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, November 28, 2010

Loser #3

My father, who came of age in the Great Depression, had a favorite phrase he would use whenever someone bugged him. He'd say, “Get a job!” – with obvious disgust in his voice. To a man who experienced unemployment two or three hundred times worse than today's, and its resulting breadlines, the most insecure thing for a man back then was to not have a job.

Being a pre-war baby – World War II, that is – I rarely, if ever, had a problem finding a job during my employment years. According to Malcom Gladwell's “Outliers,” that's partly because I was born “in a trough” – the opposite of the post-war baby boom, so that when it came time for my generation to go to work, there wasn't as much competition. But when I did go to work, first in radio and then in advertising agencies, I worked. And that, according to Gladwell, is equally important – do the work. Gladwell makes the point succinctly in this brief clip with Charlie Rose, about Derrick Coleman.

Well, I discovered that not everybody in my field did an honest day's work. So, over time, my phrase of disgust, different from my father's, became “Do your job!”

I firmly believe that if you do your job, you will win. And the converse is true, too. Today, I want to tell you about the biggest loser I ever met. He lost an entire ad agency, because he didn't do his job.

Going, Going, Gone.

The end came for USAdvertising about six months down the road. Clients don't like to be told they have to switch agencies -- especially when they've been with one agency for a lifetime, as in the case of Quaker State. Fifty-three years at one agency, and then they're shunted off to the side? It couldn't have lasted, and it didn't.

Air France was at K&E because of a relationship with K&E people, and they were no longer in charge. American Airlines was a much bigger account, so Air France was forced to move. They began a search for another agency almost immediately.

But we were a full service agency; we could have gotten other accounts. In fact, we were offered one. I didn't learn about this until after USAdvertising, or the remnants of it, were folded into Poppe-Tyson, another agency that was cut loose because of merger mania.

Here's how USAdvertising's General Manager drove us out business. Believe it or not, our patron agency, Bozell, handed us a prestige automotive account that was a conflict with its largest account. All we had to do was take on additional personnel -- a creative director and a account supervisor. We could have replaced our blabbermouth account supervisor with no problem.

But our General Manager didn't want to “put his creative director's nose out of joint.” (She was the one who had to have matching trees!) His other excuse was that he was going to get the new Hyundai account. That was totally unrealistic, because the Hyundai account was already assigned. He had no chance chasing that car.

Remember, the very purpose of our agency was to take accounts that conflicted with Bozell's, and he said no! Even after all these years, it hurts to write the next sentence.

The account he turned down was Jaguar.

I have to spit this out in one sentence: he turned down one of the most prestigious accounts, which probably would have led to other prestige accounts, which would have made USAdvertising a premium agency with a great reputation and we all could have worked there as long as we wanted and made a lot of money and it was gone in that one refusal.

Gone? First the General Manager was gone. Replaced by a company man from Bozell. But USAdvertising couldn't be saved. Then thirty people were let go in one day. They brought in an exit interviewer, and we all waited our turn. Ten of us were spared, just to keep the agency on the books for what turned out to be a mini-merger.

By the time the Poppe-Tyson deal came through, there were just four of us left: myself, an art director, an office manager and a secretary, and we were forced on the new agency. The welcome wasn't gracious, but we were there for a purpose, and we fulfilled our purpose.

Next time: Go West?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Loser #2

All Creative Directors Are Not Created Equal.

The ad agency that was created to handle overflow accounts of the newly-merged Bozell Jacobs Kenyon & Eckhardt was on the fifth floor of a bank office building on Fifth Avenue.

Her office was bizarre, to say the least. Of course it was a corner office. Creative Directors in New York get corner offices. But it didn't have a desk. It had a white, marble top table, surrounded by red chairs. It had one tall red chair, hers, and a tall easel, laid almost flat to hold her portable typewriter.

On one wall was a huge blowup of a few lines from a wonderful Tom Stoppard play, The Real Thing, about crafting words to present ideas that soar, like building cricket bats so well that without much effort, they make the ball really fly.

What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might . . . travel .. .

Everything in the room, including what she wore every day, was either white or black or red. Except for the two living ficus trees. Despite the fact that they were serviced regularly, one or both would die regularly.

We figured it had something to do with her vibrations, which weren't exactly steady, as this incident will demonstrate.

She liked copy to be presented to her aurally, by the copywriter. As far as I could tell, the presentation I was about to make wasn't any different than any that had gone before. In fact, I was proud of the copy. I had worked on it, crafted it and otherwise fine tuned it until it really flowed smoothly and effortlessly. It's a style I've cultivated, which I call “simulated conversation.”

I settled in to one of the chairs at her table, but turned it to face her as she sat in her high chair. The ficus trees were behind me. I wasn't a third of the way through reading my copy to her, when she picked up her phone without warning, punched two numbers and screamed to our office manager who was on the other end of the line, and only about three offices away. The intercom wasn't really necessary; all 40 employees heard her shout, “Peggy, I can't work like this!”

There was a pause while Peggy said a few words, trying simultaneously to calm the situation and find out what the problem was. Because I was in closest proximity to her and her portable typewriter, I held my breath.

I didn't know what else she was going to say or do. I was sure I had bathed that morning. Had I misunderstood the advertising strategy so much that she hated the copy and the copywriter? Was my fly open? How had my presence or my copy or both offended her so much that she had to call and tell the office manager? Turns out it wasn't me, or anything I said or wrote.

She finally revealed the problem. “These trees are not even!,” she cried.

That was it. The company that was responsible for the trees had replaced them with two that were not the same height. I don't remember if I finished reading the copy to her then and there. But I do remember going out for a drink directly from work that night.

For this, and other reasons which I'll chronicle next time, the ad agency lasted six months.

Next time: The Champion Loser

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Loser #1

These days, the news often carries a warning story about what people post on social media sites. Right now, there's a case of someone being fired for complaining about their boss.

It reminds me of an incident like that, back in the 1980's – when “social media” simply meant blabbing in public.

I believe it happened at the Oak Room Bar at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, the same place where Cary Grant, playing an ad executive, began his (mis)adventure in Hitchcock's “North By Northwest.”

Of course, it could have been any upscale watering hole. Here's what I remember.

If you don't have something good to say about someone, just shut up.

It's a lesson you learn early in the advertising business – don't name names in public. Whether you're talking about the place you work, the clients you have, the clients you lost or the clients you're pitching:

Don't. Name. Names.

It's a lesson you're supposed to learn early. But somebody didn't. Somebody with an MBA from the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Somebody who, I think, cut class.

There we were -- forty people who had survived the downsizing caused by merger mania in the advertising business. Kenyon & Eckhardt and Bozell, Jacobs, two fairly big agencies had just merged, and each had an airline, a restaurant and a motor oil account.

Chuck Peebler, who passed away in 2009, was the man from Bozell, and he had the upper hand in this merger, which meant that K&E's conflicting accounts had to go. Instead of setting them free, the combined management came up with a plan to keep the accounts in the fold by creating a brand new agency, and staffing it entirely with people who otherwise would have been out on the street. That's how USAdvertising was born: Forty people plucked out of K&E and plunked down in new offices, on 5th Avenue in the heart of Manhattan.

It would be our job to take those conflict accounts, and any others that Bozell couldn't handle. It was exciting to be part of something new. But excitement isn't always something to be desired.

The first week we were in business, we had a visit from one of the major officers of the merged company. He didn't look happy as he led all the titled people of USAdvertising into a private office. He told us a dark tale of an amazing, and almost disastrous incident that had occurred the night before.

Someone from USAdvertising -- someone in the very room we were sitting in -- had been having a conversation in the Oak Room Bar.

The culprit was talking about Chuck Peebler, and the things he was saying were far from nice. He accused Peebler of deceit and trickery.

This was the man whose approval was needed to save our jobs. Our man called him an asshole, among other, worse things. When the tirade finally wound down, our man felt a tap on his shoulder. The man sitting at the next table, right behind him, said to him, “Would you like to meet the asshole you've been talking about? I'm Chuck Peebler.”

That's the only part of the story we were told. Then we were warned never, never to talk in public about the agency, the clients, anything that related to our business, or the consequences would be disastrous. We all knew what that meant. Everyone soon learned just who had been mouthing off in that bar that night -- one of our Account Supervisors. To my amazement, he wasn't fired.

Not that day, anyway. If he had been replaced then, we might have survived longer. But it was that kind of flawed decision-making that doomed USAdvertising from the start. As you'll see in the next couple of weeks.

Next time: Loser #2

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Moving Fast

One of K&E's big introductions was a line of wine coolers, back when Gallo's “Bartles & Jaymes” became the big fad in light alcoholic beverages in the eighties.

We couldn't compete with the commercials that the great Hal Riney created for Ernest & Julio Gallo in 1984– two “hicky” men they might be called today – acting the part of small winery owners and who became faux folk heroes and were even parodied on Saturday Night Live and by Conan O'Brien.

I think the public knew it was a phony act for the giant of the wine industry, but it was so well done that nobody cared. Their corny tag line, “thank you for your support” caught on in a big way.

Seagram's, seeing this new category as a way to make even more money, came to us for the whole intro package – name, design, packaging, ad campaign.

The first thing they did was to give everybody in the ad agency a list of names that Seagram's owned – names like Sunshine, Splash, Whoosh, whatever – and asked everybody to pick their favorite to go with the product.

Most people did what they were told. Not me.

I wrote a memo which said that none of the names on the list were good enough. Not when the company had a name that was already extended to “mixers” – ginger ale, tonic, seltzer, etc.

So, I was the one who saw the obvious and dared to state it – that the wine coolers be considered another “line extension” and carry the company name.

That's how I came to be the one who named Seagram's Wine Coolers as “Seagram's Wine Coolers.”

And yes – some of us are actually paid for thinking like this. A great and strange art director I worked with used to call it “Grovelling before the altar of commerce.” And that's why I volunteer these days to use these skills to try to “sell” something more beneficial to the general public, such as the New York State Theatre Institute.

Seagram's management didn't have as much sense when it came to the ad campaign for their new wine coolers, though. Seems somebody at the top was starry-eyed enough to actually pay Bruce Willis to sing for the brand, back when he had hair. What a disaster.

They came running back to us after that flop and we started a new internal competition – to come up with a positioning line for the new brand to kind of re-introduce it, still with Mr. Willis, but no longer singing. I guess they had to get their money's worth.

The new theme line was needed yesterday. From my early days of training in Albany radio and ad agencies, I knew how to write fast and good.

I churned out a few choice phrases and submitted them. They were all tested overnight, and one of mine came out on top. In a matter of days, “Taste it all!” was everywhere – on buttons, ads, radio, TV, store displays.

And soon after that, a sales rep that serviced a lot of the big agencies came into my office and told me that I was responsible for a lot of angst at McCann-Erickson, Coca-Cola Company's main ad agency. Seems they had been testing the same line for Coke for a long time as their next big international campaign theme, and of course, had to drop it, although, according to Wikipedia, Diet Coke finally carried that theme in the US in 1993. Some things just won't go away.

So, the takeaway is simply that you win some and you lose some.

Next time: Some losers.