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, May 16, 2010


Last night, I watched “Art & Copy,” a documentary from the “One Show” featuring ramblings from some of the big “Hall of Fame” names in advertising. It tries to explain what makes great advertising – and while it has a few clues, the explanation still pretty much comes down to “hit and miss.”

One thing the documentary makes clear is that advertising that stands out usually takes on the personality of the person creating the ad – and that personality is formed by many influences, from many experiences. That thought, in turn, started me thinking about some of my influences and experiences, and from that musing come this week's postings.

A Great Man

Meeting A Man Who Met Mark Twain.

It may seem impossible, or at least improbable, but in the 1970's it could happen, and it did. Below my garret in the brownstone on Albany's State Street where I lived after my divorce were a retired doctor and his wife – the Southwells. He was frail, she was as spry and active as a woman in her later years could be. She traveled the world with women friends, ran an herb shop up the street, and cared for her husband.

On weekends, I often sat on the stoop of the apartment house, reading a Mark Twain work, and so would see them – usually her – coming and going.

We exchanged ordinary pleasantries, but never much more.

The doctor passed away that year, and although Mrs. Southwell was still spry, there were chores that needed assistance. One Autumn day, as I was helping her change from screens to storm windows in her apartment, she mentioned that her husband had commented to her on my reading habits.

Yes,” I said, “I read a lot of Mark Twain.”

She casually mentioned that her husband had met him one summer in Dublin, New Hampshire.

I was amazed, and disappointed that I had never had the chance to talk to him about the meeting, and I told her so.

She put my mind at ease, however. “Remember,” she said, “that Mark Twain said that he came in with Halley's Comet and would go out with it?”

Yes, and he did. That's one of his most famous quotes.”

So, he passed away in 1910. My husband was a little boy in the the early 1900's, and Mark Twain was an old man, so the doctor didn't have a very long conversation with the great man.”

What did he remember?,” I asked.

That Twain seemed like a nice old man. And that he liked cats,” she told me. That was it. A little disappointing, but it was something.

At the time of Twain's death, poet James Whitcomb Riley confirmed the doctor's boyhood impression, saying, “The world has lost not only a genius, but a man of striking character, of influence, and of boundless resources. He knew the human heart and he was sincere. He knew children, and this knowledge made him tender.”

So, I had a true connection to an influential hero that I never imagined possible.

A Great Business.

Solving problems for clients

One of advertising's stock jokes is: “This would be a great business without clients.”

Of all the facetious, ironic and contradictory statements in the jargon of ad-making, that's one of my favorites. It's usually said when a client rejects something that the “creatives” are really proud of.

What we tend to forget is that it is the client's money, and the client has every right to reject what she doesn't like. The real truth is contained in another of our cliches: “great clients make great advertising.”

I think the problem starts earlier – that the creatives and the client did not come to a meeting of the minds, and did not hammer out a strategy that they could agree on. If they had, and if the proposed execution stayed on that strategy, then there'd be a valid complaint.

That's why I like to start every new client with a ten-part questionnaire, “The Visco Creative Strategy Brief.” By filling it out, the client is forced to think about the project in a particular way, to explain to the creative team the “who, what, when, where and why”, leaving the “how” to us.

(The “how much” should be determined before anything else.)

These are some of the points I've made to marketing students when I've guest-lectured at Skidmore, SUNY Albany and St. Rose College, and in the Advertising A to Z class I co-taught at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.

But the most important point I make is this: my respect for, and awe at, the willingness of clients to spend their money for such intangibles as creative advertising.

It's a big responsibility, and I've never taken it lightly. That doesn't mean that creative advertising always works. It doesn't. It's not a science. And yet, it's not an art, either. It's a craft.

And the end product isn't a chair or a table, but an ephemeral promise that depends on the reaction of the viewer/listeners.

The better we are at understanding the mindset of the audience, the better the advertising results will be. There are many other variables, of course – the price, the location, the limits of the media exposure, even the mood of the country can affect the result.

There's a famous old pro-advertising ad where the client says “Half of my advertising budget is wasted. I just don't know which half.” With that preamble, I submit a few examples of advertising I created for trusting clients.

In the seventies, it may surprise you to know. banks were heavily regulated. Especially savings banks. They all had to offer the same return on savings. For a couple of banks, I tried an honest approach, and based their ad campaigns on the only differences they had: location and reputation.

For one, I took a cue from David Ogilvy's rule that outdoor advertising should be a “visual scandal,” that is, that the billboard only had your eye for a second or two, so it had to register quickly. One message was just three big words on a black field above the bank's logo: SAVE MORE EASIER.

By not putting the comma after “more,” the sentence looked ungrammatical. I liked it so much I paid for a full-size copy of the board, intending to use it as wallpaper in a room. I never did, and my landlord never knew how lucky he was.

Another bank had more locations in better spots in the area, so my art director and I conceived of a campaign that would emphasize that. It was Mechanics Exchange Savings Bank, and for quite a while had been established as “The ME Bank,” and that lent itself to clever lines like, “If it matters to you, it matters to ME.”

I think we reached the high point with a campaign that used honesty as a gimmick. We created an ad with a beautiful illustration of peas in a pod, and on each pea was the actual logo of each savings bank in the area. The headline was “They all look the same to ME,” and the copy stated that yes, all the rates were the same, so you should save at the bank that was most convenient. We were confident that we would get our share. That led to creating an animated character for TV, a pea. With the help of a local TV station, and the artistic ability of my long-time friend, cartoonist John Caldwell, we produced one of the first video-taped animation spots. To make it stand out even more, we had the one of the most outstanding character actors in the world as the voice of our pea – Sterling Holloway. If the name doesn't sound familiar, his most famous role will – he was the original voice of Disney's “Winnie the Pooh.”

Around the same time, we used another honest approach for the opposite problem – a Ford dealer whose location wasn't as convenient as his competition.

In that case, we actually filmed our spokesman at each competitor's location, where he would announce the actual driving time from there to our client's showroom. It was pretty effective, and I came up with a double meaning tag line, promising a short drive and a bargain. The line was “We're easy to get to, and, we're easy to get to.”

It's all in the delivery.

It was problem-solving like that that made me think I could get a job on Madison Avenue.

A Great Mistake

My first grab at The Apple

Sevan called. She had broken up with her director boy friend, and suggested we get together. All of a sudden, I loved the seventies. She lived in a glass and chrome-furnished fashionable upper East Side apartment, I lived in a cold water walkup in Smallbany. But she must have liked roughing it, because we soon fell into a long-distance dating routine, where she would train up to Albany one weekend a month, and I would train down to New York one weekend a month.

The in-between weekends were when I would see my young daughters, take them to my mother's for a good old-fashioned Italian Sunday dinner, and to weekend father things like museums and such.

For Sevan and me, the contrast in living styles was nothing compared to the difference in the activities we engaged in. Together, we found a way of relating sexually and psychologically that was, for us, a new and exciting exploration into unknown territory – you could call it a bonding – but that's a story for a different time. And place.

It was a strong enough connection that we wanted to keep it going – and actually discussed marriage. Before that could happen, we'd have to see if we could live together. And since she would never leave a successful career in New York, and I was without prospects in Albany, it seemed like the right time for me to move in with her.

But in 1975, there was a recession. Companies were cutting back on advertising. Agencies weren't hiring. So, naturally, I moved to Manhattan. And while I lived with her and looked for work, I filled in as an extra hand at her TV production company.

A comedy of errors ensued.

Next: A Gopher in Manhattan

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