George Tannenbaum
Guest Article

Of wives, dishwashers and agencies: From the desk of Ogilvy's former copy chief

New York-based copywriter George Tannenbaum, who has turned ageism in advertising on its head with his bold statements, writes a guest post.

As we move into our tenth week of working from home, I am naturally still learning things about the person I am sharing a home with.

My wife, Laura, and I are both ridiculously busy. Our days usually open like this:

GEORGE:

I start at ten today. Whaddabout you?

LAURA: I have a 9:30, then a two hour meeting from 11-1. Ok if we eat lunch after that?

GEORGE:

I’m actually on from 1-3, so I’ll just grab something.

Of wives, dishwashers and agencies: From the desk of Ogilvy's former copy chief

That ain’t exactly Lunt and Fontanne dialogue or even Archie and Edith, but my guess is it’s fairly par for the course. Despite all this amorous proximity, as I said, I am still learning new things about my wife of 36 years.

Just now, I wrapped up my 27th phone call of the day and went into the kitchen to empty the dishwasher. Though my wife was still on her 29th call of the day, she had already begun emptying the machine.

It was then I noticed something. We empty the dishwasher in completely different ways.

And we both think our way is the right way.

If fact, my way infuriates my wife. Her way, infuriates me.

I bring a stack of dishes right from the machine to the shelf. My wife first stacks things on the countertop and then transfers the dishes shelf-ward.

My way, I’m told, chips the paint on the shelves and occasionally chips the Wedgwood. Her way, seems to take a good 20 minutes.

Stupid as this all sounds, I learned something from it.

Our tendency as humans and the tendency of agencies and, clients too, is to want people to work the way you want them to work. As a writer I’ve always tried to learn everything I could about a topic—a technology, a banking product, even a supermarket chain. I’m of the old-fashioned Francis Bacon ‘Knowledge is Power’ school.

Further, I’ve always looked more kindly at writers who had my iron-assed work ethic. Get in at 7:30 and type.

That’s wrong, of course.

While it might be convenient for me to have people around me who work like I do, it’s not fair.

What I’ve found through the years is that most bosses and even most clients want you to work their way. Your boss likes to work till 11 PM every night, chances are you’ll have to too. Because shitty bosses and organizations make you work the way they want you to work—because, in fact, it’s not the quality of your work that’s important, it’s your boss’ or agency’s or client’s sense of control that’s more important.

I often think about the biggest changes that have taken place from my start in the industry in 1984 to my finish in 2020.

Number one is that we no longer have permission to be funny. Business is a serious matter. So we must be serious. (We have forgotten that life is not serious.)

Second is the evaporation of trust—what’s happened reminds me of spitting on the lid of a lit Weber grill. Your saliva doesn’t just evaporate; it’s gone in a sizzle. Now we have more people watching over the work than doing the work. As the Juvenal the Roman poet wrote almost 2,000 years ago, ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ Who will guard the guards?

Anyone who can relate to a chart and a process like this should have a restraining order that doesn't allow them within 1000 yards of an ad agency.
Anyone who can relate to a chart and a process like this should have a restraining order that doesn't allow them within 1000 yards of an ad agency.

Third, we’re told how to work. We’re told to have stand-up scrums for 15 minutes. We’re told to be agile. We’re told to think mobile first. And so on and so on and so on.

I’m trying to imagine a pissant project manager who’s a 9th Degree Lean Sigma Chartreuse Belt in Agile Hypoptimization telling Helmut Krone or Mike Tesch or Steve Hayden or Chris Wall or Lee Clow that they’re late for the morning scrum. I have a feeling that project manager would be told they have their scrum up their ass.

I guess this is a circuitous way, my way, of making a point. Cut people a little slack. Leave off trying to make them you.

And while you're at it, don't take yourself too seriously either.

Even if your way of emptying the dishwasher is the right way.

(The author is former copy chief and ECD on IBM at Ogilvy. This article was first published on adaged.blogspot.com, a site where the author writes about "the future of advertising, the decline of the English Language and other frivolities." Reproduced with permission.)