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, July 11, 2010

Year of Surprises

When I took the job with Governor Carey's New York State Commission on the Year of the Child, I assumed that the commission's headquarters would be in Albany, near the Governor's office in the Capitol. My first surprise was that the main office of would be in Manhattan, and in one of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in the city – the Helmsley Building, formerly the NY Central building. Sevan called it “the wedding cake building.”

That was another surprise: Sevan was back in my life, now that I had a job, and one that sounded important. And I would be making regular trips to Manhattan – to an office in a standout building. You see it in all those great photos and movie shots looking south on Park Avenue from the 50's and above – it's the one in front of the MetLife, formerly PanAm, Building. There are only three buildings that sit literally on Park Avenue – the third one is Grand Central Terminal.

The International Year of the Child was a United Nations project, and they had their logo. New York State was known for its logo/slogan, I NY. We hired a friend of mine, Tom Swimm, who at the time was an Art Director from upstate New York, to combine the two into a logo that said “NY ♥ ME,” which we put onto buttons, balloons, banners, posters – anything we could get sponsors to pay for. Tom also designed some big felt banners to use as backdrops for publicity shots.

I lived in the Albany area, so the commission gave me an office there, too – in the Empire State Plaza, across from the Capitol. Other perquisites included free vouchers for rail travel between Albany and New York City, and a prime parking space under the Plaza.

Because he didn't have a wife at the time, Governor Carey appointed his Attorney General's wife to chair the commission – so I found myself in meetings with NY's future First Lady Matilda Raffa Cuomo, and shepherding her through whatever interviews we could get from the media.

It was a fascinating way to get reacquainted with New York City, and I managed to write and produce a few very nice radio and TV public service announcements, which played throughout the state.

But just before I took the state job, I had one pending free lance TV project which I was really proud of, and I wanted to get it approved and produced before New York demanded all my time.

And the obstacle to accomplishing that was my next big surprise. Here's the story.

Don't Take No For An Answer.

Take It For An Opportunity.

In the late seventies, a woman with the unique name of Zenie Gladieux was the marketing director for the charming little Schenectady Museum, and her job was to try to increase attendance. She came to me with a request for a creative public service ad campaign -- radio and television.

Public service spots are easy to do, but hard to get placed. TV and radio stations have just so much time unsold that they can devote to local Public Service Announcements (PSA's). They like to run the slick, national spots, like the old “This (egg) is your brain. This (frying egg) is your brain on drugs,'” because the production values make the stations look and sound better.

That was my pitch to Zenie. The Schenectady Museum campaign had to stand out -- it had to be well-produced, but it had to be more -- it had to grab attention and make people want to see it. The more it did that, the more air time public service directors would give it.

I created a teaser campaign that would feature people looking at a display (an empty box in which was the video camera) and being intrigued by what was “on exhibition”. As we panned across the line of people, each person would express some strong emotion about what they were “seeing.”

The TV audience would just see each person staring through the box at them, and the viewer would have to imagine what was on display. Luckily, there was a new professional theater group trying to establish itself in the area, and they agreed to participate on camera for the free exposure.

And one of the great voices of commercial and Public Broadcasting fame, Peter Thomas, agreed to record the voice-over tag for the spots. It was a line that was intended to get attention, sounding shocking but, when coming at the end of the spot, was the just right punch line that would help make the spots even more memorable. The end line was (and I don't think we could get away with it in the twenty-first century as we did in the twentieth): “The Schenectady Museum. We're Exhibitionists.”

Zenie and her staff loved the campaign. But it had to be sold to the Chairman of the Board of Directors, a local bigwig who had a upstanding reputation in the community.

The time and date were set for me to present the campaign to him. But, they all showed up early, and instead of waiting for me to sell the campaign -- explaining it pretty much as I just did to you -- someone, thinking they were doing me a favor, gave away the ending.

When I walked into the meeting room and sat down, the bigwig looked at me and said, “No.''

Excuse me?''

No. The Schenectady Museum will not be a part of anything that makes light of exhibitionism. Not on my watch.”

I've actually learned to love it when somebody says no. It gives me the adrenaline to come up with every reason I can think of why no is exactly the wrong answer. This experience was one of the best lessons in how to do that.

I asked if he would be so kind as to listen to my presentation. He was kind enough to say yes to that, but made it clear that nothing would change his mind. I made my pitch. He thought it was creative, but his answer was still NO. I knew that his term as Chairman of the Board would be up in a year or so, so I offered a proposition. (I wanted to get paid for this work, and I wanted this spot on my reel.)

I proposed that we go ahead and produce the spot, since it wasn't going to cost that much more than they were already indebted to me for the time spent, and if he still didn't like it, keep it in the can, and let the next Chairman of the Board decide whether to use it or not.

He agreed to this, and we went ahead and produced it. It came out every bit as good as I had hoped.

Now came the real moment of truth -- presenting the campaign to the board of directors. We ran the sixty second version, the thirty, the twenty, the ten. (All we had to do was tape one long version, and then cut it up to fit each length.) Everybody loved it. There was nothing prurient or suggestive about it. (In fact, Peter Thomas is such a sweet, innocent man, that he didn't even know what an exhibitionist was!)

You could see that the Chairman wanted to be associated with it, but he had already pretty much vowed that the campaign would not be seen during his tenure. He needed a way to save face.

He said, “Well, that's different from the way you described it. You said the exhibitionist line would come first, and here it's the last thing.”

Everybody looked at me. They all knew I never described the campaign the way he just said. They were all wondering: “Will he win the battle and lose the war?”

I let him save his face. I said that once we had videotaped it and were putting the spot together, we realized that it would be better to “revise” our thinking and put the end line at the end.

He had his dignity, Zenie had her campaign, and I had a great PSA for my reel. The local stations loved the spots, and ran them as often as they could. The campaign did its job -- created a buzz, and increased museum attendance.

Next: Party time!

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