Friday, April 29, 2022

Being Shitty Has a Cost.

A friend of mine is a very successful freelance creative. He, she or it has made a living--a good one--for the better part of a decade by hanging his, her or their hat in many different agencies.

I'll be blunt about this. And I'll stop the pronoun joke.

Most agencies treat most people like shit. Especially freelancers.

They need you they need you they need you.

Then they don't get back to you.

Or if they do get back to you, it's only to tell you they'll get back to you and then they don't.

Advertising is a funny business.

As humans we know how we like to be treated. We can identify the brands we like. Very often, in that pantheon of brands we like, we include the Four Seasons Hotel chain--a chain famous for its personal service. And they make you feel important...imagine that?

In other words, we like being treated well. We like being called back. And being thanked and appreciated. We like when people treat us politely.

Except when it comes to how agencies treat people--we forget about how we like to be treated. 

That's one tarnished golden rule.

In the agency business today, it seems like most agencies are using freelancers to stay alive. I'd wager there's hardly an agency in town that has staff enough to handle the daily press of business--especially when there's a pitch or a fire drill, which there almost always is.

I know there's some holding company MBA who's run a thousand spreadsheets and come up with irrefutable proof that it's ok to treat freelancers like shit. I'm sure he can talk about it over a $400 dinner with a $200 bottle of wine. I'm sure the cost/benefit makes sense.

But here's the thing.

Freelancers talk. So far, there's no NDA that bans gossip.

Most of the busy ones know the ins-and-outs of most agencies like cops know the local drug dealers. 

They keep a scorecard. You would too, if it were your livelihood.

They know who treats people badly. Who cuts your rate. Who makes you wait seven months to be paid. Who gladly dumps you with all of the responsibility and none of the power. Who knows you are entitled to a few benefits (like sick time) but doesn't make it easy to use it.

The cost of treating people well, of saying please and thank you, of maybe having an ECD phone you up and thank you personally when a job is well done, is nominal.

This whole post is probably dumb.

As Budd Schulberg wrote in "What Makes Sammy Run," "Going through life with a conscience is like driving with your brake on."

In other words, there's no vig in being human. There's no money in it. Decency, unlike crime, doesn't pay.

Forget I mentioned it.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

13 Lines Raymond Chandler Might Write if He Were Alive Today and Working in Advertising.

He thought he had the stuff. He had the accent. A mastery of meaningless terms. The thick-rimmed glasses. And the timeliness of always being late. But everyone who knew him knew he was as pointless as the phone numbers at the bottom of a Zoom invitation.


She was as cool as the ice-maker in the Agency's Sub Zero. But beyond the martinis in her veins and the red soles of her $400 Christian Louboutin flip-flops, she was nothing but nail polish.

The old copywriter sipped at his scotch whiskey. If the client were paying he would have gulped at it.

"You know what I've learned after 30 years in the business?" He spoke into his hands, but two young creatives were listening as well. "The longer meeting, the less it needed to happen."

I wouldn't say he was dumb but he saw a sign on the highway that read "FOOD GAS LODGING DIESEL" and thought they were talking about Vin's brother.

From looking at their social feed, the agency looked like a lot of class. From inside the agency, it looked like something better seen through a social feed.

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a project manager miss a deadline. No, two.

I won't say she was a lush. I wouldn't call her debauched. That's none of my business. 
But she did take her stand-up meetings lying down.

His copy was flat. As flat as a puddle of piss on a pool table.

I don't know, call me naive. Maybe it's my hayseed upbringing, maybe it's the horse that kicked me in the head when I was a kid. But if you call someone a Director of New Business, they should bring in new business. Otherwise, they're a Director of No Business.

You could tell how much business they were losing by how much business they said they were winning.

"Their trophy case got bigger and their revenue got smaller. That's what you call an oxymoron," I said.

"You're kinder than me." She exhaled a Pittsburgh's worth of cigarette smoke, most of it into my face. It seemed to take a good two minutes but I enjoyed it. Then she said, "I call it a death rattle."

He was low on the totem pole. How low? He still wrote ads for a living.

We were taught to love our customers like a Priest loves a collection plate. That's why we robbed people of their data and sold it every time they visited our site. We learned to love them like the axe loves a turkey.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Dreams of Fleas.

Outside of Estadio de Beisbol de Francesco I. Maduro, though it looked nothing like the areas surrounding Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx, reminded me of those areas.

Everything was more than a bit run-down. Those few buildings that didn't need a fresh coat of paint were painted with too many coats, and that paint was chipping away and giving some kid with missing parents lead poisoning. 

There wasn't in the whole of either neighborhood, the one where I played ball back during the summer of 1975 in Saltillo, Mexico, or the one I grew up within spitting distance of, a right angle in any building anywhere. Like the sonic boom quiet of the house my parents tamped me down in, everything was built on a tilt. Nothing grew strong. Everything had scoliosis, real or spiritual.

Still, I liked the dusty streets around el Estadio, the way an experienced sailor likes a harsh gale. You might die, the feeling goes, but at least you'll go down with a bang, not a whimper, with a fight, not a simper. By the time you're dead, you'll know you had lived.

When I walked to the ballpark, sometimes with my manager, Hector Quetzacoatl Padilla, whose home I boarded in, or sometimes with Karmen Rodriguez, the girl in the white dress, with whom I had fallen in love, or sometimes just by myself, I felt that I was the king--or at least a minor prince--in an even more minor imperial backwater in a rump kingdom in a long-forgotten state.

The women, carrying buckets and mops and keeping their crooked homes less dirty, would hail me. The men, leaning into the open hoods of rusty old Plymouths, would call to me, their two-inches of ash adhered by dried spittle to their cracked and sere lips.

"Jorge Navidad," someone would call. "You must hit two doubles today. I dreamed it last night in a dream."

"Two doubles," I would shout back in my bad Spanish. "You must for now on have dreams with less ambition."

The whole block would laugh with me. As this whole world was a world that lived on less ambition. Ambition was no good in this neighborhood. It would only serve to get you robbed or killed by the government, in whatever order was most convenient for them.

One early afternoon, before the Seraperos would play a twilight doubleheader, I walked to the ballpark with Hector. We did not walk the walk of intention--the walk of I have to get someplace in a hurry. We were early to the ballpark people and we walked with a resigned shuffle, barely picking up our feet from the broken-up asphalt of the broken-up streets. We would get there just the same.

Two men in sleeveless t-shirts sat in mismatched wooden chairs leaning back against a broken fence from a dirt yard with tufts of grass like a bald man's back. I could not imagine why they did not fall backward in their chairs--they were leaning so far. But they seemed in complete syzygy with the universe's inexplicable gravitational forces. If he were here, Sir Isaac Newton would have gone on a four-day bender. It made no sense.

"Little Cheese," one of the men called to Hector, barely wobbling in his chair. Over the years Hector Quetzacoatl became Hector Quesadilla became Little Cheese. Like good hitters everywhere, Hector went with the pitch.

We walked together slowly over to the tilted men. Alongside one of their chairs, laying of course in the uncool of the shade was a dog who was like so many people everywhere. He was a dog who had never known love. It slept against the heat of the early afternoon and was every bit as languid as all that was around him.

"Little Cheese," the fatter man asked, "who will you lose to today?"

Hector dodged the blow. 

"We are playing two today against Tabasco. Jorge Navidad," Hector asked me with a stage whisper, "Will we lose today as the gentleman claims?"

"I think when the wind is gentle like today, and the air is thin, the Cardinales pitch the ball up. A lot of home runs will fly over the lovely outfield wall, like an eagle flying to its mountain nest."

We laughed at my hyperbole and my overwrought Spanish. Our laughter waking the dog who yelped a sad yelp and then began scratching behind his ear with a staccato paw.

Hector shook the hand of each man and we continued our walk to Estadio de Beisbol de Francesco I. Maduro. 

"You know all people have dreams," Hector said to me. "It does not matter big or little, rich or poor, a good player of baseball or a bad."

"There are more bad than good," I said.

We were nearing the stadium. It was still three hours before the games would begin. I hoped that the clubhouse man would put some sandwiches out for us to eat and a coca-cola.

"All people have dreams," Hector repeated as he held open the clubhouse door for me. "A lot of dreams begin here."

"Even more end here," I said. "Maybe I dream of two doubles--one standing up. But instead, strike out three times and dribble twice to the pitcher."

"It is better to dream of the two doubles, one standing up," Hector laughed. "Even the flea, he has dreams. Even the little flea."

I sat on the shellacked wooden bench before my cubby, taking off my shoes for my spikes.

"Even the little flea," Hector said, calling from his pale cinder-blocked office. "He might one day hit a double."

"Or at least a single," I answered.

"Even the little flea," he shouted, "even the little flea, he dreams," Hector said. "Even the little flea dreams of buying a dog."

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Unreality in Advertising.

Of the 97-million-billion-trillion things that bother me about the modern world, one of the more irksome is a new job title I've been hearing about for a year or so.

The title is "Customer Success Manager."

The manifold ickiness of that attempt at brainwashing just disgusts me. I happen to think that in all of America over the past 30 years or so, there haven't been a dozen customer successes, in total. I can't recall a single time when I bought a product or service where I didn't feel like something sucked or someone let me down. Either with discourtesy, un-answers, or outright lies.

However, titles like that are not the problem. They're a symbol of a much bigger issue. The grinningfuckation of America.

Everything is about the fake and phony smiles plastered on the faces and in the mouths of everyone associated with advertising and life itself. There is never a spot, print ad, banner ad or even powerpoint deck that isn't afflicted with this horrible malady. Meanwhile, diseases of despair--drug addiction, alcoholism, obesity, etc, etc, proliferate. But as we depict people, everyone is breaking into dance or spinning in a field.

Remember, in advertising today, you can be working for a client that's had 24 money-losing quarters in a row. Agencies aren't allowed to say "they're in trouble." We're not allowed to say "they're facing problems." The most negative we can be is to say "they have issues." Or "they're a challenge."

This lack of realism hurts us in advertising every day and in everything we do. 

No longer do people have worries that can't be solved by a new, cheesier dorito, or renting a new Ford or other fine car from a winsome pixie behind a rental car counter. 

My sense of America is that everyone hates their ISP (they should really be called I, they bestow no service and they don't provide) but in commercials, thin actors are gushing about their fucking HD picture and how unfailing their all-too-fallible service is. 

Their greatest joy is not finding love or bringing a child into the world. It's the opportunity to find an insurance bundle that brings together auto, home and life so I can save three-percent.

One of the reasons I think more and more people hate advertising is that more and more advertising hates people. It treats people as little more than grinning manikins who's can't wait for another serving of Tostino's mini-pizza rolls during the big game.

Not long ago, I ran across a little item in Harvard Business Review. Someone asked the comedian Jerry Seinfeld about his web series "Comedians in Cars with Coffee" and why he chose that device rather than a typical talk show.

Here's what he said:

The three key sentences here are:

1. You know what I'm really sick of?  And,

2. This is where innovation begins.

3. It's very important to know what you don't like.

I owe a little here to the great playwright Tennessee Williams, who in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" had Big Daddy berate his wastrel of a son, Brick with these words:

That is to say that much of the time, life sucks. 

It sucks if you're rich. It sucks if you're poor. It sucks because life is hard. Choices are hard--rent or food or medicine. People get fired. Their kids get in trouble. They tear their right rotator cuff and can't sleep at night. Their parents are alcoholics or suffering from dementia.

But! Nacho cheesier! Happy meals! A lighter beer! A sale on dry wall at a big box store! Blazing-fast internet.

It's time I think to think about reality in advertising (not the Rosser Reeves book.) But the pain and suffering that just about everyone tries to cope with, that everyone endures.

I suppose the word that's missing is empathy. We forget to love, care and respect our viewers.

Carl Ally once said, "Advertising should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." 

We ignore truths like this, that we buy on time
and business travel doesn't lead to singing while in a Chrysler Sebring.

But as an industry, we're choosing to ignore things that make us sick. And as Seinfeld says, not yada yada yada, but "That's where innovation begins."

So, ignore at your own syrupy-sweet risk.

As they said in the sixties, "reality is for people who can't cope with drugs."

We can say virtually the same about advertising today. "Advertising is for people who can't cope with reality."

Monday, April 25, 2022

Four Reasons Behind Collapse.

Everyone I know who runs an agency and still talks to me (there are a few) is distraught over what's happening at their agencies.

Not the quality of their work.

Not the state of their finances.

Not even their "fighter-pilot" rates of attrition.

They're distraught because it seems that their modern workforce essentially refuses to come to the office. Though they've tried all sorts of inducements, incentives and mandates--ranging from free bagels to free donuts--their employees feel no connection to either the physical space of the agency, or worse, to the agency itself.

Of course, in true upper-management style, upper-management is blaming everyone but themselves. They're a bit like the employers of slave-labor and/or forced-labor in wartime Germany who then complained about the slovenly work habits of their starving, sick and beaten workers.

I think there are at least four management-derived causes behind the dissolution of agencies. (I will not use the word "culture" here. I admit to not knowing what it means in an office context.)

1. Workplaces suck. They're noisy. There's no place to think. There's no place to work with your partner. There's no place to be undisturbed. When I think of all the times I was intensely writing something while at Ogilvy--invariably on some stupid deadline--I'd say about five times in six, someone would stand obtrusively unobtrusively behind me, ahem ahem ahem, and interrupt me to ask when I'd be done and why wasn't I done already? Mind you, I was regarded by one-and-all as the fastest, most-self-directed person in the entire joint. But still.

When you have more people managing the work than doing the work, ahem ahem ahems result.

There is a basic humanity that's missing from today's workplace. Let's be simple about this. People need a barrier that separates them from the 'other.' Bernbach might have called that a "simple, timeless human truth." I'd bet it goes back to denisovians or neanderthals or even the 1940s.

But the prevarications of upper management had everyone, except upper management, working essentially in steerage. Remember? Open communication, haha haha.

There was a time, when prevailing wisdom in the agency business was that we spent more waking hours at work than at home. Therefore our offices should at least be as comfortable as home. Different sizes of offices helped establish hierarchy and, yes, prestige. They gave you something to aspire to. If Ken had two windows, I'd model myself on Ken and work to two windows. The semiotics of the modern workspace says that the assistant one-day out of college is equal to the ECD with 40-years of experience. 

I wonder if people would return if they had doors again? And sofas? And some individuality. If they had someplace they could shoot the shit with their co-workers. If they had a nice room--with quiet--in which to work. Maybe someplace that's theirs where they feel they belong. 

2. Agency brands have disappeared. With one or two exceptions, today virtually no agency stands for anything. There was a time that being an "Ogilvy writer" or a "Scali writer" meant you had a certain esteemed level of craft and taste. It was like saying you were a pitcher in the Dodgers' organization, or a slugger with the Yanks. Today the great value-destroying Holding Companies have eviscerated such meaning. They'll appoint Team Pablum--a collection of people from across the Holding Company to handle a high-revenue piece of business. No distinction between shades of grey or shades of red.

It's as if Giorgio Armani brought in someone from Old Navy to design your next sports jacket because they were available and owned by the same company. Soon neither Armani nor Old Navy would have a reason for being. Their very brands would lose whatever meaning they had.

It's hard, if not impossible, to have fealty for a company if that company has no fealty to itself.

3. Agencies treat people as interchangeable and disposable parts. Why have agencies eliminated contracts? Why does virtually everyone working at an agency (except, once-again, upper management) know that they're there based solely on the whim and caprice of a client. That you--as far as the agency is concerned--have no intrinsic value. Once "Michelle" sours on you (that could merely be because you're an older, white man) you're dead. 

With the rise of "Fordism" in the early 20th Century, skilled jobs turned into unskilled jobs. Instead of building a car, you were tightening bolts. That devalued the labor market and allowed employers to depress wages.

The same has happened in the agency business. No team makes anything anymore. There are twenty creatives, nine account people, four project managers and six strategists on every tweet. We all do minor increments of a larger task. In other words we are a disposable part there to do one thing. Once that one thing is done--you're not needed. Regardless of how many other things you can do.

4. There is no training. Training begets loyalty. That's why universities like Harvard have $50 billion endowments and old people walking around wearing hats, tee-shirts, boxer shorts and onesies for their grandkids adorned with their Alma Mater's logo.

Training breeds loyalty two ways. 

One, it helps the trainee feel a part of something bigger.

Two, it helps the trainer feel a part of something bigger. 

It's good for the young--they're up-valued. It's good for the old--they're fulfilling an evolutionary role of imparting the wisdom of experience.

In both cases, training inspires a sense of corporate continuity. This place cares, it matters, it teaches. I'm proud to be a part of this community.


Before I'd blame the Millennials for the dissolution of today's agencies, I'd consider what the Holding Company Millionaire-ennials have done to it.

Just to go all hoity-toity on you, it all makes me think of a bit of Shakespeare. Specifically Cassus' speech to Brutus in "Julius Caesar."

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

That's right, dead agencies.

The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. 

Friday, April 22, 2022


I love this business.

Damn, I'm lucky.

I love this business.

After 40 years in it.

Up to my neck in it.

40 years of pressure and backstabbing and nit-picking.

40 years of pontificators and bean-counters and bull-shitters.

But damn, I'm lucky.

I know the thrill, the excitement, the energy that comes from working with people I respect. 

Love even.

The charge that comes from battling over an ad. Solving a problem. Selling a "they'll never buy that" idea.

I know the relief, the joy, the high that comes from pulling-together--a band of brothers and sisters and agencies and departments and clients and more--and making something we're all proud of.

I know the pulse that comes from the harried pace.

The laughter that's formed despite the seismic pressure of a too-soon deadline.

I know the sapped, enervated, I-can't-move-a-single-muscle feeling of exhaustion when it's two in the morning and you did it. When you pulled-through. When you made it happen.

I know the drive of Sisyphus.

Especially since I'm luckier than Sisyphus.

Sure, the boulder rolls down a lot and we have to start over.

But we do.

Not alone.



Making it over the top.

The doing-it-ness of having done it.


It's easy to focus on the gloomy. 

I have often been called lugubrious.

And the industry--especially in its present, monopolistic control--is in need of improvement.

But every-so-often, it's good to capture that feeling of "damn, that was good."

Store it.

Don't let it go.

It might not be as transcendent as a golden retriever with a peanut butter-filled bone.



Thursday, April 21, 2022

New York, New York, What a Heck of a Town.

Yesterday I did something I hadn't done since the world came to a halt with the advent of Covid.

I commuted an uncommutable distance from our little seaside falling-down cottage 100 miles to Manhattan. I drove most of the way--70 miles to Stamford. Then I took the Metro-North commuter train into the city.

Of course I thought of Sondheim's words from West Side Story. "I like the island Manhattan. Smoke in your pipe and put that in."

Lyrics don't get much better than that. And I'll give an assist to Manhattan--which inspired so many great words through the centuries. Even the word "Gotham," which most people know only through Batman and its never-ending sequels, was inspired by Manhattan. Gotham was coined by Washington Irving in 1807--a derisive term for New York.

The sky was a Meditteranean blue yesterday, and the temperature was very nearly Spring-like. The city looked like the city of dreams. Good dreams, not just nightmares.

For as long as I've been sullying this sullied planet, people have been proclaiming--with relish--New York's demise. 

After World War II, Robert Moses tried to criss-cross Manhattan with highways--believing that the future of white America was suburbia. He was willing to leave the poor and the dark behind in his decrepit-by-design public housing. 

The drugs and crime of the seventies, and the precipitous rise in arson led people to believe New York was a city feeding on itself, like some medieval creature dreamt up by Hieronymous Bosch. Johnny Carson mocked the city every night during his monologues. Even native New Yorker Henny Youngman did:

"Pardon me, do you know the way to Central Park?"


"OK, I'll mug you here."

Crack and urban decay in the eighties. Even worse, investment bankers in the nineties and Russian oligarchs in the 21st Century.

Now, we're told by the radical right that the city is once again dead. trump called it a ghost town. And nightly sensational biased reporting tells the world that once again New York is off its rails.

Of course, my report on the city is anecdotal. And based on six hours running through midtown on a beautiful spring day. But, damn, I'd be shocked if there's anyplace anywhere on god's not-so-green earth that has more energy, more pace, more direction than New York.

For literally a millennia, people in the west have regarded the millennium between the fall of Rome in the west (around 476AD) to around 1500 as "The Dark Ages." It was a convenient moniker for a thousand years and fit with the narrative of the efflorescence of thought, life, art and humanity during the Renaissance. Today, most serious historians reject that the dark ages were really dark. The idea of darkness suited someone's narrative.

There's a battle going on around the world. 

The anti-enlightenment, anti-science, federalist radical right is declaring everything good and liberal dead.

They're claiming facts are dead. Science doesn't matter. And even Democracy is a relic. They prefer putin-esque authoritarianism.

It's a battle, really, that's been going on for thousands of years. Between science and fear.

It's playing out, also, in what you hear about New York.

Of course, the city has problems. Of course, there is crime. Probably a rise in crime. But these are tumultuous times and New York has ten-million people living asscheek to asscheek. Eventually someone's going to snap and plug someone else.

But to paraphrase John Reed on an early visit to the Soviet Union, "I have seen the future, and it works."

I have seen New York, and it works.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022


When I worked within the confines of the agency world, I always got along with the people whose job it was to make sure I was doing my job.

Back in the 80s and the 90s, those people were called traffic. They moved jobs from one office to another and made sure everything was done in time. They gave people 'fair warning.' "George," they'd peck at me, "that copy is due tomorrow."

From about 2005 on, traffic got tossed and was replaced by "project management." That's a locution I don't one-hundred percent understand. It seems unduly complicated. Like saying someone "went to his final reward," rather than saying they died. It's like saying, "I'm congested," rather than "I have a cold."

In any event, though I always got along with traffic people and project management, I often found the function superfluous. Even at my busiest--when I was juggling a dozen of my own assignment and managing a raft of teams--I was able to do what I needed to do without anyone telling me to do it.

I had read somewhere that among American infantry soldiers in World War 2, only about one-third of those soldiers fired their guns at an exposed enemy. Many people put the percentage even lower, like one-in-five.

Right now, at GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company, I am juggling about a dozen small assignments. I am asked to write a few TV spots or an elevator pitch or a new tagline. It's easy when you're not running your own place to be snobby about business. Effete.

As much as I'd like only giant agency-of-record accounts, as Owen my therapist reminds me, "what difference does it make?" Money is money--whether I'm asked to do a national campaign or 67 small-space print ads.

Because I have no traffic department or no project management, I've unleashed my superego to do the job for me. For those of you not well-versed in Freudian dogma, the superego is the division of the unconscious formed through the internalization of the moral standards of your parents and of society. The superego acts as a self-critical conscience reflecting learned social standards. In other words, your superego is a built-in traffic person. It's that bit of your head that--as anatomically impossible as it sounds--can kick you in the ass.

So, I work.

I sit down and work.

I fire my gun.

I write 500 taglines to get 50. Then, deciding 50 ain't enough, I write 300 more.

We're all working in ways we never had to work before. Without the discipline of an office. Without the stink-eye on a micro-managing boss. Without the haranguing--real or imagined--of a project manager.

Friends of mine, freelancing for the giant old-line agencies seem to spend a couple hours a day juggling status meetings. When I was bound to an agency my often-repeated unfunny joke was that a status meeting is any meeting where you have absolutely no status.

What works for me is pressure.

I set dates for myself that make me sweat. If I promise a dozen of something, I deliver twenty. If I say Wednesday, I schedule a meeting on Tuesday.

I worked for an agency that was highly-regarded for many years; these days probably no one's heard of it: Ogilvy. There was a guy there who ran one of their European offices. I was in a meeting with him once and he said, "Clients don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Like most things I hear, I agree with about half of it. So, I'll do what I do. I'll rewrite.

"Clients care how much you know especially when they know how much you care."

I put pressure on myself.

So they know.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Death through Kindness.

A few months ago I had an early-morning breakfast with the CEO of one of my endlessly interesting clients.

I suppose because Holding Company agencies have abdicated intellect (intellect costs money and advertising-industry wages have been plummeting since the consolidation of Oligopoly control of the industry) I seem to attract the business of a lot of very complex companies.

These aren't soap manufacturers or hamburger chains. These are often companies with steep learning curves.

They most often deal with true innovation. Not changing the "gender" of Cracker Jack to Cracker Jill or, soon I suppose, Cracker Fluid. Assuming, of course, that the prenomen Cracker is not offensive as a slur to Lindsay Graham, Mitch McConnell, David Duke, Margery Taylor Greene and their merry band of white supremacists.

The man I was having breakfast with was a former big-wig at McKinsey and a professor at Yale Business School. He had more board affiliations than a large lumber yard and as it was the first time we were meeting, I was on my best behavior.

We were talking about business and I said something both reductive and I suppose, profound. 

"If you think about it," I pontificated, "science is really about vision. It's about seeing things--and therefore understanding them--that we couldn't see before. Like Leewenhouk and the microscope, like the original telescopes invented in the Muslim world, like the $10 billion Webb telescope, or even the voyages of discovery from Columbus on down, it's all about seeing things."

This CEO was roughly old enough to be my father. And, as I said, a very accomplished person.

He pushed himself away from the rickety table we were sitting at. (The more expensive the coffee, the more rickety the tables. That's not Raymond Chandler, but it could be.) 

He said, "You're not a scientist, are you?"

"I'm a copywriter," I reaffirmed.

"That's the best definition of science I have ever heard," he said. "I've never thought about it that way."

My sole advantage as a creative person is based on my vision. Not a Ted-Williams-like 'batting eye.' (It was said he had 20:10 vision--he was able to see at 20 feet what others could see at 10) but my ability to see things, turn things upside-down and notice things that other people seem to miss.

Much of that comes from my almost non-stop nose-in-bookedness. I read a pretty heavy book a week, and probably about ten book reviews. Book reviews are a good way to get a topline of some real intelligence in five minutes. I don't know why more people don't read them. Wordle I guess or Kardasianitis.

As I've said before, reading a good book is like spending 15 or 20 hours with a genius--or at least someone very knowledgeable about a particular subject you might never have thought of. I think it was the famed computer scientist Allen Kay who said, "a different perspective is worth 100 points of IQ." Reading gives me that perspective and on topics that I'd normally never consider. If your synapses are working well, you can find connections from things you might not ordinarily connect.

For instance, right now I'm in the middle of a tidepool in Scotland with the great writer Adam Nicolson, reading his book "Life Between the Tides." [NY Times review here.] Something struck me about sea urchins and life in the modern ad agency.

It seems to me, at least sometimes, that the HR-led enterprise has weeded out all conflict and attempted to replace that strain with "highly collaborative agitators," and "bridge builders." The alpha predators have been told to play nice. Fairness is the rule.

In fact, where David Ogilvy once said, "Talent, I believe, is best found among non-conformists, dissenters and rebels" today we seem more intent on inclusion and equity--not standing out and "winning" but cooperating and working together.

Back to Nicholson. He tells of a 1963 study by a scientist called Robert Paine conducted along the Washington coast. Paine's study revealed a complex community, in which seaweed was eaten by sea urchins, limpets, winkles and chitons. Coraline algae were eaten by chitons and anemones who were in turn eaten by whelks, starfish and sea stars. And so it goes in a dog-eat-dog or whelk-eat-whelk world.

A Pisaster ochraceus. (Ochre sea star)

"It was a ferocious and layered world, full of strife." With that, the experimenters asked an important question. What would happen to this community if the apex predators, the Pisaster (sea urchin) was removed.

In a short while, the community collapsed. Where there had previously been fifteen different species on that patch of shoreline, now there were eight. Diversity had halved. 

"In the absence of predation, the mussel had won. The experiment had shown that predation did not...diminish life, but had opened up opportunities for the variety of life to flourish." 

I realize I may well be excoriated for supporting the idea of "predation" in the workplace--a rough and tumble, knives-out competitiveness and combativeness. I realize today's a la mode is one of kindness and inclusion. 

But I wonder.

I wonder if kindness and inclusion necessitate the lowering of standards. For instance, if the National Basketball Association said "we need to be inclusive of slow, short, fat people who aren't athletic. It's exclusionary to keep them from playing," I would imagine interest in the game would drop considerably. 

"Starting at guard for the New York Knicks, Buddy Hackett."

I wonder if we by removing the human Pisasters from our offices if we've actually sullied life and diversity in what had been a multi-layered community.

This is not a cry for homogeneity. 

It's a question about if we have or have not considered the laws of unintended consequences. That by removing predators the world is, suddenly, less safe and less diverse.

I don't know.

I do know as humans are an animal it makes sense to look at the societal vagaries of other animals that may be more easily studied. Before I'd rush in and replace an old shibboleth--battle--with a new one--inclusion--I'd think long and hard about the effects of those decisions.

This is not to say I am for exclusion.

It is to say that much progress, at least in most of the natural world, is based on battle and that battle often begets order. We ought to be careful and think about what we're replacing it with.


If you'd like to read a bit of real science on this topic, here's a link.

And the article.


Could the fate of an ecosystem hinge on a single keystone gene?
In the 1960s, a scientist revolutionized ecology with the idea of keystone species that have an outsized effect on entire ecosystems. Now scientists say they have found a keystone gene.
April 6, 2022

In 1963, armed with a crowbar and curiosity, Robert Paine started an experiment that changed how we think about ecosystems. At a series of tide pools on the Washington coast, the young University of Washington ecologist pried up orange and purple starfish, Pisaster ochraceus, and hurled them into Mukkaw Bay.

The loss of that single species transformed the tidepools. Mussels that were a favorite food of the starfish took over, crowding out many other species. The insights led Paine to coin the term “keystone species” to describe a critical species that can determine the fate of an entire ecosystem, like the central keystone that keeps an arch from collapsing. The idea has played a pivotal role in understanding ecosystems, such as the way the eradication of wolves around Yellowstone National Park led to a surge in grazing by elk that wiped out willow populations and eroded stream ecosystems. It underscores, in an age of mass extinctions, how the loss of even a single species can wreak havoc.

Now, a group of scientists have taken the insight to even a smaller level. They’ve found what they call a keystone gene. While the results come from a laboratory, it underscores the potential ecological risks from the loss of biodiversity, even within a species.

“Our findings show that the current loss of genetic diversity may have cascading effects that lead to abrupt and catastrophic shifts in the persistence and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems,” says Matt Barbour, a researcher at University of Zurich in Switzerland who helped lead the research.

To see how subtle genetic differences within the same species might resonate through an entire ecosystem, scientists in Zurich and the University of California, Davis turned to a lab rat of the plant world, Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as mouse-ear cress or thale cress. The tiny, spindly plant with delicate flowers is often considered a weed and can be found sprouting from such unlovely places as the cracks in a sidewalk.

But for scientists, the hardy plant has several advantages. It is widely used in plant research as a model organism and has been dissected down to the genetic level. It is also a popular food among aphids, putting it at the bottom of a sequence of relationships between different species.

In this case, Barbour and the other researchers capitalized on these relationships by creating miniature ecosystems in small containers simplified to just four organisms: the plant, two aphids that feed on the plant, and a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs on aphids.

To test the effect of a single genetic change in the plant, they took four different strains of the Arabidopsis, each with a single difference in a part of its genetic code that influenced production of chemicals that can repel aphids. Each of those variants is found in nature as well. They then created 60 mini-ecosystems in small mesh-walled boxes, each with different combinations of plants.

All of these little worlds changed as the scientists followed their progress for roughly four months. In some cases, all the insects starved and vanished. In other cases, one of the two aphid species disappeared. In still others, the system gradually broke down until just the plant and an aphid species was left.

When the researchers sifted through the patterns of extinctions, one feature stood out. Ecosystems with a version of the plant in which a single gene (AOP2) was turned off were much less likely to witness an extinction. The extinction rate fell by 29% when a plant with the disabled AOP2 gene was present, the researchers reported last week in Science.

It turns out that in addition to being involved in production of plant-defense chemicals, the gene also influences the plant’s growth rate. With the gene inactivated, the plant grew faster, enabling it to better keep up with demands placed on it by the aphids, the researchers found.

While a controlled laboratory is a far cry from the messy world and its intricate food webs, the researchers note their findings show that even a difference in a single gene can have far-reaching consequences.

The findings demonstrate the potential importance of combing genetic and ecological tools for understanding how genetic changes might influence the fate of ecosystems, the authors write, It also underscores the dangers of losing genetic variation within a species as its numbers shrink, or the potential for impacts from introducing organisms with a genetic tweak that turns out to be significant. That gene, after all, could turn out to be a keystone much like Paine’s starfish.

Barbour, et. al. “A keystone gene underlies the persistence of an experimental food web.” Science. Mar. 31, 2022.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine