The time I stole the Vice Presidential couch

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‘From way back when people had actual offices. With actual furniture.’

It’s been ages since most of us have seen the inside of an office. And not just because the Pandemic has had many working folks working virtually.

See, even before The Great Scourge sent office workers scrambling for work-from-home kitchen counter space, actual offices were on the wane.

The Child, complete with laptop and lapdog, at work a couple of years ago in her modern open-plan Boston office. True, she was such a Big Cheese that she had her own space with a door that shut. But the door was glass

I’m talking here about “offices” as not just places where people work, as in “the New York office,” but your very own space at work. A place with four walls and an actual door—where you could shut said door and adjust your slip in complete privacy before settling down at your desk to tackle that Huggies copy.

The Child getting some work done, pandemic-style

Yes, there was a time when even the lowliest copywriter, wet behind the ears and fresh from the Midwest, had an office. The only people who didn’t were the secretaries, who sat outside in the hall. I know this because I was mistaken for a secretary on my first day at Ogilvy. Seated in the hall and handed a sheaf of letters to write, too. (You can read more about this in “Take a Letter, Miss Henry.“) Incidentally, they were indeed called “secretaries;” they even had a “Day” when you brought them flowers.

Me, at about the time I was mistaken as a secretary

Offices were a really big deal in those days. Your status was judged not by whether you had one (because everyone did) but how big it was and where it was located. Corner offices were a big deal. Also the higher your floor in the office building, the cooler you were. My office at Ogilvy was on eight. So was my boss’s, she of the blue lizard Maud Frizons. But hers, natch, was in the corner. The head Creative Honcho was on nine. And David Ogilvy was on whatever was the tippy top. Twelve? I don’t know. I was too lowly ever to be invited there.

The great DO, not in his office on the umpteenth floor

Offices were so important that even in the late eighties, when Ogilvy (the company) moved to new digs at Worldwide Plaza, everyone—well, again, everyone except the secretaries—still got an office. Ogilvy was doing very well in those getting-new-accounts-every-ten-minutes days. So well that the number of new hires exploded and closets were being converted into offices. Seriously. There were offices so tiny that the ceilings were higher than the walls were wide. But they were offices, goldarnit.

Me, in a screenshot from a British TV documentary which, alas, has been taken down from YouTube, featuring me getting lost while trying to locate my new (fairly small, but still) office at WW Plaza

But about me stealing the couch. As I mentioned, I did in fact get an office at Ogilvy on the very first day I was there. Well, once the Secretary Thing was straightened out. But my office, while reasonable in size and equipped with a very nice window, had just a desk and a chair.

Now, you might think a desk and a chair would be more than enough furniture for a young whippersnapper copywriter to work with. But. Heady with power after learning my job did not involve typing letters—or even any real typing; the secretaries did that—I was craving a table, a side chair, perhaps even a couch.

The problem here was that only Vice Presidents were entitled to office accoutrements like side chairs and couches. (See me up at the top of this post, when eventually I did become a Vice President, seated in a VP chair in a corner of my vast VP office.)

But back there in my Ogilvy Beginnings, I was working late one night, putting the finishing touches on some Shake ‘n Bake copy perhaps, and found out that another office occupant—a Vice President with VP furniture—had just resigned. So I swooped in and “appropriated” some of his furniture.

The next day this natty besuited guy stuck his head into my office to say hello to the new hire (me). He introduced himself as “Ken” and complimented my furniture: “How did you get that nice couch?” “So and So left, so I took it before anyone else could,” I answered. “Well, I guess that’s the way to get things done around here. Good for you,” he replied, then scooted off down the hall.

I found out soon enough that “Ken” was none other than Ken Roman, CEO of Ogilvy. And later that week when the office manager came to collect the furniture and confronted me about “not being at a sufficient level to have vice-presidential furniture” I looked him in the eye and said, “Ken Roman said I could have it.”

Another relic as outdated as offices with furniture: my sample reel. On film

Amagansett, New York. February 2021

 

Harvey and the grilled half goat head

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‘A practical joke that backfired, bigtime’

The other day the Times ran a story about procrastination. About how when you put things off it’s not really about laziness — it’s about more emotional stuff, like fear of failure.

Gulp. Got me, New York Times. I started writing this blog instead of writing a book. I told myself I actually was writing the book — only story by story instead of all at once. And that when I had enough material, I’d figure out how to magically turn it into an actual book.

Speaking of “material”, I’ve got scads of stories about growing up in the Midcentury Midwest. Check out “You Make a Better Door than a Window”

Well, that was almost five years ago. And I have yet to get my turning-this-stuff-into-a-book act together. I was talking this over with The Dude on our trip up to Boston this past weekend to help The Child celebrate her birthday. Told him I was thinking of shutting down The Blog and focusing on The Book. Then he asked the key question: “Have you run out of stories, then?”

The Child and The Dude duke it out in a game of Birthday Chess

“Oh, I’ll always have stories,” I replied. Like this one. It’s about a very colorful boss I worked with years ago. His name was Harvey. Usually I disguise the names of real figures from my past. But Harvey’s essential, well, Harveyness meant he couldn’t be anything other than “Harvey”.

I don’t have a photo of Harvey, but I do have this one of a bevy of ad beauties who worked for or with him. The pic at the top of this post was taken when he got me a promotion

Harvey was a prominent art director — he and his writer partner came up with the famous “Hilltop” commercial for Coke. The one that goes “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”. He was also, well, quirky. He was from the Bronx and was such a died-in-the-wool New Yorker he made Woody Allen seem like he came from Kansas.

Harvey used phrases like (for a boring TV idea): “I gotta tell ya; it lays there like a lox.” Even more boring? “It’s Wheatena. High praise would be: “You took a flower and made it a meadow.” Harvey was so New Yorky, he once got a ticket in LA for jaywalking.

Speaking of LA, this was back when working in advertising was really fun. So fun, in fact, that I have a story titled “The Most Fun You Can Have With Your Clothes On”, which you can read when you’re done with this one. (Or in my book, if I ever figure out how to make it happen.)

Me, back in those Fun Days. The shirt is from a studio in LA. Yes, I am wearing it tucked into sweatpants

Yes, I have a zillion LA Ad Stories. Like “Eenie Meanie, Chili Beanie, the Spirits Are About to Speak”. Oh, and one that everyone seems to get a kick out of is a tale of Ad Revenge called Karl Malden’s Nose”.

But today’s story takes place in New York. As I mentioned, advertising was way fun way back then. It still might be, I suppose, if you enjoy open-plan offices and working all weekend on internet banner ads. But I digress.

One of the Fun Things we did was have Group Dinners. That’s when our Creative Group would eat out in some fun restaurant and our Creative Director Boss (in this case, Harvey) would pick up the tab.

Harvey was treating us to dinner somewhere in Little Italy — I’ve wracked my brain trying to remember the name of the place; Perugia maybe? — anyway, we were in this restaurant with a linoleum floor and big long communal tables and waiters who didn’t speak English.

We’re going around the table, placing our orders. There were about a dozen of us, including these two guys, Shap and Gruen, a great art director/writer team and also very funny. (Yup, those are also their real names, because why not?) Anyway, Shap and Gruen decided to play a joke on Harvey.

While everyone was talking and laughing and carrying on, Ad-Fun-Style, S and G surreptitiously ordered Harvey a grilled half goat head.

Well. We continue to talk and laugh and carry on, and pretty soon this waiter brings over an honest-to-god half goat head plopped on a big ole plate. It looks like someone sliced this poor goat’s head right down the middle and, well, grilled it — eyes, tongue, nose, the whole (well, half) darned thing. And it looked like it because that’s what somebody actually did, darn it. Grilled a half goat head.

Shap and Gruen are seated on either side of Harvey and they’re thinking this is pretty funny when Harvey goes, “Capozelle! My favorite!”

He then proceeds to eat said Capozelle, enjoying it lustily while offering choice tidbits to his neighbors Shap and Gruen. “Here, try the eye — it’s the best part!

I guess you could say that Harvey, um, got their goat.

And that maybe I should leave this one out of The Book.

New York City. March 2019

“Eenie Meanie Chili Beanie, the spirits are about to speak”

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‘The time Rocky starred in a Hershey commercial’

I was all set to write about the origins of the Henry HooHah when, oh no, I saw in the Times that June Foray had died.

I’ll be back. Tune in next week for the origins of the HooHah

Now the name “June Foray”, no doubt, does not ring a bell. But for those of you, like me, who grew up watching the ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle Show’, you’ll know her as the voice of Rocket J. Squirrel, AKA ‘Rocky’. (Yup, Rocky was a girl.)

Now, it may be hard for those of you who did not grow up watching this show to understand not only how hilarious it was, but also how, um, culturally pervasive. Well, at least at my house. We kids would torture each other — and our parents — by endlessly repeating the show’s catch phrases, “Eenie meanie chili beanie” being just one example. And the puns? Ouch. Here’s the Times, from that juicy June obit:  Continue reading

Radio Days

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‘Did I just hear somebody say “sushi”?’

The Dude and I grabbed some sushi last night. (Why is it that one ‘grabs’ sushi, I wonder?) And, as I deftly dipped a chunk of inside-out California Roll into a little dish of sodium-reduced soy sauce, I was transported back, in a rather Proustian tasting-the-madeleine-like way, to one of the very first times I ever had sushi.

It was in Chicago, back in those golden years of traveling around the country on somebody else’s dime. I was working in advertising, natch. On this radio project that involved interviewing people who had lost their money because they were silly enough to be carrying actual money instead of American Express Travelers’ Cheques.

We were using this interviewer named Alan Kalter (he got to be pretty famous as an announcer on Letterman, but, trust me, this was way before that). Anyway, Alan was in a glass-fronted room talking to a group of losers (er, people who’d lost their money) while the producer and I watched and listened and prompted him (via a tiny wireless earpiece mic) to ask certain questions, or to get the interviewee to repeat a phrase more clearly or loudly.

See, we were recording the interviews so we could piece together some ‘it-could-happen-to-you’ radio commercials. So we needed certain phrases, like ‘I lost my money’, ‘My vacation was ruined’, and, of course, ‘I wish I’d been carrying American Express Travelers’ Cheques’ to come out nice and crisp and clear. Continue reading

Pantene, Queen of the Desert

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‘The Mojave was hot; the Best Western was not’

Every time I’ve considered whining about the heat this particularly-hot Northeastern Summer, I remind myself of the August I spent shooting a Pantene commercial smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

I can hear you now: ‘Deserts aren’t so bad; after all, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity‘. Well, let me tell you — and this is coming from a girl who grew up near St. Louis, where hapless souls from the British Foreign Service got hazardous duty pay on account of the steamy summers — ‘Uh-uh, in the desert, my friends, it most definitely is the heat.’

Okay, you’re probably wondering Why On Earth anyone would shoot a shampoo commercial in the middle of the Mojave Desert at all, much less in August.

Well, let me digress a moment to tell you that shooting hair is notoriously tricky. You get your flyaways, your frizz, your fluffy nimbus (nimbi?) When it comes to hair, it truly is a case of ‘it’s the humidity‘. So, if you don’t want humidity (and if you have the good sense the creative gods gave you) you shoot the darned stuff in a studio. Or you drag everyone — director, cameramen, gaffers, PAs, craft services, creatives, models, and even the clients — to the Mojave Desert. Continue reading

General Foods, we salute you

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‘Drinking the Kool-Aid (and Country Time) in the 80s’

Those of us who worked on the General Foods account at Ogilvy used to kid around a lot (big surprise; see ‘Short Men and Flat-Chested Women’ for evidence). We used to say that nothing General Foods made was really a ‘food’. You know, something that could actually sustain life. If you were stranded on a desert island with only GF products to eat, you would, basically, starve.

That’s because everything made by General Foods (or GF as it was fondly known around the shop) was actually a powder. A powder that you stirred into water (Kool-Aid, Tang, Country Time Lemonade-Flavor Drink Mix), brewed with water (Maxwell House Coffee), shook up with meat (Shake ‘n Bake), or mixed with other assorted stuff (Good Seasons Salad Dressing Mix). I don’t mention Jello here, even though it was in fact made by GF, because it (and Bill Cosby) were Y&R’s problem, er product.

My first Ogilvy commercial was one for Shake ‘n Bake. This was in the early 80s, so it actually did not use the famous ‘and I helped’ line. Nope, I got to do commercials with this spokesperson called Pete the Butcher. The 80s were replete with spokespersons: Cora (Margaret Hamilton, who was the Bad Witch in the Wizard of Oz) for Maxwell House, Grandpa for Country Time. And those were just some of the Ogilvy GF spokespeople. (Don’t forget Bill Cosby for Jello; as if you could.)

Here’s a typical example of a Shake ‘n Bake Pete the Butcher spot that I found. I’m not sure if I did this one or not. That tells you something right there, I’m afraid. Continue reading

Around the World in 80 Shoots

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‘Part One: Have script, will travel’

Remember ‘Rosemary’s Baby?’ Of course you do. Remember that scene where Roman and Minnie Castevet, Rosemary’s creepy-nice Dakota neighbors who are really (spoiler alert!) witches, invite Rosemary and Guy over for cocktails?

Well, Roman (nice naming job there, Roman Polanski) gets to talking about his travels: ‘Name a place! Go ahead, any place.’

So Guy gamely goes, ‘Dubrovnik (or someplace like that)’ To which Roman says ‘Ah, Dubrovnik! Wonderful place. I’ve been there.’

Roman bragging about his travels to poor ole gullible Rosemary and Guy

Hey, Roman. I’ve been where you’ve been. But on Somebody Else’s nickel

Well, hah! Name a place, and chances are not only have I been there, I didn’t spend a dime of my own money to go. In fact, I was paid to go there!

Welcome to yet another wonderful thing about the wonderful world of advertising. At least, when I was in it. We used to travel all over the darned world shooting commercials. Everywhere!

Continue reading

Karl Malden’s nose

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‘Don’t leave home without it.’

Fair warning: if you are related to Karl Malden, or are the president of his Fan Club or anything like that, you may wish to stop reading this post. Switch to the one about the silo. Or the one about Bruce Dern and the sweepstakes.

Because this is an Ad Story in which Karl is the butt (as opposed to the nose) of the joke. But he deserved it. As you will see. To mangle a phrase, ‘Hell hath no fury like a bunch of creative women dissed’.

First, a little (probably necessary) background. Karl Malden was a movie star once upon a time (terrific as Mitch in ‘Streetcar Named Desire’; good in ‘On the Waterfront’ too). But it was his run as a police detective on a TV show called ‘The Streets of San Francisco’ (with a youngster named Michael Douglas as his sidekick) that got him his looooong lucrative run as the Spokesguy for American Express Travelers’ Cheques (‘Don’t leave home without them’).

Karl Malden and his nose (and Michael Douglas too) in ‘The Streets of San Francisco’

It grieves me to realize that I just explained who the hell Karl Malden was and now I have to explain ‘travelers’ cheques’. (Do they even make travelers’ cheques anymore?) Anyway, travelers’ cheques were these things you’d get before going on a trip to use instead of cash because, if you lost them or (gasp) if a bad guy stole them, you didn’t lose out. American Express would replace them, and you’d be fine.

In order to get people to use their travelers’ cheques instead of dangerous old cash, AmEx (as we who worked on their business affectionately called them) ran these commercials where pathetic travelers who used cash were duped and/or robbed and lost their money. Then Karl, wearing his trademark tough-guy hat, Continue reading

Proof that Swedes are geniuses

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As if we needed any more evidence of superior Nordic brainpower, watch this:

Heh heh heh. The BookBook. I can just hear Grandpa Peterson chuckling over that one. Right after he finished his raspberry pie and very-weak-but-constantly-present coffee.

Speaking of food, I’m glad to see that my fellow Swedes are concentrating their brains on what they are good at (witty commercials, impossible-to-construct furniture) because they are certainly no great shakes in the culinary department.

My Grandma Peterson used to serve a traditional dish called lutefisk every year at Christmas. It’s made from a fish that’s been Continue reading