Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Old Man and the Sea.

I got a late start on the blog today.

First off, my usual Thursday therapy session, was moved to today. So I got in at 9, instead of my typical 7:30.

Second, I got a three-part assignment shivved on me last night.

First, it was to be done in 24 hours.

Then, it was needed by five.

Finally, the third shoe dropped, and they asked me to have it done by 11.

That's ok.

I like doing stuff like this.

Tough brain power things--like the crossword.

They wake me up and challenge me.

Speaking of which, I got a call last night from my daughter Hannah, who's down living on a sailboat in the Caribbean, where she teaches scuba diving.

They had a storm at sea, and their dinghy broke loose.

There were 40 mph winds and four-meter waves.

She had to jump in and save the dinghy.

She jumped into the sea.

Made her way slowly but inexorably to the craft and strung a towline where the line needed to be strung.

But it broke loose again.

She did it again.

And the lines broke again.

Finally, she judged the risk greater than the reward and returned to her boat.

"That really got my adrenaline flowing," she said to me, my heart in my throat.

I think there's a lot of advertising in that story.

Sometimes, you have to dive in and rescue something.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts it floats away.

I think of all the titles that bounce off the walls in an agency like ions in the Hadron collider, the one that's missing is the one I really deserve.

Chief Fire Putter-Outer Officer.

AJ Liebling, the great "New Yorker" writer once said, "I can write faster than anyone who can write better and better than anyone who can write faster."

I'll concede, I'm not the best creative in the world.

And, to be honest, I don't relish supervising.

But when there's an inchoate mess of ideas and asks on the table, I can usually attach a towline to it and haul it in.

And if I don't, like my daughter says, I got my adrenaline flowing.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Advice from a neurosurgeon.

I just finished reading a book titled "Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery," by a prominent English neurosurgeon named Dr. Henry Marsh. You can check out the book here.

Marsh divides his book into about 25 chapters. And each chapter is his account of a particular disease in a particular patient and his, often futile, attempts to surgically deal with his patients' ailments.

There were many things I found interesting in Marsh's book. Many things, not surprisingly perhaps, I found relevant to our business.

First is the imposition of management on people who already know how to manage. For the most part Marsh runs a pretty tight, if antiquated ship at his hospital. But then the government comes in and imposes its rules and order. Things go off the rails. There are, all at once, a surfeit of nonsensical signs telling people what to do and how to act. There's a grievous bed shortage. And, I would say, thanks to departments like "The Department of Criticism and Compliments" there's an HR-led autocracy that drives independent thinkers fairly up the walls.

All this, of course, is redolent in agencies today. The first thing I had to do when I joined my current job was "attend" two separate online courses. One on data security written at a fourth grade level on 20-year-old software. The second was on sexual harassment. This is how a senior creative is greeted nowadays. Not with a welcome memo, business cards, a free-lunch voucher and a balloon, but with the shrill imperative to eschew groping minxes.

Next came Marsh's admission that much of the surgery he performs is shaded by luck. There's skill of course, and experience, but a small slip, or perception error spells the difference between someone who recovers and someone who slinks deep into a coma.

There's very little, it seems, science in science. And, I believe, even less in advertising despite the proclamations to the contrary.

Finally, there's the need not to be scientific, but to be human. It's easy, I suppose for a neurosurgeon to hide behind a thick coat of jargon and bullshit. It's easy to spout a lot of medical terms and obscure a diagnosis. It's much harder, I think, to tell a patient that she's going to die in six weeks.

No real summation, I guess.

Stay away from management, if you can. Pray for luck. And try to be human.

It couldn't hurt.

Monday, June 29, 2015

My torn right rotator cuff.

My right arm, my throwing arm, which has been injured since late March, 2014 has seemed to make a comeback of sorts.

It was diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff and I made an appointment to have it surgically repaired, but I cancelled at the last moment. I was actively freelancing at the time and didn't want to miss the day rates.

So even though I could barely lift my wing over my head, and even though I suffered from periodic bouts of numbness in the arm, I delayed and delayed.

Around New Year's, when I sojourned to the Caribbean, I swam everyday, swimming through the pain. And while it still hurt, well, to be precise, it hurt less.

I would try to throw overhand when I took Whiskey to the beach or the park, but it was still too painful. However, as I said, the pain was beginning to abate. I could throw a rock or a ball for Whiskey to mark or chase--throwing from my elbow, not my shoulder, and though I'd wince and have to take a couple minutes to recover, I could feel the affected limb coming back.

Around April when I got the invitation to suit up for the Saraperos de Saltillo's Juegos de Viejos, I started going to the park and throwing overhand, loosely, loosely. My arm cried out for a sling after those sessions, but seemed to grow stronger each week.

And this weekend, again at the beach, I would underhand toss Whiskey's fluorescent orange float and she would beckon me to mark where it was with a stone. I'd hit the float with an overhand toss and before long, well, I had made 20 or 30 throws, some as far as a throw from the outfield.

The pain wasn't gone, but it was manageable. I could throw again.

I suppose in this there is a lesson of sorts. Of persevering through the pain. Of slowly recovering. Of not giving in to adversity.

Six years ago tomorrow, I was fired from a place after they had a big loss of business and decided my salary was more than they wanted to pay. As you'd expect, I was scared but I landed at the place and stayed for five years that was just named Agency of the Year in Cannes.

I left there 16 months ago and have spent the better part of the last 12 months at a place that was just named Network of the Year at Cannes.

This, of course, has nothing to do with my torn rotator cuff.

But it has a lot to do, somehow, with not giving up.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Negative copy.

For as long as I've been paid to write (37 years) I secretly held the belief that most people do not know how to read. That is to say, they can read individual words, but they don't understand that reading, as a grown-up, is not about individual words, it's about the linking together of thoughts into a message or argument.

This is abstract, I know. So let me make it clear.

Take the sentence, "Don't step on that landmine."

My experience says most clients would call that sentence "negative," and ask you to change it, partly because it starts with the word "Don't" and partly because it contains the word "landmine."

You try to explain that "don't do something negative" is a positive. But they can't seem to understand that.

So you rewrite it. "Step anyplace you like. But your day will be sunnier if you avoid that anti-personnel device."

They come back with feedback like this. "I like the first sentence, it's empowering. However the second sentence starts with a negative conditional (but) and contains the phrase "anti-personnel," which will probably not get through HR and will test poorly.

You put your nose to the grindstone. "Step anyplace you like. And try to avoid that section which is less than ambient."

Their feedback? Better. But they're still tripping over the negativity of "less than ambient" and the word "avoid," which is also negative.

At this point, it's late, and well-past the time you should be home for what they pay you. So you send back the following: "Have a nice day! :)"

"You've nailed it," they say. "This is great! Thank you!"

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Read this post and support the beleaguered masses.

The latest trend in advertising, it seems, is for brands to support something almost wholly unrelated to what they sell.

Lately, I've seen Chobani yogurt for gay cohabitation.

Angel Soft toilet paper for single moms.

And just this morning, something for Lean Cuisine about why weight doesn't matter.

To my mind, these ads are merely a continuation of the wrong-headed notion that brands are worthy of being our friends, worthy of having conversations with, worthy of really being inherent in our lives.

I'm not really buying this tack.

In fact, I'm not really buying anything these days except for perishables.

I bought a new Mac a year ago when my old Mac died. But I bought a product that serves my purposes better than any other, not some false homily.

Likewise, were I to buy something from Lean Cuisine, or Chobani or Angel Soft, it would be because I like their product. Not because I like some cause they're pretending to be supportive of.

My two cents says that "causifying" every commercial is in essence the new laziness, a new expression of the disdain most clients and most agencies have for the products and services they sell.

When Bank of America bombasts out a message on how they support the arts--like free Shakespeare in the Park, I puke a little bit in my mouth. You're a bunch of tax-dodging, law-breaking malefactors of great wealth who almost brought down the world's economy. Keep your hands off of me and fucking "Hamlet."

Rather than inform me, serve me, and give me something that's better, they try to affiliate me to smithereens.

I kind of sick of all this.

And don't believe any of it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Melville! The Musical.

I had a meeting last night with a Broadway producer called Cy Bliskin.

My wife met his wife at some cocktail party and, as wives do, my wife told his wife that I had written a Broadway musical based on the life of Herman Melville, author of "Billy Budd," and of course, "Moby Dick."

I met Bliskin, of course, at Sardi's. In a minute the old Italian waiter had  brought me the biggest martini I had ever seen.

Bliskin and I clinked glasses and then he cut to the chase.

"A Broadway musical," he said, lighting a cigar as long as a baby's arm. "That takes big money."

"I know," I answered as demurely as I could.

"I produced 'North Dakota' the year before Rodgers and Hammerstein came out with 'Oklahoma.' I tell you this, not to discourage you, but to let you know that the road to the Great White Way is paved with broken dreams."

I took a long draw on my martini. I almost swallowed an olive whole.

He filled the red-velvet room with the smoke from his Cohiba.

"But listen," he said, "I think you have something here. 'Melville, the Musical.' It's gold. It's 'Wicked' for the literary class. Sing me that song you wrote." He motioned to a baby grand in the corner.

I drained the remainder of my martini and headed over to the ivories. I was feeling more than a little lubricated,

I harumphed then began. "This is a song I call 'Where there's a Whale there's a Way,' I began tinkling. "This is something Ishmael sings to open the show," I said.

What was I thinking
When I sea,
Not knowing at all
If this life is for me?

What was I thinking,
When I made this decision,
When I ignored all the laughter,
Ignored the derision?

Oh, where there's a Whale
There's a way.
Where there's the sun,
There's a ray.
Where there's a boat filled with men
There is hope,
Oh, where there's a Whale,
There's a way."

Bliskin led the applause and a few others put down their knives and forks and joined in.

"That's gold," he told me. "Melville! The Musical."

He bought me another martini. We were on our way.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How work gets done. And why.

It happens about eleven times a day, or fifteen.

You're called into a meeting, or someone sends your a powerpoint, or they drop by your desk. Next thing you know, they're off in full gallop. Jabbering a mile a minute. The buzzwords are bouncing off the walls like neutrons in a cyclotron.

And all of this, every last bit of it, is like a jackhammer to your brain.

You don't have the presence of mind to say, "slow down." Or "I don't understand." Or "can you explain this to me."

No, it's all happening so fast, the person speaking is so fervid and convinced, so SURE OF HIMSELF, that you couldn't possibly put the brakes on their diatribe.

And they're so fucking annoying.







So you nod. You smile. Try to make a joke that shows you do, in fact, get it. You do all that.

Just to make them stop.


Then you get in early the next three days and try to figure out what in god's name they were talking about.

Paths of Glory.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Stanley Kubrick's 1957 breakthrough hit, "Paths of Glory," which starred Kirk Douglass, Adolph Menjou and a really outstanding and unheralded Ralph Meeker.

I loved everything about the movie and every performance in it.

But what I liked most of all is how much it reminded me of advertising.

Kubrick basically shows two settings in the flick.

There's the gleaming marble palace which houses the generals and their staff--from which, wholly distant from the battles, the horror, the hardship and the gore, they direct their textbook war.

Then there are  the trenches.

The filthy, rat infested, death-filled, maimed and pus-seeping trenches. They stink. They're life or death.

The two locales barely ever meet.

The soldiers never see the palaces.

The generals never see the soldiers.

More and more this is what's happened in our business.

The lauded, cool and often wispy work that is feted at Cannes has very little to do with what rings cash registers at the agency or, even more aptly, the holding company.

The palace applauds the concept of what their lives and jobs should be. Art. Beauty. Craft. Distance from crass commercialism.

Meanwhile in the trenches, someone has to write a thousand words about a faster server, or a special lease offer that gets the backlogged Daihatsus off the lot.

These are two different worlds. Two different realities. Two different circles that, barely ever, intersect.

The chosen.

The trash.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Monday morass.

There's a new service in New York--a ride sharing service--called Via. Like Uber, you set your pick-up and drop-off destination and a car shows up in five to 10 minutes. You might have to share a ride with a couple other passengers, but that's ok. The fare--even from way East where I live to way West where I work is only $5. About the same speed as a cab for about the same price as the subway.

As a consequence of Via, yellow cabs are easier to get. But no one wants them. They're twice the price or more as a Via. So when you're standing on a corner, it's not unusual to have a yellow cab drive slowly past you and honk. They want you as a fare.

To me, honking cabs--cabs trying with desperation to get your attention is a perfect metaphor for our business.

We no longer want most of the services brands are offering, so rather than offering something we do want, brands just bring on the noise.


At 57, I have stopped for the most part being a consumer.

Verizon and AT&T and T-Mobile and Sprint spend about $6 billion on broadcast. It's meaningless to me. McDonalds and their fast-food ilk spend another couple billion. Also meaningless. The automotive companies spend double digit billions, meaningless.

They can't get my attention, so they shout.

Which drives me further away.

Of course, television networks and stations are complicit in this. Since they no longer get the price they want for commercial time, they lengthen the number of commercials they show, which drives me further away.

Even when I watch something on PBS--allegedly commercial-free, I count a dozen or so commercials. One is usually from a foundation sponsored by the Koch Brothers. The anti-environment, climate-change-denying, reactionary John Birch Koch Brothers.  Dear PBS, if you take their money, you don't need mine.

I guess you could call this a Bad Mood Monday.

That our industry has built a vicious circle of inattention feeding shrill bombast.

No one listens, so let's shout louder.

None of this will be discussed at Cannes. It will be like Badenheim in 1939. As the Germans march in, we complain that our coffee is lukewarm.

Something needs to be done.

That doesn't involve self-praise and cheap trophies.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A visit to my father's office. A repost for Father's Day.

When I was a little kid, Manhattan and the office where my father worked were just 20 minutes away on what was then called the New Haven Rail Road. The rail road was like the trains you used to see in black and white movies. By that I mean they seemed more a part of the 1940s than the 1970s.

It cost $1.10 to get into the city. You could take the subway, that cost just 35-cents, but it took almost an hour. I always preferred taking the New Haven line trains. Its seats—-benches that sat two on one side and three on the other, were covered in a deep blue crushed velvet. You could move the seat-back so that you always sat facing the front of the train, no matter which direction the train was going. The conductors on the New Haven line had a slightly imperious tone. This was their train, they had pride in their jobs and in keeping their train in apple-pie order.

Their hats, like a cop’s, were always on. They looked neat and even in the summer heat wore a New Haven-line issued suit and tie, dark blue. They would punch tickets with an almost Teutonic authority. The message was clear. Treat the New Haven Rail Road well, and the New Haven will treat you well in return. (I remember once, when I was about 15 I had my sneaker-clad feet up on a bench seat facing me. A conductor came over to me glaring and said, “You’ve got to be kidding with those feet.” I’ve never put my feet up on a seat since.)

My father’s office was not far from Grand Central Terminal, the terminus for the New Haven line. It was up a few flights of grimy steps through the labyrinth of one of the busiest places in the world and then two blocks up Park Avenue to number 247 Park—a building that was torn down in the mid-sixties to make way for a glass and steel box.

Maybe because I carried myself with confidence even when I was very young, my father had no issues having me come down to his office solo to visit him. So, while I didn’t regularly get an invitation, every once in a while I’d head down to the city to have some time with my father.

A lot of the times I had to head down to his office seemed to involve me needing a pair of trousers for some family event we had to go to. There were scarcely any boys’ clothing stores around the gloomy Yonkers neighborhood I grew up in. So when a family gathering that required putting on dress clothes loomed or when my mother just wanted me away, she would dispatch me to the city and to my father.

These trips were trans-oceanic voyages for me. Even though I knew my slice of the city well, there was always something for me to discover. I would walk over to Times Square just to see the Camel cigarette sign blowing smoke rings. Or go to the Nedick’s in the subway station below the terminal where the hotdog rolls were lightly buttered and toasted and they had a foamy orange drink they served in little conical paper cups. Once I headed up to Central Park to see the zoo and climb on Manhattan’s schist—rocks that seemed like mountains to me, cold and tall and forbidding.

In my father’s building they still had an elevator operator, an old Negro (we called them in those days) who read The New York Times and seemed to have melted into the stool he sat on that was situated near the controls. He ran the elevator with the precision of a space launch, the car always stopping dead on to the floor, he would swing the gate open like the curtain at a Broadway opening and announce “7. All out for floor 7.” Then he’d swing shut the gate and we’d magically glide up to the next stop.

When we’d get to my father’s floor, 18 I think it was, I would say, “Thank you, sir” to the elevator operator and then present myself to the impossibly pretty receptionist. She would page my father and my father would invariably “have me find my way back.” I would be lost in a sea of tall, fast-paced men and pretty ladies, looking for the one familiar face in the maze until I found my father’s office.

“Sit down, son,” he would say. “We’ll get going soon and I’ll have you back home in a jiffy.” Then he would go about his business. Business was not something my father just did, it was something he got lost in. Often a group of colleagues would collect in his office to discuss this or that and I would be left sitting on the sofa in his office with nothing to do but page through old magazines. If I was lucky, there was a New Yorker, which at least had cartoons. If I wasn’t, there were nothing but advertising trade magazines which held no interest at all.

I remember one time sitting in his office for a couple hours with nothing to do. Every twenty minutes or so my father would look up from his work or step away from the people he was working with and say something like, “just a few more minutes, son.” But invariably, a few more minutes would go by and my father still wouldn’t be ready to help me buy new trousers.

With nothing to do I started feeling around the crevasses of the sofa and felt something soft and wrapped in waxed paper. Someone had left half a salami sandwich there that fell into the cracks. Surreptitiously I snuck the sandwich into my windbreaker pocket and left my father’s office saying I had to go to the boys’ room. I snuck past the pretty receptionist, past the elevator operator.

I retraced my steps back down Park Avenue, back through Grand Central, back down the labyrinth of passageways and ramps and down to track 114 on the New Haven line, and then took the train back to the Ludlow station in Yonkers, the stop closest to my parents’ house.

I finished the half salami sandwich before we exited the darkness of the tunnel and wound up wearing a pair of my brother’s old charcoal gray flannels to the family get-together.