Not Doctors, But Psychoanalysts

  Sigmund Freud (Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

Sigmund Freud (Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

It is a melancholy truth that the more expert I have become, the less my expertise is valued. I recognise that this may be because my dusty tales of Levi’s watchpockets, strategic chords and yin yangs lose a little of their lustre with every passing year. And I suspect I’m not pronouncing SXSW with convincing emphasis. But it may also be because Clients no longer come to me for expertise. Or at least not the expertise I imagined I had to offer.

I had always thought that we Planners were akin to strategic doctors. We assessed the patients’ symptoms, we prescribed treatment, we arrived at prognoses. I imagined that sitting in four reviews a day, year after year, gave us a special authority on the anatomy of communication. I’m sure there was a time when my Clients nodded gratefully as we offered sage counsel. The blinding insight, the lyrical proposition, the Damascene conversion…There was, wasn’t there?… But modern Clients are more strategically and creatively confident than ever before. They have their own strategy departments, they’re closer to their own data, they work across more channels than most of us.They go on creative role reversal courses…I’m really not sure they come to us primarily to listen to our opinion. And I have to say sometimes nowadays it’s difficult getting a word in edgeways.

It’s true, I have considered an alternative career as a bus conductor. And when the 25 year old Millward Brown consultant’s opinion carries more weight, I find myself yearning for a passing Routemaster. But advertising people are inherently positive. And so I reconsider…

I am increasingly of the view that Clients don’t come to us for medicine; they come to us for therapy. And I suspect that our value resides, not as strategic doctors, but as strategic psychoanalysts.

Often a successful modern Client engagement is not unlike a session of analysis. Clients begin with problems. They verbalise their thoughts, they make free associations, they express their fantasies and dreams. We listen, we interpret, we consider the unconscious conflicts that are causing their problems. We help them reach solutions through a process of self realisation.

Freud, in addressing the unconscious, talked about the need to ‘unearth buried cities’. This doesn’t sound too alien to brand planning.

I should at this point issue a health warning. I’m a Planner from Romford. Whilst I enjoyed Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method, I can’t claim any particular knowledge of psychoanalysis . For me it’s just an illuminating analogy. Besides, if we were too literal about this, we’d never look a Client in the eye. And I suspect that’s a sure fire way to lose business…

Let us nonetheless consider some of the basic principles that would derive from a psychoanalytic approach to Client engagement…

Set out on a quest for meaning, not cure. The answers to most problems reside in the minds of the Client. We are enabling self knowledge, helping them to create their own narratives.

Behave as a participant observer, not a detached expert. Analysis only works if we embark on it together, as willing equals.

Embrace free association. Often we are too quick to impose order on our Clients’ challenges. Bear in mind that fantasies and dreams can illuminate unconscious conflicts.

Remember, everything has meaning. Be attentive to behaviour, body language, choice of words and phrases.

Look for meaningful patterns. Consider consistencies, symmetries, repetition. Probe for the meaning within the pattern.

Our time is up..

I used to believe there was only one correct answer to every problem. Now I believe there are many correct answers. The challenge is to establish the correct answer that best suits the Client’s character and personality. Anais Nin famously once said: ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are’. I’m sure this maxim applies as much to strategy as it does to creative.

First published: BBH LABS 01/05/2013

No. 20

Branded Gentry

Branded Gentry

Why assign your own name to a brand? What drives the founders of eponymous brands? What lies behind the success of the successful?

These are questions addressed by Branded Gentry, an engaging new book by Charles Vallance and David Hopper. The book comprises a series of interviews with people who ‘made their name by making their name into a brand’. The likes of Johnnie Boden, the founder of the casual clothing company, James Dyson of the innovative household appliance brand, Jonathan Warburton of the baking dynasty, and our own John Hegarty.

I found it a refreshing read. Conventional business books encourage us to think of commercial success in terms akin to scientific case studies. We isolate key learnings, critical success factors, best demonstrated practice. We are introduced to models, mantras and metaphors. We are given a picture of achievement which is ordered, constructed, replicable.

Branded Gentry invites us to consider the psychology of the founders of successful brands. Their relationship with their parents, the view from their childhood bedroom, the emotional milestones that mark out their career. Each chapter is a character study, an elegant pen portrait of often charismatic, compelling individuals. Consequently it paints a picture of success that is disordered, spontaneous, instinctive. And of business that is personal, passionate, human.

The decision to give one’s own name to a brand is significant. If brands are fundamentally about trust, then a brand that carries a founder’s name has a particular sense of integrity. The tag-line of Warburton’s bread is: ‘We care because our name’s on it.’ And as Boden puts it, ‘If you don’t believe in your name, how can you expect other people to give you money?’

Inevitably perhaps, there is a consistent theme of ‘failing forwards’. Tripping up on the way to success, maybe being humbled by mistakes, but also seeing in them learning and experience. The eponymous brand owners come across as enthusiasts. They’re often breezily confident and positive about life. Many of them seem more emotional than you might expect, more active listeners.

But there’s also a dark undertow. A wariness of good fortune, a suspicion that bad times may be round the corner, a fear of debt (which many of them have experienced). The Branded Gentry are restless souls. Listen to James Dyson: ‘I’m not satisfied; I’m still not satisfied. The moment you’ve done something, then you’re onto the next thing, which is full of new problems you’ve got to solve …It’s a life of failure and dissatisfaction whatever your private wealth’. Or as the potter, Emma Bridgewater, puts it: ‘The trouble with being an entrepreneur is that you never think you’ve finished. You’re always thinking of things you haven’t done… I’ve got a lot of parallel lives unlived, but you suddenly realise it’s probably not going to happen. It’s the inherent sadness of ageing.’

I guess I had imagined that success came easily to the successful; that they had had a leg-up from life, a helping hand to get them started. In fact I was rather struck by the fact that, whilst some of these entrepreneurs were born into material wealth, most of them had rather tough childhoods.The broken home, the unsympathetic father, the parents that passed away before their time. Illness and ill fortune seem never too far away. (Dyson points out that over 80% of British Prime Ministers lost a parent before the age of 10, compared to only 1.5% of the general population.)

I grew up committed to a clear separation between work and life beyond it. Of course in the modern age it’s increasingly difficult to sustain the divide. For these Branded Gentry life is work and the eponymous business is fundamentally an expression of self.  According to Dyson, ‘I had developed a latent desire to make things around me better and that desire was the very part of whom I was.’ The authors conclude that their subjects ‘didn’t go out into the world to fit in with it. One way or another, they set out to make the world fit them.’

Branded Gentry is very well written. There is a commendable amount of descriptive detail and direct speech. One often feels one is in the room with the interviewee, observing his or her furniture, inflections, physiognomy. I welcome the book’s commitment that business is about people, not just processes; passions, not just practices. For Vallance and Hopper the personal is professional.

First published: BBH LABS 28/03/2013

No. 19

Singing In The Cemetery

“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.” Bob Marley

  Bob Marley, photographed by Jill Furmanovsky

Bob Marley, photographed by Jill Furmanovsky

I recently saw the Bob Marley documentary that came out last year. Insightful, inspirational, touching stuff.

I was quite struck by a story relating to The Wailers’ early career in Kingston. Their manager would take them to rehearse late at night in the local cemetery. He believed that if they could conquer their fear of ‘duppies’ (spirits), they could also conquer any stage fright.

We often talk of advertising as a business fuelled by confidence. And it’s true. Confidence gives you the courage to be honest, to be different, to challenge conventions. Confidence is the foundation of sustained success.

But I have also found that the reverse is true: agencies run on fear.

Fear of corporate change, competitive threat and Client whim. Fear of forgetting, of fluffing one’s lines. Fear of fashion, of falling behind and falling apart. Fear of failure. Fear that the latest success may be the last. Fear of complacency, of hubris. Fear of lost relevance. Fear of irrelevance. Fear of redundancy. Not just losing your job, but losing your utility. Fear that your best years are behind you. And your worst meeting is in front of you.

As Nigel Bogle has been wont to warn, even in the good years, ‘We’re three phone calls away from disaster’.

I still go into every presentation with an awkward feeling in the pit of my stomach. And under sustained pressure I develop painfully itchy shins. Hardly the romance of a saint’s stigmata. Faintly ridiculous really. But nonetheless a physical manifestation of stress, anxiety, doubt.

John Hegarty once bumped into our Levi’s Client in Reception. The Client said he was worried because the proposed print route was a bit risky. Rather than reassure him that it wasn’t at all dangerous, John said, ‘You’re right. It is risky. I’m worried it might even be a mistake, possibly a disaster.’ And then he marched briskly on to his next meeting.

I think a successful business should be fuelled by confidence, but oiled by fear. The one delivers ambition, the other insures against complacency. I’m drawn to the same qualities in people too: I like enthusiasm, appetite, optimism; tempered by a little self doubt, angst and humility. (‘Once a Catholic…’, I guess…)

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
Bob Marley

But whilst fear in moderation may be useful, attractive even, fear in excess is paralysing, corrosive. You see it in the eyes of the team whose competence has been questioned, whose business has been put up for pitch, whose job is on the line.

So I suspect we could still do with a little singing in the cemetery. We still need a means to confront our darkest paranoias, to defeat our deepest doubts. Of course in a modern, sanitised age we don’t have ‘duppies’, ghosts and ghouls. Maybe, post Freud, just articulating our misgivings is healthy. Maybe we ought to give more time to sharing our angst, anxieties, apprehensions.

Maybe I’m just singing in the cemetery right now…

First published: BBH Labs 26/02/2013

No. 18

The Mirror Crack’d

‘The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott’

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – The Lady of Shalott

                                                 William Holman Hunt -The Lady of Shalott

                                               William Holman Hunt -The Lady of Shalott

 

I attended the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain. Not entirely my cup of tea. Rather flat, two dimensional narratives of a romanticised past. Curiously the Pre-Raphaelites were regarded as radical in their day. It’s perhaps very English to express revolt by looking backwards…

I was nonetheless quite taken by a Holman Hunt painting of The Lady of Shalott. It seems to show a beautiful woman caught in a bizarre knitting accident. In fact it refers to a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

In the poem the mysterious Lady of Shalott is imprisoned in a tower, cursed to weave imperfect impressions of the world outside from the reflections she captures in a mirror. She weaves images of the traffic on the road to Camelot, the shepherds, knights, market girls and page boys that pass by her castle prison. But the curse denies her direct sight of life outside and ultimately she is unfulfilled.

‘ ”I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott’

One day The Lady of Shalott steals a glance out of the window at the noble, handsome Sir Lancelot and with that glance the mirror cracks. She escapes her imprisonment in the tower and takes a boat down river to Camelot. At last she can see the world as it truly is.

This may sound daft, but I couldn’t help thinking about market research.

My first job was as a Qualitative Researcher and I guess I was engaged in a form of reportage. Relaying to Clients what consumers thought and did, summarising their behaviour, interpreting their opinions. Like the Lady of Shalott I was weaving imperfect impressions of the world. Reducing culture to basic bullet points, pithy Power Point, vivid verbatims. We were all well aware of the shortcomings of this approach, but it was the best we could do at the time. I recall how, a few years into my career, the introduction of even the smallest piece of video stimulus to a research debrief could revive Clients’ flagging attention. It was the late arrival of actual consumers in the room.

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’

1 Corinthians 13:12

Perhaps with the social web a mirror has cracked. Disintermediation is the order of the day. We can gain fast, cheap access to raw, unfiltered consumer opinion. We can tame big data to animate culture. We can demolish the distance between concepts and customers. We can bring consumers into the creatives’ office, the innovators’ lab. We can workshop ideas. We can test real time in beta. We can see the world as it truly is. Live and direct. It’s invigorating, liberating, revolutionary. With one bound we are free. But market research is sometimes a frustrating business. I’m aware that there’s always a gap between vision and execution, that there’s a great deal of interesting experimentation going on. But sometimes change seems disappointingly pedestrian. As the great choreographer George Balanchine is reported to have said: ‘What are you waiting for? What are you saving yourselves for? Now is all there is!’

Of course, things rarely turn out quite as we had in mind. And things didn’t turn out well for The Lady of Shalott either. In the poem she meets a tragic end and by the time she reaches Camelot she is dead. The curse has struck.

I have been haunted by this dark conclusion.

Who is the Lady of Shalott? Who is this mysterious figure ‘half sick of shadows’, craving a fuller appreciation of life, but cursed not to enjoy it?

Is it a research industry clinging to the money-spinning methodologies of the old world and struggling to innovate for the new?

Is it the Client community that understands the revolution in theory, but fails properly to embrace it in practice?

Or is it us, the communications specialists, thrilled by the prospect of unmediated access to consumers, but ill equipped to realise it?

 

   Image: John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shalott

 Image: John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shalott

‘Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right -
The leaves upon her falling light -
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song.
The Lady of Shalott.’

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – The Lady of Shalott

First published: BBH Labs 10/01/2013

No. 17

Swimming In The Shallow End

  Portrait of an artist, by David Hockney

Portrait of an artist, by David Hockney

My father worked for a time at a gasket factory in Romford. One Christmas he presented me with a corporate diary he had been given by an industrial felt supplier. Inside they’d printed their slogan: ‘You need the felt. We felt the need.’ I loved that line. I thought it was so funny, clever and beautiful at the same time.

I was at school studying for my A Levels: Latin, Greek, Ancient History. It was a robustly academic diet. I found that, having immersed myself in Homer, Horace and Herodotus, I was increasingly distracted by Essex fashion and soul music, pub banter and puns. I was drawn to the facile, frivolous and foolish. I guess it was a kind of mental displacement.

In the early ’80s, pop was revered anew in the UK. In the wake of the ponderous rock and precocious punk of the ’70s, we embraced ABC, Haircut 100 and Dollar with gusto. We believed in the beauty of the three minute pop song: shiny lyrics, shallow sentiments, shimmering production. We believed that there was an integrity in pop that raised it above the pretentious posturing of the indie crowd; that there was a kind of perfection in its brevity and wit. We believed that love itself was fragile, funny and transient.

Around about that time I determined that I’d one day like to work in advertising.

‘And all my friends just might ask me.
They say,”Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love.”
I say,”Maybe. There must be a solution
To the one thing, the one thing, we can’t find”’

The Look of Love, ABC

In my 20s I noticed my social circle was narrowing and deepening. I was spending more and more time with a tight knit bunch of close friends. Although I greatly enjoyed their company, I became concerned that my conversation was increasingly predictable, that I was reinforcing my own prejudices and opinions. And so I set myself the task of developing a broad but shallow social set. I endeavoured to ensure that I saw a lot of friends infrequently. (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this particular game plan. It was frankly rather exhausting).

Nigel Bogle once complained that Planning had a nack of digging down to Australia to discover the meaning of a paper clip. In my brief, and I have to say less than successful, tenure as Head of Planning at BBH, I endeavoured to address this. I transposed my ‘broad and shallow’ strategy to Planning: I encouraged the department to experience more things less profoundly; to work on more projects less intensively. Broad and Shallow Planning was to be my legacy to the strategic community. Strangely it was never widely adopted…

I guess I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the elevated status we afford brands nowadays. We talk of trust and love and ideals. Loyalty, passion, faith. Visions, missions, purposes. It sometimes strikes me as faintly bombastic. Brands as Wagnerian heroes. The Emerson, Lake and Palmers of consumption. The high concept action movies of marketing. Roll the credits. Lighters in the air. Cue the helicopters. Cue the smoke machines. Cue Coldplay. Cue Ghandi…

Surely not all soft drinks can save the babies, not all toothpastes can launch a thousand ships. Surely many brands have more modest roles to play in people’s lives. The fleeting glance, the quiet companion, the casual acquaintance. Shouldn’t we of all people be celebrating the inconsequential, the insignificant, the incidental? For these foolish things are truly the stuff of life.

‘A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places.
A tinkling piano in the next apartment,
Those stumbling words that told me what your heart meant.
These foolish things remind me of you’

These Foolish Things, Eric Maschwitz & Jack Strachey

 

 

  The fall of Icarus, Baglione

The fall of Icarus, Baglione

Finally, a word of caution. We have all learned to ladder up to higher order concepts and social goods. Ordinary, everyday brands get to leave behind base functionality, to sup with sages and kings. And often it serves a brand well to give it a higher purpose and social resonance. But beware the Icarus Effect. You may be playing with the Pomp Rock of Planning. In a Creds meeting once, I told a High Street optical retailer that his brand gave consumers the gift of sight. He excused himself and said he was due back on Planet Earth.

So don’t get me wrong. I love a big, ambitious, high ground, universal idea as much as the next man. I love brands with vision, confidence and courage. I’ve even nodded along to Coldplay occasionally.

But, just for once, let’s raise a glass to the little guys, to the not-so-crazy ones. Here’s to the inconsequential, the incidental and frivolous. Here’s to the modest, the momentary and fleeting. Here’s to swimming in the shallow end.

First published: BBH Labs 25/09

No.16

(Don’t) Turn Your Back On Me

Edvard Munch

I attended an Edvard Munch show at the Tate Modern. Dark, melancholy, awkward stuff. Angst, loneliness, jealousy. A difficult relationship with society in general and women in particular.

It was striking that he painted quite a lot of pictures of women with their backs to the viewer. A powerful expression of exclusion, loneliness, unrequited love.

I spent my youth being turned away from London’s elite nightspots. Perhaps it was the sleeveless plaid shirt, the white towelling socks, the caked on Country Born hair gel. But the bitter sense of disappointment hasn’t left me. I can taste it now. And I learned more about clubbing from Spandau Ballet videos than actual experience…

‘He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’

Handel, Messiah

As a young executive I was invited to apply for an Amex card. I applied and was duly rejected. Naturally I was confused and disappointed and I never spoke to them again. I’m sure consumers often feel a similar sense of exclusion from brands. Refusal and denial are shaming, embarrassing. The fear of rejection is almost as powerful as rejection itself. And then there are the coded gestures, the arcane language, the gender and cultural specific semiotics. The feeling that you don’t belong, that you’re not welcome here. It’s a private conversation, you wouldn’t understand.

I guess that’s why strategists so often recommend that brands are more open, inviting, transparent. We want brands to look us in the eye, to reach out from the canvas with a knowing glance and a welcoming smile. Easier said than done, of course.

 

Vilhelm Hammershoi

Yet the turned back does not have to be all bad.

The Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi often painted a solitary woman with her back to the viewer. She goes about her daily routine in a quiet middle class home, lost in private thought. Hammershoi’s subjects seem more loved than feared. This distinctive reverse view gains its power in part from being so unusual. But also from the sense of intrusion on private time. The sense of seeing, but not being seen. It’s a little awkward, but also intriguing. Am I encountering her truest self, her identity freed of relationships, social constraints and concerns about appearance?

It reminds me of the oft’ cited quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘Ethics is what you do when no one is looking.’ (I’ve uncovered versions of this quote from many sources. Henry Ford said ‘quality means doing it right when no one’s looking’. And of course, most recently Bob Diamond suggested ‘culture is how we behave when no one’s watching.’)

So how do brands behave when no one is looking? What would the brand encountered in a quiet room be up to? Would we find it dutifully engaged in customer-centric endeavours? Would its jaunty personality be sustained when there’s no one to impress? Would we discover an honest engagement with issues of citizenship and responsibility?

I’m worried that we’d most likely find the brand plotting a marketing and PR plan. I’m worried that in business as in politics too much thought nowadays is given to how things will play, how they will be perceived and reported. I suspect that too often the brand’s instinctive ethical and commercial compass has been replaced by recourse to brand image tracking and favourability ratings.

I appreciate this may be a curious thing for an adman to say. I should perhaps celebrate the triumph of modern marketing, the inevitable victory of perception in the All Seeing Age. Perhaps like a modern celebrity the smile must always be on, the guard must always be up. But it still makes me a little melancholy…

And what of Agencies? How do we behave when no one’s looking?

We are often perceived as conventions of feckless youth and superannuated yuppies. And I confess I was a little uncomfortable when Clients first started plugging in laptops, decanting lattes and working at our offices. I worried that they’d disapprove of our timekeeping, that they’d be offended by our cussing.

But as more Clients have made the Agency their mid-week home, I think the Agency has benefitted. The Embedded Client often sees passion, industry, talent and integrity. They get to see our truest self. And it’s not as bad as they, or we, may have expected.

In the words of the great Brit Soul luminary, David Grant…‘I’ve been watching you watching me. I’ve been liking you, Baby, liking me…’

First published BBH Labs: 10/09/

No. 15

Dance Lessons

  Asphodel Meadows, choreographed by Liam Scarlett

Asphodel Meadows, choreographed by Liam Scarlett

I attended a talk by the top Royal Ballet choreographer and dancer, Liam Scarlett. He is only 26, but he has already choreographed two exceptional ballets for the main stage at Covent Garden. And he still finds time to dance in the company.

Scarlett was discussing how he approached creating his 2011 work, Asphodel Meadows, around a particular piece of music, Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto. One could be intimidated, he said, by the scale and complexity of the Concerto. Where to start? How to break into the task? Whereas with narrative ballet there is a natural sequencing to follow, with an abstract work there is no obvious entry point. He explained that his own process was first to identify the ‘epicentre’ of the music, its emotional core. He knew that if he could just design the pas de deux around a particular romantic passage in the second movement, everything else would follow. Having got to the emotional heart of the music, he could work outwards to the rest of the piece.

I am often in meetings nowadays when a Client demands an idea that is media neutral, that extends across every channel, region, product and form of engagement. All the colours, in all the sizes.  Such a panoramic demand can be rather intimidating. And I have found that telling the Creative Department we need to cover the walls with ideas is not entirely helpful.

I suspect that, following Scarlett’s lead, the key to cracking this kind of challenge is not to consider it in its totality or in the abstract. Ideas tend to be born in the specific. The key is to find the epicentre of the task, to find its emotional heart.

In the old days, of course, one could assume that the epicentre of any campaign was TV. The answer’s telly, what’s the question? But engagement is no longer so simple and one of the arts of the modern strategist is to provide focus, to set priorities, to isolate the heart of the matter. Do we start with a particular audience, a particular task, a particular medium? Will the visual identity unlock everything? Should we work up from the product or down from the vision? Because even a solution experienced in parallel may have to be arrived at in sequence.

 

  Lauren Cuthbertson in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lauren Cuthbertson in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I am no expert, but I love ballet. I love the combination of art and athleticism, grace and danger. I love the unexplained relationships, the wordless ideas. And I confess I find its transcendent beauty somewhat soothing at the end of a day discussing brand pyramids, lost mojos and ideation.

Ballet has also made me consider my own approach to work. I recently heard the fantastic Devonian dancer, Lauren Cuthbertson, explain how she rose to the top of her profession. The interviewer asked if she always knew she would be a ballerina. Oh, yes, she said, and despite her sunny demeanour, a steely determination was audible in her voice. She once came to a career crossroads at ballet school when she was challenged over her application in class. She decided that every night after rehearsal she would replay the whole class in her head. She would lie awake in bed retracing every pirouette, every plie, every jete. So she would return to class the next day, having rehearsed the piece twice over. Inevitably her progress accelerated. And Cuthbertson continues to rehearse in her head, every day, everywhere. When she walks to the tube, eats her supper and relaxes in the evening, she is also pacing the stage at Covent Garden, leaping, vaulting, careering. She is always at work.

I hesitate when applying this thought to our own discipline. I have prized my own ability to compartmentalise work, to leave it behind at the end of the day. I encourage others to forget, to live a life beyond advertising. Because a richer life out of work enables a richer contribution in work. And Lord knows we have enough problems with stress in the office without encouraging people to take work home with them.

But it’s also true that I have solved the knottiest problems relaxing at home. Whilst the content of one’s dreams may, for the most part, be meaningless drivel or the output of some primal displacement process, I have occasionally woken up in the middle of the night with a clarity that has eluded me in the day. The brain seems sometimes to leap further and faster when it is unconstrained by conscious thought and a computer screen.

So I have reached a compromise. I endeavour to leave the tedious work worries in the office. The people problems, the deadline demands, the fracas with the photocopier. But I also try to take the more interesting strategic challenges home. Because I suspect our unfocused, unconscious brains may be our most valuable assets.

First published: BBH Labs 15/06/12

No. 14

Commercial Karma

Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty,water colored memories
Of the way we were.

Barbra Streisand, The Way We Were

 

  Barbra Streisand, image: barbrastreisandpictures.com

Barbra Streisand, image: barbrastreisandpictures.com

I attended the Damien Hirst show at the Tate Modern. Flies and fags, butterflies and bling, spin and spots, drugs and death… There. You don’t need to see it now.

I walked away somewhat hollow. I felt a pang of guilt and recognition. Guilt because Hirst was in many ways the adman’s artist. Art that came with a nudge, a wink and a knowing punchline. Art as quick hit, shiny bright, paper thin. Recognition because, yes, that was Britain in the ’90s. Spin doctors and Spice Girls, boy bands and man bags, heroin chic and Shabba Ranks, lads and Loaded, puffas and Prozac, Wonderbra and Wonderwall, alcopops and Posh & Becks. Fool Britannia…. There was no god, no beauty, no other. Just money and death and irony. Things could only get worse…

I’m not sure I blame Damien Hirst. I suspect he’s a very good artist. He was very effectively holding a mirror up to us and our values. Or lack of them. And I suspect each generation gets the art it deserves. Flies and fags was maybe all we were good for in the ’90s.

Don’t you also think that we get the advertising we deserve? As an Agency, as a Client, as a culture ? When we hark back to a golden hued, bygone age of celestial communication, are we not condemning our own failure to create greatness now? When the disappointed Client fires the disappointing Agency, isn’t he or she shirking personal responsibility? When we rail against cruel fate and happenstance, when we bemoan the recession, or reach for the blame gun, shouldn’t we be looking in the mirror first?

I believe in commercial karma. That, broadly speaking, in advertising as in life, we reap what we sow. That what goes around comes around. Not for some spiritual, counter cultural, gaia-type reason. But because, though it seems trite to say it, in the long run, smart, open minded Clients, working with intelligent, lateral Agencies, for honest, worthwhile brands, will make better, more effective work. And vice versa.

I guess I have witnessed exceptions to this. The craven creative, the malevolent marketing director, the bullying business director have on occasion won the day. But overall in my experience fakes are found out, charlatans are shopped. Good prevails.

Instant karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead

~ John Lennon, Instant Karma

 

John Lennon

John Lennon, image: backstageol.com

Of course in the past one had to wait for hubris to be followed by inevitable nemesis. Nowadays the social web has created a kind of instant karma. Because the courtroom of public opinion is so immediate and all seeing. It shines an unforgiving, instantaneous light on the ill conceived and poorly executed. It likewise rewards the virtuous with currency and value.

I had always believed that Corporate Social Responsibility was exactly that: a responsibility that a business owed to the communities it served. I wasn’t so enamoured of more fashionable phrases like social investment because I didn’t feel ethics needed commercial justification.  And I wasn’t convinced CSR had a role in marketing or brand.

Now I have been persuaded that ethics are more than a responsibility. They are fundamental to a brand’s sustainability in a transparent, socialised world. Because increasingly consumers are unwilling to buy good products from bad people. Because in a world of commercial karma only the good Clients, good admen and good brands can win.

First published: BBH Labs 21/5/12

No. 13

Laughing Together, Weeping Alone

The Laughing Audience William Hogarth

William Hogarth, The Laughing Audience

 

  Vincent Van Gogh, Old Man In Sorrow

Vincent Van Gogh, Old Man In Sorrow

I was at home watching a film when it happened again. A drying of the throat, a tightening of the vocal cords, the involuntary dab at the side of the eye to discover a bead of moisture forming. Yes, I was crying again.

I’m no motor racing enthusiast, but I was cracking up over the Senna documentary. The potent cocktail of youth, beauty, talent and tragedy. The story of a genius half expressed, a life half lived.

It’s a curiosity of middle age that one finds oneself weeping more frequently. Sometimes it’s prompted by the profound. But often it’s the incidental, the humdrum, the everyday. A fay costume drama, a moderately emotional screwball comedy, a random memory of Dylan, the springer spaniel, watching sparrows on the summer lawn.

I sat next to a guy on the plane a while ago. A formal, serious looking man with one of those bulky lawyer’s briefcases that mean money and business. He obviously travelled a lot. After take-off he set out his paraphernalia for in-flight comfort: his unguents, earplugs and blindfold. He refused food, switched on a monitor and proceeded to cry profusely all the way through Four Weddings and a Funeral.

I’m not sure about the psychology or physiology of Middle Aged Weeping. Could it be the remembrance of things past, the wisdom of age, the diminution of testosterone, the proximity of death, the fear of apocalypse? Or all of the above simultaneously tugging at the heart strings and demanding a tune?

I’d like to say I’ve gained some lasting benefit or resolution from my weeping, that I am more in touch with my emotions, more at one with myself. But, whilst I am certainly curious about it, I don’t feel any farther down the road to self knowledge. Tears are not enough.

 

                                                  Maxine Brown

                                                 Maxine Brown

I cry alone

When no one else can hear me

When friends come by to cheer me

I smile and say I feel OK.

Maxine Brown, I Cry Alone

With the exception of a few funerals, like Maxine Brown I have always cried alone. Context evaporates, time stalls, the world closes in. Melancholy is a matter of silent isolation.

Conversely I only laugh with others. To share the joke, to join the fun, to feel peels of laughter rippling through the crowd. The greatest highs are the ones we share. And solitary laughter is the surest sign of oncoming madness. As the guy on the 19 bus giggles out loud at the contents of his book, one edges along the seat a little farther, grips the handrail a little tighter. I suspect more people write LOL than do it.

Take a look at anyone’s Facebook photos and you’ll see a curiously hedonistic sense of self. The laughter, smiles, gatherings and getaways of friends and family. Darker thoughts and feelings are generally suppressed. It’s a redacted life.

I wonder what does this mean? Are we instinctively predisposed to share our highs and keep the lows to ourselves? Are some feelings inherently more private and others more public? Are there natural limits to the social?

I’m aware, of course, that some societies cry more freely than mine. Perhaps others laugh more privately too. And conventions are changing. We live in an age where the instinct to share has extended beyond the joyous and celebratory. Oprah’s openness, misery memoirs, celebrity confessions. Some have speculated that the  social era may lead us to happier personal lives, that in our free expression on the web, we’re engaged in some kind of mass therapy: we’re producing the best adjusted generation since before The Fall.

Nonetheless, I share the growing concern that our transparent world poses challenges in the area of privacy. Hitherto much of the debate has centred around personal data, unsolicited targeting, embarrassing photos. I suspect privacy may represent a more profound issue than this. Privacy is a matter of personal identity. And in order to prevent identity theft in the truest sense, we need to protect the arcane, opaque, mysterious elements of our own lives. In her new book, Quiet, Susan Cain suggests that the ‘world that can’t stop talking’ underestimates introverts. I agree.

Van the Man once sang about the  ’Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’. I had grown up thinking that any belief needed a justification, that an emotion wasn’t properly felt unless it could be articulated, that one couldn’t recover from a trauma unless one could describe it. Now I treasure the unexplained, the unspoken, the unthought.

First Published: BBH Labs 02/04/12

No. 12

Pretentious? Nous?

  Philosophy, Salvator Rosa

Philosophy, Salvator Rosa

When I went to school there were the Sports Guys and the Music Guys.

The Sports Guys liked doing circuit training, spraying Ralgex and making noises with their studs in the shower. The Music Guys wore heavy tweed overcoats, pored over the NME crossword and argued about the relative merits of Joy Division and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King. I liked both categories, but fundamentally I guess I was a Music Guy.

I went to college equipped with Country Born hair gel, ‘fu shoes and Radio London mix tapes. I covered my walls with album covers from Wah, Defunkt and Echo and the Bunnymen. I danced all night to James Brown and Washington Go Go. (Mine was an awkward, heavy-shoe shuffle that alienated girls more than it attracted them.)

I confess I became somewhat pretentious. But I imagine it was an innocent sort of pretentiousness. A love of words and ideas and debate. Of music, books and film.

Obviously pretentiousness is somewhat silly and self-important, but that’s part of its charm. Look at Salvator Rosa in the self portrait above from the National Gallery. He’s painted himself as a sensitive, brooding philosopher , braving a dark, stormy world. He’s carrying a Latin inscription (natch) that reads ‘Keep silent unless you have something more important to say than silence’. How absurd, how pretentious, how cool…

 

  Self Portrait in a Turban, Duncan Grant   1961 Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy Henrietta Garnett

Self Portrait in a Turban, Duncan Grant 1961 Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy Henrietta Garnett

 

Last summer I visited Charleston, the Sussex country home and social hub of the Bloomsbury art set between the wars. They painted the walls and furniture, they painted each other, they discussed pacifism, ballet and the global financial crisis. They made a show of drinking coffee rather than tea. To be honest I didn’t love all the decorative artwork and I wasn’t too sure about their sleeping arrangements. But I had to admire the fact that they had a view about the world, a design for living.

When I left college I fell into advertising as I thought it was one of the few professions where we Music Guys were welcome. Advertising is an art not a science, it’s creative persuasion, lateral thought. Advertising folk cultivated curious facial hair, absurd spectacles and MA1 Flight Jackets. I felt at home.

In the ’90s our Agency produced the Levi’s campaign and I recall it referencing Ansel Adams, Hunter S Thompson, Rodchenko, Bill Brandt, Burt Lancaster and more besides. Pretentious perhaps, but also bracing stuff.

Now let’s be clear. I’m certainly not a subscriber to the view that advertising is art. At its best it’s creativity applied to a commercial end. But I do believe that creativity needs to be inspired, catalysed and nourished by a broader set of cultural references and ideas.

Of late I’ve begun to  wonder whether we Music Guys have lost our way and our voice a little. I’m concerned that there may not be enough people discussing arthouse movies, German dance troupes, experimental theatre. Shouldn’t the Agency be abuzz with fevered debate about Hockney and Hirst? Shouldn’t creative reviews be inspired by more  than YouTube? I worry in fact that we have become less pretentious.

Perhaps people work so hard nowadays that they don’t have time to develop what Denis Healey called a ‘hinterland’. Maybe it’s straitened times. We want to be seen as sensible, rational, commercial. Maybe it’s Anglo Saxon reserve. We apply a blanket pejorative to anything slightly outside the norms of conversation and thought. Perhaps it’s British anti-intellectualism. Our TV is dominated by unreality shows, costume anti-dramas, middle brow mundanity (what Simon Schama recently labelled ‘cultural necrophilia’). Our Queen prefers Lambourn to Glyndebourne. Our Prime Minister prefers tennis to Tennyson. And his favourite read is a cook book. Maybe we’re just too busy jogging.

Whatever the source of the problem, l’ve come to rue this loss of pretentiousness. I wish people more often cited the marginal and the maddening, the absurd and the abstruse from the world of art, academia and literature. Not just because it’s interesting, challenging, funny. But because today’s obscure eccentric is tomorrow’s bright young thing. Because creativity’s favourite bedfellows are difference and diversity.

So I’ve determined that I’m going to be pretentious in 2012. And I’ll encourage everyone else to do the same.

Honi soit qui mal y pense…

First published: BBH Labs  10/02/2012

No. 11