Monday, June 18, 2018

Shakespeare for the birds.

Saturday night in New York City might have been the most beautiful night since creation itself began. The sun was setting casting a golden twilight. The breeze was calm and cooling, and the temperature was just right for a tee-shirt and shorts.

I was with 2,500 other New Yorkers in Central Park's Delacorte Theater to see the Public's presentation of Shakespeare's "Othello."

I first saw a production of Othello fifteen years ago when I found an old VHS tape of Orson Welles' 1951 interpretation with Welles himself as the Moor and wearing a most politically-incorrect blackface.

Still. Shakespeare. Welles. Holy. Shit.

About ten years ago I saw a small production downtown at a theater at NYU with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the insidious Iago. It was one of the worst interpretations of Shakespeare I had ever seen, with Iago climbing over TV screens playing static to torture the Moor.

Saturday night was in between the two productions. Blackface aside, I'm not sure anyone could play a better Othello than Welles. But Chukwudi Iwuji, though small in stature, rises to the role. Corey Stoll was fine as Iago, but to my mind lacking in unctuousness. 

Perhaps for me the highlight of the evening happened early in Act I. As the actors were going through their lines and setting the setting, plot and characters, as we thrilled to the language of the Bard, a small sparrow flew down from the rafters and settled stage left.

It was a small bird, about half the size of a clenched fist, and being a New Yorker, he felt every-bit entitled to enjoy the show from his particular vantage point. He sat there and looked around and watched, pecked, then watched some more.

Until this point in my 60 years I wasn't aware that sparrows enjoyed Shakespeare. But this must have been a bird from up by Columbia, where Shakespeare, and Marlowe, and even Ben Jonson are, still, currency.

For a while the sparrow sat and took it in. Then he must have had enough--or he heard his girlfriend sparrow calling. He flew up into the towering lights, circled the stage and then off into the night he disappeared.

The show, as shows do, went on.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Nobody asked me but....Ides of June edition.

Nobody asked me but is my periodic homage to the great New York sportswriter, Jimmy Cannon. When Cannon was stuck, when he had no ideas (it happens even to the best of us) he would write one of these. About everything but sports.

Nobody asked me but...

...When it's 81 degrees and sunny, with a light wind blowing off the Hudson, and you're far enough away from the odors of horse manure emanating from the stables on West 48th street, New York might well be the greatest city in the world.

...I generally don't like people who call New York the greatest city in the world.

...Especially if they've never been to Akron in a snowstorm.

...That was a joke.

...When did we start appending the suffix "oid" onto the word fact?

...And what's the difference, anyway, between a fact and a factoid.

...Is there such a thing as a
 little bit of fiction, a fictionoid? 

...Part of me thinks the Trump administration will end the same way Senator Joseph McCarthy ended, with someone asking him on national television, "Sir, have you no sense of decency?"

...Back then and today, that's a rhetorical question.

...The more you need to print something, the greater the likelihood that the printer is broken.

...I think they call that HP's law.

...It goes along with Mac's law that a two-hour software upgrade happens just as you're on deadline.

...Does anyone really think AT&T buying Time-Warner will be good for customers? 

...Do those people actually use AT&T or Time-Warner?

...If you do, do you actually think they'll ever answer their phone or fix a problem?

...How do the people who send out shrill notices that your timesheets are late fill out their timesheets?

...Every once in a while, when the world gets too much with me, I feel like watching an old episode of "Mr. Ed."

...Did you expect more from a post on a summer Friday?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Here there be Charlatans.

A meaty sandwich is the opposite of charlatanism.
Lately in this space, I've howled at the moon. Mostly I howl at the new age "this-will-change-everything-ists" who tell us of the magic 'best practices,' or media format or analytic capability that will lead our business (and our clients) to some sort of promised land. 

A land where sales go up, customers are always loyal, conversations are had about your brand--and they're passed along. A world of inexpensive 'brand films' that are viewed and shared and shared some more. A world where marketers can get something for nothing, and everyone is blissful, happy and rich.

In Tuesday's failing "New York Times," there was an opinion piece that asked "Why We Are So Vulnerable to Charlatans Like Trump." You can read it here.

This paragraph really stopped me:

"What makes us so vulnerable to charlatans today? In part it’s the complexity of the modern world and the rate of technological and social change: Quackery provides what Saul Bellow once called a “five-cent synthesis,” boiling down the chaotic tangle of the age into simple nostrums. Modern life bombards us into exhaustion and boredom as much as anxiety; sometimes we are just looking for entertainment in a surprising notion."

If that doesn't capture the spirit of those in our business who spend their days and our money trumpeting and selling the next response panacea, I don't know what does.

We've heard during the last twenty or so years of our complex and rapidly changing world, a new platitude or two every month or so.

We've heard all sorts of ideas that will change marketing forever. They're often accompanied by statements that the old ways are unequivocally and forever dead.

Charlatans become especially prevalent in ages of “rapid development of the sciences, or quickened progress in technology” when “minds are overburdened with the effort to keep up with these accumulations of facts.”

Sound like our business?

In these periods simplistic reductions of complex issues and marketing cure-alls function the same way as quack medicine: They seem to provide an answer. But really, as is the case with phony medicine, they only make the patient (in our case, the marketing industry) sicker.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

It's complicated. (It shouldn't be.)

In our industry, for every one person who tries to simplify what we do, there are 19 or 47 who try to complicate things.

Complication, when you get right down to it, is good for business. If no one knows exactly what you’re talking about, they’re usually afraid to admit it. So they nod their heads and you charge them for it.

Don’t believe me? Think about getting your car repaired or your washer-dryer, or getting your kitchen redone. Someone tells you your Freon capacitor is clogged, and before you can say “Alexa, what’s a Freon capacitor?” you’re out $179 for parts and $235 for labor.

Back in the real world it seems I spend one-third of my day hearing about agencies who are going to help their clients with business transformation. Business transformation? Most clients don’t pick up the phone when it rings and have no one competent on staff to handle minor problems.

Does it really take an MBA and a specialist in transformational strategic frameworks to tell a business to answer the phone by the third ring, to call people back when you can’t resolve their questions and to have enough cashiers when the store is crowded?

My personal belief is most businesses—and this includes the near-defunct like Sears and the like—would even today be more viable if they took care of their customers in a helpful way. That’s the easiest step one there is, and you don’t need a degree in behavioral economics and user interaction design to get there.

Our business, of course, has no immunity from the disease of over-complication. In fact, and I wish I were exaggerating here, I think one-third of the meetings I attend might just as well be conducted in Swahili. I have no idea what anyone is talking about. And the human connections and behaviors and journeys we’re supposed to be “optimizing” seem to have no connection to any real observable human behavior. In other words, I don’t understand what you’re saying, and I’m not sure people act that way anyway.

As long-time readers of this blog know, my old man was in this business a generation before me. I stumbled upon an article from the New York Times from November 26, 1968—49 and a half years ago.

We hear a lot in our business about how “the agency model is broken.” I guess that’s the 21st Century way of saying such-and-such place sucks. Or their management is made up of tasteless dodos.

I wonder if our worlds would be dramatically improved, smarter, friendlier and productive of more successful work if we followed the dictum from my old man so many years ago. What if we started “putting the money where we make the money”?

In other words what if we cut the crap, reduced our industry to its simplest and reaffirmed that “great creative makes great brands.” (See Apple. See Nike. See IBM.)

And then, as an agency, we invested accordingly.

Simple, right?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


1. We will award ads that have a “cultural impact.” There’s no telling if that impact is positive or negative.

2. We will engage in “human storytelling.” Except when we have Chinese food. Then we’ll engage in “Hunan storytelling.”

3. Despite saying that this year will be less lavish than last, in reality next year will be less lavish than this.

4. The most serious statements about industry retrenchment will be issued from the most expensive hotel suites.

5. People sipping $1000 bottles of wine will judge creative work about world hunger.

6. Meetings to discuss moving Cannes elsewhere will be  held at Cannes. Usually in a comped room.

7. Someone will win an award for something to do with Blockchain.

8. Disruptors will be disrupted.

9. Marcel will change everything.

10. We will pledge to be data-driven. Unless we’re in a limo. Then we’ll be Mercedes-driven.

11. A lot of content will be pushed out. 99 percent of it will be unwatchable.
12. Much will be said about brand purpose. Nothing about bran purpose. Which is kind of gross anyway.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Head fuzzy from a cold.

I came to work Friday with the beginnings of a doozy of a summer cold. Over the weekend, it blossomed into a gut punch that sucked the wind out of me and laid me low.

That said, the wheels of commerce must keep spinning, and I was in at the crack of seven this morning typing away at my keyboard--giving me very little time to write in this space.

To be dour--lugubrious--about the whole thing, I come in every Monday with the nagging notion that I spent the whole weekend without seeing or registering a single ad. Advertising as an industry has so marginalized itself that it produces nothing worth remembering.

I should say, nothing worth remembering that's actually run. Occasionally, some agency somewhere does some spec work that will win a passel of awards next week in Cannes. 

Those awards are the industry patting itself on the back. Contorting itself to do so. 

In fact, sometimes I think we are so busy with our lust for awards that we have lost focus on what we are meant to do.

I hear from the son of a friend, that starting lawyers from the big schools at the big firms are making $200K right out of law school.

So we concede, in effect, that many of the best and brightest no longer consider advertising as a way to make a good living--or at least a living that allows you to live in New York.

Now, I'd rather shave with a cheese grater than be a lawyer at a white shoe firm. But still, it's a sad state that we have allowed ourselves to stumble our way into obscurity.

Part of me believes that much of this can be explained by the old adage 'the cobbler's children have no shoes.' We do nothing to promote our industry's efficacy--outside of more 
awards shows, many of which have only a tangential relationship to reality.

Oh well, I won't solve any of this this morning.

It's just after nine, and I still have work to do. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

A nice evening down in Chinatown.

Last night was an unusual night for me.

Through the weird connectivity of the world we live in, and thanks to the "reach" of this humble blog, I've met a few people recently and become, oddly enough, friends with them.

Of course, these aren't just random men I pick up off the piers. They're ad luminaries of my rarefied (or ossified) vintage. 

We got together last night, in person. You know, analog.

It was just the three of us--three older men, and we broke bread, or dumplings, at one of the world's great Chinese restaurants, Joe's Shanghai, down on Pell Street.

We dubbed ourselves, "The Sons and Daughters of the Oolong Table." Our motto: To Err is Hunan.

Corny, right?

But that's how we (egg) roll.

We had no agenda. Just guys with probably 115 years of combined advertising experience. Lifetime New Yorkers. Oh, and Jewish. With, let's say, the gift of gab, and the ability to tell a story. 

Funny stories. Old stories. New stories. Red stories. Blue stories.

We laughed. And laughed some more. And pass the Kung Pao. And laughed some more.

This was our first time meeting, the three of us. But we were, quick as a wink, old friends.

I once heard somewhere someone say, "I'm too old to retire."

I laughed when I heard that. And it's stuck with me. And I've thought about it since I first heard it.

Our business can be a frustrating one.

Enervating even.

But, if you're open to it, we have something nice going here in our industry. Interesting people. Funny people. Smart people. 

People you can bend an elbow with or slurp a soup dumpling alongside.

It's not always perfect, our business.

But touch wood for what we do have.

At any age, you can be too old to retire. Especially when there's too much life and love and laughter to let go.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

60 thoughts.

Just four years ago, when I was 56, I lost my ECD job at a prestigious digital agency. Fifty-six, in advertising and out of work is not a great place to be. I had legitimate fears that I would never work again. Who wouldn’t have fears like that?

A lot of my friends, almost universally wise people, advised me to take ten or 12 or even 15 years off my resume. To pretend, in other words, that I was in my early 40s, not my late 50s.

So, I thought about lopping off Lowe. Ridding myself of Rosenfeld. And axing Ally. Crossing out agencies that were storied in their day, but unknown now. But then I reconsidered.

I learned a lot at those joints. Worked for four Advertising Hall-of-Famers. Gold Lion-winners. And so on. Those places, my collective experiences, made me who I am. Why should I try to pass as someone I’m not?

That might have been arrogant on my part—against logic, embracing my age rather than fleeing from it, when age is a stigma in advertising today.

But fuck it.

As Popeye said, “I yam what I yam.”

Not long ago, I was asked to give a talk about advertising. They gave me no topic. So I did what you do in those situations. You talk about what you know.

So, here are 60 things I’ve learned in my 60 years.
In no particular order,
with little elaboration.

1. Rewrite everything you write. Even emails. People are continuously forming impressions of you, and dumb spelling mistakes, or mistakes of anger can cost you.
2. Be nice to everyone. This is one of those kindergarten lessons that people forget along the way. It takes just a little bit of time and it makes everyone feel better, especially yourself.
3. Get in early. I’ve never been a creative who thinks it’s ok to come in at 10:47. Take the job as serious and` as regular as the person who carries a lunch box to work.
4. Be a grown up. It’s a young person’s business. But it needs mature people to keep the trains running on time.
5. Learn advertising history. Not just what’s winning awards today. But the foundational work of our industry. An English scholar knows Shakespeare. A film buff knows Citizen Kane. We should know our Ogilvy, Gossage, Bernbach—even Rosser Reeves.
6. Press the send button. Don’t perseverate over work. Get it to where you like it. Don’t overthink it. Send it off. There will be plenty of time to noodle with it.
7. Don’t spend money on foolish things. It’s hard to save enough money for retirement. Buying canvas sneakers for $140 won’t help matters.
8. Thank people. For their time, for their insights, for their opinions, for helping. It costs very little and it’s the right thing to do.
9. Give credit for good work. It takes a village. And even if you’re the senior member of the team, be sure to generously acknowledge all contributors.
10. Stay current on the industry. Know who’s hot, who’s winning accounts, who’s pitching. Follow the industry like sports fans follow sports.
11. Forget about ‘creating a brand for yourself.’ Instead focus on being a good person, doing good work, and showing up on time. Your brand will follow.
12. Also forget about trying to get on one of those 40 under 40 lists, or rising young women in marketing. Stick, instead to your knitting. Accolades will follow.
13. Always be working on your book. Especially if you’re not in the creative department. A book is a presentation of your best work, what you’re proudest of. You should always be working on it, always making it better.
14. Always have your book ready. As in any business, shit happens. If your book is up-to-date, you’ll be ready when it does.
15. Have heroes. People whose work you admire. Try to emulate them. At least until you have your own style.
16. Always do good work. This needs no explanation, but a lot of struggle.
17. Be stubborn. Don’t be an ass, but stick to your guns. There are a lot of things—compromises that get it the way of good work. Don’t succumb to them.
18. When you have to, compromise on the little things. They’ll give you permission to be stubborn on the big things.
19. Don’t be afraid to be funny. We work hard, we’re always under pressure and everyone likes to laugh, especially when things are stressful. Your sense of humor is a sign of strength and wisdom. You can see a bigger picture.
20. Do things for yourself. When life in advertising is too much with you—this can happen on a weekly basis—it’s nice to have something else that nourishes your soul.
21. To that end, have a soul. That is care about things, about people, about yourself.
22. You will get fired, make sure to thank those who fire you. Be gracious to everyone, even if you’re getting screwed. Getting fired is a great chance to find something better.
23. Remember how small this business is. I read once that the entire population of ad people wouldn’t fill the University of Michigan’s football stadium. Be nice to everyone, send thank you notes, do favors.
24. Write a blog. Make it about something you know, and write regularly. It’s the best way to put yourself in front of people without being a nudge.
25. Be a tough competitor. Do work that sets the standard. Try to win every assignment. It keeps your mind alive and keeps you relevant.
26. But don’t be a bastard about it. Eschew politics, politicking and brown-nosing. Win on quality not on bullshitting.
27. Cultivate your curiosity. Go to museums, read books, be constantly learning about things that move and motivate people. And things that make people laugh.
28. Avoid jargon. Nothing says you’re a bullshitter more than using language that’s designed to obscure, not clarify. Speak in plain-English.
29. Admit when you don’t understand something. Chances are you aren’t alone, and everyone needs further explanation. You just happen to be brave enough to ask.
30. Ask for examples. When someone starts trumpeting a new media, new technique or new breakthrough, ask them to show you an instance in which it worked. It’s an easy way to find out who’s real and who’s bluffing.
31. Avoid the craft table at shoots. If you have a busy year, you’re sure to gain ten pounds.
32. Learn everything you can about your clients’ business. You’d be surprised what’s sometimes hidden in annual reports. Also, read the Wall Street Journal and the Times. They’re the best in the world at what they do.
33. Demand good briefs, but don’t wait for them. That is be thinking all the time about doing great work and what would make a good communication.
34. Raise your hand. Always be up for an assignment. You never know when a small crappy assignment can turn big and important.
35. Take young people to lunch. It will make their day. It’s a small thing that could really help encourage people.
36. Always over-deliver. Treat every assignment like an important assignment.
37. Say hello to people you don’t know and smile. A friendly place is a better place to work. If some is lost show them the way. Hold elevator doors open.
38. Take a 20 minute walk at lunchtime. You’ll feel healthier and your mind will be clearer.
39. Leave your work, then come back to it. It’s the best way to come at something with a clearer set of eyes.
40. Leave your cellphone on your desk when you’re meeting with teams to go over work. Concentrate on the work, not on the next thing you have to do, or some flaming crisis.
41. Wash windows. That is, do the work no one else wants to do. Sometimes they’re the best assignments.
42. Work in every channel. Learn new channels as they come along—don’t just stick with what you know.
43. Hire people who don’t look like you. So we don’t have a business that looks like business looked forty years ago.
44. Sit with young people who ask for help. Doing so not only helps them, it also helps you.
45. Let people present their own work. Make them present to you in preliminary rounds. Their arguments will grow strong this way and their work will improve.
46. Treat your clients’ money as if it’s your own. I have nothing against paying for a great director, or staying at a nice hotel when you’re shooting. But make sure when you do spend money it’s in the interest of doing better work.
47. Apologize. When you make mistakes, which we all do, admit them, correct your behavior and seek forgiveness.
48. Don’t point fingers. Never blame anyone else. It looks petty and it doesn’t help matters.
49. Be durable. Woody Allen said 80% of success is showing up. In an agency, it might be more like 90%.
50. Don’t be afraid of making a move. When it’s time to move on, do it. If you make a mistake, you can always rectify it with another move.
51. See things through. Be the one that makes sure the work is done, that every t is crossed and every i is dotted. Be the one people lean on.
52. Treat customers how you like to be treated. David Ogilvy said it this way, ‘the consumer is not a moron; she is your wife. If you don’t like dumb ads, why would your customers?
53. Remember that tastes change, people really don’t. The fundamentals of a strong communication haven’t really changed since Homer was writing the Iliad and Odyssey.
54. Ask to see the data. Next time you hear an advertising homily like “Something is dead,” or “something is the future,” politely ask for the evidence. A lot of charlatans have made names for themselves with completely unfounded assertions.
55. Understand that the science of advertising is important, but so is your gut. After all, advertising is part science and part art. Too much head is no good without the right amount of heart.
56. Figure out what you’re best at and keep getting better at it. The surest way to keep working is to be better than anyone else at something that needs doing.
57. Make friends with planners. They’re usually the smartest people in the room and can help you do better work.
58. Make friends with account people. They’re good to have on your side and have a knack for selling good work.
59. Work for people you like. And respect. People who are trusting, tasteful and smart. Work is a lot easier this way and a lot more fun.
60. Doubt is better than certainty. In other words, I think most of this makes sense, and is borne out of experience. On the other hand, it might just be crap.