Friday, January 31, 2014

The Thief of Baghdad.

I realize the title I posted above, in this politically-correct day and age, is anything but politically correct. It has, however, entered our consciousness. And, to me at least, entered my store of stories about the industry.

I first heard "The Thief of Baghdad" applied to a writer many years ago. Naturally, it referred to his propensity to steal other people's work. As well as his ethnicity.

My friend, Sally Hogshead once said to me, "You have two things in this business. Your portfolio and your reputation."

As far as I'm concerned, if you're a creative and you steal other people's ideas, you are more than dead to me. You are burning eternally in the darkest corner of the rottenest meeting room.

In the pitch I'm engaged in, my partner and I quickly arrived at a place everyone loved. But of course, this being the era oppressive-non-hierarchal-everyone-has-an-opinion-and-the-right-to-say-something-democracy, the other creatives on the pitch were not dismissed or not reappointed to help me and my partner. Rather they were given time to take our work and smoosh just enough to "theirs."

I got news for you tattooed ladies and bearded men.

It ain't yours.

You stole from me.

I might not be able to do anything about it.

But I will never forget.


Uncle Slappy goes to the theatre.

Uncle Slappy called last night, as he does so often. The fact of the matter is, Uncle Slappy is more of a father to me than my own father ever was. And though he is as hale and hardy as you can be at the age of 86, both of us know that neither he nor I are getting any younger. Every conversations and every visit we have, therefore, is something we hold dear, something not to be taken for granted.

“Aunt Sylvie,” he said “and I went to the theatre last night.”

“That’s odd,” I answered. “The last time you went to the theatre, you saw the Boca Raton Player’s interpretation of “My Fair Lady,” with the 71-year-old Minnie Abramovitz as Eliza and the 92-year-old Milt Goldfarb as Professor Henry Higgins.”

“Interpretation was putting it mildly,” Uncle Slappy corrected. “If I remember, and at my age, who knows if I do, the Players retitled the play “My Fair Shiksa,” and Higgins was teaching Eliza how to make kreplach.”

“That sounds about right,” I answered. “What did you see last evening?” I was immediately sorry I asked.

“Well, Aunt Sylvie bought a prescription to the Boca Players. So now we'll go every few weeks. Last night we went to “The Book of Norman.”

“You mean Mormon.”

“No,” he said, “Norman. The story of Norman Rabinowitz, a struggling schlemiel as he tries to sell his Bildungsroman in New York publishing circles.”

“Oy,” I said, issuing my standard response.

“Oy is right,” the old man echoed. “There wasn’t a single song you left the theatre humming.”

“That’s too bad. I know how you like a good musical number.”

“Rogers and Hammerstein it wasn’t. But next week, maybe, next week might be better.”

He let a long pause intervene to build tension leading up to his punch line.

“We are seeing “Cats,” he said. “As in K-A-T-Z.”

And with that, he hung up the Ameche.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


Years ago when I worked on IBM at Ogilvy, I was having quite a nice run. (I've written about this before, so skip this post if you've heard it already.) During this run, it wasn't unusual for me to have two or three full-page 4-color ads in "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal" on a single day.

So-called colleagues, of course, resented my success. They thought my success at producing ads came from the strong relationships I had developed both within the agency and at the clients. They thought, somehow, that I could write just about anything and it would magically appear unmolested as a headline in the Times.

The truth, naturally, was different. I keep very thorough files, and each ad I produced was the product of dozens and dozens of headlines and twenty or so re-writes of the copy. What looked easy from the outside looking in was the result of hours and hours of labor.

Because the ad industry today lives in an Empire of Illusion where the best we produce never actually ran for real clients, many people mistakenly believe that they have the right to be frustrated if actual clients change their work. They think everything should be as easy as a phony ad.

Life however is not phony.

And the trick to surviving in our business isn't fake ads. It's doing the thirty rounds of real ads and not letting them be ruined along the way. In fact, it's about making them better along the way.

I'll close this with two thoughts.

The first is from Bill Bernbach, who purportedly carried a card around in his wallet. It read: "Maybe he's right."

The second is from my mentor, Steve Hayden, who said: "The best revenge is a better ad."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Jonathan Swift on Advertising.

For the last few hours, and for whatever reason, I've had a quotation from Sir John Hegarty rattling around in my head. Maybe it's because the biggest television event of the year is looming, maybe because I've been ensconced with a bunch of "mobile and social strategists," or maybe, likely, I'm just in another of my prodigiously bad moods.

In any event, here's Sir John's quotation:

"...One of the other problems I have today is people have retreated to the edges of advertising. You know, they’re happy to do some small little campaign somewhere or they’re doing something on the net that hardly anybody sees and they’re getting awards for it and everybody’s cheering. But they’re not changing the way people feel or think."

I can't help but think that as creators of marketing communications we are acting, these days, like Lilliputians assailing Gulliver.
We annoy consumers with millions of miniscule messages that have no material effect.

We shoot hundreds, literally hundreds of messages at the consumer, none of which have the size, accuracy or power to make an impact.

Here's a confession.

My wife and I used to have a large basket in the front foyer. We filled it with our mail.  After about two months, we probably had collected about 30 pounds of mail. Most of it stayed unopened.

The same, of course is true of our in-boxes. Last I saw my wife's Yahoo account, I think she had over 7,000 emails unread.

I have never seen a single frame of syndicated content, or responded to a tweet from a brand, and have seldom responded to a banner ad.

I think we've lost the plot.

We've retreated to the edges.

We're firing tiny arrows.

We're annoying, and we're having no impact.

To strain the metaphor, our audience is swatting us away.

None of this is to say TV is wholly effective--especially given DVRs, lack of attention span and so forth. 

But it seems to me that you must be noticed to be considered.

And if I had a brief blink of time to influence a consumer, I do it with the blow from a sledge, not a pinch from a tweezer.

My boy Luke can write 50 Manifestos in an hour.

A pain.

A deep, grumbling, jaw-clenching pain.

A pain like the wrath of god--the wrath of all the gods.

A pain that doesn't waver, doesn't diminish.

A pain that starts in your gut.

That shortens your breath.

That slows your walk.

That doubles you over.

And doesn't leave.

A pain.

A pain not understood by family, or friends, or anyone else.

Like Ahab and the White Whale, you are alone with your pain.

It will conquer you.


You will conquer it.

You will rise.

Straighten yourself.

And fill your lungs with air and hope.

You will deal with the pain.

You will vanquish it.

You are stronger than the pain.

Because you have made it to the toilet.

And flushed your pain.


After the all-nighter.

I'm working on a pitch right now, which is fine.

I like working on pitches, and I like working with my partner and I like kicking the asses of whomever I'm competing against. That's my nature; I have always been competitive. Either my work carries the day, or I've failed. There's no second place.

I'll admit, since I joined my agency 50 months ago, they have pretty much put me out of pasture. I don't get called on a lot of assignments, and mostly they just leave me and the business I run alone.

The fact is, since I'm twice the age of most of the other people in the joint and because I work hard to eschew the jargon and the trend-spotting bullshit of most of my peers, I think they just don't know what to make of me. Bad companies, I've often said, have boxes that they fit people in. Good companies let people expand into open space. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

But back to the pitch.

My partner and I quickly came up with an idea that was almost universally liked. In the 24 hours since it was praised, we've done two things. Yesterday until around midnight, we tried to make our initial idea better and broader. How could we make it unassailable? Then from midnight into the high single-digit hours, we came up with alternate campaigns.

That's right, we worked around the clock. Or nearly so.

At some point, I guess about 15 years ago, a few agencies started writing manifestos for pitches and big assignments. These were grandiloquent articulations of the brand. Its purpose, its soul, its promises, its driving force.

I worked on a lot of these and became very good at writing them.

They were effective, these manifestos, because they were a unique way of expressing your agency's point of view.

Now manifestos, usually short 100 word pieces litter the sticky carpet tiles of hundreds of conference rooms across the country. We write manifestos for everything. Usually to rationalize a tagline.

I bet not one person in a hundred can cite a tagline that isn't 20 years old. When I think of one, the only that come to mind come from the inundation period of advertising. So "the quicker picker-upper," pops up, "fly the friendly skies," "we try harder," "two two two mints in one," and so forth.

Nonetheless, this is how things are done today.

Don't ask why, it just is.

Bigger minds than mine have decided so.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How to have a baby.

Since, at 56, I am an wise old owl in the agency business, and since, I suppose, I have somehow managed to raise two kids and still keep my career going, people occasionally ask me how I did it. How I found time to care for my marriage, my children and my portfolio. I thought I'd lay out some thoughts that may or may not be useful.

1. Start your day earlier than most people. I've found that the end of the day (when asses schedule 90 minute meetings starting at 6) is harder to control than the beginning of the day. So wake up early, get to your kid's school early. Carve out some time to have them sit in the crook of your arm and read to them. I probably did this 90% of all mornings when my kids were young. And no matter what happened at work, at the end of the day, I had that time.
2. Have a regular weekend activity, just you and your kid. Take them out for ice-skating lessons, or to swim class, or tennis lessons. Swimming is best because you get to hold them. Make this virtually inviolable. Whatever else happens in your week, you had these special moments over the course of years.
3. Find a work partner who understands. If you need to get home at a reasonable hour and your partner needs to work all night, well, that's no good. Find someone who understands, someone who is strong if you're weak, someone who trusts you and who you can trust.
4. Find a boss who understands. If you're boss is an intolerable martinet and expects you to work till midnight every night (people who work till midnight every night aren't doing so for any other reason than they hate going home) find a new boss.
5. Find a spouse who understands. There's going to be some juggling, and some deal-making. Better doing that with an ally than an adversary.
6. Get to work 20 minutes before everyone else. Or more. I get in, and always have, first. I come in with my agenda for the day mapped out, with most of my to-do's partly done and with most of my copy written in my head. By the time people get in, say around 10, my work is pretty much done, and everyone else is back on their heels. Doing this also earns you the reputation of being crazy-driven, fast and a go-getter. Usually all it takes to earn that reputation is an extra 20 minutes or so in the morning.
7. Involve your kid in your work. I don't mean tell them about every detail, but let them see how much you enjoy what you do. Kids, like parents don't want to deny fun to others.
8. Missing a recital is not the end of the world. As long as you don't miss them serially, and as long as your kid knows how much you wish you were there, you'll be fine.
9. Missing a meeting is not the end of the world. Most meetings, if we organized our agenda, thoughts and next steps, should take no more than three minutes. You can miss a meeting and if you play your cards right, miss nothing at all.
10. Make the most of every moment. At home and at work. When you're at home, be at home, be with your kid. Not your email. And when you're at work, work like a madman. Get things done, be prolific, be funny and fast. That's how you handle both. By doing a good job with each.

Never underestimate the hubris of a brand.

Verizon, fucking Verizon, has taken over the Empire State Building for a social-media-driven light show. Verizon, fucking Verizon, asks a question each day about the game, and depending on consumer responses, the lights on top of New York's iconic skyscraper change color.

I think I've made it clear.

I hate Verizon.

I hate their artless Nazi-runic double logo.

I hate every bit of marketing they've ever done.

I hate their name emblazoned nearly everywhere.

I hate their extortionate pricing and their abysmal service.

The fact is, I hate everything about them.

But this is a new low.

Even though it's not Verizon's fault someone somewhere has decided to "merchandise" the spire of New York's most-famous building, Verizon is exploiting it in the crassest and ugliest way.

Look, I'll make this simple.

The top of the Empire State Building should always be white. The tower should always look like an old silver-gelatin print.

What's more, the Empire State Building belongs to New Yorkers. Don't fucking sully it with your arrogant commercialism.

I hate you, Verizon. More than fucking ever.

Monday, January 27, 2014


There was a report this morning on "National Public Radio" that I think is worth reading about or listening to, depending on how you prefer to consume media.

You can read it here or listen to it (3:48), here.

Basically, it's a story, like the story of our industry, of too much noise. In the case of hospitals, like Boston Medical Center's 7 North, nurses and other staff were hearing 90,000 alarms a week. What was happening, of course, thanks to that onslaught of noise was that alarms were being ignored.

Deborah Whalen a clinical nurse manager at the hospital said: "Alarm fatigue is when there are so many noises on the unit that it actually desensitizes the staff. If you have multiple, multiple alarms going off with varying frequencies, you just don't hear them."

Nationally, this not hearing of of alarms has led to more than 200 deaths in 2011.

It seems to me that we in advertising are precipitating our own form of alarm fatigues. I'll call it message fatigue. Where back in pre-internet days an advertiser would produce maybe ten customer-facing communications a year, today we produce scores, or hundreds, or thousands or more.

Just last week, I reviewed and approved 72 social media posts for a client. This is probably 5% of what they send out annually.

Message fatigue doesn't kill people like alarm fatigue can.

But it does deafen customers.

The every-second-onslaught of drivel has turned them off.

The signal to noise ratio is all off.

I think we'd all be better served by fewer, bigger messages.
PS.   When I was a kid, I had a summer job as a game-room-attendant at an amusement park called Playland in Rye, NY. The game-room itself was probably 30-feet deep by 50-feet wide and had probably 40 pinball machines in it. As you can imagine, it was a cacophony.

My first few days as an attendant, I couldn't sleep at night. I kept hearing bells and buzzers and dings and dongs in my head. But after a week or so, I got used to the din. And went back to sleeping like a baby.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


There's a new book out that warranted a front-page article in today's "New York Times." It's 1,250 pages long, has no plot and no characters and is set in 5.5-point type.

The book is called "And Every Single One Was Someone." It simply prints the word "Jew" six-million times.

You can read the "Times" article here and order the book from Amazon here.

The author, Phil Chernofsky, had this to say about his book. "When you look at this at a distance, you can't tell whether it's upside down or right side up, you can't tell what's here: it looks like a pattern. That's how the Nazis viewed their victims: These are not individuals, there are not people, these are just a mass we have to exterminate."

Much has been written over the past few decades about the death of the book and the death of the written word.

This book seems very powerful to me.

And very much alive.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Uncle Slappy interrupts my meeting.

Uncle Slappy called me a minute ago--on my cell phone and while I was at work--both of which worried me. Uncle Slappy almost invariably calls on my land-line, and in the evening, when he knows I'm home. Cell phones, in his eyes are for special calls, for emergencies. Nonetheless, my iPhone vibrated while I was in the middle of yet another senseless meeting.

"Uncle Slappy," I said, recognizing his number on caller ID, "is everything ok?"

I suppose most conversations I have with the Old Man start with that phrase. And he returns, most often with this phrase: "Is anything ok?"

"Whatsamatta," I asked.

"It's Aunt Sylvie," he said, morosely. "Again she fell in the grocery. In the fruits. And then, I suppose you heard about Sid Bienstock?"

"Is Aunt Sylvie ok? Her hip?"

"She fell into the avocados when she heard about Bienstock. The news knocked her over. Her hip is as good as can be expected."

"What happened to Sid Bienstock?" Bienstock lived two units away--a little farther from the pool. Distance from the pool is how people in Uncle Slappy's condo community evaluate almost everything.

"He has lost, as if he ever had any to begin with, his remaining marbles. His kids are down this weekend, and back to Riverdale they're bringing him. They got him into assassinated living in the Hebrew Home for the wretched."

After 56 years with Uncle Slappy, I immediately translated his sentence.

"Look," I said, "Bienstock is no spring chicken. And if you have to have assisted living, there's no better place, I think, than the Hebrew Home for the Aged."

"Bleak, it sounds to me," said Uncle Slappy. "The Hebrew Home for the Wretched."

"Uncle Slappy," I temporized "they have activities. You could learn a language, teach Yiddish, go for a swim in their indoor pool. It's not exactly Thereisenstadt."

"Feh," he said with the wisdom of the Ages.

"Besides," I said, "no one's putting you in the Hebrew Home, or Aunt Sylvie."

"Listen," he said to me.

I listened, though my colleagues were motioning me to return to my meeting.

"Listen," he said. "When my time comes, no Hebrew Home for the Wretched."

"No," I answered.

"Leave me in the avocados with Aunt Sylvie."

And he hung up the phone.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Thoughts on seven months of illness.

Today, it's seven months and two days since the Town Car I was a passenger in crashed headlong into a concrete wall at 70 mph on the Grand Central Parkway. I'm going to the cardiologist this morning to see if the heart issues that arose from this concussion have abated.

It's been months since I've felt the affects of pericarditis. Nonetheless I have been on medication to knock it out of my system since mid-September. I'm not a big fan of the steroids I'm on. They make me ravenously hungry and lead to bloating and weight gain. My body has not transformed into that of a Greek god, or even that of A-Rod.

That said, I guess you could safely say, I've been traveling a long road to recovery.

My accident, and my convalescence has given me pause; it's helped me gain some distance from the everyday crap of work.

I'm moderating my passions, attempting to pull back where I can, attempting to put myself and my needs (and health) first. Sometimes it takes a cataclysm to learn this.

I'm also smarter, I think, about who my work friends are. Who's genuine and who just wants me back to squeeze more from me. It hurts me, I'll admit, that after 14 years of Interpublic agencies, I got no get well anything from either the senior management of my agency, or anyone at the holding company. It reminds me, as if I really needed reminding, that they are really not mensches, and selfish at that.

If you're young in the business or if you're old, never forget this. You work for you. If you expect things like loyalty and thanks in return for your brains and passion, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

When disappointment is all you have, find a way to do something about it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Yesterday, I read this quotation on another advertising blog:

"The reality is that digital simply moves too fast to expect everyone to have the expertise brands demand. It is hard to imagine, but the next 10 years will dwarf the innovation we’ve seen from the last. In this evolving world of real-time marketing, platforms, newsrooms, apps, social, invention and whatever happened today — you need digital leaders who can help brands and agencies stay ahead of the pace and places digital is pushing."

What struck me about it is our industry's head-long, almost blind embrace, of innovation for the sake of innovation. 

I do understand the fast-pace of digital change. I even understand that the next ten years may dwarf the innovation we've seen from the last.

What I question is how much of this innovation is lasting?

How much of this innovation is meaningful?

How much of this innovation will have an impact on how we communicate, how we influence consumer behavior, how we help the clients we work for?

For whatever reason, this all calls to mind the old joke. 

It wasn't the Neanderthal who invented the wheel who was the genius. It was the one who put four wheels together who made a difference.

In other words, innovation is masturbation without consumer application.

Frankly, I see innovations heralded as the new new thing about once every three months. No one gets called on the carpet (as if agencies were still carpeted) when these innovations go as flat as a month-old soda. All the oceans of people who spent their days and nights chasing Facebook "likes" weren't fired when the industry realized from a marketing POV those likes were virtually useless. The same can be said for Second Life, Google Plus, and any variety of ephemeral TV-killers.

Innovation is fine, and is to be pursued and lauded.

But only if it is purposeful.

Only if it builds, constructs, influences, works.

Otherwise it is like a shiny new toy from China. 

Fun for about three days until it breaks.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Never trust...

A creative who says, "that's out of scope."

An account person who says, "the client has some concerns."

A client who says, "we need you to frighten us."

A producer who says, "we're running hot on that."

An agency who says, "salaries are frozen."

A social media maven who says, "this will get engagement."

A planner who says, "here's my insight."

An analytics person who says, "this is working because..."

A copywriter who says, "it's as short as it can be."

An art director who says, "stock is fine for this."

Anyone who says, "stock is fine for this."

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Drowning in the Tempus Fugit.

I hadn't been up to the Tempus Fugit for more than a couple of weeks but last night seemed to be a perfect night to drop by. The weather was still mild, mild for mid-January anyway, but it was meant to drop by about 20 degrees come morning and snow--about six to 12 inches, was also forecast to visit us. It made sense for me to beat the chill and beat a path to the beaten reinforced steel door of the joint.

I dressed warmly for my walk uptown, donning a 25-year-old pair of flannel-lined jeans and a thick grey sweatshirt. I think this particular sweatshirt was a holdover from my high-school baseball days, when we would rush the season and practice outdoors before Spring had really broken. The sky was high and blue, the clouds large and cumulus, the temperature still in 30s or 40s. The sweatshirt made to resist that chill was about twice as thick as sweatshirts are today, and though every bit of it that could be frayed is, I still prefer it to anything else I wear.

Whiskey and I brushed past our doorman, momentarily disturbing his digital device nocturne. We headed steadily uptown, walking the near-empty streets with dispatch. Whiskey, who ordinarily sniffs and meanders when she walks, was like a vector. She practically dragged me to the Tempus Fugit.

We walked down the labyrinthine hallways and descended and ascended a series of Escher-like stairs. Before long I had duly arrived at my stool, one in from the end, and Whiskey had settled on the floorboards near my feet. The bartender was quick from behind the bar with a bowl of cold for Whiskey and a glass of amber for me. It was, as always a Pike's Ale, (the ALE that won for YALE!)

I drained glass number one and without a jot of wasted motion, the glass was swept from in front of me, refilled and put again in its place. It was the very picture of synchronicity. I immediately picked up my glass so as not to disrupt the dance.

"I heard a story the other day," the bartender offered, "the story of a tugboat that went down in the Kill Van Kull."

"Not the water I would want to sink in. I prefer something warm, like maybe off the coast of Antigua."

"Nevertheless, the tug went down, and down quickly, in about 90 feet of viscous. They've blasted out the bottom there for depth, for the bigger tankers that are coming now that they've widened the Panama Canal."

"I missed the story in the "Times," I said.

Nine men died. The ship was raised but cannot be salvaged.
"It's not the sort of things they cover in the "Times." The "Times" is more apt to foreign untermenschen than the ones in our midst."

"These menschen were truly unter," I joked.

He ignored that, terrying the mahogany in front of me and re-filling me. He brought over a large glass jar filled to the top with pickled hard-boiled eggs. I demurred and he slid the jar back to its home in the curved corner of the bar-top.

"Nine men died, all veterans of the murk and muck. It wasn't until their bodies were found that they knew there had been an accident. There was no explosion. And it must of happened in the deepest depth of night."

"Around the time I stray up here, I suppose."

"The police finally sent a team of divers to examine the scene. This was a full three-days after she sank. They found the tug upside-down resting on the newly-blasted bedrock not far from the Bayonne Bridge. The divers entered the tug, inspecting it, seeing if it could be raised."
They are raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge 64 feet to accommodate new, larger tankers.

"That's a pretty lonely place," I said, "in a tug, 90 feet underwater, in the Kill Van Kull."

"There are lonelier," he answered, examining his nails. "The divers found a man alive in the tug. Breathing the air in a trapped air pocket. He had been there for almost 80 hours."

"I guess there's lonely and there's lonely."

"80 hours breathing air from a four-cubic-foot air-pocket. He sipped on a bottle of Coke that floated by for energy."

"The pause that refreshes."

The bartender laughed at that and pulled me another Pike's. "They took him to a decompression chamber in Perth Amboy. He was there for 60 hours."

"I'm not sure which would be worse. 80 hours in the Kill Van Kull or 60 in Perth Amboy."

He laughed a quiet bartender laugh and resumed terry-clothing the mahogany bar top.

"I guess you could drown in either place," he said.

He refused the twenties I passed his way.

"Stay dry," he told me.

Whiskey and I did, walking home in the cold.

A waste of time.

Uncharacteristically, I watched a ton of American football this weekend. I seldom watch sports on TV but I suppose because it was uninviting out, or because I was chilling with my daughter before she leaves for her last term of college, I had the games on for a number of hours.

Now I'll admit, the way I watch sports on TV might be unorthodox. I almost always turn the volume all the way down and turn on New York's last classical music station. Watching steroid abuse to the music of Wagner or Mahler somehow works for me. And I find I don't miss at all the banal "insights" of the ten or a dozen commentators saying essentially the same thing over and again.

I happen to think if America wanted to end war for all time, we should have our networks cover it with the same assiduity with which they cover football. I think if we saw every angle of every attack and the concussion of every explosion, our wars would either be #1 in the Nielsens or banned for good.

In any event, the games had good story lines. In the AFC, it was two old-master quarterbacks facing each other once again. In the NFC, it was the two emerging QBs going mano-a-mano.

Like I said, I watched with the sound off and the laptop on. I probably had the TV on for three hours.

It's 48 hours later.

My brain is almost recovered.

And I can recall not a single ad.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The conformity machine.

When my younger daughter was home, she often watched a show on television called "America's Next Top Model." In this show, young women from around the US were processed to meet a preconceived notion of what a model should look like, walk like, pose like and talk like.

If you think about life over the last 50 years, despite all the corporate mumbo-jumbo about diversity, America has become a great conformity machine.

We eat at the same bland chain restaurants, shop in the same bland chain stores, listen to the same bland chain news and express the same bland chain opinions. We don't want questions marks in our life, we prefer the tried and true. That's why our cities look the same, our tv shows have the same laugh tracks, our presidential candidates make the same speeches and even most Hollywood stars remind you of someone else.

I often look at creative portfolios and, these days, almost invariably, there's some navigation that is headed "Awards." A list follows that's as long as a baby's leg. They've won gold here, merit there, silver and bronze. And their work looks like everything else of the last five years. In fact, I fully predict in the next three or six months, some dimwitted brand will do something over-the-top involving caricatures of moms being dragged by caricatures of 70s automobiles. It won for Wieden; it's good enough for me.

The key, of course, to getting noticed is being different. But all the committees, all the comfort-seekers, all the research and focus groups push you in a diametric direction.

No one will get fired for producing work that's already been seen.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Lost, a Love Story.

Hiroo Onoda died yesterday at a Tokyo hospital. He was 91 years old. You can read his obituary here.

Onoda had been a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. When the American army was reclaiming the Philippines in bloody fighting, Onoda's superior officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi gave Onoda his final orders: to stand and fight.

Onoda followed those orders for 29 years. He did not emerge from the Philippine jungle and surrender his sword until 1974. At that point Onoda was given a hero's welcome in Japan. When he was asked what had sustained him while hiding and surviving in the dank Philippine jungle, he said "I was fortunate that I could devote myself to duty in my young and vigorous years." He had nothing on his mind, he said, "Nothing but accomplishing my duty."

Duty, it seems to me, is an antiquated concept in our modern world. We seem more concerned with fashion or artifice than simple human truths. We seem enraptured and captured by the latest latest and so awed by it and the fool's gold of for-profit awards shows that we forget our duty. Our duty to our clients. Our duty to sell. We are way more concerned with what we say about ourselves than what we actually do. I suppose the advertising metaphor is this: we are all sizzle and no steak.

I've spent parts of the last two weeks "supervising" the creation of a social media strategy and 75 posts that will appear of Facebook and LinkedIn. I've never been involved in creating such things before, and I suppose I could say that I am happy, and better off, for the experience.

I've learned something, too. I've learned now what people mean when they say they're trying to get engagement or they're trying to spur a conversation.

This is the world today, and I can't pretend it doesn't exist. And sponsored posts that ask questions like "What's an exercise you could sneak into your day?" are, I'm told valuable to a brand. I suppose at some level they are. To the few people who see such posts and who have donned non-cynical rose-colored lenses, I guess they say the brand is fun and engaging.

A leading Tokyo newspaper, "The Mainichi Shimbun," said this in an editorial after Onoda returned home. "To this soldier, duty took precedence over personal sentiments. Onoda has shown us that there is much more in life than just material affluence and selfish pursuits. There is the spiritual aspect, something we may have forgotten."

I think we have forgotten so much in our business.

I think we have forgotten selling, persuasion and mass.

We use large words and pseudo-science and well-educated illogic to convince ourselves and the clients that pay us that such things no longer matter in the modern world. We have whole companies dedicated to the notion that "new" is the only thing that matters and they have the spurious metrics to prove it.

More and more of us in the business, those who still hold onto some of what were the old verities, I think can relate to Mr. Onoda. To his sense of duty.

But we are left to struggle in a jungle.

And no one wants to repatriate us.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Expensive creative.

I'm not sure if there's a client anywhere who doesn't go to sleep counting the ways their advertising agency is expensive.

It's a constant complaint, and the expense of creating work is always blamed on agencies.

I think the fault is shared. And the client has to step up and assume some responsibility.

Back in the days when we had traffic departments, we had three formal rounds of creative reviews.

Now we have 30.

Literally, 30.

These stretch over weeks and months. Each round often contradicting the round that came before.

Creative development often involves a couple do-overs as well.

Mostly because no one's read the brief, or taken it seriously.

There's an old adage in carpentry: Measure twice, cut once.

Those words can probably be applied to our business.

It would save a lot of money if they were.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Two thoughts on writing.

At least once a week I get an email from an account person or a project manager thanking me for being as fast as lightning.

There are two reasons behind my...celerity.

1. I realized about 20 years ago that really the only time I get in trouble at work is when I avoid doing things. When I procrastinate (which leads, often, to lying) bad shit happens. So when I have something to do, I usually do it now. Now is a good habit to get into. I enjoy not having things hang over my head. I like having a clean plate.

2. I don't actually write until all the words are in my fingers. What I mean is by the time I sit down to a piece of copy or a script, I've already written it and rewritten it in my head. I'm probably no faster than a lot of other writers. But facing the keyboard occupies very little of my time. Which makes people think I am faster than I am.

Wednesday Mendacity Report.

There's a spite machine that fuels the internet. You need only to read the comments on a site like Agency Spy to know what I mean.

Everyone is a hack.

Every commercial is derivative.

Everything sucks.

Much the same attitude prevails within agencies.

Even when I worked on the biggest account in the world at the time (IBM) which was producing literally hundreds of good commercials, there were scores of effete people within the agency who wouldn't deign to work on the business.

Last night I got an email from a client. A few colleagues and I had created a four-minute video for her to show at a conference. It did the job. It was thorough, thoughtful and well-produced. I'm not saying it was "Citizen Kane," or even the "Citizen Kane of Industrials," but it was good and polished.

She wrote a note saying it received "spontaneous applause," from the sales teams it was done for.

Immediately, the emails started flying into my email box. "I'll clear a place on my trophy shelf," said one. "I've already entered it into the One Show," said another. I understand the sarcasm. I'm often guilty of the same.

But what most people don't realize is that work--no matter what career you pursue--is a slog. There's a lot of mucking about and doing the best you can do under the circumstances. The fact of the matter is that some time in your career you may have an adult leakage commercial to do. Let's face it, when Michelangelo was done painting the Sistine Chapel, his wife might have asked him to paint the second bathroom.

Life, and careers, is not about only doing the things you want to do. I wish it were, but it's not. As Tennessee Williams wrote in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Heroes in the real world live 24 hours a day. Not just two hours in a game....The truth is pain and sweat...paying bills...The truth is dreams that don't come true and nobody prints your name in the paper till you die."

That's the truth of work, too. And what's been sullied by the charade of award shows that display anything but the truth (work that's never run created for clients who don't exist.)

We no longer show the truth of work.

We hold this misbegotten notion that somehow we are above doing the hard work of work. And we disparage people who tend to their knitting.

There are literally scores of people, in fact, who produce nothing but decks containing ideas that never become real. Deck after deck after deck, month after month after month.

Or they produce fake work and fake case study videos saying how great the fake work was ballasted by fake metrics that prove it's worked.

To go back to Tennessee Williams, all of us have a choice we make everyday.

It's a stark choice.

The choice between the truth of pain and sweat. That is, dignity.

Or celebrating the shiny, phoney and glib. That is, mendacity.

Collective wisdom.

Man, I'm beat.

We've had two straight days of clients in town, which means two straight days of meetings. Two straight days of airless conference rooms with too-bright lighting. Two straight days of bad sandwiches made by low-wage workers.

It's enough to put me in a worse mood than usual. Two straight days.

Nine days out of 10, I'm the first one in in my office. The motion-sensors sense my presence and the lights flicker on. At the hour I get in, the conference rooms that gird the floor I work on are empty. But in an hour or so, when most other people get in, they're full, and they'll be full until the agency empties out in the evening.

Conference rooms are a relatively new thing.

When I look back on earlier jobs, jobs I had in the 80s and 90s, what I remember is each floor had maybe one or two conference rooms. These were for meeting when clients were in. Otherwise, you found a way to meet without going into a sterile environment.

Of course, we live in an age in which it takes literally twelve people to do a banner ad. So we have to bring all those people together. Art directors, copywriters, analytics people, media people, technology people, a gaggle of account people.

We have become like the Chinese army during the Korean War, there are more of us just over the next hill.

We "deploy" teams and set them loose in conference rooms. Wave after wave of us keep coming.

And then we wonder--

Why can't we make a profit?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Open plans.

Once again last night I couldn't sleep.

It wasn't insomnia.

It was the awful beginnings of a chest cold.

Which I blamed, immediately, on the woman sitting to my right who has been sick but in the office next to me, since the beginning of 2014.

"The New Yorker," yes, "The New Yorker," had an article recently called "The Open Office Trap." You can read it here.

The article claims that "70% of offices now have an open floor plan." That despite studies that employees in open plans "suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell."

The article goes on of course, as "New Yorker" articles do. It details the negative effects open-plan offices have on our health, our productivity and our morale.

The plutocrats who run our businesses can say what they want about open plans.

And I'll still say this.

The only plan they're planning for is more money in their bank accounts.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Death in the Tempus Fugit.

Last night was warm in New York, warm and humid with an occasional spit of mist. I sojourned down the warren of winding hallways and entered the Tempus Fugit at just after two in the morning. There was another patron, an old man like myself at the other end of the bar. Other than he and the bartender, and Whiskey, my 22-month-old golden retriever, the joint was, as usual empty.

I assumed my seat at the end of the mahogany and was greeted by the sonorous voice of the bartender:

"How many thousands of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?"

"Yes, you're right again, as usual. Once more I have frightened sleep away and have been visited by Insomnia."

He drew me a Pike's Ale (the ALE that won for YALE!) and slid it and a small bowl of salted Spanish peanuts over to me.

The old man at the opposite end of the bar got up off of his stool and walked tentatively toward me. He pulled out the stool alongside mine and deposited his keister upon it.

"Are the buzzing night-flies keeping you from slumber?" he asked, bastardizing the Bard.

"I don't analyze my Insomnia," I said. "We've know each other so long, I am smart enough to follow wherever She leads."

The bartender terried the place in front of him and pulled him a Pike's. He downed his juice-glass of nectar in a single swallow and placed the tumbler down hard on the surface.

"Another," he murmured.

"I haven't seen you here before," I offered.

He fiddled with his glass and reached over and took a small handful of Spanish peanuts. He spilled them on the mahogany in front of him, separated the nuts into little groups of two and ate them slowly.

"I've come for you," he said to me. "I've waited for you all summer, all autumn, and now it is winter."

The bartender sidled over and filled me again.

"He believes you've heard the Chimes at Midnight."

"Who hasn't?" I answered. "The Chimes at Midnight have no snooze button."

At that, they both laughed.

"The chimes pealed," the stranger said. "They never stop pealing."

Whiskey, at my feet, stirred. She nuzzled me with her black, cold nose. It was, she mentioned, time to leave. I walked over to the coat tree and assumed my jacket. I took her leash and collar out of my deep side pocket and accoutred her appropriately.

I said as I pushed two twenties over to the bartender:

"The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day's path and Titan's fiery wheels:"

They laughed, too, at that. I did, too, to myself.

Whiskey and I, without a hint of chimes, walked silently south. Toward home.

Friday, January 10, 2014

An advertising lesson from J.R. Smith.

The Knicks, my woeful New York Knicks, have a roster of players who have the collective maturity of a third-grader. One of those players, the supremely-gifted J.R. Smith, is probably the least mature of all of them. Despite all his physical gifts, he has been floundering this season. Last night while the Knicks we playing the defending-champion Miami Heat, Smith rode the bench, the team's coach punishing him for his immaturity just hours after the league fined him $50,000 for untying an opponent's shoelace. You can see Smith here in flagrante delicto.

Smith's mischief, I think, provides a lesson we all can learn from.

Like Smith, we in advertising work in a very small community. Once you get ten or 15 years in the business, it seems you pretty much know everyone, or know of everyone. You use the same headhunters, editors, directors. You go to the same parties, and cavort in the same circle.

Further, like basketball players, our careers are short. For every ad person who has a 30 or 40 year career, there are dozens who leave or are forced out of the business in much less time.

Small community, short time span.

That means, don't be an asshole.

Words and reputations get spread way too fast.

In other words, J.R., be a mensch.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A different perspective.

It's been said that "a different perspective is worth 100 points of I.Q."

Not long ago I had a wonderful email exchange with an internet friend who shall remain nameless. We were talking about the motherfuckers who seem, these days, to do so well in our business. Mind you, these people never produce work, never win business, never raise the bar. However, they're always first in line to grab credit and self-promote.

He's weathered more than a few storms in his life and career. Here's his perspective:

"The problem also proceeds from the spread of what I see as the American style of "managing upwards".

"I always thought that managers looked downwards and their first responsibility was to the people who reported to them i.e. they knew a) who was working for them, b) what they were doing, c) whether they had time and resources to do it and d) when to step in and help them complete the task.

"Management upwards is, however, a very different approach.  This demands that the manager's first priority is to manage the experience and expectations of the person above them.  This means that they spend most of their time ensuring that their boss remains untouched and untroubled by the day-to-day functioning of the business.

"They, themselves, rise and fall not by their ability to ensure that it functions productively ( As you and I know, productivity is best achieved by a happy and engaged workforce.)

"On the contrary, their destiny is shaped by their ability to manipulate information and practice politics in order to (that dreaded phrase,) "raise their profile".

"Which means that aspirant middle managers (who want to escape the squeezed middle) are complicit and, indeed, try to become junior partners in the C - level carve up."

Long live.

Lately two commercials have swept Facebook feeds and spread through at least our industry like gossip at an all-girls' school.

First there was the "Mom" effort by Weiden + Kennedy for Old Spice. And then, also by W + K, there was the Olympic "Mom" spot for Proctor and Gamble.

Both of these spots fly in the face of the trite and specious proclamation that TV is dead.

What we should be declaring dead is "boredom."

Consumers, truth be told, will tolerate anything but being bored.

In fact, last week when "Wired" magazine featured an interactive push-button print ad by Motorola, people ripped it out of the magazine and shared it around the office.

Maybe print isn't dead if it's interesting.

Next, maybe we'll even stumble upon a radio campaign that excites us.

Before the recent spate of TV dramas of the "Orange is the New Black"-ilk emerged, there were oh-so-many people writing off the very notion of TV viewing. Reality isn't following that story line. People will watch--and probably "lean back" while doing so, if you give them something good.

Forty-five years ago, Howard Luck Gossage said "People read what interests them. Sometimes it's an ad."

I think we can expand on Gossage's wisdom.

People watch, read, share, laugh-about, comment upon what interests them. Therefore youu'd better make your creative interesting.


BTW, Part II of the creative revolution at least in the States, was led not by Bill Bernbach and his spawn but, I think, by Phil Dusenberry and his. Dusenberry had the simple notion that TV spots have to be better than the programming they are running on. Better written. Better scored. Better directed.

As the quality of TV shows has improved of late, think "Breaking Bad," or "Downton Abbey," the bar for our industry has been raised. It's our job the make something better. Otherwise we're an interruption and an annoyance, rather than something interesting and entertaining.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


As the last remaining old folks (like myself) are wrung out of a declining or dying industry, it might be a good time to think about what we're losing along with grey hair.

When I came along in the business, printing was about 500 years old, and over that half a millennium, publishers had learned a lot of craft and a lot of tricks.

They learned, to keep this really simple, how to set copy so it gets read. They learned techniques like having large-font-sentence leading into a copy block with smaller type to draw readers in. They understood that placing a caption underneath a picture was a way to get things read. They realized that things like side-bars and boxes within or alongside a column of type also increased readability.

They understood the importance of
and short paragraphs.

All these tricks are lost on the new breed of copywriters and designers. All that knowledge, knowledge gained as I said over the course of five centuries seems to have disappeared. People write type and "set" type to fit. Not to have it read. And brevity, by the way, is not the only thing that leads to readability.
This is hard to pass-over.

Often I'm called in when there's a problem with a piece. I talk about it with young folks and I realize that they've never looked at type. They've read writing but never looked at it. If they have a bag of tricks it's holding nothing but dust.

No real point today. Except this. When you throw out the old, you throw out a lot.

A lot of type that invites you to browse.
This was designed by Milton Glaser. There are a lot of words. A lot you want to read.

This is by Tibor Kalman. Also eminently readable.
There's a lot here to admire.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Welcome to now.

I just got another one of those e-mails--you know the ones--the emails that proclaim the world as you know it is irrevocably changed, that advertising and communications are dead, that brands will adjust by being benevolent because the consumer is in control.

With all that in mind, I started thinking about how out of control consumers really are.

1. You can't return anything. Once it's bought, you're doomed to a world where you have to go to the post office.
2. You can't find anything or anyone who knows anything. People who work in bookstores don't read. People in Home Depot don't have homes to repair. Certainly people in Staples have never run a business or worked in an office.
3. There's no legroom. Next time you think the consumer is in control, ride coach. Or ride Amtrak.
4. You're charged twice. You pay for your Yankee tickets then are besieged by ads at every possible point. Or you buy tickets only to hear the event you paid for is brought to you by Pepsi.
5. You can't complain. There's no one at the other end of the line.
6. You can't even get off of email lists. Unsubscribe all you like, once they have you, they have you.
7. You've given away all your personal information and the ability to track your every move in return for free email and Facebook.
8. You can barely find a brand that doesn't destroy the environment.
9. Or pay slave wages.
10. Or fail to pay taxes.
11. Much less "put you in control."
12. It's all worse when it rains.

Weather report.

You would think the Earth had spun off its axis and was hurtling through outer space away from the sun, growing colder colder colder with each blink of the eye. Americans had learned a new phrase over the past couple of days, "polar vortex," hyperbolic meteorology for what used to be seasonable cold weather.

The radio said the temperature was about 10-degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and thanks to a gusty wind the wind-chill was 20 or 30 below. Buses decided not to run and cabs were as scarce as teeth in a hen or a spine in an account guy.

The weather is Topic A in the chatter that fills our lives, as if the Mastodons were returning and we should be swathing ourselves with animal skins for warmth. Yesterday, the conferencinistas (those who spend the better part of the next few months going to conferences about who-knows-what) had taken to Facebook and Twitter and more to herald their own personal arrival at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. They had suffered travails and indignities to get there--similar to what Stanley and Livingston went through, or Aguirre as he mosquito-raped the Amazon.

But they're there! Hurrah! And soon we'll hear more about wearable computers, refrigerators that talk to watches and curved glass devices that are "cool."

What any of this means to the communications business, I can't fathom.

But no one wants to be in the communications business anymore. That's so yesterday. They want to be in the business transformations business. They want to create new models and new ecosystems. So conference they must for a better world. Soon, page after page of powerpoint decks will be regaled with ideas that have no practical application, based on spurious sound-bites overheard from some windbag who's never had to make a dime the hard way.

That's our business today.

Instead of focusing on our jobs...defining, demonstrating and disseminating brands, we dilettante ourselves into spheres we know nothing about. We tighten our belts another notch, stand up straight and spout. And others, other spouters, that is, hear that spouting and re-spout. We create a tsunami of bullshit and it levels everything in its path.

It's 8AM in my office.

The cool kids are in Las Vegas.

Most everyone else is home--it's early yet.

And a good portion will be working from home--claiming it's too cold to come in.

I'm at my desk.

I have work to do.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A world without leaders.

Though the so-called leaders of the advertising industry have no qualms accepting the multi-million dollar paydays they allocate to themselves, they are not leaders, really, in anything other than money. The same can be said about other high-priced moguls at the television networks and cable stations.

It only takes an afternoon of watching television to realize that the balance between programming and commercials is all out of whack. Whatever regulation used to be in place which determined how many commercials could be shown each hour, has disappeared. On some cable channels, during football, it seems as if there's a 50-50-split between programming and advertising.

This is obviously bad for everybody all around. The viewer turns off. The clients' commercials don't get seen. The programming sucks. And everybody turns off and declares the medium dead--choked to death by too much advertising.

I think it's time to bring balance back.

It's time to say, 24-minutes of programming for six minutes of commercial. It's time to say you can't have two or three car commercials in a single pod. Time to bring some exclusivity back.

Were that the case, revenue would remain neutral. There would be fewer but bigger checks. Viewership might even increase, which would further bolster revenue.

But there is no one to speak out about this. No one to take charge. No one to lead.

The "leaders" are too busy counting their ill-gotten money.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ancient Greece in the Tempus Fugit.

Last night was a bad one. Maybe it was bad because we had gone out to dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant in Astoria, Queens where, frankly, it is impossible not to eat too much. Or it could be because I had a double espresso to cap off the meal. Or, most likely, it could be the spat I had with the missus.
Been there. Done that.

There were no pyrotechnics with the spat. No throwing dishes or being chased around the apartment by a woman wielding a rolling pin. There was nothing like that, no Jiggs and Maggie. But it was enough. Enough to make me question everything, including what am I doing here, can I stand this for the rest of my life, and, even, why am I alive.

We all have fights like that. And it was one of them. And it kept me awake. Awake till 2:15 AM, at which point I gave up the sleeping ghost, got dressed quickly and in the dark like a firefighter, be-leashed Whiskey and walked uptown to the Tempus Fugit.

No matter what happens in the world, the Tempus Fugit remains immemorial. When the columns crack, the rivers run dry and when it begins to rain frogs, it's time to head there. It won't exigent reality but it will provide a necessary stay, a restorative niche until you can fortify yourself against the present.

As usual, the Tempus Fugit was empty when Whiskey and I arrived. The tables along the back was were straight and flush against the liver-colored wall and the 16 or 20 mis-matched chairs that went with those tables were pushed in and in apple-pie-order. The 12 leather-covered stools that lined the teak bar like parapets on a medieval castle were similarly tucked-in and empty. I assumed my
stool--one in from the end, and the bartender pulled me a Pike's Ale (the ALE that won for YALE.)

I sat silently and he stood over me, allowing me my silence to down my first Pike's when I finished and he refilled my glass, he began the evening's dissertation.

"You are in a mood tonight, I see," he began.

"I will play it safe and make no comment. The walls, even walls such as these," I motioned with my head indicating the walls all around us, "have ears."

"Perhaps a little poetry will help."

Anacreon of Teos had good abs.
I gave him my best Yiddish accent, "It couldn't hurt."

"This is from Anacreon of Teos. He wrote is just before I was born, in 546 B.C."

"That pre-dates the advent of Pike's," I answered, sipping at my amber. "And the Tempus Fugit."

I pushed my empty his way and without breaking his oratorical stride, he continued.

"Why I Weep," he said. He picked up his damp white terry and wiped the bar to the anapest of the poem.

"Already my temples are gray
and head white,
graceful youth is no longer
here, but teeth are old,
no longer is much time left
of sweet life.

"Because of these things, I weep,
often afraid of Tartarus;
for the recess of Hades is terrible,
and the descent to it
difficult, and it is certain that

he who has gone down can’t come up."

He finished and filled me a third time. He brought from underneath the bar a bowl of salted Spanish peanuts.

"That's meant to cheer me up?" I asked. 

He laughed at that. I looked to the front doorway, thinking that maybe a hooded man with a scythe would be entering soon. When no one appeared, I turned back to my Pike's.

"Look," he said. He had stopped polishing the already polished bar. He looked dead ahead and continued solemnly.

"The world is getting dumber. I won't argue with you on that. We live in an era of avarice, cruelty and inequity. We're making the Gilded Age look benign."

I nodded in silent agreement.

"The world is heating up. Radiation is in our marrow. Our rivers, lakes and oceans are crowded with billions of tiny plastic pellets--abrasives put into soaps. They are eaten by phytoplankton, which are eaten by fish and so enter our food chain.

"And we're the lucky ones. We have a food chain. One-fifth of the world lives on less than two-dollars a day."

"You're convulsing me," I said.

"Here's the thing. At home, at work, with your kids. Lighten up. As Anacreon said, "no longer is much time left/ of sweet life."

I laughed. "Sweet life."

I slid two twenties his way. More to pay for the philosophy than the Pike's.

"On me."

Whiskey and I suited up for the cold and muck and walked home, knowing that he who has gone down can't come up.