Sunday, November 30, 2008

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

We had a great Thanksgiving this year with my sister Lucy in Seattle. We played in the park and on Friday we took a ferry to Bainbridge Island to eat baked goods. It was cold, dark and cozy.

I've also heard from a few friends who had shitty Thanksgivings.

I've experienced every possible emotion on Thanksgiving - from peace and contentment and gratitude to sadness and alienation, loneliness and disappointment.

Peanuts TV specials always capture the sweet sadness of the holidays for me. Thursday we watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

The backgrounds were moody and the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack was mellow. Peppermint Patty forced an invitation out of Charlie Brown for her and Marcie and Franklin to come over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner, even though he was having dinner at his grandmother's and his parents were gone. Snoopy comes through and makes a dinner of popcorn and toast with butter and jellybeans, but Peppermint Patty flips out about how bad the meal is, and Charlie Brown feels responsible and gets depressed, so Peppermint Patty apologizes, sort of, through Marcie, and in the end they all get invited over to Charlie Brown's grandmother's house for Thanksgiving dinner. And Snoopy and Woodstock cook their own turkey.

Also on the DVD was a weird Charlie Brown educational cartoon about the first Thanksgiving with the Peanuts gang as Pilgrims, where most of the 102 original pilgrims die during their first winter, and the surviving kids including Lucy and Linus and Snoopy have to do the work, like burying bodies and building a hospital and taking care of feverish adults. Heavy and unsettling.

I think it could've used one of Linus's deep-end soliloqies on thankfulness, right in the midst of the darkness.

Maybe this by E.E. Cummings.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any - lifted from the no
of all nothing - human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Obama + UPS, part two

Eric Johnson visited this morning from Los Angeles. He's a music supervisor in LA who also makes films and plays in some bands and just enjoys life, a big-hearted dude.

Eric walked with me to the UPS store. I was sending a letter to Ellen Moran, who was recently named Obama's Director of Communications.

After yesterday's lovefest with UPS, today was a little disappointing. More like visiting the set of The Office.

I'm sure my package will be well-delivered though, and Eric and I had a nice walk. Here's a sign we spotted on the way.

Here is Eric pointing to John Jay's new restaurant in Chinatown, called Ping. I'm sure it will be hot.

The Chinatown gate.

I don't know what if anything will happen with Obama. I just want to help in any way I can.

I've never felt anything like this before, this unbridled optimism and sense for what is possible as a country. is mind-boggling to me. They are asking us how we feel about health care? Incredible. It feels like Google or Apple is in charge - so smart, open, human. It's a privilege to participate in all of this, to be alive right now.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

And now I love UPS

For whatever reason, FedEx always seemed more legit, more big-time, more credible to me than UPS.

Maybe it's because I grew up in Louisville, and with its massive hub at our airport, UPS seemed like the local guys. Maybe it's because of the big-time advertising BBDO has made for FedEx over the years. Maybe it's because FedEx is the delivery service that I have used 99% of the time professionally. Maybe I was holding a grudge against UPS for updating the playful logo Paul Rand designed for them in 1961 that I loved.

Anyway, for whatever reason, UPS hasn't been on my radar, but today, I got a sticker on my studio door saying that UPS had missed me for a delivery that required my signature, and that they'd try again tomorrow around the same time, and if I wanted to do something different to call their 800 number.

I did, and a nice robot lady talked me through the options over the phone. (I don't mind a good robot operator. I've always liked Amtrak's Julie.) I chose to pick up the package myself today, and robot lady said, Leave your number and someone will call you back within the hour to work out the details. Yeah okay, I thought.

My phone rings ten minutes later. Hi this is Sue from UPS. You want to pick up your package today? Yeah, it depends, where is your office? North Portland, Swan Island. Oh, that's too far. Are you going to be around this afternoon? Yeah. Let me call you right back. I think he's going to be in your neighborhood, and he could meet you. She sounded excited to help.

Two minutes later. Hey it's Sue from UPS. Kevin will meet you at 3:30 around the corner at the Pendleton Bldg, two blocks away. She seemed happy for me that it was going to work out.

At 3:33, the truck pulls up, and the driver is waving at me. He reaches his hand out, I thought for the receipt I was holding, but realized he wanted to shake my hand.

Were you in the office when I came by? I could hear your music, but nobody answered. He remembered me, and honestly seemed to care about the delivery of my package.
Here you go, he said, and handed me my package. Sorry I kept you waiting.

It was a good package, too. Jonathan Silberberg, a producer at Radical Media/NY whom I'd met recently in Portland, sent me a bunch of great stuff by a couple of directors he works with, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, including Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

Anyway, it gave me an insight on how affecting a personal experience can be in determining how I feel about a company. UPS = a capable, human, dedicated company that cares deeply about doing its job. Sure, the ads might have said the same thing, but today I experienced it, and experiences don't lie.

More wisdom from Tucky

"I know what Obama's trying to do. He's trying to make America so good, that everybody forgets about wars."

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Strenous Basso + J.G. Carver, Texas Giant

At lunch I took a walk over to Avalon, probably my favorite antique place in Portland, to find more circus references. Avalon always has interesting and surprising stuff, the prices aren't bad, and the owner, Paul, is a great storyteller.

I told Paul I was looking for things related to traveling circuses from the '20s and '30s, and he brought out a "giant ring," a novelty item sold at the circus in those days. It is sized to fit the circus's giant, in this case, J.G. Tarver, Texas Giant.

I also bought some lobbies, promotional photos that vaudeville performers used in the late 19th century. As opposed to cheaply-printed copies, these high-priced promos used real photographic prints on embossed boards. They were personally signed and given to agents, theatre owners and patrons.

The photo at the very top is marked "The Strenuous Basso." I like the vellum envelope as much as the photo. Above is Edward Berry, half of the team Berry & Benson. I haven't been able to find out a thing about them on the internet, like they never existed.

SR-71 update: paint job

We finished the Blackbird. We found a silver Sharpie at Fred Meyer's and that really helped.

Tucky's economic response

That's his bank, tied to his bed with "a hundred knots."

Think and drink and the post-consumer society

This morning I am thinking and drinking (a weird-tasting soy au lait from across the street) about the discussion series I am kicking off for the Oregon Council for the Humanities in a couple of weeks.

I got the gig because someone saw the presentation I gave a month or so ago at the Portland Creative Conference.

I was nervous before that speech because I have bombed so often as a speaker.

My troubles started with a speech I delivered about ten years ago, I think it was at the AAAA or Adweek conference in San Francisco. I was all hopped up from my experience living in Amsterdam for a couple of years, reading Mander and Postman and Chomsky and Campbell and Krishnamurti non-stop, cigarettes and coffee for breakfast. The speech essentially was a critique of advertising and consumer culture which ended with my proposal for a revision to the ad industry's code of ethics. I connected the very obvious dots of the consumer economy we were propagating and our environmental (and mental!) health.

It clearly struck a chord. People tackled me afterwards, industry professionals all saying the same thing: I'm so glad somebody said that. This was pre-Seattle/WTO protests, pre-Adbusters. It was an exciting time, a lot of energy quickly developed around these issues. The First Things First Manifesto came out again, lots of discussion in the business about our responsibility to the world. "Sustainability" was beginning to become a mainstream word.

A written version of that speech was published in Communication Arts and Emigre, and then in Michael Bierut and Steven Heller's Looking Closer 4, critical writings on graphic design. I was invited to join the advisory committee for a United Nations initiative on sustainability and marketing. Heady, fun times that also messed me up a little bit. I became ethical ad guy, which was great in letting me carve out a place for myself in a business I didn't fully identify with, but it was two-dimensional, hardly an accurate summary of who I was or am.

I started getting asked to speak a lot and began to bomb with regularity. Years of bombing. I bombed at an event at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where I think people paid 35 dollars a ticket. I felt like such an asshole. I was sort of going schizo, feeling the responsibility of saying something important and trying to recreate a moment, and of course also knowing this was a bad strategy, so I'd wrestle myself and write drafts that were thousands of words long only to trash it all the day before the speech. This happened for ten years maybe. Ugh it's hard to even think about.

A couple of years ago I was sitting on the beach in Santa Monica with a client and good friend, Mark Ritchie, and I asked his advice on how to get past this issue. As a rural activist and organizer for 20 years, he had given hundreds of speeches. He was clear and direct: Say what you know to be true.

I took his advice for the speech at the Portland Creative Conference. Mostly that meant telling my story. I had a couple of observations about advertising, but nothing "important," and I wasn't trying to convince anyone of anything, or certainly address anything ethical or moral.

The simplest explanation of this slide: GM is the fourth largest advertiser in the U.S., Google doesn't advertise.

We were at a dinner party the other night and when one woman found out that I worked in advertising, she asked me, picking her words very carefully, "What do you think about truth in advertising?"

The biggest lie in advertising is not that the product doesn't perform as promised, it's the consumer fantasy of how to achieve a happy and fulfilling life. That script has stopped being credible. Eventually, inevitably, we stop seeking status and fulfillment through stuff. We seek connection and meaning through experience. We are entering the post-consumer society.

Post-consumer brands help us experience our humanity, joy and connection. The iPhone, Google, Facebook, Obama, Guitar Hero, the Wii, the Toyota Prius. Nascar. The amazing growth of the local food movement and Farmer's Markets. We seek connection, and we seek experiences that make us feel connected. The post-consumer society. That's what I'll talk about on December 3.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lantern walk + Annie Leibovitz

The boys' school had a lantern walk tonight. We walked around the north park blocks and sang songs and drank hot chocolate.

Then went to see Annie Leibovitz as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures series. Kathleen from the Oregon Council for the Humanities offered the tickets. Partially a thank you, I'm sure, for agreeing to participate in a Think and Drink lecture series they are hosting December 3.

I told Luker I was going and he confessed he was not a fan. Too controlled, I guessed. Yep.

There was an overflow crowd, more blue-hairs than artists. Leibovitz read from her new book, Annie Leibovitz at Work, where she writes about the process behind a hundred or so of her most well-known photos.

She actually started off her career very loose, photojournalistic, and discovered the idea-based, composed photos after she had achieved some fame. As the chief photographer for Rolling Stone (at age 23), people began coming to her have their portrait taken, versus the other way around, and they would ask, "What do you want me to do?" And she realized, a photo can be an idea.

Tonight she seemed sort of irritable, and not particularly revealing, but I enjoyed the evening, the seats - front row? - and the chance to review this amazing body of work with the photographer herself.

The book went to press in August, and she chose to end the book with a photo she took on the campaign trail with Obama before she knew what would happen in the election. Had to document this moment, she said. The hope.


Today I visited the world headquarters of Mutt, a new ad agency in town formed by Steve Luker, Mike McCommon and Scott Cromer, three guys I used to work with at W+K. Luker - legs in background - had been my partner and executive creative director, Cromer - in stripes - was planning director, and Mike was creative director on Heineken, Nike and EA.

They won their first new business pitch last week, making them official, and I stopped by to drop off a gift.

I found a vintage letter opener and check imprinter from a pharmaceutical company promoting HEROIN, which was marketed from 1898 to 1910 as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant.

Mutt's offices are in the Portland Storage Building. The building is managed by Diabolus Rex, who is a high priest of the Church of Satan.

Look out for these guys. They're good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wednesday morning: Phil Busse/circus

People sometimes ask me what I'm doing in my little studio. I say that I am enjoying a sabbatical, taking stock of the change happening in the world, contemplating what I have to bring to the world that has value, keeping my powder dry, but that doesn't seem to be what people are looking for.

"Yeah, but what do you do?"

Well, I started today with a meeting with Phil Busse, the former editor of the Portland Mercury and one time Portland mayoral candidate. My friend Robyn who produces Livewire, she connected us. I hadn't done my homework, because I had know idea of the trouble Phil had gotten himself into in the last couple of weeks.

Phil told me that while in Minnesota teaching at St. Olaf college, he and a girlfriend yanked out some McCain yard signs late one night in a fit of "sophomoric" passion. He later found out that a kid had gotten shot doing the same thing, and that inspired Phil to write a piece about sign-stealing in which he confessed to his crime.

It blew up from there. The story was picked up everywhere from the New York Times to FOX, Phil had to resign from St. Olaf, he's going back to Minnesota next week to face charges from the country sheriff's office.

I'm not sure the lesson I learned from hearing the story, but I can personally relate to doing something stupid and the repercussions being more serious than I ever expected.

Speaking of which, I spent the rest of my morning doing research on the identity project for Stacy Wall and Doug Halbert's new production company. They've changed the name of their company, because a blog post of mine alerted someone who challenged their right to use the name mentioned in my blog. While Doug and Stacy were reassured by lawyers, Stacy didn't want the beginnings of his new company to be associated with a legal hassle. Good call, I think.

So this time I will leave it to those guys to announce the name, but I am comfortable revealing that my research involves the history of the circus, and I am having too much fun.

Yesterday I bought this mammoth book from Taschen called "The Circus 1870 - 1950." It is gorgeous. I included a quarter in the shot so you can see how big the thing is.

The project also gave me an excuse to borrow an incredible collection of photos from Jeff Williams.

A few years ago I was in Ashland, Oregon working on a documentary for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I stopped into a small used book shop. Sometimes if I get a good vibe from the person working at a place like that, I might ask, "Do you have anything special?"

This particular person smiled and brought out a photo album with 145 black and white photos.

The note on the album read: Collection of Circus Photos from a "Circus Advance Man's" collection from 1940s and '50s - He went ahead of the Traveling Circuses to set up the advertising, site prep, etc. During the circus he took photos and traded for them.

I came back to Portland and told Jeff Williams about it and he called them right away and bought it.

The photos are so evocative and beautiful. Private photos of circus workers, a man herding elephants in an empty field somewhere in the deep south, trapeze artists practicing alone, black workers driving tent poles while jacked-up kids wander by.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

3-minute interview with Amanda Valenzuela

Got this today on facebook:

Mr. Helm,

I am a current student at the University of Arizona taking an advertising management course. For this class, my professor has asked us to gather information about the advertising industry. Recently, I have seen some of the work you’ve done with Nike My Better campaign, which got me interested in learning about your experience as a creative director. There are a few questions that I would like to ask you; these questions are solely for my class and my own knowledge/benefit. I would appreciate the opportunity to get in contact with you, via the phone or email, and gain your insights. If you would like further information, feel free to contact me or my professor, Dr. Ed Ackerley (, 520-621-7479).

1. How did you get started in advertising? What was it that made you want to be in advertising?

I went to Portfolio Center in Atlanta. My college department head recommended the business for me.

2. What is your definition of advertising?


As I understand it, you were the creative director for the Nike “My Better” commercial. If you can’t answer specifics about the next two questions, a general overview about your clients would be fine:

3. How did the Nike “My Better” commercial come about? What sort of needs did they have when your agency went to make it?

Promote SPARQ training.

4. What were some of their reservations about the project (if any)? How did you negotiate with them?

We had presented a tight script, but discovered the song in the editorial process, so we had to go back to the client and un-sell the original script and go with the music approach instead. It took patience.

5. On average, how long is the process of a project for your clients?

Too long. As long as two years. As short as 24 hours.

6. What is the most difficult aspect of being an advertiser? The best?

You get to learn about lots of different things. You get to use your noggin and creativity in order to solve problems. There's money, and excitement, and sanctioned idiocy. Lots of people see your work, sometimes.

The other side: the culture of superficiality, ego, individuality, narcissism, greed, materialism, ageism, sexism, obnoxiousness.

7. What is the importance of innovation in advertising?

Consumers move fast, habits change quickly, they are unpredictable and easily bored.

8. How do you measure the success of an ad?

If it's a success, everyone knows. If you have to measure it, it's probably not a success.

9. Where do you believe advertising will go in the future? Are there any upcoming trends in the industry?

Advertising as we know it is on its last leg. The days where creative guns-for-hire come up with a clever veneer so that people will like you, it's o v e r . Do you know anyone who likes/buys something because of advertising anymore? Really?

10. Is it necessary to be “creative” in order to be successful in advertising?


11. What do you believe makes you so successful?

Luck + enough interest in what I am doing that it doesn't feel like work.

12. What advice would you give to newcomers of the advertising business?

Enjoy the ride. Keep your head.

Thanks Amanda! Good luck!


Monday, November 17, 2008

My morning

I stopped by my old coffee shop, the Peet's @ NW Couch and 11th. Peet's is the my favorite coffee place ever. Their brewed coffee destroys everyone else's, I like it more than Stumptown (gasp!) and the baristas are all awesome. They are focused on the coffee. They're not too friendly and up-with-people. It took a while before Tausha would give me a smile like this. I had to earn it. I respect that.

Their coffee is so good and strong and perfect. I could drink another cup right now. I enjoy the fine people at Backspace, and I like the food there, and I like that they are an independent, but I miss Peet's.

Then I sat in my car in the parking lot and had an enjoyable conversation with my brother Ted.

Then this dog drove up next to me.

Then I went up to my office and went into the shared bathroom and saw that leaves on the plant above the sink have turned a waxy yellow, which may not be healthy, but sure look pretty.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wisdom from Tucky

"You know why you can't put a fence around the Universe? Because there is no edge."

My brother John

He called me this morning to tell me that he enjoys reading my blog. He is a chaplain in a hospice program in the Louisville area and the commissioner of the Bunton League.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Leaves near my work today

Time mgmt. by S. Covey & J. Torchia

My two favorite time management theories come from Stephen Covey and Jerry Torchia. Stephen wrote the classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and Jerry was my first creative director.

My father introduced me to Covey before I was ready. In school, I remember him giving me photocopies of Covey's stuff on that chalky paper that photocopiers used back then. It didn't mean anything to me until I had lived and worked on my own for a few years and tried things the wrong way so many times. Then I picked up Covey again.

Covey takes no credit for the ideas in his book. They come from interviews he conducted with a large number of what he called 'effective' people, people with success and health in their work and personal lives. Covey synthesizes their remarkably consistent approaches into seven habits.

Covey divides work by whether it is important or urgent. Our default mode is to be slave to the urgent. Effective people spend more time on what is important, which means their work is driven by what they most value and not what is most time-sensitive.

Here is the way Covey presents it:

So, in a nutshell, we spend too much time in quadrant 3 or 4, until time and neglect eventually push everything into quadrant 1, and the more time we spend there, the more frantic, and least effective we are. Effective people spend the majority of their time in quadrant 2.

Jerry Torchia's system is a practical application of Covey's model.

Jerry was one of the smartest, most talented, funniest, meanest, most demanding and supportive bosses I ever worked for. His eye for both print and TV was legendary. Some of the television ads he did for Signet Bank and Wrangler jeans still hold up as 60 second pieces of art, no kidding. He was one of the best, a craftsman.

When I joined the Martin Agency for my first job as an art director out of school, they didn't have any offices available, so I shared Jerry's office. I was excited and nervous. They put a tiny drafting table in the corner with a small carrel of drawers and a phone, which I never used when Jerry was in the office. I kept my mouth shut and paid attention.

Jerry had complete focus at work. He didn't screw around. He began and ended his day with his desk completely cleared except for a yellow legal pad with a short list, written in his distinctive handwriting. The items were prioritized with the most important on top - WRANGLER TV CONCEPTS - and the more task-oriented at the bottom - BUY STAMPS.

Jerry's list never had more than eight or so things. He came in the morning, reviewed the list, and got straight to work, methodically spending time on the top two or three or four things on his list. He might go off and concept ideas with John Mahoney for an hour, then draw some thumbnails for a mechanical artist, then come back to his office and start on something else from the top of the list.

At lunch Jerry would go accomplish a couple of mundane things from the bottom of his list. If he had any time left he'd come back and sit at his desk for five or ten minutes and read the New York Times and listen to jazz or classical music on his office radio. Then back at it til 5:30, at which point he'd put away his work, tear off the top sheet from his legal pad, transfer anything that hadn't been crossed-off during the day onto a new sheet of paper for the next day, and go home.

I use a variation of the Covey/Torchia systems, adapted for people whose top priorities involve creative problem solving or inspiration. As a teacher told me once, coming up with a good idea only takes an instant, but the trouble is you never know when that instant is going to arrive.

So, in my system, I make the same list, then I stare at the top three or four on the list, and think about them, and wonder what the hell I am going to do, and how I will ever come up with an idea, and worry about whether this is the time that I can't come up with an idea, and then I pray that inspiration visits, and I wait, and while I am waiting, I do a few things on the bottom of the list, or not, or I organize or clean, or waste time, or wander around, or take pictures, or hang out at Powell's, or go see a movie, or call a friend, or read something about the problem I am trying to solve, or read something else, or look at my books, or write a letter to someone, or draw something, or look up the etymology of words, or stare out the window, or make something out of tape, or post something on my blog.

Here's today's list. It's now 5:02 p.m. It may look like I have gotten very little done today, that I have been wasting time, but let me reassure you - and myself - that I am firmly in quadrant 2, and this is part of the process.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Metaphors and boundaries and class

Late this summer, when Luker and I were splitting to do new things, I planned on making something to celebrate the couple of fantastic years we spent working together, but he beat me to it. He gave me a dozen layouts made from pages of the journal he kept while we worked together.

I had been writing something about what I learned working with him. I printed what I had, colorcopied some of my own journal pages, glued the pieces on top of the layouts he gave me, and gave them back to Luker.

Here is one of the pages.

Along with a lesson from Luker, this page contains a list of the essential qualities of an idea as written by the class of 12.3, and an upside-down drawing I made of a house, inspired by a friend's metaphor about boundaries.

Don't let people trample through your house, the friend told me. Close the door. Some people can come onto your porch. Some you let into your living room. A few people can come upstairs. And a very, very few are allowed into your bedroom.

Boundaries can be tricky in real life, and even more mysterious online. I speak into a dark, unknown, infinite auditorium. Yet being personal and open, it is expected in this space. How to do that without letting too many people - mostly unknown - into the house? What is the real-life corollary? To whom am I speaking? What do I talk about?

I was pondering these things the other night as I was falling asleep and kapow it hit me. Class. Of course that's what this is. Advertising class. I've been doing it since 1997. Bringing in anything and everything I find interesting, having a conversation about it, looking at it together through the lens of advertising, or branding, or storytelling, or whatever you want to call what we do for a living.

With that in mind, here's a photo I took today.

This has gotta be impractical, right? But from a brand perspective, from a story perspective, it's interesting to think about what seeing a cop wandering around downtown on a horse tells you about Portland's story, and why that is valuable.

If this were class, I'd ask you to take out your journal and write down some words that describe what Portland's story is to you.

Then we'd have discussion, and we'd probably hear that the Portland story has something to do with being green, young, creative, brainy, progressive, independent, unwashed, experimental, positive.

Then we'd talk about how we personally experience the story, what really happens in Portland to reinforce the story, to make it true for us. We'd probably talk about the rain, the number of coffee shops, Powell's, the mass transit system, PICA, the city zoning, the number of used clothes stores, Gus Van Zant. Cops on horses.

Then if we still had time, I'd ask you to gather in groups of three or four and talk about your own hometown and its brand/story and how you experienced it.

For homework, I would ask you to think of a large city with a strong, clear brand/story, or a city with a weak brand/story - indistinct, contradictory, or ill-defined - and bring in 3 images of experiences from that city that support your point of view. The more specific, the better.

Class has been interesting, I enjoyed it, thank you. You are welcome to stay on the front porch if you talk quietly. It's late. I am going inside. See you next week.

Three things that happened

Dr. Hall looked took a look at my teeth, I spilled my entire glass of wine into the seven-layer dip at a parent pot-luck for my kids' school, oh and I ran into Sr. Krissy and a friend on my way to work.