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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No Buck Rodgers, no bucks.’

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

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

Sometimes Agencies can get this intimate relationship wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 144

 

 

The Uncertain Leader: Crystal Pite and the ‘Doldrums of Doubt’

Isabella Gasparini, Solomon Golding, Joseph Sissons, Kristen McNally and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød in Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern. © Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House

Isabella Gasparini, Solomon Golding, Joseph Sissons, Kristen McNally and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød in Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern. © Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House

Crystal Pite creates dance for the modern world. She has choreographed touching and thought provoking pieces that respond to personal trauma, grief and addiction; to the science of swarm intelligence; to the tragedy of the refugee crisis. She deals in organic structures and fluid shapes; complex patterns and restless waves. She explores the forces, conflicts and tensions at play in our bodies, our relationships and the world beyond.

‘It’s just human beings striving and yearning and reaching and trying. That is what moves me when I watch people dance.’

In person Pite seems a quiet presence, gentle and softly spoken. She is very articulate, but also cautious and considered.

‘I don’t feel that speaking is my first language. Dance is my first language.’

In a recent BBC documentary (Behind the Scenes, Radio 4, 25 July 2017) Pite is interviewed in the midst of rehearsals for ‘Flight Pattern,’ her first collaboration with the Royal Ballet. She openly expresses her anxieties about the piece.

‘I can feel that I’m overwhelmed by this project right now. It’s ambitious and there’s very little time, and I’m not convinced about some of the choices that I’ve made, and I don’t know if things are going to work. And if they don’t work, I don’t think I’m going to have time to come up with a Plan B.’

Pite reassures herself that persistence, effort, action and creation will see her through what she calls ‘the doldrums of doubt.’

Crystal Pite portrait courtesy of Sadlers Wells

Crystal Pite portrait courtesy of Sadlers Wells

‘Keep pushing through, just keep making. Keep making, keep imagining, keep building, keep trying. Otherwise I’ll just freeze.’

Pite’s candour about her misgivings is rare and compelling in someone so successful. And yet her uncertainty comes in harness with a steely determination, and a clear conviction about her core idea and end objective.

‘I have such a clear plan for the eye of the audience…Not only do I choreograph what’s on stage. I also choreograph the viewer. I choreograph what I think they’re going to be looking at.’

Pite is the very model of a modern creative leader. She has complete confidence about where she wants to go. But she is also open about the doubts and uncertainties, opportunities and threats that present themselves along the way.

‘I have to be a leader and I have to be a creator. Being a leader requires that I know what I’m doing. I need to walk in here, into the studio, and know; and to be able to be clear and decisive and sure. And being a creator is really the opposite of that. I need to be in a state of not knowing. I need to remain open to possibilities and to allow myself to meander and to play.’

It struck me that Pite’s remarks do not pertain just to creative leadership; but to all forms of leadership in an age of change. In the past we wanted our leaders to be consistently certain, steadfast and strong. But in times of transformation complete conviction about the future can come across as arrogant, misguided or delusional. When all around us is in flux, absolute certainty is absolutely impossible.

Of course, we need our leaders to be sure about the objectives we’re pursuing; the direction we’re headed. But we also need them to be more honest about their doubts and fears; more open to alternatives and opportunities; more responsive to events and circumstances.

‘Flight Pattern’ turned out to be an exceptional piece of modern dance. It was at once beautiful and sad; heartbreaking and inspiring. Its success must in part derive from its choreographer’s willingness to embrace her apprehensions and anxieties. Uncertain times call for uncertain leaders.

No. 143

The Slowest Queue: Why Do Careers Always Seem To Be Progressing More Quickly Elsewhere?

I recently passed a long queue of kids outside the Supreme shop in Soho. I was at once disdainful of the young people’s insatiable appetite for tee shirts and trainers; and envious of their collective cool and camaraderie.

I have always been ambivalent about queues.

On the one hand I’m rather fond of them: the obligation to pause for a moment’s reflection; the opportunity to observe what’s in other people’s trolleys; the quiet satisfaction that there are others waiting behind me. Queues can be social, communal. They suggest inherent value; something worth waiting for. But then again I rather resent queues: the wasted time; the sense of injustice; the fear of missing out; the ‘quiet desperation.’ And, of course, the conviction that the other line is definitely moving along faster than my own.

So why am I always in the slowest queue?

There is a whole branch of science dedicated to ‘queueing theory.’ Firstly, the experts offer a simple statistical explanation for my sense of my line’s sluggishness. If there are three queues in a shop, the chances of my line being the quickest are only one in three. So it’s not just me: another queue is probably moving faster.

Secondly there is a psychological explanation. Experiments have shown that people only tend to notice the queue when their line is progressing slowly. So queue awareness is closely aligned with queue slowness.

Moreover, when I’m in a slow queue, it feels really slow. The minutes dawdle; the seconds drag. Time is elastic. We tend to experience time differently while waiting.

Although queue theorists have established that a singular serpentine line is fairer and quicker, more competitive types would rather take their chances with separate lines. But it’s hard to game the queue: you can’t predict when a customer ahead of you will be more talkative or troublesome; and sometimes a shorter line indicates a slower salesperson.

A recent University College London report (The Guardian, 19 February 2017) observed that on average people wait for only six minutes in a queue, and they are unlikely to join one with more than six people in it. Scores vary according to the appeal of the end experience and the availability of distractions (smart phones and mirrors, natch). Nonetheless, I’m sure that in previous, less pressurised, times we would happily have fallen in with longer queues and put up with them for longer. In the accelerated age our patience is wearing thin.

I wonder if we suffer something akin to this queueing dilemma in our careers. We see our peers and juniors progressing at pace at other companies. There always seems to be another business, another industry, at which career advancement is more rapid. And our own progress feels so slow. So we are propelled to look elsewhere; to try our luck in another queue, at another employer. With variable results we endeavour to game the queue. And the frequency with which we switch lanes or jump ship increases with the passing years.

Queueing theory suggests we may be deluding ourselves somewhat when we job hop: responding to the sensation of present slowness, rather than to the reality of speed elsewhere.

Of course, careers are not queues. Though there is always an element of waiting in line, career progress depends on the talent and hard work of the employee; and the opportunities and environment provided by the employer. We should always be prepared to move on when the opportunities are markedly better elsewhere; when the alternative environment is decidedly more conducive to learning, growth and good work.

I’m just sounding a note of caution. We should be alert to the psychological forces at play when we're frustrated at work. We should move for positive, not passive reasons; in order to seize real opportunities, not just to escape a seeming lack of them.

I confess I’m something of an irregular case. I happily stayed in the same company for some 25 years. I found that every time people ahead of me in the career queue departed, my own career moved on a step. And perhaps there is a lesson here: sometimes it makes sense to stay exactly where you are; to stick, not twist; to keep your place in the queue of life. Not all waiting is in vain.

‘I don’t wanna wait in vain for your love;
I don’t wanna wait in vain for your love.
From the very first time I rest my eyes on you, girl,
My heart says follow t’rough.
I know, now, that I’m way down on your line,
But the waitin’ feel is fine.’

Bob Marley, ‘Waiting in Vain’

 

No. 142

‘Look What We Have Built’: Should We Manage Our Businesses from the Top-Down or the Bottom-Up?

Jane Jacobs

‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’

I recently watched an excellent documentary about the writer, activist and urban theorist, Jane Jacobs (‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City’).

Born in 1916, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs moved to Greenwich Village in New York when she was 24. She fell in love with the vitality of the city: the stoops, streets and sidewalks; the parks and public spaces. She began writing magazine articles about different New York neighbourhoods, pointing out the complex interactions at the heart of thriving urban life; remarking on the security delivered by ‘eyes on the street’; celebrating ‘the diversity of kinds of work, the diversity of kinds of people.’

Jacobs did not have any formal training in urban planning, but she was observant, intuitive, empathetic. In her 1962 book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ she set out her understanding of what makes cities work.

‘It is a complex order… This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance - not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.’

Jacobs’ theories were at odds with the orthodoxy of the day: the modernist school of urban development embodied by the New York planner and ‘master builder’, Robert Moses.

Moses considered himself a progressive. He began his career before the Second World War commissioning swimming pools, parks, bridges and beaches, seeking to improve the lot of the urban poor. After the War, in the face of growing concern in New York about overcrowding, public health and housing, he embraced high-rise towers as a logical expression of the machine age; and the car as a liberating force in American life.

‘We wouldn’t have an American economy without the automobile business. That’s literally true.’

Robert Moses

Moses’ urban renewal projects in places like East Harlem and the Bronx swept aside neighbourhoods to make way for expressways, highways and high-rise housing. And he wasn’t afraid to break a few eggs in the name of progress.

‘You have to move a lot of people out of the way of a big housing project or a slum clearance project. A lot of them aren’t going to like it. Plenty of them are misinformed.’

Increasingly Moses displayed a condescension towards the people his schemes planned to displace, and for the old city neighbourhoods he intended to bulldoze.

‘I’d say that you have a cancerous growth there and it has to be carved out.’

In ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ Jacobs exposed the damage that Moses and the modernist developers were doing to the fabric of the city.

‘Look what we have built…Low income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity…This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities’

Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s Jacobs joined local communities in their fight to preserve New York’s West Village, Washington Square Park, Soho and Little Italy. Ultimately they prevailed over Moses and his feared Lower Manhattan Expressway.

In reviewing her philosophical differences with the utopian urban planners, Jacobs was sceptical about an expansive, top-down mentality that professed to know what’s good for people.

‘I have very little faith in even the kind of person who prefers to take large overall views of things.’

Jacobs believed in bottom-up decision-making; in realising the creativity of the communities most engaged with issues.

‘Historically solutions to city problems have very seldom come from the top. They come from people who understand the problems first hand because they’re living with them and they have new and ingenious, and often very offbeat, ideas of how to solve them.’

I wonder, in the leadership and management of modern businesses, are we inclined to pursue top-down or bottom-up strategies? Is our instinct for centralised control, or democratised empowerment? Do we feel more comfortable with utopian, abstract schemes, or organic, chaotic complexity?

Are we, like the urban planners before us, seduced by grand designs and visionary thinking; by the elegance of detailed computer graphics and the authority of infinite data-streams?

Or do we observe how our organisations work in real life? Do we properly embrace the knowledge and knowhow of the workforce; the wisdom of colleagues?

It’s important to recognise that Jacobs had her critics. Some have suggested that her success in preserving old city neighbourhoods precipitated the gentrification that drove lower income residents out. Some have observed that, though Moses may have been wrong about high-rise and highways, cities do need infrastructure; they do need utilities and public transport. Cities need planning.

Having said this, Jacobs teaches anyone involved in organisational change some critical lessons: that the best organisations have a soul worth preserving; that preservation is critical to genuine progress; and that all progress should benefit the many, not just the few.

The challenge for contemporary leaders is to develop visionary, far-reaching plans for their business that are rooted in a deeper understanding of what colleagues want and need; to run at the future armed with the expertise and creativity of our staff; to find a path to progress that retains the company’s vital organic culture.

‘People make cities, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.’

No. 141

‘Raymond Shaw Is the Kindest, Bravest, Warmest, Most Wonderful Human Being I’ve Ever Known in My Life’: Considering Advertising’s Hypnotic Power

The 1962 movie ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is a taught thriller and dark political satire that begins with Communist brainwashing and culminates in an assassination attempt on a Presidential candidate.

Laurence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, a US Army Sergeant who has been awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of nine members of his battalion that were being held behind enemy lines in Korea. Major Ben Marco (played by Frank Sinatra) is one of the survivors. He is cursed by a recurrent nightmare in which Shaw kills two members of their squad. He is further confused by the fact that any mention of Shaw’s name leads him to repeat the exact same sentence: ‘Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.’

Marco gradually realises that he is a victim of brainwashing. He sets out to understand why and to foil the plot that lies behind it.

‘His brain has not been washed as they say…It has been dry cleaned.’

I began my career as a Qualitative Market Researcher. I was doing some work for the automobile brand, Peugeot, whose slogan at the time was ‘The Lion Goes from Strength to Strength.’ (Peugeot’s badge features a heraldic lion.) One respondent wanted to impress on me that he ignored all advertising; it completely passed him by; he was an entirely rational individual. Later in the discussion I asked him how Peugeot was performing in the competitive context. ‘They’ve been doing pretty well, to be fair. They’ve been going from strength to strength.’

I was subsequently researching Red Rock Cider, which had a tag line about being ‘less gassy with no strong aftertaste.’ A bloke in one of my groups turned to some respondents that were sceptical of cider’s merits and said: ‘You should try Red Rock. It’s less gassy than other ciders. And it’s got no strong aftertaste.’

In another research project I was talking to some kids about breakfast cereal and I mentioned the Honey Nut Loops brand. In unison they promptly launched into an uncanny rendition of the Honey Nut Loops theme tune: ‘Honey Nut Loops. Let’s loop together.’

I confess I retain an affection for jingles, slogans and catchphrases. We may prefer nowadays to talk of symbols, rhythms, patterns and memes. Whatever the terminology, repetition gives consumers a sense of a brand’s conviction and consistency; a handy vocabulary that explains its distinctiveness. And, yes, at their best these devices do indeed possess a certain hypnotic power.

Within the communication industry we have always denied that we were engaged in anything so sinister as brainwashing. But not everyone has agreed with us.

In 1957, just a few years before ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ hit the cinemas, Vance Packard published ‘The Hidden Persuaders.’ The book sought to alert the American public to the use by advertisers of applied psychology and sociology; and to the employment of ‘motivational research’ to determine consumers’ psychological weaknesses. Packard suggested that brands were engaged in ‘mass persuasion through the subconscious.’

‘Many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.’

As my own experiences illustrate, we cannot deny that many of consumers’ opinions of, and associations with, brands are formed at a subconscious level. We may nowadays call it low involvement processing, but there’s still an ethical question to be answered: Does advertising brainwash its consumers? 

Within the industry we have consistently contended that the answer is: No.

Whilst Packard suggested advertising works in a covert or clandestine way, we sustain that its persuasive powers hide in plain sight. 

Moreover, consumers are largely complicit in advertising’s seductive sell. Most are willing participants in the marketing game. In ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ even Packard conceded:

‘When irrational acts are committed knowingly they become a sort of delicious luxury.’

I should say that in my many years of attending focus groups, creative reviews and Client meetings, I rarely came across anyone so serious as a professional hypnotist, motivational researcher or psychologist. We did dabble in a little harmless semiotics, but we generally regarded persuasion as an art, not a science. We sought to charm and entice, rather than to deceive.

Perhaps this is why today’s acolytes of marketing neuroscience make me a little uncomfortable. We often assert that attention in the modern era must be earned, not hijacked. Yet neuroscience seems to take us back in the opposite direction. Talk of brainscans and emotional manipulation; of eye tracking and facial coding; of unconscious desires and subconscious triggers, would have resonated with Packard. We shouldn't be complacent about such things. Perhaps it's time to dust off our copies of 'The Hidden Persuaders.' 

‘I fell into a trance,
Just watching you dance.
My world just stopped when I saw your eyes on me.
H-Y-P I’m hypnotised.
H-Y-P I’m hypnotised.’

The Undertones, Hypnotised (Charles Burchill, James Kerr)

 

No. 140

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

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

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

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

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

What happened?

Who was involved?

Where did it take place?

When did it take place?

Why did it happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carly Simon, Why (Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards)

No. 139

Habit Is the Thinker’s Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d suggest you consider the following.

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

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

 

No. 138

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 137

 

 

Do It the Hard Way: Channelling Your Inner Bette Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headline from a Bette Davis movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I will never be below the title.’

So what can we learn from Davis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margo Channing, ‘All About Eve’
 

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

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

No. 136

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 135