You knew something important was happening on campus the minute you saw the groundskeepers planting mums around the main entrance’s brick hedge signage that simply read Firmenich. Unless you worked here, or were even remotely in the business or knew someone who was, the site looked like a very successful company that makes and sells something, but you have absolutely no idea what, even if, on a good day, when the wind was just right, you’d get a faint whiff of something like that fruity fabric softener that was in the air on my first visit. Anybody driving by always wondered, and when they found out, their minds were blown. All the sign had on it was the company’s name as a three-dimensional white logotype. It was exactly as anonymous as the company wanted to be. From day one, every employee is instructed to never tell anybody who our customers are, or especially, any consumer goods we might be connected to. It was our customers that wanted it that way. Everybody just wants to go on believing that the product you are wearing or consuming just so happens to smell or taste the way it does simply because it is. Guess again.
Next to the Garden State Parkway, but actually closer to the NJ Turnpike, you’ll find the ‘Creative Corridor’ of pharma companies, CPGs, and fragrance and flavor ‘houses,’ as they’re referred to, forming a chemistry chain that ran from Manhattan to Philadelphia. Firmenich was smack in the middle, but third in the industry - at least when I joined the company. Innovators in the science of the senses since 1895, Firmenich is (currently) the largest privately-owned fragrance and flavor company in the world, but one of their main global competitors, IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances), not ten miles from the Firmenich Plainsboro campus, consistently battled us for the No. 2 spot, while Givaudan, also headquartered in Geneva, always seemed to be, and remains so, in the No. 1 spot. Of course, they’re both publicly traded companies, while Firmenich remains private, as well as anonymous. Like being the biggest thing you’ve never heard of, we’re talking about billions and billions of dollars, or better yet Swiss Francs (CHF), creating perfumes, tastes, and ingredients for their customers' products that will ultimately, and hopefully, delight consumers around the world.
Mickey was an old-school account manager at Douglas Samuel Advertising - the B-to-B agency I had sold Inhouse to. When I heard he HAD to go on a business trip, an overnight one no less, and the agency was going to pay for ALL his expenses, it sounded like a dream. Even if he was only going to Philadelphia. I thought to myself - some day, I'm gonna go on a real business trip. Closest I ever came to going on one before was when the Executive Producer, Milda, back in my early Korey Kay days, sent me to Washington D.C. with an unmarked briefcase containing a video tape, literally handcuffed to my wrist just to make a point, but I had to fly back that same day. Milda gave me lunch money and a hard time for not having an American Express card of my own. “Time to become an adult, Mikel,” was her motherly advice. Well-taken at that.
Going on a business trip seemed like it was such a grown-up thing to HAVE to do. My wish came true, when just four months into my new job, Alice sent me to both Paris and Geneva to meet important members of this global Creative Marketing network that I was now an integral part of. In Paris, it was with the Fine Fragrance team, being led by Danielle Chevalier, who was dressed like a Parisian from Salem, in Stevie Nicks meets Eric Bergère – whose fashion designs were inspired by Françoise Hardy and the garb of French schoolchildren with a little femme fatale mixed in for that witchy-chic you might expect to find from the very Madame who created the concept of a Creative Marketing Studio, or CMS, for Firmenich in the first place. In typical French fashion, she barely gave me the time-of-day.
The first and last time I had stayed at the NOGA Hilton in Geneva, was with my family, the summer before I left for ArtCenter. I vowed then, that someday, I WILL be back here. And, sure enough, there I was. Meeting, both Steven and Danielle’s boss, Marie-Claude Pasquier, for an early dinner at one of the most over-priced restaurants you’ll find on Quai du Mont-Blanc, Gastronomie Chinoise. Marie-Claude was in charge of the CMS for both Fine Fragrance and Body & Home Care, worldwide, although there were only Perfumery CMS’s in Geneva, Paris, and New York. Neither shy nor short, she stood about 193cm tall with butch-cut, Bloody Mary colored hair and a handshake with the grip of a real man. We sat down at our table, and before the waiter could pour our tea, she says point blank, “So tell me, Mikel, how in the hell did we find YOU?”