Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A confession.

Not to be too Manichean (look it up) about it, but basically there are two types of people in the world--and by application, two kinds of agencies.

There are the complicators.
And there are the simplifiers.

There are the "no, we can'ts.
And there are the "yes, we cans."

There are the talkers.
And there are the doers.

There are the theorists.
And there are the pragmatists.

Here's my confession.
In nearly 30 years in the business, I've worked with just one marketing person and just one agency where creative people, marketing people and media people all seemed to be on the same team.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another day at the office.

Man, am I corn-fused.

Last night I went to see Avatar and without me knowing it, the usher handed me 4-D glasses instead of 3-D.

All of a sudden, my personal train jumped the time-space continuum tracks. I was sitting next to women in Elizabethan gowns with heaving bosoms. There were cowboys bulging with Colt .45 revolvers, even a couple of cavemen and Romans in togas.

I hate when that happens.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Batten Barton Durstine and Osbourne. (BBDO.)

Back in the 1940s or 50s, the great radio comedian Fred Allen said that Batten Barton Durstine and Osbourne sounded like a trunk falling down a flight of stairs.

What a metaphor for our business.

How could this happen? How could this happen?

It seems to me a large measure of the world we live in waits for disaster to strike and then wrings its hands and wails, "how can this happen?" The latest incidence of such is the attempt by a suspected terrorist to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit. For the last few days, every third story on the news has featured some government spokesperson or some government-watchdog spokesperson saying "how could this happen?"

There's an easy answer, of course, to that question. Things like this happen because we attempt to do things on the cheap. As a nation we haven't put in place the people and systems it would take to truly prevent disaster from striking. TSA workers are low-wage and ill-trained. They excel at the banal, like confiscating hand-creme, but as far as the rudiments of real security, they are sorely lacking.

In fact, virtually every time there is a disaster of some sort, toxic dry wall, a mine cave-in, the collapse of a construction crane, the same thing happens. People wring their hands and say, "how could this happen?" The answer isn't that Snidley Whiplash loosened the supporting cables, it's that the whole operation was cheap and shoddy.

The same happens in our business of course. We get briefed on work. The brief sucks and is insightless. The work gets created, gets revised and revised and revised. Then gets tested and revised and revised some more. Finally, the work appears in the market and makes no mark.

Cheap in advertising is the unmitigated mitigation of risk. It's not granting the time it takes to gain knowledge of true product differentiation. It's an unwillingness to do something that doesn't look like everything else.

In short, we produce drivel and when it doesn't work we wring our hands and moan, "How could this happen? How could this happen?"

I have no idea how I found this.


About 40 years ago, Della Femina et al ran these ads for Teacher's Scotch. I don't know if they sold any scotch or not but I do know people looked forward to reading them, probably moreso than the articles in the magazine that surrounded the ads. No real point. Except the usual. If you write something good people will probably want to read it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A visit to my father's office.


When I was a little kid, Manhattan and the office where my father worked were just 20 minutes away on what was then called the New Haven Rail Road. The rail road was like the trains you used to see in black and white movies. By that I mean they seemed more a part of the 1940s than the 1970s.

It cost $1.10 to get into the city. You could take the subway, that cost just 35-cents, but it took almost an hour. I always preferred taking the New Haven line trains. Its seats—-benches that sat two on one side and three on the other, were covered in a deep blue crushed velvet. You could move the seat-back so that you always sat facing the front of the train, no matter which direction the train was going. The conductors on the New Haven line had a slightly imperious tone. This was their train, they had pride in their jobs and in keeping their train in apple-pie order.

Their hats, like a cop’s, were always on. They looked neat and even in the summer heat wore a New Haven-line issued suit and tie, dark blue. They would punch tickets with an almost Teutonic authority. The message was clear. Treat the New Haven Rail Road well, and the New Haven will treat you well in return. (I remember once, when I was about 15 I had my sneaker-clad feet up on a bench seat facing me. A conductor came over to me glaring and said, “You’ve got to be kidding with those feet.” I’ve never put my feet up on a seat since.)

My father’s office was not far from Grand Central Terminal, the terminus for the New Haven line. It was up a few flights of grimy steps through the labyrinth of one of the busiest places in the world and then two blocks up Park Avenue to number 247 Park—a building that was torn down in the mid-sixties to make way for a glass and steel box.

Maybe because I carried myself with confidence even when I was very young, my father had no issues having me come down to his office solo to visit him. So, while I didn’t regularly get an invitation, every once in a while I’d head down to the city to have some time with my father.

A lot of the times I had to head down to his office seemed to involve me needing a pair of trousers for some family event we had to go to. There were scarcely any boys’ clothing stores around the gloomy Yonkers neighborhood I grew up in. So when a family gathering that required putting on dress clothes loomed or when my mother just wanted me away, she would dispatch me to the city and to my father.

These trips were trans-oceanic voyages for me. Even though I knew my slice of the city well, there was always something for me to discover. I would walk over to Times Square just to see the Camel cigarette sign blowing smoke rings. Or go to the Nedick’s in the subway station below the terminal where the hotdog rolls were lightly buttered and toasted and they had a foamy orange drink they served in little conical paper cups. Once I headed up to Central Park to see the zoo and climb on Manhattan’s schist—rocks that seemed like mountains to me, cold and tall and forbidding.

In my father’s building they still had an elevator operator, an old Negro (we called them in those days) who read The New York Times and seemed to have melted into the stool he sat on that was situated near the controls. He ran the elevator with the precision of a space launch, the car always stopping dead on to the floor, he would swing the gate open like the curtain at a Broadway opening and announce “7. All out for floor 7.” Then he’d swing shut the gate and we’d magically glide up to the next stop.

When we’d get to my father’s floor, 18 I think it was, I would say, “Thank you, sir” to the elevator operator and then present myself to the impossibly pretty receptionist. She would page my father and my father would invariably “have me find my way back.” I would be lost in a sea of tall, fast-paced men and pretty ladies, looking for the one familiar face in the maze until I found my father’s office.

“Sit down, son,” he would say. “We’ll get going soon and I’ll have you back home in a jiffy.” Then he would go about his business. Business was not something my father just did, it was something he got lost in. Often a group of colleagues would collect in his office to discuss this or that and I would be left sitting on the sofa in his office with nothing to do but page through old magazines. If I was lucky, there was a New Yorker, which at least had cartoons. If I wasn’t, there were nothing but advertising trade magazines which held no interest at all.

I remember one time sitting in his office for a couple hours with nothing to do. Every twenty minutes or so my father would look up from his work or step away from the people he was working with and say something like, “just a few more minutes, son.” But invariably, a few more minutes would go by and my father still wouldn’t be ready to help me buy new trousers.

With nothing to do I started feeling around the crevasses of the sofa and felt something soft and wrapped in waxed paper. Someone had left half a salami sandwich there that fell into the cracks. Surreptitiously I snuck the sandwich into my windbreaker pocket and left my father’s office saying I had to go to the boys’ room. I snuck past the pretty receptionist, past the elevator operator.

I retraced my steps back down Park Avenue, back through Grand Central, back down the labyrinth of passageways and ramps and down to track 114 on the New Haven line, and then took the train back to the Ludlow station in Yonkers, the stop closest to my parents’ house.

I finished the half salami sandwich before we exited the darkness of the tunnel and wound up wearing a pair of my brother’s old charcoal gray flannels to the family get-together.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

It's here. 2010's cliche of the year.


"Flat is the new growth."

Mark my words. We will hear this approximately 100 times in the first quarter alone.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The slaughtering of loitering.



I just read an article in The New York Times about a couple of colleges who are beseeching their students to take a day off from electronic connections. You know a day away from texts, emails, facebook, IM, televisions and the myriad other ties that bind.

Right now I am working in an agency that is email crazy. If the last, say, 10 years could be called "the email era," I've managed to keep up with my emails, usually responding in no more that a couple of hours. Where I am now, I am days behind.

In short, I am so busy with so much e-superfluity that I can barely do any work.

I've written in the past about the French film-maker Jean Renoir and his famous quotation "All great civilizations have been based on loitering." I suspect the same is true of businesses and relationships.

But most everyone is too busy to think about that much less adhere to Renoir's adage.

-
BTW, the cartoon above shows a teenager surrounded by electronica. Her mother says "Maybe if your creativity had fewer outlets, it would come out of you with more force."

That's how I feel 99 days out of 100.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Shit, I was honest.

Had a big client meeting yesteday, showing a passel of rough cuts. Finally, we got to one spot that I was trying desperately to kill. I felt it was off brand. It was actually the first spot we ever showed the client and it had helped us win the business. However since winning the business, our campaign evolved and I felt like this spot hadn't.

The client couldn't let go of the spot. So finally I said, "I think you have a case of demo love."

The looks the account people gave me you'd have thought I said "I'm a child molester, a member of the Aryan nation and a gay basher."

Man, all I did was tell the truth.

I hate this time of year.

The Holidays. Why is it that everyone has their hand out? It drives me absolutely crazy.

I got in yesterday morning and tipped Simon, my account planner, $50. Wrote a nice little card to go with it, "Thanks for the insights. All the best."

Then I bumped into Karen and Pam, my media people, over from the media agency. A $50 to each of them. "Thanks for the inside back cover. Here's to center spreads in 2010," I wrote.

My proofreader was next.
Then my information architect.
Then my art buyer. "Thanks for the stock photos of men in business suits jumping over high hurdles."

A few hundred smackers poorer, I hunkered down in my office and tried to get some work done.

I hate this time of year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The protocol society.

David Brooks in The New York Times has an important op-ed piece today called "The Protocol Society." http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/22/opinion/22brooks.htmlBasically, Brooks' thesis is simple. When we as a society switched from manufacturing products to a knowledge economy we went from making things to making rules.

Something like a food-court in a mall, Brooks points out, has protocols for everything from making food, to greeting customers, to where to put the tables.

This protocolization of our economy has the virtue of standardization. When you go into a McDonald's, it doesn't matter where you are--from Alaska to Zamibia, you are in a McDonald's.

And here's the thing.

In an effort to make rules for everything, rules that every idiot can follow, we have McDonald-ized everything. The other day, my art-director designed an ad in a new campaign with the logo NOT in the lower right. That's against the rules.

Rules rule.

And when they do, creativity dies.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Excuse me, your PR is showing.

I just ran across this headline in Adweek: New Era Dawns at Deutsch

I realize that much of what appears in Adweek is PR-generated self-promotion, but it seems usually someone takes a moment or two to disguise such bragadoccio by writing a line that ain't so blatant.

There might be a new era dawning at Deutsch. But if I had $285 million of billings up for review in our new era, I'd be wishing for a nice old era.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The MBAA-ing of Saab.


It was announced yesterday that the auto brand Saab, unable to find a buyer, is being closed.

I blame this death on the dimwits at GM and the Mammonites at Saab.

Saab was a quirky, unique little car that appealed basically to Ivy league iconoclasts who lived withing 25 miles of New York, Boston and San Francisco.

When Saab was independent, they sold about 30,000 cars a year in the US and as a company they made a decent amount of money. Then greed intervened. Saab sold itself to GM. GM decided the car brand was too quirky to move enough units, so they focus-grouped and blanderized it so it would have broader appeal and they wound up with a machine that appealed to no one. This year something like 8,000 Saabs were sold in the US.

Saab was a great little car company for about 25 years. Then someone decided it wasn't enough to be little. And today they are no more.

Sad.

Friday, December 18, 2009

How to be a media person in 6 seconds.

Repeat after me:

"We have a slide on that."

Stopping by Agency on a Frigid Evening.

Whose shop this is I'm sure I know,
I saw him spending bonus dough.
He does not care that I am here,
To write ten ads before I go.

My art director must think it queer,
That our days are filled with dread and fear,
Our workload's crushing, the ads we make,
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his In-Design a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake,
The only other sound's the sweep,
CEO bonus brought in with a rake.

The agency's lonely, dark and deep,
But I am trying my job to keep,
Make ads to go before I sleep,
Make ads to go before I sleep.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Looking at portfolios.

Yesterday a writer/creative director's book came across my desktop. The work of a person who's worked at a lot of the small creative places. Places with weird names. Places named after fruits or amphibians or adjectives or numerals.

I was told that certain senior people in the agency liked this guy. Would I like to meet him? I started clicking through the work.

Yes, I am old-fashioned. But when I look at a book, I look first at print. It is the most "naked" of media. Your idea needs to be synthesized to a simple core. It needs to be clear, telegraphic. Further, perhaps more than any other media, print is somewhat solo. You don't have a team of collaborators--directors, music guys, special effects and layers of creative input. It's usually just you and your partner when it comes to print.

This particular creative person had about ten print ads in his book. And about twenty words of copy. Maybe thirty.

I'm a fairly smart guy, but an ad that pictures, say, a kitchen table with a book on it and a small line of text has no stopping power. Yes, I'm sure your visual solution is brilliant, scandalous even, but I don't have the time to decipher such things. I read magazines and newspapers for the articles that interest me and the writers I admire. Not to unravel the fearsomely baroque intricacies of your visual puzzles.

Then it occurred to me. The audience for every ad in this portfolio wasn't people who buy products and services. The audience was the people who buy creative people. The ads
weren't meant to sell anything but the person who created them.

When I was in high school I played on the varsity baseball team. There was a guy on the team a grade ahead of me called Joe Tartaglia. Tartaglia had a picture book batting stance and swing. If Mickey Mantle dropped by our playing field and saw Tartaglia swing, he'd have taken notes.

The thing was, Tartaglia never adjusted his swing to the pitch. He would swing at the same level no matter where the pitch was. I think Tartaglia went 0 for April, 1 for May and 0 for June. In other words, beautiful swing and all, he stunk.

Now the creator of the portfolio I was writing about won his passel of awards. (He had a beautiful swing.) But he never sold anything. (He never hit the ball.)

It's a sham. And a shame that we as an industry denigrate ourselves by lauding such pretenders.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Poem on being forced to show a rough cut before you're ready.

Color is not right.
Not as bright as it will be.
Not mixed.
Scratch track.
Still working on the titles.
Product shot will be lengthened and blown up in frame.
Music isn’t right.
End logo dissolves in a bit slow.
There is a clicking noise throughout.
Effects not final.
Still looking for a button.
We’re a few frames over.

Now how do you like it?

The greatest malady the world has ever known, maybe.

Most trouble in the world, in our business, in everything, comes from certitude. When people believe in the one true way. When they're sure something is right.

Certitude is what causes wars, religious and otherwise. It's also what causes bad advertising.

Certitudication is what has ruined our business. The MBAs have come in with degree-backed certitude and have tried to create a certitude calculus that reduces thinking to an if-then proposition.

They have looked at the mayhem in creative structures and said with certitude, we can get more productivity out of those schlubs if we follow these rules that worked for Brazilian rice growers in 1937.

Most things--creative and otherwise--run best under conditions of controlled failure. Experimentation. Exploration. Trial.

I'm pretty certain of this.

God, I hate the word transparent.

We are going to be transparent. We are going to be a transparent company. Transparency is one of our core-values.

Stop!

Transparent is an asinine word for honest. And my guess is if you say you're transparent, you're not honest.

Robust.


We've built a robust web site. For a robust consumer engagement. We'll produce robust banners that will drive consumers and engage them with a robust experience.

Can't we find a synonym? Can't we say "there will be a lot to do on this site. Places to play, to learn, to share, to laugh?

Scale.

I'm moving to a company that has scale. We're going to roll this out then scale it across geos.

No. You're going to a big company and you expect growth.

Guru. Czar.


Can't you just say asshole?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My daughter, the genius.

My 18-year-old daughter came home with the letters FACK inked on the knuckles of her right hand.

"What's that," I asked.
"It's the name of a new beer my friends and I want to make."
"How'd you choose that name?"
Then in her best VO voice:
"At the end of a hard day, you need a Facken beer."
"Give me a Facken beer."
"I don't just want a beer, I want a Facken beer."

I have a feeling I'll be working for her someday.
(Not that I don't already.)

The grin that stole Christmas.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the type to go blithely skipping down Primrose lane. My general cast is one of pessimism and gloom, not happiness and song. Be that as it may, what's going on in advertising and the rest of the world today is down-right ridiculous.

The grins began assaulting me on early Sunday morning when I cracked open the ad laden first section of the Times. It looked like some rogue In Design Terrorist had retouched Macy's Day balloon-sized smiles on otherwise anorexic models. We've all heard the phrase "she was grinning from ear-to-ear," but these women were literally grinning from ear-to-ear. Maybe it was their botox, maybe their orthodontic protheses, maybe some high-octane prozac derivative, but no one could possibly be that happy.

Of course the newsreaders on our local news shows might be even worse. They at least are meant of have a patina of seriousness. But no. They are all grinning like demons on laughing gas. "Another gangland style murder on the Grand Consourse, Ernie" tee hee.

Neil Postman warned us almost 25 years ago about how we're "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

We were too busy grinning to pay attention.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The real Tiger Woods scandal.

Of all the stupidities around Tiger Woods' peccadilloes, perhaps the most blatant is the fact that now clients are dropping Woods as being inappropriate.

Let's be clear here. Woods is a hitter of a small white ball. That's what he does for a living. The idea of him being an appropriate spokesperson for a business consulting company like Accenture is absurd. Accenture has multi-million dollar engagements with some of the largest companies in the world.

Oh I know what Accenture's research said. Woods is dashing, intrepid, fearless, strategic. Just like Accenture is.

Oh, blow it our your putter.

Tiger Woods as a spokesperson a business consulting firm is as appropriate as me having that role for a bikini designer.

What recession? No one has been fired.

BBDO just let go another 20 workers.
See, I said "let go" like those affected aren't people who have families, ambitions, mortgages and more. They're let go, like helium balloons.

Then there's the phrase that the Ad Contrarian so loves: "Synergy-Related Headcount-Adjustment." Yummy, snap me off a bit of that kit-kat bar. The phrase John Osborne, president and CEO of BBDO just used was this beauty:"In large measure, this is directly related to our continuing efforts to reshape our business model in line with our clients' needs, especially in digital." Put that in your mealy-mouth and smoke it.

I've heard tell of this one: "We're going to upgrade you with immediate effect. We are going to allow you to move on in order that you can use your talents and skills more effectively and thus upgrade your career and opportunities."

The lucky few get "packaged" like a genetically-modified tomato.

There are RIFs, and not the jazz kind. That means Reductions in Force. And displacements, like you're a ship in the harbor.

George Orwell would like "right-sized" and "staff-optimization." Those are Scroogean in their attempted deception.

Smart-sized.
Made redundant.

Ken Chenault of American Express fired 7,000 not long ago and called it part of a "reengineering plan." Choo choo! Rodger Lawson of Fidelity shit-canned 1,300 and said it was "a cost improvement plan." And Meg Whitman formerly of ebay and a California aspirant for Governor likes the phrase "employee simplification."

Maybe this is my favorite. Also known as my least favorite: "Rebalancing the level of human capital."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Shakespeare and advertising.

Years ago, when there were mid-sized agencies that weren't merely large agencies that grew small (BBDO NY is down to 575 employees) I worked for one such mid-sized shop. We had about $100 million in billings and about 110 employees.

One of the Co-Chairmen of the agency grew very close to me. I think he saw me as a putative son (or son-in-law) and he would tell me stories and confide in me. One evening I was sitting on the large leather sofa in his office and we were chatting about something or other.

He looked up at me and said to me "About ten years ago (that would be about 1979) Charles and Maurice Saatchi sat right where you are and said they wanted to buy me. I said to them, 'I'm bigger than you, I'll buy you.'"

If you think about Shakespeare, his universe is very ordered. When things get out of order, when kings are killed, when jealousy usurps love, mayhem results. What has happened in our world and our industry over the last thirty years has been an inversion of the natural order of things.

To quote the three weird sisters from Macbeth, "Fair is foul and foul is fair."

Small companies have bought big companies. People who make nothing make the most money. People are encouraged to buy things they can't afford. Or to not have to pay decent amounts of money for what they do buy.

The result of all this inversion is the horror we are now living through. We are paying for our cosmic disordering.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Make them count.

Yesterday I read a report published by the University of California, San Diego, that says the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information in a single day.

That's 100,000 words that we are bombarded with every day. Those words come from TV, subway announcements, text messages, websites, video games. And of course, client comments like "we have to say we're friendly in the copy."

With all these words make sure yours are good. And make sure you reward your reader for reading yours.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Think about a crowded bar.

A lot of clients think the world is a desert island when in fact in reality the world is a crowded bar.

Here's what I mean.

If there are two people on a desert island--one man and one woman, even if one of them is fairly grotesque, chances are sooner or later they're going to copulate.

Of course in a crowded bar where there are lots of options, the result would probably be different.

In the crowded bar scenario you have to do things to stand out and make yourself attractive. You don't have to do that on a desert island.

A lot of agencies and clients don't understand this.

Ergo, ugly work. Or as bad, boring work.

A new agency model.

This is simple.
Clients complain agencies are expensive.
Agencies complain clients don't buy good work.
Assuming an agency can create good on-brief work if they are left unmolested, the pricing structure below should save clients a fortune and improve the quality of creative everywhere.

Who says I shouldn't be running a holding company?

Original idea based on original brief………..$1,000
1st revision…………………………………...$1,500
2nd revision…………………………………..$5,000
3rd revision………………………………….$10,000
4th revision………………………………….$25,000
5th revision………………………………….$50,000
6th revision………………………………….$75,000
7th revision…………………………………$100,000
8th revision…………………………………$150,000
And so on...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

An interactive ad.



I just read about this in The New York Times. There is no link to the article (written by Christopher Shea) so I've pasted the whole thing here. It seems like a startlingly good use of a new technology. Not a gratuitous cool-for-cool's sake use.

"It happens when nobody is watching." As the tagline on a poster raising awareness about domestic violence, that's not bad. But it was the poster itself that was truly attention-grabbing — for it brought the issue of being watched (or not) to life.

The poster, placed in a bus shelter in Berlin, was a one-time installation sponsored by Amnesty International. When a person in the shelter was looking at the poster, he saw, along with the words, a photograph of an amiable couple: a stocky, professional-looking man in a blue oxford-cloth shirt, his arm around the shoulders of his girlfriend or wife. If no one in the shelter was paying attention to the poster, though, the image switched: now the man was raising his fist against the woman as she leaned away and protected her face. (There was a slight lag in the switch, so viewers could notice that the poster was changing its image.)

Designed by the Hamburg-based firm Jung von Matt (which bills itself as being in the business of "attention warfare"), the ad worked via a camera attached to a computer outfitted with face-tracking software with a working range of about 16 feet. A Potsdam company called Vis-à-pix created the technology. Jung von Matt described the ad as the first of its kind, and it won a silver prize at the 2009 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival and a gold prize at the New York Festivals International Advertising Awards.

The technology has since improved, according to Vis-à-pix. New posters can even identify the sex of onlookers. Consider a poster created for the service counters of the rental-car company Sixt: when a man gets close, he is tempted with an image of a limousine; if the customer is a woman, she sees, instead, a spunky Cabriolet.

Work harder.

Where I am freelancing now I am forced to read a lot of decks and "creative direct" a lot of copy. What I see more and more of is 42-word sentences rife with buzz-words or worse, words that have no meaning like "robust."

Whenever I see such flaccid thinking I remember the opening of Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" which in just a few words stops you in your tracks:

"Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,120 feet high, and is said
to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called
the Masai 'Ngqje Ngai\ the House of God. Close to the western
summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one
has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."

Facts. Cogency. Clarity. Intrigue. Worth thinking about and striving for.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This is dumb.


I am shooting for the next few days and there is a single bathroom on the main floor that can accommodate just one person. The sign above is on the wall inside the bathroom.

Before and after.



The following is over-simplified for effect.

Until Volkswagen and Bill Bernbach, American advertising was an exercise in decoration. Ads were laden with filigree. Wistful watercolors. People on horseback chasing foxes. And the language of hyperbole and over-promise.

Bernbach stripped everything out of ads that was decoration. And created ads that drove genuine business results and built enduring brands.

Over the last fifteen years of the computer revolution, ads have once again become about decoration, or motion graphics--visual connivances, tricks and award-show grandstanding.

Apple seems to be the last bastion of Bernbach-ism. A simple idea well-wrought.

The curse of hero-worship.

I've learned through the years that the only hero is a person without heroes. But most people, certainly most people in our industry, still engage in hero-worship.

That's why you have Q scores and ads featuring asses like Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods is a golfer. Not the paragon of animals or the quintessence of dust. The idea that he is super-human in any pursuit other than golf is utterly asinine.

Yet every advertiser and his caddie thought by linking to Woods they would get the glow of his manufactured persona, without the risks when that persona's putter starts getting a mind of its own.

I think of the ancient sculptor whose perfect female is turned real by one of the gods. "Oh my god," the sculptor exclaimed, "it speaks."

As far as advertising and life goes, hero worship is not healthy.

It's certainly no substitute for an idea.

Ring Lardner.


When I was a kid and I first read "The Catcher in the Rye" I stumbled upon the name of Ring Lardner--who was Holden's favorite writer and not a "phony." Since, like so many other kids of my generation, I identified with Holden, I decided I had to find everything I could about Ring Lardner.

By that time, the early 1970s, Lardner had grown obscure, and we had no such thing as the internet where nothing is more than an axe-length away. However with some dedication and a book-lovers sense of the quest, I managed to buy and read probably half a dozen books by Lardner and a couple of dozen short stories.

Lardner had a gift of language which seems all but lost today. Probably my favorite sentence in all the world was this simple one from a story called "The Young Immigrants."

"'Shut up,' he explained."

I also loved this from a short story called "The Golden Honeymoon." "Mother sat facing the front of the train as it makes her giddy to ride backwards. I sat facing her, which does not affect me."

I woke early this morning without anything I could think of writing here. So I started thinking of Lardner to inspire me. I found these two gems:

“He looked at me as if I were a side dish he hadn't ordered.”

“He give her a look that you could of poured on a waffle.”

I'm sure there are thousands of neo-hipsters out in ad-land who know nothing about Lardner because he's not on a podcast. Or if they do know him, he's too uncool to matter. To them I quote once again, "'Shut up,' he explained."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

They appear like magic!

Woody Allen did a short film once called "Oedipus Wrecks" which was basically a story that involved Woody's mother disappearing in a magician's magic show and what happens when the magician is unable to get her back.

Today, like so many days the opposite happened.

Over the last few days (and nights) creatives have been going mad pulling work together for an 8AM meeting with the CMO. (Once you have a C in your title, you're no longer human and fear must be the motivating factor in every presentation.)

During those last few nights or so there wasn't an account person anywhere. If we had a German Shepherd and you tied a dozen pork chops to an account person, the dog would still come up empty. Get the point?

Then, of course, comes the meeting. Poof! They appear! All of a sudden more account people that you can shake a deck at. Account people smiling and gleaming like marzipan mannikins at the Happiness Factory.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dumb headline of the day.

There are a lot of dumb headlines in the world but every once in a while one smacks me in between the eyes, mostly because it smells of the rotten odor of client mandated stupidity.

This particular headline I saw in a Dell insert in my Sunday New York Times. I don't expect a lot from Dell. As a client they've successfully gotten shitty work, or no work at all, from a legion of different agencies. If we were to play word association and I said "Dell," my guess is that a goodly number of people would reply "cheap." Not a good thing.

This headline is for the Dell Latitude Z. Don't go all sexy with me and your naming protocols, Dell. They bill this machine as "the world's thinnest and lightest 16" laptop and nowhere in the ad to they say how thick the machine is or how much it weights. Anyhoo, as my midwestern friends like to say, here's the banal headline:

"Think wide. Work thin."

"Hey, Phil. Whatcha doin'?"
"Workin' thin. How 'bout you, Ned?"
"Ooooh, you know me, I'm thinkin' wide."

Schmucks.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lest we forget.


America is still a beacon of innovation. I just heard an item on the news that divorcing couples are buying cakes to commemorate and celebrate their break-up.

Reporting from abroad.

While most of the world's leaders are in Copenhagen for the Hopenhagen summit on Climate Change, the Ad Aged staff and I have traveled to Uppsala, Sweden (Ingmar Bergmann's birthplace) for the world summit on misery, which has been nicknamed Mopenhagen.

I'd report on what we talked about there, but it was all too depressing.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How can this be?


Working with one of the biggest financial services firms in the country. Their offices are palatial, with amazing views of the NY Harbor and downtown. Their walls are festooned with Lichensteins and Raucshenbergs.

How is it these titans of industry need instructions on washing their hands?

Let's talk about print.

There has been a lot of talk of the last couple millenia about the death of print. Over the last few years, this talk has become increasingly loud.

Let me be clear and unequivocal here. Print isn't dying. It's killing itself.

Here are a couple examples. (And yes, I am angry.)

The changes that our industry are undergoing and have been undergoing for the last decade are seminal. In our center-of-the-universe way of thinking, these changes are every bit as large and fundamental as those previous generations went through when we were undergoing something seismic like the industrial revolution. In other words, these are big changes.

Now, if you are an inveterate reader of the traditional advertising trade press, that is Stuart Elliot, Adweek and Adage (and maybe a few others I am omitting) you would think that the biggest advertising issues are things like tweeting, or a client pulling Droga5's latest fake commercial or a $3 million account shift.

All these things are advertising gossip. And the aforementioned members of the trade press are the advertising equivalent of gossip magazines.

Look, it's this simple. My guess is that some former pillars of Madison Avenue--Y&R, O&M, JWT, McCann have probably fired something on the order of 50% of their employees since 2000. I might be off by a few percentage points--and sophisticated accounting practices employed by the holding companies might massage their headcounts--but this the sort of news serious journalists--and there seem to be none in the advertising trade press--should be covering.

I happen to think that serious business leaders (which usually correlate to people with serious money) would read serious news coverage if there were serious news coverage to read.

Instead print media is so dumbed-down that only dumb people read it. So the publishers and writers pursue the dumb with coverage that's even dumber driving more people out of the readership fold because coverage is dumb.

Print media is in a vicious dumb circle. That's why it is dying.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What it's all about.

I just read this headline in The New York Times "Robert Degen, Had a Hand in the Hokey Pokey, Dies at 104."

It should remind you that even the headline of a death notice can be funny.

A non-tological question.

What would possess anyone
to become a fan of WPP
on Facebook?

Five rules.

Recently I read a commencement address by a scholar, a wise and intelligent one at that, called Samantha Powers.

She's a Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and won a Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Circle Award for her book "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide.

Powers' address did what a lot of graduation addresses do. It laid out rules for 22-year-olds. Reading the address made me think that Powers' rules are worth thinking about if you work in an agency or run one.

First, as you figure out your path in life, try to follow your nose. Don't try to be an award-winning creative. Don't obsess over getting to Cannes. Focus on doing work you like, and a lot of it. Good things will follow.

Second, be sure to create quiet time so you maximize the chances you will be able to hear your gut when it speaks to you.
Slow down and think. Take a walk around the block. Read a book.

Third, by far the most important quality one needs in life is not in fact talent; it is resiliency. I've been fired twice now. Quit two different jobs without having another. Each time, I think I've come back better.

Fourth, find friends who have your back.

Fifth and final suggestion be a good ancestor.
In other words, help young people. Take the time to listen to them.

Your call is important to us.

Three centuries ago, Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote "Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement."

That's always seemed right to me. Our job is to promise something to viewers--whether it's youth, getting the girl, quenching your thirst, or eternal cool-osity.

Now here's where our industry jumps off the tracks. Promises have to be true, or at least within the realm of truth, or people simply don't believe you any more.

Yesterday I saw an ad for Buick that made a promise so obviously a lie that is made my blood curdle. "Buick. The new class in world class."

How do you ascribe truthiness to that sentence?

I'm sorry. I know since we own GM we're probably supposed to want to see it rebound. But any company that can so blatantly lie to consumers, that can so obviously ignore its past, that can so bombastically proclaim itself great deserves to die.

This isn't about the actual quality of the car.
It's about how you speak, how you treat and respect your customers.
You have to earn the right to make a statement like "the new class..."
And Buick has earned no such right.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Brand Manager for Tab.


A friend of mine sarcastically lists as his previous employment "Brand Manager for Tab." When I asked him why he laughed and explained, "when you're brand manager for Tab, your only job is to sell less tab than you sold the year before."

The funny thing about that is that it's not funny. I once worked at a vaunted San Francisco agency who hired as its savior a new president whose main career accomplishment was that she was the brand manager for Oldsmobile. In case you've already forgotten, Oldsmobile was so dismal even GM agreed to kill it before they were forced to.

Our industry is rife with stories like this. A former Chrysler CMO who somehow rises to the top at another company. What?

Maybe it's my ignorance but that seems like hiring the Captain of the Titanic to run the Staten Island Ferry. "Well, he's handled big ships before, he's perfect for the job. And what a great smile he has!"

I realize that CMOs are like lawyers. They create jobs for other CMOs.

I'm sorry if I'm sounding like a broken record, but I have a feeling that a lot of the world's troubles, stock-market crashes, endless wars, political corruption, bad agency management could be avoided if key people kept an index card posted near their desks.
An index card that reads "What have you done?"

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tonsorial commentary.

Tools vs. toys.


There's an article in today's New York Times about Cormac McCarthy retiring his Olivetti typewriter that he bought in a Knoxville, TN pawnshop in 1963 for $50. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/01/books/01typewriter.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=cormac%20macarthy&st=cse

McCarthy has written an estimated five-million words on his typewriter and along the way established himself as one of the world's foremost writers, having picked up a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and an Oscar. It strikes me that there might be a lesson lurking somewhere in this story.

What makes McCarthy great is his ideas and his expression of those ideas. His Olivetti (and the one he bought for $11 to replace his old one) are just tools of his brain.

Today, of course our tools are more sophisticated than typewriters. We can do sophisticated motion graphics and editing at our desks or on a plane. We can make type dance like Isadora Duncan on LSD. We can compose and record music. We can buy a $49 video camera and shoot stuff.

These are all things Mr. McCarthy can't do on his Olivetti. But they don't make us better than McCarthy. Because Mr. McCarthy's trade involves ideas.

So far no one has built a desktop app that produces those.

Monday, November 30, 2009

My father gets a gift from Mae Clarke.

video

One day when I was about 14 my father decided he needed to tell me a story about Mae Clarke’s pubic hair. According to my father, I was 14 and coming of age, and stories like this were important for me. They were part of becoming a man. So my father piled me into his 1949 Studebaker—a car he kept not because he liked it but because my mother didn’t and we went for a ride.

My father’s drives were a lot like my father’s moods—they were impulsive, almost autistic in their focus. He decided he wanted something, or wanted to do something and that was his complete focus until he got that thing.

Once it was salt-water taffy from the boardwalk in Atlantic City. It would start simply enough. “When I was a kid,” my father might say, “me, Herbie and Peacock used to hitchhike to Atlantic City and try to meet girls.” (This was the Atlantic City of the early 1940s—a lower middle class beach resort about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia where my father lived.) Twenty minutes later my father might say, “Damn, I loved the salt-water taffy they used to sell in those little shops along the boardwalk.” At dinner that night, after finishing his meal, he might belch, “You know what would cap off a meal like this one? Salt-water taffy.”

Then, the next morning he was still at it. “You know,” he might say “the salt-water taffy they sell around here is terrible. No flavor.” An hour later, he might turn to me and say, “I bet you never even had real Atlantic City salt-water taffy. Never had real salt-water taffy.” An hour after that he might utter, “Store-bought salt-water taffy is just like plastic. Not the real thing.” A little while after that it was, “It’s a tragedy, not having real salt-water taffy." Before long we’d wind up in his Studebaker, heading down to Atlantic City at 80 mph for salt-water taffy.

With him it was never a yen or a hankering. It was an obsession. Which of course brings me to my father and Mae Clarke’s pubic hair.

Clarke was a 1930s vamp, a putative film actress, the poor man’s “it” girl. Her most famous role was in “Public Enemy,” when she’s shacked up with Jimmy Cagney and Cagney violently pushes a half-grapefruit in her face. But even in that role, Clarke was uncredited. I guess you could say that even though the grapefruit scene made her somewhat iconic, Clarke never really crashed the big time.

By the time Clarke reached her 30s, she still got work, but bit parts and no film credits. Toward the end of her career she had a small part in the TV show “F Troop.” I guess that qualifies as bottoming out.

Like my father, Clarke was born in Philadelphia. Her real name was Violet Mary Klotz and I guess you can safely say she never really transcended her Klotzness. Despite looking pretty good in a tight sateen flapper-style gown and having had some critical success, she was really never anything but two-bit. She never became the star she wanted to be.

By the time my father started cavorting with women—say when he was around 18, Clarke was already crowding 40 and the bloom was off her rose. She had already been married and divorced three times and was spending less time in Hollywood as Mae Clarke and more time back in Philadelphia as the former Violet Mary Klotz.

My father starting dating Clarke around then. It wasn’t really dating to hear him tell it, because all they really did was schtup. That was the word my father used, schtup. “We’d schtup for hours,” he’d tell me, “have breakfast in bed the next morning, then schtup some more. Then I’d run off to school or to work and maybe not see her again for a month or so.”

There aren’t many 18 year olds who can be discreet when they’re schtupping anyone—much less a woman who used to be something of a film siren. My father couldn’t help but brag to all his friends that he was Mae Clarke’s gigolo. “Mae who?” they would ask, and my father would reply, “The blonde with Jimmy Cagney and the grapefruit in Public Enemy.” He’d then, to hear him tell it, break into his purported dead-on Cagney, “You know, I wish you was a wishing well. So I could tie a bucket to youse and sink ya.” And then he’d pantomime the smash.

At this point in my father’s story his Studebaker had just about reached the corner of Broad and Walnut in Center City Philadelphia. The Bellevue-Stratford stood there, still a few years before it became notorious for something called “legionnaire’s disease.”

“The last time Violet and I were together was right here. This was a grand place, a palace,” my father told me. “She said to me, I want you should always remember me and she gave me a sealed small blue envelope. It was too small for money—which I wouldn’t have taken anyway. I stuffed it in the inside pocket of my jacket and ran off to school without even opening it. I was late for class, and was more worried about getting there on time than the envelope. I always figured I’d see her again.”

My father pulled his Studebaker to a stop in front of the old hotel. Next to all the newer cars it looked old, beaten. “You know back in the 30s, the sex goddess of her day, Jean Harlow died suddenly when she was still in her twenties. Kidney failure or something. She was the original platinum blonde. More than anything else, Violet wanted to be Jean Harlow—Jean was the star in “Public Enemy.” The one Jimmy Cagney dumped her for.

“Now there were always rumors about Jean, gossip I guess. How she put ice cubes on her nipples before she’d shoot a scene. Or how she never wore panties. Or how she dyed her pubic hair platinum. Some pretty nasty ones about the number of lovers she had. And after she died, how she had given one of her lover's, some gangster, a lock of her pubic hair. That’s what Violet had given me. A lock of her pubic hair tied up with a violet grosgrain ribbon.”

We drove in silence pretty much the rest of the way home. My father was talked out. Me afraid to say anything.

When we reached our block it was already late. My father shut off the engine of the Studebaker to “let her coast home.” “Your mother,” he told me “found Mae’s gift in my wallet about fifteen years ago. She never said anything to me. Never asked about it. She just threw it out.”

He got out of the car, slammed shut the door and went up the walk. I sat there for a good twenty minutes in the dark.

Breasts.



There's a full page ad in The New York Times today that struck my eye. Mainly because it seems like someone interpolated an oddly-shaped mammary and pasted it (nipple-less) on the woman in the ad.

There's a lot I don't understand about the world and the science of marketing, I suppose, and this, somewhat unfortunately adds a new chapter. I can only imagine the discussions among the MBAs that promote Kristina Train.

"My research says her album will see more if we add a breast."
"Right, CB, but diamond shaped breasts pull best."
"That's right, especially if we tack it onto her clavicle."
"Middle-aged Jewish men love clavicle-breasts."
"It's settled then. Kristina Train gets a new frontal caboose."

And so it goes.

I expect over the next few months we'll see more and more companies hiring breast consultants.

Which can only lead to one eventuality.

Chief Tit Officer.

--
Actually, I just heard from the president of PETT (People for the Ethical Treatment of Teat) and she claims they are looking into this affront.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hale Smith.


I just read an obituary in The New York Times of a composer who "mixed classical and jazz," a man called Hale Smith who played, arranged and composed for Chico Hamilton, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/28/arts/music/28smith.html?ref=obituaries

Mr. Smith called himself "one of America's most famous unknown composers." As you might have guessed, I couldn't find much of his music online, but I did find one composition, a 12-minute piece performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta called "Ritual and Incantation." It's well-worth the download.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

You have to make something.


I finished Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" last night and one of the last stories, "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale" concerns alchemy--the pseudo-science of turning base metal into gold.

As I read this wonderful story I couldn't help but think of Goldman Sachs and the like. They are modern-day alchemists who turn nothing into great amounts of wealth then disappear before anyone figures out they are perpetrating a flim-flam. As long as there are people who are buying what they are selling the scam goes on. Once greed is suspended, even for a second, there is collapse.

Now, there is a report on the radio about the collapse of Dubai--the indoor ski slopes, the skyscrapers half a kilometer high. It appears people might stop buying what Dubai is selling. Then, of course, I started thinking about advertising agency holding companies. Have they any reason for being? Do we really need the Chief Risk Officers they provide?

My question for all of these sort of entities is: "What do you make?" What value do you bring?

Today I went to see Vermeer's "The Milkmaid" at the Met. It's quite a painting. A living breathing thing that seems almost luminous. It is only 18 inches tall, and probably about 14 inches wide. But I could see what Vermeer actually created and in my own simplistic way, I could understand its value.

Goldman's CEO Leonard Blankfein claimed that bankers do "God's work." I suppose Blankfein would say the same of advertising holding companies. After all, a few people have gotten quite rich by them.

But neither have left behind anything like a Vermeer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

More on story-telling.

video

We hear a lot about story-telling in the business and most of it seems to me to be so much blather. People--that is, clients, don't really want stories, they want brand litanies--copy points--masquerading as stories.

I think a lot about stories. About the essential elements that make up good stories whether they were written five thousand years ago like "Gilgamesh," seven hundred years ago like "The Canterbury Tales," or even a story I've just watched "Bang the Drum Slowly," which was written nearly sixty years ago.

Criterion (criterion.com)are film archivists who do a great job of preserving and propagating great stories. They have just released and I have just begun watching a box set called "The Golden Age of Television." This three-disc set includes "Bang the Drum Slowly," "Marty," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Requiem for a Heavyweight," and others and looks to be fabulous.

"Bang the Drum Slowly," stars a 31-year-old Paul Newman and is the story of a young ballplayer dieing of an incurable disease. It was shot as a stage play in the early days of television and on the cheap. There are about four sets. No special effects except lights turning on an off. And a lot of looking at the camera and talking to viewers directly.

Paul Newman wept at the end as he performed his lines. I've read the book a dozen times, seen the DeNiro version a few times and this version a few times as well. I teared-up anyway.

It is a great story.

Now, come on.

For the last time,
It's not Black Friday,
It's
"African-American Friday."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Still thinking of Billy Wilder.

video
Lest we think focus groups are a recent affliction, Billy Wilder told a story about audience reactions to a film he wrote with Charles Brackett,"Ninotchka" which was directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Wilder, Brackett and Lubitsch are sitting in the back of Lubitsch's limo and are reading the review cards from an audience nearby Hollywood. Wilder decided this was ridiculous and unbeknownst to Lubitsch decided to write his own cards.

The story goes that Wilder wrote a lot of cards, but the funniest was probably this: “This movie was hilarious. I laughed so hard I peed into my girlfriend's hand.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Special. How to artificially inseminate a female turkey.


Probably a bit late for this year's feast.

Quotation of the day.

I adapted this from Bruce Mau.

"Cool is fear dressed in black."

How will the world end?

Fire and Ice
by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

There's a thoughtful movie review in today's New York Times of two movies that portray the end of the world, "2012" and "The Road."

It starts this way: "Bang or whimper? Fire or ice? Happily, holiday moviegoers interested in pondering the end of the world can select scenarios far more elaborate than those simple, traditional choices."

The review praises "The Road," based on Cormac McCarthy's grim novel but chides the movie for being sentimental when it could be more real or chilling. The movie review ends this way: “The Road” is engrossing and at times impressive, a pretty good movie that is disappointing to the extent that it could have been great. Is this the way the world ends? With polite applause?"

It's the last two sentences that get me vis-a-vis the advertising industry. So often it seems to me we pull back from the genuine and visceral (so as not to offend) and we wind up with the communications equivalent of a processed cheese-food product. It might look like something but it tastes like nothing and has no nutritional value. You know, the type of work that gets polite applause, a gentle chuckle and touches, moves and motivates no one.

Lincoln: "Four score and seven years ago...
Focus group: "Too complicated.
Lincoln: "87 years ago...
Focus group: "That sounds, like, so old...
Lincoln: "A long while ago...
Focus group: Still old...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thinking about Billy Wilder.


I know most of my references date from at least a few decades ago but that's who I am so, as my teenage daughter reminds me just about every thirty-seven seconds, get over it.

In any event, I've been on a bit of a screed of late because I am working on a financial services account and half the people in the agency are trying their damndest (and their lamest) to make the brand cool. The last thing the world needs right now is a hip financial company. Honest. Stalwart. Even old-fashioned may be more appropriate. But these youngsters--or unsophisticates were weaned on the rancid mother's milk of solipsistic award shows (when I get really angry I roll out my vocabulary) and know one thing about advertising: they know what wins awards.

So, they attempt to do work with that heavily practiced and artificial insouciance, that da da da stoner surfer attitude that seems to carry the day when the golden calves of ad idolatry are doled out.

They know one attitude. One set of cliches. One kind of joke.

Of course, this makes me think of Billy Wilder.

Wilder won a total of seven Oscars, including one for lifetime achievement. He was nominated for 15 more. He wrote great comedies. Great love stories. Great noir dramas. Great war stories. Great social dramas. Even a great comedy involving suicide. In short, he was versatile.

My guess is that if agencies and holding companies were really serious about "optimizing new business practices and modalities," they'd get rid of the one-trick ponies and bring in some Billy Wilders. Then again, maybe not. Doing so probably wouldn't test well.

Horror, terror and Christmas.

OK.

I get the message.

Jesus Christ put on a red suit trimmed with small white animal fur, was nailed to a cross, was freed by a red-nosed flying reindeer, came down a chimney and was met by singing chipmunks in a manger with his virgin mother, Mhyrr.

I get the point. I'll buy a ton of shit I don't really need for people I don't really like.

Just shut off the fucking music already, willya.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A couple more things that drive me crazy.

I've written before about some of this but like most things I say, it bears repeating. (Not because what I say is important, but because no one listens.)

One is the phrase "Meteroic Rise" as in so-and-so enjoyed a meteoric rise in state politics. Well, the simple fact is this: METEORS DON'T RISE, THEY FALL. Plain, simply and indisputably. There is no such thing as a meteoric rise,

Second is the phrase "bi-polar." What is something that is polar if not "bi." There is a North Pole and a South Pole. Two poles. There are never more than two poles. So, if one's personality wavers between two poles, why are they considered "bi-polar," not merely "polar"?

The final one (for today) is Republicans who call, for whatever reason, the Democratic Party the Democrat Party. That's just asinine.

The world as explained by coffee.

I had breakfast with a young acolyte of mine (if you're looking for a talented and hard-working young writer, let me know) at a mid-town coffee shop this morning. It wasn't one of those Starbuck's-like places--it was one of the last of the real Greek coffee shops, with a menu as compendious as the Mumbai phone book and a Babel of waiters and waitresses.

As we sat there catching up and figuring out where my friend might potentially find a decent job in the industry, every thirty seconds--literally, someone came over and asked to fill our coffee cups.

It occurred to me that this was yet another example of the polarization of America. You see this all the time in The New York Times. Headlines about poverty and looming mass starvation on the front pages, followed by ads for $17,000 ear-rings and 6.54 million-dollar apartments a few pages in.

The world we live in now can be further divided between the "precious-ites" (those who pay $4.75 for a cup of coffee) and the "utilitarians" (those who drink their coffee without needing to add cream, sugar and bullshit to it.)

There's nothing wrong with savoring a cup of Joe. But what smugness prevents the precious-ites from recognizing is that there is a relationship between raw materials and final costs. They prefer to pay for attitude and purported elan. They think nothing of spending $1K or more for a vinyl handbag or $600 for a pair of ordinary shoes. In other words, the precious-ites buy into the subject-object split--cool is the measure of all things.

In short, the precious-ites are responsible for the abject collapse of our world. For a world of $72 canvas sneakers made by Coolie-labor for 37-cents. A world of $225 blue jeans, $68 t-shirts. A world where everything has a logo and logos are the measure of a man.

Oh, lighten up, George.

Yeah, I will in second. But let me just say this, I like good-old Greek diners. I miss being able to see a ball-game for less than the price of a mortgage payment. And I wish there were still Army-Navy stores. (Though the Army and the Navy I could live without.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Elaine Idoni on Advertising.

As this hideous decade draws to its ravaging conclusion, a decade of wars, of stolen elections, of terror, of high-school, collegiate and fast-food-restaurant gun slaughter, of dying cities, of environmental meltdowns and havoc, as this decade is ending, Adweek is running a poll on a variety of purported topics. Among those topics is voting for Agency of the Decade and Creative Director of the Decade.

Poll Daddy, the service who are running this poll allows you to vote as many times as you wish for your favorite whatever. Right now, as I type this, Euro RSCG is leading as Agency of the Decade and their Creative Director, David Jones, is leading as well.

Apparently, management at Euro RSCG sent a memo out to their employees urging them to vote for themselves. I have nothing against Euro RSCG, though they're hardly whom I would have chosen. What I am peeved about is that a purportedly reputable advertising organ like Adweek will name an agency "Agency of the Decade" and a Creative Director "Creative Director of the Decade" with all the journalistic scruple of Pravda. The winners of those titles will puff out their chests, put those accolades on their email signatures, use them in new business and more. It's all bullshit.

This is a popularity contest plain and simple and it reminds me of Elaine Idoni. When I was ten or 11, Elaine Idoni was by far the prettiest girl in my school. Every year when we had elections for class president, Elaine Idoni's name would invariably be tossed into the ring and after some not-so-heated debate, she would win the election for no other reason than she was pretty.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

This just in.

Do you know the difference between a hamster and a gerbil?


There's more dark meat on a hamster. video

Friday, November 20, 2009

Testimonials.


There are times in the industry when forces conspire and you find yourself having to do customer testimonials. If and when this happens to you try to at least put words in the mouths of the people who are testimoning that sound realistic and natural.

This Dell monstrosity has just one thing going for it. The ad unit I saw was small. So while it's shit at least it's shit confined to a tiny space.

Thank you for the wisdom of your inexperience.

Something has happened in the world and I suppose I’m somewhat responsible since it probably started with my generation. Growing up in “The Era When Everything Changed,” my generation rejected everything that came before it. In the classroom, we clamored only for things that we deemed “relevant.” I remember a wood-paneled seminar room at Columbia University when one of my fellow graduate students said this about Shakespeare to a distinguished professor of English: “Me and Billy boy don’t jive.” No, I am not making it up. I am using it as an extreme example of the wholesale expurgation of all things hallowed as meaningless, dated and therefore somehow irrelevant.

This attitude pervades the advertising industry today. You might be working for a financial services company that (like most businesses) caters to the affluent. Invariably a bunch of “body-art-acolytes” will burn thirty-two thousand hours talking about twitter and how to make something that should be thoughtful, intelligent and deep shallow, irrelevant and cool.

Cool is not a strategy. Often times it's not even in the ballpark.

As I said in a previous post, I am re-reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” right now. I guarantee that 99 44/100s of the people in the world would think I’m reading something esoteric and irrelevant as opposed to something essential and important. Not because they have read it and rejected it but because it was written before 2007 and doesn't involve vampires.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Stop me if you've heard this one.

That’s not what the client asked for. We know more than the client about the consumer. (That’s why we’re agents, not vendors.) It’s more important to meet the needs of the consumer than meeting what are sometimes the internal political demands of the client.

It’s due ASAP. Is it really? Or is it due because you’ve scheduled a client meeting prematurely? When will the work run? Can we have an interim meeting to show them what we’re thinking without spilling the beans?

They want last year’s work re-skinned.
I suppose that’s ok, since nothing in the world, or nothing their competition is doing has changed since last year.

You didn’t hit every point on the brief.
The brief was a client agenda—a negotiation, not a communication. This is too much information for our audience to take in.

We have to show it to low-level clients first.
We show work to people who can both approve and disapprove. Not to people who only disapprove or people who try to improve.

Use stock photography.
So we will stand out in the same way everyone else does. Do you go to a restaurant and ask for canned and frozen ingredients?

It’s only online content. You have one brand. Not an online brand and an offline brand. The same principles and integrity you demand from your traditional agency must be applied to content. Is the work on brand? Does it impart useful information? Is it brilliantly executed? Is it interesting, watchable?

The health-care debate.


My guess is that the people most against health-care reform are the people most likely to die earlier.

This map shows life expectancy in the US. The darker the color, the longer the life expectancy.

Wonderful. And from The New York Times.



There's a blog on The New York Times called "Abstract City" that has some wonderful images, about eight in all, of which I've pasted two here. Check it out here http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/17/bio-diversity/

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Faux Pas.


Right now I am working with a coterie of heavily tattooed people. It is my nature to read whatever is in front of me, so I spend a few minutes a day deciphering the words and glyphs indelibly marked on these people. One guy I'm working with has tattooed his knuckles like Robert Mitchum in "Night of the Hunter." (see above.)

On his knuckles are the letters: TC [Lightning bolt] B.

Me: What does that stand for "The country's best yogurt?"
Him: Douche bag. Taking care of business in a flash.

Notes from a misanthrope.


I got this from a book review in today's New York Times. You can read the entire review of "The Gift of Thanks" by Margaret Visser here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/books/18book.html?hpw

Here are some parts of the review I found particularly stirring: “It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.”

..."the word 'host' is related through Indo-European roots to the words 'hostile' and 'hostage.'"

"English speakers are obsessed with the terms 'thanks' or 'thank you.' We often say these words more than 100 times a day, in a flurry that many other cultures find baffling."

I'm not against gratitude or anything. I just generally hate everyone.

Chain store advertising.

The neighborhood in which I live is as off the beaten track as things get in Manhattan. It's a little too far east, too far from the subway and defiantly un-hip. That's ok by me.

Nevertheless despite its out-of-the-wayness, over the past twenty years or so a seismic change has occurred. Most of the neighborhood businesses, "The Ideal Coffee Shop," or half-a-dozen Hungarian or German restaurants like "Csarda" have been shuttered and been replaced by stores like "The Vitamin Shoppe," "Starbucks," or "GNC."

Last night I got off the subway at 7:30 and decided I needed hamburger rolls for the dinner I was putting together. The only bakery left in the neighborhood was part of the barkery-industrial-complex, a mini-chain with the unfortunate name of "Hot & Crusty."

I asked for hamburger rolls. "We don't got none." I asked for three kaiser rolls. The kid doesn't ask if I want poppy seeds or sesame seeds on them, he picks up the first three he sees and stuffs them in a bag big enough for two-and-a-half kaiser rolls and gives the bag to me to bring it to the cash register. The cashier says three dollars. I not so unreasonably ask for a bag. Rather than putting my rolls in a bag, she slides over a crumpled plastic bag with a smiley face on it. I leave disgusted.

This entire experience made me think about the advertising industry. Like the state of retail in my neighborhood and much of the world, the little guy is no longer. Independent shops where they know your name, know their product and know how to sell are all but gone. Same with agencies.

Service is surly, unresponsive and completely lacking in a cosmic sense of quid pro quo. They really couldn't give a rat's ass if you leave the store disgusted and never come back. The workers make low wages and can probably get a low-wage job elsewhere. It doesn't much matter if it's a bakery or a place that does quick oil changes. There is, from the employees, no passion for what they do.

Basically, now that we all pretty much work for one of four agencies, we are essentially working for advertising chain stores. Think about a typical chain store experience. You usually can't find help. You usually can't find what you want. When you do find help they usually suck. And when you get home with what you bought you are usually dissatisfied, often you feel like you paid too much considering.

No personality, no accountability, no loyalty, specious cost-efficiencies. This is our chain-store, holding company world.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

We hate talent.


There is an article in The Economist this week http://www.economist.com/businessfinance/management/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14301649 about talent. Its subhead is "Talent is not patient, and it is not faithful." The article then goes on and speaks about how companies are fighting for talent "essential to their future success."

This might be true if you work for an engineering firm or a retailer but my experience over the past twenty-five years or so is that companies hate talent. Because, often, talent and lack of conformity are often bed-fellows. And agencies hate oddity. They hate manic behavior. They hate impatience and lack of tolerance for mediocrity.

Much as salaries are now relegated to acceptable "bands" by level, personalities are relegated to bands too. Volatility, passion, anger, pain-in-the-ass-ness, even brains are all excoriated. We have built a system where we welcome everyone regardless of their skills as long as they don't have too many of them. We run on a thesis of the greatest good for the greatest number. Which might be fine for a democracy and a bureaucracy. But not for a creative business.

We love "team players." "Active collaborators." "Bridge Builders." And so on. We disparage and dismiss iconoclasts, independents and radicals.

There, in a nutshell, why most everything sucks.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wet roadway.


There's a road sign I noticed last night on my way back from Kennedy Airport. I've ridden this route a thousand times but I never noticed the sign before. The sign says "Wet Roadway".

It occurred to me last night that wetness on a roadway is usually a transitory condition not an on-going one. It's weird to put up a sign that says Wet Roadway unless there is something leaking somewhere. After all, the sign isn't put up when it rains and taken down when it's not raining. Therefore I conclude that rather than fixing a problem involving a leak somewhere, the highway department just stuck up a sign.

Somehow this got me thinking of advertising. Rather than create work that is compelling, we often throw up signs that telegraph what's about to happen. We follow a formula--ok, here's the product demo, here's the joke at the end, here's the button.

In other words, rather than doing something creative, we put up a sign that says "Creative" and hope for the best.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lines from California.

I am in California now for a Bar and Grill Mitzvah.

A mile of the highway leading to Oakland where the Bar Mitzvah is is adopted by Black Wing Tattoo and Piercing. The party is held in O'Connell Dodge, the former showroom of a Dodge dealership. Something weird about a Bar Mitzvah in a defunct autodealer. I sneak around to the back. There is a door with a sign on it that reads "Employee Pool and Sauna." Now there are no more employees.

Friday, November 13, 2009

From a friend of mine.


A wise and witty friend sent me this quotation from a fella called
Stephin Tobin. Makes sense to me.

"Business people are like bricks.

Creative people are like wine glasses.

When the brick and the wine glass collide, the brick always wins.
But remember this; you can’t drink wine out of a brick."

Billy Wilder had something like this as well.
He defined an associate producer as the only person
who would associate with a producer.

(He was talking about movie producers, who are often money men.
Not agency ones, who are often creative.)

Meet Geoffrey Chaucer.


For the past few years the shibboleth of the pundits and pontificators has been "story-telling." Every time I hear the word I cringe because I always wonder how many of the people who use it have ever actually read a story.

Last night, I picked up a new translation of one of the oldest stories of all. Peter Akcroyd's superb prose translation of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales." I haven't read Chaucer since college--I'll admit, he was always my favorite, way moreso than Shakespeare, who everyone takes too seriously.

It's all there. It's as filthy as "Gossip Girl." As wise as a good therapist. And full of strength, humor, battles, intrigues and more. In short, it's pretty damn close to an apotheosis.

Yeah, it's a bear of a book. But, man, it's a beautiful thing.