Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A general market creative director says, Hola!

          When I first walked in, I saw that Grupo Gallegos looked like a pretty cool advertising agency. Behind the receptionist, there was an impressive amount of hardware. I don’t know what I was expecting to see; I’m sure I wasn’t expecting the receptionist to be wearing a sombrero, but I didn’t see anything that made the place particularly Hispanic.  Past the workstations and the main conference room, I saw that not one creative person had a Che Guevara poster.
         It was a three to six-month freelance/consulting gig. An  “interim CCO”; that’s what they said I’d be. While I had never been an “interim CCO” before and hadn’t heard of anyone who’d ever been an “interim CCO,” I figured that working with people who know first-hand how the demographics of the country are changing would give me insight into one of the biggest challenges clients face these days. It would give me an edge. In addition, I expected I’d enjoy the easy commonality of being the minority among minorities. I didn’t, however, expect to learn that even if you don’t realize you need to be taken down a notch, it’s healthy to be the gringo once in awhile.
         During World Cup, to be one of the guys, I rooted for the South American teams over the European teams, which I unfortunately undermined each time I referred to a match as a game. I butchered peoples’ first and last names. I learned that saying “Hola” made me sound like a jerk. I learned I could be nobody but my gringo self.
         More importantly, I began to appreciate how difficult clients have it, as most of them come from the general market as I do, and, like I did, they have to confront their own preconceptions. On top of that, I imagine that they have the additional pressure within their organizations to prove that they are advertising to minorities. So, to make sure that the communication is speaking, indisputably, to the Hispanic consumer, there’s a yearning to see obvious, physical cues of Hispanic culture in the work. John Gallegos calls it being “overly ethnicized,” but I get it and I sympathize. When you don’t speak the language, you want a guarantee that you’re talking to the right folks, and having these cues, points to hard evidence. I hope that’s the case, anyway. I mean, I hope no one is thinking that Hispanics won’t recognize themselves unless they see a piñata in the family room.
         Of course, such cues aren’t always necessary for clear, compelling communication. Recently, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez died, the entire world mourned; the British reader mourned despite any Britishness in Marquez’s books, and the Japanese reader mourned despite any Easternisms. The fact is, all the time, works of art communicate across borders. My friend Juan pointed out that Nike was a great Hispanic campaign long before it went global. Juan has a point.
         I wonder, if a film projected only title cards and a soundtrack, like one of those charming Google spots, could it, potentially, resonate with the general market? So, why can’t the same be true of advertising to Hispanics? Cue-less is not necessarily clueless.
         I learned something else, too. To what degree it’s inherent in other multicultural agencies, I can’t say, but here at Grupo, I encountered an uncanny ability to find an insight, particularly one in fertile ground. I have a theory about this. While the rest of the world has been distracted by technology, data, holding company agendas and a host of other shiny objects, my friends, here, have kept their eye on the consumer. Clients have been coming to them for their knowledge about, and insight into, their target. That’s been their raison d’être –– I mean, razón de ser. Consequently, they tend to want to do more than connect with a consumer, because when you know someone deeply, as they do, you tend to want to forge a meaningful and important connection. And whatever muscle it takes to forge such a connection has only become stronger, while it has atrophied for others.
         Why isn’t our business being led by more Hispanic agencies? Certainly, force-fitting those cues can’t help. And relegated to a secondary role on a client’s roster, many Hispanic agencies don’t want to jeopardize their core business by competing with AORs. Meanwhile, the best and brightest among our junior talent enter our profession with the assumption that the big leagues reside in the general market. All I know is that a lot of potential is left untapped, and great work should be able to come from anywhere.
         Over the past several years, I’ve believed that the quality of our industry’s work has slipped. John Hegarty has been very vocal about this, and I agree. As I see it, the industry hasn’t been applying the new tools to the fundamentals and all that we know to be true about how human beings change. To do that, we have to be consumer-obsessed. I’m not saying general market agencies need to become Hispanic agencies, or vice versa. These distinctions are as superficial as the cues that profile the consumer. But the agencies that will rise to the top in this new demography will, I think, have a talent for connecting to people, their creativity in sync with their empathy.  If you have that, everything –– technology, data and innovation ––falls into place. And whether it’s intentional or not, the folks at Grupo put those things in that perspective, making Grupo inclined to tell the big, meaningful stories that move people –– like “Battle” for Milk, –– even though they don’t get nearly enough opportunities to see them realized.    
          Perspective is everything, I suppose. And to think I went outside the general market to find the inside track.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A killer name

  Everybody wants a Gaga, Apple or Swiffer name for their new product or company. In a name, we crave something unique, something eye-catching that captures our essence and points the way to success. Out of curiosity, I Googled “how to pick the perfect name” and a tsunami of guidance came at me, everything from how-to articles, best-way advice, steps, tips and processes –– page after page of the stuff. And if I were to go through each one, I bet there would be no evidence suggesting that this is a good name for a tanning salon. 

If you look carefully, you will see that Electric Chair went out of business. And if the name wasn’t entirely to blame, perhaps the method with which the owner chose to char the customers had something to do with its demise. God, I hope it was just the name. 

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 ( 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.