The Barber, The Bald Patch and the Crew Cut : The Outsiders Who Want to Belong

Empathy and Individuality in Creative Business

As a child I loved going to the barber’s.

Martin and I would stay over at Gran’s house on Northdown Road. In the morning she’d furnish us with a substantial cooked breakfast, laid out on a red gingham table cloth and washed down with sweet tea. Then she would send us on our way with a coin popped in our pockets and a sprinkle of holy water. We’d gallop down the road, all enthusiasm and expectation, to Leon’s, the small barber’s shop next to Hornchurch Bus Depot.

As we sat waiting in the queue, I soaked up the aroma of Brut, Old Spice and scented talc; the perky sound of Saturday morning Radio 1; the chat about politics, park football and factory life. Many of the clientele worked, as our grandfather had done, at the Ford plant in Dagenham. It was a robustly masculine environment and I felt a strong urge to belong.

Pete, the apprentice cutter, sported purple-tinted specs, generous flairs and a jaunty manner. Eventually he would reach for a wooden plank and place it across the arms of his barber’s chair. The plank served to raise youngsters to a manageable height and it was the signal that I was up next.

I was under strict instructions from Mum to request a crew cut. I’d been curling my hair and I was developing a bald patch. A severe cut would deprive my nervous hands of the material for play. And, to be fair, having observed the monkish tonsure of Michael McGinty, a fellow hair curler and pupil at Saint Mary’s, I was prepared to embrace the remedy. Martin didn’t share my weakness and he was allowed a ‘short-back-and–sides.’

Yet it was the early seventies, the era of Marc Bolan, glam rock and lustrous locks, And here was I ordering a crew cut. I was well aware that, with my shorn mane, I could kiss goodbye to classroom cool. I would be awkward and alone; outside and other.

Little did I know that my experience at the barber’s was equipping me for a career in commercial creativity. In creative businesses we need both the yearning to belong and the failure to do so. We need empathy and individuality in equal measure – empathy, to align our work with the true needs and tastes of our audiences; individuality, to catalyse invention and to set our ideas apart from our competitors.’

Finding a good balance between these two elusive qualities can prove taxing. Some strategists are perhaps too sensitive to the whims of consumers; some account managers listen too attentively to their clients; and some creatives are just too idiosyncratic. But therein lies the challenge. If you want to succeed in creative business, I’d suggest you need them both: empathy and individuality.

My mother’s ploy proved successful. Over a period of time my bald patch was re-thatched. Sadly, it was too late for me to join the in-crowd at Saint Mary’s. And I suspect I was scarred by the experience. In my adulthood, I have preferred hairdressers to barbers, and, whatever the fashion of the day, I have always let my hair grow long. 

No. 92