Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The sin.

Preston Sturges Picture

The great Preston Sturges had a string of great films like no one else in the history of American cinema. In four years, from 1940 to 1944, he wrote, directed and produced seven of the funniest movies ever made, a couple of them, Sullivan's Travels, Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve, earning spots on the AFI's top films and top comedies.

Such is the nature of genius and inspiration that Sturges' career was all but over in 1944. He made a pretty good picture with Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell in 1948 called Unfaithfully Yours, but the bloom was fully off his rose.

In 1947, he left his longtime studio, Paramount, and went into a movie venture with millionaire (when that epithet meant something) Howard Hughes. He created a movie called "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock."

It gave new dimension to the word failure. In fact, Hughes had the gall to take the picture from Sturges, re-edit and re-title it "Mad Wednesday."

For years, The Sin or Mad Wednesday was impossible to find. But finally I found it playing at three in the morning on TCM and, back when we had VCRs, I taped it. And when I put it in the VCR to watch it, I was like an art-collector about about to see a previously-unknown Caravaggio.

For thirty minutes, I watched perhaps the greatest American movie ever made. Yes, equal to Welles' "Citizen Kane," or Coppola's "Godfather," or Huston's "Moby Dick."

Then, unfortunately things in the movie fell apart. Sturges got afraid of what he was making and switched to mere slapstick.

But still.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Let's think about teenagers for a minute or two.

If their room is messy, they haven't done their homework, or they leave a wet swimsuit on the floor, your natural response is to tell them to do what they're supposed to do.

Clean up. Do your work. Hang it up to dry.

You know from the start this is not a one-time action.

You'll have to repeat yourself over and again before they do what you're asking. You might, in exasperation, even raise your voice. Or offer them a few bucks to do what they ought.

This is a metaphor for advertising, or should be.

I believe that the only way to get through to people is to repeat yourself. You should do it creatively so you don't wind up sounding like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon.

We seem, in advertising, to have forgotten all this.

We seem to think there are other ways to get people to act or behave.

Just about every day in Agency Spy I see some agency that was doing decent work for a client get fired. Or some new CMO come in that changes the direction of the advertising.

I think this is crazy.

The only thing that works in 9/10 communications is repetition.

The only thing that works in 9/10 communications is repetition.

People don't hear you the first hundred times.

Today we change campaigns and executions too often. We'll see this dramatically when the various dwarves from both parties run for president. Rather than a unifying, concise and compelling message,
they'll try 30 to 50 on for size. One for each slice of the demographic pie.

Nothing will get through to anyone.

Then we'll fire agencies for doing work that doesn't work.

It's all a giant waste. Unnecessary. Unproductive.

Find a campaign that understands the soul of your business and an agency that gives a shit.

Then start thinking like a teenager.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Boris. My barber.

On Friday I woke up and I realized that my hair, which is usually as neat as a skein of barbed-wire, was looking more unruly than usual. Though I had a busy weekend ahead of me, on top of a hectic week behind me, I decided it would be a good idea to get a haircut.

About six months ago, I broke one of my cardinal rules. After a lifetime of getting haircuts from different barbers virtually every time, I finally found a barber and a shop I really liked. I had always resisted having a regular barber. My excuse for this was simple--and actually has some bearing on the ad industry. I felt that I had enough relationships in my life, and really didn't want to do the work of having a barber relationship. I'd rather roll the dice and see what I get than talk about tonsorial kids and what not.

But back around Thanksgiving, I started going to this little shop, Il Figaro, around the corner from me on East End Avenue between 81st and 82nd Street. The barber, a meticulous Ukrainian with more than a dollop of the mien of Erich Von Stroheim, is named Boris, and he is a craftsman of the old sort.

The place is clean--a must for a barber shop, and it's obeisant to the proper traditions of yore. That is, you sit in a proper leather barber's chair and get slathered with various emollients of the sort you might find in a New Orleans brothel. Sorry if I offended anyone there, but I don't trust a barber shop that doesn't douse you in Pinaud's Lilac Vegetal or Clubman, which is even cheaper, or something like it. Certain things, come hell or hot water shouldn't change.

Boris is a small bald-man and is a wizard with scissors, chopping away at my mane while some really decent oldies play on his iPad. He pulls out electric razors to make sure you have no hair where it's embarrassing to have hair. His winsome assistant, Oksana, brings you a water, or if you prefer, a shot of Whiskey or Vodka. 

Then, the highlight of the show begins.

The shave.

Men today don't get regularly shaved by barbers but I think the world would be a more peaceful place if they did. Boris starts me off with an abrasive peppermint rub. This frightens my scruff and makes it stand on end. Then, he massages my face with some sort of lubricant. Then comes a towel as hot as you can stand, right up to your nostrils so you can barely breathe.

The towel stays on for a good three minutes. You close your eyes. And then he peels it off and begins scraping with a straight edge as sharp as the brim on Frank Sinatra's fedora. He seems to shave you whisker by whisker, spending inordinate amounts of time under your lower lip and nose. Finally, you're as smooth as a Republican lobbyist and you're wrapped again in an almost infernal hot towel. Then come more emollients, salves and lotions. And then the full-face massage.

The whole affair--from haircut to shave takes a full hour. I pay him $80, two pairs of nylons and 50 Russian rubles. And we call it square.

That's life as it should be.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The sky clears. Finally.

Last night the gloom of winter seemed to lift from New York. Despite an explosion downtown that injured dozens and brought 250 fire-fighters, hundreds of police and Hizzoner to the scene, the snow has finally gone the way of all flesh, the spitting rain had cleared, and the temperatures were inching toward the 60s. The sky was rosy-fingered.

In short, baseball was in the air.

If you're a New Yorker of a certain age, there's something even more alluring than Julie Christie in "Dr. Zhivago," or Catherine Deneuve in "Umbrellas," or even the minx a few desks away with the come-hither smile. And that's baseball.

The green grass. The crack of bat meeting ball. The loping outfielder who turns a sure-double into an easy out.

Of late, I've been wearing the black and orange woolen cap of the old New York Giants who held court until they fled west to Baghdad by the Bay, 58 years ago. Most people mistake the cap--which hasn't been seen in these environs since Eisenhower was president for the one worn by the Mets. But that ignorance is what separates the men from the boys. I wouldn't be seen dead in a Mets' cap, or a Yankee's cap for that matter. And Brooklyn, I haven't even visited since the early 90s, having gotten lost on the subway or something.

But the New York Giants were Manhattan's team, playing way uptown across the Harlem River from the Cathedral, Yankee Stadium, they played in the Polo Grounds, and were most-clearly the third team in a three team city.

Nevertheless, they were New York, and I am New York, so it's their cap I wear. Anachronisms be damned.

But back to last night, as the skies cleared, the sap was running and the air was warming. I stepped out of a yellow cab and announced to the Avenue, "It's here. Baseball season."

A like-aged man was crossing the street toward me.

"Baseball," he said, "Baseball and Ballantine."

We both laughed.

Maybe the last two New Yorkers who remembered.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

My other Uncle.

I've written in this space, a fair amount about my old man's brother, Sid, and, of course, Uncle Slappy, but I've seldom writ about his other brother, the really old one, Oscar.

Sid became a great success in advertising, in Philadelphia. He owned that city's largest advertising agency, called Weightman. Legend has it that he rented space in the Weightman building and named his agency Weightman so clients and prospective clients would think he owned the building.
The Tannenbaum boys grew up on Phiadelphia's impoverished immigrant West Side and didn't have two dimes to rub together. Their old man, my grandfather, died when my father was just 13 or so, and even when he was running his small tailor shop out of the basement of their row house on 51st Street and Walnut, well, he was hardly Hart, Schaffner or Marx.

Oscar was the oldest and he always had an angle. Toward the end of his life he owned a clothing store in nearby Wilmington, Delaware which, in the inimitable words of my termagant mother, sold schvartza clothing.

Before he became a haberdasher, for a couple of summers, Oscar had a booth down at Rehoboth Beach on the Delaware shore. He painted his sign himself and curtained off the back half of his booth. 

The sign read "World's Worst Freak Show~~Oddities, Attractions, Strange, Inhuman and Eerie~~Come One! Come All! Admission Ten Cents. Children Strictly Prohibited. Women barred for fear of fainting."

Inside the booth, Uncle Oscar surely did run the world worst freak show. That said, for about two summers, he did clean up. Amassing enough money to open up his schvartza clothing shop in Wilmington.

He hung signs around the back.

You MUST see it to believe IT!

Two WEAKS [sic] Only: The Strange and Preposterous Un-TATTOOED man!

The Boney FAT WOMAN.
She EATS, She Drinks Every DAY!


Not far, I guess, from a career in advertising.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Me and Updike.

Years ago I was running, at a very young age, the largest retail bank account in New York. The problem with being a copywriter on a bank account is that unless you’re part of the demographic, which I wasn’t, it’s hard to know what the demographic is thinking. What scares them. What pains them. What moves them. What are their hopes, dreams and aspirations.

For weeks I thought and thought. I talked to the client. I talked to the agency’s “research” person (this was before the time of planners.) I attended focus group after focus group.

No matter, I just couldn't get a grip on the soul of the target.

I went out for a walk.

To clear my head.

In those days, agencies made enough money to have offices near the clients they served. I was working near Grand Central Terminal and I walked that way. There was, pre-internet, a giant piss-soaked room ringed with phone-booths in Grand Central. In the center of the room there was a vast table that held just about every phone book in America.

This was how you could look someone up before Google.

I had an epiphany.

I found John Updike’s number in rural Connecticut and called him. I got the old man on the phone and introduced myself and my problem.

“Got it,” he said laconically. “Got it, got it, got it, got it.”

I stood there in Grand Central silent.

“Who is he? Your customer? Get a pencil. Number two. Yellow. Sharp. And a pad. I don’t care what kind.”

“Got it.”

“He owns Springer Motors, one of the two Toyota agencies in the Brewer area. Or rather he co-owns a half interest with his wife Janice, her mother Bessie sitting on the other half inherited when old man Springer died five years back.”

He was in a trance.

“He feels he owns it all, showing up at the showroom day after day, riding herd on the paperwork and the payroll, swinging in his clean suit in and out of Service and Parts where the men work filmed with oil and look up white-eyed from the bulb-lit engines as in a kind of underworld while he makes contact with the public, the community, the star and the spearpoint of all these two dozen employees and hundred thousand square feet of working space…”

It was four AM when he stopped. I had run through $32 of dimes.

Back to the office, fueled by benzedrine and nicotine and black coffee, I worked round the clock and round the clock again.

Twenty scripts later, I had my campaign.

Thanks, John.

Found Copywriting: Formality on the Bouwerie.

Found Copywriting: From Winnipeg.

Reader Tim Kist, from the frozen north, sent this in. Thanks, Tim.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Drunk in the Tempus Fugit.

“It’s often been said,” the bartender began without the usual niceties like ‘hello,’ or ‘long time, no see.’ “It’s often been said,” he repeated, “that when a great athlete gets in the groove, everything around him seems to slow down.”

He hustled, not unlike a great athlete, around the mahogany woodwork and placed a small bowl filled with cold, clear water for Whiskey. She was already resting at the foot of my barstool, her eyelids heavy with the weight of 3AM on them. In a trice, or even a jiffy, he was back behind the business-side of the bar, pulling me a Pike’s Ale (the ALE that won for YALE!)

“They say that when DiMaggio was in the middle of his 56-game hitting streak back in 1941, the ball came in as fat as a musk-melon.”

“It's been years since I had a good musk-melon,” I said, draining Pike’s number one.

He pulled me another glass of suds and slid over a bowl of salted Spanish peanuts and an over-sized jar filled with pickled hard-boiled eggs. I think the eggs dated from around the time of DiMaggio’s streak. As usual, I demurred.

“People come in here,” he said, wiping clean the bar with his well-worn white terry, “people come in here and I barely think they’re alive.”


“Yes,” he said emphatically, pulling me another amber. “Drunk on distraction. Like the Emperor Jones who succumbed to the incessant tom-tomming of distant drums, like Poe’s protagonist who fell to the tintinnabulations of the bells, bells, bells, they are subsumed by the pings, the bells, the chimes, the peals, the beeps, the whistles and the very vibrations of their devices.”

“I know the type,” I said.

“With everyone every minute connected to everything, ignorance poses as knowledge. The digital chaff is inseparable from the digital wheat.”

“Speaking of wheat,” I tapped my glass and he pulled me number three.

“From papyrus, to print, to petabyte, we are drowning in a sea, a miasma, if you will, of nonsense.”

“Perhaps,” I joshed, “I could bring around a digital strategist to re-orient you. There are plenty at my office.”

“We know more and more about less and less, until it winds up we know everything about nothing.”

I laughed and nodded. “I know whereof you speak.” I pulled two twenties from my wallet. “I work in advertising.”

I slid the bills across to him.

“I’ll tell you what Google glass should be,” he said, returning the tender. “Instead of making everything that’s irrelevant ever-present, they should make invisible everything that’s irrelevant.”

Whiskey and I found our way home through the darkness.

Something's wrong.

Last night, I don't remember what I was reading, but all of a sudden I felt like I couldn't breathe. I felt so distant, disconnected and removed from our industry. As if I had arrived at an ad agency in Istanbul and was asked to write an ad in Turkish.

It was a "want" ad that set me off.

It was someone "seeking" a social media strategist.

After a lifetime in this business--literally a lifetime--I felt like the whole thing had collapsed.

Usually when I see a want ad that sounds vaguely interesting, I think about out-of-work friends who might fill the job. If it's a big job, like an executive creative director, I think about whether it's right for me.

But like I said, this job was for a social media strategist.

It gnawed at me.

I'm not being funny here.

Or acting stupid to make a point.

I can't for the life of me--and I'm down in the trenches--tell you what possibly a social media strategist would do for 20 or 40 hours a week.

I simply don't know what the words mean.

Like I said, I've been around the agency business for all of my 57 years. My uncle ran Philadelphia's biggest shop. My old man was chairman of a top-20 US agency. I got my first agency job 31 years ago.

I know a lot about the business. But this has me baffled. I've never seen the product of a social media strategist. Never, knowingly anyway, seen an effort by one to influence the way I think or act. As far as I know, I know nothing.

If I had to characterize life today, I'd say that we know more and more and more about less and less and less. We'll exhume Cervantes' bones and learn that he ate goose liver, or something. But while we're spouting about all we know, we overlook basic human truths. While we extol companies like Apple for making things simple, we make our own lives complicated.

Advertising, whether it's on TV or social media, whether it's a blimp or a billboard, has to get people's attention. Then, it has to make a promise to them.

That's how interpersonal communications have worked since the beginning of time. From back when we were testing out walking on two, rather than four, legs.

If you know what a social media strategist does, or if you are one, please do me a favor. Send me a note or call me up.

I'd like to know what you do.