Do It the Hard Way: Channelling Your Inner Bette Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headline from a Bette Davis movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I will never be below the title.’

So what can we learn from Davis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margo Channing, ‘All About Eve’
 

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

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

No. 136

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 135

Do You Pitch in Poetry and Manage in Prose?

Norman Rockwell 'Freedom of Speech'

Norman Rockwell 'Freedom of Speech'

Mario Cuomo, the Governor of New York between 1983 and 1994, famously observed of the political process: ‘You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.’ For politicians election campaigns are all grand themes, lofty ideals and elegant words. The day-to-day task of government is, by contrast, much more about hard bargaining, cold calculation and compromised action.

Of course, there’s been precious little poetry in the election currently concluding in the UK. Nonetheless, Cuomo’s dictum rings true, and it has a resonance for us in the world of commercial creativity. We would perhaps reluctantly agree that, in most circumstances:  ‘You pitch in poetry; you manage the business in prose.’

Classically, pitching is all theatre and personality; enterprise and enthusiasm; big ideas and limitless possibilities. If we’re fortunate enough to win a pitch, we soon come down to earth with a bump. Most of our proposed executions lie bleeding on the floor before us, victims of budget practicalities and Year 1 caution. (‘I think that will be brilliant in Year 2.’) We rapidly embrace a world of timeframes and team allocation; Gantt charts and organograms; status reports and conference calls. It’s all too easy to lose sight of our original hopes and plans. Before too long we do indeed find ourselves running the business in prose.

This begs certain questions of Agency leadership: Do we too readily set aside the optimism and open mindedness of the pitch for the harsh realities of everyday account management? How can we maintain some level of inspiration in the business once the aspiration and ambition of the pitch are a distant memory? How do we sustain some poetry in amongst the prose?

Moreover, in recent years the distinction between the pitch dynamic and day-to-day account practice has been blurred somewhat. As the world of communication has become more complex, as media have fragmented and technology has proliferated, pitching Clients have sought more than stirring words and lateral leaps. They want to know up-front about global networks and operating systems; capabilities and costs; partnerships, platforms and processes. They want to get their lawyers, accountants and procurement people involved. There’s a good deal of prose in the contemporary creative pitch.

This poses fresh questions for the pitching Agency: How do we convey to Clients the potential of our core creative proposal, whilst at the same time reassuring them that we have the people and processes to get the job done? How much of the pitch should we give to ideas and inspiration, and how much to systems and methodologies? What is the right balance of poetry and prose?

Of course, the natural inclination of both Client and Agency is to isolate the inspirational from the procedural. It’s quite common to have separate conversations, in separate meetings, with separate people.  But some of the most impressive pitches I have attended have integrated the two. They have endeavoured to make the business of platform management and collateral creation exciting; to make the process as stimulating as the product.

Inevitably the modern Agency should learn to pitch and manage in both poetry and prose.

No. 134

‘Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word’: We Need Nice People for Nasty Times

Passersby by Lantian D

Passersby by Lantian D

At the gym the bloke with the next locker silently moves his kit out of my way without looking up at me. At the shop a woman talks on her mobile as she pays. Down the pub a guy checks his phone as he pisses. A man on a bike shouts at me as he turns a corner. Someone’s eating a bacon sandwich on the tube. He’s sat next to a ‘manspreader.’ There are kids cursing on the top deck of the bus. There’s pizza packaging on the pavement. Queueing seems to be the hardest concept. And sorry seems to be the hardest word.

‘What do I do to make you want me?
What have I got to do to be heard?
What do I do when it’s all over,
And sorry seems to be the hardest word?

It’s sad, so sad.
It’s a sad, sad situation.
And it’s getting more and more absurd.

‘Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word,’ Elton John (Elton John & Bernie Taupin)

Of course, I’m just a grumpy old man. And I live in London. But it seems sometimes that we’ve lost our sense of civic pride; of community; of togetherness. We’re all sharp elbows and hard stares; hoodies and headphones. We’ve become anti-social media addicts, selfie narcissists, smartphone lemmings. Oh, for the cordial and considerate, the kind and courteous. Oh, for the gentle smile, the nod of recognition, the quiet word. If only we could remember that shyness is nice; politeness is precious; and ‘manners maketh man.’

It seems to me we need nice people for nasty times.

To get a job at my former Agency, BBH, it was stipulated that you had to be ‘good and nice.’ This was an elegantly simple recruitment policy. And critically it recognized that an employee’s impact on culture is as important as his or her impact on clients - because culture builds companies; and the foundations of culture are day-to-day civility, mutual respect and thoughtfulness.

I particularly like the use of the word ‘nice’ in this context. It sounds soft. It suggests the candidate must be gentle and genial, amiable and agreeable. ‘Nice’ seems alien to the hard-nosed, cut-throat world of commerce. Surely ‘nice guys finish last.’ But, on the contrary, today’s networked age is all about team, partnership, collaboration and cooperation. Empathy, emotional intelligence and listening skills are commercially critical. We need to get along if we want to get on. Nowadays nice guys finish first.

Perhaps marketers too should be mindful of ‘nice.’ So many modern brands celebrate their high-minded Purpose. They’re ‘passionate’ about people and the planet; ‘in love’ with customers and the category. They’re ‘fanatical’ about good service. But maybe they should calm down a bit. I don’t want my brands to be passionate or fanatical; I’d rather they were polite and well mannered. I don’t want my brands to love me; I just want them to be nice.

I was once given a signed copy of Harry Redknapp‘s autobiography. The erstwhile West Ham player and manager was a wily tactician and loveable rogue. He had signed the book with a simple message for me: ‘Nice one!’

Exactly.

‘What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give,
Or are we meant to be kind?’

Alfie, Dionne Warwick (Burt Bacharach, Hal David)

No. 133

Nile Rodgers and The Guitar That Wouldn’t Play: Is Your Team Out of Tune?

Nile Rodgers is one of those people you’d just like to thank: for Chic and Sister Sledge; for combining uptown style with downtown rhythms; for swooning strings and relentless ‘chucking’ guitar patterns; for ‘High Society,’ ‘My Forbidden Lover’ and ‘Get Lucky’; for the renaissance of Diana Ross; for the pause in ‘I Want Your Love’; for the chassis to ‘Rapper’s Delight’; for getting ‘lost in music, caught in a trap, no turning back’; for sheer rapture on the dance floor; for the ‘Good Times.’

‘If you left it up to me,
Every day would be Saturday.
People party through the week,
They’d be laughing.

I just can’t wait ‘til Saturday.
I just can’t wait ‘til Saturday.’

Saturday,’ Norma Jean (Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers, Bobby Carter)

Rodgers’ excellent autobiography ‘Le Freak’ is a rollercoaster ride of joy and pain, of triumph over adversity; a story told with wisdom, warmth and good humour. He grew up amongst bohemians and drug users in New York and LA. He suffered insomnia and chronic asthma. His early life involved encounters with Thelonius Monk, Timothy Leary and assorted Black Panthers; with Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix and Sesame Street. Eventually he met Bernard Edwards, formed Chic, and together they created the blueprint for sophisticated modern dance music. He went on to confer his distinctive production dazzle on the likes of David Bowie, Duran Duran and Madonna. This is a life fully lived.

Rodgers’ natural musical gift was first expressed through the clarinet he was taught at school. At 15 he convinced his mother and stepfather to buy him a guitar. He set about learning his new instrument from his clarinet etudes and a Beatles songbook. But, however hard he tried, he couldn’t coax anything approaching a proper melody from the guitar. How frustrating! One day his stepfather came across him practising and took the instrument in his hands: ’Wow, this is way out of tune.’ The young Nile hadn’t been aware of the need to tune the guitar.

‘Sir Edmond Hillary, reaching the summit of Mount Everest, must have felt something similar to what I felt at that moment. This was more blissful than anything I’d ever experienced. I played the next chord and it sounded like the right chord in the progression. I started the song again. With utter confidence I sang, ‘I read the news today, oh boy,’ then strummed an E minor and dropped to the seventh, ‘About a lucky man who made the grade.’ There are no words to accurately describe what this felt like.’

I was touched by this story. It spoke of joy unconfined, pure youthful creative liberation.

In a completely different context, Nile Rodgers’ out-of-tune guitar made me wonder about the commercial world. How often does a business have the right strings, on the right instrument, being plucked in exactly the right way, without producing any meaningful music? How often is a business ill at ease with itself, out of tune, with no sense of where the problem lies?

We may think of leaders nowadays as people who hire and fire, replace and reconfigure. But the truest test of good leaders is their ability to realise the potential of the talent already at their disposal. Can they allocate roles and responsibilities, tasks and objectives in such a way as to create a genuine sense of collective purpose? Can they galvanise disparate skills and personalities into a supportive, happy team? Can they motivate them, direct them, inspire them to play in tune, to sing in harmony?

‘Everyone can see we’re together,
As we walk on by.
And we fly just like birds of a feather
I won’t tell no lie.

We are family
I got all my sisters with me.’

‘We Are Family,’ Sister Sledge (Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers)

Great leaders set the rhythm of a business, get it dancing in step, as one. I’ve witnessed this kind of leadership. It’s a rare instinctive thing, a wonder to behold. It requires humility and empathy; charisma and vision, in equal measure. It requires a positive engagement with people, life and circumstances.

These are qualities that I’m sure Rodgers himself has in abundance. At the start of his book, he quotes an old saying:

‘Life isn’t about surviving the storm; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.’

No. 132

 

 

Exquisite Corpse: If You Want To Change the Product, Try Changing the Process

'Nude Cadavre Exquis' Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (1926-27)

'Nude Cadavre Exquis' Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (1926-27)

‘There’s a method to my madness; and a madness to my method.’
Salvador Dali

At a gallery recently I came across an Exquisite Corpse.

Exquisite Corpse was a creative technique that Surrealist artists adapted from the traditional parlour game of Consequences. Typically four people took turns to draw a different bodypart on a folded piece of paper: first the head, then the torso, then the hips and finally the legs. Each participant was unaware of what the previous contributors had drawn. The image that resulted was often comic, disturbing, absurd.

Exquisite Corpse at first struck me as a curiously playful distraction for serious artists. Just a bit of fun perhaps before they got back to proper work. But the Surrealists were serious about the technique. For them it illuminated the creative process: it was a way of exploring the impact on their art of multiple authorship, sequencing, chance and the unconscious.

For Surrealists process didn’t have to be a constraint on creativity; it could be a catalyst to it.

'La Clairvoyance'Rene Magritte

'La Clairvoyance'Rene Magritte

‘All my life my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.’
Andre Breton

The writers and artists of the Surrealist movement gathered in Paris in the 1920s around their leader, Andre Breton. In the wake of the horrors of the First World War, they determined to suppress reason, reality and ‘bourgeois aestheticism.’ Like Freud they were interested in dreams and the workings of the unconscious mind; in juxtapositions and coincidences; in everyday strangeness.

In particular the Surrealists experimented with the process of creation, disrupting traditional practice at every opportunity. They adopted techniques like ‘automatism’: writing and drawing at random without rational or conscious control. They set up the Bureau of Surrealist Research to record the dreams of the general public. They created collages that integrated found material, text from popular novels, images from magazines and encyclopaedia. They untethered objects from their names and practical functions. They experimented with photography as an art form.

For the Surrealists new techniques provided a springboard to new acts of creation. Process inspired product.  

‘I’ve never been able to finish a detective story because I don’t give a hang who was the murderer… It doesn’t interest me at all. It’s the mental processes that interest me.’
Man Ray

'Object' Meret Oppenheim

'Object' Meret Oppenheim

In the world of commercial creativity we tend to regard process with ambivalence. It’s boring but important; a necessary evil. We often characterise it as something to be avoided or reduced as far as possible; as an enemy of creativity.

Working at BBH for many years, I was quite taken with its distinctive belief in ‘processes that liberate creativity.’ This seemed a more mature position. I learned that process protects time, prevents misunderstanding and wasted effort. It generates alignment within a team, harnesses creativity to a commercial agenda and optimises the chances of great outcomes. I learned to be respectful of roles and responsibilities, of sign-offs and the sequencing of actions. I learned that process can be the creatives’ friend.

But the idea of ‘processes that liberate creativity’ goes beyond commercial efficiency. As the Surrealists suggested, new processes can inspire new ideas. They can be a fuel for the imagination. They can provoke change.

So processes should not be engraved in granite. They should be constantly questioned and evaluated, rewritten and reformulated.

How can we accelerate and stimulate innovation? Why not change the brief, change the team, change the time, change the meeting? Let’s investigate new combinations and partnerships. Let’s crash the procedure and crunch the schedule. Let’s test and trial, experiment and explore.

At times of transformation we should all be looking to disrupt incumbent ways of doing things; to invent new models, modes and techniques. Not just so that we can cut costs or increase speed; but so that we can create fresh routes to original ideas; novel sources of imaginative thought.

If you want to change the product, try changing the process.

‘Freedom is not given to you – you have to take it.’
Meret Oppenheim

No. 131

‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ How Do We Put an End to Work Marathons?

Still from from the film: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Still from from the film: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

‘Yowza! Yowza! Yowza! Welcome to the dance of destiny, ladies and gentlemen. Around and around and around we go, and we’re only beginning, folks, only beginning! On and on and on, and when will it stop? When will it end? When? Only when the last two of these wonderful, starry-eyed kids are left. Only when the last two dancers stagger and sway, stumble and swoon, across the sea of defeat and despair to victory.’

Rocky the MC, in the opening sequence of ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of American paintings from the 1930s. (America After the Fall, Royal Academy, London, until 4 June.) With work by the likes of Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, we see the bold geometric shapes of America’s industrial landscape alongside the sweeping curves of its endless open spaces. We see cities teeming with life, bursting with entrepreneurial energy, stumbling from the body blow of the Wall Street Crash. We see austere rural communities staring the Great Depression in the face.  

I was particularly struck by a 1934 image by Philip Evergood depicting one of the Dance Marathons that were popular across America during the Depression. In these grim endurance contests, which foreshadowed the reality TV shows of today, spectators paid to watch couples dance continuously for weeks on end. In Evergood’s painting the competitors cling to their partners, seemingly dead on their feet, as they enter the forty-ninth day of a tournament to win $1000. At the fringes bored spectators look on.

Rocky: ‘It isn't a contest. It's a show.’

Philip Evergood 'The Dance Marathon'

Philip Evergood 'The Dance Marathon'

A Dance Marathon on Santa Monica Pier is the setting for the 1969 movie ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. It’s a dark, sad story which clearly suggests the gruelling contest is a metaphor for a society gone wrong: the dispossessed and down-at-heal subscribe to an exhausting, degrading show where there are only two winners - and even their victory will ultimately be hollow. The tragedy is that none of the contestants can see an alternative. Desperate for the prize money, they sign up and struggle on of their own accord.

Rocky: ‘I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure as hell can spot a loser.’

Reflecting on Dance Marathons, I found myself thinking of the modern world of work. We all continue to dance, as our working hours steadily increase; as our lunch hours are squeezed and our holidays deferred; as our ‘week-end’ transforms into our ‘week-beginning;' as the boundaries between home and work collapse; as tech enables us to be ‘always on,’ and consequently our work is ‘never off.' We’re putting our bodies and brains under ever increasing pressure. In a sense we’re all voluntarily engaged in our own Work Marathons.

Work Marathons not only deprive individuals of engaged and happy family lives; they also deprive businesses of engaged and happy employees. This is particularly true for creative businesses where the richness of colleagues’ hinterlands relates directly to the richness of their conceptual contributions.

How can you have a hinterland if you’re hardly ever home? How can you have a transformative idea if you have no transformative experiences? How can you demonstrate empathy with consumers when you have no time to meet any?

One curiosity of today’s overwork culture is that it afflicts seniors as much as juniors. I was particularly depressed to read recently that many American CEOs take pride in working over 100 hours per week, and that Apple’s Tim Cook starts work at 3-45AM. (The New Status Symbol, The Guardian, 24 April 2017). Everyone talks about agile working, but 100-hour weeks don’t sound very agile to me. Surely top CEOs don’t need to do this. Perhaps they enjoy it. (The Guardian journalist, Ben Tarnoff, suggests that the elite's conspicuous consumption is being supplemented by ‘conspicuous production.’) Whatever their motivation, they are setting a standard by which their employees will inevitably be measured.

Of course, the necessary recalibration of work-life balance should start with our leaders. They need to set an example. But what about the rest of us? Do we just keep on dancing ‘til the rhythm changes?

It has been pointed out that we should never complain about a traffic jam because by being in it we’re contributing to the problem: ‘You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic.’ In the same way perhaps, we all consider ourselves victims of overwork culture, when in truth we’re probably partially responsible for it. We all fix that meeting, set that deadline, send that email, demand that attendance, revise that brief.

Male Dancer: ‘Anyone ever told you…?
Gloria: ‘Yeah, they told me.’

I suspect we know the answers already. We just need to apply them. We should set aside presenteeism, micromanagement and over-engineered solutions. We should properly embrace empowerment, expertise, velocity, agility. In short:

Don’t control the process; trust the team.
Don’t double up on tasks in the name of representation; respect roles and responsibilities.
Don’t celebrate longevity; reward intensity.
Don’t obsess about inputs; concentrate on outputs.
Don’t deal with it after the meeting; solve it in the room.
And don’t send it at the weekend; save it ‘til Monday morning.

I also read recently that the inventor, designer and manufacturer James Dyson only receives six work emails a day (Vacuum Your Emails, Sunday Times, 7 May 2017). It’s true that sometimes email management creates merely the illusion of work – email is often an anodyne, short-term distraction from building real relationships and finding long-term solutions. Of course, Dyson has the advantage of being in charge and having a secret email account. But maybe he’s onto something.

 

This piece was written to mark Mental Health Awareness Week

No. 130

August Strindberg and the Pricey Grey Tank Top: We Tend To Desire the Desired

August Strindberg 

August Strindberg 

August Strindberg’s short one-scene play, The Stronger, features only two characters, one of whom does not speak. Mrs X encounters Miss Y at a café. At first Mrs X talks proudly of her happy marriage and family life, and is sympathetic towards Miss Y’s solitary status. But Mrs X gradually realises that the silent Miss Y has in fact been her husband’s lover. Her anger turns to scorn and she reassures herself that at least her husband is attractive to other women.

‘Why should I take what nobody will have?’

I was quite struck by this sentiment. It’s a rarely acknowledged truth that the scale of someone’s appeal to an individual can be enhanced by the extent of that person’s appeal to other people: we tend to desire the desired.

This is a lesson sometimes lost on the marketing community. We often aspire to a utopian dream of laser-targeted communication: a world without waste, where every message reaches a current or prospective buyer. We imagine that in an ideal scenario our brand could have a tailored, private dialogue with candidate consumers – direct, head-to-head, one-to-one.

But, of course, brands are social entities. They are shared beliefs. The role of marketing is not just to develop depth of appeal with current and prospective buyers. It is also to spread breadth of interest in the wider community - because breadth of belief sustains depth of desire.

I’m sure we can all draw on our own personal experiences of how breadth of belief in a brand helps support a price premium.

Many years ago I was somewhat enamoured of tank tops. (The earnest woollen British variety, not the cotton singlets beloved of American men.) On a quiet lunchtime I wandered into a small Soho menswear shop and picked up a smart grey number with a cool monkey logo. I tried it on and liked what I saw. I strode confidently to the till. Feeling cavalier, I’d not inspected the price tag. And when the attendant asked for an eye-watering amount of money, I didn’t flinch - I didn’t want to give him the impression that I thought it was expensive. But I walked back to my office in a cold sweat, my heart pumping, thoughts racing. Surely this was a mistake. A grey woollen tank top couldn’t possibly cost that much. At my desk I pulled out the receipt to discover that there really was no error at play. I’d inadvertently walked into a shop that specialised in rare and exclusive Japanese street wear.

A few days later, still smarting from my naivety, I wore my regretted purchase to a fashionable bar. An attractive young barmaid served me a consoling gin and tonic. She paused for a moment as she handed me my change. ‘I love your Bathing Ape tank top.’ Suddenly the exorbitant price didn’t seem to matter any more. In fact it all seemed rather good value.

As August Strindberg knew, we tend to desire the desired.

No.129

Are You Solving a Problem or Managing a Dilemma?

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

An astute observer recently pointed out to me that much of my advice seems to contradict itself. This is true. On the one hand I encourage listening and empathy; on the other hand I believe in a strong authorial voice. Sometimes I advise pragmatism and diplomacy; at others I suggest tenacity and idealism. I propose sensitivity to texture and tone, alongside reduction and simplicity; I advocate doubt and scepticism, alongside confidence and conviction.

In part this is because diverse situations call for diverse forms of strategic engagement. We need different tools for different tasks. But on a more fundamental level it’s because life is inherently confusing; people are cryptic; business is complex. The human condition is a paradox.

As strategists we often think of ourselves as problem solvers. We figure out the puzzle, crack the code, answer the question - and move on. But this may sometimes be an unhelpful characterisation of the task in hand. And in the process we may risk misunderstanding our Clients’ and our consumers’ concerns.

Not all the challenges we face in life and business are problems that can be solved. Not all the questions have right and wrong answers.

Often we are confronted with dilemmas: issues that are complex and conflicted; the opposing tensions between fundamental needs and ongoing desires, between different drives and motivations; the varying interests of individuals and groups.

Dilemmas are issues that won’t go away. They can’t be solved. They can only be managed.

In ordinary life most people have to deal with the conflicting needs of children and parents; with the contrary ambitions of partners within a relationship; with the ongoing tensions between work and life, health and happiness, head and heart. We all have to balance the pressures of the short and long term, of individual and collective good.

As business leaders we may have to consider the contrary pressures of the commercial and the reputational; the conflicting rights of individual employees; the tension between freedom and responsibility within teams; the balance between the incompatible needs of different disciplines.

These are not problems that can be solved; questions that can be answered. They are complex, enduring dilemmas that must be carefully calibrated; and responded to with subtlety and nuance.

Perhaps the paradox at the heart of the human condition explains why so many popular dictums contradict each other. Should we strike while the iron is hot, or keep our powder dry? Do birds of a feather flock together, or do opposites attract? Are two heads better than one, or do too many cooks spoil the broth?

It may also be why many of the aphorisms we turn to in business embrace ambiguity: we ‘think global and act local;’ we have ‘freedom within a framework;' we 'speak softly and carry a big stick.'

In the world of commercial creativity it has often been said that our fundamental task is to ‘manage tensions’: between the rational and the emotional; between behaviour and belief; between the creative and commercial; between cost, speed and quality; between art and science.

So let’s not suggest that our brand or business has all the answers, when sometimes there are no answers to be had. And let’s not promise to solve a problem, when the best we can do is manage a dilemma.

I’ll probably carry on giving conflicting advice - confident in the conviction that successful leaders employ tools, training and tips alongside intuition, instinct and judgement. This is the skill and craft of leadership.

Great leaders may not solve every problem; but they will ensure that every dilemma is better managed.

No. 128

Our Redacted Lives: Why Don’t We Take Our Whole Selves to Work?

‘The mind is like an iceberg. It floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.’

I recently visited the last home of Sigmund Freud (The Freud Museum, Hampstead). Fleeing from Nazi Austria in 1938, the elderly Freud settled in an airy, spacious Hampstead villa, not far from the Finchley Road. He lived there for little over a year - long enough to accustom himself to British life.

‘It is bitterly cold, the plumbing has frozen up and British deficiencies in overcoming the heating problem are clearly evident.’

Freud managed to take with him to Hampstead many of his possessions from Vienna, and he was able to recreate his study and consulting room in his new home. After his death, his daughter Anna preserved things as he left them.

The study is lined with books and filled with Freud’s collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental artefacts. Busts, masks and figurines queue up in ranks along the cluttered desk and shelves. He was fascinated with antiquities and regarded himself as an archaeologist of the mind.

‘The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist in his excavations, must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures.’

Not far from Freud’s desk resides his original analytic couch, covered in red patterned rugs and reputed to be very comfortable. To one side, behind where the patient’s head would rest, we see the chair in which Freud would sit, prompting, listening, thinking.

‘The ego is not master in its own house.’

Freud believed that human behaviour is largely driven by unconscious motivations deriving from childhood experiences; that the sublimation of these instinctual urges of love, loss, sexuality and death creates neuroses; and that the unconscious can be revealed in dreams and unguarded moments.

‘Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.’

During the First World War the Viennese newspapers had often been censored and Freud used the metaphor of censorship to explain the way the conscious mind actively suppresses the unconscious.

I was quite struck by the thought of self-censorship in its broadest sense. I’m sure it’s true that we keep a lid on our deepest desires and anxieties for fear of shame, opprobrium, public disapproval; in order to protect ourselves. We are unreliable narrators. We suppress inconvenient truths. We live redacted lives.

Example of redacted poetry from the Scottish Poetry Library (using a page from Pat Barker’s ‘The Ghost Road’)

Example of redacted poetry from the Scottish Poetry Library (using a page from Pat Barker’s ‘The Ghost Road’)

I suspect self-censorship extends to the workplace too. In the office we are more guarded, reserved and cautious about revealing our true selves. We present an edited identity to our colleagues, one which we feel will fit in with the norms of the profession, the company culture and the boss’s expectations.

A young intern came to chat to me in the last week of her time at the Agency. She was studying communication at a college by the Elephant. She seemed intelligent, nice, polite, but not particularly out of the ordinary. We had a twenty-minute chat and she was about to go. She paused.

’Can I ask you one last question? I’ve not mentioned that I’ve been designing and selling my own fashion range online. I didn’t say anything about it before because I thought it might suggest I wasn’t dedicated to advertising. Was I right not to mention it?’

‘Not at all. It’s completely relevant. Tell me more.’

‘Well, my designs have a Somali flavour. I came over here as a refugee when I was 5 and had to learn English from scratch. I want my clothes to express my birth-culture, even though I only have vague memories of it.’

Suddenly an ordinary woman demonstrated that she was extraordinary; that she had life experiences and achievements that few in our industry could match. And yet she had been hesitating to reveal these things because she thought they might not be relevant.

I was touched, but also troubled by the realisation that this woman was in many ways typical. What was particularly frustrating was that as an employer you learn to value originality over orthodoxy; authenticity over affectation. You yearn for idiosyncrasy, individuality and independence, because these are the characteristics that drive culture and innovation.

‘Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.’

In an ever more automated world a company’s competitive difference is increasingly determined by its ability to realise the full value of its human capital: expressing all talents, articulating whole selves. This is not just a challenge for leaders. It’s something every individual should address.

How often do we present moderated, edited, diluted selves to our colleagues? How often do we suppress the passions and personality traits that may in fact be most useful to the business? Why can’t we take our whole selves to work?

If we can’t answer these questions, then I fear our redacted lives will inevitably become redacted careers.

No. 127