The Homesick Brand: Are You from Somewhere or Anywhere?

 Caspar David Friedrich 'Wanderer above the Sea of Fog'

Caspar David Friedrich 'Wanderer above the Sea of Fog'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe I’m just being nostalgic.

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

Carole King, ‘So Far Away’

No. 180

Articulate Anger: Why Slogans Matter

 2017 Washington Women’s March

2017 Washington Women’s March

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

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

We live in turbulent times.

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

 

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

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

tres-anuncios-grenfell3.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold Pinter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Deeds not words.’

 

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

 

No. 179

 

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

BEST-MAN---MAIN2050.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a tough ask, I know.

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

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

Hockstader replies wearily:

‘To want power is corruption already.' 

No. 178

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

Orson_Welles_War_of_the_Worlds_1938.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why hasn’t it happened already?

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

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

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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

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

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

No. 177

 

 

When No One Is Watching: The Generous Strategist

 Goya, Fight with Cudgels

Goya, Fight with Cudgels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked to left and right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.176

 

 

No Lips for the Trumpet: The Rhythm of Persuasion

Chet..jpg

I was always into music, but never very musical.

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

I arrived at my first lesson eager with anticipation.

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

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

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

And that was the end of that.

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 10.51.53.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 175

 

 

The Divided Soul: Recognising the Particular Power of Appetite

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 11.01.58.png

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?

rita-hayworth-lady-from-shanghai.png

‘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

7050620-3x4-700x933.jpg

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.

 Utah

Utah

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