‘The More One Talks, The Less the Words Mean’: Do We Need to Refresh Our Vocabulary?

Jean-Luc Godard

‘All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.’

Jean-Luc Godard (also attributed to DW Griffith)

Jean-Luc Godard was a cinematic revolutionary. A leading figure of the French Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, his films were fast-paced and cool-headed, semi-scripted and free-flowing. He shot in natural light, with hand-held cameras and no makeup. He mixed high and low culture, dramatic and documentary forms.

‘A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.’

Godard sought to redefine film structure and style. He ignored the ‘fourth wall’ and his characters made asides to the camera. He was completely comfortable with discontinuity and digression.

For Godard necessity was the mother of invention: his famous ‘jump cut’ technique was initially developed to speed the action along; he used a wheelchair for tracking shots because he couldn’t afford a dolly; and he sometimes employed inexperienced actors because he liked their awkward charm.

However, despite the apparent looseness of Godard’s style, he always had a plan:

‘There is no point in having sharp images when you have fuzzy ideas.’

Throughout his movies Godard repeatedly returned to the theme of miscommunication. In his breakthrough film, A Bout de Souffle, Michel, a small time gangster played by an always smoking Jean-Paul Belmondo, sums up a flawed relationship thus:

‘When we talked, I talked about me and you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.’

Similarly in Pierrot le Fou the ill-starred lovers consider whether they are really suited to each other:

Ferdinand: ‘Why do you look so sad?’
Marianne: ‘Because you talk to me in words and I look at you with feelings.’

In Godard’s 1962 film, Vivre Sa Vie, the luminous Anna Karina plays Nana, a young woman struggling to survive alone in the big city. Nana initiates a conversation with a philosopher in a café.

‘Suddenly I don’t know what to say. It happens to me a lot. I think first about whether they’re the right words. But when the moment comes to speak, I can’t say it. Why must one always talk? I think one should often just keep quiet, live in silence. The more one talks, the less the words mean.’

I’m sure we can all, on occasion, sympathise with this sentiment: that we cannot properly express how we feel; that people talk too much; that words have lost their meaning.

Yet we may also find ourselves agreeing with the philosopher’s reply:

‘An instant of thought can only be grasped through words. We must think, and for thought we need words. One cannot distinguish the thought from the words that express it.’

This exchange seems to me relevant to the world of marketing and communications. On the one hand, words are critical to our shared understanding of brands. We need to define, articulate and communicate what our brands believe and stand for. But, on the other hand, our industry language seems to be mired in the clichéd and commonplace, in banality and buzzphrases.

Our platform is burning, our fruit is low hanging, our expectations are managed, our diligence is due. Our approach is customer-centric, our strategy is synergistic, our brand is iconic, our tone is authentic. Our essence is passion, our benefit is ease, our mission is freedom, our purpose is to make a difference. Let’s seize the day.

Language should liberate us, but so often it constrains us.

 ‘A few minutes of silence can last a long time…a whole eternity.’

Franz, Bande a Part

When I played Scrabble as I child I rather liked the idea that you could miss a go and change all your letters. It seemed to suggest that we can always make a fresh start in life, if we are prepared, briefly, to step outside the rat race. I wonder, should some of our brands miss a go and change all their words?

It would be easy to imagine that Jean-Luc Godard’s films are pretentious and worthy. But actually they are thought provoking, life enhancing. As much as they engage in philosophy and morality, they are also joyous, cool and funny. And Godard’s characters are not afraid to dance.

Towards the end of Pierrot Le Fou, Ferdinand, a fugitive from bourgeois society, sums it all up rather nicely:

‘Ten minutes ago I saw death everywhere. Now it’s just the opposite. Look at the sea, the waves, the sky. Life may be sad, but it’s always beautiful!’

No. 95

Circus Maximus: Learning the Lessons of the Greatest Show on Earth

I recently watched an excellent documentary exploring the golden age of circus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (The Golden Age of Circus, BBC4). Set to the music of Sigur Ros, the flickering vintage film was wistful, haunting, melancholy. Here we could consider what passed for popular entertainment before the transistor and the cathode ray tube, before broadcast and broadband.

An escapologist is masked, bound and buried; another is hung by his teeth from a chain. The daredevil leaps through fire, swallows swords. The human canon ball squeezes himself down the barrel of a gun.

The audience is agog, aghast, amused, amazed.

Bring on the jugglers, tumblers, hoofers. Let’s see exotic dancers shimmy, do the hula hula. On the high wire the acrobats balance precariously, spin gyroscopically. The knife thrower takes aim.

There’s a darkness on the edge of town, an ancient cruelty not far from the surface. Fear and laughter seem so adjacent.

Here are elephants bathing, walking in circles, rolling logs lugubriously. Here are polar bears sliding, kangaroos boxing, broncos bucking. Assorted animals wear clothes, walk on hind legs, jump through hoops. Then monkeys on horseback, bears on bikes, pandas at a tea party, chimps in a jazz band. Tigers are caged, lions are tamed, snakes are charmed. Attendants goad and taunt with whips and chairs.

The crowd looks on, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

And now the saddest sight of all: when they send in the clowns. Big feet, big smiles, big pants. They hit, holler, twist and tumble. They crash cars, squirt water, lob bags of soot and flour. Don’t look now. There’s an egg on that seat…

And the off-duty clown takes a swig of his beer, looks through us and walks off, alone.

An air of tragedy hangs over the Big Top. But in circuses we also see some of the timeless themes of entertainment: we want to be amazed, amused, afraid; we want to observe seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things; we want to watch animals doing human things; we want to witness heroes cheating death; to see failures fail.

In his excellent book, The Anatomy of Humbug, Paul Feldwick reviews the numerous theories of how advertising works. He reminds us of the primal power of showmanship and, in this context, quotes the great impresario PT Barnum:

‘First attract the public by din and tinsel, by brilliant sky-rockets and Bengola lights, then give them as much as possible for their money.’

It’s a lesson not lost on advertisers. Consider PG Tips Chimps, Cadbury’s Gorilla, Honda Cog, Volvo Trucks, Red Bull Space Jump…

But so much modern commercial communication is, by contrast, subtle, nuanced, oblique. We sometimes forget the impact of entertainment in its raw form; we forget the thrill of spectacle and show, pageant and performance. The public loves breathtaking feats, spine tingling stunts, jaw-dropping acts of derring-do. It loves anthropomorphism.

Audio Only

So roll up, roll up for all the fun of the fair. What magic can we conjure in this brief precious moment together? What spell can we weave for you, right here, right now? Because as Tavares memorably observed:

‘It only takes a minute to fall in love.’ 

 

No. 94

Brian Friel, the Creative Fool and the Poetry of Place Names

‘And even though they told themselves they were here because of the remote possibility of a cure, they knew in their hearts they had come not to be cured but for confirmation that they were incurable; not in hope but for the elimination of hope; for the removal of that final impossible chance – that’s why they came - to seal their anguish, for the content of a finality.’

Frank, Faith Healer (by Brian Friel)

Brian Friel, the dramatist and short story writer who died last year, was often called ‘the Irish Chekhov.’ In magnificent works like Translations, Aristocrats and Dancing at Lughnasa he wrote of rural communities haunted by history and the scars of colonisation, by lost language and abandoned hope. His plays are nostalgic, funny, humane and intelligent.

I recently saw an excellent production of Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse (running until 20 August). The play considers issues of truth and memory through what was at the time an innovative monologue structure where three characters give three very different accounts of the same events. Faith Healer prompted a number of thoughts about the craft of creativity.

 

The Creative Fool?

‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition.’
Brian Friel

In Part 3 of Faith Healer, Teddy, the Cockney talent manager takes to the stage. He is a showman and raconteur, perky and perceptive. Having had years of working with creative performers, he offers his own thoughts on the keys to success.

‘Did you ever look back at all the great artists – Old Freddy [Astaire] here, Lillie Langtry, Sir Laurence Olivier, Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields – and did you ever ask yourself what makes them all top-liners, what have they all got in common? Okay, I’ll tell you. Three things. Number one: they’ve got ambition this size. Okay? Number two they’ve got a talent that is sensational and unique – there’s only one Sir Laurence – right? Number three: not one of them has two brains to rub together.’

Teddy’s judgement is of course harsh and flawed. The great creative talents I have worked with were far from stupid. However, I think there may be something in what he’s saying. Often creative people are more emotionally intelligent than conventionally academic. Orthodox brains deal in history, hard facts and hard data; they like science and certainty. Creative minds on the other hand are more intuitive, instinctive, inquisitive. They are comfortable in uncharted territory, at ease with the unexplained and unresolved.

As the musician Nick Cave said in the excellent 2014 documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth:
‘I’m not interested in that which I fully understand.’

Sometimes I suspect we have a systemic, societal problem on our hands. Institutional and corporate cultures have a way of marginalising open and inquiring minds. They prefer obedience to rebellion, discipline to dreaming. They often denounce the creative spirit as vague, fanciful and naïve. ( It's a theme Sir Ken pursues with great eloquence. ) In another of Friel’s plays, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, he suggests that our schools iron out our emotional selves.

‘They were good times…before we were educated out of our emotions.’

Nonetheless, we should reassure ourselves that emotional intelligence is at least better understood by the general public. Time Out recently reported a remark overheard on the Tube:

‘I’m not stupid. I’m dumb. It’s different.’

The Poetry of Place Names

‘Aberarder, Aberayron,
Llangranog, Llangurig,
Abergorlech, Abergynolwyn,
Llandefeilog, Llanerchymedd,
Aberhosan, Aberporth…’

At the beginning of Faith Healer, Frank, the itinerant faith healer of the title seems to be speaking a foreign language. Is it Gaelic? Is it a mystical chant relating to his profession? We then realise he is incanting a list of Welsh villages that he has visited over the course of his career.

There’s a rhythm and poetry in place names, a romance and resonance about them. Each town name suggests its own unique history and community, myths and untold stories. Places we’ll never visit or never know; lives we’ll never learn about or understand.

Consider how the potency of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is enhanced by his repeated reference to particular locations from across the United States, each with its own imagined associations.

‘Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.’

The world of popular song has also long been familiar with the poetry of place names. Early in his career as a songwriter, Jimmy Webb penned a huge hit for Glen Campbell.  ‘By the Time I Get To Phoenix’ tugged at the heartstrings as it related the thoughts of a disappointed lover driving through Phoenix, Arizona, across New Mexico to Albuquerque and then onto Oklahoma. It's a song that paints pictures as it progresses.

Campbell seemed alert to the fact that in part the lyric’s resonance derived from its locations. He called Webb to ask for more of the same.

‘Can you write me a song about a town?’ 

When the songwriter hesitated, Campbell pressed him.

Well. Just something geographical.’

Webb went on to write the glorious Wichita Lineman.

Inevitably one has to ask whether we in the world of marketing and communications properly capitalise on this theme. Actually, I think over the years a good deal of compelling creative work has demonstrated the poetry of place names.

In my youth kids were told that if they didn’t drink milk, they’d only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley. Many will recall how the snack brand Phileas Fogg made light of its prosaic origins in Medomsley Road, Consett. More recently our food, supermarket and restaurant brands have suggested that specificity of origin justifies premium.

And then, of course, there’s my favourite: the ‘70s ad for Campari, featuring the proudly proletarian Lorraine Chase.

‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’
‘Nah, Luton Airport.’

 

Finding the Universal in the Particular

‘In the particular is contained the universal.’
James Joyce

Perhaps there is a broader lesson we should learn here. James Joyce said that he wrote about Dublin because it was the world he knew best and because he believed that universal truths were revealed in the particular. 

Given that in marketing we seek to express unifying truths, do we subscribe to Joyce’s wisdom?

I’m inclined to say that nowadays we too often leap directly to the universal, skipping the particular along the way. We are nervous of specificity, naturally inclined towards archetypes and stereotypes. We are predisposed to grand sweeping statements and generalisations. And this is especially the case with bigger brands, operating across wider geographies, with broader concepts.

Maybe we should just occasionally think small to act big. 

 

No.93

The Barber, The Bald Patch and the Crew Cut

Empathy and Individuality in Creative Business

As a child I loved going to the barber’s.

Martin and I would stay over at Gran’s house on Northdown Road. In the morning she’d furnish us with a substantial cooked breakfast, laid out on a red gingham table cloth and washed down with sweet tea. Then she would send us on our way with a coin popped in our pockets and a sprinkle of holy water. We’d gallop down the road, all enthusiasm and expectation, to Leon’s, the small barber’s shop next to Hornchurch Bus Depot.

As we sat waiting in the queue, I soaked up the aroma of Brut, Old Spice and scented talc; the perky sound of Saturday morning Radio 1; the chat about politics, park football and factory life. Many of the clientele worked, as our grandfather had done, at the Ford plant in Dagenham. It was a robustly masculine environment and I felt a strong urge to belong.

Pete, the apprentice cutter, sported purple-tinted specs, generous flairs and a jaunty manner. Eventually he would reach for a wooden plank and place it across the arms of his barber’s chair. The plank served to raise youngsters to a manageable height and it was the signal that I was up next.

I was under strict instructions from Mum to request a crew cut. I’d been curling my hair and I was developing a bald patch. A severe cut would deprive my nervous hands of the material for play. And, to be fair, having observed the monkish tonsure of Michael McGinty, a fellow hair curler and pupil at Saint Mary’s, I was prepared to embrace the remedy. Martin didn’t share my weakness and he was allowed a ‘short-back-and–sides.’

Yet it was the early seventies, the era of Marc Bolan, glam rock and lustrous locks, And here was I ordering a crew cut. I was well aware that, with my shorn mane, I could kiss goodbye to classroom cool. I would be awkward and alone; outside and other.

Little did I know that my experience at the barber’s was equipping me for a career in commercial creativity. In creative businesses we need both the yearning to belong and the failure to do so. We need empathy and individuality in equal measure – empathy, to align our work with the true needs and tastes of our audiences; individuality, to catalyse invention and to set our ideas apart from our competitors.’

Finding a good balance between these two elusive qualities can prove taxing. Some strategists are perhaps too sensitive to the whims of consumers; some account managers listen too attentively to their clients; and some creatives are just too idiosyncratic. But therein lies the challenge. If you want to succeed in creative business, I’d suggest you need them both: empathy and individuality.

My mother’s ploy proved successful. Over a period of time my bald patch was re-thatched. Sadly, it was too late for me to join the in-crowd at Saint Mary’s. And I suspect I was scarred by the experience. In my adulthood, I have preferred hairdressers to barbers, and, whatever the fashion of the day, I have always let my hair grow long. 

No. 92

I Saw the Moon in the Morning: Beware the Effects of Institutional Ageing

Image courtesy: http://motodometer.blogspot.co.uk/

Image courtesy: http://motodometer.blogspot.co.uk/

‘The moon is up, and yet it is not night,
The sun as yet divides the day with her.’

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Once as a child I saw the moon in the morning. It was early. I was on my way to school and there in the silence and soft light, low above the suburban rooftops, hovered a beautiful full moon. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The mysterious sight troubled me all day and, when I returned home, I asked my mother about it. ‘Mum, how can the sun and moon be out at the same time?’ She put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. ’Jimmy, the world is full of wonderful things.’

When we’re young the world is indeed brimming with the strange and surprising, curious and confusing. When we’re young ‘firsts’ come at us apace: first step, first kiss, first job, first love. We are constantly challenged to rethink our understanding of the universe; to guess and hypothesize; envisage and imagine. This is possibly why many of us are most creative in our youth.

As the years pass, we learn and understand. Things make sense. The frequency of firsts dwindles to a trickle. With middle age we are reduced to surveying ludicrous bucket lists for new thrills. And we begin to experience ‘lasts’: my last night of sweaty clubbing; my last ponderous performance on the football pitch; my last egg-and-chips at the New Piccadilly Café; my last conversation with my mother. In mid-life we can lose our sense of wonder.

Inevitably organisations experience their own equivalent of this: Institutional Ageing. As businesses mature, they become more complex, sophisticated, sensible. They are more absorbed by process and management. They take on more support and technical staff. Their vision and values are anchored in a time that recedes into the distance. They become more engaged with titles and structure than teams and culture; more worried about relationships than ideas; more concerned with conserving what they have than gaining what they have not. They are more conservative.

Inevitably with time companies become corporate.

Yet creative businesses in particular must sustain an appetite for innovation and invention; an aptitude for possibility and opportunity. This is what our clients pay for. Creative businesses must retain their youthfulness.

I worked for the communications agency BBH for 24 years. When John Bartle, sage strategist and company founder, left the business in 1999, he encouraged us to ‘immature with age.’ But how do we do this?

In part it’s about employing and empowering young people; sustaining a flow of new perspectives and ideas into the heart of the corporate consciousness. However, there’s also a need to resist the gravitational pull of Institutional Ageing. Bartle warned that ‘the opposite of creativity is cynicism;’ that we must combat corrosive scepticism, caustic sarcasm. I’m sure he was right.

As I’ve grown older I’ve noticed an impulse to dismiss the new and original as familiar and derivative. With age and experience we are cursed with the memory of past disappointments, flawed precedents. We’ve seen it, done it, tried it before. We are denied the blind enthusiasms and full-blooded convictions of our adolescence.

But it must be possible to inoculate ourselves against this cynicism. Consider two creative professionals who retained their youthful spirit into old age: Diana Vreeland and Bill Cunningham.

 

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Diana Vreeland: The Dreamer

‘There’s only one good life and that’s the life that you know you want and you make it yourself.’

The excellent 2011 documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, recounts the life and work of the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.

Born in Belle Epoque Paris, coming of age in New York in the Roaring Twenties, Vreeland brought vision, imagination and invention to her magazines.

‘I believe in dreams. I think we only live through our dreams and our imagination. That’s the only reality we really ever know.’

Vreeland cherished bikinis and Lauren Bacall, dance and David Bailey, velvet mittens and Veruschka. She valued style over fashion, artifice over nature, fantasy over reality.

‘Red is the great clarifier – bright, cleansing, revealing. It makes all colors beautiful. I can’t imagine being bored with it.’

Reclining in her scarlet-decorated living room, her ‘garden in hell,’ cheeks brushed generously with rouge, Vreeland dispensed aphorisms with carefree abandon. (‘The best thing about London is Paris.’ ‘I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity.’) Fascinated by difference, she was always drawn to distinct human features and looks: Barbra Streisand’s extravagant nose, Penelope Tree’s angular cheekbones, Twiggy’s skinny body shape.

‘Make an asset of your faults. If you’re tall, be taller; wear high heel shoes. If you have a long nose, hold it up and make it your trademark.’

Throughout her life Vreeland was restless, demanding, intensely romantic. She was contradictory, infuriating, passionate. She stayed forever young.

‘I will die young. I may be 70 or 80 or 90, but I will be very young.’



Bill Cunningham: The Quest for Beauty

‘Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty is the most expensive.’

Bill Cunningham, the New York fashion and street photographer, also died young, at 87 in June of this year. Cunningham was wide-eyed and enthusiastic, humble and gentle. His very particular character is captured in the splendid documentary film Bill Cunningham New York (2011).

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 09.20.15.png

Boston-born, Cunningham dropped out of Harvard and became a milliner. He subsequently took up street photography, gaining a role at the New York Times in 1978 after he took a rare shot of the reclusive Greta Garbo.

‘The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been and always will be.’

Kitted out in his royal blue Parisian street sweepers’ jacket, Cunningham cycled round Manhattan looking for looks. Always smiling, he charmed everyday people, fashionistas and socialites to perform for the camera. And yet he lived frugally and alone, in a small artist’s apartment in the Carnegie Hall building, surrounded by filing cabinets filled with his photographs. He valued his independence, declining gifts from Clients and never consuming the free food and drink at parties.

‘I’m really only doing this for myself. I’m stealing people’s shadows, so I don’t feel as guilty when I don’t sell them.’

Cunningham seemed an intensely private individual, happy to be engaged in the profession he loved, unencumbered by commitments, relationships or material assets. Working to the end of his long life, this was a free man with a simple passion for beauty.

‘He who seeks beauty will find it.’

 

Eternal Youth in Business

So what are we to conclude?

For me the secret of eternal youth for business cannot be mindless carousing in inappropriate party shirts; unseemly expeditions on Harley-Davidsons. It’s more than this. It’s retaining an open mind and an eager eye, despite the disappointments of the passing years and the wearying effects of experience. Individually and collectively, we must sustain our sense of wonder.

Just occasionally I still see the moon in the morning and I still marvel at it. Mum was right. ‘The world is full of wonderful things.’ As we grow older we just have to try harder to see them.

‘May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift.
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung.
May you stay forever young.’

Bob Dylan, Forever Young

 

A shorter version of this piece first appeared on Guardian Media and Tech Network on 5 July 2016

No. 91

The Change Conundrum: Why Is Organisational Change So Difficult?

We all want to change. As individuals we want to learn, experience and progress. We all want our businesses and institutions to change too. We want them to adapt to circumstances, to realise new opportunities, to embrace the future. If we can harness our organisation to one inspirational vision of the future; if we can communicate new attitudes and behaviours with compelling clarity, then the collective whole will advance as one. We will together ‘move forward into broad sunlit uplands.’ Simple, isn’t it?

So why is change so difficult? And why is organisational change particularly challenging?

There are many good answers to these questions. Inevitably individuals’ and institutions’ appetites for change are counterbalanced by equal and opposite forces of habit and inertia. Sometimes the vision of change painted by our leaders lacks clarity and distinctiveness. Sometimes it is not pursued with sufficient vigour and passion. And sometimes there are also huge challenges of communication, education and motivation.  

In my experience there is another critical dimension to organisational transformation: How do we determine precisely what should change and what should stay the same? What is the appropriate pace, scale, phasing and direction of change? This for me is the Change Conundrum.

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Within any business there are skills, disciplines and crafts that are, if you like, Timeless Verities: competences that are critical to the ongoing success of the enterprise, whatever the competitive or technological context. For a creative business these may be things like great art direction, copywriting, design; a robust strategic function; a rigorous production capability; meticulous relationship management. But there are also Anachronisms: processes, practices and approaches that have fallen out of step with the demands of modern life and commerce. When I first entered advertising, we would request four weeks to develop a press ad and six to script a TV commercial; design was the realm of blades, solvents, paste-ups and mechanicals; virtually everyone had an office and many people smoked in them.

Any progressive business should be seeking to rid itself of anachronistic practices, but it should also be seeking to sustain and develop timeless crafts and skills. The problem is that we can’t readily determine whether some processes and practices are Timeless Verities or Anachronisms. A few examples from my own sector: Should creatives continue to work in teams of two? Should they have an office to aid concentration? Should their department be separate or integrated with the rest of the Agency? Are these the critical ingredients of ongoing creative success or relics of a ‘pastime paradise’? I’ve heard it argued both ways.

Of course, whilst seeking to eradicate Anachronisms, the progressive business is also seeking to embrace new, liberating behaviours and beliefs; to take on new skill-sets and competences; to break out into new emergent space. But one could ask similar questions of our proposed new initiatives. At the outset they all promise Transformational Change. But some of them will inevitably end up representing Blind Alleys. So how do we separate one from the other?

Issues like these are at the heart of any change agenda. A progressive business seeks to identify the perfect balance between Timeless Verities and Transformational Change, eradicating Anachronisms and Blind Alleys along the way.

Over the years I found that the Change Conundrum applies as much to individuals as to skill-sets and processes. I’ve known quite a few colleagues who were dismissed as dinosaurs and deadbeats, only at a later date, and in some pressing crisis, to be celebrated as all-conquering heroes. Similarly people that were once welcomed as industry saviours could, with the passing of time, be exposed as snake-oil salesmen.

Organisational transformation is never simple or straightforward. It is always complex and confusing. Not least because it involves people’s careers and livelihoods. Of course, it’s much easier to position oneself as a radical: to suggest that change should always be root and branch; platforms should always burn; categories should always be killed. Total revolutionaries make the best speeches. But I was generally suspicious of Pol Pot-style purges of traditional crafts. Successful organisational change, at scale, is just more complicated than the rhetoric suggests. The stone that the builders rejected should sometimes become the cornerstone. And vice versa. And that’s the Change Conundrum.

‘What was wrong with me,
Was that I had to see,
All of the changes I put you through.
So now I’m changing for you.
Changing, girl.
Changing for you.’

The Chi-Lites, Changing for You

 

No. 90

If You Want to Inspire, You Need to be Inspired

Italian Woman - Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Circa 1870

Italian Woman - Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Circa 1870

In the creative industries we set out to inspire our clients and consumers. We want to prompt them to think, feel and behave differently. But do we expose ourselves often enough to the inspiration of others? Do we seek out stimulus, surround ourselves with craft and creativity? How can we expect to inspire others, if we are not inspired ourselves?

Two exhibitions currently running in London shed light on where the great artists of the past found their inspiration.

Painters’ Paintings

‘The possessing [of] portraits by Titian, Vandyke, Rembrandt, & c., I considered as the best kind of wealth.’
Sir Joshua Reynolds

The National Gallery is hosting an excellent exhibition of paintings owned by painters. We see samples from the personal collections of van Dyck, Reynolds, Degas, Matisse, Freud and more. (Painters’ Paintings runs at the National Gallery until 4 September.)

It’s clear that these artists were themselves passionate about the art of others. Degas collected the works of Ingres and Delacroix whom he had admired and copied as a student. In his later years he also sponsored struggling younger artists like Van Gogh and Gaugin. Lucian Freud was inspired by the strong features and direct style of Corot’s portraiture. Alongside works by Degas, Constable and Auerbach, he kept a small Cezanne painting in his drawing room. He found it ‘erotic and funny’ and reinterpreted it in one of his own pieces.

The Three Bathers by Paul Cézanne

The Three Bathers by Paul Cézanne

Matisse was an avid art collector throughout his life. He bought Cezanne’s Three Bathers quite early in his career and had to pay for it in instalments. He later wrote about how much the piece meant to him.

‘This picture has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist. I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance.’

Matisse also exchanged pictures with his rival Picasso. Theirs was a competitive relationship (‘Picasso shatters forms. I am their servant.’), but also one of mutual admiration. When in his later years Matisse sold off much of his collection, he never released any of his Picassos.

‘Only one person has the right to criticise me. It’s Picasso.’

Of course, not all the artists were collecting paintings for love and inspiration. Some were simply investing in the area they knew best. Others, like Frederick, Lord Leighton, may have been buying great artists to reinforce their own status and prestige. Indeed such was Joshua Reynolds’ sense of being heir to the Grand Masters that he seems to have ‘completed’ one work in his collection one hundred years after it was painted.

Whatever the precise motivation for purchase, these artists lived and worked surrounded by the art that they admired. They could not help but be provoked, encouraged, stimulated and inspired.

Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings

Georgiana Houghton

Georgiana Houghton

‘In the execution of the drawings my hand has been entirely guided by the spirits, no idea being formed in my own mind as to what was going to be produced.’

In a single room at the Courtauld Gallery, gathered together for the first time in almost 150 years, you can see the work of the Victorian artist, Georgiana Houghton. (The show runs at the Courtauld until 11 September.)

Houghton, born in Las Palmas in 1814, was a committed spiritualist and she didn’t claim her art for herself. Her brightly coloured watercolours were inspired by ‘spirit guides’ whom she encountered at séances in her Paddington home. Initially she channelled deceased family members - her late sister Zilla, a departed uncle - but she subsequently progressed onto the spirits of great artists such as Titian and Correggio.

The reception of the press and public to Houghton’s self-funded and only major exhibition, in 1871, was mixed. Some found her art alien and bewildering. But the News of the World described ‘the brilliance and harmony of the tints’ as like ‘a canvas of Turner’s over which troops of fairies have been meandering, dropping jewels as they went.’ (The arts coverage at the News of the World changed somewhat in subsequent years.)

Whether inspired by a dead relative or a Grand Master, Houghton’s art bears no resemblance to anything you’d expect from a painter of the time. There are richly-wrought spirals and swirls, tangled twisting curls and curves. Reds, golds, greens and purples explode like psychedelic fireworks across the paper. The paintings reminded me a little of the Spirograph I played with as a child. There’s a suggestion of flowers and pearls; sometimes a crown or a monogram; occasionally we see an eye or a face. But for the most part the spirit drawings are abstract. Indeed some have argued that Houghton was the world’s first abstract artist.

In the twenty-first century we may scoff at Georgiana Houghton’s séances and spiritualism. We may regard her approach to her art as eccentric or downright weird. But does her method matter if it took her to genuinely innovative places?

To Inspire You Need to Be Inspired

‘She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring.’
Zelda Fitzgerald

The message is simple. Creativity does not exist in a vacuum. It does not flourish in a desert. The creative appetite needs to be sustained by provocation and stimulus, by rivalry and fresh perspectives. It needs to respond to culture, to the revolutionary thinkers of the past and to imaginative visions of the future.

It’s very easy in the hectic world of commercial creativity to get lost in a self-regarding vortex. But the best creatives have a hinterland. I’ve known colleagues who collect punk 45s and vintage ukuleles; who paint and perform poetry; who learn fencing and boogie woogie piano; who enthuse about Christian folk and follies; who carve spoons. It doesn’t have to be art or culture as traditionally defined. It could be graphic novels, dubstep or ashtanga yoga. It could be Pokemon Go for all I care. But it does have to be something. Something you’re passionate about that takes you away from the narrow confines of your day-to-day tasks. Something that inspires you to inspire others.

No 89

 

Leaders Plan for the Climate We Expect, But They Must Also Manage the Weather We Get

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth  - Joseph Mallord William Turner

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth  - Joseph Mallord William Turner

I was fortunate to spend the best part of my career in my own office. For those that haven’t seen one, an office is ‘a room assigned to a specific person or group of persons in a commercial or industrial organization.’ As a strategist my office afforded me the opportunity to mull things over in silence, to lose myself in documents, to sketch out arguments undisturbed. I could stare out of the window, rearrange my yellow Bic biro collection, pin my ‘70s photos to the wall. I could build high towers of paper to block out prying eyes. I could close the door.

Inevitably in recent years things all went a bit open plan. I found myself sitting at a long wooden table with fellow management types from a range of disciplines. We could pool our problems, share our expertise, exchange sartorial insights.

In my new environment I was struck by the frequency, variety and arbitrariness of the issues and challenges that presented themselves to this management group. Colleagues would arrive, unannounced and under pressure, at our long wooden table. They would bring with them an awkward personnel issue, a legal dispute, an accounting error, an urgent pitch, a revolting Client. Everything seemed to require an immediate response, an instant reaction. I felt as if I had been transported to the heart of air traffic control. And I have to say I found it all rather stressful.

I realized that it takes a very particular type of person to thrive in the topsy-turvy world of management.  

As a strategist I primarily concerned myself with future possibilities and probabilities; with predicting trends and anticipating change. Most things were in the distance, on the horizon, in the long term.  Indeed we strategists often encouraged our Clients and colleagues to think more long-term; to focus on developing their vision and strategy for the future. 

But many of the challenges of leadership are random and surprising. They come out of left field. They are unanticipated, unforeseen, unplanned. They are imminent and very much in the short-term. 

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what was most likely to blow governments off course. He replied, ‘Events, dear boy, events.' Macmillan’s own government was brought down in the wake of the Profumo Sex Scandal of 1963. The Secretary of State for War had had a brief relationship with a woman who had also dated a Soviet Naval attaché. ‘Where did that come from?’ Macmillan must have thought.

In the face of unexpected events good leaders retain their cool, their calm and composure. They ‘keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs.’ Leadership requires an ability to prioritise issues, to calibrate them on the basis of their possible impacts. In the midst of crisis leaders must reduce the complex to its essentials; sequence responses; assign roles and responsibilities; design plans and communicate them. They must sustain morale. Above all, leaders have to think and act fast, in the moment. Right here, right now.

‘Stop doing this, start doing that; call x, contact y; get them on board, on side, on the case; call a meeting, form a team, make a plan; this now, that later; find time, make time, buy time. ‘

A critical leadership skill is dealing with the unanticipated present. It’s a skill that, in the course of my career, I grew to respect and admire. Mark Twain once observed that 'Climate is what we expect. Weather is what we get.’ Great leaders plan for the climate we expect. But they can also manage the weather we get.

No. 88

 

 

The Horniman Walrus: Times of Transformational Change Require Cross-Generational Expertise

 

Frederick Horniman was a Victorian tea trader and avid collector of art and artefacts, objects and specimens from all over the world. In 1901 he donated his collection, and the museum that housed it, to London County Council ‘for the instruction and enjoyment’ of Londoners, on condition that it should always be free to enter.

At the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill you’ll find totem poles and textiles, pan pipes and puppets, death masks and a dodo model. There are cabinets of curiosities, dioramas of startled and stuffed wildlife. You can see the remains of a nineteenth century male mermaid, a merman, which is actually a composite of fish, bird and papier mache. The Horniman is truly a place of wonder, a place where science, art and the imagination walk hand-in-hand.

One of the star attractions is an awkward looking stuffed walrus. The huge Horniman Walrus sits rather uncomfortably atop a fibreglass iceberg. When you first encounter him he peers mournfully back at you. He seems stretched and ‘over-stuffed’ and he lacks a walrus's characteristic wrinkles and skin folds. It’s as if he’s had a few too many chai lattes or is perhaps the victim of a bizarre Botox accident.

It transpires that when in the late 1880s the Horniman Walrus’s carcass was brought over to Britain, the local taxidermists had never seen a live walrus. So they just speculated on its natural appearance.

One can imagine the conversation: ‘Dave, this walrus here must have been a phenomenal beast. The boss is very excited about it. Any idea what it should look like?’ ‘No, Pete, just fill him up as best you can. I’m sure that’ll be fine.’

How many of us operating in marketing and communications over the years, working with new technologies and media, have created our own Horniman Walruses?  How often have we endeavored to put a new platform at the heart of our plans without being entirely confident what best to do with it?

During the dot.com boom I worked with numerous small businesses that thought they should advertise on TV; and with a large energy company that thought it should be a portal.  There was subsequently a rush to build brand websites that few consumers visited, and to populate them with branded entertainment that few consumers watched. We enthused about Friendster, MySpace and Google+. And our agency senior team once presented our future plans via avatars on Second Life.

So I’m not sure you’d want to ask me, for example, to find an optimal use of Periscope, Snapchat or 360 degree video. I’m well aware that these technologies are current, popular and important. But as a man of a certain age, I’ve not properly experienced them in the wild. I could probably stuff a platform with marketing strategy, expert acronyms and futuristic confidence. But would it end up looking natural?

Inevitably we assume that we’d be better off entrusting our marketing on new platforms to young people who are fluent in applications and algorithms. However, it’s far from easy locating an appropriate and effective role for marketing in new channels.  Often they resist more obvious commercial engagement. We may find that our digital natives are not sufficiently experienced in the art and craft of brand communication to crack the conundrum.

To put it crudely, if you want to stuff a walrus you need both people who know their walruses and people who know their taxidermy.

I’m increasingly of the view that times of transformational change require cross-generational expertise: teams that integrate youthful understanding of new platforms with the marketing wisdom of more mature heads.

We talk a good deal nowadays about creative partnerships: reaching across the divides of channel, technology and specialism. But in this neophile era and industry, maybe we don’t talk enough about collaborations that embrace a spectrum of age and experience.

Perhaps the Horniman Walrus, at the ripe old age of 150 or so, still has something to teach us.

 

This piece first appeared on Guardian Media and Tech Network on 15 June 2016

No. 87

Screwball!

Preston Sturges, Humility of Purpose and the Rules for Box-Office Appeal

Preston Sturges

Preston Sturges

Screwball comedy had its heyday in the 1930s. It was a film genre characterised by gender and class conflict, farcical situations and mistaken identity. It featured fast, witty dialogue, confident female leads and confused male counterparts. Critics have suggested that audiences needed escapism during the Depression, and the Hollywood studios needed sophisticated verbal sparring to subvert the restrictions of the Hays Code.

Preston Sturges was a master of screwball comedy. Films like ‘The Lady Eve,’ ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ and ‘The Palm Beach Story’ are all nailed-on classics. I think Sturges has a good deal to teach us in the modern era about the spirit of commercial creativity. He was serious about comedy and he poses compelling questions about social responsibility and populism - questions that still resonate today.

‘Don’t you know that the greatest men in the world have told lies and let things be misunderstood if it was useful to them? Didn’t you hear of the campaign promise?’

Claudette Colbert, ‘The Palm Beach Story’

Preston Sturges: The Embodiment of Commercial Creativity

Preston Sturges was born in Chicago in 1889. His parents separated when he was very young and his childhood was divided between periods in the United States with his adopted father, a stockbroker, and travelling around Europe with his bohemian mother. She was a good friend of the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan, and Duncan’s company gave Sturges his first theatrical experience.

Sturges served in the US Army in World War I and worked as a store manager before gaining success as a playwright and then a screenwriter. Ultimately he wanted to direct his own scripts and in 1939 he sold his screenplay for ‘The Great McGinty’ to Paramount for just $1 on condition that he be allowed to direct. 

‘The Great McGinty’ was the first film to show the credit 'written and directed by...' followed by one name, and it went on to win the first Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay. And four of Sturges’s subsequent movies were chosen by the American Film Institute among the 100 funniest American films of all time.

‘You see, Hopsi, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.’

Barbara Stanwyck to Henry Fonda, ‘The Lady Eve’

Sturges’s creativity was not constrained by his choice of career. Throughout his life he was an avid inventor. In 1920 he designed a kiss-proof lipstick, Red-Red Rouge. With varying degrees of success, he applied for patents for diverse products including a ticker tape machine, a hybrid helicopter-airplane and a hearing aid in the form of a telephone, the ‘Sturgephone.’ He also owned a nightclub on Sunset Strip, The Players, which featured revolving bandstands, tables that moved on tracks and ejector seats for drunks.

Preston Sturges clearly had a restless imagination, a breadth of interests, a fierce determination to succeed, and an ability to move beyond personal and professional setbacks. Above all, he seemed to be able to combine spirited entrepreneurism, business expertise and considerable creative talent. He was the embodiment of commercial creativity.

‘You can’t go around theatres handing out cards saying, ‘It ain’t my fault.’ You go onto the next one.’

Preston Sturges

 

‘Sullivan’s Travels:’ Humility of Purpose

In 1941 Sturges wrote and directed ‘Sullivan’s Travels.’ Like all his best work the film fizzes with witty wordplay and absurd adventures. But it also contemplates the role of cinema, and comedy in particular, in times of hardship and deprivation.

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Sullivan'sTravels

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Sullivan'sTravels

Joel McCrea plays John Sullivan, a hugely successful Hollywood director who has made his name with lightweight entertainments such as ‘Ants in Your Pants of 1939.’ Sullivan determines that he will next make a more serious movie addressing the social issues of the day. The studio bosses naturally try to persuade their star director to stick to what he knows and to what makes them the most money.

 Sullivan: ‘I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!’

Studio Boss 1: ‘But with a little sex in it.’

Sullivan: ‘A little. But I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity.’

Studio Boss 1: ‘But with a little sex in it.’

Sullivan (reluctantly) ‘With a little sex in it.’

Studio Boss 2: ‘How ‘bout a nice musical?’

It’s a conversation we recognise in the communications industry. So often we set out with purity of intent, but are seduced into compromise at every turn. ‘Perhaps just a little more product placement, a slightly more aspirational setting, a shown user? Maybe turn the Bunsen up on the branding? With a little sex in it… ‘

We all believe that creativity should work hand-in-hand with commerce to achieve best results. But so often we deal in a negotiated compromise between the two.

In any case, Sullivan presses on and decides that, before he makes a film which represents such a departure, he needs to do some field research. So he disguises himself as a hobo and sets out on the road. Inevitably our hero has a series of madcap adventures, farcical, far-fetched and forlorn. He has to deal with freight trains, soup kitchens and sleeping rough; hitchhiking, chain gangs and Veronica Lake.

Ultimately he finds himself in a labour camp watching a Disney cartoon. Seeing the joy on the audience’s faces, Sullivan realises that comedy can do more good for the downtrodden than any social realist drama or documentary.

‘There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’

‘Sullivan’s Travels’ has come to represent a significant touchstone for many comic writers. The serious work that Sullivan had been hoping to film was entitled ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ The Coen Brothers’ 2000 film in that name was making a respectful nod to Sturges.

Sturges himself dedicated ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ ‘To the memory of those who made us laugh.’ And in his autobiography he explained his motivation for writing the movie:

‘After I saw a couple of pictures put out by my fellow comedy directors which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favour of the message, I wrote ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers.’

I wonder what Preston Sturges would make of the modern world of marketing and communications; of our earnest commitment to Purpose and Values; and our enthusiasm for award-winning charity campaigns.

Do we sometimes ‘abandon the fun in favour of the message’? Do we occasionally get a little too ‘deep-dish?’ Should we consider ‘leaving the preaching to the preachers?’

I suspect that, while appreciating the good intent, Sturges would urge a greater sense of proportion and humility. Not every brand can address poverty, disease and malnutrition. Not every campaign can climb the mountaintop and make a stand for freedom, feminism and saving the babies. But all brands can make more modest social contributions through transparency, fair trade, fair pricing and good employment practices; through environmental and health responsibility; through paying their taxes and paying something back to the communities that support them.

Above all brands should feel proud if, like Sturges’s screwball comedies, they manage to bring just a little light into ordinary people’s everyday lives.

 

Preston Sturges’s Eleven Rules for Box-Office Appeal

At one stage in ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ Sullivan discusses with the studio bosses a previous ‘serious’ movie that was unsuccessful at the box-office.

Studio Boss 1: ‘It died in Pittsburgh.’

Studio Boss 2: ‘Like a dog!’

Sullivan: ‘Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh?’

Studio Boss 2: ‘They know what they like.’

Sullivan: ‘If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh!’

The harsh verdict of the market is often frustrating to the creative community, and Sturges was certainly alert to the role of Box-Office as the ultimate arbiter of success. In the same year that he shot ‘Sullivan’s Travels,’ he formulated his Eleven Rules for Box-Office Appeal:

‘1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.

2. A leg is better than an arm.

3. A bedroom is better than a living room.

4. An arrival is better than a departure.

5. A birth is better than a death.

6. A chase is better than a chat.

7. A dog is better than a landscape.

8.  A kitten is better than a dog.

9. A baby is better than a kitten.

10. A kiss is better than a baby.

11. A pratfall is better than anything’

One can imagine that these rules were composed with a mix of knowing expertise and ironic satire. They demonstrate that this great creative brain was not just concerned with grand themes and plotlines. He was well aware of the importance of executional detail.

Sturges’s Rules for Box-Office Appeal seem just as relevant to today’s world of YouTube clips and Instagram pics. Perhaps they serve to remind us that certain aspects of entertainment are timeless and universal. We can always depend on cats, babies, sex and human fallibility...

 

‘Anyway, men don’t get smarter as they get older. They just lose their hair.’

Claudette Colbert, ‘The Palm Beach Story’

No. 86