Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Trigger Warning.

One way to evaluate the perniciousness or the ingrained-ness of systemic "whatever-ism" is to see how various groups are depicted in popular culture and un-popular-cultural-blight, that is, advertising.

If you don't know what I'm talking about--and who does--I suggest you plunk $9.99 down and buy the Kindle edition of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s 2019 New York Times' Notable Book, "Stony the Road."

For about the price of two-infusions of high-fructose caffeine at a chain coffeeshop owned by billionaires and run by the underpaid, you can buy yourself a little enlightenment. And if you're wired toward self-improvement and lifelong learning, the buzz will last longer than the jamoke as well.

Dr. Gates' book is a long and deep look at the centuries of the language and the imagery that are two vital building blocks of Amerika's marrow of enduring and systemic racism and hate. So charged are these images that I will not show them in this space. Invariably someone, without reading what I've written and without context, would see them and accuse me of hatred and ugliness. Again, Gates' book is worth reading and the images are worth seeing, but I won't risk the vituperation that would come from reprinting them here. Even the review in the Times prints only one image--and in the scheme of things--a mild one, lest the same slings and arrows be sent their way.

This post, however, is not about racism. It's about ageism. 
Though it could be about any 'ism.' While they're not all equal, who's to say which ism is worse. They're all bad and are to be overcome.

Just a couple of weeks ago during his State of the Union Address (which could more accurately be called 'The Disunion Report') president Biden assailed the republicans for their rhetoric around cutting, dismantling or sunsetting Social Security. The republicans denied that of course, but on the heels of their denials senators and congresspeople started talking about raising the age when Social Security benefits kick in. (That's the same thing as cutting benefits, but why quibble.)

On February 12, just over two weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published this article, heralding the advent of future careers that might have to last 50-percent longer than our current notion of a 40-year-career.

Since the Journal has a paywall, here are some choice bits from their reporting.

"Because they are likely to live healthily into their 90s or longer, they must learn to navigate 60-year careers instead of the traditional 40-year span."

"All of this could pose challenges for companies, which haven’t structured ways for employees to stay productive and creative over lengthy careers."

"Few have established flexible routes in and out of the workplace, or “glide paths” toward retirement that enable older workers to work longer but at reduced hours."

These two trends must be concerning for workers in the advertising industry--where you're old at 35 and pretty much discarded by 50. No worries. Those who own the advertising industry, the older white men who run the holding companies, choose to ignore both demographics and decency. 

Trend 1. Let's make people wait till they're older to start using the retirement and healthcare benefits they've paid for.

Trend 2. Let's extend the expected length of a career to sixty years, though very few ad people work 30 years.

So while the world says 'work longer,' and 'get benefits later,' the ad industry has been saying even louder, 'there's no room at the inn.'

This breakdown of age 'diversity' found on page 75 of WPP's 2021 Annual Report (the latest one published) is terrifying. 27% of WPP's workforce is over 40, though 51% of the US population is over 40. (According to the 2019 US Census.)

What's worse is that though our population is aging, the numbers haven't improved at all since at least 2017:

Below are stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (labor-force participation); Census Bureau (age groups) that lay out the issue in stark, statistical terms. Not only are people living 20-30 years longer than they did just a few decades ago, millions of people 45+ are still in the labor force.

[BTW, WPP is the only holding company I could find age-diversity data from. I'd love to hear from the others--if their stats are different. And if anyone from WPP or any other holding company wants to refute any of this, I make Ad Aged and our 80,000/weekly circulation freely available to you--with NO editorial oversight on my part.]

Eventually, I'll return to where I started. With Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the sorts of imagery that embed systemic "ism." In this case, ageism.

Below is Ogilvy's "Careers" page. Which could easily, according to the photos they've chosen be called their "Careers for those under 30" page.

Despite the vast demographic changes I've written about above, the imagery chosen by Ogilvy harkens back to a different time, well-before the 80s.

You can't claim you are open to all, that you're welcoming, inclusive, diverse, and fair if your imagery shows only a tiny slice of the population. You also can't claim that you are keeping in-step with the times when the photos you've chosen depict something radically out of step with your assertions.

Two of the sillier shibboleths of the 'diversity-industrial-complex' are these.

1. Companies and social organizations should be "the mirror of the world," and
2. "You can't be what you can't see."

No mirrors here. No seeing or being here.

The world these photos depict is skewed, dangerously skewed away from the demographic reality of the world today. Just as dangerously skewed as the racist imagery Dr. Gates writes about in "Stony the Road."

At a time when people are living longer and careers, it's said, will last 60-or-so years, major employers are acting as if those realities aren't happening and making no provision for them having happened.

What will we do with the old? What will we do with a large, growing and affluent portion of the population?

Drop it, say the holding companies.

I'm fine with all that, if that's the way you want to be. You make your bed, you lie in it.

I do wish, however, you were less Orwellian in boasting about how enlightened and inclusive you are. 

That disgusts me.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Time, Tide and Advertising.

Since my benighted years working at the digital agency of the decade, in a Manichean fashion, I've divided the inhabitants of the marketing world into two divisions.

1. There are the "that will change everythings." And,
2. There are what I call the "tectonics."

Group 1 seems to believe that every new technological doodad, hairstyle, pop-song, or hamburger topping is the great new new thing and will forever alter (or will alter for six weeks) the world in fundamental ways. 

There were a lot of Group 1-ers at digital agencies. They believed Google+, or myspace, or Microsoft Vista, or some new design or UX wizardry would be the secret to fame and success. They might still be doing the Harlem shake.

Group 2, of which I am a fervent member, are those who believe in the persistence of a core of human behaviors--behaviors that take literally hundreds of thousands of years to change. 

I believe that the same elements that made Homer's Iliad and Odyssey listen-to-able 6000 years ago, are the same elements that make movies watchable, books readable and tv-shows bingeable today. As Pulitzer-winning historian Barbara Tuchman once said, "the persistence of normal is strong." Group 2-ers claim Bernbach as a founding member. He said, "advertising should be based on ‘simple, timeless, human truths.’”

But there's more, I've realized than this dichotomy. I've been thinking about this for a while and what I've come to is what I believe is a similar schism to the one I've described above when it comes to time.

Last week, if I were writing this, every news story, every late-night-monologue joke, and half the conversations in America were about the spectre of either alien-invasion or Chinese-invasion because the Strategic Air Command, or Norad, or Fox News noticed a two-bus-sized balloon floating over the continental United (sic) States.

This week, as they used to say, stories about balloons are back with the shipping news.

Balloons are no more. I'm not even sure Party City has any balloons in stock anymore. They've vanished like 48-year-olds at a holding company agency.

If you spend any time with history, not just the Edict of Nantes, Norman invasion history kind of shit, but even larger history, like the actual development of earth and the formation of life and the geology of our planet, you'd realize that your sense of time is very different from the modern 'Breaking News' sense of time.

Change isn't measured merely in 'day-parts' or even millennia. It's measured in ages. Literally hundreds of millions of years.

Every time you hear someone in marketing say, plant-based hamburgers will fundamentally alter the cattle-business by 2025, take a breath. Every time you hear about cold-fusion or even cold-sushi changing everything, take a second and think about Tuchman's 'persistence of normal.'

In advertising, over the last ten years, the word 'culture' has been tossed around like a volleyball on the beaches of Santa Monica. 

We have to be a part of culture. 
We have to influence culture.
We have to move at the speed of culture.

Forget about the bias in that use of the word culture. It assumes that your culture is the same as my culture and that your culture is right, relevant and for all. Forget about that.

What's really happening here is another dichotomy. In Cartesian terms (if I can put Descartes before the horse) we have another grand subject-object split.

We have the Group 1-ers who are chasing culture and trends. They think two weeks is 'time,' a long time.

And the withering number of Group 2-ers. Who think commercial messages based on unchanging values and humanity are necessarily more enduring and, therefore, more valuable. They think twenty-thousand years is 'time.'

This is not to say I believe in ignoring the world around us. It is time, however, I think to pose a bigger industry-wide question. A question, I think, CMOs might also want to think about.

"Are we doing work for the next quarter?
Or are we doing work for the next quarter of a century?"

Obviously, we have to "drive sales overnight and build brands over time." So we have to be both in the here and now while having respect for those behaviors and beliefs that unite humanity. The lasting ones. Like respecting people. Like not shouting.

When I was six, my parents took my brother and sister and me out to the New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadow Park, in Queens, New York. (BTW, the fair was built on what F. Scott Fitzgerald called in the Great Gatsby, 'The Valley of Ashes.' Trillions of dumpings of centuries of New York's incinerator waste.)

My father must have given us each fifty-cents and for the first and maybe last time in my life, I got to do a carnival attraction called 'spin-art.' You know, where a small piece of paper rotates at a high-speed and you squeeze paint on it.

Back in 1964, I thought my spin-art creation superior to anything at the Met or the Louvre or the Hermitage or even anything by Jeff Koons, who isn't much older than I am.

Today, you can't look at spin-art without getting slightly nauseous and feeling slightly stupid, not to mention ridiculously dated.

A lot of what we do in marketing today, I'm afraid, is spin-art. It lasts about 12-seconds.

I'm working for ideas with a bit more longevity. Something that could speak to humans, like this well-bronzed guy below. He's 2,500 years old. 

He looks pretty good to me. 

Even if he is NSFW.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Not short. Not funny. But here.

If you write a blog as assiduously as I do (contrary to popular belief, assiduously does not mean I type it with my ass) you learn a lot about media. And life.

In fact, if I ever were in the position to hire people again, I'm not sure I'd ever bring someone in who wasn't daily involved in some sort of craft. Doing something daily forces you to see things you don't see if you're less regular about doing them.

For instance, I have always--even when living in the city, spent about 100 days a year walking by the sea. Some of that was while I was on vacation--usually somewhere warm and azure. Some was driving up to a dog-friendly beach and playing fetch in the water of the turbid Long Island Sound with Whiskey. Most was walking along the path of New York's East River. (Though we call it a river, it's not. It's a tidal estuary--and if there's any water in the East River at all, the PCBs and other carcinogens are probably salty.)

Despite my regular maritime proclivities, the sea becomes 'living,' when you live on it and see it every day. You see things you don't see even when you're merely a regular visitor. You see the change of seasons, the changing character of waves, the Rothko-like blurring of the horizon, the sky and the brine. You see and hear the life of the littoral; clams washed onto the street by an over-achieving wave, or dropped there by a gull. You see the lacerated carcass of fish that have escaped the razor talons of an osprey. You see diving ducks and geese taking off just barely like Howard Hughes' failed behemoth, the Spruce Goose. 

You see the phone poles that are home to almost-round gulls who feast on the trillions of migrating bunkers our species hasn't yet destroyed. You see hopeful fishers neck deep in the murk trying for stripers or blues early and late in the season. You see buttermilk skies, god rays and rainbows. You see squalls and storms and hear thunder and see lightning. You hear the laughter of children with buckets and throwing sand at their little sisters, their mothers tsking and perhaps dreaming of a Xanax.

The same happens, I think, when you write and publish every day. First you become attuned to your surroundings. You turn yourself into a super-human of sorts, an all-observing story machine.

Your memory is trained to remember a funny t-shirt you've seen, or a snatch of dialogue overheard. You hear sounds that are otherwise drowned out by their older-brother-sounds, the type that usually demand more attention.

Your brain becomes a giant stewpot in an army mess hall feeding ten-thousand troops a day. You throw everything into the pot hoping for a dance of flavors. Hoping that when you ladle the slop out on a thousand tin trays, something will be enjoyed and something will be gained.

You also learn the patterns of your readers and as important, the lack of patterns. 

Often I write something. I'll say to myself, for whatever reason, 'this is really going to take off.' And I get the Bronx-born equivalent of that old Zen Koan--nothing but the sound of one-hand clapping. Other days I'll say, 'well that was kind of lame-brained,' and the post will take off. 

I learned from that that it makes no sense to try to make sense out of things. Whether you're a human-brain or a high-performing computer, in so many things there are too many uncontrolled and uncontrollable variables to be able to count on anything, especially counting. 

Anyone who tells you, 'don't do x because of y,' has essentially given up. You can always do something to x that changes y, but you usually don't know what where or when.

That's really it for today.

I've found through the years that Fridays are slow days in the blogosphere. I try to counteract low volume usually by writing something funny and short.

Today's post is neither.

But who knows.

It might still go over well.

Thursday, February 23, 2023


If you are attuned to listening, you hear a lot of words you wish you hadn't. 

Words that hurt your ears. Words that have no meaning. Words that muddy, rather than clarify.

You hear them all the time. They're usually mean and shrill and demeaning. They usually shout at you without kindness or consideration. 

Worse are those who try to bamboozle you, or bullshit you with big words or jargon that really don't have any meaning. This is another technique designed to bring you down a peg. It's a way of saying, 'you don't understand our specialized language. Therefore you're not smart, cool or one of us.' 

Cliques in high school do this sort of thing. The 'in' crowd has their own language, specifically designed to keep others out.

Agency life was full of this linguistic bombast, segregation and ostracizing. Without mangling and Newspeak, agencies would be as quiet as a tomb. I heard it a lot when someone was trying to kill an idea or to get you to do something their way. They'd trot out, or shovel out the crap. If you weren't savvy enough to catch on, you often wound up wounded. Or plowed under by an empty and hurtful loquaciousness.

For about the last 102 years of my life, I've tried to write in simple English so my readers could understand it. Especially when I write in service of a client.

There are so many meaningless words we expect to read in certain situations because everyone uses them. If you're bold enough to try to get someone to clarify them, you get a lot of stammering as a response. If someone does try to explain, chances are they'll explain things using the exact same words that needed explaining in the first place.

"Agile means we'll move with agility using an agile methodology."

Not too many hours ago, a friend sent me some gibberish put out by a client I spent a long time working for. This client has a market cap of almost $120 billion. I didn't want to single any one client out, so I did a tiny bit of searching. Things didn't get any better the more I searched.

My sense of the world today, not just advertising, is that very few people believe anything. As someone who cares about the uses and misuses of language that bothers me.

In everything we do, from an asinine blog-post to a tweet to an expensive television spot, we shouldn't forget that we're in the business of trying to talk to people. We're in the business of getting people to see things our way.

When I work for clients, after a while they usually transition the work I do over to their inexpensive teams. Not only do they not want to pay my rates anymore, they're probably pretty sick of me by the end of a project. Knowing me as I do, I can't really blame them. A lot of the time, I'm pretty sick of me too.

I usually give clients a little treatise on improving their writing. It's something I've compiled and written over the last 25 years or so. 

You can take it or leave it, as you wish.

Some thoughts on writing from George Orwell's 
"Politics and the English Language." 

To guide writers into writing clearly and truthfully, Orwell proposed the following six rules:

1.   Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.   Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.   If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.   Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.   Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.   Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Along the way, I've added this to it:

There's nothing you can learn about writing--from anyone or from anywhere--that is as important as asking yourself a simple question or five.

Ask yourself these questions as you pick up your pencil or tap on your keys. They can't hurt. And they might help.


Are you writing to impart useful information to people or are        you writing to show how smart you are?

A lot of writing I see uses big words and ridiculously long sentences. It doesn't explain anything.


Are you writing to clarify things or to confuse issues? Are you writing to simplify or complicate?

So much of what we read uses jargon and cliches. It's obvious to me that not even the writer knows what they're trying to communicate. Or they're being purposefully deceptive for nefarious purposes.


Are you writing lies or have you decided to tell the truth? That is are you writing honestly, or dishonestly?

I often bump into writing that is as circuitous as the roads in a gated community. If you respect the reader, you get to the point. Don't lead them into cul-de-sacs or dead ends.

4. Are you trying to reach people or bully them?

About 85% of the VOs I hear on television is an announcer yelling at viewers. Much of writing also feels more like berating. Is someone channeling my mother?

5. Do you want people to read what you've written or just see that you have written?

A lot of writing starts out with cliches and buzzwords and stock-phrases that indicate to the reader that the writer has put no thought and even less-candor into what they've sent out. This is writing that allows Authority to say they've done the right thing while doing the wrong thing.

I suppose you can reduce all these questions to one: 

Will the reader trust (and like) the writer--even if they're told something harsh--or will they feel after reading that they've been hosed-down with bullshit and the smell is lingering? 



Wednesday, February 22, 2023

A New Idea: Humachine.™

If you were born a middle child, as I was, and a child of two perpetually-warring parents, you might have, like me, often assumed the role of conciliator and peace-maker.

In other words, you work to help resolve conflict, to make combatants meet in the middle.

What's more, if you were born with what today is called an eidetic memory, you can recall with some acuity something you read early one morning before the rest of the office was in, and then only for four minutes.

These are two sides to me--two sides that people who know me see, but very few others do.

All that is to say, that back in 1984, I read an op-ed in the New York Times by columnist Flora Lewis, that I think we would do well to re-read today. You can, and should, read the article here. But since you probably won't, because invariably you've got better things to do than to read a 39-year-old op-ed recommended by a slightly daft aged copywriter--let me paste the "SmartPart™" here, complete with George-Selected highlights in yellow.

Lewis writes:

"What I call the Tiffany model, conceived when waste of resources was the major concern, offers a way of reconciling both the need to conserve materials (which will return with recovery) and the need to provide humane work. The key is quality.


"Real quality requires craftsmanship, hand-finishing. Historically, it was reserved for the rich. The second industrial revolution can be used to provide it for everybody, just as the first made possible mass production and distribution. That was achieved by an economic model based on great quantities of cheap goods. Henry Ford's assembly line made the automobile everyman's transport. The robot can now replace low-skilled workers. The next step is the equivalent of a Rolls-Royce for everyman, by bringing back the artisanship of finish that makes the big difference. Of course, the price would be much higher. Consumer credit offers a solution. If a car were so well made that it only began to wear out in 20 years, would people mind taking 10 years to pay it off? Would they really prefer plastic plates to good china, plywood to fine furniture, if the cost in terms of yearly outlay were about the same? Making good goods that last would leave the base work to machines, save material and employ more people in the rewarding task of adding quality by individual taste and skill. The popularity of do-it-yourself reflects humane values to be won. This would mean a revolution of marketing concepts from the throwaway society to the make-it-better society. Mental and social adjustment would be required on the large scale, but that is inescapable if the new industrial era is to fulfill its promise of a leap ahead rather than a plunge to new despairs."

While I run an advertising agency, GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company, I am no longer in the advertising agency business. When I started my agency I started with the same impetus Richard Branson and Steve Jobs had when they started their businesses. 

Do a better job making __________ by getting rid of all the crap traditionally associated with making __________.

For me, it was: do great work without all the shit that comes from making work.

Today, of course, the lip-flapping in the advertising industry (which is cost-reduction-focused not creatively-focused) is all about AI replacing people in traditional creative roles. 

Many of my friends, who freelance for a living, have seen 2023 start off slow, and already they're blaming AI for their enforced idleness. Agency chieftains (and I had dinner with a few on Friday night) are worried about how they'll handle the effects of AI. Will that "giant sucking sound" be clients taking their high-volume, low-value work in-house, thus eviscerating the revenue streams of the few agencies still standing.

This is where Flora Lewis re-enters my mind.

Why can't agencies blend mass and craft? Shouldn't we be able to sell the notion of work that's as good as human-made at a price that's only a trifle-higher than computer-made?

I haven't worked out the logistics of it. But the thesis is simple. AI should be Augmented Intelligence, not Artificial Intelligence. It should do as technology does, make humans more efficient. 

I realize I shouldn't offer help to my competitors who remain in the agency world. But a lot of those competitors are my friends, or at least people who have tolerated me for forty years.

Some smart agency somewhere will combine the rapid-framing and foundation building of machines with the wit, humor, intelligence, discretion and irreverence of humans. They'll combine computer and corpuscles to get a unique, plussed-up offering.

Almost as fast as a computer alone yet with human acuity and flavor. I've written a lot in this space about semiotics: the language of signs. 

For instance if a business puts up plastic ropes and makes you make 17 turns to walk up to a teller or to get on a plane, they're not just treating you like cattle, they think you are cattle. We endure such indignities about a dozen times a day. If you're not already bored by all this humanizing, you might want to look at this seven-minute film on the tearing down of the old Penn Station and its replacement by urine-scented linoleum.

The Yale University art critic, Vincent Sculley says something that I think has pertinence to us in the humanity business. You can listen for it in the film: "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat." 

In every bit of work I'm involved with--no matter how tangentially, no matter how much my client won't understand what I'm flapping my gums about, I ask this simple question. How do we want to treat people? What are we saying to them? They're rats? Or they're gods?

I believe we can do better than machine-made work, or bots, or customer-service. And the bean-counters and people-cutters say we can't afford human-made. Why can't we find a middle-ground. A third way?

I think that's the blend we should be looking for. God-like rat-pellets.

Here's a five-word summation of what I mean--I'd guess a computer couldn't be this succinct.

Machine-speed with Human-creed.™

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Welcome to Free York.

As a life-long resident of the City of Mugged Shoulders (not in Carl Sandburg's words) I've spent a good part of my 65 years wrestling against the grip of parsimony.  In other words, for a lot of my days and even more of my lonely nights, I hardly had two dimes to rub together. Accordingly, as the saying goes, "I throw nickels around like manhole covers."

Along the way, I learned a few things about getting by with very little tender, legal or otherwise. 

I learned you could go to Zabar's virtually anytime of the day or night (especially in the old days when they stayed open till 11PM on weekend nights) and for free you could get a bisl this and a bisl that. On a good day or night, you could cop a wedge of cheese, a schtickle of cold cut, and a smattering of belly lox on a thin wafer of bagel, all for free. You could probably loop around and double-back if you were particularly famished.

As I wander I wonder. And I found a dozen places in New York, especially on what had been the "largest Jewish city in the world," the Upper West Side where you could freeload. All along Broadway from the old urine-scented Colosseum at Columbus Circle up-through the curvilinear apartment houses and wrought iron fences of Columbia University on 116th and Broadway, I think I knew everywhere you could get something for nothing just for stepping inside a store or restaurant.

I knew where I could grab a handful of pistachios. Where I could get an espresso-sized cuppa jamoke, and where I could grab a sample or nine of chocolate, as dark and bitter as a Hasid's wardrobe.

I learned bakeries where a baker's dozen (13 for the price of 12) was a matter or principle. I learned that Fairway had H&H bagels, two for thirty-five cents, a quarter of the price of H&H bagels from their very own storefront just six blocks north. I also learned where you could nibble while you shop, sample while you amble and fairly have lunch just while you were picking up your groceries.

As I got older and money was a little more plentiful, the sort of knowledge I valued changed a bit. I still enjoyed a dab of whitefish salad while I waited at a counter, but as the dad of two daughters, I learned where to find clean and safe bathrooms no matter where I was in the city. The Peninsula Hotel, btw, which rented a storefront to the chocolatier Lindt, had not only clean bathrooms, but a giant silver bowl of free Lindt candies. Take as many as you like and take some f'later.

I also learned where you could get a button sewn quickly, shoelaces if yours broke, or even a collar-stay compliments of the house if you had an interview and your collar had a mind of its own.

This morning the temperature was seasonally-appropriate (for a change) and the sun was bright. My wife and I went out for a four mile walk. When we turned around and walked homeward on Madison Avenue, my wife announced, in front of the famed Carlyle Hotel, that she needed to tinkle. We revolved through the doors and she stepped down into the famous precincts of Bemelmans bar

Ludwig Bemelmans, who went onto fame as the author/illustrator of the famous Madeline children's books was a waiter there--and by his account, a terrible one. Years later, as recompense, he painted murals on the walls of the bar that is named for him.

Next door--still in the cellar--to Bemelmans is the Cafe Carlyle. The chicest of the chic in New York High Society hotspots. The kind of place that would give Jackie O a crappy table if she came in the same night as Greta Garbo. 

The pianist Bobby Short held court there for many decades playing the great American song book and singing those wonderful songs nightly. Even now when I making more money than I ever imagined, I can't fathom going there. I think I might be more comfortable interviewing undertakers at funeral homes for my incipient burial services.

However, going back to the topic (if there is one) of today's post, while I was waiting for my wife to tinkle, I heard these tinkles from the baby grand in the Cafe Carlyle.

It was all absolutely free.