A couple advertising men passed away last week. Jim Schmidt was a copywriter by trade and co-founder of Downtown Partners, a creative boutique within the DDB matrix in Chicago. Mike Hughes was also a creative director and, in addition, a founding member of the Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia. I wasn’t a friend to either of these fine gentlemen but I most certainly knew who they were, having judged awards shows with Jim and attended AAAA functions in which Mike was a key player.

Moreover, I was a fan of their work. Both Jim and Mike were advertising craftsmen in the best sense of the word. They cared about words. They sweated the details. More than anything, they liked to work on the work. I could be wrong but I don’t think either man identified with being bosses and politicians. They liked to make stellar copy for clients who appreciated it. I think of the Martin Agency’s work for Saab. I think of Jim’s fable-like commercials for Walgreens. Frankly, there are more and better examples but I don’t want to write specifically about advertising copy.

Two very decent men died. Two husbands. Two fathers. They weren’t old men either. Cancer took them both before their time. The say no one is promised tomorrow but Jim and Mike got robbed.

Jim Schmidt, gone too soon.

Being a Chicago native I had more in common with Jim. When Jim left Euro RSCG (now Havas) to begin Downtown Partners in 2004 I had the dubious job of replacing him. Fortunately, we had other things in common besides that particular challenge. Both of us copywriters, we were more or less from the same advertising class, lived and worked in the same city, even competed. I adored Jim’s candor and piercing wit. Loved it when he took me to task for something I’d written or said. He followed this blog and was free with his comments and, as I’ve said, not all of them were flattering! His biting Facebook posts were legendary. Jim adored the Beatles with a teenager’s passion. He loved music. He had heart. We weren’t buddies by most definitions but I will miss you. (AdAge Story)

Mr. Hughes was more like my father (who also started his own agency, RPA) than me. Judging from the loving tribute his agency made for him, Mike was considerably more than just a hard worker and popular guy. He was a patriarch: stable, warm and special. I imagine he was an exemplary mentor to countless lucky writers and budding advertising professionals. I bet he was a father figure to many.

Clearly, both men had above average talent. Well above. Whether one considers either a “legend” I will leave alone. I doubt either man would have cared for the distinction let alone aspired to it. I know Jim loathed sizzle and self-promotion, banking his career primarily on substance, even as our business grew more hyperbolic and social. Similarly, Mike cared more about others than himself. His consistent involvement with the VCU Brandcenter is but a tiny proof point.

This isn’t a suitable eulogy for Jim or Mike. These are just impressions of two lives. But here’s the thing. Upon hearing of the sad news I could not stop thinking about these two guys. Nor could I write about anything else until I wrote about them.

“What -No dirty magazines?”

There are many, many Walgreen’s in this country. In Chicago and San Francisco, it seems like there’s one on every corner. Which takes me to the part about Walgreen’s new ad campaign I sort of like, the tagline: “At the corner of Happy and Healthy.” I say “sort of” because its treacle makes me squirm. Especially when uttered by one of America’s biggest pussies, John Corbett. From his wife-pleasing turns in TV and movies (Oh, the 90’s era earnestness!) to his previous schilling for Applebees (yuck), this is a guy who seriously needs his ass kicked. Corbett is more Good Morning, America than Matt Lauer. And I don’t much like him either.

“The flyover people think I’m hip!”

But I respect the copy for what it’s trying to do. Walgreen’s stores are ubiquitous and, as GSD&M’s introductory anthem spot points out, they are also pioneers in health care (drive through pharmacy, child-proof tops) and happiness (inventing chocolate malts!)

Trying is the key word. This paint by numbers campaign tries like the dickens to be all things to all people. (In fairness, that is what Walgreen’s aspires to be as well.) Yet, the formula in this spot is so conspicuous I can see the storyboard. It’s just too linear and contrived. For example, the dutiful black and white images on the front end. Gee whiz, History! 2+2= bore

Given Walgreen’s went through a lengthy review, subsequently dinging their previous agency (Downtown Partners) this fluffy piece of advertising is a disappointment. Admittedly, I was a fan of Downtown Partner’s work. Highly stylized and very unorthodox, so unlike what we have here. Which is probably why it was killed. But that was then and this is now. Walgreen’s is bent on proving it owns the corners of mainstream America, along with cheap nail polish, Prozac and Gatorade.

Walgreen’s & Downtown Partners. I guess things weren’t so perfect after all…

And I thought the porn industry was crazy…

Per sometime reader and longtime creative director, Jim Schmidt’s recommendation, I have begun reading David Foster Wallace. For those more ignorant than me, DFW was an exemplary essayist, professor and novelist best known for his profound and, at times, confounding prose. Time magazine named his 1994 novel, Infinite Jest one of the 100 greatest novels ever written. Suffering from acute depression, Wallace took his life on September 12, 2008.

Rather than Jest, I began reading DFW’s book of articles and essays, Consider The Lobster. So far it’s an extraordinary read. The opening piece (pun intended) on the Adult Film Awards is worth the book’s price.

My intent, however, is not to review DFW. Frankly, Wallace’s powers of analysis, precise wit and mastery of words are well out of my league.

Inspired, I decided to look at the advertising business as if through his eyes. Sadly, through that filter, there is nothing enlightening to report. Only foolishness. Between the experts and critics, the practitioners and teachers, and obviously the trade press, all has been said. David Foster Wallace would tell us…

As an industry, we’ve explored our own inadequate naval ad nausea (pun intended). The body cannot take another probe!

For an extended argument, he would blithely take on the dull saw topic of “integration.” We say above and below the line marketing need to come together, seamlessly. “Enough already,” he’d say. In summation: Some networks and agencies do it better than others. None are brilliant. Stuck inside silos, huffing their own hubris, most are bumbling along. Yet, their clients do not deserve a hall pass either. They, too, struggle bogged by politics and history. (This dysfunction is too irresistible for Wallace to leave alone! Here would be the fun part of his essay.)

Then: “You have enough praised and criticized (mostly the former) Crispin Porter & Bogusky. You have enough praised and criticized (mostly the latter) Draft FCB. You have exposed and deposed Martin Sorrel. Maurice Levy. John Wren. The other names and entities representing this small world are tiresomely ubiquitous.”

“Ads,” DFW, would tell us, “do little but sell (if that) and mean little to anyone but their vain and insecure creators.”

For the finale, he would have at our corrupt and overblown awards shows, revealing –(at last!)- Cannes for the weeklong cocktail party and fixed election it really is. Talk about infinite jest.

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