I live in a house where my 12-year-old fixes my computer, my 15-year-old tells me which songs to put on my iPod and my wife regularly tells me to turn on the Red Sox game in my office so she can watch “Gossip Girl” in the bedroom.
More than any time in history, we have become a culture driven by youth. It’s relatively easy to see why this has happened. Between technology advancing at an exponential rate and trends lasting about as long as one of Rihanna’s hairstyles, it’s no surprise that young people who are more open to change, better able to adapt to new technology, and at the most social point of their lives, would play an increasingly important role in our world.
We all know what we’ve gained from this evolution.
But what have we lost?
I never thought much about this question until last week, when I went to breakfast with my former partner, Kirk Souder, and our 93-year-old mutual friend, Monte Factor. After 90 minutes dining with Monte, followed by a two-hour phone call, it became pretty clear that with all the emphasis we’ve placed on the next generation, we’ve forgotten just how much the previous one has to offer.
And I’m not sure this is a good thing for us either as a society or as marketers.
In “A Whole New Mind,” Daniel Pink explains the importance of “story” for brands moving forward. He argues that to be successful, it will be vital that a brand be able to tell a clear and compelling tale of its history, values and role in the world.
If this is true, it’s probably worth asking, “Who do you want communicating your brand’s story?” Do you want someone who has lived all the all the essential elements of a great story; someone who has loved, battled, failed, persevered and ultimately triumphed? Or do you want someone who still has their parents paying their car insurance?
Before you answer that question, let me tell you a little about my friend Monte, who, as a nonogenerian, is still quicker witted than 90 percent of the people I know.
As is always the case with the most interesting people, the question isn’t what to write, but rather, where to start? With Monte’s purchase of Warhol’s original “Double Elvis” for $2,500 and subsequent sale for millions? With the pants he made for Frank Sinatra? With his role as a lieutenant on U.S.S. 1282 leading troops through the mines to storm Utah Beach in 1944?
If it were your story or my story, we’d probably feel like any of these incidents would make for a great beginning. But this is Monte’s story. And therefore, it can only start in one place — with his wife, Betty.
Set up by mutual friends on a blind date at a Norman Corwin production, their initial meeting reads like something out of a Fitzgerald novel. Monte entered the room in search of the infamous Betty Birch, a woman his friends said lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills but had many of the same altruistic and loving characteristics that defined his mother. His quest, however, was cut short when upon entering the room, a beautiful brunette caught his eye. In Monte’s words, “I saw her, and that was the end of the search for Betty.” He spent the rest of the evening with this magical woman who had introduced herself as Jane Levine. A few hours later, he would learn her real name, Betty Berch.
In sharp contrast to people who now frequent websites on the promise of meeting wealthy members of the opposite sex, Monte’s only trepidation in regards to Betty came from the fact that she had money.
You see, Monte grew up almost reveling in poverty. “We called it ‘noble poverty,’” he told me. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and this was the way he and his siblings coped with the fact that they were the poor branch on an otherwise wealthy family tree. But it was also a mindset, or I should say, a “heart-set” passed down from his mother. “Anyone or any thing that was a poor thing, she was there for.”
His commitment to help those in need began when he left UCLA to raise money to pay for his mom’s cancer treatment, taking an entry-level job at Schwab’s clothing store in Hollywood. It is here where he learned how shirts were made, pants were cut and hats were bent. And where he would ultimately make those fabled pants for Sinatra.
Then he did a brief stint on a cruise ship with friend, Bob Schiller (who would go on to be one of the lead writers on “I Love Lucy”), running from San Francisco to Hawaii to Auckland, Australia and back over a nine-week period and pocketing him $35 a month, plus tips. Eventually, his love of the water would land him back on the smallest ship in the U.S. Navy, a 110-foot sub chaser with two pancake engines whose job was to convoy ships from Miami to Cuba, up to Cape Hatteras, across to the Bahamas and back while protecting them from German U Boats.
He never saw much in the way of an enemy during these trips, but all that would change on June 6, 1944, when his ship, which had both the gear to detect mines and the wooden hull to deflect them, was called upon to lead the American troops onto Utah Beach.
Monte doesn’t like to talk much about what he saw on that day. And because he’s had so many other noteworthy days, why don’t we fast forward to the one where Butch Baskin of Baskin Robbins elected in the eleventh hour not to go forward with his plans to open a men’s clothing store in Beverly Hills. Instead, he passed the opportunity on to Monte, who would create Monte Factor Limited, which would become the longest-running store in Beverly Hills and spawn stores in Las Vegas, Sherman Oaks and Santa Ana. It’s where all the big names from Robert Mitchum to Sammy Davis Jr. shopped. In fact, according to Monte, notorious gangster Mickey Cohen would regularly position one of his guys at the back door for protection while he tried on suits.
While he was exceeding his own dreams in terms of financial wealth, Monte remained preoccupied with the less fortunate. And in 1984, he founded the End Hunger Network with Brenda Eddy and Jeff Bridges. I would sit on the board of this organization with Monte and Jeff for two years, where I was constantly amazed by the “old man’s” determination, smarts and toughness. A lot of people talk about making a difference. Monte always got shit done.
At 93, it’s a little harder for him to get quite as much shit done now. He’s had a couple bouts with cancer and his body, though still agile from daily Pilates, doesn’t move quite as fast as his mind. As we near the end of his tale, I find him meandering a bit, and I start to wonder how he’s going to wrap it all up. How the end of his story will give significance to the whole in some way.
And then, a little saddened as he talks about his wife passing away a few years back and the difficulty of continuing on without her, he says, “At a certain point in life, when you’ve lived as richly and completely and in many ways, as beautifully as I have, you don’t have any leftovers.”
And there it is — one of the finest articulations of a strategy I’ve encountered on every brand from Lexus to Van’s Shoes — the promise of living life to the fullest. And yet, in my whole career, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it expressed quite so profoundly. The image resonates not only with my head, but with my heart — the idea of leading such a fulfilling life, that your plate is licked clean when you’re done.
Could this sort of wizened insight be delivered by someone who is consumed solely with what’s ahead, rather than spending part of each day reminiscing about what’s been left behind? Someone who hasn’t had life punch them in the stomach or give them hope when they needed it most. Someone who has never stopped to think about the arc of his or her story, much less how to tell it.
There’s no question that with how quickly and profoundly the world is changing, we can all benefit from the fearlessness, technological competence and exuberance of youth. But, if you’re not getting an occasional dose of the knowledge and insight that for centuries was passed down from the elders around campfires and dinner tables, you may want to find someone like Monte Factor and ask him or her to tell you a story.