Outing Salaries  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features :    FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   September 1991

Outing Salaries   

O'Toole told Sullivan but Sullivan won't tell O'Toole

By John O'Toole
John O'Toole is president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.      


Having one's salary published is a little like an annual sigmoidoscopy. No matter how great the dread with which one approaches it, the anticipation is nowhere near as ghastly as the event itself.

For the 16 years that I headed a publicly held company, my compensation appeared in the annual proxy statement to shareholders. It was immediately picked up by some trade journals as well as consumer publications like New York magazine. Not that I earned all that much, mind you. My successors made my take look like walking-around money. Still, the experience was not pleasant.

It's not so much that groups of employees stop talking and stare awkwardly at one another when you pass them in a corridor. Nor is it the frosty way a client answers your phone calls for several weeks. No, it's more the flood of letters that surge in seeking financial help for elderly Ute Indians and Friends of the Bermudian Tree Frog, the phone calls from insurance salesmen posing as financial counselors, the visits from hapless classmates needing backing for their projects to desalinate the Gulf of Mexico.

Farewell to all that, I said as I began a second career with the nonprofit American Association of Advertising Agencies. Rats, I said several years later, in the fall of 1990, when a reporter from the National Journal called demanding to know my compensation.

It seems she had unearthed an obscure clause in IRS regulations that required most tax-exempt organizations to make some esoteric reporting form accessible to the public. A form, by design or bad luck, that lists the compensation of the top executives. So Carol Matlack felt justified in demanding to know all of our salaries for publication.

I wrote to Ms. Matlack and declined. "The result of publishing staff salaries will be organizational unrest here and a good deal of time spent in personnel discussions that will only diminish our efforts on behalf of 750 advertising agencies."

Inspired by the heights of stuffiness attained in that sentence, I continued: "You tell me that the law is on your side. Perhaps you're right. But it's an invasion of the right to privacy of individuals working for a nonpublic, nonprofit association. I can't believe that was foreseen by those who wrote the law."

And then, still carried away by my own noble rhetoric, I added: "If what you really want is my salary, I'll reveal that to you upon request."

The request came within days. And like a fool I whispered the magic numbers into the telephone.

Within a week two things happened. In an article about executive salaries, the National Journal published mine along with those of many others in an issue whose cover screamed "PAYDAY." And the other thing? Ms. Matlack reported me to the IRS for noncompliance.

I then wrote to John Fox Sullivan, the Journal 's publisher. After complaining mightily, I became rather conciliatory, I thought.

"Incidentally," I concluded, "I'm surprised that you're going in for salary exposés, the kind of editorial popcorn usually shoveled out to readers whose lips move. I had thought your audience more upscale than that.

"At any rate, all that is in the past. The fires of rage have subsided into smoldering resentment. Let us, as they say in your city, put it behind us.

"All I want to do now is write an article about the incident for our magazine, Agency . For this article, I need the following information: 1. Your compensation, including benefits, bonus and expense account, for the calendar year 1990. 2. The same information for your editor, Richard S. Frank. 3. The same information for Ms. Matlack."

A month later I wrote to Mr. Sullivan again: "I have not heard from you and, frankly, wonder why. Surely you have no reservation about revealing such information since it is nothing more than what Ms. Matlack requested or, rather, demanded of me.

"Perhaps you have reservations about my credentials as a journalist. Well, as you say in Washington, let me address that issue.

"I received a degree in journalism from Northwestern in 1951. Granted, a journalism education in those days consisted largely of learning to shout 'stop the presses' and 'gimme rewrite.' But we did, from time to time, discuss ethical issues such as what is legal to publish versus what is right to publish – a distinction you might want to introduce your editorial staff to one day.

"So, Mr. Sullivan, as one journalist to another, what did you make in 1990? How about Mr. Frank? What does Ms. Matlack get for doing what she does?"

Months have passed. He doesn't call. He doesn't write. He responds with a stolid intransigence that I cannot help but admire and intend to emulate when Ms. Matlack calls again.

"Be cheerful, sir, our revels now are ended," said Prospero. In that spirit I conclude my taunting of the National Journal , a division of the Times Mirror Corporation, whose chairman, Robert F. Eberu, raked in $881,971 in 1990; whose president, David Laventhol, took out $584,462; and whose executive V.P., Charles Redmond, pulled down $394,634.

Editor's Note: John O'Toole's salary at AAAA is $250,000. In 1984, during his tenure as chairman of Foote, Cone and Belding, it was $280,000. John Fox Sullivan, asked by WJR about his salary, said that when the IRS requires magazine publishers to reveal their salaries, "we will certainly comply."

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