Friday, January 18

Mistress, the LA Ad Agency That Named a Conference Room After Monica Lewinsky, Eschews Racy Heritage for the Mainstream

The award-winning LA creative shop Mistress — which made a splash a few years ago with its work on Mattel's Hot Wheels and more recently when it partnered with Discover Los Angeles on its "Everyone Is Welcome" campaign following President Trump's travel ban — has now rebranded itself as The Many. I suppose I can understand the agency wanting to make this change: The original, provocative name, dating back a decade, was inspired by its having done project work on the sly for brands working behind the backs of their AORs — like a dude cheating on his spouse with a mistress, get it? Considering the genesis of the business, it's probably not a surprise it's never shied away from taking risks with its work, which is why it's been able to attract clients like Netflix, TripAdvisor, PayPal and Coca-Cola and why Ad Age named it Small Agency of the Year three years running. The repositioning signals that the agency is no mere side piece any longer. Explains founding partner Christian Jacobsen: "The Many embraces our cross-functional approach to work — we are many disciplines, many verticals, many creative solutions. It's about time our name caught up with who we are." I first got to know Christian and his team several years ago when I was out there working on a story about ascendant LA creative agencies. Their first office, a somewhat ramshackle beach house in the grungy thick of Venice, looked like your typical startup: a large, open room jam-packed with young creatives and their slightly more weathered overseers, and teeming with plenty of creative energy (and little dogs running about, naturally). A visit a few years later to their slicker, more industrial digs in Santa Monica signaled that they were beginning to move up in the world — but the spunk and spirit of the place were still every bit as evident. I remember being amused by the names they chose for their conference rooms over at the new offices. It's kind of a thing in the ad world to give one's meeting spaces names more clever than, say, "Conference Room A" — these are creative enterprises after all. Some do this to better effect than others, and Mistress did it better than anyone, naming its conference rooms after — what else? — famous mistresses. A couple of the more memorable ones, as I recall, were the "Camilla Parker Bowles" and the "Monica Lewinsky." They'll be missed, as will one of the cleverest names for an ad agency ever.

Wednesday, January 16

What's the Real Reason Adam Moss Is Leaving New York Magazine? Because He's Not Allowed to Be a Journalist Anymore

When an editor as universally admired as Adam Moss leaves a thriving magazine like New York and its family of fabulously successful digital offshoots at the relatively young age of 61 — even though, admittedly, his is a business increasingly run by teenagers — all purportedly because he's tired or was reminded of the fragility of life after a bicycle accident, something smells fishy.

We are talking about the best magazine editor of our time, his successes having been well documented in the New York Times piece announcing the news. He is that rare editor who maintains the highest standards, produces stuff people actually want to read, wins awards for it, and who performed the herculean by spinning off that content into a stable of well-read and profitable websites. For those of us who write about the media business, reading that Adam Moss is leaving New York is like reading that God is dead. Reading it also makes you wonder, what's the real story? None of us is naive enough to think that people like this, people as mighty as Adam Moss, just up and "retire."

A closer read reveals the truth. Reports the Times:

And while he never shied away from the business side of the job, his management duties were outweighing the thrill of putting out a magazine. "In a lot of ways, it doesn't feel like the same publication or the same job," Mr. Moss said. "I get reports back about what sold at what price point and all that stuff, and I think, Wait, really, this is what I do for a living? You do spend less time worrying about getting the story right."

"This is what I do for a living?" It's a question more and more editors have started asking themselves.

Once upon a time, I ran features for a magazine. It was good journalism, and we got a lot of attention for it, and yes, it was also fun. Then that magazine got bought by some bottom line-obsessed goons who had no experience in journalism (nor expertise in anything that I could tell) and demanded that their editors and reporters be held accountable, revenue-wise, for everything they produced. Every reporter's clicks were scrutinized, every editor's stories judged against whether they were monetized — and editors were even forced to make sales calls, and had how much sales revenue they'd brought in tracked by software designed for that purpose. At one point, the idea was weighed of having editors' salaries tied to how much money they'd brought in. Let that sink in.

There are a lot of other news organizations being run, while not quite to that extreme, not all that far off either — where, like Moss says, journalists are now spending more time worrying about clicks and ad sales than producing quality journalism. Nobody appreciates that news organizations have to make money more than I do — in fact, I've been closer to it than most, having spent a career producing "listicles" and profiles of award winners against which congratulatory ads are sold, as well as advertorials and custom content, and working closely with the sales department on such projects. On more than one occasion, I've had to hold my nose and do my best from retching when forced to create content that was nothing more than a promotion, a free ad, for another division of my company. Businesses are in business to make money, of course. We all know that, and accept it. It's when there's no breathing room, or support or respect from the higher-ups, for actual journalism that it becomes untenable.

I once attempted to explain to one brainless twit I worked for — one of the owners of my publication — the importance of journalistic integrity and independence. His response? "We're not Woodward and Bernstein here, you know." No, I found myself thinking — more like Laurel and Hardy.

However, I was fortunate enough early in my career to have worked for editors who had me chase stories regardless of who it upset — including the publisher or owner. And I did, and we were threatened, and our lives were made a little miserable for a while. But we ran the stories anyway. And those stories had impact with our readers and led to real change in the real world. It happened because I had bosses with balls, who had courage, who didn't back down — even if it meant being threatened with their very jobs. I'm sorry to say, we just don't live in that kind of world anymore. We live in a world of ass-kissing and kowtowing and building "relationships," not of independent, adversarial journalism. Just look at the way the TV networks cower at this corrupt president and his cronies instead of standing up to them and feeding the shit they peddle daily right back to them. There are a few brave ones like Jim Acosta, but precious few. Did you see that story this week about NBC News telling its reporters not to refer to Steve King as a "racist," before backing down after everybody, quite rightly, erupted in a rage?

We are no longer allowed to call racists racist, or crooks crooks, or bullshitters bullshitters. Make nice, now. Be friends with everybody. Don't ruffle feathers or rock the boat.

Maybe I'm an idealist, or an anachronism, or naive, but whatever happened to fearlessness, and integrity, and the willingness to stand up to the powers that be in the world, including our own bosses, and tell the public the things that other people want kept hidden? Whatever happened to our business — a business where Adam Moss did great journalism and had fun doing it instead of being driven from the industry after having grown weary of staring at a spreadsheet and being given a stern talking-to after this year's "Reasons to Love New York" issue sold 15 fewer copies at the newsstand than last year's?

Remember what he told the Times: "It doesn't feel like the same job."

Is it any wonder the guy finally said enough?

What is this industry where Graydon Carter, the onetime impresario of the magazine world, can be driven into retirement too early because he makes too much money, paving the way for an unknown, untalented kid who is, issue by issue, destroying an entire franchise? Where Out magazine decides it's time for "new blood" and hires another child as editor to create a product that is totally unremarkable and unrelatable in every single way unless you ride a skateboard to work? Where all the content of Hearst's legendary magazines is now done on an assembly line of drones — cranking out dull, soulless content for one website that is virtually indistinguishable from the dull, soulless content of another?

I've always been in love with journalism, especially that which is produced by magazines. It's so painful watching it be destroyed.

Monday, January 14

Advertisers Are Trashing Trump's Shutdown

We know advertisers taking a stand is risky business — especially in the age of Trump, with his angry army of disciples poised to attack any brand that dares challenge their dear leader. Even though it alienated many Americans who secured their place in the Charles Darwin Hall of Fame by setting fire to sneakers they'd already purchased, Nike siding with Colin Kaepernick's protest against the criminal treatment of minorities resonated positively with many, many more consumers and ending up making for arguably last year's best ad. The year prior, Pepsi's lame attempt at supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement by way of a spot that enlisted noted civil rights warrior Kendall Jenner made for one of the biggest marketing screw-ups of all time. Then, there are those ads that fall somewhere in the middle of success and failure — take 84 Lumber's brave Super Bowl spot from a couple of years back that took a forceful jab at Trump's wall, an incredibly moving and bold move for the retailer's first appearance in the big game but one whose entire point was subsequently ruined by the company's CEO who, kowtowing to critics threatening a boycott, released a statement saying an ad that was clearly political wasn't really intended to be political. Now comes the latest advertiser to court controversy, this time over the longest government shutdown in history. Columbia Sportswear placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post urging Congress and Trump to "Make America's Parks Open Again." (The brand played it safe by blaming both sides — even though everybody knows it's really all Trump's fault.) As Fortune notes, it's not the first time an advertiser has had the courage to call out Trump for his regressive policies — and unlike 84 Lumber's lily-livered CEO, stick to their guns — with Tiffany, Patagonia and REI all coming out against one or the other of the president's cruel policies. Again, seeing as advertisers' first priority is selling stuff and building affinity among consumers, walking into the crossfire of public debate can be dicey. But consider the Edelman study last year that found that two-thirds of consumers want companies to align themselves with social causes, a double-digit increase from the prior year. P&G, Airbnb and Stella Artois are just a few of the brands that have taken a stand on issues ranging from immigration and gender equality to the environment. So, taking a stand can be worth the risk. Marketing guru Nirmalya Kumar once wrote that while so many brands seek to be universally loved, "universal love is neither achievable nor desirable — great brands are loved by some and hated by others because they actually stand for something."

Friday, January 11

Murder'd: Your Hook-Up App Could Kill You (Or, Meet My Friend, the S&M Psychopath)

Having been blamed for everything from stress, depression and ADHD to bad posture, eye strain and even the shrinking of our brains, we know the internet is bad for you. We also know now that it can literally kill you.

It's been a busy week for cybercrime, especially for cases in which gay men were the victims. In Brooklyn, a former male model was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison for the stabbing death of a man he met on the gay dating app Jack'd — an app that has a long history of nefarious users. And in Dallas, two men were charged with using another hook-up app, Grindr, to lure guys who were then beaten and robbed.

Unfortunately, such stories are nothing new. The internet and all those looking-for-quick-love apps have for some time been a dark tool for criminals seeking their prey. It's not only gay people who are in danger, of course — countless individuals of every gender, race and sexual orientation have been victimized by shady characters they met on sites like Craigslist and Facebook and in chatrooms. So many have met their demise because of relationships facilitated on the internet, in fact, that there's even a classification for such cases in law enforcement: "internet homicide." (An entire Wikipedia page, including a listing of the most notorious cases, is devoted to the topic.)

Still, some argue that too much has been made of the connection between the internet and bad stuff happening to us. After all, dangerous, horrific people and things existed before we all got online — serial killers, muggers, rapists, sexual deviants, STDs, open manholes, tidal waves, President Donald Trump. Having been a New Yorker for nearly three decades now, I have, unfortunately, known victims as well as perpetrators of sex crimes, none of it having anything to do with the internet.

Story time: I had this rich investment banker acquaintance in the early 90s, long before hook-up apps and Craiglist, who was the very embodiment of Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy character in The Bonfire of the Vanities. He was the type of guy who had Audubon prints hanging in his home, got his suits from Brook's Brothers on Madison Avenue and gave money to charities. He was the first person I ever knew who worked on Wall Street, owned houses within driving distance of each other and had a Sub-Zero refrigerator. He also threw lavish parties at his condo, on Park Avenue, and I went to a couple. He also invited me and other friends up to his summer house on Nantucket a few times. Being fresh to the city and a young, poor writer (as opposed to an old, poor one, like I am now), I was, naturally, wowed by it all. Imagine my surprise when I opened The Village Voice one morning to find that Mr. Brooks Brothers turned out to be a twisted sex maniac who by night trolled leather bars where he picked up unsuspecting men, brought them back to his place and proceeded to immobilize and torture them and hold them there against their will for days before turning them loose — but not before threatening them if they ever breathed a word of any of it. The authorities did some nosing around apparently, but nothing came of it and the monster slipped the country, never to be heard from again. (Such an escape would've been easy for him, as he had homes, not to mention rich friends and benefactors, all over the world). Strangely, any and all details about the case have vanished into thin air, just like the perp himself — absolutely nothing about it can be found on the internet. Money really does buy everything, I guess, even a scrubbed-clean biography for an S&M psychopath.

Several years after that hideousness, another friend of mine, Martin Barreto, a former aide to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was found dead in his apartment in the Village, the victim of a drug addict he'd picked up on the street who was, soon after the event, picked up himself by the NYPD. (I partied a bit back in the day with Martin and his fellow Nicaraguan/lifelong family friend Bianca Jagger — and no, not a drag queen doing Bianca Jagger but the Bianca Jagger. Being around her was like being with Mount Rushmore as reimagined by Andy Warhol — and she said about as much as those dead presidents carved out of stone. But the eyes, they talked and talked. No wonder Mick got smitten.) Anyway, Martin, after his stint in the mayor's office, would go on to start a successful PR agency, and I have often wondered what would've come of him had he not been snuffed out at such a young age. Senseless tragedy, as they say. Poor Martin had the misfortune of befriending the wrong person — but their meeting had nothing to do with the internet. The dude who did him in was just some random thug on the street, the kind we've all passed by a thousand times.

The point is, whether on Grindr or Jack'd or at a fancy Park Avenue party or just around the block, you never know where evil lurks. Be safe out there, kids.

Thursday, January 10

How Parker Posey Taught Me to Focus on What I'm Good At — and Strangle the Rest

I was visiting my mom a while back when one of those singing competition shows came on the television. As we listened to some tone-deaf Whitney Houston wannabe's screeching, mother just winced and shook her head. "Everybody thinks they're a singer," she sighed.

I feel the same way about writing — everybody thinks they know how to do it, that their own personal histories or the random, amusing thoughts that pop into their feeble brains are worth sharing. Social media has, of course, made the situation so much worse, giving literally any nobody a platform. Andy Warhol had no idea how right he'd be — though those 15 minutes have dragged into an endless, merciless hell, a sellout shitshow that will play forever and ever. Narcissism is the social disease du jour, and Facebook is a box of Trojans riddled with pinpricks.

Which brings us to Parker Posey.

I've always enjoyed the work of this comic actress. Her offbeat supporting roles in movies and TV programs ranging from Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show to You've Got Mail and Will & Grace have earned her an enduring career in Hollywood and independent film and many adoring fans (of which I am one, or used to be). I had really looked forward to the publication a while back of her memoir, You're on an Airplane, so you can imagine my disappointment to find it an utterly ghastly affair: poorly written, excruciatingly dull, a rambling, incoherent mess and all-around one of the worst excuses I've come across for murdering a tree. (It says something when the cover art is the best thing about a book.) I keep my copy on a shelf where I can see it every day as a reminder to not fool myself into thinking that there's anything I can do. But I am considering relocating it to my car's glovebox, so the next time I'm around Posey's weekend hometown of Hudson, New York, which I also frequent, and happen to bump into her on the sidewalk or in one of the many hipster coffee joints up and down Warren Street, I can thrust this bloody abortion back into her hands and demand a refund of my 30 bucks. Or at least a latte.

Yes, there are many things you can learn from Parker Posey, but writing is not one of them. I'm in good company apparently, as these customer reviews on Amazon attest:

"I've always loved Parker Posey for her eccentricities as an actress and her genuine charisma. But she is not a writer. The book is disjointed and I found myself constantly looking to see how far in I was to determine how much longer I would need to spend in this purgatory. Take another flight."

"I love love love Parker Posey, but this book is unreadable."

"If you love Parker Posey and her movies, do not read. This book will make you hope you never sit next to her on a plane. Or in a restaurant. Or anywhere."

"I'm a huge PP fan. Great actress and artist. But most of what she writes about is thoroughly mundane and uninteresting and devoid of clever insights or anecdotes. Quirky only goes so far, certainly not 300 pages. I hate to say it, but I like her less after reading this book."

There is a lesson to be learned here, as with the baseball career of Michael Jordan, the paintings of George W. Bush or anything starring Madonna: stick with what you know, with what you're good at. You may be a fine used car salesman or teacher or bank teller or vegan chef or investment banker or streetwalker — but that dream you've always had of playing for the Knicks, of flying to Mars, of writing your life story? Do yourself and humankind a favor — strangle it in its sleep.

I may be from Nashville, but there's a reason I'm not Dolly Parton.

Wednesday, January 9

Remember, We Are All Really Just Salesmen

What do you think the Devil is going to look like?
The subject of sales is on my mind. I am writing a piece on what consumer brands need to know to market (sell) their products in Asia — no small feat considering there are two dozen official languages in India alone. I am reading all the coverage and commentary about Trump's big televised sales pitch last night for his beloved (and pointless) wall, thinking of the people (including some I know personally) whose paychecks are being held hostage because of this stunt. (I'm more than a little pissed at the broadcast networks for carrying a political speech in prime time. Even they are terrified of the guy. But I guess the networks, being run by businesspeople, are beholden not so much to their responsibility to the public as to their ratings and their relationships to the mighty and powerful — in other words, sales.) I'm hardly the first person to make the point, but everything, everything is sales. If you're an advertiser, you've got to sell. If you're in a relationship, you've got to sell. If you're a politician, you've got to sell. Even journalists are always selling: selling the idea that they're credible, selling whatever case they're trying to make with whatever piece they're writing at the moment and, in certain cases, when not busy exercising their First Amendment duties and serving the public trust — including at a former employer of mine that tracks its editors' outreach to sales prospects via Salesforce and rewards or punishes them accordingly — selling ad space, not to mention selling themselves out. (This was the same place where a boss of mine once told me, during a conversation about journalistic independence and credibility, "We're not Woodward and Bernstein, you know.") All this has me thinking of that scene from the terrific and prescient film Broadcast News where Holly Hunter's character, Jane, confesses to her best friend, Aaron (Albert Brooks), that she's fallen in love with the morally ambivalent, mashed-potatoes-for-brains anchorman Tom (William Hurt), who they heretofore have actively despised. Aaron's response on learning this unsettling news:

"Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the Devil. What do you think the Devil is going to look like? Nobody is going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail. What's he going to sound like? [Hissing sounds.] He will be attractive, he'll be nice and helpful, he'll get a job where he influences a great, God-fearing nation. He'll never do an evil thing, he'll never deliberately hurt a living thing ... he will just by bit lower our standards where they are important, just a tiny little bit, just coax along, flash over substance, just a tiny little bit ... and he'll talk about all of us really being SALESMEN."

But at the end of the day, if we're all salesmen, doesn't that make us only human?

Or, are we the Devil?

Friday, October 26

Megyn Kelly's Mainstream Media Makeover Was a Disaster Waiting to Happen — But News Boss Andy Lack is NBC's Real Liability

What a head-spinning rise and fall it's been for Megyn Kelly. The TV personality was the darling of Fox News and the right until she came out bravely and forcefully about the harassment she suffered at the hands of the network's boss, the late Roger Ailes — becoming an early and powerful voice in the #MeToo movement — and until she moderated that debate of GOP presidential candidates where she stood up to Trump and was accused of having "blood coming out of her wherever." Suddenly she was superwoman, gracing the cover of Vanity Fair and getting courted by the broadcast networks. Seeing all this unfold a couple of years ago, I have to admit that I was also charmed, and convinced she was destined for the big time — even putting her on the cover of a magazine I was running features for at the time. I was hardly alone in my naiveté, but as has become clear this week in the wake of her colossally ignorant defense of blackface on national television, NBC proved the biggest dupe of all, investing $23 million a year for what turned out to be one huge, blonde bomb — and facilitating just the latest in a series of costly, image-wrecking disasters (Brian Williams, Ann Curry, Matt Lauer). The news is that Kelly and NBC are negotiating her exit. But in hindsight, was Kelly's swift flameout really so hard to predict? Her mainstream media makeover was always dubious — some might even say a disaster waiting to happen. Megyn is, to be sure, an authoritative TV presence, on script — it's when she goes off script that things get dicey. It was abundantly clear during her long tenure at Fox News that this is an individual who has a habit of not thinking before she speaks — a necessity on live television, one might argue. We all remember the cringe-inducing discussion on Fox in which she insisted that both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ were white. Then there were the repeated, embarrassing lapses in judgement she made once she got over to 30 Rock, involving Today show interviews with celebs like Jane Fonda (whose face work seemed to fixate Megyn) and Suzanne Somers (with whom she joked about marital rape), and that ill-advised, prime-time sit-down with conspiracy lunatic Alex Jones (which led to an advertiser and affiliate revolt). Those gaffes don't even take into account all the behind-the-scenes turmoil around Kelly that's been widely reported. As many have pointed out from the beginning, Kelly was an obviously bad fit for the Today show and the happy talk domain of morning television. But where, I wonder, would she have fit in? I can't imagine who'd want to hire Megyn Kelly — she seems to be damaged goods with the right, the left and everybody in between. (She can dry her tears with hundred-dollar bills, as they say.) But a bigger question might be: What's the next PR nightmare waiting in the wings for NBC's hapless, serially mismanaged news division — and what does parent Comcast intend to do to at least try to make sure there isn't one? Considering the epic debacles around Kelly and Lauer, and other recently reported revelations regarding NBC News's apparently questionable leadership, perhaps it's news division boss Andy Lack who should be the next high-profile personnel change at the network? 

Wednesday, September 5

CB2 Teams Up With Goop to Sell Ridiculously Overpriced Chairs and Ottomans And Help Gwyneth Paltrow Offload Her New York Loft

Do you know anybody who looks like any of these people? I didn't think so.
Leave it to Gwyneth Paltrow to help me get my hate back after a perfectly lovely closing weekend of summer. With an eye toward jumping back in the swing of things post-Labor Day, I opened the mailbox to find this staring back at me — just Paltrow and a few random catalog models she'd never met before of her closest friends trying to sell me furniture. Like me, you were probably at the beach or at the racetrack or experimenting with mixing Klonopin and Campari over the last few days and missed the big news that Crate & Barrel spinoff CB2 and Paltrow's lofty lifestyle brand Goop have joined forces to market a full line of "accessibly priced," midcentury modern-inspired furniture pieces you'll absolutely never be able to afford. Forbes, Arch Digest, Fast Company and Refinery29 all heralded the news, some with a straight face but most with the invited and expected dash of snark. Even the normally celebrity-ass-kissing People, in its headline, couldn't help but note with the slightest hint of raised eyebrow the $3,000 chair being peddled — a chair that, upon further examination, presumably is not such a bad deal since it is personally signed by Paltrow. And if there's anything I want in my living room it's a chair with the star of the Sylvia Plath biopic's autograph on it. (I went on to read the lead paragraph of the People story: "Gwyneth Paltrow's new furniture line is here!" I take back what I wrote back there about the normally celebrity-ass-kissing people.) Truth be told, there are some nice things to be found here, especially if your tastes, like mine, tend toward the stark, dark and brooding (Dracula could take a few tips for his castle). A few trinkets here and there — like an $18 tea light holder and a $6 wine glass — won't exactly break the bank. And I suppose a $3,000 chair may not be all that unreasonable an investment for somebody who doesn't happen to write for a living — or come to think of it, work for a living. But, c'mon, this catalog is just the kind of thing that gets Paltrow and the Goop brand trashed for being so out of touch, a point deliciously underscored by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in her must-read profile of the actress and entrepreneur in The New York Times Magazine. As if the $3,000 chairs and $6,000 sofas and $60 shower curtains weren't enough, consider the opening to Paltrow's personal note to shoppers in the front of the catalog:

After a long day, I try to leave work behind and focus on my world at home — filled with kids, dogs, friends, my fiancé and dinners. The sense of togetherness I get from having a cocktail with a friend while my son does homework on the floor is grounding and life-affirming. 

See! She has a dog and eats dinner just like you do! Her kid lies on the floor to do his homework just like yours does! She gets drunk at the end of the day just like you do! Does anybody happen to have a $900 hammered-brass spittoon with a gracefully aged patina for me to vomit into? The real dirt about this unholy union of inaccessible accessible brands can be found buried in a story on the real estate blog Curbed, which notes that many of the pieces found in the CB2xGoop catalog are inspired by Paltrow's Tribeca loft — which, oh, by the way, after being listed a couple of years ago, is still on the market for a deeply discounted $10 million. So what we learn here is that, aside from offering regular old people like you and me access to a movie star's lifestyle by way of Eames knockoffs, the CB2 partnership has the added benefit of helping Paltrow dump her pricey apartment. I guess that's what Paltrow and her disciples would call "synergy." I'll take a $40 tufted suede throw pillow before they're sold out and my chance to pass out drunk and drool on it like a real live movie star is gone forever, thanks.

Saturday, August 25

A Closer Look at Out Magazine's New Editor

With rare exceptions like the phenomenal breakout that is VH-1's "RuPaul's Drag Race," the quality of media created for the LGBTQ community — like that of restaurants, bars, art, fashion and music targeted largely or exclusively at a gay clientele — pretty much sucks. Ironic, I've always thought, considering that gay people are supposed (or as the stereotype goes) to be innately gifted arbiters of style and taste. But nobody questions the style, taste or talents of Teen Vogue's rockstar content chief Phillip Picardi, who, it was reported this week, is taking over as editor in chief of the LGBTQ lifestyle and fashion magazine Out. I look forward to seeing what the highly regarded 27-year-old — who is credited with increasing traffic to the Teen Vogue website by 500 percent in just two years and who made Forbes' "30 Under 30" list this year — will do to breathe new life into the formulaic monthly, with its tips on cocktails, clothes and trendy vacation spots and shallow celebrity profiles as favored by Out's outgoing EIC of a dozen years Aaron Hicklin. (Though it has carved out a long-running and lucrative franchise with its "Out 100" special. Who doesn't love a list?) On the ad side, the magazine continues to rely on those copy-heavy spreads for all those HIV/AIDS pharmaceuticals, though mainstream consumer brands like Lexus, Miller Lite and John Varvatos have also thrown in their support. Still, like most print vehicles these days, its overall advertising profile is pitifully anorexic.

Maybe Picardi's touch will lure advertisers and readers both. But besides being a solid journalist who's in touch with the zeitgeist as well as the requirements of today's magazine editor, there's something else you should know about Picardi: He might just be the hottest dude working in the media business right now, maybe ever. With that shamelessly superficial assessment in mind, let's take a closer look at those bona fides, shall we?

The talented and telegenic Picardi is most definitely a celebrity editor for our times — don't be surprised if he knocks his former Condé Nast mentor Anna Wintour off her pedestal someday. There was a virtual media stampede to report Picardi's gig, with The Wall Street Journal, WWD, Fashionista and The Cut all devoting plenty of ink to the news. Speaking of the latter, and having absolutely nothing to do with editor appointments or anything else really, I couldn't help but notice what sits atop that website's list of its most-read stories of the week:

Now that's what I call content that's fresh and new — it also happens to suck, and is the perfect example of why we need the likes of Picardi taking over this sad business.

Saturday, August 18

How The New Yorker's Aretha Cover Came Together and Why It Happens to Be Genius

I couldn't help but notice the chorus of complaints across social media about The New Yorker's quick-turnaround tribute to Aretha Franklin—including more than a hundred comments on the magazine's own Facebook page. The common refrain: the illustration, by Kadir Nelson, simply does not look enough like its legendary subject. A sampling of the critics: "Nice thought, but it doesn't look like her." "Not crazy about this one." "The artist is not familiar with Aretha Franklin. Redo." "Worst Aretha portrait ever." "This neither looks nor feels like Aretha!!!" Maybe The Washington Post's excellent account by columnist and cartoonist Michael Cavna of how the cover happened and Nelson's explanation of his interpretation of the Queen of Soul (no quotation marks needed) will help observers to better appreciate its genius. Not only did the acclaimed Nelson (whose work hangs in the Smithsonian and who is responsible for some of the most beautiful, most memorable TNY covers) set out to reference Aretha's gospel roots, but he also got inspiration from this incredible 1957 ink drawing titled "Folksinger" by Charles White:

Was I myself familiar with the Charles White piece or Kadir Nelson's inspirations prior to coming across the Post story? No. Did I appreciate TNY's Aretha tribute all the more after learning about these things? Absolutely. There's no question that what an artist creates becomes more relatable to us when we understand the inspiration and stories behind the work. And we depend on journalists and trusted purveyors of journalism like the Post to see the value of publishing stories like this, thus illuminating the world and educating us all. I think most of the haters, after reading the Post piece, would have a different point of view about it — although I suspect that even after learning more about the artist's thinking, many would still have preferred something more on-the-nose (that is to say, obvious) and immediately relatable. How boring the world would be if that's how things actually were.

'Perfectly Serena' Covers Time Magazine

Monday, August 13

Gimme Gimme Gimme a Cher-Madonna Mashup After Midnight, or Anytime Really

As y'all know by now, Cher's irresistibly awesome remake of the classic "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)," on the heels of her appearance in the "Mama Mia" sequel, is the first single off her forthcoming album of Abba remakes. Naturally, it took about five minutes for someone to make a mashup of the 72-year-old icon/my mother's mega-insta-dance-hit of summer and the "GGG"-based "Hung Up" by about-to-celebrate-her-sixtieth Madonna. I personally think both songs are better as stand-alones than as a combo, but Toronto-based Alex Simpson, its creator, certainly gets an "A+" for effort. You be the judge, at Billboard. Now, isn't it about time these living legends gifted the world an actual duet? Or how about these ladies, who seem to already be well acquainted?

You will recall that Dolly's no stranger to dance music ...

Lordy, I sure do miss the 70s—and as this video reminds us, and as they say down South, "the higher the hair, the closer to Jesus." Which I suppose applies even if it's not real hair.

Thursday, August 9

Kendall Jenner, the Klassy Kardashian, Makes Splash on Love Mag's 10th Anniversary Issue

Back to School? Halloween? But Why Haven't You Done Your Christmas Shopping, Slacker?

A couple of years and a few (hundred?) pounds ago, I went on CBS This Morning to talk to the lovely Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell about how Christmas advertising and retail holiday displays seem to happen earlier and earlier each year (see video above) — and how much everybody, including Gayle and Norah, supposedly hates that, even though marketers clearly didn't get the memo. (My local Walmart already has pre-lit Christmas trees on sale — even though the whole Northeast is in the midst of another fires-of-hell heat wave this week.) You might think it's a purely American phenomenon, what with our hyperconsumerist culture, but you'd be wrong. As Reuters reports, Santa himself showed up last week to open the Christmas shop at Selfridges department store in London. The whole Christmas in the summer thing may be working, too, as retailers seem to be making headway persuading us to jingle our wallets earlier. According to the National Retail Federation, 10 percent of adults in the U.S. start shopping for the holidays during the month of August. That's not all. Some consumers are getting a jump on holiday decorating, too — which, besides infuriating your neighbors, apparently has the added benefit of a Xanax or a shot of Jack Daniels or whatever your fix for staying chipper happens to be. A recent study found that those of us who put up our trees, lights, menorahs and stockings earlier are happier people. As Steve McKeown, a psychoanalyst, puts it: "In a world of stress and anxiety, people like to associate to things that make them happy, and Christmas decorations evoke those strong feelings of childhood ... so putting up Christmas decorations early extends the excitement." What was that somebody once said? Oh, yeah: Bah, humbug.

Thursday, August 2

Why Is CNN Covering Klan Rallies Anyway?

CNN's Jim Acosta greeted in Tampa by local members of the Charles Darwin Hall of Fame
Yep, it's depressing people. Especially if you do journalism for a living. And while I agree wholeheartedly with Jim Acosta's assessment of the cretins who heckled and threatened him in Tampa and warnings about how dangerous they probably are, I think the best way to handle them (if you insist on continuing to cover them, though at this point the benefit of that escapes me) is the same way you deal with any screaming maniac: turn up the lights and mic, point the camera directly at them and let them show themselves for the nutty, potbellied circus freaks they are. Hire more bodyguards (I will happily be your wingman, Jim—just let me check with my minister and grab my Kevlar vest first) and give 'em the platform they so crave. You wouldn't try to compete for attention with a dumpster fire or plane crash, would you? Just take a picture while it goes up in flames. I don't think most Americans watching this lunatic fringe think like them, show their asses like them, or want anything to do with people like them. These are the same fine citizens who burn down the city after their team wins the Super Bowl. The rest of us just stare in disbelief and scratch our heads. You're never going to be able to talk rationally or deal rationally with those whose singular motivation and contribution to the public discourse is violent, unhinged rage. In case you hadn't noticed, this country has no shortage of woefully undereducated and uninformed (and raging) people. Go ahead, let their fires light up the sky. They always end up burning themselves out.

Thursday, July 26

Nope, Vanity Fair Is Not Getting Any Better

There once was a glorious, glamorous magazine that covered Hollywood and politicians and media titans and the royals and scandals and the lowdown and dirty better than anybody, and it was called Vanity Fair. Tina Brown resurrected it in the 80s, made it great, then handed it off in the 90s to Graydon Carter, who made it even greater. But then, with one penny-pinching, jaw-droppingly shortsighted move, the publisher, Condé Nast, in the direst position of any of the beleaguered magazine publishing giants, seemed intent on destroying it all. There was really only one choice to replace the retiring Graydon, of course, and that was Janice Min, who'd turned The Hollywood Reporter from a sad rag into a gleaming, glitzy affair—and took home National Magazine Awards for it. But someone with the chops of a Janice doesn't come cheap (she was pulling down seven figures at THR), and even though Condé's artistic director Anna Wintour is said to have (wisely) wanted her bad, bad, bad for VF, the bean counters, in cahoots with the eggheaded in one regard (politics) but apparently not so smart in other areas (business) David Remnick, tapped an unknown book editor with a razor-thin resume from The New York Times for a song—and on the subject of music, with several issues under her belt now, it's become clear to all of us watching and listening (and waiting, impatiently) that poor Radhika Jones can't carry a tune to save her life. VF under the underwhelming Radhika has no idea what it is, or what it wants to be, or apparently even what it once was till not so long ago. The covers have been edgy—and to a one, dreadful. The features are boring and irrelevant. The design is godawful. I can't imagine who this magazine is being produced for, or who'd bother reading it with all the other, so much better sources of information and entertainment out there. (The magazine's sad demise is even more poignant on the heels of Tina's terrific, rollicking reminiscence of her years at the helm, The Vanity Fair Diaries. Even the worst chapter of that book is infinitely more entertaining than anything you'll find in Radhika's VF.) Looks like Condé saved some admittedly much-needed cash (including not only Radhika's relatively wee salary, but all the heads her bosses continue to force her to chop) but in return may well have done in one of the few remaining strong heritage print brands around. It's not too late—they can quietly retire this young woman, leaving her to return to the brainy world of writing about books nobody will ever read or whatever she's presumably adept at, and get a real star of an editor in there, maybe Janice or maybe somebody else. But every passing month that they let this experiment drag on is another that VF loses cred and luster, and most urgently, once-loyal readers. The trend is not irreversible—yet. But not with this losing formula, dreamt up by an editor who's clearly in way over her head. Truly visionary and talented editors, though the owners of media companies may not think it, are an extremely rare thing. And as with anything in life, you get what you pay for.

ADDENDUM: As if all that weren't enough, now it appears the new VF is blurring the line between editorial and advertising on its very cover, reports the Times.

Thursday, July 12

Kylie Is a Selfish, Unprofessional Little Twit

I feel like I've aged 10 years in the day since I learned Kylie Jenner made the cover of Forbes, she having made its list of the richest self-made women. Much has already been made of the hilarity of the magazine dubbing Kylie as "self-made," considering the famous, wealthy family from which she was spawned. And let's not even get into the fact that her "empire" is built on lipstick that purportedly gives you pouty lips — conveniently ignoring the fact that, as anyone can tell from photos of Kylie as a kid versus now, she obviously had surgical enhancements to pump up her pie hole. (A lot of things on my person have grown as I have ticked off days — ears, bunions, and those wispy little gray hairs sprouting from my eyebrows spring to mind — but I assure you my lips are not one of them.) As it turns out, I have a bit of history with this little twerp posing as a grown-up businesswoman. I once ran features for a magazine that negotiated with Kylie's reps to put her on the cover. Her business had already started to take off, and this was to be her first ever cover of a business publication. Then the hell started. First she stood up our reporter, repeatedly, after having agreed to a sit-down interview. Then after our having secured for the photo shoot an expensive studio out in L.A. for the better part of a day, plus a photographer, stylist, makeup artist, hair person and even caterer of Kylie's choosing, she decided after a couple of snaps that she just wasn't feeling it and walked off. Her rep pleaded with us to reschedule for another time. We explained that, having flown 3,000 miles and gone to considerable planning and expense to make this happen, that wasn't likely. (I seem to remember our having sunk more than $10,000 in the failed shoot. That might not be a lot of money for Forbes or Vanity Fair, but it certainly was a lot for our little pub to flush.) Mind you, all her shenanigans were blessed and fully aided by her P.R. handlers, who seemed to have absolutely zero control over the little diva and throughout the process took obvious delight in torturing us on behalf of their snot-nosed client. (I have no clue if they're still repping her, nor do I care. As I understood at the time, that family has blown through, so to speak, a series of kneepad-donning lackeys, so I wouldn't be surprised if these particular enablers were also 86'd.) What a contrast that experience was from one we had with her sister Kim Kardashian, who we'd shot for our cover a couple of years earlier and who couldn't have been a nicer, more professional subject to work with, showing up on time for her shoot, meeting with our reporter as planned, and staying present and engaged through the whole affair. Not that it'll hurt Kylie one bit (she can dry her tears with hundred dollar bills, as they say), but I must admit to taking a wee bit of satisfaction in the backlash that has greeted this absurd Forbes cover. After many years of dealing with celebrity subjects — even notoriously difficult ones like Martha Stewart — I never encountered such a headache as I did with this one, before or since. Now I'm going to check to see how much bigger my eye bags have grown overnight while Kylie counted her money.

Wednesday, July 11

#MeToo Ax Falls on Another Creative Chief

Bombshell news in the advertising world today that Ogilvy fired its widely revered global creative chief Tham Khai Meng over behavior it called "a clear breach of our company values and code of conduct" — his apparently becoming the latest in a growing line of agency bigwigs to get snagged up in the #MeToo mess, among them Droga5's Ted Royer, another onetime superstar CCO. Here I am, as it happens, posing with both men at an industry party during obviously happier times. The fact that I am beaming in the photo is not incidental. What a thrill to be flanked by two seriously accomplished, enviably talented ad guys. These sexual misconduct allegations are always troubling and infuriating, but especially so when the accused is someone you have known, written about and admired for years. Someone remarked the other day that, on Madison Avenue, in Hollywood and in other trades where the mighty have been swiftly brought down over alleged misdeeds, the stream of sexual misconduct scandals that dominated headlines not so long ago seems to have slowed to a drip — suggesting that maybe we'd heard the worst of the worst already. Today proved that there's still plenty of filth gushing from that spigot. Heroes, it would appear, are getting harder and harder to find, in advertising and elsewhere.

Friday, June 22

Killing Roseanne: Let's Have Fun With This

"The Conners" (Season 1, Episode 1)
After a series of tweets, Roseanne Conner becomes a hero of red state America, gets invited to the White House by President Trump, dies on the way there after choking on a waffle fry at Chick-fil-A

Thursday, June 21

Nobody Wants to See Children in Cages — But Here's Why We Must Not Turn Away

I think we've all seen enough of caged children on the U.S.-Mexico border the last few days. I know I have. I've never exactly been a journalist of the war-hardened, seen-it-all, trenchcoat-wearing type — I write about consumer brands and ad agencies and how they try to sell people stuff — but I have, as not only a reporter but as a human being who's hung around this mortal coil long enough, seen enough to have developed a reasonably hearty stomach when it comes to observing death and destruction and mankind's worst moments. But even I have struggled to watch this kids in fucking cages in America shit. What a low moment for this country, just when you thought it couldn't get any lower. But of course, I do watch, because remaining willfully ignorant is not an option for any person of conscience, especially under this regime. As Barry Blitt, whose illustration "Yearning to Breathe Free" covers next week's New Yorker, explains: "I can't watch TV news anymore. It's always people yelling at each other or, worse, people agreeing with each other. There's always a background drone of outrage, it seems. Stories like this, obviously, are different. The outrage and disgust is justified and real, and needs to be paid attention to." Well stated, Barry. (Oh, and by the way: Fuck Ann Coulter.)

Thursday, May 31

Magazines Rule, the Beekman Boys Rock, Roseanne Sucks, Plus More Rules for Flacks

Magazines will always be front and center in my home
I've covered the magazine business for 20-something years now. I still can't get enough of them. Which is why they are front and center in my home (this is my coffee table at the moment) and in my life. I buy them for myself, I buy them for friends and family, I get endless ideas from them, I learn about new people and places from them, and I rip out and keep and refer back to the pages that mean something to me. I write stories for them and about them. I read books about them and the people who create them — most recently, Tina Brown's Vanity Fair Diaries, which is delicious if you haven't dived in yet. I have artwork on my walls that is inspired by them. I have close friends and longtime colleagues who make their living off them. I still get excited when they arrive at my desk every week. Digital media has become an indispensable part of all our daily lives, but print makes me feel connected to content in a way machinery and the internet never will. Which is why a good chunk of my working life remains devoted to contributing my own words to them. And why I prefer actual books to ebooks. And why I still subscribe to three daily papers and write letters to the editor and get a thrill when they opt to print them. 

Home to 122 goats
This past Memorial Day weekend was spent over in Sharon Springs, New York, at the town's annual Garden Party, where we took a tour of the Beekman Boys' famous goat farm and picked up a passel of awesome handcrafted products of theirs and other local shopkeepers, artists and artisans — barbecue sauce, peanut butter, soaps and lotions. Meeting and visiting with the "boys" — Brent Ridge and Josh-Kilmer Purcell — in their shop, Beekman 1802 Mercantile, was good fun, though, having followed their successes in marketing and media all these years, it felt like I already knew them. (I'd actually already met Josh, a former ad guy, a time or two in passing. We have some mutual acquaintances and have been Facebook friends for a while.) It was especially interesting to chat up Brent — an expat of Martha Stewart's empire — about their terrific quarterly magazine, Beekman 1802 Almanac, one of the most beautiful and soulful lifestyle titles I've ever come across. Brent told me they had wondered whether a big, thick, lushly produced print magazine would fly in this day and age, and it did — right off the shelves. He seemed pleased that they'd sold so many subscriptions at a premium price (30 bucks for four issues; the newsstand price is 10 bucks). It's always mystified me that magazine publishers virtually give their products away — and never more than now, as they become ever more desperate to compete with digital media and hold onto readers. (Just look at the number of $5 annual subscription offers you get in your email box.) The boys have proved that consumers will — even in our digital age — pony up for a lovingly crafted, high-quality product. 

From national treasure to national disgrace
When I first read about Roseanne's horrific tweet whose contents shall not be repeated here, I literally got sick to my stomach. Then, the media reporter part of me kicked in and wondered how in the world ABC was going to deal with this mess. It wasn't too long before we all got the answer. In one quick moment, Roseanne destroyed her show, her career and the livelihoods of many people who'd taken a chance on her despite the strange, hateful fringe she's been loving up to for a while now. Someone shared this bit of nostalgia on social media: a TV Guide cover from the 80s featuring the two biggest TV stars of the day, Roseanne and Bill Cosby. How time changes things. From superstars to national punchlines in just three short decades. No matter one's successes or fame or money, it seems human beings simply cannot be trusted to not succumb to their own worst instincts.

How you PR flacks make me feel sometimes
Finally, I'd just like to say that I usually, greatly enjoy my job as a journalist. I have found that most people who've managed to survive this business for any stretch of time are a pleasure to work with, and that goes for bosses and colleagues I've had, subjects I've covered, and even the PR people whose job it is to control my access to the powers that be and at least attempt to shape the things I write about them. I am proud to say that I have many PR people I think are super at their jobs, who expertly ride that tricky line between serving their masters and getting me what I need to do my work. Many of them I consider friends. Which is why it makes the bad ones so glaringly awful. I just have to share with you that I've spent the last two weeks trying to arrange a quick and easy interview with a bureaucrat through his handlers, who seem to think they are negotiating either the release of a hostage or the terms of a 60 Minutes firing squad. After the umpteenth time of going over the broad strokes of what the talk was to entail — and even agreeing to do that which no reporter ever wants: sending over the questions in advance — I finally reached the point today where I told the flack: Look, this is now in your hands. The decision is yours whether or not this profile is going to happen. If there is not an interview set up by end of business today, I will assume my request is denied and I will find someone else to write about. By now you can probably write the end of this story yourself: Of course they caved and started scrambling to get me whatever I wanted. A close friend of mine gave me some smart advice once about getting information out of people: Act the most uninterested, get the most dirt. In her memoir, Linda Ellerbee shared a story about an interview she once tried to do with an erratic Hunter S. Thompson, who seemed more interested in mouthing off and prancing about than sitting for an agreed-upon, on-camera conversation. All she had to do was start packing up her shit and heading for the exit to get the famous writer to finally get control of himself and sit his ass down for the work at hand. Sometimes all you have to do is tell some self-important jerk you didn't really want to talk to him all that much anyway, that he's not nearly as remarkable or fascinating as he thinks he is, and that you've got a lot better things to do with your time — and just watch how fast he comes running. It's an annoying little game for an adult to have to play with another adult, but also a necessary one to get the story — and one every old reporter can relate to when it comes to wrestling these massive egos to the ground.