April 13, 2010

MadAve's Grifters and Bloggers


By Miriam Silverberg, Publicist

Reading about Gene DeWitt's experiences at Ogilvy and Mather during the 60s made me think of a few experiences of my own during that time. Gene's stories were bright and sunny. Mine are dark and dirty!

In order to succeed Madison Avenue, it's important to have knowledge of both, especially in this day and age of the blog fog.

I have a story to tell, and it's like no rant found in the blogosphere. Back in the swinging 60s, having just gotten out of college, I was drawn to Madison Avenue and very quickly went to work for a small ad agency.

We were pretty much the house agency for a local beverage company, owned in part by a relative of my boss, the president of our firm. We weren't supposed to be the house agency, but that's the way it worked out.

Things were pretty quiet and we tried desperately not to let outsiders know how poorly we were doing.


We constantly tried to get new accounts but our creative team I guess wasn't very creative because we had very little luck. We did more work on speculation when accounts were looking for new agencies than paid work. And when we were one of the agencies in the running, we were almost never chosen! Nevertheless it was an interesting place to work, if only to study the work of "what not to do" later on in my career. I imagine many people who went through the Silicon Alley dry-spell after the Internet bubble burst can relate. Their experience then was in-no-small-way due to the fact "promises made" by the (now respectable) major portals and others "were not promises kept."

The agency president was an elderly gentleman of boundless enthusiasm and optimism. Every morning he'd bound into the office with all the force of a hurricane, saying "better times are coming, better times are coming." One day we actually got a new account! It was a man running for political office and the president called us all into his office and explained that we were in the big time now and we'd work very hard and business would really pick up. We did and it didn't. The man lost the race and we went back to pecking in the dust for business.


We always knew when we were going to have executives from a potential new account visit the office and hear our proposal. Shortly before they arrived, the door would open and 12 to 15 people would troop in, sit down at an available desk (we had lots more furniture than people) and look busy.

They were sent by the president's brother. The proposal would end, the executives would leave and right after them, so would Potemkin's busy workers.

We had one other account, a housewares subsidiary of a much larger company. Looking back, I suspect that their advertising manager knew what was happening because he spent a fair amount of time meeting at our offices and never saw phantom workers troop in when he was there.

I learned a great deal on this job and not just how to write copy. I learned that who you know really is more important than what you know. I also learned that much of life is based on perception, and that it really "is" possible to fool people most of the time, even the ones who claim to be the shrewdest players on Madison Avenue. Certainly IPG learned that lesson a couple of years ago. We see Google learning it with its new YouTube investment today.

But should this surprise anyone? After all, isn't that what Madison Avenue and the whole field of advertising and publicity (what I do now) is really predicated on? Fooling as may people as often as you can? It depends!


Here's a classic case in point: A few years ago a cosmetics house had an ad for a creme to eliminate cellulite. The model was posed nude facing three/quarters away from the camera with a diaphanous scarf draped over her hip. At the bottom of the ad were the words, "unretouched photo" which was true as far as it went. What it didn't tell you and I learned later, was that the ad agency looked at over 100 models before they chose the one who had the best shape for their purposes. They then had her go on a diet and paid for her to work with a personal trainer for a month. Only then, using the most flattering lighting, was the ad shot.

Another example: A Cosmetic company advertising a new mascara showed a close-up of a model's eyes with impossibly long and lush lashes. Again, there were the words, "unretouched photo". But I was later told that they had chosen a model that had unusually long and full lashes and they spent hours on an operating table under surgical lights while the makeup artist painstakingly applied mascara to each and every lash.


And what about Subway Sandwich Shops? Until a few days ago I had never set foot inside one. I never eat fast food so I know nothing about fast food places. But I saw an ad in the paper for a "free pastrami sandwich, no strings attached." I decided I should know what's going on in our popular culture so I took the coupon and went to a Subway. In the window was a picture of the biggest overstuffed pastrami sandwich. So I went in and ordered one. After they had "stuffed" it, it was still so flat that it looked like an empty roll.

"Mmmm, mmm, good!"

Some things never change. It goes to show that Madison Avenue still can't help itself from putting marbles in bowlfuls of Campbell's Soup to make it look chunkier for the camera!

Certainly that's false advertising. But to some degree each of us finds ourselves as guilty as the next one of fooling people, or propping up capabilities of one type or another when "there's really no there, there!" Caveat Emptor!

Mea Culpa. A number of years ago I worked for a woman who had been married to a doctor and during their marriage I publicized his practice. In the divorce she gained "custody" of me and I went to work for her. The problem was she was just a pretty blond with no discernible talents. Yet I managed to get her a fair amount of publicity as an expert on...absolutely nothing. In her own way, she was the first celebrity known simply for being a celebrity.


That said, I should point out that I do have my limits. A number of years ago I was hired by one of the developers of the drug phen-fen, the weight-loss drug. I was brought in to publicize it, but after reading up on it and speaking to people, I realized how dangerous it was and so I quickly resigned from working on it. I told myself that the money wasn't worth what it would do to my conscience if someone took it because of my efforts and died. But if truth be told, I was also nervous to some degree that I might get into trouble legally and my reputation might be tarnished!

Like all of us, I dislike the fact that there is so much dishonesty in the world and so many big and wealthy people who don't pay for their misdeeds. These days, we read about CEO perks that are truly outrageous, which hurt so many people it's pathetic. I ask myself how they can live with themselves. And then how about the CEO that very publicly gets fired but then seems to pop up in another high-profile job, smelling like the proverbial rose.


Sitting there watching all the MadAve grifting in my first job taught me a few things about business, but more importantly, it taught me about life. Here's what I learned about perception vs. reality. Perception is rampant in everyday life because so many people are basically insecure and willing to believe someone else who puts on a big front.

Today, information, even the wrong information, gets disseminated so quickly. Anyone can have you believing anything in a matter of minutes. You post something on a blog and it travels around the world almost instantly.

There's a lot of grifting online from people who are not really who they claim to be. For all the excitement and hype about "social media," is the risk of "grift blogging" really where an advertiser wants their ad running in? I counsel my clients to look at the models a little closer.

Forgive the pun but there's a lot of talk right now about "conversational media." There's so much buzz about how "we’re evolving to a new system that customers control."

New media evangelists think they are reinventing the wheel when they preach:
1. Create a plan that invites people to talk and you to listen;
2. Integrate conversation into what people talk about;
3. Find your voice, talking to your neighbor;
4. Be all about transparency and "dedicated to conversation."

In my opinion, people who blog and read blogs should take what they read with a grain of salt. For all the "transparency" in new media, it's actually easier to grift someone today than it was yesterday. For starters, you don't have to troop 12 to 15 people into the office to make it look busy!


Miriam Silverberg is the founder and president of Miriam Silverberg Associates, the Manhattan-based publicity firm with expertise in medical, hospitality, beauty and fashion; including the New York City Ballet. She can be reached at silverbergm@mindspring.com. Also, check out her work in writing and publicity at Marymount Manhattan College.

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