Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A night in Havana, long ago.

This weekend, this busy Thanksgiving weekend, amid family, festivities, fun and, of course, the concomitant bickering that such weekends bring, the landline rang.

That surprised me for two reasons. For one, Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie were already over. And two, there are no politicians currently running for anything. Landlines, after all, are used only by ancient relatives and by politicians—for whom conventional laws like ‘do not call’ rulings do not apply.

“Jorge,” a raspy voice said through the crackle of distance. “Jorge Navidad.”

No one has called me Jorge Navidad in over forty years, save for one account guy I used to work with about a decade ago whose father knew something of my Mexican Baseball League exploits.

“Si,” I answered, dusting off just about the only Spanish I still knew. 

“Tu viejo amigo, estupido, Gulliermo Sisto.”

We chattered for a moment or two in what is known in New York as Spanglish.

“You have escuchado las nocitias?”

“What news?”

“El Jefe esta muerto.”

“El Jefe?”

“Fidel is dead.”

And that’s how I learned of the Cuban leader’s demise. From a phone call with Gulliermo Sisto, a team-mate of mine—the oldest guy on the Seraperos when I was just 17 and the youngest.

Sisto was 43 when I knew him—and in his 26 years in the Mexican Baseball League he had played for a total of 50 different teams. He and my manager, Hector Quesadilla had been team-mates some years before and in Hector’s capacious mind, Sisto was exactly what the Seraperos needed as we mediocred our way through our long and doleful season.

Sisto was a wise man on the bench, a guy who could come in and advance a runner or scratch a base hit, and a guy who could field any position without hurting you and maybe even pitch an inning hurting you only a little.

Sisto had the locker next to mine, and in short order he and I became the Mutt and Jeff of the team—our disparity being age, not height. And now, a lifetime after we played together for my one sad but glorious season, Sisto was calling.

I went into my bedroom—away from the cacophony of visitors in the rest of my apartment. I shut the bedroom door against the noise and sat in my worn leather arm-chair.

“Many years ago, when I played for the Rojos Diablos we flew to Havana to play a series of exhibition games against the Havana Sugar Kings.”

“The Sugar Kings were a team.”

“It was the best of Cuba against the best of Mexico. And of course, at such a series of juegos, it was only natural that El Lider would be there with the rest of his Barbudos.”

“The Bearded Ones. Fidel’s team. He was the pitcher, yes? And their best hitter.”

Sisto laughed into the phone.

“If El Lider says it, it must be true. But his pitch had lost its fire and his bat was soft like a noodle of vermicelli.”

“The man and the myth,” I said nonsensically.

“After we lost our games to the Sugar Kings—the best team I have ever played against, we played against El Commandante’s squad. A ragtag game in the twilight with no lights in Estadio.”

“So you played against Fidel?”

“Si, yes. Each of their nine—the Barbudos—the Bearded Ones played while smoking a foot-long cigar which they did not even while they were batting or running the bases or even pitching remove from their mouths.

“They played with the vigor and the laughter of young boys and you could not help but like them, even with machine gun soldiers guarding every move.”

“And how was Fidel? I had heard he was drafted by the Yankees of New York,” I said as if I were Hemingway’s Old Man.

“Fidel pitched well. Though a double off him I hit. Stand-up straight down the leftfield line.”

“You wounded the Barbudos.”

“Yes, and I scored a run a moment later, sliding into home and a cloud of dirty cigar smoke.”

We talked for a few moments—in a desultory fashion.

Then Sisto grew quiet.

“But Fidel, Jorge Navidad, Fidel was the last batter that day. The last batter for the Barbudos.

“I forget who was on the mound for us—maybe it was Triste, perhaps it was El Lacrimosa—the teary one, Estaban Portugal, who cried as he pitched. Maybe it was the Fat One.

“Whoever it was he threw El Lider a corkball, twisting the ball out of his throwing hand like a corkscrew. The ball, like a top to El Commandante flew.”

“The corkball,” I said. “A notorious pitch.”

“The worst. Three men on the Rojos Diablos could throw it—maybe once, maybe twice a game. After that, your arm would fly off like an old branch in a windstorm.”

“Three men could throw it. And no man could hit it.”

“But Fidel hit it.”

We paused.

“He let out from his cigar a puff of smoke like steam from a locomotive. And he swung heavy from his heels.”

“He was a big man,” I said, adding nothing.

“Yes. Taller even than Jorge Navidad.

“Fidel hit the ball straight into the sky. 1000 feet up, through the cigar smoke, through the trees, through the sky, and through the clouds. And we, the Rojos Diablos looked up, looked up for the ball in the estratofera. We looked, we looked, we looked and we waited and waited some more.”

I was on the edge of my leather seat.

“And then?”

“It never came down the ball. Fidel said ‘It has gone to Heaven to be kissed by the gods.’ And no one, to tell you the truth, no one that day had a better explanation.”

Sisto stopped now. He’s 85 and he seemed out of breath from telling his story.

“You’re ok, Sissy?”

“Yes, mi amigo. Si. But I know one thing.”

I gave him the courtesy of a pause.

“That corkball that Fidel hit. It is rising still. It is rising through the heavens to be kissed by the gods.”

The old man hung up the horn.

And I went into the living-room, giving everyone there, my kids, my wife, my niece, Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie, a kiss.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Our mandatory ethics training.

Every year around this time, no matter what holding company I'm working for, I get a shrill notice in my mailbox telling me that I've missed eleventeen previous all-cap edicts and it's time for me--I must I must I must--take my mandatory ethics training.

This is usually an hour of animated powerpoint--with the kind of professional finish you'd expect from the Topeka, Kansas Department of Motor Vehicles--that warns you against taking bribes, doing favors or hiring your dimwit second cousin three-times removed, the one who had the childhood accident and is really a good person but is none-too-bright.

There's no sense fighting against these courses. You get hit with them about once-a-quarter and I'm sure they make the moguls at headquarters feel good and powerful, like the German overlords who would post "Achtung" notices throughout Paris during the occupation.

This year, like last, Ethics Training coincided with "Business Insider's" list of top paid people in advertising. 2016's list, like so many of these lists in past years features well-tanned white men who have nothing to do with the craft and profession of marketing.

Top on the list is "he who must be obeyed," to bastardize a phrase from H. Rider Haggard.

Every year I look at this list, particularly the men at the top of the list and wonder--how much would they suffer if they had to get by with $5 million or $10 million instead of their $24 million or $87 million.

I think about the always-on overwork of the people who actually do the work. People who are so burned out by the time these salary lists and ethics commands come out that you could barbecue ribs on their asses. I think about the rising young teams stuck--or forced to leave--because even for incipient superstars, salaries are stuck like fossilized bees in amber.

I think about the utter paucity of people over 40 in the business. The stripping away of dignity and the ever-ratcheted-up demands on our time.

Then I go back to that salary list.

I check it again to make sure I'm not just being a Red.

Then I open up the mandatory Ethics course. And I look for a place to type in: "Where are the ethics in taking home $80 million in salary--my guess 800 times what an average employee makes."

I think about all that.

I'll do my ethics training tomorrow.

Monday, November 28, 2016

12 rules for December.

1. Never put a snowflake in an ad.
2. Never use Santa as a spokes-myth.
3. It's not any better using Mrs. Clause.
4. Or reindeer.
5. Or elves.
6. Or even gangly hipsters with funny ears.
7. Avoid at all costs use of the word "ho."
8. And the word "merry."
9. Also avoid puppies/cars/large appliances bedecked with ribbons.
10. And the word "bedecked."
11. Stay away from resolutions.
12. And mentions of "A new year of savings."

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A memory of Fidel.

A repost.

El Pollo Cubano.

Years ago I did some freelance work for a local fast-food chain called El Pollo Cubano (the Cuban chicken.) 

My partner and I were charged with introducing an addition to their menu, El Pollo Cubano's fish sandwich. Having a lot of competition in their marketplace and not a lot of money, we named El Pollo Cubano's fish sandwich the "Fidel o' Fish." Both a tribute to the now-retired Cuban president and a play on McDonald's Fillet o' Fish.

I suppose I hardly have to tell you that El Pollo Cubano could hardly make enough Fidel o' Fish sandwiches. They were practically flying (fish) off the shelves. The commercials I helped create earned me the first of my many international awards. You can imagine my surprise a couple weeks after the campaign launched that a small package arrived at my desk with my name and address handwritten. I opened the package figuring it was some swag from yet another production company. 

Instead, it was a box of 24 Corona-Corona's, a signed glossy head-shot and a personal note from the famed dictator. In that note he asked for a half-dozen of his namesake sandwiches. Custom regulations being what they were, I was unable to comply with the bearded one's request. I did start a correspondence with Fidel and we became fast-amigos.

I'll miss you big guy. Eat well, mi amigo, eat well.

Friday, November 25, 2016

And so it goes. Thanksgiving edition.

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone.

Another day of family, football, friends and food. With my daughters home from far-flung fields. With family over from midtown and crosstown. With my mother-in-law in from the barefoot wilds of New Jersey. And, of course, Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie, up from Boca.

We made it through the Lucullan meal with a minimum of sturm and drang. There were no battles over drumsticks, or, even, heated discussions over the political chasm that separates Americans as widely today in the mid-21st Century as it did pre-Civil War, 160 years ago.

Even Uncle Slappy who swore he would pour boiling gravy into Grandma Millie's wide Republican lap, behaved like a proper English gentleman. He, unusual for him, had a civil word for all.

The meal was festive. The wine flowed freely, and there was a procession of courses and desserts that reminded me of the Triumphal March from Verdi's Aida.

Now, my wife is in New York's Most Expensive Kitchen, putting away the remainder of the dishes and oversized serving trays we could, in the event of a disaster, use as life-rafts if our ship of state begins to founder.

Sarah is out moving her car and taking a spin class. Hannah is cuddling with Whiskey and reading her third or fourth book of the weekend.

And Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie are drinking their coffee slowly in the dining room like old Viennese before the Anschluss.

I won't say all is well with the world.

That would be too optimistic for me.

But we've made it through another one.

And I wish you all love, joy and peace until the next one.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

My daughters vs. Donald Trump.

Like virtually every reasonable person in the civilized world, I am terrified about the results of America's recent Presidential election and the country's headlong dive into cheap banana-republic-hood.

I'm terrified that a "man who can be baited by a tweet now has his finger on the nuclear trigger."

I'm terrified by more things than I have assignments hanging over my head at work.

But, I am hopeful.

I'm hopeful and thankful.

Mostly because there is only one Donald Trump, but I have two amazing daughters who will, slowly and inexorably, defeat him and the Dark Age he ushers in with him.

Hannah, my youngest, will fight his climate denial one reef at a time. While Trump's Mar-a-Lago sinks into the ever-encroaching seas, Hannah will be healing a sick planet. She will be rescuing sea creatures, repairing the world, and, mostly, teaching love of the earth.

She and her like cannot be defeated. There are too many of them. And they are too smart, too passionate, too driven and, even, too funny and resilient to be thwarted.

The same holds true for Sarah, my oldest, the holder of a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She betters an ill world one patient, one family at a time. Making the world healthier, happier and hardier every day. 

You cannot keep her down. She pops back up and comes out punching.

My daughters and billions like them will not go gentle into Trump's bad night.

They will rage rage against the dying of the light.

I am scared of Trump. I am angry at our country. I am fearful of our future and that of the world.

But I see my daughters, and yes, I have hope.

That is what, among all the blessings I've had bestowed upon me and all the blessings I have earned for myself through my almost 59 years, I am thankful for this gloomy, bigoted, misogynistic year.
I'm just a copywriter. I don't have the income to make giant donations to important causes. I don't have the personal stamina to devote thousands of hours volunteering. I give too much to work to do that.

But with my wife, I have educated my daughters. I have helped cultivate their intelligence, their drive, their humor and their utter irrepressible-ness.

That has been my contribution. For that I am thankful.

BTW, this morning, I was waiting for a car to take me to work. Waiting across the street from Central Park.

I saw this tree. This too, I am thankful for.

Then in the deli, picking up my coffee, I saw this "Daily News" cover. This too, I am thankful for.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Fearing fear.

"I get the willies when I see closed doors. Even at work, where I am doing so well now, the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes. My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange. I wonder why.

"Something must have happened to me sometime."
                                                --Joseph Heller
"Something Happened"


Fear is what hangs over most people and most businesses. 

Fear of being found out a fraud. 

Fear of being exposed.

Fear that people will find out that you don't know what you're doing or what you're really saying.


Fear I think is what's behind a lot. A lot of everything. (I'll leave it at that for fear of getting my hand-slapped for this post.)

Fear that you spent too many media dollars.

Fear that your message isn't right.

Fear that all those hours burned in creating work will prove to have been a waste.


So, I have an idea.

A way to minimize fear.

Let's run the work where no one will see it.

In ads so small and placements so obscure that no one will see them.

But since they didn't cost a lot.

You're ok.

You have nothing to fear.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Ads. Offline and on.

Someone, I think it was my boss, stole my copy of "Well-written and red," containing within it a hand-written note by its writer and editor, Alfredo Marcantonio.

Most people regard David Abbott's poster campaign for "The Economist," one of history's great advertising campaigns. For two decades they've produced simple, differentiating work for one of the world's most-important and influential magazines.

Here are just a few of the many great ads in the series.

I often rail about the insipid nature of online marketing. How it tries, often, so hard to be relevant and consumer friendly and "for everyone," that it is instead a hodgepodge of banality and cloying-friend-ish-nish that its effect is dumb and treacly.

People, purported experts in marketing, often claim that we should write differently for online media than we do for offline.

I don't really understand why.

People are people. Brains are brains. Emotions are emotions. Logic is logic.

I just came across this in my linked in feed. All I can say is: how dare they.

The Information Lacuna.

One of the biggest problems in our world today--and certainly one of the biggest problems in marketing--is that we have too much information. 

And no place to find information.

Here's an example:

My 1966 Simca 1600, love it as I do, is growing a little long-in-the-tooth. It seems that I have to drive it down to Lothar, my Croatian mechanic in Toms River, New Jersey, about once-a-month.

It's not big things that go wrong. Maybe the steering feels a little mushy, or I hear a series of coughs and backfires as I make my way up and down the hills and valleys of northwestern Connecticut.

In any event, the Simca is beginning to provide more pain than pleasure. 

So I begun the process of buying a new car. In fact, I pretty much know what I want to buy. I just can find nowhere online if the coupe I'm looking at seats four or five. 

You can't really tell from the photos online. You can't tell from any printed material that I've been able to find. And the literally hundreds of articles and thousands of comments supply me with no answers.

I'm not ready to call a dealer or walk into a dealership. I can't find a way to find out.

I fear that hunger amid obesity is the dilemma of our information age.

Most of this is due to the web.

Digital advertising units are too small to have copy. And company websites are too limited in copy as well. Besides they're, as a rule, horribly organized. 

If the information is there, you can't find it. And if you do find it once, you can't find it again. 

Also, there's no source that clarifies, compares and contrasts. You're on your own.

Every time I get an assignment to do that entails creating some digital ad units, I say to everyone assembled the same thing.

"We need the digital equivalent of a double-truck with gutter."

This was the space to tell a story. To craft an argument. The work with and help a consumer--a thinking consumer--make a well-informed decision.

I think one of the reasons behind the ephemeral and fractious relationship most people have with brands is that brands do nothing to validate a buyer's decision-making process. 

In short, there's virtually no brand left that makes you feel smart for choosing them.

I know the feeling "smart" is not one usually lusted after by planners and MBAs and people of that ilk. They're usually looking for modern and contemporary or cool.

Maybe they're right and I am once again a voice crying in the wilderness or--worse--a stranger in a land I no longer understand.

However it seems to me we have been beaten long-enough with the bludgeon of "best-practices."

And those best-practices yield six clicks per 10,000 views, and no sense that the brand cares, listens and is useful.

The truth of the matter is this: the web and all its corollary spinoffs as marketing media exist because of one thing: they're cheap. 

No brand has ever been built via the web. 

It is the domain of small space, fraudulent ad-buying processes, and machine-generated cliches and jargon.

Worse, because it is ostensibly cheap, it has destroyed every serious media in its way.

In the race to the bottom, the web has won. Its high Priest in Donald Trump. Its Minister of Propaganda is Steve Bannon.

Friday, November 18, 2016

On death. And print.

For a little short of two years now, mostly because it seems no one else wants to do it, I've written just about every print ad my agency has produced for the account I work on.

Print ads, I'll admit, can be excruciating little things, like those rare South American parasites that get under your skin and eat you alive.

First off is the democracy problem.

Because everybody has a keyboard in front of them from about the time they can toddle, everybody assumes they can write. 

That makes everyone a critic. 

That means it's not unusual, cancel that, it's all too usual to literally go through a round of revisions per word you write. So, if your copy has 65 words, it's uncannily certain that you go through 65 rounds of changes.

I think I stand on firm ground when I say that maybe not all of these changes are wise, or artful, or substantive, or even thoughtful.

But still, they persist.

I think of an old British seaman flogged for stealing an extra ration of grog. He passed out from pain after six or seven lashes. Still, they gave him the full dozen.

But as the changes persist, the writer must persist too. You have to fight through every one. If the suggested change makes things 2% worse, how you handle the suggestion must improve the ad by 2%.

That's all you can do.

Print as a medium--for some reason we call it a channel nowadays--doesn't get you a lot of respect. I'd guess that there are major marketers who never even do a print ad. So much of our "reading" world has shifted to digital. Besides, who has the time?

But still, I believe there is something powerful about something you can hold in your hands, examine and read. As transitory as print is, there's something indelible in it.

There is something in print, I believe, that is important to brands. 

Because good print is "the right length," neither too long nor too short, it forces a concentrated clarity of thought. It forces 'thinking through.'

I know print is a dead medium.

But we could use more of it.