Tuesday, June 30, 2020

We all scream.

Last night after dinner my wife looked at me with her doe eyes and said something like, “I’m in the mood for some ice cream.”

“There’s probably some in the fridge,” I mumbled.

“No, asshat,” she said lovingly “you finished it, remember?”

“My bad,” I dissembled.

“Why don’t you run down to the ice-cream shop and pick up a couple of pints?”

It wasn’t a request.

So, I threw a leash on Whiskey and decided to walk the two-miles to a little shop, or maybe it was a shoppe, we had seen by the side of the road, “Cows and Effect” I think its name was.

I got there just before they were about to close for the evening and I put on a mask and walked up to the window to order.

“Hi, I’d like a pint of blackberry swirl,” I said.

The white-hatted man behind the plexi pointed to a touch screen.

“That’s how you order,” he insisted.

“It’s just one pint. Can’t I just tell you what I want?”

He only laughed, turned and walked to the back to separate sprinkles by color.

“Can’t I just tell you what I want,” I repeated.

He walked back to the window and scowled at me.

“You have to get with the program,” he admonished. “Cows and Effect is not an ice-cream shop.”

“You do sell ice cream, yes?”

He ignored that.

“We’re not an ice cream shop,” he repeated. “We’re a technology company that sells frozen confection solutions.”


He pointed again at the touch screen.

“Frozen confection solutions?” I questioned.

“Well, by definition ice cream is cream, sugar, salt, flavoring and egg yolks. We also serve frozen yogurt, ice milk, gelato and ‘dippin’ dots.’ Frozen confection solutions is much more comprehensive. Ice cream, as a phrase, is elitist and exclusionary.”

“I see,” I lied.

I typed on the touch screen and ordered a pint of blackberry swirl. In a minute he was back with a quart of mint chip.

“That’s not what I wanted,” I said.

“You must have ordered wrong,” he answered. He turned abruptly and went to the back to sort different artisanal fudge sauces according to their cacao content and viscosity.

I walked slowly home, the mint chip dripping through the bag.

The frozen confection solution was a bit unfrozen by the time  my wife and I sat down to enjoy our dessert. But there’s nothing quite as delicious at the end of a hard day than a nice lukewarm bowl of technology.

Even if the whole experience did remind me a bit of when I worked in what used to be the advertising industry.

Monday, June 29, 2020

We're committed to giving back.

I just got back from the supermarket. I go every Sunday morning during old-people hours and pick up the week's groceries, usually with a wife-scrawled shopping list which she somehow manages to write on a small shred of paper in about 2.5-pt. type, mostly because she knows I never bring my reading glasses.

After 36 years of marriage, I admire a lot about my ever-loving. Perhaps most prominent among those admirable traits is her manner of finding new ways to enervate me.

Nevertheless, as someone who's wired to take in a lot of stimulus, I tend to read everything around me. I notice signs, names and messages wherever they are. It's one of those things that keep me going. No matter where I am and where I travel, I always find something odd that makes me laugh. Or angry.

This morning in the supermarket, I saw a poster they had hung up at the entrance, right next to the obligatory cistern of Purell. There was a sign that said, "Now featuring Customer Friendly Pricing."

That phrase struck me. It made me think about the marketing lies that surround us--no matter where we go.

What in god's name is "customer friendly pricing"? What is non-customer friendly pricing? Gouging? Or, is there special pricing that excludes me, a non-friendly customer? More pointedly, why proclaim words that are devoid of meaning?

I remember riding in the front seat of a Lincoln Town Car some years ago on my way with a bunch of colleagues to  client presentations. These words were emblazoned in chrome script on the car's glove-box: "Ride engineered." 

I remember that the marketing department of that client was on the 18th Floor of 48 Wall Street. The senior executives sat on the 3rd Floor. The client sitting on the 18-story insisted that we go "up to 3."

Oh. OK. 

After about an hour, I got home with 49 bags, mostly filled with yeast which was back in stock. My wife, as usual had National Public Radio on. NPR is supposed to be commercial-free but seemingly 20-minutes of every broadcast hour has some promotional announcement. "NPR is brought to your by America's Chemical Companies. Killing people, rivers and the environment in equal measure. America's Chemical Companies: No lives matter. Especially yours."

As I walked in, I heard one of those promotional announcements from JP Morgan Chase, a bank with a $285 billion market-cap and almost $3 trillion in assets under management. The announcement said something about JP Morgan Chase "giving back." Since the rise of the Trumputsch state, taxes paid by major banks have dropped by around 33%.

Giving back. Customer friendly pricing. Ride engineered. War is Peace. Shortage is plenty. Sickness is health. Lack of care is caring. Infecting others is freedom. 

You get it.

That's enough giving back for me today.

Friday, June 26, 2020

62 years old. And learning every day.

Some years ago—I really don’t remember when—I was flying to somewhere or from somewhere and the agency I was working for had the kindness and consideration to stuff one of their most-senior and most-sizable employees in a middle-seat.

Most often, when you’re flying somewhere you’re dealing with no small degree of inconvenience. Especially if you’re like me and don’t particularly like traveling. You’re usually sleeping in a strange bed. You’re usually up at a stupid hour. You’re usually stuck in a stale linoleum airport and subject to more indignities than a prisoner of the former Soviet state.

Despite all that, your agency—you know, the one who tells you you’re part of the so-and-so-family and that you’re a colleague and that you matter—does everything they can to make this woeful experience even more woeful. You're family, all right. Kind of like the House of Atreus is family.

Which brings me back to that middle-seat. With a reclining seat right in front of me. A fat arm-rest hog to my left and a frequent-pee-er to my right. Not far from a colicky infant. There was little anyone could do to make me more uncomfortable than events had conspired to make me.

About 32 million years ago, my wife had a cousin, Philip, who was a big wig at a fast food company. He was president of a Denny’s-like chain that operated about 60 restaurants in 60 strip malls in California.

Philip’s dad, Manny moved out to California to be with his kids and grand-kids and he was bored. So Philip put him to work as a “secret shopper.” Manny would drop by a couple restaurants every week—unannounced and unidentified—to see how customers were really being treated. Philip wanted information straight from his father. He didn’t want anything sugar-coated by a research company, a public opinion company, or something like a ‘survey monkey.’ He wasn’t monkeying around.

Learning this and sitting in this middle seat—er, that’s your elbow in my mouth—helped me develop a theory. Company leaders should always see how they’re treated by the company—when nobody knows who they are.

As I venture out into the world without the appurtenances (and encumbrances) of a giant agency or agency network behind me, I am learning a lot.

Maybe this is my not-inconsiderable ego speaking, but mostly I think creative people have been almost completely shunted aside in what's become the ad industry. In fact, it seldom happens at all that we get to hear a client’s problem, or a customer’s needs from clients or customers themselves.

Creatives seem to get their information filtered, secondhand, in a badly-designed powerpoint or from a crappy video of a focus group. I liken it to a doctor reading a patient’s chart, but never meeting the patient.

The other morning, Thursday, I had my regular Thursday morning therapy session with Dr. Lewis. I’ve been fortunate through the eons to be able to surround myself with people I consider smart and wise. High in that Pantheon sits Dr. Lewis. It’s no wonder I’ve been seeing him virtually every Thursday morning at 8 for the last thirty years.

I was talking to Dr. Lewis about the ups-and-downs I’m having as I’m building my own business. And mostly how I disliked talking to prospective clients on the phone and talking about my company, GeorgeCo, a Delaware Company.

He said as a therapist, he does the same. He could hire a receptionist to “intake” new patients. But hearing directly from clients gives him an edge, an insight, a head-start. He knows something he wouldn’t know if there was an in-between.

I think big stay-the-course agencies don’t understand this. And don’t know what it’s like to actually work with them—how much distance they create between the clients and the creators. They don’t understand that clients—at least, good clients—want to deal with creatives, even though good creatives are usually pains in the ass.

Good clients want to be heard, not filtered.
Good clients want to be challenged, not obeyed.
Good clients want a point of view, not ‘we like them all.’
Good clients want fast, but they’d rather have good.
Good clients prefer stubborn and principled to tractable and malleable.

I’m new to all this. I’ve never worked for myself before. For 25 weeks it’s been going extraordinarily well. I’m getting more calls and more work than I ever imagined—and for that, I am thankful.

But that could all change tomorrow, and I know that.

I also know what I’ve seen and what I learned. Beyond the money I’m making, I’m learning things I think the rest of the industry may have forgotten. 

I am thankful for that, too. And I think my clients are as well.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

From green to brown.

I've lived in New York City most of my life and don't have a lot of experience going into backyards--but there I was in the backyard. Just a minute ago, my wife asked me to go back there and set up an umbrella to shield her from the sun, so there I was.

We've been up in Connecticut for four months now. We came up here as the last brutal breaths of winter were chilling us, and now the full-fury of summer's heat is frazzling my bones.

There I am in the back, the sea blue, flat and warm just twenty-feet below the sea-wall. It hasn't rained in two weeks or so and I noticed just now that the lush green grass has turned sere and brown and dead.

All of a sudden, I was no longer on the rarefied coast of Middlesex County, Connecticut. I was manning third base at Estadio de Beisbol Francisco I. Madero, kicking with my spikes against the burnt infield grass around my position. My baseball days started green and were ending up brittle.

A lot of the world is like that. Dying right before our eyes.

Often that summer, that summer so long ago in 1975, I watched our team die at the end of a ballgame, when we were within a long fly ball of tying the score, or a tricky double into the corner away from winning one, and I watched us die.

I watched Garibay lose one in the sun in left or Rojas let one fall into the stands that he should have grabbed. I watched a ball bad-hop in front of me and turn an easy 5-3 into a base hit.

I watched guys, myself included, swing at meatballs like their bats were made of Swiss cheese and come up empty when they should have moved a man ahead a bag.

But mostly, from my vantage at third, just half a diamond away from the pitcher's perch, I'd watch Marco Tovar's left arm tighten up and freeze like a too-old V-8 run with too little oil, or one of the Medrano brothers pull up lame, or a fastballer like Logan Duran who had big league stuff and grade-school control, lose his location altogether and start throwing pitches wildly into both dugouts.

That's a lot of life, some times. Some times it's how we all feel. 

In the morning, you're green and lithe and sinewy--your feet planted on the floor, ready to run. In the evening, your life is brown and fragile and ready to crack.

Amid the brown scraggle, kicking at the dead grass, I saw my manager Hector Quetzacoatl Padilla aka Hector Quesadilla walk disgusted in from the dugout to remove an arm.

He walked head down, by rote, staring not ahead of him but at the once-green, now dead grass. He walked slower than any man has ever walked, like he was walking the last mile to the chair at the big house. He moved tectonically, like death itself. Slow so our relief could get warm. Slow so their arms could unstiffen. Slow. Slow.

Slow and hoping the next pitcher, the next day, the next game would be better.

Slow and hoping that the brown would come back to green.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

I love you. You love me.

I’m sick of adjectives.
I’m sick of jargon.
I’m sick of being told how I feel.

I’m sick of unsubstantiated claims.
I’m sick of blind assertions.
I’m sick of Newspeak masquerading as truth.

I’m sick of chest-beating.
I’m sick of cause-washing.
I’m sick of people telling me how much they care.

Most of all, I’m sick of companies, and their agencies,
telling people half truths and assuming we’re too busy to do some fact-checking. Or, as we used to say, some digging.

Not long ago I saw an ad on LinkedIn.
It was from the Chevron company.
Naturally, they we’re banging their own drum.
Proclaiming their kindness and munificence as a corporation.
Here’s the press-release the ad was based on.

Chevron would be spending $100 million “to lower the emissions of oil & gas and invest in technologies in low-carbon value chains.”

It took me eleven seconds to find out that Chevron’s market cap as of June 22, 2020, in a depressed petroleum market is over $170 billion.

It took me thirty seconds to do some math.

If Chevron was worth $170,000, 
they’d be spending $100 on clean energy.

Less than 1/10th of 1 percent.

Not a penny on a dollar. 
Less than 1/10th of a penny on a dollar.

I see ad agencies doing the same thing.

WPP is spending $30 million over three years in an anti-racism pledge. WPP’s market cap is nearly $50 billion.

If WPP was worth $50,000, they’d be spending $30 on battling racism.

Less than 1/10th of 1 percent.

Not a penny on a dollar. 
Less than 1/10th of a penny on a dollar.
That's less than 1/30th of a penny on a dollar 
when spread over three years.

But all these companies love us.
They tell us so.
They issue proclamations to that effect.

Here’s my point.
Our job as advertising people is to tell the truth.

It’s to find out facts and make them compelling.

Carl Ally put it this way in the best agency mission statement ever written:
“We impart useful consumer information in an executionally brilliant way.”

We live in a post-fact era. Covid isn't real. The earth isn't warming. Evolution is a theory.

In Tuesday’s New York Times, Nobel-Prize-winner Paul Krugman decried “a plague of willful ignorance.”

Every planner in the world may hate me for this
but I think the chimera that we could help brands create an
emotional connection with consumers is over.

Most advertising we love: Apple, Volkswagen, Volvo gave viewers facts from which they could build an emotional connection.

My belief is the false promise of false emotional connection has led advertising back to pre-Bernbachian days.

The days of decoration.
The days of bullshit.
The days of hyperbole.

Which ad do you feel more of an emotional connection to?

The “emotional” one? Or the fact-based one?

I got kicked out of the agency world.
Unless I need a pay-cut for tax reasons,
I’ll never work for a holding company again.

They won't have me, anyhow.
I'm not locked-down, 
lock-jawed and 
lock-stepped into conformity.

But if I did run a holding company, I’d make everyone—at the client and ad the agency—read the copy below.

At least once a month.
Maybe I’d paint it on the walls.
And put it in the footer of emails where currently 
we proclaim how many spurious awards we’ve won.

Telling the truth about a product demands a product that's worth telling the truth about.

Sadly, so many products aren't.

So many products don't do anything better. Or anything different. So many don't work quite right. Or don't last. Or simply don't matter.

If we play this trick, we also die. Because advertising only helps a bad product fail faster.

No donkey chases the carrot forever. He catches on. And quits.

That's the lesson to remember.

Unless we do, we die.

Unless we change, the tidal wave of consumer indifference will wallop into the mountain of advertising and manufacturing drivel.

That day we die.

We'll die in our marketplace. On our shelves. In our gleaming packages of empty promises.

Not with a bang. Not with a whimper.

But by our own skilled hands.

That was written by Bob Levenson back in 1970.

It's 50 years old.

That’s pretty old for an obituary.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

In praise of inexperience.

There are a lot of positive things you can say about experience.

In fact, there are very few circumstances in which I would prefer to put my fate into the hands on someone who has never done it before. Back in December, I had very minor surgery on my glove hand—I had a small non-cancerous lump removed. Even though I probably could have asked Ramon the handyman in my building to scoop the growth out with my wife’s grapefruit knife, I felt better going to one of the best hand-surgeons in New York.

If I ever again fly, I feel better knowing that the pilot has “done it before.” I’d bet that everyone on US Airways flight 1549 Chesley Sullenberger was piloting was glad he was guiding the plane. Sullenberger had over 30 years of flight experience and was able to land safely on the Hudson River after both engines of the Airbus A320 he was flying lost power.

You could also travel down to 1600 Black Lives Matter Avenue (formerly known as Pennsylvania Avenue) and wish we had a president who understood the values, history and principles of our country. It might lead to better governance—if you can believe that.

That said, in the business that used to be known as advertising, there is a virulent movement—an ongoing experiment, actually—to eliminate experience—and the  expensive costs that go along with it. In the January firing that involved me, while just 2% of the holding company is over 50, 12% of those axed were fired. That is people over 50 were fired at 600% the rate as those under 50.

(Of course the holding company and its agency denied that allegation and because they wouldn’t provide data on what percentage of the agency’s employees were over 50, I was stymied. I was unwilling to go up against their battery of expensive lawyers.)

In any event, there’s something to be said for inexperience, too. Too often, experience leads to doctrinaire. It leads to rote. It leads to the most dangerous set of words in advertising and most every other business: “That’s how we’ve always done it.”

The trick is finding experienced people who remain open minded. Or inexperienced people who know how to learn from the wise and experienced.

Just recently, during my near obsessive-viewing of “Citizen Kane,” I stumbled upon an interview between Orson Welles and Dick Cavett on the making of the movie. Cavett began his questioning the same way I would have.

“You made Citizen Kane when you were just 26…how?”

Welles replied, “Because I didn’t know any better. It came from sheer dumbness. Ignorance…there’s no authority in the world like it.”

Welles continued, “You get a guy who knows how it works. And then ask him, and that’s the end of it….In my first picture, I had the greatest cameraman who ever lived, Gregg Tolland. And he came to my office and said, ‘I want to work in your picture,’ And I said, why do you Mr. Toland? And he said, ‘Because you’ve never made a picture…and you don’t know what cannot be done.’”

[Toland by the way, was DP on John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” William Wyler’s “Wuthering Heights,” “The Westerner” and “The Best Years of Our Lives,” as well as Howard Hawks’ “Ball of Fire.” By the time he died at the age of only 44, he had been cameraman on 66 movies and had been working in Hollywood for 29 years.]

The key words here were attributed to Toland, not Welles: “You don’t know what cannot be done.” With the authority of ignorance you can try things wiser people would deem undoable. But as Welles would admit, it pays to have an experienced person around (in Welles’ case with Kane, Toland) to cover your not inconsiderable obliquity, i.e. your ass.

In fact, Toland was credited with having the kindness and grace not to correct Welles in front of the film’s crew. And Welles had the wisdom to know when to listen to the infinitely more experienced Toland.

That, in my opinion, is the secret amalgam agencies and every business, actually, should be striving toward. The enthusiasm and potential of ignorance, with the experience to shape and guide that ignorance.

Monday, June 22, 2020

A Father's Day tribute.

I don’t have any photographs of my father and me for more than a few reasons. That lack makes me more than a little sad. Especially when Father's Day rolls around.

First, he was seldom ever home. He was usually working or cavorting in his office down in Manhattan or traveling for business and working or cavorting somewhere else.

Second, my harridan of a mother, the only one likely to have taken a picture of us, was more often than not in a foul mood. Besides, I could hear her say, "whadda I needa pictcha of yoo two f’, I know whatchas look like." She was not one to waste film, not my old lady, no siree.

Finally, there was the closeness between my old man and myself. It was non-existent. And while we might have had a catch one Sunday afternoon or have played basketball on some cracked and undulating asphalt gilded with cigarette butts and pop-tops, he was for virtually the entire time I knew him, recovering from a heart-attack he had had years earlier and a second one he had had five years after his first. It was better not to get too close to him. Besides, he might spill his drink.

We never were close and never grew close. The one father-son talk we had, when I was eleven and on the cusp of noticing girls and about to go to sleep-away camp one summer, consisted of exactly three words. With gravity and deliberation he admonished, “don’t be wild.” That being the sum total of my paternally-delivered avian and apian education.

Even as I emerged as a budding baseball star, my old man’s advice stayed terse and laconic. If I was mired in a slump, he might utter the advice of Wee Willie Keeler, a late 19th and early 20th Century outfielder who retired from the big leagues in 1910 with a sterling .341 batting average. “Hit ‘em where they ain’t,” my old man would tell me. And those words would have to suffice. They were put forth to calm my nerves and bolster my schoolboy’s confidence and set me on my way.

When I was around 20 and attending Columbia University in New York City, my father and mother left New York and moved out to Chicago. About once or twice a year he would fly into the city and we would meet early for breakfast or late for dinner. There was hardly a time when he wouldn’t put the bite on me for $10 or $20. He was always short and these were the days before ATMs. Once, in fact, a monsoon descended on Manhattan. The old man borrowed my Brooks Brothers raincoat. And I never saw it again.

That was my old man.

He was always good at showing up missing. Like his old man before him, I suppose, who died when my father was just a kid of 12 and never spoke much English much less knew even a shred's worth of Wee Willie Keeler.

Still, it’s father’s day, and I suppose I miss him. He gave me a lot, after all. A work ethic, I suppose. And a million ready rejoinders and ten-million inappropriate quips. He gave me a bit of the Scaramouche, too, at least as Scaramouche was writ by the great Raphael Sabatini.

Because like my old man, and like Scaramouche himself, I “was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all [my] patrimony.”

I've tried to give more than that to my daughters. I suppose despite all my shortcomings--those I inherited and those I worked to acquire--I was able to give them a bit more patrimony than I received and a bit more than my old man had from his old man.

So, thanks dad. Thanks for, in your fashion, trying. I'll keep trying too.

Someone's got to hit 'em where they ain't.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Is it called Media because it's rarely well-done? Or Medea, because it eats its young?

About ten years ago, the great headhunter and all-around sage of recruitment, Christie Cordes gave me a stern talking to. I’d say she “dressed me down,” but in today’s hyper-sensitive ethnology, such a phrase could get me in hot water.

Christie upbraided me because I was looking for a job and to her eyes I was going about it all wrong. I had always gotten a job on the basis of my portfolio and assumed that my portfolio was all that mattered. Christie disabused me of that hoary notion.

She pushed me to treat my LinkedIn profile like an advertisement for myself. At that point I was not even posting my Ad Aged posts on LinkedIn. That was too self-promoting and ego-centric for me. Christie swatted me over the head with a metaphorical tennis racket.

“You have to, George. You have to make a name for yourself for people to even deign to take a look at your portfolio.”

I resisted, of course. I resist almost everything. But Christie explained it this way and that convinced me.

“Your LinkedIn is the 30-second movie trailer. Your portfolio is the movie. No one will see the movie if there’s no trailer.”

Not long ago, Christie and I had another amiable set-to. She smashed my noggin once again with her metaphorical racket.

“George, get on Twitter,” she demanded. “It’s how people shop. If you’re interesting on Twitter, they’ll look you up on LinkedIn. Then, they’ll find your portfolio and you.”

Again, I resisted. Partly because of our thumbalina-brained presi-dont, I stayed off of Twitter. At that point, I had 96 followers. 87 of those were Nigerian princes who needed my bank account number in order to give me $17 million.

But, before too much time elapsed, I succumbed and listened to Christie. It’s two-months later now, and I’m zeroing in on 2,000 followers. I realize that ain’t a lot and I have a long way to go, but it’s still 19 times better than I was 60 days ago.

All this is, obtusely, leading up to something.

We’re in advertising. And we have to advertise ourselves.

Again, without being too much of a dipshit about it, I’ve begun to learn how to do that. Advertise for myself.

For much of my life, media buying and advertising itself has been based on the notion of reach and frequency. You reach the right people and you repeat your message until they “get it.” Most of the slogans that we remember today—and we each carry around probably 50 or 100 such shards, are based on the efficacy of reach and frequency.

However, in writing nearly 6,000 posts, I’ve realized something. Maybe in today’s world of marketing, reach and frequency is wrong. Sometimes I feel like I have more interaction with Jan the Toyota woman or Flo the Progressive woman or Dapper Dan from Dapper Dan’s Dented Deals than I have with my wife. I’m bored with them.

Their frequency reminds me frequently how much I dislike them and the companies they’re shilling for.

I wonder if what modern brands need today is instead “reach and freshitude.” Something smart, fresh, funny, comforting. As opposed to merely repeating something I hated the first time I saw it and bludgeoning me into liking it because I’m used to it.

Gary V is everywhere on line and he frequently has new “content.” But I find the low calibre of his work distressing, unappealing and annoying. He’s frequent but not fresh. I find his messages platitudinous and grating. Ugly.

Years ago, back in the early 2000s, Chris Wall used to howl that advertising had to be more like journalism in order to stay relevant. We had to be smart, fast and good. Maybe I was the only one who heard this.

Chris is gone now—and now it takes an “agile” agency with a “dedicated team” being guided by a lean six sigma project manager eleven weeks to produce a banner ad or write a tweet.

I dunno.

I was kicked out of the ad industry like a hood caught smoking reefer in the men’s room of Hannibal Hamlin Technical High School for Troublemaking Truants.

But somehow I’ve been able to write over an ad a day for myself for over 5,000 days and gain a weekly readership of nearly 70,000 ad people including the stray CEO and the like. I’m going all in with “reach and freshitude.” It's what I want. Why wouldn't others?

Besides, it can’t be worse than what the industry does today.