Over the 36 years of my career, I’ve been lucky to have worked for and with a handful of some of the best advertising writers to ever tap a keyboard. Chris Rockmore, my boss at Bloomingdale’s. Marshall Karp and Harold Karp at my first agency job at Lowe Marschalk. Ed Butler at Ally & Gargano. And a veritable pantheon during my 10 years at Ogilvy, Steve Hayden, Chris Wall, Tom Bagot, Steve Simpson and David Fowler. Others, too, too numerous to list.
Not to be snide or dismissive, however, the writer I’ve learned the most from isn't from our industry. It's Robert Caro.
Caro is most famous for “The Power Broker,” his 1,300-page Pulitzer-winning biography of Robert Moses. And for his 3,300 page four-volumes on Lyndon Johnson, which have won both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.
I’ve attended Caro’s talks. I’ve read all the above books and more. And I’ve read every article I could find on him. His writing means that much to me.
The funny thing is, I can boil-down what I’ve learned from Caro to just three words. They’re three words that it seems none of the money people (and sadly, that includes most clients) in our business understand. The whip-crackers who give you 45-minutes to come up with a campaign. The project managers who stand behind your rickety Aeron asking, “Are you done with it?” The CCO who says “We need 21 print ads with full copy by lunch.”
No, they don’t understand.
Caro’s words are these: TIME EQUALS TRUTH.
In other words, it takes time to find out the truths that reside deep in the marrow of an brand. The truths that mean everything but that are also, too often, unvoiced. Simply because no one takes the time, or has the time, to find them.
Or no one any longer takes the time, or has the time to express them.
Truth isn’t found when you’re painting with a nine-inch roller. It’s found when you’re applying the tiniest dab with the smallest 00000 paintbrush. The brush of a Leonardo, who 17 years after “finishing” the “Last Supper” stared at his work for hours when he finally added one more stroke. This below is from Walter Isaacson's biography of DaVinci.
Truth is about details.
Yesterday in this space, I posted three adds by one of the most-truthful, most-detailed, best advertising writers ever, David Abbott.
At least three different people commented on the typography of the ads. Specifically the way the “y” tucks into the copy in the ad pasted here.
Abbott’s campaign was all about care and attention. It was about the obsessive way a grocery chain sold only the best produce. In order to be “true” every bit of the ad has to be as obsessive as the people at Sainsbury’s.
Maybe that doesn’t matter. Because if you polled people, fewer one in 1,000 would say they notice. But people do notice—even if they don’t realize they do, even if they can’t articulate what they’ve noticed.
Details and truth are signs of love. Love for what we create. And the people we create it for.
My final example comes from Caro himself by way of Paul McRandle, who called it many years ago to my attention in a short item McRandle wrote called, “Caro’s Damning Paragraph Break.”
Moses, like most racists, denied (or didn’t see) his own racism. Caro underscores Moses’ racism with a damning line break. Yes, a line break. Something, again, fewer than one person in 1,000 would ever notice.
“Robert Moses had always displayed a genius for adorning his creations with little details that made them fit in with their setting, that made the people who used them feel at home in them. There was a little detail on the playhouse-comfort station in the Harlem section of Riverside Park that is found nowhere else in the park. The wrought-iron trellises of the park’s other playhouses and comfort stations are decorated with designs like curling waves.
“The wrought-iron trellises of the Harlem playhouse-comfort station are decorated with monkeys.”
It takes time to find details like that.
It takes time to find truth.
At a time in our business when it seems that every third word is “authentic,” I wonder if people know anymore what that even means.
Or if we’re all just processed cheese food masquerading as brie.