Thursday, October 8, 2015


About 30 years ago I had a writing mentor in the business called Ed Butler. Ed had plied his trade at Doyle Dane--and done some notable VW ads there. But he really hit his stride when he joined Ally & Gargano when he did outstanding work on Travelers Insurance.

Ed was a craftsman. With him, there was no rushing of copy. And a good last line was about as important as the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. You had taken the hill against the enemies of our profession: crassness, speed and apathy.

Getting approval from Ed on a piece of copy wasn't that hard, however. He respected my taste and liked my writing. As long as I did what I thought was a good job, as long as I had a good in and a good out and not too many damned things the client demanded, I was ok.

Ed told me this story once that I've thought about often. He was working at an agency called Marschalk and they were pitching against Della Femina for the Chemical Bank account. Before those agencies and that bank were merged out of existence, all three entities were good-sized companies. Chemical was one of the largest banks in New York.

Ed told me that the tagline he had created for the pitch was "The Chemistry's Right at Chemical." Which he thought was pretty good. Until he saw the tagline Della Femina presented: "The Chemistry's Just Right at Chemical."

That "just" to Ed made all the difference. "I knew we were beaten," he said. "Their line was so much better."

I suppose this story in our current uncaring epoch sounds quaint and musty.

But, like I said, it's always stuck with me.

Because the people who care about touches and nuance are the people you want to work for and the people you want to emulate.

With consolidation of everything afflicting our business, as well as the painful crush of faster deadlines, we have to do all we can to hold onto our standards.

If only because they're so easy to abandon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

More baseball memories.

The American baseball playoffs started last night in something called the "wild card" game--the teams in the fourth and fifth position in each league would play each other, the winner advancing another round. The loser going home, presumably in disgrace.

The game pitted the Yankees against the Houston Astros and was won, in a convincing manner, by the Astros, who held the once-mighty Yanks to just three hits. The Astro's pitcher, a gritty left-hander called Dallas Keuchel, limited the Yankees batsmen to just three hits over six innings. Keuchel is bewhiskered as if he were playing for the old "House of David" barnstorming team. But he, and three other Astro arms, who came in and shut the Yankees down in innings seven, eight and nine, did the job last night.

Another game happens tonight, this time pitting the Pirates of Pittsburgh against the Cubs of Chicago. The Cubs have not won a World Serious, as Ring Lardner's rook would say, since, well, since Ring Lardner was writing, back in 1908, a woebegone streak of 108 years.

Of course, the Astros, in their 55 year history, have never won a series. So if you're a fan of Cinderella stories, you're pulling for a Cubs-Astros final, but the likelihood of that is slim.

Speaking of the House of David nine, they were a be-whiskered baseball troupe of decades gone by, members of a devout religious order in Benton Harbor, Michigan and hirsute acolytes of the Spirit of Shiloh, regarded as the Seventh and last messengers.

I never got to see the House of David play, but Keuchel last night, at least let me pretend.

When I was a kid, there was a barnstorming team called Eddie Feigner, "The King and His Court," who would travel the country and offer to take on "all comers."

Feigner was, perhaps, the greatest softball pitcher in the history of the game, and was so dominant that his "court" consisted of just four other players who would take on full teams of nine. Feigner is credited with 9,743 victories, 141,517 strikeouts, 930 no-hitters and 238 perfect games. In a celebrity charity softball game he struck out Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Maury Wills and Harmon Killebrew in a row.

I saw them play a team made up of local stars in a small White Plains stadium in the late 1960s when I was just a boy. He spent much of the game pitching from second base, rather than the mound, yet struck out the majority of beer-bellied firefighters and cops he faced.

Baseball is all-too-serious and professional for antics these days. Pitchers' arms are multi-million dollar investments and the games are too do or die to allow us to let our hair or our beards down.  But I enjoyed myself, last night, watching Keuchel, tie up the hated Yankees.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Story telling.

Brooks Brothers, the famed clothier--reputed to be America's oldest is running an ad campaign that makes me just hate the brand.

It features the line: "What's your Brooks Brothers Story." That alone is enough to make be retch.

But it's the relativism of the word "story" that really sickens me.

Just as everyone is not a:

baseball player,

not everything is a story.

Go fuck yourself, Brooks Brothers.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The long game.

You can tell a lot about a person and a team, or organization, when you’re in the middle of a 19-inning baseball game.

We were embroiled in one 40 summers ago when I manned the hot corner for the Saraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League. We were playing the Pericos de Puebla, the Puebla Parakeets, in Puebla in their little hatbox of a stadium, Hermanos Serdan.

It was early September and obvious at that point that neither the Saraperos nor the Pericos  had the most oblique chance of winning more games than we lost. We were each well-entrenched in the bottom third of the league standings, trying to finish our dismal seasons with a modicum of integrity and dignity.

In other words, it was a game that meant nothing. It didn’t matter in the standings, as I said, and it hardly mattered to anyone’s personal stats. When you play a season of 140+ games, there are bound to be some that matter less than others, and this, to be clear was two of them. I say two, because 19 innings is more than twice as long as one normal game (not that any game is normal.)

In the second inning, after being sent down 1-2-3 in the first, we went up two zip on the strength of a double by our leftfielder, Garibay, and a long homerun, my ninth of the season, by me.

They came back and halved our lead in the fourth and tied us with another run in their half of the sixth.

We were swatting the ball with some authority, while our arms were mowing their men down. We were threatening to score almost every inning, but somehow we kept pulling bonehead plays, like being tossed out trying to steal or being thrown out advancing by a good chuck from the outfield.

In any event, we were knotted at two at the end of the sixth and then, nothing. Neither the Pericos nor the Saraperos put a man across the plate from the seventh inning till the 19th, when we squeezed a run in on a bunt single from Brutus Cesar and a run scoring double by Garibay.

I had my ups next and hit another long ball to left center, like the homerun I hit—almost to the exact same place, only two feet shorter, and it was snagged on the warning track by their centerfielder Jhonnie Spatola, who later played two seasons in the big leagues for the Detroit Tigers.

Like I said, you can tell a lot about your team and your teammates when you’re in the middle of an almost eight-hour ball game and you’re suffering through 16 consecutive scoreless inning.

First we were, as I said, swatting the ball well and we were all sitting on the edge of our bench cheering each other on. But as the evening went on our brains and our bones got tired.

If, say Buentello, our backstop got on and was left stranded by Angel Diablo, our all glove, no bat short stop, we’d get on Diablo’s case. We were stranding men left and right—getting on and unable to bring anyone across with the winning run. We were all getting up in each other’s asses.

“You suck, Diablo.”

“No, you suck, Adame. A fly ball would have brung Bustamante in and we’d be home right now.”

“Fuck you.”

“No, fuck you.”

By the 14th inning, it was already past midnight and we were all bone-tired and at each other’s throats. Things only got worse in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th.  Everyone one was ragging everyone else, cursing their very existence and wishing they had taken over for their old man in his butcher shop rather than becoming a ballplayer and playing in front of something like 240 people in Pueblo, Mexico at 2AM.

Finally, in the top of the 19th, Salome Rojas, our cleanup, whose bat had been quiet for the night and was something like 0 for 11 on the evening, got a clean opposite field squib and hustled as much as his limbs could move his 250-lb. frame.

Hector yanked Rojas off first and put in a rook, Canizerro to pinch run, and a good thing. I was up next and whiffed, but Bustamante, a pinch hitter followed me, batting for Miguel Torres, and he ripped one to right that bounced to the wall and brought in Canizerro with the go ahead.


We sent Sanchez out in the bottom of the 19th, usually a starting pitcher, but the only arm we had left. Canizerro, by this time, had been put in at left while Bustamante filled in at first with Garibay off to right to accommodate all our batting and running substitutions.

It was obvious to us that this wasn’t our best defensive line-up, but after 19 innings, we were playing who we had and running on fumes.

Sanchez grooved one that I just missed getting a mitt on and their leadoff was on with an inning opening double. Sanchez gave their next batter an intentional walk, hoping we could get a double play, instead their guy hit a long fly to left that Canizerro lost in the lights and dropped and their guy at second scored on aggressive running and a throw from left that missed the cut-off man.

It was knotted again, 3-3. At least it was tied for a minute. Until a line drive to Bustamante tied him up and that error let in their fourth run, their winning run.
Saraperos       0 2 0    0 0 0    0 0 0    0 0 0    0 0 0    0 0 0   1  -  3   21   3
Pericos           0 0 0    1 0 1    0 0 0    0 0 0    0 0 0    0 0 0   2  -  4     6   0

We had lost.

19-innings, eight hours. And empty.

The homerun I’d hit to put us ahead back in the second, 1/3 of a day ago meant nothing now.

I walked with Hector to the locker room.

“Homeruns de ayer no significan nada hoy,” he said.

Yesterday’s homeruns mean nothing today.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam.

Last night, amid the typical crisis of work at work, I left earlier than everyone else--at half past seven. I had a good excuse.

Serendipitously my first two friends from high school happened to be in the city. We were a small rumble of kids when we were 13. 44 years have passed since then without the three of us getting together, but the planets aligned last night and together we got.

We went to an Italian place down the block from my apartment. It's a fairly typical upper east side restaurant. The portions are small and the prices are huge.

Of course, none of that mattered.

We sat at a cramped table--three old men, a little grey at the edges, a little soft in the middle--and we were ninth-graders again.

We did last night what we did then. We told jokes, confessed secrets, presented baroque stories we remembered about growing up. Each of us in our own way is--in the parlance of today--an excellent story-teller. And by application, each of us, in our own way, is a good listener.

We know, intuitively I suppose, that good stories--real stories--are like wine. They need air to bring out their full flavor. And just maybe, again like wine, they grow with age.

Like I said, it had been literally 40 years since we had last been together--at someone's high school graduation party. Where we all were too drunk. And driving home we made another kid sit in the back with his head out the window because, as they told me I said, "he just threw up his pancreas."

40 years is a long time. And truth be told--logistics and distance and responsibilities being what they are--it might be the last time the three of us are together. None of us are what you might call a "joiner." We are all three avoiding our high school reunion later on in October.

No, we had our reunion last night.

The laughter and the pain of growing up.

The laughter and the pain of being a grown up.

We thrashed it around for four hours.

Toward the end of the evening, I told my friends that I remembered a line from the movie "Stand by Me." At the end of the flick--a look back on a boyhood adventure, the narrator says "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone."

Does anyone?
Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam
(The brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long - Horace)

THEY are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
            Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
            We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
            Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
            Within a dream.

            --Ernest Dowson

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Yer out!

Yesterday was a shitty day.

A really shitty day.

A shitty day that's followed about eight weeks of shitty days.

A bunch of us are in the throes of launching a fairly gigantic amount of new work.

The deadlines are as tight as a fat man's belt.

Approvals like getting water from a stone.


In any event, I was feeling downright   l   u   g   u   b   r   i   o   u   s.

And as I was walking to the men's room, past the ping-pong table, an errant ball bounced quickly and wildly by me.

All at once I was 17 again and back in the Mexican League.

I deftly back-handed the speeding ball, without breaking my stride. Out of my peripheral vision I saw one of the ping-pongers coming toward me to fetch the ball.  I flipped it to in a perfect gentle parabola.

We made the perfect double-pay.

It was 40 years ago.

When things were so much simpler.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

If I ran Volkswagen.

At it's "Lemon," "Think Small" best, the best of Volkswagen's 55 years of great advertising did more than sell cars.

The best ads--over the span of decades--sold a company. And they sold that all too rare value--perhaps the rarest value, integrity.


Volkswagen's ads were about cars, yes. But they were great because they exemplified a belief system that was counter to the dominant Detroit complacency.

VW, it's people and its cars were honest. Uncorrupted. Unadorned. They didn't bullshit.

Has all that been lost?

If I were the new CEO of VW I'd do something very simple. I'd buy for everyone of my employees and everyone of my dealers the book, "Remember those great Volkswagen ads." (You can buy it here.)

Companies, like people, lose their way.

They are lured by sex or mammon and make terrible mistakes.

This book could help VW find their center again.

Not bad for $50.

A look back.

Years ago I worked at a mid-sized shop called Rosenfeld and Sirowitz. You haven't heard of the place, but in the 70s and 80s it was a fairly well-respected mid-sized agency in New York, and I think in 1983 or so had won the epigram as 'mid-sized agency of the year.'

Ron Rosenfeld was the youngest person ever inducted into the copywriter's hall of fame and probably won more awards while at Doyle Dane than anyone. His partner, Len Sirowitz also hailed from DDB and was in the Art Director's Hall of Fame. I went there, as a young copywriter, thinking I'd have direct access, that I'd be able to learn at the feet of two advertising legends.

However, by the time I joined the agency in 1988, both Ron and Len seemed less interested in doing great work than in making great amounts of money. They were no longer prodded by Bill Bernbach. The agency's output slunk toward mediocrity.

Still, I was a young writer and had to go over my copy with Ron. Much of what I was doing in those days was pretty copy heavy, including a lot of radio.

I suppose Ron was pretty lonely sitting in his gigantic office overlooking 5th Avenue. If I went in there to go over something, I could easily be there for two hours and leave not knowing what the hell he wanted me to do.

So I devised a strategy to get Ron's approval without having to endure Ron. I would have his secretary call me as he was getting up to leave for lunch. I would then hustle from my office to his and intercept him on the way to the elevator. That 20 yard walk plus the minute or three we had to wait for the Otis was usually enough to get clear direction and permission to move ahead. Ron wasn't about to let a piece of copy get in the way of his lunch.

I stayed at Rosenfeld for just 20 months. And then went to work for two more Hall of Famers who seemed to care more about the work, Amil Gargano and Mike Tesch, at another agency no one has heard of, Ally & Gargano.

Neither place was a bed of roses.

I guess no place is.

But, as the recently deceased Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by watching." And I guess I did, picking up little niblicks of learning and experience along the way.

And most of all continuing to do work that I think is good.

Really. What more can you do?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Alibi Ike.

[apologies to Ring Lardner]

His right name was Francis X. O’Malley but if you ask me, his middle initial, X, stood not for Xavier like it said on his birth certificate, but for “excuse me.” Because O’Malley was almost always making excuses.

He wasn’t a bad guy, really, Frank wasn’t. Outside of the office—stuck in some Midwestern airport or at a seedy bar after another awful client meeting, you wouldn’t mind, really, bending an elbow with him and having a drink or two, provided he could figure out a way to get the client to pick up the tab, which he usually did.

But the thing that really made Frank the object of so much scorn in the agency was his ability to make excuses for almost anything, large or small. It was my partner, my art director who gave him his nickname, after being told, naturally, we had some print ads due in just three hours.

I came back from lunch and Tom said, “Alibi Ike dropped by, he said we have some print due for a meeting with the client at the end of the day.”

I glanced at my watch. It was already 2:15.

“Alibi Ike?” I asked.

“Frank O’Malley. He always has a good alibi when he lays something like this on you.”

“He’s not much of an account guy,” I answered, “but he’s the best excuse guy I’ve ever run across.”

I picked up my desk phone and called the bastard.

“Ike,” I said with no attempt at an explanation, “why can’t we have more time on those ads?”

“Oh, sorry about that,” Alibi Ike apologized. “I just got a call from the client. There’s a big sales meeting, tomorrow, in Cincinnati and they need the work tonight. I’m sorry I just found out about it.”

“They didn’t know,” I responded “about the sales meeting last week?”

But by that time Ike had already hung up the phone and my partner and I had too much work to do to keep arguing.


We rushed through the ads, Tom and I, like we always do. And while they may not have been Clio winners, they were better than serviceable.

“More than they deserve,” was Tom’s typically laconic response.

We walked downstairs at 5, the time O’Malley set up to see the work. We sat for about 15 minutes in the designated conference room but of course O’Malley didn’t show up.

“Ike,” I emailed him, angry “you made us jump through hoops to get these ads done, then you didn’t show up for our 5. What gives?”

Neither Tom nor I heard anything all night. No response whatsoever came from O’Malley until I was hit with an email at about 8:15 the next morning.

“Sorry for the short notice. I had to bolt early last night. I had a filling fall out,” Alibi wrote. “Can you make it to the client for a meeting at 8:30?”

Of course I couldn’t. By the time I read his email, the meeting had just about started. And the client was way up in Connecticut.

I sent Alibi a flame mail: “First, you give us a mere two hours to do two weeks’ of work. Then you don’t show up for our internal review. Then you go to the client without us. THIS HAS TO STOP.”

In an instant, I received an apology from Alibi. “My bad,” he wrote—apologizing—“My cell phone was out of juice and the client’s in a dead zone anyway. But they loved the work. I’ll fill you in when I return.”

When O’Malley finally got me and my partner, Tom together to discuss the work, it was two days later at about 12:30.

“Let’s talk about those print ads. The client loved them.”

“Let’s do it later,” Tom said, “We were just about to grab some lunch.”

“I’m sorry. The changes are due back at 1:30. Their email was stuck in my inbox from yesterday so I just found out.” He handed me a copy of the ads we had created. It was covered with red ink—“corrections” from the client. Those “corrections” included a set of mandated headlines and mandated copy.

“This is a disaster,” I said. “She’s rewritten everything. You said she loved the ads.”

“She did and she wanted me to thank you for your hard work. She loved the work, she really did.  She just loved her work more. Make these changes and the work will be a big hit at their meeting in Cleveland.”

“I thought you said their sales meeting was in Cincinnati.”

“The outskirts of Cincinnati,” he replied calmly. “Where Cincy’s metro area runs into Cleveland’s.”

I didn’t have the strength left to tell him that the two cities were hundreds of miles apart. Besides, we had changes to make.


All this happened many years, many agencies and many holding companies ago. Somehow, as you might expect, Alibi Ike’s ability to make excuses was, in the circumstance of agency life, his ticket to the top. The more excuses he made, the more promotions he seemed to get.

Though we lost touch, I followed his career from afar. He made an excuse for the loss of a major automotive account, and got a promotion to managing director. After the losses of an insurance company and a big box retailer, he was made head of a large agency.

When he reverse-grew that large agency to the size of a mid-sized shop, having lost a fast-food account and a soda, he was promoted to the deputy head of a holding company.

I saw O’Malley—Alibi Ike—Thursday night, I was working late on some forsaken piece of business and he was coming home from an awards ceremony. We shook hands, chit-chatted and promised we’d get together soon.

I expect he’ll get another promotion before long. He still has his touch.  I was rushing to the 6 when his car pulled up. He said, without skipping a beat, “I’d give you a lift but my car is empty.”

Monday, September 28, 2015

Morning in New York.

The Pope has left town, which clears the roadways a bit but taxi-drivers all over New York are still grumbling. Not only is the UN in town, which ties up the east side from Albany to Sao Paolo, Obama will be in the city today for a one-on-one confab with the shirtless wonder, Vladimir Putin.

My driver this morning was spitting nails. To him the leader of the free world, the leader of the non-free world and the leader of one-billion Catholics were all conspiring against him, all working in some sort of cosmic conspiracy to slow down traffic and make it hard for a guy--a guy with kids and a family at that--to make a living.

Add to that the fact that he has sciatica and it's pretty obvious that something's rotten in the state of Egypt, which is where he emigrated from seven years ago,

The Jewish doctor from Maimonides in Brooklyn wants to take an MRI because, well, his entire left side is crippled with pain.

"You're probably doing the thing that is worst for you," I offered. "Sitting all day is no good for you."

"You sit at a desk or in a taxi, what are you supposed to do?" He countered. "My Jewish doctor, he is a good man, tells me that every two hours I have to park my car and take a 10-15 minute walk."

I commiserated. "I had sciatica a few years back. It's debilitating."

"You had the MRI? You had the surgery?"

"No," I answered. "I started walking more, started wearing better shoes and over time, it's seemed to have abated. I only feel it now when I am stressed."

"Stress," he said with the wisdom of Solomon.

We drove in silence for a few blocks and then he said, "On Friday I was on 34th and Fifth. I was stuck there for 40 minutes as the Pope drove by. His car was as far away as that white one." He pointed to a Ford LTD just a few cars ahead of ours.

"My passenger climbed into the front seat to see better. I said 'you don't need tickets to see the Pope in Central Park, he is right here.'"

"I'm sorry I missed him," I laconicked.

We had reached the little Puerto Rican deli where I pick up my second cup of dark brown water they call coffee. It's not a great place, the coffee is lousy and it's none too clean, but I like the guy behind the counter who always takes me in front of the UPS drivers and construction workers getting their big breakfast orders. He also always laughs at my jokes, which I usually pull from "The New York Post," which is in a rack adjacent to the linoleum counter.

I said to the counterman, "You made the Pope an egg sandwich?"

He laughed at that as I knew he would.

"Next time," he answered bagging my java. "Next time."