Who wore it best?

I started this blog a few years ago with a post about the dearth of imagination in fashion ads (“They’re beautiful. So why aren’t they smiling?”). The latest example? Brioni employing Metallica to sell suits that start at (ouch) $7,000 each. Nothing against Metallica. Their latest is a return to form, and using ’em for the tony Brioni label is classic casting against type.

But the black and white campaign (shot by Zachery Michael) is a blatant rip-off of the long-running John Varvatos campaign shot by Danny Clinch. That effort (also B+W) stars a who’s who of rockers: Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, Slash, Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr, Joe Perry, ZZ Top, Paul Weller, the Roots, Cheap Trick, Kiss and more.

For Varvatos, Clinch was a no brainer. He’s one of the best rock photographers around. His subjects are unusually comfortable with him, so more of their true personality comes through in his work. Varvatos also has a deep connection to the genre (he bought legendary club CBGBs to preserve it, and penned Rock In Fashion about the love affair between rockers and their threads).

Another reason the Varvatos campaign seems more credible is that his duds cost a fraction of what Brioni’s do, which makes for a more accessible tie-in. Besides, the Wall Street types that wear Brioni are more likely to ‘rock out’ to Billy Joel than to Metallica (me? I’ll take Master of Puppets over Uptown Girl anytime).

To be fair, Brioni’s effort is a nice departure from the mostly staid stuff in the category. I just wish they had put the same effort into their marketing as they do into their impeccably crafted clothing.










Learning to love the guardrails.

Most creative people (myself included) are quick to rail against the constraints of many assignments that land in our laps. “There’s no time.” “Budget’s too small.” “Not enough leeway.” [Insert your favourite obstacle here.] It’s in our nature. We hate to be fenced in. But if you open yourself up to the possibilities and learn to love the guardrails, great things can happen. Examples from other fields:

Music.  Most artists tend to do their best work early in their careers. They’re lean. Hungry. They have something to prove. Perhaps most importantly, they don’t have the time or money to languish in the studio and engage in the endless rounds of navel-gazing that suck the life out of any project. The Beatles, The WHO and the Stones cut their early records in mere days on 4-track recorders. Just compare Metallica’s early LPs, all anger and vitriol, with the creatively constipated band bickering like an old married couple in the documentary Some Kind of Monster.

In fact, once they’ve made it, many artists often put themselves back into the box of ‘less’ in an effort to recapture the magic that made them great in the first place. Paul McCartney cut the 14 tracks on CHOBA B CCCP (Back In The USSR) in a day. It’s loose, raw and full of life, unlike so many of the bloated productions he and others were putting out back then.

Food  In stark contrast to the over-processed garbage most Americans put into their mouths, Michael Pollen argues in favour of eating only foods that are produced with 5 ingredients or less. It’s all in how the chef uses the ingredients rather than how many there are.

Wine  Vintners on all continents have embraced sustainability and cleaner methods in an attempt to produce more honest wines. Given the havoc that global warming is wrecking on producers’ microclimates, this is no small undertaking. But the results are often stunning, as I wrote in my wife’s food and travel blog.

Movies  Woody Allen caps most of his film budgets at $6 million, a paltry sum by Hollywood standards, where the average movie can easily cost $40 to $100 million, not counting marketing. Why? Because even with his enviable track record, it’s the only way he can retain artistic control and feel good about the final product.

Blue Jasmine

Marketing  So back to my chosen profession. Make no mistake, I’m a strong advocate for having the time to think a project through. Time allows you to get smart on a subject. It lets you get obvious solutions out of the way. It lets you work on a problem and then come back to the project with fresh eyes. But given the pace most clients move at these days, we rarely get enough of it.

A decent budget is also tops on most creatives’ wish lists. It’s easier to get attention when you have the media spend to be seen everywhere. It’s a lot harder to stand out when you have a small box to play in and you’re forced to make the idea king. It’s also nice to be able to afford top tier photographers, directors, editors and other collaborators to bring your idea to life. Again, not always the case.

So here are a few examples of marketers that did a great job of delivering their messages in incredibly simple yet powerful ways, ones that break through despite the limitations of what they’re working with.

Oil of Olay  No overpaid celebrity shills. No beautiful models. No quasi-scientific claims. Just two simple words on the page (“Tock. Tick.”) that communicate a powerful anti-aging message. It’s so good you gotta wonder if it was created just for an award show entry.


Job Hunt  A fellow named Alec Brownstein was looking for a job but it was hard to get into the top shops. So, knowing what egomaniacs most creative directors are, he bought Google AdWords targeting his favourites that said, “Hey (name), Googling yourself is fun. Hiring me is fun too” with a link to his portfolio. Total cost? $6. He got  a bunch of interviews, two offers, a job, and a few awards to boot. Nicely done.

Alec Browenstein Job Hunt

Lego  One of my favourite childhood toys (and my boys’ as well). Lego = imagination, a message that’s beautifully brought to life in these ads. Another advantage of being forced to strip things to the bone is that it allows the power of the idea to shine through. These ads could run in Mumbai or Mumford and be understood by parents and kids alike.


Allstate  When the lights went out at the Super Bowl in New Orleans last year, Allstate pounced. ‘Mayhem’ took to social media, taking credit for the outage, and underscoring how quickly things can change. Brilliant, and cheap. And what client doesn’t love that?


The Economist  This long running campaign from Abbott Mead Vickers in London (now adapted for the U.S. market) is instantly recognizable as The Economist. Simple. Powerful. Memorable. A single headline on red. That’s it.

The Economist_Dinner

Guinness  A beer that claims to be ‘made of more’ celebrates two athletes that are also ‘made of more.’ One photo, type over picture, nice score and you’ve got a beautiful spot that’s more moving than most of the drivel that polluted the airwaves during the Super Bowl and the Olympics.

As my dad (an adman himself) and years of freelancing taught me, advertising is like sports: There’s no past, and no future. Nobody cares about the great idea you had last week or how many awards you won last year. They don’t care what you’ll do next year. It’s all about the moment. It’s put up or shut up. Like being a designated hitter. Or a gunslinger. It can be a lot of pressure. But the more comfortable you are with the guardrails, the better you’ll perform within them.

Clint Eastwood

Ironically, the key to doing good work under these circumstances may be in ignoring one of the lessons we’ve had drummed into us since childhood: “safety first.” We’ve been told over and over that the guardrails are there to keep us safe. And in much of life, they are. But as in any creative field, you can’t let them lull you into a false sense of security. Or to become an excuse for not trying hard enough. Because if you don’t find a way to be creative within them, your competitors surely will.

Dieter Rams: The other genius behind Apple.

Tech historians have documented how Apple nicked innovations like the graphic user interface, the mouse, bitmap displays, windows, icons and LANs from Xerox PARC. A true visionary, Steve Jobs was able to see and exploit the potential of these innovations even when the inventors themselves couldn’t. But beyond Jobs’ extraordinary drive, brilliant marketing and the technology itself, Apple’s greatest weapon has been its sexy, consumer friendly designs.

Most people assume this was also Jobs’ doing, with help from their gifted chief industrial designer, Jonny Ive. But I would argue that Apple wouldn’t be where it is today without the duo’s ability to channel Dieter Rams’ exquisite eye. Called “the greatest designer alive” by Fast Company, Rams was the genius behind Braun’s consumer products for decades. And also, it would appear, many of Apple’s.

Dieter Rams, the greatest industrial designer ever

The global press, tech bloggers, and many in the design community have claimed that Apple cribbed some of its most popular designs from the ground-breaking products Rams drew up for Braun. Ive has long professed his admiration for Rams’ output, saying, “Rams remains utterly alone in producing a body of work so consistently beautiful, so right and so accessible.”

But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ive and Apple are more than mere admirers of Rams’ products. They’re totally infatuated with them. Allow me to approach the bench.

Exhibit A  The ghost of Braun’s T3 portable radio (1958, left) reappears as the original iPod (2001, right). Same size, same white plastic case, same use of a rotary dial for key functions, etc.

Did Apple rip off Dieter Rams?

Exhibit B  The iPhone’s calculator app (2007, left) borrows heavily from Brauns’s ET44 pocket calculator (1977, right) even down to the identically coloured round buttons for the same tasks.

Did Apple rip off Dieter Rams?

Exhibit C  Compare the aluminum housing, perforated details and swing out panel of the PowerMac G5 (2006, left) with Braun’s elegant T1000 portable transistor radio of 1964 (right).


Below: Close-up of the Braun T1000’s perforated aluminum panel (left) and the PowerMac’s (right).

Did Apple rip off Dieter Rams?

Exhibit D Left, Braun’s infrared emitter (1970s, left). Right, Apple’s iSight (2003).

Did Apple rip off Dieter Rams?

Exhibit E  On the left, Apple’s iMac from 2007. On the right, Braun’s stunning LE-1 loudspeaker which debuted in 1959.

Did Apple rip off Dieter Rams?

I rest my case. But at least Apple had the good taste to steal from the very best. Is Rams bothered by any of this? Hardly. In fact, he praises Apple as the only large U.S. firm that is putting design first, by having the resolve to remove every last unnecessary element in its designs. And he credits Apple for changing our lives in dramatic ways Braun couldn’t even hope to have done.

Indeed, everything Apple has ever created–the original Macintosh, the candy coloured iMac, the iPod, their friendly retail store experience, the now ubiquitous iPhone, iTunes, the iPad, etc.–has been a proof point of their role as “the computer for the rest of us,” as their kick ass ad agency Chiat/Day put it back in the day. The public agrees. Good design sells. Today, Apple is the most valuable company in the world.

So the next time you feel a twinge of technolust as you admire one of Apple’s stylish products, by all means, tip your hat to Jobs & Co. But don’t forget the great Dieter Rams. Thanks to his wonderful eye, brilliant mind and incredible restraint, tens of millions of consumers are using everyday objects that are pieces of art instead of pieces of junk.

Dieter Rams posing with some of his greatest hits

For more on Rams, check out Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible or Braun–Fifty Years of Design and Innovation.

The Old Down and Back.

I travel a lot for work, and I try to enjoy every trip. When I’m with coworkers, it’s easy. Laughter. Cocktails. Repeat. Alone, it’s different. A few years ago, I had to do the Boston – NYC – Boston run to meet a freelance client. The tired old down and back? Hardly. Since time alone is in precious short supply for any busy person, I make the most of it.

The Train  Flying to LaGuardia is faster, but given the dehumanization that air travel often entails, I usually opt for the Acela, even with its flaws and even if I have to get up at five. I’ve got a nice view of the Rhode Island and Connecticut coastlines. I read the old fashioned newspaper. I work. And I arrive composed rather than undone.

RI and Connecticut coastline from the NYC-Boston Acela

Walk  No smelly cab for me. I walk the 20 blocks from Penn Station to lower Park Avenue, stopping at Eataly along the way. I share my wife’s love of a good food market, and Mario Batali’s ginormous take on the theme is that, on steroids. Moving on, I pause to genuflect before Pentagram out of respect for the incredible work this legendary design firm has produced over the years. They give our industry a good name.

Bountiful pasta selection at Mario Batali's Eataly in New York City

Butcher shop with high quality cuts, Mario Batali's Eataly, New York City

Exterior of world-class design firm Pentagram in New York City

Work  New York’s energy is infectious. I arrive at my meeting all fired up. The client is receptive. The trip is a success. Grateful, I invite them for lunch but they have another meeting. I’ve learned that there’s always another meeting, another deadline, another ‘to do’ to be crossed off the list. Today, enjoying life takes precedence.

Shop  The Gods must agree because stepping out onto Fifth Avenue, I spy (what’s this?) a Paul Smith shop. This could be dangerous. While I generally prize experiences over objects, I will also cop to being a materialistic f-cker, and I can’t get enough of Sir Paul’s quirky-meets-classic attire. I add to my collection, and the staff is all over the rare Paul Smith for Burton coat I’m wearing. It’s enough to make a geezer feel hip.

Exterior of Paul Smith shop on Lower Fifth Avenue, New York City

Limited edition Paul Smith for Burton snowboarding 2008

A Great Meal  Ideally, food should be enjoyed leisurely with people you like. But with clients and friends busy, I head for the tony sushi bar at 15 East. New York has no shortage of great sushi joints, and 15 East is a Union Square standout, with a Michelin Star and immaculate fish, beautifully presented in a tasteful setting. For the next hour or so, it’s my own little refuge while the chaos of NYC rages on outside.

Tony sushi bar at 15 East, Union Square, Manhattan

Classy interior of 15 East sushi bar, Union Square, Manhattan

Michelin Star sashimi at 15 East, Union Square, Manhattan

Freshest sushi and sashimi at 15 East, Union Square, Manhattan

Records  If I were uptown, I’d buzz through MOMA for a quick art fix. Instead, I head south through Washington Square Park to Generation Records on Thompson Street in the Village. Great for used stuff and punk. When I’m record shopping, I’m a kid again, and this is my playground. With rarities from the Stones, the Clash and The WHO in hand, I bolt before I do any more damage.

Generation Records, amazing record shop, Greenwich Village, New York City

The Woolworth Building, one of New York City's great classic skyscapers

More Walking  No car service today. The brisk walk back uptown takes me past two of my favourite skyscrapers, the Woolworth and New York Life buildings, and then through bustling Union Square for more great people watching. Up the way, I pop into the Ace Hotel for an espresso from the fedora-wearing baristas (okay, guys, you’re trying too hard).

Godzilla, King of the Monsters, in full attack mode

The Train  Penn Station is a zoo. Worlds are colliding, and all manner of human flotsam and jetsam are pushing and shoving like they’re fleeing Godzilla. I tip a Red Cap to bring me to the train before it’s posted on the board. This way, I get a seat with that killer seaside view. The ride home? I work, listen to music, sample Amtrak’s excellent wine list (not), and even grab a few Z’s.

I suspect that the guidebooks on Manhattan don’t mention the rose bushes in this fabled concrete jungle. Nonetheless, I found a way to stop and smell my share on this gray October day.

New York City, gray October day, Amtrak Acela to Boston

They’re beautiful. So why aren’t they smiling?

If every picture tells a story, why don’t fashion brands try to tell more of one with theirs? Invariably, most ads in the category show all sorts of impossibly beautiful models, pouting, brooding, staring. Don’t these morose souls ever smile? Okay, maybe they’re hungry. But seriously, isn’t this stuff supposed to be aspirational? Most of these poor creatures look as ridiculous as Ben Stiller’s ‘Blue Steel’ pose in Zoolander, his facetious send up of the industry.

Ben Stiller Zoolander Blue Steel

For example, what story is this Links ad telling? Of what ‘courage and honour’ do they speak? More likely, this sourpuss is fuming because someone cut the dessert line and took the last profiterole.

Links of London sourpuss

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