Year’s End

It’s traditional that once a year we take stock of what has passed and what role we have played, good or bad, in all the events and experiences of the year just finishing.  For many this time is at the end of the Roman calendar, the time between Christmas and New Year.  It’s holiday time, full of friends and family and for most, good cheer.  Since my birthday is in January, the end of the year is also a beginning.  For some, however, it’s a time of anxiety, grief or regret over what was lost during the preceding twelve months.  We assess what we’ve accomplished, what might have gone better, what we would sooner forget.  Sometimes our year might seem like a miserable dream; and we’d like to throw those memories away somewhere.

The past year I’m surveying gets a mixed review.  As Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  It began with promise, moved to ill-considered, plummeted into heart-break, necessitating major life changes, then shifted to new opportunities and is ending again with promise, although different from what I initially hoped for at the beginning of the year.

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

 Along the way many lessons were learned (never combine love and work.)  The last thing I wanted was a string of “growth experiences,” though “grow” I did.  Left turns only revealed themselves as positive in hindsight.

On balance, the best outweighed the worst.  This was a hard conclusion to reach and I surprise myself saying it. New people came into my life whose trust, caring and support proved truer and longer lasting than those on whom I had placed my faith at the beginning of the year.  Old friends stepped in to offer safe harbors.  New friends were made. The strength of friends and fellowship was overwhelming. New work emerged with fascinating potential.  A new city was explored.  New skills were learned.  My connection with my sons grew ever stronger.  And I realized my affection for a place was greater than the sad associations remembered through the lens of a former shared experience. San Francisco welcomed me home.

The year was a progression of peaks and valleys, and while the hockey stick curve didn’t emerge, it’s in the making.  2011 planted the seeds of 2012 opportunity.

Life is how we interpret our experience.  It’s not an objective reality that exists outside our consciousness. There’s always a choice.  We can choose to be happy.  Or not.  We can choose to see ourselves as successful.  Or not.  We can accept the world as it is.  Or not.  We can accept people as they are.  Or not.

Understanding the dangers inherent in all the “or nots” is how we grow up and keep from drowning.


We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

In defense of well rounded.

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin wrote about the advantages of being “sharp” versus “well rounded.”

He wrote, “Well rounded is like a resilient ball, rolling about, likely to be pleasing to most, and built to last. The opposite? Sharp. Sharp is often what we want. We don’t want a surgeon or an accountant or even a tour guide to be well rounded. We have a lot of choices, and it’s unlikely we’re looking for a utility player. Well rounded gives you plenty of opportunities to shore up mediocrity with multiple options. Sharp is more frightening, because it’s this or nothing.

While I’ve often written that a small group of diverse “sharps” make an effective team, I think Seth misses the mark and generalizes to make a point.  It’s the same as using statistics to support many conclusions.  Of course no one wants a heart surgeon trained as an orthopedic surgeon.  But being a fine pianist is a complementary (well rounded) skill many surgeons possess.

Well rounded need not be mediocre; well rounded need not be a utility player.  In fact, those characterizations undermine the benefits of lifetime knowledge and broad experience.  The best “sharp” solutions come from experience gained in the trenches, not from a narrow focus limited to one field of expertise.

One reason the majority of start-ups fail is that the founders know how to create their product but have little background in how to position it as a solution a customer may need.  This is especially true of tech start-ups.  The founders think it’s about technology.  No one buys technology.  People buy solutions that solve a problem.  Does a business care about the elegance of’s software platform, or do they instead care about how the software makes it easier to track leads, communicate with customers and generally simplify their sales process?

Marketing in particular benefits from what Seth probably regards as “well rounded.” No one could deny that “sharp” solutions are the goal of all marketing initiatives.  In my experience, the ability to draw parallels across diverse categories and industries immeasurably enriches outcomes.  When recently working with a truck maintenance outsource business, my background in large IT system outsource solutions was of greater value than knowledge of the repair and maintenance of truck fleets.  Understanding the political ins and outs of how a municipality operates, from being a local municipal (volunteer) official, is different and more enlightening than only being a salesman.  Does this “well rounded” experience somehow undermine my ability to develop a “sharp” recommendation?

Stepping outside the purely professional, can a marketing solution be enriched by having read Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus?  By Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason?  By a day at MOMA?  By hiking the Appalachian Trail?  By swimming the length of Loch Ness?  By training for the Olympics?

No Seth, I would much prefer to work with intelligent, “well rounded” people who know a thing or two about the ways of the world we live in.

Planes, boats and trains.

Below me the Rockies are spread out as far as I can see.  They look like the paper- mache mountains over and through which my Uncle Albert’s HO gauge trains would run once a year when set up during the Christmas holidays.  He loved these trains and even today at the age of ninety is in charge of the model train club at his nursing home near Pittsburgh where my family lived and where I grew up.

I’m returning to San Francisco from having spent two days in Charlotte, North Carolina, working with the management of a truck fleet maintenance outsourcing business on their marketing initiatives.  I’ve made this trip back and forth from the East Coast to the West so many times over the past thirty years that I’ve lost count.  I do, however, remember my first, and up until this week, only trip to Charlotte.  I was fifteen and my swimming coach flew with me there to swim one race, and to set the U.S. National Record in the event.  I did just that and my picture appeared in the sports section of the Charlotte newspaper.  It must have been a slow sports day since swimmers so rarely ever appear in any newspaper, much less a young guy from out of town.

A lot of my life has been spent in planes, hotels, rental cars, boats, trains and other people’s offices around the world.  It’s the by-product of wanderlust and a career in global advertising: the first leading to the second. Even before I started making weekly trips from Manhattan to Cincinnati, Dallas and Wilton, Connecticut in my first years at Benton & Bowles, I had already become a seasoned traveler to and from school in Maine and with my first job at Aperture, where among many trips around the country, I had the opportunity to visit Paul Strand at his home in France.  I had crossed the Atlantic twice on the QE II and SS France to attend graduate school in Ireland, sailed in the Caribbean, spent two months on ferries visiting nearly every island in the Hebrides, and crept through the Alps on Swiss narrow gauge railways.

My true commitment to travel began at Needham Harper and Steers when I convinced my friends John Bradstock and John Wren who ran the international division to send me on a foreign assignment.  It was a way to jump into a senior management role far sooner than had I stayed in New York while at the same time fulfilling a dream to work overseas.  I had majored in international marketing at NYU business school with this goal in mind and finally achieved it with my first posting as managing director of NH&S’s Barcelona agency.  This began a career journey that lead over the years to management roles in Singapore, Melbourne, Paris and Tokyo with literally hundreds of additional trips resulting in more than forty-six countries stamped in my ever expanding passports. I’ve been to Bermuda more times than I’ve been to New Jersey.

These years were not without drama, with inevitable client and agency ups and downs, illness, marriage difficulties, years of jet lag, loneliness and the hardship of being away from my home and family.  I often felt like Marco Polo.  When managing DDB Needham Singapore–a comic novel could be written about this–I spent a week of high anxiety when the Singapore government, which owns all the media, threatened to arrest me as head of the office for non-payment of the agency’s media bills.  (New York eventually came to my rescue after first directing me to a non-existent line of credit at the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank.)

Long haul flights were my favorites: New York-Tokyo; Singapore-London; Paris-Hong Kong; New York-Buenos Aires.  I especially liked crossing the date line and losing or gaining a day.  Seventeen hours on a plane were bliss–time removed from reality, time removed perhaps from a reality I wanted to avoid.  Cross country flights today seem short.  And how could Boston-San Francisco match the romance of Amsterdam-Jakarta?  Though less frequent, I happily say yes today to any trip over six hours in the air.  Work can be done in peace, long books absorbed, naps enjoyed, and on a few occasions over the past several years time spent quietly holding hands with someone I loved.

I used to fantasize that the aging process was suspended when crossing time zones.  Hours and days somehow out of the flow of time. My assumption–wish?–was that one stayed younger, that the time was subtracted never added.  By this rationale I am at least three years younger than my real age.  The opposite is more likely the case with all the sleeplessness and those free radicals over the Pole.

The greatest benefit from all this travel is the many friends I’ve made along the way.  Alan in Paris.  Sean in Mannheim. Janine, Tim, Sherri and many others in Melbourne.  Yamane-san, Sangu-san, Sasaki-san in Tokyo.  Tormod in Denmark…. These I’ll leave for another day.

Night Moves

Among the many things I’ve carried with me from country to country, and from cities almost embarrassingly numerous, are two large boxes of old agency half inch and three quarter inch reels of television commercials.  These are relics of technology no longer used ( where do you even find a U-Matic on which to play the three quarter inch cassettes? ) and of times, once so critical and filled with importance, as gone and likely forgotten as the writers and art directors who created the work.  So much of the brilliance of this material is grounded in a moment of time– brief, fleeting and always superseded by the next new “great” thing.  Nothing lasts very long in the world of advertising.

I have a show reel from the late ’80’s from the director and cameraman Joe Pytka.  Together with Ridley Scott, Joe was one of the hot, most sought after commercial directors in the business.  He was expensive and notorious for shooting the commercial he wanted to shoot, regardless whether it was what the agency or client wanted produced.  His shoots were always over budget.  And in the majority of cases his work was better than the original story-board.  He could take a commercial idea and turn it into magic.

I’m watching his two minute spot for Michelob called “Night Moves.”  (Only people inside the industry know the names of TV commercials.)  “Night Moves” is a miniature movie dramatizing Phil Collins’s song In the Air Tonight.  Collins is in the commercial performing the song in a supporting role to the unfolding drama.  There’s nothing in this commercial that’s overtly about Michelob.  It’s an atmospheric, sexy story of a girl arriving on an airplane and coming to her boyfriend waiting in a posh club.   It’s New York in 1987, the city Patrick Bateman lives in.  It couldn’t be any other city or any other time.  It’s that moment when New York was the most glamorous place on the planet. Another Pytka spot in the same campaign is called In the Heat of the Night.  Same glamor, same city, same moment in time.

With the presumption of advertising, a tagline appears at the end of the spot that says “The Night Belongs to Michelob.”  We’re asked to transfer all that glamor, the beautiful people, the drama and anticipation, on to a glass of beer.  Preference by association.  But I’m not thinking about the logic of the sell.  I’m thinking about how the commercial is one with its times, and how that time of high living and false confidence is over.

Every campaign is a product of its time.  Some spots are grounded in specific events, such as a particular Olympics.  Some are situated in a moment of a product’s life cycle, especially at its launch.  Some feature a celebrity defined by her age.  I remember as a young account executive being on a shoot in the early ‘80‘s for the drugstore perfume Cie.  The spot starred Candice Bergen, when she was still in her youthful beauty.  She was also impossible.  Arriving on the set, she looked at the pre-approved script and flatly stated she couldn’t say the lines.  The American Cyanamid clients were furious, but could do nothing but accede to her demand to change the script. In the midst of the negotiation she remarked, “Just because I grew up with a dummy doesn’t mean I’m one.”  Priceless.

Among the boxes of reels I also have a Ridley Scott show reel of the same 1980’s time period.  The first commercial on the reel is one of the sexiest, most luscious, spots ever produced. It’s for Chanel No. 5 and is set to the Ink Spots song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.  I Just Want to Start a Flame in Your Heart.” Opening with a series of dissolves from a formal garden to piano keys then to an approaching freight train, it focuses on a man and a beautiful woman who say one word to each other, “Charles.” “Katherine.”  The man then says “May I ask you a personal question?”  Then we see the shadow of a jet moving from the bottom to the top of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco.  Back to Katherine who closes her eyes and tilts her head back with a look of ecstasy.  “Live the Fantasy. Chanel No. 5.”  No imagination needed.

Does this calibre of direction exist anymore?  The budgets are gone.  I watch TV today and am distressed by the abominations that pass for advertising.  Their only rationale is that they are one with the abominations that pass for programming.  With over 60% of all TV advertising being skipped, it hardly makes a difference anyway.  Creativity has moved on to other media. Maybe this state of television advertising will be indicative of 2011, and no other time.

I think I’ll continue to watch my old agency and show reels.