Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve, 2008

Today at 1:39 PM, the Great Recession finally reached me.

No, I didn’t lose my job. I lost a half-eaten roll that was sitting on the bar at the Bar Room of the Oyster Bar in Grand Central.

A homeless man walked through the seasonal crowd, spotted my roll, made a Citizen’s Appropriation and kept walking. The bartender, a young woman, watched in horror. “What the hell are you doing?” she asked him.

“Eating a roll” he answered logically as he sauntered out and into the Terminal.

“I’m so sorry,” she said to me, mortified, and then proceeded to put a fresh basket of bread in front of me.

Then it was my turn to be mortified. Mortified that I was feasting on oysters when this guy stole my roll. Mortified that I didn’t run after him and offer to buy him lunch. Mortified most of all that I still had an appetite when all was said and done.

It's the season of giving, and giving takes many forms. The Talmud distinguishes 10 different kinds, and rank-orders them to boot. I don't know enough about my own religion, or the one that celebrates Christmas, to know if inadvertent giving even counts.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

How not to be right for the times.

If you had to choose between filling a prescription and filling your tummy, wouldn't this cover make the choice ever-so-much easier?


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

I hear their hooves, I feel their hot breath.

Yesterday the New York Times reported hocking its own building for cash, the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy, ad spending was predicted to decline 30% next year and an editor friend found out her editorial company was closing up shop December 31st.

Bad mojo all around as the year slides into solstice darkness. I am incredibly thankful that our agency is healthy but the Four Horsemen of the Ad Apocalypse—Recession, ROI, DVR and Online Search—are approaching.

Before they get here, our agency’s holiday card is a propos:

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My bumper sticker is better than your Cannes Press award-winning headline

Seen on on the bumper sticker of a car in front of me Friday:

Don't believe everything you think.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Who are you going to believe--us or your own eyes?

Seen this afternoon on

Monday, November 10, 2008

Where were we, anyway?


Pretty hard to think about it, let alone write about it, until after the election.
But that didn't stop Ad Age and Adweek from speculating about "what Obama's win means for Madison Avenue."

If it means anything, it's that telling outright lies doesn't appear to work as well as it used to. At least, not in the branded candidate space. But that's getting a little macro. The election's over. I haven't felt the need to go to HuffPo or 538 for days. Let's ratchet it back down to more day-to-day advertising issues.

Here's one: having the advertiser you were the TV voice of, dive headlong into the crapper. Stockard Channing's take on AIG's demise as quoted in New York Magazine: "Guess they didn't have the strength to be there." Guess not. Hope she got all her residuals.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The post-Yom Kippur, financial meltdown, possible End Times Remorse-fest

I am feeling remorseful.

Yom Kippur stirred things up, and then the disappearance of 30% of my life savings whipped it into a froth. Did I, in my own small way, help bring about this calamity by prodding people to buy things they didn't need or couldn't afford? And now, will I become more compliant about unreasonable client demands in my newly hobbled financial state? Can I afford to be principled? What does being principled in the ad business mean anyway?

For those of you wondering similar things, or who just like taking stupid self-diagnostic tests, here's the First Annual Advertising Morality Gut Check Test. For each situation posed, ask yourself what you'd do, then rate your response on this scale:

1. What's the problem?
2. I'd do it, but I'd have misgivings.

3. Only if you put a gun to my head.
4. I'd quit first.

There are no right answers, but if you keep answering (1) to everything, you obviously have the morals of an iguana. And if you keep answering (4) you're either a Trustafarian or only 22. For the rest of us, most of the time, things are uncomfortably somewhere in the middle.

First Annual Advertising Morality Gut Check Test

For each situation, rate your answer from 1 thru 4 using this scale:

1. What's the problem?
2. I'd do it, but I'd have misgivings.
3. Only if you put a gun to my head.
4. I'd quit first.

Using a parity claim like “No other brand gives you more” when you know people often take this as meaning superiority.

Selling a product that’s harmful to the environment, e.g., non-recyclable, containing harmful chemicals, using high amounts of fossil fuel.

Working on a casino or horse-racing account.

Working on a liquor account.

You’ve been asked by the client to get some “younger thinking” on his business than the two early-50s creatives who now work on it.

Working on a tanning-bed account.

Working on a tobacco account, including cigars.

You have the opportunity to pitch a piece of Wal-Mart business. You detest Wal-Mart for its refusal to sell birth control but willingness to sell guns.

Using fear or doubt as a selling tool.

Using sex as a selling tool.

Persuading people to use a brand you believe is inferior to the brand you use at home.

Your client is ready to spend a significant amount of money to launch a new product. The launch effort would represent a nice piece of revenue for your shop. You believe the product has no chance of succeeding.

Persuading people to ask for an expensive brand-name Rx drug when the cheap generic works just as well.

Working on Capitol One or similar accounts that promote easy credit.

A campaign on behalf of the coal industry.

A campaign on behalf of the mortgage-broker’s association.

A campaign about the health benefits of red meat from the National Beef Council.

You’ve been asked to pitch a sugary kid’s cereal. It would be a huge win for your shop. You have an overweight child at risk of developing diabetes.

It wasn't me! It was the focus group!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Thanks, WaMu!

The morning after Washington Mutual was seized by the Federal government, I received the following jolly email:

Talk about CRM! They're still looking to "deepen my engagement" after they're dead!

They call this kind of graphics-loaded push email "rich media." What do you call it when the sender is insolvent, I wonder?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Get me re-write!

I went back to the NYT fiction piece on Folgers online and saw to my excitement that the story had been corrected and updated--maybe they had gotten the credits and dates right! Here's the correction:

Correction: September 22, 2008
The Advertising column on Friday, about a marketing campaign by Folgers coffee, misstated the type of coffee beans used by a rival, Maxwell House. It primarily uses Arabica beans, not the less expensive Robusta.

That's their story and they're sticking to it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

History is written by the victors. And reported by the lazy.

I was more than a little surprised to read in last Thursday’s NYT ad column that Saatchi was Folgers Coffee “agency of over 50 years" and that "...Saatchi & Saatchi created the campaign, as well as the “Best part of waking up” jingle, which first aired in 1984."

No, and no.

Cunningham & Walsh was Folgers agency, in a relationship that predated the brand’s acquisition by Procter & Gamble. C&W created the “Waking Up” campaign before being acquired by N.W. Ayer, which became a part of D’Arcy which in turn was broken up and the P&G piece (including Folgers) wound up at Saatchi.

But who cares about this tedious chronology (besides those of us who were there)? Saatchi’s still here, and those other agencies aren’t. The Romans renamed all the Greek gods and claimed them as their own. Soviet-era history books deleted all mention, including birth records, of party apparatchiks who had fallen into disfavor. And today you can have a 30-year track record as a champion of financial deregulation and call yourself the Scourge of Wall Street.

As long as no one remembers and no one checks, you can, as Don Rumsfeld used to say, make your own reality.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

And the winner in the non-traditional media category is...

Thanks to Daniel Maurer at Grub Street, New York Magazine's food blog, for catching this nicely opportunistic piece of copywriting.

Pata negra, as you may have guessed, is a breed of pig. Not an Alaskan variety, as far as I know.

9/11 + 7

Friday, September 05, 2008

Compared to what?

Watching McCain last night demanding regime change from the status quo when the status quo was standing right in front of him, got me thinking about comparisons.

Advertisers love comparisons, and with good reason: they work. Comparing your product to something else puts its worth in context. It's what consumers do anyway--you're just helping them along.

Less sophisticated marketers do literal and heavy-handed comparisons to branded competitors, accompanied by lawyered-up copy and disclaimers, and consumers hate them for it. Even the incredibly deft Mac/PC ads get their share of blowback from people who consider them mean-spirited. (BTW--it's amazing to me no one's done the Obama/McCain version of these would seem like a YouTube no-brainer...)

But the most sophisticated marketers, like P&G and some (largely Republican) political strategists, have grasped the deeper, more insidious truth:

It doesn't matter who or what you compare yourself to, as long as the comparison is in your favor.

Years ago, I worked on P&G's Puffs Tissues business. The client was absolutely insistent on a side-by-side demo in the advertising for their "new and improved" product, even though Puffs had no visible, demonstrable difference vs. Kleenex. We didn't even have a good comparison to the older, "unimproved" version of Puffs. Finally, the R&D folks at Procter pointed out that Puffs were, in fact, puffed up with air as their final step in manufacturing, so why not compare them to the unpuffed (that is to say, the unfinished) version? The result: a visual of a stack of Puffs towering over a sad short stack of unpuffed Puffs. And of course, it worked like a charm.

John McCain's handlers hope the same will hold true with their candidate. Comparisons with Barack Obama are not necessarily advantageous, so why not use the departing administration, which very nicely fits the "big-spending, me-first, do-nothing" requirements, as the foil? Who cares if they're Republican? They're un-Puffed!

Thanks to AD Kim "Crazy Fingers" Magher for the Photoshop work.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Location, location, location

Seen on the corner of Bowery and Spring Street yesterday:

Bet the Carerra sunglass people (the advertiser on the left--sorry for the crappy phone pic) didn't see this one coming, so to speak.

This kind of unfortunate message juxtaposition happens more often than you'd expect, in every medium. So much so that you might wonder whether some bored junior media folks are doing this for laughs after huffing a few spray cans.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

If you are reading this post instead of looking up at the sky you are doing something wrong.

And Ben Stein, from his quiet little corner of the New York Times Sunday Business section, will tell you why: Everybody’s Business - Connected, Yes, but Hermetically Sealed -

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Hats off, and bottoms up.

The brief (I’m guessing) said leverage the brand’s history and heritage but make the advertising “edgy” and relevant to drinkers in their 20s.

Most creatives would say, with some justification, “We can do one or the other but not both.”

These creatives did this: (click on ad for better view)

Pure genius.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Yes we Cannes!

Usually I try to gin up some original content. Today I am content to urge you to listen to PodCast 59 from the guys at American Copywriter. I listened to it on my train ride home last week and laughed so hard my frozen Blood Orange Margarita came out my nose and nearby fellow riders moved away.

John and Tug don't get caught in the If-you-had-great-work-you'd-be-there-so-don't-bitch trap common to creatives talking about Cannes. They merely point out that such cavorting is only possible for people who work at big agencies (and, more recently, their clients) because at little shops like theirs (and mine) who's going to get the work out the door that week?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Words matter. Ask any fishmonger.

A few nights ago I had a hankering for fish and stopped by the fishmarket on the way home. I was looking for fluke, which is cheap, fresh and local in New York this time of year.

I saw grey sole, lemon sole and something called flounder. But no fluke. I asked the manager if he had any. He pointed to the filets labeled flounder and said, “That’s it. But I can’t call it fluke. Customers don’t know what fluke is. They think it means mistake. I call it flounder, I sell 30 lbs. a day. I call it fluke, I sell maybe 5.”

How often, when we make ads, do we try to “educate” people on what fluke is, rather than using terminology they understand ?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Being the client.

I’ve been in post-production mode for the last couple of weeks...working with editors, sound-design folks, composers, mixers etc.

I love this part, because I like collaborating with, and just hanging out with, talented people who know their craft. But that collaborative thing only goes so far. Because as far as they’re concerned...

I’m the client.

Most of the time, I can pretend that’s not true. We’re just a bunch of cool people doing our thing, right? But then I realize no one ever outright contradicts or even challenges anything I say, no matter how inane. I make casual suggestions and they get turned into new versions, posted at midnight.

This state of affairs makes me uncomfortable.

I’ll twist myself into knots talking to, say, the music composer. I’ll tell him I like #4 but could the back end be more like #2—understanding, of course, the need for the composition not to be a Frankenstein and feel integrated and my not wanting to be overly prescriptive and by the time I’m done apologizing and demonstrating my creative sensitivity, he’s already done it.

Because for him, it’s no big deal. For me it’s, Oh my God, I’m talking like a client. I’m fucking this guy’s work up. I’m taking his Juilliard training and stomping on it with my troll-like client feet.

This behavior spills over into non-work related relationships, particularly into fly fishing. If I go out fishing with a guide, my goal is to be the best client possible. Or at least not to be the asshole he curses out and ridicules later that night at the bar where all the guides hang out.

This is pathetic, I’ll be the first to admit. But I’d also be willing to bet I’m not the only person in a creative field dependent on clients that feels this way. I bet there are plenty of architects, clothing designers, game developers, as well as copywriters and art directors, who say to themselves, when the tables are turned and it’s their money and someone else’s talent:

Do not do to them what others have done to you.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why CMOs keep getting fired.

The Kelly Award winners book came out last week, with a lot of nice ads, including a bitchin’ campaign for Oral B dental floss. An ad which I doubt ever ran except maybe once in Dental Floss Gazette because nobody, not even BBDO, can talk P&G into buying a 2-page spread to advertise dental floss. Without a word of body copy.

But I digress. All award shows have fake ads. But this award, like the Effie, is supposed to be tied to business results. Which is a bigger opportunity to game the system than submitting ads that never ran.

The “Results” for the Oral B campaign, just to pick one example, were described this way:

Exceeded awareness goals.

When did awareness become a business goal for a 100-year-old brand?

Here’s another squishily soft result, for Liberty Mutual’s “Responsibility” campaign:

Improved attitudes toward brand by 9%.

I love this campaign. It actually manages to find common ground between the needs of the insurer and the needs of the insured, which is no easy feat. And it’s beautifully executed (the TV and online even more than the print). But “improved attitudes toward brand by 9%”? That’s a pretty low performance bar since you’re starting from 0% approval. (It’s insurance, remember?)

Speaking of low bars, Duncan Donuts’ campaign to launch a new line of Smoothies purportedly boosted weekly sales 250%. Pretty impressive result until you reflect upon the fact that this is a new product introduction. So the weekly sales results prior to launch

I wouldn’t want to explain these kinds of results to my CEO if he or she had half a brain.
Is it any wonder CMOs have the life expectancy of a mayfly?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Reduce. Re-use. Recycle. Or just shut up.

Big company. Big PR problem. And in response...big, big full-page NYT ad.

Texas big. Hummer big. Forest-depleting big.

You want to run an ad campaign trying to convince people you’re not the environment’s worst enemy?

Run smaller ads. Fewer of them. Use them over again before you make new ones.

Don’t worry—no one will get bored. No one’s reading these ads any way.

Or take the media buy and fund alternative-fuel startups.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Slogans that don't suck (2).

I didn’t realize how much I liked Reuters’ old line “Before it’s news it’s Reuters” until it was scrapped after the Thomson acquisition.

Let’s parse it for a moment, shall we?

First of all, there’s a clear benefit: timely information. Any more timely and you’d probably wind up explaining yourself to the SEC.

Then there’s the lovely Iambic rhythm to the phrase. And the neat parallel construction of the It’s/it’s.

This line didn’t matter much when it ran, because Reuters was about attracting advertisers, not being one. it matters less now that the company has been bought.

But that line was good craft, and I really need to believe, in a life-or-death kind of way, that good craft always matters.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fumer, non. Publicite, oui.

Seen at a cafe in Paris. Pretty good use of an unexpected medium.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Citi redux, reduxed.

Citi’s New Slogan Is Said to Be Second Choice - New York Times

Well, "Let's get it done" is...done.

As I predicted it would be in my post of almost exactly a year ago. Allow me to quote from myself:

"...Citi’s dead-man-walking CEO Charlie Prince wanted to put his own stamp on the company’s image. In this derivative, clueless effort, he has succeeded wildly....When Sandy Weill comes back to rescue Citi from his own anointed successor, I’ll bet anything that “Let’s get it done” will be done as well."

Well, I didn't get the Sandy Weill part right. Turns out Vikram Pandit played executioner instead. But no matter.

The new line? An old line: "The Citi never sleeps." One can debate how differentiating that is in a world of ATMs and online banking (a world Citi pioneered), but it's literally true in one sense: with call-center reps largely based in Bangalore, they're definitely wide awake at 3 AM.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New work from Satan, Beelzebub & Partners

Part of a series exploring financial opportunities in calamity. Other executions include one on monetizing Darfur relief efforts, and an ad whose headline is “How to profit from the coming global food riots.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Why stock photography sucks.

The Getty family is pretty idiosyncratic: miserly billionaires, wayward heirs, kidnappings. If only the stock photography with the Getty watermark were as interesting.

Getty Images has grown as digital photography and the internet have grown, sucking up smaller houses along the way, feeding the insatiable maw of zillions of ad agencies, editorial departments, graphic design shops and web content generators too cheap, too time-pressed or too indifferent to go out and shoot something.

There was a time when art directors drew pictures of people and things in layouts and asked clients to imagine a certain mood, a style, an emotion.

Now art directors spend hour after hour hunting in vain through the Getty catalog for a shot that resembles what they have in mind, Photoshop the crap out of it to get it even closer…and then still have to ask clients to imagine a certain mood, a style, an emotion.

Because it ain’t there in the stock image. But unlike the crude drawings in old-school AD tissues, these pictures—at least to the uneducated client eye—look, well, real.

And, by client standards, uh, just fine.

Show me a creative who hasn’t had to run the stock image he put in his comp after the client glommed on to it and wouldn’t let go and I’ll show you a dead or long-retired creative.

I know there are alternatives...Corbis, Veer, istock, Flickr etc etc. Doesn’t matter. It all looks the same. And some pictures have been used so often, on so many web pages, in so many bad B-to-B ads, they have this eerie, familiar quality to them—like supporting actors who show up on CSI and Desperate Housewives in the same week. There’s Mr. Young Techno-Hipster-with Reflected-Glow-of-His-Laptop guy! There’s the Sassy-Sister-With-Her-Groceries lady! And here’s the Peaceful-Old-Guy-on-the-Dock!

Information wants to be free, the saying goes, and I guess that goes for watermarked stock shots. But pictures, real pictures, want to be made, not downloaded.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Here--wipe your ass with this soft white Golden Lab puppy.

Well, what am I supposed to think when a dog is used as a metaphor for toilet paper?

TP advertising veers between cutesy euphemism and snark. This new Cottonelle campaign manages to combines them. At least where I see it—plastered all over the Grand Central Station subway (“Too much bran?” one headline nastily enquires).

Did Charmin’s stupid “Bears shit in the woods” campaign goad Kimberly Clark into sacrificing innocent puppies to the cause of anal comfort? PETA people: you ought to get on this.

Monday, February 18, 2008

You were great. Now get out.

A recent Ad Age article says that Absolut's new advertising--the first since the famous "bottle" campaign--is driving sales. This is in sharp contrast to the last few years, when the brand's sales were flat to declining.

Campaigns with "legs" are so rare in our business, I hate it when one of them needs to be shown the door, like bad guests who have overstayed their welcome. It justs fuels the ADD-like behavior of clients who tire of their ads long before their customers even know they exist.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Hank Seiden

Hank Seiden, founding partner of my agency, passed away this week after a long battle with prostate cancer.

The memorial service was on Friday, and many of the advertising luminaries of his era—Jerry Della Femina, Tony Isidore, Dick Tarlow—came to pay their respects.

Funerals in general being for the benefit of family and friends and not industry insiders, there wasn’t a lot of advertising talk in the service. But Hank had a number of strong beliefs about advertising, beliefs he was not shy about expressing in his columns and books.

Hank’s central belief was that strategy is more important than execution. In other words, a brilliant strategy will work even when couched in a crappy execution, but a crappy strategy cannot be saved even by the most brilliant execution.

Right or wrong, this was a peculiar stance for a creative director to take, and it put him, both metaphorically and often literally, on the client side of the table. It also earned him the scorn of many in the creative community—a scorn which he wore as a kind of badge of honor.

Hank was a copywriter by training and a creative director by title, but in truth he was really what we now call a planner. He was superb at helping his clients chart a course for where they should position their products vs. the competition, who they should talk to, and what these prospects would find persuasive. He was completely indifferent to the craft aspects of the process, whether out of true lack of interest or feigned, I’ll never know. And predictably, with every passing year, he grew further and further disengaged from what he dismissively called “the fun and games of the business.”

Hank was also a brilliant client handler, and he inspired intense loyalty from a lot of very senior client-side executives. After retiring from Jordan Case, he was able to draw on that loyalty to start what is now Seiden Advertising. I joined Seiden at Hank’s invitation in 2000, essentially to take over as Creative Director because he was finally ready to hang it up.

This was only fitting, I guess, because 26 years previously, Hank had also been my first boss in advertising, at Hicks & Greist. I was there for little over a year, but learned a huge amount from him. There’s no doubt that a lot of my bedrock beliefs about communication were formed during that time.

A lot of what I learned from Hank I’ve since unlearned. I think craft is holy. I think strategy doesn’t matter in a lot of categories, and I think bad execution can ruin a smart strategy.

But, hey, everyone has to start somewhere. I started with a guy who knew a real idea when he saw it, and saw past the smoke and mirrors that still occasionally blind us.

And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Time well spent

This is the Whole Earth Catalog.

It came out in 1969.

Printed on newsprint, in hot type and black ink.

It is an instruction manual for the world we have just begun to live in.

The subtitle is “Access to tools.”

A line that would work today for Charles Schwab, Williams-Sonoma, Adobe.

The Whole Earth Catalog contained some of the earliest references to:


Solar heating

Dry wall screws


and a bunch of other stuff you can now get down at the mall.

It was embraced by people who viewed commerce with contempt, who mistrusted the Man. who were both deeply idealistic and reflexively cynical.

They pored over it, learned from it--and bought things from it. Lots and lots of things.

If you make ads, you could do worse than spending some time with the Whole Earth Catalog. You can find it, cheap in digital form, not so cheap in analog, on its direct descendant, the internet.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Totally authentic bullshit.

In this week's Adweek, someone named Kamau High wrote a nonsensical piece entitled "Six Trends You Should Know." Trend #1: Authenticity.

The idea of authenticity as a fashion is so richly ironic and so sad, because it suggests that the author (and most of his readers) have no fucking idea of what authenticity is.

Authenticity is not a trend. It is the result of not knowing or not caring about trends. It's a Carrhart barn jacket on a farmer, not on a hipster. It's barbecue in the Texas hill country, not at Hill Country. It's the Paris in France, not the one at Epcot.

The greatest thing ever written about authenticity--what it is, and why it matters--is Julian Barnes' novel England, England. Read it. You won't be sorry. Then continue on with Mr. High's article on 2008 trends.

Trend #2: Faux Traditionalism.