The congregant goes to this this synagogue we visit when we're on vacation in Florida.
He owns a billboard company and was president of an ad agency and is "retired, but retirement is boring."
"Yes, the federal government does branding," I said. "But not the kind of branding like they do in advertising."
The rabbi's wife interrupted us. "I brought you your gluten-free cake," she said with a smile, sailing the clear glass serving tray onto the table and eyeing his plate. "You can have it after you finish eating your bagel."
So obviously bagels have gluten and I turned to her, a guest in the house of worship she and her husband maintained, not sure if I should be a wiseass.
But she seemed very in on the joke and so I said, "consistent" and gave a little chuckle, as did she, but not the congregant who seemed a bit more focused on the fact that there was an entire chocolate cake sitting there, and apparently, just for him.
"Tell me what you do," the man said to me.
I did not especially want to explain what I do, because it was Shabbos and frankly what I do is very hard to understand unless you're "in it." So I said, "well my day job is to communicate for the federal government," and then I got a little more specific about the where and the when and the how.
"If you want to know the problem with the government," he said - which is what most people seem to want to tell me, given an opportunity - "it's regulation. All of that is well and good, but the businessman can't get things done."
"Tell me about David Ogilvy," I said. "Did you know him?"
"Oh, Ogilvy." He nodded. "Ogilvy was an old man when I was in the business."
"Maybe you could interview him," said my husband.
But I sensed that the man did not want to be interviewed, he had something to say and it was Shabbos and not time for business, so I would sit back and let him say it.
Or rather, ask.
"How do you do branding?" he asked.
I was sort of surprised at this question, coming from an "ad man." Did he mean how do you brand the government or how do you do branding in general?
So I proceeded with where we had started the conversation, and after that discussed the second thing.
"Like I said, I don't do branding for the government like in the private sector, because we can't do propaganda."
He looked at me almost quizzically.
I decided that perhaps regular people don't overthink this subject as much as I do, they aren't as sensitive because they're not in the Washington world, and so I'm talking on a level that seems somewhat ridiculous. Do you do branding or not? If so, how do you do it? That was the question.
"We do a name and a logo for authenticity," I said. "But we don't promote ourselves for the sake of self-promotion. We are very sensitive to that in D.C., because it isn't allowed."
He looked at me. There was a little piece of chocolate cake stuck on the right side of his lip. I decided I would never tell him that.
"Sounds very frustrating," he said.
There was a silence.
We were silently in agreement. Not uncomfortable.
This guy, whoever he was, completely understood my situation.
"That is why I study branding on the side," I said in response. "I've written about it for fifteen years. Recently I started a business."
He looked at me. "Guess which one of those ladies over there is my wife."
We were seated at a long and skinny rectangle inside the shul and he was pointing to a circular table about twenty feet away from us, positioned toward the side.
"We've been married for almost fifty years," he said. "We started dating in high school."
This was a more normal conversation for Shabbos and I didn't mind digressing from my business, and my plans, a bit. "That one," I said, pointing to a woman in black sunglasses, her blonde hair slicked back into an elegant bun.
"Who?" said my husband. "The lady in the black shirt?"
"Yes, that's her," said the man proudly. "How did you know?"
I couldn't explain it. I knew.
"So back to the question," said the man. "How do you do branding?"
"It's pretty straightforward," I responded happily.
In my mind it felt like some kind of quiz, and the dean of Madison Avenue was quizzing me. It was a relief from the oppressive nature of shul.
While it is true that I think about G-d quite a bit, I also find it quite suffocating to think about the many levels of guilt I should be feeling at any given moment. Synagogue always reminds me.
And branding is a welcome distraction. Like chess.
"First you determine what it is you have to sell," I said. "What makes it different, compelling, important to the user."
"Then you figure out who the competition is. How are other people selling the same essential thing?"
He nodded. "Go on."
"Then you have to determine who the audience is. Who will pay for this stuff?"
"...and what are the communication methods they use to take in information? How will you break through the information overload?"
He just kept nodding. Keep in mind, this is a man with a billboard company.
"Once you know what your product is and what makes it special, and you know who you're selling it to, and you know how they take in information, and you've figured out how you're going to get past all the other people fighting for their attention, you're in a position to reach them, and market your brand."
"All good." He smiled at me, kindly.
I really wanted to give him a business card.
It was Shabbos.
You cannot. He wouldn't even want it.
The rabbi approached my husband and I to wish us well on our journey. "It was such a pleasure to have you here," he said, with genuine warmth. "I hope that you will visit us again."
There are a few people in the world who radiate light. This rabbi, of this shul, is one of them.
"Thank you, rabbi," my husband said and I said, both more or less in unison.
Looking sadly at the exit.
Vacation almost over.
"I guess I have to go now," I said to the semi-retired advertising executive, still enjoying the gluten-free cake. "What was your name again?"
I had half in mind to contact him after Shabbos. Business development.
He repeated his first name and bid us goodbye.
That's G-d telling you that there are limits.
My husband held the door open for me.
I walked out, and I wanted to look back and look.
"Just keep walking," he said. "It's only another fifteen years."