Thursday, April 30, 2020

Just a moment, please.

Whiskey, my eight year old golden retriever, had some lumps removed last Friday by a local veterinarian. Unfortunately, biopsies revealed some cancer, so unbeknownst to Whiskey, she’ll be starting chemotherapy soon.

Those who read my blog or who know me know that Whiskey is like my shadow. She and I are as connected and bound as proto and plasm. In the eight years we’ve owned each other we’ve walked thousands of miles together, usually talking about the essentials of life along the way.

Better writers than I, J.R. Ackerley among them in his great book “My Dog Tulip," have written about this closeness between man and dog. I know full well, as well, the meaning of the word neotony (look it up) and its evolutionary purpose. That’s not my point today.

My point also isn’t to express my sadness or my deadened senses or my Ahabian howling at the gods. The gods have their ways. And whatever happens to Whiskey, and I am optimistic we will deal with this, I’ve had eight years with her and counting and I wouldn’t change a single hairball that’s gathered in the dusty corners of my life. She has been as perfect a companion as anyone could ever want and it would be wrong of me to be anything but thankful for that.

Yesterday morning, early, before the rest of Connecticut’s Gingham Coast was awake, Whiskey and I went out for a walk and a talk. The rest of the world was asleep. I didn’t even check my phone for the night before’s invidious emails which the more trivial the subject matter the more hysterical and urgent the tone.

I paid no attention to any of that.

Most important to me right now when Whiskey and I have these walks together is to be fully present for her. No listening in on conference calls. No talking to friends whose mishigoss has gotten the better of them. I’m not even listening to the primal wailing of Ray Charles as he expresses all of humanities sadness and joy in a single stretched note.

No, it’s just me and Whiskey.

Whiskey had her growths removed on Friday and probably has 50 or more sutures on her left shoulder, her left paw and her left ear. But after 48 hours of drug-induced lethargy, she is, once again, raring to play when we’re out at 5:30 AM.

She wants more than anything to climb down the steep wooden steps to the rocky beaches and play fetch, just me and her and her duck decoys. Only I can’t now, until her stitches are out. I understand that. She doesn’t. And she can’t quite get why I seem to be punishing her by not taking her for what had been her twice or thrice-daily cavort on the Long Island littoral.

She looked at me with her deep neotonous eyes. Dad, please.

I answered her with as much kindness as I can communicate. “I want to, Whiskey. And soon we will. But until the stitches are out, I can’t. You understand.”

But she doesn’t.

She looked at me sadly, but then saw a two-foot long stick on the sidewalk. A perfect size.

She quickly picked up the stick and bucked and reared like a young colt and pawed it and tossed it in the air to herself. We walked along the road as she wrestled with it, hearing the chirping of a thousand birds, seeing rosy-fingered dawn reaching up into the sky.

I knew in a second that this was something. That what Whiskey was doing was the most important thing in life whether you’re an eight-year-old golden retriever or a 62-year-old unemployed copywriter who’s trying to keep the great cosmic entropy machine from tearing his world apart.

Whiskey had taught me something right then. As she had taught me so many times without me understanding what she was saying.

“Dad,” she said, “it’s about having fun. No matter what you’re doing, no matter if you’re sick or well, busy or idle, nervous or calm, don’t forget to play.”

Whiskey’s cavortations with her stick yesterday morning lasted maybe two minutes. But for those two minutes she was doing what so many of us have had mandated and bossed and timesheeted and businessed and you-might-be-fireded out of our lives: Whiskey put everything aside and had fun.

Simple, stupid, spontaneous, nonsensical joy.

We forget about joy. Even Maslow's hierarchy doesn't mention it, preferring the anodyne "self-actualization." But joy is what keeps us going. The laughter of a lover. A good joke. A compliment. A kindness. A kiss.

Joy should be a component of what we in the creative professions strive for. Not a Bacchanalia, but a moment's respite to savor creativity, inventiveness, even upsetting the dominant complacency or status quo.

But joy has left the agency business. As someone who has more than a little Borscht running through his veins, I have often been excoriated for being funny in the oh-so-serious world of business. 

Go fuck yourself.

Nothing we do is so big and important that it should muscle joy out of the picture. But the pissant and pompous importocrats have said "no." We're serious. We're publicly traded. We have to be professionalized at all times.

Of course there's the faux forced conviviality of an agency happy hour or a foosball table. The free mini-donuts meant to create an agency “culture.” But culture doesn't come out of a pink and orange fastfood box. 

It comes from people being people. But there's no profit in that.

We all need a moment of peace, abandon, silly, nothing, walking in the early morning sun, hearing the waves and the birds and walking with love.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

20/20 vision versus 2020.

I noticed something back around 1999. That was around the time the internet took off and traditional ad agencies began building or acquiring digital agencies. It wasn’t unusual at the time, given the growth of these agencies to meet a young creative who had about three or five years experience and about 20 awards from Cannes.

It wasn’t unusual to hear about someone who was making $80K in June to be making $120K in December who went out one lunch hour in March and got himself a job for $160K. (Often, I had to work with these savants. Given their ascents, I expected some sort of brilliance from them. More often than not, I found them lacking.)

It also wasn’t unusual to see an executive back in those days whose agency had grown 371% over two years. Such people, it was assumed, were brilliant. And they quickly moved up in various holding company hierarchies.

That agency economy—fueled by the rapid growth of the internet and social media—gave rise to a raft of industry optimists.

To be more than a smidge nasty about it, when they doubled their salaries, or won 62 major awards for a static banner or grew their agency YOY 182%, they were able to ratiocinate that they did so because they were brilliant. They never, really, considered that they were in the right place at the right time. As former Secretary of Agriculture Jim Hightower said about the first president George Bush, “he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

It’s the sort of thinking that allows people like Donald Trump, who’s never earned an honest penny in his life and is a six-time bankrupt, to take credit for what had been a strong economy—without of course due consideration of the fiscal sump he’ll pass off to the next president and future generations.

What’s happened, to my mind, what’s afflicted our world is an insane amphetemine optimism. Where institutionally we all join hands and agree that these are the best of all possible worlds and we have so much to be optimistic about.

We  believe in the sanctity of our nation, the resilience of the earth (dolphins in Venetian canals) and the human or meteorlogical ability to miracleize a pandemic away because tattoo parlors in Macon, Georgia and Applebee’s restaurants in Lawrence, Kansas, or baseball season needs to start lest someone actually reads a book instead.

So, collectively, as a nation, we assert, it will all be all right, because gosh durnit, we’re upbeat, we’re positive and we’re gonna make it happen.


I’ve been a lugubrious sort for even longer than I’ve known what the word means. And I’ve been disparaged for it.

“George is really good, but he’s so negative.”

Or from a more macro point of view, “We’re really looking for optimists here. They inspire people.”

In Sunday’s Times there was an article that caught my downcast eyes. It was called “In Praise of Pessimism,” by Jennifer Senior and you can read it here. 

Senior makes “a positive case for pessimism.” She calls it, “Defensive pessimism.” specifically. If things start going downhill, Senior says “defensive pessimists will be the ones with their feet already on the brakes.”

Senior defines defensive pessimists as “people who lean way into their anxiety, rather than repress it or narcotize it…They busily imagine worst-case outcomes and plan accordingly…They reject what the theoretical psychologist Barbara Held calls ‘the tyranny of the positive attitude.’”

To my eyes, the tyranny of the positive attitude is the malady that afflicts our nation and our industry. The tyranny of the positive attitude is the unwavering belief in the rightness of our nation even in its wrongness. And it’s the invariable belief in the rightness of the decisions an agency makes over-time, even as it hemorrhages business, has a 40% attrition rate, jettisons everything that makes it unique and fails to attract new clients.

But, we’re all in this together, we’re working so hard, we’ve had such success before, we’re gonna make this happen!

Julie Norman, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, told Senior….defensive pessimism “keeps your mind anchored and focuses you on things you can control.” Defensive pessimism is productive, according to Senior and “depressives tend to be the true realists, not happy people. They have extra receptors for bad signals—or are more apt to pay attention to them, at any rate.”

Optimists, as we’ve seen in our nation and our business, can and do “tip swiftly and dangerously into self-delusion.”

That’s what happened. We prize optimism. We disparage pessimists. And we find ourselves neck-deep in self-delusion.

Smile! It’ll be ok. We’re in this together.

 ✂️clip and save! ✂️ clip and save!✂️ clip and save!✂️  clip and save! ✂️ clip and save! ✂️clip and save! ✂️
(modern agencies)
(accurate observers)

Digital will change everything. It will be easy to reach consumers and target them precisely.

Essential human truths remain constant. Reaching people effectively will always be hard.
A good idea can come from anywhere. No need for expensive and cantankerous creative people.
Experience, while expensive, is crucial. “You get what you pay” for still holds.

Targeting will allow us to talk to the right person at the right time with the right message.
Data is a crap shoot just as prospecting for gold is. Sometimes you hit. Most times you wind up with dross.

If you follow best-practices you can’t help but succeed.
To get someone’s attention, to communicate an idea and to persuade them can’t be reduced to a replicable formula.

The clients have more MBAs than we do. So we’ll sell our unique trademarked process that all but guarantees successs—usually based on a case study of 12 people in Malaysia in 1977.
Agencies have one or three things clients lack. They are outsiders so can look objectively. They are paid to be incendiary. And they know how to get attention.

Now that everybody has a camera and editing skills, users can generate content.
You could give everyone a test-tube. Users still won’t generate a Corona-vaccine.

People want to have conversations with brands.
98.7% of people don’t even want conversations with their spouses.

People will willingly interact with brands.

If given the option, 98.7% of all people would say ‘I’m too busy to breathe.’

Since content is always on, it can be produced quickly and shoddily.
Cheap and shoddy content makes your brand look cheap and shoddy.

The new generation has no attention span. We can reach them with work that demands no attention.

People will read what interests them. Our job is hard—it’s to make something interesting.
People don’t read. We can reach them and persuade them with work that demands nothing of them.

People will read what interests them. Our job is hard—it’s to engage people so they think.
Planners give us insights. Their job is to find them.

Life gives us insights. It’s hard to uncover those.
The prestige of working in advertising and at an agency allows us to attract bright people and pay them peanuts.

Bright people want rewards—like everyone else. It’s tough to keep them happy, but crucial.
Winning awards is key. Since we can’t do it via paid work (no one can) we’ll spend 30%-40% of our time doing bogus creative with no material effect on the success of clients.
The work that matters is hard. It’s for real clients and it improves their brand’s health and sales in the one-place that matters: the real world.
We can stay relevant by investing in new technologies.

We become relevant when we speak to people as humans and impart to them information they need in a moving way.
If we show happy people viewers will like our ads. Everyone in every commercial must smile all the time.

Not everyone is happy all the time. Sad people buy things too.

Open plan offices are conducive to communication and collaboration.
Open plan offices mean you’re interrupted in the middle of nearly every sentence you type.

America’s biggest problem is running out of beer and not looking cool.

People have real issues. And could use help, not
cheap gags and platitudes.

We’re so smart, advertising can be reduced to an if-then proposition. If we do this, then that will happen.

No one knows anything.

Brands are your friend. Let’s conversate.
Brands want your money.

We can make the world a better place.
You sell plastic wrap.

A strong call to action will drive sales.
If the offering and offer sucks, a call to action is meaningless.
We’re all in this together.
Brands don’t care. They want our money.

 ✂️clip and save! ✂️ clip and save!✂️ clip and save!✂️  clip and save! ✂️ clip and save! ✂️clip and save! ✂️

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

I am not what I was.

Of course nothing’s seemed normal for about four years now. That’s getting broad and political, but you can’t really help that, can you? You have half the country not believing in science. Half the country not believing in facts. Half the country thinking know-nothingness is good and healthy and somehow the way of god.

But somehow, I thought I’d escape the whole thing. That being over 60, I’d leave this mortal coil before the dark-forces on superstition and religious zealotry and agendas over data would take control of the entire universe. I had faith, I suppose. Always a dangerous thing to count on when the demons of dumbness run so deep.

I didn’t think it would happen to me.

Here’s how it began.

Like I’ve done virtually every morning since 2007, I posted something on my blog yesterday morning.

In minutes, ping!, I had gotten a comment on LinkedIn. Hardly unusual. I’m not Gary Vaynerchuk, but one of my popular posts might get 75 or 150 comments. That ain’t bad really and I do my best to read them all.

This comment was like so many. “Smily-face emoji. LOL! Spot on.”

Then it hit me.

After all these years living in the world’s greatest Dunceocracy, in the three months since I was shit-canned from what was not long ago a vibrant agency, in the two months since I left my home in Manhattan for the Gingham-shores of Connecticut, I didn’t any longer feel spot on.

I turned to my wife.

“Do I look spot on to you?”

She gave me the a look like she had just chugged a gallon of sour milk mixed with gravel. She turned balletically on her size sixes and exited the room like a cat burglar, without a peep.

I tripped downstairs to get to work.

I didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel spot on.

I felt queasy, uneasy, the opposite of lemon-squeezy.

I called my therapist. We’ve been seeing each other since 1995. And not seeing each other since March, when we switched to phone sessions.

“Dr. Lewis,” I said when he picked up. “I’m not feeling spot on.”

He asked me to explain.

“Not sharp,” I offered. “A little slower than usual. Not making connections. I just don’t feel spot on.”

He thought for a moment. I heard him stroking at his metaphorical beard like an old Viennese Freudian.

“I see,” he suggested, wisely. “You’re not going to like this,” he continued after a pause that cost me approximately eight-dollars in session fees.

“Something to do with not being breast-fed? I told you, my mother only liked me as a friend.”

“No, not that,” he said gravely. “Worse than that.”

“What could be worse than that?

“Don’t worry,” he half-answered. “There are some drugs that are effective in laboratory animals and account people.”

“Give it to me straight, Dr. Lewis. I can take it.”

“You’re not spot on. You’re spot off.”

This time, I paused. “Spot off?”

“Yeah, it’s the opposite of spot on. It’s happening to a lot of people right now.”

“Spot off,” I said.

“$450,” he said, hanging up the horn.

Monday, April 27, 2020

What do they do?

I’ve been around advertising my whole life. My old man was in the business until he died. And I’ve been making a living writing ad copy in one form or another since May 19, 1980.

Over the past ten years or so, the business has turned into one I no longer understand. Not only do we seem to produce more and more work that fewer and fewer people see, we’re also told our work is about data not human empathy. Secondly, the highest-paid people in agencies now (holding company chieftains) don’t have any creative, media or marketing expertise. That’s like the General Manager of a baseball team not knowing a bat from a ball.

Third, there are now a whole slew of job titles I’ve never heard of. No matter how hard I try to discover what roles are incumbent upon these titles, I can’t seem find an answer.

Here are some of those titles and my best guesses as to what those people do.

Chief Risk Officer—Earns $1.7 million in salary and $2.4 million in deferred compensation to send out three emails a year about COVID, two about an impending storm, and one about Russian bots phishing in the agency’s network.

Chief Creative Officer—The CCO forms the overall creative sensibility of the agency. Also competes with the seven other CCOs management has hired in case one of the other six CCOs doesn't work out. 

Content Strategist (A)—A person content with strategy.

Content Strategist (B) —A person whose sole content strategy is recommending content that is strategic.

Principal—Someone who is hired as a principal because they have no principles.

Chief Technology Officer—Sends you emails that they are working on the wireless problem, the printing problem, the wireless printing problem and the fact that you can't understand anything the help desk says. Also responsible for 94-digit help desk "ticket" numbers and 1980s servers that run the timesheet system. 

Talent Acquisition Associate—An HR person who believes other people can be acquired like a rotisserie chicken or firewood. Once acquired, the Talent Acquisition Associate shifts focus and becomes the Talent Ignoring Associate.

Executive Creative Director (A)—A creative director promoted to a bigger title because the agency refuses to give a bigger paycheck.

Executive Creative Director (B)—Someone who changes four words in a script so the commercial is “theirs.” Also writes in name on awards list.

Project Manager—AKA, Associate Director of This-Is-Due-An-Hour-After-the-Briefing-and-You’re-Out-of-Scope.

Associate Producer—Anyone who will associate with a producer.

Digital Strategist—A strategist made up entirely of pixels.

Integrated Producer—A producer who once watched Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on YouTube.

Consultant--Newspeak for unemployed.

Head of Customer Experience--A collaborative team-player who works with others to create and maintain a cutting-edge ecosystem of integrated customer disappointment.

UX--A person who says 20 times a day, 'no, you need a UI person for that,' and 40 times a day, 'no, that's CX, not UX.'