Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Scary on 9th Avenue.


The best you can hope for.

When you're into round 17 of a cut, the best you can strive for is this: "They're not making it any better but they're not making it any worse."

I didn't skip a beat.


With Hurricane Irene coming, I had prepared my MacBook for the worst.

A book.


I don't know where I got the recommendation, but recently I heard about "The Copy Book--How some of the best advertising writers in the world write their advertising." It's a D and AD book published by Taschen and you, like me, can get it through Amazon for about $40. http://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/design/all/06766/facts.dad_the_copy_book.htm


The book is a compendium of some of the best work by some of the industry's best writers: My old boss, Steve Hayden; my blogging friend, Dave Trott; and people I've always admired: David Abbott, Ed McCabe, Bob Levenson, Tom Thomas and a couple dozen more.

The book, which is unusual for awards books today, is full of ads of substance. With beautifully written copy that presents a compelling argument or tells a story. It's a book that recognizes the power of words. Full of ads that cater not to the lowest common denominator but that recognize that there are thoughtful, intelligent people in the world who can actually read--and will--if you offer them something worthwhile.

There are, sadly, people in our business who stop investing in their careers once they're in their jobs. They form a tight solipsistic circle and learn only from people around them--never allowing an outside or extraneous thought inside their closed system. You should never stop learning. And with this book, for just $40 or so, you can learn from some of the best.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lighten up.

I've always broken agency people down into three groups.
1. Finders. These are the people who, by dint of their creativity and salesmanship, "find" new assignments and revenue from clients.
2. Minders. These are the people who keep an account running smoothly. They guide, gently, and hold hands.
3. Grinders. These are the people who do the hard work of an account. The assignments or gnarly tasks that no one wants.

It takes all three sorts to make an account and an agency run. And ideally, all people should have a portion of each in their cosmology.
They should be able to find opportunities, execute against those projects and keep their heads down and grind things out when needed.

Lately, however, I've come to the realization that most client organizations--it pains me to say this--are made up only of grinders. They view work with such excruciating over-thought rigor that they squeeze the life out of it. They suck the emotion and life out of things by grinding away at them. They turn everything into a long, slow slog through hip-deep muck.

I'm pissed at a particular client right now.

They're making me grind away at something that was 99% there when we presented it to them the first time two weeks ago.

Lighten up, ok.

Wasted assignments.

At least a couple times in my career I was given assignments that scraped the slimy bottom of the assignment barrel.

I'm not talking about the crappy assignments you get when you're a junior. Those assignments are part of paying your dues. I'm talking about assignments you get because no one else can do them or because everyone else has already rejected them.

About a decade ago I was given the task of preparing a bunch of videos and a few printed pieces for a client who was retiring. It was, I thought, a lose-lose proposition. If I did a good job, so what. A good party video. If I did a crap job, my ass was in a sling.

This is where personal integrity and a long view comes in.

You get these assignments, you do the best fucking job you can.

Here's why.

1. It's your job to come through.
2. The people you come through for, if they're not complete fuckfaces, will eventually come through with something better. They have memories. If they don't, then it's time to leave.

There's no such thing as an assignment that's wasted.

You always have a chance to impress someone.

Simplicity.

There must be some corollary of Murphy's Law or Peter's Principle or Ringelmann's Effect that states complication will always force out simple. Or never do anything simple when paralysis and complication are around as alternatives.

Today, specifically, I am thinking of life inside agencies.

It's unquestionable that agencies are going through a period of extraordinary tumult. There are all sorts of new ways to reach consumers. And each day seems to bring us a new new way.

So what we have within agencies, between agencies and at clients is a pissing match. There are those who loudly proclaim digital media achieves no reach and is therefore inconsequential. There are others who assert that TV is dead and so much can be won through a simple facebook like.

The truth, of course, is usually somewhere in between. There is no 'one size fits all.' No absolute right answer. It varies from account to account.

What too infrequently occurs is a precise definition of a clients' main issues. So we fight and wrangle and bicker and complicated to no good effect.

This is a really simple business.

The agencies that will survive going forward are the ones that keep that in mind.

Monday, August 29, 2011

New York, after the storm.

If you're able to, every once in a while you should walk to work.

I went to sleep last night thinking the New York City transit system would still be smarting from Hurricane Irene. So I decided that rather than deal with over-crowded city buses (the world's slowest form of transportation) I'd walk the just under four miles to my desk.

It turns out the trains were running this morning, but I was up early, had no pressing deadlines and the weather was nearly perfect, about 65-degrees and clear as a bell, so I decided to stick to my plan.

I don't know where I read it, but long ago I happened upon this quotation: "If you walk on concrete for too long you start to think like a predator." There's nothing but concrete for me to walk on, but I still felt rejuvenated by my walk.

New Yorkers, those who weren't on vacation on this the week before Labor Day, or weren't hiding under their covers from the storm that bypassed the city, were bleary-eyed this morning. As if we were blinded by the sun we had been some days without. So both auto and pedestrian traffic was light. Even midtown, even Times' Square was without the wall-to-wall tourists which so clog our sidewalks.

In the week just past, New York had survived both an earthquake and the remnants of a ferocious hurricane. Both signs, according to some, that god was telling us to repent or somehow reform our wicked ways, our pursuit of Mammon.

Some people see my city as a dark and foreboding place. I see it as hard-boiled hurly burly, fast-paced, frenetic and fun. Where you hear string quartets playing in Central Park or a black man saxophoning "Hava Nagila," in front of the Met. I see New York as a little slice of amity in a world filled with hate.

And a place where, if you're lucky, you can walk to work.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

We have lost our memory.

Living through Hurricane Irene, not the actual storm but the banality and ubiquity of the 24-hour coverage, leads me to the conclusion that as a culture we have been stricken with societal Alzheimer's Disease. We have no memory of anything that's happened before. Everything that happens is happening for the first time.

Such memory-myopia leads, of course, to hyperbole and bombast. New York--which just endured a mild summer storm--has shut down its mass transit system for the first time in the city's history. 370,000 people have been evacuated. And the city's famous retailers--Bloomingdale's, Tiffany's, etc. have shut down.

As if we never had a major rainstorm before. Or 35-mile-per-hour winds.

The same societal Alzheimer's effects the advertising industry, of course. Minor advents, like Twitter, like iPhone apps, like Facebook, are hyperbolicized into the newest news and the biggest discoveries. Facts, data, common-sense are all ignored. The "old" ways are declared dead in the wake of these "enormous" changes.

The truth of the matter is this: we live in a dynamic world in which things change all the time. The introduction of something new does not mean that everything else is dead.

What's more, that something new, probably isn't even new. It's probably merely a permutation of something that happened some years earlier in some different form.

Relax the hyperbole.

Read history.

Get in touch with your dormant memory.

The world might be better for it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Joe Hill.

video
There's an interesting article in today's "New York Times" about the Swedish-born American labor leader/songwriter Joe Hill. You can read the article, hear some songs and see a slide show here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/27/us/27hill.html?scp=1&sq=joe%20hill&st=cse

Hill was the face of the International Workers of the World, the IWW, the Wobblies, the nascent anti-capitalist labor movement most feared by big-capital due to their radical tendencies. Hill wrote the songs of the labor movement, songs that rallied the workers and were later performed by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and, of course, Bob Dylan.

In 1915, Hill was executed by a firing squad in Utah for allegedly robbing and killing a grocer and his son. New evidence has recently come to light that Hill was in flagrante delicto during the robbery/murder but was convicted and shot to death because of his involvement with the Wobblies. The state and big money wanted him gone.

When I was a kid my father played us Paul Robeson's rendition of "The Ballad of Joe Hill." This accomplished a few things.
1) He introduced us to the great Paul Robeson.
2) We learned about the violent struggle between capital and labor.
3) We were taught about the power of a compelling message and a great delivery.

There's no real advertising point today; I'm just wading through some 40-year-old memories.

And wishing, a bit, that we still had some radicals around to battle the pernicious forces of capital.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Despair.

There are times I despair about the future of humanity. It's not that I'm worried about a titanic hurricane hitting my 1500 square foot dwelling. Or terrorists blowing up my keister. Or the icecaps melting and submerging us all.

No, what I worry about is that all the world has been struck by some pernicious virus or there's lead in our cosmic plumbing and our brains are rotted out and are turning to mush like a watermelon left too long in 120-degree heat.

What I worry about are account people writing sentences like this: "I'm afraid the client is digging in her heals."

Or people fundamentally unable to fathom the difference between there their and they're. Not to mention its and it's.

We live, I'm afraid, in an instantaneous era. When your thoughts of one minute are sent to hundreds of your "friends" a nano-second after you have them. Instantaneousness has somehow superseded measure and care. Everything reads as a blurt. Everyone thinks as a blurt. Everyone reacts as a blurt.

But, as my account friend might write or right: "that's all for know."

Steve Jobs. Great clients. And great agencies.

The big news today, at least among the sleek digital cognoscenti, is that Steve Jobs is stepping down from his day-to-day role at Apple, though he remains as Chairman of the Board.

Thinking about this made me think of a quotation, I think by Carl Ally, progenitor of perhaps the greatest agency ever. "There are no great agencies," he asserted, with perhaps a touch of glibness, "only great clients."

This is probably true to a degree. However, I believe agencies that do great work have a talent for creating great clients.

I believe they do so by following some tenets. And then getting lucky.

1. They work hard to build trust.
2. They find a venning of their goals as an agency with their clients' goals.
3. They learn the ins and outs of their clients' business, their issues, their competition.
4. They listen.
5. They fight, politely.
6. They challenge complacency and the expected.
7. They are resolute and steadfast in their honesty.
8. When something is killed they come back with something better.
9. They understand the distinction between "doing the assignment and doing the job."
10. They say please and thank you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Today's 8th conference call.


A diversion.

video

I've run 11 marathons.

Some pounds and some years ago, I was a moderately proficient long-distance runner.

I was in good shape and had a coterie of running friends who I would train with. This took the sting off of running long distances. Running, in fact, became a large part of my social life.

In any event, I started running marathons. One a year for about a dozen years.

What I learned from logging all these miles is that there are no easy ones.

You can't gallop at the beginning--you need restraint--because there are tough stretches ahead. You can't give up when you're slogging uphill, because the next mile might be downhill. You can't think too far ahead. You have to take each mile as it comes.

Work is like this too.

There are no "easy" assignments any more.

Every project, no matter how miniscule and seemingly inconsequential matters. Everything is under a microscope.

Along the way, there are, naturally, moments of darkness, despair, maybe despondency.
Those moments, like miles 16-22 in a marathon, you have to muscle through.

You can't give in to fatigue.

Or boredom.

Or aches and pains.

You have to, this may be trite, put one foot in front of the other until you get where you're going.

That's how you get shit done.





The Siege of Sevastopol.


As astute readers of Ad Aged know, for the last ten days or so I have been ensconced in the mid-19th Century, stationed in the Crimea, as the allied French, English and Turkish troops battled the Russians over the course of empires.

During the early portion of the Crimea War a lot was centered around the port city of Sevastopol. The city was under unprecedented bombardment for a full year before the few remaining soldiers and residents evacuated and left the ruins to the allies.

Of course, the siege settled nothing. Sevastopol was meaningless as a goal. The allies captured a city that was neither St. Petersburg nor Moscow and the Russians had to keep fighting because they didn't want to begin peace negotiations coming off a loss. So, the war meandered on.

It occurred to me as my editor was posting spots last night with the suffix "v. 13" that a lot can be learned about advertising from studying sieges. We often feel
put-upon on the agency side. There are scores if not hundreds of miscellaneous missiles hurtling your way.

The way I look at it is this: most of those missiles cannot kill you. Absorb your hits, maneuver how you can to better fortifications. If you have to escape, escape--don't run and hide but retreat, tactically. But mostly, devise a plan that positions you for greater success when the next battle happens.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Vita brevis, ars longa.

My editor and I are listening to music and I mentioned that one track sounded like the early 70s folksinger, Melanie. Immediately we started talking about her hit "Look What They've Done to my Song." We needed to see who wrote it. My editor thought Harry Nilsson did, but it turns out, according to Wikipedia, Melanie herself wrote it.

Now here's the "I want to shoot myself in the head part." Apparently in the 1980s, the Quaker Oats Company used a version of the song in their commercials for Instant Oatmeal. They revised the lyrics to "Look what they've done to my oatmeal."

An African-American veteran whose first language is traditional Chinese.

My holding company has asked me (though I've worked for some of their various entities on and off since 1984) to self identify my ethnicity, military service status and primary language.

The genius of Google.



Having spent a fair amount of time in a) digital agencies and b) working for high-tech companies, I've heard a lot about the power and the efficacy of software.

At its best software has the power to help connect people, simplify tasks, streamline operations.

However, and this might be heresy, people are not yet obsolete. Software may be "intelligent" but oftentimes, it lacks common sense.

Just last night my gmail served me an ad for a Rabbi/Ob-GYN/mohel advertising ritual circumcision for Jewish boys. As James Thurber wrote: "You could lookit up."
www.royalmohel.com

Monday, August 22, 2011

Polishing crap.


They're shining, buffing and otherwise gleaming-up the Jeffrey Koons sculpture in front of my client's office building. It's a candy-red sculpture that looks like it was made of balloons.

No matter who did it, no matter how new it is, no matter what the reputation of the artist, it's ugly and dumb.

I'd rather have an old guy on a horse.

New York advertising.

With the rise of America as the world's most prosperous Banana Republic, New York has begun to once again challenge Santa Monica, California as "the home of the homeless." During a long walk on the upper west side, I was accosted twice by aggressive beggars and once by a bicycle-rickshaw driver. One homeless man I ignored said my lack of charity was the reason the Twin Towers were felled.

This morning I had an early appointment at the cavernous Apple Store on Fifth and 59th. I was done soon enough to allow me to walk the mile or so to work and still get in earlier than the rats which inhabit the joint. In front of 48th and Fifth was a gnarled and beaten looking panhandler with a sign that read: "Dwellingly Challenged." His copywriting skill earned him a dollar from me.

Good writing works. Even if it's written on a ratty old square of corrugation.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Cool reconsidered.

There is news in the QSR business, at least as it pertains to advertising. (BTW, QSR is a set of initials I hate almost as much as I hate the Acronym COBRA, for the health insurance offered when you're unemployed. There's nothing Quick about fast-food places. There's no Service. And they're not Restaurants.) Burger King has switched its advertising agency from Crispin Porter Bogusky to McGarry-Bowen.

More importantly, Burger King has decided to target not slacker-hipster 23-year-olds, but instead to market to where the discretionary income is: moms.

I could give a rat's ass, really, about the work coming from McGarry-Bowen, now that they have assumed the account from CPB. Outside of the counter people being naked clones of Heidi Klum, nothing could compel me to eat in a QSR. Even if I were trapped in a bus-station at night with nothing else open, I'd do without.

What's interesting to me in all this is the switch from targeting the cool kids to targeting people with money.

For at least my whole lifetime, and it's certainly gotten more egregious in the last decade or so, advertisers and their agencies have acted as if the whole world were 20 and puerile.

In fact, looking at slumping companies like Cisco and HP underscores this myopia. Each decided it wasn't enough to supply the billions of dollars of infrastructure modern corporations demand. They each decided they wanted to be cool like Apple. And being cool has hurt them. Cisco's taken a bath on its Linksys and Flip purchases. And HP is selling its personal PC business and scrapping its tablet after selling something in the neighborhood of 14 machines.

I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again. Cool is not a strategy. Young and hip is not an end-all and be-all.

I don't know if Burger King's shift augers a bigger movement in the industry--a growing-up. I don't even know if it will be good for Burger King which has been slumping almost as long as they've been in business.

But it would be nice to see different criteria emerge than cool.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Charge of the Light Brigade.

I am reading a book by the great historian Orlando Figes called "The Crimean War." Esoteric, I know.

Last night I got to the famous "Charge of the Light Brigade," where incompetent generals bid their men into almost certain death. 600 cavalry-men charged the Russians. About half returned alive and unwounded.

I thought about this battle as I was going through roughcuts with the client yesterday. Reviewing roughcuts when world-wide markets drop between 4% and 6% is not propitious.

We were fairly eviscerated.

That was in the morning.

We talked to them again in the afternoon, after they had had a bit more time to think.

Suddenly, we were basically ok.

Here's what I've learned from the Light Brigade.

Keep moving forward.

Don't back down.

There are arrows that come your way.

There's nothing you can do about those arrows.

No way you can really avoid them.

But you keep moving forward.

That's the key.

Don't stop moving ahead.

The Charge Of The Light Brigade

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Memorializing Events in the Battle of Balaclava, October 25, 1854
Written 1854

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd ?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd & sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse & hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thanks.

Years ago I worked at an agency that was a pretty dismal place to work. There was no "vision." No one working with you. No one helping you fight for the work. No one, in fact, who didn't feel like they were working against you. And the joint (which has since been merged out of business) was rife with politics.

Naturally at such a place, the attrition rate was high and it was hard to attract new employees. I only stuck around because my client loved me and I was able to sell decent work on an important brand.

In any event, I hit upon an idea.

If an agency really wants to keep people involved, motivated, happy--feeling "loyal" in the parlance of direct marketing, every day around 5 o'clock, the CEO should walk around to everyone's office and hand them their day's pay in cash.

That, obviously, was a joke. But there was a point to it.

Many people at agencies have it in their nature to go above and beyond, to sweat the details, to work extremely long hours to make the work better. Or to try to.

What there is precious little of in life today is gratitude. A simple thank you. Work is pulled apart like a sadist rips the wings off of flies. By clients. By co-workers. By colleagues who are anything but collegial.

Since I started in this business, in life, I've always believed in thanking people for their time, their effort, their expertise. The little filip of warmth or humor at the end of a piece of copy is one mark of this.

There's too much saying what's wrong. That's easy.

It takes a human to say thanks.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Note to clients:

When you demand that every word, phrase and sentence be emphasized by making it bold or by mixing it hotter, nothing turns out to be emphasized except the portions you didn't emphasize.

New York advertising. A metaphor.


Finding your voice.


video
In 1967 I was nine years old and I had an experience that changed a lot for me.

My parents took me to the Norman Jewison movie "In the Heat of the Night." I heard Ray Charles for the first time--his voice a clarion--for ever after rock and roll, including the Beatles and the Stones felt thin and white. Frankly, even now, 44-years later I get chills when I hear Ray Charles.

Even though I was just nine, I became obsessed with Ray Charles. I traveled all over Westchester on my bicycle searching out his records. In those segregated days, in a country just north of New York City where white and black didn't mix (except for cleaning women) it was tough finding Charles in white record stores. But I did.

One of the first albums I found was "Rockin' Chair Blues," a collection of early Charles, when he was in Seattle playing with a small combo. I learned later on--this music was recorded in the late 40s and 50s, that Charles was heavily influenced by the great Nat "King" Cole and essentially imitated both his vocal and piano styles. It was very different from the Ray Charles of "In the Heat of the Night."

This morning on my iPod, I listened to about half of an album called "Ray Charles The Complete Swing Time and Down Beat Recordings 1949-1952" which included most of the tunes from "Rockin' Chair Blues." I highly recommend it.

If you listen, you can hear Charles literally finding his voice. Many of the songs are in the Nat Cole vein, every once in a while, however, Charles emerges. With something clear, unique and "him."

As creative people, like Charles, we go through the same process. We grow up, in advertising or whatever pursuit we follow, influenced by many sounds, styles, voices, vocabularies. Often we start by imitating. I used to try to write like Ed McCabe and Curvin O'Reilly.

Then as time goes on, if you're working hard and working hard at gaining confidence, your fingers feel different on the keyboard. Writing (in my case) becomes less about thinking and more just "doing." The voice, yours, is in you. Hard to articulate to others because it is in your pith.

As Yogi Berra is reputed to have once said, "You can hear a lot by listening."




Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Uncle Slappy on the High Holy Days.

The Jewish High Holy Days, Jewish Rush Week as a goyische friend once called them, are bearing down fast upon us like a Peterbilt hurtling toward a raccoon, so I wasn't a bit surprised when the phone rang last night and it was Uncle Slappy looking to finalize his plans to come up and stay with me during the Ten Days of Awe.

"Schmuck," he said when I picked up the blower. "So, you've forgotten your Uncle Slappy is coming up for Rosh h'Shanah."

"Oh, hi Uncle Slappy. Of course we haven't forgotten. Your room is already made up."

"And some soup maybe you'll have in the fridge so a decent lunch I can have while Mr. Big Schott toils in the fleshpots."

"You want soup, Uncle Slappy, soup you shall have. Nice chicken noodle soup. Some mushroom and barley. Some pea soup. Maybe even chicken with kreplach if they have it."

"It shouldn't be too much to ask, a kreplach once in a while," Uncle Slappy said fairly purring over the thought of a meat-filled dumpling. "In all of ferstunkeneh Florida, a kreplach you can't find. de Soto they said couldn't find the fountain of youth here. A kreplach neither."

"I'll do the best I can. By the way, Uncle Slappy, when are the holidays this year?"

"Just like they are every other year, the Jewish Holidays are either early or late."

With that the old man hung up the phone and, I suppose, started packing.



Connections and Sharpies.

I've always thought that one of the hallmarks of an above-mediocre mind was the ability to bring disparate facts together and form an opinion or draw a conclusion. Or just point to those facts and allow your readers or listeners to draw a conclusion. This faculty seems sadly missing in our world today. It seems to be egregiously missing in the advertising trade press.

Here's what I mean.

Last week or the week before, as the billion-dollar SC Johnson account fired them after decades of "service," DraftFCB in Chicago lost the lion's share of their business and, basically, their reason for being. Yesterday's Adweek "Ad of the Day" featured work from DraftFCB for Sharpie pens. http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/ad-day-sharpie-134137



These aren't ads that Adweek's featured. They are four two-minute plus videos on "artists" that use Sharpies.

It's not that Draft's work for Sharpies sucks.

That's not the point.

The point is that Draft has burned countless hours in the pursuit of the trivial. While their biggest account was traveling thither.

Yesterday when I was at the editor's, I ran into my old (brilliant) boss who now runs a major global account for a major global agency. We hadn't talked in about seven years and last night we talked for a long time. We talked about being over-50 in a business that's infatuated by youth and wrapping paper. A business that extols Sharpie videos over real work.

"I'm not worried about staying employed," he said to me without a trace of arrogance. "Because I'm a grown up. Because I can sit with CEOs and CMOs and talk to them about their business problems. I can apply my tools, empathy and motivation to solve those problems. That's what new breed agencies can't do."

Advertising is a serious business.

We ask clients to spend millions of dollars. Dollars that come from their bottom line.

We are custodians of those millions.

We have to make those millions work.

It's not a joke.

It's not about a conversation.

It's not about rearranging pixels on the Titanic.

It's about empathy and motivation.

It's about being a grownup. And having grownup discussions with clients.

It's not about 10+ minutes of "content" for Sharpies.



Monday, August 15, 2011

The importance of work.

I am back at work for the first full day since late July. Naturally, being in production and running a fairly large and busy account meant that I had to work a couple hours each day while I was out. There were conference calls to be taken, cuts to view and comment upon, music to listen to, decisions to be made, arguments to have. And of course there were i's to be dotted and t's to be crossed.

Work is a force that gives us meaning.
It helps pay for our families.
It helps indulge our passions.
It helps classify who we are.
There are friendships formed.
Laughs shared.
Travails to go through together.

There are projects to create.
Things to make.

That's work.

Desmond Morris, probably the world's most famous anthropologist, has written extensively on those characteristics that make man man. One of them is work. When we were just descended from trees we would hunt in packs. Different sapiens with different skills would take on different roles.

The swift would chase down the lion. The brave might rouse it from hiding. The strong might spear it. It was a group activity, with a shared goal and a shared result: sustenance, a sense of accomplishment.

This is what work can bring.

There's not good hunting everyday.

And some days pissant needle-dicks foul things up.

And some people are slackers and live off the group.

But life goes on.

If you work at it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Our new Poet Laureate.


I just heard a report on NPR about America's latest Poet Laureate, Philip Levine. The title of this poem appealed to me.

"HE WOULD NEVER USE ONE WORD WHERE NONE WOULD DO"
by Philip Levine

If you said "Nice day," he would look up
at the three clouds riding overhead,
nod at each, and go back to doing what-
ever he was doing or not doing.
If you asked for a smoke or a light,
he'd hand you whatever he found
in his pockets: a jackknife, a hankie --
usually unsoiled -- a dollar bill,
a subway token. Once he gave me
half the sandwich he was eating
at the little outdoor restaurant
on La Guardia Place. I remember
a single sparrow was perched on the back
of his chair, and when he held out
a piece of bread on his open palm,
the bird snatched it up and went back to
its place without even a thank you,
one hard eye staring at my bad eye
as though I were next. That was in May
of '97, spring had come late,
but the sun warmed both of us for hours
while silence prevailed, if you can call
the blaring of taxi horns and the trucks
fighting for parking and the kids on skates
streaming past silence. My friend Frankie
was such a comfort to me that year,
the year of the crisis. He would turn
up his great dark head just going gray
until his eyes met mine, and that was all
I needed to go on talking nonsense
as he sat patiently waiting me out,
the bird staring over his shoulder.
"Silence is silver," my Zaydee had said,
getting it wrong and right, just as he said
"Water is thicker than blood," thinking
this made him a real American.
Frankie was already American,
being half German, half Indian.
Fact is, silence is the perfect water:
unlike rain it falls from no clouds
to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
to give heart to the thin blades of grass
fighting through the concrete for even air
dirtied by our endless stream of words.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Water.

When I was a kid, a little kid, three years old or so, some temporary miasma of kindness must have struck my mother. She took time off from her growling and howling and took me out to the Long Island Sound. There she found a lifeguard who would, on his days' off give me swim lessons.

When the weather turned the murky waters of the Sound too cold to continue, she shoved me into a class at the local Y, where I continued my lessons. By the time I was four, I was fairly a prodigy in the water. You could hardly keep me out.

When my own kids were born, I rushed them into swim classes. I knew city kids had few opportunities to learn swimming, so I entered them in classes at the Y when they were each around 18 months old. It also gave us some time together, where I could hold them. And they didn't mind holding me.

My older daughter went on to become New York State 15 and under mile champion. She swam for the US team in the Maccabi Games and swam at a Division 1 college. Just a month or so ago, she finished in the top-fifteen in a mile-long open water swim outside of Boston, where she lives.

My younger daughter is a scuba instructor, with hundreds of dives on four continents under her belt. I don't think she'd mind dropping out of college and teaching diving for five years before returning.

Today, my last day of vacation, I went on two lovely dives with my wife. We saw beautiful reefs, fan coral, a baby turtle, a school of shimmering tarpon and a couple iconoclastic barracuda. Later, all of us cavorted in and around the pool at our villa for hours.

Tomorrow I head back to a not-so-green New York and a very un-liquid America. We have a small pool in our apartment house, but we seldom use it, especially since the kids have flown the coop.

No advertising point.

Just felt like writing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, rough cuts, agencies.

Years ago I worked for an agency where the president of the agency was acting as the lead account guy on some spots I was producing. In those days, agencies still had offices in decent parts of town. In fact, we were located just ten blocks from the client and we walked down one morning--3/4-inch tape in hand, to show them some rough cuts.

I remember walking alongside the agency president around 47th and Third and saying to him, "please don't say anything about the mix, I know it's a little hot. And we'll fix it when we mix." In any event, when we got to our meeting, the first thing this guy did was mention the mix.

In the past I have always broken agencies (and people) down into two groups. There are "yes" agencies--the ones that believe they can do anything, the ones that find solutions, the ones that think big. And there are "no" agencies. The ones that say "the client will never buy that," "that's out of scope," "we will never finish that in time."

A similar fault line exists when you have rough cuts to show a client.

There are agencies that believe the client should love the cut for myriad reasons.

And there are those (more numerous) agencies that fear all the things the client might say.

After nearly 30 years in the business, it strikes me more and more frequently how insecure and scared most people and agencies are. Maybe the decline in our business is due, not to holding company bs, but due to pusillanimity and small-dicked-ness.

I'm not conflating confidence and bombast.

There's plenty of bombast in the world.

There's too little belief in your own talent.
In your own ability to listen.
In your ability to hire the best people.
In your own taste, judgment and discretion.

When I was a boy--maybe 10 years old, my father made me memorize this poem:

On Anxiety
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some of your hurts you have cured,
And the sharpest you still have survived,
But what torments of grief you endured,
From evils that never arrived.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Gift of Quiet.

I've written about this before, but I think it bears repeating. Especially since I just read that a remake of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is being planned with Gary Oldman as the star.

I read a review of Oldman's forerunner in the role, Alec Guinness, and what struck me was a sentence that said Guinness' Smiley "possessed the gift of quiet."

The gift of quiet.

How much better agency life would be if more people had the confidence to be quiet. To speak only when they 1) added to the conversation; 2) knew what they were talking about; 3) had all the details laid before them.

Most meetings in agencies (with clients or without) are dick-swinging contests. Who can speak first, loudest, longest. Not who can say what needs to be said. With brevity and clarity.

I've worked for a few people over the years who had the gift of quiet.

But most agencies are full of "summer soldiers."

People who aren't there when the fighting and rigor are being worked.

They come in at the last minute and compensate for their shortage of involvement with a surfeit of bluster.

As one of my ex-bosses, one with the gift of quiet, used to bewail "people with a titanic ego and a minnow in the engine room."

The only way to have the gift of quiet is to have the confidence to listen.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Carthage, 800 BC-146 BC.

I have just finished a book--beach reading if you will--by an English historian named Richard Miles called "Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization". The book was about the founding of the city around 800 BC to its obliteration by the Romans in around 146 BC. The book goes through all the waxing and waning of the great city, both Punic Wars and, of course, Hannibal's near-conquering of the Roman empire during the Second Punic War.

It's good to read a book on the collapse of a civilization when it looks like your own is dieing. When the stock market is more volatile than my mother. And when religious extremists and such threaten the inherently liberal principles this nation was founded upon.

It's also good perspective to read such a book when you're living through an era of change in the business. No one knows what the new "new thing" will be. No one's really figured out, outside of maybe Amazon and a few others, how to make the internet pay. No one really know how to reach diffident if not hostile consumers.

The thing about Carthage, and most other disintegrating communities is that from the view of a couple of decades or a couple of millennia, their demise looks complete and nihilistic. But the fact is Carthage, though it was razed to the ground by vindictive Roman armies, didn't really die.

Its people suffered, no doubt. But they made like Yogi Bear used to when Ranger Rick was too hot on his tail. They melded into the forest. They merged with others. They took on other roles. They rebuilt. They survived.

As the city of Nagasaki has--on this the 66th anniversary of its atomization.

As TV will. As most agencies will in some form or another.

Survival is hard.
Entities are not permanent.
They mutate and morph.
But they go on.
As does life.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Television is dead, Part. 6729987.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/08/business/media/tv-advertising-still-a-reliable-engine-in-media.html?hp
An article in yesterday's "New York Times" called "Ad Money Reliably Goes to Television," recounted the success, life and vibrancy of television advertising.

So tell that hipster from Williamsburg who skipped a whole season on "24" and then proudly proclaimed television dead, that he's a candy-assed fuckwit with a bad, ironic haircut.

The advertising profession.

Having grown up in advertising--my father and my uncle Sid were in the business from the 40s and the 50s on--one of the things I liked about it when I was a kid was that it wasn't a profession.

My father (and my uncle) weren't like lawyers or doctors or accountants. They could dress funkier. Speak in more florid language and live life with a spontaneity and elan that their corporate neighbors couldn't.

Now, of course, advertising has become a profession. Decisions are the result of many endless and meandering meetings. And we speak a language that's arcane and incestuous that people outside of our guild can't fathom.

The things that at one time made advertising a great job have today disappeared. We are mechanical men worried about best practices. We labor in the pixel mines hauling 16 tons a day till we grow older and deeper in debt.

Advertising is not a science, though there are parts that can be scientificized.
Advertising has a huge element of gut and luck.
Someone derives something that strikes a chord.

The professionals don't have what it takes to succeed.
So they professionalize things.
They rewrite the rules so they can prevail.
And now they do prevail.
And things suck.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The daughters have arrived.

My trip down to St. Martin was done so we could effect a nuclear family reunion of sorts. My older daughter and 14-year-old niece are down here as is my 19-year-old daughter who, as I said before, is teaching scuba diving down here.

There are hipsters and new media pundits and decryers of the national national fabric that say reading is dead, intellect is dead, that all kids want to do is click on the like button, the like button, not man, as Protagoras said, is the measure of all things.

Well, for once, I am optimistic. My kids (yes, I know that being mine I'm a) biased and they're probably b) unusual) are different. Mine, 19 and 24, are eagerly awaiting their return to academe. One to college for her Sophomore year and the other is champing at the bit to begin her doctoral program in Clinical Psychology. They are reading, each of them, Salman Rushdie or Tracy Kidder for pleasure, and speak about it with passion and erudition. My niece, 14, is reading Harry Potter in Hebrew and is writing her own epilogue to the wizard's saga.

Many aspects of the world have gone to hell in a hand-basket. Our debt is downgraded. Much of our population is cretinous. Dangerous religious thought is on the ascent.

But here, in my little house overlooking the teal blue Caribbean, my daughters have arrived.

Spend some time with them and you might be hopeful of the future.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A correction.


I made a mistake in my previous post pertaining to the inequality of income distribution. The chart above is more accurate, though since 2007 when the data for the chart was created, inequality has probably grown more severe.

I apologize for my errors.

My point remains the same.

With such unequal distribution of wealth, our nation is threatened and it's unlikely we can have a real recovery if so few possess so much and so many possess (and can purchase) so little.

Just sayin'.

You can't have an economic recovery when 1% of the population controls 90% of the wealth. What you have is a Banana Republic. And not the kind that's just an expensive Gap.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Words at play.


There's an obituary in The New York Times today of a famed American footballer, the 6'7", 300 lb., Bubba Smith. The obituary led off with a poem about Smith by the great Ogden Nash: "When hearing tales of Bubba Smith, you wonder, is he man or myth?"

That poem brought me back.

When I was a kid, Life Magazine and its over-sized four-color pages had portraits of football players accompanied by poems by Nash. I remember, as an 8 or 9 year old, pouring over these poems and reveling in their fractured rhymes and funny puns.

Even as a little kid I was a bit of a loner and Nash's poems kept me pleasant company. Here's one he wrote about a running back for the Colts who was called on to serve as quarterback after the top two guys were injured:

Is there a Baltimore fan alive
who's forgotten Tom Matte in '65?
The Colts by crippling injuries vexed,
Unitas first and Cuozzo next--
What would become of the pass attack?
Then Matte stepped in at quarterback.
He beat the Rams in a great display,
He did - and he damn near beat Green Bay.
Ask him today to plunge or block,
Tom's the man who can roll or rock.
In Tokyo, they say karate
In Baltimore, they call it Matte.

Nash's work awakened in me a love for words and word-play that first saw the light of day when I was exposed to Dr. Seuss. The idea that someone could make a living via bad rhymes appealed to me then and appeals to me now.

When I think back to how I started as a writer, Nash plays a part. He was funny, poetic, prolific. He seemed, at least via the glorious pages of Life Magazine to have the world on a string.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tropical Storm Emily.

Tropical Storm Emily, downgraded from a hurricane, has hit St. Martin with full and beautiful fury. The rain is incessant. The wind is gusting so loudly it drowns out the volume of the rough cuts I am trying to view. Nature is trying to tell me not to work so hard--especially on vacation.

There's something magical about a storm that is not too bad. It's bad enough to keep you indoors--an enforced relaxation period. But not so bad that people lose their lives or their homes.

Whenever I'm in the middle of a tropical storm, I think of the great Bogart/Bacall, Edward G. Robinson movie "Key Largo," where Robinson holds a group of people hostage in a Florida hotel. They did storms right in the 1940s. And sultry Bacall and a drunken Claire Trevor make the whole thing watchable, as do, of course, Bogart, Robinson, Lionel Barrymore and the missing Osceola brothers.

If you need a tropical storm in your life, if you need a few moments to batten down your psychic hatches and close yourself off from the elements and vicissitudes of life, find a copy and view "Key Largo."

It's way better than viewing rough cuts.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The "M" Affidavit.

I refinanced my apartment the other day, taking advantage of Depression-era interest rates and hoping to close on the unit before the debt ceiling caved in and we were buying loaves of bread with wheel-barrow's full of Deutsch-dollars. The amount of paperwork to refinance an apartment with massive amounts of equity, by people whose credit-rating is unscathed and who earn many times the multiplier of fiscal probity, was staggering. This is what our bank--in that rare civilized portion of Amerika we call Manhattan demanded. In other parts of the country, people with no documents and no employment history were buying or had bought homes as large as ocean liners for no money down. But in New York, things are different.

And I almost got hung up because of an M.

I bought my apartment as George Tannenbaum.
For whatever reason I was refinancing as George M Tannenbaum.
The bank was addle-pated.
Was this the same George?
I pictured a scene from some schetl sci-fi movie where thousands of George Tannenbaums roamed the streets.
How many of me can there be?

But the bank, as I said, was concerned.

I needed to file a notarized affidavit that I was I.