Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Helots and scrotums.

A couple weeks ago, I was back in the City I love after a too-long hiatus.

Of course, my clients don't appreciate how much I love New York. How I like to walk aimlessly and see the unseen and hear the unheard. 

They know only that they want this that and the other in less time than any of those should rightfully take. That's one of the reasons clients come to me. They know I'm about as reliable as the tides.

During this particular sojourn in the city, however, I was feeling particularly aggrieved. I was meeting friends for lunch and also had meetings set up on either side of lunch.

Very little is less human than having a thousand or so of your day's 1440 minutes spoken for. 

I was meant to be walking into a restaurant while wrapping up a call and starting a call probably while I was calculating a tip. 

I rushed into lunch like a jockey five minutes late for his horse. If I were an animated character, beads of sweat the size of ballistic missiles would have been flying off of my forehead.

One of my two lunch dates was already there. Practically without thinking of the imagery and by way of saying hello, I said to her, "Just because you work for yourself doesn't mean that you don't have a fish-hook in your scrotum."

A fish-hook in your scrotum.


I know that's vulgar.

But think about it.

Think about the have-tos, the musts-dos and the or-elses.

Think about the kids' college tuition.

The healthcare you need.

The mortgage.

Retirement that doesn't include filth and indignation.

Think about the crap you have to do for no reason other than someone wants to make you do it. Think about the 37 revisions. The capricious boss who changes although to but because doing so makes him feel big and makes you feel small.

Or think about it another way.

Think about the cost of money--big money. When someone wants you for something that sounds incredible and demanding and something that could help you pay for things you only ever dreamed about and never thought yourself deserving of.

That's a fish-hook in a scrotum too. Even if said hook is made of platinum.

Robert Riskin knew about it. 

So did Frank Capra.

So do I.


Monday, November 29, 2021

The Decline and Fall of [Agency Name Goes Here.]

If you have some time over the upcoming holidays and you want to read a new book about the ancient world that is relevant to today's world (indeed, to every world) you could do worse than to pick up Edward J. Watt's "The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea."

I know I have a wide-ranging and well-lubricated mind, but the thesis of the book is simple: that anyone who promises to restore lost greatness is probably up to no good. That resounds through the advertising industry and through our clients' lives as well. Not just ancient Rome.

Most recently, the non-popularly elected twice-impeached tax-and-wife cheat donald trump, declared America well on the road to ruin. Much of what you and I might call progress, an expansion of healthcare, attempts to fit into the world community, an effort to combat the colossal threat of climate change, this canard of a man presented as evidence of American decline. That only he could see and reverse.

It's easy to use the specter of decline as a way to get people fired up and as a way of regarding people who think differently as "the other," and "the enemy."

Be careful when you hear people say, "The previous order screwed things up. We're sweeping clean and fixing it." Things are rarely so cut and dried.

Over the roughly 2,000 years of the Roman empire (Watts tracks it until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453) Rome's decline, real or purported was often attributed to the previous leadership which was always regarded as corrupt, a-religious or too easy on foreigners. 

Many of the allegations about decline got pinned on the prevailing religious beliefs of various emperors. If an emperor believed in Roman gods, he would often be followed by a Christian believer who would assert that his predecessor's failure to follow one true way was the reason for that decline. 

Decline-assigning went back and forth for millennia. Christian to pagan to Christian to those who believed in different notions of the father and the son. 

We saw this sort of thing with that aforementioned monstrous fuckwaffle of a fake president. America's decline was due to Muslims. Or black and brown people. Or a porous border. 

Only 14 Americans per thousand people are of the Islamic faith. I'd bet if you asked the fine people who marched in Charlottesville or who insurrected on January 6th, they'd say the percentage is more like twenty or forty percent. 

The Foxy news maintains that anything they find disagreeable is un-American. And everything un-American must be destroyed.

In the agency world, I've seen a similar thing happen. A once-successful agency loses accounts or stops winning them or suddenly stops winning as many awards as they'd like.

Usually, that decline is blamed on some exogenous issue. Creatives who are older and who hearken back to the 80s. People who purportedly don't embrace social and digital. Or who don't appear melatonin-ly diverse. Or a lack of "cool" and "swaggery" accounts. 

The people in charge "no longer get it." They haven't "kept up." They "don't understand new media."

First management demonizes them. Forgets their accomplishments and contributions. Then the only way they can think of to revive such agencies is by sweeping out everyone who came before.

Sometimes such broomification is necessary. People do get complacent and stuck in their ways. They know "the answers" before you the questions are even asked and lose their freshness.

But more often, as in Watts' analysis of Rome, people and management changes are the products of someone's agenda. To consolidate their hold and their control, new leaders must destroy all those who came before.

Or as the ever-sagacious Ad Contrarian once wrote, 

"In American business, there is nothing stupider than the previous generation of management."

Friday, November 26, 2021

Learning. Life-long.

I met a woman the other day who worked for one of my clients as a content writer. We spoke a couple of times over the phone and we quickly fell in like. That happens some times. Things just click.

I'll call her Zelda. We quickly exchanged 21st Century formalities. Like the British in the 19th Century exchanged engraved calling-cards on silver platters. Today we do something similar. We Link In and exchange pleasantries. Maybe a smiley face emoji.

That evening, Zelda sent me a note. It was full of praise for my writing and the clarity of my work on the assignment I was paid to help on. Of course, since Zelda is a writer, she took a turn at disparaging herself. 

That's what creatives do.

I wrote something back. I hope it was encouraging. About how hard I worked to learn my trade. How when I worked downtown, I would run to the Strand, the world's largest bookstore--eighteen miles of books--on 12th and Broadway, and scour their spiderwebbed spiderweb of shelves for old advertising annuals. 

Once I ran into a headhunter on the street. She carried two large canvas totes of old annuals. I said, "The Strand will give you five dollars an annual. I'll give you $10." She sold them to me. And we both made out well. It was a drug deal of Art Director annuals.

Those days, I was young and poor. 

I probably spent forty-percent of my disposable income on old annuals. I had faith that learning would pay off in the long run.

I thought last night of Estuardo Lambresas. According to my manager, Hector Quesadilla, he was the best left-hand pitcher in the Mexican League for about six or eight years in the mid-60s. Unhittable.

As Hector said when he told me about Lambresas about 50 years ago, "He played for the 
Toros de Tijuana. He was our Koufax, our Marichal, our Gibson.”

Hector was never one for a short story. He had learned that there's too much time when you play ball for a living that needs to be filled. You should never rush an at bat, a warm up, a practice session or a story. So he continued.

“Lambresas was a smart man. Like you are a smart boy. Like you, he knew the Latin language and also mathematics. But he did not in school learn Latin and mathematics, because his parents could not afford to send him to school in his neighborhood in Mexico City.

“Instead he would climb on top of the red tile roof on the top of the school house and listen through the chimney to the teachers teaching below. In this way, through the soot of a chimney, Lambresas became an educated man.”

An educated man.

I am nearing 64. 

Back when I was 12 and taking Latin in Mr. Comeau's seventh-grade Latin class we were taught probably the same way students were taught in the Anthony Asquith-directed movie written by Terence Ratigan, "The Browning Version." 

The Browning Version (1951) will likely bore you.
And it might also shock you to see how intelligent and human movies once were.

While Mr. Comeau never smacked us with a hickory switch, the regimen in Latin class wasn't easy. One thing he made us do was to memorize things. Memorization is out of favor today and has been probably for three decades. They say it stifles creativity or something. There are probably a few hundred PhD. theses that prove that assertion. 

Still, six decades later, I can decline Bonus Bona Bonum, Hic Haec Hoc and Ille Illa Illud, all five cases in three genders in singular and plural in under ten seconds. I also know stupid things I'll never forget like the acronym PAIN, which is made up of the four first declension words that are masculine and not feminine--Poeta, ae; Agricola, ae; Insula, ae and Nauta, ae. 

I never once felt stifled.

I think the best way to learn advertising or writing or anything is to find practitioners you like and shadow them. Memorize their work and their styles.

Lambresas learned through an old chimney, writing notes in soot on pieces of cardboard he would find on the street. I read and memorized ads by McCabe, Puris, Messner, Durfee, Robinson, Koenig and other lights from books I bought from headhunters in the street.

There is no "doneness" to learning.

Like memorizing my Latin, getting good at something is like painting a giant suspension bridge. As soon as you're finished, you have to start again. It's like reading Cervantes or Homer. You keep reading. It's not a tick mark on a list. 

No real point today.

Given that it's the day after American Thanksgiving and a Friday, readership will be woeful. 

But I made a new friend. 


And I'm thankful and wanted to tell the world.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Lessons to learn. (A pre-Thanksgiving post.)

Not so many years ago I was sitting at a bar, at an old Irish place on Eight Avenue, the kind of place that used to have a steam table and hardboiled eggs in a yellowing jar on the bartop. It was the kind of place where the bartenders were old--not hip--and still wore aprons and kept their lit cigars in the ones' till in the cash register. All those places are gone now. Knocked down for dry-wall condos and CVS drug stores and the antiseptic filth of the modern world.

My friend and I were prototypical men. Closed-mouthed men, and though my friend needed to talk, he couldn't open up for 107 of the 120 minutes we sat on our torn vinyl stools.

Instead, we stared at our glasses like the soldiers in the end scene of Ice Cold in Alex. Maybe we touched a sweat rivulet with love. Maybe we watched the carbonation shimmy and viewed it as Odysseus viewed Circe.

After those 107 minutes, my friend downed his whatever. He cleared his throat. It was Shakespearean, in its own way. Maybe Shakespeare play-acted by the cast of Dobie Gillis, since we were ad friends.

"George," he said. "I'm heading toward the end--I'm 65. I've gone through three marriages. I'm coming to the end. I've been in psychotherapy roughly my entire adult life."

I joked, "I hear I'm on a stamp in Austria."

He ignored, a wise move. "You know what I've learned."

He played with his glass and I, mine. It was better without eye contact. So many things are.

"You know what I've learned?"

I was used to his pregnant pauses. This one was surely having twins.

"You have good days. You have bad days. That's what I've learned."

All that is prelude to something I've learned of late--or at least reminded myself of.

Friends, Stephen King wrote in Stand By Me, come in and out of our lives like busboys in a busy restaurant. 

It's easy--too easy to let friends go.

Someone switches jobs, accounts, partners, apartments. Someone else takes someone's place. We move on. 

Your place setting is cleared by someone different. You hardly look up to notice, you just move on.

That's not good.

It's hard to stay in touch with the good people you've grown to like or even love in the business, in life. It's way easier to move on. To go home and watch the Knicks. I know, I'm a loner and have spent the best part of my life not returning phone calls.

But the other night I was back in the city and had dinner and maybe a drink too many with an old partner. We hadn't seen each other since we were fired on the same day almost two years ago, and it would have been easy--isn't it easy?--to let another two years slip by, and then another and then another.

Then before you know it, you get an email. 

"Did you hear who's sick? Or, you'll never guess who just died."

Life is motherfucking short, as we used to say in the old neighborhood.

Some time soon, call someone up you haven't called in a while. Grab a sandwich someplace or a cold Schaeffer. Tell a joke. Talk about what an asshole Phil was. Tell another joke. Pay for your friend. Hug goodbye. And take a taxi home.

It's almost Thanksgiving.

Give thanks now and again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

A Brief History of Advertising from Modern Times to Hearkening Back. Luggage Edition.




Critical Race reading.

Since I was a little boy, I've always had an interest in American history. I grew up in an area that was the site of a couple important battles in America's Revolutionary War. And while many of my peers were reading "Dick and Jane," I was reading old cast-iron signs with raised lettering selling us a version of American history that was all stars and stripes and fifes and drums.

Along the way to my teen years, three things happened to me. One: An English teacher took me under her lissome wing and introduced me to Afro-American literature--everyone from Baldwin to Ellison to Wright to Hughes to Hurston. 

Two: I became best friends with my current closest friend, who lived the Black experience I was only reading about. 

And Three: I was able to make an intellectual connection (no matter how spurious) between the living of many abused children and the living of many black people. To be reductive about this, both were guilty and neither knew when they were going to get beaten, only that they would.

Since those technicolor years of my mother's withering blows, my interest in American history has not abated one bit. Ask either of my daughters how annoying I am when I stop the car to read an old highway sign that talks about some skunk being shot on this site by Davey Crocket when he was taking a break from killing indigenous peoples.

I say American history, not African-American history because the two topics are really inseparable if you are approaching them with honesty. Honesty is as endangered today as moderation.

Just as we used to say behind every great man was a great woman, at every stage of American accomplishment were Black people, usually sweating the bullets, doing the work, getting the punishment and getting none of the accolades--or even the benefit of the tax-dollars collected from them.  

The wealth America wrested from the world was built, probably less on "American Exceptionalism," than on "Black Exploitation." I don't really know how you can, honestly, take the two apart. 

In any event, we are living now, though no one seems to know it, amid a flowering of writing of and by and about African-Americans. I read as much of this as I can, and I thought I'd list some recommendations if you want to remove yourself from the Rottonhouse of Rittenhouse Amerika.

Some things I have read in the past 18 months. That you'd be well-served reading as well.

I intended to write little capsules. But then I realized I've read too much to do so on everything. Though I have tried to put some of my strongest recommendations closest to the top of the selections below.

Finally, can you imagine if everyone decided to read just two of these books?

At 30 pages a night--an hour for a slow reader--that would mean reading two books in about three weeks or five. Then, what if everyone who read those two books, passed those two books along--to say five people. What if we all learned American history--not from a sound bite--but from historians. What if we improved American diversity with diversity of thought, experience and history? That's how movements get started. Small to big. Imagine. If everyone read two books. And passed them along.

Yeah, I know I have a naive streak as long and deep as a river. But it's better than hanging up my spiritual cleats and accepting the world as it is. I can't do that.

Neither could my namesake, George Bernard Shaw who said (excuse his gendered adjectival usage) 

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Let's be unreasonable. And keep being unreasonable. That's the most reasonable thing we can do.

The one to read if you can only read one.

This year's National Book Award winner.
The story of a civilization told through a cotton sack.
I cried. I still cry.

How America was red-lined.
And poverty entrenched.

The economics of American slavery. 
Paul Samuelson skipped over this.

The assault of voting rights is nothing new.
In 1898 an election was overturned because white power wanted it overturned.

Dr. Martin Luther King almost killed in 1960.
Sentenced to four months on a chain gang 
for driving in Georgia with an Alabama license.

Sport as life. And segregation.

The book that's enraging the radical racist right.

We'd rather have no public education than go to school with Black children. Prince Edward country, Virginia closed all public schools rather than integrate them.

40 years in solitary for a crime he didn't do.

The case that reignited the modern Civil Rights movement.
Till's mother insisted on an open coffin so the world could see what they did to her son. 70 years later, white terrorists still shoot at the commemorative plaque.

Attica. Attica. Attica.
Thanks, Governor Rockefeller.

Notes from an enslaved man's 100 years of manhood.

A country enforces sundown laws. Legally.

The sweep of America. 
With less than usual swept under the carpet.

A ghetto is political policy.

Life in those ghettos.

Thank you, Thurgood.

The life and death of a Yalie.

Eyes that saw it all.

Touissant in Haiti.

Remember Faulkner. "The past is not dead. It is not even past."

Let's blind a black vet and get away with it.

The power of advertising and hate.

The memoir of a 1963 Harvard graduate.
His life and those of his classmates.

Reconstruction reconstructed de-facto slavery.

Slavery in the Americas that's not our America.

Henry Hampton, the film-maker behind the seminal series,
Eyes on the Prize.

Another National Book Award winner.
Life, poor, black and in New Orleans.

Monday, November 22, 2021

I'm at a loss.

I grew up a fighter. 

Like Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) said to Edie Dugan (Eva Marie Saint) in "On the Waterfront," "You want to hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him, before he does it to you."

But I'm at a loss over the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. When there's an injustice, we should do something. But what can we do?

How can we fight back?

A lot of people read this blog. I average over 80,000 readers/week.

A lot of important people in an industry charged with influencing hearts and minds. An industry that at its best inspires action and moves people.

But what can we do?

For ten years, I have personally boycotted the Fox Network--I don't even watch the Super Bowl or the baseball playoffs. I believe the network and all its corollaries--because they support racist people who propagate racist points of view--must be shunned.

I've talked to media leaders about this. Presidents of giant Holding Company media companies. I've talked to clients. 

For a moment, they look sad and sallow. 

Then they tell me why they can't. They can't, because. 

I'm sure they use the same logic people used when they said they're not racist but they like shopping at such and such a store--that happens not to serve people of color. I'm sure they use the same logic people used when they joined white citizens councils, or blew up churches and killed little Black girls in white dresses and shiny Mary Janes praying on a Sunday morning.

I don't know what we can do.

As advertising people.

You'd think we could influence the "service providers," like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and other oliogopolies that air and distribute One American Network, News Max and Fox.

But as an industry, we remain as limp as a dead eel.

So hate and violence against people of color gets normalized. Sure, we personally avoid buying a pillow advertised by Mike Lindell, or whatever his name is (it's not worth spellchecking to me.) But we're not doing anything.

I'm out of the industry.

Except for three small clients, I do very little television work right now.

But I wonder where Read, Sadoun, Wren, and their ilk are. 

I wonder where leadership is.

I wonder why we go back to our banner ads when a large swath of America has made in OK to kill Black people because they feel threatened by their own hate and fear.

I wonder where the media guys are. The guys who leverage the size of America's largest advertisers and get great deals on the aforementioned stations. I wonder why they're willing to accept free junkets and Super Bowl tickets but not willing to assert their conscience.

I don't like the feeling of being powerless.

I don't like working in an industry where the people who have power have no inclination to speak up.

It's frightening.

The same thing happened in Germany in 1933. Giant industrialists who could have stopped things before they started decided they were better off feathering their nests.

We should be ashamed of ourselves.

We should be angry.

We should demand better.

Of ourselves. 

Of our industry.

Of our so-called leaders.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Awards season descends again.

As Cannes resumes--in eight short months--there are sure to be additions to their already vast slate of awards. Just as the Coca-Cola company sells over 200 different brands, awards shows have to keep adding categories or they'll lose the shelf-space wars versus other award shows.  Besides, more awards equal more entries equals more revenue equals more money spent on industry diversity efforts. (That last bit was a joke.)

So, without further furtherance, Ad Aged's suggestions for some new, important Cannes Lions.

The Notwork of the Year.
Awarded to the network that's spent more on self-aggrandizement than they've spent on their clients and way more than they spend on the salaries of people doing the work.

The Rainbow Condition.
Given to the client team that returns copy-comments with the most different colors of track-changes comments.

The Dirty Birds.
For the work that takes credit for cleaning the greatest number of seabirds with dish soap made by the client that happens to clean up the vast environmental messes made by another client.

The Sounds of Silence.
The award for the longest film sequence where nothing is said in any way shape or form. Just marsh weeds blowing, raindrops falling and the eyelashes of a beautiful woman closing. This is supposed to be entertaining.

The Slip Mahoney Award.

Named after the leader of the Bowery Boys who famously dominated on-screen time without saying anything, this august award goes to the tie-less, 50+, white male holding company leader who speaks most and says least.

The Everward (Sponsored by LinkedIn.)
Awards given to everyone regardless of whether or not their work is any good, their work is real, or has even been entered. We just give awards essentially for breathing, or farting, forever. Because LinkedIn would be a blank page without people saying how humbled and chuffed they are.

The Oxy.
Short for Oxymoron. Awarded to the agency and holding company that does the worst work yet wins the most awards and publishes the most PR trumpeting their surpassing mediocrity. Formerly known as the Cognitive Dissonance Award.

The No Show.
The award for work that's never run, never will run and that doesn't deserve to ever run. When your clients suck, just Go No. Nu?

The Glass/Titanium/Tootsie/Pez/Moonrock Lyin'.
There are other ultimates, there are dozens of best of shows but the Glass/Titanium/Tootsie/Pez/Moonrock Lyin' is the ultimate of ultimate ultimates, the best of all best of best of best of show shows. Credits limited to 3,000 names.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Old waiter, I.

The advertising business until fairly recently was a business that was about ideas. The best people in the business, were sponges, soaking up ideas wherever they went. Not just from award annuals or what we call today popular culture, but from bits of conversation they heard on the street. A fight they had with a cab-driver. A painting they saw in a museum. A bit of a melody.

In the words of my favorite writer, Joseph Mitchell, the best advertising people went through life like an old-timey waiter. They always worked the floor of their restaurants with their heads up and their eyes open. That's how you serve people better. That's how you get your tips and earn your bread.

I heard Lou Dorfsman speak once. He was head of design at CBS and a brilliant man. He made a connection between a California type-case and Mondrian.


Why are we in the business, why are we alive if we don't give our minds room to make connections, to see things that others can't?

No one makes connections like that. Except people who are walking around with their heads up and their eyes open. Old waiters.

I realize everything in the world is on our laptops 24/7. We can peer into a Van Gogh, look at every brushstroke of a Leonardo, and read every book ever written.

But it's all too accessible.

Something's been lost.

It's all so at hand that we have lost our attunement ability. I'm afraid we aren't as keen as we should be. So, we're better at noticing the expected than the unusual.

There was a time, of course, when agencies were in midtown. When I worked at Ogilvy on 8th Avenue, I was a ten-minute walk from one of New York's great bookstores, The Gotham Book Mart. 

I met a salesman there named Flip. The world's leading expert on Rafael Sabatini. I was writing a book back then. A history of Jewish Pirates. It wound up being 778 pages. And input. Flip was the man. We bent many an elbow in the back of the store watching old pages crumble as we turned through them. Searching.

When I was at Lowe the first time, we were exactly one block from the huge Doubleday Bookstore on Fifth Avenue. Before the block was flatulentized by Trumpian leverage. If you went to a salesperson and said, I'm looking for the Compleat Angler, you'd find it. 

Today, we don't have to hunt for the food we eat or the ideas we process. 

To strain a metaphor, I think very few ideas these days are "free-range." Most of them are like processed cheese-food. About as all-natural as Kim Kardashian's ass.

Mostly what I see is an entire species in oblivion. Headphoned and cellphoned and plug-in-iated into a dull dreamstate.

I'm turning 64 in less than a month.

I'm better, faster, smarter and funnier than I've ever been.

I am no longer chained to an unforgiving office when 3/4ths of my day is stolen by anxiety or paranoia because I said something wrong or thought something wrong and I'm going to be fired.

I'm busier than I've ever been. But I also have more time to read. Because I give less time over to worry. Less time to bullies. Less time to be bombasted, pompoused and blowharderized. Less time to anything but work.

It's liberating.

Walking around like an old waiter with my head up and my eyes open.

You'd be surprised at all you can see.

If you look.