Tuesday, November 28, 2023

With All Thy Getting, Get Understanding.

Herman Melville, one of my 3,459,034,987 writing heroes once said, "a whale ship was my Harvard and my Yale College." Meaning he got his educmacation not from the formal education dispensed by other people but from living life.

I love education. I'm what's known to the educated as an autodidact. Meaning that though I had a pretty rigorous formal education, the bulk of my non-hic haec hoc learning came not to the tune of a hickory stick, but from living and reading and watching and, in the words of another of my favorite writers, Robert Caro, my willingness to "turn every page." That is to start learning, to find something of interest, and not stop learning more until the great scorekeeper comes to pen my name. 

Advertising--my profession for 62 of my 66 years--used to be a business filled with the curious and the self-educated. People with an eye and or an ear for life and wants and needs and desires and dreams and failures. Mostly people filled with the power of observation and the deep generosity of caring for our fellow humans.

Today, the industry is almost wholly professionalized. People go to school and learn techniques and cases and hows and theories on how to win awards and get into annuals and parlay, via plasticene trophies, your way to a decent living. 

I liken advertising today to learning to hit a ball through reading a book or learning to ride your first bike by watching YouTube videos then suing because you've scraped your knee.

The scraped knee part is as good a metaphor as you're likely to get. Because like Melville's whale ship, or my long days and longer nights in the Mexican Baseball League, being a human doesn't happen if you've spent your formative years having had your immune system protected by helicoptering parents and analgesic sprays that will somehow shield you once and forever from both harm and living.


Life is pain and hurt and injustice and crying foul with no one listening and that's the way you learn to be a human and, yes, how to reach people.

Today, well, today...

The more I look at the business the more "gameified" it seems to have become. Ads, or whatever they are seem to be targeted at 12 people on Twitter or Agency Spy. But they seemed designed to have such little, non-solipsistic impact that I assume they're a vanity project and not real.

Not too long ago, a client of mine was having a hard time getting his salesforce to actually sell. To get through to their customers with an impactful, sensitive and motivating story.

"Have you seen McGraw Hill's 65-year-old 'Man in Chair' ad," I asked.

"Whose what?" He blitherered.

"McGraw Hill's 'Man in Chair' ad."


I sent him it.

I don't care that certain clients or certain industry experts might consider me "dated."

I don't care if I don't get business because I reference old ads.

I don't care if Mark Read fired me with the vicious accusation that a) I harken back to the 80s and b) there's something wrong with harkening back to the 80s.

Disagree all you want.

There's not an agency or a company or a brand today that wouldn't gain from looking at the ad above and asking themselves, "do my potential customers, customers or employees know who I am?"

I don't know what anyone does anymore, why it's different or why I should care. 

Because as an industry, we're too busy standing on chairs and waving our arms trying to get people to notice us. Rather than imagining ourselves in the chair of an outsider and saying, "who wants me to do what for them and for what reason?"

Go on.

Ask the questions of the telco you buy.
The gum you chew.
The agency you work for.
The candidates you vote for.
Even the country you live in.

They're just logos designed by machines with no soul, essence, meaning or guts,

We're more educated than ever.
Yet we don't know what we do for a living.

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