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.

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Life lessons from the lowly honey badger.

As wild animals go, the honey badger isn’t much of a looker. Squat, vaguely skunk-like, with none of the panache of Badger from my childhood favourite The Wind In The Willows. And yet, by all accounts this little rascal is a bonafide badass. A few years ago, a hilarious video surfaced on YouTube arguing that the “crazy, nastyass” honey badger is quite possibly the fiercest animal on earth.

Tangle with a king cobra? No problem. Fight a lion? Why not. Plunder the larva and honey from a nest full of bees while being stung hundreds of times? Big whoop. Mix it up with jackals? Bring it. 70,000,000 views later, it’s still hard to watch it without pissing yourself laughing.

But behind the humour, there’s an important life lesson: The undeniable power of resilience. Like the narrator says in the video, “honey badger don’t give a shit.” And we can learn from that. Because to be successful in life (heck, to survive in life) it often pays to ignore all the rules, naysayers, facts and odds stacked against you. For example:

Steven Spielberg  When Jaws went into production, the director (then just 26) was told by the studio suits that it would be impossible to shoot on the open ocean. At the time, sea adventures were filmed in giant tanks in Hollywood (a practice that continues today–The Perfect Storm and At Sea were shot this way). But he insisted that it wouldn’t be credible.

Worse, the script wasn’t even finished when they started shooting and the mechanical shark kept malfunctioning. But ironically, these setbacks (and his own inexperience) worked in young Spielberg’s favour, because they allowed him to shape the story as he went along. The results speak for themselves: One of the first blockbusters, and one of the best monster films of all time.

Jaws_Spielberg

Jaws_Set

Curtis Mayfield  In the mid-90s, the legendary soul singer and guitarist (“Superfly”) was paralyzed from the neck down when a lighting rig crushed him as a tornado struck his outdoor concert in Atlanta. He could’ve easily given up. Instead, he poured every ounce of energy he had into recording New World Order, one of the best records in his long and acclaimed career.

The sessions were exhausting. They had to lay Mayfield’s fractured body on the floor of the studio to fill his lungs with enough air to painstakingly sing each verse, one line at a time. The results, however, are stunning–a beautiful, soulful, life affirming album.

Emma Sulkowicz  When Columbia University didn’t take action against her rapist (a fellow student) this courageous young woman created “Carry That Weight,” a blend of protest, performance art and senior thesis rolled into one. As she explains in this video, Emma carries the 50-pound mattress she was raped on with her wherever she goes on campus, as a visceral reminder of the school’s failure to deal with sexual assaults. Just try looking away.

Emma Sulkowicz 'Carry That Weight" project.

Emma Sulkowicz Columbia+Carries+Mattress+qAbGrHHVEh3l

George Lucas  Hard to believe, but every major studio in Hollywood turned down Star Wars. And when Lucas showed a rough cut to his best film school pals (Spielberg and Marty Scorsese) they told him it was a guaranteed failure. After all, he had inserted clips of old black and white World War II combat films for Star Wars’ epic aerial dogfights as placeholders until Industrial Light and Magic could finish the pioneering special effects. We all know how that one turned out.

In their infinite wisdom, the all-knowing suits also passed on the toy rights, claiming that no one would want souvenirs from a failed film (see a pattern here?). The franchise and those toy rights made Lucas a billionaire, and he’s been laughing all the way to the bank ever since.

GeorgeLucas StarWars 1

The Beatles  Every major record label in London passed on the band, thinking they were nothing special, until EMI took a chance on them. The label paired the lads with genius producer George Martin and together, they went on to change music forever. And Sir Paul stayed with EMI for 45 years.

Jim Carrey  Rumour has it that when the fledgling comedian moved to L.A., he carried a check made out to himself in the amount of ten million dollars. He kept it in his pocket for years until the day he was finally a big enough star to be able to actually cash it. In the words of Ted darling Amy Cuddy, “fake it ’til you make it.”

Nelson Mandela  Mandela was imprisoned for three decades by South Africa’s racist Apartheid regime, but he never lost faith in himself, or in the cause. The time in jail only strengthened his resolve. Once released, he became the leader of his nation and one of the most admired politicians ever (‘admired politicians,’ how’s that for an oxymoron?). In his brilliant words, “It’s always impossible until it’s done.”

Nelson Mandela early life

The irrepressible Nelson Mandela.

Arnold Schwarzenegger  When the champion bodybuilder showed up in Hollywood and proclaimed in his thick Austrian accent: “I vant to be a moooveee stah” the studios scoffed. They told him to come back after he had changed his ridiculous name, fixed the ugly gap in his teeth and learned to speak proper English. A decade later, he was one of the biggest stars on the planet. And went on to become the governator of Caleeforneeah, one of the largest economies in the world.

Arnold Schwarzenegger young

Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator 2.

Mothers everywhere  My dad used to say that if men had to give birth the human race would’ve died out long ago. True. Between the pain, the lack of sleep, the toll on your body and your psyche, there is surely no tougher job on the planet. And then try re-entering the job market and re-inventing yourself as you’re suffering the indignities of going through the change. Mothers (and women) in many parts of the world have it even worse, being subject to oppression. They are the real unsung heroes in our midst.

Pakistan - mother and child

Keith Richards  Keef is a human cockroach (and I mean that in a good way). Drug busts, overdoses, falls from trees, the changing musical tastes of the public, nothing can keep him down. He keeps going and going and going, like the Energizer bunny, in part, because he’s one tough son of a bitch but also because he still believes so strongly in himself, and in his band.

Keith Richards young

Keith Richards now

No doubt you have your own examples. For me, each of these is a vivid reminder of one of the best life axioms out there:

The trouble with rules is, they rule out brilliant exceptions.

So when life kicks you down (and more often than not, it will–over and over and over and over and over again) channel your inner honey badger and do what that irrepressible little badass would do:

Carry on. And don’t give a #$%&.

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.

Oil_of_Olay_TockTick.jpg

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.

LEGO_Ads

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?

AllState_Mayhem_Blackout

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.

Jiro

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.

the_jetsons

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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