I believe “Ad Lib” is the second longest-running column in BusinessWorld, next only to that of the venerable Tony Samson. But I think we both started writing for this paper the same year it was reincarnated from the ghost of Business Day. My first piece came out on Sept. 21, 1988, almost 31 years ago.
Headlined, “Ah, those good old tabloid days,” it must have scandalized the usually straight-laced, prim and proper readership of what would become the country’s leading business daily (as Business Day had been). It was about my experience as a 16-year-old cub reporter in a tabloid — the kind that specialized in all the news not fit to print.
I had led off with the classic advice that the deskmen gave me, if ever I got stumped for a sensational story — “Masturbate it!” — and I thought that was shocking enough. But Letty Locsin, then managing editor, pushed it to the edge by translating that line into Tagalog: “Salsalin mo!”
At the time, Rodrigo Duterte had only been trashing good manners and decency in Davao City — not yet nationally — and being publicly bastos (vulgar) was not yet in fashion, thus my entry into column writing was a shocker.
But that wasn’t the first time my writing broke rules. For the mid-term elections in 1959, I wrote the scripts of the propaganda films of both the Liberal Party (LP) and the Nacionalista Party (NP) — and I wasn’t even old enough to vote.
For some reason, Documentary, Inc., the film production company of celebrated director Lamberto V. Avellana, had been assigned both competing projects by the two dominant political parties, and I happened to be the company’s in-house script writer. With no loyalty to either party, I dug up all the dirt I could find about them in the morgue of the Philippine Free Press and wrote the kind of hit pieces that were de rigueur back then.
One of the LP candidates was a charismatic congressman from Ilocos Norte, Ferdinand Marcos. I portrayed him reviewing for the bar exams behind bars. Marcos turned out to be the top vote-getter in an election dominated by the NP.
Six years later, in the 1965 presidential election, Marcos would run as the official candidate of the Nacionalista Party against reelectionist President Diosdado Macapagal. I had just joined ABS-CBN TV Network as head of program evaluation and development, and was given a special assignment by network president Eugenio Lopez, Jr. The Lopezes were helping Marcos, one reason being that Senator Fernando Lopez was his vice-presidential running mate.
I was asked to produce a daily anti-Macapagal TV show for which I suggested the title, Alis Diyan (“Get out of there,” a popular noontime show expression). Marcos won and changed the course of Philippine political history. Mea culpa.
At the start of the 2010 presidential campaign, some supporters of Senator Benigo Aquino III asked me for assistance. I said that I wasn’t impressed with Aquino but I was persuaded to help because he did seem like a better choice than the other contenders. Noting that Senator Manuel Villar was leading in the surveys, I suggested a term to scuttle his surge: Villarroyo — a mash-up of Villar and Arroyo (President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), which had become the most toxic name in politics at the time.
I did it for free. Gratis.
Villar’s campaign lost steam, Aquino overtook him and won. From reports, I understand that my creative contribution to the campaign helped a great deal. I subsequently found Aquino a disappointment as president. Villar, a seasoned executive, could have performed better. Mea culpa.
These and other historical, interesting, intriguing and engaging vignettes are contained in a book which I have just finished: Confusions of a Communications Man. It is as much an inside story of the Communications industry, including its seamy side, as it is the tale of a young boy who stumbled into it, “not knowing where he was going but getting there anyway.”
Sixty-six years… and counting. I have been actively involved in more areas and disciplines of media and communications than most people would experience in two lifetimes. And I’m still in the harness. Still involved in media, still doing marketing and communications. But this time, with tools and techniques that were considered science fiction when I began.
The book is not simply an exercise in nostalgia. It includes events and involves personalities who have become part of our country’s history. In a number of cases, I wasn’t simply a passive onlooker seated in the bleachers, but an active participant or an up-close eyewitness as the events unfolded.
I was acting in soap operas when radio was still the best alternative to going to the movies — before TV was introduced in the Philippines. This was in 1953. The following year, Alto Broadcasting System — the ABS half of what would become ABS-CBN — went on the air and brought the country into the mind-expanding and dumbing world of television. I was among the first batch of performers to appear before the TV cameras.
A few years later, I would also produce shows on television. In fact, I wrote, directed and produced the first action series on Philippine TV. Telecast on ABC TV Channel 5, Target: Agent 69, was unabashedly patterned after Ian Fleming’s Agent 007 series. Much later I did special reports on ethnic TV in California; was involved in the entry of both GMA Network and ABS-CBN Network in the United States; and produced a weekly news-magazine program that was telecast on the major cable and direct-to-home systems in America.
While still performing on radio; I landed a job as a police reporter, then got promoted to associate editor of a fan magazine; and that, in turn, got me involved in Tagalog movies. I wrote my first story and screenplay for LVN Pictures at 17, and made some 200 films, including some of the biggest box office hits on record.
But there were years when screenplay writers were paid starvation fees. Needing to earn money to support my family and help send my siblings to school, as well as pay for my own college education, I joined an advertising agency and set off on a new career path. But I still continued to write for the movies and direct TV serials.
It was a killing pace. Early on, I had to drop out of college and never finished. But I taught Advertising Management at De la Salle and Lyceum U, as well as at the Asian Institute of Journalism, despite lacking academic credentials.
I spent more years in advertising than in any of my other “careers”; became president and CEO of one of the leading ad agencies in Manila, Advertising & Marketing Associates; created ad campaigns (many of them for Nestlé) that are considered classics in the industry; and then relocated to the US where I set up my own ad shop, Minority Media Services.
While I referred to it as a mom-and-pop-and-kids operation, it did pretty good work in a highly competitive environment. In fact, my agency won the 1996 Gold Effie for the “most effective non-English campaign in the US.” This was for a campaign that I wrote for Wells Fargo Bank.
If all that seems confusing, it certainly is — which is why my book is entitled Confusions of a Communications Man. The sub-title is: Surviving Radio, TV, Movies, Journalism and Advertising.
Indeed, it was a test of survival. There were times when I was engaged in all five careers in a virtual non-stop grind, relieved only with catnaps and spurred by the Spartan showbiz axiom that “the show must go on.”
I am told that my book could serve as a source of inspiration for anyone who wants to “make it” in the World of Communications, but only if one is equipped with a capacity for hard work, a strong heart, and the will to win. Plus brains and lots of luck.
The book will be available on Amazon shortly.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.