Friday, December 14, 2018

Read it and weep.

I read a sentence just now from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof in “The New York Times.”

It was a sentence of such power that it reminded me of something much of our industry (and our world) has forgotten.

Words matter.

They move people.

They inspire.





Not all words. Not any words. But the right words.

Kristof was writing about the on-going American-backed carnage in Yemen. Here’s how he started his column:

“I’m giving up most of my column space today to introduce you to Abrar Ibrahim, a 12-year-old girl in Yemen who weighs just 28 pounds.”

A 12-year-old girl…who weighs just 28 pounds.

Ten powerful, shocking words.

You can read Kristof’s entire article here.

On the subject of the power of words, there was another opinion piece in last Monday’s Times, on the 100th Anniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s birth. It was the headline  and subhead of the article that got me thinking about this topic, they read:

"The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, born Dec. 11, 1918, did more than anyone else to bring the Soviet Union to its knees."

You can read the item here. About a book that led to the ruination of the USSR, "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch."

It’s painfully au courant these days to minimize the impact and power of words.

We routinely see ad after ad with no copy. Those are usually the ads that win awards.Copywriters hear every day that “no one reads anymore.” It's another spurious, unfounded allegation in an era that seems steeped in them like the Gowanus is steeped in toxins.


I’ve viewed entire agency reels that are wordless, that are devoid of copy.


And not an ad goes by when we aren’t commanded to ‘make it shorter.’


This is not my last gasp attempt to make advertising and communications prolix. It is merely my belief that the right words can—if given room and consideration, have amazing, transformative power. Of course, I am not advocating against visual ideas and representations. Just asserting that we should not overlook words because of an assertion that no one reads or cares.


The problem is, no one gives anything room and consideration anymore. More and more often we are often both managed and governed by tweets. We speak and read and write with half-thoughts and ill-formed phrases.

Mostly because we’re too harried to actually think. Or it's not fashionable. Or whole swaths of our world have simply grown lazy and gotten out of the habit.

I believe people can think. Especially if they can be convinced that there is something worth thinking about.

We'd be better off as a "culture" spending ten minutes a day reading William Faulkner, or Eudora Welty than a spewing, bubble-brained Trumpublican.

Not long ago I read a story about Bill Bernbach.

A client asked him why there was so much copy, because after all no one reads copy.

Bernbach replied. “Ten percent of people read copy. That’s who I wrote it for.”

Thursday, December 13, 2018

I meet Gulliermo Sisto.

When I joined the Seraperos de Saltillo so many summers ago, when I was alive with the full-sinewy bloom of muscle and youth, the equipment manager, bus-driver and third-string catcher, Gordo Batista brought me to my locker on the afternoon I had joined the team.

It was the last locker in a long row of lockers, and a well-shellacked wooden bench was bolted to the floor just about two feet away. The bench ended right in front of my cubby, and there was no one in the space just to my right, so I had a bit of extra room on either side of me, and a little room between me and the rest of the guys, which suited me just fine. I've always liked a little room between me and the rest of the guys.

Above my head ran an insulation-wrapped pipe painted mint-green. It hissed now and again with steam and dripped rusty water through the insulation and onto the dull concrete floor. It didn’t drip enough to cause a disturbance, but there was semi-permanently a tent-shaped yellow piso mojado sign sitting astride the small puddle that collected just alongside a steel grate like Emma Lazurus’ new Colossus.

Late one afternoon, I was about twenty games into my 140-game season playing el esquina caliente, the hot corner, for the Seraperos, Hector Quesadilla, my manager, and Gordo Batista walked over to my spot with a third man of similar hoary vintage. It was still about three hours, maybe four before game time, and virtually none of the other boys were yet in the clubhouse. I’ve always gotten places early and settled in. I did back then, I do today.

“Jorge Navidad,” Hector called out. “This is the great Gulliermo Sisto, el Cohete de Coahuila, the Coahuila Rocket.”

I shook the old man’s hand. He looked hardly like a rocket to me. He had a squat, Indio build, with too-broad, heavily muscled shoulders and short, bowed legs.

“It was many years ago,” Sisto said, “that I was a rocket.”

I laughed.

“He jugado durante 50 clubes de bĂ©isbol,” he went on. “I have played for 50 baseball clubs.

“Many seasons, I played for six or seven clubs. And I have never made the big leagues,” the old man said. “I played with Hector Quesadilla, the great Hector Quesadilla, when he was a young man and was coveted in the Major Leagues. The Pirates of Pittsburgh wanted him, not Clemente.”

He unloaded his stuff from his blue-green team duffle bag into his locker. His spikes looked like a boxer who had lasted too many rounds in the ring, against a Frazier, or a Louis, or a Marciano. Someone who would pound you and cut you.

“I played and played and played. For club after club. In cities that have now been reduced to towns. And in towns that have grown into cities. In towns where the air has grown brown and sulfurous. I have been playing in the league since 1948.”

That was a full ten years before I was born. I looked at his glove as he unpacked it. It was one of the old models with short, stubby fingers like sausage from Wisconsin. It was like the glove my father had used when we had catches when I was a boy.

We dressed alongside each other, getting ready for some warm-ups before that evening’s game.

“Here’s the thing,” he said, studying me.

“Baseball I have been playing for 28 seasons. 28 seasons for 50 different clubs. Frocities you have never heard of. From cities,” he rubbed my cheek with his hand, “from cities that haven’t seen a white face since the Conquistadores left. Old cities, sad cities, broken cities, small cities that are no more than a collection of broken shacks.

“I have played everywhere. Always trying to do what was asked of me. When a team needed a second-baseman, I played second. An arm from the bullpen, I would be in the bullpen. Pinch running, pinch hitting. Playing outfield. Or just riding the pine just in case.”

“50 teams,” I said dumbly. “I didn’t know there were 50 teams.”

“There are a million teams,” he answered, lacing his spikes. “Good teams and bad teams. Big teams and small teams. Maybe for each of them I will someday play.”

I laughed at that.

“Here is the truth, I will tell you, Jorge Navidad.”

We were dressing now, lacing up our black leather spikes that would clack clack on the concrete as we left the clubhouse and trotted up the ramp to the field. In moments, we stood thirty or forty feet apart and did what ballplayers have been doing since they were using stones rather than horsehide: we tossed and limbered up with a light catch.

“I was never much of a ballplayer,” he said. “But I had a secret that I learned many decades ago.”

We exchanged the ball a dozen times. Then a dozen more.

“My secret,” he said, “is a simple one. And Hector tells me that you, too, have the gift. It is the gift of quiet. The gift of seeing the field. The gift of hiding what you have and setting up decoys so no one knows where you keep your failings.”

“Hiding,” I repeated dumbly.

“That is the secret. To hide what you have. To hit to the opposite field. To hesitate, then take the extra base. To set up decoys.”

We were deep in a rhythm now. Catching, throwing, catching, throwing like the diamond version of a perpetual motion machine. He threw with a sweet sweep of his right arm and had a pop on his tosses. Maybe he was showing off.

“I was never much good,” Guillermo went on. “But the game I love. So, I play, always hoping for one more game. Always looking to find an angle.”

This time, he zipped one in. It popped in my glove and stung my hand. El Cohete, I thought.

"Maybe this is my time," he said, “maybe this will be my time.” And then he jogged off—tilting slightly to the left—into the coming twilight.


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

At some agency somewhere a meeting happened.

We need to add a watermark to the skippable digital spot.

Why? I would think adding a logo to a spot
would depress viewership.

It’s best practices.

The way I understand online data, a normal ad gets seven clicks per 10,000 views.
What will this get if we add a logo?

It’s best practices.
Why? Why is it a best practice?
Would you send me data that shows why?

Everyone does it. It’s best practices.

CREATIVE: [Exasperated]    
Do you have any data? Can you show me data? You keep talking about best practices where’s the dataim?

We’ve done it everywhere I’ve ever worked.
At every creative agency.
It’s a best practice.

OK. If it were me, I would see a logo,
get annoyed and skip the ad.

It’s best practices.

So, if we add a logo, people will watch longer?

That’s best practices.

What about people who turn off when they see a logo?

By that time the logo will have registered.
That’s best practices.

But they’ll dislike the brand.

That’s best practices.

                            The Curtain Falls

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

As time goes by.

I read a book not long-ago called “Craeft” by a guy called Alexander Langlands. Craeft is the middle-English spelling of Craft, complete with diphthong.

At its heart, the book is about what’s been lost over the centuries, or millennia, when we stopped doing things by hand and turned instead to machines and specialized workers.

Langlands starts the book with a dilemma. He lives on a farm “in the middle of nowhere,” his yard is terribly over-grown with weeds and grasses, and he can’t get his weed-whacker started. He then remembers that at a garage sale some months earlier he had bought an ancient scythe.

He writes, “That summer the scythe became the tool of choice. Relieved of the rigmarole of fuelling, servicing and maintaining the [weed-whacker], scything could be conducted on a whim, the scythe plucked from the toolshed and employed for an hour or two here and there. My technique improved. I became stronger and began to feel less exhausted at the end of a stint, and almost matched the time taken to do the same job with a [weed-whacker]… I realised that I’d taken a traditional way of doing something and had found that, on my terms, it was just as effective as the mechanically charged, petrol-powered methods of today.”

And that brings me to my point, which is about innovation.

In Friday’s “New York Times,” there was an article called “End the Innovation Obsession,” by David Sax. He begins with our prevailing anxiety over FOMO—fear of missing out. That something exists that is wholly good and we have to get our hands on it or our lives and our very prospect of potential fulfillment or happiness will wither.

Sax says,
Each year businesses, institutions and individuals run around like broken toy robots, trying to figure out their strategy for the latest buzzword promising salvation.
“What’s your company’s plan to onboard wearables? How’s our Google Glass program coming? Where do you stand on Big Data? A.I.? Machine learning? How soon can we pivot to video? How many tablets should we buy? What’s your child’s school’s V.R. budget?...

“Gadgets are procured, deployed and discarded. Resources are squandered as the technology’s actual capabilities fall short of its promise…

“But at its worst, this approach to innovation can truly be destructive. Schools that hastily purchased tablets for students cut drama, music and sports programs to pay for devices with few proven benefits. Districts that adopted untested computerized voting machines have seen elections compromised. Companies that integrated artificial intelligence into the hiring process have actually reinforced gender and racial stereotypes. Publications that increased their focus on video content while slashing reporters, all in response to Facebook’s viewership numbers, later learned that these figures — the entire basis of their new business models — had been fudged....

“True innovation isn’t just some magic carnival of invention, like a Steve Jobs keynote with a pretty toy at the end. It is a continuing process of gradual improvement…. Often that actually means adopting ideas and tools that already exist … or even returning to methods that worked in the past.

This is the time of the year when reams and reams of articles come out from reams and reams of pundits. Half of them make wild predictions about the year to come. The other half proffer wild summations about the trends of the year that was. 

All of them, yes, every single one of them, talks about what’s new, what’s going to change everything and what’s about to die.

None of them talk about the essential qualities of being a human and living within a community. None of the talk about what’s old. What’s unchanging. What’s real. Formative and instrumental. None of them talk about what hasn’t changed and never will.

That people like to laugh. They don’t like to be spied on and under-surveillance. They like to be treated with respect. They respond, more often than not, to other humans, not bots, bullshit and bureaucratic bullying.

We chase, like a rabid hyena chasing its tail, the new. There are whole agencies dedicated to helping businesses adjust to paradigms that aren’t worth a dime. 

There are very few that look clients in the eye (virtually impossible when 97.33% of your contact is done via a ill-functioning conference call) and say, “this is what will touch someone’s heart. This is what will inspire them and move them.”

No, we are too busy proclaiming that GenerationHuh is a “cohort” unlike any humans who came before us. Any humans who ever were. A whole new species.

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that most of what you need to know about humans you could learn from Dooley Wilson in “Casablanca.”

Play it, Sam.