Monday, April 30, 2012

"Shaky" Shecky Weinstock.

Yesterday was yet another beautiful Spring day in New York. Temperatures were in the low 50s when I started my 45 minute run and in the low 60s when I ended my slog. The sky is a clear lapis lazuli with nary a cloud. In short, it was a perfect day for a run. Except, of course, for the tourists who are everywhere, blocking every path you can conceivably run on.

One of the signs of our civilization's downfall is that people no longer know how to walk. Three-quarters of them have their faces buried in some sort of hand-held device and the final quarter are pushing strollers the size of a Russian T-34 tank.

The worst, in my opinion are the people who walk every which way on the Jackie Onassis reservoir, turning New York's best place for running into an obstacle course. I run there because my knees, after 32 years of looping the track, are painful. The soft, cinder surface suits perfectly my permanently pained patella, so I battle the tourists while I shuffle round and round the 1.557-mile loop.

Uncle Slappy called after I got home from my run. And though I wasn't necessarily in the mood for the Slappy show, I took the call anyway.

"Schmendrick," he began as he almost always does, the pejorative serving as a term of endearment, "did I ever tell you about Shecky Weinstock? The man had angles. He was always figuring out a way to beat the system."

"I don't know him, Uncle Slappy." I settled into my chair, put my feet up on the ottoman and got ready to hear one of Slappy's Byzantine legends.

"Weinstock was the last of the original goniffs," Slappy began using the Yiddish word for thief. "He lived to get something for nothing."

"I know the type," I interjected, mostly to give Uncle Slappy a chance to catch his breath.

"He was actually arrested once and sentenced to three to five years for impersonating a Koshering Rabbi. He would sell bogus Kashruth certificates to restaurants that couldn't otherwise pass a Kosher test. Commuted.

"But none of this explains how Shecky got his nickname, 'Shaky Shecky Weinstock.' For about ten years after he retired Shecky spent most of his weekends attending shivas."

A shiva is a mourning therapy for the close friends and families of a deceased Jew. It usually involves some fairly spectacular corned beef sandwiches and sponge cakes from Ben's down in the garment district.

"Shecky would crash these shivas and make with the hollow leg. He'd pretend he was on the other side of the family and make off with enough sandwiches to keep himself fat and happy for a week. Sponge cake, the man swam in.

"But I still haven't explained how he came to be called 'Shaky Shecky.' Shiva sandwiches are great--but Shecky needed cash as well. He was living on a fixed income and things were tight. You can't blame the guy really. He needed a couple of dimes to rub together to see a movie, go to a ballgame or put two dollars on the nose of."

"I think I see where this is going," I said to Uncle Slappy, hoping to speed this along.

"So Shecky would show up at a Bris--a circumcision--as a mohel with Parkinson's disease. He would reach into his Bris kit for his scalpel and start shaking like Katherine Hepburn in an earthquake.

"The parents would freak, of course, a mohel with Parkinson's and just to get rid of him would hand Shecky a check for $125. Shecky would apologize--say he was steady as a rock, really--but in the end, he'd take the money, a few sandwiches and run."

"Thus is born," I said, "the legend of Shaky Shecky Weinstock."

Slappy paused for a moment and cleared, dramatically, his phlegm.

"I forget why I called" he said, hanging up the phone.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Apple is evil, too.

One of the important roles marketing communications must play is to make really despicable companies appear kind, caring or benevolent. So all over the airwaves, the cable stream and through parks and parkways we're reminded of the goodness of various companies.

You can hardly spit in some parts of Manhattan without hitting the logo of some odious banking brand. In front of Lincoln Center, in fact, it seems that individual trees and blades of grass are there courtesy of reactionary right ideologues, Nazi-complicit banking organizations, or just plain banks that brought down the international financial system.

There's the David H. Koch Theater, the Barclays Grove, the Credit Suisse International Grandstand, Hearst Plaza and more. Just about every event poster or event has the logo of some bank behind it, even though opera tickets, for instance, routinely ring in at about $300/ea.

Now, it appears that the company we all love is a company we can all hate. Apple not only subjects its Chinese labor to inhumane working conditions they also make sure they don't subject itself to paying taxes. Apple pays taxes not in Cupertino, where they are based, but in Reno, NV where the corporate tax rate is 0%.

In fact Apple pays taxes at a rate that is just 9.8%--a rate about 60% lower than that of the notorious cheapstakes of Walmart. Apple "allocate(s) about 70 percent of its profits overseas" according to "The New York Times. In nearly bankrupt California--formerly the Golden State--"in 2009, after an intense lobbying campaign led by Apple, Cisco, Oracle, Intel and other companies, the California Legislature reduced taxes for corporations based in California but operating in other states or nations... the change will eventually cost the state government about $1.5 billion a year."

Of course $1.5 billion is small potatoes when it comes to tax revenues but you get the point.

Despite the pangloss on Apple, they are just like most other companies. Evil.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

William Pace dies at 103.

William L. Pace, Record-Setter for Bullet in Head, Dies at 103

TURLOCK, Calif. (AP) — William Lawlis Pace, who holds the Guinness World Record for living the longest with a bullet in his head — 94 years and six months — died on Monday at a nursing home in this central California city. He was 103.

He died in his sleep, The Modesto Bee reported.

Mr. Pace’s older brother accidentally shot him with their father’s .22 caliber rifle in 1917, when the family lived in Texas. Doctors left the bullet in place because they worried that surgery might cause brain damage, a son of Mr. Pace has said.

The injury damaged an eye and facial nerves but did not prevent Mr. Pace from working as a cemetery custodian.

He learned in 2006 that he was the world record holder in the category of “longest time to live with a bullet in the head.”

Friday, April 27, 2012

My early days as a writer.

When I was a kid--a teenager--back in the early 70s, our culture, even in New York, was highly influenced by California. If you think about it most every TV show was set in California, or in some fantastically anti-septic and blonde place that could pass for it.

(Today of course, our culture is influenced by the black street. Dress, language, deportment and more are considered gauche if they're not "gangsta.")

But in my day, it was California. Things were groovy in Cali. Our parents drove Malibus. Even our dark and jowly President Nixon was a Californian.

As a consequence, when my friends and I greeted each other, we would often utter the ridiculous phrase "How's it hanging?"

I don't know that I ever heard a response to the question until one day an older kid, Andre, who had returned drugged and damaged from Vietnam answered "Long and loose and full of juice."

That set me off.

I would never again not have a response to "How's it hanging?"

I created: Long and lean and really mean.
Big and fat and ready for that.
Long and steady and good and ready.
Big and mean and like a machine.

And about a dozen more.

It became something of a game my friends would play with me. Who could come up with the most suggestive answer? Who would be stumped? Who couldn't keep up?

I guess this is a long way of saying that since my earliest days I have always loved words and I've cultivated my love for them.

Sometimes still, I take my hat off to Andre. And mutter, "well equipped and ready to dip."

Thursday, April 26, 2012

An exit line I wish I heard.

"I have to get off the call now, I'm late to my sword swallowing class."

Some thoughts on Daniel Defoe.

By all accounts, Daniel Defoe, who most scholars credit with writing the first novel in the English language, "The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un‐inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates" was a manic depressive or, as we say today, suffered from being bi-polar.

He was the kind of person most agencies would crush under a sea of HR paperwork. He was also someone who was pretty much a major fuck up until he reached the age of 60. Two times a bankrupt. Two times in debtor's prison.

When he reached about the age of 63 however, until he was 69--just a year before he died, it's been estimated he wrote and published more than two-and-a-half-million words. He wrote "Moll Flanders." "Robinson Crusoe" and its two sequels. "Journal of the Plague Year."

To put that figure into context, I have been writing this blog for approximately the same amount of time as Defoe's crescendo. I write nearly everyday, sometimes twice or three times, have posted nearly 3,000 posts and have probably written only 250,000 words. One tenth of what Defoe was able to do.

And what I write ain't "Moll Flanders." (One of the greatest books ever-written. Especially if you like filth.)

At 54 I am an anomaly in the modern ad agency.

I am 30 years older than 25% of my agency. 20 years older than another 35% of my agency. And 10 years older than another 35%.

People think it strange to see me,"The Old Man and the Pen" still kicking, still fighting, still laughing.

They should, once in a while, think about Defoe.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rediscovering your voice.

Of late I have had what seems like dozens of meetings with clients and agency colleagues where we've spoken about things like content strategy (that's content, as in table of) and storytelling. I find these discussions as close to excruciating as home lasik surgery. Painful, dangerous, and unproductive.

Last night I opened a pdf I have carted around for a decade. It is an IBM annual report from 2002 and it features about 40 pages under the heading called "16 Decisions that Transformed IBM."

What some people feel about Apple, I feel about IBM. Like me, IBM ain't flashy. But they're there when it matters, doing the heavy often anonymous lifting that needs to be lifted.

About three-quarters of the way through this document there's a page that speaks to me. I wish it spoke to more people. It's titled "We Found Our Voice." Here's the copy: 

"We recaptured something we’d lost—our ability to engage our customers and our industry in a meaningful conversation about what matters to us, and to them. 

"This wasn’t about cranking up the volume, issuing more press releases, or producing memorable TV commercials. It was about rediscovering our confidence and articulating what we believe. Things like: 

we are entering a post-pc era.
the dot-coms are fireflies before the storm. 

the winners in this industry will do one of two things: innovate or integrate. 

"When we rediscovered our voice, we discovered something else: our sense of direction, the courage to stand apart from the crowd and, ultimately, what it means to speak out like a leader again."

If you care about communications, please spend careful attention to that last sentence. 

There's a lot of bullshit that pummels our industry like asteroids hitting a forgotten moon. What really matters, however, is very simple. Speaking plainly, clearly, memorably and actionably.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Simply communicate simply.

When I was young in the business I adopted a simple process. When I was given a brief--yes, we were given briefs in those days and they didn't take a month to write--I would take that brief and work at it for hours.

After those hours I was able to distill the brief down to one short, clauseless sentence. Not a 37 word sentence. A short, honest sentence. My partner and I then had something workable to work from. The only thing left to do that point was to take that single sentence and find a way to be creative with it.

This seems to me to be the way to communicate nearly anything. And has been the way to do so since we wrote on clay tablets or before.

1) Take in information. 2) Figure out what's important. 3) Say it in an interesting and memorable way.

1) I can talk to you about things I've never spoken to anyone about. 2) You are the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. 3) I love you.

If you can't say it simply, don't say it at all.

Shut up.

Yesterday I had one of the worst days in a career marked by hundreds, if not thousands of worst days. I was forced to sit in perpetual meetings about work I will ultimately have to do populated by people who mouthed words that were almost completely devoid of meaning.

In one, a planner-type kept talking--endlessly talking--about doing things for one brand based on something a brand from a completely different category, with a completely different place in the market was able to do. It was like hearing someone talk about selling bicycle tires based upon the taste of Wheat Thins.

In another meeting twelve or so people on various phone connections across the country miscommunicated about something called a content strategy. I heard about editorial calendars. I heard about content creators. Until I spoke I heard nothing about consumers and what would interest them.

I read briefs, emails and comments from people and I might as well be reading Swahili, a language I do not comprehend. To wit, this note based on a simple solution that I proposed. "The only problem I see here is that these sorts of journeys (specifically on the consumer and client side [not treated in the attachment but anyway]) bump up against the content syndication model's consumer/client journey. The question is: do we accept the content syndication model as the roadmap (for lack of a better term) for the journey."

I have always known that the world can be divided, simply and decisively, in two. There are simplifiers. And complicators.

Bob Hoffman, that sage Ad Contrarian, has written about this better than I can. 


I have just now happened across an interview with Milton Glaser, probably the world's foremost graphic designer and someone I had the absolute pleasure of working with for about a week one year or so ago. You can read the interview here: But here's the question and answer I really liked:

In one sentence, what do you actually do all day in your job? 
"I sit around pushing pieces of paper until they look right. "

In fact, I don't want to write about complications any more.

I just want complication to be over.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Advertising lessons from Daniel Defoe.

Over 300 years ago in 1703, Daniel Defoe was--as he was so often in his life--in deep shit. He was not only a bankrupt, he was also a dissenter. Both positions led to pretty severe punishment.

But Defoe didn't take things lying down. Before he was to be pilloried for his religious beliefs (or disbeliefs) he wrote and distributed a broadsheet poem, "A Hymn to the Pillory." It should be said here that being in the stocks was no picnic. Defoe feared it more than he feared prison time in London's notorious Newgate prison.

While you were in the stocks, people would abuse you. They would throw rocks, fruit and other projectiles. They would beat and mock you. And your reputation, once having been cosigned to the pillory was ruined.

His "A Hymn to the Pillory" instead made Defoe a hero. People rallied to him. He wasn't heckled and abused, he was praised and exalted.

Katherine Frank, author of "Crusoe" describes it this way--a way that has bearing to our industry. "The moral of "A Hymn to Pillory"--and indeed of the pillory episode in Defoe's life--was that the Ingenious inherit the Earth. Survivors are those who create in the face of all the dark forces that seek to destroy them--those who, like Defoe, are resourceful, determined and patient. They ride out the roughest storms. They make it to land and, once there, they patiently and creatively make a paradise out of desolate exile, a kingdom out of their captivity."

It seems to me that Defoe presents an example to live by. Use the power of words, the power of your point of view, the power of satire, humor and irony to overcome hardship.

This is what we must do at work and in our work.

You can learn a lot from what happened 300 years ago.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A quiet Sunday in Manhattan.

In contrast to much of the weather we've had in Manhattan since the beginning of April, today was cold with temperatures in the 40s and 50s and wet. The forecast deluge--they were predicting three inches of rain and 45 mph winds--hasn't as yet occurred but nonetheless it was a lazy day. 

By the time my wife and I got home from our run and 20 minutes on the stationary bike,  we had very nearly beaten the rain, I had decided it was a day to read all dozen or so sections of "The New York Times," to listen to some classical music on the radio and to rest my size-12 slippered feet up on the ottoman. It's not a bad way to spend a rainy Sunday--a good recovery from the noise of the week.

Around three I zipped up my Mackintosh and walked to a little barber shop in my neighborhood. It's a small shop with an Italian name but it's run by two Jewish men who emigrated from Russia when the Soviet Union broke up. Jacob, the owner, was a dentist in the old country, but here he is cosigned to snipping and clipping. He has through such efforts put his son through pharmacy school and his daughter is on her way to becoming a nurse. An impressive American tale.

My leonine mane had gotten a bit unwieldy and I hadn't shaved since Friday morning--and I was feeling a little blue, so I asked for the works. First Jacob got my hair in shape. Weed-whacking my gray until it was corporately acceptable.

Then he inclined the chair way back, rubbed some eucalyptus salve on my whiskers and wrapped me in a succession of towels each one hotter than the last. After about ten minutes, he took his straight edge and, as we say in the hood, "cleaned me up good." With one more hot towel, and a light sprinkling of Pinaud's Clubman aftershave, I was ready once again--fortified--to face the world.

Getting an old-fashioned shave and a haircut from an old-fashioned barber is one of the sublime little pleasures of life.  If you're an old-film nut like myself, your mind goes back to Johnny Rocco in "Key Largo," or any number of 1930s film mugs who got plugged while wrapped in a towel.

It cost me--with tip--$60 for the works. A small price to pay for time away from the world and a trip faraway.

Looking forward by looking backward.

In today's "New York Times" there are two separate articles that I think are important harbingers that something is rotten in the digital world. While digitally-driven companies like Google and Facebook claim they want to change the world--that kind of hubris is in their very mission statements--they don't seem to realize that real human intercourse will never be replaced by binary code or 140-character tweets.

As I mentioned in a previous post, travel agents, all-but-obsolete travel agents, are making a come-back. Also in the paper today is an op-ed by a psychologist and professor at M.I.T. called Sherry Turkle. Turkle's article is called "The Flight from Conversation," and it's about, in broad terms, modern-day man's inability to connect with other people. Turkle's article starts this way, "We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection." You can read the well-worthwhile article here:

Turkle's point is a simple one. We have millions of ways to connect, but few ways to really make connection. She says, "At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates..."

What Turkle suggests is this, "Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters."

 :-( My dog ran away, my wife is having an affair and my dad has cancer.

Here's some more Turkle: "We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely. 

"I am a partisan for conversation. To make room for it, I see some first, deliberate steps. At home, we can create sacred spaces: the kitchen, the dining room. We can make our cars “device-free zones.” We can demonstrate the value of conversation to our children. And we can do the same thing at work. There we are so busy communicating that we often don’t have time to talk to one another about what really matters."

I think at some point more people will realize that community--real community, not a Facebook group, and people, real people, matter. All human contact cannot be digitized. Such technology might be changing the world, but perhaps not for the better.

Many exponents of new media think that anything new changes everything old. But much of what is old is hard-wired into us. The touch of a loved one. A dewy-eyed look of understanding.  A sign. A real laugh not an LOL.

In other words, a kiss is still a kiss/a sigh is just a sigh/ the fundamental things apply/ as time goes by.

Friday, April 20, 2012

People need people.

There's a notion in the world that people are no longer necessary. Because we have machines--smart and facile machines--we can take people, who are costly and who on occasion take time off, out of the equation.

You see evidence of this belief everywhere you go. In Manhattan, big box stores operate seemingly without people. I walked out of a Bed, Bath and Beyond with a $14.99 shower curtain without paying because no sales help was manning the cash register.

This people-less future notion is rampant in digital agencies and among futurists. People, they espouse are too expensive. Face-to-face meetings or sales are costly and time consuming. You can replace all those interactions with machinery, software and binary code. Or there's an app for that.

We seem to have all but eliminated factory workers from our factories and farmers from our farms.

The problem with the peopleless future is that earth is still peopled by people. And we all need something do. We also need--even misanthropes like I need--people to interact with.
Just now I read an article in "The New York Times" that travel agents are making a comeback. "...nearly one in three leisure agencies is hiring, according to PhoCusWright, a travel research firm. And in 2011 travel agencies experienced a second consecutive year of growth; their bookings account for a third of the $284 billion United States travel market."

One traveler who uses a travel agent said  “I needed recommendations and someone to steer me in the right direction...There are so many [options]... with every site displaying beautiful pictures and tantalizing offers, it can be overwhelming. I wanted somebody from a reputable agency who could say yes, you’ll enjoy this stay.”

Those seem like basic people needs. Needs that appear to be un-meetable by software alone.
All this makes me think. Maybe DIY--do it yourself--is over done. Not DOA but not the cure for all business ills.

People need people.

They need a throat to choke. Or a hand to hold. Or someone to trust.
Just now I listened to Peggy Lee sing her sultry version of "Black Coffee." There's a line in the song, "Love's a hand-me-down broom."

No software will ever be able to write anything so good.


Today on my way in I listened to two pieces of music that got me thinking about the nature of creative partnerships.

The first was a 7:17 minute piece from an album called "Mulligan Meets Monk" featuring of course Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk playing a song called "Sweet and Lovely." The second was a piece of music from an Atlantic Ray Charles album called "Pure Genius." This is a recording of a rehearsal session of "Losing Hand" with a dialogue between Charles and his arranger, producer, partner, the great Quincy Jones.

Let's start by saying that I regard all four of the people mentioned above to be in possession of genius. And I think they each regarded their partners as possessing genius as well.

Mulligan and Monk play together, they rise in melody and harmony, but they also battle. At times what they play seems to fight. Monk hitting broken chords while Mulligan is sweet and sad. At other times, the roles are altered. Monk is playful, almost childlike while Mulligan is delirious, dissonant and atonal. Their relationship through this 7 minute piece is strained, tense, periodically combative but ultimately positive. They don't agree on everything--but they come through with the goods.

Charles and Jones have a different relationship. Jones puts his brilliance on the back burner and defers almost wholly to the surpassing genius of Charles. This might be somewhat like the famous line about the brilliant mathematician Johnnie Von Neumann: "There are three branches of math. Applied. Pure. And Johnnie Von Neumann."

Jones in this cut is extolling the Charles branch of music.

If you spend the $1.29 and listen to this track you'll hear Jones feeding Charles his lines. You'll hear Charles wrestle with them and then with his demons. Then you'll hear the lines soar with the pain of life, loss and love.

This cut is all about Charles. But Charles is Charles because Jones is Jones.

Each scenario I think can be extrapolated to be about advertising partnerships, whether they're the traditional art-director/copywriter partnership or account/creative or agency/client.

Find a way to push and pull, to play off one another. Find a way to fight amiably and productively. Find a way to serve a surpassing idea or talent.

Doing so makes great.

PS. I couldn't find a You Tube recording of the Charles/Jones rehearsal. So what's posted above is just Charles. With Jones' reverb.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ego-deficit disorder.

I had dinner tonight with some engaging and interesting people who happen to be clients.

I don't often go out with clients. In fact, this might be one of only two or three times in my career that I've gone out with clients without having an account person around to keep me from poking my eyes out with my fish fork. But tonight I went solo. And guess what? I not only survived, I had a decent time.

About half-way through dinner a thought started playing in my head. I'll try to work that thought out in front you--so bear with me.

There are two kinds of rewards we can get from work. One are the intrinsic rewards that derive from you knowing you have done your best and made a difference. The second are extrinsic rewards. These are rewards and awards that come from outside.

It seems to me that people who are satisfied by intrinsic rewards have an emotional sense of self, a confidence that allows them to analyze the validity of the job they've done and appreciate the effort they've expended. The satisfaction they feel comes from within. They don't need others to praise them. The praise they give themselves has enough heft.

People who satisfied by extrinsic rewards are, I think, less sure of themselves. They need their boss to applaud them. They need a cheap metallic artifact on their desk. They need laudatory loudness. They need their egos nourished by the outside because they can't feed their ego themselves.

If I had to go all macro on you, I'd say that too many people have been brought up who are constantly seeking praise. From childhood--when they needed to see their drawings hung on the refrigerator till today when they need to see their work gushed over.

This constant exaltation--from child childhood to adult childhood--has left many of us with out an internal praise-giving resource. This is an ego-deficit disorder. And is the reason behind our current mania for rating things with awards, stars, thumbs up and other sundry banalities.

Robinson Crusoe on Advertisng.

I get a lot of calls--mostly by email--from friends of mine who seem to be unhappily wallowing in some advertising job or another. They turn to me for advice or a soft shoulder. I suppose because I have nearly 30 years in the business and over 30 years in fairly intense therapy.

Last night I began reading a book called "Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth" by Katherine Frank. Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" is not only widely regarded as the first novel ever written, it has also remained popular and influential since it was initially published in 1719--almost 300 years.

One of the things Frank points out is that the survivors in survivor tales like "Robinson Crusoe" react to their condition in one of three ways. One: They despair and sink deep into gloom and inertia. Two: They are educated by and adjust their belief system and living styles to their new environment. Three: They attempt to reconfigure their new environment to look and behave like their old environment.

I think we in the agency business have the same three options in our work life--really two if you count out depression. We can sink into despair when facing a shitty environment. We can cower and turn off. We can embrace our environment and make things "work." Or we can attempt to alter the agencies in which we toil.

Crusoe, of course, turned his desert island into a small, rustic replica of 18th Century England. He recreated his own world--one he was comfortable in--off the shores of the Orinoco. We can, further, debate which is the right course of action: despair, adjust or reshape. And each response depends on your personal strength and the agency you work in.

Depression, inertia is never a good choice. But as to the other two, molding yourself or molding your environment, you have to have to take a long hard look. Are their people to learn from. Is there honesty and integrity? Is there a willingness on the part of the agency to learn?

These are the tough questions I believe smart people have to ask themselves every day. And I don't have an answer here. The fact is, I've made as many smart career decisions as dumb ones. Or better, a smart decision is usually 51% smart and 49% dumb. Whereas a dumb decision is usually 51% dumb and 49% smart.

I guess, in sum, it's not the decisions you make as much as how you grow having made them. I'm making less money--substantially less money--than I made six years ago but I suppose I am happier.

Of course, I've had 12 jobs in 28 years.

Maybe I'm the last one who should be giving advice.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A bit more on storytelling.

I've been asked to give a talk on storytelling down at my clients. I recognize that "the narrative of storytelling" is all the rage today but for the life of me I am baffled by this. I hate the phrase storytelling. It has become a cliche. Meaningless and small. People start saying things like "I told the story of my week through my timesheet."

In any event, here's how I'm beginning my talk.

First with a picture of the original text of the world's oldest written book, "Gilgamesh."

And then the sort of text we are given to understand in meetings today.

To me, Gilgamesh above and Excel below look similar.
There are rows and rows of text. Enough to blur your eyes whether you are reading in the desert light of ancient Sumer or by the purple light of skyscraper fluorescence.

Stories exist to make complicated, almost incomprehensible things, easy to understand, easy to remember, easy to act upon. The best stories have a mnemonic quality to them. They have underlying their detail and complexity a simple to understand quality.

For instance, a scholar whose name I've forgotten said something like this: "All creation myths have either gods descending from the sky or rising from the mud." I had a professor in graduate school that summarized all of Western though through one sentence from John Huston's "African Queen." We do not need to make this complicated. Though that's what we do best.

There have been a spate of articles of late about the future of the American economy and where the next breakthrough is coming from. According to the "Times" the next big jobs in America will be held by people who can look at petaflops of data and find a story.

Truth be told, they don't even have to find a story. They really just have to find data that supports a story they've already conceived. That's what great leaders in history have been able to do. Think Winston Churchill in 1940, turning Dunkirk into a victory.

What I've noticed through the years--years of work and years of raising my daughters--is that institutions, workplaces, schools, government, clubs, etc. impose a rigidity on their subject. They expect a certain amount of soul sublimation. My kids went through this in high school. They were academicized to the point where their writing sounded like other academics, not themselves.

In other words we accept the speech, verbal and semantic patterns and vocabulary of the dominant institution. All of a sudden, we are on a plane and we are calling the thing in front of us "a tray table."


When you let someone control your language you let them control your mind. It's really that simple.

So try to tell stories that have some you-ness in them.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lou Goldstein, 1921-2012.

Lou Goldstein, a man who beat me--and nearly everyone else--in Simon Sez died on April 2. You can read his "New York Times" obituary here:

For those of you not Jewish and not from New York, Goldstein worked at Grossinger's--a fancy, almost exclusively Jewish Catskill resort, as a tummler. The Times defined a tummler this way: "A tummler (pronounced TOOM-ler) is someone who stirs up tumult or excitement. He was a jack-of-all-trades social director who was supposed to amuse the hotel guests with jokes, songs and shtick that might be better described as slapshtick, as they sat by the pool, emerged from lunch or headed for bingo.

"Perhaps the classic illustration was given by Mel Brooks, himself a former tummler.

“A tummler wakes up the Jews when they fall asleep around the pool after lunch...One of the things I had to do as the pool tummler was, I used to do an act. I wore a derby and an alpaca coat, and I would carry two rock-laden cardboard suitcases and go to the edge of the diving board and say, ‘Business is no good!’ and jump off.”

The part that really got me from Goldstein's obit was his "exit line" which is simply a joke Goldstein used to tell:  There's a wife who tells her husband after a bitter argument that when he dies, she's going to dance on his grave. The husband goes to his lawyer the next day and adds a new clause in his will. He wants to be buried at sea.

Memory aids.

Years ago during the tail end of the 60s (that decade that ended more or less around 1974 with Richard Nixon's resignation) I had a job waiting tables at the summer camp I went to. Most of my job was being a junior counselor and coaching baseball, but some of the time I did the hard work of working in the kitchen and serving 200 hungry kids and about 70 more staff before things got unruly and out of hand.

I never minded kitchen work. I didn't love it, there were other things I'd rather be doing. But we were in and out with such alacrity that it never bogged down into tiresomeness.

There was an old, black cook named Tony who ran the kitchen. He'd been doing so, cooking at the camp for decades. The rest of the year he cooked for a school system in Long Island, so this was his vacation. I think he enjoyed doing what he did and getting to know and kibbitz with the kids who helped him out.

One day it was my job to make the toast for the kids. I placed bread, about 40 slices in eight rows of five on a large cookie sheet and placed it under the broiler. In a minute or two it was browned and I repeated the operation with another sheet while the waiters served what I had toasted.

Tony was watching to make sure I didn't screw up. Every couple minutes or so he would bellow--his way of reminding me to check the toast "Black is beautiful but not on toast."

It's a line I've never forgotten, though I last heard it probably 40 years ago.

No real point today.

Just don't burn the toast.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Sam Spade on Madison Avenue.

David Brooks, the self-described "moderate" columnist for "The New York Times" has a really brilliant op-ed in today's paper with a title I simply couldn't pass up. His piece is called "Sam Spade at Starbucks." You can read it here, unless the Times' firewall intervenes.

Brooks' column is about idealism, but the need for idealism to be grounded in the hard, often brutal realities of life. I think Brooks' thinking has direct bearing on many of the issues and mania in our business.

What Brooks is talking about is the idealism of so many to attempt to change the world through extra-governmental intervention. Things like micro-loans, colorful wrist bands, and KONY videos. We embrace these acts while ignoring that these sort of efforts will fail to have lasting impact if bigger, institutional, structural changes aren't made.

The key sentences from Brooks--and I urge you to read his entire column (it should take you less than four minutes)--are these: "...there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on."

Now here's where I think the parallel to our business comes in. 

A lot of energy and time is spent in our business doing things that "show well." We chase after awards and build our reputations on things with a high-sheen of pangloss. We seem to have no appetite as an industry for work that does the hard infrastructure work that most companies need.

We don't laud and applaud the hardheadedness, the hard-boiledness that it takes to win over clients and effect change in their organizations. It's much more glamorous to send a lion or a pencil to yet another Scrabble ad or burrito restaurant in Tulsa.

This is not just about my personal disdain for the supercilious and superficial nature of the Awards-Industrial complex. 

It's about people who think the industry is about apps and toys and gimmickry. 

As I have said many times before in this space and in others, most client organizations don't even know what business they're in or what it is they sell. Our job is the tough job of defining, demonstrating and disseminating meaning.

It's the devil in the details. It's the quotidian. It's the acknowledgement that not all brands are cool and are going to do neato stuff.

Work, as a wise man once said, is work.

Starbucks, friends and the modern agency.

Yesterday over Madison Avenue there must have been a full-moon rising. I had four calls--spread about one every three hours from advertising friends who were suffering some sort of career distress. For whatever reason and probably related to the fact that I have been in therapy for more than 30 years, these four people turned to me.

One of the people--a group creative director at a big agency--met with me last evening at a Starbucks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I treated her to a cup of coffee--a small one which they call a "tall" in Starbucks and as I was paying I realized what is wrong with our business--and it has nothing to do with "the changing media landscape," or "the death of marketing," or anything else.

When we ordered at Starbucks the woman behind the counter refused to give me eye contact. She didn't acknowledge that she heard my order. She never asked if there was anything else I wanted. When I said "thank you," she didn't respond. When I said "thank you" again--looking this time for a response, she muttered--reluctantly--no problem.

It occurred to me that the problems within advertising agencies are similar to the problems I experience at Starbucks.

1. There are really no "brands" among agencies. No code of beliefs and behaviors. We might have strictures governing logo usage. But that's not what a brand is.

2. There are fundamental lies built into our organizations. Just as a tall is not a small, most people in agencies are "mis-titled." They're creative directors who have little time to create and no authority to direct. Or copywriters who seldom write copy. In other words, the jobs people have to do have little to do with their capabilities.

3. Finally, we have, like Starbucks, eliminated grace, politeness and kindness. Most people in the industry from the top to the bottom work their keisters to the bone. They are never thanked. (If anyone from a holding company is reading this, a 3% raise every 24 months is not a thank.) The tone of official emails is most often either condescending or castigating. Senior management--much less holding company management--is like the captain of a foundering ship that never leaves the bridge. They don't know the people, who they are, what they do.

In short, what is destroying our business is not fundamental flaws in the "agency model." What has destroyed it absentee ownership. Ownership that is absent even when they're present.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Uncle Slappy spins a tale.

I was up early this morning having lost yet another round of my long-running fight against insomnia. I didn't mind, however, because Uncle Slappy was awake, listening to the BBC on the radio and sipping a demitasse-sized cup of thick, black coffee. He and Aunt Sylvie are heading back to Boca today (I've persuaded them to eschew the train and fly instead) and I welcome spending every minute I can with the old man. I never really got to know my own father, but knowing his brother has had its compensations.

Uncle Slappy was for over 50 years the Rabbi of a small Upper East Side congregation--Beth Youiz Maiwom Mannow--so he's given thousands of sermons. As you might expect, the man can tell a story like nobody's business.

"Did I ever tell you," he snuck to his story on little cat feet, "did I ever tell you about your distant cousin Moshe Schlesinger."

"I don't know him, Uncle Slappy."

"Well he's a cousin removed more times than beer stains from a frat-house sofa. But here's the thing about Cousin Moshe, Moshe was a blind mohel."

A mohel is a Jewish man trained to perform ritual circumcisions on Jewish boys eight days after they're born. Thus fulfilling a covenant with god.

"In my business, as you know, as a Rabbi, I was often asked to recommend a mohel. And Moshe, blind Moshe was the best I've ever seen. Moheling, after all," Slappy went on, "is all in the hands. It's not in the eyes. And Schlesinger had the hands of a god.

"You've heard of Maya Angelou. You've heard of Michelangelo. We called him Mosheangelo. He did in cock, what Michelangelo did in rock.

"The poet of the penis. Genghis Schlong, the Penis Genius, the Sultan of Schvanz they called him. He was a living legend. If Michelangelo had wanted David circumcised he would have called Mosheangelo. He was an artist. Without hesitation I recommended him.

"Naturally, life ain't easy for a blind mohel. Some parents couldn't make the leap of faith on Moshe. They heard he was blind and they'd go with a more conventional mohel choice. Mosheangelo hung up his scalpel about 20 years ago, sold his "bris kit" and opened two Carvel ice cream stores in the Bronx. Soft-serve you can also do blind. There are only two basic flavors."

I kept waiting for a point but Slappy stopped here and finished his coffee and shuffled off to the guest room--his bedroom, to finish packing.

He left with this exit line.

"It should be a quick flight back to Boca. It's straight downhill."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A conversation with a daughter.

My older daughter is currently a doctoral student, in the first year of a multi-year program to become a Clinical Psychologist. I'm lucky enough, blessed really, to enjoy an incredibly close relationship with her. We've had our rough patches over the years--what father and daughter haven't--but we have ironed most things out, and those we haven't, well, we enjoy or appreciate the wrinkles. They give our relationship some necessary texture.

We talk a couple times a day--usually in the morning when she is on her way to work or to her clinical placements, and also in the evening when she is on her way home. This is good. Time for us to connect and have a virtual glass of whiskey together and to prepare for or decompress from our days.

This evening my daughter went on. That's her prerogative. She's my daughter, she's 24, and as someone once said to me about her, "she has a lot under her hat."

She talked about some of her co-workers at her residential site that deals with kids from violent and/or abusive backgrounds. How some--many--of the permanent staff hasn't the patience with their patients, they regard them with disdain, as people to be lorded over, as trouble-makers and pains in the ass.

My daughter on the other hand is out to change the world. She's mad at a world that produces children like these and who, having produced them, shows them so little love, attention and care. A world that can't seem to find the hope in their hearts to help them.

I told my daughter that she is an idealist. She isn't merely trying to get her degree and pass some patients along, she is trying to change the world. I told her the challenge in her job and in life is to continue to hold onto your idealism. To not get blase, cynical or jaded.

The same, of course, holds true in our business.

I have been in it for almost 30 years now. Since 1984.

I still fight for buckslips. I fight for banner ads. I fight to hold onto the soul of a speech I write for a client or a line of copy. I fight to make good ads--I don't always win, but I fight--because I hold onto my idealism that good work matters.

It's easy in our industrial advertising age in which we are beckoned to output tonnage, to give up. It's easy to lose hope amid the petty technocrats who allocate and usability and timesheet you nearly into oblivion. It's easy to say "it doesn't make a difference." Or "it's just a job." Or "I just have to get this done."

It's easy to give up your idealism.

Every time you hear a computer chime, an angel loses his wings.

But the quest to be human, is a quest to--amid all the iniquities and inequites, amid all the banalities and bastards, the quest to be human is the quest to keep caring. The quest to keep your ideals. The quest to hold onto hope.

If you've lost that, you've lost.

The loneliness of the long-copy writer.

I am old-fashioned.

I believe, and will never waver, in the power of words.

I think one of the reasons the web has been so ineffectual as an advertising vehicle is because design--not ideas--has made the rules.

There's nothing, for some products or services anyway, like a well-reasoned argument as an ad.

Amid the cacophony of the modern open plan advertising agency, amid the noise of your neighbors, the constant popping up of windows, beeps of instant messages, and chimes of meetings about to commence, copy--arguments for your brand--need to be written.

You need to pull down your spiritual blinds, shut out the noise and write.

Last night I wrote until 2 in the morning.

The TV was off.

My wireless was severed.

And I wrote.

Even if you're not a writer, even if you're an account person or an art director, even if you're not in advertising at all--you should try it.

Think as pure as glacial ice about what is important.

Then convince non-believers why.

Don't worry about style.

Or length.

Or big words.

Forget about being euphonious.

Or alliterative.

Or anything but simple and clear.

Face, as Hemingway said, "the white bull that is paper."

Even if that paper is a screen.

Just think. And write.

There's nothing like it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Press the button.

Many years ago I was new at an agency and laboring (as I have so often) without a partner. I was in the middle of one of those frightening assignments. You know the type--come up with a campaign the client likes or we'll lose the account.

As I said, I was new at the agency and solo. I was also reporting directly to the president of the place. In short, I was nervous.

In any event I worked all weekend and wrote over the course of those 48 hours something close to 50 scripts that I thought were pretty good.

But I was afraid to send them to my boss. I was afraid they weren't good enough. That I'd be canned practically before I started.

The morning after I'd written all those scripts I spoke to my therapist. I told him I was afraid of sending the scripts.

I'll never forget what my therapist said to me. "Send them, George. Remember, your good is other people's excellent." I went into my office after that and emailed them to my boss. An hour or so later, he told me the dozen or so he liked. I was a "made man."

When you get stuck with an assignment and your brain feels like it's full of cotton balls, when it feels like nothing is clicking, keep going, keep working, keep thinking, typing, sketching, creating. Keep doing, in short, what you've always done to see an assignment through.

Then say to yourself "Your good is other people's excellent."

Then trust yourself.

And press the button.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Some thoughts on social media.

  1. ·      When someone says something is “hilarious” it isn’t.
  2. ·      Things that “will change everything” won’t.
  3. ·      Every video, even those that are around 30-seconds are about a minute too long.
  4. ·      If your life is so interesting, in god’s name why are you posting so much.
  5. ·      Why am I friends with so many people who can’t spell?
  6. ·      Statements like “Nothing is impossible, even the word itself says ‘I’m possible’” are usually ungrammatical and always stupid.
  7. ·      The update with the least consequence gets the most likes.
  8. ·      Social media is usually done all alone.
  9. ·      Most people expressing outrage online have no idea of the real issues.
  10. ·      Disney World isn’t any more interesting when someone else goes there.
  11. ·      I will never care when someone—especially your kid, scores a goal.
  12. ·      Anyone who announces the death of a loved one online should be in therapy.
  13. ·      Most cool “never-before-seen” film techniques were done better in the 1930s.
  14. ·      Old girl friends aren’t as pretty as they used to be.
  15. ·      Old girl friends aren’t as sane as they used to be.
  16. ·      You don’t have enough talent to shoot a chocolate cannoli so it looks appetizing.