Wednesday, October 1, 2014
This is the chair my mother-in-law, Marilyn Weinblatt would sit in when she came to visit.
She won't be sitting in that seat any longer, as she passed away and as our new favorite rabbi put it, was "returned to the bosom of the earth." That phrasing will stick with me the rest of my days.
You might think that a deep, personal loss like this would put a crimp in this week's Think Positive theme.
But you'd be wrong.
The knowledgeable rent-a-rabbi, who, prior to the service was a complete stranger to all of us and came to us only at the behest of the quick-thinking funeral home, was a great source of wisdom and comfort. He quickly pointed out the passing of one's life is an opportunity for friends and family to be grateful.
No one could be more grateful than me.
I met Marilyn and Bob Weinblatt many years ago. In fact, it seems like it was in another lifetime despite my 44 years of age.
They were what I like to call "Nice Jews." They were from Minneapolis, and were unlike any of my shrill NY relatives who were fond of yelling, screaming, fighting and more yelling.
They had a strange, easy-to-be-around midwestern demeanor. And reminded me of the characters in the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man, which I will now have to watch again.
In essence, this denied me a great fount of humor. Because I never had the stereotypical overbearing mother-in-law.
Marilyn was never one to interfere. Or raise her voice. Or bust my balls in any way, shape or manner. Many a Borscht Belt comedian would have a field day with those kind of mother-in-laws. Thankfully, I did not.
Apart from the small profit she made on her apartment at Seizure World, or unless we find a secret stash of thousand dollar bills stuffed in a secret compartment of the case that contains her Mah Jong tiles, Marilyn was never wealthy. At least not in the conventional sense.
You see while she never had a stock portfolio or a held titles to various real estate properties, she had something more valuable. She had the pride of raising 4 incredible daughters, the sweetest, most kind-hearted women I've ever had the pleasure to meet. And I had the good fortune and foresight to marry one of them.
From that branch of the family tree, which is now thankfully part of my family tree, sprung 8 equally caring grandchildren and one recently born great grandchild. To spend any time with them is to know laughter, joy and love.
In short, Marilyn left this world a little nicer, a little sweeter, and a little better than the world she was born into.
In my book, that's about the noblest any of us could hope for.
One more thing to be grateful for, in the wake of this weekend's incredibly attended funeral, with family and friends from all across the country, there was a truckload of leftover corn beef, pastrami and Jewish Deli cookies.
In Marilyn's honor, I'm going to make sure it all gets eaten.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Some of you will recognize this as the poster image for Poltergeist, a movie about a family that moves into a new family housing project built on top of an ancient Indian burial ground.
The ghosts of the Indians are not happy, though they never seemed to get upset with the construction of the nearby Chick Filet or Best Buy, and decide to wreak havoc on the family.
The movie was one the first major successes for a young writer by the name of Steven Spielberg.
It was also my first major contact with Hollywood people.
You see, at the time of the movie's release I was managing the kitchen for a booming restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd. It was a cowboy-themed Steak & Rib House with sawdust on the floor and a mechanical bull sitting center stage.
It was here that I developed a healthy appreciation for any kind of music that wasn't country western.
It was here that I developed a healthy appreciation for any kind of music that wasn't country western.
In order to supplement the sometimes-sagging restaurant revenue, the owner rented the space out for private parties. Our first was the wrap party for Poltergeist. It was a night to remember. I met the Director, the Producers and the entire cast.
Little did I know, that like the characters they played in the film, their time on Earth was limited.
To date, the curse has only struck cast members and not those tangentially affiliated with the movie, like the fat guy from NY (me) who made the ribs and steak and gourmet macaroni and cheese.
And in keeping with this week's theme (see yesterday's post), that's the positive spin of today's story.
If anything, my life has been blessed. With a beautiful wife, two smart and sassy daughters, a home, a job, and friends and family that for some unknown reason are willing to put up with my shit.
No Poltergeist Curse here.
I have to cut this posting short. My wife was just about to take a bath and she told me the lightbulb above the tub needs changing...
Monday, September 29, 2014
There's a meme (I still can't figure out how to pronounce that word) floating around the Internet that goes something to the effect of 'Try to live a week of your life without complaining.'
The thinking goes, that if you refrain from the negative and surround yourself with positive energy, the world will return the favor with all its incumbent blessings.
I don't know if that's true.
I'm hardly a spiritual being.
In fact, I'd describe myself as a good-hearted nihilist, an oxymoron in anyone's book.
I don't subscribe to the belief in energy fields. Or Karma. Or other dimensions other than what the scientists can see and measure. And Neil Degrasse Tyson can squeeze onto a TV show.
However, we are in the middle of the High Holy Days and, despite the contention of my wife, I'm always up for trying new things. Particularly if it involves spicy food. Or anything from pages 39-54 of the Adam and Eve catalogue.
Is this going to be easy? It most assuredly will not.
If nothing else, this blog is a constant conveyor belt of non-stop grumbling and grousing, carping and kvetching. Topped off by our new tagline, voted on by 9 loyal readers:
RoundSeventeen, No artificial sweeteners.
But here's something you didn't know about me. I'm a closeted optimist.
This never ceased to amaze my old partner, John Shirley. Faced with daunting odds, myopic clients and shoestring budgets, I always felt we could muscle through any situation and come up with a winning solution. Always.
"When we're shooting this spot in London with Frederick Bond, it'll be great."
John would roll his eyes and start telling me about the last Simpsons episode he watched and why every town needed a Monorail.
In any case, in light of the recent success we've enjoyed with our four part series and our themed weeks, the next few days will adhere to a strict "Think Positive" motif.
With uplifting stories.
Kinder, gentler anecdotes.
And fresh cut sunflowers.
It's probably gonna suck.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Like yesterday's post, today we are also using a misleading picture.
I stumbled across this visual and thought it was too good to pass up. Besides, it's marginally related to today's topic.
You see it's Rosh Hashana.
Happy New Year to all my fellow members of the Tribe.
In the dreary spirit of long drawn out synagogue services, worthless Bible stories about goat herders begetting other goat herders, and the outrageously festive ritual of dipping brown apple slices in honey that has been sitting in the back of the refrigerator shelf since March Madness, it's also that time of year when we discard the old RoundSeventeen tagline and usher in the new one.
The more astute readers will recognize this as one of my trusty fallbacks. That is, an easy way to squeeze out a post when there is nothing much else to write about.
I've employed this trick several times in the past. And to be completely honest, this week I'm feeling a little melancholy because we just dropped our oldest daughter off at college and the emptiness in the house is still quite palpable.
But the funny must go on.
So without further ado, here are your tagline options which I know you will not vote on:
RoundSeventeen. Now with 23% more cynicism.
RoundSeventeen. No shirt, no shoes, no snark.
RoundSeventeen. Irrelevant and built to stay that way.
RoundSeventeen. Your daily dose of self-immolation.
RoundSeventeen. I can't believe I get paid to write this stuff. Oh wait, I don't.
RoundSeventeen. 500 words of fresh jackoffery.
RoundSeventeen. When there's nothing good on BuzzFeed.
RoundSeventeen. A literary exercise in underachievement.
RoundSeventeen. We don't do revisions.
RoundSeventeen. No artificial sweeteners.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
This is a post about job title inflation. It's not the first time I've written about it and it probably won't be the last, as it is a major pet peeve.
While doing an image search for this post I came across an article with the 30 worst examples of job title inflation. At the top of the list was Erection Engineer. That title was accompanied by the picture you see above.
It's admittedly click bait, but I've never given you any reason to believe I'm above that.
Weeks ago, you might recall, I promoted myself to Chairmen of the Rich Siegel Worldwide organization. First, because we can never have too many chairmen in this world. And secondly, to point out the ridiculous nature of workplace nomenclature.
The fact of the matter is I'm a copywriter.
I don't need any further Orwellian newspeak attached to that title in order to impress anybody. And frankly when I come across people who roll out the Senior Vice President or Chief Officer or Executive Group Blah Blah Blah, I'm not impressed.
If anything I'm unimpressed -- there should be a better word for that -- I'm depressed.
In my fantasy utopian world where everything I say is right and everyone who thinks otherwise is not, I would roll back all this title nonsense.
Let's say a kid graduates from one of the outrageously expensive advertising schools littered throughout the land. And let's say he or she wants to pursue a career in copywriting. And let's say he or she is genuinely talented but still has a long way to go. And let's take this theoretical situation even further and say he or she had the goods to get immediately hired.
The first job out of the box should be Apprentice Copywriter. Because let's face it, he or she knows nothing about how ads are done in the real world.
With a few banner ads and FSI's under the belt, the first promotion should be to Junior Assistant Copywriter.
In a year's time, maybe two, and the writing of some solid emails blasts, internal videos and sizzle pieces, the word Junior can magically disappear.
Maybe the stars aligned and our talented aspiring writer managed to knock out a case study or even a radio spot or a print ad, then our Assistant Copywriter can proudly call home and start adjusting the linkedin page to include Associate Copywriter.
Finally, after earning some industry cred and earning the respect (and jealousy) of others, then, and only then, would he or she be given the title of Copywriter.
It's title deflation.
Not only is it more logical, it prevents those uncomfortable new business meetings when the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation is seated next to a 26-year old tattooed, pierced, keffiyeh-wearing clod who goes by the title, Senior EVP Group Content Curation Prophet.
At this point it should come as no surprise that I have equally strong feelings about who should and shouldn't be able to call themselves a Chief Creative Officer.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
I've written often about the many shitty jobs I've held throughout my career.
I was an industrial pot washer at a hospital.
I drove a forklift.
I put in time as a landscaper.
And of course, I've toiled for many years as a copywriter. In fact recently I devoted a whole week's worth of postings detailing my less-than-ideal travails working with Taco Bell. (Web traffic almost doubled last week so you can be sure there will be more 4-part series in the future.)
Today, we're going in the other direction.
When I was a junior in college I decided to go it on my own. I would declare complete financial independence. By omitting my parents monetary support for an entire year, I would be eligible for much-needed financial assistance in my final senior year.
Of course to do that I couldn't get by on the $3.62 cents an hour job I had washing dishes at Brockway Dining Hall.
Fortunately, my father knew a guy. Actually he knew two guys, both of whom had exceedingly Italian last names. And were possibly made men. They managed a new bar on campus named Sutter's Mill.
It was rumored that the bar was nothing more than a front to launder cash. Those of you who've watched Breaking Bad know exactly what I'm talking about.
In any case, Sal called Tony, Tony called Paulie, Paulie called Vinnie, Vinnie called Joey, who wasn't anywhere to be found (if you know what I mean), so then Vinnie called Angie. I had never poured drinks before but none of that seemed to matter.
Next thing you know I'm sporting a Sutter's Mill Polo Shirt and I'm standing behind a bar in close proximity to the two things I enjoyed most: alcohol and women.
Moreover I was coming home every night with a thick wad of cash that reeked of cigarette smoke but was legal tender nonetheless. Even more importantly, Uncle Sam never saw a dime.
Wait, it gets better.
Sutter's Mill quickly became the most popular bar on campus. The bosses knew that to maintain that fun atmosphere, the employees needed to look like they were having fun. Every hour, on the hour, the bar manager, Richard, a 6 foot 6 inch rail thin black guy who came to work in a shirt and tie and a leather cowboy hat would ring a bell, stop everything and pour shots of Yukon Jack for all the bartenders on duty.
You think that's a college student dream job? You haven't heard the best part.
We packed it in every night and because the drinking age in New York State was 11 years old at the time, we had our fair share of brawling. We also had a team of menacing bouncers that could have and should have been playing on the front line for the lowly Syracuse Orangemen.
These guys were big, beefy and itching for the opportunity to earn their keep.
All of which gave me an unwarranted sense of bravado and power.
Power which I'm ashamed to admit I abused with great regularity. Whether it was rescuing a coed from some unwanted suitor or cutting off a guy because he had too much to drink or simply because I didn't like the cut of his jib, I could always appear braver than I had a right to.
"Gimme a Moosehead."
"No, you're done."
"Oh yeah, who says so?"
"I said so."
With one quick glance to the rare exit door, a bouncer would appear on the scene.
"Is there a problem here?"
And there never was.
If only there were bouncers in advertising.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Last week, my east coast doppelgänger George Tannenbaum told a great story about his grandfather, Morris, the worst tailor on the face of the Earth.
As is often the case, his Hebraic recollections of growing up in the Bronx, and in NY at large, fuel stories of my own.
My grandfather was also from the old country. Though when I speak with the few remaining relatives that are still among us, that old country always seems to change.
Sometime it's Poland and sometimes it's nearby shtetl's of Russia, Belarus or Ukraine.
The confusion is understandable as even today those borders are fluid at best.
They're also meaningless.
These were all ugly, cold, dirty villages populated by poor Jews who did their best to keep food on the table and keep out of the way of local, drunken goyim bent on beating up members of the tribe. I suppose it was a way to make them feel better about their own miserable lives.
So the beat up Jews got on a boat and came to America where they could get pounded on by a higher class of drunk.
Unskilled and uneducated, my grandfather drove a cab in NYC. I don't know how he afforded a hack license, as they were very expensive, but he did. And he made a living. Enough to sustain a family of three boys as well as the care and feeding of many racehorses at the Belmont track in Queens.
Once, the old man -- a sedentary chain smoker with an appetite for fatty creamed herring -- was staying at our house. He was recovering from his 7th heart attack, that's right 7, we Jews might have been defenseless against Cossacks but we can kick the shit out of cardiac arrest.
We happened to be watching TV story about a NYC cab driver who returned a briefcase with $50,000 in cash to its rightful owner. The cabbie was given a hearty Thank You and a crisp hundred dollar bill in return for his honesty and good will.
During a commercial break for Rheingold the dry beer, Rheingold is my beer, think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer, I turned to my grandfather.
"Would you have done that? Would you have called back the owner to get his briefcase full of money?"
"Absolutely," he replied.
Explaining, if some business guy was in my cab and I saw that he just left a briefcase with fifty thousand dollars in the back seat, I'd grab the case immediately.
Then, as he was walking away, I'd roll up my window. I'd grab a fluffy towel, fold it nicely and put it up against the window.
Then I would knock on that fluffy towel.
And if he didn't hear the knock, I would knock even harder.
He made the slightest tapping gesture.
Then, if he didn't hear me pounding my knuckle on the towel pressed lightly against the glass, I'd shout.
"Hey mister you forgot your briefcase full of cash," he whispered.
Like this and I repeated his whisper.
"Oh no, that's way too loud. Like this," he replied. "Hey mister…"
In a voice that was impossible to hear.
Of course, nobody with a briefcase of cash ever got in my grandfather's cab. And I doubt he ever got within a mile of that much money.
So his menschiness was never put in question.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
(Sandee Westgate, John Shirley, Woman with inappropriate midriff, Rich Siegel -photoshopped in)
So by now, I hope I've painted a pretty vivid picture of a huge fast food account (Taco Bell) at the very end of its incredibly successful, though often bumpy, relationship with its advertising agency (Chiat/Day).
They knew they were shopping elsewhere.
We knew they were shopping elsewhere.
And despite the smiles, the overly-firm handshakes and the sugar-coated conference reports we were all simply going through the motions.
Nevertheless we were professionals.
And in the face of incredible odds actually managed to get one more spot with Gidget the chihuahua. Perhaps as a testament to Chuck Bennett and Clay Williams, the guys who put so much heart and effort into the campaign, this last Gidget spot still produces a smile.
It was written and art directed by John Payne and Gary Pascoe, two of the most talented guys to ever come through Chiat/Day.
My only contribution as Creative Director was selling it, reselling it and bringing it back to the table every time the client threatened to pull the plug.
Yesterday, I teased the conclusion of this story with the promise of Internet porn sensation, Sandee Westgate (seen above in black top).
We met her, along with hundreds of other impossibly-built aspiring models/actresses, at a casting session that can only be described as grueling. The script called for two hot women hand feeding Chalupas to one of our Road Trip guys in a sensual-but-safe-for-TV fantasy.
The women were only on screen for 4 seconds, but in the mind of my partner John Shirley and I, and every other male involved with the production, those 4 seconds were crucial.
With the wrong cast, the fantasy simply wouldn't look very authentic.
One 10 hour casting session turned into two. Two turned into three. And when we found out the production office was located near Roku Sushi, we thought why not go the extra mile and make this search as comprehensive as possible.
Because as I mentioned before, we were professionals.
Having made our thorough selections, we presented Sandee and her colleague to the Taco Bell clients.
They gave us their approval immediately. With one stipulation. They wanted both women to be completed vetted. They ran a fine upstanding organization with high morals and wanted to make sure the actors and actresses who represented Taco Bell were of the same caliber.
Thankfully, they were.
That was 14 years ago. If you were to Google Sandee Westgate, and I know that you will, you'd see she has successfully ridden this Internet thingie to success.
I don't think Taco Bell's business has changed much. I have to believe their core audience is still 14-17 year old boys. And sometimes those boys (the HFFU's for those of you in the biz) even get the Munchies. In essence, they're the same pimply faced guys that frequent Carl's Jr.
We know how Carl's successfully married the notions of horny and hungry, albeit in a very soft core manner with nothing racier than anything you might see on Skinemax.
What if Taco Bell were to take it to the next level? And make Sandee their new national spokesperson to capitalize on her digital prowess.
For one thing they'd have a much better chance of having something go viral. And furthermore, I'm willing to bet those same boys would be lining at the store waiting to get their hands on a Crunchy Gordita.
Well, at least their left hand.
Now that's Living Mas.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
(The third in a four part series detailing my 2001 descent into Taco Hell)
With our concepts thoroughly scrubbed and approved, including a frame-by-frame storyboard that mapped out each of the thirty seconds -- a new height in anal retentiveness -- and our five demographically-correct actors properly cast, it was time to take to the road.
Of course, the premise of the campaign was a road trip so that made sense.
But it was also a point of necessity. You see, in the summer of 2001, the Screen Actor's Guild was on strike. Moreover, they were actively seeking Los Angeles-based shoots to disrupt and shut down.
So we, the agency, cast and crew, boarded a plane for Phoenix.
I don't know if there's a good time to be in Phoenix.
It's brown, ugly and hellishly hot.
I do know if someone were to make a list of the top ten months to be in Phoenix, August would not be among them.
How hot was it?
While passing by a restaurant with outdoor seating, we saw the workers applying 50 SPF sunscreen to the patio furniture.
Not only was the asphalt road hot enough to fry an egg on (I know because we did) it was hot enough to grill and blacken the chicken that egg came from.
Satan has a satellite office in Phoenix, right off West Yuma Road, across the street from the Subway sandwich shop.
The plan was to tech scout and shoot 5 commercials over a 17 day period that included many 12-14 hour shoots. That was a significant chunk of my summer. I thought, well at least I'll be at a nice hotel.
Again, this shows you how stupid and naive I could be in the age of the emerging holding company ad agency.
Our fully loaded van left the airport, we passed a bank, flashing the brutal 114 degree temperature, and 20 minutes later arrived at the front of the Phoenix Park Motor Inn.
If you're thinking it looks less like a hotel and more like an old nursing home, you'd be right on the nose. Because it was an old nursing home.
I don't know about you but I'm a little picky about where I lay my head down at night. I had no intention of spending my last days at Chiat/Day where, figuratively and literally, folks were spending their last days gasping for their last breaths of oxygen.
My inner Diva took over and I told the producer I wasn't going to be holed up for 17 sweaty nights in God's waiting room, a room that smelt of adult diapers and industrial-strength vitamins.
Particularly knowing that these cost cutting measures were put in place to maximize profits for our holding company overlords in their 5th Ave., 10 million dollar, four-level town homes.
And I certainly wasn't going to do it in the service of an ungrateful, ball-pinching client, the kind of tighty-whitey wearing people who'd bring a Bible to a bachelor party.
So we, my art director John Shirley and I, moved.
To a hotel just down the street, where our Director, Jonathon David, was staying.
The hotel/resort was designed by some famous architect, I believe his name was Frank Lloyd Wright.
Sensing our imminent demise at the agency and saddled with an unstable account, John and I spent the next fortnight on a vigilant crusade to max out our per diem's. Employing our wits and our 500 miles away-from-home charm, we did everything we could to outfox the production accountants.
We really owe a huge debt of gratitude to Taco Bell and the mother company, YUM. They put us through a bit of hell but the shareholders rewarded us with a little bit of heaven.
We started every day with the room service breakfast, not with the $12 pitcher of fresh squeezed orange juice that easily serves 4, but the larger $22 pitcher, because the remaining orange juice in its beautiful Waterford decanter looked so nice against the rising desert sun.
We smoked cuban cigars, hand selected from the hotel's secret humidor.
And we drank mojitos made with rum imported not from Jamaica or the sugar canes of Hispaniola, but from the far reaches of Eastern Madagascar, not because it was better but simply because it was more expensive.
There's a statute of limitations on creative financial skullduggery, isn't there?
Tomorrow: Don't miss the conclusion of the Taco Hell adventure, including the on-set appearance of Internet Porn Sensation, Sandee Westgate.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
(The second in a four part series detailing my 2001 descent into Taco Hell)
How do you follow up the Taco Bell chihuahua campaign?
How do you produce work that will produce immediate sales?
And how do you save an account in order to save your own ass and avoid the prospect of your children going to the DeVry Institute to study Cashiering?
These were the questions that kept me up night and day. And while vacationing in Kauai, I thought had the answer.
I called my partner, John Shirley, stateside and we started brainstorming an ambitious campaign that would take place in a small, fictional Mexican village in northern Sonora. Where, after a violent thunderstorm, a lightening bolt had hit a tree and left a haunting image emblazoned across its trunk.
Not of the Virgin Mary (as seen above), but of a Crunchy Chalupa.
John picked up on the vibe immediately and started working on comps. We always had a shorthand rhythm like that, where the ideas would come fast and furious. We started envisioning pilgrimages to the tiny town. Villagers creating meat, beans and cheese shrines to the Holy Site. And interviews with the faithful who believed the Chalupa Tree had special healing powers.
Mostly, it cured a stoner's appetite for just $1.29.
But the premise gave us a platform to talk about the food, show the obligatory cheese pulls and poke fun at those who see apparitions, religious, comestible, or otherwise.
My boss, Lee Clow, saw the next evolution of the Taco Bell campaign going in a slightly different direction.
And while I still bemoan the death of the Chalupa Tree concept, you gotta give it up to Lee for his brilliant strategic vision.
His idea was to assemble 5 guys, put them in a van and send them on a road trip where they would make frequent stops at Taco Bells. They even brought the chihuahua, who would play a very small part in each spot, so as not to alienate the millions who still loved Gidget.
You might even remember this campaign.
I'm hoping you don't.
One spot featured the guys inside a Taco Bell while David, overcome with cheap fast food exuberance, started doing a white man rap.
My name is David,
My friends call me "G".
One hungry young dawg I be.
I'm cool like a penguin,
slick like a tuxedo,
so hook me up with gooey Encharito.
Chorus: Go David, it's your birthday, Go David it's your birthday.
I had to sit in an Orange County conference room and watch that get presented to a bunch of toe-tapping, gang-sign throwing, lily-white Promise Keepers.
BTW, I never approved the spot, but I bit my tongue and shut up. Because, as I had mentioned yesterday, with so many folks in upper management dropping massive turds in my career punchbowl, my employment status at the time was tenuous at best.
So where was the brilliance in Lee's plan?
In addition to shooting the heavily-scripted, watered down, executive approved spots, we handed each of our road trippers a Sony Handicam -- this was before iPhones. And we told them that during the course of the 17 day shoot, they could capture everything and anything they wanted on video.
From these hours and hours of raw, unscripted footage we would edit and piece together a campaign unlike anything on the air. With graphics and a voice-over narrative we could shape the stories, write the jokes, and deliver a breakthrough alternative that would blow the $55 cashmere blend-ribbed Paul Smith designed socks off the client.
Well, that was the plan.
We, including Lee Clow on occasion, spent months in the edit bay and actually presented more than a dozen of these free, improvised, off the cuff spots. And at the risk of sounding immodest some of them were very good.
Of course, despite the sage counsel, the client didn't air any of them. Why, after all, would they listen to marketing advice from the man who teamed up with Steve Jobs to make Apple the 5th richest company on the planet?
Their reasoning was beyond reproach. And it all had to do with the sacred process.
None of the spots had been vetted, committee'd and subjected to focus groups and therefore hadn't earned the Taco Bell Clusterfuck Seal of Approval.
Coming Up Tomorrow: "This hotel room smells like old people!"
Monday, September 15, 2014
This week we're going to do something we've never done here at RoundSeventeen.
I'm going to tell of my adventures with America's leading purveyor of fast faux-Mexican food. But I'm going to do it four parts, because to compress it into one would simply not do the hi-jinx justice.
Keep in mind, this all happened in 2001, the year of our other great national tragedy. So this has absolutely no bearing on today's Taco Bell, its current marketing regime or their current ad agency, where I am sometimes employed on a freelance basis.
"We're not selling dog food!"
That was the battle cry from many Taco Bell franchisees in the spring of 2001. Methinks the owners and operators of Taco Bell doth protest a bit too much.
Nevertheless, the rank and file were tired of the Taco Bell chihuahua, Gidget, and the numerous catchphrases that digitally emanated from her mouth.
It isn't often that an ad agency (in this case, my alma mater Chiat/Day) produces a pop culture icon who appears in movies, TV shows, lunch boxes, coffee mugs and T-shirts, and generates millions of dollars in unforeseen merchandising.
It's even less common to have that same national advertiser request a 180 degree shift in direction and, in effect, demand the death of the goose that laid the Golden Egg. Or, the Chihuahua that deep-fried the Cheesy Gordita.
"Kill the dog!"
Had Jay Chiat still been at the helm, I'm sure he would have had some choice words for the khaki pants and polo shirted half wits in Irvine. Not only would he have resigned the account, the next day he would have pitched the talking chihuahua to the folks at Del Taco. And more advertising history would have been made.
But at this point Chiat/Day had been swallowed up by a holding company. And holding companies don't like to lose $200 million accounts. Those holding company yachts, private jets, 24 hour a day Town Car limos and discreet top shelf escort services don't pay for themselves.
While this drama was unfolding, our stock -- meaning my partner John Shirley and I -- was dropping faster than the hull of the Exxon Valdez.
The glow from our somewhat infamous ABC Yellow campaign had long faded. And though we were winning awards for our other client Earthlink, we weren't winning new subscribers.
Inside the agency walls, John and I weren't making friends. We were contrarian, combative, and uncompromising. And spent a fair amount of time answering complaints via the HR department. In other words, we were being creatives.
And that's when it happened.
Not unlike the prisoner who gets that unwelcome and unexpected tap on the shoulder from the biggest, baddest triple murderer in Cell Block D.
"Hey you know that huge, obstinate dumbass client that hates the agency, hates the campaign, hates Playa Vista, hates this building, and hates the fact that they paid for the expensive art work in this building?
They're yours now.
You guys are the new Creative Directors on Taco Bell."
Tomorrow: One of the most embarrassing commercials ever produced at Chiat/Day. On my watch, I'm happy to add.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
Today's post will enflame many of you.
That's because I know many Californians worship at the altar of In-N-Out Burger. I am not one of you.
In addition to testosterone, the Kardashians, and the excessive use of the word, "cute", it is among the many things that separate myself from my wife and two daughters.
I can't remember a single road trip without the obligatory, over-enthusiastic pit stop at an In-N-Out.
Frankly, I don't get it. Their burgers are not great. They're not even good.
If you were to de-construct an In-N-Out burger you'd see the patty was no better than the gruel served at McDonalds. It's thin. It's grey. And it's flavorless. So flavorless that it needs to be enhanced with lettuce, tomato, cheese, pickles, onion, mustard, Thousand Island dressing and a thick bready bun better suited for drying spilt milk off the counter.
People who enjoy In-N-Out burger are really eating a salad, that's been flavored like a hamburger.
When I was in college, I had many jobs. Of course when you attend an expensive private university and your parents shoulder you with the tuition bills, full time employment is more of a given than an option. One year I found myself working as a line cook at a gastro-pub -- they were just called bars at the time -- in South Syracuse.
I believe the name was PJ's.
PJ's was home to the 10 ounce, Grade A, sirloin burger. Each patty was hand weighed, sculpted to perfection and then flame broiled over a scorching hot grill. Unless requested otherwise, each burger left the kitchen a perfectly pink Medium Rare, guaranteeing maximum juicosity.
Similarly, every burger went out unadorned.
Pickles, lettuce, tomato, onions, or any other accoutrement was placed on the side. Though many were ordered with a thick slice of perfectly aged, perfectly melted, sharp cheddar cheese.
If I've used the word perfect too much it's only because this burger was.
I know the comparison is unfair. Just as the praise heaped on your precious Double Double is unwarranted. Fact is, that burger isn't worth the paper it's wrapped in. Frankly, I wouldn't feed it to my dog. Of course my dog had her gall bladder removed 6 months ago and is on a very restricted diet.
But even if I did, I like to think she has good taste and wouldn't go near it.
I know I won't.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Please forgive me for the usage of this stock photo, found easily on Google images.
As I have noted in the past, teasers like this often result in increased web traffic. Which is very important right now as we prepare RoundSeventeen for its IPO and eventual sale to Google for 3.8 billion dollars.
Like I said, it's all about marketing, a field I thought I knew something about. With each passing day however, that expertise seems to be waning.
War story time.
Years ago I was hired to do a freelance gig. It was a one week affair. A run and gun, drink some coffee, bring an extra set of clothes, bitch of a pitch.
I'm not very fond of these affairs and never believed the best creative is produced under these conditions. But, as my niece -- a guidance counselor -- once pointed out in a book of job definitions for graduating high schoolers, a Copywriter must be able to sparkle on demand.
On this particular job I was teamed up with another copywriter. That doesn't happen too often but he was a colleague and someone I had known for many years. He's also one of the few people who can hold his own in a battle of wits, despite being raised in Wisconsin.
We were briefed at 9:30 AM and by 9:45 AM had fallen into a comfortable rhythm.
We were riffing.
And sparkling on demand.
We maintained this scorching pace throughout the day. Interrupted by several bitch sessions about being married, fathering children, scummy Hollywood agents, other hacky copywriters, and again about being married.
At 6 o'clock we got a phone call from the Creative Director who had briefed us just 9 hours earlier. He was offsite but wanted to see the work. And told us to email everything we had by the end of the day.
So we stopped looking at Turkish Bestiality Porn and knocked out a couple of more scripts.
At 8 PM, we hit the Send button, a hastily-written note and 16 fully written scripts. That was some serious sparkling.
The very next morning we approached the swaggering Creative Director and solicited some feedback.
"The packet was a little thin."
That was his response.
And the packet was a little thin!
I thought we were in the business of solving a client's business challenge with strategic, disruptive communications, I didn't get the memo we were now in business of pumping out marketing manure by the pound.
As if that doesn't defy logic, consider our reactions.
I, born and bred in New York, wanted to clock this ass nugget and share with him some of the wisdom I've learned in my 44 years on this earth. But I bit my lip and smiled.
My Wisconsin compatriot was even more steamed.
"The packet was thin," he muttered under his breath.
Sensing his anger, I wedged my body between my midwestern colleague and the shit-for-brains Creative Director. You probably don't know many people from Wisconsin, but I'm here to tell you, they're preternaturally nice and usually not prone to violence.
But pacifism prevailed.
In the end, none of the 87 scripts we wrote that week made it into the 534 page deck presented to the client. And the agency we were working for, didn't win the pitch. In fact they had their pockets picked and lost the account.
Two hardworking, hard sparkling copywriters enjoyed a heaping helping of schadenfreude.
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
If I were Superman, and clearly with my barrel-chested body type and penchant for salty snacks, I'm not. But if I were Superman, pretentiousness would be my Kryptonite.
Perhaps it's because I grew up with working class roots and lived in a town, Suffern, NY, that somehow lived up to its name.
In any case, I have such a visceral reaction to phony, hipster bullshit that I cannot let it go unchallenged.
With that I'd like to introduce you to David Shing, who often goes by the singular moniker of Shingy.
Normally I'd have made a snide comment about that. Or his nail polish. Or the funny glasses. Or even the hair-don't. But I don't want this to be a personal attack. I don't know him and it would be wrong of me to use this pulpit to shit on Shingy.
This is more about the message than the messenger.
Besides, he has done numerous interviews, where he bills himself as a Digital Prophet, and put out some very impressive videos, which in my opinion, are more damning that anything I could possibly come up with.
Between the suspended lightbulbs, the moody music and the hand gestures I didn't get too far in the video. He lost me when, he started babbling on about…
"Where people are going to cluster in small villages, or tribes. And understand they can have deep intimate communications. And I think we're yearning for those experiences."
Oh Shingy please.
Yeah, the other night my wife wanted to go to a movie but I told her I was going to be on the Internet with my tribe of Claussen's Sauerkraut lovers discussing new variations on the Reuben Sandwich.
I added that I might not be able to drive my youngest daughter to her SAT prep class because I was having deep intimate communications with one of the tribe members who was working on some new Vines with slow cooked corned beef.
The truth is, I couldn't get past 38 seconds of Shingy unique brand of bull. Mostly because what he and other marketing gurus, has to say, has no application in the real world of advertising.
Few are the brands that can actually make a difference in this world. And it's because of their products, not because of their live tweeting or InstaGram shenanigans.
I've got news for all you game-changers, planet savers, media artists and plaid-short wearing, rose-sippers, ours is the world of tent sales, 20% off coupons, and Buy One Get One Free. That's the stuff that pays the bills and keeps the lights on.
For all I know Shingy is a good guy. I know he's a smart guy. He gets paid to speak at industry symposiums. I don't speak at industry symposiums. I don't even get paid to write about the digital ninjas and the HTML flim-flammers who speak at industry symposiums.
But he lives in a delusional world. And like all prophets, digital or otherwise, has made a living shoveling shit and putting the kibosh on critical thinking.
If you're buying what Shingy is shilling, perhaps you should look into the Rapture Hatch:
Monday, September 8, 2014
Of my many, many, many faults, my family will tell you the most obnoxious is my compulsion to beat a good joke to death. It's driven my wife to solo paddle boarding. And my daughters will tell you, they can't leave the house and go to college fast enough.
This predisposition to wring every last laugh out of a joke -- good or bad -- is my Achilles heel. Maybe it's common affliction among all 44 year old men.
In any case, today we're reaching into the files, revisiting Mother Russia and the glory of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
We do this not only because I stumbled across this treasure trove of captioned pictures that so succinctly capture the unfinished, shabbily-constructed spirit of Sochi but also because Vladimir Putin, his man boobs and his vodka-soaked stormtroopers are in the news.
But before we work ourselves up into a frenzy about Ukraine, whose track record of Nazi collaboration leaves me a little unenthusiactic about coming to their aid, and before we put any American soldiers in harm's way, let's remember who we shouldn't be getting frenzied about.
A wannabe superpower that is not so super.
Not even when they're sober.
Cue the Beatles and roll out the dead horse:
Feb. 10, 2004. Sochi, Russia -- Olympic visitors find it difficult to recharge their iPhones.
Feb. 11, 2014. Sochi, Russia -- Olympic officials remind the athletes to stay hydrated.
Feb. 12, 2014. Sochi, Russia -- Hotel utility workers unable to turn off the heat.
Feb. 13, 2014. Sochi, Russia -- "I tried jiggling the handle."
Feb. 14, 2014, Sochi, Russia -- Security officials say, "so far we haven't seen any imminent threats."
Feb. 17, 2014. Sochi, Russia -- Winning athletes have been upgraded to luxury suites with built-in soap dispensers.
Feb. 18, 2014. Sochi, Russia -- Homeowners next to Olympic biathlon course plan lawsuits.
Feb.19, 2014 Sochi, Russia -- Food running scarce at Olympic venues. Russian farmers are working overtime to fix situation.
Feb. 20, 2014. Sochi, Russia -- Polish Hockey team unable to enter the newly-constructed practice arena.
Feb. 21, 2014. Sochi, Russia -- The 4-Man PlopShed.
Feb.23, 2014 Sochi, Russia -- To celebrate the end of the Olympic Games and in anticipation of the arrival of warmer weather, local women folk celebrate with the ceremonial drinking of the vodka through the flip-flop.
March 7th, 2014 Sochi, Russia -- Locals return to the night club scene in Sochi.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
As you can see I just made a trip to the local Home Depot.
Not for a new motion detector.
Not for a new O-rings for the leaky faucet.
And not for one of those extendable Swiffy things so I can reach up high and dust the top of the ceiling fans which haven't been touched since they came out of the box in 1997.
No, those projects can all wait.
I've got mice on my mind.
And my mind on my mice.
If you're from Southern California you are surely aware we live among millions of mice and tree rats. On any given night you can see them scurrying across power lines, running from telephone pole to telephone pole, at speeds that would make any Flying Wallenda jealous.
Now that we're in a drought situation, the mice and the rats find themselves up Shit's Creek without a creek.
They're thirsty. And they're desperate. None of this seems to bother one of my neighbors who runs a patio fountain 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I asked her to shut the rodential watering hole down at nighttime and she just stared at me.
Why am I surrounded by such an asinine crowd of white trash? I thought the point of owning (OK the bank owns it) a million dollar home was to get away from these cretins.
Anyway, in years past, I was willing to ignore the nocturnal activity. They were out of sight, out of mind. But last week, while pedaling the recumbent bike in my garage, I saw a plucky little bastard had taken one of the Heirloom tomatoes from my garden and was pushing the meaty vegetable across the driveway to his little rat nest.
By the time I had leapt off the bike he had disappeared into the bushes. With my fresh bowl of salsa no less.
That tomato across the driveway was a direct shot across the bough.
And it's on.
I've already deployed my arsenal. And at this writing have snagged four of the little buggers. Actually, one of them wasn't so little. It was a Norwegian Tree Rat and was about two milkshakes shy of being a Chihuahua.
Had I been true to the principles espoused by Les Stroud, Bear Grylles and other survivalists/hunters that I enjoy on the Manly Channel, I would have skinned it, cleaned it and roasted it over an open fire.
I'm told grilled rat tastes just like chicken. But as luck would have it, my wife had already defrosted a chicken for dinner that night.
Maybe next time.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Dateline: Culver City, CA -- Imam Rahul Abdullah Ach ben Mohammed, religious leader of the Saudi-built King Fahad Mosque in Culver City (see above with the blue dome) has sent a special request to NFL Network (the angular building to the left) President Steve Bornstein.
Dear Mr. Bornstein,
As neighbors on Washington Blvd. in Culver City, California, we have always maintained a cordial and respectful relationship.
As you may know, our congregation religiously abstains from all pork products, including ham, sausage and even the mouth-watering St. Louis Baby Back ribs served at Lucille's at the nearby Westfield Shopping Center. Accordingly we would like to ask the NFL Network and the NFL organization to stop referring to football as a "pigskin."
This is but a small dispensation your organization can make in order to preserve our special friendship and please the will of Allah (PBUH.)
To show we are reasonable people with reasonable demands, we have taken the liberty of providing you with suitable alternatives, including:
I thank you in advance.
Likewise, per our earlier correspondence, we will soon have the new burqa designs that our congregation believes will be a pleasing wardrobe alternative for your NFL cheerleaders.
Rahul Abdullah Ach ben Mohammed
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Stop me if you've seen this movie before.
And I wouldn't be surprised if you had, because this scenario plays out every day in every ad agency across the country, from the wickedly-inspired hallways of Weiden Kennedy in Portland to the anabolic steroid-laced hallways of Zimmerman Advertising in Fort Lauderdale.
A senior planner hands a Creative Director a meticulously-crafted planning brief.
He is peacock proud of the brief's brevity, insight and mapping potential towards marketing success. As the sacred document is passed from one professional to the next, a slight addendum is added.
"We need to show the client something in three days."
"Slow your roll," the Creative Directors responds, "How long have you been working on this brief?"
"About two months. We had initial research. Data Analysis. Loop backs. Deep dives. More research. Oh and then the CMO went to Machu Pichu. So really only 6 weeks," the planner replies, with not a hint of guilt.
The Creative Director, having just enrolled her kids in an expensive private school, bites her lip and tells her team to do the best they can.
And in three days time they do.
The work goes down to the client and in one of those meetings that can only happen in advertising, the Associate Chief Marketing Officer claims he never signed off on the initial brief.
He seizes the opportunity to do a little grandstanding of his own, because he just put a down payment on a Porsche Carerra, and instructs the agency to come back with work in a different direction.
The senior planner, with all his various degrees in demographics, psychographics and social media metric confabulation, could push back and contest the point, but he and his wife just bought a new town home. And the formica counters in the kitchen need to be replaced with granite.
And so, the original precious planning brief, the one that incubated for 6 weeks and was pored over with loving care and undue attention, is tossed in the trash can in favor of a new brief. The one that was angrily ad-libbed by the ambitious Associate CMO who is eager to tell the world he has a small penis.
The cynical among you, that's almost all of you, might be thinking, why do we need Planning at all if the client is going to reject our council and write their own briefs based on nothing more than gut instinct and that morning's caffeine intake?
But as a seasoned ad veteran who has spent considerable time in the industry, I know that every problem is also an opportunity.
The silver lining in this case is I can extend my already lengthy career even longer by transitioning into the Planning Department. That's right, I'll become a Copywriter/Planner.
As a hybrid creative/strategist I'll be uniquely positioned to take advantage of the aforementioned scenario. And short circuit the all-too-familar strategic clusterfuck to my advantage.
For instance, I don't need 6 weeks to write a crappy brief. I can do it in three. Which leaves me ample time to work on my online chess game and perfect the Sicilian Gambit.
And crappy ads for my crappy brief?
Well, God knows I have plenty of practice writing those.
It's the perfect plan for a 44 year old.
Who knows, I might get another dozen years out of this industry.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
In the earlier incarnations of this blog, I wrote much shorter posts.
And I squeezed out articles based on the thinnest of premises, an odd photo, something my daughter said, or even a bumper sticker I had comes across.
Then I caught the writing bug and started 'going off' on anything. And it seems, everything.
That's how we got to more than 1100 posts.
Which is nothing to sneeze at, considering how shallow and uninformed yours truly can be.
Today, in light of the upcoming Labor Day weekend, I'm returning to those roots and taking the easy way out.
Last week, I took the time to look at the carton of light beer I like to drink, Beck's Light. They pack a lot of good Teutonic beer flavor into those 64 calories.
That's when I noticed something odd about the labeling. (See picture above)
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
Wait until the very verbose Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center sees this.
I'm sure this will merit quite the stern letter. And if I know the good rabbi and his hypersensitivity to anything remotely Holocaust, it'll be a thousand words and then some.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
There is a meme floating around the Internet that goes something to the effect of:
Another day of life, Another day I never used Algebra.
I get it, algebra is useless.
The same can probably be said of Organic Chemistry, Roman Mythology and Wood Shop.
Truth is, we learned a lot of shit in high school and college that has very little application in real life.
I've always contended there should be more hands on courses like Navigating Marriage 101, Introduction to Pleasing Your Parents, and Advanced Leave Daddy Alone, but that's another blog, for a later date.
Surprisingly there is one course that has come in very useful in my career as an advertising copywriter: Geometry.
I'll explain why.
You're all familiar with the Pythagorean Theorem that states the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse. Or:
But did you know there are more than 400 ways to prove this particular theorem?
Proving theorems accounts for the majority of most Geometry classes. I didn't know it at the time but the practice of laying out a theorem proof could be the most useful skill I obtained in four years of high schooling. That, and the proper selection of underarm deodorant.
Constructing a proof, whether it's Pythagorean or the countless other theorems, requires a discipline, logic and sometimes even creative flair. In many ways it's the same thought process that goes into writing a screenplay, an ad or even a blog post.
There's a beginning, an exploratory middle and a satisfying conclusion.
Properly executed, it's precise and persuasive.
When you do enough of them you can begin to find art and unexpected elegance in every proof.
I don't use Algebra every day, but I do put my Geometry skills to use every time I step up to the keyboard. Clacking away with the hope that I will deliver something compelling, articulate and insightful.
Clearly today was not one of those days.