I did this preso at the AdExchanger Industry Preview conference in NYC on January 28, 2020 (i.e., last week) – talking about what’s going to happen to us all now that Google has put a target on the third-party cookie’s back. Give it a watch:
It’s no coincidence that digital ad spend surpassed offline, the California Consumer Protection Act went live and Google’s Privacy Sandbox became a meme all in the same quarter. This is the final scene.
But of what? Now that the lava has settled and everyone and their favorite influencer has weighed in on the news, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Here are three:
We need a better cookie anyway
The internet was not designed for advertising. It was intended as a tool for academic links and was purposely “stateless” – each message between browser and server is self-contained. Thus, the cookie.
It was also not intended for ads. As written by an affable 23-year-old Netscape engineer named Lou Montulli, the original spec describes what we would call a first-party cookie that stored information for a shopping cart. Expanded a few years later, the standard guaranteed users “control” over data collection but left the details up to the browsers. And in fact, the whole ethos of the cookie – the fact that it’s an anonymous ID and the user could delete it – was to provide a better internet without invading privacy.
Over the years, of course, a $100 billion-plus business developed on top of techniques such as the “pixel” and “piggybacking” – but these are basically workarounds. Think about it: The “pixel” is an image that is purposely invisible, requested solely so that a third party can establish a connection and retrieve a cookie in the browser. “Piggybacking,” where tags call other tags and so on (and so on), is even more confusing.
What if we could get a do-over? Look at mobile app advertising, which appeared in the 2000s and has thrived without cookies. What about some kind of token similar to Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) or Android’s AdID for browsers? Like the in-app version, it could be issued only to approved publishers that really sell ads. It could be randomly changed every hour or two. This isn’t where the “sandbox” appears to be going, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Consumers need more information
You’ve probably noticed that the ad tech industry is playing defense. Google’s provided a chance to do what “I [Heart] NY” did for Manhattan: clean up the streets, get control of traffic and improve the image of the brand. Make it morning again.
It would probably surprise many to learn that most people in the ad business are hard-working, well-meaning, creative and technical women and men who are just trying to push commerce along. Advertising isn’t evil, and it isn’t mind control. Some of it is even hilarious.
Advertisers need a counternarrative, one that explains exactly how little most of them actually know about consumers and how pseudonymous it is. Far from “tracking you around the web,” that retargeter likely knows just two things about you, not including your name: that you looked at a particular item in the past, and that you are on this website now. That’s it. You might even welcome the reminder.
We need an image makeover; now is the time. If Times Square can do it, anybody can. The steps are admitting the problem, eliminating defects and providing opt-outs. Consumers are smart enough to understand that ads support the open web and services they value, including Google and Facebook. Examples of GDPR and IDFA hint that only about 20% of users are unwilling to consider a value exchange. There are plenty who will.
There’s still time to influence the outcome
The two-year debate may seem long, but at least there’s an end. It gives an agenda and a deadline. After all, the third-party cookie has been “dying” for at least 10 years, and uncertainty is not good for anyone’s blood pressure.
Meanwhile – despite what you might think from scrolling through Twitter – nobody was really blindsided. Smart publishers have been building up their first-party data assets and improving the ad experience. Many already run successful private marketplaces. Vendors such as data management platforms and demand-side platforms embraced IDs beyond the traditional cookie years ago and – like publishers – shifted to managing first-party keys and consent frameworks. Measurement vendors moved from traditional multitouch attribution to supporting hybrid multitouchpoint methods that are probably more accurate anyway. The only thing that’s “dead” is 2008.
Industry standards are generally good. Case studies from the width of train tracks before the Civil War to the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie-rating system of the 1960s and the internet itself prove that widely-shared standards encourage efficiency and growth – and minimize political problems. We should welcome efforts like the ANA and 4A’s outreach to Google.
It would take a game theorist to predict what will happen. History tells us the “rule of three” probably applies, with three platforms (and some high-margin niche players) controlling the field. It’s up to advertisers, agencies and vendors, interested consumers and their advocates to make sure that they do the right thing.
The #2 aquatic-themed celebrity site on the Web in 1997 belonged to red-suited Baywatch babe Pamela Sue Anderson.
The #1 site featured a live cam mounted on an SGI workstation in the office of a 23 year-old University of Kansas “Jayhawk” named Lou Montulli.
It was pointed at a pod of exotic fish in a 90-gallon, fluorescent-lit acrylic tank. The fishes’ (rather repetitive) antics played out on the “Download” page of Netscape.com, which offered the first widely-adopted portal into this thing called the World Wide Web.
And it says something about the pace of change in our time that Lou Montulli – one of the pioneers of so many foundational elements of the internet – is still only in his 40’s.
Here are some of the things Montulli engineered or helped prod into life:
- server push and client pull
- HTTP proxyingand proxy authentication
- the cookie
- web forms
- “about:” URL
- <br>line break</br> tag
- <blink>blink</blink> tag
- animated GIFs
Yet Montulli laughs when I ask the obvious question. “No,” he says, “I don’t feel I’m a legend. And there are a lot of people around me who’d agree.”
The most notorious of his inventions is of course the browser cookie. Montulli has mixed emotions about his spawn, although it’s a durable solution to a serious problem with the web.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO INVENT THE COOKIE AT NETSCAPE?
It came out of the problem that HTTP is anonymous. People were anonymous all the time. But there was an obvious need sometimes to recognize them when they came back to a site.
The web came out of universities and academics, and we were all pretty distrustful of government. You could call us Libertarians. We didn’t want anyone to be able to track people. So we needed a mechanism that allowed you to be remembered without being tracked.
There wasn’t a lot of impetus at first for anyone to solve this. I finally got around to it because [Netscape’s product team] wanted a shopping cart. If you have a shopping cart and put something into it, obviously you have to recognize the person when they return.
The trouble with HTTP Basic Auth[entication] is it’s ugly. It’s not friendly. You have to create an account up front. We needed something besides that. The cookie was a general mechanism that allowed people to create interesting apps on the web.
SO IT WASN’T FOR ADVERTISING?
HOW DID IT GET TO BE USED FOR ADVERTISING?
Which is of course our beloved ad tech: the labyrinthine mosh pit of ad servers and platforms and data brokers and analytics that arose to do exactly what Montulli describes: track people across multiple sites. The DoubleClick ad server was born in Kevin O’Connor’s basement in Alpharetta, Georgia in 1995.
But the humble remit of Montulli’s original cookie was to allow a single domain to create “sessions” and also recognize a person if they returned to that domain. One popular early proposal in WWW design groups was for a persistent browser ID; Montulli opposed it.
He admits that third-party cookies, which piggyback on embedded page content like image tags, were “a problem that I missed.” And he has written about a fascinating moment in 1996 when he – all by himself – decided the browser would not block third-party cookies by default. In a way, Lou Montulli created ad tech 1.0.
DO YOU THINK THE COOKIE IS DOOMED?
No. It’s fundamental to the web and most apps won’t work without it. There’s been a lot of time and effort spent trying to improve it. But nobody’s come up with anything better. It likely won’t be replaced with something else.
It could be removed from ad tracking. I’d like that so people would stop blaming me for it. [laughs] Advertisers won’t let it die. If it was [outlawed], they would just move to another technology. There are other technologies that would suffice, but they would remove transparency. That would remove the ability for the end user to control it.
WHAT DO YOU PREDICT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
We’re in an interesting stage right now with advertising and the ability to disclose [tracking], and your ability as a consumer to control it. It’s built up over years of trial and error. Like it or not, if you want to see content for free you are going to have to put up with ads.
You can give up free sites, give up the cookie – and go into the black hole of [secret tracking]. That’s the worst case, I think. We could also legislate so there’s no more personalized advertising. But that would kill advertising on the web. We’d be forced into paid content. These are not easy solutions.
Apple started this war with the Safari browser. A bunch of companies sprung up with alternative [tracking] models. There are a lot of methods that would work. But they’re all worse for the consumer.
An affable, hard-working music- and MAME-enthusiast, Montulli’s lived in Northern California since moving out for Netscape. He spent his childhood following his father around military bases and stayed in Lawrence, Kansas after graduation to work in the University of Kansas computer lab.
He monitored tapes and dot-matrix printers and was promoted “out of the basement” onto the school’s I.T. help desk. It was there he got involved in the proto-web.
HOW DID YOU START GETTING INTERESTED IN WEB BROWSERS?
I was using software called ELM for email on UNIX. Every time you logged out of ELM it printed out the author’s name. I was not a particularly good student. So I thought, if I had a program with my name on it, I’d probably get a better job.
There was this project kicking around to build a campus-wide information system. In those days, we used BBS’s and networking was primitive. I stayed up all night and made this prototype program using Gopher and HyperRez – an open source hypertext reader. Gopher had terrible UI but did networking. So putting the two together was a good solution and became the first version of Lynx.
Lynx was a text-based browser that was widely adopted by universities, in particular. Montulli was working on a graphical version when he saw an announcement that Marc Andreessen and a team at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) had released a browser called Mosaic “that did exactly the same thing.”
WHAT DID YOU DO WHEN YOU HEARD ABOUT MOSAIC?
I converted Lynx to HTTP and HTML [protocols]. It became one of the three parts of the web ecosystem. The other parts were Mosaic and [Thomas Bruce of Cornell’s] Cello browser for Windows. By the time I left Kansas we had over a million people using Lynx. It was the most popular browser by number of users.
DID IT MAKE YOU A RICH YOUNG MAN?
[Laughs] No. It was free open source software. The university was kind enough to pay me $8 an hour for 20 hours a week to work on it.
These were the days when HTML and HTTP were in active development. The internet was still an academic exercise. Off-campus connections were made over phone lines and modems. Long distance charges applied. Graphics were a rare luxury. And the foundations for the Web were being laid by a small cadre of workaholic dreamers perched around the globe.
WHAT WAS THE WEB DEVELOPMENT COMMUNITY LIKE IN THOSE DAYS?
There were basically three camps that could move things forward. There was Tim Berners-Lee and the people at CERN — they gave feedback on specs and worked on server software. Then NCSA was developing clients [like Mosaic]. And there was me working on Lynx … There weren’t any standards bodies. There were maybe twenty people involved and only three or four were developing code.
SO HOW DID YOU FINALLY DECIDE TO JOIN NETSCAPE?
Well, Marc [Andreessen] left NCSA and met Jim [Clark, SGI founder and serial entrepreneur] through friends. Marc told Jim about the Web, and he got excited about it. We all met in Illinois – all of the developers – in March of 1994. We started the company with guys from Mosaic, from CERN, and some engineers Jim knew from SGI.
Inspired by Mosaic, Netscape Communications became the fastest-growing company in the history of the world. It soared from a dozen people in 1994 to about 4,000 by 1996. It broke $100 million in revenue within one year. (This story has been told with his usual flair by Michael Lewis.)
Any of us who were sentient in, say, 1995 remember Netscape. It inspired us to buy modems and “log on” to the web for the first time. By 1997, more than one in three U.S. households had a home computer. So it’s surprising to learn that its financial success was a kind of accident.
WHAT WAS NETSCAPE’S BUSINESS MODEL SUPPOSED TO BE?
Basically, we were going to give it away to clients and sell the servers. It was razors and razor blades. We were going to sell enterprise software, because those were the people who can afford it. But as they say, no plan survives contact with the enemy. You could download it for free, but businesses wanted to pay for the client [browser]. You could also buy it shrink-wrapped in a store.
Businesses were unclear about whether they had to pay for it. We were willing to let them think they had to pay. And we got addicted to the “crack” of client revenue. It actually killed the company when we were forced by Microsoft’s aggression to give it all away for free. We got addicted to revenue we weren’t supposed to have. It sucks we didn’t succeed as much as we should have – but we made a big impact.
We basically implemented the foundations for the [Web] app development environment that’s taken over programming today.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE IN AN ENVIRONMENT LIKE THAT?
It was a very exciting time. We hired almost all the people who were building the Web, and we worked non-stop. Some survey agency called me up at the time and asked me how many hours a week I worked. I said 120. The fields [in the survey] only went up to 99. I only slept every other day for ten hours.
And it was good software. It was stable, fast and looked good for the time. Functional software … needs to be seamless, beautiful, something the user wants to use. We took over the market within months because we created the most stable, elegant application. We were way bigger than Word and everything else at the time.
BUT WHY THE ‘FISH CAM’?
I had been an a aquarist at college. I basically spent all my waking hours in the office. So I brought my fish tank in. My SGI Unix workstation had a very rare camera on it — the first of its kind. SGI wanted to do videoconferencing. And I saw the Coffee Cam [at Cambridge] and decided to do a version. We used it as a test bed for a lot of advanced features.
The idea of images refreshing in the background. That led to animated GIFs. The first animated GIFs ever were of the fish. Dynamic HTML was first tested there. The ability to move HTML elements around on the screen. The early web was very static.
Netscape became the cynosure of the Dot Com Bubble, going public in 1995 – it’s said – so Jim Clark could build a yacht. The stock quadrupled on day one and Marc Andreessen appeared on the cover of Time magazine, barefoot and grinning.
And then it all fell apart for reasons both internal and external, but many of which can be summed up in one word: Microsoft. Montulli cashed out in 1998 and went on to work at a couple of startups emerging from the Netscape talent pool: Epinions and Shutterfly. He spent a couple of years in Tahoe living the dream, “skiing and mountain biking every day” before getting lured back into the Bay.
Today he’s co-founder of JetInsight, a management system for charter fleets.
WHAT TECHNOLOGIES ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT NOW?
On-demand services are totally transforming service economies. Everything is getting swallowed up [by them]. Apps make things more efficient, and existing companies are slow to adapt to change.
Blockchain ought to revolutionize anything that deals with escrow services. A lot of Wall Street is just very sophisticated escrow services, so blockchain should have a big effect there. It will be slow because it’s such a regulated industry. But I don’t expect to make any money on bitcoin. [laughs]
WHAT ARE YOU MOST WORRIED ABOUT?
Well, I’d say the moral implications of automation on society. We might be approaching a tipping point where automation permanently replaces jobs. We’d be foolish as a society not to prepare for the impact, maybe through some universal basic income tests, creating a society not entirely based on your worth as a worker.
And I’m aware of the impact of the ad economy on media …. I’m paying for newspapers. I hope they survive.
Back at the University of Kansas, Montulli’s signature block contained a quote from Machiavelli. It captures the pioneer mind.
“For how we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.”
[Auth. note: I originally wrote this piece as part of a series of interviews with luminaries connected to the history of ad tech when I worked at Gartner. It ran in in 04/28 on the Gartner blog.]
Much of the screech about Cambridge Analytica, foreign actors and bots swaying elections via the medium of advertising seems to me naive. (And I’m not the only one.) Setting aside the ethical oompus boompus, it betrays a touching optimism about how advertising works.
Generations of geniuses have worked heroically to get you to consider — at that Zero Moment of Truth, when it’s just you and the shelf in the store — maybe, possibly, trying a different detergent.
Ads have also been known to get people to overpay for their footwear.
To assume that a few 300×250-pixel ads — no matter how well-targeted and -timed — could cause someone to change her basic values or her vote is to mistake paranoia for the world.
Advertising doesn’t work that way. It hardly works at all. It’s a cumulative enterprise that is both mysterious and trivial. Since the days of The Hidden Persuaders, we’ve assumed it has magical powers even as we’ve almost totally ignored it.
Yet it is important for capitalism and, as Anton Chekhov said, “is the essence of democracy.”
THE TROUBLE WITH ADVERTISING
The real trouble with ads is that they happen in the mind. They are a form of sensory input intended to influence neurons and, in time, behavior. To ask how advertising works is to ask how learning works. How would you answer that question?
The human brain itself is the reason brand advertising is so difficult to measure. It’s a long-term proposition whose immediate impact sits in pathways that can’t normally be seen. We end up asking people to describe their own opinions — this process is called “brand tracking” — but it’s a very approximate science.
So how does advertising work? A few years ago, a great overview of the state of the art appeared. It’s called The Advertised Mind: Groundbreaking Research Into How Our Minds Respond to Advertising and was written by Erik du Plessis of Kantar Millward Brown, a research agency.
I’ll hit the highlights here. (But really, you should buy the book.)
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON ADS
So this is your brain:
Without getting into deep water, let’s assume that inputs to this organ come via the senses. First they go into the limbic system, where they’re processed by the amygdala. This is the piece of our heads that formed first, before we had data science boot camps or even junior high schools — the piece responsible for keeping us alive in situations far more dangerous than most of ours.
Two things to know about this sub-rational gatekeeper:
- It is EMOTIONAL — about feelings, not reasons
- It is BINARY — hot/cold, pleasure/pain, love/hate
It is also SELECTIVE … because, apparently, we have always been overwhelmed by sensory data and can’t begin to notice it all. Even before Snap and the iPhone X, our brains said: “Too much! Give me the bullets!”
For advertising, the implications are obvious. To rise from our sensory swamp, an ad must be EMOTIONALLY INTENSE. We assume the binary default is positive, but there is evidence that negative works as well. This study (from a consultancy now called System 1) showed that ads we hate are more likely to get us to buy a product than ads we don’t notice:
As du Plessis says:
“The first task of advertising it to ensure that it is noticed, and to this purpose it has to be designed to attract an emotional response from us.”
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
So we have our hard-hitting emotional sense-eliciting object, aka, an ad. Now an aggressive direct response marketer stops here. If you’ve ever watched Home Shopping Network late at night and seen all those other people swooping in on your Plaid Snuggie and TIME IS RUNNING OUT! and you only have 4 LEFT AT THIS PRICE! and it’s … well, you feel me right now.
Most ads aren’t so demanding. At least, they want to linger in the mind long enough to get you through a browsing stream, or into a store. And brand ads will need to wedge themselves into your mind somehow for the haul, when you’re ready for a new car in a year or two, when your lease runs out.
Here, we get into the realm of memory. Memories turn out to be unlike files in databases, where information has an address. They are a “gestalt” of neurons assembled into patterns and a web of eccentric associations.
Memories need the right conditions to form. They want a strong signal. They are correlated with frequency and repetition. And they are correlated with similar memories that pre-exist in the brain, a kind of starter-set.
All of which helps to explain your media planner’s insistence on reach AND frequency as KPIs — you need frequency to establish memories. It also argues that your campaigns should be consistent over the years or you won’t benefit as much from those starter-set associations.
Again, du Plessis:
“The second task of advertising is to ensure that it is remembered, and this is intimately tied in with how often we see it.”
SOME MORE GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS
We’re not quite as Cartesian as advertisers and their agencies thought. It’s not that we have emotion and reason as two parts of a body-mind. The body-mind is a thing in itself and our emotions ride over our reason without even asking. For proof here I’ll just point to how violently two intelligent people can disagree in our political climate. Facts can’t destroy feelings even if they’re true.
People in the ad business fall back on a few big studies or thinkers that seem to make sense. One was an ARF study that showed an ad’s “likeability” determined its success. This aligns with du Plessis’ argument about emotion but favors the positive spin. It’s probably right. Certainly, I’m more inclined to want to remember things I like to think about than vivid ads – like those Allstate Mayhem spots – that just stress me out.
Another was Al Ries’ assertion that P.R. works better than ads for new brands. Ries is a positioning pioneer who is usually right. He’s also agreeing with du Plessis’ insistence on (1) frequent exposure, and (2) a basis of memories to fertilize the ads to come.
In his influential How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp isolated two simple factors for a brand’s success:
- Wide distribution
- Recognizable packaging
Sharp described this packaging as “sensory and semantic cues” such as logos and celebrity spokesmodels that made a brand “easy to like, memorise and recall” [he’s from New Zealand]. Which lines up well with du Plessis’ blurb of memories as webs of emotion-laden, pre-primed associations.
Another instruction I’ll mention is that the most important task of an ad is not to be creative but to be remembered. It can do this best by evoking an emotion — let’s say a positive one — and adhering its sensory stimuli to the images, text and spokesmodels directly associated with the brand package.
It must also be repetitive. Frequency matters more than reach. Liking an ad is not liking a brand. And above all, don’t assume these secrets will help you win the next election. You might, but it won’t be because your ads changed peoples’ lives.
Even as we learn that nearly half of Bay Area residents “want to leave,” at least 55,000 of them were screaming in place last year as Taylor Swift delivered what a dazzled critic called “pretty much a perfect pop spectacle.” Perfect! And as Tay conquers town after town in her six-month, 55-city global victory lap … I’d like to reshare a post I wrote when her last album came out. It’s about just how much we marketers can learn from this 28 year-old sensei of song.
Taylor Swift: Master Marketer
So we finally have it, Reputation, after waiting since the MTV Video Music Awards last August: Taylor Swift’s sixth album, a 55-minute oleo of fifteen tracks on the theme of a young woman’s broken, broken heart. We won’t comment on the songs, which make us nostalgic for 1989, but once again on the marketing.
For whatever you can say about Taylor Swift, woman and musician, she is a genius as a brand, a revelation, and she just wound up a very public six-month master class in the way a thoroughly modern marketer can be #NailingItDaily.
Last November, she easily became the first artist ever to have four million-selling opening weeks; no one else has even had three. Released at midnight on November 11, Reputation‘s first-day sales were 700,000. Loading up pre-sales, which only count on day one, is a standard move for entertainment properties; the number itself becomes a source of earned impressions (i.e., PR).
Yes, Tay had the year’s most successful record, and has launched what will obviously be this year’s most successful stadium tour, at a time when her personal popularity may be drifting. Our friends at market research firm CivicScience shared this disturbing image with us:
So while Taylor Swift, 28 year-old Pennsylvania-born home-schooled female, is not what she was, “Taylor Swift(r)” the brand is still absolutely bulletproof.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Tay
What did Tay do to launch such a successful product?
You might say, what didn’t she do? We witnessed UPS trucks with her silhouette, TV spots, “secret” sessions with fans showing up on Good Morning America, videos and behind-the-scenes footage, even a widely-reported court case and more celebrity feuds …
We’ll break it down. Four themes here — as we admire Taylor Swift: Master Marketer.
- She is (still) an UnBrand
- She uses primitive psychology
- She forces fans to work
- She is a master of suspense
And now …
- She Is (Still) an UnBrand
I’ll say it again: Brand Taylor Swift does not actually exist. She never did. “Taylor Swift” is a blank space, a Durkheimian totem upon which fans can project pretty much whatever they want, but more important, themselves, their values and their wishes for their souls. By not having any edges, she presents a white widget with which we can work.
What? This is a theory I repeated coast-to-coast last year, numbing my victims into a state of gently nodding as they slept. If you’re interested in the original squib, backed up by data from CivicScience and Affinio, you can find it here.
An UnBrand is a mass-market brand that takes no position on anything and betrays no traits at all beyond the most generic. in this way, it lets different audiences with little in common other than their own humanity easily adopt the brand into their personal squad, or sociological “tribe.”
No matter what your social graph or favored fountain of fake news, Brand Tay fits because it fits anywhere. It is uncontroversial and so it is adaptable, like an attractive but polite person who is welcome to infiltrate your wedding.
We should not have been surprised — although, in fact, we were — that Tay herself knows this. She is unbrand-aware. She told us as much last August.
At the MTV Video Music Awards, she unleashed her first Reputation video for a song called “Look What You Made Me Do.” It contained a disturbing piece of theater. Fifteen different versions of Taylor Swift, pulled from the arc of her career, stood in a line on a horror film set.
There was a Tay from the 2009 VMAs (when her speech was remixed by Kanye) and Tays from various videos, including “Shake It Off.” There’s crying Tay and the circus ringmaster Tay from her “Red” tour. And so on.
Which one is Taylor? She says it herself: all of them and none of them. Brand Taylor is a shapeshifter.
- She Uses Primitive Psychology
Marketing is primitive psychology, and Brand Tay’s insights into the minds of her (young, female) fans is poignant. What do we fear the most? Hunger? Not most of Tay’s fans; no, we fear being abandoned, alone, left out. We exist in a state of hypertensive, continuous #FOMO.
Tay taps into this by delivering a path to inclusion. Think of her launch campaign as a video game; the prize is that you are part of the squad. And our anxiety starts with an explosion set off at the VMA’s in August, when her team revealed a very odd animated TV spot introducing its masterstroke:
“Taylor Swift Tix”
The VMA ad showed cats (good) vs. robots (bad) in a fight to the death. Its message was simple: there is an army of robots out there that are competing with you (cats) for tickets to Tay’s upcoming concert tour. You have got to fight back. One way to do this is to sign up with TicketMaster and become a “Verified Fan” (not a “Verified Robot”).
If you don’t, this terrible fate awaits:
Of course, we see here the marketing equivalent of calling a bug a feature and charging for it. TicketMaster might have felt it was its own responsibility to combat bot fraud, the way ad tech providers do. But then again, verification is free and evil bots are a timely nemesis.
That’s just the start. Once you’re Verified, you are in line. But you still might not get a ticket. There are human adversaries, millions of them, all vying for a chance to invade the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ next July 21st, and points west.
That’s a long … long … line.
Then the magical “Taylor Swift Tix” program appears. It turns out the line is not first-come-first-served, as lines usually are, but can be played. If you do certain things, you can improve your position in this line. Two points to note, as master marketers:
- This line is imaginary
- Tay is channeling #FOMO
Last time I looked, the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ was pretty big. It fits a lot of Swifties, who are small anyway. I’m not sure so many of them won’t get in … but there’s a chance that we just might be excluded, abandoned, alone in our silent oblivion, playing “Our Song” over and over and sobbing … or, we can do any number of on-brand activities, all of which give us a LOW / MEDIUM / HIGH level of “Boost” in the line:
- Watch designated videos on Tay’s fan site
- Sign up on Tay’s official mailing list
- Refer many friends to the program
- Buy merchandise from the Taylor Swift Official Store ($50 t-shirts! $60 snake rings!)
- Pre-order the album (before 11/9 only) or buy it up to 13 times
The program is not universally beloved, but it’s most excellent marketing. Our friend Jess Vogol at Movable Ink — a true Swiftie — tried an A/B test with the program. You can see from the image below that a relatively low number of Boosts (arrow “A”) does appear to lead to a lower place in the line (arrow “B”), which ranges from “Priority” (although not guaranteed) down to the dreaded “Waitlist” … which is puzzling, if you ponder it, because stadium concerts do not have waitlists … but that’s #FOMO for you.
There are more ways to boost and boost until your eyes hurt. The official “program terms” don’t specify them, but Tay’s FAQ site promises that “activity boosts will come in all shapes and sizes.” Whew.
Such shapes and sizes all relate to social media, where Brand Tay has discovered just about every method of encouraging her followers to talk about her and keep talking until they’re comatose. She hands out random boosts for social activities like a Medieval churchman strewing indulgences:
And the ultimate in #FOMO fomentation are the so-called “Secret Sessions” — which aren’t all that secret — in which Tay invites a select group of superfans to private listening parties before the release. There, they sometimes meet Tay herself or chat on video. These sessions are then burnished into marketable objects on “Good Morning America,” say, or YouTube.
So perfectly pitched are Brand Tay’s tactics with respect to inclusion, exclusion and tribalism that it makes me wonder if they have a sociologist on staff. And some of the most #FOMO-firing moments struck me as staged … not quite real. For example, I ran across this “fan” who made a bold claim last month:
Which was paid off in an epic photostream of heartfelt tears and triumph as this “Ellie” meets her idol in the #reputationSecretSession in London:
Which of course you and I were not at — #FOMO! — and perhaps did not pause a moment to reflect that, amid all her no doubt inhumanly demanding prep for her marketing master class and album launch, Taylor Swift had time to “stalk” a random English girl’s Twitter for a “year” … but who knows?
- She Forces Fans To Work
It’s hard work being a fan of Taylor Swift. Between buying merch and pre-ordering thirteen copies of “Reputation,” there’s barely time to decipher all the clues she’s left in her videos, lyrics and Instagram captions.
Oh, yes, clues. Tay’s realized we are a culture absolutely riven with conspiracy theories and nothing makes a fan base more engaged than an endless micro-debate over what might (or might not) be a hidden message in a blurred image, casual post, or backed-up audio file.
Mainstream fans don’t know this, but Tay has long embedded Baroque ciphers into her marketing materials. She does this to encourage — yes — social media activity, speculation, posts and counter-posts, raging debates and trenchant denials … and, finally, to repay those who put a lot of time into Tay with the knowledge that they’re in the inner ring of fire, closer to the flame.
To take one example, the video for “Look What You Made Me Do” contained the following, according to NME:
- Her dress from the “Out of the Woods” video
- A tombstone with the name “Nils Sjoberg,” a pseudonym she used to write “This Is What You Came For“
- A $1 bill in a jewel-filled bathtub, referring (perhaps) to the $1 she won in that trial last summer
- Snakes and tea, related to her feud with various Kardashians
- An army of models which might refer to her Squad
- 8 “I [heart] TS“-shirt-sporting dancers that could be her 8 famous exes
- 15 Tays that could (or could not) refer to the 15 songs on “Reputation”
And so on. At one point she says, clearly:
“I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”
Which is a puzzling meta-statement in itself unless you followed the Kim Kardashian video-leaking scandal related to the permission that may or may not have been granted to Kanye for mentioning Tay in his song “Famous.” For that is what Tay said (cleverly) when asked to comment on the incident.
There’s a lot more to say about hints and conspiracies and so on, but we master marketers can conclude here: a great way to encourage social engagement among your customers is to toss a few ambiguous secret messages into the mix. They’ll meet you half way.
In fact, they will go too far. A lot of the Swiftian sherlocks in the past few months were totally wrong.
Rational choice theory. There is an influential hypothesis in social and religious studies called Rational Choice Theory. One of its tenets, advanced by the great Rodney Stark, is that religions that are the most successful are not the easiest ones to join but rather the most difficult: those that make the greatest demands on their members.
Think of the LDS, with its two-year missionary postings, or even A.A. with its coffee-making and unpaid sponsorship. The more a group demands, the more it weeds out light travelers and rewards the faithful. So in addition to being a Durkeimian totem, Tay is a Stark-ian rational choicer. Amen.
- She Is a Master of Suspense
The release of “Reputation” was a narrative unrolled with precision. It was written by a storyteller, and it proceeded in the genre of suspense. Those of us who paid attention experienced this release as a Hitchcockian thriller of no common order.
It was just great theater. And as we’ve said before, marketers have a lot to learn from Hollywood.
Remember how it began. There were rumors that Tay was going to release a new record, her first in three years, but no official word. Then on August 18, Tay disappeared from the Internet. What?! Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr — all down. Gonzo. Her 102 million Instagram followers lost their photos. Her website was blank.
Then … on August 21 … on her Instagram there is an unsettling, enigmatic video of a snake. Swish swish. A reference to a feud with Katy Perry (more conspiracies) … who wrote a song “Swish Swish” about her …
Then all the above, planting mystery and wonder in her path, and two more points before we’ll wrap up this admiration of our greatest modern marketer.
First, the VMAs. Tay was not there. She hung over it like the morning star but she herself was absent. Busy? Napping? No … it was another perfect note in the opening scene of her “Reputation” narrative. She’s always luring us on.
And second, the UPS partnership. This is particularly interesting. In case you missed it, UPS is the “Official Delivery Partner” of Taylor Swift, a great honor, certainly, and one that allowed it to give her thousands of effective out-of-home placements right where her market lives.
A few weeks ago, I took this on 28th Street in Manhattan:
Why UPS? It moves. Taking a picture and posting it gives you a Boost. And then … UPS released a video of Tay packing a box and another video that was utterly ordinary with the exception of its background track, an electronic plaint that sounded like a woman singing very fast.
A fan ripped the tune … slowed it down … and OMG it sounded just like Taylor herself singing lyrics that sounded like “… rip off the page.” So it was assumed her next single would be called “Rip Off the Page” … and the video itself was labeled “Unlisted” on YouTube, making the rumor even more delicious.
Again, we wonder who these mysterious unnamed “fans” are who happen to unlock ciphers and have access to news media. The stodgy brown brand’s second (unlisted) video’s ambiguous soundtrack pseudo-clue was ultimately covered far and wide (particularly by Conde Nast), from Teen Vogue to Glamour to EOnline to Buzzfeed to Refinery29 …
And it was wrong. A Hitchcockian red herring. Tay released songs called “Gorgeous” and “Call It What You Want” but nothing called “Rip Off the Page” ….
And all we can say about “Reputation” is: Call it what you want, the marketing is gorgeous. We marketers should all rip off that page.
That was the year of Guided by Voices.
The year of frozen sculptures dreaming Finlandia and lime – the ice luge – and men on stilts in dresses wearing hoops around their necks.
It was the year of free money and business plans that read like situation comedies.
And they were.
The year of billion-dollar days and SFGirl.com and climbing through the window at the Cypress Club or Jillian’s, betraying wonder.
“Gina put me on the list … Oh, wait, it might have been ….”
“It’s okay, Char – there is no list.”
Billboards north and south on Highway 101 from Novato to San Jose announcing companies without a mist of revenue. People paying one year’s rent up front in cash for the privilege of living 100 minutes from their work.
It was the year of thriving in a shared delusion, borrowed money, so much money, and faith.
There are no atheists in San Francisco: everyone believes in herself.
“If you are cautious in this market,” says the Financial Times, “you’ll miss the train.”
“It’s a new paradigm,” says the New Yorker – the New Yorker! – “and we need to abandon our natural doubts.”
Something’s new, alright. Something is abandoned.
Four or five parties a week, all South of Market – SoMa, as it’s starting to be known – two or three some nights … WildCard Wednesday and Glas Kat and Portrero Brewing … Ruby Skye and the Great American Music Hall.
After a while, it doesn’t matter where. The same people, freeloaders, the undecideds and the bored. Fucked company.
The brilliant are all still at work. This is something else at last.
What are the parties for, exactly?
“Really great networking there,” says the founder of Beenz.com, a virtual currency company … or does it sell coffee?
Parties for no reason other than to say: We’re here. No, here. Right now. In the lobby of the San Francisco Federal Reserve building rusticated with zydeco and jambalaya … Mardi Gras in March.
Charlotte raged through most of them, it felt like, and her excuse was the traffic on 280, piling up … the new HQ’s appearing on the 101 and that she’s young – twenty-five or so, let’s say – so young and fairly serious about her drugs-and-vodka rants … but also, yes, an entrepreneur of sorts, working at a dot-com in the marketing division, writing emails to people she would never meet, designing 300×250-pixel banner ads on her computer for the regional campaign.
Her company sold clothing for very thin women. She herself could not wear any of it. What do you expect from a bunch of men who dated models?
It’s a thankless life in ‘99 that’s held up by the free hors d’oeuvres … and SFBayHappyHour and the like-minded … that time Tixtogo changed its name to something else and decided to rent an airplane hangar on Treasure Island and import 3,500 people to watch racing pigs – live pigs! – and artists on the trapeze and Gold Club strippers and a go-go dancing Mayor Willie Brown, in person, live, the man.
That’s supposed to be the so-called “best party ever” of the dot-com era but she doesn’t see how that can be. Who judges these things? That blogging kid called, rather obviously, SFBoy? Who’s he?
Craigslist.com started as a website to publicize dot-com parties. That is a true story there.
It was the year of performance art – parties she knew would never happen again, until they did, again and again.
If you want to know what happens at the end of time, remember this time.
And the dead zone of every evening … the point when the over-30 – if always under 40 – co-founder mounts the floor, declines the music, waits until the lull (“Shut up!” “What up?!”) and hums, “It’s great to see you all here tonight. When I started Whizbang dot com last year I wanted to activate what I saw as some blue ocean in the market with a game-changing vision. It was a vision for ….”
Vodka! What?! Nobody remembers. Vision for real? It failed. They all failed.
Dreams die, just like people, but usually before.
The Millennium announced itself to Charlotte in two scenes.
First was that night with the cages filled with gerbil girls and that woman in a gold-threaded prom dress climbing, climbing onto the metal structure itself … and falling from the cage onto her face, dragged off, inert … and nobody stopped dancing.
Second was Guru.com.
She remembers that site because she wanted it to work. It let you set up a profile and sell your personal abilities, such as they were; “Be Your Own Boss!” like it says, your own Guru.com … but the party was just a frost on the lawn, because the people who went were actually looking for work – work! – and not enjoying the hedonic backwash of a trenchant IPO or funding round … and nothing, nothing, repels the Valley insider more completely than a person who does not propose to get rich but rather to work for a living … what a pathetic admission of defeat … even if that Valley insider is actually a deadbeat loafing sponge who has no skills herself but an ability to clean up and soft-sell a bouncer … Guru.com, that was the end.
On her way out the door, Charlotte passed two men who were saying, “What’s their margin, anyway?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are they making any money?”
“Their run rate is –”
“So they’re losing money.”
“Well, yes, of course, but –”
Oddly, she reflects, this was the first time the topic of the fundamental business comes up and there’s certainly some truth to the natural assumption that all this raving and excess and pig racing – pig racing announced by the Mayor of the Great City of San Francisco himself – and acrobats and circus freaks can’t all be going anywhere quite real. It has to end. Everybody knows it. We’ve known it since ‘98.
We know it’s going to end.
We just don’t know when.
TheGlobe.com went public in 1998 at $9 a share. Within five minutes, it was at $97. Providing an easy way for people to launch semi-customized websites, it was exactly nine months old. The bubble began.
eBay followed and its stock price shot from $18 in September to $241 before Christmas.
“The internet,” said economics writer David Lowenstein, “had now reached the stage in which people cease to think and simply imitate each other without any regard to the underlying economics – in other words, a bubble.”
Broadcast.com provided streaming media over phone lines that turned the stream into a trickle and a wait, like a hot tub on Mars, but somehow Yahoo decided it was worth paying almost $6 billion for it, making a young man named Mark Cuban very rich indeed.
The MGM Grand hosted the biggest boondoggle of all – in Las Vegas, of course – called the iBASH 99. It cost a rumored $10 million and was supposedly staged to promote an unknown company called Pixelon that was either a criminal waste of money or a criminal plot. It was bankrupt in a year, having launched nothing.
Traffic was just unimaginable as kids drove from the city to dot-jobs up and down the path to Palo Alto.
And then it got worse.
Advertising was both symptom and cause of the boom. In 2000, 69% of all online ad dollars came from dot-coms. Of course, they advertised themselves.
So the bubble was stoked by dot-coms buying ads, creating media empires like Yahoo that bought dot-coms like Broadcast.com, driving up the value of other dot-coms and inspiring VC’s to fund companies that then, yes, bought ads from online media companies that … and so on.
There were other ideas. Free-PC.com gave away Compaq PCs. In return, its victims watched a stream of ads crawling along their (free) screens. AllAdvantage.com sent customers checks based on how many ads they watched. Its founder was a recent Stanford grad. The week the NASDAQ peaked – at around 5,000 – Credit Suisse’s oily-haired Frank Quattrone took that founder and his team by private jet to Aspen for a weekend none of them can quite recall.
In its most recent quarter, AllAdvantage.com had sold less than $9 million in ads and paid out almost as much to its ad-watching customers, many of which (it turned out) were robots. AllAdvantage.com did not know they were robots. They cashed their checks too.
And then came Super Bowl XXXIV. During the course of a strategic dialogue between the Rams and the Patriots, catalyzed by a brilliant Tom Brady, sixteen different dot-coms aired 30-second spots. Each cost about $2 million.
The most telling was the pitch for a company called IWon.com, which had the so-called business model of giving away online games and its investors’ cash in $1 million bundles.
Even as the Pats were celebrating, the NASDAQ stopped climbing. It had muscled up 5X in five years.
One year later, during Super Bowl XXXV, there were only three dot-coms showing ads. Two of them were job-hunting sites.
A research firm predicted that by 2005, the share of internet ads bought by dot-coms would plunge from 69% to 16%. The average price for online banner ads went from $50 to $5 for 1,000.
After March 10, 2000 – as Quattrone towels off after his hot tub luau in Aspen with the soon-to-be-bankrupt AllAdvantage.com team – the NASDAQ index starts falling … and falling … and after thirty sickening months is down 78%.
Charlotte joins the exodus. It is a relief, in fact. She abandons her lease in Petaluma in March of 2001 and drives east, by herself, to New Jersey.
There is a man involved in this decision. It takes a moment to recover from a two-year binge. Not working actually helps. Her company – that website for the minus-sized woman – just disappears. One day, the door was locked. There was a note:
The founders, frat brothers from San Diego, evaporate. She’d seen them nearly every day for two years; she never heard from, or of, them again. Nobody knew. Hard times are like that.
And the man involved, he had attached himself to her along the way and would not, when it came time, let go. Looking back, she sees he was obviously on one of those mental spectrums they have in the technical fields, but psychology did not help her get rid of him, nor did blunt talk and unanswered calls.
It was time to move. She liked the idea of New Jersey. It seemed somehow more adult than SoMa.
Where she ended up was sharing a third-floor one-bedroom dump in Hoboken with a girl named Lauren who wore three kinds of purple eyeshadow and worked in a bar called Lapine’s. She was a walking wreck, this Lauren.
So many of us were in those days.
Note: I originally published this rather bitter essay about my hilarious lack of talent as a fiction writer in Medium. I had never published in Medium before, felt it was perfect for my work, pushed play and sat back waiting for the world to change. It didn’t. Three people read it; I know this because Medium, unfortunately, counts. I offer it here because I’m confident it will be seen by more than three bots. Enjoy.
I am the worst fiction writer in the world. No, I am not making this up. I couldn’t if I wanted to — I’m incapable of making anything up.
This sad situation is not due to laziness. I put in my ten thousand hours, my workshops and night classes and day classes and drafts; my editors hired and martyred and shamed into feedback; my competitions and applications and plaintive pitch notes and paper — scaffolds and dumpsters of paper thudding onto a dozen desks in a half-dozen states, crushing haulers, filling zip drives, hurtling off into the library of forgotten words.
I do not blame a bad education. I do not blame my parents. They wanted me to be a writer; at least one of them did, at times. I can not blame a lack of confidence or dyslexia or addiction or myopia or a broken social scene or the hard and brutal scythe of luck, which seemed to like me fine. I got every break in the book, but there was a problem
That book was fiction. It was written by me. And it sucked.
I am a wonderful reader; a gifted reader. I will linger over an effect in, say, Nabokov or Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives — eclectic tastes — and think, “Wow. Look at that.” I’ll read the Golden Age mysteries of Christie or Carr, the relentless final chapter of Ulysses, the invention of The Island of Doctor Moreau — and go blank in the face, flooded up to my eyes with blue envy.
Wow. Look at that. I can do it. I can do it, too.
There was never a time when I did not want to be a novelist, a playwrite, a hipster L.A. showrunner with a staff of lesser writers, chunking out a storyline, sawing out a plot. Desire, I had. Tenacity — too much. Solitude — oh, boy. But there was a problem; there was always a problem.
I was so bad at fiction I did not know that I was bad.
In fact, I see now that my own epic optimism about my fiction-writing skills was itself proof that they didn’t exist. It is a well-attested psychological phenomenon, one with a name. I discovered it too late to make a difference, but I share it now so you can quit while you are young. It is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it describes a howlingly tragic phenomenon wherein people who suck at something don’t know they suck because their own suckiness itself makes them unable to see their own suckitude.
Wow. Talk about irony. A disease whose symptom is its own invisibility. Don’t linger here. It’s actually a very, very funny phenomenon unless you happened to discover, about two months ago, that it took a whole honking hunk of your so-called life out behind a shed somewhere and shot it.
Self-knowledge is wonderful, but not when it comes too late. Neither Dunning nor Kruger and a busload of their Cornell University grad students will never be able to give me back those years of my life, my glorious time, when I should have been whittling myself into a conscious contributor, a professional fellow in a black suit and Tesla, a man with some heft in the world — a dry wit who does something, adds a certain personal competence to our collective human project, draws an honest breath — and not what I am: a delusional non-novelist and non-screenwriter, some schmuck with a Lenovo.
I am not alone. You know this: I am not alone. The world is filling up with atrocious artistic abortions and witless videos and literary loogies that should be lying on a slab somewhere. But most of these things are committed by kids, twentysomethings, mammals in the midst of growing up. “There is a kind of lambent tragedy that occurs in too many young men,” said Edmund Wilson, “who mistake a youthful passion poured out in poetry for a real call to the art.” That’s me.
As I say, I’m not alone, but I am willing to bet that in the annals of failure I rank pretty well. How can I say this? Imagine a ratio — we’ll call it the Rat Ratio — that divides the sum total of all signals of success (however tiny) by the total amount of honest effort put into that success. Nobody — not Charles Dickens, not Stephen King — makes it all the way to one. That would mean every tap-tap of effort yield a tap-tap of success. No life I know goes like that. Everyone hits a pocket of air. Energetic bad writers have low numbers, sometimes very low. My ratio is lower than that. It is zero.
What? It is my pained duty to report that, over two decades of trying and trying again, churning out (at last count) a dozen unpublished novels, uncounted poems and short stories, at least two dozen crapulous screenplays and pilots and spec episodes for television programs now dead or dying — during year upon year of studious, near-psychotic endeavour — I never received a single word of encouragement. Not one.
Zero divided by a google is still zero. That’s the sum total of my success as a novelist, short story writer, screenwriter and television staff member. Zero. Tell me now that I am flattering myself, that my failure is not as impressive as I claim. No, I am not; and yes, yes, it is.
I am rock-solid in this statement, at least: I am utterly, entirely, completely, totally and convincingly without a shred of talent as a storyteller.
The Problem of Storytelling
That’s the problem, of course: storytelling. Making things up. Putting one made-up thing after another in a way that creates a sense of wonder, a logical flow. Don’t tell me about story structure: I know the Hero’s Journey. I know about the rise and fall of action at the end of an act. I know about acts. I watched the hundred best movies of all time, plotted them down to the minute, distilled their essence into a template, pressure-tested the template against new hits and wrote my own version of the Perfect Screenplay.
But there was only one problem. I wrote it. And it sucked.
“Every suburban sewing circle has one,” says William Goldman — who, unlike me, is a natural storyteller — “someone who can tell a story around a table and keep everyone waiting to see how it turns out.” He is certainly right about this: it’s not a rare gift. My wife can tell stories with a rising swell and moments of hilarity and suspense. So could a guy named Aki in the ad agency where I worked measuring the impact of campaigns. Great stories, riveting works. They do not call themselves writers. I do. The most common reaction to a story I tell out in the plain air is a desperate silence and, suddenly, “What?!”
I’m confusing. I confuse myself. I don’t have a cumulative style — you know, how a story unreels like a soft desert sunrise, slowly at first but with light dabbed on at intervals until the scene is ablaze . . . and then they appear, a hat and a leathery pinpoint, shots, a violent chase . . . changes in the texture of sand as the body falls and it turns out, unbelievably, to be . . . .
Don’t ask me. I’m the last guy who knows who should turn up in a story and where to keep the beat beating. I can’t do suspense. I can’t do drama, or comic narrative, or action-adventure or horror or anything at all. How do I know this? Because I’ve tried them, tried them all. And I suck.
“Keep trying,” they told me, all my pained readers. “Nobody gets it right at first.”
And: “Why don’t you put it away for a while and come back to it?” (Which is like locking a crazy cat up in a closet, hoping to improve its personality.)
And, later: “Maybe you should try a different type of writing. Thrillers are really big now.”
Thrillers are big. So is horror and suspense and literature and romance and fantasy and basically anything that has the absolute non-negotiable element of everything that is big then or now or ever until time stops and we all go the way of all life: the one true thing. A riveting story. Told by somebody who knows how to tell a story.
Talent exists, people. It is not a game. Some people have it, and some people don’t.
Don’t encourage assholes like me. Yes, a craft takes time, and it is a crime to step too hard on the young. But a forty-five year old schlemiel injecting his fifth semi-autobiographical piece of rancid vomit from a word processor into your life must be kindly, but decisively, stopped. If kindness doesn’t work, take a firmer stand. Do not relent. Do not say “Time takes time,” and, “It’s just one agent’s opinion,” and, “The market’s weird right now.”
The market’s always weird. Time takes time but does not make miracles. People who suck long enough and hard enough at something will always, always suck. It is the law of fiction physics: there is no path from nowhere to good. There is no water rising from an empty well. It just sits there, like your relatives, staring at you single-eyed until you wise up someday and leave.
We are not happy, we people with my kind of dream. I’m not exactly sure why we go on. At first it’s a reasonable sense we can get better, or are overlooked. With enough rejection, we become angry. A mature reaction to non-stop failure is to try a different approach, find another dream. Right? But too many of us have a bulldog tendency, a fighting spirit that is wonderful in war and if we’re protecting an injury or a child or a venture capital-backed start-up ahead of its time.
In a person who just plain can’t do something, tenacity is not a virtue. It is a vice.
Obvious Awfulness of the Roller Coaster
At this point, you’re wondering what I actually wrote not at all. You don’t care. Nobody cares or ever did but I have a certain pride now — with the benefit of a horrible hindsight — in the obvious awfulness of my work, my ideas. How could I have thought they were contenders? How could I have embarrassed myself like that?
I once wrote a screenplay called Roller Coaster. Stay with me. We’re in a theme park kind of like DisneyWorld. A bunch of randoms get onto a roller coaster. Ten minutes in — yes, I know about the Inciting Incident; I took Story Structure from Robert McKee himself, bros — ten minutes in, there’s a problem. Suspicious characters appear and — BAM! — terrorists have taken control of the park. They occupy the control room . . . and decide to keep the roller coaster going, over and over again, without stopping, until their evil demands are met. Of course, there’s an intrepid undercover cop with a troubled past on the roller coaster as it hurtles around and around (and around and around) . . . and, somehow, he saves everyone without getting sick on the camera.
Genius? Nobody bought that one. I showed it to a friend of mine from college who literally acquired screenplays for a major studio — see, I did not have bad luck in life — and he said, “Marty, I’d like to help you, but this is not a screenplay. I don’t know what it is, exactly. Try again.”
Try again. I wrote a kind of alternative-universe script in which women are on top and men are treated like objects, a super-sexist upside-down world, and I called it Living Doll. It was set in the region of advertising, and I had great fun making the women fat and old and sloppy and the men obsessed with aging and their looks and babies and . . . there’s a scrappy (boy) secretary who’s got a great idea and his (woman) boss takes credit for it and . . . well, if you’re thinking, “Hello, Working Girl!” here, you’re more than half right. I borrowed plots because I could not think of them myself.
My studio friend didn’t call me back on that one. Now that I think about it, I haven’t talked to him since. Try again. Having an analytical mind, I came up with explanations for my failures, like some drunk trying to figure out why he keeps going waking up in handcuffs. I was missing my strengths. What was needed was a more ambitious approach.
So I settled in and over two long years that stretched back into the origin of the universe and outward to its end — or so it seemed — I created a 120,000 word novel about Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould, late 19th century railroad barrons, set in 1876 in that greatest of fictional cities, old-time New York. Sounds interesting, right? I read dozens of books about the period, including an encyclopedic tourist guidebook published in 1872 called The Sights and Sounds of New York — a riveting work, actually, showing how little the place has changed over the years — drew maps, dove into the archives of the New York Times (which was a right-wing rag then) without coming up for weeks on end . . . accumulated a meticulous record of clothing, streetcars, etiquette, food (the “Hamburg steak” was a new meme), commute times (averaging one hour, as now), policing, Wall Street . . . and wrote a story.
By this time, I had a literary agent; a respected young man with good taste. (He did not sign me for my fiction, of course; I also wrote non-fiction that was, apparently, better.) He read it and offered advice. I rewrote it. He read it and offered more advice. I rewrote it again.
He called me. This call, I will never forget. I had broken my foot in the Uppercut Boxing Gym on New Year’s Eve and was staring out on my city of exile, Minneapolis, where I’d retreated (with my sainted wife, a Minnesotan) to work in advertising analytics and wonder why my fiction-writing dream wasn’t working for me yet . . . .
“Marty,” he said, “I have to be honest.”
“Why don’t you put this aside. It’s not happening. You tried three times and it’s not –“
“But, but –“
“Or you could hire someone to help you, really get in there, work with the — you know — the words.”
“You mean, an editor? I thought you –“
“No, a coach, a — someone to really get in there and –“
“You mean, a writer? You want me to hire a writer to write my book?”
You can imagine that — to a writer — the advice to hire a writer to write the writing comes as rather a splash of cold juice.
Agents have my respect. They’re dealing with the most immature people in the world at their most vulnerable, on the topic about which they are blind and defensive by nature. To say I sobbed for weeks over this conversation would be to state the obvious, and all that poor kid did was tell me the truth.
My novel sucked. It blew chunks. It was called The Strategem and somebody should have put it in a leaded sink and burned it, scrubbing out the residue with bleach.
Try again. So perhaps historical fiction was not my forte. Certainly, there are easier forms. Write what you read. More terrible advice from the orphan train of writers’ workshops. Great readers do not make great writers; great readers make great book reviewers.
Minneapolis has a lot of faults but one thing it does really well is nurture and encourage bad art. It has a thriving community called The Loft that is like a hatchery for terrible poetry and execrable prose. Hot off my Strategem stink bomb, I decided what I needed was a supportive artistic community, one with a lively give-and-take of encouragement and praise, a prop in the midst of my (temporary) disappointments. You see where this is going. I take a class. Two volunteers for next week? — I’m in! I write a story called “The Ranch” based on a trip I took with my long-suffering to a spa called Canyon Ranch in the Berkshire Mountains, a binge I felt I needed to help me get over the failure of my — at this point, I think it was still the historical thing — and it was the worst week of my life. Add to the post-operative environment and food that was all but literally twigs, bark and berries — the tick-tick of ruinous bills racking up by the moment — add to that my wife’s gentle suggestion that we take, um, a marriage workshop, you know, while we’re here . . .
It was okay. She cleared the air. I took it manfully. Once they released us, it occurred to me that Canyon Ranch was a great setting for a story about mind games, out-of-control therapists trying weird experiments on touchy couples drained of hope. That was “The Ranch.” I emailed it to the class with an ominous pride.
“I don’t get it,” they said, as one voice. “What’s going on here?”
“You know,” said the teacher, a local small-press novelist, “you might want to start over with this one.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Start fresh. Rethink the concept.”
“You mean, throw it away?”
Throw it away. Burn it. Flush it. Rid the biosphere of this fictional homunculus that has wasted our time and yours and subtracted minutes from the people for no reason but the gratification of some screwy ache on the part of a now middle-aged man to chase a dream like a beloved Bernese mountain dog across a glorious field of high wheat that’s on fire — the field is on fire — and nobody’s getting out of this thing alive.
I quit the class. I should have stayed. I’m a good reader, as I’ve said, and my comments on other people’s stuff can be useful. I’ll never write a good story, but I know one when I see it. When the Greek philosopher Thales was asked what was difficult he said, “To know yourself.” And what was easy? “To advise another.”
So it goes. I was not done yet; not quite yet. The past three years I committed three complete novel-length objects, and it will tell you just how near death the enterprise had become by this late date when I admit that two of these objects were cat mysteries. Say what? You read that right: cat mysteries. Mysteries featuring felines as intrepid crime-solvers. Not for kids: for adults.
It’s a real genre, one I like. The first four novels by the late Lilian Jackson Braun are favorites. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, girls.
Cat mystery #1 was awful, so ghastly no one but me (and my cat) will ever see it, but the second wasn’t worse. I called it I, Cat! with a flourish of neo-noir silliness, actually hired an editor to help me out, sent it off to the boy agent in New York with head high.
“It just doesn’t work,” he wrote me in an email. “Let’s talk about it.”
We didn’t. I let him go and went on a religious retreat and prayed for an answer, and I’m thinking there is some divine art at work in the answer I got as though spoken to my soul itself.
“It’s time to stop,” It said. And so I did.