From the bumbling, groveling, desperate account man Darren Stevens in "Bewitched" to the overly dramatic, neurotic copywriter Michael in "Thirtysomething" to the exaggerated hipness of the supposed creative types in the Tom Hanks movie "Nothing in Common," it seems as if capturing the reality of a business so dependent upon image is a task harder than writing about wars, aliens or love.
How many times have you had to explain to friends not in the business that we don't all really sit around in our offices and get high, strum guitars, write catchy jingles, go out for three martini lunches, come back and present to a cigar-chomping client called J.B. sitting at the head of a massive boardroom table?
Against this trite and superficial backdrop comes a refreshingly insightful and highly entertaining book by Randall Rothenberg, the former advertising columnist of The New York Times. "Where the Suckers Moon" (Alfred A. Knopf, $25) is the story of the $75 million Subaru account review. It is also the story of our business, from the birth of advertising on Madison Avenue to its rebirth in Portland, Ore., and from the legendary, revolutionary days of Doyle Dane Bernbach to the unfortunate fall of Levine Huntley Schmidt & Beaver.
From the opening pages, it's clear that Rothenberg had unlimited access to both the key client players and all of the agencies involved. He takes us from the initial questionnaires submitted through the awarding of the account with an extremely fast-moving and well-written narrative style peppered with colorful dialogue clearly too good to have been made up. That all of the competing agencies had diverse, and in some cases diametrically opposed, styles of creating and presenting their work, contributes greatly to the story. It's all here: from the pompous and bombastic to the cool, slick and logical; from the overdone, overthought and overproduced to the awkward and unadorned.
We see almost every form of agency and client neurosis brought out into the open as the pitch moves from one phase to another and the stakes continue to increase. The politicking, the infighting, the egos, the unfounded optimism and dour cynicism will all be very real and familiar to anyone who has worked for more than three days in the business. And being able to hear the clients' private conversations in the elevators as they leave each presentation will only confirm some of your worst intuitions about the inanity, illogic and fear that make selling new and unusual work so difficult in our business.
What also adds life and interest beyond the confines of the pitch itself is Rothenberg's obvious understanding and depth of knowledge about the industry. Each chapter is generously infused with colorful and often hysterically funny anecdotes drawn from the rich, mythology-filled history of advertising, as well as quotes and tidbits that are worth remembering. One of my favorites is a quote from Lee Bristol, a founder of the Bristol-Myers consumer products company, who once said he could describe an adman in five words: "Yes, sir! No, sir! Ulcer!"
Speaking of ulcers, Wieden & Kennedy ultimately wins. You already knew that. That their victory was short-lived and subsequently undone by the usual nitpicking, unrealistic client expectations and dealer discord is not a surprise, either.
What is surprising is that a book about our business was able to not only keep my interest but leave me wanting to read more. Unlike the agencies involved, I was actually sorry to see the misery end. And while that could be attributable to the fact that I was deriving a sick pleasure in the comfort that it was one dog and pony show that I was fortunate enough not to participate in, I think the real credit should go to Rothenberg.
He's written an intelligent, wry, captivating book that will educate and