If I told you about it I'd have to shoot you

It might
be a top-level secret, but glamorous it is not. Life on a special
project isn’t always so special, finds Tammy Cohen”I could tell you
what it is, but I’d have to shoot you afterwards!”

How many times
have I heard those words, always delivered with a rueful jolly chuckle
at the end? How many times have I said them?

Fact Number One about life on a special project: it is boringly, mindnumbingly repetitive.

Fact
Number Two: despite the James Bond-style title, Special Projects is
relentlessly unglamorous. No one is supposed to know you exist. The
team is invariably housed in the dingiest of locations. Offices are
hired in run-down areas of town, or hidden in industrial estates miles
from the nearest tube and a world away from a Pret a Manger.

Or,
if you’re lucky, you’re allocated a windowless backroom in the main
publishing building. But you have to go in through the side entrance.
And up the stairs. Lots of stairs.

Having miraculously gained
entrance without being clocked by one of the SWAT teams of spies the
publishers would believe routinely prowl London’s streets on the
lookout for Unplaced Former Editors Acting in a Suspicious Manner, the
fun really begins.

As anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to
pass an interminable Monday incommunicado waiting for IT to return a
call will verify, it’s hard enough getting set up on the company
computer system at the best of times. Try doing that if you don’t
officially exist.

“I’m working on Project X,” you tell the bored
voice that eventually answers the phone at the humorously named “help
desk”. Blank silence. “No, I can’t tell you my name, or the name of my
manager. No, we don’t want to be connected to the main server in case
someone discovers what we’re doing.” Click.

Ditto stationery, post and accounts.

Being in special projects is like entering a bizarre Kafka-type nightmare. The bureaucracy exists – but you don’t.

Worst possible combination.

But at least you’re not alone, right?

Well yes and no.

Typically
a special project will start with just two of you – three if you’re
lucky. One to do features, one to do art and one optional one to do all
the other magazine jobs normally carried out by an entire fully
functioning staff. You’ll be stuck in a room with these one or two
people for eight hours a day, five days a week. No interruptions (how
can there be phone calls when no one on reception knows you’re there?),
no distractions. Just you.

Special Project Fact Number
Three: no matter how few of you there are, one will always be
undergoing a major life crisis. I’ve done special projects with people
going through deaths of parents, agonising divorces, and, memorably,
even a fully fledged nervous breakdown.

This is fine in an office
of 30 people, but when it’s just the two or three of you – well,
there’s only so many times you can say “didn’t the doctor suggest some
kind of medication?” or “you’re better off without her”.

So you’d
think it would be a relief to throw yourself into the work. But then
perhaps “work” isn’t strictly an accurate term. As the “words” side of
a newly born special project, your first few weeks will be spent honing
down the “concept”. Preferably into one sentence.

Better still,
one word. This is so that someone in marketing can get a big fat marker
pen and draw up a diagram in the shape of an eye with loads of circles
inside one another, with your word in the very centre. This,
apparently, is how magazine brands get sold to the people higher up the
organisation who hold the purse strings. Or it could just be that
people in marketing like drawing with big pens.

It’s amazing,
once you decide that only one word will do, how many you’ll find that
are almost right, so nearly there. But the perfect one that will neatly
sum up your whole concept and unlock the Giant Golden Chequebook
remains just out of reach.

Still, if you thought that was
difficult, just wait until it comes to thinking of a magazine name. The
last project I worked on, a team of professional “branders” came in for
a two-day brainstormingworkshop.

It took place in the boardroom,
run by eager young men with flipcharts and projection screens. There
was a lot of drawing arrows with felt-tip pens and plenty of double or
even triple underlining.

We drank gallons of coffee and had
sandwiches brought in from the local café. For two days solid, 10
people drew up endless shortlists and ruled out every single name for
“negative connotations”.

Somebody’s mean old teacher had that
name. That word meant something nasty in Spanish; that one made you
think of smelly pants. If you put an “s” in front of that one, it
formed a swearword. That one rhymed with an unsavoury sexual practice.

At the end of the two days we were left with three words that had escaped the rigorous weeding out process.

Trouble was, no one liked any of them.

In the end it all proved academic because the project never launched.

Which
brings me on to Fact Number Four: no matter how fantastic they are, or
how many times the Top Management take you out for slap-up lunches to
tell you what a fabulous job you’re doing and how excited they all are,
99.9 per cent of the time, they never see the light of day.

When
the axe falls on a special project, it’s a clean but lethal cut. One
minute you’re negotiating astronomical salaries on the phone with a
prospective features editor, and the next you’re clearing your desk and
stuffing packs of post-it pads into your bag.

The big brass who,
just two days ago were discussing whether this was going to be a £10m
or a £15m launch are all tied up in crucial meetings, otherwise of
course they’d be down to say goodbye.

Shuffling out of the office
that never officially existed, down the backstairs that no one knows
about, you feel like a non-person. In need of consolation, you ring
your friends. “My project just folded,” you say gloomily. “What
project?”

they ask. Oh yes, you weren’t allowed to tell anyone.

Tammy Cohen is a freelance journalist who has worked on special projects for, among others, Emap Elan, Emap Esprit and Bauer

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