Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Turn every page.

Not long-ago, before disease, denial and then abject stupidity shut down most of the world's economy and billions of people were "locked down," I went to a talk by one of my favorite writers, the great Robert Caro. 

Caro's won multiple Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. He is in the throes of writing his fifth and final volume in his massive look at the acquisition, use and misuse of power. He's using the American politician and former-President Lyndon Baines Johnson to enlighten us. And if volume five is half-way as good as Caro's previous work, his legions of fans will buy the book the day it comes out and not put it down for many days later.

Can you imagine? An intellectual with a cult following.

(If you want to read more on Caro and how he works or if you wonder what his lectures are like, pick up this short book. Here. Or read a review here.)

Caro tells a story when he speaks. He is a young investigative reporter for Long Island Newsday, which before the internet, vulture capitalists and apathy killed newspapers, was a liberal and activist paper. 

The story goes, Caro was "on to something." And had somehow secured entry into the top-secret archives of his subject. He was all of 24 or 25 and he was "winging it." Caro went to his editor. He was unsure what he was getting himself into. He was unsure how to proceed.

His editor had this simple direction for him. It should be etched in every creative's brain. And if agencies ever have physical offices again, emblazoned in the conference rooms and over every doorway.

"Turn Every Page."

Advertising people of my generation were taught two Ds. We had to define what a product or service did. And we had to differentiate it. Today, more often than not, we do neither D. Ds are passe.

There's a Chevy spot running (ceaselessly) now that reflects the au courant style of modern advertising. It's paid for by General Motors but it could be for any car. It's about as meaningless a spot as you'll ever see. It's generic.

To be philosophical about it, or to be a believer in what's now called "brand," there's no essential "Chevy-ness" in it. 

Our job in advertising, regardless of your assigned role or title, is to be investigative journalists. To find out the essence and the reason-why of the product or services we are selling. 

Our job is not to take a 68-page powerpointed brief and say, "ok." I will write a spot on how people like safety. 

Our job is to reject blandness like that.

Our job, in short, is to turn every page until we find something that defines the brand we're working on and makes it better and different.

Turn every page.

If you're lucky, as I am, you're blessed with an orderly brain and a messy desk. 

When I am engaged in unraveling an assignment--anything from a pudding brand to a Quantum computer--I have the communication blocked out in my head. And I have lorem ipsum in slots where important, distinguishing information must must must go.

That's where the messy desk comes in.

I search through my notes. 

I search through articles I've read.

I search through old briefs and old work.

And connections are made that involve luck and serendipity. Luck and serendipity come from turning pages. And finding things where you'd least expect them.

So I turn every page.

Someone once said (Maybe Dave Trott can clarify) that creativity is essentially putting two thoughts together that were never put together before. It's the tension and friction found in dissonance. Creativity is never neat and orderly. 

And being handed briefs by a planner--even a good one--is not an endpoint to which you apply a coat of creative paint. Doing that makes you a stylist not a thinker.

Your job is to find something.

My money manager tells me, "It's not timing the market. It's time in the market." Same is true when you're working. It's not waiting till the moment is right. It's taking time. 

I am angry at spots like the Chevy spot above. Or the vaunted Extra gum spot below. They may or may not be nice. Regardless of that, they are NOT unique to the brand paying your salary and for the spot. They're a Hallmark card of packaged and homogenized sentiment. Anyone can say what they say.

Caro's great book on the Builder of New York, Robert Moses, is called "The Power Broker." In it, Caro writes about the highways, bridges and tunnels Moses builds to modernize and automobilize the great city. He wonders, as many New Yorkers do, why the Triboro Bridge, which Moses built, crosses a confluence of New York estuaries at 125th Street in Manhattan, and not lower at around 110th Street, where it would make more sense. Daily thousands of commuters have to drive north to drive south. Why?

In today's journalism, that sort of itch is left unscratched. There are no answers to be found.

Except Caro found the answer. 

On 125th Street, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate had a row of crappy tenements he was losing money on. He couldn't rent them. Moses, in return for favorable coverage in the Hearst press, moved the entryway to the Triboro up-town. He condemned Hearst's money-losing tenements in return for future consideration.

Our job is to do something interesting.
Our job is to find something interesting.
It's not to wait around till someone tells us something interesting. It's to turn every page.

There's a lot of bushwa around about the death of advertising.

Most of the death of advertising is due to the death of interesting.

Maybe the death of interesting is due to the death of page-turning.

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