Monday, January 17, 2022

Martin memories. (A repost.)

I, probably like most of white America, had never heard of Martin Luther King until the day he was shot.

It was a Thursday and my parents had gone out for the evening. My brother Fred was 12, I was ten, and my sister Nancy was just eight. 

I remember it was Thursday because that was the night the TV show Dragnet was on. It was on from nine to nine-thirty and my brother Fred and I had secured permission to stay up past our bedtime to watch the show.

When we turned on the set, when it finally warmed up, instead of "This is the city, Los Angeles, California," we saw a somber announcer telling us that Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Even though we were pre-teens, assassination was old news to us. You immediately had something to compare it to--JFK's. As a Borscht Belt comedian might say, "Now THAT was an assassination."

My brother and I were annoyed. 

How dare they pre-empt Dragnet for just another assassination. 

Of course we were white and our parents were well-off. 

We didn't know who Dr. King was. 

I was only five when he was speaking about "being to the mountain top."

So King's death didn't hit me like a bullet from some mercenary's high-powered rifle.

Over the years, I've read and learned. As much as any man can, I think. I would recommend the book I'm currently reading to anyone who gives a shit. Here's the Times review.

Our country was founded on hate and subjugation. On cruelty, violence and caste. As Malcolm X said, right now, today "the chickens will come home to roost."

What's happening in America now is nothing new. The haters, so afraid of the race they enslaved, kept that race out. No schools for you. No pools. No restaurants, hotels or even a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. No votes, or rights, or opportunity.

They blew up churches. They killed little girls in white dresses. They blinded teenagers with acid and castrated them and shot them in the face and tied them to a large industrial piece of steel and threw their bodies into rivers. 

They bound them and gagged them and hung them from tree limbs like a strange fruit. Then they tore their bodies apart, burned them and sold the relics. They printed post-cards and wrote to friends. The whole town turned out, even the little ones, it was the social event of the season.

Then, on occasion, they convened their all-white juries and said "it never happened." Then they laughed the laugh of hauteur and hubris. Then they probably prayed in church and kissed their loved ones and went to bed with the sense of righteousness on their side.

Not many people, I think, will think of Dr. King today. Not as the American ship is being torn-apart by hatred and violence. They'll watch football or go to Raymour and Flanagan or the Toyota dealer because some jackass determined that what are meant to be sober and solemn days of reflection are better off being parts of a three-day-sale-a-bration.

But that's America now.

I think of King today.

I think of an ignorant ten-year-old annoyed.

I think of the hate.

We could all use a little thinking. And a little less hating. 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Working at working.

It seems so much of our social media feeds are filled with the visages of gleaming people spouting platitudes. Most times these platitudes are two parts Hallmark, one part Polonius, one part Marcus Aurelius and seven parts Gary Vaynerchuk. They are to wisdom what Disney's Epcot is to world travel. 

They all remind me of the old song "It's Only a Paper Moon," by Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen and Billy Rose. Specifically, "it's as phony as it can be."

For just about the last two weeks, my wife and I have been vacationing in a small hotel in Turks and Caicos. We chose the place--rustic and ramshackle--for two reasons. 

One, we needed to sit on a beach and swim in the warm turquoise waters of the sea.

And, two, somehow my wife found a hotel that purposefully has electricity just 12 hours-a-day and wireless service for half that. That's allowed us--forced us, actually--to literally shut down. We sleep at night with the windows open and feel the breeze off the sea. We read by candlelight. And we are off our damned computers--though we both have miles of decks to go before we sleep.

I had initially planned on taking a two-week hiatus from the work of blogging while I was down here. And that brings me to the fuzzy point of today's post.

While down here I've read five books on ancient history--a particular passion of mine. Three of them have been about major Roman battles in the first century AD--first a colossal loss to the Cimbri in Gaul where 80,000 Romans were butchered, and last, a rematch in northern Italy where 30,000 Romans avenged that loss and destroyed 100,000 Cimbri.

Depending on what accounts you read, many historians believe that the power of Rome lasted about 1,000 years--mostly on the strength of its Legions. It wasn't the brilliance of its generals and Imperators that helped Rome rule the world--literally, the world. It was the discipline of its armies. 

They organized, they trained. They trained. They trained.

For all the advice in the world--about anything--advertising, marriage, raising children, living in the world, there's one thing, really to remember. One thing that matters:


Work is trying.
Work is caring.
Work is thinking.
Work is living the problem.
Work is finding paths.
Work is observing.
Work is talking to friends.
Work is talking to enemies.
Work is trying one way.
And then another.
And then another.
Not until your boss or your client or your boss' boss or your client's spouse is pleased. Nope.
Work is about doing the job until you are pleased.
Until you wash your face and admire your products and say,
"I did that."
Work is the restless, relentless, ruction of pleasing yourself.
That you have been you. True to you.

On December 4th, 2019, my wife bought me an Apple Watch. I have exercised 760 straight days since then.

In May, 2007, my ex-partner Tore told me to write a blog. I have written 6,300 posts since then.

Work is showing up. And working.

Even if you're literally or figuratively on a small island in the middle of the sea and sitting in the dark.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The March of Time.

Here begins a new feature of Ad Aged: Seminal events that happened on this very day in advertising history.

On January 13, 1952, Howard Gossage said, "People read what interests them and sometimes..." At that point, he fell asleep.

In 2014, Miriam Webster, a flight attendant on United Airlines flight 1018 from Chicago O'Hare to Denver Stapleton spilled hot coffee into the lap of Chester Field. She never apologized. Reducing United's decades-old mantra, "Fly the Friendly Skies" into nothing more than a slogan. Leo Burnett's attempt to fix the problem with a new tagline, "Fly the Feckless Skies" proved a failure.

In 2019, a major New York agency removed all full-time staff from its largest-revenue account because the business wasn't cool.

In 1941, Batten looked for a partner named Barton because "it sounded better."

In 1997, InterWinter merged seven agencies with combined billings of $3 billion into one broken gumball machine outside of a Rite Aid pharmacy in Shamokin, Pennsylvania.

In 2012, 398 agencies were short-listed as Agency-of-the-Year and 1411 agencies won the prize.

In 2015, 17-year-old Terri Dactyl, read the entirety of a long-copy ad: twelve words.

In 2021, a major New York agency hired convicted dope-dealing consultancy, McKinsey, to "get its swagger back." 

In 1958, the dancing Old Gold cigarette box died of emphysema. 

In 1963, Pepsi ran a commercial with its audio track singers singing about "The Pepsi Genitalia," instead of the Pepsi Generation. The entire agency and client had had too many martinis to notice the miscue.

In 1964, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential campaign ran its legendary daisy spot. The republicans countered with allegations that the administration was anti-daisy.

In 2004, there was one copywriter who got away with not completing timesheets for a full month...he had a grand mal seizure at work and couldn't remember what he had worked on.

In 2018, there were three Black people in one meeting at one time.

In 2020, Cannes awarded the coveted Purple Lion to an ad that hadn't even been created yet but that had a great case study video with data supporting 77% growth for their client.

In 2017, there was a lunch meeting at a major New York agency that served lunch.

In 2022, there was a lunch meeting via zoom and the agency sent out seamless gift cards for $3.50 per person.

In 2014, there was a pharma commercial that didn't end with severely sick people dancing and playing with their grandkids.

In 2007, Matt Finish of Sandusky, Ohio clicked on a banner ad. He was promptly sued by a consortium of bots fighting against legitimate advertising.

In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg did something honest. He quickly released a video denying it and announced his new company MetaFraud.

In 2022, Mark Read hearkened so far back he hearkened forward.


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Stand up and fight.

When I was a kid, so long ago, and playing baseball for the Seraperos de Saltillo down in the Mexican Baseball League, I learned more about making my way through the dusty arteries of life than I ever learned in college or anywhere else for that matter. 

I never went to Vietnam and don't know what combat is like against men trying to kill you with essentially homemade weapons, but I learned a lot about the sturm and drang of fighting for your place in the world. 

I learned that life is a struggle. There are 24 other guys on the team and half of them hate you at any one time for this reason or that. Maybe you put more wood on the ball and took someone's starting job. Maybe you inadvertently left your spikes on the bench near someone's locker and with them the detritus of dust, grass and sweat. Maybe they just didn't like that you were the manager's favorite. 

Then there were the hundreds of unshaven men on the other teams  who were playing this game as a living, not a lark. They knew that buckling your knees with a wicked curve or freezing you with a chin-mariachi fastball wasn't a game at all, it was a way of feeding themselves and their family.

We were in Aquascaliente playing the Rieleros. The game was theirs--or almost theirs with two down in our half of the ninth we were down by two. But then Garibay came up for us and blasted a homer bringing in "Brutus" Cesar who had walked. Those runs tied the score. Then Salome Rojas, our first sacker, who was having a career-year came up and skied one to right that went 300 feet high and 301 feet out--one foot further than the fence. 

When I came up we weren't down anymore, we were leading 4-3 and their arm was pissed. With no preliminaries whatsoever he threw a curveball at mi cabeza that decided not to curve and it plunked my hard plastic helmet on the earpiece also plunking a bit of my left jaw.

I had been taught for all my 17 years to never show pain to another human, and when I got up I dusted off my pants and trotted down to first. I was beaned and pissed and knew I'd be eating dinner through a straw for three days or five.

That night, after the game, a dozen of my teammates and I went to a collection of broken wood near the stadium that the locals called a bar. It was lit solely by the green, blue and red neon of half-a-dozen cerveza signs. The Rieleros were there already when we arrived. And they, too, were pissed at losing when they should have won.

I sat in a booth with three teammates and a muscled arm came over the back of the bench I was sitting on. I pushed it back like I was in a 42nd Street moviehouse and it belonged to a pervert.

In a moment I found out the arm belonged to their pitcher, the guy who purposefully plunked me, Barrios.

In another moment we were standing chest-to-chest jawboning at volume. 

I had four-inches on Barrios, but he had ten years and forty pounds on me. He had what I've always called old-man-strength. The stubbornness to exert your will on any physical obstacle no matter how big or impossible it seemed. It’s how I can roll out a carpet in my apartment by myself that it took two workmen to carry in.

I was never much of a pugilist but I learned a few things along the way about barroom brawls. 97-percent of prevailing is denying the other guy the room and leverage to slug you. Unless you're fighting Rocky Marciano, most guys need a wind-up to generate power. 

So I moved in on Barrios, despite his punches, and hooked my left wing around the back of his neck, pulling him close to me like he was my catamite, not my enemy. I then rabbit punched him with my right, and when he tried to break I pushed him hard against the booth where the whole donnybrook had started. Once there I did what you do in a fair fight: I made it an unfair fight--it's too easy to get your face Picasso'd following the Marquis of Queensbury. 

I kneed him twice in his reproductive arsenal.

He went down.

I didn’t stick around for ethical recriminations or allegations regarding by cowardice. I walked out of the bar and back to the rooms the Seraperos were staying in that night.

I'm thinking about a friend of mine as I write this, a friend who happens to run, very successfully, one of the better agencies in the world. A shrewd gentleman. I'm thinking about him because he's one of the few who like me understands that for all the mannerly shit people are taught to do, for all the current mania about plasticine smiles and teamwork and collaboration, nothing is as important in life and in business as the will to win.

Our time on this planet is about distinguishing yourself. About, in the parlance of our business, burying your clients' competition and making sure it's your ideas that did it.

We don't have to be bastards about it, like me that night 47 years ago, or Barrios. But we need that will.

Congeniality is great. Friendships are dear.

This is business.

We play to win.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Loving words. And their power.

I have a close friend who's a poet.

Sure, he does other work to pay for his Upper West Side aerie and his well-art-directed "cabin" in the Berkshires and his SUV that's larger than most Madison Avenue art galleries, but in his heart, he's a poet.

He not only reads poetry--he translates it from about six or seven of the languages he's fluent in. And he writes poetry, too. He's serious about it.

While I was always an Ogden Nash gnashling, Fritz was always serious about the art. Sharing poems with me, frankly, that I could hardly understand. Certainly not on first reading. They required that rarest of all gerunds, they required "thinking."

One day, Fritz texted me, “George, do you know the poem “Directive,” by Robert Frost?”

“You’ve taught me a lot of Frost,” I said, “Death of a Hired Man,” “After Apple Picking,” something about looking at the past through a train window.”

“Not those,” he chided. “Robert Frost once described the joy of writing as “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.”

“That’s right,” I said. “I know that line.”

“You know that line,” Fritz said, “because of this from Frost’s “Directive.”

So much of what we do in advertising--creating an image or impression of a brand, making something memorable so you buy x instead of y, has to do with the power of words. Yet, our industry does everything in its power to deny, disparage and otherwise mitigate the power of words.

We say "no one reads."
We stuff jargon and crap and superfluities in every square inch of serifs.
We turn copy itself over to committee--forgetting, as Twain remarked the difference between 'lightning bug' and 'lightning.'

Our job is to get noticed. 
To move people.
To motivate people to act and remember.
That takes stirring words and images.
Not "processed" words and stock photos.
Not asinine social media rules about type size and length.
Not mindless assertions that we need a "call to action," when the entire communication should be a call to action.
Carl Ally once said, "Advertising should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Instead, in the currently constituted business, we aim for polite applause and shades of beige.

When I was a teenager--just 15 or so--I read the words below by the poet Leroi Jones. He later on changed his name to Amiri Baraka. I'm not Black. I've never been in this situation. But I've known the poem for almost 50 years. It's never failed, literally, to make me gasp. And think. And pause. And think some more.

The title itself is a lesson on how to write a headline. The "body copy" moves you along. The closing hits you with a wallop. 

That's how it's done.

Poetry or commerce.

It's about human connection.

Not data science. Not bullet-pointing. Not the coalesced blather from 168-page decks.

I think we should as an industry do less applauding of ads and more applauding of work--whether it's poetry, art, music or whatever--that has truth in it. Work that gives you the surprise of remembering something you didn't know you knew.

And Directive, by Robert Frost:

Monday, January 10, 2022

Participating in our own destruction.

I'm lucky, I guess. I'm one of those people who can find deep meaning in small things. And I'm one of those people who can pull disparate thoughts together and find a cohesion between them.

Many years ago, I don't remember where, I tripped over a statement about the purpose of brands. 

I mean, why do we have brands? What are they for? Why do they exist? 

The statement was simple but deep. Like a river. Or the eyes of a golden retriever. It said, "Brands exist to bring order to a disordered universe." In other words, when you're in a grocery story and there are 77 different types of bar soap to choose from or 18 frozen pizzas, how do you know which ones to choose. Brands bring order--and assign a set of attributes to a product and a category.

I've bought Dove soap virtually my entire life. That decision takes as much brain-space in my head as looking both ways when I cross the street. I don't rend my garments when the store is out of Dove. I don't crave conversations about Dove. I don't get Dove tattoos or love Dove. Dove is just one less decision I have to consciously make. 

The other day, our local super behemoth was out of Dove. I bought Dial. My world didn't collapse. I suppose MBAs would say I have a soap hierarchy lodged somewhere in that mass of bubbles we call a brain.

Occupy my mind for a moment and watch a bit of Citizen Kane with me. I know it's all hoity-toity, but it's just about the best movie ever made. 

To my mind as an advertising person, there's one scene that sticks out. Charles Foster Kane, Jedediah Leland and Bernstein are in the offices of Kane's first newspaper. Kane lowers the gas in the gas lamps and...

LELAND We'll be on the street soon, Charlie - another ten minutes. BERNSTEIN (looking at his watch) It's three hours and fifty minutes late - but we did it -               Leland rises from the chair, stretching painfully. KANE Tired? LELAND It's been a tough day. KANE A wasted day. BERNSTEIN (looking up) Wasted? LELAND (incredulously) Charlie?! BERNSTEIN You just made the paper over four times today, Mr. Kane. That's all - KANE I've changed the front page a little, Mr. Bernstein. That's not enough - There's something I've got to get into this paper besides pictures and print - I've got to make the "New York Enquirer" as important to New York as the gas in that light. LELAND (quietly) What're you going to do, Charlie? Kane looks at him for a minute with a queer smile of happy concentration. KANE My Declaration of Principles - (he says it with quotes around it) Don't smile, Brad - (getting the idea) Take dictation, Mr. Bernstein - BERNSTEIN Can't take shorthand, Mr. Kane - KANE I'll write it myself. Kane grabs a piece of rough paper and a grease crayon. Sitting down on the bed next to Bernstein, he starts to write. BERNSTEIN (looking over his shoulder) You don't wanta make any promises, Mr. Kane, you don't wanta keep. KANE (as he writes) These'll be kept. (stops for a minute and reads what he has written; reading) I'll provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. (starts to write again; reading as he writes) will also provide them - LELAND That's the second sentence you've started with "I" - KANE (looking up) People are going to know who's responsible. And they're going to get the news - the true news - quickly and simply and entertainingly. (he speaks with real conviction) And no special interests will be allowed to interfere with the truth of that news.

To be blunt, every brand needs a Declaration of Principles. A public statement of what they do for people, how and why they do it. What's a website for if not for this? What's a label for? What's a commercial for? What's a trillion social channels for? 

How do you treat people? Why do you exist?

Coming off of New Year's, a hard year for our entire universe, I got forty-two thousand email messages and I was besieged by
self-serving ads, all imploring me to shop till I drop on a day that should be reserved for family and friends and reflection.

Brands are good at showing how eager they are to remove me from my money. They're not very good at demonstrating a true sense of caring.

I can't be the only person in the world who feels victimized and assaulted by the modern advertising industry. Every commercial is mixed too hot. Every announcer screams hyperbolically about a this-or-that-a-thon. Every dancing person offends my sense of taste. 

What's more--the crush of commercials has doubled over the last twenty years. If we used to get 24 minutes of programming in 30 minutes of time, we probably today get 20. It's all too much.

And too much evidence of brands and an industry treating humans like a coal-seam to be strip-mined.

This can't be good for anyone.

Not to mention brands and organizations like  American Bankers Association, Boeing, Raytheon Technologies, Lockheed Martin and General Motors that continue to cut very big checks to the politicians and organizations that helped instigate and perpetrate the ongoing republican coup attempt.

As Kyle Herring president of Accountable.US, said in a statement: “Major corporations were quick to condemn the insurrection and tout their support for democracy — and almost as quickly, many ditched those purported values by cutting big checks to the very politicians that helped instigate the failed coup attempt. The increasing volume of corporate donations to lawmakers who tried to overthrow the will of the people makes clear that these companies were never committed to standing up for democracy in the first place.”

Yes, I've comically-blasted the Reads and the other Holding Company CEOs for their ageism and such, but where are they? What are they doing? Why are WE ENABLING THE DESTRUCTION OF OUR COUNTRY?

Oh, Chevy did a nice spot about restoring a 1967 Impala. Praise the lord. Then they run it on stations that promote fascism and lies and we grin and go along with it, all the while pretending we care about the world.

That's not good enough.

Where are our brands? Where are our principles? Where are we in this?

Friday, January 7, 2022

A friend in need, indeed.


During the old-timey TV era I grew up in, there was usually a sitcom episode that came along in the fourth or fifth season when even the episode about the triplets being born wasn't able to revive the crappy show's ratings. They would run an episode about the hero somehow saving his hapless sidekick's life.

The hero would naturally see his actions as nothing special. His  pulling ol' Barney out of the way of the out-of-control car was just him doing a-what comes naturally, but of course ol' Barn couldn't let it go, and pledged himself to serve our hero forever until the end of time.

There are hijinx along the way, of course, and somehow the situation is all rectified at the end. The hero goes back to being nothing special, just a hero. And ol' Barn goes back to being himself, a goofball of the highest and/or lowest order.

I've probably seen this plotline a couple dozen times, and you probably have too. Watching it is like drinking cheap jug-wine to get drunk for the first time. It doesn't take much and you're off your ass but quickly you recover and not all that much harm is done.

The thing about having your life saved--not in a lifeguard way but in a normal course of existence way, is that the person doing the saving usually doesn't even realize he saved you. He just did what had to be done at the moment. Gave you some advice, slipped you a little wisdom, or imparted the tiniest bit of courage when you needed it most. Like William Carlos Williams once wrote, "So much depends upon" shit like that.

The young man who saved my life 47 or so years ago died at the end of December, just two weeks ago. He was 64 and had been battling multiple myeloma for the last 12 years of his life. 

Fred and I were friends from the moment we met in the hallowed halls of an elite private school in equally elite Westchester county, just outside of New York City. Neither of us belonged there, so quickly we belonged to each other. A bit of Damon and Pythias amid the high-end neighborhoods where they didn't much like Jews or Black people with points of view.

Fred and I were teammates and mischief makers and soulmates for most of our lives. By luck we went to school together after college, our girlfriends met, they became our wives and we all stayed friends. Fred helped me with problems along the way, and I tried to help him. Sometimes help did little more than take the form of a one-liner that would set us laughing and get us away from that too-familiar slough.

Back in 1974 or so, I was the leading fuck-up in my eleventh-grade class. Though teachers always complained that I was goofing around too much, and nobody ever sat me down and gave me a talking to. The administration gave me an IQ test to see if I had gotten into the school by mistake--but they never sat me down and said anything to me. 

Of course, my parents didn't either. They were too busy not paying attention. As I liked to say--even back then, I was growing up in the House of Atreus, but without all the eye-gouging and with fewer olives.

One night, Fred and I were standing in the bleachers watching a hockey game. In private schools in those days, sports like soccer, hockey and lacrosse were the cool kid sports. More conventionally popular sports, football, basketball and baseball were regarded as plebian. Even though Fred was the star of the basketball team and I of the baseball team, our athleticism didn't allow us entry into the cool kid circle. At the hockey game, those kids, the ones in the cable-knit sweaters driving their parents' BMWs were in another set of bleachers. Fred and I stood alone.

We were doing what kids do and have always done. We were talking about our classmates and the bullshit that comes along with them. 

Somehow out of the blue, Fred said, "you know who's the brightest kid in our class."

"I dunno, Miles? Carmen? Trish?"

"No," he paused. "You."

"Me? I get all 'Ds.'"

"That's because you don't try."

Fred was the first person to tell me I was smart. To sit me down and tell me I was smart. I really didn't know it before that. My parents never told me. No one had.

I say that moment changed my life because from that moment I started to try. I started to work. I started to break what had become a habit of self-destruction by way of laziness.

It was a two-minute conversation.

I mentioned it to Fred probably 30 years later. And he remembered. I thanked him. And that was that. No sitcom shenanigans, though I might have paid for dinner that night.

You never know who's going to change your life, save your life, make a difference in your life. If it's ever going to happen or never. You never know whose life you've changed or touched or helped or who you've given a boost to.

These are things you can't plan for. You can't adopt some code of chivalry and drive around the neighborhood looking for perilous Pauline tied to the railroad tracks or a broad and muscled back that's waiting for just the right pat.

You just have to live. And try to be decent. Try to think about people. And be there. Maybe with a kind word when a kind word is what's needed most.

Thank you being there and for listening.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

A kibitz.

Since Monday, my wife and I have decamped to Turks and Caicos for our first vacation since the plague began. Of course, Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie are in tow. And along with them, a cooler bag stuffed with the New York pastries and things Sylvie and Slappy cherish. It was small feat getting rugelach and such through customs, but my wife has her comestible wiles and she succeeded.

Uncle Slappy slept late today and did not emerge from our the second bedroom in our suite and start clanging dishes in our kitchenette until 4:15AM. Like all members of the withering Tannenbaum clan, we are early risers. Many of us, myself included, have done a day's work or more by the time most people are finishing their second cuppa Joe.

Uncle Slappy, always quick with a bon mot or two puts it this way, "I have the sleep habits of a Gloucester fisherman. And the aroma." That's good enough for me and there's no sense trying to top that most seminal of the Delphic maxims: "Know Thyself."

As Uncle Slappy was pouring his first cup of viscous black coffee, I pulled up a chair and sat at the table. Early morning talks with the old man are a currency that surpasses in value Etherium, BitCoin or even S&H Green Stamps.

"Boychick," he began between bites of his first of three cinnamon rugelach. "An idea I have for a new business. Something we could do together. Have fun with during our waning days as visitors to this benighted planet."

"I'm not too crazy these days about Earth either," I said. "As Preston Sturges wrote in "Palm Beach Story," 'That's one of the tragedies of this life. That the men most in need of a beating up are always enormous.' I'm thinking of course of people who shall remain nameless."

"But," Uncle Slappy said while rugelaching, "I have a solution. We open a room--I'm thinking East 23rd Street Area, or Murray Hill..."

"How is Murray?" I interjected.

open a room," he ignored, "a small place. We call it the Kibitz Room. A few sofas, a few tables and chairs, an urn of coffee, maybe a pitcher of Tang (it has more Vitamin C than orange juice) and old-fashioned seltzer in spritz bottles. And a blackboard."

"A blackboard?"

"On the blackboard, we write one word. The word of the day. Anyone who wants to play, pays $10 or $20. And we kibbitz about that word or topic. The whole thing is filmed. We upload on YouTube. Boom. A billion subscribers."

"I'm not entirely following," I admitted.

"Say it's Wednesday. I write on the blackboard the word 'screen door.' The kibbitzing that day is all about screen doors."

"My wife's cooking is so bad, the flies in the backyard are chipping in to repair the screen door."

"How can you tell a Polish submarine?..."

"We embrace the ethnic joke?"

"Yes," Uncle Slappy said, ignoring the very idea of self-censorship. "The Polish submarine is the one with the screen door on the conning tower." 

"The subject du jour is screen doors."

"Yes, then a guy like Medium Murray takes over. He could keep an audience rapt for thirty-minutes with a screen door story."

Uncle Slappy had three friends named Murray. Medium Murray is the medium-heighted of the three.

"He is a good storyteller," I admitted. "And he's no stranger to the art of the digression."

"The next day, we change the topic. We kibitz that day about indoor-outdoor carpeting. I promise you, we could fill a day. Easily."

The old man paused for a moment. He took a large bite of a rugelach and then a long sip of coffee. The pause was as well-timed and dramatic as anything by Shakespeare's Lear or Macbeth or Iago or Portia.

"If push comes to shove, we change the topic to wives."

He paused again.

"That might be good for a month. Please.”

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Six Things We've Learned about Life (and Advertising) from Covid.

Some weeks ago, I drove my 1966 Simca 1500 about twenty miles south from my rickety cottage by the sea and visited the offices of a new client. I don't have many in-person client meetings these days and there's a lot to be said for the convenience of Zoom but there's still nice about seeing people in person.

I don't care if that violates the belief-system around the Metaverse, that virtual can be regarded as indistinguishable from real-life. I'm just not buying it. In fact, if you ever again go to see a baseball game in a proper ballpark, try to notice the moment you walk out from underneath the stands and see the verdant green of the playing field. I have to believe that even among the most-jaded there's a micro-second of jaw-dropping wow. Like seeing a hawk making lazy circles in the sky or a dolphin clearing the brine.

My client is a brainy guy--and we talk a lot about the nature of science. About how things are discovered, coalesced and made palpable to viewers. I said something about how there's a lot we could all probably learn from the past almost-two-years with Covid and I started knocking off points. He asked me to send him a list and I did.

A few days later, I read my list again, and found I liked it. I posted it on Twitter, and people I respect said I should write a post around it. Here goes:

Six Things We've Learned about Life from Covid.

1. Never underestimate the unknown--disease or otherwise. Small things have a way of becoming big things. Likewise, young people have a way of becoming older. Assess things and people on what they are--not your preconceived nothing of what they are. Look at all variables. And try to consider as many possible variants as you can. It's amazing how lack of prejudice frees people and the world.


2. Unintended consequences are usually more severe than you'd like. I read something not long ago that brought the notion of unintended consequences into sharp focus for me. Some futurist was talking about how life with self-driving vehicles will be so grand. Commutes will be less arduous. Crowded cities, less crowded. You can play video games in your car.

Then someone responded, what about spreading urban-sprawl even further into the country? And so on. About 50 years ago while at the agency Carl Ally, Ralph Ammirati wrote an ad that asked, "What happens now that the car is causing more problems than it solves?" The technology mantra, "move fast and break things," is monstrous. It does not consider what could happen. You can't really just hope the butterfly effect away. Butterflies don't listen.


3. There are no isolated cases. If you've ever seen geese at random and then forming a V, or fish who gather themselves in a vortex for protection, you realize that all living creatures are connected somehow. Even in the cyber world, there are no "air-locks" between machines that can stop incursions and attacks. What happens to one, happens to many. Basically, humanity can act one of two ways: YOYO--you're on your own. Or WITT--we're in this together. Only one is right. Though a different one is popular. The more we look out for the other, the better we'll all be. The sin of the modern democratic party is that it doesn't brand the un-modern republican party as the party of past--of narrow roads, leaking pipes and 19th century infrastructure. Make the stark choice starker.


4. The more testing, the better. This does not mean I recommend "quant" and "qual." It does mean we'd all be better off--and our industry would be better off if we thought through things, if we tested them in our own heads before accepting even the Gospel as gospel. Not too long ago prevailing marketing wisdom told us to try to get Facebook "likes." They were a barometer of marketing success. 

97-percent of being a creative person is looking at the same things other people look at but working--testing, turning them upside down and torturing them until you see a side of them no one has before noticed. 

It makes sense to do that with just about everything you encounter. Try saying "prove it." In short, be like Shane. 


5. Look for problems with all five senses. By this I mean, don't look at things in a cursory manner. Really take them apart and examine problems from all sides. Who would think that the logic of vaccination--an operation that's probably saved literally billions of lives would become a political issue. But today, I suppose, destroying the planet is a political issue as well.


Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

 6. Attack problems early and often. 
Robert Frost said "nothing gold can stay." Neil Young said, "Rust
never sleeps." If you have a patio or a book of Dylan Thomas'
poems, you know of the force that through green fuse drives the
flower. In other words, problems die hard. In short, listen
always--to Miracle Max. Make sure problems are dead. Not
mostly dead.