Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bad days.

Every so often you have one of those days.
You feel like saying fuck you.
Fuck you to your partner who always comes in late.
Fuck you to account who's a little too diffident.
To the planners who are so good at insisting their gut is better than yours.
Fuck you to the clients who are thinking politics.
Fuck you to your boss who shows no appreciation.
Fuck you to your agency who isn't supportive.
To your holding company who takes without giving.
To everyone and everything.
Fuck you.

I think it's normal to have days like this.
We put our heart and our soul into our jobs
and sometimes it feels like running headlong
into a brick wall.

There's not much you can do about these days.

Hope they pass.
Curse under your breath.
"Work from home."
Fighting your way through it is usually the best
way to handle it.
You know, 'the best revenge is a better ad' and all that.

Yesterday I had one of those days.
Nothing awful happened it was just one of those days.

When I got home I saw a commercial that started,
"A new era in toilet cleaning is here."

Sometimes all it takes is a bit of perspective.

Thunder.

I am reading a book right now--an 800-pager--called "The German Genius. Europe's Third Renaissance, The Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century" by the great writer/historian/thinker, Peter Watson.

A chapter I read last night was on George Buchner, who was born in 1813 and died 24-years later in 1837. In that short time, he studied medicine, fought for the poor and became full professor of anatomy at the University of Zurich. He also wrote like a sonofabitch, writing plays and novels with dizzying speed.

His most famous work, thanks to Alban Berg's opera was "Woyzeck." The story of a common soldier driven mad and to suicide by unyielding military discipline and the strict hierarchy of German society.

That description in and of itself reminded me of advertising. But these two clips really got me: "Man's an abyss; you get dizzy when you look down." And this one, by a poor character in Woyzeck: "I think that if we went to heaven, we'd have to help make the thunder."

Have a nice day. :)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Minneapolis.

They have a sign as you enter the Minneapolis airport.
MSP, it says, going your way.

I've been here an hour and it hasn't budged.

A bit more on the river.

It occurred to me as I ran along the river this morning that people like to proclaim things "dead."

Over the past decade we've heard that television is dead, print is dead, radio, of course, is dead. Didn't Prince recently say the internet is dead?

Not long ago, people used to say the East River was so polluted is was dead.

Saying something is dead increases the sayers importance. He or she is greater or smarter than that which is dead. And is great and smart enough to issue proclamations.

The thing is, it takes a long time for things to die.

And usually the evolve or shape-change rather than simply perish.

The East River isn't a clear, flowing thing of beauty. It's still pretty gnarly.
But people are kayaking in it, and jet ski-ing. And of course there are the Puerto Rican fishermen.

It's not dead.

Listen.

I have a 6AM flight this morning and also a 61-day running streak going, so I got up quite early to have a short run along the river to get my blood flowing.

I have run by the river a thousand times but never at 3:45 in the morning. It's different at that time. You can hear the river. Hear the lapping of the waters and the creak and clank of the barge and tug combos that push past.

It occurred to me that much of life is like that river. We see it but never take the moment needed to hear it. To listen to its quiet.

We do this in advertising. Everyone so type-A that meetings and even discussions become a shooting match. A kids' game of "did not/did too." Much gets said. Little gets heard. Nothing gets done.

As Yogi Berra never said, "You can hear a lot just by listening."

Today I listen.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The wikileak documents.

Of late, in the US, its been exposed that our ability to keep a secret is roughly equal to Paris Hilton's ability to keep her legs crossed. A bunch of Russian interlopers were seized by the FBI and just yesterday something like 92,000 secret documents were published online at a site called http://wikileaks.org/.

It occurs to me that in this plethora of information is a parallel to the advertising industry. The Obama administration was quick to point out that none of the 92,000 documents linked posed a serious security threat to the US or our troops. Andrew Exum in The New York Times said, "I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance."

Yet we keep making these communications.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. We have tons of communication but none of it is really that important. None of it matters. But we keep on sending the crap out there.

It seems to me that you shouldn't communicate unless you have something to say. If what you have to say has no significance, why say it?

Why not try to find something unique to say, instead? (Years ago, when 100 millimeter cigarette burst onto the scene, Benson & Hedges made their cigarette 101 millimeters long. Their jingle via Mary Wells, "A silly millimeter longer," at least communicated something different.)

Life would be better if advertisers and National Security people followed this advice on acting from John Wayne: "Talk low. Talk slow. And don't say too much." Unless, that is, unless you have something to say.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What advertising can't do.

I am a believer in advertising. Not because I am in the business but because I've seen it, time and again, shape consumer perceptions and behaviors. I believe the right message delivered to the right audience with the right frequency works.

This morning I heard a short report on credit card issuers (banks) on NPR. Because of the recession, changes in behavior and new legislation, the banks are losing purported billions they used to take for granted.

So, they're introducing something they're calling an "inactivity fee." That is, you get charged extra if you don't use your card.

Surely these banks and credit card companies will send millions or billions showing smiling people using their cards in Rio or in fine restaurants on the sloping hillside of a vineyard somewhere. In your TV induced stupor you'll nod your head and take it all in.

Then if you're paying attention, you'll see an inactivity fee on your bill.

All the advertising in the world won't/can't make you feel good about a brand with behavior like that.

Advertising can do a lot of things. But it can't erase the smell of shit when the shit is sent to your mailbox once a month.

Like me you'll want to throw a brick through some bank's plate glass.

I've got a can of beans and Quaker Quick Oats in my kitchen that have been sitting in the cabinets since the late 90s. They haven't charged me extra. Yet.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ads like this, they make me proud.

Time waits for Norman.

As a society, as an industry we have been saturated with the idea that instantaneous is good. Let's think about food (for an instant.) We've grown up with meals that can be cooked and consumed in fifteen minutes. No one thinks about the flavors and the savors that have been lost as we've accelerated.

We have adulterated joy by making it a function of time.

What we do, understanding the soul of a company or the essence of a product (or the benefit it delivers) takes time.

Yet time is laughed at.

We have conquered it.

And replaced it with mediocrity.

(I had no time this morning to write anything good.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The East River.

Early in the morning at the time when the milkman used to deliver, when we had milkmen, I go for a run along the East River. The East River, despite its name, isn't a river. It's a strait that connects the New York Bay with the Long Island Sound.

The river has different moods, different tones of voice. Today it was running fast upstream, with dozens of swirling eddys. Other mornings the river is furious, with waves and churning current where outflow from the Sound meets inflow from the Bay.

Occasionally, even early in the morning, there is ship traffic on the river. A lonely sailboat, a speeding yacht. More often there are tug-pushed barges slowly chugging or large industrial Department of Environmental Protection ships--200-footers--heading out somewhere, or in, to do whatever it is they do.

For as long as I've been in advertising I've been regarded as fast. Not fast as a runner, fast as a writer. But the truth is, I write fast because I run slow. On my runs I try to unravel the assignments I have. When I have copy to write, I write it, or at the least, block it out in my head.

Nothing right or wrong about this, nothing good or bad, just how I handle things. How I work.

And it's impossible to put on my timesheet.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A new age.

We all know about the Industrial Age. When we made and built things. When workers worked in factories for an hourly wage.

Then, over time, we shifted to the Information Age. In which, in the words of Peter Drucker, we became knowledge workers. We traded in ideas and data. We thought things.

Now, according to Dr. Tore Claesson of Gothenburg University, we are living in the Interruption Age. This is when we become workers who do nothing except refocus for about twelve seconds until we are interrupted again.

A lot of interruption comes from the devices that surround us. In our work spaces, our homes, our sidewalks, our automobiles we are surrounded by an array of pings, dings and zings. They announce to us that we've received a message. A message that is so important it is allowed to interrupt you. Lights flash, windows pop up. You have a message. You are interrupted by that fact.

We try to find sanctuary. But our offices are open plan. So, you are interrupted. Anyone going for coffee? Someone curses. Someone else is talking about the blisters caused by her new shoes. Others are discussing weekend plans.

Today we have a battery of machines that should technically allow us to do our jobs faster than ever before. But, we work slower than ever before. I released ads yesterday that we started concepting in January.

This is life in the Interruption Age.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Silence.

I came upon this quotation by writer Gary Shteyngart and I stopped tweeting long enough to consider it:

"Silence has been destroyed, but also the idea that it’s important to learn how another person thinks, to enter the mind of another person. The whole idea of empathy is gone. We are now part of this giant machine where every second we have to take out a device and contribute our thoughts and opinions."

The relevance of the above to advertising is as plain as sludge on a Gulf Coast pelican. We are in the business of listening and to prove that we talk all the time. We don't observe, we analyze. We don't hear, we wait.

Miles Davis, I think, said that the secret to jazz was the space between the notes. Do we ever listen for those?

Of course the dynamics of the business today often obviate listening. We must show productivity in each and every hour. We must write about companies and products before we have listened to their essence. Is it any wonder in that scenario that most "fat hapless white guys" commercials can be tagged with anyone's logo and product shot?

We are uncomfortable, uneasy, unaccepting of silence.

Listen.

I have nothing further to add.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Copy. A poem.

When they come, they will whisper.
They will hedge.
They will smile.
Like undertakers.
They will say ‘we’re not sure about this.’
‘What do you think?’
They will express concerns.
They will say they have a feeling.
Something they heard in the hallway.
Or over dinner.
Or during a focus group.
Something feels a little off.
Can’t you make this one little change?
It makes us uncomfortable.
Nervous.
Please.
We have concerns.
Can’t you please ‘fix’ these couple things.
We have some ‘nits’ they’ll laugh.
Minor changes.
Just these few fixes and everything will be all right.
Can’t you please?
We
have
concerns.

Two questions.

There is basically one thing an ad is meant to do.

It is meant to impart information that will serve to motivate you into some kind of thought or action.

We employ a variety of tools, techniques and styles in order to make this happen.

However, along the way the central advertising question changed from "will it motivate?" to something considerably different and blander, that is: "will it offend?"

Not offending became the shibboleth of so many agencies and clients. Not offending gave birth to an army of apologists. Every ad had to run the gauntlet of "be-careful-ists."

Their job was to make sure that there was something for everyone in everything. That everything was moderate and comfortable.

This is not to say that offending is the point of advertising. It's not. But advertising should take a stand. It should say something in an intrusive or original way. A way that's likely to ruffle some feathers.

What question do you answer to?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The blanderizer.

Thomas Friedman, the three-time Pulitzer winning columnist for "The New York Times" has an interesting column today on shutting the fuck up.

Well, it's not really about shutting the fuck up. It is about reporter Octavia Nasr who was fired for some unauthorized Tweeting.

But the column is really about galloping, rampant, aggressive reactionaryism. Where everything we say, everything we breathe, everything we fart has to be scrupulously scrubbed and politically correct.

Friedman writes, "To begin with, what has gotten into us? One misplaced verb now and within hours you can have a digital lynch mob chasing after you — and your bosses scrambling for cover...

What signal are we sending young people? Trim your sails, be politically correct, don’t say anything that will get you flamed by one constituency or another. And if you ever want a job in government, national journalism or as president of Harvard, play it safe and don’t take any intellectual chances that might offend someone. In the age of Google, when everything you say is forever searchable, the future belongs to those who leave no footprints."

Friedman is writing about politics and journalism, but he might just be talking about our lowly end of the communications pantheon. We mince words. We tone things down. We write without a point of view or an attitude. WE MIGHT OFFEND.

Good writing should evoke a feeling. It should instruct or soothe or inspire or upset. It shouldn't sit there like a menu.

If you don't like reading it. Don't. Or turn the page.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A bit more on narcissism.

video
I wrote in a previous post about the dangers of corporate narcissism. The commercial above is a glorious example of horror.

Look at the faces of the kids when "mom" reaches for the processed cookie-like circles. Look at the cut-away of their hopping feet. They can't control themselves! They're about to get some cookies! And these cookies, the ones I am junior marketing executive for make kids "feel like bustin' loose!"

Listen to the VO. Gushier than "Old Faithful."

Does anyone believe that this drivel is palatable much less believable or motivating.

Narcissism.


I eschew all things that plumb the depths of celebrity worship. Accordingly, except for glancing at a stray headline or two I don't know much about Mel Gibson's latest tirade. I had given up on him ten or twelve tirades ago and you'd have to pry my eyes open with toothpicks to get me to watch one of his movies.

However, David Brooks has an op-ed piece in today's "New York Times" where he talks about Gibson (the micro) and our culture of narcissism (the macro.) You can read Brooks' piece here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/16/opinion/16brooks.html?hp

But let me point you to what really struck me. Brooks' cites a book by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell called "The Narcissism Epidemic." The authors claim that since the 1970s we have been suffering from "national self-esteem inflation." How's this for data?
"In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes."

It seems plain to me that this measure of self-involvement has had huge impact on the advertising business. In the first place customers are so heavily involved in their own world that the only thing that matters about a product or service are the "conversations" they are having about it. This means they are resistant to the usual sort of Madison Avenue blandishments.

Second, narcissism has lead to changes in industry parlance. An insight used to be a rare and coveted thing. Now insights are anything anyone says. "Tall people tend to have big feet," passes for an insight today. And we all go to myriad meetings where purported insights fly like Indian arrows at Little Big Horn.

Finally, narcissism has, of course and naturally, affected client-ville. Clients believe "If it concerns us, it should concern you." And so they narcissistically show people jumping up and down and declaring their product the greatest thing, the biggest innovation, the most delicious cookie since the very beginning of time.

In short, while self-narcissism has made viewers more resistant than ever to advertising, corporate narcissism has made advertising more resistable than ever.

Not a recipe for success.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The good old days. Part XXXIV.

There seems to be a bit of rancor between young people in the business and the people young people regard as old-timers. Usually because old timers talk, or write, like this:

"When I was a kid in this business—you young fuckers today with your internet and your pixel pusillanimity wouldn’t get this—when I was a kid in this business you could hardly get to your desk because everybody was fucking everywhere—desktops were a favorite location. Push aside the pencils, clear away the markers, we’re gonna fuck right here and now. We were all fucking everyone, that is when we weren’t on long, lavish shoots on location or having three-martini lunches at the Four Seasons while getting a tan from the reflection off of Della Femina’s head. You kids today have no idea. The money. The work. The girls. The sex. The drugs.

We labored with the Whore of Babylon we did. Did everything. Did everyone. And did great work like you whippersnappers will never understand.

You know what, in those days if a client changed a fucking serif—a fucking serif--in my copy, I would punch him in the fucking nose and get a fucking raise for doing it. In fact, sometimes I would just punch the fucking client in the nose just for being a fucking client. And that would ALSO get me a fucking raise.

And we had time in those days. A month or more to concept an ad. Twelve weeks to write the copy. A good six months to write a tagline. When I wrote “Where the future is tomorrow” for Poughkeepsie Plastics—it took me only 20 minutes so I got to take the rest of the year off.

And you kids today gush over a freaking Summer Friday. We had Summer Fridays Monday through Friday.

Those were the fucking days and you fucking kids just don’t get it."

The truth of the matter is that the good old days weren't that good and the business today isn't that bad. This business has never been kind. Creativity has always been hard work. And it's always seemed unappreciated.

A brief look back.

I got lucky when I was a kid. I was a consort with a number of people who had a love of words. One was my Latin teacher, Mr. Howard Comeau. (He would go crazy if you ever said "How Come" because that, he said was his name.)

In any event, I went to a large middle school with something like 2000 kids in total. The Vice Principal, these were the days of Viet Nam, was a former military man who commanded the school with an authoritarian fear. He used to bark over the loud speaker, which I called to much amusement of my peers "the lout speaker," "Johnnie Auletta, please report to my office with alacrity, celerity and dispatch." All of us in Mr. Comeau's class would chuckle over this language. Except for Johnny Auletta, of course.

Another word lover who took me in was Mrs. Chapin, my high school English teacher. In her stern moments she would tell me "you're acting puerile and banal." And then we'd laugh at her tortured phraseology.

Another such character was Mr. Bockius, another English teacher with a turn of a phrase. If you said something or handed something in that was well done he would remark, "that's aptly ept and eptly apt."

These people inspired in me a love of language and words. While most people today don't get such things, I'm glad I do. They help me laugh through the day.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Finder, minder, grinder.

Adweek has an article about the recent disintegration of agency.com and I read it with interest. I've written a lot about the demise of traditional agencies--partly because they were the agencies I grew up with and partly because they seemed like the building blocks the industry--Madison Avenue--was built on. I started thinking about how I can't name one great or even notable campaign or ad that agency.com had done. And then I realized something.

I've always maintained that a good job should allow you a mix of "finder," "minder" and "grinder." That is a part of your job should be doing work that helps your business find awards or new business. Part of your job should be minding business--tend to the running your business or account. And part of job should be grinding it out. Rolling up your sleeves and pushing work through the system.

Then it occurred that agencies can be classified in the same manner. Some agencies do big, bold work that finds new business for clients and finds new territories. Some do a good job at managing their business. And some just grind it out--they're tonnage agencies.

Maybe this isn't a fair assessment of agency.com that they were a "grinder" agency. And I'm sure they had finder and minder aspects of their business.

But in any event, it's something to think about.

Happy Bastille Day.



Years ago I decided to try to update those ancient Yiddish curses for the modern era. On this Bastille Day, I recall the best and most vicious of what I wrote: "May your business be bought by a French holding company."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A dispatch from the front lines of corporate stupidity.

A friend just sent me an email.

"I am in a management training seminar. Two hours out of my day. I am greeted by an instructor who is surely an HR professional. How's that for plumbing the depths of oxymoronhood?


"I am told to 'fill in my name tent.' A name tent?

"Of course, the class starts at 10 and only a handful of victims have shown up on-time. The HR dweeb tells us we will 'get a star by our name.' Why do these people always feel compelled to treat people like they are children?"

Vegetarianism.

I am sitting at my table overhearing two people talk about some work they are doing. One guy says to another, "We have to swap those puppies and bump that up." After spending a second or two choking on my own vomit I think back to a client I had many years ago when I worked on a well-known German automaker and former slave-labor employer.

I had written a deep and thoughtful bit of copy about a particular car. Like much of what I do, it was detailed and rich in information. I had learned--and communicated-- more about the car than the client knew. Still she was reviewing the copy, so naturally she was compelled to make a comment.

"Can you beef up the copy a bit," she asked me.

"What do you mean?" I responded. "There's a lot of information here."

"Just beef it up a little," she repeated.

"How little?" I asked. "T-bone? Filet? Rib eye?"

"What are you talking about?" She was getting pissed.

"You said you wanted the copy beefed up. What kind of beef?"

"I just mean strengthen it."

"Where is it weak? What is missing? What do you need?"

"Why are you such a pain in the ass? Can't you just beef it up?"

When I'm stuck.

When I'm stuck, I put a virtual piece of paper in my virtual typewriter and start typing. I miss the feel of my old IBM. I miss the strike of the keys, the efficient whirr of its motor and the gentle, encouraging ring that would sound the end of a line and the beginning of another. I miss its large, flat carriage I could rest my head on when I was thinking. Ah, I miss.

But of course, I love my Mac Book. Hidden inside it are millions of words, neat and spell-checked and endlessly stored. When I am stuck I just start typing. I think relentlessly about what I am stuck on, in this case a new campaign, and I type with the sureness that something will come.

Sometimes when I'm stuck I think of Georges Simenon who wrote something like 400 novels. Or John O'Hara who has fallen out of favor with critics but seems to have written more than any mortal ever, wonderful short stories and bitter novels about a time and place and a sort of outsider I can understand.

When I'm stuck I've found that it helps to write. To write about everything you see. This morning on my run I saw a huge bit of graffiti scrawled on a naked concrete wall. "Sergio and Kathy" it said. Their relationship as permanent as spray paint.

It doesn't happen often to me, being stuck. But when I am, I type. Until I become unstuck.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Another disaster in the Gulf.


Seriously. Who decided on the cranberry jump suits?

Early.

Since I started in advertising, way back when typewriters roamed the Earth, I've always made it a habit to get in as close to 8AM as possible. This allows me time to work unmolested or, as important, time to look outside my desk at what's going on in the world. It's allowed me time to daydream, time to wonder and time to wander.

A good job, whether you're working as a clerk in a liquor store (as I did one summer in Chicago when I was 20) or you're running a big company, should combine two parts of your brain. A good job should be a combination of thinking and doing. When jobs involve too much of one and not enough of the other, your brain begins to atrophy and you become a blight on the world.

I think the proper ratio in advertising is about 20% thinking and 80% doing. After all, without doing you never know if your thinking was any good. Likewise, without thinking, your doing is just cacophonous mental hammering. It makes a lot of noise but nothing good gets built.

Further, doing keep your thinking sharp. It allows your thinking to take shape. Advertising isn't that different than woodworking, except we work in pixels not pine, bytes not boards. You have to imagine a cabinet before you build it. You have to plan it. Determine if it's right for the space. If it has the right tone to fit in or stand out from its surroundings.

In San Francisco, where I worked for a year, you could hear the sea lions barking at 8AM. In New York you can feel the pulse of a million people racing. In Boston I saw bleary students and blearier bums, the denizens of early morning.

In the early morning you can listen to Stan Getz. You can read some Laurence Sterne. You can walk slowly and look up, not quickly while keypunching into a tiny screen.

This is from the great Joseph Mitchell's essay "Up in the Old Hotel." "Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the shed are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and half a dozen foreign countries."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bill Kirchen.

I just heard a report on NPR about the musician Bill Kirchen. Kirchen was relating how he learned to play a particular song by listening to a record of it over and again. Then he came out with this line: "Mine was originality borne of incompetence." In other words, Kirchen improvised because he couldn't imitate.

I wonder if today our creativity is limited because the machines we use to do our job are so magnificent. We have all become so adept at sampling, at reproducing, at zeroing in on a technique and exploiting it, rather than thinking up a new technique. We can do this with ease, deconstruct the layers, follow the patterns, read the blueprint.

We rush right into things--right into comps that appear finished without letting our incompetence, our outside-of-the-line-ness come into play.

I have remarked before in this space about junior portfolios being small-scale duplicates of the sort of work that wins praise from Cannes juries. Inscrutable visual puns. All technique, all imitation, no imagination.

About a decade ago when my children were young I took them to see a much heralded production of "The Lion King" on Broadway. The producers believed that the audience would insist on a live production that was an exact replica of the animated movie. Every snicker, facial expression and "ad lib" was duplicated by live performers. They were made into imitation machines. Their character, if they had any, was not permitted.

As a culture, as an industry, we have learned and mastered the art of Karaoke Creativity. Something can be good only if it imitates something else that is good.

We are afraid of mistakes, afraid of incompetence, afraid of affront.

We are not afraid to bore. We become experts.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I worry about polite applause.

Earlier this week, as New York sweated through a stifling heat wave, I posted a sentence to two from Raymond Chandler--how he described heat.

It was good and visceral. It was fresh. It was anti-cliche.

In other words, it stood for something. It was noticeable.

What strikes me about so much advertising (and life) today is that it looks to garner nothing more than polite applause. Yes, it has the ambition not to suck. But it lacks the courage to really be loud, strong, powerful and passionate.

After nearly every client meeting I sit through, people come up to me and say "I can't believe you said that." Often because I said something that wasn't expected to be said.
Often because I had a strong point of view. And expressed it in language that wasn't dull.

Life is dull. As "Big Daddy" said in Tennessee Williams' "A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The truth is pain and sweat and payin' bills and makin' love to a woman that you don't love any more. Truth is dreams that don't come true, and nobody prints your name in the paper 'til you die."

Our job as communicators is to break through the everyday and hum-drum. It's to be unexpected and "heard."

Cliche and sameness equals polite applause. Something referential and reverential to something else. Something that's easy to approve of and easy to ignore. Something to politely applaud.

Friday, July 9, 2010

After a rough week.

145 words from Melville.

"Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Quotation of the day.

From a friend of mine.

"Why make a phone call when you can send 10 emails."

How hot is it? By Raymond Chandler.

From his 1938 story, "Red Wind."

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

A pick-up game some years ago.

Some years ago when I was in my mid-30s I played basketball Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the New York Urban Professionals Basketball League. The league was a rag-tag collection of middle-aged men like me, mostly guys who just liked playing ball, with a couple of ex-collegiate players tossed in.

I won't say that the games were of the highest quality, but we played a hard, nose-to-nose brand of New York basketball, no blood, no foul and it didn't hurt to have a pair of sharp elbows.

One night after the festivities were over I stayed on the court, cooling off and shooting around. The gym was empty so I was surprised when a skinny black kid came over to me and asked if I wanted a game. "Sure," I said, though I was tired and he couldn't have been more than 13 or 14.

Against the kid I was on the wrong end of speed, agility and athleticism. He was quick, could leap and was a dead eye shooter. Still, I had a couple inches on him, was a bit stronger and possessed two of those aforementioned sharp elbows.

When all my huffing and puffing was over, the kid beat me 12-10.

"What's your name, kid," I asked him as I left the court.

"LeBron James," he whispered. Then he too left the gym.

That's right, LeBron James.

LeBron, kid, New York needs you. And you owe me a rematch.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A small bedroom.

I am reviewing a 100-page powerpoint document. And I did some math. There are 8800 sq. inches in the deck. That's about 63 sq. feet, or a 9'x7' bedroom.

Auto upheaval.

There has been, to put it mildly, a bit of volatility of late in the world of automotive advertising. Mazda has fired Doner. Chrysler was dropped by Fallon. GM switched its Cadillac business from BBH to Fallon and its Chevrolet business from Publicis to Goodby. Jeep now resides at Wieden after a short stint at Global Hue and a slightly longer one at Cutwater. And Dodge Trucks is knocking around like a ping-pong ball in a Cuisinart. There are a few others I've neglected. VW is at Deutsch LA and Hyundai appears agency-less. Rumor is Nissan is unhappy with TBWA/C/D.

One precipitant behind all this upheaval is the sorry state of the auto industry. Sales have sunk and when sales sink the easiest recourse is to find a new agency. GM's GM, Joe Ewanick slugged a couple of these moves into action, exhibiting his power by displacing incumbent agencies with newcomers.

My question amid all this roiling is simple. Does any of this make a whit of difference? Goodby will, I suppose, do their usual exemplary and compelling advertising. But anything short of 45-minutes with Heidi Klum will not get me into a Chevy showroom.

The fact is that most people shopping for a car have their minds made up. It's like a presidential election. The democrats and the republicans will each get about 45% of the vote no matter who they nominate. A great deal of the money and shouting goes to swaying a small group--the undecided--one way or another.

Here's a numerical way of looking at it. GM sold just under three-million cars last year and it cost them just under $3 billion of advertising to do it. So they spent $1K in advertising for every unit sold.

Not sure how the greater math adds up. But I do know that my calculations show that moving metal is an expensive proposition.

I wonder what would happen if Detroit just pulled the plug on it all.

I'd still be taking the train to work.

Agency Math.

More time is spent interrupting than listening.
More time is spent saying what will be done than doing it.
More time is spent meeting than working.
More time is spent gaining consensus than gaining perspective.
More time is spent on power point than getting to the point.
More time is spent tracking productivity than on being productive.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Houses of cards.

When the Soviet Union collapsed they possessed something like 20,000 nuclear warheads and 40,000 tons of biological and chemical pathogens. Powerful.

A couple months after their collapse a leading nuclear scientist was being paid in vacuum cleaners. Another was being paid in pickles. Another wrote to a colleague in the West that he was "down to his last sack of potatoes."

I suppose you could marvel at the suddenness of this implosion. But I don't marvel. I worry.

I worry because in the final throes before collapse all resources are spent on propping. But what the proppers are propping is too far gone to be propped. So once they stop, it's not decay that sets in. It's complete nothingness. Boom.

A sand-castle too close to water's edge. A balloon let loose amid a herd of charging porcupines. A house of cards.

I worry about entities that seem strong and vital but are really just holding on. I worry what happens when the match stick that's keeping it all in place is removed.

I can feel it coming, my fourth night in a row of insomnia. And so far it's been resistant to Ambien.

Relief.


From Andre Kertesz.
Snow on a fence.

Ungrammatical advice during a heat wave.

I heard this today:

"Stay safe. Drink plenty of water and lots of sunscreen."

Work harder.

I have been at 10 different agencies over the past 26 years and while I've been doing my time I've noticed a few things.

The brief will always suck.
There will never be enough time.
The client will always try to jam a lot of shit in there.
Feedback will not be consolidated.
There will never be the money you want to do exactly what you want.
You probably should have chosen a different director.
You will always be out-spent by your competitors.
You don't have the money to do it right.

Above are just a few of the myriad excuses that potentially greet us with any project.
They are there to welcome you no matter where you work and who your client is.

My point is really simple.
Regardless of all the issues, you need to quit your carping and find a way through them.
Find a way to do good work

Almost any challenge is faced with the same sort of obstacles.
You can choose to throw in the towel.
Or you can work harder.

Working harder isn't a panacea.
But it helps.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

But not in advertising.

It's the 4th of July, the day we in America celebrate our democracy or what passes for democracy at a time when our entire civilization seems to be coming apart at the seams.

It was Churchill, I think, who said "democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." And I suppose I'd agree with him with the possible exception of the rare times on earth that there has been a decent absolute monarch.

In any event, this isn't about politics, it's about advertising.

Since it's about advertising, I'll make it simple: Democracy doesn't work in advertising.

Finding consensus about work doesn't work.
Treating people absolutely equally doesn't work.
Listening to public opinion doesn't work.
Finding something for everyone doesn't work.

There's a great impulse in our business to be inclusive. To make sure we're all pulling on the same oar. To make sure everyone gets a vote. To share accolades and to mitigate blame.

All that is pig swill.

Good advertising is balls out.
It demands notice and takes a stand.
It is meant to make people uncomfortable.
It is meant to effect.
It is not meant to be nice and safe.

Friday, July 2, 2010

I spend time with my father.


Much of the time I spent with my father when I was a little kid was in the car alongside him as he went on errands and looked for parking spaces. I was his silent companion during these weekend trips. Me, not my older brother, I suppose my mother wanted me out of the house more, probably because my brother and I, being only one grade apart, were nearly always quarreling and she just couldn’t take it.

And as we would drive through a nearby shopping district, he would on occasion tell me something slight about his job or talk to me about the Yankees. Most often, we would each sit silently listening to the crackle of his car’s AM radio, Frank Sinatra singing or something about missiles and Nikita Khrushchev. Most of what I heard during these trips I couldn’t understand. I was young, maybe four or five but I enjoyed the trips anyway. First off, I was with my father, and secondly, I got to sit in the front seat, something which didn’t happen when anyone else was around.

We would go into stores and my father would attend to something with a salesperson and leave me to find something to amuse myself. In one store, a men’s clothing store, there was an engraved sign and a small running tap at street level right near the entryway. The sign said “Dog Bar,” and I remember wondering why dogs would need to go to a bar, because bars were places only grown-ups were meant to go. This same store had an automatonic parrot on its countertop not far from where the cashiers stood. When you pressed a button that was on the base the bird sat on, the bird would swing slowly into life, swivel its head, tilt it and squawk, “Polly want a cracker” or “What a beautiful day” or “Hello, how are you?”

To my eyes and ears the bird was incredibly lifelike. Its feathers as bright as a cereal box. And even though it was activated by my touch and even though the bird often repeated itself, I spent a fair amount of time debating in my mind whether or not the parrot was real and alive. Occasionally the men behind the counter would activate it, unbeknownst to me, “Hello, handsome,” squawked the machine. That further confused me.

The other thing my father and I used to do on these trips was to endlessly (it seemed to me) search for some obscure item my mother desperately needed for some reason or another. She might have us hunting for forest green tapered candles because someone important was meant to come over for dinner, or she needed a bronze finial for a lamp she was planning to refinish or a certain kind of screw with reverse threading.

These expeditions sent us all over the Bronx and southern Westchester counties. To myriad small strips of shops and village centers. To little dusty hardware stores with walls covered by hundreds of small cardboard boxes filled with oddly-purposed doodads. We were not just shopping anymore, we weren’t running dumb, pointless errands. We had been sent on a quest, and like Coronado searching for the Lost City of Gold, Ahab hunting the white whale or Aguirre searching for god knows what, we would return triumphant—finials in hand—or we would die trying. Often our expeditions would take all day. We would start in the morning and not come home until just before dinnertime. This was a tribute to our perseverance or, perhaps, my father wanting to be far from my mother.

At each of the little stores we stopped in, of course, we had to find a parking space. This was where the magic of my father really came to the fore. First we would drive to the store, hoping there’d be a space upfront magically waiting for us like there always were on television detective shows. Finding no spot, we would circle the block. If we still hadn’t found a place for the car, my father would proclaim, “we’ll find a space or we’ll make one.” I imagined my father somehow pushing cars away to open up a slot for his Studebaker. But usually we found room at a meter which ate the nickel my father allowed me to feed it.

When it was raining during our quests and we had parked a distance from our destination, my father would say, “we’ll just run between the rain drops.” And then we’d zig-zag our way to the store, getting wet all the same despite our effort.

Around lunchtime during these excursions my father would start complaining about his prodigious hunger. He wouldn’t say anything as prosaic as, “I’m hungry. Let’s go get a bite.” He was much more dramatic than that. “Son,” he’d say “my stomach thinks my throat is cut.”

Statements like these were my father’s norm. They were the things he said and he said them often. For all I remember, they might be all he said when we were together. It’s not that he was withholding or laconic, it was more that he was usually lost in his own thoughts. Some people solve their problems externally, their problems become property of everyone around them. My father worked his all out in his head, playing out every option, every conversation, every angle they would entail. Then he would have his solution. The troubles or situations either at work or at home I wouldn’t be able to understand. So he didn’t involve me.

So we passed our time together in quiet, silently looking for parking spaces, our emptiness filled only by ballgames, mechanical parrots and dashes toward stores in between drops of whispering rain. We would find a way to be together, or make one.

Youth. Age.

Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for "The New York Times" wrote an article the other day called "Second Act Aces." http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/30/second-act-aces/?scp=2&sq=jamie%20moyer&st=cse It was primarily about Jamie Moyer, the 47-year-old pitching ace for the Philadelphia Phillies. Last week, he became the oldest pitcher ever to defeat the Yankees. Egan writes, "Almost 20 years ago, Moyer was told he was through — to get out of baseball. That was followed by 10 productive years in Seattle, where I watched the ageless Moyer befuddle the steroid-bulked behemoths of the performance-enhancing-drug age.

Egan goes on and cites Clint Eastwood and John Huston, both of whom enjoyed creative and directorial success in their late 70s and 80s. Huston directed "The Dead" from a wheelchair, with oxygen tubes running up his nose.

Mark Twain wrote "Huckleberry Finn" at 49. And Norman Maclean wrote "A River Runs Through It" when he was 74.

Now there's a counterpoint of course. Melville wrote "Moby Dick" at 31. And Hemingway wrote "The Sun Also Rises" at 27.

Agencies seem to throw out people once they reach 50, though their lawyers would deny this. I ask them to consider this from Malcolm Gladwell, in his commentary on Moyer. "His advantages were experience, deception, guile — skills that usually come with added years on the odometer.... For endeavors that require knowledge of craft, and constant experimenting to get it right, age may actually be a benefit..."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Smoking and advertising.

One of the weird, Microsoft-generated agency phenomena is the proliferation of meetings. It's not unusual to look at your calendar in the morning and see every half hour block filled in with a meeting request, or even competing meeting requests.

I may be a voc clamatis in deserto (a voice crying in the wilderness) but I happen to believe that we have Microsoft to blame for all these meetings.

Here's what I mean. Years ago before Microsoft meeting maker if you wanted to show your ACD work, you walked down to her office and said "Florence and I have work to show you." She would look up from her desk and say something like, "let's meet after lunch, say 1:30."

And you would. Further, if she liked the work and deemed it ready to show account, she would call account and say, "can you come up now and see some work?" And account would come up and look at the work.

Now we set a time to review the work (ready or not.) And review it again. And then we have a time set to review it with the client. We have so many meetings not because we need them, but because we can set them.

Here we are in late 2010 when everyone is blathering about cost control and runaway expenses and we can't hop off the meeting train.

If I were a bit more inventive I'd create a wearble anti-meeting patch. It would infiltrate a drug into your bloodstream to help stop you from going to meetings. Meetings are like smoking. Everyone knows they should stop but no one does.