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Walt Whitman

When I was a teenager, I worked one summer at my Grandfather’s can factory on the Southside of Chicago. Dominic was not my biological grand parent but I grew up knowing only him on my mother’s side. Dom was fierce, funny and a very loyal man. He treated me like blood.

His can company, called (for a reason I forget) Wisconsin Can was a line factory. Each person occupied a spot along a conveyor and did one menial but critical job. The end product was an aluminum can, usually for cookies or candy.

A log-haired, pot smoking dreamer, this was not my fantasy gig. I wouldn’t have lasted a week if not for Dom’s patience – if that were the right word. He would call me in to his office constantly to reprimand me for doing a half-ass job. During those sessions he’d also throw in various criticisms toward my liberal upbringing, castigating my parents for divorcing and other bon mots.

Yet, I actually preferred his berating me to working on the line. Partly because it took me off the line but also because it made me feel good –somehow- to be in his presence. In his own way, the man loved me.

Once, when I dared question him on the sanctity of factory work he told me something I’ll never forget, even if I don’t agree with it. He said, “Steffan, work isn’t supposed to be fun. Why do you think they call it work?”

Much later, I got into the advertising business. And I had fun. But I also knew I possessed a skill and that I was getting better at it. Unlike sticking a wrapper on a can, writing was (and still is) something I can sink my teeth into.

Yet, as we all know, this business is not always fun. Pressures mount and fears take hold. Work can become a trying experience, like a factory. Or worse. A factory that doesn’t make anything. I think of my grandfather during those times.

I know he had a point. One must earn a living. So, maybe “fun” isn’t the right word. Let’s try some others. If one feels “useful” and “purpose-driven” then that is better than fun. Wouldn’t you agree? Suffice to say, I wasn’t feeling either on the can line.

Give me this. Working in our business should at least aspire to be fun. Data be damned, creativity will always be more art than science. And art is about passion and, yes, having fun! When a creative is feeling it there is no better feeling. It’s like your Walt Whitman singing the Song of (Your)self. It’s glorious.

So, here’s to feeling it and being of maximum usefulness to your company, your clients and, most of all, yourself. May all of you find that happiness. It does exist.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

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Not the image Subway was looking for…

By now, everyone is familiar with the lurid story of Subway’s ex-pitchman, Jared Fogel. By his own admission, he is guilty of crimes involving sex with underage girls and distributing pornography celebrating the same. I am not here to pass judgment on the guy. Nor to make jokes. Plenty of that going on already.

However, the incident made me curious about other disgraced pitchmen. Who were they? What happened? Where are they now? Oddly, I couldn’t think of any pure-play spokespeople guilty of malfeasances. Of course, I’m aware of countless actors, athletes and musicians who also happened to be pitchmen getting into trouble. That happens all the time.

But Jared the public figure was purely a Subway phenomenon. He had no public persona prior to his affiliation with Subway. You know the tale. An obese college student in Indiana loses a bunch of weight, in part, by only consuming Subway sandwiches. He gets featured in a regional ad pitching Subway as a healthy alternative to fast food. The campaign resonates with the public and Subway takes the message and Jared national. The rest is history. Jared and Subway enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for over 15 years. Until it all came crashing down a few weeks ago.

Who else? Even the inevitable (and creepy) online lists of disgraced celebrities disclose few pure play pitch people. Madonna, Bruce Willis and Kate Moss all lost advertising gigs due to scandals. But these were very big stars without the advertising. And stayed stars after.

In the early 2000’s a young man named Ben Curtis became the “Dell Dude” for the giant computer company. Even though Ben came off as a young stoner on TV, Dell shit-canned him for allegedly selling weed in Manhattan. The ShamWow infomercial guy fell from his decidedly chintzy pedestal for allegedly battering a prostitute.

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ShamWowMug!

During my time at Leo Burnett, I wrote several commercials for Maytag, featuring their iconic “Lonely Repairman.” At the time Gordon Jump played the character. Jump was a complete gentleman. And while I’d heard tales of the original Maytag Repairman (Jesse white) having had serious problems with alcohol they weren’t substantiated, it wasn’t illegal, and his job was never in jeopardy.

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Lonely men but never guilty…

Back in the day, when pitchmen were far more common, I’m sure a great many of them had episodes of regretful and illegal behavior. But short of murder, these “mishaps” were covered up to preserve the status quo. Good luck doing that nowadays. And while much of the world has become tolerant of numerous previously scandalous topics (infidelity, alcoholism, homosexuality), pedophilia remains understandably exceptional. In addition, I find that a vast majority of brands have zero tolerance when it comes to scandal.

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Babies cry and feel… a lot

We feel something.

Maybe someone says something to us… or about us… behind our backs… in front of our peers. Whatever the stimuli, it trips one of our many internal wires and we feel. This is normal. Human beings are wired to act this way.

Then what?

Feelings are tricky. Where I often screw up. Where most people screw up. Instead of internally processing a feeling we act on it, often impulsively, as if it were actual and physical, like an insect biting through our skin. But there is no bug. And we lash out at it anyway. Our reactions to feelings have consequences. Energy is expended. Shit happens.

It’s perilous. Why? Because feelings are not facts. They exist only in our heads, inflaming egos with abstract drama. By definition, a feeling skews positive or negative, often to extremes. Therefore, we ought to think about a feeling (even if only 10 seconds) before acting on it. You’ve heard the expression “count to ten.” How many of us actually do that?

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“How could you?!”

Instead we act. I feel hurt. I feel angry. I’m going to do something about it, let the dominoes fall where they may. This is when we write flaming emails. Troll ex-lovers. Why Russian President Putin burns tons of perfectly good food. Is it an overstatement to suggest that acting on feelings is how most if not all human conflicts are caused?

So much misery (in our homes, offices and the world) enabled by a small glitch in our wiring. Imagine if our code was “Feel. Think. Act.” Instead of “Feel. Act. Think.” The world would be better place. Certainly your home or office would.

An addendum about advertising:

Those of us in Adland have long known the best (and most creative) ways to get people to act is to provoke their feelings. “Illicit an emotional response.” “Tap a Responsive chord.” And all that jazz. Even with so many new tools we still think and operate this way. We fundamentally believe feelings trump facts in their ability to persuade. Our creativity depends on it. Bill Bernbach showed us the way and we have not looked back.

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Oh, Bill, look what you’ve done!

Feelings are not facts, which is why they’re so human. Of course they inspire better ad copy than bullet points and rationales. Yet, for the very same reason feelings (and the behavior they inspire) are potentially radioactive. Especially on a personal and social level. The distance from insight to incite can be precariously short.

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My home office: a cheap cigar, a Diet Coke and thou!

Oh, dear blog what shall I write? It’s been more days than I like to spend away from you. But work, family and the great outdoors call me away. That and the whole wide rest of the Internet. The last one is the big devourer of time. What with my shows, that video and this movie.

Often when I’m riding my bike or waiting to fall asleep I think of a killer topic. But then I forget it. I guess it wasn’t so killer after all. More likely I realize the topic is just not right for this forum. New things we are working on at the agency are not appropriate for public consumption. Nor are many of the intrigues we are experiencing. I’ve learned over time, often the hard way that discussing certain items on a blog violates the trust others have put in me. However compelling a challenge at work or home may be, this cannot be the place for it.

My ego is a strong influence. The devil may care, it says. Write, chicken shit, write! It is my lone frenemy.

Here’s the hard part. For provocative and challenging issues I often need to write about them in order to know what I really think, feel and believe. My first thought –Run! Fight! Drink!- is typically not the right one. This blog has been a perfect sounding board for my thoughts to marinate into sound ideas. Until it isn’t. In my last engagement, the agency PR guy came to loathe this blog for my self-disclosure and truth telling. Ironically, he now works at Facebook.

Like you, I am also caught up in the sad, maddening melee of modern culture and politics. What is going on with our police? Were they always this freewheeling with their pistols and we didn’t know about it? And then there is Donald Trump. So much has been said about so much he has said. Somehow he leads the polls to be the GOP candidate for President of these United States. What’s even more unbelievable is that he has made an enemy of Fox News. He would be their torch bearer! In the end, the Democrats need only put out mashed potatoes and win. Hillary you are one lucky woman.

But this blog isn’t about those things. Or so I thought when I sat down to write.

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Most people require a lifetime to decide…

I’ve been thinking about something my father once told me and I’d like to share that with you here. But first some history…

Newly married, I had just bought my first house – a brick cottage in a sketchy but up and coming neighborhood in Chicago. The place was a dump and I’d hired a number of people to help with the rehab. We found a young architect with no track record but a lot of big ideas. He’d drawn up plans, which, in retrospect, were ridiculous… and way over our modest budget. He wanted to blow up our warren-filled bungalow into this huge open space, with soaring ceilings and a catwalk! Like a fool, I green-lit the whole thing.

My solution for underwriting the high costs of his grand designs would come from hiring a cheap contractor: a guy named Wayne who said “no problemo” a lot. Guess what? We had problems. Turns out not pulling permits in Chicago is a bad idea – the first of many implemented by a man who proved to be nothing more than a drunk and a con. A month after demolition I had a huge mess on my hands –our hands. After all, I’d dragged my new bride into this shit show. Irate inspectors, a growing pile of bills, and a new mortgage on top of rent. We were in deep.

In my adult life I can count the times I’ve cried on one hand. The first such time came then. Sue and I were in a theater parking lot, a few blocks from our demolished house. I broke down. I was a new husband and so-called young urban professional. And I was failing. Miserably.

Exasperated, I called my old man and basically asked for help. If memory serves, that was the first time I ever had to do such a thing. God, it was difficult but I was bereft of ideas. Long story short, my father saved us. He “loaned” me 30 grand and I was able to clear my debts and finish the work with more reputable help. In addition to the scratch, my father also gave me a piece of advice. “Son,” he told me, “possessions possess you.” Obviously, he didn’t coin the phrase but I heard it from him first.

Decades later, I think about those words, especially when I open our credit card statement. Stuff. And more stuff. A cornucopia of swoon! Yes, we are blessed. But after I say my prayers at night, counting those blessings (literally counting them) I often recall my father’s words and shudder. For the genie is out of the bottle. And while he may grant wishes they are never given freely.

Yet, I also know:

Some day not too far from now my house will belong to another family, as all houses will. Our girls will be women. Our many things will have been rid of – perhaps at an estate sale. How classy is that? Flocks of young couples will pick through our belongings like carrion birds, eyes full of hunger at such prized possessions. They will gorge themselves. And I will smile and say to my wife: “honey, it’s their turn now.”

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