Wednesday, January 31, 2018

New York writing. Then and now.

My friend from blogging, the legendary Dave Trott, often remarks about a "New York-style" of writing and advertising. It's a style, as much as it cuts against today's hypocritical faux-niceness, I try to cultivate. I think of my readers somewhat as New Yorkers: busy, no-nonsense and in need of information, not adjectival pablum.

I've pasted two examples of the "New York-style" of writing above. Give yourself a 60-second treat and actually watch the Hertz spot. The commercial equivalent of the Jets vs. Sharks rumble in "West Side Story."

In any event, on Wednesday, the morning after Donald Trump's State of the Union address, I found two more examples of New York-style writing. One from the pro-Trump Murdoch-controlled "Post." The other from the comparatively Democratic "News."

I love New York.

Advertising Inspirations. Part 4.*

*Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA/Chiat/Day New York suggested I write a series of posts about some ad luminaries whom our younger generation might not know of. To date, I have considered Ed McCabe, my father, and George Lois. 

Today, Allen Kay.

There's a resplendent joy that occasionally comes with being an online personality--a digital raconteur, if you will. The prime driver behind this joy is people. I often "meet" people through blogging that I wouldn't meet in real life due to my natural shyness or my outright misanthropy or the logistics of distance.

About three months ago, the great Allen Kay, late of Needham Harper & Steers, more recently of Korey Kay & Partners, out of the blue contacted me. In short order, we became internet friends.

Korey Kay was an agency many people, including myself, aspired to. It was a small, creative shop that thrived before the industry and the world got consolidated into a massive, fetid blob of beige. Korey Kay did consistently smart, funny work that "punched above its weight." That is, work that was arresting and persuasive and had an impact that traveled far beyond its allotted media budget.

The first notice I took of Allen Kay was a spot he did with his late-longtime partner, Lois Korey while at the now defunct Needham et al. Check out "Monks," an entry in the "Brother Dominick" campaign. It's considered by many one of the great campaigns of all time.

Next, Tri-Honda. Yes. Car-dealer ads. Usually the lowest form of advertising this side of Sy Syms. But Kay and his agency consistently turned out award-winning work--often with limited budgets for car dealers, usually the type of guys who want to see sheet metal and nothing more.

Finally some print. Remember print? Below are three ads for something called the Cardio-Fitness Center in New York. They had copy in them. Remember copy? Persuasive copy.

In fact, they ran back when I was a 3:10 marathoner. And I still wanted to go to the Cardio-Fitness Center and join, though it was way over my head price-wise. It probably still is.

Allen Kay, ladies and gentlemen.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A light snow in New York.

You can tell a real New York snowstorm because the dog-shit is already on the snow by the time it hits the ground. Today's frosting isn't much, really. By Vermont standards, or the standards of any less pampered place, it's veritably nothing.

Sure, it's a little slippery, and dogs are licking at their paws for the salt on the sidewalks. But, like I said, it's nothing. If people still wore, like my generation did growing up, proper galoshes, well, those would be hidden way back in a deep closet with the muck and the gravel and the city's detritus from the last storm still encrusted on their soles.

That said, though there's no more snow than dandruff on an old-man's moth-eaten cardigan, the city will, almost invariably, be tied up in knots.

Trains will be canceled. Buses will creep along at paces that would make a mastodon look like Usain Bolt. And people with breathe through their mouths and fulminate and curse, each curse being punctuated by New York's harshest imprecation, that is, the name of their current mayor.

So half the conversations this morning will go something like, 

"Damn, snow. Kids, school, trains late, missed two. De Blasio."

The rejoinder will be near universal, too.

"Fuckin' De Blasio."

And then like New Yorkers have since the days of the Dutch Pegleg, we will hang up our coats, swill our coffee regular, check to make sure the Knicks lost again, and get down to business, which is what we do best.

Well, second best.

Fucking De Blasio.

Monday, January 29, 2018


On Saturday, my wife roused me early. 

Her problem wasn't getting me out of bed, it was finding a bat large enough to wake me with. 

But in short order I was showered, shaved and ready to walk over to the Metropolitan Museum. The Met, like so much of New York, including Tad's Steaks is enjoying a Renaissance of gargantuan proportions. To steal a phrase from the great Yogi, 'it's getting so crowded, no one goes there anymore.'

My wife had discovered, however, that the Met had members' only hours during which time we could see the Michelangelo exhibit with smaller crowds than during their open-to-everyone hours.

So we arrived at the august museum at 8:45. In just minutes we were hustled to the second floor along with about 3,200 other early birds to beat the crowds.

As is typical of the Met, they had hundreds and hundreds of pieces and were employing the latest Disneyfied crowd-control methods to move people through the show. There was more pushing and shoving than reflection and contemplation.

However, I saw this. And stood in front of it for some time.
And I got to see this, as well, one of only two or three sculptures in the lot. (Though we sped through the Rodin exhibit on the way to Michelangelo.)
In all we were bathed in genius for about two hours. But by 11AM, Whiskey and the Connecticut seashore beckoned and we were off to the beach.

There's really no great way to see art of this sort in New York. There's no refuge from the crowds and the elbows sharing the same idea as you or your wife had.

Part of me thinks that the way to really enjoy a popular show like this is to read up about two or three pieces beforehand and see only them. But the logistics of museum-going are such that you're bound to try to see everything in one giant art buffet.

I'm not complaining though.

While most of the city slept, I was with my wife. And Michelangelo.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Christ in a Yellow Cab.

On most Fridays, my wife takes our golden-retriever, Whiskey, to her office. So instead of taking separate black cars to work, we hail a yellow cab and commute together. Black cars, for all their merit, don't take dogs, even a puppy as accommodating as ours.

This morning, the three of us were in the back seat of a rickety Toyota Prius when we got a call from our daughter, a clinical psychologist in Boston. My wife kept her phone on speaker. 

Sarah said she'd been up since 6:15 counseling a patient in trouble. She went on to say she'd been in trouble for about three or four years since her father had committed suicide.

The cab driver, a young man turned around having heard that, and said through the bullet-proof plexi, "I am a licensed minister. Can I say a prayer for the young girl."

My daughter said, "I can't tell you her name."

The minister thought a moment, and then nodded his head and said, "ok."

Streaming across the park, he chanted:

"Oh, Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ, help this poor child overcome the sin of her father who murdered himself, help her overcome the sin that is in her family for seven generations going back to Adam and Eve. Oh, Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ, help her eliminate the demons that plague her, that say she can't do it, the demons who haunt her. Help her strike down fear and the sins that are in her for generations."

We paused at a light on Central Park West.

"Amen," he concluded. We all said "Amen," too. I quickly ended the phone call with my daughter. It was impossible to go on after that.

The driver, who had been somewhat in a trance, snapped out of it.

"Where do you want to be let off on Ninth Avenue," he asked. 

"The west side of the block, far corner at 49th," I answered.

Minutes later, he stopped the cab.

On the east side of the block, near corner.

"God bless you," I said, getting out. "God bless," he said, streaming downtown.

Thursday, January 25, 2018


Yesterday, I got a Linked In message from someone I've never met before.

This is hardly unusual. I guess by dint of my advanced age and ostensibly august position, a lot of people send me notes.

I try to be considerate--probably too considerate. And more often than not, find time to respond to most of these solicitations.

I'm much more apt, by the way, to respond if these notes are thoughtful and well-written. That's only natural. Writing well, to me, is a currency I value.

I guess you could call it "wit-coin." It's something I appreciate.

In any event, yesterday, I got the following note from someone I've never heard of who works for a company I've never heard of:

Hey hey! I hope you are having an epic day! I would love to make introductions and talk talent! We work with shit hot creative and digital talent globally and with offices now in __________ and _______, it would be awesome to talk to you about the great local and international talent we work with! Lets talk?

First things first. I'm 60 years old and have yet to have an epic day. Second, I don't want to talk talent. Third, the adjective "shit hot" disgusts me. Fourth, it is not awesome to talk to me. It never has been. Finally, you spelled "Lets" wrong.

In short, if you're going to hit me up, respect my time. Write a proper note.

And check your spelling.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Sergei Eisenstein.

Yesterday, Google doodled a tribute to the great Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein. I don't know a lot about Eisenstein, but I do know that he created two of my favorite movies, "The Battleship Potemkin," and "Alexander Nevsky."

Battleship Potemkin, had these two masterful scenes. The first called "Men and Maggots," which described the conditions in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and I suppose much of our Plutocratic world today.

The second scene is "often imitated, never duplicated." The baby stroller on the Odessa steps, in which the Czar's troops open fire on the masses. Brian De Palma tried to recreate it in "The Untouchables," but Eisenstein's version remains untouched. Give yourself a treat and watch the entire 11 minutes.

Finally, from one of my favorite movies, and favorite operas of all time, Alexander Nevsky, with music by Sergei Prokofiev: The Battle on the Ice.

See if that doesn't get your blood coursing in the morning. Dilly dilly.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Last night I had the strangest dream.

Every day, or nearly every day, at work, I hear with the persistence of a fly that won’t stop buzzing in your ear, that no one no one no one reads anymore and that we must write copy shorter shorter shorter because people have attention spans the length of the aforementioned fly.

It doesn’t matter that statistics show that more books are being published in Amerika than ever before. It doesn’t matter that even this humble blog--which is all words-- reaches nearly 20,000 readers on a typical week. It doesn’t matter if you quote Howard Gossage and admit, “people don’t read ads. They read what interests them. And sometimes it’s an ad.”

No, we are to subsume what we know and comply to this dumbed down edict that even though the “Times” can run a “most read” article on a pencil factory, of all things, we live under this Trumpean nonsense that no one anymore reads. And so our copy gets shorter and less persuasive than ever, and soon we’ll wonder why advertising, such as it is, is no longer effective.

In any event, all this is to say that last night I had the strangest dream. I was taken by some clients to a restaurant, a very nice restaurant. It was just me and them, none of my work cohorts, and after having had a bit of nice conversation and more than a sip or two of our drinks we got up to go to the salad bar.

Only it wasn’t a typical salad bar like the one we went to in Kansas City that time. Instead of various leafy greens and tomatoes and the like, this salad bar was different. There were bowls of course and heaping plates and platters, but rather than being filled with comestibles and vegetables, this was an “all-you-can-write” salad bar.

“George,” my clients told me, “we took you here especially.” I hardly heard them for I was reaching for a pair of oversized tongs and grabbing out of a deep bowl of gerunds. I piled those “ings” on my plate and moved down the row of offerings.

Let me get some prepositions, I scooped. Oh, and there’s an imperative. I took a dozen, looked around to see if anyone was looking and spooned in a dozen more.

I sidled down the line, my plate already, heaping with parts of speech. Man, I said to myself, pronouns! I ladled a heap onto my plate tasting a few along the way. Delicious, I thought. They I came to a lazy Susan full of verbs and I went to town.

In just about five minutes my plate was brimming with parts of speech, and I headed back to our table. But my clients were no longer there. In fact, the table was no longer there. No tables were, nor, looking back was the word-salad bar. The whole thing had disappeared like a fist when you open up your hand.

I looked down at my plate. All that was on it was a desiccated carrot stick and a few small leaves of spinach. I dumped them surreptitiously onto the floor and then I woke up.

And wrote this.

532 words. 

All of which you’ve read.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Some brief thoughts on Story-telling.

I am reading Martin Puchner's new, widely-heralded book "The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization." You can buy it here or read "The New York Times'" review here.

For about five or seven years now, many people in our industry have fancied themselves as "storytellers." In truth, that appellation gives me a fair amount of indigestion.

It's not that I don't believe, as does Puchner, that stories shape our lives. The story of Jesus, for instance. Or the Flood. Or even Washington crossing the Delaware. Or Neil Armstrong stepping onto the alleged moon.

But our business, in its aggressive dumbing-down of most everything, has taken the term story-telling and applied it to nearly everything. There are a few brands, in fact, who can really tell stories. I am lucky enough to work on one of them. Nike is another one. There aren't many more. 

In fact, the likelihood of anyone finding a story about new, extra-strength Saran Wrap compelling just ain't going to happen.

Stories, of course, can shape, define and illuminate. But when I hear people talking about the story-telling value of a 728x90 banner ad, or a :06-second video-bumper, it's not that I actually feel like screaming. It's worse than that. 

I dream about going home to re-read Homer once again.

Thursday, January 18, 2018


Sometimes, and I’m not entirely sure why, I get a recollection in my head that plays out as vividly and indelibly as a scene from a good movie. Maybe this is a function of growing older—of having more years to look back on than you have to look forward to. Maybe, there was an image or an aroma that triggered something limbic in my cortex. Maybe it’s sheer chemical synapses—a connection with my past that just snapped, somehow, into my present.

This morning, a cold windy day in New York with bright sunshine, I was leaving my psychiatrist’s office. As I do every Thursday morning, as I’ve done every Thursday morning for the past 23 years, and I thought about this ball game I was playing in when I was nine or 10 years old.

It was a Little League game and the most important thing in the world to me at that point while also being of no consequence whatsoever. I remember it being a hot day and muggy, even though it was just eight in the morning. Oddly enough, my old man was there as was my little sister, Nancy.

When I was a kid, I probably played a thousand baseball games, through Little Leagues and Junior Leagues and high-school and summer leagues, and I can count, virtually on one finger all the times my father decided to watch me. He had more important things to do.

But my sister, who wanted more than anything to play ball like her brothers did, would regularly show up. She was a tomboy in those years and wanted her swings at the ol’ horsehide just like the boys did. Of course, there was no baseball for girls back in 1966, so girls, if they loved ball, were relegated to the sidelines.

I was playing 3rd base, I recall, and my sister was in foul territory down the 3rd baseline, maybe holding my old man’s hand, or maybe he was off chatting with another dad.

When I was a kid, we didn’t enjoy the same level of caution kids today are raised with. There was no fence down the foul lines, and nothing to prevent spectators from standing as close to the actual field as they could get.

A batter came up, I remember, and after a pitch or two, he hit a pitch funny and cued the ball wickedly foul at an acute angle. I remember the smoosh like a fallen watermelon as it crushed into Nancy’s cheekbone just below her left eye. I remember her screams. I remember the blood. I remember my father, who earlier that year had almost died from a massive coronary, knowing he couldn’t lift Nancy and couldn’t run for his old Ford to take her to the hospital.

I didn’t know what to do at 3rd base. I ran over to her and heard Nancy’s screams and saw the pink red purple of her face. But the adults had forced us kids away. They were taking charge.

My old man left me on the field and took Nancy to the hospital. When he brought her home two or three hours later, the left side of her face was bandaged, but, I was told, her eye was undamaged and she was going to be ok.

For the rest of Nancy’s too short and too hard life, when she smiled, as she did not often enough, a dimple formed on the top of her cheekbone where the baseball had dented the bone.

Nancy died about 11 years ago in a motorcycle crash on 12th Avenue and 52nd Street. I’ve never, truth be told, recovered from her deadness.

So I think about that dimple, as I did this morning as I was waiting for a cab to take me to work.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

In praise of slow.

If you visit this space with any regularity, you know that of all the world's writers currently putting words down on paper, the one I admire most is Robert Caro.

Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. The Society of American Historians awarded him the Francis Parkman Prize saying, "Caro best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist."

Comparing Caro to David McCullough or Ron Chernow is, IMHO, like comparing Maria Callas to Bobby Sherman. Caro, like Callas, was touched by a god, or at least, a divine genius that makes his work--I'm not exaggerating here--Shakespearean. 

Just yesterday I read an interview with Caro in "The New York Review of Books." You can read the whole thing here; it should take you about 15 minutes.

There were a couple of things in the interview that I think have some bearing even on the sort of writing we do in advertising. 

First, there's this:

"It's a cliche today that people's attention spans are short. You know something? David McCullough's book on Truman is roughly 1,100 pages and it has sold thousands of copies. Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals" is more than 700 pages and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I'm sure Ron Chernow's "Grant" will sell hundreds of thousands, too."

Finally, in a world obsessed by "agility" and speed, there's this:

"My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don't believe this about me: I'm a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

"When I was a student at Princeton, I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I'd give him a short story I'd produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, 'Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want--you think with your fingers.'

"Later, in the early 1960s when I was at "Newsday," my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting "The Power Broker," I realized I wasn't thinking deeply enough. I said, 'You have to slow yourself down.' That's when I remembered Blackmur's admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down."

In this space and when I write copy, I write fast. But more often than not, though I write fast, I've thought about my words for hours and hours before I mark them down. It might look like I'm being rapid. But really, because I don't start writing until the words are in my fingers (that process takes time) I am slow. 

I'm slowed further by being the worst typist on earth. And I think exactly as fast as I type. At least, when I am thinking deeply enough--which I don't always get time to do.

Scary, I suppose.