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.

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!

Bad stock photo for elusive great feeling…

Not including sex, when was the last time you were so excited about something you couldn’t think of anything else? We all get angry -at politicians, at bosses, at our significant others. But that’s not the excitement I’m talking about. I’m talking about finding thrills in everyday stuff. Is it even possible? Life coaches tell us to live in the moment and embrace serenity. But, dammit, I crave excitement.

Which is why I love writing. When I’m in the zone –whether personal or for a client- nothing compares to it. Turning ideas into sentences and then better sentences is something that genuinely turns me on. My body buzzes. I lose all track of time. A Diet Coke on my left and a cheap cigar to my right, my fingers dancing across the keyboard, I know nothing as satisfying as that and I never will.

Oh, wait, yes I do: pitching. Lots of creative people dread presentations but I’m not one of them. Yes, your audience might not like what you have to say but I never think about that when I’m walking to the podium. I’m too excited. If writing is like the perfect marriage of heart and head than pitching is a one-night stand. I never feel so alive as when I am standing in front of a crowd.

The ad game, or whatever we’re calling it, is still about creating ideas and presenting them, which is why I can’t wait to do it again… and again and again.

What makes other people tick? Seeing their children born? That’s the Hallmark card answer but, honestly, how many of us (men) truly remember it? I was wired, tired and scared, secretly wishing it were 1962 so I could go down the hall and smoke cigarettes. Ladies- I can’t imagine what giving birth is like. Creating life! It’s like being God. Yet, you were pretty miserable doing it. Hence the epidural.

For a lot of us, sports provide unmitigated excitement. Racing downhill on skis. Setting the hook on a monster pike. Catching the perfect spiral for a touchdown. Maybe that’s why sports are so damn popular…because it’s one of the few times and places where civilized men and women can experience excitement. So potent, it even translates to spectators.

In the end, I like writing and pitching. What about you, Gentle Reader? What makes your motor run?

Fan loyalty no longer a ‘gimmie.’

ESPN’s John Kincade was on the radio the other day talking NBA Finals. The Lakers had not yet been eliminated; they would be soon in an embarrassing blowout. And Boston had lost their first two games before taking a must-win at home. Kincade was asked if we were witnessing the end of an era. With big (and aging) stars like Kobe Bryant (LA) and Kevin Garnett (Boston), these two teams once dominated their conferences and the league, winning it all the last few years.

Upstart younger teams such as Memphis, Oklahoma City and the Chicago Bulls are now the talk of the NBA. Not withstanding Chicago, these new teams are from small markets. Memphis vs. Oklahoma City sounds more like a country feud than a playoff basketball game.

Kincade was asked if he’d still watch NBA games without perennial powerhouses like LA and Boston. I found his answer interesting as well as relevant to topics covered on this blog. Kincade said he absolutely enjoys following small-market teams. He added that he regularly makes “appointments” to watch teams who are playing good ball, regardless of geography. For that matter, he added, more and more other fans are doing so as well.

Jumping ahead, is it possible new fans are no longer being born into specific allegiances? Instead of growing up a “die hard” fan of the home team, now they could and would choose teams based on far more personal criteria, like a player’s Twitter feed or an athlete’s personal style on and off the court. With countless different ways to be a spectator, and even more ways to interact with teams and the media, fans need no longer feel chained by geography. Fandom is becoming random.

A game changer for games? Well, if fans pick whom they want to root for regardless of geography, sports teams will have to rethink how they cultivate and maintain a fan base. They will no longer be able to count on die-hards for selling tickets and other revenues. Gone is being a Cubs fan no matter what or bleeding Boston Red. If I’m right, the implications for teams in all sports is staggering. And I’m almost positive it makes marketing and social media as important as winning…if they aren’t already.

Ironically, almost a year ago today, I wrote a piece about Chicago’s lovable losers, the Cubs. I wrote that the Cubs brand transcends its reputation for losing, suggesting that losing might even help them in a vaguely masochistic way. Historically, the Cubs have always benefited from being televised on WGN, which is broadcast all over the place. They also have an ace in their deck, called Wrigley Field. But can the brand thrive in the 21st century? The many empty seats early in the season suggest otherwise. People are blaming the generally miserable Chicago weather. But that never stopped the Cubs’ faithful before. Accustomed to Facebook and Twitter, maybe the new generation simply refuses to follow a bunch of losers.

What’s it gonna be?

I’m working with an art director/partner on some pretty terrific projects. It’s good to be thinking and writing about clients again. More on that later…

Meantime, my partner suggested our goal be building relationships with clients, not just doing “projects” for them. Relationships, he reminded me, are longer term, healthier and just plain better.

That’s the theory anyway. And it used to be the practice. But not anymore. Not for a long time. When clients hire and fire agencies willy-nilly; those aren’t relationships they’re hook-ups or, worse, prostitution.

Which begs the question: Are we agencies “johns,” and dumb johns at that? We eagerly get into bed with each new client thinking this is “the one.” We will grow old and happy together. In order to insure that we staff up, open a regional office, promote the members of the pitch team. Ha. Within seven months the client is indifferent to us or even mad. Maybe we’ve done a campaign they don’t like. Maybe they’ve been hit on by another agency. Probably both. After nine months they put us on notice. The next quarter we’re fired. Few agencies and clients are exempt from this contempt. It’s more than merely a trend. It’s the way it is.

On the other hand, maybe we agencies are more like reluctant prostitutes; after all we are getting paid…sort of. But even then we want to be loved for our personality and willingness to commit. But the client wants it fast, cheap and AWESOME! Against our instincts, we try to accommodate. We are good girls. We don’t want to be dumped. If we fail the client will find another eager beaver willing to turn a trick.

And so the idea of projects becomes evermore desirable. Projects have a beginning, middle and end. They can be accounted. Unfortunately, it begs the question of why agencies need half their staff. Planners? What pray tell, are we planning for –to get fired? Grooming an account executive to hold a brand manager’s hand seems silly given they don’t want to fall in love. As for the rest of us, it seems the wisest course –better said, the only course- is to put as small a team as possible on the business and swing for the fences. Hit a homerun and maybe we’ll keep the account. If we’re let go we’ve got minimal overhead to “reorganize.”

As someone who grew up at a long-term idea factory, I bristle at the ‘wham, bam, thank you Ma’am’ approach but what’s a girl to do? Oh, I know: show your cleavage in social media and whip out the digital.