Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Our jobs and last night.

Last night, January 27th, marked the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of the Death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Soviet Army--a camp where 1.1 million Jews were murdered.

To commemorate the anniversary, the Streicker Center of Temple Emanu-El on New York's Upper East Side put together an event that featured prayers, songs and readings.

Tovah Feldshuh read a story of a young woman who, when facing Dr. Joseph Mengele, cosigned her mother to death. The young woman survived but cosigned herself as well to a lifetime of guilt.

Joel Grey, who won both a Tony Award and an Oscar for playing the Master of Ceremonies in Kander and Ebb's "Caberet" was there. In fact, he sat directly in front of me. 

Grey is directing a Yiddish-language rendition of "Fiddler on the Roof," and his off-Broadway cast was there to sing three songs from the show--in Yiddish, a language the Nazis failed to destroy, though they came close.

The highlight of the evening to my ears was the final act, the Klezmer Conservatory Band with Hankus Netsky, Lorin Sklamberg and a half-dozen other surpassing Klezmer musicians.

Making a guest appearance with the band was the acclaimed violinist Itzhak Perlman who staged a Klezmer showdown with an amazing mandolin virtuoso, Andy Statman.

It was dueling banjos but not banjo versus banjo. Violin versus mandolin.

The music summed up, for a moment, life. In the bent and long twisted notes you could hear the pain of persecution, exile, poverty, hunger and death. 

Then, moments later, with the fast, alive and exhilarating duel among all the performers the joy, fun, laughter and uplift that comes from play and community.

Seeing Perlman and Statman battle each other--I can do it faster...No, I can do it faster...and so on, was a lesson in the passion and love that can come from creative expression.

Yeah, we're in advertising.

In these dark days when it seems like the bean-counters are ascendant and creativity is time-coded and margined and holding-companied nearly into oblivion, it makes sense to my mind to think about that which we rarely think about.

That we are creative beings.

Even when we're taking orders. Even when we're on Rich Siegel's Round Seventeen. Even when we're kicked to the curb and seen as a cost--not the core of our decaying business, our job is to look not outward at the despair that surrounds us, the despair of doing a nearly impossible job for people who disparage it and no longer understand its worth.

Our job is to look inward.

And find the joy and the subversive smile inside creative beings that says, "I will make it good. I will make it special. I will make it real. I will make it me."

It might be a single small note that somehow escapes the giant blanderizing machine that seems to mow down all hope. It might be a word, or a phrase, or a parenthetical spark of humanity that somehow escaped the all-powerful wit-seeking missiles that are always poised to strike. And it might mean nothing to no one but you--because no one but you will ever notice it.

But our job is to fight.

To not go gentle into that good night or AI-derived data-driven inhumanity that means nothing to any living thing save an algorithm.

Our job is to resist formulas. Resist regression to the mean. Resist the prevailing, that's-the-way-we've-always-done-it-ists, and bring our hearts to bear.

Our job is, no matter how dark it is outside, is to search for and bring out the light that no matter how dimly, still flickers inside us.

Monday, January 27, 2020

It was New Year's in the Tempus Fugit.

Last night, hours after the ball dropped and the vomit stopped spewing, as I lay on my designer mattress under my 800-count sheets, I heard the furious gallop of a herd of horses running at me like they were charging the homestretch of Churchill Downs. It was none-other than Dame Insomnia, standing astride four white stallions like a 19th Century Mittel European circus performer or at least a Roman emperor coursing around the Circus Maximus.

One of the steeds, I think the one Dame Insomnia called ‘Bucephalus’ kicked me square in my forehead acreage and concussed me from my lack of slumber. I did what I do in those situations, shook my head, threw on some ratty old clothes—in this case a 45-year-old sweatshirt from my Mexican baseball days—and headed uptown about a mile to the bar that isn’t there, the Tempus Fugit.

Unless you know where the Tempus Fugit is, you don’t know where it is. You can’t see it from the street, or from radio-spectral-photography, and even the most pernicious tracking apparatus of our ever-more-invasive surveillance state finds the Tempus Fugit unfindable. The joint, a former speakeasy that opened in 1924 in an old warehouse and never closed, is on no apps. It has received no Yelp! reviews and if it’s ever received any stars, they are of the celestial variety, not a vagary of the trophy-industrial-complex.

I walked down three long hallways, up two sets of galvanized steel steps, down three more and through a variety of expansion-gates, reinforced steel doors, and finally down a short flight and into the be-dimmed incandescence of the Tempus Fugit itself.

As always, Whiskey, my seven-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever, circled once and sat at the feet of my favorite stool, the one one in from the end of the long teak bar. In a trice, tripping on little cat’s feet, the bartender was around the hardwood and had placed a small bowl of cold water next to Whiskey, then was back around the shiny edifice and was pulling me a Pike’s Ale (The ALE that won for YALE!)
The Tempus Fugit is the only place    e  x  t  a  n  t    that serves Pike’s Ale. Since the Pike’s brewery went (beer) belly up in 1962, the brew has been unattainable. But with the foresight of an Ahab, the bartender bought Pike’s entire stock and has been running off that for the last half-a-century. The bartender, an ageless man who has been manning—or personning--the space behind the teak without even an evening off since the joint opened in 1924, claims he will shutter, finally, the Tempus Fugit when he runs out of Pike’s. 

He predicts given the current rate of consumption times the square root of evaporation, his stock will be depleted by the year 2744. Unlike the oil barons who have stolen the wealth of the earth on their way to killing our dying planet, there is no depletion allowance tax-break on the ever-dwindling supply of Pike’s. We will all, however, make do.

I downed my first Pike’s without the exchange of even a single word, and in one-Jerome-Robbins-like bit of choreography, the bartender pulled me a second glass of suds and began the evening’s disquisition.

“At the end of the bar,” he motioned with his noggin, “the glow. Ethereal, ain’t it.”

Like Caravaggio,” I chariscurro'd.

The bartender pulled a small bowl of salted Spanish peanuts from beneath the bar and slid them in front of me. As ever, I demurred.

“A pound in every nut,” I said, pushing away the legumes.

He pulled out a damp terry and shined the shine of the bar. He opened the drawer of the cash register, pulled a still-lit cigar from the one's till and took a long drag.

“He comes in on New Year.” He nodded again in the direction of the old man six or five stools away. He was thin and leaning to one side, like the ancient Jewish denizens who once occupied the concrete weed-islands that divided Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side. Beneath his old dark grey threadbare herringbone overcoat he wore an even older moth-gobbled t-shirt that read “I’m with stupid.”

“Who’s the mug?” I asked, doing my best to channel Sheldon Leonard and speaking out of the side of my mouth as I downed Pike’s number two.

“The name who can’t be said.”

“Lord Voldemort?” I used one of the four contemporary cultural references I will use during the entirety of the upcoming decade.

The old overcoat slid over to me.

“I can say it, even if you can’t. Yahweh. He, She, They, Zie, Sie, Ey, Ve, Tey, E. I don’t really fuss with the gender pronoun thing. He, She, They who must be obeyed.

"You're god? You don't look a bit like..."

"Michelangelo? Everybody says that. He was a pisher. Laying on his back all day, who can paint like that? After a while painting like that..."

I interrupted, "I was thinking more of Orson Welles as Father Mapple in John Huston's 'Moby Dick.'"

"Nice reference," he said. I get a lot of that, too. No, I'm sorry to say, I look more like an 87-year-old Larry David. I didn't get much in the look's department. Now, Jesus, he was a handsome boy. Took after his mom."

The bartender brought the old one a glass of Pike’s. And drew me Pike’s number three. I’m not much of a drinker, but at the Tempus Fugit beer is served as it should be, in six-ounce juice glasses so it stays cold all the way down.

“But that's neither here nor there,” the old man continued. “I'm pissed. I fucked up, actually. I figured ten commandments would be enough, but I was off by at least a dozen.”

The old man picked at the bowl of Spanish peanuts in front of him. He chose one nut, examined it, then threw it back into the bowl like a too-small mackerel.

“The infallible thing—well, it’s a lot of pressure. I thought the ten I chose would cover everything. I didn't want to over-commit. And I believed my own PR.”

“It’s not a bad list.” I temporized. He was being hard on himself and it hurt me to see it.

“Thanks. But I should have added some more. It's a bee-minus at best. How about, “Thou shalt read a book every now and again. Thou shalt believe scientists and doctors. Thou shalt not take nine minutes to order a cup of coffee.”

“That would be 13 commandments,” I added. “Not a good number.”

“Thou shalt wear a belt so I shant see your tuchis-crack when thou bendeth over. Thou shalt look up from your fuckingeth phone—especially when thou art crossing the street. Thou shalt question know-it-alls and people who issue proclamations or speak with Trumpian self-confidence. Thou shalt sayeth please and thank you. Thou shalt have progressive taxation so people who earneth more helpeth those who earneth less. Thou shalt spend less on bombs and more on schools. Thou shalt use your turn-signal when driving. Thou shalt take David H. Koch’s name offeth all the buildings he hath emblazoned it uponeth.”

“That's 21," I said, "Now you’re talking.” 

“Ten or 21 or 31, I’m talking,” he said. “The question is—the question’s always been, who’s listening?”

I drained my third Pike’s and when I shoved two twenties over the bar to pay, the old man was gone.

“He’s like that,” the bartender said. “You never know.”

Then he shoved the twenties back to me.

“On me,” he said.

Whiskey and I walked home in the fading darkness.

Happy New Year, I suppose.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Huxley anticipated the future of the world. And also advertising.

You should call in sick today or go home. Sit on your sofa or in your favorite chair and read Neil Postman's book from 1985 "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

No matter what you're doing now, reading Postman's book is more important.

In it, Postman compares Orwell's "1984" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." It seems as of this moment in both the world and our industry, Huxley was the better prognosticator.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. 

What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. 

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. 

Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. 

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. 

Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. 

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. 

Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

To my jaded and seductively blue eyes, Huxley's fears could  be describing the downfall of the advertising industry as it teeters in 2020.

  • There's no one who wants to read. 
  • We're reduced to passivity and egoism. 
  • We're drowned in a sea of irrelevance. 
  • We have become a trivial culture.
In fact, anyone of those would serve, I think, as a tagline for most agency creative departments and most awards shows.

Showing work within an agency, you're almost always told, "no one reads," or "there's too many words."

We seem to care most passionately about our own awards and advancement.

We spend the bulk of our time on fake work or work so on the fringes that no one ever sees it (at least outside of the ad community.)

We care not about the material and commercial success of our clients but on spurious golden statuary.

Of course not every agency.
Not every account.

Not every day.

But when Sir John Hegarty asserts that as an industry "advertising has retreated to the fringes..." maybe we should spend a little time as agency not discussing how to slice and dice our work to finagle it into yet another over-priced award show, but instead start thinking seriously about what we do as an industry.

To borrow from Huxley, but putting a Pangloss on his dystopia, do we:
  • create work that people want to read because it informs, enriches and entertains.
  • creative work that impels people to action or provides them with genuine reasons to care.
  • find human truths based on human emotions, fears and pains so that we do not become irrelevant.
  • in so doing do we undo our self-enforced trivialization and become, once again, important to brands and the people who buy things.

In his great book, "The Empire of Illusion" Christopher Hedges wrote, "we now live in two societies: One, the minority...can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other, a growing majority, is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. In this “other society,” serious [thought is] being pushed to the margins."

I think we need to decide, as an industry, which society we want to operate in.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

What you learn when you're shot at.

Just yesterday I ran across this picture from a site that features stories about World War II. Along with the picture, came a story of a concept I was unfamiliar with:
Survivor-Ship Bias.

Here's a succinct definition of Survivor-Ship Bias: Drawing conclusions from an incomplete set of data because that data has "survived" some selection criteria.

Here’s the story as I read it.

An American plane came back to England after a bomb-run over Germany. The red dots on the outline above show all the places the bomber was hit by German anti-aircraft fire.

Engineers looked at this diagram and others like it. They said ‘there are no bullet holes on the engine and the cockpit—they don’t need armor-plating. The wings and the tail are where planes get hit. We’ll reinforce those areas.”

That seemed to be wise and the consensus among the engineers. You put extra protection on the places that need it most.

One mathematician on the team, Abraham Wald, analyzing the data looked at it and saw something completely different. The planes the engineers were analyzing had one thing in common. They had successfully returned. What about planes that didn’t return—the planes that were shot out of the sky?

Wald recommended reinforcing the areas of aircraft that had no bullet holes. Because if planes were hit in those areas—the engines and the cockpit-- they didn’t return.

I wondered, and this is, I admit, more than a little inchoate, if there are parallels in the advertising business.

I noticed this first many decades ago when I worked at an agency (I’m changing its name to protect the innocent) let's call it Foot Cut and Bleeding. 
As always, I was a doer. I like to write things rather than talk about writing things.

I was in my mid-30s at the time, but I reckon I produced more TV and print than the rest of the agency combined. I’ve always liked working on a four-burner stove and keeping four pots boiling.

After about one year and having shot 25 commercials and 25 print ads, I got called into the boss’ office. (A CCO who added nothing to the creative process or product.) She played a commercial I had done on her monitor.

“Do you think that’s great?” she accused.

I was as realistic about work then as I am today. Not very much is “free swim” in our business. It’s not unusual if you work on big bureaucratic brands at big bureaucratic agencies to go through Rich Siegel’s metaphoric 17 rounds. And about 170 things you have to say. I often say, most ads are negotiations not communications.

Nevertheless, this one wasn't bad. I said, “I think it’s good. Smart, strategic and well-executed.”

“We’re looking for great here,” she said.

I probably said something snide and inflammatory but I don’t remember what.

Just a month or so afterwards, I was fired.

I realized back then what was reinforced yesterday with the bomber diagram above. It’s much easier to fix a problem if you don’t analyze the problem that needs fixing. It's much easier to fix something that isn't broken and break something that doesn't need fixing.

It's much easier to blame a creative team or a department if an agency isn't winning pitches than it is to look at what might be the real problem.

So Survivor-Ship Bias in this case says creative is the problem. That's what got hit by the bullets. That's what needs rejiggering, retooling, reinforcing.

That's what the data says.

But it depends on what data you're looking at.

So much depends upon it. 

Like careers, lives and morale.