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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Art vs. Artist

Apparently, I can’t laugh at Louis CK anymore. Not at his standup and not at his TV shows or movies either. I can’t even listen to his Pandora channel, which really dampens my morning commute. On the upside, there will be no more nasty stares from annoyed strangers when I reflexive snort at hysterical Louis bits.

Following CK’s recent admission to exposing himself to upwards of five women, laughing at him now signals an acceptance of his worldview. At least that’s the position many opinion leaders and reporters, like the Guardian’s Jack Bernhardt. The comic's poor decisions now taint everything he ever touched…or do they?

Let me be clear, what Louis did was horrible. Using your status to corner women and masturbate in front of them is shameful, demeaning and deserves real consequences. But, does it warrant burning down Louis' entire career and reputation, along with those deemed "guilty by association"? I don’t think so. Categorically labeling Louis a “sex offender” may help dumb down peoples’ impossible complexity, but this oversimplification also contributes to some of the deepest and most harmful divisions facing our species.

So here we are, no longer simply fans and spectators but jurors, detectives and cold-case investigators. We must take strong positions in spite of standards that change with time and on incidents whose actual truth have been obscured. I’m vastly unqualified for this job, mainly because I understand that artists whose work I enjoy can also be terribly flawed human beings, behaving very badly and hurting those around them. That is why most people (I assume), don’t look at a Picasso painting and say, "I should not take this work seriously because Picasso cheated on his wives and was abusive to his son." People are flawed. All people-and you don't have to spend hours reading impassioned accounts from victims and salacious rumors to know that.

Then there’s the bloodlust. The desire to shame Louis into oblivion. This also feels misguided. Not just because people are imperfect, but because we have very little insight into why we do what we do. Whatever his motives, Louis cannot truly know why he has an impulse to masturbate in front of women. He, along with the rest of us, did not pick his parents or the time and place of his birth. He didn't choose his gender or most of his life experiences. He has no control whatsoever over his genome or the development of his brain. And now his brain makes choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime. As sickening as I find Louis’ behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with him, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Can we put away the pitchforks just for a moment to think about this? 

Put simply, being an artist has absolutely nothing to do with one's personal behavior. Great art pulls you into its own world and the creator of that world disappears. 

So, I can’t forsake Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”, I won’t renounce Polanski’s “Chinatown” and I still think being told to "suck a bag of dicks" is really funny.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Brave Front

I thought I knew what the word brave meant. Firefighters running into blazing buildings. Soldiers taking bullets to save their battle buddies. 'Sully' safely landing that passenger plane on the Hudson River. You know? Those sorts of heroics. But apparently, I’ve been overlooking other equally brave acts. Like musicians penning “brave lyrics”, football players making “brave plays” and most recently, Bella Thorne being praised for bravely baring it all.

The 19-year-old actress posed for the latest issue of GQ Mexico in the nude and then took to Instagram to share a racy shot from the spread along with a lengthy message about how she requested that the magazine refrain from retouching the snap. “I specifically asked for no retouching on this photo, and lemme tell you I have insecurities, about pretty much everything…” she wrote alongside the shot. She “bravely” went on to write, “I’m here to tell you I’m not F— PERFECT. I’M A HUMAN BEING AND I’M REAL.” Brave indeed.

One only need look at the shots to realize that we haven’t just bent the notion of bravery, we’ve broken it. This reminds me of a standup bit by Louis C.K. who mused, “You use the word “amazing” to describe a goddamn sandwich at Wendy’s. What’s going to happen on your wedding day, or when your first child is born? How will you describe it? You already wasted “amazing” on a fucking sandwich.”

Here’s the thing. GQ knows that these photos are not brave. So does Bella Thorn. If the actress really wanted to demonstrate her bravery and empower young girls not to obsess about their looks, perhaps she could have offered shots like this.

Now that’d be brave. Conversely, her public attempt at bravery only serves to sexualize her and reinforce female stereotypes. And that’s the part that pisses me off most.  Young women really are struggling with negative body image and weight issues. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls want to lose weight. 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. And about two-thirds of girls in the 5th to 12th grades said that magazine images influence their vision of an ideal body. 

It's hard to read statistics like this and reconcile them with Thorne's photo shoot.

Bella, you are not bravely addressing the problem. You are the problem.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

In Search Of Fearless Work

A few years ago, on the eve of my annual family vacation, the agency heads asked me to lead a longshot new business pitch for a relatively unknown, New England-based investment management company. The idea of giving up my summer vacation to woo a financial services firm, didn’t exactly excite me. After all, this is not a category known for its creativity. To my wife’s irritation and my children’s disappointment, I agreed to lead the pitch and bid my family farewell as they flew to Miami without me. I figured, bringing in a new piece of business would be good for my career, which would be good for my family, which they would surely understand. They didn’t. But that’s neither here nor there.
I was given two weeks and a freelance team I’d never met. We got to work. My ignorance to the world of investing meant my days were occupied researching complex financial tools, brushing up on the company’s culture and history and doing my best to write ads that stood out among all the financial advertising noise. Those were some long days. As the big presentation approached, I barely even returned home. Somehow, we’d managed to assemble three distinct campaigns that felt fresh and made the case for CFOs to consider investing with State Street Global Advisors. We were The Little Engine That Could, preparing to prove all the naysayers wrong.
The presentation, to borrow from our President’s parlance, was a complete disaster. Our strategy was off, our tone was all wrong, and our ignorance regarding the nuances of institutional investing, was more obvious than I’d hoped. In spite of the poor showing, we were nonetheless invited to humiliate ourselves all over again, if we could stomach another round. Conventional wisdom suggested our Little Engine ought to change its mantra from “I think I can” to “Don’t be delusional”. But then, I thought about Florida. About ruining my family vacation. About the hours spent, breaking my teeth on dense investment copy. And I thought about Mickey beseeching Rocky, “Get up you son of a bitch!” and resolved not to walk away. We would ride this pitch till the wheels came off.
A few weeks after a spirited second presentation, I received a call from our head of new business. We won! True, we weren’t financial wonks, but our new clients appreciated our efforts to weave creativity into everything we presented. Ultimately, that’s what they were looking for, not an agency that could regurgitate content from a corporate website.
Over the next two years we created clever, hardworking ads for SSGA, even calling on Grammy-Award-winning director, Dave Meyers, fresh off Missy Elliott’s WTF music video shoot, to direct our brand spots. In this notoriously conservative, heavily-regulated category, we never gave up on the idea that achieving something breakthrough was possible. Still, our efforts hadn’t amounted to redefining what financial service advertising could be. Then we heard about SHE.
In a cluttered ETF market, SSGA wanted to promote a gender diversity index ETF called SHE— which would index companies in the Russell 3000 with strong female leadership. The theory goes, that businesses with gender-diverse boards enjoy a return on equity of 10.1 percent per year, versus 7.4 percent for those without a critical mass of women at the top. This is cause-driven investing with the numbers to back it up. Now, this was exciting! A financial service product with societal significance. Something we could humanize. Something with tension. Something with a story that could transcend the product itself. The SHE creative brief became one of those opportunities you don’t keep to yourself. You share it with as many talented creatives as you can because, frankly, broad, interesting briefs from financial service companies, are rare. Like unicorn rare. Or Yeti rare. Or Jewish farmer rare.
Over the next few weeks, plenty of smart ideas were conceived from a range of brilliant creatives, but one idea stood out from the impressive stack. It was elegant, powerful, universally understandable and didn’t require any of the latest whizz bang technology to work. Appropriately, it was conceived by a young female team, who like me, just a few years earlier, didn’t know the difference between an ETF and an ATM. What they did understand however, was that SHE could represent more than just another investment opportunity. It could address the glaring fact that women are severely underrepresented on company boards and help to catapult them into positions of power within corporate America. It could redefine what financial service advertising could be. The idea would become “Fearless Girl”.
Observing the Fearless Girl’s amazing success, including 4.6 billion (with a “b”) twitter impressions, its 745 million Instagram impressions, and the organic push to have it remain a permanent New York fixture, you’d think the process to bring her into existence would have been straightforward. It wasn’t. As with most uncommon ideas, this one provoked anxiety and equivocation on the part of the client. Over the next few months however, nerves were calmed, adjustments to the statue were made, fingers were crossed and on the eve of International Women’s Day, in the middle of the night, a statue of a defiant girl facing off against the famous Wall Street Charging Bull, was installed.
Why do I write this? Because my time on this account taught me so much about advertising—even after 15 years in the business. It taught me that sacrifice doesn’t always yield immediate rewards. That patience and persistence can be your greatest allies. And I learned that there really are no “creative” accounts, or “uncreative” accounts. There are simply accounts, each with the potential to produce fearless work. All it takes is ambitious thinking and yes, a generous dose of luck doesn’t hurt either. So, should you ever find yourself feeling like you’ve hit a creative wall, or tediously turning the crank on an “uncreative” account, remember, “Get up you son of a bitch!” 
*Congratulations to Tali Gumbiner, Lizzie Wilson and the entire State Street Global Advisors team!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Farewell Bond, James Bond

In the Spring of 2000, having decided not to pursue a career in business (despite having just received a business degree) I found myself in India. This was among the first stops on what would become a yearlong, round-the-world, backpacking, mind-clearing adventure. Arriving in Mumbai I headed north to Rajasthan—specifically, Udaipur. Nothing about India felt familiar to me. Not disfigured mothers begging while holding limp infants. Not cattle the size of SUVs roaming the narrow streets. Not families of five riding single mopeds in traffic that seemed oblivious to order or safety. Nothing. However, as the auto rickshaw I was riding in the back of, meandered through Udaipur’s maze-like lanes, I was struck with déjà vu. Upon seeing pictures of Roger Moore peppered throughout the city, I knew exactly why this place was so recognizable. The scenic beauty of Udaipur was the backdrop of the James Bond film, Octopussy. Now I was dipping in and out of the same narrow, twisting streets as 007 during that racy chase sequence. I would even spend the night at the Lake Palace Hotel. The very same Lake Palace Hotel in which Bond, disguised as a crocodile, swims up to the 'floating palace', populated only by sexy women. This was also the place I would become shitfaced on my first bhang lassi, while watching (what else?) Octopussy on the roof of a local hostel. I was young, idealistic, curious and carefree. It was a special time in my life, and right there to witness it all, was Roger Bloody Moore—at least his ubiquitous two-dimensional presence. In the 17 years since that life-altering trip, Roger Moore’s name, image and movies have always made me smile, like some inside joke between myself and 007. Today, Sir Roger Moore lost a short but brave battle with cancer, and just like taking in the breathtaking views of India’s most romantic city (after downing my third bhang lassi), I will miss him dearly.