Friday, April 9, 2021

Voices. Including your own.

Now that I run my own agency, GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company, some of my rougher edges are beginning, once again, to re-emerge. I suppose I'm a bit like a torn-down bit of forest that is returning, slowly, to woodlands. 

My edges had been worn down by forty-years of disbelieving stares, if not rebuke. That's what happens when you work at  big, tight-assed places that act as if personality, individuality and, heaven forfend, a sense of humor were tantamount to wearing Hester Prynne's Scarlet "A."

That's a round-about way, I suppose, of saying fifteen months into running my own thing, I'm beginning to act like a human again. Like a person, not a protoplasmic punch-card who is afraid of folding, spindling and mutilating the sensitivities of a beige conferenced-room set of people who last laughed when Mork met Mindy.

Of late in this space, I've been on a Crusade of sorts. No, I'm not killing Saracens and Jews. Not that kind of Crusade. But I am trying to kill an industry and its output that no longer portrays with any accuracy whatsoever the lives, cares, woes and joys of the people we are attempting to reach.

People, in fact, is an all-but-obsolete term in American ad agencies today. We prefer to call them "targets," or "buckets," or "personas," or "archetypes," or "consumers." As the Inuit have 32 words for snow--we have 32 words that show how we, as an industry, are clinically-removed from real life.

The spate of "Dancemercials™" infesting our airwaves is evidence of this. Or people spinning in fields. Or gushing over fat-injected fast-food. Or new young models gushing over Kia mini-vans with Apple-play technology as if they were the cure for acne. Or the transformative splendor of their phone network, now capable of dropping three-calls-in-four in 5G. 

But, back to me.

At my age and place in life, I am becoming a bit of an Atilla the Hun, Vlad the Impaler or Genghis Khan. No, I'm not raping captives and slaughtering babies and burning villages. But I am actively seeking out and attempting to destroy our industry's wholesale destruction of the English-language.

First, let me tell you--clients, people working with me, and all others--I will never use the word experience. I will not talk about a "shopping experience." A "bathroom experience." A "dining experience." No. I won't do it.

I'm 63 years old. I've gone shopping, relieved myself and eaten in a number of restaurants, a few of which have had table-cloths. But never have I had, I'm sorry, an experience. It's a dumb, antiseptic and meaningless word that removes people from life itself.

I won't use the word monetize.

I'll say, how do you make money?

I won't use the word content or call myself a content-creator, though people call me one thanks to my prolific blogging. I also won't say I'm a film-maker when I work on a commercial. I'm sorry, I write ads--and these occasional pieces here--and that's enough for me. I am not A.E. Housman or W. H. Auden or F.W. Murnau.  

I refuse to use the words robust, agile, verbal-branding or K-shaped recovery. 

No, I'm an asshole, remember.

But I'm not in the business of writing things that 99% of all people don't understand but think they should because they hear them 2200 times a day, so they're afraid to speak up. I'm not writing things that will cow people. That's just not nice.

I will also not use an exclamation point unless I see a bear in the woods and I have to scream at my wife to get out of the way. In that case, "get out of the way!" is acceptable. Though I might be apt to say, "get out of the way?" If I were in certain moods.

My point today isn't really very well-thought-out or even well-formed. But here it goes, as simply as I can write it.

We like things that express personality.

Movies, music, tv, art, jokes, interior design, cooking, clothing. 

Yet when it comes to our business--when it comes to the work we make and use to sell things for giant corporations, we're afraid to show anything that smacks of human. 

It's as if the corporate state were the giant in Jack in the Beanstalk and we're all hearing this in our heads and afraid of being caught speaking, acting, fucking-up and laughing like people.

I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.

Grind away, if you like. But like I said, I'm on my own now. And my company is called GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company because clients get me. A real human. For better or worse.

And I'm sticking with that until they come and take me away.

By the way, about twenty years ago, I rose to my highest height in the ad industry. I was hired to lead a dull consultancy into the neighborhood of creativity. 

The creative people in the agency had been beaten down by an infrastructure of jargon, science and "best practices." I would sit in creative presentation after creative presentation and not see anything that resembled a spark.

I've worked in enough agencies and played on enough ball teams to know that the talent difference between the best and the worst is really not that great. The difference comes from the constraints--or lack of constraints--within the organization. Creative places are messy--they encourage mayhem, a bit of disorder. Insouciance, if you will.

I wrote a piece back then to the creative department. 

It was called hearing voices.

It went something like this.

Hearing voices.

You hear voices.
You're listening for what your partner might think.
Or the person in the next cube.
Or the account person.
Or their boss.
Or their boss.
Or their boss' boss.
You're worried about my voice.
The senior leadership team's voice.
The executive leadership team's voice.
You're hearing a lot of voices.
And you're listening to them.
Most of them tell you things like,
'don't do that.' 
'You can't say that.'
'That doesn't explain the whole story.'
'That might offend someone.'
You're worried about the clients.
The summer associate.
The associate brand manager.
The brand manager.
The senior brand manager.
The group brand manager.
The product manager.
You're worried about twelve focus-group people in Parsippany.
And twelve more in Bloomfield Heights.
And twelve more in Bala Cynwyd.
You're hearing all those voices.
Not to mention the voice of the CMO.
The CMO's husband.
And the CEO.
All those voices are rattling around in your head when you work.
They've drowned out some more important voices.
What do people think?
Really think?
What do they need?
What are we doing for them?
We've let that voice be drowned out.
And they've drowned out your voice, too.
The voice you were hired for.
The voice that says, 'I believe in this.'
Or 'this is how people speak.'
Or 'this made me laugh.'

There's a lot of clamor in our agency.
If you pay attention to it, it's like working with your head in a blender.
Take it out of the blender.
Find some quiet.
And listen.
To you.

I quit that job because I refused to listen to voices higher up the pecking order than mine. I refused to listen to consultants who listened to spreadsheets and algorithms more than humans with needs.

I didn't do much at that agency.

As my old man used to say, "you don't get anywhere pissing up a rope." 

But at least I wrote that piece.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Heroes. And otherwise.

One of my favorite writers wrote something that I carry around in the space above my shoulders and I think about it with some regularity. The writer is Mark Harris, best known for his great baseball novel "Bang the Drum Slowly." That book was part two of a four-part series on the fictional New York Mammoth's lefthanded pitcher, Henry Wiggen.

The first of four books was "The Southpaw," the young manhood of Wiggen. The second was "Bang." The third was a slight novel called "A Ticket for a Seamstitch." And the final, and best in my opinion was "It Looked Like Forever." In that novel, the pitcher is 39--and he's trying to hang on for one more season, so the youngest of his five daughters can see him play.

The line I love from Harris is simple: "The only hero is a man without heroes."

I've seen enough of our country and its "news" cycle to vomit in my mouth when I hear lavish praise about virtually anyone. As a culture, we like to buff people to a shine and pretend that they are without faults, virtuous, more a god than a human. 

I've seen it about presidents, corporate titans, soldiers, astronauts, actors and of course athletes. Mickey Mantle had a golden sheen when I was a kid--they kept it from us that he was a drunk and a womanizer.

I had an email exchange with a friend just yesterday. He had shared a piece of creative with me. I liked it and wrote something back like, "It reminds me of something Milton Glaser would have done."

He wrote back, as he often does, with some pointed creative direction. "We had heroes growing up. Where are our heroes now?"

When I started in the business, print was the currency of our trade. It didn't make you the money that TV made you, but it could make you famous.

Print was also something you could hold in your hand. And keep. Not like a TV spot or a radio spot.

I started early on with a giant cardboard box. I'd suppose it was about half the size of a coffin--think of a very small Queequeg. Every time I saw an ad I liked, no matter where I saw it, I'd tear it out of whatever it was in and put it in my box.

The box served three purposes, maybe five.

It was my unstuck box. When I had an assignment, I'd often go through my box and get smitten with graphics or words or something that would serve as a whack in the head. The box helped me loosen rusted-tight bolts in my noggin, and start thinking.

Second, the box served to make me hyper-aware of what was going on in the ad industry. Who was doing what. And it helped me see the styles of a lot of different creatives.

Third, at the end of a year when the award annuals came out, my box allowed me to test my critical judgment--my choices--against those of esteemed awards judges. It helped me think about my taste and my standards.

Fourth, my box allowed me to think vertically. If I were pitching something, I could rifle through my box and find ads from that category from competitive brands. In a world before planners, my box served as a planner, a competitive review and, often, as inspiration.

Finally, when I had some time, I was able to spot patterns in the ads I was collecting. A bit like a detective piecing clues together. I was able by matching my box's ads to award books to identify agencies and writers I liked. That allowed me to discern, deconstruct and emulate different approaches.

I'm not sure that any of this adds up to having heroes. 

But I did, in a way, find ways to learn from big names in the industry I never ever had the chance to meet.

Maybe doing this sort of work is impossible today. There's very little print left, so much of our work seems disposable, and so much of what makes award books seems detached from ever having run in the real world, outside of Cannes.

But the point here is more basic.

It's finding a way to learn.

It's finding a way to teach yourself.

To hone your point of view.

To imitate and emulate until you can initiate.

The problem with heroes is that they often wind up in flagrant delicto with their hand up someplace or down someplace it shouldn't be. 

I prefer to keep work I love removed from people who may very well turn out to be creeps. 

I let the ads be heroic.

The people are on their own.


(By the way, the wonderful Dave been running a wonderful series on his blog, Stuff from the Loft, called "The Women Who Built DDB.")

Whether you're looking for great work, or heroes, this is a great place to begin. I've been collecting Dave's collections for a few years now. I copy them and past them into giant word docs. 

I'm still learning. And still looking for people I can learn from. That's called, as far as I'm concerned, living.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

"The MuthaF**kin Manifesto."

I don't spend a lot of time on Twitter. To be completely candid, I refuse to like anything that propelled donald trump to the presidency. But I was on Twitter yesterday, and saw something from Derek Walker that intrigued me.

I don't know what "The MuthaFuckin Manifesto" is. I don't know what those words mean. But still, I figured who better to write "The MuthaFuckin Manifesto" than I.

The MuthaFucker Manifesto.

Many years ago, when I was at Ogilvy for my first stint, Jerry Seinfeld entertained at the Christmas party. He said something like "the best thing about advertising is that you can break it down into two words. Something is either good or it sucks."

"How was working with Frank?"
"Oh it sucked."

"Did you see that new Pepsi spot?"
"Yeah, it was good."

"Phyllis got fired."
"That sucks."

That above is about the sum total of all the conversations ever had in an agency on any given day. 

There's not a lot of grey area in the ad business.

The same is true when it comes to people.

There are two sorts.

First, there are the MuthaFuckers.

I'll start with them. Because this is, after all, The MuthaFucker Manifesto.

MuthaFuckers use the word "I." They say "I did that." They don't share credit.

MuthaFuckers talk more--a lot more--than they listen. They mask their insecurities with a cloak of pomposity and arrogance as thick as the polar ice cap.

MuthaFuckers are always right. No one else's opinion matters.

MuthaFuckers lie. They say things like "no one got a bonus this year." Though you know certain people did. And "there isn't any money for raises." But there always is when someone threatens to leave.

MuthaFuckers are closed off to any idea that isn't their own. Unless they can take the credit for it.

MuthaFuckers are always broadcasting how hard they work, how late they stayed and the pressure only they are under.

MuthaFuckers don't like humor unless they're the ones telling the joke.

In keeping with Jerry Seinfeld's dialectic, there's the opposite of MuthaFuckers. 

They're called Mensches.

They usually show up on time, say please and thank you, bust their ass, save yours and just want to go home at night and read to their kids, kiss their spouse, hang with a friend or watch the last few innings of some sort of ballgame.

They usually get the assignments no one else can do.

Mensches often have sharp pencils because they untie knots that are very tightly tied.

They're the people who have the shoulders everyone cries on. Typically because of something the MuthaFucker did.

When there's a big pitch, Mensches are usually in the back of the room typing while everyone else is fighting about the deck's page order or some arcane word-choice in a brand promise.


I don't know what it is about the ad industry today, but the MuthaFuckers seem to outnumber the Mensches. Maybe it was always that way. Maybe it will always be. And maybe there's nothing anyone can do about it.

That's the MuthaFucking shitty thing about it all.


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

America. According to commercials.

I don't watch a lot of television. But when I do, I see a world that resembles not at all the world I actually live in. I understand advertising has always knocked out the dents of life and rubbed in a coat of wax--but the lack of reality and humanity in modern advertising is, to me, startling. 

People, I suppose, are personas or archetypes, or most often, targets. Their needs are no longer Maslowian. Madisonavenuian. Wholly false and artificial. I worry about such things. And estrangement from and false depiction of what life is really like and what really matters to people.

                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.

I talk to my
friends about
my colorectal
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I regularly 
hi-five people
while watching
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree
I often break
into spontaneous
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I smile broadly
when I eat
breakfast cereal.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I tell people how
reliable my
phone network is.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I mention brand
names in every day
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
Every time I buy
fast food, the workers
are merry.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I carve duck
while an
reads disclaimer 
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I jump when I take
a selfie.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I have never
in traffic.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.               I I hold up my
hands like I'm 
being robbed
while my car 
parks itself.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I'm easily
by balloons in
car showrooms.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I lay on the floor
while using my
logo-less laptop
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I put mustard on
hotdogs in a 
zig-zag pattern.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I always get the
last can of beer.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I'm ready to
switch to
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I drop tons of
steel ingots
in the back
of my pickup.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I ride my bike 
with my feet out.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
A candy bar
puts me in a 
good mood.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I'm 27 years old
and live in a 
$19 million
home with an 
ocean view.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.           Waitresses at
chain restaurants
are always
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.           Food at chain 
is always
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
Every Christmas
I surprise my
spouse with his 
and hers SUVs.
                                                    disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
I think cars look
best with giant
bows on top.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
My friends laugh
so much so
that they steal
my fries.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
My financial advisor
smiles knowingly
then points to his
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
Depressed people
put their face
against the wall.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
There are no lines.
There is no waiting.
                                                     disagree.                  neutral.                strongly agree.
Everything is clean.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Rules. Versus standards.

I read something the other day, an innocuous statement from an Advertising Hall-of-Famer not known for his innocuous statements.

Somehow four months or so ago, the fearsome Ed McCabe and I became friends on Facebook. The word "friend" today has about as much value as a corset at a nudist colony. We're not really friends--we're connected and I get to see what Ed's having for dinner most nights or the color of what he's drinking or one of the spectacular cars he's driving.

Scali, McCabe, Sloves was the pinnacle of New York advertising for the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s. I never got the chance to work there. I presumed I wasn't good enough. But I poured over their work like as a young student I poured over the Canterbury Tales. In both cases, I read and read and read, and learned and learned and learned in the hopes of committing to memory everything I could.

Scali, McCabe, Sloves had a punch-in-the-face intelligence that stopped the reader in her tracks. If, as Carl Ally said (McCabe had worked there) "Advertising should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," McCabe's work was surely in the afflict the comfortable camp. 

Anyway, I read something from Ed's feed some time ago. It's something I haven't stopped thinking about. And something more people and more agencies would do well to consider

"We didn't have rules," Ed said. "We had standards."

What follows will be inflammatory and will likely earn be a good level of rebuke. Today, we seem to hold a lot of different agenda in greater esteem than we hold our standards. 

Of course equality, equity and fairness are vital. And as an industry we should be doing everything we can to achieve those crucial objectives. But fairness cannot--we cannot let it--supersede our standards or cause us to forget what we are in business to do.

What I've seen from all precincts of our industry is a complete deterioration of standards. Worse, I've seen an industry that seems to have forgotten what good is.

Good is a relative term. It might mean something different to you than it does to me. But as humans, we've always had some fairly universal, agreed-upon values. 

For instance, if I were hoping to play in a pick-up basketball game, I'm 100% sure LeBron James would get chosen by one of the team captains before I would. No one would say, "I'm picking George because we need old, fat, slow Jew on our team--it's only fair. Besides, he has stone-hands and can't shoot."

It's not unusual today to see "help wanted ads" that are both jaw-dropping and blatant. They will flat-out say they're seeking a certain demographic. This is not only illegal, it is the triumph of rules over standards. Of agenda over quality.

What strikes me is that advertising has fallen for one of the most pernicious rules of our era. That rule silently states that every accomplishment, because it's been accomplished, is worthy of note.

That is the triumph of doing over the triumph of doing well. That is the finisher's trophy, the participation ribbon, the "you-go-____-ization" of accomplishment. That predilection for reward might be fine for third-graders, or I-just-need-to-finish-marathoners, but it's not fine if your business is to move-forward someone else's business with communications that are supposed to cut through, communicate and motivate.

Going back to the LeBron example above, ours is not a friendly-neighborhood game where everyone plays and we all have a beer afterward and kibbitz around. Back two decades ago, I worked for a client that sold billions of dollars of servers. I was called to a meeting led by one of the senior clients--a sales-person--not a marketing person.

"This is _______'s share of the UNIX market," the sales-person said. "I want to take that share and kill them."

I know that's horrid--but if I'm Nissan, I want to kill Mazda. If I'm Dannon, I want to kill Chobani. If I'm Agency X, I want to kill agency Y. We do this not via cheating, skullduggery and shivs, we do it by doing better work smarter and faster.

We also do it by not applauding every drip from every agency sphincter. It's not just that the commercial below sucks. Most commercials do. It's that the agency that created it is lauding it as a "slam dunk."

Obviously, taste is subjective. And Leo Burnett could tell me 29 focus groups of "Buick potentials," saw this and loved it and sales in B and C counties where Buick makes most of its hay are up 11%. They could tell me that I'm narrow and elitist and don't get the female skew and insights contained herein.

To that I say, fine.

But it's boring. It's trite. The acting is horrible. The script is not in English and the whole thing is a cliched mess.

Back when I was young in the business and people were treated respectfully, and even young creatives had their own space so they could think, about half the creative department had a Nerf basket over their garbage pail.

A lot of times, someone would crumple up a bad comp and throw it in the basket--never to be seen again outside of a landfill in Staten Island.

A lot of those "shots," were slam dunks. 

But they were made on a three-foot basket.

You need standards. Not just rules.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Dear Aunt Crabby.


Crabbigail Van Buren. Photo credit: Mark Denton.

A periodic advice column of life in…and out of advertising. From advertising’s oldest-living copywriter, Aunt Crabby.

Dear Crabby,

My agency keeps on telling staff in Town Halls how much we're about "creativity." Yet every time I turn around, four more senior creative people are fired and the Holding Company has spent another $200 million acquiring a data company that consists of an old Gateway computer shared by two Estonian guys who used to work at Radio Shack. What's going on here?  
--Perplexed on Eleventh 

Dear Perplexed,

Haven't you heard? It's been "opposite day" in Holding Company agencies since Martin Sorrell stopped breast-feeding, back in 1999.

Dear Crabby,

After three years of working nights and weekends--and coming through on every assignment ever given to me, I've finally been promoted from junior copywriter to copywriter. Yet it feels like nothing's changed. --No-motion promotion

Dear No-motion,

On occasion, a junior mint gets promoted to a full-sized York Peppermint patty. No one cares.

Dear Crabby,

My agency is losing big account after big account. We've won a few pieces of business lately--but they're tiny. The kind of accounts people used to run out of the backseat of a 1974 Buick LeSabre. How can an account with revenue of $20K/year make up for an account that had revenue of $20 million/year? 
-- At Sea PA

Dear At Sea,

Easy. Your agency's c-level people can tell the Holding Company that they're winning business. That's good enough. "Look," they'll grovel, "our decline is slowing down." It's like the Credit Mobilier scandal of 1872. The general rule followed by fraudsters from Boesky to Caligula is that by the time the fraud is discovered, the fraudsters are out of the country.
Dear Crabby,

I've been hearing a lot about "hot desks." I have to say, having a crappy piece of formica'd-plywood and a second-hand Aeron with a view of an airshaft and pigeon shit that you have to fight for every morning is hardly what I'd call "hot."--Temperature's rising

Dear Temperature,

These days, in the agency world, jobs, bosses, accounts, desks are all temporary. You should be happy you have a floor. Those are next to go.

Dear Crabby,

I just read about a giant phone network that's reached a deal to bring individual shopper card data into programmatic digital ad buys for packaged-goods marketers, giving it the first demand-side platform powered by offline and online sales data from millions of shopper cards. The network claims they have
 a cookie identity solution that delivers first-party consent so they can connect to identifiers other than cookies. How come I never get any cookies? --Sweetless in Seattle

Dear Sweetless,

You're on the wrong customer journey.