Michele Bertolone joined TeamTam in 1993 working primarily in Marketing, where, among other things, she revamped the look and feel of our very own Tamgram. At that time, it was printed and mailed to our Tam folks – maybe you were on the mailing list! As is often the case with our Tam family, her responsibilities and skill set grew, and she became a fantastic Writer/Producer and eventually Creative Director. We loved hearing her tales from her Tam years, and we’re lucky to continue working with her in another capacity. Thank you, Michele, for these wonderful memories!
When did you start with Tam, and how long were you on the team?
I started in 1993, so almost exactly 8 years.
I started as Marketing Manager, to help offload tasks that Susan had been doing. I wrote the Tamgram for years which was great because I learned so much about the work. I really had to understand the projects in order to write about them. I learned about setting up objectives for projects and how to structure video solutions. Susan had been doing a lot of the writing before I took over. I also wanted to elevate the graphic design in the Tamgram and I was self-taught in that area, so I had to push myself out of my comfort zone because I wanted it to look good. I may have oversold my abilities and then had to play catch up – that’s what you do in your 20’s, right?
I acquired so many diverse skills in the first couple of years, and that set me up to take on a lot of other responsibilities. I came in on the marketing side and had dabbled in other things. I had done project management, especially for large print-heavy projects and events. I had done a few amateur videos for a friend. But you’ve heard the saying – I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. But because I was always very boot-strappy, I figured it out. It was always a challenge. One thing I brought to the table was print project management for clients who wanted a print component to their projects. Over time I did more and more projects, then eventually went into writing and producing, which was what I had hoped to do once I got my foot in the door.
While I was doing marketing, 25% of my job was sales. I remember I was supposed to make forty cold calls a day. That made me really disciplined because Susan would never let me out of doing that! We had marketing meetings once a week at least, and Susan would go through our call sheets. For my personality this actually worked well – to be held accountable. I couldn’t sweet talk my way out of this important part of the job.
In the early days I worked on Tam’s Hewlett Packard account, which was one of our biggest clients. I did the Around the World trip with HP. For Santa Clara County I worked on the Through the Eyes of a Child video (training employees on compassionate removal of children at risk from their homes), and also Mandated Reporting of Child Abuse. Those were heavy projects, and it was important to get the tone right.
What had you been doing before joining TeamTam?
I had worked for six years in political consulting. I had a degree in Social Science and Poli Sci. I worked in campaigns with a consulting firm; I did print management for the 1992 Clinton/Gore re-election, specifically managing all direct mail for Connecticut. I would go out for three or four months at a time for these “rent a campaign” jobs. It wasn’t that creative so the idea of working for an agency like Tam appealed to me. I was ready to work 80 hours a week in a different, more creative space! I saw an ad, I applied, and surprise–I got hired.
What are your most memorable experiences with Tam?
There are so many memorable times. I always loved the exhilaration of a new project. It’s so shiny when you start. I loved working on creative based off a proposal, and that first meeting and how all of the ideas got flowing. At the end of the day it might change a lot. I loved being on production – I always wanted to plan everything down to the tiniest detail. I had to learn to roll with it more and let things happen, because nothing ever goes as planned. I was a much more rigid person before producing. There’s a fine line between control and letting control go, making judgement calls on the fly without the time to really process, trusting your gut. I had to learn all of that.
During the HP Around the World trip, we literally went around the world in nine days, filming testimonials from customers. All of these shoots had to line up in a sequence, so we didn’t have wiggle room in our schedule at all. We started in Atlanta for two days then flew to Stuttgart, Germany. We slept, drove, and shot, then repeated all of that in Bangkok, Sidney, and San Francisco. It was unbelievable, and so exhausting. There was so much baggage and equipment. Luckily, I was a seasoned world traveler and I was able to help some of the other crew members who weren’t. People think business travel is exciting – until you do it.
Projects that stand out are the ones with extreme production circumstances. Working on Preemies:The Fight for Life and its sequel Infants for the Discovery Channel, the intersection was so interpersonal. We are filming a documentary in Stanford’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), with a network paying us to be there, and then, of course the medical staff had very clear priorities. We had to build trust. And with medical staff shift change every twelve hours, we had to start again every shift building those relationships with different groups of nurses and physicians.
I remember talking to a woman whose daughter was having an emergency C-section due to pre-eclampsia. I asked if the camera crew could go into the operating room. It felt so surreal, because who would say yes? Well, she said yes. I came out and said to Tam, “You’re going in” and we followed her story. That was day one of shooting. A year after baby Jada was born, we did a “what ever happened to” follow up. After we interviewed the grandmother for the show, I asked one more question, off the record – why did you say yes to me? She said, and this affected me deeply, that she figured if the cameras were watching then her daughter and granddaughter would have the best care possible. It really checked my privilege. This family didn’t have access to a lot of resources, and our request to film gave her the power to see that her family got the best medical care.
I learned so many lessons, a lot of them about myself. We went on a Coast Guard trip to the East Coast – Elizabeth City, North Carolina – and there was a tropical storm coming. Everyone was excited because that’s when the Coast Guard goes out and it surely would produce exciting television. We watch the storm come in, and I’m sweating because I’m from California. We get rain but not like this. An alarm goes off and we suit up and get last minute training on what to do if the helicopter crashes in the ocean. I’m thinking, “I don’t think I can do this. I am terrified,” but I do. I strap in, take off, and I’ve never been so scared in my life. Then the flight was called off because the person in danger had been rescued by someone else. Good for them! But bad for the story.
Something really fun (and funny) happened right after The Blair Witch Project came out. We did a spoof – the Tam crew members and staff – about how scary the Producer was. We shot it in one night in the offices. It was so much fun. I’d love to see that again.
I have so many favorites. One I have a fond memory of, which turned out good (and could have been great) was for Echelon, based on a Chemical Brothers song, with stories and music coming together. I really enjoyed working on that one a lot. Another one was an employee video program for Business Objects, filmed like a talk show. I designed the backdrops, the graphics, and did the casting. It was a really fun way to do an employee meeting.
Where did you go professionally after Tam?
I went to Deloitte & Touche and worked on a development team while I was pregnant, then went on maternity leave. I couldn’t do 70-hour weeks anymore. I needed something less grueling and wasn’t going to drive over the hill to commute every day (Tam had moved to Scotts Valley at this point). I knew it was time to go, even though I liked the work. Eight years was a long time in Silicon Valley. I opened my own consulting firm, Bold Blue, working with small clients that found me through word of mouth and Craigslist. I started this in Seattle. We had moved there when my husband’s company was purchased, and we were around for the transition. We moved back to this area, and I continued my business. The bonds with people who were at Tam are strong and I worked with quite a few of them over the years. Siiri (Tuckwood Hage) hired me for jobs. I could essentially stop marketing, because those bonds and our working relationships were great, and the work came my way because of them.
What are you doing now?
I’m still working as Bold Blue, with just a few clients. I do a lot of volunteer work with good causes and non-profits, where I’m able to share the skills I learned over my career, usually pro bono. With TeamTam there were never fewer than three people on a crew. Now, sometimes I have to go shoot things by myself, and I think, “Well, you’ve seen Tam do this. You kind of know what to do, with angles and lighting.” I can do this for non-profits who don’t have the budget for a professional agency like Tam, for instance an organization for kids who are homeless or at risk, to support them in finishing high school – the Willow Glen Education Foundation. I also work with Rapid Responders to train people how to witness I.C.E. actions. I redesigned their materials for them.
(Michele is a long-time strategic consultant to Satellite Healthcare, one of Tam Communications’ largest clients, which puts her in a unique position.)
What is your experience having worked on TeamTam and now having the client perspective?
I come to the table more informed on process. No one can explain the value of Tam Communications better than I can. When people say they don’t have the money to shoot, I used to dismiss it because I felt if you can’t do it right then don’t do it. But now I’m more flexible and will make a compromise when necessary, and when a project needs to be done at an elevated level, I can make the argument for why to bring in Tam. I tell them, “You can spend more than Tam or less than Tam, but nobody will give you better value.” I also have enormous trust that I can send the Tam crew to shoot in the client’s dialysis centers, and they know how to do that. They know that the patients come first. They know the kind and compassionate way to film. It’s the same working with the medical staff – they will work around any stress or discomfort, being present in an appropriate way. Tam has sensitivity. They understand the culture and are compassionate people. I have to work with a partner I trust. That’s more important than getting the shot.
What did you take away from the Tam experience?
I gained the importance of truly, deeply understanding the strategic objectives of the message, regardless of the medium. I am reminded all the time of going back to that essential thing – what is at the core. For instance, if we wanted a testimonial – that’s just the start. Susan always asked a hundred questions, looked at every project in 360 degrees. You need to understand it 360. What does it look like, taste like, sound like – everything. What do you want people to do or feel after they watch it? You need to know this three-dimensionally. This way the video will resonate, not just look good. It has to have meaning. Susan taught me how to do that.
Any TeamTam40 shout outs?
To Sandra Silva – she set the bar. She’s ruined every other Art Director that followed. I’ve never worked with anyone else like her. She was so quiet. She took things in and then delivered. She set the standard that everyone else tries to reach.
To Siiri – she was always organized within an inch of her life and could always quote chapter and verse on the plan for any project. As far as production, nobody was as organized as her.
To Susan – ALL the things she taught me!
To Julie – she has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. She was so kind and loving to me when I started with Tam. She always had a kind and encouraging word.
To Tam – for a reminder that still waters can run incredibly deep.