Friday, October 30, 2020

Maybe the most brutal thing I've ever written.

I've been in the agency business my whole life. Literally my whole life. 

From 1945 until his death around 1980, my Uncle Sid ran Philadelphia's largest agency: Weightman Advertising. From 1954 until his death in 2001, my old man rose from copywriter to Chairman of Kenyon & Eckhardt, one of the world's biggest agencies. After that, he founded and helped run the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.

I have been being paid by various agencies since 1984 and counting freelance stints have probably worked for 30 different shops. (I've worked for more places in my career than there are places left today.)

Years ago I heard a quip from the CFO of one of those agencies. "There's nothing bad you can say," he said "about revenue."

Lately as I've been puzzling over the disgusting rise of hatred in what used to be America I've been thinking a bit macro. I realized that my parents' generation--Depression children who grew up with Franklin Roosevelt--regarded government as essentially good.

Government gave--at least to white people. Unemployment relief. GI Bill benefits. Low-cost loans for housing. Social Security. Medicare.

Nixon realized something in 1968 and tapped into it. If the government were to give those things to minorities, white people would feel that government programs were taking from them, not giving to them.

Nixon realized something. That America was no longer growing, that John Kennedy's "a rising tide lifts all boats" wasn't happening. America had turned into a zero-sum game: if someone else got it cost you.

The same calculus can be applied to the agency business.

Harkening back to even before the '80s, David Ogilvy (remember him?) famously said, "If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants."

However, if you're company is in the zero-sum space, you don't want people bigger than you. And if they are, you'll do your best to box them, squish them, annihilate them, or fire them.

Here's what I mean.

At a typical agency today--say an agency with 1,000 people--there are probably eight good assignments a year. In the present awards-mania-schema, eight Cannes-worthy assignments.

That's about enough work for the new CCO team brought in from the outside. You know the guys. A list of awards as long as your arm. A list of paying-client-success as short as Donald Trump's <er> golf course.

Eight assignments. 


They're going to do them all. Or take them all over. And to rationalize that thievery, they'll castigate the people around them. "He's not that good," they'll claim. "He doesn't have my eye." "He doesn't know the three permissible directors and the 1.7 editors who are worth their salt. Worse, he doesn't know where to find mountain-grown artisanal sushi and cold-brewed free-range fair-trade gluten-free coffee made with water heated to precisely 213-degrees." 

It's Donald Trump's "Only-I-ism."

When an agency or an industry isn't growing--and when it simultaneously becomes awards obsessed, what happens is a vicious cycle starts.

Fewer opportunities get more focus and money from fewer people. 

The agency forgets that there's another path to success. Growth.

That if they picked up business, there would be more work to go around.

Let's assume for a second that the ratio of assignments to 'award's possible' assignments is 20:1. For every twenty assignments, one has true awards potential.

If your agency does 160 assignments a year--about three a week--there will be 8 'award's possible' assignments. But if you can grow your agency to do 500 assignments a year, ten a week, there are 25 'award's possible' assignments.

The point in all this, and to my sensibility, the central agency indictment, is that agencies are doing things backward. 

They are focused on awards and personal reputation-building (at the expense of others) rather than on the growth of their business, their clients and their people.

The prevailing ethos is dark.

There's not enough food at the buffet and tomorrow there might be even less.

So if you have power, you grab absolutely everything you can.

See below, paying special attention from 1:16 to 2:18. You might want to get a yellow highlighter when you're watching from 2:08-2:18. 

And let me know if you need a good therapist.
Or if you want to punch me.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Pitching. Pitching. Pitching.

I had my first RFP late last week. 

I mean my first as GeorgeCo., a Delaware Company.

And my first through a search consultant.

My first competing with agencies 500 times or 1000 times my size, with a hundred offices in 82 countries and color copiers that don't work, that kind of thing.

The search consultant advised me that the potential client was fearful that they'd get overlooked by a big agency. But that the demands of their business would overwhelm little ol' me.

Like anyone trained in creativity, I took the client's quandary as a problem I could solve. Being a writer, I believe that good writing--clear, fact-based and persuasive--can usually carry the day.

Even though no one reads anymore.

So, I sat down at my computer and I created an answer. The headline at the top of the page was a simple assertion. It said (using the big bold type I believe in): 

Underneath that, I wrote some copy.

I believe my virtual agency employs dedicated people who are among the best in the business. That I can build an agency of the right people around the needs of a client. And that, unlike 97.9% of all agencies, I don't regard "Availability as a capability." ie I put people on your business because they're right for your business--not because they're only 44% billable elsewhere.

What's more, at least half of our art directors, for instance, know what "hang punctuation" means. And some people harken back to the 80s.

I brought a planner in to help me. I said to her beforehand, "I don't need this business. I'm taking this call because I want to handle proper RFPs from proper search consultants. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm interviewing them, not vice-versa. In other words, __name______, be you. That's why you're on the call."

So, for 90 minutes we were all the things we are. Opinionated. Experienced. Assertive. Even, heaven forfend, funny.

We were honest, too. Which is often the surest way to get in trouble.

In 1759, Dr. Johnson said, "Promise, large promise, is the soul of advertising."
He was quickly shit-canned by Mark Read for harkening back to the 1750s.

My opening foray was this, "my job is to tell you no when you need to hear no." That's in my "Client's Bill of Rights." It's something I've written because I believe, like Dr. Samuel Johnson believed, that "a promise is the soul of advertising." My "Client's Bill of Rights" is my promise to clients. So far, clients have appreciated it more than most agency's silly obsession with manufactured awards.

We didn't pretend. We didn't pull punches when they asked tough questions--mostly about whether or not freelancers can be relied upon ostensibly like staffers can.

What so many people in the business--whether they're on the client-side or the agency-side--miss is what truly motivates creative people. Bill Bernbach famously said to Robert Townsend, (CEO of Avis) when Townsend asked him, "How can I get advertising that's five times as effective?" ""If you promise to run whatever we recommend, every creative in my shop will want to work on your account."

That was true back in 1962 and it's true today.

Real creative people don't need a phalanx of managers and scopers and PMs and timesheet terrorists haranguing them. They need to believe they'll be able to produce work up to their standards. 

That's the secret. Most creative people would work virtually for free if they're building their books.

I always thought part of an agency leader's job--creative, account or planning, was to create the necessary preconditions that lead to great work. If you create those necessary preconditions you don't need to manage people. You need to simply make sure the work is good.

If your staff does great work everything is good. If someone doesn't, you give them less good assignments until they buy their way out of the hole they've dug. If they don't respond, you fire them. If they do, everything is good again.

I dunno if I'll get this business. In fact, I don't really even know if I want it.

I might have made things too simple for everyone.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Planner like me.

In our benighted industry, an industry that's disposed of everything and everyone that made the industry itself valued and desirable, it's become almost impossible to make a living as a copywriter while keeping what remnants of self-esteem you might still hold.

In fact, though I worked at Ogilvy, a "writer's agency," and was named "Copy Chief" on their biggest account by Steve Simpson, Chief Creative Officer, and one of the best writers in the business, as time went by I saw the agency reduce my role--everybody's role--from thinker to stylist.

More and more people throughout the agency and the holding company, from the most senior levels down, would loudly and without foundation proclaim that "nobody reads anymore." Usually, that bon mot and others like it--proclaiming the death of reading and the shortness of the GenZ attention span--would appear on page 79 of an 144-page deck.

Other people in the agency, usually with puffed out chests but asthmatic resumes declared, for no discernible reason other than billability, that strategists and planners should derive all strategic thinking and writers should unquestionably type that strategy and render it euphonious in as few words as possible. The idea is that planners have some special insight radar that makes them the only ones who can think strategically.

These same people, of course, would wheeze, "creative can come from anywhere," but insights can only come from planners because, well, they're planners.

I'm not sure how and when the planner-centricity of the advertising universe happened. And I have nothing against planners--they're most often my best agency friends. But I do know for virtually the first 30 years of my career, there were no planners. As there were none during advertising's modern golden age--1960 to about 1985. (1985 being the year virtually the entire industry had been consumed by holding company accountants.)

So, I had an idea.

I would assume an alias, doctor my resume, concoct some case-studies, shave two decades off my birth-certificate and re-enter the advertising industry--this time as a planner.

October 2, 2020

I hopped on a Zoom call early. It was 11:07 and the call started at 10:30. "Sorry I'm here," I said. True to form, the folks on the phone apologized to me. 

"Who just joined," asked one smart aleck.

"It's me, Branson," I answered, "Or Brandon. I go with whatever name is trendier at the moment."

"Thanks for joining, B. We're talking about the Campbell's soup pitch."

"According to some qual, the world is more divided than ever."

"This is Lily, I'm account on the pitch. Thanks, Brandon."

"That's Branson. What's more, people are faced with choice paralysis and the pace of technological change is accelerating."

"This is Apple. Thanks for the insights, Branson."

"That's Bransonn with two n's."

"Got it.""This is just my consultancy gig," I said. "My passion is making artisanal yoga mats out of old cold-brew coffee grinds."

"That's cool, Bransonn. We're so glad you're with us."

"With you?" I questioned. "With you? No one is with anyone anymore. Sure we're more connected than ever before--but we've never felt more alone."

"Geez," Fireplace said.

"We're connected," I continued "but with noise-canceling headphones on and our heads down."

"That's a powerful insight."

"Let me clarify," I continued, conscious I was billing by the hour. "We don't have our heads down. We each only have one head. But collectively, GenZ and GenZ😀, are all putting their heads down, or, more accurately keeping their heads down since, ok Boomer, they never raised their heads in the first place."

"Wow, Bransonn."

"Brandon. Millennials value experiences over things."

"Wow," said one of the Zoomers. "What an insight."

"They aren't into stuff. Houses. Cars. Accumulation. Dude. The sharing economy. They don't want to be tied down. They're the most progressive generation in the history of the world."

"That's important, right Brandon?"

"Bransonnn. With three n's. They've had it harder than any generation before them--forget about the Black Death, the Civil War, Vietnam, the everyday spectre of nuclear annihilation. That's why trust in institutions is at an all-time low."

"Man," Fireplace said. "These kids have it rough."

"Here's my thought," I offered. "Let's do something that's never been done before in the soup market. Something new. Something that speaks to the largest-generation of soup slurpers since soup was first slurped."

I could tell the people on this Zoom call were on the edge of their phones.

"They like experiences, not things, right? They don't need another can of soup cluttering up their too-small apartments in Williamsburg."

"No way!" Someone fairly screamed.

"Here's the insight--ZipZoup by Campbell's. You sign up, you pick up a hot bowl of soup whenever you want one. Right on the street corner. No ownership whatsoever. These. Kids. Don't. Trust. Ownership. No more soup patriarchy."


"Gotta boogie," I said hanging up the phone. "I've got my beard calisthenics instructor coming over."

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

I no longer understand.

A sure sign of a rogue and a scoundrel is someone who devalues something because they don't understand it. Like the outfielder who doesn't understand the firing line of the hot corner. Or the every day player who doesn't understand the pressure of the mound. 

There was a time in the advertising business when young people began in the mail-room or in traffic. They saw, that way, what every department did. 

If they were smart, they read the self-hatred of the account person who had to sop a client's fears. The copywriter who feared the disappearance of her skill just as a headline was due. The art director who compared himself to Krone, though they'd never met and never would.

But empathy is gone in our world. And more people than not devalue the works and jobs and professions of others. 

When I worked for a Bain/Harvard Business School adjunct, a consultancy that pretended they were an agency, and hoped by having me strait-jacketed in a corner office it would give them agency cred, creative didn't matter. 

How could it? They couldn't understand it and certainly couldn't do it. So, they turned creative into an if-then proposition. If we do this with data, then we'll get this click-through. If we put the     cta is here, then that will happen.

One of the things I've noticed of late--it's getting worse, not better--is how estranged the statements of agency executive management are from the very notion of creativity. 

When I think of the value of creativity, I reduce it to examples rendered in just a few words: taglines.

I don't think about customer engagement. 

I don't think about "authenticity."

I don't think about data.

Or targeting buckets.


I think about the billions of dollars of wealth created by four words: The ultimate driving machine.

I think about the billions of dollars of wealth created by two words: Think different.

I think about the billions of dollars of wealth created by ten words: It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.

I think about the billions of dollars of wealth created by one word: Absolut.

These are words that both reached the consumers' hearts and clarified in their minds what a brand meant. They stood out from the field like a tall tree in reedy marsh. They got noticed.

Today, I see words like this emerging from an agency president who exists as dank in a Read-y marsh.

the "reading clarity score" of the tweet above.

I am not trying to be coy.

I am not in that industry.

I never was.

I never will be.

I don't want to be.

I have a master's degree in English literature from Columbia University. I studied Latin at the graduate level. I am unable to figure out what those words even mean. I shudder to think anyone can. Even the person who said them.

Compare that apotheosis of intelligence--ie a tweet--with this from Mr. Bernbach, probably sixty years ago, and you might, just might, get my point. (Maybe Bernbach's been canceled because he A) said man and B) makes sense.)

the "reading clarity score" of the quote above.

Here's another such "O tempore! O mores! direct from Holding Company oral-sphincter-hood.

My experience after a lifetime in this industry is that the majority of clients--large, small, sophisticated or not, cannot rightly define to consumers what it is they do or sell or why what they do or sell is different, better or worth the money. 

That basic definitional task, saying what you do, sell or why you're worth the money is about as elemental as a rain-storm. If you were to meet someone in a bar and there was mutual interest, you would attempt to convey who you are, what you do and what makes you different.

Without that everything else is academic, masturbatory, powerpointurtory or make-work to separate gullible "marketers" from their money.

It isn't working. 

Certainly not in an industry most remarkable today for its lack of experienced people and its notoriously unsustainable "razor-thin" margins.

I don't care who thinks I'm an idiot.

I don't care that the industry I used to love has deemed me persona non grata (or as they're more likely to mediocritize, persona au gratin.)

I am sticking with simple, timeless human truths.

And I am abiding by the best advice I ever got on the importance of copywriting and communication. This from Bob Levenson's obituary from January 17, 2013:

Monday, October 26, 2020

Read-ing test.

I'm reading a book now that might sound a little weird for me to be reading. I'm someone who's barely spent an hour of my life outside of the sooty confines of a paved-over city. 

But "Owls of the Eastern Ice," was long-listed for the National Book Award and I enjoy not reading, now and again, about humankind's ever-accelerating descent into its current anti-Enlightenment abyss. And I thought after reading Isabel Wilkerson's "Caste," Rick Perlstein's "Reaganland," and the like, maybe I needed something with some pine scent to it.

Besides, I've always had good luck with books nominated by the National Book Award people and I push my long-autodidact proclivities to read as many nominated books as I can. It's a helluva lot easier since I don't waste time watching the current drivel that today passes for entertainment, news or culture.

One thing that "Owls" has pointed out to me is how people learn to "read."

Not words on a page, like we learned in first-grade or kindergarten, but how we learn to read other things. In "Owls" it's how Jonathan Slaght and his colleagues learn to read a forest, a riparian stretch of land, a river's substrate. They learn how to spot the domains of birds and other creatures. 

They learn to see things other people don't see. Because after weeks, months and years of working, they learn how to read footprints, broken limbs, hollowed carcasses of poplars.

Not long ago I had a dalliance with a prospective client. I get about 20 such calls a week. Someone calls me and says "I need help." And "would I please do x y and z," for free as an assessment of their communication shortcomings.

Like a realtor can enter a house and in nine-seconds pinpoint why it's been on the market for 137 days, like a baseball coach can see four swings and say, "yes, this kid can hit," l can quickly look at a website and assess what's wrong.

I don't know every detail. But I know where the problems are and how to apply myself to fix them.

I got on the phone with this prospective client and he quickly blasted me for not having spent hours on his site. 

I was pissed. And I let him have it with logic like the above. He backpedaled and ultimately, thank god, got a cheaper and less-good job done by someone else. But I think he understood. He just thought he'd be better off with someone more tractable, I suppose. Halavai.

Of course, agencies don't understand, nor do slow Read-ers who run Holding Companies. 

A good advertising person can look at a company's office, a memo, a store, even an email footer and size them up like a good boxer can assess his opponent after a few jabs.

There's always unseen stuff, of course. And nuance and depth. But just as I, with no formal musical training can hear a few strains of classical music and zero in on the composer, a good, experienced ad person can do the same.

In fact, last night my wife and I watched Jeopardy! The final category was announced: 19th Century Supreme Court Rulings and then they broke for a commercial. 

I turned to Laura and said, "Plessy vs. Ferguson. Plessy vs. Ferguson. Plessy vs. Ferguson. Plessy vs. Ferguson." Naturally, she ignored me.

Then Alex Trebek came back on and read the question. I answered "Plessy vs. Ferguson. Plessy vs. Ferguson. Plessy vs. Ferguson. Plessy vs. Ferguson."  Only one of the three contestants answered Plessy vs. Ferguson. That was the answer.

My wife said, "How did you do that? You knew the answer before the clue." It ain't an IBM Watson thing. It's just knowing how to read the game.

There are only three 19th Century Supreme Court rulings in Jeopardy-level questioning, in order of probability : 1. Plessy vs. Ferguson; 2. The Dred Scott Case; 3. Marbury vs. Madison. My guess is the likelihood of those as answers would be 88:8:4.

That's what comes from a lifetime of experience, of listening, of learning and of thinking.

When Holding Company slow-Readers boast that 75% of their staff is under 30--when apologists assert that that's all their "razor-thin margins" can abide, that's what they've thrown out.

Not just high-salaries and old age. 

Worse than that: they've thrown away their agency's ability to read.

Friday, October 23, 2020

A young man and the sea.

"I will tell you a story," Hector said. "A sad and happy story."

It was about 100-degrees in the dugout and we were waiting out a rainstorm. We were in Merida, Yucatan, Quintana Roo and were two innings into a game against el Leones de Yucatan. We were up three-nothing or down by the same when the blue-grey clouds broke and rain with drops the size of peso coins began assaulting the earth.

The stadium was small and open, maybe there were three-thousands fans that day. Some had brought umbrellas and were determined to wait it out. Some ran for cover. Others had had enough after two innings and left for home or for a nearby bar. 

Merida was a nice, old ancient city. There were plenty of bars. And tired crooked streets that three waves of Spanish conquistadors could not straighten to conformity. The richness of the city--it was once home to more millionaires, it is said, than any other city on earth, was due to the henequen plant which grows in the hills and can be turned into fiber, rope and mescal. 

The city grew rich. But that was eighty years ago, and by the summer of 1975 when I was there, the richness of the city had been covered with dust, decay and despair. 

"When I was thirty I was playing for los Diablos. It was 1957 or 1958," Hector said. 

"Around the time I was born."

Hector continued. "We had four games against el Leones. Most unusual we had two games, a full-day off, then two more games."

"A day off during the season?"

"Yes. One of the scrubs, a utility man named Federico was from a small seaside village, Progreso, about twelve miles or fifteen from Merida. Federico obtained permission to visit his brothers and his sisters and his father. His mother was dead already."

Most of the other boys had left the dugout for the locker-room. The rain pelted the corrugated metal of the roof. Hector and I sat side-by-side watching rivulets and puddles form in the red dirt in front of the dugout. The heavy flow of water would, every so often, carry two sunflower seed shells down a little stream.

"The far one is the faster," Hector would say.

I would root for the closer. Just to make the game interesting.

"Federico wanted to fish when he got home. But not his father nor his brothers nor his sisters nor his friends wanted to fish with him. So he loaded a small boat with a small engine with a cooler of beers, some sandwiches, his fishing gear and an old rifle in case he was to hook a too-big shark."

"To shoot the shark," I asked.

"As he must, if the shark was larger than his boat."

The rain continued. The umpires showed no signs, however, of calling off the game.

"In about one hour, Federico told me this himself, the current shifted away from shore and the old one and a half horsepower engine of the boat stopped working."

"And there was no Gordo Batista to fix it." Batista was our third-string catcher and first-string bus driver. He spent more time under the hood of our team bus than crouching behind the plate.

"Federico had one oar, but the current and wind pulling his boat into the sea was too powerful. Before he knew it, Federico was twenty miles or thirty miles out to sea."

Another small armada of sunflower seed shells flowed by in the littered brown water.

"It was dark. And Federico was out of food and drink. And there was no way he could get back to Progreso. He tried for a second day but the oar was useless against the current and the waves. By day three, Federico with his rifle shot a seagull for food, but he could not paddle to get it."

Two Seraperos came over to Hector, their spikes clinking against the concrete floor of the dugout.

"What you think, Skip? We play."

Hector looked up at the rain. 

"It is an unknown sky. We could drown here or in ten minutes it could be sunny."

"After four days, Federico told me this, he saw his mother. He woke up and he was back near the pier in Progreso and his mother was there. Federico almost climbed out of his small boat to meet her. But it was just a fever dream."

"He almost drowned?"

"Yes, almost. But he came to his senses soon enough. He was starving now. And had no way home. Federico passed out and left fate to the little boat and the waves."

Hector walked out onto the field. The rain seemed to be slowing. He tried to catch the eye of the umpires--to hasten a decision, should we play or not. But he had no luck.

"He fell deep to sleep. We don't know how long. But then Federico's boat landed in Cuba."


"Yes, to Americans it seems far. But it is only seventy miles. Cortes many times made the trip. Cuba was his base to conquer our land."

The rain had slowed to a drizzle. I could see small patches of blue in the sky beyond the outfield fences.

"The Batistas took Federico and they asked for ID. They were afraid he was a spy from Fidel. A Barbudos down from the mountains looking to cause trouble.

"'I have no identification. I am a baseball player from Mexico and was fishing when a storm came. Who takes identification with them when they are looking for fish?' 

"The Batistas did not believe him, of course. Worse, by this time, his family had given Federico up for dead. They had for him a funeral and cast flowers into the sea."

The umpires were standing by the pitcher's mound. One had his hand out feeling for the rain. One looked at the sky, and looked for a sign. The grounds' crew came out and began raking the infield dirt. The game would soon begin.

"Federico finally after two months--one month after his funeral-- returned to Progreso. I'm not sure how,  if the Mexican government got involved and he returned to his family."

"They were happy to see him."

"He was a ghost who returned."

"Did he play for los Diablos again?"

The umpires called the managers out, then called 'play ball.' Hector returned just a minute later.

"We will play ball today," Hector said. The dugout was filling up. Issy Buentello our catcher began strapping on his gear. I tightened my spikes, grabbed my glove and waited on the top step of the dugout.

"Did he play for los Diablos again?"

"Federico was not much of a ballplayer, Jorge."

I took that as Hector's answer and began to trot to my position at third.

"But he was even worse as a fisherman."

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The last Ding-Dong of Dumb.

If I had a dime for every unsolicited note I've received since I was rendered superfluous from Ogilvy, I'd make Warren Buffet look like Oliver Twist.

Since my long, slow, steady descent into the tar-pits of dinosaured demise, I've been literally getting twenty notes a week from people I don't even know. Most of those notes, I'm chagrined to admit, are complimentary. 

People call me a "legend." (Being called a legend is great until it happens to you.) Others tell me they love my work. Still others tell me how they'd love to take classes with me.

It's all very flattering. But as someone who doesn't pick up the phone if he thinks someone on the other end is waiting to heap praise on him, I don't quite know how to reckon with the acclaim.

First of all, and touch wood, I'm busy. That means I can't handle all the requests I get. And that's where I feel bad.

I know I'm one of the lucky ones. For forty years I made my way through advertising's dank alimentary tract--and while I got squirted out ignominiously, I did emerge, basically, with all my faculties intact. If a little rank.

What's more, while I have slow days or slow afternoons, I've yet to have a slow week or--again touch wood--a slow month. As much as I'd like to dedicate my time to the betterment of the industry, and to help all the people I can along the way, the fiduciary needs of my shtetl upbringing force me to make money. Cogito ergo Cash, or something like that.

In fact, since I am busy, and busy--to be clear--preparing for my posterity, I have yet to even do the work I want to be able to do. 

I have started my "book," (one of 15 I have in me) two-hundred times or three hundred, and haven't gotten past my first outburst of post-natal anger yet. Besides one good description of where I come from that's buried deep inside some of my 92-thousand baseball stories, I am not happy with anything I've ever writ--except maybe a children's book I once wrote on quantum computing that I couldn't even get out of the agency--it frightened people smaller than I.

So this is all by way of apology. 

To paraphrase Groucho Marx's patter from his old game-show, "You Bet Your Life," "Well, you're a lovely person, and I'd love to go on talking to you but it's time to play You Run Your Life."

In other words, I'd love to sit with you all, and shoot the shit and review portfolios and help you launch your business. But I've got bills to pay, and like Robert Frost's old man, "Miles to go before I sleep." And by the way, the sleep I mean ain't an 11PM to 5AM tick tock. It's what Rich Siegel calls "The Great Dirt Nap."

I'm a legend remember? And I'm not buying the line from Douglas MacArthur--that we fade away; No. We do, in fact, die. Silent and alone and unmourned.

Like I said, I'm sorry. Sorry I can't be as giving as I wish I could be.

But, maybe you can do something for me. If you know of a Maxwell Perkins to my Thomas Wolfe, send them my way. If you know of a Swifty Lazar, or a Clark Clifford, send them my way. 

I have a lovely person and a dear friend helping me manage my business but she's busy too. 

And we could both use a hand. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Buns of titanium.

Back when I was an ECD at "the Digital Agency of the Decade," about a decade ago, I reached a somewhat frightening conclusion.

I worked very closely with a very good art director. And we were both cut out of the same cloth. We both had a blue-collar approach to work.

First off, we were both, more often than not in by 8:30 and ready to work. We had coffeed our coffee and read our papers. Our email was checked our incidentals incidentalized. Like I said, we were ready to go.

And we'd get to it.

In a moment, Tom would show me a comp. Or a script idea. Or I would shove something across the sweat-shop table in his direction. By the time most everyone else on the team got in, we had already done a full-day's work and then some.

That's when I realized that given propitious working conditions, one driven team, or two could probably create all the creative work for an entire agency. All the banners. All the print ads. All the TV spots. And so on.

The thing that eats people alive in agencies isn't the doing of the work, it's the re-doing. The re-re-doing. And the re re re re re re re re re re re re re doing.

Lately my work cup has been running over. 

That's ok.

My labor isn't going to Mark Read's ageist agenda, or adding to Martin Sorrell's lifelong WPP-buyout, or some paying for bone-head 99-year lease someone signed at the height of the real-estate market on the commercial space equivalent of an Apatosaurus. 

My labor isn't going to the wireless network that works two days in ten. The expensive color printers that work one-day in ten. Or the bloated ranks of black-car riding scions that work even less. 

No, it's going to me. 

So, with my wife similarly busy, we've been setting our alarms--and Whiskey our show dog--for 4:30AM. My wife brings me a cup of coffee as thick as La Brea's tarpits and we each start tapping. Tapping at our MacBook's keypads.

My first task yesterday, which took me from 4:30 to 10 was to re-write the Annual Report of an International Monetary Fund who decided they wanted to, for whatever reason, work with me. I read like a Talmudic scholar, and used my sharpest mental pencil to make their, yes, fractured body copy as euphonious as I could without veering into the pretentious.  At 10 I mailed it off to my long-time partner in London, and my long-time account person in San Francisco.

Then I walked Whiskey for 300-calories, and then returned to the fray.

This particular fray being a new business pitch that I am neck deep into. I had talked to the agency yesterday and had a couple things to write. Usually two things beget two more. And I wanted to get on it before my wife's viscous java was merely a caffeinated memory. 

I sent what I had promised off by one. And a couple more things no one was asking for by four. At which time I went out for another two-mile walk annd another 300-calorie expenditure.

At six I had a call with an editor who is cutting a manifesto film for me. And at six-thirty I have 12 students from Ad House on a Zoom call where I'll regale them with the wisdom of the ages, or more likely, my insane and incoherent ramblings.

I read somewhere that during WWII, the Army Air-Force General Curtis LeMay, could sit and study a huge reconnaissance photograph of Japan for hours, looking for bombing locations on that bombed-out island. LeMay's men gave him the mocking, but affectionate nickname, Old Iron Ass.

In my early days at Ogilvy I was on a pitch. In about two hours I wrote 50 print headlines and ten commercials. 

Old Iron Ass.

There's a lot of tricks of the trade you can pick up along the way in advertising, or any other business. Things you learn because you've done them so many times you know how to get the job done quickly.

Maybe in advertising I've learned how not to get fixated on a thought. How to look at a problem 50 ways to Sunday. How to say, "let me write one more," twenty times. I suppose those are the advertising equivalents of a tailor who knows how to eye-ball a hem and sew it evenly, or who know how to let out a waist because someone's gone a little heavy on the Haagen-Das. Maybe, better, it's like a race-car driver's pit crew who can change a tire in nine-seconds.

Shortcuts are great. I'm all for them.

But nothing works quite as good as being an Iron Ass.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020


It's a simple economic fact that when agency holding companies are run by money people--accountants, insurance brokers and consultants, it's only natural that client-side businesses are also run by people who have little understanding or appreciation for the value of creativity. More often than not these days, agencies are hired and fired and fired and fired by procurement.

Their main function is cost-cutting, not value getting. And agencies seem to be following that dicta in lockstep. 

Experienced people are fired because the money-driven agency business complies with Shaw's definition of a cynic: someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

That's the world today. And why most agency creative departments are populated by people who are under 30. WPP claims that 75% of its 130,000 employees worldwide are under 30.

About two-years ago, I developed a twelve-week curriculum for the young people at Ogilvy and was thoroughly rebuffed. Basically I was told, regardless of how I increased the knowledge and value of Ogilvy's staff, I had to be 100% billable. Given that I was already about 150% billable, I didn't feel I could psychically afford to add another 15 hours to my week. 

For about the last six months, partly because I enjoy working with young people, I've been teaching some ad classes. I asked two weeks or so ago if anyone had heard of Doyle Dane Bernbach. Our read "Think Small," or "Lemon." 

One person out of 25 raised their hand.

I quickly threw together a 366-page presentation of DDB. DDB being the progenitor of modern advertising. Last week I put together another presentation--just 85 pages this time--on the great art director (maybe the greatest) Helmut Krone.

This week, I compiled 114 pages on one of my advertising idols, Ed McCabe.

Because I have a class to teach--they're usually about three hours--I devote just half-an-hour to these presentations. I try to show young people the world. I try to show them what good is. I try to raise their level of ambition. To play, in the words of David Ogilvy, with the "immortals."

I send these long decks out to the class, for them to study later. For them to keep somewhere in their desk, and I hope, maybe in the dark of night, they'll go through them, be inspired, get a laugh or a spark and do better work.

That's more erudite than what I mean.

What I really hope is that they'll learn to copy, learn to imitate, learn to, yes, steal. Not a line, or a visual, or a particular idea--but an ingenuity, a passion, and an exclamation point to work that might otherwise be prosaic and humdrum.




When I was a kid, I was one of the few white Ray Charles fans in a rock 'n roll world. I would ride my Raleigh from record store to record store looking for every Ray Charles record I could lay my hands on.

One day I found a very early Ray Charles album. Maybe from the early 1950s. Maybe Ray was 22 or 23 at the time.

I didn't like it. Ray didn't sound like Ray.

Years later I discovered Ray was imitating Nat "King" Cole. That's how he taught himself. Ray sang like Cole until he could figure out his own voice.

That's what I did when I was starting out in the business. I was working for two hall-of-famers who were more interested in their second homes than in teaching me. 

I was a kid.

So I took every available dime I had and bought literally every award annual I could put my hands on. I studied them like they were the tablets handed down from on high.

When I found an ad I liked, I found out who wrote it and went searching for more of their work. I wanted to hear their rhythms in my head when I wrote. I wanted to know their best work to see if there was a construct I could adopt and adapt. Something I could, in the pilfery parlance of today, 'learn from.'

Foremost among writers I admired was Ed McCabe. I memorized these ads. I learned from them. A way of thinking. A way of finding stories in small details. A way of brusque, adjectiveless writing.

There will be some reading this who will roll their eyes. And assert that I hark back to the irrelevant 80s. That I am a dinosaur. All that bushwa.

That's ok with me.

But I wouldn't tell McCabe if I were you.


Dave Dye ( the great art director, and friend, sent me a hard-drive not long ago, crammed with thousands of McCabe ads. Dave, really, is responsible for this post. And I thank him--and you should too, for his great archival work.