Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year's Eve call from Uncle Slappy.

Uncle Slappy called as I knew he would, it being New Year's Eve. They aren't given to parties, Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie and there's more than a good chance that they will be in bed by 10, partly because, like me, Uncle Slappy has had more than his fill of popular culture, and popularity in general. If you really must know, he'd rather read William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" for the 89th time than make small talk, drink and wait for the ball to drop. There's nothing wrong with those things, it's just not what Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie are all about.

"Boychick," he began "a Happy New Year. You have plans, tonight? You are making the rounds?"

"Actually, I think we'll just watch a movie. To tell you the truth, I just started a new biography on Bach, and frankly, I'd rather spend the evening reading that."

"I'll tell you what I learned this year," the old man began. "I figured what I'd do if I had ten billion dollars."

"Ten billion is a lot of money."

"The first thing I'd do is donate one billion dollars to the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue. With conditions."

I knew I was being set up for a joke. But that's ok, when you're close to Uncle Slappy, it comes with the territory.

"The condition would be that they install an automatic rain machine on the roof. I want it raining right at the entrance to the museum day and night. I want it to rain in front of building 24/7."

I laughed. "That sounds like a plan," I said. "Any particular reason for the rain? Is it art? Does it make a statement? Does it symbolize our race's 6,000 years of suffering?"

"No," the old man replied. "After 50 years of being a Rabbi, I figured something out."

I let his pause sit there. I know better than to rush him.

He finally spoke. "I like to hear Jews complain."

With that he wished me Happy New Year and hung up the blower.

I won't complain.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Happy New Fear.

That title was suggested by my good friend Tore Claesson, a brilliant art director and my ex-partner. Tore has traveled the world art directing. He has the uncanny knack of zeroing in on important things.

Happy New Fear.

I hope in 2014, we can lose some of our fear.  Our fear that "proven, tested and safe" is better than "new, funny and real."

I hope we can look at the chances Dodge, for instance, took with their Ron Burgundy spots and we can say, fear = best practices, and best practices = drivel. I hope we can look at creativity and innovation not as things to fear--because they haven't been done--but things to embrace--because they haven't been done.

I hope in 2014, we can lose some of our fear. Our fear that we'll lose our jobs if we speak our minds. 

I hope we can lose the fear which leads to acceptance, complacency and suck. I hope when we're confronted with some inequity at work--the purported wage freezes, or the 2% increase, or the "there are no bonuses because..." we can overcome of fear of unemployment, our fear of the shitty economy and say, "wait a second. Your financial calculus is bullshit." I hope we don't accept the beatings with equanimity because the job market sucks. I hope we can lose some of our fear and say, "well, that ain't right."

I hope in 2014, we can lose some of our fear. Our fear that we have to embrace every new trend lest we be labelled "old."

The internet has proven that most hallelujahs don't pan out, at least as marketing tactics. They come and gone, most of them. Facebook "likes," Google +, Xynga, Second Life, hashtags and more. I hope we lose the fear that compels us to herald the new, simply because it's new.

I hope in 2014, we can lose some of our fear. Our fear of calling people out for using jargon, hyperbole, and false data.

I hope when someone says 'social works,' we have the utz to say, 'show me a campaign.' Likewise, when they say 'TV is dead,' I hope we can either assail them with data or ask for theirs. I hope one someone blathers on, we have the presence to say, 'I don't understand. Explain it to me.' We should lose the fear of saying the emperor has no clothes.

A Tempus Fugit Ghost Story.

"When the Tempus Fugit opened up," the bartender said to me by way of introduction, "When the Tempus Fugit opened up, all the buildings around us that are health clubs and gourmet shops and doggy day-care and nail salons, were small industry."

He wiped the teak in front of me and pulled me a Pike's Ale (the ALE that won for YALE!) He hustled around from the back of the bar and brought Whiskey, my 21-month-old Golden Retriever a small wooden bowl of cold water.

"One of the businesses was owned by a German man, Berkholdt, I think it was. He was a flour merchant. Though it might of been Berkholdtz."

"I suppose it doesn't make a difference. They're both long gone."

He ignored my characteristic gloominess and plowed ahead with his tale.

"Mrs. Berkholdt--that's the name I'm landing on--was a big woman, and there was nothing she liked to do more than dance. Not the Charleston or the dances the flappers were doing. But formal waltz-like dancing, like she had grown up doing before she emigrated from Germany."

"This was a German neighborhood back then," I added.

"Berkholdt was quite prosperous and when the couple went to a ball, the Mrs. would gird herself with all kinds of jewelry. They were proud of their wealth--their accomplishment, and they liked showing it off.

"This particular dance happened in the summer, they might have been celebrating July 4th. In any event, it was hot as the gates of Hell in the dance hall. These were days long before air-conditioning."

I had finished Pike's number one and the bartender silently pulled me number two. He filled a small bowl with salted Spanish peanuts and pushed them in my direction. I pushed them, politely, away. As always, I am watching my weight. The last thing I need is salted nuts.

"Mr. and Mrs. B were having quite a time cutting the rug, as they say. But it was hot, and all of a sudden, Mrs. Berkholdt swoons and collapses to the floor."

"She was a big woman, I assume."

"They all were at that time. She had the arms of a butcher and the shoulders of a milkmaid. She was large, heavily dressed and dancing like St. Vitus.

"They tried to resuscitate her. An ambulance showed up, a local doctor. But she was gone."

"Dead," I said sagaciously.

He took my empty glass and dipped it into sudsy water and then into clean water. He polished it dry then filled it again.

"Berkholdt wanted her buried right away and he wanted her buried just as she died. In her dancing gown and in her jewelry. A day or two later, they were all ready to lay her to rest in the family vault in Woodlawn, in the Bronx. But just as they were about to commence with the burial, the heavens opened up."

"It poured," I added.

"It was positively diluvian. They laid her on a slab out of the rain and decided to try again the next day. Everyone left except for the undertaker. He saw her jewels and he wanted them.

"He took off her broach, removed her watch, her earrings. And wrestled a large gold ring from her finger. It was hard to get off. She had been running to fat, might have been swollen, or it could have been rigor-mortis. In any event, he ripped the skin of her finger as he was removing the ring."

I sipped at Pike's number three. "Go on," I said.

He said nothing for a good minute, instead he wiped the well-polished surface of the bar top with a damp white terry.

"Taking off the ring woke her up. She sat bolt upright and screamed. Of course the undertaker did too. And he ran away as fast as he could."


"Jesus is right," he agreed. "Mrs. Berkholdt, I don't know how she did it--she made it out of the cemetery, out of the Bronx and right to our door. Right to the door of the Tempus Fugit. Where she collapsed again. And this time she really was dead."

"That's quite a story for a Sunday night," I said. And I shoved two twenties his way.

"Cover charge," I said, "for entertainment."

"On me," he said and he pushed the bills back.

Whiskey and I walked, gingerly, home.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Words without meaning.

Timothy Egan, who writes op-eds for the digital edition of "The New York Times," has won the writer's "Daily Double." His book, "The Worst Hard Time," won a National Book Award and he's also won a Pulitzer Prize for his study of how race is lived in America. Earlier this year, he also earned acclaim for his latest book, "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher," a look at the life of the pioneering photographer Edward Curtis.

In short, Egan is someone worth reading, way moreso than the mindless lists that seem to have taken over serious writing the way red algae destroys marine eco-systems. It baffles me that people choose to read "14 Desserts Better than Cronuts," rather than the writing of someone like Egan, or three-time Pulitzer-winner Thomas Friedman, or Nobel-Prize-winner, Paul Krugman.

Of course, there's no accounting for taste, or how people spend their time. And if you choose to be a nimrod, well, fine.

In any event, Egan's column today is called "Words for the Dumpster," and he lists and explains words he hopes never to see again. Many of the words Egan writes about have infected our industry. I'm with Egan. Not only would I love never to hear them again, I'd love to see the blowhards who use them ostracized and excoriated. You can read Egan's article here.

Here's a sampling from Egan's hate list that we've heard all too much of in our offices.

Artisan. Today everything is artisanal--from Ziploc bags to Hot Pockets. The word has become so ubiquitous that it has lost all meaning.
Brand. We speak today about brands the way philosophers speak of life. As if it's something theoretical and wooly. Brands are not about design, they're about doing things, standing for something. As for you personal brand, show me your work. Show me what sort of integrity you have and what your work-ethic is like. Those things are much more important than your fucking logo.
Gluten-Free. Unless you bona-fide have celiacs disease, eat in moderation and chill out.
24/7. Here I'll quote Egan: No longer a byword for helpful availability, 24/7 evokes bad hours, poor pay and some customer service rep in India trying to explain an HDMI cable at 3 a.m.
Best Practices. To my mind, best practices is a coded attempt to make copying acceptable.
World-Class. I can't even understand what this phrase means. By the time it's applied to dry cleaners, virtually every car on the road, and every coffee bean ever picked, it has really lost all meaning.

There's more, that you'll find  from Egan.

That's enough from me...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

"He never made a great catch."

There was a great obituary of a good ballplayer in today's "New York Times." The ballplayer was Paul Blair, a fixture in centerfield for the great Baltimore Oriole teams in the late 1960s and through most of the 1970s.  You can read his obituary here.

The thing that really got me was a quotation about Blair's fielding prowess by Hall-of-Fame manager, Earl Weaver. Weaver said Blair "...Never made a great catch because he was standing under the ball when it came down."

In fact, when Tommie Agee of the Mets made a diving catch on Blair's line-drive in the 1969 World Series, Blair claimed he would have made the catch without leaving his feet.

There are showboats in every industry who earn plaudits and acclaim by doing spectacular things at the very last moments. Then there are workaday people who seem to come through, without elan or fanfare, day in and day out. They get the job done without leaving their feet.

I looked via Google and on YouTube.

There are no highlights of Paul Blair in centerfield. That could be a function of the era in which he played. It wasn't as heavily videotaped as every scrotum scratch seems to be recorded today.

It could be, more simply, that his extraordinariness was ordinary.

I think there's something extraordinary in that.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas in the Tempus Fugit.

Last night was unusually festive in the Tempus Fugit, a former speakeasy I stumbled upon some years ago that has maintained its speakeasily comportment.

The Tempus Fugit is not generally given to either mirth or merriment. In truth, it is dour place, a place where the clientele prefers to stare into their glass rather than in the eyes of someone they hope to hook-up with. No, the Tempus Fugit isn't about conviviality, comradeship or togetherness. It's bar for people like me: maladjusted misanthropes--people who are Garbo-like in their preference for alone-ness.

I arrived with Whiskey, my nearly two-year-old golden retriever in tow. People have said to me "the Tempus Fugit can't be real. No bar allows dogs." But, for whatever reason, the Tempus Fugit does. Whiskey has a home away from home on its sawdust-covered floor and settles in at the foot of my favorite stool without even circling the place.

The Tempus Fugit is like that. Since it opened as a speakeasy back in 1924, you expect it would be a place that followed its own rules, that marched to the beat of its own drum-machine. That iconoclastic behavior hasn't changed with the times. The Tempus Fugit is no more conforming and tractable now than it was 90 years ago.

It has no flatscreen TVs, no thumping music, no neon signs. In fact, they serve just two kinds of beer at the joint, neither of which you can find anywhere else: Herzmorder, with an umlaut over the 'o,' which is imported direct from the Schleswig-Holstein district of Germany, and of course, Pike's Ale (the ALE that won for YALE.)

Pike's, the brewery went belly up in the early 60s, and the bartender of the Tempus Fugit bought all of their remaining suds. He tells me he will finally close up shop when he runs out of Pike's. Personally, I've seen the room where he stores his kegs. It is dark and deep--you might find a cask of Amontillado or two--and I don't think he'll ever run dry.

Now, as I said above, last night was unusually 'gay' in the Tempus Fugit. When I sat down on my stool and settled into my first glass of Pike's, the bartender brought over from the back shelf a small model of an old Moran's tugboat, of the type that used to chug through the East River slurp, hauling garbage and dredgings three-miles out to sea. (Today, there's no dumping three miles out. You have to go 12 to comply with the law.)

It was a nice model he showed me, about a foot long, and with its tall conning tower, almost as high. It was even girded with appropriately sized bald tires--the tires that serve tugs as bumpers and its front was a miniature rope fender which had sprouted realistic looking rope filaments which reminded me of an ugly mermaid's hair.

He then threw a small switch that was on the main deck and both the bridge lights and the running lights went on. He placed the tug in front of me and pulled me another Pike's.

"Red," he said, pointing to the lights on the Starboard.

"Green," he concluded with a gesture to the Port-side illumination.

"Christmas colors," I added.

"Merry," he said.

I merried him back, shoved a $20 his way and tugged home.

The Fear Industry.

Paul Krugman has an important op-ed in today's "New York Times." Krugman is an avowed liberal, a Nobel-prize-winning economist, and a professor at Princeton. To my mind, he more often than not hits the nail on the head.

His column today is called "The Fear Economy." It has import and resonance to me because I believe that today, we who work in advertising work in a "Fear Industry."

1. We are meant to believe--we've been told this repeatedly over the last two decades--that our business model is fried and failed and that virtually every form of media is dead.
2. We are meant to believe that we--the people that create ads--are commoditized and that our work can be done more cheaply in Bangalore or Buenos Aries.
3. We are meant to believe there's good reason wages have decreased (in real dollars) over the last few decades. While CEO pay and holding company-chieftain pay has soared.

We labor in a Fear Industry because the labor market is weak. The labor market is weak because a cabal of just three holding companies controls 70% of the ad jobs (at least in New York.)

The labor market is weak though the Dow reached new highs 50 times in 2013.

And corporate cash reserves and profits are robust.

The labor markets are weak because it's good for business to keep them weak.

Here's to a stronger 2014.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


I saw the new Coen Brother's movie last night, "Inside Llewyn Davis," and it brought back more than a few memories of the world I grew up in, the world I am so often, with good reason I think, nostalgic for.

Llewyn Davis' New York was the New York of 1961, before the ravages of the Vietnam war pulled the nation apart, before the chickens of racism came home to roost, before the specter of drugs undermined the fabric of society.

Kennedy was president. Cars were large and rents were small. The city, at least in my memory, at least as the Coen's depicted it was like a large small town. Maybe that's because Llewyn inhabits Greenwich Village and Columbia's Upper West Side. Maybe mid-town has always been too fast, too loud, too noisy, too brutal.

The city I remember is that smaller city.

When I was in graduate school I had an older friend. I thought he was the oldest person in the world. I think he was five years from 40.

David had already earned a medical degree and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania but two or three things stopped him from pursuing a career in either of those directions. One, was the Vietnam war. He wanted to keep his student deferment. Two, he, like Llewyn Davis, hated the idea of careerism. He wasn't feeling being a doctor or a lawyer. Three, what he really wanted to do was teach English.

So when I met him, he was, like me, pursuing his PhD. in English at Columbia. He and his wife, Maddy, lived in a sprawling six or seven room apartment on Morningside Drive, with a view of Morningside Park, one of the most crime-ridden sites on a crime-ridden island. Their building had been built with grandeur but now was dusty and down-at-the-heels. On some of the landings--where welfare families had moved in--the mezuzahs had been removed from the door jambs and were scattered on the dirty tiled floor like cockroaches.

David and Maddy had not a large-finned American car, but a small aquamarine Fiat, a 124 Sport Coupe with a stick shift. It seemed cooler to me than anything I had ever seen. That vast apartment with herringbone wood floors and glass-paneled French doors and their zippy Fiat.

Like Llewyn, many of us graduate students seemed to face a choice. We could give up the ghost--the ghost of writing that novel or teaching at Amherst--or we could try to turn the starving writer screw a little tighter and try to not give up our dreams.

David and Maddy were an inspiration. They had found a Columbia-sponsored sinecure and could live well without really growing up. They could avoid the choice that was pressing all of us.

Most of my classmates, myself included, gave up the ghost. The siren of middle-class respectability blared too loudly and enticingly for us to resist. We went into publishing--shepherding trashy books onto trashy bookstore shelves way more often than discovering another Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe. Others, like me, went into advertising, writing dull blandishments to buy some dull detergent or chemical concoction they called steak sauce.

There are times, of course, and "Inside Llewyn Davis" reminded me of those times, when I regret not having had the time, the space or the talent to really write. I mean to write something good, something for the ages. Something dire deep and dark. I tried, having written parts of three novels. One as serious as a heart attack, two comical and Rothian.

But like Frost said, I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.

So, I took a job and became one of those people. A dull careerist. A sell-out huckster.

But that's ok.

I've raised two daughters who will not compromise their dreams. Who are smarter than I was allowed to be. One is more than half-way to her PhD. in Clinical Psychology and will change the world for the better in small 45-minute hours. The other will likely be half-way around the world, or half a league under the sea, saving coral reefs from carbon destruction or reviving sea turtle populations in Melanesia.

I don't try to novel-ize any more. I don't have it in me. The patience, the stamina, the depth, the drive.

So I write this blog.

And try my best.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas with the Daughters of Israel.

Aunt Louise is sick.

No, not that kind of sick. Really sick. Sick as in needing 24-hour care. Sick as in being moved into the Daughters of Israel home in West Orange, New Jersey, where she's cared for 24x7 by women named LaToya.

She hates everything about the Daughters of Israel, including LaToya. She hates the food. She hates her room. She hates that there's nothing to do, though she won a woolen afghan playing Bingo last Sunday night.

Last night they were playing the classic Hitchcock movie "Rebecca." It's an excellent movie, and was nominated for Best Picture back in 1940 and both Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier earned best leading actor nominations.

I called Aunt Louise and she told me she didn't make it to Rebecca.

"You should go to tonight's movie," I urged her. "They're playing "Gigi."

"It has Maurice Chevalier," she answered.

I sang a bit with a bad French accent: "Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise."

She laughed at that and then said simply: "Collaborator. He collaborated with the Nazis."

I was more than a little taken aback. Aunt Louise doesn't cook on all four burners; the fact is, she has a hard time even counting. I was surprised at her cognizance.

I had gone through a similar boycott of Chevalier for the same reason. Then a whole new slate of Lubitsch movies came out, starring Chevalier. That prompted me to do some research. It turned out Chevalier had been acquitted of the collaborationist charges leveled against him.

"He was acquitted," I told Aunt Louise.

"Nazi," she repeated. "I'd rather just talk to LaToya."

And with that she hung up the phone.

Until death do us part.

Last week, a young creative at Y&R in Indonesia, died of a heart attack at her desk after working 30 straight hours, coked up on "energy drinks."

She wore her extreme work habits as a badge, as witnessed by these tweets: "Alright, one full week of going home past 2am from the office. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we just broke a record."

"Weekend? What weekend? "

"30 hours of working and still going strooong."

As this year closes, I wonder how many of us are working too hard. Probably more because we have to rather than we want to.

Last night, I got an email at midnight to look at some CGI animation.

Writing this early in the morning, my wife's phone is buzzing with incoming messages.

All the management blather about "balance" and being a "caring culture," well, does anyone believe any of that?

No, it's 1890 in advertising. And our job is to take as much coal out of the ground as we can. Anything that slows our productivity is bad for the shareholders and therefore bad for the holding company moguls.

There's no solution here.


Except, maybe personal discipline.

And closing the Mac.

As my daughter admonishes by way of Ice-T or Ice Cube: check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Vermeer on 5th Avenue.

The Frick Museum on 5th Avenue, between 70th and 71st Sts.

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I walked through the humid sump which had descended on New York--it was frighteningly warm at 70-degrees--to the Frick Museum, a marble palazzo on 5th Avenue that was built by steel tycoon, Henry Clay Frick.

Once, considered the most-hated man in America.
Frick, back in the 19th Century, was one of the most hated and reviled men in America. He amassed Croesus-like wealth while denying his workers either humane and safe conditions or a living wage. During the Homestead Strike in 1892, he hired hundreds of armed Pinkerton guards and called in 8,000 troops from the state militia to quell the fury of those protesting working conditions in his factories. Machine guns and cannon restored order.
The workers are revolting.

Today, the Frick Mansion occupies all of 5th Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets and houses an extraordinary permanent collection of art. Recently an exhibit comprised of 15 Dutch Masters opened and we headed there to see some Vermeers (including "The Girl in the Pearl Earring,) some Hals, Steens and even a Rembrandt or two.
Considered the Dutch "Mona Lisa."

Of course, the place was packed to the marble-clad gills with others there for the same purpose. However, the Frick's management kept things moving with Prussian efficiency. As crowded as it was, you could stand and stare in front of "The Girl," with only a small amount of interference and jostling. My wife and I examined it for a good ten minutes, unmolested, then walked away to view the other masterpieces, then went back for one last look.

There are a lot of horrible things you can say about humanity. We seem to have forgotten that we're all supposed to be brothers. We seem to have forgotten virtues like kindness and compassion. Even Christmas seems to be more about wretched excess and football than about something fine and holy.
Our National Motto: "Faucibus donec stillabunt." Shop till you drop.
 Whether or not you believe in a divine being, as a culture, we gave something up when we abandoned the notion of the Sabbath. We have forgotten to take a day off. We have forgotten the need we all have for a day away from cellular devices, away from crass commercialism, away from Duck Dynasty, etc.

In 2014, I will try for such a day once a week. I will make every attempt to not open my Mac. To not watch the concussive violence of American sport. To not engage in the banalities of the 24-hour news cycle. Instead I will listen to Maria Callas, and read whatever I am reading.

Maria Callas. She's no Carrie Underpants.
We need a day, every so often if not more often than that, to look at Vermeer. And to breathe.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bah Humbug. (A disquisition on award proliferation.)

Throughout the various news feeds that touch my life, friends and colleagues in vaunted positions in vaunted agencies are spewing out PR about the success of their agencies and their networks in 2013.

A typical one reads, "we won 175 awards in 2013 and were shortlisted for 311 more." Another trumpets "214 global award wins in 2013."

I have been around the business a long time.

Those who know me on a personal level may remember that I grew up in the business, and have been paying attention to advertising virtually my whole life.

In all that time, I'm not sure I've seen that many great ads.

Certainly in 2013, I'm pretty sure I did not see 100+ marketing communications that prompted me to say "I wish I did that."

What's happening is clear.

We live in a Little League culture, where you get a shiny trophy for ripping a loud fart.

There weren't 100 award-worthy ads in 2013. Not 200. Not 300.

We're giving awards for awards' sake.

Cut the crap.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ye Olde New York.

Tonight, I went with my daughter and my wife up to Columbia University, where I went to college, to see the mens' basketball team, the Lions, play a game against the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights.

I've been going to Columbia basketball games since 1979, even though in the course of the last 34 years, I've seen them lose much more often than I've seen them win.  Tonight, however, they won going away, 82-59. Though that might be less of a tribute to the Lions' talent than the lack of talent on the Knights' five.

That said, it's a joy to see a game in their arena. It's small, usually boisterous and for just $10/seat, you get within yards of the action. It's a hell of a lot more satisfying than watching the woeful Knicks in Madison Square Garden. There, the ambiance is ruined by spoiled plutocrats on expense accounts, not to mention the spoiled plutocrats in shorts who are stinking up the court this season.

Columbia has expanded mightily since I was there, but the main part of the campus hasn't changed a whit. It's the old Mead McKim and White architecture and it looks like what an urban campus should look like. Tonight, just a few days before Christmas, the center walk in the campus was lit by sparkling white lights, and the whole effect was wondrous.

After the game we walked over to Mondel's Chocolate Shop. It's been at 2919 Broadway since mid-way through World War II, and it too hasn't changed an iota. They still have hundreds of choices of chocolate, including a vast array of marzipan, which my daughter craves all the way from California.

Katharine Hepburn used to stop in Mondel's and there's a typewritten note by her near the old cash register, and these words from her on their website: "The time we shared...intimate conversation, and lots of dark chocolate (the best in the world) came from a small shop on upper Broadway called Mondel's--turtles, almond bark, and breakup..."

My daughter decisively picked her assortment and Mr. Mondel put the mixture in a little waxed paper bag. We left the store and the chocolate behind. Then we walked past 522 W 112th, a rickety building that housed me for a year for $90/month, and this in a sprawling two-bedroom less than a block from the largest Anglican cathedral in the world, St. John the Divine.

We walked toward 1024 Amsterdam to V&T Pizza, home to some of New York's best pies. Though school is out for winter break, the place was mobbed. They told us the wait would be 30 minutes, though the guy seating people (it would be ludicrous to call him a maitre d') sat us sooner.

"You've been coming here a long time," he said to me, shaking my hand.

"Since 1979," I said. "I think a pie was $3.50 then."

We both laughed and then my family and I all sat down to eat pizza that was as good as I remember it from when I was allowed to polish off a whole pie myself.

Back decades ago the neighborhood was crime-ridden and in the front window of V&T's there was a coat-rack with a cop's hat wired to the top of it. It looked convincing, like there was a cop inside, and who knows how many robberies didn't happen thanks to that ruse.

Today, of course, the neighborhood has been cleaned up and gentrified. Like elsewhere in New York, crime seems not much of an issue, and today the cop's lid is gone.

After dinner, we went to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on 111th and Amsterdam, a place I used to hang when I was a student. An old woman--she had at least six months on me, said to me as I walked there, "I wrote my doctoral dissertation in there." Probably thousands did just the same, Linzer Tarts mixing with Literature.

We picked up a few cookies and then jumped into a taxi cross town. Back to the 21st Century and the New York I live in today.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A few more insults.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post that contained 42 insults. Last night, reading this quarter's edition of the great magazine "Lapham's Quarterly," I came upon some more insults, this time of writers insulting other writers (and sometimes actors.) Here are a few of them:

Dorothy Parker on Katharine Hepburn: "She ran the whole gamut of emotion from A to B."

Oscar Wilde on Alexander Pope: "There are two ways of disliking poetry, one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.

Margaret Kendal on Sarah Bernhardt: "She's a great actress, from the waist down."

Igor Stravinsky on Benjamin Britten: "Not a composer, a kleptomaniac."

William Faulkner on Henry James: "One of the nicest old ladies I've ever met."

Cyril Connolly on George Orwell: "He could not blow his nose without moralizing on the state of the handkerchief industry."

Dwight MacDonald on Doris Day: "As wholesome as a bowl of cornflakes and at least as sexy."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Drinking on the job. (A Yiddish point of view.)

There sits on the window sill above my table (the surface can't properly be called a desk; there are no drawers) a bottle of whiskey that was given to me by an interviewee from out-of-town who had screwed up and showed up late for an interview.

I received the gift in February, and now it's almost January and I haven't yet had a sip. That's not to say that others, working late or letting off some steam, haven't imbibed. It's just I haven't had any. Friends have; I haven't.

For the last ten months or so, my partner and I have kept telling each other that we deserve a drink. We should finish off the bottle.

When we reclaimed the account the account people had worked so assiduously to lose, we could have had a drink. But we decided to wait. Wait until we sold a campaign.

When we sold a campaign, we could have cracked open the bottle, but we decided "no." Let's wait till the online is sold, we said.

When we sold the online, we decided to wait as well. Let's wait until our rough cuts are approved. Let's wait till we have final cut approval.

Today, we got approval. And today we said, almost in unison, let's wait until we're on the air, until we're live.

This isn't Yiddish or the kind of adage I usually cite, but "there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip." That is, anything can fucking happen at any time and usually does.

Perhaps we'll have something to drink to in 2014.

By the way, if you want to read an explication of the "many a slip" adage, check out Sholem Aleichem's "On Account of a Hat." You can find it here.

Things that suck.

Conference calls when you're at a mix or an edit session. They're assurance that you won't do either job well, the call or the session you're in..."Free" things like Facebook, Google, et all. Their market valuation is based in part on the value of your data. Which they sell for billions of dollars to maintain the illusion of free....Meetings that run from 12-2, thus obviating lunch....People who bludgeon you with their kids' girl scout cookies....Agencies that don't close between Christmas and New Year....Account people who call you for "urgent" meetings, then show up 11 minutes late....Creatives more concerned with the hours they're scoped for than the quality of work....The charade of 'working from home'....Corporate expense systems that make US Government Health Exchange websites look as simple as an A-B-C reading primer....To that end, spending a billable hour at $400/hr. trying to get reimbursed for $24....Senior people who speak before listening....All people who speak before listening....Agency Christmas videos. They're invariably un-funny and too long and say nothing good about the agency that produces them....The "insight-ization" of every asinine blurt....People who use the word "bucket." It's an ugly word...2% raises after 2 years when you can read in the trade press that the holding company chieftains upped their pay 26%....Likewise crappy bonuses alongside new cars in the agency lot....Our lack of memory. Remember when Facebook 'likes,' Google +, Second Life and scads of other new new things were going to change everything....wool caps in the summer....neck tattoos....the idea of paper-less-ness. You need paper to write things on....conference call hold music....people who have 'hard stops' and soft brains....office moves where you get one box....the idea that producing decks is equivalent to producing work....briefs that take four weeks to write leaving four days to create work....jargon. A list too long to enumerate....Bad spelling....103-page decks....People who call themselves 'story-tellers' who can't put four coherent words together....People who can't get in before 11 and then are too busy to help out when you need it....theory....Open-plan work spaces....Management who pretend open-plan work spaces are 'efficient,' though they keep their private offices...Open-plan work spaces where people have fish for lunch...stock photography....social media strategy....best practices....calls to action as a substitute for compelling reasons why....jargon in all its Orwellian forms...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Building plans.

My partner and I are virtually always busy on the account we run. But every once-in-a-while there's a steaming pile of shit that needs to be sorted out and we get a call.

Though the particulars are always different, the generalities remain the same. There's not much time left before a pitch or an assignment. And the 632 scribbled on stickies people have festooned the walls of a war-room with have failed to provide any answers.

Usually those stickies are scribbled with stale homilies like "women want to feel good about what they wear." Or "people use coffee to energize their lives." Today we call nonsense like those "insights." They can only be called such if you accept the notion that every sentence deserves that moniker in the same way that every kid in Little League deserves a trophy.

In any event, my partner and I get called in. Some times I feel like together we are like well-worn street-wise cops. Like Joe Friday and Bill Gannon. We don't give a rat's ass about niceties. We just want to get to the bottom of things.

So we sit through the first two hours of what's sure to be an all-day, all-night meeting discussing those 632 scribbled stickies. Somehow we extricate ourselves and then we start to work.

He volleys something at me. I volley something back. It goes that way for the next couple hours. Then as the "end of day check-in" is about to arrive, he says to me or I say to him, "we need to have something for this meeting."

We take the best of what we derived and create our ad-like-objects and present them to the dour, sticky-filling group.

"Here's what we think the brand is about." We show something simple, clear and defining. It carries the day, or the night.

My partner and I are carpenters. We bang things together that work and function, that have a purpose. I think everyone else is an architect. They make plans, plans that are great--as plans.

But they don't build anything.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

5 things I won't do in 2014. And 5 things I will.

1.  I will never, never click on any article whose title starts with a number. Such articles are all a waste of time.
2.  I will not watch an advertising-related video that is over 1-minute long. Such videos are all a waste of time.
3.  I will not view any agency self-promotion videos. Such videos are all a waste of time.
4.  I will not view any personal self-promotion materials. Show me your work instead.
5.  I won't come into work when I don't feel well. They will survive without me.

1.  I will continue to believe that good copy can solve most communications problems.
2.  I will say "no," to agency people and clients more often. It's good for all involved.
3.  I will try to get briefs down to one sentence, not just one page.
4.  I will attempt to keep an open mind about "social media strategists," but I'm not optimistic.
5.  I will try to take an hour at lunch, to eat at leisure, take a walk, or god-forbid, read a book.

Dark Tuesday.

An M.I.T. professor called Sherry Turkle had an op-ed in yesterday's "New York Times," which I think is worth reading. It's titled "The Documented Life," and questions why we "interrupt our experiences to make a record of them."

I'm sure it's happened to you. You're having lunch with someone who seems more focused on her hand-held than on what might otherwise have been conversation. Or seeing people so bent on taking cell-phone photos that they miss the concert they're taking photos of.

Turkle says, "we text during class, in meetings, at the theater, at dinners with friends. And yes, at funerals, but also more regularly at church and synagogue services. We text when we are in bed with our partners and spouses. We watch our political representatives text during sessions."

We're so busy chronicling the moment that we miss living in it.

All this brings to my mind a generational divide between the world today and the world I grew up in, a world I prefer.

In just one or two decades, we have migrated from "I think, therefore I am" to "I share, therefore I am."

I'm not one to praise the dissolute and drug-addled age I grew up in, but somehow I think "Turn on, tune in, drop out," might have been healthier than "Log on, location on, tweet on."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Plastic dreams.

For all the discussion about the economy and about America's ever-widening income inequality, it might come down to something as simple as this.

Our ability to produce things outstrips our ability to buy them.  That dynamic creates a downward pressure on prices, which, in-turn, drives wages and employment down.

There's a photo essay in today's "New York Times," called "Welcome to Tchotchke Town." It's about a town and a market in China called Yiwu that is 4.3 million square meters in area. There are 62,000 booths, 400,000 products for sale and 215 nations that receive imports from the market. Check out the photo essay here.

It occurs to me that much of what we create are the verbal equivalent of the plastic flood shown above. We produce and produce and produce. We clutter and clutter and clutter. Our media landscape has become like the Collyer Brother's apartment.

We create, collect, curate and vomit in an endless exaflood of plasticine pablum. Not because we think it works, or know it works, or it serves a need. We do it because we can.

Producing ever more. And losing our worth in the process.

A bad view.

I have just been relocated in my office, moving to yet another former-sweatshop space on one of New York's grungiest blocks. My view is of an active sweatshop, including a belching pipe that on these cold days is filling the narrow alleyway with steam.
Displaying photo.JPG

Not long ago, the building I'm now in upgraded their elevators. That is, primarily, they put small video screens in them so you can be assaulted with more empty ads and more useless factoids. Today, for instance, I learned that 28% of people use their smart phones to plan their vacations from work. I also learned that one hockey team I've never heard of beat another hockey team I've never heard of, 4-3. It must have been quite a game.

It seems to me that the video screens in my building's elevators are like so much today. A constant stream of noxious nonsense. There is no place, I suppose, we can go to escape the crap. It's free and everywhere. Once, early in the morning, I was waiting in an airport waiting area. A huge flatscreen near me blared what passes for the news. Banalities, sophistry, gossip and laughter. I went over to the monitor--which cannot be shut off and, at least, tried to turn down the volume. You would have thought I turned into some sort of terrorist.

"The noise is bothering me," I said to the airline official who stopped me.

"You're not allowed to lower the volume."

"But the noise is bothering me."

"You're not allowed to lower the volume."

I realized this could go around as often as the rickety carousel designed to lose my luggage and walked instead to an Auntie Annie's to get a 2,000 calorie bacon-filled pretzel.

My point is about assault. It's all over. The onslaught of dumbness packaged like a beautiful cupcake. It looks frosty and tasty. But one bite and you realize your teeth will rot.

This is the great content machine that we are feeding. The social strategists, whatever they are, whatever their qualifications, learnings, feedback and data analysis say, have chapter and verse reasons why asking people on Facebook if they'd rather have a margarita or a massage is good for brands.

I just don't believe it.

I suppose in Theodore Roosevelt's or John Muir's original vision for parkland, they thought it would be beneficial to have some territory, some preserve, some reservation against the encroachments of modernity. Now, National Parks, of course, allow snow-mobiles, guns, drilling for oil, chopping for trees.

I think we need National Parks for our heads. Small backwaters that don't allow the Insipid States of America in. We need to resist the dumbness.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A meaningful call with Uncle Slappy.

The house phone rang last night. That can only mean one of two things: one) a pestering telemarketer or pollster is ignoring the myriad DO NOT CALL lists I am on, or two) Uncle Slappy has something on his mind.

I almost didn't pick up. I feared that Uncle Slappy would go on about the Knicks, New York's over-paid, over-arrogant and under-achieving 6-15 basketball team. Like me, Uncle Slappy has been a Knicks' fan since the glory days of Clyde, Willis, Earl, Bill Bradley, DeBuscherre and Jerry Lucas. Unlike me, Uncle Slappy still follows the Knicks. I have forsaken them just as completely as they have forsaken the concept of intelligent basketball.

But, finally, just before the answering machine kicked in, I picked up the horn. When your 86-year-old surrogate father calls, you answer. It's that simple and surely the right thing to do.

"Boychick," Uncle Slappy began, "I have figured it all out. Finally, I have figured it all out."

"The meaning of life?" I asked, "Or something important, like where to find a good everything bagel in Boca."

"After 55 years seeing a therapist," Uncle Slappy said, "I have condensed all wisdom down to a single sentence."

Uncle Slappy is a wise man, a learned man, a teacher and a Rabbi. Strangely for him, he did not seem to be joking.

"Well," I said gingerly, "lay it on me."

"Here's what I've learned: We have good days and bad days."

"That's it?" I asked "We have good days and bad days?"

"That's it," he said hanging up the phone, leaving me to ponder.

Gift-giving in the Tempus Fugit.

It was cold last night. Cold enough to make me envy a hipster's Amish beard and flannel shirt. That cold.

Nevertheless, the cold did not keep Dame Insomnia away. She was suitably diaphanous but somehow braved the elements and visited my bedstead.

"Get up, George," she whispered.

I rudely rolled over, turning away from her.

She grasped my shoulder. "George," she said, jostling me. "Arise, my Love."

So I did and I quickly threw some clothing on and a leash on Whiskey, and we trudged sleepily uptown to the warm, antiqued incandescence of The Tempus Fugit.

"It's been too long, my friend," the bartender said to me. He was already around the bar with a bowl of cold water to wet Whiskey's whistle.

I settled into my favorite stool, one in from the end, and he pulled me a Pike's Ale (the ALE that won for YALE.)

"I have something for you," he said placing a small, wrapped package on the teak of the well-lacquered bar top. "Consider it a holiday gift."

"I'm speechless," I lied, speaking.

"You are deserving of so much," he said, pulling me another to replace the glass I had swiftly drained. "You are a giver to so many. Yet you yourself are a bad receiver."

"You read me like a cheap book," I said, staring into my amber. I pushed at the gift, reluctant to open it.

I opened the box, finally, and inside was a pair of heavy-framed glasses.

"Glasses," he said redundantly. "Magic."

I put them on. There was no refraction, no discernible vision change.

"Thank you. A strange gift, I'll admit, since I am 20-20."

"They are glasses," he said, "specifically for people with acute vision. They help you see less well. They obscure and blur rather than clarify. They'll help you stop seeing so well. They'll help you accept the cockatoos and poseurs and do-nothings and the rest."

"They are glasses that blind?"

"That's right," he said. "Because it is tougher to live in a world where you see than in a world where you don't."

"What about every day banalities," I asked.

"You won't notice them when you are wearing the glasses. They are like noise-cancelling headphones for your eyes."

I sipped slowly at my second and then my third Pike's as the bartender OCD'd the shiny bartop ever-shinier and Whiskey twitched in her sleep.

In short order I pushed two twenties in his direction.

"A gift," he said, pushing the currency back.

I walked home, not seeing where I was going.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fun fun fun.

There's a trend in our business, in fact in many businesses, that work should be a place of comradeship, conviviality and fun.

An op-ed in "The New York Times" today speaks of the eyeglass company Warby Parker as having the goal of injecting "fun and quirkiness into everything they do." Other companies are employing Chief Fun Officers or Happiness Engineers. More, of course, decide to have "brewskis" or ping-pong, or pizza every now and again.

I know no one wants to work with a modern-day Heinrich Himmler, but I don't go to work to be cheery, to have fun, to smile. I'm glad I work with a generally agreeable bunch of people--a few of whom I genuinely like, but asking me to be someone I'm not, asking me to be genial, smiley and ambient is not what I do.

My gloomy style should be as accepted as that of the party-planning back-slapping morale monger. Frankly, isn't that what diversity is, in part, about.

It's nice when work is fun.

But, for me at least, work is first and foremost work.

I prefer not to ride scooters around the office and have a secret Santa.

I prefer doing my work my way.

Guitars and copy.

I tripped upon a line of prose that gave me pause.

I read it in the obituary in "The New York Times" of jazz guitarist Jim Hall. "Mr. Hall's style," it read "with the austere grace of a Shaker chair has sounded effortlessly modern at almost every juncture of his long career."

I don't know Jim Hall's music, but I liked that line.

I like the austere grace of a Shaker chair.

I like effortlessly modern.

It makes me think of playing that is just right. That is implicit and inviolable. That stands out without shouting. That is present in its simplicity.

In fact, the phrase made me think of how Ed McCabe or David Altschiller  or Curvin O'Reilly used to write copy. Or Helmut Krone or Roy Grace used to art direct.

There was no ornamentation. To pretense. No ostentation.

Yet their work stood out.

It called attention to itself by not calling attention to itself.

Riffs to think about next time you have work to do.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Mandela, Shakespeare and Advertising.

The Robben Island Shakespeare
Last night I finished Neil MacGregor's latest book, "Shakespeare's Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects."
The first book I read of MacGregor, who is a Director of the British Museum, was the brilliant "A History of the World in 100 Objects." Based on that book, I had high expectations for "Shakespeare." I was not disappointed.

Many of the puffy pundits and pontificators in our business declare, practically it seems with each breath, how human behavior and nature changes with each spasm of each pixel. They proclaim advertising dead. Marketing dead. TV dead. Radio dead. Print dead. email dead. And so it goes.

They forget Faulkner's genius quotation. "The past is never dead; it's not even past."

But back to Shakespeare. Sort of.

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island of the coast of Capetown, one fellow lifer had ingratiated himself with one of the guards. He was granted one book--ostensibly the last book he would read for the rest of his life.

He chose the complete works of Shakespeare. He disguised the book (above) with Diwali cards, gulling his jailors into thinking it was some kind of Hindi religious tract.

Nelson Mandela's Signature in Robben Island Shakespeare
Under this guise, the book circulated among the prisoners. Each was asked to choose the passage they found most meaningful. The book made its way to Nelson Mandela on December 16, 1979.

Here is the passage he selected, from "Julius Caesar."
Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
- Julius Caesar 2.2.32-7
In advertising, we should spend more time thinking about what lives in all of us than thinking about what's purported to be dead.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Some thoughts on and apologies to Henry David Thoreau,

Back before my Bar Mitzvah, in 1849, Henry David Thoreau wrote the following in "Civil Disobedience," "most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

In the 21st Century, things seem worse.

More desperate.


I wonder should we re-write.

And if the re-write should read like this: "most men lead lives of quiet castration and go to their grave without looking up from their iphone screens."

Learning from a near death experience.

Some five years after the Federal Government's bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, it seems that the American auto industry is in significantly better shape. Today it was announced that the Feds sold their last auto stock, and actually turned something like a $13 billion profit on the complicated transaction.

The auto industry, as I said, seems in better shape because they are, for the first time in decades, making a product that competes on the world stage--a product customers finally want. They are not, as one industry analyst said, "relying solely on discounts to move cars."

I wonder if the advertising industry can learn something from this lesson.

As merger-mania continues, as holding companies compete more on price than on effectiveness, I wonder if we make things that people want.

I wonder if we make spots that inform. If we create sites that help shoppers. If we create advertising that makes people feel--laugh, cry, learn.

If, in fact, the auto industry has woken up, it took a near-death experience for it to learn. In my view advertising is also near dead. It takes only a glance at this year's spate of Christmas-themed commercials to make you want to gouge your eyes out with a dirty chopstick. When will we do things our customers like that customers also find useful?

Maybe we're not near-enough to death.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A snowy day in New York.

New York got hit with the season's first snow last night, an underachieving affair that added up to under an inch. Still people, especially old people, are bundled up as if the city's grid were the steppes of Russia. And city buses, which are articulated and seem half a block long, are moving slower than usual, which is going some because nothing but nothing moves slower than a New York City bus.

On Friday evening I was on lower Broadway at a post-production facility and left the place in the rain and walked about a mile to bustling, burgeoning Chinatown. I picked up some soup dumplings, some bean curd with spinach, and some rice cakes and took the M101 home, hopping on at the Bowery and Pell. It took the better part of an hour to move the four miles, but somehow the food was still hot when I arrived in my warm apartment.

The year seems to be reluctantly coming to a close. Work is still busy but people seem even more eager than usual to make their escape at night. Maybe they have shopping they need to do. Maybe they've just had enough of 2013.

I've had enough of 2013, too. Even though I've had, as usual a good year. I've done a goodly amount of work, produced a dozen or so commercials and survived another year against the odds.

I've survived also a devastating turn as a sick man--prevailing over pneumonia and beating back aggressive and persistent pericarditis. My heart pains--herzschmerz--seem to be on the ropes. Over the next few weeks I will, knock wood, be weaned off of Prednisone, which is, surely, a wonder drug, but mostly because I wonder if I've been on it too long.

That's it for now. Sort of a lame post, I know.

Attribute it to the end of the year, the spitting rain, and the drugs.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


When I was a kid in the advertising business I had the great good fortune of working for the in-house agency at the great retailer, Bloomingdale's.

The pay was low, the hours were long but I worked there at a special time--the store was booming--and a lot of the people were very smart.

One of the great plusses of working there is you got briefed on the ad you had to write right by the buyer or associate buyer of the merchandise. Their success depended on the quality of the ad. The good ones knew this and would brief the boredom out of you.

One morning the buyer of down comforters came into my little office. He was carrying an eider down comforter and a feather. He made me cup the feather in my hand. Almost immediately, I felt heat emanating from the feather.

The ad needs to be about this, he told me.

Today, the distance between creatives and the merchandise or service they are charged with selling is usually vast. Time pressures are so great creatives often don't have the time to muster up the empathy needed to understand the product and the customer.

Not only do most ads seem to use stock photography, they also seem to use stock language with stock benefits. What's more, agencies and clients seem to think they benefit from stock creative people. Creatives with no learning on a brand are often asked to work on it--and they're given no time to even begin to gain brand knowledge.

This may come as a shock to the bean counters who run the holding companies and who run clients' procurement departments. Ideas, ambition, talent and people are not interchangeable parts any more in advertising than they are in second basemen.

When everything is treated as if it's generic, work becomes generic. When the work becomes generic, the only differentiator is price. And when only price matters, everyone goes bankrupt.

Friday, December 6, 2013

30 Years of Nelson Mandela in Posters.

From "The New York Times."

Grow up.

The level of asinine has reached a new low, or a new high, in the advertising industry.

This comes from an agency in Poland called 8K and was reported in Adweek. 8k is letting clients "pay what they want" for the agency's services, which include "logos, letterheads, business cards, slogans, naming and sales letters." You can read the article here.

So far the agency has completed 23 assignments and received an average payment of $74. Just a little more than I made as a paperboy in 1969.

The article concludes with this bit of cockeyed logic: "Luckily for 8K, the publicity is worth a whole lot more."

I gagged at that line.

8K have publicized that they're cheap.

Cheap and desperate.

It makes me sad to see this misguided stunt.

At the very least, if 8K wants to give their work away--at least get equity in the company's they are doing nearly-free work for.

This is just pathetic.

Grow up.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Drinking the Kool-Aid.

Today, across the country, hundreds or thousands or, maybe, tens of thousands of fast-food workers are planning to go on strike. They're hoping to boost their wages to $15 an hour.

The fast-food monoliths seem to be scoffing at this effort. The economics, they say, of the industry do not support those kind of wages.

That's probably true, but consider this: A fast-food worker making minimum wage would have to work full-time for 640 years to make what the CEO of McDonald's makes in one year.

There are those who say, "this is the way the world works, this is the business model, there's no going back." They accept this gross disparity, this sinful inequity.

I cannot.

Yesterday I posted a link to a clip from "On the Waterfront." In it Father Barry (Karl Malden) says "What happens to the least of us, happens to all of us."

Dignity, humanity, compassion seem to be relics of an earlier age.

Are you ready to give up on them?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

There's something happening here.

There's something happening here.

This is going to be a long post.

I expect flak.


Maybe rebuke.

Maybe someone in my agency will even say something.

But here goes.

Something is rotten in the state of advertising.

The advertising press--if there is one--is so busy chasing the banal and quotidian, so fervid to capture the frenzy of yet another new media ephemera, that they are missing and not reporting on the real macro-economics that have eviscerated our industry and so many others.

Yesterday, I received a note from a noted internet friend, in response to my metaphorical post about 3-D printing. This friend had risen to the board level of a vast multi-national agency. And then, he spoke out and got himself axed.

It cost him money. But he kept his soul.

The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Here's his mildly edited note:

"Your post took me back to my days when I had the misfortune to sit on _________'s Worldwide Board.

"The only time my peers would look up from their Blackberries was when the global Financial Director went through the numbers upon which their bonuses depended.

"Never once did they evince any interest in or express any sense of responsibility for the thousands of people who worked hard to make those numbers and secure those bonuses.

"Alas their attitude was typical of the way boardrooms have been behaving across the world and across industries for the past 20 years.

"And it isn't just the folks earning $7.25 who are being treat like shit.

"It used to be said that the assets of any company went down in the lift each evening.  But over recent years things have changed and now staff are regarded simply as a cost.  And the constant aim is to keep costs down, or cut them when the profits that translate into C-Level bonuses cannot be maintained.

"Hence the ever widening gap between the panjandrums you refer to in your blog and the "squeezed middle".

"Problem is, it isn't just a monetary squeezing that the middle are experiencing.   It's also the loss of pride and status that comes with the realisation that the bosses will hire and fire regardless of skill or commitment - just to sustain their salaries and bonus payments.

"I once sent an email to the CEO of Un-named Company - and the rest of the board telling him that "a 19th century plutocrat would have been embarrassed by the autocratic way he ran the business."

"That was the start of a very enjoyable long goodbye which culminated in me telling him "he'd had too many people blowing smoke up his arse for too long and that if he objected to me swearing at him then he needed to get out more".

"It was well worth the loss of the astronomical salary I'd have earned if I'd kept quiet and joined the great hog wallow round the boardroom table.

"Five years on and a quick look at the Un-named Company's website tells me that their snouts are still in the trough.  And the squeezed middle gets ever more strung out and alienated."
"Here are a couple more thoughts about the C level carve-up of the corporate spoils.

"While the stretched middle are regarded as a cost and see ever decreasing value placed upon their contribution, those at C level have propagated the myth that their individual contribution can make or break a business.

"This rationale allows them to demand six (seven) figure salaries for switching to sectors in which they very often have absolutely no experience, bonuses for simply turning up for work, golden handshakes when they come in, and golden parachutes when the leave.

"No one at Board Level questions this, because they all have a vested interest in the racket they are running.

"The problem also proceeds from the spread of what I see as the American style of "managing upwards."

"I always thought that managers looked downwards and their first responsibility was to the people who reported to them i.e. they knew a) who was working for them, b) what they were doing, c) whether they had time and resources to do it and d) when to step in and help them complete the task.

"Management upwards is, however, a very different approach.  This demands that the manager's first priority is to manage the experience and expectations of the person above them.  This means that they spend most of their time ensuring that their boss remains untouched and untroubled by the day-to-day functioning of the business.

"They, themselves, rise and fall not by their ability to ensure that it functions productively (As you and I know, productivity is best achieved by a happy and engaged workforce.)

"On the contrary, their destiny is shaped by their ability to manipulate information and practice politics in order to (that dreaded phrase,) "raise their profile."

"Which means that aspirant middle managers (who want to escape the squeezed middle) are complicit and, indeed, try to become junior partners in the C - level carve up."

On the Waterfront. On Madison Avenue.

I might have told you this one before but I feel like telling it again.

When I was a Master's student at Columbia University, I decided to do a thesis on something called "The Watts Writers Project." This was an attempt, in the wake of the Los Angeles Watts riots, to get  inner city youths involved in writing. The thinking was that there were unheard voices that were ghettoized. They needed to escape and be expressed.

One of the men who led the project was the noted screenwriter Budd Schulberg. Schulberg was Hollywood royalty. Not only was he the son of legendary film producer B.P. Schulberg, he was also the screenwriter behind one of Hollywood's best movies, including "On the Waterfront," featuring Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint, and "The Harder They Fall," featuring Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger.

I decided I would seek out Schulberg and learn about the Watts Writers Project from the horse's mouth.

In those days, of course, there was no internet. But there was a vast phone room in Grand Central Terminal, which had in its center a huge bank of phonebooks from around the country. I headed down there and searched these phonebooks until I found Schulberg's number.

Then I mustered up my courage (I was only 21, after all) and called him and set up a dinner and an interview.

It also sent me on a jag of reading everything Schulberg wrote and seeing every movie he was involved with.

As I think about the disparity between the monied panjandrums and low-wage workers, in our business and others, I think about this scene from "On the Waterfront." The scene with Father Barry in the hold.

We could all do with watching it now and again.

And thinking about our fellow man.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Art. And Science.

I heard a report last night on National Public Radio about a new documentary on Johannes Vermeer, the mid-17th Century Dutch Master. (No, he wasn't a cigar.)

The film is called "Tim's Vermeer," and in it, the filmmaker Tim Jenison seeks to paint a Vermeer using the scientific technology he believes Vermeer employed to paint his remarkable works.

You can listen to the report here: Vermeer.

Jenison used an assortment of camera obscura technologies, mirrors and lenses and via those technologies replicated a Vermeer. It was all done in an attempt to unravel the way in which Vermeer and others were able to create their surpassing art.

It made me think, of course, of what we do and how we do it.

Too often, I think, we extol the how and ignore the what.

We are meant to create work that excites, provokes, informs and motivates. We are meant to incite lust, desire and passion for our clients' brands. That's the what of what we do.

I personally don't give a rat's ass on how we do it.

If we do it through pushing pixels, an Alexa camera or hot lead.

The science of what we do is the how.

That's for text books.

The what--the Vermeer part of advertising--is what matters.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The 17 best blog posts ever written.

Journalism, that once noble art, has been superseded by articles that all begin the same way. The (number) best (noun) ever.

The 21 best beaches.
The 36 best slices of pizza.
The 44 best movies.
The 18 best condiments.
The 61 best time timesheets.

The thing about such lists is that they're enticing.

But dumb.

Oh, I know. They get clicks.

And that's all that matters.

So eyeballs see web ads.

There was a time, and it wasn't that long ago, that the paucity of space (as well as its concomitant price) and the scarcity of channels was a small stop-gap against airing absolute crap.

But now cable channels and YouTube videos proliferate like rabbits infused with Spanish Fly.

There's more room for absolute garbage than ever before.

Worse, we get enticed by it.

We click.

And waste time--that one thing (besides compassion) that we have too little of.

The metaphor that's apt is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. An eddy of plastic garbage that's estimated to be as large as six million square miles--roughly 10% of the size of the Pacific Ocean.

This is what's produced each day and stored on hundreds of square miles of servers.


Some thoughts on 3D printing.

There are dozens of not hundreds of people at my agency who have, for the last year or so, been all heated up about the wonders of 3D printing.

For the life of me, I can see no good coming from such technology. Psychopaths and terrorists will make infinitely reproduceable handguns with which they will bring down planes and shoot innocent school children. Other psychopaths and terrorists will pirate intellectual capital and create seven-cent knock-offs of even more crap we don't need.

What I really don't understand about this 3D printing fanfare is what in god's name it has to do with marketing. But today's agency is filled not with creative people but with pseudo-technologists who believe that because something is new, it is good. Such people have no ability to ponder the ephemeral nature of new.

They sell sizzle, not steak. And are interested in neither when the sizzling dies down.

In any event, the global corporation I work for saw fit to move my desk this morning. In the old days, before we were line-items on a "stacking plan," the human equivalent of cord-wood, some bright young person would have printed a welcome sign for all those moving into a new space. The new floor plan would have been enlarged and mounted on foam-core. Someone would have thought to make the unsettling a bit less unsettling.

But that is the old, pre-global world. Where humanity and consideration played some small role.

Today, that is all gone.

The malefactors of great wealth, the billionaires whose wealth has grown on average by $400 million over the last decade, deem all humanity a dire inconvenience.

Take the owners of Walmart, the slave employers, who claim that paying people a living wage and subsidizing their healthcare would ruin everything. Places 6,7,8 and 9 of America's richest people are occupied by those owners--they have a combined net worth of $140 billion, a far cry from the $7.25/hr. they claim they can afford to pay.

This is globalization.

And it's applied to our industry too.

The chieftains get millions and tens of millions. And somehow proclaim with a straight face that the business model is broken, that raises are frozen, and that costs must be contained.

Are they putting cheaper motor oil into their Porsches?

Starting today, in response to all this, I am going to try to make a 3D model of myself and send that model to work.

This model, by all appearances, will be me. But not quite.

It will labor a little less efficiently.

It will be a little less good.

It will be somewhat hollow and, just maybe, it will care less.

And no one will be able to tell the difference.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Despite my almost constant gloominess in Ad Aged, despite my despair over and disdain for what's become of what was once a great and highly-paid industry, I have, believe it or not, a lot to be thankful for.

Here's a short list.

1. My agency tolerates my blogging. In the four years I've been with them, I've removed exactly two posts.
2. I am surrounded by energetic young people who for the most part give a shit and want to do good things. Sure some of them are afflicted by millennial malaise, but most of them care and work hard. Some of them even want to listen to a guy who has more than 30 year's experience.
3. My main client is, after four years of day-in and day-out with them, showing some signs of appreciating the fight I am fighting against them, for them.
4. My main client, when I was hospitalized over the summer expressed concern as to my well-being and urged me to come back slowly. I appreciate when you are treated like a human in an age where spreadsheets rule.
5. I work with a great partner and a great producer who 'have my back' and make me better.
6. Ditto. I have an account partner who pulls on the same oar as I do.
7. My kids are growing up good and strong and smart. I believe they will make a difference, however small.
8. My wife tolerates me, not always the easiest of tasks.
9. Though I am often disconsolate about work and work related issues, I still have my gusto and energy.
10. I am almost healed from this summer's cataclysms.
11. I'm zeroing in on 4,000 posts on Ad Aged, and I'm not tapped out yet.