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 grew up 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. You can 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: Leaving a Little Space for Luck

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

Beware the Banalities of La La Brands

‘Maybe it means something.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Yeah, I didn’t think so.’
 

It’s been observed that criticising La La Land is like criticising a fluffy kitten. And I’d be the first to applaud the romance, the effervescence, the sentiment; the twinkle toed dancing and the knowing nods to the musical’s Golden Age; the yellow dress, the violet night sky, the red firemist Buick Riviera. Of course, it’s a welcome antidote. Perhaps it’s a necessary sedative.

But there was a moment in that first 15 minutes - somewhere in amongst the euphoric traffic jam, the frivolous flatmates and the glamorous poolside party – that I thought: ‘Hold on a minute. I’ve seen this before.’ I’ve seen it in a thousand positioning statements, mood edits and concept boards. It’s the stuff of lifestyle marketing, contemporary commercials and branded content. It’s the stuff of the vignetted advertising so beloved by Globo-Corp. It’s the stuff of La La Brands.

‘It’s another day of sun.
Another day has just begun.’

La La Brands are what you get when you aggregate the emotions, smooth over the edges and round off the corners. They’re what you get when you seek to communicate grand universal truths and big unifying themes; when you’d like to teach the world to sing. They’re modern marketing’s all-pervading algorithmic answer.

La La Brands inhabit their own fanciful dreamworlds, removed from the reality around them. They are full of sunny optimism and simplistic motivations; of ersatz ambition and paper-thin purpose. They are rootless and soulless. But why worry when they have the wind in their hair, the sun on their backs and a soft sweet smile on their faces? They are the eternal sunshine of spotless minds.

La La Brands characterise their consumers as two-dimensional actors in a suburban soap opera; as extroverts not given to introspection. They depict their lives as light and airy, bright and breezy; they deny them psychological depth or emotional texture.

At La La Brands every passenger is a ‘customer’; every fragrance is ‘designer’; every stadium is ‘iconic’; and every meal starts with ‘Enjoy.’ For La La Brands personalisation is just a name on a coffee cup; customer care is just a voucher; diversity is just a superficial casting decision. And tax is something a yacht does. ‘I hope this email finds you well.’

‘They worship everything and they value nothing.’

We should beware the banalities of La La Brands. Because we will all at some time or another be seduced by their siren call. They sing to the tunes of Doris Day and Celine Dion. They’re aspirational and nice; sensible and smart. But they are also fundamentally boring, banal and bland. They’re ultimately unfulfilling.

Of course, the success of La La Land really derives from the fact that, having established the universal sunshine of California, the unifying fantasy of stardom, it follows a more authentic, more individual, more troubled narrative arc. It’s the story of foiled dreams and flawed romance that makes it work.

‘I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back – it’s a classic rope-a-dope.’

The greatest challenge facing anyone working in commercial creativity today is to protect their ideas from the unrelenting bombardment of didactic data and reductive research; from the inexorable pressure to moderate and mitigate; to pucker, pout and smile. The challenge is to roll with those punches, soak up those hard knocks; and, like Ali, emerge from the ropes restored - with a brilliantly eccentric, awkwardly human, irrational, irregular, inspirational, knockout idea.

So remember:

‘People love what other people are passionate about.’

No. 118

Me, Myself and I: What Kind of Self-Portrait Would We Paint for Our Brands?

Cristofano Allori 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'

Cristofano Allori 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'

There’s a myth that the first person to draw was a shepherd who traced his own shadow in the dust with his staff.  It’s telling perhaps that man’s first picture was of himself, a selfie. We are social animals, but we are also enormously self-centred.

This myth of ‘the invention of the art of drawing’ is captured in an engraving at an excellent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London. ‘Portrait of the Artist’ embraces all manner of images of artists, both self-portraits and pictures by colleagues, pupils and friends. (It runs until 17 April.)

One cannot help but be fascinated by self-portraits. Here we get to observe what other people see in the mirror; to assess how they present themselves to the world; to see how they want to be seen.

There were practical reasons for artists to engage in self-portraiture. Drawing or painting oneself provided the opportunity to practice, experiment and explore; to consider different facial expressions, moods or pictorial styles. And the models came free.

But artists had other motivations. Sometimes they wanted to leave mementos of themselves for family and loved ones. Sometimes they sought to advertise their talent to potential clients. Sometimes they wanted to celebrate their status or success to a broader public. And sometimes they had a message to pass on.

Edwin Landseer 'The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with Two Dogs'

Edwin Landseer 'The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with Two Dogs'

Artists’ choice of context and theme was often telling. Sebastiano Ricci painted himself attending to Christ teaching in the temple. Johan Zoffany recorded himself amongst his fellow Royal Academicians. Jan Steen depicted himself watching card-players in a pub. These artists were declaring their piety, their prestige, their lack of pretension. Edwin Landseer portrayed himself with his dogs looking over his shoulder admiring his draftsmanship. He seems to be suggesting that they at least properly appreciate his work.

Occasionally artists would adopt mythical roles in order to signal a coded theme. Artemesia Gentileschi presented herself as the female personification of painting itself, La Pittura, a conceit unavailable to her male colleagues. Cristofano Allori portrayed himself as Holofernes beheaded by Judith. He modelled the figure of Judith on his former lover, ’La Mazzafirra,’ and had her mother standing by as the murderer’s assistant.

Of course, often self-portraiture expressed intense self-reflection. Lucian Freud peers out from the midst of deep shadows, his eyes dark with world-weary experience. Maria Cosway stares at us with arms folded as if to indicate her disappointment or disdain. And then there is Rembrandt. He put on costume and fancy dress, but painted himself with unflinching honesty: scrutinising the decay of age, the regret and yearning within.

Rembrandt  'Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap'

Rembrandt  'Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap'

One departs the exhibition with a strong sense of the complexity of the human psyche; of the layered self. When we look in the mirror we see many images of ourselves. We are self-centred and self-satisfied; self-doubting and self-deluding. We self-publish and self-promote. We are self-obsessed.

Maria Cosway 'A Self-Portrait '

Maria Cosway 'A Self-Portrait '

You would think that in the field of marketing and communication we would be well versed in the contours and complexities of the layered self. But, whilst many of us in the business tend towards solipsism, how often do we subject our own brands to proper scrutiny? How often do we assess them from within rather from without?

What kind of self-portrait would we paint for our own brands? Would we be puffed up and proud, keen to promote our prestige and status? Would we, like a teenager taking a selfie, betray our own fickle airs and shallow affectations? Or would we, like Rembrandt, be honest, searching and direct?

Perhaps we too should occasionally take a long hard look in the mirror.

 

‘Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Tell me mirror what is wrong?
Can it be my De La clothes?
Or is it just my De La song?
It’s just me, myself and I.
It’s just me, myself and I.’

De La Soul, Me, Myself and I

 

No. 117

‘Today Is Their Creator’: Creative Lessons from Robert Rauschenberg

I recently attended a retrospective of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg. (Tate Modern until 2 April). Blimey. I can’t claim to have had an emotional connection with his work. So much cardboard, cartoons and cut-outs; so much repurposed refuse and random bits and bobs. I suspect my tastes are too conservative. But walking from room to room, through a chaptered narrative of the artist’s career, I could achieve some kind of rational connection. I found myself admiring him. And I certainly felt there was a great deal that commercial creatives could learn from this mercurial talent.

 

1. Be Restless

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 into a fundamentalist Christian household in Port Arthur, Texas. Having served in the Navy during World War II, he took advantage of the GI Bill to travel abroad and he briefly attended art school in Paris. He subsequently studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an institution that encouraged experimentation across a whole host of media. There he learned to do ‘exactly the reverse’ of what he was taught.

Rauschenberg was a restless spirit. The breadth of his output was breathtaking. In the course of his career he explored the possibilities of print making and paper making; photography and collage; pop art and abstraction. He painted in stark black and white monochrome, and in bright vivid colours. He designed costumes and stage sets; worked with found objects and images; experimented in kinetic and interactive art. He collaborated with other artists, with dancers, musicians, scientists and engineers. He choreographed performance pieces and co-created the first Happenings.

Rauschenberg never settled on any one style or form of expression. With his appetite for the untried and untested, he remained resolutely in the present.

‘It is completely irrelevant that I am making them - Today is their creator.’

Rauschenberg was blessed, and perhaps cursed, by what one critic called ‘a perceptual machine.’ He just kept seeing, feeling and thinking different things.

Rauschenberg’s impact on the broader creative culture of his day and on subsequent artistic movements was phenomenal. Most obviously to me the Britartists of the 1990s seemed to be in his debt: way back in the 1950s he created a piece out of his own bedding; he designed a work around a stuffed angora goat; he took a drawing by the established artist Willem de Kooning and erased it…

I guess all of us in the world of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: Are our own ‘perceptual machines’ functioning and well oiled? Can we sustain an appetite for the new as we grow old? Are we, like Rauschenberg, truly, relentlessly, restless spirits?

 

2. Explore ‘The Gap Between’

‘I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window rather than what’s inside my studio.’

In 1954 Rauschenberg began to integrate objects he’d found on local New York streets within his canvases. Wallpaper, windows, wheels and ‘one way’ signs; Coke bottles, brollies, light bulbs and stuffed birds. They all found their way into his Combines, as they were called. It was an approach that brought together painting and sculpture in a new and compelling way.

‘A picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.’

Monogram

Monogram

Rauschenberg seemed fascinated in art that more intimately embraced reality; that broke out of the boundaries that had been set for it; that explored the liminal spaces, betwixt and between.

‘Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)’

I was struck by this idea of exploring ‘the gap between.’ So often in the commercial sector we impose our own constraints on creative expression, or we accept the constraints of convention. But in an ever-changing world there’s always interest to be had in the borderlands between collapsing categories; on the frontiers of technology; at the cusp of change.

In my own time at BBH some of our best work inhabited the threshold between different channels, practices and technologies: press ads that behaved like posters; posters that behaved like films; films that played backwards; shorter timelengths, longer timelengths; longer copy, no copy at all; reflective still images, special builds, interactive posters, POV camerawork; films that focused on real people, real events, real experiments; Chinese takeaway lids. So often the opportunities occurred at the margins of standard practice, on the edge of the frame.

Are we as alert as we should be to the creative potential in collaboration, combination, co-ordination? Do we remember sometimes to make the medium the message? Are we eager to explore the ‘gap in between?’

Retroactive II

Retroactive II

 

3. Be Ruthless

‘I’m not interested in doing what I know or what I think I can do.’

By all reports Rauschenberg was charming, gregarious and fun. A smile was never far from his lips. But he was ruthless with ideas, both his own and those of others. He knew that you cannot progress if you still have your feet in the past.

When Rauschenberg arrived in New York as a young man in 1949 the dominant creative movement was Abstract Expressionism. But he was determined from the outset to make a clean break.

‘You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good Abstract Expressionist. And I think I always considered that a waste.’

In 1962, around the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with silkscreens. He reproduced and artfully arranged found images that were historic and contemporary; political and cultural; mundane and arresting. These silkscreens brought him substantial recognition and, in 1964, they won him a prize at the Venice Biennale. He immediately called home and instructed his assistant to destroy any silkscreens left in the studio. He was alert to the insidious seductions of success.

Are we in the commercial sector as willing to dismiss established practice and break for the new? Are we as decisive as Rauschenberg? Can we claim to be as ruthless with our own success?

 

4. Let’s Get Lost

As I was about to depart the exhibition, I returned to a piece called Mud Muse. In 1968 Rauschenberg filled a large metal tank with 1000 gallons of bentonite clay and collaborated with technicians to animate this clay with bubbles that responded to the sounds around it. The result was an art exhibit that gurgles, slurps and plops. I watched a party of young school kids consider it. They were at once amazed and amused. And they demonstrated the emotional connection that I had failed to make.

Mud Muse

Mud Muse

‘I still have an innocent curiosity about how things go…All I’m trying to do is get everybody off the highway and, if anybody follows my lead, they’ll soon be lost too.’

Perhaps this is Rauschenberg’s best lesson. I’m sure sometimes we over-think our engagement with ideas. Sometimes we should let go and embrace a little innocent curiosity. Sometimes we should just take a turn off life’s highway. Come on, let’s get lost.

‘Let's get lost
Lost in each other's arms
Let's get lost
Let them send out alarms


And though they'll think us rather rude
Let's tell the world we're in that crazy mood.


Let's defrost in a romantic mist
Let's get crossed off everybody's list
To celebrate this night we've found each other
Mm, let's get lost.’

Chet Baker/ Let’s Get Lost: Frank Loesser, Jimmy Mchugh

No. 116

Are You a Cowboy or a Farmer? Managing the Tension Between the Pioneering Spirit and the Need to Cultivate The Land

Frederic Remington 'A Cold Morning on the Range'

Frederic Remington 'A Cold Morning on the Range'

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! features a song called ‘The Farmer and the Cowman.’ This jaunty number explores the musical’s central tension between the farmers, who have an instinct to settle and cultivate the land, and the cowmen, who naturally want to move on and pioneer new territories. Brian Eno, the master musician, producer and artist, has observed that this tension, between cultivating and pioneering, is fundamental to our understanding of creativity.

‘I often think that art is divided between the farmer and the cowboy: the farmer is the guy who finds a piece of territory, stakes it up, digs it and cultivates it – grows the land. The cowboy is the one who goes out and finds new territories.’

It’s a thought provoking distinction. And perhaps all of us in the field of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: What kind of creative am I? Am I more adept at pioneering or cultivating? Am I a cowboy or a farmer?

I suspect most of us would like to imagine ourselves as cowboys or cowgirls; as experts in reframing, redefining, reinventing; as intrepid adventurers intent on discovering new frontiers. It’s the more romantic choice. Indeed this is Eno’s own understanding of himself.

‘I would rather think of myself as the cowboy, really, than the farmer. I like the thrill of being somewhere where I know no one else has been.’

But let’s not be too hasty.

Many of the world’s great artists could perhaps be described as more farmer than cowboy. Think Mondrian, Giacometti, Rothko or Pollock. They worked within a coherent conceptual space, repeatedly revisiting a relatively narrow terrain; making it their own through variety and depth of expression. They ‘grew the land.’

Grant Wood 'American Gothic'

Grant Wood 'American Gothic'

Moreover, in the world of commercial creativity ongoing brand success requires high levels of consistency and coherence: campaigns that build a positioning; initiatives that sustain and evolve a theme; executions that nurture an idea with imagination and freshness.

My former boss Sir Nigel Bogle would often talk of a brand needing to ‘move it on without moving it off.’ This task can be just as critical and just as challenging as complete reinvention. It requires the calibrated embrace of context, a more nuanced understanding of past success, a respect for ideas that were not invented here. But do we properly appreciate, celebrate and reward the ability to evolve, nurture and cultivate? Do we really acknowledge the worth of the creative farmer? Or will we always prefer our creative cowboys and cowgirls and their mastery of the blank piece of paper?

Perhaps a little predictably, I’m inclined to say that a healthy creative business needs both cowboys and farmers. We need to be able to pioneer as well as to cultivate; to reinvent as well as to refine. And critically we need to know when to adopt each of these two modes; when to stick and when to twist.

As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it, ‘the farmer and the cowman should be friends.’

‘Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a
cow,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.’ 

The Farmer and the Cowman, Rodgers and Hammerstein

No.115

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 114