Friday, March 15, 2024

Part I: Scar-Tissue Copy. Part II: Len.

This story about Bill Bernbach is probably apocryphal, meaning it's plausible but probably never really happened. A bit like Yogi Berra's famous quotation or non-quotation, "I didn't really say all the things I said." 

The story I heard was a client asked Bernbach why his agency's copywriters spent so much time laboring over copy, "nobody reads it anyway." 

Bernbach, it's said, replied, "Ten-percent of people read copy. That's who we write it for."

As I write this, I've been thinking as I do, about writing. Writing that moves people. That informs them. That makes them think. Words, as I posted not long ago, you could stub your toe on.

I write ads for a living. But a lot of clients seem to call me--often out of the ether--because they're looking for words they're unlikely to get from anyone else. I regularly tell clients I work in epigrams. Short, memorable statements that capture the essence of something larger.

In a way, epigrams go beyond taglines. FedEx could have used "When it has to be there overnight." That would have been a perfectly good tagline. "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight," added swagger, meaning, with and dimension that brought it to another level.

Good writing, good art-direction, good design can do that. It can take work beyond.

There's a line from Cole Porter's great song, "You're the Top," for instance. "You're the purple light/ Of a summer night in Spain."

Since I heard that line at 1:20, maybe fifty years ago, I've spent many an evening looking for purple light--in Spain and elsewhere. They're words that stayed with me somehow. Maybe in all my years and all the words I've heard, I've never heard "purple light before."

This is our job. Our calling. Our value-add. To make what could be otherwise disposable, indelible.

To make what could be disposable, indelible.

One thing many of us along the way have lost is the time and attention it takes to do a close-reading. To enjoy the sound of words themselves. And how sounds create creases in our brain and embed in our memory. If Dizzy Gillespie or Claude Debussey or Rachel Joyce said the magic of jazz is the space between notes, we might find similar wells of meaning between words. Meaning, feeling, purple light is how we can own a piece of real estate in someone's brain.

More simply, as friend Rob Schwartz has so often said, "Clients buy words." In any event, they're what I sell.

If you've ever wondered how people could memorize epics like the Iliad, the Odyssey and Gilgamesh (these are long books, not Archie comics) it's because they were created to be remembered. No matter their length, they were created as word-music. The sound, conjunction, shape of the words all help meaning embed. I know this is pretty "English Graduate Lecture" for an advertising blog. But advertising is about being noticed and recalled at the right time--just like art. Just like the purple light above.

I was a close reader even when I was a boy, I don't exactly know why. But at a Captain Kangaroo-age, I remember, examined and perseverated over:

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't fuzzy,
Was he?

That seemed 60 years ago, and today, about as good a piece of writing as you're going to find. 

Can you get a little Fuzzy Wuzzy in your script? A memory device, repetition, a word-play, a laugh?

More recently, my now-deceased-bestie Fred--I suppose in an act of self-elegizing--sent me a poem called "The Waiter," by David McCord:

By and by,
God caught his eye.

Have you ever seen a spot, read a headline or sat through a powerpoint with more trenchant entrenched-ness? 

Back in the late 1950s, in ghetto Newark, the great African-American poet LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) wrote the poem below. I realize copy about polyunsaturated corn-oil spread, Saran Wrap or motor-oil is unlikely to make you gasp like this loaded poem does. But still.

Can we strive?

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note 

Karl Westman, the Soul Captain, my music guy of many years while we were together at Ogilvy taught me more about story-arc than anyone I ever worked with. Like Paganini or Bernstein, he conducted commercial music so it had an arc, so it had a resolution, so it had an uplift. He taught me to write copy the same way. It took you on a journey and made you better when you arrived.
Kurt Vonnegut got that. Understanding the algorithm of stories long before the first sentient computer ate our lunch.
The poem above hasn't a merry ending.
It's a poem about despair.
The terror of being a father in a world gone mad.
But it has what a good piece of copy has.
The question when we create shouldn't be, did you get all eleven mandatories and nine copy points in? Did you fix all the twelve colors-worth of comments in the track-changes? Did you abide the coterie of over-paid frustrated lawyers chomping at their retainers?
The question should be did it stay in someone's brain after they flipped the page.
Act now!
Learn more!
Triple-play bundle!
Len Sirowitz, the legendary Doyle Dane art-director died the week before last at the age of 91. You can read his New York Times obituary here. You can read Dave Dye's incredible portrait of Len here.
I worked for Len back almost 40 years ago when I was a young man. He and his Hall-of-Fame writer-partner, Ron Rosenfeld owned a mid-sized agency called Rosenfeld and Sirowitz. As time went by names were added and subtracted to the overall name of the agency. But it remained Ron and Len's place.
For about a year of my twenty-month tenure at Rosenfeld and Sirowitz, I was Len's favorite writer. His daughter worked at the agency at the time, and though I was young in my career, Len had me working with Laura to help improve her writing. That Laura left the business completely after about a year with me is a testament to how good a job I did.
A lot of big names used to like me because I've always been a student of advertising and I knew and studied their work. I might have had more Len Sirowitz ads stored in my memory than he himself. It wasn't ass-kissing on my part. His ads really were that good. And I've always, touch wood, been an avid-learner.
One night, outside freezing rain was coming down and cabs were careening down lower Fifth Avenue like cabs careening on lower Fifth Avenue, most of the office was gone for the evening. I was at my primitive Flintstone's era Smith-Corona word-processor doing what I do best--noodling on something. I've always had a weakness for carbs.
Len, a big man who breathed through his mouth and could barely contain his enthusiasms, came into my office like a cold wind.
"George," he snorted. And he handed me a Life Magazine-sized hard-cover book. The cover had these words on it "The Better Vision Institute."
Inside were about 75 full-page black and white ads Len and copywriter Leon Meadows had created, basically to get people to see their eye-doctors. My memory of this moment might be rose-tinted, but I don't think there was a "meh" in the entire book.
"Len," I said--focused on his ads not his eyes--"can I keep this for a while?"
"Sure sure," he stacatto'd. "We did great work, dint we?" (He never lost his Bronx.)
"These are amazing," was all I could say.
Some weeks later I walked from my office about a full-block to his. I knocked about 71-percent too timidly, went in and handed him back the book.
"Good, huh?" He asked. Like most creatives he needed, still, validation.
Forty years later, I wish I had stolen that book.



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