Friday, May 18, 2018

On missing the old game.

About three months ago, as regular as the C train, I got a
fedex envelope inviting me over America’s Memorial Day weekend to the Seraperos de Saltillo's annual Juego de Viejos, or Old-Timers' game.

Through the indulgent good graces of my long-suffering wife, I’ve made the last three or four games, and perhaps surprisingly embarrassed myself in only one or two of those games.

Mostly the nub of my embarrassment lay in my lack of mobility at what we once called the hot corner, but given my present physical infirmities might more accurately be dubbed the 'frozen junction.' 

Add to that my still torn and unrepaired rotator cuff which makes the long zing to first all but impossible and you have, with deference to Mr. A E Housman the picture of a former athlete who did not slip betimes away, but who hung on way too long.

That hanging on too long has sent me into a slough of despond at work as well. I sit in meetings and hear people speak of the splendors of 'instastories' and other forms of surveillance marketing and I wonder if it’s time to hang up my spikes and head upward I hope to that great ballpark in the sky.

I was born old of course and have always been that old dog who could learn new tricks. My cerebral capacity I say without a whiff of conceit, is greater than its ever been, but given the rampant dumbing down of all around us, I fear it leaves me increasingly estranged from those around me who look askance if you mention something as quaint and hoary as having read a book.

All this to say that while there are whole weeks at a time where I feel capacious and nearly invincible at work, those days when I feel significantly less so are becoming more foreboding and frequent.

And so I’ll end this here, a rumination on age and pain and will and desire. Also I have a request, if you see an old person today, and he’s got dark grey circles under his eyes, and he’s maybe had too much to do for too long, be nice to him.

It could be me.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A night with Monk.

When I was young and in New York, there was a bar up on Broadway between 113th Street and 114th Street called the West End. After being in business for 103 years, it closed back in 2014 and reopened as a Cuban restaurant called Havana Central.

The West End was a big, dark, smoky place where you could buy a Ballantine Ale for $2 or a Rheingold, and nurse it all night, listening to classic jazz played by 80-year-old black musicians who never saved a cent from their glory days in the 1940s and 50s and still needed a gig. Or maybe it's better to believe they just liked getting together with the fellas and hearing the gentle applause of drunk kids at the end of the night.

I remember one old bass player who would seem to be sleeping in a heroin stupor, leaning on his stand-up bass and once every four minutes or so waking up just in time to slap just the right riff right into place.

It was mostly grad students who hung in the West End, because it was more of a listening place than a talking place. It was a place where you could hear the soot and grime and crime and slime of the city through the ears of old jazzmen who made it all sound good.

Around that time one of those grad students—maybe he leaned over from the booth behind mine—turned to me and said, as if it were samizdat, you’ve got to listen to Monk.

Monk was not high on the hit parade in 1979. But I went to the record store (there were record stores back then) and bought an album based on its cover art. The first song I listened to was called “Dinah.” If you don’t know it, you should. Listen to it here.

The only Dinah I ever knew, I guess was Dinah Shore, who beckoned us to 'see the USA in our Chevrolet.' Or the Dinah who someone was in the kitchen with. But this Dinah was different.

I’m reading a book now on the physicist Enrico Fermi, called “The Last Man Who Knew Everything.” Something in it really struck me and brought me to Monk. It was said that Fermi and Galileo were “once every 500 years brains.” Whereas Bohr and Einstein were mere “twice a century brains.”

Listening to Dinah, I felt like I heard a once every 500 years pianist.

Last night, leaving work late in the steady rain, I grabbed a yellow cab heading west on 47th Street. I sat down on the vinyl exhausted from another day where I felt like the heavy-bag over at Gleason’s Gym.

I thought of Gleason's slogan, from Virgil of all people, and I thought about the day I had had.

"Now, whoever has the courage and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands."

We turned north on 11th Avenue and steamed uptown. I tried to close my eyes, tried to grab a few moments of quiet after the day's pandemonium.

No dice. The radio was on. Loud.

Then it came on.

The disc jockey played Dinah.

Thank you, god.

Thank you, Thelonious.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In which (the great) Dave Trott explains it all. (And agrees with me.)

If you're a "recent-ist," that is you care only about things that have happened recently to the general exclusion of history--and the general exclusion of the foundational minds of our business, you may not know Dave Trott.

Dave is one of the great minds, and great creatives of British advertising. He's also, famously, the proprietor of two great advertising blogs:


And the author of numerous intelligently simple and simply intelligent books on advertising.

1. One + One = Three.
2. Predatory Thinking.
3. Creative Mischief.
And more...

Over the last five years or so, Dave and I have become friends of sorts. By that I mean we are the sort of friends who have never actually met, but we write to each other about advertising issues large and small, and we have a standing offer to buy each other drinks, or dinner, if Dave's ever in New York, or I'm ever in London.

Dave wrote to me this morning about yesterday's post in which I ruminated on issues of liberalism and effetism in both politics and the world.

Dave's note needs no preamble or explanation. So, I'll leave you with it, and with, hopefully, things to ponder.

Your last post really made me think – about the parallels between liberals and creatives.

IMHO, putting it simply, both were centrist but both moved to the extreme.

Liberals used to speak for ordinary people, but political-correctness alienated them from ordinary people.

Their agenda became PC for its own sake, not for benefit of the masses.

Creatives used to speak for ordinary people, but awards alienated them from ordinary people.

Their agendas became awards for their own sake, not for benefit of the masses.

So the liberals and the creatives are left talking to themselves.

The problem isn’t that everyone voted for Trump.

The problem is that the centre can’t find anything to vote for, no one cares about.

In politics or in advertising.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


Piss on Liberals Political Pro-Trump Anti-Liberal NRA window sticker decal

About a week ago, I saw the window decal above on a Ford F-150 pickup truck driving through my rarefied Upper East Side neighborhood.

It bothered me.

Not its crudeness.

Not even the fact that Trump is President.

What bothered me is that a group I find myself affiliated with is so despised.

(Of course, being a Jew I'm used to this. But I've never thought liberalism would evoke such similar amounts of bile.)

It got me thinking.

Mostly about how liberals are regarded by at least some of the 60 million people who voted for Trump, as arrogant and piss-on-able.

What are we doing wrong? 

How did we become so out of touch with 60 million people?

Why do they hate us?

Surely, some of that is because populist anti-Semitism conflates all liberals with Jews. And all Jews as owners of the banks and Hollywood and the news media. 

Some more, probably, is due to arrogance. That we liberals believe that we have all the answers, and that our way is the only way. We laugh at every place that isn't New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco as "fly-over" country.

Hatred toward those with education and experience is a dangerous thing. In the public sphere it leads to be declaring that vaccines aren't effective or that climate change, or evolution isn't real, or the curvature of the earth is a conspiracy, or that a political neophyte is qualified to hold the most powerful job in the world.

Arrogance is equally dangerous. Treating people as anonymous blocs of "deplorables" is "class-ist" and Soviet. 

Our nation deserves better than a pissing match.

In advertising, it's been all-the-rage to express the same feelings about agencies and creatives as the window decal above expresses about liberals.

Like liberals are to be disparaged for their Ivy League educations, advertising people are disparaged by their training in their craft. The easiest way to put down a creative is to assert "anyone can be creative." Or, "a good creative idea can come from anywhere."

In advertising disparaging training, taste and talent often leads to crap. Badly produced. Badly conceived. Badly acted. Off brand. Crap.

You dismiss agencies and the people who populate them at your peril. Just as not everyone can ski, or spelunk, or scuba, not everyone can make a watchable video.

Arrogance, of course, is bad. Dismissing people is bad. The denial of experience, denial of training, denial of the power of education leads to nowhere good.

No solution here, except openness. Be aware if you're acting haughty. Be aware if you're embracing dismissiveness.

Both are dangerous.

Monday, May 14, 2018

vs. Creatives.

A friend wrote to me the other day.

"George, they finally hit my agency with yet another process that's supposed to 'change everything.' Here's my two cents on what's going on now:

"People who aren’t creative fundamentally don’t trust people who are.

"They come to our offices and see us throwing pencils into the dropped ceiling. Or seeing how many times we can spin our swivel chairs around. Or they’re troubled because we dress funny, make jokes in serious meetings, or show up for work at 10:47 unshaven.

"Since we make the “product” they are relying on to make them wealthy, our behaviors worry them to no end.

"How can we trust our livelihood to a bunch of irresponsible children, they seem to think.

"During World War II, when Robert Oppenheimer was assembling the creative forces of the world’s most brilliant non-Nazi physicists to build the most powerful weapon ever assembled, they put an Army general, Leslie Groves, in charge of him because ‘why trust creatives?

"In Hollywood, writers and directors often fall under the producer’s lash. (Billy Wilder, who won seven Oscars once described an ‘associate producer as the only one who would associate with a producer.’)

"In advertising today it seems there are more people and more processes to manage creatives than there are creatives.

"We are scrummed, and stand up-meeting’d, and Trello’ed and Slacked and Agile’d to within an inch of our lives.

"In fact, George, if I had to invent a process to impose upon creative people, I think I’d call it Soul Sucking. It might not bring order and mitigate chaos. It might not get the creative trains to run on time. But at least it has the benefit of being honest.

"Another way non-creative people are trying to bludgeon creative people into control is the use of data and analytics. The non-creatives believe they can do this essentially by turning creativity (which is by definition messy) into an ‘if/then’ proposition.

"That is, if you write a strong call to action, then x y and z will necessarily occur. No one ever questions the legitimacy of analytics. But when something doesn’t work even after following ‘code-analytica,’ what happens then? No one says ‘analytics is a crock of shit.’ They say ‘we have to continue to optimize.’ 

"I bet there are hundreds of companies who have optimized themselves right into bankruptcy.

"Somehow it all reminds me, and I'm not sure why, of another line by Billy Wilder, ‘He’s got Van Gogh’s ear for music.’"

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Job hunting.

Over the past couple of days, three separate friends have sent me job notices. (No. No. And no. I am not looking for a new job.)

They're notices that speak to the sorry decline--if not  the demise--of our industry.

Here's the first. It's not necessarily the most irritating.

It comes from FCB Health. Now, I don't usually call out agency names in this space. But I'm pissed. 

I always thought it was illegal to discriminate on the basis of age. But here you have it. An agency seeking "young and bold talent." I wonder if you're ineligible if you're "young and italic."

The second is apparently an ad by a recruiter who is a "brand sorceress" looking for "unicorn employees."

See that spoon? Gag me with it.

Do sentient people really talk like this. I'd be damned--even if I were a real-life sorcerer--if I'd ever call myself one. Much less admit I was looking for a horny horse.

Finally, and maybe most dispiriting is an ad so disheartening I will say nothing about it. Except I'll ask you to read the copy, which is clearly written by an algorithm--and a dumb, ungrammatical one at that.

Somewhere along the line--maybe midway through my (so-far) 34-year career, advertising stopped being a respectable profession and became, instead, low wage, unicorny and irresponsible.

That probably happened around the time some uncreative ass, feeling insecure in his lack of creativity, decided to pontificate that "everyone is creative."


That's like saying everyone can do brain surgery, or even cook a nice al dente pasta. 

Doing stuff well takes talent, training and dedication. 

And it's by reasserting those values, and only by reasserting those values, that we might, one day, start making some slow progress backward. 

That we might be what we once were.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


I’m not usually one for sports metaphors but I opened “The Wall Street Journal” yesterday morning and one hit me right between the eyes. 

For those of you who don’t follow baseball, the Boston Red Sox, who have been around since the American League was founded in 1901 are off to the best start in their long and storied history. As of this writing, they've tallied 25 wins against just nine losses.

Of course, it’s a long season. Slumps happen, and dissension—one guy ragging another guy, and spite, and blown pitching arms and injuries. But if the Bosox win just 70 of their remaining 128 games (a prosaic .540 winning percentage) they will likely coast into the playoffs this fall.

What’s behind the Red Sox early-season success? Their new manager, Alex Cora, gave his players a simple instruction. (Players usually respond to their manager’s suggestions the same way creative people respond to suggestions from account people.) 

But this advice, the Red Sox seem to be heeding:When you see a good pitch, hack away, no matter the count or situation.”

In baseball, at least since I hung up my spikes back in the Mesolithic Era, the prevailing wisdom was to be patient at the plate. To let a few pitches go by. To wait for your pitch. To tire out the opposing team’s pitcher. Last year, for instance, Mookie Betts—a delightfully-named outfielder--swung at just 53.8% of the strikes he saw. Another delightfully named player, Xander Bogaerts, swung at strikes even less often.

Back when Ted Williams—perhaps the greatest hitter ever to play the game—wrote “The Science of Hitting” back in 1970, he included this chart.

The circles within the rectangle represent Williams’ batting average based on pitch location. Bright red and maroon are where Williams would shellac the ball. The greys are where Williams was more-or-less average.

While Williams was an exceptional hitter, most batters have a similar breakdown. What Red Sox manager Alex Cora noticed was the Sox’ hitters were letting hittable pitches go by.

I wonder in our business how many great opportunities we let fly by. I wonder if we’re ignoring Cora’s dictum: When you see a good pitch, hack away.”

I wonder if we spend more time talking about work, perseverating about minor details than we spend taking a whack at things. Maybe we’re dicking around with the language of a brief. Maybe we think we’re too busy. Maybe we’re waiting to see if something better comes along—if the planets will magically align.

Lately—this is a sign of my age—I think a lot about how it is that I’ve lasted as long as I have. I think about what I’ve learned over my 34 years in the business. I think the main thing is I swing at a lot of pitches.

If someone tells me about some work that needs doing, I usually like to take a whack at it.

Sometimes I’ll whiff. Who doesn't?

But more often, I think, something good happens.

And, if it doesn't, at least I can say I went down swinging.