images-13

My 50 years in Advertising, Larry Postaer

I first wrote this post when dad’s book came out a few years ago. Happy to publish it again – the least I can do for a man who’s inspired me so much…

In my father’s 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 to get hired 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.

images5
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.

My father writes he faired poorly on the test but 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. Today, the company struggles to remain relevant.

Advertisements

DDB chief blows smoke at Cannes…

Amir Kassaei is the Chief Creative Officer of DDB Worldwide, one of the shinier jewels in Omnicom’s empire of advertising and marketing services companies. Like a lot of creative generals, he spent last week in Cannes taking part in the International Advertising Festival, which, to replay the metaphor, is by far the shiniest jewel in the ever growing necklace of advertising award shows.

Mr Kassaei, perhaps flush with Rose’, also found time to go on record with some provocative accusations and opinions regarding the integrity of the juries at Cannes. He more or less states that certain jurors have a clear mandate to “kill off” competing work, regardless of its quality, if said work emanates from a competing agency. He claims this mandate is at the holding company level. This corruption does not sit well with Kassaei and he goes on record saying that they (DDB) need to have a “serious discussion” about participating in future Cannes if the behavior continues. Paraphrasing the creative director, he claims other less creative minded agencies are willfully endeavoring to “buy” their creative reputations by rigging juries. There’s plenty of texture to his arguments and I urge you to watch the video, even if his sipping of wine and the passing by of beach traffic grates.

As I tweeted earlier, my reaction to this is a cross between “WTF?” and “Duh!” On the one hand I’m appalled by Kassaei’s allegations. Like it or not, creative reputations are made by winning Lions at Cannes. To know that these prestigious trophies can be bought is repellant. What is more sad are all the legitimate submitters who may have lost out on their one shot at gold because of wheeling and dealing behind closed doors. But let’s not be naïve. We’ve known about these shenanigans for a long time. Indeed, when I judged the Dubai Lynx (the Cannes of the Middle East), I saw it first hand. I blogged that “all the good work was fake and all the real work was awful.” Understandably, that blog caused fervor and I was asked to remove it. Reluctantly, I did.  Needless to say, I won’t be invited back to judge this festival anytime soon.

While creating and entering scam ads is an entirely different form of awards show corruption, and a pervasive one at that, knowing that judges and juries are culpable takes it to whole ‘nother level. Corroborating Kassaie’s accusations, here’s basically how it works. Through back channels and PR manipulation, agencies vie to get their creative superstars on juries. Once these individuals are confirmed, they are then sequestered to look at all the work coming from the various agencies within their network. They are then asked to vote, if at all possible, on these submissions. Since that is generally not allowed the next best move is to try and vote out the competition, which is a process that cannot really be monitored. And so it goes.

While I’d like to think my peers and I would never do such things a kind of nationalistic fervor happens in those darkened jury rooms, not unlike the ugly pride one sees during international soccer tournaments. Fouls and transgressions happen and they feed a growing fire. The urge to win Lions takes over. In the name of their agencies and even countries, good men do bad things.

The football analogy is apt. FIFA is constantly embroiled in corruption controversy, to say nothing of its countless dumbass fans degrading themselves in the name of competition. In America, the New Orleans Saints are currently dealing with charges of “head hunting” on the football field. And like the manufacture of false great ads (scams), athletes from all sports are being busted regularly for taking steroids and other illegal enhancement drugs. Corruption at all levels.

Yet, unlike professional sports, the general public (except maybe in Brazil) doesn’t give a shit about advertising awards. Relatively speaking, the media attention is minimal. Therefore, corruption buds like unchecked dandelions. And if the governing bodies of big time award shows are complicit, then you have zero integrity. Which is exactly what Amir Kassaei is suggesting.


Oh, the humanity! Super 8

While I enjoyed parts of it, Super 8 bugged the crap out of me. The same way a lot of movies do, particularly big budget sci/fi and horror pictures. There’s too much melodrama. Why on earth does a movie about an alien life form trapped by the air force and freed by a rogue scientist have to have a subplot about a motherless kid and his struggle with dad? I get that this links to the alien’s desire to “go home” but do the filmmakers have to pummel us over the head with it? Besides, producer Steven Spielberg already turned this trick with ET. His remake of War of the Worlds got bogged down over a father and son relationship as well. It’s shameless in Super 8.

Yet, you keep on responding to it. All three films are blockbusters. Would they not be big hits without treacle-laden lessons in paternity? It’s a good question. I concede that ET was a game-changing masterpiece. But a nastier War of the Worlds and a scarier Super 8 would have made me happier.

That’s right: happier. I firmly believe forcing modern family dysfunction into horror movies to make them contemporary is a cheap trick gone way too far. The original War of the Worlds was scarier precisely because we were not distracted by a father trying to hold his family together, let alone Tom Cruise.

Night of the Living Dead, arguably the scariest movie ever made (and most certainly a game-changer) created a completely dysfunctional family out of disparate characters trying to survive. The bonds made and severed (literally) while trying to survive an undead outbreak were far more contemporary than if we were worrying about, and in turn, fairly certain about the family unit remaining intact in the end. Spoiler alert: Most everyone dies. Some are lucky and they don’t get back up again.


The family unit, Night of the Living Dead

I’m not railing against happy endings…or am I? I’m just weary of treacle where it isn’t needed. A father and son against all odds is great fodder for a story (pun intended). It can even work in horror. Anyone read or see The Road?

In Children of Men when the world’s lone baby is revealed I choked up too. It’s a great and necessary scene. The key is that it served the story, slamming home the horror. Not the other way around. In my opinion, putting an alien in a movie about a father and son (Super 8) is ass-backwards.

And don’t tell me filmmakers need the hugs and kisses to attract women. In Alien (another masterpiece), Sigourney Weaver’s character is not validated by the love of a good man or child. Her Momness does not require a crying, scared child. The female Alien “bitch” was ample stimulus.

Sometimes I think it’s me. Product of an early divorce, fiercely independent, I am repelled by melodrama. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate good drama. The Shawshank Redemption, Terms of Endearment, Heartburn, Ordinary People…all excellent dramas. And that’s where you find them: under “drama.” When it’s crammed into a good thriller I get sad for all the wrong reasons.


It only ran once, for Hallmark

In terms of advertising, I adore good drama because it usually means there’s actually a story attached. Hallmark Cards typically excels at delivering drama. United Airlines used to. Certainly there are others. But like most of you, I bristle at smarmy vignettes that attempt to capture drama with cliches. Fortunately, for us, the vignette is very passe. Right now, the It Gets Better Project is a fine example of appropriate use of drama.


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!


Admiral’s Club, O’Hare Field, Chicago

Picture perfect day in Chicago but once again I’m at the Admiral’s Club in O’Hare airport. Here the sunshine is more of a nuisance than anything else. Right now it’s pouring in through the windows causing numerous guests to uproot and move. Twenty miles east the city’s annual Gay Pride Parade is probably breaking all records for attendance. It truly is a perfect day for being “out.”


“Admiral’s Club” Halsted Street, Chicago

Anyway, once again, I’m flying to Los Angeles. Trust me I’m not complaining. This is exactly what I want and need to be doing. Talking with companies interested in producing my movie scripts is an avocation I will pursue to my grave, and, given my latest script is about the undead , maybe even after that!

Meeting with entities interested in my services as creative director and/or copywriter is even more important. That’s my vocation. My forays into freelancing have been a great experience for me and hopefully to the agencies I’ve helped. I’d like to do more of it. As I wrote on Twitter the other day, “Hire me and you get ECD talent at CD prices!” What’s not to like? Don’t answer that.

By the way, I intend to write about my experience on the other side of the desk from a creative director. It’s been surprisingly fun and satisfying NOT being the boss. Creating and presenting ideas more than makes up for any loss of credentials.

Still, Chief Creative Officer was my last job. This particular trip west has me visiting the CEO of a pretty terrific company who just might be looking for a creative leader. The more I read about his company the more I like the opportunity. I’m thrilled to meet him.

I’m telling you all this because I don’t have another essay prepared. Frankly, if my flight wasn’t delayed for mechanical difficulties I couldn’t have even written this. Who’d ‘a thunk being unemployed would be so damn time consuming?

Too bad I can’t make a living writing Gods of Advertising. But like fishing, it’s a labor of love. Even so, I beg your pardon for its ‘Dear Diary’ like content. I’ll be back at my desk soon enough. And for those of you coming back from the Advertising Festival in Cannes: Welcome back to yours!