Random Usually Has Its Reasons: The Mystery of the Three Routes Home

Winslow Homer, Boys in a Pasture

Winslow Homer, Boys in a Pasture

I was delighted to have My-Mate-Andy as a friend.

At first glance you wouldn’t imagine we had a lot in common.

My-Mate-Andy was the coolest kid in school. He had a golden tan, artfully ripped jeans, and was a connoisseur of the immaculate white t-shirt. He experimented with Sun-In in his hair and only wore Fu Shoes on his feet. He’d painted a Coca-Cola can in art class and decorated his parka with a replica of The Beat logo. He had a way with words, a lust for life, an enthusiasm for Marks & Spencer prawn cocktail crisps and George Benson records.

I was a swotty kid who helped people with their Latin homework in order to earn affection. I was always carrying books and kit in random Sainsbury’s bags. I was generally awkward, introverted, poorly shod. And my hair was a mess.

One thing we certainly had in common was our walk home from school. Every afternoon we traipsed along the Southend Arterial, past the tatty allotments and through the suburban semis of Cecil Avenue. We’d chat about music, football, politics and telly; about Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, Boys from the Black Stuff, cold turkey, chips and beans. My-Mate-Andy would recite Jam lyrics and break into impromptu dance moves. He’d run through his impersonations of Ferg, Perc and Tony Papp. He’d tell me about the parties he’d attended, the girls he fancied and more besides. (I wasn’t very advanced in that department.)

My-Mate-Andy lived closer to the school, and so I would be left to walk the latter part of the journey home on my own. He had three slightly different, equidistant routes available to him, and each one required him to say farewell at a different point. With time I became quite fascinated by his choice of these three routes. He seemed to select a different option from one day to the next. But I couldn’t work out why.

Was his preference driven by meteorological conditions, his homework obligations, or what was on the telly? Was it related to road traffic, star signs, or what Jean had planned for dinner that night?

None of my hypotheses quite worked. There didn’t seem to be a particular pattern or logic. My-Mate-Andy’s route home was just completely random.

And then one day I cracked it. I realised that his decision on when to split was determined by the quality of our conversation. If words were flowing freely, and laughs were coming spontaneously, then he’d hang on ‘til the last possible exit. But if I was serving up rather dull discussion, mediocre fare, he’d take the first chance to break free.

This put the pressure on. I wondered: Could I make him select the farthest point of departure more often? Could I sustain his interest with the force of my witty repartee? Each afternoon I embarked on the walk home with a selection of perfectly polished conversational gambits to hand, in hope and expectation. But the harder I tried, the more likely he was to leave early.

I concluded that I ought be more natural with my friends.

But the real lesson was this: that cryptic or mysterious events often have a motive or explanation; that in the midst of seeming disorder there is sometimes shape and design; that random usually has its reasons.

And I think that is the challenge for a Strategist: find connections, causes, method and meaning in the everyday. Where others see chance and happenstance, we should seek rhyme and reason; where others see accident and the arbitrary, we should find patterns and plans.

Why is that sector behaving oddly? Why is the data different at that time of year? Why is that segment out of step with everyone else? Keep asking: Why? Why? Why? There’s usually a perfectly reasonable explanation just over the horizon - if you have the instinct and appetite to look.

I’m still very good friends with My-Mate-Andy. We meet occasionally for a non-artisanal beer, and talk about music, football, politics and telly. He still has a healthy glow, and my hair’s still a mess. He denies that there was ever any logic to his route home - he was just ringing the changes. I maintain that he’s suffering from ‘unconscious bias.’

There’s no substitute for old friends. Old school is the best school. Or as George Benson once elegantly put it: ‘Never give up on a good thing.’

‘Never give up on a good thing.
Remember what makes you happy.
Never give up on a good thing.
If love is what you got, you got the lot.’


George Benson, Never Give Up on a Good Thing (Michael Garvin/Tom Shapiro)

No. 153

A Walk Through the Memory Palace: How Are Your Brand Optics?

MC Escher, Relativity

MC Escher, Relativity

Simonides of Ceos was a Greek poet of the sixth and fifth centuries BC who specialised in commemorative odes. He is best remembered for his epitaph to the three hundred Spartan warriors who died fighting the Persians at Thermopylae:

‘Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.’

Though few of Simonides’ verses survive today, his work was much admired by the ancients. In a colourful career he invented several Greek letters and a new note for the lyre. He was reputed to be incredibly astute, but also something of a skinflint. On one occasion, when asked whether it was better to be wealthy or wise, he replied: ‘Wealthy. For I see the wise spending their days at the doors of the wealthy.’

According to legend, Simonides once narrowly escaped the collapse of a building in which he had just been attending a banquet. Afterwards the authorities were struggling to identify the bodies of the crushed victims. But Simonides determined exactly who was who by recollecting their location at the table before he had left the feast. Subsequently he used this experience to develop a mnemonic method sometimes known as ‘the Memory Palace.’

One walks through the rooms of a palace in one’s imagination. In each room one fixes the image of an item that one wishes to remember. One can then retrieve these items at will at any later date by walking back through the palace in one’s imagination, finding the appropriate room and reactivating the memory. The technique is still taught today.

What is striking to me about Simonides’ Memory Palace is that it suggests recollection is powerfully visual. This seems intuitively to be true.

I close my eyes and I can see Mum pinning up clothes on the washing line at 125, Martin at the wheel of a bright red toy car, Sarah and Anne on the pebble beach at Walton-on-the-Naze. I can see Mary-Claire in the sitting room watching daytime TV, Dad down the Drill regarding his pint of Ind Coope. There's  Dillon in the garden looking longingly at the sparrows and My-Mate-Andy walking along a wall in the rain singing Jam songs.

Our memory seems populated not by abstract concepts, but by specific images that have been secured in our consciousness long, long ago.

Consider similarly our recollection of movies. I can see Bergman and Bogart at the airport, Johnson and Howard at the train-station, Colbert and Gable thumbing a ride. Here’s Veronica Lake at the diner, John Mills ordering a beer, Anna Karina dancing to the juke box. I see Brando in a torn white tee shirt, Mitchum in a tired trenchcoat, Hepburn in cat-eye shades.

We tend to recall films, not as themes or narratives, but as scenes and moments, frames, fragments and fashions.

I wonder do brand managers properly appreciate the power of visual memory?

We seem to spend a great deal of time nowadays discussing brand essence as expressions, statements and phrases. When we consider brand image, we articulate it verbally, not visually. When we think about brand personality, we reach for the thesaurus. Yes, we construct temples for our brands. But we populate them with words, not pictures.

Of course, we do give great import to what we call Visual Identity. But the conversation is so often reduced to one of logos, guidelines, pantones and fonts; to consistency across platforms and discipline against tasks.

This all seems curious in the visual age, in the era of Instagram and emoticons, Pinterest and selfies. In other fields of activity there is an understanding that optics are everything.

How much do we really consider our brands’ visual language? What are the images and iconic moments with which we want to be associated? What do we want consumers to envisage when they remember us? What are our brand optics?

It’s often suggested that, if we want to achieve something, we should picture ourselves scoring the goal, crossing the finish line, winning the pitch. If we pictured success for our brands, what would we see?

But then again, perhaps in seeking to manage our recollections and those of our consumers, we’re fighting a losing battle. When Themistocles, the great Athenian general and hero of the Persian Wars, heard about Simonides’ Memory Palace, he was sceptical:

’I would rather a technique for forgetting. For I remember what I would rather not remember, and cannot forget what I would rather forget.’

True.

No. 152

‘Damn the Torpedoes!’ Sometimes a Situation Calls for Reckless Bravery

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Towards the end of the American Civil War, Confederate forces were defying a Union blockade by running ships from Mobile in Alabama to Havana and other Caribbean ports. In 1864 Rear Admiral David Farragut was assigned by the Union high command to deal with the situation.

Mobile Bay was defended by a small Confederate naval squadron, three forts and a minefield.  Farragut commanded a superior force on the water and had ground troops in support. But it still represented a tough challenge.

At dawn Farragut signalled for the assault to begin. As his fleet advanced and his ships came under fire, the air filled with gun smoke. He demanded that he be lashed to the mast of his flagship, Hartford, in order to get a decent view of events.

Rear-Admiral-David-Farragut.jpg

Things did not start well. His lead ironclad warship sailed into a minefield, struck a torpedo (the term at the time for a mine) and within two or three minutes it had sunk.

The Union ships hesitated. Should they proceed or withdraw?

According to legend, Farragut shouted: ‘Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.’

Hartford led the Union squadron through the minefield. Remarkably they emerged unscathed. Farragut may have judged that most of the torpedoes had been submerged too long to be effective. In any case, his fleet proceeded to overpower the Confederate ships, and subsequently the forts guarding the mouth of the bay were taken too. The Battle of Mobile Bay was won.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to take a seemingly rash course of action. Some situations call for reckless bravery. Sometimes it’s worth the risk.

Many years ago we were pitching for the Milk Marketing Board. Despite having a credible nutrition story and years of admirable advertising, milk consumption in the UK was in decline.

We observed that consumers had become complacent about milk. They’d drunk it since childhood and knew that it was broadly healthy. But they didn’t see it as particularly relevant to the modern world.

Arresting the downturn would require radical action.

We speculated that if milk were a new product, consumers would probably find it hugely exciting: it contains high-quality protein, potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and more besides; it supports healthy teeth and bones; it has a distinctive pure white colour; and it’s completely natural. 

The creative department asked: What if we actually launched milk as a new brand under a new name? What if we confronted people with their complacency? What if we called milk ‘Kiml’?

We developed a campaign for Kiml, the new wonder drink, and set up sampling stations in shopping centres across the country. Consumers in the test were hugely impressed. Kiml looked and tasted good; it had a great nutritional story; and it had a cool name. Fabulous!

We filmed the public’s appreciation of this new drink, and their shock on hearing that it was, in fact, plain, ordinary, everyday milk.

Surely such a provocation could prompt a re-evaluation?

There was considerable debate in the Agency as to whether we should really pitch this radical idea to what we assumed was a quite conservative Client. We suspected that we were not favourites to win; that we had only been put on the pitch list as leftfield candidates. Ultimately we concluded we had nothing to lose.

‘Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.’

On the appointed day we proposed the idea of Kiml to the Milk Marketing Board. They greeted it with furrowed brows and quizzical expressions. They absolutely hated it. We lost the pitch.

You may imagine that this is a cautionary tale. But it’s not.

The truth is that the Milk Marketing Board was not the biggest account in the world. The Kiml pitch, though unsuccessful, precipitated a huge amount of engagement and pride within the Agency. It signalled to all concerned that we had a radical heart. We emerged from the Pitch as an Agency with a strong sense of self. And we went on a winning streak.

On reflection we often lost our best pitches. They’re imprinted on my memory: Dreamcast, ‘The greatest highs are the highs we share’; Baileys, ‘Love Plus One’; Levi’s US, when we redesigned the 501... At our best we were not afraid of failure. Failure could be a badge of pride. It set a standard. It stretched us. It demanded that we be different.

So, go on, give it a try. When the odds are stacked against you, just occasionally cry out the instruction: ‘Damn the torpedoes!’ Because, as Tom Petty memorably sang, ‘even the losers get lucky sometimes.’

‘Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes.
Even the losers keep a little pride.
They get lucky sometimes.’

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Even the Losers’ (from the ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ album)

 

This piece was written in memory of Tom Petty who passed away this week. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1979 album ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ illuminated my adolescence.

No. 151

Bohemian Like You: The Creative Industry Needs a Creative Community to Sustain It

Nicole Car as Mimì, © ROH 2017. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.

Nicole Car as Mimì, © ROH 2017. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.

‘Who am I? I am a poet.
What do I do? I write.
And how do I live? I live.
In my carefree poverty
I squander rhymes
and love songs like a lord.
When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire.’

‘Che Gelida Manina,’ Act I, ‘La Boheme’

I recently attended a performance of the Royal Opera’s excellent new production of ‘La Boheme.’ (Running until 10 October, with a live cinema screening on 3 October.) Giacomo Puccini set his 1896 opera among the artistic community of Paris’ Latin Quarter. It’s a world of poets and painters, composers and courtesans, seamstresses and scholars. They live in grim poverty, but socialise in gilded cafes and glamorous shopping arcades. They are fuelled by hopes, dreams and cheap red wine. They fall in love too easily, and out of love too painfully.

‘Bohemia, bordered on the North by hope, work and gaiety, on the South by necessity and courage; on the West and East by slander and the hospital.’

Henri Murger, ‘Scenes de la Vie de Boheme’ (1849)

Watching ‘La Boheme’ I was struck by a sense of recognition. These nineteenth century Bohemians bore some resemblance to the community that I spent my career working with, and that to this day sustains the creative industry: a diverse mix of unruly, unconventional, unpredictable types; a youthful cocktail of raw talent and ambition, partying in all the right places, living in all the wrong parts of town.

Our business depends on people like this. They are the latter day Bohemians.

I can recall over the years many of our Agency creatives socialised with musicians, dancers, artists, photographers and film-makers. We had creatives who, in their spare time, wrote screenplays, painted, performed in bands, and as stand-up comics. One of our young art directors had a priceless collection of BritArt he happened to have acquired from his mates while studying with them at art school.

Clearly our creative department had a network of talented friends with diverse skills. They may not have lived particularly comfortably in the earlier stages of their careers, but they inhabited a vibrant community of ideas and inspiration. And the Agency benefitted from that.

Of course Bohemian talent came arm-in-arm with Bohemian privations.

I recall a young team would pop down around noon every day to see us in our account area. We were at first flattered by the attention - until we realised they were only visiting for our Wotsits and Wheat Crunchies. The savoury snacks clients had provided an unlimited supply, and for our hard-up colleagues, this represented a free lunch.

On another occasion we discovered that one of our young designers was inviting his friends from the country to stay in London at the weekend. He offered them free accommodation at the Agency’s offices. Early one morning the Head of Office Services caught an urchin traipsing off to the showers wrapped in a towel.

Now this may not seem the stuff of grand opera, but I’m sure Puccini would have recognised it as somewhat Bohemian behaviour.

Sadly, as I sat back enjoying the soaring harmonies of the Act I love duet, ‘O Soave Fanciulla,’ I was also troubled.

‘Bohemia is always yesterday.’
Malcolm Cowley (American writer)

It has been observed that the Bohemian life depicted in Puccini’s opera was already something of a nostalgic myth by the time of its Turin premiere. The story was based on Henri Murger’s book ‘Scenes de la Vie de Boheme,’ written some 50 years earlier. In the intervening period Paris’ civic planners - visionary types like Georges Haussman - had swept aside the narrow, unruly streets and crumbling buildings of the medieval city, replacing them with wide, straight boulevards and bourgeois housing complexes. By the 1890s the Latin Quarter had become a tourist attraction, and, with rents rising, the artistic community had been forced to move on to Montmartre, and then out to Montparnasse.

This may sound familiar.

London is, of course, a global hub for the financial industry, a magnet for international investors. This wealth has produced the glass-box towers that line the river, the lightless squares in the West and the yuppie lofts in the East. For the young it has made buying houses unachievable and rents unaffordable. The financial constraints of the Bohemian life that in the past were mostly temporary have become a permanent prospect. Moreover, where the creative community has conferred cool on a local environment, that cool attracts the cash that in time forces them to leave. And so they move from Hoxton and Bermondsey, to Ilford and Peckham; then out to Croydon, Romford and beyond.

By the time I left the Agency world a few years ago, we had had our first resignations of people who wanted to stay in the industry, but simply couldn’t afford to live in London.

Sometimes it seems this vibrant cosmopolitan city is on a fast-track to becoming a twenty-first century Zurich: a place of elite restaurants and expensive shops, for the mature and moneyed classes.

This should be a concern to us all.

The creative industry needs a creative community to sustain it. If we can’t attract the talent to live here, we won’t have an industry at all.

No. 150

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

Norman Rockwell, The Recruit

Norman Rockwell, The Recruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi

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

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

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

No. 149

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 148

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

 

No. 147

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

Matisse in his Studio

Matisse in his Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Lois’ office at Lois Holland Callaway, 1969

George Lois’ office at Lois Holland Callaway, 1969

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Meadows 'National Portrait' 1974

Daniel Meadows 'National Portrait' 1974

No. 146

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 145

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No Buck Rodgers, no bucks.’

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

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

Sometimes Agencies can get this intimate relationship wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 144