Archive for May 20, 2015

Why I’ll Miss David Letterman

We interrupt our usual program…..

Back in the early 1980s, there was this up-and-coming guy on television named David Letterman; our names, though spelled slightly differently, sound alike.  We also both live and work in New York, and although we’ve never met, I have had a lot of fun with it.

It started in 1981, when I was paged at a supermarket in Malibu (why is a longer story; suffice it to say that she was at the checkout and I was at the magazine rack in the back).  As I sprinted up to the front of the store, I saw that a crowd had formed, gawking and craning their necks for a celebrity sighting.  I stopped, threw out my arms, and exclaimed, “Sorry folks, it’s only me!”

As that guy on television became more popular, the pace picked up.  People started asking me to do stupid pet tricks.   I don’t have a pet.  I’ve always done a lot of business by phone; time and again I would call someone, his assistant would answer, and I’d announce myself as David Lederman calling for whoever.  More often than not, the response was something like, “Yeah, sure”, “Yeah, right,”, “No, it isn’t”, or “Hahaha, this is Jay Leno”.  Someone even hung up on me once, thinking it was a prank call.

From time to time, though, there have been benefits.  I was working as an architect in the 1980s.  When the time came to leave the small firm I was with, my then-boss made an introduction to Richard Meier, who, while not yet the starchitect he is today, was justifiably renowned.  Calling Mr. Meier’s office to make an appointment, I said no more than my name, and I was put immediately through.  When, a week or so later, I arrived for the interview, the receptionist turned bright red.  Clearly she had thought that she was dealing with a famous client; just as clearly, someone had reminded her that she wasn’t to put anyone through.

Then someone decided that I look like Jay Leno; I’ve never seen the resemblance.  At around the same time the requests for Top Ten Lists started. I was always at a loss for words until finally, during the Clinton years, I put one together: Bill Clinton’s favorite songs, including such hits as “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”, “Love to Love You Baby”, “Bad Girls”, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” and six other similarly themed tracks.  And sure enough, someone at a party asked me for my Top Ten list. I rattled it off, emptying the room in the process.  Being funny is a lot harder than it looks.

I should have remembered that lesson later on when, starting my own business, I cold called a man in the entertainment business in Las Vegas.  I got him on the line and introduced myself, naturally, as David Lederman calling from New York. Without missing a beat he said, “Tell me a joke.”  And so I did.  The line went dead silent for an uncomfortably long moment.  Just because your friend who works on a trading desk thinks a joke is funny doesn’t mean that normal people will.

No one has asked me for a Top Ten list in years, but I still get asked if I get great tables at hot new restaurants.  I don’t.  I did, though, get bumped up to first class once.  We were flying to the Caribbean, and the lady at the check-in desk was thrilled to be able to tell her husband that she had met David Lederman.  She asked me to autograph something, handed me the first class boarding passes, and away we went.  As the other two couples we were travelling with passed by us on their way to steerage in the back, I got to say, just once, “that’s how I roll”.

At one time in my career I was running a field office in midtown, and Ed, one of my colleagues, was running another one on the Lower East Side.  When he called, weekly or so, I always knew it was him whenever my secretary told me that Paul Schaffer was holding on the line.  She never caught on, to our endless amusement.

New York can also be a very small place, and collisions are inevitable.  I have never actually met Letterman, but it turned out years ago that he and I were seeing the same cardiologist.  I found this out one day when on the phone with my doctor.  He asked for my birthdate; when I asked why he told me that we were both patients and he couldn’t keep us straight.  All I could say was, “I’ll give you a hint.  He had bypass.”

To this day, I can telephone someone, identify myself, and get something like Really?”.  I’ve long ago learned to say, “you’re the first one today.”  And in all these years I must confess that I have only occasionally watched the show.  But I did meet a young man at a party who worked for the show.  Intrigued by the idea of booking me, he thought it would be most entertaining if I could come on and talk about how having the same name ruined my life.  When I told him that it really hadn’t ruined my life, he lost interest and went to freshen up his drink.

Still, I’m going to miss him.

Hollywood Swinging

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story by Adam Davidson on the Hollywood model of business, touting it as this great new, compelling model of the way work will evolve.  And while I agree with Mr. Davidson that we are in the midst of a hundred year reset, I think there are a lot of shortcomings in the Hollywood model.  First, some historic perspective.

Sorry, Mr.  Davidson, there’s nothing new here.  The entire AEC (Architecture/Engineering/Construction) industry has run this way since before there were movies.

Architecture firms consist of a core of skilled professionals (once upon a time called draftsmen) who are internally flexible in that they are assigned to a specific project, reassigned once their work is done, or let go if there is no next project.  The firms then hire the specialized skills they need from a variety of consulting engineers (mechanical, electrical, structural, acoustic, fire protection, and so on) in order to complete the design and construction contract documents.  Then the construction documents go out to bid to general contractors, or construction managers, who really only provide management and supervision and rarely, if ever, perform the actual work themselves.  That task, really many, many tasks, is left to a variety of trade or subcontractors (plumbing, electrical, air conditioning, structural steel, carpentry, and so on).

Every construction project is, then, a stand-alone enterprise assembled for the purpose of building the building, the bridge, the power plant, the office space, or whatever else.  It comes into being, executes the task at hand, and is then dismantled as the project players move on to the next assignment.  While, unlike the Hollywood model, the project players are more often firms than individuals, everyone is expendable if there isn’t another assignment.  Anyone who has ever worked in the AEC industry has been laid off at least once.  Still, it’s a durable, efficient model, but before we embrace it as the new way to work, some reservations.

  1. Without training, there are no skilled workers. This model works in the AEC industry because schools of architecture and engineering produce educated entry level workers.  Because these professions are licensed by the states, there is a mandatory apprenticeship in the profession, usually three years, before one is considered qualified to sit for the licensing exam.  The unionized construction trades also provide apprenticeship programs as a prerequisite for membership, thus insuring a flow of skilled tradespeople (how the non-union world deals with this is anyone’s guess). Outside the AEC industry, though, corporate America has walked away from the notion of training and mentoring.  Since to be recognized as a skilled person in any field requires a combination of experience, knowledge, and skill, where are these Hollywood model workers going to get the training they need to participate successfully?
  2. Without medical coverage, everyone is at risk. As a Hollywood model worker, you have to fend for yourself when it comes to medical insurance and other benefits.  You will do this by paying the highest possible rates for medical insurance as a small business owner, sole proprietor, or single employee company, thanks to the way the insurance industry penalizes these kinds of workers.  While there are organizations that help freelancers with this by setting up groups, no one has the bargaining  power that large corporations have when it comes to dealing with health insurance companies, so no matter what, you will pay more.  Much more.  At the same time, as a freelancer or Hollywood model worker, you have very limited leverage when it comes to what you can charge your clients or customers.  So you’re stuck in the middle of unreasonably high costs for basic coverage and a cap on what you can make. So you earn less.
  3. The work never stops. Before you think this is a good thing, think again.  As a freelancer or Hollywood modeler, if you don’t work, you don’t earn.  While the cubicle jockeys in corporate America think that freelancing offers income and freedom, any freelancer that with any experience yearns for a couple of steady assignments to take the edge off the uncertainty.  Remember, most peoples’ costs are recurring things, like the mortgage, the rent, health insurance, and so on.  So take your place on the treadmill and spread yourself thin between doing the work you have and landing the next piece of business; it it’s a 50/50 split, you’re losing ground.  And in the meantime, try telling your landlord that your skills are magically re-evaluated by the market frequently.
  4. It’s not for everybody, and not for every skill. So far, the Hollywood, or AEC, model seems to work best with highly educated people who can do very particular things, have some, albeit limited, leverage when it comes to pricing, and either can, or want to be, flexible about the way they work.  If you need a lot of support, as opposed to collaboration, which is a very different thing, to effectively do whatever it is you do, you are unlikely to succeed.

All that said, whether you call it the Hollywood model, the EAC industry, or just plain freelancing, it can be an efficient way to work as long as it works more or less equally well for employer and employee. But beware when corporate America takes this one up as the latest management mantra because it just means they have found another way to screw us all.  Read the NYT article at