Saturday, April 30, 2011

Houses without foundation.

One of the things I noticed in the photographs from the tornado brooked devastation of the American south, is how many of the houses picked up and destroyed like children's toys were built without foundations.

In the wake of Modernista!'s closing this week it caused me to wonder how many agencies and how many ad campaigns were similarly built, without foundation.

There are advantages to building foundation-less homes. It's fast, cheap and who needs a basement anyway? But though these houses looked fine before the tornadoes struck, they were weak, vulnerable and not made to last.

I've worked in this business for 26 years. I've worked for 12 different agencies. Some had an ethos, a belief system, a way of doing things. However most work and most agencies seem to be built on following what's "hot" or "cool" at the moment. They don't get in and explore the fundamentals of their own brand or the brands they work on. They produce well-designed derivations of the things that won awards the year before.

Award-winning work more and more often seems to be based on quick, cheap jokes. Thoughtful, deep work, work built on the essence of a brand (not just on making a brand cool) is considered too ponderous. It's fallen out of favor.

Houses without foundations are fine when the weather is fair. Likewise agencies when the economy is strong.

What happens when the wind blows?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I definitely don't like it.

I am staying right now in Las Vegas in a 3,000 room hotel that doesn't contain a single clock or a single lamp with wattage enough to read by. I'll admit, I haven't really given the city or the hotel a chance, I've been working too hard. But it's not likely I would ever enjoy myself here. The city seems to be to urban architecture what Kraft singles are to cheese.

The hotel is decorated--festooned actually--with the work of I suppose hundreds of local artists. I guess this makes them feel like they are intrinsic to the community.

Look, I'll admit I am Scrooge-like and ahedonistic. But I gotta tell you. Most local artists aren't fit to paint a pee stained fire hydrant.

A viral ad.

I finished last night "A History of the World in 100 Objects" by Neil MacGregor, director of The British Museum. One of the final chapters featured the coin shown here. It made me think of modern advertising.

Just over a century ago, women in the United Kingdom didn't have the right to vote. Women tried many tactics to get attention and to raise the issue, including chaining themselves to the wrought iron outside of 10 Downing Street and deadly letter bombs. But perhaps the most effective effort was their defacement of the penny.

Their message was clear. They broke the law to make it. And it was ubiquitous. There were too many pennies of this ilk for banks to recall them all. So the pennies circulated, spreading their simple, declarative message. Influencing, slowly, the people seeing that message and passing it along.

Of course, this example is not the first viral movement ever. But it made me think of two things. 1) That nothing is new under the sun. The current viral-nistas act as if they've invented something new. They haven't. This form of advertising is likely as old as dirt. And 2) For a communication to go viral, it should probably follow the precepts of our English penny. Be notorious. Be simple. Be lasting. Be easy to pass along. And finally, be meaningful at some elemental level.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

To my daughter.

My older daughter, who is a doctoral student in psychology, has an internship interview today and she's nervous. I spent a nice amount of time with her on the phone last night talking about success and "getting the job."

I don't have a lot of time this morning. I am off to Las Vegas for three days of conferences with my client. So this will be a little blunt.

Sarah, I told her, if your work is good, and it is, if you've accomplished things, and you have, collect your thoughts and speak with moderation and modesty about what you've done and where you're going.

There's an expensive co-op apartment house in Manhattan on 5th Avenue and 66th Street. It used to be an office building housing an interfaith religious group and directly across 66th Street from the magnificent Temple Emanu-El. About five years ago, the building was "converted" from ecclesiastical use to riches for the rich. But they left the Biblical inscription. Micha 6:8, I think. I think it's good advice for most everything.

"Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why is the internet so dumb?

We hear almost daily how the Internet is changing everything. People who "get" the internet are full-blown mockers of people who "just don't get it." The internet, we're told, is changing the "media landscape." (Why can't they just say 'changing media.' I've stopped at dozens of scenic overlooks and never once seen a media landscape.) The internet is changing commerce. The internet is changing customer service, education, how we fight wars, etc.

If all that is true, then why is the internet so fucking dumb? I have an absolutely complete LinkedIn profile, but got the job matches shown above. Me? Chief People Officer? That's like putting Genghis Khan in charge of a girl scout troop.

And if you can ratiocinate your way out of conceding that the internet is dumb, when will it stop generating dumbness and call it elegance and intelligence?

How to spot a blowhard.

Blowhards (fulminatus fulminata) are rife within agencies and at the helm of small consultancies with names like Lavender Ingot. They leap off the pages of trade magazines and they can also be found in the sanctum sanctorum of advertising holding companies.

These tell-tale signs will help you spot them.

1. Blowhards cannot modulate their volume. Their voices are loud, consistent and utterly baseless. To that end, blowhards
2. Issue proclamations without evidence. The most common of these proclamations goes like this, "______________ is fundamentally broken." They won't say how ________ is broken or what being broken means. Just that ________ is broken.
3. They don't have enough time to fix what is broken. What's broken is so fundamentally broken that it will take three years and seven million dollars to fix it, and fixing things part-way is useless because what is broken is so badly broken.
4. Blowhards have a lot to say when a project kicks off but they are absent once the work begins. In short, blowhards can identify problems but are too busy and too valuable elsewhere to actually fix problems.
5. "That's not how I would do it." Blowhards don't like anything that's been done but don't actually do anything themselves.
6. Blowhards assert that a small agency in Brooklyn with less than a million dollars in revenue (and who has done great data viz on this) has more to teach us than an multi-national agency with $1 billion in revenue.
7. Blowhards are better than you at powerpoint.
8. Blowhards are always 12 minutes late for 30-minute meetings.
9. Blowhards believe that most marketing problems can be solved through data visualization. (See #6.)
10. Blowhards don't believe in data that doesn't support their world view that "_________ is broken."

Monday, April 25, 2011

It ain't easy.

This post is a combo platter of three ideas. One comes from an article I just read in "The New York Times" called "A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics." In it, John Tierney reports on a three-decades-long study by a Dr. DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. "In a meta-analysis published last year in Social Psychological and Personality Science," Drs. DeWall, Twenge and Joshua D. Foster looked at data from nearly 50,000 students — including the new data from critics — and concluded that narcissism has increased significantly in the past three decades."

Second comes from a chat I had with my boss. We spent half an hour together lauding the ability of old-timers, like ourselves, to take a licking and keep on ticking. In other words, we, unlike so many youngish people, have the stamina to fight through the vicissitudes and hang in there until we sell something.

Finally, I found, on, the video I've pasted here. I like it because in a mere 94-seconds it shows the myriad decisions a creator has to make, the unending alterations, to make a work of art.

It's not easy doing what we do. And in our overly democratic work-worlds where everyone gets their say, and everyone can take potshots, it's hard to get work produced. It's not all about you. You have to suck it in and take it some times.

But you are not alone if you can.

Truth (and soul) in advertising.

Seeing a sign like this, which I just saw on 9th Avenue between 39th and 40th, brings to my mind so much that is wrong with the advertising industry.

I find this sign amusing. Direct. Honest. Different and attention-getting. It's exactly the kind of thing you would not get from or get out of an agency. And if it did get out of an agency and to a client, it would never get approved.

The conversation would go like this.

"Can't we say 'inexpensive' instead of 'cheap.' Cheap is off brand and too downscale."

"I don't understand 'freaking.' It's too close to 'fucking.' Can't we say something more positive and appetizing? Like 'refreshing' or 'delicious?'

"Beer is fine, but it's too limited. We have lagers, and pilsners and ales, as well."

"Not to mention sodas and mixed drinks."

"And coffee, tea and bottled water. Can't you include those as well?"

So, we are left with:

Ball-less, non-descript and forgettable.

The Celtics of Boston.

It doesn't happen very often but once in a while it does. Either because I'm tired or lazy, I succumb to a sporting event on television. It happened this weekend, twice. The Knicks, the basketball team of my youth were in the NBA playoffs against the great, but aged Celtics of Boston.

"I fear the Indians of Cleveland," the Old Man said in Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea."
"Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio."
"I fear both the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland."
"Be careful or you will fear even the Reds of Cincinnati and the White Sox of Chicago."

This was to be epic, in other words. Hemingway-esque. My resurgent Knicks of New York against the hated Celtics of Boston.

So I watched.

Watched the Knicks get treated like an old dishrag. Thrown around willy-nilly. Meaningless. Beaten. Trampled. Eviscerated. Schmised.

One thing you see on TV nowadays, however, made me think about advertising. There is an absence of anything but noise. The commercials, the announcers, the arenas. They are noisy. Noise fills every vacuum. The noise overwhelms everything.

Noise is the antithesis of thought. And it's what we prize above all else.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Olde New York, 1999.

One of the things I miss in our the modern world is that there are fewer and fewer bookstores and less and less time to browse in them. My New York, the New York I grew up in and aged in, is the story of these places disappearing. Sometimes I take a long walk home from work and it's like working past old girlfriend's houses. That's where Books & Company was, that's where Colosseum was, that was the home of Doubleday, Scribners, Bretanos.

One of the best of those now-malled (mauled) bookstores was Gotham Book Mart, just about the only non-diamond-seller on 47th Street between 5th and 6th--the center of New York's Diamond exchange. Gotham had the great advantage of being family owned, and they owned the five story building they had cluttered with books and memories. You could spend the day there.

Outside of Gotham there was a sign, shown above, designed by the great artist/cartoonist John Held, Jr. "Wise Men Fish Here," it reassured. And they did. The store was populated by many great writers who made it their home away from home in New York. (Starbuck's made a big thing about people needing a "Third Place," a location that wasn't home or work. For many people the Third Place used to be stores like Gotham.)

Gotham was the closest bookstore to Ogilvy when Ogilvy was on 8th and 49th. It was still a schlep, but whenever I had the time, or was feeling shitty or needed inspiration, I would head over there. There was a bookseller at Gotham called Flip, Phillip was his proper name, but it was always Flip you looked for.

Over the years Flip and I became friends. I was writing a book on pirates in the late 90s and Flip was one of the world's experts on pirate literature. As the saying goes, he had forgotten more about pirates than I'll ever know.

I thank Flip frequently for turning me onto the fiction of the great Raphael Sabatini, who wrote "Captain Blood," "The Sea Hawk," and of course, "Scaramouche."

"Scaramouche," Flip told me had the greatest opening sentence in English literature including "Moby Dick." "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."

Gotham closed around 2005 and moved to nicer, smaller quarters on 46th Street between Madison and 5th. They never fit in that location. Instead of the mayhem and serendipity of their original location, they were neat, oaky and organized. They went out of business in a great auction of their stock that I had to miss.

Friday, April 22, 2011

When advertising talked harder.

Agency life, 2011.
Ratio of people talking about work to people doing work.

Everyone is not creative.

One of the many stupidities of the modern advertising agency is the notion of collaboration. The notion that everyone is "creative."

The real truth is that not everyone is creative, it's that today everyone has been given the right to blurt because someone's told them they are creative.

I think about this as the account people have blithely turned over to me a steaming ten-pound bag of shit they call a brief. I'm to figure out what to do with it. I'm to reckon with its difficulty. I'm to make sense of it. I'm to turn it into something palatable.

All of that, all of that thinking, shaping, writing and re re re re writing is work. Creative is work. It's that simple. Creative is not blurt.

Everyone is not creative. Unless they're willing to work at it.


There are very few people who would take exception to the claim that advertising today--regardless of where it appears--is a visual medium. As a profession, and larger as a society, we have convinced ourselves of certain ideas and we seem to accept those ideas blindly and without question.

It's not unusual to view a top-director's reel and hear and see not a word, except for maybe a tagline (or punch line) during the last four seconds. Likewise, you can pick up virtually any awards annual and go through the print section and see, in the entire offering of print ads, fewer words than I have written here. Of course the same verbal parsimony applies to online communications as well.

When you question it, when you show work with words, you are dismissed. It's a visual medium you dolt! Often, when work is shown internally, for internal discussion, it's disregarded if it doesn't fit our pre-conceived notion of what it should look like.

Well, what if the idea that modern communications are visually-driven is all wrong? After all, we are told "no one watches, listens to, believes, cares about or is influenced by advertising any more." Maybe for communications to be effective--to communicate, that is, they need more than just a gorgeous picture or a visual pun.

Let's think about the brain for a second. Undoubtedly it is moved by pictures and images. Just look at Guernica or a swastika and you'll feel it. But there is more to a proper communication than just a feeling. And this is what has been lost in modern advertising.

There is thinking.

Decisions, except for those made on impulse, usually involve a lively interaction, an argument even, among the heart and the head. Feeling and thinking. You might look at an apartment this weekend and fall in love with it. You want it, that's your immediate reaction. But then you realize it has just one bedroom. It's located next to a bordello and the mice have roaches.

Heart and head.

They're both involved in decision-making, in influencing, in advertising.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

You can call me Al.

For whatever reason the hipsters who inhabit my agency are hard-pressed to call me by names that don't infuriate me. These people, who loudly proclaim brands are about conversations, don't actually know how to begin a conversation with me. It is for them that I've written this:

I do not want to be
Cold and rude,
But I won't answer
When you call me 'dude.'

I suppose that you
Should also know,
I will not respond
When you say 'hey, bro.'

I am not yo,
I am not brother,
I am the name
I got from mother.

It isn't hard,
It's not a scourge,
Just take a breath
And call me George.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The three ways of getting paid.

If you work for a living, if you have a steady job, you get a paycheck once a week, or every two weeks, or twice a month. But the money that you get for doing your job is only one of the ways you should get paid.

A good job, a really good job, should pay you in three ways.

1. Your salary.

2. You ought to also get paid in the work you produce and the things you learn along the way. After all, if you leave your current job making X and start a new job making X + 20, that extra 20 you now earn is payment for having worked hard, for having listened and for having applied your skill and talent.

3. You also get paid in the friends you make, the connections you cultivate and the environment you create for yourself at your office. The best "for instance" I can give of this is blogging. Obviously, I don't earn a dime writing it. But I've met--at least electronically--some people whom I can learn from and whom I respect. That is payment, and important payment.

Not every job, or, these days, not many jobs pay you in every way, every day. I think that's ok.

Two years ago when I was unemployed, I worked for very little money for a brilliant friend who's opening his own agency. I think for three months I earned $5000 in total. Not a long-term survival plan, to be sure, but I also got paid in the dozen print ads we produced and the five commercials. And the quality of the friendship and companionship.

In short, think less about money and more about how well you're paid.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


“I work at a shit agency.
The accounts are shit.
My working conditions are shit.
We do shitty work.
Management is shit.
The account people are shit.
The planners are shit.
The pay is shit.
It’s in a shitty neighborhood.
Our new business record is shit.
It’s shit.”
--Hundreds of thousands of ad people
from around the world.

I just ran across something in the comments section of Dave Trott’s blog, He wrote this to a reader: “Don’t worry too much about being at a shite agency. From what I hear from people, nowadays everyone thinks they’re at a shite agency. It’s tough everywhere and most ad agencies seem to have lost their way. As Churchill said ‘If you’re going through hell the best thing to do is just keep going.’”

I don’t think you can get better advice anywhere than that which is from Churchill. Just keep going.

Fred, my brother, the lawyer, tells it to me like this. “I say to people ‘I didn’t go to the best college. I didn’t go to the best law school. I don’t work for the biggest firm. I might not be as smart as you. But, I WILL WEAR YOU DOWN. I will work you under the table until you give up.”

Just keep going.
Keep typing.
Keep showing better work.
Keep listening beyond what the client says to what they really need.
Keep working.
Keep writing.
Keep coming back for more.
Keep fighting.

You might be in a shit place.
You probably are.
But if you keep going and you still go down,
at least you’ve gone down fighting.
And with dignity.

It's joke time! Recession edition.

I got a pre-declined credit card in the mail.

Wives are having sex with their husbands because
they can't afford batteries.

CEOs are now playing miniature golf.

Exxon-Mobil laid off 25 Congressmen.

A stripper was killed when her audience showered her
with rolls of pennies while she danced.

I saw a Mormon polygamist with only one wife.

If the bank returns your check marked "Insufficient Funds,"
you call them and ask if they meant you or them.

McDonald's is selling the 1/4 ouncer.

Angelina Jolie adopted a child from America.

Parents in Beverly Hills fired their nannies and
learned their children's names.

My cousin had an exorcism but couldn't afford
to pay for it, and they re-possessed her!

A truckload of Americans were caught sneaking into Mexico.

A picture is now only worth 200 words.

I was so depressed last night thinking about the economy, wars, jobs, my savings, Social Security, retirement funds, etc., I called the Suicide Hotline. I got a call center in Pakistan , and when I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited, and asked if I could drive a truck.

This is probably way too deep for a well.

As inveterate readers of Ad Aged know well, most days, like 99 and 44/100s of days I am ensconced deep inside a book of some sort. I love reading and learning. I think it helps moderate my moods and gives me hope that there is intelligent life on earth at a time when even "The New York Times" spends as much ink, digital and otherwise, covering Donald Trump's presidential bid as it does to the important issues of our day and our civilization.

In any event, I am always looking for something interesting to lose myself in and right now I am lost in the first hundred pages of a book called "A History of the World in 100 Objects." Something I read last night really poked me in the eye.

I'm going to go over it in broad strokes.

Stories and writing, many thousands of years ago belonged to the community. There was not one author of Gilgamesh, or even the Iliad and the Odyssey or the Torah. These collections were the shared consciousness of groups of people. They lived and breathed and people participated in their creation.

In many ways, stories in a pre-literate world were much like You Tube is today. Anyone can toss something in and see if it sticks.

But as story-telling and ideas grew in complexity, as the technology of writing progressed, writing became professionalized. Writing, after all, enabled complex thought. As MacGregor says in "A History...""There's a limit to what you can do with the spoken word. You cannot really do higher mathematics or even more complex forms of philosophical argument unless you have some way of writing it down and scanning it."

In short, writing--thinking really--became too important to be left to amateurs. It became the domain of bigger minds, like Aristotle, Socrates and Plato.

To my mind--and I could be wildly wrong here, a similar thing will happen with new media. Right now any idiot (myself included) can "self-publish." But as time progresses, real thinkers, we can only hope, will take over.

R tick you lay shun.

Many years ago, back when Hector was a pup, I was working with an art-director who had never done TV. We had just sold a spot and she was nervous about her inexperience being "found out." I was older and more senior and I said to her, "You don't have to know how to do it, you just have to know what you want and be able to say that."

One of the horrors of the new-media era in which we live is that someone or some thing has pulled the tablecloth off of the cosmos with the dishes still on it. There are so many ways, means, tools and tactics that people in the direction-giving business, people who give assignments no longer have to articulate with clarity what it is they want.

They can say things like "I need something fast moving and cutty." Or "I want something edgy and viral." Or "I need a sizzle reel."

They don't really take the time to worry about the details, about what the creatives are to make sizzle. They feel like they've done their job.

Written communication began about 5,000 years ago, not as literature and poetry but basically as a way to keep track of how much grain would be needed to pay how many workers. Early writing was artless and utilitarian. And that was ok. Because it communicated.

Today we are crushed by the pace of doing things so fast that we often don't even know what we're doing or why.

It's pretty simple really: "If you don't know what you want, chances are you won't get it."

Monday, April 18, 2011

In which George explains it all.

Leaving home.

My kids have flown the coop. One is living in Boston and is about to enter a Doctoral program in Psychology and the other is a fresh-person at a small college about an hour east of LA. While we talk, text, IM and video chat nearly everyday, my apartment is at half-mast. Empty of the quotidian joy, laughter and trauma of having kids around.

Of late and because we finally have the time, my wife and I have been watching some of the best TV ever produced. We just finished a 15-hour German mini-series called "Heimat," a chronicle of a German family and a small village from 1919 to 1980. It was quite an amazing piece of work. Seeing how people lived through WWI, hyper-inflation, the Weimar, Nazism, American occupation (the village portrayed was in the American-zone, closer to Paris than to Berlin) and the economic miracle of the 1950s.

The film follows four generations of a single family--and the catalyst of much of the action is the act of leaving home. Leaving for economic opportunity, leaving for war, leaving to see the world. In the last hours of the epic, centuries-old homes are being dismantled for their furniture, their window-sashes and their doors. These artifacts of what's been left behind are suddenly very much in demand in a modern and rootless Germany. Homes which used to house many generations are now empty.

Leaving is an uncomfortable act. It involves stepping into the unknown, fear and loneliness. It's what many in advertising cannot do. So we cling to old jobs or old "creative" formulas to get us through the day.

Leaving, however, also inspires growth. Challenges are faced and overcome. New things are learned. New worlds are conquered.

Creativity demands leaving places where you're comfortable. But the best creativity is also obeisant to the anchor of where you've been.

If you didn't work out this morning.

The other day I happened upon a book in Crawford-Doyle, one of New York's great bookstores, that they imported specially from the UK. It's a five-pound tome in sheathed in a Tiffany's blue dustcover called "A History of the World in 100 Objects." It's based on "the celebrated BBC Radio 4 Series," and written by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum.

MacGregor covers mummies, chopping tools, spear points, pestles, pots and, of course, art. Conveniently for our short-attention-span era, each object is discussed in just about five or 10 pages. They're discussed in short essays, about the length of a subway ride.

MacGregor is a universalist. He sees connections between, say, the people living in the Indus delta 5,000 years ago and people living in Manhattan today. When mankind began living in cities, those cities had about 30,000-40,000 people. MacGregor estimates that those people were each connected to about 250 to 300 people. That's about the extent of human connectivity, and the average number of viable Facebook connections people have in our modern world.

No real point this morning. Except if you want to broaden your intellectual muscles and work-out your upper body in the process, this is a book you should pick up.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Google and Charlie Chaplin.

Google, in honor of Charlie Chaplin's 122nd birthday, has incorporated an ersatz and inferior Chaplin look-alike in its logo and along the way produced some short and horrid Chaplin movies and placed them on its homepage. They have Chaplin interacting with their logo.

I suppose on the one hand this homage to Chaplin is a good thing. Entire generations of people who have never seen Chaplin can now see an imitator and at least think about Chaplin. On the other hand, creating an implied endorsement from Chaplin and using that to advance their brand is odious and disgusting.

I grew up watching Chaplin movies and I've never stopped watching them. I have scores of his shorts and his feature films in my dvd collection. I have pre-ordered, as you should, the Criterion Collections re-releases of both "Modern Times" and "The Great Dictator." His brilliance, even when he is maudlin, always shines through. The way he counts money in "Monsieur Verdoux" is beyond genius.

When I was 21, this is the late 70s, before VCRs put them out of business, there were dozens of movie theatres that lined upper Broadway. Most of them were shuttered in the early 80s and now they're drugstores, co-ops or supermarkets. One such theatre was The New Yorker on 83rd and Broadway. They would play Chaplin shorts basically around the clock. It cost $5 to get in and you could stay all day, which I did, if you liked. You could leave and come back. It was all-you-can-eat Chaplin.

I'm lucky to live in New York. Every so often there's a museum or an "art" movie theatre that plays Chaplin on a big screen as he was intended to be seen. Watching Chaplin that way, and with an audience laughing and gasping along with you is incomparable. On rare occasions, these art houses also hire musicians to play live accompaniment to Chaplin movies. There's one word to describe that experience: wow.

Chaplin was one of what some call "the Big Three" silent comedians, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton (my favorite) being the others.

The same way you should see every Caravaggio you can get your eyes on, you owe it to yourself to see all the Chaplin, all the Lloyd and all the Keaton you can, in whatever form you can see it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The noise of nothingness.

Now that we live amid an information explosion, a time in which one-billion videos are streamed every day on You Tube (that's a lot of cute kittens) and 500 billion digital images were snapped just last year--about 80 images for every human on earth, the floodgates of informational diarrhea are spewing.

How does this information tsunami effect agency life? What I've noticed is this: insecurity is masked by quantity. The less people know, the longer the deck, the greater the volume of speech, the bolder the assertions of speciousness.

Here's one symbol of this effect. Insights, which used to be rare, astute and almost magical, are now as populous as fat people at Disney World. The word itself has become demeaned almost to the point of meaninglessness.

As TS Eliot (toilets spelled backwards, nearly) wrote in his 1934 poem "The Rock,"

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Or to put it more directly in an agency context,

They all have their ways of hiding their insecurities.
They have always to speak the most, the loudest and the longest.
That's not a sign of brains, it's a sign of fear.
These people are really afraid.
They're phonies who have never done this before
and to mask their fears they act with bombast.

A ramble.

The fundamentals of communication (the business we are in) haven't changed since Adam and Eve were naked. The principles of a good ad, which I posted a couple days ago were true when they were given to me in 1990, and they're true today. Of course, new technologies have arisen. Of course today's Shakespeare might be writing on Twitter. But the fundamentals of receiving and distributing information remain.

Now, of course, there are those who profit from saying "All is darkness. All past is junk. Only I know the one true way."

These are the people who are running around saying the fundamental rules have changed. Or, maybe more accurately, who don't appreciate the genetic core of how information is communicated. I would wager that for as long as there is sex, communications--whether they're interpersonal or commercial, travel on a course like this: 1) Introduction. 2) Interest. 3) Trial.

Last night I stumbled upon two things. One was a quotation from the mid-20th Century from the great William Faulkner. "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Second, I came upon this by Robert Burton from The Anatomy Of Melancholy, by Robert Burton, published in 1652:

"I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies and sea-fights; peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms.

"A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, corantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion,...Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps....

"This I daily hear, and such like, both private and public news, amidst the gallantry and misery of the world; jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves; I rub I have still lived, so I now continue...left to a solitary life, and mine own domestic discontents: saving that sometimes, as Diogenes went into the city, and Democritus to the haven to see fashions, I did for my recreation now and then walk abroad, look into the world, and could not choose but make some little observation, not as they did, to scoff or laugh at all, but with a mixed passion."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A phrase for our days.

I met with a young account person today. She struck a chord when she said this to me:
"'Just Do It' has been replaced by 'Just Talk About It.'"

New York in April.

On Thursdays, pretty much without fail, I treat myself to a two-mile or so walk through Central Park, a walk which I refuse to interrupt with tweets, e's or phone calls. Occasionally I listen to Mahler, Mingus or Monk. Today I looked at the buds and listened to the wind.

You should try it, giving yourself half an hour on earth.

Advertising through the ages.

Many years ago I taught some advertising courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York and for the Boston Ad Club when I worked in Boston. One of the things I tried to do in teaching students to look at and evaluate advertising is to strip decoration from the equation. I wanted to get at the essence of what made an ad good, not merely the trends.

What I did was fairly simple. I went through old awards annuals and photocopied award winning ads from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s. As you can imagine, on the surface these ads had little in common. The same way a Caravaggio might have little in common with a Monet. And Chaucer might have little to do with John Updike.

But as all creatures on earth essentially come from the same microscopic core (read "Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body" by Neil Shubin) all good communications are related.

They have stopping power.
They make a promise.
They are interesting.
They make you think.
They leave you feeling.
They are memorable.

We dress ads, language, photographs, typography differently than we used to. And yes, style matters and style changes. But the essence of what makes a good communication doesn't.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How I was trained.

Over 20 years ago I worked at an agency called Ally & Gargano. Many people regard it as the greatest American agency that ever was. It launched FedEx. Fiat. Volvo. Saab. MCI. Dunkin' Donuts and other important brands.

My boss gave me the typewritten guidance below when I started there. I have carried it with me ever since.

1. Grab Attention. Picture someone’s busy day. The dog is barking, the kids are screaming, the phone is ringing. What will make them stop at your ad? Is your communication compelling enough to break through all the other clutter—of the world around them, and all the other communications and features. Remember, nobody goes online or checks their mail or buys a newspaper or magazine to read the ads.
2. The Singularity of the Idea. People have neither the time nor the inclination to sit there trying to figure out what you’re trying to say. Take one idea and make it the major thrust of your communication. Work in a “Pyramid” fashion. Start with one idea and broaden it via other product attributes and support in the copy.
3. Hit them where they live. Upset people. Make them think. Challenge them. Have people look at your product or service in a way they’ve never looked at it before. Legendary Advertising man Carl Ally said it neatly, “Advertising should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
4. Unique Benefit. Unless the product is a total parity product (meaning that it is exactly like any other product in its category) there is something unique about it. Find it. Make it into a benefit. If there is nothing unique, look harder. Find something. If you still cannot find a point of difference, take the major product benefit and do the best communication for that product category.
5. Market Position. Where is your product in the marketplace. Is it the leader? Is it #2? Use its position to your best advantage. Look what Avis did as #2. (We try harder.)
6. What Do People Really Feel? People will tell you they think and feel one way, when in reality they may feel totally different. Think of what somebody really buys a product for, the satisfaction they get from it. The better psychologist you are, the better communicator you will be.
7. Words and Pictures. The visual and the headline together should be greater than the sum of the parts. Each should be the crucial element of the communication. If the headline or the visual can stand entirely on its own, it means the other element is merely window dressing. The story of the communication should ideally be told with the headline and visual working as a unit, paying each other off.
8. Promise a Story. A quick, catchy headline with a visual is fine…for a billboard or a banner. But other communications should have more depth. It should carry the promise of a story behind the message.
9. Does it Feel Right? Pick up your communication after you’ve put it aside for a day or two. Does it communicate? Is it strong? Is it interesting? If not, start over. Once in a while you’ll be brilliant right off the bat. Most of the time it’s a matter of throwing it out and doing it over again. When you’ve been lazy, it shows. Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself if it feels right. Gut reactions are important.
10. Presentation. Work doesn’t sell itself. When you present, cover all the bases. Explain the concept behind the communication. Give the reasons for your approach. Explain the tagline. The visual. Type and layout treatments. Then reveal the communication and read the headline. And by the way, if you work at most agencies, you have to go through a few rounds of meetings just to get out the door. These are practice rounds. Use them to coalesce your thoughts and hone your presentation.
11. Communication is part art, part science. As with any art, there are no absolutes. The magic that makes communication work is the result of logic, research and hard work. There is learning you can use to make your communication work harder. But again, there are no absolutes. If there were, every communication would get great results, every ad would be an award-winner and every company would be in the Fortune 500.
12. Research. Research. Research. Find out as much about your product as you can. Experience it. Read all you can. Sometimes a fact you find on page 42 of an Annual Report can be the key to the whole idea. A minor detail can be a spark.

Some more on Flip and taglines.

Growing up in the business, the tagline was always the apotheosis of the craft of advertising. The tagline represented what a company stood for, what made it unique usually in eight words or less.

"When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight."
"The world's most experienced airline."
"The ultimate driving machine."
"We run the tightest ship in the shipping business."
"It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."

Today, lines like the above are excoriated as old-fashioned. They don't evoke images of happy people gayly using your product. Instead they involve your brain and thinking.

Flip's tagline "Do you flip?" was existential in its meaninglessness. It did nothing to say what Flip did well or better than anyone else. It merely asserted that you were happy if you flipped.

A case in point, and one I've written about before, is BMW. They now use the single word "Joy" as their tagline. (Hopefully, now that they've fired their agency, they'll retire this line.) Joy is not ownable, not unique, not intrinsic to the brand.

Taglines have gone from brand to bland.

If you can put it on someone else's ad, it's no good on yours.

Flip flop.

"The New York Times" reported today that in just four years the Flip camcorder has gone from 'hot' to 'not.' Cisco Systems, who bought Flip for $590 million just two years ago has shut down its video camera division. The Flip, which was wondrous and transformational when it burst onto the scene, was buried by smart phones (how smart are they, really, when you can't even have a decent call on one) with video capabilities.

The obsolescence of Flip provides, I think, three lessons.

One, Cisco Systems, which is a b-to-b provider had no real business buying a consumer brand. They succumbed to Apple-envy. Thought they could be cool, hip and on everyone's lips. Cool is not the answer to everything. Cisco's market cap hovers around $100 billion. They've earned their heft by being good, reliable, innovative and boring. Some times that's enough.

Two, Flip was one of those products that was going to change everything. Kodak, Sony and other manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and came out with their own "me-too" flip-alikes. Very few products, services, songs, celebrities, words, politicians change everything. Everything doesn't very much like to change.

Three, when Flip went "big time," they did insipid advertising that showed happy people made even happier because they "flipped." Each blandishment ended with the question "do you Flip?" Dumb, gratuitous and without any ownable benefit. I'm not saying advertising would have kept Flip in business, we'll never know if it would have, but I contend good advertising would have helped.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fear ascendant.

Years ago when I was a creative director on AT&T at what was then known as FCB, I presented a spot to the client that featured a Jewish mother. The clients bought the spot and then their FEAR started. "You're not going to make that "ethnic" are you?" They kept asking me. (Ethnic in this case being code for Jewish.)

"Well, there's not a lot to the spot if it's straight," I maintained.

We cast a wonderful actress in the spot, Tovah Feldshuh, and somehow got her approved.

"She won't be doing it ethnic," they kept reminding me.

We shot the spot and I was walking off location with my producer. "They're really concerned about it being too ethnic. Oh, and by the way, what should we do about music?" he asked.

"Klezmer," was my answer.

What I realized subconsciously then and what I realize more overtly now is that our business is a war against the fear of clients. (Not to mention internal agency fear.)

We have as a society grown more timorous. There are warning messages on pretzel bags warning of sodium ingestion. Warnings on seltzer bottles that the contents could explode and put out your eye. There are warnings everywhere that have taken the place of what we used to call common sense. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.


Clients are afraid of fear. They seek to avoid it at all costs. They pick. They perseverate. They procrastinate. All because they are afraid of doing things differently from how they've always been done.

Someday some smart agency will create a position called Chief Fear Officer. That person's job will be nothing but calming people down. He will become rich and famous.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A New York story.

This is 100% true and almost 100% incredible.

I left work early tonight, around 6:30. The weather was nice out and I had had enough. I work on W. 39th Street and my wife works on E. 40th St. When I can I grab a cab, we head across town, I pick up my wife in front of her building, then we head uptown to where our apartment is.

Tonight, despite the warm weather, it was hard to find a cab. Then I spotted one across 8th Avenue discharging a passenger at the light on 40th Street. I hustled across the street, negotiated my destination with the cabbie and hopped in, all before the light changed.

We started talking. Talking to cab drivers is one of the great joys of living in New York. You meet people from all over the world and they often have interesting stories to tell.

One of the first things I do when I get into a cab is check the hack license. Licenses are numbered sequentially. A new driver's number today is around 520,000. The other day I had a driver whose number was 318,000. He'd been driving since 1971.

My driver tonight had a 500 number, but he seemed older. I checked his number again and then I noticed his name "Korotzer," his license said.

"Your name is Korotzer?" I asked.

"Yeah. Why do you ask?"

"My wife has an uncle named Korotzer."

"Then we're related," he enthused. "My father always said 'if you ever meet someone named Korotzer, you're related.' There just aren't that many of us. What's your wife's uncle's first name?"

"Joel." I replied.

"I know Joel. He retired from Kaiser, yeah!? And his brother Terry, up north?"

"That's right," I answered.

We stopped to pick up my wife. She and cousin Barry went through their entire family tree.

I gave him a $20 for a $12.90 fare.

New York, 1971.

The other day, one of “The New York Times’” film critics, AO Scott, had a video piece about William Friedkin’s 1971 movie “The French Connection.” I watched the piece, including about two minutes of a seminal chase scene and realized I hadn’t seen the movie since I was 14 or 15 and lit out of school to see it with friends—even though we were probably too young to properly get into the theatre.

What I saw in Scott’s video review was the New York I grew up in. A faster and more brutal place than the New York I live in now. A threatening place where it seemed like people were lining up to kick the shit out of other people and the cops were too busy kicking the shit out of people to prevent people from kicking the shit out of you.

I remember playing a high-school baseball game in Central Park. The grass on the Great Lawn was brown, there was little actual growth. The outfield with rutted by car or truck tires—park vehicles drove willy-nilly over the park. In the outfield ruts you would see drug paraphernalia. Needles. Syringes. I was playing outfield one game, in the white double-knit uniform we wore in those days and two guys walked over to me—it was quiet in the outfield--and tried to sell me drugs. That was par for the course, just the way things were. Everybody or nearly everybody had a mugging story. My friend Jill was a fairly adept runner, capable of a 7-minute/mile pace over the length of a 10K. She was mugged during a race and she wasn’t even running alone. Many of my friends also had run-ins with cops, cops who would harass you if you had long hair, suspecting there was a legitimate link between hair-length and marijuana possession.

Today, New York is a much more benign place. The brutality comes not from petty street criminals but from Wall Street speculators, manipulators and profiteers. They wear suits and get their pills legally from their doctors. Their crimes are harder to see. The regular cops don’t intimidate anymore, though one did give a citation to one of my kids for drinking beer in public. However there are those who carry assault rifles who are meant to protect us from terrorists. They make me think of collateral damage and scare the crap out of me.

It all makes me think of the Ferris Wheel scene from Carol Reed's "The Third Man," with lines delivered by the inimitable Orson Welles' Harry Lime. "Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Becoming an overnight success.

Dave Trott's post this morning "How to Get Laid" set me thinking about this one.

A little more than a decade ago I had the best "run" of my career. I was on a major account and was in the groove. I sold campaign after campaign after campaign. It wasn't unusual for me to open up "The New York Times" or "The Wall Street Journal" and see two or three of my ads. Seeing your ads in major newspapers feels good.

While this was going on, I started hearing things from co-workers about how "lucky" I was. How "political." How much of a "brown-nose." In short, a lot of my so-called colleagues saw my success and reckoned I did something nefarious to get there.

What they didn't see was my computer hard-drive. I had rows and rows of documents and each of those documents had scores and scores of headlines. Literally I had written probably 25 headlines for each ad that got produced. It wasn't unusual for me to have a dozen or more copy-decks, each reflecting client revisions--many of which were banal and capricious. Many times the client would say "I need an ad about _______ to be in the paper Thursday." I would stay all night working on it and show them work the next day.

No one saw the work I did. They only saw the success I achieved.

I remember talking to my daughter about it. She was 14 at the time.

"Sarah," I said, "it's taken me 40 years to become an overnight success."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Oy, branded content.

If you grew up in New York and you grew up Jewish, whether you knew it or not, you grew up with branded content. I'm talking specifically of the Passover Haggadah published and distributed since 1932 by Maxwell House coffee--with the exception of two years during World War II when paper was rationed. In 1923, Maxwell House was the first coffee to be certified Kosher and regards its distribution of Haggadah's (it's given away over 50 million--an average of more than four each to every Jew now on Earth) to be the longest-running promotion in advertising history.

At one time, every Jewish household--and when I was growing up Jews comprised about 25% of New York's population--had a dozen or so of the prayer books. And each of those gratis prayer books had a few pages of ads for Maxwell House coffee. This was no unholy alliance, nor was it a marriage of convenience. It was a service provided by the Maxwell House people and I'm sure it did more than a little to boost Maxwell House's sales in New York in its environs.

Before coffee went upscale, before there were Starbuck's on every corner, coffee was sold pre-ground in tins you picked up at the supermarket. There were literally dozens of brands, like Savarin, Chock Full o' Nuts, President's and the Haggadah gave Maxwell House a leg up.

Yesterday there was an article in the "Times" about the Maxwell House Haggadah, how it's being made over (the English translation, not the Biblical Hebrew) to modernize the language. God is no long "king." God is now a "monarch." And so on. You can read the Times' account here:

I read the Times' article. I went to the Maxwell House website and though Maxwell House is now owned by a huge multi-national corporation and there's little chance that I'll actually buy any Maxwell House, I requested half a dozen of the Haggadahs. I'll let you know if they arrive.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

But despite it all.

Despite it all, I still love advertising.
I love coming up with ideas.
I love great work.
I love taking something complicated and making it simple.
I love moving people.
I love the laughter.
I love the craziness.
I love the brilliant people you often work with.
I love the battles over work.
I love the pressure.
I love the fight.
I love the results.
There are plenty of things to disdain about our business.
Plenty of blowhards and know-it-alls and new-speakers.
Plenty of processes that advance nothing but some needle-dick's agenda.
But it's advertising.
And I love it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

An answer to a question.

For nearly 30 years I've earned a living in advertising. Every once in a while, someone asks me, "how has the business changed." Someone did recently and I've been thinking long and hard about it.

Here's my conclusion in one sentence: "There is no longer any incentive to produce anything."

In fact, expanding that, for many people in the business--on both the agency and the client side, what's important isn't the conclusion--it isn't a campaign, a spot or a program. What's important is that you have work to do tomorrow.

Making meetings is important. Making work isn't. Because producing work actually cuts down on meetings. And making meetings is what's important.

It's not unusual for people to say to me, "I've been here x-months and haven't produced a thing." Today, that seems par for the course.

When agencies were paid commission on media spend, they had to produce or they wouldn't get paid. Agencies also marked up production 17.65%--more incentive to produce. Also, the more work runs, the more they make--an incentive to be constantly selling.

Today this system is gone. You get paid a fee. You put hours against that fee. If an agency comes up with an idea the client buys too quickly, they won't have burned enough hours. The agency will have to refund money to the client. It's like painting a house. If you get paid hourly, you stretch things out. You don't want to finish too fast.

Of course, Clients also have a disincentive to approve work. Approved work makes you accountable. No one in marketing in America gets fired for "looking at myriad creative options." For "research and testing." For "socializing things within the client organization."

In corporate America people get fired only if they actually do something. In agency America, agencies make more money if they produce more decks.

I'm sorry. But that's the way it is.

e.e. cummings.

I was reading this morning on the way to work, my commute takes about 35 minutes and while it involves a fair amount of hurly-burly and the slowest transportation known to man (the crosstown bus) I don't mind my commute. I put Mahler on my iPod, I open my book and I am transported.

This morning I ran across a quotation by e.e. cummings:

"who cares if some oneyed son for a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?"

It seems to me that a lot of what is wrong with our business and the world is that there is always some oneyed son for a bitch inventing an instrument to measure with.

We have sitcoms and movies that have been measured and researched to the point of garbage. The commercials we show clients--even commercials that evoke a visceral reaction when we present them are, in the words of my ex-boss Ed Butler, "put through the Blanderizer."

Everything we think, say or do is quantified and analyzed and bit and bytified to oblivion.

We are so busy measuring Spring, we forget to soak in the sun.

A "moderne" one-acter.


NORM: Hey, Fred, whatcha' doin'?
FRED: Gonna take a swim in the tar-pit, Norm.
NORM: I'm not sure I'd do that Freddy Boy, it looks kinda sticky in there.
FRED: I think it looks quite blithe and ambient. I think a nice dip is just what the doctorsaurus ordered.
NORM: It smells like tar, Freddy. I'd stay away.
FRED: You're the one who's acting like a stick in the mud, Norm. C'mon in with me.
FRED: Hey, Norm, gimme a hand--or a hoof, or a paw here. I seem to be stuck.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Three wishes.

I've got a big meeting today. It could be the culmination of literally nine months work. Here's to the work going well.

I wish people would stop calling the work "my work." You in account, in planning, in media had every opportunity to influence me and the creative. Calling the work "my work" misses the point of why we supposedly work together. It also puts all the responsibility--which should be shared--only on me.

I wish the client would understand that, too. The work, at this point, is a shared product of outputs and influences.

I wish people would stop asking me if I was going to sell something today. At this point in the work's life-cycle, it should already be sold.


There are all kinds of things being built in New York. Including, apparently, prophets.

A musical interlude.

It seems to me that more and more beige talents are sitting at the top of more and more agencies. In a couple years or a couple months, those same agencies will bring in expensive talent from outside to shake things up then fire them a year later for being disruptive.

And yes, I'm a bit bitter this morning.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

With apologies to Samuel Beckett.

She: What time are you leaving tonight?
He: I’ll be a little late I have a seven o’clock meeting.
She: A seven o’clock meeting?
He: Yeah, we’re prepping for tomorrow’s meeting.
She: The big meeting?
He: No, that meeting’s Thursday, this is prepping for that.
She: So you’re meeting to prep for the prepping meeting?
He: Unless we have to make changes in this meeting.
Then we’ll have to meet to make the
changes and go over the changes before the meeting.
She: What time do you think you’ll be home tonight?
He: Actually, I’m leaving now.
They just cancelled the meeting.

Mr. Bockius.

When I was in high school I had this brilliantly crazy teacher called Mr. Bockius. He was always exciting us into reading things we wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to, like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and GK Chesterton in addition to the more typical Hardy and Dickens.

If we said we liked something we read, even if it were just a single sentence, he would in about three second's time give us eleventeen different books to complement what we said we liked. He also made us write essays on topics that popped into his head, probably when he was on acid. I remember one such topic was titled simply "vacuum cleaners and reality." We were left to make sense of that in 1,000 words or more.

I think about Mr. Bockius this morning because I said aloud that someone was inept. Mr. Bockius' highest praise was this: "That's aptly ept and eptly apt."

Mass and class.

When I was growing up there was a little New York ditty that my mother and other people's mothers would often remind me of.

If I passed an expensive clothing store or wanted something costly, it was likely my shrewishly parsimonious mater would breathe "eat with the masses." If I made a caustic remark about a discount store, I'd hear "dine with the classes."

The phrase I'm referring to is this, "If you make for the masses, you dine with the classes. If you make for the classes, you eat with the masses."

Somehow, this equation is not considered within the agency world today. TV which reaches masses is excoriated. Building elaborate machinery to garner a few thousand Facebook "likes" is praised to the heavens.

Even the lauded to the heavens Old Spice "Man you could smell like" has only been seen by, maybe, 50 million people online. That's a considerable number--and yes, I know the engagement is deeper than that of a TV commercial, but compared with the reach of broadcast, we are speaking of tiny numbers.

Of course, the real issue here may be one of cost. It seems to cost agencies as much to produce a TV spot this hits hundreds of millions as it does to create an app that engages hundreds.

I haven't worked all this out as yet. But at least I'm trying to listen to my mother.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Winston Churchill updated for the very model of a modern advertising agency.

Never have so many done so little for so few.

A call from Aunt Sylvie.

Aunt Sylvie called last night, right in the middle of the basketball game. I knew immediately something is wrong because Sylvie hardly speaks unless something is wrong. Aunt Sylvie is Uncle Slappy’s wife. They’ve been married for 62 years and she’s played second fiddle that whole time. Mostly when you try to engage Aunt Sylvie in conversation what you get is hand motions and dismissals.

“A beautiful day here in New York today, Aunt Sylvie.”
“Ach, New York,” she spits with the back of her hand.
“We went to the opera last Wednesday,” I say, trying to draw her out.
“Ach, the opera,” she spits back at me.
“This was our first Wagner,” I persist.
Now, she introduces a bit of poetry into her response:
“Wagner, Schmagner,” she says, “Germansche schwein.”
“Is everything ok, Aunt Sylvie?” I ask.
“Is everything ok?” she rejoins. “I would be calling if everything was ok?”
“Well,” I begin, worried, “whatsamatta?”
“Your Uncle Slappy,” she begins.
“Did he fall again?” I ask. Over the winter Uncle Slappy fell in the frozen foods at the Piggly Wiggly and “sprained his back.”
“Ach, did he fall again? He falls like a helium balloon, he falls.”
“Then what, Sylvie?”
“The cable is out.”
Now I take Aunt Sylvie’s role. “The cable is out?”
“The cable is out.”
“Did you call the call the cable company?”
“Did I call the cable company? You think the cable company is waiting for my call?”
“Aunt Sylvie, usually when the cable is out you just have to reset your set-top box. It’s easy, they’ll walk you through it.”
“They’ll walk me through it?”
“It’s about as simple as turning it off and turning it on again.”
“Mr. Big Schot whiz kid.”
“Hey, listen Aunt Sylvie, whydontcha put Uncle Slappy on? Maybe we can do it together?”

Long story short, it turns out the cleaning lady had unplugged the RCA when she vacuumed the den. And Slappy had the game in no time, missing just a bit of the first half.

Quiet, please.

Last night was a big night in American sports. One university where athletes don't graduate or go class was playing another university where athletes don't graduate or go to class. This entire conflagration was funded--since these are public universities--by taxpayer dollars at a time when we don't otherwise have the financial wherewithal to buy a pack of Chiclets.

Here's what impresses me about sports. How little experts know and in how many convoluted ways they can express what they know so it sounds like they say a lot. They say things like, "We have to shut them down defensively, get them out of their game and run our fast-break and hit our shots."

Deconstruct that and you get "We have to keep them from scoring and score ourselves."

That's basically the level of discourse you get when you hear people discussing sports. And it's basically the level of discourse you get when you hear people discussing advertising.

"Did you select the best takes?""Have you included all the copy points?"

Pursuant to my previous point on chatter it all leads me to a very simple conclusion. 90% of all agency conversation is unnecessary. It is noise that fills what otherwise would be uncomfortable quiet.

I wonder if you could make money starting an agency called "Silence"?

Monday, April 4, 2011


I don't know.
Did you do everything the client asked for from the last meeting?
Have you anticipated everything they could ask for in this meeting?
Have you thought about everything that could go wrong?
Has Bill seen it?
Has Charles seen it?
Has Lauren seen it?
Are you sure the deck is in the right order?
I know that was your recommendation last week, should that be your reco this week?
Do you think that SEC legal decision changes things?
Have you thought about directors?
Have you thought about music?
Have you thought about dps?
Have you thought about editors?
Does Frank need to see this?

Every time you create something these days it's accompanied by chatter. There are dozens of voices careening off the walls, ready to jump off a powerpoint deck and strangle your sense of confidence.

Chatter, the way I see it is propagated by people too nervous and too indiscreet to keep their fears and doubts to themselves. So they chatter out their fears. They give them air, room and light so their fears can grow.

People who chatter don't even realize they're being destructive. They harbor no malevolence. They're just inexperienced and nervous. They have no self-confidence. They are afraid their ass will get cut off at the knees. So they chatter.

Chatter has never made a good ad or television spot.
Chatter has never helped a client solve a tough problem.
Chatter has never won an award.

Despite that, some times chatterers get ahead.
They work in agencies that are careful, buttoned up and methodical.
Agencies that eliminate risk.
And they chatter their way upwards spouting all the things you haven't thought of,
all the paradigm shifts you haven't taken into account.

Chatter bounces off the halls and echoes through email and IM.

It doesn't build anything.
It just breaks things.
Mostly your spirit.
If you let it.


One of the baffling things about living in the information age is that the experts and the pundits have decided barely twenty years into it that they have figured it all out.

I am thinking about this as I slog my way through a new tome by James Gleick called "The Information, A History, A Theory, A Flood." This morning I was reading a chapter on Charles Babbage, the mathematician whose life was fairly consumed by trying to invent a steam-powered mechanical calculating machine.

The need for this machine was evident. Logarithmic tables were vital yet notoriously inaccurate. The "Nautical Almanac" for example, published in 1792 printed tables with 19 errors, in 1793 the Almanac printed an erratum. Then, the next year, an erratum of the errata, then finally, an "erratum of the erratum of the errata." Yeesh.

The internet, our current technological marvel is not all that different from Babbage's mechanics. We are told endlessly that the internet will change everything. But, to me, everything seems pretty much the same. I still can't get an answer to a problem. I still can't get help from customer service. The big advantages, for me, are I have access to more books, but I still prefer going to my neighborhood independent bookseller that employs people who can actually read. Browsing online is not nearly as interesting (and it takes more time) than browsing in-person.

Finally, and what really set me off this morning, is the utter conviction in the assertions of the experts that the internet is a visual medium. How would you know this early into its development? It's too early to say anything about the internet with conviction. Except that its ubiquity will rise.

And how would you explain that the internet's most popular sites, Google, Facebook, Craig's List and Amazon are essentially information and word driven?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

100 Rembrandts.

I've lived in New York my whole life. I live now just six or seven miles from the hospital in which I was born, two miles from where I went to college, and fifteen miles from where I went to high school. But my inundations with New York haven't left me jaded or any less wondrous at all it has to offer.

Today Spring is in the air. A long-awaited Spring after a bleak and snowy Winter and the threat of snow as recently as yesterday. But today the air is warm, little tow-headed boys are playing catch with their Jamaican nannies in Central Park, the crocuses and daffodils are blooming and buds are showing their colors on trees that until recently were as grey as old soldiers.

My wife and I took a medium run and ended up by the Frick Collection, where in addition to their usual splendors, there's an exhibit called "Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and Lugt Collections." Dozens and dozens of Rembrandts with only dozens and dozens of viewers. (One of the great things about the Frick is that it's near the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Guggenheim. These larger museums take the huge tourist crowds, leaving the Frick to cognoscenti and scores of art students copying the Rembrandts.)

No advertising point today. Though I'm sure there's one buried here somewhere in that art that's 350 years old is worthy of study but no one in our business seems to study advertising older than the last awards show.

But like I said, no advertising point today. It's too nice out.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Future Babble.

There was a book review published in "The New York Times" last month on a book called "Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better" by a writer called Dan Gardner. You can read the review here,

But here, in a nutshell, is what I think has gone dramatically wrong with our world and our industry.

We are living through a period of massive change. Virtually all of the old verities have been smashed. Along with virtually all of the old authorities.

For most people a Church is something you can't park in front of. A teacher is someone to fire. A business leader is a thief. An athlete is a drug user. These people and institutions can no longer show us the way.

What we are left with now that these scions have diminished is "experts." Experts are whom we turn to to help us find underpinnings and foundation--to make sense of a confusing world.

Here's the thing--there are no "qualifications" for expert-hood. There's no "Six Sigma Course" of experthood. All you really need is a little pecker and a big ego.

With those requisites met, experts do what experts are expert at. They issue proclamations. Most often, these proclamations serve to underscore the expertness of the experts.

No one gives experts report cards.

So, the ad agency "Huge" still lauds the accomplishments of the Pepsi Refresh campaign which according to some estimates cost the soda maker hundreds of millions of dollars.

In fact, I think there's probably some inverse correlation between the amount of times an expert is wrong and how many people believe that expert.

One of my favorite writers, Mark Harris (whose baseball tetralogy remains some of the best fiction I have ever read) said this in one of his novels. "The only hero is the man without heroes."

I think the only expert is the man who doesn't trust experts.

I leave you with this, which I lifted from the "Times."

"Philip Tetlock,[is] a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Beginning in the 1980s, Tetlock examined 27,451 forecasts by 284 academics, pundits and other prognosticators. The study was complex, but the conclusion can be summarized simply: the experts bombed. Not only were they worse than statistical models, they could barely eke out a tie with the proverbial dart-throwing chimps."

A rare occurrence.

I have nothing to say.

As prolific a writer as I am, there are days when I feel stymied. Where nothing bubbles to the surface. Where putting one word in front of another with some semblance of coherence or direction just isn't happening.

When it comes to writing this blog, I have a few "block busters" that help me when I am stuck. "The Economist" has a lifestyle website called I go there and see if something tickles my fancy. I also look at a site on Jewish books and learning called My other usuals are, of course, "The New York Times," and

And then I've always got my nose in one book or another, so those give me ideas. And I'm usually mid-stream in some silent movie or something by Ernst Lubitsch. That usually helps. This is from a 1930 movie he directed called "Monte Carlo."

Count Rudolph Falliere a.k.a. Rudy the hairdresser:
I have a system that can't miss. If I happened to be standing beside a brunette I bet on red. If I am standing next to a redhead I bet on black.
Armand: But suppose you're standing next to a blonde. What do you do then?
Count Rudolph Falliere a.k.a. Rudy the hairdresser: I ask where she lives.