Friday, July 10, 2020

It ain't easy being easy.

Just yesterday Rich Siegel of RoundSeventeen acclaim posted a string of six of the 92 commercials he helped create for a California chain of chicken restaurants, El Pollo Loco. You can see them below.

And earlier this week, Dave Trott, the LeBron James of British advertising, wrote a blogpost here about his long days and longer nights working as a deckhand on a Danish freighter. In Dave’s inimitable style, he writes:

So I went to the Brooklyn docks and signed on a Danish freighter.
I was only a deckhand, but in the Gulf of Mexico they asked me to steer the ship.
This is done from a big wheel in the centre of the bridge.
The ship weighed 10,000 tons and was travelling at sixteen knots (about 20 mph).
They told me to concentrate on the vertical crane in front of the bridge.
Turn the wheel towards the direction I wanted to go.
As soon as I saw the crane begin to move that way, start turning the wheel back.
Don’t wait for the ship to get to the setting I wanted, by that time it would be too late, the ship would just carry on turning straight past it.
It isn’t like a car where you turn the wheel and the car immediately turns.
Everything on a big ship happens with a time lag.
You turn the wheel and it takes ten seconds for the rudder to even respond.
You’ve got 10,000 tons of water moving past at 20 mph, trying to stop the rudder moving, so you need a massively powerful servo-mechanism to turn it.
Once the rudder’s moved, it needs to bite into the water, that takes another ten seconds.
When it bites, 10,000 tons of ship begins to gradually turn.
That’s when you have to start turning the whole thing back the other way, twenty seconds before the ship gets pointed in the direction you wanted.
The whole process is like a huge factory skidding across the ocean.
Steer…then correct….then correct again…. and (hopefully) one final correction.

Rich’s commercial and Dave’s post cause a problem. They make the work they did look simple. And the problem is that things that look simple seldom are.

But people think they're simple because professionals like Rich and Dave make hard work look easy. So others, clients, co-workers and project-managers think work is simple, when simplicity is anything but.

In fact, simplicity causes other problems.

Often as creative people we work terrifically hard to make complex things readily understandable. The problem is in doing so, we delude people into thinking the things we sell are simple when they’re not. We seldom put ourselves in the shoes of our viewers.

What’s more, with everyone and his cousin telling us that people won’t read ads, we hardly ever get the chance to explain things in-depth. People are all too often left with nothing more than the 40 or 50 words of a commercial showing how fucking intuitive everything is. Except nothing really is intuitive. Truth be told if you’re old like I am, not only can you no longer rip open packages because they're conveniently shrink-wrapped, you can’t read the instructions either because they’re usually set in five-point type.

It would be more useful and honest if we told people that x, y and z were difficult but worth it. Instead we say x, y and z are easy and then we smile and laugh. That leaves people angry and disappointed.

Just a couple years ago, I went down to the Great Hall of Cooper-Union, where Abraham Lincoln speechified back in 1860, to see Steven Heller interview the recently-deceased Milton Glaser. Toward the end of the discussion, Heller said to Glaser, “well, less is more.”

To my eyes, Glaser got a little pissed at that. He pushed back from the table and took a second. Then Glaser responded to Heller.

“You know, I’ve heard that all my life. And I just don’t believe it. When you go home tonight if you have a kilim rug, a Persian rug, a Turkish rug, something like that. You’ll see something very beautiful and very complicated. You’ll see the interplay of colors. You’ll see negative space and intricate patterns. In some rugs you’ll see patterns and tension in the rugs.”

Glaser paused again. An old man’s pause. The pause of confidence.

“These rugs are very complicated. And very beautiful.”

This time Glaser displayed the timing of a good Borscht Belt comedian, and paused again.

“Sometimes,” he said, “more is more.”

Since it's Friday, a little advertising treat on the topic of things that look simple seldom are. For what seems like the last 96 years people have been jabbbbbbbbbbering ceaselessly about using data to create great advertising.

I have yet to see an example but the jabbbbbbbbbbering doesn't stop.

However, the ad below is probably 55 years old. It's data driven. And its copy is some of the best I've ever read, and some of the simplest. That's hard.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Where do ideas come from?

As you may or may not know, on Tuesday evenings since the beginning of June, I've been teaching a class in advertising via AdHouse. Of course, we're doing this by Zoom, so I don't know for sure, but so far it seems attendance has been good and most of the students seem fairly engaged. We still have a way to go, but I think that's a good thing.

Last Tuesday one of the students in the class asked me how I work? How do I approach a problem? How do I start thinking, dissecting, looking for angles or ideas?

I'm conscious in my life that I get a lot of questions like that. Big and ontological. So, it's not unusual for me to take a full 20 minutes or more to answer. Most questions I field are not of the "what's the capital of Kentucky" variety. They're much more baroque and they demand, in my mind, a much more thoughtful answer.

A couple days ago I came upon an adage in my LinkedIn feed from the Twitter feed "@leeclowsbeard." Every so often, brevity and profundity collide and the explosion results in something wonderful.

The point is, whether you're a creative, a planner, an account person, in media, in support, a client, or even (heaven forfend) an executive, advertising is a whole-body experience. 

As the New York Lottery used to remind us, "you have to be in it to win it."

I am blessed (or cursed) with an eidetic memory. Eidetic memory is our modern way of saying 'photographic memory.' And what it means is as I wander through the world, as I read and view and hear and chat and listen to people, I take mental notes and try to store as much information and shreds of ideas as I can. I keep a lot under my greying hair and fading baseball cap.

Even with my memory, I have on my computer and on about 32 external hard-drives and 12 different clouds, reams and reams of links, jpegs, mp4s, articles, books, quotations, reviews, sketches and more. I have lists of jokes and a veritable storehouse of anecdotes from my eight decades on earth.

If I had to guess, I'd say the inside of my head looks like one of Walter Benjamin's notebooks.

I don't know how many gigaflops or teraflops or petaflops or exaflops I have in storage. I'd be curious to find out. But what I do know is that our jobs as advertising people is to make ourselves into observation machines. 

Our job, in fact, is a bit like a sparrow's. Out of the various shards and bits and scraps and traces and dustballs of life, we build our homes, we build our minds, we build the massive set of inchoate crap that we work to form into something no one has ever seen or heard before.

Maybe that in and of itself is entirely too vague. But as creators--not matter what our functional role in advertising is, we are creators, we take the atoms of stimulus and attempt to combine them in new and meaningful ways.

I can't be anymore precise than that, actually. We fill our storage units, cranial, emotional or digital to overflowing. We find some way through our memories or our sense of organization to call on those things when we need them and we start shaping them like a snowball until they have weight and shape and meaning.

We all have our own ways, I suppose. 

About an hour ago I said to my wife across the living room, "shit, I have no blog post for tomorrow and it's almost time for me to go to bed." My anxiety hardly registered with her.

She knows I've been preparing for deadlines my whole life.

That's what we do.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

He's good at hockey. Let's put him in charge of a baseball team.

I am not by nature an optimist. In fact, throughout my long years, I have often been called a cynic and I'm often told that I look on the gloomy side of life. I’m tired of that criticism, really. I might take a dim view of things, but such a view is often informed by a sense of history, precedent and memory.

Accordingly when someone criticizes me and says I’m being dark, I often shoot back at them with a circular sentence from George Bernard Shaw: “The power of accurate observation is often called cynicism by those who haven’t got it.”

Now, let me say, cynically or accurately as you wish, I am less-than-optimistic about the take-over of the advertising industry by the consulting industry. 

Decades ago when the boring but well-run packaged-goods agency, MCA merged with the creative but badly run agency Ally & Gargano, the hope was the new entity would have Ally’s creativity and MCA’s client management prowess. You’ve probably guessed by now what happened in reality. The combined entity wound up with MCA’s creativity and Ally’s account skills. And went from Agency of the Decade to out of business in about ten year's time.

It wouldn’t shock me if a similar denouement occurs when a once-legendary agency turns over its leadership reins to a leading management consultant. The question for me around such an arrangement is not, “What can possibly go wrong?” Instead, it’s “What can possibly go right?”

Fundamental to answering this question, of course, is what the muckety-mucks, agency leadership, thinks their agency is in business to do. Is it to enhance the customer experience at every touchpoint while creating front-end and back-end synergies? Is it to help a variety of clients digitally transform themselves, make better use of data, communicate more frequently at a lower cost per touch? Those things, and I’m not entirely sure what any of them actually mean, seem to be the prevailing wisdom coursing through the empty sunk-cost real estate where most agencies continue to operate however shakily.

I’m not of the above camp. For many reasons. Most of them having to do with my belief that most people don’t know what most products actually do, what particular brands stand for, or, most basic of all, how to treat people--customers--with respect and dignity. Most brands, and agencies don’t seem to be helping here, they don’t show brands how to act as good neighbors to most customers. Most advertising to my eyes and ears has all the hallmarks of, in fact, a bad neighbor. They make a lot of noise when you’re hoping for quiet, they show up when you don’t want them, and they’re always throwing their shit on your lawn.

That’s not stuff, I don’t believe, a consultant is going to know beans about. And chances are as consultancy words like synergies, optimization and efficiencies rattle through the empty halls of agencies like Banquo’s ghost, the importance of creative people and creativity itself will diminish and the importance of spurious futurizing prognostication will take-over.

To be blunt, I worry if shit like this:

Will force out work like this:

Or work like this:

Maybe clients don't care anymore about creative. Maybe agencies don't either. Maybe that's why most awards shows seem to bestow most of their awards to work that never actually ran. Maybe it's worse. Maybe in today's  agency/marketing world "no one ever got fired for hiring Deloitte."

But I worry. 

The personnel composition of agencies—already suffering from having fewer and fewer creative doers—will tilt even further in favor of technocratic consultants. The most important part of advertising—getting noticed so your message can be heard—will take on less and less prominence.

I suppose I could have saved a lot of digital ink if I had just written will the consultants now in charge of giant agencies understand that ads have to work in “Times Square,” when their presentations have only ever had to work in wood-paneled boardrooms, delivered roughly one-to-one.

Finally, I wonder one more thing.

I wonder if what we do in the creative business will be regarded as a “service,” or a “product.”

I’ve always recoiled—angrily—when I’m told to suck-it-up because I’m in a service business. No. I am in a product business. My product is a host of communications that can help a business by driving sales. My product helps define who my clients are. My product is succinct messages that inform and entertain people while making them admire a brand. My product is my brain, my determination, my skill. My product is everything I've ever heard, read, learned or noticed.

Of course there are service aspects involved. We're professional listeners. And professional at meeting deadlines. We have to handle grenades thrown our way. But ultimately, we are meant to win awards for work that makes an impact and moves businesses forward—not for being obedient and tractable.

I worry about that.


As an aside, I just ran across the timeline below on LinkedIn. In a way, it's a real-life quandary the ad industry faces today. I'm sure there are those who say John Lewis Christmas commercials are outrageously expensive and not worth the money. Others, myself included, say they probably do more for the brand than 100 quotidian ads and are cheap at twice the price.

I wonder where consultancy-led agencies will fall. I wonder if they'll get cold feet. Or, like I did, chills.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you.

About 20 years ago I was listening to the news one morning while I was getting for work. I listen to National Public Radio news and their morning news program is fairly regimented. The first ten or so minutes after the top of the hour, a listener gets a glimpse of the big stories of the day. Then for about 30 minutes they go deeper into the big stories with color commentary or interviews.

The last 20 minutes of the hour are usually filled with things I would regard as fairly inconsequential. A rock band’s new album, a bassist recovering from addiction, a review of a new movie involving a much-beloved superhero I had never heard of. I usually don’t pay attention to this portion of the news. I resent it, actually. I’d like my world news separated from entertainment news. But that battle’s been lost.

A typical TV network might earn 50%-60% of its profit from its “news” shows. So they’ll do almost whatever they have to to get improve their ratings and make more money selling ad space. Wouldn’t you? Even if it soddened the minds and polluted the society you live in, it’s all about greenbacks, ain’t it?

In any event, I was half listening to the news at the bottom of the hour and I noticed that in talking about the movie industry, the main focus of the news was on box-office receipts.

What was popular became more important than what critics deemed was good and/or important. Movies were rated almost entirely on their “box office,” rather than on some less quantifiable criteria. By that measure, most of Orson Welles’ movies or Preston Sturges’ movies, would be abject failures, whereas “Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Squeakquel” would be regarded as a success.

Now that I am living in the former land of the Niantic and the Pequot, I am having a slightly difficult time finding restaurants that serve the sort of food I like. Even when we venture into New Haven for Whiskey’s twice-monthly chemo-treatments, I can find nothing good. Part of the problem, of course, is that restaurant reviews—which you may or may not trust—have almost solely disappeared. The only information I can find online are stars from Trip Advisor, or Yelp! or GrubHub or Zomato or ChowHound or Menu Pix. I can find nothing I know or trust—and none of those rating systems give me any reason to rely on their picks.

I noticed just now the perniciousness of popularity. Our un-popularly and un-constitutional president has just, via Twitter of course, castigated NASCAR for banning the racist Confederate flag and for supporting its sole Black driver, Bubba Wallace. (Forget about the truism that no nation builds war monuments to losers.) Trump seems not even to consider the morality of NASCAR’s actions—he essentially calls their decision a bad one based on a drop in their television ratings.

Public opinion, of course, must be taken into consideration. But where people fail is when public opinion is the only consideration. Many political decisions are unpopular. Truman’s integration of the armed forces. Roosevelt lending armaments to the UK and the USSR before the United States entered World War II. Even, I’d imagine, the abrogation in 1951 or so of Plessey vs. Ferguson. But sometimes politicians must lead public opinion—not just follow it.

I would imagine about 97% of great advertising would be killed if it had been subject to public opinion in the form of focus groups. I know the most famous-spot ever, Apple’s “1984” would have died a thousand deaths, 950 small deaths, 50 gigantic. And I can well-imagine the focus-group outcry over “Lemon,” or “Think Small,” and certainly “Drive it like you hate it,” would have died like a possum under the wheels of an 18-wheeler on a highway. Further, imagine David Abbott’s “Economist,” work. I can practically hear the caustic criticism rattling around in what’s left of my noggin.

The point for me in all this is that public opinion is good, and valid, and important. But when you make it your sole, or your primary point of judgment you are giving up your personal wisdom, your personal quirks, your personal taste, standards, predilections, judgment and more. You’ve given up some basic human truths, that most things that breakthrough are initially disliked for the very reason that they are new and uncomfortable.

Of course we must keep our ears to the ground—we must know and care what people think. But we must also believe in what we believe in.  Chances are, if it's new it won't be liked and if it's liked it isn't new.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Sermon for a Friday. With musical accompaniment by Mr. Jimmy Smith.

Just about every day, I hear about the need for advertising to reflect upon and capitalize on what’s oxymoronically referred to as “popular culture.”

I have neither great love nor great disdain for popular culture. And as we have a crappy tv host presiding over our modern dystopia, you can’t argue about the perniciousness of popular culture. It’s everywhere. And as H.L. Mencken reputedly said,  "No one in this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

That said, I wonder what is the cost of our national obsession with popular culture. I wonder what “un-popular cultures” are forced out of our brains because we are focused on so much on that which is contemporary and transitory.

Sure, I’m both over-educated and a snob. But every time I hear someone extol the virtues of Porky’s II and then admit (without embarrassment) that they’ve never seen Citizen Kane, I worry.

I worry that society is mimicking the common agency practice of confusing availability and capability. Just because someone is around doesn’t mean their right, good or suited to the task at hand.

I worry if we are excluding some of the wisdom of the ages because we fail to ever consider thinking from virtually anyone who isn’t from our era. Or anyone who wasn’t born after 1990.

Thursday morning I was having my usual morning session with Owen, my therapist, rabbi, mentor, tormentor and personal provocateur. I was talking about my ripening as a human—and the success I am having being myself and gaining clients because I am being myself. Myself in all my myness—annoying, enjoyable, wise, funny, frustrating and human.

I mentioned a poem I had taken to sending to clients when I write a new business proposal. Yes, a poem. And if they don’t like it, we are not meant to be. I quoted a stanza or two from it:

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
You are loved.

I don’t care that it’s deep and circuitous and it mentions love. To me it’s about the importance of listening, deeply, to clients as a means to discerning their unique voice. I don’t care that this is weird and different. It’s what you have to do to understand and show understanding.

Mostly I don’t care because it’s my way. And for 36 years working for giant agencies I’ve done things someone else’s way. And the result as often as not is a shrouding of ideas and passion and insights and…soul underneath layer upon layer of dusty corporate speak that does nothing well but emerge from 17 rounds of urinationating from seven c-level people who blanderize language to such a degree that sincerity and humanity are present in quantities similar to what you might find in a Soviet-era instructional booklet on home colonoscopies.

Naw. That ain’t working.

Expressing emotion to a client, telling them of your zeal and drive should not read like an in-flight safety announcement. There should be some you in it.

Owen took my pause as his opportunity.

“George, do you know the poem “Directive,” by Robert Frost?”

“You’ve taught me a lot of Frost,” I said, “Death of a Hired Man,” “After Apple Picking,” something about looking at the past through a train window.”

“Not those,” he chided. “Robert Frost once described the joy of writing as “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t now I knew.”

“That’s right,” I said. “I know that line.”

“You know that line,” Owen said, “because of this from Frost’s “Directive.”

“Shoot,” I said.

“You’re lost enough to find yourself.”

Have a good long weekend, all.

And thanks, Owen.

Father Mapple and me. In suburbia.

I bought a garden hose this weekend.

I bought a garden hose with great ambivalence this weekend.

Who’d’ve thought I’d be checking the web and finding the best garden hoses, the recommended garden hoses, the garden hoses that earned 4.7 stars or 4.9.

Chesbeau17 gave the hose only one-star, saying “It kinks more than any other garden hose I’ve ever had.” Paul J. Anoff agrees. He says, "I was excited and looking forward to having a heavy and sturdy hose. One of my issues is that the hose constantly kinks… I have to get not one but many kinks out before I turn the water on.”

One the other hand, B.P Crues gives the hose five stars, “This hose has it all, brass fittings, thick rubber body and a fashion color! My hose color matches my shutters and door so it does not stand out but blends in with my house and yard… I chose this blue to compliment my blue shutters and blue entry door.” 52Art concurs, saying “Has some 'coiling memory', but this is quite forgiving and far easier to deal with than with cheaper hoses. I have returned or thrown out more failed hoses than I can remember. This one is a keeper.”

All this is to say, at my wife’s insistence, we are about three weeks away from closing on a small house along a bluff with expansive views of the Long Island Sound. We've been up on the Gingham Coast since March 21st and when I am not working, which usually means between 5AM and 8AM, I am walking with Whiskey along the Sound.

The Sound is a poor-man’s ocean. It’s never had the sweep or the majesty of the Atlantic. Its waves are too small for any littoral frolicking. Its waves are of the ‘spilling’ variety, with crests that break softly towards the shore. These waves break lightly due to the gradual slope of the sea’s floor.

The beaches near my new house are more Maine than Hatteras. They are filled with millions and millions of small rocks that make walking tough—even when you’re wearing hiking boots, and even for Whiskey, who is nimble in most things. Among those millions of stones are hundreds of living and once-living sea creatures waiting for the next onslaught of water—either from a sea surge or the next high-tide.

Whiskey occasionally gobbles a dead blue claw crab, or even a gull-picked fish carcass. About two-weeks ago I moved with the speed of a Usain Bolt and the agility of a Nureyev to remove from her maw the sad dead blob of a Harryhausen-like octopus.

I learned to swim in the Long Island Sound about sixty years ago—back when there were no sewage treatment plants and the City of New York dumped its untreated sewage not far from Robert Moses’ grand crescent horseshoe beach on City Island, the Riviera of the Bronx, Orchard Beach. Before Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway ripped through a Jewish lower-middle-class East Tremont neighborhood, before Co-op City was built and before the onslaught of heroin and arson that all-but killed the benighted borough in the early-1970s.

The Sound was all but dead in 1961 when, as a three year-old I stroked and floated and kicked and flailed under the aegis of a local boy playing swim instructor/lifeguard.

The Sound has cleaned up a bit since then. Some summers back there was a whale off of Larchmont and just three weeks ago, my wife and I spotted a small harbor seal feeding and playing in the surf. And just miles away from our new home, a world-record striped bass was brought in on light tackle. It weighed nearly 85 pounds and measured 41/2-feet long. Who knows if its behemoth size was due to its swimming around the waters of Niantic, ten miles away, where the 500-acre, 2 gigawatt Millstone nuclear power-plant, the 53rd largest power plant in the US, regularly cools its jets.

DDT, which had thinned the shells of avian eggs which led to the near destruction of the Osprey population was banned in the early 70s, and today the Osprey are back. You can see them circle and dive talons first into the brine and struggle to soar against the weight of a wiggly silvery fish. They fly inland to high nests built atop telephone poles places in swamps for purposes of the Osprey’s regeneration.

This is all happening just a few miles from where my new garden hose will someday soon lay on the dry grass and lopsided hydrangeas. I never cared much for hydrangeas, to be clear, until I saw Donna Reed run robe-less into a clump of them about mid-way through “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

That would be wonderful, I suppose. But it’s as unlikely to happen as my hose is to stay unkinked. But we’ll, nevertheless, thank the gods for their kindness, as they look down on my small, soon-to-be-closed on home, and my children, and my wife, and Whiskey, of course, and wish us well, in our justa plota not a lotta land.

So, I enter suburbia--two hours from my faraway home--with the trepidation of Father Mapple's Jonah. 

  ‘Terrors upon terrors run shouting through his soul. In all his cringing attitudes, the God-fugitive is now too plainly furiously they mob him with their questions. “What is thine occupation? Whence comest thou? Thy country? What people?” ...
 ‘“I am a Hebrew,” he cries—and then—“I fear the Lord the God of Heaven who hath made the sea and the dry land!”...And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamourous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale...Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin, but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.’"

So, I enter suburbia, hose kinked, soul unwound, laying on the burning grass, writhing like Jonah before God, in the godless Connecticut of Uncle Wiggly, combing the shores, endlessly for banana fish. The day is perfect for them. Mr. Spiritual Tramp of 2020.