On a trip to Chicago last year I visited the home and studio of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Hard to believe that this visionary modern building was designed in the late nineteenth century. It’s a commonplace criticism of modern architects that they wouldn’t live in the houses they design. But Wright was the exception to this rule. His home and studio were a living laboratory for his hypotheses and new approaches to living space. In his home he introduced fluid connecting rooms, built-in benches, windows located high on the wall so as to avoid prying eyes. In his studio he specified magnesite floors for comfort and sound absorption; he conducted stand-up meetings with Clients who were kept away from the working architects. Wright valued privacy, natural light, simple, organic structures. He enclosed a tree in a passageway and a baby grand piano in a wall. He believed that buildings should be designed in harmony with people and the environment. And he lived his work.
In the marketing and communications industry, what would be our equivalent of this committed approach to life and work? What would happen if we let the personal inspire the professional? How can we truly live our work?
Of course, we could begin by consuming more of the work we produce: watching, not skipping, the ads on commercial TV and YouTube; doing the weekly shop; examining the packaging; walking the High Street; listening to conversations on the bus. If brands are shared behaviours and beliefs, it’s critical that marketing and communication experts participate in shared popular culture.
I would suggest that the best and most successful creative professionals experience life in its infinite variety and infuse their work with their acquired knowledge and insight. A film or football match, a good read or bad play, a walk in the park, a dance in the dark, a word in the ear, a feast for the eyes. A life fully lived provides the material for creative thought. Random, extraneous, unrelated experiences inspire lateral leaps and imaginative connections. The personal stimulates the professional.
I once hired a young Planner whom I’d interviewed in the pub. But the new joiner wasn’t a great success. In the pub he had been a charming raconteur, a thoughtful observer. But in the office he became a conventional thinker, a Steady Eddie. I tried to persuade this Planner to bring something of the bloke I’d met down the pub into the office, but it wasn’t a transition he seemed capable of. For him the worlds of work and leisure were fundamentally separate and distinct.
Of course, for the most part the modern work-life relationship is out of balance in work’s favour. It’s normal nowadays to answer office emails at home, to catch up after the kids have gone to bed, to work at the weekend, to conference-call on Californian time.
Over-work poses problems on two fronts. On a basic level it drains the employee of energy and initiative. But it also starves colleagues of the experiences and insights that enable them to perform at their best. If you cancel that trip to the cinema, club, theatre or gallery, you deny yourself the opportunity to think, feel and see. And you deny your business your ability to imagine, leap and dream.
In my industrious youth I was often tempted to cancel social engagements because I had too much to do at the office. But I must have been rather stubborn back then and I refused to let this happen. I cut down on my sleep instead. In time fatigue forced me to be more efficient at work. It’s not an approach I’d necessarily recommend…
I believe the over-worked under-perform because they are under-stimulated. Blurring the lines between the personal and professional should not mean letting the professional dominate everything. It should mean letting one’s rich home, family, cultural and social life inform and inspire one’s work. And this should enhance both sides of the work-life equation.
‘Oh, I’m out here trying to make it,
Baby, can’t you see?
It takes a lot of money to make it,
Let’s talk truthfully.
So keep your love light burnin,’
Oh, you gotta have a little faith.
You might as well get used to me
Coming home a little late.
Oh, I can’t wait to get home to you,
I got so much work to do.’
The Isley Brothers, Work To Do