Thursday, May 25, 2017

How to write the perfect headline. A demonstration.

Some time, some time soon, some bright-eyed agency person, or enthusiastic go-getter on the client side, or some be-whiskered futurist somewhere will declare "the death of copywriting."

They will talk about a program of artificial intelligence that will spit out headlines laden with computer-selected words that have been PROVEN to stop people in their tracks and lead directly to sales.

A chorus of choristers will proclaim from the daises of a thousand drunken conferences that THIS WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING. The neo-alchemists of our century will once again proclaim that they can "turn base data into gold" and make every ad, by machine-learning, an effective ad.

Yesterday, I happened upon this site which purports to have an algorithm and a specialized vocabulary of 1,000 or so effective words, and a few other theorems that add up to the equivalent of advertising's Holy Grail: a headline with stopping power.

The site begins with a simple question: "How engaging is your headline." I filled the proper space with perhaps the greatest headline of all-time. 

Think small.

That earned a 38. A below average score.

They suggested I can fix the headline by following their simple suggestions:


    Increase headline length

    Where's the brand?

    Use more Alert Words

    Talk about the body

    Try adding a celebrity
I complied with the following headline. Having done all  I was asked to.

I increased the length.
I added the brand name.
I used Alert Words.
I talked about human body parts.
And I added a celebrity mention.

I replaced Think Small with this:

"Warning. Alert. When you think about Volkswagen think with both your head and heart, use the strength of your brains and the sinew of your arm, and think about a very small Volkswagen--the likes of which Kim Kardashian would drive."

That earned me a perfect score.

My personal belief--and I abide here by the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw who said "the power of accurate observation is often called cynicism by those who haven't got it," that within six months my headlines and those of hundreds of other will be fed into algorithms like this by wayward souls passing as marketers. 

There will be countless requests to "fix" our lines according to "The Algorithm That Must Be Obeyed."

It's a good thing in modern office buildings windows don't open.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fight night.

When I was 17 and playing ball in the Mexican League, it wasn't unusual to find me, after a game, in a dark and smoky bar with a bunch of my team-mates trying to drown the woe of the world.

Looking back on it, I'd say that just about every guy on the Seraperos had early-onset drinking problem. There was hardly a night where there weren't nine or 11 or 17 of us in some joint bending out elbows, carousing, looking for women and generally drinking away our collective failures. 

As Jorge "Snuffy" Afortunato, our back-up middle infielder used to say, "No traigo mis problemas a casa conmigo. Los dejo en una docena de bares por el camino." I don't bring my problems home with me, I leave them in a dozen bars along the way.

One night I was sitting in a booth with a bunch of my teammates. Issy Buentello was there, I remember, because he fairly came to my rescue. But I don't remember anyone else.

Anyway, we were sitting in a booth and drinking cervezas and eating sandwiches piled high with indiscriminate meat. All at once an arm came over the bench I was sitting on. It came from the other side of the bench. The ass the arm belonged to had decided to stretch out and extend his wing willy-nilly.

I had had more beer than I should have and drunkenness more often than not makes me mean. "Hey," I yelled at the arm. And I pushed it back over to his side of the seat.

The arm flopped back.

"Andate a la cresta." Fuck you.

I pushed again the arm away.

"Hijo de puta." Mother fucker. "Mantén tu brazo de mierda de la madre en tu lado o te haré comerlo." Keep your motherfucking arm on your side or I'll make you eat it.

The arm flopped over again, the barroom equivalent of someone kicking sand in someone's face.

I stood up. He stood up. And we began a Socratic dialogue.

"Fuck you."

"Fuck you."

Finally I said something about his mother, a burlap sack full of hoboes and him not knowing which one was his father.

He round-housed me square on my drunken jaw and I went down like a sack of flour through a chute.

Buentello, 6'2" and about 220 popped out and helped me up. I tackled him and we rolled on the sawdust for five minutes slugging at each other despite being wrapped up.

"Mother fucker."

"Mother fucker."

When we finally got up, breathing through our mouths and glaring at each other, Buentello was making peace.

"Let me buy you mother fuckers a beer." He said laughing.

The arm said, "And let me buy you mother fuckers a beer."

We drank that night till four, buying our mother-fucking friends beers all the way till closing.

And the lead mother fucker kept his arm to himself.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Repeating myself into oblivion.

For all the decades-long bombast about the death of TV, I can't be the only one who swims against the tide. 

When I get home from work (if I get home from work) the last thing I feel like doing is having a "conversation with a brand." The fact is, many nights I barely feel like having a conversation with my wife. And while I might interact with my five-year-old golden retriever, I certainly don't feel like interacting with a plastic wrap, deodorant or potato chip.

Some nights, what I feel like doing is interacting with my arm chair. Having a sandwich, a glass of seltzer and watch the Mets lose walking away.

But TV has a problem. 

Because "no one watches TV anymore," or because of our near universal lust for mammon, there is very little programming on. Watching TV has become the video equivalent of viewing a Val-Pak--one of those envelopes you get in the mail stuffed with nothing but coupons for carpet cleaning and moving services.

The problem with TV is that there's no TV on TV anymore. Last night, I got home in time for Final Jeopardy! There were literally seven minutes of commercials and promotional announcements, two minutes of show, then seven more minutes of commercials.

On top of that assault, there's the fact that you now have to pay for TV twice. Once when you pay the monopoly that controls cable in your area for the privilege of watching. And again when you pay with your time.

People don't hate TV.

They hate being screamed at by commercials. And they hate being used by cable companies.

I can't be the only one who gets home at night as tired as a dog. To be honest, if there were re-runs of the old Donna Reed show, sans commercials, I'd turn it on in a heartbeat.

There's nothing wrong with TV that civility, moderation, respect and courtesy on the part of broadcasters and cable companies wouldn't cure.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Taxi philosophy.

Today, I have a four-page ad in "The New York Times," and "The Wall Street Journal."

As old and weather-beaten as I am, as obscure and defunct as print seems to be as a medium, as excruciating as various hours and days were leading to the ad, for me, a guy who was raised on print, there is little that compares to having an ad in the paper. Little that matches the feeling of having the Times delivered to your door and opening it up and seeing it there. Somehow, it never gets old, at least for me.

The other night, having logged 17 or 18 hours at work, I hadn't the patience to deal with my usual car service and decided instead to take a plain-old yellow taxi home.

It was one-AM and 11th Avenue, only barely part of Manhattan, was eerily deserted. Even the usual rats which roam the streets had decided to scavenge further east in the populated sections of town. There was little traffic on the street and it took me a good five minutes to bring down a cab.

Eventually, however, an old Checker stopped for me. I checked the driver's hack license and saw his number was in the high hundred-thousands. He had been driving, in other words, since before I was born, nearly 60 years ago.

He began the conversation.

"Verking late?" He drew heavily on a foot-long corona and exhaled a New Jersey-sized cloud of blue smoke that smelled like my father.

"What choice do I have," I answered as much like Philip Marlowe as I could.

"You do what for a living?" We were speeding up 10th Avenue at about 50 miles per against the empty roadway.

"I'm in advertising." I answered. "For now anyway. There's not much left of the business."

"Dere's not mooch leff of enny business," he said, turning east on 65th Street. "Butchoo like whatchoo do, or you woon't be doing it," he said.

I rolled that one around in my brain for a second trying to think of something witty to say.

"Beats unemployment," was the best I could come up with. I was working on very little sleep.

"Look," he said as he eased the cab in front of my apartment house. "This you should remember. If I were a philosopher instead of a cab driver, this would be on a bronze plaque in the museum of deep thoughts."

"G'wan," I said, exiting the vehicle.

"Remember this," he said. "Somedays you're the pigeon. Somedays, you're the statue."

And with that, his cab disappeared into the night.

Friday, May 19, 2017

A long long week.

Man-o, man-o-shevitz, as the old radio spots for Manishewitz kosher wine used to declare. It's been a week from the 17th, or 29th ring of hell, or to whatever subterranean depths Dante, led by Virgil, descended.

About 30 or 40 of us have stayed late every night for about two weeks running to get a raft, no, not a raft, more like an air-craft-carrier's worth of work shot, writ, designed, approved, re-approved, re-re-approved and finally out the door.

Often on Facebook, friends of mine will post pictures of a woodworking project they are working on. Or the picture of a 30-year-old Porsche with its engine removed. One of my friends built a wooden dory--the sort you'd see in Victor Flemings' 1937 classic "Captains Courageous." Sleek, well-made, finely crafted.

I can't do anything like that. In fact, there's a drawer handle in our spanking new and obscenely expensive kitchen that I can't seem to re-attach correctly.

My craft, I'm lucky here, is my profession. It's making ads where, I hope, every word and image count and work together to influence and persuade.

There is, and there always will be, at least two types of people in the world, and in our business. The predominant ones seem, to me, to be theorists. They can talk at a macro-level about the exigencies of agency models, the modern vicissitudes of the world, the changing nature of the landscape and the fickle whims and caprices of human nature. These are the generals who move small pieces around giant maps in theoretical battles against real or theoretical enemies. Then there are the troops--the men and women those pieces represent. 

On the ground, building a boat or a dining room table, replacing an automobile engine or making ads, you don't really have the luxury of theory. Castles in the air seldom sell anything but castles in the air.

You have to make things work. You have to do it.

I know I'm coming to the end of my time in the business. Not next week, or even next year. But every day, I feel more and more an anachronism because I focus more on dove-tailing pieces of wood beautifully together than on either the propagation of my personal brand or the winning of awards of, to me, spurious import. I don't want to go to Cannes. I want to write copy.

Couple that with my voluble personality and soon, I suppose, someone "upstairs" will say, what the fuck is that loud, old trouble-maker still doing here?

That's ok.

I'll go out, I hope, fountain pen in hand, writing a headline, or a making a muddle of complicated crap simple, or ragging a bit of copy so it looks right to the eye.

I'll go out, I hope, like Ted Williams. Though I'm no Ted Williams. A home run in his last at bat.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nobody asked me, but....

"Nobody asked me, but" is my occasional tribute to the great New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon. When Cannon could think of nothing on his beat to write about, he'd type out one of these.

Nobody asked me but...

...of all the shortages of the world, we are most short of grown-ups.
...I don't trust people who use the word "model," as in business model.

...In fact, the trouble with the advertising business model, and with almost all other business models, is that no one thinks they have to pay for anything anymore.

...I also don't trust people who post inspirational homilies on their Facebook and LinkedIn feeds.

...I unfriend a lot of people.
....I think Donald Trump will be out of office by July 4th.
....And Rex Tillerson will go down, too.
....I'm not a violent man, but I'd like to use Paul Ryan as a pinata.

...Never try to eat a steak with a plastic knife and fork.

....Whenever it's 91-degrees like it's supposed to be today, I think of Ogden Nash's great poem: "A bit of talcum/Is always walcum."

...Not enough people these days know Ogden Nash.

...I'm no longer a baseball fan, but I do wish I could cut out of the office on a cool afternoon, grab a beer and a dog and watch a game.

...I'd probably last four innings, and choke on a $9 hotdog.

...I think I'm the last man in America who shaves every day. 

...I feel like a bum when I don't shave.

...I wonder how many people will be wearing wool caps today in 91-degree heat.

...When you're heading downtown, 5th moves better than Park. Take Park and you could wind up writing your daily post in a taxi.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A life lesson.

I got into a bit of a row with my wife last weekend. Usually, she is a breathtakingly level-headed woman, but this row involved a leaky faucet and I just couldn't get her to see things my way.

"Just look up on the Internet what to do," she said, arms akimbo. "They must have a dozen or 17 You Tube videos on fixing leaks."

I sipped at my viscous cup of coffee and tried to stay calm.

"Not only am I too big to fit under the sink," I reminded her, "you know I'm rather beefy, I know nothing about plumbing."

"Plumbing schmubling," she replied with unusual eloquence. "Plumbing is like making ads. A good idea can come from anywhere."

"Well, yes," I said, "o tempore, o mores," I mumbled under my breath with all the wisdom and distance I had acquired from studying Latin for ten years at the short end of a whacking pointer.

"A good idea can come from anywhere," I said, "so therefore, you're saying anyone can fix a persistent drip."

"Look who's being a persistent drip, now" she one-upped me. "Just get under the sink and fix it."

Again I demurred. "If, god forbid, I got under the sink and had, while stuck in the pipes, a mild infarction, you, I assume would perform the necessary angioplasty yourself."

"Of course I would," she said bull-headedly. "I could learn all about heart surgery from You Tube and Wikipedia. I happen to believe a good cardiologist could come from anywhere."

"You have had a tough week at work, I take it."

She nodded vigorously, having made put a fine point on it. 

We stopped bickering. And I called a plumber.

13 Yiddish Curses for the Modern Ad Agency. (A repost.)

Yiddish is nearly a dead language. But when it comes to curses, it remains a vibrant one. I was the butt end of a lot of these when I was growing up. It's surprising I didn't grow like an onion.

In any event, I thought it made sense to update those curses for today's eminently curse-able ad industry.

1. May your agency be bought by a French holding company that only one day
earlier merged with a colony of fire ants.*
* A tip of the Yarmulke to Josh Tavlin for this one.

2. May the client remove everything good from your copy
except for one line, and may that line no longer make sense.

3. May you be sent to a two-day offsite and attend so many meetings
that you shit Powerpoint decks in the morning and vomit Excel at night.

4. With each powerpoint that you sit through,
may your nose grow another hair.

5. May the agency’s food co-op run out of kale.

6. May you grow like a deck, getting
fatter and more meaningless by the minute.

7. May your office be open plan,
and may everyone each lunch at their desk,
and may every day they eat liverwurst.

8. May your client get two months to do research,
may your planners get two weeks to read the results,
and may you get two days to do the creative.

9. May your client realize the disparity between social media hype
and reality and may you be held accountable for it.

10. Let there be a creative department shakeup,
and may the new head have won awards only for ads that never ran.

11. May the wool hat you wear inside all summer
grow tighter each time you talk about user experiences.

12. May your beard grow lice and may each of those lice
tell you what’s wrong with your design.

13. May your holding company announce large bonuses
but may they be exclusively for people who don’t need them.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Some angry thoughts about copywriting.

I often feel, in these dark times we live in, that no one anymore cares about copy. In fact, as a writer, you're supposed to turn copy off and on, like a faucet.

Years ago, a writer I knew, and he was writing print at the time, would sit at his desk and read body copy aloud. 

"I am looking for euphony," he said. "I want the words to sound good as well as communicate well."

In any event, I've just been bludgeoned within an inch of my life with some copy that was, let's say, less than euphonious. 

I've typed the words below to explain:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,...

Eh, somedays things were pretty good. Somedays they sucked. What the fuck. I was confused.

Papa in the Tempus Fugit.

Another late night last night, and another night where I taxied not to my apartment, but instead to the cozy and humble incandescence of the Tempus Fugit. I walked down a jumble of hallways, passed through a gauntlet of galvanized steel doors and up and down a Tower of Babel assortment of stairs. In short order, I had situated my obliquity on the worn red leather of my favorite bar-stool, one in from the end.

"Again," the bartender said as he pulled me a Pike's (the ALE that won for YALE!) in a six-ounce juice glass, "Again, you are without your canine better half. You must have straight from the office come."

"Yes," I said downing my first glass of suds and tapping it for a refill. "We are working day and night."

He filled me in a trice and slid over a small wooden bowl of salted Spanish peanuts, which I pushed away as I always do with the lugubrious epithet, "a pound in every nut."

The bartender began polishing the polished mahogany with a well-worn and only slightly damp terry. He cleared his throat, removed his lit corona from the one's tray of his cash till and began:

"It was very late," he said, "and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him."

I took the prose in. Rare to hear good prose recited, and I killed another Pike's.

"Papa is here tonight," I said.

"He is here every night," the bartender said, drawing me a third. "Just as Ray Charles is with every musician and Nat Cole was with Ray."

I nodded in agreement, nursing number three. 

"Our souls are deep and dark like the inside of the muzzle that Papa stared down, before with his giant prognathous toe he pulled back the trigger that sent his amygdala crashing against the worm-eaten pine-panelling."  

"You don't exactly sound like little Mary Sunshine," I said, staring into my clasped hands.

He wiped the bar ever-cleaner and pulled a drag on his cigar. The atmosphere filled with a Gary, Indiana of blue smoke.

He continued his disquisition. 

"Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself, It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine."

"You're putting in an espresso machine?" I asked putting on my coat against the cool outside.

"Go home," he said. "Go to your clean, well-lighted place."

I shoved two twenties at him across the polished hardwood. He took them, opened the cash register with a ring and gave me back four tens.

"On me," he said.

And then, as I left, he recited some more.

"He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it."

I walked home, in the still, fully, as usual, awake.


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Monday, May 15, 2017

Blue Monday.

Let's just say, with apologies to Rob Schwartz, that for about the past two years our work-life balance has been more than a little bit, ahem, askew.

In fact, if our work-life balance were a person, he'd be walking around like Charles Laughton's Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

I suppose in the impecunious parlance of today (where it's considered fair that some people make $77 million while others are let go or are wage frozen, simply because some semantic-assassin has dubbed them 'job creators,') we are supposed to feel lucky, simply because we have staved off the worst of the worsening American economy.

I am not working at Starbucks, or wearing an orange jumpsuit and picking up litter along the Grand Central Parkway.

But the real fact is--the detail no one wants to notice or do anything about, is that people are suffering. Working day-in and-out, every night and weekend, leaving two weeks of vacation on the table, because if you take it you might not peculiar behavior, it's systemic.

I'm afraid we're working ourselves to death.

The trouble is, I'm more afraid of the alternative: unemploying ourselves to death.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Uncle Slappy's weekly slap.

Do people read?

I guess if you get right down to it (or write down to it) ever since my first job when I worked for the great copywriter turned novelist Marshall Karp, I've always been regarded as a "writer's writer."

Maybe the best definition of that obtuse epigram is this: I've always held that thoughtful, warm, witty and clear messaging, that is, good copy, can solve most any marketing problem. And over my 33 years in the business, it's often fallen to me to make complicated things succinct and, at my best, a rallying cry.

I think that's why, appended to my ECD title (ECDs today are as commonplace as acorns in October) they've affixed the words "copy chief." Maybe those words are capitalized. I suppose they should be.

There's a school of thought, of course, that says almost with every exhalation that "no one reads anymore." They forget that over two-million people a day read "The Wall Street Journal," and over one-million people a day read the paper edition "The New York Times," while an additional one point six million subscribe online.

They forget that Jeff Bezos is a quadtrillionaire, and that in 2015, 2.7 billion books (in all forms) were sold. 

Still, we are told that people do not, or cannot read. Even my humble, rickety, seat-of-my-pants blog is getting nearly 20,000 readers a week. 

People who know me know I have a capacious memory for the history of advertising. I think one of the most profound statements about our business comes from David Ogilvy. I'll update it here to eliminate gender bias and cater to a la mode. "The consumer isn't a moron. He or she, or Xe, Xem and Xyr is your partner or spouse."

I think the "no one read-ites" are in-effect saying they believe people are idiots. They're too dumb to read, or too busy, or too tweety.

The fact is, no one reads what's dull, insipid, smarmily slick, dishonest, shilling, jargony crap. No one reads an in flight magazine, or a message from Sleepy's, the mattress superstore. 

But, as Gossage put it perfectly, "No one reads an ad. They read what's interesting. And sometimes that's an ad."

So the task we face, dear reader, is not to kowtow to the non-reader-ocracy, but to fight for compelling, well-crafted and informative copy. Copy that is useful to the reader like a letter from a loved one might be. Copy that leaves you with a feeling that you are respected.

No one can help but read that.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Descent of Brand. (Volvo edition.)

Some thoughts on a great boss.

Some years ago I got the best bit of creative direction guidance I have ever received.

I got that advice from Chris Wall, who died yesterday at the tragically young age of 61.

About 20 of us had created and produced a campaign for a major client that was the picture of efficiency and integration.

In fact, the worked sucked. It was the worst campaign we had ever produced for this particular client. However we were blinded by its internal success and by how much the client liked it.

Chris called a bunch of us responsible for the creative. He didn't yell or dress us down. He simply said one thing--the aforementioned best guidance I've ever received.

He said: "I'm not pissed that the work sucks. I'm pissed that our level of ambition has started to drop."

As a creative director, you can worry about details--is it the right color yellow? Is the copy "flowy" enough? etc.

Or you can do the real job.

Make sure your people are striving to be great.

That's what Chris made me think about.

For that, I am forever thankful.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hector Quesadilla and the patata. A repost.

[From December, 2014.]

Hector was at home, resting in the giant bed that took up his giant bedroom from wall-to-wall. It was nearly twice the size of a normal bed, something Hector had custom-made for he and Teresa, his wife.

He told me that as a boy he had never had a bed of his own, sleeping, most often on a thin mat on the floor usually with two or three of his brothers. For him, a large bed was the ultimate in luxury and accomplishment and this was the largest bed I had ever seen.

In fact, in order to get over to him, to kiss him on the forehead and hug his once broad shoulders, I had to crawl two or three paces. The bed was a big as an open parachute.

"How is he," I asked Teresa, who was in from the kitchen and who had a cold cerveza for me.

"Es mejor," she answered solemnly. "Hector es muy terco." He is very stubborn.

I gripped the cold beer in one hand and Hector's mitt more tightly in the other.

"You remember the story of the patata?" He asked me.

"No one could ever forget. Where is Luis today? He is not here?"

"No, only you come. Luis a telegram he sent. As did Gordo and Marachal. Phone calls I have gotten from everyone. But only you come."

"You are a father to me."

"Tell me the story of the patata," he said, closing his eyes.

"Encarcion was playing catcher," I began, "it was late in the season and we were already losing in the game 11 to 1, or something like that. Mexico City had a man on first when you called time and waved Encarcion into the dugout."

"I did not go out. I had him come to me."

"You had peeled a small patata, a patata the size of a baseball and you slipped it into Encarcion's mitt. 'Pick him off,' you told him.

"And so when Ruiz stood tall on la goma, on the rubber, the Red Diablo on first took his lead. A big lead--testing Ruiz's motion to the plate and Encarcion's arm.

"Encarcion saw the lead, got up out of his crouch and whipped the patata down to Hernandes at first--the Diablo was caught, hook line and sinker. Out three.

"Though we were losing 11-1, we ran off the field as if we had triumphed. If I remember correctly, you proceeded to eat the evidence."

"Yes," the old man smiled, "it was a perfect play. And a good patata."

He closed his eyes with that and Teresa touched me on the shoulder.

"He must rest now," she admonished. "Later you come."

I kissed Hector once again and Teresa, too, grabbed my duffle and walked to my hotel.