Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols and Digital Natives.

I’ve seen a fair amount of Advertising want ads of late seeking, for various positions, “digital natives.” I am staggered by the wrong-headedness of that classification.

For one, it seems obvious, there is inherent age-discrimination implied. Digital natives would be by definition people born after a certain date, after the rise of the Internet. This is not only wrong, but it’s also stupid.

My main qualm with those seeking digital natives, however, occurred to me when I read Mike Nichols’ obituary.

Nichols, like many great “American” artists, was not born in America. He wasn’t even born Mike Nichols—his given name was Americanized from Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky.
In fact, Peschkowsky was a double-immigrant, having first fled Russia, then Germany, for our teeming shores. Yet somehow, though he wasn’t an “American native,” he produced archetypical “American” work. You don’t have to love his movies, his plays, or his comedy, to credit him with being a keen observer of American life—perhaps America’s keenest observer over the last 60 years or so.

Outsiders seeing what insiders can’t is not new in the world of art or commerce. Homer saw the Greek world better than the Greeks. Though he was blind.

Hollywood was built by outsiders, usually Jews from Central Europe, who in short order went from shtetl to Keystone Kop, or a flophouse in London to “Modern Times.” Billy Wilder was writing Oscar-winning screenplays just a year or two after arriving in America knowing virtually no English.

Outsiderness, not nativeness, often leads to insight. You see things from a different point of view, perhaps more sardonically and more analytically, both. Distance creates vision.

It’s why we talk to therapists. And why, often, our friends can give us better advice than we can give ourselves.

Surely, there are things Digital natives see that I never will. But, likewise, there are things they take for granted that I think are spectacular and stunning.

Perspective, most often, is gained by distancing yourself from what you’re viewing. Being too close sometimes results in blindness or myopia. And perspective is what prospective employers should be looking for.

Not just sight.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

The curse of recency.

How did cronuts shove the world's many wars off of the front pages?

How did Kim Kardashian's nether regions become more important than corruption in the global economic system, the warming of our planet and a toxic gas leak that on Monday killed four workers?

It's not enough to just say that the world's dumbed down.

There's something else destroying our minds.

The curse of Recency.

Recency, or if I want to get all deep-dish about it, the Availability Heuristic, is the all-too-human tendency to assign more importance to events and conditions that happened recently, as opposed to things that happened a while ago.

It's why if you ask people for the greatest writer in the world, more people are likely to say Stephen King than Geoffrey Chaucer.

The ad business has been especially waylaid by Recency.

Everything we've learned about communication and persuasion is, these days, overwhelmed by the au courant trend, joke, trend or fillip. Worse, because the only adjective we now value is "award-winning," we are under the sway of awards shows that celebrate recency and therefore bring more recency on.

That's a fancy way of saying there's no originality. Most creativity today involves little more than imitation of work that's already won awards. (Perhaps the most creative aspect of most awards shows is the invention of new award categories.)

Recency has gotten us away from persuasion.

It's gotten us away from the core of what our business is about.

There are those, of course, who will use the recency of a new application or a new website or a new belch of wearable technology, and then they'll glibly assure us that "this changes everything."

This palaver will be repeated down the hallways and conference rooms of a thousand agencies around the globe. We'll hear about agencies that are leading the industry because they have a "wearable" department. They'll win awards as the Wearable Agency of the Year. There will be a new award called "The Wearies."

We've seen this sort of thing a dozen times over the last dozen years.

It's all recency.

What we should be thinking about is something deeper than merely recent.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Information Age.

Maybe they call this "The Information Age," because it's damn near impossible to get any information.

I recently bellied up to the bar and had to buy a car for my younger daughter who, as I said in a previous post, has flown the parental coop.

I don't take spending $20,000 lightly. I throw nickels around like manhole covers. I wanted, before I put cash on the barrelhead (whatever that means) to know that the car was safe, that it was reliable and that it was large enough for my daughter and her friends.

"Consumer Reports" helped narrow the field as did the safety ratings of the National Highway Transportation Safety Board. But ads and websites and brochure and dealers were almost completely useless. Virtually every statement in any of those "channels" was a parity claim.

Nothing took the car apart for me and put it together again.

No one thought I'd be interested in customer-satisfaction scores and repurchase intent. No one thought I'd like to know about the relative thickness of steel, the aggregate number of airbags, the 60-0 braking distance. And dozens more things.

I see the same everywhere, whether I'm buying a new camera, carpeting for my apartment, a new computer. Even in financial services, perhaps the most data-sensitive of all purchase decisions, we tend to see well-fed people shaking hands with other well-fed people, usually through plate glass.

There's no information.

The only thing brands seem to want to tell me is that impossibly attractive people smile when they use their brand.

I can already hear the push back.

Nobody reads.

Purchase decisions are emotional, not rational.

Etc. etc.

I'm not buying it.

Even if you're impossibly attractive and smiley.

BTW,  I'm particularly frustrated by this because brands use information like mad to have their messages follow us around like heat-seeking drones. That's the one hand.

On the other hand, they think we're too dumb or disinterested to make wise purchase decisions.

There's a Volvo spot running now trumpeting theirs as the "connected car." It is so devoid of ballast it's like cotton-candy infused with helium. In a market that is up 8%, Volvo sales are down 6%. They are over 40% below their peak annuals sales figures. They need to help me consider Volvo. Volvo resides in the most competitive segment of the car industry. Knowing that I can listen to Pandora while I drive? No.

Uber uber alles.

The hipster community is up in its well-tattooed arms about a taxi-cab service called Uber. Uber is perfect for the said hipsters because via its well-designed app, it puts those hipsters at the center of the universe. To that center cabs are dispatched which can whisk those same hipsters to the next center of the universe.

Because of Uber's ability to do this, it somehow has a valuation of 13-times "The New York Times," perhaps the finest and most influential newspaper in the world.

Uber, however, is succumbing to what many companies fall prey to as they grow. They see their customers gush over them. They see their market-cap soar. They see their faces festooned on the covers of magazines. They see themselves on various 40 under 40 lists or 30 under 30. They see all that.

And they begin to think their shit doesn't stink.

They believe their press.

They become in a word, arrogant.

The trick in our bubbly era of start-ups, technopreneurs, maker-culture et al is eschewing arrogance. It's not seeking to smear detractors as an Uberite proposed doing. It's actually being good now that you're big.

I think many darling companies are struggling with this.

Agencies too.

They believe their press.

They think they are unassailable. They think they are gods.

It's Calvinist, really. These corporate titans believe they are chosen by some sort of deity. That the rest of us are pond scum. And they act accordingly.

I don't think it's much of a trick to find success.

The trick is to be successful and humble.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why we love sports.

There is a whole strata of people in our industry who don't do anything but talk. If you look closely, they've never done anything but talk. They never will do anything but talk.

They have, these people, no discernible ability to make ads or to win over clients. But they're immensely talented at talking, at sitting in judgment and in saying what they would do if they weren't so busy talking.

There was one ECD I worked for not long ago. I was working for him (not the other way around) because he ostensibly had a relationship with the CEO of a major client. The client needed commercials in just a few weeks.

This ECD couldn't write the commercials. He didn't have the time to look at reels and find the right director. He didn't come to the edits. He did, however, talk well enough to have us do 57 versions of one :15.

He could talk.

That's all he could do.

In sports there are guys with rippling muscles who boast that they can rip the cover off the ball, or run through the defense like sand through a sieve. Then someone hands them a bat and they whiff. Or a ball and they fumble.

The poseurs are quickly discovered.

I think if you looked deep inside most agencies you'd see that 20% of the people do 80% of the work. And another 20% do 80% of the talking.

There are all sorts of people in the industry who spout that "the agency model is broken," or similar tripe.


The agency model isn't broken.

It's been talked to death.

Monday, November 17, 2014

New York advertising. Subway ad edition.

For everyone younger than 55.

Carl Schlesinger died November 9th. He was 88.

Schlesinger was a typesetter (a what?) at "The New York Times." He shepherded the paper's transition from "hot type" using a Linotype machine to "cold type," type generated by computers. The last hot type edition of the Times was the July 2, 1978 issue.

Before computers type was a bear. It was set painstakingly line by line by ink-stained wretches and 19th Century Mergenthaler machines. The metal type was arranged on a metal page in 40-pound plates called stereotypes. The paper was printed from those plates.

Linotype machines and Linotype operators went the way of the dodo bird. There was a time in the late 70s and early 80s when it seemed nearly every cab driver in New York was an ex-Linotype man.

Pictured above is a memo from the Museum of Modern Art, announcing their acquisition of a 29-minute documentary starring Schlesinger on the demise of hot type. It's called "Farewell, Etaoin Shrudlu," those wacky seemingly-Lithuanian characters the first two vertical lines on the old machines.

Look again at the press release from MoMA and you can see in a nutshell how type has changed in the last 35 or so years.

Things are better now.

Crisper, cleaner, faster and there are more type styles than ever before.


A rainy Monday.

It's raining a steady rain in New York this morning and it's cold. The sidewalks and streets are covered with the leaf-equivalent of Custer's Last Stand. There will only be outliers left when this storm is over. Lone survivors of the onslaught, sure to regale their grandchildren leaves of their heroic exploits.

I like New York in the rain--even though it sometimes seems as if the subway system were designed more for San Diego or Phoenix, places without rain, than the precipitation we are greeted with today. Sometimes, it seems, a wet sneeze is enough to tie up the system.

It's still dark as I write this and my wife--still on disability with her hip--is still asleep. The younger daughter left yesterday, the older left ten years ago. Even Whiskey is in doggie dreamland.

There are things I'd rather do on this rainy Monday than head to the train to go to work. I am in the middle of A. Scott Berg's long biography of Samuel Goldwyn. It's a history of the American film industry at a macro level and Goldwyn's role in creating it. Sprinkled throughout--Berg is a good writer--are just the right amount of Goldwynism's. Like "Mussolini is tied down invading Utopia."

Yes, I'd rather crawl back to bed. Read my book. Watch a movie or two. Or just take a long walk along the water with Whiskey.

But that's ok.

I've got work, too.

And that's ok, too.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Roots and Wings. (Heavy for a Sunday.)

My younger daughter flies the coop today.

She's starting her adult life in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Her first solo apartment. First car. First set of dishes. First router. First electric bill. First gas and water bills. A lot of firsts.

A friend asked me how I feel.

I told him that as a parent, I've done the job that I think needed to be done. (Not that you're ever finished.)

I've given my kids "roots and wings."

They know where they come from. They have brains. Morals. A work ethic. Spirit and drive.

Those are roots.

And they know they can try whatever they like. They know the success that comes from failure. They know how to challenge themselves.

Those are wings.

It seems to me good advertising should have roots and wings, too.

Your work should have dedication to actually selling. To making a promise to the viewer. To being motivating, intelligent, moving. Those are the roots of good advertising.

Your work should also be daring. Bold. Unexpected and new. Those are advertising wings.

It seems to me much of the industry is in the thrall of the "Wing-ites."

We try to do things for effect, to no effect.

We don't have the basics down before we attempt the extraordinary.

I suppose Dave Trott's triangle speaks also to this point.

Intrusion. (Those are wings.) Communication and Persuasion. (Those are roots.)

Roots and Wings.

In life.

In advertising.

Friday, November 14, 2014


I'll have to admit, for the better part of the past week, I really can't get over Kim Kardashian's ass.

Not the ass itself, that is nothing more than a helium balloon mixed with a circus side show in middle-school locker-room. But the fascination social media seems to think we share in her ass.

I have put yeoman-like efforts into finding a way to remove "trending articles" from my Facebook feed. To me those items are like being force-fed National Enquirer stories on alien babies, Elvis' reappearance and John Kennedy being kept alive in an underground lab.

The stupidity of the whole thing depresses me.

What it's all done to our brains.

The incessant blare of celebrity culture.

The lowest common denominator hasn't just triumphed, it's romped.

Maybe it was ever thus.

For every Tapestry of Bayeux, there were a million crude drawings of female pudenda.
You take the ass. I'll take the Tapestry.

I suppose that's right. That's how it's always been.

But I think we in the media business have to take a step back. 

And think.

Because our level of national discourse is so stupid, do our commercials have to be similarly dumbed down?

I'd like to believe, no.

We can still, I hope, impart useful consumer information in an executionally brilliant way.

Or, we can tell a fart joke.

Our choice.