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 29, 2012

Brainstorming -- Does It Work, Or not?

According to Jonah Lehrer's article, "Groupthink," in the January 30th issue of The New Yorker, the idea of brainstorming (groups of people thinking out loud with no negativity) was the brainchild of one adman – Alex Osborn, in the late 1940's. He doesn't say this in the article, but I suppose, right there, since the idea is the product of just one man's brain, that Lehrer has cast doubt on the concept from the beginning.

By the way, Alex is the Osborn in one of advertising's great agencies, Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, which sounded like a trunk falling downstairs, according to Fred Allen, the irascible comedian from the golden age of radio.

Anyway, Lehrer goes on to cite research that claims to prove that brainstorming really doesn't work.

The problem for me in the article is that all of the research cited has nothing to do with creative advertising.

That got me thinking, sitting here alone incidentally, about whether it works in advertising or not. I'll tell you what I know about the subject, and then let you decide.

My best work, I believe, as a writer and advertising campaign conceptualizer, comes from a particular kind of brainstorming. Not a roomful of people, but just two people. And not just any two people.

Good, even great ads, at least in my experience (which runs continually from 1960 to, hopefully, tomorrow), are the result of collaboration between a specific kind of art director and a specific kind of copywriter.

What are those specifics? Art directors have to be as literate as they are visual, copywriters have to be as visual as they are literate.

The best art directors I've worked with, and I number them at just 3 in a half century, could write headlines that pushed me to top them. Some of them were so good, that I couldn't do better. And sometimes, I would be able to suggest a visual that they couldn't top. And sometimes, when the ad was completed, we couldn't tell who came up with what.

Here are some headlines from some of “my” ads. I dare you to identify whether the art director or the copywriter – or both – wrote them.

For Air France Alpine Ski Package: “Peaks of Perfection.”

For Puerto Rico Industrial Development: “The Industrial Evolution of Puerto Rico.”

For a savings bank: “Money Talks. Save Some Before It Says Goodbye.”

For a manufacturer of teflon-coated industrial products: “We Scoff At H2SO4.”

For a building supply chain: “We Share Your Passion.”

For a line of wine coolers: “Taste it all.”

For a public employee union: “The Of NY”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Was I Ready For My Close-Up?

I've spent a lot of time behind the camera – in my 50+ years as an advertising copywriter and sometime producer.

But recently, I've had the urge to be on the other side, and this is a report on what that's like. I didn't do it to find out which is my “best side,” the angle that actors believe shows their facial features off to the best advantage. But I did discover which side that is.

My recent on-camera experiences began just a little over a year ago, when The Albany Times Union Advocate videotaped me recounting my beef with the New York State Canal Corporation. You can see that here.

Naturally, I wondered what it would be like to actually be part of a real video project, so I auditioned for a part in a short film by a student of a cinematographer I've worked with.

It's based on a short story by Isaac Asimov, and my one scene was shot yesterday.

The student told me that my character, a politically-savvy curmudgeon, was based on his grandfather, and in fact, the location shoot took place in his grandfather's kitchen. So I met the man, Lee Distin,

and used his recently published book, “Corporatocracy, A Revolution In Progress,” as my main prop.

I hope you'll read the book, and when the video is finished, that you'll be able to see that, too.

Let me state clearly that after the experience, I have even more respect for people who put up with the demands of the task. Lighting, sound, continuity, position in the frame – all are extremely important. And while you're dealing with all of those tasks simultaneously, you have to act – not as you would on a stage, but for the camera, which is a much different skill-set.

The expression and delivery are critical, and have to be the same in every angle that's shot. I only had a handful of lines, and yet when the young and accomplished director commanded “Action,” I hardly ever delivered everything as written, or even as directed.

Turns out, if he does a blooper reel, I'll be the star of that, because I gave him more screw-ups than good takes.

So, the answer to which is my best side? The one where I'm most comfortable, I'm afraid – behind the camera.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Full Circle

A convergence of things today, symbolized by the original Frisbie Baking Company (of Bridgeport, Connecticut) plate that started the game, the industry and the obsession.

Why the Frisbee? I just read that a convergence of factors, such as the rising wages in China, and the rising demand and price for oil, resulted in Whammo returning half of the manufacture of their flying disc back to the USA.

That's sort of a full circle coming full circle. And being able to write that sentence and still make sense is what I love about American English.

Other full circles to think about for today:

  1. Staging a comeback. Growing up in an extended family of amateur actors, and theatre lovers, I began following in those footsteps that resounded on the boards while I was in high school and college. My career took a turn toward writing behind the scenes, and for 50 years or so, I was an enthusiastic audience, always wondering if I could make it on the other side of the proscenium. Well, I recently found out that the answer is yes. I played a curmudgeonly judge for Troy Civic Theatre in December. Encouraged, I read at two other auditions this past week, and I've been selected to play a curmudgeonly grandfather (typecast?) in a student film based on an Isaac Asimov short story. Shooting tomorrow.

    Haven't heard anything from the second audition. Yet.

  1. Theatre comes home. Live entertainment – modern stage plays – did you ever wonder how they came about? Classical theatre declined in Europe and virtually disappeared by the middle of the sixth century, due in large part to the attacks on it by the Christian Church. And yet, theatre's resurgence was itself caused, in no small part, by that very institution! Passion plays and “Miracle Plays” developed out of simple re-creations of New Testament stories and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, until they became more and more elaborate. Gradually, fictitious characters were introduced, symbolizing virtues and vices. And out of this came plays of comedy, tragedy and history. Music, of course, was always part of it all.

    And this April, (shameless plug alert) it all comes full circle as the Troy Civic Theatre presents “Godspell,” a delightful musical that is actually based on the gospel of St. Matthew, and is being staged in a church – the Chapel and Cultural Center on Burdett Avenue.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Not Everyone Sings In The Shower

That was the first thing I learned at the auditions for “Godspell,” which will be the spring 2012 offering of the Troy Civic Theatre, the area's newest theatre group.

After playing a featured role in the company's first offering, an enhanced staged reading of "The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge," I became a paid member and offered to help with their marketing and publicity efforts.

I assigned myself the task of observing the first night of auditions for the musical, which, appropriately, will be presented at the Chapel & Cultural Center on Burdett Avenue in Troy, NY, in April.

I'd never been to a musical audition before, despite my years of writing and casting tv commercials for the likes of Quaker State Motor Oil, Curad bandages, Krystal Restaurants, Dairylea products and CSEA.

I'm hoping to expand on the insider's view that I gained into the process, which includes, of course, singing, reading parts and dancing.

Meanwhile, I'll try to keep learning and sharing in this new venture which promises to bring a lot of quality entertainment to the area.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Advocate Moves On

Yet another departure from my "normal" blogging. In today's Albany Times Union, it was announced that Cathy Woodruff, who was the newspaper's "Advocate," is leaving for a new, unnamed job.

Just about one year ago, Cathy interviewed me and recorded a video (you can watch it here) about my being taken to court by the New York State Canal Corporation for not paying a "Beautification Fee," an annual permit they wanted me to pay so that I could mow the part of my lawn that abuts the Erie Canal, and is legally the property of "The people of New York State."

Today, I emailed Cathy Woodruff the following message, and I'd like to share it with you today:

I read in today's TU your last Advocate column, and I wanted to offer my personal thanks for your excellent reporting on my "Canal Problem."
I can't say whether your reporting, the change in canal leadership, or the devastating floods of 2011 was the main reason that I wasn't asked to pay a permit for my 2011 mowing of NYS property, but I suspect that the spotlight you aimed at the issue had a lot to do with it.
I wish you success in your next career step, and I hope I'll be able to read whatever it is you will be writing.