Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's, 1991.

On New Year's Eve, 1991, I was trapped in my office at a midtown high-rise. I was staying all night, or planning to. The agency was pitching the $200 million global account of Poughkeepsie Woolens, and I was leading the pitch. The pitch was January 6th--less than a week away. December had come and gone and we were nowhere.

It was just a few minutes before midnight and I was still at my IBM Selectric. Suddenly a man appeared in the doorway of my office. It was David Ogilvy himself, red suspenders and all.

"M'boy," (he always called me 'm'boy,' a term of endearment.) "What are you doing here on New Year's Eve, m'boy."

"Working on the Poughkeepsie Woolens pitch, sir."

"Well, m'boy. You know that unless your advertising is built on a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night."


"You know, m'boy, the consumer isn't a moron; she is your wife."

I nodded.

"Well then, m'boy, let's see what you have." He walked to my typewriter and looked at the taglines I was writing. I had compiled a list of about forty.

"That's it, m'boy! That's the line!" And then he read it: "Poughkeepsie Woolens. We don't make woolens, we make the things that make the woolens."

"Y y you like it, Sir?"

"Like it? I love it! I'd pursue that line like a pig pursues truffles!"

With that he tossed me my coat, put on his and we celebrated New Year's in Time's Square together.

I miss the old man.


I've noticed from a lot of my Facebook friends that they are wishing goodbye and good riddance to 2010. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that 2010 was a particularly dreadful year.

I'm not really sure where this attitude comes from.

I'm not really sure what year in the 53 or so I have lived through would be or would have been something better than dreadful.

Yeah, I know, I'm hardly an optimist. But let's think about this.

During virtually all the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, the specter of nuclear annihilation hung over us. We had red alerts during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a president in Reagan who seem to think a) Nuclear war was winnable and b) It's all some kind of a joke anyway.

We had Viet Nam and major metropolitan areas ravaged by race riots and drug-induced crime and mayhem.

New York in the 70s teetered on the brink of anarchy. Soldiers shot students in Ohio. Millions of people died of AIDs. In the 50s, 60s and into the 70s, millions of black people couldn't vote, eat in restaurants, use public transportation. Disney, famous for his mice and his anti-semitism refused to hire black workers for Disneyland until 1963.

We've lived through sundry genocides. In the former Yugoslavia and in wide swaths of Africa. Pakistan and India have been pointing nukes at each other on hair trigger for about the past two decades.

We've had Bhopal. Thousands of disappearances in Argentina. American support for fascist regimes in much of the world, Chile, Viet Nam, El Salvador.

And as for advertising, we've been looking back to some purported "golden age" forever. It always used to be better.

My point is simple. There's a lot of pain and suffering in the world. Every year has millions of offenses large and small that impel wise men to think of suicide. But we get through these offenses.

Work hard. Do your job well. Take care of your family. Be nice to strangers. Try to listen.

That's all we can do.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Advertising and snow removal.

If you live in or around New York, or I suppose just about anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard, over the past week, you've been inundated with something on the order of 20-inches of snow. New York's mayor, the imperial billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has taken quite a lot of heat for the torpid pace of snow removal--particularly in the outer boroughs. I happen to like Bloomberg. The city for the most part runs efficiently. He seems to be a good manager. We've been relatively scandal-free. And we've had none of the bombastic neo-fascist crony politics of Rudy Guiliani.

In any event, the onslaught and subsequent clearance of snow has led me to think of advertising. Yes, it has.

Right now, at least in Manhattan, major avenues are clear, and many side streets are being cleared. However, at many corners, snow is piled shoulder high, with no path cut out from the curb to the crosswalk. It makes getting around difficult, treacherous and soggy.

It occurred to me that the city has done a good job of mass--clearing the bulk, but a shitty job of targeted--clearing the way for pedestrians. What you really need for effective snow removal and effective marketing is a mixture of big shovels and targeted shoveling.

Snow, in my metaphor, is indifference. Mass media (plows) can begin to clear it away, but to finish the job, you likely need one-to-one efforts (shovels.)

Too many clients, agencies, etc. in an effort to assert the primacy of their particular media have ignored that it is a combination of forces that will yield the most effective results.

"Yeah, but it sucks."

Last night my wife and I went to the Metropolitan Opera to see their production of Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande." It made me think of so much of what happens in the closed system of an agency.

Here's what I mean: The production of "Pelléas et Mélisande" was lavish. The orchestra was in fine fiddle. The performers were technically impressive.

But after two acts I turned to my ever-patient wife and said "Do you want to leave?" It's kind of hard to be critical of an opera. You're somewhat afraid that the fault for not liking it is yours--you're somehow not cultured enough or something. What's more, the tickets were expensive.

My wife looked and me and answered, "Do you want to leave?" Yeah. We both did. So, we walked out.

Very often at work, you are presented work that ticks all the boxes. The creatives relate to you the obstacles they overcame to get the work produced. The hoops that leapt through. And so on.

Yeah. I get it. I understand you worked through four weekends and missed Patricia's baby shower.

But none of that matters.

If it sucks.

Pelléas et Mélisande sucked. It had no power. It was languid, lazy and long. I don't know what demons Debussy was facing when he composed the opera. I don't really care how it was reviewed a century ago when it premiered.

All I know is I was bored silly.

And in the end, that's all that matters.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The usefulness of niche.

Somewhere along the way, some book I was reading mentioned the 19th Century Austrian composer Anton Bruckner and a particular symphony he composed, his 9th, I think. So, I downloaded the thing and was smitten. There's not much that appeals to me more than 'Sturm und Drang' (storm and stress) and Bruckner's music seemed to capture that in spades. Since that original downloading, I've downloaded more Bruckner and have found most everything he's composed to my liking.

Last night, I, uncharacteristically did not go back to work after jury duty was dismissed. It's the end of the year and I've got everything pretty much under control prior to my upcoming vacation. What's more, the case we began hearing, another bout of devastation wreaked by drugs and American drug laws, was more than a little depressing. So, I decided to stop at the last place in my neighborhood that sells recorded music to see if they had any Bruckner. I was hoping against hope that they'd have some spectacular post-holiday 50%-off bonanza I could avail myself of.

Except they had no Bruckner.

What's happened in our world is we've become bell-curved. Every industry aims to satisfy no one or nothing more than the mass of the mass. Anything that's not wildly popular disappears from view. (Yes, I can find Bruckner on iTunes, but I'm making a point here, or trying to.)

What we are experiencing is a massification of everything. Everything we can buy has to appeal to literally hundreds of millions of people lest it cut against the grain of some MBA's "go to market strategy."

What we're left with is a great bland middle muddle of nothingness. You can buy things that manufacturers (or, more accurately, marketers) want to sell you, but you can't buy exactly what you want unless it coincides with what is most wanted.

Think I'm wrong? Try to find an iPod case that protects the screen and doesn't have a belt clip. Try to find a garbage pail with a lift lid that attaches to a cabinet door. Try to find an oven-range combination with an upper oven and a lower one. Try to find Bruckner in a chain store.

My guess is that my idiosyncratic wants are shared, in toto, by millions. But because they're not shared by dozens or hundreds of millions, my wants are not met.

The same sort of group think, of course, pummels our industry as well. We see commercial after commercial that appeals, I suppose, to some purported mass. If I see one more Hyundai commercial with 20-something skinny-jeaned hipsters singing Christmas carols I think I'll shoot my TV like that guy from Wisconsin did.

I guess my point is simple, or at least I think it is. Useful, important, moneyed groups of people are being ignored by marketers and advertisers.

One last example. Saab.

Saab used to make a quirky car that had great appeal to about 35,000-50,000 Americans a year. I'm sure there's a great deal of money to be made in selling that many cars if that's how many you want to sell. But someone, somewhere (probably Detroit) said, "we can sand down the rough edges of Saabs and they'll appeal to many more people. Look, BMW sells 300,000 cars a year. With GM showrooms and marketing muscle, we can dramatically improve Saab's sales.'

Except they destroyed the brand. By making what made it special generic. By trying to make it appeal to everyone, it lost all the appeal it ever had.

Soviet history, 1917-1953.

There was an old bastard named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That's a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That old bastard Stalin did ten in.

I'm reading Christopher Hitchens' memoir "Hitch 22." In it, he cites the above limerick written by one of the foremost historians of the Red Revolution, Robert Conquest. If you get in the mood to improve your vocabulary, to hone your use of elegant imprecations and curses, and you feel like reading a bit of good writing, pick it up. Not sure that you need read it cover to cover as I am, but if you do, you're likely to find something funny on nearly every page.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Snowy New York.

It's snowing like a sonovabitch and cold as a witch's teat outside, as Salinger's Caufield would say. The wind is blowing hard, particularly on the avenues where there is no shelter to block its progress. The tide is going out and accelerates the wind as it blows down the East River and into the bay. What a perfect night to have my wife send me out for a 3-4 pound kosher chicken cut into eighths.

What I realized while walking to the kosher butcher is I can't begrudge my wife sending me on this mission. Making chicken is my wife's hobby and this is how she shares it with me. I like to read or watch Josef Von Sternberg silent movies. Three arrived in the mail over the weekend, "The Docks of New York," "The Last Command" and "Underworld." My wife likes to make chickens. We all have our hobbies.

I bundled up my big red jacket--the jacket I wear only when it seems like the world is ending. Underneath it I wear a hooded sweatshirt. I've got a big Russian hat on and leather gloves lined with cashmere. I walk past the doormen, looking nervous and hangdog. Yesterday was thousands of dollars in tips, today it's shoveling and snow-blowing.

The snow is only, at this point, about four inches deep and traffic still moves, though it moves gingerly. Usually I am an inveterate jaywalker, rushing across avenue against the light, when there is an opening. Not today. Every red light has three or four cars skidding through it, unable to stop. The garbage trucks are out, girded with plows and chains, they are clearing in force, looking like a convoy accompanying ships and guarding against U-Boats.

The rabbi-butchers are pissed that I'm in their store. Their sense of duty demands that they stay open until closing time, but they're irked I wasn't in earlier. They growl and point me to the chickens, already cut-up and waiting for my wife's uxorial ministrations.

And now I walk home. It seems to have gotten colder during the five minutes I was in the butcher shop. I make it back to my building. The doormen are out with shovels. My wife is out with her spatula.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Good writing from Jonathan Swift and A.O. Scott.

"Gulliver's Travels" with Jack Black is reviewed in today's "New York Times" by A.O. Scott, writing as Swift.

Well worth the three minutes. That is if you like satire, wit and skill.


There's a guy on jury duty with me who works for the New York Department of Sanitation. (This is one of the joys of jury duty--seriously--you are thrust together with a fair degree of intimacy with people with whom you would normally have no intercourse.) I noticed him a couple days ago, wearing his jacket with the Department of Sanitation crest on its front, a big DSNY in orange on its back and the slogan "New York's Strongest."

What struck me about this guy, this jacket and, if I may extrapolate, this demographic is that they actually wear their clothing without a sense of irony.

Ironic clothing is of course all the rage among the hipster set. They wear their trucker caps and other accoutrement, flaunting really, their ever-so-coolness.

Here's the thing. You can call such wardrobing irony. I prefer to think of it as misanthropy. A mocking of people different than you. It's not nice. It's ignorant. And it's a form of bullying.

Christopher Hitchens in his memoir "Hitch 22" draws a distinction between those who earn money and those who make it. Those who earn it build things and make things and do things. Those who make it manipulate markets, engage in sleight of hand and financial hocus pocus.

It's easy to make fun of people. It's easy to think that your hipster tribe is what everyone else aspires to be. It's easy to distance yourself from the reality of how people live, think and act.

Our job as advertisers is, in a sense, to love people. To understand. And through understanding find what's important to them and appeal to them.

Sorry for the polemic.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

You gotta have heart.

If you're a believer, as I am, that we are living through an era of panem et circenses, in which the masses are appeased by spectacles and such, you probably disdain sports as much as I do. I see no appeal and derive no charm from hopped up money grubbers playing meaningless games.

What's more, over the years, sports have gotten worse. With the advent of the 24-hour sports cycle, the proliferation of statistics threatens to overwhelm. Coverage begets data which begets more coverage which begets more data. If you want to know how good a player is, don't look at how his team performs, or what he does, consult, instead, some computer program.

This same miasma of analysis has, of course, taken over our business and those, too, of our clients. We rarely consider our gut reaction to spots. Let's look at the data is our shibboleth. Consider how we "review" people, with convoluted language and abstruse measurements that are all but meaningless. (In an advertising agency, there should be one criterion for review: "It's Friday before a Monday new business pitch. I would/would not call on this person.")

All that being said, with the New York Knicks moderately resurgent, I did read an article on the sports page this morning about a point guard for the Knicks whose name escapes me. He is favorably compared to another guard whom the Knicks, last year, passed up on drafting. And then came the kicker. The Knick's coach had this to say about his guard: “The biggest thing is that it’s hard to measure heart," D’Antoni said. “And he has a big heart. And when he gets ticked off, he’s ready to roll. You also don’t calculate what that means to the other players, who feed off that energy and that meanness and that toughness."


It's what's missing from most analysis.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Get serious.

According to this week's Advertising Age and data from ZenithOptimedia, $151.5 billion is spent on advertising in the US. That's more than is spent in Japan, Germany, China, the UK, Brazil, France and Italy combined. It's roughly $25 for every man, woman and child on Earth.

I think about this data because in awards shows, portfolios, "creativity" magazines and the like, I never see ads for real products or services.

I know we are just days from Christmas, so agencies are showing their creative prowess via holiday cards, I guess that's ok. But this week's "Creativity Online" features holiday cards from BBH, New York, Wieden Amsterdam, something called "Lappi Leaks" from Mother in London, Making a Snowflake Yours from TBWA, London and from Wunderman, "The Longest Cracker."

Advertising is a serious business. We are meant to define and propagate brands and to sell products and services. The solipsistic, self-referential trivialization of our business by the awards-industrial complex--more than procurement, more than commoditization, is ruining our business.

TV is dead, cont'd.

I ran across this graph in Advertising Age yesterday which proves irrevocably that television advertising is dead. Look how dead it is. It's growing even faster than internet advertising and is 250% its size.

Then I ran across this data from an article in "The New York Times," in an article called "The Myth of Fast-Forwarding Past the Ads."
1. Only 38% of US households have a DVR.
2. According to Neilsen, "In homes that have DVRs and among 18- to 49-year-olds, ratings for the commercials for prime-time shows rise by 44 percent when playback within three days is counted."

Monday, December 20, 2010

25 things I will not miss.

1. People who use Facebook to thank entire countries or politicians for behaving a certain way. "Thanks North Korea for not escalating."
2. Anything 2.0
3. Jury duty.
4. Engagement.
5. Advertising models.
6. Headhunters who don't return calls.
7. Agencies that don't return calls.
8. People who ask if they can borrow your brain.
9. People who show up late.
10. Clients who don't say 'thank you.'
11. Cheap hotel rooms.
12. People in finance who tell you you have 2 days to expense 2 months of receipts.
13. Timesheets.
14. Timesheet police.
15. People whose job it is to know what you're working on who constantly ask you what you're working on.
16. Agencies that want to be hot as opposed to good.
17. Best practices.
18. "Liking."
19. People who can't show you what they've produced.
20. Brainstorming.
21. Collaborating.
22. More than three rounds of changes.
23. Meetings between 12-2 in which no lunch is provided.
24. All agency emails.
25. In flight announcements telling you how to fasten a seat-belt.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A slow walk through a fast city.

Ah, maybe it's a function of age. Maybe of maturity. Maybe of wearing a heavy coat and carrying a heavy bag.

Yesterday, I got out of jury duty early and had some time to myself before I needed to be back to the office. So I put Gerry Mulligan on my iPod--music for the city--and walked from downtown, Centre and Franklin to the Strand Bookstore on 12th and Broadway.

Google maps says the walk is between 1.5 and 2.1 miles, but I walked through whole worlds. The majesty, faded, of our judicial world. The grand marble edifices with the important words. Up through the bustle and the smells of Chinatown where I'm about a head taller than everyone else. Past the Victorian ornament of the Tweed graft of the 19th Century Police Headquarters, now multi-million dollar condos. Then through Soho and hipster-ville, chock-a-block with stores selling nothing I need, skinny clothing, mostly, and impossible restaurants where the food counts second.

Finally, there was Broadway, the spinal cord of New York. The NYU-ers were out and the stores are cheaper here. My iPod now was playing Coltrane's amazing "My Favorite Things." I reached the Strand and its 18 miles of books. It was crowded like a Hollywood opening. Its narrow passages were no place for a big man with a big bag.

I stayed for about 30 minutes and found one gem. A hardcover of Pauline Kael's "5001 Nights at the Movies." Thumbnail reviews from the incisive and caustic. Sure I could find it online. They had databased the book. But that misses the point.

I paid and walked still further to the 8th Avenue subway. Just two stops till the office.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lost in Miami.

Yesterday from out of the blue I received a note from a young copywriter who is looking to move. She wondered if I would take a look at her book a provide some feedback. And, if I would help her insinuate herself into the agency at which I work.

There was a campaign for a kid's toy. A toy that's sold well for probably 60 years and needs no advertising, though their ads (spreads, of course) regularly festoon the pages of awards annuals. There was a campaign for a sneaker company impelling young wearers to graffiti rooftops rather than streetscapes. There was an ad for a dog food that talked neither about dog food nor dogs.

In all, a typical book from Miami Ad School.

Oh so cool. And oh so irrelevant.

Here's what I wrote to the young copywriter:

"I need to start this note by admitting that, while I'm not old, I am somewhat old school.

I think your portfolio is good for what it is.
But there are no ads in it.
No things that are hard to sell.
Nothing that feels like it takes a mainstream brand and helps it sell what they make
or helps regenerate and revitalize their brand.
I look for books with that kind of rigor.
Cool is not the only strategy.
How do you sell a Nissan Maxima?
What makes it better than a Camry or an Accord?
Not just cooler, but what's important about the machine,
the design, the engineering, the experience it delivers.

Yes, I come from Ogilvy and Ally & Gargano.
We examined real products with real in market problems.
That's the day in day out job of advertising.

I worry with your book.
How do I put you on an assignment for a client that spends
$10 million with my agency when I don't see any ads for
products or services?

Sorry if I'm being harsh.
And I'll admit, I think Miami Ad School has lost their way.

77% of the wealth in the US is controlled by people 55+.
Where are ads to those people?"

Thursday, December 16, 2010


One thing I've learned in my life, my life in advertising, my life as a leader of groups, my life with my two daughters, is that it's hardly worthwhile, or in any event, it's significantly less fruitful, in the absence of trust.

Maybe the notion of trust is rattling around in my brain because it's the center of so much of what goes on in jury duty.

In any event, what occurred to me yesterday is that so much of the infrastructure of client organizations is based on the absence of trust. You need to run your work through a gantlet of levels, through a labyrinth of reviews because of that absence.

Showing work to clients isn't about doing what's right, it's about doing everything they "asked" for.

And then going through eleventeen layers to show them you listened.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Don't tell me to cheer up.

Considering the paucity of "comments" I get on this blog, I get a fair amount of advice that I need to cheer up. That I am expressing disdain for my current place of employment, my clients or--my calling, advertising itself.

Let me explain why I ignore these.

I am a perfectionist. I see the world and like Ahab, I curse the gods that it is not a better place. My drive, my anxieties, my goals and my passion is to create an environment where people (including myself) can excel and by excelling create work that works for the client and touches and inspires people.

That is often not possible. I should relax and make, I'm told, "tactical retreats." To that I say, "Bosh!" and "Bosh again."

As I have written in this space before, George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I'm told my spirit is not a long-lasting one. And the people who tell me that may be right. Even my therapist tells me to take a deep breath and "let things go."

I'm sorry. That's not how I was made.

And by the way, George Bernard Shaw lived to the age of 94.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Observation from an account planner.

You don't look at the mantle piece when you're poking the fire.


Jury Duty isn't a great deal of fun. But like with most things, you can learn a lot from it.

Over the past few cases I've noticed that cops and their associated law enforcement officials speak a language that's entirely their own. It's a combination of street slang for narcotics, acronyms and other threads of language that make up jargon.

It's not unusual to hear a sentence like this, "An undercover from ICE picked up the perp for a hand to hand of an 8-ball."

That means and undercover agent from Immigration Customs Enforcement picked up a perpetrator for exchanging 1/8 of an ounce of cocaine."

Most businesses, clubs, tribes, religions, even families, have their own languages, their own patois, argot or...jargon. Charitably speaking, jargon is linguistic shorthand that helps a group communicate.

It only becomes a problem when the prevalence of jargon begins to change the way you actually think. And for the purposes of our business, has a negative impact on our language of communication.

Years ago when I worked on IBM personal computers, the client insisted on saying a particular machine was "just 1-inch thin." I fought them vociferously. No one--except a jargonnaire says "1-inch thin." It's not the way people talk and rings phony and false.

I was taught by one of the best writers in the business never to use jargon, never to use a big word when a small one will do.

That's how you make the complex simple.

Which is one of the toughest, and most important, jobs in advertising.


When I was a kid, say about nine, I was riding my bike home from school and was mugged. Just to shake things up a little bit, prior to being mugged I had meandered around a bit and rode home a different way than usual, through a different neighborhood.

I wasn't in that neighborhood long before I sensed that I was being chased--chased by two older kids on their bikes. They caught up to me and forced me to stop by a vacant lot that ran alongside the road.

I'm not sure what these hooligans intended to do with me. Kids in those days hardly carried any money, so they could scarcely go through the trouble of chasing me for 35 cents. Maybe they just felt like beating the shit out of a little kid, a perfectly acceptable hobby in the late 60s. Or maybe they thought they could do well by stealing my bike out from under me. Chances are, they were bored and I was something to do.

The two kids shoved me around a little bit. They called me a fuck. Then one of them bent over to let the air out of my front tire. As he was doing so, I karate chopped him on the back of the neck. He fell down and I rode off.

"Hey," they called after me, "We we're just messing around. Come get your tire cap." Naturally I ignored them and rode to safety.

I guess I think about this this morning because work can so often feel like being mugged--ganged up on by fools or bullies.

The only difference is there's no one to punch and you can't just ride off.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A dolt education.

Oh, you meant adult education.

Little boxes.

Last week was my birthday--or the anniversary of my birth, as my punctilious brother would point out. My wife gave me a book called "The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms" by Nassim Nicholas Talem, a Distinguished Professor at New York University.

I'm not sure about Taleb. I began a previous book of his "The Black Swan," but didn't feel he or it had the gravity to warrant a week of my leisure. I'm wary, and always will be of people who have crap like this written in their "About the Author." "...which has spent more than a year on The New York Times bestseller list and has become an intellectual, social, and cultural touchstone." Oh, just kill me now.

"The Bed of Procrustes" is a book of aphorisms. Reading it is like reading a carton-load of fortune cookies. Talem is Seth Godin with 20 more points of IQ. Or 30.

Nevertheless, here's one I liked. Maybe because it suits my mood on a crappy Monday. "They are born, then put in a box; they go home to live in a box; they study by ticking boxes; they go to what is called "work" in a box, where they sit in their cubicle box; they drive to the grocery store in a box to buy food in a box; they go to the gym in a box to sit in a box; they talk about thinking "outside the box"; and when they die they are put in a box. All boxes, Euclidian, geometrically smooth boxes."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Two kinds of writers.

There's a wonderful "appraisal" in "The New York Times" sports pages today written by veteran sportswriter Harvey Araton. The piece is called "Mensches and Mentors in the Press Box" and it's an appreciation of what Araton learned from two famed New York writers who died this past year, Maury Allen and Vic Ziegel. You can read the piece here:

Here's the part I really liked because it seemed to me to explain how so many of us in advertising deal with the pressure of our trade:

“The deadline is the enemy,” [Ziegel} once wrote in standard Ziegelese. “It’s there, at the same time, every night. You relax your fingers, and it comes closer. You can’t fake it out because it doesn’t move. It grows closer and towers over you. It doesn’t understand that you’re trying to do the yeoman thing. Or that you need a better word than fast to describe a base runner. Very fast is very bad. Fleet is a bank. Swift, nimble, speedy, no, no, no. Fast is starting to look better. There’s coffee spilled on my notes. And the stranger in the next chair is on the phone telling somebody named Sweetie he’s on the way home.”

"Allen was that proverbial neighbor, packing up as others bogged down on the transitions between their first and second paragraphs. “A billion Chinese don’t give a damn,” he would say on his way out. As the years passed, as my generation filled seats around him, some wondered if Allen gave a damn. What they missed was that in the process of writing countless articles and 38 books, he had come to realize that natural storytelling — Allen’s specialty from ballparks nationwide — was not brain surgery, as long as the ego got out of the way and the story told itself."

I guess I've always been more a Maury Allen than a Vic Ziegel. Never sweating too much a deadline, confident that the right word would be there and the larger idea was more important than the mot juste.

Or not.

There are times, of course, I struggled. I gnaw my fingers and sweat out something good.
Or try to.

Friday, December 10, 2010

New York, 1979.

I just read an obituary in "The New York Times," of a jazz musician named James Moody who died just yesterday at the age of 85. Though I never heard Moody play, at least I was never aware that I heard him play, his obituary brought me back.

When I was just 21 and a graduate student at Columbia University, there was a bar in my neighborhood, on 114th and Broadway called the West End. It was a big, dusty place, with no cover charge, where you could buy a beer for two dollars and pretty much spend the night communing with that.

But the real attraction of the place wasn't the beer or the lack of incandescence. It was the jazz. Jazz has been pretty much dieing since it was born, whenever that was, and the West End was home to dieing jazz musicians.

Just about every night featured a combo, four guys, three or five, who had played with Basie and Ellington and were now out on their own. Supplementing their social security or their savings by playing from 10PM to 2AM for, primarily, Columbia grad students.

The musicians were old pros, Ellington himself had said this about Russell Procope, a saxophonist and clarinetist whose band I used to hear: 'He's an utterly sober and reliable musician, always to be depended upon." The musicians were restrained. They were in for the long-haul. There was no longer any big time to be had. They were playing not for a hit but for their lives.

One bass player I remember, though I've lost his name, never opened his eyes. He pawed at his huge instrument like a bear at a beehive, leaning on his bass for balance. He looked like half of a couple at a dance marathon. He wouldn't be standing if it weren't for his partner.

Regardless, every once in a while, from his stand-up bass, a line would emerge, and for a riff or two, all was perfect in the world.

You might even be moved to buy another beer to nurse.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


As you may or may not know, I'm on Grand Jury duty now, hearing cases involving the Special Narcotics Task Force. I am charged to serve afternoons, from 2-5 until December 30th.

Grand Juries are meant to hear a lot of cases and act on them quickly. We are not brought together to assess guilt or innocence, we are convened to assess whether or not there is reasonable evidence that a crime or crimes have been committed. If we vote yes, the defendants are indicted and will stand trial at a later date.

I call it judicial speed dating. Cops and other law enforcement people come in, present their testimony or expert point of view and they leave. So far to a man (yes, it's been all men) the witnesses are brusque, plain spoken and emphatic.

During my mornings, before I head down to the court house, I encounter just about the opposite. I find myself in meeting after meeting where we often talk about road-maps and game plans and things I can't understand. There is no precision of language and, I suspect, little that is articulated that exists without some agenda.

In fact there is little talk about what we do and how we'll do it and a lot of talk about what we may consider doing sometime in the future or might want to research doing or even talk about researching doing.

This is probably wrong and perhaps someone will correct me.

Somewhere along the way advertising has moved from a craft to a profession. Craft industries make things, they do things. Professions talk.

Wither Twitter?

Adweek reports this morning that a mere 8% of the US population uses one of our latest "this will change everything"-technologies, Twitter.

The same study that reported this 8% statistic had reported in September that 24% of Americans used Twitter or services like Twitter.

My point here is simple and is really not about Twitter at all.

It's about the tyranny of those who but too much stake in the latest transformational technology, who buy statistics, and who believe that new technologies can change the fundamental neural capacities of humans in a year, whereas even the most vociferous evolutionist would say that fundamental human changes take something like 10,000 years.

If Twitter were really to change our brains, how we take in and send out information, we should be looking forward to a generation of humans born with enlarged thumbs.

Change does not happen that fast.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Random career thoughts.

I've been asked by an advertising school--or a school that helps "engineer pop culture" (if that's not an oxymoron) to teach a class either on putting together an advertising portfolio or on how to network efficiently. I'm not sure if I'll have the time to teach either of the course, but this morning I started thinking about this blog and how I network.

I started this blog at the behest and encouragement of my friend, partner and soul-mate Tore Claesson ( was out of work at the time, having left a big job and a big salary because the senior level people who hired me turned out to be a bunch of--dare I say it in print?--consultants? (Excuse me while I wash my hands.)

The blog was just a way for me to put my thoughts down every day. Intuitively Tore knew that I would spiritually die if I didn't write. So he bid me to write. Since Tore told me to blog, I've written nearly 2,000 entries. Some of them have sucked. Some of them are trivial. Some are more, I think, intelligent and heartfelt.

I am not a self-promoter by nature. I don't mix well. I am, in fact, a fairly virulent misanthrope. But after a while my blog led me to others'--Bob Hoffman's ( and Dave Trott's ( time, I got to know these fellas. In person or via email and I count them as people whose work I admire and maybe even as friends.

A headhunter of mine, another e connection, taught me how to use Linked In and Facebook to positive networking effect. That those two media vehicles are how recruiters and agency people search for candidates, so make yourself pretty and easy to find.

The thing about work, about finding work, about furthering yourself, is that it's work. It's work that is on-going--it never stops. Because it's your career and it's your future and it's your life.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Watching television.

Turner Classic Movies, TCM, is running a seven-part series called "Moguls and Movies," a history of the movie industry. Last night, they ran a episode on the encroachment by television in the 1950s on the movie industry's near monopoly as mass entertainment entity. "Movies are dead" was the near universal cry.

Today, 60 years or so later, people have been chiming similar death knells for television. "People no longer watch," the online luddites have claimed. "Everything is zapped and DVR'd" others trumpet.

Today "The New York Times" reported that TV, according to Steve King, chief executive at the ZenithOptimedia media division of the Publicis Groupe "is, by his estimates, still gaining share of the overall advertising market, he added, to 40.7 percent in 2010, from 37 percent in 2005." This is not the last breath, in other words, of a dying media.

My points in all this are simple.

1. Get your facts before you make a proclamation.
2. Things don't die that easily.
3. Never trust anyone who issues grand proclamations.
4. People like TV--they even like commercials when they're well-wrought.
5. Tweets, Facebook "likes" and 300x250 pixel banners don't build brands.
6. I've still yet to have a conversation about a brand.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jury duty.

I'm on jury duty for the next month unless I get released. There's a decent chance my prodigious output will slacken. I will do my best but I make no promises other than that I will do my best.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Grinning is winning.

I've written about this before but I flew into LA yesterday and was assaulted by billboards of happy people and smiling faces and I need to write about it again.

The billboards featured people smiling about the product they were offering. Traffic was slow so I really had time to notice them. I even tried to smile the way the people in the billboards were smiling. And I couldn't. I couldn't get my mouth to cooperate and my teeth to gleam. I certainly couldn't talk while smiling like that.

There are a lot of social-justice issues facing America today. Resurgent racism, sexism, ageism and more isms.

I think the worst is grin-ism. We are all supposed to be so damn happy all the time. That makes me sad.

You could learn a lot from my younger daughter.

My younger daughter is a freshman at an idyllic consortium of colleges about an hour east of LA. There, she has awakened to the wonders of pure intellectual pursuit. Specifically, she has fallen in love with John Milton (1608–1674) and his epic "Paradise Lost."

Her class decided to host a "Milton Marathon," in which they would read Paradise Lost aloud in its entirety. The subject line of my daughter's email to her entire college was "Are you into Epic shit?!" Her explanation for that assault was simple. "Kids get so many emails, you have to find a way to stand out."

So last night, by the light of the moon and an iPhone flashlight app, she and her friends read of Satan, battles between the fallen and the unfallen, heaven, hell, despair and cruel depravity.

It was heaven.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What if?

I'm 37,000 feet up in the air and I was having a digital conversation with a Linked In acquaintance who became a Facebook friend and who now seems on the verge of becoming a real friend.

What we were talking about was the failure of the Web as an advertising medium. The "10 Best" online campaigns recently selected by The One Club didn't have one piece of work that actually built a brand. Not one.

The brands in question were built on print and TV. Period.

What occurred to me while my new-found friend and I were chatting was this: the web has been called a designer's media. Design and interaction design drives it. Writers for the web often seem as important as tailors in a nudist colony.

What if we've been doing it all wrong?

What if we tried doing work that understands that words can have impact? Meaning. Power. Importance.

Statements can make a statement.

Messages can be the message.

Substance can be substantial.

Function can follow function.

Many of us are complicit in propagating well-designed sameness (if it looks like everything else, is it well-designed?) and that, simply and plainly, hasn't worked.

Maybe it's time to try something different.

A dispatch.

A writer friend writes:

"George, thanks for your note. Glad to hear things are well with the girls. Let me tell you what's going on with me:

"Yesterday I was locked in a room with clients. There were 20 of them and one of me. They said I was there to help them figure their positioning. I said, 'you're a Fortune 200 company. That's your position.' They laughed--nervously--and said, really, we have to figure out our positioning.

"They read off the positioning statements they had for their brand and their three sub brands. I said, 'you've basically used the same 100 words everyone else uses and mixed them up slightly differently.' 'That's why we need your help,' they said.

"The hours went by. I proffered freshly thought out language. Unexpected words that still described who they are. They regressed to the mean and rejected everything I had to say. I couldn't take much more so I offered to go off and write three versions for their review.

"It was the only way I could get out of there.

"The only good news was I was able to catch an earlier flight home."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reality vs. approximate reality.

Last night, as I so often do, I stumbled upon a quotation in a book I'm reading that made me think.

John Breit was a physicist who went to work for Merrill-Lynch as a Risk Manager before that firm's unregulated financial shenanigans and hubris brought it to collapse. "By the standards of a physicist, Wall Street was quantitatively illiterate. Executives learned "Standard Deviation" and "normal distribution," but they didn't really understand the math, so they got lulled into thinking it was magic. Traders came to believe that the formulas were not an approximation of reality but reality itself."

Maybe those sentences hit me hard because in advertising we do much the same thing.
We listen to 16 people being paid for their opinions in Cincinnati and we think they are reality. We see that the cool kids in Williamsburg are reality. We treat award shows and ad critics like they are reality.

Along the way to approximate reality we've forgotten life.

Anyway, here's Big Daddy's soliloquy in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

"Heroes in the real world... hours a day,
not just two hours in a game.

Mendacity! You won't...

You won't live with mendacity,
but you're an expert at it.

The truth is pain and sweat...

...paying bills and making love to a woman
that you don't love anymore.

The truth is dreams that don't come true...

...and nobody prints your name
in the paper till you die."