Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Another slice of bagel.

The impetus for opening From Schmear to Eternity did not spring fully formed from my head like Athena leaping out of Zeus' noggin. In fact, it's been something my good friend Terry L and I have been talking about for some decades now.

Terry and I met through this very blog. He's from South Africa but back in the 1980s emigrated to Auckland. It was in that beautiful New Zealand city that he somehow discovered this digression of a blog.

Terry, as it turns out, is an ex-Ogilvy creative director, with two kids roughly the age of my kids. He wrote to me back around 2009. It was a note from out of the blue. He and his wife Rhona were about to visit New York and he wanted some insider tips.

We began trading notes. Sharing books, sharing music and more. We found that 8,818 miles is not too far apart to make a connection. 

Then when my daughter Hannah took a semester in Auckland, Terry fairly adopted her. Since then, he's shown us around his country and our daughter Sarah as well as a number of our friends. Every third year or so, Terry and Rhona show up in New York and we find ourselves in some subterranean soup dumpling joint on Mosco Street or in some tomato stained coat closet up on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. 

About eight months ago when I got shit-canned from Ogilvy, Terry gave me a ring. He's erudite as they come. As he and I like to boast, we have pre-emoticon vocabularies and when we meet a kindred spirit we permit ourselves to take our semantic training wheels off.

"George, maybe it's time for some career reappraisal," Terry said. "Advertising is not what it was."

"And it never will be," I answered.

"I have had a vision of sorts," Terry continued.

"More St. Augustine or Hieronymus Bosch?"

"That's a nice combo platter," he ignored. "I see us opening a bagel shop together. Less important than the bagels we sell would be the conversations we could share."

"An emanation devoutly to be wished."

"I fear, however, now that Jews number under 15 million, I think a bagel emporium need be more ecumenical."

"More catholic, small c," I clarified.

"Yes, less Jewish. The assimilated bagel."

"That in itself is an excellent name. A bit Nathan Glazer, 'Commentary' for me but I get it."

"It pales in comparison to what I have in mind. Kind of a 'One-with-everything-bagel' reflecting the larger consciousness that many of us share--like you and I, for instance."

"That sounds excellent," I said. I had more than a bit of a craving for a toasted salt with real belly lox and a thin slice of red onion. 

"The name is large. It is compendious. It speaks to the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind."

"Bagel Lives Matter, as it were."

He ignored that bon mot as it deserved and continued. "Open Karma Bagels. A little Berkeley. A little pre-gentrified West Village. A little Portland, but it speaks to me."

"I like it."

"The clincher is the strap line," Terry said.

I waited as he kneaded his careful timing like a Borscht Belt veteran.

"Karma Bagels. What goes around comes around."

And with that, he clicked off of Skype. 

And that was that.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Setting up shop.

Months ago I ordered from Excalibur Bagel and Bakery Equipment a 200 lb. flour capacity mixer (refurbished.) And, of course, the big "cahuna." The EXL-1, Excalibur Rotating Rack "Boil-in-Place" oven, capable of steam-baking 250 bagels at once.

The shop, or Shoppe, if you will, "From Schmear to Eternity," is coming along fine.

I spoke on Saturday night to my design consultant, Jennifer Sterling (logos the specialty) and she tells me she is hard at work animating a wave of cream cheese crashing over a sliced sesame bagel, something like the iconic scene from the Fred Zinnemann movie, "From Here to Eternity."

"It's tougher than you'd think," Jennifer said. "Cream cheese just doesn't ripple and crash like sea water, and I want to make it look just right. What's more, each sesame seed has to be constructed and placed by hand or the whole effect will feel contrived."

Meanwhile, the struggles of the day began early. 

I decided to go with Patterson Plumbing to hook up the 1/2-inch waterline to the steam oven--against my better judgment. Patterson got only 3.4 stars in their Google reviews, whereas Breitenbach Plumbing received a perfect five-star rating.

Sally Yoselevsky, our neighbor down the street just had her main bathroom redone, complete with a multi-jet jacuzzi tub and swore by Patterson. At least that's what my wife told me--putting enough pressure on me to go with the lower-rated outfit.

The next thing I know, trouble.

"This is a problem. I've never seen a 1/2-inch connector like that," Fred Patterson said. 

"Me neither. 32 years in the business," agreed Fred's brother, Dan.

"We're going to have to send to Guilford for an adaptor."

"That could take ten days. Eight at the soonest."

"Look," I barked. "I'm paying you a lot of money just so I don't hear the "P" word. Problems. Just handle it."

That snapped the Pattersons into gear.

"That'll hold her," Fred said, screwing in an extra-washer in a 5/8ths connector.

"You'll get a better steam flow, Dan agreed. The 5/8ths with the washer is perfect."

The real test came about two hours later, when Mandolin Neustadt, the famed artisanal bagel-maker I contracted finally showed up in the shop.

[Another post will more formally introduce you to Mandolin.]

"Oh, an Excalibur," he said, not even putting down his bag. He turned to the Patterson brothers. 

"Didja do the trick with the 5/8ths connector? Improves steam-flow and texture."

"I didn't know about it," Fred said. "Dan figured it out."

"Really, it was both of us," Dan countered. "A regular team effort."

"That's the bagel business," Mandolin confirmed. 

The master bagel maker turned to me. 

"Chief, maybe I should make a batch. A trial run, as it were."

"It's your kitchen, Mandolin--but ixnay with the Chief thing. I've left the ad business. We have a flat organization here."

"You got it," he said. "And the flour I ordered?"

"It arrived last week," I said showing him twenty 100-pound sacks in my store-room.

"This is the champagne of bagel flour," Mandolin said, opening a sack and running it through his large heavily-veined hands. "A blend of organic hard-red winter wheat, Norwegian millet and with just a pinch of malt."

"Malt," I questioned naively.

"Just a pinch. It increases enzymatic activity during fermentation."

I nodded.

"A bagel with better volume, better mouth-feel. They fill the mouth. And without diminishing the integrity of the open crumb."

Mandolin put on two hairnets. One on top. One over his luxuriant beard.

"From schmear," he said.

"To eternity," I answered.

"That's a cap E, isn't it," Mandolin said getting down to business. "Ontologically speaking."

"Cap E." I agreed.

"I think we're going to get along."

Friday, September 25, 2020

I bagel to differ.

It's not easy after literally a lifetime in the business to give up working in advertising. To be clear, the idea of finally hanging up my spikes came to me suddenly.

When I was summarily dismissed from Ogilvy on January 14th of this year because my salary presumably took dollars away from the seven or eight digit salaries of the Holding Company c-suite (these salaries are paid in-perpetuity, btw. Martin Sorrell still earns more than $500,000 from WPP) I never thought I'd give up the ghost.

In fact, as the sole proprietor of my own business, GeorgeCo, a Delaware Company, I was doing more than well. By April of 2020, I had surpassed my pay for all of 2019 and by July, I had more than doubled it.

Many years ago when I started seeing Owen, my psychiatrist of over 25 years, my internist who recommended him said, "Owen is amazing. He helps you find your way. If he thinks you'll be happier running a florist shop on the Upper West Side, one day, you'll be running a florist shop on the Upper West Side."

I somewhat scoffed at that.

If scientists had contrived to construct a person suited to the advertising industry, they'd be hard-pressed to build someone more adroit than I. 

For one, I have the gift of the quip. I can come up with a line--a dozen lines, in no time and as this blog attests to, I can spin out a piece of copy like nobody's business.

But last Friday night, a week ago, I had a dream about the famed New York bagel shop H&H, and that I was to open my own version up here on the Gingham Coast of Connecticut.

Quickly, I had three names that I liked for the shop. I ran a poll on Twitter and in just 24-hours had received over 32,000 votes.

While the People's Cherce was to name the shop Hole Foods, almost immediately after registering the name with the Old Saybrook town clerk, a short little man in a brown suit wearing a bow tie, my iPhone vibrated. It was a lawyer from Amazon's legal team. (Amazon owns Whole Foods.)

They promised a raft of legal troubles that would make Donald Trump's penis quiver in fear if I--I quote here--"infringed upon their bastion, their name, their trademark." I was advised to cease and desist before I had even begun to uncease and persist.

So, I chose the name which finished second in the polling: "From Schmear to Eternity." I gave that name to my friend, typographer and designer Jennifer Sterling who had graciously agreed to help me with a logo.

Meanwhile, my ever-loving wife had contacted one Lisa Genovali, a realtor of some local repute, and in short order had secured (with 12-months rent in a hot market) a three year lease at 75 Main Street, right in the heart of Old Saybrook's bustling (but quaint) central business district.

If all goes well, I should be opening around mid-October. In time for Old Saybrook's impossibly famous "Fall Flanken Festival"--a Brisket Bacchanal that routinely draws crowds from as far away as Westbrook.

It's at the Fall Flanken Festival that I plan to unveil, in tribute to the eponymous "From Here to Eternity," my signature sandwich, the "Burnt Loxcaster," a full 12-ounces of Nova Scotia salmon, a whole onion and a pound of cream cheese on a well-toasted sesame seed bagel. 

Also at opening, in homage to the film's great director, Fred Zinnemann, I will introduce to this littoral community the Cinnamon Zinnemann--part bagel, part strudel and all tribute to the Austrian-born auteur and 66-time nominee and 24-time Oscar-winning director.

Last, but by no means least, another star of Eternity will be feted (and fatted) when I unveil my Ernest Borg-9--a belt-busting nine-inch bagel that the most gluttonous salmon slurper on this famed coastline will have a tough time finishing in one-sitting. 

Don't worry folks, sharing is encouraged--and we'll gladly wrap your leftovers f'later!

This area, lovely as it is, has been bereft of a really fine bagel emporium since "Holey Moley" flooded after Hurricane Sandy. If the early buzz in the community is any indication, I encourage you--out of a sense of neighborliness and amity--to reserve a table or two (black-tie optional) for our Grand Opening gala, tentatively scheduled for Saturday, October 17th at 8:30PM.

Entertainment, of course, (The Yeastie Boys quintet will be performing as will "Goldy" Lox and his 3 Katz) balloons and games for the kiddies and more. The revelry and bagelry will last all weekend long.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Be yourself. And then some.

Almost 45 years ago I went to a party at someone's backyard in in one of the richest suburbs in America. Us kids, 17 or 18, had just accepted our admission into Columbia. Somebody's parent, presumably an alumnus, had about three dozen local kids and their parents over to, I suppose, be sociable and have a glass of wine or lemonade or a Coke.

Since I was knee-high to a cockroach I've never been much good at social settings. Even when sitting at a table at a dinner party,I always feel I'm between two or three conversations and never really in any of them.

Anyway, during this particular afternoon, I heard to rich old guys back-slapping each other and making with the marzipan conversation of a Cheever or an Updike. Even at 17, the plastic conviviality of the whole plaid and khaki afternoon fairly butterflied my intestines.

I heard one red face say to another, "So, how's business, Jack?'

The other red face chortled and said something like, "Busy as always."

The first guy replied probably as he had ten thousand times before, "Well, if you want something done, give it to a busy man."

For whatever reason, I stored that conversation away for over forty years and I thought of it today.

In my social network, which is fairly large, I have more than a few acquaintances who have all-too-recently lost their jobs. In advertising, this is a pandemic that dwarfs covid. Once you reach 40 or so, you're just another old gun-slinger who's pissed too many people off.

Someday, someday soon, someone in an expensive suit is going to be swaggering down a hallway walking slowly like Frank Miller in High Noon, and there's a good chance that she has all the bullets and you've nothing but an empty six-shooter.

You know the types. 

Chris Wall, the great Chris Wall, described one such pissant as "A Titanic for an ego and a minnow in the engine room." What Chris didn't say and I will, is that this hydrocephalic minnows are Hydra-like. When one disappears, six or twelve regenerate from their blood. They're like the aforementioned cockroaches. The ones that will still be spawning well after the nuclear bombs vaporize poor fucks like us. They're out to fuck you, yes they are.

So now we're left with literally scores of talented people who have worked for scores of years and, like Willy Loman said, "A man is not a piece of fruit. You can't just eat the orange and throw away the peel."

Except they can. They do. They will.
And they get bonused for it.

How are old (40 year old) ad people any different from a crooked coal miner with arthritis, a broken back and black lung who's thrown out of work, out of company housing and left owing a lifetime of debt to the company store.

When I started in the business, my partner, Craig was younger than I but a very wise man. OK, a wise boy.

He said something to me that I remembered every day of my career.

"You never stop working on your book."

In short, fight for every assignment. Fight for every ad. Fight to make everything you spend a minute on the best it can possibly be.

Craig said this to me back in 1984 or 1985.

But things are different now.

Now it's "You never stop working on you."

Because now--rather than just the ads you do for others--there are dozens of ways to show the industry, to show the world who you are. There are dozens of ways to show how you think, how you solve problems, how you make people think, or laugh, or act, or simply stop and notice you.

This is not to say your work--your paying job, your responsibility to your clients and your team and your agency is unimportant. But it is to assert that you have to get busy. 

If in the past it was enough to be like me, a headline machine. The guy who can sit at a table and turn out an eight-page manifesto, fully researched and writ, forty print ads and twenty TV spots in a 12 hour day. 

Today, that ain't enough.

You have to be a headline machine, yes, who's also a social media machine, a fake CEO, a Twit, an activist and someone who's created about twelve or fourteen online personas and seems fairly well-known in the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, India, Germany, Italy, and even Connecticut.

I don't like this bullshit any better than you do. 

But if you want to play the game, you have to go for fame.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Memories of Ruth Bagel Ginsburg.

Now that I have spent six months out of New York, I'm beginning to have moments of PNYSD (Post New York Stress Disorder.)

My wife, Whiskey and I have been living up in a bucolic little anesthetized town on the Connecticut coast, called Old Saybrook. The area was first explored by Europeans when Dutchman Adriaen Block got lost sailing in 1611 and again in 1614. He was up and down the rocky coast here. Someone put his name on Block Island some centuries before Joseph Kennedy made the whole Long Island Sound a sanctuary for his special brand of rum-runners.

It wasn't until the 1630s that the English made it down to this area, and it took them at least a dozen years to kill all the native Americans. They called their genocide "The Great Pequot War," but there was nothing great about it, and I'm sure, from the native American point of view, it was more a slaughter, a massacre or a pogrom than a war.

Nevertheless, not five hundred yards from my new rickety home overlooking the sea from the town's highest point, is a sign put up by the local historical society commemorating that war and the victorious bloodshed that occurred where today, millionaires roam, and drive to the beach in electric golf carts.

Every once in a while you read something in the local paper (it consists of two articles, 20 classified ads selling peoples' excess crap, a list of covid victims and the Family Circus comic strip) that someone's found an old Pequot relic from 3000 years ago or 10000. I've been fantasizing about tripping on such a discovery since I was about three. The closest I ever got was cutting my foot open on a nearby beach from a 30-year-old Coke bottle.

In any event, I've been up here for six months--and I like it ok. I like my walks on the beach. I like not working for the Pompoustocracy of a modern agency and I like being liberated from the clutches of petty technocratic bean-counters like Mark Read whose in perpetuity "compensation" is way more important than providing his customers with a good product.

However, as much as I am ok up here, I really miss New York.

Of course, the New York I miss isn't the New York I've lived in for the last 40 years. It's the New York before the rich folk and the giant corporations sucked all its soul out.

I'm not one to miss the danger of the city--the perpetual wariness you had to adopt to survive. Mostly, maybe because I am Jewish, I miss the food.

Late last night I couldn't sleep--that's not unusual. I was staring at the ceiling and the image of a real New York bagel popped into my head.

You can get bagels anywhere now. But a real New York bagel you could only ever get in one place and at one time of the night.

Back in the 70s, the great delicatessen, Zabar's on 81th and Broadway was open until 11PM or midnight. It was a nice Saturday night to walk the mile-and-a-half down there and to buy lox, or cheese, or good pastrami. By the time your number was called and the countermen started screaming at you, lumbering diesel-smoked trucks delivering the Sunday New York Times on Saturday night would be throwing their piles of papers at the old ink-stained newsmen who owned the kiosks on nearly every corner.

I've seen great double-play combinations. Great NBA guards. Great three-card monte players. Their hands in motion moved like wild birds upon hearing a shotgun blast. 

None of their hands moved with anything like the speed of the newsies, as they'd assemble without error, the ten or twelve sections of the Times into one neat parcel.

Down on 80th and Broadway sat a dumpy little sawdust-floored Mecca of the bagel, H&H, managed by two Puerto Rican brothers who had sesame seeds in their veins and poppy seeds for eyes.

They were and the men who worked there were the nastiest people on Earth. I'm sure there were holocaust survivors who lived nearby who likened them to nazi guards--and the guards were regarded as kinder.

The trick, my old man taught me this, to dealing with the H&H guys was to be ruder than they. It was like two animals fighting. You had to prove you weren't scared. Then everything was ok.

My old man, like I said, taught me the ropes.

When you get up to the plexiglass, no eye-contact. Feel the outside of each bin for what bagels are hot. And then scream "Six onion. Two sesame. Four poppy." Pause. "No four sesame. Two onion. Four poppy. Two salt. That's what I said."

You never hand your money over. You toss it on the counter and leave. It didn't matter if you were two bucks over or two bucks short, this was all about asserting control. In fact, this ritual wasn't about bagels at all, really. It was about life.

I don't know if Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she went to Columbia Law learned this regimen. But I have a feeling she probably did. 

The routine wasn't really about rudeness or getting bagels or discerning which ones were hot out of the oven. It was about getting yours. Not being pushed around. Speaking up. Being just a bit more stalwart than the other guy. As my younger daughter would say, "Drinking cement and toughening up."

It was also about walking home, up the greatest street in the world, Broadway, past the junkies and the homeless and the teenagers in love and the ruffians from Manhattan Avenue. The Times under your arm, the ink of the Sunday magazine crossword waiting for your pen, stepping over drunks and nibbling on a salt bagel--still warm like from a womb.

That's all gone now. The newsstands are boarded up. H&H is a Verizon store. Zabar's keeps suburban hours.

But back in the 70s and 80s, things were different. We faced crime and drugs, economic default, a mad-man president chomping for a nuclear exchange with the Russians and more.

Yep. Those were the good old days.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Forty words.

Nabokov edits.

Robert Caro edits.

I had written something for a client of mine.

For me, an unusual client. They're a beauty brand. And I'm not a beauty guy.

But they contacted me. 

They'd been reading this blog.

They liked my writing. I suppose both the fact that I write every day and how I think.

We've been talking about working together since April or May. And I've been on retainer since July.


When I was being briefed by the client I said something like, "This product is coming from your soul. Why don't you write a diary about it?"

Most good clients are humble. Really humble. Not the fake "I can't really write but I'll tell you how you should write" humble. She said, I can't write.

I said, yes you can. When you speak, your descriptions are beautiful. Pretend you're blindfolded and just write your thoughts. Don't edit. Don't improve. Just spill words into the river of writing.

Over the next month, I got beautiful little essays about my client's childhood in North Africa. I got memories of grandmothers. I got fragrances. And the noise of cities.

She wrote it.

I turned it into a manifesto.

It was good. (I think.)

My client smiled.

But it was too long, I felt. It was forty words too long. About twenty seconds.

After a lifetime of writing you can tell when something's too long. I read once that the great basketball player Larry Bird could look at the rim of a basket and say, "It's too high." Or "It's too low." 

He was always right. Even if the rim was off by just a quarter of an inch. And he was looking at it from half-court.

My old man was like that too, from his days when he worked in the post-office. He knew when a letter was over an ounce. Just by looking at it. Just like Whiskey my eight-year-old golden retriever can smell water. And mayhem.

(That, Mr. Read, is called experience. But that's besides the point.)

I pulled my manifesto up to have a go at it.

The first thing I do when I write is I format. I want the piece to be neat when I work on it. There's something about how copy looks on a page. It gives me a sense of it. That's why I always write to a layout. It brings restraint.

I'm not a neat person, but I like neat pages.

I cut first the lines that looked too long. Short sentences. Few adjectives. 

Then I cut phrases I had heard before. Silken hair. Cliches.

Then I combined, kneaded, braided and sewed sentences together. 

I suppose in a writerly way, I was doing what a film editor does. How much can you remove? How much can you leave out? How much can you not say? How much can you run together and "bi-pack," and still impart the story, but in a way that it doesn't feel like a set of instructions or an essay?

It took me six hours to cut forty words. 

I cut six and two-third words an hour.

Not a bad day's work.

Monday, September 21, 2020

A new year. A new week. An old way forward.

As I have had for much of my life, I have been having a hard time sleeping of late. Some of this is based on brain chemistry, I'm sure. Or a weak, old-man's bladder. More, these days, is that it feels, with the death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that this country (what's left of it) will move from having seven toes dipping in fascism to having nine.

The idea that Trump and McConnell are pushing this, after McConnnel's anti-democratic stand against Merrick Garland sickens--literally sickens me.

Then, of course, there are the vagaries of starting my own business. Knock noggin, it's going well. I'm earning more than 2X, maybe 3X, my Ogilvy rate (they hadn't seen fit to give this old guy a raise for over five years, despite everything.) And I probably get five calls a week (I haven't gotten to the point where I am, yet, reaching out to people) but when a freelance job falls through, as one did last week, I have my old Mexican Baseball League worries.

What if I've lost my ability to hit the ball? What if I've just been lucky all these years? What if, in the words of Terry Malloy as writ by Budd Schulberg, "I've got a one-way ticket to Palookaville?" 

So, I don't sleep.

I worry.

Not too long ago, though pre-Covid, I went to a talk at The New York Times Center on 41st Street and 8th Avenue in the city formerly known as New York. 

The Times, more-so than any brand I interact with is working to transcend inertia. (Any brand's biggest enemy is "I don't care-ism.") So the Times holds talks, shows films, and invites its readers in. I've seen Spike Lee, Errol Morris, Art Spiegelman, Maggie Haberman, Maureen Dowd, Nick Kristof, Wu Dunn, Charles Blow, Anna Netrebko, Lisa Saunders and more. 

On this particular occasion, I heard Times op-ed writer, long-distance runner and one-time Harvard cross-country star, Lindsay Crouse in conversation with Olympic distance runner, Alexi Pappas.

The Times event was centered around the Iowa caucuses--this was back in February, 2020. The conversation between Crouse and Pappas was titled "The Long Haul." At that point it was probably more than 250 days to the November election.

The discussion, of course, was as much about lasting through the thousands of miles of training you have to do to run marathons, to the vigor you need as a reporter to cover a presidential campaign to the strength you need as a candidate to set your sights on a long-term goal.

Pappas told about something she learned while running track at University of Oregon, in preparation for elite level athletics.

I'm paraphrasing here, but I'm confident I've gotten the gist right.

Pappas said, "One-third of your time, you feel good and strong. Nothing hurts and you feel unbeatable. Savor those moments. Etch them in your memory.

"One-third of your time, you feel ok. You're not in too much pain and you know you'll last the day.

"But one-third of your time you feel like shit. You can't even get out of bed. Everything hurts and you're not entirely sure how you can make it through another hundred-yards, much less another mile or ten or twenty.

"That's when you remember your good third. That's when you borrow upon those miles. When you stand up straight, when you relax your grimace, when you push a little harder, because you know you can."

The tough thing about life, about being almost 63, about being an insomniac, about starting your own business, about trying to stay married and trying to deal with your kids and the vagaries of life, including writing a blog every day for almost 14 years is this: life doesn't really give you a break. 

If you're working for yourself, or for an agency, or--this is the toughest--directly for a client. If you're working to pay your bills or for your kids' college, or a mortgage, or a parent's operation or your dog's, or maybe just some Adirondack chairs so you can sit outside in the golden autumn sunlight and look at the nearby Long Island Sound, you don't have a choice.

You have to show up every day.

There's no phoning it in.

No saying "I'm not feeling it today."

No, "I couldn't sleep last night."

You get to work. You do your job. You take it seriously.

The American essayist Thomas Paine, wrote an essay called "The Crisis," two days before Christmas in 1776. It helped galvanize the cause of the American Revolution. 

I'm not doing anything noble in the world but trying to give my children and my wife and the people I love a better world. I won't have done anything notable with my years except make the world slightly better for that. Even so I keep these words in front of me, pretty much at all times.

The Crisis by Thomas Paine.

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. 

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated....

...By perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious issue; by cowardice and submission, the sad choice of a variety of evils... 



Friday, September 18, 2020

Stolperstein and Listerine. But first a joke.

I usually try to write something funny for my Friday post. But I felt that today I had something serious to say. That follows. However, as a bit of recompense, a short joke.

A man has had a terrible day at work. He's dog tired. He's been beat up all day. To make matters worse, he's late with his timesheets. 

He sits down at the counter in a diner, and says to the waitress, "I'd like just three things: a cup of coffee, a slice of apple pie and a few kind words."

The waitress is back in just a moment. She places the coffee and pie in front of the man. He pauses for a moment and looks at the waitress with sadness in his eyes.

"What about my kind words," he pleads.

"Don't eat the pie," she answers.

Boys and girls, life is like that sometimes.


Starting Tuesday or Wednesday of this week, it seemed to me that half the world had sent me a link to articles about the Nazi-led Holocaust. According to a survey of 1000 millennials (I didn't know there were that many) two-thirds didn't know what the Holocaust was. 

(I would imagine "lesser" Holocausts don't even make anyone's radar: the Tutsis and the Hutsis. And no one but no one knows of the British slaughter of thousands of Dervishes in Somaliland back in the early 20th Century.)

As a Jew born just 12 years after the Nazi death camps were liberated by Russian and Anglo forces, the Holocaust has always played a large part in my life. It is a reminder, a dark, burning one that Jews are an "other." And as an "other" are never more than one aggressive sociopath away from attempted annihilation.

Steven Spielberg some years ago began filming victims of the Holocaust. He began collecting their stories, their moving, heart-wrenching tales of horror. There are hundreds of books by survivors, thousands. 

My point today, however, is not about the Holocaust. It's about advertising. And human memory.

Many people would agree that the Holocaust was the biggest cataclysm in a century filled with cataclysms. From Judgment at Nuremberg, to Schindler's List, to the god-awful Inglorious crap that Tarantino puts out--the Holocaust has scarcely been out of our "culture," for a minute.

Yet now two-thirds of millennials don't know about it.

Somehow however, marketers, most of whom have MBAs from high-falutin' universities have somehow convinced themselves that "awareness" advertising--essentially TV advertising--is no longer necessary. Or, that the same effect, awareness, can be achieved through something like a Twitter feed or an Instagram effort.

Not long ago I finished Michael Gorra's latest book, "The Saddest Words: Faulkner's Civil War." You should read it and you can buy it here.

Faulkner is really about memory.

How it's formed.

How it's used.

How it affects us--soothes us, fucks us, and has an impact on just about everything.

But in America, we have built a fantastic always-on always-noisy always-brain-deadening oblivion machine. 

As a culture, we don't remember the Holocaust. Slavery. Jim Crow. Black people not allowed to vote, to go to schools, to swim in pools their tax dollars paid for.

These are big things.

And the oblivion machine--which runs on RECENCY--has obliterated them.

How are we supposed to know what Listerine does if we're not reminded every day? How are we supposed to know about any brand or product or service?

Half the brands I've worked on during the last ten years of my career are facing a Kodak/Holiday Inn/Dupont problem: No one knows what they do, or what they sell.

It's not about "relevance." It's scarier than that. It's about "I don't know who they are and I don't know why I should care."

The MBAs of the world who shrunk media budgets and reapportioned funds to do "targeted" ads cheaply have destroyed, yes, that's the word, probably trillions of dollars of brand-market value. 

They let brands just fade into nothingness.

In Isabel Wilkerson's important new book, "Caste," she talks about memory as well. Buy it here.

She talks about how America has forgotten and ignored and deceived entire generations about our hate-filled and violent history. 

Then Wilkerson shifts gears to Germany, perpetrator of perhaps humanity's greatest single crime. Or at least greatest and most-concentrated single time crime.

Not only are their memorial tributes throughout German to the victims of Nazi hatred, there are more than 75,000 Stolpersteins dotted throughout the country.

They're little brass cobblestones with the name, date of birth and date of death of Holocaust victims. 

Stolperstein means stumbling stone. In Berlin at least, you stumble upon them everywhere. Ok

Part of being important to people is to be remembered by people. It's that simple. You can't be anonymous and an important brand.

Too many agencies and their clients have believed in Dali's title, "The Persistence of Memory."

There is no persistence without reminder.

That's just one of the reasons advertisers and agencies should be Keynseian about advertising. Keynes believed in monetary stimulus. He held that spending money begets money being spent. 

Agencies should be promoting memory-stimulus. 

"Hey, remember me! Remember what makes me great! Remember that you like me!"

Ok, that's not a conversation with a brand. It's push marketing. It's everything that's wrong and wretrograde.

In fact, worse than all that, like Keynesian monetary stimulus which argues that one dollar of stimulus is three or more of spending, it might even drive sales. Because keeping a brand top-of-mind is the only way to keep a brand top-of-wallet.

The bad news? 

You probably won't win anything at Cannes.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The struggle between light and dark. With apologies to everyone.

In the Manichean belief system adherents saw the world as a fundamental struggle between light and dark, between good and evil. 

Manicheanism flourished back around 200 AD in the area we now call Iran. The belief spread widely throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It even spread to the town of Hippo, where St. Augustine was born. He was a Manichean long before he converted to Christianity.

The religion lasted for about 500 years. About one-hundred times longer than most agencies. And about, to date, twice as long as America. I'd be surprised if America makes it to 2270, wouldn't you be?

Manichea was subsumed by other religions and persecuted out of existence around 800 AD, though traces remained alive well into the 12th Century.

I'm surprised it didn't last longer.

It's easy to see the world in a binary way: good vs. bad. Us vs. them. Light vs. dark.

There's a lot of that dialectic going on in our fractious debates of today. There's an awful lot of "binaryism" in today's debates. You're either with us or against us. Love it or leave it. A real American or a coastal elite. It goes on ad frikken nauseam.

As a denizen of the ad industry, early on I had either the wisdom or the stupidity to embrace a sort of advertising catholicism. That is not at all a religious statement. Small c catholic means to "include a wide variety of things." To be small c catholic is to be "all embracing."

So while I've worked the bulk of my career in traditional advertising, I've also won a Diamond Echo, the highest award in Direct Marketing. And not only have I won dozens of awards for "digital" work, I spent two fairly miserable years leading an agency called Digitas and five years as an ECD at R/GA--someone's "Digital Agency of the Decade." I even spent two years leading the world's most celebrated events agency. 

In short, I believed early-on that the blatant opposite of integrated marketing communications was segregated marketing communications. And segregation, whether it's of the xenophobic "let's build a wall" ilk, the Jim Crow type or the media type is almost always retrograde and unproductive.

Of late--and I am partly responsible for this--there's been a shit storm around some statements by WPP's CEO. He trumpeted the ineffable advantage he enjoyed from a communications point of view of having 70% of his staff under the age of 30. And only 1% 60 or above.

As if youth bestows super powers of understanding and acuity that lessen with every trip around the sun.

What was missed along the way was what was most important and obvious.

Good comes in all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, heights, religions, ethnicities, orientations and more. As does bad.

Reaching people in a meaningful and effective manner for the purpose of changing a belief, a behavior or an attitude is not a function of any of the categories I mentioned above.

It is a matter of Bill Bernbach.

As everything intelligent in modern marketing is. (I wonder if WPP's CEO can cite one "Bernbachism," quote one DDB ad, or for that matter even one "Ogilvyism.") All that shit harkens back to the oh forget it.

Everything in modern marketing goes back to Bernbach. A broad statement to be sure. Though If you don't believe me, buy this book, as I did a decade ago. (Though not for $300.) 

Bernbach believed that all communication is based on simple, timeless, human truths. It's not about age. It's about simple, timeless, human truths. 

Like in this Apple Watch spot. It's honest. Informative. Funny. And it makes fun of "other." Humans like that.

It's not about age. It never has been. It's about finding those simple, timeless, human truths.

Bob Dylan did when he was 21.

He's still searching for them at almost 80.

Billy Wilder found them from the time he shot his first great movie in 1930, People on Sunday, until his last in 1981, Buddy Buddy.

There's no age requirement. Just as there's no age limit.

Just as there's no gender, racial, religious, sexual orientation requirement. Or anything else. Other than the ability to...think like a human.

There will always be Manicheans amongst us. Whether or not they know that they are. They're the people who say, as Zuckerberg said, "young people are just smarter." Or organizations in which only one person in one-hundred is over 60.

They look at the world as an "if-then" proposition.

"If we hire ______, then we will be more _______."

I can see the appeal of that kind of over-simplification. It lessens the hard work, the unknowns, the failures that come from trying to do something different.

You simply go to the "staffing store" and say, "give me seven _______s and nine ________s and a dozen _______s. That's the magic egalitarian formula that will uncockeye a cockeyed world.

If you're under-scrutiny, you double-down on your efforts. You form a blue-ribbon committee. You appoint a Chief ______ Officer. You change the color pattern of your logo, issue a noble-sounding proclamation or two and in time, the whole thing will blow over.

It always has.

But what I've learned in my 62 years on this burning-to-death orb, what I've learned in 40 years in the business at 13 agencies is this simple, timeless, human truth: The world ain't an "if-then" proposition. Nothing, nothing is that simple.

It's a "what-the-fuck" proposition.

A "holy shit" proposition.

A "heaven help us" proposition.

As the great screenwriter Robert Riskin wrote in "Meet John Doe," "I know the world's been shaved by a drunken barber."

That's right. Any moment you can get nicked. Or just-as-likely get your throat slit.

That's not pessimistic, foreboding or dour.

It's a simple, timeless, human truth.

The kind of truth that defines our business.

The kind of truth I think our business has decided to run away from.


Just one last ditty. And I'm not 100% sure why it pops right now into my head. 

Written by an early 20th Century sportswriter called Grantland Rice. Yeah, it's maudlin and Edgar Guest-y, but there's something <simple, timeless and human> about it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The vision thing.

This might be complicated, so if you haven't had your coffee yet, go grab a cup. If you have, maybe pour another. You might need it.

Some years ago, before the time when most people in Mark Read's wet-dream of a low-wage agency were even born, I had Lasik surgery. I had been an athlete through my 40s. First baseball, then long-distance running and I never much cared for wearing glasses. They fogged up.

So I went under the knife. 

Or the laser.

I chose, or more accurately my wife did, one of the most highly-regarded eye-doctors in New York. I had no problem putting my baby blues into his able hands.

But soon after the operation, there was a small complication. My doctor was nervous telling me about it. 

"I'm going to call in Oleg Alexevich Chernyshevsky," he said. "He's one of those $99 Lasik doctors who advertise on the subway."

"You're regarded as the finest eye doctor in New York. He runs a chop shop," I said. "Why him?"

"He's a very good doctor. But more important, I've done a lot of Lasik--maybe 1000 operations. But Chernyshevsky's done 50,000. He see things I don't."

OK. I'm rounding into my point.

About 15 years ago, a headhunter reached out to me. I didn't know her. In fact, since she wasn't one of the New York power-headhunters, I had never even heard of her.

But she got me on the phone and berated me. 

"George, you're going about things all wrong. These days, sure it's about your portfolio. But people shop on LinkedIn. Your LinkedIn profile isn't as good as you are."

I thought back to my eye doctor.

When I was working for an agency, I might have looked at 100 books a year. This headhunter, I figured, might see 100 books a week. Fifty-times the number of books I do.

Not too many months ago, I was seldom if ever on Twitter. To be clear, I didn't understand it. And I had additional disdain for the platform because of how the imposter in chief uses it. I regarded it as a wasteland. Apologies to TS Eliot.

At the time, I had 96 followers.

This lovely headhunter called again and was indignant again. And she let me have it.

"George," she was fairly screaming at me. "George, Twitter is your movie trailer. It's where people go to see what's playing, who's who in advertising."

"I'm not interested," I said.

"George: LISTEN TO ME." I've been smacked across the face by dozens of people in my days. This was a Grade-A whipsaw.

"Twitter is where people shop. Your job is now to tweet. To get a following." 

Kindly, she sent me some Twitter tips. Most of which I followed.

It's six months later now. 

I've gone from 96 Twitter followers to 2,717. 

I ain't exactly Yeezy. Or even Weezy. More likely Sneezy. But that's a big increase.

Can I attribute any revenue to that growth? No.

Is it paying for my new ramshackle cottage on the Long Island Sound? No.

Is it making me better at my job? No.

Do I like it? No.

But somehow I'm getting about 30 calls a month. Sure most of them are duds.

But some of them aren't.

And that's my point today.

Go get your eyes checked.


BTW, this same headhunter sent me a note yesterday. Naturally on Twitter. 

I had mentioned her in a tweet and she's been deluged with calls. 500 or more.

For now, I'm keeping her identity secret.

I am not in the mood for another slapping.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Be like everyone else.Trust me.

Touch wood.

Since I got canned from Ogilvy eight months and one day ago, I’ve done pretty well. After my corporate-mandated isolation period (according to WPP's legal-battery (assault not included) if you work while you're being severed, you sacrifice your severance) I almost immediately went to work for my ex-boss: Ogilvy’s former CCO, Steve Simpson.


Steve is an amazing talent blinded enough by my boyish good looks to have been fooled twice into hiring me. Steve and I had a nice thing going—as nice as two writers can have. We respected each other’s talent and liked the way each other wrote. So often, Steve would scribble something or blurt something and sling it to me like a baton in a relay race. And vice-versa. There’s was no “his” or “mine.” There was just the work and we enjoyed doing it together. And making it good.


Along the way, my phone started ringing.


“Can you help us out with ____?”


I was taught during a freelance sojourn many years ago to never say “no” to work. You can always find a way to get things done. So, I took on eight out of ten assignments that came my way.


Much to the disdain of so many people who “manage” creative people, raising your hand in an agency these days is regarded as a sin. I don’t exactly know why. It just is. I guess it fucks up scoping somehow. 


In fact, the biggest fight I ever got in during my eleven years at Ogilvy was when an ECD team asked for my help on a pitch.


Holy shit.


Late one night, they saw me at the urinal and flat out asked me. THEY DIDN’T GO THROUGH ANY OF THE 27 PEOPLE THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO GO THROUGH TO ASK ME A QUESTION.


I was peeing at the moment and I asked what it was for. Not the pee. The pitch.


“Listen,” I said. “I’m not supposed to work on anything but _______. But I’m heading out tomorrow for a week of shooting. I’ll have six hours on a plane out and six hours on a plane back. I’d be happy to put a dozen hours against it.”


The next morning, crammed in a coach seat, I got a flame mail from a creative mangler—I mean, manager.


How dare I? Don’t I know I’m owned? How could I raise my hand when my hands are owned?


As if after 36 years in the business I don’t know how to handle my own workload.


In any event, knock wood, I’ve been busy since then.


But I worry.


I worry about sustaining GeorgeCo, a Delaware Company into year two. So I started thinking about how I could tell people who I am, what I do and why I’m unusual.


I decided to start with a little research.


I read the “About” sections of 29 agency websites. (Though we’re purportedly a creative business, every agency website is structured almost exactly the same. Just as almost every creative’s website looks almost exactly the same—roughly the design of the J. Crew catalog. A name. A title. And below that 12 or 16 boxes of work.)


What I found in these About sections was a house-of-mirrors similarity. We were founded by ____ back in ____ and we’re dedicated to credo. Now we have ____ offices in _____ countries. And we’ve been named _____ of the year in ___, ____ and ____.


That seemed wrong to me. 


It occurred to me that the About section shouldn’t be About the agency. It shouldn’t be About who an agency is. It should be About what an agency does for its clients. The promises it keeps with clients.


So, I did that weird thing writers used to do: I wrote.


I did that weird thing a good communication is supposed to do: I made a promise to the reader.


To date I’ve shared it with a couple clients, to good effect. I’m not ready to share it here because, frankly, I’m not so sure it won’t be pilfered.


My point today is simple. If you’re running a business, don’t just run your business.


Think about what kind of business you want to be and how you’re running it. How you can make it better. How you're treating people you work with and how you're treating yourself.

Most of all think about what promises you’re making with your customers. And keep them.