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 25, 2010

Is This For Real?

“Come right over to the Pan Am Building, Frank! We've got a new account, and we need a writer with your kind of experience,” Mary Van said.

Five years earlier, I had advised Mary to leave the Schenectady ad agency where we worked together, to take a job as Account Supervisor in New York. Now, she was working on new business at Kenyon & Eckhardt, and she had brought in a national travel agency franchise that was just in the planning stages.

That meant they needed a copywriter with retail experience -- someone who could write fast and write well, for retail advertisers -- not the usual kind of portfolio that gets you a job at a major ad agency with headquarters in New York. She knew I was right for it, and could get a great campaign up and running in a hurry.

I had my portfolio with me at the Helmsley Building next door, because I was putting it together in preparation for the demeaning task of begging for work.

But I didn't have to beg. Mary had pre-sold them on me. And it's a good thing, too. Because it was a fast-moving, frenetic agency I walked into with my portfolio at 3 PM on that Friday afternoon.

John, the wild-eyed Associate Creative Director met me at the front desk, hurried me into his 18th floor office (with a spectacular view looking right over the top of Grand Central at the Empire State Building), and asked me to wait for him there. He had something urgent to discuss in the print production department.

As I sat there, I noticed two ad proofs for the Savings Bank Association, and with nothing better to do, I read them and critiqued them for myself. Fifteen minutes later, he was back. He told me that the agency had just gotten a new account, an association of travel agencies, and that Mary assured him I was the right person for the account.

As I opened my book, he asked what I thought of the two ads he had left on his desk. This is where attitude came in handy. I didn't have time to worry about this interview, plan it out – hell, I didn't even think this was real. I looked at it as a kind of rehearsal for job hunting, so I was completely candid, and told him what I thought.

“This ad is fine,” I said, and told him why. “The other ad is okay, but it would have a positive, double meaning with just a comma added right here in the headline.”

He jumped up.

“You're right! I woke up thinking about that last night! Let me go see if I can change it before it goes out.”
And away he went again, pleading with me not to disappear. When he came back, he said it was too late to change the ad, but, as he paged quickly through my portfolio, he said he was hiring me. “Actually, my boss does the hiring, but it's just a formality. Let me go see if he's available.”

His boss, the creative director, was busy, but he had obviously gotten the word that the right candidate was there. They just didn't want me to get away.

At about 4:30 I was brought into the creative director's office, with an even more spectacular view than the previous one. He was a tough-looking, gruff little man, of Italian descent, named Bob Fiore. (He later went on to have his name on the door of another agency.)

He said that Mary had told him I was working for Governor Carey.

“Do you know the governor?,” he asked.

“No. Never met him, he doesn't show up at our meetings or our functions.” '

“I know him.”

Was he testing the honesty of a copywriter?

“Well, they tell me you're what we're looking for. Let me see your book.”

He looked. He asked for a resume. To my surprise, I didn't have one in the portfolio. I explained that I hadn't had time to put a new one together, and had thrown out my outdated resumes. “Well, you can have the job. It pays $35,000 a year. But you have to be here in two weeks, and you have to bring a resume.”

''Thirty-five? Is that all? I can make that free-lancing.” It was a substantial amount back then, and a hell of a lot more than I was making.

I was bluffing, trying to see if there was more money in his budget. I had done one free lance job in the last year and a half, and made a couple of hundred dollars. I guess I still didn't believe this was real. “That's all I have for this job. But if you work out, I'll take care of you.”

I believed him. We shook hands. I had the job. I went back to the office of the Year of the Child Commission, where Fran and Nancy, my two co-workers were waiting for news. I told them I had the job, and that weekend, wrote my letter of resignation, updated my resume, and made plans to find my own Manhattan apartment.

But when I showed up for work two weeks later, something important was missing.

Next time: The client that wasn't there.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Party Time

You wouldn't think that something as universal as a year to celebrate children and to insure that the weakest members of the human race should be loved, protected and nurtured would be reviled by anyone, but it was.

There was a very vocal minority that feared that the plan was that children would be able to divorce their parents, and other nonsensical fears about a United Nations' hidden agenda for the International Year of the Child. I'm afraid the same lunatic fringe is still active 31 years later, although I'm not naming names.

That kind of insanity kept commissions all over the country from getting the support we really needed to make important social changes.

What we could do was celebrate childhood, and we did. With the help of Governor Hugh Carey's office, virtually every New York state and city agency and the city's parks department, we threw a huge party in lower Manhattan, at Battery Park, in mid-September of 1979 – “The Great New York State Children's Party.”

Posters, designed one of my soon-to-be ex-stepsons, appeared all over the city. All of New York's newspapers, radio and TV stations were alerted, and we had some great publicity. The weather was perfect, thousands of families showed up and the day was a success.

We put together one more event, celebrating families, in early December in the concourse under the Empire State Plaza in Albany, once again with the cooperation of many state agencies, who donated time and talent. We featured family counselors, family movies and family events.

Since we started late in 1979, the commission lasted into early 1980, but the only work left to do was prepare a report and wind down. Not being politically savvy, I felt uncomfortable writing that report, so it was farmed out to a writer who knew the proper legislative language. Personally, there wasn't much for the three employees of the commission to do except to start thinking about our next jobs.

With a sort of a Mr. Micawber attitude of “something will turn up,” I decided to take an earned vacation, and on the spur of the moment I accompanied my friend, Rich Capparela, as he drove across the country in his tiny Honda Civic, making his professional leap from announcing on Schenectady's classical music radio station to the same position in a major market – Los Angeles. The plan was to drive out together, and for me to fly back.

We saw a lot of the country, shared the driving and a lot of laughs, and became good friends. We noted a lot of strange place names, experienced some unusual incidents, ate well and stayed in some beautiful hotels. I'll probably write about that trip someday, but for now, its purpose was to ease my mind and prepare me for whatever the future would hold in 1980. And, as John Lennon sang back then in “Beautiful Boy,” “life is just what happens to you while you're making other plans.”

And when I got back, life happened in a way I could never have planned, even though I had inadvertently set it up years earlier. Sitting in my office in the Helmsley Building early one afternoon, starting to put my portfolio together in preparation for looking for work, I got a call from my friend Mary Van, who was now an Account Supervisor at Kenyon & Eckhardt – a big, international agency with headquarters right next door, in the Pan Am Building.

She told me to come over right away. There was a job with my name on it.

Next time: Fate takes a hand.

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!

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Another marriage on the rocks, another job that went sour. Just when I thought nobody loved me, New York State proved me wrong.

Here was the situation: Once my steady but unsatisfying employment qualified us to get a mortgage and move into a beautiful old house in the proper school district for her sons, my new wife told me she didn't want to be married anymore. As if we really had been!

I thought of myself, if I thought at all, as a lamb led willingly to the slaughter. I should have known something was wrong, when, out of all the big, spacious rooms in the house, she chose the smallest cubicle for our bedroom. She obviously considered the conjugal bed the least important aspect of her new life.

So, reluctantly, I moved into a small, no-lease-required studio apartment in Schenectady and tried to figure out what to do next.

My soon-to-be ex got a job offer she didn't want, and suggested me for it. It was a one-year-only job with a new New York State Commission on the International Year of The Child. I interviewed and, to my surprise, was hired!

I gladly gave my notice at Communication and Design, letting the head of the agency think that I had more influence with the state than I actually did, leading him to believe he wouldn't get any more lucrative state jobs, which were some of the most profitable pieces of business ad agencies could have back in 1979.

There are many stories to tell about that year, but today I'll share just one.

Explaining The Year Of The Child To A Child

When you listen, be sure you can hear.

He would be in his mid-thirties now, and I don't remember his name, but the day I tried to explain The Year of the Child to him has stayed with me for thirty-one years.

Back then, in 1979, I had just begun a new job that would last for just one year. I left the business world to be the Communications Director for the New York State Governor's Commission on the International Year of the Child.

It sounds impressive, but as government commissions go, it was pretty small potatoes. Not a lot of money to do anything, except pay for a staff of three: a commissioner, an administrative assistant, and me. Our time would be spent begging – for corporate gifts, for underwriting of our activities, for free newspaper space and air time for public service messages that I would write and produce.

I was given an office in Albany's impressive Empire State Plaza, built during Nelson A. Rockefeller's tenure as governor. It's a complex of seven massive buildings, connected by an underground concourse that features a permanent exhibit of some of the finest examples of modern art and sculpture.

State agencies that occupy the buildings above also use the long, marble-lined concourse for weatherproof exhibits and fairs, promoting their services to the public. As I was strolling through one of these, trying to familiarize myself with the workings of New York State agencies, I met some friends of friends – New York State employees – who were setting up a booth.

They had their young son with them. He was about four or five, and he needed attention that they just couldn't supply at the moment. I asked them if it would be all right to take him for a walk down the concourse and back, giving them a break and giving me a chance to do some research with one of the people I'd be representing for the year.

They were more than pleased, and he wasn't shy, so with his parents approval, we took our stroll. He was interested in the activities around us, and thoughtfully considered what I was telling him. I explained to him what my new job was about.

I'll be talking to a lot of people about children like you and your friends -- all the children in all the cities in the state. And I want to tell them what you think is important to you.”

He said he understood, and I could see in his large eyes that he was thinking seriously. As we sat down on a bench at the far end of the concourse, I asked him directly, “So, what's the most important thing you'd like me to tell all those people about children?”

He sat quietly for about the length of a commercial. Then, he said just three words, and the simplicity and directness of his message surprised me. I complimented him, and thanked him profusely. But somehow, I knew I wouldn't – or couldn't – use his advice. It seemed too, well... childlike.

As we walked back to rejoin his parents, he obviously considered me a new friend, because he invited me to his family's lakeside camp, in precisely the way a child would ask a contemporary. He said I should ask my mother if I could go.

That was my opportunity to repay the advice he had given to me. I said, “I'm going to tell you something important, too. When you get older, you don't have to ask.”

His eyes grew even larger, and as we approached his parents, he ran to them, proclaiming his new discovery – “When I grow up, I won't have to ask!”

They smiled and confirmed that what I told him was true. And when they learned what he told me, they said it was too bad I couldn't use what he said in a public service ad campaign. And I agreed.

During that year I wrote clever theme lines, had beautiful logos and banners created, produced TV spots that said “New York ♥ Children” and helped organize events for children and their parents in Battery Park and in that very same concourse in Albany.

But I have always regretted that I didn't re-create the moment with that serious, thoughtful and insightful little boy, and put his advice on radio and TV stations and in newspapers throughout the state.

His simple, straight from the heart message might have made a difference for many children. Because he understood the purpose of The Year Of The Child better than I did.

And he got it down to just three words: “Don't hurt us.”

Next time: I'm back!