Finding the silence between the notes.

We live in a time of unprecedented connectedness, tethered 24/7/365 to work, family, friends, news, and all manner of interests and stressors, whether we want to be or not. The economy? Crisis in the Middle East? The latest school shooting? Check. A work headache masquerading as an ‘opportunity’? You’re up. Family stress? Relationship troubles? Celebrity scandal or wedding du jour? Try hiding from ’em.

Scientists worry that our brains are being asked to take in more information than ever before. Maybe even more than we, as humans, were ever wired to. After all, if a big part of the journey of life is to figure out what it all means, it’s hard to do when we can’t stop and process it all. It’s never been harder to find the silence between the nonstop flurry of notes. Hence, a few suggestions:

Be a loner  No, don’t drive cross-country and start chopping hitchhikers into little bits. Take a walk. Do yoga. Go for a run, a swim, a ride. A hike, a drive, a paddle. Visit the library, sit in a café, read on a park bench. Dine for one. Dare to be alone with your thoughts. It won’t always be pleasant, but every now and then you are your own best companion.



Take a proper lunch  Most days, I eat lunch at my desk. But it pales in comparison to the simple pleasures of breaking bread with a friend and having a real, unscripted conversation where you can’t filter, edit, and retouch everything that comes out of your mouth. In Europe and Latin America, it’s the norm. Here in the States, sadly, it’s often the exception. People enjoying themselves in the middle of the day? Sacrilege! 


Meditate  One of the best ‘pause’ buttons out there. I took a class but haven’t even come close to mastering it yet. Hopefully I’ll get the hang of it before my frayed nerves give out.

Mindfulness  The kissing cousin of meditation. Be present. Listen to your kids or your significant other when they tell you about their day. Slow down enough to actually taste the food you’re eating. Just that little act of concentration will make your brain fire differently.

Digital detox  How often do you see couples or even a table full of folks (or families) out to dinner and no one’s talking because they’re all staring at their phones? Same in meetings. It’s the new crack. Tear yourself away from all those glowing screens. (See ‘be present’ above.) Sound impossible? Despite ambitious plans to break global sales records again this year, Volkswagen Germany banned after work email in an attempt to give employees an opportunity to recharge.



Take a nap  Kids do it. Animals do it. Latin America does it. New research shows that napping lets your brain grow new cells. My advice: 10 to 15 minutes, max. If you’re a coffee person, drink an espresso, put your head down, and when the coffee kicks in, you’ll wake up good to go. Don’t knock it ’til you try it.


Go on vacation  Sounds simple enough. Yet a story in Forbes notes that most Americans left 9 days of vacation time on the table in 2012. What’s the untold cost in terms of stress and lost productivity? We may never know. But many countries require their citizens to take vacation. Smart employers do the same.

Say nothing  Why do we feel compelled to fill every second of air like so many of the annoying commercials on TV? Some of the most interesting conversations are the ones with awkward pauses and stumbles. Right      now,       we       need       more       white       space.

If the notion of ‘pausing’ strikes you as old fashioned, dear reader, I stand before you, guilty as charged. Drag me out to the gallows and and string me up by the threads of one of my Paul Smith jackets. Flog me with the cables of my retro audio system. Drown me in a vat of my favourite biodynamic Barolo. There are worse ways to go, and at least my mind will be clear when I do.

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.

The Surefire Sick Bed Film Festival.

It happens. You run yourself ragged, and in that weakened state, you succumb to whatever vile bug is circulating at work or on your last few flights. Before you know it, your body is pleading No más! No más!” like Roberto Duran in his humiliating defeat at the hands of Sugar Ray Leonard.

The first thing you learn when you’re home sick is just how much it sucks to be home sick. Social media is no help. You’ll either feel guilty for not being at work or pissed that life is passing you by. When you’re this beat, even reading is too much trouble.

Enter the The Surefire Sick Bed Film Festival. Now, no two people have the same taste, obviously, but the general gist is the same: Mix some classics, a few thrillers, a dash of romance, pepper in good documentaries and a helping of comedies, and you can’t go wrong. For example:

A Fish Called Wanda  If I’m going to be laid up with a mystery virus kicking my bony ass, I want to keep some of this fare light. John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis make magic in this delightful romantic comedy (also written by Cleese). Kline is unforgettable as a thief torturing Michael Palin over his beloved fish.

A Fish Called Wanda 2

The Swimming Pool  (1969) It starts out innocently enough. The beautiful Romy Schneider and Alain Delon are lovers relaxing poolside at a villa in St. Tropez in this moody French flick. But when her ex shows up with his nubile teenage daughter (hottie Jane Birkin) big trouble ensues.

The Swimming Pool

The Guard  The formula’s familiar: Fish-out-of-water cop (Don Cheedle in rural Ireland) needs help solving a mystery, and finds it in fat, boozy, whoring local cop (the brilliant Brendan Gleeson). The two have great chemistry, but ultimately, it’s Gleeson’s humanity that helps The Guard rise above most buddy movie fare. He also shines in the excellent gangster drama In Bruges.

Cheadle and Gleeson The Guard

A bit of Hitchcock  They just don’t make ’em like this anymore. Two faves are North By Northwest and To Catch A Thief, both starring Cary Grant. In the former, Grant and Eva Marie Saint are stellar. And the colour of the print (all Mad Men tones and all) is as good a test as any for a home theater’s picture. Thief, while one of the Master’s fluffier offerings, is still stylish classic and a reminder of just how stunning Grace Kelly was in her day.

North by Northwest

To Catch A Thief

Bill Cunningham, New York  For documentaries, I tend to gravitate to stories of passionate souls plying their craft against all odds. This one is a poignant portrait of the New York Times photographer who for decades has chronicled the fashions of the moment. We should all be this vital in our 80s. I had a moist eye at the end — I only wish he had found a lifelong companion.

Bill Cunningham New York

Anything by Miyazaki  When I’m in the mood for animation, I do what the mega talents at Pixar do: Reach for anything by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. The storylines are very strong, and the animation is just as good as it gets. Princess Mononoke, an environmental cautionary tale with a fierce female heroine, is one of my favourites. Also recommended: Porco Rosso or Spirited Away.

Princess Mononoke

Headhunters  This very well made Norwegian thriller takes a few liberties with logic, but it’s such an exciting, well acted ride that you’ll forgive the transgressions. Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is one bad, bad guy. Violence, tension, plus lots of clever twists.

Headhunters 2

Jiro Dreams of Sushi  85-year old Jiro (bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Grinch) is one of the best sushi chefs in the world, consistently wowing critics in his modest restaurant underneath Tokyo’s subway station. It’s his work that keeps him alive, yet you feel for his two sons, endlessly waiting in the wings for the old man to step aside. One of the best food docs ever.


Tell No One  Being a guy, I’m a sucker for a good thriller and this French white knuckler will have you on the edge of your seat, er, bed. François Cluzet (The Intouchables) stars as an innocent man suspected of killing his wife. It’s fast, intense, and features some great chase scenes. No doubt Hollywood will bungle the inevitable remake.

Sound City  As a music nut and audiophile, I just loved Sound City, Dave Grohl’s love letter to analogue and the seminal L.A. studio where countless groundbreaking albums were recorded on the Neve console. Great stuff. Others in this vein: Muscle Shoals and 20 Feet from Stardom.

Dave Grohl Sound City

Richard Pryor  Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle and countless others owe a huge debt to Richard Pryor. Watching any of his concert films, it’s easy to see why. Like most comics, he was an astute observer of the human condition, but his humour also comes from a very dark place. It cuts to the bone, it resonates, and most importantly, it cracks you up. Just what the doctor ordered.

Richard Pryor Live in Concert

You get the idea. Of course, since we seem to be enjoying another golden age of television, you may be tempted to substitute a marathon of your favourite shows, but I prefer films.

It goes without saying that it would be better if you weren’t sick in the first place, but there are worse ways to try to slow down and recover than by making a big dent in your Netflix queue.

A little tea with honey and brandy, and you’re good to go.

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

When in doubt, take it out.

Eons ago, a college application essay asked what the greatest problem facing mankind was. I replied the mixed blessings of technology, arguing that while it had improved our lives in many ways, it had also produced big problems that our brightest minds couldn’t solve. Toxic chemicals. Nuclear proliferation. Decades later, these same challenges remain (global warming, anyone?) and technology is over complicating other things. Smartphones can start the oven during your commute. Cars can park and drive themselves. Refrigerators can read your email. Heck, the government is reading your email. It’s not quite The Jetstons or 1984, but we’re getting there.


Call me a Renaissance Man, but I still feel that less is usually more. When creating ads, my mantra is “when in doubt, take it out.” Because every time you remove an element from an ad, you’re reinforcing the power of what’s left behind. Good when competing for attention, but the principle works elsewhere as well. So here I celebrate a few favourite things that succeed by virtue of their simplicity:

The F-Bomb  To paraphrase the great George Carlin, you gotta love its versatility. It’s an expletive (“Oh, fuck!”) A noun (“He’s a dumb fuck.”) A surrender (“We’re fucked.”) A verb (“Let’s fuck.”) A warning (“Don’t fuck with me.”) An insult (“You fucking fuck.”) An invitation (“Fuck me.”) A dismissal (“Fuck off.”) An anatomical challenge (“Go fuck yourself.”) And so much more. Do I use it too much? #@$% yeah.

Captain Haddock swearing

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