Our beloved Brew.

Our beloved Brew.
R.I.P. Big guy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Taken to the mat for the last time

The other night, after a tiring day, I found myself sitting in front of the TV in my bedroom. My son came in and plopped on the bed. He almost immediately began pleading with me to give him a back massage, since he'd spent most of the afternoon in weight training for his high school soccer team.

I'm one of those people who loves getting, but never giving massages. But he knows if he begs long enough I'll usually relent. Reluctantly, and somewhat resentfully, I approached the bed.

Instead of the relaxing massage he anticipated I launched into a version of bed wrestling we used to call "Doggie/Kittie Fight." Throughout his and his sister's lives we've had a family tradition of piling on the bed and roughhousing. It usually starts when one team or the other (boys are the doggies, girls are the kitties) screams "Doggie/Kittie Fight" at the top of their lungs to signal a challenge. Everyone in the house drops what they're doing and piles on top of one another on the bed.

Sometimes the purpose of the game is for one team to "pin" the other. Sometimes, we merely see who can sprawl and bounce on the other until they "tap out." It always involves a lot rolling around, climbing over each other, and "house rules." As an example, once a "kitty" can break free and voluntarily leaves the bed, they cannot be dragged back. Usually, leaving the bed was merely a ruse to circle around and attack from a more advantageous point. You get the idea.

It has been sometime since we did this, and as you can imagine, my eighteen year old daughter no longer has any interest whatsoever in this type of behavior. Mom is now considerably shorter and easily overpowered by our fifteen year-old son. Once and a while over recent years, my son and I would do a little "Mano-e-Mano" wrestling on the bed, but even that seemed to been outgrown and relegated alongside Doggie/Kittie fights to the parental fond memory bin.

But to my surprise, there was still some old fight left in the doggies.

When the dust settled, the real dogs in our house had both fled the room in panic and were now in highly agitated states in the family room, the bedding was stripped clear. both of us were winded, complaining of various aches and pains inflicted by the other, fully exhausted and completely overjoyed and relieved that were able to go at it full tilt and not seriously hurt one another.

It wasn't until the next morning that it dawned on me that for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is my son has suddenly grown bigger and stronger than me, that this was very likely the last time we would be able to go at this way without one of us (me) needing medical attention. The Top Dog is dead. Long live the top dog. Long live Doggie/Kittie fights.

"It ain't music if the lyrics don't sing."

My friend Donna is in Chicago and called me from her cell phone the other day. "Hey Jim, how bizare is this? I just got a call from a guy who asked for you. His name is John Brown"

Now, while that is a fairly common name, I know only one John Brown. But why would he try to reach me through Donna? Of course -- Donna was once married to Steve, whose sister and I worked together in NY a lifetime ago with (wait for it . . .) John Brown!

Thirty years since I last saw the first (and one of the best) copywriters I've known, and instantly, I recalled his face and the line for which I will always remember him: "It ain't music if the lyrics don't sing."

It was my first job in advertising and as the rawest of assistant account executives, I was being paid $8750 a year. The company parking lot had reserved spaces where ranking individuals had an engraved nameplate neatly hung on the hedge row at their spot. There sat the Porsches, BMWs, and Jags of agency management. I wasn't assigned a spot when I first joined the agency. My aged, rotted-out mustard yellow and rust brown Ford Maverick resembled a discolored cow, and got towed once from the lot because someone thought it was an abandoned car. Nonetheless, John Brown treated me with no less respect (and at times, more) than he exhibited toward the agency president.

John taught me how valuable words are. His ability to craft a phrase and his respect for the English language was a profound lesson I took from my three years at that firm. I couldn't wait to call him back and dialed the number as quickly as I hung up with Donna.

"John Brown," echoed in my receiver and I smiled thinking to myself, his voice hasn't changed a bit in all these years.

"John Brown, huh?" was all I could think to say before he interrupted me.

"Fuck you, you fucking asshole." Yep. he left no doubt, this was the same John Brown.

"Just answer me one question, and don't lie -- How's your sex life?" As the host for our regularly scheduled porn film luncheons in the agency conference room, and as the keeper of the extensive library from which the videos were shown, I guess I could anticipate a comment like this from John. Was it more than coincidence that John called me within hours of the announcement of Marilyn Chambers passing? Her work made up a large portion of his collection.

Forty minutes later, we'd geven each other a snapshot of our life, and career, the comings and goings of many of our mutual contacts, the girls from the office we both pursued (unsuccessfully), and the state of the world.

As a junior person at the agency, my reputation was that of greenhorn. The agency president once called me into his office to tell me I was being promoted at a management position at the request of the client, but against his better judgement. he summed up my skills as that of "street fighter in the company of ballroom dancers." With a fair measure of satisfaction, I've used that expression to describe myself many times over the years.

"I think you have been elevated to your level of incompetence. I expect I'll have the privilege of proving my point, and calling you back into the office within the next year and firing your ass." Without a hint of insincerity in his voice, that was as close to congratulating me as the boss would come. I couldn't blame him. He was forced to promote me and remove one of his best friends, who by the way, was a very accomplished dancer both literally and figuratively.

He summed up my rapid rise at the agency this way: "See, you wouldn't be promoted this fast if the client didn't think you were the best account executive they'd ever seen. What neither you or they appreciate is that now you will be charged with getting others to perform better than you did."

I'll never forget what he said next. "You'll be charged with taking the client and the account somewhere they don't even know they need to go, and can't see from where they are at any moment in time." That message of the universal truth of management's (and an adviser's) role stuck with me.

A couple of years later, when I moved to Chicago to manage McDonald's national PR business, and I'll admit, in all the positions I've held since, those words of wisdom traveled with me.

"You were young back then, but I liked you and just wanted to see how your life turned out," was how John summed up his reason for reaching out to me. "You proved that you didn't have to be the smartest, the best educated, or the most experienced to succeed. You merely had to be willing to work harder than the rest." John seemed almost as pleased with my life as I've been.

After agreeing to stay in touch, we hung up.

Throughout the rest of the day I couldn't help but marvel at the trail each of leaves in life and how connected I remain to the people and the lessons learned in those early days of my career. I've seldom taken a job because of the company, the position, or the salary. Even as a young boy, I sought out people for whom I just knew could teach me things, and then I found a way to work for them. Being exposed to people like John Brown, who I consider a modern day poet, has been the real secret to any success I enjoy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Toyota Venza and its meaningless message

Recently, I went on a Twitter rant about the ads that Toyota is running for its Venza model. The voiceover explains that "You are more than one thing, and so is Venza." I find the whole premise baffling. As a current, and longtime Toyota driver, I feel I have the right to react to their messages. Given the current desparate state of affairs that the US auto makers put themselves in, and the government's pleading for consumers to spend, I want to know "business as usual" days within the auto industry are over before I go wading back into the market.

Through this ilconceived campaign is Toyota suggesting that I am defined by different usage occasions? I go to work, I drive at night to social events, I shop. Do they believe these different driving destinations and purposes define me? So in the morning the Venza is reliable work transportation, and during the lunch hour it's a good drive-thru vehicle, and at night it presents me as a "sporty guy" when I pull up in front of my favorite hangout? I don't get it.

Is there some other meaning I've missed?

For Toyota's purposes, I want them to accept I AM ONE THING. I am the driver of an automobile. I do not define myself through shallow things like the model of car I drive. A car provides transportation. Admittedly, some car features lend themselves to certain lifestyles and pursuts. it wouldn't be practical to use a convertible if I intended to use the vehicle for a housepainting business, nor would it seem wise to buy a large SUV for a simple one-mile commute from home to office. But if Toyota can't say anything more meaningful through the tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars it is spending on this ad campaign then they no longer deserve my business.

It's too bad Toyota decided that appealing to my appreciation of its well-made, dependable and economic to operate cars can no longer be told in a compelling manner. Instead they revert to some bogus, customer ego-stroking gobbligook.

The marketing department and the agency should be ashamed of themselves.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

When a mentor passes

This is my first entry into this blog. I think it fitting that I dedicate it a mentor and friend who passed recently. I expect to cover a wide range of topics on which I have some pretty pointed views, but today's entry is all about paying respect to one of the forces that helped me shape my opinions and life views . . .

Maybe it can be said of many other things as well, but my first client in the ad business remains one of my favorite. Rich Guon, a McDonald's Owner/Operator in Rochester, NY was only a few years older than me, but seemed generations wiser. He took me under his wing when I first entered the ad business as an assistant account executive. He was my client, but also my mentor and advocate. Along with Dick Weaver, another McDonald's O/O, he got me promoted at the agency well before my bosses or I thought I was ready, and eventually recommended me to McDonald's corporate in Chicago where I handled national PR at their agency.

The odd part is I had no education, training or background in either the ad business or fast food when I met Rich. Without his and Dick Weaver's guidance I wouldn't have lasted a year in the job. They were great teachers.

Rich passed on Saturday while attending a Ronald McDonald's House ceremony at which he was being honored. At 62, he still had much to offer the world. He was extremely community minded, and demonstrated it through numerous activities he was responsible for intiating. He taught me that regardless of how much power or control you had in a situation, it was important not to appear to be wielding it. His approach was to be clear and decisive, but rarely imposing. Over the years, I've shared an expression with my colleagues, employees, clients, and fellow volunteers that he first said to me: "As important as we might think our work is, it ain't a cure for cancer." It was Rich's way of saying not to take oneself too seriously. His other frequent comment was "It ain't brain surgery." Like Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's, Rich believed in keeping things simple.

Throughout my career I've made choices in jobs, clients, and nonprofit roles not so much based on the work, compensation, company reputation, opportunity for advancement or mission as much as the person for whom I would be working. Rich was my favorite McDonald's person and working with him was a part of the job I relished most.

It was Rich who taught me an important insight about myself. I like to start things -- big things, and see them gain traction. But I don't enjoy maintaining things. That's why Rich urged me to set my sights high, take on audacious tasks, and always have a clear exit strategy. Leaving a role and organization in far better condition than you found it was something he taught me was of primary importance. Kind of how he left the world.