Welcome to Armageddon

September 25, 2020

“I’m going to tell you a true story, okay?”

Callie is looking at her phone but you know she is listening. You are driving her to rehearsal. She has a big part in Les Miserables. She plays the grown-up version of Cosette. Though you saw the movie you don’t really remember the story. Victor Hugo is not your thing. Being a musical, Callie has been practicing her song for weeks. You’ve heard her belting out lyrics from her room, in the shower, on the trampoline in the backyard, which she pretended was a stage. You couldn’t tell if she was good or not but her enthusiasm was infectious. It gladdened you to see her so passionate, so happy. Many members from your family are coming in to see her perform. Hundreds of other people as well. The tickets cost money and this is a real show. Up until yesterday Callie had been totally psyched.

One of her “friends” had disrespected her online, insulting her singing skills or some other shit. Usually a brick, Callie had been wounded.  Your wife told you as much. Now you felt it in your daughter’s sullen demeanor.

So you tell her a story…

“Before you were born,” you begin. “Back when I was coming up at my agency in Chicago, we were preparing for this huge presentation. It was my idea we’d be showing. I had written all the copy. And I had the game to go with it. I knew what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I had my shit down.”

Callie looks up when you curse. Good. You had her attention. No easy feat with a teenager.

“Anyway, the night before I rehearsed my bit in front of the team. I get done. My colleagues are pleased. One even clapped. Then the head account person –the guy who deals with the client- he proceeds to crap all over my work. He’s not happy with the creative, he says. It’s shit. I’m dumbfounded. Where did this come from? He’d seen it before.”

Traffic on the 101 is heavy but it allows you to turn and look at your daughter. “The guy says to me, in front of everybody, if you present that work tomorrow it will be Armageddon.”

“The end of the world?” Callie asks. “What did you do?” Callie’s eyes are one of her most beautiful features, big and blue, and they are wide open staring at you.

You laugh. “I told him I would make changes. That I’d do what he wanted.”

“That sucks,” your daughter says.

“It would have sucked,” you say. “Had I listened to him. The next day I delivered my presentation just as I’d planned it. My work. My way. And I fucking killed it. When I was done the client cheered.”


“Damn straight,” you say. “But the story’s not over. After the meeting ends, everybody’s shaking hands, patting each other on the back. I walk over to the account guy who’d dissed my work. He thinks I’m going to shake his hand. I look him right in the eyes, and I say, ‘Welcome to Armageddon, asshole.’”

Almost missing your exit, you swiftly change lanes. So caught up are you in the tale.

“Wow, that’s a great story, dad,” Callie says. “It’s all true?”

“Every bit, sweetheart.”

At the red light, you look at Callie full on. The middle child, she’s the sassy one. The daughter that gives your wife the most trouble. You choose your words carefully. “If people disrespect you or your work that does not mean you have to listen to them. Just be…”

The light turns green and you move the car forward. The word comes to you.


AA teaches that redemption comes from being of service. Letting go the bondage of self. This is true. Yet redemption also comes by shattering the chains from the bondage of others. You want your daughter to believe in herself, even when others don’t.

In the parking lot, Callie thanks you for driving her to practice. But you sense something deeper. You can see it in her eyes.

The fierceness has returned.

You watch Callie as she marches toward the theater, joining her other cast members. When she was a toddler, she had refused to walk upright, instead choosing to tread on her knees. The pediatrician had concerns. Your wife was worried. It’s not normal, they said. But you knew her day would come. And in your mind so did she.

The world is a stage and you just gave an important player some badass direction.

From dickhead to sainthood…

Thank you, Adweek. I’ve been waiting for something like this. A truly original idea based on a deep and meaningful insight – as opposed to all the farfetched click bait (so-called “weirdvertising”) or, conversely, heavy handed content pushing social causes. So much modern advertising is about riding a pop culture wave, grabbing attention with glib shininess, or bludgeoning us with kumbaya kindness that I’ve almost forgotten what a solid piece of creative looks like.


For me, the Martin Agency’s campaign for Donate Life is that concept. One can be redeemed by donating vital organs after death. So simple and yet so compelling. Whether you’re religious or not, the eternal theme of redemption burns within us all. We want to be good people and do the right thing but we always fall short. Some of us more than others but nobody’s perfect. By agreeing to donate our organs after death we are doing something sublime, ending on a high note if you will – a divine benefit we can enjoy right now.

The film depicts “the world’s biggest asshole” being one to anyone and everyone around him: hijacking a washer at the laundromat, honking at the handicapped, shooting at a neighbor’s pet, even stealing candy from children. Mean and misanthropic, bereft of all decorum, Coleman Sweeney was the picture of ugly self will run riot. Until he dies, unexpectedly of an aneurysm while trying to gyp a waitress in a diner. Even more unexpectedly the waitress discovers he’s an organ donor from his driver’s license. “Nobody knew what caused Coleman to do it,” the voiceover tells us. “But there it was. Generous and majestic.” We then see the various beneficiaries of Coleman’s grand gesture – a father of two, a school teacher, a wounded soldier. AVO: “Yes, in life Coleman was a bonafide asshole… but in death… he was not an asshole anymore.”

Is the film too long? Perhaps. Is it a tad over-written? I think so. Do we hear the word “asshole” more than is needed? Yes. And is that Coldplay? But those are qualms. The idea is transcendent. Fresh, vital, and human to the core.

Some creep redeems himself by being an organ donor. Boom.

Coming up with this concept must have felt like winning the lottery. If it were me my hands would’ve shook. I’d write the script in a fever, maybe overwriting out of excitement. I’d be so keen to show my boss, the client, the director that I wouldn’t sleep the night before.

But there I go making it about me. My problem is I’m too self-absorbed. At least now I know how to redeem myself, thanks to this wonderful commercial.

A genius…and a douchebag?

Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs died one year ago. However, I’m just now reading his biography by Walter Isaacson. Among the book’s many surprises, none are as jolting (to me) as the endless examples depicting Steve Jobs as an egomaniacal asshole. Since so much has already been said regarding these controversial passages, I won’t go into them here. Among other things, he publicly berated his staff, stole ideas, took credit inappropriately and was unpardonably cruel to his family.

This by no means diminishes Job’s enormous contribution to Apple and, indeed, the world. Case in point, I’m writing this on one of his inventions, an iPhone and iPod are in my backpack. I use his stuff every day, constantly. So do most of you. Apple has become the most impressive brand in the world. And Steve Jobs had a lot to do with it.

Yet should that excuse him for having been an “assoholic” as one of his peers called him?

In a rare bit of self-awareness (apparently, he mostly had blinders on), Jobs admitted to being overly rough on his people but he remained unapologetic. He claimed the Mac would never have been created if not for his intolerance and meanness. Many people, including some he was ruthless to, concurred. In the end, according to Isaacson, they didn’t mind getting fucked over by a visionary.

Makes me think. In my time on the planet I’ve been intermittently difficult in matters of social discourse. I’m uncomfortable making small talk and listening to it as well. I’ve been an ass. Perhaps my record at work isn’t as spotty but it’s hardly immaculate either. I can be socially inept.

Granted, I’m not a creative visionary like Steve Jobs was but I am always trying to improve my behavior. What struck me about Steve Jobs is that he never bothered. When a brave insider called him on his bad behavior Jobs berated the man: “You don’t know what it’s like being me!”

Well, now we do.

Jobs’ claimed he was perpetually hard on Apple employees because otherwise the company would have softened, invariably inviting “B” players and eventually “C” players; which, of course, was unacceptable (to him).

Reminds me of Vince Lombardi.

Or Ayn Rand, a notoriously brilliant asshole.

Few of us are “special” like Steve Jobs but then we are not as cruel and unfair as he was either. Does that make us “B” players? Can an “A” player be a nice person?

Precious few creative geniuses grace Adland. Yet, I’m privileged to have known several of these men and women and can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that they’re not assholes, professionally or personally.

Obviously, there are jerks. Talent does not always predict good behavior. The backstabbing, cherry-picking, credit-hogging SOB is alive and well in Adland. While they are sometimes foiled by their own hubris, most hide inside the lingering fat of big agencies, manipulating people and the truth, and making too much money on the backs of others.

We are quick to call them hacks. But that might be a specious declaration. For hacks often possess great people skills. It helps him or her succeed in lieu of talent.

My wonderment is about the very best in our business, past and present. The true creative geniuses. Are/Were any of them assholes? If so, is/was bad behavior tolerated because of exceptional talent? Is “thinking different” a license to kill?

The Ass-Con in full glory…

A while ago, I got angry with someone on a work related matter. Not a person from my office (I would certainly not write about that here); let’s call him/her an associate consultant.

At that time and place, we’d been going after a lot of new business. For me, the pressure of conjuring big ideas and then delivering them is endlessly exhilarating. It never gets old.

What does get old, however, is the associate consultant, be he or she an outlier, vendor, client, colleague or boss. He/she is usually a control freak, rarely a doer, and almost always anathema to the team. These “ass-cons” claim unearned sovereignty over your project. Ass-cons use fear and manipulation to force their agenda just as they used lies and malevolent charm to get their jobs.

“This looks creative. Let’s shit on it, then leave.”

I’d been given ample warning about this particular ass-con, but I only lasted five minutes before losing my temper. Something about this pigeon swooping in and shitting on my team’s work set me off.  I did not raise my voice and I did not use profanity. However, my blood boiled and I wanted this person expunged. I’m sure ass-con felt the same way about me, especially because I stood up to him/her, challenging his/her authority. Somehow we got through our unpleasant interaction without fisticuffs (I’m not a longshoreman!) but my seething anger remained with me for hours, days really.

Which brings me to my point. I’ve come to realize that I simply cannot process anger in a healthy way. It works through me like a fever. I obsess over the catalyst, making him/her a villain. I create revenge fantasies in my head. Worst of all, I lose what little spirituality I’m lucky enough to possess. Fear and loathing take over. My instincts to fight or flee become overwhelming.

Therefore, even righteous anger is taboo for me. To paraphrase Dr. Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk), “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” I become the very thing I despise, a grotesque image of the ass-con.

When angry I change into… Lou Ferrigno?

Friends and colleagues tell me not to sweat it, or the ass-con, that I’m just a passionate creative guy, standing up for my work. But I can’t allow this scapegoat. In most cases, I view anger and passion as two separate things. I do not believe having great passion means one has to be a hot head. Frankly, I think most ass-cons lack a true passion in life and compensate by domineering others.

Bottom line: Anger, even when it is justifiable, is a very tricky emotion and should not be taken lightly. Maybe the ass-con gets a thrill out of being a dick 24/7 but for me life is too damn short to be miserable all the time.

Because of the sensitive nature of this topic, I spent more time than usual thinking and writing about it. In doing so, I came across a book, The No-Asshole Rule by Robert I. Sutton, which would appear to be about the same thing. The subhead is “Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.” Amen.