Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday reflections.

I got a slow start this morning and had an early work-related phone call, so here it is, after 10:00, and I've yet to post anything.

I'm inveterate, I am, having written nearly 4,000 posts, most of them, like Seinfeld, about nothing. I don't, like some of my similarly inveterate blogging friends, plot out my posts beforehand. I let them come according to what strikes me when it's time to write.

I don't do a lot of critiques of specific commercials. I think it's unfair, somehow. And it ignores the idea that we're each fighting our own battles, carrying our own burdens and dealing with our own clients. Of course, it's easy to make wonderfully entertaining, viral, funny and motivating commercials if you don't actually make them.

Just like it's easy to critique "Citizen Kane" or "The Bicycle Thieves," if you never have to put celluloid to paper.

Usually when I'm struggling to find an idea (as I am this morning) I can stumble upon an indignity in the workplace. Some meeting where poseurs pose and trumpeters trumpet and say nothing and do nothing but f-f-f-f-f-fulminate and breathe through their mouths harrumphing like a be-wigged barrister in an old English movie.

But I don't go to meetings now, I'm a freelancer. So I am finding no grist from the meeting mill.

What's more, and I thank the ghost of Bill Bernbach or whomever's watching over me for this, I'm working at places that are fairly roll-up-your-sleeve affairs.

The Guru-class, which as far as I'm concerned should be dropped into a specially-built giant blender placed in the center of Times' Square or Central Park, and pureed into pink slime and dumped into a nuclear landfill, is right now missing for me. The ethereal mother-fuckers who have never done anything but move up the ladder thanks to their ability to a) not offend, b) not to do work, c) say how great their work (which is never produced) will be and d) and most-importantly, kiss motherfucking ass, well, I haven't dealt with them for more than half-a-year.


That said, and despite the comfort of being paid an amiable freelance day-rate, there are things, of course I miss. Maybe I'm too much the old soldier who finds he misses being periodically shot at.

For now however, and thanks for asking, I am hanging in there.

No evil bankers have darkened my door and threatened to evict me or tie me to the rail-road tracks for not paying my mortgage. I've been able to keep my kids in both the latest trendy togs and their chosen educational institutions--they have not had to turn to peeling potatoes or dining in soup kitchens. I've even taken a European vacation and am looking forward to an end-of-year Caribbean one.

So I count my blessings.

And for now, put away this blog.

I have work to do.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Change. Changes.

We live in a time where change comes at us at warp speed.

It was said in the mid-20th Century that Napoleon's armies had more in common with Roman armies from 1800 years earlier than they had with modern armies just 100 years later.

Surely, if I talk to a hipster about my black-and-white suburban childhood they will regard me as old as the hills.

Things change quickly, inexorably, in the blink of an eye.

Except when they change hardly at all.

I think about this because this photo is making the rounds, as is the horrific news from Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY.

I think what we need to delineate is that there are different types of changes. There's functional change, I'll call it. And spiritual change.

Functional changes are the changes we see and live through. From black and white TV to TV on a phone. From rotary phone to Skype in one generation. From 12 mpg gas guzzlers to driverless cars.

Then there's spiritual change.

Back after WWI when Woodrow Wilson was president, he was pressured to enact legislation to assert equal rights for African Americans. Hundreds of thousands had gone to war. More had worked in war industries. Many believed they had earned "full citizenship."

Today, we'd call Wilson a racist. He believed it would take hundreds and hundreds of years for real, substantive, attitudinal change. Not just legislative change.

Fifty years later by political sleight of hand, LBJ got the Civil Rights Act passed and the Voting Rights Act. The biggest change in race relations since the Emancipation Proclamation.

Fifty years after that, Barack Obama was elected President.

But have we really spiritually changed?

I think one of the issues in our industry is that we conflate these two types of changes into one. We see a new gizmo and say "that will change everything."

We don't look at the underlying (perhaps innate) human behavior the gizmo is meant to change. We assume because there's a new machine, or a new app, or a new website, PEOPLE will change.

Though I've used race relations as an example, this is not about race relations. This is about our need as marketers to go beyond shiny-new-objectisms and get to the core of fundamental human attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

For instance, I believe, regardless of the splendor of new devices, man has a fundamental need when he comes home from work to sit on a soft seat and scratch. I think it will take more than a new remote, or a nifty app, or a slick website to change that.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

1/3 of a commercial.

Yesterday, on various blogs I saw two "commercials," that were each, really 1/3 of a commercial. One was nominally for Dell and was, I'll admit, mildly entertaining. The other was a four or five minute affair and was for Audi. It featured a couple million dollars worth of talent, including Julia-Louise Dreyfus and Bryan Cranston.

Neither commercial had anything to do with the logo slapped on the end of the spot. They were merely "entertainments." They weren't about a product. They weren't ownable. They weren't differentiated. They were mini-sitcoms with a logo at the end.

If you buy Dave Trott's thesis (which I do) that all purposeful communications must contain three elements: 1) Impact, 2) Communication and 3) Persuasion, these two commercials are merely impactful.

They communicate nothing.

They don't even make a stab at persuading.

See Mr. Trott explain it all here.

Somewhere along the way, this became acceptable. This became "award winning." And standards like "effectiveness" became pejoratives and disparaged.

I date this bifurcation to the rise of "direct marketing." People in traditional welcomed the rise of direct marketing and said, in essence, "someone else will do the hard, dirty job of persuasion and selling. All we have to do is be "creative."

They excised everything "commercial" from commercials.

Commercials became as vapid as the worst of fashion advertising. A pretty woman with a bottle.

Frankly, it disgusts me.

The glib and non-sensical masquerading as creative disgusts me.

The holier-than-thou airs people put on. "I would never put a price in my ad."

Go back to Bernbach.

Go back to Scali McCabe.

Or Ammirati and Puris.

Or Ally & Gargano.

They did complete ads. Ads that got your attention. Told you something important. And persuaded you to act.

They built brands.

They drove sales.

They were real.

Arthur Miller described Willy Loman as a man who tried to conquer the world with "a handshake and a smile."

They're not enough.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Uncle Slappy is angry.

Uncle Slappy just called and he was seething, not an unusual condition for the old man. I've learned from experience that the best way to get through his storms is to let them blow themselves out. He's like a tropical weather condition, Slappy is, before long he peters out into a light rain.

"It seems," he began "that everyone in the country is going to see Bernie Mann. I can't get you to fly down for a long weekend to visit me, much less the kids. Yet, Bernie Mann is as schmucky as the day is long, and he gets people seeing him left and right."

"I don't know Mann," I said, trying to let some of Uncle Slappy's steam out.

"A capital S schmuck, he is. A schmendrick, a schnorrer, a gonef, a putz. He lives two condos over. He's the one who gets up early and holds four chaises by the pool, sometimes six, when he needs only two. A grade-A, government-inspected schmuck. And he's all everyone is talking about?"

"Bernie Mann?" I interjected. "I've never heard of him."

"Everyone is going to Bernie Mann. They're going to Bernie Mann to get in touch with themselves. They're going to Bernie Mann like he's some citadel, some tower of nobility and accomplishment. He's nothing but a chaise hog and a low-life."

I finally caught on.

"Uncle Slappy," I began. "No one is seeing Bernie Mann. They're talking about a big festival in the desert out in California or Nevada. It's a big event. Hundreds of thousands of people go."

"So," he said.

"It's called Burning Man," I answered.

"Not Bernie Mann."

"No," I told him.

"Then never mind," he said. And he hung up the blower.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Data Janitors.

For the last few years we've been bludgeoned with all the wonderful things that will happen in marketing, in selling a product, in finding consumers at the exact moment they want to be found, due to big data.

Big Data (I've capitalized the D for effect) was going to solve all our problems. We'd be able to look at a vomitous mass of 1s and 0s and say, 'such and such person is poised to click on my banner ad and buy an entire case of Scrubbing Bubble. I know it to be so, because Big Data told me so.'

Big Data, I'm afraid, is just another of humanity's hype-bubbles, like investing in Tulips, the Suez Canal, the Transcontinental Rail Road, South Sea Islands, housing developments in suburban Sprawlsville or myriad others.

Big Data is just another 'get-rich-quick-scheme.' A sham, a fraud, a canard without the orange sauce.

As Jeffrey Heer, a professor of Computer Science at University of Washington says (as reported in "The New York Times") "It's an absolute myth that you can send an algorithm over raw data and have insights pop up."

In other words, what's needed amidst all the crap we're accumulating is exactly why 99.9% of all companies will fail to glean anything but horseshit from the data they have. And that includes the NSA.

Big Data can't really be read automatically. To make any sense of it at all demands "Data Janitor Work." That is the reading of that data to turn it from digital clutter into something useful. There are dozens of companies trying to automate the process of turning straw into gold. But for now, Big Data has what they're calling "an iceberg issue." We focus on seeing the promise of a result, rather than on all the toil beneath.

It's a basic human desire to dream of an easy way of success. Some people get down on their knees to pray for it. Some people turn to science and try to turn base-metal into gold. Others sell snake oil and liniments that will magically cure all.


There's one easy way to success.

Hard work.

Licia Albanese, 1909-2014.

About 30 years ago, my wife got bit by the Opera bug. For whatever reason, she fell in love with the art form. To learn more about Opera, to get an inside look, she took a Master Class presided over by the exalted soprano Licia Albanese.

Albanese was one of the greats--a specialist in singing Puccini operas and when she retired from the Metropolitan Opera in 1966, she had performed in over 400 Met productions.

Albanese died on Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 105.

Albanese was more than just a belter of tunes. She was a musician. As such she understood the nuances of the music she was singing to. She knew when a composer made a mistake. And she adjusted to that mistake.

For instance, when she was playing her most famous role, Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," she realized Puccini had not left a long enough pause in the music to allow her to take off her shoes before entering a home.

Albanese took her stage shoes home with her and practiced taking them on and off until she could do so without crossing up Puccini's score.

I like that story.

It's about making things work. It's about putting your craft first and your ego second. It's about being a professional. A grown up.

It's easy in our business to cite all the reasons why when things don't turn out great. It's even easier to sit in judgment and, with vitriol, disparage work that's actually running and the people who do it.

What's harder is battening down the hatches and making something work. It's not about shrugging your shoulders and saying "it is what it is," and throwing in the towel.

Life and careers are about finding some gumption  and some ingenuity and making it happen. For better or worse.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Minnie Minoso.

A wistful Minoso in 1953.
I read in the paper Sunday night that the great Minnie Minoso, a nine-time All Star, was hospitalized in Chicago after he fell from his boat. Minoso, whose given name is Saturnino Orestes Armas Minoso, is 88. The news item brought me back to the summer of 1979.

Minoso was known as "the Cuban Comet," and he starred for the Chisox throughout the 1950s. In his 17 seasons in the bigs, he amassed 1963 hits, including 336 two-baggers and 186 round-trippers. He wound up with a sterling .298 batting average, hit .300 or over eight times, maxing out with a .320 mark in 1954. He led the league in steals three times and in being hit by pitches 10 times. For whatever reason, election to the baseball Hall of Fame has unfairly eluded him.

Along the way, Minoso became something of a legend in the City of Broad Shoulders. He returned to the Sox in 1976 at the unheard of age of 50 and then returned again in 1980 when he was 54. In those two stints in the majors combined he went just one for 10. But still. Still.

I met Minoso when I lived in Chicago during the summer before his last big league at bats. It was 1979 and I had taken a job at a Rush Street liquor store called Bragno's, after the two brothers who owned the place. I was hired at $3.50 and hour and was guaranteed six overtime hours a week at time and a half. That put my weekly gross at $171 and change, which wasn't half bad in 1979.

Minoso worked for a local beer company called Old Style and one evening (I worked the night shift from 4PM to Midnight) Minoso came in carrying a case of suds under one arm.

I popped out from the counter and fairly ran to greet him. I shook his hand like we were long-lost fraternity brothers. He had the biggest hands I ever held, and on his right ring finger he wore a diamond-encrusted All-Star ring.

He put his case of Old Style down on the countertop behind which I worked. He tore a can from the plastic rings that kept six packs together and took a Magic Marker from his jacket pocket. "Minnie Minoso," he signed the can.

I wish I could say that I still had the signed can somewhere. But I suppose I lost it along the way, or drank it, or left it as I moved to New York to start graduate school. In any event, it's long gone.

There's no way Mr. Minoso will see this post. Besides Chicago White Sox representatives report that Minoso says he's "feeling fine." I can only hope he's back on his feet and home from the hospital soon.

In any event, 'get well soon, Minnie. '

I'm pulling for you.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A New York observation.

Since America no longer has a functioning government, our roads--whether they're city streets or major highways--are pot holed and pockmarked like those in a war zone. It's estimated that the average driver spends $600 a year on car repairs due to our sorry highways and byways.

I thought about all this one night last week as I was taking a long, undulating cab ride home from yet another freelance assignment.

That's when my cab driver turned to me and said, "Do you know how you can tell a drunk driver in New York?"

I thought for a minute before giving him a good ol' New York "Dunno."

"Drunk drivers in New York? They're the ones driving in a straight line."

Friday, August 15, 2014


I am blessed in so many ways. Not the least of which, I have people in my life who send me, now and again, little fillips of loveliness.

This one, I received in the mail on Tuesday.

It seems a perfect bit of mental caffeine for a perfect, Fall-like summer Friday.

A cab ride.

Yesterday I had a day's work in lower Manhattan. I was off from my usual temporary gig and had secured an even more temporary one.

In a way, working one day at a time is like writing a :15. You get in and you get out. There's no room for bull-crap. I rather like it.

I left the office around 7:45 and quickly hailed a cab. I gave the driver my address.

"How you want to go?"

"Whatever's quickest," I said using my standard answer.

"We'll cut over on Houston and head up Second," he said confidently.

I checked the number of his hack license. The lower the number, the longer they've been driving. A new driver, these days has a number around 560,000. His number was in the low-3's. Meaning he'd been a cabbie for more than 40 years.

"Second goes downtown," I reminded him.

"I've been driving long enough so I get a pass," he said again, confidently. "It's something Bloomberg put in at the end of his term for us old-timers. We can go anyway we want on any street."

Sure enough, he turned left onto Second and started heading uptown against the grain. The downtown traffic magically cleared out of the way for him. Naturally, there were no lights and no other cars to interfere with our trip.

"There aren't many of us left. I've been driving six days a week since the Mets won the World Series in 1969. Forty-five years. We also get to pay for gas at 1969 prices. It costs me just 33 cents a gallon."

He took a right, again against the traffic and headed down my block, dropping me right in front of my building. I handed him a $20, the usual fare from downtown.

"That'll be $2.75," he said to me.

I gave him a five.

"Keep the change," I said.


He sped off, against traffic, into the night.