Category Archives: Recruiting

Handicapping Talent in the Tradigital Age

The Revenge of the Nerds

More than occasionally I am asked “just what the hell is going on out there?”  Roughly translated, this means, “what are the trends in the talent marketplace –who’s hiring? who’s laying off? who wants what? who doesn’t want what?”… and so on.

Let’s start with this simple truth: EVERYONE WANTS WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE.

By that I mean, digital agencies are scrambling for traditional talent and traditional agencies are scrambling for digital talent. The reason is obvious, everyone wants to be everything (and anything) to clients and prospective clients. Maybe everyone should focus on what they do best, huh? There seems to be this futile race being run to some mythic finish line of a total, irrefutable, adaptable, flexible, collaborative, fully integrated, supremely omniscient, master of the universe perfection in communications. It’s pretty comical to hear exactly what the heck is actually going on out there. The last time that I felt this way was in the 80’s in a bar near Wall Street playing liar’s poker with dollar bills and a bunch of coked-up stockbrokers. I could just make up any hand and then play it.

Marketers say they value integration, yet they unbundle their accounts faster than Macauley Culkin on Christmas morning. Agencies sing the integration song, but too often they make up the lyrics as they go — changing verses and choruses to suit the next sucker (er, I mean prospect). So they focus on what they don’t have and try to find it — and not focus on what they do best and make it even better. As a result, the landscape is covered with a hybrid grass that looks and feels like AstroTurf. One fact remains, nobody does anything as well as they claim to in their case studies.

There is a New Order, however. And Media is the clear winner (almost by default). I remember going into pitches with agencies and we’d leave 10 minutes at the end of the presentation for Media. Usually, that 10 minutes became 2 — or even worse, a follow-up email from the Media Director to explain their slides in the Powerpoint. Media was like, well, shit. What happened? Media Conglomerates sprung up the world over and effectively said, “look, your money is too important to be handled by those creative guys at the ad agency.” So, now, most agencies have become forced to sell creative ideas instead of business strategies. They’ve become forced to sell service and order-taking instead of business leadership. How can they possibly be business leaders when they can’t even determine where the media money will be spent? Make no mistake, today MEDIA leads the process — not account planning or creative. The medium is the message.

Let’s look at how that has affected the food chain hierarchy of the talent pool. Let’s start with creative, since this is a creative blog but let’s also take a look at the entire roster. Last week, the New York Times ran an advertising column about how agencies are all bellyaching about the dearth of digital and technological talent in the marketplace. Agency leaders whine and fret over a “talent gap” — as if they weren’t the ones that caused it in the first place through their negligence. I mean, the revolutionary book “Being Digital” was published  almost 15 years ago. The column can be read here (but read the rest of this post first, Podner):

DESIGNERS: The single most demanded job on my desk this year is something called a UX Designer, it also helps if they have “mad skills”. No education required. No background checks necessary. No references needed. If you can do that — you can go to the head of the creative class and you are in the hunt to be successor to your CEO. Congratulations. You other digital designers, way to go, you have succeeded in taking an art form with unlimited possibilities and replaced them with sterile and finite devices and widgets. Last week a client asked me to find a designer of  “cool apps”. So I found one. He had an app for an airline that looked really cool. Except the only problem was, I couldn’t book a flight on it. If you are a digital designer, you are set for life, even if you are a registered sex offender.

COPYWRITERS:  As noted in my previous post, this game has really changed. The new breed of digital writer writes something called “rich content”. Unfortunately, the majority of what passes for “rich content” is actually very poor content. Hey, I’d settle for middle-class content. They write compelling tweets, like this one from The Gap: Check out our new I Want Candy kids line! To celebrate,@mariiiaofficial helped us make a video to “I Want Candy”. Is there a correlation between this kind of nonsense and the fact that The Gap is one of the worst performing retailers in the word? Could this be part of the reason Gap sales are down 15%? I remember when The Gap did their own ads — they were the most entertaining and beautiful spots on television. The retailer thrived. the brand was the strongest in a strong apparel category. Now they tweet out this crap and call it ‘consumer engagement”. This comes from bookoo research that tells them “people want to make commercials”. Hey guess what? I want to play left field for the Boston Red Sox and bat cleanup. Gimme a break. The Gap gets what it deserves: I Want Candy videos and sluggish sales. Their brand is lost. To read more about copywriting in today’s brave, new world, pease read my last post.

ART DIRECTORS: If you’re a traditional art director in today’s creative world, boy are you fucked. Who in their right mind would hire you? What value do you bring? Fortunately, there are some brands that value your skills (the new Captain Morgan and Heineken TV campaigns come to mind) — but most of them are heading towards DRTV and Print. Read the newspapers, magazines and watch TV — have you ever seen more 800 numbers?  Recently, the Chief Creative Officer of one of the largest agencies in the Southeast told me, “we’ll never hire someone with the title ‘art director’ ever again”. Huh? I’ll dig deeper into the new Captain Morgan and Heineken campaigns in my forthcoming Creative Musings column.

STRATEGISTS/PLANNERS:  You guys are way ahead of the chess game — castling when everyone else is pushing pawns around the board. You renamed yourselves “connection Planners” and tried to latch on to the coattails of media types long ago. As if we can’t see through the charade. You morphed into what you tried to kill — media planners. Are you a hybrid? Are you media? Are you strategy? or both? What are you? How about coming up with an insight that is unexpected? Surprise me. Scare me. But don’t tell me you are a “Connection Planner”. 25 year-old digital media planners can replace you. The Planning jobs I get are for strategic folks that can get to the heart of a brand’s essence — not media hybrids. It’s everyone’s responsibility to understand digital media and apply that knowledge to their own discipline. Account people once strove to become planners (especially after their account left the agency). Now planners strive to become media people. We’ve come full circle.

ACCOUNT SERVICE/CLIENT LEADERSHIP:  Most of the strategic oomph of this lot has been sucked dry by Planners, Media and even advanced forms of the Creative species. They’ve been reduced to order-taking servers. Back slapping High-Fivers. The empty suits have never been emptier. Never have Account service salaries been lower. Never has the job been less distinctive. Those lucky to survive and advance Darwinistically to the role Account Director are fortunate. because based on trends — there won’t be any Account Directors in the future. The client will be the Account Director because that’s what we are letting them be now.

SALES:  Finally, a growth sector in the industry of creative communications. In the struggle to be so technologically advanced and digitally cool — we forgot one key thing along the way. We forgot to sell. We forgot to sell our clients’ products and we forgot to sell our own services and point of differentiation. We forgot to sell our value proposition to clients and prospects. Heck, we forgot what our value proposition even was. Strangely and ironically, our industry is devoid of professional salespeople. This is good news for the disciplined and perseverant sales pro — someone who can actually sell an idea or an insight; someone that won’t rely on creative work to “sell itself” (as if it were heroin and people were addicted to it). To the new and next breed of rainmaker: your future is bright.

On Writers, Part III

Making it in Today’s Brave New Creative World

So, where is the writer’s place in today’s marketplace?  How does one make a decent living these days spinning words? Advertising copywriters are the top of the financial food chain. Journalists and academicians are paid paltry wages in comparison. Trade writers are the bottom feeders. Yet, there is a fine line between the skill sets of trade scribes and ad copywriters. And the line is getting grayer. So how does today’s writer distinguish him or herself from a lowly tradie or newspaperman?

Well, to get to these answers we should first look at how copywriting has changed. In the 20 years that I’ve recruited writers — I’ve noticed a gradual erosion of the craft (that’s not new news). But, that erosion is more likely the result of adaptation than decay. Media has changed. EVERYTHING is media, therefore I guess everything has changed. But mostly, writing itself has changed because READING has changed. The craft adapted to the practice. I went to a Barnes & Noble recently. I depressingly felt like I was in the new Blockbuster Video retail environment. I couldn’t escape two striking observations:

  1. Coffee table books ruled. And they were mostly heavily discounted.
  2. Books for Dummies has grown out of control, like some literary form of kudzu.
What does this mean (other than the fact that I felt perfectly comfortable in a literary environment targeted to Dummies)? Well, you can take some liberty here and make your own connection. But, I’m guessing it’s got a lot to do with the fact increasingly more “real” books are purchased on the iPads and Kindles. The rest of us morons go to Barnes & Noble. (As I write this, Borders Books just became officially extinct).  “Real” reading is a largely digital experience today.

Okay, how does that affect a person with a copywriting career? Professional copywriting has always rewarded versatility. We assume the pro can crank out headlines. Those are table stakes. He (or she) masters body copy that sells (sure thing) by making it interesting. Penning the 7-word billboard joke — they’re comedians. And only now, have we crossed the Mendoza line.

The real hitters today pound out compelling and alarming tweets. They write engaging and entertaining online content. The new visual format is the 15 or 20-second online spot — it’s like “TV Lite”. They can write natural and human dialogue that works in a television script.  And above and beyond all, they can conceive a campaign that amazes from a single, simple idea. That’s a lot to ask. But, that’s why they make the big bucks. Those folks could have been nationally-syndicated columnists if they chose  journalism as their professional writing career, or dramatists. They are the George Wills and David Mamets of our industry.

What appears to be somewhat scarce in the new breed of  digitally nurtured writers is strategic marketing thinking. I read a lot of new stuff. Some of it is advertising. Some of it is… well, I’m not quite sure. But, what sticks out like a sore thumb is a strategically connected thought, well-written — in any media or format. A business idea well told. An enlightenment creating a sense of wonder, however ephemeral. The ability to kick a snare drum in someone’s brain.

So, it is the Big Idea that remains the Holy Grail for writers. Big Ideas are simple. Multi-lingual. Cross-cultural. Timeless, yet “new” (not always in a contemporary way, but always in a fresh way). They hold a mirror up to society (or a targeted segment of it) in a way that  reveals an unexpected truth. Yet, it cannot be too unfamiliar. Simple. Yet, not too simple. Specific, yet broadly interpreted. Open-ended.

So where are all the big ideas out there? Everyone loves talking about them — about how they are the only true value ad agencies can provide to brands? And about how they are what separates creative agencies from technology marketing firms.  But where are they? SO often you see work that contains a big idea, yet it’s half-baked. Or rather raw. Big Ideas need to be fully baked, like ziti with grandma’s tiny meatballs. I haven’t seen much great ziti lately. Help me out, where are the big ideas?  What will this era be remembered for? The Apple Store? What are the definitive concept-driven campaigns over the past 5 years to current — in this country, America;  not some third-world country without an FCC.

Who is this era’s Mr. Clean? Is it The Most Interesting Man in the World?  The Brawny Man? Or a Subservient Chicken (that would be you, Mr. Hotshot Writer)? Send me your votes. Please excuse me while I seek recluse to tend to writing my Great American Book for Dummies: Life for Dummies. It’s a Cautionary Tale-Coming of Age-Allegory-Epic-spanning-four generations of a Sicilian/American family confronting the moral battleground of good vs. evil. It also contains a recipe for great ziti.

On Writers, Part II

The Elements of Style

Due to the popularity of the post, “On Writers, Copywriting and How to Build a Portfolio”, I’ve decided to continue on the theme. Of my 38 posts, it’s been the most heavily re-tweeted. So we’ll give our readership more of what it seems to want.

Yes, writers are a peculiar and dwindling lot. Without writers, what would we read? Lately, I’ve taken to buying and reading books on my iPad. I just finished, Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It To the Revolution. And I’m now beginning the new Mickey Mantle book by Jane Leavy. Neither book is terrifically well-written; nor riveting. The subjects are interesting and occasionally fascinating but the prose itself lacks a certain craft — a style. This reminded me that we are not to confuse topical or entertaining content with good writing.

As Auden said so well, “It is the duty of the writer to make language new” (I know, I beat that line into the ground, but it’s the best one I’ve ever heard about writing). I didn’t understand this at first. Or, I understood it on an academically superficial level. But, when I first read Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City in the mid-80’s, I finally grasped what Auden meant. It reminded me of Kerouac, in that each page was exciting — not so much for the narrative — but for the language and the style. When a great narrative meets original style, you have a masterpiece, like The Great Gatsby. It doesn’t have to be a novel. It can be an essay (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”) or journalism. Actually, one of the most compelling works I’ve ever read is the Unabomber’s Manifesto. Revolutionaries make great writers — I regularly read Fidel Castro’s weekly column, Reflections.

Strunk & White have taken a lot of hits. Long dismissed by the high-waisted, khaki-wearing academic set as “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” — yet, just the title itself, The Elements of Style, strikes a chord in me. It begs the question, “What makes a writer a good writer?” I keep going back to Auden’s quote, but that too lacks instructiveness. Sure, Dylan can write songs, but what makes them good lyrically? What makes Howard Gossage special? What makes an Updike novel an Updike novel? Well, it’s the same thing that made Twiggy a sensation, and Jackie O an institution: STYLE.

How does one define style, then?  That’s a bit like trying to catch lightning in a bottle (eek, what a cliché!). That’s like trying to describe the color red to a blind person (there you go! make language new). Or diagramming a play for Julius Erving. Style repels definition — it relies on grace, color detail and description. These are some of the elements of style — but they are not style itself. Style is distinctively original and inimitable (yet entire industries thrive by mimicking it). You can write like Bob Dylan, but you can never be Bob Dylan.

Narcissistic writers reveal themselves — their verbosity overwhelms the narrative, or the lyric, or the ad. Don’t confuse description with verbosity. Even if you are a walking thesaurus, you are still not a gifted, stylish writer. You just have a good memory. That will get you through college, but it won’t win you the Pulitzer prize — or even a One Show Pencil. Style derives from acumen and attention to detail. It is learned in diners and train stations. It is acquired through experience by reading, listening, observing. Writing style begins with a sensitivity to the human spirit and condition. Writers look at the world differently. They extract meaning from the mundane. They distill amazement from the minutiae. This is why they are often monikered as “eclectic” — as if they don’t fit in to society.

To illustrate the point of verbosity versus description, let’s take a quick look at Bruce Springsteen’s writing. His first three albums are verbose beyond immediate assimilation. Clearly, a young, ambitious (and somewhat narcissistic) writer trying really hard (maybe too hard) to be a poet. I like some of those songs, they’re good. But with his next three albums, he grew as a poet and did what all great writers learn to do: SAY MORE WITH LESS. He became a reductionist. He made language new. Darkness On the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska, with their minimalist, austere and stripped-down lyrics are works of a disciplined writer. I’m not knocking the first three records, but it’s instructive to see how the writer evolved from an ebullient romantic to a disciplined realist. In short, writing is not typing. It’s typing and editing and reducing.

What does all this have to do with advertising? I read a lot of “agency positioning” stuff. Everyone seems to have a new tag line for their agency: “Rethink Everything”, “The Factory”, “Brand Storytellers”, “Ideas for the New Whatever”. Yada. My favorite agency tag line is 84 years old, McCann-Erickson’sTruth Well Told”. This captures my point in 3 words more accurately than this entire post (talk about verbosity, Palma!). It’s not the content, or the concept, for that matter, that is king — it’s the WAY agencies tell the story that brings value to brands and clients. Yes, we need a good story, just like Updike needs a good narrative. But, what makes Updike Updike is the way he tells his story. Many a great ad concept died from failure to tell the story compellingly.

I hear so much stuff from or about writers these days — “digital writer”, “heavy broadcast writer”, “conceptual writer”, etc.. How about just being a WRITER? Write something I want to read — something that entertains, or educates, or motivates, or inspires, or gives me goosebumps, or makes me laugh or cry. If you can do that, you are a writer.

Evaluating Talent: 5 Tips from a Coach

How to Spot the Winners

Creative agencies and college athletic programs share one key commonality: their success relies upon recruiting top talent into the fold. Talent is the only true commodity. All other inventory and overhead are a means to the end of attracting and retaining talent (so the agency can attract and retain good clients). Agencies hire renowned architects, build cool spaces or plush midtown offices. College athletic programs erect shiny new arenas and renovate stadiums with skyboxes. Small & Mid-sized regional creative agencies are similar to small and mid-major athletic programs. They have to recruit harder and smarter. They have to evaluate talent more judiciously, and be able to find the diamond in the rough — the talent with upside and desire.

I was a college basketball coach for six years at a mid-major program — Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA. My primary responsibility was recruiting student-athletes that could compete at high levels in the classroom and on the basketball court. Like mid-sized agencies, there was nowhere to “hide” a recruit that wasn’t a good fit (male enrollment: 1,200). If we brought the wrong kid in, not only did it cost us wins — it cost us one of our precious few scholarships. Just like mid-sized agencies, the wrong hire sets the agency back. Evaluating talent becomes the difference between the winners and the losers.

There are two kinds of talent in any field, in my opinion. Let’s call them Original Talent and Derivative Talent. The original talent is one-of-a-kind. Their work and skills are special and distinct — nobody does it quite the way they do it. The derivative talent is skilled and able — but replaceable. Gifted, but not indispensable.

I’ve found that it’s difficult to separate the “game” from the recruit. If a kid plays the game “the right way” — he’s probably a solid dude. If he is a shuck and jiver on the court — that’s probably the way he is off of it. It’s a little trickier with creatives, but it’s difficult to separate the person from the portfolio. The trick is to discover if the book matches the recruit. So how do you do that? What can you do to recruit more smartly and effectively– to evaluate more judiciously? Here are some things I did as a coach and like to incorporate into my creative recruiting.

1. The Walk — Before I’d watch a recruit play in a game, I just wanted to see how he walked. I could tell a lot by that. So I’d get to the gym early to be there for the JV game so I could watch the kid walk into the gym, and then walk into the locker room to dress out. His posture, balance, gait and grace literally signaled how “grounded” he was. I looked for something I call a “humble swagger.” All the great ones have this. Some have more of one than the other. But I look for the perfect balance.

I was surprised at first that “The Walk” also applied to creative talent, (a slouch is a slouch).  Greatness begins from the ground up, not the neck down.

2. Good Hands/Handshake — It’s amazing how many great athletes can’t catch the ball. They can run like a banshee and jump out of the gym but throw some of them a pass from 18 feet with some zip on it and it’s concrete city.  Coaches that ascribe to “the best available athlete” theory of recruiting often wind up with a team prone to turnovers.

So how does this apply to creative agencies? Well, once I pitched a nice piece of NASCAR business with an agency. We had great work, except a creative guy spilled his coffee all over the tissues. I remember another creative guy would develop “the shakes” when he presented work internally and externally. His hands rattled the table. He may have been better suited to be a gynecologist. Others always seem to be fumbling stuff. Finally, ever get the dead-fish handshake? It was somewhat in vogue about 10 years ago. It creeps me out. Or the Fred Flintstone handshake, where you need to ice down your hand afterwards? In sport and in business, I want people with sure hands and solid handshakes on my team.

3. A Peculiar Habit or Trait — This is pure Palma and impossible to substantiate, just my school of evaluation. I’ve noticed that the truly great ones — those with Original Talent  — ALL have some distinctive peculiar habit or trait. One of the greatest copywriters I’ve ever recruited chews paper. Another great radio writer had a voyeuristic affinity with a telescope in his office. One of the greatest high school basketball players I’ve ever seen had this unusual neck tic. In some, it’s their dress. In others, their diet. But, behind nearly every great original talent is some distinctive peculiar habit or trait.

4. Eye Contact — I’m not a shrink but I know poor eye contact signals evasiveness or worse, insincerity. As a coach, I would never recruit a kid who didn’t look me in the eye. They didn’t have to say a lot, but they had to make consistent eye contact. When I recruit a Creative Director for an agency, I make a point to try to meet him. They’ve  got to look me in the eye when they explain why they are motivated by the opportunity. If not, it’s lip service.

5. See Them Sweat — How are they under adversity? Do they exhibit grace under pressure? Do they handle victory and defeat with equal dignity? These are key indicators of character. Are they truly competitive (true competitors need to compete, NOT win)?  Truly competitive people never accept in victory what they would not accept in defeat.

I remember getting numberless VHS tapes of basketball players from all over the country. Invariably they were made by coaches or parents trying to get their kid a scholarship. Besides the obvious “highlights-only” editing, the biggest problem with video evaluation of talent was that you never got to see the kid actually sweat. There is no perspiration on video.

Then when I got into creative recruiting, I received all those 3/4″ reels from creative talent. Cassettes. DVD’s. When the work was brilliant, I still needed to know that the work was actually the recruit. I needed to “get to the gym early” to see the recruit walk (meet them for coffee, breakfast, etc.). It’s a similar dynamic as the creative recruit’s portfolio is the “highlights-only” video of the advertising world.. It is, too often, accepted as Gospel. We neglect thorough evaluation. They’re really good out of the windup but we fail to see them pitch out of the stretch position.

This is where online recruiting really hampers small and mid-sized creative agencies. It leaves them more vulnerable than ever to poor fits. It seems easy, post an ad for a job and count the resumes. The problem is, the top talent — the Original Talent — is not looking on web sites for a job. They’re playing. And winning. Online recruiting is shallow and sterile.. You get a hundred resumes, 90 of them are blatantly poor fits so they get deleted on contact. Ten of them are potential recruits. Now how do you evaluate them? They will be pretty adept on the phone, they’re ad people — they know how to talk and sell themselves. I prefer to watch them walk….

Spider Monkey Syndrome: Reality or Myth?

Does It Affect Creative Agencies and Careers?

A friend recently suggested an intriguing blog topic: Spider Monkey Syndrome and How It Affects Creative Careers. At first, it sounded like an easy cautionary tale to tell: Greedy Stubborn Monkey Fixates on Sure Thing, Loses Sight of the Big Picture, Is Trapped With Hand in Banana Jar. Sounds like a lot of creative careers. Sounds like a lot of creative agencies. I was prepared to diagram a Risk/Reward Seesaw. It was going to be a really cool post.

There was just one small problem. In researching Spider Monkey Syndrome, there wasn’t a shred of evidence that even spider monkeys suffer from this malaise. I found several articles claiming that the syndrome exists — but they were all rather baseless theories; a bunch of stories relating to business, life and religion (the banana as “Satan’s Bait” was my favorite).

I found photographs in Google images of spider monkey “traps”, presumably shot in South America. They looked like the collaborative effort of Crocodile Dundee and McGyver. I even found a few cartoonish illustrations of monkeys with their hand in a bottle. But I couldn’t find a single documentation of a laboratory experiment or a scientific study — or even an actual picture of a spider monkey in a trap.

Now, it seems fairly obvious: if hunters in South America can trap spider monkeys with these Indiana Jones/McGyver gadgets (What are they doing hunting monkeys anyway? You can’t eat ’em and they make lousy taxidermy — or is this how zoos stock up on animals?) then this must be some kind of grand metaphor for the human race. And a small metaphor for creative agencies and careers. Right?

Unfortunately for this post, I must sadly theorize that this supposed “trapping” of spider monkeys — exploiting their stubborn ignorance, is a pure canard. An old wives’ tale. A very Rural Myth. Jungle boogie.

What may very well be real, however, is “the syndrome”.  I think we do all kinds of things and blame them on monkeys. If my desk is a laboratory, then there is evidence of the syndrome’s existence. It tragically afflicts creative agencies. It infects promising creative careers.

In 21 years of “research”, I’ve presented tens of thousands of creative opportunities to creative people. I would say that would be a valid and reliable sample size. A good percentage of these opportunities were rejected. And a surprising percentage of those rejections resulted in remorseful call backs and emails from candidates; some within weeks, and some after years.

“Why didn’t you make me consider that opportunity more seriously?”

“Why weren’t you more persistent, Palma?”

“… And now look at me. If only…”

Just this week, I found a guy on Facebook that I “discovered” in 1994. He was in NY then, and he’s in NY now. He is a monster talent. I tried to recruit him for Bogusky in Miami and Tausche in Atlanta. Both guys’ shops were poised to take off for growth and committed to attracting top rising talent. He passed on both, dismissing the opportunities as too risky. He was half-right. That’s about the national average. The first thing he wrote when we  reconnected on Facebook was a mention of the Crispin irony. I’m not a soothsayer, I’m a headhunter. But this much I know: Opportunity — true opportunity — only crosses your path a few times in life and only a precious few times in a career with a maximum shelf life of 30 years.

How many creative agencies have had their 15 minutes of fame? The Communication Arts Agency Profile story. The Creativity Magazine Listmaker. The Advertising Age Feature. The One Club Exhibit. Hey, guess what? Creative recognition is ephemeral. Where are those great shops now? Leonard/Monahan. Doyle Advertising & Design. Cole Henderson Drake. Riddell Advertisng. Huey/Paprocki. Casualties all. Victims of The Syndrome. Trapped by their own creative success. Eyes myopically fixated on the prize.

There is no pithy lesson here. Just a few observations from the Observatory.

Next: What Came First? Lou Gehrig Or Lou Gehrig’s Disease?

Fun…remember that?

Thank You, Austin

Historic Visit Commemorated

It was just a brief two-day visit. Yet, it was so kind and thoughtful of the City of Austin to designate the little park where I smoked a Petit Corona following lunch last Thursday. I may be from New York, but there’s a lot of Cowboy in me, I’ll tell ya. Thanks to the gals at Allen’s Boots, you were so helpful and I appreciate your service. And thanks to the pianist in the Four Seasons Bar for playing all that Tom Waits. Finally, thanks to the Marshall at Barton Creek Golf Course for moving that slow group along in front of us. I will always have a soft spot for Austin, deep in the heart of Texas.

Can Bob Dylan Fight? The answer, my friend, is…

Catfish Squares Off With a Legend

I’ve been fortunate to have placed about 1,200 talented people with creative agencies. One of my very favorites is Daniel “Catfish” Russ. Daniel has been a finalist on that television show Star Search; he’s been a stand-up comic on the comedy club circuit; he’s played the blues harp in the Texas blues bar scene; he’s a black belt in karate; he’s also been a boxer.  Somehow in all that, he’s had time to be a brilliant creative; authoring well-known campaigns for Pennzoil, Wal-Mart, The Air Force and Las Vegas Tourism.  There’s nobody quite like Daniel. On a recent visit to Austin, I connected with him and we sat by the river in Adirondack chairs to enjoy a Cuban cigar and a Single Malt scotch whiskey. What I love most about Daniel is that he’s an incredible storyteller. He never fails to amaze. All I had to do was mention the name Bob Dylan and out flowed this story — which  I’ve asked him to re-create for

Sparring With Dylan

By Daniel Russ

“April 2008. I am trying to figure out what to do next with my life. I have spare time and head to Richard Lord’s Boxing Gym on  Lamar Boulevard in a stinky old warehouse behind a Goodwill. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, the sky is dark and cloudy and no one is there.

DownloadedFile-2I lift the warehouse garage door entrance, sign in on a moribund clipboard on an old nightstand stuffed into the corner. Richard Lord was a fairly successful welterweight boxer who opened this gym many years ago, and like all real boxing gyms, it is never clean, nor is it  ever cleaned. Unwashed hand wraps redolent of the years of sweat and grit hang from clothes lines. Ten heavy bags in varying sizes, many with the stuffing literally beat out of them and then duct taped back in hang wherever they fit. There are two twenty by twenty-foot rings, the ropes loose and sloping, the canvas spattered with dried blood and God knows what else.

The walls are covered in Boxing posters. Ali vs Frazier, Foreman vs. Moore, Jesus “El Matador” Chavez vs. Johnson. I head to the speed bag wall, pump a little air into a bag, turn on the electric bell that gives you a signal for the beginning and end of a three  minute round and one minute rest. The bell rings and  I start bouncing the bag off the top board.

After a few rounds, in comes Richard Lord. Skinny, mustachioed, and kind as the day is long. “Heeeeeey maaaaaaan….whar you been?” We hug. “Vegas man,” I tell him. “But we’re back.” “Hey man, glove up.”

“Me? Dude, I’m in my fifties. I don’t fight anymore.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “This guy don’t have much. In fact, don’t even hit him. I mean not at all… just move around.”

Oh shit, I think. This guy better have nothing because I haven’t sparred in years. When I hung up the gloves and decided never to fight again, I swore I would not become one of those ghost guys I saw in Boxing gyms my whole life. The guys that can’t accept that they aren’t 18 anymore. The guys in their forties who get hit too often — their noses flatter and fatter, their ears begin to change shape, old cuts scar over, and regularly get bested by 18 year olds. Like I did when I was 18.

I wrap my hands. I jump rope to warm up. I dig out my battered caked-with-dust mouthpiece, rinse it off in a bathroom sink that looked like it was stolen from an old country gas station. I shove it in. It feels foreign. I have not had a mouthpiece in almost a decade, it makes me gag.

A few minutes later four people come in, all dressed in loose-fitting workout gear. Two guys and a woman. I look at the guys trying to figure out which one has nothing to hit me with. Frankly, neither of them looked like they could hurt me. A woman comes in. They all chat quietly and start digging out hand wraps.

In comes a diminutive, skinny man. Looks to be a little older than me, has short curly hair. He turns to face me.

It’s Bob Dylan.

BobDylanRollingBajaOK. I stopped bouncing around. Stop trying to get my heart rate up. I stare out the warehouse door into a now-rainy parking lot. I am trying to process this. I am about to step into a boxing ring with a man who I have idolized as long as I have had ears.

Richard walks over. “See what I mean?” he says.

“Richard,” I tell him. “If you paid me by the shot, I wouldn’t hit this guy….EVER.”

“Good,” he says. “Don’t. Just move around.”

We step in the ring. He does not look at me. There is no conversation. The round bell goes off. He’s old and tiny but he makes his way to the center of the ring, throws a series of jabs that don’t reach. Neither does his right. He throws a hook. I take it on my arm. I dance around, slip left and right. Before I knew it, the round bell rang.

DownloadedFile-1Dylan goes back into his corner. Richard mouths some advice to him. The next round begins. Apparently the advice was to throw more hooks. They all miss or they land on my right arm. I’m just dancing around. Every once in a while, I get into a cat crouch and lean in so he can land shots. He hits me on the forehead with a straight right. Pretty good shot. Bell rings. Second round is over

“Thanks,” Richard says. “That’s all Catfish. Thanks.”

No Richard. Thank YOU, I think to myself. I finish my workout. I go home and try not to wash my right arm or forehead for the rest of my life. In May of 2008 I succumb and finally wash Bob Dylan off me.

I tell you, Austin makes Vegas look like a booger.

Thanks Daniel. Stories are all we have. Stories connect us, define us. The world needs more good storytellers. History is a story, it just depends on who gets to tell DownloadedFileit.

Here’s good story about a boxer, as told by Bob Dylan: