Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Far from home.

I am out in an outer-borough this morning. Once again a stranger in a strange land. Far from the streets, charm and filth of my thin spit of land, Manhattan.

It seems that in the past five years or so half of the world has moved out here. Be-whiskered and tattooshioed denizens in flannel fairly kvell when speaking of their cobblestoned home. I'd wager the Dodgers--who left this borough just before my birth--have more fans in these now-rarefied parts than they have in the City of Angels.

Look! There's Pee Wee Reese. Here's "Oisk" Erskine chatting with Preacher Roe. There's Campy, Junior and the Duke. They're all still here. Still thriving in the land that invented the ironic sandwich and artisinal potato chips.

I, for one, can't pass Delancey Street, in Ol' Manhattan, without whistling Cole Porter. "It's very fancy, on ol' Delancey Street, you know/The subway charms are so/When balmy breezes blow." And Manhattan will always always always be home for me, no matter where I live.

But here I am.

In the Manhattan of the outer boroughs.

If I'm not back in an hour, send out a search party.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Thoughts from inside the MRI machine.

I had an MRI this morning, a look inside my shoulder to see if the previous x-ray look inside my shoulder was accurate.

As I was entombed in the machine, in the too-hot room, amid the noise, amid nothing to do for 20 minutes but try not to get claustrophobic (fear of Santa Claus) I began thinking about how badly things have turned. How we have become such a litigious, cautious society that we test things, then we test the tests.

If I wrecked my shoulder when I was a kid, I would have been told to ice it, then probably do some light lifting and stretching until I strengthened it. That's not the way we do things today. We over-examine everything. From shoulders to pixels.

Some weeks or months ago when the copywriter Julian Koenig died (I wrote about it here) I discovered that his eponymous agency Papert Koenig Lois published a hard-bound book at the end of each year that featured that year's work. They were titled, laconically, "Papert Koenig Lois: The First Year" and "Papert Koenig Lois: The Second Year."

I ordered, eagerly, the books and have them now. Two things or three strike me.

First, for a relatively small, upstart agency, they produced a boat load of work each year.

Second, they probably didn't half produce double the work and test their way into running what ran. If what they produced didn't work, they yanked it and produced something else. Until what they produced did work.

Third, most of the work, with stylistic updating could run and could be effective today.

Years ago I blurted a line that I think is germane today. "We keep idiot-proofing our work. They keep making better idiots." By that I mean if your "remit" is to keep finding things "wrong" with an ad or a communication, you will eventually "correct that communication to death."

I think that's the case with most ads, most communication, most human intercourse.

It's all so overwrought as to be practically useless.

I started my career working at the in-house advertising agency at Bloomingdale's. And I spent five long and labor-intensive years shepherding the retail account of what at the time was New York's largest retail bank.

I pretty much wrote an ad a day.

If Bloomingdale's rug department was crowded, I wrote a good ad. If it were empty, I had to write a new one.

We are much more sophisticated today in our measurement and analytics. We can tell that our ads are performing under norms of left-handed one-legged dog lovers with Libertarian leanings. We chuck all that data into the great data Cuisinart and harrumph in meetings and talk endlessly about it over bad coffee and worse spread sheets.

It's wrong.

It isn't helpful.

But, I suppose, we can tell our mothers how smart we are.

(We'd all be a little better off if we were a little dumber.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

The great white way.

Some months ago in the chill of winter, my wife, younger daughter and I were walking through the crowded streets of what's left of Little Italy. (Little Italy is being squeezed out of existence. Asians are encroaching from the south, hipsters from the north.)

Outside one of the many restaurants that still thrive on Mulberry Street, a young man dressed as a cannoli was handing out flyers for a restaurant and posing for pictures. My daughter stood with him, I snapped a picture and began to walk away. He hustled over to me with  his cannoli-ized hand out. "Don't forget to grease the cannoli," he said. I gave him five bucks.

This weekend a man dressed up as Spiderman who plies his trade over in Times' Square was arrested. He demanded five dollars from a photo-snapping tourist who was only willing to part with a single. The police got involved, Spiderman hit the cop and got hauled in to Midtown South. Since then, five other "characters" have gotten arrested. Preying on tourists is a popular sport though illegal.

The front page of "The New York Post," a Murdoch paper.
In the photo above left you can see a cop wrestling with Spidey as well as some of the other denizens of Times' Square who pose for profit.

Certainly when Damon Runyon held court at the crossroads of the world, life amid the neon and hustle was slightly more rarefied. Men still wore suits, ties and fedoras. The seams in women's stockings were always straight, and even the girls in the chorus of the "Hot Box," protected their virtue whenever possible.

Times' Square is squarer than when I was a kid. The porno places and the prostitutes have been shooed to the internet and the classifieds of the Village Voice. There's a Disney Store there now and pretty much every retail venue that you'd find at the Peoria County Mall, just with ruder sales help and flashier signage.

Of course if you look hard enough you can find trouble still. As Damon Runyon said, "I've come to the conclusion that all of life is 6 to 5 against."

Those aren't bad odds, really, 6 to 5. They're enough to keep trying, fighting and struggling.

Just remember as you go through your daily struggles, "punch in, punch out, keep your guard up, and most important, don't forget to grease the cannoli."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A ride to Rye.

Whiskey woke me early this morning. I know we're supposed to believe that our domesticated animals have only marginal intelligence but she clearly knows when the weekend is here. She pawed at me and hit me with her limpid eyes. "Dad, get ready," she said. "It's time to go swimming."

I complied, quickly getting dressed and quickly getting everything ready for our half hour's drive up to Rye. She jumped in the backseat of our 1966 Simca 1000. The mechanic I found, a heavyset Croatian man named Lothar, has the machine running better than ever. The engine turns over at first ignition and then purrs like a powerful tiger.

I drove out to see Lothar after work on Friday. He had said he had a little bit of work he wanted to do on the car and I could wait around his small garage while he finished it. He emerged from under the hood after 30 minutes and said to me "Patek Philippe. She will now run like a fine watch."

While I was writing him a check for the modest amount of money he asked for, he went into his ramshackle house which is attached to his garage. He came out minutes later, screen-door banging carrying a large, grey box. Wordlessly he handed it to me.

"A gift," he said, "for the love of the Simca."

I said he shouldn't have and then opened the lid of the box. Inside was the Homburg hat you see pictured above.

"In my country," Lothar continued, "a Simca is a distinguished car. No one drives one without wearing a proper Homburg."

I tried the topper on and it fit perfectly.

"Lothar, I'm flattered," I said. "Proudly. I will wear it proudly. Even to the beach."

"Yes. Even to the beach, you must," he said.

So this morning at 7AM, we were off for the beach. My wife and I in the front, Whiskey bouncing in the back, me in my Homburg.

Looking good, I must say.

Looking good.

Friday, July 25, 2014


"One never knows, do one?" 
I have, I've been told by my orthopedist, a FOOSH injury, an injury so common they've given it its own acronym.

FOOSH is not, as I suggested, a contraction of Foolish and Shithead. It stands for Fall On Out- Stretched Hand.

This makes eminent sense since that's what I did. I fell on my out-stretched hand and damaged my rotator cuff. Hopefully the pain will be alleviated through nothing more invasive than physical therapy. Though I'm sure I will never pitch again, perhaps one day I will have again a catch with a son-in-law or a grandson or grand-daughter. Perhaps not. As Fats Waller used to sing, "One never knows, do one?"

FOOSH injuries are endemic, I think, to the world we live in. We suffer minor hurts while protecting ourselves from major ones. Surely falling on my out-stretched hand was preferable to falling on my out-stretched nose.

The world has been a pretty shitty place of late. Planes have been shot out of the sky in eastern Europe, rockets rain indiscriminately, it seems, over the Earth's open-wound, the Middle East. Of course hardly a day goes by without a car bomb killing 16 in one of the -Stans or their neighbors. This morning there was a report on the radio about our latest botched lethal injection with quotations from the murder victim's sister saying that the murderer deserved the suffering he suffered.

Things have been awful enough in the world who knows they might even have pushed an American mass-shooting or two off the airwaves. I guess school's out. There hasn't been a school shooting for over a fortnight.

All that said, as a planet, we keep going. People still worry about their tans, leave early for the beach, post photos of their latest blue drink or barbecue. Foolish Shit.

I think that quotidian stuff is our FOOSH. It's our way of breaking our fall.

It's how we bear the larger pain of life on Earth.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

My shoulder.

I played ball pretty regularly for about the first 20 years of my life. Baseball was, in fact, the love of my life: I lived in a Mantleian Universe. My world revolved around Mickey Mantle.

For all my strengths on the ball field, my throwing arm was my finest. When I played third base, I could zing the ball across the diamond and beat a fast runner who had hit a slow roller. When I played the outfield, I routinely nailed runners injudicious enough to try to take an extra-base. And when I took to the hill, for the most part, I methodically mowed batters down with Teutonic efficiency.

In all my ball-playing years, through all that throwing, I never had an arm problem.

But today, as the specter of old age increasingly sucks the sap out of my body, I am going to the orthopedist.

Three months ago, I fell in the dog run, chasing Whiskey and as I broke my fall, I wrenched my shoulder. Bumped up and bruised, I didn't go to the doctor right away. After last year's medical travails, I had had enough of doctors. Besides, I had always healed on my own.

Not this time.

My right arm is dead. I can hardly move it at all without pain. In fact, even typing hurts.

Today we'll see what gives.

My wife tells me that the esteemed doctor I'm seeing is the team orthopedist for the New York Knicks.

I hope I turn out better than they have.

Long form thoughts.

Every day on a variety of ad blogs and trade magazine websites, I see "brand videos" that run to two minutes, three minutes and some times even more.

Often, and I'm being cynical here, these videos are inspirational stories about someone who lost their legs and how such-and-such deodorant allows them to, despite their disability, live full lives. I have a feeling if outer-space beings somehow viewed these videos they must think that our planet is inhabited by a race of people enhanced by prosthetics.

But lack of legs is wholly besides my point.

My point is one of length.

I am conditioned to tolerate a :30, or maybe a :60.

What reward are you giving me in return for the time it takes me to view something that's three minutes long? What value am I getting for my time?

Somehow I think smart advertisers need to look at the value exchange viewers are getting from all the crap we can and do produce. It was pretty clear when TV was free. Commercials paid for the shows we watched.

It's not so clear today.

We pay to get online. We pay for TV. Yet we're still charged for our time.

The way I look at it is this: A three-minute video takes 1/40th the time it would take me to view "Citizen Kane." Did I get something 1/40th worth of entertainment, information, craft or thought?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A hot day in July.

It's hot and humid in New York, the air a heavy soup of sweat and steam. It's the kind of weather at least for me, when you'd be better off in your skivvies, sipping something blue or chartreuse and dangling your feet in the cool of sea.

Of course, this being New York, all that is impossible. This morning, like every morning, scores of people were galloping their way to work on every manner of conveyance--bus, bicycle, train, car, feet, skateboards and more. Damn the weather. Damn the sweat and stink. This is New York.

That said, the bus I take to work moves at more or less New York's average surface speed. The 3.78 miles distance from my home to the office I'm working in took the M31 a full hour to negotiate. If it weren't so sickly hot, it would likely be faster to walk.

I've always looked at bus rides with a Paul Simon set of lenses. "She said the man in the gabardine suit is a spy. I said, be careful, his bow tie is really a camera." But no one people-watches anymore. No one, it seems looks up from their phone or their pad.

If I were a Marxist, I'd bring some sort of dialectic to bear and talk about the alienation of modern man. And maybe our binary cocoon is evidence of that, evidence of a digital insularity that protects us from unwanted human contact.

That's pretty deep-dish, however, for a hot day in July.

And I've got work to do.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


It's funny (haha) when you're cut loose from a job, or when you decided you've had enough, or you just decide you want to go it alone.

You feel stripped. Eviscerated. Gutted like a fat bluefish.

There are moments, or weeks, or maybe even months of panic.

You're adrift, rudderless.

Last night I thought about the Old Man who went 84 days without catching a fish.

It can feel like that.

One day when I was feeling like that, I had lunch with an old, wise friend--a headhunter, in fact.

We talked about the business and my search for work. Every time she mentioned an agency or person who might be looking, I cut her off. "I know so and so there," I'd say. "I already reached out to him."

She didn't get exasperated with me as so many do.

She summed up my career.

"You've done your homework," she said. "You've kept up-to-date. You have a good reputation. You've worked at the right places. You'll be fine."

Then she paid for lunch.

Now I'm about 17% busier than I'd like to be. Juggling not my usual three Indian clubs but four or five of them, with maybe a chainsaw mixed in.

That's ok.

That's when you're alive.

I like it that way.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Not on advertising.

It occurs to me that one of my favorite advertising blogs, Rich Siegel's "Round Seventeen," often has little if anything to do with advertising. Today for instance Rich writes about, among other things, sheets, pillowcases, mattresses and the power of our better halves.

My modest blog is much the same. Though I write about advertising and life within agencies when I am able, when there's something interesting or important, more often than not I write about other crap. Shit that happens to me on the bus going home or a story that knocks into me somehow.

The other day I was listening to a show on our public radio station called "Performance Today." In it the host Fred Child interviewed noted pianist Steven Osborne. Swimming against the tide for a top-flight pianist, Osborne said he doesn't practice eight or 12 hours a day. He said, in effect, that living life to its fullest, not just in a practice room is what makes him a good pianist. It's the experience of life that informs his playing, not just practice.

It occurs to me that in our highly professionalized world, too few people in advertising partake in the experiences of life. The fact is most young people these days seem to enter the business via ad schools that make the creation of ads an academic exercise rather than a living one. 

Therefore, I believe, too many ads have a sterility that is void of human insight. We shout things to consumers but rarely empathize with them. Because we rarely think of humanity. We're too busy thinking of Cannes judges.

When I think of the great ads of the 60s or 70 or even the 80s, many of them touched on some of the pains we feel as we navigate the shoals of life. Volvo talked with sensitivity about the burden of never-ending car payments--and how Volvo's (which they claimed lasted an average of 11 years) could alleviate that burden.

VW talked about the impact of planned obsolescence on your pocketbook and the high price of repairs and gasoline. Hertz talked about the pain of business travel--the late nights, the unfriendly faces.

The humanity I see in work today is most often a contrived one. Look how happy baby-wipes or Toyotas make people, they seem to proclaim. Or Doritos or flying to London.

It's all because we spend so much time studying advertising instead of studying people.  Because awards shows determine the efficacy of our work not real people.

If you want to do good ads don't try to do good ads.

Try to do something real and let the chips fall where they may.

You might start by reading Rich's blog.

It has nothing to do with what it's all about: advertising.