‘You’re Too Catholic’
Ad executive's faith put him to the test in corporate America
BY Jim Malerba
January 31 - February 6, 1999 Issue | Posted 1/31/99 at 1:00 PM
Fired from a large ad agency for disagreements he said arose from his firm Catholic beliefs, Brian Gail relied on his faith to help him face an uncertain future. It worked. After overcoming great adversity, he heads GailForce, a successful communications consulting firm in Philadelphia that has incorporated moral and ethical values as an integral part of its business practices. Gail spoke recently with Register correspondent Jim Malerba.
Malerba: You were high up in one of the world's largest ad agencies. What happened to change all that?
Gail: I was hired by Ted Bates as a senior vice president in 1979 in their New York office to help launch Home Box Office. I went with the blessing of my spiritual adviser in the Knights of Immaculata. That's a lay movement founded by St. Maximillian Kolbe in 1917 to counter Freemasonry and hatred for the Holy Father and Catholicism in general. My spiritual adviser felt it would be good to have a Christian presence in that business. HBO was experiencing a great loss of customers — about 40% of all who were subscribing to HBO — usually within six to eight months after signing on. My job was to do research and make recommendations to turn that around. Little did I know when I came on board at Bates that things would not be so positive.
What problems did you identify at HBO?
Right away, I could see their programming was just a horrific problem. When I started advising them, one in four of the movies they were showing were “R” rated. By the time I was fired, in 1983, three out of four movies they were showing were “R” rated. …
I discovered through my research that in most cases it was a husband who was subscribing, probably attracted by the “great” movies, the box office hits that the channel showed. The reason they were such hits was because 75 to 80% of the receipts from theaters were generated by teenagers. The husbands and fathers discovered pretty early on that those movies weren't so great after all.
But the person who actually got HBO out of the house was the mother, because she deeply resented this intrusion into their home. When she saw their husband and children watching this stuff, such as “10,” with Bo Derek swinging through the vines in her birthday suit, she saw it as a violation and then convinced her husband that this was no good. It was not worthy of their home.
At the time, HBO was pressuring us, the ad agency, to start a campaign that said a home isn't a home without HBO. I said a home isn't a home with it. I explained the reasons, and of course they didn't like that too much. I saw it as a fundamental problem and asked off the business. I just didn't want to work on it any more. HBO, however, insisted that I stay, and Bates insisted that I stay.
What did you do then?
I consulted with Father James McCurry, at that time head of the Knights of Immaculata in the United States, and my spiritual adviser in the Knights. As members, we consecrate ourselves to the Immaculate in heart, mind, soul, and body, and to live the consecration to the very best of our ability. … There were three conditions he gave me: I could not consent to the evil, which of course I did not; that I could not be involved in the production of evil; and that I speak out against it. I took all that very seriously and went back to my management and said, “I've got to speak out against it.” They said, “So what else is new? You've been speaking out against it.”
What was the reaction to all this at HBO?
I tried to put an alternative programming model in front of them, whereby the films they would show would have happy endings. This was really where it ought to be. That was what their own research indicated, with the mothers in particular, but with families in general, so people would be recreated and renewed when they watched the stuff. I told them this also would have a very positive influence on network television, which is trying to counterpro-gram HBO, and rather than have the whole thing spiral down, they could have it spiral up.
How were your proposals received?
The person at Time Inc. who was in charge of marketing saw it was in HBO's best interest to solve the marketing problem, so he supported me, but his counterpart, who was in charge of programming, took great exception when he saw what I was doing, and I was fired from the agency.
That's devastating, especially with such a large family to support.
Yes, it was. I felt abandoned. I was down in Bermuda with my wife, and I remember feeling desolate. At Mass one morning, I remember the reading from John's Gospel, which says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” When I read the word “useless,” it was like I was impaled on that word. I realized that what God was saying was, “Look, you did what you were trained to do, what you were supposed to do, what you were called to do. So what if you didn't achieve success? Who are you to expect success? How long have you labored in the vineyard?” John's words went right through me and made me realize my true identity. When I accepted that I began to have peace. And when I had peace the doors began to open and one thing led to another.
Would you call your firing a blessing in its own way?
From a career standpoint, it was the best move I ever made. I had seven children and I was doing very well, even being considered as a potential president of the Bates agency. As I fell, people just sort of shook their heads and said, “You're too Catholic.” I had heard that in my career more than once. The fact remains that Our Lady in particular has seen there is more than enough work, more than enough opportunities for me. She has watched over me and helped me. The Knights have been there every step of the way to help me. Every time I'm in a box and it appears there's no way out, a door suddenly springs open, and I am able to get through it. I look back and realize Mary's hand was in it. There have been nothing but good things that have happened to me ever since.
Your faith then made the difference in coming through your crisis?
I never saw being fired as an end. I had received four promotions and increased my income by 150% in the four years I was at the agency. I was on a very fast track; I was the third-youngest senior vice president in the history of that company. All of a sudden, I was out of work with seven kids. I was thinking the Lord let me down, but in truth I let the Lord down. I didn't have the finesse to take the whole issue forward in a way that would have been more effective. I was a passionate Irishman, and I think it made me sort of useless in how I handled the situation at HBO. Looking back, the Lord was preparing me to let his Mother work with me and make me a less useless servant, and maybe a little more useful. He was telling me the grace would be there for me, but if I were to be involved in doing good works, I had to die to self, because there's just too much self there.
How did your family accept the situation?
I have an extraordinary wife. I have to say that God's greatest gift to me, outside of himself and his Mother, is this woman I've been married to for nearly 30 years. She is such an extraordinary woman that she never hit the ground. I was the one who hit the ground. I hit it “splat,” terribly. She picked me up with the sheer strength of her faith. We've had a tremendous amount of suffering in our family, and did before I lost my job. In fact, there was so much that my job loss to everyone else in the family was not as big a deal. It was just a big deal to me.
From a faith standpoint, were you strengthened by what happened?
Absolutely. You can't say enough about the faith or devotion to Our Lady. I have a great passion for the deep mysteries, and they have only been enhanced through the suffering God chose to give us. Most important, the Eucharist is everything in life, the center of our existence. Whenever the Eucharist is placed on my tongue, its brilliant light shows me the way to do the right thing, whether in the family or in my professional life. It is Our Lady who leads us to daily Mass and who shows us how to do the right thing.
Let's talk a bit about your current enterprise, GailForce.
About two years ago, I was working for Aramark. I approached the president and said I wanted to start my own communications consulting business. The company agreed to help fund this company and became our first major client. We are now 20 months old and we work with CEOs on “branding” assignments, repositioning their products, and to help them change their organizations so they can become more competitive. We help fashion a message the company or CEO can use to position the company. We also have an internal message, to help company heads change the culture of their companies and get employees to understand the need for change and to help them understand the external pressures on the company. We help them create a vision, a mission, a set of values which they can urge their employees to do for the company to be successful. But we're also in business to help others and to promote moral and ethical values.
Do Catholic beliefs and business sense necessarily conflict?
Well first of all, if you do right by employees, clients, and the community, you will earn enough money to share it with the community, among others. My company is consecrated to the Knights of Immaculata, and one thing we have is what we call Virgin Vouchers. We take the first 10% of the company's profits and use them to fund full scholarships for minority children of single-mother homes. These kids attend parochial schools, and we currently have 23 enrolled under the vouchers program this year. I hope we'll double that number next year. We don't expect these scholarship children to change their religion, but we do give them a framed image of Mary, with the inscription, “I vouch for you” printed at the bottom. We hope the children will look on the image even years beyond their school years, and be affected by it.
Finally, what advice can you share with other business people?
Again, the Eucharist is the light to moral and ethical judgment. It melts resistance and heals hardness, through the Blessed Mother. When you live in the Eucharist, you receive the insight to do the right things. One secret I finally learned through my own tribulations is that in the womb, there is a perfect cross on our soul, through God's great gift and mystery. So many men go to their grave without knowing this. But if you recognize it, you are blessed. Remember, with every cross that comes our way, there also comes a unique gift. And I can honestly say that it has been through suffering that my life has been enriched the most.
— Jim Malerba
Current position: President of GailForce Communication Inc., a Philadelphia-based consulting firm specializing in corporate branding and change communication assignments.
Personal: He and his wife, Joan, have seven children. He is a former semiprofessional baseball player and currently a youth league coach.
Background: Holds a bachelor's degree and a master's of business administration degree from La Salle University, Philadelphia. Helped launch "Modern Volunteer Army" for the N.W. Ayer agency in the 1970s; helped the $6 million Aramark Corp. regain market momentum in the mid-1990s. Won several national awards from marketing associations. Serves on the World Affairs Council, the National Adoption Center, and the Salvation Army in the Philadelphia area.
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