Sunday, June 30, 2013

Uncle Slappy and the heart attack.

I got a call from Uncle Slappy, as I do so often on Sunday morning. Uncle Slappy, like me, listens to National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” and he pretty much always calls once “The Puzzler,” Will Shortz is over. I couldn’t quite set my watch by him, but I could come close.

“How are you, Uncle Slappy,” I began.

“I was not well this morning. I had a terrible headache and I was overheating. My forehead was schvitzing. A good feeling it wasn’t.”

“I hope you’re feeling better now.”

“Of course, whatever I had passed. Our coffee maker broke. I was probably just caffeine deprived.”

“That makes sense.”

“In all, I learned something from the experience. When I was feeling horrible, I said to Sylvie ‘I think I’m having a heart attack.’”

“Oy,” I said. “It was that bad?”

“Aunt Sylvie’s reply was a history of almost 6,000 years of Judaism.”

“What did she say?” I asked, once again playing my familiar role as Slappy’s straight man.

“Don’t you think you should have breakfast first?”

I laughed with more than a little pain radiating down my left arm. There was a moment of silence and then he spoke.

“In other words, I guess according to the Talmud, never do anything important, like a heart attack, without having something to eat first.”

With that, he hung up the Ameche.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday's Black Dog.

If you have the time, inclination and patience over the Fourth of July break and you're in the mood to depress yourself, you would be well-served picking up Viktor Klemperer's classic book, "Language of the Third Reich: LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii. You can find it here.

It's not an easy book, but it's an important one. Especially important, I think, if you make your living with words and images.

Klemperer, a Jew who survived Nazidom and then Soviet rule in East Germany, was a Philologist--a person who studies language. With the rise of Hitler and Hitlerism he noticed the rise of what he called "Lingua Tertii Imperii," the Language of the Third Reich.

"Lingua Tertii Imperii" details the way that Nazi propaganda altered the German language to inculcate people with National-Socialist ideas and ideology.

Naturally, all cultures change the language to promulgate their aims. This was done as surely in the Jim Crow South as Nazi Germany. And I am by no means suggesting even for the briefest flicker that agency life today resembles in any manner Fascist or Racist hegemonies.

However, Klemperer in "Lingua Tertii Imperii" demonstrates how quickly and naturally a new language can grip people. And when you control language (Orwell taught us this) you control thought. (I believe as a nation we fell prey to this when our CIA subjected people to something we called "extraordinary rendition." It was in fact kidnapping and torture.)

According to Klemperer, there's one way to resist oppression that often starts linguistically. And that is to question--not softly or sporadically or gently, but vehemently--each and every buzzword you come across.

I think we in advertising would be well-served doing so.


Earlier this year I was asked to teach a portfolio class at New York's School of Visual Arts. For whatever reason, it didn't work out. And on reflection, I think that's a good thing.

In thinking about the course I would teach, I planned one that would be about the primacy not of ornamentation but of a simple idea (or truth, if you're a planner) that would be interesting and useful to the viewer.

I was planning to spend a fair amount of time talking about clarity. I would show how through the decades (through millennia, actually) forms have changed, but the basic precepts of strong communication haven't.

I would also talk about surprise. How doing something unexpected attracts attention and wins converts. And when we got down to the nub of it in class, I would probably talk a bit about writing. About simplicity in word choice and sentence structure.

Finally, I would talk about the greater goal of advertising. That is, to make a promise to a viewer--a promise they might care enough to act upon.

I thought about all this and I realized that none of these skills are needed any longer in advertising.

If I were to teach a course it should follow a different tack.

1. Buzz-word slinging. Specifically how to use words and phrases like "story-telling," "big data," and "conversations about brands" as if they have meaning, relevance and import.
2. Shiny-object adulation. Here we would teach that not only is the latest the greatest, the latest is everything. We will assiduously ignore failed shiny objects, like Google+, Spotify, Xynga, Groupon and about nine-quadrillion others that at one time were the answer to every marketing problem.
3. Finger-pointing. In short, "I didn't do it, he did."
4. Credit-grabbing. In short, "He didn't do it, I did."

There might be more. Like the "3-P's." Posing. Puffing. Pontificating.

But I might keep them for the second session.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


My younger daughter, Hannah, returns this weekend from more than six months as an exchange student in New Zealand.

She'll hit New York and do her thing for just five days. Then she's off for two months in St. Maarten, where she'll be teaching scuba diving.

Since Hannah was young, she's always been adept at creating worlds for herself. Where things are built around her and allow her to spread her wings and explore. She's always been this way, and I hope she always stays that way.

What occurred to me is that in creating a world that suits her, Hannah is a lot like a successful brand.

Successful brands create worlds.

Unique, ownable, personal worlds.

In Nike's world, everyone is an athlete.

In Coke's, soda brings love and happiness.

In IBM's world, life is more intelligent.

Most brands, and I guess most people, are not very good at creating worlds. They do what's expedient as opposed to what's organic.

Much of what they do is ill-thought out, ill-conceived and tone deaf.

They are unsure of how to act in their world, or even what their world is.

The Empire of Illusion.

We live in a world that in a frightening way has become untethered from reality. Where sound bites carry more weight than sound thinking.

In politics we decry our welfare state--the idea of poor people having a safety net. Yet we provide trillion dollar nets for banks and bankers and then sit quietly while their bonuses force us out of the real estate market.

In advertising we award work that no one's ever seen, that no one's ever been influenced by or, most heinously that never even ran. I looked at Cannes' press and outdoor winners last night. Many of them I am not intelligent enough to unravel. Or maybe I just don't care.

In agencies, we have promoted a class of gurus. Don't ask what their qualifications are, what they've done, what brands they have built. Just marvel at their lack of substance and their concomitant inarticulateness.

An ex-boss once described one of these gurus this way: A titanic attitude with a minnow in the engine room.

We judge work not based on what it will do for our clients, those paying for the work, but what it will do for the agency. Of course, both masters need to be served. But not to the exclusion of the other.

We live in a world that praises process over product.

Saying over doing.

Bluster over candor.

Action plans over action.

The weekend cannot come soon enough.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On saving the world.

Just to show how out of step I am, I'll admit here and now that I never really wanted to change the world. Or even thought for a moment that changing the world is possible.

I guess I've read too much history to believe that big money will ever be vanquished and we will arrive at a paradise of workers where the air has fewer particles of carbon per million, where the high-speed trains will run on time and milk and honey will flow and not be a burden the either the lactose-intolerant or those with anaphylaxis.

World peace will prevail. High-speed internet will never go down. And fracking will never invade the cool kids' country domains.

No, I never believed an ad or a new Instagram functionality will eradicate all that and render Camden, NJ Valhalla.

We are too much like insects or rats fighting over crumbs. It's our genetic disposition and just the way things are.

That said, I always believed in the Talmudic wisdom that equates the saving of one human to the saving of the world. In other words, you can't change the world from a macro sense. But you can be a good person and make it better a little at a time.

With that in mind, I've always tried to be polite to people. And to be honest, I'm naive enough to believe that if everyone just tries a bit of politeness, the world will slowly and surely evolve to a better place.

This is directed at clients now.

I know you are paying us and we work for you. That in "coming through," we're only doing our jobs.

But you know what?

As my grandmother would say, "It wouldn't kill you to say 'thank you.'"

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Words, words, words.

I've read two things recently and though they were written a continent and a decade apart, somehow my head has put them together.

The first is an article by the great writer Verlyn Klinkenborg that appeared in Sunday's "New York Times."  It's called "The Decline and Fall of the English Major."

The second is by British ad legend Robin Wright. It was published in "Campaign" back in 2003 and was titled "Would David Abbott Get a Job in Advertising Today." In the interest of full-disclosure, I came across this piece in Ben Kay's excellent blog. You can read his post by clicking here.

Both Klinkenborg and Wright bemoan the disparagement or, more dramatically, the dearth of good writing.

Klinkenborg has this to say about teaching writing to college and graduate school students at some of the top colleges and universities in the United States. "They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon... But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no."

Wright says of the 2002 D&AD Annual, "But today, Writing for Advertising is a thin joke when we actually look at what has been selected by the eminent jury. Most of the ads selected for this "writing" category have no text. And of those that do, in an unconscious but real demotion of the relevance of words, the words are displayed in such a way that none of the text is actually legible."

In short, it seems to me that both men lament the “passing of writing.” And both men seem to attribute the passing to simply being out of fashion. Klinkenborg notes that the number of English majors at prestigious universities has declined precipitously. At Pomona College, one of the nation’s elite schools, just over 1% of the student body are English majors. And the number of English majors at Yale are down from 165 in 1991 to just 62 in 2012.

Here’s where I net out.

Most brands cannot state simply, clearly and in a compelling manner what business they’re in. What makes them different and worth considering. We live in a world where few people have brand preferences because 99% of all communications do a crappy job at articulating those preferences.

Back on September 5th, when Obama was nominated to run for a second term, Bill Clinton delivered a 3,100 word speech telling viewers what this nation and Obama were about.

You can read the speech and my post on the speech here.

There was no technology involved.

Not even any graphics.

But there was warmth, humor, humanity.

And it moved people.

It changed opinion.

It got people to act.

There are scads of people who would like to say writing is dead. Maybe because it’s hard and they can’t do it. Maybe because they don’t consider it cool. Maybe they believe thought can be outsourced. Maybe because real writing and real thought is expensive.

I happen to believe otherwise.

What's expensive is not finding the right words.

Because I happen to believe words matter.

Loud voices.

When I was a kid I learned something when playing sports with my friends that has direct bearing on life in advertising today.

When I was a kid and we were gathered on some dusty field or some mottled asphalt and we were choosing up sides, the best guy to pick was not the most talented athlete, the one who could run the fastest or jump the highest.

No, the most important pick you could make was to choose the guy with the loudest voice. Invariably there would be an argument which would decide the outcome of the game. If your team had the loudest voice, you would win the argument and the contest.

I think this construction has made its way into advertising, too. We chase after tactic du jour and the medium of the moment. Things get hot or important or 'will change everything,' because someone with a very loud voice has said so. And no one dare oppose that voice.

Everyday, it seems, someone with a loud voice shouts something and scores of people snap to.

Remember when Google+ was going to take over the world?

And Spotify.

And Groupon.

And Zynga.

And Four Square.

And Second Life.

And when Facebook likes were important.

Some jerk just shouted somewhere that we are post everything and history no longer matters.

Someone else is shouting that responsive design won't replace native apps.

Someone else is bellowing about Instagram being the key to world peace.

All these flashes in the pan were promoted loudly and without legitimacy.

They have all withered.

Those loud voices shout.

But little of what they say endures.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A crowded night at the Tempus Fugit.

For as long as I have been coming to the Tempus Fugit, the place has always been essentially empty. Only once did I run into other people there. There were two of them crowded into a table for four and they were drinking either a Pike's Ale (the ALE that won for YALE) or, less likely, but still possible, a specialty drink the bartender makes called the Suffering Bastard.

Frankly, I didn't notice what they were drinking, or virtually anything else about them because the Tempus Fugit is a place with high walls. From what I gather, the people who go there are more or less like me. We tend to keep to ourselves. And when we cry in our beer, we like to do it as a solo act.

If I had to make a pronouncement of sorts about the Tempus Fugit, I'd say that in effect it is the anti-Facebook. There are no casual relationships there. No grinning approvals and smarmy thumbs up. No sharing things that need not be shared. It's a hermetic place, frequented by people like me, neo-hermits, who seldom, if ever, let people in.

Tonight, however, I showed up at the Tempus Fugit at around three a.m. My wife has a terrible summer cold and despite being shot through with various anti-biotics, she is coughing and wheezing like an Okie's Model T making its way up a mountain. Neither Whiskey nor I could sleep through the onslaught, so we headed uptown, making our way to the Tempus Fugit with no fanfare whatsoever and no delays.

As usual, I sat down on my favorite stool, one in from the end, and Whiskey curled like a Central Casting golden retriever at my feet. The bartender brought her as he always does a small wooden bowl filled with water, and he slid over to me an eight-ounce juice glass filled with the amber nectar we call Pike's Ale.

"Crowded tonight," I observed. Four of the six tables along the back wall were occupied and just over half of the dozen stools at the bar were be-assed as was mine.

"We're crowded every night," the bartender said quietly. "It's just some nights no one is here."

I let that one sit for a few moments. It was one of those imponderables I am so often confronted with at the Tempus Fugit.

"It's the heat, I believe. When it's 90-degrees out with 90-per-cent humidity, it makes no sense to go home. In fact, we could run out to the river now and you'd find a couple dozen Puerto Ricans doing out there what we're doing in here: bending an elbow and hoping it cools."

"I guess I have no excuse. I'm central air."

"You have different reasons for being here," he nodded. "And that's ok."

"It's not insomnia, tonight," I told him, "the wife has a cough to wake the dead."

"When I was young, we would sleep on our rooftop or fire-escape. Hoping for something that resembled a cool breeze."

He filled my glass with another.

"There was an old man who lived in our building, a tailor. He had the beard of Moses and he would come up to the roof and stare at the stars when it was warm like this. Sometimes we would talk of baseball or of life on those stars.

"He had little bits of color in the white of his beard. Little bits of thread he'd bite off when he was done with a button or a repair. His beard below his mouth a kaleidoscope. There was red thread and green, and blue, yellow and black."

The bartender left from behind the bar with a tray full of glasses filled with Pike's. He was back in just a minute and back to swabbing the bar-top, his restless habit.

"The old man said that the stars were red and green and blue and yellow and black, too. Like the threads in his beard."

"He carried the universe in his beard," I said finishing number two.

"Who doesn't?" he asked, filling me again.

"He believed there was life on everyone of those stars. Life and death and love and laughter."

"And Pike's Ale, too, I suppose."

"Some things are universal."

I reached in my pocket and took out two 20s and placed them on the bartop.

"Keep your dough," he said to me. "The universe is paying tonight."

Whiskey and I walked home just as the sun was coming up.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday, not in Cannes.

I wasn't invited to Cannes and I'm pissed off.

Not that I wasn't invited. I would hate being in Cannes.

Number one: I hate parties.

Two: I hate most people.

Three: I hate the bullshit.

What I'm pissed off about is simple. And it's the divorce or breach between what management does and how workers are treated.

Apparently I'm not alone in this.

According to a recent study done by the Gallup organization, 100 million people in America hold full-time jobs. 70% of them either hate going to work or have mentally checked out to the point of costing their companies money. They are "roaming the halls spreading discontent." In fact only 30% of  workers says they're "engaged and inspired" at work.

Here's what's happening in a neo-socialist nutshell.

While productivity has soared over the last 20 years, pay has gone down.

But that's not the main reason workers are revolting. In fact, Gallup says what's behind our discontent and disengagement is bad management. Like reveling in foreign junkets while your workers sweat and salaries freeze.

What's missing, again according to Gallup, is regular praise from management, opportunity for growth and an occasional question about how to improve things. Among those who say they "loathe their jobs," 57% said they were "ignored at work," and 41% said "they couldn't say what their company stood for."

Gallup says "management from hell are creating active disengagement costing the United States an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually."

That's enough for now.

I'm part of the 30% who are engaged and inspired. And I've got work to do.

Work and the Second Avenue subway.

I am in early once again.

It's Friday, and while most everyone seems to be orgying in Cannes, I am in the office before eight, prelude to an 8:15 call with the client.

It is beautiful in New York this morning. The sky is clear, if a little hazy. And though it's supposed to get warm and humid later in the day, the air now is cool--it was 64 when I left the house. A pleasant temperature, perfect for taking the long way to work.
A taste of New York. Knishes from a cart also selling hotdogs cooked in warm water.

However, I took a cab. To get there early. To not be late for my call with the client.

On the cab route down second avenue scores of men in neon-green tee-shirts and hard hats banged away willy-nilly, constructing their small piece of New York's newest subway line--the Second Avenue line.

It was originally conceived in the 30s, during the LaGuardia administration, but then the Depression struck, then the war, then Robert Moses and the automobile. Though they yanked down the Third Avenue El, they never got around the building the new promised subway line.

They started again around the time Bobby Kennedy was killed and made some progress starting at 125th Street. But New York's 1970s fiscal crisis aborted those efforts and the tunnel lay unworked for the past four decades. Under the stern visage of mayor Bloomberg, they're building it now and large portions of the Upper East Side looks like a set from Kubrick's "Paths of Glory."

Sometimes I feel I am building a Second Avenue subway for my client. Their assignments, their nervousness, their over-think means that the usual twelve-week process of creating a television campaign is stretched to three times that length. Along the way most of my year is consumed with creating three or five commercials and a couple of web videos.

The way work works now, no one in my agency notices these labors. Only heels do work, after all. The cool kids talk about it and fly to Cannes and fete it (mostly work that never ran) and then post their insipid quotidianess on Instagram.

I think if you do actual work that brings in actual income in an agency these days it's as if you're building the Second Avenue line. You labor and sweat and swear underground. Unseen.

They speed by in shiny European cars. Not caring much if at all for what you build.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"There is no lack of void."

In Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," Estragon famously proclaims "There is no lack of void." I think that weary line sums up our business and our era.

Maybe I've been bombarded by too many smiling images of Facebook acquaintances who are now Bacchanalling in Cannes. Too many people partying and applauding themselves when the ship is taking on water.

Too many awards in too many categories, mostly for work that never (or only slightly) ran and had no real impact except that which was cited in an entry video.

It's all too much for me.

But it's bigger than Cannes.

Void is everywhere.

Nothing is serious.

Everything is gossip (the pornography of the 21st Century.)

I wonder when I read the paper or listen to the news, is it all a joke?

If you care about wars and hunger and famine--that is if you're serious about the world--what happens to your brain when all you get is Kardashians?

There is no place to turn if you want news and truth and even art.

Do marketers think everyone is dumb?

That no one cares?

That the raging debate over bikes lanes is all that matters?

Our business has been fetishized to such a point that your are an anachronism if you do more than talk about work.

If you actually do rather than yammer, you are dead.

There is no lack of void.

We positively swill in it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Figuring out what we do.

I have a dread fear of not performing. Of not coming through. Of being unreliable. Or inadequate.

I am someone people--clients and agencies and colleagues--count on. Trust.

I don't want to fall short.

Career-wise, it's a good thing to be neurotic.

It means you are bound to over-deliver. To think things through and derive multiple alternatives.

Even in this blog I don't like not having a post first thing in the morning.

I feel I have an obligation, an intrinsic desire to fulfill. I don't like the idea of letting my few readers down.

It's funny to me how important my readership (my clients) are to me.

And how unimportant customers are to most clients.

They stuff them in too-small seats.

They confuse and addlepate with legal copy.

They seduce with "come-ons" then fail to deliver.

From a CMO point of view, the world should be a fairly simple place.

Figure out what you do and do it unfailingly.

(And if you do fuck up, admit it, apologize and make good.)

As the CMO of Ad Aged my mission is clear.

I try to write something interesting, funny, intelligent or thought-provoking everyday.

That's the job I signed up for when I started doing this.

So, I do it.

When you work in an ad agency, as I have for almost 30 years, you more often than not see a different, more complicated reality.

I suppose because so many people need to earn their keep, we have become complication machines.

There are very few companies or agencies that could answer my brief above: To figure out what you do and do it unfailingly.

100 years ago or more, British Suffragists came out with a great viral campaign. It worked.

I seldom today see anything nearly as clear.

I seldom leave a meeting without saying to my partner or myself: what is it we need to do.

We need to figure out what we do.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The United States of ADD.

As a society, we have ADD. Attention Deficit Disorder.

You've probably left this post already to check an IM, an email, your stocks, the Bruins, or a co-worker.

We cannot concentrate. Or focus. Or find clarity.

We as marketers contribute mightily to this malady.

We shovel it on by the ton.

Sponsored posts, tweets, Facebook messages, spurious sponsorships and more.

It's fucking confusing.

And it's asinine to think that, for instance, a bank has any place giving me tips on summer picnicking. Or cares what my favorite local small business is. Or really wants to know what's the coolest thing your dad ever taught you.

I guess things like the above fall under the category of "engaging in the conversation." But shit. Most people can barely have a conversation with their spouse. Do they really want to have one with an air-freshener?

Back a century or more ago the notable John Wanamaker said "half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don't know which half."

My guess is that if Wanamaker were alive today he would have upped his percentage to 99.9% wasted.

We talk too much.

We distract too much.

We send out too much stuff.

We do too much to too little effect.

We don't focus on the few things that would have the greatest power. We aren't snipers we are machine gunners.

We don't have singularity of message and clarity of purpose.

In our nation of ADD we are contributors.

Instead of ubiquity and more we should do less, better.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sir Francis Drake on advertising.

I read a quotation the other day by the English explorer, Sir Francis Drake, the inventor of the Ring Ding and Yodel.

I don't have any particular affinity for Drake but I liked the quotation and think it has a lot of bearing on life and work.

“There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.” 

Right now, my partner and I are slogging.

Last week we showed our clients a couple of campaigns and the client liked them both. So, to Drake's quotation, we have made a beginning.

And that's good.

But it is the "continuing unto the end" which separates the non-gender-specific men from the non-gender-specific boys.

This continuing will include hundreds of hours, countless dumb meetings, dozens of reversals of fortune, scores of red-herrings and dead-ends and who knows what else.

In other words, there will be tons of shit to do. Dumb, mindless, enervating, I'd rather be doing anything else kind of shit.

But it's the shit you have to do, if you're to achieve any "great" or even not-so-great "matter."

Father's Day with Uncle Slappy.

At least in part thanks to Uncle Slappy, I grew up in a different era than most of my age peers. While they were listening to the Who (which of course Uncle Slappy called "the Whom) Yes, the Grateful Dead and the Moody Blues, I grew up hearing the music of the great Harry Ruby.

Ruby wrote most of the music for the Marx Brothers including "I'm Against It," and "Everyone Says I Love You." He also wrote "I Wanna be Loved by You," which was sung by Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like it Hot" and his biggest hit, "Three Little Words."

Yesterday when I called Uncle Slappy for Father's Day, he immediately delivered some Harry Ruby to me. I've probably called Uncle Slappy for Father's Day 45 times. Each time he's serenaded me with these words:

"Today, Father, is Father's Day
And we're giving you a tie
It's not much we know
It is just our way of showing you
We think you're a regular guy
You say that it was nice of us to bother
But it really was a pleasure to fuss
For according to our mother
You're our father
And that's good enough for us

Yes, that's good enough for us"

"You got the Father's Day gift I sent," I asked in the Yiddish imperative.

I had sent the old man a dozen H&H bagels, a pound of hand-sliced Nova Scotia salmon (which he calls 'lox') and his favorite thing on Earth, a pound of hand-sliced and vacuum-packed sturgeon.

"Yes," Slappy said. "Two months it should last me."

I immediately had the fear all Jewish children have about their aging parents. That they would reduce their daily rations down close to concentration camp portions.  It's not unusual for older Jewish women to take the crackers and bread placed on restaurant tables and keep it in their handbags "for later." Sometimes these "for later" victuals outlive the women carrying them.

"Two months, Uncle Slappy. I sent plenty. But not enough for two months."

"Don't worry about me, boychick. For six weeks I do nothing but smell. Then when the smell is completely in my corpuscles, only then do I eat."

"I see. You have a system."

"And my nieces," he said changing the subject, "they called me today as well. They are nice kinderlach."

"Yes, they are," I agreed. 

"More you couldn't ask for. You're a good man, boychick" Uncle Slappy said hanging up the horn.

More I couldn't ask for.