Me and Coach Parcells

I noticed future Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells on TV the other day and I thought, “geez, he’s looking older. But at least he’s keeping the weight off.” And I flashed back to the campaign we did together for New York’s Tri-State Cadillac Dealers. He was a little heavier back then. Coaching the Jets. But a really nice guy to work with. If you didn’t know he was a maniac football coach, a tough leader of men who could, at any moment yell out, “drop and give me 40!” and half of Fifth Avenue would obey, you’d have thought this guy was a professional TV actor. He did a lot of sponsorships in those days. He had an agent right out of Jerry McGuire, complete with bad-ass wrap around shades and slick suit.

And what these guys did was pack all of Bill’s commercial production into one week before the start of summer training camp. I remember meeting Bill at the shoot on a Monday and he went through his schedule: three commercials for Cadillac today, two for this auto parts company tomorrow, flying to California for two commercials Wednesday, and so on. Back to back commercials.

We had some radio to do, along with the TV spots. He arranged for us to walk from where we were shooting, in front of the Plaza Hotel, to a radio studio next door and record over lunch. I thought, this is going to be a disaster. We are sunk. We had TWELVE COMMERCIALS to record. In an hour. And we’d been shooting a TV commercial since 5 that morning, and would be shooting another into the night after the lunch break. I was worried. This was going to SUCK!!!

Walking to the studio, I said to Parcells, “You sure you want to do all TWELVE? We can cut it down to three.”

Parcells said, “No problem,” and went back to joking.

Who was I to argue? And when he went into the booth, HE DID IT! He knocked them out perfectly. In one take. Masterful. As he left the booth, 47 minutes later, I gushed about what a great job he did.

He paused, looked at me, and said, in total seriousness, “Oh, that was nothing, yesterday I did 30 in an hour.”

And he walked away chatting and laughing with his agent.

Today’s Ad Game — Spinning Plates for Fun and Profit

I was talking with a young, talented producer at a major (Big 5) international ad agency last night. You would kill to have this 24 year old (24 YEAR OLD!!!) on your staff. As a way of checking in on that state of things, I asked him to describe his typical day.

Fasten your seat belts.

He gets in two hours before the “creatives.” He starts to answer the almost 200 e-mails he’s got in his in box from the past NIGHT! He starts to chart on the eight or nine projects he’s working on. (Not like in the good old days, he says, a year and half ago when he started, when he could work on one project at a time.)

What kind of projects? I ask.

A couple of radio productions, a few websites in various stages of design and wireframe, some web banners, putting some reels together for a big new business pitch, re-cutting some old TV spots, bidding out some new ones.

Does this kid have time to eat? Much less take a “bio break?”

The reasons are clear. The agency, which shall not be named, has shrunk. More work is being piled on. Even the once untouchable art directors and copywriters are supposed to be able to play almost any position on the field — from radio to TV to web to print to promotions.

He did mention they do have some kind of bar, or some way to get drinks in the afternoon, around 4.

They need it.

(Although, to be fair, it does remind me of my days when I was running my own shop after I left the cocoon of major agency-dom.)

More on this topic later…I’m exhausted just remembering it…

Great advice from the late great adman Pat Kelly — “Make ads that don’t look like ads.”

It’s a shame that Pat Kelly isn’t better remembered. I was lucky enough to take a TV writing class from him at New York’s School of Visual Arts. His most famous work: he invented the entire Federal Express campaign at Ally & Gargano, made some epochal commercials with the legendary director Joe Selemaier. He also did some incredible work at Leo Burnett when he was starting in the business — much of his work is brilliant. The class was fantastic. His critiques were gems. But the most damning thing he could say about anybody’s work, no matter how ‘brilliant’ it appeared to be was, “Nah — it’s an ad.”

Let me digress for a moment to paint the picture. He looks like Lowell George of the rock band “Little Feet,” long hair, long beard, denim overalls. He commutes down from Woodstock, where I hear he lives in a converted chicken shack. I’m not kidding.

But this is the guy that wrote “fast-talking-man,” and the line “when it absolutely positively has to be there over night.”

And when he sees an ad he doesn’t like, he says it’s because “it’s an ad.” As a young creative person, I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about. I mean, wasn’t that what we were supposed to be doing, making great ads? It took me a while and lot of hard work to truly integrate the genius of Kelly’s observation — people don’t like ads. They like interesting things that show themselves themselves. If something looks or feels like and ad (or to be PC, a website, a promotional event, a press release, etc.) they TURN OFF. Ads scream — “HEY, IGNORE ME I’M JUST AN AD AND I’M TRYING TO BAMBOOZLE YOU!!!”

So Pat, thanks. And rest easy wherever you are.

Real life lessons — “You can’t handle the truth” but it does set you free…

Here’s a page from that book of mine. The one I’ll never write. Back in the dark ages, when I was crawling my way up from the pond scum at the bottom of the creative department to a window office, I had an encounter I’ll never forget for its brutality — or its honesty. I was working around the clock on a national ad campaign that I knew would not only win awards but make my career (note the order of those accomplishments…) I was in the awkward position of being down to the finals — two campaigns left standing — and the other campaign? My boss’s. Yep.

It was the night before the big meeting. I brought my work in, and it was good. My boss agreed. Now, picture the scene — it’s late. Everyone is out of the office. It’s just me and him. And I like him and respect him. Really I do. The man has talent.

So, I muster up all my strength, and before leaving, I ask him, “So, what are you going to recommend to the client?” Now, understand, he had been praising my hard work and million revisions, and helping me make my work better than it ever could have been.

And he turns to me and says, “I’m recommending my campaign.”

I was stunned.

He continued, “Not because your work isn’t great. It is. But because I’m your boss and I can do that. To put it bluntly, I guess I’m screwing you. But, you’ll get over it. And, furthermore, someday you’ll do the same thing.”

I felt like a freight train had driven through my stomach. I went to a seedy bar and drank seedy drinks until I wobbled home.

But at the end of the day, I found something strange. (After I got over the hangover.)

I appreciated his honesty. I vowed to never do that to someone who worked for me, and I hope I haven’t, but at least he told it to me straight.

What did I learn from that incident? I’m not quite sure. But, reflecting on Mad Men and stories, well, that’s one of mine.

Have a nice day!

My beef with Mad Men — too much Mad, not enough Ad.

Ever since it started what seems like back in the 60’s now, I’ve been a wary fan of Mad Men. The truth is, every copywriter and creative director in the business is always working on “the book,” the tome that will rip the covers off the business and tell it all like it is. How many times over my years have I heard someone say “save that for the book.” And that book will never be written. It’s just too weird. And too “inside.”

So it’s no surprise that it took TV Writer Matt Weiner to do the book — albeit a cable TV show. And here perhaps is the problem. At least for me. Not that he doesn’t get the characters right — I guess — but what I’m missing is the real drama.

How much white space in the ad?
Have we been forced to turn our ad into a camel?
Are there three too many words in the headline?
Should we put the ‘smile’ shot before the shot of the car, or after?
Why does that guy drink Jack Daniels from a little paper cup he steals from the water fountain — all the time?
What is the nature of hackdom?

Real questions of interest. To me, an ad geek I admit. So, someday, when I’m stranded on a desert island with a Netflix hookup, I’ll watch all 8 billion hours of Mad Men — maybe there will be two or three minutes of real drama (how could the client buy that????) and lots of stuff about clothes and smoking clove cigarettes etc.

Till then, I’ll keep working on ‘the book.’