Thursday, May 31, 2012

The work that goes into the work.

During my last couple of years at Ogilvy, I had what was by far the best, most prolific run of my career. I've always enjoyed doing print more than anything else and, it seemed, I was doing most of the print for the biggest account in the agency. In fact, I had three print campaigns running simultaneously and it was not unusual for me to open up the "Times" or "The Wall Street Journal" and see one if not more of my ads.

There's something about seeing an ad you wrote in the paper that is the advertising equivalent of hitting a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the ninth. I don't think the sensation grows old.

One of the by-products of success is, of course, jealousy and back-stabbing. People--always ready to tear someone else down--targeted me. I was producing all that work, they said (behind my back, naturally) because I was up someone's ass or because by some nefarious means I had gotten lucky.

As a copywriter, I am a saver. My process, often, is to type. Type lines, type body copy, type puzzles and then try to unpuzzle the problem. I name and save all these files. What I found was this: Most of the ads I wrote had headlines that were about six words long. Body copy ran about a total of 75 words. In all, an ad consisted of about 80 words.

I checked my files.

I had written thousands and thousands of words to get to those 80. It wasn't unusual to go through 15 rounds of revisions with the client.

So, if my run of ads consisted of 30 ads in all, I might have written 500 revisions and 60,000 words.

Further, it probably took me three years of hard work to be in the position to do this hard work. I wasn't anointed. Rather I had come through on myriad other assignments so my bosses and my clients trusted me to handle these.

Too many people think advertising is easy. They see a spot they like or they think is good and they say (as people used to say about, say, Jackson Pollack, 'my kid could do that.')

They don't see, don't recognize, don't realize the work that goes into the work.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Some ancient words.

I'm fortunate to be blessed, I think, with a demanding mind. A lot of things interest me and I take great joy in learning. It's vexing sometimes because I have so much I want to read next to decide what to read. The world is a rich place for me, with much to offer.

One of the subject areas I return to with frequency is Greek and Roman history. My interest in these matters stems from my childhood inculcation with Latin. There is very little I've ever read that's more gripping than Thomas Macauley's "Lays of Ancient Rome."


I
Lars Porsena of Closium
By the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
By the Nine Gods he swore it,
And named a trysting day,
And bade his messengers ride forth,
East and west and south and north,
To summon his array.
II
East and west and south and north
The messengers ride fast,
And tower and town and cottage
Have heard the trumpet's blast.
Shame on the false Etruscan
Who lingers in his home,
When Porsena of Clusium
Is on the march for Rome.

I think about Virgil or Homer or eve Macauley when I read about the binaryists among us who relish in claiming that digital communication has changed everything.

Right now I am reading Classicist Philip Matyszak's latest book "The Classic Compendium: A miscellany of scandalous gossip, bawdy jokes, peculiar facts and bad behavior from the ancient Greeks and Romans."

Matyszak peppers his breezy volume with Elithio Phoitete jokes. (Elithio Phoitete means, in Greek, "idiot student.") The jokes are thousands of years old yet their construction is not much different from how we tell jokes today.

"Elithio Phoitet is talking with two friends. One says: 'We are wrong to slaughter sheep for they provide us with wool for our clothes and blankets.' The other adds: 'We should not kill the cow, which provides us with milk and cheese.' Elithio agrees: 'And we should not kill the pig either, because it provides us with such choice cuts of meat.'"

Now, that reminds me of another joke:

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and says to the bartender "I'd like a martinus."
The bartender says, "You mean a martini."
Caesar replies, "If I wanted more than one, I would have asked for it."



Job creators.

Over the past few years, as our country has once again become riven in two (the old Civil War boundaries are becoming relevant again) we've heard much talk from Republicans about the need to bestow upon the wealthy tax cuts. These cuts allow billionaires to pay less tax than their secretaries, their illegal immigrant gardeners and the everyday riff raff who fight our wars.

That seeming anomaly is deemed okay, however, because billionaires are "job creators." In getting and spending they don't lay waste their powers as Wordsworth claimed. Rather they create jobs.

In a world filled with absurdities (like Donald Trump playing a role in the presidential race) the notion of job creation might take the cake.

Some dozens of years ago the average CEO made ten times what the average worker made. Today the average CEO makes on the order of 100 times what his workers make. That means, simply, 90 average jobs lost to pay the CEO.

From an advertising point of view, what are we in our business if not "job creators"? The best of our work creates demand, which demands production, which creates jobs.

We are "bards of commerce." We grease the wheels of capitalism. We are the job creators.

That seems to me, solipsistic as it is, to make sense.

However some quick back-of-the-envelope mathematics tells me that if my wife and I were taxed at the same rate as Mitt and Ann, we would have paid $127,000 less. If we were taxed at the same rate as Barack and Michelle, we would have paid $91,000 less.






Tuesday, May 29, 2012

An evening in the world's second largest Jewish city.

To be a Jew, I think, is to be always on the outside. With the exception of a small strip of desert in the Middle East and a small strip of asphalt in New York City, Jews are a minority wherever they go. Actually, minority is the best of it. In many places and times, Jews were outcasts. They were hated and reviled. Scorned, persecuted, killed.

Outsiderness is our condition. Not always comfortable. But it's served us well. It's made us more aware of our surroundings. More alive to the hope, humor, tragedy and possibilities of the world.

How else can you explain someone like Billy Wilder the great director? Wilder spoke no English when he arrived in America from Nazi-fied Europe in 1933. Yet by the end of his career he had gained 21 Academy Award nominations and seven Oscar wins.

Tonight I had the great good fortune of shopping for books with my younger daughter. She's leaving for the summer to teach scuba diving in the Caribbean and wanted to make sure she had something decent to read. Walking home on 86th Street I saw a man a few years older than me wearing the t-shirt I've pasted above.

It reads "Fall Flanken Festival 2011   You hafta have a heart to have heartburn."

It's nice to feel at home.


A sartorial insight.

It's as hot as an armpit in hell in New York this morning.

The temperature is in the 90s, as is the humidity. And it all feels a little worse because the winter's kinks haven't been worked out of air conditioning systems. Also, I'm a bit sunburnt and that exacerbates things.

Despite that, I put on a suit this morning. I had a meeting with the CEO of my key client. So I put on a suit.

I believe in dressing nicely for clients. Sure, when I'm on a shoot I dress as I want. But when I'm in an Oriental-carpeted, wood-paneled conference room with a suite of C's, I put on a suit.

It makes them comfortable.

It says you're simpatico.

In a sense it says you're listening.

About 42 years ago I learned something about the semiotics of clothing.

I was in seventh grade Latin class and our teacher was holding court. There was a dance coming up the next Friday night and Mr. Comeau told us that boys would be required to wear a sport jacket and a tie.

We found that egregious.

This was the early 70s--a jacket and tie was against our creed. We wanted to wear jeans. Clothing that everyone else wore that said we were different.

Why do we have to dress up? we protested.

Mr. Comeau answered with real wisdom.

"If you're wearing a jacket and tie, you're less likely to roll on the floor."

That's why I put on a suit this morning.

I didn't want the client to picture me rolling on the floor.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

We should have known better.

I am up in Cape Cod with my family, staying at one of the world's most idyllic places, the Chatham Bars Inn.

I'm lucky.

I like my family. They like me. We want to spend time together (within reason.) And we can afford it (within reason.)

In any event, our room is decorated with small prints that depict American aphorisms from a few centuries ago.

The one shown above reads, "A Sailor between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats" and is attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

We've forgotten, in advertising, about lawyers. They run our holding companies. They run our clients. They make the rules that benefit only them.

And we are a fish between two cats.


Friday, May 25, 2012

One isn't the loneliest number.

Some years ago I worked for a termagant of a boss (look it up) who was in the process of ordering me to do or write something.

I said to her, "What's the one most important thing you want to say?"

"They're all most important" was her response.

Yesterday I was in a meeting where it was decided we had two primary targets.

I've only been back a week but I'm looking forward to the long weekend.


Some poetry has died.

I realize I write a lot about dead people. But ever since I was, as we say in New York, knee-high to a cockroach I have enjoyed reading the death notices in "The New York Times." They are, at their best, portraits of the large and small who have changed our world.

Today there is the obituary of Hal Jackson, a pioneering radio announcer who died at 96 having spent more than seven decades on the air. Jackson, who was black, became one of the first black announcers in the nation, defying the "no nigger" policy then prevalent across "the land of the free."

The inflammatory Rev. Al Sharpton had this to say about Jackson: "Hal was the constant voice of black America...From M.L.K. to a black president, he literally was the one who connected those dots.”

It's a great story, the obituary, and well worth the three or five minutes it will take you to read it. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/25/nyregion/hal-jackson-pioneer-in-radio-and-racial-progress-dies-at-96.html?_r=1&ref=obituaries  If nothing else it will remind you of the progress America has made in race relations as well as the power of persistence and dreaming. Jackson broke through like few others have.

But the biggest thing I got out of the obituary are the words below. We forget about, too often, the power of living language and poetry. Jackson had the gift. And he will be missed.

“This is Hal Jackson, the host that loves you the most, welcoming you to ‘The House That Jack Built.’ We’re rolling out the musical carpet, and we’ll be spinning a few just for you. So come on in, sit back, relax and enjoy your favorite recording stars from here to Mars.”

Thursday, May 24, 2012

32 years of therapy.

A friend of mine just sent me a note.

She's unhappy in her job and was offered a new one elsewhere.

At the last moment she turned down the offer.

And today she heard that the account she was to run is up for review.

Her situation reminded be of some of the pains of our business, many of which I have spent my therapeutic hours discussing.

Here's what I wrote to her:

You can't control all the shit that can happen in the world.
The crappy bosses.
The bait and switch when you arrive at a job.
The holding-company ass-raping.
The only things you can control are who you are.
The work you try to do.
The network you build.
The integrity of your self.
If you hold those things intact,
whatever happens--even if you have a rough period at a shit hole--
you'll be ok.
Because you are bigger than your fucking penny-ante job.

___________________ are dead.

Yesterday a friend from another agency passed along a resignation note to me. The note contained these pearls of "wisdom."


Mostly the usual bushwa, or folderol, or out and out nonsense.

That, you know, ideas are dead.

That it's all about the fucking experience.

Blow it out your unshaven hipster sphincter.

What shocks me about this is how removed it all is from the reality of the world we live in. Virtually everything we come into contact with in the world works or fails according to the idea it is founded upon.

Many of us gravitated toward Obama because of the way he coalesced the idea of "change." We adore Apple because they have cornered the market on thinking "different." Many move to Brooklyn because its resurgence has been anchored to the idea of "cool."

Undoubtedly many ideas fall flat. Many commercials blow. Most ads are hardly suited to wrap fish in.
However in an increasingly noisy world, a world full of distractions and warring pixels, it's only natural and normal for humans to try to filter and organize the mayhem. We do this based on the ideas brands present. The ideas that make things stand for something in our lives.

All these pseudo-pundits who seem to be endlessly proclaiming that ideas are dead forget that that in and of itself is an idea. Though a stupid one.

What they really are is patricides. Most of these experiences they trumpet are made possible because of the necessary preconditions established by a foundational idea. They are killing, or trying to, the father who birthed them.

As Faulkner spat in his "Requiem for a Nun," "The past isn't dead; it's not even past."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eugene Polley dead at 96.

One of the maladies of nearly every age is that humans have a tendency to believe that they invented everything. Just as every teenager believes that he or she invented sex, mankind seems to act as if nothing ever preceded it.

I think about this because Eugene Polley, a Zenith engineer's death notice is in "The New York Times" today. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/business/eugene-t-polley-inventor-of-the-wireless-tv-remote-dies-at-96.html?_r=1&ref=obituaries Of course you haven't heard of Polley, nor had I. But he invented the wireless remote control for television. Here's what he said about it:  “The flush toilet may have been the most civilized invention ever devised, but the remote control is the next most important. It’s almost as important as sex."

This all happened nearly 60 years ago when Zenith president Eugene McDonald believed viewers would revolt en masse against television because of the "scourge of commercials."

So Polley invented the first "zapper." Back in 1955.

Today, of course, you can't spit in a modern advertising agency without hitting a 24-year-old telling you that TV is dead. That all commercials are zapped.


Maybe it's time for us in advertising to take a different view of commercials.

Maybe--despite all the protestations--people actually like them.

If they didn't, after all, they could just zap them.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Who will monitor the monitors?


A friend sent me this photo of a co-worker's computer monitor this morning.

On not ignoring noise.


I am reading right now Jon Gertner's new book "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation." It tells the stories of experimentation and breakthrough among the theorists and scientists at one of America's most innovative, advanced and anti-Semitic laboratories.

Last night I read further into the development of the transistor, one of the essential building blocks of the digital age. I also came upon this flow chart created by Claude Elwood Shannon. He claimed, and I think he is right, that "all communication systems could be thought of in the same way, regardless of whether they involved a lunchroom conversations, a post-marked letter, or a radio or telephone transmission."

I've worked in the communications business for all my adult life. I used to write catalogs for Montgomery Ward. Houseware ads for Bloomingdale's. Traditional print ads. TV commercials. Websites. Banner ads. Radio commercials. Direct mail. I've created large-scale events. I've even written speeches and annual reports.

What I've learned through the years is that most clients and most agencies forget the middle portion of the schematic above.

They forget there is a noise source which must be overcome.

There are channels, of course, that give themselves permission to ignore noise. They believe their "one-to-one-ness" allows them to be so relevant that they automatically overcome noise. The old direct dicta "list, offer, creative" for instance, says in effect that noise can be obviated by targeting. I fear much of the digital world similarly forgets that noise matters. Great experiences are created but few think about what interferes with viewer's engagement with those experiences.

Today it can be argued that there is more noise in the system than ever before in the history of mankind. Yet most channels, i.e. Facebook make very few provisions for impact. Impact, of course, can come from an adroitly placed conversational thread. But, as so many forget, it can also come from an idea, an execution, a celebrity, the size or the "motion" of an ad.

It never fails to astonish me that TV networks and cable stations refuse to sell media time in uneven increments. If my commercial works best in 27 seconds, or 37 seconds, why can't I buy that time? Computers can make sure that things add up evenly over time. In other words, I should be able to buy a :27 if you can sell someone else a :33?

Our job as communicators involves primarily the overcoming of noise.

We must use every tool and then some to do so.



Monday, May 21, 2012

A crazy conjunction.

The other day I fell upon a crazy conjunction of numbers.

One was the price Facebook paid for Instagram: $1.1 billion.

The second is the market capitalization of The New York Times Company. The New York Times Company owns The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe, about.com, and the Regional Media group which includes 15 award-winning newspapers scattered throughout the Southeast and California.

Its market cap is currently $916.4 million.

About $200 million less than Instagram.

The New York Times is widely considered among the most important newspapers in the world. It is on the reading list of most national and global political and business leaders. A single page of ad space costs in the six figures. nytimes.com and about.com are the 34th and 38th most visited sites in the US. The Times is the best-selling paper in the most important city in the world. The Herald Tribune is read by movers and shakers around the world. The Boston Globe is the best-selling paper in the most important city in New England.

Yet the Times Company is worth $200 million--about 20% less than Instagram. An entity that hasn't yet proven it can make money.

Many of us disparage bankers and brokers when their financial sleight-of-hand nearly collapses the world economy. Marketing people, however, accept the valuation of those same bankers and brokers when their views align.

Yeah. I know.

Newspapers are old media.

They're dying.

No one reads them anymore.

And I'm, also, old.

Dying.

And don't matter anymore.

But I just don't understand.




Howard Luck Gossage, Part 1.

Yesterday "The New York Times" reported on two deaths that caught my attention. One involved former Bee Gee, Robin Gibb. This got a huge amount of play and airtime. It seems half of my Facebook friends were affected by the loss.

The death notice I found most important however had nothing to do with disco. It was the obituary of Crawford Greenwalt, Jr., an archeologist who uncovered the ancient Lydian city and home of Croesus, Sardis. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/world/europe/crawford-greenewalt-jr-archaeologist-who-dug-at-sardis-dies-at-74.html?ref=obituaries

Greenwalt's work led to the uncovering of over 14,000 objects from the Lydian era, including the remains of a soldier attempting to fend off the blows that killed him.

I think about the differences in these two obituaries as I begin to read Steve Harrison's new book on Howard Luck Gossage "Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man."

Jeff Goodby said this about Gossage: "The best of Gossage is the best advertising ever done..." Alex Bogusky said this: "You can't overstate the influence of Gossage on the early work of Crispin Porter + Bogusky. We used to sit around and wonder 'What would Gosage do?"

Today few have heard of Gossage. Few know his work.

I'll be writing more about Gossage and Harrison's book over the next few weeks.

In the meantime,  buy the book. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_1_17?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=changing+the+world+is+the+only+fit+work+for+a+grown+man&sprefix=changing+the+worl%2Caps%2C136


Breshnev and advertising.

I have just finished Martin Sixsmith's history "Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East." It is a vast and compendious book and at least one part of it reminded me of advertising.

That part involved Leonid Brezhnev, who led the Soviet Union for 18 years, longer than anyone save Josef Stalin, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Brezhnev achieved his position by sticking close to Nikita Krushchev during World War II and afterwards. He was attached to troops but saw little fighting during the Great Patriotic War. Nevertheless as his ego inflated, he rewrote Soviet history to make himself a key player during the key battles of the war. He became a hero of the Soviet Union by being present not during historic moments but instead present when history was being re-written.

Towards the end of his life Brezhnev appeared in public festooned with the medals you see above. He wore more medals than Marshall Zhukov, arguably the greatest general in all of World War II, though Brezhnev saw little if any actual fighting.

He didn't do the job but he was compelled to pretend he did.

There is much wrong with the advertising industry. And, I believe, much of our woes are self-inflicted. Too often we are treated by clients as infants. We don't solve serious problems for them, instead we look to propagate and aggrandize ourselves.

We forget that our job isn't to pin medals on our chests but is, rather, to drive a reaction, a response from viewers. We are here to make a business difference, not a cosmetic one.

On Ogilvy's website for instance, http://www.ogilvy.com/#/The-Work/Galleries/BoO3_scrabble_tag.aspx/ , there is a ten-million-dollar piece of film promoting--you guessed it--Scrabble.

It will be wildly heralded.

It will garner acclaim and awards.

It is meaningless.

I am 54 years old and a rabid consumer of all types of media. I have yet to see a single Scrabble ad outside of an awards book.

Another fictional medal on an artificially puffed-out chest.













Friday, May 18, 2012

A night in San Juan.

As I do so often after dinner I went for a walk this evening along the waterfront. It's our last night in San Juan, Puerto Rico and I haven't much explored the lonely, abandoned wharves of the old city harbor. Some years ago, container shipping moved from San Juan south west to Ponce and nothing has replaced what is now gone. What's left are old warehouses rife with broken windows and the rusted machinery left behind when the port relocated.

There's something I love about abandonment. I guess I'm used to it, comfortable with it, and in cities all around the world I have sought it out, looking through shattered glass and faded paint for what was before what was disappeared.

It had rained all day in San Juan and no one was out. The emptiness added to the melancholy of the night. Steam lifted off the water in the harbor and the clouds hung low making a night like the nights they used to show in British movies of the early 50s, a night shrouded in mist and fog and smoke.

I was alone amidst the old piers, walking with no one, unsure of where I was going or how I would get back once I got there. But I felt no compulsion to head home, or even to check my iPhone for directions. The best way to find something along the waterfront is to get lost.

Ahead of me, on a rotted pier jutting out into the water like a finger from the hand of Ichabod Crane I saw a clump of Puerto Rican men, drinking and smoking and fishing and laughing under the halo of a single 60-watt. I walked slowly to them.

"Buenos noches," I offered.

"Buenos noches," they replied.

"Has cogido muchos peces?" I asked..."Have you caught many fish?"

The shortest one in the group stepped forward and spoke to me, "No venimos a pescar, vamos a llorar a los peces que han escapado de nosotros." We do not come to catch fish, we come to mourn the fish who have gotten away.

"Si," I replied, "yo entiendo."

A dog barked in the distance and I knew that was a sign to return to my hotel, to mourn my fish who have gotten away. I bid the Puerto Rican men goodnight. I wished them luck and walked, alone and melancholy, mourning that which has escaped.






In remission.

I've been remiss.

On vacation in Puerto Rico and I haven't written.

There have been logistical reasons. With my wife and kids--or kid--now that my older daughter has returned to her home in Boston, I've gone scuba diving nearly every morning. That means I'm up in the fives or, today, the fours, and out of the hotel for the next ten or so hours.

No time to write.

And when I return, I laze--deservedly I think--by the pool.

Not the place to write.

So, I've gone dry.

Also, I must say, much of my typical Ad Aged writing is spurred by the chaos, absurdities, banalities of everyday advertising life in New York. That's been gone this past week. And replaced by the chaos, absurdities, banalities of resort living. Not the usual fare of Ad Aged--Uncle Slappy notwithstanding.

So to those brave few who are used to seeing a post or two every day, I apologize for my lack of transmission.

Like I said, I've been remiss.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bill Cullen.

When I was a kid we had a very different media world than the one we have today. Growing up in New York we had the most television stations in the country--seven--the three networks and four additional channels if you count public television. If you were sick in those days you mostly stayed in bed. We had a 13-inch Emerson portable black and white TV that did sick duty. We'd adjust the antenna and tune in to whatever was on.

What was on in those days were a lot of game shows. When I'm sick these days (it happens about as often as an ice age, thank god) I don't turn on the TV, but in any event I don't suppose TV then was any dumber or any better than TV today. At the very least it was a way to pass the time in pre-internet, pre-texting, pre-connectiveness days, and when I was sick I had the set on for hours.

There was a game show host in those days named Bill Cullen. I never thought of game show hosts as "personalities" or celebrities. They asked a bunch of dumb questions, kibbitzed maybe a little and generally moved things along. In facts, one of my high school friend's dad was a game show host and I always thought of him as a bit of a dim bulb.

Bill Cullen for whatever reason seemed to be everywhere--on a couple of different game shows. He was recognizable by his thick, owlish glasses that gave him the aura of intelligence, though nothing he had to do on the show required any. Cullen would also never move from behind the podium, never greet contestants or walk around in any way, shape or form.

Cullen's immobility lead to the fairly preposterous rumor that he had no legs. Once you heard this rumor you examined every one of Cullen's movements or lack of them. All it took was one half hour episode to convince yourself--the man simply did not move.

Of course in those days we didn't have the internet or the constant onslaught of celebrity gossip. I don't know why I thought of Bill Cullen this morning; I probably hadn't thought of him in 40 years.

In any event, I'm on vacation.

And this is good enough.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Thoughts on 37,000-year-old graffiti.

One of the extraordinary things about our species is how utterly immutable we are. That is we really don't change, through wars, revolutions, upheavals, new technologies, etc. Another thing that stays the same is the number of people who have no ability to read history so they spend their wind and time proclaiming that all is new, different and everything that went before is dead.

Just recently researches have found 37,000-year-old cave drawings in a rock shelter in France. These are the "oldest evidence of any kind of graphic imagery." Many of the images depict images of the female vulva. In other words these cave drawings differ, in all likelihood, very little from what we see in public restrooms and on subway walls.

Yesterday, I went scuba diving with my wife and kids. There was a couple on the boat from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The boat anchored in water that was a vivid turquoise, the likes of which you see only in travel magazines. I turned to one of the Brooklynites and said to him, "It ain't exactly the Gowanus Canal, is it." He turned to me and with all the gravity of a confirmed Leninist he replied, "Someday."

Listen, for as long as time exists the will be graffiti of female vulva scrawled on walls. And for as long as time exists the Gowanus Canal will be a sewer.

All the blowhards saying this is dead and that is dead and this will change everything, remember this: very little ever changes.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Another call from Uncle Slappy.

Uncle Slappy called early this morning as I knew he would. It's Mother's Day and Uncle Slappy isn't one to miss an occasion to call--even if it's a fairly spurious one like a Hallmark holiday.

"Happy Mother's Day back to Aunt Sylvie," I say, somewhat weakly.

"Oy, Aunt Sylvie," intoned Slappy. "58 years we've been married. 56 mothers' days we've been through together. She still doesn't know how to make a piece of toast."

Toast--the decline thereof--is one of Uncle Slappy's favorite subjects. He traces the decline of America as a world power to the loss of our ability, as a nation, to make a decent piece of toast.

"I took your Aunt to the Embassy Suites this morning," began Slappy "for an all you can eat Mother's Day Brunch. $14.95. And lox they had twirled up in little curls. A big Waring toast making machine, too, a conveyor belt for toast.

"You know how I like my toast, boychick. Dark. Not just warmed or singed. Toasted. They had the speed of the toaster conveyor so high you could get dizzy watching the bagels go by. They were barely even hotted after one time through.

"I turned the speed down and got myself a nice bagel dark. With the lox, delicious. But a ruckus this caused because there was a backup at the toaster like the Mosholu Parkway during rush hour. The Puerto Rican maitre d' came over and readjusted. All of a sudden no more line, but no more toast."

"It sounds like it was mayhem at the Embassy Suites, Uncle Slappy."

"And Aunt Sylvie was beside herself. Even on Mother's Day, she said to me, you have to a ruckus cause.

"What Sylvie and most women don't understand is that toast is inviolate. In fact, if you made a ladies perfume that smelled like a toasted bialy you'd have to beat the men off with a stick."

"Put Aunt Sylvie on," I asked Uncle Slappy. "I want to wish her Happy Mother's Day."

"Too late," replied Slappy, "she's in the kitchen scraping the burn off a bagel."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Horst Faas, dead at 79.

I never heard of Horst Faas, but his photographs changed my life. They may have had a hand in changing world history.

Faas died yesterday after spending most of his adult years as a photographer and editor for Associated Press.

He covered sports, revolutions and most famously Vietnam. Both of the shots he was most associated with were turned down by higher-ups. Faas persuaded them to publish them anyway.

No matter what field you're in, it seems there are always higher-ups looking to kill stuff. Usually for no good reason. Usually there good reasons to fight those higher-ups. Sometimes you win.

Thank you Herr Faas for fighting.



Working over your copy.

When I was young in the advertising business I had the great good fortune of somehow not getting a starting job in an advertising agency. Instead, my first job was as a copywriting in the in-house advertising agency of Bloomingdale's department store.

At Bloomingdale's the ads weren't conceptual but they were plentiful. You might literally have to write and produce 15 ads a week. They might be as prosaic as "Plush, pure cotton towels now 25% off," but you got in the habit of churning the stuff out, meeting with buyers, getting their input, then turning that into an ad.

One time I had an ad to write that required real writing, not just a listing of specs. I labored over this for half a week. By the time I showed it to my boss for approval it was, I admit, a real mess. He said to me something like this, "you've corrected this to death." He then tore up my copy and told me to start fresh.

It was great advice. If copy feels worked over it's probably no good.

That was a long time ago, working at Bloomingdale's. I was there for two years before my portfolio was good enough to get a real agency job--a job I took a pay cut to accept.

It was a relief to leave Bloomingdale's for a real ad job. But I never forgot the lessons I learned there.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Coming apart.

Charles F. Murray, author of "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, is nothing if he's not controversial.  In his book he decries the splintering of our nation. He sees a world where we are divided into "Belmont" and "Fishtown."

Belmont is well-heeled, well-educated, well-parented and well-married. It is a world that is much like America was during the booming 1950s. Fishtown is different. Households are often led by just one parent. College is largely out of the question. Greater poverty, drug use and unemployment are prevalent.

Most disturbing by Murray's accounts is the bifurcation of our society. Belmontites and Fishtowners seldom come into contact. They don't work for the same companies. Shop in the same stores. Live in proximity. Go to the same schools.

A similar dichotomy exists in the modern American advertising agency. It seems some part of the agency looks at the media market and says 70 to 80 cents of each marketing dollar are spent on TV. TV is most important.

Others say, I never watch TV or find it banal. I spend my life online, therefore apps and Facebook and Twitter are most important.

There is a divide. A coming apart.

What seems most redolent is a divorce between the rarefied circumstances of agency people and people who actually consume.

Do we, anymore, know our consumer. Know how they live, think, feel, buy? Do we understand their concerns, fears, senses of humor?

No.

We're too busy trying to be cool.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

It's what I do.

Just yesterday afternoon around one,  I got an email from a friend I met through blogging. Was I ok he asked? Here it was almost three in the afternoon and I had posted nothing for the day.

It's rare that Monday through Friday I don't post something by ten or eleven.

I write Ad Aged the way a serious pianist practices every day or a long-distance runner goes out for a run. I don't feel right if I don't write.

Writing is what I do, I'm a writer. Of sorts, anyway.

For me writing Ad Aged has been an important aspect of my life. It's help me find both my voice and an audience. It doesn't matter, really, that my voice is sometimes inconsistent, that I sometimes talk about things that have nothing to do with the original intended purpose of my blog.

It also doesn't matter that my audience is small. Sure, I wish I had more readers--who doesn't? But a big readership wasn't why I started this thing.

I started this because I have always--always since I was a little kid--felt the need to write. Ad Aged fulfills that need. Also, I need the pressure of writing on deadline. I need the push, the demand, the accomplishment of writing my blog.

Of course, there are times when I think I should write less--and better. But I think I am sharper, more keen simply by doing things daily and quickly.

What's more, I started Ad Aged when I was unemployed. It was my way of saying to an industry that had seemed to have forgotten me that I am not to be forgotten. I am here. I am writing. I am doing what I do.


So, I write. Everyday. Or nearly so. Even when I am in Puerto Rico with my family for the next two weeks I will try to write.


It's what I do.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Strategy.

There have been a lot of great strategies both within the world of advertising and without. For instance, I'm sure both Hitler and Napoleon thought they had a pretty good strategy when they invaded Russia. My guess is that the generals and planners and (ugh) strategists involved said to anyone who would listen, "this strategy will make me famous, rich and powerful."

Strategies are great.

But in the end, they are only pieces of paper or collections of bits.

What matters really isn't the strategy but what you do with it, how you adjust to the situation you're in. After all, no one not involved with your strategy has to cooperate with it anymore than the Russians did at Stalingrad, or Kursk, or Leningrad.

We spend a lot of times on strategies in our business. They have their own category of awards and people who create them are most-often unassailable because they produce something as pure and bright as a DeBeers diamond.

Strategies don't have to get their hands dirty and do the hard work you have to do.

That's up to you.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Black dog Monday.

Mark Harris, an American author whom I have written about before, wrote dozens of novels in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The most notable, or popular, of these books were the four baseball novels he wrote which featured a left-handed pitcher named Henry Wiggen.

These novels, "The South Paw," "Bang the Drum Slowly," "A Ticket for a Seamstitch" and "It Looked Like Forever" follow the 20 year career of Wiggen as he progresses from a rookie hurler for the New York Mammoths to the end of his career as he tries to hang on one more year. Taken as a whole, the four novels are about making your way in the world, succeeding and about slowing down gracefully.

One of the pillars of the novels is a catcher and coach--a wise man who is also a university professor--named Red Traphagen. Traphagen is seasoned when Wiggen is raw. And like me--this I infer from the novels--Traphagen was born old, born serious, born grown up.

One afternoon, Wiggen is on the mound and Traphaggen is behind the plate. Traphagen accidentally catches a pitch with his non-glove hand in the way--a common enough malady for catchers--and he splits his finger open. Traphaggen takes off his mitt, looks at his bleeding finger and declares to one and all "That is sufficient."

Those are his parting words as he hangs up his spikes for the last time.

That is sufficient.

In our business we spend a lot of time, a lot of years dealing with the vicissitudes of the world. We deal with clients made horrid because they are consumed with fear. We deal with agency and holding company infrastructures that seem bent on installing screen doors on submarines. We deal with co-workers who seem more interested in grinding an axe than in putting pencil to paper.

Unlike Traphagen who had his university career to fall back on, we do not get to say "that is sufficient."

We have to put our tools of ignorance back on, crouch once again, and receive the pitch.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Customer journeys.

I've spent a lot of time over the past few days working with a winsome "experience designer" and a bright communications planner creating "customer journeys" for a client.

Doing these, I realize, is part of the new world we inhabit. A world where our end product hardly matters as long as we do a lot of meaningless work that doesn't really have anything to do with our end product. I think customer journeys are a perfect example of this.

It's been a long week. Of course when you're doing customer journeys, it would be valid to say, "it's been a long nano-second." A long week of working on customer journeys.

I'm packing up my bag in a minute and heading to the Metropolitan Opera to see Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd." But as I was packing up, I realized something. I've never been on a customer journey.

I recently bought something fairly expensive. I called a friend who knows a lot about such things. He told me what to buy. I bought it.

When I bought new tires for my daughter, I called up her mechanic and said "what tires should I buy?"

Maybe I "went on a journey" when I bought my Macbook. But guess what? That journey started about 25 years ago when Apple started making great machines and doing great advertising.

Likewise, I bought my daughter a used Mercedes. That journey started 40 years ago when I began reading about the brand.

I didn't see a spot, then happen upon a guerilla event, then see an ad in an in-flight magazine, then see a tweet or a Facebook post about the product.

I think the definition of customer journeys should be this: journeys customers never take.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

An operating principle.

One of the things I was always taught is that as a writer you should repeatedly ask yourself a simple question: Who the hell cares?

If your copy has points in it that satisfy no one but the client, that is if no one cares, you should fight ardently to take that copy out.

If no one cares, what's the point of having the copy in there?

Who the hell cares? as an operating principle for writing is pretty good.

Uncle Slappy and the raincoat.

Early this morning I was woken by a call from Uncle Slappy. From anyone else 6AM calls would bother me, but they're part of who Uncle Slappy is, so his calls are ok. The thing you have to remember about Slappy is this: he is so bursting with energy and life that he has to let it out. By the time he finally calls at 6, he's probably been up for two hours already waiting to call.

"Boychick," he said when I answered the phone.

"Hello, Uncle Slappy," I bleared.

"You know that Barbour raincoat the Goyim wear?"

"That's not fair, Uncle Slappy. I actually want one."

"Well, guess what? I got one."

"For this," I chided "you called me at six in the morning?"

Slappy was moving ahead like an avalanche. "I got it off a dead man."

There was a long and, I think, appropriate silence.

"You remember Norman Novotny from two condos over? He died and his wife gave it to me. We were the same size."

"You're wearing a dead man's raincoat?"

"He wasn't wearing it when he died. In his sleep he died. His wife gave it to me."

Slightly annoyed I told Uncle Slappy I had to go.

He left me with this: "Boychick. Do me a favor."

"Anything, Slappy."

"Pray for rain."


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

It's sad how things have changed.

Every agency has a person or a group of people whose job it is is to find "resources" when a project needs a copywriter and/or an art director.

This used to be a fairly simple matter. The person would go through their rolodex or Excel spreadsheet and say, "Oh, Marcia would be perfect for this, I'll give her a ring-a-ling."

After a few calls, a "resource" would be "acquired" and the "deliverables" would be on their way to being "ideated."

Today, of course, nothing is that simple.

I happened upon this description of one of these people recently.


English as she is spoke.

"One of the original purposes of this blog was to decry the demise of the English language. I am not one of those esthetes who believe English is sanctified. I understand that the strength, and the reason for the world-wide vitality of English lies in its mutability. It is a living language that accommodates new usages, dictions and patterns.


That said there are certain linguistic affectations that make me want to poke my eyes in. (You can't really poke eyes out, can you? They must be gouged out.) One of them is the usage, "I gifted them with a $100." No. You gave them $100 as a gift.


But that indelicacy is not what's troubling me.


Last night I got an email from a company that read (names have been changed):


"We explore the aspirations of connected culture and the imagination of provocative thinkers whose ideas, visions and innovations will shape tomorrow's business landscape. As co-founders of ________ we have nurtured many relationships with thinkers who are transforming how we will navigate the future.


"We are looking for a business arrangement with a forward thinking group such as _____ led by us who wants to anticipate the coming age of coherent business.

"We are also currently looking to develop this property into a next-generation futures' portal with content and services with real-world engagement platforms."

I read these words four times and don't know how to respond. 

I don't know what you do. 

I don't know what you want. 

I don't even know what you're proposing.

Five minutes of hotdogs.

video
As long-time readers of Ad Aged know, I love the obituaries that appear in "The New York Times." It's not some morbid fascination with death that makes them interesting, rather it's the lives, loves, wins and losses of the great and small people the Times decides to catalog. Almost invariably there's something interesting, crazy or thought-provoking in Times' obituaries, attributes that make them well-worth the time.


In yesterday's digital edition I came across the death notice of Fred Hakim who died at the age of 83 on April 25th. You can read the obit here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/01/nyregion/fred-hakim-times-square-hot-dog-vendor-dies-at-83.html?ref=obituaries


Until 1997 when they tore down seedy, sordid and squalid Times' Square Hakim ran the seven-seat hotdog stand memorialized in the five-minute documentary pasted above. His wisdom shines through in the obituary. It contains gems like this: "'A knish? It’s potatoes,' he explains to an off-camera customer. 'Potatoes inside, outside, every side.'"


Times' Square was a different place 15 years ago. Virtually every third store was involved in some aspect of the porn business and there were still peep shows a-plenty. There were no national chain restaurants and the few hotels around the Great White Way were, at best, frayed and down at the heels. An ex-partner of mine used to call the hotel the Milford Plaza the Mildew Plaza. And that was kind.


Guiliani, the neo-fascist warlord and self-proclaimed hero of 9/11 is credited with cleaning up New York in general and Times' Square in particular. And unquestionably Times' Square is, today, family friendly--if you don't mind exposing your family to truck-sized tourists who don't know how to walk in a city.


Many people of my ilk lament the passing of trashy, threatening Times' Square. I don't. I live in New York and Times' Square was out of control and a symbol of New York's decadence, depravity and decay.


That said, I do think New York, of all places, could have lived with fewer Dave & Buster's,  fewer Coldstone Creameries, fewer Red Lobsters.


And a few more hotdog stands run by guys like Fred Hakim.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lessons from a 20 year old.

One of the great joys in my life is having two grown or almost daughters who are so surpassingly intelligent and "on" that nearly every day they teach me some thing or show me some thing I wouldn't have learned or noticed without them. In fact, if I had to be simplistic about it, I'd say that's how you can tell if you've done a decent job as a parent: do your kids teach you things.


Today I got an IM from my younger daughter who said she was having a conversation with a friend about teachers at the college she attends.


She and "Ta" broke teachers into two categories in a way which I think is instructive. One: there are those teachers who teach a subject... vs. ...Two: those teachers who teach students. 


It seems to be that the same division can be found in most advertising. The first category is occupied by most brands. They have a curriculum. They need to tell you about their squeezable softness,  their lemon-freshness, their miles per gallon. They approach the world with the stance of a pedagogue: you will listen to what I have to say and you will learn.


The second category is concerned with what their audience needs and wants. Teachers and advertising in this group are most often more involving and entertaining. They care about what is getting through to their target.


What's striking about our business is how frequently we forget the most basic rules of communication and salesmanship simply because we have a boss, client or next quarter breathing down our necks.

My 20 year old knows better than that.






Yogi Bear.

I'm one of those people who is a sucker for a really good nature documentary, the kind produced by the BBC and narrated by someone on the order of David Attenborough. If you've ever tried to take pictures in nature you know how excruciatingly painstaking it is. You might once in your nautical life catch a glimpse of a school of fish compacting itself and swimming into a tight ball. To capture that perfectly on film is a wonder to behold.

Of the many fascinations of nature videos, not the least are those animals who disguise themselves to capture unsuspecting prey. They wait silently sand-colored on the bottom of the sea or perched limb-like in the branches of a tree before they strike.

As humans we like to think of nature, of wildlife as a lower order than mankind. Because we can easily kill and eat most species, or at least wear them if they don't taste good, we speak of denizens of the seas and forests as 'dumb animals.' Even Yogi Bear who proclaimed himself smarter than the average bear never went to college or held a job.

It occurred to me this morning that Facebook might well be worth the $100 billion the savants have valued it at.

This morning, like nearly every morning there are serial posts from "friends" claiming they have gotten a free Macbook Air, a pair of Ray-Bans or some other delectable simply for answering a survey or clicking on a link.

These are posts from people who have fallen for some disguised inducement. They've fallen for the flounder that looks like sand.

We are as dumb as animals.