Friday, May 29, 2020

Is it good?

Almost twenty years ago, I took the biggest job I ever had.

I was running not an account or a group, but the entire creative department of 140 or so people and guiding the direction of an agency.

I was hired, as big wigs so often are, to work some kind of impossible magic. I'd bet there's not a CCO out there who, about three weeks or a month after they were hired, didn't realize she was sold a bill of goods.

You're always told the place is xxxxxxx and you just need to make it a little more xxxxxx. Like all you have to do to this well-oiled machine is flick the "inspire" switch and prides of Cannes Lions will be surging through your reception area like it's the Serengeti and they've spotted a couple thousand zebras dragging a lame limb.

The place I hung my hat was about two pulse beats up from coma. Worse, many of the creatives accepted their cadaver-hood.

What I quickly came to realize when teams showed me work was that everyone was doing what was asked of them--they were all doing the assignment. 

They weren't questioning the assignment. 

And they weren't challenging themselves--and their account people--to determine if there was a job to be done that's bigger than just doing an assignment.

Here it is in just a few words and the question I always ask myself: "Am I doing the assignment or doing the job?"

In other words, are you thinking big enough? Are you challenging convention? Are you, yes, upsetting the dominant complacency--the inherent mediocrity that so many organizations are willing to accept, simply because it's simpler to accept it than fight it. Status quos endure for these very reasons. Unfortunately.

The greatest dressing down I ever got came from the great Chris Wall. It wasn't directed at me alone, nevertheless, I took it to heart.

Chris was disappointed in a big campaign a couple dozen creatives were involved in. We were all sitting. All 6'10" of Chris was standing--looming over us. I remember what he said those 18 years ago like it was yesterday.

"I'm not pissed that the work sucks. I'm pissed that our level of ambition has started to drop."

Damn. That hurts.

Thanks, Chris.

Thursday, May 28, 2020


I got an email the other day from a young person in the business.

Young, bright, energetic and hardworking.

I don't know her well. But if you learn anything from traveling around the sun as many times as I have, you learn how to trust people. More important, you learn how to trust your gut.

You develop, for lack of a catchier moniker, a mensch meter.

Is a person a mensch or not. Do they do the things you have to do to be considered, at least in my book, a decent human being?

A mensch meter.

This person, I could tell was a mensch. Kind, generous, caring. And capable of tough love.

She sent me a note.

"I had to beg, but I'm finally getting a review at the agency after three years. They already told me there's no money, but I'm getting a review."

As the father of two brilliant young women roughly this young woman's age, it was a hard note to read.

My initial feeling was one of anger.

How dare you say "there are no raises."

That's not the way to treat people--especially young people who need encouragement, rewards and yes, money for rent. That's not the way to attract diversity--you're only attracting people who's parents are wealthy enough so they can afford to not get raises.

Most of all, it's not the way to attract ambitious people to our industry. Because what kind of ambition do you have if you're willing to make the same money at 27 that you were making at 23? 

I sent my friend to Dave Dye's great site, particularly his podcast with and portrait of copywriter Richard Foster. Beyond seeing a few dozen great ads written by Foster, the retrospective includes about a dozen offer letters Foster received, starting at the end of September, 1968 to one Foster received from David Abbott on April Fool's Day in 1980. (It was no prank.)

Sept. 30, 1968.  £500/yr.

July 07, 1970.  £1,750/yr.

July 13, 1976.  £9,000/yr. (+ £3,000 car allowance).

April 1, 1980.  £20,000/yr. (+ 2% equity and £10,000 car allowance).

I told my friend to look at these letters, and to plot Foster's salary trajectory from beginning to end.

Obviously, I told her, this is not merely about money. There are other ways to get rewards. And I know we live in impecunious times. 

But, part of revitalizing what's left of our industry is returning to the idea that you can make money, a lot of money, and you can rise quickly.

In fact, the absence of raises and increases and bonuses mirrors the decay of the business. We have become afraid of big moves, afraid of taking a stand, afraid of taking chances, afraid of squeaky wheels, malcontents and oddballs. We have become slow, plodding and incrementalist.

We used to attempt the extraordinary and reward the extraordinary. 

Now we are stodgy, staid and incrementalist.

The business made more sense when we thought about and worked for our clients' success--and our success came along with it. 

The business made more sense and was more successful
when people could actually succeed in it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Some thoughts on going back to school.

In just one week from today, I'll be teaching an advertising course at AdHouse.

Virulence being what it is, the class at least for the start, will be taught over Zoom. That's not my favorite way of interaction (my favorite way would get me in trouble with HR) but as they say, any port in a pandemic.

As someone who's circled the earth a few score times--and spent almost two of those journeys employed by fairly large agencies--I have a pretty firm idea about what I believe is missing from most communications--and most agencies.

This is essentially what I pitched to creatives Tom Christmann and Paul Fix when they hired me to teach.

"There are a lot of people in the industry who have been in the advertising business for three years or fewer.
Many of them have advanced degrees. In art direction. In copywriting. In strategy. Some even have MBAs. 

They’re grown up in the “professionalized” business. Where people study for years. Often, they have advanced degrees.
And have interned at agencies around the world.
They know all the latest techniques, trends and award winners.

But do they know things that are more important? That are more essential to artful—and effective—communications.
Do they know the fundamental construction of any important communication?
·      Do they know how to organize information?
·      Do they know how to simplify information?
·      Do they understand hierarchy?
·      The importance of brevity, simplicity, honesty?
·      Do they understand how to get to the truth?
·      How a powerful communication is made.
·      How to stop people.
·      How to communicate information.
·      How to persuade.
·      How to twist things around so they become memorable. 

In this class, we'll talk about the fundamentals of strong communications. 

What makes a great ad.
Not style.

Maybe most important--we'll get to the very root of how communication actually works. All communications. From a baby crying for its mother, to a giant package goods company selling you deodorant.

I'm not going to give all that away here. People are paying good money to hear it from me. However, I wrote a short list for the class. 

For lack of something catchy, I'll call it "How to Tell if an Ad is Good." If you think I left something out, or that something is harebrained, kindly let me know. Or, let me know what you think. 

"How to Tell if an Ad is Good."

  • Surrounded by other ads, would this one get my attention?
  • Do I understand what the product or brand does?
  • Do I like the product or brand?
  • Did I learn something interesting about the product or brand?
  • Am I interested enough to learn more?
  • Did I learn something from the communication? (A new feature, capability, offer.)
  • Was I persuaded to do something? Learn more? Clip a coupon? Visit a website? Buy?
  • Did the communication affect positively my feelings toward the brand or product?

Then, just because I always try to do a little bit more than I have to, I wrote this second list. Again, if you have something to add, lemme know. I'm sure I missed something.

"Things to Never Say in My Class."
  • The product is boring.
  • There's nothing interesting to say.
  • It's all been said before.
  • Advertising makes people buy things they don't need.
  • I didn't have enough time.
  • The headline/copy are too long.
  • The subhead will explain it.
  • Nobody reads.
  • I don't think the clients will like that.

I'm not 100% sure but I think that's today's lesson.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Journal, the plague, advertising and Harold Diddlebock.

About 40 years ago, I began reading The Wall Street Journal. A lot of that was due to seeing a lot of wealthy and successful people reading it. I wanted to be wealthy and successful, so I’d spend five dollars a week and give the paper a whirl.

I was also attracted to the Journal because of an ad campaign they did featuring luminaries from the ad industry—their stories on why they read the Journal. These were the people I wanted to learn from and work for. I reasoned if they read the Journal, I should too. Here are a couple of those ads. (BTW, Shep gave me my start, Gargano, a push, Hayden was my mentor, and Riney, my idol.)

For about five years now to friends I’ve been gushing over the quality of the Weekend Journal. It has a book section that is second to none and a few other features I enjoy as well. I stay away from their politics (which can only be described as neo-fascist or radical Murdochian-right) and as much as I loathe giving even a few bucks a week to anti-fact climate deniers, I always feel smarter having read the paper.

I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that being smart is still a business advantage, not just being cool. And I’m sticking with that line of thinking.

On Saturday, there was an essay in the paper by Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize winning author behind the notable book, “Guns, Germs and Steel.” The essay was called “The Germs that Transformed History.” I’m not linking to it, because the Journal has a paywall and you’ll just get frustrated. But I liked this quotation from Diamond in speaking about The Black Death (a plague that makes Covid-19 look like a runny nose.)

“Its immediate effect on Western Europe’s economy and trade was disastrous. Paradoxically, though, its long-term effect was positive. By reducing the number of laborers, the Black Death forced landowners to start paying their tenants and to grant them more rights and freedoms. Societies became less rigidly stratified; nuclear families became stronger; and sanitation and quarantines developed to combat infectious diseases.
Another POV on the Trump-exacerbated pandemic comes from another newspaper, The failing New York Times. It was written by another Pulitzer-Prize winner, Jon Meacham, who also chairs the history department at a small Tennessee community college.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death
Meacham writes, “Thus began the deadliest pandemic in human history. The Black Death killed an estimated third of the world’s population, leading to fundamental social, economic and political shifts. It’s too early to know where our own battle against Covid-19 will lead us — the fight is far from over — but the nonfiction literature of plague reveals that pandemics, while ending individual human lives, can mark the beginnings of new ways of being and of thinking.

“How did it end? For a long time it didn’t….

And here’s the part I especially liked,

The plague made no sense, and in making no sense, it helped reorder how human beings understood the world… the Black Death undermined received authority. The shift from faith in institutions — monarchies, aristocracies, papacies — to an emphasis on the individual would be accelerated in the years of the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution, … the roots of modernity can be traced to the disease-bearing fleas and rats of the 14th century.

And the part I especially, especially liked—and found hopeful, actually,

Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came into sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.

All this to say primarily one thing.

I wonder how ad agencies—and the Vulture Capitalists that run the holding companies that exert monopoly control over the industry—will adjust (if they’ll adjust at all) to the changes wrought by COVID-19. Or, in my mind more likely, if they’ll resist adapting at all and wait to the next anthropocene disaster, whether that’s another plague or a nuclear or, most-likely a climatic disaster.

One of the greatest comedy directors of all-time, Preston Sturges, fell into oblivion almost as quickly as he rose to the highest heights. Though the AFI’s list of Top100 Film Comedies is afflicted with more than a smidgen of recency bias, Sturges, who all-but disappeared after 1948, still has four movies on the august list.

Sturges’ last Hollywood movie—the utter box-office disaster, “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock,” contains, in my opinion about 25 of the greatest minutes in all of film history. A line from Harold Diddlebock has been lately rattling through my plague-addled brain:

“A man works his whole life in a glass factory. One day he picks up a hammer.”

Friday, May 22, 2020

Out is the new in.

Since I’ve been a free agent and since I no longer have advertising colleagues, I now have a raft of ex-colleagues. 

When I have an especially good day, I hear from a couple of them. Lately, I’ve been having great days—I’ve been hearing from many of them.

Like me, many of them have been, lately, shit-canned, downsized, schmised, fired. And like me, all of them have gone through the same Kubler-Rossian stages post- dismissal.
1.  What am I going to do? Will I ever work again?
On the heels of that,
2. Those mofos, I’d like to sue their candy-asses.
Followed by,
3. Naw. Let’s move on. I have a good portfolio, a good  reputation and a good network.
Then, two bad days,
4. I’m never going to work again.
Followed by,
5. I’m getting more offers than I know what to do with and more work, too.
And then,
6. Getting canned is the best thing that ever happened to my career. I am making two or three times the money I was. And I feel liberated. For too long I was doing the work someone not as good as I was demanding. Now I am doing work I like, my way.
They kept me in a box and, like Procrustes, cut of my soul so I fit in it. I am free now.
Not too many minutes ago, I returned from a two-mile walk to and back home from the beach with Whiskey, my eight-year-old golden retriever. We played on the beach; I threw her duck decoy into the sea and she swam and fetched it.
When I returned home, a link to an article was in my email box. You can read the entire thing here.

I don’t know Michael Farmer—the man featured in the article—but he seems to have a pretty good read from a macro point of view about what’s happening in what was once my industry.
The thing I liked most about Farmer’s words is that they’re predicated on something that, to my mind, has vanished or been banished from our industry. It seems to me that most of Holding Company “leadership” and Agency upper management, no longer truly value the work we do.
The notion that we produce work that is plentiful, small, cheap and always-on has led to a tremendous retrenchment in our business. We no longer believe our work is influential and important and can make clients rich.
We sell ubiquity. Not effectiveness.
We used to believe, “We make brands matter.”
Now we believe, “We make brands ever-present.”
Ubiquity is not a cardinal virtue. In fact, if you listened to consumers, i.e. people, they'd probably say they resent the inundation. 
[There don't seem to be accurate stats on how many ads the average person is exposed to--or even what exposure means. But in 2007, the New York Times reported, "Yankelovich, a market research firm, estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with up to 5,000 today. About half the 4,110 people surveyed last spring (in 2006) by Yankelovich said they thought marketing and advertising today was out of control. Today, some 'experts' claim we see 10,000 ads a day--if you sleep seven hours a day, that's one ad every six seconds.]
In advertising, we don't win with ubiquity--or even repetition. We win by imparting useful consumer information in an executionally brilliant way. Make ads that get attention and persuade people to do something or think something.
Here’s the bit from Michael Farmer that got me nodding with some vigor:
“Farmer notes that advertising can be great, fast, or cheap, but advertisers want all three. ‘This is what advertisers ask for, and this is what agencies try to deliver. But just as all this pressure mounts…agencies are cutting costs, largely by shedding as many senior executives' salaries as possible.
“Agencies are understaffed at a time when clients have never had bigger marketing problems than they have todayThis creates a domino effect, where agencies need to be prioritizing their highest-value work, but the biggest cuts were made to the talent best equipped to manage that output.”
That synopsis seems about right to me.
If it seems right to you, call me.
I won't tell you my day-rate here. 

But you know it's high. After all, you appreciate the value I deliver.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Of wives, dishwashers and agencies.

As we move into our tenth week of working from home, I am naturally still learning things about the person I am sharing a home with. 

My wife, Laura, and I are both ridiculously busy. Our days usually open like this:

I start at ten today. Whaddabout you?

I have a 9:30, then a two hour meeting from 11-1.
Ok if we eat lunch after that?

I’m actually on from 1-3,
so I’ll just grab something.

That ain’t exactly Lunt and Fontanne dialogue or even Archie and Edith, but my guess is it’s fairly par for the course. Despite all this amorous proximity, as I said, I am still learning new things about my wife of 36 years.

Just now, I wrapped up my 27th phone call of the day and went into the kitchen to empty the dishwasher. Though my wife was still on her 29th call of the day, she had already begun emptying the machine.

It was then I noticed something.

We empty the dishwasher in completely different ways. And we both think our way is the right way.

If fact, my way infuriates my wife. Her way, infuriates me.

I bring a stack of dishes right from the machine to the shelf. My wife first stacks things on the countertop and then transfers the dishes shelf-ward.

My way, I’m told, chips the paint on the shelves and occasionally chips the Wedgwood. Her way, seems to take a good 20 minutes.

Stupid as this all sounds, I learned something from it.

Our tendency as humans and the tendency of agencies and, clients too, is to want people to work the way you want them to work. As a writer I’ve always tried to learn everything I could about a topic—a technology, a banking product, even a supermarket chain. I’m of the old-fashioned Francis Bacon ‘Knowledge is Power’ school.

Further, I’ve always looked more kindly at writers who had my iron-assed work ethic. Get in at 7:30 and type.

That’s wrong, of course.

While it might be convenient for me to have people around me who work like I do, it’s not fair.

What I’ve found through the years is that most bosses and even most clients want you to work their way. Your boss likes to work till 11 PM every night, chances are you’ll have to too. Because shitty bosses and organizations make you work the way they want you to work—because, in fact, it’s not the quality of your work that’s important, it’s your boss’ or agency’s or client’s sense of control that’s more important.

I often think about the biggest changes that have taken place from my start in the industry in 1984 to my finish in 2020.

Number one is that we no longer have permission to be funny. Business is a serious matter. So we must be serious. (We have forgotten that life is not serious.)

Second is the evaporation of trust—what’s happened reminds me of spitting on the lid of a lit Weber grill. Your saliva doesn’t just evaporate; it’s gone in a sizzle. Now we have more people watching over the work than doing the work. As the Juvenal the Roman poet wrote almost 2,000 years ago, ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ Who will guard the guards?
Anyone who can relate to a chart and a process like this should have a restraining order
that doesn't allow them within 1000 yards of an ad agency.
Third, we’re told how to work. We’re told to have stand-up scrums for 15 minutes. We’re told to be agile. We’re told to think mobile first. And so on and so on and so on.

I’m trying to imagine a pissant project manager who’s a 9th Degree Lean Sigma Chartreuse Belt in Agile Hypoptimization telling Helmut Krone or Mike Tesch or Steve Hayden or Chris Wall or Lee Clow that they’re late for the morning scrum. I have a feeling that project manager would be told they have their scrum up their ass.

I guess this is a circuitous way, my way, of making a point. Cut people a little slack. Leave off trying to make them you.

And while you're at it, don't take yourself too seriously either.

Even if your way of emptying the dishwasher is the right way.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

We Owe Harder.

With the shuttering of Neiman Marcus, J. Crew and J.C. Penney, every digital person and his digital cousin will go on about the demise of bricks-and-mortar businesses against the twin onslaughts of the Covid-19 pandemic and Amazon. But I’d bet if you polled 100 people and asked them what per cent of retail sales were online, the majority of the respondents would say 50% or more.

The fact is, 20 years into the digital revolution, only around 10% of sales are online. One dollar out of ten.

And if you think about the three retailers I mentioned above, none of them had a definable reason for being. Neiman-Marcus was a toy-store of the super-affluent who had more money than sense. J. Crew sold ordinary clothing for about three times the cost as competitors. And J.C. Penney lurched to and fro more times than a small ship in a big wind—unable to make up their mind who they are, what they sell and who they sell it to.

There’s more to the story that the digital doomsday people will omit. In fact, what’s afflicting much of retail is not terribly different from what’s affecting the industry formerly known as advertising.


J. Crew was in a $1.7 billion dollar hole and Neiman Marcus was in $5 billion deep. That’s money owed to private equity firms. And according to the failing New York Times, “J. Crew and Neiman over the past decade paid hundreds of millions of dollars in interest and fees to their new owners, when they needed to spend money to adapt to a shifting retail environment.”

What’s more according to the Center for Popular Democracy, 10 of the 14 largest retail chain bankruptcies since 2012 involved companies private equity firms have acquired. Of course while pensions are raided, and workers are fired by the thousands or tens of thousands, private equity firms get paid.

According to the Times, Americans for Financial Reform, a consumer advocacy group, estimated that J. Crew had paid more than $760 million in dividends and fees to its ownership group since 2011.

Now let’s leave the mall and go onto the private equity/holding company mauling of Madison Avenue. We can call it “The Maul in the Hall.”

According to a piece in Forbes by Avi Dan, from September, 2019—six months before the pandemic, “The holding companies, and especially the European-based ones, Publicis and WPP, are retreating and shrinking their footprint…”

Dan continues, “Both holding companies carry a huge debt load that will gobble up oxygen from their ability to support their assets, and especially the creative agencies. If economic conditions turn even slightly adverse, and they can’t service their debt obligations…”

This was written as I said, pre-pandemic.

“WPP, too, is burdened by a gargantuan debt load, even more so than Publicis’. Its earnings fell a jaw-dropping 25% in the last twelve months … The idea of a big consultancy such as Accenture or Deloitte coming in with a mammoth bid for WPP is not so far-fetched.”

As Joseph Heller wrote so many years ago, “Depreciating motels, junked automobiles, and quick-food joints grow like amber waves of grain.” And so it goes in our industry. It’s been picked at as if by a buzzard.

It’s no longer run by people who love a good commercial or even love seeing their clients achieve things because of advertising, it’s run by people slicing and dicing currencies, skimming off their 47% and cashing out with tens if not hundreds of millions.

What makes advertising interesting to you and me, or what makes retail interesting to retailers is completely immaterial. The only thing that matters is generating enough revenue to pay off the debt the money people have piled on, so they can take their vig and close off the wretched refuse on these teeming shores.

I’ve seen it.

I’ve lived it.

I’ve suffered through it.

I can’t see how it doesn’t happen again.