Monday, March 31, 2014

1984, 30 years hence.

This blog is about a lot of things, I suppose. Advertising. Integrity. My Uncle Slappy. And as I say in the description below its name, "the decline of the English language."

I heard one of those instances of decline on the weekend during an interview with Senator and former Presidential candidate, John McCain. McCain, who introduced Sarah Palin to a national audience, chose a small string of words that would have Eric Arthur Blair spinning in his grave.

McCain said "we should be sending defensive weapons" to Ukraine.

Defensive weapons.

We hear these things, we nod. Depending on our politics, we may even nod our heads. My guess is that much of the anti-Obama media is parroting this notion of defensive weapons.

In boxing, I understand the notion of a counter-puncher. Someone who withstands a blow and seeing his opponent exposed sneaks a couple of punches in. I get that.

But pieces of military hardware that are defensive?

Will someone please explain? Are these weapons that fire only when fired upon?

Or if you can't explain, will you at least wake up?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A stranger in the Tempus Fugit.

A storm has settled over New York and its environs bringing an unrelenting, punishing rain. It's rained all day and all night and is expected to rain all tomorrow, too. To be clear, the rain is not all that unwelcome. We've had a harsh winter and filth sits on the city gathering in the gutters of every street. The rain is strong enough to loosen the accumulation and wash some of the less sturdy detritus away.

The rain was wicked last night, lashing against the large window in my bedroom, making noise like a Hollywood Foley. It's teeming, I said to myself, a perfect night, then, for the Tempus Fugit.

In minutes I was dressed and then I fortified myself against the storm, wearing tall rubber galoshes and my ancient oil-skin. I looked fairly like a Gloucester fisherman staring down a furious gale. I was as impervious as a rock. Whiskey, who doesn't mind the rain, meekly accepted her collar and together we made our way to our safe harbor in the storm.

"Something different tonight," the bartender said, instead of hello, as we entered the Tempus Fugit.

"I was hankering for a Pike's."

"It is too brutal out for that. Tonight you need something to warm your bones."

He turned to the back of the teak bar where bottles were standing at attention like soldiers. He moved bottles aside until he lifted one labelled "XPEHOBYXA," in Cyrillic.

"Hrenovuha," he said, "Wren-O-Voo-Ha. It has no English translation. It's vodka from Tsar Peter's time. It's made from horse radish. The Tsar decreed that every farmstead must produce vodka. Hrenovuha was the result."

"Horse radish?"

"Would you prefer a Menshevik this evening or a Bolshevik? A Menshevik is a Hrenovuha with a slice of beet. A Bolshevik is a Hrenovuha with a few drops of Tabasco."

"I've never been a fan of beets," I answered. "Hit me with a Bolshevik."

He poured me a shot and shook in four drops of hot sauce.

"Твоё здоровье!"

"Back atcha," I answered.

I took a tentative sip. My tongue liked what it found and I shot down the rest. I tapped hard the glass on the bar and he filled me again.

"Твоё здоровье!" I said.

As I finished my second, the bartender did the same.

"That ain't bad," I said. "I'll admit I was expecting less from horse radish vodka."

"We mustn't," he said "let the dominant complacency interfere with our unbiased perceptions."

Again I said, "Твоё здоровье!"

He filled me a third time and began polishing the already polished bar with his damp white terry. 

"About 50 years ago, I was right here in this spot, and a small be-hatted, bespectacled and wispy-bearded old man entered the Tempus Fugit. He had under his arm the bottle of Hrenovuha that we drank from. He was a strange, bird-like old man. He handed over the bottle and then asked if he could come behind the bar and stand with me."

"'I am Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, comrade.'

"Lev Davidovich Bronshtein," I repeated. "You're Leon Trotsky.

"'The People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Chairman of the Supreme Military Council, President of the Petrograd Soviet,  Full member of the 8th, 9th, 10, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th Politburos.  Founder of the Fourth Internationale. Exile. And lover of Frida Kahlo. It is I." And he clicked the heels of his well-polished brogues.'

"But you were killed, assassinated. Struck down by the GPU with an ice pick.

"'An ice-axe,' he corrected. 'And yes, I said Stalin has finally accomplished the task he attempted unsuccessfully before. But that was all a ruse. I was merely woundedStalin did not prevail.'

"Trotsky took the Hrenovuha he carried with him and opened it on the bar. He removed four shot glasses from underneath the teak and filled them. Two of the glasses he adorned with small slices of beet he had removed from a small square of waxed paper. 'Menshevik.' he said, and we drank. The other two he garnished with drops of tabasco from a small bottle. 'Bolshevik.' He said as we drank.

"'And this is for you,' he said handing me the bottle of Hrenovuha. 'Let each who drinks from it be a lover of freedom and a fighter for the rights of man. Let the struggle of the working class burn as hot as the coals in the People's furnace.'

"With that short speech, Trotsky shook my hand and left the Tempus Fugit."

"But all reports had him dying in Mexico City," I said, "almost 75 years ago."

He put the vodka away in its place behind the bar.

"Твоё здоровье!"

"Твоё здоровье!" I replied.

I slid two twenties his way. "Your health," I said.

"To Trotsky," he answered.

And Whiskey and I walked home, slightly tipsy, in the rain.

Friday, March 28, 2014

21 article titles that should be on BuzzFeed but aren’t yet.

29 things you can do with kitchen sponges. (#16 is too sexy to be believed.)
15 tensest high-tension wires.
22 mudslides that ended in wet dirt.
31 April Fool’s jokes that will get you incarcerated.
These 24 lightbulbs need replacing.
5months that don’t have 31 days but should.
61 pretty girls who don’t know you exist.
8 ways to make 51-cents in change.
24 things to do when you’re submerged in a freezing lake besides shiver.
9 pizza toppings that are illegal in Norway.
6 days of the week that would rather be Friday.
55 countries that would rather be Canada.
Bunnies hatched from eggs and 4 other Easter myths.
91 things you should never do while juggling chain saws.
8 synonyms for the word “apogee.”
22 health foods you should never eat.
24 snowflakes that are almost exactly alike.
12 ways onions can be eaten with a spoon.
81 hats you don’t wear on your head.
13 signs that October is officially over.
34 article titles that should be on BuzzFeed but aren’t yet.

Brand Association.

If you're a student of advertising, as I am, you can play a game I call Brand Association. It's like word association, only played with brands and agencies.

For instance, if you said "Wendy's," I'd say "Dancer Fitzgerald Sample."
If you said "VW," I'd respond "Doyle Dane."
"Volvo," "Scali."
"Absolut," "TBWA."
"Nike," "Wieden."
"Apple," "Chiat."
"IBM," "Ogilvy."
"MCI," "Messner."
"AT&T," "Ayer."

Today, I think this game is harder to play. I think in part because accounts move more often than they used to.

I think accounts move because agencies no longer care as much about building brands as they do about winning awards. More effort is put into silly side-shows than the main event--mass media that can define a brand, give it purpose and make it likeable.

Become famous for making brands famous.

That should be our aim.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


There's a lot of public moaning about the state of the advertising industry. Some of it comes from blogs like this one, or more popular blogs, like Bob Hoffman's, Rich Siegel's, or George Parker's. Some more of it comes from important thinkers like Sir John Hegarty speaking at the Global Marketing Conference in Sydney earlier this week.

I think I can reduce the substance of this moaning, what it's all really about, down to a single sentence or three.

As marketing people we are supposed to avoid jargon. Yet as members of the corporate state, we have to embrace jargon. We have to live within the dominant complacency.

If I were high-falutin, or a sociologist, or a high-falutin' sociologist, this post would be a 40-page monograph called "The Plight of the Individual in the Corporate-ruled World."

It would be about being exhorted to "think outside the box," while we're crammed into cubicles. It would be about being told to "resist the usual" without making waves.

You can't have both. 

You can't have a creative conformity.

You have to choose which is most important to your culture.

And most people have.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Me and Gwyneth.

It seems that over the last couple of years, there has been a huge out-pouring of hate with regard to Gwyneth Paltrow. I don't follow Hollywood, read "People" magazine and I don't think I've seen her in the movies since "The Royal Tenenbaums" back in 2001. So I'll admit, I don't understand what all the ruckus is about.

Ever since I learned Fatty Arbuckle raped a woman to death with a champagne bottle, I haven't held Hollywood types in high-regard. Most of them are spoiled children made a thousand times worse because they're given a national microphone. If you've ever been to a United Jewish Appeal fundraiser in the basement of a temple, you know there's nothing worse than a spoiled brat with a microphone.

Nevertheless, about six or seven years ago I was assigned to make a cinema commercial for American Express heralding their participation in the Tribeca Film Festival. I had wanted DeNiro to do the voiceover, but he had no interest. Next on my list was Gwyneth Paltrow.

Paltrow was in LA at the time and we "met" over ISDN line, at 7AM her time.

My policy in working with talent of her ilk is to be extremely compliant. Naturally, I have to get what I need, but I also have to respect that they know what they're doing. In short, I give minimal direction, and what little I do give, I deliver wearing kid gloves.

Like a lot of people in the morning, Paltrow came on the line full of phlegm.  She cleared that up over the course of three pretty good reads.

I said, "I think that last one was pretty good."

She said, "I have a cold."

I said, "Phlegm becomes you." And she laughed.

Once she saw that I wasn't going to be demanding, she pushed herself a bit.

"Let me do another one," she said.

"Of course, and do me a favor, hit the word 'fun' a bit. Give it a little laugh."

She did what I asked for perfectly.

And that was that. The whole shebang took about 20 minutes and turned out pretty good.


I'll say it as bluntly as I can: I don't understand what has happened to the world.

I have a yardstick, a calculus, that helps me explain things to myself when it comes to the valuation of companies. Conveniently, "The New York Times" is worth around one-billion dollars. One-billion dollars is a lot of money. Not long ago, Jeff Bezos of Amazon renown, bought "The Washington Post" for $250 million. So I get that the Times is worth four times the Post.

Here's what I don't get.

Candy Crush, the game pictured here will be going public. It's valued at more than $7 billion dollars.

I don't care how many people are playing Candy Crush on the subway to work. It's not worth seven New York Times'.

Just like I can't imagine Whatsapp is worth 19 New York Times'.

I suppose some of these figures can be explained by "the Greater Fool Theory." The idea that something is worth X if someone is willing to pay X+5.

But something, still, is out of whack.

It seems we have de-valued everything serious in our society. We live in a world where Kanye and Kim on the cover of Vogue pushes wars, famines and financial shenanigans out of our minds. For instance, during our recent wars, we have spent $85,000* per citizen of Afghanistan and Iraq. This at a time when our own country seems to be crumbling. (* $6 trillion/70 million citizens.) No one knows this. No one cares. Gwyneth broke up with someone.

Of course, the same holds true for our business.

We chortle over stunts and apps and sitelets that no one ever sees but award judges. We forget that advertising is meant to have a serious purpose: to build brands, to drive business.

Neil Postman said we were amusing ourselves to death.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A new agency model.

There's a old Yiddish saying (there's really no such thing as a new Yiddish saying) that says "A kluger farshtait fun ain vort tsvai." 

That expectorant sums up, I think, what we're supposed to do when when we work with clients.  It's translated as, "A wise man hears one word and understands two."

In other words: Listen. Study. Think.

In other other words: Breathe.

In other other other words: Be wise.

When you meet with a client, listen to what they're saying as well as what they're not saying. Listen hard and deep. Listen to the engineers. Listen to the finance people. Listen to the C-Level. Listen to the marketing people. And, importantly, I think, read the annual report.

Too often in agency life, we prepare a 44-page powerpoint and we talk at our clients. We are avid to give them all the answers when we haven't yet even heard their questions.

Imagine if agencies, instead of trying to prove how smart they are, tried to show how well they listen.

We hear a lot in our business, a lot of blather if you ask me, about new agency models.

Imagine an agency modeled on listening. On hearing twice as much as has been said.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Finding your voice.

As the father of two blossoming and burgeoning twenty-somethings, I've learned a lot about brands by helping raise my daughters.

Mostly, you learn that there's enormous pressure on daughters and brands to conform. The cool kids look, dress, talk, listen, opine and think and act alike. It's hard to swim against the tide and to, in the wise words of Apple, think different.

It's hard, in short, for brands and kids to find their voice.

Finding a voice is the most important thing your kid and your brand can do.  A voice helps define behavior, the behavior of everyone associated with either your kid or your brand.

Watching a fair amount of basketball on television this weekend, the generictude of the world as depicted by advertising is appalling. Everything is the same including the jokes. The apotheosis of humor, you know, is an actor who can raise one eyebrow.

BBDO's work on Lowe's and AT&T does better.  They have a voice.

Everything else has a voice that tries to sound like every other voice.

That's not good for kids. Or brands.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Micro thoughts.

One of the things that's changed in the world since I was a kid is that people are much more subtle. Gone are signs that say "white" or "colored" or "no jews allowed." Gone, really, is the systemic prejudice that bars people from colleges, housing or employment.

Instead, we've become adept at micro-aggressions, micro-assaults, micro-meanness.

These things are too small and subtle to draw outright outrage. They don't get you shit-canned, or excoriated. But they are evil nonetheless.

In agencies, I'm afraid, they happen everyday. Some perpetrated by the institution. Some by people.

Perhaps they aren't intended to anger. Perhaps nothing of that sort. But they happen.

People steal your work, change your copy.

Expenses are made impossible to expense.

Meetings happen without you. You're not told how they went.

Or you're called 'grandpa.' Ha ha.

These things don't make HR's radar.

But they're pervasive.

And they're wrong.

George uncomplicate.

Dear Friends,

Life, at least as it's expressed through marketing, is way too complicated.

That's why I'm introducing

Send me powerpoint decks, ads, commercials, tweets that aren't quite working.

Chances are, they're not quite working because they're too busy.

Too ornate.

Too complicated.

I will simplify them.

Make them clearer.



You will pay me.

And tell people about me.

We will all sleep well.

Thank you.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Uncle Slappy on basketball and the 60s.

Uncle Slappy called last night to talk basketball. The New York Knicks have just hired professional basketball’s winning-est coach giving that woe-begone franchise its first glimmer of real hope in a long time. Further, college basketball’s March Madness is in full fury, and you can hardly turn on the Boob Tube without seeing a bunch of black men in shorts doing amazing athletic feats.

Truth be told, Uncle Slappy’s been a basketball fan since the game was dominated by a team called the Philadelphia Sphas. The Sphas won 11 championships in 17 years in the old Eastern Basketball League and its successor league, the American Basketball League.

In those segregated days, basketball was dominated by Jews and, in fact, the name “Spha” stood for “South Philadelphia Hebrew Association.” Their team was manned by such stalwarts as Harry Litwack, Cy Kasselman, Irv Torgoff, Max Posnack and Red Klotz. Perhaps to drive home the point, their away uniforms said “Hebrews” across their chests and both their home and away uniforms, of course, were adorned with the Jewish six-pointed star.

Uncle Slappy grew up during the era when a guy my height (6’2”) would qualify as a center and a two-handed set shot was a legitimate offensive weapon. Like a lot of fans from that era, part of him still believes that today’s players, for all their prodigious athletic gifts, have nothing on the plodding Jews of yore.

“I wish,” he began the call “the Knicks could bring Red Holzman back, along with Phil Jackson,” he said.

“He was a great coach,” I admitted. He had, after all, led the Knicks to both of their championship seasons.

“Jackson was wild when he was a player, what with the long hair and the bell bottoms.”

“But he was quite a ballplayer,” I moderated.

“Everything was crazy in those days. Hippies, Drugs and the Women’s Lubrication Movement.”

I said nothing for a good minute, and he waited me out.

Finally, I said “Say goodnight, Uncle Slappy.”

He’s done this before and he did it again. “Goodnight, Uncle Slappy.”

Some thoughts on door handles.

About 20 years ago when I was working on the Mercedes-Benz business, I became fascinated by door handles.

Most, I noticed were flaps. To open the door you used just two or three fingers and lifted a thin metal flap.

On all Mercedes vehicles, there was, instead, a bar that you had to grip and pull out.

Both methods seems like good ways of opening doors, but I wondered about the difference in style.

I asked a marketing person and then another and of course they had no idea. Finally, they connected me with a Mercedes engineer. He explained it all to me.

If there were a crash, he said, a two or three finger flap doesn't give you much pulling power. However a grip gives you much more.

What I learned from this episode beside a bit about door handles, is that marketing people don't usually know very much about the product they're responsible for selling. At Mercedes, for instance, the smartest people are engineers, not marketers. At banks, the smartest people are usually financiers, not marketers. Same goes for technology companies.

All that said, I've always believed that most clients don't understand the product they're selling or the market they're selling into. Therefore, it's the agency's job to really get under the hood.

Today, instead, agencies don't take on that responsibility. They are busy inventing products, or financing start-ups, or entering fake ads into award shows.

That's well and good, but is it the business you're in?

Sorry if this is old-fashioned.

I happen to think you should master the job you're paid to do before you go off and do something else.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Refreshingly expensive.

If you or yours are looking for a copywriter who can quickly get the lay or the land, who can quickly sift through petaflops of information and turn it into something good, compelling and often times, funny, please contact me. It's time I looked for work.

Ten things I can do.

1.       I can write. Headlines. TV. Radio. Websites. Long copy. Short copy. In-between copy. Legal copy. Briefs. Manifestos. Positionings. Awards entries. Funny vacation emails.

2.       I can lead people. Account people. Creative people. Planners. Clients. I can inspire them to do more and better. I can raise their level of ambition so better work happens.

3.       I can question. Briefs. Bosses. Focus-group learnings. Group-think. Clients. Accepted wisdom. I can turn things upside down and get at answers that are more real.

4.       I can get it done. Fast. Brilliantly. No matter what the assignment, product or media. With insight and intelligence. Charm and wit.

5.       I can speak many media languages. Traditional. Direct. Interactive. Viral. Word of Mouth. And because I understand these languages, do excellent work no matter what.

6.       I can make people laugh. In commercials. In copy. In observations. In meetings. In the hallway. Over dinner.

7.       I can make people act. So they buy what we’re advertising. Or they buy the ads we’re selling. Or they get off their duffs and actually do something.

8.       I can disseminate. I can evangelize. I can wax eloquent about the massive changes that are happening right now. I can stay on top of those changes and help others stay on top of them, too.

9.       I can call bullshit. As much as new media has changed our world, work either connects with people or it doesn’t. I can spot the difference between a snow job and something real.

10.     I can build trust. Because I always come through.

 George Tannenbaum