Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Saturday laugh.

From an illustrator named Grant Snider on the back page of "The New York Times Book Review."

Friday, March 30, 2012

Why do we do it: A response to Bukes.


Bukes asked, in response to a somewhat dour previous post, why we continue to toil in the fleshpots of metaphorical Madison Avenue.

Well, Bukes, I am old and I think you are young. So maybe my answers won’t apply to you. Nevertheless, I will do what I can to provide “illumination.”

We work—for idiots, inside of idiot systems—because there’s a natural human want to overcome things. None of us, even those who were born with a lot, have all the cards handed to us. Work is what we do to get more of those cards.

It’s how we provide.
How we are provided for.
How we prove ourselves.
How we define ourselves.
How we create.
How we think.
How we battle.
Make friends.
How we find laughter.
How we find ourselves.

Work is a place to go.
Work is people to be with.
Work is problems to solve.
Work is a force that gives us meaning.

Work has never been about pure and unvarnished happiness and fulfillment. In fact, true happiness comes not from accomplishment but in the struggle for accomplishment.

The fight.
Which means the losses.
Are as important as the wins.
Rare as they are.

Work isn’t something you should look at every day.
It’s something you should look at from a year’s distance.
Or a week’s.
Or five year’s.
Or in my case, 25 year’s.

What have you learned?
Who have you loved?
Who have you helped?
Who’s helped you?
What have you made?
What have you done?

These aren’t simple answers.
And the best laid plans of mice and copywriters are often skewered by the
petty,
the stupid,
the ego-driven,
the economy.

But that’s the point.
Who you become, who you are, is based on how you handle the downs.
How you take the hits.
How you keep on keeping on.

Work is worth it every day,
even those days when it’s not worth it.
Because work, if you’re working at it,
is what makes you a better person.


An email from Cassandra.

While I was wallowing in the nostalgia an email (below) came in from a dear friend of mine. Cassandra, by the way, was a Trojan seer-ess who could tell the future but no one would believe her.

George,
today the only thing that really matters is technology.
And stuff that has little to do with the actual work.

The ideas, the creative work, the stuff that connects, communication is the stuff that we're supposed to give away for free. Discussing it in meetings is what agencies get paid for. Not the quality of the work.

That's why everyone can and do have an opinion about the creative work. 

An opinion about concepts and ideas, the words, the lay-out, the typography, the size of the logo, what not. 

But nobody has an opinion about the plumbing. Because that's the mysterious dark forest today. 

So it's perfectly fine to work forever and charge thereafter for that sort of basics. Stuff that means nothing if there's no message. In general clients seem to accept paying plenty for a lot of fluff but nothing for the actual work. 

Paying for hordes of people sitting around talking BS (at best) seems to be fine. Useless decks are discussed in eternity. And then, when after endless discussions and useless pseudo scientific testing shit has gone on, costing a lot of money, the work is finally to be proceed.

Then every cost that might positively affect the product is discussed and questioned. It's hell to be on the creative side in today's advertising world. The only people who actually produce anything of value are the ones valued least. We never ever get to produce what we really think is right. We have to bend and follow a whole bunch of self important hacks and idiots. That is, if we have a job at all of course.

The era of Ed McCabe, Lois, etc. is gone. There are NO leading creative voices in todays ad world. The stars of our time are relegated to be stars among other creatives only, relegated to the fame of the awards, not business success.

Also. Computer technology has made the creative people terribly efficient. We can produce entire campaigns in a few hours. Almost ready to run. The amount of comps and sketches and halfcooked cap we produce today are hundredfold compared to 30 years ago when we sat shown for days to THINK before we started to look for pictures.

So there are fewer and fewer of us in proportion to the talkers and pretenders that populate our meeting rooms.

The real reason for all those meetings is that most of the people in the room do nothing productive in between the meetings. The meetings are their job. And we're prisoners in it.

Old times.

Last night I did something I rarely do. According to my psycho therapist (two words) I don't do it often enough. That is, I went out with old friends and bent my elbow.

These were old advertising friends, people I worked with from 1990 to 1995 when I was plying the well-lit, well-designed, hall-of-fame hallways of the now defunct Ally & Gargano.

There were four of us there including me and I was, as is usual for me, odd man out. They were key creatives and account on the Dunkin' Donuts business, an account I touched only tangentially, because I was the creative lead on The Bank of New York business.

Nonetheless, I did a fair amount of work on Dunkin' and because I am quick-witted and know virtually every joke that's ever been uttered my brand of humor (such as it is) matched the tonality of Dunkin' Donuts in those days and I was welcomed into the fold.

In many ways, these years around 20 years ago were the most productive of my career. I rose in those five years from copywriter to Senior Vice President, Group Creative Head. And because I got in early and stayed late I got an enormous amount of good work produced and became invaluable to the agency.

I left the place 17 years ago on Sunday and they closed about four months later.

One of the people at dinner had been the Group Creative Director on Dunkin'. He is still marginally in the industry. The schticky sort of work he was best at has fallen out of favor and his style has come be regarded as too old to cut the mustard. He is now making a living freelancing at health care agencies.

Shelley, who was an account sup has left the business altogether. She's near 70 and near retirement, working as the office manager for a psychiatrist in Long Beach.

And Susan, a hard-as-nails Management Sup, now works in audio branding for Elias Music. She reminds me of one of those old supply sergeants in black and white war movies. She can find anything, arrange anything, get anything done.

As Paul Simon wrote many years ago, "And we talked about some old times/And we drank ourselves some beers/ Still crazy after all these years."
  
This is not a kind industry in so many ways. It hasn't treated my friends with much grace. And Ally & Gargano, a place that had been so good and so strong, in many ways lost out to greed and macro forces that made it hard for mid-sized shops to survive.

That said, there are people in our industry who make life and the world a little better. 
  

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Interaction design.

I must say I have no love for the "discipline" of interaction design. In my myopic view interaction design is like plumbing. You only notice it when it's broken. Even when it's exemplary, I can hardly imagine gushing over it. I've yet to say during my 54 years "Wow, that was one amazing toilet flush."

One thing I know about information architecture I learned over 40 years ago. I think I might be the last inhabitant on this planet who knows it. But I still believe it, though I seldom any longer see it applied.

My father made me take speed reading courses when I was younger. It's something I've found so valuable--and I knew even as a pre-teen how valuable it would be--that I never for a moment regretted taking speed reading or having taken it.

I was good at speed reading, quickly reaching bursts of 3,000 words per minute and a sustained rate of 1,200 wpm. That's roughly six book-sized pages in a minute. With 75% recall.

During my first lesson, the teacher brought out "The Wall Street Journal." At the time the paper had eight columns across and very few visual interruptions. The teacher explained that newspapers were designed so that they could be read quickly. You could read down a column in a newspaper and your eyes didn't need to scan from left to right. You could read unimpeded right down the page, in other words.

Column width was created for a reason. There was purposeful interaction design behind it.

Today of course we set type based on aesthetics not functionality. We make things hard to read either because we inherently believe what we've written is unimportant or we don't know better or both.

I guess I don't mind, really, interaction design.

What I really don't like is blowhards who don't know what they're doing and shroud their ignorance in a lexicon that makes mysterious that which should be logical and simple.



The smells of New York.

This morning was one of those perfect Spring days that occur all too rarely. There was a bit of bite still in the air, a fair breeze and a light blue sky punctuated by billows.

As I do on Thursday mornings, I walked across Central Park, from East to West and tried to focus on the world without the ever-encroaching bullshit of work. These days I suspect Cindy Crawford could walk naked in front of most people and they would barely look up from their handhelds. The world--in the form of ever-present screens--is too much with us.

This morning there was the pink aroma of flowers and blooming trees in the park. Smells are odd in the city. They are seldom subtle. They have to be strong to be noticed. A thousand pounds of garlic being wok-fried at Szechuan kitchen. The greasy smell of asphalt and tar being laid. The acrid stench of hotdogs and horse shit down by the Plaza.

But today, we had flowers.

When my brother was a teenager, he had a summer job as a toll collector in the Bronx not far from the Stella D'Oro bakeries. There he would make his change and collect his quarters and smell their anisette cookies, their bread sticks and their various biscotti. The smell of the ancient factory permeated the Kingsbridge neighborhood.

Those smells are gone now. The big Stella D'Oro sign that towered over the Major Deegan Expressway has been painted over. The bakery was sold to various conglomerates through the years and eventually the Bronx plant was closed and operations were moved to Jersey.

There was quite a lot of rancor when Stella D'Oro closed. Union workers in the Bronx being replaced by non-union workers in Jersey.

The landscape when I was growing up was dotted with Stella D'Oro trucks. And the air-waves were rife with radio commercials with the lilting Stella D'Oro jingle. "There's a place in your day for Stella D'Oro."

That's all gone now.

Like a pleasant smell blown away by the wind.





Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Legs, see Field Hockey.

When I was about 13 I was blessed with an English teacher who taught me a lot. Truth be told, however, I didn't realize what he taught me until about 20 or 30 years later.

I forget what we were reading, it might have been something from Dylan Thomas' "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog." Or it might have been John Updike. Whatever the story, my teacher spent about a full week talking about a single sentence, one that described a young girl as having "field hockey legs."

Maybe there was a bit of Humbert Humbert in my teacher. But somehow between his near-obsession with the phrase and the actual "field hockey legs" of some of my distaff school mates, the words stuck with me.

More important what stuck with me is the drama of perfect language.

Every now and again I have to write something that isn't merely a stringing together of copy points with artful conjunctions and transitions.

I always hold what it is I am writing to field hockey legs.

A compliment from Uncle Slappy.

Last night I got home late but as if by magic the phone rang the moment I unlocked the last of the seven locks that keep the outside out in the wilds of upper Manhattan. It was, naturally, Uncle Slappy, the only non-fundraiser who actually calls on my home phone.

"So, Mr. Big Schott," he began. (Uncle Slappy begins roughly 40% of all his sentences with the word "so.")

"Passover. It's coming. So what do you want I should bring, besides my kishkas and my weak bladder and Sylvie?"

"Hi, Uncle Slappy. Don't even think of bringing anything. You're coming all the way from Florida."

"Some coconut patties, maybe you'd like?"

We had in the dark recesses of our over-stuffed kitchen cabinets about 12-year's worth of coconut patties.

"No, we're ok in the coconut patty department."

"So, maybe some fruit, dried. A nice package of figs?"

"No, really Uncle Slappy, we're up to our pupicks in figs. Just bring yourselves."

"So the room is finished, no more smelling like Mr. Benjamin Moore's armpit?" We had been painting our spare bedroom last time Slappy and Sylvie were up and our apartment fairly reeked of paint.

"No, Uncle Slappy, your room is shipshape. Copacetic. And all decked out with a new internet radio and a flatscreen."

"So, a Sony Trinitron you got us? Boychick," he said hanging up, "A mensch, you are."




Tuesday, March 27, 2012

An old man vents.

Tonight I had the great good fortune of going to an awards show and dinner for an award that means something to clients and planners and researchers, but is all but meaningless to me personally and to creatives in general.

But this is not my usual philippic about awards shows.

It's about a bigger problem:

The mix.

Now, I'll admit from the outset that I could give a rat's ass about Lady Gaga or Amy Winehouse or nearly any other contemporary talent. It's nothing against their contemporaryness.  It's just that my tastes--while broad and eclectic, run in different areas. My prerogative.

But tonight the "entertainment" at the awards show was a quartet called "The Midtown Men" whose claim to fame is that they were in the original cast of the "smash Broadway hit" Jersey Boys. So their entertainment consisted of re-warmings of songs from the 50s and 60s, from Frankie Valli to the Mamas and Papas.

I've spent some time thinking about this, I've spent time listening to the originals of the songs the Midtown Men imitated. One thing was clear: You could actually hear the words. And the melody. They were both important. Just not at the same time.

Listen to the Beatles. You can actually hear their poetry.
And Dylan.
And Simon and Garfunkel.
And scores of others.

Much of what I hear, see and read now gets the mix all wrong. Everything is turned up an extra notch so you can hear it. It's all too loud. Too shrill. Too insistent. Further, there is no hierarchy. Everything, every voice, every instrument, every riff is of equal importance. It becomes a melange of all colors...black.

It's like when a client asks you to bold "the important words, phrases or sentences" in a piece of copy. Before long, so many words are bolded, the regular type stands out.

Maybe this is just the venting of an old man who doesn't understand what "the kids today are listening to."

Guilty as charged.

However, that doesn't change what I believe.

When everything is turned up to 11, you can't hear anything.



Bert Sugar, 1936-2012.

There's an obituary worth reading in today's "New York Times," because although it's nominally about Bert Sugar, the boxing writer, it's really about hard-nosed writing that's blunt, tough and without pretense. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/27/sports/bert-sugar-boxing-writer-and-commentator-is-dead-at-74.html?_r=1&hpw

Here are the sentences from the "Times" that I think are most thought-provoking: “In the world of the early 1900s, still awash with Victorian gentility and doily-type embroidery on everything from manners and modes to conversation and conventional heroes,” he wrote to introduce an essay on the great black champion Jack Johnson, “the name of the heavyweight champion stood out in stark relief, a man of swaggering virility who epitomized the turbulent yet proud surety of the populace of a nation destined for greatness.”

In other word, there was bupkis Marquess of Queensberry about Jack Johnson. He was a subtle as a ham-sized fist to the face.

In advertising B.B. (Before Bernbach) and, sadly, today, we are currently "still awash with Victorian gentility and doily-type embroidery on everything from manners and modes to conversation..." Ads, presentations and everything else are tarted up like waterfront hookers. They're painted and laced and full of a frenzy of colors and decorations.

In boxing parlance, they feint and dance but don't hit you. They are cold and empty.

I come from a world where advertising was meant to be stripped down and bare. No pretense and decoration was allowed in.

Today, we've gone back to a more decorous (and decorative) time. And I think by adding things to our craft we have subtracted much.

Like meaning.

George Lois.

Last night, through the good graces of the robots at Amazon and the I heart logisticians of UPS, George Lois' new book "DAMN GOOD ADVICE (for people with talent!) How to Unleash Your Creative Potential by America's Master Communicator" arrived at my apartment. I haven't read it cover to cover as yet--I think Lois is a lot like a very rich cheese cake, you can really only stomach two or three bites at a sitting.

I was never a big fan of Lois' advertising output. As even the title of his book displays, I found his later work too full of forced exclamations and ALL CAPS. Too absolute and borrowed. Also, he seemed to create a helluva lotta ads with people flying through the air.

Nevertheless, no one can take anything away from much of his work and his Esquire covers remain the apotheosis of visual design.

His book is similar in format to Paul Arden's "It's Not How Good You Are, Its How Good You Want to Be: The World's Best Selling Book." And, Phaidon is publisher of both. And like Arden's book, Lois' is breezy and easy to read. Which does not mean it's slight, it means you can take it in, put it down and easily come back to something that provokes you. Like Arden's, Lois' is a bit of a pep talk, done in Lois' "you fuck-head" style.

Years ago I read a book called "The Strangest Man," about the great English physicist Paul Dirac. Like Einstein and other greats, Dirac maxed out at around the age of 26. He did important work after that but his giant bursts of creativity had ended.


The amazing thing about Lois is that you get the feeling reading the book that he hasn't yet burned out. He's been going and going and going for 60 years and could probably still smash you in the face and out work you.


The book cost $9.95 in the States.

When you got it, flaunt it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Work.

I have written a short thought piece for a client of mine about the tumult ordinary American consumers have gone through since the advent of the Great Recession. In it, as evidence, I inserted a fact: "7 out of 10 of the biggest stock market drops in history have occurred since 2007."

Late last night I got a note from an account person: "Where did you find that statistic."

I did not find that statistic, dear account person. I created it.

I thought.

I worked.

I said to myself, what would illustrate fear and disruption. I answered stock market drops.

Then I googled a list of largest declines.

I went through each one and marked the dates.

Then I saw a pattern.

That's where I "found" the statistic.

I don't know what is wrong with people. I'm often stopped and admired. "You know so many things; how do you do it?"

Well, here's how I do it.

I don't waste my time on stupid sports that eat up your free time. I don't follow Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian's ass.

I read. I observe. I think.

In the case of interesting facts it is digging.

Not finding. There isn't a magic google button.

I work.

Work is work.

There are no shortcuts.



Sunday, March 25, 2012

It happened to me.

Last week I was in focus groups in Dallas. We were using stimulus I had written and were now getting people's reaction to that stimulus.

One person said something I wrote was too upbeat, too happy.

And then a lady said it, "It's too yippee skippy."

That's me in a fucking nutshell.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

An afternoon at the Met.

My wife and I spent this lovely Spring day at the Metropolitan Opera in New York seeing Verdi's Macbeth, based, of course on Shakespeare's. After running through Wagner's Ring Cycle over the last couple of years, seeing an opera where you're in and out in about three hours is like watching a sitcom.

But naturally, this was no sitcom. It was wonderful Verdi, wonderful performance and the stirring psychological drama of the Bard.

A tenor called Thomas Hampson sang the title role and at the end of the opera as the cast and conductor were taking their bows, there was a special tribute to Hampson--who was celebrating the 25th anniversary of his debut at the Met.

He thanked all the people who had supported him along the way. But what really got me is when he said, "Most of all, I want to thank my detractors. For making me always try harder."

It was a beautiful afternoon.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday in the park with George.

For about the last three decades I have had a Thursday routine. (Occasionally Thursday happens on Friday, as it did this week.) It starts, my routine does, with a half mile walk to my psycho therapist (two words.) And ends with a walk across the park, another half mile to the subway. I do not listen to music during these walks, or walk as so many do so frequently with my nose to the screen of my iPhone. No, I walk and wonder and wander. It's, in all, about a two-hour escape from everything that is around me. A restorative niche. Something I need.

Today, as I walked across the park I saw a talk lanky Puerto Rican shadow boxing amid the blooming dogwoods, the forsythia and hordes of young women about to bring forth new Upper West Siders. I saw dogs cavorting and chasing. Kids of all ages on their way to school. And well-abbed runners ripping across the asphalt.

But mostly I watched, I stopped for a minute and watched the Puerto Rican jabbing at the ether. He danced nimbly and feinted the punches of his invisible opponent. When he turned around I noticed he had white block lettering on the back of his faded black t. His shirt read: Anthony "The Nightmare" Castellano.

His nickname, "The Nightmare," made me think of an agency president I worked with almost two decades ago. If I were a little more clever I would have called him  back in 1993 'Warren "The Nightmare" Dechter.'

Warren was one of the nicest guys I've ever met. He cared for his two daughters--which puts him high in my book. But as an account guy, Warren was a nightmare. I remember once he and I walked down 3rd Avenue together (this was the era when agencies could actually afford office space near their clients.) I was holding a 3/4" tape and said to Warren, "Listen when we present the spots, don't say anything about the mix. I know it's a little hot." Naturally, before the tape was even inserted in the machine Warren said "The mix is a little hot."

He could unsell ice cream in August.

The Nightmare.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Chaos and order.


video

As I have mentioned, I am reading George Dyson's new opus "Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe." It's a good book if you like reading about geniuses and machines that have fundamentally changed the world. At times, Dyson is over my head and I feel I need a degree in computer science to comprehend him. But it's no different really than reading a Russian novel and keeping all your Ivanoviches straight.

Last night I came upon a bit that really set my wheels turning. It was a statement by Turing and an associate of his, Jack Good. Something they realized when they were working together breaking German codes at Bletchley Park.

Here's the line: "Random search can be more effective than non-random search."

This statement, of course, is anti-podal to the way we expect the world to work. We look for answers--in life and in advertising--in a linear way. We Google, we research methodically, we create under the strictures of timesheets and allocation martinets.

As anyone with a messy closet, desk or unorganized set of bookshelves will tell you, searching--finding things is about getting lost. It's about finding a thread and pulling it until something interesting comes along for the ride.

Creativity, I think, is discovery, not mapping. It's turning blind alleys and dead ends into clear sailing and big sky.

I think it's more like Jackson Pollack (Jack the Dripper) than paint-by-numbers.

In other words more random than ordered.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Etch-a-sketch-vertising.

Earlier today Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, said on CNN “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign...Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

Fehrnstron, and this is unusual for a Republican, got me thinking. I thought about how often clients and agencies act as if their marketing communications can be shaken up and restarted. Wiped out with no trace left behind. Previous campaigns, previous viewers can be erased or lobotomized--wiped clean from our memories.

Of course, despite the way so many of us act, campaigns--even individual components of campaigns--are not so easily expunged. Nevertheless, we too often flit from one to the next simply because a franchisee's wife doesn't like it or we grow tired of it.

Regardless of the dumbing down of our world, our minds are not so easily toyed with. Our messages therefore must be adroit and impactful.

We can't just shake them away.


A message to my "Group Resource Manager."


One thing.

As readers of this blog know, I read a lot. My appetite for books, for knowledge borders on the insatiable. I am interested in a lot of things. I often think that if I were more focused, less peripatetic and esoteric, I would be teaching in a university somewhere far away from the fleshpots of Madison Avenue.

Years ago, I worked with Tony Kaye, the storied director. We worked closely together on a package of unscripted spots for IBM. Working with Kaye was an education. Before each shot, he would get in my face, sticking his beak about one inch from mine.

"What do you want them to say?" he would ask.

"Well," I fumbled "I want them to talk about their fears about data security."

"One thing," he would say.

I would try again to clarify.

And he, edging closer would say even more insistently, "One thing."

Often I am enmeshed in a 700 page book on the tank battle at Kursk or a 400-page biography of Alan Turing. I read such books, as I said above, cover to cover.

But in the end, I usually get one thing from them.

Sure, I might retain more than one fact. I might recall a lot of anecdotes. But one big idea is all I usually can handle.

There's a job open at a private school in Manhattan that I'm interested in applying to even though I have none of the stated qualifications. It's a job teaching middle and upper school world History. As I wrote a note to the interviewer in my head, I said this:

I understand history on three levels.

1. The dates. When Columbus sailed the ocean blue and all that.
2. The events. Like the importance of the Diet of Worms.
3. The meanings. The ramifications of seismic occurrences on humanity and the globe.

It's basically one thing.

This does not mean it doesn't take 700 pages of reading or a lifetime of thinking to get there.

But when you get there, you'll know.

There's just one thing.




Some enchanted evening.

video
As I wrote in an earlier post, I am reading right now "Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe" by Freeman Dyson's son (and Esther Dyson's brother) George Dyson. The book is a look into the lives, minds and experiments of some of the foremost scientists of the 20th Century. The men--and a few women--who unraveled the mysteries of physics, mathematics and more to develop both the H-bomb and our modern-day computers. Much of the book is centered on the work done at the Institute for Advanced Study, which assembled teams of thinkers which were to science what the 1927 Yankees were to baseball. That is, the best of the best. Legends all.

In the midst of my reading I happened to think of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song "Some Enchanted Evening" from the musical "South Pacific," particularly a couplet from the third verse:
"Fools give you reasons/Wise men never try." Here are the complete lyrics:

Some enchanted evening
You may see a stranger,
you may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
And somehow you know,
You know even then
That somewhere you'll see her
Again and again.

Some enchanted evening
Someone may be laughin',
You may hear her laughin'
Across a crowded room
And night after night,
As strange as it seems
The sound of her laughter
Will sing in your dreams.

Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons,
Wise men never try.


Some enchanted evening
When you find your true love,
When you feel her call you
Across a crowded room,
Then fly to her side,
And make her your own
Or all through your life you
May dream all alone.

Once you have found her,
Never let her go.
Once you have found her,
Never let her go!
 -
Those lines: "Fools give you reasons/Wise men never try" have extraordinary relevance in most of the great advances of mankind over the last few dozen millennia.  They were certainly resonant in Princeton when the "code" for our modern age was being written. Experimentation, intuition and imagination carried the day. Not just intelligence, logic and research.

After nearly 30 years in the advertising, I think those lines have a lot to teach us. There are scores of candy-asses running around agencies, and clients, and research companies--that have all the answers. They have boiled down the known universe (which--according to how much you know--is the unknown universe) into a series of "if-then" causalities.

They have mechanized advertising in order to take ideas and serendipity out.
They have time-sheeted things to eliminate inspiration.
They have new-speaked processes to obfuscate.

Reality isn't full of answers.
It's full of questions.




Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Diction.


I am often met with rolling eyes when I roll out my vocabulary. I read a lot—about a big thick book every week or so. I love words and study them. I learn new words, delightful, vibrant, lusty words and I enjoy using them.

I know how to temper things depending on my audience. In fact, I take great pride in my ability to simplify complicated processes or ideas. If I use a large—or unusual—word in your presence, it’s usually because I make the assumption if you’re reading my blog or if we’re having a conversation you can handle it.

What’s more I am annoyed and exasperated by both the lack of precision and the overuse of cliches and flaccid phrases found in most communications. In fact, if I ran the zoo I would fire people for calling websites “robust,” experiences “awesome” and anything “kewl.” (I would also boil in oil anyone calling me “Bro,” even my brother, Fred.)

Language is my currency. I try to use it carefully, surprisingly, attention-getting-ly.

Today I heard a story about language that really handed me a pretty good laugh. It involved a phone conversation between an account person, I’ll call her “Jill” and a client I’ll call “Wanda.”

JILL:                Wanda, what’s the matter. You seem a bit frazzled.
WANDA:         There’s a lot of shit flying here today and I’m feeling overwhelmed.
JILL:                Well, let me underwhelm you.

That’s all.

I’m done for the day.

But it's a really nice logo.

I am in Dallas.

Shit happens.

For focus groups.

See, shit really happens.

IPG has lowered our per diem to less than that of a Guantanamo inmate, so of course we are staying at a cheap ass hotel.

You know the type.

Pubic hair in the bathtub.

Not yours.

A business hotel run by people who probably never traveled for business.

The carpet is sticky.

The decor is depressing.

Did I mention pubic hair in the tub?

But they have a really nice logo.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Noise.

Right now I am in the middle of George Dyson's new book "Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe." It starts back in those dark, pre-computerized days with Alan Turing and Johnnie Von Neumann figuring out (with the help of others, of course) the basic architecture and underlying assumptions computers still follow today.

Right now, it's about 1948 or so and the action is happening at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton, New Jersey based Think Tank where so many advances came into fruition. The brilliant men and women there labor around the clock trying to make a machine work amid the chaos of unreliable and over-sensitive vacuum tubes. They also have to reckon with terrestrial forces--electrical surges, magnetic pulses and errant radio signals.

What they must to do to make the computing machine work is, simply "filter out the noise."

Today we live in the computer era. Every transaction and interaction we engage in is, it seems, through the medium of a computer. They are integral, intrinsic, insistent in our lives.

What we haven't learned to do--what we haven't gotten with all our getting--is a filter.

The noise is ever-present.

I went to a lecture on Sunday by a professor of Music called Orin Grossman. Grossman talked for an hour about how to listen.

He was right in pointing out that until the dawn of the 20th Century, it was nearly impossible to listen to music. There had to be an orchestra, or a quartet or a band around. And if they played Beethoven's "Eroica," you might go five years or more without having the chance to hear it again.

Today, we have too much. We have so much music we don't know how to hear it.

We have too much noise.

In music.

In politics.

In relationships (I do not need to know all my Facebook friends tell the world.)

And certainly in advertising.

We simply can't, as a society filter out the noise.

No wonder so many of our most-personal computers have stopped working.

My barber.

One thing I have going for me is a healthy head of hair. It's thinned a bit over the years, receded a few millimeters here and there but nonetheless my mane is full and, if you will, luxuriant.

In New York over the last few years there's been a proliferation of barbershops. The old ones all but disappeared in the 80s and 90s, the guys who would slather on Pinaud's "Lilac Vegetal" or "Clubman" after shaving your neck with a straight razor.

But since the breaking up of the Soviet Union, dozens of emigres, usually Jewish and from the old country have opened up small shops where you can get a decent cut for under $20. The give their shops names like "Jean Romano" or "Gents" but the Mezuzahs slanting on their door jambs give away their ethnicity.

I don't get my hair cut often, about four times a year, preferring a "hairstyle" for myself that is somewhere between Einstein's and Kramer's. Accordingly, I have never been able to have breezy conversations with barbers. I never know what to say, and frankly, those usual topics of barber-barbee conversation--sports and breasts--are not things I care to speak about. So, I make it a rule that I don't talk to barbers. I want to sit back, get trimmed and get out. To tell you the truth I don't even like when they hold a mirror behind me so I can see the back of my head. Again, I don't know what to say and, further, who the hell cares what the back of my head looks like.

Another rule I have is never to go to a barber more than three times. I figure if you see the same guy more often than that, you are in a bit of trouble. He's no longer "a barber." Now, he's "your barber."
He's your barber and now, you have a "relationship."

I don't want a relationship with my barber. I barely want a relationship with 96% of my friends, relatives and co-workers. I already, in fact, have too many relationships in my life.

The idea that I will have a relationship with a store or an airline or any other brand is absolutely ludicrous.

All I really want is to be left alone.


Friday, March 16, 2012

With apologies to Thorstein Veblen.

Way back in 1899, Norwegian-born University of Chicago professor Thorstein Veblen wrote a ground-breaking study and critique of "consumerism" called "The Theory of the Leisure Class." I won't go into discussing the book here. It's way too "heady" for me--especially while I'm quartered safe out here in Minneapolis.

What I will talk about is this:

Over the last two weeks, preparatory to some new work and some big meetings, I've spent more time with planners than is clinically-proven to be safe and healthy. I've heard about TED and SXSW until pontification is pouring from my pupik.* As Popeye would intone just prior to opening a can of spinach with his pipe: "I've had all I can stands and I can'ts stands no more."

What I realized last night when I was reading about Veblen is that since 1899 we have traveled as a society from "The Theory of the Leisure Class" to a horrifying place--to "The Leisure of the Theory Class."

That's right. "The Leisure of the Theory Class."

We have now in our business and in the world a class of anointed theorists. Call them CWOs (Chief Windbag Officers) who do little, but say a lot with no accountability.

They are the second guessers, the pre-judgers, the "I-wouldn't-have-done-it-that-way-ers." They are the the great un-accountables who produce nothing but hot air, nothing that lives and breathes, nothing that has an impact in the market. Nothing you can pin down. They come late to meetings and bring with them questions, never answers. They are suppository suppositionists. Always inserting doubt--never coalescing around conviction.

We pray, all of us in advertising, to many false gods and idols. To award shows that award work that doesn't work except in award shows. To decoration and trends. To technology used by the few, ignored by the many for the betterment of no one.

Do not bow down to the Theory Class.
-
* PUPIK: Belly button. Vulgar: vagina.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fear.

If there's one thing that characterizes the modern corporation--more than greed, more than "next-quarter-ness," more than self-centered-ness, it is fear.

We are meant to live in fear.

Fear of our next meeting.

Fear of coming up short.

Fear of disagreement.

Fear of speaking your mind.

Fear of having a mind.

Every 30 minutes or so, a chime sounds and another meeting convenes.

Are you prepared?

Will there be conflict?

What if they hate it?

Every 30 minutes, another spasm of fear.

Fear is the lifeblood of our corporate state.

Fear that you'll be tossed out on your ear.

Fear of competition.

Fear over a host of vagaries that can't be controlled.

Agencies often, sadly, destructively, buy into fear cultures.

They become, accordingly, small, nasty, brutish places
that place ass-kissery uber alles.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My anti-Semitic iPhone.

If you text "Oy" on your iPhone, the text "corrects" itself to read "it." Giving rise to a new Yiddishism: "It vey."

Orwell. Huxley. And LaGuardia.

I had a conversation with someone yesterday, a rare person in advertising whom I actually respect. He's a smart guy and he has a larger view than that of most of the myopics that rule the business.


We talked--briefly--there can be no spontaneity in our Microsoft-meetinged-world, all time is apportioned out in 15-minute increments and I had been granted just one. He told me he wanted me to be more of a mentor, to help people become better "story-tellers."

I pushed back and said, I think it's more elemental than that. I can't even comprehend most of the "I'm leaving the company" memos that go out. I think we need to start with Orwell's 6-principles of good writing.



So in the interest of starting, here they are, from Orwell 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language":


"I think the following rules will cover most cases:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. 

    ---

    While we're on the topic of Orwell--always a dangerous subject when you're in the tyranny of a medieval American airport, I thought I'd quote a little Neil Postman from his modern classic "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

    "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.

    "What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

    "Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.


    "Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.

    Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

    "Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.

    Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

    "As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distraction.'


    In "1984," Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In "Brave New World," they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

    "In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.

    Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."


     

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Perspective.


About 12 years ago I had a new job and was reporting directly to Steve Hayden--arguably one of the most famous names in the advertising industry. I was still new at Ogilvy. I was not yet comfortable in my skin and I was intimidated by Steve. I feared I would be "found out," that I wouldn't be regarded as good enough for him.

In any event, one evening Steve called me at home on my land line. My wise ass 12-year-old daughter picked up the phone and went off in her pre-teen sassy way. "What do you want to speak to my father for."

"Who is it," I asked her.

"Some guy called Steve Hayden," she said to me.

"Give me the phone."

Instead she gave Steve some lip. Just a 12-year-old acting age appropriately.

I grabbed the phone from her and said something stupid like, "He's one of the 10 most important people in advertising."

To which my charming daughter replied, "It's not like he's Ricky Martin or anything."

Treating creatives well.

One of the things I've noticed over the course of my last two or three decades in the advertising business is that there is a linkage between how well employees (particularly creatives) are treated by their agency and how good that agency's creative winds up being.

Too many agencies--and HR groups especially--make the mistake of thinking that agency creatives work for agencies. The fact of the matter is that any creatives worth their salt works first for themself. They have something inside them that burns to do something they think is good, funny, smart, important.

This isn't related to how well they'll perform on a 360-review or some plastic cube they'll get handed at some overblown agency function. It's about stoking the fire inside.

Shitty agencies (and by shitty I mean most) forget or never knew that a creative is a rare bird. Things like being forced to fly early to meetings because someone screwed up buying your "non-refundable" ticket are petty indiscretions. They are blows to the confidence and ego of creatives.

I'm not one that thinks creatives should be treated like prima donnas. That's not my point. My point is that good creative is a whole body experience. You live and breathe your brands 24/7. You focus on it like no one else in the agency. Being treated well is part of that restorative niche I spoke about in a post from last week.

Mother fuckers.

Monday, March 12, 2012

From whence I stay.

Right now I am in the middle of about 11 highway cloverleafs, in between 16 big-box stores, surrounded by cheap townhouses made with Chinese drywall. In other words, I am in darkest suburbia for focus groups, this time in Westchester County, in a town called Elmsford.

Here are some things Wikipedia has to say about Elmsford:

"Elmsford's road system connects to numerous major highways and thoroughfares, including Interstate 287, the Saw Mill River Parkway, and Route 9A; the North County Trailway and South County Traolway bicycle paths terminate there...Convenient to White Plains, Yonkers, New York City and Connecticut, the village is a significant center of commercial traffic and distribution. It is home to the large Local 456 of the Teamsters union....

"...A longstanding legend holds that Elmsford is the birthplace of the term "cocktail". According to the tale, a local colonial tavern (sometimes said to be established by town father Isaac Storm) had run out of wooden stirrers during the war and started using the quills of roosters' tailfeathers to stir their drinks...."

There is no mention of either Elms or Fords.


On the way up here we passed the shopping center I was born in. In the center of the center stands a six-story building that used to be sheathed in blue brick. It was until about 20 years ago Cross County Hospital. Then, until recently, it became Mercy College. Today the building is covered in glass and steel--an homage to what was modern in the 50s--and appears to be an office building.
I live now about nine miles south of Cross County Shopping Center.  I am at focus groups about nine miles north.

I haven't gone very far in my life.


Quiet time.

Last week I found out I was scheduled to attend a ton of out-of-town meetings, none of which could be missed. Ordinarily I accept meetings like I accept dental work. It, or they, have to be done and putting them off only causes greater pain later. That said, these meeting happened to coincide with my younger daughter coming home from college for a week and--such is the loveliness of our relationship--we both wanted to spend time with each other.

As an alternative, I took off today (though I will be in focus groups from 3-8) and I'm taking off tomorrow, though I will be flying tomorrow afternoon.

What people, I think, fail to understand is the nature of time spent with something or someone you care about.  I had nothing I planned to do with my daughter, I just want to be with her. I wanted her in the kitchen while I cooked lunch, I wanted to watch a great old movie with her (we saw David Lean's little known gem, "Hobson's Choice," starring Charles Laughton) I wanted to walk to Central Park with her and watch the kids and the dogs and the nannies and the trees about to bloom.  And talk, just talk and maybe hold her precious little hand in mine.

I think a lot of people don't realize that there's a lot of enjoyment, a lot of value in simply breathing. In our business we talk about creating experiences and "activating" brands. And no doubt such things are important.

But also important, I think, is a brand who is, simply, there for you. It's not always wrestling for your attention or jumping up and down and shouting. It's not always exhorting. It just is.

That's what I wanted to do with my daughter, a whole lot of nothing. And we did. And now, as she should be, she's off with her city friends and I'm about to go to Elmsford, NY for focus groups.

But we had our time together. Nothing outstanding or amazing or memorable or seminal happened. No great belly laughs. Just our connection and time together and conversation.

I think when brands understand that is when they become really important.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Zulu Road Runners.

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to spend my summers in a camp for boys in New Hampshire where we could play baseball virtually all day and swim when we were not playing ball.

These were long summer days, far away from the strife that was afflicting America: the Vietnam war, kids taking over college campuses, riots in the cities, drugs virtually everywhere and runaway crime. We spent the summer hearing instead of police sirens, the shooop! of ball into leather and the splash of brave divers in the lake. It was enforced innocence, these days. Where the world was far away. None of us kids knew how lucky we were.

That said, reality often encroached. One of my baseball coaches was a Mickey Mantle-esq figure named Nelson Chase. Chase received a phone call at camp--a rarity in these pre-cellular days. His best friend was killed in Southeast Asia. It was hard to see a coach you idolized crying like a baby. Another coach was Tom Nadeau, who had been a sergeant in Vietnam. Nadeau was like a Doonsebury character, wearing his fatigue shirt with the sleeves cut off to show his biceps over his baseball uniform. Nadeau chewed us teenagers out and exercised us like we were in his platoon. "What's it to you, Tom Nadeau?" he trained us to say. Another coach was a drug-addled pitcher named Andre who had a fastball to die for. He had returned from Vietnam and didn't last at camp long enough--his drug-addled-ness caught up with him--for me to learn his last name.

These encounters with the real world real-world-ized us. We became rebellious, long-haired, surly. In other words, teenagers. Getting away with murder became our reason for being.

There was a small town about four miles away from the camp. There was a grocery store, an ice cream stand and girls in the town, which made it a place we wanted to escape to. Except camp never took us there. We were a self-contained community with no reason to escape from the friendly confines.

Bobby Goldsmith a sinewy outfielder had the idea. "Let's run to town" he posed. "If they think we are doing it for exercise, they'll let us go." So about six of us formed a running club, "The Zulu Road Runners." We began running to and fro around the campus. Running in a pack everywhere we went. We magic markered our t-shirts to read Zulu Road Runners.

Eventually, we went to camp authorities and said we needed longer distances to run. We somehow got permission to run to town and back. Which we did, about three times a week. Though sometimes we hitched back instead, the six of us piled in the back of a compliant pickup truck.

We'd get to town and buy a soda or some candy bars. We never met any girls. The main point however was that we beat the system.

We got out.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Yonkers.

I was born in Yonkers, a hardly bucolic city in bucolic Westchester county--abutting the Bronx and New York City. I think we are like sea turtles in a way, points early in our lives are imprinted on our brains and we return to them.

I have a feeling for Yonkers that I have for no place else. I like that it is rough and tumble, down at the heels, and scrappy.

I live now about ten miles from the defunct hospital I was born in. But I like reminders of Yonkers. And I take them where I can get them. I saw this bumper sticker on the door of a bar called American Trash on First Avenue.


Screws explain it all.

My big weekend project is to install a shower curtain rod. There was nothing wrong with our old rod. It's served us well for the 13+ years we've lived in our home. But my wife, in her infinite-wifedom decided we needed a nice shower bar, one that curves outward. As Sgt. Bilko would say, "It has sweep."

So I went to a local hardware store--one run by Russian Jewish emigres--and bought a box of 30 3/16th-inch screws with 30 accompanying anchors. They cost $4.99--roughly 8 and 1/3-cents a piece.

Somehow, however, those simple screws were sourced from seven different countries. And somehow, despite all the distance they were shipped, they wound up in my apartment costing less than five bucks.

When you make a commodity you can be outsourced. If you don't make anything special, anyone can do what you do.

So much of what is now done by ad agencies--"front-end" development, user experience protocols is infrastructure development. It's not differentiated. Or differentiateable.

As long as we make parity products ours will be a low wage, low margin, low value industry.

In other words, we'll be screwed.


Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting notes.


A repost: My father gets a gift from Mae Clarke.

video




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Modernity.

When I was last on vacation, back in January, I kept a promise to myself to either read or re-read a classic book.

By classic I do not mean something written in the last 30 years.

I mean something writ long ago that will last forever.

In the past, I've read "Don Quixote," "Robinson Crusoe," "Canterbury Tales." "Gilgamesh." Things like that. Things that help demarcate Western thought and civilization.

This past vacation I read Peter Ackroyd's new translation of Thomas Mallory's epic "Le Morte d' Arthur." It was published about 650 years ago and was, in a sense, the "Harry Potter" of its day. In fact, without "Le Morte d'Arthur" chances are there would be no Hogwarts.

Just now I was reading an ad blog or online magazine, I forget which and a new hire was called by his new boss "a modern creative."

I wonder what that means.

No, really.

Modern, when it comes to art, means the period after WWII until about the early 70s. It does not mean contemporary. In fact, Rockefeller's bequest to the Museum of Modern Art prohibits it from becoming a museum of contemporary art.

I read these classics and try to picture myself in the era they were written. Reading them as current works, not antiquities.

I found this line from "Arthur."

When Arthur discovers Gawain dead, he says he is: “face down in the field, fists full of grass.”

Is that not modern because it is 650 years old?

Wrath.

A few weeks ago I heard a talk about a guy who's made a living thinking about the nature of happiness.

Yes, I said happiness.

His name is Brian R. Little and he's a Distinguished Scholar in the Department of Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Cambridge in, of course, Cambridge, England. Before Cambridge, he plied his cerebral trade at a different Cambridge, the one that is the home of basketball powerhouse Harvard University.

All this to say, Little is a very brainy guy.

There was a lot to the lecture but what stuck most with me with Little's notion of the need of a "restorative niche."

Most people when they extend themselves--either in their work lives or their life lives--exhaust themselves. After making a great effort, there is a equal and opposite reaction. Often that reaction is the need for collapse.

Little calls it the need for a "restorative niche."

Restorative niche.

One of the dopiestier things that's happened in our business is the absolute and complete destruction of restorative niches.

Offices allow no privacy. If you're lucky you might have access to something called a huddle room or some similar--when the last thing you want is a huddle. You want a time out.

Speaking of time outs--the timesheet tyrants have all but eliminated downtown. Make changes to an asinine deck till 2:30 in the morning and you'll still have hell to pay for some timesheet peccadillo. Eeek--your "usability" or billability might be sullied.

I have news for all the asses who treat us like chattel.

We are humans.

We need our Restorative niche.

The joys of advertising.

Yesterday we had to prepare a couple of ads for testing. Like an expensive Swiss watch, the client called exactly on cue--this is after having seen essentially the same ad for about three months.

"Make the call to action larger."

There was no push back from account, their suits as empty as a one-armed paper-hanger's sleeve.

"Make the call to action larger," they harumphed.

Of course, we resisted.

But as the deadline neared we gave in.

We made the type 1/2 a point bigger.

The client was now happy.

The call to action was now 1/144ths of an inch larger.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Titles.

One of the things that has, over the last few decades, fucked the world with a jagged iron rod is the ridiculous names and titles that are today given to jobs that used to be perfectly respectable.

I waited in a stupidly long line at a drug store today only to be surlyized by a cashier who instead of being called a cashier was called a customer specialist.

I am surrounded by people at work who have superfluous words like senior, group, associate and director in their titles--words that are all but meaningless.

I suppose this obfuscation is cheaper than giving people more money. They hand out complicated names instead, hoping they will inspire pride.

Naturally, the most egregious name change is a department-wide one. From personnel to human resources. Most often human resource people aren't human and they have no resources.

Personally, I've had a raft of titles in my life. A few of them teetered on the edge of lofty.

But whenever I'm in a meeting and have to introduce myself I say I'm a copywriter.

 I don't say I'm an Executive Creative Director.

Or I'm a creative.

I write copy.

The paper principle.

Many organizations have been making a concerted effort over the last few years and decades to eliminate paper.

We no longer get paychecks. We can check, but don't, our direct deposits online.

We no longer get memos on our desks when important agency news is announced. People we never talk to send us emails we never open.

Even when we present print ads--which are often read on paper media--we show them on flatscreen monitors, ignoring how dissimilar looking at an ad on-screen is like looking at an ad in a magazine. (So much for our concern with user experience.)

And many of the companies who hold us in their extortionate grip either because they're near-monopolies or because they charge you to leave them, seek to charge us for sending us bills on actual paper.

Further, paper-based institutions reel. The post office is bankrupt, or nearly so, and few newspapers are what used to be called going concerns.

Well, let me say this.

I like paper.

I like my paystub in my hands not on my screen. I like to hold memos in my hand and actually take a moment to read them. I like to see on paper with ink what I am being charged.

The real nail in the paper coffin isn't its lack of utility or its environmental unfriendliness. I don't even think it's its cost relative to pixels. I think paper is a commitment that most people and companies don't like to make. It has a stature. It demands a thoughtfulness. It must stand up to additional scrutiny.

I like paper.

It's simpler.

It's clearer.

It can be held.

It's better than it's digital alternatives.

And I miss it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A thought during a status meeting.

What's dumber, a bag of rocks or a box of hammers?

My big brother Fred.

My big brother Fred turns 56 today. 56. Which to me, a mere stripling at 54, sounds both old and significantly closer to 60 than I could ever imagine. After all, when Mozart was 56, he was dead for 21 years.

Fred was always the fastest and the brightest of us kids. He was also probably the most linguistically able--he could turn anything into a groan-inducing pun. And he was by far the most argumentative. He's a lawyer, Fred is, and has been for about the last 35 years. All those skills serve him well, though I suspect some of his more austere corporate clients want to throttle him when he makes one of his horrible jokes.

We grew up in an advertising household. My father was a three-martini-fueled skirt-chaser, which would have been ok if he hadn't been so light on his feet as to catch a few dozen of those skirts. It's hard on a marriage skirt-chasing is, but not nearly as hard as skirt-catching.

Fred and I, unlike other kids in the neighborhood, grew up watching the commercials not the shows. But when it came time to choose a career, Fred chose law. And I, instead, chose advertising. Unlike my old man, who had had a number of heart-attacks and a well-honed drinking problem, Fred and I aren't in bad shape. We both run a few times a week and try to stay within spitting distance of our fighting weight, though I've been less successful at that than Fred..

We probably make around the same amount of dough, Fred and I. But he is much smarter about money than I and probably has a lot more.

Fred and I are both sober types, not given to great displays of enthusiasms. Our wives--both of whom are more social than we--regard us, I'm sure as misanthropic or even lugubrious. But that's ok. That's who we are.

Every birthday for about the last 30 years Fred and I call each other. My conversation with him is roughly as it's always been.

"Happy Birthday, Fred."

"It's not my birthday" he lashes. "It's the anniversary of my birth."

That's life with my brother.

Happy birthday, Fred.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Mr. Veal Chop.

For most of my life I've been going to an out of the way restaurant in a secluded corner of Manhattan, under the elevated IRT tracks on the fringe between Morningside Heights and Harlem. For a large portion of that time the neighborhood around the restaurant was downright frightening--scary enough to keep the casual diner away, but now as the neighborhood has bloomed (a la there is a rose in Spanish Harlem), the restaurant's popularity has gone through the roof.

Fortunately, most of the staff know me, and I can almost always get in with only a short wait. One of the advantages of going to a place for over 30 years.

I went this weekend, solo (my wife hates the place) and talked to Gil Altman, the founder and owner of a joint called "Mr. Veal Chop."

Ad Aged:  Tell me about  starting Mr. Veal Chop.

Gil: I woke up one morning in the 60s and realized New York didn't have a really great Veal Chop restaurant. There were places that specialized in Mutton Chops and Lamb Chops but no place that lived and breathed veal chops.

Ad Aged: So, in a sense, you willed yourself to become Mr. Veal Chop.

Gil: That's right. And Mr. Veal Chop became the only place in New York you could get a bucket of veal chops for a reasonable price. We make each veal chop by hand and serve them, proudly by the bucket.

Ad Aged: What's changed over the years?


Gil: Not a lot. Today we still make every chop individually and sell them by the bucket. Now we have original and extra crispy and back in the 80s we added Brussels Sprouts as a side dish, served by the flagon full.


Ad Aged: I think your flagons of sprouts are the best I've ever had. Though sometimes the Brussels Sprouts get trapped in the spout.

Gil: Last year, we added pitchers of Kale as an alternate side. But the demand just wasn't there and we dropped the item. We're testing Swiss Chard as we speak. Would you like a gourd of chard, on the house.


Ad Aged: No, I'm stuffed. I had the hungry-man bucket of veal chops and two flagons of sprouts. Thanks for your time today, Gil. I'll see you soon.

I paid my bill (which has just about quadrupled since I began eating at Mr. Veal Chop) and waddled my way home.







Bad mood Monday.

As people who know me and readers of Ad Aged are aware, nine mornings out of 10, I get in hours before everyone else. Not only is this the time of the day when I think most clearly, it's well before the banal crush of the day-to-day tumbles over me like boulders down a steep escarpment. Morning is the time to get things done without interruption, without oozing account people, without chatter and without incessant, encroaching chazerei.*

Since I've been in the agency business for almost 30 years, people often ask me what's changed. And, undoubtedly plenty has. But, as I like to croon Dooley-Wilson-like, "the fundamental things apply, as time goes by."

There is, and always has been in our industry a subject-object between what people say they're going to do and what they actually do. There is, always has been, always will be a purgatory between the talkers and the doers. Between pontificators and pen-to-paper-ists.

I come in early because I am alive and energetic and eager to "do what needs to be done." I have little regard for those whose attitudes are bigger than their portfolios.
-
 *cha·ze·rei

[khah-zuh-rahy; Eng. hah-zuh-rahy] 
noun Yiddish.
anything of little value; junk; garbage.



Saturday, March 3, 2012

The importance of being retail.


Years ago there was a giant fruit stand on the West Side, on Broadway between 74th and 75th that was the apotheosis of cantaloupes, apples and the like. In those days, the late 70s and early 80s, there were fruit stands every couple of blocks in Manhattan but nevertheless, Fairway was worth the trip. The fruit was fresher, bigger, better and there was virtually always something, some kind of delicacy you'd never seen before.

Over the years that single Fairway grew and grew. It expanded from its fruity roots to include fish, deli, a butcher, breads, cheeses, olives and grocery. Fairway also opened up in a variety of different city locations. They opened a big store in Harlem on 12th Avenue and 129th Street, they opened in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Douglaston, Queens and even in Stamford, Connecticut. Last summer they opened in my neck of the wood, the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

There's something about a great market that excites me. In a great market they know many of the things great clients and great agency people know. They know how to display their wares attractively, they know how to innovate, they know how to create signage. They know, most of all, how to make shopping fun, convenient and even exciting.

I worked at Bloomingdale's in their advertising department when it was widely considered the most exciting and important store in the world. Those attributes that I listed above applied to Bloomies as well. I've also been to two of the great Bazaars of the world, Khan El Khalili in Cairo and Kapalıçarşı, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. You get the same rush from those places, as you do from all the various Apple Stores that dot our landscape.

It's stunning to me that most e-commerce sites are anti-septic while most successful retailers are anything but.

I've often thought that the best way to see if a creative is worth hiring is to take a walk with them through a grocery store. If they're excited about products, display and marketing they'll likely be excited about doing interesting work. If they're not energized by the selling of stuff, thank them very much for their time and keep looking for someone who is.


Finally, and the precipitant for this post was this sign I just saw in Fairway. "Our Nuts Are Now Alphabetized."