Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Michael Jackson on the Far West Side.

Every neighborhood in New York has one or two or three little delis that sell almost anything imaginable, but mostly a cup of non-Starbucks coffee and an egg and cheese sandwich or a corn muffin for a couple of bucks.

These joints are usually pretty grimy affairs, not given to cleanliness, more to the efficiency of getting your breakfast into a paper bag and your shekels into their cash till as quickly as possible. They usually sell all manner of things. They have a tired salad bar or a cadre of breaded chicken cutlets in a refrigerated case lined up like soldiers marching off to war.

They tend to be places that are habit forming. You go in every morning before work, usually grab the same victuals, throw your money across some worn formica, and that's the end of the story. And while these places have names, they're names no one knows. You just call them "the place on the corner," or "the joint on 49th," or more simply you say, "I'm going to the deli."

The place I go on my way to work, I call "the deli on 49th." There's nothing special about it. Maybe it's a little dirtier than most but that's ok, because the only thing I've ever bought there is a couple bottles of seltzer a day and once-in-a-while a cuppa from one of those giant cisterns the size of a good high-school football lineman.

Yesterday I picked up my usual two bottles of Schweppes black cherry seltzer and walked from the refrigerated case up to the front to pay. There was a small crowd of men waiting for their egg sandwiches. I went up to the counter to pay as the cashier was assembling a bag for one of the patrons.

He filled the bag with a large can of fake iced-tea, a foil-wrapped sandwich and a few napkins. Then the patron said, "And give me a Michael Jackson."

The counterman nodded and went to get one.

Ignorant and curious, I asked the customer, "What's a Michael Jackson?" I immediately felt like an idiot.

"It's one of them black-and-white cookies," the customer said to me.

"Of course it is," I laughed.

I walked the two blocks to work, still laughing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Joe Sample and advertising.

A friend pointed me in the direction of Joe Sample’s obituary. Sample died last Friday at the age of 75. You can read his obit here.

I never really followed Sample's music, more because my tastes run to bebop, classic jazz and blues than his genre-bending blends. But that’s ok. You don’t have to love someone’s work to be able to learn something from his life.

What I got from Sample’s death notice was this quotation: “Unfortunately, in this country, there’s a lot of prejudice against the various forms of music. The jazz people hate the blues, the blues people hate rock, and the rock people hate jazz. But how can anyone hate music? We tend to not hate any form of music, so we blend it all together.”

Yesterday I listened to an interview with an ex-boss and current friend of mine, a guy I have a great deal of respect for. He was talking about how “analog” and “digital” creative can work together better, can get along.

You know, so the digital people don’t hate the analog people and vice-versa.

I think, as an industry, we make collegiality entirely too hard. We act as if digital guy and an analog guy getting along is about as likely as Glenn Beck and Elizabeth Warren French kissing.

Fifteen years ago, when I was working on a major global account, my boss gave me a simple brief. “Make 360 work.”

I think it’s not that hard. Show people and tell people that you won’t tolerate territorial bullshit. And, as Sample points out above, find people who love all forms of advertising. Who get excited by doing cool stuff. Who enjoy newness and challenges and laughter. People who focus more on doing things than on the boundaries between those things.

I really do think it’s that simple.

The under/over.

The other day a friend whom I respect wrote to me about a mutual acquaintance. “He’s very talented,” my friend wrote, “but I think he’s being underutilized where he is.”

At the risk of damning an industry that has provided well for me and my family, I can think of few people in our business who aren’t underutilized. Quite often advertising attracts very bright and very creative people and then assigns them very dull and mindlessly meaningless tasks.

“Re-write the sentence without using the word ‘titwillow.’” I’ve been told recently. “That’s a word our competitors own.”

“Ok,” I answer in my most obliging tones, “I’ll say ‘titmouse.’”

“No,” they say, slapping my hand with a metaphorical ruler. “They own the word ‘titmouse,’ too.”

"Lake Titicaca," I inquire, thinking of catching the next plane there.

"I'd stay away from that altogether."

These are the sorts of things we have to deal with every day.

If I, ever so gently ask, “Why don’t you share a list with me of all the words owned by competitors?” Well, then I will be marked “hard to work with,” the gravest of sins possible in our HRocracy.
We are all underutilized because, I think, there’s so much over-think and over-scrutiny everywhere. Instead of actually creating things we spend our days and nights scratching at a million gnat bites of pre-guessing, second-guessing and post-guessing.

Our “talk” to “do” ratio is about 30:1. Our “revise” to “create” ratio is similar.

Not every place, thankfully, is like this. In fact, I’m dividing my time between two places that leave me relatively free to do what I think is good. 

For that I thank the advertising gods who, since I lost my job six months ago, have not yet abandoned me.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Me and Derek Jeter.

"The New York Times" has done its usual brilliant job on a bit of data visualization about how many swings Yankee great Derek Jeter has taken over the course of his 20+ year career.

You can take a look at it here and it's well-worth, I think, the minute or two it will take you to enjoy.

The gist of the item is that over the course of his professional career, Derek Jeter has taken over 342,000 swings at a baseball. In fact, it would take you four full days of non-stop watching to see all of Jeter's swipes at the ball.

It all made me think about longevity and doing something well over an extended period as Jeter has.

My first printed "ad" came out about 34 years ago. I was a young copywriter, more junior than junior, writing about shoes for the Montgomery Ward catalog. Over the course of the two years that I worked for Wards, I probably wrote two or three-hundred pages of shoe ads.

Eventually, I left and joined Bloomingdale's as an in-house copywriter. There, I literally wrote ten ads a week or maybe more. Most retail ads are no in the least conceptual. They have headlines like "Save 20% on plush cotton towels." And body copy is downhill from that. But the ads have to be written, and I got paid for two years to write them.

I probably wrote a thousand ads for Bloomingdale's, add to that total the two-hundred I wrote for Wards and the probably one-thousand I wrote as I was putting my portfolio together, I had probably writ 2,500 by the time I got hired for my first agency job at Lowe.

Since then, I've probably written 15,000 more. I'm figuring ten ads a week for 50 weeks a year for 30 years. So, counting liberally, I've probably written 20,000 ads by now. I think I'm pretty good at it. I'm not Derek Jeter. I'm no "immortal," no Hall-of-Famer. But I do, more often than not, put good wood on the ball and I often wind-up on base.

Unlike Derek Jeter,  I'm not wealthy enough to call it quits. And my powers, unlike his, have not withered with the onset of years. I'll keep stepping up to the plate and keep swinging.

I still like the feeling I get when I get ahold of a good one. 

Blogging in real time.

Once again I am running late this morning. I blame this on the Mexican food I had this weekend from a place out in Corona, Queens. It’s been rated the best Mexican food in the city and we just had to try it. Unfortunately, my intestines didn’t agree with “Yelp!” and I was up half the night re-writing the reviews I read.

Not many of them were favorable.

I made it to the bus stop just as a bus was pulling out. But rather than dash two blocks to catch it at the next stop, I apprised the situation with bourgeoisie diffidence. “Another one will be along soon,” I reassured myself. But my assessment was wrong by about 20 minutes.

As an homage to modernity, my phone holds two apps that tell me when buses will be coming and where they are at any given moment. It’s an advance, to be sure. We are no longer in the dark about such things. We can live a quantified life when it comes to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

That said, we can do nothing to speed the arrival of one of those languid behemoths. We have no app that eliminates traffic and lets the M31 cover its four-mile route faster than its usual 75 minutes.

So as I write this, it is approaching 9:00 and I have just passed Sixth Avenue—Avenue of the Americas—as we used to call it. Before, of course, half of the Americas were the United States’ immigrant problem and we turned our noses up at our neighbors because they are dark and poor and don’t speak our language. It looks like I won’t make it in until 9:15 or so, which for me, who prides himself on a timely arrival is the perfect way to start a week off like shit.

It’s okay, I tell myself, pretty much no one else will be in before ten. But I have old-fashioned ways. I feel remiss, even derelict if I get in late. Much the same way I feel about shaving.

I know life isn’t like this anymore, that by the time I’m an old man, even US Presidents will show up for meetings with other heads of state with three days growth, uncombed hair and their shirt untucked. But I can’t do it. And I pray I don't see Hilary like that.

I have to shave every day or I feel like a bum. You’d have to give me electroshock to get those 1950s voices out of my head.

We’re at 11th Avenue now, about at the end of the line. From here it’s a short walk to work.

At least I wrote my blog entry.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A day at the beach.

Though we still have another week of summer, today seemed the first day of autumn. The temperature barely touched 60, the sky was a forbidding grey with nasty cumulus rolling by at speed, and though the trees were as yet green, leaves blew along the asphalt with abandon.

Nevertheless, at just before seven, we piled into the Simca and headed up to a rocky horseshoe of beach, where no one but lonely Puerto Rican fishermen go to lose their weekly supply of tackle. We've been heading up the coast for seven months now, I've seen in that time precisely one fish caught, a small stripper that in a kinder world would have been thrown back to grow.

Whiskey and I stood on the alluvial, struggling over the rocks until we found a sandy bottom that didn't hurt our paws. The water was warmer than the air, but turbid. It was low tide and the mud, clay and sand was roiled. I could barely see my feet, though I was in no deeper than just above my knees.

The water was rough, rough for the Sound anyway. There must have been a storm last night. I tossed Whiskey's fluorescent float out into the rip. It traveled quickly out to deeper water, too fast for Whiskey to catch and too far for me to mark it with a thrown stone so she could locate and fetch it. Were my rotator cuff not torn, I could have thrown a rock out to it, overhand, but I'm not throwing overhand these days. My arm, once my source of pride and strength, is crippled.

We lost the float in the turbulent sea. I asked some passing paddleboarders who were enjoying the surf to return it if they happened upon it. But it's a little toy in a big sea and it's gone.

Fortunately my ever-level-headed wife had another float, a white pebbled affair in the knapsack she carries with Whiskey's accouterments. She handed it to me and Whiskey and I played fetch for nearly two hours.

We ended when this one too got swept out in a rip. Whiskey returned to shore empty-mouthed. I spent a good ten minutes reassuring her that she did not let me down. Any dog could lose two floats in one day. Even the great DiMaggio struck out with the bases loaded. Speaking of DiMaggio, I consoled Whiskey with a bit of Hemingway. "I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing," the old man said in the great book. "They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."

Whiskey looked at me like I was daft, and maybe I am. But she does seem to understand, mostly because she has the wisdom of the universe in her deep brown eyes.

We walked, as we always do, past Playland Amusement Park to the boardwalk that runs for about three-quarters of a mile along Rye beach. The park is empty now and there is perhaps nothing sadder and emptier than an amusement park on the cusp of winter. You can almost hear the ghostly shards of laughing kids reverberate off the wooden superstructure of the old, landmark roller coaster. It's a sad laugh like they just dropped their ice cream.

Around 10:30, we got into the Simca. She started right up, as reliable as a golden retriever. We clattered down the New England Thruway and made it home in just over 30 minutes.

It was a good day.

Though we lost two floats.

Friday, September 12, 2014

“Our plans are confusing [and our] marketing was a hamster talking to people. We are having a hard time selling the products.”

The quotation above was made by the new President/CEO of Sprint, Maurcelo Claure.

It might well be the Advertising Quote of the Day.

Put its humor (and its pain) aside for a moment and Claure's plaint is a difficult one to solve.

I never liked the Frobisons but I admired the chances taken by all concerned. They did something different in a category inundated by screaming sales, confusing offers and general ugliness. I respect their agency for presenting and selling something different. I have a modicum of respect for Sprint for trying to stand out while they're being outspent, probably 10-1, by the combined hegemony of AT&T and Verizon.

That said, the Frobisons were just plain weird. They existed to be different. They gave me no reasons I could hear because I was too busy trying to unravel or decipher their weirdness.

I think phones are a place where people don't want weird. They want normal.

There are indications that Sprint will now revert to the sort of advertising that's par for the telco course. Claure said "Whenever you got to make a choice of why you are going to buy a phone, you are going to buy it because of pricing."

I'm about 99.9% sure vehement price advertising won't help Sprint either.

Besides, while I agree with Claure on the reluctance of people to buy from a talking hamster, I don't believe that they buy solely on price.

Apple's dominance of the PC market belies that. They charge more than twice as much as Dell and HP. Federal Express, for decades, was far more costly than the US Postal Service. But to whom would you entrust an important package.

The point for my money is fairly simple.

Sprint's messaging dilemma is a thorny one.

It won't be solved by cute and clever.

It can be solved by smart and consistent.

It can be solved if Sprint creates a better product--if they actually do something better. I think creating a product that works is perhaps even more important than creating distinctive branding.

I'm not sure what creative I would come up with were I asked to pitch the Sprint business (though I'd love the assignment.)

I do know that I'd start here, with something I learned from Robert Townsend's book "Up the Organization."

Townsend, former CEO of Avis, said the following to Bill Bernbach when he was looking for an ad agency. By the way, Avis might have been the Sprint of its day. Their lunch was being eaten by a variety of competitors.

“I have 1/5th the money Hertz has to spend on advertising. How do I get advertising that's 5 times as effective from my agency? Hertz is spending five dollars on advertising for every one dollar that Avis spends. So Avis’s advertising needs to have five times the impact of Hertz’s."

Bernbach responded with this:

"Most clients put their advertising through an approval process that destroys the work and kills the morale of the creatives. If you promise to run whatever we recommend, every creative in my shop will want to work on your account."

Bernbach and Townsend arrived at this.
Sprint and whomever its agency winds up being, needs to do something similar.

Friday meanderings.

I am running a little late this morning. Shame on me.

Since I got on the bus about 15 minutes later than usual, it took about 30 minutes longer than usual for me to make the trek from Manhattan's far east side to Manhattan's far west side. The fact is, the only mode of transportation slower than the M31 bus is a caravan of three-legged camels stumbling across the Sahara in a full-on sand-storm.

 I guess I'm feeling a little under it lately, and a little black-doggy. What's more, yesterday I presented a 17-page copy deck and that was no great joy. It went well, but I'm not cut out to talk that long, especially on the phone when you can't see if your "audience" is rolling their eyes, playing solitaire or vomiting in a waste-basket.

That said, it all went well, and the few changes they recommended will surely be done by one today as I promised them.

The longest copy I ever presented was to a recent client of mine who wanted a brand book that defined who they were and showed some pictures of their smiling faces. I wrote 64-pages of copy. It took almost a year to get it approved and printed. Probably longer than it took to write the Torah or Gilgamesh or Don Quixote.

I don't know why everything in advertising has gotten as slow and unproductive as the M31 bus. Maybe our business processes in some corrupt permutation of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny has come to resemble Congress. We can't get anything done. We can't get anything approved. Everything is stymied and stifled. And there's certainly no place to actually be bold.

Well, as John Wilkes Booth and Suetonius, alea iacta est, the die is cast, the copy is done, the revisions will soon be on their way.

Oh, and it's Friday.

We made it, or nearly so, through another one.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

From whence I come. (This being a story of my Grand-Father.)

I've written before about my grand-father, Morris Tannenbaum, who settled in Philadelphia in 1913 and who opened up his tailor shop in the basement of a row-house some years later. While he never had two pin-cushions to rub together, and died a youngish-man in 1936 when my old man was just eight, he somehow in the short time he was alive, was able to earn the sobriquet "The Worst Tailor in Philadelphia."

According to my father, every seam he sewed was crooked. No two pant's legs or sleeves were even and there was barely a suit that left his shop without extra room across the back should you, for some inexplicable reason, develop a hunched back.

Morris cut his tailoring teeth in a city called Krasnoyarsk (pronounced Krasnoyarsk), Siberia's third largest city, and judged, by Chekhov of all people, as its loveliest. It was also an important junction on the Trans-Siberian Rail Way, and that's where our story begins.
Life was cheap as the Trans-Siberian Rail-Way was being built. Thousands died, many more wish they had.

With baggy pants down around their ankles, the cry of "Hem boy!" would ring out.

It's hard, really, to appreciate the magnitude of the job of building the Trans-Siberian. It's nearly 6,000 miles long and was built through some of the most desolate and forbidding terrain in the world. What's more, in the summer, temperatures could drop to 200-below (Celsius) and it got even colder in the winter.
Temperatures dropped to -200 (Celsius.) Colder in the shade.

The railway was built over the decades beginning in 1890 when my grand-father was just a spit of a boy. The men who constructed it were a) liberated serfs; b) drunken rabble; c) political convicts; d) criminal convicts and e) Jews for whom any labor represented a step up from the abject poverty of shtetls that would make Anatevka look like Greenwich, Connecticut.

My grandfather got a job as a "hem boy" for the railroad.

The workers who laid the tracks were given by the Trans-Siberian one pair of work pants. By the time they had reached Krasnoyarsk, they had generally lost so much weight from eating their meager rations, that their pants were down around their ankles. Of course, when you're pounding in spikes all day, having your pants fall down isn't just embarrassing, it's downright dangerous.

So the railroad hired scores of "hem boys" who would run along the rail way waiting for a worker to sing out "Hem boy!" Then they hustled over to pin up and hem the workers' pants.

There's no telling how many hems my grand-father shortened this way. Or how he managed to last the years he did. But somehow he lasted long-enough to save what he needed to land in America and start a new life on our teeming shores.

His first day on the job.

The other night I worked moderately late and so when I left the office, the first thing I did was look for a cab. (BTW, most mornings I get in before eight, so when six rolls around, I have had enough for the day. I don't shortchange anyone on the hours I work. I usually put an hour in when I get home. I'd just rather be home than hang around the office.)

I noticed about half a block ahead of me a cab pull to a stop and I saw a delightfully long pair of gams swing out. The owner of those gams batted her eyes at me and pointed to the hack. "He's all yours," she purred. And then she rolled her peepers.

I slid in and buckled up. "Eighty-third and York," I directed.

The cabbie hugged the wheel and stuttered, more in Mandarin than in English.

"First day on job," he said brokenly. "You tell me how."

I checked his hack number. It was 560,000 or something. He was truly brand new.

He drove like it was not only his first day driving a cab, but his first day driving as well. We creeped east on 48th Street and I told him to swing up 10th, where the lights are elegantly timed, and if you play it right you can make it all the way into the 70s or 80s without hitting a red. We stopped pretty much every five blocks. He went barely 20 miles an hour.

I started to react like a real New Yorker. "Can't you hurry up," I thought. "Give it some gas," I felt like saying. But I bit my tongue. It was his first day on the job.

We finally made it to my apartment about 30 minutes later. It took a full ten minutes and about three dollars longer than it should have. I thought about stiffing him on the tip, but then thought about my first day on the job in advertising and gave him $25 for a $19 fare.

I'm a freelancer now, I figured. It's all deductible.

"Good luck," I said as I exited.

He was hugging the wheel like a soldier on leave seeing his girl.

"Good thank you," he said.

And he drove off at about eight miles per.