The Red Buoy: Beware Being Repositioned by the Competition

 JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden where his father was a barber and wig-maker. John Constable, born in Suffolk a year later, was the son of a wealthy corn merchant and miller.

Together these artists introduced a vibrant new way of depicting landscape. While their predecessors had set out to paint the natural world through mythical idealism or realistic accuracy, Turner and Constable sought to convey its true soul.

Turner painted shipwrecks, fires and fogs; violent seas and fierce storms; the smoke and steam of the industrial revolution. Constable was more gentle at heart. He painted picturesque waterways and working farms; elegant steeples, shimmering rainbows and gossamer clouds. 

Sadly the two artists never got on. Turner, who had been something of a child prodigy, regarded Constable as an upstart. Constable praised Turner in public, but in private described his work as ‘just steam and light’. In the Royal Academy exhibition of 1831 Constable had one of Turner's paintings moved from a prominent position and replaced with one of his own.

At the Royal Academy exhibition the following year Constable and Turner were assigned places alongside each other in one of the main galleries. Constable had been working on ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ for fifteen years. In the days before the exhibition, artists were allowed to apply a final coat to their paintings as they hung on the gallery walls. And so Constable painstakingly set about his finishing touches.

Turner was showing a sombre seascape, a picture of Dutch ships in a storm,‘Helvoetsluys’. Just before the exhibition opened, he realised his work suffered by comparison with Constable’s. And so he marched in and painted a small bright red buoy in the middle of his canvas. It drew the eye, creating a compelling contrast with the green sea around it. Turner left without saying a word.

Constable was incensed.

‘He has been here and fired a gun.’

The critics agreed that Turner’s simpler, more restrained work made ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ look complex, fussy and ostentatious. The exhibition was a disaster for Constable.

There’s a lesson for the marketing world here.

 John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

You may be going merrily about your business, doing a decent job, progressing steadily along the tracks. Your brand may be well regarded by consumers. Everything may be OK.

But then out of left field the competition does something radical that rewrites the rules; that reframes the market; that changes the way you’re viewed. Suddenly you no longer seem quite so relevant. You appear a little off the pace, a little out of sorts. Suddenly you look like yesterday’s brand.

BA was solidly respectable, thoroughly dependable. And then irreverent Virgin arrived on the scene and made it somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned. Levi’s was cool and contemporary. And then dissident Diesel appeared and made it safe and conventional. Orange made Vodafone feel corporate. Apple made Microsoft appear square. Sipsmith made Gordon's look dreary. Fever-Tree made Schweppes taste sweet. Eat made Pret seem over-sauced. And so on and so forth.

We should watch out for the seemingly insignificant red buoy that appears out of left field; the subtle touch of the brush that at a stroke makes us seem less relevant. We should beware being repositioned by the competition.

When we play it safe, we leave space for others to shine. If we want to be a leadership brand, we have to lead.

 

'When least expected,
Fate stumbles in.
Bringing light to the darkness,
Oh, what a friend.
I needed someone to call my own.
Suddenly, out of left field
Out of left field, out of left field
Love came along.’

Percy Sledge, 'Out of Left Field' (Dan Penn / Spooner Oldham)

No. 187

The Jean Brodie School of Planning Leadership: Coaching is about Leading Out, Not Thrusting In

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'I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life. You girls are my vocation. If I were to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, I would decline it. I am dedicated to you in my prime. And my summer in Italy has convinced me that I am truly in my prime.'

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’ Muriel Spark

I recently saw a fine theatrical adaptation of Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ at the Donmar Warehouse in London (until 28 July).

It is 1932 and we are introduced to Jean Brodie, a charismatic and subversive teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school. She inspires her dedicated pupils with stories of Italian holidays and Giotto; with advice on love and appropriate window closure.

The free-spirited, independent-minded Brodie is constantly questioning the more formal, disciplined teaching methods of the head of school, Miss Mackay.

'I am cashmere to Miss Mackay's granite.'

As the play progresses, we come to appreciate that Brodie is deeply flawed. The fierce loyalty she demands from her pupils creates a clique. And she has more than a passing fascination with continental fascism.

Despite this, I was quite taken with Brodie’s teaching philosophy.

‘The word ‘education’ comes from the root ‘e’ from ‘ex’, ‘out’, and ‘duco’, ‘I lead’. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education. I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix ‘in’, meaning ’in’ and the stem ‘trudo’, ‘I thrust’.’

Perhaps Brodie could suggest some leadership lessons for the commercial sector.

When you are appointed Head of Planning, you may find that your greatest strength becomes your greatest weakness. You were promoted because you’re sharp, smart and pretty good at strategy. And so your first instinct on being presented with a problem is to endeavour to solve it yourself. When, however, the problem comes to you in the shape of a young Planner with a few theories of his or her own, this instinct doesn’t help.  

If the primary task of leadership is to maximize the output, value and wellbeing of the human capital available to you, then a key challenge is to create high performing self-sufficiency in your Planners. You won’t achieve this by telling them to write up your answers.

As Broadie would have put it, coaching is about ‘leading out’, not ‘thrusting in.’

In my brief and not entirely successful tenure of the Head of Planning role at BBH, I set myself the task of enhancing my Planners’ ideas and hypotheses, rather than imposing my own. I was a pluralist who believed there were many right answers to any question. And in time I grew rather to enjoy the intellectual challenge inherent in this approach.

On taking the reins, you may also be inclined to promote a strong sense of departmental identity and esprit de corps; to rally the team round a unifying vision and sense of purpose. This is a natural path to take. But, as Brodie warned, it can be counterproductive.

'Phrases like 'the team spirit' are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties.' 

Be careful that coherence and consistency don’t translate into uniformity and homogeneity. A successful strategy department is characterized by diverse skills and personalities working in harmony. Make difference your friend.

The third lesson from the Brodie handbook is perhaps an obvious one.

Brodie set out from the start to instill confidence; to convince her pupils that she believed in them and that she was on their side. Brodie’s girls were ‘the crème de la crème’, and they were ‘in their prime’.

'One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.'

Confidence is a precious commodity in any organization. It prompts people to inspired leaps; motivates them to engage Clients with conviction; supports them through the hard times. A critical responsibility of leadership is to build and sustain self-confidence.

So, three lessons from the Jean Brodie School of Planning Leadership:

- coach by ‘leading out’, not ‘thrusting in’

- create harmonious teams of individuals, not uniform teams of carbon-copies

- build self-confidence: the sense that your Planners are ‘the crème de la crème, in their prime’

Perhaps we should give the last word to Miss Jean Brodie who, for all her flaws, leaves an indelible impression.

'I am a teacher! I am a teacher, first, last, always!... It is true I am a strong influence on my girls. I am proud of it. I influence them to be aware of all the possibilities of life... of beauty, honour, courage.' 

 

I was invited to write this piece by Ben Shaw, the new Head of Planning at BBH, London. It first appeared on BBH Labs, 2 July 2018.

No. 186

Hedy’s Hidden Talent: Considering Untapped Resources at Work

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‘The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think.’
Hedy Lamarr

I recently saw a fine documentary plotting the extraordinary life and hidden talent of the film star Hedy Lamarr (‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’, 2017).

Hedwig Kiesler was born into a middle class family in Vienna in 1914. She dropped out of school to become an actor, and in 1930 made her first film. In 1932 she gained notoriety when she appeared nude in ‘Ecstasy’, a movie that was banned in the United States. That same year she married a wealthy munitions manufacturer. Her jealous husband put her career on hold, and she found herself playing the society hostess, often to fascist military figures.

Kiesler was bored. She resented being controlled, and, being of Jewish descent, she felt unsafe. In 1937 she escaped by spiking her attendant’s tea and donning a maid’s outfit that had her jewelry sewn into its lining.

Kiesler arrived in London just when film mogul Louis B Mayer happened to be in town talent spotting. He offered her a modest $125 a week. She turned him down, but followed him to America and negotiated a $500 a week contract on the transatlantic crossing.

Mayer changed Kiesler's name to Hedy Lamarr and she made her Hollywood film debut alongside Charles Boyer in ‘Algiers’ in 1938.

Boyer: ‘What did you do before the jewels?’

Lamarr: ‘I wanted them.’

With her full lips, dark hair and distinctive centre parting, Lamarr was a hit with the American public. Her looks inspired Disney’s Snow White and DC Comics’ Catwoman. However, she was generally type cast as a glamorous seductress in exotic adventure epics. And she was rarely given interesting lines.

'I am Tondelayo. I make tiffin for you?'

Lamarr grew bored of Hollywood.

‘Any girl can look glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.’

She had a curious mind. At the age of 5 she had taken a music box to pieces to see how it worked. Without any formal training, she liked to spend her spare time inventing at home or in her trailer on-set. She set about designing a traffic stop-light, a soluble cola tablet and aerodynamic plane wings.

‘I don’t have to work on ideas. They come naturally.’

In 1940, eager to help the war effort and concerned about her mother who was still in Europe, Lamarr was taken with a news report that suggested British torpedoes were being easily intercepted by the Germans.

‘I got the idea for my invention when I tried to think of some way to even the balance for the British… They shot the torpedoes in all directions and never hit the target. So I invented something that does.’

Lamarr teamed up with fellow amateur inventor, the composer George Antheil, and, inspired by early radio remote controls and the paper rolls used in player-pianos, together they developed the idea of a frequency-hopping system for remotely controlling torpedoes.

In 1942 the invention was patented, reviewed by the National Inventors Council and filed away in secret. It wasn’t taken up initially and Lamarr assumed it remained neglected. But the patent was revisited by the military after the war, and in the late '50s the concept was employed in the development of drones. Frequency hopping radio subsequently became the basis for today’s WiFi and Bluetooth technologies. 

Sadly, there was no happy ending to this particular movie. Due to the expiration of the patent and Lamarr's ignorance of the time limits for filing claims, she made no money from her invention. In her later years, addicted to pills and plastic surgery, she withdrew to Florida and cash-strapped seclusion. She died in 2000.

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What can we learn from Lamarr’s story?

Well, first of all perhaps that when we are bored and restless, we should resolve to do something about it.

'I can excuse everything but boredom. Boring people don't have to stay that way.'

Lamarr demonstrated a phenomenal curiosity and appetite for adventure. She followed her passions.

‘All creative people want to do the unexpected.’

Throughout her life she also exhibited a determination to overcome the obstacles that came in her way.

‘When things don’t come easy, figure out why, and then do something about it…And if people walk over you, don’t let them.’

This determination was particularly required in Lamarr’s engagement with men. She was married six times and was generally frustrated in love.

'Perhaps my problem in marriage - and it is the problem of many women - was to want both intimacy and independence. It is a difficult line to walk, yet both needs are important to a marriage.’

So, Lamarr teaches us to use boredom as a prompt to action, to follow our passions, and to be resolute in their pursuit. But above all she compels us to reflect on hidden talents: on skills that are unappreciated, underutilised, unrealised.

In the commercial sector, where it is increasingly difficult to develop and sustain genuine product differentiation, talent is often all we have to set a business apart. And a primary role of leadership is realising the value of the human capital that is available to it.

But how well do we know our own talent? How well do we understand our colleagues’ private passions and undisclosed gifts? Do we audit their skills and abilities? Have we ever set out to realise them?

It is not uncommon for leaders nowadays to proclaim to their workforce that they want them to be the best that they can be. But these are hollow words if no effort is taken to discover what people are best at.

Historically it has been the imperative of business to channel talent against a particular task or output. In the digital age surely we must be seeking, not just to harness ability to predetermined goals, but to follow talent wherever it takes us.

And of course, this applies as much to individuals as it does to organisations. Fulfilment at work begins with self-awareness. What am I good at? What are my special skills? What do I enjoy? What gives me a particular thrill?

Like Lamarr, once we have answered these questions, we should embrace their consequences, and pursue the unknown with enthusiasm and determination.

What have we got to be scared of?

‘Hope and curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. The unknown was always so attractive to me... And still is.’

No. 185

‘The Landscape of Fact’: How Measurement and Language Can Become Vehicles of Control

 Photo: Colin Morgan by David Stewart for The National Theatre

Photo: Colin Morgan by David Stewart for The National Theatre

‘Yes, it is a rich language… full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception — a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to … inevitabilities.’

There’s an excellent production of Brian Friel’s 1980 play ‘Translations’ running at the National Theatre in London (until 11 August).

The drama is set in 1833 amongst the Irish-speaking community of Baile Beag, Donegal. Bibulous Hugh, ‘a large man, with residual dignity’, teaches Latin and Greek literature to the local peasantry at his informal ‘hedge school.’ In a ramshackle old barn his students learn grammar and word derivations, and swap quotations from Homer, Tacitus and Virgil.

‘There was an ancient city which, ‘tis said, Juno loved above all the lands. And it was the goddess’s aim and cherished hope that here should be the capital of all nations – should the fates perchance allow that.’

English is rarely spoken in the area ‘and then usually for the purposes of commerce, a use to which [that] tongue seemed particularly suited.’

Meanwhile British troops are camped nearby charting a map of the area for the Ordnance Survey. This entails Anglicising the local place names. So Bun na hAbhann becomes Burnfoot; Druim Dubh becomes Dromduff; and Baile Beag becomes Ballybeg.

Hugh is no admirer of the English language.

‘English succeeds in making it sound…plebeian.’

And he explains to the British sappers that their culture is lost on the Irish.

‘Wordsworth? … No, I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.’

The British are also in the process of establishing a national education system in Ireland. This is one of the first state-run, standardised systems of primary education in the world. English will be the official language, and the new system will make the traditional Irish-speaking ‘hedge schools’ redundant.

The drama prompts us to think about control. The British claim that their measurements and mapping will lead to fairer, more accurate taxation. But there’s an underlying suspicion that darker motives are at play. On the face of it the new school system will be superior to the old, and some in the Irish community regard English as a gateway tongue to travel and better prospects. But Hugh is concerned that Ireland is losing its cultural identity.

‘Remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen — to use an image you’ll understand — it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of … fact.’ 

We may recognise some of these themes in the world of commerce. Periodically our leaders, our owners and our Clients seek to monitor our output and ways of working; to map the landscape and contours of the business. We embrace timesheets and targets; scales and scorecards; ratios and rotas. Of course, it’s all in the interests of efficiency and best practice. ‘What gets measured gets done’ and so forth.

But there’s often a misgiving that measurement is a means of re-ordering priorities, of setting a new agenda, of enacting control; and a concern that the measures can become an end in themselves. As Sir John Banham, the former President of the CBI once observed:

‘In business we value most highly that which we can measure most precisely… Consequently we often invest huge amounts in being precisely wrong rather than seeking to be approximately right.’

Similarly we may find that our leaders, owners and Clients seek to impose their own language upon us. We are taught catchphrases and buzzwords; axioms and aphorisms; jargon and generalisation. Listen and repeat. Listen and repeat. As we endeavour to wise up, we dumb down. As our ambition expands, our vocabulary shrinks.

In his recent documentary ‘On Jargon’ (BBC4, 27 May), the brilliant writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades contrasted jargon with slang.

‘Jargon is everything that slang is not. Centrifugal, evasive, drably euphemistic, unthreatening, conformist. ... Whilst slang belongs to the gutter, jargon belongs to the executive estate. It is the clumsy, graceless, inelegant, aesthetically bereft expression of houses with three garages; of business people who instinctively refer to their workmates as colleagues…It is delusional. It inflates pomposity, officiousness and self-importance rather than punctures them. Slang mocks. Jargon crawls on its belly - giving great feedback, hoping for promotion.’

Now I should concede that I have been no stranger to aphorisms. When I was in leadership positions, I was prone to headlining new agendas; to punching out big themes. And I have often referred to my workmates as colleagues.

Of course, it is the responsibility of leaders in modern businesses to achieve corporate clarity and coherence. But it is imperative in so doing, to avoid clichéd conventional wisdom; ‘newspeak’ and ‘doublethink.’ And it is critical that independent thought and freedom of expression are not victims of the process.

Sometimes, in seeking to control difference, we simply succeed in making everyone the same.

One of the last of the great Cavalier Clients was Geoffrey Probert, who ran the deodorant and oral categories at Unilever. He was mindful that Agencies were at great pains to fit in with their Clients; to conform to their language and way of working. He warned against it.

‘Agencies can spend too much time trying to be like their clients. We’ve got loads of people just like us. We need you to be different. That’s the point. Just concentrate on doing the things we can’t do.’

No. 184

 

 

‘The Child Must Banish the Father’: Mark Rothko and Intergenerational Strife

 Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

‘Movement is everything. Movement is life. The second we’re born we squall, we writhe, we squirm. To live is to move.’

There’s a splendid production of the 2009 play ‘Red’ by John Logan running at the Wyndham Theatre in London (until 28 July).

It is 1958-59. Mark Rothko has been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the glamorous Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. In his paint-splattered Bowery studio he creates his work surrounded by whisky bottles, canvases, turpentine and brushes; in low light; to the sounds of Schubert and Mozart.

Rothko strives to convey raw truth, real feeling and pure thought - in maroon, dark red and black. His luminous paintings pulse with introspection, intensity and intellectual energy. He approaches his craft with high seriousness.

‘People like me… My contemporaries, my colleagues…Those painters who came up with me. We all had one thing in common…We understood the importance of seriousness.’

Rothko explains to his young assistant that he and his fellow Abstract Expressionists achieved their dominance of the post-war art scene by sweeping aside the previous generation.

‘We destroyed Cubism, de Kooning and me and Pollock and Barnett Newman and all the others. We stomped it to death. Nobody can paint a cubist picture now…The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him.’

Rothko’s assistant, however, is a fan of the emergent Pop Art movement; of artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He challenges Rothko’s worldview.

‘Not everything needs to be so goddamn important all the time. Not every painting needs to rip your guts out and expose your soul. Not everyone wants art that actually hurts. Sometimes you just want a fucking still life or soup can or comic book!’

Rothko is unimpressed.

‘You know the problem with those painters? It’s exactly what you said: they are painting for this moment, right now. And that’s all. It’s nothing but zeitgeist art. Completely temporal, completely disposable, like Kleenex.’

Rothko’s frustration with Pop Art extends to the culture that has created and celebrated it. He rages against the triviality of modern life.

‘‘Pretty.’ ’Beautiful.’ ’Nice.’ ’Fine.’ That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine’. We put on the funny nose and glasses and slip on the banana peel and the TV makes everything happy and everyone’s laughing all the time, it’s all so goddamn funny. It’s our constitutional right to be amused all the time, isn’t it? We’re a smirking nation living under the tyranny of ‘fine’. How are you? Fine. How was your day? Fine. How did you like the painting? Fine. Want some dinner? Fine…Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine!...How are you?...How was your day? How are you feeling? Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine.’

The argument gets personal. Rothko’s assistant points out that the artist’s seriousness and self-importance don’t sit well with his latest commission.

‘The High Priest of Modern Art is painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption.’

For me these bitter exchanges resonate with the intergenerational strife that we often encounter today in work and broader society. Each age cohort seems eager to celebrate its own triumphs, but reluctant to recognize the virtues of the cohort beneath them.

My own generation, born in the ‘60s, rejoices in punk’s destruction of ‘70s lethargy and hippy self-indulgence. We lionize our mix-tapes, style tribes, GTIs and political engagement. We rejoice in our hedonistic teens and our industrious twenties.

Yet, we moan about Millennials and make sarcastic remarks about Snowflakes. We complain about young people’s technology addiction and attention deficit disorders; their narcissism, impatience and indifference; the artisanal gins and avocado on toast; no-platforming and eating on public transport.

The younger generation can quite rightly retort with ‘80s materialism, sexism and sartorial blunders; the environmental apathy and the plain good fortune of the property market. They can coin their own labels: Centrist Dads and Gammons and so forth.

This intergenerational squabbling gets us nowhere. It betrays an inability to see life through anything other than the prism of our own experience.

Surely each generation is equal but different. One generation dances with their feet; the other dances with their hands. One wears white socks at the gym; the other wears black. One watches TV together; the other watches phones together.

I have been in awe of modern youth’s ability to diminish the gap between thought and action; their entrepreneurial spirit and technical facility; their comfort with diversity and their capacity to keep life and work in balance. They’re just as political, but they care about different issues. They’re just as stylish, but in skinnier jeans.

OK. Their music is not as good…

In the field of commerce the businesses that thrive are those that truly trust and enable the younger generation; that integrate old and new skills; that recognise the imperative of change. Because if a company fails to embrace generational difference, then eventually 'the child will banish the father.’ And the mother too.

Towards the end of ‘Red’ Rothko has a change of heart. After a dispiriting trip to the Four Seasons restaurant, he backs out of the lucrative commission. And he dismisses his assistant with something approaching good grace.

‘Listen, kid, you don’t need to spend any more time with me. You need to find your contemporaries and make your own world, your own life…You need to get out there now, into the thick of it, shake your fist at them, talk their ear off… Make something new.’

No. 183

 

Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox? Considering the Monist and Pluralist Views of How Communication Works

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In his celebrated 1953 essay on Tolstoy, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox,’ philosopher Isaiah Berlin quotes a fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus:

‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’

This line has sometimes been taken to suggest that hedgehogs are superior to foxes, because their singular defensive skill trumps the many and various wiles of the fox. Foxes can run and dart and hide and pounce. A hedgehog just rolls itself up into a very effective spikey ball. Archilochus may, of course, be pointing out the distinction in skills without attributing superior worth. In any case, Berlin employs the analogy of the Hedgehog and the Fox to illuminate two fundamentally different types of thinking:

‘There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.’

 Berlin establishes two camps.

The Hedgehogs are monists, ever in search of overarching laws, panoramic principles, universal theories. Their enthusiasms and enquiries converge, centripetally, on singular visions. To their team he assigns the likes of Plato, Dante, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen.

The Foxes, by contrast, are pluralists. They enjoy exploring the infinite multiplicity of life. Their interests and opinions spin off, centrifugally, in all sorts of different, sometimes conflicting, directions. To them Berlin assigns Herodotus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Pushkin, Joyce and others.

Since the publication of Berlin’s essay, writers have enjoyed categorising novelists, philosophers, economists, musicians, and anyone else you’d care to mention, into singular Hedgehogs and pluralist Foxes.

In the field of business critics have observed that Hedgehog leaders value focus, best practice, order and specialism. By contrast Fox leaders cherish diverse skillsets, complexity, adaptability and speed. Some infer that it’s the Foxes that thrive in the new economy.

When in 2014 the statistician Nate Silver launched his data journalism organization, FiveThirtyEight, he incorporated a fox in the company logo. In a manifesto he explained: 

‘We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways.’

Categorising Hedgehogs and Foxes has become something of an academic parlour game. But the ubiquity of the analogy doesn’t undermine its interest. Inevitably one has to ask: in the field of communications, who are the Hedgehogs and who are the Foxes?

When I came into the advertising profession in the late 1980s I was inducted, by experience and case studies, into a singular model of effectiveness that combined rational and emotional persuasion. Advertising was a sugar-coated pill, an exercise in earned attention, focused messaging and subtle seduction. Our benchmarks were VW and Levi’s, Carling and Courage Best. I guess in those days, in Berlin’s terms, I was a Hedgehog. I believed that all roads led to the same model of persuasion.

But as my career progressed I kept encountering admirable campaigns that didn’t quite fit this model. Radion advertising was brutal and crude, but it clearly precipitated action. Gap commercials lacked a proposition, but their effortless style carried the day. Chanel’s Egoiste was empty, but effective. Cadbury’s Gorilla made little logical sense, but it didn’t seem to matter.

With every passing year and every new exception, my Hedgehog mentality was chipped away. I reflected fondly on the directness of the jingles, slogans and anthropomorphism with which I’d grown up. With the dawn of the social age, I admired the infinite variety of memes, the viral impact of stunts, the authentic transparency of verite, the smart psychology of nudges. Gradually I became an open-minded pluralist; a student of many schools of communication effectiveness. I became a Fox.

In his excellent book, ‘The Anatomy of Humbug’, Paul Feldwick reviews the numerous theories of how advertising works. He explores the various traditions of rational persuasion and unconscious communication, ‘salesmanship’ and ‘seduction’ as he terms them. He also considers the effectiveness of salience and fame, social connection and relationships, PR and showmanship. He concludes that all these approaches have genuine merit:

‘These are not to be understood as rival or mutually exclusive theories – they are all intended as different ways of thinking about the same thing, all of which may have their uses, and each of which alone has its limitations.’

Every generation brings a new theory of how communication works. Every cohort creates new tools and techniques, methods and models. Most of these have some value in illuminating their particular field and broadening our understanding of the art of persuasion. But I have remained sceptical of anyone that preaches a singular gospel; a definitive model; a theory of everything. It’s Fool’s Gold.

And I don’t listen to Hedgehogs any more.

 

No. 182 

Calculated Creativity: You Need Left-Brain as Well as Right-Brain Thinking to Make Commercial Communication

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‘The music industry isn’t about healing pain and heartbreak and vulnerability. It’s about selling it.’

I recently saw ‘Mood Music’, an entertaining and thoughtful new play by Joe Penhall (at the Old Vic until 16 June). The piece revolves around a dispute between Bernard, a middle-aged music producer, and Cat, a young singer-songwriter. They have collaborated over a successful album, but their relationship unravels as Bernard claims sole authorship of its hit song.

‘Making other people feel better doesn’t really make me feel better.’

Our sympathies are with Cat. She is inexperienced, vulnerable and idealistic. We want to believe her romantic characterisation of the creative process.

‘When we’re making great music and it’s working, I’m free. Everything has clarity. Energy. Like a surge of life force. Something that’s uniquely mine pours out and connects. I can perform magical tricks. I can fly.’

Bernard, by contrast, is cynical, manipulative and misanthropic. He finds it hard to recognise the talent of others.

‘You see, singers tend to live in a world of their own. They have to completely empty their minds in order to sing, and then they just stay that way.’

‘The thing you need to understand about bass players is they’re not musical.’

‘Drummers can’t feel pain. They’re like fish.’

Bernard is undoubtedly the villain of the piece. And yet sometimes, in the midst of the bullying, bitterness and bile, his pronouncements about the craft of songwriting ring true.

‘A good song doesn’t have a ‘heart.’ It has a void. It’s a ‘black hole’. It sucks you inside it, and you fill it with yourself until there’s no escape.’

Bernard believes that creating music is not about freedom, passion and self-expression. For him it’s all a matter of detachment, compromise and control.

‘The key to emotion is nuance, and the key to nuance is precision. You have to be very mechanical to make it emotional. It’s a real dichotomy.’

Bernard goes on to muse on the character traits of successful creative people.

‘Well, you see, music is traditionally all about expressing yourself, and musicians are generally against repressing their feelings. But I think some people should be a bit more repressed.’ 

These themes may resonate for us in the commercial communication sector, where creativity is put to work; applied to a task; managed and manipulated to achieve a particular goal. We deal in calculated creativity.

Many veteran creatives have, like Bernard, a disarming air of cynicism about them. They wear their disappointments and past defeats as badges of pride. But often they also have the experience and expertise to adjust and adapt ideas; to revise and refine them so as to realise their full potential.

As an industry we spend a good deal of time paying our respects to the right-brain aspects of our work: to the anarchic free spirit; the magical spark of invention; the unfettered imagination. But the commercial creative requires logic, analysis and objectivity as much as intuition, thoughtfulness and subjectivity. Maybe we should spend more time celebrating the left-brain: the calculation and control that translate a raw idea into a compelling and effective piece of communication; the precise knowhow that guides concepts through the development process to execution; the craft of creativity.

Perhaps if we lauded calculated creativity more than maverick invention - if we gave due attention to craft skills, and taught them properly in our schools – we’d be better appreciated by our Clients, and better understood in the wider fields of commerce. And we’d be less inclined to indulge the unruly behaviour and wearying extravagance of the conventional creative stereotype.

In the course of ‘Mood Music’ both Bernard and Cat take to counselling to address their frustrations. Cat’s psychotherapist observes:

‘I’m just saying you find a lot of damaged people – sociopaths and psychopaths, for example – are drawn to the music industry because lack of empathy, raging narcissism and grandiose eccentricity is expected of them. It’s normal.’

It doesn’t have to be.

No. 182

An Embarrassing Incident on the Norfolk Broads: ‘Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst’

 Edward Seago, Summer on the Norfolk Broads

Edward Seago, Summer on the Norfolk Broads

Many, many summers ago Dad took us all on holiday to the Norfolk Broads. Mum, five kids, Aunty Mary, her friend Frances, and a springer spaniel all squeezed onto a great metal tub of a boat that he had selected from the Hoseasons brochure.

We plotted courses on maps, fished for eels, ran along the top deck with the dog, and periodically helped moor the boat at the quayside. Dad stood on the bridge in a captain’s cap, smoking Embassy, relishing the peace and solitude.

One evening Dad took Martin and me to the pub before dinner. We got talking to a middle-aged couple who were clearly rather nautical, but new to the Broads. Though he didn’t confess it to our new acquaintances, Dad was far from an expert mariner. This was his first serious outing on the water, and we’d already had an incident when the boat got stuck under a low hanging bridge. Dad was however a confident conversationalist, and he enjoyed giving advice on the places to stop at Wroxham and Beccles, the best way to tackle the currents at Yarmouth, and so forth. The middle-aged couple nodded appreciatively.

The next morning we set off quite early. It was all hands on deck as Dad barked instructions from the helm. Unfortunately, in the excitement, he confused his forward and reverse gears and drove the big metal tub straight into a small, smart boat that was moored nearby. To our shock and dismay, out popped the irate heads of the middle-aged couple from the night before.

‘It’s him!’ they cried.

I’m not sure my father was a student of the nineteenth century British statesman, Benjamin Disraeli. He might have been familiar with his aphorism:

‘I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.’ 

Dad, by contrast, always hoped for the best, but was rarely prepared for the worst.

‘Jim, would you mind joining us for this Client meeting? We’re just kicking off the planning for next year. It’s all very loose and casual. Just a few flip charts and outline conversation. No need to prepare anything.’

I’d just been invited to a car crash.

You see, the Client had completely different expectations of the meeting. She was anticipating considered strategy and competitive reviews; rigorous analysis and robust hypotheses. It didn’t help that the session had been convened in a space that sought to recreate an average family’s front room - all comfy Ikea sofas, colourful rugs and wide screen.

She was justifiably incandescent. We narrowly escaped being fired on the spot.

Ours is a business that thrives on confidence and optimism. But these very positive attributes can quite easily slip into complacency and arrogance. We lose our discipline; take our eyes off the ball; forget the basics.

In Ancient Greek tragedies ‘hubris’ or overconfidence was always followed by ‘nemesis,’ retribution. Pride comes before a fall.

At the height of BBH’s success Nigel Bogle was wont to warn that we were ‘three phone calls away from disaster.’ He meant that, however well things were going, if our three most important Clients dismissed us, the business would be in dire straits.

Sometimes we need a little paranoia and pessimism to sustain us through the good times. As I wish my Dad had maintained, we should hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

No. 181

The Homesick Brand: Are You from Somewhere or Anywhere?

 Caspar David Friedrich 'Wanderer above the Sea of Fog'

Caspar David Friedrich 'Wanderer above the Sea of Fog'

I recently came across a BBC Radio 4 programme considering nostalgia (‘Word of Mouth’, 30 April). It transpires that nostalgia did not start life the way we think of it today: it was originally a yearning for home, rather than for the past.

The term was coined by a seventeenth century doctor to describe the intense homesickness felt by Swiss mercenaries fighting in the lowlands of France and Italy. (‘Nostalgia’ is formed from ‘nostos’ and ‘algos’, the Greek for ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’.) Symptoms of nostalgia included dysentery, fainting and fever; despair, lethargy and melancholy. Some troops absconded, others committed suicide. Some heard cowbells. To guard against the ailment soldiers were banned from playing sentimental tunes.

In one celebrated case of nostalgia a diligent student dropped out and took to his bed, becoming uncommunicative and sore-stricken. When at length an apothecary sent him home, he recovered completely.

Nostalgia was quite commonly cited as an illness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the American Civil War 5000 cases were recorded, including 74 deaths. As recently as 1918 nostalgia was named as the cause of death when a US serviceman passed away in France. The illness only declined with the frequent and easy travel of modern times.

I suspect many of us would still recognize this historic sense of nostalgia: the disorientation and discomfiture when we are far from home; the pining for roots, yearning for the familiar.

In his 2017 review of modern British society, ‘The Road to Somewhere’, the journalist and commentator David Goodhart argued that nowadays people can be divided into two camps: 'Anywheres', who have 'achieved' identities, from career and education; and 'Somewheres', who derive their identities from a sense of place and the people around them. Anywheres tend to be well-travelled, university-educated, urban and socially liberal. Somewheres are more likely to live in small towns or the countryside, to be less educated and socially conservative. Goodhart uses this distinction to shed light on the UK’s Brexit referendum.

Quite taken with this observation, I asked a number of my friends whether they considered themselves Anywheres or Somewheres. Given Goodhart’s definitions, I expected that most would self-identify as Anywheres. But nearly everyone claimed to be a Somewhere. They may have recognised themselves in the description of globe-trotting, metropolitan liberals, but fundamentally they wanted to belong to a particular place and community.

I found myself asking a similar question of brands: is yours an Anywhere or a Somewhere Brand?

When I was younger most brands seemed to be Somewhere Brands. Sony was reassuringly Japanese; Boddingtons was robustly Mancunian; Phileas Fogg was, eccentrically, from Medomsley Road, Consett. Provenance and place gave brands character, personality, charm. They explained their values, their outlook on life. Levi’s American roots prompted thoughts of freedom, rebellion and the open road; Olivio’s Mediterranean associations suggested health and happiness; Audi’s Germanic origins guaranteed its technical and engineering excellence.

In recent decades, with globalization and international marketing, we have witnessed the ascendancy of Anywhere Brands: brands are invented, conflated, migrated; talent is internationally recruited, factories are economically relocated, products are globally sourced. Consequently brands are assigned abstract moods or aspirational feelings, without specific reference to place or culture. They inhabit an ethereal neutral landscape of smiling faces, easygoing hedonism and fluid interaction. Origin stories are relegated to the occasional earnest hang-tag or an unread history page on the company website.

I wonder whether we’ve lost something along the way. Could many modern brands be described as just a little homesick? Are they somehow pining for a sense of belonging; yearning for association with a particular time and place? Shouldn’t all brands be Somewhere Brands?

Perhaps the recent trend towards the artisanal, authentic, crafted and locally-sourced suggests a return to roots, provenance and location. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back the other way.

Or maybe I’m just being nostalgic.

‘So far away.
Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?
It would be so fine to see your face at my door.
Doesn't help to know you're just time away.’

Carole King, ‘So Far Away’

 

 

No. 180

Articulate Anger: Why Slogans Matter

 2017 Washington Women’s March

2017 Washington Women’s March

I recently attended an exhibition reviewing the relationship between graphics and politics over the last ten years.

‘Hope to Nope’ (The Design Museum, London, until 12 August) considers various political and protest movements in the decade since Shepard Fairey’s famous 2008 ‘Hope’ poster in support of Barack Obama’s Presidential bid. It displays banners, posters and memes; stunts, symbols and slogans; from Occupy and Deepwater Horizon, to Taksim Square and Charlie Hebdo; from Brexit and the 2016 US election, to women’s marches and Black Lives Matter… and more besides.

We live in turbulent times.

Screen-Shot-2018-04-23-at-09.17.38.png

 

You can’t help but be impressed by the lucidity, wit and invention of many of the pieces. You can see earnest Soviet posters subverted to include rainbow Pride colours; playful Jeremy Corbyn emojis; sinister Guy Fawkes masks; an ominous Trump fortune teller. In Hong Kong in 2014 protestors collectively adopted umbrellas, initially to shield themselves from the sun, and subsequently from tear gas. In Sao Paolo in 2015/16 marchers against tax rises and government corruption rallied to the theme of ‘I will not pay the duck.’ ‘Pay the duck’ means take the blame for something that is not your fault.

Often the material harnesses serious political messages to popular culture. After the Trump election victory, a Star Wars Rogue One poster became Rogue Won. And my former Agency BBH collaborated with the community action group Justice4Grenfell in a piece that referenced the movie ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri’:  ‘71 Dead…And still no arrests…How come?’

tres-anuncios-grenfell3.jpg

The exhibition also offers a compelling selection of funny, smart and eloquent political slogans. Consider the following from various anti-Trump rallies:

‘Love trumps hate.’
‘Make love not walls.’
‘This pussy grabs back.’
‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.’
‘A woman’s place is in the White House.’
‘Sexism is not sexy.’
And my personal favourite:
‘We shall overcomb.’

Of course, the language of protest has been familiar to us for many years. But in the digital age the impact of traditional approaches has been amplified by social media, memes and hashtags. Campaigns are easier than ever to initiate, endorse, adapt, share and spoof.

It’s therefore become more difficult than ever to cut through. Shepard Fairey expresses the challenge thus:

‘People have a lot of visual noise in their lives, so my work needs to be instant and memorable, easy to replicate and, even in an analogue world, potentially viral. Digital tools and social media mean that more people are empowered, but there are also white noise and mediocre graphics and memes bouncing around. I utilise the same principles that I always have when I transmit my work digitally: I want to be instantly memorable, evocative, and graphically and emotionally potent.’

As I wandered around the museum, I found myself wondering why the best rallying cries seem so compelling; why it is helpful to condense complex issues into catchy rhymes and phrases. Why do slogans matter?

Many years ago a girlfriend left me. I became depressed, inert, isolated. But more particularly I found I was completely inarticulate about how I felt. I couldn’t explain what had happened, why she’d gone, what I’d done to deserve this.

I took to going running round a local park. And as I ran I gradually pieced together in my head a narrative about what had gone wrong. I composed the speech I would deliver if I ever saw her again. And with every passing day and every exhausting circuit, the oration grew in clarity, brevity and articulacy.

Then, at last, my speech was perfect, crisp and concise. And I realised at that moment that I didn’t need to make it. I had moved on. I wouldn’t have to run round that muddy park again either.

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

Harold Pinter

Some experiences are so intense, emotional, complex and confusing that we feel only unfocused anger, foggy regret, dim despair. We become powerless, helpless, listless.

It’s only when we can distil our feelings into words and phrases – when we can articulate our anger - that we can begin to recover and become capable of action.

Like any well-crafted copy, the best political slogans define how we feel about an issue; compress it into something clear, precise and strong; find fellow feeling with others; and motivate us to get out and do something about it.

But there are limits to what graphics and slogans can achieve. After an hour at the exhibition, having walked through an aggregation of witty words, angry sentiments and cool design, I began to worry that mass protest is becoming almost effortless in the social era. It’s just a little too easy to like and retweet; to post and hashtag; to endorse, sign up and send on.

In 2017 the artists’ street project flyingleaps published the following statement on UK poster sites:

‘Slogans in nice typefaces won’t save the human races.’

It’s a valid caveat: a political slogan is only as good as its power to prompt action. This is a sentiment that the Suffragettes had elegantly expressed over a century before:

‘Deeds not words.’

 

(This piece first appeared on BBH Labs on 23 April 2018.)

 

No. 179