‘Stan, Don’t Let Them Tell You What To Do’: Protecting the Self from the Social

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‘The more acute the experience, the less articulate its expression.’

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter’s early career was spent as a jobbing actor playing minor roles in popular comedies and crime dramas. Whilst touring in Eastbourne in 1954, he met a man in a pub who recommended the boarding house he was staying in. On visiting the establishment, Pinter found that it was filthy; that his new acquaintance was the only guest; and that he was being patronised by the landlady in a curiously over-familiar way. When Pinter asked the lodger why he tolerated this, he said:

‘There’s nowhere else to go.’

This experience partly inspired Pinter’s first full-length play, ‘The Birthday Party,’ a fine production of which is currently running at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London (until 14 April).

‘The Birthday Party’ considers the plight of Stanley, an out-of-work pianist and the only guest in a dingy seaside boarding house. Stanley lives a life of indolence; of mollycoddled mornings, corn flakes and fried bread. But his quietly anonymous existence is disturbed by the arrival of two sinister besuited men, who seem to bring with them the threat of violence.

As the play unfolds, Stanley is given a birthday party he doesn’t want; presented with a child’s toy drum; and induced to play blind man’s buff. The mystery men interrogate him; break his glasses; make threats and accusations.

‘You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead. You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odour.’

‘The Birthday Party’ is a somewhat surreal and enigmatic work that refuses to explain itself. It has been described as a ‘comedy of menace.’

Many critics have seen in Stanley an individual pitted against the establishment. He simply can’t escape the pressure to conform, to fit in, to play the game; the compulsion to be ‘normal.’

Of course, we imagine that our modern lives are a million miles away from the small-minded conservatism of 1950s Britain. We consider ourselves free-thinking and open-minded; self-reliant and self-sufficient. We live in the age of empowerment; the era of the individual. But perhaps we should not be so confident.

The pressure to toe in line is timeless and universal. An invisible hand lightly touches us on the shoulder. A soft voice gently whispers in our ear: ‘Go with the flow, follow the crowd, run with the pack.’ It affects us through our families, friends, communities and colleagues. It affects us through customs, codes and conventions; through language, style and gesture. And as the writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough has pointed out, it even affects us through our recollection of events:

‘Memory is anything but a solo activity. Even an innocuous ‘Do you remember?’ is an invitation to negotiate a shared account of the past with someone who lived through the same events. Getting the story straight can be a key part of making relationships work, and disputes about memory can easily float to the surface when partnerships break down.’

Of course, we now face an additional pressure to comply, one just as insidious as anything Pinter had in mind. Social media are not just the glue that binds us together; they’re also the glue that prevents us from getting away. At the same time as enabling exchange of ideas and freedom of expression, they invite consensus in our behaviour and actions; conformity in our thoughts and attitudes. Just as they celebrate diversity and individuality, they reinforce prejudice and confirm bias. Social media create a gravitational pull towards ‘normal.’

Inevitably this ever-increasing inducement to integrate and fall in line poses particular challenges to the marketing and communications industry, where our core competence is challenging convention and designing difference; where we need independent spirits and original thinkers to sustain us.

So what are we to do?

How do we insure ourselves against ‘groupthink’? How do we preserve autonomous thought? How do we protect the self from the social?

Or should we like Pinter’s Eastbourne lodger simply acquiesce : ‘There’s nowhere else to go.’

At the close of ‘The Birthday Party’, as the two sinister visitors take Stanley away - we know not where - the landlord calls after him:

‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.’

No. 167

‘I Want To Be An Active Verb’: Striving To Be a Cause, Not an Effect

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

‘They’re all old here, except you and me…They never do anything: they only discuss whether what other people do is right. Come and give them something to discuss.’

Hypatia, ‘Misalliance’

Just before Christmas I saw ‘Misalliance’, a rarely performed play by George Bernard Shaw (at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond).

This light comedy from 1910 asks us to consider the constraints of class, convention, gender and the generational divide. It features Hypatia Tarleton, the daughter of a successful businessman, who is bored, restless and resentful. She repeatedly voices her frustration with the straitjacket of Edwardian society’s customs and codes:

'Men like conventions because men made them. I didn’t make them: I don’t like them. I won’t keep them.'

At one point Hypatia expresses her annoyance thus:

’I don't want to be good; and I don't want to be bad: I just don't want to be bothered about either good or bad: I want to be an active verb.’

A compelling choice of words. Clearly it’s not enough for Hypatia passively to be seen, admired, desired, chosen, judged. She yearns actively to decide for herself; to experiment and experience; to seek and find; to achieve and sometimes to fail. She wants to be the subject of a verb, not its object; to be a cause, not an effect; to do, not just to be.

We may recognize Hypatia’s frustration from the world of work. Sometimes, particularly when we are young and less powerful within an organization, our objectives, tasks and schedules seem entirely to be determined by others: by the demands of our Clients, the whims of our bosses, the personal passions of our CEO. We may work in an agency, but we have very little agency.

Maybe like Hypatia we should, as far as possible, strive to set the agenda rather than have it set for us; to seize the day rather than let the day seize us; to be an ‘active verb’ in our own careers. Easier said than done perhaps. But you’d be surprised how positively leaders respond to colleagues that have a clear sense of personal mission. And the best businesses thrive by integrating individual and collective goals. So what, I wonder, would you choose as your own active verb?

Brands too would do well to reflect on Hypatia’s theme. Dan Weiden, the co-founder of Weiden+Kennedy, once observed:

'The best brands are verbs. Nike exhorts. IBM solves. Sony dreams.'

I’m sure he was right. Mediocre brands merely exist within a category, in a sector, on a shelf. They respond to events rather than precipitate them; react rather than act. Great brands, by contrast, animate the category, rewrite the rules, make the market.

We should all therefore ask: ‘What fundamentally does our brand do?’ ‘How does it impact on its consumers’ lives?’ ‘What is it seeking to change?’

‘What is our brand’s verb?’

I suspect this would be a more valuable discussion than the hours spent defining brand personality; the earnest debates crafting lists of nuanced traits, tones and characteristics: ‘passionate, warm, witty, friendly, helpful, caring.’ I could go on…

Yes, the best brands are indeed verbs. But Weiden might well have added: ‘The worst brands are adjectives.’

No. 166

‘The Invention of Fogs’: Learning Not Just to Look, But to See

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

‘There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we know nothing about them. They did not exist until art had invented them.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I recently attended the ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition at Tate Britain (until 7 May). The show brings together works by French artists who escaped to the British capital in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the strife that subsequently gripped Paris.

It’s compelling to see how fresh eyes regarded London’s crowded shopping arcades and the quiet streets of its suburbs; how they perceived England’s social stratification, eccentric fashions and enthusiasm for sport. The emigres were, for example, quite taken with the spacious green parks they found here, and the fact that people were allowed to walk on the grass.

They were also drawn to the Thames: to its disordered shipping, dubious community and atmospheric effects. The exhibition climaxes with a marvellous collection of paintings by Claude Monet of the Houses of Parliament shrouded in fog.

‘What I like most of all in London is the fog. How could English painters of the nineteenth century have painted its houses brick by brick? Those fellows painted bricks they didn’t see, bricks they could not see. It’s the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth.’
Claude Monet

This fascination with London’s fog was shared by another expatriate painter, the American James Whistler. And it was Whistler that Oscar Wilde credited with ‘the invention of fogs.’

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of art. At present people see fogs, not because they are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I was particularly taken with this thought: that Londoners had not really paid much attention to the fog that enveloped them; that when they looked about them, they observed the same streets that had always been there. They could not see the fog for the buildings; the wood for the trees. I like the idea that it took outsiders to see the obvious; that without their vision fog didn’t really exist; that sometimes only people with a particular gift of perception can recognize the truth.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

Social change is all around us, hiding in plain sight. It’s in the behaviour of the outliers, the beliefs of eccentrics, the attitudes of the young. It’s in nuance and gesture; language and slang. It’s in unforeseen consequences and unrealised dreams.

Often social change lacks a name or a description. It’s there nonetheless for all to see. For the most part we look past it and through it at the structures and conventions of the past. We look, but don’t see.

So don’t wait to read about behavioural trends and cultural transformation in an industry publication, conference or blog. Don’t just adopt the tired labels and classifications of others. Don’t follow the crowd into clichéd observations about content-curating cryptocurrencies and machine-learning millennials; about authentic algorithms and scalable safe spaces.

Don’t just look at the world around you. See it.

No. 165

Dreams of Leaving: 'It is Easy to See the Beginnings of Things, and Harder to See the Ends’

Joan Didion in the 1970's

Joan Didion in the 1970's

'I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.’
Joan Didion, 'In the Islands’

I recently watched an excellent documentary about Joan Didion, the essayist and novelist who has described the fragmented American experience from the end of the 1960s to the present day (‘Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold’).

Didion’s elegant hands sketch patterns in space as she speaks. She chooses her words carefully and isn’t afraid of silence. Her birdlike frame seems fragile, but her eyes are penetrating and alert. She is 83.

'People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character… Character- the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life- is the source from which self-respect springs.’
'On Self-Respect'

Each morning Didion would fetch a Coca-Cola from the fridge and settle down to read - with salted almonds, cigarettes and sunglasses. In silence. And then to work.

She wrote with a clear, concise style, making acute observations, revealing melancholy truths. She wrote about all manner of things: about the Californian counter-culture; about Joni Mitchell, the Doors, John Wayne and the Reagans; about power, corruption and lies; grief, self-respect and keeping a notebook; about the special relationship between a mother and her daughter.

‘We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.’
‘On Going Home’

I was particularly taken with an essay first published in 1967, on falling in and out of love with New York, ‘Goodbye to All That’.

'It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.'
‘Goodbye to All That’

These words rang true for me - of work, of relationships, of life in general. Beginnings tend to be clean, precise, definite. They can be thrilling, anxious, exciting. The first day at school, the first hello, the first kiss. A new town, new friends, a new job. The sudden realization that summer is here.

But ends seem to creep up on us. The weary nods, the knowing looks, the nagging frustrations. The doubt and dithering, blame and bickering. The fog of uncertainty. The sense of familiarity.

'Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen.'
‘Goodbye to All That’

We should be mindful of this when we consider the world of work. We all dream of leaving. It’s just the human condition. But this isn’t necessarily a reason to go. Or at least not right now.

It’s much smarter to focus on beginnings: on reasons to start rather than reasons to stop; on why we should embark on a new venture, rather than why we should depart from our current one; on hope rather than depair.

Choose to join a business, not to leave one.

No. 166

Basquiat Watching Telly: You Need Input If You’re Going To Create Output

The artist in 1983 at his studio on Crosby Street.Roland Hagenberg

The artist in 1983 at his studio on Crosby Street.Roland Hagenberg

‘I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life.’
Jean-Michel Basquiat

In 1967 a seven-year-old Brooklyn kid was playing stickball in the street when he was hit by a car. Confined to hospital to recover from his injuries, his mother gave him a copy of the textbook ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ to amuse him.

Years later when Jean-Michel Basquiat was an artist, the imagery that he had absorbed from that book repeatedly made its way onto his canvases - as skulls, spines and skeletons; as cross-sections, labels and anatomical diagrams. Basquiat had a special skill for translating his personal experiences into his work.

‘I never went to an art school. I failed at the art courses I did take at school. I just looked at a lot of things, and that’s where I think I learned about art.’

Basquiat, whose parents were Haitian and Puerto Rican, grew up with an instinctive love of art. As a child his mother took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as a teenager he regularly visited galleries with his mates.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982

After leaving school at 17, Basquiat joined the vibrant post-punk creative scene that congregated around the run-down streets of lower Manhattan. With a friend he began spraying surreal, witty, provocative graffiti-poetry, under the SAMO© tag, all over SoHo and the Lower East Side. With another friend he created collage-based post cards and sold them on the street for a dollar or two. (His customers included his hero Andy Warhol.) He formed a band named Gray after the book that had made such an impression on him as a kid. He DJed at clubs and parties; acted in an art-house movie; hung out with members of the burgeoning hip-hop scene. And when eventually he turned to painting, he sold his first picture to the musician Debbie Harry.

Basquiat was an artistic autodidact. He saw no boundaries between media and he thrived within a networked creative community.

Basquiat was also a sponge for knowledge, inspiration and stimulus. His paintings are filled with references to his love of music (from bebop to hip hop); to his passion for sport (Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis); to the art history books he read (Da Vinci, Titian, Manet, Picasso, Duchamp); to his interest in the African American experience. All these elements are mixed in with the planes, automobiles and skyscrapers of his native city; with birds, masks and demons; with crowns, hats and halos; with icons of popular culture; with the enigmatic political poetry that he had first expressed in his graffiti.

‘I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off.’

There’s some fascinating film footage of Basquiat in 1985 sketching and making notes in front of the telly. He was clearly processing the material from one medium directly onto another; allowing himself to respond freely and intuitively, loosely and spontaneously. Across his work there are references to the cartoons, sci-fi shows and movies he had been watching – to Popeye and Felix the Cat; to ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’

‘It’s sort of on automatic most of the time.’

Untitled 1982

Untitled 1982

Basquiat was special. He synthesized low and high culture; words, images and symbols; personal memories and public knowledge; the present and the past. He orchestrated his responses to the world, channeled and filtered them into one compelling, magical brew. And he seems to have captured something about what it is to live in these super-fast, over-choiced, hyper-connected, ethically-conflicted times.

Sadly in 1988 Basquiat died from a heroin overdose. He was 27.

So often the marketing and communications business is insular, introverted, isolated. For inspiration we consider adjacent markets, sectors, campaigns and brands; we examine our competitors and Cannes winners, popular ads and award books. But we rarely look beyond our own orbit.

Basquiat teaches us some simple lessons: that true creativity knows no boundaries; that it thrives within a Bohemian culture; that it needs constant stimulus, provocation and experience to sustain it; that if we want to make interesting work, we should seek catalysts from beyond our immediate environment.

You need input if you’re going to create output.

 

Basquiat: Boom for Real’ is at the Barbican in London until 28 January 2018.

No. 164

 

 

The Spaces Between: Learning to Value the Intangible as Much as the Tangible

whiteread.jpg

‘When I was a little kid I used to enjoy hiding in my Mum and Dad’s wardrobe. I had two older sisters. We played hide and seek and stuff. But also I think I was bullied a bit. It was a little safe, cosy space that you could go... I could just remember the smell of the clothes and the furry blackness of the space. I wanted somehow to make that real.’

Rachel Whiteread

I recently visited an exhibition at Tate Britain reviewing the work of the splendid Essex-born sculptor Rachel Whiteread (until 21 January 2018).

For three decades Whiteread has made casts of everyday objects: of fireplaces, mattresses, staircases and rooms; of floors and baths, windows and doors, tables and chairs.

Her sculptures prompt us to reflect on the curious emotive power of ordinary things. Cast from plaster and concrete, rubber and resin, wax and recycled materials, the forms are at once strange and familiar. The inside of a hot water bottle looks like a human torso. An office interior resembles a prison cell. An arrangement of the undersides of chairs brings to mind a grand cosmic chess game.

‘I choose things because of their humbleness really. And they’re things that we all have some sort of relationship with. It’s making space real…giving space an authority that it’s never had.’

In 1993 Whiteread created ‘House’, a concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian terraced home in London’s Mile End. It stood for 80 days before it was demolished by the local council. Seeing the work in photographs and film, we can consider the personal stories that once animated the space; the ghosts that haunted it; the private histories that have now vanished into thin air. Life seems so transient, so fragile, even when expressed in reinforced concrete.

Untitled - clear torso

Untitled - clear torso

‘It’s all to do with that ghostly touch of things. The way things get worn down by human presence, and the essence of human is left on these things, whether its pages of books or staircases or doors or windows.’

In 2000 for Vienna’s ‘Holocaust Memorial’ Whiteread created an inverted library, again in concrete. We imagine books unwritten and unread, words unspoken and unheard, thoughts unthought.

Whiteread asks us to contemplate space: she turns space inside out; she examines the spaces beneath, beside, under and over; private, interior, secret spaces – the mystical spaces that are unseen and unexplored; and the spaces that surround and separate us – the spaces between us.

I suppose we tend to value material things precisely because they are visible, tangible, audible. Material objects can be weighed and measured; bought, owned and sold.

But our lives are lived in the spaces between material objects. Our thoughts and ideas, feelings and passions, memories and relationships are played out in the spaces between us. Surely we should learn to value the intangible as much as the tangible.

Perhaps as a society we are increasingly appreciating the immaterial. It’s reported that consumers are turning to experiences instead of things; that they are as comfortable renting as owning; that they crave happy memories more than just stuff. In business we talk nowadays about the intangible economy: wealth is less and less held in machinery, buildings and shops; it is located in software and services, databases and design, IT and IP. And consequently the nature of work itself is shifting, from manual to mental labour. Progressive governments are beginning to measure success by collective contentment and wellbeing, rather than just gross domestic product.

Of course, the transformation to an experience culture and an intangible economy poses its own challenges. Intangibles can be readily distributed, shared and scaled. But they can also be easily replicated, copied and stolen. Intangibles are difficult to measure, manage and protect. Some have argued that the intangible economy is responsible for growing social inequality.

Untitled - Stairs 2001

Untitled - Stairs 2001

Nonetheless, people working with brands should be more capable than others at navigating this intangible world. Because marketing and communication expertise is fundamentally concerned with creating intangible assets, directing emotional investment, establishing value for ideas. Marketers and agency people should also be masters of managing talent and inspiration; of measuring feelings and experiences.

I say ‘should’ because sometimes I think brand managers hesitate to recognise their core competence. They may be more at ease working within a narrower frame of reference: a world of products and promotions, campaigns and initiatives, platforms and distribution.

Perhaps marketers and agencies should be more self-confident, more expansive in their vision for their craft. Perhaps they should think of themselves as creating, managing and measuring intangible value in an increasingly intangible economy. Because nowadays we’re all living on solid air.

'You've been taking your time,
And you've been living on solid air.
You've been walking the line,
And you've been living on solid air.
Don't know what's going 'round inside,
And I can tell you that it's hard to hide,
When you're living on solid air.’

John Martyn, Solid Air

 

No. 163

Do We Know Too Much and Understand Too Little? What Einstein Might Have Told Us about the Quest for Truth

insignificance-relativity1.jpg

‘It’s like riding on the subway. I know where I get on and where I get off. While I’m travelling I don’t know where the hell I am.’

I recently attended a production of ‘Insignificance,’ an excellent 1982 play written by Terry Johnson (which in 1985 was turned into an equally splendid film by director Nicolas Roeg).

Set in 1954 New York, ‘Insignificance’ imagines a series of encounters between Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joe McCarthy. It’s a funny, intelligent, disturbing work that asks the audience to think about fame, identity, misogyny, time and nuclear war.

‘Do you ever get the feeling it might be later than you think?’

Running through the play is a debate about knowledge and understanding. Monroe is in awe of Einstein because he knows so much. But Einstein is at pains to point out that knowledge is over-rated – understanding should be the objective.

‘Knowledge is not truth. It’s just mindless agreement. You agree with me. I agree with someone else - we all have knowledge... You can never understand anything by agreeing, by making definitions. Only by turning over the possibilities. That’s called thinking. If I say ‘I know,’ I stop thinking. As long as I keep thinking I come to understand. That way, I might approach some truth.’

Einstein goes on gently to chide Monroe:

‘You know too much and understand too little.’

I couldn’t help thinking of our own modern malaise. In the internet age infinite knowledge is accessible at the touch of a keyboard. And yet we seem in an endless quest for the latest news, the killer fact, the inside story. What we seek to know seems so temporary and transient. Have you heard? Have you read? Have you seen?

In business we similarly pride ourselves on using the most fashionable phrases, the coolest case studies, the most notable names. We congregate around the same theories, flock to the same theses, patronise the same platforms.

How often do we pause properly to understand what we’re talking about? How often do we question our own assumptions? How much do we ‘turn over the alternative possibilities in our minds’?

You have to wonder if this is knowledge at all. Or is it just conventional wisdom, complacent consensus, ‘mindless agreement’?

It’s said that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who died in 1834, was the last person to read every book ever published. After that it became an impossible endeavour. But perhaps the quest for total knowledge was always somewhat futile.

In ‘Insignificance’ Einstein is parted from his only copy of the calculus that he has been working on for some years. Monroe is concerned. But Einstein seems pretty relaxed. He explains that in his working method, the process of writing the calculus internalises it. He doesn’t need the copy. Through thinking he understands, and through understanding he approaches truth.

‘I have finished my work four times. Each time I have destroyed the calculus and started over.’

This year I have resolved to spend less time seeking to know, and more time seeking to understand.

Happy New Year!

No. 162

Achievements, Assets, Advocacy: The AAA Approach to Career Progress

Ilya Repin, Volga Boatman

Ilya Repin, Volga Boatman

I didn’t really enjoy being Planning Department Head.

I’d call Planners’ Meetings to rally the troops and share experiences. A motley crew of the bashful, intense and sartorially challenged would file silently into the Indigo Room. They’d sit staring into their notes, unwilling to disclose their secrets, reluctant to make fools of themselves. I’d present my ‘Broad and Shallow Planning’ philosophy and they’d glare back at me as if I was a buffoon. I found it all a bit passive aggressive. And I longed for a few Account People to puncture the tension and jolly things along.

I walked out of those meetings speculating on the collective noun for Planners: a Confusion of Planners, an Awkwardness of Planners, a Circumspection?

And then there were those times when a member of my Department popped half an hour in the diary for a ‘catch-up.’ Blimey. I wonder what they could want? Please don’t let it be another resignation…Generally they were just unhappy; they didn’t feel valued; they wanted to know my long-term plan for their career. ‘Can I work on a more glamorous account? Can I have a pay rise? Can I have a new job title?’

The truth was I rarely had anything that could really be described as a long-term plan for any individual. I was mostly just trying to get people performing at their best within roles that served the commercial needs of the Agency. I was often too busy worrying about immediate job allocation to ponder enduring career development. And I rarely had spare accounts, budget, or titles to distribute. I felt a bit useless.

At length I realised that I could at least offer my colleagues some direction on how they could advance. I was conscious that the feedback you get from line managers is generally pretty nebulous. I wanted to give them something more consistent and tangible; something they could refer back to at appraisal time.

To my mind, if you are to progress as a Planner, you need to deliver on three fronts.


i) Achievements

However much we may applaud effort, enthusiasm, talent and good intentions, we’re none of us in the game of valiant defeat. If you want to get on in an Agency, you need to be associated with success - whether that be commercial, cultural or creative. You need to be part of a winning team: winning business; winning awards; winning plaudits and client approval; plotting a path to growth, demonstrating success.

Inevitably, you may say: ‘But I’m not able to achieve much in my current role. How can I win on a losing team?’ And that may be a fair complaint. But never assume that it’s easier to win on more celebrated accounts. Sometimes those accounts are crawling with senior management, such that it’s difficult for younger staff to make an impression. You may make a bigger impact where the expectations are smaller. Sometimes, on the tough pieces of business, just holding on is regarded as victory.
 

ii) Assets

Nowadays we talk a lot about ‘making, not managing.’ This principle should be applied to your career. Progressive Planners create assets that are tangible, visible, shareable. You should endeavour to create thought pieces, training programmes, cultural initiatives that have your name on them. Lead the Agency’s understanding of behavioural science; volunteer to write new business points of view; initiate an outreach programme for working class schools; organise a yoga class. Coin a phrase, write an article, invent a process, build a team. Make stuff.

Many years ago I put together a compendium of different approaches to strategic problems. I called it ‘Jim’s Planning Tool Kit.’ It was relatively well received, and my boss suggested that I invite my colleagues in the different BBH offices to contribute their own Planning tools, so as to make a more comprehensive ‘BBH Planning Tool Kit.’ I rather irritatingly demurred. I explained that, if I did that, the Toolkit wouldn’t be ‘Jim’s.’


iii) Advocacy

There’s a common assumption that job allocation is the unique preserve of the Department Head. But this is to misunderstand the subtleties of the process. The Planning Director may hold an individual in high esteem; may recommend him or her to a particular position. But if the relevant Business Director doesn’t share that view, or has some reservations, then it can be a very hard sell.

The truth is that job allocation is a marketplace. Every individual in the Department is a stock with value that rises or falls depending on the broader reputation that person has in the Agency. So you need your colleagues to believe in your worth, just as much as you do yourself. You need their advocacy - because individual success is very closely tied to team performance. Me needs we.

So this is my guide to AAA performance. If you can achieve things - commercially, culturally or creatively; if you can develop assets that are clearly associated with your name; if you can earn advocacy within the broader Agency community, then your career is bound to progress – with or without the help of your Department Head.

(You can read more career advice from a variety of authors in the 'How To Get On' series on the Guest Editor section of the APG website.)

Time for a festive break, I think.
Next post with be on Thursday 4 January.
Have a restful Christmas.
See you on the other side…

'It's coming on Christmas.
They're cutting down trees,
They're putting up reindeer,
And singing songs of joy and peace.
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on.'

 Joni Mitchell, River

 

No. 161

Let’s Make Things Difficult for Ourselves: Finding the Sweet Spot Between the Obvious and the Obscure

Albrecht Durer, Head of a Woman

Albrecht Durer, Head of a Woman

I recently attended an excellent exhibition at the National Gallery in London dedicated to painting in black and white (Monochrome, until 18 February). The show reviews how artists have over the centuries deliberately chosen to eschew colour in their work.

The motivations for monochrome were rich and varied.

In the Middle Ages there was a view that colourless imagery encouraged sombre contemplation. And so churches occasionally adopted grey, subdued tones in their paintings, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts. At the exhibition you can see a splendid sixteenth century monochrome indigo canvas that was hung over more colourful Genoese chapel walls during Holy Week.

With time artists found that, by excluding colour from their work, they could explore forms, contours, space and relationships in a more focused way. The constraint helped them concentrate. During the Renaissance there was competition between painters and sculptors as to whose was the higher art form. In ‘Portrait of a Lady’ Titian depicted his subject holding a white marble relief of herself – demonstrating that, whereas a sculptor couldn’t sculpt painting, a painter could paint sculpture.

Sometimes artists painted sculptural effects just because imitation was cheaper than authenticity. Sometimes they enjoyed creating the illusion of  ‘trompe l’oeil.’ With the dawn of photography painters vied with the medium in its realism, and occasionally they employed black and white to suggest the urgency of news. In 1929 Kazimir Malevich painted a plain black square within a white frame and declared it the dawn of abstract art.

I confess I approached the monochrome exhibition expecting it to be a rather serious, austere affair. I walked away inspired by the contemplation of looking and seeing; reflecting on the fact that blinkers can provide focus, restraint can set you free. Sometimes it pays to make things more difficult.

Titian, Portrait of a Lady

Titian, Portrait of a Lady

Of course, in business, we’re always looking to make things easier - for ourselves, our Clients and our consumers. The ever-increasing pressures on time and money demand it. But we should pause for thought: often the most obvious option gives the blandest outcome; sometimes the right path is not the easiest one.

I recall that, back in the day, our Levi’s Client commissioned a research study of their hugely successful TV campaign. They were particularly keen to learn about the media performance of their various commercials. The researchers concluded that those executions that had fast wear-in with viewers also had fast wear-out; and similarly slow wear-in resulted in slow wear-out.

Often in creative reviews at that time we’d find ourselves saying: ‘This is a great idea, but what if we strip the copy right back? What if we don’t explain everything as we go along? What if the viewer has to think a little?’

If you want a memorable idea – an idea that endures - you need consumers to invest in it. You need them to pay you some attention. In the modern age attention is actively given, not passively conceded. Attention must be earned, not bought.

So if you’re embarking on a communication task, consider making things more difficult for yourself. Set yourself a challenge: What if we tell this story backwards? What if we see the whole thing from the hero’s point of view? What if we don’t see the product until the end? What if we just watch people’s reaction to it? What if every shot is a close-up? What if we set this in a different era, in a different place, on a different planet? What if we shoot it in black and white?

There’s a sweet spot between the obvious and obscure: the point when the viewer positively engages, leans in to understand. That’s what you should be aiming for. Intrigue them, charm them, make them curious. Earn their attention.

I was confused when I entered the last room of the ‘Monochrome’ exhibition. I found myself alone in a large empty space illuminated with sodium-yellow lights. I didn’t see what was so special. I wandered back to the text by the room’s entrance, which explained that the contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson had employed single frequency monochromatic bulbs in order to suppress all other colours in the spectrum. At this point an old lady walked into the room. She appeared to me completely in black and white, like an old photo; and her rather grey skin suggested she might be off to a Halloween party. We both laughed at each other. I realised I must look the same.

And so I fled back to the world of colour, glad to have lived for an hour in a black and white world; liberated by the limitations.

Etienne Moulinneuf after Chardin, La Pourvoyeuse

Etienne Moulinneuf after Chardin, La Pourvoyeuse

'She told me once, and she told me twice.
I never listened to her advice.
Now I'm payin' a heavy price.
Maybe I'm wrong and maybe she's right.
I see things in shades of blue,
She sees things in black and white.'

Edwyn Collins, ‘50 Shades of Blue’

No. 160

 

Just Chasing Numbers: 'I'm as Mad as Hell, and I’m not Going to Take This Any More!’

Network.jpg

‘This story is about Howard Beale, who was the news anchorman on UBS TV. In his time, Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share. In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, began to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks.‘

I recently saw a very good stage adaptation of the 1976 movie masterpiece ‘Network’ (National Theatre until 24 March). Brilliantly scripted by Paul Chayevsky, ‘Network’ tells the story of Howard Beale, an ageing TV news anchorman whose ratings are in decline and who suffers a mental breakdown. One evening, at the end of a broadcast, Beale threatens to commit suicide on-air. This obviously startles the studio bosses, until they realize that audience figures have spiked. They give Beale more airtime, and he assumes the role of ‘an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.’

‘Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business!‘

‘Network’ concerns itself with news, truth, media ethics, populism and global capitalism. It’s particularly compelling because these are issues that so trouble us today, some forty years on. The only difference is that the film focuses on the malign power of television, whereas we worry about the web and social media. 

‘Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.’

For people in business I think ‘Network’ represents a warning of the perils of chasing numbers. The sharp-dressed, fast-talking studio executives are obsessed with ratings and share, audience figures and syndication costs. They have lost sight of quality, truth and public responsibility. For them news is a commodity, a form of entertainment, a means of attracting eyeballs. It’s just a numbers game.

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‘You're television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays.’

Of course, in commerce we all have to concern ourselves with the numbers: with page views, unique visitors and dwell time; with brand penetration, frequency and share; with managing costs down and income up; with delivering the bottom line. But it’s easy to lose perspective; to get things out of order and proportion. Sometimes we can be too busy chasing great numbers to deliver great product.

There’s an old business maxim that I understand they used to cite at BMP back in the day:
‘People, product, profit…in that order.

I’ve always liked the way this adage recognizes that all three of people, product and profit are vital to business success. But there’s a hierarchy of importance – and a causal link between them: great culture produces great outputs, which in turn creates happy Clients and attracts new ones - thereby delivering commercial success.

Of course, it’s easier to identify the malaise at the heart of modern business than to know what to do about it. Howard Beale doesn’t really have any answers. But he does at least understand people’s frustration. And perhaps that’s a start. In the most memorable scene in ‘Network,’ Beale invites his audience to vent their outrage at a system that seems to have betrayed the American Dream.

‘I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!’’

Maybe we should all give this a try.

 

No. 159