Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Faster, freelancer! Write! Write!

              Speed. It’s a big part of freelancing. The creative manager won’t come right out and say it, and the ECD gets all mealy-mouthed when asked about the actual deadline, but it’s understood: the clock is ticking and your day rate is killing them. It took me awhile to realize this – mostly because I’m not as swift as I’d like – but I’ve become increasingly aware of how these circumstances affect the work.
            Let me say, I’ve surprised myself over the past year. I’ve come through under ridiculous deadlines. When one job overlapped with another, I adapted, learned to double dip, and came through. Maybe, at one time, I was a long distance runner, but now I’m sprinting and turning in stellar times. 
            Invariably, however, the dust settles. And when it does, I look back on the work and am disappointed. Despite having solved someone’s problem, I’m not left with much to be proud of. The victory was shallow.
            I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone can work quickly, especially if there’s a fair amount of experience to draw upon. When we need to knock it out, we stop thinking about creating something original and go to the well, pull something up, redress it and call it something different. We try very hard to convince ourselves that it’s a new thought, but, ultimately, there it is –– the idea that was done before.
            Early on in my career, I remember hearing that when Jerry Della Femina was asked how he stayed fresh, he reflected that the hardest thing about being accomplished and experienced is to never forget how you got there, to always remember how strenuous it was to come up with a truly original idea. It stuck with me, because I guess I had been thinking that once we’ve paid our dues, things would get easier. They don’t get easier.  
            So now what? Move even faster? Move so fast that I don’t have time to realize that I don’t have enough time?
            No. I simply have to keep looking for something that is sustainable, circumstances where great gets time to break out, where I learn the choreography so well that I start to improvise and go here and go there until I land on a step that is so surprising and so cool that it doesn’t seem possible that I could have landed on it. I need to find a way to get my best done.
            Of course that won’t be easy. More often than not, it’s the fast-talkers up at the mic of our industry. But it’s like technology. Faster doesn’t mean more fulfilling. I know that now, looking back. Sometimes, it’s just how a control freak monopolizes a conversation. Or caffeine gets your lips flapping.
            I have to try, though. Last week I transplanted a little pine tree –– one of those dwarfish Christmas trees. The back of the shrub was bare and skeletal. It’s the part of me that hasn’t been getting sun and it happens to be the part from which I get the most satisfaction. So I found another spot and turned it around.

Monday, February 10, 2014

To know America, go to the diner.

  My wife and I went to the diner the other night. It's a Greek diner. And the woman who seats us is as Greek as they come. She looks like Olympia Dukakis, only with darker hair. She may not be gum-smacking sassy like Carla from Cheers, but she has that same no-bull shit way about her. I wish she were our neighbor. Anyway, she points to an available booth as if to say, "Would you like to sit there?" but my wife gently cringes. My wife tries not to sound bitchy, but she's had a tough day and the booth is next to a bunch of kids that seem to have had too much sugar. So my wife tells her we'd prefer to sit at the counter. The lady says, "Not a problem. I know exactly what you mean and I don't blame ya one bit."
    We're seated, settled on our stools and flipping through the menu. A dad enters the diner and mills about the entrance. He's looking for someone. He starts whispering to one of the waiters, pointing to four boys at the opposite end of the counter from us. The boys are about 12 or 13 years old, and one of them must be his son. As he's talking to the waiter, he's hiding behind the cake tower the way someone would hide behind a tree, careful the boys don't spot him. I figure that it's a big deal for the boys to be free from adult supervision and dad wants to respect that; so I also figure he's a pretty cool dad. He asks the waiter to send over milkshakes and straws. It must be his son's birthday. He gives the waiter a ten-dollar bill, smiles a sneaky grin and slips out.
    Our meals arrive – my wife got the omelet and I got the lamb special. On the other side of the counter, a Spanish speaking bus boy shines the wine glasses as if they are crystal. After each goblet gets a vigorous wipe, he holds the glass up to the light, repeating the exercise until there are no spots and nothing but sparkles. It's the kind of fussing you'd see in fancy restaurants where the wine is way more expensive than any wine that will go into a glass at the Mt. Kisco Coach Diner. Point is, we expect this sort of thing in a fancy restaurant; here it's something to admire.
    A guy takes the stool next to us. We gather from the way that he talks to the waiter that he is a regular. We're regulars, too. In a diner, regulars talk to one another. You know who else is a regular? The governor. Twice we've seen him in here, but we haven't seen him in awhile, so we ask the guy if he's seen the governor lately. The guy tells us that, just last Sunday, the governor was in here, sitting in his usual booth in the corner with his girlfriend, very much to themselves. Suddenly, I get it. I know why the governor likes the diner. He likes the diner because it feels like all of New York is under a single roof. He's home. He's got the Greek owner, and whatever Greek cousins need work, the South Americans and an assortment of locals all in the same pot. It's all here, a big stew of hard working people. I conclude I like a governor who likes a diner. I especially like that he comes here and is inconspicuous, because another politician might use this place to glom a little authenticity to his image. This governor is here to break bread.
    A little while later, the guy tells us about the diner's expansion, which is going to add 50 seats. We ask him if the diner is going to have to close for renovations. He tells us that he heard it would close next month for two weeks. He tells us that, not only is the diner expanding, but the whole place is getting a sprucing up. I find this encouraging, because this isn't some tech company or some alternative energy company; this is the old world economy that's expanding and I like knowing some folks are bullish about meat loaf and mash potatoes. "I'm sure it's going to be nice," I tell the guy.
    For dessert, my wife and I indulge in rice pudding. I admit that if my wife was watching, I'd have it topped with whipped cream, but when we spoon it up, I don't at all feel like I've settled. It so good. It reminds me of my grandmother who used to buy rice pudding from Horn & Hardart's, a store that is sadly no longer around. When I was little, I would make such a fuss over that rice pudding that whenever our family visited my grandparents, Nanny made sure there was Horn & Hardart's in the fridge. It made me feel special.
    Like a lot of good diners, you pay on the way out. We leave a good tip at the table and exit toward the register. We slide over our check and some cash and the guy in charge gives us our change. He tells us to help ourselves to a cookie from the bowl. The cookies have sprinkles on them but we have to decline. He says they're free. I tell him I will help myself to a toothpick.
    We are so full.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Thank you for not sucking

I enjoyed P&G’s sequel to the Mom commercial (http://youtu.be/57e4t-fhXDs). I thought Weiden did a decent job of living up to the first “Thank you, Mom” spot.
            The thing was, afterwards, I wondered if it was genuine. It had nothing to do with the commercial. The commercial didn’t do anything wrong – it made me laugh at the kids falling on their wee little bums and that left me vulnerable to the sweet mother/daughter ending. And it’s so wonderfully scored. It’s just that when an ad attempts to capture something timeless, especially if it is warm and fuzzy, you have to wonder if it is falling into what the writer, Simon Reynolds calls “retromania.” Were the creative folks tapping into June-Cleaver-mom kitsch or were they really sincere?
            Though I came to the conclusion that they were sincere, why was I suspicious? It was like I had been listening to the Boy Who Cried Wolf, someone who had deceived me so many times that there was little chance he was being straight with me. This is, after all, the age of tropes, memes, brands, jingles, mash ups, canned reactions, market-tested flavors, sequels and prequels and whatever you want to call those things we pass for original expression. It’s the age where, rather than invent the next Sherlock, we have the tech geek Sherlock (Cumberbatch), a comic book Sherlock (Downey Jr.) and a drug addict New Yorker Sherlock (Miller) who has a hot Asian fashion plate as Dr. Watson (Lui). Personally, I’m waiting for the Food Network Sherlock to uncover the mysteries of a good tomato sauce, but that’s neither here nor there. Everything is either a work of nostalgia or a reboot.
             But Moms are still Moms and they still feel Mom stuff. And to quote George Carlin, “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” All it takes is a little originality to appreciate something familiar and a firm belief that we skeptics and cynics and nihilists have feelings, too.  

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The effort to go to the movies

The other night, my wife and I spent the evening out at the movies. We like the big screen and the surround sound. We like the occasion. Given how things for which we have to make some effort tend to be in jeopardy these days, I wondered if theaters would be around for long,
I scanned the backs of all the heads in front of me. Okay, I won’t miss the cel phones and the running comments by know-it-alls and the teenager that keeps kicking my chair.
But I remember seeing Something About Mary in a theater with some buddies and telling my wife how hysterical it was. She had to see it. So the moment it was available on video, we watched it at home and damn, if it didn’t feel like a different movie. Despite me trying to force a laugh and sell the jokes, my wife did little more than crack a grin. There’s something about an audience that has gone out of its way to sit in the dark that made the movie funnier.
I imagine that Something About Mary was made for that theater audience. The writer had his or her college professor echoing in his cortex about knowing who his audience is, instructing him to develop the tone, content and language of the script, tailor it to meet the expectations of that audience. Consequently, the writer wrote Something About Mary for the kind of person who would drive 10 miles to see Cameron Diaz comb man stuff through her hair. Put a crowd of them together and you have a laugh riot. The point is, that while the audience was made for that movie, that audience, to some degree, also made that movie.
So what if there were no theaters? The content would change, at least slightly. As long as the writer is considering different factors, a different outcome would have to be expected. And without theaters, the audience, at home or behind a computer, would tend to become more defined. And with a more defined audience, there would be more cultural filters, more assumptions, more inside jokes.
The films would tend to become less cultural. Think about it. Cultures are not monolithic, but are formed from all the factors that we see in that audience – variations in class, gender, generation, religion and education. Our cultural filter shapes how we view the world and can hinder understanding different backgrounds. Without theaters, the movies would, I think, exercise more of that. Writing for someone watching on a laptop, a writer may be more likely to assume that the audience believes what he or she believes.
 Leaving your home to see a movie makes us more inclined to leave our little worlds. And there is something liberating about joining the fray, hearing a joke amidst the madding crowd. We’re quicker to laugh and more likely to laugh aloud if we’ll only get lost in the din. That’s what happened to me the first time I saw Something About Mary.
And there is something about sitting in a theater knowing that the film wasn’t made for only you, that we are more likely to judge the film objectively. Being more likely to wonder how it affected every one else can be eye-opening.
And there is something about sitting in an audience knowing that an emotion or message actually transcended all differences between people. In making us more aware of each other, a movie in a theater is, to some degree, unifying. It may not be a kumbaya moment, but at least the presence of others is felt. And I think that’s something that should have a place in the world.
I also think that living in a world that assumes art is worth exerting ourselves for is not a bad thing––this from someone who likes to create an occasion for music by setting vinyl on a turntable.
               Oh, and the movie we saw? We saw American Hustle. It was pretty good. If you're a Facebook friend of mine, I think you’d like it. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Insincerely yours


     After some eight years, it dawned on me that I really didn’t fire a particular art director for the reason I had given him. I realized that, way deep down, I had fired him because he used to say, “At the end of the day.” If you have ever been around someone who always said, “At the end of the day,” you know that it is more irritating than “Take it to the next level,” “Going forward” and “Having said that.” Should I lose sleep over it? Probably not.
     “At the end of the day” lacks substance. It also lacks something even more important to the business of advertising: sincerity. Roy S. Durstine wrote, “Advertisements are like people. If a man is sincere you can forgive him almost anything.” Come to think of it, that art director’s work didn't come off sincere, either – it always felt like "advertising".
     It’s like the Kenneth Cole community manager I recently read about. This writer wanted so desperately to be socially relevant that he posted, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at …” I wonder if that guy still has a job. Because if someone is cynical about the product or the business, if someone has an agenda to be funny or post-modern, if someone panders with business-speak to sell an idea, you decrease your chances of finding that singular voice that resonates a little sincerity.
     I’m convinced that behind every great campaign there is at least one enthusiastic creative person. She finds it within herself to believe in the product to such a degree that she radiates enthusiasm and it rubs off on her work. Her ideas are like gasoline on the flame of enthusiasm. She insists on her vision; she fights for her belief; and it’s not simply because she came up with a creative solution. She has passion because she’s certain she’s captured a little bit of her original belief so a little bit of sincerity now squeaks out between the words.
     It’s definitely like people – all kinds can exude sincerity. If a timid person honestly believes he can do a job and you give him a chance, he will probably do just as well as the aggressive type who bounded into your office. Hal Riney had his sincerity; Cliff Freeman had his own. Sincerity can come through any style.
     I don’t have a formula for it. But it’s always amazing when really creative work ends up exuding sincerity; and so disappointing when incredibly clever work never quite gets there. I do, however, know that when something possesses it there is nothing in the work, no single element, that draws attention to itself. You may have been told a story but you didn’t realize that you were told one; there were techniques, but it felt technique-less. “At the end of the day” draws attention to itself because those are words, like all affectations, that are more natural coming out of someone else’s mouth. The disappointment is ironic – we're actually more interested in who is talking than the person who is being emulated, which is why we conclude that if the person (or brand) can betray himself like this, he (or it) will most certainly let us down.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Spots change.


“Advertising above all speaks to the unchanging core of what makes us human, and the work I see these days seems to assume that everyone has changed.” –Ian Mirlin, Fast Company, 10/29/12

     We've always heard that the leopard can't change its spots and, likewise, human beings can't change what makes them human, but while some things are unquestionably immutable, such as men feeling its okay to fart while watching contact sports, some human behavior has changed. It's as if the whirl of technology caught human evolution in its undercurrent, and, after thousands and thousands of years, we're seeing new behavior surfacing.
     At least that's what a friend of mind says. He's an ad guy, but when it comes to technology, much more of a whiz than me. One day I saw him reading Mashable and I swear I couldn't detect his lips moving.
     He says that during the Mesologic Age (that's what he calls the old days before the Y2K bust), consumers were most easily persuaded to buy something when they thought it had been demonstrated, when a simple deduction had taken place with the necessary facts or accepted opinions. In the Mesologic Age, if we thought, "If there is a God and if God knows everything, computer geeks can hardly do so," we concluded, "No way am I going to buy that Newton 2100." But now, people put their faith in technology and advertising has to change with the times. First, a different kind of argument moves people; secondly, a different kind of credibility impresses them; and thirdly, a different emotion compels them. 
     Concerning the argument, human beings are no longer impressed with proof that products work. Demonstrations that reveal advantages, he says, are old school and tedious. People are impressed by a product's potential to make a certain fulfillment and meaning to their lives imaginable.
     Take the Kia ads with hamsters. Here's a car that can't fully satisfy what most people are looking for, so what did they do? They worked on people's perspective. Life as a human being in the 21st century is tough, after all, but if you imagine you're a hamster driving a Kia, you'll be much happier, because it's much easier to be happy as a hamster than as a human being. Suddenly, you have a real opportunity for people.
     Awhile back there was an iPhone ad – remember the one that starred John Malkovich? Not since James Garner and Mariette Hartley for Kodak, have we seen such an adorable repartee. Except now, instead of being burdened with specific functionality and what can or can't be communicated through voice recognition, this ad showed Malkovich experiencing a meaningful moment with the charming Siri. Imagine: a life enriched by true companionship with the voice activation girl!
     And what about the ads for erectile dysfunction? The one that permits you to hit the home run is fine; but the one that makes you imagine a new level of virility, a new height of orgasmic bliss achieved by sitting in separate bathtubs on a hill, holding hands and watching the sunset – that's the real winner.
     Secondly, there's credibility. My friend says, human beings are indifferent to experts, unfazed by credibility and character. Now, social media testimonials are given less often by experts and more often by acquaintances called "friends", and if these friends possess the restricted or limited intellectual resources of a gnat, that's okay. By heeding the recommendation of almost anybody, we are no doubt less likely to be very disappointed by a product and less likely to blame anyone if it disappoints. He reminds us that our Mesological parents may have scolded us kids with, "If Johnny jumps off a cliff, would you follow?" but these days, "following" implies, "If Johnny buys a pair of Sketchers, then I, too, should buy a pair of Sketchers, because it's easier that way, Johnny seems like a nice guy and, heck, the higher the cliff, the more exciting the jump. 
     One more point about these so-called friends. Of all of them, we have to understand the role of a very special blogger, the mommy blogger, the blogger we trust more than any other. If a mommy blogger recommends, say, a Briggs & Stratton rider mower, then we'll be sure to want a Briggs & Stratton rider mower, because while only one person on the planet was believed to be infallible, mommy bloggers are today's equivalent of the pope.
     Finally, there's my friend's third point, about how emotional manipulation takes place. He claims that people no longer feel intensely about things, that while political ads once had to spark pride or outrage, soft drinks...relief, fashion...lust, and so on, humans desire nothing too phlegmatic. Of course, advertisements for video games have to put you in the mood for a violent, bloodthirsty rampage on the scale of a world war; but generally, people desire only the gentle warmth of liking. Liking makes us feel something is cool. Liking is the all-purpose compulsion. If the consumer feels this gentle "like", he or she will have the item rung up. He goes so far as to say that, as differences between friends and acquaintances become blurred, "like" and "love" become interchangeable; and this should be a relief for the human race, because most of the time, that 80's lyric was right on: "Love is a battlefield," anyway.
     Look, my friend says that people have changed and therefore persuasion has to change. I'm not so sure. I recently read a story about Aristotle, who was really the guy to set down these principles for persuasion in the first place. Apparently, Aristotle's wife was always trying to persuade him to stay home and help around the house. She tried all kinds of tactics but he'd always say something like, "I'll take a look at it later" or "It's supposed to make that squeaking sound" and then slip out the back door to meet his buddies from the Academy. It wasn't until she asked him, "Please? For me?" while making puppy eyes that he stayed home one afternoon and cleaned the tile grout. 2,400 years later, "Please? For me?" combined with the effect of puppy eyes is still powerful persuasion. Maybe only some things have changed.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Oar To Oar


I’ve been reading Boys In the Boat – about the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew comprised of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers and their pursuit of Olympic gold – and among other things, it’s got me thinking about how important it is to be in synch with the rest of the team, and conversely, what a hindrance it is when someone is, as they say, not in the same boat. The author gives the reader a complete understanding of what it takes to win, all the strength involved in every stroke, every leg drive and every release, and how this has to be rapidly and in precisely the same manner as everyone else. Or else you lose. I related to that. It’s how I feel about media not being aboard the agency.
I never thought losing media was a good idea. We all know what it’s like to present a campaign that relies on thirty second commercials for emotional impact and other venues for various purposes, only to be informed that the media folks across the street didn’t recommend enough thirties to reach everyone. You’re sunk.
And you probably know what it’s like to lose an ad that you are certain will, in the right circumstances, strike a chord. It’s like you have this line for Charmin Ultra Soft Toilet Tissue that ends up only as an outdoor billboard, when, all along, you envisioned it running in public bathrooms, so a consumer could walk in, head to an available stall and read, “Make your trip as smooth and comfortable as possible.” You just know it will resonate. But, noooo, the media agency got a deal on highway space, where “Make your trip as smooth and comfortable as possible” sounds like an ad for Bridgestone tires.
Part of the difficulty is that when media agencies refer to the “idea” it’s an approach to placement, while ad agencies mean the communication itself and the combination of two elements. The only leader good enough to band together two groups that don’t speak the same language is, perhaps, Captain Kirk – and good luck with that. It’s a problem. And it’s only been compounded.
As the demographics in the country are changing and the minorities become the majority, we should be able to address the diversity of our target audience, and from the get-go, have everyone aligned about how this will be accomplished. Or what? Be like the republicans?
Currently, if we try reacting in real time to something that’s trending, we’ll most likely become mired in a Kafka-esque bureaucracy with the media folks (across the street) and miss the opportunity. Despite this being the age where everyone needs everything at their fingertips, we don’t always have everything at our fingertips. 
But here’s the direst effect of all: The people in the boat strain to compensate for the empty seat. Imagine if creative people and planners didn’t feel burdened to be technology experts, geeked up on every new function and app? Given that the web is media, what if we had media folks to pull some weight? Because when art direction or copywriting or planning is done right, it takes all of our attention and devotion; it takes one continuous and unbroken cycle that involves the head, heart and muscle to be mastered. To not be able to do that is tragic.
I suppose it’s one of the consequences of management, especially holding company management, not asking themselves the important questions like, How do creative people come up with ideas? And, What is needed for us to win the race? They’re playing with economies of scale and consolidation and how to get more boat for their money, not with how we can benefit from media and creative pulling together.
Fundamentally, the more time creative people spend crafting the work, the more real the audience becomes, and the more real the audience becomes, the more able creative people are to see that person, in a particular place, getting a kick out of their work – they can actually hear the laugh, see the raised eyebrow, feel the gasp. The imagined response is motivating; to the creative person, it’s what success looks like. And when people are motivated, they create a better product.
In rowing, there’s a time when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that it feels like the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own. It’s called “swing.” It’s the rowing equivalent of being in the zone. Apparently,  “the closer a crew can come to that ideal – maintaining a good swing while rowing at a high rate – the closer they are to rowing on another plane, the plane on which champions row.” But here, the coxswain’s head is spinning and the rowers are handicapped; and with little evidence the administrators ashore even know what is lacking, there’s not much chance of something like that happening.