Hodskins Simone & Searls

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Ray SimoneRay Simone, my good friend and long-time business partner, died this morning. He was 63 years old. He is survived by his wife Gillian, his daughter Christina, and many good friends for whom he remains an inspiration and a delight.

Ray was one of the most creative people I have ever known. Though we originally shared the Creative Director title at our agency, Hodskins Simone & Searls, Ray was the Main Man. While I was a good copywriter, Ray could do it all: come up with killer campaigns, clever headlines, great design and art, tight scripts, whatever. His knowledge of art, of typography, of technologies and sciences — actually, pretty much everything — was encyclopedic. He worked his ass off, and he was great to work with as well.

We met in the mid-’70s in Durham, North Carolina, when I was still “Doctor Dave,” an occasional comic radio character for WDBS and columnist for the station’s magazine (see the visual below), and Ray was an artist whose own comic work appeared in the same publication. We both circulated in the same low-rent Hippie creative-art-music-dance-weekend-party crowd surrounding Duke University. Ray was working with Hodskins Simone and Searls 1978David Hodskins and some other folks at small “multiple media” shop (decades ahead of its time) that had somehow spun out of the Duke Media Center. One day, when I called up Ray to talk about collaborating on an ad for an audio shop I was working for part-time, Ray put me on hold and told David that Doctor Dave was on the line. David told Ray to arrange a lunch. A team was born over that lunch, and in 1978 we became an advertising agency: Hodskins Simone & Searls. The photo on the right dates from that time.

By 1980 we were specializing in high tech clients up and down the East Coast, and after several years decided to open a satellite office in Silicon Valley.

After winning some major West Coast

Hillbilly Jazzaccounts we moved the whole agency to Palo Alto, and by the early 90s HS&S was one of the top shops there. (Huge props to David Hodskins for his leadership through all that. David was the agency President and another truly brilliant dude.)

Twenty years after its founding,  HS&S was acquired. By then I had moved on to other work, and after awhile so had David and Ray. While I went back to journalism, Ray went back to art, teaching at Ocean Shore School in Pacifica, as well as at Brighton Preschool, which he and Gillian, his wife and soulmate, ran in the same town. He was Sting Ray to the kids there. Says Gillian, “He made story time come alive.”

He also went back to painting. But his full portfolio of accomplishments includes much, much more. For example, Ray designed covers for dozens of major country and bluegrass albums, mostly for Sugar Hill Records. Two samples, one for Vassar Clements and the other for the Red Clay Ramblers, are on the left and right. Here is a partial discography (drawn from here and other places), in alphabetical order:

Ray was a musician as well. When he was a student at what is now Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, he played keyboards in a band that traveled to gigs in a used hearse. Some of the stories he told about those days were beyond wild and very funny.

Ray also designed countless t-shirts and posters, most of which were worthy of collection. Panel from Ray Simone Hassle House poster(Wish I still had some, but alas.) Old friends from Durham will fondly remember the Forklift Festival at the late Plantation (an run-down mansion on North Roxboro that should have been preserved). Forklift was a play on the Folklife Festival (now Festival for the Eno) that took place across the road. Ray also helped the Good Time Boogie, an annual gathering in Eastern North Carolina for which there was huge attendance, pass-the-hat funding and no publicity beyond Ray’s brilliant t-shirt art.

Ray’s cartoon poster for a place called Hassle House, done in the style of MAD’s Will Elder by way of Vaughn Bodé, was the first thing that turned me on to Ray. It was funny as hell, and I can still remember every panel of it. (Rob Gringle provides more background in a comment below, and also reminds us that Ray did many covers for The Guide, the monthly published by WDBS. I still have a stack of Guides somewhere.)

[Later…] Big thanks to Jay Cunningham for providing scans to the poster. That’s one panel, there on the right.

Ray was a born athlete, though he never exploited his talents beyond casually (but never maliciously) humiliating anybody who took him on at ping-pong, darts, softball or whatever. I remember one softball game where he grabbed a hard grounder bare-handed at third base, and — while falling down — threw out the runner at first base. All in one move. Like it was no big deal. It was awesome.

He took up fencing when we were still in North Carolina, and quickly won trophies.

A student of fun history, he was active for years in the Society for Creative Anachronism. In that capacity he once served “stargazy pie” at Monkeytop, the rambling Victorian urban commune where he, David Hodskins and many others lived at various times on Swift Street. (It’s now the restored E.K. Powe House.)

When Ray and Gillian (also an artist) were married at a California ranch in 1991, everybody was costumed as cowboys and cowgirls. That was huge fun too.

A devoted reader of science fiction and watcher of movies, Ray could expound with insight and authority on either subject, plus too many others to list.

Yet what matters most is that Ray was a loving guy and a first-rate friend. Back at the turn of the ’90s, when I had sworn off dating after a series of failed relationships, Ray pulled me out of my shell. As a direct result I’ve now been happily married for more than twenty years, with a wonderful teenage son. I know Ray had similar influences on others as well.

I could add much more (such as a backstory on my nickname, which Ray illustrated with the character on the right),docdave but I want to post this today. I’m sure other old friends will weigh in as well. Additions and corrections of course are welcome. Here are a few I failed to string among the pearls above:

      • His full name: Raymond George Simone. Most of his album credits are for Raymond Simone.
      • Simone is pronounced with three syllables and a long e:—Simonē: the correct Italian way, Ray said.
      • He was born in Potsdam, New York, and grew up in High Point, North Carolina.
      • He had one brother, Jim, who died of throat cancer many years ago. Ray’s malady was lung cancer, no doubt an effect, as with Jim, of smoking. Ray quit many years ago, but it still caught up with him.
      • His mother, born and raised in Oklahoma, was part Cherokee. Both his parents passed in recent years.
      • He sometimes called himself The Weasel (others shortened that to “The Weez”), and drew himself in cartoons as a weasel with a mustache. For most of the early years we worked together, Ray’s signature look was long hair and a mustache, sometimes waxed at the tips.
      • Here is Ray’s Facebook page, with a self-portrait from when he was more full-bodied, a couple years back.

The photo at the top of this post is cropped from this one, shot by Gillian last Friday when David and I came to visit Ray at their home. Ray knew he didn’t have much time left, but was still in good humor. That was the day after Thanksgiving. So I’m thankful that I was in town and that these three old partners could get together one last time.

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The comment thread in my last post was lengthened by Seth Finkelstein‘s characterization of me as “basically a PR person”. I didn’t like that, and a helpful back-and-forth between the two of us (and others) followed. In the midst of the exchange I said I would unpack some of my points in a fresh post rather than branch off in the comment thread. So here we are.

We tend to be defined by what we do. Or, in some cases, what we’ve done. Many of our surnames describe the work of an ancestor. Carpenter. Baker. Weaver. Tanner. Of my own surname, it says here,

In his book, Surnames of the United Kingdom, Harrison writes that the surname Searle, Searls, Searles, Serle, Serles, Serrell, or Serrill is of Teutonic origin signifying “Armour or Arms”. It is derived from the Old Teutonic Serlo, Sarla, Sarl, Sarilo, Serilo. Serli ” and the Old English “Searo”, it is the equivalent of the Old High German “Saro” which is the same as the old Norse ” Sorus” meaning Armor arms, skill or device.”

A soldier, I guess. My father, Allen H. Searls, was a soldier, both before and during WWII (he re-enlisted at age 36). But basically he was a carpenter: a builder. So was his father, George William Searls. Also George’s father, Allen Searls. Also Allen’s father, Samuell Searls. I’m not, but my daugther Colette married Todd Carpenter. So my grandson is a Carpenter too.

By the time I knew him, my father was an insurance agent. But he saw himself more as an builder of useful stuff. Thus our basement was a workshop. Pop’s brother-in-law, Archie Apgar, was a banker by day and a builder the rest of the time. In the summer of 1949, the two of them together built our summer house in the woods of South Jersey. (In a paradise of pine, oak and blueberries, now home to a shopping center.) My father was also a longshoreman, a cable-rigger on the George Washington Bridge, and a builder of railroad trestles. He did that in Alaska, where he met my mother, a social worker who had grown up in North Dakota. They married after the War and moved to New Jersey, where Mom worked for many years as a teacher. Her maiden name was Oman, borrowed by a grandfather from a fellow Swede on the boat over from Malmö (or maybe it was Göteburg… someplace with an umlaut).

Mom was a good writer, and in that respect I took more after her than Pop. I started writing in high school, covered sports for my college paper, and the wrote for a variety of newspapers and  magazines across the many years since.

But I’ve done lots of other stuff too. I was a moving man. I drove an ice cream truck. I worked in frozen produce wholesaling (which consisted of moving skids of goods with forklifts and carrying clipboards in and out of freezing warehouses, railroad cars and tractor trailers). I worked in the fronts and the backs of restaurant kitchens, and waiting tables. I flipped burgers and worked counters in fast food joints. I worked in the kitchen at a hospital, and delivering food to patients. I worked in retail, both in sales and management. I worked as a community organizer in a social welfare project (a job that later gave me respect for Barack Obama’s work at the same job, especially since he was good at it and I was not). I worked in radio, doing everything from selling ads to spinning records to engineering, including maintaining transmitters and tower-climbing to change bulbs. I did site studies for FM stations, and made new facility applications to the FCC. I worked in academic parapsychology, helping with research and editing publications. I worked in a landlord’s sawmill when I couldn’t make the rent. And I worked in advertising and PR. Next to writing, that’s the job I held longest.

In 1978 I co-founded Hodskins Simone & Searls, an advertising agency in Durham, North Carolina. By 1980 we came to specialize in what as then called “high tech”. We did well and opened a second office in Palo Alto, moving there completely in 1986. A couple years later we created a division called The Searls Group, which specialized in PR, and eventually spun off on its own as a marketing consultancy. Our clients included Farallon, Symantec, The Burton Group, pieces of Apple and Motorola, Sun Microsystems, Hitachi Semiconductor, Zenith Data Systems and many more.

I had mixed feelings about doing PR, because I was still a journalist at heart, even though I was only freelancing at it during that time. And, while being a journalist made me a better flack, it didn’t make me less of one. I also found that PR folk had little leverage on corporate strategy. Their function was output, not input. So, after awhile, I moved The Searls Group’s work up the client stack, to the point where we did consulting at the CXO level, helping clients understand and engage their markets, rather than in helping them craft and send messages to those markets. You might say our job was delivering (often unwelcome) clues to the places where those clues were needed most. This shift started in the early ’90s and was done by the time Chirs Locke, Rick Levine, David Weinberger and I wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, in 1999.

Not long after Cluetrain came out as a book in early 2000, Jakob Nielsen noted the use of the first person plural voice in the original Manifesto. When we talked about “we”, as with this here…

not

… we were not speaking as marketers. We were speaking as human beings, out in the marketplace. What happened, Jakob said, was that “You guys defected from marketing, and sided with markets against marketing.”

He was right.

The great irony that followed was that Cluetrain was generally classified as a marketing book, and its closest followers have been in marketing as well. Many marketers have been inspired by Cluetrain to improve marketing, including the practices of advertising and PR. Along those same lines, Cluetrain has also been credited with foreseeing the “social” movement in computing and communications, and with inspiring and guiding that movement as well. Look up Cluetrain+social on Google and see what comes up. (Here’s a Twitter search for the same.)

I’m not proud, or even happy, with either of those developments. Not long ago I even suggested that “social media” is a crock. My point was not to denigrate people doing good work in the social media space, but rather to point out that our collective vision of this space was wrongly limited to what could be done on Facebook, Twitter and other commercial “platforms”. Ignored was the freedom and independence granted by the Net’s own open and essentially ownerless platforms and protocols — and the need to equip individuals with their own instruments of independence and engagement: work that’s still mostly not done.

That’s why I welcomed the opportunity to add fresh chapters to Cluetrain for its 10th anniversary edition. For the last few years I’ve been working on Cluetrain’s unfinished (or unstarted) business, through ProjectVRM, at Harvard’s Berkman Center, and through its collection of allied efforts and volunteers, both around the Center and around the world. Thus my own chapter of the latest Cluetrain is titled Markets Are Relationships, and unpacks the ambitions behind VRM (which stands for Vendor Relationship Management):

  1. Provide tools for individuals to manage relationships with organizations. These tools are personal. That is, they belong to the individual, in the sense that they are under the individual’s control. They can also be social, in the sense that they can connect with others and support group formation and action. But they need to be personal first.
  2. Make individuals the collection centers for their own data, so that transaction histories, health records, membership details, service contracts, and other forms of personal data aren’t scattered throughout a forest of silos.
  3. Give individuals the ability to share data selectively, without disclosing more personal information than the individual allows.
  4. Give individuals the ability to control how their data is used by organizations, and for how long, including agreements requiring organizations to delete the individual’s data when the relationship ends.
  5. Give individuals the ability to assert their own “terms of service,” obviating the need for organization-written terms of service that nobody reads and everybody has to “accept” anyway.
  6. Give individuals means for expressing demand in the open market, outside any organizational silo, without disclosing any unnecessary personal information.
  7. Make individuals platforms for business, by opening the market to many kinds of third party services that serve buyers as well as sellers.
  8. Base relationship-managing tools on open standards, open APIs (application program interfaces) and open code. This will support a rising tide of activity that will lift an infinite variety of business boats, plus other social goods.

We don’t have those tools yet. When we do, they will change the way customers relate to companies, and therefore change the reverse as well. That will change the job of marketing, sales, and pretty much everything else a company does — so long as it responds to customers who are far better equipped to express demand, and otherwise relate, than they are today.

So, to sum up, there is a place where I stand in respect to all the above. That place is alongside customers, in the marketplace. Not alongside sellers, even when I’m consulting those sellers. My consulting hat is not a PR or a marketing one. It’s a customer hat. A user hat. (And, to the extent that I’m hired to help make sense of free and open source development, a geek hat.)

This is why I took offense to being labeled a “PR person.” I have no problem with good PR people. In fact I try to help them out, along with everybody else who’s interested in my input. But what makes me valuable, I believe, is where I stand in respect to customers. I’m on their side. I’m trying to help them out, and markets along with them. Maybe I’ll succeed, and maybe not. But I do believe that, in the long run, we will have VRM tools, and that these tools will make life better for everybody in the marketplace, including vendors.

Meanwhile, there is a temptation not only to confuse the past with the , but the present with the future. We tend to assume that, as John Updike once said (at a time when copiers, answer machines and faxes seemed miraculous), “we live in the age of full convenience”. We don’t. The present is just a draft for the future. Our conveniences are just prototypes.

I’m glad Seth and others (Dave Rogers, where are you?) are out there, calling bullshit on techno-utopians like me. A lot of what Seth and others on that thread had to say was sobering stuff. The flywheels of Old Skool industrial practices, and thinking, have not gone away. They even spin inside “good” companies like Google.

Markets are different now that the Net runs beneath them. There are fewer secrets, and both good ideas and bad can spread with alarming speed. Lately the split between the static and the live web (which most of us call “real-time” and some of us saw coming half a decade and more ago) has become dramatic and confusing. So has the split between fixed and mobile computing and communications. One can get lost through enthusiasm, despair, or both. Hey, the iPhone is a wonderful thing, but — what next? And why? And how?

Markets are no better than we make them. I’m not sure what one should call a person who works on tools to make markets better. But hey, that’s my job.

Guess I’m a builder after all.

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