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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 132



Exquisite Corpse: If You Want To Change the Product, Try Changing the Process

'Nude Cadavre Exquis' Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (1926-27)

'Nude Cadavre Exquis' Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (1926-27)

‘There’s a method to my madness; and a madness to my method.’
Salvador Dali

At a gallery recently I came across an Exquisite Corpse.

Exquisite Corpse was a creative technique that Surrealist artists adapted from the traditional parlour game of Consequences. Typically four people took turns to draw a different bodypart on a folded piece of paper: first the head, then the torso, then the hips and finally the legs. Each participant was unaware of what the previous contributors had drawn. The image that resulted was often comic, disturbing, absurd.

Exquisite Corpse at first struck me as a curiously playful distraction for serious artists. Just a bit of fun perhaps before they got back to proper work. But the Surrealists were serious about the technique. For them it illuminated the creative process: it was a way of exploring the impact on their art of multiple authorship, sequencing, chance and the unconscious.

For Surrealists process didn’t have to be a constraint on creativity; it could be a catalyst to it.

'La Clairvoyance'Rene Magritte

'La Clairvoyance'Rene Magritte

‘All my life my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.’
Andre Breton

The writers and artists of the Surrealist movement gathered in Paris in the 1920s around their leader, Andre Breton. In the wake of the horrors of the First World War, they determined to suppress reason, reality and ‘bourgeois aestheticism.’ Like Freud they were interested in dreams and the workings of the unconscious mind; in juxtapositions and coincidences; in everyday strangeness.

In particular the Surrealists experimented with the process of creation, disrupting traditional practice at every opportunity. They adopted techniques like ‘automatism’: writing and drawing at random without rational or conscious control. They set up the Bureau of Surrealist Research to record the dreams of the general public. They created collages that integrated found material, text from popular novels, images from magazines and encyclopaedia. They untethered objects from their names and practical functions. They experimented with photography as an art form.

For the Surrealists new techniques provided a springboard to new acts of creation. Process inspired product.  

‘I’ve never been able to finish a detective story because I don’t give a hang who was the murderer… It doesn’t interest me at all. It’s the mental processes that interest me.’
Man Ray

'Object' Meret Oppenheim

'Object' Meret Oppenheim

In the world of commercial creativity we tend to regard process with ambivalence. It’s boring but important; a necessary evil. We often characterise it as something to be avoided or reduced as far as possible; as an enemy of creativity.

Working at BBH for many years, I was quite taken with its distinctive belief in ‘processes that liberate creativity.’ This seemed a more mature position. I learned that process protects time, prevents misunderstanding and wasted effort. It generates alignment within a team, harnesses creativity to a commercial agenda and optimises the chances of great outcomes. I learned to be respectful of roles and responsibilities, of sign-offs and the sequencing of actions. I learned that process can be the creatives’ friend.

But the idea of ‘processes that liberate creativity’ goes beyond commercial efficiency. As the Surrealists suggested, new processes can inspire new ideas. They can be a fuel for the imagination. They can provoke change.

So processes should not be engraved in granite. They should be constantly questioned and evaluated, rewritten and reformulated.

How can we accelerate and stimulate innovation? Why not change the brief, change the team, change the time, change the meeting? Let’s investigate new combinations and partnerships. Let’s crash the procedure and crunch the schedule. Let’s test and trial, experiment and explore.

At times of transformation we should all be looking to disrupt incumbent ways of doing things; to invent new models, modes and techniques. Not just so that we can cut costs or increase speed; but so that we can create fresh routes to original ideas; novel sources of imaginative thought.

If you want to change the product, try changing the process.

‘Freedom is not given to you – you have to take it.’
Meret Oppenheim

No. 131

‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ How Do We Put an End to Work Marathons?

Still from from the film: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Still from from the film: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

‘Yowza! Yowza! Yowza! Welcome to the dance of destiny, ladies and gentlemen. Around and around and around we go, and we’re only beginning, folks, only beginning! On and on and on, and when will it stop? When will it end? When? Only when the last two of these wonderful, starry-eyed kids are left. Only when the last two dancers stagger and sway, stumble and swoon, across the sea of defeat and despair to victory.’

Rocky the MC, in the opening sequence of ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of American paintings from the 1930s. (America After the Fall, Royal Academy, London, until 4 June.) With work by the likes of Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, we see the bold geometric shapes of America’s industrial landscape alongside the sweeping curves of its endless open spaces. We see cities teeming with life, bursting with entrepreneurial energy, stumbling from the body blow of the Wall Street Crash. We see austere rural communities staring the Great Depression in the face.  

I was particularly struck by a 1934 image by Philip Evergood depicting one of the Dance Marathons that were popular across America during the Depression. In these grim endurance contests, which foreshadowed the reality TV shows of today, spectators paid to watch couples dance continuously for weeks on end. In Evergood’s painting the competitors cling to their partners, seemingly dead on their feet, as they enter the forty-ninth day of a tournament to win $1000. At the fringes bored spectators look on.

Rocky: ‘It isn't a contest. It's a show.’

Philip Evergood 'The Dance Marathon'

Philip Evergood 'The Dance Marathon'

A Dance Marathon on Santa Monica Pier is the setting for the 1969 movie ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. It’s a dark, sad story which clearly suggests the gruelling contest is a metaphor for a society gone wrong: the dispossessed and down-at-heal subscribe to an exhausting, degrading show where there are only two winners - and even their victory will ultimately be hollow. The tragedy is that none of the contestants can see an alternative. Desperate for the prize money, they sign up and struggle on of their own accord.

Rocky: ‘I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure as hell can spot a loser.’

Reflecting on Dance Marathons, I found myself thinking of the modern world of work. We all continue to dance, as our working hours steadily increase; as our lunch hours are squeezed and our holidays deferred; as our ‘week-end’ transforms into our ‘week-beginning;' as the boundaries between home and work collapse; as tech enables us to be ‘always on,’ and consequently our work is ‘never off.' We’re putting our bodies and brains under ever increasing pressure. In a sense we’re all voluntarily engaged in our own Work Marathons.

Work Marathons not only deprive individuals of engaged and happy family lives; they also deprive businesses of engaged and happy employees. This is particularly true for creative businesses where the richness of colleagues’ hinterlands relates directly to the richness of their conceptual contributions.

How can you have a hinterland if you’re hardly ever home? How can you have a transformative idea if you have no transformative experiences? How can you demonstrate empathy with consumers when you have no time to meet any?

One curiosity of today’s overwork culture is that it afflicts seniors as much as juniors. I was particularly depressed to read recently that many American CEOs take pride in working over 100 hours per week, and that Apple’s Tim Cook starts work at 3-45AM. (The New Status Symbol, The Guardian, 24 April 2017). Everyone talks about agile working, but 100-hour weeks don’t sound very agile to me. Surely top CEOs don’t need to do this. Perhaps they enjoy it. (The Guardian journalist, Ben Tarnoff, suggests that the elite's conspicuous consumption is being supplemented by ‘conspicuous production.’) Whatever their motivation, they are setting a standard by which their employees will inevitably be measured.

Of course, the necessary recalibration of work-life balance should start with our leaders. They need to set an example. But what about the rest of us? Do we just keep on dancing ‘til the rhythm changes?

It has been pointed out that we should never complain about a traffic jam because by being in it we’re contributing to the problem: ‘You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic.’ In the same way perhaps, we all consider ourselves victims of overwork culture, when in truth we’re probably partially responsible for it. We all fix that meeting, set that deadline, send that email, demand that attendance, revise that brief.

Male Dancer: ‘Anyone ever told you…?
Gloria: ‘Yeah, they told me.’

I suspect we know the answers already. We just need to apply them. We should set aside presenteeism, micromanagement and over-engineered solutions. We should properly embrace empowerment, expertise, velocity, agility. In short:

Don’t control the process; trust the team.
Don’t double up on tasks in the name of representation; respect roles and responsibilities.
Don’t celebrate longevity; reward intensity.
Don’t obsess about inputs; concentrate on outputs.
Don’t deal with it after the meeting; solve it in the room.
And don’t send it at the weekend; save it ‘til Monday morning.

I also read recently that the inventor, designer and manufacturer James Dyson only receives six work emails a day (Vacuum Your Emails, Sunday Times, 7 May 2017). It’s true that sometimes email management creates merely the illusion of work – email is often an anodyne, short-term distraction from building real relationships and finding long-term solutions. Of course, Dyson has the advantage of being in charge and having a secret email account. But maybe he’s onto something.


This piece was written to mark Mental Health Awareness Week

No. 130

August Strindberg and the Pricey Grey Tank Top: We Tend To Desire the Desired

August Strindberg 

August Strindberg 

August Strindberg’s short one-scene play, The Stronger, features only two characters, one of whom does not speak. Mrs X encounters Miss Y at a café. At first Mrs X talks proudly of her happy marriage and family life, and is sympathetic towards Miss Y’s solitary status. But Mrs X gradually realises that the silent Miss Y has in fact been her husband’s lover. Her anger turns to scorn and she reassures herself that at least her husband is attractive to other women.

‘Why should I take what nobody will have?’

I was quite struck by this sentiment. It’s a rarely acknowledged truth that the scale of someone’s appeal to an individual can be enhanced by the extent of that person’s appeal to other people: we tend to desire the desired.

This is a lesson sometimes lost on the marketing community. We often aspire to a utopian dream of laser-targeted communication: a world without waste, where every message reaches a current or prospective buyer. We imagine that in an ideal scenario our brand could have a tailored, private dialogue with candidate consumers – direct, head-to-head, one-to-one.

But, of course, brands are social entities. They are shared beliefs. The role of marketing is not just to develop depth of appeal with current and prospective buyers. It is also to spread breadth of interest in the wider community - because breadth of belief sustains depth of desire.

I’m sure we can all draw on our own personal experiences of how breadth of belief in a brand helps support a price premium.

Many years ago I was somewhat enamoured of tank tops. (The earnest woollen British variety, not the cotton singlets beloved of American men.) On a quiet lunchtime I wandered into a small Soho menswear shop and picked up a smart grey number with a cool monkey logo. I tried it on and liked what I saw. I strode confidently to the till. Feeling cavalier, I’d not inspected the price tag. And when the attendant asked for an eye-watering amount of money, I didn’t flinch - I didn’t want to give him the impression that I thought it was expensive. But I walked back to my office in a cold sweat, my heart pumping, thoughts racing. Surely this was a mistake. A grey woollen tank top couldn’t possibly cost that much. At my desk I pulled out the receipt to discover that there really was no error at play. I’d inadvertently walked into a shop that specialised in rare and exclusive Japanese street wear.

A few days later, still smarting from my naivety, I wore my regretted purchase to a fashionable bar. An attractive young barmaid served me a consoling gin and tonic. She paused for a moment as she handed me my change. ‘I love your Bathing Ape tank top.’ Suddenly the exorbitant price didn’t seem to matter any more. In fact it all seemed rather good value.

As August Strindberg knew, we tend to desire the desired.


Are You Solving a Problem or Managing a Dilemma?

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

An astute observer recently pointed out to me that much of my advice seems to contradict itself. This is true. On the one hand I encourage listening and empathy; on the other hand I believe in a strong authorial voice. Sometimes I advise pragmatism and diplomacy; at others I suggest tenacity and idealism. I propose sensitivity to texture and tone, alongside reduction and simplicity; I advocate doubt and scepticism, alongside confidence and conviction.

In part this is because diverse situations call for diverse forms of strategic engagement. We need different tools for different tasks. But on a more fundamental level it’s because life is inherently confusing; people are cryptic; business is complex. The human condition is a paradox.

As strategists we often think of ourselves as problem solvers. We figure out the puzzle, crack the code, answer the question - and move on. But this may sometimes be an unhelpful characterisation of the task in hand. And in the process we may risk misunderstanding our Clients’ and our consumers’ concerns.

Not all the challenges we face in life and business are problems that can be solved. Not all the questions have right and wrong answers.

Often we are confronted with dilemmas: issues that are complex and conflicted; the opposing tensions between fundamental needs and ongoing desires, between different drives and motivations; the varying interests of individuals and groups.

Dilemmas are issues that won’t go away. They can’t be solved. They can only be managed.

In ordinary life most people have to deal with the conflicting needs of children and parents; with the contrary ambitions of partners within a relationship; with the ongoing tensions between work and life, health and happiness, head and heart. We all have to balance the pressures of the short and long term, of individual and collective good.

As business leaders we may have to consider the contrary pressures of the commercial and the reputational; the conflicting rights of individual employees; the tension between freedom and responsibility within teams; the balance between the incompatible needs of different disciplines.

These are not problems that can be solved; questions that can be answered. They are complex, enduring dilemmas that must be carefully calibrated; and responded to with subtlety and nuance.

Perhaps the paradox at the heart of the human condition explains why so many popular dictums contradict each other. Should we strike while the iron is hot, or keep our powder dry? Do birds of a feather flock together, or do opposites attract? Are two heads better than one, or do too many cooks spoil the broth?

It may also be why many of the aphorisms we turn to in business embrace ambiguity: we ‘think global and act local;’ we have ‘freedom within a framework;' we 'speak softly and carry a big stick.'

In the world of commercial creativity it has often been said that our fundamental task is to ‘manage tensions’: between the rational and the emotional; between behaviour and belief; between the creative and commercial; between cost, speed and quality; between art and science.

So let’s not suggest that our brand or business has all the answers, when sometimes there are no answers to be had. And let’s not promise to solve a problem, when the best we can do is manage a dilemma.

I’ll probably carry on giving conflicting advice - confident in the conviction that successful leaders employ tools, training and tips alongside intuition, instinct and judgement. This is the skill and craft of leadership.

Great leaders may not solve every problem; but they will ensure that every dilemma is better managed.

No. 128

Our Redacted Lives: Why Don’t We Take Our Whole Selves to Work?

‘The mind is like an iceberg. It floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.’

I recently visited the last home of Sigmund Freud (The Freud Museum, Hampstead). Fleeing from Nazi Austria in 1938, the elderly Freud settled in an airy, spacious Hampstead villa, not far from the Finchley Road. He lived there for little over a year - long enough to accustom himself to British life.

‘It is bitterly cold, the plumbing has frozen up and British deficiencies in overcoming the heating problem are clearly evident.’

Freud managed to take with him to Hampstead many of his possessions from Vienna, and he was able to recreate his study and consulting room in his new home. After his death, his daughter Anna preserved things as he left them.

The study is lined with books and filled with Freud’s collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental artefacts. Busts, masks and figurines queue up in ranks along the cluttered desk and shelves. He was fascinated with antiquities and regarded himself as an archaeologist of the mind.

‘The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist in his excavations, must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures.’

Not far from Freud’s desk resides his original analytic couch, covered in red patterned rugs and reputed to be very comfortable. To one side, behind where the patient’s head would rest, we see the chair in which Freud would sit, prompting, listening, thinking.

‘The ego is not master in its own house.’

Freud believed that human behaviour is largely driven by unconscious motivations deriving from childhood experiences; that the sublimation of these instinctual urges of love, loss, sexuality and death creates neuroses; and that the unconscious can be revealed in dreams and unguarded moments.

‘Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.’

During the First World War the Viennese newspapers had often been censored and Freud used the metaphor of censorship to explain the way the conscious mind actively suppresses the unconscious.

I was quite struck by the thought of self-censorship in its broadest sense. I’m sure it’s true that we keep a lid on our deepest desires and anxieties for fear of shame, opprobrium, public disapproval; in order to protect ourselves. We are unreliable narrators. We suppress inconvenient truths. We live redacted lives.

Example of redacted poetry from the Scottish Poetry Library (using a page from Pat Barker’s ‘The Ghost Road’)

Example of redacted poetry from the Scottish Poetry Library (using a page from Pat Barker’s ‘The Ghost Road’)

I suspect self-censorship extends to the workplace too. In the office we are more guarded, reserved and cautious about revealing our true selves. We present an edited identity to our colleagues, one which we feel will fit in with the norms of the profession, the company culture and the boss’s expectations.

A young intern came to chat to me in the last week of her time at the Agency. She was studying communication at a college by the Elephant. She seemed intelligent, nice, polite, but not particularly out of the ordinary. We had a twenty-minute chat and she was about to go. She paused.

’Can I ask you one last question? I’ve not mentioned that I’ve been designing and selling my own fashion range online. I didn’t say anything about it before because I thought it might suggest I wasn’t dedicated to advertising. Was I right not to mention it?’

‘Not at all. It’s completely relevant. Tell me more.’

‘Well, my designs have a Somali flavour. I came over here as a refugee when I was 5 and had to learn English from scratch. I want my clothes to express my birth-culture, even though I only have vague memories of it.’

Suddenly an ordinary woman demonstrated that she was extraordinary; that she had life experiences and achievements that few in our industry could match. And yet she had been hesitating to reveal these things because she thought they might not be relevant.

I was touched, but also troubled by the realisation that this woman was in many ways typical. What was particularly frustrating was that as an employer you learn to value originality over orthodoxy; authenticity over affectation. You yearn for idiosyncrasy, individuality and independence, because these are the characteristics that drive culture and innovation.

‘Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.’

In an ever more automated world a company’s competitive difference is increasingly determined by its ability to realise the full value of its human capital: expressing all talents, articulating whole selves. This is not just a challenge for leaders. It’s something every individual should address.

How often do we present moderated, edited, diluted selves to our colleagues? How often do we suppress the passions and personality traits that may in fact be most useful to the business? Why can’t we take our whole selves to work?

If we can’t answer these questions, then I fear our redacted lives will inevitably become redacted careers.

No. 127


The Creative Diplomat: Should We Always Tell It Like It Is?

Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

‘A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe,’ a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no,' and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat.’

Charles M de Talleyrand, French Diplomat at the time of Napoleon

Some time in the late ‘90s, I was in Buenos Aires at one of those awkward international meetings where competitive Agencies share their work in front of their Clients and are obliged to make polite remarks about it. I found myself saying that the competitor’s ad was ‘very interesting.’ This prompted an angry response from my Argentine Client:

‘What is it with you British and the word ‘interesting’? I used to think it meant you were genuinely interested in what we were discussing. But now I understand it means nothing at all.’

Fair cop. I guess I had been trying to be a Creative Diplomat: neither encouraging, nor critical; neither flattering, nor rude. And ‘interesting’ is just one of those words that come in handy in such situations.

‘To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.’

Will Durant, American Writer

On another occasion I attended a global summit with some rather opinionated Regional Clients. I was perplexed when, in the meetings that followed over the next few days, my Regional Clients were uncharacteristically subdued and taciturn. As we sat in the airport departure lounge preparing for our respective flights home, the Regional Clients congratulated each other on an ineffectual and therefore, for them, entirely successful global meeting. They had escaped without making any firm commitments or agreements. They could now return to their market and get on with making their own decisions without interference.

‘When an official reports that talks were useful, it can be safely concluded that nothing was accomplished.’

JK Galbraith, Canadian Economist

I guess we all recognise the dark arts of diplomacy. We may dismiss them as political ploys and dishonest deceptions. But each one of us has probably engaged in them to some degree. Sometimes we need to be diplomatic in order to get the job done.

In the world of creative commerce we often nowadays celebrate authenticity, transparency and straight talking. This is the spirit of the age. ‘Our business is open and honest.’ We want to ‘keep it real’; to ‘tell it like it is.’ But these things are easier said than done. In my experience creative people are not entirely comfortable with unfiltered frankness – particularly when you’re discussing their ideas.

This is, of course, completely understandable. We’re all sensitive souls when it comes to our own efforts and outputs. We take things personally.

‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.’

 WB Yeats, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

In my early years in advertising I was taught that one’s first response to any idea should always be positive. Negativity, if appropriate, could follow once you’d demonstrated a certain amount of respect; and preferably in the form of a question, not a statement. This is good advice.

So Creative Diplomacy continues to be very much necessary in our industry. Progress must be negotiated; affection must be earned. The quiet word; the gentle suggestion; the knowing glance. The mediating message; the subtle adjustment; the thoughtful gesture. These are behaviours we should recognise and encourage. They are part and parcel of a human business that runs on relationships and emotions. They are integral to the art of persuasion.

‘Diplomacy is the art of letting the other party have things your way.’

Daniele Vare, Italian Diplomat

Of course, sometimes diplomacy comes with a pang of guilt. I was once briefing a very talented editor on a film that a Client needed for a forthcoming sales conference. The film had to be ‘breathtaking and awe-inspiring’ as is the nature of these things (as well as fast and cheap…). The editor nodded and showed me a few sample clips: Apollo rockets taking off, Vesuvian volcanoes erupting, that kind of thing. They were just what was required. The editor said, ‘Yes, I know what you’re after. You want it to be completely vitriolic.’ I could see that in his head ‘vitriolic ‘ was suggesting all the right things and so I chose not to correct him. ‘Yes, vitriolic. Exactly!’ And as we reviewed his work over the following week or so, we agreed that it was indeed brilliantly ‘vitriolic.’

Some months later the editor called to upbraid me. ‘That’s not what vitriolic means at all, is it?’ ‘Well it meant the right thing to you at the time.’

I always rather regretted that incident. Whilst diplomacy demands that we concentrate on outcomes, occasionally one’s conscience yearns to ‘tell it like it is.’

‘If you want something to play with
Go and find yourself a toy.
Baby, my time is too expensive
And I’m not a little boy.
Tell it like it is.
Don’t be ashamed to let your conscience be your guide.’

Aaron Neville, ‘Tell It Like It Is

No 126


The Interdependent Business: The Networked Age Needs Networking Skills

Henri Matisse 'La Danse'

Henri Matisse 'La Danse'

My father was always very comfortable in the pub. At home he could be pensive, silent and self-absorbed. For hours he’d be sunk into his capacious armchair, the Telegraph on his lap, darts on the telly, black Nescafe and Embassy cigarettes within arm’s reach. But down the Drill Dad was gregarious and outgoing. He would perch on a high stool at the bar, cradling a pint of bitter in a dimpled jug, his change spread before him on a beer towel. He’d hold court on politics and popular culture, the decline of the British Empire and West Ham United. He’d chat for hours to Julian the barman, to Barry Green the market trader, and to Fat Mick who worked in a back office in the City. He’d talk to anyone in fact who was prepared to listen.

Dad once explained to me that the pub wasn’t just a place to socialise; it was a place to do business. ‘Anything that needs doing, you can do it down the pub.’ It was there that he arranged baby-sitting duties for Martin and me; there that he bought the family fitted floral chair covers, a food mixer and a second-hand car.

Perhaps, if the term had existed back then, you’d have said my father was a natural networker.

Some years later, by a curious set of circumstances, I found myself in a small seminar surrounded by modern-day Titans of Industry. I’d never been so close to so many important business people at one time and I thought this might be an ideal opportunity to understand what they had in common.

They were all rather charming actually. They were good storytellers, self effacing, easygoing. (I remember one of them made a joke about his neighbours. It was the kind of anecdote anyone would tell. These neighbours just happened to live on the adjacent island.) I’d not say these Titans of Industry were intellectuals as such. They did not demonstrate some extraordinary insight into world affairs. But they did share a broadly positive outlook, an inner confidence and an admirable ability to reduce matters to simple terms.

There was one unifying characteristic that really impressed me. When in the course of the seminar there was a need to get something done, one of the Titans would chime in with ‘I know such-and-such. I’ll reach out to such-and-such. They’ll point us in the right direction. They’ll sort this out. I’ll get them on the phone now.’

It struck me that a critical determinant of these modern entrepreneurs’ success was their supreme networking skills. Their inclination was never to embark on a task on their own. It was always to enlist like-minded expertise and specialism; to speculate on who could accelerate the process, ease the path, open the right doors.

In the past the preeminent skills of the entrepreneur may perhaps have been empathy and anticipation; innovation and independence; drive and determination. In the past it may all have been about self-belief and self-sufficiency. But in the digital era, business is so complex that the self is not sufficient. If you can confidently connect, you can achieve more in less time at lower cost; you can act with agility. The contemporary businessperson needs to be expert in partnership and participation, in collaboration and coordination. In the networked age, we all need to be networkers.

I say this with some reluctance because I have never been a great networker myself. I’m socially awkward, uncomfortable with business conversations that lack a defined purpose. I can connect ideas, but not people. And I squirm when I see an agenda indicating ‘there’ll be ample time for networking.’

But then again, perhaps we have devalued the term ‘networking.’ It has come to mean clumsily swapping business cards, tentatively checking profiles on LinkedIn. It’s become forced enthusiasm, cheap white wine and a casual Costa coffee. The networking that the modern world really demands is about connecting and combining talents to achieve commercial goals; to get things done, better, faster and more affordably. It’s about delivering a better service, not a better CV.

I was fortunate to work for many years in a successful independent business. We were proud of the fact that we were masters of our own destiny. But in a sense no business can be truly independent in today’s world. Nowadays we all depend on our allies and associates, suppliers and service providers. The best modern businesses are interdependent businesses.

Inevitably over recent years the response of the large corporates to the fragmenting service sector has been to merge and acquire; to buy out and buy in; to try to own everything. They see the ultimate destination as a full service offer, a ‘one-stop shop.’ But the corporate instinct to own and control suggests a failure to comprehend the mercurial demands of today’s world. Which Agency can comfortably manage the requirement for many services sometimes and few at others? Which Client wants to work with a partner who’s good at everything, but great at nothing? Ownership may be too rigid an answer.

In his book The Empty Raincoat Charles Handy, the Irish business philosopher, explored the theme of ‘the Chinese Contract.’ He related how, many years ago, when working in the oil industry in Malaysia, he was negotiating with a Chinese agent. They ‘reached terms, shook hands and shared a glass of brandy.’ But then when Handy brought out the official company contract and invited the Chinese agent to sign, the agent was incensed. For him this formalisation of the agreement betrayed a lack of trust and prompted suspicion that he was being locked into an unequal deal.

We need to rethink our approach to business relationships. Partnership is about trust and confidence, not liability and contracts. It is about open and honest collaboration, not reluctant and forced obligation.

The sadness for me is that my father was perhaps a man out of time. In another era his networking skills could have made him a Titan of Industry. As it was, despite his natural charm and ability to connect, he was not actually very successful in business. He drifted, amiably but aimlessly, from travel agency to double-glazing to the gasket sector. One winter the car he bought from the bloke in the Drill completely broke down because he had failed to top up the anti-freeze. But it didn’t seem to matter too much to Dad. He just found another bloke to fix it down the pub.

"Love is a rose
But you better not pick it.
It only grows when it’s on the vine.
A handful of thorns and
You’ll know you missed it.
You lose your love when you say the word ‘mine.’’

 Neil Young, Love Is a Rose

This piece has just been published in the Spring 2017 edition of You Can Now magazine.

No. 125

‘Everything Is Copy’: Making Personal Experience the Material for Creative Expression

Nora Ephron, 1960s HBO

Nora Ephron, 1960s HBO

I recently watched a compelling documentary about the journalist, screenwriter and director Nora Ephron (‘Everything Is Copy’, HBO 2015). First and foremost Ephron was a writer. She wrote articles, essays, novels, scripts and plays. She wrote satirical columns and sentimental comedies. Most famously, she wrote ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989) and ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (1993). 

In the documentary, Ephron’s luminous personality leaps out from the screen. She is sharp tongued, quick witted and strong willed. It’s clear that she had to be all these things to succeed in a creative environment that was blighted by sexism.

‘She knew what she wanted and she went and got it. Or went and did it, which is more to the point.’
Mike Nichols, Film Director

Ephron was raised in Beverly Hills by parents who were both screenwriters. In the documentary she recounts her mother’s advice to her four daughters, all of whom went on to become writers.

‘We all grew up with this thing that my mother said to us over and over, and over and over again, which is ‘Everything is copy.’ You’d come home with something that you thought was the tragedy of your life – someone hadn’t asked you to dance, or the hem had fallen out of your dress, or whatever you thought was the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being – and my mother would say ‘Everything is copy.’’

Ephron speculates that, in passing on this maxim, her mother may have been equipping her daughters with a survival technique for modern life.

‘When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh. So you become a hero rather than the victim of the joke.’

Ephron’s interpretation of ‘Everything is copy’ led her to share the details of her own private life, from the trivial to the intimate, with a broader public. She wrote about her family and friends, her former bosses and husbands; about her breasts and neck and love of pies; about her personal take on reading, ageing, happiness and feminism. And when her marriage to the celebrated Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein broke down, she fictionalised her experiences in the novel and film ‘Heartburn.’

‘Writers are cannibals…They are predators. And if you are friends with them and say something funny at dinner, or if anything good happens to you, you are in big trouble.’

So what can people working in commercial creativity today learn from Ephron’s dictum? Should we too subscribe to the view that ‘Everything is copy’?

Well, I do believe that articulating our experiences enables us properly to reflect on them; to organize them; to fix them in our memories. I would always encourage people to review the day, the week, the year. And, where heartache is concerned, when we can articulate the pain, we’re half-way to recovering from it.

I also think Ephron was right to see something particularly potent in childhood memories - recollections of a time when our identities were not fully formed; when our opinions were not fully fixed. The sentiments of our youth explain so much about our adult selves. As Graham Greene said, childhood provides ‘the bank balance of the writer.’

Moreover, like Ephron we should all be sensitive to the comedy of our own ordinary experiences, the tragedy of day-to-day events; we should see the richness of the run of the mill and the poetry of normal. We should be alert to the observed and overheard; to the foibles of ordinary folk and the language of everyday speech. These things are available to us in our own experience. We don’t need to conjure them up or resort to cliché.

Having said all this, I should sound a note of caution. With her first-person narrative and confessional candour, Ephron was a pioneer of the self-broadcasting social media age. Of course, she explored her emotions rather than just recorded them. As the word ‘copy’ implies, critical thought was applied. But there was a price to be paid for ‘over sharing.’ The documentary was directed by Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein. He suggests that, in pursuing her maxim, Ephron may have damaged her relationships and impacted on her long-term happiness. Writer beware.

Nora Ephron died from Leukemia in 2012. She was 71. For many months she hadn’t disclosed the nature of her illness to her family, friends and colleagues. Perhaps in her final chapter, she determined that, while everything is copy, some very personal things should remain unwritten.

One leaves the documentary with a broader admiration of Ephron: an independent spirit who was both self-effacing and self-confident; who was dynamic and determined; who encouraged others to take control of their lives.

‘Above all be the heroine of your life, not the victim.’
Nora Ephron (Commencement Address to Wellesley College Class of 1996)



No. 124



Solve It In the Room: What I Learned from the Uncut Lawn

Henri Rousseau/ Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised)

Henri Rousseau/ Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised)

I was raised in a pebble-dashed, semi-detached house on the outskirts of Romford. We were flanked on either side by keen gardeners. To the left Mr Holland grew fruit and veg, bottled his own magnificent loganberry jam and wore rubber knee-pads. To the right Mr Dodgson cultivated elegant flowers and shrubs, delighted in telling us their Latin names (‘Cotoneaster’) and burst our footballs when they trespassed onto his side of the wooden fence. Both these elderly gentlemen sported flat caps before they were cool.

Sadly the Carroll Garden was unruly and unkempt, a source of some shame. The grass grew long, the weeds grew high and the lilac tree wilted from over-use as a climbing frame. At the far end was a rockery that my mother had installed to give the impression that our wild, overgrown grassland was somehow intentional.  But this fooled no one, least of all Messrs Holland and Dodgson.

With the arrival of Spring, mum would begin her pleas to my father to cut the lawn. He generally developed a throaty, fag-induced cough; a crippling, beer-induced hangover; a critical sporting event on the telly - anything in fact to excuse him from his duties. Dad was a man of inaction. Sometimes he would goad his children into taking on the task in his stead, but we had inherited his indolence.

So the rusty mower remained entangled in the chaotic clutter of the garden shed. And the grass grew, and the weeds flourished, and the lilac tree looked on in stoic silence.

Eventually, some weeks later, when the exasperation of mum and our neighbours had reached its limits, dad and the five kids would tramp disconsolately into the verdant jungle and apply ourselves to scything and mowing, clipping and collecting. It was a frenzy of resentful industry.

When I entered the world of work, I realised that procrastination is not unique to my family. In fact it is very much part of the human condition. We like to defer and delay, put off and postpone. We are innately inert. And for all our rhetoric about seizing the day, many of us are naturally given to letting the day slip through our fingers.

Sometimes we hide this procrastination behind process. There’s an established way of doing things. Everything needs to be done in good order, in due course. ‘We can’t do anything until you issue the Client Brief.’ ‘That was an excellent meeting. We’ll write it up in the next few days; and in another week or so we’ll send you a Creative Brief; and then a couple of weeks later we’ll possibly propose some ideas.’

I’m well aware that process protects quality: more haste, less speed and so forth. But there’s no denying that in the modern age velocity is a critical competitive advantage. We have all been obliged to accelerate. I recall some years ago a senior Client taking over a key account at the Agency. When I checked in to see how things were going, he said the team was impressive; the work was very good; but the overall ‘metabolism’ was sluggish. It seemed a fair criticism.

So how can we embrace speed without compromising quality? How can we accelerate our corporate metabolism?

I have one modest suggestion: solve it in the room.

When you have managed to get all the right people in one place; when you have the appropriate combination of talent and leadership staring at each other across a desk; when you’ve invested in coffee, croissants and an extensive selection of herbal teas - don’t walk away with just a loose understanding of the problem, a nodding assent about what needs to happen next. You should be in a position to solve the problem in the room. Of course, you can’t craft detail; you can’t write scripts and execution. But you can align around strategy and direction. You can illustrate and exemplify; sketch and draft.

It is often observed that the benefit of experience is wisdom. But experience of a wide variety of marketing and communication challenges also enables speed and agility of thought; it enables us to make connections, to reach conclusions at pace. These skills may be the veteran’s most valuable assets. The experienced practitioner is equipped to make decisions there and then, here and now. This is what we’re paid for.

So, a simple proposal perhaps: turn up to the critical meetings prepared to make decisions, and to make promises you can keep. ‘We’re going to solve it in the room, design it in a week, build it in a month.’ Make an active determination to replace lethargy with intensity; complacency with urgency. Don’t just learn about the problem; lean into the solution.

And whatever you do, don’t let the grass grow under your feet.

No 123