San Francisco Zoo used to have an elephant called Calle who needed a specially-developed suppository to treat a chronic illness.
One zoo worker had to wear a full-arm glove to administer the 10-inch long, 4lb cocoa-butter bullets twice a day and was often left covered in elephant excrement. What was arguably one of the worst jobs in the world came to an end in March when, sadly, Calle had to be put to sleep.
Jobs from hell in media sales rarely involve having to put your arm up an elephant’s backside but, for anyone who has worked on an obscure media title, dealt with obnoxious clients or had a nightmare boss, this industry can be almost as unpleasant – if thankfully not as smelly.
Next time your job is getting you down, think of the poor sales reps at one national newspaper who were locked in a cupboard by their manager if they failed to reach their targets.
Or spare a thought for the unfortunates who, on closing day, were refused a chair to sit on, could not go to the toilet or take a cigarette break until they had made a certain number of bookings for their newspaper.
You might wonder why any self-respecting human being would put up with these appaling working conditions, yet such bad experiences are more common than you might imagine.
Take MediaCom’s senior radio buyer, Jo Daly, for example.
She managed just three months at an evening newspaper in the North, where she worked alongside a keen female weightlifter.
“The job was horrible, because I had to drive miles every week trying to get money out of tight Northerners and had to work in the office with someone who could crush nuts with her hands and who also liked getting me into trouble,” she says.
“It was difficult trying to explain to a local butcher, who had plenty of regular customers, why they should advertise. Because they didn’t seem to have any sort of marketing or business plan.
“This was my first job in media after com- ing to England from Ireland with my boyfriend. I resigned and came to London.”
Total Media’s senior account manager Rupen Shah remembers all too well a spell working for a publisher based in Holborn in the mid-’90s. It was his first job after he completed his European business studies in France.
The role was to sell advertising in magazines covering the Chinese transport and constructions industries on behalf of the Chinese Government.
“I never actually saw copies of the magazines and I kept thinking I would get that elusive booking, but it never happened,” he recalls.
His quest for a booking went on... and on.
“My £100-a-week salary kept me going for three months, after which I finally gave up having made no sales despite even attempting to sell to people in French,” he says.
And it does not end there.
“The office in Holborn was smoke-filled with some weird characters and in the end I decided to spend the rest of the summer with my girlfriend. It put me off media sales for life.”
For others, it can be the annoying habits of the boss that drive them to distraction.
One individual now enjoying life at Capital Radio has some particularly unpleasant memories of his time working in telesales in New Zealand.
“Every time a person made a sale the boss, in true David Brent style, would pull the tale of a fluffy sheep stuck to the window and it would boin-n-n-g back up.
“I only stayed in the job a week and received one boin-n-n-g which was more than enough,” he says.
Working for niche trade magazines – the sort featured on Have I Got News For You – can test any media sales person wanting to prove his or her worth, however talented they might be.
One display sales executive worked for the Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications, a hugely successful niche publishing house which produces a host of woodworking and knitting related titles.
“I worked on Knitting Magazine and Machine Knitting News and had to talk to people who know nothing about advertising," she sighs.
“You also had to pretend you were knowledgeable about knitting and the different designers. I know knitting excites some people but it was not my cup of tea,” she says.
Another executive recalls the embarrassment he felt when working for an IT magazine publisher who ordered the salesman or woman who had taken the least number of orders in a particular week to wear a Dunces Hat in the office for a whole day. It wasn’t funny, just soul destroying.
One former employee of a now defunct small publishing house in South London recalls one time when he was on the phone and his boss stood over him looking irritated and waving a wad of £50 notes under his nose.
The rep put his caller on hold and was told by his irate manager that if he knew he would get this pile of money for closing the deal he would have done so by now. The salesman promptly made a sale but never got the money, just more abuse. He left the company soon afterwards.
Another reader recollects working for a business to business magazine publisher where if you returned from a meeting with an advertising agency without any orders the advertising manager would demand you make another appointment for the following week.
This policy backfired in a big way because the agencies being hassled became so annoyed that they refused to take calls from any rep working on the company’s various magazines.
In at the deep end
Someone keen to put memories of his time in the local press to the back of his mind is Mark Alford.
Today he runs a database publishing company called Storepoint, for retailers such as Tesco and a number of advertising agencies.
But, 16 years ago, he endured hell working for a regional publisher.
Alford was recruited to set up a free-sheet rival to The Argus in Brighton.
He recruited staff and rented an office in the middle of town, but before the launch he was shifted to Bournemouth to run the titles his employer had just acquired both there and in Portsmouth.
“I had no intelligence on the area and was being guided only by gut-feel, because the incumbent manager at Bournemouth was dismissed before I arrived so I was not briefed on what had been happening,” he says.
“My immediate reaction was to take stock and act quickly. It was a free and doing okay, but its cost base was too high. The management were struggling and the staff were totally demotivated – either hardly ever at work or on long-term sick leave, apart from one,” says Alford.
He remembers making one serious error, which made his job more difficult. “I met a young and bright sales girl who challenged me and what I was doing. My immediate reaction and the wrong decision was to sack her. I later found out she was my top sales person.”
The world of radio sales has its own stories of misery.
Paul Carolan is deputy sales manager at Virgin Radio these days, but he was involved in the media launch for TalkRadio in 1995, which he describes as his worst ever job.
“We started in a small office in Carnaby Street with six of us for the first few months.
The early days were filled with promise and potential, as all the research conducted suggested the launch would attract millions of listeners,” he says.
“Unfortunately, presenters such as Vanessa Feltz, Jeremy Beadle and Caeser the Geezer failed to appeal to listeners or clients.
“The phone didn’t ring for ages and morning sales meetings got more depressing as many bits of promised business dropped away.
The London media world was not reacting positively to the station’s shock-jock strategy,” he says.
“The commercial side of the station was not helped by one senior manager who refused to see a media director at a leading agency because, in his view: ‘The man’s an idiot, I fired him years ago and I’ll never go and see him.’ That same senior manager was sacked three weeks after the launch.”
Carolan adds: “I was regularly being shown letters from listeners who were complaining about the ads which were dominated by commercials for a verruca gel and ear wax remover.
“After 18 months, three sales directors and three programme directors, I called it a day and went to work for The Radio Times.”
Trawling for trash
If you spend enough time trawling through the world of media sales it becomes apparent that many, many people have had jobs they would rather forget.
Another former sales manager remembers being called at home by his publisher and told not to bother coming into the office as the car leasing company was busy repossessing the fleet of reps vehicles.
Most media sales people are aware of how credit control problems can make their job more difficult.
One ex-directory sales person recalls how her boss would demand a faxed confirmation of every order and if payment was not received within seven days she had to visit the advertiser in person to collect payment.
Media recruitment companies hear an abundance of stories from people who come to them after quitting a job from hell.
Paul Farrer, chief executive at recruitment agency PFJ, recalls an interview with one talented woman who had just been promoted to publisher at one of the country’s top businesstobusiness magazine houses.
He wondered why she wanted to move on so soon after being promoted. “She told me she was the only woman publisher and, at the first publishers’ meeting, in front of all her peers, a senior director had patted her on the bum and said ‘be a good girl luv and make the tea’,” he says.
Farrer could talk for hours about conversations he has had with candidates who have left a position because their boss or their workmates have made their job intolerable.
“In 1992, I interviewed a guy called Lee who had the nickname ‘deal of the week Lee’ because he did a big sales deal a week for a London radio station.
“I asked him why he wanted to go and he told me he had been ordered to leave by his manager who had the hots for the sales support girl he was seeing. It was made clear his life would be made extremely difficult if he stayed on.
One publishing team found it difficult to concentrate because a sales rep consistently farted in the office. Initially, this was seen as a humorous distraction but it soon became a problem as it was affecting everyone’s work.
Flatulence is a medical condition, so employers must tread extremely carefully before considering taking any disciplinary action against what they might initially perceive as laddish behaviour.
Many of the stories about jobs from hell can be laughed at and they do make people feel better about their own jobs, but there is a serious side to the whole issue of bad employers and unpleasant bosses.
Often people choose to leave a job because the commission has dried up or they feel like a career change but, says Tom Toher, senior consultant at recruitment firm Carreras Lathane, in many cases people are forced out of a job because they are being bullied in the office and are left traumatised.
Management must improve
“Over the past 20 years, a lot of money has been spent on management training in the media sales industry, but most of it seems to have gone in one ear and out of the other,” he says.
“In 2004, you would think things like bosses treating their female staff as their personal harem, shouting at employees and banging on tables would have gone – but they still exist. More managers need to realise they’ll get more out of people by helping them with their weaknesses and saying ‘well done’ occasionally.”
Since 1991, Denise Barlow has run a training company for advertising sales people called Denique.
She started her career in classified newspaper sales before moving into radio, and today she acts as a training consultant for media companies. She says managers must work harder at keeping their sales staff stimulated so employees have a positive mental attitude, knowledge of their own product and their competitors and pride in their company and their boss.
“I remember a newspaper publisher asking for my help to discover why one individual in the sales team was constantly demotivated, despite obviously being good at his job.
“We spent a lot of time trying to find out what made this person tick and by accident I discovered he suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder. I asked his boss which way his desk faced and was told this person does not have a desk but sat wherever there was room,” says Barlow. “I could not believe it and I explained that a person must feel a valued member of a team and have their own space.”
If you have a bad experience in the workplace it can put you off any industry for life.
Indeed, like elephants, people who suffer a media sales job from hell never forget.
How to avoid a job from hell
Nobody takes on a new job expecting it to become one of the worst times of their lives.
Yet, in media sales, the pressure to reach targets and the stress on managers to ensure his or her team performs can create the tensions that eventually forces people to seek a way out of a position which promised so much but delivered nothing but despair.
When things go wrong and a person can no longer work with certain colleagues or for a particular boss, it is time to get out.
Training and development expert Mandy CresswellPhilips says if a job becomes hell for someone they must leave sooner rather than later – or they will lose their nerve and their confidence.
“Nobody leaves school saying they want to go into media sales, people fall into it – some into a nice company and some into a bad company,” she says. “I used to recruit for media sales and it’s a good job for psychopath.
“If you wear the right suit and say the right things at interview you can usually get a job, especially in classified sales – which many publishers see as cannon fodder because they don’t expect staff to stay around for long.”
The key to avoiding entering a job from hell in the first place is to ask the right questions during the interview.
“Discover what training is promised and whether there is an appraisal process in place. Also, look at the faces of the other people in the office. Do they at least look happy?" says CresswellPhilips.
She adds that some people will stay in a bad job if the rewards are extremely good but, in many cases, companies only have themselves to blame if people leave.
“Often, the best salespeople are automatically promoted into management positions but they might not be the best managers.
This scenario can be bad news for members of the sales team who could soon be heading for the exit."