Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Words. Of wisdom and not.

I was listening to the news this morning, as I do nearly every morning, on National Public Radio. I made the switch about forty years ago from TV news to NPR. Not only are the stories longer and more informative, you don’t have to be in front of the set to take anything in. For me it’s a bit like taking in a baseball game. The sport is better “viewed” on radio.

In any event, since the rise of Covid in America, say about the beginning of March (roughly four months before the non-popularly-elected president admitted its existence, if not its virulence) virtually every story on NPR has been the same. To sum up, they’ve all been about a shortage of resources, or a half-assed response, or general unpreparedness.


This morning, as I was hearing this governor or that bemoan the inadequacy of Trump’s executive orders on financial relief for the unemployed, I said to myself, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That statement, and thousands of other maxims or axioms were, for centuries or millennia, part of human-kind’s upbringing.


They went under a variety of different names, the 147 Delphic maxims, Aesop’s fables, Poor Richard’s ramblings, the Ten Commandments and more. But chances are, if you grew up around the time I did, you were inculcated with these precepts.


I remember as a kid reading an autobiography of the great Negro leagues’ pitcher Satchel Paige. Paige, because Black people were kept out of the major leagues until 1947, didn’t pitch in the bigs until he was 41—probably twenty years past his prime. He lasted five distinguished seasons in the majors, and then he came back in 1965 at the age of 58 and pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City Athletics.  


As for maxims, Paige was famous for these:


Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.

If you stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.

Avoid running at all times.

Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.

This disappearance of maxims, Delphic, Paigean or otherwise troubles me. Today, I suppose we call them memes. But for virtually the entirety of human existence on this troubled orb, we’ve used these bon mots or seminal stories to transmit wisdom from one generation to the next.

Today it is our habit as a society to call everything a “culture.” To my ears, the word culture seems, today, to be a shorthand for splinter group.

So you have people talking about skate culture, ink culture, goth culture, garden club culture. Errol Morris even shot a movie on the “Nub Club,” people who intentionally blow off limbs to get insurance payments. In our severely atomized world, it seems there’s a culture for everyone, even the limb-deprived.

But what we may be missing from a macro sense is our cultural ability to pass and communicate shared values and histories across large groups of people—millions of people. I’d bet less than 50% of the US population knows exactly when WWII was fought, much less the Spanish-American war or some lesser conflagration. Even the lessons we might have learned from the 1918 flu pandemic which killed 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 Americans (at a time when the US population was only 103 million) are almost entirely unknown.

Patience now, I’m rounding into my point. You really can’t rush these things some times.

I worked at Ogilvy for a total of eleven years, spread over four decades in two chunks of time.

First, I was there when the office was in Manhattan, on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Street—right on the footprint of the old Madison Square Garden. I worked in that location from 1999 to 2004.

I came back and was in Ogilvy’s new offices in East New Jersey, from 2014 until I was fired late in the day (always considerate) on Tuesday, January 14th, 2020.

The big differences between the two office spaces were two-fold. One, the agency had moved far West to a neighborhood of Toyota dealers, methadone clinics and homeless shelters. And two, all of the hundreds of Ogilvyisms that used to festoon the hallways around the entire agency had been expunged.

My first round at Ogilvy, the agency was branded. David’s face was on a giant poster looming in the lobby. The carpeting was red. And there were David’s statements everywhere, his maxims, his wisdom. Many of these axioms we good, smart and memorable. They made up a decent part of my advertising education because, there’s no other word for it, they were ineffable. As a way of personal comportment, business ethics, they stressed the importance of creativity, individualism and sales.

They just made sense.

By my second round they were all gone except for some bland statements stuck in an emergency fire stairway.

I suppose someone decided, in some agency rendition of “The Death of Expertise,” that because they were writ by a white man born in 1911, they couldn’t possibly have any meaning to the new generation of clients and employees. Abiding by Ogilvy’s dicta, having vestiges of the culture and agency he created, would make the agency seem woefully out-of-date, retrograde, gasoline-powered in a Tesla-powered era.

I wonder if the same is true for our country and the world.

I wonder if verities stay verities when they’re no longer taught, understood and believed.

I wonder, for instance, if anyone knows any of these (gently amended by me for gender sensitivity.)

Consumers aren't morons. They’re your family and friends.

The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.

In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.

What you say in advertising is more important than how you say it.

Don't bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.


I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information.


Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.

Never write an advertisement which you wouldn't want your family to read. You wouldn't tell lies to your own family. Don't tell them to mine.


We sell, or else.

I picked those maxims relatively at random. They were the first quotations that popped up in my Google search.

Words like those, just like words like these, to be effective, to be part of the fiber of an agency, to become inculcated across departments, down hallways, around the country and the world—they’re not a some time thing.

You repeat them. You live them. You demonstrate them in how you act, how you pitch, how you create, how you promote, hire and fire.

Ping-pong tables, Thirsty Thursdays and Wastrel Wednesdays don’t make great agencies, a great place to work or great, effective work.

A set of values does.

Just as a 4th of July Mattresspalooza does not make a great country.

Imparting the wisdom of a Lincoln, who hoped for a government of the people, by the people and for the people, could.

But, that’s old. That’s archaic. Let’s try something cool.

Ok, dude?





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