Tuesday, April 30, 2024

King Me.

Unlike so many people I know, I am not a giant Godfather/ Godfather II fan. I like the movies. I'll watch them anytime I can, but my sensibilities are more moved by smaller movies like Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg's "On the Waterfront," or even Fred Zinnemann/Carl Foreman's "High Noon." Somehow their scale and their lack of blood appeal more to me, though both those movies are plenty violent.

In any event, last week and I forget what I was reading, I came upon a mention of the book above. Francis Ford Coppola's notebooks on how he plotted out, wrote and directed what many people consider is the best American movie ever.

Though I am but a lowly advertising writer, I've alway marveled at the care great writers took with their great work. Rob Schwartz, also an ad writer, just sent me a photo from Dublin of four pages from James Joyce's Ulyssean note books.

It hardly matters that you can't make sense of the scrawl. The point isn't how they're making changes, it's how hard they work to get a piece exactly where they want it.

In advertising there are many who share this predilection, too. Sometimes it's to make the work better. Sometimes it's just so a boss can claim ownership. Sometimes it's because you're working for a dickweed.

Once, on IBM, I had sold a script that was a dialogue between IBM Watson and the author Stephen King. 

It was a funny script, based on a long phone conversation I had with King and my having had to read a couple of his books. I emailed the script to King and he called me. 

"This script is perfect," he said.

"I didn't realize you were hard-up for money," I replied.

He laughed.

The next time we met was on set at Kaufman Astoria studios out in Queens under the prognathous gaze of Joe Pytka.

I introduced myself to King.

"That script was perfect," he repeated. "I hope you didn't change a word."

I answered while biting the inside of my cheeks. "I changed everything. I was made to throw it out and start over," I said.

I was up all night in a "writer's room," "workshopping" a script that America's most-popular writer said was perfect.


Like I said. Sometimes you have to call the ADL. The American Defecation League.

In any event, just yesterday, the Godfather book arrived at my small ramshackletude on the Connecticut coast. I bought it used from an independent bookstore in Corona del Mar, California and he wrapped it in brown paper and put about 20 50-cent stamps on the box. It arrived like something sent by Edgar Allan Poe minus the cobwebs and the raven shit, but that only added to the overall effect.

I got to this page, took a photo and wrote this post.

A reminder of a simple syllogism.

Nothing else works like work works.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Fraud, Cried the Maddened Thousands.

I had a row with a friend of mine not long ago.

I pointed out that she's making the same money now that she was making over 18 years ago. But if you plug those figures in an inflation calculator, she's making about 35-percent less, or an income drop of about $140,000.

We haven't really talked since then.

That's something that happens to me with more than a little frequency.

People often dislike people who have command of real facts and a head for numbers.

I started thinking, I suppose to be all deep-dish about it, about the ad industry in macro-economic terms.

When most people hear the prefix macro, they think of pasta. Or Yankee Doodle.

Nevertheless, I've seen various ad people, usually scowling and not from the part of the ad business that a) works with clients or b) makes actual ads, attribute the contraction (leading to the demise) of the industry to various factors.

They'll talk about the divestment of media agencies. They'll talk about the splintering of media channels. They'll talk about the "agency model." They'll talk about short attention spans. They'll talk about always on content, bots and ad fraud. They'll talk about all those things and dozens more I'm too sane to even try to remember.

What I've never heard from anyone is that salaries are about 40-percent lower than they were two-decades ago and probably about 75-percent lower (in real dollars) than they were in the 1960s or 1980s. And that means the industry attracts, not the best and the brightest, but the dull and the dimmest.

I've never heard anyone say anything close to resembling this. "The industry used to be a way for people to live the American dream. It offered good money and  upward mobility. Because we paid well, we attractive BBAs." (Best and Brightest Adjacents.)

What would happen to the National Basketball Association if they lowered their salaries as severely as advertising has lowered our salaries? Especially, if there were other sports leagues that weren't lowering their pay scale?

A game would look like a brick-fest.

My salary stayed virtually the same for the last 16 years of my agency life. Each time I'd ask for more money, I'd hear, "you're already at the top of your salary band."

No one even told me there was a salary band.
No one bothered to keep salary bands competitive with other industries. 
No one bothered to say, "hey, with salaries this uncompetitive, we'll lose the talent battle and good people will go elsewhere."

You might remember this image and caption from the fabulously off-brand "Ogilvy on Advertising." It's off-brand because Ogilvy no longer has anything left of the Ogilvy-ethos. The statement applies, of course, to talent. But also to opportunity and money.

When I was at Ogilvy the first time, from 1999 to 2004, they paid well and, at times, people hired people bigger than themselves. When I was at Ogilvy the second time, from 2013 to 2020, the payscale was lower than it was the first time. Senior executives sat out in the cacophonous open, the physical plant, including the bathrooms, was slovenly, and anyone who wanted more money was told they were "at the top of their salary band."

Decreases in pay aren't happening only in advertising. It seems to be happening in just about every field outside of investment banking, men's sports, and Larry David. 

It's really simple.

You can't have a strong industry or a strong business, a strong economy or a strong country in a world where it seems everyone is living paycheck to paycheck. Where no one wants to pay anyone, except the few malefactors of great wealth at the top that make the rules, take the haul and skirt the taxes.

The American metaphor is gated communities and Hoovervilles. That's the seating currently at every agency in New York.

If the work you do is important, if it helps companies succeed, if one dollar spent equals two dollars of growth, you have to pay for that.

We have all kinds of calculus that allow us to avoid valuing people. We have all kinds of calculus upon which to blame shrinking what was formerly the largest holding company from 200,000 employees in 2017 to just over 100,000 today. I suppose if there were an ancient Roman about, we could even find a way to blame our bad-fortune on bird entrails or some cryptic words from a Sybil. 

I think the world is simpler than that.

It certainly is at GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company.

Provide seminal value and charge for it.

It's not easy.

But it beats the alternative.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Duking it Out.

I'm sure there are about 92 million podcasts, blogposts, webinars, seminars, ad courses, ad schools, pontificators and powerpoints that purport to teach people how to write. My simple realization is this: if any of those so-called instructional entities consist of more than one word, you've wasted your time and your money.

There's one way to learn how to write. And the 101 of it can be summed up in one word: Read. 

If you need a 201 course, that too, can be summed up in one word: Practice.

If you need a 301 course, there's a single word for that, too: Re-write.

Finally, if you need a graduate-level course, that description will take a little longer: Write every day.

Next month, I'll have completed my 18th year of writing in this space, not having missed a working day for all that time. I've written 6,980 posts in that time, give or take a hundred, and estimating about 300 words a post, 2.06 million words.

Of course those 2.06 million words have made me a better writer. Would I have better abs if I had done 2.06 million sit-ups? Would I make a better omelet if I had cracked 4.12 million eggs? Would I get picked sooner down at the playground if I had practiced 2.06 million jump shots?

Along the way, people ask me how the fuck I do it.

See 101 above. 

For example--this morning before 7AM, I read this article in the extremely well-written "Wall Street Journal." I shy away from their politics, but read almost everything else. Except articles about debentures. My teeth are bad enough. Because of the Journal's Draconian paywall, I'll paste the text at the end of this post, because you owe it to yourself.

This isn't about, of course, whether or not you agree with the author's appraisal of Ellington and his work. This is about two things. 1) The style. How the article's thoughts are presented and 2) The substance. What you can learn from the details of the article.

Good writing, like good anything from making love to making omelets, demands a mixture of style and substance. How can you improve if you don't work at it?

Again, before seven, I sent one of my closest friends both in and out of the business a pdf of the article. It's one of the many burdens of being my confidant. I had highlighted some sentences I thought were of particular importance to the ad industry, specifically, being a creative leader.

Here they are. Read them, and if you can, real-time translate them into descriptions of an advertising person. I think you'll see some universal components of greatness.

1. Longevity.
2. Dedication.
3. Un-stuck-ness.
4. Selflessness. Making others better.
5. A pragmatic love of problem-solving.
6. Border-defying. Not a one-trick pony.

Again, this isn't about loving Duke Ellington, hating him or being indifferent to him. This is about learning to write. And learning to learn.

    1. Longevity.
    2. Dedication.

    3. Un-stuck-ness.

    4. Selflessness. Making others better.

    5. A pragmatic love of problem-solving.

    2. Dedication.

    6. Border-defying. Not a one-trick pony.

Duke Ellington at 125: A Singular Swinging Master

Born in April 1899, the jazz pioneer ranks as the greatest all-around figure in the history of American music.


Duke Ellington and his orchestra circa 1934. PHOTO: JP JAZZ ARCHIVE/REDFERNS/GETTY IMAGES

Duke Ellington encompassed multitudes. He lived 75 years and directed his jazz orchestra for 50. His compositions number 1,700. More than 800 musicians recorded with him. He led his ensemble through 10,000 recordings, an estimated 20,000 performances and 10 million miles of travels across 65 countries.

But his legacy goes far beyond numbers. In American music, I argue, Ellington ranks as the greatest all-around figure: composer, arranger-orchestrator, bandleader-conductor, piano accompanist, soloist and musical thinker. He composed broadly—three-minute songs and instrumentals such as “Mood Indigo,” multi-movement suites like “Such Sweet Thunder,” scores for such motion pictures as “Anatomy of a Murder” and ballets as “The River,” and concerts of sacred music. He was a restless innovator who kept evolving, much as did Pablo Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright and Miles Davis.

Ellington dedicated his career to commanding racial respect. Supporting social justice and civil rights, he advanced esteem for African-Americans through his elegant deportment and sophisticated music, and with such pieces as his “Black Beauty,” “Symphony in Black” and “Black, Brown and Beige.”

Ellington was born in Washington on April 29, 1899, and in 1924 he began recording his own compositions. In the ’20s, popular music primarily emphasized songs, leaving room for stars who made hits. Late in that decade, Louis Armstrong musically stamped each tune he touched as his own, putting emphasis on the solo performer. But few members of the public could name a musician working within a band. Ellington thought up and implemented a more complex, revolutionary musical model.

Within that collective, he strove to maximize the individuality of all his players to create a dazzling, original idiom. Unlike other composers, he didn’t write for first trumpet or second trumpet, but rather for the bandmembers playing those instruments. Like a magisterial painter, he alchemized his one-of-a-kind pigments—the signature styles of his performers—into a wondrous aggregate greater than the sum of its parts.

In 1961, Ellington said, “My biggest kick in music—playing or writing—is when I have a problem. Without a problem to solve, how much interest do you take in anything?”

He was in fact a ceaseless obstacle jumper. He spoke of his players, “We have deep consideration for the limitations of everyone; it’s an interesting problem to handle.” Ellington solved the challenge of shortcomings by listening closely to all his musicians and then composing to highlight their strengths.

While clarinetist Benny Goodman kept his big-band players for an average of three years, Ellington managed to retain his performers for an average of 15, some for two or three times longer. He did so by writing pieces that featured individual musicians, such as trumpeter Cootie Williams in “Concerto for Cootie.” Unlike Goodman, who was wont to monopolize solo space, Ellington generously gave it away to his bandmembers, throwing the spotlight on them rather than on himself.

How did Ellington keep his music fresh? By jotting down musical notations nearly every day of his adult life, producing a stream of new pieces year after year. He left behind roughly 100,000 pages of music manuscripts, nearly all preserved at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

He maintained his orchestra for half a century to introduce and proffer his work: Each night was like a rehearsal or laboratory for the next piece he was composing. Some of his musicians were expensive, but Ellington knew that without hearing his creations nightly, his ability to compose would suffer greatly.

Across the U.S. and Europe, Ellington’s 125th birthday is being celebrated throughout the year. In Washington, the John F. Kennedy Center is leading the way, offering 21 different programs. Pianist Jason Moran, the Center’s artistic director for jazz, said in an email, “Ellington’s work stands as a towering tree that provides us fruit and shelter.”

Meanwhile, creating new audiences for Ellington’s music has been a driving mission of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which since 1996 has run the annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Contest and distributed 300,000 Ellington music “charts” for free to 40,000 high-school bands in 57 countries, involving nearly one million students. It’s an unprecedented success story.

Ellington’s legacy reaches well beyond his corpus of consummate music: He became a cultural hero, inspired thousands of performers, arrangers and composers, and brought joy to millions of listeners.

In later years, Ellington used the expression “beyond category” as the highest possible praise for someone, such as Ella Fitzgerald, unique in her brilliance. Because of the unmatched sound of his orchestra, the extraordinary range of his creations and the astonishing artistic heights to which his music soared, no one deserved his accolade more than he did himself

Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and author of “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington” (Da Capo). He often speaks on Ellington in lectures and panel discussions.

Copyright ©2024 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the April 25, 2024, print edition as 'Duke Ellington’s Singular Swing'.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Shiv Not, Lest Ye Be Shivved.

We live in an HR-inflected era that quite often puts an emphasis or a priority on amity, congeniality, and collegiality rather than quality.

As I've written before, "can't we all just get along," is fine for family vacations. It ain't so efficacious when you're living in the real world and working toward solutions or ideas that other people are unable to embrace. Ibsen's great play was called "An Enemy of the People," not "Building Bridges While Killing People."

I fucking hate this faux and destroying geniality.

No, I don't hate the people I work with and for. 

But I hate the idea that plastic friendships and saccharine politesse are mandatories in a world that is almost 99 and 44/100-percent cut-throat and 99 and 44/100-percent cruddy.

In fact, if you took all the 360-degree reviews in the world and laid them end-to-end you'd quickly realize the only purpose they serve is to have someone at some time say shit about you so management can keep your wages down and justify your firing when they come to the illogical conclusion that you're making them too much money so you need to be canned. If there's ever been a more Soviet style of worker repression, I must have missed it. I can't think of any organization or any person who's ever improved or learned something through such a review.

As Paul Simon wrote in "Mrs. Robinson,"

I hate weasel words and diplomacy. And people who smile and grin while they suck the marrow out of your bones.

I had a boss many years ago of my father's generation--actually he was  older than my father. This was the generation that went to war, not to tennis camp.

If I fucked something up (I worked for him when I was 22. And who doesn't fuck things up when they're 22?) I'd literally get called on the carpet. Once on the carpet, I'd do what people do. I'd hem and haw and temporize.

Mr. Patrichuk had a way of dealing with that.

"Hit me but don't shit me," he'd say.

That's how I feel about things. 

If Ogilvy had said when they fired me that I'm too old, too fat, too cranky and too apt to tuck-in my shirt and not wear a fedora and all those things are off brand, I would have been fine with being fired. But they lied about it. 

They lied about everything. And worst of all, they lied and believed through their huge corporate legalese hubris that I was too blinking stupid to know I was being lied to.

Years ago I was working for a technology client on some really complicated business hardware. Specifically a category of servers that ran a certain sort of operating system. 

The thing about working on technology is that you might never of heard of what they're selling, but one day you find out that the market for what they're selling is in excess of $50 billion. 

I remember the head client drawing a giant circle on a large piece of paper then diving the circle into wedges like pie slices. 

"This is our share of the ____ market. This is X's. This is Y's. In 2003, we have one business objective. I want to kill X and Y. I want your work to do that."

I like brass knuckle advertising.

Advertising that hits you between the eyes.

No flourish. No adjectives. No pandaring. No blandishments.

That forgotten word: Truth.

Right now Coke and Ogilvy are assaulting the world with both garbage and lies. Then creating ads so put a smile on their death rictus.

This is what happens in a world where we go along, don't ask questions, collect our pay and kill future generations.

It seems Coke has been on a roll lately, displaying in social channels example after example of their creativity. People from all over the country are sending me silly-ass shit like this, this, this and this.

That's in addition to this silly-ass shit, which purportedly is running all over Brazil and Argentina.

Moments ago, another far-flung friend sent me this. Which is far-from silly-assed. It's from the Washington Post and it leads to to believe that Coke's recent ads are an attempt to distract people from the facts in the global study the Post just reported on.

I don't like this crap.

I don't like being hit. But I like less being shitted.

I like being accoutred like Mack the Knife. Kurt Weill's, not Bobby Darin's.

I'll admit. I like that way of working. And thinking. And dealing with people. 

I like a one to one ratio between saying and doing.

When I played baseball and I was a starter, everyone on the team who wasn't a starter was hoping I'd fuck up somehow. Because they wanted my job and my livelihood. Of course, when I was at bat with two men on they wanted me to hit a double. But they'd were also ok if I swung like a rusty gate and popped out in foul territory. They'd get the chance, not me, the next time.

I'm not saying we have to be assholes to each other. Far from it. 

But I think it makes sense to posit that we're looking out for ourselves, our careers, our future and our families. Anyone who pretends else wise is a liar.

There's a lot of that sort of lying in the business today. I had a partner years ago who had served in the Marines. He called it grin-fucking. ie. Smiling at you while shivving you.

That's dishonest.

I hate that shit.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Nada On Brand.

I had a shitty week last week. A week way up there on the Olympus of shit. Last week my soul occupied shit's highest Pantheon.

I wasn't as mad at the world as I ever was--I'm reserving that level of angritude for, god forbid, trump's reelection, but about as mad as I get in a world that seems to specialize in making me angry.

But wait.

Days before my anger, I had a talk with my good friend and ex-partner, the great Sid Tomkins. Sid and I worked together at Ogilvy. He got fired about nine-months after I did from Ogilvy/London, but quickly landed a full-time job helping lead advertising for the great English brand, Specsavers.

I asked for Sid's help in designing a book I'm planning on trying to publish. I said to Sid, "I don't even mind if you change the font. I'm getting kinda sick of Futura Extra Bold Condensed."

Sid, as he so often does, set me straight. 

"George, that font is your brand. It's your voice. Your clarity and muscle. Your strength and sight. Don't change that."

Now, to the anger I mentioned above.

I had a scope tiff with a long-time client. Though I've come through for them on really tough assignments with really good work over really short timelines, they didn't want me to charge for four days for something that took me four days. They wanted me to bill for one day for four days work.

A lot of self-rebuke ran through my corpuscles.

I remembered my brother, the lawyer, once admonishing me, "As Samuel Goldwyn said, 'A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on.'"

I remembered my wife, breathtakingly-level headed once chastising me, "You made one mistake. You went to work for consultants and you thought they were human."

I remembered my therapist, the Vizier of Vienna once biting my loosely attached head off and yelling at me, "I never want to hear you ever again say, 'they care about me.' No one cares about anything but themselves."

I know I'm expensive. (That's also my brand.) I get more money because I do more-better work.

I don't know why it's ok to ask creative people to do things you wouldn't ask an auto-repair-person, or a plumber, or a dry cleaner to do. I'd never take in a nice suit and ask Tony to clean it for eight dollars rather than twenty. I just wouldn't.

Besides, Tony would kick me out of his store and I'd never be allowed back in.

These guys know who I am and what they're getting from me. I've positioned myself and priced myself as extraordinary talent. You come to me for work and thinking you can't get anywhere else. Whether or not I believe that, or you believe that, they bought that. That's what they're paying for. You can't get the work, then say, "wow, that's a lot of dough-re-mi."

All that said, I met them half-way.

And I was angry about it. Angry at myself for giving in. Angry at the generalized mean-ness disorder which has wracked our industry.

I took me a minute, but then I realized why I was so mad. 

It wasn't about the money.

It was that they asked me to abnegate my brand. They bought my brand, they tried to get me to ignore everything my brand stands for: definition, differentiation and demonstration. Things no one does anymore and certainly no one does better than I.

Here's a bit of what I said to them:

"My point is simple. I want to keep working with you... and whatever's next. But I've worked hard to be the best--and I need to be paid commensurately."

That's my brand.

I could sell it at a discount.

But that ain't on brand.

The industry itself, at least when it comes to itself, has forgotten its own brands. There's no difference between Ogilvy creative and anyone else'. No difference between this Holding Company and that. No difference because they all follow the same race-to-the-abyss brief. 

New amalgamations are proof of that. Names which once meant something are "contracted" into a hodgepodge of meaningless letters and au courant logos that are wildly commoditized. 

We used to have a sense of the work Y&R did--at least during Steve Frankfurt's presidency there. But what in god's name is a VML, and what happened to the essences of the agencies the new entity subsumed?

These new non-entities stand for nothing, do nothing special and then can charge nothing for it because they do nothing of value. In an industry that created untold wealth by creating brand value, we are now in the brand evisceration business.

My client and I worked it out. Sometimes GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company is hot-headed and feels slighted. Sometimes clients forget or are too busy to remember. Sometimes--luckily most times--with innately good people, the better angels of our nature can prevail.

All the same, let me end with a bit of Hemingway from his greatest short story, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." I remember when Madison Avenue was a clean, well-lighted place, even if it was grimy and somewhat dank.

 "Good night," the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine. 

"What's yours?" asked the barman.