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 Lips for the Trumpet: The Rhythm of Persuasion


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.

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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



The Divided Soul: Recognising the Particular Power of Appetite

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In the fourth book of Plato’s Republic, he tells the story of Leontius and the corpses.

Passing along the edge of Athens’ city walls one day, Leontius sees some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He wants to look at them, and at the same time he is disgusted by them. He dithers and covers his eyes. Eventually his curiosity gets the better of him and he rushes up to the dead bodies, saying, ‘Look, you wretches. Take a really good look.’

Plato uses this story to illustrate his theory of the divided soul. We are all driven by appetites and desires, and at the same time by our spirit and will. Occasionally appetite and willpower can go to war with each other.

I first encountered Leontius and the corpses at school, and, though of course it’s a rather crude fable, I’ve always found it rather helpful. People are driven by conflicting needs and emotions. They may want to pursue a particular path, whilst at the same time knowing it to be wrong. They often do things despite themselves.

Occasionally advertisers recognise this fact and show consumers caught in a dilemma. Famously in the 1970s Salman Rushdie, then working at Ogilvy, described fresh cream cakes as ‘naughty, but nice.’ But for the most part brands tend to characterize consumers as driven by singular motivations. And sometimes they underestimate the basic compulsive power of appetite.

Many years ago we won a pitch for the Swiss chocolate brand Lindt. We based our proposals on the fact that Lindt was the first commercial chocolate to melt in your mouth. The earliest forms of chocolate tended to be hard and to require chewing. But in 1879 Rodolphe Lindt discovered how to make chocolate that melts at body temperature – the key to chocolate’s very particular appeal.

We suggested that a melt-based positioning elegantly married rational and emotional truths about the brand: Lindt chocolate was the first to melt; it still melts deliciously in your mouth; and when you eat Lindt you melt in your soul.

Having appointed us, our new Client told us there was just one last hurdle to overcome. We had to prove in research that our new sophisticated positioning could outperform the incumbent campaign.

Classically Lindt advertising featured a bunch of eccentric ‘chocolatiers’ sporting toques blanches and joyously making chocolate in a kitchen. Pretty pedestrian stuff, we thought, and we approached the head-to-head with some confidence.

In the first round of qualitative research our route came off best. Consumers were impressed by Lindt’s authentic credentials and moved by our resonant evocation of ‘the melting moment.’ By contrast they found the incumbent campaign comically conventional.

But the research company also employed a quantitative methodology, which required respondents to indicate their engagement with each specific part of the film via a joystick. Unfortunately for us the incumbent ad had a good deal of chocolate in it: chocolate being lovingly mixed; chocolate being gently caressed; chocolate being sensuously sampled. And every time the chocolate appeared on-screen, the engagement scores went through the roof.

We lost the research stand-off and were politely released from our contract with Lindt. I think it was the shortest appointment we ever had.

I guess the lesson here is that, however smart your thinking, however elegant your concept, however much consumers may claim to be bored with convention, you should never under-estimate the power of appetite. People like to see cold beer in beer ads and great looking cars in car ads. They also like to see chocolate in chocolate ads.

Sometimes they just can’t resist their appetites.


'If your eyes are wanting all you see,
Then I think I'll name you after me.
I think I'll call you appetite.'

Prefab Sprout, ‘Appetite’ (Paddy Mcaloon)

No. 174

The Hall of Mirrors: Should Advertising Offer Consumers Reflections of Themselves?


‘When I start out to make a fool of myself, there's very little can stop me. If I'd known where it would end, I'd never let anything start.’

Orson Welles, ’The Lady from Shanghai’

The 1947 movie classic ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ features an Irish Orson Welles caught up in a web of deceit woven by wealthy lawyer Everett Sloane and his wife, a curiously blonde Rita Hayworth.

The climax of the film takes place in a deserted amusement park, The Crazy House. ‘Stand up or give up,’ the arcade posters proclaim. In the Hall of Mirrors the three lead characters confront each other and a multiplicity of their own images and impressions. Neither they nor the audience can discern the real people from their reflections. Truth and falsehood are intertwined. It’s a cinematic tour de force.

When I first joined BBH in the early 1990s I was warned against ‘holding a mirror up to consumers.’ It was suggested that this is a lazy approach for any advertiser to take. ‘Holding a mirror up’ assumes that people enjoy seeing their own behaviours, attitudes, tastes and styles reflected back at them in brand communication; that they like to look at approximations of themselves in advertising; that brands are rewarded for acute observation of people’s musical preferences, fashion choices and figures of speech.

But who wants to encounter counterfeit copies of themselves? Who wants to be regarded as a type or category; to see their private codes and language broadcast for all to share?

So we took a different path. We preferred to shine a light on the brand; to let it present its best self to the world. We liked to let the brand speak.

Looking back on this position in the midst of the social media age, I can’t help wondering whether we were wrong all along. As is widely observed, nowadays we all inhabit echo chambers of our opinions, prejudices and world-views. We live in a Hall of Mirrors of our own making, endlessly self-publishing; craving affirmation and approval; seeking endorsement of how we look, what we do, what we feel, what we think; freely surrendering our personal data in our relentless quest for recognition and validation.

And consequently much of modern advertising pursues the ‘hold the mirror up to consumers’ approach. Our screens are filled with elegantly aspirational metropolitan executives, charmingly chaotic suburban families, fun-loving bobble-hatted youths.

I nonetheless find it difficult to recant. I remain convinced that brands have a responsibility to stand for something; that there is more integrity in selling than there is in pretending to share values, hopes and dreams; that rather than just reflecting consumers’ attitudes, we should seek to change them.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I doubt people will be seduced by this Hall of Mirrors for too long. Ultimately Narcissus’s infatuation with his own image destroyed him.

Back in the Crazy House, Sloane wearily directs his pistol at Hayward.

‘Of course, killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of both of us.’

In the shootout that follows, chaos and confusion reign. The mirrors shatter. The glass cascades in crystals all around.

No. 173

‘You’ve Got to Back It Up’: An Encounter with the Tasmanian Devil


Late one winter’s night in the mid-1980s, I was making my way home from Hornchurch Station with Thommo and My-Mate-Andy. Inevitably we were chatting about Lloyd Cole and Laughing Brew, fu shoes and The Face. Thommo and I were wearing the heavy tweed overcoats that marked us out as students. My-Mate-Andy was sporting his sheepskin-lined, Forza 12 bleached denim jacket, collar-up. We were high-spirited and a little the worse for wear.

As we progressed down the High Street, a young lad and his girlfriend passed us going in the opposite direction.

Something about us clearly irritated the bloke. We may have given him the impression that our good humour was directed at them. We may have brushed into them, or not created enough space for them to pass. We may have just looked a bit too studenty for that time and place.

In any case, he was not very happy, and in a thrice he became a mad whirring tornado of punches, pokes and prods; ducking in and out of us, throwing fast and furious fists; jabbing and clouting, slapping and bashing. He had turned into the Tasmanian Devil.

Now I’m somewhat ashamed to tell you this. My-Mate-Andy and I quickly recognised that we had met a superior force. There may only have been one of him, and he wasn’t the tallest lad. But we knew we couldn’t compete with the Tasmanian Devil.

And so, setting aside our masculine pride and the deep bonds of friendship, we scarpered in different directions, past bins and down alleyways, off into the cold, dark night.

Thommo meanwhile stood his ground. He took one blow after another. A lightning-fast jab to the left; a lusty upper-cut to the right. Biff! Bang! Pow! Soon his eye was bruised, his nose was bleeding, and his beloved student coat was ripped from end to end.

Eventually the young lad’s girlfriend pleaded for clemency. The Tasmanian Devil stood over the now prone Thommo, paused, took a breath and said:

‘Look. You and your mates have got to learn a lesson. You’ve got to learn one thing: you’ve got to back it up.’

Whilst we never quite established what we had done to upset the Tasmanian Devil, and what precisely we were supposed to be backing up, these words struck me as rather profound. And they haunted me for a good while after that shameful night had passed.

A few years later I entered the world of advertising. I discovered it was a land of hunch and hypothesis, supposition and speculation. And I was myself somewhat inclined to make sweeping generalisations about cultural change; confident conjectures about strategic and brand truths. And yet every time I made such an assertion, I heard a sinister voice, whispering quietly into my ear: ‘You’ve got to back it up.’

And so I would reluctantly reach for the research surveys and category reports. I’d consider commissioning a poll, staging a demonstration. I’d go in search of illustration and evidence. I’d do my damnedest to verify my claims.

Now I’m not saying I ever really became the most rigorous of strategists. But it is true that there’s too much hollow theorising and empty guesswork in our world. And, despite the ubiquity of data, things seem to be getting worse.

If you really want to succeed in this profession, you’ve got to fall in love with proof and validation. You’ve got to befriend supporting evidence and corroborating facts. The Tasmanian Devil was right: you’ve got to back it up.

I recently came across my old tweed overcoat packed away in a box. I tried it on and, remarkably, it still fits. It’s not in too bad a nick, and, with a new button and lining, it could even merit a few outings. I’m not so sure Thommo will be impressed.

No. 172

Gursky and the ‘Democratic Perspective’: Learning to Look Before We Leap

 Tokyo Stock Exchange

Tokyo Stock Exchange

‘I am interested in the ideal typical approximation of everyday phenomena – in creating the essence of reality.’

I recently attended an excellent exhibition reviewing the work of Andreas Gursky (The Hayward Gallery, London, until 22 April).

Since the early 1980s Gursky has been creating photographic images that prompt us to consider humanity’s relationship with nature, our impact on the world and each other.

'I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment.'

Gursky has shown us people dwarfed by the vast natural world around them; the complex interaction between man and machines; the elaborate infrastructure of our industrialised landscape; the curious beauty that sometimes occurs when humanity imposes itself on the world; and the wholesale damage we have done to our planet and environment.

His monumental images present us with the swarming energy of the Tokyo Stock Exchange; the complex choreography of an F1 pit-stop; the dehumanising effect of a Vietnamese furniture factory; the tribal abandon of a gigantic Dortmund dancehall. He gives equal weight to the Tour de France and Toys R Us; to supermarkets and skyscrapers; to autobahn, airport and Amazon warehouse.

 Salerno I

Salerno I

Gursky reflects on the world with a cool detachment. He seems withdrawn, rational, objective. Perhaps he is asking us to think rather than feel; to properly consider the systems, patterns and relationships that rule our lives and shape our world.

'I stand at a distance, like a person who comes from another world.' 

Gursky’s work often employs advanced digital and post-production techniques. He uses cranes, sophisticated software and satellite cameras. His images are carefully orchestrated and arranged.

‘Reality can only be shown by constructing it… Montage and manipulation bring us closer to the truth.’

This inclination to convey constructed rather than documentary reality resonates with us in the commercial world. We are generally comfortable with artifice and abstraction, distillation and editing, if they serve to communicate a brand essence or human truth.

We could nonetheless learn something from what Gursky calls his ‘democratic perspective.’ He consciously creates images that are uniformly sharp and clear. There is none of the foreshortening or depth of field to which we are accustomed from conventional photography or image making. Everything is high-def, hyper-real. Everything is in focus.

‘Figuratively speaking, what I create is a world without hierarchy, in which all the pictorial elements are as important as each other.’

As a result when we regard a Gursky image, and get past the initial sense of wonder, our eyes roam freely, exploring every detail, examining every corner.

By contrast, when we in the field of marketing and communications consider a sector, we tend pretty quickly to apply instinct and intuition to the data that presents itself to us. We hastily seek narrative, purpose and direction. We rush to find a focal point.

Sometimes perhaps we leap too soon.

Over the years I sat in a good many creative reviews with John Hegarty and I was struck by his tendency in the early stages of the process to be open-minded about different routes and possibilities. He’d let teams run with a variety of thoughts, exploring diverse avenues and approaches. He seemed reluctant to close things down too quickly. At the outset he had a ‘democratic perspective.’ Only later in creative development did he settle on a particular theme and idea. Only then did he demand singular focus.



I’m sure strategy works the same way. When we embark on a task we would do well to allow ourselves time to consider all the options; to explore and experiment; to review the whole picture, the panorama of perspectives; to look before we leap.

But, having said all this, we should never be slave to the method. We should always listen to our instincts.

In 2017 Gursky created a work inspired by an image taken on an iPhone through the window of a moving car. ‘Utah’ depicts homes, sheds and caravans at the freeway’s edge, speeding past us as we proceed on our way. They are largely out of focus. They are all a blur.

No. 171



‘Baby, I Don’t Care’: Don’t Let a Service Business Become Servile


‘You know you can’t act. And if you hadn’t been good looking, you would never have gotten a picture.’

Katharine Hepburn to Robert Mitchum

Many were rather dismissive of Robert Mitchum’s acting talent. They found him passive, wooden, flat. He often seemed to lack emotional engagement and occasionally he gave the impression that he wished he was somewhere else. Of one performance a journalist wrote that ‘he moved as if on casters.’ He never won an Oscar.

Mitchum himself wasn’t inclined to disagree. He dismissed his own acting ability with cheery indifference.

‘I got three expressions: looking left, looking right and looking straight ahead.’

Throughout his career Mitchum would take on parts he knew were poorly written and undemanding.

‘Movies bore me, especially my own.’

Asked what he looked for in a script before accepting a role, he said: ’Days off.’

Some have observed that Mitchum found it hard to take acting too seriously because his childhood had been so challenging. A year or so after his birth (in 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut) his rail-worker father was crushed to death in an accident at the yard. Frequently expelled from school, the young Mitchum found himself riding railroad cars, picking up odd jobs where he could. When he was 14 he was arrested for vagrancy and put to work on a chain gang.

So maybe Mitchum had good reason to make light of his craft.

And yet, in amongst all the uninspiring westerns and production-line romances, Mitchum starred in some of the finest films of the 1940s and ‘50s. Classic noirs like ‘Crossfire’ and ‘The Big Steal’; sinister thrillers like ‘The Night of the Hunter’ and ‘Cape Fear.’

Over the years critics reassessed Mitchum.

‘People can’t make up their minds whether I’m the greatest actor in the world – or the worst. Matter of fact, neither can I.’

In his best work Mitchum had a quiet charisma, a cool naturalism. With his heavy-lidded look and minimal movement - often wearing the same worn-out trench coat - he displayed an air of bitter experience and careless nonchalance. He could suggest both vulnerability and menace. Beside him other actors seemed to try too hard, to over-emote; and thereby to lose something of their authenticity.  Commentators began to recognise in him someone for whom less was more. They celebrated him for ‘being, not acting.’

In the 1947 masterpiece ‘Out of the Past’ Mitchum plays Jeff, an ex-private detective who can’t escape his past and the charms of Kathie, his faithless former lover. In one scene Kathie, played by Jane Greer, begs to be believed one last time:

‘I didn't take anything. I didn't, Jeff. Don't you believe me?’

Mitchum gives Greer a weary look and a knowing embrace, and says: ‘Baby, I don't care.’

I wonder whether the communications industry could learn something from Mitchum, the movie star who won out through under-acting; through dialing it down; through seeming not to care too much.

Ours is a culture whose currency is passion and positivity. We have no red lines, only green. Show us an extra mile and we’ll run it. Show us a hoop and we’ll jump through it.

But sometimes our enthusiasm diminishes our seriousness; our readiness to offer alternatives smacks of a lack of commitment; our willingness to move on compromises the integrity of our recommendations; our eagerness to go again betrays a disregard for the personal lives of our colleagues. 

Back in the day Nigel Bogle would warn of the perils of a service business becoming servile: ‘The answer’s ‘’yes.’’ What’s the question?’

So what do you think?

Are we too eager to please, too desperate to win? Does our commitment to do ‘whatever it takes’ devalue our output, overload our staff, constrain our finances, compromise our values? Are we just too keen?

Surely we should commit, not to ‘whatever it takes’, but to ‘whatever is right’ - for the task, for the brand, for the time, for the fee. And be prepared - just occasionally - to walk away.

Easier said than done, I know, in an oversupplied, highly competitive, cost-constrained market; in a world of tied relationships and trigger-happy Clients. But, as the mystery slips, as margins slide and motivation sags, the industry will have to take a stand one day.

Perhaps we should heed Robert Mitchum’s advice:

‘There just isn't any pleasing some people. The trick is to stop trying.’

No. 170


The Consequences of Jazz: A Case Study in Change


My grandad owned a banjo, but I never heard him play.

James Joseph Turley was a blue-eyed Irishman, born in Carrickmacross in 1905. He made the crossing to America when he was 22, spent some years working in the coke ovens at Ford in Detroit. He invited his childhood sweetheart, Sarah, to join him, and married her on the Canadian border. In time he took a job at Ford in Dagenham, and settled with his wife and kids in Hornchurch, Essex, in a terraced house near the bus garage. He brought his banjo along with him.

That banjo always struck me as something rather exotic. Not what you’d expect in a typical suburban Essex home. To a child it suggested misrule and parties, late night ceilidhs and communal singing by the fire. And yet after my grandfather’s death, it continued to sit in silence on my granny’s sideboard.

My heart skipped a beat when I was greeted by a selection of banjos on entering an exhibition about ‘The Age of Jazz in Britain’ (‘Rhythm and Reaction’ at Two Temple Place until 22 April). It transpires that the banjo was something of a fashionable instrument in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. African American musicians played the banjo on variety bills and in clubs. Sales of the instrument boomed, banjo academies were set up, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) learned to play. In its wake the banjo brought most Britons’ first taste of American popular music, of ragtime and subsequently jazz. 

The arrival of jazz in Britain is often fixed at the visit to these shores in 1919 of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. They were an immediate sensation. Jazz particularly resonated with the young of this country - with a generation recovering from the shock of the First World War, disillusioned with the old guard, keen to break with the past, yearning to embrace the new. It offered escape, disruption, rebellion. You could find release in its fluid structures; get lost in its syncopated rhythms; get intimate to its unconstrained dance steps.

Britain’s enthusiasm for jazz was also fuelled by technology. Transatlantic liners brought over musicians, instruments and sheet music. First the pianola, and then the gramophone and the radio, took jazz into British homes. Enthusiasts gravitated to dedicated shops and record clubs; to specialist publications such as Melody Maker.

But jazz’s growing popularity in Britain inevitably encountered some headwinds. The establishment was confused, sceptical, threatened. The popular press mocked the public’s enthusiasm for the new music; ridiculed its passion; insinuated that its association with underground clubs implied drugs and decadence. African American musicians were often represented in caricature, and the Colonial Office wrote concerned memos.

Jazz brought with it the shock of the new, the thrill of the unfamiliar, the fear of the unknown.

Nonetheless, gradually local musicians learned to play and perform jazz. Somewhat diluted, it was accommodated into the repertoires of orchestral dance bands. And it was in this form that many people encountered the genre through the early broadcasts of the BBC, or at their local Palais de Dance.

Ultimately jazz succeeded in winning over the hearts and minds of the British public. ‘Jazz’ entered the dictionary as a synonym for ‘modern.’ Stylish clothes were described as ‘jazzy.’ Hosts were encouraged to ‘jazz up’ the evening. Jazz became an aesthetic, an attitude to life.

In 1927, in ‘The Appeal of Jazz,’ the first British book on the subject, RWS Mendl wrote:

‘Even if [jazz] disappears altogether it will not have existed in vain. For its record will remain as an interesting human document – the spirit of the age written in the music of the people.’

In many ways the story of jazz’s arrival in Britain is a case study in change: an audience yearning for something new; early adoption by the young opinion leaders of the day; revolutionary technology on hand to fan the flames of discovery; a resentful establishment mocking, carping and complaining; and yet, in time and with compromise, broad assimilation. And, critically, at the heart of it all, a great idea in tune with the zeitgeist.

My grandad passed away when I was six, so sadly I have only the vaguest memory of him. But I’ve found that a photo of a blue-eyed young man looking out from the past, a story of a hijacked bus, a recollection of a flat cap hanging on the door, and of a banjo lying on the sideboard, are enough to fuel the imagination. Maybe I can just about hear him play.


No. 169

Cagney in Drag: Recruiting for Appetite and Empathy

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James Cagney had a tough childhood. He was born, in 1899, into a poor Irish-American family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was the second of eleven kids, two of whom died within a few months of birth, and he was himself quite a sickly child. His father was an alcoholic who went from job to job. Cagney grew up fighting in street brawls and dropped out of college when his dad died in the 1918 flu pandemic.

‘My childhood was surrounded by trouble, illness, and my dad’s alcoholism…We just didn’t have the time to be impressed by all those misfortunes.’

Cagney had a talent for performance and got involved in amateur dramatics at an early age. Despite his subsequent reputation as the definitive screen tough guy, his first paid theatre role was as a chorus girl in the all-male 1919 revue, ‘Every Sailor.’ In the publicity photo for the show we see a bare-shouldered and bewigged Cagney in full make-up, looking approximately female. He had no qualms about the role. He just wanted to get a foot on the ladder.

‘I had fun doing it. Mother didn’t approve though.’

Clearly Cagney had appetite, a desire to progress, whatever it took.

‘With me a career was the simple matter of putting groceries on the table.’

He eventually found his way to Hollywood and the gangster roles for which he is best known. In the 1930s and ‘40s he starred in certified classics like ‘The Public Enemy’, ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ and ‘White Heat.’

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In these films Cagney revolutionised the portrayal of bad guys. Hitherto cinema villains had been irredeemably dark figures. But Cagney, drawing on his own experiences on the wrong side of the tracks, tended to play characters whose descent into evil was at least comprehensible. There’s a moral ambiguity about these movies. In Depression-hit America audiences understood that tough times create tough choices. And Cagney understood too. He had empathy.

Obviously Cagney had extraordinary talent. But his success also derived from his appetite for experience, and his empathy for ordinary people. People with nothing to lose have everything to gain. Appetite drives experience; experience creates empathy; and these qualities together lead to expertise.

Such lessons were not lost on the advertising profession of yore. The sector traditionally picked up ambitious, talented misfits from all walks of life. Many of the best practitioners started at the bottom and made their way up. Stories are legion of advertising greats who began as PAs and runners, as YTS trainees, in traffic and the post room. It was a profession that understood people, a career for outsiders who wanted to belong.

Nowadays I wonder if we properly appreciate appetite and empathy. It seems that our professionalization of recruitment has squeezed out the very qualities that precipitate success. We like to think of ourselves competing with the financial and tech sectors for the academic high fliers; for the crème de la crème of the university system.

Perhaps we should be fishing in different ponds: seeking unconventional excellence; candidates who have an understanding of ordinary people rather than patrician curiosity; people who want the job rather than expect it.

Sometimes it seems our expectations of talent are more complicated than they need to be. We would do well to learn from Cagney who retained an elegantly rudimentary recipe for success:

‘Learn your lines…plant your feet…look the other actor in the eye…say the words…mean them.’

(This piece was first published in Campaign on 9 October 2017.)

No. 168

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

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

‘There’s nowhere else to go.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are we to do?

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

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

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

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

No. 167