Peter Coughter stood on a stage in a Northern Virginia auditorium, surveying a group of serious men and women in dark suits.
His mission: land a $1 million advertising account from Planning Research Corp., a high-tech consulting firm based in McLean.
The PRC representatives had already listened to pitches from several slogan-spouting agencies:
"PRC, Where People Really Count."
"Turning Vision Into Reality."
"We Do Surprising Things."
Coughter, of Richmond's Siddall, Matus and Coughter agency, gazed at the audience with the serenity of a Tibetan monk. He offered no slogans, just this:
"The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or ruin. Hence under no circumstances can it be neglected."
Substitute "advertising" for "war" and "corporation" for "state,"
Coughter told them, and you have an indispensable truth for modern business.
The quote comes from a book called "The Art of War," written more than
2,000 years ago by a Chinese military philosopher named Sun Tzu.
"The Art of War" reduces human conflict to a neat set of aphorisms, which can themselves be reduced to the idea that "to win without fighting is best."
Already on the Marine Corps required reading list, "The Art of War" has become the Bible of yuppie ninjas in business and politics seeking to gain an edge on the competition.
Lee Atwater, the controversial Republican Party chairman, says he's read the book at least 20 times. He told an interviewer recently that the book helped guide him through the Bush campaign.
James Clavell, the best-selling author, suggested in an introduction to one recent translation that World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam might have been avoided if Western military leaders had read "The Art of War."
The book got a major push in 1987 with the movie "Wall Street." Gordon Gekko, the financial greed-wizard played by Michael Douglas, tells his neophyte colleague to "Read Sun Tzu, 'The Art of War.' Every battle is won before it's fought. Think about it."
Sun Tzu himself remains a mysterious figure. Some say he wrote the 13- chapter volume in the seventh century B.C. Others insist it was the third.
Translations of the slim handbook, even padded with long analyses, can easily be read in one sitting, no doubt contributing to its popularity. And there's the undeniable cachet of quoting a 2,000-year-old book, especially one that feeds the West's perpetual fascination with ancient Chinese secrets.
Still, some scholars wonder what all the fuss is about.
Cliff Edwards is a professor of philosophy and religion at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on Chinese history and philosophy. He said "The Art of War" is of little importance in relation to the long tradition of Chinese philosophy.
"This isn't any Chinese classic. It's not included in any respectable collection of Chinese philosophy."
He cites "A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy" by a noted Chinese philosopher named Wing Tsit-Chan, which doesn't mention "The Art of War" or Sun Tzu. "Not even in a footnote."
That hasn't stopped a steady stream of readers from keeping the downtown library's two translations on the borrowed list week after week.
Freeman Turley, co-owner of Books First on East Grace Street, carries three translations and sells a copy a week. Customers range from students to politicians to business executives, Turley said.
Coughter insists the book does more than help him and partner John Siddall land advertising accounts (yes, Grasshopper, PRC went with Siddall, Matus and Coughter).
He said the agency applies Sun Tzu's philosophy to its day-to-day operations. One client, Riggs National Bank of Washington, found itself besieged by out-of-town banks trying to cut into its market share.
Sun Tzu: "When under attack, defend the high ground."
New Slogan: "Riggs: The most important bank in the most important city in the world."
When devising a campaign for a small-time maker of contact lens solution, the agency followed Sun Tzu's advice that "when you have inferior resources, make an indirect attack."
Instead of marketing the solution directly to users, the agency targeted ophthalmologists, who then suggested the solution to their patients.