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, February 27, 2011


Stan Applebaum

For a guy who began his writing career at a rock 'n' roll radio station in 1959, it's probably a sin for me not to have known the name Stan Applebaum until 21 years later. The innovation he brought to pop music was a big hit that very summer that Boom Boom Brannigan was playing it on Albany's WPTR.

Not only did I learn Stan's name, I got to work with a true legend in the business, although to be fair to myself, Stan's contributions weren't common knowledge to anyone not intimately connected with the music business.

I like to say that my generation created rock 'n' roll, and while it was borrowed from a lot of cultures that stretch back long before us, we did what every generation does – add some of this and that, and make it our own. Stan added more than most.

I was working with another writer, Milt Schwartz, on musical commercials for Air France back in the early eighties, and Stan Applebaum was the right guy at the right time to write and arrange the music for our words.

Stan, whose career as an arranger and composer began in the big band era, is a New Yorker who was in the right place at the right time – he's the guy who first added strings to R&B, and began a sound that still, today, is an integral part of the musical genre.

Stan arranged the Drifters' hit, “There Goes My Baby,” by the immortal team of Lieber & Stoller. Here's a wonderful thing -- you can hear it anytime you like. Like right now.

You can read Stan's bio here. And here's another wonderful thing – you can still work with him like I did, as well as with his arrangements, and his commercial music.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The New Yorkers

Ben Benson

As I was thinking about people I knew and admired when I worked in Manhattan in the eighties, a matchbook from an upscale steakhouse surfaced.

Remember when all restaurants gave away matchbooks to stay with you to advertise their existence? Who knew they would become a relic of another era in such a short time?

Anyway, this book of matches had a simple beige background and the name, address and phone number of Ben Benson's Steakhouse, the eponymous restaurant of a man who, with his former partner Alan Stillman, had created many New York nightlife spots and restaurants, including the “days of the week” venues, Tuesday's, Wednesday's, Thursday's and, yes, T. G. I. Fridays, as well as the Grand Cafe and Smith & Wollensky. But this singular establishment, on West 52nd Street in Manhattan, begun in 1982, has never been cloned.

My connection?

When Ben Benson's Steakhouse was only a few years old, his advertising was created by a small business-to-business agency that had been acquired by Bozell during the hectic days of ad agency merger mania.

I was assigned the task of creating a series of timely radio commercials that would feature Ben himself and a professional announcer, engaged in, hopefully, sparkling dialogue.

Writing the spots was no challenge – the agency wisely paid for me and my girlfriend at the time, Wendy, to experience the superb offerings at the “expense account restaurant.” But there were two production obstacles: Ben's schedule, and Ben's poor eyesight.

There was no way to get Ben and the announcer in the studio at the same time, and Ben had a difficult time seeing the words.

The late, great recording engineer Rich Peterson and I came up with a way to solve the problems. Rich would record me reading Ben's part on a separate track with the announcer, and also reading the announcer's part on a separate track with Ben (who would listen to me reading his lines and repeat them.)

Then Rich would put the two of them together, and even though I got to play both parts, my voice would end up on the proverbial cutting room floor, or in this case, wherever erased sound goes.

Ben Benson's Steakhouse is still thriving, and, according to its website, Ben is still meeting and greeting the business executives and theatre-goers who favor a no-nonsense, steak-centric experience.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dark Humor. Really Dark.

If you can't say anything nice about the dead, say something funny.

If laughter is, as some say, a defense against death, then the conversation that took place one evening in Tilson, New York, was the best defense anyone could muster.

My wife Eileen and I were guests of Will & Courtia, a great couple, great individuals. Will, a New York photographer whom I had the pleasure of working with for a statewide account, was describing the slow, excruciating downslide of a much more famous photographer whom I will not name here, and his ever-decreasing circle of human attachments, brought on by the man's own despicable nature.

Finally, Will came to the shocking part where the photographer committed suicide with a pistol, an action that was clearly appreciated by all who had known him. He was that despised by everyone.

And that's when Eileen said, “So, his best shot was his last shot.”

As the howls of laughter finally subsided, Will, who was either too nice to leave the discussion of any deceased human on a negative note, or because he didn't want to be struck by a lightning bolt from an angry Ruler of the Universe, said that if he had been asked to deliver a eulogy, it would have to start with “We all miss him.”

And that's when I provided the honest second line for that eulogy: “But we're glad he didn't.”

And we all howled again. Since none of us were struck by lightning, I can only assume that we weren't punished because the Ruler of the Universe was laughing with us, and was too distracted to punish the blasphemers.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

It Pays To Pay Attention

I see that an old cohort of mine, Herman Schnurr, is going to be sharing some insights on copywriting for an Albany Ad Club breakfast next month. I heartily recommend that if you have anything to do with the business of advertising and marketing, as a “creative,” a client or a student, that you attend.

The Malcom Gladwell “Outliers” theory, that if you spend 10,000 hours doing anything, you will be good at it, definitely applies here. I haven't added up Herman's hours, but I'll guarantee that they reach into six figures, if not seven.

I haven't consulted with him on his presentation, but here's one thing I'm sure he'll tell you: learn everything you can about your subject. Read old material, google it, talk to everyone in the company who'll give you the time. Immerse yourself and pay attention to everything, because you never know where your next idea is going to come from.

Here's one example from my own career – how I came up with an ad that has become one of my – and the client's – favorites.

The New York State Fair, in the center of the state, near Syracuse, has been an annual event for many years. One agency that Herman and I worked at in the 70's even developed the logo they're still using. But I had never been to The Fair until I worked for an account that underwrote it -- the leading public employee union in the state.

So I went, with a video crew, to cover their booth, their president paying a visit as he glad-handed all the rank and file that showed up at the Fair on CSEA Day. It was there that I discovered that the two people who go to these events for the State Department of Transportation in the costumes of the test crash dummies are members of CSEA.

There had to be an ad in that fact, and I was persistent with my boss and the head of the union's communications department about it. Finally, I hit upon the angle and we ran a statewide ad with their photos, in costume. The ad talked about all the work that all the members did, but used these two as the focal point, with the attention-getting headline, “265,000 Members, And Only Two Dummies.”

(Text provided upon request.)