Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wasted motion.

For the past couple of weeks or so, the DiSano Brothers have been "deconstructing" the parking lot, a ramp and a small building across the street from where I work. Basically I've been able to watch the remarkable crane-eal dexterity of the man who's operating the Deere shown above as he destroys the aforementioned structures and then sorts and places the detritus in the appropriate containers, efficient like a laundress sorting wash.

What I've observed these past weeks is that the backhoe guy barely wastes a movement. Things go from point A to point B with nary a glitch, a miasma or an unnecessary discussion.

How I envy him.


"George," my therapist rails, "you're too Old Testament. Too inclined to see things in terms of absolute good and absolute evil. You have to soften. You have to look for the shades of grey."

What set me off this morning was an article in "The New York Times" about two prominent doctors who said they wrote a book that was in reality written by a drug company. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/business/30drug.html?_r=1&ref=health

Oh, I'll let it go.

I'll not use this as a metaphor for more macro corruptions in our world or more micro ones in our industry.

I'll let it go.

A. E. Housman (1859–1936). A Shropshire Lad. 1896.

LXII. Terence, this is stupid stuff

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Monday, November 29, 2010

More reflections and a bit of a rant.

I'm reading right now "And All the Devils Are Here," a book on the collapse of the American (and world) financial system by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera. One of the small bits of chicanery that led to the latest destruction of our world was perpetrated by ratings agencies like Standard & Poors and Moodys.

In early, more honest times, ratings were based on scrupulous analysis. During the crisis triple A ratings--the safest of the safe--went essentially for sale. If you could pay for it, you were bestowed it. After all, the ratings agencies were public companies. They couldn't afford to turn away the customers who would be turned off if they remained stringent while their competitors kowtowed to the big money boys.

It occurs to me, as I look at the output of the "advertising awards industrial complex" that much the same is happening in the advertising world.

Ads and agencies are heralded for work that may or may not be real, and that may or may not have built clients' businesses or driven sales.

The awards shows, our industry's equivalent of Moody's, bestows honors on agencies that pay huge fees. The veracity of what they are judging is someone else's department.

So we call work solipsistically created to win awards award-winning, our criterion for judging is only that it looks award-winning.

We expend our energy running around in ever-tighter circles applauding ourselves while there's real work to be done.


Advertising in Cuneiform.

There is a body of people--they are everywhere--who proudly and loudly and constantly proclaim "this will change everything. This will mean the death of all that has gone before it. This new technology is so advanced, it will supplant all previous technologies and change the very functioning of the human brain in the process."

Just yesterday Adweek proclaimed that William Morris Endeavor's Ari Emmanuel has a new way of marketing that will kill ad agencies. http://www.adweek.com/aw/content_display/news/agency/e3icb5eee0f228ca2294f3558d4d9bc779a If you're listening closely enough, you'll hear a couple of these proclamations a week.

Yesterday, I went to an exhibit at The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, part of New York University, that displayed 13 clay tablets from ancient Mesoptomania. These tablets are the work of students who were deciphering the wonders of Sumerian mathematics and using, some think, the Pythagorean Theorem some 1,300 years before Pythagoras did. Written in Cuneiform the tablets show calculations on a host of practical problems, like like calculating the width of a canal, given information about its other dimensions, the cost of digging it and a worker’s daily wage.

It occurred to me while viewing this small exhibit of just 13 tablets from about 3,700 to 3,900 years ago, that the Babylonians scratching on them probably reckoned that their work would change everything. That they had reached the apotheosis of all things and had rendered all else obsolete.

And this from a people who used the number 60 as the base of their numbering system.

The Babylonians were futzing with pi and square roots about 2,000 years before Christ.
That leads me to think that there just may be some essential human and physical truths that time cannot monkey with, some ideas, reactions and ways of assimilating and disseminating information that may be hard-wired into our common humanity. Things that just won't change.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Some numbers.

Of course, radio advertising is dead.
Of course, newspapers, and newspaper advertising are dead.
Of course, magazines and magazine advertising are dead.

Well, together, those "dead" media account for more ad spending--$135 billion, to internet and mobile's $66.2 billion.

TV, the deadest of all media, has 250% of the ad sales of the internet and mobile.
$156 billion was spent last year.

Listen, my point here is simple.

The bombast of the death-knell ringers should not over-shadow the facts.

The proper way to reach consumers is through a variety of different channels.

A new model won't do it.

Spurious claims of "engagement" won't do it.

An app, or a game, or a "viral" video won't do it.

One thing works.

Hard work.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Proof women don't get it.

Some blonde, a Victoria's Secret model, is gushing on CBS, announcing the Macy's parade. My wife comments "She actually has a bad nose."
Me: "I don't think anyone notices her nose."

A new word.

I just heard an interview on NPR's "Morning Edition" of Steven Levitan, who is the co-creator and executive producer of an ABC television show called "Modern Family." In the interview, Levitan used the made-up word "fun-miliar" for a "sweet moment that has been overdone."

It seems to me that about 97% of the faux warmth we see in commercials on TV fit that description.

It's Thanksgiving. I am pickling eels for our traditional eel dinner. I gotta go.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's all the same to me.

There's no shortage of articles and blog posts and snarky comments about the sameness of modern advertising. But it occurs to me that you seldom read an article about the sameness of the products our clients make and sell.

I just read an article in Ad Age about a "fast-fooder" called Steak 'n Shake and their hunt for a new agency. As usual in the comments section after the article there are a couple of anonymous voices decrying the work of Steak 'n Shake's former agency.

Well, from cars, to batteries, to fast-fooders, to banks, to airlines, to politicians, to agencies themselves, what does anyone do differently? Everyone is a parity product. So of course advertising becomes parity as well.

Despite what cynics say, and so many believe, our job in the industry is to present useful consumer information in an executionally brilliant way.

It would help if our clients invested more in boldness and differentiation rather than relying on some small creative fillip to make them interesting.

No matter how much lipstick you can slather on a pig, you wouldn't want to kiss it.

Best wishes from a truck.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The walls have ears. In Italy, they also have breasts.


From "the paper of record."

Sub-Prime Advertising.

There's a new book out that is getting a lot of deserved attention titled "All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis." It's by Bethany McLean (co-author of "The Smartest Guys in the Room) and Joe Nocera, business columnist for "The New York Times." You can read a "Times'" review of it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/books/review/Barrett-t.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=all%20the%20devils%20are%20here&st=cse

I just started the book last evening so I'm only 30 pages in. But already I get the point. Too many Americans--encouraged by shysters, charlatans, and fast-talkers--thought they could get something for nothing. The financial system counted on an endless supply of these dopes and bet on them. When their accounts were called, the results of having no "there there" led to the collapse we are still attempting (everso lightly) to recover from.

The above, in a nutshell, is the story of subprime mortgages. The unprincipled selling to the unqualified to gain the unconscionable.

It occurs to me that much the same (admittedly on a much smaller scale) is happening in our industry.

Call it sub-prime advertising.

The unprincipled--purveyors of as yet unproven new media are selling to the unqualified--clients who ought to have the intelligence to know better but don't--to gain the unconscionable, that is customers or prospects for pennies per.

I'm online more than 99% of the American population. I've never had a conversation about a brand, never noticed a Facebook ad, never been influenced by a Tweet or a Yelp or a poke, can't recall a single ad I've ever seen on You Tube and I don't think I've ever been reached by a piece of syndicated content.

Further, I've never gone on a product site (I don't check out Bounty's online presence when I need new paper towels.) I don't really care about the camera my friends tell me to buy.

Sub-prime advertising, like sub-prime mortgages, are a concoction, a charade, a manipulation, an alchemy that promises to turn base-metal into gold.

Even Isaac Newton failed at doing that.

No one believes in advertising anymore.

There's a myopia running around that is nearly as virulent as small pox was in 1918 or the plague was in the 1300s. It's the notion that now, today, lately, no one believes in advertising.

I'm not debating whether or not this statement is true. What I am debating is the notion that no one believes in advertising is a new one.

It seems to me that Generation End of Alphabet has this misguided view of the world before them. That they somehow conceive people of my generation, or my parents', or my parents' parents' generation were without cynicism and doubt when it came to advertising. They were fools, don'tcha see, who couldn't see through the blandishments and come ons of Madison Avenue.

All they had to see on TV was a little hammer knocking inside someone's head and they imagined they themselves had a headache and they went out and bought Anacin or some such. We were dumb, docile and dupable. All you had to do was tell us to buy something and we bought it.

The fact of the matter is, people have always been skeptical about advertising. Certainly when I grew up in the 60s and 70s, we were probably more questioning than today's generations. When Vietnam was raging, we heard government death statistics on the radio every evening--statistics that tried to tell us the US was winning the war. We knew those were lies. We weren't stupid.

If anything, I'd say that today's generations are more susceptible to advertising than previous generations. For instance, they seldom go anywhere without being festooned by logos, mini advertisements for brands they support.

I know of no evidence whatsoever that today's consumer is any more or any less resistant to advertising than any previous generation of consumers. What's different is there is now a generation of know-it-alls who seem to take particular delight in telling the world that they are smarter and better than every previous generation. (This is the same generation that wears wool hats when it's 80 degrees out, spends $7 for a cup of slave-labor coffee and sports flip flops in the city filth in the rain.)

It's so much blather. Another chapter to file under the heading "This Will Change Everything."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

New York Saturday.

A friend of mine, a long-time advertising friend, has just moved back to New York from London for a big job at a big New York agency.

She called me yesterday to ask if I had an electric drill. She needed help installing some things in her new apartment.

I ran down there this afternoon.

I have to say, there's nothing like walking around New York with a power drill and a bit kit. It made me feel like a safe cracker.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

One of those old time New York cabdrivers.

I jumped into a taxi tonight, a hybrid Toyota Prius, at the corner of 40th and 8th. I was lucky enough to get a real New York cabdriver. A 60-year old with a hack license number in the 200-thousands. (All hack licenses are numbered sequentially. A new driver today will usually have a number in the 500-thousands.)

He started talking to me when a lady with five little kids walked off the curb against the light.

"New York today," he spewed.

By the time we got to Broadway (which the mayor has made a pedestrian mall in midtown, complete with chairs and little tables) he was really roiled.

"Whaddaya think of this?" he demanded. "Whaddah they tryin' to do, drive all the cabbies outta town?"

"I've been here my whole life," I interjected.

"How old are you?" he one upped me. "I'm 60 and was born and lived here my whole life."

By now we had made it crosstown, beat a yellow light on 40th and First and were streaming up through the First Avenue tunnel near the UN.

"Remember Nedick's?" he asked. "Orange Julius? The big Howard Johnson's at 59th and Lex? I'd go in there and ask for a 'Broadway.' Do you know what a 'Broadway' is?"

"No," I admitted.

"A chocolate soda with coffee ice cream. They'd put a big hunk of coffee ice cream in. Now some places'd give you a coffee soda with chocolate ice cream. But that's not a Broadway.

"The only place left is Papaya King up on 86th. And they just re-did the place," he lamented.

"One time, I played stickball with Joe Pepitone and Phil Linz." Two ex-Yankees.

"Linz couldn't hit much," I answered.

"It was like ballet with him. Nothing got by him. I never saw a man with more grace. He hit our ball on the roof. It had to be 100 feet high! We surrounded him. 'Phil, the rules say, if y' hit one on the roof, you gotta go up there and get it.' Nobody locked their doors in those days. He reached for a quarter so fast! He flipped it to me and I ran down the street and gotta new ball. We really lucked out. 'Cause we still had the old ball.'

We were nearing my house.

"I ran into him at the bar he owned, Flick, and I told him the story. He said it was Pepitone. And I said, no, I was twelve. I know it was you."

We pulled up to my corner. I gave him his fare and a $10 tip.

It was worth every penny.

Meg Whitman, Facebook and flirting.

I've just come across two "data-points" as account people like to call them, those things in a simpler era we used to call facts.

The first is from a report from the "Pew Internet and American Life Project." It finds that at least one in five adults uses Facebook for flirting. (My guess is that the real number is 1 in 1, but who's going to admit to public flirting?)

The second is from an article in "The New York Times." It claims that Meg Whitman spent $141 million to lose the California governor's race--more than any person has ever spent on a single political race in US history.

Odd as it may seem, I believe these facts are linked.

As the efficacy of traditional marketing efforts has decreased, marketers are turning to "social media" sites like Facebook to pick up the slack. And what you've got on Facebook are scads of people who really aren't interested in much more than flirting.

The short answer is this.

There is no magic way to get people to like your brand. If you're stiff and unlikeable $141 million of TV won't do it. If you go on Facebook--because it's inexpensive and the home of a billion-eye ball-members--you likely wind up just interfering with flirting.

If you want people to like, try, use, recommend your brand, be likeable, be tryable, be usable, be recommendable.

Then your marketing dollars will work.

Truth and Light.

Yesterday Thomas Friedman in "The New York Times" wrote an excellent op-ed, "Too Good to Check" about the reaction-propagated canard that Obama's trip to Asia cost $200-million/day and involved 34 naval ships. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/opinion/17friedman.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss Friedman talks about how these "stories" start and how they get spread.

Later on I heard John Boehner assert that "America has the best healthcare system in the world" as if aphorisms made things true.

Everyday in advertising we hear our versions of these canards. "We must be on Facebook." "People don't believe in advertising." "No one reads anymore.""No one watches TV."

The speed as which these unchecked "facts" spread is rapid. Friedman quotes Mark Twain who said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Not much more I can say here. Except this.

I grew up in an era where we weren't supposed to trust anyone over 30. Now, it's best not to trust anyone. Question everything.

As I wrote almost back in September 19, 2007:

In "The Captive Mind", Czeslaw Milosz's memoir/essay/study about artists and intellectuals living under Communism in the early 1950s, he attributed the epigram below to an ancient Jew from Galacia. Makes sense doesn't it?

"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."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Uncle Slappy up for Thanksgiving.

My Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie are up from Boca for Thanksgiving, staying in our spare bedroom. Here was the conversation we had last night as Uncle Slappy was updating his Facebook page.

SLAPPY: Hey, Mr. Big Schott.
Your business, how is it going.

ME: You know how it goes, Uncle Slappy.

SLAPPY: You keep trying to idiot-proof your work...

ME: That's right, Slap.

SLAPPY: They keep making better idiots.

With that Uncle Slappy went to his room to watch the Knicks lose again.

The early years.

When I was 21, I graduated from college without really having any clue as to what I wanted to do with the next 60 years of my life.

Though I had no interest in it whatsoever, I found myself that Fall at the Dental School at Columbia University in the City of New York. I figured though I wasn't dying to be a dentist, it's good, steady work that pays fairly well. Further, dentists rarely work late, so I reckoned I could earn a good living and still have time leftover to pursue my true interests: to write my novel, to play basketball in the park with my friends and to take my long and solitary walks in and around New York.

Dental school was tough. I was never particularly adept at biology and my skills in chemistry ran to the more theoretical than experimental. Nevertheless, though I constantly mixed up incisors and bicuspids, I graduated from dental school--a newly minted dentist--in late Spring on 1983.

Suffice it to say, I quickly found that practicing dentistry wasn't for me. One patient of mine--he was the Executive Creative Director at Lowe and also needed a lot of dental work, took a liking to me. Without me even having to put a book together he offered me a junior copywriter job. I resisted for a while, but eventually hung up my drill and took the position.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Smile when you say that.

There are athletes, I've known a few of them, who do what I call the anti-psych. Before a big race or a big game, they warm up and proclaim, "oh, my shoulder is sore." "I haven't got it today." "My legs feel heavy." Or some such. And then they go out and mop the floor with their competition or they turn in a personal best.

There is an extremely annoying trend in the world that says "we must be smiling and happy or it will be bad for morale and no good work will get done." In fact, someone initialed HG just commented on one of my previous posts thusly: "Such a negative vibe. Guys you get paid to be creative. Stop the hitching. Find joy in what u do."

This is of course extreme and unvarnished bushwa of the highest (or lowest) order (or odor.) Some times creativity comes from anxiety, or anger, or hatred. It doesn't come, some times, from sugar and spice and everything nice.

Some people are ornery cusses. Some people aren't people people. Some people just want to be left alone.

If I were to give voice to my paranoid side I'd say there is a conspiracy of hr-ophiles who support diversity and inclusion in everything but mood and temperament.

I am not and never will be the happy-go-lucky sort. That doesn't mean I can't do what is asked of me. My deeds and my performance inspire. Leave the smile to cheerleaders.

I'm paid to write ads. Not tiptoe through the fucking tulips.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Beware of Fog.

Beware when you see words like: "evolutionary change." They usually mean you work with and for the timid.

Beware when you see phrases like 1.0, 2.0, beta. They usually mean you work with people who can't make a decision.

Beware when you hear words like "research shows." They are usually the province of people who will use any available scrap of data (real or purported) to undo what needs to be done.

Beware when you read someone's done a "shit load of work in a little time." It usually means there was a lot of wasted effort before a direction was found.

Beware of people who talk of "branding." It usually means they want the logo bigger.

Beware when people talk of "rebranding." It usually means they want the logo bigger and what to charge $1 million for it.

Beware when people talk about marketing as an "experience." It usually means they are well-spoken charlatans.

Your nose. Is it clean?

There's an article in this week's "Adweek" about the difficulty some major agencies are having in filling Chief Creative Officer positions. The article starts this way, "To succeed as a chief creative officer these days you have to be a double threat: possess great traditional media chops and be deeply versed in digital. But guess what? That ambidextrous talent pool is tiny, if it even exists at all at that senior level." You can read the entire thing here: http://www.adweek.com/aw/content_display/news/agency/e3ic1904d9b2e94022a93f57b686bfe917e

It seems to me that the trouble agencies have in filling the CCO role doesn't come merely because they are looking for "double threats" but because they are looking for "triple threats." My guess is they are seeking a versatile "ambidextrous" creative, yes, but they are also looking for someone who is squeaky clean. Someone who hasn't pissed someone off along the way. Someone who gets along and is unoffensive.

Now, I'll admit I have no proof behind this allegation other than having worked for holding companies my whole life and being an observer of their ways.

You move up in agencies these days not based on work but on your ability to chart a middle course. Don't fight too much. Don't be loud. Let it go. OK?

I'm probably wrong in this. I'm probably pissing someone off. I probably should have kept this to myself. Or posted it anonymously.

But I didn't.

And I'm no CCO.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My father and the boat.

There’s a picture of me as a little boy that has survived all of the to-ing and fro-ing of my family’s life, all of the packing, all of the moving, all of the shifting, all of the plenty and need-for-newness and disposability of mid-20th Century America.

In the picture I am about four. I wear a sailor’s cap, white with my name embroidered on it in gold script. I am standing in our small backyard in front of a small wooden rowboat that my father had bought for $10 from a place on the Long Island Sound that had had that rowboat in its rental fleet.

The paint on the boat was flaking, coming off in large chips and white. Its trim was likewise flaking and red. They were paint chips that would today have the EPA after you. But I suppose in its day, the little rowboat, powered by a 1½- or 3-horsepower engine or two heavy wooden oars, looked jaunty and rentable. Something the Italians who lived near the Sound could take out by the hour, the half-day or a day and catch mossbunkers, sea bass, mackerels and blues. Fish they would cook for their families.

Now, of course, the boat was a thing of the past. Damaged by time and tide. With the bottom rotted out. Unseaworthy.

My father’s intent was to fill the boat up with sand. It would be our sandbox, my brother and mine. But until my father went to the hardware store to buy six or seven 50-lb. bags, the boat was presented to us as a place of adventure and swashbuckling. My father would sit on the gunwales as my brother and I scurried over the hull like hermit crabs.

Without the white sand from some distant and faraway shore, he saw the structure as a place where pirates fought and died, where whales were harpooned. A place where we could sight U-Boats and sink same. A place where we were the skipper or captain, where we took no prisoners and better men than we were keel-hauled or made to walk our plywood plank.

The front of the boat—I guess calling it the bow or prow would be most accurate, came to a sharp point. There was a small storage area there, closed off by a door. To me and my brother, this was a cabin, and the boat our cabin cruiser, riding the waves with bright white smiles, coca-cola and laughter. The front area had enough space for a few life-preserves, coils of rope or an anchor. In a pinch, if we were playing hide and seek or just goofing around, one of us—not both, could squeeze in and shut the door behind us most of the way. This became our secret place. A place where we could scarcely be found if we needed to be lost.

My brother and I spent a million daylight hours in our boat, knocking nails in it when we felt like hammering, painting it with our tiny water-color kits when we felt like painting, sanding it when as we dreamed of making it spiffy and sea-worthy. On occasion, in the evening, when my father made it home from the City when it was still light out, he would come out to the boat and drink his drink while he watched us play.

One such evening my brother was chasing me or I was chasing my brother over and around our boat, our bare feet scampering over the wooden planking. My brother stopped short trying to make a turn and fell to the bottom of the boat screaming. Blood was pouring from the bottom of his foot. A two or three inch splinter had broken off the old boat and had wedged inside his foot. My father lifted him off the ground and ran along with me to his Studebaker. He drove to the Cross County Hospital, a blue-brick low-rise in one of America’s first shopping malls. It was the hospital I was born in and next to a restaurant called Adventurer’s Grille that served hamburgers. There, the emergency room doctor removed the serrated splinter and cleaned and bandaged the wound. He made my brother, in the words of my father, “good as new.”

In my father’s car driving back home, my six or seven-year old brother hurt my father worse even than the splinter had wounded him. “Why can’t we have a sandbox that’s just a sandbox?” he asked.

My father silently guided his Studebaker home. He parked the car and sent us into the dark, little house. He went right to the backyard and set to work.

He rocked the boat back and forth against the turf it had settled into to wedge it out of its resting place. He then pivoted the boat around and first dragged, then pushed the boat to the curb, it's keel abrading a shallow trench in the sod. The next morning the garbage men wrestled it into the back of their truck and hydrauliced the boat to smithereens.

We never did get another sandbox. Or another boat.

Here's how it happened.

It's fairly obvious, at least to people of my generation, that "rust never sleeps." That is, the inevitabilities of entropy have pretty much destroyed all that we used to hold dear.

Oh yeah. This is a little dark for a Friday, ain't it. Lemme start over again.

Somewhere along the way, I think it was USA Today that kicked it off, some bright boy said, "TV is picking up viewership while print readership is dropping. The way to amend that is to make print more like TV."

So rather than examine what made or makes print strong, they threw all that out. Newspapers became filled with soundbites of information, gossip, celebrititis, crap. Newspapers became more like TV, and in turn, TV became more like gossip magazines--which were picking up readers at a spectacular rate since the advent of rags like "Us" and "People."

I know this is complex, so maybe this example will clarify. Let's think about movie theatres. At one time they were elegant escapes from the everyday. A program included the feature, a short and maybe a few cartoons. The silver screen was vast and transportive.

Then movies started losing out to TV. What did theatres and studios do to fight this? They shortened programs. They smallerized their screens. They made their offering more like that which was killing them rather than strengthening what they alone could do.

A couple of nights ago I saw Donezetti's "Don Pasquale" at The Met. In the program was the above ad for BMW. It made my skin crawl.

For more than two decades BMW, by way of Ammirati & Puris (in the US) did work that redefined what an automobile should be. And made BMW the gold standard. Their ads were thoughtful, intelligent and motivating conversations about what's important in a car.

Now the brand and their just canned agency GSDM have decided that print can no longer fulfill that role. It must feel more "sound-bitey" like television. Or maybe print should feel like a tweet.

Rather than thinking about what a medium can do well, what particular strength can be brought to bear via that medium, advertising agencies and clients have sought instead to emulate media that seem to be winning.

This is like the British army attacking by sea because the British navy is successful. It just won't work.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jack Levine, 1915-2010.

Yesterday I read an obituary in "The New York Times" that made me think of advertising. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/10/arts/10levine.html?scp=1&sq=jack%20levine&st=cse The obituary was of an artist I never heard of, though probably should have, named Jack Levine.

Levine was "an unrepentant and much-admired realist artist who skewered plutocrats, crooked politicians and human folly...He specialized in satiric tableaus and sharp social commentary directed at big business, political corruption, militarism and racism, with something left over for the comic spectacle of the human race on parade."

Speaking of advertising, or as it should perhaps be more appropriately called "fadvertising," Levine railed against "abstract painters," calling them space cadets. His iconoclastic stance relegated him to the fringes of the art world.

“I am alienated from all of these movements,” Mr. Levine said. “They offer me nothing. I think of myself as a dramatist. I look for a dramatic situation, which may or may not reflect some current political social response.”

According to "The Times," "the onward march of abstraction and avant-gardism relegated him to the margins."

In Levine's own words, “I made quite a splash in the art world in the 1930s, and it seems to me that every year since I have become less and less well known."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pamela Harriman and good writing.

Pamela Harriman was married to Winston Churchill's son Randolph. She was frequently cited as "the 20th Century's greatest courtesan." She had affairs with Averell Harriman, who would much later become her third husband; Edward R. Murrow, John Hay "Jock" Whitney, Prince Aly Khan, Alfonso de Portago, Gianni Agnelli, and Baron Elie de Rothschild.

Here's the part I like. And why I won't give up believing words matter: "she was unkindly described as having become 'a world expert on rich men's bedroom ceilings'."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Semantically weird.

Down by the River. Again.

Last night, late, long after I usually go to bed, I was restless and wrestling with a decision I need to make. So I did what I frequently do. I put on a comfortable pair of shoes, snapped the leash on my dog and headed down to the river where thoughts run as steadily as the waters.

The river is a musical score. A symphony of rises and falls. Of soaring passages and lulls. Of adagio and allegro. If you know how to see it and hear it, the river speaks like Lester Young's saxophone or Miles Davis' trumpet.

The river started slow and simple last night. It was quiet and whispering. It didn't have much to say. It was like the silence in a Terrence Malick movie. Then as I walked further uptown, I reached Hell Gate, my destination. Hell Gate. The narrow strait, the confluence of flows where waters churn and boil regardless of time and tide.

I stopped there pondering my own private Hell Gate. I leaned on the wrought iron and looked out on the waters boiling and roiling. I spit and saw it disappear. After some minutes an older Puerto Rican man--another denizen of the waters, stood and leaned beside me.

"Jew ho kay, man?" He touched me gently on my shoulder.

I examined him vigilantly. Was he here to mug me? Was he a pervert? Could I take him? When he checked out ok, I answered.

"Just thinking. I think best here."

He offered me a cigarette and a swig from his pint. He lit his smoke expertly against the wind, cupping the match so I could see his face like a Hollywood close-up. He had kind eyes that were deep like the water. He took a quick gulp from the bottle. Hennessy.

I explained myself, my night-time pensiveness.

"Look," he said to me, his heavy accent gone. "Regardless of what it is, it comes down to two vectors." He was sounding like my therapist now. "You deserve to do what you want to do. You deserve to do something for yourself."

"Yeah, but..."

He cut me off like a conquistador with a machete.

"It comes down to two things. You pay now or you pay later. And it's money or life."

He pushed back from the fence and left me alone with my dog staring at the white water.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Butt butt butt.

I'll admit, open as I am, I got a call tonight from a head-hunter. They find you, these head-hunters do. Especially when you work at a hot place (which I do) and when you've worked at hot places (which I have.)

This particular head-hunter was from off the beaten track, head-hunter-wise. Not one of the ones you've heard of. One of those big, corporate ones who don't usually deal with creative types. I could tell that right away. But I'm polite. I decide to hear the fella out.

Until, that is, he is obviously reading from my "linked-in" profile and is asking me to describe each job I've had over the past ten years.

I quickly got off the phone when he called Hal Riney "Hal Heinie."

Banana ad agencies.

Yesterday Nicholas Kristof had a nasty op-ed in "The New York Times" called "Our Banana Republic." http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/opinion/07kristof.html?scp=1&sq=kristoff%20banana&st=cse For those of you who think a Banana Republic is an over-priced clothing store that vends preppy clothes made by slave laborers in South East Asia, Kristof is instead referring to societies with vast disparities in wealth.

Here's some data for you--visualized the old-fashioned way, with type. The richest 1% of American society eats 24% of the American pie, up from just 9% in 1976 (when we had progressive taxation.) In 1980 C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker. In 2001, they earn an average as 531 as much. (If the average agency salary is $50K, that would put a CEO at $26 million.) And from 1980 to 2005 more than 80% of the total increases in American incomes when to the richest 1% of Americans.

Of course this inequality is not sustaining.

But let's think about ad agencies for a moment, where holding company chieftains make tens of millions. Where rank and file workers are salary frozen and hung out to dry during periodic RIFs. (Reductions in Force.)

No real point in this other than a reminder to keep your head down and keep working.

Friday, November 5, 2010

ee cummings haiku.

maybe ee was
just too tired to press the
shift key. low iron?


There's a bit of a hubbub in the ad industry because the vaunted Nielsen organization has undercounted time spent online by 22%. They blame this error on a "computer glitch."

I think the real errors from data come not from computer glitches but from MBA itches.

These days, we test everything. Data proliferates like rabbits mainlining Viagra. We issue decks, reports, studies and white-papers. We reach conclusions. We proclaim proclamations.

In so doing, we mostly prove whatever we want proved. We've got reams of data to back it up.

The fact of the matter is 99% of statistics lie and 99% of all data exists solely to create jobs for people to create, analyze and act upon that data.

As it says in "Proverbs,"
"Wisdom is the principal thing;/therefore get wisdom:/and with all thy getting get understanding."

I'm not for a moment saying data is useless.
But it is useless when it becomes a) an end in itself or b) an excuse to do nothing.

A dicta.

Yesterday, a doe-eyed project manager came to me asking me to anticipate the number of hours a project would take. She showed me the spread sheet she had created which had 2X hours for writing the piece and 1X hours for revisions.

"Oh," I said, "your ratios are all wrong. These days it's 1X for writing and 4X for revisions."

Since that conversation I have been plumbing the depths of my memory, trying to discern if it were ever thus. If the amount of time to "tweak" the work was always the amount of time needed to create the work.

However, I think what's more important than my memory is this simple dicta. The more layers, the worse the work.

Of course substantive errors must be corrected. Of course there are client exigencies that need to be considered. Of course the CMO's nephew hates the word parsnip. Of course no one knows that "app" is accepted shorthand for application. Of course we need to mention our office in Turkey.

Most every client in the world complains about advertising agency fees. There's a simple way to remedy that. Remember: The more layers, the worse the work. And the more costly.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The genius of stupidity.

One of the prominent features of Facebook is that it makes things devastatingly simple. It's easy to keep in touch with "friends." It's easy to be "friends." It's easy to make "friends." It's easy to have "friends."

It's also easy, of course, to express yourself. And why bother with hierarchy and order? That's too complicated, nuanced and "elitist." Simply divide the world into two: Those things you like and everything else.

So I like:
Anti-Leprosy efforts.
Over-priced coffee.
American Idol.
Saving Darfur.
Witches in politics.
Jenn Cook's photos.
Puerto Vallarta.
Air Safety.

Orwell, that prescient seer, warned us what would happen when the Thought Police and their accoutrement were successful at limiting the number of words people use. Words are symbolic representations of thought. Our thoughts have become simplified to the point of banality.

As Christopher Hedges wrote in "Empire of Illusion," Our world is being divided in two. "One, the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world, that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other, a growing majority, is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. In this “other society,” serious film and theatre, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins."

I like that. And Skittles.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Some New York memories.

This post has absolutely nothing to do with advertising, Madison Avenue or nearly anything else. But I'm taking a break from thinking about the spots I'm working on and this circulated through my cerebellum.

When I was a kid, Manhattan was a very different place. The Upper West Side where I lived, was a bit of a battle zone. You thought twice about being mugged when you went out late. Often, when I was working nights, I'd weave my keys between my fingers so I'd be able to cut someone if they tried to assault me.

Graffiti, of course, was everywhere. And unless you lived out in the suburbs, you didn't regard it as a nascent art form. It was a threat. An indication of a social break down. Mind you, before the 1977 blackout which led to days and days of extensive looting, most stores and businesses didn't have pull-down gates. After the blackout, every business did. It seemed, something like today although for different reasons, that civilization was absolutely coming to an end. The city seemed out of control.

There was a supermarket, it's still there in fact, on Broadway between 74th and 75th called Fairway. That part of Manhattan had an inordinate number of older, widowed Jewish women living on pensions. Every Tuesday Fairway held what I called "Bruised Fruit Tuesday." A big bin of damaged fruit would go on sale. You could get a cantaloupe for 19 cents or a honeydew for a quarter.

To my mind, Bruised Fruit Tuesday was the most dangerous New York got. Those old Jewish ladies would cut you down for a bag of plums.

It's bad enough.

That my holding company makes us watch "Corporate Security Videos" written at a 4th Grade-level. It's even worse when they contain typos.

"The intruder was 'waived' in."

Here's the other thing. You can read about five times as fast as you can listen. Having this faux powerpoint crap read to you is a waste (or waist) of time. Further, you could probably run the VO at 1.75 times speed and not lose any comprehension.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What country is this?

There's a weird perception on Madison Avenue that most of America earns their living painting surfboards. If they aren't painting surfboards, most of America are pushing their grandchildren on a swing set placed mysteriously in the middle of the woods. Or maybe we're meeting dark-eyed and sultry lovers in a cobble-stoned square in some Mittel-European city that somehow escaped destruction during World War II.

There's a weird perception on Madison Avenue that clueless schlubs who live to watch television and drink beer, for whom tragedy is running out of salsa, get pert blondes without a scintilla of body fat and assertive little breasts that are eager to introduce themselves through their blouse.

There's a weird perception on Madison Avenue that happiness and fulfillment is contingent on how many bars you have and can be purchased for $49 a month with unlimited texting.

There's a weird perception that people dance spontaneously when they are happy. High-five their co-workers. Have sardonic and well-groomed children. That our entire nation can raise a single collective eyebrow as a national display of irony.

Have we as a nation completely forgotten about waxy yellow build-up?

Mathematics don't lie.

I've looked into it. I've done my homework. I've examined it with a high-powered electron microscope. But no matter how hard you try, there's no denying or defying mathematics.

A TV spot, no matter how much crap you want to put in it, or are forced to put in it, is only 30 seconds long--720 frames. No physics in the world, unless you can surf a beam of light, can change that.

I know you have a lot to say. I know everything is your number one priority. I know this is very important. But math is math.

Sorry. I can't change that.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I and Thou.

No, I amn't going all Martin Buber on you. What I want to talk about is the word "we" and how it's used in agencies today.

When I work with a partner (which is, unfortunately, becoming less and less frequent) I always use the pronoun "we." As in "We came up with this." This is out of respect for partnership and in full understanding that my partner will carry me during those times that my brain is fallow. We do work together. So no matter who comes up with the actual idea, "we" did the work.

What has happened more and more in agency life is that corollary job functions have arisen to "support" "creative development."

(I feel about as supported as a 97-year-old's scrotum.)

Just now, I got a note from a doe-eyed project manager. She is writing to the client about some work I have to do.

"We will move forward with refining this approach as well as build an estimate and scope. Let us know if you have any additional thoughts as we forge ahead."

So far as I can tell, I will move forward with refining this approach. We has nothing to do with it. And as far as "we forge ahead" goes, I'm going to grab an overpriced sandwich in a little while, sit at my desk and eat it.

Then when we are good and ready, we will belch, we will wash our hands, we will brush our teeth and we will forge ahead.

Inevitably the talk in the agency business these days comes around to a discussion about agency models.

Usually these models involve chevrons, interlocking circles and inverted pyramids. There is talk about matrices and depending on whom you're speaking with fractal factorials.

There's one agency model that makes any kind of sense.

Keep working until you do something that gets noticed and makes a difference.