Monday, December 31, 2012

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini or a 2012 wrap-up.

Yesterday "The New York Times" published an obituary of the 103-year-old Italian neurologist Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini.obituary For whatever reason the obit struck me as a decent and serendipitous way to wrap up another long year.

The main thing that struck me by Levi-Montalcini's life is that nothing is easy. She grew up a woman, went to medical school when women seldom did, and against her father's wishes and graduated just two years before Mussolini issued an edict barring "non-Aryans" from having professional careers.

Still, Levi-Montalcini persisted. She and her family evaded the Nazis. And survived the war in tact.

She went on to do breakthrough work (when the word breakthrough actually meant something) that played a central role in things that are too complicated for me, a mere copywriter, to fathom.

In 1986, at the age of 77, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with her scientific partner, Dr. Stanley Cohen.

Here's the part of the obituary I liked the most.

She was a sought-after speaker and in 2009 (when she was 100) she said: "At 100, I have a mind that is superior--thanks to experience--than when I was 20."

Our industry, of course, makes no such concessions for experience and persistence.

We prefer flash-in-the-pans over slow-cooking.

That's just the way it is.

I'm not exactly sure why I feel this is a good wrap-up for 2012.

It's been a good year for me personally.

I have produced a lot of good work and am on the cusp of producing more.

My clients respect me, maybe even harbor a scintilla of fear in regard to me. That is good.

And my agency, after merely tolerating me for nearly three years have finally seen fit to permit me to be me and are, slowly, allowing me a larger canvas.

Still, unlike Levi-Montalcini, our body of work, our years of brand building, of clients building their careers on our work, of improving brands, does not matter.

These days, I'm afraid, we're only as good as our last app.

An app that eleven people will ever use. (But, gee!, it's cool.)

At the age of 55, I feel on borrowed time.

The "wisdom" I've acquired, the experience I've gained remains unrecognized.

We treat people like chewing gum.

We throw them out when the flavor is gone.

Sorry, for the melancholia.

Maybe I read too many obituaries.

Friday, December 28, 2012


I'm in Antigua, one time zone and several thousand miles from home, but that didn't stop Uncle Slappy from giving me a ring-a-ling this evening.

"Boychick," he began, "It's been written that when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick."

"I've heard that, Uncle Slappy," I responded. "It's Sholem Aleichim, is it not?"

"Let me tell you what I mean, and don't be such a wise ass," the old man stormed forward. "I fear I am becoming a chicken."

"You're becoming a chicken?"

"You know I hate fish, yes? I wish I could figure out how to re-jigger W.C. Fields' line about hating water...'fish fuck in it.' But I can't make it work. In any event, I can't stand any fish that isn't smoked. Smoked salmon, I'll eat. Smoked whitefish, sturgeon. But regular restaurant or filet fish you get at the market, well, it turns my stomach."

"I see," I responded wisely.

"And with my weight about 20 lbs. too high, I have to give up pasta. The only food I really love. Dr. Richard P. Cohen, my internist, not Richard T. Cohen, the podiatrist, says I must eat as if it's Passover. No grains. No bread. No pasta. No rice."

Again I interjected an "I see."

"So, chicken I am left with. Chicken roasted. Chicken baked. Chicken marsala. Chicken salad. Chicken until it's coming out my ears.

"The chicken or the poor man might be sick to Sholem Aleichim. That's fine. But I'm well and sick of chicken."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


I've had the pleasure the last couple of days--and for a couple more days, of scuba diving with my younger daughter, Hannah.

Hannah, who is 21, has been diving for well over half her life. Since she was 18, she's been a licensed dive instructor. With all that diving through the years she has accomplished something on the order of 500 dives. An impressive total.

I, though 34 years older, am much less experienced under the waves. I've been a certified diver and I have about 120 dives under my belt but I pale in comparison to Hannah.

One of the main things I've learned about diving is one of the hardest things for me to get, though it's one of the simplest.

Experiencing the undersea world is done at a slow speed.

You do not dart from reef to reef.

In fact, you barely even kick. You motivate yourself with a minimum of movement. This not only conserves your air-supply, it allows you to see the world you're only visiting, to take note of the infinitesimally small creatures and coral formations as well as the large.

Working in advertising and living in Manhattan, we have spent our whole lives getting places fast. We are comfortable when we are speeding. Normal speed feels, at best, languid.

The sea, however is a different world.

A world in which we are alien.

Especially alien if we move faster than we are meant to.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dear friends and readers.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

I am off for ten days in the sun with my family.

Because I am who I am, my time off will not be, I'm sure 100% off. I'm sure there will be phone calls from work, a raft of emails and a visitation of stupidities that will further curl my hair.

I am in pre-production on a half-dozen new TV spots and the politics and banalities of work will accompany these. The credit grab has already commenced. Finger-pointing will follow sure as night follows day.

This is life.

And in the end, none of this small-dickedness matters.

Do your job.

Stick to your knitting.

See more than you say.

And there's a chance things will turn out ok.

I won't be writing as much as usual when I'm gone, but I will check in.

Again, Happy Holidays to you all.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Ballad of George and Whiskey.

New York, as it is wont to do, has seemingly emptied out this weekend in anticipation of Christmas. The cavalcade of weekend athletes circling Central Park's asphalt has thinned to a trickle and we were up early to take Whiskey, my nine-month-old Golden Retriever, out for a frolic.

There is a large wooded area on the East Side just north of the Great Lawn and south of the reservoir that is ideal for dog frolicking. Since the storms of summer, Sandy in particular, the large space is strewn with branches and covered with fallen leaves. Whiskey loves to play fetch and there is no shortage of sticks to retrieve and fat park squirrels to tree.

This morning, however, I almost got arrested.

Arrested by two park police who took exception to me having Whiskey romp leash-less.

Of course I knew I was in violation of the law. But Whiskey and I have played there a dozen times without incident. There are never any people about. Besides, she is as gentle as a 'good guy with a gun.'

The cop and I quickly got into it. He grabbed my left shoulder as I tried to walk away.

"You're not allowed to touch me," I screamed, shrugging his hand away.

"You're going to make this difficult," he said, sounding like Ward Bond in a bad 50s-noir.

"No, I'm going to make it easy. I'm walking away."

He got in my face.

I got in his.

In the end, the law, not justice prevailed and I was hit with a $100 fine.

My wife, of course, looked on the bright side.

"What if he shot you," she hoped.

To that end, in the style of Bob Dylan, I have written this, "The Ballad of George and Whiskey."

They we're walking in Central Park,
That's the story I will tell,
When the leash a-holdin' Whiskey,
From George's hand it fell.

The cops they came a-running,
Their sirens screaming loud,
We're arrestin' George and Whiskey,
We'll do our cap'n proud.

George and Whiskey didn't stay there,
They turned on their heels to run,
When George was shot in the back,
By two bullets from the po-lice-man's gun.
By two bullets from the po-lice-man's gun.

They shot him in the back,
In the park they gunned him down,
Running from the po-lice,
In old New York town.

Friday, December 21, 2012

emails never sent.


There's a 1959 movie called "Letter Never Sent" by the seminal Soviet film-director Mikhail Kalatozov

This post has nothing to do with that Soviet work other than I am appropriating its title and changing it to "e-mail Never Sent." In short, this will be a selection from the emails I never sent in 2012.

Dear ___________,

Thanks for being there to criticize my work. 

But not being there when the work was being done.

Thanks for the second-guessing and not being there during the first-guessing.

Thanks for denying my requests for help. More budget, more time, more people.
Then complaining.

Thanks for throwing a shit load of shit on my plate.
Then rebuking me for being a "one-man-team."

Thanks for forwarding emails without filtering.
It's nice to know that people I am charged to work with closely are nothing more than ducts.
Thanks for not shielding me from any of the picayune comments that are invariably made.

Thanks, by the way, for making sure I have to lay out my own money almost daily, for trips to the clients, important books and periodicals, music and making it near impossible to get reimbursed. I appreciate the help in assuring that it actually costs me money every time I work late.

While we're on the subject of money, thanks for accepting money from the client for work I do solo. No, really, solo. On top of my regular job. A handshake and a thank you would have been nice. A check for bringing in new revenue would have been fair.

Thanks also for the nasty weekly emails upbraiding me for what you call delinquent timesheets. I guess in your universe it makes sense to have someone who bills out at hundreds of dollars an hour do menial tasks.

Thanks especially for the asinine assertions that the company and the holding company are all about diversity and inclusion and then scheduling meeting during the Holiest days of the Jewish year. I love having to work those days when family is most important.

Oh, and thanks for all the meetings during lunch when no lunch is served. That's right, we're machines. We don't need feeding.

Thanks in general for all your efforts at making us feel worthless, small and "interchangeable." I love hearing about how the new economics of the business mean that salaries will be lower in the future. Though I assume yours goes up every year.

Thanks also for putting me on a two-year raise schedule. I like having less real income year after year. I'm sure the holding company heads suffer the same indignities.

For all those "thanks" and a few dozen more, there's also this:

Thanks for letting me write this blog. 

To vent my spleen whatever that is.

And speak my mind.

It helps.

Hello, morning.

For many people today, the first day of Winter, is the last working day of the year.

The day in New York City at least, dawned dark. We are being lashed by yet another giant storm system. The rain, though on-again, off-again is hard. The winds are gusting up to 40 miles per hour. There isn't a rubbish bin in sight that isn't blooming with cheap broken umbrellas, the kind you buy for five dollars from toothy Nigerians on street corners.

It's supposed to get colder later and maybe some of the rain will turn to snow, or ice.

In all, it's a gloomy day.

And because many clients are gone for the year and many businesses are closed already, the city has a weird and empty feel to it. It seems a lot of people have had it with 2012 and are, I presume euphemistically, "working from home" for the duration.

I however am not.

Over the past three or four months or so, I have been "discovered" by my agency. Discovered at the age of 55.

Suddenly, every time there is a pitch or a crisis (they're usually one and the same) I get an email asking me to help.

Since August I have been on six pitches, four crises, and have shot three commercials and two high-profile videos.

Some of those pitches have come into fruition. As a consequence, I am in pre-production on six commercials we'll be shooting in LA, week of Jan. 7.

It's dark in my office now.

It's 8:30 and I will be the only one in for probably two hours or three.

Like I said, it's a good day to 'phone it in.'

The usual politics--the kind that generates second and third guessings, the kind that kills good ideas for safe ideas, the kind that sends three producers and three art directors to a single TV shoot--haven't started yet.

It's too early for stupid.

It's quiet here.


And no one is in yet.

The tyranny of free.

There's a lot of free shit in the world.

And the operative word in the sentence above is shit.

We get Facebook for free. But somehow, our personal data is worth about $100 per person to Facebook.

So what we're getting isn't free.

Though we're fooled into thinking it is.

The same holds true for other phony frees like Google mail.

It's free. Except your mail is scanned and you get targeted ads.

That's your life as profit center.

The worst costly free, in my opinion, is Wikipedia.

I'll be blunt.

The quality of information you get on Wikipedia sucks.

Most often, it seems to me, the information you get is press releases.

They've been approved by the people and companies about whom they are writing.

It's not information we get.

It's misinformation.

But of course, being "free" Wikipedia has forced legitimate sources out of business.

I miss the information I used to be able to get from a real encyclopedia.

If you grew up like I did, you grew up hearing adages like
"You get what you pay for."

We've forgotten simple declarations and wisdom.

We think we're getting free.

We've forgotten that free is costly.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A perfect bit of writing.

I'm not much of a boxing fan but I am a fan of good movies and good writing. There is something--at least in the abstract--elemental about one man in pitched battle against another, armed with nothing but his fists, his wits and his guile.

If you're in the market for a good old movie, check out "The Set Up," with the always pitch perfect Robert Ryan. Or "The Harder They Fall," written by the great Budd Schulberg, or the grunting brilliance of Anthony Quinn in "Requiem for a Heavyweight."

Of course if your tastes run more to the literary, you really can't do better than reading something by the "New Yorker" writer A.J. Liebling who wrote "The Sweet Science" in 1956. (Liebling, for the uninitiated once said "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.")

In any event and the point of this post is a bit of writing I happened upon last night that knocked me to the mat.

In writing about Rocky Marciano's 13th round knock-out of Jersey Joe Walcott, Marciano's "perfect right hand" landed, well, perfectly and Walcott "flowed down like flour out of a chute." You can see the punch and the flour in gorgeous slow motion here:

You don't have to be a boxing fan to love that. To love great writing.

It's what we do.

Or should.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The importance of being busy.

I have a nagging feeling that too many people in our business and at our clients are simply not busy enough.

They have too much time to spend thinking about things that are just not important.

As a consequence we spend too much time responding to and discussing the banalities that others come up with.

Here's what I mean.

Let's say you're meant to do a spot on blue jeans.

After a couple weeks of work, let's say, you get to the point where you're storyboard is 98% approved.

That's when someone who's not busy enough says something like this:

"What if we made the blue jeans yellow?"

"Yellow blue jeans?"

"Everyone already has blue jeans! Let's sell yellow jeans."

"Yellow blue jeans?" you repeat.

"Who doesn't like yellow. The sun is yellow. Lemons, bananas, certain tropical birds."

"Well, we we're meant to send the boards to the production company tonight."

"I'd like to see a version with yellow blue jeans."

And so the agency creatives scamper down that senseless rabbit hole all because some blowhard with too much time on her hands felt the need (and had the time) to make a comment.

If people were busier, if like me, they had a next assignment to focus on, they couldn't come up with shit like yellow blue jeans.

But they do.

We forgot what worked.

Yo, bro.

Hey, dude.

Greetings, hipsters.

In an era in which it takes six months to come up with a widget nine people will use,
at a time in which it take four weeks to "concept" three banner ads
and eight people and five months to come up with a few Facebook posts,
I'd like you to consider the newspaper.

Oh, I know.

Newspapers are dead.

But consider this.

They publish everyday.

Thousands of words.

Dozens of pictures.


They are fast.

They are responsive.

They are useful.

They actually do something.

No publisher ever said, 'we're not printing tomorrow. We're still working on the call to action.'

Just think about it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


When I was a kid I worked as a copywriter in Bloomingdale's in-house ad agency. We sat in small offices--with doors with our names on them in raised letters--and we worked.

In all, it wasn't a bad place to work. The store at the time was run by Marvin Traub--one of retailing's brightest lights, and was an exciting place to be. And the advertising department was run by John Jay who went on to greater fame and acclaim at Weiden & Kennedy.

Each week began with a meeting with production. We went through the weekly ad schedule and got assigned the ads we had to write for the week. Usually we had to write 10 or 15 ads.

You'd be told the size of the ad--1650 lines, or 2100 lines, or 1200 lines, that is a full-page tabloid. Then we'd meet with the buyer, go over the "merch," figure out what needed to be shot and how. It was a heated process but productive.

When you have 10 or 15 ads piled up in front of you, you quickly get focused. You start doing what you need to do to start writing those ads. There's no time, really, for dilly-dallying. You get to the task at hand. We used to say "We've never printed a blank page yet," meaning we were going to make our deadlines come hell or hot water.

Every week for about 150 weeks I produced, say 12 ads on average--roughly 1,800 ads in all.

Today, it takes four eager young people to create a Facebook post that is "on brand" and "strategic." And a dozen people in the room to create a banner.

There are some who will decry me for being a "curmudgeon," whatever that is.

I suppose I am.

I'm old.




And I like to get things done.

Boy, am I ever out of it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The importance of closing.

Nothing closes any more.

Yes, the New York City Marathon was cancelled amid the destruction of Hurricane Sandy, but football and commerce rolled on.

A day after a Kansas City Chief football player killed his girlfriend and then himself,
his former team played on.

Two days after the horror in Newtown, the NFL had a full slate of violent games.

Even after JFK was shot--which happened on a Thursday--football was played on Sunday.

There was a time, I suppose, when stores closed.

When television stations went off the air.

When life slowed down.

And maybe, just maybe, people could actually talk to each other.

But today we are heated up ever hotter.

The "shop now" emails never cease, no matter what horror is in the news.

The day after the Connecticut shooting, thousands of young adults thought it was ok to dress as drunken Santas and drunken elves and "party."

We are a nation without reflection.

No one thinks of consequences anymore.

We go lurching from one extravaganza to the next.

Living for the next exclamation point.

We're so busy living for the next thrill we have forgotten how to be human.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Death visits.

When I was a little boy, when JFK was president, my elementary school was about a half mile from my parents' house. My brother, who was a grade older than I, and I would walk there together, unaccompanied by parents or guardians.

There was only one major street to cross and there was a light and a crossing guard at that corner. The crossing guard's name was Miss Nichols, and I, of course, called her Miss Pennies, making, at an early age, a coin joke.

We walked up a hill on our way to elementary school and down a hill on the way home six or seven hours later. One rainy evening when I was in first grade, a kid was riding down the hill with a pizza strapped to his bike. The pizza slid from his control. He veered to grasp it and was hit and killed by a passing car.

Death visited our path to school.

If I were to return today to that neighborhood, I would still, 50 years later, know the precise spot where the pizza kid died. I would still look for stains of blood as I did when I was five.

When death visits, he seldom leaves.

Those were, stealing an adjective from Paul Simon, Kodachrome days in America.

Of course there were other parts of America where churches were bombed, people were lynched and little girls were turned away from white people's schools.

This was before riots tore apart US cities. Before white-flight to the allegedly safe suburbs. Before either Kennedy was shot, or Malcolm, or Martin. This was before millions of Vietnamese were killed and more than 58,000 Americans, 25,000 of them 20 or under were killed in a land that didn't wind up mattering.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Malcolm X and Bertoldt Brecht.

Over 50 years ago Malcolm X, gunned down, remarked that America's 'chickens will come home to roost.' That a country in which violence is so endemic, which treats 15% of its citizens with such brutality, would eventually pay the price.

Malcolm was excoriated for his words, but it appears he was right.

The mass murder in Connecticut is just the latest carnage in "the land of the free."

There are, according to Wikipedia, 114 companies in the United States that make guns. If you make guns, have guns, sell guns, collect guns, legalize guns in every corner of the country, guns will be used.

As Bertoldt Brecht said in "Mother Courage" many years ago, "Peace is a waste of equipment." If you make weapons you will use weapons.

It's that simple.

That played out in Connecticut yesterday.

It will play out someplace else tomorrow.

We are our own victims.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The secret of my success.

Of late I have been busy.

Juggling my usual busy account, broadcast production on another account and literally three pitches.

I am in demand--heated demand, it seems--from every corner of my agency.

I run from floor to floor.

From too-bright conference room to too-bright conference room and big account problems are laid in front of me.

There are 16 people in the room.

Right off the top, like parsley on a dinner plate, eight are useless. They say not a word, take not a note. Who knows why they're in the room billing hours.

Four or five chip in a comment or two.

And then there's me and two others, me and usually the people "in charge."

We go back and forth for 45-minutes of our allotted hour.

We arrive at ground we like.

The meeting disperses.

We'll meet again in 24 or 48 hours.

I go back to my table and I write.

I write the answer.

It might not be the most wildly creative thing in the world.

I don't know how to make things pretty.

I don't worry about powerpoint builds.

I write simply and clearly the answer.

We reconvene at the appointed time.

Everyone else comes in empty-handed.

In fact, 30 minutes of our next hour are spent on refocusing the group.

Reminding people who said nothing, contributed nothing and did nothing what we said we were going to do.

I present what we said we were going to do.

It is lauded. Praised. Applauded.

People wonder how I did it.


I actually did something.

I didn't theorize.

I didn't postulate.

I didn't discuss.

I didn't administrate.

I didn't manage.

I didn't timesheet.

I did.

Try it some time.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A simple S makes a difference.

I will not buy clothes from Brook Bros.

Smarter and dumber.

Nicolas Kristof has written an op-ed in today's "New York Times" on how the IQ of humanity has increased over time.

The trend of rising intelligence is called "The Flynn Effect." Kristof writes, "the average American I.Q. has been rising steadily by 3 points a decade. Spaniards have gained 19 points over 28 years and the Dutch 20 points over 30 years. Kenyan children gained nearly 1 point a year."

You can read Kristof's op-ed here:

Let's assume Flynn and Kristof are right.

Now let me tell you why we might be smarter but we're acting dumber.

This will be an analogy.

Twenty years ago if you were sitting with a group of friends and decided to go to dinner, the conversation would unfold like this:

"Hey, let's go to Angelo's for dinner."

"That sounds great."

"No, we always go to Angelo's. Paul told me about this new place, let's try it."

And the friends would. Risking nothing more than a few bucks.

Today, the same conversation is being crushed by information.

"Hey, let's go to Angelo's for dinner."

"That sounds great."

"No, we always go to Angelo's. Paul told me about this new place, let's try it."

"I'm not sure. Someone on Yelp! said the veal was lukewarm."

"It only gets a 19 on Zagat's."

"But they loved it on Menu Pages."

" loves it!"

"Urban spoon says it's mediocre."

"Trip Advisor gives it two thumbs up."

And so, as Vonnegut said, it goes.

Eventually, cold pizza is served.

Paralysis by information.

A slight re-cant.

Yesterday I wrote a post that was dark even by my Hasidic's closet standards.

I decried the Heller-esq, Kafka-esq small-mindedness of our business. For whatever reason I think of this quotation from Heller: “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

Once, many years ago I had an argument of the CEO of the agency at which I was working.

I had enough stature and power in the place that I said to the CEO that I refused to report to the CCO. The CCO had tried to steal my account from me and my partner and did so in deeply underhanded ways.

I said, I won't report to Tony anymore.

The CEO replied, Tony just over-thinks things.

I said, you can call it over-thinking. I prefer to think of it as under-smarting.

That's what there's too much of in our business.


And under-smarting.

And their companions--fear, uncertainty and doubt.

It makes people in high places question when they should trust.

Look, I love this business.

Six days out of ten, I love what I do.

I like the people I work with.

I like my clients.

Sure, I howl at the moon some times and wish I had more control.

If that's not normal, what is.

And I enjoy the cathartic results of putting my anger and disdain out there.

It frustrates me the way our industry is no longer run by advertising people.

That the money has been squeezed out of the business by money people.

And that we compete on price not on ideas.

It frustrates me how so many MBAs seem to specialize in not trusting people who have come through for them for years.

Yeah, it's a mix.

There are things that are odious about our business.

And things that are glorious.

It's kind of like life.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dark thoughts. But true.

They come armed with degrees from prestigious schools.

They've been carefully taught to be incisive.



They are supported by cadres of consultants.

Reams of research.

Behavior scientists.

They understand issues before the issues ever arise.

They are prepared for everything.

Especially the things that never happen.

They smile through their lies.

And lie through their logic.

They have complete confidence and faith in their fear of being found out.

They have immunized themselves against emotion.

They have gutted gut.

Their instincts stink.

This is our life.

It's completely out of scope.

Two thoughts this morning.

Yesterday something happened at work that I can't stand.

I got an email directly from the client.

With no account people cc'd.

I don't like that.

I believe in some of the old advertising verities.

I enjoy client contact but I want an account person I trust around.

Mostly to make sure I don't say or do anything stupid.

Or promise something that's out of scope.

Or agree to think about something without a job number.

Or some other 21st Century sin.

Last night was doubly annoying.

The client said they seem to remember a manifesto I had written that explained their tagline--the putative foundation of the company.

They couldn't find it.

Could I resend.

I found this sad.

Our tagline is not new. In fact, it's three-years-old.

A tagline that defines your brand is something that clients--and agency people--should have imprinted.

You should be able to rattle off its meaning like you can spout your Social Security number.

That is, you should feel fucked without it.

I happen to think that we are all so busy, we have so much shit flowing our way, that as a society we no longer can step back and look at the big picture.

We have filled up our days and our lives with so much trivia, so much noise, we have forgotten what we make.

We have laid waste our powers.
About ten years ago I was one of a small core of people at Ogilvy who were at times charged with writing eight-page inserts for our clients.

These were veritable tomes which laid out in no uncertain terms what the client did, for whom they did it, why it worked and why it was important.

About five years ago, I decided that these manifestos were too too much.

No one had the stomach for them any more.

I developed something I called a minifesto.

Between 100 and 200 words that set the tone, task and tenor of a client.

Today, I usually wind up charged with doing something even briefer.

I call these minutefestos.

Charting the course of a client in the minute they give you to think.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Work hard.

On Sunday, December 9th, I "celebrated" my 28th year in the agency business. That was the day back in 1984 that I joined an agency called Marschalk as a copywriter.

Since that time Marschalk became Lowe Marschalk, then Lowe and Partners, then Lowe and Partners, SMS, then Lowe, then Ammirati Puris Lowe, then Ammirati Puris Lowe Lintas, then Lowe Lintas, then Deutsch.

I've also gone through a few changes. Though my name has remained the same.

But a few things have stayed the same. I hate lazy.

I remember back 28 years ago at Marschalk we were pitching a Danish Vodka. (This was just after the launch of Absolut, a brand and advertising that changed everything.) Everyone thought their weird national vodka would be the next new new thing.

In any event, these were the days before the internet and I asked an account woman for some information on Denmark--thinking there might be something interesting buried there. She returned  with the World Almanac data word for word, including these, which I'll never forget: "Famous Danes include Hans Christian Andersen and Victor Borge."


Today I got a note from someone to whom I sent a cut over a week ago. "I wasn't aware you were waiting for feedback," she replied.


Also today a young writer who is meant to be helping me won't be in until 10:30. She lost her phone last night and is getting a new one. I have scripts for spots due this evening. I was in at 8.


There's a lot of blather in the world about new agency models, new communication modalities, the idea that brands are patterns and that before long my 37-inch Samsung will be trashed for a two-inch mobile device.

That's all well and good.

But victory will come, as it always does, not to the pontificators.

Not to the poseurs and posturers.

It will come to people who buckle-down, follow-through and dig. People who keep coming at you. People who work.

That's the new agency model for me.

That's Web 4.0 for me.

That's the new economy for me.

Work hard.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Marlon and me.

Once again I am in a shitty mood.

I've been buffeted (that does not mean I'm eating at a buffet) by a battery of small thinking. We can't do x, y or z. That would be so much work. 

So we fold up our tent, shake our heads and, I suppose the mature amongst us, 'move on.'

I've been thinking, as I often do when I'm in a shitty mood of a dialogue between the Malloy brothers in "On the Waterfront."

Charlie (Rod Steiger): You're getting on. You're pushing 30. 
You know, it's time to think about getting some ambition. 
Terry (Marlon Brando): I always figured I'd live a bit longer without it. 

It seems to me that everyone these days is a bit like Terry Malloy. Punch drunk. Beaten. Sold out, taking dives for the "short end money."

I'll tell you something.

I'm not good at moving on.

I suck at it.

I don't like laziness, lethargy and lassitude.

I don't like people who can rationalize anything and therefore rationalize everything.

People who smile and say, "well, look on the bright side. We didn't sell our commercial--but we sold the idea of doing commercials."

That's bullshit.

That's an over-arching philosophy of under-achievement.

That's not maturity.

It's mediocrity.

I don't mind failing.

I do mind accepting it.

A phone call.

I just now had a phone call with a financial advisor about a matter I need to attend to if I want to avoid, in my impending dotage, eating cat food.

When the call concluded, my advisor said to me, "I'll keep you a breast."

I have nothing against breasts. I don't even mind keeping a few around in case I need them.

But me, personally, I don't wish to be kept a breast.

Overthink and fear.

If you think hard enough, long-enough and convolutedly enough, you can talk yourself out of anything.

You can take the timeliest idea and kill it.

You can take simple and find it muddy.

You can take enthusiasm and blow it to bits.

This is what the worst of clients can do to the best of ideas.

I've dealt with this sort of thing a lot.

You belly-up, you face the music. You move on.

But after almost 30 years in the business, it never gets easy.

It never gets easy to realize, "Fly low, fly slow and try not to crash" is a prevailing philosophy.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Being 55.

Today I turned 55.

On some days it seems I am 30 years older than most of the people around me in my agency.

They speak about things with such conviction. The conviction of a Jehovah's Witness in the subway at 10PM on a Sunday.

Things that mean nothing to me. 

They talk about conversations involving brands. Though I've never had one beyond, I hate fucking airlines, I hate Time-Warner, I hate Verizon and I love Apple and Nordstroms.

They talk about Instagram. Though I have no interest whatsoever in seeing anyone else's pictures.

They talk about online experiences. Another concept that baffles me.

I have never been one of the cool kids and never will be.

And like I said, the whole social thing is lost on me. And you know what, if I see a concert, I think about the opus I heard or the artist. Not my payment mechanism. Paying for tickets is something I did myself. I don't praise a credit card for my hard work.

I am officially passed by in my agency.

They don't take me seriously, I guess because I don't take a lot of these things seriously.

But when a big brand defining idea is needed, suddenly Pinterest seems like a toy. A Facebook page is as useful as a one-legged jockey.

That's when my phone rings.

I stand up. My ancient knees crack.

I go to the meeting.

I find a path, a place, a position for a brand.

Then I go home.

That's life for an old person in advertising today.

Friday, December 7, 2012

I found my well.

I'm in a shitty mood, so I thought I'd take some potshots.

Nothing really serious here. Just trying to allay my mood.

About a couple times a day I get emails from people looking for work or from headhunters either looking for me to hire their candidates or trying to persuade me to become their candidate.

These emails come from virtually all over the globe.

Regardless of that, they have something in common.

I guess they all start with the same mother-fucking meme.

Dear George, they say, I hope this note finds you well.

Like I said, I get a lot of these missives. And I try to respond to them all. But that opening drives me crazy.

I wish your note found me in a well.

Or I wish your note didn't find me at all.

Or I wish you didn't presume that my well was misplaced.

You know what, if you're writing a note to a creative person, remember these thoughts:

1. Be creative. Don't send me a form letter crammed with cliches.
2. Be respectful.
3. Don't presume I'm dying to have a drink with you.
4. Have some introspection. That is if your work doesn't at all match the agency's don't send it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The 4 types.

I've written about this before, but I think that every so often it's worth repeating.

About 40 years ago I read a book by an Historian called James David Barber. The book was called, if memory serves "The Presidential Character," and it broke down Presidential personality types into four categories.

I think we can make similar classifications of clients, agencies, even people.

Barber's categories were these:

1. Active-Positive. Energetic people doing generally good things.
2. Active-Negative. Energetic people doing generally bad things.
3. Passive-Positive. Lazy people who do generally good things.
4. Passive-Negative. Lazy people who suck.

In the best of all possible worlds you can surround yourself with Active-Positives. You have clients who do a lot of work and think big and want to be noticed.

In the worst of all worlds you find yourself amid Active-Negatives. Clients who like to scream at people with a shrill ad of the week.

When you're looking for work, or when you're working with a client, try to find Active-Positives. Try to migrate your clients to that category.

If you can't, get paid a lot of money.

If they won't pay you, leave.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

An absence of creative.

About 30 years ago there was a big fat directory publication called the Advertising Agency Redbook. The book basically listed every AAAA's agency, their key accounts and their key people. It was valuable if you were looking for a job, because in those days there weren't eight or a dozen agencies in New York, there were literally hundreds.

When I was job-hunting I would turn to the Redbook. Agencies that had creative people at the top of their listing were, to me, more attractive prospects than agencies that had account people on top, or worse money people.

Today, of course, that world is gone. In fact most holding companies don't even have advertising people on top. They recruit from the insurance industry, or, of course, from the financial community. The better to rape you with, my dear.

Of late I've also seen more and more agencies who list their "leaders" on their websites. There are scads of managing directors. There are indecipherable titles a-plenty. What's missing is the presence of any creative people whatsoever.

That's right. Agencies without creatives.

Listen, I know creative people--myself among them--are a pain in the fucking ass. Speaking for myself, I'm moody, angry, argumentative, stubborn, sarcastic and, I suppose the biggest sin of all, I am a lousy subordinate, mostly because I don't have a tremendous amount of respect for very many people.

All those are reasons I'm firmly at the middle of my agency. Not at the top.

However, I create work that works in the market and works for my client. That doesn't really matter anymore. What matters is being genial.

As far as I'm concerned the genial should go and shit barbed wire.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Timesheets and the subconscious mind.

Not that long ago I read a book by Nobel Prize-winner and Psychiatrist, Eric R. Kandel. It was called “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present.” And while some of it—complex neuroscience--galloped over my head, much of it was pointed and interesting to me. 


That said, though much of Kandel's work was beyond me (though his views on Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele are worth the price of admission) I learned a lot from "The Age of Insight." I learned for instance that it's ok that I do my best work when I'm asleep.


That's right. I'm lucky enough to dream television scripts, headlines and even full body copy. I dream manifestos. I dream last minute saves and, what I think are big ideas.


Kandel says in "The Age of Insight," that I'm not crazy. The subconscious mind works when you least expect it. Mine works best--not when I'm ensconced in a bone-headed open-plan office that's noisier (and dirtier) than Port Authority. Mine works best when I'm asleep.


By the way it's been claimed that Mozart could compose a whole symphony in his head, orchestrate it, then go to his clavichord and tinkle it out on the ivories, playing the whole opus note for note.


In the spirit of systematically eliminating all down-time, of making every breathing moment billable, in the spirit of keeping you tethered by synthetic beeps, blips and flashing lights the au courant agency has folded, spindled and mutilated our creative selves.


It's more important to put down your hours on a timesheet than to put your ideas down on paper.


Now, I'm going to bed. I've got some thinking to do.



The Mandelbrot Conundrum.

Way back in the 1970s, the great scientist, thinker and IBM Fellow Benoit Mandelbrot arrived at the idea of Fractals. I'd be lying if I understood what Fractals are. That said their influence on the world of mathematics, physics, geography, biology, physical sciences and economics has been considerable.

Fractals are based on the notion that the closer you look at something, the more complicated it appears. In a famous example, Mandelbrot looked at the coast of England. How long the coast line depends on how closely one looks. On a map, the coast may look smooth, but zooming in will reveal "jagged lines that add up to a longer coast."

When Mandelbrot presented his book to his Uncle Szolem (also a famous scientist) Szolem asked Benoit, "...What kind of book is it? For whom have you been writing?" Benoit answered, "I don't know but I hope it will create a readership for itself, perhaps even a large one." At that point Benoit's cousin Jacques interjected and said to Szolem, "When you write a book, you always know exactly who's going to read it, right?" To which Szolem replied, "Yes, there are about fifteen people in the world who read everything I write. That is enough."

I don't dabble much in science. But it seems to me that this discussion among Mandelbrots is the essential crux of our business.

Many of us, like Benoit, create work that we hope will attract an audience. We throw our work on broadcast channels and hope it gets found.

Others know exactly whom they are creating work for. And it might just be a few people. But that's ok. They're a few very important people.

Of course what the Mandelbrot's didn't discuss was the interplay between something broad (and unaccountable) and something extremely narrow. Do they build, in some way, on each other. Would Benoit's more accessible, more popular work create young mathematicians who would eventually be open to Szolem's work?

I think the narrow and the broad, as is the case of Szolem and Benoit, are cousins. They are related and important to each other.


Over the weekend I got a somewhat frantic set of calls from an account person and a producer. We had scheduled a phone call with the client at 8:15 Monday morning but the client decided she wanted me--and only me--to come down personally.

I hate cutting things close, and because my client's office abuts the site of the former World Trade Center, security is tough. I arrived downtown at 7:30, settled into the free wireless in a "private park," (on Wall Street real estate developers get permission to build higher if they create a public space. But somehow, more often than not, those public spaces remain their property. I think the 1% of 1% are the people for whom the phrase "win-win" was created.)

Around 8AM I sailed through security and made it up to the client's space. The client, of course, was late. My 8:15 would not start until 8:30. That's ok. No one was inconvenienced but me.

Then we spent the next 45 minutes discussing two words--literally two words--my partner, producer and I added to the end of our spots. Should we keep them in--that's what I wanted, that's why I added them--or should we take them out. The CEO had already seen the spots with the two additional words and approved the spots that way.

We talked about the two words.

They asked my point of view.

Finally, after 45 minutes we agreed.

The two words were approved.

This is business in America today.

Monday, December 3, 2012


I was up early this morning, prelude to an 8AM meeting with my client down on Wall Street. My wife is, once again, in LA on business, so it's just me attending to the needs of Whiskey, my eight-month-old golden retriever. On mornings such as this when the press of business and puppies coincide, things can get hectic, but, I think, I've handled things in stride.

Actually, I'm at my client half an hour early, partly because I'm neurotic about being late, partly because you can never anticipate the vagaries of New York City taxi service and partly because very little bad can be said for showing up places early.

Wall Street at this hour isn't sharpies in expensive suits. Instead it's burly men in heavy coats and hardhats going to work building the giant towers that are springing up everywhere down here. For all the woes of America, for all our political quagmires, for all our income disparities and millions living in poverty, down on Wall Street, buildings are rising ever shinier and ever higher.

It's been busy at work of late, extremely busy. Last month I "celebrated" three years at my agency (there was no note from anyone, no cheaply symbolic bottle of wine, no American Express gift card, no acknowledgement at all. In the low-bid economy of agencies today, such graces are long extinct.) After three years at my agency, I have finally been "discovered." People who have known me a long time say "I'm finally coming into my own at the agency." No, I reply. The agency has finally (and, I'm sure, temporarily) woken up and noticed what I can do and so few others can.

The prevailing ethos in agencies is that your meant to feel blessed that you have a job, especially someone like me, who is not only "old," (in fact about 20-years-older than most everyone else) but also in possession of an old-time advertising salary. A salary calculated on the ideas you have that build clients' businesses, not your proficiency with Flash. I'm meant to praise the lord that my job hasn't been outsourced to Belarus or Sao Paolo, or to some 26-year-old hipster who, frankly, has never done it before.

I've always cut against the grain. I remember a CEO cornering me once in the lunchroom at a venerable agency in which I was working. "If only you were easier," he said to me. "If only you weren't so gloomy or mean all the time." What you're saying, I told him, is "if only I weren't me." Well, sorry, this is what you get.

HR does this shit too. They're more concerned with your corporate compliance, your timesheet adherence than anything else. It's like judging a boxer based on how neat his locker is.

That's all for now. No point, I know.

But I'm allowed.

It's me and me is what you get.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A late night walk.

I've always been a walker, someone who enjoys the views you get when you travel at about three miles per hour. You see things at that pace that are certainly missed when you are biking or in a car or even if you're running.

I notice when I'm walking gargoyles on buildings or some cornerstone or plaque that gives an account of someone who live on this site, or perhaps a battle or a notable hanging. These artifacts dot New York and even the best guides overlook many of them--they're too unimportant, too workaday to remark upon.

When I was younger my walking pace was faster. I walked to get someplace. But now, and thanks to Whiskey, my eight-month-old golden retriever, I don't walk to get anyplace. In fact, I often walk to avoid getting anyplace. I walk to walk. To collect my thoughts. To exercise my pup. To think things through. I walk not to a destination but to see where I will go. It's a different kind of walking, a kind I think not enough people engage in.

Last night was cold and clear in New York and Dame Insomnia whispered once again in my ear and bid me to rise. I complied, but because I was tired, I went into the living room and did some work. I wrote two commercials for a pitch my partner and I are working on and I e'ed them to my art director. Now, Insomnia had done her job completely. Now I was wholly and thoroughly up.

Though Whiskey was sleeping quietly in her crate, I laced up my sneakers, put on my heavy oil skin against the cold, snapped Whiskey's leash on her collar and headed out into the late night.

It was 3 when we hit the street and there was an odd quiet in the city. Even the local Bacchanal establishment, a beer-soaked bar called, simply, Saloon, was without its noisy smokers outside. The cabs on quiet York Avenue were few and far between. Everything was closed except for a lonely fruit stand up the avenue, in case someone needs a persimmon at four a.m.

Whiskey and I headed east to the river and wended north against the tide of the outflowing river. We walked slowly, Whiskey looking for rats or mischief, me just walking to see what I could see.

The start of our walk in Carl Schurz park is on a hex-blocked promenade called John Finley Walk. Finley was the President of Princeton University and later the State Commissioner of Education for New York. He was famous for his long circumambulations of Manhattan. He died, nevertheless of a coronary embolism, though he did make it to 77 years of age. I've included my shot, shot in the darkness, and a better one as well. It really is a beautiful sign.

Further on was an enameled plate embedded in the concrete. When the promenade was built by Robert Moses and the Works Progress Administration, these enamel plates were placed every few yards. Now they have all been stolen or vandalized, though Whiskey and I spotted one near 83rd Street.  The colors of course, are the colors of New York. They are on the city flag today and they're also the colors of the Knicks' and Mets' uniforms. The windmill brings us back to the days of Dutch New Amsterdam, more than 400 years ago.

Whiskey and I walked past Gracie Mansion, past the boat lift at 96th Street, past the high-arching footbridge to Wards' Island, up to the decrepit pier at 107th. We turned back there and walked, quietly and uneventfully home.