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, December 26, 2010

Open With a Smile

Last time, I promised to tell you about teaching a course on advertising in Brooklyn. You can't always believe a copywriter, I guess.
I decided, in the spirit of the holidays, to offer a smile today, and one that actually relates to the continuity of this "memoir blog."
(Hope you got everything you wished for, and that your New Year's resolutions are attainable.)

Once I found comfort and confidence in just standing in front of a class and talking the students through my work, I learned to begin with a story I had heard somewhere, using it to loosen up the audience and show them that we were all going to have a good time.

The story is a fantasy about the day Einstein died. He goes straight to the pearly gates, where St. Peter, dressed in his finest robes, welcomes the genius.

He tells him how thrilled they all are to have Herr Professor among them, and that heaven has a glorious mansion for him to live in for eternity.

“Just one small problem,” St. Peter explains. “I wasn't told by You-Know-Who that we have more souls arriving than usual, and that we're asking people to share their space. So, if it's all right with you, we'd like to place three other people with you in your mansion.”

“Of course,” replies Einstein. “But I would like to meet them first, just to figure out in advance how we can relate.”

Being the genius that he is, he says he can ask just one question of each of the three, and know what they can discuss through the end of time.

St. Peter agrees, and they go off to meet Einstein's future roomies.

He's introduced to the first one, explains the situation, and asks just this one question: “What is your IQ?”

The answer is an impressive 145.

“Wunderbar!,” exclaims Einstein. “You can help me work on the unified theory – perhaps together we can finally solve that problem!”

St. Peter brings the great man to the second candidate, and this one's IQ is the average – 115.

“Good,” says Einstein – we can discuss the paradox of time travel and enjoy a good game of chess.”

The third roommate candidate turns out to be more of a challenge – with an extremely low IQ of only 65.

Einstein tries not to show his disappointment, as he searches for a subject that would engage a person with a sub-par intelligence.

After a few uncomfortable moments, his face lights up with that familiar smile of his, and he cheerfully announces, “Aha! We can talk advertising!”

It always gets a laugh, and gives me a chance to explain that my chosen profession is actually more complicated than you think, and I will be explaining why.

Next time: Teaching a college course.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Teaching & Learning

Charlie Brown would never grow up to be an ad man. He just didn't have conviction – probably the most important asset for anybody who wants to sell something to somebody else.

The reason I mention Charles Schulz's most famous creation, and probably alter ego, is one particular “Peanuts” strip that came to mind today.

In it, Charlie Brown is complaining that no one ever believes him, no matter what he says. Lucy, in her best “trust me I won't pull the football away at the last minute” mode, swears to him that he can say anything and she will believe him. “Anything?”, he asks doubtfully. She says she will believe the most unbelievable, fanciful and ridiculous thing he can say. He thinks. He bites.

“The world is made of snow.”

Lucy screams at the top of her lungs, “You're out of your mind, Charlie Brown!” (It's the title of an old book of Peanuts strips, and you can still buy it online.)

I have conviction. Maybe not enough to convince Lucy of the fanciful composition of the world, but so much that I get excited about whatever product or service I'm hired to advertise. Where does the word “advertise” come from, anyway? Latin: advertere "turn toward," from ad- "toward" and vertere "to turn."

That's what I do – turn toward the subject, wholeheartedly, and try to get you to turn your attention and your inclination toward it.

And I get to know what I'm selling. If it's a restaurant, I work there. A wine, I drink it. An airline, I fly it. And, I get excited about it. And convinced that it's the best thing since the last thing I worked on.

My dear, departed wife, Eileen, who worked in retail, had that kind of attitude. In her case, she was so convinced of the merits of whatever she was selling, that customers always assumed she was the owner of the store.

Conviction is the secret of successful selling.

When I finally got to Madison Avenue, after 20 years of experience one hundred and fifty miles north of it, I was invited to share what I'd learned. First to invite me was Deborah, a beautiful woman (of course) who taught business and communication at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

She asked me to travel back upstate from Manhattan to the tony school of mostly upper class young women for one lecture per semester. The school would pay my transportation, put me up in their guest house and she would take me out to dinner at one of Saratoga's fine restaurants.

I said yes, of course, mostly to have the chance to sit and look at her over dinner for an hour or two, and immediately got very nervous about what I would present to her class. I actually scripted what I would say, rehearsed it, and thought that would be that. It wasn't.

I stumbled through the dry and lifeless prepared text in about 20 minutes, flop sweat running so freely that the front row should have had the same warning as Seaworld's splash zone.

Deborah saved me, by asking questions about things I could answer with conviction, and I came through it well enough that I was asked back the following semester.

From then on, I just brought my portfolio of work with me, wherever I went – The Center for Media Arts, State University of New York and St. Rose College in Albany – and just talked about how each ad or campaign came about, the thinking behind it and the processes involved it bringing it all to life. It was fun for me, and it gave the students an insight into the real world of a real Mad Man.

That worked for me until I had to actually teach an entire course on advertising together with an Account Executive at St. Francis College. For that, we needed a plan.

Next time: Hitting the heights in Brooklyn.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

California Weather

Before I begin today's history lesson, some contemporary comments.

First, I notice that the New York Times has printed a correction about the price of squid-ink tagliarini at the Tarry Market in Port Chester, N.Y. I quote: "It is $5.49 a pound, not $29.99 a pound." I'm sure you're relieved to know that.

Next, I would like to direct you to two other blogs, both of which have much to do with my hometown of Troy, NY, and which mention the Saturday Farmers' Market there: Christina's foodie blog, and David's blog about Sage in Troy.

Now, on to today's "Mad Man" topic.

MacArthur Park Wasn't Melting in the Rain That Day.

Let me begin with a couple of very important lessons, learned early in my career as a Mad Ave copywriter: One: if you write on-camera dialogue, you get to go to the shoot. If you write voice-over copy, you get to go as far as the local recording studio. I learned to write dialogue.

Two: if you write outdoor commercials that have to be produced in the winter, you will shoot them in warm locations.

Here's how fate can play tricks, even when you follow those rules. We had one day to shoot three on-location commercials in Los Angeles. It was a day in March.

Everybody knows why the film industry settled and prospered in southern California -- the weather. So we didn't worry.

Across the street from MacArthur Park is a fabulous old building, now the Park Plaza Hotel, built originally as an Elks Club. It's a favorite location of filmdom, and in fact, the day we were shooting in front of the building, because it could look like a bank, two other companies were shooting there -- Steven Seagal's crew was setting up a drug lord's lair in the building's indoor swimming pool on the lower level, and up on the roof Robert Stack was filming an intro to a segment of Unsolved Mysteries. And you've seen the staircase to the mezzanine level in countless movies and TV shows.

For the main commercial we were to shoot that day, I had written a “one take” commercial, which is a spot that requires an actor to do the entire spot without a cut -- always a difficult task, but, when it works, very effective. The commercial, conceived by my art director, was ostensibly a stand-up -- an announcer talking to the camera. But this one had a twist -- what he was promoting was a giveaway promotion at Krystal, a chain of hamburger restaurants -- sort of the White Castle of the South.

The copy went something like this: “peel off the tab from the soft drink cup and you could win up to five thousand dollars.”

As the spokesman walked from the guarded armored car in front of the “bank,” he held up the winning tab, then announced that if you found a “double the prize” tab, you'd win ten thousand dollars. This makes his eyes light up, as he realizes he has the actual winning tab in his hand, and he starts running away, with the armed guard chasing him, and the spot dissolves into chaos and the product shot.

The problem was, it was a lot of copy and a lot of precise movement, and it was cold. Not just morning mist cold, but exactly like this very mid-December morning in the suburbs of Albany, New York – cold enough that if it rained, the water would freeze before it hit. And it did rain.

Here we were, agency people and production company from New York, in summery clothes, shivering with cups of coffee in our hands. We shot the commercial, in between downbursts of ice, and ended up with just one good take, which we used. The other spots we shot that day were shot in other parts of MacArthur Park, and were all MOS (an old movie term that means silent, but allegedly comes from the mouth of a German Director who abbreviated his own term, Mit Out Sprechen, and it stuck), so we got them out of the way quickly and headed back to our hotel bar for warmth. One of our beautiful models cavorting in one of the spots was one of the two gorgeous daughters of Tommy Chong, either Robbi or Rae Dawn, and I wish I could remember which one.

Another footnote to the day and place -- MacArthur Park was the hangout of a lot of homeless people in the eighties (it might still be), and the catering that was provided for cast and crew, as usual, was much more than any such group of people could eat in a day.

It didn't go to waste -- we provided a veritable feast for the homeless of the area that day, giving them every edible morsel that was left -- and it was a lot.

Next time: Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Go West?

Seven years in Manhattan, surviving advertising's merger mania, and you'd be worn out, too. I needed a change of everything. Rich Capparela, the friend I drove west with, had made a name for himself in LA radio.

He was hosting an advertising awards show around the time I was involved in a commercial shoot out there, so I stretched my time in LA -- on my own dime -- and went. I had an idea that if I saw the kind of creative at the show that I would like to do, I might try to work at the shop that created it.

I did see some very well crafted, long copy ads for the Times Mirror. Thinking it was an LA agency, I wrote a note complementing the campaign, and received a letter back from the head of an agency in San Francisco. He was running a boutique shop inside a bigger shop, and was looking for someone to share the load.


The man in charge wanted to fly me and my girl friend at the time, Wendy (a pretty, voluptuous research maven who worked at the Wall Street Journal) out for a series of interviews. This was flattering. I asked my friend Mary Van about this mucky-muck. (Mary is the one who had moved to New York on my advice, who later found for me my first real New York job at a real agency, and who was now in San Francisco with her British computer whiz husband and running a nice little ad consulting business of her own.)

She told me in very certain terms not to consider it. She said he was extremely difficult to work with, and had a bad reputation among creatives in the Bay Area. But he was willing to pay for two of us to come out for a long weekend, for a series of interviews. And, I thought, if this is my job, I can make it work. And if it's not, it's a free vacation for us.

Well, it wasn't my job, and it was no vacation. I knew that as soon as I realized what was going on. The mucky-muck, who was married, was having a relationship with his Italian-American Account Executive. The small group that worked for him were like his children. He was the bad daddy, taking up with the hussy.

In separate meetings, I realized what a dysfunctional family this really was. Wendy and I met with the mucky muck and his hussy for dinner. His snobbery was only exceeded by his petulance.

Wendy and I met with the art director and his wife at a beautiful waterside restaurant in Marin County. The AD was miserable, wanted to stay on his farm and never leave. I told him he should.

I met with the mucky-muck's mentor in the office. He took advantage of my nervousness, and put me through hell.

I met with the group for an input session, and then was ordered to go away and create an ad on my own. Advertising agencies don't work that way -- it's a cooperative effort, everybody adding something to the mix until the final outcome is greater than the sum of the parts. I did my best, which was pretty good, considering the pressure.

The final meeting was with everyone except the mucky-muck, at a lunch. It was like facing a firing squad, except over a nice, trendy, California meal. They all had rehearsed their questions, and fired them at me -- fortunately, one at a time instead of in a single, deafening, mortal volley.

By now, as much as I wanted to leave New York and be anywhere else, I knew this was exactly the wrong job for me. So about halfway through their questions, I formulated one sublime question of my own, and waited to ask it.

When their ammunition finally ran out, I asked them each to respond.

“What will the person in this job do?”

Each one responded just as you might expect – the prospect would solve all their problems, have the all answers, insulate them from nasty clients, speak for them, listen to them, advise them. Their cumulative picture of this person became crystal clear to me. And even if there had remained a slim chance of my getting the job, I willingly threw that away with my response.

“Well, the last person who answered that description was,” I said, carefully pausing for effect, “crucified.”

The meeting ended with embarrassed niceties, Wendy and I flew back to New York and the declination call came about two weeks later.

Next time: location, location, etc.