Saturday, October 31, 2009

The biggest issue confronting advertising today.

Today everyone knows that everything is a lie. Communication, whether its a TV spot, a tweet or a fart-o-gram, it's a lie.

We don't believe our government whether that government is dimmycrat of repulsican. We don't believe in why teenagers are dying in lands 10,000 miles away via weaponry American companies have sold overseas. We don't believe that the economy and the massive infusions of capital we were told were going to revitalize it will do anything for any but the super wealthy. We don't believe that Doritos are now nacho cheesier. Or that elections will be fair. Or even that football is anything other than uniformed brain damage.

Every day our inboxes are flooded with lies called spam. On television we see unreal people promoting unreal products with unreal benefits. It's all a bunch of lies. Every computer we buy has been first marked with a "come-on" price that is a lie. Every car, every phone contract, every airplane seat, every promise about taxes and budgets and unemployment statistics and growth in the economy.

No one believes anything. Why should they.

We as an industry should be thinking about re-creating trust. Re-introducing honesty. And putting blather and bombast to rest. Nope. Every week for the last 2,000 or so, we've had the biggest sale of the year. I guess we like it this way.

Friday, October 30, 2009

My blood is boiling.


There's an item on the news today that British Petroleum--an ugly company with a beautiful logo--is being fined an OSHA record $87 million dollars for shoddy maintenance and safety measures that resulted in an explosion that killed 15 workers in a Houston-area refinery.

We are supposed to feel that this fine (which BP is fighting) is just recompense for BP's history of criminal negligence.

In 2008, BP earned $25.6 billion in profits.

The OSHA fine they received is 1/3 of 1% of those profits. Equivalent to someone making $100,000 being fined $300. For killing 15 people.

Tried and true meet dumb and dumber.

I just read a theater review of a new production of Sophocles' "Antigone" in The New York Times. It said the director Anne Bogart is a "member of the New York avant-garde establishment."

This line really struck me as an example of what is wrong with our "creative community." Almost by definition, you can't have an avant garde establishment. The minute you are part of an establishment, you are no longer avant garde.

One of the phrases I often jab clients with is an oxymoron of my own creation: "proven breakthrough."

Here's the deal clients and agencies, you get one or the other. If you want avant garde and breakthrough, you don't get establishment and proven. My point, I hope, is simple: Creativity is the result of experimentation. It's grasping the un-explored and hoping its surprise and intrusiveness will be salutary. You can't do that in a risk-free way. Despite agency committees, client conferences, focus group insights, the reports from Dynamic Logic and the "intelligence" of best practices, there is no creativity without risk.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A marketing mystery.



Working in a big city ad agency you tend to work for big clients who have sophisticated marketing organizations with MBAs running up and down the hallways like roaches in Spanish Harlem when the lights come on.

Why is it then that some of the best marketing ideas seem to come from people who aren't professional marketers? This one comes from the man pictured above, Otto Penzler and was reported recently in The New York Times. Penzler owns and runs The Mysterious Bookshop here in New York City, and he didn't want to be eaten alive like most every other independent bookseller in the country.

So, "he began commissioning annual Christmas stories from popular crime writers and giving out free copies of these stories as thank-you gifts to the shop’s customers." Boy, talk about a CRM strategy! This year, Penzler "had an even niftier idea... He lined up some of the most famous mystery novelists around and asked them for 10-page riffs about their best-known characters."

Now Penzler has taken those riffs and published via Little, Brown & Company a 402-page omnibus of these stories.

You can't hardly spit these days without hitting a big box bookstore. But I'm betting that a guy like Penzler won't go down without a pretty vigorous fight.

The big 3.




The "big three" automakers used to be the "big four." American Motors (which had previously combined two failing automakers) went out of business, or was subsumed by Chrysler about 30 years ago.

I started thinking about this last night as I read IPG's report on its diasterous 3rd quarter, in which its total revenue fell by over 18% and total number of employees fell by 5,000 people. This data made me ponder, will IPG be Madison Avenue's American Motors?

On a lark, I went to interpublic.com and read Interpublic's online "profile." I wonder how close it was to American Motors in its waning days. To that end, I've re-written IPG's profile as if it were an automaker.

IPG (Original):
We are one of the world’s premier advertising and marketing services companies. Our agency brands deliver custom marketing solutions to many of the world’s largest advertisers. We cover the spectrum of marketing disciplines and specialties, from public relations and consumer advertising, to mobile and search engine marketing.

American Motors (in my mind.):

We are one of the world’s premier auto-making companies. Our automotive brands deliver custom automotive solutions to many of the world’s largest countries. We cover the spectrum of automotive category specialties, from trucks and cars, to four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My father dies and dies again.


When my father turned 46 he had a very rough year. He was convinced that this was the year he was to die because 46 was the age at which his father died. Somehow that symmetry made utter sense to my father. He was really little different from the ancients who read entrails or saw signs in eagles swooping or ravens flying. He believed that his death was pre-ordained and he would be struck down some time over the next 12 months.

My father wore his emotions on his sleeve but despite that, he was a lousy communicator. For virtually the whole year it was clear that something was worrying him, something was going on inside his head that was tying him up in knots, but no one could get at what it was.

The thing about believing you’re pre-destined to die at a certain time, the good thing about it that is, is that you are relieved of a lot of responsibility. There’s no reason to exercise or to stop smoking or to stop having five or six drinks every night. If you’re going to die anyway, what’s the point? Why fight it? Go with the flow. So that’s exactly what my father did, living his 46th year in as sybaritic a fashion as he could afford.

Some years earlier than this, when I was just about eight or nine, was the closest I had come to facing death. My father took me from our house in Yonkers to Philadelphia to go to the unveiling of his mother’s tombstone on the one-year anniversary of her death. He took me, not my older brother, and went without my mother. None of which I thought about at the time. He just told me we were going and we got into his 1962 Ford Country Squire station wagon with the red interior and went.

My mother must have backed out of going at the last minute because she didn’t like my father’s family. There were probably words over this, but my mother's inertia prevailed. As a consequence we were running late and had to leave the house in quite a hurry and without lunch. I remember stopping at a white brick Mobil gas station just over the George Washington Bridge on the Jersey side. Mobil’s symbol at the time was a red Pegasus horse and I could hardly take my eyes off of the creature. A winged horse as we flew through New Jersey.

They had a sandwich machine in the little office of the gas station and though the notion of eating a sandwich out of a machine in a gas station in New Jersey sounds pretty distasteful, somehow, either because I was very hungry or because I was pleased to be alone on a trip with my father, the sandwich was outstanding. I think it cost forty-five cents.

When we finally got to Philadelphia where my grandmother’s tombstone was being unveiled, my father parked the station wagon and told me to sit tight in the car and not open the doors for anyone. He then left me there because he was afraid the scene at the cemetery would be upsetting to me. I sat alone and looked out the window at the red brick wall that ran around the graveyard. I was somewhat scared by the large and gloomy trees that lined the streets. Where I lived, the trees were spindly. These however were wet with rain and their leaves hung low, casting shadows. Between the looming trees and the mossy brick walls and sitting in the car alone for what seemed like a long time, I remember feeling very alone. I wished I had a winged horse and I could fly and find my father.

That was all some years earlier and now, some years later, my father was convinced that he was going to die. As each month of his 46th year elapsed, my father was more convinced that this was the month his number was up. Finally, after 12 increasingly stressful months, my father had somehow made it through the entire year without perishing.

I suppose as an homage to surviving his pre-ordained last year on Earth, my father decided to once again to travel the 90 or so miles to Philadelphia to visit the graves of his parents. It was while he was there that he discovered that his father hadn’t died when he was 46 but rather he died when he was 50. 50, not 46.

It wound up that my father didn’t die for another 27 years. Yet we had no more trips alone together to Philadelphia or to anywhere else for that matter. And when my father turned 50 and believed it was time for him to die again, I had already left my parents’ house for college. So he had to worry about dying when his father did all by himself.

Twitter, the musical.

My friend over at the Ad Contrarian (http://adcontrarian.blogspot.com/) predicts that someday there will be a Twitter Musical. I decided to jump the gun and write what is sure to be a hit song from that yet-to-be-staged extravaganza.

"I Twitter Therefore I Am."
(Plaintively.)
How can I tell
My relations and friends,
The things that I’m doing,
My life without end?

The burgers I’m eating,
The shoes I just bought,
Doing the things,
An egotist ought.

How can I chronicle,
Every move, every cough?
And prove in the process,
I’m always on, never off?

It’s all about me,
I’m the world’s epicenter,
It’s all about me,
I’m not just a venter.

I am important,
Only I matter,
I am as key
As a fireman’s ladder.

I sum up my life,
In 140 character bursts,
You know all my lasts,
And you’ll know all my firsts.

It’s all about me,
I’m the measure of things,
When it comes to self-centered-ness
I’m the king of all kings.

Oh,
I tweet, therefore I am,
Oh, tweetito ergo sum,
I’ll tweet and I’ll tweet and I’ll then tweet some more,
I wish I had more room.
I'm sure I'm a bore.

REFRAIN
It’s all about me,
I’m the measure of things,
When it comes to self-centered-ness
I’m the king of all kings.

I am so interesting,
Follow me, follow me,
The things that I do,
Oh, the things that you'll see.

My cab ride was bumpy,
My dinner was cold,
I called to complain,
And they put me on hold.

and out...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My father shows me the ropes.



When I was around 12, it was decided I needed to get a job. Getting one would teach me things like responsibility and the value of a buck. I would know what it was like earning a living by the sweat of my brow and the muscle of my arm.

Further, when I was 12, kids had free-time. Or at least I did. My day wasn’t scheduled with activities like soccer practice or piano lessons or, really, anything else. So, lest I hang out after school and thus get into trouble, I was to get a job.

And so it was that I answered an ad in our neighborhood six-day-a-week evening paper “The Daily Argus” to become a paperboy. Not only did you get something like three cents a house a day for delivering your paper, you also got to keep all your tips (these were the days in which, for the most part, women didn’t work, so they were at home to answer the bell and for tips.) There was also a chance, though I never quite figured out how this part worked, to earn “valuable prizes,” I guess for signing up new subscribers or something.

In any event, after a few weeks of waiting, I got a route not far from my parents’ house. It was a short route, as I remember it, of just 43 homes, though that went down to 41 for Saturday delivery because two houses went away for the weekend. As a paperboy, you had a route book, a bag which could hold the papers you had to deliver and a little collection bag, canvas with a heavy brass zipper, for when you collected payment from the houses on your route. You’d take all that money, ride your bike over to the newspaper office where they would count it and give you your three cents per house per day.

You had to keep all the records straight in your route book. That is, I delivered to the Mihailovich’s every day, they paid for the week and gave me a 25-cent tip. That was the way it worked. If everything went smoothly, you could make $10 or $15 a week, (3 cents times 43 homes times 6 days plus tips.) And if you got lucky and had someone like Mrs. Skinner on your route, you were in clover. She gave a dollar tip every week no matter what and sometimes even a couple of cookies as well.

A lot of times things didn’t go right. The guy from the newspaper office would drop the papers on your corner and would give you 39 instead of 43. Then you had to ride your bike home and call for your missing papers and wait. Also, you might catch hell from a customer if you delivered the paper late. They would say things like, “The old paper-boy always had the paper here by 4:15.” It was a politer era, of course, and we didn’t dare say the things we wanted to say.

Then there were the days of rain, snow or howling cold. The newspaper company drummed into us the idea that newspaper delivery was an august responsibility. We should keep in mind Herodotus who wrote: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” We were the couriers—the grease that kept the wheels of democracy spinning. Somehow the wheels would stop if we didn’t deliver the paper one rainy day.

But the toughest part about being a paper boy was the distance between the street and the stoop. Jumping off your bike, running up the walk and then back again was a time killer. If you wanted to get through your route and still have some time to goof around with your friends, you had to toss the paper from the street to the stoop. This is where my father excelled.

One evening with a paper that was laying around he showed me how to efficiently fold it into thirds and then tuck the shorter third into the open end of the longer third. Once you had that conquered, you smacked the paper loudly on your thigh. Smack. The paper was now officially folded and ready for tossing. Now you repeated this 43 times or so, filled your paper bag and went off on your route.

The old people in the neighborhood hated when you tossed the paper. So did the newspaper company. I guess they thought that it looked slovenly, or that the paper would wind up in the bushes or coming apart, or that somehow, “we were beating the system” by figuring out a way to not have to get off our bikes and run up the walk.

But to my father, my tossing the paper was everything. It allowed me to break the rules, make more money faster and incorporate his wisdom into the process. That was basically everything he admired. On the few days he was around when I was tossing papers, there was hardly any sound he like hearing more than hearing me slap of the paper against my leg. He had taught me something.

Ah, hubris.

This from David Brooks of The New York Times.

"Humans are overconfident creatures. Ninety-four percent of college professors believe they are above average teachers, and 90 percent of drivers believe they are above average behind the wheel. Researchers Paul J.H. Schoemaker and J. Edward Russo gave computer executives quizzes on their industry. Afterward, the executives estimated that they had gotten 5 percent of the answers wrong. In fact, they had gotten 80 percent of the answers wrong."

A history lesson.


Right now I am about 7/8ths of the way through a wonderful book called "The Poison King, The Life and Legend of Mithradates Rome's Deadliest Enemy." Adrienne Mayor, the author makes the whole thing very readable and very learnable-from.

What I think makes this history fascinating is its congruence to the world today. I'm not talking about the seismic struggle between East and West or superpowers vs. rogue states. I see parallels to these struggles which took place around 85 BC to the advertising industry today.

Let's think about Lucullus, a Roman emperor as a holding company. Basically what Lucullus did was conquer cities (agencies), enslave people (those with jobs), rape people (those without jobs) and send almost unimaginable riches back to his home base. Also, to extend the metaphor, if an enemy general was captured, he wasn't usually killed right away. First he was paraded into Rome as a symbol of that which was taken over and then he was killed. Think about the heads of agencies subsumed by holding companies and then essentially castrated by those holding companies. One more thing is compared to the number of soldiers killed (The Mithradatic Wars were notoriously bloody) very few generals lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers might perish for every general. That's kind of the way it seems in agency layoffs.

Finally, and I guess there's some perverse satisfaction in this, empires go belly-up. The territories they've conquered break off and re-establish themselves. At which point the whole megillah will begin again.

Dry wall from China.


I heard a report on National Public Radio on toxic dry wall that over the past few years we've been importing from China. This dry wall is making many who come into contact with it ill. It turns homes, literally, into toxic assets.

It seems to me that dry wall has always been a "substitute good." That is, a material that takes the place of a more expensive alternative. In any event, builders looked for ways to do their jobs more cheaply, either to compete more successfully with other builders or to offer their products at lower prices.

We in the agency business are doing our utmost to proffer the advertising equivalent of Chinese dry wall. We lower our prices, we find cheaper alternatives. Holding companies pit one of their agencies against another, may the lowest price win. According to a BBC report, "Residents of houses containing Chinese drywall say it smells like rotten eggs and has given them breathing problems."

I don't know about you but 99% of all ads smell like rotten eggs too.

--
BTW, over two years ago I wrote a post called "The Low-Bid Economy." http://adaged.blogspot.com/2007/08/low-bid-economy.html Sometimes I wish I weren't so damned prescient.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Vs. Sameness.

video
One of the many things that upsets me about the state of the world to day is the utter lack of creativity. Maybe I've just seen too many commercials (1) for Disney's new "A Christmas Carol," with Jim Carrey. Or maybe I've seen too many web ads (1,000,000) where the animation looks almost exactly the same.

I guess it looks the same because it's done on the cheap or someone says, I like what so-and-so did, let's do something like that. Not thinking that that same conversation is happening at about 200 hundred agencies at exactly the same time.

I've written in the past about the dangers of what I call "the low-bid economy." You don't have to be an Albert Schweitzer to know you get what you pay for. All the rationalizations that you will beat the system are just that, rationalizations.

This morning I ran across a short movie by an animator called Gary Leib. It flies in the face of sameness and is worth taking a gander at.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My father speaks.


One of the things that my father did, perhaps better than anyone I have ever known, was mangle the language and mess up common phrases for comic effect. There was a series of B-Movies they used to play on TV when I was a kid called “The Bowery Boys,” or “The Dead-End Kids.” The leader of their made-for-the-movies gang was a tough guy/punk kid actor called Leo Gorcey. His fedora was always crushed and its brim was always pushed up. This made him look both threatening and vulnerable.

The Bowery Boys shorts weren’t very good. They were originally made to entertain kids before the feature came on. And in the television era they were something you watched when there was nothing else to do and nothing good on. That said, Leo Gorcey (who played a character called Slip Mahoney) had a gift for the malaprop. He used to say “let’s sympathize our watches,” or “don’t jump to contusions,” or “that’s an optical delusion.”

My father was every bit as bad as Gorcey, but in his own way. He had what seemed like a million different catch phrases. I think my father said these things because they amused him and also to see if anyone was listening. Most of them were patently absurd manglings of famous poems or lyrics. We grew up hearing his manglings, never knowing the references, never finding out that they were lampoons until years or decades later.

For instance, a popular Nat King Cole song which we never heard in its original form, “They tried to tell us we’re too young,” became in my father’s universe “They tried to sell us egg foo young.” Not knowing any better, we just assumed those were the real words. Crazy nonsense that for whatever reason made it into a song.

My father would also declaim rhymes for no reason other than some synapse in his head went off. If he saw someone eating a bagel for instance, not an unusual occurrence, he would recite “As I turned to talk to Conrad Nagel/He scrapped the cream cheese off my bagel.” We had no idea that Nagel was a silent movie matinee idol. We had no idea what this meant or even why it was funny. It was just my father.

One more. He used to say, again for no apparent reason except maybe my brother or me had gotten mosquito bites or poison ivy or something, “You must admire Barbara Frietchie/She always scratches when she is itchy.” We had absolutely no idea that “Barbara Frietchie” was a late 19th Century poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.

Though we never knew it my father didn’t make these things up. That said, they were so much like the things he did make up, in our minds he assumed ownership of them. They became pieces of him that we carried with us when he wasn’t around. So when we saw someone eating a bagel or scratching an itch, we immediately thought of Conrad Nagel or Barbara Frietchie.

Later on in my father’s life, when I was a teenager, he realized that these catch-phrases were a part of who he was. He started pushing himself to come up with more of them, to add a little variety or a bit of philosophical spice to his patter. “You can’t fly on one wing,” he might say or “you can’t carry water up hill.”

Some of the phrases were advertising agency-speak, like “let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it.” Or “let’s put it on the stoop and see if the cat licks at it.” He might combine those and say something like “let’s run it up the flagpole and see if the cat salutes it.”

If when I was playing baseball on the high school team I told my father I was in a batting slump, his response would be something like, “hit ‘em wear they ain’t.” Or “take two and hit to right.” If I was struggling with a girl friend, he would advise “relationships are like tape. You never know when they will break off.”

Thanks, I would laugh. He’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tomorrow's post today.

A brilliant friend of mine said something brilliant to me this morning, something I think we should all take the time to think about.

"Rushing is a form of violence."


So often in our business someone or some thing forces us to rush. Rush rush rush. Usually we rush only to wind up waiting for someone else. Someone else unable to plan their day, someone trying to assert control over you, someone fucking with your head.

I happen to work well under pressure. I am extremely fast. But I don't like to rush or to be rushed. Things, whether it's a clay pot, a spaghetti dinner, or an ad take time. They have a circadian rhythm. Violating that rhythm by rushing produces substandard work.

I've written my Friday post on Thursday.
I rushed to get it done early.

My father gets a job.


My mother decided it was time for my father to get a job. Enough of a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Enough of the 1949 Studebaker and the 1951 Plymouth. Enough of the cracked linoleum tile in the kitchen floor. Enough with not shaving every day and laying around the house like a galoot. Enough of the swings from plenty to nothing and never knowing which way was up. It was time to get a job.

There wasn’t a lot my father could picture himself doing. When he was a boy during World War II, he had worked in the Philadelphia General Post Office sorting mail. All the able-bodied, red-blooded men were over fighting in Europe or the South Pacific, so he could get a good, steady civil service job even though he was just 16. He told a story how one Christmas, when most of the Gentile postal workers had the day off, he was given the job of guarding a mail truck. He was to sit in the back with a heavy revolver while the truck made its way to its destination. I pictured my father sitting in the back of an open truck through a grey and slushy Philadelphia on Christmas waiting to gun down Jesse James.

But working in the Post Office was no good now. It was the Kodacolor sixties and you needed a Kodacolor house with a Kodacolor car and a Kodacolor career.

Because my father had had some moderate success as a songwriter, he figured the industry best-suited to employ his modest skills would be the advertising. After all, a lot of commercials were jingles, musical ditties that even if they were little more than basically insipid, at least it appeared that writing them might be lucrative. What’s more, shooting commercials seemed like fun. There are pretty girls, bright lights and you’re, after all, you’re making television.

My father knew nothing whatsoever about advertising but that did not deter him in the least. We had an old RCA black and white television self-contained in a beechwood cabinet with doors that closed and of course my father, like the rest of America, watched his share of TV. How hard could it be to come up with a dancing cigarette pack or Josephine the Plumber?

My father was surprisingly methodical in finding an agency. Probably for the first time in his life. He got ahold of a Manhattan Yellow Pages and started with “A” and went right down the list. He got to “K” when he got a job offer as a junior copywriter.

All at once, a change came over my father. He dressed like the other fathers, got up with an alarm clock and took the train into Manhattan to work. No more hanging around the house all day or running around all night scrounging up little bits of business. No more hare-brained schemes. My father was now a workingman and he seemed ok with it.

Within the first couple of weeks as a junior copywriter my father sold a television commercial. It was for a toothpaste called Macleans which promised to get your teeth irresistibly white. The idea was simple, an attractive couple with big, toothy smiles tobogganing down a mountain, laughing and smiling at each other and rolling in the snow. All accompanied by this song, in an ersatz Beach Boys-style.

It’s Macleans, the toothpaste that cleans,
With a new kind of taste that’s wild,
What a taste, what a zing!
When you smile, all the bells will ring!
Get ‘em white, irresistibly white with Macleeee eeeans.
And my teeth are--
Macleans white all over
Yeah they are!
Macleans white all over.
Yeah yeah.

My father came home with a flimsy plastic 45-record of this song as a demo and we listened to it over and again. This was cool. My father was writing commercials about things we had in the house. Macleans toothpaste.

Now when we tried Macleans, it actually tasted pretty rotten. The taste had no zing! it wasn’t wild. Our teeth looked the same, they weren’t white all over. No bells rang when we smiled. But none of that mattered. This song was going to be on TV like the shows we watched. My father wrote it. He was practically famous. My father.

No wonder our brains have rotted.

This is from Harper's Magazine. It is a synopsis of television listings by Brett Fletcher Lauer, in jubilat: 15, a “found text composed of movie descriptions from online TV guides.” Lauer is the poetry editor of A Public Space.

A former soldier tries to rescue a kidnapped nuclear physicist from a terrorist who wants her to create warheads.

A corporate climber, whose boss and others use his apartment for hanky-panky, aids a young woman.

A litigious brother-in-law urges an injured TV cameraman to sue.

A declared-dead man hides out with a widow after his wife and her lover botch his murder.

The Russian inventor of a new marine propeller falls in love with a woman in 1939 London.

The amateur sleuth has a killer, a gangster, and the police on his trail.

An assistant New York district attorney works and flirts with his adversary and her kooky artist client.

A checkout girl covering for a coworker faces danger from a drug dealer she double-crosses out of desperation.

Evil partners experiment on an infant and send his twin to a reputable research nursery.

Four teenage outcasts use mental and physical powers to punish their high school tor-mentors.

An insurance salesman joins would-be heirs and the butler in a mansion with a millionaire’s corpse.

Three inept private eyes try to catch a killer gorilla at a spooky mansion.

A law-enforcement officer from Earth seeks vengeance for his brother’s mysterious death on Mars.

A dishonest lawyer must prove he is not a killer.

Genetically engineered piranha head for a beach resort.

A man takes singing lessons from drag-queen neighbor.

People hide in a house from carnivorous walking corpses revived by radiation fallout.

An innocent couple face life in prison after false accusations of child molestation.

Explosives ace helps woman get revenge in Miami.

A giant mutated lizard wreaks havoc in New York.

An undercover policeman tries to thwart an old friend, now a Los Angeles gang leader.

David and Kathy spend half of their third date lying and the other half confessing.

A mystery writer and her friends are stalked by a faceless throat-ripper in a haunted house.

Rival reporters mix romance with work as they hunt an apartment-house killer.

A doctor injects himself with ape fluid and turns hairy; he needs human fluid to turn back.

While blackmailing a corrupt police officer, a man becomes involved with two women.

No-frills policewoman is ordered to protect a pampered actress who has witnessed a murder.

From a sanitarium morgue slab, a corpse tells how she died and who was involved in her death.

Sent to a Wyoming summer camp, troublemaking surfer twins are mistaken for forest-ranger recruits.

A fourteen-year-old orphan becomes an NBA basketball player after he finds a pair of magic sneakers.

An all-powerful New York gossip columnist gives a press agent some dirty work.

A woman gives etiquette lessons to her reluctant granddaughter who is heir apparent to a throne.

A conspirator turns an arrogant ruler into a llama.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A picture that needs no caption.

The wisdom of crowds.



Everything these days gets a rating from customers. We are told that these ratings are important and influential.

I realize I am from a different generation from the one that makes such proclamations and that's a good thing. Because I hardly believe in the so-called wisdom of crowds.

Recently I read a report in that cheery, neo-fascist newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, that said that the average rating consumers give products is a 4.3 out of 5. Do a little math and you can extrapolate that the average product gets an 86% or roughly a B+. In other words, everything is well-above average.

As a lark, I went to iTunes this morning and did some checking. An album called "Come On Get Happy! The Very Best of the Partridge Family" received a rating of 5 stars out of 5. "Beethoven: The Complete Symphonies and Piano Concertos. With the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim and Otto Klemperer" received 4 stars.

IMDB's customer rankings of top movies has "Citizen Kane" as 33rd on their list.

Myopia. Direct mail style.

I just received an email from my bank with this salutation: "Dear Paperless Customer:"

Now that is just dumb. A perfect example of a client that puts its marketing calculus way ahead of the ways customers actually think.

Now, I classify myself in many ways. But I hardly ever come home, greet my paperless wife, pet my paperless dog and kiss my paperless children.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My father and Morrie Arnovich.


My father could tell a story. He could tell a story with detail, with laughter and pathos built in and intrinsic. He could tell a story and he couldn’t be rushed. It wasn’t a conversation when he told a story. In a conversation you look at the person you are conversing with, you read the signs in their faces, you gauge things to see if they are ‘getting’ it. None of that mattered to my father when he had a story to tell.

Often my father would tell stories about baseball. Paul Bunyan-esq tales of prodigious talents and Promethean accomplishments. Once he told my brother and me about the longest homerun ever hit since baseball began. Maybe Ruth had hit some gargantuan blasts. Jimmie Foxx had bulging muscles like a blacksmith and a picture-book swing. Mantle almost hit one out of Yankee Stadium, it hit the fringe that ringed the upper deck and was still rising, but none of those came remotely close to horsehide that little Morrie Arnovich hit that Autumn afternoon when my father was just twelve or so.

Arnovich wasn’t a large man, quite the opposite in fact. He stood just 5’10” tall and weighed under 170lbs. “dripping wet,” my father would say. If you thought about Morrie at all, you thought of him as a slick-gloved fielder and a scrappy contact hitter. His batting average was solid, just under .290 for his career and topping out at a highly-respectable .324 in 1939, when “Snooker” finished fifth in the entire National League in batting.

(Here my father might pause for a few minutes and talk about the man who finished seventh in batting that year, Zeke Bonura. Only no one called him Zeke, my father would proclaim, he was always “Bananas.” Bananas Bonura. Bananas needed bananas. They were his secret. They were what enabled him to hit. Once Bonura was up with the game on the line and there were no bananas to be found anywhere, and he whiffed. Whiffed on three straight pitches. But if he had had a banana, watch out. The trouble was, Bonura hated bananas. You see? He hated them, but they held the secret for him. If he could stomach bananas, he could have been a household name. He could have been a DiMaggio or a Mays or even a Mantle. But Bananas hated bananas.)

Anyway, we were talking about little Morrie Arnovich, weren’t we, and the longest homerun ever hit in the history of the game. First, my father would say softly, first I need to tell you about the ballpark Arnovich and the Phillies played in. The stadium, they called it the “cigar box” or the “band box.” Its proper name was Baker Bowl. In centerfield, there was something called “the hump.” The hump was a small hill—right in centerfield, and through that hill, or underneath that hill ran train tracks. In fact, train tracks and trains ran right past the outfield walls.

Now, centerfield was deep in the Bowl, over 400 feet from home. But rightfield was well less than 300, and rightfield is what scrappy Snooker Arnovich was aiming for that fall afternoon, my sons. That’s right, little Morrie Arnovich had the longest homerun in baseball history perfectly planned out.

I forget who was on the mound that day, or even who the Phils were playing, my father would say. It hardly made a difference. Because Snooker Arnovich wasn’t up against a pitcher that afternoon, he was batting against destiny. “And now,” my father would declaim, reciting Thayer, “And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air.” And, CRACK! The ball met Morrie’s bat. Silence fell over the thousands that packed the ballpark that afternoon. The ball rose slowly, inexorably. Some in the crowd thought it was a mere pop-up but most others sensed that something special had happened.

My father was in a lather. He was whipping my brother and me into a fine froth. But the ball kept rising, rising he reported. It rose past the first baseman. It kept rising as it soared past the rightfielder, it kept rising and rising as it cleared the high rightfield wall. Morrie didn’t even run. He stood at the plate watching. The entire Phillies dugout woke up and climbed up to the fringe of the enclosure. They pointed. Watched. Stared. Everyone in the stadium was on their feet.

And then, my father whispered, the ball descended. S l o w l y. When it finally landed, it was way beyond the outfield fence, way beyond Broad Street. It had landed in the coal car of a passing train and that train didn’t stop until it reached Rochester, New York seven hours later.

That my sons is how Morrie Arnovich, little pipsqueak Morrie Arnovich hit the longest homerun in baseball history. A homerun that traveled 340 miles. All the way to Rochester, New York from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In the Yonkers neighborhood I grew up in, the Yankees were everything. A lot of kids idolized Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra or Moose Skowron. In my eyes, at least for a brief while, they paled in comparison to Morrie Arnovich.

Client comment of the week.

"I don't like chairs."

Depression on the Upper East Side.


I have lived on the Upper East Side for more than half my life. And while it's hardly the cool, hip place to live, it's always had certain advantages. What's more it's also been a bastion of sorts against the vagaries of a crumbling economy; after all it's one of the wealthiest precincts in the world.

Maybe the little fish market is selling fish heads to cat people, or geriatric ladies making fish stock for the holidays. Or maybe the legions of Jamaican babysitters in the neighborhood have some sort of specialty they make with the heads.

In any event this seems a little sad.

Mammon.


The other day I read an article in BusinessWeek on the television shows with the most product placements. http://images.businessweek.com/ss/09/04/0423_tv_product_placements/index.htm

I expected shows like American Idol, America's Next Top Model and The Apprentice to make the list. What surprised me was that rounding out the list was the one broadcast show I watch, The Office. The Office had 1,609 "total occurrences" of product placement (as opposed to nearly 7,000 for Biggest Loser). The brands featured on The Office were Cisco and HP.

I actually noticed when I was watching the show last Thursday a closeup of a Cisco phone. And I said to myself, "that's wrong. A backwards place like the Scranton office of Dunder Mifflin would not have a phone like that," but it never crossed my mind that that incident was product placement.

If you make office products, why would you want to associate with those nimrods? Does anyone seriously think that this sort of advertising promulgates brands in a positive way? I know I have a dim view of American culture but I unable to understand how 24-Hour Fitness benefits when a lady standing in front of a national television audience in a jog bra and spandex shorts drops from 270lbs to 263 lbs. Even if this behemoth gets down to a "non-American" level of adipose, I can't really see where it would help a gym.

What's happening in the world of advertising today is that people have convinced themselves that the old ways don't work. That they need to do an iPhone app with fart noises or product placement on a show like "My 6-Year Old is Airborne." This abnegation of the tried and true has happened throughout history.

Let me steal a page now from David Ogilvy. If you lost your dog, chances are you make a sign and post it on lamp-posts in your neighborhood. It would have a headline: Lost Dog and a subhead: reward and a picture of your dog. If you were creative there might be a line of copy about heartbroken kids. Ads still work and will always work if they hit the target and are well-crafted.


Sure, have a dalliance with product placement. Go ahead put adhesives on man-hole covers and elevator doors. All that's fine. But first, pay careful attention to the basics.

Monday, October 19, 2009

My father takes me fishing.


My father grew up without a father. That is to say his father died when my father was only twelve or so. So, he claimed, to have grown up missing the things fathers teach their sons to do.

There must have been Andy Hardy movies, or Henry Aldrich movies about All-American boys that impressed my father when he was young. He thought that a boy should know how to do things that he never learned to do from his father. His lack of knowledge did not inhibit my father. He was going to teach me to be as true-blue and red-blooded as Timmy on the old “Lassie” television show.

One of the first things my father tried to teach me was to learn how to tie sailor’s knots. He must have lit on the notion that a boy should know how to do this. It might come in handy and, in the right circumstances could even save the boy’s life or the lives of dozens of forlorn and helpless people on a sinking ship somewhere.

One evening my father came home with a poster that looked like a reproduction from a sailing school in the 19th Century. At the top of the poster there were the words, whimsical I guess, in type made to look like rope: “Forty Knots.” And beneath that type were the words (again in rope-type): “For Boys of All Ages.” That last part must have especially appealed to my father, the idea that he, too, though he was probably pushing 40 at the time, could learn these knots.

The problem with the poster was that showed forty knots, but didn’t give you the least bit of information as to how to go about tying them. They were knots loosely constructed—not tight—so I suppose if you had some knot-tying aptitude you could figure out the steps, but this seemed beyond the two of us. The easy ones, the “overhand,” the “lariat loop,” the “square knot,” we seemed to figure out. He would quiz me and time me. These I could do. But some of the knots were pure torture. They made as much sense as trying to read a book in binary code in the dark. The “sheepshank,” the “figure eight double,” the “slippery hitch” and the “hitching tie.” It was ok though, according to my father. Because “we had the basics.” “Once you know the square knot,” he would say, “you’re on third base and heading home. Anything more complicated than that is just showing off.” And so, we had enough of knots.

Next we were to go fishing and this didn’t end much better than the knots. My father woke me early; it must have been 4 or 4:30. I remember this because there was no milk in the house and the milk man came at 5. We drove off, each of us with a cup of black coffee, in his 1949 green Studebaker toward a pier that jutted off of City Island, a small island off the Bronx in the Long Island Sound. “Hurry,” he kept telling me, “hurry. I read the fish are running.”

At the time I didn’t question where he would have read that, or even what “the fish are running means.” It just meant, as far as I could tell, that I had to hurry. In about 30 minutes we got to a little shack near the pier and rented a rod and bought some bait. None of this demanded the tying of knots, but we were ready in case we had to.

My father cast his line into the sea, something he must have picked up from watching an outdoor show like “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins,” because I can’t imagine he had ever gone fishing before. And we sat there waiting for the fish to run.

The pier was empty when we had arrived, we were first. But around 9 or 10 AM, it was beginning to fill up with other fishermen and their sons. This is when my father caught the “big one.”

His rod bent in half. He stood up. He tried to reel in the line, but the fish on the hook was too much for him. Other fishermen began to walk over to where we were. “Lean in and pull back,” one of them advised and my father did. Slowly he started to be able to pull the line in. “He’s weakening,” someone said, meaning the fish, not my father.

I was convinced my father had caught a whale. Nothing could bend my father over that wasn’t at least a whale, and, I imagined, a whale of Biblical proportions. Time seemed to have stopped. The men gathered around my father on the pier offered to hold the rod for a few minutes to give my father a break, but my father was too courageous for that. He stuck with it. Holding as fast as a halyard bend or a tiller’s hitch.

Finally, the tension broke and my father began to reel in the line more easily. “He’s spent,” someone said. “He got away,” said someone else. But moments later we saw what my father had caught.

It wasn’t a whale after all. It was an old gasoline rag covered in barnacles. My father just laughed and said that that old rag had “fought like a son of a bitch.”

After that, we went home.

My father and the dagger.


My father grew up in a row house in West Philadelphia. The neighborhood was poor and “ethnic,” full of immigrant families where English was not spoken. My father’s parents came from the old country—from Russia or Poland, depending on whose raping and pillaging army was ascendant, and they knew little of the language. They conversed in Russian or Polish or Yiddish, or even some German they learned along the way. My father called grapefruits “oranges” his whole life. Something in some Chomskied corner of his brain prohibited him from seeing the two fruits as distinct.

Despite this my father seems to have read more than anyone I have ever known. I say seems because he knew a million facts, he knew history like a PhD. , but I never actually saw him read a book. He just somehow absorbed information from the ether.
My brother and I shared a bedroom in our little tilted house in Yonkers. Though I was the younger brother, I had the top bunk. Even as a little kid, I couldn’t sit upright because our ceilings weren’t but six and a half feet high.

When my father was around, which wasn’t all that often, he would come into our bedroom to read us a book before we went to sleep. He wasn’t one to read us kid’s books. He didn’t value them and didn’t find them interesting. Even when I was, say three and my brother was five, he would be reading us Plutarch’s “Lives,” Malory’s “Le Morte d'Arthur,” “Gilgamesh” or maybe something more contemporary, “Washington Square” by Henry James or “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Hemingway. There was no Dr. Seuss for us.

One night, my father came into our bedroom holding a greasy brown paper bag and two copies of Richard Lattimore’s just published translation of Homer’s “Iliad.” From the bag he pulled out two sheathed daggers of the cheap sort that in those days you could buy at a museum gift shop of the corner candy store. The daggers were about ten-inches long from stem to stern, with the hasp and the sheath bedecked with ersatz plastic gems. He handed my brother a dagger and a copy of Lattimore. And then he did the same with me.

“Philip of Macedon slept with a copy of Homer and a dagger under his pillow against assassins,” my father said. “His son, Alexander the Great, did the same. And a few centuries later, Mithradates emulated the Macedonians by sleeping with the Iliad and a dagger under his pillow.”

My father continued as if in a trance. “Philip, Alexander, Mithradates. Three of the greatest, most enlightened leaders the world has ever known. Conquerors of Attika, Xerexs, Cyrus and Darius. Conquerors of the riches of the East. Lovers of democracy, liberators of the enslaved.

“I ask you to consider that these men slept with a dagger under their pillows and a copy of the Iliad.”

With that my father left our room.

Everything would have been ok if things ended right there but, of course they didn’t, they never do. In school, we were given one of those banal assignments where we had to describe what our dog was like, or our house or our bedroom. I chose to describe my bedroom, which in the scheme of things probably wasn’t the wisest choice because I revealed to my teacher, who revealed to the principal, who revealed to the Yonkers School District that I slept with a dagger under my pillow.

I suppose this all caused quite a stink. But of course they totally neglected to say Homer was under there too.

Will Madison Avenue become the Airlines?


There's a story making the rounds in the news over the past couple of days that to me has resonance to our industry. It's yet another case of a company making a dubious move because it is cost-effective.

This article, "To Cut Costs, Airlines Send Repairs Abroad," http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113877784 is about the airlines sending its planes to El Salvador for repairs--ostensibly out-sourcing repairs to cut costs. Repairs cost about 1/3 as much in El Salvador as they do when they're done in the States.

Now, I don't believe I am a racist. But my impression of El Salvador is that it's hardly the model of a modern 21st Century economy. My guess is that things we take for granted in this country, like indoor plumbing and rural electrification are likely some decades off in El Salvador. And if you disagree with my bias, I defy you to fly to El Salvador if you need a kidney transplant or even to have a broken arm set properly.

But, the airlines are saving money. Which is good for their stock-holders. Which is the only thing that matters these days.

Advertising agencies are dabbling in similar territories. (Though no one will die if a banner ad is not coded properly.) We are "off-shoring" agency services to cheaper climes. We are raising productivity demands on the few remaining people left on staff back here in the US.

Former presidential appointee to the National Transportation Safety Board, John Goglia said, "The absence of an accident doesn't mean you're safe." Likewise, the absence of a screw-up doesn't mean an ad is good--that an ad will work in the marketplace.

But we don't care about that anymore. We care only about the stock-holders.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Knight Spot never closes.


The most money my father ever had was when he had written a song and somehow sold it to a local band called “Woody and the Termites.” The be-bop classic “Salt Peanuts” had become a hit via Charlie “Bird” Parker and my father quickly wrote a sequel hoping Bird would buy it from him and propel my father to success if not stardom. So my father wrote a song called “Two Peanuts.” He got it to Parker who said, “no dice.” So my father sold it to Woody who recorded it.

Woody and the Termites’ Two Peanuts rose to number two on the charts, and my father’s song netted him a quick $1,500. The most and the quickest money he had ever made. When my father saw that Two Peanuts was a hit, he just as quickly wrote a sequel, a song he called “Two Peanuts Times Two.” Lightning didn’t strike twice.

However, while “Times Two” didn’t match the success of “Salt Peanuts” or “Two Peanuts,” it did sneak into the top 40 and earned my father another quick thousand dollars.

My father became his own one-man Brill Building. In one of his frenzies of productivity he wrote a dozen more songs. “You’re the Broom that Swept Up My Heart.” “A Frank Ain’t Nothing With No Roll.” “Two Pints Short of a Quart.” “A Disease Called Louise.” “Your Eyes in the Sunrise.” “Turpentine Can’t Remove Your Love.” “I’m Ready, Betty.” “For You, Sue.” And several others.

Woody and the Termites recorded these songs and while their album did moderately well, not a single single was a bona fide hit. Nevertheless, the money was coming in for my father like it never had and it seemed like song writing was his ticket.
His next set of songs unfortunately performed even less well (though “Go On Gowanus” did crack the Top 40) and it soon became clear that my father had not a gift but instead had had some luck. Nevertheless, his song-writing spasm had earned my father just under $5,000 and with that money my father decided to open up something that was missing from our Yonkers’ neighborhood, a 24-hour diner.

“The Knight Spot” opened on Warburton Avenue in October of 1964. There was nothing really very special about it. My father had decorated the place with some faux armor he had found and some faux coats of arms and some faux swords and lances. All to play off the Knight in the name. Beyond that, the Knight Spot served standard diner fare, cakes spinning in a display case night and day, BLT’s, eggs, muffins, chopped steak and the like. The thing that made the Knight spot unique was that it was open 24 hours and my father refused to hire help. He did everything himself and intended not to sleep.

The Knight Spot did ok for the first couple of weeks and so did my father. He would rest in the wee hours when business was slow, and would catch twenty or so winks leaning on a mop or on the countertop. But soon it was obvious even to me, and I was only seven or eight, that you couldn’t run a 24-hour restaurant by yourself. And before long my father had me and my older brother in the place from when school let out until about 11:30 at night when he would send us home.

I was eight at the time and my brother was ten, but we became good at the routines of The Knight Spot. Most guys would come in for a burger and a cup of coffee or a plate of franks and beans and, independent as we were, it wasn’t too much for us to man the counter by ourselves while our father rested in the back or even went home for an hour or two to sleep in a proper bed.

It wasn’t long however before me and my brother ran into a little trouble. A customer came in when my father was asleep in the back and ordered a steak with mushrooms and onions. This meant we had to use the broiler and the broiler was of a big, foreboding and industrial sort. We turned it on and the gas whooshed into a flame, then we placed the steak just an inch or two below the flame and left it there, turning to the griddle to sauté the onions and mushrooms. A minute or two later, The Knight Spot was filled with smoke and large flames were leaping out of the broiler. The fat on the steak had caught on fire.

I ran to the stove and with a long pair of tongs grabbed the steak out of the broiler and turned the broiler off. It was burning like a too-well-done marshmallow and my brother took the fire extinguisher and doused the steak. By then the fire trucks were pulling up to the diner and my father was furious. “I can’t leave you two alone for a minute without you pulling off your mischief. Setting a customer’s steak on fire and ruining it with a fire distinguisher.”

I don’t know what sort of trouble he got into with the child welfare people in Yonkers for having me and my brother working the night shift at The Knight Spot, but he sold the business, I suppose at a small profit a few weeks later, always blaming it on us and our hijinx and never failing to give a kick in the ass or a swat in the back of the head for screwing up The Knight Spot.

In the meanwhile though, one of the songs Woody and the Termites had recorded was re-recorded by a “Negro” group called the Ink Blots and became something of a hit. The proceeds from my father’s song “Two Times Me Equals You” gave him enough money to take some time off to think about his next great idea.

My father and the Chinese restaurant.


This will be the last post for a while about my father. I apologize for my self-indulgence. These stories have been in me for a while, waiting to get out. This weekend, with a paucity of advertising news, I suppose these stories are all I had to write about.

My father, as you may have guessed, had a hard time working for other people. In the first place, his circadian rhythms weren't like those of other people. He paid no attention ever to a clock. When he was working on something, he thought nothing of going 96 hours straight, without sleep, without a meal, without hardly a break to bring his idea to fruition. What's more, he believed if he didn't need sleep, no one else did. Things that were normal, like his children going to school at a set time each day, he regarded as intrusions upon his rights as a parent and his creativity.

Once, I remember he had this notion to breed fishing worms. He couldn't get over that the Italians who lived in the little run-down bungalows near our house would buy ten worms to fish with for $1.50 from Milt's Tackle Shop, down by the pier. Something you could dig up for nothing in the backyard and then sell for 15-cents a pop seemed like a gold-mine to my father, and if you could breed night-crawlers successfully, he figured, you could be on easy street. In any event, my father had me up with a shovel at 3AM for about three weeks straight, digging in the mouldering leaves of Crotona Park. I missed school those three weeks I was digging but my father figured that was ok because he would talk to me about great books. I would dig and he would read by flashlight from "Gulliver's Travels," or "The Journal of a Plague Year," by Daniel Defoe. Those were the type of books fifth-graders wouldn't normally be exposed to so even though I was digging worms in a park in The Bronx well before sunrise, my father figured that as far as my education went, I was ahead of the game.

My friends were reading things like "Encyclopedia Brown" or "The Phantom Tollbooth," whereas his son was getting Swift, Defoe and others. My father also had no issue giving me brandy to fortify me against the cold. He thought that laws against drinking were asinine. Men, and he had me digging to become a man, could drink against the cold. There was nothing wrong with that.

We stopped with the worms after about three weeks. We had captured about 1,500 of them and had them in a big fish aquarium filled with dirt that he had found on the street. He kept the aquarium on the back steps and played on a $2.98 transistor radio he had bought from Korvette's, Mozart for them, hoping that that would coerce the worms into breeding faster. I was back in school by then and my father would sit in the back on a lawn chair, a blanket over the aquarium to keep it dark and the worms warm, smoking his cigar and listening to classical music with the worms.

His plan to breed worms led to nothing. He sold the 1,500 Bronx-ite worms I had dug up to Milt for a nickel a pop, a total of $75 for five weeks work. Not enough to pay the mortgage on our house. So my father did what he always did when he was hard up, he went down to Hop Sing, the Chinese restaurant down the block from us and got a job as a waiter.

"There's a secret to being a waiter in a Chinese restaurant when you're not Chinese," my father told me. "You get great tips if people think you're Chinese. They say, 'look at that man speaking Chinese.' They're impressed and they tip you well in return."

So every afternoon for the next month or so, until he had banked a few hundred dollars and paid the mortgage, my father would put on a clean white shirt and thin black tie and work as a faux-Chinese-speaking waiter down at Hop Sing's. He had a simple set of words that convinced the mostly-Jewish clientele that he spoke Chinese. He would take an order and then, to a Chinese waiter passing by (he was the only non-Chinese in the joint) he would rapidly bark "I tie my tie you tie your tie." The waiter, in on what was going on would say something back in real Chinese and my father would nod, or chuckle as if he understood. That was all it took for my father to make enough to put us on solid footing.

By the way, it was not unusual for me to miss long stretches of school a couple of times a school year. And I always assumed that there was nothing un-toward about yanking your kid out of school to dig worms for three weeks at a time. My grades didn't really suffer for it, and when I applied to college and got to Columbia, I found I was much better read than almost all of my classmates. All in all, I couldn't really complain.

My father, continued.


When I was a kid things were very different than they are today. It's been said that it would have been easier for Napoleon to go back to Roman times than to go ahead 50 years. Such is the pace of change in the world today. Anyway, back to when I was a kid.

Back then, there were milk men. In our neighborhood, the local diary was called Dellwood and milk in thick glass bottles would be put in an insulated galvanized steel milk box that you had by your back door. This was real milk; skim or 2% or soy hadn't entered our consciousness. And we drank a lot of it--it was a requirement according to my mother or we'd be hunch-backed with scoliosis or get rickets or something horrible, so we got four quarts two times a week and drank milk at every meal. The idea of drinking soda at a meal was absolutely alien to us. Good families just didn't do that.

As always, my father was thinking. Of the many battles in our little tilted home, one of the most regular was over the drinking of the milk. You couldn't leave the table if you didn't finish your milk, it was that simple. That rule was as inviolable as the sun rising in the east. My father was thinking, how could he make drinking milk better, easier and more fun.

One evening my father came home with a cannister about the size of a can of supermarket coffee in a brown paper bag. "This is it," he proclaimed. And he pulled the can from out of the bag with a hand-lettered label on it that read "Purple Cow."

"I never saw a Purple cow," my father recited.
"I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one."

Purple Cow in my father's incarnation was a vitamin powder impregnated with freeze-dried grape juice. How he concocted the stuff, I couldn't tell you. He had no lab and no chemistry training but somehow he did. He grabbed my still-full glass of milk and a teaspoon and mixed the powder into my drink. Instantly my milk turned a borscht-like purple.

"Drink it," he ordered. "Drink it."

I wasn't exactly a finicky eater (or drinker) but the idea of purple milk repulsed me. My father grabbed my glass and slid it over to my older, more-tractable brother. "Drink it," he ordered and my brother took a tentative sip.

"It's delicious," my father proclaimed, "it's full of vitamins and it's fun. It's good for you."

My brother winced down another sip. And then slid the glass back to me and I did the same.

"It. Doesn't. Taste. Good. Dad." I said between gags.

"It's delicious," my father repeated. "Drink up." I complied. I knew when my father got this way there was no arguing, there was no way out.

For the next few weeks we saw very little of my father. He was out morning, noon and night trying to find a buyer for "Purple Cow." The thing was, it did taste awful, chalky, bitter and ugly. But to my father (who likely had never tasted it) it was manna from udder.

He never did find a buyer, ultimately gave up the cow and moved onto something else.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Thinking about my father.


My father was not an ordinary man. For all the crap that he gave me and all the crap I grew up with as a consequence, I've never known anyone who had more ideas and was more rapid-fire with them.

Some ideas were bone-headed, without doubt. He or, more properly, his estate still holds the patent on the self-lighting cigar. It was a simple idea, really, a cigar that had a safety match built into the open end. He came home having developed this idea utterly convinced that this was our ticket out of the rapidly-declining neighborhood we lived in in Yonkers, New York, just over the border from the even more rapidly-declining borough of The Bronx. The self-lighting cigar never did catch on, most of his ideas didn't, but that didn't stop my father from thinking of more and more of them.

I was there when he hatched his most successful scheme. If I remember correctly (I was only about 7 at the time) we were at the bris of a neighbor's kid and after the snipping, Mrs. Moscowitz the host brings out a platter from Deli City. There must have been 60-70 half sandwiches piled high on the platter, each pierced with a single toothpick to keep the sandwiches from falling apart.

I could see the cogs in my father's cranium spinning as he eyed that platter, and he wasn't just thinking about choosing between spiced beef or tongue. "Those toothpicks are drab," he whispered to me. "They say 'toothpick,' when they should be saying 'party.'"

That afternoon when we got home from the bris, he went to his little workroom he had in the corner of our small eat-in kitchen and started glueing small shreds of colored cellophane to one end of some toothpicks he had lifted from Hop Sing, the Chinese restaurant down the block from our house.

In little under an hour, he had constructed a few dozen cellophane-tipped toothpicks in a variety of colors, yellow, red, green and blue. "Now these say festive," declared my father. My mother, as was her disposition, was less sanguine than my father. "Toothpicks," she muttered, "they're hardly US Steel."

Nevertheless, the next Monday he had filed for a patent and was off trying to sell his invention to the top toothpick makers in the area. As is the case with many visionaries, my father was ahead of his time and could find no buyers for his product, so he formed his own toothpick company which he gave the unfortunate name "The Pick of the Litter." He thought, in his first-generation way, that it sounded classy. It never occurred to him that to some it might sound like he picked his toothpicks out of the rubbish.

In any event, after a few years of selling his toothpicks to various bars and restaurants in New York and its environs, he gave up and sold the rights to his invention to the world's largest manufacturer of toothpicks "Pick on Us." They paid him the whopping fee of $175 for his invention.

"Bastards," was all he could say, "bastards." And then he gave me a not-so-loving swat to the back of the head.

That was my father.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Don't trust anyone under 30.



This is from Oscar Wilde, written in 1887, and it strikes a chord.

"In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience."

Guest columnist.


Since advertising is more about finances and the stock market than advertising, I decided to enlist the aid of former high-flying investment banker who owns an apartment on the top three floors of the 38-story building I live in. He is using a "pen-name" for purposes of anonymity.

In the Stocks by Bernie X.


Let me start this way, there isn't much difference between the word asset and the word ass. And you advertising people are what we call assets--asses for short. You're asses because you make big money for big people but don't take much of it home for yourselves.

Look, me and the money boys bought the advertising business for a very simple reason. There's a lot of money in it and you need no capital plant. You aren't like an airline or an manufacturing company where you need machinery, factories, silicon chips and huge work-forces. Nope, you all only need some fahkahta desk and an airy-fairy macbook and that's it. You can charge a million bucks for a line of copy and a small-breasted model riding a white horse on the beach, to be remembered, a fragrance he'll never forget. You worry about finding a great "dp." Me? I've got Brioni suits that cost more than Pytka makes in a year.

You are a cash cow. And me and the money boys like to milk cash cows, we like to pull the teat of the cow until it's dryer than the lint inside Marty Sorrell's cashmere socks.

Listen, this Lowe which was subsumed by Deutsch in what used to be America has world-wide revenues of $572 million dollars according to Advertising Age. What do they have across the globe, probably 23 copywriters, 19 art directors and three teenagers in Bangalore who know flash. $572 million those dopes bring in. Us Wall Streeters are 21st Century alchemists--we spin your sweat into gold. Our gold.

All you really have to know about our M.O. down in Wall Street is this. We expand to the point of collapse. Think about fast-food franchises or Starbucks. You throw one on every corner and it gives the investors--the asses whose assets we glom--the illusion of growth. Obviously the market has no need for 40,000 dispensaries of $5 cups of coffee and accompanying pretension, and the chain will then crumble. But what the F do the money boys care? We came, we glommed, we conquered.

The same thing, we're doing the same thing in the advertising industry. We've bought up agencies like a fat man buys cheetos. Then we merge them, lay off 50% of the people, keep grabbing the dough, lay off more people, keep grabbing the dough, and when the whole thing is burnt to a fine, post-nuclear ash, we're out in the Hamptons polishing our Bentleys with your newborn's diapers.

Get wise, asses. You are mere prawns in the mu shu of life. Wise up ass wipes, it's as clear in the ice in a dry martini it works like this: You bring money in and we take money out. That's the way of all flesh.

Don't like it? Go get a job at Starbucks.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Country-Western song by Robert Altman.


There's a book review by Janet Maslin in today's New York Times about the career of the great film director Robert Altman.

My father, when I was a kid, used to force me to read The New York Times' book reviews. He said he knew no better way of teaching yourself to write. I've taught my kids the same thing because I think my father was right.

Janet Maslin's review starts with these sentences:"Robert Altman once engaged in a jokey contest to create fake country-music song titles. He made up one that perfectly encapsulated his career: “I’m Swimming Through the Ashes of All the Bridges I’ve Burned.”"

And so it goes, a poem.

I started in the business at an agency called The Marschalk Company.
That merged with Lowe
And became Lowe Marschalk
Which merged with Scali McCabe Sloves
And then became Lowe/SMS
Which later dropped the SMS to just be
Lowe.

Meanwhile Ammirati & Puris
Merged with Lintas
Which used to be SSCB
To become AmmiratiPurisLintas
Which then absorbed Bozell & Jacobs
Which had previously absorbed Kenyon & Eckhardt.
All these entities reformed themselves
Into Lowe.
Which have all now been merged into
Deutsch.

My final words, hopefully, on awards.

There is yet another article in Ad Age on the matter of fake ads and award shows. "Cannes: No Ban for Agencies Behind Scam Ads"
http://adage.com/agencynews/article?article_id=139683

It features the typical blatherings from the usual suspects about how difficult this problem is. One "Chief" states that banning someone or some agency from the awards shows for five years, as some have suggested, can ruin careers.

Fuck you.

A) Careers are being ruined every day because the industry is dieing while you are focusing on awards.
B) This is an easy problem to fix. The awards shows should simply demand a media plan attached to every entry.
C) Most every creative director I know can spot a fake a mile away. The same way a diamond-cutter can spot a cubic zirconia or I can spot fake breasts.
D) Perhaps some of the "luminary" creative directors should decry the prominence of the awards industry. We, the agencies, pay you hundreds of thousands to bestow awards on us.

Years ago I worked on the PC division of a prominent technology company. They claimed that their PCs had won "over 800 awards" and bid me to put that statistic in my copy. I refused.

Awards are meaningless if there are too many of them, if they are not based on real accomplishments or if you have to pay to get them.

I really think it's that simple.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dumb ad of the day.


I just came upon this monstrosity from a company called Love Peace Planet products at www.tigihaircare.com. Visually there's a nubile young thing, tongue akimbo, in a state of deshabille and then the headline:

"Yeah, I'd like to save the planet, but who says my hair can't look good doing it."

"Sure I'd like to end lynching and the KKK,
but first let me polish my nails."

"I'd love to free the Jews in the death camps,
but that's no reason my shirts can't be ironed."

Nothing like trivializing the central issue of our time.

Don't be so happy.


Mirth and merriment, upbeat-ism, pollyanism have become de riguer in both the workplace and in America. Kneejerk positivism is demanded, and if you are a contrarian, or if you point out issues, you are looked upon somehow as blighted.

Many years ago George Bernard Shaw said "The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it." Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, despite getting mediocre reviews in The New York Times, hits the nail on the head, at least as far as I'm concerned. Particularly her title's subhead:"How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America."

:-)

There's an alternative to positivism and negativism. It's called realism, and it involves rolling up your sleeves and making things better.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Breaking news: Not all brands are Apple.

video
I've been saying for a few years now that's it's impossible to have a conversation in an advertising agency where Apple doesn't come up. They do so much right that the temptation to imitate them always looms. Unfortunately imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, it's also the most prevalent form of advertising that will do nothing for your brand but, rather, will do more to help the brand you're imitating.

Today, there are two consecutive full-page ads in The New York Times for Blackberry.
"Don't just like." The first ad screams, along with this riveting copy: "LOVE. Now that's powerful stuff. Love changes things. Upsets things. Conquers things. Love is at the root of everything good that has ever happened and will ever happen." Then the tagline: LOVE what you do. When you flip the page you get this headline: LOVE the journey. And some more banal copy.

Maybe I was pre-disposed to hate this work because I saw the above commercial during the Yankees game the other night (and the Yankees winning put me in the mood to hate nearly everything.) But nevertheless, my feelings were four-fold. 1) How dare you use the Beatles in a commercial. 2) Who is this commercial for? 3)Why is Blackberry trying to be something they're not and never will be? 4)Does Blackberry know who they are?

As a piece of film or a bit of story-telling, there's nothing wrong with the Blackberry commercial. But, to me, this is a blatant-case of "me-too-ism." It doesn't have the efficient, no-nonsense soul of Blackberry. It's not about Blackberry.

There's nothing wrong with saying you're cool, if you're cool. But "cool" is not the only attribute important to consumers. It's not the only thing that matters and it's not the only strategy in the world.

But you'd never know that looking at shit like this Blackberry work.

Monday, October 12, 2009

3-minutes of Bob & Ray.

I heard an interview with the recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and he sounded like a character out of Bob & Ray. There are very few performers who make me laugh as consistently as they did.
video

This drives me mad.

For at least the last couple of years, General Motors has spent in excess of $2 billion a year on marketing. (They are spending less this year, but are still on track to spend something like $1.6 billion.)

Now here's my question: For all those dollars spent, can you remember a single commercial done by GM?

Naturally with a track-record of such stellar ineffectuality, GM's VP, Sales is able to leave his job and become CMO of Allstate Insurance.

This is absolutely mind-boggling to me. It's like putting the people responsible for Love Canal in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency.

I'm sure the executive in question was able to "spin" his accomplishments and so put them in a positive light. I'm sure he talked about efficiencies gained, about media metrics, about use of product placement and branded entertainment and how he dialed up digital. I'm sure his dossier ticked all the boxes and he interviews very well.

A lot of agencies work on the same principles. They tell you how effective they are. I recently worked at a place which seemed to claim 117 million media impressions for every fortune-cookie-sized ad they produced. I always kept asking, 'how then is it possible then that I've never seen any of these ads?" I would ask the same thing of GM's departing VP, sales. With all your accomplishments, how come GM's reputation isn't just in the toilet, it's made it all the way to the sewage treatment plant.

Crowd-sourcing.


I live in Manhattan. But if you can be off the beaten track on our crowded little island, that's where I am. It's a full 20-minute walk to the subway, so if you're tired after work, rather than schlep to one of the hip neighborhoods for dinner, you tend to stay close to home.

It seems nearly every restaurant, every food shop in the neighborhood has a Zagat's placard that almost invariably shows scores in the very high teens or low twenties. Meaning that those restaurants and shops are among the best in the city.

These scores are the result of "crowd-sourcing."

Of course, what crowd-sourcing fails to account for is experimenter bias. If someone in my neighborhood chooses a local Chinese restaurant over taking a trip to one of the really great ones in Chinatown, there's a good chance that that person rationalizes his decision not to travel by giving the local place a high-rating. "Why trek to Chinatown when the local place gets a 24 from Zagat's?" is the way the logic usually works.

I suppose there can be wisdom in crowds, but as with most research you have to be careful reading results. You may remember some Folger's commercials from decades ago in which people were treated to an expensive dinner, then served Folger's coffee (without knowing it was Folger's) and asked to comment on the coffee. That is hardly a testing scenario designed to elicit honest discourse.

My point is really simple. You can get feedback from crowds, that's fine. Just like creative directors can solicit ideas from anyone. But ultimately a decision must be made regarding the quality of the feedback or input you received. To default solely to the wisdom of crowds is an abdication of your own insight and intelligence. It is not "crowd-sourcing," it is "responsibility abnegation."