‘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

The Five Ws: You Won’t Get to the Right Answers If You Don’t Ask the Right Questions

I recently attended a performance of James Graham’s excellent new play, Ink, at the Almeida Theatre in Islington (running until 5 August 2017). Ink relates the story of Rupert Murdoch’s 1969 purchase of The Sun newspaper, and how, under the editorship of Larry Lamb, it became Britain’s most popular and influential title.

It’s an enjoyable yarn, full of fond recollections of Fleet Street’s Golden Age; of scoops and scandals, hacks and hot metal. The play also has a number of contemporary resonances, concerned as it is with journalistic ethics, truth, privacy and populism. At one stage Hugh Cudlipp, the editor of The Mirror (The Sun’s rival), warns Lamb to beware the Pandora’s Box of populism.

‘Pander to and promote the most base instincts of people all you like, fine. Create an appetite. But I warn you. You’ll have to keep feeding it.’

Ink begins with an exposition of journalism’s Five Ws: the five questions that classically every story should answer:

What happened?

Who was involved?

Where did it take place?

When did it take place?

Why did it happen?

I was quite taken with the elegant simplicity of the Five Ws. They force a full description of the key facts and core events. They focus the mind. But in the play Lamb challenges the value of the last W, ‘Why?’

‘Once you know ‘why’ something happened, the story’s over, it’s dead. Don’t answer ‘Why?’, a story can run and run, can run forever. And the other reason, actually, honestly, I think, is that there is no ‘Why?’ Most times. ‘Why?’ suggests there’s a plan, that there is a point to things, when they happen. And there’s not, there’s just not. Sometimes shit – just - happens. Only thing worth asking isn’t ‘Why?’ It’s …’What’s next?’’

This is clearly a provocative thought. We imagine that, while all five of the Ws are important, ‘Why?’ is the critical question. ‘Why?’ suggests curiosity and inquiry. ‘Why?’ offers insight and understanding. ‘Why?’ implies progress. But a diet of sensationalism, celebrity and sport needs no explanation; it doesn’t improve or illuminate our world. It gives immediate satisfaction and just propels us along with its own momentum: ‘What’s next?’

I wonder whether, in the commercial world, we have seen an equivalent erosion in the value we attach to ‘Why?’ In our race to embrace accelerated living; to create engaging content at pace; to express a brand in real time, do we sometimes forget to pause and ask ‘Why?’: ‘Why is the market behaving in this way?’ ‘Why do consumers feel and act like this?’ ‘Why are we doing this?’  Or are we too just endlessly asking ‘What next?’

The Toyota Motor Corporation used to have a process that asked ‘Five Whys?’ every time they encountered a defect or problem. They believed that if you ask ‘Why?’ often enough of an issue, you can pursue cause and effect down to true root causes; and therefore you’re best placed to find a solution. The repetitive ‘Why?’ may be a little irritating in the mouths of children, but it clearly encourages deeper examination of a task.

In this vein, I have always liked Robin Wight’s encouragement to ‘interrogate the product until it confesses to its strength.’ It’s an approach that prompted WCRS to produce a motorcade of great advertising for BMW back in the day.

Some have partnered ‘Why?’ with its natural bedfellow ‘How?’ ‘Why?’ provides insight into the problem; it illuminates the issue. ‘How?’ provides foresight into the solution; it sets us on the right path.

In the communications industry we could perhaps imagine some cocktail of the ‘Five Ws’ with an added ‘How?’ forming the basis of a compellingly simple creative brief.

I hesitate to make this suggestion because in my time in the industry there was endless debate around creative brief templates: Which particular set of words and format provide the most clarity and catalyse the right kind of creative response? Which are best suited to the demands of modern marketing? I’ve seen task-based briefs, propositional briefs; experience briefs and ‘big idea’ briefs; PowerPointed and pictorial briefs. I’ve seen one-word and six-page briefs. I’ve seen them knitted and laminated.

Broadly speaking, I have found that the more nuanced and sophisticated the thinking that has gone into a creative brief template’s construction, the more complex and difficult it is to use. I have always preferred the simple to the subtle.

So what are we to learn from all these ‘Hows?’ ‘Whys?’ and ‘Wherefores?’?

Perhaps it is that the key to the strategists’ art is the questions we ask. Asking good questions is as important as arriving at good answers. Indeed you won’t get to the right answers if you don’t ask the right questions. Questions are the keys that unlock the door.

Of course, you may find that in a creative business the most important question of all is the one that asks you to challenge current practice; that suggests you try something new and different; that prompts you to rewrite the rules: ‘Why not?’

‘Why does your love hurt so much?
Why?
Why does your love hurt so much?
Don’t know why.’

Carly Simon, Why (Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards)

No. 139

Habit Is the Thinker’s Friend

Edna May Wonacott as Ann Newton in 'Shadow of a Doubt'

Edna May Wonacott as Ann Newton in 'Shadow of a Doubt'

‘We eat and sleep and that’s about all. We don’t even have any real conversations. We just talk.’

Of all the films Alfred Hitchcock directed, he claimed his favourite was 1943’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt.’ This lesser known classic is set in Santa Rosa, California. The serene suburban normality of the Newton family is interrupted by the arrival of sinister Uncle Charlie from the big city.

Joseph Newton: ‘Don’t put the hat on the bed.’
Uncle Charlie: ‘Superstitious, Joe?’
Joseph Newton: ‘No, but I don’t believe in inviting trouble.’

Hitchcock seems to enjoy both celebrating and undermining small town American life. He likes exploring the banality of evil and the strangeness of the familiar. At one stage the precocious youngster of the house, Ann Newton, announces:

‘I’m trying to keep my mind free of things that don’t matter because I have so much on my mind.’

I have some sympathy with Ann Newton. Modern life is full of incidental choices and decisions. We are assaulted on all sides by the insignificant, the inconsequential, the irrelevant. What to wear, what to eat, what to say, where to go, who to meet, who to follow? It’s sometimes hard to find time for the meaningful and important.

In his 1970 book ‘Future Shock’ the American writer Alvin Toffler observed that the contemporary world throws up an excess of equivalent options. It creates ‘overchoice.’ And this choice overload can be confusing, dissatisfying, mentally draining. Perhaps it lay at the root of Santa Rosa's suburban anxiety.

My own response to overchoice is to eliminate decision making from large sections of my life. I decide not to make decisions. I choose not to choose.

So I always wear pale blue shirts with the top button done up. I never wear party shirts. I carry a flat cap in case it rains and a cotton bag in case I need to shop. On a plane I take a window seat. At the theatre I take an aisle seat. On the tube I try for the one next to the glass divide. I walk on the down escalator and I stand on the up. I sleep when a vehicle is moving (so long as I’m not at the wheel). I eat cheddar on Tuc biscuit (with an apple) for weekday lunch. I share starters, but not main course or dessert. I eat fish and chips on Friday (it’s my religion). I take an afternoon nap at the weekend. I make notes on the back of my dry cleaning ticket. I avoid things that are described as ‘fun’ or ‘funky.’ If I must order a cocktail, I ask for a Negroni. And I know I can’t go wrong with a Cotes du Rhone.

As I’ve grown older I have accrued quite a number of incidental habits. They perhaps derive from some active choice I made in the distant past. But for the most part they serve to excuse me from any current engagement with decision making.

Habit demands nothing of one’s attention. Habit frees up the mind for other things. Habit finds space for mad ideas. Habit is the thinker’s friend.

I have found that in business too we are constrained from thinking great thoughts by the dreariness of everyday dilemmas. Routine and repetition may in fact provide protection from the maelstrom of decision-making that confronts us in the office.

I’d suggest you consider the following.

Always wear a suit, grey or navy. Never wear a costume. Write with a fine blue Bic. Use plastic wallets, not bull dog or paper clips. Walk every floor, every day. Limit yourself to one exclamation mark per email. Don’t play golf or work the weekend. Never kiss your Clients. Have a latte in the morning and a Nescafe in the afternoon (with a Tunnock Caramel Wafer). Eat the same lunch from the same vendor. Always nod in meetings and write stuff down. Place your watch on the desk to monitor time diplomatically. Solve it in the room. Don’t high five, literally or metaphorically. Don’t ‘touch base’ or ‘reach out.’ Make your first comment positive and your last comment memorable. And the older you get, the earlier you should leave the party.

It seems clear to me that force of habit preserves us from the trivial and superficial. It makes time and space for proper contemplation. So why not liberate yourself from the tedium of choice by creating your own customs and conventions; by inventing the habits of a lifetime?

 

No. 138

Wrestling with the Angel: Modern Businesses Need Their Staff to Take Their Consciences to Work

At the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh you can see Paul Gauguin’s marvellous painting, ‘Vision After the Sermon.’ It depicts a group of Breton women in traditional costume, and visualises a bible story they have just heard in church: Jacob, journeying back to Canaan, spends the night alone on a riverside and encounters a mysterious angel who wrestles with him until dawn.

I have always liked this painting. I like the bold colours and Breton hats, the curious perspective and the mysterious theme. I like the juxtaposition of the present and the past, the real and the imagined. I like the idea of a man wrestling, not with a devil, but with an angel.

Many people have interpreted this scene as a depiction of someone struggling with their conscience. We see in it a sleepless night of doubt and dilemmas; of internal struggle and indecision; the agony of ethical qualms and quandaries, puzzles and problems.

When I first started work, in the red-blooded business environment of the late ‘80s, there was a sense that individual conscience belonged at home. One’s work behaviour should be driven by a singular pursuit of commercial success and ultimately shareholder value. ‘Whatever it takes’ was the spirit of the age.

Business culture at that time was not devoid of ethics. Rather there was a belief that the market aggregated the self-interested behaviour of individuals into a force for collective social good.

As the economist Joseph Stiglitz observed, ‘In a way, many people think that Adam Smith gave us a free pass; a way not to think about morality, because what Adam Smith said was that individuals in pursuit of their self-interest are led, as if by an invisible hand, to the general wellbeing of society.’

I’d say things have moved on since then. Nowadays we recognise that businesses have multiple stakeholders; that they have duties, not just to shareholders, but to partners, colleagues and consumers, and to the wider public. Nowadays most people in business do not assume self-interest will on its own create general wellbeing.

In recent times, as consumers increasingly expect corporate transparency, and as they increasingly hold businesses to account for their actions, then companies have embraced the unifying power of Purpose and Values as a means of directing their ethical behaviour.

It seems fair to ask whether clearly articulated Purpose and Values, in harness with better regulation, are sufficient to navigate the ethical challenges we face in the modern business environment.

Would Purpose and Values have prevented the malpractice of the financial crisis? Would they have avoided the failures of Enron, BP and Volkswagen? Should they have saved Pepsi or United from their recent PR disasters?

Well, they might have helped. But I’m not so sure they would have been sufficient in themselves.

The problem is that times of transformational change throw up more ethical issues than stable times. Category reinvention, while enhancing consumers’ lives, may have a negative impact on jobs, communities, the environment and fair trade. Operational restructure, while increasing efficiency, may also diminish working conditions and safety. Sub-contraction, while reducing cost, may also reduce responsibility. Creative destruction leaves in its wake a new landscape of ethical dilemmas.

I’d suggest that in this complex and changing environment, it’s not enough for colleagues to follow a collective corporate Purpose. I suspect that shared Purpose leaves a business exposed to corporate complacency and groupthink. Rather I think the ethical performance of any organisation is dependent on the extent to which individuals within that organisation take their consciences to work - because it’s only when individuals within a group wrestle with that group’s ethical dilemmas that you can safeguard against the group’s unethical behaviour.

It’s a curious thing to suggest that people need to be encouraged to bring their consciences to work. But we should not underestimate the day-to-day pressure on staff to deliver numbers and to conform. There is a gravitational pull towards narrow, short-term, commercial considerations; an ongoing belief that whistle-blowing represents disloyalty or disaffection. So, yes, the active engagement of individual consciences does need encouragement.

There’s one more reason why we need individual staff members to take their consciences to work, now more than ever.

When a brand’s ads appear next to extremist content on YouTube, we naturally ask questions about the people that placed them there. But of course people didn’t place them there. An algorithm did. Inevitably YouTube’s inclination is to work on a new algorithm to prevent it. But an algorithm doesn’t have a conscience. Automation enhances the need for humanity.

So, we need to more actively engage individual consciences in the workplace as a means of navigating the ever more complex challenges of the new economy; as a means of insuring businesses against groupthink; as a counterpoint to the ill effects of automation.

It’s only by wrestling with the angels that we give ourselves a fair chance of reaching the right decisions for our businesses and the broader community.

As the saying goes: ‘If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t.’

No. 137

 

 

Do It the Hard Way: Channelling Your Inner Bette Davis

Bette Davis is buried in the Hollywood Hills Cemetery. The inscription on her white marble sarcophagus reads: ‘She did it the hard way.’ The hard way was the only way available to this talented, idiosyncratic, independent minded actor in conservative, patriarchal Golden Age Hollywood. The hard way was the only way she knew.

Nowadays we celebrate short cuts, smart routes and safe options. We tend to like the easy way. So it’s worth pausing a while to consider why Davis was so proud to have done it the hard way.

‘I survived because I was tougher than anyone else.’

Bette Davis was born in 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. When she was 7 her parents separated and she subsequently moved with her mother to New York. She was drawn to acting at an early age and was playing Broadway when the talkie revolution lured her to Hollywood.

In 1930 Davis arrived with her mother at the railway station in LA, but the Universal executives that had arranged to meet her failed to show up. Afterwards they excused themselves:

‘We didn’t see anyone get off the train who looked like an actress.’

Davis didn’t have the flawless nose, teeth and hair that were then expected of Hollywood stars. She had unusually large, deep blue eyes and ash-blonde hair. She spoke with a distinct New England cadence. The studio labelled her the ‘Little Brown Wren.’

Universal were sceptical of Davis’ appeal (‘Who wants to get her at the end of the picture?’), but they signed her nonetheless. They set about moulding her to the tastes of the day: dyeing her hair platinum and changing her name to Bettina Dawes. But she would have none of it.

‘I refused to be called ‘Between the Drawers’ all my life.’

This was Hollywood’s first encounter with Davis’ legendary force of character.

‘I was thought to be stuck-up. I wasn’t. I was just sure of myself. This is, and always has been, an unforgivable quality in the unsure.’

By the end of 1932 Davis had made ten pictures with Universal, but none of them was successful and she was released from her contract.

‘What a fool I was to come to Hollywood where they only understand platinum blondes and where legs are more important than talent.’

Davis was on the point of going home, but she was picked up by Warner Brothers. Her performances began to receive some recognition, and in 1934 she won plaudits for her role in ‘Of Human Bondage.’ Unlike many stars of the day, she enjoyed playing unsympathetic characters, women who were brittle, flawed, emotional, outspoken.

‘No one’s as good as Bette when she’s bad.’

Headline from a Bette Davis movie poster

As her box office success grew, Davis increasingly clashed with studio executives and directors, criticising scripts and walking off sets.

‘I knew that if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.’

Eventually in 1936 she was suspended without pay for turning down a role she thought inappropriate.

‘I was complaining constantly about my bosses, the men who paid me, and I got sick of complaining.’

The following year she took Warners to court in an attempt to free herself from her restrictive contract.

‘Either fire me or let me be what I personally am. You cannot be somebody else - a copy.’

She lost the case. But Warners recognised that their single-minded star had a point and gradually the roles improved.

‘I lost the battle, but I won the war.’

Soon Davis was turning in extraordinary performances in certified classics like ‘Jezebel’, ‘The Letter’, ‘Now, Voyager’ and ‘All About Eve.’

‘Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.’
Charlotte Vale, Now, Voyager

Davis was consistently intense in these movies, compulsively watchable, with her expressive eyes and flamboyant gestures; her clipped diction and melodramatic manner. She clearly enjoyed roles that stretched her.

‘The key to life is accepting challenges. Once someone stops doing this, he’s dead.’

Davis continued to fight her corner and argue her case. She revelled in her reputation for being forceful and forthright, combative and confrontational.

'I was a legendary terror. I was insufferably rude and ill-mannered in the cultivation of my career. I had no time for pleasantries. I said what was on my mind, and it wasn't always printable. I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile and oft-times disagreeable. I suppose I’m larger than life.’

At 54 Davis performed one of her most memorable roles as the ageing vaudeville actor ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ Joan Crawford played her unloved sister, and the film brought into focus a long-running feud between the two Hollywood legends.

‘Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why [Joan Crawford] always plays ladies.’

But gradually the roles were drying up as they so often do for mature women. Davis wouldn’t take it lying down. In 1962 she placed an ad in the Situations Wanted column in Variety:

‘Mother of three – 10, 11 & 15 – divorcee. American. Thirty years’ experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway.)’

Nonetheless there weren’t too many more great scripts left for Davis. She continued to work in film and TV and in the latter part of her career her sharp tongue and penetrating insight made her popular on the talk show circuit.

‘I want to die with my high heels on, still in action.’

Bette Davis passed away in 1989, aged 81. She left behind an extraordinary body of work. She was the first actor to be nominated for ten Oscars (she won two). She was the first female President of the Motion Picture Academy. For a time she was the best-paid woman in America.

‘I will never be below the title.’

So what can we learn from Davis?

Well, sometimes in your career you need to stand firm, stand up for what you believe is right. Sometimes you have to be prepared to be unpopular, to be pilloried, to be shunned by your peers.

‘If everyone likes you, you’re not doing it right.’

People who don’t conform, who don’t bend with the wind, are labelled stubborn, obstinate, difficult and demanding. But most of the time Davis was merely demonstrating grit, determination and resolve.

‘My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today. I knew it then as purpose.’

Importantly Davis insisted that she did not take a confrontational approach for vain, self-serving, egotistical reasons; but rather for the quality of the work.

‘This became a credo of mine: attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.’

Davis was certainly a tough cookie. She was uncompromising, persistent, provocative. But she was also intelligent, passionate, hugely gifted and committed to her art. And she opened a door through which many talented actors would follow.

‘It’s true we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. But we don’t know what we’ve been missing until it arrives.’

In today’s consumer culture we’re endlessly seeking seamless experiences and frictionless interactions. At work we celebrate agility, speed and pragmatism. We like to find the easy way. But we should remind ourselves occasionally to take the high road, not the low road. Sometimes - not all of the time - we need to dig our heels in, refuse to budge, in the name of quality and fairness; in the spirit of aspiration and excellence. Sometimes - just sometimes - we need to channel our inner Bette. And do it the hard way.

‘Fasten your seatbelts - it's going to be a bumpy night.’

Margo Channing, ‘All About Eve’
 

‘Do it the hard way and it’s easy sailing.
Do it the hard way and it’s hard to lose.
Only the soft way has a chance of failing.
You have to choose.
I tried the hard way when I tried to get you.
You took the soft way, when you said ‘We’ll see.’
Darling, now I let you do it the hard way,
Now that you want me.’

Chet Baker, ‘Do It the Hard Way’ (Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers)

No. 136

Afraid to Dance: Learning to Let Go As the Pressure Mounts

The dancing mania by Hendrik Hondius. Source: Wellcome Library, London

The dancing mania by Hendrik Hondius. Source: Wellcome Library, London

One day in July 1518 Frau Troffea stepped out onto the narrow streets of Strasbourg and began to dance. She swayed and shimmied, bobbed and boogied, with self-absorbed abandon. She danced for hours on end, not giving a thought to rest or sustenance. Hours turned to days. Within a week 30 or so others had joined in. Within a month there were 400 crazed dancers clogging the streets. The authorities were nonplussed. They laid on musicians to accompany the revellers, opened up halls and public spaces, in the belief that through encouragement they could drain the dance away. Inevitably many collapsed from exhaustion and some died of heart attacks.

The Strasbourg Dancing Plague was just one of a number of incidents of choreomania that were reported across Europe in the Middle Ages. Scholars have suggested that these were episodes of mass, stress-induced psychosis, brought on by the harsh conditions of medieval life. Some think that cult religions were involved. Others have speculated that fungus growing on local rye crops may have produced a psychoactive drug similar to LSD.

Whatever the specific cause, there’s no doubt that fear of dancing has a very particular grip on the popular imagination. In the late Middle Ages murals and woodcuts depicted Danses Macabres in which skeletons escorted people from all walks of life in a jaunty jig to the grave. In seventeenth century England Oliver Cromwell banned maypole dancing for its sinfulness and suggestion. The nineteenth century ballet Giselle features the Wilis, ghostly spirits of women betrayed by their lovers, who when they encounter men, dance them to death. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Red Shoes, a pair of shoes refuses to let their occupants stop dancing.

What’s going on here? Of course we all love to dance. Well, most of us do. But maybe, at another level, we’re also afraid to dance. Dance represents succumbing to the sensual and emotional; a rejection of hierarchy and convention; a loss of control. Dance takes us back to our primitive roots. We danced before we could speak. It takes us to a world of instinct and intuition, of the euphoric and ecstatic. In dance we find release from our social shackles. We let go. And so as a culture we want to dance and yet we are afraid to dance.

In the creative industries we should recognise these contrary forces. We are forever managing the tension between the desire for freedom of expression and the need to take command of a situation. Creativity demands carte blanche; commerce demands control.

This tension is felt most acutely when the stakes are high: when the Clients are most expectant; when the prize is most exciting and the penalty is most disturbing; when time is running out. And it’s at precisely these times that the instinct to take control usually wins out. When we’re in a crisis we concentrate on cracking the idea at every moment of the day; we focus on finding the answer with every fibre of our bodies. The more arduous and important the undertaking, the more seriously we tend to take it.

But pressure can be counterproductive. By concentrating too intensely on a problem, we diminish our ability to solve it. We become cautious, conservative, blinkered and narrow minded.

In fact the creative’s best response to pressure should be to puncture it; release it. Because it’s only when we are at ease, when our minds are unfettered and free to wander, that we make random connections, have lateral thoughts and serendipitous encounters. At times of crisis we should learn to let go.

So as the tension mounts and the deadline looms, always remember to step outside. Go for a walk, go to the gym, go to sleep. Change the routine, change the subject, change the record. Look at the sky, read a book, call your mum. And don’t be afraid to dance.

‘Let’s groove tonight.
Share the spice of life.
Baby slice it right.
We’re gonna groove tonight.

Let this groove light up your fuse.
It’s alright (alright), oh, oh.’

Earth Wind & Fire, Let’s Groove (Maurice White, Wayne Vaughn)

No. 135

Do You Pitch in Poetry and Manage in Prose?

Norman Rockwell 'Freedom of Speech'

Norman Rockwell 'Freedom of Speech'

Mario Cuomo, the Governor of New York between 1983 and 1994, famously observed of the political process: ‘You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.’ For politicians election campaigns are all grand themes, lofty ideals and elegant words. The day-to-day task of government is, by contrast, much more about hard bargaining, cold calculation and compromised action.

Of course, there’s been precious little poetry in the election currently concluding in the UK. Nonetheless, Cuomo’s dictum rings true, and it has a resonance for us in the world of commercial creativity. We would perhaps reluctantly agree that, in most circumstances:  ‘You pitch in poetry; you manage the business in prose.’

Classically, pitching is all theatre and personality; enterprise and enthusiasm; big ideas and limitless possibilities. If we’re fortunate enough to win a pitch, we soon come down to earth with a bump. Most of our proposed executions lie bleeding on the floor before us, victims of budget practicalities and Year 1 caution. (‘I think that will be brilliant in Year 2.’) We rapidly embrace a world of timeframes and team allocation; Gantt charts and organograms; status reports and conference calls. It’s all too easy to lose sight of our original hopes and plans. Before too long we do indeed find ourselves running the business in prose.

This begs certain questions of Agency leadership: Do we too readily set aside the optimism and open mindedness of the pitch for the harsh realities of everyday account management? How can we maintain some level of inspiration in the business once the aspiration and ambition of the pitch are a distant memory? How do we sustain some poetry in amongst the prose?

Moreover, in recent years the distinction between the pitch dynamic and day-to-day account practice has been blurred somewhat. As the world of communication has become more complex, as media have fragmented and technology has proliferated, pitching Clients have sought more than stirring words and lateral leaps. They want to know up-front about global networks and operating systems; capabilities and costs; partnerships, platforms and processes. They want to get their lawyers, accountants and procurement people involved. There’s a good deal of prose in the contemporary creative pitch.

This poses fresh questions for the pitching Agency: How do we convey to Clients the potential of our core creative proposal, whilst at the same time reassuring them that we have the people and processes to get the job done? How much of the pitch should we give to ideas and inspiration, and how much to systems and methodologies? What is the right balance of poetry and prose?

Of course, the natural inclination of both Client and Agency is to isolate the inspirational from the procedural. It’s quite common to have separate conversations, in separate meetings, with separate people.  But some of the most impressive pitches I have attended have integrated the two. They have endeavoured to make the business of platform management and collateral creation exciting; to make the process as stimulating as the product.

Inevitably the modern Agency should learn to pitch and manage in both poetry and prose.

No. 134

‘Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word’: We Need Nice People for Nasty Times

Passersby by Lantian D

Passersby by Lantian D

At the gym the bloke with the next locker silently moves his kit out of my way without looking up at me. At the shop a woman talks on her mobile as she pays. Down the pub a guy checks his phone as he pisses. A man on a bike shouts at me as he turns a corner. Someone’s eating a bacon sandwich on the tube. He’s sat next to a ‘manspreader.’ There are kids cursing on the top deck of the bus. There’s pizza packaging on the pavement. Queueing seems to be the hardest concept. And sorry seems to be the hardest word.

‘What do I do to make you want me?
What have I got to do to be heard?
What do I do when it’s all over,
And sorry seems to be the hardest word?

It’s sad, so sad.
It’s a sad, sad situation.
And it’s getting more and more absurd.

‘Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word,’ Elton John (Elton John & Bernie Taupin)

Of course, I’m just a grumpy old man. And I live in London. But it seems sometimes that we’ve lost our sense of civic pride; of community; of togetherness. We’re all sharp elbows and hard stares; hoodies and headphones. We’ve become anti-social media addicts, selfie narcissists, smartphone lemmings. Oh, for the cordial and considerate, the kind and courteous. Oh, for the gentle smile, the nod of recognition, the quiet word. If only we could remember that shyness is nice; politeness is precious; and ‘manners maketh man.’

It seems to me we need nice people for nasty times.

To get a job at my former Agency, BBH, it was stipulated that you had to be ‘good and nice.’ This was an elegantly simple recruitment policy. And critically it recognized that an employee’s impact on culture is as important as his or her impact on clients - because culture builds companies; and the foundations of culture are day-to-day civility, mutual respect and thoughtfulness.

I particularly like the use of the word ‘nice’ in this context. It sounds soft. It suggests the candidate must be gentle and genial, amiable and agreeable. ‘Nice’ seems alien to the hard-nosed, cut-throat world of commerce. Surely ‘nice guys finish last.’ But, on the contrary, today’s networked age is all about team, partnership, collaboration and cooperation. Empathy, emotional intelligence and listening skills are commercially critical. We need to get along if we want to get on. Nowadays nice guys finish first.

Perhaps marketers too should be mindful of ‘nice.’ So many modern brands celebrate their high-minded Purpose. They’re ‘passionate’ about people and the planet; ‘in love’ with customers and the category. They’re ‘fanatical’ about good service. But maybe they should calm down a bit. I don’t want my brands to be passionate or fanatical; I’d rather they were polite and well mannered. I don’t want my brands to love me; I just want them to be nice.

I was once given a signed copy of Harry Redknapp‘s autobiography. The erstwhile West Ham player and manager was a wily tactician and loveable rogue. He had signed the book with a simple message for me: ‘Nice one!’

Exactly.

‘What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give,
Or are we meant to be kind?’

Alfie, Dionne Warwick (Burt Bacharach, Hal David)

No. 133

Nile Rodgers and The Guitar That Wouldn’t Play: Is Your Team Out of Tune?

Nile Rodgers is one of those people you’d just like to thank: for Chic and Sister Sledge; for combining uptown style with downtown rhythms; for swooning strings and relentless ‘chucking’ guitar patterns; for ‘High Society,’ ‘My Forbidden Lover’ and ‘Get Lucky’; for the renaissance of Diana Ross; for the pause in ‘I Want Your Love’; for the chassis to ‘Rapper’s Delight’; for getting ‘lost in music, caught in a trap, no turning back’; for sheer rapture on the dance floor; for the ‘Good Times.’

‘If you left it up to me,
Every day would be Saturday.
People party through the week,
They’d be laughing.

I just can’t wait ‘til Saturday.
I just can’t wait ‘til Saturday.’

Saturday,’ Norma Jean (Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers, Bobby Carter)

Rodgers’ excellent autobiography ‘Le Freak’ is a rollercoaster ride of joy and pain, of triumph over adversity; a story told with wisdom, warmth and good humour. He grew up amongst bohemians and drug users in New York and LA. He suffered insomnia and chronic asthma. His early life involved encounters with Thelonius Monk, Timothy Leary and assorted Black Panthers; with Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix and Sesame Street. Eventually he met Bernard Edwards, formed Chic, and together they created the blueprint for sophisticated modern dance music. He went on to confer his distinctive production dazzle on the likes of David Bowie, Duran Duran and Madonna. This is a life fully lived.

Rodgers’ natural musical gift was first expressed through the clarinet he was taught at school. At 15 he convinced his mother and stepfather to buy him a guitar. He set about learning his new instrument from his clarinet etudes and a Beatles songbook. But, however hard he tried, he couldn’t coax anything approaching a proper melody from the guitar. How frustrating! One day his stepfather came across him practising and took the instrument in his hands: ’Wow, this is way out of tune.’ The young Nile hadn’t been aware of the need to tune the guitar.

‘Sir Edmond Hillary, reaching the summit of Mount Everest, must have felt something similar to what I felt at that moment. This was more blissful than anything I’d ever experienced. I played the next chord and it sounded like the right chord in the progression. I started the song again. With utter confidence I sang, ‘I read the news today, oh boy,’ then strummed an E minor and dropped to the seventh, ‘About a lucky man who made the grade.’ There are no words to accurately describe what this felt like.’

I was touched by this story. It spoke of joy unconfined, pure youthful creative liberation.

In a completely different context, Nile Rodgers’ out-of-tune guitar made me wonder about the commercial world. How often does a business have the right strings, on the right instrument, being plucked in exactly the right way, without producing any meaningful music? How often is a business ill at ease with itself, out of tune, with no sense of where the problem lies?

We may think of leaders nowadays as people who hire and fire, replace and reconfigure. But the truest test of good leaders is their ability to realise the potential of the talent already at their disposal. Can they allocate roles and responsibilities, tasks and objectives in such a way as to create a genuine sense of collective purpose? Can they galvanise disparate skills and personalities into a supportive, happy team? Can they motivate them, direct them, inspire them to play in tune, to sing in harmony?

‘Everyone can see we’re together,
As we walk on by.
And we fly just like birds of a feather
I won’t tell no lie.

We are family
I got all my sisters with me.’

‘We Are Family,’ Sister Sledge (Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers)

Great leaders set the rhythm of a business, get it dancing in step, as one. I’ve witnessed this kind of leadership. It’s a rare instinctive thing, a wonder to behold. It requires humility and empathy; charisma and vision, in equal measure. It requires a positive engagement with people, life and circumstances.

These are qualities that I’m sure Rodgers himself has in abundance. At the start of his book, he quotes an old saying:

‘Life isn’t about surviving the storm; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.’

No. 132