Thursday, September 27, 2018

My thoughts on self-evaluations.

Years and years ago, I often found myself in the presence of the great Chris Wall, who rose to become a Vice Chairman at Ogilvy. Chris had a way of cutting through acres of bullshit like no one I had ever seen. And he had a track record that added strength to his brusqueness.

In any event Chris and I had been put on an HR committee to re-write review forms for the creative department. These sorts of things are usually written by people who have no idea about what kind of people creative people are. Consequently, creatives are evaluated on things like how well they get along, how they ‘build bridges,’ and how sunny their dispositions are.

These attributes have very little to do with getting your job done—which is creating, selling and producing good work, not making friends. Sure, you shouldn’t be a prick in getting it done, but you needn’t be Little Mary Sunshine, either.

I was going back and forth with HR, trying to get some criteria that spoke to the creative mindset without potentially alienating everyone else in the agency. Chris sat next to me, brooding. This went on for about 45 minutes.

Finally, all 6’10” of Chris got up. He said one thing, and then he walked out of the room. He said “there’s one way to evaluate creative people. It’s Friday afternoon and the pitch is Monday. Do you want them in on the weekend working?”

Chris’ measurement has stayed with me because it is so precise and complete.

One of the things people in careers must do is manage their own advancement—their own development. Sure, there are whole departments that ostensibly do this for you now. But who’s more interested in your career than you? It would be like having a plumber look at your pipes every nine months. You know better than he when they’re clogged.

If you’re working in an agency, it’s the one question you should ask yourself about how you’re doing. When it’s crunch-time, do you come through with the goods with a minimum of hassle and strife? Can you be counted on for coming in with great creative? Can you pool out someone else’s campaign and add to it? Can you make a deck? Can you do the thousand other un-defined things that need doing when push comes to shove?

If you’re minding your career, fill out the forms they tell you to. And do your best to toe the lines technocrats tell you to toe. If you’re abrasive, self-destructive and cynical like so many creatives, try to keep a lid on those things as much as you humanly can without subsuming your essential humanness.

But mostly ask yourself the question that needs asking. “It’s Friday afternoon and the pitch is Monday. Does your boss want you in on the weekend working?”

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Reading is fundamental.

When I was a kid in the business, "The New York Times" had a daily advertising column written by Phil Dougherty. Dougherty's column, if you wanted to move up in the business, was considered required reading. He'd report on what was going on where, who was getting ahead, and some of macro ins-and-outs of our business.

Reading Dougherty was like reading a tipsheet if you bet on the horses. It had everything you needed to stay on top of industry news.

I noticed, I was only 23 or 24 at a time, that the big wigs at the agency also read "The Wall Street Journal." So I started picking up the Journal. And I found I liked it. 

I also found through reading everything I could about my clients and the businesses they were in, I had a leg up on a lot of my peers. This was back in the early 80s, there were no planners. It was up to you to make yourself smart.

Around this time--the early 80s--the Journal ran an ad campaign that featured luminaries in our business. Little life stories, how they started, how they worked, who they learned from. And lastly, because it was an ad, why they read the Journal. I've pasted a few examples above. If you're a little diligent you can see the entire series here.

I waited for these ads like a Priest waits for a Little League game. I was always eager for the next one. They became, over time, an important part of my advertising education. 

Also, they gave me people to look up to, and I could learn their tricks. They also compelled me to keep reading the Journal. I still read it today. 

Then and now, I feel reading--the Journal and otherwise--gives me more than a bit of an edge. Because in many ways, I know more stuff than most other people, and I know it sooner. I've usually read four articles on the ins-and-outs of Blockchain while most people are rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.

I think now and again about all the people who entered the business around the same time I did. Many of those people were more creative than I am. Many worked harder. All of them were more social or convivial than I.

But I don't think anyone works harder than I do at being smart about my clients' business--about keeping up on the world we're in.

I don't know if this passes for advice in the Vaynerchuked-Godinesque-Sineked fortune-cookied homily era we live it.
But it probably does. Here it is in just a few words:

Make yourself smart.

Judge not, lest ye be judged. Not.

One of the pains of living in an advertising era dominated by the “Awards-Industrial-Complex” is that most people can no longer tell for themselves what “good” is. 

Work (and people) are only regarded as good if they win awards. In a weird perversion of Protagoras’ dictum that “man is the measure of all things,” we have today traduced that statement. We seem to believe “awards are the measure of all things.”

They're not. And there's a deep danger in being award-addicted.

It seems to me we have stopped cultivating our own critical faculties. We have stopped thinking about the effects of work on customers. We have stopped thinking about whether or not it helps the clients who pay for it.

Instead, we have a binary test. Did it or did it not win something?

Something that wins something is good, even if it sucks--if it's self-conscious and esoteric. Something that doesn’t win is bad, even if it has measurable effect in the market.

Further, ads created by noted award-winners are assumed to be noteworthy because “they’re from the award-winning creator of….”

Last week, I saw three commercials on Agency Spy from two vaunted agencies who have long-traditions of doing award-winning work.

One commercial was for Lucky Charms. Another for Reese’s Pieces Cereal (something like that.) And a third was for some sort of honey-glazed sweet and hot Kentucky Fried Chicken.

They were all so horrifically bad I called my work neighbor over to get his opinion. Could such and such a noted agency really do work that bad? And think it's good enough to publicize on Agency Spy?

Why would the agencies involved send this work to Agency Spy? Did they think it was noteworthy? Did they think it was good?

One of the best things you can do in your career (and your life, for that matter) is to develop your own personal sense of good and bad. In other words, what do you like, and why do you like it. You’ll find this comes in handy when you’re creating work, reviewing work, looking at art, reading a book, meeting a partner--work or life--and so on.

I am often chastised by my daughters for being “judgey.” For being tough and critical and for having high-standards that are, yes, inflexible.

As an industry, I’m afraid we have forgotten how to be critical. We have turned our critical faculties over to judges who too often reward ads that never ran and that are too obscure for any audience outside of award judges themselves.

We have to get back to doing good work. 

And understanding once again what good work is.


Monday, September 24, 2018

"I'm humbled to be joining...."

I’m humbled to be joining ______________ as their new ________. ____________ has always been a collective that pushes the boundaries, not just of advertising and communication, but product design and culture and the culture of product design. Working here represents an opportunity to have a material effect on the world—to solve some of our society’s problems and in so doing to make the world a better place, or at least in the top-ten, world-wise.

 ___________ works in a truly collaborative and synergistic manner. They understand that a great idea can come from anywhere and empower their teams with an integrated start-up mentality that keeps front of mind the idea of work-life balance emphasizing work and life in as two faces of a diverse coin. We are always looking for new ways to disrupt the market and iteratively reinvent the very idea of reinvention itself.

__________Agency spokesperson said, “ __________ is a rare talent, a double-horned unicorn who has a true talent for extending ideas from culture through every fiber of the agency and back—amplified—into culture again. At _____ we call that the Culture Inculcation Connection Connection™. It allows us to synergize the mood of millennials and the street and skater-culture and bring a revelancy to our marketing that goes well-beyond the bounds of limits to embrace a boundless set of limitations.”

"After working for 6 long months for some of the most storied agencies in New York, San Francisco, Boston, LA, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Chicago, as well as stints overseas in Amsterdam, Singapore and Sao Paolo, it was time to shake things up. The advertising industry is being challenged to rethink how client-agency partnerships and devise ways to optimize their optimization. I was impressed how the entire team at _________ are dedicated to building an Agency built for building an Agency built for the future.

"We’re combining VR, AR, AI, Blockchain, and a unique data-centric understanding of the consumer with our strong relationship with Iconic brands with a diverse team of white, Brooklyn-based, 30-something males to create meaningful work that pushes the culture forward and creates digital conversations that can't be skipped.

"I am humbled to join a team of world-class talent at a world-class agency in our world-class world, said ____________."

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Yom Kippur and young people.

I read an article in the Times the other day, the day before Yom Kippur to be precise, about how important it is to think about the life you're living. You can read the article here.

The article was called "A Dress Rehearsal for Our Deaths," and it advises you to confront your mortality head-on. To think about it. To consider, I'm quoting Sartre in "The Wall" here, if you lived as if you "had forever."

Too many people, most people maybe, go through life as if they're filling out a baseball card full of stats. How much money they make, the vintage of their German car, the size of their apartments and so on. 

How many people think about how they're really doing?
You know, the elemental things. In Jewish lore it comes down to this: will you or will you not be inscribed in the book of life. ie, are you a good person?

Last night, Yom Kippur, with our kids out of town, my wife and I invited over a bunch of our office children and their significant others to break the Yom Kippur fast. It was two 60-somethings hosting six 20-somethings. The age gap didn't matter.

We broke bread, ate smoked salmon, had apples dipped in honey and talked about our lives. It's a beautiful thing seeing beautiful young people as they make their ways in the world.

When they had left our place--and they stayed just the right amount of time--I did what people do: I checked my Facebook and I saw that a friend from the business, like me, just 60 years old, had just died. There was a short tribute to her on my feed. Not long ago I had tried to help her daughter find a job in the business, and now she was dead.

I'm at that stage in life now--ten years short of the Torah's "threescore and ten," but, my friends on the far left side of the bell curve are beginning to go. Three, maybe seven, already, including my sister Nancy. Dead at 47 in a motorcycle crash.

It's a sobering thing to see on something as dumb and ephemeral as social media. Someone who meant something to you gone like a leaf blowing down the pavement in a storm. Gone.

You count your limbs. You listen to your breathing. You secretly feel for bumps or lumps or unexplained wheezing or a pain that wasn't there the day before. You say, this can't happen to me. I ran for half an hour today. 

But guess what? It can happen.

So do what you should do. Have some young people over for lox and bagels. Dip some apples in honey. Take your dog to the beach and walk far without once looking at your watch or your phone. Laugh as much as possible.

And most of all, try to be kind. To others, to yourself, to your kids and spouse and your craft.

Rabbi Hillel, in the great Jewish book "Ethics of the Fathers," asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?"

Not to top Hillel, the Lou Gehrig of Jewish thought, but there's this I just read: "Who is wise? One who learns from every person." That's something to think about, too. Learning from every person. Learning from people younger than your kids.

Whether you're a member of the tribe, or not, have a happy, healthy, and wise 5779.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Herb, Herb, Herb, Herb, Stan and Violet.

“Herb Goldberg,” Herb Levin began, “he played the guitar. He was a regular Charlie Christian, or Barney Kessel.”

“He could play,” I added, letting Herb know I knew my jazz guitarists.

The old man took a sip of coffee from a small elegant cup, then rested the cup back on its matching coaster.

“Cold,” he said, then sipped at it again. “Herb Strauss, he played the bass guitar. Herb Schlesinger played the clarinet—the second coming of Benny Goodman. And I played the saxophone.”

“Four Herbs,” I added, “in one band.”

“Then there was your dad,” Herb Levin continued, “He played the drums and we practiced at his house.”

“How did he fit in,” I asked. Like me, my father wasn’t much of a joiner. In fact, I can scarcely think of anything in his life that he joined. And I am much the same. I hardly get into an elevator if there’s someone in the car before me.

“Like I said,” the old man continued. “We’d practice in the parlor of your grandmother’s apartment. She was nearly deaf and didn’t mind the racket.”

“I’ve noticed a lot of music lovers are deaf,” I joked.

“Politicians, too. He paused, I believe for effect. And wives,” he said as he padded to the kitchen and filled his cup with another dollop of coffee—this time hot.

“We were big in West Philadelphia in the 40s. We played at weddings, bar mitzvahs, school dances. We were making good money. We even played on WFIL, the 50,000 watt clear-channel station that broadcast from the ballroom of the Bellevue-Stratford. You could hear us all the way in Nebraska.”

Now it was my turn to refill my joe. I was back in a jiffy.

“So what happened,” I asked. “What happened to the band? You weren’t exactly Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd?”

The old man took a sip then laughed gently.

“We weren’t even Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge.”

Now it was my turn to laugh.

“It was your father’s fault the band went belly-up,” Herb said. “Even though we practically named the group after him.”

“What was the name?” I realized I had forgotten to ask the obvious question.

“Herbs Last Stan. No apostrophe. Not a bad name considering everything.”

“Herbs Last Stan,” I repeated dumbly, as I do so often.

“Your old man, he was probably 18 at the time, so it was 1945 or 1946, had taken up with a chanteuse of sorts.”

Violet Klotz (stage name Mae Clarke) starred in two of 1931's biggest movies.
"The Public Enemy" (top) and "Frankenstein" (bottom).

“A chanteuse?” I was pretty sure no one had used that word since Edith Piaf died in 1963.

“Yes, one Violet Klotz. A Philadelphia girl who had made it big in Hollywood in the early 30s—she was the vamp into whose face Jimmy Cagney crushed the grapefruit in “The Public Enemy.” Klotz was in “Frankenstein,” the top-grossing movie of 1931.”

“My father and Violet Klotz,” I sipped, “do tell.”

“You might have heard of her as Mae Clark. She was pushing 40 when your old man starting seeing her.”

“Seeing her?”

“Boffing her,” Herb clarified.

“So how did my old man put the kibosh on Herbs Last Stan?”

“Well, to be blunt, though Violet had been something of a film star in the early days of the Silver Screen, she wasn’t exactly a singer. But of course, your father couldn’t see that. The fact is, Klotz had been going steadily downhill since 1931. And she didn't start that far up the mountain.”

Klotz appeared in 22 uncredited roles in 1951 and 1952.
“But he was smitten,” I said.

“The heart wants what the heart wants. He said. He went for Klotz hook, line and form-fitting sateen gown. He saw Mae Clark as a film star, whereas the rest of us only saw 40-year-old Violet Klotz from 5253 Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia.”

“You can take the girl out of Philadelphia,” I said sagely.

“She sang like an emetic cat,” Herb said. “But your old man insisted. Gigs dried up like, well like, violet petals after they die.”


“We loved your dad, so we just let the band go. The four Herbs went and got real jobs. As did your Dad. Violet, at the end of her life had a bit part on the old TV show, "F Troop."

It was a long way from Hollywood to F Troop.

“I guess you could call that bottoming out," I answered.

The old man padded once again to the kitchen. He washed out his cup and saucer and placed them gently in the expensive German dishwasher. Then he turned off the percolator.

"Nap time for me," he said, exiting the kitchen, and turning off the lights as he left.

I sat alone in the dark.