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, June 20, 2010

Great Expectations

They can lead to great advertising, as well as great disappointments.

Being invited back into the world of advertising in 1976, at at the hottest shop in the area no less, led me to expect heaven.

We made good, sometimes great advertising, like this one, using a New York City recording engineer to promote a local chain of audio stores.

Here were all the best local writers, art directors, designers, logo-masters and account people that had ever been assembled under one roof. And what a roof – Madison North was in a Victorian showplace in an area of Schenectady – the Stockade – that had existed since the 17th century!

I think this was when I learned a life lesson that it's better to have zero expectations, hope for the best and expect the worst.

The two women who ran the shop weren't exactly the best business people in the world. For one thing, they didn't have insurance on the building or its contents, and we were robbed. You would think that that lapse in judgment would be corrected after a theft, right? No, we were robbed a second time, and still had no insurance!

Promises were made and broken, and many people were unhappy.

And, eventually they started leaving. I'll tell you about that next time. But while we were all there, we did some of our best work.

Here's how some of it came about.

Back to SPAC

Working for an old friend

I had written and produced radio and print advertising for the first season of the prestigious Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1968. And now, 8 years later, I was happy to be working again on the new ad campaign for the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Ballet, and the venue for some of the biggest and best popular music acts in America. (In 1975, Sinatra appeared there, and I made sure I had a great seat as close to the stage as I could afford.)

At Madison North, I found a common theme to capture the excitement of every kind of performance at SPAC – applause!

We made sure that the same wildly enthusiastic audience reaction was heard at the end of every commercial. And our print ads featured the stars of the classical music and ballet world in action, with headlines that expressed an attitude of “this is not to be missed,” combined with a wry little twist that would catch the eye and add a smile.

With a picture of Maestro Eugene Ormandy raising his baton, the headline read “More Great Music Than You Can Shake a Stick At.” And for a photo of beautiful principal dancers in mid-air, the headline was “Buy Leaps and Bounds.”

I struggled with an overall theme line, but it came, as the good ones usually do, after mulling the problem, then relaxing and waiting for inspiration.

The theme line that year was, “SPAC – the Center of Your Summer.”

It was a good campaign, and a good year for the Performing Arts Center.

Dancing Cookies.

My hometown becomes a TV star.

I wrote about our “Chocolate Chip Emergency” last time. Freihofer's, a bakery that started in my hometown of Troy, NY, when women started working in the collar and cuff factories and didn't have time to bake, was one of my favorite accounts at Madison North. The detachable collar idea was the brainstorm of a woman, Hannah Lord Montague, who tired of washing and ironing her husband's shirts just because the collars and cuffs were dirty. She started an industry, and put Troy and Arrow shirts on the map.

Freihofer's wanted to sponsor hour-long family specials on TV, and the agency sold them on the idea of not breaking the programs up with lots of little commercials, but to close up most of the commercial breaks, and just have one break in the middle, with one long-form video.

It was heaven to write and produce what amounted to mini-documentaries. One natural topic was the history of the company, using what has since become known as the “Ken Burns Effect” – archival photos from the history of Troy and the company, using appropriate music as the camera zoomed and panned the sepia-toned photos, and a smooth-voiced announcer related the story. The announcer choice was a natural – in the early, early days of TV broadcasting Freihofer's had created a fifteen-minute children's program with a bunny character, “Freddie Freihofer,” who was drawn by the station's artist, and appeared on camera as the host of the show. Several men had hosted, but the one who was still around and remembered most fondly was “Uncle Jim” Fisk. We brought him back as the on-camera host of the programs, and of course, the parents who had grown up watching him felt a close connection, and watched and listened to him with their kids.

I learned some interesting facts about the early days of the company. The Freihofer brothers who started the company were marketing geniuses – on their first day, they delivered a free loaf of bread to every home in Troy!

The company became noted for door-to-door delivery using horse-drawn wagons, a practice which continued into the 1950's. Where did those horses come from? I discovered that at their headquarters in the northern end of Troy, called Lansingburgh, Freihofer's actually imported wild horses from the west, and “broke” them right there. There were real cowboys in Troy, and they worked for the company that became famous for chocolate chip cookies!

Another fun long-form video involved the entire process of cookie-making. Thanks to the help of WTEN's late, great producer Gene Collins, also a Troy Native, we took a station cameraman to the bakery, filmed every stage of the making of their chocolate cookies, then edited it to a lively piece of music. An early music video, guaranteed to give you the munchies.

The only suggestion of mine that the company didn't accept was the talent of the TV specials. They chose a series of syndicated Julie Andrews shows. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted them to sponsor a contemporary music group, just because the headline would have been so much fun to see: “Freihofer's presents Bread!”

Setting Yourself Up For Success

You don't have to know the reason why you have to do something.

It wasn't easy convincing Richie Peterson, one of New York's best Audio Engineers and Consultants to be the spokesman for a Northeast chain of audio stores. But a lot of his friends and associates were counting on him.

I never get on that side of the mike or the camera,” Peterson told me early in my association with him. Which, of course, made him even more desirable as a commercial spokesman.

It took three of us, the head of the Schenectady agency, the agency's executive producer and myself to talk him into it. Richie would come up to the Albany area for a day, where we would photograph him at a local recording studio's mix board, film him and record his radio spots for Seiden Sound, whose slogan was, “People listen to us.”

Long before the multiple media recording session, I called Richie and asked him a few leading questions, such as, “If you were a recording engineer in the Northeast, what criteria would you use to choose an audio store for your home?”

As he came up with reasons, I took notes as fast as I could, then used his answers to create the print, radio and TV scripts. When he came to town and saw the copy, he suggested he take the credit for copywriting, too, because I used his words, his phrasing. Not only was it easier for me, it was intended to make it easy for him -- after all, they were his words.

But Peterson was very uncomfortable in front of the mike and camera, as he told us he would be. But he got through it all, and more than thirty years later, I still consider it one of the best campaigns I've ever been involved in. (Sony must have thought so, too -- a couple of years after the Seiden Sound/Peterson campaign ran, they used the same idea with different engineers for their audio component advertising.)

Our campaign ran for a few years, in all the Northeast markets Seiden Sound moved into. Then, as campaigns and electronics stores do, both faded into oblivion. But about five years after the spots ran, Rich Peterson was faced with another task he didn't relish: location recording for a TV spot. It was to be a corporate spot for an insurance company headquartered in Springfield, Massachusetts, involving all the employees gathered together in the entry of their office building, singing the company song.

A friend of Peterson's had hurt his leg and couldn't take the job, and since Rich owed him “a large,” he had to do it. Especially since everybody else who could handle the job was either busy or out of town. So Rich took the assignment.

Back then, audio for a film commercial -- especially the kinds where people have to sing -- required a particular kind of tape recorder so that the music can be synchronized with the singing. The recorders, usually the Nagra brand, contain a crystal that permits this kind of “sync sound,” and they were rare and expensive machines.

Richie recorded the employees singing outdoors, then set up his Nagra with the pre-recorded music in a corner of the insurance company's hallway, and waited while the crew lit the employees. There were so many of them that there just wasn't enough light. So they kept adding lights, and more lights, and more lights. The high powered lights didn't just generate light, though, they generated a lot of heat. So much heat that the sprinkler system was set off. Disaster!

As the dirty water poured down, everyone grabbed the expensive equipment they were responsible for and scurried out of the building. Richie managed to save the tape, but the Nagra was ruined. And there wasn't a back-up tape recorder that could do the job.

Peterson called all the electronics retailers and wholesalers in the area. No Nagras. He called the local TV stations and actually located the machine he needed. He talked to the sales manager at the station, explaining his plight, and asked to borrow it. The sales manager said it would be all right with him, but it was the brand new toy of his chief engineer, and that man, he was sure, would never let it out of his sight.

Richie asked to talk to him. He came on the line. Nothing would loosen his grip on that Nagra -- no amount of money, credit cards, nothing. Not one to give up without a fight, Peterson asked if he could just come to the station and talk, face to face.

Sure, come on over, but it would take a miracle to change my mind.”

Peterson made his way to the station. The chief engineer came out to the lobby. The instant he saw Peterson, he said, “You're the engineer.''

Yes,” Richie said, “I just called you and told you about the filming --'”

No, no, you're the engineer. The one in the commercial for Seiden Sound.''

Yeah, that's right -- you saw that spot?''

Saw it? We ran it. You want the Nagra -- you can have it, just bring it back when you're done.”

He went back to his office, brought out the precious machine and handed it over to Peterson without asking for a receipt, a deposit, anything. The power of that one commercial convinced the station engineer that Richie was something of a god.

That's when Richie figured out why fate had had him put up with the ordeal of being on camera years before. It was necessary for his work on this particular day, years later. Any other engineer, any other place on earth, and the job probably wouldn't have gotten done that day.

Next time: will I ever settle down?

No comments:

Post a Comment