Proof of Life — A Creative Director’s Horror Story

When it comes to print, the problem with those lessons from my design classes is that they are a lot like snake bites — you can be well aware of them and take every precaution in the world but sometimes they’re just going to happen — period. Although I always have clients sign off on a proof before I send a design off to print, I’ll have them sign off twice if it has more than five words in the copy. If it is more than 100 words, sometimes I’ll claim I had to make a minor tweak and send it back a third time for their review. And if this sounds anal to some, yes, I agree. It is. There’s a story behind how I came to that point.

Back in 1995, a time before search engines and most companies were clueless about the Internet, I was a partner in one of the first five Internet Service Providers in Southeastern Virginia. I was a recent college graduate with two graphic design jobs on my resume that had been catapulted into a situation where I had become the Creative Director of a company with a young, brand new staff.

As part of our major promotional kick, our company had put together “Internet ’95”, the first major Internet Conference in this area. We had lined up a few big-time keynote speakers, a menagerie of sponsors, workshops and etc. The event was set to take place at a recently completed Marriot Hotel in downtown Norfolk. I had designed the logo for all the printed materials and then had two other designers working with me to produce all the printed materials. As a time saver for printing promotional products, I had a version of the logo saved as an Adobe Illustrator file and an EPS, both of which included the tagline, date, time and location. Everyone on the board approved the design and all 25-30 employees in the company had seen it, too. As a Graphic Designer, this was my first major advertising campaign, and I had almost 6-figures to spend on it. We spent thousands on slick, full-color duo-tank folders and promo inserts. Tens of thousands of direct mail pieces went out. Media Kits were mailed out by the dozens. There are several runs of print ads in regional newspapers and a couple of national magazines. Billboards on every major interstate in the area had been up for a couple of months. We’d even bartered a well-produced TV commercial on WVEC (the local ABC affiliate) in exchange for their exclusive access to the event — and they had been running it in pretty much every empty slot they had. The event had become a Juggernaut because, aside from the Internet being new to most people at the time, this area had never seen a conference of this kind.

One afternoon, a little less than a month before the conference, our marketing director, CEO, and a few of our heaviest hitters were doing a serious dog-n-pony show in the boardroom of our biggest competitors, the last stretch of negotiations for a major three-way sponsorship deal that was already on shakey ground. That was when an assistant to the admin assistant to some vice president meekly spoke up. “Ummm… you guys spelled ‘Marriot’ wrong.”

Apparently his words stopped the presentation cold, as if word of a Presidential assassination had just come over the news. A few minutes later back at my office I received a phone call with the news. Flushed with disbelief, I slowly pulled out the phone book and, sure enough, there was the name Marriot spelled with TWO Ts. M-A-R-R-I-O-T-T.

To this day, I have no idea how I missed that second ‘T’. I have never been shot in the gut but that moment was probably the closest I’ll ever come to experiencing it. Eclipsed with shock and embarrassment and beyond pissed, I locked my office door, set my phone on ‘away’, and sat there at my desk looking like a disturbed bobble-head, taking out my anger by playing a shoot’em up video game until well after everyone had left the office.

Yeah, it was a tough lesson. And even with all of the dozens of inhouse eyeballs that saw and proofed all the pieces several times before they went out to their various printing and media sources, NO ONE caught it. Countless thousands of people had seen the TV commercials and print ads. If anyone out there caught it, no one had said anything. It didn’t matter if it was one proofreader or a thousand, the mistake was still mine to own — and until the morning after that event, every day on my commute to and from the office I had those billboards to remind me.

Proof. Proof. Proof, Lieutenant Dan. And that’s all I have to say about that. 😉