‘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.

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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?’

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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

 

‘There Are No Ends…Only Means:’ Should We Be Concentrating Less on Goals and More on Behaviours?

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'You're so busy trying to win, you never stop to figure out what it is you're winning.'

I recently attended a performance of Gore Vidal’s excellent 1960 play ‘The Best Man.’ (The Playhouse Theatre until 12 May, or you can watch the 1964 film version, starring the splendid Henry Fonda.)

‘The Best Man’ concerns itself with the mechanics of politics and the corrosive effects of ambition; with compromise, horse-trading and smears; with power, corruption and lies. Fundamentally it’s a play about means and ends. And it has many contemporary resonances.

The action is set in a Philadelphia hotel at convention time, as two candidates seek their party’s nomination for President. Bill Russell, the front-runner, is a northern intellectual, a man of principle with an Achilles’ heel. Joe Cantwell is a self-educated southerner, a political street fighter with a ruthless streak. Both candidates want the endorsement of ailing former President Art Hockstader.

Initially our sympathies are with Russell. A reporter asks him whether people mistrust intellectuals in politics. Russell replies:

‘Intellectual? You mean I wrote a book? Well, as Bertrand Russell said, 'people in a democracy tend to think they have less to fear from a stupid man than an intelligent one.' Actually, it's the other way around.’

Hockstader, however, is concerned that Russell’s intellect constrains him from getting anything done:

'You got such a good mind that sometimes you're so busy thinkin' how complex everything is, important problems don't get solved.'

Hockstader is equally worried about Cantwell’s qualifications for the job. The ex-President berates the southern Governor for acting as if the ends always justify the means:

'Well, son, I got news for you about both politics and life. And may I say the two are exactly the same? There are no ends, Joe, only means…  All I'm saying is that what matters in our profession . . . which is really life ... is how you do things and how you treat people and what you really feel about 'em, not some ideal goal for society, or for yourself.' 

I was quite struck by this last thought – that there are no ends, only means.

In the world of commerce we obsess about aims, ambitions and aspirations. We are preoccupied with objectives, visions and missions. We are endlessly planning for the future, defining our purpose, setting our targets. In our highly competitive, fast-paced environment, we tend to be more focused on ends than means. And generally we’ll do whatever it takes to achieve our goals. Indeed ‘whatever it takes’ can be a prevailing principle.

One has to suspect that this concentration on ends over means lies behind the succession of scandals that have dogged the corporate world in recent years: the corners cut, values compromised and responsibilities shirked; the cheated tests, accelerated obsolescence and falsified information; the unpaid taxes and unequal pay; the data breaches, sexual harassment and abusive relationships; the passengers dragged off overbooked flights and the customers arrested in coffee shops. I could go on.

Perhaps we should take Hockstader’s advice. If we focus more on good behaviours and productive relationships; on doing the right thing rather than chasing the right objective; on how we behave rather than why – if we focus more on means than ends - we might find over the longer term that our colleagues are more motivated; our Clients are more trusting; and our consumers are more loyal.

It’s a tough ask, I know.

In one of the key exchanges in the play, Russell endeavours to sustain a principled position in the face of Hockstader’s practicality:

'And so, one by one these compromises, these small corruptions, destroy character.’

Hockstader replies wearily:

‘To want power is corruption already.' 

No. 178

The Cost Is In the Control: Could Trust Save You Money?

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'For thirty years, people have been asking me how I reconcile X with Y! The truthful answer is that I don't. Everything about me is a contradiction and so is everything about everybody else. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There is a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don't reconcile the poles. You just recognize them.'
Orson Welles

In 1939 RKO offered Orson Welles a two-picture contract that guaranteed him total artistic freedom. The deal was unprecedented, and was particularly remarkable because Welles hadn’t made a movie before.

Welles had established a formidable creative reputation through his work in theatre and radio, and the previous year had become famous for his bold radio adaptation of ‘The War of the Worlds.’ It was inevitable that Hollywood would come knocking.

‘I didn’t want money. I wanted authority.’

The first film that Welles created for RKO was 1941’s ‘Citizen Kane.’ He co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in what was subsequently celebrated as a masterpiece and sits at the top of many lists of the greatest films ever made.

‘Citizen Kane’ was, however, only a moderate success at the box office. Welles’ honeymoon with the studios was over. And like a bad marriage there followed years of mutual suspicion, acrimonious dispute and bitter recrimination.

RKO took over control of the editing of Welles’ 1942 movie, ‘The Magnificent Ambersons.’ They cut more than an hour of footage and substituted a happier ending. On 1947’s ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ Columbia ordered extensive editing and re-shoots, excised an hour from Welles' first cut, and significantly adjusted the score. The production went way over-budget.

Welles was so frustrated that he decamped to Europe for the next eight years. When he was finally seduced back to Hollywood for 1958’s ‘Touch of Evil,’ his relationship with the studios remained tortuous. Universal fired him in post-production, re-edited the movie and re-shot several scenes. Welles protested in a 58-page memo that was for the most part ignored, and the film was released as a B-picture.

Of course, ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’, ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ and ‘Touch of Evil’ were all excellent films. And, of course, Welles made some other very decent movies. But there remains a suspicion that Hollywood could have got a great deal more out of one of the most brilliant creative minds of the twentieth century. There’s a real sense of wasted time, talent, money and opportunity.

Three years before he passed away Welles reflected on his film-making career:

‘I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making movies. It’s about 2% movie making and 98% hustling. That’s no way to spend a life.’

We all recognise these same dilemmas in the world of marketing and communications. In our industry there are age-old tensions between creative empowerment and financial control; between the demands of quality and the constraints of budget; between the authorial voice and the anticipated consumer response. These are tensions that any creative business needs to navigate. And they can sometimes get out of hand and cause inefficiency, demoralisation and waste.

There has recently been an emergent consensus amongst both Clients and Agencies around the need to change the Agency model for the digital age. Both sides seem to want more makers and fewer managers; more creation and less mediation; more focus on output than input. Both sides have in mind a structure and approach that is more fluid, cost-efficient and ultimately more effective.

So why hasn’t it happened already?

My own experience is that a large part of the cost and inefficiency of the incumbent Agency model derives, not from Agencies’ inherent love of process, of project management and account handling; but from Clients’ yearning for control. Indeed the reason Agencies have so many staff dedicated to intermediate or relationship functions is that Clients have over the years wanted more involvement, more consultation, more participation; more timing plans and pre-production meetings; more catch-ups, status meetings and weekend email updates; more justification, illustration and validation; more cross-disciplinary get-togethers, awaydays, tissue sessions and brainstorms.

Inevitably servicing a more actively involved, more participative, more controlling Client takes time, resource and money. Agencies have to assign people to ‘mark off’ the Clients, to manage the meetings, to monitor the process. The cost is in the control.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We talk a good deal nowadays about the decay in trust between brands and consumers. But what about the trust between Agencies and Clients? Trust in expertise; in financial accountability; in commitment to excellence and effectiveness. Hasn’t this decayed too?

The curious thing is that trust costs you nothing. Trust means a clear brief, a defined objective and an expectation that the Agency will deliver. It means shared understanding of goals and appropriate allocation of responsibilities. It means fewer update meetings, check-ins and laundry lists of concerns; fewer resentful rebriefs, irritable texts and anxious conference calls. Trust is both efficient and effective. Trust saves you money.

Of course, some Clients may contend that they have to take more active control of the process because they can no longer trust their Agency to deliver without proper supervision. But if you can’t trust your Agency, you should probably find a new one

No. 177

 

 

When No One Is Watching: The Generous Strategist

 Goya, Fight with Cudgels

Goya, Fight with Cudgels

One evening some years ago I was returning home on the bus after playing football at Paddington Rec. It had been a satisfying game overall: John’s jinky runs down the wing; Dylan’s early goal and late tackles; Tim’s frustration with lost pace and youth.

I had the whole team’s kit in a big blue holdall with a view to washing it for the next match. (In my later years I found I could contribute more off the pitch than on it.) I alighted at the Angel and crossed the main road onto Camden Passage.

Suddenly there was a woman’s scream from down the street, and a young man came sprinting towards me.

I’d say I’m generally pretty slow to assess situations, but in this instance I had my wits about me. I could see a shiny leather object flapping at the man’s side as he accelerated towards me. He had evidently stolen a handbag from the woman still shouting in the distance.

The thief looked fit, fast and strong. Now he was very close. I froze to the spot. What to do?

With a rush of blood to the head I took my big blue holdall and drove it straight into his midriff. It was like a training manoeuvre I’d rehearsed in rugby practice when I was a kid.

We both flew dramatically to the floor. Somewhat startled and out of breath, the thief stared me straight in the eye. Then, without a word, he was up and off, into the cold dark night, leaving a small red clutch bag on the pavement behind him.

I rose to my feet, dusted myself down and returned the bag to the victim. She was too upset to be grateful.

I looked to left and right.

Alas. No admiring bystanders. No congratulatory applause. No security cameras recording my feat for posterity. I wouldn’t be appearing in tomorrow’s Evening Standard.

A melancholy thought struck me. I’m not a particularly brave person. This would probably be one of the rare occasions when I’d have something to be proud of. But my heroism had gone unseen, unrecorded, unremarked.

So often in life our best moments pass without comment. Our best jokes go unheard; our sharpest looks go unnoticed; our most romantic gestures go unwitnessed. It’s the difference I guess between the real world and the movies.

Although nowadays we are more than ever concerned with validation, affirmation and endorsement, we most of us learn at an early age that we can’t live life for an audience - because an audience is not always around when we need it.

Indeed some would say that the best measure of a person’s character is his or her unobserved behaviour.

'Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.'
CS Lewis

‘Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.’
Henry Ford

There’s an important lesson for the world of work here. Whilst careers cannot progress without recognition, we shouldn’t pursue recognition as a means of progressing.

We’re none of us impressed by the colleague who performs with an eye on the top dog; who is endlessly agreeing with the big cheeses, echoing their opinions, applauding their successes; who sends self-aggrandizing, celebratory emails ‘cc my boss.’

The great John Bartle felt strongly that planners should contribute ideas without claiming authorship; that there was more chance of collective success if individuals were not striving for acknowledgement; that the best strategists were generous at heart.

‘Success has many parents, failure is an orphan - be happy to let others take the credit and success is more likely.’
John Bartle

I’m sure he was right. In my own experience, the moment we have a dispute over input, the output suffers; the moment we seek ownership of an idea, we reduce its chances of being realized; the moment we demand personal credit, we diminish esprit de corps.

There have been times over the years when the planning discipline, individually and collectively, has been desperate to assert the value of its contribution; yearning to be recognized as first among equals. I’ve always taken this as a sign of weakness, not strength. It’s certainly unattractive.

Ultimately the generous strategist will get noticed. Not for individual authorship perhaps; but for serial contribution to collective success; for ongoing participation in a winning team.

There was nothing else for it. I hoisted the big blue holdall onto my back and made my way wearily home – time to have my tea, watch some telly and wash the sweaty kit. Unseen, unnoticed, unobserved.

No.176

 

 

No Lips for the Trumpet: The Rhythm of Persuasion

Chet..jpg

I was always into music, but never very musical.

When I started senior school, the music department put me down to learn the trumpet. My brother Martin was already studying it and we could share the same instrument. Although the trumpet may not have been my first choice, I nonetheless conjured up images of myself as a lovelorn Chet Baker, charming a smoke-filled jazz club with my unique version of ‘But Not for Me.’

I arrived at my first lesson eager with anticipation.

My new tutor, a stern, bearded fellow who looked like he’d rather be somewhere else, began by instructing me on the correct embouchure. I had to practice buzzing my lips into the mouthpiece. As easy as blowing a raspberry, he said.

However, after several attempts, we established that this foundation skill was beyond me.

‘I’m sorry to tell you this, son. You’ve got no lips for the trumpet.’

And that was the end of that.

I had to come to terms with the fact: though I loved music, music did not love me.

'They're writing songs of love, but not for me.
A lucky star's above, but not for me.
Although I can't dismiss the memory of her kiss,
I guess she's not for me.'

Chet Baker, 'But Not for Me' (Ira and George Gershwin)

And yet I have always liked to listen to theorists talking about music’s hidden mysteries. I’m fascinated when experts deconstruct chord progressions, scales and arpeggios; major and minor keys; time signatures and tempos; verse, chorus, middle 8, chorus. I remain impressed that, beneath the sweet soulful melodies I adore, there is shape, structure and form; that there is architecture in music.

After spending a few years in the advertising profession, I realised that arguments too have their own hidden anatomy; that behind the seduction of salesmanship, there is order and design; that there is a rhythm to persuasion.

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 10.51.53.png

Take for example the pitch. For all the many and varied presentations that I attended over the course of my career, I’d suggest that most of the successful ones shared the same shape.

They’d begin with enthusiasm to put the Clients at their ease.

Yours is a great brand with an extraordinary heritage and unique ongoing characteristics.’

But confidence would turn to concern for the challenges that lie ahead.

‘You’re assaulted on all sides: by new market forces, new competitors, new consumer tastes and preferences. It’s difficult out there, and it could get a whole lot worse.’

The Clients would be a little unsettled, but the pitch would invite some hope: taking a broader view of the sector; observing the evolving cultural context in which the brand competes.

‘The market is on the move. There is change afoot. It may have begun with a few outliers, but it will soon be mainstream.’

Next would come the tricky bit. The best pitches would identify a means by which the Clients could take a leadership position, at the heart of sector reinvention; hitching the brand to culture; driving reappraisal, not falling victim to it.

‘With our idea we can position you at the forefront of social and industry transformation. And only our idea can take you there.’

The Clients would complete their rollercoaster journey with feelings of expectation and excitement.

I’m generalising somewhat. Of course every pitch is different. And I’m talking about an era when strategy was more concerned with positioning than precipitating specific behavioural change. But I’d still maintain that most of the good presentations shared this simple pattern: enthusiasm for the brand; empathy with its challenges; vision of cultural and sector revolution; and all culminating in an idea that positions the brand in the vanguard of change.

It’s a simple pattern, but it’s one that often eludes us in the midst of big meeting pressures and deadlines. We frequently fail to impose structure and shape on our arguments. We forget to start with the Client and consumer perspective. We ignore the emotive power of light and shade. We neglect the need to build positive momentum in the second half. We say all the right things, but in the wrong order.  

The lesson is simple. When you’re pitching, don’t just think about the right answer; think about the rhythm of persuasion.

I had one last attempt at becoming a proper musician. Inspired by Neil Young’s plaintive performance of ‘Heart of Gold,’ I bought myself a Hohner mouth organ. I imagined that the harmonica might be a less challenging route to rock’n’roll credentials, and I’d seen that Hohner was the singer-songwriter’s brand of choice on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test.’ Sadly the instruction manual was rather rudimentary and my dedication to the task was merely modest. I only managed to master the tonguing of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’

‘I want to live.
I want to give.
I've been a miner for a heart of gold.
It's these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching for a heart of gold.
And I'm getting old.’
Neil Young, ‘Heart of Gold’

No. 175