the curse of the Taj struck at the heart of his organization. One windy afternoon, the two top Trump executives who ran the Trump Atlantic City organization were in NYC for meetings and decided to take a smaller helicopter from the east-side, East River heliport to save time, instead of going across Manhattan town to grab the Trump Super Chopper on the west side. About half way down to Atlantic City airport, the sharp winds blew their helicopter down, killing them both and the helicopter pilot, instantly. We were stunned. CBS's Michele Marsh and every other newscaster was calling our agency to learn as much as possible.

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What had been an extremely fast, fun and dynamic account suddenly became one of the most difficult pieces of business I ever worked on. Though I had only two months or so experience at that point on the account, I had become very friendly with Trump's team. It was hard not to. They were really cool. He hired only the "best" people. They were top shelf, real ladies and gentlemen who were not just employees of Trump, but stars in his own mold. The crash hurt everyone, badly.

The momentum and speed with which the organization had been moving to get the Taj up and running by April of 1990 looked like it would fail. Since no one could have predicted this extremely sad and tragic experience, the predictions about the curse that loomed over the Taj seemed incontrovertible.

How the Trump brothers could withstand this kind of challenge with everything else on their plate, dealing with their own grief, being there for the widows and families of their fallen executives and continuing to maintain optimism, seemed literally impossible.

Emotionally, the Trump organization seemed to have taken not one, but two bullets in the heart, losing two dear friends and trusted business associates. How any organization could recover and maintain such and already tight schedule was very much out of the question.

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Given how important these two professionals were to the organization, time was lost, morale was replaced by despair and the incredible momentum had been built up internally.

Things could not have gotten worse, yet they did. Within a month, Donald was in the press again, not for another building, but for a break-up, this time of his marriage.

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At the beginning of the 1990, Playboy Magazine ran an interview of Donald, which was published right at the same time his new relationship with Marla Maples surfaced, creating a new paparazzi frenzy that would inevitablyi compare to Monica and Bill. Now, twice as many photographers and "journalists" stalked his every move. It seemed like the whole world was watching. Headlines in The Post such as: "Ivana says: Gimme the Plaza" and her infamous before/after plastic surgery analyses was blistering, bruising and would have beaten any other family, to get the heck out of town and not look back. As the saying goes, you live by the media, you die by the media.

It seemed even our other agency clients were as curious about Trump and his personal and business trials and tribulations, as they were about their own business. Meetings with other clients would often veer off for 20-30 minutes as we were questioned about what he was like, as he now had to get involved in things he had previous delegated to his tragically lost partners.

The last month, leading up to the launch, construction crews, decorators, staff training ran literally 24 hours in a day. Everything, right down to Trump reviewing exactly where each TV spot would run to "tease" the opening (as if it was needed) got his attention.

On April 15th, the day of the launch, we all put on our tuxedos or gowns and went down to "AC" in style (at this point, feeling like a high-roller myself) to party like there was no tomorrow. I remember seeing him again, up close, surrounded by thousands of people, cameras, helicopters above, with every pair of eyes on one person, Mr. Donald Trump.

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It was more pulsating and bigger than any "10 fight nights-combined" in history. That evening he landed a knockout punch on the Taj curse's nose. Like being in the eye of a hurricane, he seemed the calmest one in the either adoring or envying crowd. On an absolutely gorgeous early Spring evening, the entire crowd stood outside the Taj, waiting for it to be finally opened, before we rushed in. After a few words, with helidopters circling above, dozens of TV and film cameras aimed at him, and thousands of people watching, he flicked a switch which sparked an amazing light show, that George Lucas would have created (maybe he did) as we all watched to our amazement. The Taj Mahal had finally come to life. It was spectacular. The Fireworks lit up the sky and we danced, sang and partied until daybreak. I will never forget it.

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I learned a lot from that experience. I also think I was luckier than Mr. Trump after all. The sales rep from The Official Hotel and Resort Guide and I got married and almost 15 years later, we're still together.

I tend not to follow Mr. Trump much or his TV show. He went on of course, to succeed at several other amazing ventures, continuing to dominate the airwaves, making it look easy every step of the way. What I do think of when he crosses my mind is impossible to describe. I now know why his organization referred to him as "Mr. Trump," whether he's in the room or not. It's because in addition to respecting him, they adore him. Having had a moment to see him go through hell and back, I understand why.

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