Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Taking Our Eye off the Road.


I have no axe to grind against Volkswagen.

I like their cars.

And I have no axe to grind regarding a Canadian agency called Taxi.

But I do have an axe to grind against stupidity. 

And the stuntification of advertising.

There's a reason agencies in America and elsewhere have been shunted to the geographical fringes of the cities they're located in. They've been shunted to the marketing fringes of the clients they work for. They've been pushed to the fringes of the executive tables they may no longer sit at. Because they do work that aims not at moving large numbers of people. Instead they do work that appeals to the fringes. Like pay-for-play award shows and industry recognition.

The insipidity above is like so much of what agencies produce nowadays.

It seems wholly oblivious to what's happening in the market. 

Forget about understanding "culture" for a second.

Let's first try to understand people.

Volkswagen Group, which in Canada includes Audi and Porsche is not even in the top ten in Canadian auto sales figures. 

They sell about one-third of what Ford sells. One-third of what GM sells. And about forty-percent of what Toyota sells.

During a down-period for car sales in Canada in general, the Volkswagen Group has about three-percent market share. That means out of every 33 cars sold in Canada, they sell one.

I'd call that "not viable."

If you sold 1/33 of the hamburgers in a town, or 1/33 of the candy bars, or 1/33 of the fezes, you might consider another line of work. Or you might create a five-year plan to get to three cars out of 33, call it ten-percent. Then you have market muscle. And since cars, like nearly everything else have an availability heuristic, more sales means more sales. When people see a car on the road or in a neighbors driveway, they're more apt to drive it.


It really is that simple.

Trying to get PR--ostensibly, I suppose, leading to sales-traction (what's the point of marketing if not sales?) through a third-party car cover that somewhat speciously claims to remove pollutants from the air is like selling bananas based on the recyclability of the little stickers that seem to be placed on every bunch of bananas.

As Rick Blaine might say, it doesn't amount to a hill of beans.

Here's a suggestion for advertisers.

1. Save up your money until you have enough for impact.

2. Create work that amplifies that impact. Spend money on it. Don't use, for instance an amateur voiceover because it's cheap to. That makes you look cheap.

(Impact as in sales and profit.)

3. Run that work to gain more sales.

4. Fund more good work through your increase in sales.

5. Repeat.

I know every agency worth its pixels in Canada and out of Canada has a patented process to "find insights," to "find a strategy," to "produce something for less."

Again, I'll quote Rick Blaine.

None of that amounts to a hill of beans.

Figure out how to sell shit.

Don't fret if it's digital first, performance marketing or brand enhancement. Guess what, you'll survive somehow if you're not agile or a six epsilon green belt. You might even survive a sit-down scrum.

So long as you figure out how to sell shit.

Not car covers.

Not fringes.

Actually things your client went into business to sell.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024


I get about 100 LinkedIn requests a week.

And have for about ten years now.

These days, most people who want to connect are strangers to me.

You knock out the putative sex-workers and I still get 60 requests a week.

Of those 30 are friends of friends, or they've been recently fired. The remaining 30 are people who are trying to sell an agenda. They're usually trying to sell it hard.

Six months ago, they were all trying to sell me on the splendors of the Metaverse, or Web 3.0, or something. They have the zeal of true believers. They're converts. And like most converts, to rationalize, justify, and affirm the correctness of their belief, they have to get someone else to believe.

You see the same thing with TV shows, fashion trends, diets and political panacea.

I'm 66 years old and somehow I've overlooked the growing importance of colored caps and embossing technology. 

This, this, this is the thing that's going to change everything. 

And only I have it figured out. It's like applying "My Pillow" thinking to everything. It's "I have the secret. You must listen to me. Only I know the one true path." Culminating in the biggest of all lies--and the most repeated and the most evil--that everything else is dead.

That's the one that really rubs my goat the wrong way. As Faulkner said, "The past isn't dead. It is not even past." Nothing is ever dead. In fact, it seems like half our country believes the earth is flat, that the bible (the parts they like) is the literal truth and that following a paleo diet is good for you even though, the cavemen, the purported first-followers of the diet, died at about 25. So, about 400 years after the Enlightenment, we're still believing the the Medieval.

I was talking to a friend Friday night. We started like a lot of New Yorkers do with the glowing and resurgent Knicks, New York's basketball team nicknamed after the pants the early Dutch settlers to New York wore.

I said, "John, I haven't watched a second of the Knicks this year. I see how they're doing on The Athletic (a New York Times' sports site) but frankly, I no longer understand the language of the game. I don't know what anything means anymore. If I just read a description I'd have no clue what was going on. I have no idea what a wing is or a 3 and D or about 19 other terms that are an attempt to complicate a game that's essentially about putting a pig-bladder through a peach-basket."

It's the same game I played until I was 30. At that point I got beat up too much by knees and elbows that were the bread and jam of the local schoolyard game I played. I'd come home so bruised and beaten that it was jeopardizing in equal parts my life-expectancy and my marriage. It's the same game I played with an entirely new argot. 

In everything from advertising to politics to sports to whatever, we have made ourselves feel special and expert by creating a language of complication to fuzzy-ize it so we can feel our expertise is unique, valuable, maybe even commercializable.

Remember, it wasn't that long ago that advertising people were "influencers." Our work influenced people. 

Years ago I played on a baseball squad managed by the Miller Huggins, John McGraw and Casey Stengel-combined of the Mexican League: Hector Quetzacoatl Padilla, aka Hector Quesadilla.

When the thin infield dust and the particles of carbon per million wafting through the atmosphere had all settled, Hector had one basic strategy.

"Hit a double."

There's no amount of data, no algorithm known to human or machine, no programmatic legerdemain that can knock a man on first in to score like a double can. There's no patented proprietary formula yet discovered that can wear down a pitcher and rattle his confidence like a seeing-eye-ground ball that advances a runner into scoring position. There's nothing like putting the ball into play that does more to keep your team itself in play.

Writing with more than one pound of BS per square-word.

When all the hyperventilation about the science of advertising and the bright yellow highlights in business books (which are usually written by people who haven't made an actual living in business) have crumpled up and blown away, there's a truism you might have to reckon with, if the industry and countless more like it, ever returns to the reality-based community. 

As baseball is about hitting the ball harder and more often than the other team, and basketball is about making more shots, and politics is about getting more votes, advertising is about making ads--more ads and better ads and putting them in front of people with money. So they buy more than they'd otherwise buy

There's no advertising paxil, prozac, lexapro, effexor or anything else that can un-depress you from that fact. You can circumlocute like a thousand Oxford-trained planners reading from a billion gorgeous keynotes with perfect dissolves, but nothing can shake that truth. Just like bible thumpers and televangelists can read all they want of the good book, it's meaningless without you're being actually good to people.

No matter how you dress them up, it's the simple, timeless human truths that matter.

When it comes to advertising, I learned a lot from Hector, the old one, and most of it was as simple as a heater over the center of the plate. 

Figure out what you do. Figure out how it's different. And tell people in a unique and memorable way.

Hopefully, it's not this: using bad stock of six-percent bodyfat people dancing on rooftops to drive loyalty. 

Like, d-oh.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Ten Differentiators.

A good New York plumber knows more about
charging for its services than most ad agencies.

I'm going into my fifth year running GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company. I don't really have the entrepreneurial gene and never set out to run my own place, though people had been encouraging me to do so for about two decades. However, I liked being part of a big company. For all its ossification, I was hoping to end my days at Ogilvy--as a coach for young-people, a trouble-shooter and a pitch pusher.

As they say when pull out marble slabs in the Morgue, "that didn't work out."

A friend from Ogilvy, she's an ex-Ogilvy-er now, asked me just now how it's going. Here are ten things that make me wish this post-mortem happened earlier, like 20 years earlier.

At GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company:

1. I only work for people I like.

2. I charge like a consultant. Or a Park Avenue plumber. Because I am a business partner guiding company's business, not just a creative resource making ads for their business. Agencies have commoditized themselves. It's why virtually every commercial in virtually every category looks alike. Conversely, if you can help companies de-commoditize, that is, stand-out, your pricing can stand out.

3. I figured out what I do better than anyone (ok, most people). And I charge a lot for it because no one else can do it like I can.

4. I only work with people I like. And I've surrounded myself with people who are like Sabatini's Scaramouche. You know, born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.

5. I only do work I like. And I don't go through 17-meetings to get there.

6. As agencies have become production based, I've built GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company to be thinking-based. There's more margin in thinking than in producing.

7. Most innovation in this world is coming from companies that are too small for ad agencies. In other words, the interesting companies are sloughed off by most of my competitors.

8. The most innovative companies don't know how to explain what they do.

9. They need me to figure it out.

10. See #2.

I could write numbers 11-20, then 21-30, then 31-101 about things that make GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company different. But my therapist of 40 years tells me I already give away too many secrets, so I'll stop here.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Non-Investigative Non-Journalism.

It's hard, if not impossible, to find out what's really going on in the advertising industry today.

The subject-object split between the "Award-Winning-ization-izing" of the Holding Companies (where every agency is Agency of the Year) and the reality of near-continuous layoffs or sell-offs is difficult to reconcile. 

What's more, whereas agencies used to report their revenue and billings and their head-count, and those figures would be verified by either the trade-press of organizations like the Four A's, no such reporting seems to happen today.

Your guess is as good as mine.

The more someone says transparent the more they're hiding the truth.

(The truth is, the word transparent itself is a hedge. It's not the same nor is it as good as the word 'honesty.' It's a substitute good like margarine to butter.)

In every industry that's been PE-ized, wealth has been extracted and workers have been made obsolete. You can call it, if you'd like, the walmarting of the economy. A giant entity takes over business, extracts wealth and leaves slag behind. The money that your local economy used to generate now gets sent to Bentonville. The Walton family doesn't have $200B because they're benevolent.

With that in mind, let's look at advertising.

You can find data like the above, for instance, from a source called Macrotrends, but in fact, I don't know who they are or who floats their boats. If I were to type what I read above, that total employment at WPP has dropped from about 200,000 people in 2017 to little over half that in just seven years, someone would quickly, and shrilly, tell me I'm wrong. I probably am. But in the absence of information, this is what I've found.

If someone at WPP or any other of the four holding companies that control roughly 80% of all advertising jobs wants to tell me differently, and back it up with data, mi blog es su blog.

Further, major awards shows like Cannes, and major advertising creativity journals like Contagious are owned by a company called Ascential. 

As far as I can discover through the filters and screens and subterfuges of Holding Company Annual Reports, Ascential owns large portions of some of the large holding companies. So, agencies are owned by the company that owns the awards shows you have to be in to increase the worth of your holding company.

They all own each other. They all need each other. They're all each other's customers.

I think it was Teddy Roosevelt who coined the phrase "malefactors of great wealth." And Franklin who tried to unlock interlocking management boards. Or maybe Joseph Kennedy, first chief of the SEC, who FDR appointed because "it takes a thief to catch a thief."

That all sounds like the update of a 1957-episode of the Untouchables, starring Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, written by Phillip Dougherty.

Just now, my feeds flashed with news from Nielsen, the ratings company that's been swirling down the drain of obsolescence and concocted data for more than a decade now. An ex-boss of mine--a serial takeover guy--had become CEO there about five years ago. I suspected someone was spitting in the soup and I wasn't far from wrong. 

Ad Age (no relation) just ran this headline:

About one-thousand words into the article, the point at which smart readers see the words "There Be Dragons," or more accurately for today, "There Be Private Equity," I read this: 

There are a lot of investment bankers sucking on the frothy teat of the ad industry's cash-flow. They're sucking out all the froth they can and then "offshoring" the remains while they layoff you and me and the twelve people still working at Benton & Bowles (that was a joke. Kinda.)

If you wonder about the future of what had been a vibrant, important industry before it got eaten by the money guys, if you worry when you'll be sucked dry like the Neilsen layoff-ees, I've got a lead on some nice condos in Kyiv. I've heard the cost of living is very low.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

The Scoop on Snoop.

I'm tired.

I'm really tired of all the marketing advice that's confetti'd out by hundred, thousands or tens-of-thousands of people everyday in social media, in the trade press, in Ted Talks, in blogs and whatnot.

I'm tired of the bombast, the bluster, the bushwa.

I'm tired of the platitudes. The tautologies. The obvious crap passing as philosophy.

I'm tired of
The lying
The magic,
The tragic,
The crypto-ization
Of our entire Ponzi'd nation.

Brands do it.
Agencies do it.
Pundits do it.

It's all marketing advice--blather--that's pushing a particular agenda that will somehow give the person dispensing the advice more business or more prestige. 

All this marketing advice is a little like financial advice from snake-oil salesmen--the people selling timeshares in Boca del Vista, or a swamp, or some planned projected that will never get built. 

They come from a place of causality. 

If you'd only do this (which is simple) untold riches will be yours.

Psychics do this.
Maybe putative lovers.

Here's the things that all purveyors of marketing advice forget or neglect.

Of course they don't mention it. Because it's really the hard part of doing marketing.

Without the hard part, none of the magic formulae will work.


There was a lot of jabber last week about Snoop Dogg and Solo Stoves. 

The commercial got a lot of attention because it did parts 2 and 3 above very well. (I happen not to like Snoop Dogg, but that's besides the point.)

The problem was 1.

No one has a burning need in January to buy an outdoor fire-pit. Nobody ever has a burning need to buy an outdoor fire-pit. 

I don't have any data, but I'd can't imagine the outdoor fire-pit market is all that big to begin with. Maybe because I'm a northeasterner, but I don't relish the thought of sitting outside in the cold. For fun.

Smokeless or not.

Marshmallows or not.

As Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy) said to Eva Marie Saint (Edie) in "On the Waterfront," 

"I don't like the country, the crickets make me noivous."

There's not a whole lot to learn from the Snoop Dogg fire-pit commercial except that if you're going to try to sell something it helps to have something worth selling that people want to buy. Then, you have to go to steps 2 and 3.

I also think a lot of advertisers and agencies forget a major starting point of advertising.

Just yesterday I saw a teaser for a Superbowl ad for Hellman's mayonnaise.

A teaser for a mayonnaise commercial.

That's like needing foreplay to chew moldy cardboard.

The starting point is simple: "Why should anyone care?"

Why should anyone need this mayonnaise or smokeless stove? 

We forgot.

No one cares.

Advertising isn't just to remove money from people. Or to magically somehow make people want something. It's to tell them about something that adds to their lives. Then they'll be more willing to buy your brand. And you'll have to sell less-egregiously. Because you're providing value.

And don't start with the story-telling bushwa. Just give me an epigram--about eight words--that gives me something I believe that I can remember. Do that and I'm yours for life.

The ultimate driving machine.
Let's build a smarter planet.
Think different.
When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight.

Those phrases communicated value. The products or services those phrases were written about delivered.

A smokeless stove is so what.

We do a lot of attempted taking. Thievery.

We don't do much giving. Kindness.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Lies of the Land.

I was, as I am so early, up with the sun this morning. After a quick cuppa room-temperature coffee (it's the best way to drink coffee imho) my wife and I laced up our expensive slave-labor-made sneakers and went for our walk along the roaring sea.

The sea's been roaring of late, and I like it. I like the wet when I am dry. I like the cold when I am warm. I like the earth's noise when my head is quiet.

If you ever have a chance to own a home in a beach community, you'll quickly realize the best time to be there is not when the weather is warm and the waves are ambient and the empty beaches aren't empty. 

It's in the dead of winter when no one else is around and the sad grey of the sky blends like a Rothko into the morose grey of the sea. How many sailors centuries ago saw those colorless colors and thought longingly of fires in the hearth and warmth of their families--only to return never, lost in the mystery of Davy Jones' locker?

There was no one out this morning. Only the occasional van of a roofer or a journeyman carpenter or some Honda-driving mom taking her kids to school because they missed the bus, again. 

About half a mile north from our cottage I saw along the southbound lane of the two-lane road that follows the coast, the backside of a lot of signs the utility company had placed along the road. In small towns such as ours, especially in the abandoned winter months, signs along the roadway count as news. Stop the presses.

When I got to them, I read the usual. "SLO," "Utility Work Ahead." "One Lane."

Then I got to one sign that struck me. It read "Fines Doubled In Work Zone."

I looked at those words and turned to my wife and said, "How many messages are we hit with that start with lies and go down hill from there. There's not been a cop on this road since Kennedy was assassinated and no fines have been given since we evicted the Pequot in the Great Pequot War of 1636."

I thought of Dashiell Hammett's bit from his early collection of short stories "The Continental Op." I thought about the tsunami of lies companies tell their workers, governments tell their citizens, spouses tell each other, but mostly brands tell their customers.

"Your call is important to us."

"We are experiencing unusually heavy call volume."

"It is our pleasure to serve you."

"Is there anything else we can help you with."

I blame it on Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. And as a society we've gone downhill fast since then.

We've had almost one-hundred years of trust-destruction starting at the very highest level of life. We propagate it as marketers. We are lied to so often as citizen/victims that we no longer notice the frontal assaults.

"Sit back and relax and enjoy your flight."

"Have a nice day."

Our job as advertisers is to realize how damaged belief and trust are. Our job as advertisers is to make our brands trustworthy and true. Our job as advertisers is to be honest--to make our brands honest. Only when people believe in you will they buy from you.

(Unless, like nearly everything today from ISPs, to cable companies, to telcos, to airlines, to hotel chains, you're part of an oligopoly and the only choice consumers have is between what they perceive as the lesser of evils.)

Years ago when I was trying to break into the business, I would be called in for a good amount of interviews with creative directors.

I quickly noticed something.

There were creative directors who gushed superlatives when they saw your portfolio. And there were creative directors who said as their highest praise, 'you're pretty good.' Or 'yeah, that one ad was good.'

The ones who gushed were liars.

The ones who meh-ed were not.

We should remember that.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Soul. On Fire, Not Ice.

Karl Westman, by far the best music guy I ever worked with, was lefted from Ogilvy yesterday. Karl had been doing great work at Ogilvy since Madison Avenue was actually on Madison Avenue.

Over the years I probably worked with Karl on one-hundred spots or maybe more. Maybe the best thing about all that work is how Karl raised the bar when you had a huge budget and could work with Philip Glass, and how he raised the bar when you had an infinitesimal budget and had to work with broken glass.

The thing about Karl was he always came through.

He was always in your corner.

No, he was always not in your corner. Nobody put Karl in a corner. He was always out in front. Pushing you. Coaxing you. Inspiring you by being himself, which was the best there was.

Many many decades ago, a bunch of us IBM creative people got berated for producing a multi-media campaign that, in the end sucked. We were all called together into a conference room by Chris Wall, who stood 6'10" dripping wet. 

It might just be my memory but I recall the seats in the conference room were lower than usual seats. So Chris seemed even taller. I'm 6'2" and not used to being towered over. 

In this instance I felt like a skeevy earth worm.

I remember the words Chris used to berate us. I think about their wisdom almost every day.

"I'm not pissed that the work sucks," he said.

We waited.

"I'm pissed that our level of ambition has started to drop."

That's the thing about Karl.

His level never dropped.

Nor did his ambition.

Ambition. Soul. Taste. Humor. Kindness. Karl.

Why not say "hi" to Karl? He'll be music to your ears. And soul.


Until 1992, or thereabouts, I had always worked on an IBM Selectric typewriter. It was a great machine. It had a reassuring hum. And a Gibraltar-like solidity which was a nice counter-balance to the mayhem and swirling stupidity of an advertising agency.

One morning a tech guy came into my windowed-office. He was the first tech guy I had ever encountered. Nothing ever went wrong with a Selectric. You didn't need to be networked--you could walk down the hall. And Selectric had its printer built-in. They called it a "ribbon."

He dropped an early Mac on my desk, plugged it in and turned it on. He said nothing about how to use it and left me on my own. There was no training, or anything like training. Not even a manual.

I was quickly baffled.

And, as a person who's always abided by deadlines, I worried that learning how to use this new machine would interfere with me getting my work done. I was interested in learning the Mac but I was nervous that I'd not be able to figure it out and along the way, I'd lose documents, and not be able to meet the considerable demands of my job.

So, I kept my IBM at its seat of honor on my desk. And I put my Mac on the credenza on the other side of my office chair. I could swivel from typewriter to Mac as easy as hula-hooping.

When I was writing on deadline, I'd use my IBM Selectric. Other times, I'd spend on the Mac trying to get the hang of it.

I quickly realized the way I wrote on my IBM was geared to working on a typewriter. We had pink, yellow, or blue scrap paper to write drafts on. It was thinner paper, and less-wasteful. It was scratch paper. A place where you could experiment and make mistakes. 

I'd roll a piece of paper into the typewriter and work on my opening sentence. I'd quickly fill a page with opening sentence noodles, until I got it to where I wanted it. Then I'd start with my next sentence. Appending it to my opening.

Often, I'd tear a sentence I'd like from a piece of paper and glue or tape it to another piece. Writing a 200-word piece of copy involved a lot of rewriting and a lot of assembling. When I had the whole piece written, I'd type it over again, making changes as I typed. When I was happy with it, I'd take it to my assistant, Francine, who would "word process" it on her Wang, storing it on a floppy disc. That let you make further changes without typing the whole magilla over again.

It sounds archaic. But it worked. And we didn't know how Pleistocene we were, we just were.

The good news with working on a typewriter was you had your previous drafts. Something you wrote and hour ago wasn't lost or deleted. It might be at the bottom of your garbage but all your false starts and stops had a physicality to them.

For me, working on a Mac was harder, because I deleted things. That meant I couldn't quickly get them back. So at least in the beginning, I felt I was leaving good thoughts in the ether.

Before long, however, I figured out the Mac and how to work on it in a way that accommodated how I think and write. It's as second-nature to be now as breathing in and breathing out.

Another great shift in work for me came on January 14, 2020. That's the day Ogilvy waited until 4:30 in the afternoon, a full-day after they fired everyone else, to fire me. Apparently I harkened back to a time when the agency was highly-profitable (it was bought for almost one-billion dollars) and the work was good, not just annoying.

That was also the last day I worked in a proper office, with all the noise and distractions and cacophony that comes from an "open plan" workspace. I know what open plan means and how they got the term. It means it's open to every bit of chaos because their only plan is to stuff more people in fewer square feet. Because you're not a person, you're a human resource. You don't create work, you make content, or assets.

In a modern agency you're never more than a ping-pong-paddle's width away from an Excel spreadsheet.

When I started working directly for clients, and myself, my writing ways and means changed again. I still had deadlines but I had more freedom. If I was stuck on something, I wasn't prisoner of carpet-tiles and acoustic ceilings. I could jolt my head out of its space with a walk along the sea. I could play with my puppy at the beach. I could skip a flat stone and see if, torn rotator and all, I could get twenty richochets, the standard measure for stone-skipping immortality.

I found myself working differently. Writing more effectively because I was living more naturally. Breaking bouts of unproductivity by getting my head out of that headspace and into a different one. When you come back at a problem after some time away, you often see things you couldn't have seen before and what had seemed to be an intractable problem soon collapses to your refreshed brain-power.

Today, I'm still on deadline. I'll always be on deadline. But, after more than 44 years making my living at a keyboard, I have different ways of handling those deadlines.

Often I write what needs to be written, leave and come back to it after twenty minutes, an hour or three. I might do that six times over the course of 24 hours. Each time visiting my thinking with a nip or a tuck, a joke or a toke, a nudge or a smidge.

I usually give my blogposts twenty additional minutes the morning I post them. My brain is freshest then and I'm looser and less of a second-guesser.

I forget who the screenwriter was, but I learned from his wisdom. When he has a script to write he writes it all the way through and then leaves for the night. The next day he attacks it with a fresh-set of eyes. His thesis, and I buy it, that it's easier to rewrite than write. So get the writing out of the way and get right to the re-writing.

It's new for me to have this freedom to visit and revisit and revisit my earlier visits. 

It's nice for me to be able to give what's left of my brain some breathing room.

I'm no Leonardo, but I read in his biography by Walter Isaacson, that after he painted The Last Supper, Leonardo would visit the painting very often. One time, it's said, he stared at it for seven hours. At which time he added a single brush stroke.

Sometimes creativity is like that. 

It's like pushing by yourself a stalled car up a slight incline. You can barely move it for the slope. But at some point you peak, you get to the top and gravity becomes a friend, not a foe.

I think that might be one of the ninety-nine things the Holding Companies don't understand when they fire everyone over 42.

We're better than we had been.

And time is finally on our side.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Chocolate Evening.

I've spent most of the last 25 years of my career working on technology accounts. And I spend a lot of my time still today working on technology. 

I've read scores of books and articles about machines taking over. I've seen the movies, or at least heard about them, about the singularity and the coming technodystopia.

But the aspect of technology that scares me the most isn't some super-intelligence ruling earth and turning humans into vassals. It's that as a society we are so smitten with technology that we actually forget how to be human. We forget that Biblical cognate: humankindness.

On Thursday night after work, I met an ex-account guy, ex-client and current friend for dinner after work. 

As anyone who knows me knows, affability is not my strong suit and I socialize about as readily and often as Atilla the Hun would go ballroom dancing. But this was an old friend, a mensch and he had just started a new job. The time seemed right to bend an elbow.

We decided to meet in one of the few remaining great New York locations: The Oyster Bar at Grand Central, surrounded by one-hundred different kinds of mollusks and shrouded in early 20th Century Gustavino tiles, which after all these years, all that soot and decades and decades of underfunded homeless urine seem to be standing up quite well even after the city's 1970s near-bankruptcy and the near death of New York.

They've even resisted the inevitable incursions made by Private Equity, malefactors of great wealth and fast-food.

Grand Central itself is resplendent. In the Lexington Passage, there is a two-block-long stretch of high-end stores--enough to make you think you're on Madison Avenue in the 70s, not a 125-year-old train depot.

Having arrived early, I called my wife from the terminal.

"It's almost Valentine's Day," I jumped-the-gun, "Do you want me to get something for the girls at Jacques Torres?"

If you raise your kids in a passable degree of affluence in Manhattan you'll seldom catch them eating a Snickers or a Hershey bar. Jacques Torres chocolate is pretty high on the pantheon of affordable exorbitance. It's a pretty decent gift for a Hallmark holiday.

"Yes," my wife quicklied. "H would like their hot chocolate mix. And you can get anything for S."

Armed with that specificity I made my way to the shop and within five or seven minutes had two piles of goodies, one pile for each daughter. I did not stint.

When the sales-help finally noticed a customer, me, was in the store, it was just another five or seven minutes until one of them allowed themselves to be interrupted and consented to take my money.

"Do you gift wrap?" I asked.

"We have tissue paper," he brusqued.

"OK. I'd like these in two separate bags. This stuff in one bag. This in another."

"I'm going to have to charge you an extra dollar for the extra bag," he dripped.

"You're kidding me," I said. "I'm about to spend $200 on chocolate and you're going to charge me a dollar for a shopping bag."

Now, the manager came over.

"It's corporate," she asserted. She handed me a business card. "You can send them an email to complain. But we can't do nothing about it. It's corporate."

"So," I pain-in-the-assed, "if I bought this bag, left the store and came back and bought the second bag, I'd be ok. You wouldn't charge me for the bag."

"I can't answer that," the salesman said.

"You can write to corporate," the manager said.

I could feel my temperature rising and my New York temper coming to bear. I thought better of storming out--I wanted the chocolate, after all, but it was all I could do not to throw something through their plate glass. In an instant I saw myself in a holding cell surrounded by cops in a nearby precinct house.

Somehow, this sort of treatment is everywhere now. It's the pennywise and pound-foolishness of treating customers like victims to get every incremental penny out of them. Of not training sales people to smile and say thank you, or can I help you, or did you find everything?

I remember back when I was at Ogilvy the first time and we were wresting every last marketing dollar we could from a large tech client. I uttered a near-famous Georgeism that, 30-years-later seems perspicacious if not prescient. "We spend eleven-cents getting the last dime out of the client."

That seems much the way of the world today. There are few interactions, human-to-human, human-to-machine, or human-to-corporate where you don't feel bled white and wrung out. You can't really win anymore. You just hope to end your day with your faculties somewhat intact. Not likely.

I blame, in part, technology and technocratic thinking for the way the staff acted in Jacques Torres. Everyone now seems guided by a mean equation that's about doing the least and charging the most for it. It's not "what can we do for you?" It's "what can we take from you?"

I'm already laughing because I see in my email this morning Advertising Age is running an article on the "best places to work in 2024." Though all places, yes, this is a blanket statement, are governed by the same mean and impecunious holding company math. There's no vig in kindness. Job happiness and humanity be damned,

That seems the way of the world.

Wring all humanity and decency and caring from every interaction.

Personally, I'm all for the singularity. 

Especially if I don't get charged for it.

Friday, January 19, 2024

A Night at JFK.

About 50 years ago I made a trip out to San Francisco.

I stopped in a curio shop, the dusty kind of places run by 3/4s- smoked cigarettes attached to the lower-lips of old men that don't exist anymore. The place was stuffed with junk of the highest order. Old brass sextants. Rusted Bowie knives. Hunks of rope that might come in handy for something someday. Ships' figureheads with heaving wooden bosoms. My second favorite kind.

In the dustiest of the shop's four dusty corners, I saw it.


It wasn't made by slave-labor in China.

It might be the real thing.

Or a real replica.

Of the original fake Maltese Falcon.

The Black Bird was heavy and solid, like a bowling ball. It made no sense to buy it then lug it back home in my baggage from San Francisco. It had to weigh 15 pounds. That's a lot of peregrine.

But this was the Maltese Falcon.

Nearly as precious to me as it was to Joel Cairo, Kasper Gutman and Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Dashiell Hammett's novel and John Huston's film.

I've see lonely women looking in the window at Cartier's or Tiffany's. Or hungry men looking inside some old school steak house with old school plate-glass windows. Or drunks lasciviously window-shopping outside a really good liquor store.

I made them look nonchalant.

I was agog. I had to have the bird.

And so I do.

I still do.

It's in Connecticut, holding a place of honor in my dishonorable office digs.

Not too many years ago, I flew back to JFK from LA, landing around midnight. I flew first class--I've earned that luxury after 40 years of work, besides I'm 6'2" and on the wrong side of 200-lbs. I was among the first passengers at the rickety baggage area carousel. I also take long strides

I took up a good position, just to the right of the slope the bags slide down to start their slow circles of airport linoleum. Soon, a woman stood next to me.

Tall and dark. I imagined she looked like Mata Hari might have looked had she not been executed by a French firing squad in 1917.

(I have to say, if I had to be executed by a firing squad, I hope it's a French one. Generally speaking, the French have no love for cranky old Jews. But I'd bet I'd still get a good last meal. Their Croque Pastrami is to die for.)

To steal directly from Hammett, I checked the dame out. Allow me to  talk about myself in the third person for a moment. "He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear—and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.” 

That was me looking at her. It was late. I was tired. And she was Angelica Huston, at baggage claim, at midnight.

"Wow," I said to her. "I love your dad's movies. And your grandfather's," I said. (I didn't realize till some time after, that my praise for John and Walter Huston might have been something of an insult, though I didn't mean it that way.)’

"Thank you," she said, slowly lowering her eyelids. The effect was coy and inviting. "I didn't realize until recently it was your dad who carried the Falcon in from the Paloma, wrapped in rags and newspaper."

She relaxed, realizing I was an actual fan, not a poseur.

We talked for a while. For the first time ever I was happy that baggage-handlers in New York are unionized and only have to work, according to union-rules, about twelve minutes every four hour shift. Every other week.

We went through about one-hundred movies while we were waiting. She was happy I was interested in her family's art. She was thrilled that I was thrilled with her.

"Are you in the movies," she finally asked. 

"No. I just love old movies. I'm an amateur," I admitted. "But not a dilettante."

I tried to casually lift the baggage of the carousel with the strength
of Ward Bond (Detective Polhaus). A fedora probably would have helped.

Finally, my bag came and I lifted it off the ragged carousel as gracefully as I could. I wanted her to think I was as heavily muscled as at least Detective Polhaus. 

Her bag came a minute after mine.

It was the size of a $4,000/month New York studio apartment. I lifted it like it was a Chiclet and set it at her well-turned ankles with the delicacy of a tiptoe-ing dancer. I was positively Vestal about it.

Again she slowly lowered her eyelids.

"Thank" she said as they closed.

"You" she said as they opened.

I probably should have asked her if she'd like to share a taxi to the city. But this was real life, not a movie, and my head was more than a bit discombobulated at this point.

"See ya," I said as I trundled off to the cab-line. I gave her a New York specialty, the back-hand "seeya" wave.

I didn't even have the wherewithall to say, "Here's looking at you, keed." That line didn't come to me until I was finally on the Van Wyck.


"You" she said.

That's the stuff that dreams are made of.