Friday, June 27, 2014

Last night in darkness.

Last night was one of those nights in New York. Sultry, muggy and deliciously wonderful.

My wife and I got tickets to see the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of "Much Ado About Nothing," in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. For my dime you should see Shakespeare whenever you're able. He's kind of like the Ray Charles of playwriting--a genius, an institution, the guy who wrote the book on writing the book.

The play was delightful, with a brilliant cast highlighted by the surpassing Lily Rabe playing the variably bewitching and shrewish Beatrice.

But for me, a life-long New Yorker, the most magical moment of the night came just after intermission when the final act began in complete darkness amid a simulated thunderstorm.

The theater was completely dark, except for the spill from the Belvedere Castle and if you gazed skyward you could see stars over Manhattan.

Stars over Manhattan.

Beautiful. Wistful. Magical.

Their lightyears'-away-twinkle fighting, I presume, for a parking space below.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Resolute in the Tempus Fugit.

The weather last night sat on New York like a sweaty sock after three-hours of schoolyard basketball. It clung to everything with a moist stink that gave no quarter. Though I had the AC blasting in my apartment and the conditions inside were cool and dry, Whiskey nudged me awake at halfway between two and three and we headed uptown to the Tempus Fugit.

Pike's, thank god, never varies and never withers.
I hadn't been at the Tempus Fugit for some time, for a couple of months, actually. I wasn't turning abstemious. Nor was my lifelong battle with insomnia finally resolved, it's just that I've been excessively busy of late, and getting up to the place seemed an impossibility.

"Welcome," said the bartender as I descended the two steps into the place. "You have been conspicuous in your absence." He hustled around the bar and brought Whiskey a bowl of cold water. Back behind the bar he pulled me a Pike's Ale ("the ALE that won for YALE") and we began our evening.

There are still some kegs of Pike's scattered about.
I sipped slowly at the sweet amber, draining my glass and getting a refill before I responded.

"I have been busy," I answered. "And scared. Scared that the freelancing thing wouldn't work out."

"Ah, your confidence issues. Untrammeled by drink, drugs or years of therapy."

I laughed and finished my second Pike's.

"Well, it's tough hanging out a shingle after 30 years of working for others," I said. "Who knows if my phone will ring? Especially since I refuse to budge and lower my rates or my standards."

"The other day," he began "some kids found there way here, three of them, two girls and a guy, to the Tempus Fugit. I don't get many patrons who aren't regulars." He slid over a giant glass jar filled three-quarters of the way up with pickled hard-boiled eggs.

"Egg?" he said.

"You don't get many patrons period," I volleyed.

He continued, "They were, judging by the shortness of their shorts and their accents, German tourists. They asked for Pike's. They each sipped gingerly at their brew, putting their glasses down on the bar top after the slightest of sips.

"'Gluten frei?,' they asked.

"'Nein,' I replied.

"With that, they put an assortment of bills on the bar, shot me an 'auf wiedersehen' and that was the end of that."

"Your point eludes me," I said as he filled me again.

He slid over a small bowl of salted Spanish peanuts which, as usual, I pushed back at him. He then went around the bar, topped off Whiskey's water bowl and returned to his station.

"Ah, my point," he said, wiping the mahogany with a clean damp terry. "My point is simple. Be like Pike."

"Be like Pike. That should be my motto."

"Wear it as a frontlet," he continued. "Don't change with the times. Don't bend in the wind and certainly not in a breeze. Don't go gluten free because it's the thing to do."

"Well, it's easy for Pike's to stay the same. They don't make it anymore."

"They don't make anymore of you, either."

"They didn't just throw away my mold," I answered, "they nuked it."

I pushed two twenties across the bar in his direction. He shoved them back to me. This also never varies.

"On me, " he said.

And Whiskey and I walked home.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Old Iron Ass.

I show up in the office before everyone else. When I have pressing things to do—
like I do most days—an ad to write or a commercial to come up with, I plant myself on my Aeron and face my keyboard and start pecking.

Earlier this week I had a bunch of headlines to write. I settled myself in my seat and spun out 75.

Once the headlines were done, it was time for taglines. I filled three pages, single-spaced, with lines.

When I get work like this, I become Old Iron Ass.

I sit as enduringly as Bartleby at his scrivener’s table and I write.

I stay zeroed in on my screen. I get in a groove and type. I type for hours without respite. I stay in my seat until I am done. No Facebook. No phone calls. Not even bathroom breaks.

Old Iron Ass will get it done.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Advertising advice from Frank Sinatra.

There was an obituary in today's "Times" that made me think of advertising. At least the last part did, advice from Frank Sinatra.

The obit was of Joseph Charles Michael Tafarelli, aka Steve Rossi, who formed the debonair half of a Martin and Lewis-type act in the 1960s. You can read the obit here.

Here's the part that really got me. 

A story about Rossi seeking advice from Ol' Blue Eyes. 

The Times reports: “In the early ’60s, Marty and I opened for Sinatra. I went to his dressing room. I said, ‘Frank. We’re very nervous. Can you give us some advice?’ He said, ‘Yeah, kid. First: Do the best you can. Second: Give ’em all you got. Third and most important: Remember, they didn’t come to see you in the first place.’”

I think that kind of works for advertising:

Do the best you can. 

Leave nothing on the table. 

And make your work good enough to compensate for the fact that no one really wants to see it.


Yesterday I was listening to a National Public Radio interview with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who was discussing the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped by the terrorist organization, Hamas. The report lasted 7 minutes and 36 seconds. At which point Netanyahu was rudely cut off and NPR went to their local feed, which consists primarily of traffic reports.

This morning on the same radio program, there was a report almost as long on people who can't clap on the beat. It included this quotation, ""Some of y'all don't understand that this kind of clapping is killing black folk. Do you understand what I'm saying? Killing us."

What's happened in our world is that we have lost our hierarchy.
We have lost our ability to say "that's important and that's trivial."
We have lost it in our daily lives.
We have lost it in our business.
It seems that often we put more time and resources behind doing a mobile ad than we do on a campaign of three TV spots.
I know we're all supposed to live in a politically-correct Valhalla where all people, things and ideas are equal.
I know that for whatever reason being told you're judgmental is today one of the great criticisms you can sling at someone.
But all things are not equal.
They're not created equal.
They don't influence equal.
They are not of equal importance, revenue, meaning.

As my kids would say, sorry I got all judgy on you.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Fathers and sons. (Not Turgenev.)

It turns out my father was nothing but dots.

"The New York Times" has a new online feature that lets you see the paper as it was printed for any day in the last 129 years. You can not only browse via topics you're interested in, you can see the surrounding articles and, of course, the ads of the time.

The "interface" is a little unwieldy, I'll admit, but nevertheless, over the weekend, I lost an hour going through the Times' archives.

The first person I looked up was my father, Stanley I. Tannenbaum. He worked at a large New York agency, Kenyon and Eckhardt, rising from copywriter in 1954 to Chairman of the Board 15 years later. Six years after that ascent, he was out on his not inconsiderable keister.

As much as I knew about the bare-bones of his rise and fall, reading about him in the Times' ad column was a bit of a revelation. It's seeing a person as he's seen by the world, not as you might see him as his son.

At the end of one article, by the great Times ad columnist Philip Dougherty, my old man was asked about the efficacy of Kenyon & Eckhardt hiring so many senior creatives at such high salaries. My father explained it this way: "We're putting our money where we make our money."

In a strange way those nine words summed up everything that's gone wrong in the advertising business in the holding company era.

We put money everywhere but where we make money.

Like most things in our modern world, there's a really simple solution to everything complicated.

You want to balance America's budget? You stop spending $1 trillion on bombs.

You want to stop terrorism in its tracks? Find alternatives to importing petroleum.

You want to heal advertising? Make better advertising.

That starts with putting money where we make money.

A trip across town.

Since I started freelancing in east New Jersey six weeks ago, I haven't found a good way to travel to my office from my apartment.

I live a stone's throw from the East River and for now I'm working a stone's throw from the Hudson. This is too absolute by half, but you can't get there from here.

I remember reading somewhere that the Inca could ascend to Machu Pichuu via the Inca trail quicker in the 15th Century than travelers can today. Much the same thing, I think, could be said about getting across town in Manhattan. I think Lenni Lenape trails probably hied people faster than the M31.

That said, I can't really say anything bad about the formidable building in which I am working. The sun pours in, for an open plan, there are places to go where you can squeeze out ten minutes of quiet, there's a decent cafeteria so you don't have to eat lunch at one of the local businesses (which are mostly car-dealerships or lumberyards) and there's an ambient rooftop that I suppose people who aren't freelancers can take advantage of.

The one thing I really miss in all this, of course, is a neighborhood bookstore. Yes, my office now is strewn with all sorts of books, but there's no place to browse and discover new things. And despite what some may say about the splendors of the internet (and they are many) real live paper books have palpable (and pulpable) advantages that are not to be sneezed at.

No more howling at the moon this morning.

I'm still on the crosstown bus,

And I have only half an hour to go.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Advertisers have lost the attention of a generation. An update.

Yesterday I was directed to an article in "The Financial Times," called "Advertisers have Lost the Attention of a Generation." Read it here.

It seemed that the assertion in the title was based on a startling statistic. Teens watch only 21 minutes of broadcast television a week.

Some time after the article was published, a correction was issued by "The Financial Times."

The 21 minute statistic they mentioned was wrong. They meant 21 hours.

That's like saying "The US suffered only minor casualties in Iraq; only 21 died." Then finding out 1260 died and not revising the gist of the article.

It's like saying "New Lincoln gets only 10 miles to the gallon." Then discovering it gets 600 mpg.

When something material changes you should change your material.

In fact if teenagers are watching 21 hours of broadcast television a week, I would say television advertisers haven't lost a generation. I would say a new generation has embraced television. Especially since it seems so many young people watch primarily cable TV. And the 21 hour/21 minute stat was based on broadcast viewership.

I realize people--exponents of the death school of television--will say, "yeah, but they're zapping commercials." Or "they're tweeting while they're watching." Or "they're in the other room making grilled cheese."

But that's not the point. Or the points.

1. When the stat you've based your article's thesis on changes by a factor of 60, you have to either revise the article, or, better, pull it all together.
2. Unless you're writing editorials, you should try to remove your personal biases from your reporting.
3. There's this misguided idea that people of my generation and older were chained to the TV set and they practically seduced and mesmerized by commercials. That commercials had some sort of hypnotic effect on them. All because the consumer wasn't in control like they are today.

That notion is below even hogwash.

People ignored commercials in days of yore. We watched TV while reading a magazine.  Or we went into the kitchen to make grilled cheese. We've done all that since the advent of TV 65 years ago.

If anything has lessened viewership of TV spots, it's not dvrs.

It's that networks and cable stations in their greed have made commercial pods too long. They easily last five minutes now. That's plenty of time to decide to do something else.

Personally, I believe viewership of spots would increase if:
a) Spots were longer. More 60s, please.
b) They were shown in shorter pods.
c) Brands sponsored entire shows like they did in the early days of TV.
d) We made more shows "events." We brought "live" back.

Julian Koenig, 1921-2014.

Julian Koenig died June 12th and his death escaped everyone's notice, including mine. I learned about it yesterday through America's top news-source, Facebook. Since then, I've mentioned Mr. Koenig's death to a few people--a few of my peers--and their reaction has been, who?

Julian Koenig?


How dare we.

Julian Koenig wrote "Think Small."

Julian Koenig wrote "Lemon."

He wrote the Harvey Probber chair ad above. One of my favorites.

"If your Harvey Probber chair wobbles, straighten your floor."

He wrote for Timex, "It takes a lickin' and keeps on ticking."

As an industry, we eat our old and ignore our legends.

We act like a Yankee fan who doesn't know the Babe, or Mickey, or even lesser lights like Enos Slaughter.

We shouldn't live in the past, but we should learn from it.

For instance, in 1966 while being inducted into the Copywriter's Hall of Fame, he excoriated the organization for giving the award based on "creativity" and "artfulness." Sales should be the only important measure he said.

I'm working today.

But what I'll spend some portions of the day doing is finding every Julian Koenig ad I can, and reading the copy.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A statistical goof.

This morning I got another one of those "TV is dead" articles, bemoaning, this time the loss of an entire generation of people who simply don't watch TV.
The email promoting the article had the above as its text.

21 minutes a week.



That's not even one sitcom.

Then I read the article which had advertising executives in Cannes scared to death about this information.

"I'm nervous about being out of a job a year from now..." one of them said.

The changes seemed that seminal.

I read the article, of course, with my usual healthy cynicism. People will watch commercials, I believe, if we make them good.

The killer app, I believe, isn't a device, or a pixel, or a channel. It's creativity. It's breaking through. It's uniting a fractured universe through something universally enjoyed or provocative.

In any event, I finished the article.

And there was a correction at the end of it.

It probably should have been at the beginning of the article.

Nevertheless, it read:

My high school math says that's a margin of error of 6000%.

Like saying a car gets 1200 mpg rather than 20 mpg.

I don't have the feeling I'll be out of work in a year.

So I went back to work.

Aunt Louise is interred.

Yesterday Uncle Slappy and I walked across the badly manicured grounds of a Jewish cemetery in New Jersey.

We had arrived early, a good 45 minutes before Aunt Louise was to be interred. We visited a gravesite or two and then we walked slowly amid the tombstones to the plot into which Aunt Louise was assigned.

We saw Greenbaums, and Cohens, and Genzers, and Taubs, and Steins, and Applebaums, and a thousand more names.

"It's like looking at your list of Facebook friends, eh boychick," he chided.

I admitted it was.

"It's hard walking through a cemetery," he said "when you're 86."

"It's hard when you're 56," I answered.

"Most of the people buried are younger than I."

"When Mozart was my age," I joked "he was dead for 20 years."

We had made it to Aunt Louise's gravesite before the rest of the family had arrived. There were two unionized gravediggers there setting up four folding chairs under a small canopy. Their arms were tattooed and they nonchalantly completed their ministrations, emphatically standing two shovels into the pile of dirt a backhoe had removed.

Aunt Louise's plain pine box was poised on a cheap super-structure ready to be lowered. We stood at the grave and waited for the others to arrive.

Finally they had. A couple of nieces, one sister and her slightly-retarded spouse, my wife and her brother, and an official from the graveyard.

Uncle Slappy began. He interspersed some traditional Hebrew prayers with some thoughts about Louise. He kept it short and he kept it sincere.

"We all made fun of Louise for the small colorful doilies she crocheted," he said. "We all have dozens of them around the house, in the back of closets and the bottom of sock drawers. She didn't have a lot. She left no money and just a bit of cheap jewelry. But for the rest of our lives, we'll stumble upon those doilies and we'll laugh.

"That's more than most people will leave."

With that the workmen cranked her down and we each shoveled a shovel-full of sandy dirt into the hole. The sound of dirt falling on hollow pine is one of the saddest there is.

We walked back to the car.

Goodbye Aunt Louise.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Uncle Slappy comes up for Aunt Louise's funeral.

Uncle Slappy arrived a couple of hours ago, sans Aunt Sylvie whose feet are swollen, so he can preside over the funeral of Aunt Louise who died Monday afternoon at five. Uncle Slappy, like the rest of us, truth be told, was none too fond of Aunt Louise, but he's a believer that when someone dies, you show up to their funeral. It's that simple, really. Unless you're sick yourself, you show up.

As the Rabbi of Beth Youiz Mywom Mannow, a small Upper East Side congregation for over 50 years, Uncle Slappy has attended more than his share of funerals. He's learned a thing or two about dying along the way.

"I never," he says "beat about the bush. I never use the phony language of antiseptic death. I never say, 'we're laying her to rest.' Or 'she's passed.' That language is room-freshener," he says. "Artificial crap that covers what's real. She's dead," he said, "And I'll say 'she's dead.'"

"The other thing I've learned," he told me as we sat in my small eat-in-kitchen over black coffee and a plate of three rugelach, "The other thing I learned is respect. Even your Aunt Louise, crazy as a man with bees in his beard, matters."

I nodded my head at that.

"They matter. They've made a difference. They count."

"Aunt Louise stayed with us for a week after Hurricane Sandy," I said, "when the power stayed out in Elizabeth for ten days. She fairly drove me crazy."

The old man picked up the final rugelach, broke it in half, then put both pieces in his mouth.

"See if there's anyone you don't drive crazy when you're 86," he said solemnly.

I nodded once again and refilled.

"No one wants to talk about," he said "how Aunt Louise got the way she got. Why she talks to silverware and crochets those asinine doilies."

"We probably have a dozen wafting around the apartment," I said.

"But let me tell you something, boychick. She never hurt anyone. She wasn't a genius. She wasn't the kindest person. But she never hurt anyone."

I had never thought about her like that, but the old man was right.

"I'll be delivering her urology tomorrow," he mangled.


"Ok," he serious-upped, "Her eulogy. She never hurt anyone. And that's her sine qua non. She never hurt anyone."

He rinsed his dishes and left for the guest room. Sleeping alone tonight without Aunt Sylvie. And without Aunt Louise.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Far from Cannes.

Lately I’ve been handed something complicated to uncomplicate.

The briefs I’ve been given are long, repetitious and badly organized.

They are written in the excruciating jargon of a field I know nothing about.

And they are all written differently, with no uniformity of approach.

So, I have three things to do at once:

1.     I have to learn the language of the field. Understand.
2.     I have to organize the material in a way that could help a reader. Organize.
3.     I have to simplify things so they can be useful. Simplify.

It’s a thankless task, really. About as far from a glamor assignment as you can get. A long way, in short, from the beach and the cocktails at Cannes.

It seems to me I often get assignments like this.


Due in a short amount of time.

And thankless.

Maybe because I get these assignments I often find myself saying ‘most clients don’t know what they sell or make.’ That’s my spin on the Henry Ford line, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

You have to take assignments like this seriously. They’re very important to clients, because I believe explaining their fundamentals makes you critical to their success. It builds client relationships. I actually think doing them allows you to, eventually, do the sort of work most people fight to do. The kind that could get you to Cannes.

But more often than not, I don’t get those assignments.

I get the uncool “fix-the-boiler-type” jobs.

There the jobs that no one wants to do. The ones that bring in revenue, and in many cases make up probably 80% or more of the work load in a typical agency.

That's the stuff that isn't lauded and celebrated at Cannes.

I'm told that in a corner of the San Antonio Spurs' locker room, there's a small framed sign with a quotation on it from the great social reformer Jacob Riis. The Spurs, without a high-flying superstar player may well be regarded as the greatest sports franchise of our present generation. They've won five National Basketball Association championships in the last 16 years--none of them consecutively. They've been the best, or close to it for a long time.

The sign reads:

“When nothing seems to help, I go back and look at the stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it — but all that had gone before.”
Somebody has to do the work I do.

Someone has to hammer at the rock.