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VIEWPOINT: THE MIFF OF SISYPHUS

By Published on .

A rolling stone gathers no Moss.

I'm hanging out at one of these Soho bars that stay hip and cool for about a minute and a half, and that's if the owners are lucky. A friend is having a party and some bozo new boyfriend of a female friend of mine (or some drunk off the street-it doesn't really) starts talking to me about work. Now, I don't want to talk to this loser about anything, let alone work. Because work's a touchy subject with me. But it's too late, the touchy subject has been broached.

I tell the clown I'm in advertising. I spew out the words as quickly and as unintelligibly as possible and hope he didn't hear me, that he'll change the subject or, even better, drop dead of alcohol poisoning right then and there. No such luck, of course (you'll soon learn that luck is not my strong suit). Chuckles heard me loud and clear.

So, what is it you do in the ad game? (Well, no, he didn't really say "the ad game," but then again he never really said anything because he doesn't really exist.) I tell him I'm a copywriter. Before he can respond I explain clearly that I have absolutely nothing to do with the United States Patent Office, nothing to do with that little "c" inside the circle. Oh, so what is it you do, then? A copywriter writes ads. Oh, I see, wow. (Actually, dickhead, unwow, very unwow, extremely unwow). Then he hits me below the belt.

"What ads have you done, you know, that I've seen?" This is the breaking point for me. It always is. I usually start by saying something like, "Well, I've worked for soandso and suchandsuch, blue-chip clients mostly, big blue-chip clients, yes indeed." Then, when they dig further (and they always do), I say, "Well, you know, I've done some print here and there and I've done lots of radio." But nobody cares about print or radio. You see, "What have you done, you know, that I've seen" really means, "Have you done any good TV?"

Oh sure, I've done a few spots, but they don't show off what I can really do, you know, the clients, oh, the clients, yes, those clients, they bought the wrong thing, or they bought the right thing and then they mangled it up, yes they're Midwestern corporate types, you see, and the account people, well, they don't care about the work, you know, they just want to pander to the clients, and, etc. etc. etc. Excuses, excuses, excuses.

This particular evening, I used a more direct approach. "Nothing, pal. I've done absolutely nothing that you've seen. No good TV here. Ok, tough guy? Zero. Zilch. Nada. Not 'Just do it' or 'Yes, I am!' or 'Got milk?' Not even, 'Did somebody say deal?' Now get the fuck out of my face, I'm going to soak my brain in Beefeater."

Needless to say, work hasn't been going too well lately. I define "lately" as the last seven years or so. Usually, people have their ups and downs, but with me it's been one long streak of downs. And maybe one up.

Let me give you an analogy. It's December 1916, on the Western front. I am a lowly foot soldier who spends his days and nights in the trenches. I'm dirty, shabby, and depressed. Bombs and machine guns are kabooming and ratatattating all around me, all the time. Every morning (at about 10:15) my oh so self-serving sergeant toots his whistle. "Come on men, we're taking the hill!" We have no choice. If we refuse, we'll be tried for cowardice and executed by the Chief of Corporate Downsizing within a week. So we muster what strength we have left, run out of our little holes and get blown to bits. Sometimes death comes quickly. For example, a grenade from the Department of Consumer Research explodes in your face right away. But most of the time it's long and grisly. Either way it ends in slaughter, in a pile of useless, mangled phrases and line drawings, ready for their final resting place, the Staten Island dump. You see, in the ad war we writers and art directors don't die. Our ideas die. We just do the grieving.

I could ramble on with my war stories. How I was rejected here, how I was rejected there. Here, there and everywhere. But that would take way too long, and, besides, it would be a bore. It was boring enough to live through it, trust me. Oh, tell us a story, please, give us something to chew on. All right, you wanna laugh at a guy when he's down. Fine. Chew on this. There was the time I sold a huge campaign and one week later the client fired the agency because of a personality conflict. The time I nearly brought in a huge piece of business when a lawsuit came out of nowhere and ruined everything. All those times the strategy changed. All those times the spots died at the hands of those 10 dopey housewives in Illinois. The time Jesus Christ floated into the meeting and threatened the client with eternal damnation if he signed the estimate.

I used to think I was blessed. Now I know I'm not. I'm cursed.

Magical thinking, you say? Or maybe you don't say. But my psychiatrist would say, "Oh, Rob, don't play around with that magical stuff." Hey, the shrink is onto something. I mean, there was a time when I truly believed there was a hex on me. Who dunnit? I wasn't sure. A demon from the other side? Some girl I treated badly who became a sorceress? I didn't know who, but someone or something somewhere was trying to fuck me up.

For a while I deduced that the source of the curse was my mother, poor woman. (Why I thought this is not relevant. I will leave that for an article in some neoFreudian journal). Anyway, I made up my mind never to tell her anything I was doing, because if she didn't know what was going on she wouldn't be able to jinx it. Well that was a little crazy, sure, but you've gotta blame someone! Anyway, my episode of mother-paranoia only lasted a couple of years. Now I can openly tell her about all the carrots that forever dangle before my pathetic little face.

I've been through the wringer so many times I feel like an old mop. This business isn't about selling great ideas. It's about selling, period. And selling is about buying. And when the seller and the buyer have radically different notions about what should be bought and sold, the buyer always wins. Money talks, babe. That's capitalism for you. And we're sitting in the crux of it. And the crux pinches your ass so hard it makes you want to cry.

"You guys couldn't sell sheep in a prison." Not only is it a bad joke, it is absolutely intolerable, when you consider the source. This is what that prick has to say to me? A creative director (I have about 10,000) who's supposed to stand up for my work, who's supposed to help me get things sold and produced the right way so I can have a bona fide career already, this guy who instead constantly leaves me in the lurch, sells against me, panders to the account goons, this guy who instead pays me lip service, who tells me, "You're the best" and "the work's dynamite" (and he's about the only one who knows that), this guy who has taken my vacations away, who has destroyed my weekends, this guy who has stabbed me in the back 35 times this week alone, this asshole is now cracking jokes! Oh, ha-ha-ha! Funny guy! Why don't I poke out your eyeball with a grease pencil, you fuck!

As you can see, all this makes you extremely bitter. It makes you argue with anybody who compliments anything that anybody anywhere has done. It makes you scream at the TV when the somebodies are on, which is all the time, because by definition, if you're on TV you're a somebody. Look at that hack! That talentless hack! That fucking smug little talentless hack! After a while this screaming affects people. Like your girlfriend, who, by some nasty trick of fate, happens to have a neurosis about screaming. She's extremely sensitive to screaming, and she thinks you're screaming at her. Of course you're not screaming at her, you're screaming at the TV, but that doesn't matter because you are screaming, are you not? You explain that you're screaming at them, but she can't believe that, so she starts screaming at you, because not only were you screaming at her, you're also a big fat liar. You tell her she's a goddamn lunatic, that you have every right to scream and scream and scream cause you're frustrated and everyone else is successful and they're all fucking smug little talentless hacks, and all you need is one shot to show them, just one shot, and you'll never get it cause the business is fucked, and now you've climbed a few decibels higher and she accuses you of screaming at her some more. This time she's right. But it's too late. Another evening has gone to shit.

Sometimes, in the pits of despair, I dream of becoming a revolutionary. Joining a mercenary force. Dealing nuclear bombs. Dropping one on Manhattan. I'd really be living, then! It's a nice fantasy, but the reality is you simply want to sell something great. You want to see what people think, see what it does, or just simply see it. Out there. Not in here, not on the garbage heap. You know, my biggest fan is the cleaning lady. She's seen everything I've ever done. She once told me I've written the best trash she's ever dumped. Obviously, she's never read Grisham.

Oh, come on! All this hell for a dopey little ad? I remember an art director who once worked here. He had this sign on his wall that said, "Without advertising, people wouldn't have time to pee." Ain't that the truth. I mean, who takes these things seriously anyway? There's a reason they call it a commercial break, right?

Then why do it? I mean, if it's that painful for me, why don't I just get out? Well, that's a very good point, but I have my reasons for staying. One is as old as mankind itself. Hope. Yes, hope, the only good thing to come out of Pandora's box, the stuff religions are made of. What would we frail, little thinking animals do without hope? Yes someday it'll all work out.

God. I thought it would be easy. Or at least easier. I can remember being 9 years old, playing with my food at some restaurant in the Hamptons. J.G. Melon, I think. I was with my father and my stepmother and we sat at the table and waited while Dad thought of a tagline for Pan Am. "You can't beat the experience." I suppose the programming started as early as that. You sit down, have a hamburger, yell at your kid, write an ad, wait a month for it to air, and before you know it you're in Ad Age for the gazillionth time.

See, it's easy. Say "I Love NY" and you get a Tony. Say "Flick My Bic" and Bob Hope (ironic, the name I mean) uses it for a joke. Say "Midasize It" and 25 years later people still talk about it. Yes. The Golden Age. The days when clients bought award-winning :60s over the phone. Well, I didn't know about the Golden Age then. At least I didn't know it would be so fleeting. And now I'm here, stuck in the Tin Age. In the age of muck, mire and soap scum. Squandering my life away in the age of dread.

Cheer up! It's only advertising! Hey it's not brain surgery! You could be driving a cab! What are you complaining for! You have a great job! You don't have to wear a suit and tie! You get to travel! What's your fucking problem?

Mark just popped his head into my office. (For those of you who don't know him, Mark is my art director. My sounding board. My tennis partner. My wife. He looks like Charles Manson, only he's slightly more even-keel). Mark has informed me that he would just love it if I finished this goddamn article already so we could flesh out that new idea. See, we had a major breakthrough yesterday. Yep. We hit it. Bing bam boom. Right on the nose. When you get an idea like that, it's easy. It writes itself. Words and pictures fly all over the room. In a way, it's like throwing up: After you get it all out, you feel a hell of a lot better.

But soon you feel worse. Because you know your masterpiece won't go anywhere. Because you know it's so tough to sell anything good. But is that really so bad? Well, yes and no. I mean, if I think about it, I actually love doing what I do. That's another reason I stay in this business. Perhaps the best reason there is. Perhaps the only reason. The process. Whatever may come of my ads, my scripts, my taglines, whatever may come of them all, I still enjoy writing them. If you do anything like this for a living, you know what I mean. Oh it's been said a million times, I know, but there's nothing like the feeling you get when you sit down and hammer out an idea, when you have fun with it, when you make it sing, dance and jump for joy.

And there we have it. It's Sisyphus. You roll that big rock up the hill and your goal is to rest it on the top. But the rock never stays there. It just rolls back down the hill. So you roll it back up and it just rolls right back down. Yes, Camus is right. Life is a struggle. And since the goal or the end of life is death, well, then the goal isn't really what counts, is it? No. It's the process that counts. Who cares if they buy it? Who cares if they mangle it? Who cares if anybody out there sees it the way it was meant to be seen?

Yes, the process is everything. Maybe I can live with that. Maybe something higher has come out of all of this blather after all. Perhaps everybody should be in advertising. It really is a terrific business, if you enjoy doing the work. So if you're in advertising, and you're having a tough time selling your stuff, and some bozo happens to ask you what you do for a living, just tell him you try to roll big rocks up hills. Sure, you may never reach the top, but you still get a huge kick out of it.

Of course, Camus wasn't in advertising. He was a philosopher who got laid all the time and sat in cafes dreaming about life. So what the hell does he know?

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