Stage Mother for a Day

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‘The Child was a Star. Just not a Child Star.’

I must miss the Ad World. Or maybe I just like writing about it.

Just last week I wrote about how the client hated a brilliant idea for a bra commercial so much that I was yanked off the Playtex account. Which wasn’t really so disappointing — except that I was put on the Kimberly-Clark account.

Kimberly-Clark (or KC, as we called it informally, if not fondly) is a paper products company based in Neenah, Wisconsin. I’ve written about KC before, most notably in “HooHah Time is Story Time,” but, trust me, when it comes to tales from the Paper Valley, I’ve got reams and reams of them.

Over my years at Ogilvy, I worked on Hershey and the British Tourist Authority, Q-Tips and Swanson, General Foods and American Express (See “Karl Malden’s Nose”), among others. I even “helped” on Shake ‘N Bake.

I don’t have many shoot photos, but this is one of my faves. I don’t remember what the shoot was for — except that it wasn’t for KC

But no matter what else I was assigned to, I seemed always to have a KC brand in my quiver. Turns out I had an indefinable quality known around the Ogilvy Ranch as “Kim.” Which, basically, meant that the Kimberly-Clark clients liked you. Maybe it was because I was a Midwesterner. I guess the clients didn’t stop to think that I was a Midwesterner who spent a considerable part of her Midwestern residency plotting and scheming to get the heck out of there.

Safely out of the Midwest and on a shoot with the Late Great Harvey G. (Read about him in “Harvey and the Grilled Half Goat Head”)

Anyway.

This story is about the time I was working on Huggies, a KC diaper brand. For some reason which I can no longer recall — other than the fact that she was a seriously cute baby — The Child was asked (or I was asked for her) to appear in a Huggies print ad. She would be playing a magician. (This was when all the Huggies ads had babies portraying grownup occupations: artists, engineers, teachers. No advertising writers, not that I recall.)

On a Huggies TV shoot in — of all places — South Africa. Yes, there was a Baby Wrangler on set. But this wasn’t the set (!)

Before you get too impressed, the way print ads involving babies — or any ads involving babies — get done is to sort of hedge your baby bets. You have a casting call involving zillions of babies from which you choose about a dozen to photograph. With TV commercials, you pick even more.

See, actors can have Bad Days. Days when they wake up on the wrong side of bed, or eat something funny or miss their nap. And that’s the grownup actors. Babies are even more unpredictable. So, the more babies on set, the better. I’m thinking The Child was asked to the shoot as sort of a bonus bumper baby.

There’s even a job on diaper shoots called Baby Wrangler. Her job (she’s usually a “she”) is to corral all the babies, keep them calm, and — this is super important — keep them away from their mothers.

The mothers on shoots are, with rare exceptions, simply horrible. They hover and smother and boss everyone around, including their progeny. I was once at a casting call for Alpha-Bits where one poor little girl’s horrible mother wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom for fear of missing her turn on camera, and, you guessed it, she peed all over the carpet. And didn’t even get the part, poor kid.

Me, sporting a souvenir from a shoot in L.A. Maybe it was for Alpha-Bits

Well. I got a chance to experience Stage Mothering up (too) close and (way too) personal at that Huggies shoot. No one knew that I was actually an Agency Person, so the other SMs treated me as one of their own. After staking our ground by declaring how many months’ old our babies were (why is it always months, I wonder?) I was elbowed and glared at. Her Childness was even scolded for offering another toddler some of her Cheerios.

The Child, at 19 months, in her starring role as a magician

I wasn’t cut out for Stage Momhood, I guess. But it was not an experience I was destined to repeat. The Child was “shot,” all right, in costume and everything. But she was not chosen for the final ad. We did get a dollar for signing a release. And we got a swell copy of the photo. It’s the shot that appears at the top of this post — and in my kitchen — if not in a magazine.

The Child, at 362 months, in her starring role as a bride 

Amagansett, New York. October 2021

Whatever you do, don’t stare at the birthmark

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‘Our presentation to the CEO of Playtex’

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about my Golden Olden Days in Advertising. But this weekend, as I was devouring the Sunday Times, I happened upon one of those paid obits that you can only see in the printed edition of the paper. (Yet another reason — besides starting fires in winter — to subscribe to an actual newspaper.)

It caught my eye — a phrase, incidentally, used waaaay too much by consumers in focus groups, as in “I don’t know if I’d buy that. Maybe if the ad caught my eye. And I don’t think this one would.” Well, this particular obit caught my eye because the deceased fellow pictured had not only a birthmark on his forehead, but a name that is quite uncommon. (Of course you know me well enough by now to know that I will not mention that name, out of respect for the dead, if not my own reputation.)

What I do these days instead of creating ads. Though I did knit quite a bit while on commercial shoots

Aha! That birthmark, plus that uncommon moniker, unleashed a whole-package-of-madeleines-worth of memories. Mainly centered around my experiences working with the late, great Mark Shap. (Mark’s name I will mention because I plan to say absolutely nothing negative about him.) Oh — a quick note here: If you think you will be offended by a story involving a person’s birthmark, please stop now and read one of my other Ad Biz Tales instead. I have a whole slew of them listed in the sidebar.

I don’t have any photos of me and Mark, so this one of Me and the Catskills will have to do

Back to Mark, who was an art director with long hair and a mustache. He was tall with a long elegant nose and rather reminded one of Big Bird on Sesame Street. That is, if Big Bird had an English accent. He was very talented and much sought-after as a creative partner. Like many creative geniuses, he could be difficult and demanding. I remember there was an editorial house that had a sign on the wall that went something like — Editing: $50 an hour. If you help: $100 an hour. If you are Mark Shap: $500 an hour.

Anyway. The story sparked by the birthmark happened when I was lucky to have been paired with Mark, but unlucky to have been assigned to the Playtex account. The Playtex clients hated Ogilvy. This was because — even though Ogilvy was then considered one of the greatest advertising agencies, if not the greatest — our clients had not chosen us.

Some biggie at Playtex played golf with some biggie at Ogilvy and the decision was made On High, without the involvement of the people who would actually be working with us. Assigning an account like this is kind of like your Dad making you go out with his best friend’s son. The son might be the most wonderful person in the world and just right for you, but the fact that your Dads cooked up the arrangement just sours the whole deal — for both of you.

Another nice Catskills shot. You know, to break up the story a bit. And no, no one set me up with this friend

Also, this Playtex assignment was for Playtex bras. Now, there’s nothing to be ashamed about working in underwear advertising. Just ask Marky Mark. But back then the networks had weird rules about bra commercials. Like, you couldn’t show a woman wearing the bra. Not over skin, anyway. You could show the bra on a woman — but only over clothes.

Now, this was challenging, to say the least. Commercials for bras showed some hapless woman dressed in, say, a sweater — with a bra strapped right over it. Like I said: weird.

And, what was worse, clients liked it that way. They didn’t want to experiment, uh uh. They wanted their creative team to show them yet another storyboard with a woman wearing a bra strapped over her sweater. Different color sweater? Sure. But that’s about as out there as you could get.

Now Mark was not the kind of art director who did things the usual way. He accepted the bra-over-clothing challenge and met it. He figured out a way to shoot the commercial using an early special-effects technique called “green screen.” The model would wear a leotard in a color that would “disappear” into the background when filmed. What you would see when the commercial was finished would be a bra moving around as if by itself — pleasantly “filled” with that part of a woman that goes under a bra — but you wouldn’t see the woman, or her leotard either, not to mention her sweater.

Too bad Roz Chast didn’t work on packaged goods advertising like I did

Well. This was a major achievement. We could hardly wait to present this idea to the client. In the car on the way to Playtex headquarters in Connecticut, we were prepped by the Suits (er, the account team.)

“Whatever you do, don’t say anything about Joe Blow’s (not his real name) birthmark.” (Like Mark and I were toddlers, and wouldn’t be able to resist laughing and pointing, I guess.) Upon hearing this advice, Mark and I did both start laughing. Rather uncontrollably. So maybe it was good they told us beforehand — so we could get that laughing out of our system.

The assistant AE was driving the car — the car was always driven by the assistant AE — but he did manage to throw in his two cents’: “Hey, it’s not funny. He’s the CEO.”

At this, Mark and I totally lost it. “Okay okay,” we snorted through tears. “We promise not to mention the birthmark. We won’t even look at the birthmark. If you like, we won’t even look at the guy.”

We go in the conference room, and there he is. And my gosh if he doesn’t have the biggest birthmark we’d ever seen. It was spread over most of his forehead and resembled the State of Montana. We quickly shook his hand — while focusing on his nose — and directed our attention to our storyboards.

We present our revolutionary idea, expecting, well maybe not cheers, but at least some level of surprised appreciation at our ingenuity. But the clients — including Joe Birthmark Blow — simply shook their heads in dismay while slowly intoning “Ogilvy…Ogilvy…Ogilvy” in a dirge-like singsong.

The CEO then clapped both hands to his head in abject despair — hiding the birthmark but not the fact that he absolutely hated the commercial.

It wasn’t the sunset of my career — but it was the end of my work on Playtex

New York, New York. October 2021

 

 

 

Pranks for the memories

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‘Stuff you miss when working from home’

So I read in the New York Times today that there are some twenty-and thirty-somethings out there who are resisting going back to the office. “Is this mandatory?” was one Young Whippersnapper’s querulous query.

Some are even quitting their jobs when told to pull up their socks (make that put on some socks) and report to work in person.

Just because you can work remotely doesn’t mean it’s easy to work remotely

Now, I have heard the arguments for working remotely: no commuting time (or expense), the opportunity to prepare a healthy lunch, fewer dry cleaning bills. (That last one is a no-brainer, especially if you’re talking about pants).

Not everyone in the universe likes Zoom. Though it seems everyone skips the pants

And I’ve also heard the other side. As a pro-office guy in the Times piece said, “As a manager, it’s really hard to get cohesion and collegiality without being together on a regular basis, and it’s difficult to mentor without being in the same place.”

Hmmm. “Cohesion?” “Collegiality?” Using “mentor” as a verb? Sorry, fella. I think I’d stay home too.

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My Almost Arkansas Commute

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‘How I narrowly escaped working at WalMart’

It’s hot here. So hot my brain is mush and my funnybone has rickets. I’m so filled with Summertime Lassitude that I tried to republish a post from a couple of summers ago called “Who Wants To Go On A WalMart Run?”

It’s a zillion degrees out. So glad I just finished this sweater

This is the first time I’ve tried to do a sort of “rerun,” and, since it didn’t work and I hate to disappoint, I’m gonna compromise. Instead of dreaming up an entirely new story, I’ll tell you another one about WalMart.

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Location location location

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‘When “zooming” meant jetting off to a shoot in Paris.’

I cheated a little with the photo at the top of this post. Oh, it’s Actual Paris, all right. But this shot of Dude Man strolling oh-so-Gallicly along the Seine was taken on a long-ago vacation, not on a shoot. He did accompany me once on a shoot; it was for Hershey, and it was in London. I looked for photographic evidence, but the envelope labeled “London with Alice for shoot” in our old-fashioned photo stash was, alas, empty.

Here’s London, with The Child this time. Nope, no shoot then either. Tho we did visit some Ad Biz Buddies

But back to zooming around the world on somebody else’s dime to have a simply fabulous time while making a television commercial.

I’ve written previously about how incredibly cool it was to work in advertising back when I was working in advertising. See pretty much any entry under the “Adland Lore” tab, or jump right to “The Most Fun You Can Have With Your Clothes On,” to name just one. Of course, the Biz did have its downside. See “The Naked Boss and the Pussycat Lounge” for a darker view.

Here I am in Africa. I’m “working” on a Huggies commercial

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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.

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Masked and Anonymous

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‘First class service. With a really big smile’

Like most couples in these pandemic times, The Dude and I are spending a lot of time together. Way more time than we used to. Mostly, this is pretty swell.

One of the swellest: going on long hikes together

But (not much, but some) friction arises when we get to talking. I make my living (or used to) with words. So I know a thing or two about their use. Dude Man, while extremely well-educated, has a propensity for the odd word misuse. He’ll use “faux pas,” say, in a sentence like, “I made a real faux pas in my backgammon match.” And then I can’t help myself. I’ll say, “What did you do, burp really loud?”

Then I have to explain that “faux pas” means a social mistake, not a mistake mistake. And he gets all indignant. “That’s the way I’ve always used it!”

Sometimes we bike together too. (Needed something to break up the bickering)

The other day he used “euphemism” wrong. I can’t remember his exact mangled phrase, but our subsequent lively discussion required me to resort to Wikipedia for backup. If you have the time, it’s worth a click to see all the different kinds of “innocuous words or expressions used in place of those that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant” there are.

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“I’ve got belts older than you.”

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‘Freelance was such fun. Until it wasn’t’

As you may recall, last week I was all set to share a crabby/funny story about when I was a freelance writer — when, all of a sudden, this happened:

Needless to say, I’m still plenty excited. In fact, so excited I just can’t help treating you to another shot of the Happy Couple.

No one should be allowed to look this all-fired gorgeous on a plane, for heavens’ sakes

All in all, it was a darned exciting week, what with my umpteenth birthday, the afore-mentioned engagement, and the firing of President You-Know-Who (name rhymes with “dump”). There was some sad news, too — the death of Alex Trebeck, the beloved Jeopardy! host. Who was, of course, Canadian. (I say “of course” because I’m convinced, since The Engagement, that all the very best and very nicest men come from Canada.)

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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

The time I lost my office and found myself on TV

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‘I make a slightly-more-than-cameo appearance in a British documentary’

Last week I attended an event called, I kid you not, The Ogilvy Ancients reunion. This was a nice luncheon held sort of in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the ad agency I worked for longest and to whom I owe my funniest ad-biz stories. (See ‘Short Men and Flat-Chested Women’, ‘Around the World in 80 Shoots’, ‘My Head Feels Funny’, or practically anything in the tab labelled Adland Lore for hilarious examples.)

I’m thinking this reunion was called ‘Ogilvy Ancients’ because the organizers believe in truth in advertising. Though none of us in the room were on hand when the late great David Ogilvy founded the place in 1948, many of us in attendance could easily identify with the characters on Mad Men. Honestly, there were four people at this shindig who started at the agency in the fifties. (No, I was not one of them. Though I do admit to being alive in the fifties.)

D. O. Himself holding forth at my very first Agency Christmas Party — which was not in the fifties. OK, ok, it was in the seventies. (Same diff, you say)

I don’t think I was the only one at this ‘do’ who had worked in all three Ogilvy New York locations, but I’m thinking there weren’t many who could make that claim. I started out (see ‘Take a Letter, Miss Henry’ for deets) at the Original Ogilvy on Madison Avenue, next door to which was the infamous watering hole Rattazzi’s, which was the model for the bar on Mad Men. Everybody used to go to this bar after work — even the married guys who commuted to Connecticut or Westchester. (Actually, they were the ones you could count on to always be there.) Little weenies were served with big drinks, and Ideas were, quite literally, thought up and scribbled down on cocktail napkins.

But I digress. This Gathering of Ancients took place in Ogilvy’s current location, which is a converted chocolate factory on the Way West Side of Midtown. There wasn’t much there before — except for car dealerships, crumbling wharfs, and other disused factories — but now it’s the kind of nabe you’d want to live in if you were, say, a hipsterish 25. It’s cool and trendy and somewhat spotty — you can still nod ‘hello’ to confused-looking halfway-house residents on your walk from the subway — kind of like non-Colonial Williamsburg (the Williamsburg that’s in Brooklyn) used to be before it got full of strollers. Continue reading