Friday, January 15, 2021

Have a Zoom call with George. Without George.

Since Covid and the murderous Republican response to it drove us out of our offices in March, 2020, I've calculated I've been on 5,232 Zoom calls.

During those 5,232 calls, I've said only nine things. 

Rather than sending me a Zoom invite, I've posted those nine things here.

Next time you need me, choose one or more from the selection below. 

I will send you a bill in the morning.

Thursday, January 14, 2021


A lot of what I've been thinking about lately has involved lying. The lies we tell ourselves so we don't jump off the Lincoln Tunnel or stick our heads in the microwave or take an overdose of vitamins.

A lot of the lies we tell ourselves in advertising are of this nature. 

People want content and content is king.

Consumers are in control.

Brands care about people and respect them.

The last one--the respect one--is what I want to talk about today. Mostly because I'm pissed by the lack of respect advertisers show viewers.

Let me go back in time a bit.

I grew up in a world where television--where we spend most of our viewing time--was free. 

That was amazing.

We appreciated its freeness and agreed to pay for Sgt. Bilko, or June Cleaver, or Morey Amsterdam, or even the Flying fucking Nun, by watching commercials. In fact, the shows we watched were built to handle those commercials. They had natural pauses--fade-outs, in effect--that lead into a break.

Now that we pay for TV--and through the nose and to a ravenous and corrupt monopoly--the powers that screw (formerly known as the powers that be) slice things up in many more tiny pieces. It's not unusual--especially if you're watching something on YouTube, to break for commercials literally in the middle of a sentence. 

Alphabet does this because they don't give a shit. They don't give a shit either about the content and how it's presented--its integrity--and they don't give a shit about you, the viewer, and what they'd likely call your "viewing experience."

Alphabet, by the way, has a market-cap of $1.17 trillion. Just so you know, a trillion is a thousand billions. A trillion is a million millions.

The other morning I was working out on the treadmill I put in the basement of our new old home in Connecticut. While my wife works out on her elliptical and listens to spandexed fitness freak exhort her, I generally listen to 1940s black blues musicians recorded by Alan Lomax on a hot night in Castration, Mississippi in 1947. Roughly 81% of the music I listen to is recorded by someone nicknamed either "Blind" or "Box Car."

Last Sunday, I stumbled upon a blog on two of my favorite comedians, Laurel and Hardy. The blog listed 50 of their great movies--about one-third of which I had never seen.

I can't imagine more than two-dozen people around the globe still watch Laurel and Hardy movies. It's your loss if you don't because they're about as funny and timeless and human as anything that's ever happened since the world began. They are to comedy what Homer (not Simpson) is to epics.

Right in the middle of a gag--a silent, this-all-depends-on-timing-gag--Laurel and Hardy stopped and the LiMu Emu came on.

Someone, or a computer programmed by someone, made that decision.

Someone said that's ok.

Someone said, "we need to reach the nine people watching Stan and Ollie trying to clean their house before their wives come home. These eyeballs are that important to us that we'll sully their comedy for our commerce. We, Alphabet, need the 1/100th of a penny we get from interrupting something no one is watching."

None of those someones who make those decisions or who make the machines that make those decisions worry--ever--about pissing people off. None of those someones ever think maybe people will hate the interrupter. Hate not just the advertiser but the very brand behind it.

No. I wouldn't buy a LiMu if it were the last Emu on earth.

They don't care.

They'll put an asterisk and a line of type on the Mona Lisa. *Miss Lisa's hair by Pert--the bouncin' and behavin' shampoo™."

Giant corporations have already put logos on the uniforms of our sports teams. They charge us to watch--we pay for tickets or cable. They charge us by forcing commercials on us. Then they charge us again by putting commercials on uniforms.

These are giant corporations doing this.

Trillion-dollar corporations who never heard of something simple: Respect.

Everyone believes in the golden rule until they have to abide by it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Standing up for truth. (Haha.)

If you're as old as I am and you've worked in as many agencies as I have, you've heard more than a fair amount of bullshit. 

In fact, the last two decades, as digital burst upon a formerly staid media scene, we've heard a cascade of bullshit that would make Niagara Falls look like the urine stream of an old man with a prostate problem.

I bring up bullshit because I think the same behaviors that made Trump and Trumpism possible have galloped and are galloping through our industry. The most pernicious behavior of all is lack of accountability. Of being able to say or do something without responsibility. Of making up facts that suit your agenda and denying facts that trouble you.

Along with "experience is unnecessary," "the past is wholly bad, and "something-for-nothingism," lack of accountability and abnegating responsibility are the essence of Trumpism. They are at the root of the ad industry's demise as well.

Lies wrapped in allegations covered in falsehoods and deceptions. And then made shiny by packaging.

I started noticing this about twenty years ago. Maybe thirty. With "radio is dead." Then came "TV is dead." Then "print is dead." Then "the big idea is dead." "Advertising is dead." And more.

Also, "people want to have conversations with brands." "People hate advertising, but want to click on ads." "People are looking forward to crappy content simply because it is ubiquitous--that's why content is king."

It's not just proclaiming things that's troublesome, it's that we as an industry, we as people, don't question, don't ask for facts, don't say something simple, "how do you know?" Or even simpler, "show me."

My last few years I've done just that. 

It has not made me a lot of friends.

Someone: We have to get Facebook likes.

Me: Show me one brand that's built their success on Facebook likes. Just one.

That's usually when I'm called old, curmudgeonly and not-a-digital-native. And the worst imprecation of all in today's anodyne advertising world, "hard to work with."

Or a client, with a complicated product to explain, says something like this.

Client: No one reads anymore.

Me: How is it that JK Rowling is a billionaire?

Client: People have short attention spans today.

Me: How come everyone seems to binge-watch eight hours a night?

That's usually when I'm asked off an account.

My point here today is stupidly simple. For a society or an industry to function it needs to have a set of common facts. It's really that simple.

If you hear an assertion, ask for evidence. Whether or not you agree with it. If you make an assertion, be prepared to back it up with a piece of paper.

"Media needs to be always on."

"The consumer is in control."

"Brand platforms don't matter."

"It's a part of culture."

This will not eliminate everything spurious. As Mark Twain purportedly said, "There are lies, damn lies and statistics." Liars always figure out a way. They are good at their craft.

But we'd all be a lot better off, our nation and our industry, if we called people out on things.

Whether it's "the election was stolen," or "no one watches TV anymore."

Both might be true.

Both might be false.

But if you say it, it's your job to prove it. It's all of our jobs to call people on it.

(If you've forgotten how to deal with facts, read the copy from the ad below. I suppose some will say no one cares anymore. Or everything is parity. Or whatever. When I first read this ad 50 years ago, I said something different. I said, "I want a Volkswagen.")

BTW, I typed the copy with the word and line breaks as it was written in its original form. I wouldn't change ee cummings' typography, either. Sacred.

After we paint the car we paint the paint.

  You should see what we do to a Volks-
wagen even before we paint it.
  We bathe it in steam, we bathe it in
alkali, we bathe it in phosphate. Then we
bathe it in a neutralizing solution.
   If it got any cleaner, there wouldn't be
much left to paint.
   Then we dunk the whole thing into a
vat of slate grey primer until every square
inch of metal is covered, inside and out.  
    Only one domestic car maker does this.
And his cars sell for 3 or 4 times as much
as a Volkswagen.
    (We think the best way to make an
economy car is expensively.)
    After all that dunking, we bake it and sand
it by hand.
    Then we paint it.
    Then we bake it again, and sand it again
by hand.
    Then we paint it again.
    And bake it again.
    And sand it again by hand.
    So after 3 times, you'd think
we wouldn't bother to paint it
again and bake it again. Right? 

The copy above contains a lot of facts, no adjectives and only six words over three syllables--including the word Volkswagen twice. It talks up to the reader. Appeals to their sense of logic. And is even competitive and philosophical. 

Today, we consider writing like this something to avoid. 

Just ask Mark Read.

It harkens back even farther than the 80s.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Mrs. Chapin, Robert Caro and the only thing that matters.

From my earliest days as a "writer," I've had the great good fortune to have had other writers who took me aside and pushed me. 
Mrs. Chapin was probably yelling at me when this photo was taken.

The first was Mrs. Chapin, my tenth-grade English teacher. If everyone in the class had six or eight books to read in a given semester, Mrs. Chapin gave me 14 or 22. Long before communication was easy--before you could tweet, or text, or email, or whatever--Mrs. Chapin wanted to know, almost every day, what I was reading and writing and what I was thinking about what I was reading and writing. 

She kicked me in my ass and she showed me she cared and like a beadle from Dickens, she twisted my ear if I fucked up, which I did with great regularity. 

Since those polyester 1970s high-school days, I've had many other ear-twisters along the way. Chris Rockmore, my boss at Bloomingdale's. The sharp-penciled Marshall Karp and Harold Karp at Marschalk, later Lowe. The meticulous Ed Butler at Ally & Gargano. And a raft of Ogilvyites, most prominently, Steve Hayden, Chris Wall and, later, the unrelenting Steve Simpson.

Also, of course, people I emulated from awards books. They're really too many of them to mention.

But of all the writers who have pushed me and inspired me and taught me, the one I've learned the most from is Robert Caro.

Caro is 85. He writes every day on one of his ten old Smith-Coronas.

Caro is required reading.

Not just for copywriters.

For everyone who wants to learn to think better and express themselves with more clarity. For everyone who finds information, forms arguments and expresses those arguments to others. 

For everyone, in other words.

Last Sunday, in The New York Times, there was a long article on Caro--and how the New York Historical Society is archiving his papers--in an attempt to capture his unique and persistent approach to writing. You can (and must) read the article, here. 

Almost two years ago, I wrote about Caro in this space. I had summed up some of what I learned from his books and his lectures this way:

I said: Writers do these things. (None of which are remotely permissible in a modern-holding company ad agency.)

1.           We know how to concentrate. We know how to keep turning pages. So we can uncover things others may miss.

2.           We find out how things work and then explain them to people.

3.           We know that time equals truth. We might take 
six months to describe one-mile of highway. We take the time to tell the truth.


I've read almost everything Caro has published in book form and scores of articles about him. I've also gone to a dozen or more of his lectures. My admiration for him now that I'm in my 60s is much like my admiration was for Mickey Mantle when I was six. 


In this Times article, I read something I never read before. And it struck me to be a lesson worth learning. Or barring actually learning, then a lesson worth thinking about.

What matters.

Dan Barry, the Times' writer wrote, "He [Caro] said he often keeps a note on his desk-lamp that reads, 'The only thing that matters is what is on this page.'”


A lot of us in our business forget that for all the team work, for all the HR-induced bridge-building, for all the "playing nice in the sandbox," and collaboration which is today's shibboleth of mediocrity, "The only thing that matters is what is on this page."


If it sucks, it sucks. 

If it's on the page and it sucks, it sucks.


The viewer doesn't care what the brief said. Or about the 47-minutes of caveats someone vomited before the 92nd client review. The viewer doesn't care how "aligned" your work is to the 128-page deck. Or how many nods your work received, each one a mushy compromise.


The viewer or the reader doesn't care about any of that. The viewer either notices your "page" or ignores it. If they notice it, they either like it or they don't. They either remember it or forget it. It either changes their heart and/or mind or it fails to register.

The only thing that matters is what is on this page.

I'm going to think about that for a while.

It might be the only thing that matters.


Monday, January 11, 2021

From Greg Hahn: Ads that influenced me.

Greg Hahn is something rare. A legend who deserves to be a legend. 

He's produced great work for decades, from wherever he's hung his hair. Mischief, BBDO, Fallon. 

I asked Greg some months ago to write something for Ad Aged. He was kind enough to say yes.

Thanks, Greg.


About 100 months ago in April of 2020, George graciously reached out to me and asked if I would write a piece for his blog. I softly committed and quietly hoped, like many of the commitments I make, that when the time comes, he would forget about it. 

After all, writing for his blog is an intimidating gig. People read George's blog because of George, not for me. It would be like going to the Broadway performance of "Network" starring Bryan Cranston only to hear "For tonight's performance, the role of Howard Beale will be played by Greg Hahn."


But still, he persisted.


And you do not stay a top writer in this business as long as George has without knowing how to get results. The rest of this blog is that result.


Rather than try to fill George's shoes and write about the current state of Advertising, I'm going to put on my own shoes and take a step back to write about three ads that had a big influence on me as I was just starting out.


The three ads I chose are pretty different but do have one thing in common. they are grounded in simple logic.


They are not flashy or overly produced. They simply offer a strong compelling piece of logic that makes you think something new or different. They make their point much like a trial lawyer. When it's at its best, Advertising can be like the closing argument in the court of public opinion.  


The three I am writing about are like that.


The first one is for Nike starring Charles Barkley from the mid-'90s.

I saw this before I got into Advertising, and was instantly struck by the writing, the simplicity, and the crafting of the argument.


I didn't feel like what I thought was an ad was supposed to be at the time. I didn't know exactly what it was, but I knew I wanted to do it. By the time it got to "Just because I can dunk a basketball, doesn't mean I should raise your kids" I was like, "Hell yeah, Charles Barkley." At the time, I'm pretty sure I thought Charles Barkley wrote this ad.


The second ad is from the highly influential but no longer in existence LA agency Stein/Robaire/Helm for the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum.


It's pretty hard to find on the internet so I'll describe it. The commercial (remember this was the 90s) is a simple lockdown shot, super-8 footage, of a guy watering his lawn for the full 30 seconds. It's compelling in its lack of attempt to compel. After about 20 seconds, type comes over the scene: "This is life". A few seconds later a second super comes up: "That's why there's art."


I remember seeing this as a junior when I lived in LA. Again, I was kind of knocked back by the simplicity and the power of the thought. It does what the Nike ad does but in a very different way. Rather than relying on long-copy to walk you through the argument. It makes you experience something, puts you in a moment, and then concludes with a few perfectly chosen words. 


The last one is a legit classic. The "Snowplow" ad for VW-because you can't write an article about influential ads without mentioning VW. It's a law, I checked.



Again, there's nothing technical or flashy about this one, It's just pure logic. A thought so powerful it changes the chemistry in your brain.


As a writer, I can't help but admire the skill and precision with which these ads make their point and genuinely affect the way you feel about something. The basic approach transcends time or technique or media. It's whatever-is-next agnostic. They're each based on a single thought that's perfectly obvious, but only after someone tells it to you. In today's terms this would be called an insight.


And then there's this:


A reminder that sometimes the best approach is, don't overthink it.

Friday, January 8, 2021

The New Ad School: A modern curriculum.

Nearly 200 years ago, Herman Melville (who never won even a single Webby) wrote, "A whale-ship was my Harvard and my Yale College." That was his quaint way of suggesting that life experience might be as valuable as formal education.


Today virtually everyone in advertising goes to ad school to study ads!

What progress since the days of the old spermaceti-meister.

Who cares about the hoary, gendered and canceled notion that, as encapsulated by Alexander Pope, "the proper study of mankind is man."

We are much more apt to find what Bill Bernbach called "simple, timeless human truths," if we study not human behavior but the fake, precious and antiseptic ads that dominate awards' competitions.

With that in mind, GeorgeCo., a Delaware Company, LLC, is proud to introduce the GeorgeCo., a Delaware Company, LLC, Advertising School--a modern ad school, with a modern curriculum that will quickly put young and old ad students-alike on the path to a robust five-figure salary in the glamorous world of Madison Avenue.

Here's a sampling of this year's courses:

Youth: not wasted on the young. Agency survival. How to stay under the age of 28. Forever.

Yes-person, 101. Nodding your way to success with timely head-movement-derived ass-kissery.

What color is my golden parachute? The art of failing up and up and up.

The 700 Club. How to win 700 awards with a single ad that never ran.

You won't read this. Copywriting tips for a 'nobody reads copy world.'

What's in a word? The world's 200 most meaningful meaningless words and how to use them.

What's in a word? Again. 
The world's 200 most meaningful meaningless words and how to use them. Again.

The name game. Strategically dropping the names Lance, Noam or Spike in every meeting. They really want to shoot your banner ad.

A Cannes-do attitude. Imitating last year's Cannes winners for fun and profit.

Cleaning the seas. Removing a Texas-sized gyre of ocean plastic from the Pacific with one 300x250 banner ad.

Fighting for equality. We learn how to make woke ads for a brand that uses slave-labor to manufacture its products.

'It's dead.' A two-semester seminar on declaring things dead without evidence or foundation.

Harkening 101. A look back to pre-historic advertising times--the 1980s. [Guest lecturer: Mark Read].

I don't do radio. 500 ways to say, 'I don't do radio.' (Kaore au i te reo irirangi) in Maori.

Leadership through Pontification. A four-semester course on everything you need to be the emptiest of empty suits. Learn: 'that's not what Wieden would do.' 'It's close,' and 'Try something different.' Special focus on never showing up with ideas of your own--only criticizing others'.

Something about TikTok. We will say things with utter conviction. Special attention will be paid to ululating and undulating.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Seven Trumpian lies commonly employed by the modern ad industry.

LIE: You can get something for nothing. 

TRUTH: There are no easy solutions. No magic bullets. No marketing panaceas. No magic. No free media. Success takes work (and sometimes luck) but mostly work.

LIE: Experience doesn't matter. 

TRUTH: No, anyone can't do it. And knowledge of what's gone before and human behavior is important.

LIE: It's an if/then proposition. 

TRUTH: It would be nice if there were causality in the world and if we did this marketing action then this reaction would occur. The truth is, as Bernbach repeatedly said, persuasion is an art, not a science. And quantification is nearly impossible to predict.

LIE: Trust me. I'm an expert.

TRUTH: No one knows anything for sure. There are people with good track records, but a coin that lands on "heads" 99 times in a row, still has a 50/50 chance of landing on heads the next flip.

Or as Czeslaw Milosz once wrote: “When someone is honestly 55% right, that's very good and there's no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it's wonderful, it's great luck, and let him thank God. But what's to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he's 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.”

LIE: _________ is dead.

TRUTH: As Faulkner said, "The past isn't dead. It is not even past." Human behavior has changed very little in the past 400,000 years. 

LIE: I alone can do this.

TRUTH: There are a lot of qualified people in the world. And a lot of decent agencies. Most agencies have a lot of talent. Failed advertising comes from bad client behavior that's accepted as ok by an agency because they're afraid of what will happen if they're honest.

LIE: Repeating a lie makes it true.

TRUTH: Echoing Gertrude Stein, a rose is a rose is a rose. And a lie is a lie is a lie no matter how often you say it's true. Those who say, for instance, "no one watches TV anymore," or "no one reads," or "people have short attention spans," are pushing an agenda--nothing more.

Guest post from Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times.

Trump Incites Rioters

The president may use the language of patriotism, but these are the actions of Benedict Arnold.

Opinion Columnist

Credit...Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“If the Democratic Party wants to stand with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters and flag burners, that is up to them. But I as your president will not be part of it. The Republican Party will remain the voice of the patriotic heroes who keep America safe.”

— Donald Trump, Aug. 28, 2020

Wednesday was a horrifying and shameful moment in American history. I’ve covered attempted coups in many countries around the world, and now I’m finally covering one in the United States.

Trump and his enablers talk a good game about patriotism. They denounced President Barack Obama for sometimes not wearing a flag lapel pin. They criticized Colin Kaepernick for protesting police brutality by taking a knee rather than standing during the national anthem — and then Trump incited a mob on Wednesday to invade the United States Capitol. The rioters encountered a minimal police response, not the kind that Black Lives Matter protesters received.

ImageDemonstrators at the Capitol in June protested the killing of George Floyd.
Credit...Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Many of those pro-Trump rioters probably dispute the idea of white privilege. But the fact that they were allowed to overrun the police and invade the Senate and House chambers was evidence of that privilege.

“We are witnessing absolute banana republic crap in the United States Capitol right now,” Mike Gallagher, a Republican representative from Wisconsin, tweeted, adding an appeal to Trump: “You need to call this off.”

What the pro-Trump rioters attacked was not only a building but also the Constitution, the electoral system, our democratic process. They humiliated the United States before the world and left America’s enemies chortling. They will be remembered as Benedict Arnolds.

“Our democracy is under unprecedented assault, unlike anything we have seen in modern times,” President-elect Joe Biden said. He described it as “an assault on the citadel of liberty, the Capitol itself.”

“Our Constitution was the product of centuries of tradition, wisdom and experience. … A radical movement is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance. Left-wing mobs have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials.”

— Trump, Sept. 17, 2020

Patriotism is not about words. It is not about waving flags or singing “America the Beautiful.” It is about struggling, imperfectly and inadequately, to make this country we love a better one.

It is not about a president supporting an insurrection or trying to win another term despite having lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College.

Whatever a president’s rhetoric, he betrays the Constitution when he oversees a campaign to overturn a free election guaranteed by that Constitution, and when he galvanizes rioters to overpower our democratic process.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, isn’t someone I usually agree with. But he was right when he finally stood up to Trump and warned the Senate that legislative moves to overrule voters by excluding some states in the Electoral College count “would damage our republic forever.”

The bankruptcy of the extremist G.O.P. position was evident as Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia joined in sabotaging the election by trying to negate the Arizona vote. Having just been rejected by voters, she in turn rejected voters.

“President Trump is promoting national unity through renewing understanding of and commitment to America’s shared founding principles.”

— White House “fact sheet,” Nov. 2, 2020

After a year in which Trump presented himself as the law-and-order president and denounced protesters as rioters, he summoned supporters to Washington and unleashed them as rioters on the Capitol as the Electoral College votes were being counted. “Be there, will be wild,” he tweeted.

“Let’s have trial by combat,” his lawyer Rudy Giuliani told a rally of Trump supporters shortly before they stormed the Capitol.

So pro-Trump crowds dismantled security fences and invaded the Capitol. You can call them rioters or terrorists or coup plotters, but they were not Making American Great Again.

In Portland, Ore., last summer, I saw federal authorities periodically use tear gas even against protesters who were peaceful and outside — so it was astonishing to see waves of protesters overrun the Capitol with almost no response. Leftist protests sometimes did become violent and destructive in Portland and other cities, and when that happened Biden repeatedly denounced them; he stood up to his base. Trump in contrast incited violence by his base on Wednesday morning.

There have been whispers that Trump might try to take advantage of disorder at home or a crisis abroad by invoking the Insurrection Act and deploying military forces to interrupt the presidential transition. We should all be on alert and remember the warning of every living former U.S. defense secretary that the military should stay out of such a crisis.

Trump’s assaults on truth are not as visible as assaults on the Capitol, but they are also damaging. Some 62 percent of Republicans say they do not accept Biden’s election, and that is toxic for democracy and lays the groundwork for this kind of violence.

Trump and other Republicans talk about personal responsibility and obeying the law. So Tanya McDowell, a homeless African-American mom, was imprisoned after misleading school officials about where she lived so that she could send her young son to a better school district and give him a better life. But, hypocritically, Trump fails to take any responsibility after a term in which he has lost the House, the presidency and the Senate — and then unleashes mobs to terrorize the Capitol.

As I said, I’ve covered other attempted coups, and history usually catches up to autocrats and thugs — eventually. They end up in prison, exile or disgrace, whining about the unfairness of it all, monuments to the perils of demagogy and authoritarianism.