Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Steve Hayden, Hall of Famer.

Last night I was lucky enough to have cadged an invitation to the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I say lucky because my mentor Steve Hayden was there and finally, after nearly 40 years of doing great work and building great businesses, he was enshrined into the Hall.

I was already in the business for about 15 years when I finally started working for Steve. And in fact, I had already worked for four previous Hall-of-Famers: Ron Rosenfeld, Len Sirowitz, Amil Gargano and Mike Tesch. All of them created reams of great business-building work.

But there was only one Steve.

He made you better—maybe because he believed in you, more than you believed in yourself—the moment you met him.

Early during my time with Steve, I was in a van with he and Susan Westre, his art director, going to a shoot. Steve got a call that the spot we were slated to shoot had just been killed by the client.

I was sitting in the back of the van, shyly, far away from Steve and Susan. Steve turned around and handed me his PC.

“They’ve just killed the spot,” he told me. “Write a new one.”

I’ve felt pressure before in my career, but never like that. But Steve told me to write a spot. So I wrote.

I thought at the time maybe he was being a jerk, putting me—brand new in the agency to the test.

Looking back on it now—19 years later, what Steve was doing was showing me love. He was letting me know that he believed I could do the job.

In about 30 minutes, filled with fear, I handed the computer with my script on it back to Steve.

“This is good,” he said.

At least that's how I remember it. And that counts for something.

There are a lot of big reasons Steve was inducted into the AAF’s Hall of Fame last night. And chances are, I’m the only one who remembers that morning in the van and what Steve did, and what he made me do. It was a small thing.

But as far as I’m concerned, that morning 19 years ago is one more reason Steve deserves every honor he gets.

And then some.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The fight.

There are days, I probably shouldn't admit this, that I feel my age. When I realize I was born closer to the premiere of "Citizen Kane," than the debut of "Star Wars." On days when I feel like this, a sadness comes over me. 

I am no longer Housman's "Athlete Dying Young." I did not "slip betimes away/From fields where glory doesn't stay." No, I hung in--maybe past my time--and I keep slugging. Though who knows if my punches have any force left in them.

I read last night a piece I love--it solidified my dour mood--by the late great Red Smith, long-time sportswriter for "The New York Times," and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

The column is called "Night for Joe Louis," and it's a beautiful, sad an solemn account of Louis--after 17-years of fighting for money--being knocked out of the ring by 28-year-old Rocky Marciano, a puncher in his prime.

"For seventeen years," Smith writes, "three months, and twenty-two days Louis fought for money...Now the punch that was launched seventeen years ago had landed. A young man, Rocky Marciano, had knocked the old man out. That was all except--

"Well, except that this time he was lying down in his dressing-room in the catacombs of Madison Square Garden.
Memory retains scores of pictures of Joe in his dressing room, always sitting up, relaxed, answering questions in his slow, thoughtful way. This time only, he was down...."

"This kid," Joe said, "knocked me out with what? Two punches. Schmeling knocked me out with--musta been a hundred punches. But," Joe said, "I was twenty-two years old. You can take more then than later on...

"An old man's dream ended. A young man's vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire."

Like I said, I'm feeling creaky. No less facile and synapsed than I ever was, but maybe a little slower on the draw than I once was.

I've been drawing a living from writing for 38-years now--I don't remember how many months and days, and I'm good at what I do.

But every-so-often, I feel knocked through the ropes. Unsure whether or not to continue the fight.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Words and then some.

Maybe it's Nostalgia on my part (nostos=home; algia=sickness) but I refuse with every fiber of my soul to believe that the printed word is dead.

Right now I am about 1/3 of the way through Christopher de Hamel's great book, "Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World." Buy it here.

Hamel travels the world in search of some of the most important books ever created--some of the most finely produced, revered, valuable and cherished.

I know our writings today--especially our writing in advertising--have all the longevity of a snowflake in August. Words come and go like bad neighbors, and with the great renaissance of television, where there always seem to be ten or 14 great serials to watch, there doesn't seem to be much life left in the written word.

I resist this--no matter how text has plummeted, no matter how poor it seems amongst its more powerful media counterparts.

First off, I believe information imparted through the written word has an indelibleness that is unmatched. That's just conjecture on my part--but I'm sticking to it. Second, and maybe more important is the quietude demanded by reading.

I leave myself an hour each evening and slowly turn and sometimes savor the pages of whatever I'm reading. I try to put myself in the place of the characters or subject. I try to forget the stupidity of our current Trumpian age, the cares and woes of my personal world, and the noise of noisome society. Finally, the written word is to my mind RESISTANCE.

It is resistance against the onslaught of dumbness. Of tweets and sensationalism and illiteracy and a lowering of standards and blurts that pass as thoughts.

These are all fights I know I will lose. We seem to be on a runaway horse of the Apocalypse--galloping headlong into a denial of truth. But it's a fight I will not give up on. It's too important to me.

Maybe Faulkner was wrong. When the last ding-dong of doom sounds, maybe we will neither endure nor prevail.  But I will be surrounded by the words I love.

And this might be said of me.

He went down swinging.

Friday, April 20, 2018

We're the Gobbledegook people.™

"Some men are born mediocre,
some men achieve mediocrity,
and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them."
Joseph Heller (on Major Major) in “Catch-22.”

One of the things that depresses me about the world today and advertising in particular is that I no longer know what anyone does.

I’ve seen this in a job listing:

“Verbal Design is the practice of conceiving and crafting language to reflect and drive a connected brand experience.”

Oh, ok.

I’ve seen an agency describe itself like this:

“We architect, design and deliver iconic experiences, services and products that improve people’s lives…We deliver a cohesive blueprint across customer connection points that will satisfy audience needs and surpass business goals.”

Another writes:

“We provide strategic creative and digital ideas helping clients to Lead the Change and to succeed in their own marketing transformation.”

Yet another:

We’re an innovation platform that lowers the risk of innovation for industry leaders and helps emerging companies grow and scale their businesses. We help the C-Suite innovate and outpace disruption by designing the business models, services, and brands needed to win. We create campaigns from the ground up that are designed to be shared and resonate in our connected culture.”

I’m trying to imagine how a baseball second-baseman would be described in similarly tortured prose.

“We create vertical, horizontal and lateral in-field experiences that circumvent the serial tabulation of competitive markers of success by designing mid-field business models that help our organization succeed and resonate in our connected culture.”


We have good range and prevent the other guys from scoring. This improves attendance and makes fans happy.

As our self-definitions have become more and more incomprehensible, our business—as a whole— has floundered more and more. 

We don’t know what we do or make or why we exist anymore. It doesn’t help that the people who run the behemoth companies that own all the agencies have never practiced the trade their businesses are in.

Years ago, I toiled at one of the great agencies of all-time, Ally & Gargano. Their mission statement is still the best I’ve ever read. By far.

“We impart useful consumer information in an executionally brilliant way.”

That’s my job.

That should be all our jobs.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Once again in Olde New York.

Yesterday I stumbled upon this footage of Olde New York and, thankfully, it sent me back in time. Like George Bailey in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," I was born old. 

Not as old, of course, as the scenes in the film above, but I've always had a fascination with the past. I guess I'm a natural historian.

I remember as a little boy walking in a weedy field and seeing beneath the weeds the rusted tracks of an abandoned rail-line. It wasn't until the dawn of the internet that I discovered that they were vestiges from the New York, Westchester and Boston railroad which was built between 1844 and 1848.

I also remember seeing beneath the worn asphalt of city streets the still gleaming tracks of bygone trolley lines which used to criss-cross the great city.

When you are getting on in years--as we all are--and you've lived in the Great City your whole life, you see not one city, you see two or three. You see what is, what was and what was before even that. Call it urban Pentimento, painted in steel and brick and concrete and soot.

"With jewels, and with pearls the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth," the Great City grows on, alive and inexorable, subsuming farm-land and fields, enveloping all that stands in its way.

The great city is Babylon-like--except it still stands. Stands after crime and terror and riots and fire and drugs and disease. The Great City is not, as the Christian Bible portends, desolate in just one hour.

Still I am missing the city I had been in. Missing its ramshackle, missing its danger, and missing its raw intensity and dirt. But of course, I love, too, the city I am in today.

The off camaraderie. The resigned humor. The polyglot of people, tongues, food and laughter.

I gotta go. I've got a trolley to catch or I'll be late for work.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Denigrating the brand.

If you ran a restaurant and some of your entrees were made with the finest cuts and others were made with three-day-old fish, chances are you wouldn't stay in business for long.

If you were a ballplayer, and excellent as a fielder but a rusty gate at bat, you'd never ascend to the heights of stardom.

If you were a writer and some of your sentences were lucid and eloquent and others were meaningless and clunky, you'd never gain success.

Yet, in advertising, we daily engage in a two-tiered system of creative.

We have gleaming brand work--often the work we do for broadcast. Then we have other work--primarily online only, and this is often shrill, cheap and badly-produced.

The second kind of work is often deemed acceptable because, well, budgets are smaller and it is meant to reach a smaller audience.

What, too often, we don't account for is something I call the "denigration cost" of bad work. If a brand is an amalgamation of multiple messages and actions, then a message that cuts against the grain waters down the aggregate of the communication.

If thirty times you said to your better half, "I love you," and nine times you said "I hate you," chances are the relationship would be, at least, strained.

That said it seems to me that most brands do something similar. They're one thing in one channel. Something different in another.

The resulting confusion cancels everything out and leave the brand with little coherent meaning.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Belgian Congo.

If you ever feel compelled to read a masterful account of the effects of vicious colonialism, you could do worse than pick up Adam Hochschild's 1999 classic, "King Leopold's Ghost."  

The book tells in savage and horrific detail the despoiling of what was then called the Belgian Congo. The land was stripped of riches. The people were enslaved, brutalized and in many cases tortured and killed if they refused to work for their Belgian overlords.

A crusader realized that something rotten was going on when he noticed ships coming into Belgian ports were heavy and laden with rubber and other riches. The ships sat low in the water and took days to offload.

Ships going back to the Congo, however, were a different story. They went to the Congo virtually empty. Yet they came back full.

I think about this this morning when it appears that in the advertising industry we have reached the realization of "peak greed."

I say this on reporting of "outrageous" pay gaps between holding company overlords and the people who are making them wealthy.

Like the rubber trees and natural resources being stripped of their value in the Congo two centuries ago, today our brains are stripped of their vitality. Our health is compromised. Our families are forced to come in second to our labors. 

Meanwhile, our wages aren't just a tiny fraction of that of our chieftains, in fact, I allege that due to their oligopolistic domination of our industry, they've gone backward--going down, not up.

That's all for now.

I can't afford to get fired.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Zulu Road-Runners. (A repost.)

No time to write today. I'm up in Boston, away from work, watching my eldest daughter run the Boston Marathon. As a tribute to her, a short post from long ago.

The Zulu Road Runners.

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to spend my summers in a camp for boys in New Hampshire where we could play baseball virtually all day and swim when we were not playing ball.

These were long summer days, far away from the strife that was afflicting America: the Vietnam war, kids taking over college campuses, riots in the cities, drugs virtually everywhere and runaway crime. We spent the summer hearing instead of police sirens, the shooop! of ball into leather and the splash of brave divers in the lake. It was enforced innocence, these days. Where the world was far away. None of us kids knew how lucky we were.

That said, reality often encroached. One of my baseball coaches was a Mickey Mantle-esq figure named Nelson Chase. Chase received a phone call at camp--a rarity in these pre-cellular days. His best friend was killed in Southeast Asia. It was hard to see a coach you idolized crying like a baby. Another coach was Tom Nadeau, who had been a sergeant in Vietnam. Nadeau was like a Doonsebury character, wearing his fatigue shirt with the sleeves cut off to show his biceps over his baseball uniform. Nadeau chewed us teenagers out and exercised us like we were in his platoon. "What's it to you, Tom Nadeau?" he trained us to say. Another coach was a drug-addled pitcher named Andre who had a fastball to die for. He had returned from Vietnam and didn't last at camp long enough--his drug-addled-ness caught up with him--for me to learn his last name.

These encounters with the real world real-world-ized us. We became rebellious, long-haired, surly. In other words, teenagers. Getting away with murder became our reason for being.

There was a small town about four miles away from the camp. There was a grocery store, an ice cream stand and girls in the town, which made it a place we wanted to escape to. Except camp never took us there. We were a self-contained community with no reason to escape from the friendly confines.

Bobby Goldsmith a sinewy outfielder had the idea. "Let's run to town" he posed. "If they think we are doing it for exercise, they'll let us go." So about six of us formed a running club, "The Zulu Road Runners." We began running to and fro around the campus. Running in a pack everywhere we went. We magic markered our t-shirts to read Zulu Road Runners. At the time, we didn't understand that the name of our group might be regarded as offensive. It just seemed to us a tribute to a people with extraordinary distance-running skills.

Eventually, we went to camp authorities and said we needed longer distances to run. We somehow got permission to run to town and back. Which we did, about three times a week. Though sometimes we hitched back instead, the six of us piled in the back of a compliant pickup truck.

We'd get to town and buy a soda or some candy bars. We never met any girls. The main point however was that we beat the system.

We got out.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A bit more on Milton Glaser. Again.

Yesterday I wrote about a new book containing 427 posters designed by Milton Glaser. You can buy the book here. 

Included among those 427 posters is a special section of 100 other posters. (Including one I commissioned when I worked on American Express at a small downtown agency.)

Glaser segregates these 100 as "less successful works that I find not completely satisfying." There are eight "not completely satisfying" examples below.

Two things I like about this.

One, it's good to be honest with yourself. And it's good to judge your own work harshly. It's humble to show work that came up short. 

It shows you're human. Remember humans?

Two, I think showing "not completely satisfying" work is a lesson. Students of the design game can compare, can begin, with diligence to discern the discrepancy between the successful and the less successful. In other words, looking at this section helps a viewer learn to see.

And learning to see is what our business, and life, are really all about.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Thinking about Milton Glaser.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran across a notice that a new compendium of Milton Glaser's posters was being published. It would include 427 examples from 1965 to 2017.

I bought it here in two shakes of a lamb's tail. And you should too.

If you're my age, the years of Glaser's work roughly coincide with your dates--from the advent of your awareness to, ahem, the advent of your dotage.

You can, roughly speaking, see your life--from psychedelic Dylan to Glaser's posters today--in hundreds of graphics.

Additionally, to "feel" the book, to hold it, is something to consider. It's something to consider, because everything is
considered, as the pictures below show. Even something as incidental as the color of the edges of pages--who cares, right?--are treated with love and care and artistry.

Of course, Glaser's seminal posters are interesting. You'd expect that--they can be, should be studied. And not just by "creatives." They follow the principles of great communication. They get your attention. They tell you something. And they persuade.

(BTW, to all those people who say "creative can come from anywhere," I'd argue that before you assert your right to have an idea or an opinion, perhaps you should take some time, as I have, as every good creative I know has, to study work, to examine creativity. No one says "aeronautical skills, or surgical skills can come from anywhere." Why is creativity held to a lesser standard?)

Oddly enough, the pages I found most-interesting in Glaser's compendium have no artwork on them. They are his short introduction and the afterword in his book. Maybe they total 500 words.

I liked this a lot:

"Visual practitioners have a curious capacity that most other humans lack; we have a physical record of our lives that, not unlike a scrapbook, can re-evoke our minds' state or beliefs at any point in our passage through life." 

This is true for writers too. Even writers of lowly, disposable blogs.

Here's another bit I dug.

"Design became increasingly more interesting to me. I developed a taste for historicism, and I began to feel that any design could begin with any reference. Around the same time, I learned something from Picasso that once you had mastered something you could give it up. However, while style can be thought of as a form of temporary belief, it can also last a lifetime. One's distinctive neurology persists. I've been surprised by how many times something I thought was a new idea turned out to be an adaptation of a work I started thirty years earlier."

Finally, I liked this. And in liking it, I thank the good clients I have who allow me to be good.

"Good work can only be made for good clients."

Do yourself some good.

Buy the book. And study.