Even a Kvetch Needs a Mentor
By Wendell Abern
Last month, a friend asked me, “When you first started writing, who was your mentor?”
“When I first started writing,” I said, “I was seventeen. At that time, I knew everything there was to know in the entire world; that’s when I started kvetching about everything. I didn’t need mentors to do that.”
He chuckled (sneer included).
But I have since given that question a lot of thought. Mentors are critical in any profession; they’ve already run the race and can help novices avoid pesky hurdles.
And the truth is, I did have mentors. Three of them, with one thing in common: they had no idea they were mentoring me. In fact, I never even met two of them.
I did meet this young lady, my first day in high school. She sat across from me in Home Room. Cute as hell, with two features critical to any thirteen-year old boy: a great body and shorter than I was.
Raya showed up in my English class, where we were all assigned to give a five-minute talk on whatever subject interested us. I chose dogs. The next day, reading aloud our choices, the teacher said, “Well, isn’t this interesting! Raya is going to talk about euthanasia!”
Later, I asked Raya what the hell was so interesting about a bunch of kids in China. She was still laughing when Home Room ended.
Okay, I was thirteen, and had no idea that “euthanasia” meant mercy killing.
Two years later, we met up again in another English class with Miss Drell as our teacher. Miss Drell had established a reputation for being fair, a lot of fun … and sort of crazy.
True to her rep, she gave us a six-week course in humor; then made us choose a comedian and perform a five-minute routine in his/her style. Six kids (including me) chose Jack Benny; four chose George Burns; two, Bob Hope.
Raya chose the ten o’clock news.
The year was 1948: 28 years before Chevy Chase and the first “Saturday Night Live.” Raya gave one of the funniest newscasts I’ve ever heard. A radio broadcast, of course. Television was just peeking over the horizon.
Raya graduated third in our class; third in her pre-med class at the U. of Wisconsin, and fourth in medical school, where she was the only girl in the class. She became a successful psychiatrist, a renowned expert in rape cases, and was frequently used as a consultant by the Chicago Police Department.
In my 50 years as an advertising copywriter, trying to solve knotty marketing problems, I frequently asked myself, “What would Raya do?”
Raya didn’t just think outside the box; she lived there.
No writer could ever ask for a better mentor.
Any young person lame-brained enough to want to become a writer draws inspiration – and indirect mentoring – from hundreds of outstanding writers.
But of all the great writers, one will always remain important enough to me to be singled out as a silent mentor:
Known primarily for his iconic novel, “Gulliver’s Travels,” Swift wrote a short pamphlet entitled, “A Modest Proposal”: the quintessential cynical satire.
In the early 1720s, a severe nationwide famine ravaged the country of Ireland. An entire population was dying, especially children. Swift, enraged at a government that had done nothing to try and solve the problem, wrote “A Modest Proposal” to expose Parliamentary constipation.
And his “modest proposal?” Sell children to be slain and cooked, thereby ending both the famine … and the nuisance of children starving to death!
Swift wrote: “I have been assured … that a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boyled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragout.” (Spelling and capitalizations are Swift’s.)
Outrageous! Unconscionable! Unheard-of!
Yet a dormant Parliament began to stir. Other pamphleteers continued the lampooning. Outraged citizens demanded action.
And the 19-year old Me came to believe in the power of the written word. Today, an 85-year Me believes that all writers should treat Jonathan Swift as a personal mentor.
Among professional copywriters, this genius is considered the father of modern advertising.
I had never heard of Mr. Lasker because I had never taken an advertising course in college. But his exploits had already become famous by the time I entered the advertising world.
In the 1930s, for example, the orange growers of the country came to the Lord & Taylor advertising agency for help. The 26-year old Lasker was both Creative Director and president.
The Depression had reached catastrophic levels. No one was buying oranges. Lasker came up with the idea of marketing oranges as juice. His theme line was, “Drink an orange every day.” (The visual, a straw inserted into an orange, is still used today by Tropicana.) Inside of two years, orange sales had risen by 400%.
But the event that vaulted Lasker to legendary status centers on Johnson Baby Powder. In fact, when I first heard the following story, I thought it was advertising myth. But it’s actually true.
Once again, the 30s. Baby powder sales had plummeted to bupkus levels. Johnson wanted a new advertising agency, and Lord & Taylor, among others, was invited to make a pitch for the account.
Instead of the usual dog-and-pony show — mountains of charts, graphs, advertising ideas and a flotilla of accompanying acolytes — Lasker showed up alone. He entered a conference room packed with Johnson moguls, and shook hands with the Johnson CEO.
“But Mr. Lasker,” the CEO said, “don’t you have any charts or visuals or something?”
“No, it’s just me,” he said. Then he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small can of the client’s product. “You want to sell more baby powder, right?”
“Of course,” the CEO said.
Lasker twisted the top of the can, exposing the perforations.
“Make the holes bigger,” he said.
Lord & Taylor was awarded the account, baby powder profits skyrocketed, and the incident frequently became cited as the first time an account was won by a marketing concept instead of an advertising idea.
More importantly, I had found a professional mentor.