Friday, October 24, 2014

Wallowing with Bernbach.

One of the odd things that seems to have happened in our industry since it reached its apotheosis during the "Bernbach Era," is that we've walked, and in some cases run away from everything that we should have learned and inculcated from Bernbach.

Bernbach and his legions created product ads that connected both rationally and emotionally. More often than not every frame of the TV spot or ever visual in the print ad featured only the product. Today it seems most every ad is an ad for the category. The new Beats headphone ads are a perfect example of this. I'm supposed to buy beats because a well-muscled superstar does? Really?

Further, Bernbach avoided decoration in his ads. Today, all we do is decorate. We add scrumptious eye-candy and fancy filigree. No one ever bought anything thanks to post-effects.

Along with avoiding decoration came truth and honesty. Usually a hard dollop of information that clarified things for me, the viewer. Read an old Volkswagen ad and you'll see what I mean. Bernbach also talked to his viewers as if he were talking to his friends and neighbors. Today ads seem to present most people as morons or, worse, buffoons.

Finally comes the way we work.

I actually think Bernbach's early insight to pair art-directors and copywriters is being ignored. It seems, despite our embrace of workspaces that allegedly promote collaboration and openness, we seem more divided and apart than ever.

Maybe I'm just in a shitty mood. Perhaps I'm nostalgically wallowing in a past that's gone forever.

But I think we are ignoring the truth of what we all know.

And it saddens me.

BTW, the commercial above was done at Carl Ally, not Doyle Dane Bernbach.
But I love it. And it illustrates my points.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chester Himes and the client.

Decades ago, probably when I was knee-high to a knee, I saw the movie "Cotton Comes to Harlem." It was--slightly predating the sub-genre of Blaxpoitation--one of the few movies of my youth written, directed and acted by, predominately, black people.

I loved the movie.

It gave me a crazy view of the Harlem we only ever drove through or trained through on our way to whiter locales.

I loved Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, the heroes of the movie. I loved the writing by Chester Himes and I was pleased to discover that "Cotton Comes to Harlem" was one of nine Harlem detective novels written by Himes.

It took me some years, but eventually I read them all. I'm a better writer for having done so.

In any event I was thinking of Himes today--New York can be pretty noir in the rain, especially if you have some Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins playing on your iPod. But I was thinking of Himes because over the past few days I've had a couple of long phone calls with some private clients who are frustrating me.

They're control freaks. But they're disorganized.

In my mind, you should pick one. If you're a control freak, be organized. Or if you're disorganized, let go.

These clients, well, they made me think of the Chester Himes title shown above.

A blind man. With a pistol.

The storm in New York.

It's raining buckets in New York this morning. Raining Katz and Schwartz, as Uncle Slappy would say. Usually this time of year a mighty Nor'easter settles over the city. It marks the end of summer, really, much more emphatically than Raymour and Flanagan's "Rake in the Savings Fall Sale."

The storm comes with gusty winds that knock the remaining leaves off the remaining trees. There's not a garbage pail in sight that's not festooned with a cheap broken inside-out umbrella. People are sealed against the wet like ebola health workers, except for the still clueless hipsters who persist denying the elements and haven't changed out of their flip-flops and shorts.

The rain will continue, the radars and the news-readers tell us, through tomorrow. Then the storm will head out to sea and wither like a deflated birthday balloon a week past the birthday.

I've had a Nor'easter settle over me, as well.

The strain and stress of freelancing has saddened me.

I need something less transient and more fulfilling.

But like we do in a storm, we bundle up.

We snap our top button even if it pinches the folds in our necks.

We lace up our boots.

And we weather it.

We'll weather this, too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Me and Timothy Leary.

One thing that I've come to notice over the past couple of years is that everyone seems busy sending messages.

Is there a working person in America who doesn't complain about the quantity of emails she gets? Is there an elevator, escalator, subway stairway, crowded sidewalk anywhere that's not encumbered by people with epileptic thumbs typing out some message to someone that obviously couldn't wait.

If everyone is so busy sending messages, when do we get time to read them? If everyone has so much to say, when do we have time to listen?

I would imagine if you were a farmer 100 years ago, or a tailor like my father's father, or a grave-stone engraver like my mother's father, you spent a lot of your day inside your head. You were focused on the task at hand. Other people were hard to come by. And you had a certain amount of stones you had to cut or seams you had to sew.

That is, I think we have lost the time to think about things.

That's certainly true in most agencies. Where nervous "tissue sessions" follow haphazard briefings some times by as few as a couple hours.

There's no time for thinking.
No time for doing, either.
We're too busy blabbing.
And responding to others' blabs.

Back in 1967, Timothy Leary advised us to "Turn on, Tune in, Drop out." It's not advice would repeat for today's world.

I think we'd be better off saying: "Turn off, Slow down, Think."

Bad service.

ME:                            I'd like six ounces of whitefish salad
THEM:                       Six pounds?
ME:                            No, six ounces.
THEM:                       Six ounces of egg salad.
ME:                            Whitefish salad.
THEM:                       Six pounds of whitefish salad.
ME:                            Six ounces.
THEM:                       Egg salad?

I had just a few minutes between meeting—even life as a freelancer can be enervating—and I ran down University to 9th Street to a little bagel place I frequent. The “dialogue” I had with the counterman (pasted above) really sent me into a tizzy.

I guess my tizzy—whatever a tizzy izzy—began Sunday night. My wife was trying to get Verizon to fix a $600 mistake they made in our bill. As a consequence she spent two hours of a beautiful Sunday on the phone with the phone company.

Later that same Sunday, I had to spend some time on the phone with another oligopoly—Time-Warner—trying to get them to repair, once again, our internet connection which seems to go out with more regularity than it’s on.

These three “conversations with brands” got me thinking. What is the cost we as consumers have to pay for really bad service?

To be honest, I’d pay a dollar more for my whitefish salad to have it prepared properly by someone who thanked me and who remembered to put utensils in my bag. I’d pay more for cable and phone if they guaranteed me the help I need when I need it. But, it seems, virtually every company we deal with thinks the only sort of customer service we as consumers want is that provided by low-wage workers who have only nominal mastery of English. You think I’m lying? We all pay double for Apple products, just so we can get the help we need when we need it.

Further, our national customer-service malaise got me thinking about our industry. After all, advertising, like telcos, cable companies and bagel shops seem dedicated to driving costs out of their system. We put low-wage workers (we’re all low-wage workers today) in front of clients. Our clients find we’re like the countermen at my bagel shop. We’re not polite, we don’t listen and we don’t answer their problems.

CLIENT:                     We need to sell 50,000 widgets by August 1.
AGENCY:                   We'll do something really cool.
CLIENT:                     50,000 widgets in three months.
AGENCY:                   We'll make it go viral.
CLIENT:                     That's double our current sales.
AGENCY:                   It'll win all sorts of awards.
CLIENT:                     50,000 widgets
AGENCY:                   Egg salad?

The killer app when you get down to it--for retailers, for people, for ad agencies might be some things that are fairly simple.

Listening. Courtesy. Honesty. 

And the trust that comes from establishing those attributes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Letting go.

My wife and I have begun the long process of thinking about downsizing our apartment. Our kids have flown the coop, and more likely than not, will return to their New York City bedrooms no more than twice or three times a year. Ergo, we no longer need the three bedrooms we bought 16 years ago.

Last weekend, we looked at two fairly appropriate apartments. Each was some hundreds of square feet smaller than our current space, but compensated for that diminished size with either a view of the not-so-distant East River, or a high-floored quietude that's preferable to the second-floor aerie we now occupy.

The trouble with either of these smaller abodes is mine. It's what to do with the over 3,000 books I have in my personal library.

Yesterday, I read a "New York Times'" article entitled "Amazon Kindle Voyage, a High-End E-Reader That Beats Hardcovers."

OK, that's it, I said to myself. It's time to abandon my two-hardcover-a-week habit. It's time to make the leap. Further, it's time to visit the Strand which is down the block from where I'm currently doing my copywriter time. Could you pick up my books--could you empty my apartment for me?

I fantasized for a few hours about moving into a new place and moving away from material possessions. Maybe it's time to get rid of everything. The half-dozen or so expensive suits I will finally admit that I'll never slim down enough to again fit into. Maybe I get rid of everything and leave myself with four pairs of jeans and a couple of dozen of shirts, shoes, etc. The bare minimum.

Maybe I embrace my inner Henry David Thoreau and keep only that which can fit in a small overnight bag.

Then I saw a book on the Koch brothers that I just had to buy. They seem to be running our country and plastering their names all over New York's once chaste cultural institutions and I know nothing about them other than their radical right views and their early support of the virulently horrid John Birch Society.

This morning I saw a book review by one of my favorite authors, Samuel Hynes. Another book I have to have.

Could I buy the new Kindle. And not anymore buy hardcovers.

Could I clean, rid, purge?

Become an aesthete--eschewing all encumbrances.


Uncle Slappy and the Freak Show.

The house phone rang—the land line—which can mean one of three things: 1) A politician is calling asking for money or a vote; 2) A telemarketer is calling asking for dough, or 3) It’s Uncle Slappy with a bug up his nether indignity.

Fortunately for me, it was Uncle Slappy with his usual palaver.

“Boychick,” he began. “Did I ever tell you about your cousin Solly Blattstein?”

“Solly Blattstein,” I repeated, disbelieving the name. “I don’t think you have.”

“I don’t know how he did it, but somehow Solly came into a little money when he was still a young man. Maybe he won it on a horse race—he liked the horses, Solly did. Maybe he held up a grocery. In any event, Solly had a little money.”

“Good for Solly,” I said. “There’s not a lot bad you can say about money.”

“But what Solly did with it,” Slappy continued. “He opened up a Freak Show down a side-street near Coney Island. He called it ‘New York’s Worst Freak Show.’”

“And was it a big success? Did Solly become an Impresario of the Odd?”

“It was the biggest of all successes. And Solly made money hand-over-fist. Who wouldn’t go to something called ‘New York’s Worst?’ The public, such as it is, thought Solly was being modest. They poured in in droves.”

“Oy,” I interjected sagaciously.

“He had some ridiculous acts. The World’s Tallest Midget—he was 5’6. He featured the Bearded Man. The un-Tattooed Lady.”

I repeated my oy and added a veys mir for good measure. That did not deter Uncle Slappy, however.

“But the pinochle of Solly’s Freak Show was his one-armed Lion Tamer.”

“A one-armed Lion Tamer,” I repeated “that must have been dangerous.”

“Not at all,” Slappy assured me. And then he waited and waited until the moment was just right.

“Solly’s lion…”

“Yes?” I asked, obligingly.


The Old Man hung up the blower.

I sat and did nothing.

Like a one-legged lion.

Monday, October 20, 2014

General Slocum in the Tempus Fugit.

Two views of the General Slocum. 235-feet long, She was built in 1891 of white oak and yellow pine.
Even though I was slated to get up at 6AM on Sunday morning to take Whiskey up to Rye for her twice-weekly romp in the sea, I instead woke at 3:30. I was unable to fall back to sleep, so I quickly got dressed and did what I do. I headed the mile or so up to the Tempus Fugit for a cold one or two or three—a way of passing the hours until it was time to swim in the Sound.

We entered the bar and without even a hello, the bartender began his soliloquy.

“The General Slocum sank the day before James Joyce’s Bloomsday. June 15th, 1904 and Joyce wrote about it the next day.”

“Hullo to you, too,” I laughed, sitting on my usual stool. The bartender mechanically brought Whiskey a bowl of cold water and pulled me a Pike’s Ale, “the ALE that won for YALE.” He slid over a small wooden bowl of salted Spanish peanuts. I uttered by usual expression of demurral, “A pound in every nut,” and we began our early-morning academy.

'A small gin, sir. Yes, sir. Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion: most scandalous revelation. Not a single lifeboat would float and the firehose all burst. What I can't understand is how the inspectors ever allowed a boat like that... Now you are talking straight, Mr Crimmins. You know why? Palmoil. Is that a fact? Without a doubt. Well now, look at that. And America they say is the land of the free. I thought we were bad here.'

“That’s Joyce, from ‘Ulysses’” he continued “And except for the small gin, it corroborates with all the accounts I’ve heard of the General Slocum. And I think I’ve heard them all.”

“If my nickel-knowledge of New York serves, almost as many people died on the General Slocum as died on the Titanic just eight years later."

"It was the largest single-day of death in the City's history up until September 11th, 2001," he continued. "Mostly poor German immigrants from the Lower East Side. Going to a church picnic. It was a Wednesday and there were 1,300 Krauts on board, they were right down the street--East 90th Street, 200 yards from here in the East River when a fire broke out in the lamp room. About 1,100 died."

"You're somewhat morbid this morning."

"For years bodies would be found on all the islands in the East River, along 90th Street here, even as far-away as Long Island and Westchester.
Bodies washed ashore on North Brother Island.

"One-thousand bodies," I answered "is a lot for the sea to consume."

"In my early days here, back when this was a speakeasy, poor souls would straggle into the Tempus Fugit," he pulled me my second Pike's "after having made a pilgrimage to 90th and the river where their loved ones died. Most people today have forgotten."

"We have so much else to mourn," I said. "So much else to worry about. We have more things to 'Never Forget' than ever before."

Whiskey began stirring from her place on the floor. Maybe she saw a mouse. Or a ghost. I reached down and reassured her by petting her underneath her neck. She returned to sleep.

"Out in the Lutheran Cemetary in Middle Village, Queens, that's where many of the victims were buried. Then there's a fountain in Tompkins Square Park. Nine tall feet of pink marble. There's a boy and a girl etched in the marble, they're looking out to the sea. 'They were earth's purest children young and fair,' is inscribed on the marble."

"Young and fair. Like my kids," I said.

"Young and fair," he repeated.

I began to pay.

"Not today," he said. "Not in front of the children."

Whiskey and I walked the river-route home.

From days of yore.

Sixty-five years ago, my old man got a job in Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. The job was in the advertising department of RCA, the Radio Corporation of America.

In those days, just after World War II, RCA was the Google of its day. It was a company that could do little wrong. And RCA dominated the audio equipment market, and the nascent television market, in a way that that no brand dominates the TV market today.

The commercial my father was most proud of was one where an RCA radio was dropped from an airplane and it still worked. I couldn't find that one on YouTube--I've never actually seen it, so it could be a product of my old man's memory. But I did find the one I pasted above.

It's a pretty rudimentary affair, but I happen to like it. What's more, I think it makes its points effectively. And it's pretty talk-provoking in the offing.

I don't really know where the ad industry has gone wrong. It seems to me we're too busy trying to be in the entertainment business and not busy enough being in the information business.

But that's just me.

And I don't get a vote.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Quiet, Krone and Creativity.

On Wednesday night I finally got a good solid hour of quiet.

Quiet is unusual in our worlds.

We seem to work--or at least be subject to emails, phone messages, to-do's, 24-hours-a-day. I know some people who return from four days on the road, four days of early mornings and late nights, and the first thing they do when they get home is sit down at their computer and catch up on everything they've missed.

It's more than a little perverse.

At a time when wages are actually falling, job security is non-existent and perks and bonuses are a thing of the past, we are being compelled to work harder and harder for bosses--the heads of holding companies--we never see,

Despite all that, I got a good solid hour of quiet Wednesday night, and I got to dive deep inside a book that was recently sent to me, "Remember those great Volkswagen ads?"

I’ll admit, beautifully-designed, oversized books printed on heavy paper are a bit of a fetish with me, and I turned each page delicately. I wanted to savor every one. Accordingly, when I got to those parts of books that most people skip past—the Forward, the Prologue, the Author’s Notes, etc. etc., I took the time I had to read them all.

The last of the three or four of the preliminaries I read was called "Krone alone" and it was an account by Helmut Krone, art director of Volkswagen's original ads, of getting the VW assignment from Bill Bernbach.

Krone reacted to the assignment the way most of us act when we get an assignment.

This sucks, he thought. What in god's name is Bernbach thinking. What have I done wrong that I'm being punished.

The VW had a strong Nazi odor. It was co-opted by Hitler as the "Kraft dur Freude," the "Strength through Joy" car. It was ugly. Under-powered. Small at a time when everyone wanted big. Perhaps most depressing of all to Krone, he had to partner with Julian Koenig who, Krone said, spent more time at the racetrack than he did at the office.

Krone was so depressed by all this that after he and Koenig sold their first round of ads, he went on vacation for a few weeks to escape the taint.

It was only when he came back to the States that he learned his VW ads had struck a chord.

I guess my point here is fairly simple.

I happen to believe if you poll most creative people, they'll tell you their assignments suck. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Monet carped about having nothing to paint but his over-grown garden, or Van Gogh had had it up to here with sunflowers.

But good creatives take what they're given.

They might grumble and bark and call their headhunters, etc. But good creatives take what they're given. They find something cool or important buried inside. And they create good work.

All assignments, in a way, suck.

Creativity is making them good.