Thursday, February 29, 2024

Disposable, I.

A friend of mine complimented one of my blog posts yesterday--effusive praise, really. Of course I responded the way anyone who's been beaten for his entire life and for 5000 years before he was even born would respond. I answered with self-deprecation and an old one-liner. 

I thought that was that.

But then I started thinking about the one-liner. I said to myself, "I've been telling that joke for over 50 years." My deceased bestie, Fred, used to distinguish between long-time friends and friends for a long time. One is about length of time. The other about depth of soul. This was a depth of soul joke.

And then I thought some more. I thought some more about using a joke I've been telling for more than half a century. The same way I use references from Jeremy Bentham, Winston Churchill, Plutarch and Virginia Woolf. 

And then I thought some more. I thought about how my age peers and I, no matter what level of affluence or poverty we were raised in, grew up in what I'll call a "savers' culture." When we brought a cake home from the bakery--there were bakeries in those days--our mothers, no matter how Miltowned and Metracalled they were, saved the red and white striped baker's string, usually in a big inscrutable ball.

My mother--a child of World War II scrap drives, had us bundle old newspapers and magazines and haul them to the dump, where a bundle the size of a footlocker might earn us $2. Even as my father rose through the advertising ranks and emerged as the Chairman of a top-20 agency, she was getting glassware with her fill-ups at the gas station and was darning socks at night. We drank our frozen orange juice in glasses with Texaco logos.

It occurred to me we grew up saving everything. And that included vast stores of jokes, song lyrics, quotations from John Greenleaf Whittier, movie scenes, gravestone inscriptions, funny names and a trillion other pieces of old bakery string we could pull at and get ideas from.

I had read a book (this is an example of saving things) by an elderly former English professor who grew up during the depression on a lonely farm in Iowa. The book--which I recommend--was called "Little Heathens," and it gives you a Willa Cather view of life one-hundred years ago. The author recalls an inscription on the hog slaughterhouse near her house: "We use every part of the pig but the squeal."

I think good creativity is like that.

We use every synapse.

So we get into the habit of storing every synapse. We become savers, compilers, recallers. And those shards of life, like Etruscan pottery bits, re-form and re-mix to become ideas.

It's not fair for me, an old man, to disparage all of what I see today. Just as it's not fair for me to praise all those of my generation. 

Maybe the archivist brain that I have trained has always been rare and unusual. And certainly there's no reason for me to be able to recall not only the name of William McKinley's first Vice President (Garret Hobart) but the mnemonic legerdemain my mother crafted to help me remember it. (She remembered Attic --a garret-- coffee-grinder--a Hobart.)

Today we live in a toss-away culture. Everything from clothing to food to housing to technological breakthroughs are about as enduring as a shave with a cheap razor. Your stubble soon redoubles.

I wonder if ideas in today's disposable world are suffering the same sad fate.

About two years ago I had a phone call with yet another advertising luminary. He was the owner/creative head of a regional agency that played on the national stage. Like a lot of successful people, his age hadn't dimmed his love of work. 

David, not his real name, was gushing over a line he had written for a client. He said, "George, that was one of the best lines I ever wrote. And tomorrow, they'll swap it out for something else. It's instagram. That's the way it goes."

I worry that we have today too much Insta and no more Perma.

Too little saving and storing and too much obeisance to celebrity, the latest trends and whatever else passes for hot at the moment.

Our values are as long-lasting as a dust bunny. Brand truths are malleable. And our creative well is without depth, reference and resonance. We're not only numerically illiterate, we're painting by numbers.

What's more, because all of america now believes everything can be thrown out--we have a "single-use country"--why bother paying for anything? Most of what we make from fast-food to fast-ads is regarded as about as valuable as a Kleenex tissue. The best that can happen to one is it gets wadded up in a jean's pocket and lasts through the wash.

My advice to people?

Never throw anything out.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024


While I am spending many of my days these days up on the Gingham Coast (there's a contractor in our New York apartment now doing a small, expensive job) I've twice taken the train into the city from Connecticut arriving in the nines, meeting with the clients I have to meet, meeting the friends I want to meet, then hastening back to either Penn Station or Grand Central for the ride out of the city, often with good Chicken Paprikash from Veselka in tow.

The sad reality of coming into the city speaks volumes about amerika's current "can't do" attitude. 

I read in a book some decades ago that getting to Machu Picchu from Lima by the "Inca Trail" takes longer today than it did in the 15th Century, before the Spanish depredations, rape and despoiling of the continents. I  believe the same phenomenon holds in New York. It takes longer to get into Manhattan from suburbia in 2024 than it did in either 1924 or 1874. 

The wheels of progress aren't supposed to roll backwards.

The whole Jeremy Bentham "greatest good for the greatest number thing" is about as passé as democracy itself. Today, it's billionaires and politicians first, all others be damned. 

That's all besides the point of today, however. The point of today is that I had something all-too-rare in my adult life. I had wander-and-wonder-time atop the ancient schist that holds up our particular island in a stream. I had hours between meetings, even longer between beatings, and the rare day when some joint or appendage isn't barking about some old-timey injury. Or just plain over-use.

As the great Langston Hughes wrote as Jesse B. Semple in "Feet Live Their Own Life," on a day when Jesse felt not so spry:

“These feet have stood on every rock from the Rock of Ages to 135th and Lenox. These feet have supported everything from a cotton bale to a hongry woman. These feet have walked ten thousand miles working for white folks and another ten thousand keeping up with colored. These feet have stood at altars, crap tables, free lunches, bars, graves, kitchen doors, betting windows, hospital clinics, WPA desks, social security railings, and in all kinds of lines from soup lines to the draft. If I just had four feet, I could have stood in more places longer. As it is, I done wore out seven hundred pairs of shoes, eighty-nine tennis shoes, twelve summer sandals, also six loafers. The socks that these feet have bought could build a knitting mill. The corns I’ve cut away would dull a German razor. The bunions I forgot would make you ache from now till Judgment Day."

In short, I got to see New York as I seldom see New York. I got to see old buildings and their ornamentation. I got see cabs careening, people screaming, street vendors scheming. I got to see funny graffiti, angry graffiti, ugly graffiti, huh graffiti and a fecund crop of anti-trump graffiti. I got to see lovers, haters, skaters, even alligators down sewer graters. I got to feel the paces, see the races, look at the faces.

I saw the mortarless marble of the Morgan Library. Patience and Fortitude standing leonine guard in front of the library. I saw the aluminum beacon of the Chrysler and the glowing spires of the Empire State. It was New York, as it should be, with your neck craned and your eyes strained before your ass is en-trained.

There's a lot of repugnant bushwa about the dangers of New York, a city that is, in fact, safer than most red-state middle-schools, where people live side-by-side and collide and subway ride and elide and glide . Where illicit lovers hide, where citified beats country-side, an time and tide wait for no one.

That's the place I love.

A place I visit now yet never leave. 

As I write this from the sea just two hours north.


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The Grateful Dead.

I know many people think it's morbid to read obituaries. They think my doing so is yet more evidence of my innately lugubrious nature. 

Some people, I'm sure, look at the practice as some ones and zeroes form of necromancy--a dip into the Black Arts--in which I try to summon, communicate and maybe even influence the dead to do my bidding.

Having worked in mostly-giant agencies since 1980, I have plenty of experience with the dead. I'd go so far as to say that in any meeting you're called to that has more then ten people in attendance, at least six have left us and all the incessant texting in the world can't and won't bring them back.

The truth is, as Laura my insanely astute wife pointed out the other day, obituaries aren't about death, they're about lives lived. And from Plutarch's Parallel Lives till at least the end of humanity, which by my reckoning happens every year around St. Patrick's Day and will crescendo loudest at amerika's election day, people have always learned from the lives of other people. 

Long before some cockamamie episode of 'reality tv,' (cotton-candy tooth-decay for cognition) people learned from Gilgamesh, the Jewish Bible, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Decameron, Canterbury Tales and from the lives of great and small and comical and morose brought to life by the Bard of Stratford on Avon, aka, Billy Boy.

Late last week I read two obituaries which made their way into my "fuck-a-duck" files. My fuck-a-duck files are astounding things I trip upon that I learn from, share with friends and clients--as instruction--and even my daughters who take in my chazerai even though they seem to be ignoring me.

The first obituary was of a woman called Monica Hickey, who died at 100. Most often I highlight articles I save as a memory jog. I hope years from now when the Great Scorekeeper comes to pen my name, someone will say, "oh, that's why that weirdo saved that."

Ordinarily, you'd think I'd give nothing more than a rat's ass about the life of a woman who ran bridal salons at New York's society department stores. But, I pulled some fatherly "speak up for yourself" stuff and some more "be brave" stuff from Hickey's death notice.

Here are two examples, as I said above, highlighted:


The next obituary I noticed was perhaps more up my typical Georgian alley. It was of a software engineer, Niklaus Wirth, who died at 89. I shared it within minutes with two of the tech clients I am currently working with. 

Here are the two bits from Wirth's obituary that, to me, should inform both technologists as marketers--including advertising agencies.

That's a lot of life advice to find in a couple of death notices. You gotta give this blog credit. 

Now I am death, destroyer of worlds.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Clocked by Time.

It's just arrived.

A genuine time punch clock made by my ex-client IBM--when they made business machines and people, in turn, knew why they were in business--back in the 1950s.

I love machines made in the old style. Of metal. To last. To last as long as the Great Wall of China or the Pulaski Skyway.

Since my wife reconstructed our ramshackle tiny cottage up on the Gingham Coast and I got my first real office in almost a decade--and the best office I've ever had--I've been craving--lusting after, actually--a genuine punch clock.

I went for a walk yesterday night before dinner, and a UPS truck as wide as the asphalt I was walking on was blinking its way down the street. It stopped in front of our place and coughed to a halt. The driver, I thought, must be from the old school. He turned off the ignition--he didn't leave his truck idling--to go get the box.

"Tannenbaum?" He said to me.

"I'll take it," I said as he emerged from the canyon of boxes in the back. He handed the corrugated to me.

"Wow. It's heavy,"  I obvioused. I was afraid for a second Mark Read, CEO of WPP might be sending me a horse's head or something since so many of his ex-clients are working with me now. I felt the bottom of the box for equine ichor. Feeling none, I wrestled it into the house.

I had forgotten I had ordered the ancient time-clock from eBay a week or so ago. I'm not sure if it's functioning--and it was only $49. But I wanted it more as a stern working class reminder of a less effete time than a way to keep track of my hours. 

I carried it down to my office. It sits now, in kind of a bit of interior decorating irony, next to my sleek Apple-white wireless router. It looks, therefore, as appropriate as a Sherman tank next to a Tesla Cyber Truck. One was built to withstand the vicissitudes of time and gunpowder. The other as ephemeral as a donald trump marriage, inheritance or statement of fact.

I plugged the old machine in.

Our house itself was built in 1920, but everything else around me these days is younger than I am. We live in a world where everything, even expiration dates have expiration dates, and it's rare to have a machine built during the Eisenhower administration. I plugged the behemoth in. It's cord was as thick as a water main. It wasn't built to be pretty. It was meant to last. You could vacuum over it with a Toro lawnmower and that cord would scoff at the blades.

There were no lights on the dingus. There was no sign of life.

Today every mechanical device from my electric toothbrush to a heating pad I use once-a-year when my back demands it after, excuse me, an hour's of yard work has pretty little lights on it. Some MBA somewhere has convinced some industrial designer somewhere that lights that indicate nothing are luminescent branding. The interiors of most modern houses today look like landing strips. A dozen machines are blinking. Even though virtually nothing works.

I wasn't sure if the time clock was on. As I was leaving my office, I heard a click like a bank vault closing. Yep, my machine resounds once of a minute. As in, 

8:51, click, Frank's here.
8:52, click, Charlotte's arrived.
8:53, click, Alphonse is here.

The machine was once a symbol of authority, of order, of hierarchy. It presided over a world of bosses and the bossed. Of watchers and people who had to show up on time and couldn't leave early.

That world--and the integrity that comes with hard-work and following the rules that worked for so many centuries--has vanished like democracy in modern amerika. 

My wife said to me, "You know, the most fun jobs I ever had, were places I had to punch in. Even when I flipped burgers at Geno's."

I was lucky enough to punch in and out at Bragno's, the night shift, 4PM-12AM, 1978, Chicago

"Me too," I said, thinking of working at Bragno's liquors on Rush Street in the City of Broad Shoulders, the Hog Butcher of the World.

I wondered why we've lost that. 

Why we've lost machines like the old one in my new office.

Agencies want us to track every bit of respiration we do. A friend at a giant Omnicant agency tells me, "They are tracking people’s IP addresses and letting them know they’re not in the office enough. Even when they’re on shoots and in edit…" 

I don't know why, since your agency day is spent in a windowless conference room, they can't have time-clocks. You punch in when you arrive, punch out when you leave. Let a machine track you. You shouldn't have to string your own noose with a bad SAP time-system.

But that's the world today.

Freedom's just another word for time clock's you don't punch.


And why not:

Friday, February 23, 2024

Bad News. Worse News.

BAD NEWS: You've gotten Covid again.

WORSE NEWS: It's Covid 19--as in your 19th time.

BAD NEWS: You've gotten hired by a WPP agency.

WORSE NEWS: You harken back to the 2000s.

BAD NEWS: Bagels in the break room.


BAD NEWS: The client loves your copy.

WORSE NEWS: She loves it in seven colors of contradictory direction.

BAD NEWS: Verizon is offering a free phone.

WORSE NEWS: You had to watch an entire Verizon commercial to find out about it.

BAD NEWS: You work for the industry's second most-awarded agency network.

WORSE NEWS: Every other agency network is tied for first.

BAD NEWS: You worked for months and won a giant piece of new business.

WORSE NEWS: You worked for months and won a giant piece of new business.

BAD NEWS: Your new CCO has a really crappy creative reputation and a terrible reel.

WORSE NEWS: She didn't do any of the work attributed to her.

BAD NEWS: Your new CCO has a really crappy creative reputation and a terrible reel.

WORSE NEWS: Her replacement will arrive soon and will be even less qualified.

BAD NEWS: Upper management has decreed you have to be in the office three days a week.

WORSE NEWS: Unfortunately they're the same three days upper management is in the office.

BAD NEWS: Upper management has decreed you have to be in the office three days a week.

WORSE NEWS: There's no place to sit.

BAD NEWS: The holding company expense system is so complicated at takes three weeks to do your expenses.

WORSE NEWS: They'll be approved just three weeks after you get charged a credit card late fee.

BAD NEWS: The client is on Net 120.

WORSE NEWS: After taxes, your net is gross.

BAD NEWS: The agency has a new podcast.

WORSE NEWS: You're expected to listen to it.

BAD NEWS: The global holding company town hall discusses nothing but data.

WORSE NEWS: For a moment it seemed like you understood what they were saying.

BAD NEWS: Five years until you retire.

WORSE NEWS: You're only 27.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Malefactors of Great Meh.

A friend of mine works for a new business consultancy. They recently published the Agency Family Tree which I've pasted above with a GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company headline attached. I removed the name of the new business company. They had nothing to do with my repurposing.

I realize my art direction and design skills are minimal and, really, without merit. I couldn't, though I tried, make the listings of all the individual agencies above that have been subsumed into the giant holding companies large enough to be legible. 

But you should, just based on the mass of grey lines underneath holding company headings, OMNICOM, WPP, PUBLICIS, INTERPUBLIC, DENTSU, HAKUHUDO, CHIEL, HAVAS, STAGWELL, get the idea that the malefactors of great wealth and bland advertising have bought up just about every agency of any considerable size. 

They've kept their paws off of Wieden & Kennedy, who somehow remain independent, and they haven't yet acquired or been folded into the giant accounting consultancies like Accenture or Deloitte. My guess is, that's coming.

Leave no cash-flow unpillaged, right?

I realized something a few years ago when I was in the local supermarket. Where there used to be Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up and then a considerable number of local brands in the soda section, now there are no more local brands. 

The oligarchs, by introducing Coke Diet Zero Low-Caffeine Cherry Vanilla Lemon-Lime light, have bought a shelf-facing. They ain't selling a lot of that SKU (stock-keeping unit) but they're keeping that shelf-space out of the hands of any still surviving smaller competitors. Ask Russia. Ask Ukraine. In a war, you grab territory. Er, it comes with the territory.

The same strategy has removed competition in the hotel industry, the automobile industry, the handheld-device industry, the airline industry, the hamburger industry, and the political-industry. When giant companies own everything and limit choices, quality usually plummets and prices usually rise. There's little question that dynamic--paying more for less--has happened in what remains of the advertising industry.

The "Internet Service Provider or ISP Industry" in the US is a metaphor for so many of the extortionate business practices we no longer question. First, there's no Service-ness or Provider-ness anywhere near their names. Second, if you ever wondered why so many terrible sports teams are owned by cable and internet companies, think of how much money you could make, and what you could do with it, if you owned a toll-booth. These companies have a government-ordained unregulated utility. Billionaireitude usually follows. They make money by strip mining. They never re-invest.

I'm not one-hundred percent sure why there's no anti-trust sentiment arising against this agglomeration of capital. There's a verbal fudge in the law that's on Federal books, it's called "the rule of reason." Corporate lawyers maintain that some restraint of trade is "positive or beneficial for consumers or society." And, I'd allege for reasons of graft, the Sherman Anti Trust Act is about as effective as abstinence videos aimed at horny teens, a tautology if there ever was one.

If you have $100 million and an unwieldy superego and seven or nine Senators on your payroll, maybe you could start to fight for the spirit of the 1890 Sherman Anti Trust laws to again be upheld. But you'd quickly be called a Red and a Socialist and FoxGnus would revoke your citizenship. Besides, you have $100 million--your raison de crumb-cake is to get your next $100 million. That's the American Way. E Pluribus Unum, that's Latin for stick you hand in someone's pocket.

To be fair, year-over-year GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company is growing faster--and maybe even larger--than any of the companies listed in the horrorshow family-tree above. But while my clients range from pre-revenue start-ups to the Fortune 50, I'd really love an auto-maker account, or even a motor-oil, or the electric car division of an automaker or a chain of pool-halls in the midwest or a supplier of fishing gear or a string of training centers that tutor dogs to improve their SAT scores.  

A lot of being a small operation is pushing water uphill. You're shut out of a lot. And you have to compete not only against other creatives but an overwhelming dominant complacency, which includes a depressed fee schedule based on the commodification on creativity perpetrated by the holding companies. Half your work is de-commodification--and that ain't easy.

But they ad game--the ad game that <er> harkens back to the 80s was always an underdog's playground. The little guys always took on the big guys. Like Apple versus IBM or VW versus Detroit. 

I wish it were easier being The Alternative.

At least it's fun.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Be Bop Shee Boop.

You can't go on any social media site, read any feed, or even go on a news site without 75 or 50 otherwise intelligent people gushing over the latest advent in some sort of AI-enabled film technique, word-to-image technology, weapon-system, satellite rapine or whatnot.

Different in every way. But hyperbole.

The system is rigged.

Jed Clampett, a dramatization.

Humankind seems to be gushing more over our collective binary destruction than Texas oilmen did over gushers at Spindletop a century and a quarter ago.

The wealth bubbling up was going to change everything and all would be right with the world. We refused to see the unintended consequences of all this gushing. The corrupting wealth. The environmental destruction. The forcing people off ancestral lands. The climactic cataclysm. 

Today, people post absolute AI garbage. Worse than crap. Awful disgusting ugly dumb insulting. Seriously, the above is the technological second coming? I've sat through thousands of meetings in my day. I'm 66 years old. I've been to Disney Land and through "It's a Small World." I've never seen anything worser.


The gush continues.

And for whatever reason, on Twitter, I'm in a small coterie of ancient ad people. And non-ancient ad people like to share these things with us. Like an early neanderthal might have shown an early sapiens his latest cave drawing. We're supposed to be awed, I suppose. Lascaux-a-go-go.

Seriously. AI can't even top Neanderthals.

It's all so empty. 

You learn more looking at the fractals of a puddle in a Bronx parking lot. No aurochs need apply.


The gush continues.

While it doesn't take a lot to anger me, it takes a lot to anger me enough to write about it on Twitter. But finally, I cracked. And I wrote this:

every time we show some advance of technology, we should show something amazing that's human-made. I think we're forgetting that our brains have six trillion synapses and are way more advanced than the most-complex computers ever built.
Palm Beach Story (1942) - The Weenie King plays Fairy Godfather.
Claudette Colbert and Robert Dudley in Preston Sturges's classic comedy, The Palm Beach Story.Check

And that's how I feel. That's what I believe. STFU about the splendors of science if you ain't willing to what a piece of work is man, how Noble in reason, how infinite in Faculty, in apprehension how like a god.

Every time I see some butterfly with a clown face playing pickelball on Mars, marvelously rendered by a billion-dollar machine programmed by people who have never visited a proper museum, we should look at a Caravaggio or Artemisia Gentileschi. Or go to the Egyptian wing at the Met or see an old Roman mosaic of fish or gods.

AI. Cain't.

Or read Ozymandias, whose giant trunkless legs are today built on binary bullshit and their description has a 140-character limit. Or go outside one dark and moonless night at look at the blackness of black and see the flicker of a billions years' past and wonder like the ancients did as they tried to derive our place in the universe.

A place made by humans and brains, of awe and fear and wonder.

Not pixellized spin art.

Sorry, Alan.

It's worse today.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

Or, Babs. Even better.