The ambivalence in my lead is based on mitigating factors I will get to. First some praise. These new GE commercials are more than TV spots they are truly short films, carefully and wonderfully produced. Every element has been rendered at the highest level of craft. Listen to Beck’s score, for example, how it gently but persuasively pushes our buttons, keying in on what is humanly relevant and even profound. Making us feel the message.

Not to be a shill for GE or its ad agency, BBDO but I could easily rhapsodize about any aspect of these commercials. The casting. The writing. The cinematography. Like them or not, anyone who knows anything about production will recognize the obvious care (and cost) that went into making these commercials. BBDO has long been known for it’s prowess in making exemplary TV campaigns, and these will do nothing to hurt that reputation.

Tonally, both commercials remind me of certain odd, brave feature films that, like them or not, are deserving of praise. Spike Jonze’s award winning film, Her. And the decidedly more flawed but fascinating Luc Besson feature, Lucy. Vaguely unsettling but ultimately heart-wrenching stories of technology, people and the mysteries of life are what propel those films and these commercials.

The comparison is more obvious with Her. Its quirky yet deeply intimate style is, in my view, exactly what the filmmakers of the GE commercials were going for. I chose Lucy because, despite a dubious concept and being silly around the edges, it shoots for the stars and damn near gets there. Lucy is fresh and interesting film. It’s not boring. It tried hard to rise above its genre and B-movie pedigree. Morgan Freeman and Scarlet Johansson certainly helped.

Likewise, these commercials try harder than most. Way more.

That said I am struggling with how similar the GE Scary Ideas film is conceptually to the attached German commercial for Epuron, The Power of Wind, which won countless awards in 2007-08, including top honors in Cannes. You can’t tell me BBDO’s savvy creative leadership were unawares. I’m certain they not only knew about Wind but likely set about emulating it. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Ten years ago I would have called it plagiarism. Now, I’m not sure the term even applies. Is it iteration or a rip off?

Yet, whatever quarrel we may have conceptually or otherwise, we all need to appreciate a client and an agency that tries and unequivocally succeeds at doing something interesting. Period.

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Portrait of a young man as troubled copywriter…

How many times have we in Adland heard variations on the following comment regarding a member of the creative department: “Jack has talent… if only he wasn’t so negative.” Or: “Sally does good work but her negative attitude is holding her back.” The admonishment that creative people are by turns cynical, jaded and petulant –in other words, negative- is as old as creation itself. But is it a fact of life or an overblown stereotype?

Yes.

Negative emotions have always been linked to artistic expression and therefore ability. The cynical writer. The moody painter. The depressed poet. These are but a few of the many common expressions linking negativity to creativity. For perspective try switching adjectives. The cheerful poet? I rest my case.

Rather than dive into the deep ocean of thought on how and why negativity and creativity go hand in hand (pain and suffering being catalysts for art, ego and inferiority, constant rejection), let’s explore what it means in the modern advertising agency. First off, it accentuates the unofficial divide prevalent (to varying degrees) at every agency on earth. While many an account person has been called a jerk or worse, precious few of them earn the moniker moody or melancholic. No sir, that’s our job!

In weird but totally understandable fashion the jaded creative department rolls its collective eyes at the cheery frat boy/sorority girl account exec. And the uber-cheery AE’s roll their eyes back at us. I cannot count all the times I’ve seen a creative person called out by an account executive frustrated by his or her bad attitude.

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Negativity & Creativity

Conversely, I cannot count all the times when a creative has bitched about an obsequious account person. The personality divide defines and disrupts most agency cultures daily. Kind of like yin and yang. Only for us it can become toxic. If we let it. Rather than expecting tigers to change their stripes I believe the solution is mutual respect and acceptance. Live and let live.

Interesting to note (for me anyway) is the typical response a creative person offers up for being so negative. These tend to fall into two very opposite camps. The first type comes off as profoundly indifferent. “Whatever. I don’t care about the shit I’m working on. I’m sick and tired of trying.” Or some such. The second (somewhat thankfully) response is that the man cares a great deal about his work but has become defeated by the dimwitted autocrats running the show. He blames his attitude on others, who thwart his ability to “do good work.” The first is sick of trying. The second is sick of dying trying.

I refuse to editorialize. To me the above paragraphs are like photographs, capturing things as they are. While neither attitude is pleasant to behold (or likely very healthy), both situations are commonplace. Negativity cohabitates with creativity. To some degree we must accept this reality and at times even respect it.

As time goes by most petulant creatives grow out of it. (I like to think I did.) Maturity, hard work and luck all play factors in the lessening of the darkness.

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Who can tame a wild creative?

Finally, there is the irony that negativity actually aids creativity. It is a paradox but the miserable creative is often an inspired one. Therefore, we must embrace edginess, cleverness and cynicism the way a cowboy appreciates a fresh horse. “That pony is mean but man is she beautiful.” The wise account executive learns how to bridle this animal but can never do so completely and not without occasionally getting bucked.

In turn, the rogue pony comes to understand that if it ever wants to leave the corral (i.e. get anywhere) it will have to accept the bridle of professionalism. Either that or get made into glue.

Author’s note: I published a version of this story a while ago. I beg your pardon. Work has been busy!

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“I am the CEO and I’ve got something to say…”

Are you a fan of people who speak their mind, regardless of political correctness? What if they also happen to be CEO’s? That’s the intriguing subject of this piece in AdAge. Whether in a shareholder meeting or on twitter, big shots are thinking out loud: accusing, confessing, defending. Some might argue it is rogue behavior, unnecessarily ruffling feathers, and in turn harming the speaker as well as the company. After all, the CEO is the face of the brand. So shouldn’t he or she be hyper vigilant?

Chick-fil-A’s COO Dan Cathy didn’t think so. In a well-publicized incident, he opined against gay marriage, stating, among other things, “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’…”

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook got defiant at shareholders who dared question certain corporate decisions telling them, “if you don’t like it you should get out of this stock.”

Other examples abound. Instead of reacting to the specific comments, let us consider the phenomenon in general. For it is new behavior, arguably unprecedented. Reading the AdAge article, I couldn’t help but remember how corporations and their figureheads used to communicate. Whether embattled or not, just about everything these folks said was defensive, vague and jingoistic. No surprise considering it was vetted, if not written, by someone in corporate communications.

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“Forgive me Father, for I have Tweeted.”

This better safe than sorry attitude permeated a company’s ethos, and it directly impacted marketing as well. Often it seemed that PR and lawyers were approving and even making the advertising. Like a lot of my peers, I resented this. When it came to crafting humanly relevant ads, operating from a place of constant concern (aka fear) was no fun at all.

But then came the Internet and social media. Like it or not, companies could no longer hide behind corporate jargon and generic party lines. Consumers were calling bullshit. People began demanding a more authentic voice from the brands they used, now that they were interacting with them! As the voice of the brand, advertising had to become part of the proverbial conversation. Or at least sound like it was.

Certain agencies caught on. Crispin Porter & Bogusky changed the game by taking a more authentic approach, often bluntly. For example, a campaign for Dominoes Pizza addressed the chain’s mediocre food and delivery head on, including, if I remember correctly, a mea culpa from the company’s head honcho.

Ultimately, I believe all this truth telling and/or truthiness has contributed mightily to the spate of C-suite execs coming out of their cedar closets. Again, look at the new buzzwords: Authentic. Transparent. Converation. now read them as a sentence. Sounds like a mandate to me.

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Will Belzec be the belle of the ball?

A few years ago I was on the phone with my brother, Jeremy talking about our favorite subject, horror movies, when he suggested an idea for one. It was, I thought, a fresh angle in the zombie genre -no easy feat. The demon seed was planted and I sat down to write it; after, of course, learning the software of Final Draft (for screenwriting). Six months later I had a script, Belzec: The Made Undead. We are talking 2 hours or so of writing and research and rewriting almost every night of the week. But it wasn’t my first foray into long form writing. I’ve written three novels, two of which you can find on Amazon. So, the hard work was not alien to me. As a matter of fact, I loved it. A writer writes. I tore into that script ravenously like a zombie into flesh.

But then I tried to get it made. Now that’s hard. First I tried working all my connections made during a long career in advertising, querying producers and filmmakers I’d met along the way. I got some interest. Lots of constructive criticism. But, alas, no serious bites.

And so I decided to enter Belzec into various film festivals around the country, of which there are many. Kind of like a fisherman setting out lines, and utilizing the incredibly helpful Withoutabox platform, I put my script out there.

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Boom. The script was accepted into one festival after another. Wow, I thought. That’s more like it! Still, I had experienced my share of literary rejection so I tempered my expectations. And then I started winning. A lot. In 2011, Belzec: The Made Undead received the following honors:


1st Place Chicago Horror Film Festival “General”
2nd Place Nevada Film Festival “Horror”
1st Place The Indie Gathering “Horror”
2nd Place Waterfront Film Festival “General”
1st Place Action on Film Festival “Horror”
1st Place Action on Film Festival “Sci/Fi”
Semi-finalist: Landlocked Film Festival
Semi-Finalist: SoCal Indie Film Festival
Finalist: First Glance Film Fest
Finalist: Write Movies Competition
Official Selection: Naparville Film Festival
Honorable Mention: Hollywood Screenplay Contest
Honorable Mention: Shockfest

I went to several of these events to receive my prizes. What a crazy thrill that was! Along the way, I met all kinds of scribes, filmmakers and fascinating characters. I picked up an agent. Flew to Hollywood. Talked with directors. The whole shot.

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First prize, The Chicago Horror Film Festival
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First prize, Action On Film
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First place, The Indie Gathering (Dig that trophy!)

And yet, it still didn’t get made. Like a videogame warrior, I did not give up. I revised my script and this summer entered it into a few more festivals, including one of the best shows representing the horror genre, Shriekfest. In my first go-around, Belzec didn’t even place at this show.

This year, I am a finalist at Shriekfest, one of twenty scripts selected from many hundreds, perhaps thousands; I don’t know. But I’m in it and I’m thrilled. The script is also an official selection in several other shows. But Shriekfest is the darling. My cramped fingers are crossed.

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Zombie movies are everywhere. I know; I’ve seen them all. But there is always room for one more. Particularly one with gravitas.

And while I don’t expect Legendary Pictures to call, there are myriad other companies out there specializing in horror. Bottom line, I wrote something I would want to see. Something I’m passionate about. My good friend, John Coveny (The Closer, Trust Me, Longmire) once told me to write about what I love. And so I did. Belzec: The Made Undead was/is a labor of gory love.

Getting this movie made is my Great White Whale. It’s at the top of my bucket list -right up there with seeing my three daughters graduate from university. Should Belzec ever be produced it’s highly unlikely my daughters would see it. It’s pretty gnarly. Still, when I overhear them bragging about how their daddy made this commercial and that poster my heart just bursts. Imagine what they would say if their pops created a monster movie. That, my friends, is what success looks like.

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Behind the camera, back in the day…

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Pablum or gold? Both.

The most watched show on broadcast TV is The Big Bang Theory. A few weeks ago each of its primary cast inked deals worth a million dollars per episode. Last decade the big show was Charlie Sheen’s Two and a Half Men. The decade before that it was Friends. In the eighties I don’t recall. Was it Cosby?

So these are the shows that define the decades in American popular culture. Not Mad Men. Not Breaking Bad. Those shows get all the press but TBBT gets all the viewers. Like it or not, it is these slickly made and arguably idiotic sit-coms that tell the tale of us.

What is it about certain ensemble comedies that keep young professionals glued to broadcast TV? They all feature a big star or create one (Charlie Sheen, Bill Cosby, Jennifer Aniston, Jim Parsons) but I think it’s the fluffy familiarity that attracts so many worker bees to the flame. After whatever kind of day one had at work (be it hectic or dull) these shows are like down comforters we can sink into. The “vast wasteland” is comfy as hell.

They don’t challenge us. On the contrary they make us feel content. We look forward to the mild dysfunction surrounding these characters the same way we look at their signature haircuts (the Jennifer!) and colorful wardrobe (Bill Cosby’s hideous sweaters and Charlie’s doushbag bowling shirts).

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Talk about wardrobe malfunction… And we do!

While I happen to think TBBT is the dumbest show of the lot I’m sure that has more to do with my age than the show itself. I won’t lie. As cool as I think I am I once watched Friends fairly religiously and liked it.

Which brings me to the Simpson’s. Here is a show that has defied the decades as well as the odds. Yet, at the risk of sounding pretentious (and white and male), it was and still sometimes is the writing that makes the Simpson’s a true cornerstone in popular culture.

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One couch fits all!

Yet, at it’s core the Simpson’s has a lot in common with TBBT, Friends and the others. It too has its mega stars (Homer & Bart) and there is no question it is an ensemble –the likes of which we’ve never seen before or likely will. Still, it is the mild dysfunction and total familiarity that propel this show into the zeitgeist. Homer’s home. Bart’s school. These indelible locations are no different than the colorful almost tacky sets in all those other shows. We wanted to hang out in Rachel’s apartment or that proto-Starbucks, Central Perk the same way we adore plopping on Homer’s iconic couch or the ones that belong to those nerds on “TBBT.”

Let us hang, we all ask. We won’t get in the way. Let us watch you fall in and out of preening love. Let us watch you get in trouble then fix it. Let us in! We won’t even balk at the laugh track; something, by the way, we find intolerable on truly good shows (like the Simpson’s).

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“Your place or mine?”

Ensemble sitcoms have been around since television itself (The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy) and they have proved over and over and over again to be the most lucrative 22 minutes or so EVER. And while none today (save for maybe the Simpson’s) offer the social commentary or biting observation of an All in the Family, M.A.S.H., or Mary Tyler Moore they clearly don’t want to.

Why, I wonder? Well, I’ll tell you. They don’t have to. After scrubbing leads all day in Media what 34 year-old Chloe wants most is not a tricky satire on race relations or the intolerance of ISIS; she craves a twit remark from Penny and a tarty retort from Sheldon. Throw in a subplot about the new hunky neighbor, who may or may not be gay, and she’s good. We all are.

A final note: I’m not bitching. My intent is not necessarily to disparage your favorite sit com. Compared to The Real Housewives of X, The Big Bang Theory is like Masterpiece Theater. (Look it up.)

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