turning white collar icons inside out…

The other day I posted this photo (creator unknown) on my Facebook and Twitter, calling it a “sign of the times.” I’d discovered the picture on Facebook. Many of my friends shared and liked the photo. Clearly, it struck a chord. Without sounding arrogant, I knew it would. Blending compassion to services, this is just the kind of message that resonates these days. Whether we are in recession or not, people are still out of work and small businesses are still struggling to survive. This poster poignantly captures that reality…

Here a small business is reaching out to the man on the street, parlaying the headlines into one of its own. Timely and relevant, the poster not only has impact but it demands a response. And in a fashion befitting its message: a poster, similar to the iconic “Will Work for Food” messages of the great depression. A tiny gesture, yes, but fraught with power.

Think about the advertiser (a dry cleaners) and the target (unemployed businessmen). Both speak to white collar America. Dry-cleaning a suit costs five to ten dollars a pop. I think of better times- yuppies pulling up to the dry cleaners in BMW’s on their way to or from work. This simple poster turns that idea upside down. It’s moving.

Cynics may say the shopkeeper is exploiting hard times to generate traffic. And I say so what? Isn’t that the definition of good marketing? If the cleaners merely marked down prices it would not have had the same effect, or any effect. Linking the offer to hardcore reality is what turns the trick. Whether or not the shop owner was feigning compassion is irrelevant. He is putting his money where his mouth is. If employed people switch dry cleaners out of empathy for his offer that does not make the store’s owner a duplicitous capitalist; it just means he’s smart.

Too bad the photographer failed to capture the shop’s name in the photograph. The store would have benefited from all the exposure generated on Facebook, Twitter and blogs like mine. An image like this could easily find itself on the nightly news, alongside an “Occupied City” story, making a nifty piece of guerilla marketing a good integrated campaign as well! If anyone knows the dry cleaner in question let me know and I’ll share the information here.

(Thank you Brian Heidenfelder and Bob Winter for alerting me to the photograph.)


Is what you are who you are?

Last Sunday, Pastor John Buchanan (Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago) gave a terrific sermon on the rite of baptism. Earlier he had performed the sacrament on two babies. And so later spoke of names, identities and how they relate to God’s plan for us. Interesting stuff. Especially for a borderline agnostic like me.

While there was much to glean from his sermon, I want to focus on one thing in particular. Buchanan referenced a book he’d read by Sister Joan Chittister (The Gift of Years) that struck a nerve with him. It did the same for me. I think many of you will relate to it as well…

We define ourselves by our work. It becomes the Who, What, Where, How and Why of our lives. Can you deny it?

In our society, introductions to people almost always include asking what the other person does for a living. I do it all the time: “So, Phil, what do you do?” Big deal. It’s a good way to find common ground.

But what happens, the pastor asked, when ‘what we do’ is over with or, worse yet, taken from us as in layoffs or job eliminations? Do we lose our identities? Do we become nobodies in the eyes of our peers and ourselves? Buchanon suggested living by such a self-absorbed credo devalues us as human beings, often causing serious anxiety and depression. In America, our identities are inextricably tied to ‘what we do’ versus who we are or what we believe in. Take away that and we’re left with…what exactly? Given the current recession and myriad job losses, his sermon was especially poignant. Yet, even in good times the ‘what we do’ credo is troubling. For one thing: what happens when we retire?

Uh oh.

I have always unabashedly identified myself as a writer, be it copy, editorial or fiction. To wit I wrote and edited my high school newspaper (The Lane Tech Warrior). I did the same for both student papers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (The Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald), not to mention scribing for an independent publication, The Madcity Music Mirror. I started my career as a copywriter at Leo Burnett and continue to do so at Euro RSCG in Chicago. I’ve written three novels and dozens of short stories, some of which have been published. I write and maintain Gods of Advertising as well as The Rogue’s Gallery, which, as some of you know, was originally intended to be a forum for copywriters to showcase their writing.

So, yeah, for me it’s all about the writing. The point I’m building to: What happens when all that ends, as one day it surely must? I get paid to write and creative direct copy. This also gives my blog credibility (hopefully). Take away my job and then what do I do? Relax? I can barely do that now. How am I supposed to do it 24/7?

According to Buchanan, if we are spiritually fit we are more content and serene, regardless of our employment status. But getting fit means letting go of personal ambitions. Self-centeredness must slip away. Easier said…

To me writing is a very selfish act, even if for clients. It has a narcotic effect. I not only get off on doing it; I can’t stop. There is always another brief, another story, another presentation. Writing takes me away from my family, friends and other obligations. Buchanan suggests it also takes me away from God.

His point isn’t that writing is a despicable act (even ad copy!) but that putting it before others and God potentially is. Similar counseling is given to alcoholics: ‘Get outside of your head,’ they are told. ‘Think of someone other than yourself!’

I promise…just as soon as I rewrite that body copy.

Pastor Buchanan\'s sermon

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This recession makes being me less excellent.

Many of us used to relish Donald Trump firing dumbstruck contestants on the Apprentice. Or Simon eviscerating some hapless warbler on American Idol. We take delight in watching the Simpson’s Montgomery Burns humiliate and then extricate his subordinates, often down a secret hole in front of his desk. Nelson, the “Ha-Ha!” bully is another Simpsonian example. There is brutal comedy in the misfortune of others. The Germans have a word for it: Schadenfreude. (To be precise, substitute the word “pleasure” for “comedy.”) Either way, it’s an unfortunate, even barbaric, part of our humanity.

And it often flourishes like mold in the hallways of Adland. If/when one agency hears of another’s misfortune we cheer. In bigger agencies, creative groups on one floor often compete and root against creative groups from another. Internet trolls constantly throw stones at wounded agencies and their people. While most aim at management, the torpedoes invariably end up hurting massive portions of the ship, not just the bridge.

I’ve written about this before. But that was before the recession. With few agencies exempt from its grave fallout, I doubt anyone is gleeful over much of anything right now, let alone another’s misfortune. That tipping point came and went. With people –good people- disappearing from our ranks it is as if a plague were let loose in adland…the whole damn country! Whereas we once morbidly watched as our comrades were marched out the door, thinking “not me, never me” now we cannot help but see ourselves in their shoes.

And yet pain like this can provide our most teachable moments. There is a silver lining. To coin another phrase: the show must go on.

Therefore, those of us who remain pick up our games. If we are good we become great. Considering the alternative, we must. We also count our blessings. We learn humility. We let go our resentments because they feel especially vulgar right now. While veins of meanness run deep on the Internet, not so much in the hallways of Adland. There is less complaining about partners and bosses. Fewer requests for money and titles. Less Me. More We. What we have (peers, clients, job) is far more important than what we don’t.

Guess what folks? It always was! But we forget. Until the pain of others reminds us. Humility. Gratitude. Fortitude. If we acquire even a little grace during these difficult times, something good has come from it.

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Buddy, can you spare a dime…or a limb?

Last Sunday, a substitute ministered to our church. The residing pastor was taking a requisite holiday after the travails of Easter. Anyway, the replacement pastor was a younger man, bearded and portly, with a wry grin. He reminded me of, of all people, the Comic Book Guy from the Simpson’s TV show. It turns out the comparison was valid in more ways than one. For the deacon’s sermon began with a most unexpected metaphor, one perhaps more suited to a comic book store than a Presbyterian church.

God love him, he compared the resurrection of Christ with Zombies! Paraphrasing a story from Newsweek, the pastor claimed zombies to be the perfect creature for desperate times, “chewing away at our psyches as well as our 401k’s.” His words not mine. The undead, he said were the new vampires, replacing the gothic bloodsucker in popularity.

Amen. With so many of us suffering tremendous financial hardship, zombies are like the rapacious creditor, insatiable and evil. And, once ruined, we become desperate ghouls ourselves…

Or do we? Pulling a religious 360, the pastor reminded the congregation that Christ’s rising from the grave was as far from evil as an event could be and, obviously, that it symbolized new life, hope and good tidings for mankind. This, of course, is familiar post-Easter rhetoric and certainly welcome. Especially after the wonderfully gruesome reference to flesh eating monsters!

Some of you already know how much I love horror. I’ve written several posts on the matter. And in the genre, next to vampires, nothing turns me on like a good zombie story. The preacher was right. The undead are trendy as Hell right now, pun intended. Between the Swine Flu and our collapsing financial markets, the walking dead fit right in.

Fun zombie facts:

-Prior to making the beloved movie, Slum Dog Millionaire director Danny Boyle made both zombie-apocalypse thrillers 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. Not to mention the equally gruesome (and wonderful) Trainspotting.

-Over 50 years before Will Smith’s tepid version, Richard Matheson wrote the genuinely terrifying I Am Legend. An equally scary film version (The Last Man on Earth) was made in 1968, starring a surprisingly stoic Vincent Price. Read the book. See that film.

-Rumor has it legendary commercial director Joe Pytka served as cameraman for the even more legendary George Romero during the filming of the greatest zombie movie (if not horror movie) of all time, Night of the Living Dead.

images4“Daddy, where is everybody going?”

I spent President’s Day-Valentine’s weekend in Manhattan with my wife and three daughters. The girl’s mother is a true believer in family vacations, having grown up with a mom and dad who swore by them. Me? I swear by them as well, only mostly with four-letter words.

When it comes to moving a family of five from one set of closets to another, I get the willies. Especially, given we are talking about an ALL GIRL family. Not to be controversial, but women of all ages pack way to much crap when they travel. How many pairs of shoes does a female need? If each of my girls brought four (they did), that makes sixteen pairs or thirty-two shoes –not including what they were wearing. And those shoes come with outfits.

The only reason I bring two pairs of shoes is because one pair are for the gym. Otherwise, I’m good with loafers and boots, the latter of which I wear on the plane.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to offer some unexpected kudos to the centerpiece of our NYC weekend: Shrek The Musical. The actors. The sets. The costumes. The whole thing was spectacular. Four stars.

If you read this blog with any regularity you know how much I loathe Disney and its cult like hold over children. But, being a good father, I acquiesced to my wife’s request and procured five choice seats in the orchestra. I’m glad I did. I found myself smiling giddily from start to finish. The last time I did that was at a U2 concert. Yes, the story is by the numbers. Yes, the sanitized double entendres are borderline patronizing. But I didn’t mind. On the contrary, I found the show to be cathartic, the perfect stress reliever. Recession? Shrek and Princess Fiona punctuate their singing duo with a medley of burps and farts. What recession?

Another observation worth sharing were all the tourists on Fifth Avenue and in Times Square. Maybe folks weren’t buying much but they sure as hell were out there. Brand stores like Apple, Nike and FAO Schwartz were packed and rocking. And if Toys R’ Us is dead in Des Moines it’s hopped up on goofballs here in New York. There was a 40-minute wait to ride the Ferris wheel inside the store, in spite of a four-dollar fee. We’re talking about a glorified elevator ride. Massive line.

Virtually every piece in the venerable NY Times was about the recession (or is it a depression?) and how it was killing retailers from So Ho to the Upper East Side. And I don’t doubt that’s true. But for a couple hours in a theater or seven deep on a sidewalk, it seemed business as usual in New York.