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, 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.