Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My brain in focus groups.


In the last few weeks or months, at least in the United States, a fair number of creative luminaries have left their lofty positions either for posts unknown or for jobs outside of the advertising industry, the latest departure being Kevin Roddy, who has just bid farewell to BBH.

Unknown others would like to do the same, I suppose, but cannot due either to finances, lethargy or some other predilection that keeps them in their jobs and their psychiatrists in theirs.

The common plaint is “it’s just not fun anymore.”

What I noticed last night while my work was being assaulted at focus groups was that it’s feeding time at the zoo. The new-media punditocracy, the people who issue proclamations and write books but who have never sold anything, are nevertheless winning hearts and minds. There’s not a person who goes to a focus group today who doesn’t know she’s supposed to say “I don’t watch TV.” Or “I would zap that.”

Such proclamations are de rigueur. Akin to buying Playboy for the articles or flossing after every meal. You know what you’re meant to say, in fact you’re programmed to say it, so you say it. As do clients.

The facts about TV and other media say different. As the Ad Contrarian points out (Vox Clamatis en Deserto) TV viewership is at an all-time high. Zappership never amounted to much and besides, what’s the alternative? Creating an app that twelve hipsters riding their fixies in Williamsburg while wearing an “I Love Juice” t-shirt will download and use four times?

It reminds me of what happens when people who say ‘print is dead’ lose their cat. They might post and tweet of their loss, but chances are they print up flyers and tape them to street lamps. See, print works.

Surely the industry is reeling. Maybe it’s not as much fun as way back when when our secretaries had secretaries, when there were hot and cold running account people, but some of the damage to our industry, our profession, our craft and even—ack ack—our integrity is self inflicted.

The first step to having fun is believing in what you’re doing.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Uncle Slappy comes back for a visit.

I was sitting at my desk and heard a commotion out in the hallway. Figuring it was absolutely nothing, I went back to work. All of a sudden, the door swung open and I heard an inimitable voice shout out, "Mr. Big Schott, your Uncle Slappy is here."

Uncle Slappy, it seems had taken a last minute trip up from Boca to spend Succoth with us. "I thought I'd come up and visit you" he said.

"Uncle Slappy," I admonished, "I have to run to focus groups tonight."

"Watch your mouth, Big Schott."

"Focus groups, Uncle Slappy. Where consumers tell you what they think about your work."

"Well, suppose I come along to these focus groups, I want to take a look."

With that, Uncle Slappy and I jumped into a cab and went over to the focus group place.
What follows is Uncle Slappy's report.

"So Mr. Big Schott Mad Man takes me over to an fancy schmancy office building in mid-town to hear what some people have to say about his commercials. "Listen, I say to Mr. Big Schott, these people are some sort of experts?"

"No, Uncle Slappy. They're supposed to represent ordinary people like you and me."

"They don't know nothing special?"

"No, Uncle Slappy. We just want their impressions. Their opinions."

"What for? You're Mr. Big Schott, yes. You've got a million and a half awards, because you accomplished things. So you're listening to strangers?"

"Well, they're regular folks Uncle Slappy. We need to know what they think."

"Wait a sec. When a plumber fixes your terlet, he asks your opinion?"

I showed Uncle Slappy a room where, "the Mets were on the Philco." When I came out three hours later, he was asleep on the sofa, the Brach's candy all finished.

No comment.

Not sure if this is a joke or not.

The trickiest thing.

With the rise of the non-traditional agency comes the rise of departments and specialties and "practices" that didn't exist just a few short years ago. Where agencies used to be creative, account and media, you now have to throw into the mix interaction design, planning, mobile experts, social media mavens, flash specialists, analytics and more.

What's more, each of these tribes are told that a great idea can come from anywhere. Thus they feel they can sit in judgment of the ideas that emanate from the agency. In short, ownership of ideas becomes individualized rather than collectivized. The agency, at least at the early developmental stages of idea development, seems to say "that's not our idea, that's your idea."

Maybe I'm wrong about this, but despite all the politics and in-fighting that afflicted agencies in days of yore, there was some portion of rallying around the work.

Now work isn't isn't owned by the agency--it's owned by the individual who created it. When things don't go well, you're out on your own. If work goes well, then you have friends.

I think Casey Stengel once said, "The trick to managing a baseball team is keeping the ten guys who hate you away from the fifteen guys who are undecided."

The trick to being a successful creative is keeping your insecure and negative impulses away from the impulses that are undecided.

Some days that works. Some days that's hard.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Thinking about advertising week.

Basically people who create are insecure. Think Van Gogh. Think Melville. Think David Foster Wallace. Edna St. Vincent Millay. The list goes on.

Around these people grows up an industry of people who encourage these creators. Especially once they get successful. Agents, promoters, editors, etc.

Our industry has a similar encouragement mafioso. They pop up in trade magazines, at trade shows and events like advertising week. They are usually photographed holding their chins in their hands and with a far off gaze. And they tell you all you need to know to make work that overcomes all the obstacles, that makes people happy, that makes things work.

They issue articles that say things like, "addressing the post literate apocalypse." "Folks simply don't want to read text," says one pundit. Another says something like this "display ads can be reinvented as "dis-play" units: outlets for creative executions in branded entertainment and utilities."

Oh, ok.

When I was just 20.

My parents moved from New York to Chicago just as I was turning 20. So when summer break from college came I went to Chicago to live in a strange house and a strange city. My first order of business being "home" from college wasn't to find friends and to get to know the city, the first thing I had to do was get a summer job.

I suppose I'm someone who has always found solace and satisfaction in work. It is a place and a role that you can hold and construct and make your own. At least somewhat. In any event, I answered two ads that were listed in the Chicago Tribune. One was for a clerk in the gift shop of a Northside hotel and the other was for a night shift cashier/stock boy in a Northside liquor store.

The liquor store was the one that came through first. I used my brother's name on the application because I was not yet 21 and it was illegal for me to drink booze, much less sell it. In any event, I spent the first couple of days at this job telling people "my name is Fred, but friends call me George."

The job paid well. For a summer job. For a kid. $3.50 an hour with a guaranteed six hours overtime at time and a half. Plus, there were the busy weekends in the summer when I would be asked to work a double shift. One week I grossed $206. That was decent money back in 1977.

The night shift was a bit frightening back then. The city was wild, and the store's location was amid whorehouses and nightclubs and bars and parking lots. However, every night around 9 an off-duty Chicago cop would come in and sit in the back smoking cigarettes. The brothers who owned the place paid him in cases of beer. I also got to know the regulars. The bottle blonde whores and the sunken cheeked parking lot attendants. The parking lot guys bought pretty much the most expensive brandy we sold, in pint bottles.

One warm afternoon, it had to be 4:30 or so (I started at 4) a limousine pulled up to the store and an elegant older woman came into the store. I was standing with Mr. Bragno, one of the two brothers who owned the place. He went white as creme de cacao. "Claudette Colbert," he whispered to me.

I hardly knew who she was, though of course I knew the name. Later on, when I saw her in DeMille's Cleopatra, rolled up into a carpet and presented half naked to Caesar or Anthony, I was really impressed. Ms. Colbert worked with Mr. Bragno directly to fill her order. I was given the job of carrying her case to her limousine. She gave me a dollar and smiled with her dark eyes.

Another day the representative from a local beer company, Old Style came in. Minnie Minoso. Minoso was one of the great stars of the Go-Go-White Sox of the 1950s and 1960s. He wore his 1959 World Series ring proudly and gave me his autograph when I asked. Minoso was the first major leaguer to play in 5 decades and was the first black player to play for the Sox. His hands were the size of phone books and engulfed mine when we shook.

The most memorable character of all was the 50-year-old stock man, Lorenzo Jeffries. He was the soul of the place, running up and down to the cellar, keeping everything shelved and fully stocked, with not a bottle out of place. If I said to him, "Lorenzo, we're nearly out of Winston cigarettes," he would look at me with his sad eyes and say "The system is supposed to be the solution. But the system is part of the problem." Then he would, in his manner, hustle down stairs singing "The system is not working."

Lorenzo was from Arkansas. In the store we sold a mineral water called Mountain Valley water that was also from Arkansas. Lorenzo claimed it was the best water on Earth and that he brought it from Arkansas himself in his limo, which he called the 151 bus.

At the end of the summer it was time for me to say goodbye to Bragno's and return to New York and college. I made $2,000 those two summer months, met Claudette Colbert and Minnie Minoso and became friendly with Lorenzo.

A couple years later I came back to Chicago to visit my parents who were either about to die or who had just recovered from being about to die. I walked by Bragno's, where it used to be, figuring I'd say hello to whoever was there, but Bragno's was gone. Today, there's a store called Urban Outfitters on the site.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

50 Years ago, almost to the day.

We read everyday about the death of messaging, the death of language, the death of the need for writers. Systems will lead our behaviors and guide us the way marketers want us guided. The value of words, the pundits and the new media mavens, tell us is no more. They forget, almost completely, what the Obama campaign did with words and language. But don't bother them with facts, they are busy pontificating and declaring the death of something.

In any event, just about 50 years ago, Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox outfielder came up to the plate one last time as a major leaguer. John Updike was in Fenway that rainy day reporting. Here is a short bit, reprinted from "The New Yorker," of October 17, 1960.

"Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

"Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

"Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

"Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters."

Maybe I am a curmudgeon. Out of step with what's left of civilization. Holding on by my well-gnawed talons to relevance.

Maybe the struggle, at least in American politics, what we are seeing is a struggle between the know-nothings and the elites. Clearly the know-nothings are winning. We have senatorial candidates who believe monkeys can transmute into men before our eyes.

But whatever.

I insist on enjoying writing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday one-liner.

About no place in particular.

"This place is so age-ist. It was never like this when I was younger."

Stepping out onto the ice floe.

I've been told that in times of yore, old people in Scandinavian regions--those who felt used up, superfluous, a burden, would remove themselves from the world by stepping out onto an ice floe and float into oblivion.

I don't know what kind of death that would be. Painful, fearful, awful. But some days I think about it.

Happy Subway to you.

In the richest country in the world, in the greatest city in the world our infrastructure has crumbled. I am reading now Adrian Goldsworthy's epic "How Rome Fell," and it's hard not to see the parallels.

Ah, but New York runs with startling efficiency. Amid the noise, the filth, the over-crowded sweat and urine, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,..."

I don't fit in.

In a nation that is fighting two wars, where 1 in 7 people live below the poverty line, on Wednesday in Central Park, a bunch of pseudo celebrities ran a short race in high heels.

The race was sponsored by Volkswagen and Zappos.

Here is reportage on the event:

"The race is definitely one of a kind -- women and men sprint a 150-yard dash through Central Park in New York City while wearing stilettos! Kelly competed while Regis cheered her on and "Project Runway" host Tim Gunn stopped by to show his support.

Proceeds from the High Heel-a-thon benefit The Heart Truth campaign which raises heart disease awareness and promotes better health for women.

Top winners were awarded some great prizes, including a brand new 2011 Volkswagen Jetta for the first place finisher, and $5,000 and $2,500 for the second and third place winners respectively."

I don't care about things like this. I am outraged at our quotidian banality.

But I eat my victuals fast enough; There can’t be much amiss,’tis clear, To see the rate I drink my beer.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

From my friend Jon.

"I am no longer going to say "totally". Way too definitive. From this point on I will just say "partially". "Hey Jon, are you ready for this meeting or what?" "Are you kidding? I am partially ready for this meeting."

And from a client via my wife. "Sorry we slide-whipped you in this meeting."

When you fuck up.

I read a lot of books on military history and on "great" leaders. I read these because I believe that you can learn from the psychodynamics, the "decisioning," the leadership of such people as they face their challenges.

It doesn't matter that what we do in advertising doesn't comparatively add up to a hill of beans. A problem is a problem. A leader is a leader. And a fuck up is a fuck up.

So when you fuck up, what I've learned is you have to man up.

Take your hit.

Learn from it.


Do better.

And as my friend Fred's father said:"keep learning, keep loving, keep laughing."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Advertising in Cuba.

Right now I am in the middle of reading a rather long article in "Harpers's Magazine" called "Thirty days as a Cuban: Pinching pesos and dropping pounds in Havana" by an excellent writer called Patrick Symmes.

To cut it short Symmes quickly gets to the corruption of the state. You get a monthly ration book that provides enough calories for about 12 days. Your salary provides enough money to pay for another four or five days of meager rations. But unless you steal from the state, as a normal Cuban you will starve to death.

In other words, the only law-abiding Cuban is a dead Cuban.

It occurred to me that there are parallels in this to our industry. If you only do work that clients will buy, your career will soon die.

Looking last night at the Kelly Award finalists and winners seems to bear this out. An amazing amount of ads for guitars, motorcycles, bras and zoos. I'm not asserting that these ads are phonus balognus, but I do find it odd that small spenders like the above can run spreads when major advertisers with budgets in the hundreds of millions can't.

Advertising sites, personal portfolios and the like seem studded with director's cuts, spec ads and other such abstraction. No criticism here.

The work you need to do to get a job isn't anything like the work you need to do to sell things to clients.

As Ricky Ricardo might have said, We've got some 'splaining to do.

A slight rebellion off of 8th Avenue.

I have been in a shitty mood of late. Let me clarify that. I have been in a shittier mood than usual of late.

Internal politics. Internal client lassitude and pusillanimity. My general mood disorder a bit more disordered than usual.

Things that you normally tolerate with an under the breath curse or a sarcastic statement became intolerable. The printer that never works when you're on a deadline, the person who's never done anything, criticizing your work. People ignoring logic because they didn't think of it.

The daily detritus of agency life began gnawing at my soul more than usual. The Great Whore of Babylon was drinking my blood and bleeding me dry, with seven heads and fourteen fangs and seven forked tongues.

On Tuesday, yesterday, I decided to do something about it.

Of the approximately 7,500 days I have labored for pay in my life, I have been in after 9 on probably 12 of those days. I'd show the mealy-mouthed fuck faces of the world. I'll show 'em.

I had breakfast with a plaintive friend. I didn't look at my watch. Didn't hurry along his tales of woe. Let him talk. We had a second cuppa joe. A third.

I walked slowly to the office. Didn't even try for a cab.

I got in at 9:36. I blew off a 9AM meeting.

It wasn't much.

But it helped.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Irving Ravetch, 1920-2010.

Irving Ravetch was a screenwriter who wrote some pretty good movies. Including "The Long Hot Summer," "Norma Rae" and "Hud." His obituary appeared in this morning's New York Times.

Bruce Weber wrote the obituary and I've noticed that over the years, Weber can get to the marrow of a man with a short quotation. Here's the quotation with which he ends Ravetch's obit:

“Movies can’t correct human injustice all by themselves, but they can show it, they can touch you while showing it, and they can seed ideas and wake up dormant minds...For a medium that began — pretty much in my early childhood — as a few flickering images on a nickelodeon machine, that’s pretty powerful stuff.”

As my agency struggles to believe in the power of television, I think about these words. "They can touch you..." "seed ideas and wake up dormant minds."

I'm all for any sort of medium that works.

I prefer the ones that work best.

Breakfast in Autumn in New York.

One of the great institutions of New York, the New York I grew up in, is the coffee shop, or diner.

There used to be one on nearly every corner. Angus Burger. Red Flame. Athens. Socrates. More or less, these shops were run by hard-working Greeks and their families. Many, if not most, were open 24-hours a day. So anytime of the day or night, you could get bacon and eggs, a decent cup of coffee, or a steak dinner, if you felt like splurging.

There were also the chain coffee shops like Chock Full o' Nuts, which after closing its last shop nearly 30 years ago has opened a new one on West 23rd Street. The Chock Full o' Nuts I remember best was directly across the street from my college. It was the first place you hit when you escaped from the wrought iron.

It was a cavernous place. The counter serpentined through eight or so esses. There was seating at the counter for probably 50 people, maybe more. There were no tables or booths. Sitting like this, at a counter, on a stool, was the most egalitarian of acts. There were no class distinctions at Chock Full o' Nuts. This was everyman’s joint, like it or lump it.

Their coffee was strong and served in small ceramic cups with their logo on one side, and their tagline “The Heavenly Coffee” on the other. When they closed their restaurant near my campus, I stole two of these cups, their ceramic so thick I still have them today. They have survived almost thirty years of constant use, two kids, and other sundry insults.

As I said, the cups were small. And the waitresses filled them as quickly as you emptied yours. Because they were small, the coffee stayed hot. I think the coffee cost 32 cents a cup and the 76-year-old waitresses would fill your cup as often as you emptied it. Also with the coffee, for another 32 cents or so, you could get a really superior donut. They came wrapped in cellophane, had an adroit mixture of cinnamon and powdered sugar on top and were delightfully al dente, as a donut should be. They were small too, these donuts. The circumference roughly the same as that of the coffee cup, which made the whole act of dunking eminently pleasurable.

Basically, for 64 cents, a dollar by the time you got done with tax and a tip, you could sit for an hour between class and read “Bleak House,” or study your Ovid in Latin, or even find a pretty girl and try to make eye contact.

This morning I met a disconsolate friend in a coffee shop on 11th Avenue in the 40s. The last of the species. The booths covered in a rusty orange vinyl, the tables a faux formica wood grain. The waitresses attentive, the menu as compendious as the Library of Congress, the prices from a different era, like Roosevelt’s first term.

I don’t know what mania swept our world that places such as these became scorned. They were comfortable places to go, reasonably priced and, generally, a respite or sanctuary from the mayhem of life.

Today marks Autumn. In the city the air has a bit of crispness and the sky is clear. Leaves litter the ground and mix with dog excreta, discarded beer cans and used condoms.

I love the city. No matter what it's done to everything it used to be.

As I walked past my doorman this morning--

He was drinking from a paper cup filled with coffee. Of course the thickness of the cup was such that it was too hot to hold, so the cup had a sleeve over it. That sleeve read: "Cup for a Cause."

That nearly sent me over the edge.

I didn't hang around to find out what the cause the cup was for. "Save the Crab Grass." "People for the Ethical Treatment of Mold." It doesn't matter to me.

What matters to me is that this cup seemed endemic.

Everyday there are dozens of little thumbs up icons or blocks of blue type on Facebook. "1,000,000 strong for clean water." Or "Like" if you're in favor of heterosexual marriage. (Which I am not.)

And mindless grubs see these things and click on these things and gab about these things as if they are doing something.

Yes, you are doing something. Nothing.

Are these things what are meant by having a conversation about a brand? These things have value? These things have greater strength than messaging?

These artifacts are toys. They allow you to play pretend. As in pretend you're doing something, making a difference. Pretend you care about something beyond the next sale or the next football game.

In life as in advertising, there's no substitute for actually working. Doing something. Putting your ass out there.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Couplet for a shitty Monday.

You must have really shitty karma,
To wish instead you worked in pharma.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Folly Floater.

When I was a kid, about nine or 10, the Yankees were pretty forlorn. They won the pennant in 1964, but had dropped to 6th place in 1965 and dead last in 1966. The Yankees finishing last was something they hadn't done for something like 50 years--since the waning days of the McKinley administration.

Somewhere along the way my father became friendly with a pitcher on the club named Steve Hamilton. Hamilton was what you'd call a journeyman. He pitched for six clubs in his 12 year career, winning just 40 games while losing 31. He was one of the few pitching bright spots when the Yankees finished last in '66, winning 8 and losing but 3.

Along the way, Hamilton invented a pitch he called the "folly floater." The New York Times described it this way in Hamilton's obituary, "In 1969, he developed the Folly Floater, in which he stepped toward the plate, made his body hesitate and then released the ball in a high arc. The pitch delighted spectators and infuriated batters.

The first time he threw the Folly Floater, he struck out Tony Horton on three pitches, and the Cleveland first baseman crawled back to the dugout in surrender."

Later on in Hamilton's career when he was pitching in the National League, the Folly Floater was banned.

Back to when I was nine, Steve Hamilton invited me and my brother to Yankee Stadium and we got to go down on the field to meet him. He was 6'7" and my brother and I were still short of 5 feet tall. And somehow in the black and white glossy we got from that day, all three of us managed to blink simultaneously.

I've been thinking about Hamilton and the Folly Floater because he was able to create something that didn't look like anything else.

A lot of the work we do in the industry gets through all the cracks because it looks like things we have seen before. It's comforting and easy to buy work that feels like work should feel. Hamilton at least tried to do something different. How successful he would have been using the Floater over the long haul, we'll never know. But at least Hamilton tried.

I wonder how many ECDs or clients would today approve a Folly Floater.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Lunch, 9.16.10.

Yesterday I had lunch with the smartest guy in the business, who also happens to be the wisest. He's wise because he has the wisdom of the ages. An ability to see things in perspective beyond the politicking and the trends that infest and infect the business.

We spent a good amount of time talking about award shows. What he called creatives judging creatives for the benefit of creatives. The account he supervised me on seldom won awards (outside of the Effies) though the work was of a consistently high quality. "We did advertising the moved the heads of countries, not just the heads of awards juries."

We reflected on that for a minute.

Then in the spirit of living in this world, not longing for one that is never coming back, we slowly finished our drinks, paid the bill and went our different ways.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

It's time for a one-liner.

I don't see what the big deal is about Mad Men.
I've spent half my life with pissed off women.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This will change everything.

It started like so much else does in the college dorm room of an elite university. "I was looking for a way to meet people," said the cherubic 19-year-old Rodd Clawson. "I thought,'what behaviors can I capitalize on. Then it hit me. Everyone drinks carbonated drinks.'"

Working day and night, Clawson developed a way to change the "voice" of bubbles in carbonated drinks from saying "pop" to communicating a small message. His first message was "Hi, I'm Rodd. I bought you this drink." That message was repeated with each carbonated bubble in a keg of beer that Clawson bought to develop the technology.

Before long Clawson came up with the concept of "Bubble-tising." Oral advertising messaging contained within the carbonated bubbles of popular drinks.

According to Claude Roddson of the internet site "Bubble Advertising News," "The average American drinks 2.2 carbonated drinks a day. This is a deeply immersive way to reach people. It will change everything."

Sixty-eight cents a day.

Here's the situation.

A call-in radio show is discussing the stresses and strains of living in today's economy. The rising cost of living. The difficulty of making ends meet.

A caller calls in and says in a low voice, "I don't know what you're talking about. I live like a king for just sixty-eight cents a day."

The radio announcer says "That's amazing. Astounding. Astonishing! How do you do it? And would you mind speaking up, I can barely hear you?"

The caller says, "Oh, I can't speak up. I'm a goldfish."

Beyond the high comedy of that joke, there's a point.

And the point is simple.

Nothing is cheap.

In today's world (and this is much of the reason behind its collapse) people/clients are looking for a sixty-eight cent solution. A magical way to establish your brand, unify your workforce, gain new customers, without spending masses of money.


There's no shortcut to marketing success.

No Chinese drywall you can use to cut corners.

If you want to reach people it costs money.

Sure, you can hope against hope for a viral Old Spice-like success.

But the chances of creating something like that are slim.

Let's face it, most viral successes involve some degree of shock, sex, or humor.

Most clients avoid those emotions.

Sure there are ways to break through that are unorthodox.

And good ideas always accelerate marketing goals.

But even so, building brands, influencing customers and prospects, takes time and money.

Anyone who tells you otherwise, that it can be done through social media,
or a wiki, or a blimp, is a charlatan and a fraud.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ally & Gargano.

My "FFB," (friend from blogging) Dave Trott wrote yesterday about the new $200 opus called "Ally & Gargano." In his post, Mr. Trott compared Gargano's book to one by George Lois.

The Ally & Gargano book, all 11 lbs. of it is, according to Dave "Like a gravestone.
This is a book that takes itself very seriously. A book that belongs in a library, or a museum. And it’s written the same way. Lois’s book is written fast and fun."

I don't disagree with Dave. In fact, there's a small ad for the book in today's "New York Times," which calls the book "the most important book on advertising in a generation."

Important and advertising are two words that don't usually go together. But for today, I'm not going to defend the book, or argue with Trott. He makes some salient points.

As an Ally alum, I was able to buy the Ally & Gargano book for half price. Maybe that softens my feelings.

Also, it includes the copy and photoboard from what I consider one of the greatest commercials ever: Hertz "Balloon." Written by Ed McCabe and art-directed by Ralph Ammirati. That commercial alone was worth the price of admission.

(A balloon appears. Hands remove string. Air escapes slowly, discharging a rude sound.)


"Hertz has a competitor that says they try harder.
Probably because they can't talk about anything else."
(Rude sound grows louder.)
"They can't talk about having a lot of cars to offer their customers because they only have half as many as number one.

"They can't talk about convenience because they have only half as many places to pick up or leave a car.

(Sound grows louder.)

"They can't talk about price because they charge just as much as number one.

So they make a big thing about trying hard. About all the other services a customer should expect. Automatically.

Hertz regrets that we had to do this in public.

(The air remaining escapes in a loud flatulent rush.)

"But it had to be done.

(A finger rises slowly from the bottom of the screen.)

"Rent a new Ford from Hertz. We're number one."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Copy comment without attribution.

No clients were harmed in the making of this statement.


I have never worn a shirting.
No matter how I may be hurting.

Wheres and Theres.

On the block on which I work--undoubtedly one of the grittier in Manhattan--there are a number of large construction sites. For the most part they are building high-rise, low-cost hotels here. Tourist hotels like Candlewood Express or Comfort Inn. They're all part of the un-gritification of New York. It started with Times' Square, just a few blocks away and continues on my block today. It won't be long now, I think, that there won't be a whorehouse in sight.

In any event, I get to work early and often take a minute or two watching the burly men who build the buildings that are being built everywhere. After working in advertising for almost 30 years, it's nice to see people who are task-oriented. Who know what has to be done and then, they do it.

It occurred to me watching these workmen working and these buildings being built that there are two kinds of employment in the world, two kinds of workers.

There are "wheres." And there are "theres."

The wheres carry things and say to the theres "where do you want it?" The theres reply "there."

This bifurcation is most obvious when you look at construction sites. But makes sense in our business, too.

Most people are wheres. They can create ads but they need to ask the theres for direction, strategy, a bigger picture.

You can do well in this business--as in any business--just by being a where. But to really build something wonderful, you need the planning and the vision of a there.

I suppose there are job sites--and there are agencies, too--where there are no practicing theres. There are plans made by theres. But the wheres get very little insight, enthusiasm or energy from the theres. The wheres operate according to plan, according to best practices.

It's not the same as having a there. As having inspiration.

You're annoying me.

About a year or so ago I began seeing online ads (Mac vs. PC) on The New York Times' site that dominated the screen. The units ran basically the width and depth of the Times' homepage and were very intrusive.

But because they were from Apple and I'm used to liking what Apple does, I didn't mind too much. I turned on the volume and watched.

Of late a few other companies have taken to buying the same media. Every day, or nearly so, they take over my homepage and stop me from seeing and reading what I want. Mercedes had a unit. Xerox. A while ago, BMW. I am annoyed.

The point that Apple gets and most other don't is simple. You need permission to be an asshole or people resent you.

Apple has earned the right to be intrusive. Their legacy of 30 years of intelligent, informative, useful and entertaining commercials have allowed them to interrupt my newspaper reading. Everyone else who has taken this space has just sucked out loud.

There's an equation here that along the way has been lost. Advertising is an interruption. If you don't make that interruption worthwhile to the viewer, you just piss them off. It really is that simple.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Come along for the ride.

About a decade ago began the best five year run of my career. I produced consistently--a lot of work, and all of it was good.

I am an inveterate filer. When I write an ad, I date and file every version of the copy, I mark every copy change. Maybe that's the historian in me. But I like to be able to look back and see the path I took to arrival.

Now during that aforementioned streak in my career, people would say to me, "your clients must be great, approving your ads as you create them." That's when my near obsessive filing would serve as a ready example. I'd open a folder I'd created and show them the 37 drafts of the copy I had written. My clients are no better or worse than any others, I would say. It's me. Along the way I have learned two things.

1. Be dogged. The difference between a good agency and a bad one is that bad agencies let clients make ads worse and good agencies keep coming back with better work.
2. Accept journey-ness. Nothing in this business is easy. If you think that the course to great work--or even work that isn't great--isn't undulating, frustrating, enervating and lots of other -atings, you're delusional.

There are no more needle-dicked clients today than there were in the heyday of advertising. There's no more reliance on pusillanimous testing procedures. There are no more client wives who don't like the color yellow.

The trick, as my brother the lawyer tells me, is to look your obstacle in the eye and say, you may be smarter than me, you may have more power than me, you may have more money than me, but in the end I will wear you down.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Bill Bernbach story.

Almost 30 years ago I went to work for a Hall of Famer, Ron Rosenfeld, who co-ran a hot mid-sized shop in New York. Ron was, perhaps, the most awarded copywriter of the 60s. Reputedly the first copywriter to earn $100k.

I got to work with him, closely, and I expected pure, unalloyed genius to come flowing from his orifices.

Instead, what I heard was 80% drivel, 15% passable, 5% good.

About the same as you'd get from any copywriter or art director.

Sometimes you'd get from him 100% drivel.

Over the 20 months I stayed at this agency, I got friendly with an old-timer who sat in the office next to mine. One night, late, I asked the old-timer what had happened to Ron. Why was he so, well, mediocre?

The answer I got was this:

When Ron worked for Bill Bernbach, he would write 100 lines. Bernbach would circle the three stellar ones and say, "sell those."

Ron, at this point in his career, didn't have the strength or will to write 100 lines anymore. He just wrote three.

He got bad because he stopped working as hard as he needed to.

A lesson to remember.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

And now for something completely stupid.

Adweek reports on a Gallup poll that claims that 53% of workers feel they are "paid about right," vs. 43% of workers who say they are "underpaid."

Further the poll reports a "growing satisfaction with one's pay...In 1991, 13 percent of Gallup's respondents said they were "completely satisfied" with the amount they're paid. The figure rose to 23 percent by 1999 and to 31 percent in 2006. It slid back to 26 percent last year before rebounding to 31 percent in the new survey."

According to my "Linked-In" account, I have 556 "colleagues." And I have nearly 500 Facebook "friends." I don't know a single one who is satisfied with her pay or thinks she is paid "about right."

I've often felt that the only thing a Gallup poll is good for is determining whether a horse is cantering, trotting or galloping. And studies like this confirm my prejudice.

Some post Labor Day Socialism.

When visiting London in 1931, Mohandas Gandhi was asked by a British journalist what he thought of Western civilization. He made this famous remark: “I think it would be a good idea.”

That said, if you think about the history of civilization, most "great" empires have been built on slavery, or a nicer phrase for slavery--cheap labor. Very cheap labor.

Basically what's going on in the West is a war waged by the plutocrats against the middle class. There is a concerted effort to drive the cost of labor out of the system. We have off-shored jobs to places where 12-grains of rice constitutes a buffet, to lands where if you make $100/week you are doing well.

As the BBC recently noted: "never before in history has so many worked for free." Or nearly free.

I think of our industry (and I am one of the lucky ones) where no one is more than a hair's breadth getting canned. Complain about your working conditions? Your salary? Anything?

Doing so makes as much sense as an astronaut complaining about weightlessness. Shit man, being treated like shit comes with the territory.

We are all Willy Lomans roaming around with no place to go, no sales to make and no hope for a better tomorrow

A man is not a piece of fruit. You can't just eat the orange and throw away the peel.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The best job I ever had.

When I was 18 I answered an ad in the paper and was hired as an assistant aluminum sider. I was hired by two cousins, Frankie Amendola and Olindo Nocito. They were the owners of the business and my bosses, though I dealt mostly with Frankie because Olindo spoke mostly only Italian.

I would show up at their house around 6:30 in the morning, pile their tools in the back of their beat up blue Ford pick up and we would drive to a job site. Usually a job site was a shingled house whose owner decided he wanted aluminum siding.

The first thing we did when we arrived at a site was set up a scaffold so we could jack two 2x8" up and down and thus scale the house. At first I found this scaffold upsetting and rickety but after a week or so became as steady on the platform as a mountain goat.

Once we had the scaffold set up, it would be time for Olindo and Frankie to leave one job site for another. But I was to stay behind and remove all the shingles from the house where we set up the scaffold.

I was given a crow-bar and a hammer and told to strip the house down to the insulation. This task was a big one and one of utter destructiveness. A good run with the crow bar could get you five or six square feet of old shingle flying off. The shingles would fly everywhere and then I'd have to collect them and bag them in torn burlap sacks that we'd empty out at the dump.

Around 5 or 6 Olindo and Frankie would come driving back, usually with some beer for themselves and orange soda or a beer for me, depending on how much they felt like ragging me. The house would be done and I be in the shrubbery cleaning the stray shingles out of the bushes and generally straightening up. Olindo and Frankie were adamant about job site orderliness.

There was something delightful about this. Muscle, sweat, shingles and beer in the heat and the sunshine. Nobody watching over me and a simple task to fulfill.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Sunday.

Today we decided to see the new George Clooney movie, "The American." $13 a ticket in my neck of the woods. (The movies were a nickel when I was a kid.)

We were planning to go to a 7:15 show but dropped by the box office at 10:30 to get tickets. Didn't feel like paying a Fandango "convenience" charge. Of course, at 10:30 the box office wasn't open, even though there was an 11 o'clock show scheduled. So we went home empty handed.

Later we had brunch with friends. Told them we were intending on going to the movies. They promptly warned us off going because so many theaters are infested with bedbugs. They were probably alarmist, these friends. But even so, what if they weren't? And when was the last time you went to a movie theater that looked like it was cleaned any time in the last 27 years.

The New York Times reports that the bedbug infestation comes mostly from Europe. And that even re-introducing DDT--which had kept bedbugs in check for so many years but killed the California condor, wouldn't help. The little buggers have grown up resistant to the chemical.

Somehow the re-emergence of bedbugs seems symbolic to me. A return to the filth of the middle ages. A symbol of the rot of our civilization. Bugs in our infrastructure, eating away at our fabric from the inside out.

Friday, September 3, 2010


There's a trend in New York--I don't know about other cities--where young males fasten their pants below their buttocks.

No, I'm serious.

Even though the original reason for buttocks was to keep your pants up.

Every time I hear that advertising will be replaced by "conversations" people are having about brands, I think about this style of dress.

99% of the world, I don't even want to say good morning to, much less have a conversation. Come to think of it, 99% of the world, seems incapable of having a conversation.

I put my pants on one leg at a time. And I fasten them how people have since mankind started wearing pants.

I don't want to hear from anyone who does otherwise.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A story about lamb chops.

Imagine you've got a farm with a couple hundred lambs. You get the idea. You're in the lamb chop business. Over the years, demand for lamb chops starts declining. It declines slowly at first. Slowly enough so that you can say, ok, my business is still viable. But over time, you realize you're hardly selling any lamp chops at all.

Unfortunately for you, you've got a whole lamb chop infrastructure bought and paid for. Pastures. Slaughterhouses. Butchers. Feed. The whole megillah.

Now someone approaches you. He's got an idea of what to do on your lamb chop farm. He tells you that if you sew two lamb chops together, they make a pretty nice baseball glove. All of a sudden you find yourself buying that. What other choice do you have? Very few people are eating lamb chops anymore and you're losing your shirt.

So you start saying to your remaining customers when they ask for lamb chops, "You don't need lamb chops--what you need is a lamb chop baseball glove."

The thing is, you can catch a ball with two lamb chops sewn together (don't ask me how I know this) but doing so is a truly boneheaded idea. It's not what nature intended lamb chops to do.

Odd as the above sounds, advertising agencies today are doing essentially the same thing. They are saying to their customers "You don't need an ad, you need an app." Or a viral video, or a mobile idea. You get the idea.

I'm sorry if I'm busting anybody's buttons, but there are times when good old traditional advertising is absolutely the right thing to do. No disrespect to lamb shops intended.

A pissy rant.

As my old boss used to scream, "I'm being fucked up the ass by an iron rod." So right now I am in a less than affable mood. That said, please excuse this rant.

Gutenberg--not the crappy Hollywood actor, not the crappy New Jersey city, Gutenberg, Johannes, took an old olive press and about 600 years ago figured out a way to attach moveable type to it and print books.

This was the internet of its day. It basically created Protestantism--because Martin Luther's Theses were able to get wide distribution because they could be distributed in large quantities. Once distributed it couldn't be killed by the Holy Roman Empire. Protestantism was the rare viral video that actually stuck.

All this happened in the early 16th Century. The internet of its day.

Now here's the rub.

The first printed book in the world without an ecclesiastical theme, without a mention of god, didn't appear till almost 100 years later. It was 1581 when Machiavelli published "The Prince."

In other words, it took decades upon decades for people to discern how to figure out the fucking medium.

Now if you accept the fact that people, in their essence, don't change that much and our ability to adopt, adapt to and understand new technology takes time, I would argue that we haven't quite yet figured out what the internet is really for.

As my friend the Ad Contrarian points out, internet sales account for just over 5% of all retail. And less than 1% of all video consumed is online video.

Right now, the internet is like sex being discovered by a teenager. Naturally they think it's the greatest thing ever--but they also think they're the first people ever to discover it.

My point--I'm sure it's buried in there somewhere--is simple. Grand proclamations about the internet--or any new technology for that matter--are horseshit. They are incomplete. They are ill-informed. They are often illogical. They serve the purpose of aggrandizing the proclaimer. They are his or her way of showing the world that they understand things that ordinary mortals don't.

Entire ephemeral industries grow up around the best of these proclaimers. But they are like most futurists. They will be the butt of jokes in thirty years when the digital equivalent of the flying cars they prophecy turn out to be binary Buicks.

Izaac Walton and Micro-Marketing.

Years ago I was embroiled in writing a novel. (Don't worry, it never got published.) Amidst writing, I decided I needed to put my hands on a rather obscure book. I needed this book as a reference. Or just needed to hear the language of the author.

This was in the days before the internet, when there were still a few independent bookstores left in New York. I went into one of those stores and asked for "The Compleat Angler" by Izaak Walton.

"What's it about," asked the clerk who had no idea that his question was unanswerable.

"Well," I tried to explain, "it's about fishing..."

He cut me off. "Try sporting goods."

"But it's philosophy, too," I continued.

He pointed me then to the self-help section.

My point here is pretty simple. Most customer service isn't about customers and doesn't provide service. It caters--if it caters to anyone--to the needs of those buying the big selling books. In the case of a chain bookstore, help is there to stock shelves, show you where James Paterson is, and to direct you to the bathroom.

I keep hearing how micromarketing and alerts on my smart phone are going to make everything amazing--perfect even. My phone can't even complete a call without dropping it. I hardly think it's smart.

No, let's face it. In this world, you're on your own. Occasionally you'll get a message on TV, read something somewhere or get a tip from a friend that you'll find valuable. But 99.997% of all information is biased and dumb.

You may still be influenced by it. But no matter what all the marketing savants say, you're on your own.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Remunerating Ring Lardner.

My partner reminded me of a time when writers got paid by the line or the word. Maybe that was a better time. Maybe it sucked even worse than today. But in any event, it made me think of a short story by the great Ring Lardner called "The Mayville Minstrel."

In this story a small town sap is convinced by a wiseguy traveling salesman that his poetry is Whitman-esq. And that there are magazines in New York that will pay $2 for a line of poetry.


So the small town sap writes these lines:

"The Erie-Lackawanna, where does it go?
From Jersey City to Buffalo."

Brilliant, says the salesman and good for a quick $4.
But write it differently and you can make even more money. A la:

The Erie-Lackawanna
Where does it go?
From Jersey City
To Buffalo.

That's good for $8.

No real advertising point today.
Though it is nice fantasizing about getting paid per line.
Or even being valued for what you do.