How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Open With a Smile

Last time, I promised to tell you about teaching a course on advertising in Brooklyn. You can't always believe a copywriter, I guess.
I decided, in the spirit of the holidays, to offer a smile today, and one that actually relates to the continuity of this "memoir blog."
(Hope you got everything you wished for, and that your New Year's resolutions are attainable.)

Once I found comfort and confidence in just standing in front of a class and talking the students through my work, I learned to begin with a story I had heard somewhere, using it to loosen up the audience and show them that we were all going to have a good time.

The story is a fantasy about the day Einstein died. He goes straight to the pearly gates, where St. Peter, dressed in his finest robes, welcomes the genius.

He tells him how thrilled they all are to have Herr Professor among them, and that heaven has a glorious mansion for him to live in for eternity.

“Just one small problem,” St. Peter explains. “I wasn't told by You-Know-Who that we have more souls arriving than usual, and that we're asking people to share their space. So, if it's all right with you, we'd like to place three other people with you in your mansion.”

“Of course,” replies Einstein. “But I would like to meet them first, just to figure out in advance how we can relate.”

Being the genius that he is, he says he can ask just one question of each of the three, and know what they can discuss through the end of time.

St. Peter agrees, and they go off to meet Einstein's future roomies.

He's introduced to the first one, explains the situation, and asks just this one question: “What is your IQ?”

The answer is an impressive 145.

“Wunderbar!,” exclaims Einstein. “You can help me work on the unified theory – perhaps together we can finally solve that problem!”

St. Peter brings the great man to the second candidate, and this one's IQ is the average – 115.

“Good,” says Einstein – we can discuss the paradox of time travel and enjoy a good game of chess.”

The third roommate candidate turns out to be more of a challenge – with an extremely low IQ of only 65.

Einstein tries not to show his disappointment, as he searches for a subject that would engage a person with a sub-par intelligence.

After a few uncomfortable moments, his face lights up with that familiar smile of his, and he cheerfully announces, “Aha! We can talk advertising!”

It always gets a laugh, and gives me a chance to explain that my chosen profession is actually more complicated than you think, and I will be explaining why.

Next time: Teaching a college course.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Teaching & Learning

Charlie Brown would never grow up to be an ad man. He just didn't have conviction – probably the most important asset for anybody who wants to sell something to somebody else.

The reason I mention Charles Schulz's most famous creation, and probably alter ego, is one particular “Peanuts” strip that came to mind today.

In it, Charlie Brown is complaining that no one ever believes him, no matter what he says. Lucy, in her best “trust me I won't pull the football away at the last minute” mode, swears to him that he can say anything and she will believe him. “Anything?”, he asks doubtfully. She says she will believe the most unbelievable, fanciful and ridiculous thing he can say. He thinks. He bites.

“The world is made of snow.”

Lucy screams at the top of her lungs, “You're out of your mind, Charlie Brown!” (It's the title of an old book of Peanuts strips, and you can still buy it online.)

I have conviction. Maybe not enough to convince Lucy of the fanciful composition of the world, but so much that I get excited about whatever product or service I'm hired to advertise. Where does the word “advertise” come from, anyway? Latin: advertere "turn toward," from ad- "toward" and vertere "to turn."

That's what I do – turn toward the subject, wholeheartedly, and try to get you to turn your attention and your inclination toward it.

And I get to know what I'm selling. If it's a restaurant, I work there. A wine, I drink it. An airline, I fly it. And, I get excited about it. And convinced that it's the best thing since the last thing I worked on.

My dear, departed wife, Eileen, who worked in retail, had that kind of attitude. In her case, she was so convinced of the merits of whatever she was selling, that customers always assumed she was the owner of the store.

Conviction is the secret of successful selling.

When I finally got to Madison Avenue, after 20 years of experience one hundred and fifty miles north of it, I was invited to share what I'd learned. First to invite me was Deborah, a beautiful woman (of course) who taught business and communication at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

She asked me to travel back upstate from Manhattan to the tony school of mostly upper class young women for one lecture per semester. The school would pay my transportation, put me up in their guest house and she would take me out to dinner at one of Saratoga's fine restaurants.

I said yes, of course, mostly to have the chance to sit and look at her over dinner for an hour or two, and immediately got very nervous about what I would present to her class. I actually scripted what I would say, rehearsed it, and thought that would be that. It wasn't.

I stumbled through the dry and lifeless prepared text in about 20 minutes, flop sweat running so freely that the front row should have had the same warning as Seaworld's splash zone.

Deborah saved me, by asking questions about things I could answer with conviction, and I came through it well enough that I was asked back the following semester.

From then on, I just brought my portfolio of work with me, wherever I went – The Center for Media Arts, State University of New York and St. Rose College in Albany – and just talked about how each ad or campaign came about, the thinking behind it and the processes involved it bringing it all to life. It was fun for me, and it gave the students an insight into the real world of a real Mad Man.

That worked for me until I had to actually teach an entire course on advertising together with an Account Executive at St. Francis College. For that, we needed a plan.

Next time: Hitting the heights in Brooklyn.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

California Weather

Before I begin today's history lesson, some contemporary comments.

First, I notice that the New York Times has printed a correction about the price of squid-ink tagliarini at the Tarry Market in Port Chester, N.Y. I quote: "It is $5.49 a pound, not $29.99 a pound." I'm sure you're relieved to know that.

Next, I would like to direct you to two other blogs, both of which have much to do with my hometown of Troy, NY, and which mention the Saturday Farmers' Market there: Christina's foodie blog, and David's blog about Sage in Troy.

Now, on to today's "Mad Man" topic.

MacArthur Park Wasn't Melting in the Rain That Day.

Let me begin with a couple of very important lessons, learned early in my career as a Mad Ave copywriter: One: if you write on-camera dialogue, you get to go to the shoot. If you write voice-over copy, you get to go as far as the local recording studio. I learned to write dialogue.

Two: if you write outdoor commercials that have to be produced in the winter, you will shoot them in warm locations.

Here's how fate can play tricks, even when you follow those rules. We had one day to shoot three on-location commercials in Los Angeles. It was a day in March.

Everybody knows why the film industry settled and prospered in southern California -- the weather. So we didn't worry.

Across the street from MacArthur Park is a fabulous old building, now the Park Plaza Hotel, built originally as an Elks Club. It's a favorite location of filmdom, and in fact, the day we were shooting in front of the building, because it could look like a bank, two other companies were shooting there -- Steven Seagal's crew was setting up a drug lord's lair in the building's indoor swimming pool on the lower level, and up on the roof Robert Stack was filming an intro to a segment of Unsolved Mysteries. And you've seen the staircase to the mezzanine level in countless movies and TV shows.

For the main commercial we were to shoot that day, I had written a “one take” commercial, which is a spot that requires an actor to do the entire spot without a cut -- always a difficult task, but, when it works, very effective. The commercial, conceived by my art director, was ostensibly a stand-up -- an announcer talking to the camera. But this one had a twist -- what he was promoting was a giveaway promotion at Krystal, a chain of hamburger restaurants -- sort of the White Castle of the South.

The copy went something like this: “peel off the tab from the soft drink cup and you could win up to five thousand dollars.”

As the spokesman walked from the guarded armored car in front of the “bank,” he held up the winning tab, then announced that if you found a “double the prize” tab, you'd win ten thousand dollars. This makes his eyes light up, as he realizes he has the actual winning tab in his hand, and he starts running away, with the armed guard chasing him, and the spot dissolves into chaos and the product shot.

The problem was, it was a lot of copy and a lot of precise movement, and it was cold. Not just morning mist cold, but exactly like this very mid-December morning in the suburbs of Albany, New York – cold enough that if it rained, the water would freeze before it hit. And it did rain.

Here we were, agency people and production company from New York, in summery clothes, shivering with cups of coffee in our hands. We shot the commercial, in between downbursts of ice, and ended up with just one good take, which we used. The other spots we shot that day were shot in other parts of MacArthur Park, and were all MOS (an old movie term that means silent, but allegedly comes from the mouth of a German Director who abbreviated his own term, Mit Out Sprechen, and it stuck), so we got them out of the way quickly and headed back to our hotel bar for warmth. One of our beautiful models cavorting in one of the spots was one of the two gorgeous daughters of Tommy Chong, either Robbi or Rae Dawn, and I wish I could remember which one.

Another footnote to the day and place -- MacArthur Park was the hangout of a lot of homeless people in the eighties (it might still be), and the catering that was provided for cast and crew, as usual, was much more than any such group of people could eat in a day.

It didn't go to waste -- we provided a veritable feast for the homeless of the area that day, giving them every edible morsel that was left -- and it was a lot.

Next time: Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Go West?

Seven years in Manhattan, surviving advertising's merger mania, and you'd be worn out, too. I needed a change of everything. Rich Capparela, the friend I drove west with, had made a name for himself in LA radio.

He was hosting an advertising awards show around the time I was involved in a commercial shoot out there, so I stretched my time in LA -- on my own dime -- and went. I had an idea that if I saw the kind of creative at the show that I would like to do, I might try to work at the shop that created it.

I did see some very well crafted, long copy ads for the Times Mirror. Thinking it was an LA agency, I wrote a note complementing the campaign, and received a letter back from the head of an agency in San Francisco. He was running a boutique shop inside a bigger shop, and was looking for someone to share the load.


The man in charge wanted to fly me and my girl friend at the time, Wendy (a pretty, voluptuous research maven who worked at the Wall Street Journal) out for a series of interviews. This was flattering. I asked my friend Mary Van about this mucky-muck. (Mary is the one who had moved to New York on my advice, who later found for me my first real New York job at a real agency, and who was now in San Francisco with her British computer whiz husband and running a nice little ad consulting business of her own.)

She told me in very certain terms not to consider it. She said he was extremely difficult to work with, and had a bad reputation among creatives in the Bay Area. But he was willing to pay for two of us to come out for a long weekend, for a series of interviews. And, I thought, if this is my job, I can make it work. And if it's not, it's a free vacation for us.

Well, it wasn't my job, and it was no vacation. I knew that as soon as I realized what was going on. The mucky-muck, who was married, was having a relationship with his Italian-American Account Executive. The small group that worked for him were like his children. He was the bad daddy, taking up with the hussy.

In separate meetings, I realized what a dysfunctional family this really was. Wendy and I met with the mucky muck and his hussy for dinner. His snobbery was only exceeded by his petulance.

Wendy and I met with the art director and his wife at a beautiful waterside restaurant in Marin County. The AD was miserable, wanted to stay on his farm and never leave. I told him he should.

I met with the mucky-muck's mentor in the office. He took advantage of my nervousness, and put me through hell.

I met with the group for an input session, and then was ordered to go away and create an ad on my own. Advertising agencies don't work that way -- it's a cooperative effort, everybody adding something to the mix until the final outcome is greater than the sum of the parts. I did my best, which was pretty good, considering the pressure.

The final meeting was with everyone except the mucky-muck, at a lunch. It was like facing a firing squad, except over a nice, trendy, California meal. They all had rehearsed their questions, and fired them at me -- fortunately, one at a time instead of in a single, deafening, mortal volley.

By now, as much as I wanted to leave New York and be anywhere else, I knew this was exactly the wrong job for me. So about halfway through their questions, I formulated one sublime question of my own, and waited to ask it.

When their ammunition finally ran out, I asked them each to respond.

“What will the person in this job do?”

Each one responded just as you might expect – the prospect would solve all their problems, have the all answers, insulate them from nasty clients, speak for them, listen to them, advise them. Their cumulative picture of this person became crystal clear to me. And even if there had remained a slim chance of my getting the job, I willingly threw that away with my response.

“Well, the last person who answered that description was,” I said, carefully pausing for effect, “crucified.”

The meeting ended with embarrassed niceties, Wendy and I flew back to New York and the declination call came about two weeks later.

Next time: location, location, etc.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Loser #3

My father, who came of age in the Great Depression, had a favorite phrase he would use whenever someone bugged him. He'd say, “Get a job!” – with obvious disgust in his voice. To a man who experienced unemployment two or three hundred times worse than today's, and its resulting breadlines, the most insecure thing for a man back then was to not have a job.

Being a pre-war baby – World War II, that is – I rarely, if ever, had a problem finding a job during my employment years. According to Malcom Gladwell's “Outliers,” that's partly because I was born “in a trough” – the opposite of the post-war baby boom, so that when it came time for my generation to go to work, there wasn't as much competition. But when I did go to work, first in radio and then in advertising agencies, I worked. And that, according to Gladwell, is equally important – do the work. Gladwell makes the point succinctly in this brief clip with Charlie Rose, about Derrick Coleman.

Well, I discovered that not everybody in my field did an honest day's work. So, over time, my phrase of disgust, different from my father's, became “Do your job!”

I firmly believe that if you do your job, you will win. And the converse is true, too. Today, I want to tell you about the biggest loser I ever met. He lost an entire ad agency, because he didn't do his job.

Going, Going, Gone.

The end came for USAdvertising about six months down the road. Clients don't like to be told they have to switch agencies -- especially when they've been with one agency for a lifetime, as in the case of Quaker State. Fifty-three years at one agency, and then they're shunted off to the side? It couldn't have lasted, and it didn't.

Air France was at K&E because of a relationship with K&E people, and they were no longer in charge. American Airlines was a much bigger account, so Air France was forced to move. They began a search for another agency almost immediately.

But we were a full service agency; we could have gotten other accounts. In fact, we were offered one. I didn't learn about this until after USAdvertising, or the remnants of it, were folded into Poppe-Tyson, another agency that was cut loose because of merger mania.

Here's how USAdvertising's General Manager drove us out business. Believe it or not, our patron agency, Bozell, handed us a prestige automotive account that was a conflict with its largest account. All we had to do was take on additional personnel -- a creative director and a account supervisor. We could have replaced our blabbermouth account supervisor with no problem.

But our General Manager didn't want to “put his creative director's nose out of joint.” (She was the one who had to have matching trees!) His other excuse was that he was going to get the new Hyundai account. That was totally unrealistic, because the Hyundai account was already assigned. He had no chance chasing that car.

Remember, the very purpose of our agency was to take accounts that conflicted with Bozell's, and he said no! Even after all these years, it hurts to write the next sentence.

The account he turned down was Jaguar.

I have to spit this out in one sentence: he turned down one of the most prestigious accounts, which probably would have led to other prestige accounts, which would have made USAdvertising a premium agency with a great reputation and we all could have worked there as long as we wanted and made a lot of money and it was gone in that one refusal.

Gone? First the General Manager was gone. Replaced by a company man from Bozell. But USAdvertising couldn't be saved. Then thirty people were let go in one day. They brought in an exit interviewer, and we all waited our turn. Ten of us were spared, just to keep the agency on the books for what turned out to be a mini-merger.

By the time the Poppe-Tyson deal came through, there were just four of us left: myself, an art director, an office manager and a secretary, and we were forced on the new agency. The welcome wasn't gracious, but we were there for a purpose, and we fulfilled our purpose.

Next time: Go West?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Loser #2

All Creative Directors Are Not Created Equal.

The ad agency that was created to handle overflow accounts of the newly-merged Bozell Jacobs Kenyon & Eckhardt was on the fifth floor of a bank office building on Fifth Avenue.

Her office was bizarre, to say the least. Of course it was a corner office. Creative Directors in New York get corner offices. But it didn't have a desk. It had a white, marble top table, surrounded by red chairs. It had one tall red chair, hers, and a tall easel, laid almost flat to hold her portable typewriter.

On one wall was a huge blowup of a few lines from a wonderful Tom Stoppard play, The Real Thing, about crafting words to present ideas that soar, like building cricket bats so well that without much effort, they make the ball really fly.

What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might . . . travel .. .

Everything in the room, including what she wore every day, was either white or black or red. Except for the two living ficus trees. Despite the fact that they were serviced regularly, one or both would die regularly.

We figured it had something to do with her vibrations, which weren't exactly steady, as this incident will demonstrate.

She liked copy to be presented to her aurally, by the copywriter. As far as I could tell, the presentation I was about to make wasn't any different than any that had gone before. In fact, I was proud of the copy. I had worked on it, crafted it and otherwise fine tuned it until it really flowed smoothly and effortlessly. It's a style I've cultivated, which I call “simulated conversation.”

I settled in to one of the chairs at her table, but turned it to face her as she sat in her high chair. The ficus trees were behind me. I wasn't a third of the way through reading my copy to her, when she picked up her phone without warning, punched two numbers and screamed to our office manager who was on the other end of the line, and only about three offices away. The intercom wasn't really necessary; all 40 employees heard her shout, “Peggy, I can't work like this!”

There was a pause while Peggy said a few words, trying simultaneously to calm the situation and find out what the problem was. Because I was in closest proximity to her and her portable typewriter, I held my breath.

I didn't know what else she was going to say or do. I was sure I had bathed that morning. Had I misunderstood the advertising strategy so much that she hated the copy and the copywriter? Was my fly open? How had my presence or my copy or both offended her so much that she had to call and tell the office manager? Turns out it wasn't me, or anything I said or wrote.

She finally revealed the problem. “These trees are not even!,” she cried.

That was it. The company that was responsible for the trees had replaced them with two that were not the same height. I don't remember if I finished reading the copy to her then and there. But I do remember going out for a drink directly from work that night.

For this, and other reasons which I'll chronicle next time, the ad agency lasted six months.

Next time: The Champion Loser

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Loser #1

These days, the news often carries a warning story about what people post on social media sites. Right now, there's a case of someone being fired for complaining about their boss.

It reminds me of an incident like that, back in the 1980's – when “social media” simply meant blabbing in public.

I believe it happened at the Oak Room Bar at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, the same place where Cary Grant, playing an ad executive, began his (mis)adventure in Hitchcock's “North By Northwest.”

Of course, it could have been any upscale watering hole. Here's what I remember.

If you don't have something good to say about someone, just shut up.

It's a lesson you learn early in the advertising business – don't name names in public. Whether you're talking about the place you work, the clients you have, the clients you lost or the clients you're pitching:

Don't. Name. Names.

It's a lesson you're supposed to learn early. But somebody didn't. Somebody with an MBA from the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Somebody who, I think, cut class.

There we were -- forty people who had survived the downsizing caused by merger mania in the advertising business. Kenyon & Eckhardt and Bozell, Jacobs, two fairly big agencies had just merged, and each had an airline, a restaurant and a motor oil account.

Chuck Peebler, who passed away in 2009, was the man from Bozell, and he had the upper hand in this merger, which meant that K&E's conflicting accounts had to go. Instead of setting them free, the combined management came up with a plan to keep the accounts in the fold by creating a brand new agency, and staffing it entirely with people who otherwise would have been out on the street. That's how USAdvertising was born: Forty people plucked out of K&E and plunked down in new offices, on 5th Avenue in the heart of Manhattan.

It would be our job to take those conflict accounts, and any others that Bozell couldn't handle. It was exciting to be part of something new. But excitement isn't always something to be desired.

The first week we were in business, we had a visit from one of the major officers of the merged company. He didn't look happy as he led all the titled people of USAdvertising into a private office. He told us a dark tale of an amazing, and almost disastrous incident that had occurred the night before.

Someone from USAdvertising -- someone in the very room we were sitting in -- had been having a conversation in the Oak Room Bar.

The culprit was talking about Chuck Peebler, and the things he was saying were far from nice. He accused Peebler of deceit and trickery.

This was the man whose approval was needed to save our jobs. Our man called him an asshole, among other, worse things. When the tirade finally wound down, our man felt a tap on his shoulder. The man sitting at the next table, right behind him, said to him, “Would you like to meet the asshole you've been talking about? I'm Chuck Peebler.”

That's the only part of the story we were told. Then we were warned never, never to talk in public about the agency, the clients, anything that related to our business, or the consequences would be disastrous. We all knew what that meant. Everyone soon learned just who had been mouthing off in that bar that night -- one of our Account Supervisors. To my amazement, he wasn't fired.

Not that day, anyway. If he had been replaced then, we might have survived longer. But it was that kind of flawed decision-making that doomed USAdvertising from the start. As you'll see in the next couple of weeks.

Next time: Loser #2

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Moving Fast

One of K&E's big introductions was a line of wine coolers, back when Gallo's “Bartles & Jaymes” became the big fad in light alcoholic beverages in the eighties.

We couldn't compete with the commercials that the great Hal Riney created for Ernest & Julio Gallo in 1984– two “hicky” men they might be called today – acting the part of small winery owners and who became faux folk heroes and were even parodied on Saturday Night Live and by Conan O'Brien.

I think the public knew it was a phony act for the giant of the wine industry, but it was so well done that nobody cared. Their corny tag line, “thank you for your support” caught on in a big way.

Seagram's, seeing this new category as a way to make even more money, came to us for the whole intro package – name, design, packaging, ad campaign.

The first thing they did was to give everybody in the ad agency a list of names that Seagram's owned – names like Sunshine, Splash, Whoosh, whatever – and asked everybody to pick their favorite to go with the product.

Most people did what they were told. Not me.

I wrote a memo which said that none of the names on the list were good enough. Not when the company had a name that was already extended to “mixers” – ginger ale, tonic, seltzer, etc.

So, I was the one who saw the obvious and dared to state it – that the wine coolers be considered another “line extension” and carry the company name.

That's how I came to be the one who named Seagram's Wine Coolers as “Seagram's Wine Coolers.”

And yes – some of us are actually paid for thinking like this. A great and strange art director I worked with used to call it “Grovelling before the altar of commerce.” And that's why I volunteer these days to use these skills to try to “sell” something more beneficial to the general public, such as the New York State Theatre Institute.

Seagram's management didn't have as much sense when it came to the ad campaign for their new wine coolers, though. Seems somebody at the top was starry-eyed enough to actually pay Bruce Willis to sing for the brand, back when he had hair. What a disaster.

They came running back to us after that flop and we started a new internal competition – to come up with a positioning line for the new brand to kind of re-introduce it, still with Mr. Willis, but no longer singing. I guess they had to get their money's worth.

The new theme line was needed yesterday. From my early days of training in Albany radio and ad agencies, I knew how to write fast and good.

I churned out a few choice phrases and submitted them. They were all tested overnight, and one of mine came out on top. In a matter of days, “Taste it all!” was everywhere – on buttons, ads, radio, TV, store displays.

And soon after that, a sales rep that serviced a lot of the big agencies came into my office and told me that I was responsible for a lot of angst at McCann-Erickson, Coca-Cola Company's main ad agency. Seems they had been testing the same line for Coke for a long time as their next big international campaign theme, and of course, had to drop it, although, according to Wikipedia, Diet Coke finally carried that theme in the US in 1993. Some things just won't go away.

So, the takeaway is simply that you win some and you lose some.

Next time: Some losers.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rule Breaking

I'm not one of those rebels who think every rule is made to be broken. But if you know the rules, really know the rules, sometimes breaking them at the right time can be the right thing to do.

I'm not talking about the ten commandments, of course.

I'm talking about matters of much less significance – grammar, and advertising, specifically.

I've had a lot of fun and entertained a lot of people with my “How To Write Good” exercise, which revels in breaking the rules of grammar for fun.

Occasionally, a client will have rules that the creative team is told never to break. Well, that's just too tempting for a couple of wise guys masquerading as art director and copywriter.

Here's how we broke a big rule for a big client, and made them love it.

Strictly Air France

Advertisers spend lots of money creating a “look” for all their exposure. Logo, layout format, colors, style, typefaces – the rules are usually in a “style book,” a manual for anyone and everyone who has anything to do with designing, producing and printing the company's material.

Some are more rigid than others. Since Air France's look was determined in Paris, we at K&E, responsible for advertising the airline to Americans, had no say in changing it. The headline and text typefaces were set, the logo and theme were set, and, the cardinal rule was that there be only one illustration or photo. One.

This "capabilities" ad that we prepared, with a dramatic shot of the supersonic Concorde, is a good example. It follows the style book exactly.

But the art director, Gerry Severson, and I had an idea that required breaking the cardinal rule. We were assigned an ad for an Air France service called “Flexi-Plan.” The feature allowed – encouraged – American travelers to Paris to design their own tours based on their budgets, interests and time.

To us, the idea screamed for specific, multiple pictures of Paris's most famous landmark. So, we assembled nine of the thousands of stock photos of the Eiffel Tower into that space that was supposed to only have one, and presented the layout with a headline that, while seeming to contradict the multiple illustration, actually reinforced it.

To our surprise and joy, the client was as discerning as we had hoped, and this ad ran in major magazines that year.

Next time: Move fast or lose it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Truthiness in Advertising

As hard as it is for consumers to believe, there are laws against lying in advertising.

But sometimes, you can't tell the truth in an ad, because the law won't let you do that, either.

I ran afoul of such a law in the 1980's, trying to create an ad for a small Puerto Rican brand of rum.

Here's the story.

Kenyon & Eckhardt had been running a successful campaign for Rums of Puerto Rico for several years, and I was happy to be on the account. Not because I got any free samples, because I didn't. No, I was happy to write the ads because they were good products, well made, and, not incidentally, I got to see my ads in Playbill every time I went to see a Broadway show.

The ads weren't just puffery, either. We had sales results to crow about: rum sales had been steadily increasing, while other liquors sales were either flat or declining. And, we could honestly claim that Puerto Rican rums were smoother, because by law, they had to be aged a full year, whereas other rums from other Caribbean islands had no such minimum.

So, I could unleash my punning nature, and write ads with headlines like “RUM AT THE TOP” that scored well in readership among our upscale, target audience.

We heard from our client that a small brand of white rum, Boca Chica, was enjoying increased popularity at New England ski resorts, and wanted some advertising support in the northeast.

I got the assignment, and, together with one of the group's very clever art directors, devised a teaser campaign, being inspired by the name, which sounded to us like the name of a tropical island.

The campaign consisted of three small ads, like the one on the left, each featuring a hand-written note on a slip of paper – calendar page, back of a business card or cocktail napkin – along with a drink-filled glass.

The notes all said “I'm moving to Boca Chica!” and each was followed with one of three reasons – it's really dry, light or smooth.

The payoff came with the full ad, revealing the product with the line “I've moved to Boca Chica – for good!” and copy describing its attributes. But when I wrote “Boca Chica rum is aged a full year,” the lawyers told me I couldn't say it.

“But it's true,” I pleaded. “All Puerto Rican rums are. It's the law, after all.” The lawyers knew that. But, they also knew that product claims like that could only be made if the label said so, and nowhere on the Boca Chica label did it say that it was aged a full year.

I told the lawyer that I would make the point in the rewritten copy, and that she would approve it. She bet me that I couldn't. I love a challenge. Here's how I won.

The copy, which breezed through legal, now read this way:

All over New England, people are moving to Boca Chica white rum from Puerto Rico, for a smoothness you just can't get with gin or vodka.

By law, all Puerto Rican rum must be aged at least one full year. And when it comes to smoothness, aging is the name of the game.

Try light, dry, smooth Boca Chica on the rocks or with your favorite mixer.

When you move to Boca Chica, you'll stay for good.

The solution was to use a syllogism that led the reader to the conclusion.

  1. Aging makes rum smooth.

  2. All Puerto Rican rum is aged by law for one full year.

  3. Boca Chica is a Puerto Rican rum.

  4. Boca Chica is smooth.

Truthfully, it doesn't say Boca Chica is aged for a full year. Or does it?

Next time: Breaking another rule.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Don Draper's Ad

I don't usually refer to current Mad Men episodes when writing these weekly memoirs of my life as a real Mad. Ave. man, but last week's penultimate season 4 program, wherein Don Draper wrote and ran an “inside” ad about his agency, reminded me of a similar ad I wrote in the eighties.

“1984” Lasted For a Decade.

It was the era of mega-mergers. Kenyon & Eckhardt, the agency that hired me in 1980, jumped through annual hoops – selling themselves to Lorimar, which itself merged with Telepictures, buying itself back, “merging” with Bozell Jacobs, spinning off USAdvertising to handle conflicting accounts, downsizing that and folding it into a business-to-business agency, Poppe Tyson, which itself was orphaned by another big agency merger. All the while, claiming the move would bring new and exciting advances.

Bozell had Pennzoil motor oil, American Airlines and some McDonald's business. K&E had Quaker State motor oil, Air France and Ponderosa. Bozell was the dominant “partner,” so those K&E clients were shunted to USAdvertising with 40 people who worked on those accounts. It didn't last. More about that another time.

It's Everywhere!

Merger-mania was rampant in the ad world. In fact,while I was in San Francisco for an extended weekend in 1985, interviewing for a job with a small agency that was a boutique inside a larger one out there, I was privy to the same kind of meaningless “synergy” speech, as two agencies gathered their staffs to announce the merger of Darcy-MacManus Masius with Benton & Bowles, becoming DMB&B. (It wasn't pronounced “dumb and b,” although that's probably what it should have been called by all the “redundant” people that it created and abandoned.) That shop was bought by Publicis, and DMB&B itself was deemed redundant in 2002, when they closed it.

When K&E & Bozell “merged,” effectively ending the international K&E brand, and I was eventually shuttled to Poppe Tyson, I went to the creative director with an idea to help establish our b2b and “considered purchase” agency's advantage.

By necessity, it denigrated the huge agencies that were being formed, and focused on advertisers with annual advertising budgets under $5 million. The O. Blechman-inspired illustration showed a tiny figure being squashed between the noses of two giants. Here's what I wrote:

Mega-mergers make Mini-clients.

If you spend less than $5 million a year on advertising and promotion, there's no reason your ad agency should look down their noses at you.

If you're not satisfied, you should switch to an agency that's big enough to give you everything you need, and small enough to want to.

That's us. Poppe Tyson. The hard-working, $70 million agency that's built its reputation on servicing large 1 to 5 million dollar accounts like yours.

We're specialists in Consumer Considered Purchase and Business-to-Business advertising.

To sell their non-impulse products and services, our clients need integrated communication programs – custom blends of advertising, sales promotion, collateral material, direct mail and public relations. And each receives precisely what's best, without a bias for any one medium.

Another important difference: all of Poppe Tyson's accounts are managed by experienced specialists. We never use an account as a training ground for juniors.'For more specifics, call Poppe Tyson. In New York, (NUMBER). In New Jersey, (NUMBER). In Boston, (NUMBER).

We'll help you get your advertising picture back into proportion.


Just your size.

That's the text, as it ran in the trade papers. But only once. As soon as the new management at Bozell saw it, they killed it. For the same reasons Don Draper's ad wouldn't have run if his partners had seen it beforehand.

But we both made our point. Tune in again to see the outcome.

Next: a rum ad the lawyers tried to kill before it ran, and how I saved it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Before I begin, I want to thank the beautiful, talented and gracious Christina for posting another restaurant review that I helped write, in her blog for foodies: le plat du jour.

And, it just so happens that today's Ad Missions entry deals with beverages to help wash down all that food.

If I had to name the one thing that Kenyon & Eckhardt was best at, it would be service. As I've written before, the levels of quality at the ad agency varied greatly in the 1980's. That itself may have been the reason for their greatest attribute: clients got what they wanted, and, as every advertising pro knows, some clients want less than others.

The Coca-Cola Company wanted a lot more; and while K&E was not their primary agency, we handled the advertising for some of their more interesting products. And that led to my involvement.

Today, some unusual beverages and agency practices.

The Wine Spectrum.

When I tell people that Coca-Cola bottled and sold wine, they're surprised. It wasn't for very long, but it made a big difference. The thinking then was that the company was in the beverage business, and wine shouldn't be off-limits. (It's the kind of thinking that – if the old railroad companies had seen themselves as being in the transportation business – might have led to present-day airlines named New York Central Air, Baltimore and Ohio Airlines, and Achison, Topeka and Santa Fe Air Cargo.)

Another thing K&E creatives were good at was at developing products with their clients. My creative director, Monte Ghertler, created and named Taylor California Cellars. It's a brilliant name. Taylor, from the New York winemaker Coke bought; California, another word that signifies wine; and Cellars, giving it the image of quality and aging.

What the brand really was was a consistent blend of bulk wines, bought on the open market. In the bargain of buying wineries, Coke also ended up with New York's Great Western brands, plus California's Monterey Vineyards and Sterling Vineyards, a name with established cachet. And to add to their stable, they became the importers of Cinzano brands from Italy.

With the buying power of Coca-Cola behind him, Monte & K&E challenged two established Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms advertising rules for television, one of which forbade endorsements for alcoholic beverages, and another that such beverages could not be shown being consumed. Challenged and won. We found – and established – wine experts to praise Taylor California Cellars, and sip it on camera.

I didn't have anything to do with that policy, but I did write copy for the voice who introduced the experts – none other than great actor Frank Langella, reading my words with the smoothest, snobbiest voice imaginable.

I played a greater part in the campaign to establish Monterey Vineyards as a great restaurant house wine. I was sent to New Orleans to interview the owner of a great restaurant there, Commander's Palace, and write a first person ad. It was so well received, that I came to the attention of the on-premises division at Coca-Cola, and was made the first, and only, K&E copy/contact on an account.

Copy/Contact is unusual at a large agency, because it short-circuits the normal process of client supervision – instead of dealing with account managers and account executives, the client dealt directly with me, and I dealt directly with art, production, research and media departments.

It needed to be done, because going through the normal process would have meant missing an important deadline for introducing the major double page ad I had written – promoting Coke's Wine Spectrum as the new leader in the distribution of wine. The black and white version here was promoted in the trade paper, now online, Ad Week.

It's rare, but always good, when you can use a superlative, and my headline was all about Coke's big, calculated advantage in wine.

Ramblin' Root Beer

This was another Coca-Cola product that Monte Ghertler and Coke collaborated on. The product's advantage was built-in so that K&E could create a campaign around it. It was made extra creamy and foamy, so that Monte and the agency's music director, Charles Strouse, could write a jingle called “Something More.”

Yes, the same Charles Strouse who created “Annie.” In fact, this rather dated national commercial even featured a young actress you may know dressed as Annie – Sarah Jessica Parker, who grew up and is now known as the star of the “Sex and The City” franchise.

Where the national spot sang about America's something more, local versions would highlight local features. The idea was to roll-out the product, one market at a time, with a re-sung jingle tailored to that specific city or geographic area. My job was to research each market, and write lyrics to Strouse's music that highlighted the features of the area, and rhymed, as well. It was a difficult challenge that I really enjoyed.

For example, the jingle for the New York Metropolitan area began, “New York is terrific, it's got something more. The Hudson Valley, Shubert Alley... something more.” A few couplets like that, and then the song would introduce Ramblin' Root Beer, and its something more: more foamy, more creamy, etc.

I would have our research department buy tour books for the areas that were on the rollout schedule that I had never been to, like Atlanta and Seattle, and find features that rhymed. The easiest version for me to write was for the Albany, New York region. It had been my stomping grounds for forty years, and family and friends were there. The area had a very popular comedy rock band named Blotto, and the jingle I wrote included their name, because I knew their fan base matched Ramblin' Root Beer's demographic ideal.

Two sets of lawyers told me that I couldn't use their name without their legal consent, so it was arranged that I meet them backstage at a New York appearance at The Bottom Line. That's how I got to meet Blotto, and ten years later, when I met Eileen, the beautiful woman who was the love of my life, we discovered the band was quite a connection – she had been their biggest fan, and her son – who would become my stepson – was even known as “Baby Blotto.” Much later, after Eileen had passed, I hired the band to play at a very special New Year's Eve birthday bash.

Next time: more legal wrangles.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


The image of the creative person who throws a tantrum when his or her idea is rejected is pretty standard. The crybaby's reason is usually because his or her solution is the only one.

Well, I'm here to tell you that that's the biggest lie in advertising. There are actually an infinite number of great, creative solutions to every problem. With the possible exception of how to convince that creative crybaby that I'm right.

Creativity can and does come from anywhere, at anytime – sometimes without the creator realizing it. (Example – I emailed a friend – who writes a terrific food blog – about a restaurant I visited recently. I thought I was just recommending it to her, but she saw it as an actual review, and asked to include it in her blog. You can read it here.)

This cartoon ad by my friend John Caldwell was one of a proposed series that was rejected.

The problem in this case was not that a roomful of clients didn't like it – they loved it, laughed and then turned it down because they turned everything down, on a regular basis.

That story and a few other rejections today.

Selling In

Every couple of months, the account executive, my art director and I would fly to Detroit, rent a car and drive south into Canada to meet with a roomful of executives responsible for selling Canadian Club Classic. Their billboards and ads had carried the same theme and copy line for ages.

We would present an incredible range of creative executions, all beautifully drawn by the AD with words carefully crafted by me – on themes of oak, wood, barrels, time, classics – any and every nuance we could think of.

The clients loved it all. But they never approved a new concept. Because that wasn't the point of the meetings. They wanted service, and that's what we were there for. We entertained, we showed them possibilities, they knew we were working for them, and they were happy when we went away. We knew the score, we were getting paid, we did our job.

Other campaigns, however, for other clients, were rejected for different reasons. One of the most prevalent reasons for rejection is that the agency does a lousy job of selling the client on the idea. You've seen it on Mad Men, if you follow their rather accurate portrayals of client meetings.

Every ad campaign has to work twice. If it's not sold in to the client, it will never get out to the consumer.

The great Sid Caesar wrote a very frank autobiography in the early 1980's, called “Where Have I Been?” He spoke about it at the Museum of Broadcasting, where he autographed my copy.

I remembered a very funny character he played on early TV, a professor with a Viennese accent who claimed to know everything, and actually got everything wrong. I thought it would make a great spot for Curad bandages, which always featured children calling them “ouchless.” We mocked up storyboards that showed the professor lecturing on the bandages, with a child next to him, correcting him. It was funny and good-natured. His agent showed it to Caesar and he loved it. I believe would have captured the market. Colgate-Palmolive's account manager said no, and that was the end of that.

There was a different reason for the same manager to reject my next idea for a Curad TV spot. This one was animated – using Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters, with Lucy as the doctor, recommending Curad for everybody. The problem here was our own failure to research in advance – the characters were already licensed to Curad's biggest competitor.

Research was the key to a creative execution for another Colgate product I worked on -- a laundry detergent called “Fresh Start.” The art director and I researched commercial laundries and discovered that they don't use as much detergent as consumers do at home. They use the power of many rinses to clean. So we created a character who challenges commercial laundries, claiming to get clothes cleaner with Fresh Start, and always wins. I guess we didn't sell that one well, either, because it was rejected.

Lest you think none of my ideas every made it out the door, next time I'll regale you with some successes.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Writing Good

As long as I can remember, I've been collecting and writing grammar rules that break themselves. It started with a print production manager named Bert who told me, “The passive voice is to be avoided.”

I saw its potential, and the list kept growing. In the mid 1980's, when I was working in New York ad agencies, I decided to send my list, which I facetiously called “How to Write Good, ” to Writer's Digest. They bought it, and published it in the issue pictured here.

After it was published, the magazine received a request from an instructor at the Dallas Theological Seminary, asking permission to use it in his class. They forwarded the request to me, and I wrote back, saying he could use it as long as I received credit.

I since discovered that somehow, that list -- usually with my name attached -- made it to the internet, and it s been circulating ever since. It has even earned top billing (over William Safire, no less) on a United States government website that gives examples of humor in writing. Some people add to it, some remove my name and replace it with theirs, but this is how it started. Here is the original piece, as published in Writer s Digest, and copyrighted by me.


by Frank L. Visco

My several years in the word game have learnt me several rules:

  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.

  2. Propositions are not sentences to end sentences with.

  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)

  4. Employ the vernacular.

  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.

  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

  8. Contractions aren't necessary.

  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

  10. One should never generalize.

  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “I hate quotations Tell me what you know.”

  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.

  13. Don't be redundant; don't use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.

  14. Profanity sucks.

  15. Be more or less specific.

  16. Understatement is always best.

  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

  18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.

  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.

  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

I later hired a wonderful designer to create posters, mousepads, a line of clothing and other items to sell online in my write good shop – which also included rules from a follow-up piece that the magazine also bought and ran, called, of course, “How to Write Gooder.”

It hasn't made me rich.

Next time: Ads you never saw, but should have.