Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Turn every page.

Not long-ago, before disease, denial and then abject stupidity shut down most of the world's economy and billions of people were "locked down," I went to a talk by one of my favorite writers, the great Robert Caro. 

Caro's won multiple Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. He is in the throes of writing his fifth and final volume in his massive look at the acquisition, use and misuse of power. He's using the American politician and former-President Lyndon Baines Johnson to enlighten us. And if volume five is half-way as good as Caro's previous work, his legions of fans will buy the book the day it comes out and not put it down for many days later.

Can you imagine? An intellectual with a cult following.

(If you want to read more on Caro and how he works or if you wonder what his lectures are like, pick up this short book. Here. Or read a review here.)

Caro tells a story when he speaks. He is a young investigative reporter for Long Island Newsday, which before the internet, vulture capitalists and apathy killed newspapers, was a liberal and activist paper. 

The story goes, Caro was "on to something." And had somehow secured entry into the top-secret archives of his subject. He was all of 24 or 25 and he was "winging it." Caro went to his editor. He was unsure what he was getting himself into. He was unsure how to proceed.

His editor had this simple direction for him. It should be etched in every creative's brain. And if agencies ever have physical offices again, emblazoned in the conference rooms and over every doorway.

"Turn Every Page."

Advertising people of my generation were taught two Ds. We had to define what a product or service did. And we had to differentiate it. Today, more often than not, we do neither D. Ds are passe.



There's a Chevy spot running (ceaselessly) now that reflects the au courant style of modern advertising. It's paid for by General Motors but it could be for any car. It's about as meaningless a spot as you'll ever see. It's generic.

To be philosophical about it, or to be a believer in what's now called "brand," there's no essential "Chevy-ness" in it. 

Our job in advertising, regardless of your assigned role or title, is to be investigative journalists. To find out the essence and the reason-why of the product or services we are selling. 

Our job is not to take a 68-page powerpointed brief and say, "ok." I will write a spot on how people like safety. 

Our job is to reject blandness like that.

Our job, in short, is to turn every page until we find something that defines the brand we're working on and makes it better and different.

Turn every page.

If you're lucky, as I am, you're blessed with an orderly brain and a messy desk. 

When I am engaged in unraveling an assignment--anything from a pudding brand to a Quantum computer--I have the communication blocked out in my head. And I have lorem ipsum in slots where important, distinguishing information must must must go.

That's where the messy desk comes in.

I search through my notes. 

I search through articles I've read.

I search through old briefs and old work.

And connections are made that involve luck and serendipity. Luck and serendipity come from turning pages. And finding things where you'd least expect them.

So I turn every page.

Someone once said (Maybe Dave Trott can clarify) that creativity is essentially putting two thoughts together that were never put together before. It's the tension and friction found in dissonance. Creativity is never neat and orderly. 

And being handed briefs by a planner--even a good one--is not an endpoint to which you apply a coat of creative paint. Doing that makes you a stylist not a thinker.

Your job is to find something.

My money manager tells me, "It's not timing the market. It's time in the market." Same is true when you're working. It's not waiting till the moment is right. It's taking time. 

I am angry at spots like the Chevy spot above. Or the vaunted Extra gum spot below. They may or may not be nice. Regardless of that, they are NOT unique to the brand paying your salary and for the spot. They're a Hallmark card of packaged and homogenized sentiment. Anyone can say what they say.


Caro's great book on the Builder of New York, Robert Moses, is called "The Power Broker." In it, Caro writes about the highways, bridges and tunnels Moses builds to modernize and automobilize the great city. He wonders, as many New Yorkers do, why the Triboro Bridge, which Moses built, crosses a confluence of New York estuaries at 125th Street in Manhattan, and not lower at around 110th Street, where it would make more sense. Daily thousands of commuters have to drive north to drive south. Why?

In today's journalism, that sort of itch is left unscratched. There are no answers to be found.

Except Caro found the answer. 

On 125th Street, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate had a row of crappy tenements he was losing money on. He couldn't rent them. Moses, in return for favorable coverage in the Hearst press, moved the entryway to the Triboro up-town. He condemned Hearst's money-losing tenements in return for future consideration.

Our job is to do something interesting.
Our job is to find something interesting.
It's not to wait around till someone tells us something interesting. It's to turn every page.

There's a lot of bushwa around about the death of advertising.

Most of the death of advertising is due to the death of interesting.

Maybe the death of interesting is due to the death of page-turning.


Monday, September 27, 2021

Information, please.




I realize I am about 20 years past my sell-by date. 

If I were a quart of milk, a chicken cut into eighths or a loaf of enriched whole white bread, I'd have been thrown out around 2001. 

Good riddance.

When you travel the world as an old man, you not only see the present. You remember what was there in the past. You remember the large tree they cut down to put a drive-thru window in order to make it easier to die from a hamburger. You remember when people in local shops said hello and thank you and how are you today. When you were more interesting than a Tik-Tok video on their screen.

You remember when news shows showed news, bonafide news, not opinion and when every storm and every stabbing and every bombing wasn't evidence--screamed at 200 dB on a 24-hour news cycle--of the end of the world as we know it. 

You remember taking a walk without a phone. Leaving the office without still being attached to the office. And not checking your email as incessantly as medieval monks prayed in their cells.

I remember when I could find information.

I am looking for a week away from the fleshpots of virtual Madison Avenue. Someplace warm. With a pool. To just relax. Maybe have a drink.

All I get are ads for travel aggregators that when you click on them, you have more ads for more aggregators.

I can't find what I'm looking for. No matter how precise and quotation-marked my search is. Every "best list" whether you're looking for a resort, a pizza or a car that's good in the snow is an ad. And a bad one at that.

It's funny to me how not long ago we lived in the information age and now we can find no information at all.

Because today we are living in the "user age." The consumer isn't in control. The consumer is consumed.

Modern marketing is a battle for cattle and you're the bovine. Mooooooooooo.


We are all being used.

Commercialized.

Derivatived. We are a collateralized human debt obligation to be sold to the lowest, but most persistent bidder.

I've read a lot of literature in my time. Including the oldest books known to Western civilization, the Sumerian epic from 2000 BC, Gilgamesh and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey as well as just about every collection of Greek mythology I can get my hands on.

For about 6,000 years, civilization has traded on good information delivered with speed. Information that clarifies and guides.

In the user age, humanity gives information about themselves in exchange for products they don't want. Because today's politicians, corporations and advertising agencies believe people are too stupid to care. You're not even a person, remember. You're something to be used. (See Zuckerberg, Mark.)

I run an agency now. 

A one-person agency, so by definition the world's smallest, if you don't count agencies run solely by bots for the enrichment of bots.

I routinely win major pieces of business from agencies one-thousand times my size. The low-margin scions of Madison Avenue. I win it without unveiling my spiel. I win it by uncovering information, useful information, that helps brands tell people what they do and why they're important. 

What's in it for you?

A lot of times I think of my harridan of a mother. Intelligent. But she died before ever going on a computer or reading an email. 

I am often asked to explain complicated things. 

I write for my mother in that case.

My job is to make her understand.

No matter if she doesn't.

She wanted me to be a lawyer.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Ambition. A Friday story.



I'm reading a meandering book by Philip Hoare ostensibly on the great 16th Century artist Albrecht Durer. It's called "Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Durer and How Art Imagines Our World." You can read the review here.

I picked the book up because I knew one thing about Durer and I was intrigued by that one thing. That Durer drew his famous rendering of the Rhinoceros without ever having seen a rhinoceros. 


As someone who's often charged professionally with explaining things I'm not sure I fully understand, with some arrogance I likened myself to Durer. We often have to do the best we can with incomplete information. 

For instance, the way I always explained the difference between binary computing and Quantum computing was through this example. If you're in the Library of Congress and someone puts a giant X on one of the billions of pages in their collection, a binary computer, with superfast speeds, will essentially flip through all those pages in order to locate the X. A Quantum computer--through the spooky magic of Qbits, can look at all of those billions of pages at once--finding the X much more quickly.

I don't understand the how. But the example helps clarify the what.

Durer was there, too. Which angels and devils and rhinoceros and sea creatures great and small.

Hoare's book is a ramble. And Wednesday night, I read less about Durer than I would have liked and more about the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Marianne Moore.

On October 19th, 1955, Moore was approached by an executive from Ford Motor Company. They needed help in naming a new luxury automobile--and they turned to Moore.

A Mr. Robert Young of Ford briefed Moore with these words:

We should like this name to be more than a label. Specifically, we should like it to have a compelling quality in itself and by itself. To convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design. A name, in short, that flashes a dramatically desirable picture in people's minds.

Bad briefs are nothing new.

However, I love the ambition of bringing poetry to commerce. 

From October 21, 1955 to December 8, 1955, Moore sent Ford 43 different names.

They rejected them all. Including the last, "Utopian Turtletop."

  1. The Ford Silver Sword
  2. Hirundo
  3. Aerundo
  4. Hurricane Hirundo (swallow)
  5. Hurricane Aquila (eagle)
  6. Hurricane Accipter (hawk)
  7. The Impeccable
  8. Symmechromatic
  9. Thunderblender
  10. The Resilient Bullet
  11. Intelligent Bullet
  12. Bullet Cloisoné
  13. Bullet Lavolta
  14. The Intelligent Whale
  15. The Ford Fabergé (That there is also a perfume Fabergé seems to me to do no harm, for here allusion is to the original silversmith)
  16. The Arc-en-Ciel (the rainbow)
  17. Arcenciel
  18. Mongoose Civique
  19. Anticipator
  20. Regna Racer (couronne a couronne) sovereign to sovereign
  21. Aeroterre
  22. Fée Rapide (Aerofee, Aero Faire, Fee Aiglette, Magi-faire) Comme Il Faire
  23. Tonnere Alifère (winged thunder)
  24. Aliforme Alifère (wing-slender a-wing)
  25. Turbotorc (used as an adjective by Plymouth)
  26. Thunderbird Allié (Cousin Thunderbird)
  27. Thunder Crester
  28. Dearborn Diamanté
  29. Magigravure
  30. Pastelogram
  31. Regina-Rex
  32. Taper Racer
  33. Varsity Stroke
  34. Angelastro
  35. Astranaut
  36. Chaparral
  37. Tir á l'arc (bull's eye)
  38. Cresta Lark
  39. Triskelion (three legs running)
  40. Pluma Piluma (hairfine, feather-foot)
  41. Adante con Moto (description of a good motor?)
  42. Turcotinga (turqoise cotinga—the cotinga being a South-American finch or sparrow) solid indigo.
  43. Utopian Turtletop
For their new luxury line of automobiles, Ford used a name Henry Ford II had chosen. 

Edsel.

I could find no comment from Ms. Moore.





Thursday, September 23, 2021

I want my Mommy.

Whenever the world throws me a curveball, whenever an ill-wind knocks me a-kilter, whenever, in the words of William Wordsworth, the "world is too much with me," I look to find ways to center myself.

One way I do that is to walk Whiskey, my almost-ten-year-old golden retriever. Another way I try to get some peace is to walk myself, three-or-five miles, sans music or conversation. Just a silent walk, me and the birds and the sea off to one side. 

The final thing I do is read. I read intelligent, well-written things and they calm me down. Like this by one of my writing heroes, Joseph Mitchell. 

His clarity helps me. It's light in a world that's dark.

We live in a world, it seems to me, that is essentially devoid of clarity. A world heaped with bullshit, where confusion is often a bludgeon. Where people assault you with verbal diarrhea and knee you in the groin with a purposefully blunt lack of precision.

In other words, they don't take the time to be clear. They don't take the time to collect their thoughts. They don't in fact, take the time to think. They just spew.

We accept it. Especially if it comes from people in vaunted positions. We respect the no-clothes-ness of our Emporers. We don't call it out. 

We're cowed.

The latest affront is from my ex-agency, Ogilvy.

Once a beacon of clarity and good writing. I was proud to be an Ogilvy writer. It meant something once.

Once it was an organization that hated jargon and pretense.

But just today, I got two separate emails from two different ex-Ogilvy colleagues.

First I got this.

There is absolutely nothing about it I understand. I don't understand the words. I don't understand the utter lack of meaning. And I don't understand what Ogilvy Experience is or what a Global Executive Creative Director does.

Also.

Why run an ad that has no impact or stopping power or meaning? But I suppose those values are passe in today's high-falutin' days. What could be more old-fashioned than an ad that says something and makes you think? Why, that's harkening back to the 80s.




Then from someone else, I got this. Maybe it's even worse. If that's possible.

Again, I don't know what any of this means. Or how anyone involved in that once-great agency could regard these communications as valuable to their brand.


Dave Trott, the legendary ad person, recently asked a very simple question. Why would anyone run an ad that people don't like? Why would anyone run an ad that doesn't make people laugh, feel, smile or think?

I know it's almost 2021.

I know I don't have an advanced degree in whatever people have advanced degrees in these days. I know I don't wear a woolen hat in 94-degree heat, lean in, or live in Bushwick. 

In other words, what the fuck do I know?

I'm essentially unemployed.

But here's what I know.

That shit sucks.

Maybe you should think about that.

Do something about our propagation and acceptance of crap. 

Also, maybe you should watch this.

I know I did.

Two times. And I saved it too.

It doesn't suck.



Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Welcome to our new agency.


We're all about creativity. 
Except when we're all about data.

We want to be the world's most creative company.
That's why we fired most of our most creative people.

We generate shareholder value
by undervaluing our employees.

We're "agents,"
but most interested in self-promotion.

We're completely borderless.
Except don't you dare step foot on the Executive floor.

We're family.
You're fired.

We're looking for innovation.
Tested and focus-group-approved innovation.

We're all for diversity.
As long as it doesn't include people making a lot of money.

We're all for diversity.
Except for senior management at the holding company.

Awards aren't important.
Except when we win them.

We're working to make the world a better place.
By doing banner ads for Hot Pockets.

We believe in data
but only when it supports our POV.

We support privacy
as long as we can retarget ads.

We care about our people.
Enough to offer no severance.

We hire bright, ambitious people.
Willing to work for raises half the rate of inflation.

We believe in work-life balance.
As long as the balance is 80:20.

We're all in this together.
Except we take limos home and you can't expense a cab.

We're all family.
We're the step-mother and you're Cinderella.

We're media agnostic.
As long as we lead with TV.

A big idea can come from anywhere.
Just not from our agency.

Content is king.
That's why ours usually looks cheap and is badly written.

Innovate or die.
Or at least, innovate or get a head cold.

Words matter.
That's why our creative department is lead by two designers.

We care about you.
Stale bagels available at cost when you work the weekend.

Work is supposed to be fun.
Just not for you.

If we hire people bigger than ourselves, we'll be a company of giants.
"Hi, Shorty."

We hire all types.
Just not all opinions.






Tuesday, September 21, 2021

A meditation on Boxing. (Not the sport.)

One of the things I've noticed in life, especially as I've gotten older and am often adopted by young people at various agencies I've been sentenced to, is how the modern corporate structure--under the Draconian-guidance of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Taylorism--is about personnel regression to the mean. 

In English, it's about "the system" making everyone mediocre. So the only outstanding people can be those in charge. (Outstanding threatens the Chieftains. They might have to share control, or give some up. Heaven forfend.)

Some years ago, it started with my friend, a young account person I'll call S.

I remember S--at 26--being in a meeting. Dutifully taking notes while the SVPs were gabbing. S left early, when the oldsters started kibbitzing and one wise older account person said aloud, "I have a feeling we'll all be working for S someday."

One night S came to my corner office. 

Her eyes were red from weeping.

"I'm getting nowhere," S explained. "And people resent me."

I took a piece of paper and a pen--we had office supplies in the office in those days, and I drew this.


"S," I said, "here's how it works. This is a Bell Curve. Bad agencies hire on the upslope. By definition, mediocre agencies hire at the peak. And good agencies--and ours is a good agency--hire on the downslope, where it says G."

S nodded.

"But once in a while, there's a problem."

I drew another Bell Curve.

"That problem looks like this."

If you're X on this Bell Curve, and are far more capable--brilliant even--than the others nominally in your peer group, you cause trouble. If there are eight others in your cohort, most social organizations would rather squash you--you're the outlier--than bring the others along before they're ready. So, they bring you back to where the others are. They keep you in a box, because you threaten the hierarchy, rather than figure out how to let you blossom. HR doesn't know how to free people. Just think of the notion of "salary bands." You fit in a Procrustean bed.

Since I had this talk twenty-five years ago with S, I've had it a dozen more times. I've had it with at least two Ms, another S and an H and a D. I've had it with about 60 percent of the consonants and 4/7ths of the vowels. I've had it, most important with my own brilliant daughters.

There are storied Madison Avenue workplaces (they're not really agencies anymore, since they work not as agents of clients but for their 'shareholders,' they that care only about the bottom line in the short term) that give their offices names like the Nougat Factory or the Caramel Assembly Line.

Really, most places should be called Squash Factories or Zucchini Ziggurats.

They squash the souls of the people they should be promoting. 

There are plenty of reasons our industry is all but dead. I'd say "on life support," but there's little life left and no one is supporting it. 

I wrote the essay below for a client's website once. They didn't buy it. Maybe it was too much for them. So it belongs to me and GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company and I'm pasting it here.

Just consider this a post about un-boxing. 

Un-boxing yourself. For all the world to see.


Hello.

Meet an old acquaintance.

Something you encounter every day.

And have encountered every day

probably every day of your life.

 

A box.

 

Most people live their life inside a box.

A box that tells them where to sit.

What schools they should go to.

What classes to take.

A box that pushes in.

Pushes in, sometimes, from all six sides.

Cramping you.

Closing in on you.

 

Boxes don't go away when you get older.

They don't get any more roomy.
Or flexible.

Or comfortable.

You don't get any more used to them.

Even if--
even when--even though you sometimes try to convince yourself it's ok.

 

A box.

That tells you exactly what to do.

And who to do it with.

And how to do it--the way it's always been done.

A box that tells you to toe-the-line and keep your head-down.

And don't think too much.

And don't speak up, speak out or speak your mind.

 

A box that says,

stay in your swim lanes.

Protect your turf.

Watch your back and watch out for the other guy.


A box that limits.

Closes.

Shuts off.

And eventually destroys.

Your creativity.

Your spontaneity.

Your love of doing what you love.

 

You know what?

The world isn't a box.

Not if there's a place that lets you breathe.
Breathe.

Breathe deep.


A place that's yes, and. Not, no.

A place that values you.

Your thinking.

Your ingenuity.

Your constant stream of what-ifs.

A place that values you because you're you.

Not some homogenized and pre-approved version of you.

Or forced into someone you're not.

 

A place of freedom--not confinement.

Of autonomy not automatons.

A place where people, ideas, enthusiasm, actions, advances

don't end up like everyone else.

 

A box-less,

rule-less,

border-less place.

A group of people--diverse, eclectic, nutty and brilliant.
Eccentric.

Maybe sometimes frustrating.

But
who work with clients, with each other, with the world

to make work better.

 

To bring better products to market faster.

To bring better information to more people.

To bring advancements.

To obliterate stagnation.

To push and fight and learn and laugh.

And to come in tomorrow and do it again.

And to grow and grow and grow.

Yourself.

Your clients.

Us.

 

We could go on about how many people we have.

How many offices.

How many clients.

And how fast we're growing.
We could talk about what we do and what others don't.

 

But this is bigger than that.

This is about doing something different.

About doing something more important.

Pushing full-force against the usual.

Saying NO to the status quo.

This is about destroying that old acquaintance.

That old box.

And imagining the future.

And even more important than imagining it.

It's making it.

 




Monday, September 20, 2021

A f**king master.

No matter what you do for a living, even if you're the Librarian of Congress and you're surrounded by a billion books, there's very little chance that you'll read anything better--today or any other day--than what my friend, Debra Fried, has written below.

Debra wrote a short column a few weeks ago about a bike accident and life. 

Mostly life.

I quickly wrote her a plaintive note. "Won't you write something for my blog? Please."

The best thing about advertising--regardless of what era you're from--is that you're likely to get to work with at least a few people who have a genuine soul. Souls are as scarce as microchips these days. The supply chain seems to be snarled.

Just an hour ago, Debra sent me the story below. 

It's an important story. 

About love of the craft of advertising. Love of doing a job well. Love that can bloom between partners, and how that love can spread through families and last forever.

If you're lucky in life and business, you're lucky not in love, but lucky to have love. It's the one commonality of success. Love of what you do and love for the people you work with.

Thank you, Debra.

For sharing the love in your heart and soul.

Love, me.



A small, very small selection of work from Waring & LaRosa.



The Last of the Great Fucks by Debra Fried.

I was a junior copywriter with a window office, which didn’t make me exceptional – it just made it the 90’s.  Everyone at Waring & LaRosa had offices, except for the assistants – and they hung out in our offices almost as much as we did.  I had been told to settle in, which took all of five minutes, since I had only a rolodex, a stopwatch and an empty notebook, on which, without a hint of irony, I’d drawn a lightbulb with lines emanating from its center.  

 

I was looking out the window toward 54th Street when I heard a voice behind me. “You Debra?”  I turned to see a man who was about my height.  He had an impressive head of silver hair, dark brows, and a mustache, the colors of his hair and brows, as if they’d mated and produced a perfect child. If he’d been tall, he’d have been movie-star handsome.  Instead, he was compelling – the kind of face I’d have been riveted to, had his hands not been so distracting.


He held a blue kneaded eraser, which, like a juggler’s pins, was kept in constant, fluid motion. He stretched it between his hands, as thin as the string in a game of Cat’s Cradle.  “I’m your fuckin’ partner,” he said, and balled it into his palm, giving it a few quick pumps, before pulling it back into a bubblegum-like string, then twirling it, lasso-style, around his forefinger.  Someone walked past and clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, you fuck!” he called after the guy, then shook his head, smiling.  “I love this fuckin’ place.”  I smiled, not sure how to respond, but he continued. “The fuckin’ account girl has a brief …”


“You mean she has a
fuckin’ brief?” I said, with a conspiratorial grin.


“What?” he asked, looking genuinely puzzled.


I waved my hand as if to erase my attempt at a joke, my mind racing for a new topic.  


“Anyway,” he continued, it’s a good one – it’s AMC – you know that channel? It’s cable.”  Someone yelled “Lou!” from down the hall and he shook his head with a smile. “These fucks,” he said, and I tried to make a face that suggested I understood the fucks.  He stepped over to the window and said, “The fuckin’ Lipstick Building. Who names a building after a cosmetic? Ha! 

xxxxxxxxxPeople.” The same guy yelled “Lou” again, and he shook his head. “I gotta go, Pal.” As he turned and smoothed his hair, I couldn’t help but be a little thrilled at the “Pal."


Later that morning, we sat in Lou’s office. Actually, I sat.  He paced, whipping his eraser into a frenzy.  His office had a drafting table instead of a desk.  Lou was about 20 years older than me and had worked at agencies like Levine and Scali; names even I knew enough to use with reverence.


“We gotta put Frank Sinatra in the commercial.  I fuckin’ 
love Sinatra.  He wasn’t tall, you know.  Little fuckin’ peanut, like me.”


“But this is AMC – it’s supposed to be about classic movie heroes.  And Frank Sinatra’s not really heroic,” I said, with a little laugh.  His long beat of silence made me wish I could take it back.

 

“Frank Sinatra’s not a hero,” he repeated, to a spot on the wall above my head. “Ok.  Fine.  That’s great, Debra.”  He looked so offended, I wasn’t sure if he wanted to hit me or cry. 

 

“How about Marlon Brando?” I asked hopefully. 

 

“Brando!  Hah!  I fuckin’ love Brando!” he announced, pausing between each word.  “I mean, before he turned into a fat fuck. Yeah, we gotta use Brando.”  And with that suggestion, I began to gain the acceptance of Lou Colletti.


Lou used his eraser for more than just stretching and twirling.  As we came up with ideas, he’d hunch over his table, sketching. It took time, and back then, we had more of it than we do now.  He drew characters into the frames of storyboards, mulling, shaking his head, furiously erasing, then redrawing with a level of concentration and thought that doesn’t happen with the click of a delete button. I could always tell how much he’d worked by how blackened the eraser had become.  Every few days, he’d open a fresh one, slowly kneading it from rectangle to ball, as if getting to know a new friend.

 

As he worked, he’d mutter to himself – “fuck a duck, man, fuck a fuckin’ duck.”  Lou used “fuck a duck” to express everything from wonder; “Look at those tulips. Middle of Park Avenue. Fuck a duck, man,” to joy; “Fuck a duck! They bought the spot!” to heartache. When our favorite takeout place closed, he stood on the sidewalk uttering “fuck a duck” so sadly, you’d think he’d lost a beloved pet.


At my first Waring Christmas party, Lou stood near me, looking pale and a little bleary.  Unthinkably, his hair didn’t look good. 
“Fuck!  How could I be sick at the fuckin’ Christmas party?   Well, I’ll just have one scotch, then I go home.  I promised Joan.” 

An hour later, he led a conga line in and out the door, a red Macy’s bag on his head.  As the party wound down at midnight, he taught a shy, awkward girl to two-step. “You got some real fuckin’ rhythm, Pal,” he said, and she giggled as he dipped her.


A few days later, we stood at the mirror in his office, elbowing each other out of the way, as I fixed my lipstick, and Lou combed his mustache.  He pulled a bottle of Visine out of his pocket and leaned his head back.


“How is it that you put that stuff in 15 times a day and always miss your eyes?” I asked. “Shut the fuck up, Debra,” he answered, giving the bottle another squeeze, as more liquid ran down his face. He straightened his head, looked at me for a second, then spoke.


“The doctor says Joan has to have a fuckin’ operation.  She got a little fuckin’ thing – they gotta remove it – the guy says it’s fuckin’ simple,” he said. then added, “Come on, let’s go out.”  Amongst the many things we did in those days, was leave the office at lunchtime.


We did a little shopping, mostly for my stuff, because Joan had already bought presents for their boys.
  As we stood in front of Saks with throngs of others, I said I thought it would be fun to be a window designer.  He looked at me curiously and said, “But we already have the most fun jobs.”  He grabbed my arm and steered me toward St. Patrick’s Cathedral, saying, “You gotta make one stop for me, now, Pal.”  


“I’ve never been inside,” I said as we climbed the steps. He stopped. “You’ve never been to St. Patrick’s” he answered.  Lou’s habit of repeating what I’d just said to underline its ludicrousness both annoyed and amused me.   He shook his head, unable to process my confession. “Wow. Sometimes you kill me, Pal."


We entered to a hush that was immediate and mighty.  We stood in the back. A homeless man crossed himself, then slid into a pew.  He nodded to guy in a suit, who returned the gesture with a small smile. Strangers out there, brothers in here.  I looked to see if Lou noticed, but he was gazing to our left. He took my arm and led me toward the candles. 


“See, you put a little money in here,” he said softly and stuck a few bills into a cup, “then you… well, this is for Joan,” he said, lighting the match. As he lit a candle, a tear landed on his mustache, where it quivered, like a drop of mercury.  “She has a brain tumor,” he said, looking at the flame. Then he met my eyes and whispered, “I’m scared.” We stood quietly for a while, surrounded by flickers of hope and desperation.


The operation took eight hours and the doctor said they got it all.  Lou took some time off and eventually, Joan recuperated, except for a slight loss of hearing.  When he came back, we had a new campaign to do; this one for Fisher-Price toys.  There were a few spots we needed to bang out quickly, before doing a print ad for Mont Blanc.  As the sun went down, I sat, typing, Lou sprawled on a chair, his feet on my desk.  Joe LaRosa and Saul Waring, who owned the place, stopped in front of my door as they buttoned their coats.  “You guys going home soon?” Joe asked.   Lou told him how much we had on our plates, and he said, “Ok, do what you have to.  But try to get home.” 


Saul and Joe made the rounds most nights before they left, like parents, making sure their kids were tucked in.  I told Joe once how I appreciated the way he said “go home” and he answered with a shrug, “It’s really for the good of the agency. We want our people happy.  Go home, go out, have a life. Your work will be better.”  Waring & LaRosa won some awards, but they were by-products, not the focus. Saul and Joe put brands like Perrier and Ragu and Fisher-Price on the map and they made a lot of money in the process. All while creating an atmosphere where people liked coming to work almost as much as they liked each other.


After a while, I moved to another agency, and Waring & LaRosa, along with Lou, and his fucks, was bought by Y&R.  A couple of years later, Lou, who’d been laid off, came to my office to meet me for lunch.  He looked around at the open seating and said, “This was the fuckin’ death of advertising.”  A guy in a baseball cap glanced up, then back at his screen.  “They make you sit like a bunch of fuckin’ accountants,” he continued. “How do you work like this?” The guy looked up again, this time, with obvious annoyance.  “Sorry, man, we’re on a tight deadline,” he said, and I steered Lou to the kitchen before he could say “fuck a duck” in a not-joyful way.

We went to lunch, and I asked if he was going to look for something new. He twisted his ring and said, “Nah… no more advertising for me, man. I did my time.” He didn’t need to say it – we both knew it – advertising had changed, and he hadn’t. And wouldn’t. And couldn’t.


Lou was an ad guy.  He wouldn’t have been caught dead using phrases like “consumer journey” or “brand values” and would have glazed over during conversations about click-through rates or the merits of paid vs organic. He knew how to sell a fuckin’ toy. A fuckin’ pen. A fuckin’ bottle of water. And he did it really well.


“So, what do you think you’ll do?  Retire?” I said.  “Retire?  Debra. What do you think, I’m some old fuck in a pair of stupid shorts?” he said.  He leaned back, eyeing me sheepishly.  “Know what I’m doing? I already started. I’m working for a fuckin’ hospital. Hackensack – best fuckin’ place in Jersey. Look it up.” 


“Oh, cool,” I answered. “So, you’re volunteering?”  He sat up, as offended as he’d been when I’d said Sinatra wasn’t a hero.  


“Am I volunteering.” He sighed, exasperated at my lack of understanding. “Debra. Do I look like a fuckin’ candy striper?  I’m
working.” He took a sip of his coffee. “I’m a security guard. And the best part is that the parking lot is so big, they need somebody to drive people from their parking spots to the front door – you know, the ones that are getting procedures and shit.”  I didn’t know how to respond. But then he continued.  “I take them in my car.  And when I get them to the door, I hop out and no matter who they are, I give them a hug and tell them they’re gonna be ok. Even the fucks. Some of these people, Debra, I’m the last person they see before they go in.  They need a little boost, you know?” I tell him that if I were in that position, he’d be exactly the person I’d want to see me off.


“You know, all I ever really wanted was to be happy, and to make other people happy,” he said.  “Now that’s what I do.  And I get great fuckin’ benefits,” he added, “so who the fuck needs advertising?”

He walked me to my building and jangled the change in his pocket as we talked. That was when I realized what was different. His hands were empty. He gave me a hug that hurt, and as he walked off, turned for one last wave. I returned it, and my smile was big, but I felt a little empty.  Because I knew how much I’d miss the sight of a kneaded eraser being stretched to its limit, by the hands of a fuckin’ master.