Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A meditation on suck.

I had a conversation with a friend the other day, I suppose we were talking about the tyranny of Trump and virulent fact-
denial--92 percent of all conversations today involve those subjects--and the person I was talking to said something about Shakespeare's Macbeth.

As I so often do, I galloped down an unplowed path. 

"In 1606, I said, Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra. Three major plays in one year. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro calls 1606 'The Year of Lear.' Three great plays. In a modern agency, most people don't produce three :30s in a year."

We nodded over the phone and then went on our way. Human conversations are as rare today as spotting a giant fish owl in the wild. You can look your entire life and never come close to seeing one.

Later on, still yesterday, Kristen Cavallo, the CEO of The Martin Agency, and a LinkedIn connection, left a comment about one of my blog posts on Linked In. 

Ms. Cavallo and I don't really know each other. I couldn't pick her out of a line-up, or more appropriately she couldn't pick me out of a drunk-tank. We've only been connected since August. But as you grow older in our benighted business (still better than the alternative) the survivors become fewer and fewer. Sooner or later it seems everyone knows everyone else. It's a bit of Peyton Place, I suppose, on Madison Avenue, but with HR looking on so nothing prurient, or even fun, ever happens.

In any event, Cavallo being CEO of one of the few agencies left to admire, I was flattered that she was reading my humble blog and even more flattered that she commented.

I thought about how I should respond--should I beg for work, should I suck up, should I just say something dumb and platitudinous? But when I couldn't think of anything, I was just me--for better or worse--dumb.

That got me thinking of course. 

How many good ideas never get out of an agency--even the best agencies--because we've created a crushing infrastructure that closes in on people in such a way that they've learned to close their mouths, close their minds, close their guts off to being, well, stupid. 

Where we should be lucid, we are constrained. Where we should be funny, we instead censor ourselves.

I wondered, how much of the agency business--and the client business for that matter--is afflicted with a serious case of congenital, chronic and soul-killing constipation. 

I read somewhere that when Woody Allen was 16 he got a job writing jokes for the Sid Caesar show. I was 16, I think when I read this, and I was amazed that Allen could write 50 jokes in a day. I also remember my ex-boss Ron Rosenfeld who was at one time the youngest copywriter in the Advertising Hall-of-Fame would tell me how he could sit down at his typewriter and write 100 headlines.

Then I remembered a chat I had with a friend of mine--another CEO of another vaunted creative agency. We had written a commercial with another writer, but had failed to create the requisite website. My friend wrote, "You know, I made that website an hour before our launch!"

What we do in advertising isn't very hard.

We have to find simple and original ways of saying something. We usually have a ton of tools at our disposal. And we usually have people around us who are funny, who can add and build on ideas, etc.

But, there's the other, darker, Soviet side of agency life. 

For lack of a better phrase, I'll call it the "Sphincter-Industrial Complex."

It's where people and places create a narrow, undefined gamut of work. A range only they have the ability to interpret. And, sadly, anything they haven't seen before or wouldn't have thought of themselves is deemed unacceptable and, even, wrong-headed and offensive.

There's a lot of this Sphincterism afflicting our business. It's small-minded martinets and know-it-alls who know exactly what won't work and why. They know exactly what the client wants. They know everything but how to do it themselves and how to be lucid and free. 

They're bolstered by the managers and project managers and resource directors and pissant picayunistas who incrementalize and regiment and logicalize out of existence anything that challenges the status quo.

So we regress to the mean. We beigize humor. We blandarize casting. We sand the edges off of every bit of work and destroy the souls of one and all involved. An old boss of mine when reviewing work would often classify something as "flat as a plate of piss." We don't talk that colorfully or candidly today. We'll get in trouble if we do. So we nod. There's polite applause. And we move on.

Then we go home at night and turn on the tube and we sit and watch and wonder.

How can all this work suck so bad?

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