Monday, August 31, 2020

Headlines that work and no longer work.

I was up, as I am so often, at the behest of Whiskey's cold, wet nose. She nuzzles me with her proboscis most mornings around five AM, or a little earlier if she had been dreaming puppy dreams of over-flowing bowls of kibble.

If I push her gently, away she walks around the bedroom and then in fewer than six or four minutes is back by my side of the bed with wake-weapon number two. 

She shakes rapidly her head and her ears flap and sound like the sparse applause at a poetry reading in a five floor walk-up on the Upper West Side up around Columbia. If that fails, she thumps her tail piston-like against the side of the bed.

In life, there are many ways to be roused from sleep. The shrill insistence of an alarm clock is most typical. The ringing of a landline phone is the scariest save for perhaps hearing someone rapping rapping at your chamber door, raven or not. 

Whiskey's arsenal is really pretty benign in the scheme of things. I stumble downstairs with her following, prepare and serve her her morning meal, pour myself a cuppa, and usually spend fifteen minutes going through The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

I try to get out of the house while it is still dark out. I have missed much in life--who hasn't--but I'm smart enough at age 62 to realize that I should enjoy every remaining sunrise I can. Especially while I am lucky enough to have Whiskey leash-less and by my side as we walk in the dark along the thunder of the sea.

On Saturday morning, I came upon this headline in The Wall Street Journal. I also had an email from Rob Schwartz in my email box.


Rob and I, for whatever reason, had had a bit of a kibbitz a week or so earlier about compound interest, specifically a quotation on the subject from Albert Einstein, and here was an article about the same.

I sent Rob the article, along with yet another shiv at our moribund industry. 

Rob and I are both copywriters. He's moved on to CEO-hood. I remain a dull three-finger-typist.

"I think journalists are writing better headlines than copywriters these days," I wrote. "They're fighting for every click and it shows."

The headline above "Warren Buffett and the $300,000 Haircut," to my eyes, is all but impossible to ignore.

Rob wrote back in seconds.

"We have forgotten why we're called agencies. We're agents for our clients. We go to war for them."

Precisely. As good journalists today go to war for clicks.

As an industry, we have forgotten. Worse, we have caved in. Caved into the copy-length dicta of the giant online media channels like Facebook and LinkedIn and Instagram. And their graphic standards, too.

Rules that make it all but impossible to create work that interesting, persuasive and stopping.

For about two weeks, I have been running a series of advertisements for myself. Call them the "I AM NOT" series. This weekend and last a couple of my ads have caught fire. They have each gotten something above 100,000 views. That's just from my organic reach. I've put no dollars behind them.

I think as an industry we relegate print to a set of mandates from Zuckerberg and a set of bullet points about the product that have little or no consumer saliency.

Then we wonder why the work doesn't work and declare the written word dead.

I said to a bunch of media people six years ago, "your job should be to figure out how we do a spread ad in a digital world." In other words ads with the impact, the presence, the information and the readabilty spread ads used to embody.

There were a dozen media people in the room.

They all came back with 300x250 ads.

I'm going out for a walk.


Friday, August 28, 2020

Rainy days and Fridays always get me down.

Ads that never ran or never will run are more important than ads that sell things.

 

The most repeated promise is the empty promise.

 

Everything that used to work is dead. Because.

 

Nobody watches anything except your ads.

 

People have short-attention spans but love 168-page powerpoints.

 

Writing a brief should take longer than writing an ad.

 

What’s most-important is how long it took to make.

 

It tested well.

 

Award-winning is the most-important adjective.

 

Inexperience that's cheap is more valuable than experience that’s expensive.

 

Nothing is worth the money except client fees.

 

If you need to make a decision keep asking for opinions until you find disagreement.

 

The loudest voice is the most important voice.

 

According to awards shows, the world’s most-advertised products are Scrabble and Lego blocks.

 

The US suicide rate has increased by 35% since 1999. But people are always happy especially while using Swiffer, eating cold cereal or removing pet stains from carpets.

 

The best way to sell a car is to show it as it is never used—on a road without traffic, dead possums or potholes and driven by models.

 

People hate to read but J.K. Rowling has sold 500 million books. One book for every 14 people on Earth.

 

We hate advertising but readily respond to cheaply-produced always-on content that shouts at us.

 

We hate slave labor but love sneakers made by slaves.

 

Anything you don’t agree with is wrong.


We don’t have time to talk to our friends and families but crave conversations with brands. Especially room-freshener brands. Pine-scented.

 

We operate on razor-thin margins but offer obesity-fat holding company salaries.


We're all in this together. And we're family. And my door is always open, though I haven't had one since 2006.


We're looking for driven people who are hardworking and ambitious but who don't mind not getting raises.


We're looking for self-starters who love being micro-managed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Bloat.

About 46 years ago, it was 1974 if I remember right, a writer called Merle Miller published a series of interviews with former US President Harry Truman.



The book was called, "Plain Speaking," and in the gloomy months following the runaway dishonesty of the corrupt and anti-Constitutional Nixon administration, the salty and blunt candor of Harry Truman would be like the scent of mouthwash in the center of a garlic processing plant.

"Plain Speaking" was probably the first serious biography I ever willingly read and I loved it. 

I don't remember much from the book, but I do remember that Truman believed that government bureaucracies grow virtually unchecked and out of control. They grow and get bigger to the point where their original reason for being is lost. Often along the way their bloat gets in the way of their effectiveness.

This is slightly beside the point, but up until World War II, the ratio of soldiers to officers in the US Army was about 10:1. Today, according to Havelock News, the ratio for is 4:1 for the Air Force, 5:1 for the Army and 5.3:1 for the Navy.

In other words, infrastructure has taken over intent. There are more people managing than fighting.

I think the same issue is visiting the advertising industry as well. Agencies in general seen their centers hollowed out. They're left with dozens of C-level leaders, half a score of presidents, and a legion of executive creative directors and then nothing for a fifteen salary bands and then multitudes of low-paid people.

What's more, in terms of loss of purpose, our simple business has grown unduly complicated. I just spent 15 minutes on LinkedIn and the One Club's job site. I don't recognize more than half the job descriptions.























I'll admit, I'm being obstreperous now and engaging in a bit of reductio ad absurdum. Everybody's job has value.

However, I'm biased.

I believe that most marketing problems can be solved by a copywriter and an art director working with a good planner and a good account person to solve a problem.

That amalgam used to be the composition of an ad agency. Throw in media and support, and that's that.

Today, I think the agency world has gotten too complicated, too complex and has chosen to operate on the fringes. Rather than answering their clients biggest problems, we scatter our focus and try to do everything.

Just to mix metaphors, my two cents says, agencies are spending 11-cents to get the last dime out of clients. But they're making it up in volume.

I'm not even 40% sure of what all of the job titles above do. And last time I worked in an agency, you could shoot a cannon through the hallways and not hit anyone who could help a brand define itself.

That's fine.

More business for me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Getting by (with a little help from my friends.)

I was told by Uncle Slappy, literally eons ago, that I should touch wood and count my blessings when good fortune smiles at me. Especially since despite the global pandemic, ten percent unemployment, a government run by pissant thieves and the mostly self-inflicted destruction of the ad industry, I am busy. 

Touch wood, I am very busy.

In the words of Uncle Slappy, "I'm as busy as a carving knife at the bris of triplets."

That's right, Uncle Slappy. 

Touch wood.

Many years ago, the great Sally Hogshead explained to me that as you go through life in advertising, you have three things. 

1. You have your body of work.
2. You have your reputation, and
3. You have your network.

Since I was tossed out of Ogilvy on my not-inconsiderable obliquity at the hoary age of 62, I have been testing the accuracy of Sally’s thesis.

There are times, I’ll admit when you spend the wee hours staring at the ceiling and wondering if it’s closing in on you. There are times when you wash your face to hide the redness of your eyes. There are times when you might recall the melancholy words of the American poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote some of the saddest words in all of poetry, American or otherwise:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’

Yeah, that’s right. 

You wonder if you're a has-been, a never-was or a might-have-been. You wonder if you’ll ever have two dimes to rub together again. Or if you’ll ever again type for money.

About a couple weeks ago, I wrote an ad for my business, GeorgeCo, A Delaware Company.

My wife shot me that look only your wife of 36 years can shoot you. You know, that 'you're a frikken idiot look.' I know it well.

“You’re working 19 hours a day,” she glared. “Why are you running ads?”

“It’s like Apple,” I answered, “Or hot a New York restaurant. (I assumed she would remember both restaurants and New York.) “You run ads when you’re busy. Busy begets busier. Busier begets good.”

And so I wrote a few ads and ran them on my social media accounts. Before I knew it, Cindy Gallop reposted them and  they were getting about 80,000 views each, my site was getting 20,000 views a month and I was getting ten or fourteen new business calls a week. Usually two or five of those translate into revenue. I think that’s pretty good.



If life in the fringe years of the Dark Ages 2.0 has taught me anything, it’s this: you can’t count on anything. The job you thought you’d have for the rest of your life can vanish like your fist when you open up your hand.

In other words there’s nothing you can really count on except that there’s nothing you can really count on.

I have what I have.

My book. My reputation. My network. And I can write some good ads.

And I have some friends ad acquaintances who are there occasionally when I need a jump start.

Touch wood, Uncle Slappy. Touch wood.

 

 

 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Finding your briefs.

In advertising we get briefs.

That's obvious.

What's not so apparent to a lot of people is that life hands you briefs as well.

They aren't delivered at a meeting in an airless conference room and they're not accompanied by 131-pages of powerpoint complete with complicated page loads and jocular stock photos
--all ostensible reasons for the common practice today wherein agencies spend more time preparing a brief than they do working on the actual work.


Many times our real-life briefs (because I'm an asshole I'll acronymize them as RLBs) just show up. There is no fanfare, no protocol, no nothing. And they come in mysterious ways at mysterious times, with very little warning.


You have to keep your eyes open. Because if you're watching, RLBs are important signposts of your life.


I had the shit kicked out of me when I was a kid by an abusive borderline mother whom, though I lived in her house for 17 years, I never saw smile. Hers was an iron fist in an iron hand.


I got a brief when I found out my wife was pregnant. It was a good brief. Short and "fortune cookie-able." 


"It stops with me."


I wasn't perfect as a father--who is? But I did what fathers are supposed to do: I gave my children roots and wings. One has a PhD and a Clinical Psychologist. The other has a Master's degree in Marine Science and has already sailed across the Pacific on a small boat. They both know who they are. And they have a plan.


That ain't bad when you consider where I come from. A tilted little house in a tilted little neighborhood in a tilted little city called Yonkers, NY.


About 19 years ago in advertising I got a brief that changed my career and my life.


Steve Hayden ran the IBM account in those cooler-climed days, and for whatever reason, he chose me as his protege. Once we were in a van going out to a shoot in New Jersey. I was new in the agency and had no partner. On the way to the shoot the spot we were about to shoot got killed.


Steve took the phone call and turned around in his seat and handed me his ThinkPad. 

"Our spot got killed," he said. "Write a new one."


He trusted me enough to hand me that kind of pressure.


About two years later, I was in my office early, as usual. I had the paper edition of "The Wall Street Journal," spread across my desk. I read this story in the Journal's Marketing column.



 

I read it more than once. And I didn't tell anyone about it. If you look at successful people throughout history you'll discover a lot of their success comes from knowing things first--things other people haven't discovered, or even discovered how to discover.


I read the article again and I underlined the sentence below, a quotation from Ogilvy CEO, Shelly Lazarus. Another person who has always been kind to me--and who was never timid about throwing hot steaming messes my way because she knew I could deal.



 

"[Steve] takes complex ideas and reduces them to simple thoughts. He never writes in jargon."

OK, I said, "that's my brief."


When I returned to Ogilvy in 2014 having left a decade earlier, I returned as the Copy Chief on IBM.


Because I knew my brief, as stated above. 


And I worked on my brief, every day.


I still do. This blog—and its nearly 6000 posts are evidence of that. I work to become a better writer every day. Simple. Jargon-free.


When I returned to Ogilvy having been fired from a vaunted digital shop, I was already 56 and I was afraid I’d never work again.


Who gets a senior job at the age of 56?


And when I got kicked to the curb by Ogilvy at the age of 62, I feared the same. It’s been almost eight months now. And I’m doing just fine, running my own business—the world’s most independent independent ad agency™: GeorgeCo.


It’s not because of my connections, or family money, or my devilish good-looks.


It’s because I know my brief.


And I work on it every day.

 

 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Los ojos de un aguila.

When you play baseball for a living as I did forty-five years ago this summer in a too-long, too-short season, you accumulate a ratty old duffle-bag full of life lessons that come to you with the suddenness of a gut punch.

 

There’s not much you can do to avert that punch, but you can find ways to regain your breathing, regain your composure, stand up straight again and assume a fighting pose.

 



I realize I’m mixing sports metaphors here, but it’s early Sunday morning as I write this. Whiskey, whose Circadian rhythms force her to wake me at the onset of rosy-fingered dawn, had me up at 5:20 this morning. We were out walking along the turbid Sound, hearing the far-off clanging of a buoy’s bell at 5:35.

 

So while my vision is clear, my head might be a little sandy. I’ve yet to finish my first cuppa Jamoke, yet, like Frost’s traveler, I have miles to go before I sleep. In other words, a busy work-week, things to write tonight and the cats’ paw tiptoeing of house-guests once-again in our small, falling apart cottage by the sea.




But back to 1975 and the smokey valley of Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico and Estadio de Beisbol Francisco I. Madura.

 

The hardest I ever worked at any baseball game was well before 
the game began. Hector Quetzacoatl Padilla, better known as 
Hector Quesadilla, my manager all those many summers ago 
taught me that. He taught me los ojos de un √°guila, the eyes of 
an eagle, to watch the opposing pitcher like a prison guard his 
prey or a mother hen her chicks with the scent of a fox in the 
waft.

 

That is, I learned from Hector, the way of life.

 

No matter who you are, how well-paid, or how much success you have had, you gain from knowing your opponent.

 

I would watch their arm warm up. Look at his motion. Did he release from the shoulder, from his rib-cage, from over-the-top. Were there hitches in his motion, like Old Satch and his famous mow-them-down hesitation pitch. Was he consistent with his motion? Were there tells on his benders?

 

Most of all, stuff. Was he fast? Could he punch you inside? How was his control? This is the information you need to hit the ball safely two times or three in ten at bats.

 

“He is too good for me,” I would say to Hector when I returned to earth from my watching. “He hides well his curve, and his fastball explodes as it nears the plate like Gibson's and rises like the sun and Seaver’s.”





 

The old man (45 at the time) would shake his big bull’s of a head and laugh in his throat. “Watch like an eagle,” he would say again, in Spanish, English or maybe Toltec if he was commenting from another world and another time.

 

Now that I am 62 and coming, perhaps to the end of my playing days, as the old redhead would say, now that I am rounding third and heading home, I think of what Hector taught me when I was young and sinewy.

 

Now that I am 62 and facing the world of advertising alone, I have no team-mates, I have no manager, I have no friends in the world who will give me a break. No, I am alone in the batters box in the big zero-sum game of life. If I hit well the ball, if I come through for my clients, if I get my day-rate and deliver work better than anyone else, I get to bat again.

 

But I know there are those that root against me, because when I fail others can get a swing. This is not meanness, this is the Desmond Morris symphony of life. When one lion loses a gazelle, it is killed by another. So it is with baseball and advertising as well. One person’s swing and miss is another’s roast beef.

 

Thanks to Whiskey, I rise early seven days a week and I summon los ojos de un aguila and I find a way, a strength, a weakness. I find a way.

 

A scratch hit, a bloop, even an out-poked elbow to get me hit and on base.

 

Once or three-times I hit a ball that screams, maybe ricochets off the old wood painted maroon of the ancient outfield wall.

 

That is how you go through the world when you go through the world alone. 


But with the eyes of the eagle.

Friday, August 21, 2020

21 things no one has ever said or ever will.


 

1.     

“Man, I am so glad my call was monitored for quality assurance.”

 

2.     

“I can’t right now, I’m on crisco.com looking up recipes that utilize my favorite brand of lard.”

 

3.     

“I’ve got to drop ten pounds. Tuesday I'm celebrating national peanut butter and jelly day, followed by national deep-dish pizza day on Friday.”

 

4.     

“I would have bought a new Hyundai, but their Hyundai Dollar Days Commercial didn’t feature enough balloons.”

 

5.     

“Why did I buy the new Samsung Galaxy 9? The DP on their last spot worked on Addams Family 7.”

 

6.     

“I would have clicked on that banner, but the call to action button didn’t have a golden glow.”

 

7.     

“When I grow up I want to be a brand engagement specialist.”

 

8.     

“Is it possible your hold music is available for download or purchase?”

 

9.     

“Is there a better time than early August to advertise for Halloween candy?”

 

10.  

“Am I ever excited. This 64-ounce bottle of day-glo green liquid is 4% real juice.”

 

11.  

“Sure he’s thinking. But he’s not design thinking.”

 

12.  

“I don’t need what they’re selling and their creative is uninspiring, but that call to action was amazing!”

 

13.  

“I was pretty bored by their copy, then they ended a sentence with three exclamation points.”

 

14.  

“Of course she’s perfect to work on ads for a financial product for high net-worth individuals. She’s a 24-year-old art school graduate.”

 

15.  

“I’d spend time on their website but I don’t agree with their cookie policy.”

 

16.  

“When management says no one got a raise this year, I really believe them.”

 

17.  

“Guess what! Clorox now comes in a new, more convenient size!”

 

18.  

“You know when my copy really started to sing? Between rounds 23 and 29 of changes.”

 

19.  

“I thought my call wasn’t important to them. Then while I was on hold they told me it was. 77 times.”

 

20.  

“That’s not an ordinary roll of Charmin…it’s a super mega roll.”

 

21.  

“I have to go to that movie. It’s the ‘must-see event of the summer.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Five Minutes with our CEUAO.






AD AGED:
Thank you, sir, for agreeing to meet with me. A little background: I am studying the composition of the modern
Ad Agency, and your five minutes with me will help.

 

CEUAO:

Anything I can do to hinder our friends in the press corps. At our Holding Company, we are all about an opaque level of transparency that verges on the unseeable.

 

AD AGED:
Yes, of course.
Before we begin, can you clarify what CEUAO stands for?

 

CEUAO:

Naturally. Today every agency and every holding company has a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

 

AD AGED:

Yes, they’re multiplying like a gorgeous mosaic of hormonal bunnies.

 

CEUAO:

At my holding company, OPP, Omnivorous Pompous and Pupik, we believe you’re not really Diverse and Inclusive if you’re not also Exclusionary, Unanimous and Agreeable.

 

AD AGED:

So you’re the Chief Exclusion, Unanimity and Agreement Officer?

 

CEUAO:

Yes. That’s quite a masticatory assemblage, is it not?

 

AD AGED:

You might say that.

What is it that a CEUAO does?

 

CEUAO:
I exclude everyone who doesn’t fit the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer’s definition of Diversity and Inclusion.

 

I force people who aren’t between the ages of 18 and 33 out of the network. They’re too old to be culturally relevant; they don’t understand today’s technologies and they make inflated old-timey salaries that the razor-thin margins of the holding company, OPP, just can’t support.

 

AD AGED:

I see. Anything else?

 

CEUAO:

Yes, while the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer seeks to create a gorgeous mosaic of cosmetic diversity, I make sure we don’t have diversity of thought or opinion.  

 

Post hoc ergo propter hoc, we look for unanimity of thought from agreeable people without strong opinions. 


That makes Omnivorous Pompous and Pupik, OPP, the happy holding company—our natural attrition rate, for example, has dipped well under 70% for two years running.

 

AD AGED:

Fantastic.


CEUAO:

I knew you’d like that.

Everyone here always agrees with me.

 

 

 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

In a minute.

There’s been, for a while now in my social media feeds, this exercise that seems fairly popular called “One Minute Briefs.”

I’ll admit two things about One Minute Briefs to be hyper-numerical about things. One: I know nothing about it, outside of you’re supposed to create an ad I think in just one minute. And two: I instantly disliked it because we shouldn’t be in the business of creating ads in one-minute. That denigrates our hard-won skills.

 

Without sounding more arrogant than I usually sound, most people will concede I’m just about the fastest copywriter around. One ECD once said to me, exasperated but appreciative, “You’re writing ads faster than I can read them,” and former Ogilvy CCO, Steve Simpson wrote this in his recommendation of me, “[George] knows that every word counts—especially if somebody’s paying for it. In spite of this, George is also a very fast writer: fast, clear and always on point. Fast and good are not incompatible, after all.

 

I’ve even stolen the line here from the great New Yorker writer, AJ Liebling. I’m pretty sure not that many people who have worked with me would dispute my co-opting of Liebling, at least in this case.

 


Nevertheless, briefs, I believe, should not be done in one minute—even when you have a good idea that quickly. As Milton Glaser said to me the one time I was fortunate enough to partner with him, “Let’s let it percolate for a while.” That’s wise advice in nearly everything—especially for tweeting tinpot would-be-autocrats.

 

Years ago I was showing work to a client. It was our first meeting and while I don’t reek of confidence, I knew the work was good. And I knew the client would be made nervous by it.

 

I played a piece of music as I presented and the client laughed.

 

I stopped the meeting.

 

“What did you just do?” I asked him.

 

“I laughed.” He was sheepish about it.

 

“I want you to remember that reaction,” I said. “Because in about ten minutes when I’m done presenting you will have found 32 reasons why the work is wrong for you.”

 

What I wish is simple.

 

That instead of wannabee creatives working on One-Minute Briefs, wannabee-better clients and planners and account people and creative directors would sign up for my very expensive advertising course.

 

I’m calling it One-Minute Reactions: The Art of Not Overthinking.

 

Like I said, the course is very expensive.

 

But it’s worth it. 


After all, it’s only one-minute long.