Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Uncle Slappy and the Freak Show.

The house phone rang—the land line—which can mean one of three things: 1) A politician is calling asking for money or a vote; 2) A telemarketer is calling asking for dough, or 3) It’s Uncle Slappy with a bug up his nether indignity.

Fortunately for me, it was Uncle Slappy with his usual palaver.

“Boychick,” he began. “Did I ever tell you about your cousin Solly Blattstein?”

“Solly Blattstein,” I repeated, disbelieving the name. “I don’t think you have.”

“I don’t know how he did it, but somehow Solly came into a little money when he was still a young man. Maybe he won it on a horse race—he liked the horses, Solly did. Maybe he held up a grocery. In any event, Solly had a little money.”

“Good for Solly,” I said. “There’s not a lot bad you can say about money.”

“But what Solly did with it,” Slappy continued. “He opened up a Freak Show down a side-street near Coney Island. He called it ‘New York’s Worst Freak Show.’”

“And was it a big success? Did Solly become an Impresario of the Odd?”

“It was the biggest of all successes. And Solly made money hand-over-fist. Who wouldn’t go to something called ‘New York’s Worst?’ The public, such as it is, thought Solly was being modest. They poured in in droves.”

“Oy,” I interjected sagaciously.

“He had some ridiculous acts. The World’s Tallest Midget—he was 5’6. He featured the Bearded Man. The un-Tattooed Lady.”

I repeated my oy and added a veys mir for good measure. That did not deter Uncle Slappy, however.

“But the pinochle of Solly’s Freak Show was his one-armed Lion Tamer.”

“A one-armed Lion Tamer,” I repeated “that must have been dangerous.”

“Not at all,” Slappy assured me. And then he waited and waited until the moment was just right.

“Solly’s lion…”

“Yes?” I asked, obligingly.


The Old Man hung up the blower.

I sat and did nothing.

Like a one-legged lion.

Monday, October 20, 2014

General Slocum in the Tempus Fugit.

Two views of the General Slocum. 235-feet long, She was built in 1891 of white oak and yellow pine.
Even though I was slated to get up at 6AM on Sunday morning to take Whiskey up to Rye for her twice-weekly romp in the sea, I instead woke at 3:30. I was unable to fall back to sleep, so I quickly got dressed and did what I do. I headed the mile or so up to the Tempus Fugit for a cold one or two or three—a way of passing the hours until it was time to swim in the Sound.

We entered the bar and without even a hello, the bartender began his soliloquy.

“The General Slocum sank the day before James Joyce’s Bloomsday. June 15th, 1904 and Joyce wrote about it the next day.”

“Hullo to you, too,” I laughed, sitting on my usual stool. The bartender mechanically brought Whiskey a bowl of cold water and pulled me a Pike’s Ale, “the ALE that won for YALE.” He slid over a small wooden bowl of salted Spanish peanuts. I uttered by usual expression of demurral, “A pound in every nut,” and we began our early-morning academy.

'A small gin, sir. Yes, sir. Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion: most scandalous revelation. Not a single lifeboat would float and the firehose all burst. What I can't understand is how the inspectors ever allowed a boat like that... Now you are talking straight, Mr Crimmins. You know why? Palmoil. Is that a fact? Without a doubt. Well now, look at that. And America they say is the land of the free. I thought we were bad here.'

“That’s Joyce, from ‘Ulysses’” he continued “And except for the small gin, it corroborates with all the accounts I’ve heard of the General Slocum. And I think I’ve heard them all.”

“If my nickel-knowledge of New York serves, almost as many people died on the General Slocum as died on the Titanic just eight years later."

"It was the largest single-day of death in the City's history up until September 11th, 2001," he continued. "Mostly poor German immigrants from the Lower East Side. Going to a church picnic. It was a Wednesday and there were 1,300 Krauts on board, they were right down the street--East 90th Street, 200 yards from here in the East River when a fire broke out in the lamp room. About 1,100 died."

"You're somewhat morbid this morning."

"For years bodies would be found on all the islands in the East River, along 90th Street here, even as far-away as Long Island and Westchester.
Bodies washed ashore on North Brother Island.

"One-thousand bodies," I answered "is a lot for the sea to consume."

"In my early days here, back when this was a speakeasy, poor souls would straggle into the Tempus Fugit," he pulled me my second Pike's "after having made a pilgrimage to 90th and the river where their loved ones died. Most people today have forgotten."

"We have so much else to mourn," I said. "So much else to worry about. We have more things to 'Never Forget' than ever before."

Whiskey began stirring from her place on the floor. Maybe she saw a mouse. Or a ghost. I reached down and reassured her by petting her underneath her neck. She returned to sleep.

"Out in the Lutheran Cemetary in Middle Village, Queens, that's where many of the victims were buried. Then there's a fountain in Tompkins Square Park. Nine tall feet of pink marble. There's a boy and a girl etched in the marble, they're looking out to the sea. 'They were earth's purest children young and fair,' is inscribed on the marble."

"Young and fair. Like my kids," I said.

"Young and fair," he repeated.

I began to pay.

"Not today," he said. "Not in front of the children."

Whiskey and I walked the river-route home.

From days of yore.

Sixty-five years ago, my old man got a job in Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. The job was in the advertising department of RCA, the Radio Corporation of America.

In those days, just after World War II, RCA was the Google of its day. It was a company that could do little wrong. And RCA dominated the audio equipment market, and the nascent television market, in a way that that no brand dominates the TV market today.

The commercial my father was most proud of was one where an RCA radio was dropped from an airplane and it still worked. I couldn't find that one on YouTube--I've never actually seen it, so it could be a product of my old man's memory. But I did find the one I pasted above.

It's a pretty rudimentary affair, but I happen to like it. What's more, I think it makes its points effectively. And it's pretty talk-provoking in the offing.

I don't really know where the ad industry has gone wrong. It seems to me we're too busy trying to be in the entertainment business and not busy enough being in the information business.

But that's just me.

And I don't get a vote.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Quiet, Krone and Creativity.

On Wednesday night I finally got a good solid hour of quiet.

Quiet is unusual in our worlds.

We seem to work--or at least be subject to emails, phone messages, to-do's, 24-hours-a-day. I know some people who return from four days on the road, four days of early mornings and late nights, and the first thing they do when they get home is sit down at their computer and catch up on everything they've missed.

It's more than a little perverse.

At a time when wages are actually falling, job security is non-existent and perks and bonuses are a thing of the past, we are being compelled to work harder and harder for bosses--the heads of holding companies--we never see,

Despite all that, I got a good solid hour of quiet Wednesday night, and I got to dive deep inside a book that was recently sent to me, "Remember those great Volkswagen ads?"

I’ll admit, beautifully-designed, oversized books printed on heavy paper are a bit of a fetish with me, and I turned each page delicately. I wanted to savor every one. Accordingly, when I got to those parts of books that most people skip past—the Forward, the Prologue, the Author’s Notes, etc. etc., I took the time I had to read them all.

The last of the three or four of the preliminaries I read was called "Krone alone" and it was an account by Helmut Krone, art director of Volkswagen's original ads, of getting the VW assignment from Bill Bernbach.

Krone reacted to the assignment the way most of us act when we get an assignment.

This sucks, he thought. What in god's name is Bernbach thinking. What have I done wrong that I'm being punished.

The VW had a strong Nazi odor. It was co-opted by Hitler as the "Kraft dur Freude," the "Strength through Joy" car. It was ugly. Under-powered. Small at a time when everyone wanted big. Perhaps most depressing of all to Krone, he had to partner with Julian Koenig who, Krone said, spent more time at the racetrack than he did at the office.

Krone was so depressed by all this that after he and Koenig sold their first round of ads, he went on vacation for a few weeks to escape the taint.

It was only when he came back to the States that he learned his VW ads had struck a chord.

I guess my point here is fairly simple.

I happen to believe if you poll most creative people, they'll tell you their assignments suck. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Monet carped about having nothing to paint but his over-grown garden, or Van Gogh had had it up to here with sunflowers.

But good creatives take what they're given.

They might grumble and bark and call their headhunters, etc. But good creatives take what they're given. They find something cool or important buried inside. And they create good work.

All assignments, in a way, suck.

Creativity is making them good.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dour in the Tempus Fugit.

It's not unusual for me to be unable to sleep, and last night, well, it was no exception. Like a lot of medium-to-large apartment houses in the City, mine is filled with people who wear sweaters in the heat of summer. So, at the first hint of cold weather about three or four weeks ago, the "Managing Director," what we used to call a Super, turned off our Central Air and turned on our forced heat.

That action almost always serves as a meteorological sentinel. It tells the weather gods that it's time for a hot spell--a week or more of New York as an Autumnal sauna, with nothing, not the slightest of breezes to spell the sump.

So it was that last night I tossed fitfully until I decided to give up the fitted-sheet ghost and head about a mile uptown to the Tempus Fugit.

It's been a while since I've visited the place, and sleep disturbances or not, I've been itching to go. There are some who say that if you walk too long on concrete, you turn Lycanthropically (lookit up) into a wolf. I feel somewhat the same way about the Tempus Fugit. Too long without a Pike's Ale "the ALE that won for YALE," or too long without a conversation with the bartender, leaves me feeling unmoored, a little like a boat that's been wrestled away from a dock during a storm.

Whiskey and I arrived at just before 4, and before my keister parked on the worn leather of my favorite barstool, the ancient bartender was around the mahogany. In one fluid motion, he placed a bowl of clear water down for Whiskey and was back around the curve of the wood-work pulling me a Pike's, which he served, as always in a six-ounce juice glass. I really can't say it often enough. Beer should be served in such a flagon. Small enough so it always stays cool and frothy.

"How go the unemployment wars," he began. A good bartender, not that I am a denizen of many bars, this is more an assumption on my part, a good bartender will pick up where you left off even if you left off many months ago.

"The income is coming in," I reassured him. "I suppose if I were cut from a different cloth, I would say I'm happy as a pig in slime. I have happened into two situations that keep my synapses from mossing over and give me a place to go when I need one."

He pulled me my second Pike's and began terryclothing in small circles in front of me.

"A place to go being a good thing. Ergo the Tempus Fugit."

"As you've said many times before, a place of libation and fornication."

"And communication," he added.

"I shant overlook communication. To be honest it's why I'm here."

"And why I'm here," he said, continuing with the terry. "We live in an atomized world--the unwashed seven billion. Surrounded as we are by people. But no humans. Pushed onto the subway, vomited out. 'We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.'"

"You're dour tonight," I said, draining number two. He pulled me my last.

"That was Orson Welles, so take it for what it's worth."

"Welles in my book is worth a lot."

"He's the same man who said, 'Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch.'"

I laughed at that and pushed my stool away from the bar. I put on my jacket, affixed Whiskey's leash to her and pushed two 20s across the bar-top his way.

"On me," he said pushing the bills back. "And don't be a stranger."

Whiskey and I arrived home just before six.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Olde New York.

New York, if you stop to think about it, is a lot like the advertising industry. It's always changing, and it's never as good as it used to be.

This morning, I made my way to a new temporary office in a part of the city in which I've never worked. I've worked on 18th and Fifth back in the 80s, and I've spent months at a time in post-production in the teens and lower 20s, but I've never worked here before, just a well-aimed spit away from the Strand.

Maybe the best thing about freelancing, besides the Mammon, of course,  is the working in a variety of offices in a variety of different neighborhoods. So, I get to see new things in New York, things I haven't seen before, or even read about. I think you'll find if you spend anytime in any great city, it's a constantly unfolding canvas, full of interesting buildings, fillips and people.

This morning on 13th and 3rd, I noticed this plaque. I love the irregularity of the type. I love the "said he." I love how it appears the bronze has been wrenched out of shape by the years.

Just slightly further West, I noticed two rams looking down on me from the second floor of what was once called "The American Felt Building." I snapped this one from across the block, excuse the blur.
Then, I continued on my way to work. Feeling better for the things I see.

Reflections in a perverse mirror.

For the past few weeks I have been deeply engaged in volumes one and three of Rick Perlstein's study of conservatism in America. Volume one, which I am 16 pages away from finishing examines the rise of the John Birch Society and their hand-picked 1964 Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater.

Volume two focuses on the discontent that brought us to elect Richard Nixon two times. Volume three introduces us to the apotheosis of the rise of the Right--Ronald Reagan.

What's interesting about these books is that Perlstein talks about a political strain that's been with us forever. Radical conservatism might have been relatively dormant during the era of FDR and might have gone into remission during the gleaming days of Kennedy's Camelot, but it's always been with us.

Remember, FDR, perhaps the progenitor of Liberalism in the United States, sought to pack the Supreme Court because he could get no legislation through Congress.

I write about this on an ad blog for a simple reason and it has nothing to do with political philosophy.

What makes it relevant, I believe, is that we on Madison Avenue have the annoying habit of thinking the world looks exactly like we do. We think the world is a tattooed sleeve that starts in Williamsburg and ends around Dumbo.


There are all sorts out there.

They're not all like you.

They're certainly not all like me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Now this is a Mirror Scene.

"Lady from Shanghai."

Orson Welles. Rita Hayworth. Everett Sloane.

The Seven Stages of Copy.

 In "As You Like It," Shakespeare demarcated the Seven Stages of Man. There's a reason the Bard was called the Bard. He was, way more often than not, dead on. I was thinking about his Seven Stages and about writing, and way below, after all the high-falutin' Elizabethan crap, I've written my Seven Stages of copy.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Here are the Cliff Notes:

1.     First the infant,/Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
2.     the whining school-boy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.
3.     then the lover,/Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/ Made to his mistress' eyebrow.
4.     Then a soldier,/Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,/
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,/Seeking the bubble reputation/
Even in the cannon's mouth.
5.     then the justice,/ In fair round belly with good capon lined,/
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,/ Full of wise saws and modern instances;
6.     The sixth age shifts/Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,/With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
7.     Last scene of all,/That ends this strange eventful history,/Is second childishness and mere oblivion,/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It occurred to me yesterday as I worked from home on a long, defining piece of copy that there might be Seven Stages to writing for advertising as well.

1.     First comes the thinking. What’s the hook, how do I organize this and find meaning in the morass of a client’s mind.
2.     Second comes the organization. What do I need to cover to structure a persuasive argument.
3.     Next there is the typing. The actual putting down of words on a page, of checking your sources, finding facts and details.
4.     Fourth comes the re-reading and the re-writing. The line by line building of your story or case.
5.     Fifth is the closing of your computer. The proclaiming the copy done. When you put it away for an hour or for the evening.
6.     Then comes the marination, the turning over what you’ve written in your head. Pulling some things, pushing others. Wondering how you can make things better, funnier, more interesting, simpler.
7.     Is the re-re-writing. Taking your marinated thoughts and applying them to your work. To make it better.

Sometimes these seven steps take me ten minutes. Sometimes they take a day or two. But regardless, that’s how I work.

It ain’t Shakespeare.

But it’s a living.

Experiential Marketing.

If you're interested in modern marketing, you'd be well-served to book a flight to New York and a hotel room for 2015 for the second weekend in October. That's usually the time of "The New Yorker" Festival and you won't find anywhere, I believe, a better example of content marketing, event marketing, affinity marketing, just plain marketing.

The Festival has been running for 15 years now--in Manhattan, not Brooklyn--and it seems to get better with each passing season. Thousands of New Yorker readers turn out. The events sell out in just seconds and each is preceded by a line down the block and affluent pseudo-intellectuals sharpening their elbows to get a seat up front.

In the past, my wife and I had attended a star-studded literary tribute to the exemplary New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, an eating tour of lower Manhattan guided by Calvin Trillin and tugboat tour of New York Harbor--all the way up to the bowels of Perth Amboy.

This year we saw Jane Mayer, author of "The Dark Side" conduct a Skype interview with the on-the-lam whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Then we saw New Yorker humor editor David Remnick interview Larry David. The weekend concluded for us with a screening of Barry Levinson's new movie "The Humbling," followed by film-critic David Denby interviewing Levinson.

In all, the three-day weekend of the event is well-curated, well-produced and well-welled. What the New Yorker's really doing with the Festival is bringing their content (which is among the best in the world) to life. You're inside a living breathing magazine. You're not just reading content, you're immersed in it.

Too much of today's bullshit experiential or bullshit content marketing is bland or done on the cheap. To my mind it represents a permutation of David Ogilvy's warning "The Consumer isn't a moron, she's your wife."

No, most of the short films you see online, or on Agency Spy are badly-produced masturbatory displays. They aren't intelligent. They don't add value. They don't bring anything to life and make it real.

Like most things, if you're going to do it, do it right.

For me, experiential marketing doesn't get better than the New Yorker Festival. They don't, like Verizon or Time-Warner or Bank of America or MasterCard just plaster their logo everywhere and assault you with their bombast.

They actually consider their viewers and treat them with respect.

You should try it some time.