My Wick Allison MBA

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Wick Allison (1948–2020)

Yesterday, Dallas — and a specific group of brilliant writers, sellers, artists, accountants, hustlers, misfits and dreamers — lost a dear friend, mentor and father figure. D Magazine founder and publisher Wick Allison left us last night, taken by his umpteenth battle with cancer.

I haven’t worked with Wick daily since 1999; been in business with him since 2009; or seen him more than a couple times a year since 2012. But even absent this reason to think back on him, if you asked me who the three people who had most influenced my career and adult life, the answer would be Wick.

We alumni of D, almost regardless of era, share an inefable connection. (I say almost, because like the only other person I can think of so connected to his creation over so many years, Lorne Michaels, Wick had a relatively brief intermezzo in the early nineties.)

Having worked for Wick is an experience unto itself and connects us, for some ill, but mostly good. I could meet a stranger who worked for Wick for six months forty years ago, and we could have a daylong conversation without a lull. While the details might differ, the stories would rhyme. Within minutes we’d be finishing each other’s sentences, because the connection, the man, is indelible and familiar.

My first meeting with Wick terrified me. I was a twenty-three-year-old in a forty-year-old’s job, making it work via instincts, luck and the general organizational incompetence of a magazine relaunch making me look less bad. He was newly-hired to come back and run the magazine he’d founded and left a decade earlier. I figured I was toast, knowing the legend of a mercurial genius who suffered no fools; had allegedly fired people on a whim over the company intercom; and had edited an edition of The Bible. I also had good intel that he intended to get rid of me quickly, considering the importance of the title and the green-ness of its holder.

I didn’t get to see much of him those first few days, which wasn’t a good sign. Then, disaster struck. Our over-his-head owner came out of a meeting with Highland Park Village about a perceived problem with a special section and I was the first person he saw. “Way to screw up that section and cost us money, Mike!” he barked. (Narrator: He had nothing to do with the section.)

We were just outside Wick’s door, but he took no notice.

I hadn’t slept in about ten days. We were trying to get an issue out while moving the office and this same owner had created a cluster of problems for me by trying to barter the movers; not getting phone lines for half the staff; and making no allowances for production computers.

I lost it. There was shouting, cursing, and when he tried to diffuse things by claiming, “I’m just jiving you, man,” I picked him up by the jacket, pressed him to the wall and bellowed, “your f-ing jive has gotten OLD.”

I got a call the next morning that Wick wanted to see me. I decided to go out on a high road and came in head bowed and apologizing.

In response, he gave me the Wick look. We all know it. It’s a cock of the head and a slight slack to the jaw followed by silence. My first Wick lesson: The best way to unfold things often is to say nothing and force the other party to ramble on.

I did. Stuttering and stammering for what felt like a whirling eternity. Finally, he interrupted, with little-changing countenance:

“Boy, what in the hell are you talking about?” Wick had no Southern accent except while uttering the word “Boy,” which always became multi-syllabic.

I was so taken aback that I lost my nervous stammer.

“Yesterday? When I threw the owner of the magazine against the wall while screaming obscenities with clients in the building?”

Then it came, the bellowing laugh far bigger than the slight frame that carried it. “Mike,” he said, “don’t you dare apologize for that. It was well-deserved. Just never do that to me and we’re going to get along fine.”

“Now let’s talk about how to get that paper mill to fix its pricing.”

——————-

Working for Wick was so full of lessons (and counter-lessons), I like to say I got a street MBA in publishing at D. The curriculum also extends to public life, to being a “citizen in the classical sense,” as Wick would say.  Some selected highlights:

Don’t sweat the details in business.

Wick had a preternatural sense for knowing that people who believe in a vision or a leader will instinctually take slay the devil in the details, so he blissfully and stubbornly refused to engage in them, unless they were words or aesthetics.

I came up during the relaunch of D, when we were on the verge of going out of business every month. When I or our accountant tried to explain the ramifications and options, he’d revert to the silent, slack-jawed blink. When he’d finally tire of our blather, he’d announce the end of the conversation by slapping the table, jumping to his feet and trailing off, “you’ll find a way,” as he scampered off to hang over the art director’s shoulder and deliver a pixel-level re-cropping of a feature photo.

And we always did. He knew we would, so there was no sense in him fretting over it.

Sweat the details in the product.

Wick was a study in contrasts in terms of how magnanimously he could forgive the biggest business mistake and yet be vicious in the smallest perceived misstep in content and visuals.

In the late eighties (in Wick’s absence), D art directors had played with the signature square logo in photo illustrations, like a D in a TV for a cover on television production. In my era, Wick openly considered any variation in the square D with the signature red to be a fireable offense, no questions asked. To this day I know that the Pantone color is number 485.

Wick would read every word in the magazine down to the listings, before publication. He would tear up an entire layout at 7 PM on the day after we were supposed to go to press and then go home, leaving us to figure it out. He once had me spend the entire year’s retouching budget making a cover featuring a mayoral candidate look as good as he thought it should. He would call me during press checks with suggestions for changing headlines.

Did each of these individual minor changes make D a magazine worth resurrection, at the cost of considerable personal inconvenience to those doing the work? No. Did they in aggregate make the difference? Absolutely. To this day I think about what Wick would do as one pole in a never-ending quality vs efficiency calculus.

At one point, our downtown office was wedged between floors of one of the earliest internet porn companies (below us) and its executive offices (above). We had a constant stream of angry boyfriends, husbands and fathers coming through our offices to take the stairs to confront the proprietors. Wick’s biggest concern about this arrangement was the notion that they might pass the wall where we had the upcoming issue dummied with pages in progress and leak what we were covering next.

And his people were product deserving of tweaking too. When he promoted me to associate publisher, I was known for mostly wearing shorts and sandals. He deputized his assistant and a savvy sales-rep and sent us to Stanley Korshak on barter to buy the two best suits I’ve ever owned, sending us out only with the admonition, “Don’t let him pick out anything!”

Reality is overrated.

Maybe a corollary to the above, but deserving of its own mention, Wick’s refusal to acknowledge facts and logic counter to what he wanted, was legendary. When I first heard of Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field, I knew exactly how it worked.

The most frustrating thing for someone on the receiving end of this is the eventual realization that despite all evidence to the contrary, Wick was right, and you would have missed big-time if you had insisted on reality.

I’m still a Padawan on this front, but I can attest that properly deployed, this tactic is the best way to get remarkable performance out of a team or an employee. Wick and I would disagree on the frequency of use — I believe in doubling down on it every couple years. Wick literally breathed it, so the daily examples are incalculable.

Money is just fuel for doing great things for your city.

D has made and lost and made a lot of money over the years. In our days, cash was particularly dear, but that didn’t slow Wick’s roll one bit.

In the first year that we were going to squeeze out a profit, there was a movement to get the Pegasus atop the Magnolia Building spinning again. Wick dragged me to the civic kickoff meeting, where absent only oversized checks, an altar call of corporate citizens started announcing $250,000 donations to the cause.

I was startled out of boredom with the entire event when Wick stood up, joining the Bank of Americas, Texas Utilities and others by announcing D was chipping in the same.

Walking back to the office, for the first and perhaps only time I knew him, I started yelling at him. This was our entire profit margin for the year in a fledgling relaunch. He graciously let me finish; then shrugged and said, “that’s what I’m doing.”  

I was the beneficiary of a similar instinct (and probably caused some latter-day advisor similar consternation) when I launched Pegasus News. An early investor called Wick and asked if I was worth investing in.

Wick fell into the trap by saying yes. And then, when he was called on to pony up, he did so with no clear articulation of why he would invest in a potentially competitive digital product, other than it would be good for somebody to push The Dallas Morning News digitally. And on the strength of that endorsement, we raised the rest of the money.

Give ridiculous, over-the-top recommendations

When I left D, Wick wrote me a recommendation letter and sent it to everyone he knew in the business. I wish I’d saved it.

I remember that it was, like any Wick letter, short, to the point, but illustrative. (Current team members, yes, that’s who I’m aping in my emails.) He called me a “broken-field runner,” and I still crib that line when asked what my top skill is. I only believe it’s true because Wick said it.

Around 2001, I got a job solely on Wick’s say-so. The offer came before an interview, and it was simply off of a call asking Wick for candidates. I was told that he had been “brief and convincing.”

I measure my relationship with employees based on the recommendation letters I write for them, and I judge every missive based on how well it resembles a Wick Allison laudatory.

Keep bail money handy

Wick believed that you should always bail out your employees when they land in jail. Initially, that seemed to be a freedom of the press thing, but as I learned, it extended to unpaid speeding tickets racked up taking film to the FedEx to send to the printer.

He even bailed out our part-time collections guy who was also a bounty hunter and lunchtime strip-club aficionado, when he got busted for drugs. But when he found out that the guy lied about which drugs and how much, he fired him, but didn’t ask for the money back.

There’s never a bad time to talk business

I worked for Wick in the era before people talked about things like work-life balance and being well-rounded, etc, and at an age where I didn’t have family who needed my attention.

Wick didn’t do small talk. He struggled to feign interest in whatever was happening outside our shared world, but he would make any employee (or passerby) with an idea and the chutzpah to pitch it feel seen and heard. Back in my day, that meant afternoon symposia in the smoking lounge (Wick’s office) and almost nightly happy hours at Gatsby’s Bicycle Bar at The Dallas Grand (now again, The Statler, and my office home). In these, on a good night, a rotating cast would divine a dozen ways to save the city while making some coin.

In later years, we’d have lunch a couple times annually, and I wouldn’t even be in the chair before he started pitching some new idea or asking what I knew about fresh thinking in some arcane sector of publishing.

I don’t know that I ever had a conversation with Wick that didn’t involve a startup idea, unless it was about fly-fishing.

I’ve never fly-fished.

Once you’re alumni, it’s forever

It’s amazing how many people worked for Wick multiple times, sometimes three tours of duty, often interspersed with an angry departure. Wick inspired strong emotions, and working with a dynamo gets exhausting for all but a few, running a marathon at sprint pace. You were always grateful for the respite of his annual fishing retreat.

From the beginning, I knew Wick had an unending love and respect for his alumni. My job got saved early on because an alum vouched for me. Any alum who called for help or a meeting got bumped to the top of the calendar, as though they were a major advertiser or a city leader. Wick would always say, “my calendar is embarrassingly open,” even when it wasn’t true.

I only did one tour, and I remember the day I decided to leave, knowing I wanted to try my own ventures and that there was only room for one Wick in a company like D. A very young Gillea Allison was tearing through the office playing with some toy or other. Wick slapped his young associate publisher on the back and declared, “Just think, Mike — someday you’ll be working for her!”

Gillea’s now the president of the company, and it’s in excellent hands.

And the alumni network maintains a connection and mutual understanding. I work with four D alums now. Anybody who’s done a stint has my respect and my attention, always.

I’m blessed to have been at D for a moment, and to have received the jumpstart of a Wick Allison masterclass. Godspeed, friend.

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.