Friday, September 29, 2023

My Father: Ad Genius.

My father, like me, spent the bulk of his life in advertising.

Actually writing ads.

He started back in maybe 1950. He was 22. His brother, Sid, was 37 and had started what became Philadelphia's largest ad agency, Weightman. My father wrote TV commercials. Live ones. TV was the new medium and no one wanted anything to do with it. It wasn't cool, like print. 

From Weightman, my father drove his Studebaker over the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River to the advertising department of RCA. RCA was the Apple of its day. Cool. Innovative. Advanced. He did commercials like this one above.

Then came New York. Where my father rose in twenty years from copywriter to Chairman of a bland agency called Kenyon & Eckhardt. He did commercials like the ones above.

When he was 50, he got exiled to Chicago and moved out there. Eventually, he was shit-canned but got a job teaching advertising. They had to high-falutin' it up so they called it "Marketing Communications," at Northwestern University.

The best ad he ever proposed, however, was one he did for me when I was a senior in high school.

Though I've always hated football, the football coach persuaded me to join the team. I was big in those days, full of muscles and sinew.

I never really followed football and don't even know what position I played, only that I had to line up two over from Klauber. I never understood the names of football positions. Why would you call someone a "tackle." We're all supposed to tackle. I never understood and never cared to take the time to find out.

By the first snap of the season, it was clear our team wasn't just lousy, we were very lousy. That assessment could be verified by me playing both ways, both offense and defense. I think we lost our first game 38-12 or something, in front of a bleacher full of pretty girls I would rather have impressed. 

Things didn't get much better during the next week of practice or the next game. Though we stayed close for the first half, I think the other guys pulled ahead in the second half and won going away. 

One night I talked to my father about it.

It was the team-sport equivalent of getting beaten up by a gang of schoolyard ruffians. 

As usual, my father had an idea.

"Here's what you do," he said. "You find someplace in the city where you can rent a steel cage and a gorilla costume."

"A steel cage and a gorilla costume," I straight-manned. I spent a lot of my youth George Burns to his Gracie Allen. The only thing I was missing was a cigar.

"You dress someone up--a big kid--in the gorilla costume and put him in the cage. Put a football jersey on him and have him hold a helmet. Then have him pace around in the cage like an angry ape. Think King Kong."

"OK," I tremuloed. "What's the point?" Just because I was only 16 doesn't mean I hadn't acquired a lifetime-supply of bitter cynicism.

"When you're getting your asses kicked, point to the angry ape in the cage, and say to the guys on the other team, 'You keep beating on us and we're going to put Labunski in.'"

"The ape is Labunski, I assume."

"If that doesn't scare them into laying off a bit, nothing will."

There was so much I never got around to thanking my father for.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Can I Pick Your Soul?

There's a lot to dislike about the "contemporary ad agency ecosystem."

First, not everyone realized I was being an asshole when I called it an ecosystem.

But worse, is sitting out in the open at your ugly linoleum board laying on ugly Herman Miller sawhorses and having someone you barely know come up to you and say, "Can I pick your brain?"

Somehow, in our oh-so-politically-correct world, it's fine to ask someone if you can pick their brain. 

An essential organ is fair-game. 


Can I pick your pancreas? Can I pick your duodenum? Can I pick your pupik?


I was thinking about how many people used to ask to pick my brain when I worked at Ogilvy. You'd have thunk my synapses were like free after-dinner mints as a New York diner. 

Here! Grab a handful! They're free!

Essentially, something shitty is behind that pick-your-brain request. Here are a few of the shitty-isms I've come up with.

1. The holding company has fired all experienced people and so as one of the few remaining, we're asking you questions. 

We're asking you questions because training in an ad agency now consists of resizing mobile ads from small to microscopic.

2. We want the benefit of your intelligence, ideas and experience, but we aren't willing to charge clients for it. They don't want to pay for wisdom--procurement doesn't like wisdom.

3. We're asking you to think and work, and take time away from the job you're paid to do, and work for us for free. Because we don't own you for eight hours, though we pay you for eight hours. We own you in-perpetuity. Accent on the toooooey.

4. You're supposed to help others out of the goodness of your heart (and brain.) Just because no one else does doesn't mean you shouldn't.

5. When your brain is done being picked, or all picked out, or we decide we want a younger brain to pick, you and your brain will be kicked to the curb with no recompense whatsoever, even though you allowed free brain-picking.

Reading The Wall Street Journal about a week ago, I read this about one of the industry's prime brain-pickers.

As WPP was reducing its workforce from 2015-2021 from 200,000 people to 100,000 people, Martin Sorrell earned something like $200 million. He was fired from WPP half-a-decade ago, and is still being paid $500,000/year. (This data is true, btw. But no one knows about the halving of the holding companies. Because no one's left to report upon it except unpaid bloggers like me.)

$500K. That probably pays for his dry-cleaning.

He, and the legions of people like him, are perfect examples of "socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor." They pick brains and never pay. They pick brains then kick them to the curb like an old tin can. We support them. They pick our brains.

I saw this this morning. His math didn't work out. So he's firing 500 brains. 

The article says, "we have continued to maintain a disciplined approach to cost management."

The article should say, "we have continued to maintain a disciplined approach to cost management, except the costs of paying management. "

Q: Can I pick your brain?

A: Can I pick your pocket? 

Q. Can I pick your brain?

A. Can I kick your shins?

Q. Can I pick your brain?

A. Can I eat you alive?

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

A World View.

I read a lot.

Some people might say I read too much.

I read so much, in fact, that I have almost no time for popular culture or television. I get criticized for that. By people in advertising. By my daughters. By friends who ask me "if I've seen..." 

The answer is invariably no.

I haven't. And I don't want to.

Like I said. 

I read a lot. It's my escape from a world that is too much with us. And reading allows me to exercise my brain. It makes me a better writer and a better advertising person.  And I like reading. So I shouldn't have to explain.

I always figured there are a lot of people who could make things cool and contemporary. But, as Bernbach instructed, I'm looking for simple, timeless, human truths and reading is where I often find them.

Again. My choice.

Not long ago, I finished Simon Sebag Montefiore's new 1400-page book, "The World: A Family History of Humanity." You can buy it here. Or on the monopoly online bookseller that's co-opted a river and killed almost all competition..

There's a lot of killing in the book. After all, it's a history of the world. A lot of religious wars. A lot of conquering. A lot of regicide. A lot of plagues. A lot of decapitation and burying enemies alive. 

It's worse than the nightly news.

These aren't the worst of times or the best of times. They're just times. The world isn't spinning off its axis, it was never on an axis.

The World was not an easy read. Harder than a 163-page powerpoint on the new media ecosystem and the changing media landscape of Generation R--or whatever letter we're on. 

But I hung in there.

About 1,390 pages in I got to the quotation above by Edward O.  Wilson.


Then I substituted for the word humanity the word advertising. And suddenly I had today's entire holding company miasma figured out. 

The real problem of advertising
is that we have palaeolithic emotions, 
medieval institutions and
godlike technology.

In other words,
people haven't changed in 200,000 years.
Yet we allow ourselves to be ruled by corporations 
that believe in serfdom, 
and further we believe that flawed,
often malevolent technology
will solve our problems when, really, 
only we can.

Here are next 160 words of Montefiore's book. The last 160 words of his book.

Before you rush off to your next meeting or write your next banner ad, maybe you can take five minutes and think about what they might mean. Even to us in advertising who are often so crass and commercial. 

Think about humans.

Doing so might be more important than thinking about KPIs, ROAS, and any other banality the non-humans can concoct. 
Think about these two lines from a short poem by Arthur Miller, Lines from California. Then read.

"They know they are the Future.
They are exceedingly well-armed."

I'm just a shitty copywriter in an even shittier world. But that's also why I started to write. Or think. Or tell a joke. Or hold a hand. Or smile at a loved one. 


Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Questioning Humans.

About 30 years ago, in the early days of the internet, I was in the benighted offices of an agency called Foote Cone and Belding, which most people called Foot Cut and Bleeding, mostly because the place made their souls bleed, if not their soles.

A bunch of creatives were having an argument about something and I said something like, "I can find that out by calling the information desk of the New York Public Library." 

The information desk was famous for answering even the most obscure and difficult of questions. 

So a race began. Me and my ancient sources. And someone else with a rudimentary Netscape browser.

I don't remember who won. Except today, we face a similar John Henry vs. Steam shovel competition. Who's smarter? Humankind and our talents, abilities, serendipities and synapses. Or powerful computer programs that can process massive amounts of information at interplanetary speed? 

If you owned a company, who would you rather have writing your ads and website? Me or Chat GPT?

Just now I ran across an article about the sorts of questions the Information Desk at the New York Public Library used to receive. About twenty of those questions are pasted below. 

I can't imagine any machine, or any human for that matter could manage to unravel many of these. And that's what makes me favor humans. At least we can have a laugh about things. Or a cry.

Even more than that. 

We can be stupid, curious, absurd and nonsensical.

You might say, those are the four cornerstones of what makes life worth living.

All these questions and more are from this book, available here.




Monday, September 25, 2023


It is an affect of New York, maybe because it is such a challenging and exciting place to live that many people assign it so many epigrams.

It seems like half of New Yorkers call New York, with a great deal of New Yorkian arrogance, "The Greatest City in the World." Or the "Culture Capital of the World." Or the "Fashion Capital of the World." Or the "Finance Capital of the World."

Conversely and therefore negatively, you could call New York, the "Garbage Capital of the World," the "Income-Inequality Capital of the Year," the "Dog Shit Capital of the World," "the Vermin Capital of the World."

Or in homage to the great Sinatra anthem, "The City that Never Sweeps."

Amid this monikering-cacophony, one thing is certain, New York, without question is the "Kibbitz Capital of the World." 

Everybody in New York is funny. It's the only way to survive the place, and it's why eight-million New Yorkers strong exiled our ex-president to the mosquitos of LandFill, Florida where, I hope, he'll live out his days in gilded linoleum squalor.

While some might say New Yorkers walk faster, or as Thomas Wolfe, not the white suit guy, wrote that the electricity of New York travels by subway, or that taxis keep the city's life circulating, more than anything else, the current and the currency of the great metropolis is the twisted bon mot. Everyone has something to say, and everyone can be a recipient of those somethings if you're smart enough, aware enough and New York enough to hear them. 

Of course, it also makes sense to cross that bridge too far for most inhabitants of the modern world. If you really want to live a lively life in New York, you should look up from your phone. That's the modern equivalent, I suppose, of wearing sackcloth and ashes, or a hairshirt. It's too much to even imagine.

On a rainy Sunday before the Holiest Day of the Jewish year--the year Agency "DEI" people don't recognize because though Jews are only 1.5% of the population and are victims of over  50% of the rising wave of American hate crimes, we are not considered minorities or diverse. That that in and of itself is anti-semitic in my eyes will earn me rebuke. But WTF, it's Yom Kippur and rebuke and hate are as Jewish as a circumcision. And less painful.

In any event, my wife and I walked through the drizzle to the world's greatest food store, Zabar's. 

You go to Zabar's for the food. And for the laughter. And to see that this 11 billion-year-old planet keeps spinning. There's something life-affirming about that much life in one place. 

I've been going there since I was a little boy, watching my father kibbitz with the best of them as he ordered our Sunday schools of smoked fish and grabbed a handful of pistachios on the way out that would stain his fingers pink and with shells and a nut or two flying every which way like Soviet Katyusha missiles, behind the cushions of every seat within two-hundred miles of his slim Jewish ass.

Going to Zabar's just before Yom Kippur is like going to St. Peter's on Easter or Mecca during Ramadan. The whole world is there. The difference is at Zabar's they're waiting in line for lox. A salty absolution that ends in cosmic infarction.

Once there, I avoided the fish counter, and on the fiat of my wife got a ticket at the meats and prepared foods counter. They were on 36 when I got my ticket, which was 62, the number of home runs Aaron Judge hit last season, breaking Roger Maris' 1961 record of 61 and the Babe's 1927 record of 60.

By the time my number was called, John Glenn could have orbited the earth 12 times, or you could have gotten cross-town on the M79, but it was called, finally, and you take your victories how they come.

"62," Candido called.

"62," I responded waving my ticket like it was the starter's flag at the Indy 500. "D'ya wanna see it?" I asked Candido. "I had it notarized."

He waved me off like I was a fruit fly on a pastrami and began filling my order. 

"This must be your worst day of the year," I said. 

"It's bad for the fish guys," Candido answered. 

I had heard the line at the fish counter was over an hour-and-a-half long and someone had contacted MIT in an attempt to discover more numbers they could use on their paper tickets.

"It's bad for the fish guys," Candido repeated. "But they only work two days a year."

That's another thing about New York. We love a good internecine rivalry. Yankees vs. Met. Giants vs. Jets. West Side vs. East Side. Uptown vs. Downtown. Seeded vs. Plain. Fists vs. Chains. Chains vs. Knives. Knives vs. Guns. Jets vs. Sharks.

Finally done at the meat counter, I made my way through the burning lake of shoppers to the brusquely-efficient phalanx of cashiers. Along the way, I heard a snippet between a 40-something man and a 70-something woman, adjacent to the fish-counter.

"You have lox," the lady asked.

"Not yet," said the 40-something. "I have a pound of lox in my freezer. But that's not Yom Kippur lox. That's rainy day lox."

Over at the checkout, I told the cashier that I'd have to buy two bags, since we don't use plastic anymore in New York. 

"I must have 30,000 bags," I said to the cashier.

"Then I have 30,001," she answered. "My husband always forgets."

"When I die, we'll have a giant sale," I offered.

"What's your address--I'll be there. I could use a few."

Spending half a week's salary, we walked our goods uptown to 86th Street to wait for the M86 crosstown bus. The crosstown bus is one of the last institutions in New York where, in the words of the great Louis Jordan, you can pal around with Democratic fellows named Mac. 

It's one of the last places that isn't festooned with corporate logos from extortionists, climate terrorist petroleum companies, or the 1/10% who have cordoned off for themselves, their wives and their girl-friends what were formerly institutions and places open to all.

A white Cadillac SUV took a right turn, running a light and cutting off my bus in the center of an intersection. 

The young bus driver screamed at the Caddy driver. 

"Dontcha see the light? Whattaya doing? Dontcha see the light?"

"Maybe he's color-blind," I offered. 

"He's brain-blind," she one-upped.

"Well, he doesn't have to worry about a cop stopping him," I said. "There are no more cops."

"I see people running lights in front of cops. Nothing."

The bus finally stopped beside the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the east side.

"The museum!" She shouted with pride. "The world's greatest museum."

About half the bus exited. Only my wife and I kept traveling east. Us and a young Hispanic man with a blunt the size of a telephone pole.

"Happy Yom Kippur, everyone," he said, pushing through the rear doors. "The High Holy Days are here."

The greatest city in the world.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Is Everything the Same?

Advertising in a funhouse mirror.
We're looking at ourselves, talking to ourselves and meaningful only to ourselves.

Almost 50 years ago, way back in 1975, I understood some things about advertising that it seems no one today understands anymore.

Back then I had no desire to be in advertising. When I was a little boy my father was in advertising and I saw him almost die twice from ad-business-related heart attacks. I blamed his infarctions on the business--I didn't know any better then. So, I wanted what I perceived as a milder way of making a living. 

As I said, I didn't know any better then.

But even though I wanted to be an English professor, teaching Baldwin or Wright or Hardy or Melville in a leafy New England college, I knew that whatever career I chose to pursue, I'd have to differentiate myself from others going for the same job.

That seemed and seems fairly obvious to me.

Life is full of choices. And if you're going to choose something actively, rather than by default, you have to have reasons why you're choosing it. 

Even the famous "Think Small" ad for Volkswagen out of Doyle Dane Bernbach, wasn't about an emotional connection to the Beetle. It was about differentiated features. In fact, I counted 140 words of copy in the ad, and tucked among those words, these features were enumerated. 

*32 mpg
* Less oil needed (five pints, not quarts)
* No anti-freeze needed
* 42,000 miles on a set of tires
* Easy to park
* Low insurance costs
* Low operating costs
* High resale value

Somehow, if I did get a job teaching Moby Dick, I'd want my students to say, "Professor Tannenbaum knows more about whaleships, or scrimshaw, and 19th-century chowder shops than anyone. He brings Moby Dick to life.”

"There are a lot of people who teach Moby Dick. But I want to get into Dr. Tannenbaum's class."


Now, back to 1975.

Everyone was jettisoning their old black and white TVs to buy a new color set. So every TV manufacturer was running ads that basically showed a picture of a set with a color picture on the screen and a headline that said, "Adjective or adjectives color."

Today, a similar thing is happening. Many people are jettisoning their old cars with internal combustion engines to buy an electric car. So every auto manufacturer is running ads that basically show a picture of their car with a headline that says, "Electric" or some version of electric. 

It's like some modern version of Gertrude Stein. She might say, "an electric is an electric is an electric." Because from the looks of the ads from most manufacturers, there's nothing to say about electric-powered cars except that they're electric.

I remembered the Toshiba color TV ads below since I first saw them almost half-a-century ago. I recalled them as involving, credible, smart and differentiating. 

They made me want a Toshiba color TV. They made me better at advertising because they made me think about how I could bring differences--even if they're small, even if they're invisible--to life.

I looked for the ads for almost 50 years and finally found them about two years ago. 

I don't care if you think they're dated. Or if you proclaim, without evidence, that no one reads or cares anymore.

I can't believe that from electric motors to AI systems to solar panels to mouthwash there's nothing that makes brand X different from brand Y. That it's enough just to say, "electric" or "minty fresh."

I think the problem with advertising today is that no one believes in advertising anymore.

Therefore no one understands what it can do or how to do it.

No one does anything different.

No one makes a difference.

Like roaches hiding in a dark kitchen cabinet, we survive by not being noticed.

If you run a company and believe what I've written here, you should call me.

I'm different.