Don’t Get Lost on Bolsover Street: Delight in Complexity, But Then Rejoice in Simplicity

There’s a distinguished production of Harold Pinter’s 1975 play, No Man’s Land, currently running at Wyndham’s Theatre in London (until 17 December).

Hirst, a successful literary figure, has invited Spooner, a struggling poet, back from the pub to his grand Hampstead home. Here they engage in heavy drinking and circuitous conversation, attended by Hirst’s two mysterious man servants. The play is famously difficult to decode. Is it all about writer’s block, or unreliable memory, or the descent into alcoholism? Is Spooner Hirst’s alter ego? Is he a character pitching to feature in Hirst’s next play? Is he a harbinger of death?

Pinter refuses to resolve these questions for us. Indeed he seems to revel in our uncertainty. He’s happy to leave us, like the key protagonists, in No Man’s Land.

At the start of Act 2 one of the servants, Briggs, explains that he first met his colleague, Foster, when Foster stopped his car to ask him the way to Bolsover Street.

‘I told him Bolsover Street was in the middle of an intricate one-way system. It was a one-way system easy enough to get into. The only trouble was that, once in, you couldn't get out. I told him his best bet, if he really wanted to get to Bolsover Street was to take the first left, first right, second right, third on the left, keep his eye open for a hardware shop, go right round the square, keeping to the inside lane, take the second Mews on the right and then stop. He will find himself facing a very tall office block, with a crescent courtyard. He can take advantage of this office block. He can go round the crescent come out the other way, follow the arrows, go past two sets of traffic lights and take the next left indicated by the first green filter he comes across. He's got the Post Office Tower in his vision the whole time. All he's got to do is to reverse into the underground car park, change gear, go straight on, and he'll find himself in Bolsover Street with no trouble at all.’


I think it’s important that strategists are comfortable with complexity. Most people, most lives and relationships, are contoured and convoluted, tangled and tortuous. They are driven by motivations that are often arcane, nuanced and irrational. In the same way, businesses and brands, media channels and environments, user journeys and experiences tend to be confused beasts too. We should delight in this intricacy, recognise its essential truth and doubt anyone that denies it.

‘Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.’
Woody Allen

But sometimes we strategists become not masters, but victims, of complexity. We can be cursed by an intelligence that sees sophistication and subtlety at every turn. Our brand onions look like eye tests; our engagement strategies like cat’s cradles; our ecosystems like distant galaxies. We get lost on a business problem that won’t resolve itself; on a deck that doesn’t get any shorter; on a customer journey that’s got no destination.

This malaise can extend into the rest of our professional lives. We soon find ourselves becalmed on an account that’s unrewarding; in a role that’s unsuited; in a career that’s not progressing. In no time at all we’re lost on Bolsover Street.

‘I did warn him, though, that he'll still be faced with the problem, having found Bolsover Street, of losing it. I told him I knew one or two people who'd been wandering up and down Bolsover Street for years. They'd wasted their bloody youth there. The people who live there, their faces are grey, they're in a state of despair, but nobody pays any attention, you see.’

So, whilst acknowledging the essential intricacies of life, business, consumers and media, we should also recognise that the core strategist’s skill is to bring simplicity to the complex, to reduce and refine, condense and concentrate; and that it’s only through the ability to distil, both the problem and the solution, that we can avoid being cast adrift on a Sargasso Sea of unworkable strategies and unfulfilling careers.

‘Why is it the French revolution was able to sum up its beliefs in three words –Liberté,  Égalité, Fraternité – and yet we need twenty six to sell a tin of cat food?’
Sir John Hegarty

I’m conscious that I’m encouraging the cultivation of equal and opposite talents; that I’m suggesting the best strategists can be both complex and concise; that they are at ease with antithesis. But ours is a trade that has contradiction at its heart: between the rational and emotional; between behaviour and belief; between compression and expansion.

So let’s embrace this contradiction. Let’s delight in life’s complications; and then reduce them to simple truths and decisive acts. Let’s not get lost on Bolsover Street.


Simplify Me When I’m Dead

Remember me when I am dead 
and simplify me when I'm dead. 

As the processes of earth 
strip off the colour of the skin: 
take the brown hair and blue eye 

and leave me simpler than at birth, 
when hairless I came howling in 
as the moon entered the cold sky. 

Of my skeleton perhaps, 
so stripped, a learned man will say 
"He was of such a type and intelligence," no more. 

Thus when in a year collapse 
particular memories, you may 
deduce, from the long pain I bore 

the opinions I held, who was my foe 
and what I left, even my appearance 
but incidents will be no guide. 

Time's wrong-way telescope will show 
a minute man ten years hence 
and by distance simplified. 

Through that lens see if I seem 
substance or nothing: of the world 
deserving mention or charitable oblivion, 

not by momentary spleen 
or love into decision hurled, 
leisurely arrive at an opinion. 

Remember me when I am dead 
and simplify me when I'm dead.


Keith Douglas (an English poet who fought in North Africa during World War II and was killed in 1944 during the invasion of Normandy.)

No. 103

Georgia On My Mind: Six Lessons for Creative Professionals from a True American Artist

Oriental Poppies, 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Oriental Poppies, 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

‘I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.’ 
Georgia O’Keeffe

Over the summer I attended the fine Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern in London (showing until 30 October).

In her ninety-eight years on the planet O’Keeffe (1897–1986) was a pioneer, an independent voice, a radical artist. She expressed herself through cityscapes and landscapes; through bold curvaceous shapes abstracted from nature; through rippling cliffs, alien skulls and puffy cloud formations. She painted orange poppies, black irises and white jimson weed, intimate and up-close; she painted pink earth, turquoise lakes and indigo mountain ranges, at an admiring distance. She conveyed the soul of America, ancient and modern.

O’Keeffe was born to dairy farming parents under big Wisconsin skies. She was intelligent, self-reliant, determined and dedicated. By the age of 10 she had decided she wanted to become a painter and by the age of 30 she had helped define American Modernism. There’s a good deal that creative professionals in the twenty-first century could learn from this innovative artist of the twentieth.


1. Turn Injustice into Incentive

‘Men put me down as the best woman painter…I think I’m one of the best painters.’

It was never easy for O’Keeffe, making her way as a talented and ambitious young woman within a conservative, patriarchal society. Conventions were constraining; opportunities were limited. Aged 20 she moved to New York to study at the Art Students League. An older pupil, Eugene Speicher, set her straight on what she could expect from life:

‘It doesn’t matter what you do. I’m going to be a great painter and you will probably end up teaching painting in some girls’ school.’

Who’s laughing now?

Perhaps experiences like this made O’Keeffe all the more committed to an independent path. Today’s young people working in creative commerce would do well to emulate her talent for turning everyday injustice into enduring incentive.

‘I can't live where I want to, I can't go where I want to go, I can't do what I want to, I can't even say what I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to.’


2. No One Can Teach You How To Be Yourself

Abstraction White Rose, 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Abstraction White Rose, 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Education was clearly a challenge for O’Keeffe. She realised that teaching can only take you so far. You can learn historical context, craft and technique, but you can’t be taught how to be yourself.

‘I thought someone could tell me how to paint a landscape. But I never found that person. I just had to settle down and try...They could tell you how they painted their landscape, but they couldn’t tell me how to paint mine.’


3. Make Your Unknown Known

From the outset O’Keeffe spoke with her own voice: a distinctive language of arcs, waves and spirals; of sensuous curves and luminous colours.

‘I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn't say any other way... things I had no words for.’

In 1917 the gallerist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz gave O’Keeffe her first solo exhibition at his 291 gallery in New York. But Stieglitz, who later became her partner, was principal among those who imposed Freudian interpretations on her work, regarding it as fundamentally feminine and expressive of erotic feelings. O’Keeffe resented being reduced and categorised in this way. What’s the point in developing a new private language if others translate it back into their own?

‘They were talking about themselves, not about me.’

O’Keeffe realised that the key to a truly differentiated and personal creativity was the unarticulated self. We shouldn’t be afraid to give expression to our internal thoughts and feelings, even though they may not conform to any conventional taste or practice.

‘Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing - and keeping the unknown always beyond you.’


4. Linger, Look Closer, Magnify

Stieglitz was an early champion of photography as an art form, and O’Keeffe must have absorbed a great deal from his camera expertise. In her flower paintings, in particular, she seems to have applied the photographer’s capacity to observe close-up, to abstract forms and to experiment with scale.

‘Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small it takes time - we haven't time - and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time…So I said to myself - I’ll paint what I see - what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.’

5. Select, Eliminate, Emphasise

Some of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings seem flat, crisp and clear, as if she were more interested in the pattern or design she was creating than the actual object itself. She teaches us to go beyond realism, to edit and eliminate the unnecessary. In any creative endeavour we should ask, not just ‘what are we going to put in?’ but also ‘what are we going to take out?’

‘Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination and by emphasis that we get to the real meaning of things.’

New York Street with Moon, 1925 - Georgia O'Keeffe

New York Street with Moon, 1925 - Georgia O'Keeffe


6. Don’t Be Happy, Be Interesting

This last lesson is a hard one. O’Keeffe made sacrifices in order to achieve. In her early career she had to take stints as a commercial illustrator and indeed an art teacher. Her relationship with Stieglitz, though intimate and inspiring, was often long distance and occasionally frustrating. Restlessly she moved from Wisconsin to Chicago, from New York to Texas, and on to Upstate New York. Ultimately she only found true contentment in New Mexico, a land of isolated desert ranches, ochre adobe houses and mountain plateaux.

In an age when we are encouraged to value all things according to how happy they make us, O’Keeffe suggests that happiness may be a false idol. We should seek not to be happy, but to be interesting and interested.

‘I think it's so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary - you're happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.’ 

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932 - Georgia O'Keeffe

No. 102


The Art of Adjacency: Don’t Just Look Up, Look Sideways

In the splendid film noir, In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart stars as Dix Steele, a troubled Hollywood scriptwriter who falls for Laurel, his next-door neighbour, played by Gloria Grahame. At one point Laurel compliments Dix on a romantic scene he has just written.

Laurel: ‘I love the love scene – it’s very good.’

Dix: ‘Well, that’s because they’re not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one: me mixing grapefruit, you sitting over there, dopey, half asleep. Anyone could tell we’re in love.’

Good advice. Perhaps sometimes in the world of commercial creativity we are too direct. If we want to suggest affection, we show an emotional embrace. If we want to communicate anger, we have people ranting and raving. If we want to convey disappointment, we cut to tears.

Dix Steele encourages us to look at adjacent events, ancillary actions. The empty seat on a bus leaving town, the expectant eyes of a faithful hound, the lipstick traces on a cigarette. These incidental asides can be more telling, more memorable, more poignant. Because in real life emotional truth is more often inferred than declared; it is more often implicit than explicit.

The art of adjacency does not just apply to creative execution. It’s also relevant to strategy. For some years now the first instinct of the strategist when invited to promote a brand has been to focus on its essence, to ladder up to some higher order benefit, to find some unifying social purpose. But occasionally it pays not to look up, but to look sideways.

Magners convinced people to engage with hitherto unfashionable cider, not by celebrating the brand’s provenance or product, but by encouraging the over-ice serve. Tate Modern attracted young people to hitherto inaccessible contemporary art, not through the art itself, but through the contemporary music its target enjoyed. Lurpak suggested that it’s not just the butter, but what you do with the butter, that counts.

Sometimes the answers to a brand’s problems reside at the margins, not at the core. Sometimes they can be found in the neighbouring category, in the incidental asides, in the associated interests. Marketing history is filled with case studies of businesses that didn’t just celebrate the essence of their brand, but sought imaginatively to reframe how that brand was perceived.

Betty Crocker decided that it was not about the cake mix, but the added egg. Gillette determined that it was not about the razor, but the blade. Esso proposed that it was not about the forecourt, but the toilets. Instagram resolved that it was not about the words, but the pictures. The V & A suggested it was not about the gallery, but the café.

So perhaps the answer for tyres resides, not in the their relationship with the road, but their relationship with the drive. Perhaps the answer for mattresses resides not in their impact when you’re asleep, but when you’re awake. Perhaps the answer for banking can be found not in money, but in time.  Maybe opera should be looking at ballet, tea at coffee.

I could go on…

The message is a simple one. Before we rush to distillation and elevation, we should consider strategic and creative adjacency. We should look sideways at what we could learn from neighbouring sectors, analogous brands, incidental behaviour. There we may find the catalysts and fresh perspectives that will enable us to reframe and rethink our own brand. The risk is that if we’re always looking at the sky, we may not see the roses.


No. 101

Eggleston: The Poetry of Normal

William Eggleston, Untitled (Girl with Red Hair, Biloxi, Mississippi), 1974

William Eggleston, Untitled (Girl with Red Hair, Biloxi, Mississippi), 1974

‘The idea of the suffering artist has never appealed to me. Being here is suffering enough.’
William Eggleston

There’s a fine exhibition of photographic portraits by William Eggleston running at the National Portrait Gallery in London (until 23 October).

Born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in a well-to-do household in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston was shy and laconic, guarded and private. Self-taught and self-sufficient, he developed an affinity for free spirits, local bourbon and antique guns. He dressed like a Southern gentleman and caroused like a rock musician.

Eggleston took up photography at university. From the mid ‘60s he experimented with colour, and in 1973 he embraced a dye transfer printing technique, which hitherto had been the realm of commercial magazines and advertising. As a result his colours are rich, vibrant, intoxicating. We are seduced by the vivid yellows and pinks, the deep reds and blues; the bold tones of manmade fibres, floral prints, formica and leatherette. They sing out above the flat umbers and olive greens of the enduring rural South.


Untitled, .1974 by William Eggleston

Untitled, .1974 by William Eggleston

‘I photograph democratically…I don't have any favourites. Every picture is equal but different.'

Eggleston’s style seems informal, casual even. By 1976 he was abandoning his viewfinder and shot as if firing a gun. He photographed ordinary people in the bar, at the diner, in the parking lot; regular folk at the counter, at the phone kiosk, on the travelator; waiting in the car, striding along the sidewalk, seated by the kerb. There’s a young woman with a Heineken, a businessman with a burger, a singer with a cigarette. We see the elderly lady on her garden chair, the office worker in his lunch hour, teenagers on a date. We see a lone old man sitting on the edge of a bed, with a drink, with a revolver.

Eggleston’s subjects look straight at us, through us and past us. They stand and stare; they sit and watch; they turn to one side. They seem lost in thought, alone, even though they’re with us.

It seems a world of doubt, regret, indecision and detachment. But maybe it’s nothing of the kind. We want to know the stories that attend the images; the befores and afters. But Eggleston denies us this narrative. He leaves his subjects untitled, unidentified, unknown.

'A picture is what it is, and I've never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn't make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them…I mean, they're right there, whatever they are.’

Untitled, c.1970 (Devoe Money in Jackson, Mississippi) by William Eggleston

Untitled, c.1970 (Devoe Money in Jackson, Mississippi) by William Eggleston

Although by no means the first serious photographer to shoot in colour, Eggleston’s exhibition at New York’s MOMA in 1976 is widely recognised as a watershed moment for the genre. At the time there was fierce criticism of his work from a photographic establishment that was looking for meaning and message. The New York Times described it as ‘the worst show of the year.’ His choice of everyday subjects was felt to be banal, boring and bland. His informal, spontaneous style was labelled ‘snapshot chic.’

But these are the very factors that make Eggleston’s work compelling. There is a mystery in the mundane, a simplicity in the spontaneous, a beauty in the bland.


Untitled, c.1970 (Marcia Hare in Memphis, Tennessee) by William Eggleston

Untitled, c.1970 (Marcia Hare in Memphis, Tennessee) by William Eggleston

‘I am at war with the obvious.’

In the field of commercial creativity we should feel affinity for the ordinary and everyday. Ours is a world of small choices and regular habits. Eggleston teaches us that, if we look close enough, we will see, and if we think hard enough we will feel; that we should seek merely to amplify the truth, to intensify it with considered gaze and vibrant colour; that there’s no need to resort to excess and exaggeration, superheroes and superstars.

As for myself, I’ll take the bland and banal every time. Give me small and inconsequential rather than grand and meaningful. Give me repetition and routine rather than fireworks and fun. It’s the poetry of normal.

Last week I gave a little money to a woman outside Waitrose. With her cropped hair and harem pants, she seemed earnest and a little concerned. ‘Would you like a book about the structure of the universe?’ she asked. ‘No, thank you. I need a new packet of Tuc biscuits.’

No. 100

Going to Bed with Gilda: The Corrosive Effect of Artifice in Professional Relationships

‘You’re out of practice, aren’t you? Dancing, I mean. I can help you get in practice again, Johnny. Dancing, I mean.’
Rita Hayworth as Gilda, talking to her former lover, Johnny

Poor Rita Hayworth. World famous film star and the GIs’ favourite pin-up in the ‘40s, she struggled throughout her life to be understood as the person she really was.

Born Margarita Cansino, Columbia Studios determined to suppress her Spanish heritage. They dyed her hair red, raised her hairline by electrolysis, changed her name, overdubbed her singing voice and locked her into a restrictive contract.

As Rita Hayworth she made some truly marvellous movies. Only Angels Have Wings, The Strawberry Blonde and The Lady from Shanghai are all certified classics. She is best remembered for her role as the eponymous femme fatale in Gilda.

Gilda, married to a casino owner in Buenos Aires, is endlessly sparring with her erstwhile partner, Johnny, who now works for her husband. They seem at the same time to love and loathe each other. Theirs is the very definition of an unhappy, dysfunctional relationship:

‘Hate is a very exciting emotion. Haven’t you noticed? Very exciting. I hate you too, Johnny. I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it.’
Rita Hayworth as Gilda

The defining moment in Gilda is Hayworth’s seductive performance of the song ‘Put the Blame on Mame.’ Swaggering across the stage in a tight silk dress, ruffling her long red locks, Gilda removes a black opera glove and all over the world jaws drop.

After Gilda, Hayworth was marketed as a sex symbol and dubbed the ‘Love Goddess.’  The problem was that in private Hayworth was quiet, introvert and shy. She resented the merchandising, the marketing, the falsehood. She resented having her image painted onto an atomic bomb. But it was too late. What’s more she was also unlucky in love. Married and divorced five times, she consistently attracted the wrong type of man.

‘Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.’

Poor Rita. From the mid ‘50s the studio turned to less troublesome stars, TV was in the ascendant and the parts gradually dried up. She struggled with alcohol and Alzheimer’s disease until her death in 1987, aged 68.

There’s a lesson to be learned from Rita Hayworth. Most businesses inevitably endeavor to mould people to their own purpose. Companies shape employees to fit established precedents, to fill certain roles. Welcome to the machine.

And when young hopefuls join a business, they want to fit in; they want to succeed. They are often happy to model themselves on pre-existing archetypes. They’re prepared to forego their true selves for success; to sacrifice means for ends. But however successful a personality change or character compromise in the short term, artifice never pays off in the long term. The price of pretence is sorrow.

Inevitably, there’s always been a good deal of contrivance and artifice around creative businesses. Affectation and the ersatz have walked hand-in-hand with salesmanship and persuasion. We’ve sold aspiration and dreams to our colleagues and clients, as well as to our consumers. But we should be mindful that artifice can corrode our relationships and undermine our company culture. Because living a lie is contagious.

‘And hearts that we broke long ago
Have long been breaking others.’
WH Auden, Song of the Master and Boatswain

Sadly over the course of my career I observed our industry turn some good people bad, some nice people nasty. Weaker personalities seemed particularly susceptible. And there were a good number of clients who, having been seduced by a pitch process to ‘go to bed with Gilda,’ weren’t too happy with the partner they woke up with in the morning.

Of course, authenticity has become an imperative for modern brands. Consumers are looking for transparency, unfiltered truth, the real deal. Similarly authenticity should characterize our relationships with colleagues and clients; it should be a defining trait of our leaders. Progressive businesses must set aside the plastic smiles of yesteryear; the wooden handshakes and steely looks that for so long dominated our offices and conference rooms.

This is particularly necessary in creative commerce, where difference is the chief justification of premium; where competitive advantage is primarily determined by human capital; where diversity of output can only be achieved by diversity of input. Because similarity begets similarity; difference begets difference.

At the very end of Gilda, after no end of drama, the warring couple is reunited. They determine to set aside the bickering and role-playing, the artifice and self-destruction. Gilda looks mournfully towards her partner and says: ‘Johnny, let’s go. Let’s go home.’

This piece first appeared in Campaign on 2 September 2016

No. 99

Deferred Dreams

‘People spend their whole lives building castles in the air, but then nothing ever comes of it. I wonder why that is… It takes courage. You know, everybody’s afraid to live.’

Tony, You Can’t Take It With You

You Can’t Take It With You is in many ways a typical Frank Capra movie. It combines social satire with madcap comedy. It’s charming, silly, sentimental and thought provoking. A young Jimmy Stewart plays Tony who works as a Vice President at his father’s bank. Tony falls in love with his stenographer, Alice (played by Jean Arthur), and, in a touching scene on a park bench, Tony recalls for Alice the dreams of his youth.

‘I remember in college another guy and I had an idea – we wanted to find out what made the grass grow green... Because there’s a tiny little engine in the green of the grass and on the green of the trees that has the mysterious gift of being able to take energy from the rays of the sun and store it up... Well, we thought if we could find the secret of all those millions of little engines in this green stuff, we could make big ones and then we could take all the power we could ever need right from the sun’s rays, you see?...We worked on it, worked on it day and night. We got so excited we forgot to sleep.’

I was quite taken aback to hear a character in a popular black and white comedy from 1938 speculate on the possibilities for solar power. But also saddened. Because the scene succinctly captures the melancholy of missed opportunity and wasted talent; the haunting reproach of deferred dreams. Tony explains to Alice what happened to their plans to develop a technique for producing renewable energy.

‘We left school. Now he’s selling automobiles and I’m in some strange thing called banking… He’s married, his wife just had a baby. Didn’t think it was fair to gamble with the future.’

I’m sure we all recognise Tony’s meditation on paradise postponed. Sometimes hopes, dreams and aspirations are interrupted by events. ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ But Alice goes further. She cites her grandfather’s theory that most of us live in a state of timidity.

‘He says most people nowadays are run by fear: fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money and they’re scared to spend it.’

I suspect fear does set a limit on our aspirations. Fear and responsibility. Most of us are paranoid about how we’re perceived, why we’re not doing better, what we could stand to lose.

I once chatted to a London cabbie about his exposure to violence out on the streets late at night. He said the most dangerous people were the ones who had nothing to lose.  I’m sure he was right. But people with nothing to lose don’t just represent danger. Their lack of fear and responsibility, their willingness to take risks, also equip them for opportunity.

Of course, this takes us back to young people. They generally have less to lose and more to gain; they have more years ahead of them than behind them; they have more invested in the future than the past. They are less afraid.

I wonder do we, in business and society, make sufficient use of youthful optimism, open mindedness and imagination? Could we do more to record the ideas that have not quite found their time; to rescue the concepts that are not properly thought through; to realise the schemes that are not fully funded? Could we set our young people the toughest tasks, not as training exercises, but as a means of opening up new hopes and horizons? Should our think tanks and innovation centres be staffed disproportionately by youth, in order to be proper laboratories of the future? If we fail to realise this potential, are we not gambling with all our tomorrows?

This is not to say that every youthful speculation is useful. I can’t claim to have spent my adolescence meditating on something as significant as solar energy. My entrepreneurial schemes were a little more modest. I had an idea for a restaurant that faithfully recreated on land the aeroplane dining experience. (Meal on a tray, back of seat movies, a kip after dinner…) I had a plan for a brand that was entirely focused on ‘sleep, the final frontier.’ (‘Everything you need for a good night’s sleep from A to ZZZZ.’) I had a book idea that combined Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness with Wittgenstein’s writing style. I had a concept for edible combs…

I guess that, whatever the worth of our ideas, we would all do well to ensure youthful dreams don’t become middle-aged regrets. Unfulfilled, unachieved, unrealised. Because in one respect dreams are just like material assets: you can’t take them with you.

‘I’m dreaming dreams,
I’m scheming schemes
I’m building castles high.
They’re born anew,
Their days are few,
Just like a sweet butterfly.

I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding.
I’ve looked everywhere.
I’m forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air.’

‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’,
John Kellette/Jaan Kenbrovin

Today is the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer

Today is the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer


No. 98

Fresh Pants Every Day: The Galvanising Power of Positive Thinking

There used to be a small extension to a building society opposite Harold Wood Station. It was not perhaps a Stirling Prize winner, but it was the source of some pride for me, as I had a hand in creating it.

One summer when I was 19 I worked as a labourer. I learned how to dig holes, mix concrete, lean on a shovel and make tea. I learned that I wouldn’t survive on site if I came into work with The Guardian under my arm. And I learned a little about organizational culture.

We labourers sat on the lowest rung of a sophisticated hierarchical ladder. We looked up to the brickies, plasterers and plumbers; and in particular to the site aristocrats, the sparks. Everyone was aware of his position in the social order and everyone looked down on us.

And then there was the Management. We didn’t really know who they were or what they did; and they in turn didn’t endeavor to explain what we were doing, or to inspire us with wise words or visionary speeches. But every week or so, when we’d dug a significant trench or laid a bit of concrete (‘a nice drop of stuff’), a chap with a navy sports jacket and loosely knotted tie turned up. He didn’t say too much, just poked around with a stick, had a scratch and eventually said everything was fine to proceed. The blokes on site called him ‘The Man from Delmonte.’

You’d think that sitting at the bottom of a hierarchical organization with a distant management and a very limited understanding of our collective purpose, would lead to a disenchanted workforce. Far from it. We were happy in our work. We took pride in a hole well dug, a concrete well mixed, a job well done. And collectively we were boundlessly positive.

This was in no small part down to Mont, the chief labourer. Mont was tall and tan and young and muscly. He had Herculean strength and adamantine resolve. He spoke with a bright smile on his face and a rustic Essex burr that you’ll rarely hear today. One lunchtime, as we sat in our wooden hut, sipping sweet tea from tin mugs and eating Sunblest sandwiches from concrete-encrusted hands, he proudly revealed to me his secret: 'Do you know, Jim, there’s one thing I insist on in life. I wear fresh pants every day.’ 

You see, Mont was an eternal optimist. He had a phenomenal ability to put away yesterday’s troubles and to live life in the present. And his enthusiasm was infectious. Despite the medieval hierarchy, the lack of communication and vision, ours was a happy site, a functioning unit. It was a lesson I took with me into my advertising career.

The galvanizing force in any team, the animating energy, is enthusiasm; irresistible, intoxicating, inspiring enthusiasm. You can’t discover answers unless you’re eager to ask questions; you can’t create difference if you’re satisfied with the same; and you can’t anticipate the future unless you’re looking up towards the horizon. In my time at BBH we subscribed to the view that positive people have bigger, better ideas. I’m sure that’s true.

 It strikes me that one of the defining characteristics of our industry, alongside creativity, is enthusiasm. And it’s an increasingly precious commodity in a world beset by Brexit blues, abiding austerity, global terror and environmental decay. Perhaps we should make more of it.

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. In my experience Agencies are actually both fuelled by confidence and oiled by fear.  Every business needs a little paranoia to inoculate it against complacency. Every business needs a few people that are angry, awkward and discontent. But no business can sustain too many of them. And it’s a critical role of leadership to manage that mix.

Sadly I’m not sure if my Harold Wood construction is still a building society today. It’s probably a coffee shop or bookies, blow dry or nail bar, Pound Shop or Pound Land. But maybe I’m getting a little cynical. I need to put on some fresh pants.

This piece first appeared in Campaign on 17 August 2016.

No. 97

Punk Entrepreneurism: ‘Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself.’

It’s October 1977. Some young punks are being interviewed about the closure of the Electric Circus nightclub in Manchester. We see a gaggle of teenagers wearing cheap plastic sunglasses and safety pins in their ears; girls with thick black eyeliner; one lad with a bike chain round his neck. They explain their commitment to the cause:

‘I wanted to do something for me. Look at me now. I’m nothing.’
‘That’s what punk is.’

That was indeed the essence of punk. It was a short-lived musical movement that punctured the pomposity at the heart of the ‘70s British rock scene. It demolished the distance between performers and their audience. It gave music back to ordinary young people. Punk was speed, anger and urgency. It was Joe Strummer’s revolutionary zeal, Siouxsie’s swagger and John Lydon’s sneer. It was New Rose, Germfree Adolescent, Alternative Ulster. It was ‘a voice crying in the wilderness.’

I was only 12 when punk arrived, unannounced and unkempt, and shocked Britain out of its concrete slumber. And within a few short years ‘the filth and the fury’ was gone. But the movement cast a long shadow over British youth culture. It re-set the clock, and 1976 became a kind of Year Zero after which everything would be different.

I recently attended a small exhibition at the British Library celebrating forty years since the birth of punk in Britain. (Some have observed that you can’t get anything less punk than an exhibition at the British Library, but it was interesting nonetheless. It runs until 2 October.) The exhibition begins by highlighting the intellectual roots of the movement. Punk emerged from a rich brew of rebellious street fashion, avant-garde American rock and art school anarchism. A modish punk t-shirt of the time quoted a French Situationist slogan:

‘Be reasonable, demand the impossible.’

But punk also had its own more populist libertarian spirit. Punk musicians taught themselves to play, wrote their own songs, performed on their own terms; they worked with independent record companies, producers and managers, designed their own artwork. Punk is often represented as an entirely destructive force, but it was also constructive, empowering and enabling.  It was about doing it yourself; doing it for yourself.

I was thrilled to find at the exhibition an original copy of a call-to-arms that appeared in a small London fanzine, Sideburns, in 1977. Over the years I’d seen many reproductions of this graphic, but had not come across an original.

‘This is a chord (A). This is another (E). This is a third (G). Now form a band.’

I remember at the time thinking what an exciting exhortation this was. Hitherto we’d imagined rock’n’roll as an arcane pursuit for the gifted elite; for those with a head start and a healthy bank balance. Music was an industry, rock was a career, an album was a concept. But punk reduced pop to its fundamentals, demystified it and encouraged everyone to have a go.

From Sideburns, January 1977

There was some debate at the time as to whether punk’s spirit of self-sufficiency and enterprise was in some respects Thatcherite. But this rebellious libertarian instinct was part of a long tradition amongst the oppressed and the disadvantaged, the bored and the unfulfilled.  In 1969 James Brown sang:

‘I don’t want nobody
To give me nothing.
Open up the door,
I’ll get it myself.’

Of course in business we may recognise this as the entrepreneurial urge: the instinct to cast off corporate shackles and company conventions; to break off, break out and break away; to make one’s own mark on the world.  The entrepreneurial spirit is rare, bold and admirable. We should treasure, protect and encourage it.

Moreover, in the Age of Technology it seems more possible than ever to ‘open up the door and get it yourself.’ As the world becomes more connected, there are infinite opportunities for both fusion and fission; for corporate aggregation and, at the same time, independent disengagement. So there’s never been a better time to go your own way. Have code - will travel. It’s exhilarating. It's punk entrepreneurism.

I should say that, whilst I have always admired the entrepreneurial spirit in others, I’m not sure I ever had it myself. I didn’t call up my mates in the late ‘70s to start a band. And I didn’t email my colleagues in the late ‘90s to start an agency. I was a company guy, a ‘salaryman.’ And there’s no shame in that. Leaders need followers. Entrepreneurs need executors.

Perhaps, ultimately, that’s what punk taught us: everyone can, but not everyone does.

‘When you look in the mirror do you see yourself?
Do you see yourself
On the TV screen?
Do you see yourself
In the magazine?
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream?
Identity is the crisis.
Can’t you see?
Identity, Identity.’

X-Ray Spex- Identity

No. 96

‘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