Do You Spend Most of Your Time on Defense or Offense?

Norman Rockwell, The Recruit

Norman Rockwell, The Recruit

I confess my relationship with American Football is one of foggy understanding and distant admiration. As a child growing up in Britain, I occasionally saw Charlie Brown practising his kicking; I caught the razzmatazz of the Super Bowl on TV; I sensed the mystery of the huddle, the glamour of the quarterback, the drama of the snap; I felt the heroic resonance of names like Payton and Montana, Marino and ‘Mean’ Joe Greene; I recall the Green Bay Packers in the snow. Yes, I’ve watched ‘Jerry Maguire’ and ‘Remember the Titans.’ And I’ve cheered on the Seahawks at recent Super Bowls (Ka-kaw!). But for the most part I have understood American Football ‘through a glass darkly.’

Viewing with this constrained comprehension, I have always been impressed by the fact that each gridiron team has a separate offensive and defensive unit. (To a soccer fan this is an engaging eccentricity.) Broadly speaking, the offensive players pass and run; shimmy and leap; catch and drive. The defensive players block and tackle; guard and obstruct; sack and stop. And with each turnover one unit jogs off the pitch and the other marches on. There’s an elegant clarity to things.

It’s often struck me that we have offensive and defensive modes at work. Sometimes we’re on offense: pitching, proposing, provoking; reaching bold conclusions, making brave suggestions. On offense we dictate the rhythm of our week, the direction and pace of progress. We call the plays. Then sometimes we’re on defense: reassuring and repairing, maintaining and mitigating, explaining and justifying. Defense is all about stabilising relationships, securing accounts, holding onto what we’ve got. Defense is responding - to Clients, to the competition, to circumstances.

As individuals and businesses we have to be able to operate in both modes: to call the shots and respond to them. In the course of our careers we all need to handle the good times and the bad.

There are, of course, those that thrive on defense. These are the mediators and moderators; the people who build bridges and sooth spirits. They have a rare and precious talent, and it’s one that any enterprise should value.

But I would suggest that most people, and indeed most businesses, can only sustain defense for so long. When we’re consistently on the back foot, in recovery mode, we gradually lose our confidence, self-esteem and sense of identity. We become short-termist, cautious and conservative. We start to double guess our Clients and play it safe. Defense can sap strength and damage morale.

Most of us are at our best when we are progressing and pioneering. In the long run we need to play to our own strengths, not to other people’s; with our heads held high, rather than looking back over our shoulders; setting the agenda rather than responding to it. In the long run we need to regain our swagger. We need to be on offense.

So perhaps the old adage is true: attack really is the best form of defence. As the legendary footballer and coach Vince Lombardi advocated:

‘Offensively, you do what you do best and you do it again and again. Defensively, you attack your opponent’s strength.’

Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi

It is a critical task of leadership to know when to switch between our defensive and offensive lines. Sometimes, when we are on a winning streak, we can get complacent and fail to shore up our incumbent base. Then we need defense. Sometimes, when the business is under threat, there is no alternative but defense. Sometimes, when opportunity knocks, offense comes naturally. And sometimes, even when we are assailed on every front, we just need to switch to offense in order to rebuild morale and regain control of our destiny. 

Making the call between offense and defense is rarely easy. Often we have to engage both modes at the same time. It’s a matter of judgement and experience. And it’s also, of course, about hard work.

‘The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.’
Vince Lombardi

No. 149

 

 

Whistler’s Butterfly: Creative Talent Often Comes with a Sting in Its Tail

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‘[Whistler] is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr Whistler entirely concurs.’
Oscar Wilde

For much of his career the artist James McNeill Whistler inscribed his work with a stylised butterfly monogram based on his JW initials. He designed the device with elegant wings and curved antennae. And in time he gave it a barbed tail.

In many ways Whistler’s butterfly represented his own talent and personality. He was an articulate, charismatic, independent spirit, who could create extraordinary beauty. But his gifts came hand-in-hand with vanity and a sharp tongue.

‘I maintain that two and two would continue to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateurs for three, or the cry of the critic for five.’

Born in 1834 to prosperous parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, in his youth Whistler travelled to Russia and England. He was educated (somewhat reluctantly) at West Point, studied art in Paris and settled in London in 1859.

Whistler immediately found himself at odds with the art establishment. He disliked the narrative and naturalism that were the order of the day. He detested the flattery and sentiment to which Victorian audiences were so partial. He rejected the conventional notion that art had a moral or social function. Rather he believed in ‘art for art’s sake.’

Working from a limited colour palette, with balanced composition, Whistler sought to achieve ‘tonal harmony’. He often compared his work with music. He painted subdued, thoughtful, full-length portraits. He painted dreamy ‘nocturnes’ of the Thames at rest. He painted his mother in profile, seated, in an austere black dress, her white bonnet atop neat grey hair, her lace-cuffed hands clasping a handkerchief.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 or Whistler’s Mother

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 or Whistler’s Mother

Whistler was small of stature, but large of personality. He dressed like a dandy, cultivated a curly moustache and sported a monocle. He enjoyed the Bohemian life, parties and entertaining. And he found a natural soul mate in Oscar Wilde.

Wilde: ‘I wish I’d said that.’
Whistler: ‘You will, Oscar, you will!’

In truth Whistler was rather arrogant and egotistical, something of a self-publicist.

‘I can’t tell you if genius is hereditary because heaven has granted me no offspring.’

He may have needed an audience, but he didn’t need friends. Whistler liked to pick fights.

‘I am not arguing with you – I am telling you.’

Whistler’s unconventional views and combustible temperament inevitably brought him into conflict with the forces of conservatism. Famously in 1877 he sued John Ruskin for libel after the critic had accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’

At the trial Ruskin’s counsel queried the price Whistler had charged for ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket:’

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

‘The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?’

‘No,’ replied Whistler, ‘I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.’

Whistler won the case, but was awarded only a farthing’s damages. The court costs bankrupted him.

Bitter experience didn’t convince Whistler to moderate his views. In 1890 he published ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies’, a record of, and reflections on, the Ruskin case.  He dedicated it to ‘the rare few, who, early in life, have rid themselves of the friendship of the many.’

Whistler reminds us that creativity doesn’t necessarily come hand-in-hand with congeniality; that innovators don’t always arrive with good table manners; that inspirational talent often has a sting in its tail.

Truly original thinkers must by definition be somewhat egotistical. They have to attach a particular value to their own distinctive worldview. They must feel comfortable with going against the crowd.

This creates dilemmas for Agency leadership. We want our creatives to break convention in their work, but we balk at too much unconventional behaviour in the office. We want them to express their individuality, but to do so within a team; to be emotional on paper, but rational in meetings. We want our talent to be creative, but we don’t want it to destroy too many things along the way.

I think leaders of creative businesses need to be tolerant. We have to accommodate a certain amount of vanity, misbehaviour, sharp words and rule breaking – if it is in the service of the work. But when eccentricity creates collateral damage; when it is self-serving and injurious to colleagues, then we have to step in. We have to draw the line at abuse of power.

Creative leaders must learn to harness talent to a commercial goal without diminishing its potency, and without compromising the company’s values. This is not easy. It requires judgement. And we must be ever mindful of Whistler’s own observation:

‘An artist is not paid for his labor, but for his vision.’

No. 148

‘It’s a Doctor. Fetch a Baby.’ Coming to Terms with Stage Fright at Work

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The actor Rex Harrison is best remembered as the irascible phonetics professor Henry Higgins in ‘My Fair Lady.’ With his distinctive ‘talking on pitch’ style, he performed the role on stage many times, beginning with the musical’s 1957 Broadway debut. He also starred as Higgins in the splendid 1964 movie of the same work.

‘He is the best light comedy actor in the world – except for me.’
Noel Coward

In a distinguished career, Harrison consistently came across as a confident, suave, sophisticated fellow. In fact he was a lifelong sufferer from stage fright.

Born in Huyton, Merseyside, Harrison left formal education at 16 to become an actor, and, eschewing stage-school, joined the Liverpool Repertory Company. In his first speaking role he played a nervous young father. But he was overcome with real, not just feigned, anxiety. At the given moment, he stepped to the front of the stage and announced: 'It’s a doctor. Fetch a baby.’

We had a tradition at BBH of asking the new graduate trainees to work together on a practice pitch soon after joining. It gave them an early understanding of research, teamwork, building an argument and so forth. The exercise would culminate in a presentation to the senior Agency partners.

One year the trainees had been asked to develop a pitch for a mainstream tea brand struggling to define its identity in the age of coffee. The team presented an insightful, well-structured argument recommending a creative area that was jaunty, populist and amusing. The senior panel was broadly impressed and began with some soft questions, which the trainees dealt with adequately. And then Sir John Hegarty looked up. He seemed determined to be a little more challenging.

‘I’m sure this idea of yours is witty and entertaining and so forth. But tell me this: how will it actually sell one more packet of our Clients’ tea?’

The graduate team exchanged nervous glances. They didn’t want to cock up their response to the esteemed founder’s question. At length the rather patrician Trainee Planner glanced across at his colleagues, raised his hand, and said: ‘I’ll take this.’ The other novices breathed a collective sigh of relief and sank back into their seats. All eyes settled on the Trainee Planner, who got to his feet and, after a lengthy pause, declared: ‘No… No…It’s gone.’

We all recognize the experience, I’m sure: that blushing, trembling, dizzying sensation; the dry mouth, cold hands and hot sweat. Thoughts muddled, words lost, heart pumping, legs shaking, voice stuttering. You’re in a state of mental paralysis. You’re dazed and confused. You’ve got stage fright.

What to do?

The first thing to say is that a certain amount of ‘performance anxiety’ is a good thing. It keeps you fresh, engaged, alert. It guards against complacency. I had a butterfly in my stomach on the big occasions for the full length of my career. And it was a welcome companion. As Harrison himself observed:

‘I suppose if you don’t have stage fright, you go on like a flat pancake.’

Secondly, I think you can manage stage fright by acquiring rituals that you repeat at every critical presentation. I would ruffle my papers as I stood up to speak. I’d start quietly, nervously, with the opening formalities, just to get my voice in. I began every argument with ‘nodding charts’: making points with which no one could disagree. And then I was up and running.

Finally, it’s important to recognise that performance anxiety can take many forms. Although I was a relatively confident speaker in front of groups of people, however large, I suffered a kind of stage fright with individuals. I quite often got names wrong and stumbled over introductory pleasantries. I would occasionally lean in to kiss male Clients. And I always found it easier talking about work than ski holidays with the family. I have been known to walk into an industry function, wander round a bit, and then walk right out without talking to anyone.

So don’t assume that your stage fright is necessarily negative or unique to you. It is a common condition. The trick is to turn those nerves to your advantage. And 'with a little bit of luck' you'll perform brilliantly.

'The Lord above gave man an arm of iron,
So he could do his job and never shirk.
The Lord above gave man an arm of iron,
But, with a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck,
Someone else will do the blinkin' work.'


‘With a Little Bit of Luck,' Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe

 

 

No. 147

 

 

 

 

 

Inferior Design: Do Our Offices Inspire Creativity or Express Uniformity?

Matisse in his Studio

Matisse in his Studio

‘Objects which have been of use to me nearly all of my life.’
Henri Matisse, Note on the back of a photograph of his possessions, 1946

I recently attended an exhibition presenting works by Henri Matisse alongside the treasured personal possessions that inspired them. (Matisse in the Studio, The Royal Academy, London, until 12 November.)

Photos of Matisse in his studio revealed a man surrounded by carvings, bottles and textiles, porcelain bowls and pewter jugs. There were Arabic screens and African figurines. There was a Cambodian statue, Kuba embroidery and a Spanish vase. These artefacts were not particularly valuable, but they were more than just decorative. Clearly Matisse found them meaningful, provocative, suggestive. And they were very much present in his art.

Matisse, 'Purple Robe and Anemones’ and the C18 pewter jug that inspired it.

Matisse, 'Purple Robe and Anemones’ and the C18 pewter jug that inspired it.

A silver chocolate pot Matisse received on his wedding day was depicted repeatedly, with differing degrees of abstraction; African masks prompted a serene style of portraiture; a Venetian rococo chair with a curious seashell design was interpreted from various perspectives; a marble Roman torso and a Chinese calligraphic panel induced vivacious colourful cut-outs.

‘The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.’
Henri Matisse

Clearly context inspired the content of Matisse’s art. And he was not just representing these objects. They were catalysts, starting points, springboards for other thoughts and ideas.

‘For me the subject of a picture and its background have the same value…There is no principal feature, only the pattern is important.’
Henri Matisse

Legendary New York art director and designer George Lois took a different view of the work environment. For him decorative objects, furniture and pictures entailed distraction rather than inspiration. His office resembled a monastic cell - albeit a rather spacious and lofty one.

‘The only thing I ever permit on my desk is the job I’m working on. And, in my work place, there is nothing on the walls (except my nineteenth century Seth Thomas clock) to distract me from what I’m supposed to be thinking about on my desk.’
George Lois

George Lois’ office at Lois Holland Callaway, 1969

George Lois’ office at Lois Holland Callaway, 1969

Matisse and Lois had decidedly different perspectives, but they shared an understanding that their working context contributed to their creative content.

I’m sure every one of us can recall distinctive work environments that we’ve come across over the course of our careers.

When I joined BBH in the early ‘90s, its Great Pulteney Street offices boasted an austere industrial aesthetic. It was all black, steel, chrome and glass; racked televisions, exposed pipes and rubberised flooring. This look was completely consistent with the Agency’s positioning at the time as an ‘ideas factory.’ It had an attractive tone of confidence and professionalism.

In John Hegarty’s office at BBH you found a painting of an empty box, a large Q & A design and a stuffed black sheep - constant reflections on the power of ideas and the imperative of difference. Next door you could see Nick Gill’s wall of punk singles, which called to mind his personal passion and independent spirit. Nigel Bogle’s space was closer to the Lois model: simply furnished with a few framed award-winning ads, just to ensure we all knew the standard we were aiming at.

I’m afraid my own work environment was often overrun with piles of paper. I could trace files and documents chronologically by their distance from the top (like the layers in the archaeological site at Troy). Nigel rather generously once suggested ‘untidy desk, tidy mind’, but I fear the towers of A4 just betrayed my paranoia about lost knowledge. I changed office many times over the years. And wherever I laid my hat, I hung twelve photos by Daniel Meadows. In the rarefied world of Soho advertising, I found these ‘70s images of ordinary British folk gently nostalgic and reassuring – a land that time forgot.

Clearly an office speaks – about each of us as individuals, and all of us as a company. So we should give proper thought to what we’re saying.

‘Your working surroundings should not be a presentation to your Clients…And your home should not be a presentation to your friends. Surroundings should relate to who you are, what you love and to what you deem important in life.’
George Lois

I confess I’m no fan of the current conventions in creative office design - conventions now shared, with bigger budgets, by our Clients: the reclaimed wooden tables, the high chairs and industrial lighting; the brightly coloured walls and quirky shaped sofas; the suggestive neon words and slogans; the themed breakout areas and table football; the juice bar, coffee station and artisanal cookies; the beach-hut workstations, the meeting rooms named after Bowie songs; the climbing walls, playground slides and bouncy castles…

Sometimes we equate juvenility with creativity. Sometimes our work environments encourage recreation rather than inspiration, conformity rather than diversity. Sometimes they seem designed for longevity of attendance, not quality of output.

Of course, nowadays few of us are fortunate to have our own personal offices. Whilst we can create context on our desks and screens - and we can create seclusion through our headphones - for the most part our employers control our environments.

Nonetheless, we should still ask ourselves how we’re using the space that surrounds us. Where do we stand on the spectrum from Matisse’s gallery of mementoes, to Lois’ self-conscious minimalism? Does our office environment encourage inspiration or concentration? Does it provide stimulus or distraction?

Environmental design is strategically critical to the culture that a modern business is trying to encourage, and the sense of self it’s seeking to convey. Shouldn’t a creative business curate space, stimulate ideas, spark the imagination? Shouldn’t we be developing diverse, productive studio environments, not happily homogeneous corporate habitats? Shouldn’t our context inspire our content?

Daniel Meadows 'National Portrait' 1974

Daniel Meadows 'National Portrait' 1974

No. 146

The Bin or the Bottom Drawer? Learning When to Dispose of an Idea and When to Save it for a Rainy Day

In 1953 John Wayne went to see director Dick Powell. Wayne was due to fulfil the last of a three-picture deal with Howard Hughes’ RKO studio and was keen to discuss candidate films. Powell popped out of his office for a moment and, when he returned, Wayne had dug a script out of the bin and was enthusing about it. This was the movie he wanted to make.

The script was for ‘The Conqueror.’ Originally written with Marlon Brando in mind, it told the story of the twelfth century Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan. Brando had turned the project down, citing contractual obligations elsewhere, and Powell thought the script was absurd. Yet Wayne sensed that this heroic warrior emperor was right up his street, and rookie director Powell didn’t feel he could say no to The Duke in his prime. ‘The Conqueror’ went into production in 1954 and was released in 1956. It is widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made.

‘It was just like a Western, only with different costumes.’
John Wayne

‘The Conqueror’ was epic exoticism. It was all nomadic chieftains, rampaging tribesmen, theatrical battles and abusive relationships. There were fireside feasts, dubious moustaches, mobile yurts and a treacherous shaman. There were galloping horses, occasional camels, a dancing bear and an incongruous black panther. Utah’s Escalante Valley substituted for the Mongolian steppes. Only two people of Asian descent were cast and only one of them got to speak. The dialogue was particularly grating, having been written in a kind of Hollywood Homeric that none of the actors, least of all Wayne, looked comfortable with.

‘I grieve that I cannot salute you as I would…I am bereft of spit!’

‘The Conqueror’ was justifiably panned by the critics, and at the box office it failed to recoup the substantial six million dollars it had cost to produce. It was responsible for the demise of RKO and was the last film Howard Hughes was involved with. Worst of all, the movie had been shot close to a US nuclear test site and, tragically, many of the cast and crew, including Wayne, were subsequently diagnosed with cancer.

In the years that followed Hughes spent twice the original production budget buying back all the prints, and he wouldn’t allow ‘The Conqueror’ on TV. In 1976, in the last few months of his life, the now reclusive billionaire, unwashed and unkempt, watched the film repeatedly, alone in the penthouse suite of a Bahamian hotel.

It’s never easy to put ideas in the bin. And it’s harder still to leave them there.

Ideas can hang around like insensitive guests at a party, lingering long after they’re welcome. However much we recognise that a concept is flawed - that it doesn’t quite address the brief, that it has not been properly realised in execution - we rarely forget our initial enthusiasm. We cling to the hope that some subtle adjustment or radical rewrite will solve everything and will realise the true potential of our original thought.

I’ve often seen fundamentally sound pitch decks bloated by insightful but irrelevant observations that the planners can’t bring themselves to edit out. I’ve seen historic hypotheses cling to the core argument like barnacles to a ship’s hull, weighing it down, slowing its progress.

I’ve seen old scripts pop up in creative reviews, rebooted and refreshed for a different sector and brand. I’ve seen concepts rekindled, headlines refashioned, images repurposed. Sadly, for the most part these ideas tend to be as underwhelming as they were the first time. But now they’re ill-suited to the brief as well.

The learning is clear: if in doubt, cut it out. Consign the banal to the bin. And leave it there.

And yet sometimes - just sometimes - I’ve been surprised by a concept which, when dusted down and tidied up, looks surprisingly spick and span. I particularly recall the previously unloved Levi’s scripts that returned triumphant when the time was right, when the context was different, when the appetite had changed.

Occasionally it is worth putting an idea in the bottom drawer and saving it for a rainy day.

Around the same time that filming began on ‘The Conqueror,’ the great American dramatist Tennessee Williams picked up a short play called ‘A Place of Stone.’ He had drafted it the previous year and, frustrated with how it was progressing, had put it away unfinished. Looking at the work afresh, Williams found new inspiration and impetus. By the summer of 1954, after a good deal of thought and application, he had re-crafted it into ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’

The key is to know when to reach for the bottom drawer and when to aim for the bin.

No. 145

‘No Bucks, No Buck Rodgers’: The Intimate Relationship Between Commerce and Creative Talent

The splendid 1983 film ‘The Right Stuff’ dramatises the early years of America’s manned space program. It takes us from the bold but unsung exploits of test pilots seeking to break the sound barrier after World War II, to the precision training of the Mercury astronauts under the glare of the media spotlight in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It’s a tale of determination, ingenuity, camaraderie and quite extraordinary bravery.

In one of the earlier scenes an Air Force Liaison Officer tells a group of test pilots about the need for positive media coverage in order to assure ongoing government funding.

‘Funding. That’s what makes your ships go up… No bucks, no Buck Rodgers. Whoever gets the funding gets the technology. Whoever gets the technology stays on top.’

Subsequently, as the elite astronauts are trained for their forthcoming missions, they are presented as all-American heroes to an enthusiastic press and an adoring public. This in turn guarantees the financial support required to research and develop the pioneering technology that will send the astronauts into space.

When at length NASA’s rocket scientists reveal the prototype for their space capsule, the astronauts are not impressed. They protest about the absence of windows, and of hatches with explosive bolts that they can open themselves in an emergency. But the scientists are reluctant to make any adjustments, because for them the astronauts are merely passive occupants of a rocket that will be controlled from the ground.

Fundamentally the astronauts resent being viewed as passengers, not pilots. They threaten to reveal to the press that they are being marginalised. If the public perception of their heroism is compromised, then the government funding for the programme will be compromised too.

‘No Buck Rodgers, no bucks.’

These scenes illustrate an intimate, circular relationship. Without the funding for technology and research, there would be no opportunity for the astronauts’ bold endeavours. And without heroic astronauts for the public to admire, there would be no money for research and technology.

I think a similar relationship pertains in creative businesses too. Without Clients posing challenges, commissioning work and paying bills, we would have no creatives imagining new possibilities, pioneering new frontiers, winning plaudits. And similarly, without the imagination, ideas and charisma of their creative talent, Agencies would find it hard to differentiate themselves, attract Clients and win business. No Clients, no creativity. And vice versa.

Sometimes Agencies can get this intimate relationship wrong.

I’ve seen creative leaders, seduced by their own sense of self-importance, disrespect the Clients that finance them. This is never attractive. I’ve observed Agencies disregard the bigger, more commercial accounts that are funding the smaller, more glamorous ones. I’ve witnessed Agency bosses celebrate the stars on the ‘Blue Riband’ businesses without thanking the foot-soldiers on the everyday.

An Agency that disconnects creativity from the commerce that sustains it will never win out.

Conversely, I’ve seen professed creative Agencies marginalise creative talent; exclude it from the core management of the business; disrespect it for its seeming lack of commercial sense. I’ve watched Agencies prioritise technology and process over people and ideas. I’ve observed profitability take precedence over product.

An Agency that fails to put creativity at the heart of its proposition, and creative talent at the heart of its leadership, runs the risk of commodifying its offer.

Everyone working in commercial creativity should respect the critical relationship between the business and its creative talent; a relationship that at its best is in equilibrium: No bucks, no Buck Rodgers. And vice versa.

In memory of Sam Shepard who died on 20 July 2017. Actor, screenwriter and master playwright of the tarnished American Dream, Shepard memorably played Chuck Yaeger in ‘The Right Stuff’:

‘Is that a man?’
‘You’re damn right it is!’

No. 144

 

 

The Uncertain Leader: Crystal Pite and the ‘Doldrums of Doubt’

Isabella Gasparini, Solomon Golding, Joseph Sissons, Kristen McNally and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød in Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern. © Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House

Isabella Gasparini, Solomon Golding, Joseph Sissons, Kristen McNally and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød in Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern. © Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House

Crystal Pite creates dance for the modern world. She has choreographed touching and thought provoking pieces that respond to personal trauma, grief and addiction; to the science of swarm intelligence; to the tragedy of the refugee crisis. She deals in organic structures and fluid shapes; complex patterns and restless waves. She explores the forces, conflicts and tensions at play in our bodies, our relationships and the world beyond.

‘It’s just human beings striving and yearning and reaching and trying. That is what moves me when I watch people dance.’

In person Pite seems a quiet presence, gentle and softly spoken. She is very articulate, but also cautious and considered.

‘I don’t feel that speaking is my first language. Dance is my first language.’

In a recent BBC documentary (Behind the Scenes, Radio 4, 25 July 2017) Pite is interviewed in the midst of rehearsals for ‘Flight Pattern,’ her first collaboration with the Royal Ballet. She openly expresses her anxieties about the piece.

‘I can feel that I’m overwhelmed by this project right now. It’s ambitious and there’s very little time, and I’m not convinced about some of the choices that I’ve made, and I don’t know if things are going to work. And if they don’t work, I don’t think I’m going to have time to come up with a Plan B.’

Pite reassures herself that persistence, effort, action and creation will see her through what she calls ‘the doldrums of doubt.’

Crystal Pite portrait courtesy of Sadlers Wells

Crystal Pite portrait courtesy of Sadlers Wells

‘Keep pushing through, just keep making. Keep making, keep imagining, keep building, keep trying. Otherwise I’ll just freeze.’

Pite’s candour about her misgivings is rare and compelling in someone so successful. And yet her uncertainty comes in harness with a steely determination, and a clear conviction about her core idea and end objective.

‘I have such a clear plan for the eye of the audience…Not only do I choreograph what’s on stage. I also choreograph the viewer. I choreograph what I think they’re going to be looking at.’

Pite is the very model of a modern creative leader. She has complete confidence about where she wants to go. But she is also open about the doubts and uncertainties, opportunities and threats that present themselves along the way.

‘I have to be a leader and I have to be a creator. Being a leader requires that I know what I’m doing. I need to walk in here, into the studio, and know; and to be able to be clear and decisive and sure. And being a creator is really the opposite of that. I need to be in a state of not knowing. I need to remain open to possibilities and to allow myself to meander and to play.’

It struck me that Pite’s remarks do not pertain just to creative leadership; but to all forms of leadership in an age of change. In the past we wanted our leaders to be consistently certain, steadfast and strong. But in times of transformation complete conviction about the future can come across as arrogant, misguided or delusional. When all around us is in flux, absolute certainty is absolutely impossible.

Of course, we need our leaders to be sure about the objectives we’re pursuing; the direction we’re headed. But we also need them to be more honest about their doubts and fears; more open to alternatives and opportunities; more responsive to events and circumstances.

‘Flight Pattern’ turned out to be an exceptional piece of modern dance. It was at once beautiful and sad; heartbreaking and inspiring. Its success must in part derive from its choreographer’s willingness to embrace her apprehensions and anxieties. Uncertain times call for uncertain leaders.

No. 143

The Slowest Queue: Why Do Careers Always Seem To Be Progressing More Quickly Elsewhere?

I recently passed a long queue of kids outside the Supreme shop in Soho. I was at once disdainful of the young people’s insatiable appetite for tee shirts and trainers; and envious of their collective cool and camaraderie.

I have always been ambivalent about queues.

On the one hand I’m rather fond of them: the obligation to pause for a moment’s reflection; the opportunity to observe what’s in other people’s trolleys; the quiet satisfaction that there are others waiting behind me. Queues can be social, communal. They suggest inherent value; something worth waiting for. But then again I rather resent queues: the wasted time; the sense of injustice; the fear of missing out; the ‘quiet desperation.’ And, of course, the conviction that the other line is definitely moving along faster than my own.

So why am I always in the slowest queue?

There is a whole branch of science dedicated to ‘queueing theory.’ Firstly, the experts offer a simple statistical explanation for my sense of my line’s sluggishness. If there are three queues in a shop, the chances of my line being the quickest are only one in three. So it’s not just me: another queue is probably moving faster.

Secondly there is a psychological explanation. Experiments have shown that people only tend to notice the queue when their line is progressing slowly. So queue awareness is closely aligned with queue slowness.

Moreover, when I’m in a slow queue, it feels really slow. The minutes dawdle; the seconds drag. Time is elastic. We tend to experience time differently while waiting.

Although queue theorists have established that a singular serpentine line is fairer and quicker, more competitive types would rather take their chances with separate lines. But it’s hard to game the queue: you can’t predict when a customer ahead of you will be more talkative or troublesome; and sometimes a shorter line indicates a slower salesperson.

A recent University College London report (The Guardian, 19 February 2017) observed that on average people wait for only six minutes in a queue, and they are unlikely to join one with more than six people in it. Scores vary according to the appeal of the end experience and the availability of distractions (smart phones and mirrors, natch). Nonetheless, I’m sure that in previous, less pressurised, times we would happily have fallen in with longer queues and put up with them for longer. In the accelerated age our patience is wearing thin.

I wonder if we suffer something akin to this queueing dilemma in our careers. We see our peers and juniors progressing at pace at other companies. There always seems to be another business, another industry, at which career advancement is more rapid. And our own progress feels so slow. So we are propelled to look elsewhere; to try our luck in another queue, at another employer. With variable results we endeavour to game the queue. And the frequency with which we switch lanes or jump ship increases with the passing years.

Queueing theory suggests we may be deluding ourselves somewhat when we job hop: responding to the sensation of present slowness, rather than to the reality of speed elsewhere.

Of course, careers are not queues. Though there is always an element of waiting in line, career progress depends on the talent and hard work of the employee; and the opportunities and environment provided by the employer. We should always be prepared to move on when the opportunities are markedly better elsewhere; when the alternative environment is decidedly more conducive to learning, growth and good work.

I’m just sounding a note of caution. We should be alert to the psychological forces at play when we're frustrated at work. We should move for positive, not passive reasons; in order to seize real opportunities, not just to escape a seeming lack of them.

I confess I’m something of an irregular case. I happily stayed in the same company for some 25 years. I found that every time people ahead of me in the career queue departed, my own career moved on a step. And perhaps there is a lesson here: sometimes it makes sense to stay exactly where you are; to stick, not twist; to keep your place in the queue of life. Not all waiting is in vain.

‘I don’t wanna wait in vain for your love;
I don’t wanna wait in vain for your love.
From the very first time I rest my eyes on you, girl,
My heart says follow t’rough.
I know, now, that I’m way down on your line,
But the waitin’ feel is fine.’

Bob Marley, ‘Waiting in Vain’

 

No. 142

‘Look What We Have Built’: Should We Manage Our Businesses from the Top-Down or the Bottom-Up?

Jane Jacobs

‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’

I recently watched an excellent documentary about the writer, activist and urban theorist, Jane Jacobs (‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City’).

Born in 1916, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs moved to Greenwich Village in New York when she was 24. She fell in love with the vitality of the city: the stoops, streets and sidewalks; the parks and public spaces. She began writing magazine articles about different New York neighbourhoods, pointing out the complex interactions at the heart of thriving urban life; remarking on the security delivered by ‘eyes on the street’; celebrating ‘the diversity of kinds of work, the diversity of kinds of people.’

Jacobs did not have any formal training in urban planning, but she was observant, intuitive, empathetic. In her 1962 book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ she set out her understanding of what makes cities work.

‘It is a complex order… This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance - not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.’

Jacobs’ theories were at odds with the orthodoxy of the day: the modernist school of urban development embodied by the New York planner and ‘master builder’, Robert Moses.

Moses considered himself a progressive. He began his career before the Second World War commissioning swimming pools, parks, bridges and beaches, seeking to improve the lot of the urban poor. After the War, in the face of growing concern in New York about overcrowding, public health and housing, he embraced high-rise towers as a logical expression of the machine age; and the car as a liberating force in American life.

‘We wouldn’t have an American economy without the automobile business. That’s literally true.’

Robert Moses

Moses’ urban renewal projects in places like East Harlem and the Bronx swept aside neighbourhoods to make way for expressways, highways and high-rise housing. And he wasn’t afraid to break a few eggs in the name of progress.

‘You have to move a lot of people out of the way of a big housing project or a slum clearance project. A lot of them aren’t going to like it. Plenty of them are misinformed.’

Increasingly Moses displayed a condescension towards the people his schemes planned to displace, and for the old city neighbourhoods he intended to bulldoze.

‘I’d say that you have a cancerous growth there and it has to be carved out.’

In ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ Jacobs exposed the damage that Moses and the modernist developers were doing to the fabric of the city.

‘Look what we have built…Low income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity…This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities’

Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s Jacobs joined local communities in their fight to preserve New York’s West Village, Washington Square Park, Soho and Little Italy. Ultimately they prevailed over Moses and his feared Lower Manhattan Expressway.

In reviewing her philosophical differences with the utopian urban planners, Jacobs was sceptical about an expansive, top-down mentality that professed to know what’s good for people.

‘I have very little faith in even the kind of person who prefers to take large overall views of things.’

Jacobs believed in bottom-up decision-making; in realising the creativity of the communities most engaged with issues.

‘Historically solutions to city problems have very seldom come from the top. They come from people who understand the problems first hand because they’re living with them and they have new and ingenious, and often very offbeat, ideas of how to solve them.’

I wonder, in the leadership and management of modern businesses, are we inclined to pursue top-down or bottom-up strategies? Is our instinct for centralised control, or democratised empowerment? Do we feel more comfortable with utopian, abstract schemes, or organic, chaotic complexity?

Are we, like the urban planners before us, seduced by grand designs and visionary thinking; by the elegance of detailed computer graphics and the authority of infinite data-streams?

Or do we observe how our organisations work in real life? Do we properly embrace the knowledge and knowhow of the workforce; the wisdom of colleagues?

It’s important to recognise that Jacobs had her critics. Some have suggested that her success in preserving old city neighbourhoods precipitated the gentrification that drove lower income residents out. Some have observed that, though Moses may have been wrong about high-rise and highways, cities do need infrastructure; they do need utilities and public transport. Cities need planning.

Having said this, Jacobs teaches anyone involved in organisational change some critical lessons: that the best organisations have a soul worth preserving; that preservation is critical to genuine progress; and that all progress should benefit the many, not just the few.

The challenge for contemporary leaders is to develop visionary, far-reaching plans for their business that are rooted in a deeper understanding of what colleagues want and need; to run at the future armed with the expertise and creativity of our staff; to find a path to progress that retains the company’s vital organic culture.

‘People make cities, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.’

No. 141

‘Raymond Shaw Is the Kindest, Bravest, Warmest, Most Wonderful Human Being I’ve Ever Known in My Life’: Considering Advertising’s Hypnotic Power

The 1962 movie ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is a taught thriller and dark political satire that begins with Communist brainwashing and culminates in an assassination attempt on a Presidential candidate.

Laurence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, a US Army Sergeant who has been awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of nine members of his battalion that were being held behind enemy lines in Korea. Major Ben Marco (played by Frank Sinatra) is one of the survivors. He is cursed by a recurrent nightmare in which Shaw kills two members of their squad. He is further confused by the fact that any mention of Shaw’s name leads him to repeat the exact same sentence: ‘Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.’

Marco gradually realises that he is a victim of brainwashing. He sets out to understand why and to foil the plot that lies behind it.

‘His brain has not been washed as they say…It has been dry cleaned.’

I began my career as a Qualitative Market Researcher. I was doing some work for the automobile brand, Peugeot, whose slogan at the time was ‘The Lion Goes from Strength to Strength.’ (Peugeot’s badge features a heraldic lion.) One respondent wanted to impress on me that he ignored all advertising; it completely passed him by; he was an entirely rational individual. Later in the discussion I asked him how Peugeot was performing in the competitive context. ‘They’ve been doing pretty well, to be fair. They’ve been going from strength to strength.’

I was subsequently researching Red Rock Cider, which had a tag line about being ‘less gassy with no strong aftertaste.’ A bloke in one of my groups turned to some respondents that were sceptical of cider’s merits and said: ‘You should try Red Rock. It’s less gassy than other ciders. And it’s got no strong aftertaste.’

In another research project I was talking to some kids about breakfast cereal and I mentioned the Honey Nut Loops brand. In unison they promptly launched into an uncanny rendition of the Honey Nut Loops theme tune: ‘Honey Nut Loops. Let’s loop together.’

I confess I retain an affection for jingles, slogans and catchphrases. We may prefer nowadays to talk of symbols, rhythms, patterns and memes. Whatever the terminology, repetition gives consumers a sense of a brand’s conviction and consistency; a handy vocabulary that explains its distinctiveness. And, yes, at their best these devices do indeed possess a certain hypnotic power.

Within the communication industry we have always denied that we were engaged in anything so sinister as brainwashing. But not everyone has agreed with us.

In 1957, just a few years before ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ hit the cinemas, Vance Packard published ‘The Hidden Persuaders.’ The book sought to alert the American public to the use by advertisers of applied psychology and sociology; and to the employment of ‘motivational research’ to determine consumers’ psychological weaknesses. Packard suggested that brands were engaged in ‘mass persuasion through the subconscious.’

‘Many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.’

As my own experiences illustrate, we cannot deny that many of consumers’ opinions of, and associations with, brands are formed at a subconscious level. We may nowadays call it low involvement processing, but there’s still an ethical question to be answered: Does advertising brainwash its consumers? 

Within the industry we have consistently contended that the answer is: No.

Whilst Packard suggested advertising works in a covert or clandestine way, we sustain that its persuasive powers hide in plain sight. 

Moreover, consumers are largely complicit in advertising’s seductive sell. Most are willing participants in the marketing game. In ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ even Packard conceded:

‘When irrational acts are committed knowingly they become a sort of delicious luxury.’

I should say that in my many years of attending focus groups, creative reviews and Client meetings, I rarely came across anyone so serious as a professional hypnotist, motivational researcher or psychologist. We did dabble in a little harmless semiotics, but we generally regarded persuasion as an art, not a science. We sought to charm and entice, rather than to deceive.

Perhaps this is why today’s acolytes of marketing neuroscience make me a little uncomfortable. We often assert that attention in the modern era must be earned, not hijacked. Yet neuroscience seems to take us back in the opposite direction. Talk of brainscans and emotional manipulation; of eye tracking and facial coding; of unconscious desires and subconscious triggers, would have resonated with Packard. We shouldn't be complacent about such things. Perhaps it's time to dust off our copies of 'The Hidden Persuaders.' 

‘I fell into a trance,
Just watching you dance.
My world just stopped when I saw your eyes on me.
H-Y-P I’m hypnotised.
H-Y-P I’m hypnotised.’

The Undertones, Hypnotised (Charles Burchill, James Kerr)

 

No. 140