Jun 29

Reelin’ in the years

June 29 - cupcake It’s my birthday. No big deal in the grand scheme of things but, as Pink Floyd once wrote, ‘Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.’ Maudlin to be sure, but since we’re all mortal, it’s tough not to reflect on what’s been accomplished and what’s still to be done.

In that spirit, I’ve given some thought to what I’m most proud of and what I’d like to do between now and the inevitable appearance of the Grim Reaper. Here goes:

Accomplishments:

  • Chris and Catharine
  • Peppercom
  • McGraw-Hill published book, ‘What’s keeping your customer up at night?’ (continues to fly off the bookshelves in Third World countries while gathering dust here)
  • 75 or so stand-up comedy performances
  • One ‘improv’ performance at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in NYC (easily the toughest mental challenge I’ve yet faced)
  • Mountain climbing, ice climbing, three half marathons and two 18-mile marathons
  • PR industry awards, bylined articles, speeches, panels, agency of the year, yada, yada
  • Mentoring more than one dazed and confused college student

Goals:

  • Learning a second language
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Climbing at least three more of the Seven Summits
  • Rock climbing
  • Antarctica and the Galapagos
  • Acting
  • Completing my swimming lessons and finishing a sprint triathalon

Reflecting on my mortality, I’m reminded of the classic William Saroyan quip, ‘Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.’ If only……

Jun 22

Let’s see how big we can get before we get bad

June 22 - campaign_vw I'm in the midst of a real page-turner of a business book entitled, 'Nobody's Perfect: Bill Bernbach and the Golden Age of Advertising.' I highly recommend it for anyone in the midst of, or considering, a career in marketing communications.

Written by Doris Willen, who served as Doyle Dane Bernbach's internal public relations director, the tome is a behind-the-scenes, kiss-and-tell all about the rise and fall of, arguably, advertising's greatest agency ever.

Bill Bernbach was the creative genius behind the DDB's rise. But, as the firm grew in prominence, some strange things started to happen. First, although others in the firm were creating the award-winning campaigns, Bernbach was claiming sole, public credit for them (and, considering the oversized egos one finds at any ad agency, that did not sit well). Second, once Bernbach, Dane and Doyle decided to take the firm public, and pocketed almost all of the proceeds for themselves, next generation talent began to grab the best accounts and head elsewhere.

That said, in their day, there was nothing quite like DDB or Bill Bernbach. They competed with one another to create the next, great ad that would:

– Be routinely covered by a Time or Newsweek
– Be envied by Manhattan's top art directors who would pin it on their own agency's bulletin board, and
– Attract new clients like bees to honey.

Bernbach was fearless with clients too. He'd walk away from any account that tried to meddle with his 'big idea.'

In the end, size killed DDB. They simply stopped working as hard to create truly 'great' advertising. And Bernbach's progeny, people such as Mary Wells, left to start their own hot shops. In the end, Bernbach fell victim to a flawed strategy that laid waste to another legendary adman, Jay Chiat, who once said, 'Let's see how big we get before we get bad.'

Doris Willens book is a cautionary tale that reinforces the slippery slope of success. When I look at public relations, I think of some of the once great brands that suffered fates similar to DDB's: Hill & Knowlton is a shell of the firm I joined in 1978. Global heavyweight Carl Byoir is gone completely. As is Rowland & Company. So, too, are the victims of the dotcom bust or the more recent 'great recession.’

While it's brutally tough to become a great agency, Bill Bernbach's fate is a great reminder that once they reach the top of the mountain, too many people and too many firms stop doing all the little things that got them there in the first place.

Jun 08

Was Lincoln the first crackberry addict?

June 8 - blackberry-guy-and-lincoln I'm in the midst of reading a real page-turner, entitled, 'Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails.' It's written by Tom Wheeler and concerns our 16th president's real-time use of an emerging technology to help win the Civil War.

The Civil War is often called the first modern war because of multiple, simultaneous advancements in technology (everything from fast-moving trains to transport troops to the battlefield and ironclad ships to observations balloons and the smooth-bore rifle). In fact, it took generals on both sides most of the war to figure out that new technology had made most previous forms of military strategy basically obsolete. As a result, trench warfare was born.

The telegraph was another novel technology that had a profound, if almost totally, overlooked, impact on the war. It had been invented a few decades earlier but, aside from railroads, had not been adopted for any practical use. Then, along came Lincoln and the Civil War.

It didn't take the Great Emancipator long to build the White House's first telegraph office and have his cot moved in. He literally ran the war from that office. Lincoln would converse with his generals in near real-time (especially the less inept ones). He'd question their decisions, overrule the more absurd ones and literally bang out prototypical 'Dear John' telegraphs relieving incompetent field officers).

Continue reading

Apr 28

Books are the training weights of the mind

April 28 - Books That's not my quote. It was written by Epictetus sometime around the year 99AD.

Thanks to a suggestion by RepMan, Jr., I just read 'The Art of Living,' a summary of the words and writings of Epictetus, a long forgotten, but highly influential Stoic. Ho hum, right? Wrong. While he may have been waxing poetic some 2,000 years ago, the Stoic's words are spot on for dealing with the oh-so-many nightmares of modern-day living. I won't belabor his many and most excellent points, but Epictetus is all about understanding what's important in life and what isn't. He's also all about dealing with life's many curveballs in a, well, stoical, kind of way. He's also all about happiness, the pursuit of which seems further away than ever. Get the book. It'll change the way you look at things.

Here are some other quick recommendations:

'The Thunderbolt Kid,' by Bill Bryson (one of my favorite authors). This is laugh out loud grist for any Baby Boomer who grew up with the Dick and Jane reading books, 'Father knows best' and grammar school janitors who looked like Richard Speck (Bryson's words, not mine. And shame on you if you don't know who Speck was or what he did).

'1453' is a Zara Lintin-recommended book that, in the re-telling the story of the fall of Constantinople also provides perspective on the ageless war between fundamental Christianity and its doppelganger, fundamental Islam. It also depicts torture tactics that make waterboarding seem like a walk in the park.

Outliers'  is another Malcolm Gladwell home run. I loved it. In essence, it explains why people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the Beatles became successful. Success, says Gladwell, goes far beyond talent and perspiration and can be ascribed to everything from the month of the year in which one is born, the year in which one is born, the amount of hours one is able to commit to becoming proficient in one's future craft, and stuff like that. The book also gave me a whole new way of looking at brainstorming which we've begun to incorporate at Peppercom.

I love reading, and typically I read three or four books at a time. But, lest that sound boastful, allow me to end with a quote from Epictetus on the subject of reading: 'Don't just say you've read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. (They) are the training weights of the mind.'

Ya gotta love it.

Dec 15

It’s Nice to Fall In Love

I've fallen in love. Yes, there's a certain someone out there who makes me see things in new ways, makes me reflect on old things in different ways and makes me laugh out loud when I'm feeling down.

That certain someone is Bill Bryson and man, oh man, can he write. I just finished Shakespeare, which I highly recommend. It's a page-turner that explores what's known and what isn't about the Bard of Avon. And, it does so in a lively, informative and, yes, funny way.
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Bryson scoots around England in search of the elusive playwright and, in the process, debunks various theories that Shakespeare was, in fact, King James I, Francis Bacon and god knows how many other pretenders. A surprisingly large number of otherwise intelligent people believe Shakespeare couldn't have had the depth, breadth, education and experience to have written on so many different and diverse subjects. But, Bryson shows that he could. And he did.

Bryson also reveals the amazing number of everyday words that Will brought to the modern English language (some 2,035 words were, in fact, first used by Shakespeare). These include: antipathy, critical, dwindle, leapfrog and zany, to name just a few. And, how about this for inventing phrases? The bard first coined: "one fell swoop," "vanish into thin air," "play fast and loose" and "be in a pickle." The latter two have certainly found their way into our media of late, no?

I love reading books that provide additional perspective on the crazy world in which we live. I've also read Bryson's Under a Sunburnt Sky, which is must reading for anyone interested in Australia. And, I'm devouring A Walk in the Woods, which is de rigueur material for anyone who has ever climbed, hiked or even camped out. It's so funny that I've often laughed out loud at certain passages, engendering disdainful sneers from my fellow NJ Transit riders.

Looking for an ideal stocking stuffer for that certain someone (even if that certain someone is you)? Then, by all means pick up something, anything by Bill Bryson. But, remember, I found him first. "Bryson, oh Bryson, wherefore art thou Bryson?"

Nov 12

The Last 60 Days Have Sure Taken the Shine Off Trophy Kids

I'm in the midst of reading Ron Alsop's most excellent new book, The Trophy Kids Grow Up.

It's a fascinating tome that sheds light on why Millennials (those born after 1980) act the way they do in the workplace. It's chock-a-block full of riveting case studies, anecdotes and "how to motivate them" lists. Alsop dove deep to speak with the "kids" as well as their parents and employers. AlsopFinal

The book's message is simple: employers need to bend the rules and accept the quirky ways and beliefs of trophy kids (who earned the moniker by receiving trophies in their childhood years for simply showing up to a school or athletic event). When a trophy kid shows up at work in flip flops and jeans, or multitasks during a job interview or makes it clear she needs to take a sabbatical to explore her spirituality, employers need to suck it up and say, "OK, well your generation is in great demand and you'll soon be our middle and senior managers so, sure, chill out."

Alsop quotes one Millennial after another who complain about being bored by a project or needing a new work challenge. Most possess so little corporate loyalty that nearly half of the 18- to 24-year-olds Ron interviewed said they planned to job hop in the next year.

The trophy kids may indeed be job hopping in the next year. But, most of it won't be of their own making. Ever since September 15th when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the financial markets went into their cataclysmic tailspin, the trophy kids' luster has started to fade. 

Now, the "free to be me" kids with high expectations who told Alsop they'll keep job hopping until they find their ideal position are, well, up the proverbial creek.

I wonder what will happen to an entire generation that was brought up to believe it could have whatever it wanted. How do they suddenly change lifetime habits overnight and start toeing the line? Or, do they?

It's a fascinating subject that demands at least a sequel. For now, The Trophy Kids Grow Up, published in the late summer, is about as relevant as a Bear Stearns stock option.