Friday, May 26, 2017

On the way to the Cape.

Tomorrow morning, my wife will load up our small car with a large amount of luggage. We will barely, I'm sure of this, be able to close our trunk. I will get silently pissed at the crap she is bringing and will breathe through my mouth and fulminate. But eventually, we will hit the road and drive the 200 or so miles to Cape Cod.

The first time I drove to the Cape was 42 years ago when I had a 1964 Mercury Parklane with no transmission fluid.

My friend Jack and I had figured out the logistics. Summer in those days was 13 weeks long. If we worked 12 weeks and made $100/week (minimum wage was $2.30/hour) we could afford to spend $100 on a week in Cape Cod and still have enough left over, $1100, for our college expenses.

Jack sat in the bucket seat alongside me, and Freddy stretched out alone in the backseat. Our crap was in the trunk and I had rigged up a portable cassette player through the cigarette lighter and we played tapes of the Beach Boys and the Beatles as I sped up the New England Thruway with the roof down.

We were 17. Full of muscles and youth and fear and hope. We were friends as only 17-year-old boys can be friends and we were happy to be together, like fish in a school, but sad, too, because this, we knew somehow, was our last hurrah. We'd be going off to different colleges (I'd be going off to Saltillo to play ball) and we knew we'd never have friends like these friends, ever again. No one ever does.

We drove up in the sunshine and the laughter and the loneliness and unknown. Six hours after leaving New York we arrived at a ticky-tacky motel, with a small heated pool in-front and balconies strewn with colorful striped towels hung out to dry in the sea air. We were meeting others up there and seven of us collected in a kitchenette then ran across the asphalt to the small beach across from the motel.

We drank beer and ate meatball subs and played wiffle-ball for hours and swam in the too-cold-sea and looked for long-limbed blondes with no parents about, and, we hoped, as happy and sad and full and as lonely as we were. 

Happy Memorial Day.

Dear friends and readers,

I'm taking the next week or so off from work. Next week is Ad Aged's 10th anniversary, so I will continue posting as I have so assiduously since 2007. But it's not unlikely that I will not be writing, while I am away, as often and as regularly as I usually do.

I'll be back in the office, hopefully renewed on June 5.

Have a safe and peaceful Memorial Day.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

How to write the perfect headline. A demonstration.

Some time, some time soon, some bright-eyed agency person, or enthusiastic go-getter on the client side, or some be-whiskered futurist somewhere will declare "the death of copywriting."

They will talk about a program of artificial intelligence that will spit out headlines laden with computer-selected words that have been PROVEN to stop people in their tracks and lead directly to sales.

A chorus of choristers will proclaim from the daises of a thousand drunken conferences that THIS WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING. The neo-alchemists of our century will once again proclaim that they can "turn base data into gold" and make every ad, by machine-learning, an effective ad.

Yesterday, I happened upon this site which purports to have an algorithm and a specialized vocabulary of 1,000 or so effective words, and a few other theorems that add up to the equivalent of advertising's Holy Grail: a headline with stopping power.

The site begins with a simple question: "How engaging is your headline." I filled the proper space with perhaps the greatest headline of all-time. 

Think small.

That earned a 38. A below average score.

They suggested I can fix the headline by following their simple suggestions:


    Increase headline length

    Where's the brand?

    Use more Alert Words

    Talk about the body

    Try adding a celebrity
I complied with the following headline. Having done all  I was asked to.

I increased the length.
I added the brand name.
I used Alert Words.
I talked about human body parts.
And I added a celebrity mention.

I replaced Think Small with this:

"Warning. Alert. When you think about Volkswagen think with both your head and heart, use the strength of your brains and the sinew of your arm, and think about a very small Volkswagen--the likes of which Kim Kardashian would drive."

That earned me a perfect score.

My personal belief--and I abide here by the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw who said "the power of accurate observation is often called cynicism by those who haven't got it," that within six months my headlines and those of hundreds of other will be fed into algorithms like this by wayward souls passing as marketers. 

There will be countless requests to "fix" our lines according to "The Algorithm That Must Be Obeyed."

It's a good thing in modern office buildings windows don't open.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fight night.

When I was 17 and playing ball in the Mexican League, it wasn't unusual to find me, after a game, in a dark and smoky bar with a bunch of my team-mates trying to drown the woe of the world.

Looking back on it, I'd say that just about every guy on the Seraperos had early-onset drinking problem. There was hardly a night where there weren't nine or 11 or 17 of us in some joint bending out elbows, carousing, looking for women and generally drinking away our collective failures. 

As Jorge "Snuffy" Afortunato, our back-up middle infielder used to say, "No traigo mis problemas a casa conmigo. Los dejo en una docena de bares por el camino." I don't bring my problems home with me, I leave them in a dozen bars along the way.

One night I was sitting in a booth with a bunch of my teammates. Issy Buentello was there, I remember, because he fairly came to my rescue. But I don't remember anyone else.

Anyway, we were sitting in a booth and drinking cervezas and eating sandwiches piled high with indiscriminate meat. All at once an arm came over the bench I was sitting on. It came from the other side of the bench. The ass the arm belonged to had decided to stretch out and extend his wing willy-nilly.

I had had more beer than I should have and drunkenness more often than not makes me mean. "Hey," I yelled at the arm. And I pushed it back over to his side of the seat.

The arm flopped back.

"Andate a la cresta." Fuck you.

I pushed again the arm away.

"Hijo de puta." Mother fucker. "Mantén tu brazo de mierda de la madre en tu lado o te haré comerlo." Keep your motherfucking arm on your side or I'll make you eat it.

The arm flopped over again, the barroom equivalent of someone kicking sand in someone's face.

I stood up. He stood up. And we began a Socratic dialogue.

"Fuck you."

"Fuck you."

Finally I said something about his mother, a burlap sack full of hoboes and him not knowing which one was his father.

He round-housed me square on my drunken jaw and I went down like a sack of flour through a chute.

Buentello, 6'2" and about 220 popped out and helped me up. I tackled him and we rolled on the sawdust for five minutes slugging at each other despite being wrapped up.

"Mother fucker."

"Mother fucker."

When we finally got up, breathing through our mouths and glaring at each other, Buentello was making peace.

"Let me buy you mother fuckers a beer." He said laughing.

The arm said, "And let me buy you mother fuckers a beer."

We drank that night till four, buying our mother-fucking friends beers all the way till closing.

And the lead mother fucker kept his arm to himself.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Repeating myself into oblivion.

For all the decades-long bombast about the death of TV, I can't be the only one who swims against the tide. 

When I get home from work (if I get home from work) the last thing I feel like doing is having a "conversation with a brand." The fact is, many nights I barely feel like having a conversation with my wife. And while I might interact with my five-year-old golden retriever, I certainly don't feel like interacting with a plastic wrap, deodorant or potato chip.

Some nights, what I feel like doing is interacting with my arm chair. Having a sandwich, a glass of seltzer and watch the Mets lose walking away.

But TV has a problem. 

Because "no one watches TV anymore," or because of our near universal lust for mammon, there is very little programming on. Watching TV has become the video equivalent of viewing a Val-Pak--one of those envelopes you get in the mail stuffed with nothing but coupons for carpet cleaning and moving services.

The problem with TV is that there's no TV on TV anymore. Last night, I got home in time for Final Jeopardy! There were literally seven minutes of commercials and promotional announcements, two minutes of show, then seven more minutes of commercials.

On top of that assault, there's the fact that you now have to pay for TV twice. Once when you pay the monopoly that controls cable in your area for the privilege of watching. And again when you pay with your time.

People don't hate TV.

They hate being screamed at by commercials. And they hate being used by cable companies.

I can't be the only one who gets home at night as tired as a dog. To be honest, if there were re-runs of the old Donna Reed show, sans commercials, I'd turn it on in a heartbeat.

There's nothing wrong with TV that civility, moderation, respect and courtesy on the part of broadcasters and cable companies wouldn't cure.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Taxi philosophy.

Today, I have a four-page ad in "The New York Times," and "The Wall Street Journal."

As old and weather-beaten as I am, as obscure and defunct as print seems to be as a medium, as excruciating as various hours and days were leading to the ad, for me, a guy who was raised on print, there is little that compares to having an ad in the paper. Little that matches the feeling of having the Times delivered to your door and opening it up and seeing it there. Somehow, it never gets old, at least for me.

The other night, having logged 17 or 18 hours at work, I hadn't the patience to deal with my usual car service and decided instead to take a plain-old yellow taxi home.

It was one-AM and 11th Avenue, only barely part of Manhattan, was eerily deserted. Even the usual rats which roam the streets had decided to scavenge further east in the populated sections of town. There was little traffic on the street and it took me a good five minutes to bring down a cab.

Eventually, however, an old Checker stopped for me. I checked the driver's hack license and saw his number was in the high hundred-thousands. He had been driving, in other words, since before I was born, nearly 60 years ago.

He began the conversation.

"Verking late?" He drew heavily on a foot-long corona and exhaled a New Jersey-sized cloud of blue smoke that smelled like my father.

"What choice do I have," I answered as much like Philip Marlowe as I could.

"You do what for a living?" We were speeding up 10th Avenue at about 50 miles per against the empty roadway.

"I'm in advertising." I answered. "For now anyway. There's not much left of the business."

"Dere's not mooch leff of enny business," he said, turning east on 65th Street. "Butchoo like whatchoo do, or you woon't be doing it," he said.

I rolled that one around in my brain for a second trying to think of something witty to say.

"Beats unemployment," was the best I could come up with. I was working on very little sleep.

"Look," he said as he eased the cab in front of my apartment house. "This you should remember. If I were a philosopher instead of a cab driver, this would be on a bronze plaque in the museum of deep thoughts."

"G'wan," I said, exiting the vehicle.

"Remember this," he said. "Somedays you're the pigeon. Somedays, you're the statue."

And with that, his cab disappeared into the night.

Friday, May 19, 2017

A long long week.

Man-o, man-o-shevitz, as the old radio spots for Manishewitz kosher wine used to declare. It's been a week from the 17th, or 29th ring of hell, or to whatever subterranean depths Dante, led by Virgil, descended.

About 30 or 40 of us have stayed late every night for about two weeks running to get a raft, no, not a raft, more like an air-craft-carrier's worth of work shot, writ, designed, approved, re-approved, re-re-approved and finally out the door.

Often on Facebook, friends of mine will post pictures of a woodworking project they are working on. Or the picture of a 30-year-old Porsche with its engine removed. One of my friends built a wooden dory--the sort you'd see in Victor Flemings' 1937 classic "Captains Courageous." Sleek, well-made, finely crafted.

I can't do anything like that. In fact, there's a drawer handle in our spanking new and obscenely expensive kitchen that I can't seem to re-attach correctly.

My craft, I'm lucky here, is my profession. It's making ads where, I hope, every word and image count and work together to influence and persuade.

There is, and there always will be, at least two types of people in the world, and in our business. The predominant ones seem, to me, to be theorists. They can talk at a macro-level about the exigencies of agency models, the modern vicissitudes of the world, the changing nature of the landscape and the fickle whims and caprices of human nature. These are the generals who move small pieces around giant maps in theoretical battles against real or theoretical enemies. Then there are the troops--the men and women those pieces represent. 

On the ground, building a boat or a dining room table, replacing an automobile engine or making ads, you don't really have the luxury of theory. Castles in the air seldom sell anything but castles in the air.

You have to make things work. You have to do it.

I know I'm coming to the end of my time in the business. Not next week, or even next year. But every day, I feel more and more an anachronism because I focus more on dove-tailing pieces of wood beautifully together than on either the propagation of my personal brand or the winning of awards of, to me, spurious import. I don't want to go to Cannes. I want to write copy.

Couple that with my voluble personality and soon, I suppose, someone "upstairs" will say, what the fuck is that loud, old trouble-maker still doing here?

That's ok.

I'll go out, I hope, fountain pen in hand, writing a headline, or a making a muddle of complicated crap simple, or ragging a bit of copy so it looks right to the eye.

I'll go out, I hope, like Ted Williams. Though I'm no Ted Williams. A home run in his last at bat.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nobody asked me, but....

"Nobody asked me, but" is my occasional tribute to the great New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon. When Cannon could think of nothing on his beat to write about, he'd type out one of these.

Nobody asked me but...

...of all the shortages of the world, we are most short of grown-ups.
...I don't trust people who use the word "model," as in business model.

...In fact, the trouble with the advertising business model, and with almost all other business models, is that no one thinks they have to pay for anything anymore.

...I also don't trust people who post inspirational homilies on their Facebook and LinkedIn feeds.

...I unfriend a lot of people.
....I think Donald Trump will be out of office by July 4th.
....And Rex Tillerson will go down, too.
....I'm not a violent man, but I'd like to use Paul Ryan as a pinata.

...Never try to eat a steak with a plastic knife and fork.

....Whenever it's 91-degrees like it's supposed to be today, I think of Ogden Nash's great poem: "A bit of talcum/Is always walcum."

...Not enough people these days know Ogden Nash.

...I'm no longer a baseball fan, but I do wish I could cut out of the office on a cool afternoon, grab a beer and a dog and watch a game.

...I'd probably last four innings, and choke on a $9 hotdog.

...I think I'm the last man in America who shaves every day. 

...I feel like a bum when I don't shave.

...I wonder how many people will be wearing wool caps today in 91-degree heat.

...When you're heading downtown, 5th moves better than Park. Take Park and you could wind up writing your daily post in a taxi.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A life lesson.

I got into a bit of a row with my wife last weekend. Usually, she is a breathtakingly level-headed woman, but this row involved a leaky faucet and I just couldn't get her to see things my way.

"Just look up on the Internet what to do," she said, arms akimbo. "They must have a dozen or 17 You Tube videos on fixing leaks."

I sipped at my viscous cup of coffee and tried to stay calm.

"Not only am I too big to fit under the sink," I reminded her, "you know I'm rather beefy, I know nothing about plumbing."

"Plumbing schmubling," she replied with unusual eloquence. "Plumbing is like making ads. A good idea can come from anywhere."

"Well, yes," I said, "o tempore, o mores," I mumbled under my breath with all the wisdom and distance I had acquired from studying Latin for ten years at the short end of a whacking pointer.

"A good idea can come from anywhere," I said, "so therefore, you're saying anyone can fix a persistent drip."

"Look who's being a persistent drip, now" she one-upped me. "Just get under the sink and fix it."

Again I demurred. "If, god forbid, I got under the sink and had, while stuck in the pipes, a mild infarction, you, I assume would perform the necessary angioplasty yourself."

"Of course I would," she said bull-headedly. "I could learn all about heart surgery from You Tube and Wikipedia. I happen to believe a good cardiologist could come from anywhere."

"You have had a tough week at work, I take it."

She nodded vigorously, having made put a fine point on it. 

We stopped bickering. And I called a plumber.

13 Yiddish Curses for the Modern Ad Agency. (A repost.)

Yiddish is nearly a dead language. But when it comes to curses, it remains a vibrant one. I was the butt end of a lot of these when I was growing up. It's surprising I didn't grow like an onion.

In any event, I thought it made sense to update those curses for today's eminently curse-able ad industry.

1. May your agency be bought by a French holding company that only one day
earlier merged with a colony of fire ants.*
* A tip of the Yarmulke to Josh Tavlin for this one.

2. May the client remove everything good from your copy
except for one line, and may that line no longer make sense.

3. May you be sent to a two-day offsite and attend so many meetings
that you shit Powerpoint decks in the morning and vomit Excel at night.

4. With each powerpoint that you sit through,
may your nose grow another hair.

5. May the agency’s food co-op run out of kale.

6. May you grow like a deck, getting
fatter and more meaningless by the minute.

7. May your office be open plan,
and may everyone each lunch at their desk,
and may every day they eat liverwurst.

8. May your client get two months to do research,
may your planners get two weeks to read the results,
and may you get two days to do the creative.

9. May your client realize the disparity between social media hype
and reality and may you be held accountable for it.

10. Let there be a creative department shakeup,
and may the new head have won awards only for ads that never ran.

11. May the wool hat you wear inside all summer
grow tighter each time you talk about user experiences.

12. May your beard grow lice and may each of those lice
tell you what’s wrong with your design.

13. May your holding company announce large bonuses
but may they be exclusively for people who don’t need them.