Small People in a Big World: The Liberating Power of Perspective

I recently saw Nice Fish, a fine play by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins (Harold Pinter Theatre until 11 February). It features two friends ice-fishing on a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota. They speculate on love and death; on petty officialdom and the aesthetics of baloney; on age and the environment; on the romantic yearnings of snowmen and the difference between wolves and dogs.

‘Some days are so sad nothing will help, when love has gone, when the sunshine and clear sky only tease and mock you. Those days you feel like running away, going where no one knows your name. Like slinging the old Gibson over your shoulder and travelling the narrow road to the north where the gray sky fits your mood and the cold wind blows a different kind of trouble… But somebody, someday soon, somebody will come and put up a bed and breakfast and a gourmet coffee shop. There is only one true wilderness left to explore, those vast empty spaces in your head.’

Some have complained that the play lacks any real drama or strong narrative. They have criticised it for whimsy. But there’s a fine line between whimsy and wisdom. I found many of the fishermen’s observations insightful and moving.

‘One day you cross an invisible line and everything is changed…It is as if you had crossed the international dateline, all at once it’s another day. Now, everything you looked forward to is suddenly behind.’

At the start of Nice Fish we see spruce trees and poplars in the distance; brightly painted fishing huts. We see a small figure with a fishing rod. A truck traverses the horizon. A train passes along the shoreline. All this is magically conveyed with puppets and miniatures. The stage design has the effect of placing our characters in the context of a grand panorama. And in many ways this is a play about scale: of ‘little’ people having big thoughts; of the intimacy of the trivial and the profound; of the beguiling mystery of the unknown and unknowable.

‘I’ve spent a great deal of my life fretting over things that most people wouldn’t waste their time on. Trying to explain something I haven’t a clue about.’

We are indeed small people in a big world. We are drops in life’s ocean, tiny stars in an infinite galaxy. On occasion I have felt this intensely: in a taxi late at night driving through Sao Paolo; flying over an unending Mongolian mountain range; walking into Canary Wharf on a Monday morning. It’s easy to be overwhelmed.

But perspective can be liberating as well as humbling; inspiring as well as chastening. Perspective supplies a sense of wonder. And keeping things in proportion is critical to our understanding of the world; to our empathy with other people; to our emotional wellbeing.

So much wrong in business, and indeed the wider world, derives from poor perspective: the excessive demand, the unreasonable request, the disproportionate response, the asymmetrical power balance. So much stress seems unwarranted; so much angst seems inappropriate. So many of our leaders, brands and businesses have an enhanced sense of self worth, but a diminished sense of reality.

Often we get too close, too involved, too exercised. Our passion turns to obsession, our determination to compulsion. We behave as if it’s a matter of life and death, when really it’s a matter of deodorant and fried chicken.

If we want to retain our relevance, to sustain our sanity, we would all do well to step back and abstract ourselves occasionally; to broaden the frame of reference; to take on different viewpoints. Context ‘has charms to soothe a savage breast.’ Let’s set aside the corporate hubris and embrace a little humility.

At the end of Nice Fish the two lead characters reach some kind of conclusion. They observe that old people leave life with the same befuddlement as if it were a movie:

‘”I didn’t get it.”…”It didn’t seem to have any plot”…”No, it seemed like things just kept coming at me. Most of the time I was confused…and there was too much sex and violence…Violence anyway”…”It was not much for character development either; most of the time people were either shouting or mumbling. Then just when someone started to make sense and I got interested, they died. Then a whole lot of new characters came along and I couldn’t tell who was who”… “The whole thing lacked subtlety”…”Some of the scenery was nice.”’

No. 114

The Naked Consumer: Do We Marketers Ever See People As They Really Are?

Last week saw the passing, aged 90, of the art critic and writer, John Berger. Berger was a charming man with a conventional middle-class manner but rather radical opinions. In his art criticism he encouraged us to strip away the assumptions and pretensions of traditional practice and to regard paintings with fresh eyes and from fresh perspectives.

My wife’s great aunt happened to appear in a Berger TV documentary in the ‘70s. As an experienced nurse, she was invited to comment on the portrayal of death in a number of famous paintings. She had seen death first hand many times and was therefore able to give an unvarnished and insightful response. In an age of reverence towards formal expertise, this kind of people’s perspective on art was revolutionary.

‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.’

First line of Ways of Seeing, John Berger

Berger was best known for his brief 1972 documentary series Ways of Seeing. It is a low budget affair, hosted by an earnest, sometimes smoking, Berger in shaggy locks and pattern-striped shirt. In the series he asks that we consider all imagery in its social and political context. Our understanding of art and mass media must be framed by our understanding of the power relationships between the artist, the subject, the commissioner, the owner and the viewer.

The most celebrated episode of Ways of Seeing considers the distinction between the naked and the nude. Berger points out that there was a tradition in European art of female subjects being painted without clothes by male artists, for wealthy male patrons and assumed male observers. He asserts that therefore the traditional female nude does not represent women as they were, but as all those male artists, owners and viewers wanted them to be.  The nude in art is an objectified vision of women.

‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude… Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.’

Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto

Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto

It’s a compelling distinction. I found myself considering the baggage we carry with us when we in the marketing and communications professions engage with consumers. Can a marketer ever see consumers as they really are? Or, given our endless evaluations and expectations, can we only objectivise them like the nudes in European art?

We think of consumers as targets for communication, as sources of revenue. We see them as segments and sectors, demographics and data-points. We reduce them to trends and typologies, life-stages and life-styles. We rate them for their frequency of interaction with us, their loyalty to us, their value for us. We think of consumers first and foremost in terms of their relationship with ourselves. We fail to comprehend that people are at the centre of their own universes; not orbiting around us and our brands.

And of course the very fact that we call people ‘consumers’ betrays our perception of them: as vehicles for absorbing time and space, money and materials.

My first job after college was as a Qualitative Market Researcher. I recall on one occasion we were commissioned to interview regular readers of a woman’s weekly magazine. The Clients were repeatedly disappointed with our recruitment. They felt our respondents were insufficiently expert in the nuanced changes they had made to the publication. ‘Regular readers would know much more about us than these people.’ So we recruited again, and again, and again, never really locating the publishers’ paradigm consumer. It became increasingly evident that that paradigm only existed in the minds of the publisher; and that the genuine regular readers just didn’t live up to our Clients’ expectations of them.

Consumers are rarely who we want them to be. They’re just who they are. They can be infuriatingly emotional, absurdly unfaithful.  They can display low attention spans, poor memory and wilful misunderstanding. They can be irrational, illogical, inconsistent. They can be simultaneously care-worn, careless and carefree. And most of the time they simply don’t care about us.

We all believe that at its heart good marketing understands and addresses the changing needs and desires of consumers. But we can only understand consumers if we think of them as human beings.

Do we marketers ever see people as they really are? Do we ever see the naked consumer?

 

No. 113

‘All Progress Depends on the Unreasonable Man’: George Bernard Shaw’s Lessons on Change

George Bernard Shaw

Over the festive break I attended a very good production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (The Donmar Warehouse until 18 February). Shaw’s plays are rarely performed nowadays. They are considered rather wordy, worthy and long. And Shaw himself, with his extravagant beard, prolific pamphleteering and occasionally eccentric opinions, can come across to modern sensibilities as a curious figure.

However, this Donmar production gives us pause for thought. Shaw’s story of a fifteenth century French peasant woman who leads the fight to liberate her country, considers themes that chime with us today. With her wide-eyed patriotism and direct engagement with god, Joan rejects expertise and elites, authority and hierarchy. She’s a populist or demagogue, if you like. And, inevitably, her simple faith and unwavering self-belief present quite a threat to the established order. An English Nobleman sums up the problem thus:

’If this cant of serving their country once takes hold of them, goodbye to the authority of their feudal lords, and goodbye to the authority of the Church.’

This prompted me to wonder how we, in the commercial communications sector, should respond to the events that gripped the wider world in 2016. Should we, like Joan, commit to more direct embrace of the tasks in hand; to unmediated encounters with Clients and consumers; to bypassing the established methods and modes? Should we design our own positive take on populism?

Saint Joan’s vivid contemporary relevance derives from Shaw’s active engagement with the world around him. His was a ‘theatre of ideas’ that demanded audience attention. He had a restless mind, an opinion about everything and a commitment to political and social change.

‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

These words resonated with me because, I confess, I have always felt uncomfortable with conflict. I naturally tend towards compromise and consensus. So when ill feelings arise, I’m keen to build bridges, change the subject, leave the room. However, I have become increasingly aware that the moderate path bears modest fruit: change needs challenge; progress needs protest.

As we embark on a new year and consider our commercial resolutions, perhaps like Shaw we would do well to set aside our prudence. If we want to see transformational change in our business, we may need to stop making sense. We may need to be unreasonable.

 

‘Remould It Nearer To the Heart’s Desire’

In the Shaw Library at the London School of Economics you can see a stained glass window designed by George Bernard Shaw for the Fabian Society in 1910. Two men with hammers pound a globe that sits on an anvil.  At the top of the window are the words: ‘Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire.’

Over the years I interviewed a great many young Planners who were applying for positions in the Agency. As well as asking them about the advertising they worked on, the campaigns they admired, the brands that could do with some help, I would always invite them to consider the future of the industry: Where is the communications sector heading? How is Planning evolving? How can we remould our business ‘nearer to the heart’s desire’?

Some of the young candidates found discussion of such broad themes uncomfortable. They were daily employed in the execution of Agency and departmental strategies, not the setting of them. They didn’t have their hands on the corporate tiller, so how could they have an opinion on where the boat should sail?

I’m not sure I ever found this an acceptable excuse. We all find it easy to criticise and complain. But in the modern age we can only expect progress if we have a point of view on how to achieve it. With the new year upon us, whatever our place in the hierarchy, we should all ask ourselves: What would we do with a blank sheet of paper? How would we anticipate and enhance the evolving commercial landscape? How would we fashion the industry of the future?

 

‘What Do We Want? Gradual Change’

The Fabian Society, for whom Shaw designed his stained glass window, was a group of socialist intellectuals who believed in reform rather than revolution. Its commitment to gradualism and respect for the incumbent democratic processes may at first seem rather modest. It reminds me of the joke that circulated when I was at college about the Liberal Party on a protest march:

‘What do we want? Gradual change.
When do we want it? In due course.’

But delay can be decisive. The Fabian Society took its name from the Roman general Quintus Fabius who is often credited as the father of guerrilla warfare. His primary military tactic was the avoidance of direct confrontation with the enemy: he consistently delayed engaging Hannibal and his Carthaginian invasion force until the moment was right; and then he struck hard.

In the years since it was founded in 1884, the Fabian Society demonstrated that you can achieve a great deal through argument and influence; through patient pragmatism and change from within. The Fabians founded the London School of Economics in 1895 and they were a founding organisation of the Labour Party in 1900. Fabians were prominent in successive Labour Governments and Fabian thinking inspired much of the modern welfare state.

Perhaps the Fabian Society sets an example to the vast majority of people in the marketing and communications business that work within large, complex organisations. It often seems easier to imagine the industry of the future from scratch, rather than from existing structures. Being an enthusiast for change can be intimidating when you’re only a cog in the machine. 

The Fabians encouraged their members to ‘educate, agitate, organise.’ Everyone can contribute to change through debate and advocacy; through designing trials and tests; through setting an example. Transforming a large incumbent business takes time and patience, diplomacy and cunning. But the rewards for success can be thrilling.

Happy new year!

No. 112

Alessandra Ferri: Following Conviction, Not Convention

I recently attended a talk at the Royal Opera House given by the magnificent dancer, Alessandra Ferri. She has been in London rehearsing for the Wayne McGregor ballet, Woolf Works, an imaginative and inspiring response to the legacy of Virginia Woolf (Royal Opera House, 21 January to 14 February).

Ferri dances with fluidity, intensity, personality. Her body is strong and supple; her mind alert and acute. Her long dark locks flow freely down her back. She is composed, quietly spoken, modest. And she talks with complete clarity and conviction.

‘I was an introverted child who lived more in my imagination. At 10 I knew that the inner world is bigger than the outside world.’

Born in Milan in 1963, Ferri had no family connection with ballet, but she instinctively understood it was her calling. At 15 years of age she left Italy for the Royal Ballet School, and by 19 she was a Principal in the Royal Ballet.

‘I learned to dance, not as a ballerina, but as flesh and bone. When I dance I am not aware of the limitations of my body. I dance outside my body. I dance in space.’

Within two years of her promotion, Ferri was recruited by Mikhael Baryshnikov to American Ballet Theater in New York. Though much loved in London, she saw an opportunity to learn and grow.

‘Jerome Robins [the choreographer] taught me to play my body like music; not just as an exhibition of beauty, but as research of an inner life; not as a ballerina, but as a woman.’

In 2007, aged 44 and after 22 years with American Ballet Theater, Ferri determined that she wanted to spend more time with her two children. And so she retired, at the top of her game. Then, six years later, she changed her mind. Ferri came back to ballet. And she committed herself to the extraordinary regime of training and self-discipline that the decision entailed.

‘I didn’t miss being onstage or the applause. I missed feeling alive. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to be there.’

Consistently throughout her life Ferri has followed conviction, not convention. She has demonstrated a rare self-knowledge and freedom of thought. Next summer she returns to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York to perform as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. It’s a role she first danced in 1984 when she was 21. She’ll be 53.

‘It happened so fast I didn’t have time to doubt. I asked myself ‘What are you afraid of? Your own memory?’’

Alessandra Ferri teaches us not to set too much store by custom, practice or tradition. We are too often constrained by what others have done, what others might think, what others expect. She is an advert for spontaneity, instinct and intuition. What do I want? What do I think? What do I expect of myself? She decides for now, for the moment. And leaves the rest to fate.

‘If you say of anything that it’s just for now – then you never know, it might end up being for ever.’

We have all been gifted with instinct and intuition; with infinite imagination and internal lives. Do we set aside enough time to think and reflect, to fancy and dream? Or are our decisions determined by the job and the boss; by precedent and convention; by the irresistible force of inertia? Do we listen to the ‘still small voice’? Or are we endlessly calculating the smart choice, the sensible option? Are we supporting actors in someone else’s drama or are we stars in our own?

 

That’s it for 2016. We all deserve a break. 
Happy Christmas. 
The next piece will be published on Friday 6 January 2017. I’ll see you on the other side.

 

 

No. 111

 

 

Mixed Metaphors: Sport Inspires Us To Perform; Art Inspires Us To Transform

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

So, we’re planning a conference and we want to invite an external speaker to address us and our colleagues - someone inspirational from a completely different world; who will get us all thinking outside the category, outside the box; someone who can convince us to raise our sights, raise our game.

Who are we going to call?

Maybe an Olympic oarsman, a downhill skier, a medal-winning sportswoman? Or perhaps a choreographer, a composer, a world-renowned film director?

Well, yes, any one of these could, I’m sure, be compelling and interesting. But perhaps we should first give a little thought to our selection criteria. Let’s examine the lessons we’re seeking to learn.

A first class sports person will prompt our colleagues to consider competition, goals and incremental improvement; team building, training and total honesty. They’ll teach us about the hard yards and the extra mile; to step up to the plate, to play the ball not the man, to want it more. There’s no ‘I’ in team. They’ll teach us all these things because fundamentally sport inspires people to perform.

We may, on the other hand, be keen to accelerate transformational change within our business. In which case sports people may not be so suited to the task. Setting aside the occasional formation adjustment and Fosbury Flop, for the most part athletes play the same game, on the same pitch, with the same rules. They’re seeking to be better, not different.

So if we’re looking to learn about change, we may prefer to talk to the cultural community. People from the arts world are daily engaged in innovation and invention, pioneering new paths and new perspectives. Art is an expression and catalyst of difference.

I think my most memorable marketing conference was one organised by Unilever in Dublin many years ago. A selection of actors and authors, poets and playwrights addressed the management teams of various global brands. They spoke to us about their sources of invention, the craft of creativity, the ‘habit of art’. You may well say that these themes were a million miles away from deodorant, detergent, blue bleach and yellow fats. But they seemed entirely relevant. Because they were all concerned with change.

I was interested therefore to see that Central Saint Martins, the London-based art and design school, and Birkbeck, the university that specialises in business education for working people, have recently combined to offer an MBA course. The course will bring together 'creative thinking with a rigorous business and economics base.' The shape of things to come perhaps.

“In an ever changing and ever more complex world, business leaders and entrepreneurs are going to need new ways of thinking and doing.”

Prof Jeremy Till, Dean of Central Saint Martins

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

It’s clear that, before we pick up the phone to book our inspirational speaker, we should choose our metaphors wisely; tailor the talk to the task. We should remember that sport inspires us to perform, art inspires us to transform; sport makes us better, art makes us different.

Of course, in the long run, most modern businesses need both high performance and transformational change. My former boss, Nigel Bogle, consistently encouraged BBH to be better and different. So when it comes to inspiration at least, we may well need to mix our metaphors.

No. 110

The Age of Pub-Lishing: Can Brands Rebuild Trust Through Truth?

Peder Severin Kroyer - Interior of a Tavern (1886)

Peder Severin Kroyer - Interior of a Tavern (1886)

There has been a good deal of soul searching of late around echo chambers and ‘filter bubbles’, the demise of expertise and the death of truth. The Facebook algorithm makes our social media presence a Hall of Mirrors, endlessly reflecting back to us our own sentiments and sensibilities. Our information comes from a broader variety of sources, but expresses a narrower range of views. We’re only reading the news we want to read; seeing the perspectives we want to see. Reports go unchallenged; opinions go unsubstantiated; statistics are used selectively; data is interpreted liberally; experts are no longer trusted; facts are no longer checked. Provocation, understanding and truth lie before us on the floor bleeding.

It’s an era when opinions voiced with the directness, candour and bias of a pub conversation are given the breadth of distribution and authority of traditional publishing. It’s the Age of Pub-Lishing, when we have blurred the distinction between pub-talk and publishing; between private and public. And therein lies a societal challenge. On the one hand, we want to sustain free speech and the rights of individuals to express themselves; on the other hand, we want published material to be factually accurate, decent and respectful of privacy.

So how should the world of brands and marketing respond to this new environment?

Well this ought to be an area where brands can help. Because they’ve been here before. In their earliest days brands operated in commercial contexts cursed by charlatans, sharks and snake oil salesmen. Indeed back then brands built their reputations and success on consistency, reliability and responsibility. ‘It’s the same as the one I bought last time.’ ‘I can depend on what it says about itself.’ ‘I have legal recourse if anything goes wrong.’ From the outset brands were sources of trust.

I once visited the archives of one of our oldest high street banks and was struck by the dusty, leather-bound ledger books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On page after page of elegant script, bank officials had certified that ‘Mr or Mrs Smith is good for £x of credit’; and Mr or Mrs Smith had signed their name, or in some instances made their mark, to indicate assent. The ledgers were testament to the fact that banking specifically, and business in general, is fundamentally an act of trust. Indeed the word ‘credit’ derives from the Latin ‘credo’: ‘I believe; I trust.’

In the modern era we may have taken for granted this primary role of brands as ‘trustmarks’. Increasingly we have asked brands to do more interesting things: to suggest and symbolise attitudes and associations; to represent and reflect lifestyles and values. And to achieve these ends, brands have often dealt in artifice and aspiration, dreams and desires. They have on occasion been cavalier with the truth.

Meanwhile we have watched our long-term brand trust scores deteriorate and wondered how we can ever reverse the decline.

Of course, we spend a good deal of time nowadays seeking to define the Purpose of our brands. What might be the broader societal value of our commercial enterprise? Why are we here? Often we come up with quite high-minded expressions of our reason for existence. We want to give people the power to share, to enhance global happiness, to nurture the human spirit. We want to save the babies… Perhaps we should consider more modest, and yet more pertinent, articulations of our brands’ public roles and responsibilities.

Nowadays trust, expertise, knowledge, fact and insight are rare commodities, precious cargo. Commentators talk freely about the world being ’post truth.’ Surely in this environment brands would be doing a considerable social good if they were just consistently honest, decent and true; if they brought simplicity to the complex, confidence to the uncertain; if they delivered insight and intelligence to the intimidating and new. In short, in an era of fear, uncertainty and doubt, brands can re-earn trust through truth.

So if you’re really committed to your brand having a higher social Purpose, why not begin with the fundamentals? Don’t aim at mystification; aim at illumination. Don’t seek to add value; seek to reveal it. Don’t shout about lifestyle; amplify truth.

And when you’ve done that, then maybe your brand can start delivering some of the provocation and challenge that our self-selecting social media diets no longer provide. That would be doing us all a service.

No. 109

Caravaggio’s Flashbulb Memories: Have We Forgotten How to Create Intense, Enduring Impressions?

The Taking of Christ

I recently attended an exhibition, at The National Gallery in London, of works by Caravaggio and the artists that followed immediately after him. (Beyond Caravaggio runs until 15 January.)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Milan around 1571. He moved to Rome when he was about 20 and it was here that he made his name. Caravaggio painted heavenly themes with low-life models; he told spiritual stories with earthy naturalism. We are drawn to the moral ambiguity, the proximity of the sacred and the profane. His characters are pensive, uncertain, intensely human. We see the brooding adolescent in the wilderness, the saint coming to terms with his calling, the artist complicit in the crime. Sometimes the subjects reach out and beckon us in. We are present, engaged, involved.

Caravaggio’s paintings also seem to be in suspended animation. He arrests time at the precise moment when the boy is bitten by a lizard; when the cardsharp considers his hand; when the deceiver realises her guilt. We witness the painful fall, the sudden recognition, the treacherous kiss.

These vivid effects are achieved in large part by lighting. The actors in Caravaggio’s dramas loom out at us from the darkness. They are spot-lit from above. It’s as if critical events have been illuminated by a flashbulb. Freeze-framed, they fix themselves in our consciousness.

“He invented a black world that had not existed before, certainly not in Florence or Rome. Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.”
David Hockney

In 1977 the psychologists Brown and Kulik posited the theory of Flashbulb Memory: that at certain moments of surprise or significance the brain captures vivid, detailed memories; and that these memories are more enduring, more consistent and more easily recalled than our usual, everyday recollections. We are prompted to record Flashbulb Memories at highly emotional or traumatic events. Like witnessing the death of JFK or participating in a car crash. Some have suggested that at these moments of crisis the brain records every last possible piece of stimulus because the smallest detail may be essential to survival.

You might imagine that in the world of marketing and communication, where we are engaged in the business of creating vivid and enduring recollections, we would be students of this kind of suspended animation, proponents of Flashbulb Memories. But our brand experiences are seldom heightened, our brand expressions rarely intense.

In the Content Era we seem more concerned with quantity than quality of engagement; more interested in frequency than depth of impression. Our brands are chatty, conversational, casual. We suffer from verbal prolixity and conceptual poverty. Our communication is always on, but our selectivity is often off. Why concentrate on a single moment when a hundred will do? Why focus on a single image when a thousand will do?

Perhaps we are not aware that in sacrificing selection, we may also be forfeiting intensity, and potentially therefore memorability. We do not realise that fewer, more precise, more emotionally acute images, can create deeper, more enduring, more personally meaningful recollections. Editing, selection and curation should be primary skills in the modern brand’s armory. But they seem woefully undervalued.

Saint John The Baptist in the Wilderness

‘Made some bad choices, then worse choices, then ran out of choices.’
Anna Nicole

Poor Caravaggio. His character was quarrelsome and cantankerous; his life was violent and turbulent. He drank too much, brawled too often and thought too little. He was a prototype of the impetuous artist, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’

In 1606 he killed a man after an argument over a tennis match and he had to flee Rome. He settled briefly in Naples, then Malta and Sicily, and then Naples again, all the time communicating with Rome in the quest for a pardon. When he painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, he put his own head on the platter. It was a plea for forgiveness. Or a portent of death.

In 1610 Caravaggio set out for Rome in anticipation of his long sought pardon. But he died on the journey, possibly from a fever. Some say he was, in fact, murdered by one of his many enemies; or poisoned from the lead that was commonly used in the paint of the time. Death by art, perhaps.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had a luminous talent and his life was intensely lived. And perhaps that’s one reason why his fame has spread so wide and his reputation will endure so long. Caravaggio’s was a flashbulb life.

No. 108

 

 

 

The Last Days of Disco: When It’s Time To Rediscover Relevance

Paradise Garage Dance Floor

‘I can remember planning,
Building my whole world around you.
And I can remember hoping,
That you and I could make it through.
But something went wrong.
We loved each other,
We just couldn’t get along.
Take a good look at me.
I’m in misery, can’t you see?
The love I lost
Was a sweet love.
The love I lost
Was complete love.
The love I lost.
I will never, no no never,
Love again.’ 

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The Love I Lost (Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff)

 

Sometimes it feels like the last days of disco.

Disco was an imaginative, inspirational movement that sprung up in the early 1970s from the mean streets of Philadelphia and New York. Disco was soulful strings, sensuous rhythms and seamless transitions. It was smooth, slick and street-smart; hedonism and hi-hats. Disco was black, Latino, female and gay. It was progress and togetherness. It was unadulterated joy. Our young hearts ran free. We walked in rhythm. We were family.

And then, within the course of a few short years at the end of the decade, disco was dead. It had been exploited from within and assaulted from without.

The insiders had succumbed to commerce and cocaine. Disco became all platforms and perms, mirror balls and Bee Gees. It was an elitist door policy, a dodgy hairdo, a lazy remix. ‘Da ya think I’m sexy?’

Disco was also much disliked by outsiders. Throughout its brief life it was beset by bigotry and homophobia, resented by reactionary rock fans, who felt that ‘disco sucks.’ On 12 July 1979 a radio shock jock organised a Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, Chicago. Over 50,000 people were invited to bring their unwanted disco records along to a White Sox baseball game to see them blown to smithereens in the middle of the arena. A riot followed. And the death knell tolled for disco.

‘Was that all it was?
A way to pass some time,
A momentary thing,
Not worth the memory in the morning.’

Jean Carn, Was That All It Was? (J Butler/ J Usry Jnr/ L Conlon)

Sometimes, in the twilight of my advertising career, I felt like I was living through the last days of disco. As the digital revolution took off around me, I found I couldn’t keep up. I was no longer in the vanguard of knowledge and practice. I wasn’t articulate in the new language. My skills seemed redundant; my expertise irrelevant. The trade that had been so good to me was under attack. The values I held so dear seemed anachronistic. I was walking with dinosaurs, swimming with sharks. I was a man out of time. Advertising was dead.

Instinctively I wanted to go underground. I confess I became sarcastic and sceptical, carping and critical. Like Canute I demanded that the incoming tide should halt.

Gradually I realised that resistance was fruitless, resentment pointless. In fact, when I applied myself to the broader themes and impacts of change, I found that the fundamental principles of brands and communication endured. Though I could never aspire to hands-on expertise, I could understand, and indeed bring some sense to, the brave new world around me. I could add value. And so I rediscovered a certain relevance.

If I learned anything from my period of self-doubt, it’s that the responsibility of leadership is to engage positively with change. Leaders can’t bury their heads in the sand. It’s not enough to ensure that your business performs. You must also equip it to transform. You need a point of view on how your industry needs to change; on how your company must change; and, perhaps most importantly, on how you yourself should change.

Disco never really recovered from that evening in Comiskey Park. But its spirit lived on. Its sentiments were re-articulated in house, garage, electronica, nu-disco and beyond. And eventually America fell back in love with dance music through the insistent charms of EDM.

Yes, sometimes it feels like the last days of disco. But let’s not spend too long resenting and regretting change. Let’s stay true to our principles and reapply them to a new landscape. Let’s start to dance again.

 

‘Your smile,
Just keeps on changing.

Baby, I feel it.
I feel your love changing.
Your love keeps changin’ on me.’

Ms Sharon Ridley, Changin’ (Peters/Mack/McClelland)

 

In memory of David Mancuso, pioneering New York DJ and founder of the legendary club night, The Loft. He passed away this week aged 72.

‘Love Saves the Day'

No. 107

‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’: Do Your Troops Know What They’re Here For?

Gassed by John Singer Sargent, Collection of the Imperial War Museum

Gassed by John Singer Sargent, Collection of the Imperial War Museum

Over the last few years there have been many publications, documentaries, exhibitions and events to mark the centenary of the First World War. For me the most touching discovery was a scratchy twenty-second recording of unfamiliar lyrics sung to a familiar tune.

Born to Irish parents in Fulham in 1895, Edward Dwyer joined the East Surrey Regiment at the age of 16. When war broke out he served in the Retreat from Mons, the first battle fought by the British Army against the Germans. After his heroic grenade defence of a trench on Hill 60 just outside Ypres in April 1915, he became (at the time) the youngest person to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The following year, recuperating from injuries back in England, Dwyer made a sound recording on the Regal label. It is thought to be the only such recording of a serving British soldier during World War I. In less than six minutes he talks about life at the front, pay and rations and so forth. He observes that, to keep their spirits up, the troops sang songs with their own rewritten lyrics. To the tune of Auld Lang Syne he croons:

‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.

We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.’

 

Dwyer’s jaunty voice reaches out to us across a hundred years with eerie immediacy. It’s a tragic thought, that the soldiers on the front line had no real sense of why they were on a particular mission or manoeuvre. They got on with the job without knowing what the job was. And laughed about it.

This seems to me quite an indictment of leadership. You can’t expect the rank and file to have detailed knowledge of strategy. But surely they should be able broadly to articulate why they’re there.

In the world of commerce we spend a lot of time articulating corporate vision and values. We invest in colleague engagement exercises, cascade meetings and internal communications. We introduce staff to the latest thought pieces, catchy acronyms and mots du jour. We talk a great deal about the need to define the Purpose of our brands and businesses.

But are these efforts convincing or confusing? Are our Purposes genuinely for the benefit of the workforce? Or are they exercises in corporate vanity? Can we really be confident that, at a fundamental level, our staff know what they’re about? Or are they here because they’re here because they’re here?

Later the same year that Dwyer made that haunting recording, he was back on active service. On 3 September 1916 at Guillemont, in one of the many battles of the Somme, Corporal Edward Dwyer VC was killed in action. He was just a couple of months short of his twenty first birthday.

 

I wrote this piece to mark Armistice Day 2016.

’At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.’

Poppy Appeal

Poppy Appeal

No. 106

'Shall We Call A Cab?'... Is Your Business Like a Boring Dinner Party?

Dinner at Haddo House 1884 by Alfred Edward Emslie - National Portrait Gallery, London

Dinner at Haddo House 1884 by Alfred Edward Emslie - National Portrait Gallery, London

Oh no! We’re talking about kitchen islands. We’ve already covered the kids’ exam results and university options. We’ve considered Uber and Strava, Nutribullets and Fitbits. We’ve discussed cycling and ski holidays, quinoa and kale. We’ve conferred on Bake Off and box sets, beards, bins and back pain. We’ve added a little Remoaning and a dash of Trumpophobia. And the blokes have had a furtive chat about craft ale and Arsenal. Yes, that’s it. We’re right in the middle of a Boring Dinner Party.

It’s a shame because it all promised so much. Such a compelling line-up of smart, charming people; such thoughtful hosts, fine food and considered wine selection. We were really looking forward to it… Ah…Now we’re onto wi-fi reception. I guess there’s nothing else for it. I’ll catch her eyes across the table, give her that look: ‘Shall we call a cab?’

I imagine we’ve all found ourselves at our own version of the Boring Dinner Party. And I confess I’m as conversationally culpable as the next person. So what is it that makes some events collectively dull, when the people in them are individually interesting?

Of course, we are instinctively drawn to people with similar backgrounds, experiences, politics and personalities. We surround ourselves with likeable, like-minded folk, who love the same things and laugh at the same jokes. And we invite each other round for dinner.

But there can be something unfulfilling about this. The more we get to know each other, the more we find ourselves agreeing, reinforcing each other’s world views. We learn to avoid certain topics, to dance round sensitive subjects. We recite the same anecdotes, rehearse the same gambits, explore the same conversational themes. Our nostalgic stories become communal glue, tribal touchstones. And it can all get a little familiar, a little cosy and unchallenging; frankly a bit boring.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter too much in our personal lives. But what if we’re behaving similarly in our professional lives too? What if, without much thinking about it, we find ourselves fishing in the same ponds for talent, rewarding the same outlooks in our colleagues, promoting the same character types in our leaders? What if we instinctively value the professional experiences, qualities and perspectives that we have ourselves? What if ours is just a company of People Like Us?

There is, of course, considerable worth in corporate coherence. The business that functions as a properly integrated and aligned team can deliver a more consistent service; it can be more disciplined; more at ease with itself.

But the risk with running our businesses like our dinner parties is that we begin to create corporate echo chambers: organisations that repeatedly support the same sentiments, confirm the same conventions and reinforce the same rules.

And in a world where transformation and interdependence are the ever-present imperatives, the corporate monoculture is competitively constrained. Because it’s uncomfortable with the new and awkward with the other. It’s instinctively conservative. (As Mao Tse Tung said: ‘A revolution is not a dinner party.’) By contrast the business that boasts diverse skillsets and disparate personalities is naturally better equipped for change and partnership. Difference respects and creates difference.

I wonder if we have become too good at cultural coherence; too committed to our bonding exercises, corporate awaydays and informal drink events. We imagine these initiatives are generating shared values and fellowship. But what if they’re making our company culture, not harmonious, but monotonous?

Of course, every leader nowadays celebrates the concept of diversity. Yet perhaps the biggest barrier to diversity in practice is our leaders’ own mental homogeneity. I’m sure most of us would deny that we suffer from unconscious bias. But I guess the thing about unconscious bias is that it’s unconscious.

No one wants to go to a Boring Dinner Party. And not too many people want to work in, or with, a boring business. Workplace diversity is not just a moral imperative; it’s a commercial one too… I’ll get the coats.

I  wrote this piece for the excellent social enterprise, The International Exchange. TIE connects talent in the communications industry with social initiatives around the world; thereby delivering creativity for good and developing the communications leaders of the future. Visit the TIE website to find out more.

No. 105