How Not to Embarrass Yourself at Your Agency Holiday Party

Lawson Clarke was awakened at 7 a.m. the morning after his 2006 office holiday party by a call from his parents. “Have you seen the Boston Herald yet?” they wanted to know. There, splashed across its pages, was a photograph of Clarke, at the time a copywriter at Arnold Worldwide, naked but for a Santa Claus bikini, clinging to a stripper pole at his office party.


“It was my personal highlight/lowlight if we’re talking about office parties,” Clarke told Digiday this week. He had been egged on, he said, by his creative director. But he takes total responsibility for going a little overboard that year. “It seemed like a great idea at the time.”

Famous last words. With holiday office party season upon us, Digiday took the initiative to canvas a few agency veterans — and one etiquette expert — for office soiree Dos and Don’ts. As anyone who’s seen the John Deere office party episode of “Mad Men” knows, things can get a little dicey at these functions. Clarke himself will be in the middle of an edit during this year’s office shindig, which, he said, “is probably a good thing.”

For those less fortunate, some helpful hints and cautionary horror stories:

DO: Act like a professional.
Every business — and every company within that business — has its own culture. Advertising tends to attract a slightly more, shall we say, progressive type of person than others. (Goodby Silverstein once had a party on a boat that was so scandalous the firm was banned from the cruise line.) An office holiday party is still a business affair, even if you might witness middle managers making frightfully poor life decisions. “That means that you have to still act in what would be an acceptable and professional manner for your company or your industry,” said Hilka Klinkenberg, founder of Etiquette International. Sounds like a drag, perhaps, but fortunately the context of the ad business can provide a certain amount of behavioral leeway. “You’re being judged by your peers and people more senior to you.” Translation: do the craziest stuff at the after-party.

DON’T: Put pressure on yourself.
Holiday parties can be a bit like New Year’s Eve parties. Everyone either utterly dreads them — or looks forward to them a little too much. Relax. It’s just one day. After all, the last thing you want to be is the person who goes all out on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s strictly Amateur hour. “Don’t put pressure on yourself to make this a night to remember,” said Chapin Clark, managing director of copywriting at R/GA. “If it does become memorable, chances are it won’t be for good reasons. There will be many more parties in your young life. Make an ass of yourself at someone else’s party.”

DO: Pace yourself.
There will almost certainly be an unofficial after-party — and it’s guaranteed to be more fun than the proper event. Enjoy your wine, but not too much. Oh — and dinner. “Eat one,” said Clark. “Don’t forget to eat.” Of course, be particular about the food. You don’t want a bad combination turning you into that Mediaedge staffer during an upfronts party a few years back. (Or “the mashed-potatoes guy,” which will remain unexplained for reasons of decorum.)

DON’T: Drink the first thing you’re offered.
“Do not accept the sugar-rich novelty cocktail or glass of cheap sparkling wine they offer you on the way in,” said Clark. “That’s the first step toward hushed, somber conversations and worried glances as you walk down the hall the morning after.” To say nothing of the hangover.

DO: Pretend to drink.
Peer pressure, weirdly, has become a more potent force in adulthood than it ever was in high school. Worried about looking like a chump for not wanting to get soused? Grab a Coke and a smile. Have a seltzer with a twist. “If you’ve got a Coke in your hand, nobody knows if it’s got rum in it,” said Klinkenberg. “You don’t want to be the one who has to go around the next morning apologizing to people and explaining your bad behavior.”

DO: Bail out.
There’s no shame in an Irish goodbye if you feel yourself starting to lose your grip on sobriety. “Eject. Abort,” said Clark. “No one cares when you leave. You’re not going to miss anything that good. Really.”

DO: Meet new people.
Nobody likes the clique that only sticks to themselves. Use the party as an excuse to mingle, schmooze with senior executives and meet people in other departments. It’s best to be drunk when you’re talking with the IT people anyway. “This is a great opportunity to get into a conversation with people who you might not normally get next to, like your boss’s boss. All sorts of people,” said Klinkenberg. “It can help you get ahead in the company.”

DON’T: Have sex with them in the office.
Sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes agency people act like they have no brains. Look no further than the infamous BBDO couple, whose cubicle copulating was spotted, filmed and leaked online. “Even though it’s a holiday party, it could set the firm up for sexual harassment or other legal suits,” cautioned Klinkenberg. “This is not a time to satisfy your lust.”

DON’T: Wake up in the office.
It’s more or less a given that people are going to drink. Some may even imbibe to excess. But before you go gentle into that black out, make sure you have an escape plan. You definitely don’t want to still be on-site when you come to. “You can pass out anywhere you want, just do not wake up in the office,” said Arnold’s Clarke. “More importantly, don’t wake up in somebody else’s office.”

DO: Read the invitation.
If you’re not supposed to bring any guests, don’t bring your girlfriend. If it tells you the attire is formal, don’t come in overalls and clogs. “I find more and more people are bringing uninvited guests,” said Klinkenberg. “It’s unacceptable.”

DO: Own it.
If you are going to really go for it at your office party, don’t hold back — and don’t pass the buck. Take a cue from Clarke, who knew in his heart of hearts — even in the moment — that his bikini-clad pole dance was perhaps not his most dignified hour. “It’s when you hear that many people cheering that loud that you think, ‘This is probably not a good idea,’” he recalled, dimly. “Then I figured, ‘Well, you’re already up here, so you may as well bring it.’”

DON’T: Do cocaine off a colleague’s desk and leave him a note saying that you were doing cocaine off his desk.
True story. This happened. We can’t tell you where though.

DON’T: Dance with the call girl your boss brought.
Stripper Pole Clarke is a second generation ad guy whose father, by all accounts, could out-Draper the don himself. One year, Clarke pere thought it would be funny to have one of the guys in creative arrive with a stripper and tell everyone that she was his cousin. She hit the dance floor and, without taking her clothes off, she suggestively and aggressively danced with several executives. “Nine times out of 10, the girl would get a little familiar, and the guys were like, ‘Whoa’,” said Clarke. “But one guy took the bait and went all in. His wife was there. They ended up getting divorced.”

DON’T: Let an underpaid underling plan your holiday party.
At one holiday party for Rumrill-Hoyt, an agency in Rochester, N.Y., the Santa they hired shocked everyone with a surprise strip show. “Resplendent with handmade tattoos, [he] stripped to a dirty jock strap, leapt onto a table and began bumping and grinding to the tunes coming out of a tiny tape recorder near his feet,” Laurie Mercer, who no longer works for the agency, told CBS News. Turns out, it wasn’t a prank: Some newly hired, low-level assistant got stuck with planning the soiree, “and when the party house manager offered to throw in a ‘naked Santa’ for $50, it seemed like a good idea.”

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