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, September 26, 2010

Writing Good

As long as I can remember, I've been collecting and writing grammar rules that break themselves. It started with a print production manager named Bert who told me, “The passive voice is to be avoided.”

I saw its potential, and the list kept growing. In the mid 1980's, when I was working in New York ad agencies, I decided to send my list, which I facetiously called “How to Write Good, ” to Writer's Digest. They bought it, and published it in the issue pictured here.

After it was published, the magazine received a request from an instructor at the Dallas Theological Seminary, asking permission to use it in his class. They forwarded the request to me, and I wrote back, saying he could use it as long as I received credit.

I since discovered that somehow, that list -- usually with my name attached -- made it to the internet, and it s been circulating ever since. It has even earned top billing (over William Safire, no less) on a United States government website that gives examples of humor in writing. Some people add to it, some remove my name and replace it with theirs, but this is how it started. Here is the original piece, as published in Writer s Digest, and copyrighted by me.


by Frank L. Visco

My several years in the word game have learnt me several rules:

  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.

  2. Propositions are not sentences to end sentences with.

  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)

  4. Employ the vernacular.

  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.

  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

  8. Contractions aren't necessary.

  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

  10. One should never generalize.

  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “I hate quotations Tell me what you know.”

  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.

  13. Don't be redundant; don't use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.

  14. Profanity sucks.

  15. Be more or less specific.

  16. Understatement is always best.

  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

  18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.

  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.

  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

I later hired a wonderful designer to create posters, mousepads, a line of clothing and other items to sell online in my write good shop – which also included rules from a follow-up piece that the magazine also bought and ran, called, of course, “How to Write Gooder.”

It hasn't made me rich.

Next time: Ads you never saw, but should have.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Getting Published

That's me on the bike in this illustration. Here's how it came to be.

Getting myself together after the dissolution of my first marriage resulted in an unintended, and welcome, consequence: bicycle riding. Neighbors of ours in upstate New York were building a home on Nantucket, and although it was only a shell, it was where I went to get my head together before striking out on my own. One escape I had in mind was to live and work on that island, and so I had set up an interview with a restaurant owner to apply for a bartending job.

During the half hour that it took me to ride my rented bike from the shell of the house to town, I started getting terrible “vibes.” The closer I got, the worse I felt. I knew something was wrong, but it wasn't physical. I got all the way to the door of the restaurant, and was shaking so much I actually fell over.

That little voice inside told me this was all wrong, that I didn't belong here, that this wasn't the answer. I got up, got back on the bike and rode back to the house, all the while trying to solve the problem, which I framed this way: “I feel good in Nantucket, but I can't stay in Nantucket. What can I bring back with me that will recreate that good mood?” It took me the entire half hour back to finally figure it out – it was right under my – well, under me – bike riding! It gave me my first feeling of freedom as a boy in Troy, and it was an inexpensive way to get that feeling back. I would return home, buy a bike and start riding. It worked.

So, ten years later, when I moved to the big city, I brought that three speed touring bike with me and braved the streets of Manhattan. And that led to my witnessing a scene in Central Park that I wrote about and submitted to the New York Times. And the one they chose to illustrate. And here it is.

Contributions to The Metropolitan Diary

Jacques Tati-type scenes are everywhere.

Jacques Tati was the comedian/film maker that the French should adore as much as they do Jerry Lewis. After all, he was one of their own, and he wrote, directed and starred in what I believe to be the funniest movie ever made -- Mr. Hulot's Holiday. The late "Dr. Hug," Leo Buscaglia, recalled an opening scene from Hulot's Holiday in one of his wonderful books -- the perfectly captured confusion, hysteria and sheep-like attitude of people waiting for a train, running from track to track after hearing totally unintelligible public address announcements, until they end up, exhausted, right back where they started.

Throughout this movie, and three or four others, Tati managed to see the humor in everyday scenes involving normal human activity. Once you've seen one of his movies, you'll start to see things that way, too. (There's a new documentary about to make the rounds, "The Magnificent Tati," and I hope it begins a re-discovery.)

Since the early eighties, one of my favorite sections of the New York Times has been the Metropolitan Diary -- a weekly selection of New York urban life stories sent in by readers. I've sent many in, two were published, and I'd like to share them with you, just as they appeared in the Times. The first one is called The Central Park Bike Path Roundup:

Central Park isn't exactly the Old West, despite the presence of horses and the persistent rumors that all those Western-cowboy cigarette ads were photographed near 90th Street next to the reservoir. Recently, however, the park -- not unlike Tombstone or Dodge City - was the setting for what can only be described as a roundup of strays by a posse. “There is nothing quite like riding your bicycle in Central Park on Sunday,” said Frank L. Visco of Manhattan, who is a frequent weekend visitor. “The park offers good exercise, beautiful scenery and few hazards.” Few, but some: Mr. Visco was pedaling along when suddenly he heard the noise of hoofbeats behind him. “I found myself pulling to the side of the road to allow two rider less horses to gallop by,” he said. There was more commotion. “The horses were followed by a motorized posse of policemen in several squad cars,” Mr. Visco reported. The policemen managed to catch up to the chargers; repeated shouts of “whoa!” seemed to have a definite calming effect. “Finally,” he said, “the horses slowed down and the cars managed to maneuver to block their path.” It was a happy ending to a brief amusement, Mr. Visco thought, as he mounted his bike again and began pedaling industriously. “I thought it was all over until I noticed another squad car heading for the horses,” he said. “The patrol car was escorting a taxicab.” Mr. Visco peered inside as the cab passed by. “In the back seat were two rather sheepish-looking people in riding attire.” The cab arrived at its destination. The riders stepped out and were reunited with their steeds. “A small gathering of joggers and bicyclists offered big smiles and sent up a cheer,'”said Mr. Visco, who promptly wheeled his own faithful mount out on the long trail a-windin'.

The second one was not printed as I submitted it. I wrote in verse about purchasing a copy of Woody Allen's film Manhattan, but the editor chose to “prose” it. (Prose it -- not a bad phrase, when you consider that back in the early eighties, the Times had a bottle of champagne delivered to the home of the contributor of each published story. Prosit! Now, unfortunately, the Times is in a less friendly mood, simply claiming ownership of everything that's submitted, for use in any media. So much for intellectual property rights.)

This one's called The Manhattan Purchase, and here it is in its entirety:

I was buying “Manhattan” for $29.95 at my local video store the other day when it occurred to me that I was paying only $5.95 more for it than the Dutch, who purchased it several hundred years ago.

Next time: Writers Digest starts something.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Even the bible tells us that there's a big difference between looking and seeing; between listening and hearing. I've been reminded of that countless times, as I've tried to proofread pieces I've written, and let things slip through. They're some of the most maddening mad man moments.

But I'm not the only one who slips up, of course. Back when I was working on Air France, this ad I wrote, promoting meetings and incentives, appeared in Time magazine with a big, obvious error no one caught. The mistake is revealed below, giving you time to see if you can find it on your own. (Hint: the bigger the mistake, the harder it is to see.)

Another ad of mine, selling a deal on hotels in Nice and Cannes, had a misspelling in the headline that was noticed just in time. So, today, a look at how typographical errors make us feel small, and how one proofreader gave it all up and made it big.


In the eighties, the world of print production was virtually unlike anything known today. Art departments had “bullpens,” where “mechanicals” were put together by people with drawing boards, cutting boards, rubber cement, T-squares, paints, brushes and lots of other equipment that made me glad I was a copywriter and not an art director.

Copywriters are usually people who want to work on a project, then forget about it and get on to the next task, or at least to a long lunch. Most art directors are the control freaks of the ad world, who relish overseeing an ad from inception all the way through to publication.

Before computers, this attention to detail included dealing with photographers, illustrators, type houses and the agency bullpen. The headline and copy would be typeset outside the agency, delivered, pasted down and then the art director would want to change it – lengthen the paragraph, shrink the headline, justify the copy blocks, whatever. The copywriter would be asked to rewrite to fit a certain space, which meant getting the account executive involved in order to get the client's approval to change the pre-approved copy.

The copywriter would often resist, vehemently, which led to the joke, “How many copywriters does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “None. Copywriters won't change anything.”

But we did, and eventually, the ad would be turned into a “proof,” which is what is checked for misspellings and pictorial errors and signed off on by everyone involved, hence the verb, to proofread.

Yes, deadlines were much farther in the future in the past, if you know what I mean. And sometimes, errors slipped through. One of my Air France newspaper ads got pulled back at the last minute when Warren, our production manager, saw that the typesetter had set the headline this way:


That should have been “RIVIERA,” of course, but the word “RIVER” in the misspelling threw almost everybody off. And the ad at the top of today's blog entry shows a beautiful aerial photograph of Paris, supplied to us by the client, and printed correctly, according to the way transparencies were prepared for press in those days. Trouble is, the city is flopped – the Left Bank is on the right, and the Right is on the left. No one, including the client, caught it before it ran in a major magazine. And after? One single, solitary reader responded. Which can lead to one of three disheartening conclusions: that no one else saw the ad, no one else knew, or no one else cared.

I shudder to think of all the mistakes that happen these days, without all the time we had back then.

The Proofreader

Talent Will Out

He was an ordinary looking guy, one of those people who sort of fade into the background because they want to. He was a proofreader at the New York ad agency of Kenyon & Eckhardt. It wasn't that I was nice to him, it was that I wasn't oblivious of him that he came to me with something he had written.

It was a funny, silly piece that he wanted some advice about. Was it worth publishing, and if so, where to send it. I really didn't know about that kind of writing, so I suggested that I ask a cartoonist friend of mine if he would be interested in illustrating it. I thought that a more well-known name attached to the piece would improve its chances of at least being looked at by an editor.

My cartoonist friend was busy on other projects and couldn't take this one on. So, I suggested to the proofreader that he send his humorous article to the National Lampoon, which was still being published back then. He did, and they bought it. They asked for more pieces. He wrote them, they published them.

Then, a few months later, he called me on the interoffice phone system and said he'd been offered a job at the Lampoon! He went, and soon became an editor. He started a column of what things used to be called and what they are now, such as Levi's to Dungarees to Blue Jeans and back to Levi's again.

He and I would have lunch about once a month, and I contributed a few ideas to his column, and they were accepted. Soon, it became a book idea, and the company that I had been trying to get to publish some of my ideas was the publisher - Price Stern Sloan. The only problem was the title. We just couldn't come up with a great one. At the last minute, I did -- and everyone involved liked it: Blithering Idioms. We split the advance and waited for word of the publication date. It wasn't to be.

That season, PSS cut their book list in half, and ours was in the half that was cut. (I'm saving that title, though.) As you may know, by the mid-eighties, the National Lampoon had seen better days. Eventually, it trickled out of existence as a magazine, although their “Vacation” movie franchise is still fairly hot.

The former proofreader/former editor wasn't without work, though. He was helping to punch up movie scripts, and was offered a job at one of two cable comedy networks that were starting up. I told him that both of them couldn't last, that one would eventually buy the other, and I was right.

His was the one that was bought out, but he stayed on at Comedy Central. He has since written for late night comedy shows. He's not famous, you don't know his name, but I'm proud that I encouraged him when he was reading my writings. Thousands of us have been enjoying his.

Next time: Getting published

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Two things happened at the end of summer, 1982.

One, Kenyon & Eckhardt made me very, very elated by naming me a Vice President, basically because I dropped one letter from the common phrase, Industrial Revolution, for the Government of Puerto Rico.

And two, Jane made me very, very depressed, by dropping me as soon as our romantic summer on Fire Island was over. Today's stories: lots of emotion from a professional promotion and a personal demotion.


Kenyon & Eckhardt had two of the three parts of the Puerto Rican Government's marketing campaign in the 50 states. The Rums of Puerto Rico consumer account and the business-to-business Industrial Development account were ours. Tourism was handled by another agency.

Rums of Puerto Rico had a long-running campaign that satisfied everyone. But the Industrial Development advertising could have been better.

Because they had hired me from my one and only job outside the advertising field -- my one year stint as Communications Director for New York's Year of the Child Commission -- the K&E creative directors thought my government background suited me for this task.

I read everything they gave me about the business incentives for building American factories in Puerto Rico, and there are many, including an educated work force, tax incentives and the ability to label products made there as “Made in the U.S.”

Then, to assure myself that I really comprehended the whole picture, I wrote a long series of questions and answers. It started with a short history lesson and progressed to the business advantages of today. I passed it around to my superiors, and they thought it would make a great ad. All it needed was a headline and a theme.

I thought, “That was easy. Maybe a headline and theme will be, too.” In retrospect, it seems easy. It looks easy, too. But it really took a lot of thought to get to the kernel.

Part of the theme -- which also served as the headline -- was already in the client's name -- Industrial. And what common phrase is it in?

Industrial Revolution, of course. I always like to start with the obvious.

I typed it. I stared at it. I blocked out the R. And I had it.

The Industrial Evolution of Puerto Rico.

It said that here was a tropical island without a revolution in its history, and with a progressive business atmosphere. It fit what I had written, the art director put the line at the top and the bottom of the ad, and it ran on the op-ed page in the New York Times.

When Steve Frankfurt, our Worldwide Creative Director saw it, he claimed it was the best ad the agency had turned out in years, and made me a Vice President. Which meant a nice raise and an additional week's vacation every year.

Later, the theme was used as the headline for a special advertising section in Time Magazine, the front of which is above.


He was a shrink with an apartment on Central Park West. He was Jane's therapist's brother. In spite of all that, I started therapy with him, to help me deal with the unexpected loss of the continuation of what Jane saw as a summer romance.

As I settled in to the comfortably worn chair in the darkened, den-like room, the tweedy, fifty-ish shrink explained his method with a well-rehearsed smile. I imagined him practicing the semi-smirk every morning while shaving. Since I didn't shave, and only trimmed my beard from time to time, I could only imagine how much practice time he could devote to his posturing.

“Frank,” he said in his warmest manner, “this isn't going to be like a typical therapist/client relationship. No, we're going to become like friends. I'll be making notes in this book, and soon we'll understand each other and be able to communicate like two guys who have known each other a long time.” Thinking back, I now remember it as a well-rehearsed speech.

Whatever. It sounded good to me, and I looked at his buddy approach as an opportunity to haggle about his fee, which I did, and actually got him to reduce it, although not by much.

For the first few weeks, it went pretty well. One of the shrink's specialities was father-son relationships, and he actually had some good advice and an insight or two into how the competition often keeps the son from earning more than the father. Since my father was a factory worker, then a low-level manager, I had faced that problem early in my work life, understood the idea, and even succumbed to it at one low point. But now I was a VP of a major ad agency, and I had already exceeded my father's best salary. Still, it was helpful to know that it was a common occurrence.

The problem came just before my buddy the therapist was to leave for a two-week vacation. At the session just before his absence, I showed up at the usual hour, shortly after work, having enjoyed a brisk walk from the Pan Am Building, uptown and through Central Park to his office.

As I settled in, I picked up where we had left off at the previous session, and when I finally took a breath, he said, without looking up,

“Well, Arthur, you know---”

I stopped him right there.

“What did you call me?,” I demanded.

He looked up. He looked down. He looked sheepish.

Stuttering and stammering some excuse about having another patient with similar issues, he went on with the rest of the session, although not too comfortably.

As I said, he was about to leave for a vacation, and that gave me plenty of time to think about the incident. When he returned, I showed up for my next scheduled session, sat down, and for the first time, he asked,

“Where shall we start today, Frank?” It seemed to me that he emphasized the “Frank” a little too much.

It was the perfect opening.

“We'll start by talking about why I'm firing you.”

He looked shocked. Shocked, but not surprised. He spent some of the time I was paying for trying to hook me back in with unresolved issues, but I wasn't buying it. Not after this session, anyway.

I carefully explained that I had come to him to deal with rejection. He, claiming we were going to become like buddies, confused me with another patient. I was dealing with his rejection of me in a very rational way: I was firing him. End of story.

Postscript: Jane and I re-established our friendship, and although intermittent, we share stories and appreciation for each other. And she never, never calls me Arthur.

Next: We'll always have Paris, wrong.