Monday, November 29, 2010

Opening an agency in Greece

We opened our agency in Greece during the Junta. It was the late sixties.
The same person, Tom Pappas, represented our two most important clients, Coca-Cola and Esso; he was a Greek American that came back to Greece for the business opportunities.

He was a very important guy in Greece at that time and his name carried lots of weight, as I found out at the airport when I arrived.

I had previously come to Greece before the Junta, and the airport was a very casual place. I remember sheep on the runway and people coming to the plane as we landed. I may be wrong about that, but that is the image I have. It was a different Greece before the Junta. I arrive and realize the difference when my passport is requested a few times, the airport personnel were much more buttoned up, almost an imitation Switzerland.

I was really happy to be back in Greece and was using my crummy Greek. Finally I get to customs, I spoke to him in Greek, big mistake. I had a can of film, commercials for Esso and Coke, as well as my suitcase.
He immediately said open your suitcase, and asked me what various items were. He asked about very simple things, shoes, shirts shaving kits etc. He was a supercilious shit, very impressed with his uniform. I finally got a little sarcastic, when he asked what something was, I said. “Here is something you have never seen before in your life, it is trousers and a jacket that match, it is called a suit.” He went nuts and attempted to remove a gun that he didn’t have. Lots of screaming, I immediately became an American and forgot my Greek, I innocently asked in English “what was the matter?” I was really nervous about having to explain the reel of commercials I had with me.

In those days Greece had tourist police, they wore a shiny metal helmet and spoke various foreign languages. Fortunately, one came over; he spoke English and asked me what was wrong? The customs guy kept screaming that I was Greek, and I kept asking. “What is he saying, he seems really upset.”

The cop asked what I was in Greece for and I used the then magic name, I said, “I am here to see Tom Pappas.” Things changed immediately, straight out to a taxi and I continued the innocent Gringo. “How much will a taxi cost to the Hilton?” He said it would cost 30 drachmas, or some ridiculously low price.

He then told the cab driver were I was going and the cost he quoted me.

A not very happy cab driver took off, looking in his mirror at me. I tried to engage him in conversation with my Greek that had mysteriously come back. No response, or a reluctant nod occasionally. At 30 drachmas on the meter he shut it down, about half way to the Hilton. I told him to keep it on, no way was he going to do that, he did not know who I was, secret police, CIA, or what.

These were difficult times in Greece, everybody was afraid; people could not congregate, 5 people or more, and the cops showed up. Everybody seemed nervous and apprehensive.

When we got to the hotel, I tipped him generously to make up for the fare that he didn’t charge.
I finally got him to talk a bit, once he realized I was not secret police or the CIA, he told me how hard it was under the Junta. He drove me around for the next few days that I was in Athens. I remember that and find it strange that some people today remember the Junta with nostalgia.

Finally I go to the meeting with Tom Pappas with my boss, the head of Europe. We present what we are doing on Esso and Coca-Cola in the rest of Europe. After questioning me about my Greekness, where my family was from, where I grew up in the States etc., he suspiciously asks, how come the only Greek working in Europe, me, happens to be working on the two accounts he runs. He finally reluctantly believes that I do. We get the accounts and open McCann Athens, with a great Greek partner.

He gave us sets of worry beads with the Esso Pappas logo, the only place in the world where Esso has another name attached to it.

I am amazed it wasn’t also called Coca-Cola Pappas.

Very weird businesses trip too, at that time, a rather weird place.

I refused to come to Greece then to run the agency. I eventually did, but much later.

Be wary of customs agents in countries with a Junta.


  1. What a story. Had to be quite an experience that people did not, or could not, appreciate your sense of humor and had to have such reaction. Did you see "Z" before, or after yhis experience? It's a good thing you said "Tom Pappas". I assume he didn't sell frozen custard.