Monday, April 6, 2020

Rethinking the Ad Industry.

This might be a little inchoate, a little “wooly” and hard to follow.

Who isn't inchoate these days? Even if you don't know what it means.

Since the end of the world first visited our shores (on November 8, 2016 or more recently with the onslaught of a rampaging virus accentuated by galloping arrogance heightened by unmatched incompetence) a lot of my advertising friends have contacted me.

They’re worried.

Worried about their jobs, the industry, their agency.

I don’t blame them.

I think the industry has consumed itself.
If it were an old man, it would be smelling toast.

To be blunt, advertising has lost its relevance. It's been absorbed by its self-absorption. Myopia is our opiate.

Because, I believe, it has lost its purpose. It has lost its intention. It has lost its understanding of its function. It no longer has a real idea of what advertising is supposed to do.

Let's re-evaluate, re-think, re-turn.

First, we’re supposed to be invisible. (We’re agents, after all.)

You know Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt. But not their agents. We have to remove ourselves from the “look at me” business. And rededicate ourselves to the “our clients business improves when we create ads for them. Here’s proof.”

Two, we have to stop with the buckshot bullshit. The always on, let’s send a hundred messages a day to everyone at every turn, business. That isn’t advertising. It’s desperation. 

Worse, it’s annoying. As an industry, we have to start telling our clients that advertising in aggregate will be more effective when there is less of it. When the people who see our ads don’t feel besieged by our ads. That includes 12 ads in a single commercial break, including four for Japanese cars, two for phone companies and two for complicated diseases.

Three, if our work is to be effective and liked, it has to be better than the shows that surround it. That means we have to stop saying how wonderful we are having shot something in 11 minutes for 11 dollars. 

It also has to say something that’s important to people. If I see one more commercial of twenty seconds of a single raindrop descending on a car windshield and a wistful looking driver looking out into the abyss followed by a logo, I think I’ll plotz. That’s a roundabout way of saying we must be artful, but we are not creating art. Sorry.

We’re paid better than artists, and the reason we are is that we’re selling something.

Fourth, we have to stand for something. A brand can produce a terabyte of “content” a day, but why would I read it? What value does the content have? Why should I read yours? What makes your chicken recipe or your technology point of view valid? 

About 100 years ago Henry Luce wrote four words on Time Magazine’s masthead. “The weekly news magazine.” I knew who they were and what their mission is.

The fact is, the last majority of taglines you can actually recall are probably forty years old or more. That’s not because they were created in a three network world. It’s because they coalesced and defined a brand and/or ethos and were about the company/product. They could be used only for that brand. “The ultimate driving machine.” “The tightest ship in the shipping business.” “The most personal computer.” “Have it your way.” “We try harder.” “The daily diary of the American dream.”

Not only are these executionally superior they are, more important, definitionally superior too. I mean, they’re memorable, ownable and they say what a company does. They aren’t empty and ugly and trendy to the point of utter meaninglessness, “The right way to money.” Or so insipid and innocuous that they lead people to say “we don’t need taglines.” No brand, it seems to me, says what they stand for anymore.

Fifth, fuck fake work. By definition, advertising is creativity that’s paid for by and in service of a client. If it wasn’t paid for by a client and didn’t help a client, enter it in some other contest. Not an advertising awards show.

Sixth, dignity. This will be the toughest one for people to get. There’s an “anti-advertising” sentiment that runs through the advertising industry. You hear it almost every day, punctuated by sentences like “we manipulate people into buying things they don’t want” or “we lie” or “we talk down to people.”

I have been in advertising my entire life, having had an uncle in the business since 1945, and a father since 1954. I have been making my living with words in the service of commerce since 1980.

I have never told a lie. Or manipulated anyone. Or talked down to people.

Those practices are choices people make, clients make and agencies make. But they are not the only choices.

We can choose to believe that what we do is vital to the world economy. That we create jobs, that we ease people’s lives, that we help people make decisions. We can choose to be truthful and vital to people by providing real information in an entertaining way. We can choose to follow the Golden Rule and treat people as we ourselves want to be treated.

Those things are choices.

And they’re why I get so angry when I see creative work that is filled with empty blandishments, meaningless jargon or is written at a second-grade level. And why I get so angry when I get communications for a company (even say a company’s timesheet department) that are shrill and imperious and downright mean.

Rob Schwartz, a friend and CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day NY sent me a quotation last Friday. I supposed each of us sensed the other was having some rocky times.

It was from Carlos Castaneda. “We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

I think we can consider that quotation for the work we do, too. “It can either have integrity or it can suck. It can either be based on real emotions or cliché responses. It can either impart useful consumer information or be mere filmic decoration. The amount of work is the same.”

I know this was a helluva long read. Thanks for sticking with me.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Fear. Faulkner. Fortitude.

I know, it’s Friday and it’s been another hellish week.

As Shakespeare foresaw, “Hell is empty. And all the devils are here.” And they’re all republicans. And the maddest of all, Macbeth and Lear and Othello blended together with
Ioseb Besarionis dzе Djugashvili, is the small-handed, long-tie’d, sociopathic leader of the formerly free world.


But, there’s hope.

Listen, I know it’s Friday, but today, alliteratively we’re talking about William Faulkner.

Arrogantly, I’m summing up a lot of Yoknapatawpha-ing and Snopes-ing with just a few sentences.

The first is from “Requiem for a Nun.” “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
The second is from Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech from December 10, 1950. You know, back when America was great.

I’m pasting the whole thing here because I believe that smart people print it out and refer to it now and again. It has to my mind what you might call a salutary effect. That’s fancy for “it’s good for you.”
Yes, I know it’s Friday and this is heavy. But so is the world. But because I’m at heart a rotten guy, I gave myself permission to edit Faulkner.
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?...

“[Man] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; …

“Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

“I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

In my life I’ve done a fair amount of reading. Not just about Faulkner’s time and my own when the specter of nuclear annihilation was imminent. (We no longer remember this)

On Tuesday night I began reading Bocaccio’s “Decameron.” It’s 100 stories told by ten people over ten days. They are seven women and three men fleeing Florence as the Plague is wiping out one-third of the world’s population. That was in the 16th Century.

That was also when Defoe wrote, “A Journal of a Plague Year.”

You can smell the death. 

There was no hand-sanitizer five centuries ago.

Before that, of course, we had the Black Death. Back in the 14th Century. That also wiped out about one-third of the world.

More recently we’ve had WWI—the bloodiest conflict in human history, in which 20 million died and 20 million were wounded. That “bloodiest” mantle lasted only 27 years, until WWII killed 80 million and wounded countless more.

We also had Stalin’s purges and famines, good for maybe 40 million. Mao’s, good for 70 million. Vietnam, good for 5 million. Pol Pot, 3 million.

Malaria, polio, cancer, starvation, AIDS and probably a dozen more I’m missing.

The point is simple.

The existential threat is always with us.

I can’t really think of a time where our species hasn’t been haunted by some sort of horrible ending.

The thing we have to deal with is fear.

We have to, in Faulkner’s words, “decline to accept the end of” [humanity.] We have to decline to accept to be paralyzed by it. We have to decline to accept to be paranoid or no-longer human.

We have to decline to accept fear.

Maybe this is easy for me to say. My kids are healthy. My wife and I are healthy and so far working. We’re not among 6.6 million who filed for unemployment last week. (That’s almost ten-times the previous high, 695,000 in 1982.)

Maybe this optimism on my part is unfair.

Like they say in baseball, “A minor injury is an injury that happens to someone else.”

These are scary times. Made more scary because the circumstances themselves are uncertain and the people ostensibly leading the country are of uncertain ability, competency, morality, decency and dignity.

It’s easy to fear uncertainty. It’s actually what we fear most.
I wasn’t feeling fortunate when I lost my job on January 14th with a typically impecunious holding company pittance they call severance. I was uncertain about a lot of things.

Who isn't?

But you take stock.

And take small steps.

I am fortunate, I learned, that I know what my strengths are. Number one among them is that I know what my strengths are.

All we can do right now is double down on who we are.
Work as hard as we can work. Be as kind as we can be. Be as giving and helpful as we are able.

Faulkner spoke about writers and poets in his speech 70 years ago. I’m going to grant us the license to call ourselves writers and poets—in that we can reach people and at our best, move them. (sorry for the male pronouns below)

“It is [our] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

I know it’s Friday.

And I know we’re just advertising people.

But that's our brief. 

To be one of the pillars to help us all endure and prevail.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

2032 emails this week alone.

Due to recent events, we felt compelled to send you this note. We are compelled due to recent events to send you this note in which we will write about situations due to recent events. 

Due to recent events, we were compelled to send a note beginning with the words due to recent events because someone above us in our organization said they got a note from a company seven days ago that started with the words due to recent events and so shouldn’t we also send a note that starts out with the words due to recent events.

Our note would have gone out sooner, but due to recent events we’ve been incredibly busy sending out notes to our valued customers. All these many notes start with the words due to recent events. What’s more, due to recent events, it takes about 77 executives to approve this note, which is highly sensitive due to recent events.

Recent events lead us to say we’re doing everything we can to respond and to support you due to recent events. We realize that due to recent events, events, that is, that have recently eventuated, we are doing everything we can because, due to recent events, we are all in this together. 

Due to recent events, you are a) a valued customer; b) we care about you and c) we are all in this together. We are so together in these recent events and so empathic because we care about you as our valued customer due to recent events.

Once these recent events are no longer due, we will regard you as a) an unvalued customer; b) we will no longer care about you and c) we will no longer be in this together.

Due to recent events we are doing everything in our power to respond to these recent events and because we’re all facing these recent events together, we’re all in this together doing all we can to handle recent events during the trying times which have recently occurred.

Due to recent events we are doing all in our power to respond to these recent events as long as that power does not extend to actually doing anything substantive or anything that would cost us money or make a real commitment to trying to help our valued customers who are effected or affected we can’t be bothered to check which is semantically correct, because due to recent events we have laid off everyone who works for us except the c-level executives who, due to recent events have found new ways to profiteer, due to recent events.

As always, we thank you for your continued as always, and as always we remain as alwaysly yours.

Insincerely yours,
Very falsely yours,
And without gratitude,

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Pounding sand.

I pictured a scene just now. It's 104-degrees out and two people, an executive and a creative are standing in the blistering sun on a sand dune in the middle of the Sahara desert.

They are all alone and the executive, as executives do, starts giving the creative person orders.

The executive says, "Take the sand that's in the back of the truck over there, and distribute it over this sand dune."

The creative looks at the situation. He looks at the bucket. It could probably hold a gallon of sand, tops. And he looks at the shovel. It's one of those tiny ones kids usually lose on the beach.

"That will take me months," the creative says. "And why? There's already enough sand here to, er, fill a desert."

The executive's assistant shows up with one very large iced-coffee, light, two Splendas. Decorously, the executive unwraps the straw and takes a long sip on the drink.

"We've read some studies by the ICSS," the executive said as the assistant began fanning him.

"ICSS," the creative asked?

"Yes. The International Commission on Spreading Sand. Their studies indicate that consumers prefer "always-on" sand spreading. It's not about needing sand or wanting sand, it's the always on-ness that matters."

"I'm sure I don't understand," the creative said.

"Well, according to our internal team of Sand Strategists, the best strategy for spreading sand is to spread sand." 

"But the sand serves no purpose. It annoys people. It's wasteful, profligate and doesn't do anything for anyone. If the sand I'm about to spread weren't spread, no one would know the difference. They'd be better off without me spreading this sand."

"That's well and good," the executive said, "but how else would our agency make money? The ICSS has convinced our clients that sand-spreading is vital to their business. And now clients paying us to spread sand is vital to our business. Besides you are fully-scoped to spread sand especially in this always-on silica ecosystem."

A gratuitous picture because I am often accused of being unrelenting with words.

A large helicopter landed. The executive tossed his non-biodegradable cup into the desert and flew off, leaving the creative alone in the heat.

The creative picked up the small shovel and began filling the small pail.

"Always-on sand-spreading," the creative thought. 

The creative dug and spread and dug and spread, working hour after hour, day after day, week, month, year after year. Doing nothing that made a difference. Nothing that anyone noticed.

"That's advertising," the creative thought. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

The First-Ever In-Apro-pros.

I got up at the crack of dawn this morning.

Dawn never seems to mind.

I headed to the local supermarket, the Big Y.

I had noticed during my last shopping sojourn that the Big Y sold The New York Times.

Outside of my wife, my children and my dog, there’s very little I like more than doing the Sunday New York Times crossword. It’s challenging and by and large it makes me think.

Before I finish, I usually overcome a bit of trepidation that it will defeat me. But more often than not, as I did this Sunday, I prevail.

As I flipped through the magazine, I got an idea for a blog post. When you post as often as I do, you are constantly on the hunt for subject matter. You try coming up with 250 interesting things to say a year.

It took me about nine seconds, after I saw an ad on the inside back cover of the magazine. I’d create an awards’ show. The most tone-deaf ads in the broad wake of Plague 2.0.

So, thanks to a special "Travel" edition of the Times' Magazine, the first annual "In-Apro-pros."

This is the ad that was facing the crossword. I'd suggest pulling a trashcan over to your chair, or a paper bag. The whole thing could make you puke.

Here's another Gold In-Apro-pro. "It was unlike any other cruise." If you've been in the business a while, say more than six hours, you've probably had events force you to pull an ad or commercial. Why not this one? Why not now?

Besides the lack of social distancing in the above, and the fact that so many financial portfolios have lost double-digits in value, the idea that a private bank is part of almost "every aspect of our life," (the self-centeredness) and the pomposity of this disgusted me.


As did this ad. It takes a special sort of blithe and oblivious $350 shoe-narcissism to be a free-spirit as thousands are dying (maybe millions) around the world. The tagline asks, "where to?" Maybe the ICU. "Oooh, these pinch in the heel."

Above is my candidate for the Grand In-Apro-pro. I love the completely un-funny lack of humor and absolutely no Bingo entry for "Ventilator."

Of course in advertising, and life, shit happens. Ads run that unplanned-for events dictate shouldn't run.

But the Covid-19 crisis has been going on for months. The Times should have killed the theme of the section. 

And it's time for brands and their agencies to think a bit more about people as people--with lives, fears, consciences and worries. It's pretty simple. People need to be regarded as people, not archetypes, personas or targets. Or protoplasm to squeeze dollars from.

So much of what I see coming from marketers and their agencies is devoid of humanity and real emotion. The fattest nation in history of the world doesn't have a single person in any ad anywhere who isn't slim, cut and beautiful.

According to Federal data, since 1999 suicide rates in the US have increased by 33%. And according to the Center for Disease Control, from 2007 to 2017 the suicide rate for Americans aged 10-24 jumped 56%.

Yet, outside of a phony pharma ad for anti-depressive drugs (which usually show an attractive young woman hugging a wall in the dark) you seldom see an ad where every model isn't wearing a plasticine smile the size of a Macy's parade float.

The In-Apro-pros commence today.

They've be going on for decades.

Friday, March 27, 2020

"George, I don't know what to do."

A few hours ago I had an online chat with the guy who handles my vast Croesus-like fortune. The ducats, drachmas and dollars I've amassed over my 36 years in advertising.


  • Coach it's suppose to be Opening Day!  What are we going to do?

    Baseball when the grass was real.  Not a problem for Cubs fans. The game was better in these clips anyway. We will survive-- and I'm not looking at my money. Right?

    Thanks Coach and that is right, don't look.  Remember the markets hate the unknown more than anything, and as the unknown becomes known, things will calm down.
  • George Tannenbaum sent the following message at 10:03 AM
Because of my baseball days from so long ago, Marty calls me Coach. And because baseball for many men of my generation is social glue, when we don't want to bemoan the collapse of the markets and the depreciation of our life's earnings we talk about the old game.

If I had to make a wager, I'd say more advertising people are baseball fans than the fans of any other sport. Even as my interest in sports has all but evaporated, baseball has remained steady in my gaze.

Advertising is more like baseball than any other sport. That's why I think it rings true for many of us.

Since the bottom fell out of the world's economy because the leader of the world's largest economy decided not to take a worldwide pandemic seriously (this is his fault) a lot of people have been reaching out to me. A lot of people are scared. I don't blame them.

The economic ship of state seems to have hit an ice-berg and no one quite knows if the damage to our bow is above or below the waterline. In other words, will we get soaked? Or will we sink?

The wise and all-knowing Martin XXXXXXXX does know. He looks to baseball. As an advertising person, I too, look to baseball.

First off, baseball, like advertising, is a game of failure. 

A $6 million a year player hits safely just 27% of the time. And if you are better than that, if you hit safely 31% of the time, you're well on your way to having a bronze plaque in some hall-of-fame somewhere.

Let's think about failure and advertising.

Advertising is failure. 

Even people like me who are judged by many to have had a successful career has been fired four times or five and quit without another job twice, I think, though it might have been three times. I've come up with a lot of work that didn't win awards, that didn't carry the day, that was pulled very nearly a minute after it ran. And, I've probably won fewer than one-third of the pitches I've been involved in and less than one-half of the gang bangs.

I've had accounts taken from me. Bosses who have hated me. Clients who wanted me off their business. And teams that hated working for me. 

I'll betcha if there were some sort of baseball-derived algorithm weighing my advertising failures and my advertising successes, my batting average would be roughly similar to what it was 45 summers ago when I manned la esquina caliente (the hot corner) for the Seraperos de Saltillo and hit a hardly-scorching .277.

But here's the thing about advertising and baseball. Here's the thing to everyone writing to me about our impending employment (or unemployment) miasma.

You go up to bat. You knock the dust out of your spikes. If you're not worried about coronavirus, you might spit on your hands, wipe those hands on your flannels. And you take your whacks.

When the pitches come in tight, you keep your head screwed on tight and you don't bail out. If they're aiming at your noggin, well, that comes with the territory, and you're probably thinking more than is good for you anyway. Who couldn't stand losing a few brain-cells?

If you're lousy with the breaking stuff, move up in the box and swat at the pill before it bends. 

The thing is you take your cuts.

As George W. Plunkitt said a century and a quarter ago, "I seed my opportunities and I took 'em."

As Marty says, "the markets hate the unknown more than anything, and as the unknown becomes known, things will calm down."

Yep. In advertising, too.

Somewhere in this favored land, some executive who's earning her keep is telling her people something smart. 

Here's what I might say: "Hello, friends. This will take two-minutes. Brands need us more now than ever. Brands need to adjust. Brands need to re-locate their centers. Brands need to reconnect with people. Brands need to be useful. Brands create clarity and order. Brands make decisions easier to make. When they do all that--and we, ladies and gentlemen, know how to guide brands in those directions, we will reassert our value as an industry. 

"Not our value to the awards industry. Not our value to cost-cutting corporate doyens and the shareholder value they prop up by undervaluing their employees. But our true value.
Of making brands matter.

"With logic. With emotion. With truth. With relevance.

"Yeah, there could be a depression. Yeah, three-million people filed for unemployment last week. Yeah, a lot of things. But people buy soap, and beer, and burritos and cars. And we need to help them."

Or, as my friend and advertising leader Claudia Caplan said yesterday: 

"I would like to say to all my advertising and marketing friends and all the ad and marketing publications out there who are compelled to send emails about “Marketing in the time of Covid 19” and “Brands reacting to Covid 19” and whether Covid 19 ads should be eligible for awards etc, no one gives a FUCK. Are you that self-absorbed? Just chill. Life will return to ad biz normal - whatever that is, but in the meantime, give it a rest."

In baseball (Claudia is Nat's fan--not the bug, the baseball team) that's called going up to the plate and taking your swats. In advertising, it's called showing up and doing the real work of the business.

You can't do much more than work hard everyday, swing hard every day, and run out every grounder.

And remember, nobody likes anyone who retires without getting his uniform dirty.