Friday, September 30, 2011

C'mon, let's just do it.

        According to author David Brooks, decision-making involves three things: how we perceive a situation; how we evaluate whether action is in our own interest; and how we use our willpower to act.

        Over the years, the willpower aspect has been emphasized in marketing. "Just say no." "Just do it." However, it seems that simply willing it usually doesn't make it happen.

        The second aspect, involving the power of reason, is used quite a bit in advertising, as well. Proof that a laundry detergent gets out stains. Testimony that seat belts save lives. Demonstrations that an American luxury car can go faster than a German luxury car. Even so, a lot of people prefer a detergent that smells clean to them. They sit on their seat belts, and prefer a car that says they're sophisticated drivers.

        Today, research is learning more about the importance of how we perceive things. Perceptions trigger the other reactions, and are fundamental in our responses. Here's an example:

        A few years ago, my advertising agency was hired by the Oakland, California, Police Department to help them recruit. Most of the meetings were held in our conference room, but when the Chief of Police had to make a final decision, the meetings were held at Police Headquarters.

        I've never been good at taking meeting notes, because I'm too focused on what's going on. So I make sure someone else from the agency is there with me to be the scribe. For one of the meetings at Police Headquarters, I asked our traffic manager, Elyse.

        After going through security and getting to the Chief's conference room, we found ourselves surrounded by police. I felt calm and secure, knowing how well we were protected.

        Elyse, on the other hand, was a basket case, anxious and unnerved. After the meeting I asked her what was wrong. "The police --- they had guns!" She had barely been able to take notes.

        Differences in perception. Police=good, or police=bad. Our perceptions are based on a lifetime of input; what we've been taught, what we've experienced, a book we've just read. In fact, in many cases it's fair to say perceptions rule. Do you eat oysters?

        How does your marketing target perceive your products and the arguments you use? You'd better know. Perception can make a person just say no when just doing it can be in their best interests.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

How to choose a partner.

        In his book "Working Together", Michael Eisner, the former head of Disney, makes this important point:

        Partnerships "are about learning to share, and how great sharing can be: sharing success and sharing failure, adrenaline and frustration, laughter and tears."About the partnerships he describes in his book, Eisner adds, "These are not all just successful people, they're also happy people...and they're among the select and very fortunate few who have found that partnerships create happiness."

        Creative work in advertising and marketing is all about partnerships. Ads and commercials are assigned to writers and art directors who work together as partners, to sink or swim together no matter who does what. In marketing, companies and vendors partner regularly. Even in companies that don't formally assign partners, people buddy-up on their own to come up with new ideas.

        Sometimes the best partners are opposites. They complement each other. Other times partners think alike, and mirror each other and validate their ideas. Still other times, partners are simply flung together for no apparent reason. It's difficult, but the tension can produce spectacular results if both partners unhesitatingly contribute and look for the good in the work of the other.

        Probably my most successful partnership is with Ross, the former creative director of Chiat/Day. We don't have all that much in common except our love for good advertising, the enjoyment of a good laugh, and an unyielding insistence on something never done before. Over the years, Ross and I got to understand each other so well that we could even work together over the phone to create commercials.

        I've had all kinds of art-director partners. Lucy always wanted me to go first; to get the ball rolling with some headlines or dialogue, and then for me to go away. I did, but the suspense always got to me, and I'd sneak back to see what wonderful thing she was doing. Some other partners didn't fight with me enough. There was no friction, they gave in to my unsharpened ideas.

        A few assigned partners of mine were too skeptical, too lazy, or too negative. Or they wanted recognition above all else, and certainly didn't value good concepts the way I do. Those were my loneliest days in this business.

        The good news is that the talented people in advertising and marketing generally  have enough confidence in themselves to be open and share, and understand that nothing's so precious that it can't be better.

         My advice is that if you find someone who can make you better than you are alone, make that person your partner immediately. And go for the gold.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It's easier to start at the top and climb down.

         David Brooks, in his book "On Paradise Drive", has this cautionary note for students and parents alike: "The chief temptation these students face is not evil, it is nearsightedness. Parents, teachers, and coaches hone them for the future, but not the distant future. As a result, students know there are hoops to jump through: school, tests, graduation. But the terrain beyond is fuzzy. They are rarely asked to apply their imagination to the far-off horizon --- to envision some glorious errand for themselves, then to think backwards from that goal."

        I agree; but that's nothing new. About a year after I started working for a living, another writer asked me what my professional goal was. I told him I wanted to be a copywriter. He said that I already was a copywriter, so what did I ultimately want to become?  I asked him what he wanted to become and he quickly answered "creative director".  I filed that for future reference.

        A few years ago I told this story to an editor of Adweek magazine, and she asked me to write it out and bring it up to date for her. 

        The up-dated story was that I soon realized that, as happy as I was as copywriter, I was unhappy about my copy supervisor who had to okay my work. So I had to become a copy supervisor. 

        It quickly became apparent that the copy supervisor has a boss that could override him. The associate creative director. So I became one of those. Of course, the creative director was his boss and had the last word. So I became one of those. In large agencies, though, there's often someone even higher, the Director of Creative Services. So I became one of these, and an Executive V. P. as well. Only to realize that then I reported directly to the President of the agency, who had different values than I did.

       I was determined to leave and was offered a partnership in another agency. Guess what. I had more bosses than ever. My employees had to be happy, and weren't always. My partners had to be in sync and that took a lot of work  And most important of all, clients were the ultimate bosses, and had to be nourished with new ideas regularly.

       When this appeared in Adweek, I got a dozen letters of appreciation from ad agency heads who said they wished they had known this going in.

        That's why I always tell my students to think bigger and plan, not for the middle, but for the top jobs. That's where they might very well end up, and they'll want to be prepared.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hey, Shakespeare, remember me?

       I'm writing this from Ashland, Oregon. It's my first time at the Shakespeare festival here, and the town is really different. People smile here all the time.

       For many years, Shakespeare was an annual habit of mine when I lived in the Midwest. Get in the car, drive a few hours into Canada, and you're at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. The tiny town on the Avon River was originally a place where the Canadian National Railroads repaired trains. Now it's Elizabethan --- the inns, the shoppes, and unfortunately the food. Except at about six wonderful restaurants, one in a church belfry.

        Ashland seems a lot like that, and attracts people who are relaxed, care about the environment, and are reluctant to tip-toe into California. There are no state taxes; on the other hand, there is a Starbucks.

        The whole scene reminds me of one week when I was the creative head on the GM account in Detroit. I had planned to go to Stratford for the weekend, to see a new production of "The Tempest", and on Wednesday, GM had a crisis. A protest was announced by a group that believed GM was unfair in their hiring practices. They were going to march on the GM Building the next Thursday.

         When GM is upset, the first thing they did was call in their ad agency for help. They wanted a full-page ad to run in the newspapers the day before the protest, and wanted to see ideas Monday afternoon. There went my weekend in Stratford.

          I was determined to go anyway, and like a pro, I looked for a loophole, a way out, some idea that I could execute in no time at all. Everyone else in my group was slaving away at long-copy response ads with headlines such as "An Open Letter to the Leaders of Tomorrow's Protest" and "What You Should Know about General Motors' Hiring Practices".

         I decided to create an ad that simply showed a blank GM employment application as the visual. Under it was the headline "Just try us." Then the GM logo. That was it, and I left early Friday to drive to Stratford to see Shakespeare.

         The following Monday afternoon, my ad was chosen --- and cancelled the next day. The protest was called off.

         And the tempest was all for naught.

Monday, September 26, 2011

What time's the next muse?

    A couple of months ago, W magazine had a beautiful story on Woody Allen's muses. Beautiful, because it had pictures of them. They were all actresses in his movies, from "Annie Hall" to "Manhattan" to "Midnight In Paris".

       These various muses (Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, to name a few) inspired Woody to write films for them, and he did, because he was in love with each one. I need a muse to inspire me to write this blog. I'm sort of in-between muses right now.

       In advertising, muses are everywhere. On my first job I shared an office with raven-haired Ashley. When I was asked to write poetry for the Christmas card for the c.e.o. of Sara Lee, it was Ashley who inspired me to go down to the bar on the first floor, have a few drinks, and write the thing. When I had to write a commercial for Sealy mattresses, I would talk to our receptionist, Miss Goldblatt. Somehow, she would inspire me to think about matresses, as she did every salesman who came calling at our office.

     Over the years, my muses have included Harriette, the photographer who became a midwife. She brought out my natural side. Marianne, a copywriter from Des Moines who inspired me to create an ad campaign for tourism in Iceland when I came back with pneumonia from a field trip there. There was Bonnie, almost too beautiful to look at, who inspired me to do a GM campaign for using quality replacement parts. And I can't forget Margaret, who ultimately inspired me to quit smoking forever, only to relapse when she introduced me to her boyfriend.

      Writing a blog requires a different kind of muse than writing an ad or a mid-term exam.  When you write a blog, you need a muse with the long view. One who thinks this could be the Huffington Post or the Daily Beast one day. One who gives me ideas every time she walks in the room, just by walking in the room.

       I'm easy to please. She simply needs to be part Scarlett Johansson, part Tina Fey, and part Della Street.

       But where do you find such a muse? I guess I should write an ad for one.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fun and games in the creative department.

       In the post-Mad-Men days, the creative departments of advertising agencies were generally regarded as more like a high school than a business office. "Those creative people---they're always goofing off!" And we were.

       It wasn't like we didn't dress like everybody else, because we did. Ties were a big thing, which is why my art-director friend Bob was so upset when Jane, a writer, cut off his tie. Suits were big, too. Usually too big, in fact, but we weren't so fashion-conscious back then. Mostly, we were fashion unconscious.

       But we were always playing games. Frisbie was popular out in the main hall, and the idea was to keep it from going down the elevators when the doors opened. When someone brought in a miniature pool table, we all wanted to play, and immediately asked management for a regulation-size. We were denied.

       Creative people were always at their most creative at finding things to do. One election year, we decided to create posters as if we were running for president, and within a day everyone had a sign on his or her door. My favorite was my friend Marv's: "Elect a veteran". Another writer's sign said "Vote for Marilyn. A headline in every pot."

       Carol, I think, came up with the game of casting the stars of a hypothetical movie being made about our agency. Since Marv wanted to be played by Cary Grant, I settled for Victor Mature. Everyone said it was type casting.

       That game went on for about a month, until John, a copy supervisor, came up with the notion that our agency was run very much like a suburban high school. That sounded right, and we all decided to assign roles to ourselves. Clark was the rich kid whose dad gave him a Porsche. Gene was the gym teacher. And I was the kid who always went home for lunch.

       You probably wonder why the agency's management put up with this. In retrospect, so do I. Why did they let this go on and on? Didn't it interfere with productivity since it took so much of our time?

       The answer was no, just the opposite. We were happy people having fun, and happy creative people do better work. We knew what we were getting paid for, and we always delivered. I worked at another agency where we took lunch from noon to 2 p.m., because that's how long it took us to go to the hotel next door, swim in the indoor pool, eat, and come back. We voluntarily worked late a couple of nights a week.

       As you can imagine, the rest of the agency thought we were juvenile. There were a lot of advantages to that. Travel plans were always made for us. We didn't have to carry equipment or even the ads for the presentation (we might lose them). And we never had to stay for the whole meeting, just the creative portion.

       These days, in these tough times, a lot less of this is going on, but it does go on. I think even more should be going on. These days it would be yoga, or Pilates. The more stress relievers, the better the commercials.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The horse knows the way.

       I'm always shocked by how little we in advertising and marketing have learned in the last 100 years.

       Two months ago, a member of an online professional group I belong to asked a simple question: What makes a good ad?

        So far, she's had over 450 responses, and they're still coming in. Which is great, I suppose, except that they're all different. How can there be 450 answers to that question? Everything from "communication" kinds of answers, to the use of humor. Only one said salesmanship and persuasion, and that answer was mine.

        My students are quick to pick up on this idea, and understand that all advertising, in both traditional and new media, has to have the qualities of a good salesperson. Their personal experiences in retail have taught them they have to know their products and their customers, and be considerate, helpful, honest and sensitive to others. So do good ads.

        A recent study reported in Advertising Age found that 50% of all advertising is ineffective, and it's easy to understand why. By the way, that probably makes the other 50% super-effective because there's only half the competition.

        When will those 450 people learn? For example, look at the current BMW ads. Since we read our first ad, we've been trained to know exactly where to look for the product and brand name. We have to simply look at the bottom right for the logo, to learn who's talking to us. Research shows we certainly don't read to the bottom and then go to the top again. In the BMW ads, though, they have the logo hidden in clear view, at the top right in the ads. Why make an audience hunt that hard to find the advertiser?

       That's something my friend Marty Puris would never have done when he created the "ultimate driving machine" campaign that established BMW's branding. He had other things to accomplish. Such as convincing people what a great car a BMW is to drive.

       Maybe it should be a rule that all advertising people spend a year selling something. I think I know 450 people who could probably benefit a lot.


Friday, September 23, 2011

We're living in strange times.

      Saks Fifth Avenue is reporting that luxury is back. Tell your neighbors. Sales are up and discounting is down at Saks, even online. Instead of just buying individual items, their customers are back to buying lines of merchandise.

     There seems to be a bit of bifurcation going on, as we discussed last week in my marketing class. At the same time luxury buyers are shopping more, so are buyers in the middle, but they're buying more products at the lower end. Which is why Saks is also expanding its off-price Off-Fifth chain.

      While all this is going on, advertising agencies are getting worried again.

       The c.e.o. of French-owned Publicis, the fourth-largest international ad agency holding company, is about to tighten its belt in anticipation of another potential slowdown in the business. So is Leo Burnett, the huge Chicago agency owned now by Publicis. They're watching everything, from purchases from vendors to the hiring of freelancers.

       The next question is, what can we expect in the creative work that anxious ad agencies turn out?

       For one thing, I would expect more conservative executions. Television commercials that are "closer to the ground", with more announcers doing the heavy lifting of information. Less humor, more boring. Print ads that are in one of two camps: either more direct, with louder,  more strident claims; or more spokespeople. Uggs, for example, is using New England quarterback Tom Brady for its new multi-media campaign. We'll see him ugging around with his dog.

       I would also anticipate an even stronger shift to social media, not because it's more effective, but because it's so much cheaper. A way to reach more eyeballs, potentially, at a lower cost, making a media plan look more responsible. Even though there's still no evidence that social media is nearly as effective as traditional media.

      How will the creative people at ad agencies feel? A little tense and anxious. More pressure to hit home runs, and a shift in how a home run is defined. At many agencies, that means anything that pleases the client. Look for larger headlines, copy about product features, and silly claims. Less subtlety.

      It all adds up to a complicated time to get in the advertising and marketing business, best if you have a creative mind and have learned all you can.  But you'll have to work at it. Bosses are tougher, less likely to take chances. Yet companies need help, and they know it.

      Ordinary marketing is a luxury nobody can afford these days.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

A world where everything changes.

       Advertising Age gives awards for the "Small Agency of the Year". In the Midwest, the award was won by an ad agency that changes its identity every 150 days.

       The agency is called Space 150, in Minneapolis. Every five months, the agency changes everything --- including business cards, signage, and its website.

        According to its president, Marcus Fisher (who appears to be a constant), "Everything we preach is that change is permanent. So we live it and breathe it. The agency's founder, Billy Jurewicz, agrees. "If you try to invent a mission statement for 20 years, it's tough to predict what it's going to be like. Even the Constitution has amendments", he added.

        While this defies conventional thinking, they say it has produced good results for Space 150. They've done some work for biggies, including American Express and Dairy Queen. Their idea of changing every few months seems to be more of a p.r. ploy, I think. Note they haven't changed their name nor do they change employees regularly, nor more importantly, their way of doing business.  Looking at your identity as your business cards is way too narrow. They remain the Minneapolis agency that's into change.

       It's hard to live in a world where change is constant, but it's important to be aware that it is, and incorporate that into what we marketers have to do.

         A while back I was at a conference sponsored by the University of Michigan. One speaker was the marketing director of Coca Cola. After he spoke, someone had a question. "Everyone knows about Coke. Why do you advertise?" The marketing director said he could answer that in one word: "Pepsi."

        We're bombarded with marketing messages every day, by the thousands. One out of every seven Americans moved to another place this last year. New people are coming into and out of demographic and psychographic target markets every year. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average worker will have three to five jobs in a lifetime. The economy is changing, the world is changing, and you're not standing still, either.

        A  marketing executive from Macy's came to our school to talk to our fashion marketing students. They asked him how he keeps up with the fashion business. "You may find this hard to believe," he said, "but I read the Wall Street Journal every morning. It's got great coverage of the fashion business and marketing."

        I've been absorbed in it every day since, as well as Yahoo, the Internet sites, Adweek, Ad Age, CNN, the New York Times, Bloomberg Business Week, books, and anything else I can lay my hands on.

       Change isn't easy to keep up with, but if you want to be in marketing and advertising, you have to. People change, fashions change, media change, technologies change, and so do tactics and techniques.

       And if you don't, as the Coke marketing director noted, your competition will.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

More battle notes from the conclusion couch.

      When I wrote about getting on the conclusion couch --- coming to conclusions too early and never challenging them ---- I didn't talk about the consequences. There are many.

      For one thing, conclusions that go unquestioned can screw up your personal life. People are different; we all have our good and bad points. Judging people and behavior based on values and prejudices you acquired in the past cannot be used across the board, and you may be missing out on reality as it is. Before you make yourself the judge and jury, be sure you hear the defendant's side.

       For another thing, you can miss who you're talking to. If you've concluded you're in mass communications, for example, you're  wrong. Mass media, sure, but communication is always received by one person, times many. There's one person at her computer or TV set, about to hear what you've got to say. If you don't interest her, you've lost her, and all your sweeping generalities won't help a bit.

       We're all living in uncertainty and we try to find guidelines etched in concrete. Nothing is, especially in marketing, and we have to be open to possible new meanings and interpretations.

        When I was in Japan a few years ago, I spent time visiting the beautiful shrines and temples. A lot of Japanese school kids were visiting these places as well, perfectly dressed in their school uniforms. They all looked adorable, but the same. They were all wearing the same blazers and shirts, skirts and pants, and backpacks. But looking closely at their backpacks, I noticed they were all decorated differently, with different pins and flowers and buttons and slogans. Each of these kids was different, and showed it where they could. especially in their faces.

        Conclusions come too quickly, too easily. The way to get off the conclusion couch is by questioning and investigating, digging deeper and allowing for exceptions and for not knowing. Don't write things off so quickly. We in marketing have to be open to possibility.

        Instead of coming to conclusions, we have to ask what are the other possible explanations, other possible endings to the story.

        In fact, you can play a part in how it ends.



Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Everyone off the conclusion couch.

       Throughout my career, a voice has been warning me: "Stay off the conclusion couch".

       It's the voice of my early mentor, Tom Murray. He originally admonished me by saying I was too young to just jump to conclusions and judge everyone and everything by them. As time went by, the "too young" part receded in my mind, but the rest stayed.

      All of us, I guess, reach conclusions all of the time. The point, though, is to not let them keep you from seeing reality as it is. More importantly, we must keep those judgements from making us inflexible.

      For example, here are some conclusions you may be tempted to reach:

      1. Advertising adds to the price of a product. Someone has to pay for it.

      2. People don't read long copy in ads. They haven't got time.

      3. Nobody reads the newspaper anymore. Everyone gets the news from the Internet.

      4. The way to judge a good wine for a gift is the price. Same for vodka.

      5. "I'm not subject to social pressure. I make my decisions rationally."

      We hear these kinds of things all the time, and when they harden into conclusions, they can take us to dead ends, without curiosity.

       1. Research has shown that most of the time, advertising reduces the price of a product. It makes mass production possible. By the way, Vogue magazine would cost you about $20 per copy without ads. You'd have to pay for all your TV shows, too.

       2. People read what they're interested in, according to Daniel Starch and Co. research. Hundreds of thousands of women read even the longer articles in Vanity Fair and InStyle, for example. Your ads should be as useful and interesting as the articles.

       3. If you want to reach the most people in a city, in one shot, nothing beats the newspaper. Whether you personally read it or not. True, most people under 30 don't read it, so place your ads somewhere else for them.

      4. There are very good wines and vodkas that don't cost as much as the "top shelf" brands. We don't know how to judge them, so we go by price and labels. Remember, all vodkas made in the U.S.A. are by law "100% neutral grain spirits". For wine, it helps to read the reviews.

      5. We're all subject to social pressure. Look around at how we dress when we're in a group. There tend to be strict perameters: at school, at work, at weddings, at football games. Same goes for values and lifestyles. The guy who drinks cosmopolitans is usually not Joe Six-pack.

      Please stay off the conclusion couch. I know it's hard, but it kills new ideas and deadens mind-changing marketing.

      We're all too young for that.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Long overdue at the library.

       During New York Fashion Week, designer Ronaldus Shamask showed his line at the New York Public Library. He paid one dollar to use it.

       I'm glad someone found a new use for the library. Maybe next year everyone will be there, on the Dewey Decimal System, of course.

       Supporters of public libraries say they're losing out to bookstores that offer coffee and bagels. I look at it a little differently. The public libraries themselves are the biggest reason people are buying books rather than borrowing them at no cost from the library.

       Should we really blame Barnes and Noble for creating a bright, enoyable environment for browsing? Should we call them out for recognizing that people will stick around longer if they had a bite to eat and something to drink?

      It may be no fault of their own, but many public libraries seem to be frozen in the 1950s. They've added computers, which is great, and now librarians are "information scientists", which is terrific. But they've also added machines so you can check out your own books, without any contact with a human. The feeling one gets in the public library is that you can stay here if you really want to, but isn't there somewhere else you'd rather be?

       Sure. A bookstore.

       A few years ago I was asked to speak to a meeting of librarians. About 150 showed up to hear me tell how advertising people use libraries. Instead, I chastised and challenged them.

        I told them they did little to invite new people to visit. They do nothing to promote free library cards. I told the librarians their chairs were too hard, their bathrooms unpleasant, the stacks too dark, and that they seemed more concerned about getting books  back than they did about getting good books out. I told them I thought they did little to promote literature, and stocked the "new arrivals" shelves with more crime books than good reading.

       An example of a great library is at the Art Institute, where I teach. It's roomy, airy, well lit, colorful and very comfortable. Even more important, the staff is accessible, always asking how they can help, free with  directions, and openly asking for suggestions of additions to the collections. They know what their users are using, and what they're not.

       Why can't public libraries learn the basics of good marketing? Find out who their customers are and what they want. Then supply it and let people know. Try promotions to bring people in. Make sure service is good at every point of contact.

       When I was 12 years old, I gave puppet shows at the Chicago Public Library, to give kids another reason to get to know the place...and their parents a free hour to browse. Today things have changed. Today it's a fashion show for the sophisticated fashion crowd.

       What's next? A Texting Jubilee?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Are we spending time on yesterday that we should be spending on tomorrow?

       Peter Drucker, the famous business philosopher from the Claremont Colleges and the founder of the Harvard Business Review, had a signature strategy: abandon the past in favor of the future. He turned down chairs at both Harvard and Stanford, and went on to change business' ideas on management.

        In both fashion and marketing we see leaders who are stuck in their former glories. They got very good at what they were doing, made a lot of money doing it, and seem to have lost the creative spark to do something new. For example, Kodak was doing so well making photographic paper that they were late for the party of digital cameras and something that was a natural, printers.

        One concept of Drucker's that's even more difficult is "purposeful abandonment". Abandoning a stagnant product line appears to shrink sales, and along with it, profit. But managers hold on to older ideas too long, when they could be using their resources to foster new ones.

       One example on the good side is Toyota. Its founder, Sakichi Toyoda, was a successful inventor. He started his company by making a better loom for weaving, and got a patent on it in 1890. The company abandoned looms for cars and went on to global success.

       Part of Toyota's continued success is their firm's commitment to kaizen --- continuous improvement. Any employee is empowered to "stop the train" at any time at the sign of a problem, and start solving it. Today Toyota is rethinking all of its cars for North America.

       In fashion, "improvement" has to be constant. Nothing stands still. When Andrew Rosen, a founder of Theory, wanted to give fresh energy to a brand, he reached beyond the usual path of hiring a new designer. He made a deal with Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens to introduce his own line:  Theysken's Theory.

       Drucker's point is worth thinking about in our personal lives. What are the things and ideas you can purposefully abandon from your past?

       Please start now.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Optometrist: a man of vision.

        When I was eleven years old, I sent for a book advertised in the the magazine section of the Chicago Tribune. The book was called "Esar's Comic Dictionary" and to me it was a priceless treasure. "Esar's" was a book of humorous definitions. Here are a few corny examples from the Ds:

                             Duckling: an animal that grows up as it grows down.

                             Duel: pistols for two, breakfast for one.

                             Dumb: the stupid half of wisdom.

        Last week I bought a used copy for 50 cents at a sale at the Berkeley Public Library, and as I looked it over I could see how, from a kid's perspective, its sophomoric humor stirred my young mind to become a writer.

                              Impromptu: something carefully memorized to fit the occasion.

                              Incurable: a disease whose four stages are ill, pill, bill, and will.

                              Movie star: an actress to whom variety is the spouse of life.

       Thinking about words, playing with words, having fun with words. That's a copywriter. Creating pictures with words, changing the meaning of pictures with words, translating words into pictures --- that's what copywriters do.

                               Supersonic plane: a plane that passed the speed of sound and
                                                            approaching the speed of gossip.

                               Tiger: a cat that made good.

                               Tie: another thing that should be seen and not heard.

        With this reference book in hand, I wrote plays, stories, and eventually got into advertising. Where else can you make a living with puns and wordplay? Where else can you knock people out with a new idea expressed in a sentence or two, or make them laugh the first 30 seconds and cry the next?

         I'm sure that if there were no such thing as advertising or marketing, I'd be one sorry guy.

                                Advertisement: the picture of a pretty girl eating, wearing or
                                                         holding something someone wants to sell.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why understand the social animal?

       When you go to the supermarket, do you know why you get to the produce before you get to the beer? Because once you feel you got the healthy stuff, you can indulge in the fun stuff.

        Did you know that at restaurants, people eating alone eat the least, and that people eating with another person eat 35% more than they do at home? We're self-conscious alone, socially conscious with others.

        Did you know that people have two kinds of tastes --- one for now, another for things to be enjoyed later? Blockbusters for now, art films later.

        These and a thousand other things about us are explored in the book, "The Social Animal", by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Through the lives of a composite couple, Erika and Harold, Brooks tells the story of how success happens. It's fun to read, but the path isn't easy. We Americans are hard to understand.

        In his chapter on the brain, Brooks tells the story of how Erica's approach to selling was falling on deaf ears. "Why don't you try a different approach?" asks the customer. "Instead of telling me what you're offering, why don't you ask me what I want?"

        Even with neuromapping and all our wonderous new techniques, I tell my students that it's important to keep in mind that we all have one theme song: "There will never ever be another me." We're all interested in ourselves, our families, our worries. We all have dreams we hope will come true, and fears we hope won't. 

        In marketing, we want to know as much as possible about the customer. In my classes, I often ask my students to do what my boss asked me to do 25 years ago: write a profile of a product's market as if it were one person. What is she like? Where does she live, what does she do, what are her values and attitudes? It's fun to create, and it makes it easier for everyone to understand what the marketing issues are. (In that assignment, I actually had mannequins dressed as the customer of S.C.Johnson's floor polishes, and her family, and had recorded voices to tell their stories.) Essentially that's what Brooks is doing in his book. Helping us get to know middle-class America on a personal level.

       It's been said that advertising is the art of talking to people who don't want to listen. That's because most advertising is about products, and what we're interested mostly is ourselves, the social animal.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

How I shot myself in the foot.

       A funny thing happened on the way home from seeing Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris". I couldn't wait to re-read something by Hemingway. I found a copy of "The Sun Also Rises", which turned out to be perfect.

       Soon I found myself trying to write like Hemingway. Short, declarative sentences, subject and predicate. I tried to write with gritty language, and long descriptions of the landscape. I tried everything but the bullfights; it was always too hard to tie them in with the ads I was doing.

       I finally had to give up writing like I was at a dark little bar in Cuba, but once again I realized how important "tone" is.

       When an ad writer makes up her mind to write, the decision about tone of voice is always in the room. She has to decide. Should it be friendly, formal, conversational, or introductory? Confident, questioning, informative or reassuring? Subtle or frank? Stern or funny or with just a knowing smile in the voice?

       There are tones we hate (like those demolition derby and tractor-pull commercials), and those we feel like curling up with (like Kraft and Hallmark). There are voices we recognize (Garfield the cat), voices we trust (Donald Sutherland), and the announcery voices that sound like God.

       The wrong tone of voice can wreck a commercial, and it can wreck an otherwise good print ad or even a brochure.

       When I write, my "default voice" (when nothing more specific, like Dracula or Patton, comes to mind) is a kind of jaunty, conversational tone. My first drafts are usually that way, and then I'll re-write everything if it doesn't sound right when I read it aloud.

        You have to give your tone of voice some thought. An educator I know can write five words and have me laughing out loud. A ballerina I know recently emailed me and there was a tear welling up before I got through her second sentence.

         I'm no Hemingway, as I've just proven. But when I ask you to pay attention to the tone of voice in your writing, I am trying to be very earnest.

         (Sorry about that. Wrong tone.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A big blog of gratitude.

       A friend and colleague I can count on for an insightful view of life gave me something to read. It's called "Stumbling toward Gratitude", by Catherine Price.

       Ms. Price writes about self-help books, and their offers of secrets to happiness. She notes that positive psychologists talk a lot about the same concept: gratitude. That people who try to become more grateful about everyday things are likely to become happier and even healthier. I began to wonder how this could apply to marketing.

       If I'm more grateful in my daily life, will a happier me become more sensitive to the people I work with (for whom I'm grateful), the place I work (grateful for that), and the students I teach (the ultimate gratitude)?

       As an advertising person, will gratitude help me become more conscious of the needs of the market? Will the happiness I derive make my writing more appealing, the products I write about more desirable?

       You know something? I think so. Sour people's work turns sour. Sour people are more concerned with their own needs, and get sourer when they tabulate how their own needs aren't met. However, sometimes sour people are sour for a good reason, such as sadness and loss. I'm not sure which comes first, happiness or gratitude.

       Ms. Price talks about "making a conscious effort to savor all the beauty and pleasures in daily life". Wouldn't that thought be great in a commercial right about now? Can't TV viewers use a breath of fresh air, a peaceful vision of a simpler life, or a robin, a bluejay, a petunia in times like these? 

       The author talks about taking her boyfriend out to dinner at Cafe Gratitude, here in Berkeley, where they are all focused on the topic. Not a bad focus to have if you're marketing anything. In fact, the time I was there, after dinner, the waitress asked everybody what they were grateful for. I asked her if she was grateful to have our group as customers. She thanked us profusely for coming.

       Try it. Be grateful and who knows? People just might be grateful back.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Where, oh where, is Halston?

       This is New York Fashion Week and according to the New York Times, everyone was there--- except the Halston label.

       Halston has been a revolving door since Roy Halston Frowick died of AIDS complications in San Francisco in 1990. The brand now has complications of its own.

       Halston's rise was meteoric. In 1966, known mostly for his hats, he opened a boutique at Bergdorf Goodman. Seven years later he was one of five American designers in "The Battle of Versailles", the event that proclaimed the emergence of American fashion.

       When Halston agreed to create a line for J.C. Penney, Bergdorf cancelled their contract. Then, from owner to owner: Beatrice Foods, Revlon, Borghese cosmetics. Movie producer Harvey Weinstein and Sarah Jessica Parker tried to steer the ship.Today, Ben Malka, a former president of BCBG Max Azaria, is chairman and c.e.o.

       According to the Times, the main investor, Jeffrey B. Hecktman, sums up the fashion business this way: "Everything is a lot of noise, and I understand noise sells. But this business is not about Harvey Weinstein. Harvey is not the brand. Sarah Jessica Parker is not the brand. I invested in Halston, and everything else is additive."

       Halston was incredibly talented. A lot of people seem to be attracted to fashion for the glitz, the buzz. Great designers are attracted by the art. They have an emotional need to create, and fashion is their medium. Which is to say, there seem to be at least three kinds of people attracted to the fashion business: those that love the fashion part, those that are good at the business part, and those who are good at the party part.

      The same thing is true about the advertising business. I've always said I'd hate to be in the advertising business if I couldn't make an ad. That would make me very nervous. Advertising is already a nervous business, because it's an art, not a science, and not everybody can just jump in and be a success.

      Which brings us to the Halston management of today. One group is always talking about licensing the brand. Hopefully, they won't have to resort to that approach. It completely diluted the Pierre Cardin brand.

       Let's hope they get back to making fashion. That's what Halston is, Mr. Hechtman.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ever have an idea worth $276 million?

     The front page headline in Advertising Age tries to make light of it: "A-B Inbev Seeks Mad Men of Genius for Bud Light". Advertising agencies across the country are taking it seriously.

      The company is looking at its present agencies and some outside its roster for ideas for its best-selling brand. The account is currently at DDB in Chicago, where it spent $276 million last year, the biggest spender in the beer business. DDB must be shaking.

       Why is this huge brand looking for a new agency right now? Isn't its current "Here we go!" campaign doing the trick?

        The whole beer business is worried. Sales are off for brand after brand, including Heineken and Guiness. These days, clients don't change agencies for better commercials. They change agencies for better ideas. Concepts. Mind-changing, attitude-changing approaches. As they say in advertising, a good idea doesn't care where it comes from.

        I believe advertising has taken its eye off the ball for years. It's become a race into new media, with experts sprouting up by the hundreds. It's certainly fun to work in new media, though; a different set of problems to solve and different things to do at the office. But there's little proof that social media, for instance, can sell things like television can, where non-ideas like "Here we go!" come and go.

        In New York, Schaeffer beer had a big idea: "The one beer to have when you're having more than one". Good news for the 20% of the beer drinkers who drink 80% of the beer.

        Another big beer idea belongs to Utica Club, in upper New York state: "We're 50 years behind the times, and proud of it". That's the same beer that says "We drink all we can, the rest we sell". An idea on top of an idea.

        When Miller Lite first came out, it had an idea that enabled it to succeed where other "diet" beers had failed. Miller's idea wasn't about calories, it was "it doesn't fill you up". More room for more beer; the heavy users applauded.

         The Harris poll regularly asks advertisers what they want from their ad agencies, and the answer is always "more ideas". Maybe now, with $276 million at stake, the agencies will listen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It's only advertising.

       Advertising is sometimes thought of as a very competitive, dog-eat-dog world where your instinct to survive is put to the test every day. I was always too busy or too worried to know if that was true.

       Occasionally, one-upsmanship would rear its ugly head at a meeting, but I found that those things had a way of taking care of themselves. Usually the person who tried to show off merely showed that he really wasn't that good. The rest of us didn't have to say a thing. There was that misplaced sort of etiquette you find in a classroom, where students are reluctant to critique another's work. Then again, I never really worked in New York.

      An art director who used to work for me here in the Bay Area (we'll call her Myra) decided she wanted to live in Manhattan. She was a wonderful advertising designer with great taste. She also loved to party, making New York a perfect choice. She immediately got a job with a large design firm there, and found herself in an environment where everyone had to take their work home at night --- or their ideas would be stolen.

      Myra hated it. Nobody shared, nobody helped anybody. She did very well there, winning competitions and having her designs chosen by some of the biggest names in industry. But for every winner, of course, there are losers, and who wants to work in a place that creates an environment for bad losers. I love Myra, and was thrilled when she quit there to be in charge of graphic design for a prominent New York fashion house where people had better values.

       Probably the worst situation is when you're in competition with your own boss, and I have been there. It's exhausting. A no-win. There were meetings where everyone was asked which idea was best, and mine or someone else's would be chosen over the boss' . It can be ugly, with your boss explaining to everyone why your idea wasn't as good. A classic father /son conflict. Pure envy, and you have to go to work every day for one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

       In my case, competition took a strange turn one year when the agency c.e.o. was having an affair with a beautiful art director who worked for me. If I killed one of her ads, I'd get a call from the c.e.o.  If I was working on a new campaign with another art director, I'd get a call from the c.e.o. saying his girlfriend had a great idea that could use my help. And call after call from the c.e.o. about how great things would be for the agency if I teamed up with her permanently. When I did work with her, we won awards. With all the pressure to give up my autonomy I realized a man doesn't live by awards alone. One day I simply quit.

      Advertising is competitive, and that's healthy. Some people get sharper, and the work gets better. That's when we're also cooperating, knowing we're only as good as our last commercial.

      When Myra left that New York design firm I quoted Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister: "Life is too short to be little."


Saturday, September 10, 2011

The designer who couldn't sew straight.

       Every once in a while, a fashion design student finds herself in one of my fashion marketing classes, which they don't usually take.  When asked why, she's likely to tell us she didn't realize fashion design involves sewing. I explain I don't sew either, so she's safe.

       Fashion designer types do great work in my classes, and I'm always excited to see how they do the assignments. They're unconstrained by convention and very creative. They do ads that don't look like ads because they have no preconceived notions of what an ad should look like. Which is great. In their ads, they often make connections that others don't think of, which is one definition of creativity.

       That kind of thinking always reminds me of an art director I knew in New York. He went into the Mt. Sinai hospital for a week, for surgery, and while he was still there he re-designed his whole life. A new haircut, a new apartment, a new wardrobe, a new diet, everything. 

       Another New York art director, George Lois, was trained at DDB and later took on the assignment of creating the covers of Esquire magazine. He said he'd do them for two years or till one of his ideas was rejected, then he'd quit. Lois approached each cover as if it were an ad for an article inside. For a story on Christmas, he shot a photo of Sonny Liston as Santa. For an article on the increase of women executives, a beautiful blonde covered in shaving cream, about to shave. Esquire's circulation soon doubled, and today two years of Lois' covers are on permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. 

       It's wonderful to see creative people of all kinds performing their magic in a field not their own. That's why I encourage advertising art directors to consider experimenting with some of the magazine editorial layout ideas in Conde Nast Traveler, or Vanity Fair, or other publications that are well designed to get you to read and keep reading.

       Even the Internet is beginning to shape up design-wise. Amazon is about to introduce a new Web site with a new look on its home page. Simpler, for the iPad. Gilt is doing a good job, and now that Zara is about to introduce shopping on its site, I have high hopes for them, as well.

       We don't have to be designers to love and experience good design. Just ask almost anyone who's shopping at Target.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Who would rather be safe than sorry?

       I'm very sensitive to  rejection, and here it is the beginning of New York Fashion Week, and I'm already slighted by my favorite fashion writer.

       Terri Agins, of the Wall Street Journal, was answering a reader's question about finding more interesting clothes. She answered, "The category you're describing is basically casual menswear that goes beyond sport coats and open-collar shirts or sweaters, the safe haven for legions of men."

       Thanks, Terri, you just blew my cover. Of course it's a safe haven. That's why I wear sports coats and open-collar shirts. To be safe.

       The rest of Terri's column gave me some good ideas for varying my appearance. She suggests zeroing in on the savvy sales associates at Barney's New York, Bergdorf Goodman, and Theory. She went on to say, "If you relate to how the men in Italy, in particular, put themselves together, with an easy, casual pinache, you get my drift."

       Terri Agins writes only occasionally these days, and when she does, she always helps me understand what's needed. Of course the last time I had an easy, casual pinache was when I was eleven years old and the girls from Camp Merimeeta came across the lake for a dance with us at Camp Menominee.  Anyway, Terri's book, "The End of Fashion", is a must for students of the subject.

       Maybe I need the invisible hand of a stylist. But any stylist worth her salt probably wouldn't be seen with a guy walking around in his safe haven.

       I'm reluctant to give up my sport jackets because they're actually my handbags. At a recent meeting a client took my jacket to hang it up and asked how I could wear such a heavy thing. That's because it contains pens, a datebook, gum, a notebook, post-its, extra paper, dry-erase pens, letters to answer, letters to mail, mints, a couple of #2 pencils, and a comb. The usual guy stuff.  Man-bags are getting popular again, but I'd probably leave mine on the train. My sport jacket is always with me.

       With Fashion's Night Out past (I took it lying down), I'm ready to venture out and take Terri's advice to visit a few thrift stores to add individuality and that panache to my wardrobe.

       I wonder if they have any sport coats and open-collar shirts.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Put your turban on, it's time for tea.

      Fashion Week starts in New York today. Do you know who Eleanor Lambert was? You should. She was considered "fashion's first lady".

       In his new book reviewed in the New York Times, "Eleanor Lambert: Still Here", John Tiffany explains that she was fashion's first publicist. She originated New York Fashion Week in 1943, in the Plaza Hotel. She established the Coty Awards that same year, and went on to create the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the International Best-Dressed list.

        Ms. Lambert ran a public relations company, often having her staff convene a 9 a.m. at Kenneth's, the salon in New York where she had her hair done three times a week. She recognized talent, and told the world about Bill Blass, Halston, and Norman Norell. During fashion week, she served macaroni and cheese, baked ham, and meatloaf to 200 fashion editors in an open-house buffet in her home. Later in her life, the government hired her to promote trade, with international fashion shows.

        The mantra she stuck with all her life was "Get your look and stick with it". I certainly understand the value of that. I still have sweaters from college.

         What interested me about this mantra is how it applies to branding. Companies should "get your look and stick with it", too.

         Chanel is particularly careful about this. The packaging, the advertising, even the products the company produces evoke a singleness of authorship. All great brands stay contemporary, not by changing but by evolving and broadening.

        J. Crew can be depended on to introduce new products all the time. That's part of its success. But it doesn't have an identity crisis doing so, and its customers don't have one, either. Everything is in character within the scope of the J. Crew mentality. Mickey Drexler, the company's c.e.o., is way too good a merchant to change that on a whim.

        During the years the VW Beetle was being advertised with ads in the same format week after week, month after month, and with the same Brooklyn-wise tone of voice, their agency was frequently asked when the campaign would change. The ad agency always had the same response: "We'll change the ads when Volkswagen changes the car". And they did, but not before.

        That's the lesson of branding.

         Eleanor Lambert's look was a turban that went on every afternoon, before tea. I don't know what mine is yet, but when I do, I'm sticking with it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Read any little books lately?

     Have you read "the little book"? Everyone in advertising and marketing should have a copy to read and re-read every year.

      "The little book", as it is known by professionals, is "The Elements of Style". It was originally written by William Strunk, Jr., an English professor at Cornell. Thirty-nine years later one of his students, New Yorker magazine essayist E.B. White, wrote the introduction and added a chapter.

      "The Elements of Style" makes the case for accuracy and brevity in 71 pages. It will help you become not only a better writer but also a clearer thinker. Everything will be sharper, with its edges showing. Professor Strunk was the enemy of ambiguity. Careless writers often use fuzzy language for pleasing doubters. Trouble is, customers want to know --- and are entitled to know --- exactly what a product will and won't do.

       "The little book" will help your writing get trimmer, slimmer, without losing any of its strength. It will help you cut out extra words and meaningless conversational fluff. Professor Strunk writes forcibly, and issues orders. White sharpened the points of these directives and aims them at the heart of today's writing. The book takes those things you learned in elementary school and helps you better understand and appreciate them, finally.

        You'll never again use language such as "a member of the student body" when you can just write "a student".

        You'll shudder at using such expressions as "the foreseeable future" because you'll wonder who can foresee what how far in advance.

        You'll understand that "type" is not a synonym for "kind of" and value the difference.

        You'll learn what to do when you become mired in a sentence; how muddiness destroys hope; how adjectives bleed nouns; and when never to use "not".

         I still use the 95-cent copy I bought when I was starting out. It's about $15 now, and even comes in a slightly more expensive illustrated edition.

        Buy it. Read it. Keep it. Use it. It can make a writer out of you.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The last of the speed livers.

        Ross and I worked together at our second jobs, at a large automotive ad agency in Detroit. I had started at a small agency in Chicago, Ross at the huge J. Walter Thompson in New York. He introduced himself as "the last of the speed livers"  --- meaning he lived at a furious pace. He worked at the office as an art director about 50 hours a week, then went home to be a husband and dad, worked all evening improving his house, and half the night as an artist.

       Watching Ross work on an ad was like watching one of those cartoon characters. It was a flurry of color, a blur that magically always turned into a striking ad. One day Ross' father came to the office and asked what he did. Ross showed him how he created layouts by using his great drawing skills. "You draw?" his father asked. "Don't let your boss know you do that on company time."

       We worked together only occasionally, because we were in different groups, but we became good friends. We lived in the same small Michigan town, Huntington Woods, and Ross picked me up every morning in his black VW beetle, and returned me at night. The return trip was more exciting. "There's a grab bar to hang onto," he'd say every night. "This is going to be a white knuckle ride." On the morning trip we'd tell what we planned to accomplish that day. On the way home we gave all the excuses why we couldn't.

        Three days in New York changed Ross forever. He and two friends of ours, Marv and Marty, snuck off to New York with suitcases full of samples, mounted on heavy cardboard, to get jobs. Marv and Marty got what they wanted; Ross got a job offer he really didn't want. He came back to Detroit and studied the "hot" New York agencies with a vengeance. Then turned around and went to Doyle Dane's L.A. office where he did those great VW outdoor boards, and then moved on to the hot new L.A. agency, Chiat/Day. That agency had a culture of hard work that suited Ross. (The company T-shirt said "Chiat/Day" on the front, "And Night" on the back.)

       Ross thrived at Chiat/Day, and became one of only 13 shareholders. He then moved to their San Francisco office as Creative Director. In a few years he retired to paint and called me up one day. "The cleaning lady comes to my condo to vacuum every Thursday. Can I come to your place and make ads with you?" I was thrilled, of course, and he stayed for three years.

       Today Ross is retired for good, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his wife Jean is from. He is painting and writing books about people in advertising.

        I forgot to ask him if I'm one of them.


Monday, September 5, 2011

Just how social can you get?

        Jennifer Cobb is a good friend, and whenever I have dinner at her house I learn two things. One, how good homemade Mexican food can be; and two, more about the relationship between technology and culture. Jenn's an expert at both.

        This time I learned how concerned she was about Internet privacy, and how what we once considered ephemeral ("Hey, I like that!") has now become a permanent part of our digital history. Our online behavior influences search results, the ads we get, and how others view us.

        Jenn is concerned because of what she sees as a problem of asymmetry. When we meet on Facebook, we don't have an equal chance of knowing about each other. A lot is held back, and she feels that's why we're not so concerned about privacy. 

        Also out of alignment are big companies' interests in us. They want to sell us. We want to learn something or get help, usually not to be sold something.

         I told this to my students, and asked them about the implications. They agreed that Facebook was getting information that they could sell to advertisers, but thought it didn't much matter. Being on Facebook was simply great fun, even though only one student said she ever learned something important on it. 

         Personally I don't mind that Facebook wants to sell ads that target me, other than the aggravation of deleting over a hundred messages a day. They usually aren't things I want, and if they are, that's positive.

         In this regard, social media really doesn't change anything. I'll still only be interested in something relevant to me, or something that's cool that I want to know about. All this talk about digital targeting makes social influence marketing appear more powerful than it really is.

         You can target the hell out of me and I still won't be interested in snowboards or water skis, books about tropical fish, or cameras that work at high altitudes, even if I told somebody that I miss the change of seasons, went to the aquarium, or love the view from the penthouse of the TransAmerica Building.

         Sure, I'd like to know what my friend Jay thinks of a movie;  his comments may convince me to go. But if he just bought green socks, that won't send me rushing to the J. Crew website, because I wear only black socks. Social media, when all is said and done, is only media, and I care less about the medium than its content.

          Please pass the salsa.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It's all relative, in the Readers' Digest.

       This morning I heard the grim news about the Readers' Digest. It's in debt over $2 billion, and about to change owners again. Quite a comedown for a magazine that once had a circulation of 18 million copies in the U.S. and editions throughout South America.

       I've never been a regular reader of the Digest, but I have done many ads that had to appear in it. It was a particular favorite of General Motors. The magazine either had a lot of car-buying readers, or threw a lot of good parties.

      Doing an ad for the Digest is hard; the pages are so small. After trying to shrink a regular magazine ad to fit that size, we'd give up because we always had words and pictures left over. So we finally caught on and did the Readers' Digest ad first, and then blew it up to fit the others.

      As a result of all this aggravation, and because the ads looked so dinky in our portfolios, we'd often plead to have the Digest taken off the media list, which upset the publication's bosses no end. They tried everything, including taking all the art directors to the Bahamas for "training". At one of these workshops, they tried to sell the idea that everything's relative. A page ad has prestige and a page is a page, regardless of the size. We weren't buying it.

      TV Guide was exactly the same size then, and the Digest people said we could run the same ad in both. We asked why would we since they're different audiences? As a writer, I liked the size of a Digest ad. It always seemed like a good challenge, like writing a billboard. Besides, I didn't have to write as much.

      Another time my life intersected with that magazine was when I was in college. I wanted to go somewhere nice for spring vacation, but didn't have the funds. In the Journalism Department they announced that the Digest would pay $5,000 for a story by a student, if they felt it had journalistic significance. I searched but couldn't find one that would take me to Florida to write. Hey,Washington, D.C. was also nice in the spring, so I tried that.

     I read about William Worthy, a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American whose passport was rescinded because he went to Communist China. That's it! Freedom of the press! I got the $5,000 and spent my vacation in the cherry blossoms interviewing Senators, the State Department, the Soviet News Service TASS, journalists, Worthy's editor in Baltimore, even a member of the Supreme Court. The result was a long story that got me good press around school.

     I feel sad about the Readers' Digest's plight today. I guess the Internet is wiping them out. Along with any hopes I might have for another free vacation in Washington.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The tyranny of entertainment.

      In his book, "Life: the Movie", Neal Gabler points out that "No medium generated images like television...Compelled to keep us stimulated, less we switch channels or switch the set off altogether, television took everything on its screen and converted it to entertainment."

      Neal Postman, the author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death", took it one step further. To him, television was the cosmology that governed American life.

      Entertainment-as-life actually started much earlier than television. The editor of the original Vanity Fair magazine, Frank Crowninshield, described his magazine as an "increased devotion to pleasure, to happiness, to dancing, to sport, to the delights of the country, to laugher, to all forms of cheerfulness."

      This is how the critic Geoffrey O'Brien described the movies: "Everybody could go in the same dark room --- no matter where it happened to be located --- and zero in on precisely the same dream."

      The Internet helps us get to that dream faster, personalized to our tastes. This is the environment of intended pleasure in which our culture bathes us. The environment in which marketing and advertising either thrive or die.

      Who's the champion in the lingerie business? Maidenform, which informs us about the latest features in good fit, or Victoria's Secret, which entertains us with a fashion show? Who's the most talked-about success in the insurance business? Is it rock solid Prudential, or a parade of funny ducks, geckos, and a wily salesperson named Flo? In some categories, it's hard to choose a champion. Both Coke's and Pepsi's advertising will be glad to tickle you into being happy.

       Have marketing and advertising turned into entertainment? You bet. Is that good or bad?

       I believe it all depends on how the entertainment is being used. Bill Bernbach, the great creative person  that upset the "Mad Men" years, used to say that it's only okay to show a man standing on his head if you're advertising trousers with zippers on the pockets, so things won't fall out. That's the point. If the humor, music, animals, dancing, icons, and general fooling around help demonstrate something, or help us remember something, that's fine. If not, all that entertainment is wasted effort.

       For us in marketing, entertainment is a tool, not an end in itself.

      Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go put on my clown make-up.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Pointing a Tim Gunn to my head.

       Tim Gunn, the fashion mentor on "Project Runway", has a mantra for all of us: own your own look. I've been owning my own look and everybody else's for years.

       I went to a progressive high school in Winnetka, Illinois, where everyone was encouraged to be themselves. All the boys wore khakis and madras shirts. We bottomed it all off with fuzzy pigskin shoes, or white bucks. We did have a suit for important occasions. Mine was tweed, but luckily important occasions rarely happened in summer.

      When I went to college, I switched to button-down shirts and nondescript pants. Corduroys were okay, in a drab color.

      Once I graduated, I became a wardrobe schizophrenic. Looking in my closet you would've thought I was seven different people. For work, the idea was to look like the guy in the office next door; don't call attention to yourself. Grey jackets, ties with little amoeba designs, blue button-downs, and your pants from college. For weekends, you'd think those seven guys went up north and someone mixed and matched their clothes. I usually looked suburban on top, urban on the bottom, and western in the middle.

       If I went to an Alfred Hitchcock retrospective, I'd comb my hair and wear a striped tie like Cary Grant the next day. If I read a story about a safari or saw "Lawrence of Arabia", I'd find a safari shirt and look like I just crawled out of King Solomon's mines. After I saw "My Fair Lady", I dressed like Henry Higgins for a year. Now I've settled down to sport coats and nice pants and a cotton dress shirt.

       I'm telling you this because I respect Mr. Gunn and am tired of being the exception that proves his rule.   This lack of cultural intelligence seems to be present in a lot of my gender, and is undoubtedly the reason many men resent shopping so much. If there's a woman nearby who knows style and would like to donate a Saturday to a worthy cause, I'm it. These days, I can use a guide through the land of men's outerwear.

      The last time I went to Banana Republic, I asked the men's department manager a question. He said, "I have the perfect person to answer that." He left for four minutes and returned with an older woman. "This is Betty," he said. "She's an old-timer. She can help you." And she did. You'd think that after all these years we'd know how to dress ourselves.

       Again, anyone want to be a personal shopper?


Thursday, September 1, 2011

The intern with portfolio.

       Last night I decided I need a new hat. For the last few years, the only thing I wore on my head was a baseball cap (Giants) and only when it rained. But watching "Mad Men" made me want something more substantial. I also want to put my trenchcoat back in rotation, but that will have to wait for winter.

       I even went down to the basement to see if I could find the attache case I bought when I was an intern. At the time, the attache case was a symbol of my success. It was the summer between my junior and senior year in college, and I was an intern at a big ad agency --- in Detroit. The pay was $175 a month, and my father said sending me there from Chicago cost him more than if he had sent me to camp.

       When I received the paycheck for the first two weeks, I practically ran over to Saks Fifth Avenue to look at leather attache cases. Everyone at the agency had one, and I wanted to be one of them. The one I wanted cost $55, and I had to think about it overnight, before I bought it. I do still have it, although by now it's pretty beat up.

        A week later at work, I won a contest to write a "house ad" --- an ad for our agency --- about the internship program. It ran in the New Yorker and Fortune magazines, and I came home with a proof for my portfolio. I also wrote two Chevy outdoor boards and a full-color trade ad about an agricultural bug killer. More for my portfolio.

       The agency was very impressive, and I was very impressionable. The beautiful, modern offices for the Copy Director and the Executive Art Director had a sliding wall between them, sort of a tip of the hat to the new New York idea of art and copy working together. Adjoining them were seemingly endless rows of offices for writers and art directors along the windows, with a huge open area in the middle. (I nicknamed the creative department the "elephant house", because it looked like the zoo, and was later told that tag stuck for years.)

       I loved those two months at the Detroit agency and made a lot of good friends. When I returned to college, I was sort of a celebrity in the Journalism Department, especially after that issue of the New Yorker came out. The professor for whom I worked two hours a day even voluntarily increased my pay by five dollars a month, to $40.

      That summer also gave me two things very valuable. It gave me a mentor and friend named Tom, whom I've cherished ever since, and the sense that I could make it in the world of advertising.

       Neither of which was a small thing for a kid with an attache case too big for his britches.