Friday, February 22, 2019

Give yourself a deadline.

If I were asked to speak to a group of young people about some of what I've learned during my 35 years in advertising, I'd start with a really simple thought.

Give yourself a deadline.

Not the deadline your boss gives you, or a project manager, or account.

A deadline you give yourself.

If you're a writer and your ads are due for internal review on Wednesday, give yourself a deadline. Say to yourself, "By Monday, I will have nine ads written, some body copy and a be able to, according to the brief, make a strategic recommendation.

Having done that, having pushed yourself extra hard, you can take a walk around the block, get home in time for Jeopardy! Or read the newspaper.

Then, get in early the next day. Before other people are around to distract you, you can look at your work again. Cross some things out, rewrite others, add a few ideas and so on. You're still ahead of schedule, and you're making your work better.

Better still, you might want to befriend your planner, or an account partner and show them what you're working on. It doesn't have to be formal, just a chat. 

Do they like anything? Is there anything that sucks? Is there anything that's missing? This might take an hour or two, you're still ahead of schedule, and you're sharpening your work. You're finding out what people respond to and what sounds sour or off.

Finally, on the day your work is due to your boss, or to another boss, or to another boss, why not get in early again? Come at your work cold and cynically and fresh. Read your brief over again, then look at your work again.

Have you done what you've been asked to do? Have you made the brief better? Most important, did you make something good?

In the day-to-day sturm and drang of agency life, I see too many people who work up to the absolute last minute. Who spend all their time creating and none of their time improving. They do their work, they don't necessarily think about what they have done. They rush up to the very last minute, without ever taking a pause.

My two cents is it's what you do after you're done that really matters. That requires distance, looking at things upside-down, and a different perspective.

I realize, of course, that the pace of agency life has been so accelerated that often getting something done early seems all-but-impossible. 

And maybe I'm able to do it because I'm old and I've written literally thousands of ads (I worked in-house at Bloomingdale's and wrote 500 ads/year for three years.) 

But what working this way usually comes down to is trusting yourself. Trusting that you've worked hard. Trusting that you've listened. Trusting that you're asking for help when you need it. Trusting the input of others. And trusting that you're good.

Many years ago I was brand new at an agency and working directly for Steve Hayden, the copywriter who wrote Apple's 1984 commercial--the most famous commercial ever.

Scripts were due on Monday. So I came into the office, and worked all weekend, and wrote about 50 I was happy with.

Of course, I was nervous. I was intimidated. I felt very alone (Then as now, I had no work partner.)

On Sunday night, I walked around the block a couple times. I might have cried by myself while my office door was closed. I read the scripts again and trashed a few.

Then, I pressed the 'send' button.

Sometimes that's the hardest thing to do. And so, the most important.

Giving yourself a deadline.

And trusting yourself.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

An open letter (which won't be read by those who should read it.)

Many years ago, I worked at an agency where attrition was high and morale was low. (Who hasn't?)

I was high enough up in the company that senior management came to me and asked me what I would do to improve things.

I should clarify. They wanted to know how would I improve things without really changing things--without giving people more money. 

I thought about this quandary for a few minutes and said, "I think Bill, the CEO, should walk around on pay-day with peoples' pay envelopes, hand them out personally, and personally thank people for their hard work.

Naturally, everybody looked at me like I was crazy. Even though we in advertising are at some ostensible level in a relationship business, upper management is terrible at having relationships with people who work so hard (and enjoy so few of the benefits from their hard work.)

Just now, in the wake of Lee Clow's retirement from TBWA\Chiat\Day after decades of amazing work and amazing leadership, I stumbled upon this in my LinkedIn feed.

I think anyone who asks others to do things, bosses, spouses, parents, etc., could learn from it.

Here's the story that showed up in my feed:

                        Over a couple of non-stop, no-sleep days in 2005, I was fortunate enough to support Lee Clow and Chuck McBride in prepping a pitch for Diet Pepsi at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York. Lee spent a LOT of time in the production studio. Supervising mostly--but also making comps, trimming down boards, tidying up scraps off the floor, etc. I was gobsmacked. This guy is famous--he created Apple's "Think Different" campaign, for fuck's sake--yet he was down-to-earth, and working in the trenches (happily) with we lowly grunts. The morning that we had completed our work, this 24 x 36 sheet was pinned up on our studio wall. I exited the lobby of 488 Madison, to see the silhouettes of Lee and Chuck on the street, waiting for cabs--as the sun was rising in front of them. It couldn't have been any more majestic/super-heroic if they'd planned it. Enjoy your well-earned time off, good sir.

And here is a copy of the 24 x36 sheet pinned to the studio wall.

These days, everyone in our business is so smart, so sophisticated, so busy and so very important, that we forget many of the things that go into making people human. We forget the little things that motivate people to work hard. The things, beyond money, that make people feel valued, rewarded and recognized. I'm not talking about an agency t-shirt at the holidays, or a logo'd mug with 32 M&Ms inside.

No, I'm talking about a basic human need. The need to feel appreciated, valued and rewarded. You know, liked.
Maybe our technocratic society, our inequality of wealth and the hectic pace of the business today has made humanity, humor, sharing and kindness relics of a different era, like the horse-and-buggy or toaster-pizzas.

I know my values are old-fashioned--believing in manners and their value is as passe as a pair of bloomers. I suppose if there's an MBA reading this or an aforementioned technocrat, they'd say, "You get paid. And you're lucky to have a job. You're dry when it rains. You get four weeks vacation and so forth."

That's fine.

If that's the way you want to be.

It's not the way I want to be.

Thank you.
PS  I don't know Lee. Never had the chance to work for him. So maybe I'm being naive. Maybe he's a jerk. But given the discussion around his retirement and some anecdotes from friends who have worked with him, I don't think so.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A dark dream. Very dark.

I think if you asked most people still working in this industry (on a good day, you might be able to pull together a minyan) most of them would say that they're doing more and more and getting less and less out of it.

There's more work to be done, simply because there are more channels that we have to keep filling with "content," or "messaging." More channels more channels more channels. More crap that the machine has to churn out. Forget considering whether or not anybody sees it, or if it's doing any good. 

There's more work to be done, simply because the $10 million paychecks have cut staffing to the bone. There are fewer and fewer people to do stuff. That's just the way it is. You can't fight City Hall. Or holding companies. Or even project managers.

Whole floors are empty, with Aeron chairs piled up like ancient Druid monoliths. Future generations will wonder, 'what's with all the chairs.' Only us old people will know. There used to be people for all those chairs. But it turned out that the people were easier to get rid of than the furniture.

Ha ha ha. Someone will laugh.

Maybe someone who never read "The Death of a Salesman." Someone who thinks a man is a piece of fruit. That you can just eat the orange and throw away the peel. And, what the heck, call it recycling.

Then an email will come out, usually from someone with a title as long as your arm, or both arms. A title who has nothing to do with creating ads.

They'll tell you that your agency has just been voted a "Best Place to Work." 

You feel like riding the elevators all day hoping you'll bump into them. You have a dialogue all planned.

"A best place to work?," you'll say.

"Yes," they'll smile while looking right through you. You are someone who bangs their fingers to the bone on a barely functioning keyboard, someone who makes ad after ad after ad. That is, you are someone barely worth talking to. You are the lowest of the lowly--someone who works, not someone who administrates work, or administrates someone who administrates work.

"A best place to work?," you'll repeat. 

You escort them to the third floor, where Aeron chairs and used file cabinets are stacked on top of each other like discarded Christmas trees in January. A fluorescent light cackles. The floor creaks like an old whaling ship.

"What about these people," you'll ask.

While looking through you, they'll glance down at their phone, look worried and mumble, "I have a four." And away they'll go.

It's only two-fifteen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A working man's life. In 37 subject lines.

Dull as dishwater.

After about ninety-thousand years in this god-forsaken business I love so much, I've reached a conclusion I'm surprised I hadn't realized many years earlier.

That is, there are two types of people in agencies.

The far-more-common type waits to be given great  assignments. You know, a "cool" client, adequate-time and a Shutters-worthy budget.

It's the rare bird doesn't wait for great assignments. Instead, she makes every assignment she gets great. She finds something in it, or brings something to it, or thinks about a new technique or an interesting way to "un-boring-ifize" it. She says, in effect, if my name is on it, I will make it good. I will make it the envy of those around me.

Years ago, back in the early 90s, I taught a couple advertising classes at New York's School of Visual Arts. Every week, I had to pick a product or a service and the class would have to do ads on it.

A couple weeks into the semester, there was a small rebellion in the class. I was accused of giving out "bad" assignments. "They're boring," I was told. "No one cares about these things." "They're not fun."

It's not entirely unusual for me to get pissed at rebukes like those. And I got pissed that night.

"Look," I said, "two of the greatest advertising successes of the 80s were for the Yellow Pages and a package-delivery company. The creatives could have looked at those assignments and said they were boring."

I went on, as I so often do.

"When Doyle Dane created Volkswagen, it was an ugly, under-powered German car being sold in America where a fair number of people had been shooting at Germans just a few years earlier. Shitty assignment.

"Avis was a two-bit company, dwarfed by its competitors. Hertz had five-times their budget, five-times the counters, five-times as many cars. Shitty assignment.

"Frank Perdue sold chickens. Shitty assignment."

The sentiment, "There are really no dull subjects, only dull writers," has been attributed to half-a-dozen notables from G.K. Chesterton to Raymond Chandler to someone called George Horace Lorimer.

In the internet-age of fact-checking (i.e. no fact-checking) I could probably simply proclaim that David Ogilvy told it to me one debauched evening over a bottle of 1949 Pol Roger Brut while at Château de Touffou. But that, even though it might win me the plaudits of upper management at the place at which I toil, wouldn't be right, so I won't.

No matter who said it, I believe it. Robert Caro, for instance, made 4000 pages on LBJ the best thing I've ever read. Shakespearean. Speaking of Shakespeare, read Shakespeare. 

Finally, since baseball season is nearly upon us watch this short film about a hero striking out. Riveting.

BTW, one of the many reasons I don't believe in-house agencies--which seem to be all the rage--will ever achieve what outside agencies can is related to this point. It's not that in-house agencies hire dull people. It's that the discipline of the in-house job means you first and foremost have to "do" the assignment. I've always believed that there's a difference between doing the assignment and doing the job.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Of burgers, traffic lights, and H. Rider Haggard.

My wife, who like H. Rider Haggard's "She," must be obeyed, had a hankering for a really good hamburger. This simple meal is surprisingly hard to come by. 

These days, anything really good is hard to come by.

First, you have the massive over-processing of food which has added chemicals and preservatives to everything as it has, correspondingly removed nutrition and flavor. Then, you have the closings of the once-ubiquitous New York tradition, the Greek coffee shop. 

There used to be a Red Flame, or a Lepanto, or an Olympus Diner on nearly every other corner in the city, but they are all but gone now, replaced by Starbucks, or Joe and the Juice, or Stumptown Roasters, or some other over-priced millennial roost, which, it must be said, I won't step foot in.

Finally, you have the renaissance of the luxury burger. A slab of ground-meat the size of Yogi Berra's catcher's mitt. These joints are too-upscale by half and sport names like Smash Burger and 5 Napkin Burger (where, btw, they give you but one napkin) and while I've been seduced by their marketing and their promise of the return of the golden age of burgerhood, well, they're just not very good.

Prime Burger, in the shadow of St. Patrick's on 51st Street off of 5th, closed almost a decade ago. 

They served a really superior burger and a raspberry-lime lemonade, all served by decorous old black-men who had the dignified aspect of aging Pullman-car waiters. A magazine called "The Gothamist," had this to say about Prime Burger, "Regulars like Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda, and Sammy Davis, Jr. once crammed into the tight booths with swivel trays reminiscent of school desks, but the nostalgic atmosphere isn't the only aspect that kept patrons coming back. Handmade each morning with beef from a supplier in the Bronx, the tender and juicy burgers are quintessentially New York. In 2004, the prestigious James Beard Foundation even bestowed an award recognizing Prime Burger as one of America's best classic restaurants."

Decades ago, a Columbia haunt of mine, closed. That was Happy Burger and it was a brusque, no-pretense kind of place, that believed, as Ed McCabe believed for the old Horn and Hardardt's, that "you can't eat atmosphere." It was all about the food. But it too succumbed to the fetishization of food as well as Manhattan's soaring rents.

My wife had zeroed-in on a place on Second Avenue and 83th Street called Mocca Burger. I was against it (to no avail) partly because Mocca Burger is kosher, which means no cheese and no bacon. And second, because kosher meat is about twice as expensive as meat should be. But as I said at the top of this post, my wife is She, who must be obeyed.

We hit the interchange in the Bronx, where 95 bisects the Bruckner, my Simca surging along at 90 mph, its three-liter BMW straight-six gobbling up the shell-shocked asphalt. 

"This is the spot where you phone in," I said, having timed these things, over the years, to perfection. "If you call now, I can negotiate the traffic and make my way over the (free) Third Avenue Bridge and the food will be coming off the griddle, or out of the oven, just as we glide to a halt in front of the restaurant."

My wife nodded with some regret. She has to grown to dislike those uncanny things I can do that are invariably right. I consider myself something of a Cassandra about these things. I can see the future, even if no one believes what I see.

Mocca being off Second Avenue, I avoided the FDR and drove downtown from the bridge exit at 129th Street in Harlem. I downshifted off the bridge and into the center lane of the mottled avenue. The right lane you avoid because of buses that don't signal when they merge left. The left lane you avoid because the whole expanse is filled with double-parkers and people who swing open car-doors as if they are the only inhabitants of our increasingly-crowded orb.

We were streaming downtown now and I made the light at 125th, a large cross-town street, and then at 116th, the next cross-town street going south. When I made the light at the next big street, 106th, I knew I had something rare going on.

Since records began being kept in 1966, no one has ever made it straight down without stopping from 129th past 96th street, but here I was. 

I put my foot down on the gas to get the Simca more in the center of the timed traffic lights and sped past 96th Street. I had done it. Call me the Sultan of Signal, the Lord of the Light. 

I mentioned this to my wife, as the Simca finally rolled to a red at the cacophony of 86th Street. She scowled out the window and pretended not to hear me. Moments later, I pulled in front of Mocca just as our burgers were being spatula'd off their kosher griddle. The puck-like discs were still steaming as she huffed her way back to our car.

Then, like Moses parting the Red Sea, from the right lane at 83rd and Second, I crossed four lanes of traffic and navigated a left onto East 82nd, and made our way home.

I half expected a call from Mayor De Blasio congratulating me, or maybe the ghost of political hack Mario Procaccino. But no phones rang in our three-bedroom.

And the burgers?


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Tips for Aspiring Writers. (Repurposing Bret Stephens.)

Not long ago I stumbled upon an excellent article by Bret Stephens of “The New York Times,” on how to write an op-ed. It’s called “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers” and you can find it here.

In advertising, we don’t write op-eds. The fact is, even if you’re a writer, you hardly write at all anymore. It seems everyone has bought into the spurious idea that no one can read, or no one does read ads, or everyone is too impatient to read. You get the idea.

That being said, Stephens’ tips for writers work for our business, too. They work for people who aren’t writers—they work for art directors talking to photographers. They work for account people selling a campaign to a client. They work for planners making a presentation to cynical and impatient creatives.

They work for anyone who has to be clear, succinct and who has to make a point. They work for anyone who can lose an audience if she’s boring. Because all of us can lose audiences.

I’m taking the liberty of editing Stephens, choosing the parts that are, I think, most germane to our business. They’re Stephens’ thoughts, though. I’m just tightening things up a turn.

1) A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today? And why should the reader care what you, of all people, have to say about it?
Good writers like, say, Charles Dickens, rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.
This is a page from his manuscript of "Great Expectations."
As an old boss used to tell me, leave no word unturned.
2) Avoid the passive voice. Write declarative sentences. Delete useless or weasel words such as “apparently,” “understandable” or “indeed.” Project a tone of confidence, which is the middle course between diffidence and bombast.

3) Be proleptic, a word that comes from the Greek for “anticipation.” That is, get the better of the major objection to your argument by raising and answering it in advance. Always offer the other side’s strongest case, not the straw man. Doing so will sharpen your own case and earn the respect of your reader.

4) Sweat the small stuff. Read over each sentence — read it aloud — and ask yourself: Is this true? Can I defend every single word of it? Did I get the facts, quotes, dates and spellings exactly right? Yes, sometimes those spellings are hard: the president of Turkmenistan is Gurbanguly Malikguliyevich Berdymukhammedov. But, believe me, nothing’s worse than having to run a correction.

5) You’re not Proust. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs tight.

6) Kill the clichés. If you want to give the reader an outside the box perspective on how to solve a problem from hell by reimagining the policy toolbox to include stakeholder voices — well, stop right there. Editors notice these sorts of expressions the way French chefs notice slices of Velveeta cheese: repulsive in themselves, and indicative of the mental slop that lies beneath.

7) If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.
One useful tip for aspiring writers comes from the film “A River Runs Through It,” in which the character played by Tom Skerritt, a Presbyterian minister with a literary bent, receives essays from his children and instructs them to make each successive draft “half as long.” If you want to write a successful 700-word op-ed, start with a longer draft, then cut and cut again. “The art of writing,” believed the minister, “lay in thrift.”

8) The editor [client] is always right. She’s especially right when she axes the sentences or paragraphs of which you’re most proud. Treat your editor with respect by not second-guessing her judgment, belaboring her with requests for publication decisions or submitting sloppy work in the expectation that she will whip it into shape.