Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Line of the day.

From Maureen Dowd in today's "New York Times" on Repugnant-cant presidential hopeful Rick Perry.

"To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, if brains were elastic, Perry wouldn’t have enough to make suspenders for a parakeet."

A tale of two bridges.

In New York, we have two ancient bridges that have just been given spanking new names.

The 19th Century Queensborough Bridge, also known as the 59th Street Bridge has just been re-dubbed the Ed Koch Queensborough Bridge. A few dozen blocks further uptown the Depression-era Triborough Bridge (my second favorite bridge in New York) has just been re-named The Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.

There's a problem with these re-namings.

First off, I can't believe that any New Yorker will ever call either of these bridges by their new names. The Triborough will always be the Triborough and the Queensborough, to Manhattanites at least, will always be the 59th Street Bridge. These names are honorifics. I can't imagine they will become part of New York's rapidly moving patois. (Similarly, I know no one who calls Sixth Avenue "Avenue of the Americas." Calling it such marks you as a rube, or worse, a Jerseyite.)

Second, and the real point here, the Ed Koch Queensborough Bridge is named after someone who is living. Never name something after someone living. Their "life story" isn't finished yet. What if Koch is caught in flagrante delicto with a goat? Why rush to change something and risk a debacle?

I think there's an advertising point here as well.

It's great to do something first, to, as clients and account people like to say, push the envelope. But it's not ok to proclaim something as new and improved before you're actually sure it's both new and improved.

In just the last few months more than a couple new, new things have unceremoniously fizzled. When was the last time you checked your Google+ account.

It's simple, really.

Think before you speak.

Look before you leap.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Latex gloves.

Years ago I worked for a German car company and did some pretty good work and a lot of it. However, every once in a while, the clients would get out of hand and start rampaging and pillaging my work as if they were waging their own advertising version of Barbarossa. After a while, there's not much you can do about that. Clients, ultimately, get the ads they deserve.

In any event when it came time to sign the mechanical of such ads I refused to put down my name. I wrote, instead, FUBAR--fucked up beyond all recognition. It was my last protest against the wrecking of an idea.

Last week I had a thought, perhaps not as subtle as signing FUBAR. For now on when the client is making me write crap, senseless jargon-filled drivel that's more important to them internally than to real live people, I will conduct the following protest.

This morning I brought in a box of 100 Safe-Touch Disposable Latex Exam Gloves, Powder-Free. For now on I wear them when I'm forced to write shit.

Religion and advertising.

I'm getting tired of this.

Almost a decade and a half ago, I was asked to lead the integration efforts on the biggest account in one of the world's biggest agencies. The benefits and the how-tos of integration seemed obvious to me then yet, today, twelve years later, we are still plagued by segregationists. (One way I had of leading this effort was to co-opt the language of the American Civil Rights movement. No one wanted to be called a TV-Supremacist or a segregationist. Calling them thus at least gave them pause.)

I was listening to a report this morning on NPR on the elections in Egypt. A lot of it concerned the popularity of the Egyptian political group The Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood, according to Wikipedia believes that the Koran is the "sole reference point for ...ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community ... and state." This, of course, appeals little to vast swaths of Egypt's population. Secular Muslims, Coptic Christians (roughly 10% of the state's population) and other minorities. It occurred to me while listening that most agencies are run by the advertising equivalent of the Brotherhood.

That is, they believe that their chosen medium is the "sole reference point for ...ordering the life of communications..."

Religious fervor, as far as I'm concerned, has no place in national politics. It certainly has no place in advertising agencies.

Yet, when you look around, it's all you see. Most agencies have a media axe to grind. Their particular media religion is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful and all-influencing.

They are Zealots in persecuting and slandering adherents of other media religions. Those "others" haven't found the "one true way." They haven't seen the light.

Pluralism, a blending of views, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs, for all its faults, makes more sense than strict dogma. It's obvious to me. And always has been.

Monday, November 28, 2011

I have an agenda.

There are many fads and mania that infect our business. A relatively new one, to me anyway, is that you shouldn't hold a meeting without sending out to the attendees an "agenda."

I just ran into someone who holds a regularly scheduled meeting that was slated to begin in two minutes. I've gone to a couple dozen of these meetings. I've yet to derive any value from them.

"Are we having our meeting," I ask.

"Oh, shit, I haven't sent out an agenda" she replied.

As Richard Nixon used to say, let me say this about that.

A meeting should be held when you've got something to actually say or do that necessitates bringing people together.

Not just because you have an agenda.
An agenda doesn't validate a meeting.
A purpose does.

And by the way, I have an agenda too.

Go to fewer meetings.

It reminds me of advertising.

There's a great French movie by Jacques Brecker from way back in 1960 that reminds me, like most things do, of advertising. The movie is called "Le Trou" or "The Hole" and involves four inmates who attempt to dig a hole to free themselves from prison. About three-quarters of the way through the movie, a fifth inmate is put into the cell. Do they trust him, or do they abort their plans?

The intensity of the prisoners' effort is amazing. The narrow focus on the hole. It consumes the men completely. They can think of nothing else. It is everything, every thought, every conversation.

There is no outside perspective until there is. Until someone enters their closed worlds.

Many agencies, I've found, are closed worlds. Traditional shops forget that people do things other than watch TV. Digital shops forget that a Facebook app will not change everything. In both both instances these sorts of agencies are focused like the convicts and their Trou. Little exists outside of the deepening emptiness.

The truth, of course, is that the world is bigger than a hole. Focusing on one thing--the hole--is great for getting the hole dug. Just like focusing on spots or apps is great for getting those things created.

But marketing is about the "whole" not just the hole.

You need a broader view.

I am not fast.

After nearly 30 years in the advertising business I have attained a reputation for being "fast." To people who don't know me, I appear to be able to churn out creative both rapidly and prolifically. Once a boss, befuddled and more than a little astonished said to me "you're writing copy faster than I can review it."

Here's the thing: I am not fast.

Over the long weekend an assignment came my way. A stupid piddling putz of an assignment but an assignment nonetheless. I was pissed to get an assignment when I had time off and still more pissed that the account people--ever obsequious--had promised to present to the CMO tomorrow, Tuesday.

Nevertheless, despite all the ass-fucking over-promises of account people, I still have a job to do. I'm not going to let my client down. I'm not going to not come through. (I will deal with those account people later.)

I didn't work for one minute over break. Didn't re-read the brief (which was actually pretty good.) Didn't start scribbling at my Mac.

I did, however start doing mental calisthenics.

By the time I got in this morning at 8:20, I had two ads "in my fingers." Ready to be typed. Typing them, writing copy for them, gave me another idea.

I was done with the assignment by 8:56.

These ads didn't take me the 36 minutes they seemed to take.

They took me all weekend.

As I said, I will deal with those account people later.

A bunch of fucks.

We have a family tradition that takes place on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. My daughters, wife and I have dim sum and dinner at Shun Lee West Cafe, a deservedly famous Chinese restaurant. Then we head over to the "big top" and see the Big Apple Circus.

I'm a sucker for almost anything that's presented with a sense of humor and even though my kids have probably outgrown going to the circus, we go for the laughs and the nostalgia. (This year, for instance, they had a dog act that featured a cameo by a porcupine--something you don't see every day.)

This year as we walked into the arena we passed two-foot-high red letters printed on vinyl. They spelled out A C C E N T U R E.

I have a long, nasty, holocaust-survivor's memory. I never forget or forgive a slight, a bit of brutality, a lie or an evil done. I remember when Accenture was Arthur Anderson and their Enron lies stole the savings and pensions of millions of little people. I also part only begrudgingly with dollars I've earned. The circus tickets cost me $85 a pop--would they have cost more if there were no Accenture logo?

Everywhere you look now entertainment and sports are "underwritten" by major corporations. Free Shakespeare in the Park is underwritten by the scoundrels of Bank of America. The ones who bought John Thain a $15,000 wastebasket. And stole billions from millions of Americans, then borrowed billions more from the same Americans, then gave themselves multi-million dollar bonuses. As they robo-foreclosed on millions of mortgages.

We hear a lot about the various Occupy movements spreading over the globe. The sad fact is however is that corporations like JP Morgan Chase (they are underwriting the Christmas Rockettes at Rockefeller Center), Accenture, Citibank, Bank of America have occupied us.

They have taken over with their stolen largesse most everything. Their logos as ubiquitous as mosquitoes in a swamp.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


I just caught a slice or two of Kurt Andersen's wildly-heralded radio show "Studio 360." He featured a writer and MacArthur Genius named Colson Whitehead who, of course, has written yet another best-seller about Zombies. Whitehead read a portion of his novel that told of a wife eating her husband's intestines and face. He then told of his childhood where he had no parental controls in which he was allowed to watch Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" at the age of ten.

I feel my brains slowly turning into marshmallows.

I jump to "The New York Times" online. The lead story is "Waffles, with a Side of Drama." It is about a restaurant chain called The Waffle House where weird happens. This from the greatest newspaper in the nation.

My head is spinning off my neck.

Maybe, it's likely actually, some inflected pundit will write a PhD. Thesis on the whys of the Zombie craze. We live in a frightening world so we find a comfortable terror--a nostalgic fear to soothe us.

And the people at the Times, the Waffle House people, probably contend that today, Black Saturday or Puerto Rican Thursday or Serbo-Croatian Tuesday or whatever it is, is a slow news day.

No, the fact of the matter is that the world--our disgusting, inclusive, big-tent, "everyone has genius" world, is infested, infected, inundated with morons.

And there are so many of these morons entire industries cater to them.

We can no longer distinguish between important and trivial. Between good and bad. Between culture and, ugh, pop culture.

It's all stupidity.

A late-night call from Uncle Slappy.

I got a call from Uncle Slappy late last night and I could tell even before I picked up the phone that something was amiss. I could tell from his very ring that he and Aunt Sylvie were fighting again.

Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy have been married for almost 60 years and in those 60 years, they probably haven't gone 60 minutes without having some kind of a set to. You can practically set your watch by them.

The reason behind most of these rows, I've come to realize is that Uncle Slappy is an incredibly ordered man. Once he has his way of doing something, he establishes a routine--that's the way it should be done. Deviance from that routine upsets him. Aunt Sylvie is more haphazard. The minutes on a clock are mere suggestions to her--punctuality is an approximation. And things, even things she's done a thousand times before, are seldom done the same way twice.

Uncle Slappy started this way:

"She's done it again, she's done it again."

"What's that, Uncle Slappy," I asked, already a bit weary of the conversation.

"Junk mail she got last night," the old man continued. "She tore it up into little itty bitty pieces so we shouldn't have our identities stolen, though who would want them--our identities--I can't even imagine."

"That's good then, she shredded," I temporized.

"Shred schmed," Slappy replied, "the torn up mail she left still on the coffee table. And then there's the orange juice," the ancient one continued. "You know I like my concoction, mostly seltzer in a glass with ice topped off with two fingers of orange juice, fresh."

I had made the drink for Slappy a thousand times.

"First the seltzer, then the orange," said Slappy "It mixes that way better."

"I know Uncle Slappy. You explained the physics of that to me years ago."

"Almost 60 years I've been drinking this drink and she first pours in the orange and then spritzes in the seltzer. A backwards drink upside down I don't like. I'm through with her."

"Uncle Slappy, these are baby little things, orange juice and junk mail."

"To her they're little things. Maybe to the neighbors they're little things. To Sylvie, they're little things. But to me, they're big things. I'm through."

"It's ok, Uncle Slappy," I began. I stopped when I heard the old man weeping and laughing at the same time.

He stopped long enough to toss this one my way: "You know," he said, "If I killed Sylvie when I first thought of it, I'd be out by now."

With that, he hung up the horn.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Metaphor for a Wednesday.

This morning I took one of my long and solitary walks around the Upper East Side. It had rained all night and a lot of people aren't working today, so the usual crush of New York traffic was absent. People were sleeping in this morning. So there were fewer people and fewer cars than usual.

I walked aimlessly with no electronic accoutrements--no mp3-player, no cellphone. Just me and the singular quietude of aloneness in the city.

On Madison, I climbed the start of Carnegie Hill between 86th Street and 87th. The shops weren't opened yet. Kids and their mothers weren't streaming for their exclusive schools. About the only activity was just ahead of me, two garbage men tossing black plastic bags of garbage into the back of their garbage truck.

As I drew closer I saw it was a big pile of garbage they were attacking. One of the garbage men was silent, the other was pissed as he approached the pile. "Look at all this bullshit," he cursed "look at all this shit."

Garbage men cursing the never-ending crush of garbage.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My father and the day after. A reprint.

By some anomaly of my birth date, I was in first grade when I was just five. I never felt unable to keep up with kids who were, at least from a percentage point of view, significantly older than I, but looking back on being the youngest, I suppose there was a lot I just didn’t get. I don’t know if that had to do with my age and level of development or if I was just not that interested in what was going on around me. I think I spent a fair portion of my time tuned out or tuned into my head. I remember looking intensely at the reading books we had in class and studying the coloring of the drawings—the very dot patterns--and the curves of the serifs in the type.

Maybe if I were a kid today I would have been poked and prodded, analyzed and pronounced ADD or ADHD or even mildly autistic. But whatever the case, I survived being lost in my world probably better than I would have survived participating in most other worlds. Once I remember holding an oval ceramic ashtray over my head in my parents’ living room and letting it drop to the linoleum because I wanted to study its path on its way down. That experiment got me more than a few whacks on my ass though the ashtray still sits to this day in my mother’s house, neatly glued together and barely showing its breaks.

When John Kennedy was shot I was sitting in school in first grade and the principal’s voice came on over the loud speaker announcing that the president was shot. I heard it wrong, or misunderstood what was said, and pictured the president being stood against the bright blue doors at the end of our elementary school hallway and executed. I didn’t understand why or what. But the next thing I knew, we got to leave school early to go home. (This was a simpler time. We could walk home or run—at five years old—without a parent or guardian, even past a small swamp that was overgrown and scary with skunk cabbage.)

The television was on when I got home with my mother watching. My brother and I watched, too, grainy tel-star beamed images from Dallas alternating with sonorous announcers from just miles away in Manhattan. We weren’t allowed to change the channel. My mother was watching.

Usually my brother and I watched after school a show of cartoons hosted by an actor pretending he was a charming and affable Irish cop. He called himself “Officer Joe Bolton” and he bored us with little anecdotes and admonishments to behave and do our homework between playing Dick Tracy cartoons with villains like “the Frog” or “Joe Jitsu” or “Hemlock Holmes.” Or he played old Popeye the Sailor cartoons, with Popeye vanquishing Bluto to win Olive only to have to go through the whole thing again in the next cartoon, though Olive always seemed like a whiner and a two-face to me. But this day we would watch no cartoons. The president had been killed.

My father got home late that night and sat in the living room dominating our sole TV and whispering about the end of everything with my mother. My brother and I ran around the house, trying to figure out how to be busy and silent until bedtime with no TV to watch and no noise allowed.

The next morning was Saturday and my father woke me up early, poured some hot chocolate down me and wrapped me warmly in my brown corduroy Mighty Mac winter coat. We got into his 1949 Studebaker and drove into the country. Weeks earlier, long before someone gunned Kennedy down, my father’s boss had invited my father and me to go skeet-shooting.

I’m sure my father protested this. I’ve never even held a gun, I can hear him saying. But it was something his boss wanted, it, therefore represented a chance to get ahead, and my father complied. I was along as his companion, in case he got bored or needed a hand to hold.

I don’t remember much of that morning except that the sky was gray, the color of a wet newspaper and I felt the cold despite the advertised promise of my Mighty Mac. I remember picking up the red cylinders of shot from the ground and being surprised. They weren’t at all what I thought bullets would look like. I remember seeing black discs in the air and then the loud firework report of someone’s shotgun smashing a clay pigeon and taking it down. I remember walking over the ruts of the farmer’s land the men were shooting on and stopping to pay close attention to the dried out and ploughed over detritus of what used to be living stalks of corn.

Something Happened.

Joseph Heller's novel "Something Happened" has perhaps the most stirring, scary and riveting opening sentences I have ever read. It's a novel of worlds gone terribly wrong. Where balance and equilibrium are gone, and fear and terror are ascendant.

Over the past two weeks I've noticed that Something Happened in our industry. My client has given us two or three assignments that I simply cannot understand.

No, I mean it.

As account people like to say, "I don't even understand the 'ask.'"

They aren't asking for creative, or even "strategy," whatever that is. They are asking for schemas, rollouts, go to market plans. They are asking for decks that help sell notions--not to their customers or prospects--but to their own organization.

Something Happened.

The bloat of marketing organizations, the bloat of agencies is such that we have lost our original meaning.

We aren't about communications. We are about spending retainers, making sure everyone is busy and posturing about what will happen in 2014 if we do X,Y and Z in 2012.

We have become bureaucracized.

We have become powerpointless.

We have become meeting moguls.

Something Happened.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A dichotomy.

When I was a little boy, my Cub Scout "den" took a trip up the New England Thruway two-and-a-half hours to New London, CT. New London was the birthplace of the world's first nuclear powered submarine and during these Cold War years was still a thriving submarine base. Even so, the sailors welcomed us and showed us around the place.

The thing I remember most was the guided tour we took of an actual WW2 submarine. I remember seeing six or seven rising suns painting on the conning tower which indicated how many Japanese ships the sub had sunk. I remember the claustrophobia of ten or twelve excited boys in the sub--I could only imagine how cramped the teenagers and 20-year-olds must have felt in their tiny quarters and the crushed corridors.

We saw dummy torpedoes in their racks. The racks of cots for the sailors. The shoe-box cabins for officers. The rudimentary oscilloscopes. And rows and rows of switches and knobs.

The thing that struck me even back then was that there was no concession whatsoever for design that wasn't strictly and completely functional. The sub we were on was built without a single concession to anything but utility. Design was all function, no form.

Just a few minutes ago a friend directed me to this site which sells the services of Artisanal Pencil Sharpening. "REACQUAINT YOURSELF" the copy pleads "WITH THE PLEASURES OF A HAND-SHARPENED PENCIL. In New York's Hudson River Valley, craftsman David Rees still practices the age-old art of manual pencil sharpening. His artisanal service is perfect for artists, writers, and standardized test takers. Shipped with their shavings and a "certificate of sharpening," these extra-sharp pencils make wonderful gifts."

Somewhere between the pure and absolute utility of a 1940s submarine and the pure and absolute lunacy of artisanal pencil sharpening there is probably a happy medium, a balance between content and design.

I laugh, often, at the youngsters I work with who crave $170 woolen hats that by rights should cost $3.99. I shake my head as they troop by in $200 canvas sneakers and $300 jeans.

I think for our business and our world there is a continuum between function and form. Advertising today seems, to me, to be remarkably content free with everyone using the same color palettes to appear different.

Maybe earlier eras were too utilitarian.

No point, really, except to say that there must be a balance somewhere.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Herring Maven.

Long before Sam Breakstone sold cottage cheese for the Breakstone company, before Fred the Baker sold donuts and dedication for Dunkin' Donuts and Frank Perdue created branded chicken for Perdue, "The Beloved Herring Maven" roamed the radio airwaves of New York, exhorting listeners to "Make your day a little brighter with a little herring from Vita."

Some years ago, a friend and I got to talking about "the Beloved Herring Maven." He was played by the unparalleled voice-actor Allan Swift and written by the great Marty Solow for the Vita Herring Company. And if you listened to the radio in New York in the mid-60s, he became a crazy, funny friend with a Runyonesque turn of a phrase. The Beloved Herring Maven is credited with bringing the Yiddish word maven into the linguistic mainstream.

As we were talking about the spots my friend said, "I know Marty's son Michael."

I said, "Give me Michael's email address, I've been trying to find those old Herring Maven spots everywhere."

In November, 2009 I wrote to Michael and told him of my quest to find scripts or recordings of his father's spots. He promised me he'd find some and mail them to me. Just today "the Complete Herring Maven" arrived on two-CDs. An hour compilation Solow created for The Museum of Broadcasting and a separate CD of 36 :60 second spots. I've spent the last two hours listening to radio commercials for pickled herring products.

They are every bit as funny as I remember them.

Full of silliness, wisdom, ethnic humor and sales spiel.

I hate herring but I started thinking about going out to buy some.

I'm going to ask a producer friend to re-dub the MP4s to a video format so I can post a few. And over the next couple of days I will post some of the maven's bon mots.

By the way pasted below is part of the Wikipedia entry for Herring Maven.

"The word comes to English through Yiddish, which in turn derives from the Hebrew mevin (מבֿין), meaning "one who understands," and relates to the word binah, which denotes understanding or wisdom in general. It was first recorded in English around 1952, and popularized in the United States in the 1960s by a series of commercials created by Martin Solow for Vita Herring, featuring "The Beloved Herring Maven." The “Beloved Herring Maven“ ran in radio ads from 1964-1968, and was then brought back in 1983 with Allan Swift, the original voice of the Maven.

"Many sites credit Vita with popularizing the word Maven. An example of print advertisement including the Maven: "Get Vita at your favorite supermarket, grocery or delicatessen. Tell them the beloved Maven sent you. It won’t save you any money, but you’ll get the best herring"."

Eat up.

Rene Morel, 1932-2011.

There's a really excellent obituary in today's "New York Times" which tells the story of Rene Morel, a master restorer of rare violins, violas and cellos.

For whatever reason, perhaps it's the DayQuil I'm od'ing on as a fight a virulent head cold, I found some wisdom in Morel's life and work. Morel worked on the rare and expensive instruments of Pablo Casals, Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman and Isaac Stern among others. The centuries old instruments of these masters are touchy things. The Times notes:

"Violins, and their siblings, violas and cellos, are temperamental creatures. With tops of spruce and backs and sides of harder wood — often maple — they are fundamentally trees, reconfigured in strange and glorious ways that nature never intended.

"For these instruments, every bump and jostle, every change in temperature or humidity, is occasion for protest. Wood shrinks and swells and strains against itself. Cracks can appear. Their sonorous voices can be reduced to growls and grumbles."

Morel was a master at adjusting these instruments, using his hands and his ears to achieve perfection.

A musician would enter Morel's shop and play. Morel would listen, then go to work adjusting the instrument's vital organs. The player played some more, and Morel adjusted more.

Here's the part I especially liked, Morel's "failsafe way" of knowing when an instrument is right.

As Itzhak Perlman said, "He would put up his sleeve and say, ‘You see the goose bumps,’ ” Mr. Perlman recalled. “He said as long as he didn’t get the goose bumps, it was not properly adjusted.”

Machines, computers, experts, apps and so on can do a lot of great things. We cannot ignore the magic of modernity. The glory of technology.

The question is, however, will it produce goose bumps.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The value of Facebook.

There is tremendous sturm and drang in our industry over the value of Facebook. Enormous expenditures have been dedicated to building Facebook pages, creating conversations, inciting likes, promoting events. Countless meetings have been convened to discuss Facebook, its power, reach and efficacy. The phrase "Facebook will change everything" has rumbled through the valley, rattled in the dell; knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat.

That's all fine.

But I think I know the real value of Facebook.

It serves to remind you that a large number of your friends can't spell. And don't know the difference between there, their and they're and its and it's.

Friday, November 18, 2011


I took my two-year-old Mac to the help desk this morning knowing full well that by all rights it ought to be called the hurt desk. It's been three hours now and I've yet to hear anything back from them. This is my first-ever post written on my iPad.

The stupidity of agencies never fails to amaze and befuddle me. How a bunch of technicians can hold someone getting paid like a decent lawyer hostage. But that's the way it is.

In an era "where everyone is creative," creative is so devalued that they are treated like shit.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Decking halls.

It being mid-to-late November it seems that every third store in my neighborhood is garishized with Christmas sentiment--a sickly treacle that gives force to my natural misanthropy.

I walked by the windows of one such store this morning and was hit with window decals beseeching customers to deck the fucking halls. I immediately thought of the nonsense the great satirist Walt Kelly brought to these songs.

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross also had fun with Deck the Halls, above.

Deck Us All With Boston Charlie

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash, and Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,

Swaller dollar cauliflower Alleygaroo!
Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou.

Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola Boola Pensacoola Hullabaloo!

Another version:

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope cantaloup, 'lope with you!

Hunky Dory's pop is lolly gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!

Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!
We also have this third version:

Duck us all in bowls of barley,
Ninky dinky dink an' polly voo!

Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, Woof, Woof!

Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, Goof, Goof!


Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman had an important op-ed in "The New York Times" yesterday. While it was about the larger issues facing the world today, as almost always, I saw parallels in it to the Advertising Industry. You can read the whole thing here:

Here's the part that made me think about us:

"Yes, it’s true that in the hyperconnected world, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, the people are more empowered and a lot more innovation and ideas will come from the bottom up, not just the top down. That’s a good thing — in theory.

"But at the end of the day — whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street — someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them.

"Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply."

And that in a nutshell is part of the trouble in Advertising today. We have tactics and theories bouncing around caroming everywhere like atoms in a cyclotron. What we don't have is a plan. A mission. A linkage to a brand idea.

You know, we are missing "with all Thy getting, get understanding."

We are all shouting.

We are all making things.

Multiplying tactics like rabbits mainlining Cialis.

And it is all so much noise.

What we need is clarity, direction, vision.

That's how you separate chatter from matter.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A drink.

I had a drink last night with an old friend of mine. She was my account person when I started at Ogilvy well over a decade ago--one of the first people who was decent to me. About seven years ago she switched from account services, where she was a superstar, to a job she created--helping agencies manage and retain talent--and to treat that talent right.

If an ordinary person had this job, I'd roll my eyes heavenward and sneer to myself, "HR." And that would be that. But my friend, I'll call her Diane for the purposes of anonymity, is extraordinary, one of those rare people with a heart. And a person with a mind large enough to tear away all the cliches of "talent management," and actually properly manage talent.

We were celebrating a bit. Diane returned from the UK earlier this year for a job at a large agency, and now she had gotten a new job at one of the world's leading companies. After 15 or so years, she's out of the agency business.

A lot of what Diane's had to do in her "talent management" role was to fire people. That's the way it goes sometimes. She told me a story about someone she had to fire a few years ago.

"He was super-talented. Super smart. Super ambitious. He just didn't fit in with the CEO. The CEO was threatened by him.

"I didn't hire this guy, but they made me fire him. I fought to make sure he was treated right. Fought to get him the severance he deserved. Fought to let him know it wasn't him.

"After I got this new job, this guy called me. He was working at my new company--in charge of Interaction Design.

"Thank god I was good to him."

Diane's story brings up two points.

One is it reminds you of the tiny size of our world. I remember reading once in the 80s in "Advertising Age" that the entire American advertising industry would not fill the University of Michigan's football stadium.

Two is even more important. It's that despite then omnipresent banality of our world, the corporate callousness of the companies that "buy our time" and "allocate us" as "resources," we are people.

Whether you're rich or poor, big or small, black or white, green or yellow, you have to be a human and treat people as humans.

I came across this ditty from the late 19th Century about a month ago and posted it once before but at the risk of being repetitious it seems like a fair way to end this:

There was an old owl lived in an oak
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard
O, if men were all like that wise bird!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I would rather be dead, Mother Fuckers.

My agency has a spam filter that is so acute that sometimes it blocks emails sent out from our own HR Department. Sometimes emails from our corporate parent wind up in our junk folders. Sometimes someone who's e'ed you 100 times before suddenly ends up as junk.

Nevertheless, despite that Teutonic efficiency, emails from some asinine company called CareerTrack continue to invade my desktop though I always click on the icon that says "block sender."

CareerTrack seems to subscribe to the insipid notion of positivism. That the world and you're life would be so much better if you hitched up your pants, let a smile be your fucking umbrella and we all pulled on one lame-brained oar.

Today they invited me to a 1-hour long seminar on "Creating a positive, productive work environment by preventing bad attitudes and negative situations from disrupting your team's performance."

Here's their Ziggy-esq, Care-bear-like copy:

"Let's face it, not every member of an organization is going to be 100 percent happy all the time. Negativity often invades your workplace due to insecurity, boredom or even resentment, and it can spread like wildfire and attack an entire department's morale and ability to perform. Detecting potential problems before they spread is key to defusing harmful situations and stopping them in their tracks.

"Dealing with negativity requires open communication, good listening skills and the ability to focus on solutions rather than the problem. This informative program will provide you with proven strategies, tips and techniques to help you renew motivation where negativity may have taken hold within your organization.

"How to Deal with Negativity in the Workplace will show you how to combat negativity by working out conflicts with constructive criticism, active listening and an optimistic attitude. In one informative hour, you'll learn:

"What a negative atmosphere could be costing you and your organization

"How to deal with different problem attitudes (complainers, pessimists, gossips) with open communication, top-notch listening skills and effective questioning strategies

"How to assess your own attitude and understand how it's affecting your team

"Strategies to effectively respond when upper management is identified as the cause of negativity

"How to act rather than react when presented with a difficult situation

"And much more!

"It only takes one negative attitude to hinder the productivity of an entire team, which can ultimately affect your organization's bottom line. This 1-hour Audio Conference will teach you how to identify, work with, and remove negativity before it plagues your workplace — so that you will enjoy a more creative, dynamic and professional environment!"

Silent movie.

I just heard about a new movie, a silent one, that has a lot of people talking. I haven't seen it yet but the trailer looks promising. And shows the power of "silence."

And for no other reason than I love it, a short clip from a "screwball" comedy nobody knows. Jean Arthur and William Powell (just watch his face) in "The ex-Mrs. Bradford" which was overshadowed by "The Thin Man" when it was released but in many ways is as wonderful.

Monday, November 14, 2011

National Nothing Day.

Everywhere you go today people are doing meaningless things ostensibly in support of a cause. You can't buy a donut, a bag of mothballs or a cup of coffee without donating 1/100th of a cent to something more noble. If I buy a pair of shoes and the shoemaker donates therefore a pair to charity, it likely means I paid too much in the first place.

We buy water in plastic bottles to help the environment. We grow mustaches to cure cancer. Our lapels, our wrists, the bumpers on our cars, even our very skin have all been festooned with ribbons, pins and slogans declaring our support for something or another.

Fart for a cause. Donate a dime to fighting global warming every time you fart. And wear a pin on your blouse--a little puff of smoke--to symbolize your largesse.

Well, on my lapel this morning I pinned a translucent pin--you can't see it. On my shirt I've affixed a cellophane ribbon, again it's invisible to the naked eye. On my car I pasted on a clear decal showing my support--for nothing.

That's right. For all the world to see, I support nothing.

If I feel like donating to Haiti, I feel no need to announce it social media. I have no need to turn my profile picture maroon or to brand my suit jacket.

I just do it.

I need no affirmation.

No self-congratulation.

No acknowledgement of my contribution.

I don't need a calendar, or return address labels or a sticker for my door or a holiday card.

I, then, hereby proclaim next Monday "National Nothing Day." Show your support for nothing. Wear nothing, say nothing, post nothing.

9 AM observations.

I walked into my work space this morning a little later than usual. Most often when I get in prior to nine, the place is a ghost-town. I sing a little spoof to myself, "Nine is the Loneliest Number," but today there was a gaggle of project managers and account people gathered around a project manager's computer.

They were allocating hours.

Moving things around.

Making sure we are "on scope" on our various projects.

The soul of the modern agency today is no longer one of creativity; it is of accountancy. But the sad fact is this: accountancy only makes sense--it only serves a purpose, if you are not accountable. You don't need an accountant if you pay your bills on time.

George Parker, with his usual incisiveness blasts the worn and tired lie that is "the agency of the future."

The concept of the agency of the future has been around since agencies began. The notion is as full of hogwash as oil company advertising.

An agency can become an agency of the future not by adding systems and departments and disciplines or (now that we're infected by consultants) practices. The agency of the future is simple.

Writers and art directors who can think and sell their work.
Account people who can help put client problems in simple English.

Just as Jobs threw out the extraneous in creating the world's most valuable company,
agencies would be well-served to do the same.

Put the best minds on the biggest client problems. Solve them. Then move on.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

St. James' Infirmary.

A couple days after my father died I was back in my office and back at my desk. I was still sad but I needed to be busy and I needed to be around some of the people I worked with whom I had grown close to. My partner of the time was a mensch--someone who had the gift of silent companionship and my boss and mentor was as close as I've ever come to working with a father figure. Work is something that when it's working, gives us meaning and after your father dies, that's what you look for, meaning.

I was sitting in my office and listening to the last remaining jazz station in New York, WBGO out of Newark, New Jersey. I called the station and got connected with the disk jockey.

"My father just died," I told him. "I think there's no sadder song than St. James Infirmary. Could you play me the saddest version you have."

"I'm going to play you a few," he answered. And he did. He played the classic by Louis Armstrong, a good (if thin) version by Lou Rawls and something hallucinating by Cab Calloway. Here's Mr. Armstrong's version, with him singing and blowing.

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, so sweet, so fair.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be
She can look this wide world over,
But she'll never find a sweet man like me.

There's a great "radio personality" here in New York named Jonathon Schwartz who plays songs from "the American Songbook" on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. These are classics from Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Nelson Riddle, Jerome Kern and more performed by Sinatra, Bennett, Jo Stafford and more.

Just now Schwartz played St. James Infirmary on a V-Disc, performed by a very young, very raw Tony Bennett. V-discs were recordings done for American soldiers during World War II. Because there was a musicians strike in the U.S. at the time, V-discs were recorded but they never went on sale in the States. They were only for our overseas troops. Most of the records never came home and the masters of the recordings weren't treated with any special reverence. So for years it was rare to get a hold of a V-Disc recording--especially a rare one, though now it seems like many are available on iTunes.

I went down to St. James Infirmary
To see my baby there,
She was lyin' on a long white table,
So sweet, so cool, so fair.

Went up to see the doctor,
"She's very low," he said;
Went back to see my baby
Good God! She's lying there dead.

I went down to old Joe's barroom,
On the corner by the square
They were serving the drinks as usual,
And the usual crowd was there.

On my left stood old Joe McKennedy,
And his eyes were bloodshot red;
He turned to the crowd around him,
These are the words he said:

Let her go, let her go, God bless her;
Wherever she may be
She may search the wide world over
And never find a better man than me

Oh, when I die, please bury me
In my ten dollar Stetson hat;
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So my friends'll know I died standin' pat.

Get six gamblers to carry my coffin
Six chorus girls to sing me a song
Put a twenty-piece jazz band on my tail gate
To raise Hell as we go along

Now that's the end of my story
Let's have another round of booze
And if anyone should ask you just tell them
I've got the St. James Infirmary blues

I've looked for the Tony Bennett recording but I couldn't find it. For all its virtues iTunes doesn't have the greatest search mechanism. I'll keep looking for the recording though.

Just as I keep looking for my father.

Friday, November 11, 2011


One of the manias of our current era is the debasement of the concept of professionalism. We've been sold on the notion that "anyone can do it." And anyone usually does.

We're left with people self-medicating, self-home-repairing, home-schooling and posting their mediocre photographs and moronic likes for one and all to see.

Our business, of course, is heavily afflicted by this disease. People who have no knowledge of the craft of film, no sense of what Eisenstein shot, or Welles, or John Ford editing drivel with meaningless imitation of "technique" that advances little the power of the communication. It's just noise.

Availability has replaced capability.

Lately the notion that "anyone can do it" has been center-stage among the Republican presidential dwarves. It's ok to not be aware of countries like Uzbekistan. It's ok not to know that China has had nuclear capabilities since 1965. It's ok to not be able to finish a sentence you've started.

Knowledge, experience, skill have been denigrated.

Summon "The Idiot's Guide to Absolutely Everything."

This morning my broadcast producer and I had some bullshit work to do. Between us we have probably almost 50 years experience. Because we both get crazy during the day we agreed to meet at 8:00 and jam for an hour, well before anyone else gets in.

In that hour we got a week's work done.

We are professionals.

And proud of it.

Mama Joy's, 1979.

The other day I took a long cab ride with some co-workers back from the client. I generally like to sit in the front seat in such situations. It not only gives my 6'2" frame a bit more leg room, but it also means I've got a bullet-proof plexiglass barrier between me and account services.

One thing I've always been in the habit of doing is being open to cab driver's conversation. I once had a summer job driving all around Chicago--to 25 supermarkets a day doing shelf-checks, and I know how lonely it can be to be driving all day. Usually cabbies welcome talking to a fare.

This particular driver was a jackpot for me. He was older--he probably had a couple years on me and he's lived in New York for most of his life, residing now in Upper Manhattan in what used to be a war-torn Dominican neighborhood.

We got to talking, naturally, about the old days and together we made a quick visit to 1970s New York in our memories. I told him that I went to Columbia University and we talked about how that neighborhood had changed, from down at the heels and threatening to a benign, somewhat sanitized place today.

He mentioned some of his old hangouts.

The Golden Rail--with two dollar beers and a two dollar cover.

I countered with Salter's, an old-time book seller with a cellar crammed with millions of books and sales help that was way better read than I, a mere PhD. student studying literature.

I told him that V&Ts was still there, home to one of the best pizzas in a city of great pizza. The very thought made us both hungry.

Then he brought up Mama Joys, a deli qua grocery on Broadway between 112th and 113th.

"There," he said, "you could get a sandwich. Carnegie Deli had nothing on them."

I concurred. And brought up the manner of the tall West Indians who worked behind the sandwich counter.

"Meanest men in the world," he remembered and I agreed.

The sandwich guys were brusque, cutting off conversation like they'd cut the dried end off a salami. They had a stock phrase that put an end to all conviviality.

It was, "Just tellllll me what you want. Don't telllll me what you don't want."

So if you asked for a turkey sandwich with provolone, lettuce and tomato and said you wanted no mayonnaise, they'd assault you with that line.

Now, complying with their strictures didn't mean you were on easy street. Ordering a sandwich went like this.

"I'll have a turkey on rye with black pepper, lettuce, provolone and tomato."

"You want lettuce on that sandwich, mon?" They would scream.

"Yes, lettuce, provolone and tomato."

"Just tellllll me what you want, don't tellllll me what you don't want."

And that's the way it was.

And I gave the guy a nice big tip.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The renaissance revisited.

Over the last two decades or so, historians have begun to shy away from calling the Dark Ages the Dark Ages. The notion that the world was engulfed in uneducated dumbness and violence has been assailed. While Europe was no longer enthralled in the glory that was Rome, and the Renaissance had yet to begin, historians have uncovered gleams of light. They have become less absolute in their assessment of the period.

I'm thinking about this because amid all our collective gloom about the world, part of me wonders if we aren't living, right now, in the best of all possible worlds. If we aren't enveloped in a flowering of thought, art and literature.

Right now in the budget-constrained world we inhabit, there is probably more good writing available to more people--for free--than in any time in the history of the world. In fact, just yesterday I happened for the first time upon this blog and I almost cringed. It was so good. How could I ever find the time to squeeze even more into my reading list.

Last night, a dvd arrived in my house of an amazing movie made 40 years ago, "I Never Sang for my Father," starring a young Gene Hackman, and old Melvyn Douglass and Estelle Parsons. Virtually every movie ever made is available to you now. Usually for less than $10 a pop.

Museums, at least in New York, are getting bigger and better, if more expensive.

Taking the subway home last night I was exposed to three genre of live music in three locations. They weren't all my taste but they were all pretty good.

It's all around us, this flowering.

Sure, there are cretins all around us, too. Rick Perry. Sarah Palin. Michelle Bachman and more. Sure we are Lohanized and Kardashianed almost to death. But even a voracious reader like myself keeps falling further and further behind. There are more great books being published today than any other time in world history.

Hey, it's Thursday already.

The weekend is almost here.

Make plans to hear some music or visit a museum.

And lighten up, willya.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A bifurcation.

One of the things I like about being Jewish is that we've narrowed all human behavior down to essentially two states.

You're either:

1. a schmuck


2. a mensch

Schmucks, to be completely solipsistic about this are schmucks. They put their names on work they didn't do. They show up late for meetings. They speak when they have nothing to say. They shirk responsibility. They shoot first and ask questions later.

Mensches do good. They are honest. They help people. They do the right thing. In their own way, whether it's large or small, they make the world better.

That's how I divide the agency world.

I know I am, in the words of my daughters "all judgey and hatey." But that's how I see things.

There are schmucks.

There are mensches.

As far as I'm concerned, we all have a choice. Which we choose to be.

In advertising we have to work with both sorts. We have to get along. We have to co-exist with schmucks. Make peace with schmucks. We often have to lunch with schmucks.

That's just the way things are.

Sorry if I'm acting like a schmuck.


Since its foundation a decade and a half ago, the web has been regarded (at least by ad agencies) as a visual medium. Writing hasn't just taken a backseat, it's been relegated way back to the trunk.

It's funny that it's like that. Because many of the most popular sites are word heavy. Google. Facebook. Craig's List. Ebay.

In any event, there are those of us who believe in the power of good ideas and good writing. Often, the best writing has both immediacy and detail that transports you to a setting or a moment. It makes the abstract visceral and real.

Today I came upon some war writing by the great Russian writer Vasily Grossman. Many people have mentioned Grossman's novels in the same breath as Tolstoy. So he's no slouch. "Life and Fate," which evokes Tolstoy's "War and Peace" was widely heralded when it was finally released in the West. His much slimmer volume "Everything Flows" received even greater acclaim.

Here's a picture Grossman paints from 1941. (Junkers were German war planes):

"Three Junkers appeared. Bombs exploded. Screams. Red flames with white and black smoke. We pass the same village again in the evening. The people are wide-eyed, worn out. Women are carrying belongings. Chimneys have grown very tall, they are standing tall amid the ruins. And flowers--cornflowers and peonies--are flaunting themselves so peacefully."

Here's another, a report from the destruction of the village of Gomel:

"Howling bombs, fire, women...The strong smell of perfume--from a pharmacy hit in the bombardment--blocked out the stench of burning, just for a moment. The picture of burning Gomel in the eyes of a wounded cow."

Joe Frazier.

At one time during my pre-adipose days I was a fairly decent (for a Jew) long distance runner. I could do a sub-40-minute 10K, and ran a dozen marathons, three at 7:10 pace. Suffice it to say that I spent a good portion of my free-time running in Central Park.

One weekend I was running down by Tavern on the Green with a bunch of friends. A couple hundred yards up ahead there was a commotion. There was a bunch of people--photographers--aiming their Japanese cameras at a runner.

We ran over to investigate and there he was. Smokin' Joe Frazier was doing roadwork in our fair city.

I've lived in New York for my whole life barring two years in Boston and one in San Francisco. And I've seen a lot of strange wardrobes. But I've never seen anyone with a get up like what Frazier was wearing.

He had on the vest from a three-piece suit, long black satin boxing shorts and black ankle-cut Army boots. He punched the air with taped hands as he hobbled along.

The Champ (a title he deserved even if someone else held the belt) didn't look in fighting shape. That was the reason he wore the vest--it hid his less-than-sculpted abs while it allowed him to show off his arms which were the size of telephone poles.

There are people who lift weights and work out and they call their arms "guns." Joe Frazier had guns. Everyone else--even those poseurs who lift weights for a living are nothing but imposters.

If I'm ever in a situation where I'm intimidated I think about what it must have been like to be on the receiving end of Frazier's left hook.

It's a good way to keep things in perspective.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I give you this Laurel and Hardy handshake.

There's a new 10-disc boxset of Laurel and Hardy shorts that's just been released. It was thoughtfully reviewed in today's "New York Times." You can read the review here:

When I was a kid, local TV stations played a lot of Laurel and Hardy on after-school kiddie shows. They helped me survive and laugh through a pretty sordid childhood.

Laurel and Hardy are rarities now. They're not played on TV, and unless you live in an area that has a movie house that plays revivals, you're not likely to see them screened. As David Kehr the reviewer for the Times points out, "And then there is the matter of pace. These are, for the most part, magisterially slow films, comedies in which an individual sight gag — Ollie falling into a water fountain, for example — is only the point of departure for a series of slow-burn reactions: Ollie’s baleful look directly into the camera, in which he seems to be soliciting the viewer’s sympathy, punctuated with a barely audible sigh of resignation; Stan’s gradations of surprise, incomprehension (was he really responsible for that?) and withdrawal into a state of blank-eyed obliviousness, as if the world and all its troubles had suddenly become too much for him, and he’s regressed into a perfectly serene, fetal state."

In other words, these comedies are hardly frenetic as seems the pace of so much today.

The clip I've pasted above is from a short called "Brats." My mother used to pretend she was a Russian peasant and sing me the song Oliver sings to put his children to bed.

New York. Then and now.

There's a new book that has just come to my attention called "New York in Color" photographs of New York edited by Bob Shamis. The photo that illustrated the write-up on the book in "The New York Times" really brought me back to less sanitized days.

In the 70s, New York had really jumped the rails. We were averaging nearly 6 murders a day and it seemed we were never more than a blackout away from having a riot.

I was in high school during some of these years. I remember playing the outfield during a game against another school. The field was rutted and worn. A bankrupt New York had no money for playing fields. I remember a couple of guys coming up to me while the game was going on and trying to sell me drugs. I remember working nights and coming home to my small apartment at 3 in the morning with my keys woven between my fingers. Protection, however slight, against being mugged.

Nothing seemed to work in those days. The subways had no air-conditioning in the summer and no heat in the winter. They were as covered in ink as an ambitious hipster.

Of course, New York even during its descent into hell was still New York. It still had a fury, a life and a beauty that I've never seen matched. Gordon Parks captured a bit of that in here:

I'm not really nostalgic about the days of fear in New York. I like the city as safe. I like that things seem somewhat in control these days. I don't miss the fires in the Bronx, the sky high murder rate and the live sex shows on 42nd Street.

A local New York public radio station is running a promotion called Beethoven Appreciation Month. They have posted this around town. It's a very different place today.

The quintessence of dust.

Every day, or nearly so, for the last couple weeks, I've been hauling books from my overly-crowded apartment (which is bursting at the seams with books) to my over-crowded desk which is bursting at the seams with the detritus of the model of a modern major ad agency.

The office space I occupy, not just my table, looks like a tornado hit it. Papers are everywhere. Multi-colored sticky notes are pasted on monitors. There are bins to hold documents, racks to hold documents and documents in piles in nearly every nook and cranny.

What there aren't are books.

There are no annuals. No dictionaries. No landscapes of Ansel Adams or sketches by Reginald Marsh. There are no "Archives." No "CAs." No trade magazines. No general interest magazines.

Today I brought in a book I ordered from the UK. "Hegarty on Advertising. Turning Intelligence into Magic."

It will sit on my desk unsullied--no one will borrow it. No one even knows who John Hegarty is.

Out of force of habit I take a Sharpie to my books within seconds of their arrival at my desk. I write my name all over them. I want them shared; I'd like to think there are active learners around me, but I don't want them stolen.

Every day my pile grows another couple of inches, like kudzu in the American south or bamboo after too much rain. But the books don't get touched.

Not by young creatives who you think would be eager. Or even by account people who you'd think my profit from ingratiating themselves with me.

I'm told people today go online to find such things. To "browse" annuals. To find wonderful art.

So maybe the book-deniers are right and I'm just an anachronism. After all, I remember getting lost in the library for hours at Hal Riney, Ally & Gargano and, Ogilvy, home to the biggest agency library of all.

Dave Trott sent me a link this morning of David Abbott singing the praises of independent booksellers. That's what got me going.

I find it sad that the few things I hold dearest in the world are now considered by entire dark-aged generations as little more than eccentricities.

Monday, November 7, 2011

I think I'm stupid.

I just got pulled into an impromptu meeting. It involved two account people and a whiteboard, so I knew I was in trouble.

"We need you to look at this. We're talking about 2012 planning."

I looked at the words on the board. Technically I guess you could say I "knew" all of the words. It's not like they were written in some foreign language where they put slanted lines through the Os.

But I didn't, I'll admit, understand a thing that was written.

A very sweet account person took me through the Mandarin, character by indecipherable character.

"What do you think," she asked.

"It's fine, I guess," I said. "Where does the part come in that says we need to write commercials."

"Oh," she laughed. "This is planning. It's so we can discuss what we need to do next year."

"I see," I lied.

"We should have a plan in place by the end to 2011 that will lead our discussions for 2012."

"Now we need to assign people to these tasks," said another account person.

"You don't need me for that," I said and I escaped from the room.

Some thoughts on despair.

One of the many mania (or is it manium?) of our age is the unreal belief that a small and inconsequential action on the part of an individual can help solve a major problem or crisis.

Now we wear wrist bands to save the small-eared sea lion, we wear lapel pins to fight sagging testicles, we grow mustaches to fight baldness in cats.

Every morning, it seems, on some street corner or another, I walk by giant inflatable rats. They're put up by our dwindling breed of union men. They're protesting the use of non-union labor, low wages or some other corporate indelicacy. I'm not sure that this marching or shouting gets anyone anywhere. Certainly the wage gap between the working class and the corporate class smacks, today, of the late 19th Century. So, it seems that the barking and the ratting out and the occupying is little more than the tale of sound and fury told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

No one, maybe outside of Christopher Hedges, is pointing the finger at the root cause of unemployment. The $10 million paid to a middling CEO is equal to 200 $50k/year jobs. In other words, the plutocracy sees more shareholder value in paying one man $10 million than in paying 200 $50K.

Wrist bands won't stop this. Nor will tents in privately-owned parks (a privately-owned park sounds like something out of Louis XIV France. Let the peasants hunt thrush one day a year.) Nor will forwarding a link, nor will a like, nor will (ha ha ha) this inconsequential blog.

I don't know what the Mahatma would think of the feeble fights against corporations, against fracking, against hunger in Africa. But I do think of this probably apocryphal
exchange he had with Churchill:

Churchill: “What do you think of Western civilisation?"

Ghandi: "I think it would be a very good idea.”

I have a feeling that we are in the midst of a trend that is relatively inexorable. The rich will ride their horses over the poor and the middle-class will disappear like a fist when you open your hand.

All the liberal progress forwarded by the American New Deal, minimum wage laws, a 40-hour work week, the right to organize, a social safety net, affordable higher education and decent public education seem to be falling by the wayside.

One of our political parties, ostensibly half our electorate, have given way to near absolute lunacy and radical reactionary thought.

The other of our parties is in the thrall of Wall Street and worries more about bankers than ordinary wankers.

Sorry kids, a ribbon on a lapel, a slogan and a logo aren't going to change shit.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mona Simpson's eulogy.

I finally got around to reading Mona Simpson's eulogy of her brother, Steve Jobs. She delivered it at the Memorial Church of Stanford University and "The New York Times" printed the text last Sunday. You can read it here:

If you have the time, you should read Simpson's thoughts; they should take only about 10 minutes to get through but they'll give you things to think about for years.

There's a bit in the eulogy that got me thinking about so much of the bullshit we endure in advertising. Simpson calls it Jobs' philosophy of aesthetics.

“Fashion is what seems beautiful now but looks ugly later; art can be ugly at first but it becomes beautiful later.”

It's easy to see Jobs' philosophy at work in the advertising he and his agencies produced.

There is nothing fashionable, trendy or transitory about the art and commerce Jobs helped create. His ads are boring. They are most-often simply product shots or simple product demonstrations.

He eschewed advertising fashion. Conversations about brands. "Liking." And other whims.

He relied on the classics. Old typefaces. Simple design. An absence of fussiness.

That's all.


If you know how to read history, if you can see it as behaviors and movements rather than battles and dates, you can understand things about our species.

One of those things is that since the beginning of time, we have lived in hope of getting something for nothing. We as a species want desperately to believe in magic.

Whether it's manna from heaven.
Feeding the multitudes.
Gold from base metal.
Or endless energy that's "too cheap to meter," we have always looked for the deity or some other phantasm to deliver us a miracle.

Yesterday I had one of those death by a thousand cuts kind of day--the advertising version, that is, death by a dozen meetings.

Many of those meetings were about deliverance.

Delivering to the client oceans of ready customers through (barely watchable) syndicated events, conversations and content syndicated online.

Pass the elixir of love. I need a hug.

The second wisest man I've ever known once gave me a list 16 things I needed to do in a new, very senior job in order to succeed.

His 16th point was this: free advice is worth what you pay for it.

Today, whole agencies and huge legions of clients are structured to believe they can become the next Apple for free.

They can magically generate buzz, propagate conversations and drive people to stultifying websites that will bore viewers into passionate advocacy.

And they believe, thanks to the "freeness" and the ubiquity of digital media, that they can do this for the price of sand in the Sahara.

The truth, of course, is something else.

I've got history on my side.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Continuing yesterday's post.

Yesterday I wrote about being difficult to work with. Today I will continue that strain.

I have had a number of executive leadership dalliances over the years. I've been in charge of big creative departments so I am pushed to have meetings with HR so we can be sure everyone is happy, attrition is low and smiles abound.

Once I had to go to a two-day course on something HR or training (as if I'm a seal or a trick dog) lectured me on not being concrete.

Not being stubborn.

Being egalitarian.

Understanding different work styles.

Listen, understanding different work styles is HR code for accepting lassitude.

Not being stubborn is HR code for letting crappy ideas win and allowing substandard work.

Being egalitarian means putting people's feelings ahead of work.

All the virtues extolled in today's modern agency,
collaborative spirit, being a "bridge builder,"
being "open to creativity no matter where it comes from"
stems from the same spirit of everyone gets a trophy in Little League.

There's one criterion.
Two questions.

Is the work good?
Does the work suck?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hedging your bets.

Overheard on a conference call, all within about six minutes, all from the same client. They are fractured in the same way Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner (writers I admire) broke convention:

"We need to do this, not in a hurry but with speed."

"We need to put our best foot forward as soon as we figure out what foot that is."

"If we miss this opportunity, we'll score a big miss."

Here's a post I wrote some years ago about Lardner:

Lardner had a gift of language which seems all but lost today. Probably my favorite sentence in all the world was this simple one from a story called "The Young Immigrants."

"'Shut up,' he explained."

I also loved this from a short story called "The Golden Honeymoon." "Mother sat facing the front of the train as it makes her giddy to ride backwards. I sat facing her, which does not affect me."

I also love this gem:

“He looked at me as if I were a side dish he hadn't ordered.”

How to know when you're fucked.

Last week Dave Trott wrote on his wonderful blog that he was called in a Tweet or some such "highly opinionated."

Dave's post got me to thinking about writing or thinking or speaking that isn't easy, glib, predictable or a neat repackaging or re-stringing together of catchphrases and buzzwords. That led me to write this post:

Today I was in a recording session and something came to me. The client and the account people had really fouled this one up. Three or four rounds of changes had come in after the script was approved. After I recorded the script a week ago.

Then I got a "Final" script from the client, a script the client and the account people had ostensibly read. In the first sentence I noticed an egregious typo.

I blew a fuse.

But of course this being the 21st Century, I blew it in a 21st Century way.

I know what would happen if I reacted as I wanted to.

If I cursed the account people.

If I canceled the session and sent the talent home.

The word would get out.

The words, actually: "George, he's difficult to work with."

These days there can be no more potent imprecation.

If you don't do your expenses in a timely fashion, thinking that client business comes first and you have no assistant, "You're difficult to work with."

If you refuse to noodle type when you're coming up with concepts, "You're difficult to work with."

If you fight with tooth and nail the bland and banal, "you're difficult to work with."

In the HR Hegemony we live in no malediction will undo you quicker.

You're not polite.


A puppy dog.

"You're difficult to work with."

Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.

There's an old Yiddish saying which is like most old Yiddish sayings, that is, it's worthy of being kept as a frontlet, carved into your desk (if you still have one), digitized as your screensaver, or tattooed uncomfortably on your knuckles if you live in Williamsburg.

It's Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht. Which can be translated as "Man plans, God laughs."

Tomorrow morning I have to cut short my weekly therapy session (also known as my weekly 45 minutes with someone wiser than I) and head down to Wall Street--to the client I work for--for a 2012 planning meeting.

A 2012 planning meeting. For a financial institution.

The stock market could drop 4,000 points.
The Euro could collapse completely.
North Korea could sell a suitcase nuke to the Taliban.
A pizza salesman could become a presidential candidate.
Or worse, a fundamentalist could.

Yet, we must plan.

Plan for what?

A world in which anything can happen at any time.

Years ago I shot a commercial with Joe Pytka. One spot in a package of about a dozen spots. I had never worked with the Orsen Welles of soda pop before and was eagerly anticipating his genius.

I saw it almost immediately, though it took me a while to realize that.

The first thing Pytka did was tear up all the scripts he was to shoot.

I thought he was just being an asshole.

What he was doing was two-fold. And both folds contained genius.

One, the scripts had been fucked by the approval process. It was time now to rewrite them as something better and purer.

And two, from the time we started writing the scripts to the time we were going to shoot them, the changes in the world had rendered them virtually obsolete.

He tore them all up.

The best advertising doesn't come from planning.

It comes from being zeroed in on now. What's important. What's breathing. What hurts. What makes one laugh or cry.

The best advertising does not reflect medicine-chest sterility.

But the vibrancy of the moment.

Ha ha ha.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Something for type fanatics.

I am reading right now a book by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt called "The Swerve, How the World Became Modern." It is an adventure behind the rediscovery of Lucretius' "De Rerum Natura" (on the nature of things) and how a Renaissance man, Poggio Bracciolini found the original Latin volume in an obscure monastery in what is now Germany and how its philosophies challenged the orthodoxy of Roman church.

In the world before Gutenberg, the rock stars of the media world were people with good handwriting, and Poggio had just about the best. He developed the type style shown above, a far cry from the impossible to read glyphs that preceded his time.

I did a crappy job scanning a leaf from Greenblatt's book, but you get the idea. It's nice, in my opinion, to see typography that's about legibility, speed and distinction. Type was, at one time, about more than just style. It was about function, to boot. As it should be.

Thomas William McNeeley Jr., 1937-2011.

There's a nice obituary in "The New York Times" today of an ex-heavyweight boxing contender, Tom McNeeley, who lost in four rounds to the lightning-fast Floyd Patterson almost 50 years ago in December, 1961. (The Times assigns obituaries to some of their best writers--it's something to do during down periods, and thus, their obits almost always contain some bit of humor or wisdom in addition to chronicling an interesting life.) You can read McNeeley's obituary here:

Here's the bit that got me and got me thinking about how to succeed against all odds. It comes from Patterson, a man hardly noted for his glibness or wit. After knocking McNeeley to the canvas 12 or 13 times and knocking him out completely in just four rounds, Patterson had this to say this about his battered opponent."Nothing McNeeley did in the ring surprised me except getting up every time I knocked him down.”

Getting up every time you're knocked down.

A lesson for all of us.