Monday, February 28, 2011

Frank Buckles and Raymond Bernard.

Frank Buckles, the oldest living World War I American soldier died yesterday at the age of 110 in his home in Charles Town, W. Va. You can read his obituary from "The New York Times" here:

While I was reading Buckles' obituary I remembered one of the most powerful pieces of anti-war film I've ever seen, from "Wooden Crosses" by Raymond Bernard. You can see it on the video here, starting at about 1:15 in.

The Art of Persuasion.

The Weekend Wall Street Journal, that intelligent but cheerily fascist newspaper, had an interesting article about propaganda in the 20th Century. I'm cutting and pasting the entire thing here because WSJ firewalls prevent the riff-raff from seeing the paper.

"Human beings have long used art to try to influence one another. The new book "Propaganda Prints: A History of Art in the Service of Social and Political Change" by Colin Moore (A&C Black/Bloomsbury Academic & Professional) surveys the field, from ancient Sumeria to the present.

The Roman emperor Augustus issued coins emblazoned with messages like "Peace and Victory." And Benjamin Franklin created his famous "Join or Die" woodcut of a severed snake in 1754 to plead for colonial unity.

Propaganda from the 20th century spans a wide range of world-changing events, from China's Cultural Revolution to the Cold War. Here is a look at some of the book's posters from the conflicts and public campaigns of the past hundred years."

Here's a selection of prints printed in the article.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


After I got out of high school there was nothing I wanted to do less than start college right away. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in learning, in getting my degree and in getting an education, I had just had too much of people, too much of the incestuousness of the town I grew up in. In short, I needed to get out and be by myself before I filed myself into a dorm room at Columbia in New York City.

I was lucky in a way in that when I graduated from high school I was just 17, the youngest in my class by a good half a year. My relative youth made it so I could bum around a year before college and still enter as just an 18 year old. I deferred my admission, took $1,500 I had saved from various jobs and chores I did out of the bank and against the imprecations of my parents hit the road.

My idea was to walk across the country, from New York to San Francisco and to see what trouble I could get into along the way. The way I figured it all out was pretty simple. I could walk 30 miles a day without too much strain—that’s 10 hours of walking at a moderate pace of three miles an hour. I reckoned I’d have to walk 150 days to make it out west. 4,500 miles of meandering to cover what would be 2,700 miles on a straight line. I was very analytical about everything.

I loaded a big hiker’s backpack with a tent, some blue jeans and other sundry stuff and set out to become a hobo. I was a big kid, just about two-inches higher than six-feet and pushing 200-pounds so I didn’t worry much about being mugged or gang-raped, but to be on the safe side I carried a fairly assertive knife in my pocket and had a 9-inch serrated scuba knife strapped onto my right shin.

The day I started out it rained. My parents urged me to wait a day until the weather cleared but I was too itchy to get going—to get away from them, from where I had lived, away from my friends. To get away from everything. To that end, the rain was enriching. I welcomed it like presents on a Christmas morning. It soaked me and cleansed me. It washed the crap of suburban New York off me, off of my clothes. It washed away the pettiness of grade-school gossip. It washed away fear and conformity. The rarefied dust of private school life squeezed out of my canvas sneakers with wat’ry every step. I didn't know where I was going but I knew I was well on my way.

Friday, February 25, 2011

IQ. Increasing and decreasing.

One of the things we in advertising are meant to be adept in is multitasking. Our holding-company-dictated lives have divvied up our time-sheeted days into 15 minute increments. We don't even get--there's no time for one--a mental intermezzo between tasks. We are meant to flit from one to another, like flies on various piles of shit.

Once I heard a guy from the MIT Media Lab speak. His name was Dr. Michael Hawley and he had a lot to say. The thing I remember most vividly is this quotation that I've carried with me since I heard it back in 1999.

"A different perspective is worth 100 points of IQ."

Today I ran across the datum below from the "Latham's Quarterly," a magazine wholly worth your attention.

10 IQ points is a lot of points. If you're an average brain, it probably leaves you functioning at high-dimwit levels. If you're already a dimwit, you might wind up thinking like a bonehead. If you're already a bonehead, a 10 point decrease might leave you acting like a numskull.

Hipster Haiku.

Through the summer heat
He had on his woolen hat.
In cold rain, hatless.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Anyone can't do it.

It used to be if you wanted to shoot a movie or print a poster or, even, take a picture, you used to have to know a lot of stuff.

If you were printing a poster, you had to have had some training in type. You'd have to know about fonts and leading and other stuff.

Most of these skills were crafts and took time and money to master. So, if you weren't really serious about the craft you dropped off along the way. Maybe you took up ping-pong or something. You decided printing wasn't for you.

Today, any fool with a camera and a Mac can make a movie and usually does. Worse, some of these fools with cameras and Macs are good salespeople. So they go to clients and say, "Why pay "X" for a web video, I can shoot the same thing for 80 cents." Often clients believe that blather and take the bait.

I'll be really blunt about this. 99.999% of everything that's shot is crap. For every video on YouTube that goes viral there are 27 of a dimwitted college student playing Stanley Kowalski for some college drama class. Crap.

Yeah, I'll concede that a lot of production is fat and bloated. And costs can probably be cut. But a lot of costs come in the form of insurance that you, the client, aren't going to get absolute garbage--or if your concept is absolute garbage at least it will be good-looking, well-produced garbage.

This is the era of pundits proclaiming that anyone can make a movie, a commercial, can be a politician. No.

Anyone can't do it.


The penny at the bottom of the urinal on the 3rd Floor is gone.

Approval stamps.

A couple days ago I wrote a post about an Approval Stamp I had bought from JWT/Atlanta who auctioned it off.

I have to say, the stamp is a fine thing. You can stamp a clean sheet of paper with force and it makes a nice inky imprint. Stamping is also a bit of a physical release.

To that end, I noticed there is space for only nine approvals on my stamp. That got me wondering, what would a 21st Century Approval Stamp look like?

Below is my rendition:

Miracle Blight.

There's a new blight on our culture perpetrated by Kraft's Miracle Whip and the fine folks at McGarry-Bowen. The commercial, which isn't bad if you posit that people care about Miracle Whip enough to discuss it, recognizes that Miracle Whip is polarizing. You either love it or hate it and the spot urges people to "take a side." You can see the commercial here:

The commercial features two celebrities, only one of whom I recognized, James Carville. The other celebrity is, I'm told, from the cable TV show "Jersey Shore" which I have yet to watch and his name is Pauly D. In an effort to keep my fingers on the pulse of pop (or pimp) culture I decided to look up Pauly D and see what he's done to achieve his celebrity status.

So far all I can find out about him is that he's one of Rhode Island's most well-known DJ's and he keeps a tanning bed in his home. That and he has an unusual haircut, as do I.

In searching for Pauly D's bio I also found some background on someone called D Pauly. He is a French-born marine biologist, well-known for his work in studying human impacts on global fisheries. He is a professor and the project leader of the Sea Around Us Project at the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia.

I don't know how he feels about mayonnaise.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My start in advertising.

When I was about four-years-old I was all straight blonde hair and big blue eyes. I was the all-American white boy; I was cute as a bug's ear. Naturally, my parents thought they should capitalize on my looks and propel me on to stardom.

The first spot I appeared in was for a cereal that's since gone belly-up. It was by Nabisco and called Team flakes, since it was a 'teaming' of wheat, rice, corn and oats in every flake.

On the surface my job was pretty simple. I had to take a big, milky spoonful of flakes and look at the camera and smile my best all-American boy smile.

The only hitch was they didn't refresh the cereal between takes. And by take three or four, those four teamed up grains were a soggy mess. It was all I could do not to gag.

The next spot I was in was for a cereal called 40% Bran, also by Nabisco. Here I was the littlest in a group of seven or eight boys and girls. The lead boy, not me, had to swing a baseball bat and then we all had to cheer.

I remember the wardrobe girl, she would probably be about 80 now, propped me with a bright green woolen baseball cap. In the New York Yankee steeped world I lived in, this hat was quite a novelty. I remember being sad when I lost it.

After that, my parents had to make a decision for me, anyway that was the way they saw it. I could either grow up and be a stage kid, that is get in a lot of commercials and miss a lot of school, or I could grow up normal, as it were.

They stopped taking me to auditions. And I went back to Mrs. Welch's first grade.

I did have to join SAG and AFTRA, however. And my Social Security income record reports that I made almost $3,000 in 1962.

Free is what it's worth.

My wife and I got into an argument while we were in Italy about opera. We were seeing something by Gaetano Donizetti and I said something like, "I can't wait to see his 'Lucia di Lammamoor." As she does so well, she corrected me. "Lammamore isn't by Donizetti," she said. I was sure it was.

Then she handed me a list of operas by Donizetti which she printed from Wikipedia. Sure enough, there was no Lammamoor.

Well, it turns out, Wikipedia (surprise, surprise) was wrong.

A source being wrong isn't an issue for me. People and the things they build and write are often wrong. But what's happened in our digital world is that free sources of information, like Wikipedia, have forced out pretty much everything else. It's hard to find information that doesn't come from Wikipedia. So what you get is bad information. Bad writing, bad editing, bad facts, badly inconsistent. Often what you get is cereal box information--a brief scan with no real depth.

I realize railing against free "content" makes no sense if you write a free blog. I am engaging in a logical inconsistency. That said, I make every effort to act as if I'm being paid for doing this. In other words, I check facts, I try to check for typos. I try to do a good job.

The amount of banality we are subjected to from free sources is enough to make me scream some times.

The thing that tipped me over this morning was this from Seth Godin's blog, a collection of fortune cookie fluff that passes as thought. "The internet makes it easy to give gifts to large numbers of people at very very low cost. Editing a wikipedia article, for example, is a gift for the ages, one that might be seen by a million people over three years."

Sorry. That's garbage.Free garbage.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I made a mistake.

I was under the impression that JWT/Atlanta was going out of business, or had gone out of business, that's why I was able to pick up their former approval stamp for a pittance.

Well, it turns out the agency is alive and well and moving to bigger and better digs. You can read all about it here:


Quotation for a Tuesday that's like a Monday.

"He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody."
--Joseph Heller

Monday, February 21, 2011

A stamp from the past.

I read something online that JWT-Atlanta was going out of business and was ebay-ing off a lot of the relics, furniture and artifacts of its office. I bid $10 for this approval stamp and paid another $5.50 for shipping.

Believe it or not, I have fond memories of these stamps. There was a decorum, ceremony and sense of accomplishment when you signed one. You were getting an ad approved.

Today, I think, we have less ceremony about getting something out of the office and "live." Maybe that's because the volume of online work is so great we don't cherish each piece we produce. Maybe we're all just more jaded today.

In any event, I own this stamp now. And I'm bringing it to work tomorrow.

Talent acquisition.

Just recently I got an email solicitation from a "Talent Acquisition Specialist," asking me if I'd be interested in talking about such and such an agency.

I was ok with the word talent in her title. I guess I am considered talent, though I tend to use talent as an adjective and not a noun. As in "she's talented" as opposed to "she's a talent." I probably would amend the title to "Talented Person Acquisition Specialist." I'm also ok with the word specialist, though what this particular person does or has done in her life to make her a specialist, I'd like to know. I suppose if you're in the air force and you've jumped 100 times from a plane you might be considered a parachuting specialist. You might even get an embroidered patch for your shoulder. Has this person an embroidered patch?

The word that really got me was "acquisition." When you acquire something, you own it. If I am "brought in" by a talent acquisition specialist, does that particular agency then presume to own me? If I acquire a rare book, it is mine. Same for an apartment or a pair of jeans. However, when I'm shopping for dinner, I never call myself a meatloaf acquisition specialist. It all seems so linguistically imprecise and, even, medieval. As if people or talent (me) are like chattel and can be acquired.

I wrote back to the Talent Acquisition Specialist:

"Dear Talent Acquisition Specialist,

"Thank you for regarding me as talent. And I'm glad to find out you're a specialist in acquiring that talent. That said, I am not available for acquisition. Only rental. If you're interested in that, please write back.

"Sincerely, g"

I haven't heard back from her.

President's Day.

When I was a kid, and I'm not exactly sure when all this changed, we didn't have a "Presidents' Day." We had off February 12th for Lincoln's birthday and February 22nd for Washington's. In school, we even had lessons about these particular presidents and we had to do reports on them, so the holidays actually had some meanings.

My mother was strict when I was growing up and didn't want to settle for what my brother and I were taught in school. She gave us two-cents for each state capital we could memorize (that earned us a dollar) and two dollars if we could memorize each American vice president. I remember her memory trick for memorizing William McKinley's first vice president Garret Hobart. We were told to remember "attic coffee grinder." After all a garret is an attic and my mother's coffee grinder was made by a company called Hobart.

It's stupid, I know, but a time will come in which I will have lost all my short-term memory, when I have a hard time remembering where the bathrooms are in my New York apartment. But I will never forget Garret Hobart.

These days of course we have Presidents' Day off, but we don't think about presidents at all, much less vice presidents. The day is an excuse for a long weekend or for 40% off sales. In truth, in America, everything is always 40% off except for things you want. It seems that Presidents' Day is a particularly good time to buy a mattress from a "mattress professional." Sleepy's, who have the "largest selection in the world" have proclaimed this "President's Week," and everything is 50% off, plus I can get a free pillow and e-reader with a purchase of $399 or more.

Bloomingdale's is having a "Big Brown Sale" and a great selection of merchandise is now 25%-65% off. Victoria's Secret is having their "Oh, Happy Rays" sale. You can save $15 on purchases of $100, $30 on purchases of $150 and $75 off when you spend $250.

I remember reading when I was a little boy about Lincoln walking 20 miles to return a borrowed book. I don't recall ever reading anything about him buying a mattress. And I'm pretty sure Washington never bought a bra.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The guy who composed this song just died.

You can read his obit here:

He will be missed.

Mt. Vesuvius, it's erupting!

I spent a day in Italy in the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii, both in the shadow of the great volcano, Mt. Vesuvius.

Almost 2,000 years ago, Vesuvius erupted and buried the surrounding area under millions and billions of tons of ash, mud and rock. It's been estimated that the explosion was the size of two Hiroshima-sized atom bombs.

The people of the area were caught as they were--suspended in time--at the moment they were overtaken by the effluvia of the explosion. They are in eternal in flagrante delicto.

It occurred to me this morning, what if a modern advertising agency was engulfed by lava? What would archaeologists 2,000 years from now think we do, what clients do?

They would conclude, I am sure, we sit in meetings all day.


One of the things, one of the disturbing things I noticed, during my sojourn in Italy is the way in which people have their picture taken nowadays.

When I was a kid, almost half a century ago, you shot your friends or family members on a roll of film that held 12, 24 or 36 shots. You stood there, if you were being shot, and smiled and tried not to look nervous. You hoped for a good shot.

Today, people pose. They stare into the camera and scowl or glare. They jerk their bodies around and try to look tough and angular. In short, people having seen on TV how models behave when they're being shot, regular people try to act like models.

Just sitting by the Trevi Fountain one afternoon, it's not unusual to see some woman take a dozen or so shots of her bff while her bff strikes all manner of poses.

What strikes me in all this is how inculcated we all are with "how we are supposed to act." If we were dogs, our masters would say, "Look at Sparky. He's learned the picture-taking trick."

Learned behavior is not necessarily bad. But it is necessarily unoriginal. If we are having our picture taking we act and try to look like the models we've seen having their pictures taken.

Similar posing seems to me to take place within the hallowed walls of the agency world. Originality is not at a premium, referential-ness is. If your work feels and looks like something that's gone before, it wins.

It all makes me think of a quotation by, I think, the great art-director Helmut Krone. "If you can say you like it, you've probably seen it before."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Zen koan.

The systems that are in place to control costs often cost more than the costs they are meant to control.

How do you start your day?

I have a "family" doctor whom I've been seeing once a year since I was 23. Over the course of 30 years, he and I have become friendly. As he likes to say, "We grew up together."

One day, after a checkup, I sat in his office and he talked about the "semiotics" of our respective jobs. I get to wear jeans and have long hair--those are signs that say I'm creative. He must--similarly, for no real reason, wear a white lab coat and a tie. It says he's a doctor.

I started thinking about this as I packed my bag for work this morning with my laptop and power cord. Agencies have been great about training (or coercing) their workers to take their laptops home. They pay the extra money to supply us with laptops so we can check our mail before bed, do a little work after the kids fall asleep. What agencies don't do is give us extra power supplies.

So every morning, all over adland, there are oceans of people starting their workday on their knees, under their desk.


A confession.

My wife has an impending business trip--a creative presentation--slated for Salt Lake City next week. She asked if I'd like to take a few days off and tag along and spend the weekend in the "Beehive State." I demurred, but her offer got me thinking.

A lot of people who read a lot know words but, because they've only read them, aren't quite sure how they're pronounced. For the life of me, I don't know how to say "hegemony," though I know how to use it in a sentence.

I've always read a lot even when I was a little boy. The internet, with its tangents and interstitial connections, is comfortable to me. I browse and read peripatetically, leaping from one subject to the next. I'd probably be teaching "Moby Dick" at a university someplace if my learning was more focused and less eclectic.

Be that as it may, when I was a kid, my father took me and my cub scout den up to West Point to visit the Military Academy. While we were there we took a walk through the West Point museum where they had a series of engravings depicting the migration of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith from the east to Salt Lake City. These engravings had captions, if memory serves, like "The Mormons trek across the great plains."

Well, this was probably 1966 and I had never read the word "Mormons" before. So I read it as "Morons."

I couldn't believe there was this huge community of Morons who had been persecuted in the east and settled in Utah.

OK. No point here. Just a recollection

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The best ad I've seen in decades.

The best ad I've seen in a long time, maybe since Apple's 1984, maybe since before that, was on television tonight. I saw the ad while I was watching "Jeopardy!" though it didn't come on during a commercial break. It was the show itself.

I'm talking, of course, about IBM's Watson computer and its defeat--rout, actually--of two former Jeopardy! champions. It was a devastating display of technology and advertainment. You can read about it here:

There's really not much more I can say about the performance of IBM's Watson. He/it not only got all the right answers, he was lovable and quirky while doing it, making some fairly inexplicable wagers and a couple of hare-brained responses. Just like a human would.

I guess my point is fairly simple.

The best advertising is news. The product makes news in what it does and the way it communicates is also news.

Yeah, I know, you could go a lifetime in this business and never have any news to communicate other than "now with a fresh lemon scent." But if and when you do have news, if you're lucky enough to have a client or a product with the "breakthroughness" of an IBM, or a Mac or even FedEx, thank your lucky stars and give viewers a glimpse of the future.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The 2,000-year-old type.

Not bad for people without Macs.

Channeling my inner Nipsey Russell.

I saw a black nun in Rome.
She's a sister who's a brother.

Big government. (A screed on American politics.)

Visiting Rome it's hard not to think of the anti-government, tea-partiers and "libertarians" (as if anyone is against liberty) as the ancient equivalents of the Goths, Ostrogoths and Visigoths.

All over Rome are evidence of the works of Big Government. The Appian Way, the best and perhaps most important road ever built. The Colosseum. The Baths of Caracalla. All these works were civilizing. They brought trade, entertainment and social 'intercourse' and refinement to a busy and bustling world.

By the time the 6th Century AD rolled around, Rome's armies were extended around the world and the various Goths decided these things were no longer needed. The people were exhausted. Exhausted by taxes, venal politicians and perpetual wars for perpetual peace.

They didn't see it coming but the linchpins of civilization as noted above, were dismantled. Marble was carted away. Buildings great and small fell into disrepair and ruin.

Of course this is a simplification. But the next time you hear a Palin or a Paul or a Pawlenty talk about dismantling the Federal control of money, or return to the gold standard, or dismantling our social-welfare system (whatever remains of it) think of unibrowed invaders, in Palin's case from the untamed north.

These are people who don't understand art, beauty, improvement and liberal ideas like helping your neighbor. They are -oths.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Building on top of things.

One of the things dominant cultures do is build atop the civilizations they supersede. In New York, we've built Broadway along the path of ancient Indian trails. The Muslim Dome of the Rock was built upon the Second Jewish Temple. In Rome, there are thousands of examples of this. The most prominent may be Santa Maria dei Martiri which was interposed on perhaps the greatest remaining building of the Roman world (and my favorite) the Pantheon.

It upsets me to see the dismissal of one culture by a dominant one and to have to imagine the glory that was Rome through the accoutrement and relics of the Church. I wish I could see the Pantheon as it was when Hadrian rebuilt it in 126, the Bronze statues to gods I grew up reading about, Jupiter, Venus, Mars and the like. I am mad that the bronzes were removed by sundry Popes and used elsewhere for their own purposes.

However, thinking about this, I recant, at least somewhat.

Building upon other things is something we do in advertising all the time. Early on in my career, I read the ads of David Altschiller, Curvin O'Reilly, Tom Messner, Ed McCabe, Jim Durfee and others. I read every Volkwagen ad that had ever been written. I hoped to learn from and build on what some great ad people started.

When you work with a partner, you also build on what they say and do. They may set a foundation, you may adjust and push it into something else, then they may in turn do the same. This is building on work.

I feel a little better about desecration thinking about this. Building upon an earlier structure is a process both in nature and I guess of civilizations. Build on things. That's natural. But in the process, be respectful of what those who came before you have achieved.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Advertising circa 79AD.

I don't live in the past, but I will confess that I believe that civilization has gone downhill pretty steadily over the past half century. As far as English Literature goes, nothing, including Shakespeare, scaled the heights Chaucer did in the 14th Century. And for film, well, no one has yet to approach Buster Keaton and The Battleship Potemkin, unless it was Charlie Chaplin and Citizen Kane. Last night I left the Rome Opera and the splendor of Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" and got into a Fiat blaring hip-hop until my head split.

Today I went back further in time to the ancient and semi-preserved cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Ash buried the former and corpses were found in various states of terror as they were overtaken by the pyroclastic blast (a wall of 1200-degree mud moving at 60 miles per hour.) Herculaneum was encased in mud and actually even better preserved than the more famous Pompeii, but the remains of Herculaneum are harder for archaeologists to get at--it's buried under 21 meters of concretized 2000-year-old mud.

That said, that which they have uncovered at each site is pretty spectacular. Both cities seem to have enjoyed a nice lifestyle, their houses adorned with gorgeous mosaics and frescoes.

They also had ads alongside the shells of stores which are also well-preserved. One showed a red amphora of wine as well as a green, blue and yellow one, along with different prices. 3 denarii for this wine, 5 for that. All-in-all a nice pictograph of an ad.

Today we make a big deal in advertising about data visualization and icons to represent words. The Romans had us beat.

I bet the wine was pretty good, too.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dig we must.

All over Rome, they are digging. They are chiseling, they are clambering up and down scaffolds. They are restoring the buildings of ancient Rome, along with some of the churches built atop ancient Rome.

It's a job of immense scale. Almost inconceivable. Sure, we tore down swaths of decayed tenements in New York in the 60s and put up housing for low-income people. We tore down a good portion of the South Bronx and ran an expressway through it, destroying a vast portion of the borough.

But this is bigger than that. And doesn't involve tearing down. It involves archaeology and rebuilding.

It seems like a project that at its current rate won't be completed for at least another hundred years. What crossed my mind is how different we would do this in America--that is if we decided to do it at all.

Almost invariably, if we were to do a huge restoration project in America, there would be sponsorship involved. The Colosseum would become "The Bank of America Colosseum." The Circus Maximus would be the "Target Maximus Center" and so on. I'm equally sure that for all of our professions of democracy, there would be special accommodations and amenities available for the super-rich. Special seating in "The Verizon Forum."

We're in advertising, yes, so we can't be completely disparaging about corporate involvement. Yes, various 2,000 year old monuments would be festooned with logos, but on the other hand, the work would move faster.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini.

We spent most of the day in the great museum the Villa Borghese. More great art per square inch than even the Saatchi's own collection.

Much of the time was spent looking at Bernini's "Apollo and Daphne." Apollo is out to rape her, to save herself, she turns into a laurel tree. Fingers morphing into leaves hewn from marble.

Way better than a Laurel and Hardy tree.

Be nice to George.

My New Year's resolution was to treat myself better. To not do everything myself at work. To not try to solve everything by myself. To not make everything my problem to fix.

To that end, I've taken another vacation. I am in Rome now, for a few days, hopefully within minimal office contact.

I'll write when I can.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Give and take, it's up and left.

For the most part I've always enjoyed good relationships with account people and clients. I work hard, very hard to learn the businesses I am on to the point where it's not unusual for clients to tell me "You know our business better than we do." If I've had any success in this business, that's been my secret.

Accordingly I've always been able to negotiate with clients and account. If something is needed on a Tuesday and I can't possibly finish it until Thursday, I've always been able to work a deal. To say, I'll get it to you Thursday but with full copy. The client sees I'm working with them and usually slack is cut.

That's the way things used to be.

Today our entire world lives under a black cloud of fear.

Everything is a demand.

No good deed goes unpunished.

No outrageous request can be negotiated.

Give and take has got up and gone.

A bleak view.

I've often noticed in looking at portfolios and looking at work and looking at TV commercials and print in magazines that something rotten is happening in the state of advertising.

Ads (a word I'm using as a catchall for marketing communications) seem to be no longer about creativity--in the sense of doing something unique, original and unexpected. Ads, in order to survive the onslaught of billability people, account people, production managers, small-minded bosses, clients and clients' wives, must look and feel like something we've already seen. Ads must look like ads or they don't get produced.

Today we are less creativity.

More about imitativity.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the efficiency of open plan offices.

I have enormous, nay prodigious powers of concentration but there are times when the open plan configuration really cements my belief that almost every modern workplace innovation makes about as much sense as a screen door on a submarine.

Explaining the Super Bowl mess.

Fifty years ago, roughly 1960, the Mad Men era, the state of American advertising was woeful. It was filled with rules, dicta and junk. Ads were festooned with filigree, commercials were infested with acting, problems and mnemonic devices that were, at best, unreal, but more often downright insulting. The typical American as depicted in American advertising was June Cleaver without the ethnicity, who worried about rings around the collar and other banalities.

Today fifty years later, the state of American advertising is equally disgusting. If a Martian were to extrapolate what our world is like from our Super Bowl commercials, that Martian would assume we are a craven society of unshaven 25-year olds that care more for Doritos than anything, including sex.

As the world of 1960 was more dimensional than that depicted by advertising, so too is our world today. It's just agencies and advertisers don't get it.

What happened in 1960 is that Bill Bernbach came along and David Ogilvy emerged into prominence. They preferred to think that the American consumer wasn't a moron. That that consumer could be reasoned with. That that consumer knew when we attempted to gull them, and they resented it.

In 2011, no Bernbach or Ogilvy has emerged. The dominant complacency of the industry permits ageist affronts like Goodby's Chevy ad and assaults on civilization like Crispin's Groupon ads. And the end of civilization like Joan Rivers for Go Daddy.

Watching the Super Bowl made me want to retreat from humanity to the comfortable leather chair I have in my study that's there for the purpose of retreat. But then I realized, we aren't as callow and wretched as our industry depicts us. It's just those cliches are easy to buy, easy to award and so we take the easy way.

Monday, February 7, 2011


The saddest and most pernicious emotional state in advertising, and I suppose, any other business is a state in which you live in fear. A state in which fear, fear of your boss, fear of being fired, fear of being found out, fear of fear itself, clouds your actions and turns you mean, little, spiteful and afraid.

There is a lot of fear in the advertising business because what we do is so nebulous. It's so easy to critique, so easy to accommodate, so easy to play it safe and compromise. Fear is a monster that destroys all it comes into contact with. Fear and good work cannot co-exist and when choosing between fear and having an opinion, fear inveigles better and therefore wins out 99 times out of 100.

The most fearsome thing to someone who is fearful is showing the world that they are fearful. So we become adept at hiding fear--or at least we think we become adept at it. The fearful are sarcastic. The fearful are judgmental. The fearful are loud. Worst of all, the fearful are bullies.

Fear eats the soul, but most people aren't afraid of having their soul eaten. They're afraid of something stupid like getting fired or not getting a promotion. They don't realize that fear and humanity cannot co-exist.

Fear makes all that comes into contact with it miserable. Or tries to if you succumb to it. Here's how Joseph Heller put it in his vivid opening of the novel "Something Happened."

“I get the willies when I see closed doors. Even at work, where I am doing so well now, the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes. My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange. I wonder why.

Something must have happened to me sometime.”

I pity the people who live in fear. They are not living at all.

It's a crap shoot.

I don't know how many commercials were on last night's Super Bowl. I suppose I could look it up but I don't really care that much.

What impresses me about Super Bowl commercials is that everyone--not just everyone in the business--but everyone knows how high the stakes are, how much it costs per 30-seconds, how big the stage, how intense the scrutiny.

Therefore, you'd think, that agencies, clients, marketers, researchers, brain scan neurologists subjected the spots that ran last night to all sorts of testing regimen. Was there a single spot that ran last night that didn't test well?

Assuming that's the case, why were so many just bad? Boring, loud, rip-offs, dumb, incomplete, non-persuasive?

My guess is that if you did research on research you'd find that research is right about what it's researching about 50% of the time.

In other words, the spots last night tested well, but the tests themselves probably didn't.

There's an old Latin-ism translated as "Who will guard the guards themselves."

Who tests the testers?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My chat with Seth Godin.

Last night my wife and I went to the Metropolitan Opera to see John Adams' opera "Nixon in China" directed by Peter Sellars, conducted by Adams himself. There right in front of me sat Seth Godin, his baldness shining in the chandeliered glow of the great auditorium.

At intermission I introduced myself and we started talking.

"This is only my second opera," said Godin, "I was expecting it to be more sonically impressive."

"Well, this is a modern opera," I explained. "And Adams is a bit atonal. Kind of like Nixon himself and the era in which he presided. If you want sonic power, see something by Puccini or Verdi or Donizetti."

At one point in the first act, Air Force One emerged as a character. Its door slid open and Nixon and Pat emerged.

"That was a pretty impressive set," my wife offered.

"It annoyed me," said Godin. "What was the point of having the door open the wrong way. Did it have something to do with the opera, or was it just wrong?" he asked.

I couldn't answer that.

"What prompted you to see an opera?" I asked.

"We had never been," said Godin. "We got the tickets just four hours ago."

The lights then dimmed and the second act began.

Godin left at the end of the second act, leaving before the strangely anti-climactic third act.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Uncle Slappy talks about toast.

Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie are up at my place this weekend from Boca. Uncle Slappy loves the Superbowl and hates watching it alone so he "took the Amtrak" to see me. This morning at about 5:30, Uncle Slappy is an early riser, I made Uncle Slappy, or tried to, some breakfast.

What follows is Uncle Slappy's report on my culinary efforts.

"I want to talk about toast. Not the "Here's to Phil" kind of toast. But toasted bread. I've noticed of late that it's hard to get good toast anymore. I think people just don't care or they don't know. Or they've forgotten.

Mr. Big Schot, Mr. Advertising Executive, Mr. Man Men, he doesn't know toast. After all I've taught the man, he makes toast like Sylvie.

Sylvie, my wife of almost 55 years doesn't do it right. She toasts well, the bagel nice and dark, but then she funfers around for ten minutes before buttering or schmearing. So what I get is a toasted bagel, not toast. Here's my point. TOAST SHOULD BE HOT. Hot is toast. Toast that's not hot is bread that's toasted. Also this is the way at coffee shops, by the time you get the toast you asked for what you have is toasted. Not toast.

Now, if you go into "Hole-y Moley," our local bagel shop and ask for a toasted bagel, you get something worse by a long schot. A bagel that's been through a toaster and is warmed or slightly singed by the toaster. But singeing is not toasting. No siree.

To sum up--toast is toast when it is served medium to dark brown (pumpernickel notwithstanding) and hot."

Was Donald Rumsfeld an account guy?

Donald Rumsfeld's new memoir, "Known and Unknown" is out and there's a review of it in today's online "New York Times."

Here's the part of Michiko Kakutani's review, a quotation that reminded me of advertising. “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me,because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”


There's a Volkswagen spot making the rounds right now that people seem to be gushing over. All I can say is that as an industry, we have forgotten how to make an ad.

Oh, it's cute. Yes, it is. The acting is wonderful. And though I saw the joke coming from two exits away, it's still charming.

My issue involves none of that. My issue is this: What does the commercial tell me about this particular VW? That you can start it with your remote.

I don't think I'm wrong when I say that Volkswagen is fighting for its life in the US. Hyundai sales keep rising. And many many more people buy Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans than VWs. Everyone else's sales in January saw double-digit gains. Volkswagen gained 6.8%. See chart.

So now, according to this commercial, I should write VW on my shopping list because it's cute?

I think what's happened is that our industry has been perniciously affected by the web. On the web, once someone gets there, you can forget about the competition. You are, essentially, in a magazine that has ads only for your product. You may have to be interesting, or cute, but you don't have to talk about the competitive advantages of your product.

Sure a commercial needs to be interesting and compelling. But it also needs to provide useful consumer information. Otherwise it is just a shoe-shine, a smile and a handshake. With no substance behind it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Another strange thing about advertising today.

Years ago the Clio Awards used to have award categories that made it virtually impossible not to win a Clio if you entered an ad. I remember classifications like "petfood/black&white/under 600 lines."

Just now, the One Show Interactive has announced its "3rd Quarter Finalists." I went through four pages of an 8 pt. spreadsheeted list of finalists and can safely say there was not one single website, ad or sitelet I have ever seen, ever come across in real life.

I spend about 16 hours a day online. On a variety of sites. Not one.

It's not advertising if no one sees it.

From an ex-client, current friend.


Last night I watched television, something I don't do a lot of. But the Knicks are winning more than they're losing and I needed some distance from a world that is too much with me, so I tuned in and turned off.

Then came the commercials.

It wasn't that they were mixed too hot. It was that they contained screaming and exhortations. This passes as drama these days: Noise.

My dear friend Tore, who hails from Sweden, sent me a note this morning in which he quoted one of the biggest names in the Swedish ad business. It made sense to me, and I devoutly wish, as we head into the Super Bowl barftravaganza, that marketers would heed it. Of course they won't but I can wish it just the same.

"Big companies must speak with a small voice."

We aren't so modern.

Just about twelve times a day, if you read the advertising press, if you sit in numbing meetings led by social media experts, etc., you hear about some technology that will change everything. Technology that will change the fundamental wiring of the human brain. Technology that will change the way the world works. Technology that will transform everything we know and love.

Then, it snows.

Here we are, the most advanced society on Earth and when it snows, transportation and most everything else is sent back to medieval times.

My point is fairly simple, and I suppose a bit simplistic. Despite all the technology advances humanity has made, when it snows, when something elemental happens (and elemental things happen quite often) we revert to the shovel. The old tools are the best tools and technology--affordable, fast and available, has yet to supersede the old.

I suspect the same is true with communication technology. We will, before long, be assaulted by holographic ads shimmering in front of us. Information will be beamed into our left nostril and tickle our frontal lobe. Some of this might even been efficacious.

But nothing will replace one human telling a simple, interesting and warm story to other humans in human terms.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A dark couplet.

I don't have a bucket list.
I have a fuck it list.

By the skin of our teeth.

With the Arab world on fire and America under a sheet of ice, as I slid my way to work this morning, I thought of a play that was always one of my favorites, "The Skin of Our Teeth" by Thornton Wilder.

I was lucky enough to see it performed once, outdoors in Central Park in 1998 with that great bear John Goodman in the leading role, Mr. Antrobus.

Here is Wilder's "Story of the Play":

"Here is a comedy about George Antrobus, his wife and two children, and their general utility maid, Lily Sabina, all of Excelsior, New Jersey. George Antrobus is John Doe or George Spelvin or you--the average American at grips with a destiny, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet. The Antrobuses have survived fire, flood, pestilence, the seven-year locusts, the ice-age, the black pox and the double feature, a dozen wars and as many depressions. They run many a gamut, are as durable as radiators, and look upon the future with a disarming optimism. Alternately bewitched, befuddled and becalmed, they are the stuff of which heroes are made--heroes and buffoons. They are true offspring of Adam and Eve, victims of all the ills that flesh is heir to. They have survived a thousand calamities by the skin of their teeth. Here is a tribute to their indestructibility."

Here's to our indestructibility, too.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Everything there is to know about account work in one post.

I might have posted this before but since I've had 97 client meetings in the last 91 days, I think it bears repeating.

Years ago my older daughter went to a pre-school run by a very wise and intelligent woman. One evening this educator was holding a question and answer session and a parent got up and said, "Before my kid went here her artwork sucked. After she left, it sucked. But while she was a student here, her artwork was great. What's your secret?"

To which the head of the school replied, "simple. We know when to take the paper away."

Taking the paper away--limiting comments, suggestions, tweaks, concerns, issues, peccadilloes and the like is the most important aspect in "protecting the work."

Reviewing advertising has begun to resemble a suburban book club. Everybody has an opinion and they're all valid.

That's why most everything sucks. Out loud.


There was a science report on NPR this morning that's worth thinking about, I think. Reporter Robert Krulwich wondered do tools, materials, clothing actually completely ever die.You can listen to the report here:

He found a community still making paleolithic stone tools. He found a place to buy virtually every item in the 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog. Scientist Kevin Kelly said:
"I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet."

I think about this in light of two things. One, the affectation of new media gurus who have variously claimed: marketing is dead, advertising is dead, TV is dead, print is dead, radio is dead and so on. And Two, the new data that shows Facebook is virtually useless as an advertising medium--clicks through rate is 0.051. If I'm reading that right, that's five clicks per thousand impressions.

Everything that was ever made in the past is somewhere being made in the world today. Though maybe Facebook will be the first to belie that assertion.