Friday, May 31, 2013

Advertising, cosmetics and veal.

One of the major issues of the modern agency is that we are no longer sure of what it is we are selling. Or perhaps more accurately, we sell so many things, so many often-competing channels that   too often agency agendas prevail rather than what's right for the client.

Here's what I mean:

We have app-makers who believe apps should rule the roost.

We have website builders who believe websites are pre-eminent.

We have traditional people who prattle on about the efficacy of tv.

We have half a dozen other 'specialists' who froth at the mouth about the viability of their specialty.

All these people, all these designers, community managers, social media mavens, branding experts et al have their own bottom lines to promote and protect. Everyone is fighting--eternally and internally fighting--over every client dollar.

Too often, the client is victim of this fighting. They're sold work that advances the agency ball--often at the client's own expense.

I suppose it's all a little bit like Bloomingdale's cosmetics floor. It's made up of "shops" of literally dozens and dozens of cosmetics makers, all competing against each other. As a consumer you are spritzed and sprayed and begged and beckoned to stop at this counter or that, each counter purring about their own secret formulae.

No one is in charge there.

The Lancomes, Cliniques, Chanels and others are all in their own eyes the best.

This is what life is like in an "integrated" agency.

The internal competition is no longer between creative teams (which probably led to better work) it's between "capabilities." It's a free-for-all. Every man for himself.

Years ago, based on my accomplishments in a variety of different media, I sought to "sell" myself to a holding company as a brand orchestrator. As an independent someone who could look at a client's marketing issues and derive an intelligent mix of media. A mix not based on "we have a lot of veal in the back, push the veal." But based on what was good for the client.

You know. I sought to sell myself as a leader.

That fell flat.

And now, nearly a decade later, I see the need for such leadership is greater than ever.

But it's nowhere to be found.

A call from Uncle Slappy.

I got a call last night--this morning, actually--at exactly 2:46 on my iPhone. It was from Uncle Slappy and I knew it wasn't good news. No one with good news calls at that hour. Certainly not Uncle Slappy, who more often than not follows his Circadian rhythms and is asleep not long after dark.

In any event, it was Uncle Slappy and he was frantic.

"Boychick," he began. "Your Aunt Sylvie fell down."

"She fell down," I repeated. "Is she ok?"

"What did you think, she was going to fall up? She was heading to the bathroom and tripped and fell."

I cried the cry of Jews for five millennia. "Oy vey is mir."

"Oy vey is right," he said. "I called nine-one-one and the BMT were there in about five minutes. She couldn't get up."

The BMT is what old-timers like Uncle Slappy called the Broadway subway line. I didn't correct him. It wasn't important to.

"They were two nice young fellas. They got Sylvie standing."

"That must have been a relief," I said.

"We had to go to the horse-spittal anyway. They wanted to make sure nothing was broken and there was no internal bleeding."

"And she was ok?" I asked.

"A horse-spittal at one in the morning I wouldn't wish on Saul Benowitz, the world's worst dry cleanerer. Boychick. She's ok. As strong as a horse said the Indian doctor. She is laying in bed next to me as I talk to you. But Boychick, let me tell you something..."

"Thank god, she's alright. Do you need me down there?"

"Boychick, I am 86 years old. Your Aunt is no spring chicken at 85. Let me give you some old man perspective: don't waste your time. That's it. Don't waste your time."

I sat silent, giving him pause to continue.

"There are schmendricks and schmucks and schmos and schlmiels and schlamazels. There are blowhards and bastards and big heads and back stabbers. There are cowards and turn-coats and summer soldiers and fair-weather friends. There are liars and losers and lousy low-down leeches and low-lifes. There are thieves and sneaks and bandits and rascals and scoundrels. The world is full of all of the aforementioned and more.

"There are people who court disaster. People who panic. People who huff and puff and say nothing. There are people who are great at mediocrity--who hone it to a fine art and try to foist it on you. There are people who cut you down behind your back. People whose sole game is to cover their not inconsiderable asses.

"There are all these and more."

I attached names to all the adjectives as Uncle Slappy spoke. It wasn't hard to do.

"Don't waste your time with them. Take care of the people you love."

With that, I heard the old man kiss Aunt Sylvie good night.

Then he did something he's seldom done through all the decades I have known him.

"I love you, boychick."

And he hung up the blower.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


This can be a cold, callous and brutal business.

Where your enemies stab you in the back and your friends stab you in the front. Where you're only as good as your last ad. Assuming some blowhard didn't steal the credit for it.

And then there are the bad days.

Where nothing goes right and everything is second-guessed.

Not by people offering solutions or ways to make things better.

But by people whose sole talent (and it is a talent) is assassination.

Yet, I love this business.

I love when you find a group--a small group--that works well together. That protects each other. That fights for a common cause.

It happens.

It happens all too rarely, but it does happen.

In our business, we throw around the word team.

But most teams aren't really teams. They're factions organized around an account or assignment.

Once in a while, though, you find a team. A real team that works.

If it happens to you, recognize it. Enjoy it. Cherish it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A thought from Napoleon.

I read a lot of military histories. My latest is Rick Atkinson's latest, "The Guns at Last Light," which was just favorably reviewed in Sunday's "New York Times Book Review." Review

In it, I happened upon a quotation by Napoleon, the inventor of pastry, which has resonance in our business.

It's Napoleon's definition of military genius that struck me: "The man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy."

Our business is struck by craziness.

An infatuation with new toys.

An obsession with ROI.

A love affair with jargon and bullshit.

We prostrate ourselves at the feet of the trendy.

We fawn in front of the lowest common denominator.

We salute meaningless measurements and mania over meaningless awards.

And we forget about doing average things.

Clear. Simple. Compelling. Useful things.

Communications that communicate a clear differentiation or unique principle.

Average things.

Let others lose themselves in the absurd and trivial.

Do average things.


I heard a commencement speech from a former Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama speechwriter named Jon Lovett. It was one of the better speeches I've heard in a long time. This passage, I think, has bearing to us in advertising:

“One of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media's imitation of human connection; in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything.

“And it wends its way into our private lives as well, changing even how we interact with one another: the way casual acquaintances will say "I love you"; the way we describe whatever thing as "the best thing ever"; the way we are blurring the lines between friends and strangers. And we know that. There have been books written about the proliferation of malarkey, empty talk, baloney, claptrap, hot air, balderdash, bunk. One book was aptly named ‘Your Call is Important to Us.’"


We confront it every living moment of our ever-loving days.

We labor over briefs with specious “insights” that mean nothing except to the people who wrote them. We wrangle with claims from clients that are so thinly sliced that they would have to improve to be half truths. One-fourteenth's truth or one-eight’s truth would be more accurate.

We regularly present to people whose sole purpose seems to be proving how smart they are, not improving the work. They pick and preen and puff, just because they can.

We toil endlessly tweaking decks not improving work. Even tweaking as a word is bullshit. Eviscerating is more like it.

We see people get ahead who have never done anything, never built a brand, never done anything but polish turds and kiss the asses from which the turds emanated. But that's ok. They dress well and look the part.

We fall in love with new media toys that have the lastingness of a shooting star or a comet. No one dare say something like “yeah, Pinterest is cool, but is has no advertising application.” Or that 99% of all apps never get used except by the developer’s mother. Or that the new new thing is also a dumb dumb thing.

We are seduced by do-nothings who talk a lot and say nothing. We are enticed by frills and filigree and gizmos and gimmicks, forgetting everything Bernbach or Krone or Lois or Gargano said and did.

We are waist-deep and getting deeper.

We don't seek truth in our work, or meaning. We're too busy being sarcastic or ironic.

We don't even love what we do. Sincerity is something confined to greeting cards or birthdays for people we don't even like.

There's more. 

There's always more.

But none of it matters.

It's bullshit.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A night filled with cursing.

“I told them to go piss up a rope,” the bartender said to me as I sat down on my favorite stool at the Tempus Fugit.

“Go piss up a rope,” I repeated. “That’s vivid.”

He brought me a Pike’s Ale (the ALE that won for YALE) in an eight-ounce juice glass and went around the bar to bring Whiskey, my 14-month-old golden retriever a small wooden bowl of water.

Such service is de rigueur at the Tempus Fugit, where little ever changes. And little has changed since the place opened as a speakeasy—an illicit bar—in 1924. That was during the heights or depths of “the Great Experiment” as sociologists, and people like sociologists called “Prohibition.” 

Prohibition was ended by President Roosevelt early in his first term in 1933, but a lot remains prohibited at the Tempus Fugit. Things like cell-phones, flat screens, ear buds and such are severely frowned upon. As are venture capitalists, investment bankers, new agers and hipsters.

That’s one reason I frequent the place—it’s a refuge from the world. And the world has too few havens from modernity. It’s said that the idea behind Starbucks is that people need a ‘third place,’ a place to go and hang that is neither their home nor their office. That’s the role the Tempus fills for me. Though it hasn’t the crushing popularity, pretentiousness and high-prices of a Starbucks.

The other reason I’m a veritable denizen of the place is the bartender. Though we’ve yet to exchange names—we agreed to keep our relationship on a professional plane—he and I seem to connect on an elemental level. What’s more, he knows things that few other people know. Al Kaline’s batting average in 1958 (.313, relatively speaking, it was an off year) what demons chased Giuseppe Verdi (many) and most important as far as I’m concerned, he has more than a smattering of knowledge of Yiddish curses.

“Go piss up a rope,” he continued “sounds like it should be Yiddish.”

I nodded.

“But it’s not. It sounds a gentler ‘Gay kocken offen yam,’ but it’s an Americanism. A colorful way of saying “fuck off,” from a time when curses, I believe, we’re delivered with more verve and creativity.”

“Gay kocken offen yam. Go shit in the ocean. I heard that often when I was growing up.”

“It’s a useful curse,” he said, “I’ll give you that. Of the same caliber and effect as ‘Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele mitn kop in dr'erd.”

“That also was a part of my upbringing. ‘May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground.’”

“And a stellar upbringing it must have been,” he said filling me up with another amber. “Two of my favorites. Both divine in their…”

He searched for the right word. I tried helping, “In their construction. In their meanness and spite.”

“That’s right,” he said. “How do you like this one: ‘A groys gesheft zol erhobn mit skhoyre: vos er hot zol men bay im nit fregn, un vos men fregt zol er nit hobn.’
‘May he have a big store full of goods: may people not ask for what he has, and may he not have what they ask for.’”

“Perfect.” I laughed. “And the other?”
“Well there’s ‘Zol er aropshlingen a shirem un s'zol zikh im efenen in boykh,’ which paints quite a nice picture. ‘May he swallow an umbrella and may it open in his belly.’
“But my money is on this chestnut, ‘Megulgl zol er vern in a henglaykhter: bay tog zol er hengen un bay nakht zol er brenen.’ ‘He should turn into a chandelier, so he'll hang by day and burn by night.’”

“That will do the trick,” I said as I finished my second. “Anyone in particular you’re cursing this evening?”
“Of course,” he answered swabbing the already clean bar-top ever cleaner. “But I’m really just staying in fighting trim.”

I laughed and reached into my wallet for a twenty.

“On me.”

That will (not) change everything.

We went to "the Cape," this weekend, which is what people who frequent Cape Cod call Cape Cod. One moment on the Cape and you know why its abbreviated appellation is ok. There are many capes in the world. But only Cape Cod deserves the terse and imperative "the Cape."

It's a magical and unspoiled place. Some measure of modernity has creeped in--there is fast food now and big box stores. But if you stay on the sea-side of the big roads all you see is a gentle, easy-going place that doesn't reek of today.

Whiskey and I took a short walk on a stony beach while my wife was waiting for take-out lobster rolls. There were crab shells everywhere--honestly killed by birds not pollutants and there was a type of mossy-green seaweed that looked like a mermaid's hair. When I was not removing crab shells from Whiskey's craw, I was scanning the sea-scape for mermaids.

If I found one, long and luscious like those on an old sailor's forearm, I'm sure my wife would understand. A man has needs, and no one knows that better than a mythical half-woman/half-fish.

For the past three Memorial Days, the Cape has been home to a modest family reunion.With my daughters separated from us and each other by an entire continent, we used the lure of the Cape's best hotel to bring us all together. Once reunited, we revel in our love and togetherness. We hang out by the too-cold pool and walk up to our ankles in the too-cold sea. We lobster roll and clam bake and laugh and love.

This year Hannah, my younger daughter, was 9,000 miles away, but she joined us numerous times via the magic of Skype and though distance interfered our laughter and love was not lessened or dismayed.

There are pundits in our industry--in most industries, I suppose--who seem to make a living proclaiming "this will change everything." As if being able to wear glasses that give directions and take photographs are a good and welcome thing.

And of course, a lot has changed in the world and continues to change. Even family dynamics (Hannah in New Zealand) changes things, as does the presence of Whiskey, who was just a gleam in our puppy-loving eyes last year at this time.

Change is all around us as ubiquitous as bad grammar on the internet. It's pernicious and unstoppable. Fighting against change is like King Canute trying to hold back the tides a millenium ago. I know from my short walk that that's impossible, even against the infant waves on my part of the Cape.

I suppose something will come along someday and will really change everything, and maybe that change will be good. Maybe we will be able to 3-D fax Hannah in from New Zealand, have cars whose exhaust is nothing but rose petals. Maybe the brotherhood of man will prevail and we will beat our swords into plowshares--or smart phones.

But for me, some times, the best change is no change. It's a family together with friends. It's barbecuing. It's lobster rolls and soft ice cream and a tired puppy in the back seat.

Friday, May 24, 2013

More on too many decks.

Your deck can shine and sparkle and gleam,
But all that glitters ain’t what it seem.
It can be designed a la Scher or Rand,
Or some other rarefied well-crafted hand.
It can look perfect and so refined,
But I am here to warn, remind.
You may well construct the perfect deck,
And find the work inside is dreck.