The Man in Black

November 20, 2017

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You are in the basement of a church, with twenty or so other people seated around an extended horizontal folding table. The usual cross-section, many have nothing in common except for a desire to stop drinking. A lot of them brought coffees from the neighborhood Starbucks. The meeting is nearly over.

Dallas is a thirty-something woman with black hair laced with purple. Wrapped around her left bicep is a tattoo of barbed wire. The tough exterior belies her fragility. Dallas is a newcomer, five long-ass days and longer nights under her belt. She is finishing her share.

“Now that I’m not drinking, my friends don’t want anything to do with me.” She looks around the room. “But what kind of friends are those, right?”

People nod. They’ve all had to say goodbye to their drinking buddies. It comes with the territory, this new life. Dallas continues.

“Anyway, they can go fuck themselves. My daughter’s the only other person that matters to me. I’m doing the deal. I’m doing it!” She taps the Big Book resolutely. “That’s all I got.”

‘Thank you, Dallas!’ the room chimes. It’s a good way to end the meeting. A newcomer with grit.

The first time you saw Dallas, at the loft, you didn’t think she’d get 24 hours. Yet, here she was. The secretary rings her bell then reads from the script:

“As there are only a few minutes left in the meeting it is now time to ask if anyone has a burning desire.”

No hands go up.

“Come on, people. This is the time and this is the place!”

A man raises his hand. His black shirt and pants contrast with his pale skin. He has on sunglasses, which if this weren’t AA might seem peculiar. But not here. The second part of the program’s name is Anonymous. He clears his throat.

“I have a burning desire.”

“Excellent!” The secretary responds. “The man in black has the floor!”

The joke garners a few chuckles from the group. Why not? It’s Friday. We are not a glum lot is a popular phrase from the Big Book.

The man in black reaches into the gym bag sitting in front of him and pulls out two liters of Dewar’s White Label. One at a time he places each bottle on the table.

“What I desire is for each you to have a drink.”

A gasp fills the room but the man in black pays it no mind. He begins arranging large sized Dixie cups into a neat row on the table. He opens a bottle and carefully begins pouring the scotch into a cup, then another. The smell permeates the room.

The secretary rises. Though stunned like everyone else, somebody has to do something. This is her meeting.

“Excuse me, sir,” she says. Her voice quavers. “Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing? This is a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Raising an eyebrow, the man in black merely smiles. He could be tending bar.

“Well, I’ve already told you, Mam. I want you all to have a drink with me.” With that said, he slides a full cup to the woman sitting directly across from him. “Starting with you, sweetheart! You look like you could use a pop. I hope you like it neat.”

April, a frail creature no more than 18 years old, looks at the drink and the man with terror. She can’t speak. She is literally shaking.

“I…I…”

The man frowns. “What’s wrong, darling? Scotch not your drink of choice? Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. I was the same way at your age.”

April whispers. “Please. If I have another drink I… I’ll… I’ll die.”

In the room, shock has turned to anger. A few men push their chairs back. Enough is enough. They rise.

Undaunted, the man in black continues looking directly at April. He casually pulls a large handgun from his bag and points it at her face. Inches separate the barrel from her nose.

Everyone freezes.

“No, no, no darling, you’ve got it all wrong.” He says, clucking at her, twitching the gun. “If you don’t have another drink then you’ll die.”

He looks at the standing men. With his free hand he indicates for them to sit. When they do he returns his attention to the young woman.

“Now drink up, darling. It’s damn near closing time.”

With a shaking hand, April lifts the cup to her mouth and sips. It is her first taste of alcohol in almost a year. She grimaces. The man cocks the gun.

“All of it.”

When she is finished she places the empty vessel down in front of her. Two tears collapse from her eyes, the mascara making them look like black rivulets. She sobs quietly.

“Like riding a bicycle, right?”

A couple chairs down from the gunman, an addict named Roberto can no longer hold his tongue. “Please, sir, I beg of you-

The man in black wheels around and points the gun at Roberto. His voice remains calm, sickeningly so.

“Don’t worry, Senor. There’s plenty to go around. Matter of fact, you can drink straight from the bottle. We don’t mind.”

He slides the jug of scotch to Roberto. It stops alongside of his Big Book.

“I…I… can’t drink this!”

Undeterred, the man in black counters. “Sure you can, amigo. Isn’t that what got you hear – drinking this?

Roberto pleads. “But it’s been over eleven years!”

“Then you must be awful thirsty!”

Roberto stares at the bottle. He shuts his eyes. Prays? He reaches for the scotch but instead of picking it up he pushes it away, slowly, until it is just past his fingertips.

“I see,” says the man in black. “Well, how about we start you off with a shot?”

He pulls the trigger blowing a whole through Roberto’s chest. He’s dead before the blood exits his body, which it does suddenly and profusely.

“Any other requests?”

The man in black places the smoking gun on the table. He picks up one of the Dixie cups. “Cheers,” he says and downs it. “Who’s next?”

You have been sitting quietly, just a couple chairs down. You reach over and take one of the full cups of scotch. From the corner of your eye you see the man in black grinning, nodding.

“That’s right, son. If rape is inevitable you might as well enjoy it!”

He may have said that. Or you think he did. It doesn’t matter. A centimeter from your lips is alcohol! For years you’ve wondered if there was a backdoor, a way that would allow you to drink without regret. And here it is. Gunpoint! You lift the cup.

Your eyes they open. You are on your back. Breathing hard. You can smell blood and taste whiskey. But it’s so dark. And why are you in bed? Rainstorm and crickets from your iPhone. Oh. Okay. You’ve had a drinking dream. In the rooms they talk about these nightmares. They say upon awakening you are relieved none of it was real, that you are still sober. Yet “nightmare” isn’t the right word. Being able to drink with impunity. That part you liked.

 

The above is an excerpt from a book I’m writing, The Chaos Merchant.

Gods of Advertising is on hiatus so I may devote my full energy to personal writing as well as for clients. My services include copy writing, brand manifestos and creative business ideas: My portfolio

Do you have a writing project you’d like to discuss?

I look forward to hearing from you!

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Must…Have…Tweets!

In the highly entertaining Tobe Hooper film, Life Force the human population are turned into ravenous creatures that must suck the essence of life out of other human beings every few minutes or die. Without going into plot (in this case alien invasion), the streets of London are quickly turned into a maelstrom of carnage. Half dead zombies grab onto the living, draining them. The drained then come back to “life” looking for new victims to drain. And so on.

Typically, zombies do not dwell on one meal for long. Unthinking creatures, they rip into one victim after another, leaving the dead and dying in their relentless search for fresher meat. Of course, the bitten quickly “turn” and well you know the rest.

It’s pretty scary…the stuff of nightmares. Many observers have likened the popularity of zombies in our culture to not-so-latent fears about the economy or terrorism; that these ghouls symbolize a loss of control. It also has been suggested that we see ourselves in these mindless creatures, an even scarier thought -for how quickly our appetites run amok. Neither view is wrong. As one of the remaining mortals exclaims during George Romero’s remake of his own classic film, Night of the Living Dead: “We are them.”

Perhaps sadly, it’s also a metaphor for the effect social media is having on more and more of us every day. We have become “content zombies.” No longer able to process information, we rip through new media biting and chewing and spitting out content, barely digesting any of it. Ravenously, we move on to the next. Indeed, barely chewed facts, items and stories pass through us onto the web like offal. Our constant tweets, grams and snaps are mere bits and pieces, carrying links like so many worms, each containing the shred of something devoured earlier. Or something like that.

I myself am turning. Last night I tried reading an article in a magazine. I found myself jumping over paragraphs, skipping entire chunks, gluttonous. Unsatisfied, I started another article. Then another. Within minutes I was in front of my laptop lapping up more, more and more!

Already an addictive personality, once I taste blood I cannot stop gorging. The more I feast the less I retain. A vicious cycle if ever there was one. God help me for I am a content zombie. I am legend.

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A story of Lions and Excess…

The Cannes International Festival of Advertising is finis. All over Adland people are back at their shops tweaking layouts, creating and debating Power Points and churning out banners. The business of marketing continues. Yet the hangover persists. Not from the overpriced rose’ in Cannes but from its overwrought festival. In the wake of Publicis’ controversial decree to forgo one year of entering work into Cannes or any other awards show, a hazy doubt remains, wafting in it lingering questions about the role of award shows, the cost to participate, and the value they provide.

No doubt award shows had their place, back when work was difficult to share and people harder to connect. But in the age of social media, nothing could be farther from the truth. Everyone sees everything. Shit is condemned. Cream rises to the top. By the time an ad wins an award it has been praised or vilified ad nauseam. Awards have become anti-climactic. Gilding the Lily if you will. Of course recognition is critical for agencies and their people. But claiming prizes well after the fact is antiquated.

But there’s another mitigating fact. Award shows cost a ton of time and money for agencies to participate. I think more than an App named Marcel, this is the real reason Publicis CEO, Arthur Sadoun pulled the plug. In these increasingly difficult times, he saw millions of dollars in savings. The bottom line is the bottom line.

And for this, we cannot blame him. I believe it costs around a thousand dollars to enter a piece of work at Cannes into a sole category. And there are thousands of categories with more every year. Nearly 1,500 Lions were given out this year. Out of God knows how many entries. You do the math. Agencies desperation to win coupled with outright greed by award show executives created a perfect storm. One must pay to play. The gross is gross.

I don’t think award shows should go away –necessarily- but clearly they need to be brought down to earth. There are too many shows with too many categories. Period.

Forget the many losers at Cannes. Let’s look at two of the biggest winners.

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“Meet Graham”

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“Fearless Girl”

Clemenger BBDO Melbourne was awarded 29 Lions & 2 Grand Prix for their “Meet Graham” campaign. McCaan New York received 18 Lions and 4 Grand Prix for their “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street. No question these are wonderful and deserving ideas. But 18 and 29 Lions? That’s icing on the icing on the icing. We may crave the sugar but it’s not good for anyone. Except, of course, the executives at Cannes. They’ll gladly exchange statues for cash.

If only a handful of Lions were given out they would mean so much more. But the current system demand quantity. The solution: Make the show a salon for great work and only give the most brilliant a prize. More like the film festival, which takes place a month before. Hell, if they can do it so can we. I know it’s a tough pill for the many profiteers to swallow. But it’s the right thing to do.

For copy, content and creative direction: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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One Lion is apparently enough.

The great irony from the Cannes International Festival of Advertising is that by far the biggest story coming from this famously bloated bacchanal is that the new leader of Publicis Group, Arthur Sadoun decreed in the forthcoming year zero euros will be spent on advertising award shows! Instead, Publicis has introduced a Siri-like App called Marcel (named after Publicis’ founder), which will unite the holding company’s agencies into a “Power of One.” Furthermore, Arthur stated unequivocally that all the monies that would’ve normally gone into entering award shows (extravagant fees, production for entries, and travel) will now be used to create, optimize and deliver Marcel. Here is the video introducing Marcel. No comment.

As everyone (accept apparently Arthur) expected the reaction was fast, furious and mostly vitriolic. Some of that is here.

So much to unpack…

Rather than vivisect the top paragraph like everyone else in Adland, let’s pick out a few tidbits from the carcass. First, why on Earth would a French advertising concern make such a controversial announcement at the biggest advertising festival in the world…in France no less? For publicity? Mission accomplished, Art. But doing so is, well, rude. Dare I say French?

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Les Creatives? Let them eat cake!

And to justify the move by claiming an Intranet App, seemingly only for Publicis employees, should somehow take precedent is just plain bizarre. There are already a zillion ways to share files and connect. Does Publicis really need a proprietary one? But fine. I’m sure it will provide some utility. Yet linking it with a budget cutting agenda (pork) feels like the worst kind of governance.

Lost in the melee is this business of “Power of One.” Really? Christ, when I was at the former other big French holding company, Euro RSCG (now HAVAS), the “Power of One” was their big, swinging dick. It was the main part of Euro’s credentials and in all of our pitches. Trotting it out now is trite and oblivious.

All this being said, I’m actually for the decree. You heard me. And yes, for the usual reason: that we are an ego-maniacal industry with a profound inferiority complex. Saluting our wares in show after show became pathetic years ago. Yet like addicts we can’t stop.

But here’s a better reason. Advertising award shows are no longer necessary. If and when good work becomes part of popular culture, the so-called conversation, that is all the accolades one needs. It will be heralded in countless venues. Shared by industry wags and real people alike. A lot.

 

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Why do I need a Lion when I rattled this bull?

McCann’s timely “Fearless Girl” statue was the talk of the town well before winning Lions at Cannes. Not winning would have been the only story. Ergo it was already a winner. Its creators were celebrated and undoubtedly got fat raises and job offers. Cannes is merely icing on the icing. The sugar high is fleeting and unhealthy. We creatives may crave the perk but we don’t need it.

Back in the day, before the Internet and social media, shows like Cannes were more vital. Save for the occasional marketing column, It was the only place things got shared. Now, it’s the last place things get shared.

So good on you Publicis. Throw a harpoon into the whale. (Yeah, a bunch of Global Creative Directors may go down with it. But honestly their salaries are where the real savings will come.) Your timing sucks and the cold turkey will too but measures like this are frankly overdue. Let’s see if Arthur can withstand the shit storm of junkies that have already begun pounding on his door.

For award winning work hit me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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An account strategist for Ogilvy & Mather in the Philippines died at his workplace, sick from pneumonia but apparently unwilling (or unable) to leave. I don’t want to comment on this particular man or his firm. It’s a tragedy and I’m sure everyone feels bad about it. Especially the man’s family. Yet, I’m pretty sure the root behavior won’t change. Not at that agency or all the sweatshops like it.

Here’s why: Fear. Be it of a losing a pitch or one’s job, fear of not getting what you want (raise, promotion, attention) or having it taken away, is insidious.

Fear is a powerful motivator but it comes at a tremendous price. (Look what it is doing to our country.) When fear creeps into an agency’s culture, it is always toxic and usually incurable. Fear makes people do bad things to other people and to themselves. Fear creates an environment of hostility and mistrust. I’ve seen it and felt it and have been hurt by it. Likely so have you.

The occasional all-nighter to win a pitch is NOT what I’m talking about. This is a good thing, bringing people together to win a glorious prize. However, when such activities become an expectation the bonding soon becomes bondage.

Mocking the so-called trend to “work from home,” people are afraid to leave at a reasonable hour, aware of the critical eyes upon them. The creative director who wants to see work at 10PM quickly turns from hero to heel. Yet, he or she is likely afraid of not calling the meeting as well. Probably because the agency’s managing director is expecting to see work first thing in the morning. If the presentation is not perfect then the MD will blame the CD for not working harder and longer. The cycle gets repeated. The virus of fear spreads.

While literally dying on the job is thankfully an ultra rare exception, there are far more commonplace consequences that are lethal. For example, each affected human is in turn hurting his or her family. Continuity at home becomes hopelessly disrupted. Marriages suffer. This makes everyone resentful and bitter: the employee to his boss for not giving a shit and to his spouse for not understanding. Resentments at home and office fester. The bitterness may lead to isolation, anxiety and depression. Alcoholism and “acting out” thrive in these conditions. Finger pointing. Blaming. Misconduct. People become the crappiest version of themselves. All because of fear.

But so what? Sweatshops work. For a period of time results are wrought. But it never ends well. For the individuals and eventually the agencies. Like an over-watered plant, the tips look good but everything below becomes rotten. I once worked with a guy who wanted a sweatshop more than life itself. He got his wish. I left that job. And he his home. Everyone loses when fear takes over.

For fearless creative hit me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/