Friday, January 20, 2017

A night and a lesson.

Last night was one of those nights.

One of those sad-sushi-under-fluorescent-lights-in-a-conference-room kinds of nights.

Over the years, I've probably had a thousand such nights. Maybe at some point in the evening you find yourself staring into your hands and wondering why.

Last night there were probably 30 of us there.

I don't pander. I try not to bullshit. 

I'll be laconic about it: it was fun.

Thirty people passionate about their job, their work, their challenge, their clients. Thirty people straining to find the one right word, or perfect picture, or that ending that makes you smile.

Thirty people who give a shit. Who care--deeply care--about their craft.

Widows were excised. 

Jokes were honed.

Points were sharpened.

I've been to the four corners of the country--from New York, to San Francisco, to Boston and back to New York. I've been in more than a dozen agencies.

For all the shouting about how the agency model isn't working, for all the bs about marketing being dead, or television being dead, or the internet being dead, or being post persuasion, post interruption, post everything, there's one thing good people, good clients and good agencies have in common.

We love what we do.

Bad sushi notwithstanding.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A warning.

One day, not so many years ago, I was coming back from a client meeting with a group of my agency colleagues. 

Because there were a lot of us, or maybe because someone there with us was sufficiently far-removed from the work and, therefore, senior-enough to warrant it, the account guy had ordered a Black Car, a Chevy Suburban to take us uptown.

Usually, typically a la mode for agency-life today, we were left to our own cab-hailing prowess to get back to the agency. 

Cabs are less-expensive than Black Cars, and the likelihood of you going through 20 minutes of Concur-expensing for a $14 reimbursement, slimmer. But today, because some member of the agency cognoscenti was with us, we were riding in style.

Of course, I was the last one getting in the car. At that particular time, at that particular agency, with that particular account, I was always being asked to stay behind and proffer a scintilla of what passes for wisdom in our increasingly vapid world. That is to say, the client hung on my every word.

In any event, when I finally extricated myself from the 98th floor, I was fairly jogging for the SUV. I reached for the door handle and tugged at it assertively, not knowing the door was locked.

I tugged hard.

The door handle, the two-pound chrome door handle of a late-model $65K Chevy Suburban came off in my hand.

This is all to say, and to remind people:

Don't fuck with me.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Lessons from Joe Biden.

Leading up to the Presidential election, I had convinced myself that Hillary Clinton would lose.

Agent Orange had a great tagline: "Make America Great Again." Which was about us.

Clinton had nothing memorable but the insipid "I'm with her." Which, of course, was all about her.

What Clinton didn't do was give us something to hold onto. Something we can remember. And rally around.

I'll admit, I'm old-fashioned.

After all my years in advertising, I think I've learned a total of two things.

1. Good creative matters. It has to be watchable and it has to breakthrough.
2. Repetition matters. Find a succinct message and repeat it over and over.

I just came across a front page article in "The New York Times," that speaks to these points. In it Vice President Joe Biden tells a Times' reporter that he gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in July. He said: “If you live in neighborhoods like the one Jill and I grew up in, if you worry about your job and getting decent pay. If you worry about your children’s education, if you’re taking care of an elderly parent, there’s only one person in this race who. ...” 

He recited the speech then looked up to the reporter and sighed: “I wish to hell I’d just kept saying the exact same thing.”

Almost a century ago Will Rogers, the cowboy/political commentator said, "I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat."

And in this past election lack of organization cost the democrats. 

Rather than one succinct message, Clinton trotted out a different one for each constituency.

Advertisers do the same thing even more perniciously than politicians. By tailoring messages to every specific audience they dilute their impact.

By trying to be something to everyone, they are nothing to no one.

Even with today's smaller budgets we create digital work that's meant to appeal to every microscopic slice of our audience according to where they are in the "funnel," or the "cycle," or some other cockamamie MBA-New-Speak.

The first job of advertising is to define what we are selling. We never do that. Instead we create specific messages to brown-eyed, left-handed, ladder-owning Buddhists with a two-car garage.

We have a million messages in market and they aggregate into nothing. They are confetti before a high-speed fan. They scatter in the wind.

I wonder if all advertising since Bernbach and Rosser Reeves has been a tremendous waste.

Maybe it's just me and my age, but if you ask me to name five taglines, they're likely not to be from the fractured media era, but from the three network one, when messages were consistent and persistent.

Compelling. Consistent. Persistent.

That's how you win.

Sorry, Joe.




Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Somber Tuesday before the Inauguration.

Comrade Trump's latest outrage is to insult John Lewis, a Congressman from Georgia (the American state, not the former Soviet republic.)

I am not one who embraces heroes. I've always held to something I read years ago in Mark Harris' classic novel "Bang the Drum Slowly." That is a line spoken by Red Traphagen, Harris' brilliant Moe Berg-esque catcher and the Mammoth's resident philosopher: "The only hero is a man without heroes."

Even so, if you insist on having heroes--or if you cotton to people who have lived their lives heroically--you'd be hard-pressed to find a better, stronger, more noble man than John Lewis.

Lewis' head was the target of billy clubs and pistol butts from one-hundred-and-one anti-Christian racists. He's spilled more blood for our country and the alleged principles our nation was allegedly founded upon than a thousand Trumps.

To insult Lewis is to insult conviction, honesty, fair-play, belief, and America itself.

We live in a strange and confusing world. In our industry we seem to lust after concocted awards given to imaginary work. 

We seem to occupy an Empire of Illusion, where nothing is real and we want to believe that bromides and platitudes will feed the hungry, bring peace to the world and reverse the tide of rising seas.

I know. 

This is depressing for a Tuesday morning. 

But on this coming Friday, we will inaugurate an empty-headed psychopath to occupy the highest office in the land, a man who believes only in himself, an ill-informed, immoral and probably illegal bully.

His bashing of John Lewis, the bloody-headed son of sharecroppers and a 30-year Congressman is only the latest of Clockwork Orange's latest assaults.

And we, it seems are going gentle into America's good night.

Leaving the reality-based world with a whimper.
--
Seven frighteningly relevant minutes.
http://www.jbs.org/video


Monday, January 16, 2017

Only the dead know the Bronx.

Last night, we fired up my 1966 Simca 1600 and drove over the world's most rutted roads to the Belmont section of the Bronx.

I have a special affinity toward the Bronx. I guess like the fondness--solicitude even--I've always had toward underdogs. I guess you could say the Bronx is the most underdog of New York's five boroughs, even moreso than Staten Island, of which the less said the better.

The area we were in was ravaged in the 1950s and 60s by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, then further ravaged by the four horsemen of the urban apocalypse: 1/ white flight, 2/ poverty, 3/ lack of city services and 4/ drugs and crime.

Somehow, while the lower middle-class area of East Tremont was destroyed, the adjacent area of Belmont/Arthur Avenue survived. It survived as an Italian enclave amid the fury of a decaying world.

We found a small restaurant on Arthur Avenue that looked like a scene from a Vittorio De Sica movie. I half expected to see an old bicycle thief, or at least some men smoking cigarette butts and plastering posters on the old walls.

We ate and ate and drank and laughed. I thought for more than a minute about giving up the fleshpots of Madison Avenue and my fairly expansive Manhattan apartment, and finding a small two bedroom with rickety floors and steam heat to wake the dead, facing the back and just becoming one of the neighborhood mugs, sitting in a ratty old bathrobe and drinking a bottomless cup of coffee while I read the paper from front to back.

But soon, our meal was done and it was time to return to earth. We piled back into the Simca and drove the backroads into the city. 


On Webster Avenue and East Tremont, I was stopped at a light and saw this car stopped in front of me. I felt like getting out and buying the driver a beer, hopefully getting to the bottom of the story behind his plates. But it was late and I was pretty sure my ever-loving would not approve of me consorting with the dead.

So, we drove home, quietly and without incident. 

Perhaps I'll find out another day.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Happiness.



This is Whiskey, my almost five-year-old golden retriever. 

This morning, after I suppose, a typically strenuous week at work, as I fell out of bed, Whiskey was pacing the hardwood.  She seemed to be telling me and my wife with every step 'I'd like to go to the beach.'

We gobbled down our breakfast. I drank my wife's viscous, 'the-spoon-stands-up-in-it-coffee," and we piled into our 1966 Simca which was completely rebuilt by the world's-leading Simca-man, Lothar. Lothar is a Croatian who lives Toms River, New Jersey. He could make your hat run all-day at 60 mph if you gave him a set of wrenches and an hour or two.

The only issue with the car--a car my wife is urging me to replace--is that the heater doesn't work. Lothar, no matter how he tries just can't make it happen. So we bundled up, the three of us, with Siberian-surplus winter-wear and heavy woolen blankets and we headed north.

Just about 30 minutes north of New York city-limits is a peninsula jutting into the Long Island Sound, called Greenwich Point Park, or Todd's Point. 

Non-Greenwich residents aren't allowed in the summer, and dogs are permitted only from December 1st through March 31st. But to Whiskey--and to myself and my wife--it is fairly heaven-on-earth. 

There is the marsh you see pictured above. High-grass and small berms separated by the inflow from the Sound. There is a mile long beach populated by romping dogs. And a three mile unpaved route around the whole expanse that gives Whiskey access to a variety of topographies in which to romp. 

One minute she might be climbing on the large boulders of the sea wall, the next she might be chasing gulls away on a small slice of beach made up of thousands of years of oyster shells. And the next she might be running across a snowy field or fetching something in the underbrush of an old-growth forest.

Every weekend morning I can, god and Simca-willing, we head to this spot, or to a few other beaches I've found along the Westchester-Connecticut-coast. It's an advantage I enjoy for having lived in New York for virtually all of my 59 years. I know the area like the back of Whiskey's paw.

So I walk with my wife and my pup, and I toss her duck decoy (you can glimpse of it to her right in the photo above) and she romps and returns it to me.

It's not much really.

Just a couple hours a week of absolute peace, when even my almost ever-present scowl is transformed into a satisfied grin.

It's not much.

It's just perfect.


Friday, January 13, 2017

"Now is the Winter of our discontent."

Or as we say in advertising: "Now is the Winter of our Discount Tent. Come on down to Tent King, on West Pico, right next to Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, and save 20%, 30%, 40% or more on every tent, every sleeping back, every air mattress. It's the Winter of Discount Tent Tentathon and every tent must go."

That's all to say, I've had a rough start of it this morning. A rough start just hours after last night's agency holiday party.

First, I had an early meeting with a young man who wants to break into the creative side of the business.

I was in a car heading west, making progress, early enough so I could even do a smidgen of work before my 8:30 meeting.

Then, I noticed that my front tooth--tooth #24--the tooth that has bothered me since I fell down a flight of stairs over 55 years ago, well, I had forgotten to insert my temporary prosthetic tooth.

I looked like a wizened and aged Alfred E. Newman.

So I rolled out of my car and rolled into a cab. 

"Help me," I said to the driver. 

We hustled to my apartment. I ran upstairs. I got my tooth and ran back.

The cabbie waited and we sped to my office.

Early and fully dentified.

Smile.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

In which I struggle.

One of my favorite quotations of all time was noted by Czeslaw Milosz in his book "The Captive Mind." It's a book about artists and intellectuals living under Communism in the early 1950s. Milosz attributed the epigram below to an ancient Jew from Galacia. 

"When someone is honestly 55% right, that's very good and there's no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it's wonderful, it's great luck, and let him thank God. But what's to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he's 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal."


As a creative, I struggle with showing my own creative work. Work that I sit down and write--often by myself. Often in the early morning when I type and where the only other sound's the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.

Even though I am a "boss," have written approximately 10,000 ads, and have been doing this for almost 33 years, I get nervous even when I show something as dopey as a banner.

I guess the reason I like the quotation above is that it describes how I feel when I do work.

I don't show things I don't think are good. I don't comment on things just for the sake of speaking. But still, who can be sure?

That's why I struggle.

What if it sucks.

So often our job is to put ourselves out there. To try to solve something tough and intractable. And maybe it's a bit like baseball, where you're a great success if you hit the ball safely three times out of 10.

So I struggle. Struggling with whiffing seven times out of 10.

Even when I come through, which often do, I struggle.

Because putting yourself out there, exposing yourself, is never easy and opens you up. It makes you vulnerable.

But I guess that's ok.

After all, it's life.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Alibi Ike. (A re-post.)

(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.”





Woeful Wednesday.

The weather outside is lovely.

Especially for mid-winter.

Especially considering what it's been.

Especially considering that it seems the world is over.

Or at least, Barack Obama's era of Hope.

Some weeks ago, I started reading a short book by Naomi Orestes and Erik M. Conway called "The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future."

I put it down right about the time global warming had inundated the entirety of Scandinavia and most of the east coast of North America.

You know, on page three.

Theirs was an apocalyptic vision. A vision based on what happens when the government denies facts and denies science.

And this was before the American Fauxlection in November.

Where a pissant man, a petulant bully became the most powerful human on earth.

Preston Sturges, America's greatest-ever comedy writer, wrote in "The Palm Beach Story" a line that I keep thinking about today. 

He said, "That's one of the tragedies of this life--that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous."

It remains to be seen if anyone--any party, mass-popular movement, or resistance can beat up Clockwork Orange. 

It remains to be seen what revelations will come out.

Or if, in these doctrinaire times, if truth and goodness matter at all.

I can turn to Faulkner now, but even he, in my present mood sounds hollow.

I'm not sure if we will prevail.

Or if this is the last ding-dong of doom.