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, April 18, 2010


Last time, I promised some stories about good vibes, bad moves and a million dollar campaign. I'll honor some of that, but the more I reveal in this blog, the more I remember and want to share. So, besides the million dollar campaign story, the others are really about bad vibes.

One of the confessions I've yet to make has to do with what may be a complete rationalization for my youthful impatience with and intolerance for certain people and situations. A couple of times in my young career in the radio, promotion and advertising business I blew up and walked out of a job without having another one to go to.

In the case of WPTR, I thought I had a premonition of impending doom, and it turned out that there was a fire in the ceiling of the office I had occupied shortly after I left.

When I left Barlow/Johnson, the ad agency that I'll be writing about for a while, my sudden exit happened just a day or two before the horrific story that leads off today's post. It's a little out of sequence, but it has a lot to do with my feeling about fate.

Following that is a short reminiscence of an account man with a strange theory, and then, finally, I'll leave you on an up note, with the story of my first shot at a really big creative campaign.

Another Appointment In Samarra.

You can run, but why bother?

There's a famous old story about a man who was walking through the market place in his home town, Baghdad, when he came face to face with Death -- the Grim Reaper, the cloaked figure with the scythe. They both freeze. Death points his finger at the man, and shouts “You!”

The man forces himself to flee, gets on the fastest camel he can find, and rides all night until he gets to the outskirts of Samarra, just as the sun is rising. He ties the camel up near the gates, and walks into the city, breathing a sigh of relief.

Turning a corner, he comes face to face with --- Death.

But -- But -- I ran away from you yesterday.''

Yes, I know," Death replies. “I was startled when I saw you in Baghdad yesterday, because I knew that today, we had an appointment in Samarra.”

You may be familiar with the phrase – it was the title of a book by John O'Hara. It was the intro to the book, and Boris Karloff told a version of the story in the movie, “The Terror.”

But there is a true and tragic story, a similar one that happened to a co-worker of mine and her spouse back in the early seventies. I'll call them Agnes and Paul.

They were a professional couple, in their thirties, growing together in life. They had a beautiful apartment in a very nice part of Albany. One day, when he was helping his mother-in-law renovate her kitchen, he fell through the floor into an old root cellar, and broke his arm.

About a week later, he was recuperating in their apartment, his arm in a cast, probably musing on how lucky he was that he didn't break his neck. It was around eleven PM. They were watching the late news from bed. She got up to go to the bathroom.

In the next instant, he died in a plane crash.

It's not a riddle. When I tell people this story, they try to make something mysterious out of it. Unfortunately, it's very simple: an airplane missed the airport by miles, fell on their house, killing Paul and bruising Agnes's knee.

Al Jensen's Battle With The Rising Sun.

Was he paranoid about Japanese car makers, or is it coming true?

The 2010 massive recall of Toyota models reminded me of another Al I worked with beginning in the late 60's. He was the lead account guy at the Syracuse office of the agency that handled the Dairylea account -- my million dollar opportunity in the next story.

I remember Al Jensen as a lean, tall, self-confident man, composed of sharp angles and sharper opinions. He believed that he knew better than anyone where to live. He actually based where he lived on his commute between home and the office.

According to him, his was the best choice anyone could make. He claimed that he lived due east of the office so that in the morning, he was driving west with the rising sun behind him, and when he drove home, he avoided having the setting sun in his eyes.

I don't know for sure if his obsession with the sun influenced his suspicion of Japanese automakers, but I suspect it had something to do with it. His theory was that once they had sufficient numbers of cars in America – a critical mass, I guess you'd call it – something terrible would happen.

As I recall, Al believed that all the Japanese cars in the United States contained a secret device that, at a given signal, supposedly generated in Japan, would cause them to self-destruct, leaving us helpless and allowing for a peaceful takeover of our country.

Of course, the idea was a product of an overly active imagination, perhaps influenced by his memories of a certain date that will live in infamy. As for his theory, of course there is absolutely no basis in truth for that.

But now that Japanese cars have become dominant in American, and so many seem to have hidden flaws, doesn't it make you wonder – somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of your cerebral cortex – whether Al Jensen might – just might – have been on to something?

I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin' – you know what I'm sayin'?

What Can You Do In Thirty Seconds?

You can start to change your life.

It was 1969. I'd been in the advertising business just ten years, and now I was copy chief of an ad agency with offices in Albany and Syracuse. And I thought I was ready for the big time.

Well, I had to be. The agency's biggest account was an association of New York State dairy farmers -- the Dairymen's League, and they marketed products under the name of Dairylea. They were ready for their first major ad campaign -- a statewide multi-media blitz of radio, TV, newspaper and outdoor.

The creative presentation was to be at their headquarters in Manhattan. We didn't have a lot of time to prepare the creative materials, and the company I used for music was in Dallas. They had just enough time to put my words to music, but not enough time for us to hear it before the presentation. It was being hand-delivered to the meeting. I had hoped to have the chance to listen to it -- do a disaster check -- before we played it for the client.

But that wasn't even the biggest problem. These guys were farmers, and I looked like a long-haired, bearded hippie freak, to use the derogatory term of the time. I was wearing a suit and tie, of course, but my outfit was a riot of color. Tapestry tie at least three inches wide, with blues and greens swirling in a psychedelic melange. Mint green shirt. Putty colored suit, fitted tight at the waist and flared at the cuffs. Fashionable, but too far out for farmers.

As I set up our creative displays in their conference room, the Board of Directors ambled in, and started putting me down. For my hair, my clothes. “Wait till Walter gets a load of this,” I heard one director say to another. “This fruit won't last five minutes.”

Walter Cantwell was the elected president of the organization, and the man who would decide the fate of our creative ideas. Well, all I could do was present what we had created, and it was good. Legally, you can't make competitive claims for milk, but we had a contemporary line that would work as a catch phrase for the seventies, just as “Got Milk?”' worked for the nineties.

Our line was: “Say something fresh. Say Dairylea.” But if the client doesn't like you, he's not going to like your campaign. And it didn't sound like this client was going to like me. He was the last to enter the room – an impressive man -- rough, big, but friendly-looking, I thought.

He sat down and told me to get started. I always try to inject humor --- usually self-deprecating humor -- at the beginning of a presentation. Laughter lowers resistance and seems to make the audience more receptive. So I said something about this being my first big presentation in the big city, and that was something for a kid from Troy, New York.

You're from Troy?,” Walter asked.

So am I!”

He then started making connections with families and places, and told me that his son had just gone on the road with the Young Rascals. To everyone's amazement, including my own, we hit it off.

I started presenting, and he loved everything.

The tape from Dallas showed up in the middle of the presentation, and I played it for the first time, right there, with everybody in the room, including me, hearing it for the first time. Walter loved the music, too.

One member of the board of directors tried to start a discussion about which spots should be produced, and Walter cut him off, saying, “Produce it all! This is great! I love it!”

We left the meeting all aglow, put the commercials out for bid with real, honest to goodness New York production companies, selected one, and traveled to the city for casting sessions with beautiful models and actors, wardrobe selection, location scouting and full scale production.

The experience made me hungry for New York advertising, and I would try, on and off, for the next eleven years, to become a part of it.

Now it's forty years later, and the putty colored suit is long gone, as is the green shirt, but the tapestry tie is still hanging in my closet, waiting for a comeback, and reminding me of a surprising success that came about because I was me, and I wasn't trying to be anybody else.

Next: Sexy Vibes and Some Really Bad Moves

1 comment:

  1. Frank,
    I'm truly enjoying this blog! Thank you so much for sharing your life experiences!!! I feel so honored to have had you as my mentor.