Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Piss filled plates.

Many decades ago, I had the great good fortune of being a protege of Steve Hayden. At the time Steve was Vice Chairman at Ogilvy, in addition to being the writer on perhaps the most influential commercial ever, Apple's 1984.

Because we liked each other as humans, and Steve liked my brain and my thirst for knowledge (Steve wrote a recommendation of me, calling me "easily the most literate fellow that ever passed through the hallowed halls of Ogilvy, probably including David Ogilvy himself") and we would often find ourselves hanging out together in his modest corner office.

There, we would shoot the shit. Nominally talking about the issue at hand but having a wide-ranging conversation on everything from the population of Jalalabad--Steve claimed Jell-o was invented there--to whatever bullshit was happening at work, with our kids or with our significant others.

I've spent a lot of time in the ad business--and before that in academia--and I've been close to a fair number of luminaries. But those conversations with Steve are among the highlights in a career marked by lighting reminiscent of Hernando's Hideaway.

One of the things I noticed through the years is that Steve would often ask people he only vaguely knew where they were in their family's birth order. 

I don't think he was pondering a return of primogeniture. He was testing a hypothesis. One day, I asked him about it. He said,

"First children naturally get attention. Middle children or later children have to learn how to get attention. They make the best advertising people. They're always fighting to be heard."

In my new career, I'm often called on to look at work that in-house communications departments have created. As an interested former ad-person, I pay attention or try to, to how people communicate. It's distressing to me to see how rare it is to see work--or news, or an email, or a press-release--that is fighting to be heard. Most just sit there like lichen on an old boulder.

I don't want to get all crazy about this, but I wonder. I wonder if the au courant mania where everyone is praised and everyone gets a trophy has damaged along with children, our industry.

Every time I sit down to write something--a note to my wife that I'm out walking the dog or a text to a colleague that I'm running late--my starting point is almost always the same: no one cares.

So if I'm going to write something--no matter how inconsequential--my job is to make the reader care, make them notice, make them remember.

I almost always write, "I'm running six minutes and twelve seconds late," rather than a few minutes late. Because it's memorable. I almost always write, "I'm out walking Whiskey and looking for a young Catherine Deneuve." 

Years ago I noticed something about the web.

There's no hierarchy.

There's really no order.

Everything is a Jackson Pollack--waiting for you to find your favorite splatter. 

Or, put another way, when I taught ad school not too long ago, my first assignment was always the same. It wasn't for a product or a service. It was for whatever the kids wanted. The twist was this: You had to do something that would get noticed in Times' Square.

This was a deliberate choice on my part.

Today the world is Times' Square.

The killing in Israel and Gaza forces the chip shortage off the news which forced the vaccine rollout off which forced the trump insurrection off. Mix in Jewish space laser, Matt Gaetz, Gates and Epstein and 99 other scandals and you realize you have no hope communicating anything if you don't get noticed.

But as my old boss Ed Butler used to say, most work is "as flat as a plate of piss."

A metaphor I noticed. 


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