Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Something smart.

For years people have been announcing the death of print. And for years I've been saying that print can do things that no other medium can do. Print can let you touch things.

Just now my almost-18 year-old daughter picked up one of the approximately 150 LL Bean catalogues that are sent to us each year and said "Wow!" This is a jaded, New York 18-year-old who wouldn't be caught dead in something that comes from LL Bean. She said wow because there was a die-cut on the front cover through which you could feel the softness of Bean's fleece.

Right now Buick is running yet another multi-million-dollar advertising campaign. In this one they compare themselves to Lexus. Do they ever let you touch the car's upholstery? Do they embed a sound chip that allows you to hear the quiet at 60 mph? Can you feel the plushness of their carpet?

Why give people something to do? After all, they can just go visit a dealer--an experience most people regard just about as pleasant as Nazi dentistry. With rusty tools.

Buick are doing dumb.
Bean are doing smart.

My two cents say if your sales have dropped as Buick's have, don't try to do old advertising better. Try to do something different. Or, as Murray the Sturgeon King once said to me, "If all you ever do is all you've ever done, then all you'll ever get is all you've ever got."

A confession. And some reminiscences.

video

I grew up in advertising. My father was the noted copywriter credited with coining the phrase "a little dab'll do ya," for Brylcreem, and he loved his work. When we watched television as kids, we watched the commercials, we rated them, discussed them, argued about them.

We had a Bell & Howell projector in the house and my father would on occasion bring home 16mm films of "Sky King brought to you by Nabisco." The agency he worked for handled big portions of the Nabisco account and my father reckoned that "Sky King" would be right up the alley of his two young sons. It was a bit like "Lassie" only the hero was a guy with a plane rather than a collie.

I guess there's some point here somewhere about branded content. Just check out the clip above. But really, I was just thinking about my father and how he always kicked me in the ass to get me to try to make my work better. He'd also kick me in the ass just for the hell of it. It's just the way he was.

Having a conversation with brands.


I cooked a delicious pasta dish last night, bucatini with sundried tomatoes, tiny brussels sprouts and pine-nuts sauteed with garlic and oregano. At the last minute I added some mozzarella cheese and mixed it altogether.

It was the mozzarella that did me in. It was delicious, of course, as fresh mozzarella is, but it stuck to the bottom of the pan. I soaked it overnight in water diluted with Dawn dishwashing detergent. This morning, I decided to tackle cleaning the pan.

I've heard a lot lately about consumers having conversations with brands. How important those conversations are. How they build loyalty among users. I decided to test this thesis for myself. Ergo:

ME:Dawn, listen to me. You're supposed to be good with baked on food. What's the story here?
DAWN:
ME: OK, I know you cut through grease, I've seen those commercials where it looks like the grease actually flees from you, but what are we talking about now?
DAWN:
ME:This passive-aggressive bullshit has got to stop, Dawn. We're talking about baked on food and you are not helping.
DAWN:
ME: OK, listen, despite you, this pan is clean now. No thanks to you but because I used a bit of elbow grease.
DAWN:
ME: Look, Dawn, you missed a spot.
DAWN:
ME: Alright. Thanks, Dawn. For nuthin'.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How much do you really need?

Almost 60 years ago when the defense budget was around $10 billion (this was before Vietnam-induced inflation--that was a lot of money then) two high-ups in the department were having a conversation.

"How much do you think we really need to defend ourselves. Not to impose our will in the Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Dominican Republic. How much do we need to keep our country safe?"

"$1 billion" was the reply.

Today "The Onion" ran an article headlined "Pepsi to Cease Advertising." It said "We know it's good, and everyone's pretty happy with the overall taste, so why spend all our time worrying about what other people think?" PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi told reporters during a press conference at the company's corporate headquarters. "Frankly, it just feels sort of weird and desperate to put all this energy into telling people what to drink. If they don't like it, then they don't like it."

While the Pepsi article is obvious satire, I think there is something in it and my Department of Defense anecdote that should give marketers pause.

How much advertising is being done and run just because that's the way it's always been done? Bureaucracies, as nearly anyone who's ever watched them will tell you, become self-sustaining. They do things not because they make sense but because momentum pushes to do what they've always done.

So much advertising is just empty devoid of words or pictures that motivate the viewer to act that it's hard to believe that CMOs won't begin questioning more than its efficacy, rather its very reason for being.

Not cuckoo for Coco.


Coco Chanel, she of Audrey Tatou's sad and limpid eyes, was what was known post WW2 as a "horizontal collaborator." That is, she fucked lots of high-level Nazis, including Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a Nazi 13-years her junior, who allowed Coco to bed with him at the Ritz, Nazi HQ in Paris. von Dincklage also allowed the beauty to maintain her hold on the 10% of the Chanel business that wasn't owned by a Jewish family called the Wertheimers. Further, she tried to get her well-positioned Nazi friends to "Aryanize" the Chanel business, that is, turn it over to her for a pittance.

After WW2, the adorable Coco fled to Switzerland for 15 years of exile to avoid prosecution for "abetting" the Nazis.

Somehow the Chanel brand was strong enough to overcome all this. But not strong enough to make me see the movie.

Sorry, just had to get this off my chest.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Silly numbers.


Advertising Age has just published "The Creativity Awards Report" http://adage.com/agencynews/article?article_id=139270 which counts which agency, which network and which creatives won the most awards in the past year. What you'll see if you read Ad Age's reporting is some staggering and some staggeringly silly numbers. Agencies winning literally hundreds or in some cases thousands of awards for their efforts.

Years ago, Milwaukee had a disproportionate number of award-winning advertising agencies. I had to fly to Milwaukee for some reason and could hardly wait to pick up the local papers in the morning and look at all the brilliant advertising. D'ya know what I found? Crap. Crap. And more crap. Falling leaves and headlines like "Rake in the savings."

Which leads me to ask, if agencies can win all these awards, why when you turn on the TV, go online, or read a newspaper or magazine do we not see this work? Why do we see absolute insulting banality?

Undoubtedly, the proliferation of award shows leads to the proliferation of awards. But something is going on in our industry that undercuts the very legitimacy of what we do. Our focus is perverted--on winning industry awards rather than on helping industries. Our two principle advertising trade magazines are culpable as well. They know if they wank-off the major agencies, they will get media dollars from the major agencies.
-

Above is a picture of Idi Amin. As you can tell from his uniform, he also was highly awarded.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Shakespeare on brands and branding.


Last night we went to see a Public Theatre performance of "Othello" directed by Peter Sellars with Philip Seymour Hoffman starring as a Banana-Republic-clad Iago. Having loved Orson Welles' 1952 film version, in which Welles plays the title character, I found this production a bit meandering and the acting, overall, weak.

In any event, my ears perked up last night when I heard this dialogue between Cassio and Iago.

CASSIO:
Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my
reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what
remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!

IAGO: As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some
bodily wound; there is more sense in that than in reputation.
Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit
and lost without deserving....

It occurs to me that this brief debate between Cassio and Iago is the debate that often takes place within a brand. Cassio represents a brand's better instincts, that a brand must behave in a certain benighted way, and the conniving Iago represents a brand's basest attitudes--reputation doesn't matter, let's schtup the consumer.

Your brand--is it Cassio or Iago?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"I could talk about this stuff for hours."


When you get disillusioned about the future of America and the vitality of capitalism, it ain't a bad idea to head down to your nearby Apple store. I am in the Fifth Avenue store right now amid a throng that's livelier than one of Lady Astor's old cocktail parties. Many of the sales help are wearing turquoise tee-shirts with "I could talk about this stuff for hours" emblazoned on the front.

Those words seem to me that they could serve as a mantra for how to create, staff and maintain a business. If your workers aren't passionate about the brand or brands they're selling, you're doing something wrong.

Of course it occurs to me that except for a few agencies, I'll bet there are only a handful where the employees are well-versed with their agency's work, their accounts and their agency's approach to creating and producing work. In other words, where the workers can actually sell the agency.

In other words, they can't talk about this stuff for hours. Which is a sad state of affairs when you consider how many hours we spend at our agencies. And probably means that a business primarily concerned with created and/or propagating brands has not as yet created and propagated their own.

--
Now and somewhat as an aside, I think it's important to point out that there is a vast difference between a brand and branding. Branding, more often than not, is the last bastion of well-designed fools. Superficial consistency of elements that convey no meaning. The agency at which I am currently toiling has a fabulous-looking brand. The colors are oh-so contemporary, and I love the way the logo butts up to the top of the page. But as for what they stand for? Who they are? What their beliefs are?

Yeeesh. The cobbler's children have no shoes.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Diatribe.

I used to write a blog other than Ad Aged which gave full vent to an alter ego of mine, Soupy Weinstock, a retired 84-year-old rabbi. One of the reasons I kept this blog and have this alter ego is that things are just so dumb sometimes. And when I rail against them, I sound like an old Jewish man. So rather than admitting I am an old Jewish man, I created one to speak for me.

That said, Rabbi Soupy Weinstock has been on hiatus for about two years, though he's never stopped rattling around in my cranium saying things that need to be said but that are hard to say because they immediately categorize you as "old." (When did sensible become synonymous with old?)

One of those things that annoys Rabbi Weinstock is headlines that restate the obvious as if it is news. You find a lot of these in the Science section of The New York Times, and of course on the front pages of our esteemed advertising trade journals. Headlines like "Autumn's Falling Leaves Mean Gravity Still Has Pull." That one I made up, but how's this from Ad Age? "Hispanic Creatives Just Want to Be Revered for Creative Ability". Oh. Or this one from Adweek "Alex Bogusky on Wonders of Saliva-Free CPR". Mindless, banal, insipid. To steal from Neil Postman, we are trivializing ourselves to death.

Jeepers, here we are in a contracting industry that's seen erosion in every area possible. There will be no "Mad Men" based on our 21st Century antics. We are no longer cool. As an industry we have not consistently proven the value of what we do, so we can no longer demand proper fees for the value we reputedly add. In response we create awards shows and then create ads just for those awards shows to show how clever we are in the hopes that giant corporations will want us as court jesters.

When the industry convenes as it is this week during Advertising Week little of import is being discussed. I think of us as Lace Cutters in 1830 who were all replaced by machines just ten years hence. Or black and white television manufacturers. Yet we'll talk about Twitter endlessly or social media, not the aforementioned seismic changes and not about how to achieve the sort of multi-channel marketing that might actually move people.

(I said this was a diatribe.)

I can't help thinking that as an industry we act like the women in our offices who wear next to nothing, flip-flops in October and skimpy outfits and then complain that the office is cold. So put on a sweater already. In other words, grow up.

No, instead we enshrine the AOL running man (what's AOL?) into yet another asinine Advertising Hall of Fame, pat ourselves on the back, pad our expense accounts in the front and go on hoping against hope that 1985 will come back and all this new media shit will disappear.

There's another headline in Adweek that, in the words of Henry Wiggen, really rubs my goat the wrong way. "Consumers Choose Quality Over Price". We as marketers know that this is a simple human truth, yet we have allowed industry after industry to be commoditized--where everything is sold on price. Phones. Travel. PCs. Cameras. Banking. Printers. And the low prices we tout are so laden with asterixes and caveats that they are not believed by anyone.

But that's what we do.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Preston Sturges on Pittsburgh.

The G20 are meeting in Pittsburgh, so I think it's appropriate to post some dialogue from "Sullivan's Travels" about that fair city.

LeBrand and Hadrian are studio executives, Sullivan is a director of light comedies who wants to make a serious picture of social import. They are discussing another such picture.

LeBrand: It died in Pittsburgh.
Hadrian: Like a dog!
John L. Sullivan: Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh...
Hadrian: They know what they like.
John L. Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh!

Here is the nine-minute sequence that includes the quotation above, from, like I said, "Sullivan's Travels," one of the greatest comedies of all time. video

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Clark Clifford on Advertising.

Clark Clifford was, for many years, one of the most powerful and highly regarded lawyers in the nation. As such, he had a great sense of his own value--he did not believe that anyone hired Clark Clifford except to gain the full benefit of his skill and services.

Here's a story I just read about Clifford recounted in Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest".

A company president called Clifford and explained a complicated problem and asked Clifford's advice. Clifford told him not to say or do anything. Then Clifford sent him a bill for $10,000.

A few days later, the company president called Clifford back to complain about the bill and to ask why he should keep quiet. Clifford responded, "Because I told you to." Clifford then sent him a bill for an additional $5,000.

I suppose it's fantasyland to think that an agency can survive with such a sense of its own value. Or, to use the vernacular, that an agency grow balls.

Maybe the difference is that Clifford delivered a simple proposition to his clients. "I'll keep you out of trouble so you can grow richer." Whereas in the agency business we talk about our proprietary processes and methodologies. We go on endlessly about our case studies and our global reach. We spew out dicta about changing media landscapes and the empowered consumer. ie. we make things complicated.

Maybe an agency should just say this: "Listen to us and we'll make people try, buy and love your brand."

Alright, lay off, I said I was in fantasyland.

They are not long


The weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate.
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson's poem I've always loved. "Vitae Summa Brevis" is its title and that title comes from a quotation from the Roman poet Horace: Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetet Incohare Longam, which essentially means, "Life is short, why dream?"

That being said, this morning I came upon an ad for Starkist Tuna. (A friend of mine used to call chicken "tuna of the land," but I digress, as always.) Anyway, back to this ad for tuna. The headline read: "Rethink Tacos."

And I think the folks at Starkist are right.
Don't think about 1 in 6 people unemployed in Michigan, or 1 in 9 in California, or 1 in 4 black people nationwide. Don't think about 50 million people without health insurance. Or a country coming apart at the seams in the midst of a bloodless (to date) civil war. Don't think of the two perpetual wars for perpetual peace we are currently fighting. Don't even think about the Yankees clinching a playoff spot.
Nope. Rethink tacos.

To that end, here is a recipe I got from the Starkist site.

Tangy-er Tacos – Zesty Lemon Pepper Tuna Creations®


Prep Time: 5 Minutes | Serves: 4
INGREDIENTS:
Tuna Creations package 2 (4.5 oz.) pouches StarKist Tuna Creations®, Zesty Lemon Pepper
8, 6" flour or corn tortillas
1 cup coleslaw mix
2 tomatoes, chopped
Guacamole (optional)
Shredded Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese (optional)
Cilantro, chopped (optional)
Green onions, sliced (optional)
Lemon and lime, sliced, for garnish
DIRECTIONS:
1. Heat tortillas in microwave for 10 to 15 seconds and put two shells on each plate.
2. Mix Tuna Creations® and coleslaw in small bowl.
3. Place 1/4 cup tuna and coleslaw on one half of each tortilla. Top with tomatoes, guacamole and cheese, as desired. Garnish with cilantro and sliced green onions. Sprinkle with lemon and lime juice as desired.
Tip: For color and a little extra flavor, add lemon and lime slices as a garnish and sprinkle the taco filling with lime juice.

No real point today. I was too busy rethinking tacos.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My mouse is giving me trouble.

The computer I use is nearly three-years-old. It's a powerhouse and I like it, but the touchpad isn't as responsive as it once was. As a consequence, I have to click on things more frequently than I'd like and I get a lot of "false clicks," which send me places I don't really want to go.

Just now, by accident, I clicked on an ad for something called "The 80th Street Residency," a home for cognitively impaired seniors, ie old people with Alzheimer's Disease. Since the 80th Street Residency is in my neighborhood, and at least from the outside it looks like a nice place, I was curious to learn more about it. So I clicked on a heading that said "Amenities."

What I found were three bullet points that in addition to describing state-of-the-art arrangements for the elderly could also, with minor alterations, describe working arrangements for people in advertising:

• Each floor is a unique homelike "Neighborhood" made up of 8-10 Residents with similar cognitive abilities

• Surroundings designed to encourage Residents' participation in activities in a relaxed & comfortable setting

• Family Style Dining & Living Room on each floor

A bit more on holding companies.


One of the things advertising agency holding companies do with the companies they hold is merge them. Since, as my previous post noted, the people running the holding companies don't participate in the creation of advertising, they often make merger decisions based on criteria that have little to do with advertising, like location, size, account roster, or even personalities.

The result of such advertising shotgun marriages is similar to the result of most real-life shot gun marriages. Misery.

Anyway, I just came across this cover from The Economist and it made me think of Ally & Gargano merged with MCA, D'Arcy merged with Benton & Bowles, Ammirati merged with Lintas, Anderson & Lembke merged with McCann, Geers Gross merged with McCann. Oh, you get the point.

In a nutshell.

The Wall Street Journal had a big article yesterday titled "WPP Chief Tempers Hopes for Ad Upturn."

I will put my current wpp-animus aside for a second and just quote the opening sentence which speaks for itself: "Martin Sorrell has never penned a jingle or written a line of ad copy, yet he is one of the best-known executives on Madison Avenue."

Interactivity.


There are many people in our industry--whole agencies, in fact, who talk about "interactive advertising" as if it were something new, something that's arisen over the last ten years or so.

Bosh!

When Homer (not Simpson, the blind poet and author of The Iliad and the Odyssey) created his epics, he created them as interactive pieces. He would dial up the role of characters and events according to where he was performing his art. Ithacans had bigger roles when Homer was in Ithaca. Atticans, when he was in Attica.

Somewhat late, I've just come across this feature on tabletmag.com. Tablet--this is a warning to the Goyim, calls itself "a new read on Jewish life" but you don't have to be Jewish to get something out of it.

Now for those of you who don't know, Yom Kippur is coming. This is the holiest day of the Jewish year, a day during which we atone for our sins. To that end I noticed this feature on Tablet's site. It's called "Sorry Sorry Sorry" and it is an online atone-athon. Here's how Tablet describes it:

"Yom Kippur is right around the corner, and we all have things to repent for. That, dear readers, includes you. Maybe you said something nasty to a friend, maybe you’ve told a little lie, maybe you stole $50 billion dollars and sent the global economy into a tailspin. Whatever it is, we want to hear about it for our new Daily Sorry feature. Starting in early September and running every day until Yom Kippur, we’ll run one reader’s message of atonement. (Or more than one, if we get lots. Or maybe not every day, if we don’t.) It’s very simple: call our hotline, leave us a short message saying what you’re sorry for (don’t worry—there’s no need to give us your contact information, or even your name), and we’ll run it on the site. And you’ll feel much, much better about yourself.

Ready to say you’re sorry? Call us at 718-360-4836, and tell us what you’re sorry for. We can’t forgive you, but we can make repenting more fun."

OK, this isn't whizbang interactivity with neato flash interfaces and drop-out six point sans-serif type that no one can read. But it's interactivity that is imbued with "the three U's," utility, uniqueness and umor.

By the way, I repented for having sex with Heidi Klum. It wasn't worth it, she laid there like a lox.

Monday, September 21, 2009

While we were jerking off.


While we were lamenting the loss of a variety of third-rate talents, posting endless Facebook comments about nobody putting baby in the corner, mooning over our loss of youth, a genuine hero died in North Carolina last week.

Horace Carter died last Wednesday at 88 in Wilmington, North Carolina. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/21/us/21carter.html?_r=1&ref=obituaries While still in his 20s, Carter started a weekly newspaper in Tabor City, NC. The Ku Klux Klan was ascendant in that town and staged numerous recruitment rallies. Carter publicly opposed them. Over the course of three years he wrote and ran over 100 articles reporting on Klan activities. This in the face of threats to himself, his family and advertisers who pulled ads from his paper.

For his work, Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for public service.

I know I watched too many Henry Fonda movies growing up, so I am infected with more than a small dose of idealism. But it seems to me that we in the industry do have a choice. We can pander to the lowest common denominator and produce work like Bud's "I like it in the can," or we try to do a little better.

I realize we are beholden to our clients. I know we are pushing the rock up the hill. And maybe, in fact, there's nothing we can do. Except personally. I think we can think a bit less about Patrick Swayze. And a bit more about W. Horace Carter.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Trash art.


As I was walking my dog just now, I saw these three books in the garbage. I have nothing further to say.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rosh Ha-Shanah special.





There's a store in New York called Fishs Eddy that sells dishes with clever or nostalgic designs.

Right now, I guess in honor of the Jewish New Year, my favorite pattern is 20% off. You can buy them here.
http://www.fishseddy.com/browse.cfm/2,164.html
And you should drink more water, it's good for you.

Plaintive Friday.

I am a 12-point guy living in an 8-point world.

A Lemon-scented dichotomy.


I saw an item in one of those stupid elevator TV screens which noted that Southwest Airlines will no longer serve lemons when they offer drinks. Eliminating lemons will save the airline $100,000.

There are two ways of looking at lemons. In fact, how you see lemons portends, I think, how you feel about advertising and brands.

1. Lemons cost money. We can save money by eliminating them. i.e. service is a cost.
2. Lemons cost money, but they're a small price to pay for making weary travelers feel for a split second that Southwest gives a hoot about them. Lemons (service) are/is good for business.

What do you think of lemons?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ad of the day. Or night.


This poster was in the window of a local health club on E. 44th St.

While I'm on the subject of baseball.

In 1949 Buddy Johnson & Count Basie recorded the song that accompanies this slide show.

Nothing to do with advertising, but as I was thinking about Willie Mays (see previous post) I couldn't resist. video

Thinking about Willie Mays.


Recently The New York Times reported that the Yankees were urged to sign Willie Mays (at 18, already the best ballplayer in the Negro Leagues) not once, but a good number of times between 1949 and 1950. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/sports/baseball/13mays.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=willie%20mays&st=cse

The Yankees didn't even look at Mays, not because they had Mickey Mantle coming up, but because Mays didn't suit their view of what a Yankee should look like.

It occurs to me most agencies, in fact most businesses work in exactly this way. Years ago I read a book by engineer/scientist Ben Rich, called "Skunk Works." Rich was the lead of the top-secret Lockheed lab that developed many of the most-advanced air-craft the world has ever seen, including the stealth fighter and the blackbird. Once he developed a stealth ship for the navy, a ship that couldn't be seen by radar or sonar. The navy turned down his plans because Rich's ship didn't look like a ship. In other words, he created a Willie Mays and what they wanted was a Mickey Mantle.

Advertising agencies, of course, follow exactly the same practices. Just try to sell a cereal commercial without milk dripping off a spoon or a grin shot. Or a cosmetics commercial that doesn't follow the conceits of all other beauty commercials. And despite all the fulminations and breathing through the mouth by C-level people (most of whom have never written an ad) TV still comes first--because it always has.

I suppose we could call this Willie Mays syndrome.

-

To my San Francisco friends, I happened to see Willie Mays play in one of his last games. He joined the NY Mets and returned to New York in 1972 and finished his career in 1973. I saw him creaky and lonely one fall day when my friends and I cut out of school and headed to Shea. We had terrible seats, and Willie could hardly move, but none of that mattered.

video

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

An Oylert.

I've created a new term--an oy inducing happenstance you should take notice of.
An Oylert.

Anyway, a friend of mine quoted a friend of hers, ad luminary David Metcalfe, about the state of the world today: "Survival is the new success."

Bartleby on Madison.


SETTING: The ever-so-efficient open-plan office. It is early morning, people are filing in. The over-heads are not on, so it is dark, and the office is nearly silent save for the lonely chatter of fingers on keyboards. The AE enters.

AE: You know what I hate? People who say you should wear flats because they're more comfortable.
AS: (They share a work pod. She spins in her chair to face the AE who is massaging her left foot.) They're pinching?
AE: Right in the back.
AS: You need those little pads.
AE: There's no room. They're a 7 and fit perfectly.

The turn back to their desks and eat their rice cakes.

-
I know some organizational change consultant has told the world that open-plan seating speeds processes and optimizes collaboration and cohesion, but he probably never got to work early and had to hear about shoes.

David Halberstam on Advertising.

General Maxwell Taylor was also the head of a holding company: The US Military.

For the last couple of weeks I have been blazing my way through David Halberstam's epic history, "The Best and the Brightest." Halberstam is a brilliant historian because his histories transcend the period about which he is reporting. They give insight both to the period he is covering and the universal truths of man. I could compare his portraits of the players in the Kennedy administration to Plutarch's Lives--that there is a macro element in his writing that can help us handle our current world.

One thing Halberstam makes abundantly clear in this book as America is led inexorably deeper into the morass of Vietnam, is that at some point the original intention of a mission disappears and the bureaucracy instead focuses on its own well-being. Somewhere around 1964 Vietnam became less about helping Vietnamese, or saving French colonial Vietnam, or repelling Ho, and more about our military and our government not losing face.

I think agencies and the campaigns we create also follow this pattern. We argue about the nuances of an execution, we argue about its brand-i-ness and forget about what the client needs done or what the customer needs to hear. This is exactly why 99% of all advertising is about the perpetuation of the agency and client marketing departments and has very little to do with actually working in the marketplace.

This is a bit wooly, I know. I'll try to find non-incriminating examples of this over the next few days. But in the meantime, I'll leave you with this quotation by Averill Harriman talking about General Maxwell Taylor. It makes me think of our business.

"He is a very handsome man, and a very impressive one, and he is always wrong."

--
Happy Birthday, Craig.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I learned two things today.

In the agency at which I am freelancing, I am temporarily sitting amid a sea of winsome account women. OK, a veritable sea.

All day long amid that clack clack clack of their keyboards I catch snippets of their conversations. Therein lies thing number one that I've learned today.

Most of their conversations go something like this:

1. An account person finds out that a banner ad will be late going live.
2. It's not the agency's fault, Lenore at the client was late with feedback.
3. Lenore is cursed.
4. The AE says, "I'm not going to let this blow up in my face."
5. The AS tells her to write an email to Lenore to cover her ass.
6. The AE reads the email to the AS and the AS says "perfect."

That's basically the long and the short of it.

-
The second thing I learned happened on a call I had with a headhunter.

HH: So you were at [AGENCY] with [MANAGING DIRECTOR].
GEO: No comment.
HH: That's exactly right. Sometimes silence is the best way say how you feel.

If there were a trade campaign for the advertising industry.



I suppose it's always been easy to decry the state of our industry. But maybe lately it's gotten even more decry-able. And by that I mean things have become even dumber than they'd ordinarily become if they just trended alongside the inevitable downward slope of our so-called civilization.

No, I'm not talking about Bud with lime and their paean to sodomy, "I like it in the can." Dumb, tasteless, rude and pandering to absolutely the lowest and basest instincts in the world. That's dumb, but I suppose I can accept it because it doesn't pretend to be or try to be anything else.

But this morning on my way to work, I saw two separate pizza boxes with an ad for Coca-Cola's Dasani water on the box. I was so stunned by the stupidity of the headline that I had to stop and take a picture of it.

Let's think about those words. Here's a water that makes your mouth water. Isn't that by definition what water does? Are the folks at Coke implying that other water leaves your mouth dry and arid? I just don't understand.

I'm sure it's hard to come up with a unique selling proposition for water. And hard to convey a distinctive look on a pizza box. But say something. Do something unusual, unexpected, funny or daft. Barring that, how's this for Dasani's next headline: "The one water with two parts of hydrogen for every single part of oxygen."

Monday, September 14, 2009

US Open Tennis. My mother's view.

Hey Mr. Fancy-Schmancy, look-at-me-I'm in the finals all the way from Peru, or Chile or Argentina, you're in the finals, big shot, you can't afford a 29-cent razor-blade? You have to go on the court in front of all those people looking shaggy like a poodle? It would have hurt you the soap and water to maybe to look a little neat and comb your hair and not wear a head-band like a wild Indian, Chief Running Scruff.

And you, Serena, I'm not even going to talk about your foul mouth like a truck driver, it should be washed out with soap, but do you really have to grunt and moan every time you hit the ball. That little noise makes it go faster? In front of all those people, it sounds like you're broadcasting from a brothel.

And you, Roger Federer, you should think about having something to eat. Skinny is good, so they tell me, but you could put on a few pounds. You look sick. Emaciated. What, in Queens, the food is no good. And one more thing, Mr. Big Shot. Black socks with sneakers. Don't you know the dye could run when you schvitz and not only ruin the carpet but also give you gangrene if you get a blister.

And one more thing, both your fellas, you wipe your nose on your wrist band? You were raised that way, to snot all over your clothing? They don't have handkerchiefs in Queens. All those poor ballboys and girls, you couldn't ask them for kleenex? They bring you a ball to hit with and you say, "could I have a kleenex, please." That's so hard for you?

You all deserve to lose, you act like barbarians. Every one of you.

Sloppy, lazy language.


A lot of my posts, like my previous one decrying the use of the word "love" to describe the feelings one has for Clorox liquid bleach, are about how we misuse language because we are sloppy, lazy or have given up caring or fighting.

Just now I came upon a banner ad for the Ford Flex and noticed next to the blue Ford oval the tagline: "Drive one."

As an industry we regularly imbibe in the insipid. But "Drive one" as a tagline for a struggling car company? Why not "Drive two"? How about "Park one," "Wash one," "Dent one," "Lose your shirt in one," or "Get rear-ended and immolate in one"?

Over the past few decades a couple of automakers have used the word "drive" to convey power, passion and energy.

Ammirati & Puris coined the line "The ultimate driving machine" for BMW and Arnold wrote "Drivers wanted" for Volkswagen. Since the word drive was used effectively in the past, you'd better measure up to the past if you choose to use it in the present.

You would not re-write Avis' old line "We try harder" this way "We attempt with some fervor." Not only does my re-write suck in and of itself, it sucks even worse because it makes you think of something pretty good. So it sucks by comparison.

Likewise, an athletic shoe company can't get away with "Just exercise" as a tag. It's both dumb and derivative.

Drive one.

What were they thinking?
Oh.
They weren't.

You lie!

Oh, this is not some screed about Joe Wilson, the sorry state of South Carolina, or the death of civility in public discourse, though I could, of course, go on about any of those topics. This is about the actual words "you lie."

Last night, perhaps it was the Sunday evening blues, I turned on the TV and just fairly mindlessly watched. (I'm not sure that there's any other way to watch. Anything that's on is fairly mindless.)

In any event I happened to see two separate commercials with housewives--you know, blonde, pert and happy to do the wash--saying how much they love Clorox. Love. That is the word they used. Love.

"You lie!" I yelled. "You lie!" But these women went on. Holding the plastic bottle up to their cheeks like a newborn baby's arse. Pouring an ounce of the stuff into their wash and breathing in the freshness of their pink sweaters. "I love Clorox."

This is the shit that we do in our industry. The clients love Clorox because it pays for their Volvo wagon. The women in the focus groups love Clorox because they're benzedrined out on M&Ms and diet cokes and being paid to say they love it. The actresses on set love clorox because the account people and creatives better get the actresses to say it with conviction or the account will go into review and they'll never work again.

I love Clorox. It makes my whites whiter and my colors bright!

You lie!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The three "I"s.

Warren Buffett, my good friend and investment adviser, has a theory that explains the proliferation of chain stores and other such trends in the world of retail. He calls it the three I s, as in the three eyes. There's no genius here, just observation. And I think astute observation.

First comes innovators. These are the people who do the hard work. Who sense or help create a trend.
Next come the imitators. These are the people who quickly catch on. They say, "there's money to be made in brussel sprouts, I'll open up a stand as well."
Finally come the idiots. The people who are just now opening up high-end coffee shops.

It occurs to me that clients, agencies and even individual creative people within agencies can be similarly classified. In very few cases will you ever have intercourse with an innovator. Most often it's likely you'll be in one of the last two categories.

Both of which recall to my mind a fourth I.

Icky.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday joke time.

When the industry sucks, as it does, when it's raining outside, which it is, when all seems bleak and sad, you need a Borscht Belt across the lips.

Guy goes into a clothing store, tries on a new pair of pants.
Tailor asks how they fit.
Man says, “Well, they kinda remind me of Trinity Church.”
Tailor says, “Trinity Church? How could pants remind you of Trinity Church?”
Man says, “Well, you know the ballroom in Trinity Church?”
Tailor thinks for a moment. Then he says, “There’s no ballroom in Trinity
Church!”
Man says, “Same as these pants.”

Any color as long as it's beige.

I am quite satisfied with this color palette.


GM, whom I've often assailed in this space not because I necessarily hate GM but because GM seems to me to be an icon that marks everything that's wrong with American business and marketing, is offering, according to the advertising column in today's New York Times, a money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied with your GM vehicle.

You can read about it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/11/business/11gm.html?ref=media

Call me a cynic, but to me saying satisfaction guaranteed or your money back is exactly the wrong message. It would have been the right message ten years ago before we all became journalists, auto critics and influentials, but today it is dead wrong.

Satisfaction is table stakes. Satisfaction is passive. What GM should be guaranteeing is enthusiasm.

I'm sorry, today the brands people love don't create satisfied customers. They create enthusiastic proselytizers. People who know people and tell people how great their frikken wireless router is.

Years ago I worked on Mercedes-Benz and I went to a speech given by their North American President who said, "A car will be a success if it makes you feel ten years younger and ten pounds lighter."

That seems about right. That's something you boast about. That's something your neighbors will covet. Satisfaction is like having well-painted beige walls.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Meditations on stubbornness.


There are a lot of things you shouldn’t be or do in the work-world if you want to survive. Perhaps at the top of the list of corporate taboos is stubbornness. Nope, being stubborn only gets you in trouble.

Maybe what I’ve written above is not quite precise. Maybe it’s better to remark that to survive in the modern corporate state you need to be docile. You need to (as it says on 360 review forms) be a bridge-builder, a collaborator and a team-player. That’s how you hold onto your job. If you are treated badly, don’t protest. Meekly say, “I guess I’m just lucky to be working.” When they ask for 10% of your salary back, or insist that you take an un-paid furlough—how’s that for a euphemism?—accept it graciously, say you understand. When productivity goes up and salaries go down, when the salary gap between the C-suite and the workers widens, widens, widens, grin and bear it. Be docile.

If you are in advertising, don’t dig in your heels over an idea. Or even a set of standards. If the client wants to cheapen their brand by using cheap stock photography, if the client wants to dumb-down their brand by forcing you to use jargon and nouns as verbs, if the client wants to destroy their integrity by making you spout their party line, go gentle into that goodnight. What’s the alternative? What can I do? The agency won’t support me. I’m just lucky to have a job.

Be pliant and compliant and never defiant.

This is what we are told today in a thousand different ways. We are meant to be scared, appreciative, loyal. We are meant to fold like a shirt in a Chinese laundry.

Well, don’t do it. Because doing it means giving up. And giving up means you’re essentially dead.

For every person who sticks to his guns, there are legions who cave. For every Steve Jobs there are dozens of “low-cost providers.”

As George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Stubbornness is creativity. Stubbornness is innovation. Stubbornness is success.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Life in New York.


Seen on E 84th Street this morning.

This is easy for me to say.

I don't watch mindless television. Dancing with paraplegic stars. America's talentless cliche-ridden idol. And whatnot. I also don't care for sports, so it is no hardship for me to not see a steroid-inflicted baseball or football game. But not everyone is as tele-misanthropic as I.

That said, I am a patriot and believe in rational discourse about political events, without hysteria, name-calling, and spurious allegations.

Fox, however presents its opposition with radical, anti-American fervor. The president addressing school children as socialist brainwashing. The "birther" movement. Death panels. Obama likened to Nazis.

So, I am calling you, dear readers to take action. Boycott Rupert Murdoch properties. Don't watch Fox TV. Don't buy the NY Post. Encourage your clients to stay away from the same.

It's easy to decry the neo-fascists on Fox, then do nothing.
But if we do something, we hit back where it hurts.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lies, damn lies and advertising.


Of the many falsehoods perpetrated by advertisers on the public, perhaps the most virulent is the $800 or so "destination charge" that auto dealers tack onto the price of the car you want to buy. When I go to a coffee shop and order a turkey burger deluxe for $8.95, they don't charge me an extra $1 to bring it out from the kitchen. I'm not sure why auto dealers can get away with doing essentially just that.

That's yet another example of some of the little things companies do to erode any trust or good feelings with the consumer that they might benefit from. David Pogue, a technology writer for The New York Times has started a crusade of sorts to get the cellular carriers to stop forcing you to listen to a mechanical voice say, "when you are finished recording hang up..." which adds, of course, billions, yes billions, to their revenue totals.

I would imagine if a cellular carrier, an automaker, a computer manufacturer or an airline positioned themselves as "The no * _____," they would attract tons of positive PR, customers and probably a whole lot more. Unfortunately, nickel and diming is how we make our dollars.

The ad above is what set me off on this screed. An airline that lists a price and then an additional charge for gas. The fuel necessary to get you to your destination isn't included in the price of a ticket to that destination?

The joy of internet.

In trying to find the exact wording of this ditty for an earlier post,

"When the client moans and sighs
Make his logo twice the size
If the client still proves refractory
Show a picture of the factory
Only in the gravest cases
Should you show the clients' faces."

I came upon this wonderful up-dated version by Kevin Chesters,

"If the ads have gone to pot
Mention blogging quite a lot

If you want to dazzle them
Drop in terms like CRM

To make your clients think you're sage
Give campaigns a myspace page

To make them think you're clever chaps
Make references to Google Maps

If accused of strategic shirking
Bang on about social networking

If they still think the work is crap
You must present an iPhone app."

I think I read the following in "Ogilvy on Advertising," and I always remembered it and often think of it. It goes something like this:

"When your client moans and sighs
Make his logo twice the size.
If he should still prove refractory
Show a picture of his factory.
But only in the gravest cases,
Show a picture of their faces."

I think about this as Dell has launched its new small business campaign that employs the oh-so-innovative use of--get this--real customers!

I'll admit, working on Dell, like working on almost anything else, is a challenge. But surely there has to be something more interesting than a portrait of a customer with a quasi-crafted line that no person would actually say.

Maybe the phrase "permission to believe" is as out-moded as the gender-specificity in the poem above. But seriously, why should I believe that Dell computers are worth considering because someone I don't know and who has no credibility with me endorses them? "Oh," I can hear an agency or client shill mouthing, "but look how interesting this person is. They make theatrical drapery."

Listen, there's an Asian-owned Jewish deli in my neighborhood that posts polaroids of its customers on its back wall. There's the obligatory ones of Mike Bloomberg, Regis Philbin, local sports stars and then there are shots of ordinary people like my wife. My point is simple if you have a million customers, some are bound to be interesting. I don't know anyone who says "Mike Bloomberg has his picture on the wall, their lox must be good."

I wish Dell luck with their new ad campaign. Maybe some people somewhere will find it motivating. As for me, it would work harder if they offered free lox samples for visiting their website.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Dumbness.


There are many reasons, I suppose, that people disparage the advertising industry. It's venal. Back-stabbing. Mindless. And often, drivel is produced.

Looking at the ad above, I guess you could say we do it to ourselves. If I can accept losing myself in a cookie, I can't fathom finding myself in one.

Unless it's a Nutter Butter. That's different.

Stuck in traffic in New Jersey.

We are driving home now in veritable bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. The word felicitous does not come to mind.

There are, despite the economy, new condos going up everywhere. Or at least everywhere within view of the Garden State Parkway. One thing I've noticed is that a lot of new condos complexes seem to be named "The Landings." There is, of course, no landing point in sight, unless aliens come down when I am not around.

Though in New Jersey it is I who feels alien.

Friday, September 4, 2009

For the love of esoterica.

Just saw a banner ad by American Express promoting "The official iPhone app of the US Open."

Man, I won't leave home without that!

Change we can't believe in.

David Brooks that reliably conservative op-ed columnist at The New York Times is urging Obama in his column today to get much more aggressive vis a vis the 18% of our economy that goes to health care spending. Brooks asks "...did Barack Obama really get elected so he could pass the Status Quo Sanctification and Extension Act?" Read Brooks' column here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/04/opinion/04brooks.html

This post however isn't about health care. It's about the last seven words I quoted above. To wit: the Status Quo Sanctification and Extension Act.

What we've created in our industry and in America at large is impervious infrastructure. An infrastructure that protects jobs and people. We have pre-ordained boxes and we put people into those boxes even if they don't fit. You there with the Sharpie, you fit in a "print art director" box. You have to work in a different division with different creative direction from the woman over there who's an "online art director."

There are only a few companies left who agree with silos in principle. But most in practice still work this way. They'll claim to be making incremental changes. To be taking two steps forward and one back. And so on.

But what they are really on the advertising equivalent of the Bataan Death March. When they arrive at their destination, there won't be much left but skin and bones.

Should I be afraid?

I just downloaded some trial software and got a pop-up window that told me to "look for an email with my final instructions."

Final instructions: I would prefer cremation.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

An immodest proposal.



The agency at which I am now working has what's known as open-plan seating. Though this is a large agency (I think it might be New York's largest) there are, I'm told but three private offices--you know, a traditional sanctum sanctorum with a door and all that chazarai.

I'm told that open-plan arrangements improve group cohesion, collaboration, community, and work flow. And that improvements on those fronts more than offset having to deal with an assistant fighting with a phone rep from J. Crew because she wanted white with red stripes and the red stripes she got were more maroon than the picture online indicated.

In any event, if open-plan is so efficacious, why stop at offices? Why do we insist on having bathrooms closed off by something as odious as doors. Why do we have stalls? Why do we have bathrooms at all? Why why why.

What I'm proposing is that we sprinkle around the office 'shitting stations', 'defecation depots,' 'tinkle terminals' at which we can further connect and collaborate, communicate and bond with our colleagues.

As my friends at Wieden are apt to say, "Just Doody It."

The future of.

One of the invidious trends in marketing and the vernacular is people and companies who claim a particular product or service is "The Future of _____________." I suppose some fast-food chain somewhere is promoting a filet o' scrod burrito as the "future of breakfast," and some cable channel is trumpeting a show where nubile young things eat insects on a desert island as "the future of reality TV."

BTW, if you google "the future of," you get 495 million results.

As usual, when the world zigs, I prefer not to zag but, more likely, to gag.

I happen to think what most people want from the future is the past.

I don't mean the past when knights were bold and a scrapped knee could lead to gangrene and death, I mean a past where many businesses and the products and services they proffered were a bit more user-friendly. For instance, the big win for a big box retailer like The Home Depot would be knowing customers personally and treating them like the fella who owns the local hardware store treats his customers. When you live in the community where you work, you're more apt to be friendly because people know where you live and can firebomb your house or kill your cats.

Assuming that economics dictate that a store like Barnes & Noble will never be able to afford workers who can actually read, technology and marketing communications that can simplify and enhance your book-shopping will be the killer app.

It seems right now that a lot of advertising agencies and marketers are looking to propagate the future of marketing. That future almost always involves production efficiencies and work-flow management systems and out-sourcing to worlds where anyone whose name isn't "Smith" has a name that's un-pronounceable.

As the late Senator Sam Ervin used to say, "I'm just an ol' country lawyer," (this prior to his going in for the kill during the Watergate hearings) but today too much advertising starts with: "How can we make this cool for the judges" rather than "how can we make this useful for the customer."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Working in mid-town again.

I spent years--most of the 90s, working in mid-town and now I am back. There used to be a little Jewish deli on 45th and 2nd where you could get a bowl of kasha varniskas with gravy for $4. For those of you who don't know, kasha varnishkas are buckwheat groats, onions and bowtie noodles. And delicious.

In any event, the little joint that sold them is gone now. A fast-food place is there in its stead. It prompted me to write this:

Lunchtime Haiku


Kasha varinshkas.
Fitting them into haiku
Nearly impossible.

BTW, here is a recipe from the Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/dining/221mrex.html

Darkness at noon.

It's not the cars that are clunkers, it's the industry.


This blog started, over two years ago, aiming to discuss hardening of the arteries. Not the kind that affects the human body, but the kind that affects whole societies, industries, companies and other social organizations.

It started mostly as a rumination on the calcification of Detroit and how Madison Avenue, which in many ways grew up to service Detroit, was following Motor City on the road to perdition. That is out-moded hierarchies, committees, ways of doing business--and most important a medieval media world-view--were spreading wide swaths of destruction up and down the storied boulevard. Most of the old-line agencies have waded into the tar-pits (and once las cucharachas entran pero no puedan salir) and new media agencies have yet to belly up to the bar, to mature to the point where they've become anything more than flashgicians.

So what about the "Big Three" or what should now be called "The medium-sized one and its two bankrupt brothers." Can government infusions of cash and vast consumer incentives save the auto industry in the U.S. Likewise, will the eventual upturns in ad spending save Madison Avenue?

The answer, I'm sad to say, is no. Auto sales did rebound, but only just. (They were up a whopping 1% over August, 2008.) And GM's sales were down over 20% while Chrysler's plummeted over 15%. Folks, they were giving cars away and no one bought them.

Here's the thing. Plain and simple. Indisputable. And germane to Advertising and Autos. It's not the cars that are the clunkers, it's the way business is done. GM, by all accounts, have dramatically improved their quality and design. The things that are keeping people away from GM showrooms are lack of trust, shoddy bait-and-switch negotiating tactics and the same drab marketing that shows the same cars on the same roads with the same smiling people driving them.

OK. Maybe I'm not being totally clear. So let me try a metaphor. First, let's agree that the world has never moved as rapidly as it does today. This has always been true and until we hit another Dark Ages is probably a safe bet. But open a word doc and type in these words--words that are fairly eminent (though not 'new') in our world today: blog wiki facebook skype linux google ebay. Each one will be underscored in red because Microsoft's embedded dictionary hasn't kept pace with our language. And lest you think this is a MSFT issue alone, the same words will be marked as mis-spelled when you type them in blogspot, which is a Google property. In other words, the world is moving--companies are not.

Maybe I'm in a shitty mood because the Ad Contrarian is on a month-long hiatus. Maybe my endorphins are low today. Maybe I'm troubled about Brad and Angelina.

Or maybe I'm seeing companies hoping to return to the past rather than facing the future. You know, societal darkness at noon.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

To everyone who's ever said words don't matter.

Jeff Scher is a film-maker who a few times a year creates wonderful shorts that he uploads to The New York Times. Here is a link to his latest--an ode to the passing of summer. http://scher.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/summer-retreat/

In his description of the movie, Scher wrote: "Summer always feels endless until it suddenly ends. For kids, there is no greater tragedy than summer’s end. September is the Monday of months. "

September is the Monday of months. Wow.

And a giant "OY VEY" lights up on the scoreboard.



I haven't been trained on it yet and no nothing about it other than it's a
workflow-system designed to make client comments, creative reviews and approvals easier. I'm told it's called "Mobius," and I am not amused.

Now I've always understood in my non-geometry-loving-way that a Mobius strip is an endless circle around which you can walk, endlessly, without ever crossing an edge. The key word here of course is endless.

Perhaps I'm naive. But I've always reckoned that the goal of doing work was to have some end or conclusion. Even Heracles' 12-Labors, herculean as they were, were meant to be completed. Here it seems the goal--at least according to its name--of this system is to keep work flowing. Oh, friends, work is not like a river, though my soul has grown deep like one.

--
I suspect that names like Mobius come to the fore because people don't know what they originally meant. In some agencies at which I've been freelancing it seems everyone listens to music on "Pandora." Pandora, the mythological Greek, had a lot going for her, I'll admit. For one, she was seductive as all get out. But the most salient feature of Pandora was her box, which by opening she released into the world all woes--illness, sadness, pain and death. Great attributes all for an online music service.