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A couple advertising men passed away last week. Jim Schmidt was a copywriter by trade and co-founder of Downtown Partners, a creative boutique within the DDB matrix in Chicago. Mike Hughes was also a creative director and, in addition, a founding member of the Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia. I wasn’t a friend to either of these fine gentlemen but I most certainly knew who they were, having judged awards shows with Jim and attended AAAA functions in which Mike was a key player.

Moreover, I was a fan of their work. Both Jim and Mike were advertising craftsmen in the best sense of the word. They cared about words. They sweated the details. More than anything, they liked to work on the work. I could be wrong but I don’t think either man identified with being bosses and politicians. They liked to make stellar copy for clients who appreciated it. I think of the Martin Agency’s work for Saab. I think of Jim’s fable-like commercials for Walgreens. Frankly, there are more and better examples but I don’t want to write specifically about advertising copy.

Two very decent men died. Two husbands. Two fathers. They weren’t old men either. Cancer took them both before their time. The say no one is promised tomorrow but Jim and Mike got robbed.

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Jim Schmidt, gone too soon.

Being a Chicago native I had more in common with Jim. When Jim left Euro RSCG (now Havas) to begin Downtown Partners in 2004 I had the dubious job of replacing him. Fortunately, we had other things in common besides that particular challenge. Both of us copywriters, we were more or less from the same advertising class, lived and worked in the same city, even competed. I adored Jim’s candor and piercing wit. Loved it when he took me to task for something I’d written or said. He followed this blog and was free with his comments and, as I’ve said, not all of them were flattering! His biting Facebook posts were legendary. Jim adored the Beatles with a teenager’s passion. He loved music. He had heart. We weren’t buddies by most definitions but I will miss you. (AdAge Story)

Mr. Hughes was more like my father (who also started his own agency, RPA) than me. Judging from the loving tribute his agency made for him, Mike was considerably more than just a hard worker and popular guy. He was a patriarch: stable, warm and special. I imagine he was an exemplary mentor to countless lucky writers and budding advertising professionals. I bet he was a father figure to many.

Clearly, both men had above average talent. Well above. Whether one considers either a “legend” I will leave alone. I doubt either man would have cared for the distinction let alone aspired to it. I know Jim loathed sizzle and self-promotion, banking his career primarily on substance, even as our business grew more hyperbolic and social. Similarly, Mike cared more about others than himself. His consistent involvement with the VCU Brandcenter is but a tiny proof point.

This isn’t a suitable eulogy for Jim or Mike. These are just impressions of two lives. But here’s the thing. Upon hearing of the sad news I could not stop thinking about these two guys. Nor could I write about anything else until I wrote about them.

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Chicago from my hotel, a visitor now.

How are you with personal nostalgia? I’m definitely Love/Hate. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I’m not always a fan of tripping down memory lane. Some people dig visiting their old haunts, getting misty eyed at the sight of myriad firsts (kiss, drink, apartment, job, etc) but I’m not one of them. I usually experience the passage of time as melancholy. The good parts are gone forever and the bad parts linger like ghosts. Either way, it’s kind of funky.

As many of you know, I left Chicago last year to be ECD of gyro, San Francisco. Save for one hotel-bound visit last summer, I have not been back to Chicago at all: not for business and certainly not for pleasure.

Until now…

A global meeting and the Business Marketing Association (for which gyro is a huge supporter) delivered me back to my Sweet Home Chicago. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this post from the fabulous 14th floor of gyro’s Chicago office.

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“Selfie” at gyro, Chicago. All smiles.

From my perch before its many windows I can see both my former companies, Leo Burnett and Euro RSCG (now Havas). I also see parts of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where I was born as well as my daughters. Ah, and there’s the ugly, iconic Marina City Towers. I recall a blowout party…

Shit. I’m waxing nostalgia.

Or it’s waxing me? That’s the thing about returning to one’s hometown. Everywhere I’m bombarded by memories. Yet, maybe they aren’t all misty and sad. Maybe I do enjoy the echoes. It’s kind of like a time machine. My brain processes familiar images as icons. Those “firsts” I made fun of in the first paragraph are unavoidable and indelible.

I’m reminded of Don Draper’s now famous “carousel speech” from an early episode of Mad Men. In it, he exploits the profound human desire to recreate the past based on romantic memories. If you’ve not seen this bit, watch it. The writing and execution are flawless.

Don tells his clients nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” I won’t deny seeing my last former workplace didn’t dredge up some crap. That of a mission not wholly accomplished. The guilt. My anger. A person or two I did not punch in the mouth (but maybe should have). On the other hand no one punched me…

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Euro RSCG… Havas… fading fast

But then I see Michigan Avenue, what tourists call the Magnificent Mile! I’m instantly transported back 25 years heading south from Oak Street to my first big day of job interviews. There’s J. Walter Thompson in the John Hancock building no less! Then Foote, Cone and Belding. Followed at last by the most famous Chicago agency of all, Leo Burnett…where I would ultimately work for the next 18 years!

Clearly, I chose wisely. The other two firms aren’t even here anymore. Not really. And let me tell you back then NOTHING compared to having an LBCO business card in your wallet. It made my brother envious. My mother proud. And the chicks dug it.

Today, I’m a proud and happy card-carrying member of gyro –an agency built for the 21st century. All told, I’ve been and continue to be a very fortunate man. Gratitude. That’s a good lens for viewing the past as well as the present.

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Or as my kids call it, a “flat bowling ball.”


My 50 years in Advertising, Larry Postaer

In my father’s recently released memoir on his career in advertising, Pickett, Plunkett & Puckett he mentions a test he had to take in order to qualify for a job as copywriter on the Sears’s catalog. In the early sixties Sear’s Roebuck (and its iconic catalog) was literally the textbook for retailing in the United States. Called the “Wish book,” anything and everything could be found in the Sear’s catalog (even houses!) and it was a staple in every home, kind of the Amazon of its day.

Yet, the job was hardly glamorous and wasn’t supposed to be. Sears Roebuck was about as old school as it got: dress codes, pneumatic tubes, and a cafeteria.

All his pages detailing the inner workings of Sear’s marketing department are fascinating but, for me, it was the test he took that stands out. Anachronistic now, back in the day, psychological profiling was used at companies all over America to determine whether an applicant was the “right fit” for the job and company. Back then folks entered into a career hoping –nay expecting- to work at a given firm the rest of their lives. The companies’ wanted that too and so standardized tests, however futile, were developed to insure its likelihood.


The “Wish Book.” You know you want it!

My father singles out one question from the test: Would you rather write the play, star in the play, or sell tickets to the play? My father rightly guesses they are not looking for big creative egos at Sears and answers “sell the tickets.” However, like any writer, what he really would like to do is write the play. These days, I’m guessing that’s what every aspiring writer would like to do. Honestly, the way things are now, I’m betting quite a few young creatives would just assume star in at as well.

It’s easy making fun of this archaic test, so corny and out of touch. But the question is pretty damn interesting when you think about it, as I have. From day one copywriters have wrestled with their urges to be creative versus their mandate to sell. Even now the challenge is still a major aspect of the job. Whether one works at a conservative shop or some rogue boutique, all on staff struggle with it. The lame rejoinder “well, you gotta do both” is generally where everyone nets out. Sears had no such dilemma, which makes my father’s anecdote provocative nostalgia.

In the end my father writes he faired poorly on the test but somehow got the job anyway. As I said, the stories around this are fascinating and, like many others in the book, well worth reading. It’s available in paperback or on kindle, via Amazon.

The Sears Catalog stopped printing in 1993. Regardless, the company struggles to remain relevant.

Authors Note: This is an updated version of a previous post.


My 50 years in Advertising, Larry Postaer

In my father’s recently released memoir on his career in advertising, Pickett, Plunkett & Puckett he mentions a test he had to take in order to qualify for a job as copywriter on the Sears’s catalog. In the early sixties Sear’s Roebuck (and its iconic catalog) was literally the textbook for retailing in the United States. Called the “Wish book,” anything and everything could be found in the Sear’s catalog (even houses!) and it was a staple in every home, kind of the Amazon of its day.

Yet, the job was hardly glamorous and wasn’t supposed to be. Sears Roebuck was about as old school as it got: dress codes, pneumatic tubes, and a cafeteria.

All his pages detailing the inner workings of Sear’s marketing department are fascinating but, for me, it was the test he took that stands out. Anachronistic now, back in the day, psychological profiling was used at companies all over America to determine whether an applicant was the “right fit” for the job and company. Back then folks entered into a career hoping –nay expecting- to work at a given firm the rest of their lives. The companies’ wanted that too and so standardized tests, however futile, were developed to insure its likelihood.


The “Wish Book.” You know you want it!

My father singles out one question from the test: Would you rather write the play, star in the play, or sell tickets to the play? My father rightly guesses they are not looking for big creative egos at Sears and answers “sell the tickets.” However, like any writer, what he really would like to do is write the play. These days, I’m guessing that’s what every aspiring writer would like to do. Honestly, the way things are now, I’m betting quite a few young creatives would just assume star in at as well.

It’s easy making fun of this archaic test, so corny and out of touch. But the question is pretty damn interesting when you think about it, as I have. From day one copywriters have wrestled with their urges to be creative versus their mandate to sell. Even now the challenge is still a major aspect of the job. Whether one works at a conservative shop or some rogue boutique, all on staff struggle with it. The lame rejoinder “well, you gotta do both” is generally where everyone nets out. Sears had no such dilemma, which makes my father’s anecdote provocative nostalgia.

In the end my father writes he faired poorly on the test but somehow got the job anyway. As I said, the stories around this are fascinating and, like many others in the book, well worth reading. It’s available in paperback or on kindle, via Amazon.

The Sears Catalog stopped printing in 1993. Regardless, the company struggles to remain relevant.


What’s it all about, Alfie?

Having been away from advertising for several months, now seems like a good time for reflection, about the business and about what it looks like to me from forty thousand feet…

Sans job, I’ve religiously kept up with Adland’s machinations. While some of what I write about is critical most of it isn’t. To this day, I’ve mostly adored every year of 20-plus spent in service to capitalism’s bitch Advertising. And I am unabashed about it. Coming up with ideas, fleshing them out and selling them in is a job I feel blessed to have done. And it’s one I fully intend to keep doing, pending of course, a willing suitor.

So many smart people, characters, and crazy sons of bitches populate Adland it can feel like a Moveable Feast, albeit sometimes a tainted one. Especially when you’re in it, as I was, and as so many of you still are. But trying to keep up with technology. Trying to keep up with the Consumer. Trying to keep accounts. Trying to keep your fucking job…it’s trying.

But you know what? Six months away and it also seems, well, kind of small. A feast? More like a TV dinner. From six months out, I’m afraid the drama of Adland plays like a tinny old rerun of I Love Lucy.

A perfect example of what I mean by “small” can be found in this frothy review of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recent speech to the Chicago Advertising Federation. I’m not sure what’s more disappointing: the coverage or the event. Were “jaws dropping” in “disbelief and dismay” at Rahm’s “mostly unsuccessful attempt” at rallying Chicago’s “rather beleaguered ad industry?” A better question: Why turn a random business luncheon into Heaven’s Gate? News flash: the new Mayor of Chicago does have better things to do than spend the afternoon with a bunch of advertising executives…no matter how “gussied up” they were.

It’s this melodramatic idea of dashed expectations that belittles our industry. Between the overblown hype bestowed upon mere adverts and the ungodly amount of fear, cynicism and schadenfreude permeating the corridors of Adland it’s a wonder any work gets done at all.

Over the years I’ve lived in the problem, added to it, been small. I’ve had my share of ridiculous expectations and insidious resentments. My blog is called Gods of Advertising but I’m no angel. So here’s my vow. If and when I come back to Adland I promise to do my job as best I can and to be thankful for it on a daily basis.

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