Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Rough day at the office, hon?

Not all that long ago I worked at a venerable agency where people actually knew what the word venerable meant. I toiled at the place through two stints, totaling ten years spread over four decades.

Somewhere between decade one and decade four, the agency lost some of the good-manners and graciousness that it had once been known and well-regarded for. Like every other agency that had succumbed to the management of holding-company vulture capitalists, they spouted the Gospel of the Open Plan. Those doing the spouting in this case were vulture capitalists who would never in a thousand years sit out in the open with the proletariate on the factory floor.

The people most enamored with the Open Plan concept were people who would never submit to it. And of course, the Knoll furniture company who seemed to differentiate nearly every agency by giving us all exactly the same furniture.

There comes a time, I believe, in every holding company’s life when they discover something I’ve known for just about 50 years, having been taught by my father, an ad veteran in 1974. In a bullish real-estate market, agencies can make more money subletting their long-term leases than they can from their primary business, which until recently was advertising.

That’s a-round-about way of saying the agency decided to cram more people onto each floor and sublet the freed up space. In rows of ‘work spaces’ (how much less-nice a term than ‘offices’) that had accommodated four people, they decided to seat five. Increasing capacity and decreasing breathing room by 20%.

Some bright COO or HR person or Talent Professional introduced to us all, by a shrill email edict of course, to the term ‘densification.’

That’s right, we were being densified.

I had foolishly thought the agency was dense enough already. Nevertheless, densification. The human equivalent of concentrating orange juice or freeze-drying coffee or those cheap instagram ads where they beckon people to shrink-wrap their clothing while packing for vacation.

I worked at another agency where I was the big cheese. When we were leaving one expensive location for another cheaper location, I was asked to oversee the “stacking plan.”

“What is a stacking plan?” I asked the Doyen of Personnel.

“What people sit where,” she answered.

A stacking plan.


What’s really spelled the demise of advertising as a business—and maybe America as a country, and maybe Kapitalism as a system—is its utter lack of human kindness.

Especially in advertising.

It's a business, after all, where we are supposed to have—whether we’re in creative, account, strategy or media, a certain empathy for people, for the viewer. The most basic question in all of advertising, is “Why would anyone care?”

You have to be human to ask that.

And today humans are persona non grata.

A newsletter from “The New York Times” recently noted, “Goodbye, hot-desking and open-plan offices. Plexiglass barriers between desks, or a return to private cubicles and (gasp!) full offices, are under discussion, according to Matt Richtel of The Times. Some workplaces may require employees to wear masks all day.”

No one knows when we in advertising will return to our “cubes.” No one knows how many of us will show up every day. No one knows who is working, who like me is fired and who is furloughed or laidlough.

No one knows how deep the deep depression will cut. How much blood will be lost while the holding company hemorrhages. No one knows if employees will demand to work more often from home, and if they do, can they expect an increase in pay since they no longer should be charged as much for office space, utilities and internet access?

At this point it probably makes sense to switch to one of my favorite topics. Life on the Pequod with Ishmael, Queequeg and Ahab. There was an article in yesterday’s Times that caught my dorsal, writ by someone named Carl Safina.

Safina writes, “We are all Ishmael the ingĂ©nue and Starbuck the pragmatist and Ahab the maniac, stuck on a ship driven by winds we cannot predict, helmed by a mind not fully comprehensible, whose compulsions we don’t control. The world is an elusive whale; we might choose coexistence or destruction. And though we do not decide the outcome, the hands on those oars are ours; each stroke invites consequences….

“It’s no coincidence that Leviathan, the sperm whale, is Melville’s chosen vehicle… Only this creature — the largest with teeth on the planet — comes to us as quickened flesh and immortal metaphor, tangling us with our own pursuits, profane, bleeding, sacred, free. Only Leviathan could do it. Could win.”

Safina turns personal, “one wonders about those who’ve turned the book aside—as, in college, I did. How does one fare, having failed to be forewarned about our inner Ahabs or the risks of being led into complicity with madness, uncounseled on the wisdom of rejecting the obsessive quests that the world’s pulpits condone and its ports reward.”

Moby-Dick’ is only partly about madness; it’s equally about banality. Herman Melville’s haunting inquiry…returns to me again while every whale in every ocean returns to share our air… ‘If ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats,’ Melville mused, ‘then the eternal whale will still survive, and … spout his frothed defiance to the skies.’”

I wonder if we will survive, we proletariate, and with our frothed defiance in tact.

Life has a beginning, a muddle and an end.

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