Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An exodus.

I've been out in California for the last couple days, visiting my younger daughter, Hannah, as she rapidly approaches her final days of college. Just last night, she held a Seder for about fifteen of her friends and relatives in the home she rooms in with three young men.

The Seder, I have to say, is evidence of the highest order of storytelling, relating the tale of the enslavement and exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Somehow, the retelling of the ancient story is best accompanied by chicken, matzoh ball soup and sundry other cookeries and the whole thing, meal, religion and "creation myth" comes out in a pretty tight package.

Things, naturally, are picking up for me on the job front, and while it would be hyperbole to state that my blower is hopping off the hook, with any luck and before long, at least one or two of the four or five things that seem to be percolating will come into fruition. Touch wood.

Maybe I'll find that the Jewish exodus from Egypt isn't all that different from my expulsion from my last place of employ. Of course, I would rather find a place of milk and honey than wander in the desert for forty years, but I suppose time will tell. In the meantime, I will watch the leavening and keep putting one foot in front of the other until I get where I'm going.

No real point today.

Except never underestimate the power of a really good story to hold a small and beleaguered tribe together. Last night Jews from around the world, even the few still left in places like Antisemitestan gathered together and thought of better worlds and of eventual triumph over travails.

You keep moving. You keep fighting. And that's that.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

13 Yiddish Curses for the Modern Ad Agency.

Yiddish is nearly a dead language. But when it comes to curses, it remains a vibrant one. I was the butt end of a lot of these when I was growing up. It's surprising I didn't grow like an onion.

In any event, I thought it made sense to update those curses for today's eminently curse-able ad industry.

1. May your agency be bought by a French holding company that only one day
earlier merged with a colony of fire ants.*
* A tip of the Yarmulke to Josh Tavlin for this one.

2. May the client remove everything good from your copy
except for one line, and may that line no longer make sense.

3. May you be sent to a two-day offsite and attend so many meetings
that you shit Powerpoint decks in the morning and vomit Excel at night.

4. With each powerpoint that you sit through,
may your nose grow another hair.

5. May the agency’s food co-op run out of kale.

6. May you grow like a deck, getting
fatter and more meaningless by the minute.

7. May your office be open plan,
and may everyone each lunch at their desk,
and may every day they eat liverwurst.

8. May your client get two months to do research,
may your planners get two weeks to read the results,
and may you get two days to do the creative.

9. May your client realize the disparity between social media hype
and reality and may you be held accountable for it.

10. Let there be a creative department shakeup,
and may the new head have won awards only for ads that never ran.

11. May the wool hat you wear inside all summer
grow tighter each time you talk about user experiences.

12. May your beard grow lice and may each of those lice
tell you what’s wrong with your design.

13. May your holding company announce large bonuses
but may they be exclusively for people who don’t need them.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Signs. Not of the times.

Decades before Manhattan was over-run by nail salons, high-end clothing stores, glass-sheathed condos only a billionaire could afford and national chain stores, there were gritty businesses in Manhattan. These two signs I saw on Christopher Street near the river.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Fable of the Kickboxer and the Marine.

I found this video on a friend's Facebook feed.

I think it's a perfect metaphor for our misguided business.

The kickboxer is the way things are at most agencies.


Over-blown posturing.

A look-at-me egoism that, frankly, turns my stomach.

Then there's the myriad flourishes that embellish but add no material advantage.

That's all the kind of shit that can turn an assignment that should take a week or two into a fully-scoped six-month exploratory costing $3.7 million and comes with complete with statements like "your website's broken," "you need a new logo," and "your doing social all wrong." Complete with the word "your" spelled wrong in an elegantly-designed powerpoint.

The Marine takes a different approach.

It's the one I've always preferred. Of course, I come from an old school. The one that believes most marketing problems can be solved with a brilliant :30.

Yes, the Marine takes a different approach.


No bullshit.

That's all.

An approach that might, over the short haul, cost an agency some revenue. But an approach that gets the job done.

Moral: Doing the job is more important than talking about doing the job.

Lost New York.

I have an unnatural love for bookstores, and I'm sorry, physical bookstores. Amazon for all its vast size and sterling service doesn't count. There's nothing like holding a book before you buy a book and digital doesn't allow that.

Today, one of New York's last great bookstores, Rizzoli's, is closing, its building being demolished, probably to make way for another luxury condo for a passel of Russian billionaires.

Rizolli's was a throw-back. Wood-paneled. Quiet, usually with soft classical music playing. And it was chock-full of hardcovers--three floors worth--that were more erudite than turgid. They also sold CDs, art books, and had an international magazine stand that meant you could find almost any great magazine on any given day.

Located on 57th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, I guess the store was doomed. This is an area of New York that has been so rich-i-fied that it can support nothing but the aforementioned billionaire Russian condos, high-end clothing stores, and somehow, Korean nail salons.

I was in Rizolli's two months ago and bought three or four pretty good books. One on the history of Venice, Italy, another lavishly illustrated book on the history of the movies. The later was marked down from $30 to $14.95, and if it hadn't been so heavy, I would have bought two. Just to have them.

As I walk through New York, I do so with some remorse. I remember when bookstores in midtown was not an oxymoron. There was Coliseum, cavernous, across from the New York Coliseum. There was Doubleday's on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street. There was the gilded and holy sanctuary of Scribner's at 597 Fifth. It's now a Sephora cosmetics store. Finally, at least in my memory, there was Gotham on 47th between Fifth and Sixth.

Before advertising agencies moved to low-rent districts, these were places you could pick up a book and find some inspiration. Or, if you were early for an appointment, you could pop in for an hour and find some joy.

I suppose there are those who can accomplish that browsing mascaras or getting a manny.

But for me, another pillar of New York has crumbled.

It makes me sad.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Calling people on their shit.

Of late, I've been spending a good amount of time with Whiskey, my two-year-old golden retriever in the dog run that's a block away in Carl Schurz Park. Given that I live in one of New York's pricier neighborhoods, the city did a good job when the rehabilitated the dog run maybe five years ago. Accordingly, it attracts a lot of people and a lot of dogs.

I found that going to the dog run can teach you a lot about an ad agency. In fact, if I ever again run an ad agency, I think I'll take important hires to the dog run with me. How they behave when they're there can tell you a lot.

Here's the deal. (And excuse the indelicacy of the topic.)

Nobody likes cleaning up after their dog, but it's one of those things you're required to do. Today, I saw a woman sit there when her dog shit. She pretended not to notice. Lots of people did notice but everyone was too timid to say anything.

That's one version of life in an agency. You make a mess, and everyone is too feckless to say anything, to hold you accountable.

I went up to the woman and put on my "Dad Super Ego" mien.

"Your dog went. You have to clean up," I said.

She was too intimated to protest.

That's how you run an agency.

You hold people accountable.

There's another scenario that's relevant, also involving shit.

That is unidentified shit left in the run. It's gross, but the fact is dogs eat shit. It's not only gross, it can get them very sick.

There are two ways people react to stray shit. There are those who ignore it. Their dog didn't do it, it's not their problem. They have no sense of the whole. Of what's good and right for the community.

Other people, schmucks like me, pick up the shit.

They clean the mess others leave behind.

No one wants to do this.

But it needs to be done.

Someone has to do it, or dogs get sick.

I've found that a lot of agencies, maybe most, are populated by people who strew shit and look the other way.

They steal your work. They don't invite the people who did the work to meetings. They lie and dissemble.

And they get away with it.

No one calls them on their shit.

Another night. Another bar.

“Before I opened the Tempus Fugit,” the bartender said to me upon my arrival at the bar last night at approximately 3:30, “I was the bartender of another bar. A very popular place, at the time.”

He hustled out from behind the teak and brought Whiskey, who just celebrated her second birthday, a small wooden bowl filled with cool water. Whiskey lapped at it in a desultory fashion, then lay down at the foot of my stool to continue her night’s rest.

Back behind the bar, the bartender expertly pulled me a sweet juice glass full of Pike’s. Not to be fussy about it, I let it sit there a moment before I imbibed. It’s a thing of beauty a Pike’s is, like a Bernini statue, delicate, perfectly-formed, detailed, surprising and as near perfect as anything on god’s green.

“People of course said I was crazy opening the Tempus Fugit in the middle of Prohibition,” he said wiping the teak in a tight circular motion, “and maybe I was. But here we are 90 years later, and business is better than ever.”

I looked around and noticed that once again I was the only one in the place. But I let that go.

“Tell me about the bar you worked at before. Was it like the Tempus Fugit,” I asked. “Did it serve Pike’s?”

“There’s no place like the Tempus Fugit,” he laughed “and no place but the Tempus Fugit that serves Pike’s. Even in Pike’s heyday, even when it was proclaimed ‘the Ale that WON for YALE!’ it was never an every man’s beer.”

I nodded in agreement.

“I’ve searched far and wide for Pike’s and come up empty. I’ve even tried to find out more about it on the internet. Zero.”

He looked me dead in the eye and paused polishing the bar with his damp terry. He sifted his weight a couple times and then responded in a low Gary Cooper voice.

“Listen to me. A lot of things can only be seen by people who see them. The bar I worked in before the Tempus Fugit was a place like that. The Tempus Fugit, even moreso. Even if it’s right in front of you…even if you’re physically in the place, you aren’t there if you’re not there.”

“I think Buddhists,” I said as he pulled me another Pike’s “call it being present.”

“Whatever," he dismissed. "The bar I worked in before the Tempus Fugit, where I cut my teeth you might say, had some things in common with the Tempus Fugit. Most pronounced, it was built in the center of a larger building. It had no windows out into the street. It being a speakeasy, it was accessed via a labyrinth of hallways, stairways, byways and as Sinatra would say, my ways.”

“I see,” I said. I was nearly finished with number two and he drew me a third in a fresh glass.

“We called the bar ‘The Dark Place.’”

“A good name for a bar.”

“It wasn’t a good name,” he said, “it was the only thing we could call it. The bar was completely without lights.”

“You mean it was dimly lit?”

“No. It was as blind as Plato’s cave. Lit only by magnetic forces and the invisible glow of god. The pressure was off in the Dark Place. You talked to whomever, not worrying about what they looked liked, what they were drinking, whatever. It was free from all prejudice and pretense.”

“The Dark Place,” I said stupidly.

“The people who could see it could see it. And those that couldn’t stayed away in droves. But those that saw it fit right in.”

I began putting on my coat and be-leashing Whiskey. I have work to do today and didn’t want to get too far into a drunk. I closed my eyes and pulled out two bills from my wallet not knowing what they were, as if I were in The Dark Place.

He smiled an illuminated smile and pushed them back my way.

“On me,” he said.

"Of course," I answered.

And we walked home in the dim light of night.

Last night.

I've been busy of late, running around and working on a variety of assignments at once. None of these are big paydays, but they come with their own lovely compensations. For one, I am miles away from the nearest conference room. Two, there's not a timesheet in sight. And third, well, maybe the first two are enough.

When I finally got home, I rested with a tall glass of seltzer from one of the old siphon spray bottles. I started about fifteen years ago getting these bottles delivered to my home and it was one of the best moves I ever made. It's delicious, effervescent and if you haven't had real seltzer from a siphon bottle, you just don't know what you're missing.

I sat myself down in my leather chair in my den and started going over some copy I had written. Since I was a kid in the business, I've always written copy fast, and then walked away from it as long as I could. When I double back, I find I usually like what I've written and with a few nips and tucks and tweaks and turns, it's ready to go.

Whiskey was asleep by my side. I had classical music on the radio and proper lighting. In all, it was the most comfortable work environment I've had since I worked as a cashier in a downtown Chicago liquor store 35 years ago.

Then, my cell rang, interrupting a soaring Callas aria.

"George," a plaintive blonde voice said. "I heard the news."

"Who is this?" The caller ID was blocked.

"It's Gwyneth. I was at a party with Tommy Lee Jones and he told me you weren't working. Is everything ok? Do you need any money."

"G," I said, "so nice of you to call. I'm doing fine. Not to worry. I'll be back on my size 12s in two shakes of a lamb's keister."

"We're all thinking of you. If there's anything I can do..." Somehow she had italicized the word I with her voice.

"I'm fine," I reassured. And she hung up.

In case you're wondering, like I said to Gwyneth, "I'm fine."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Learning the language.

I've never been very good at learning traditional languages. I took a total of ten years of Latin and have trouble translating the edifice of a Roman Catholic church and they mostly consist of just two words: gloria and Deo.

I wasn't much better at Spanish, though I've lived in one of the biggest Spanish-speaking cities in the world for virtually my whole life. I can order dinner, ask for directions and find a bathroom, but I can't talk about El Cid, Cervantes or anything that really matters.

That said, over the years I've become adept at learning languages at work.

When I worked on Mercedes-Benz everyone considered me a gear-head. I understood complex things like high-density/low-alloy metals.

Years later, when I worked on a bank, I remember the client telling me that I was the only one in the world who could explain the difference between a home-equity line of credit and a homeowners loan.

And then when I worked on IBM and HP, I learned the language of servers, routers, software, and technology. Can you make a router sexy? Only if you understand what it really does.

I've always found that when you learn the language you can break things down and make it easy for non-speakers. You can translate, in effect, for the consumer, complicated shit into simple language.

Too often, agencies throw people into assignments and brands who don't take the time to understand them. So, they spout homilies and cliches about them. The consumer is left with uninformed drivel. Usually, marketing people at the client are also of little help. They're crappy translators too. Plus, they're afraid people will find out they don't really know what they're selling. So they usually talk louder to compensate.

The most important language an agency creative can learn is C-language.

This is the language of CEOs and CMOs. They usually know what they want. They often know what's important. They usually shroud those insights, however, in linguistic barbed wire. Once you've got the lingo down, you can cut through.

That's when good work happens.

The Age of Fracture.

Frank Bruni had an important op-ed in yesterday's "New York Times." You can read it here. The article was called "The Water Cooler Runs Dry," and it was about the ability we all have to "customize [our diets] of entertainment and information." Bruni asks "has the personal niche supplanted the public square?"

In other words, what will become of us when as a people and a nation, we no longer have a "common core." He points out that in the mid-1970s, "All in the Family" was the top-rated TV show and in a nation of 215 million, attracted 50-million viewers. In 2013, NCIS was the top-rated show and attracted 22-million viewers out of a national population of 318 million.

Roughly 50 years after the hippies said, "Do your own thing," everyone is watching their own thing.

Bruni goes on to quote a Princeton University professor who calls our current age "the Age of Fracture." The professor goes on to say "There's enormous weight given to specialized knowledge. It leaves an absence of connective tissue..."

I think there's two ways we in advertising can exist in the Age of Fracture.

The wrong way is to play into it. To have thousands of small messages that allow consumers to form their own customized opinions about a brand.

The second way, the way I believe in, is to define your brand as you wish masses of people to see it. Be imperial and imperious.

It's like high school, really.

There were some kids that changed who they were depending on who they were with.

You know those kids. Momentarily popular, but eventually found out to be asses.

Other kids, fewer, stuck to their guns. They stayed true to themselves.

They found a core of long-lasting friends.

They never shape-shifted to be all things to all to all people.

They presented one image to the mass.

Take it or leave it.

I think brands that mutate, that fracture their core in being and/or messaging are hurting themselves. A solid true spine is what makes a brand enduring and strong.

And as we grow more atomized, this will become more important.