REPOST: ‘Stalin’ — PR con(sigliere)man to the ‘stars’
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was written by an employee of ‘Stalin’. He’s had it taken down for identifying him. Naturally, I was extremely eager to assist in making sure he was given an appropriate pseudonym.
I first met Stalin at The Ivy members club for a job interview. Though at the time I remember thinking it was an odd choice of venue for a job interview, I also can’t deny feeling impressed as I thought surely it must be a sign of the business’ success, which I now realise is textbook Stalin behaviour; the facade of a lifestyle he so desperately tries to emulate.
Initially nervous, I was quickly put at ease by his smiles and nods of agreement as I explained why I thought I’d be a good fit for the role. Similar to so many others, I was fooled by what I perceived to be charming, albeit eccentric behaviour. I was disarmed by his enthusiasm for my ideas and my experience, and excited by the promise of an attractive salary. Little did I know just how much of it was smoke and mirrors. If I’d known then what I know now, there would have been no amount of money he could have offered that would have persuaded me to work for him.
It only took a few days for me to realise that he demanded perfection and would tolerate nothing less. Those who did not meet his standards of zero mistakes, ever, (a mistake ranging anywhere from an accidental extra space in a tweet to not joining a Zoom meeting within the first minute of it starting) would quickly be on the receiving end of a public persecution. A tirade of verbal abuse over the company communication tool, Slack. A 500-word rant that included popular accusatory phrases such as “what went wrong here?”, “how did this happen?” And usually ending in the only slightly passive aggressive “Anyway, learning curve. Onwards and upwards.” These outbursts could happen at any time though they mostly took place between 4–5am when Stalin would wake up and decide what it was he was going to have a wildly disproportionate overreaction to that day. This of course meant that the staff member in the firing line on this occasion would wake up to a barrage of notifications (it was compulsory to have the Slack app on our phones and we were not permitted to switch off notifications) scolding them for what was an innocent, and usually trivial mistake.
I suppose what was most surprising however were my colleagues’ ambivalence towards it all. The team members didn’t seem to take it seriously and would simply roll their eyes and huff to themselves as they saw the words ‘Stalin is typing’ appear on their screens. As the new person however, I was terrified. Though Stalin rarely actually came into the office — usually only once or twice a month. As a “jet setter businessman”, again something I quickly realised he simply wanted to give the impression of being, he would spend two weeks of every month in the U.S., supposedly in endless meetings with ‘prospective clients.’ Individuals whom he had his executive assistant systematically email every week on a rota until they agreed to meet with him. Miraculously this strategy seemed to work, no doubt coupled with the impressive names he’d had on his podcast, KGB Masters and the embellished, exaggerated or downright false stories he’d tell of shoulders he’d rubbed, CEOs he’d worked with who were “close personal friends” or exclusive red carpet events he’d allegedly attended. Every once in a while he would somehow manage to secure a meeting with a ‘big name’ and what was in reality most likely no more than an agreement to the possibility of working together at some point in the future, to Stalin, was the securing of a client. An iron-clad agreement to work with him in his mind. An agreement which would quickly be enforced with demands of an upfront payment of tens of thousands of dollars for the first three-month’s work for said ‘client’. This meeting would then be followed by an immediate debrief call from Stalin with us, regardless of the time of day (i.e. this call once took place at 8pm because it was only 3pm for him in New York and we were expected to be available 24/7), whereby he would instruct us to put together a proposal within a few days that would convince the client in question to pay the upfront ‘investment.’
A proposal that needed to include research, competitor analysis, campaign ideas, media and speaking opportunities we would secure, events planning, content strategy, white paper topics, but also had to be no more than two A4 pages. A proposal filled with promises our meagre team of less than ten employees would never be able to deliver. Not only because many of us lacked the skills and experience to organise huge events that would attract the level of coverage he had assured (most of the team were only in their second or third jobs) but also because we soon realised his ‘little black book of contacts’ never materialised into real opportunities. When Stalin wasn’t burning air miles across America, the rest of his time was spent either working from home or from The Ivy, using it as a prestigious location to ‘woo’ potential clients. I assume they would probably have been somewhat less impressed by the cramped office in the shared work space.
Unsure of how to feel about this surreal environment in which I now worked, I kept my head down and tried to avoid making any mistakes. I realised the majority of the team members seemed to be surviving by indulging his eccentricities with nervous, uncomfortable laughter or simply trying to ignore it. Eccentricities that included shockingly inappropriate language and crude jokes that were intended to make you wince with distaste. Offensive and often disgusting anecdotes masquerading as ‘banter.’
Three months in and I was ready to resign. I really wish I had. Colleagues had shared their experiences of consistently receiving their salaries late (a regular occurrence I soon encountered as well) and stories of former employees being fired without notice for no reason. I was so unhappy I confided in a senior member of the team. Stalin spoke to me about my concerns and reassured me the culture would change. Things were going to get better. I would come to hear this adage a lot over the next year.
Unfortunately, however, it was more of the same. Things worsened, in fact. Constant staff turnover, several office moves (one of which included doing a runner as Stalin broke the contract by refusing to give notice and pay what he owed — a running theme, you’ve undoubtedly noticed) and ludicrous promises to clients or potential clients including, but not limited to, front covers of publications such as GQ and Forbes, your very own TV series, tickets to Davos, and my personal favourite, a knighthood for Calvin Harris.
I was riddled with anxiety and petrified of making a mistake. I couldn’t ‘switch off’, partly because we were expected not to, and partly because I’d developed an unhealthy addiction to the adrenaline-fuelled ‘everything is urgent’ culture he’d propagated. I wasn’t alone in my terror. As Stalin consistently issued mass firings or “company restructuring” as he called it, I saw 90% staff turnover and those that were hired to replace former employees seemed to have similar criteria. Young, inexperienced, and often female. Staff members who wouldn’t challenge him over the expectation to work 12–14 hour days with no breaks (lunch hours were highly discouraged). We formed a camaraderie in our shared contempt, all doing what we could to support one another and try to ensure no one would be on the receiving end of one of his daily chastisements.
I finally reached breaking point after over a year and a half of working for him. It wasn’t so much a single instance that pushed me over the edge but rather the culmination of months upon months of what I now recognise to be emotional manipulation and abuse. Whether it was witnessing my team members and friends being publicly humiliated over a typo, or seeing screenshots Stalin had sent around the team to sow seeds of mistrust amongst us, I knew I had to leave. I was living in constant fear of the next admonishment, the next lie I would be expected to go along with, the next sudden firing and whether this time, it would be my head on the chopping block. My family and friends all expressed their relief that I was no longer under Stalin’s control. No longer taking part in dodgy dealings that could potentially damage my reputation and future career. No longer having to answer to a tyrant (as Stalin would often jokingly call himself). I was free. I am free.
And even though I’m still owed salary like so many others, nothing compares to the comfort of having escaped from that hellhole. If there was one piece of advice I could offer to anyone who has the misfortune of crossing paths with Stalin, it would be to avoid him at all costs.