Global Province Letter: Miami Vice, Gauguin, Luck, Random Walk Theory, Mike Hicks, Jimmy Walker

Janaury 20, 2010

                                Go n-eiri an t-adh leat  -- Gaelic for Good Luck

Miami Vice. We’ve heard some complicated stories about how Miami Vice came to be. It was an ’80s, break-the-mold, TV police drama with gorgeous production values set in South Florida.  But we’re most inclined to believe a marketing  know-it-all who swears he knows the real skinny behind the show.  Supposedly a couple of Hollywood producer types went out for a Beverly Hills lunch, chewed the fat, and came up with a winning concept.  By the end of their repast, admittedly a long and liquid one, they’d written but a few words down on a napkin—“Cops and robbers plus MTV.”  Thus was born a 5-season show featuring New Wave music, gritty crime stories, and very well tailored clothing.  

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?  In 1897, Gauguin in Tahiti gave birth to a masterpiece that posed the eternal questions men and women try to answer during their lifetimes—never adequately.  “Who We Are” is the kind of question that bedevils philosophers, companies, and nations, and it’s hard to come up with something snappy that says-it-all, as did the alchemists at Miami Vice.

Clients often pose this very question to the partners at our firm.  They ask, “What do you do?” and are still often puzzled about us no matter how detailed and how direct we are with our answers.  Like it or not, we are a trifle mysterious.  It’s best, we find, to boil it down to a 5 or 6 word answer.

Happy Coincidence.  Happily, there have been hints along the way as to what will strike a chord. In our 20th year, the senior partner at one relatively new client met with us for lunch to discuss the results of our first year on the job. Halfway through our meal, he stared at us quizzically and said, “Well, Peter and I have been doing immensely better since you came aboard.  But we don’t know what we can attribute to you. We’re not sure how you made any of it happen.” We immediately replied, “Ah, may the coincidences just keep on coming!”  There never ever again was a question from him about the value of our services.

We’ve had other unlikely successes where our clients were unsure what we had done.  Most recently the stock of one of our client companies has increased twenty-fold, a special victory since the concern in question almost went bankrupt, the victim of misguided Federal regulation.  Happily, in this case, as with several other companies, our clients have let us go along for the ride, so we have been able to put a penny or two in the bank by buying in during the tough times.

Luck.  Our stock-in-trade is luck. We are able to plead with the gods and get them to smile on some of our friends.  That is, we help some people see around corners, avoid some potholes, and steer around traffic jams.  They may learn from us to take random walks where they bump into notions, and people, and experiences they would not otherwise have encountered.  In fact, it’s pretty clear that the universe operates along the lines of a random walk, even if mankind is always trying, hopelessly, to move in a straight line. We get our clientele off the straight and narrow.  There’s an eternal war between the ways the universe works and the compulsive, if boring, trajectory mankind tries to pursue.

Mike Hicks.  Eons ago, we met Mike Hicks on one such walk.  We were stopping in Austin to interview a Latino Texas politician about his mounting successes at the polls and in the court of public favor.  Mike had come up at cocktails in Dallas but a few days before. On a fluke, we gave him a call and then got tangled up in a long conversation with him, all the while listening to his high powered stereo system which was pumping out country notes to us.  The conversation never really has ended. He’s a designer whose toolkit is full of quips, replete with verbal and visual innuendo.

These days most graphic design work is very, very busy and highly decorative. Not Hicks. For starters, when he puts something on paper, you can read what he has written and easily figure out what he has designed. His work is not airy-fairy.  Hicks understands, as our old friend Jock Elliot, second chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, was wont to say, “You’ve got to ring the cash register.”  Design and advertising should bring in a dollar or two.  If the designer can make you smile as well, then you should hire him for life.

Back when we had that first quaff of Hicks, Austin was a small, even slightly dusty town whose politicians hung out in cat houses.  It was a lot more fun than it is today, not saturated yet by the droves of traffic that turn I-35 into a parking lot around rush hour.  In a sleepy town, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades, and Hicks can do a bit of everything.  We particularly like his radio advertisements.  In one, for a small pizza chain, we heard a libidinous young couple get acquainted in a nudist colony.  They decided to order in some pizza. We learned how delicious and sensuous it was as they made their way through their cheese and tomatoes, occasionally licking up drizzles that lighted on each of them. 

Today Hicks does his magic in an aerie, high up where he can contemplate the trees about him.  We found him in his eagle’s nest the other day, and got yakking with him about luck.  “Luck,” we said,  “That’s our main product line.”  Not to be outdone by the Miami Vice fellows, he sent us his quick take on the conversation which you can see here.

The Luck of the Irish.  Some Wikipedia cynic claims that the Irish are notoriously unlucky and that the expression—“Luck of the Irish”—is just an ironic aside.  That’s dead wrong.  The Irish are very lucky, and they give us a lesson in how to secure good fortune. Irishmen can tell you a thousand tales of woe, but there’s as many tales about how the right Gaelic fellow has escaped man’s fate and taken a seat in the heavens. They’re become skilled 4-leaf clover players because they’ve eternally had to do battle with adversity in life’s casino. There’s an art to being lucky, and they’ve had a chance to learn it.

Take the case of Jimmy Walker. He was a fun fellow and a scoundrel, a mayor of New York City when it was living high off the hog.  One of our close friends who worked in the New York City civil service at mid-century excoriated Vincent Impellitteri, a Tammany hack who somehow got to be mayor of New York.  She thought he had his hand in the cookie jar.  She jibed, “Impellitteri is simply awful.  When Jimmy Walker was mayor of New York, we knew he was stealing us blind, but at least he gave us a good time.”  One can give a pass to somebody who gives you a good time:  that’s the charm and luck of the Irish.
Walker finally took off for Europe before the prosecutors could get to him.  “After his return to the United States, for a time Walker acted as head of Majestic Records. On his death, at the age of 65, in 1946, he was interred in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.”  Surely it’s a sign of good luck if both the priests and all the worthies of your community give you a pass, despite your countless sins. 

We’re sorry to say that the last 4 or 5 mayors of New York have all been sad sacks, no matter their party.  They’d never enjoy the luck of the Irish, because not one of them really knew how to lighten our load or make the best out of a bad hand. 

P.S.  Hicks, we’ve said, knows a lot of things. He’s not a photographer, but he might as well be.   Chaps in the trade think he can scope out a pretty good picture.

P.P.S.  We’ve always been rather fond of a few lines from a Broadway play called Shadowbox.  An older man, in a soliloquy, remarks about a friend, “You know. I got interested in what he was doing.  Which, as it turns out, was nothing.  But he was doing it so well.”

P.P.P.S.  Van Morrison, in his song New Biography, laments, “See you’ve got the new biography/Where did they get the info from/Same as before some, so called friends/Who claim to have, known me then/How come they’ve got such good memories/And I can’t even remember last week/Got to question where they’re coming from/What knowledge of me is it that they speak.”

P.P.P.P.S.  The Miami Vice creators were smart to use napkins.  We often write cryptic notes on napkins, which, making it to our out basket, then have to be deciphered by our very astute secretary.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Ironically the Tammany hack Impellitteri ran against the Tammany bosses as the candidate of the newly formed ‘Experience Party,’ though he was distinctly a product of the flawed party system. 


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