Chapters 1-3

Ch1: Common Grounds

On the road of life, the little things we encounter along the way sometimes change us more than the big things. We may not know it at the time. We may not know it ever.

When Timothy Malcolm Smith was 12, he watched a movie on TV. After the show, he went out to play—as he normally did every evening. Little did he know he was a different person, that he had been changed, forever.


Timmy could move mountains. And he could stop clouds from moving. That’s what he believed anyway. He just hadn’t figured out how to yet.

You see, Timmy was a dreamer. But unlike any other. You could tell by his eyes. Looking into them you found fire and focus. And instantly you knew. That before you was no wishful thinker. No starry-eyed dreamer who built castles in his mind. This was a dreamer who knew his destiny. One who did not slow or stop or veer. Not until he arrived.

The movie Timmy watched at 12 was a fantasy adventure film about a dwarf named Willow. Despite his small stature, Willow was able to defeat a tyrannical queen trying to harm a baby that had come under his care. Timmy liked a line from the movie. There is no dream too big and no dreamer too small. Then a lithe-limbed wisp of a boy, he adopted that line as his life’s mantra.

Timmy did not believe in magic or the supernatural. He believed there was a God. But he did not believe in him. Not anymore anyway. He, at some point in his life, decided to appoint himself the navigator of his own fate, certain that if he drew his mind to it, almost everything was possible. It was with this same degree of self belief that Timmy Malcolm Smith entered the boardroom that day, bringing with him nothing but his lovely assistant, and his two cents.


Common Grounds Coffee had been around for ages. They’d been around longer than penicillin. Longer than tea bags. Before sliced bread.

For some of the nineteenth century, and most of the twentieth, Common Grounds existed as the top coffee brand in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately for them, the last ten years saw their market share erode like flour in the wind, drawn away by trendy overpriced baristas, novelty brands from exotic parts of the globe, and American blends that in some parts of the world wasn’t even regarded as coffee. The world had changed, and Common Grounds hadn’t done so with it.

Common Grounds had another nemesis, an age old one. A foe that came not in the guise of a bean, but that of a leaf. That repulsive, characterless, sappy beverage—tea.

The owners of Common Grounds were convinced that tea was their biggest enemy. And they drew their battle lines there. This mistake indirectly led to their downfall. By taking their eye off their competitors in coffee, they were blindsided by a foreign coffee company that had turned its sights on the British coffee market. The siege was relentless. After a decade of being outspent, out marketed and out distributed, they found themselves on their knees, squeezed to one remaining breath. In the years leading up to their death throes, they were forced to close all but one of their business units—their headquarters in Hertfordshire, their birthplace from over a century ago. It was from here that they planned to make their last stand.


Common Grounds was steered by two partners, Robert Allen and John Wade, cousins, great grandsons of the company’s original founders. Of the two, Robert was the elder by 3 weeks.

Growing up as best friends, Robert and John spent almost every day of their 61 years together. They attended the same schools, entered the army together and married on the same day, in the same church. They even got circumcised together. The longest they were apart was the 3 weeks Robert waited for John to be born.

The two from Hertfordshire held the utmost respect for each other. All company decisions, no matter how inconsequential, were jointly made. Often it was the case where it was two nods or naught, to a point where Common Grounds became known as the company steered by two pairs of ears and one voice.

Oddly though, the boys were like night and day. They debated over anything and everything, but their exchanges were less argument and more playful banter—argument for the sake of it, to make sure the other did not have his way unchecked. Many felt that it was their opposite extremes which formed the glue between them, in the way two pieces of Velcro interact with each other. Of the very few things they had in common, was their love for the company. And they pledged their undying to keep it afloat.

In their company’s most recent board meeting, its internal auditors gave Common Grounds 6 months, a year at most. And then it would have to close its doors, for good. The news came to Robert and John as one just informed of a terminal disease; it was a sinking realisation that death had been dispatched, and nothing could be done to halts its progress. Grim as the corner looked, the partners, in their gut, were certain of this; that they had a rabbit or two left in their hat, unused rounds in the chamber, that it was too early for the hour of eulogies to be upon them. In a rare moment of seeing eye-to-eye, Robert and John were unanimous on one thing, that there was only one way to go down—slinging.

As a last ditch effort to save the company, Robert and John called for a pitch, and summoned the big four London advertising agencies. Recognising they had little coin left in their purse, they invited a fifth to the table—Cream— a medium-sized local think tank that was rapidly rising to acclaim. Cream’s fees, the partners figured, would be much lower those of any of the large agencies. Also, as a home grown company, Cream was more likely to have local insights that the others might miss or mistakenly forego.

Robert and John took the pitch process very seriously and blocked off a week of their time to hear each party out. Both were really impressed by what was prescribed by the big four, and saw potential in each of the four campaigns. But the partners were also gravely aware that their ship had entered uncharted depths, and that their vessel was now more a sunken treasure than a ship. They knew they needed to pull a Lazarus to fish Common Grounds out of the deep, and they were not convinced that any of what was proposed provided them with the miracle needed to resurrect their company.

It was the fifth day of the pitch, and Robert and John felt all hope hinged on the underdog. They were privy to Cream’s recent record of slaying goliath agencies ten times their size, and that Cream was currently one of the most sought after houses in London. Highly recommended by a friend of John’s, the partners were not only hopeful, but confident, that what was to be presented by Cream would meet their expectations. But they were wrong.


Ch2: The Pitch

Goliath. King Kong. Godzilla. Chucky. It did not matter. Timmy would take them on. And that was the mindset with which he would enter each advertising pitch.

Despite his great self confidence, Timmy was not cocky. Neither was he cocksure. He merely approached life with a What’s the worst that could happen? attitude. Timmy did not like to fail, but he knew that as long as he had given an effort his all, failure was an outcome he could accept.

Timmy made Creative Director at Cream 14 months back, and from that time, had slain every dragon that had crossed his path. He had just come off his fifth consecutive business win, and was looking for his sixth. To him, the presentation he had just made to Robert and John in their boardroom was business as usual. The only nervousness he felt was after the presentation, while awaiting their feedback.


Before the presentation that morning, Timmy had a breakfast deemed gluttonous by others, but light by his standards: 4 fried eggs, a couple slices of toast, a bowl of cereal with milk, a carton box of Cranberry juice and a banana... and a handful of nuts........ and half a panini snatched out of the fridge as he left the house, for the train ride. Still, his stomach growled. He was not a big man. The opposite actually. He bore a distance runner’s configuration—light frame, sinewy legs, high calf muscles, average height.

Despite his modest build, Timmy was always able to fill the room with his presence. His voice was neither big nor small, but full. A keen observer of the human condition, Timmy understood people well, and communicated at their level, seeing things through their eyes. Mostly, he talked to you as if he were trading vicinal news at the hay market. There was believability in his voice and had been told many times that he had genuine eyes. He found there to be no greater compliment. He always believed that eyes were peep holes into the soul. That if there was nothing but bile at the core, it showed on the surface, no matter the shape, colour or size of one’s eyes.

At the presentation with Timmy was Cambria, a junior art director without whom he would not enter a pitch. In their brain storming sessions, it was often Cambria’s ideas that formed the bedrock of their campaigns. Timmy’s genius lay in his ability to polish her thoughts, turning them from great to legendary.

Cambria was like a sponge that had sat for years in the desert sun. She had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and was the one who held all the facts and figures backboning the work she and Timmy came up with. She was meticulous in her preparation and always made sure their proposals were airtight.

Timmy and Cambria’s close working relationship with each other came about 6 months prior. In their first pitch together, Stella, one of the people to whom they were presenting, interrupted Timmy midway through his presentation. She questioned the use of the colour purple in one of their boards. Before Timmy could conjure an explanation, Cambria pointed out to the client that 70 percent of their customers were women. The client appeared irritated that Cambria had regurgitated a statistic that everyone in the room already knew. And she snapped back with another question before Cambria could continue.

“Why not go with pink then?”

Timmy at the time was a little fazed by Stella’s abrasiveness, and flicked his eyes to Cambria, fingers crossed she had an answer to the question, to which she did.

“The data we obtained from you 3 weeks back,” Cambria came back without any hesitation, “showed that 90 percent of your female clientele is above 35 and in the upper middle class. This information... it is still current?”

When she had received nods from everyone in the room, she continued, her face a study of calm concentration.

“Well folks, you’ve got on your hands a breed of women whose current aim in life is to obtain self reliance and self sufficiency, a group of suffragettes and bra burners willing to go the distance to establish for themselves autonomy from our male dominated society. A study released by the National Organisation of Women early this year revealed that this segment of women... your segment of women, were inclined to progress beyond the confines of gender stereotypes. The study revealed that this group incidentally had an aversion to the colour pink, and generally preferred the colour purple. And to our delight, we discovered that your secondary target audience, metrosexual males in their early 30s, also favoured the same colour.”

The room was impressed. From Stella, came a curt nod of grudging approval. Timmy was dumbfounded by Cambria’s response, and the fluency with which it was delivered. It was her ability to field questions like these that earned her a spot beside him at their next four pitches, and now the one for Common Grounds.


Robert Lane and John Wade shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. They frowned at each other and withdrew into their individual worlds of thought. Timmy himself was a little unnerved. In all of his previous pitch attempts, he was able to tell if the room had bit on his idea before he concluded his spiel. But not this time.

The concept proposed by Timmy and Cambria to the partners did not meet their expectations. Nor did it exceed it. Or fall short of it. It merely was something they totally did not see coming, and they did not know what to think.

The most deafening silence filled the room as the partners contemplated the proposal. Timmy was intrigued by how dense the absence of sound felt. His breathing echoed inside his head like a whisper in an empty chamber. The air wisping out of the air vents suddenly became audible. He latched on to the ticks of Robert’s watch. Picked up the groan of leather under the partner’s seats. And so there they were, John and Robert stoic and motionless in their chairs, Timmy and Cambria looking expectantly at them, like a tableau at a Wax Museum.

Then the aged voice of John Wade rasped its way across the room, “There’s a quote I really like. It is by Oscar Levant. He was an old American actor. Well before your time.”

He paused and looked into space, searching his mind to make sure he still remembered the phrase word for word. Then he quoted Levant, “There is a thin line between genius and insanity. I’ve erased that line.

Timmy and Cambria did not know what to make of what he just said and waited for the explanation to come, with bated breath.

“Like Levant, this is what the two of you have done today. Erased that line.”

The pair still weren’t sure if they could celebrate, and were glued to their spots.

John continued, “You have developed a concept that combines genius and insanity. Brilliant. Simply brilliant!”

Laugh lines formed on Timmy and Cambria’s faces. And then John spoke again.

“Well, at least I think it is.” John turned to his half. “Robert? Your thoughts?”

Due to their very different dispositions, getting both John and Robert to agree on the same thing was like trying to traverse a pair of swinging blades that criss-crossed each other. John himself, despite knowing the ins-and-outs of his best friend’s mind, was clueless to how he would respond.

The pair from Cream were back on tenterhooks.

Robert Allen, still undecided, blew air into the pockets of his cheeks. Timmy and Cambria felt a nervous tension stretch across their shoulders. Robert, who was leaned back in his chair the entire time, leaned forward. He planted his elbows on the table and brought his hands together. His fingers interlocked, like rugby players in a scrum. Resting his chin on the seam of where his two hands met, he stared into nothing. It was clear that his mind was still conjecturing.

Robert maintained his blank stare when he finally spoke, as if he were reading off a teleprompter in his mind.

“I think this has the makings of a Chernobyl.”

Ch 3: Cream

Timmy and Cambria shuddered. Their faces fell, including John’s.

Robert continued, “It’s got the potential to seep into the earth and into everything around us... for a very, very long time. To make its way into popular culture, into the public’s way of life, into their daily conversation. But...” Robert turned to John with a wry smile, “if executed correctly, it may just work.”

John responded with a curt nod.

Timmy and Cambria knew they had done it again.


Cream was housed in a 3-storey building in Clerkenwell, one of the better preserved parts of London that still held its charm from the past.

The team of creatives led by Timmy worked in the basement. More like a half basement really—the bottom half was concealed in the earth, the top half: a sweeping glass window siding the sidewalk pavement. Peering out from within, all one got was a worm’s eye view of the street—the wheels of parked cars, the trunk of a lamp post, a glimpse of legs striding by, or the idle stance of Cream employees taking their cigarettes out front. Occasionally, the guys in the office would ogle at a chance upskirt. The female smokers at Cream, those who had worked there long enough, knew to stand out of view, on the stone steps at the front of the building—this a result of company-wide emails with subject lines like, Lisa’s wearing pink today. Rather surprisingly, great restraint was shown by the guys in the creative department. The accompanying photos never circled, and to date, have somehow managed to stay within private archives.

When Timmy first made Creative Director, he pulled a prank on his team. He shaved off all the hair his legs and slipped into a black Lycra mini skirt. Braving 6-inch stilettos, he struck a seductive pose by the side of the building, along the window’s edge. Without any underwear on.

Timmy was not inherently a prankster. But he was willing to go to any length (of skirt) to make people laugh. He believed in keeping things light around the office, and no one walked the talk and teased the line as fervently as he.

Housing a sundry of creative types, the basement was the liveliest space in the building. People buzzed from one desk to the other, small groups huddled for discussions, the whiteboard was always being doodled, and someone was always leaning over someone else’s computer.

It was noise-filled in the creative department. But not a brand of noisy that was brash and distracting; more of an audible undercoat beneath the surface of your consciousness. Ever present was the signature thrum of an office environment—people on the phone, mouse clicking, typing on the keyboard, water cooler chats. This was supplemented at different times of the day by the muffled thump of a dart making contact with the cork board, the low rattle of dice within the padded enclave of a backgammon cup, or the crack of pool balls connecting with each other.

Evenings lent the basement a new voice. Conversation flowed more freely with more life, and the staff laughed more from their bellies and less from their voice boxes. Restraints on politeness relaxed, and people interrupted each other more frequently to make sure they got their line of humour in. More so than the other departments, the creative team at Cream, boisterous as they were, were like family. It was a culture that Timmy worked diligently to cultivate, and everyone was appreciative of it.


It was very different on the ground floor where client servicing was situated. The mood was a lot more sedate, the staff, more buttoned down. You rarely saw paper planes whizzing through the air, people sat at their own desks, they wore their clothes the right side in, and phone conversations were but a shade above a whisper. Client Servicers sat their tea mugs on coasters, unlike downstairs, where a napkin with a week’s worth of coffee rings sufficed for one.

Things got more staid the higher you progressed up the Cream building. The top floor of the agency was nicknamed the Creamatorium, and harboured the grey matter of the agency. Here the staff consisted of a team of researchers, statisticians, and analysts, all with doctorate degrees in unpronounceable areas of study; not the usual pedigree of souls you’d find at an ad agency.

All day, the Consumer Scientists (as they were officially referred) hunched over numbers, over charts, over graphs. They looked for recurring patterns and trends, and scoured for commercial opportunities their clients could seize upon.

You see, Cream was a different kind of ad agency. Unlike traditional shops, they approached advertising as 90 percent science and 10 percent art. Their science was simple. They were very careful picking their lure, and knew not to use cheese to hunt sharks. If a target needed to be hit, they studied every relevant piece of intelligence before dialling in a strike. All recommendations made by them to their clients were extremely well thought out, and braced by an intricate web of logic.

Timmy stepped into his current role when Jonas, the agency’s Creative Director of 11 years, retired. Despite Timmy only being 34, many felt it was a position long overdue to him. From the time he took the reins, Cream had won every piece of business they vied for, and were gaining a reputation as one of London’s creative powerhouses.

Jonas was by no means a lightweight. He had an acute business sense, a scarily keen understanding of consumer behaviour, and the gift to marry the two. Timmy learned a lot under him, and the two got along really well—Timmy, a willing and grateful apprentice, Jonas, proud to have no more worthy a protégé.

Timmy joined Cream when he was 25, as a mid-level designer. Jonas singled him out early, after discovering that he was gifted as a thinker and a prolific problem solver. With great pride, Jonas watched as his student rose to take a place at his side, eventually superseding him in many aspects of the job. Timmy was well liked, had a good moral centre, bore his moods well and did wonders to build camaraderie within the team, something that Jonas felt was his own failing. What made Timmy truly unique as a creative were his countless hues of thought. He had no reservations venturing into the grey; to look beyond the obvious, to utilise the third side of the coin, to view the glass as neither half empty nor half full, but as half-half. He possessed an innate ability to coax the inconspicuous into the light, to sow possibility where there was none, to traverse the untraversable, to paint where the canvas ended.

As Jonas steadily relinquished his Creative Directorship over to Timmy, he was impressed by the leadership Timmy displayed. Despite being in a position of power, Timmy retained his humility and still got on well with everyone. Eventually, Jonas found himself in a position where he was learning more from Timmy, than Timmy was learning from him. It was at that point that he decided it was time. For him to step aside. To make way for the new guard.


Timmy had partnered up with Cambria on all of his 6 pitch wins, and she had become indispensible to him, his talisman for success. He synergised well with her and they built on each other’s strengths. Naturally, each time a big piece of business stood to be won, it was Cambria who was summoned to the fore. Timmy’s choice to always stick with her stirred a little envy amongst the staff, especially those more senior than her. Timmy was aware of this. But his decision was one he measured carefully. Cambria’s ability to derive sound ideas was unparalleled, and her talent to present those ideas with panache, unmatched. For that, Timmy thought better than to break apart their working symbiosis. There was speculation that the two had a thing for each other. But Cambria was nowhere close to being Timmy’s type. Plus, he had his heart set on another.

Cambria was very pretty. Perfect skin. Beautiful eyes. Slender and demure. Tall for a girl. Bearing that shade of melancholia carried by most inward creatives, she was reserved, seemingly friendly and possessed a gorgeous smile that she revealed sparingly. She had silken black hair that ended at her shoulder blades, laser straight, worn down most of the time except when engaged in some kind of physical activity; step class on Tuesdays, Capoeira on Thursdays and occasionally a morning walk around the park on Sundays. Cambria was not a mingler, most of the time talking only when talked to. She lunched mostly by herself, at the second nearest park to the office, a book in hand, in her own world. Walking the extra 8 minutes to the distant park sent a signal to her colleagues, of her disinterest to share company, and that she relished her time alone.

Cambria, just like Timmy, rose up the rungs very quickly. Starting out as an assistant to a senior designer, she spent most of her day performing the mundane—searching for stock images, doing paste-ups, preparing boards for presentations. But it did not take long for her to win notice from the higher ups.

When Cambria first joined Cream, she fraternised mostly with two girls, both graphic designers; Bailey and McKenzie. For Bailey’s birthday, Cambria assembled a sublime montage of random photos, namely old paraphernalia: classic toaster ovens, Cuban cigar emblems, vintage matchboxes, antique-coloured flowers. She combined those with quirky illustrations she hand sketched. At the centre, she painted Bailey, posed semi-nude on a clam shell, in the fashion of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Cambria transformed her art into a screen saver for her friend, who had the most delightful surprise when she got back from lunch and found her computer half asleep. McKenzie wanted one like that too. Cambria obliged. And after that, it was Mikey. And then Steven. And Julie. In a month, half the office had the most remarkable screensavers. It wasn’t long before everyone realised that her talent was too precious to be doing what she had been doing at the time.

When Cambria and Timmy contested for Common Ground’s business, Cambria had been in her role as Junior Art Director for a year and a half. Like Timmy before, she was merely waiting for a spot to open up, to assume the position she deserved. With their most recent win, her time was near. 

> Chapters 4-7

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