Posts Tagged ‘Young & Rubicam’

Favorite Memories of Madison Avenue: My Night at the Berlin Wall

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

It was the creative shoot-out of the year in the advertising business.  Four of the largest and most prestigious agencies in the business…Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO, NW Ayer and Young & Rubicam, the agency where I was working as a senior creative director, were all vying to win the U.S. Army’s recruiting account which at that time, the Fall of 1986, was billing over $125,000,000 a year.


Our CEO, a former All-American football player who was used to winning, called me into his office and told me he wanted me to lead the creative effort. He also made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that he wanted to win this one.  In fact, he wanted it so badly he was willing to spend upwards of a quarter of a million dollars of Y&R money to create and shoot a full up sixty second commercial that would be so emotionally powerful it would leave the panel of generals who would be making the decision literally in tears.


I went back to my office and called the three art director/copywriter teams who would be working for me on the pitch together for a meeting and explained the assignment.  They were all smart, experienced and creative and in just a few days the three teams got back to me with a batch of ideas.  I went through them. Suggested a few changes here and there.  And then selected the ideas I thought best.  When the changes had been made I arranged a meeting to present them to the CEO and other agency big-wigs.  There were a lot of good ideas but a decision was made.


The spot we were going to shoot showed a young US soldier on patrol at night at the symbolic dividing line between democracy and tyranny:  the Berlin wall.  The obvious solution was to send our creative and production teams to Berlin and shoot there.


Sadly, there was one problem with that particular “obvious” solution.  The US Army’s rules for the pitch stated in no uncertain terms that no one from any of the competing agencies could have any direct contact with any active duty U.S. military personnel.  There would be no way to avoid such contact at the Wall in Berlin.  The second, less obvious solution, was to find a close replica of the wall closer to home.  Our producer and production company dispatched location scouts all over the New York tri-state area.   They found a number of walls that didn’t make the cut.  And one that did.


It was an almost exact replica of the real thing surrounding a moving company warehouse just outside of Newark in Harrison, New Jersey. All it lacked was barbed wire strung along the top and the endless graffiti that the real wall had. We sent out team a team of set designers who strung the barbed wire and spray-painted replicas of the real graffiti.  They also created an almost exact copy of Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known passage between the US sector and the Russian sector of the divided city.


When everything was ready our creative and production teams along with the young actor we’d cast in the role of an American MP headed out to the wall.  It was a rainy Friday night when we set up and started shooting.  The actor was shown patrolling a sector of the wall and finally arriving at the checkpoint which was manned by extras wearing East German military uniforms and toting (fake) automatic weapons.


The shoot all went perfectly.  The only hitch was that our wall and our Checkpoint Charlie happened to be located directly across the street from the Harrison stop on the PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) railroad station.  There weren’t many passengers getting off at midnight on a rainy Friday.  But every time a train pulled in a few who’d obviously spent their Fridays drinking too much in Manhattan bars  staggered onto the platform only to be confronted with our machine gun toting East German soldiers and a large sign telling them that they were now “leaving the American sector.”  It was a thing of nightmares and from their shocked, unbelieving expressions I have no doubt that many of these poor souls decided it was well past time to give up the booze.


In any event we wrapped the set around three in the morning and headed for home.  We selected our takes and edited the commercial over the next few days and within a week or so I was presenting it (along with the rest of the Y&R team’s voluminous pitch proposal) to the assembled brass at an army conference center south of Washington.


The post-script is that we got the account and I spent the next three years as Creative Director on the Army account creating many more pool-outs of the Army’s highly successful “Be All You Can Be” recruiting campaign.



And please don’t forget to look for my latest McCabe/Savage thriller, A Fatal Obsession, coming out on August 21st and available for preorder now!


Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for more details! 


How I Became Don Draper Before There Was a Don Draper.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018


At the tender age of twenty-two, after graduating with a degree in History from Brown University, I began considering what options I might have for the future.  I considered and quickly rejected the various paths my college friends were taking. Since I hadn’t been a particularly good student and studying bored me, a career in academia was of little interest. My mother had always wanted me to become a doctor but the path through medical school and a lengthy residency seemed too long and arduous to be a realistic possibility.  I considered law school.  The exploits of Perry Mason and Ben Matlock getting the best of the bad guys on the witness stand in one exciting murder case or another seemed like it might be fun example to follow. But a lengthy conversation with my much older brother (who’d graduated from Yale Law School and was working on Wall Street) made me realize that fourteen-hour days spent parsing, for example, the arcane verbiage of contracts as an associate in a large law firm would probably lead me to an early leap from the George Washington Bridge. And speaking of Wall Street, the idea of spending my days toiling in the bowels of a big bank or investment banking house as a number of my classmates were doing seemed to me to be the stuff of nightmares even though I knew that such a path might someday make me rich.

I considered other possibilities and even arranged a few interviews.  None panned out.  Neither IBM nor Exxon wanted me which was fine with me because I didn’t think I wanted them either.

So what did I want?

Well, the first thing I wanted more than anything else was to move out of my parents’ suburban New Jersey home, move into my own apartment in New York, hopefully on the upper East Side of Manhattan, date beautiful women and hang out at the best bars.  In short I wanted to start living the life I’d always dreamed about in the big city.

Sadly, to do that I needed to start making some money which meant finding a job.  I was cool with that so long as I could to find a job that A: I’d be good at, B: would genuinely enjoy and C: paid me an adequate salary to live the way I wanted, if not immediately at least eventually.  The only thing I could think of that made any sense was writing.  It was one of the few things I was genuinely good at.  Making up stories and giving them life by putting one word after another was something that I both enjoyed and that always came naturally to me.  All through school, even when I got a lousy grade on a paper, the teacher would almost always compliment the writing.  The papers I submitted were often returned with comments like  “Very well written. But sadly reveals little knowledge of the subject matter. C-”.

Okay so I wanted to be a writer. Who in the world, I asked myself, would pay me at least enough to live on to do what I was good at.  I started looking around. My first thought was magazines and newspapers.  I dutifully sent in resumes and set up interviews with the likes of Time Life, The Daily News, and the Associated Press among others.  None offered me a job. Several suggested I go to journalism school and when I finished my studies come back and apply again. Not a bad Idea except that my parents had been stretched thin putting four kids through college.  I was the fourth of four and simply didn’t want to take any more money from them.

So who else, I asked myself would pay me to write? I was pondering this question when one afternoon I found myself standing outside 666 Fifth Avenue (in those days the landmark building was not owned by Jared Kushner).  I was wearing in my grey flannel interview suit and carrying a number of resumes in my borrowed briefcase. Suddenly the skies opened and it began pouring.  I retreated into the lobby.  Since the rain didn’t look like it would be stopping anytime soon, I checked out the building directory to see if there were any companies housed there that might be worth talking to.  There were three that I’d heard of.  Two advertising agencies…Ted Bates and Benton & Bowles…and Revlon, the big cosmetics company.  I figured any or all of them might be a possibility.  Somebody had to write all those magazine ads and TV commercials.  Bates was on a higher floor than the other two and I figured I might as well start at the top and work my way down.  I went there first and managed to get myself an interview with gruff looking, gray-haired man who I figured was about my father’s age. He was in charge of training programs in what was then called the personnel department (nobody had yet dreamed up the euphemism Human Resources.)  He looked me up and down seemed to approve of the way I was dressed.  He looked at my resume and expressed approval at the fact that I had graduated from an Ivy League university.  He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him my dream job was to write TV commercials for such Bates as Mobil Oil and Anacin headache pills. He emitted a non-committal but gruff sounding bark.

 “I don’t hire people for the Creative Department,” he told me. “But I do have a spot in the Account Executive Training Program you look like you might be a good fit for the agency’s account executive training program.”

I wasn’t sure what made me look like a good fit but supposed it was the fact that I’d bought my suit, tie, shirt and shoes at Brooks Brothers which I later discovered was kind of the Company Store for ad execs.  I told him I didn’t want to be an account executive, and repeated that I wanted to be a copywriter.  He said he couldn’t help me with that. That to get a job in the creative department not only would I have to have talent (which I was pretty sure I did) but that I’d have to be able to show one of the Creative Directors a portfolio of ads and TV commercials. I’d never written an ad in my life but offered to show whatever Creative Director he could hook me up with some of the papers I’d written in college. He said that wouldn’t do. I sighed deeply and prepared to leave.  “Wait,” he said. “I need someone for the training program and think you might like it.”  He went on to tell me what being an account executive would entail and encouraging me to think about it.  As he was talking, I had an “Aha!” moment.  If I accepted a spot in the account executive training program, I’d be on the inside. And being on the inside meant I’d almost certainly get to meet most if not all of the Creative Directors.  And maybe I’d be able to convince one or another of them to give me a shot.

And that’s exactly what happened. The personnel guy made an offer. I accepted and within a couple of months had met all the senior creative directors and mentioned to each of them that I really wanted to become a copywriter. Most shrugged and said “that’s nice.”

But I finally ran into one who needed help desperately enough to give me a shot.   ”Okay,” he said. “I have a client meeting tomorrow. I need to show them a new sixty-second TV spot for my Viceroy Cigarette campaign. I don’t like anything I’ve seen so far from the team.  Here are some storyboards of what’s already on air. You’ve got one hour.  Go write me something new that fits the campaign show me what you come up with. I’ll be here late.”

I went back to my cubbyhole and looked at the storyboards for the commercials that were already on air.  They all followed a given format. Written in rhymed doggerel each showed somebody successfully handling a stressful situation and being rewarded by being Viceroy cigarette.

I dreamed up one or two situations that fit the format but that I didn’t like. Then I wrote one that worked.  The that showed a small plane landing on a runway while the voiceover, accompanied by appropriate music, said (and yes, forty plus years later I still remember all the words: “My first solo flight and here comes the ground/A little bit bumpy but home safe and sound/My instructor said, ”Man, you handled her fine/then pulled out a cigarette and said have one of mine. /Some filters taste too strong, he said, and some too light. But Viceroy’s got the taste that’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Viceroy’s got the taste that’s right.”

I went back upstairs to the creative director’s office. He ignored me for about five minutes while he worked on something he was writing. Then he said, “Okay. Show me what you’ve got. I started to hand him the script.

He said, ”No, no. Tell me what I’m seeing and then read me the words. Sell me on it.”

I did as he asked.

“Interesting,” he said, “Read it again.”

After I finished the second reading, he took the script and went over it a few times.  “Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all.  I’ll have one of the art directors draw up a board and we’ll show it to the client tomorrow.”  I managed to avoid jumping up and down in elation, at least until I got back to my own cubby.

Naturally I wasn’t invited to the meeting but out of the three or four spots presented mine was the one the client liked best. Two weeks later, My First Solo Flight, the first commercial I’d ever written, was in production in Los Angeles. Naturally I wasn’t allowed to go to the shoot either, but while it was going on I was transferred from the Training Program to a slot as a junior copywriter on Viceroy, Mobil Oil and a couple of other accounts. I was at last writing for a living. The rest, as they say, is history.