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, January 30, 2011

Ego All Over My Face

I Know Who You Are

We've all heard the self-deprecating stories that famous people tell about meetings with their alleged fans. Well, those things can happen, even to the not-so-famous.

I met my late wife, Eileen, when she was working at a natural food store in Schenectady. And, naturally, I met all her friends and acquaintances after we returned from our winter elopement, and had a summer celebration. There were a lot of friends and acquaintances, since everyone who ever came into the store she worked at became one or the other.

A few years later, the ad agency I was working for was filming a commercial at various locations throughout Schenectady. This involved a crew of about five or six, a director, lighting rigs, even laying tracks for a smooth camera move around our subject.

Everywhere we went, I was introduced as the creator of the commercial, the writer, the agency man, the client. Big shot, in other words. Being vain, I enjoyed the figurative spotlight, even though the crew was lighting the president of the union who was the star of the TV spot. It happened at the courthouse, it happened at a rehabilitation house, and I fully expected it to happen when we got to our final location, the County Library.

There was a lot of downtime, so I picked up a movie book from the reference section and started reading up on some favorite people. I noticed an attractive woman who worked at the reference desk glancing at me from time to time. I tried to place her, but I didn't recognize her until after our encounter.

She finally came over to me and said, with the satisfaction of a reference librarian who has found the answer to your question in under a minute, “I know who you are.”

I puffed up, smiled and prepared myself for the kinds of compliments I'd been hearing all day. Instead, I heard her say, “You're Eileen's husband.”

I stammered out, “Yes, that's right,” and tried not to look too disappointed.

Tell her Bertha said hello.”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Blithering Idioms

Strategy. In 1980, after 20 years in the business of writing advertising and promotional campaign, I couldn't tell strategy from execution.

Because I didn't study the definitions of those terms in any school. I learned to write convincing messages for radio, TV and print by doing, by watching, by comparing actual campaigns.

Before learning the definitions and methods of developing strategies for creative development, media exposure and expenditures, I and my contemporaries in the relatively small Albany market developed the instincts for it.

Tell us the problem, and we'd give you the right solution. Usually. But defend it? We could only tell you that it felt right – we had no intellectual defense, only an emotional one.

Of course, that sometimes led us down the wrong path, and we'd fall in love with a creative gem that really didn't solve the problem – it only satisfied our egos.

I know how it happened, and it's still happening. I just received a mailing from one of those coupon magazines with a lot of colorful ads for local businesses. In it was an example of one of those clever headlines that copywriters love, with two meanings. But cleverness is not a strategy – one of the meanings is totally off strategy.

It's an ad for hot tub maintenance service, and the clever line is “You'll be in hot water soon.” An idiom whose meaning is, “you're in big trouble!” It's literal meaning is fine, of course.

It's not “What were they thinking?” but rather, as my wife Eileen used to say, “What? Were they thinking?” They weren't thinking about strategy, that's for sure.

When I got to the center of the advertising world, Madison Avenue, and was thrown in with the big guns at Kenyon & Eckhardt, and then Bozell Jacobs, I couldn't afford to let just cleverness rule my work.

Now I was dealing with trained MBAs as account supervisors, managers and executives who dealt with equally proficient and educated clients. I had a research department to rely on. I had media buyers. Creative Directors, Supervisors, producers, art directors, bull pen, print buyers – and in order to keep them all on the same page, the agency had developed forms for all the decision-makers to sign off on – a media strategy, and a creative strategy. There was a lot of discussion and background that went into those strategies, and that got boiled down to “strategy briefs” – a list of ten or so questions that helped you focus down.

Everyone filled them out, then the answers were discussed, massaged, argued over and finally distilled into a strategy statement that everyone would agree to. Only then did the creative work begin. And heaven help you if you strayed from that strategy.

After ten years in New York, I returned to the Albany area, and, with a few modifications, brought my creative strategy brief with its ten questions with me. I give it to every new client – pro bono and paying clients alike, and ask them to fill it out. To my amazement, they almost never do.

But I think it helps them to understand what questions they need to answer, even if they don't take the time to put it in writing. I keep trying to get those answers, because the more I know, the better my solution will be.

If you'd like a copy of my Creative Strategy Brief, send me a request. ( I hope whoever's in charge of approving ads for the hot tub service will ask.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Service With A Simile

See what I did there, in the headline? I took a common, every day phrase, changed one word simply by adding one letter to it, and created a phrase I've never seen before.

Not only that, but the new phrase introduces exactly what I want to talk about here and now: one of the secrets of successful copywriting.

That secret is to smash two seemingly unrelated ideas together to create a new idea. And to do that, you need to be a generalist – someone with an inquisitive mind, who loves learning a jumble of different things and can keep them tumbling around inside, continually combining them until the right combination solves the marketing problem you've been working on, answering the correct strategy.

I tried to make that sound easy, but I couldn't, because it isn't. It takes a lot of training, and a lot of trial and error, until one day, you realize that you can eliminate most of the errors and skip right to the good parts.

I tried to find a simile for this talent. You know, a copywriter is like a.... craftsman? That doesn't quite satisfy me, because a craftsman uses raw materials to create something new. A painter uses oils, watercolors, etc, and combines them to make a picture. A potter uses clay and glazing.

A writer uses words. He doesn't create the words, usually – although great ones like Shakespeare certainly coined some good ones – 62 alone just in Macbeth. Incarnadine as a verb, assassination – the entire list is here.

So is a writer is more like a cobbler who puts existing pieces together to create a shoe? No, the cobbler shapes and cuts the pieces. Maybe we're more like the architect who uses existing materials, not changing their shapes like Frank Gehry, but using them as is in new combinations.

Then there's the aphorism, “A carpenter is only as good as his tools.” Once again, a writer's words are not his tools – they're his material. The implement he uses to assemble them is his knowledge and facility with words.

So, writer, your main implement, of course, is your brain. Train it, stuff it with a wide and wild variety of facts, words, parts of speech and write, write, write. (You don't have to know the names of the parts of speech -- just learn how they work.)

You say you have writer's block? My grandson, the young troubadour Nick Stoddard, once told me he had it. My advice to him was the same as it is to you – write about having writer's block. That'll be the end of it.

One more word of advice – just because a phrase is clever, doesn't mean it's right. You should know the strategy behind what you're writing, and if the phrase you come up with has several meanings, they should all reinforce the strategy. If there's a negative connotation, or if the phrase can lead the reader down the wrong or distracted path, throw it out.

If you're a writer, you're an idea person, and you have to trust that you're going to have lots of ideas, and not to cling to one that isn't good enough.

More about strategy next time.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Secrets of a Successful Copywriter

Part I

Writing about teaching a course in advertising at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights back in the 80's got me thinking. I know, that's dangerous, but I do it from time to time.

Specifically, I'm thinking about teaching copywriting, and while I can teach the rules and the tricks and the jargon, I don't think it can be taught. It can be learned, however.

Here's a bit of how I learned. First, I grew up watching my father. He was a master at engaging people in conversation, mostly because he got them talking about themselves. He was genuinely interested in what they had to say, and think, and why they did the things they did.

That caught my attention, because of something else the grownups around me did. Since they were first and second generation Italian-Americans, they had a basic knowledge of the Italian language, and used it often. But not to communicate with this new third generation crop they were breeding. On the contrary – they used it to not communicate with us.

I knew that what they were saying in Italian was important stuff, because they were either serious when they used it, or they laughed the unique kind of laugh you laugh at adult humor.

So, my father's interest in other people, and the fact that the important stuff was in "code" led me to a strange conclusion for a child – that there were secrets to being a human that they were concealing from me. It left me with a determination to pay attention to everything around me, in order to discover those secrets and become a “real boy,” like Pinocchio in the first movie I remember seeing. (My mother always said that when Disney's Pinocchio became a real boy, he looked like me. More reinforcement for my idea.)

So I tried to retain everything. That made me a generalist, a word a pr writer used to describe me in an article she wrote when I created my first million dollar ad campaign, back in the late 60's.

And that, being a generalist with a wide range of interest and a self-trained ability to hold as many different facts, figures, opinions and trivia as possible, is the first secret of a successful copywriter.

It allows you to write in the “voice” of whatever client you're working for at the time. Every trade has its own jargon, and to use it correctly puts you one up on someone who writes the same way for every client.

Examples: using “stat” instead of “immediately” for a medical-related client; using the symbol for sulphuric acid instead of the term in a headline to engineers.

Having lots of seemingly useless stuff in your head also leads to smashing two seemingly dissimilar thoughts or phrases together to create something new.

I'll talk about that next time.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Hitting The Heights

Brooklyn Heights, that is. Account Exec Bob O'Connell, who worked on the Quaker State account, among others, came to me with a proposal to do something I'd never done before: teach a college class on advertising at St. Francis College.

The idea was, we would co-teach – me, the creative side of the business; Bob, the business side.

There was a little money in it, but my motivation for saying yes was the novelty of it.

Having moved to New York from the Albany area, from whence my theater-loving parents had often taken the family on the NY Central Railroad excursions for a weekend of star-studded entertainment, I was familiar and comfortable with Manhattan.

But like a lot of other transplants, the other boroughs were foreign territory, and I seldom, if ever, ventured off Manhattan, what we at K&E called “An island off the coast of America.”

It even took me a while to get accustomed to traveling underground from one end of the island to the other, although the speed and relative efficiency of it it eventually convinced me to use the subway system.

Bob and I would be traveling together for each class after work, and he was a born and bred New Yorker, so I would have an intrepid travel guide.

The first step was to create a curriculum. The two of us had to cover all the basics of the business in thirteen evening classes, and two times 13 is 26, and that suggested the alphabet, and so we created a format based on that, and called the course, “Advertising, A to Z.” I made a list for each class, beginning with A and B – The Art of Advertising and the Business of Advertising, and working through to the last class, with Y and Z – The Youthfulness and Zen of it all.

I found the requisite quizzes easy enough to construct, reviewing the basics of each double-subject class at regular intervals, and I remember giving the class of young, hopeful, working people an essay assignment, in which they were to imagine themselves as a “brand,” and create an ad campaign to sell that brand.

The experience, as any teacher would probably tell you, was just as rewarding for the teachers as for the students. Maybe more so, because before you can teach what you do for a living, even if it's instinctual, you have to examine it, break it into its basic parts, and understand it.

All in all, it was a valuable experience for me, and, I hope, for the eager hopefuls who got to hear, first-hand, what it was really like working on "Madison Avenue."

Next: more war stories