Are You Solving a Problem or Managing a Dilemma?

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

An astute observer recently pointed out to me that much of my advice seems to contradict itself. This is true. On the one hand I encourage listening and empathy; on the other hand I believe in a strong authorial voice. Sometimes I advise pragmatism and diplomacy; at others I suggest tenacity and idealism. I propose sensitivity to texture and tone, alongside reduction and simplicity; I advocate doubt and scepticism, alongside confidence and conviction.

In part this is because diverse situations call for diverse forms of strategic engagement. We need different tools for different tasks. But on a more fundamental level it’s because life is inherently confusing; people are cryptic; business is complex. The human condition is a paradox.

As strategists we often think of ourselves as problem solvers. We figure out the puzzle, crack the code, answer the question - and move on. But this may sometimes be an unhelpful characterisation of the task in hand. And in the process we may risk misunderstanding our Clients’ and our consumers’ concerns.

Not all the challenges we face in life and business are problems that can be solved. Not all the questions have right and wrong answers.

Often we are confronted with dilemmas: issues that are complex and conflicted; the opposing tensions between fundamental needs and ongoing desires, between different drives and motivations; the varying interests of individuals and groups.

Dilemmas are issues that won’t go away. They can’t be solved. They can only be managed.

In ordinary life most people have to deal with the conflicting needs of children and parents; with the contrary ambitions of partners within a relationship; with the ongoing tensions between work and life, health and happiness, head and heart. We all have to balance the pressures of the short and long term, of individual and collective good.

As business leaders we may have to consider the contrary pressures of the commercial and the reputational; the conflicting rights of individual employees; the tension between freedom and responsibility within teams; the balance between the incompatible needs of different disciplines.

These are not problems that can be solved; questions that can be answered. They are complex, enduring dilemmas that must be carefully calibrated; and responded to with subtlety and nuance.

Perhaps the paradox at the heart of the human condition explains why so many popular dictums contradict each other. Should we strike while the iron is hot, or keep our powder dry? Do birds of a feather flock together, or do opposites attract? Are two heads better than one, or do too many cooks spoil the broth?

It may also be why many of the aphorisms we turn to in business embrace ambiguity: we ‘think global and act local;’ we have ‘freedom within a framework;' we 'speak softly and carry a big stick.'

In the world of commercial creativity it has often been said that our fundamental task is to ‘manage tensions’: between the rational and the emotional; between behaviour and belief; between the creative and commercial; between cost, speed and quality; between art and science.

So let’s not suggest that our brand or business has all the answers, when sometimes there are no answers to be had. And let’s not promise to solve a problem, when the best we can do is manage a dilemma.

I’ll probably carry on giving conflicting advice - confident in the conviction that successful leaders employ tools, training and tips alongside intuition, instinct and judgement. This is the skill and craft of leadership.

Great leaders may not solve every problem; but they will ensure that every dilemma is better managed.

No. 128

Our Redacted Lives: Why Don’t We Take Our Whole Selves to Work?

‘The mind is like an iceberg. It floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.’

I recently visited the last home of Sigmund Freud (The Freud Museum, Hampstead). Fleeing from Nazi Austria in 1938, the elderly Freud settled in an airy, spacious Hampstead villa, not far from the Finchley Road. He lived there for little over a year - long enough to accustom himself to British life.

‘It is bitterly cold, the plumbing has frozen up and British deficiencies in overcoming the heating problem are clearly evident.’

Freud managed to take with him to Hampstead many of his possessions from Vienna, and he was able to recreate his study and consulting room in his new home. After his death, his daughter Anna preserved things as he left them.

The study is lined with books and filled with Freud’s collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental artefacts. Busts, masks and figurines queue up in ranks along the cluttered desk and shelves. He was fascinated with antiquities and regarded himself as an archaeologist of the mind.

‘The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist in his excavations, must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures.’

Not far from Freud’s desk resides his original analytic couch, covered in red patterned rugs and reputed to be very comfortable. To one side, behind where the patient’s head would rest, we see the chair in which Freud would sit, prompting, listening, thinking.

‘The ego is not master in its own house.’

Freud believed that human behaviour is largely driven by unconscious motivations deriving from childhood experiences; that the sublimation of these instinctual urges of love, loss, sexuality and death creates neuroses; and that the unconscious can be revealed in dreams and unguarded moments.

‘Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.’

During the First World War the Viennese newspapers had often been censored and Freud used the metaphor of censorship to explain the way the conscious mind actively suppresses the unconscious.

I was quite struck by the thought of self-censorship in its broadest sense. I’m sure it’s true that we keep a lid on our deepest desires and anxieties for fear of shame, opprobrium, public disapproval; in order to protect ourselves. We are unreliable narrators. We suppress inconvenient truths. We live redacted lives.

Example of redacted poetry from the Scottish Poetry Library (using a page from Pat Barker’s ‘The Ghost Road’)

Example of redacted poetry from the Scottish Poetry Library (using a page from Pat Barker’s ‘The Ghost Road’)

I suspect self-censorship extends to the workplace too. In the office we are more guarded, reserved and cautious about revealing our true selves. We present an edited identity to our colleagues, one which we feel will fit in with the norms of the profession, the company culture and the boss’s expectations.

A young intern came to chat to me in the last week of her time at the Agency. She was studying communication at a college by the Elephant. She seemed intelligent, nice, polite, but not particularly out of the ordinary. We had a twenty-minute chat and she was about to go. She paused.

’Can I ask you one last question? I’ve not mentioned that I’ve been designing and selling my own fashion range online. I didn’t say anything about it before because I thought it might suggest I wasn’t dedicated to advertising. Was I right not to mention it?’

‘Not at all. It’s completely relevant. Tell me more.’

‘Well, my designs have a Somali flavour. I came over here as a refugee when I was 5 and had to learn English from scratch. I want my clothes to express my birth-culture, even though I only have vague memories of it.’

Suddenly an ordinary woman demonstrated that she was extraordinary; that she had life experiences and achievements that few in our industry could match. And yet she had been hesitating to reveal these things because she thought they might not be relevant.

I was touched, but also troubled by the realisation that this woman was in many ways typical. What was particularly frustrating was that as an employer you learn to value originality over orthodoxy; authenticity over affectation. You yearn for idiosyncrasy, individuality and independence, because these are the characteristics that drive culture and innovation.

‘Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.’

In an ever more automated world a company’s competitive difference is increasingly determined by its ability to realise the full value of its human capital: expressing all talents, articulating whole selves. This is not just a challenge for leaders. It’s something every individual should address.

How often do we present moderated, edited, diluted selves to our colleagues? How often do we suppress the passions and personality traits that may in fact be most useful to the business? Why can’t we take our whole selves to work?

If we can’t answer these questions, then I fear our redacted lives will inevitably become redacted careers.

No. 127

 

The Creative Diplomat: Should We Always Tell It Like It Is?

Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

‘A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe,’ a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no,' and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat.’

Charles M de Talleyrand, French Diplomat at the time of Napoleon

Some time in the late ‘90s, I was in Buenos Aires at one of those awkward international meetings where competitive Agencies share their work in front of their Clients and are obliged to make polite remarks about it. I found myself saying that the competitor’s ad was ‘very interesting.’ This prompted an angry response from my Argentine Client:

‘What is it with you British and the word ‘interesting’? I used to think it meant you were genuinely interested in what we were discussing. But now I understand it means nothing at all.’

Fair cop. I guess I had been trying to be a Creative Diplomat: neither encouraging, nor critical; neither flattering, nor rude. And ‘interesting’ is just one of those words that come in handy in such situations.

‘To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.’

Will Durant, American Writer

On another occasion I attended a global summit with some rather opinionated Regional Clients. I was perplexed when, in the meetings that followed over the next few days, my Regional Clients were uncharacteristically subdued and taciturn. As we sat in the airport departure lounge preparing for our respective flights home, the Regional Clients congratulated each other on an ineffectual and therefore, for them, entirely successful global meeting. They had escaped without making any firm commitments or agreements. They could now return to their market and get on with making their own decisions without interference.

‘When an official reports that talks were useful, it can be safely concluded that nothing was accomplished.’

JK Galbraith, Canadian Economist

I guess we all recognise the dark arts of diplomacy. We may dismiss them as political ploys and dishonest deceptions. But each one of us has probably engaged in them to some degree. Sometimes we need to be diplomatic in order to get the job done.

In the world of creative commerce we often nowadays celebrate authenticity, transparency and straight talking. This is the spirit of the age. ‘Our business is open and honest.’ We want to ‘keep it real’; to ‘tell it like it is.’ But these things are easier said than done. In my experience creative people are not entirely comfortable with unfiltered frankness – particularly when you’re discussing their ideas.

This is, of course, completely understandable. We’re all sensitive souls when it comes to our own efforts and outputs. We take things personally.

‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.’

 WB Yeats, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

In my early years in advertising I was taught that one’s first response to any idea should always be positive. Negativity, if appropriate, could follow once you’d demonstrated a certain amount of respect; and preferably in the form of a question, not a statement. This is good advice.

So Creative Diplomacy continues to be very much necessary in our industry. Progress must be negotiated; affection must be earned. The quiet word; the gentle suggestion; the knowing glance. The mediating message; the subtle adjustment; the thoughtful gesture. These are behaviours we should recognise and encourage. They are part and parcel of a human business that runs on relationships and emotions. They are integral to the art of persuasion.

‘Diplomacy is the art of letting the other party have things your way.’

Daniele Vare, Italian Diplomat

Of course, sometimes diplomacy comes with a pang of guilt. I was once briefing a very talented editor on a film that a Client needed for a forthcoming sales conference. The film had to be ‘breathtaking and awe-inspiring’ as is the nature of these things (as well as fast and cheap…). The editor nodded and showed me a few sample clips: Apollo rockets taking off, Vesuvian volcanoes erupting, that kind of thing. They were just what was required. The editor said, ‘Yes, I know what you’re after. You want it to be completely vitriolic.’ I could see that in his head ‘vitriolic ‘ was suggesting all the right things and so I chose not to correct him. ‘Yes, vitriolic. Exactly!’ And as we reviewed his work over the following week or so, we agreed that it was indeed brilliantly ‘vitriolic.’

Some months later the editor called to upbraid me. ‘That’s not what vitriolic means at all, is it?’ ‘Well it meant the right thing to you at the time.’

I always rather regretted that incident. Whilst diplomacy demands that we concentrate on outcomes, occasionally one’s conscience yearns to ‘tell it like it is.’

‘If you want something to play with
Go and find yourself a toy.
Baby, my time is too expensive
And I’m not a little boy.
Tell it like it is.
Don’t be ashamed to let your conscience be your guide.’

Aaron Neville, ‘Tell It Like It Is

No 126

 

The Interdependent Business: The Networked Age Needs Networking Skills

Henri Matisse 'La Danse'

Henri Matisse 'La Danse'

My father was always very comfortable in the pub. At home he could be pensive, silent and self-absorbed. For hours he’d be sunk into his capacious armchair, the Telegraph on his lap, darts on the telly, black Nescafe and Embassy cigarettes within arm’s reach. But down the Drill Dad was gregarious and outgoing. He would perch on a high stool at the bar, cradling a pint of bitter in a dimpled jug, his change spread before him on a beer towel. He’d hold court on politics and popular culture, the decline of the British Empire and West Ham United. He’d chat for hours to Julian the barman, to Barry Green the market trader, and to Fat Mick who worked in a back office in the City. He’d talk to anyone in fact who was prepared to listen.

Dad once explained to me that the pub wasn’t just a place to socialise; it was a place to do business. ‘Anything that needs doing, you can do it down the pub.’ It was there that he arranged baby-sitting duties for Martin and me; there that he bought the family fitted floral chair covers, a food mixer and a second-hand car.

Perhaps, if the term had existed back then, you’d have said my father was a natural networker.

Some years later, by a curious set of circumstances, I found myself in a small seminar surrounded by modern-day Titans of Industry. I’d never been so close to so many important business people at one time and I thought this might be an ideal opportunity to understand what they had in common.

They were all rather charming actually. They were good storytellers, self effacing, easygoing. (I remember one of them made a joke about his neighbours. It was the kind of anecdote anyone would tell. These neighbours just happened to live on the adjacent island.) I’d not say these Titans of Industry were intellectuals as such. They did not demonstrate some extraordinary insight into world affairs. But they did share a broadly positive outlook, an inner confidence and an admirable ability to reduce matters to simple terms.

There was one unifying characteristic that really impressed me. When in the course of the seminar there was a need to get something done, one of the Titans would chime in with ‘I know such-and-such. I’ll reach out to such-and-such. They’ll point us in the right direction. They’ll sort this out. I’ll get them on the phone now.’

It struck me that a critical determinant of these modern entrepreneurs’ success was their supreme networking skills. Their inclination was never to embark on a task on their own. It was always to enlist like-minded expertise and specialism; to speculate on who could accelerate the process, ease the path, open the right doors.

In the past the preeminent skills of the entrepreneur may perhaps have been empathy and anticipation; innovation and independence; drive and determination. In the past it may all have been about self-belief and self-sufficiency. But in the digital era, business is so complex that the self is not sufficient. If you can confidently connect, you can achieve more in less time at lower cost; you can act with agility. The contemporary businessperson needs to be expert in partnership and participation, in collaboration and coordination. In the networked age, we all need to be networkers.

I say this with some reluctance because I have never been a great networker myself. I’m socially awkward, uncomfortable with business conversations that lack a defined purpose. I can connect ideas, but not people. And I squirm when I see an agenda indicating ‘there’ll be ample time for networking.’

But then again, perhaps we have devalued the term ‘networking.’ It has come to mean clumsily swapping business cards, tentatively checking profiles on LinkedIn. It’s become forced enthusiasm, cheap white wine and a casual Costa coffee. The networking that the modern world really demands is about connecting and combining talents to achieve commercial goals; to get things done, better, faster and more affordably. It’s about delivering a better service, not a better CV.

I was fortunate to work for many years in a successful independent business. We were proud of the fact that we were masters of our own destiny. But in a sense no business can be truly independent in today’s world. Nowadays we all depend on our allies and associates, suppliers and service providers. The best modern businesses are interdependent businesses.

Inevitably over recent years the response of the large corporates to the fragmenting service sector has been to merge and acquire; to buy out and buy in; to try to own everything. They see the ultimate destination as a full service offer, a ‘one-stop shop.’ But the corporate instinct to own and control suggests a failure to comprehend the mercurial demands of today’s world. Which Agency can comfortably manage the requirement for many services sometimes and few at others? Which Client wants to work with a partner who’s good at everything, but great at nothing? Ownership may be too rigid an answer.

In his book The Empty Raincoat Charles Handy, the Irish business philosopher, explored the theme of ‘the Chinese Contract.’ He related how, many years ago, when working in the oil industry in Malaysia, he was negotiating with a Chinese agent. They ‘reached terms, shook hands and shared a glass of brandy.’ But then when Handy brought out the official company contract and invited the Chinese agent to sign, the agent was incensed. For him this formalisation of the agreement betrayed a lack of trust and prompted suspicion that he was being locked into an unequal deal.

We need to rethink our approach to business relationships. Partnership is about trust and confidence, not liability and contracts. It is about open and honest collaboration, not reluctant and forced obligation.

The sadness for me is that my father was perhaps a man out of time. In another era his networking skills could have made him a Titan of Industry. As it was, despite his natural charm and ability to connect, he was not actually very successful in business. He drifted, amiably but aimlessly, from travel agency to double-glazing to the gasket sector. One winter the car he bought from the bloke in the Drill completely broke down because he had failed to top up the anti-freeze. But it didn’t seem to matter too much to Dad. He just found another bloke to fix it down the pub.

"Love is a rose
But you better not pick it.
It only grows when it’s on the vine.
A handful of thorns and
You’ll know you missed it.
You lose your love when you say the word ‘mine.’’

 Neil Young, Love Is a Rose

This piece has just been published in the Spring 2017 edition of You Can Now magazine.

No. 125

‘Everything Is Copy’: Making Personal Experience the Material for Creative Expression

Nora Ephron, 1960s HBO

Nora Ephron, 1960s HBO

I recently watched a compelling documentary about the journalist, screenwriter and director Nora Ephron (‘Everything Is Copy’, HBO 2015). First and foremost Ephron was a writer. She wrote articles, essays, novels, scripts and plays. She wrote satirical columns and sentimental comedies. Most famously, she wrote ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989) and ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (1993). 

In the documentary, Ephron’s luminous personality leaps out from the screen. She is sharp tongued, quick witted and strong willed. It’s clear that she had to be all these things to succeed in a creative environment that was blighted by sexism.

‘She knew what she wanted and she went and got it. Or went and did it, which is more to the point.’
Mike Nichols, Film Director

Ephron was raised in Beverly Hills by parents who were both screenwriters. In the documentary she recounts her mother’s advice to her four daughters, all of whom went on to become writers.

‘We all grew up with this thing that my mother said to us over and over, and over and over again, which is ‘Everything is copy.’ You’d come home with something that you thought was the tragedy of your life – someone hadn’t asked you to dance, or the hem had fallen out of your dress, or whatever you thought was the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being – and my mother would say ‘Everything is copy.’’

Ephron speculates that, in passing on this maxim, her mother may have been equipping her daughters with a survival technique for modern life.

‘When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh. So you become a hero rather than the victim of the joke.’

Ephron’s interpretation of ‘Everything is copy’ led her to share the details of her own private life, from the trivial to the intimate, with a broader public. She wrote about her family and friends, her former bosses and husbands; about her breasts and neck and love of pies; about her personal take on reading, ageing, happiness and feminism. And when her marriage to the celebrated Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein broke down, she fictionalised her experiences in the novel and film ‘Heartburn.’

‘Writers are cannibals…They are predators. And if you are friends with them and say something funny at dinner, or if anything good happens to you, you are in big trouble.’

So what can people working in commercial creativity today learn from Ephron’s dictum? Should we too subscribe to the view that ‘Everything is copy’?

Well, I do believe that articulating our experiences enables us properly to reflect on them; to organize them; to fix them in our memories. I would always encourage people to review the day, the week, the year. And, where heartache is concerned, when we can articulate the pain, we’re half-way to recovering from it.

I also think Ephron was right to see something particularly potent in childhood memories - recollections of a time when our identities were not fully formed; when our opinions were not fully fixed. The sentiments of our youth explain so much about our adult selves. As Graham Greene said, childhood provides ‘the bank balance of the writer.’

Moreover, like Ephron we should all be sensitive to the comedy of our own ordinary experiences, the tragedy of day-to-day events; we should see the richness of the run of the mill and the poetry of normal. We should be alert to the observed and overheard; to the foibles of ordinary folk and the language of everyday speech. These things are available to us in our own experience. We don’t need to conjure them up or resort to cliché.

Having said all this, I should sound a note of caution. With her first-person narrative and confessional candour, Ephron was a pioneer of the self-broadcasting social media age. Of course, she explored her emotions rather than just recorded them. As the word ‘copy’ implies, critical thought was applied. But there was a price to be paid for ‘over sharing.’ The documentary was directed by Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein. He suggests that, in pursuing her maxim, Ephron may have damaged her relationships and impacted on her long-term happiness. Writer beware.

Nora Ephron died from Leukemia in 2012. She was 71. For many months she hadn’t disclosed the nature of her illness to her family, friends and colleagues. Perhaps in her final chapter, she determined that, while everything is copy, some very personal things should remain unwritten.

One leaves the documentary with a broader admiration of Ephron: an independent spirit who was both self-effacing and self-confident; who was dynamic and determined; who encouraged others to take control of their lives.

‘Above all be the heroine of your life, not the victim.’
Nora Ephron (Commencement Address to Wellesley College Class of 1996)

 

 

No. 124

 

 

Solve It In the Room: What I Learned from the Uncut Lawn

Henri Rousseau/ Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised)

Henri Rousseau/ Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised)

I was raised in a pebble-dashed, semi-detached house on the outskirts of Romford. We were flanked on either side by keen gardeners. To the left Mr Holland grew fruit and veg, bottled his own magnificent loganberry jam and wore rubber knee-pads. To the right Mr Dodgson cultivated elegant flowers and shrubs, delighted in telling us their Latin names (‘Cotoneaster’) and burst our footballs when they trespassed onto his side of the wooden fence. Both these elderly gentlemen sported flat caps before they were cool.

Sadly the Carroll Garden was unruly and unkempt, a source of some shame. The grass grew long, the weeds grew high and the lilac tree wilted from over-use as a climbing frame. At the far end was a rockery that my mother had installed to give the impression that our wild, overgrown grassland was somehow intentional.  But this fooled no one, least of all Messrs Holland and Dodgson.

With the arrival of Spring, mum would begin her pleas to my father to cut the lawn. He generally developed a throaty, fag-induced cough; a crippling, beer-induced hangover; a critical sporting event on the telly - anything in fact to excuse him from his duties. Dad was a man of inaction. Sometimes he would goad his children into taking on the task in his stead, but we had inherited his indolence.

So the rusty mower remained entangled in the chaotic clutter of the garden shed. And the grass grew, and the weeds flourished, and the lilac tree looked on in stoic silence.

Eventually, some weeks later, when the exasperation of mum and our neighbours had reached its limits, dad and the five kids would tramp disconsolately into the verdant jungle and apply ourselves to scything and mowing, clipping and collecting. It was a frenzy of resentful industry.

When I entered the world of work, I realised that procrastination is not unique to my family. In fact it is very much part of the human condition. We like to defer and delay, put off and postpone. We are innately inert. And for all our rhetoric about seizing the day, many of us are naturally given to letting the day slip through our fingers.

Sometimes we hide this procrastination behind process. There’s an established way of doing things. Everything needs to be done in good order, in due course. ‘We can’t do anything until you issue the Client Brief.’ ‘That was an excellent meeting. We’ll write it up in the next few days; and in another week or so we’ll send you a Creative Brief; and then a couple of weeks later we’ll possibly propose some ideas.’

I’m well aware that process protects quality: more haste, less speed and so forth. But there’s no denying that in the modern age velocity is a critical competitive advantage. We have all been obliged to accelerate. I recall some years ago a senior Client taking over a key account at the Agency. When I checked in to see how things were going, he said the team was impressive; the work was very good; but the overall ‘metabolism’ was sluggish. It seemed a fair criticism.

So how can we embrace speed without compromising quality? How can we accelerate our corporate metabolism?

I have one modest suggestion: solve it in the room.

When you have managed to get all the right people in one place; when you have the appropriate combination of talent and leadership staring at each other across a desk; when you’ve invested in coffee, croissants and an extensive selection of herbal teas - don’t walk away with just a loose understanding of the problem, a nodding assent about what needs to happen next. You should be in a position to solve the problem in the room. Of course, you can’t craft detail; you can’t write scripts and execution. But you can align around strategy and direction. You can illustrate and exemplify; sketch and draft.

It is often observed that the benefit of experience is wisdom. But experience of a wide variety of marketing and communication challenges also enables speed and agility of thought; it enables us to make connections, to reach conclusions at pace. These skills may be the veteran’s most valuable assets. The experienced practitioner is equipped to make decisions there and then, here and now. This is what we’re paid for.

So, a simple proposal perhaps: turn up to the critical meetings prepared to make decisions, and to make promises you can keep. ‘We’re going to solve it in the room, design it in a week, build it in a month.’ Make an active determination to replace lethargy with intensity; complacency with urgency. Don’t just learn about the problem; lean into the solution.

And whatever you do, don’t let the grass grow under your feet.

No 123

Clark Gable’s Vest: ‘Do Interesting Things and Interesting Things Happen to You.’

Scene from 'It Happened One Night'

Scene from 'It Happened One Night'

‘Do you love my daughter?’
‘Any guy that'd fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.’
‘Now that's an evasion. I asked you a simple question. Do you love her?’
‘Yes! But don't hold that against me, I'm a little screwy myself!’

In 1934’s ‘It Happened One Night’ Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a society heiress who runs away from her father to rejoin her lover in New York. Chased by dad’s detectives, she travels incognito, cross-country on a bus. She reluctantly accepts help from Peter Warne, an out-of-work reporter, played by Clark Gable. It’s a charming, wisecracking comedy, with a sweet romance at its centre and random discourses at its edges: on dunking biscuits, hitching lifts and how to ride piggy-back.

Unintended Consequences

At one stage on their protracted bus journey together Ellie and Peter stop off at a roadside hotel and are obliged to share a room. Peter suspends a blanket between their beds, a ‘Wall of Jericho’ to preserve their decency. Whilst rehearsing for the scene in which they prepare for bed, Gable found it difficult to get through his quick-fire lines and undress at the same time. He determined to shoot the sequence without his undershirt so as to make it flow more easily. This subsequently led to a dramatic decline in undershirt sales across America and Gable was blamed forever after for crippling the underwear industry.

Creative enterprises generate any number of unintended consequences. In another scene of ‘It Happened One Night’ Gable chatted while chewing on a raw carrot. This inspired the characterisation of Bugs Bunny. Despite our best endeavours to make our creative outputs more scientific and predictable, they have an infinite capacity to surprise us - with any number of random repercussions, copycat crazes, and accidental asides.  

Poor Judges of Our Own Work

Clark Gable didn’t originally want to appear in ‘It Happened One Night’. He was loaned to Columbia by MGM as punishment for his affair with Joan Crawford. His first words when he appeared on set were: ‘Let’s get this over with.’

Claudette Colbert didn’t want to appear in the film either. She had not enjoyed working with director Frank Capra on their previous movie together and she only signed up when promised double her normal fee and a short four-week production. On completing the film, Colbert confided to a friend: ‘I’ve just finished the worst picture I’ve ever made.’

So confident was Colbert that her performance wouldn’t win an Oscar that she decided not to attend the ceremony. She had to be summoned back from a train station at the last moment to receive her award.

In the event ‘It Happened One Night’ became the first film to win the Oscar ‘Grand Slam’ of Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay. It was Columbia’s biggest commercial success to-date and kicked off a boom in Screwball Comedies.

To Colbert’s and Gable’s credit, they gave ‘It Happened One Night’ their best performances, despite their complete lack of faith in its qualities.

Scene from 'It Happened One Night'

Scene from 'It Happened One Night'

Creative people are not necessarily good at predicting winners or judging their own work. I recall one team refusing to put their name to a Levi’s ad they had written because it had been adjusted in the final edit. They changed their minds later when the film won bucket-loads of awards.

We all have opinions and perspectives on the Agencies where we will thrive, the accounts that will be fruitful for us, the scripts that will be award winners. But we never really know for sure. My first job was as a Qualitative Market Researcher and the very last project I worked on back in 1989 was an Audi study for BBH. This chance event led to me being hired by BBH and staying there for 25 years.

We can’t be too calculating with our careers, because our careers have a mind of their own. Sometimes we need to set aside our subjective assessments; to familiarise ourselves with Fickle Fate. We need to leave a little space for luck.

Leaving a Little Space for Luck

Frank Capra certainly seems to have been happy to accommodate a certain amount of luck and spontaneity in his creative process, as is evident from his description of his freewheeling approach on ‘It Happened One Night.’

‘We made the picture really quickly - four weeks. We stumbled through it; we laughed our way through it. And this goes to show you how much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time means in show business; how sometimes no preparation at all is better than all the preparation in the world…You can never out-guess this thing called creativity. It happens in the strangest places and under the strangest of circumstances.’

The legendary screenwriter William Goldman went further still. He was convinced that knowledge and certainty are alien to the creative industry:

‘Nobody knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.’

I’m well aware that genius requires 10,000 hours of practice and so forth; that Thomas Jefferson said: ‘I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.’ But I would still maintain that creative enterprises shouldn’t practice away spontaneity; that they should learn to accommodate uncertainty. Without chance we wouldn’t have Pacemakers, Penicillin or Play-Doh; X Rays, microwave ovens or Cadbury’s Flake.

Do Interesting Things…

If luck and good fortune play such an important part in creativity, should we give up on preparation and planning altogether? Should we set aside forecasting and prediction? Should we just abandon ourselves to chance?

That would be taking things too far. It’s the responsibility of leadership to create the conditions for success, and in a creative business those conditions include, amongst other things,  serendipity, spontaneity and happy accident. I think it is possible to pursue a planned course while leaving oneself open to opportunity; alert to possibilities. Sir John Hegarty would often say: ‘Do interesting things and interesting things happen to you.’ I’m sure that’s good advice.

Some fifty years after the release of ‘It Happened One Night’ Hegarty thought it would be interesting to have the hero of his laundrette-set Levi’s ad strip down to his boxer shorts. This rather stunned a culture hitherto wedded to Y-fronts and sparked a huge new craze for boxer shorts. The underwear industry finally had something to be thankful for.

No. 122

The Interfering Boss

The Second Mrs De Winter: ‘I want you to get rid of all these things.’
Mrs Danvers: ‘But these are Mrs de Winter’s things.’
The Second Mrs De Winter: ‘I am Mrs de Winter now!’

The 1940 film Rebecca is a haunting tale of doomed love, corrosive guilt and the ever-present past. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s first movie in Hollywood and his only work to win a Best Picture Oscar.

Hitchcock had been hired for the job by the producer David O Selznick. From the outset it was an uneasy relationship. There were disagreements about casting, performances and scheduling. Selznick liked to review different cuts of the same set-up after the shoot. But Hitchcock’s practice was to work out his shots in advance and cut in the camera.

Selznick took to prescribing executional ideas. He suggested that it would make a dramatic and resonant climax to the film if the smoke from the burning country house, Manderley, mysteriously formed a huge letter R for Rebecca in the sky. Hitchcock naturally felt this rather crude, and, while Selznick was preoccupied with producing Gone with the Wind, he shot a sequence of Rebecca’s burning negligee case, monogrammed with the letter R. Undoubtedly a more elegant solution.

Mrs Danvers: ‘Why don’t you go? Why don’t you leave Manderley? He doesn’t need you…He’s got his memories. He doesn’t love you. He wants to be alone again with her. You’ve nothing to stay for. You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?’

We have all worked with the Interfering Boss. What starts with broad direction and encouragement, evolves into helpful suggestions and ideas, and culminates in executional orders and instruction. As the pressure mounts and the relationship deteriorates, hands-off empowerment transitions into hands-on leadership.

This transition is often accompanied by protestations of special circumstances. The Interfering Boss asserts that he or she has a particular understanding of what the Client wants or the problem needs. This issue is, they say, relationship compromising, account threatening. This one’s too important to take a risk on. And then comes the promise of more creative freedom in ‘Year 2’ of the campaign. Year 2, of course, is a mythical place that few have visited.

I confess I have myself on occasion been that Interfering Boss. In the absence of a strong creative voice, I would sometimes step in with my own strong creative opinions. Leadership abhors a vacuum. I knew even at the time that this wasn’t healthy. Perhaps I was insufficiently trusting of the creative directors. Perhaps I was over-confident in my own abilities. Perhaps I was under pressure.

Thankfully, for the most part, my creative suggestions were rebuffed: the well-meaning ‘thought-starters’; the half-baked script ideas; the painful puns (‘ISA-tonic’ or ‘YouK’ anyone?); the helpful loan of my Parapluies de Cherbourg DVD (I’m sure I was onto something there); the frequent requests for a Luther Vandross soundtrack…. Looking back, my personal creative legacy may in fact be limited to the legendary laundry endline: ‘Smell the Clean.‘

So how should you deal with the Interfering Boss?

Well, you could try to ignore them, in the hope and expectation that they’ll always have their own Gone with the Wind to occupy their time. You could nod enthusiastically and then wilfully misunderstand what you’ve been asked to do. You could perhaps take on the Interfering Boss, and make a career-limiting speech about roles and responsibilities. In the long term, I’m not sure any of these approaches is sustainable.

‘We can never go back to Manderley again. That much is certain.’

I’d suggest that the smart option is to think properly about what the Interfering Boss is trying to get at with his or her awkward illustrations and sketchy scripts. If you can isolate what at root they’re looking for, the problem they’re trying to resolve, you can probably come up with a better, more satisfying solution. This is, after all, how Hitchcock dealt with Selznick’s ‘smokey R’ proposal.

Sir John Hegarty would always say, to Clients and account people alike: ‘Describe the problem, don’t prescribe the solution.’ In other words, tell me we have a branding issue; don’t demand that I put the brand in the first 5 seconds. Wise counsel. I’m sure we always progress further, faster, when well-briefed creatives are allowed to do the creating.

Of course, the ultimate way of dealing with the Interfering Boss is to do exactly what they ask you to do – to the letter. They’ll inevitably be confronted with their own creative shortcomings; with the linear logic of their inelegant ideas; with the merely moderate and quietly conventional. That’ll really wind them up. 

No. 121

‘Truth In the Pleasant Disguise of Illusion’: Do We Properly Appreciate the Power of the Media at Our Disposal?

‘Time is the longest distance between two places.’

There’s a splendid production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie currently running at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London (until 29 April).

We’re in a Depression-era Saint Louis tenement. Amanda Wingfield, a former ‘southern belle,’ is struggling to pay the rent and worried what will become of her angst-ridden, artistic son, and her shy, solitary daughter.

‘The future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.’

Wingfield pleads with her son to bring a ‘gentleman caller’ back to the house – someone who might possibly represent a suitor for his sister. The fragile girl meanwhile seeks solace in a world of decorative figurines, the glass menagerie of the play’s title.

‘How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.’

The Glass Menagerie is a delicate, sensitive meditation on the challenges facing the awkward and the outside; the responsibilities, deceptions and regrets of family life; the yearning to break free.

In his production notes, Williams describes the work as ‘a memory play’ and at the beginning of Scene One the artistic son explains to the audience that what we are about to see is a distillation of his own recollection of events.

‘Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with I turn back time…’

Williams seems to be declaring that he is more than just a storyteller - he is a master of the theatrical medium, a manipulator of time, a truthful illusionist. This confident, context-setting sequence reminded me of the Prologue of Henry V, in which Shakespeare invites the audience to conjure up, on the simple stage before them, the muddy battlefields of France.

‘Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

I’m sure the most talented writers and artists are well aware of the imaginative leaps that their audience can bring to a creative encounter. And they’re conscious of the special powers of their chosen medium to ignite that imagination.

It has often been observed, for example, that the best directors treat film as a time machine – a means of compressing and extending time; of reordering and replaying it. Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey and how Kubrik takes us from the first man to the space age in one matchless match-cut; or consider the elegant synchronicity of the baptism scene in Coppola’s The Godfather. Film directors also consciously manipulate our understanding of space. With close-ups and long-shots, different points of view and perspectives, they expand and contract our perception of things. In the 1920s the women of the world fell in love with Rudolph Valentino because of the dramatic impact, in magnified close-up on the big screen, of those elegant lips, those sensitive eyes, that pomaded hair.

I wonder, do we in the field of marketing and communication too often treat media like an everyday commodity? Do we just think of it as a space to be filled, content to be generated, ratings to be registered? Do we properly appreciate the power of the tools at our disposal? Do we understand that the moving image can be a time machine; the fixed image can explore space and perspective; the printed and spoken text can conjure up hopes, dreams, recollections and regrets?

Shouldn’t we, like Williams, be seeking to deliver ‘truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion?’ For if we have no passion for the medium, how can we expect to inspire passion in our audience?

 No. 120

‘Nice, But…’: Don’t Just Commentate, Advocate

I was 17 and we’d all been to a party in Ilford or Seven Kings or one of those places. It was the early hours of the morning and I was grateful to be squeezed into the back of the car – even though it was the boot of an estate. However uncomfortable the journey, I was at least on my way home, to my own bed.

As we drove through empty suburban streets, Romford-bound, everyone was happily reviewing the evening’s fashion and flirtations, characters and comedy. Suddenly through the chatter I heard the slow velvet tones of Debbie, our Essex femme fatale. Unaware that I was in the back of the car, she was about to offer her opinion on Jim. I was quite impressed that she knew who I was, but also fascinated to hear what she might say.

‘Ah, Jim…He’s nice, but…’

The packed vehicle broke into a chorus of laughter before she could finish the sentence. I was left pondering what might have been on Debbie’s mind. What personality problem, sartorial shortcoming or conversational quirk was she about to reveal? Her incomplete statement suggested to me that I was myself somewhat incomplete, lacking in some vital way. But I didn’t know how. For the following term at school I was periodically mocked as ‘Jim, he’s nice, but…’  

Some time later, in the early years of my advertising career, I found myself presenting a panoramic review of the big themes in contemporary culture to my Manchester-based motor insurance Client. I talked about grunge fashion, Gen X slackers and the critical significance of Wayne’s World and Super Nintendo; of the special resonance of Bart Simpson’s shorts and Gazza’s tears. And at the end of the session, my charming senior Client, June, paused for a while and pronounced: ‘That’s interesting, in’t it?’ We moved swiftly on.

I realised with the repetition of this phrase on subsequent occasions that June was happy to indulge my wide ranging cultural critiques, but that she struggled to see any particular relevance to the world of motor insurance. What had any of my social trends and media phenomena to do with comprehensive policies, no claims bonus and third party, fire and theft? I had not offered much by way of implied action and she wasn’t prepared to supply it. My observations were ‘nice, but….’

Over time I realised that I was demonstrating a common shortcoming of the brand strategist. It’s easier to describe change than to explain how to respond to it. It’s easier to step outside the category than to bring the outside world inside. It’s easier to commentate than to advocate.

And yet this is where the real value of our cultural expertise comes into play. Surely the most compelling and exhilarating challenge for a modern strategist is to help brands participate in, and shape, popular culture; to help them join in, not stand on the sidelines watching.

So don’t just tell your Clients that the world is going to be full of robots, 3-D printers and fridges that talk to each other. Help them understand how these and other developments will impact on their brand and their communication; and what they need to do about it.

If you just want to be interesting, become a trends forecaster, a cultural commentator. If you want to work in commercial creativity, you must turn interest into opportunity and action.

I’m conscious that in my short weekly essays I am myself often guilty of giving observations rather than directions; descriptions rather than recommendations. Maybe I’m enjoying being one stage removed from the responsibility of decision-making. Maybe Debbie was right all those years ago: ‘Nice, but…’

No. 119