Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Cape.

When I was young, in my late teens, my friends and I would get summer jobs to pay for our expenses in college. Summer was 13 weeks long and we would take the 13th week off and with $100 head up to Cape Cod for drinking, beaching and carousing.

We stayed at a place in South Dennis, a place that had seen better times, but it was fine. It had an outdoor heated pool and lax supervision. They also didn't care if seven of us piled into a kitchenette room for a week, as long as we were quiet at night which we were.

Our days were pretty simple. We'd get up early and go for a run, then hit the beach and stay all day. Even in late August the water on the Cape was in the low 60s, so that pool came in handy when we wanted a dip, though we were brave enough and scared enough at being considered a sissy that we swam for hours in the ocean as well.

The rest of our days were divided neatly in three. Try to pick up girls, playing "home run derby" with a wiffle ball and bat in the parking lot and finding beer and sub sandwiches.

One summer we struck out completely in the girl department. There seemed to be no one our age, or every one our age was with their parents or we just couldn't find anyone. We would go out walking in the evening, pretending we were Dylan Thomas in "Just Like Little Dogs," our hair curly and roughly handsome from the sea. We came home one night to the hotel and the night clerk asked if we had "struck out in Snatch Alley."

That made us laugh that we were staying at a place called Snatch Alley. Especially since to our eyes there was very little snatch about.

I returned to the Cape this weekend with my wife, two daughters and one daughter's boyfriend. The Cape hasn't changed much in 35 years. Some wise people have kept Route 6, the main highway down to one lane each way, and that's kept development away.

I am staying at the nicest place on the Cape, or nearly so. I have seen no signs of Snatch Alley.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The tyranny of the rational mind.

I am in the midst of a pro-bono project for The School at Columbia University, a middle school that operates under the auspices of Columbia University. Somehow, the director of admissions of the school got Milton Glaser to design and illustrate a poster for the school. I was asked to work with Glaser and work on the copy. Our efforts--an early version--are above.

Now we are hearing from our client that the poster is "too young" to represent grades 6, 7 and 8. Not sophisticated enough.

Rationally, she might be right. Maybe it's too whimsical. Maybe the colors aren't limbic enough.

But I kinda like it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

America, 2011.

I'm in Chicago and they asked to pat down my hair.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dick Wimmer, 1936-2011.

There's was an obituary in "The New York Times" on Tuesday that's worth considering. It told the story of a writer called Dick Wimmer, "Whose Persistence Got Him Published." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/25/arts/dick-wimmer-74-irish-wine-author-is-dead.html?ref=obituaries

Wimmer was determined to be a novelist. He submitted to publishers manuscripts for 25 years. He got more than 160 rejections. He ultimately laid claim to being the "most-rejected published novelist in history.

Finally, Wimmer got published in 1989.

I think about Wimmer because I believe seeing creative or creativity through is never easy. It takes stamina, heart, persistence. Talent and creativity alone are not enough.

I often say I know what Muslim heaven is like.
Whenever I create something we go through 72 versions.
Bad joke.

Giving up trying is the surest route to failure.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How it used to be.

While I'm on the subject of my early days in the business, I thought I'd trip down memory lane and tell you what it was like in 1980 to work in catalog advertising in the days before computers.

One of the jobs as a copywriter was to talk to the buyers and find out what items were meant to go on a page and which should be featured. You would take that information and then have to do something called a "paste-up." You would take a large piece of oaktag with safety, trim and bleed delineated on it in black dotted lines and paste scrap art in place onto the oaktag.

Traffic would collect your paste-up, log it into the system and deliver it to your art director who would--magically--turn it into a tissue layout. The art director I worked with most often was an old Scotsman, Angus MacLennan. He could turn out a layout literally in seconds.

The art director would also draw rectangles where your headline and body copy would go. We seldom knocked out copy because it was more precarious if something should change.

The layout would then be taken by traffic to a type guy. He would measure the rectangles and tell you how many lines of copy you got and how many characters per line. A typical copy box might be 7 lines at 44 characters.

Then the traffic person brought the spec-ed layout back to you and you had to write the copy to spec. You would write it on a special piece of copy paper that had lines counted out on one axis and characters on the other. You'd draw a line down the page so you didn't write wide.

Then your copy and layout would go to editorial who would check your copy against the info pages the buyer provided. If everything was ok, the whole thing would go to the typesetters who would re-type everything you typed. In a day or so, they'd get a "velox" of the type and a paste-up man would put the type into the layout.

Meanwhile, the art director had shot the merch and gotten chromes back from the studio.

Finally, the whole thing would come together and they'd make a 600-page catalog that much of the nation used for toilet paper.

Some thoughts on Advertising Schools.

When I was a kid in the business I worked as a copywriter for Bloomingdale's. I literally wrote and produced maybe 15 ads a week. I was with Bloomingdale's for two years. 100 weeks X 15 ads = 1,500 ads.

Before I worked at Bloomingdale's I wrote catalog copy for a shoe company. I probably produced 100 pages a year. Again I was there two years. So I produced 200 pages.

In short, by the time I got my first agency job, I had produced something like 2,000 pages of ads.

Today, kids go to four-year colleges and then often go to two years of graduate school to put their portfolios together. That's fine, I suppose if that's your thing. But to my mind, it's a bit like learning to ride a bike from typewritten instructions. You might be able to do it, but it's infinitely inferior to a hands-on experience.

This is all to say that I worry about the artificiality of our business. Kids paying a fortune to learn how to write ads that can flourish only in a client-less, Unique-selling-point-less, deadline-less universe where the only brief ever considered is "will it win an award"?

Advertising is an expensive proposition for clients. I think my agency bills me out at a rate that would make a well-heeled lawyer blush. I have to provide value for the clients who pay my way. I have to make the ads I do not a 'cost center' but a driver of value.

I'm not sure they teach that in advertising schools either.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The quintessence of dust.

One of the high points of English literature, perhaps the apotheosis of Western civilization occurs in Act II, Scene 2 of Shakespeare's Hamlet. They are words expressing the beauty, wisdom, perfection and also the fragility and emptiness of our species. They capture Hamlet forlorn and despairing:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

This is all to say, if you ever feel good about mankind, feel like we are purposeful, intelligent and progressing, take a minute and read some Facebook comments.

This was on the feed of Stacy, a friend of mine whose birthday was today.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What do you do when you're stuck.

Every once in a while you have an assignment due and you have no ideas. You joke for a moment that you've run out of ideas for good--a nervous joking at best. For a moment, you attempt to reassure yourself--you have three teams working on this, you can hide behind your "supervisor" title and do nothing. But this joking and your attempt at reassurance don't work. You still have no ideas.

What do you do?

You take a walk around the block.
You browse the web for a few minutes.
You kibbitz with some friends.

But still, you have no ideas. And tempus is fugiting. What do you do?

If you're a writer, there's one thing I recommend. One thing that's worked for me for nearly 30 years.


Write good old-fashioned prose. Don't try to be clever or "line-y" or anything else. Just try to write about your assignment in the simplest and clearest way you possibly can. If you are working on an assignment about motor oil, write an essay called "On the difference motor oil makes."

Start writing.

You might wind up with absolute garbage. But your brain will start synapsing, you will need to do some research and sooner or later you might trip upon something interesting.

Maybe this won't work for you. It doesn't work for me all the time, but it does work at least seven times out of 10.

It's worth a try.


The rapture came and went with seemingly few sinners being thrust into a burning lake or otherwise wrestling with the devil. We had a few major catastrophes over the last few days, the Mississippi overflowing its banks, giant tornadoes crashing into a hospital in Missouri, but nothing out of the ordinary. In New York, we even had sunshine for the first day in weeks.

But thinking about the rapture made me think about advertising and it power, real or imagined. There are critics of our profession who say that advertising creates demand. That it makes people buy things they don't need. Sometimes, these same people declare that no one believes advertising anymore and that traditional forms of marketing communications are obsolete.

Purportedly $100 million was spent on advertising the rapture. I have to believe that that expenditure moved and convinced a lot of people who were predisposed to believe that judgment is coming. They repented their sins, arranged for pet-care and left their dishes in the sink. They believed the signs because they believed. Advertising helped them embrace what they already believed.

I think that's what advertising does best. Helps people believe more fervently what they hope to believe. My mother's generation, the kids of immigrants, believed that becoming an American meant having a certain kind of home. Waxy yellow build-up wasn't going to stand in my mother's way of being an exemplar.

Likewise, American beer advertising works because it tells out of shape layabout males that they have a chance with nubile supermodels. It works because the viewer is willing to believe the fantasy.

Many people who find sports interesting buy expensive television sets that promise to make sports more interesting.

Similarly, Apple's ads work because they let people believe that they'll be cool and creative if they buy Apple products. I don't know if any book written on an iPad will ever be half as good as The Canterbury Tales or any movie edited on a desktop will ever be as good as early Buster Keaton. But you're creative you must have a Mac even though you'll likely never publish a word or produce a movie any more elaborate than Grandma's 80th Celebration.

Yet all of us, in many different ways, buy into mythologizing. We buy beer or laptops or judgment because we want to believe in something.

I'm not sure advertising can make you believe in anything or buy anything you're not predisposed to feel favorably about in the first place.

We don't create belief. We appeal to it.

How we spend our time.

Most of what happens today in an advertising agency has virtually nothing to do with advertising.

We are so busy creating data visualizations that depict how different communications are meant to work together in a seamless ecosystem, that we spend virtually no time actually creating communications.

We are so busy ceding control to consumers, so busy plotting user "experiences," so busy creating testing archetypes that we seem to have forgotten what advertising is meant to do: that is, make a promise to a consumer.

A look at the trade press that distributes creative awards and recognition the way the US Army once distributed small-pox infected blankets to native Americans, is revealing. Last week, the Barbarian Group won accolades for creating a new "Don't Walk" sign for New York City streets. It was creative, I suppose. But it wasn't advertising.

As an industry, we have either forgotten what we're supposed to do or we've grown embarrassed by it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

If I got one wish...

If I had one advertising wish it might very well be the elimination of the word "experience." Not only is it overused and hackneyed, it is outright deceptive.

Most agencies are infected and infested with "experience designers." You wanna know something, I've never had an experience online. I click through pages, I might watch a video or fill out a form, but I've yet to have an experience.

When I read a book, and I believe this is a parallel, I do not consider my "page-turning experience." Even when the book I'm reading has pictures or photos, I do not have a "visual experience." I just look at pictures.

I just got an ad from a shoe store, trumpeting their "shopping experience." I was in an airport that promised a "superior airport experience."

Oh, go fuck yourself sideways.

The reason people and technocrats and consultants use the word like a bludgeon is that what they offer or provide is so profoundly and insipidly boring that they need to mask it in grandiosity. That "experience" you designed? As flat as a plate of piss.

Driving a Porsche on an open road, seeing the Parthenon, meeting the President--those are experiences. Using a deodorant or visiting a deodorant's website isn't.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

White brick advertising.

I live in a 22-story building on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It was built, like a lot of the Upper East Side, in 1964. At that time, a lot of new apartment houses were influenced by a housing project called Manhattan House, a block long collection of modernist residences sheathed in white brick. In short, my building is similarly covered in white brick.

There's a problem with white brick. Its outer surface is painted white and enameled so it gleams. What happens is this. Moisture gets into the brick through the surrounding cement and slowly begins to deteriorate and put pressure on the white enamel. The enamel cracks and flakes and eventually falls away.

As a consequence, my building is almost always under scaffolding. We are always in the process of replacing white bricks.

It occurs to me that many businesses and agencies are similarly white-bricked. Something about them is fundamentally wrong but rather than getting at the root of the problem (the inherent issue of the white brick) we merely replace things and hope history won't repeat itself. We are, that is, patchers, not fixers.

There are buildings in my neighborhood that were formerly white brick. They are now sheathed in red brick or beige brick. Their owners decided to bite an expensive bullet and not patch. Instead they actually fixed.

What are you doing with your white bricks?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A lesson to be learned.

There's a scene from Frank Capra's classic 1946 movie "It's a Wonderful Life," in which George Bailey (who's never been born) and Clarence, his guardian angel stumble into a bar, Nick's Place to warm up after their falls into a freezing river.

The great tough guy, Sheldon Leonard plays Nick and when Clarence orders something fancy, he gives the two men an earful.

Nick: "Hey look, mister - we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint "atmosphere". Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?"

What's interesting to me is that Nick knew more about his business than most marketers know about theirs. He could define it in half a sentence while defining his target audience in the second half.

Today we have car companies that want to be about joy. Coffee companies that want to save the rain forests they are ripping down, soda companies that want to be about doing good while they are obesifying large swaths of the world. Agencies are probably the worst offenders. They might have the world's largest ad spenders as accounts but they lavish more time and attention on pro-bono accounts or their efforts to raise money for Japan. None are sure what business they are in.

It all gets a little tiring.

The organization man.

Ever since, I suppose, I was a little kid I've had a fairly organized mind. I am disciplined enough to be able to sort, in my mind, all the things I have to do and create, again in my mind, a to do list for the day. I think it drives people who don't have this facility crazy because I don't keep a calendar and I don't write things down. I was blessed with a near-photographic memory and simply using your memory improves your memory, so things work out for me.

Usually I compile my day's list in my head right after I wake up in the morning. I keep the list to three or four or five things, because that's all you can reasonably expect to get done in a day. When I check my email in the morning, I often find I have to add something to my list. That's ok, because I keep my lists brief.

What I've found through the years is that when you're organized and you come in early, you can get most of your to do list done in about an hour. This morning I finished mine in 25 minutes.

I've always felt in advertising that there is a distinction between the assignment you're given and the job that needs to be done. Often they are diametrically opposed but I've found that convincing the client that there's a bigger job to be done usually leads to better assignments and better work.

That's what I try to work on most of my day.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Advertising today. A data visualization.

A few weeks ago I was asked to create a video for a client that explained the changing world of marketing and how they've changed along with the world. How the client creates many touchpoints to reach the consumer. The video should be, I was told, about 3 to 4 minutes.

This morning I put the finishing touches on round 15 of the copy--I had to finish it, I was recording the VO. While in the session I discovered that the 3-4 minute video I started with was now 7:43 in length.

Data visualization, as we know, is all the rage. So I went back to my table and did some data visualization on this project. On one axis I plotted the number of revisions from 1 to 15. On the other I plotted the number of words (these include video instructions) from 770, where I started to around 1800, where I wound up.

I call this, "The story of advertising."

New York in the Rain.

There are clean rains in New York. Rains that seem to sweep the streets and sweeten the air. Rain that puts a shine on the taxis and that the buses splash through to the delight of brightly colored children.

For the last three days New York has been hit with the opposite. A dirty scowling rain that sets everyone on edge like they've just committed a horrible crime and they don't want to be found out.

The rain howled down my block this morning, hitting me like a sheet on a clothesline. I caught the crosstown bus to get out of it, a bus more crowded than usual because a lot of people had the same idea I did. No one got up for the old ladies. No one looked up from their Blackberries.

Next to me sat an older lady confessing out loud. "I wasn't as patient as I could have been yesterday. I almost lost my temper," she told her hands loud enough for me to hear. Practically nothing in the modern world moves as slowly as a New York City crosstown bus in the rain. I heard her lamentations all across the park.

The subway wait was long. Trains had just left as I entered the station. There was a pool at the bottom of the steps. People leapt past the guy selling newspapers covered with a plastic tarp.

Jesus stood alongside me on the platform and he smelled. An old-style New York homeless man, delusional, paranoid, and ranting. With a mix of Santa Monica in him. He had steely good looks, a full-lustrous beard and abs way better than mine.

"Can anyone tell me who the anti-Christ is," he asked my car on the C Train. "I'm just trying to get some information here." He continued. "They rerouted the trains to DeKalb. Why do the fuckers make it so hard? Do you really believe that a man parted the Red Sea and people walked across on the ocean floor? Then you're a sucker! A sucker."

A woman next to me smiled at me, "What a day," she said. "New York in the rain is a Third World country." I nodded and smiled back.

She left the train at 59th. I took her seat and had one of the small two-seat benches to myself. Would Jesus sit with me? His plastic bags filled with newspapers and junk, would they spill into my lap?

I discouraged contact by taking up a seat and a half and I rode the bench solo. Mahler was on my iPod.

Sturm und drang for a sturm und drang day.

Monday, May 16, 2011

From my friend Randall Enos.

The great illustrator.

Me and Milton Glaser.

Six months ago I answered an ad in "The New York Times" about a job opportunity--Director of Communications at Columbia University. It turned out the job wasn't right for me for many reasons, but through the interview process I met some people I liked and they liked me. Last week they contacted me to do some freelance for them.

As good fortune would have it, my freelance client's husband is an architect. He shares an office with Milton Glaser. And my client persuaded Mr. Glaser to art direct the piece I am working on. I took three hours off from my regular job this morning to work in his space.

I met Mr. Glaser in his offices which are decorated with his art and memorabilia and things he likes that other people created. Years ago I saw an exhibit of Glaser's work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His townhouse had 50 times the amount of work. I could have spent all day there.

Mr. Glaser and I started chatting. Feeling each other out as designers and writers do. Him feeling me out, actually. Am I good enough to write words he would consider using. Fortunately, he liked very much a line I wrote. That seemed to break the ice and he warmed up after that. I was in a fraternity now. We started going over my copy. He ran to another room to get some of his pencil sketches. He draws with pencils that have multiple colors of lead at their tip, colors that vary as the pencil sharpens. He said they unloose his imagination.

He warned me about my copy. He warned me about something he called collective recurrence. Copy phrases used so often that they sound right and say nothing. After about 30 minutes the client showed up.

Milton presented some thoughts. Talked about his process and some beginning thoughts he (and I) had. Then when he was done, he folded things up and said, "We gotta let it cook a little bit."

The work I'm doing is for a school.

I am the one who is learning.

Running the mile.

There was a nice article in "The New York Times" this morning about the great milers and rivals Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/16/sports/forty-years-ago-a-dream-mile-captivated-like-a-track-ali-frazier.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Jim%20Ryun&st=cse The article focuses on a show down between the two, 40 years ago at the Penn Relays track meet.

The race itself is partly told through the eyes of the writer 40 years ago, when he was a 15-year-old boy. "I was there with my father. I recall Ryun warming up, running full turns on the interior track: a series of languid jogs, then of gradually lengthening strides and finally of full-out sprints. It seemed as if he had run five miles to prepare for one. It was a revelation to a novice not yet 15."

You can probably guess the sentence that got me: "...He had to run five miles to prepare for one."

That's right. That's the ratio of success. Do a lot to perform a little.

In our business there is a tremendous ratio of bullshit to success. I think there always was. There is just a ton of shit you have to shovel before something precious gets through the sieve.

My experience is that the ratio is the same at "good" agencies as it is at "shitty" agencies. The difference in agency success and failure is this: When work is killed, bad agencies come back with work that is slightly worse. Good agencies keep coming back with work that is better.

That's our choice. Give in or keep fighting.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Friday afternoon.
Account people buying shoes.
Zappos sales rising.

Four years ago today.

Today is the 4th anniversary of the worst day of my life. And so, I spend part of the day in mourning. Mourning with the sadness that only someone with a Black Dog can understand.

Four years ago today was a Sunday. Mother's Day.

I was sitting in my apartment when my cell phone rang. It was the police. I thought something horrible had been done by or had happened to one of my daughters. Instead something happened to my sister. She was riding her brand new Ducati motorcycle. A small girl on a big bike. She swerved to avoid someone sprinting against the light across 12th Avenue and flipped the bike on top of herself and was crushed to death.

The police didn't want to tell me on the phone. But I figured out she was dead. They came to my apartment with the "effects" she had on her. A wallet. A couple rings. Some keys. That was it.

The next day I walked to the Morgue and identified her body. That was the last I saw of her.

I was unemployed at the time. I had impetuously quit the highest paying job I'll likely ever have because my boss fucked with me. I was unemployed with a freshly dead sister.

Today, I have one of the best jobs in the advertising business. And everyone's healthy. Thank god.

Horrible things can happen to you.


People can lie to you.

Treat you like shit.

You can feel like taking a one-way swim in the East River.

Instead, something holds you back and you keep moving.

That's life.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

This can't be a real headline.

From today's "New York Times."

"Tiger Woods Withdraws After 9 Holes"

We listen harder.

I'm a copywriter by training. What does that mean? I don't, usually, know the product or service I'm working on as well as the experts. I've worked technology brands, but I'm not an engineer. I've worked on car accounts, yet I have no driver's license. I've worked on financial accounts though I am not wealthy.

So how do writers write?
How can we convey understanding when our association with a brand is often loose?

By listening.

What I've found is that most copy is already written. It's buried in the depths of a too-long client brief. It's on page 37 of an annual report. It's in a sales spiel from a company employee. A powerpoint from a "product specialist." It's all around you in a way a building is all around you if you're standing on a pile of bricks.

Our job as creatives is to hear and see everything.

And from that hearing and seeing find a soul. A voice. A cadence. The truth.

It's like writing a biography of an author from reading his books. What is her perspective? Her interests? What pisses her off or makes her laugh? How does she make you laugh?

Because they don't listen, a lot of creators are really decorators.
They put filigree on things, they dress them up. They aren't much more than a fresh coat of trendy paint.

That explains much of what is wrong with advertising.

If you want to do something true, listen.

Pursuant to the above, I've pasted here a poem that is about listening by the great and, today, unknown Langston Hughes.

By Langston Hughes
The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you---
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me---we two---you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me---who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records---Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white---
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me---
although you're older---and white---
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

O tempore O mores.

I've been running around a lot of late doing, unfortunately, all of the creative work that keeps my account running. There's a lot of it; we are busy.

Just now I was running downstairs to meet with a producer and some motion graphics people. I bumped into one of the three project managers on my team.

"I'm going downstairs to talk to the producer about x" I tell him.

"Well," he says to me with a straight face, "I can't make it, we have a status meeting."

Wait a second.

I'm doing all the work.

And you're scheduling meetings to talk about what I'm doing.


I was wrestling with insomnia last night, so I decided to read "The New York Times" until I felt tired enough to sleep. I happened upon an article on sports nicknames and I bumped into an interesting statistic that made me think.

"According to the Social Security Administration, the 10 most popular baby names for boys in 1956 represented 31.1 percent of the total born. In 1986, around the time many of today’s athletes were born, the top 10 represented only 21.3 percent of the total. In 2010, the number dropped to 8.4 percent."

In other words, people are being more creative, more themselves, more individualistic at least according to this one measure.

I'm sure new media mavens will suggest that this non-conformist phenomenon illustrates consumer control and the decline of authority. They're probably right. People want things their way--mass customization as opposed to mass production.

There may be other conclusions that can be drawn from this data but so far, that's all I can think of.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

George Washington on advertising.

I'm reading right now Ron Chernow's Pulitzer Prize winning biography--a mammoth 800-pager--called "Washington--A Life." For whatever reason, it's not hard for me to find lessons in the book. Lessons on the adversity we all face and how truly heroic people overcome their trials.

In late December 1776 the American army, and so the cause for America as a nation independent from Great Britain, was just about spent. Thousands had died and the rabble-rebel army had been routed every time it took a stand. From Boston, from Brooklyn, from Manhattan, from Harlem, from New Jersey. Defeated and facing mass desertion and disintegration (soldiers enlisted for just a year and their terms were up on January 1) Washington retreated to Pennsylvania, across the Delaware from General Howe's English regulars and thousands of highly-trained Hessians.

That's where Washington discovered something immensely important. In the words of Chernow, "he was now endowed with the clarity of despair."

We all face despair in our business. We have meddling clients, mediocre supervisors, the clamoring chorus of do-nothings. It takes years, literally, to get work produced. These are the vagaries of our business today, the realities that face all people great and small.

A few of those people, the best, face down those vicissitudes with "the clarity of despair." Like Washington, they don't shrink, they don't cower, they don't retreat. Instead they react as Washington did. "The quality of despair" says Chernow "unleashed his more aggressive instincts and opened his mind to unorthodox tactics."

In other words, Washington fought, thought and worked his way out of his predicament. As should we.

One other thing helped Washington. He had a great writer working for him. Thomas Paine published as Washington and his troops were about to perish, a pamphlet called "The Crisis."

It contained these stirring words: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

The strength and beauty of those words moved a nascent nation and Washington's men. I think of them when I see people give up and give in. When they blame the client or circumstances for shitty work. Those are the summer soldiers and the sunshine patriots of our business.

You have to be made of tougher stuff.

Pre pre pre pre pre pre pre pre pro.

Keeping your head down.

If you were under siege from enemy artillery, there's a lot to be said for the value of keeping your head down. My guess is that under those circumstances most people react in one of two ways. 1) The become immobilized with fear. 2) They start planning a way out. It might start as a defensive maneuver but eventually you begin planning a way to marshal your resources so you can respond offensively.

This scenario applies in agencies as well. There are times, many of them, when it seems like incoming missiles are all about you. Most people hide. Some keep their heads down and find a way out, find away to fire back.

Many years ago I had a particularly crazy, particularly heinous client. He wouldn't buy anything we had shown him. The panic level in the agency was high. Everyone within the agency was turning the screws on whoever was below them. There seemed to be no way out of the situation short of resigning the account.

At that point I had been at the agency only two months so I was a relative unknown. Amid this crisis I kept my head down and started planning a way out of the situation. I came in on the weekend and wrote, literally, 50 scripts for the client. I sent them directly to my boss's boss. He liked about a dozen of the scripts and had me present them to the client. The client bought about five of the scripts. I became a hero.

Sometimes when the heat is on you have to go inside yourself and use the skills you have to find a resolution. You have to keep your head down and work your way out of a bad situation. Sometimes that's the only way.

Raising your hand.

There are a few ways to get ahead in an advertising agency. You can be political and kiss with fervor the appropriate asses. You can somehow summon the wherewithal and not do anything but disparage other people's work. You can be the cousin of a C-level executive. But the best way, the only real and substantive way to get ahead in an advertising agency is to raise your hand and volunteer to do more work. In the long run, volunteering, doing more, raising your hand is the only way to get ahead that's built on a solid foundation not on some political sleight of hand.

Today as we toil, all of us, under the tyranny of timesheets many people feel they cannot raise their hands, or even worse, that they don't have to. "I'm 100% allocated," they say. "I don't have a job number for that," they decide.

Work--extra work, is all around both within agencies and at clients. It goes, along with opportunities to do something good to the people who make themselves available and ask for it.

This morning I am doing extra-work for a friend of mine--you know, a couple hours of freelance. It came about because whenever I meet someone I volunteer my services. This woman called me with a project about a month ago. And somehow in the process she's lined up perhaps the most famous graphic designer of the last 60 years for me to work with.

I don't know how this freelance will pan out. Perhaps it will be onerous and arduous. At best, I'll make enough to buy myself a bound first-edition of Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize Winning speech which he gave as a gift to Shelby Foote who signed the book. I've been coveting it since I saw it advertised.

No matter that in many ways I'm way to busy to take this assignment on, nothing really bad can possibly come from it, the worst of it is I might lose a few hours sleep. And two or three potential good things can happen. It's costing me at most fifteen hours.

I will do this job and it will go well, probably, and probably people will remark how lucky I am.

I'm not lucky. I just raise my hand.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The top-ten.

Adweek has an article this morning that lists the top 10 earners in the advertising industry. Of course, not one of the 10 white men shown makes ads. There are holding company heads, agency heads and CFOs, but not one person who can take the unformed ramblings of a brand and turn it into a cogent and compelling thesis. There's no one who can make you love a company. No one who makes you want to buy stuff.

I don't know how many industries there are in which the top paid people are so far removed from what the industry does and creates. Maybe this subject-object split is absolutely endemic. I know the airline CEOs that deliver a commercial on your flight before you take off have never flown in coach. I bet the CEOs of telcos somehow never get a dropped call--they probably have a special network for them.

But I find this sad. And it's probably the reason so many brands are nothing but colors and logos.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day.

My mother never wanted me to go into advertising. My father was in the business before me, rising to Chairman of the Board of a large agency called Kenyon & Eckhardt, which was some time in the early 80s subsumed into Bozell Jacobs which was some time in the early 90s subsumed into Lintas, which was some time in the early 00s subsumed into Lowe, which was some time in the late 00s subsumed into Deutsch.

My mother saw as only an outsider can, the harsh side of the business. The stress, the politics, the fickleness of friends and clients and worst of purported friends. My mother wanted me, above all else, to be a lawyer. She insisted I apply to law school and when I got in, she insisted I go.

Of course, I didn't go. I instead went and got a fairly useless Masters in English Lit and then got a job as a copywriter in Bloomingdale's advertising department.

Even after I started doing ok in the business, my mother never accepted that I didn't become a lawyer like my older brother. Today, mother's day it's been roughly ten years since we've even spoken.

There's something about advertising that my mother never grasped. On the one hand she saw vividly the seamy side of it. She lived through my father's heart attacks and his getting fired at 53 or so and never working in the business again. On the other hand, she never understood the appeal of the business. The enthusiasm, the laughter, the challenges and the fun.

Ya, there are days when I wish I'd done something else. It's a tough business. But I'm doing something I love.

Sorry, Mom.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The old man still has it.

I am in California right now, allegedly for a brief vacation and the Bar Mitzvah of a cousin, though I've spent the better part of the day, of course, on conference calls. We got to the hotel in Redundant Beach around 12, and naturally our room wasn't ready. So we dropped our bags and my daughters, wife and I borrowed bikes from the hotel and went for long bike ride on the Strand.

Around 2, we stopped at a little restaurant in Hermosa Beach, and because we had no locks for the bikes sat outside at a dirty little table so we could keep tabs on them. I must have looked away for a moment, because I suddenly saw some creep riding away with one of the bikes. I imagined having to pay the hotel $300 for a crappy piece of shit bike. I jumped up from the table, grabbed my bike and went after the guy.

In about a minute I caught him. I yelled with my loudest voice (which would cow Pavarotti) "Hey, gimme back the bike."

Apparently I scared the crap out of the punk-ass hood. "I thought it was a rental, man," he said to me. "Did you ask anyone if you could take it?" "I did, and no one said no" he answered.

I grabbed the bike out from under him, lifted it up and rode back to the restaurant carrying it in my right hand.

Not bad for a 53-year-old alte kocker wearing bedroom slippers.

Langston Hughes Friday.

When I was a kid, 15 or 16, my best friend Fred showed me a poem he liked by Langston Hughes. Fred had--still has--the "gift of quiet," an inestimable quality in a person. The poem was called "Impasse."


I could tell you, if I wanted to,

What makes me what I am.

But I don't really want to --

And you don't give a damn.

Fred turned me onto Langston Hughes and I quickly read just about everything of Hughes' that I could including his great "Simple" essays written by Jess E. Semple.

The poem of Hughes' that really sent me was "Motto." I keep it in the front of my head when I need to keep a lid on things and I've taught it to my daughters for that same reason.


I play it cool
I dig all jive,
That's the reason
I stay alive.

My motto
As I live and learn
Is dig and be dug
In return.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fighting the system.

I just read "New York Times'" critic A.O. Scott's scathing review of "Thor" http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/movies/thor-with-chris-hemsworth-review.html?hpw and there was a sentence in it that gave me pause and made me think about advertising:

"...the absolute and unbroken mediocrity of “Thor” is evidence of its success. This movie is not distinctively bad, it is axiomatically bad."

The phrase that particularly got to me is "axiomatically bad." That is, at least in my interpretation, work created by such a process and within such a system that it cannot be good.

I think it makes sense for people who work at agencies and the people who run agencies and the people who run the holding companies that own the agencies to think hard about whether or not their agency, their method of working, their client relationships, their process of testing, the onslaught of capricious and petty changes for the sake of changes and risk aversion for the sake of employment has made it axiomatic that the work you produce will be bad.

This isn't about the talent level within the agency. This isn't even about the taste and integrity of the client. It's about an octopus that has emerged that has a hand in everything and so can squeeze with all eight tentacles another piece of life out of work. The chatter that surrounds work. The imbecilic dogma of timesheets. The tyranny of testing. The pettiness of agendas. The morass of meetings. The hyperventilation of HR. And so, as Billy Pilgrim would say, it goes.

My experience and belief is that most people appreciate good work. No one looks at an Apple spot and doesn't like it. In fact you often hear things like "I want something Apple-like," or "I want something cutting edge," or "I want something emotional." But despite those "wants" no one looks at the axiomatic system we have all created and that we all live under that creates work that is axiomatically bad.

Orange juice and advertising.

One of the luxuries I allow my otherwise austere self is fresh-squeezed orange juice. Next to a perfectly ripe comice pear or deep red watermelon, I think real orange juice is one of the most delicious things you can consume.

For most people, at least in this country, orange juice usually comes poured from a carton. Regardless of what they call it on that carton, "100% natural," "fresh-squeezed," whatever, the liquid that comes from these boxes is dramatically inferior to the real thing.

The thing is, both liquids are orange juice. They are both the same but they are not the same.

A similar conundrum confronts our industry. There are people who do multi-million dollar commercials that are seen by millions and millions of people at a clip. And there are people who design ways to get from page to page on a website. Both those people are in advertising. Both might be creative directors. Both might fulfill important roles. Both might be the same. But they are not the same.

I'm sorry if you find this neo-fascist and biased.

What's wrong with our industry in two seconds.

50-year old Q: Can you work on this assignment?

25-year old A: How many hours am I allocated for this?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Hedgehog and the Fox.

Many decades ago Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay called "The Hedgehog and The Fox." In it, he divided writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea. And foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea.

Hedgehogs keep their heads down and move relentlessly forward. Foxes are more peripatetic and curious. They flit about.

To succeed in our business, to last--really last, you need to be both a hedgehog and a fox. You need to be an animal, single-minded, focused and tireless to fight through the stupidity and lassitude of the modern work place and so many naysayers in clientville. You need the stamina of a glacier to see work through the vicissitudes it faces to get it produced. It's that simple. You need to be as stubborn as my mother. Focused on nothing but getting it done and done right.

You also need to have some fox in you. You need to be insatiable. Curious, fast-moving and voraciously learning. You can't become the old guy, you need to be ahead of the game. Always moving, always a step ahead.

I'm on the cusp of selling what would be for my client a big TV campaign. I've been working on it almost exclusively for eight months. I've probably presented 50 boards to them. It takes a hedgehog.

I also need to do new, cool work for them. Things they haven't seen and haven't done before. That takes a fox.

Verdi, Katz and Vietnam.

I went to the opera again last night, the great opera "Rigoletto" by Giuseppe Verdi. There are still people who dress for the opera, there is a smattering of opulence, gowns and tuxedos. But most people are coming straight from work and they're wearing their work clothing, whether that's a business suit or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. It's nice seeing the semiotics of dress at the opera, the "to-each-his-own-ness" which is one of the things that makes New York different and wonderful.

The best poetry of the evening came not from Verdi's score or from the libretto, it came from the back of a t-shirt that a heavy-set older man was wearing. The t-shirt was advertising Katz's Deli, the deli that was famous for decades before the famous orgasm scene from "When Harry Met Sally" made it even more famous. In fact, their famous t-shirts were emblazoned with a bit of anti-war ironic sloganeering that I remember from my youth.

The t-shirt had an old siphon seltzer bottle on the front, with a big "Katz's" in ornate script. And on the back, the famous words "Send a salami to your boy in the army." For me, growing up in the late '60s and early '70s, during the American carnage in Viet Nam, those words were as powerful and loaded as Country Joe and the Fish's "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die."

"Well come on all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again,
he got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam,
put down your books and pick up a gun, we're gunna have a whole lotta fun.

"and its 1,2,3 what are we fightin for?
don't ask me i don't give a damn, the next stop is Vietnam,
and its 5,6,7 open up the pearly gates. Well there aint no time to wonder why...
WHOPEE we're all gunna die.

"now come on wall street don't be slow, why man this's war a-go-go,
there's plenty good money to be made, supplyin' the army with the tools of the trade,
just hope and pray that when they drop the bomb, they drop it on the Vietcong.

"now come on generals lets move fast, your big chance is here at last.
nite you go out and get those reds cuz the only good commie is one thats dead,
you know that peace can only be won, when you blow em all to kingdom come.

"now come on mothers throughout the land, pack your boys off to vietnam,
come on fathers don't hesitate, send your sons off before its too late,
be the first one on your block, to have your boy come home in a box."

Not the point of the evening, and it didn't overshadow the incredible aria "La Dona Mobile," but where my head went, at least for a while.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The 11-day rule.

Many years ago two women who were creative partners worked for me. One of them was being promoted and the other wasn't. The woman who was being promoted was worried that the other woman, her friend, would be angry at her. What I told her then has since grown into a rule of mine.

Most upsets, whether they involve minor things like moving offices, a change in the format of a magazine, a new job or whether they represent a major global happening, stay in the front of your brain for a maximum 11 days.

When Facebook changes its format, people bitch and moan for about 11 days. When you get a new job, that "I'm new here feeling" lasts about 11 days. Even when you get a new haircut, the "news" of it (even if it was a radical change) will be over in about 11 days.

I would bet that in just about nine days from now the news of bin Laden's capture and execution will be off the front pages, "back with the shipping news," in the words of Preston Sturges. Just as perhaps the greatest environmental disaster in recorded history quickly faded into the distant past.

Russell Baker, a Pulitzer-prize winning columnist who wrote for "The New York Times" some decades ago called the news "the olds." Because nothing lasts long enough to get old.

Most companies that advertise and most agencies that serve them do not acknowledge the power of "news" and on-going "newness" in advertising. Instead they chug along talking about themselves and hope you notice.

And if they do recognize the power of news, they don't understand how quickly news passes.

11 days.

Four hours a day.

Better living through blogging.

As I near my fourth year of writing this blog--over 2000 entries in all--I thought I'd take a brief moment to reflect on all its done for me.

I started writing Ad Aged at the behest of my dear friend and partner, Tore Claesson (http://toreclaesson.blogspot.com/). I was painfully unemployed at the time and Tore intuitively knew I would wither if I didn't have to write every morning.

I started writing every morning. I put pressure on myself to find something to say. Yes, some times I have nothing to say, but most mornings I find some sort of inspiration and write about something that matters to me.

The writing--every morning--gave me something to do every morning, an assignment. It wasn't a substitute for work but it lent me a vector when I needed one. It was also a way to "keep my name in front of people" when I had no other way to do so. To coin a phrase "writing is a force that gives me meaning."

Over time through this blog, I have met other bloggers and tweeters. It's funny how close you can feel to people simply by reading their writing, their thoughts and their spirit every day.

I've never done anything "right" with this blog. Never searched for an audience. I don't, in the end, care that I don't have many readers. I write for a small audience. But the person I'm really writing for, solipsistically, is me.

Every once in a while--way too often--a friend calls and tells me that they've lost their job. One of the things I always advise is blogging. It's a daily affirmation of who you are and what you do.

Thank you for reading this today.

Monday, May 2, 2011

An observation.

Music for a memorable Monday.

When I was a kid, my father's favorite singing group was the Ink Spots. He had a stack of 45s he would play and he would try desperately to get me to listen to their harmonizing. I ignored the Ink Spots and my father as much as I could. I ignored my father clanking around his house vocalizing. But for whatever reason, when I heard the news last night about the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the dumping of his long and hirsute body into the sea, I thought of this song. And then I thought of this song.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Most advertising is off brand.

The problem with advertising in our modern world isn't that no one believes in it anymore, it's that most brands refuse to spend the time and the money to live up to the image they want to project.

I say this roughly 48-hours after returning from Las Vegas and still unable to rid my 6'2" frame from the deep vein thrombosis-inducing coach seat I was sentenced to for the five hour duration of the flight. I flew "the new United," and airline that's "merged and is now emerging."

If airlines were as good as they make their commercials say they are, people would love them. As they love Jet Blue, Virgin and to a degree, Southwest. Likewise, the top two telcos, AT&T and Verizon spend over a billion each telling you they're reliable and they don't drop calls. But of course, you hate them. Because they're unreliable and they do drop calls. Fast food restaurants show us delicious looking food that looks nothing like the final product.

People don't hate, or ignore advertising. They hate and ignore advertising that isn't backed up by brand behavior.

Again, it's not advertising people have stopped responding to, it's advertising that lies or distorts.

People listen to Apple ads. Not necessarily because they're better ads, but because they're actually on brand.

Most ads, those that show you a world that isn't delivered by the brand they are advertising are, simply put, off brand.

Sunday in the Park with George.

I ran through Central Park today. The park was in the glorious Monet-at-Giverney-like-bloom. The spring so beautiful that it makes the slush and filth of a New York winter worth every slip, splash and slide.

Little League teams were on two of the six ball fields on the Great Lawn, skinny teenagers in tight polyester uniforms playing in the perfect weather. There was no recession on the fields, no wars in three countries, no global warming. There were just boys newly playing an old game.

I watched for a few minutes and was right back to my own childhood, playing on the same fields. I wondered if boys today taunted the same taunts I did.

"Ya swing like a rusty gate," when a batter swings and misses.
"Aunt Jemima makes a better batter," when a player whiffs.
'We want a pitcher, not a glass of water," when the hurler is wild.

I watched the boys for an inning. Their moms and dads cheering in a desultory manner, their brothers and sisters playing on the sidelines. The sunshine bright, the wind gentle and the songs of birds audible over the wails of sirens.