Friday, November 30, 2012

Making ads.

If you listen to the news--at least the news on National Public Radio--you realize how little of it is actually news. There are fund-raising messages, those banal human interest stories about the guy who can juggle jello. There are the endless reports on traffic conditions. And a variety of other things that are really small and transitory, rather than important and "newsworthy."

I get much the same feeling when I read Stuart Elliot, ad columnist of "The New York Times." His column today is about Bazooka bubblegum. Hardly important or newsworthy. Likewise, on the blog agencyspy. Most of the posts are about agency Christmas cards or some other horrid self-promotion that turns any self-respecting stomach.

My conclusion in all this is that there's a natural human predilection to disdain what you do every day. I'm sure the cavemen who hunted mammoths 50,000 years ago wish they invented agriculture.

But my point today, if there is one, isn't about the paleolithic or bazooka or jello. It's about life in ad agencies.

In ad agencies it seems to me, about 20% of all work actually involves advertising.

In fact 80% of people in agencies seem to actually hate advertising.

Meetings where work is shown have ideas for flashmobs, Times' Square takeovers, twitter extravaganzas.

Where's the ad?

When I was a kid, my baseball hero was Pete Rose.

Rose wasn't the best player of the day but he did one thing better than anyone else. He consistently led the league in hits. He got more than anyone else.

He defined his baseball job as maybe a baseball job should be defined.

Hit the ball.

I don't know if it was Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill or both who formulated Utilitarianism. That is doing the greatest good for the greatest number.

But that's what we're supposed to do in advertising. Influence the greatest numbers.

Make ads to do so.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pulling strings.

I am reading a new book by the famous mathematician and scientist Benoit Mandelbroit, it's called "The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick."

I like reading books by and about geniuses. Like reading about sports heroes or generals or notable conquerers of distant lands, it interests me to see the background, the genesis of the mighty and powerful.

This morning I read a simple thought from Mandelbroit about how an idea is found.

I think it makes sense for our industry.

Mandelbroit described finding his Ph.D. topic as pulling at a string.

You pull and pull.

Sometimes the string is played out quickly.

Sometimes it stretches out for a couple inches or a foot and then ends.

Sometimes you can keep pulling.

Sometimes you can't.

Sometimes when you pull, you get to something or someplace that's attached to something else that leads to something more.

Sometimes, as you keep pulling you find something.

This pulling of string is what we do in our business.

And, I'll admit, something you can find string of adequate length quickly.

But more often you have to search, you have to make many stabs, you have to have the time to pull many strings before you find one that leads somewhere.


Cheap is cheap.

Think of what we endure all to get the "lowest price."

Non-existent service.

Nuisance fees.

Horrible products.

No innovation.

Sales help that simply doesn't help.

This is what we get from cable companies (my internet saga continues), telcos, big box retailers, airlines, government agencies and more.

Not surprisingly, this is what clients too often get from ad agencies.

They've so squeezed us so to the bone that we've become adversaries not partners.

What I don't understand is that no one in any industry positions itself as "reassuringly expensive." Or, even slightly more expensive but worth the difference.

Ogilvy used to have the reputation of paying its creative people more. They got better people. And because their salaries were high, they were able to keep them. Clients understood that they were getting a qualitative difference. They were, for years, willing to pay more for that difference.

Today, everything is a race to the bottom. Who can answer the bell cheapest.

So you get cheap people.

Cheap thinking.

Cheap service.

Cheap results.

That's what we're paying for.



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sin.

The worst sin you can commit in advertising today is not to do something boring.

The worst sin you can commit in advertising today is not to do something trite.

The worst sin you can commit in advertising today is not to do something hackneyed.

The worst sin you can commit in advertising today is not to do something you've seen before.

The worst sin you can commit in advertising today is not to lie.

The worst sin you can commit in advertising today is not to steal.

The worst sin you can commit in advertising today is not to cheat.

The worst sin you can commit in advertising today is not to treat people like shit.

The worst sin you can commit in advertising today is not to be a schmuck.

No, the worst sin you can commit is to show work
to someone's boss before you show it to them.

For whatever reason not going through all 47 "no's" on the way to "yes"
is advertising's biggest sin.

It doesn't matter if what you've shown is good.

Different.

Extra.

Inspired.

What matters is that you follow a process as Kafkaesque as anything the Soviets could ever derive.

Not doing so is the biggest sin of all.

Baffled. And the three types of brands.

Just a couple days ago a Forrester Study was released that rated the "top Customer Engagement Agencies." It rated a dozen or so CEAs (their bullshit to initial ratio was in fine fettle) on a dozen or more categories. You can see two of their ratings charts here:



Maybe I'm mistaken. Maybe I got old. But I've risen to the top, or nearly so, at every agency I've ever been at: traditional, direct, events, interactive. So, I like to think I have a breadth of hands-on experience that's really second to a few, if not none.

I looked at these charts and wondered.

What the fuck are they rating?

Could someone please, I mean it, explain how the criteria selected by Forrester measures the effectiveness of anything.

Could someone please tell me--or better, show me customer engagement with any product that isn't made by Nike or Apple?

Could someone please explain how "customer metrics and measurement methodologies" sells soap?

We have turned our business over to blowhards.

Plain and simple.

I leave 2/3rds of all meetings not understanding a word of what anyone is saying.

Just yesterday I heard once again how one-million "likes" will blossom into 1.3 billion human billboards.

Oh, fuck me sideways with a rusty iron rod.

I will break this down for you once again:

There are three types of brands.

1. There are the "blands." No one will talk about them, be engaged by them or do anything with them. There may be a "Saran Wrap" page on Facebook, but it is meaningless. Blands can try to up their fucking Twitter fucking footprint, but I gotta tell you. I can't even imagine what a conversation about Airwick Solid would be like. Or a spice like Tumeric.

2. There are "brants." These are the brands people rant about. Telcos. Airlines. ISPs. Cable companies. They don't make any steps that aren't false. People hate them. These brants should stay away from social media.

3. Finally, there are "braves." The few brands people rave about. Usually they've spent billions, like Nike of Apple to make themselves useful and likeable. These braves can use social media, but don't need to because people already talk about them. Brants like "Warby Parker" don't count. Because until further notice, they don't exist outside of Williamsburg. And I would prefer a weekend in  Guantanamo to one in Hipster Heaven.

I don't really know if or how you can take a bland and make it a brave. Or a brant and make it a brave. It's way easier to destroy a brave than build one.

But I can tell you that getting to brave-hood takes years of concerted, consistent effort, money and, yes, bravery.

That's why there are so few.




Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The future is NOW!!!!!!!

For well-over a decade now we have heard about the one-to-one future. A future in which if I am a left-handed, Republican, scuba-diver who likes vanilla milkshakes and toasted corn muffins I will get communications that speak directly to my preferences.

I have yet to personally experience the one-to-one future. I've yet to get a piece of effective individualized marketing.

However, I've just realized that this sort of communication happens everyday. Targeted communications that speak directly to the consumer--on their terms.

Everyday ad agencies spend countless hours creating work that has an audience of just a few.

We spend, it seems, most of our time creating work that will go no further than our clients' offices.
We shovel on the buzzwords that speak to our clients' obsessions. We speak directly to our clients in language that they--and only they--understand. And no one will ever see this work but them.

This is what our industry has become.

Makers of work for people who have make work jobs.

We create decks.

Videos.

Prototypes.

Widgets.

And other crap that no one but our clients will ever see.

I have seen the future.

And it sucks.

We're all writers.

As a society we have eliminated generalists in favor of people who specialize in a narrow band of "expertise."

We see this most obviously in the medical profession. There are no "general practitioners" anymore. If your left nostril is stuffed, you can probably find an ENT who deals most specifically with that particular orifice.

Specialization has given us permission to be largely dumb.

We don't need to know the fairly basic stuff that previous generations knew. There are specialists for that.

Everyday I run across people who cannot write.

Simple expository writing should not be a specialist skill.

In an era where no one is ever more than an axe's length away from a keyboard, writing skills should be universal.

Last week I was sent copy from a "social media and platform specialist." I received the copy 20 minutes before it was to be presented to the client. The writer's spelling was--there's no other word for it--atrocious.

More words were spelled wrong than were spelled right.

I tried to stop the meeting.

But the work had already been emailed to the client.

I was livid and immediately sent an apology to the client.

It was horrendous.

Of course no one wanted to join me in drumming this so-called writer out of the agency.

Instead she was excused because she is a "social media specialist," not a writer.

I'll make this simple.

If you write, you're a writer.

If you're unfamiliar with a word, look it up. In most cases looking a word up takes less than 30 seconds.

Read your work over before you send it.

Read it backwards if it's going to a client. You notice mistakes easier that way.

If you're worried that you can't write, read a book on how to write.

Verlyn Klinkenborg's "Several Short Sentences" is a good place to start. http://www.amazon.com/Several-Short-Sentences-About-Writing/dp/0307266346/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351916407&sr=8-1&keywords=verlyn+klinkenborg

Read good writing. It's the best way to learn to write.

Nike has spent the last 40 years or so telling us we're all athletes.

Even if we do nothing more than an occasional jog around the reservoir we accoutre ourselves with hundreds of dollars of athletic gear.

Well guess what?

We're all writers.

So learn to write well.

You don't have to be a Joseph Mitchell, an A.J. Liebling or a Mike Berger.

But you do need to be able to organize your thoughts and present them in an intelligent manner.

That's called being professional.

Being a grown-up.

Grow up.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The busiest online shopping day of the year.

"I went to the mall," Uncle Slappy began without even saying his customary "Hello, Schmendrick." "I went to the mall," the old man continued. "Sylvie dragged me. She said the sales were not to be missed. So we went on Black Friday to the mall."

"Good morning, Uncle Slappy," I interrupted.

"If you have an enemy, if there's someone you detest, abhor, can't stand, to the mall on the day after Thanksgiving you should send them."

"I'm surprised you actually left the condo, Uncle Slappy. Why didn't you just shop online? I got you the MacBook Air last Hannukah so down to the pool you could bring it. Is there something wrong with your computer."

"No," the Old Man said ruefully, "I misunderstood. The Mac, like a top it runs. But here's what happened."

I interjected a pre-emptive "Oy," and let the Old Man run.

"You remember two years ago the schmuck down three condos said I parked in his space. To the condo board he goes accusing me of trespassing, a Rabbi, trespassing in his exalted parking space."

"I remember," I said, "it was quite a tsimmis."

"Yes, it was a fight with a schmuck by the name of Si Berg. A dermatologist from Hewlett, a pimple-popper, if you will."

"I will," I answered.

"Well all over the radio all weekend long, I hear about some big event honoring Si Berg on Monday."

"And event honoring Si Berg?"

"Yes, every news story I hear has something about Si Berg Monday. How everyone will be shopping on Si Berg Monday. I said to Sylvie, if everyone is honoring that putz Si Berg, if they're naming a day after him, let's go to the mall on Friday and avoid Si Berg on Monday and every other day."

"I see," I responded, my voice barely audible over the shaking of my head.

"Si Berg Monday, my tuchas," Slappy spat.

I thought about trying to explain but I thought better of it.

"So, listen to me, Schmendrick," the old man concluded, "Stay out of the store today. Si Berg don't deserve your money."

I said goodbye. And walked to work feeling like I had gone three rounds peppered with jabs and crosses from a crafty welterweight, bruised and more than a little worse for wear.







 



Saturday, November 24, 2012

A problem with my Time-Warner.

Over the years we have all been folded, spindled and mutilated by various marketers. These marketers have set up oxymorons they call "Customer Service Departments." In fact, these departments have nothing to do with customers or service. There's no customer hue and cry because for the most part, there's no one to complain to. Besides, most of the large companies we have in our lives are part of an oligopoly--so even if we could switch, customer service has been a steady race to the bottom. Everyone sucks.

In fact all these companies really do is shuffle you between surly subcontinent representatives and labyrinthine phone trees. We plug in our phone numbers, we're subjected to banal music and sales messages and long wait times. At the end of the morass, there's a 50-50 chance that your original issue was ever resolved.

I have a technique for dealing with ISP issues, or cable issues, or power issues or phone issues. It's wrong, but I do it.

I tell the reps that I have some kind of disfigurement that makes the restoration of the service I am paying for especially indispensable to me.

Just now my internet was working at "American infrastructure" speeds. Something about 50% slower than dial up.

I called Time-Warner. And finally after about twenty minutes of phone tree, I got a "customer service rep," from a land where my last name is considered unpronounceable.

I explained my problem.

And then I hit him right between the eyes.

"I need my service restored quickly," I said. "I have no arms or legs."

There was dead silence on the phone.

"The internet is the only way I stay connected with the world. I can't get food without the internet or communicate."

"Oh, Mr. Tafjwmnwifuuwm3mlkhdy, I am terribly sorry."

Despite their sorrow, they can't get anyone out to my apartment before Tuesday. Even though I am on something they call "Priority Priority."

Bastards.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Contrast in New York.

Tonight is the night before Thanksgiving. And if you're a New Yorker, it's the night they blow up the balloons for the Macy's Day Parade. It's an event, seeing the balloons being inflated, and since my daughters were small enough to perch on my shoulders, I've been taking them to the spectacle.

Macy's takes over two wide blocks--two two-way streets on the north and south sides of the Museum of Natural History, as staging areas. Here's where they park their equipment and begin the long, slow inflation process. The crowds teem through heavily guarded police iron saw-horses to get a glimpse of Charlie Brown or Sponge Bob. Pokemon or Spiderman. And probably a dozen or two more.

As a lifelong New Yorker, I refuse to wait among the crowds. I pick out a cop, walk over to him and say, "This is the worst day of the year if you live here." Then I tell him I live in 25 W. 81st or 40 W. 77th, and they shoo me in ahead of the masses.

Unfair, I know.

But there have to be some perks in being a native. I guess brass balls is one of them.

Tonight my kids are in town for the holiday and we got them tickets to see "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway. After the show we all met up at a Starbucks on 75th and Broadway and walked over to 77th Street to see the balloons.

The noise of the crowds, the flashing bulbs, the police lights, the kids screaming, the kleigs illuminating whole blocks was intense.

New York as the world's playground. Stormed by a million tourists. The crush. The vibrancy.

And then, my wife and I headed east, toward home.

The streets were barricaded off and no traffic was running. We walked across an empty Central Park cushioned by a billion fallen leaves.

There was quiet. And there was more.

It was a cool, vividly clear night and the lit skyscrapers looked like towers out of a 1930s silver gelatin print.

It was noisy in New York tonight. It was all pushing and shoving and laughing and gaping.

It was quiet in New York tonight. The quiet of emptiness accentuated by a million people just a block or two away. The quiet of hooves on cobblestones. The quiet of footsteps in the park.

Both New Yorks were my New York.

Maybe I won't write.

It's the Wednesday before the American holiday of Thanksgiving and after a long hard year of work I am taking my first day off in a long time. Of course there are a couple things to do for the office that I will do from my living room. And the crush of my burgeoning and lucrative freelance career continues to vise my time.

Thanksgiving is a nice holiday. A time to bring family and friends together and cook and eat and, hopefully, laugh. My kids are home from their respective universities and no matter how often I see them, it's not often enough. They are older now--25 and 21--and it's been a pleasure to see them grow and flourish.

I had read somewhere that a parent's job is to give his kids "roots and wings," and I think I've been successful, so far, in doing that. They are soaring, yet they come home.

With all this going on, having written over 400 posts this year, I thought I'd maybe take the next few days off. Maybe in that I'm away from the office, I'll have nothing to write about.

But writing is what I do. It's who I am.

It's my work. But it's not work for me. It's mental exercise and I love it.

So maybe I won't write the next few days.

But maybe I will.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The joy of work.

Work, so many months upon months, days upon days, hours on top of hours sucks. We have to deal with trivialities. Politics. Fractious personalities. Bullshit. Stupidity. And on top of stupidity, arrogant stupidity.

That's just the way it is. There is no place where "it's better."

That, in fact, is the way so many things are.

But there's another side to work, too.

Right now I'm in production on one project and post production on another. Along the way I have been privileged to deal with the best of the best. People who aren't just good at their jobs, they're like Leonard Bernstein. Masterful in every aspect.

But mastery is only one part of being great.

The other part is loving what you do. Bringing a crazy clear-eyed enthusiasm and energy to the work.

The final part is the toughest to come by.

It's the experience and knowledge of knowing the right ways of doing things and sticking to your guns.

That's what great people do.

They know their craft.
They love what they do.
They do what's right.

Hang around people who follow those precepts and you might just fine some joy in what you do.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Conference calls.

Since 97% of all agency business is, these days, conducted by conference call,
agencies should "listen in" some time as to what clients actually hear during a conference call.

I'm on the listening end of one now and the chattering sounds like chipmunks in a blender.

Then and now.

The phrase used to be: "If you can't do, teach."*

Today it's: "If you can't do, call a meeting."


--

* Woody Allen updated it thusly:
"If you can't do, teach.
If you can't teach, teach gym."

Writing, Philip Roth and us.

Of all the great American writers of the second-half of the 20th Century, perhaps the most important (and prolific) is Philip Roth. Not only did his productive period last more than 55 years, from "Goodbye, Columbus" in 1959 to "Nemesis" in 2010, his output has also been of unusually high-quality.

Just yesterday in an interview in "The New York Times," Roth announced that he was retiring. Over the last eight years Roth has written six well-received books, so his announcement came to many as a surprise. You can read the Roth interview here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/18/books/struggle-over-philip-roth-reflects-on-putting-down-his-pen.html

Roth is no spring chicken. He'll be 80 in March, so when Shakespeare was his age, he was already dead for 28 years.

Here's what struck me most from the "Times'" interview with Roth. "On the computer in Philip Roth's Upper West Side apartment is a post-it note that reads, "The struggle with writing is over." Roth claimed, "I look at that note every morning and it gives me such strength."

"I can't face anymore days," he said "when I write five pages and throw them away. I can't do that anymore."

I am not 80 like Roth. And not successful like Roth. I've had just two fiction pieces published in my life. Both when I was in my 20s. None for almost 30 years.

And I'm lucky. I try to write this incidental writing everyday. It's given me a discipline I never had before. And it's allowed me to write about the world, the business I love and also given me space to develop characters like my father--about whom I've posted a dozen or so pieces, Uncle Slappy who makes more appearances and me and Whiskey as walkers in New York.

Of course, I'm not Roth. I am to Roth was Bazooka Joe is to Eliot.

That said, like Roth, I define myself by my writing. I struggle with it and try to write at least five days a week. Witness my over 3,000 posts. Not to mention the copy I get paid to write.

My struggle with writing isn't over. I hope it never will be. I want to spend my old age writing corporate communications--annual reports, corporate speeches and the like.

And maybe I'll finally take to fiction again. Or write a history of Grand Central Terminal. Or my little patch of Manhattan. Or something.

Writing is a struggle because it is a commitment.

There is something there for people to aim at.

The words don't disappear once they are written, the way talk does when it's uttered.

I will continue my struggles.

With work.

With life.

With New York.

With writing.

Thank you for helping me with them.





Saturday, November 17, 2012

Duane Reade and advertising.

For all my love of New York there are times when I fear it will push me over the edge into insanity or violence. Last night I experienced one of those moments.

In the wake of Super-Storm Sandy, I bought a small halogen lantern through Amazon. To power it, I needed three D batteries, which were not included.

Just about the only place left that sells batteries in my neighborhood is the drugstore that ate New York City, Duane Reade. The Duane Reade store started a few decades ago and thrived because their prices are low. Over the years they drove virtually every other drugstore/convenience store out of business. Now they are ubiquitous, with over 150 stores in Manhattan alone.

I walked into the Duane Reade on 79th and York on Friday night and somehow, almost magically, found the battery section without having to ask nine people. They had no D batteries.

I asked the woman behind the counter, "Do you have D batteries?"

She grunted a "no" and suggested I ask the manager.

I did. They didn't.

And of course he couldn't care less.

I began steaming.

How do you run out of D batteries. They seem like a fairly basic thing. Something a store should never run out of.

Worse, was the attitude. The people who work at Duane Reade are not affected at all if Duane Reade serves customers well or not. They couldn't give a rat's ass if you walk out disappointed. They'll make the same $7.85/hr. regardless.

As I walked home battery-less I wondered not where I could find batteries, but if and how much "customer service" from agencies resembles "customer service" from Duane Reade.

After all, we are both owned by absentees.

For both agencies and Duane Reade there is no reward if you serve a client well. Your pay stays the same.

I guess the big difference between Duane Reade and agencies is that they serve many customers, so if they piss me off, no big deal. Whereas even the biggest agency has only a couple dozen accounts, so there are more consequences if you fuck up.

That said, if I were running an agency, I'd think about this.

The lack of customer service.

The disconnect between pay and performance.

The failure to instill a culture that cares.



Friday, November 16, 2012

Thinking about writing.

For years now, maybe decades, I have read and enjoyed the "Times" editorial pages thoughts of Verlyn Klinkenborg. He has a sensitivity and a quiet that seems a necessary remove from the tumult of everyday life.

We don't live life in the 21st Century like Thoreau did in the 19th. But maybe we did. Maybe every era thinks the pace has gotten too fast. That the earth is in danger of spinning off its axis. That human affairs are nasty, brutish and short. After all, it was in the early 19th Century that Wordsworth wrote these words:

"THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US; LATE AND SOON"

          THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
          Little we see in Nature that is ours;
          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
          The winds that will be howling at all hours,
          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
          It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                         
          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.



In any event Klinkenborg has just written a book on writing that I picked up about a week ago. I haven't got deep into it yet because I'm finishing the fourth volume of Robert Caro's masterpiece on the life of Lyndon Johnson, "The Passage of Power." Klinkenborg's book is called "Several Short Sentence about Writing." You can order it here: http://www.amazon.com/Several-Short-Sentences-About-Writing/dp/0307266346/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1353074780&sr=1-1&keywords=verlyn+klinkenborg+several+short+sentences+about+writing



Here's his first page.


It's written somewhat in the pointed jabs of the luminous Dave Trott. And like Trott, Klinkenborg 
gives you something to think about.
                                                              

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Your winky-dink.

About 3,000 years ago when I was a teenager, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a green 1975 Chevy Nova while my friend, Chris Palatucci, steered his barge around New York City's suburbs.

We had, in the words of Chuck Berry "no particular place to go," and were driving hither and yon looking for girls, mischief and to shoot the shit. While driving, Chris told me a story about his uncle. That story popped into my head today as we subwayed down to a client meeting.

He said uncle had said something like this to him:

"So I went into the men's room, washed my hands and then took a whiz."

Chris replied, "You washed your hands before you peed?"

And here's the line I remember verbatim:

"Of course I did," his uncle replied. "I didn't want to get my winky-dink dirty."

It occurs to me that not enough people wash their hands before getting down to business. That they therefore sully the work they are about to present.

I have no trouble being flexible about work. I do not treat it like a kidney about to be transplanted. Nevertheless, I do think there should be a certain degree of reverence around work.

Treat it carefully.

Honestly.

Respectfully.

And don't forget to wash your hands.


Cynical Thursday.

Today I have a meeting with the CEO of the client I work for. I suppose at one time in my career or life, I'd be nervous about this. But I'm not.

The people on my team, of course, are running scared. (I hate the fucking word team. I've been on teams before, teams that worked. In agencies, what most "teams" are is a collection of people out for themselves who are adept at shifting responsibility onto someone else, as in "someone on the team will do it." Almost anyone of them would shiv you with an Xacto if it helped their stature.)

It's bad enough we have to have so many meetings. What's happening in agencies now is that schedule rehearsal meetings, MANDATORY in all caps rehearsal meetings in addition to the usual inundation of non-rehearsal meetings.

Here's why I'm not nervous.

I've done my work.

My work is good.

It reflects how hard I've listened to the client.

I've walked them through every step and every decision over the last six months.

Here's why they are nervous.

They haven't done anything but set up a meeting.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Clients and child-care.

Back when my 25-year-old daughter was just about 10-months-old, my wife and I scrapped together our meager funds and went on a one-week vacation to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. The trip was pretty much a nightmare--at least for the first three days, until I realized why my daughter had gone haywire.

What I recognized was this. We picked our daughter up. Locked her into various strollers and car seats and whisked her away from her comfortable surroundings to someplace she was unfamiliar with. We never told her what we were doing. We never explained anything.

Even though Sarah was barely speaking at that point, she needed to be told what was going on. She needed to be assured that everything new we were doing was going to be alright. She needed to be walked through the changes she would experience.

Once we started doing that, Sarah was ok. She stopped fussing. She stopped bawling.

Here's the thing.

Clients are exactly the same way. Nine times out of 10 they say "no" to what you suggest because you don't explain what you suggest. You don't moderately and considerately move them step-by-step through your thought processes. What might seem simple, obvious and a no-brainer to you, might be upsetting and disruptive to them.

When I say treat clients like children I don't mean be condescending. I mean be thoughtful, thorough and caring.

Let them know what you're doing and why.

It couldn't hurt.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Meet Baroness Bachofen von Echt.

Of all the many things I do extraordinarily well, perhaps I am best at self-denial.

I do not treat myself well.

I do not reward myself.

I seldom "treat" myself, even for a job well done.

This proclivity on my part is, of course, of great consternation to my therapist of 17 years. He's been working on me to "loosen up" a bit and not be such an austere, impecunious and money-pinching son-of-a-bitch.

For about the past year I have been studying the life and work of the great Austrian painter, Gustav Klimt. Not long ago I wrote in this space about seeing at New York's Neue Gallerie Klimt's most famous work, Adele Bloch-Bauer I.

This painting was stolen from the Bloch-Bauer family by the Nazis, then appropriated by the Austrians after World War II as their national patrimony. Only after a series of long and contentious lawsuits did Bloch-Bauer's family reclaim the treasure. (Some time after that it was bought by cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder for something in the neighborhood of $140 million--a record for a modern painting.)

In any event for significantly less than $140 million, I just rewarded myself, my wife and my apartment with a Klimt print produced by Klimt in a edition of 200.

That's it at the top of this post.

It's a portrait of the Baroness Bachofen von Echt. By the way, the Baroness married into the title--she was a daughter of Charles Pfizer, the German pharmaceutical magnant who emigrated to Brooklyn, USA in the 1840s.

There's one other reason I made the purchase. I also happen to think my wife bears more than a passing resemblance to the lovely Baroness.

Germantown then and now.

Back in the 1970s, the neighborhood I live in now wasn't called Yorkville like it is today. It was called Germantown due to the large, though dwindling, number of Germans who settled in the neighborhood.

They came, these Germans did, in the late 1800s and did what immigrant groups always do. They lived near each other, opened up small groceries and restaurants and established social organizations and places of worship.

By the late 70s when I moved to the area, most of these places were in the throes of closing. And more people were referring to the area as Yorkville and less as Germantown. Still, some remnants remained.

(I might add that York Avenue--the Avenue my apartment house is on, was not named after the Duke of York or any such Anglo-Saxon nobility. Until World War I, York Avenue was called "Avenue A." It was renamed York Avenue to honor a World War I hero, Alvin York, who captured a passel of Germans. York was later played in the movies by the great Gary Cooper. That could be my definition of a hero. Someone played by Gary Cooper.)

Of the places I remember best, one is gone and one still remains. The place that's gone was called "The Ideal Coffee Shop." It was a small restaurant four or eight steps up from the side walk on 86th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. There's a highrise in the location now. It was once a giant Barnes & Noble and is now the Fairway Market.

Ideal sat maybe 16 people max. There was a small, maybe six-foot-long linoleum counter lined by bar stools covered in a red vinyl. In the back there were three or four small tables for four with unmatched wooden chairs. That was about the size of it.

Ideal never changed its menu. It changed its prices on the same old plastic covered menus they probably presented decades earlier. And the menu was limited. In fact, I can say this, I probably ate at Ideal a dozen times and never ordered anything but the knockwurst with German potato salad and the most amazing red cabbage I ever will eat. Along with that you could get a glass of beer in an old juice glass for 50 cents.

Ideal closed unceremoniously about 30 years ago. But Glaser's, a German bakery still holds court on First Avenue between 87th and 88th. Glaser's has old wooden display cases and a mosaic tile floor and entrance where the name Glaser's is spelled out in darker tile. They still bake everything there and make the best sugar-frosted raspberry jelly donuts in the city. When you buy a cake there, they place it lovingly in a cake box and tie the box up with fierce German efficiency with string that spools from a dispenser that hangs from the ceiling.

Glaser's has resisted the bakery trends of the city. They don't sell macaroons for four dollars each or cupcakes like they do at Magnolia bakery. They sell cakes like they sold in 1912.

Somethings just shouldn't change.



There are a few other traces of Germantown left. There's the German church on 84th Street between 1st and 2nd where I'm sure the Bund held meetings in the basement. And then there's the famous Karl Ehmer butcher shop on 2nd Avenue and 86th Street where you can buy any kind of sausage you can buy in Munich. Karl Ehmer's front window is decorated with hundreds of ornate beer steins. It's probably been this way for 70 years, if not longer. Just half a block down from Karl Ehmer's is the Old Heidelburg Restaurant. It's also been there for decades, though now the lederhosen-clad wait staff are Mexican, not German.

Over the last couple of years more and more of the old tenements have come down and highrises have gone up. The Second Avenue subway, after more than half a century of delays is finally being built. More change will come to the neighborhood.

That's New York.

As my old man used to say, "New York would be a great place to live, if they ever finish it."


Monday, November 12, 2012

Work. And death.

You've probably read by now Linds Redding's post "A Short Lesson in Perspective." http://www.thesfegotist.com/editorial/2012/march/14/short-lesson-perspective If you haven't, you should.

I won't say what we all say now if something is more than three lines long. "It's long, but it's worth it." Thereby abnegating every complicated thought ever thought. But I will say that Linds' piece is beautiful, important and worth copying and keeping some place you can find it again. We all need pieces like Linds' for all those many times when things at work get stupid (stupider than usual) and out of hand.

I have a friend, my oldest friend, who at just 54 has been stricken with cancer. He doesn't know when he will die. But his life, his family and his work are all changed and he's forced to look at all the decisions he's made to build his career that may or may not be deemed wasted because now he has cancer.

Here's the thing--and this is only my feeble point of view. The point of view from a guy who may have packed on a few extra pounds, who may worry about a splotch on my skin here, or a shortness of breath there, but who is, by all applications, relatively hale and healthy.

We are all going to die.

Having cancer or any other ailment just heightens that fact.

But we're all going to die.

And you should live every day of your life as if this could be your last.

That doesn't mean you should forget about work and live for your family only. As much as you might like to.

What it means is you should pour your completeness into everything. Work, family, your passions and your loves.

Work, for all its banality, callowness, meaningless emptiness, presents us with a choice. How do we want to live, to conduct ourselves, to perform? How do we want to do our jobs, treat people around us?

It's simple to decry the ridiculous aspects of work. The endless meetings. The perseveration about things that matter to no one. The whims and caprices of the small and ego-driven.

Unfortunately, those things are life, as well. Life isn't about avoiding the asinine. It's about how we handle it. How we balance it. How we laugh at it. How we don't let it eat us alive.

I guess if I had to do my whole life over again, I'd have stayed three weeks or four in Australia, instead of two. There really was no need to rush back to the office. If I could hit the reset button, I'd work fewer late nights, obsess about fewer early mornings.

But for the most part work has worked for me. It's allowed me to raise my children, send them to the best schools. Hold my daughters' hands and walk down the street. It's allowed me a comfortable apartment in a suitably boring part of town. It's allowed me to travel to places I wouldn't have traveled and it's given me the time and money I need to surround myself with the books and movies I love.

I guess there are those who fantasize living in a hut and sleeping in a hammock, fully in synch with the circadian rhythms of life.

That's ok.

I prefer work.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Aunt Sylvie cooks.

Uncle Slappy called just a few minutes ago and he was not a happy man.

"It's Sylvie again," he huffed. "She's at it. She's cooking."

"Cooking?" I asked, "What's wrong with that?"

The old man drew a deep breath and started, "Cooking she is for Thanksgiving already. And it's gone on all day. Cooking like this. 'Slappy, will you bring in butter from the ice box.' 'Slappy will you go to the grocery and buy 10 lbs. of cooking apples?' 'Slappy will you the stainless steel bowls get down.' It's Slappy this and Slappy that and it's still two weeks from Thanksgiving."

"You should be happy Aunt Sylvie likes to cook Uncle Slappy, and she's such a good cook. There aren't too many 85-year-olds that can hold a candle to her," I temporized.

"Cook? She is cooking enough for all of Florida, she is cooking so much. Five apple pies she made for the freezer today, five."

"Well, you do love apple pie, Uncle Slappy, and who makes better than Aunt Sylvie."

"She makes them of course, but I am slicing the apples. With an 8-inch paring knife I could cut myself and bleed to death and maybe this is preferred."

"Uncle Slappy, it's nice that you two work together in the kitchen."

"Working together in the kitchen is nice in theory," the Old One clarified. "In practice I would rather be a dental assistant."

I knew whereof Uncle Slappy spoke, so I tried gently to change the subject.

"It's amazing that at your age you and Aunt Sylvie are still hosting Thanksgiving," I said.

"Nice to you, maybe. Me I would rather to Golden Corral go. And I haven't mentioned the worst of it," Slappy continued. "Aunt Sylvie is down at Cindy Lindenbaum's now using her ice box because ours and the deep freeze in the garage too are full."

"Well, look at it this way, you'll have apple pie for a year."

I heard the old man inhale deeply and I thought I heard a tear register in his voice.

"She leaves a pie at Lindenbaum's, another at Weintraub's, another at Siegel's. The only problem is, she never picks them up after leaving them. After Thanksgiving she loses the list where she left them. When Aunt Sylvie, god forbid, passes, her pies will for decades remain."

I could reply with nothing but an "Oy." An "Oy" resonating with the 6,000 years our people have suffered.

"Oy is right," the old man agreed. 

"Pie," he said "anyone can make. It takes Sylvie to bake tsurris."

He hung up with one last oy.




Wishing doesn't make it so.

One of the stunning facets of the recently concluded Presidential election in America is the breach between so many Republican strategists and pollsters and the cold, hard presence of reality. Dozens of them had predicted a huge Romney victory, relying on their own methodologies and interpretations and invalidating those surveys that went against their beliefs.

In fact, a reporter asked Republican strategist Karl Rove on election night, "Is that just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is it real?"

Here's the thing about math. It knows the difference between true and false. And it doesn't take sides.

So many Republicans emulated Mark Twain's oath, "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics." In so doing they invalidated truth for opinion.

Many in our business do the same. In an effort to prove the efficacy of a particular tactic or medium, they concoct an artificial reality where they prevail. They find reams of "evidence" that proves the point they began with.

If you want to live your life "with math that makes you feel better" as opposed to "math that's real," that's fine with me.

We all carry our own burdens.

If yours isn't truth, so be it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A conversation with a daughter.

Not too long ago my beautiful and jaw-gapingly-brilliant younger daughter, Hannah, was asked by a student of hers to write a letter of recommendation to the college to which she was applying. Hannah had been this young woman's scuba instructor over the summer and had developed a special rapport with her which led to the request for a letter.

It's flattering, and also a bit daunting, when you're 21 to be asked to write a college recommendation letter. And Hannah was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the task. She had never done it before and wasn't sure how to proceed. Worse, she was afraid that given it was a college recommendation letter that she had to sound "smart."

You know what smart means, yes? That you use long sentences and big words. Usually big words slightly incorrectly.

Hannah turned to me for help and I sent her this note in which I numbered what each paragraph in a letter should do.

1. Say who has asked for a letter, to what she is applying and that you're pleased to lend your enthusiastic support.
2. Say how long you've known the person and in what capacity.
3. Saying something unique about the person, something they did while in your sphere that attests to their character or highlights their attributes.
4. Wind up with an offer to speak over the phone on their behalf.

That Hannah took this outline and wrote an exemplary letter is not today's point.

Today's point is how to approach anything--a meeting, a music session, a talk with your boss, a piece of copy.

1. Organize your thoughts. Know what you're going to say and why.
2. Let each point build on the previous one.
3. Assert your values. And what you value. Let your personality in.
4. Offer to do more.

One more thing, if you can.

Keep it short.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Aunt Louise.

Since Sandy ravaged the tri-state area, crazy Aunt Louise has been staying in our apartment. Crazy Aunt Louise is 79-years-old and lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey which has been without power for almost two weeks now. So rather than leave Crazy Aunt Louise in the dark and cold she has decamped here, taking over a fair lot of territory in our 1,500 square feet.

Crazy Aunt Louise is indeed crazy. She has a true mental handicap--undiagnosed--that leaves her functioning at about a 4th or 5th grade level. That said, she was able to hold a job, menial as it was, for 50 years and now lives on Social Security, medicare and the small pension she's accumulated through the years.

There's virtually nothing either my wife or I do that Crazy Aunt Louise doesn't comment on. In fact, she comments on everything she sees or hears, whether it's something my seven-month-old puppy, Whiskey, does or something she hears on TV.

Here are some things she doesn't understand or approve of. This is just a partial list.

-Why we don't have a washer-dryer.
-Why the dog "licks everything."
-Why do we walk the dog in the rain.
-Why the radio is talking about same-sex marriage.
-Why we eat dinner so late.
-Why I drink orange juice in the morning.
-Why my daughters scuba dive.
-Why the handle on the dish-washer is recessed.
-Why she should vote because she doesn't care less.
-Why is Daniel Craig is unhappy playing James Bond though he gets millions.
-Matzoh with Mediterranean flavoring.
-Michael Bloomberg.
-Why the milk is out on the kitchen table.
-Where we take our garbage.
-Why I come home so late.
-Why my wife has to empty the dishwasher while I am in the living room.
-Why is our third bedroom 'hidden.'

The low-point of our "Aunt-Louise-experience" was when her bathroom ran out of toilet paper. She didn't think to look in the cabinet under the sink, where I suppose 99% of the world keeps a spare roll or two. Instead she went to the kitchen and used dinner napkins.

It's no joy having Crazy Aunt Louise over. Not a single one of her many idiosyncrasies is endearing. Not a single one.

And that's all I have to say about the matter.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Confessional.

I have never been one of the advertising "cool kids."

In all my years in the business, I've never worked at Chiat/Day or Wieden + Kennedy.

In fact, while I'm being completely candid, I've never even been the hottest writer at the agencies I did work. There was always someone who came through in ways I couldn't. With something funnier, more unexpected or more something.

My phone has never rung off the hook with pleading calls from headhunters.

I wish I could say I'm being modest. I'm really just being truthful.

Despite my lack of elan, I've done ok in my career.

I've produced a lot of work that's won a fair amount of acclaim--some of which even helped drive sales, or build clients' businesses, or helped the agency I worked for.

I'm reflective, introspective and I often think about how I can reconcile my lack of abundant talent with whatever success I've enjoyed.

Here's where I am with that conundrum.

1. I work really hard. I come up with a lot of ideas. Quickly. And one of those is usually the right fit.
2. I have a good ear. I understand the "tone" the client is looking for. I can work with that tone and make something decent.
3. I over-deliver. I never do the assignment and try to look past that to the job that needs to be done. I challenge clients to think bigger and do more.
4. I listen before I argue. And when I do argue I try to do so without emotion, instead with facts and information.
5. I remember what was said. And use previous statements in previous meetings to help make my case.
6. I am stubborn. I stick to my guns but,
7. I am polite. So I seldom piss people off.
8. I try to be genuinely helpful to others.
9. I am unfailingly honest. I tell people what I've done, why I've done it and why it should be done.
10. When I'm wrong, which is often, I try to remember to admit my mistakes.

If I had more talent, I could probably be as successful or more successful and couple that with being a jerk. But I'm not that talented.

So I try to be a mensch.

Advertising thoughts from the election.

Something on the order of $2 billion dollars was spent on the just concluded American Presidential election--roughly what our Department of "Defense" spends daily on weaponry.

As advertising people, when someone spends in three or four months at levels higher than all of Unilever or Proctor and Gamble, it probably makes sense to take a look at that massive expenditure and see if there's anything we can learn from the profligacy.

Here's my one sentence conclusion. Targeting isn't all it's cracked up to be. Or looked at another way, just because you can target "left-handed one-legged lesbians who are pro-coal," doesn't mean you should. Read the ineffable Keith Byrne on this matter at his blog "Flotsam:"  http://keithrbyrne.tumblr.com/post/35060981016/data-gone-wild

The other night I was watching local TV and saw in a row three Romney commercials each sliced to a narrow segment of "likely" voters. Each spot was so "small" as to be all but wasted on about 99% of viewers. What's more, through the three spots--and through the hundreds of spots created for either Romney or Obama--was no central theme.

In other words, neither campaign had a campaign idea.

No central promise.

No central story.

No memorable, ownable, credible themeline that summed up who, what, why, when and where.

In other words, communications that might appeal to a tiny segment but which was wasted on the mass of eyeballs viewing.

There are plenty of communication woes that money can solve.

Even lack of idea.

But, I believe, you still need a central truth, a promise to the viewer. I think what happens in a Presidential campaign is this. (Mind you, I've never worked on one.) There are a bunch of creatives trying to sell their individual or package of spots. But there is no creative director. There is no one steering the ship. No one with a hand on the tiller.

That showed in both campaigns.

And they both failed to have an impact.

Despite the billions spent.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Yiddish 101.

If you grew up as I did (god forbid, I wouldn't wish that on anyone) you grew up hearing a variety of Yiddish. And one of the phrases you might have heard more than any other was actually just a fragment of a phrase. My father would admonish: "As di bubbe..." And then his voice would trail off.

Today, no one knows the full phrase or, more important the wisdom behind it. 

The full phrase is: "As di bubbe volt gehat beytsim volt zi gevain mayn zaidah." 

Which means, if your Yiddish is a bit rusty, "If my grandmother had balls, she'd be my grandfather."

My point is kind of simple.

Don't make predictions or plans based on spurious assumptions.

An advertising failure.

A little less than 12 years ago, after the 2000 Bush-Gore voting debacle, I was working on the IBM account and well-connected with people at Ogilvy who were well-connected to the most eminent people at IBM.

I had a cockamamie idea that it would make sense for IBM to lead a nationwide campaign for modernizing America's voting system. (I'm sure "modernizing" isn't the right word, because our system is so obsolete modernizing would still leave it short. As firing people is now called "right-sizing," perhaps up-dating our voting system should be called "right-teching.")

I thought if IBM led such an effort--a cause, in effect--it would make a number of positive statements about the company that would help its brand. Not only would IBM look politically small "d" democratic, it would speak to both their leadership and their technological prowess.

The idea was embraced at Ogilvy and went up to the CEO of IBM who, politely I'm told, appreciated it but summarily rejected it as too politically charged.

Anyway, now it's three elections later and our systems are more backward than ever.

Entering a church basement or a school lunchroom to vote is like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." You walk through a door and enter a different century.

I guess there's an advertising point here.

To my mind, advertising agencies should lead industries (and perhaps the nation) to a better place. I believe that the highly-paid CEOs of holding companies should be speaking out against the lack of fact-checking in politicians' commercials. Literally billions of dollars are spent on ads that are subject to less verification and substantiation and regulation than an ad for furniture polish.

It's our job as an industry, I believe, to speak and promulgate the truth.

It's our job to lead. Not to be lead.

There is much blather about the death of the traditional agency "model," and so on. I think what has died is spine, intelligence and leadership.

We are so busy chasing the specious new, new thing that we have completely forgotten the old, important verities.

Monday, November 5, 2012

From the "New Yorker."


Election Day.

Doubtless, the hordes of Americans who wear shorts and flip-flops through the cold weather and then complain about the cold, will say it.

The people who think it's avant to tattoo their necks will say it.

The people who live far out of the city and then complain that the city is so hard to get to will say it.

But no matter what happens, tomorrow's election will by no means be the most corrupt in American history. No matter what malfeasance and shenanigans party operatives, vote blockers and ballot stuffers visit upon this election, things I believe are relatively chaste these days.

video
Certainly more chaste than they were 70 years ago when Preston Sturges presented his great political commentary, "The Great McGinty," which, by the way starts with this seminal quotation:
Prologue: "This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country." 

Uncle Slappy is quite sufficient.

Uncle Slappy called early this morning and he was loaded for bear. He had, of course, been checking in with me, his favorite nephew, throughout the "super storm," (the insurance people had created that designation to avoid paying "hurricane" damages) and he knew I was ok on the Upper East Side. This morning his call had a different agenda: diatribe.

"I was listening to NPR," the old man began "and they were giving the disposition of traffic on the bridges and tunnels in and out of New York."

"That's right, Uncle Slappy," I moderated,  "today's the first day back for many people."

"Nothing has the same name it used to have. The Triboro Bridge is now the RFK Bridge named for that little scrotum twister Bobby, who, it should be said, was a lawyer for Joe McCarthy."

A Slappy and an elephant never forget.

He continued.

"The 59th Street Bridge is now the Ed Koch Bridge. He's not even dead. Any day now he could be found in flagrante delicto with a little boy, and then what? They change the name again?

"And the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel is now the Hugh Carey Tunnel. The man was a shitty governor, so they name a tunnel after him."

"That's the way things are, these days, Uncle Slappy. At least it's not the 'Citibank Tunnel.' It could be worse."

"That gives me an idea. Name something after David Dinkins the schvartza mayor with the fancy mustache. And since there are no bridges, tunnels or airports left, let's change the name of all those shops to 'Dinkins Donuts.'"

"Dinkin's Donuts, not Dunkin' Donuts" I clarified. "Are you done now Uncle Slappy?" I asked during a pause for a breath.

"Yes," he laughed. "This was quite sufficient."

The old man hung up the blower still laughing under his breath.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Communication Arts Advertising Annual Fifty-Three.

For over 30 years I have looked forward this time of year to the arrival of Communication Arts' "Advertising Annual." This year's edition was number 53 and it arrived through the storm-soaked good graces of UPS just yesterday.

Of the many things that make me want to grab a high-powered rifle, climb up a church steeple and start shooting, one of the primary ones is the abdication of the press when it comes to the lies and half truths our political candidates spout. Worse, in my opinion, is that television networks and stations don't subject our political candidates to the same clearance standards that they would subject "Mop 'n Glo."

When I was a kid, believe it or not, common everyday table salt was advertised on television. There was a brand called Diamond Crystal whose unique selling proposition was thanks to the shape of their salt grains, Diamond Crystal stuck to food better. Salt in our day and age is not a high ticket item. My guess is that Diamond Crystal salt was subject to more regulatory scrutiny than our political candidates.

But I digress.

I was talking about Communication Arts Advertising Annual Fifty-Three.

An annual with about 300 ads inside.

About 20 of which actually ran.

Really?

Full page ads for Legos.

Newspaper spreads for a local gym.

A three-page unit for "Flamin' Hot" Cheetos.

Most of the print ads weren't even the size of standard page units. They were faked to the point of what would look good in CA.

The TV category seemed a little more legit.

TV is harder to fake. As a consequence I've actually seen some of the TV spots that made it into the annual.

I haven't seen any of the print.

My question is for the publishers and editors of CA. (And if anyone reading this knows them, please feel free to forward this post to them.)

Where are your fact checkers?

Why don't you require tearsheets be submitted?

What you're doing is no longer lauding the best work.

You're saluting the best liars.

Just like our political ads.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A day in New York.

There's one giant grocery store in my neighborhood, it's called Fairway and it opened on the big cross street, 86th between Second and Third a little over a year ago. Long before Fairway opened on the Upper East Side it was already an institution in New York.

What started as a humble fruit stand some 75 years ago had grown into an modern orgy of food--fresh produce, of course, but also meats, fish and groceries, teas and coffees from literally around the world. I suppose the highest praise you can bestow upon Fairway is that it's made the legendary Zabar's essentially obsolete. Whatever Zabar's has, Fairway has it better and cheaper.

Some powerless friends from New Jersey are stopping by this evening for dinner and I was shooed out to Fairway to get some shrimp, Brussels sprouts, artichoke/garlic paste, a loaf of crusty semolina bread, white mushrooms and some nice red tomatoes.

I am old enough to remember the line of refugees attempting to flee Saigon when the South's capital fell to the North. The lines in Vietnam had nothing on the lines tonight at Fairway. They stretched a good block and a half--all the way back to the dried fruit.

I guess you could say that my little portion of Manhattan is well on its way to recovering from yet another "storm of the century." These once-in-a-lifetime storms come more often now, just about once a year. In part their frequency is due to our overheated 24-hour news cycle, and in part due to global warming. Or, global weirding, as Thomas Friedman calls it. Not just warmer weather, but more severe weather of all sorts.

My day started out far from weird, weather-wise. Whiskey and I walked out to a field that slopes down from Gracie Mansion and overlooks the roiling churn of the waters of Hell's Gate. This morning the day broke cool and clear. When we arrived at the yard a young woman was standing in a ditch adjacent to a toppled 65-year-old elm tree. The root system was taller than she and she was probably 5'6".

Her dog "Money," a four-year-old bulldog who resembled Winston Churchill chased Whiskey up and down the hill. Her sister's dog, a small chihuahua in a pink and grey sweater whose name I didn't catch would scurry in and out of they fray. There was much panting, growling, yapping and barking. And some Sandy war stories exchanged.

Throughout Carl Schurz park, tree limbs and branches were piled as inconspicuously as possible. They were awaiting their grim reaper, a city owned wood chipper that would surely make its way over to the park before long.

Much of New York is still suffering the ill-effects of the horrific and terrible storm. Our famous marathon was cancelled for the first time in its long history. However, the power is back in most of Manhattan and a good portion of our piss-soaked but efficient subway system is once again clattering over its century-old rails.

Tempers are frayed. Nerves are raw. Most people seem to be dreading Tuesday as well, election day, and the prospect that Mitt Romney will somehow defeat President Obama.

But slowly the city is getting up from the mat. We've been floored before and we'll be floored again. Somehow though, we always seem to get to our feet.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Learning to write.

There are many ways to become a writer, many ways to become an advertising copywriter, many things you can do to learn your trade and then your craft.

For my money, the best way however is to read everything that you can put your hands on. I mean, really read. Not just for meaning. Not just when it's short. Not just when there's nothing on the tube. I mean really read. And study what other writers have done.

Naturally there may be other ways to become a writer than to become a reader. But for the life of me, I haven't found any. I'm sure there are writers out there who don't read. I'm sure I work with some of them. And maybe they have secrets and techniques that are so phantasmagorical I can't even begin to apprehend them. That's fine. I, however, I will stick to my knitting and do things the way I have since I was knee high to a cockroach.

When I was young in the business, I worked at an agency where I did not have an abundance of respect for the creative directors. They were nice enough men but I didn't think they had the capacity for teaching me how to write, and I wanted to learn. Fortunately, the agency was just six long blocks from the Strand Book Store (18 miles of books.) Then as now the Strand sold mostly used books and I was able to pick up old award annuals for pennies on the dollar. I read every ad. Not just the headlines, the copy as well.

Over the years I've bought literally hundreds of awards annuals. I still do. And I still read what award winning writers write.

Some weeks ago I mentioned that I read somewhere that someone had remarked that Joseph Mitchell's "Execution," a short newspaper account of the electrocution of three convicted murderers, was one of the best pieces of writing he had ever read. Who wouldn't be intrigued by such praise. So I found a book edited by Harold Schechter called "True Crime: An American Anthology," that had "Execution" in it.

Then I also read Meyer Berger's Pulitzer-Prize-winning reportage "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street." This morning I picked up the volume again and read exactly one sentence by Damon Runyon, one of my favorite writers.

I read just one sentence and was so blown away by it that I had to put the book down and write this post. What I read was from a piece Runyon wrote in 1927 called "The Eternal Blonde." It takes a stronger man than I to resist a title like that.

Anyway, here's the sentence: "A chilly looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble, you-bet-you-will chins, and an inert, scare-drunk fellow that you couldn't miss among any hundred men as a dead set-up for a blonde, or the shell game, or maybe a gold brick."

Here's a second and third sentence: "Mrs. Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray are on trial in the huge weatherbeaten old court house of Queens County in Long Island City, just across the river from the roar of New York, for what might be called for want of a better name, The Dumbbell Murder. It was so dumb."

I don't know about you.

But those sentences stopped me in my tracks.

I wish I could write like that.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Five advertising lessons from Sandy.

I am not one who thinks hurricanes are god's damnation for homosexuality or that the rivers will run with blood because people are sinners.

Acts of god are acts of god. And humans, no matter how we aggrandize our importance, do not motivate storms and tornadoes and plagues. That said, there are lessons we can learn from storms like Sandy, lessons you can learn whether you're in politics, or even advertising.

1. Infrastructure matters. You can't ignore the basics. In the city you need transit. Water. Electricity. You can't let things decay over time. With sea levels rising, you should make sure your electrical transformers are not below water.

In advertising infrastructure is a sound strategy strictly adhered to. It's sticking to your brand story. It's reaching the most people with the most important information you have most effectively.

2. You can't deny science. Something like 50% of Americans don't believe in climate change. Despite what their eyes see. Despite record high temperatures and a record number of freak storms. Science doesn't care if you deny it. It will act the way it acts no matter how stupid we are.

In advertising we have also denied what our eyes see. We spend countless hours on media of dubious efficacy. We propagate buzzwords and claims churning them out like a runaway assembly line. We're told Facebook is worth $100 billion dollars. 110 times what "The New York Times" is worth. No matter that we've never clicked on an ad or gone to a brand page. We deny science.

3. Doing beats talking. Over the past half of a week President Obama has been relatively silent on the campaign trail. Yet his popularity, and the likelihood of an Obama victory in five days, seems to have improved. He's stopped flapping his gums. And started getting things done. The same can be said for New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey's governor Chris Christie.

In advertising of course, we get paid to talk and stop getting paid when we complete our assignments. In response we have scores of people who produce nothing but decks. They talk and talk and talk. The result of all that talk? The notion that advertising needs a new agency model. That's right. We do. We need an agency model that produces things.

4. Don't be paralyzed by perfection. Much of New York's massive subway system, it's 711 miles of track were underwater. It seemed like it would take weeks if not longer for service to be restored. New York quickly drained the stations it could. And got part of the system running less than 48 hours after the worst of the storm. We didn't wait until the whole thing was running like a top. We'll fix things by degree.

In advertising we too often build castles in the sky. We build baroque messaging platforms that if all goes according to plan will "change everything." Things never go according to plan. Do things fast and correct on the way.

5. Experience matters. New York's first responders are the best in the world--honed to a high degree of readiness thanks to New York's standing as "the world's city." Seeing our cops, EMTs and firefighters in action, you almost feel proud to pay the highest taxes in America. It's nice, what's more to have an experienced professional in the mayor's office. Bloomberg's press conferences have been models of clarity and efficiency.

Most advertising agencies have purged senior people like a bulimic with a chocolate cake. They've rid their staffs of high salaries and with them experience. That's fine when you're in the talking business. Not fine if you want to be in the doing business.

Peace like a river.

The storm has ended in New York and like they used to say about the month of March, it came in like a lion and out like a lamb.

The weather today is lamb like. The sky is once again bright and cerulean. The weather is described by "The New York Times" as "seasonable," a quaint reference to those times not-so-long-ago when we had seasons.

Whiskey and I were up and out this morning for a short walk along the water. The water which flooded the city. Which filled the subways. Which swept away dreams. That water was now flat and calm and flowing.

"Peace like a river ran through the city
Long past the midnight curfew
We sat starry-eyed
We were satisfied
And I remember
Misinformation followed us like a plague
Nobody knew from time to time
If the plans were changed
If the plans were changed."

Old black men on the city's payroll were feeding fallen branches into woodchippers. One handed Whiskey a particularly ambient branch, just her size, that she carried proudly as if bringing home the kill. The other was wearing a baseball cap. In type reminiscent of the movie titles from "The Godfather," his hat said "The Grandfather." I admired his wit.

The moms and their strollers were out in full force. So plentiful that they made me think of China and their "one child" policy. Men like myself were walking their dogs and the dogs were, like Whiskey, looking for sticks, or for rough-housing, or both.

The FDR Drive, three lanes northbound and three lanes south was dry. The traffic was sparse leaving the city and bumper to bumper going south. You could see cars flashing their blinkers and changing lanes to gain a foot or a yard. But they were nonetheless moving slower than walking speed. York Avenue, too, the next street in from the drive, similarly bi-directional was similarly trafficked. Southbound vehicles might as well have been stuck in concrete.

Wiser commuters were taking the subway, which incredibly was pumped out and running, at least as far south as 42nd Street. The buses, the world's slowest form of mass-transit, were moving too. Lumbering like a fat man with a nail in his shoe.

That's New York today.
 


The odd are against us.

I was thinking during this rare weather-induced downtime about how hard it is to produce something good in advertising. After all, despite New York's near paralysis, the advertising trade press and various blogs were up and running. And our television was on way more than usual. As a consequence I was able to see dozens and dozens of ads that would have to improve just to be mediocre.

What I realized was this.

It takes about five or six people doing their jobs well to make a decent ad.

It takes a copywriter, an art director, maybe a strategist and account person, a producer and more. They all have to come through.

But it only takes one person to fuck things up.

One client with more ego than sense.

One person just phoning it in.

One "supervisor" trying to pee in your pool.

And the whole thing is kaput.

We have become an industry--not that different from Hollywood--that does "creative by committee."

Everybody gets a vote.

Every agenda gets its day in court.

We suffer death by a thousand cuts.

G.K. Chesterton said it this way:
"I've searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees."