writer
Driven to write…

A couple years ago, Pastor John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago (now retired) gave a terrific sermon on the rite of baptism, which I had the privilege of attending. Earlier he had performed the sacrament on two babies. And so later spoke of names, identities and how they relate to God’s plan for us. Interesting stuff. Especially for a borderline agnostic like me.

While there was much to glean from his sermon, I want to focus on one thing in particular. Buchanan referenced a book he’d read by Sister Joan Chittister (The Gift of Years) that struck a nerve with him. It did the same for me. I think many of you will relate to it as well. We define ourselves by our work. It becomes the Who, What, Where, How and Why of our lives. Can you deny it?

In our society, introductions to people almost always include asking what the other person does for a living. I do it all the time: “So, Phil, what do you do?” Big deal. It’s a good way to find common ground.

But what happens, the pastor asked, when ‘what we do’ is over with or, worse yet, taken from us as in layoffs or job eliminations? Do we lose our identities? Do we become nobodies in the eyes of our peers and ourselves? Buchanon suggested living by such a self-absorbed credo devalues us as human beings, often causing serious anxiety and depression. In America, our identities are inextricably tied to ‘what we do’ versus who we are or what we believe in. Take away that and we’re left with… what exactly? Given the current recession and myriad job losses, his sermon was especially poignant. Yet, even in good times the ‘what we do’ credo is troubling. For one thing: what happens when we retire?

Uh oh.

I have always unabashedly identified myself as a writer, be it of copy, editorial or fiction. To wit I wrote and edited my high school newspaper (The Lane Tech Warrior). I did the same for both student papers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (The Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald), not to mention scribing for an independent publication, The Madcity Music Mirror. I started my career as a copywriter at Leo Burnett and continue to do so at gyro in San Francisco. I’ve written three novels and dozens of short stories, some of which have been published. I wrote two screenplays. I write and maintain Gods of Advertising as well as The Rogue’s Gallery, which, as some of you know, was originally intended to be a forum for copywriters to showcase their writing.

So, yeah, for me it’s all about the writing. The point I’m building to: What happens when all that ends, as one day it surely must? I get paid to write and creative direct copy. This also gives my blog a modicum of credibility. Take away my job and then what do I do? Relax? Hell, I barely do that now. How am I supposed to do it 24/7?

According to Buchanan, if we are spiritually fit we are more content and serene, regardless of our employment status. But getting fit means letting go of intense personal ambitions. Self-centeredness must slip away. Easier said…

To me writing is a very selfish act, even if for clients. It has a narcotic effect. I not only get off doing it; I can’t stop. There is always another brief, another story, another presentation. Writing takes me away from my family, friends and other obligations. Buchanan suggests it also takes me away from God.

His point isn’t that writing is a despicable act (even ad copy!) but that putting it before others and God potentially is. Similar counseling is given to alcoholics: ‘Get outside of your head,’ we are told. ‘Think of someone other than yourself!’

I promise. Just as soon as I complete this post, rewrite that presentation, and edit some copy…

(Special thanks to friend, Anne Ross for reacquainting me with this post and Buchanon’s brilliant sermon. It is a lesson I have yet to master.)


Dreaming in long copy…

When addicts stop using drugs and alcohol they are commonly beset by drinking and drugging dreams. Usually occurring within the first year of abstinence these dreams can be strikingly vivid. The addict often wakes up highly agitated, believing completely he or she has fallen off the wagon. Even upon realizing it’s only a dream, the phenomenon can be highly disturbing. Addicts and alcoholics feel as though they have betrayed their sobriety, almost like a relapse.

Not to connect the dots but…

Having left Adland 5 months ago, I had my first (recollected) advertising dream the other night. I was younger (a man can dream!) and working on a luxury car account. The crux of the dream had me pitching concepts to one of my first bosses and mentors, Ted Bell. (Ted is now retired from advertising and a best-selling author of thrillers like Warlord and Assassin.)

If he was my boss that means the place was likely Leo Burnett and the account Oldsmobile… even if the car in my dream was a snazzy convertible, unlike anything Olds used to make.

Regardless, I remember trying to make wordplay about drivers having an “open mind” for the open top vehicle. I can’t recall the exact copy but either way Ted wasn’t buying it. “People don’t need an open mind to want one of these cars,” he kept repeating. Why I kept fighting him on the point I don’t know; but I was. Needless to say, the boss is always right. Even in your dreams. Upon waking, I realized my idea was silly and sophomoric. Very “spec book.”

Yet, what disturbed me most about the dream wasn’t the mediocre concept but rather my dogged determination to prevail. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I kept trying to make a case for my silly open minds concept.

Sound familiar? Who among us doesn’t remember pushing way too hard our first concepts? The relentless young creative is so commonplace it’s basically a cliché. In a recent AdAge interview, famed adman and now teacher, Luke Sullivan stated his biggest regret was “having an insane amount of certainty” as a young copywriter.

And there I was trying to force my boss to have an open mind!


Cage’s mugshot

The Letter from the Editor which heads up the May issue of GQ has little to do with advertising but certainly qualifies as a nasty morsel of popular culture. It’s also quite sad. The magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Jim Nelson was dining at the famed New Orleans’ restaurant, Stella this past Mardi Gras and happened to be in “wine spitting” distance of Nicolas Cage while he was in the midst of a notorious alcohol-induced blackout. Most of us are familiar with Cage’s meltdown, having heard the story here there and everywhere. Likely, we all attributed it to another “moment” in the controversial and bizarre star’s repertoire. Known for playing myriad odd, terrible and often wonderful characters (Raising Arizona, Vampire’s Kiss, Ghost Rider, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, among many others), here he seemed to be channeling Charlie Sheen and then some.


“Leaving Las Vegas” no longer an act.

In any event, the GQ editor witnessed the entire debacle and elected to make it the subject of his forward to the magazine. Wise choice. As I said, it’s a scintillating piece.

But as I also said, it’s a sad one. But sadness is not the tone Nelson reported. Like most observers of popular culture, he took aim at the falling star and gave us a blow by blow. I don’t begrudge the writer for doing so. That’s his job. Sort of.

But there’s a crucial piece missing from the tawdry tale that might have actually provided real learning to the reader. In describing Cage’s condition, I intended the word “blackout” as noun more than adjective. Nicolas Cage was having an alcoholic blackout. In this condition the man no longer is cognizant, let alone in control. The symptoms were textbook. Yet, I’ll bet many of you are only aware of the obvious ones: lewdness, lechery and violence. Those lovely defects are what got Mr. Cage arrested, no small feat during Mardi Gras.

But what I found eerily fascinating were some of the other defects Cage manifested during his downward spiral. Nelson reports that the actor had befriended a couple at the bar and had insisted on buying them drinks. And not just any drinks but some of the most expensive wines on Stella’s impressive list. In recovery programs, they call this “grandiosity.” You say Cage is a millionaire movie star (actually, he’s bankrupt) but I’m telling you even garden variety drunks can and do display this defect. All of the time. It’s a marker for alcoholism.

Poignantly, prior to his arrest (just after breaking an interior window), Cage bellows to the embarrassed crowd: “You love me!” I say poignantly because now his grandiosity has degraded into self-pity and self-destruction. As Nelson pointed out in his article, chances are many of the patrons did, in fact, once love him, or at least got a kick out of him. But not anymore. Now they merely wanted him gone. Nicolas cage had hit a “bottom,” another recovery term that requires no defining. For Cage, that meant oblivion and a jail cell, not necessarily in that order.


Call it what it is: Alcoholism

Look, I don’t pretend to really care about Nicolas Cage or his personal demons. However, I do feel that every once in a while, when we’re given these all-too-similar stories about falling stars (Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Courtney Love, etc…), that we are given the full story. It justifies none of their behavior but it might help someone else understand what’s going on or maybe even get better (themselves), if they’re sick, like Nicolas Cage clearly was and is. By not doing so, I feel the media (and society as a whole) is in as much denial about alcoholism and addiction at the pour souls they are covering.

Wanting drives every advertisement ever made. Sometimes, it passes as “need” but let’s call a spade a spade. We want. And we want a lot. Whether it’s a new car or world peace human beings are defined by this unnatural urge. I say unnatural because wanting is not an impetus for survival. Animals need sustenance and they take what they can get. A Bear eats salmon when they’re running. Berries when they bloom. It does not crave one for the other.

When born, we are much like other animals. Helpless. Dependent on our parents. A baby needs food and it is given to him. Oddly, an infant remains this way far longer than any other creature. It takes an inordinate amount of time for us to become self-serving. But when we get there we arrive in style.

By the time we’re children, the wanting mechanism is in full flower. We want more than sustenance. We want Cheetos and iPads and Sour patch Kids. Our crying out of need becomes warped, narcissistic. As we get older we crave an ever larger, more expensive and baseless array of things. Want has taken over for need.

So utterly commonplace, the only time we hear about of want is when we are in church, listening to a dusty sermon on greed and gluttony or faced with those who are seemingly without it. Like the Amish. Buddhists. Or Sinead O’connor.

Which begs the question: Is ‘wanting’ a bad thing?

It’s tricky. Unraveling the ball of yarn to get from ‘want’ back to ‘need’ is no easy feat. Does one have what he needs in order to survive? If yes, then it’s everything after that that is in question. The defect (if it is a defect) becomes pronounced when we want better versions of what we already have (car, house, boobs) or when we want what we don’t have (two cars, Cartier watch, mistress) or what someone else has (all of the above).

Keeping up with the Joneses is nothing new. This is the ‘longing’ all of us in Adland cultivate and exploit every day. For without it what would be the point of marketing? Does advertising create it? I think so. Like the header on my blog reads: We make you want what you don’t need.

I’m no socialist. I’m not even Alex Bogusky. And I’m as culpable (if that’s the right word) as any of you. Likely more so. But when I observe my young daughters pining for all the stuff they see on TV, the Internet and, most poignantly, when visiting their rich friends I am forced to wonder about wanting.


Homer’s a cartoon…


…What’s your excuse?

One of my all-time favorite episodes of the Simpson’s is about St. Patrick’s Day. The whole town of Springfield gets drunk and stupid, more so than usual. Everyone is stumbling, puking and fighting. Even the cops. Especially the cops. And all of them are wearing that dumbass shade of green. Just like in Chicago, right? Only when Bart accidentally gets drunk does Springfield’s citizenry show any concern.

When it comes to drinking, St. Patrick’s Day rivals New Year’s Eve for “amateur night.” I’d argue that given Chicago’s ‘proud’ Irish heritage March 17th is actually bigger and dumber than Dec 31st. We dye the river green!

For me, the mandatory drinking that the “holiday” requires is plain annoying. Always has been. The mob scene it engenders is downright disgusting. By 7 PM North Clark Street resembles Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. Rush Street is even worse.

Before you take me for a Puritan, you should know for many years alcohol was one of my best friends. We went to high school together. In college, I graduated from beer to vodka. Like playing quarters, beer just seemed silly. Plus it took too long.

My point: I took drinking far too seriously to be caught dead in some Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day. Granted, I took drinking far too seriously period but that’s another story.

Anyway, I’m not a fan. That said here’s a clever piece of outdoor advertising from McDonald’s and Leo Burnett. Cheers!

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