Garbo’s Hat: Recognising People’s Right to Be Wrong

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Greta Garbo was a Hollywood star of the silent era, adored for her luminous on-screen presence, her sophisticated beauty, her worldly-wise personality. With the advent of ‘talkies’ MGM became nervous. What would audiences make of her heavy Swedish accent? They delayed as long as they could. Then in 1930 Garbo played the eponymous heroine of ‘Anna Christie’. She walked into a bar, collapsed into a chair and demanded:

'Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby.’

The studio publicised the movie with posters proclaiming: ‘Garbo talks!’ The public were delighted, and ‘Anna Christie’ was the highest grossing film of the year.

Garbo subsequently performed in a succession of classics, including ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘Queen Christina’, ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Camille’. She consistently played melancholic and melodramatic heroines. She was compellingly serious, earnest, pensive. But gradually her popularity began to wane, and in 1939 the studio decided to change tack, casting her in an Ernst Lubitsch comedy, ‘Ninotchka’.

Buljanoff: 'How are things in Moscow?'
Ninotchka: 'Very Good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.' 

Garbo plays Ninotchka, a Soviet special envoy sent to Paris to organise a sale of royal Russian jewellery. She is sober, stern, judgemental; unimpressed by bourgeois capitalism.

Ninotchka: 'Why should you carry other people's bags?'
Porter: 'Well, that's my business, Madame.'
Ninotchka: 'That's no business. That's social injustice.'
Porter: 'That depends on the tip.'

Wherever Ninotchka goes in Paris, she is taken aback by its indulgent Western ways. All about her seems shallow and superfluous, petty and pointless. She spots a couture hat in a shop window. It looks rather like a lampshade.

Ninotchka: 'What's that?'
Comrade Kopalski: 'It's a hat, Comrade. A woman's hat.'
Ninotchka: 'How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads. It won't be long now, Comrades.'

 Ninotchka also encounters the debonair Frenchman, Count Leon (played by Melvyn Douglas). She recognizes that he is rather charismatic, but dismisses him as entirely frivolous.

 'Now, don't misunderstand me. I do not hold your frivolity against you. As basic material, you may not be bad; but you are the unfortunate product of a doomed culture. I feel very sorry for you.'

Gradually, however, Ninotchka is seduced by the charms of Paris and the Count. And soon she cannot resist the hat she recently found so contemptible.

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‘Ninotchka’ is a magnificent comedy, bristling with elegant witticisms and sharp social satire. It reminded me that, growing up in the midst of the Cold War, we were often prompted to consider the differences between Soviet and Capitalist societies. 

To teenagers like me Communism certainly had its appeal: the avowed commitment to equality, the intolerance of plutocrats, the celebration of the workers, the military caps with retractable ear-flaps. But we were also, of course, aware of the suppression of individual freedoms, of Stalin’s dark secrets. And there was a nagging sense that Communism was somehow dull, dreary and joyless; that it didn’t accommodate human foibles and foolishness - the insignificance of pop, the frippery of fashion, the triviality of brands and advertising. In short Communism didn’t seem to afford people the right to be wrong. And this seemed somehow very important to me.

If you work in the field of marketing or advertising and were fortunate enough to grow up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s still perhaps worth reflecting on the differences between Capitalism and Communism. You may conclude like me that ordinary people are capricious, fickle and flighty. They oscillate between profound passions and shallow affections; between passionate commitments and superficial attachments. They can be both serious and silly; consistent and erratic. They can comfortably hold two mutually opposing ideas in their heads at the same time. And that’s what makes us human.

In the critical scene of ‘Ninotchka’ our heroine sits down in a restaurant and orders raw beets and carrots. The owner is unimpressed:

'Madame, this is a restaurant, not a meadow.'

Count Leon does everything he can to entertain her over lunch - all to no avail. Finally he resorts to a joke.

 'A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table. He says, "Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream." Five minutes later the waiter comes back and says, "I'm sorry sir, we have no cream, can it be without milk?"'

Ninotchka is still not amused, but when the Count accidentally tumbles from his chair, she breaks into cascades of joyous laughter. Ninotchka’s defences have been breached by a ludicrous pratfall. And Garbo shows a hitherto concealed gift for comedy.

This time round the promotional posters were headlined: ‘Garbo laughs!’

'By the look in your eye I can tell you're gonna cry. 
Is it over me?
If it is, save your tears for I'm not worth it, you see.
For I'm the kind of guy who is always on the roam,
Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home.’

Marvin Gaye, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) (Barrett Strong/ Marvin Gaye/ Norman Whitfield)

No. 205


A Stumble Is Not a Fall: ‘The Magnificent Disappointment’ of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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‘Nil desperandum (Never despair) has always been my motto.’
Isambard Kingdom Brunel

At the Great Western Dockyard in Bristol you can visit Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s revolutionary ship SS Great Britain. Launched from this dock in 1843, Great Britain became the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven steamship to cross the Atlantic. In her day she sailed to New York and Australia faster and more reliably than any other ship in the world.

You can climb down to inspect the vessel’s robust iron hull and its magnificent red propeller. You can step on-board to admire the spacious upper deck with its three sturdy masts, ship’s bell and cow house. You can wander through the lower decks amongst the plush first class dining rooms, cabins and bathrooms towards the stern; and the more compact quarters for the steerage passengers in the bows. It’s all beautifully preserved.  

Brunel was an engineer of vision. Appointed in 1833 to design the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol, he determined that a shipping line could extend the journey from London all the way to New York. His first ship, the wooden paddle steamer Great Western, broke the record for the Atlantic crossing to New York on its maiden voyage in 1838. And so Brunel was soon commissioned to design a second.

For the Great Britain Brunel seized on an innovative iron-hulled construction that had only recently been developed. It would be longer, stronger, faster and more efficient than its wooden predecessor. And when in 1840 the first propeller-driven steamship, the Archimedes, visited Bristol, Brunel abandoned paddle wheels and adopted screw propulsion.

At her launch the Great Britain was the biggest ship in the world and an engineering masterpiece. She is considered by many to be the first truly modern ship.

However, the Great Western Steamship Company, already stretched by Brunel’s protracted construction process, only managed to sell 45 of its 360 tickets for the maiden crossing. Great Britain’s early years were cursed by propeller damage and fires, and on her fifth voyage in 1846, the Captain missed a lighthouse and ran aground off the coast of Northern Ireland. The iron hull saved the ship, but the Great Western Steamship Company could not afford to pay for the salvage and was forced out of business.

It is easy to imagine when one considers a legendary talent like Brunel’s that his success was inevitable, instinctive and lightly won; that his progress from one triumph to another was stately and effortless. In fact the career of Britain’s greatest engineer was consistently marred by bad luck, setbacks and financial challenges.

 The much-lauded Thames Tunnel, which Brunel designed for his father at the age of 20, was dogged during construction by floods and fatalities; and Brunel himself was lucky to escape with his life.

The Great Western Railway was admired for its broader gauge (7ft ¼ inches), which was faster and could carry more weight than the ‘standard’ gauge (4ft 8 ½ inches). But within a few years the Government, concerned about consistency, voted to prevent any more broad gauge tracks being built.

Brunel determined that the South Devon Atmospheric Railway should employ an innovative vacuum traction method, instead of a conventional locomotive engine, to pull its trains up Devon’s steep hills. But his ‘atmospheric’ system encountered problems at every step and was abandoned within a year.

Though counted a genius in the modern era, Brunel divided opinion in his day. Some regarded his inventiveness and originality as stubborn and wilful.

'Mr Brunel had always an aversion to follow any man’s lead; and that another engineer had fixed the gauge of a railway, or built a bridge, or designed an engine, in one way, was of itself often a sufficient reason with him for adopting an altogether different course.'
Samuel Smiles, 1875

 Other contemporaries were more forgiving.

'We do not take Isambard Kingdom Brunel for either a rogue or a fool but an enthusiast, blinded by the light of his own genius, an engineering knight-errant, always on the lookout for magic caves to be penetrated and enchanted rivers to be crossed, never so happy as when engaged ‘regardless of cost’ in conquering some, to ordinary mortals, impossibility.'
The Railway Times, 1845

The picture of Brunel that emerges is of an extraordinary innovator with a relentless enthusiasm for the new, and a steadfast resilience in the face of setbacks. He was independent minded, free spirited, suspicious of convention, rules and restrictions.

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'I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.'

History tends to gloss over the mistakes and misadventures of its heroes. But often these disappointments were integral to those heroes’ ultimate success.

'Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.’
Winston Churchill

The important lesson here is that pioneers can be quite challenging individuals and uncertain investments. They take risks and embrace the possibility of failure. In the pursuit of progress they are prepared to suffer setbacks, trials and tribulations. But they are of robust character. They pick themselves up, dust themselves down and press on. A stumble is not a fall.

Despite all the criticism and carping, the defeats and disappointments, Brunel is widely recognized today as one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century. He reinvented public transport and modern engineering. He went down in history as a truly great Briton.

Perhaps inevitably Brunel’s final grand project, the massive ship Great Eastern ran over budget and behind schedule. The Great Eastern was twice as long and six times the volume of the Great Britain. She was so big that she had to be launched sideways from her dock at Rotherhithe. Working under the glare of publicity, Brunel found the whole enterprise deeply stressful. He suffered a stroke on 5 September 1859, just before his ‘leviathan’ made her first voyage to New York. Ten days later he was dead. He was only 53.

The Morning Chronicle’s obituary summed up Brunel’s legacy thus:

‘There is always something not displeasing to the British temperament in a magnificent disappointment.’

'I'm the living result.
I'm a man who's been hurt a little too much.
And I've tasted the bitterness of my own tears.
Sadness is all my lonely heart can feel.
I can't stand up for falling down.
I can't stand up for falling down.’

Elvis Costello, 'I Can't Stand Up (For Falling Down)’ (Homer Banks and Allen Jones)

No. 204

You Looking at Me? The Passive Observer and the Active Contributor

 Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1644)

Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1644)

‘If you want me to cry, mourn first yourself.’
Horace, ‘Art of Poetry’

I recently visited an excellent exhibition of paintings by Jusepe de Ribera at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (‘Ribera: Art of Violence’, until 27 January).

Ribera was born near Valencia in 1591 and spent most of his career in Spanish-controlled Naples. From Caravaggio he learned to give biblical and mythical events immediacy by employing real models, gritty settings and dramatic lighting. He gained a reputation for painting vivid works of pain, brutality and suffering: Saint Sebastian bound to a stake and shot through with arrows, Saint Philip about to be crucified upside-down, the centaur Ixion chained to a wheel, the satyr Marsyas being skinned alive.

In many ways Ribera’s work reflected the dark times he was living through. The Counter Reformation was in full swing. The Church was commissioning devotional images of intense emotion to reinforce faith. The Inquisition was hard at work exposing blasphemy and heresy. Daily life was dangerous and cruel. And Ribera could draw directly from the torture and execution he witnessed on the streets of Naples. He sketched prisoners bound and blindfolded, twisted torsos and terrified screams. In grim detail he captured the torment known as ‘strappado’, whereby victims were hung by their arms until they dislocated.

In ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew’ (1644) two thugs set about flaying their victim with vigour; and Bartholomew stares out at us in the grip of unimaginable agony. He seems to be challenging us to meet his gaze, demanding our attention.

‘I did this for you.’

‘You did this to me.’

‘Feel my pain.’

Bartholomew’s anguished look makes us feel uncomfortable, voyeuristic. It is as if we are responsible, involved, complicit in the crime.

It’s a powerfully engaging device - the viewer viewed - and one which Ribera uses again and again in his work. In the midst of some dramatic incident, a lone figure looks out at us from the picture - a grieving holy woman, a terrified victim, a leering executioner - curious, questioning, sceptical.

 Ribera, Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women

Ribera, Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women

What, we seem to be asked, is our point of view on all this? Where do we stand? What are we doing to prevent it?

We’re all at times prone to play the disinterested onlooker, the neutral bystander, the unseen witness. It’s easy to be cool, passive, non-committal and aloof; to be on the sidelines and the fence.

But I’ve found in business that one gravitates towards people with strong personal perspectives; people with passion and conviction. As a leader you’re not asking for everyone to agree with you, but you do want everyone to care.

So if you’re looking to progress your career, take an interest in the future of your industry; a perspective on the outlook for your discipline; a point of view on the prospects for your company. Be an active contributor not a passive observer, a radiator not a drain. Believe in something.

You may not be in a position of power, but you can sign up, pitch in, participate, get involved. You can always do something.

I guess one could say the same about life in general.

‘If not you, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?'

(Quotation attributed to numerous sources, but ultimately derived from Jewish leader, Hillel the Elder)


No. 203

Does Your Business Have Nightingale Floors? Learning to Recognise the Early Warning Signs of Danger

 Nijo Castle gates

Nijo Castle gates

As a dignitary visiting the Shogun at his Nijo-jo Castle in Kyoto, you would pass through the magnificent Karamon Gate, with its Chinese-style gables and exquisite carvings of cranes, lions, pines and plum blossoms. Mindful of the Shogun’s power, you would perhaps hesitate as you entered the Ninomaru-goten Palace: 33 rooms and 800 tatami mats elegantly arranged within six connected buildings in a diagonal line. In the first and largest room, you would be greeted by fierce tigers painted on the bright golden walls. You would be ushered through more gold halls, these decorated with peacocks to signal the Shogun’s wealth, and pine trees to mark his everlasting prosperity. Your sense of awe and anticipation would gradually escalate as you were escorted quietly from one imposing chamber to the next. The Shogun awaits.

 Kuroshoin (Inner Audience Chamber) Nijō Castle

Kuroshoin (Inner Audience Chamber) Nijō Castle

On your route through the Palace you would marvel at the floorboards that sing like nightingales as you walk down the corridor. An attendant might explain that the sound of the nightingale floors is produced by clamps moving against nails driven into the wooden supporting beams. Are the floors designed merely to delight and impress, you wonder? Or are they an early warning system, announcing the presence of intruders?

As I paced along the corridor of the Ninomaru-goten Palace accompanied by a chorus of birdsong, my mind turned to early warning systems in business.

‘It’s a small project. We don’t want to distract you.’

If you work in an Agency and you hear these words, alarm bells should be ringing. What is being characterised as a modest and marginal initiative, may well be a door through which your competitors will come streaming in. It’s an early warning that your Clients find you boring, predictable, slow or expensive - perhaps all of these things. They’re keen to try out new talent, to find fresh ideas, to see how a different relationship feels.

‘The boss is very interested in this research project and has decided to attend the debrief next week.’

It is encouraging that your most senior Client is curious about a humble research debrief. But other motives could be at play. What if the Marketing team know which way the findings are heading and have invited their boss to witness your trial and execution? Maybe you’re being set up for a fall.

‘The work’s good, but is it great? Can we push it harder?’

Any Agency worth its salt should have an inner voice encouraging it to take ideas further and faster. In the natural course of events, it is the Clients’ role to rein the Agency back, to sound a note of realism and practicality. So when these challenging sentiments are expressed by your Clients, you should be concerned. The natural order has been overturned and it doesn’t bode well.

‘I think we need to design a new marketing model, something that reinvents the way our brand engages with consumers.’

Of course, all businesses need a new marketing model for the modern era. But you may find that this pronouncement positions you as the old marketing model - and therefore past your sell-by date.

‘As I’m new in this role I’d like the Agency to take me through the brand strategy, campaign thinking and performance data from the bottom up.’

The most obvious early warning sign for any Agency is the appointment of a new senior Client. But sometimes even when we know to be on our guard, we respond in completely the wrong way.

Many times in my Agency career we reassured our new Marketing Director with a presentation that detailed how well we knew the brand, how robust and effective the campaign was. It was only after a number of unfortunate encounters that I realised that new Marketing Directors interpret experience as orthodoxy, longevity as conservatism, confidence as complacency. They’re not looking to keep a gentle hand on the tiller. They’re keen to shake things up, to make their mark.

  Uguisubari corridor ( Nightingale Floor) Nijō Castle

Uguisubari corridor (Nightingale Floor) Nijō Castle

All businesses need nightingale floors - a sensitivity to the subtle signs of impending crisis, an appreciation of the incidental events and innocuous remarks that in fact prefigure danger. If you’re lucky, your nightingale floors will alert you just in time to avert disaster.

And so finally you arrive in the Ohiroma or Grand Hall for your audience. The Shogun sits on a raised dais, facing south, attended by his court. You quiver a little. He doesn’t like to hear bad news.

Three hundred years or so later one would anticipate a meeting with John Bartle and Nigel Bogle with a similar sense of apprehension. They too commanded admiration and anxiety in equal measure. They too had an office on a raised step. But you knew as you approached them with your request to intervene on the account that was in crisis, that it was already too late. You should have acted sooner.

 

'I know the highest and the best.
I accord them all due respect.
But the brightest jewel inside of me
Glows with pleasure at my own stupidity.
This is a song from under the floorboards.
This is a song from where the wall is cracked.'

Magazine, 'A Song From Under the Floorboards' (Barry Adamson / Howard Devoto / John E Doyle / John Mc Geogh / David Tomlinson)

No. 202

 

Coming Apart at the Seams: What Are the Repressed Truths Holding Your Business Back?

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'There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another...

The fear of poverty
The fear of criticism
The fear of ill health
The fear of loss of love of someone
The fear of old age
The fear of death.'

Self-help guru Napoleon Hill, ‘Think and Grow Rich' (1937), quoted in the introduction to ‘The Humans’ by Stephen Karam

I recently attended Stephen Karam’s fine play ‘The Humans’ (at the Hampstead Theatre), which considers the plight of a modern middle class American family struggling to keep their heads above water.

‘Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?’

The Blakes are in many ways a typical family, bound by deep bonds of shared experience, rituals and affection; by in-jokes, teasing and bickering. Their conversation weaves effortlessly in and out of the facile and profound.

‘Well you’ve still got the will to eat superfoods – if you’re so miserable why are you trying to live forever?’

And they have the usual intergenerational disagreements around such things as religion, lifestyle, ambition and work.

‘Are you so spoiled you can’t see you’re crying over something hard work can fix?’

But the Blakes are under attack. They are assaulted from without by unaffordable housing, lack of career opportunities, unstable employment, poor pension provision, debt and unfaithful lovers.

And they are also assaulted from within. Grandmother Momo has dementia. Dad Erik is haunted by nightmares and memories of 9/11. Daughter Aimee has a chronic illness. And there are family secrets that can no longer be suppressed.

The Blake parents steadfastly cling to the belief that the American family is inherently equipped to survive; that they can get through this; that they will endure.

‘The Blakes bounce back. That’s what we do.’

But the context of contemporary life, with its very particular anxieties and inequalities, makes this confidence less convincing. It’s hard to survive in America today. And the sense of a family imploding under numerous and constant pressures is enhanced by the faltering lighting in the apartment building, and by the eerie thudding noises that emanate from the flat above. The Blakes are falling apart at the seams.

In the programme notes Karam sheds light on the theme he is exploring by quoting Sigmund Freud’s essay on the ‘uncanny’:

‘The ‘uncanny’ (unheimlich) is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, something once very familiar…Something uncanny in real experience can generally be traced back without exception to something familiar that has been repressed.’

Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919)

I found myself considering how modern businesses similarly have to cope with escalating pressures from within and without; how they also suffer tensions that derive from repressed truths dating back to the origins of the company - an enduring blind spot, a perennial vulnerability perhaps; an imbalance of talent and contribution; an asymmetry of credit and recognition; personal resentments and regrets, petty feuds and rivalries; the lack of an apology, the absence of forgiveness.

Often these tensions are suppressed, papered over, for the good of the business, for the profile of the company, for esprit de corps. But veterans and insiders know: the fault lines that were there at the outset can be seen and felt. They are familiar, not far beneath the surface. They continue to tug and tease at the corporate psyche. They play out in its ongoing challenges and disappointments.

Ask yourself this: What are our company’s repressed problems, our unarticulated tensions, the truths that dare not speak their names? What are the stresses and strains that derive from our past, but remain ever-present, uncertain and unsettled?

Often the greatest challenge any enterprise faces is to look in the mirror and see itself – clearly and honestly, without gloss or self-deception. If you at least ask the questions, you may find you’re half way to answering them.

'The changing of sunlight to moonlight,
Reflections of my life,
Oh, how they fill my eyes.
The greetings of people in trouble,
Reflections of my life,
Oh, how they fill my eyes.
Oh, my sorrows,
Sad tomorrows,
Take me back to my own home.'

The Marmalade, 'Reflections Of My Life’  (William Campbell Jnr / Thomas McAleese)

No. 201

Dressing for Yesterday: Seek Out the Social and Economic Jet Stream

  Group Captain   James Stagg

Group Captain James Stagg


‘Have you ever been to the beaches of Hastings, or Brighton, or Portsmouth? Ten o’clock in the morning it’s baking hot, the beach is packed. By midday, there’s a howling wind and the Punch and Judy man has packed up for the day. By two o’clock, the rain is horizontal, but by four o’clock the sun is beating down again and it’s eighty degrees. Nothing is predictable about British weather, that’s why we love to talk about it.’

Group Captain James Stagg, ‘Pressure’

I have an uncomfortable relationship with the weather. For some reason forecasts pass me by. Through the fog of getting up in the morning I rarely register what the bulletins are saying. They talk over and through me. And so my sartorial choices are driven by yesterday’s conditions. I assume a meteorological continuity that the British climate doesn’t warrant. And I find myself venturing into the searing heat in a tweed suit; into a cold snap with just a cotton smock; into the pouring rain without an umbrella. I always dress for yesterday.

Earlier this year I attended a fine play dedicated to the vicissitudes of the British climate. ‘Pressure’ by David Haig relates the story of Group Captain James Stagg, the Chief Meteorological Officer for the Allied Forces, who in June 1944 was responsible for forecasting the weather on D-Day.

The fleet is assembled along the South Coast. The tides, times and phases of the moon are appropriately aligned on only a few days each month, and General Eisenhower has allocated the 5th of June for the largest amphibious invasion in history. As the big day approaches, Stagg and his American counterpart, Colonel Irving Krick, are required to give a definitive meteorological assessment. 350,000 lives depend on them making the right call.

Krick employs the conventional method of forecasting: he revisits the charts from previous years where conditions were similar, and establishes analogues. He is confident that the weather will be fine.

‘The proof is in the past. I anticipate calm seas and clear skies on Monday – perfect conditions for the Normandy landings.’

Stagg disagrees. Sensitive to the temperamental British climate, he urges Krick to think beyond historical analogues; to take into account other factors; to think ‘three dimensionally’. He is a meteorological pioneer and he has recently discovered the jet stream. He predicts severe weather.

‘My forecast is not only based on weather at the surface. I’ve considered upper air-currents within the troposphere, at the tropopause, and in the lower stratosphere…The most powerful of these currents, measured two hours ago at twenty-eight thousand feet, is three hundred miles wide and three miles deep. I’ll refer to it as the jet stream.’

Stagg explains that the jet stream is prompting storms to move more rapidly than the surface charts would imply, and so severe conditions can be expected in the Channel on 5th June.

Ultimately Stagg persuades Eisenhower to delay the invasion by a day. He is right. There are high winds, heavy seas and low cloud on 5th June; but there is sufficient good weather on the 6th to make the Normandy landings a success.

It struck me watching the play that much of modern strategy is driven by the type of historical analogues on which Krick depended. We love case studies, precedents and best demonstrated practice. We cling to models and algorithms that anticipate tomorrow on the basis of yesterday; that predict the future on the basis of the past. Ten years on from the global financial crash, this remains the case.

Stagg teaches us to lift our eyes from the rear view mirror and think three dimensionally. The best strategists have foresight, an instinct for change, a curiosity about the evolving factors that might precipitate events. They seek the social and economic jet streams that are driving outcomes from high up in the stratosphere.

They don’t dress for yesterday. They dress for today.

‘Look out, kid.
Don't matter what you did.
Walk on your tip toes,
Don't tie no bows.
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose.
Keep a clean nose,
Watch the plainclothes.
You don't need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.’

Bob Dylan, 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'

 

In memory of Charlie Robertson, my first Planning Head at BBH. Funny, sharp, considerate and inspiring, he was everything you’d want from a strategist and leader. And he didn’t need a weather man to know which way the wind was blowing.

RIP Charlie Robertson (1954 – 2018)

No. 200

‘There’s No Confidence to Equal Ignorance‘: When Youth Trumps Experience

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'I don't know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of.’
Charles Foster Kane, ‘Citizen Kane’

In 1939 RKO Pictures contracted 24 year-old Orson Welles to write, produce, direct and perform in two feature films. The deal gave Welles complete creative control, including the unprecedented right of final cut. He had not made a movie before.

The notorious contract was both resented and mocked by Hollywood insiders. However, the studio had not completely taken leave of its senses. Welles had a substantial reputation in the world of theatre and radio, and he’d just created a huge stir with his radio adaptation of ‘The War of the Worlds’.

But he still had a lot to learn.

In the months that followed Welles and screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz drafted a script based on the life of the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Welles cast actors he knew from his own Mercury Theatre Company. Most of them were new to film, but he also enlisted veteran cinematographers, like Gregg Toland, expert editors and movie craftspeople. He was given a reference book of film techniques, and after dinner every night for about a month he watched John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach’, firing questions at a technician as he did so. Then in June 1940 he began filming ‘Citizen Kane’.


As it turned out, the first day I ever walked onto a set was my first day as a director.’

During the shoot Welles fell in love with the challenges and opportunities of movie making. For him the film studio was 'the greatest electric train set a boy ever had’. And he engaged the cinematographer’s art with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

 

‘If you come up from the bottom you’re taught all the things the cameraman doesn’t want to attempt, for fear he would be criticised for having failed.’

In ‘Citizen Kane’ Welles extensively deployed deep focus shots, whereby the foreground, background and everything in between were in sharp focus. He adopted low camera angles that looked up towards the ceiling (hitherto ceilings were rarely seen in cinema). He used montage editing and long dissolves, overlapping dialogue and multiple voices spliced together. He shunned the traditional linear narrative, and told Kane's story in flashback and from a variety of perspectives. He gave the composer Bernard Herrmann months rather than weeks to write the film's score.

‘I have always been more interested in experiments than accomplishments.’

Some of these techniques Welles had observed in German expressionist cinema. Some he had previously employed himself in the theatre or on the radio. He borrowed, repurposed, invented and imagined as he went along. He had a beginner’s willingness to try new things, to attempt outcomes that weren’t thought possible, to ask questions that hadn’t been asked.

‘Citizen Kane’, was released, after some delay, in May 1941. Though new to cinema, Welles had rewritten its grammar and raised the bar in terms of aesthetics and ambition. ‘Kane’ is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time.

When asked about the movie in the years that followed, Welles was keen to recognise the importance of his youthful naivety.

‘There’s no confidence to equal ignorance. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you’re timid or careful. I thought you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do, or the imagination could do.’

Welles also expressed a pioneer’s passion for the possibilities of cinema.

‘The first thing one must remember about film is that it is a young medium. And it is essential for every responsible artist to cultivate the ground that has been left fallow.‘

These observations should resonate with us in the field of commercial communication.

Ours is a young industry, but sometimes our youthful talent is constrained by conservative management and controlling leadership. It can be sidelined on marginal tasks, harnessed to rigid briefs, relegated to drudgery.

Smart Agencies learn that youthful naivety, enthusiasm and ambition are hugely valuable assets. They should be applied to the toughest tasks, the most important challenges. Novices are not cowed by previous setbacks or bitter experiences. They are not hidebound by convention or best practice. They don’t know what they can’t do.

As the nineteenth century French physiologist Claude Bernard observed:

'It is what we know already that often prevents us from learning.’

Sadly, though much admired by the critics, ‘Citizen Kane’ was not successful at the box office. Hearst took umbrage and forbad his newspapers from covering the movie. And under pressure from Hearst, the studio only gave it a limited release.

Consequently Welles’ Hollywood honeymoon was short-lived. The studios became more cautious. Welles became more cantankerous. Their relationship became more fractious.

‘I started at the top and worked down.’

Of course Welles went on to make some fine pictures. But he was never given the same creative freedom again. And he could never again be so young, naïve and ignorant. 

‘The enemy of society is middle class and the enemy of life is middle age.’
Orson Welles


'Life is too short to worry about unimportant things.
Reach for the sky, touch your star, and then you’ll find your dream.
'Cause dreamin' alone, it's a shame indeed.
But if you got love that's all you need.
So be young, be foolish, but be happy.
Be young, be foolish, but be happy.'

The Tams, 'Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy'
(J R Cobb / Ray Whitley)

No. 199

501! Contemporary Lessons from a Vintage Case Study

 Levis Ad - BBH

Levis Ad - BBH

During my twenty-five years in advertising, I worked on all manner of client businesses. From banks and beers, to fried chicken and phone networks. Without doubt the experiences that left the deepest impression, and had the biggest impact on my career, were those that I gained on the Levi’s jeans account in the 1990s.

Between 1985 and 1998 Levi’s campaign for its 501 jeans, developed by its agency BBH, was one of the most awarded and admired in the advertising world. It created a mythical America of enigmatic, unspeaking heroes; of youthful adventure on the open road; of effortless style and heart-rending tunes. And it sold a great many pairs of jeans.

Let’s take a step back in time to see if this vintage case study suggests any lessons that might still be relevant today.

‘Be Yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’
Oscar Wilde

At the heart of the Levi’s 501 story was the determination that it should be true to itself.

Levi’s 501 was the original denim jean. It was designed in 1873 for miners in the California Gold Rush. Its riveted construction, button fly and XX stitching sustained it through tough manual tasks. Its rudimentary ‘anti-fit’ cut was appropriate to its modest origins. It was the jean that was adopted in the ‘50s by the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Eddie Cochrane, and thereby became a badge of youth rebellion. It had a unique heritage to be proud of.

However, when in 1985 Levi’s struggling UK organisation submitted the 501 to consumer testing with a view to a possible re-launch, the results were not encouraging. Modern British consumers were more accustomed to zip flies and figure-hugging fits. The Levi’s brand was perceived as middle-aged and middle-of-the-road. What’s more, Levi’s was quintessentially American at a time when UK youth culture was not looking across the pond for inspiration.

The sensible decision might have been to back away. Or at least to launch a style more in keeping with contemporary tastes.

But Levi’s and BBH were determined. This was the original and definitive jean, the blueprint for everything that followed. It was a design classic. It deserved a hearing.

Fanning the Flames of Discovery

There was a glimmer of encouragement. A small group of cognoscenti in the fashion, music and film industries had already fallen for the 501’s authenticity and unique design. There was a growing interest in retro ‘50s culture, and a thriving second-hand market in 501s from the States. Perhaps, by reflecting what these enthusiasts loved so much about the product, there was an opportunity to fan the flames of discovery.

A Simple Story Stylishly Told

A young man walks into a laundrette to the sound of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’ He removes his jeans and t-shirt and puts them in the washer with some stones. He sits down to read a magazine in his boxer shorts and socks, as others look on in amazement.

With a 1985 TV commercial conveying this modest narrative, Levi’s 501 jeans were introduced to the mass British public. Despite its seeming simplicity, ‘Laundrette’ was an immediate cultural and commercial hit. It was discussed in national media. The music entered the charts. Nick Kamen, the actor playing the central character, became an overnight celebrity. Boxer shorts were suddenly fashionable, with two million pairs being bought in 1986 alone. And 501 jeans sold so quickly that demand outstripped supply.

There followed a series of similarly iconic commercials, all depicting youthful heroes in pursuit of their own American dream, equipped with little more than their 501s, a white t-shirt and an innate resourcefulness. Within three years of the re-launch, 501 sales had increased twenty-fold - at a premium price of between £27 and £30, in a market where the norm was sub-£20.

Levi’s succeeded because it didn’t follow the convention of the time and hold a mirror up to consumer tastes and preferences. Rather it shone a light on the brand and its unique story. It sought to persuade consumers of its merits, with a simple story stylishly told.

‘What the heart knows today, the head will understand tomorrow.’
James Stephens

Although Levi’s campaign was inspired by its heritage, it was not an exercise in dry historical narrative. First and foremost the advertising addressed the emotions. It suggested charismatic youth, heroic nonchalance and potent sexual chemistry. It promised freedom, escape, romance and rebellion.

Stripped of spoken words, the ads conveyed all this through compelling storytelling, impactful imagery and emotive music. As John Hegarty, the creative director behind it all, pointed out, ‘words are a barrier to communication.’

Emotional Product Demonstration

Despite the fact that the initial persuasive power of the campaign was emotional, it was also clear that consumers wanted rational reasons to justify their beliefs - to others and to themselves.

So amidst the stylish settings, slim heroes and sensuous music, the commercials always demonstrated the jeans’ functional attributes: their strength, durability and wear characteristics. 501s personalised with age and improved with wear. And the more you washed them, the better they got.

Creative teams found that such stories were excellent springboards for lateral ideas.  And Hegarty dubbed this advertising approach ‘emotional product demonstration.’

Mass Marketing a Cult

From the outset there was some concern that, in broadening the appeal of a product originally beloved by a small group of cognoscenti, the brand would lose that critical group’s support. What if our opinion leaders sought exclusivity elsewhere? Wouldn’t this undermine the whole endeavour?

BBH determined that it was critical to sustain a relationship with opinion leaders. It developed print advertising that directly addressed them in their own discrete magazine titles (publications like The Face, iD and Dazed & Confused). It sponsored cutting edge bands and grass roots music events. And it offered Shrink-to-Fit and limited editions of the core product - something the cognoscenti could call their own.

The lesson was clear: never forget the people that first loved you.

 ‘Creek’ 1994 - BBH

‘Creek’ 1994 - BBH

United in Dreams, Divided by Realities

Levi’s soon looked to export the UK’s successful marketing to other European markets. This ought to have been challenging: back in the 1980s few campaigns crossed borders because local cultural differences were thought to be too great.

But BBH found that, though young people might be divided by the realities of their everyday circumstances, they were united in their dreams. The 501 campaign worked wherever the local youth aspired to independence and individuality; to original expression and the open road.

By the mid-1990s Levi’s was selling 50 million units per annum across Europe – and always at a premium price.

‘Move it on without moving it off.’
Nigel Bogle

With every new execution in the campaign, the pressure grew to sustain freshness and interest. How do you avoid predictability and familiarity? How do you avoid losing the baby with the bathwater?

The advertising struck a balance. It retained its chassis: the narrative structure; the aspirational hero; the dramatisation of product functionality. And at the same time it underwent constant restyling in its bodywork: the setting; the historical period; the tone; the filmic style; the particular product story.

Over the years 501 commercials were set in pool halls, drug stores and gas stations; in swimming pools, creeks and under the sea; in black & white, colour and animation; in the nineteenth century, the Depression and in outer space.

As BBH co-founder Nigel Bogle summarised: ‘We need to move it on without moving it off.’

Perhaps inevitably, the Levi’s 501 campaign did eventually run out of road. There was only so long that one brand could sustain mass loyalty to a single product in the fickle fashion category; only so long that the brand’s innovation could be primarily supplied by its marketing rather than by its product; and only so long that that brand could continue to grow volume and premium at the same time. Eventually the centre could not hold, and the market fragmented.

But it had been a pretty good run.

 Levi’s print ad - Richard Avedon for BBH

Levi’s print ad - Richard Avedon for BBH

So what did I learn from working on this great, but now long-gone, advertising campaign? I picked up a number of lessons about the fundamentals of persuasion that served me well for the rest of my career:

1. Don’t seek to add value, seek to reveal it.
2. Harness the support that you already have: fan the flames of discovery.
3. Embrace the power of narrative: simple stories stylishly told.
4. Lead with emotion: what the heart feels today, the head thinks tomorrow.
5. However much beliefs may be founded on emotion, give people rational justifications for those beliefs.
6. Never forget the people that first loved you.
7. Find the aspirations that unify people, rather than the realities that divide them.
8. Keep moving it on without moving it off.

Of course, today we live in an ever more complex, interconnected, fast-paced world. The landscape of marketing and communication is unrecognisable from the more innocent times of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. But I think many of these themes still resonate. And perhaps like 501s themselves, they improve with age.

 

(This piece first appeared in The Pembrokian, July 2018)

No. 198

'That Ain't My Department, Sir’: Why I Never Attended a Shoot

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'My name is John Ford and I make Westerns.'

In the late 1940s John Ford directed three movies about the US Cavalry of the 1860s and ‘70s, all of them starring John Wayne. Ford created a world of dedication and discipline; of camaraderie and quiet courage on meagre rations and poor pay. There is hard drinking, sweet singing, flawed heroism and quite extraordinary horsemanship. We see tight teams built from diverse talents, tough veterans passing on hard-earned wisdom, raw recruits gaining their yellow stripes, and varying degrees of sympathy for the Native Americans.

‘A good picture is long on action and short on dialogue.’

The ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ was filmed in the majestic setting of Monument Valley and featured regular actors from the John Ford Stock Company. Ford liked to shoot in familiar places with familiar people, away from the interference of studio executives.

‘I cut in the camera. Otherwise, if you give them a lot of film ‘the committee’ takes over.’

In the 1949 trilogy centre-piece, the gloriously Technicolor ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’, Wayne plays seasoned Cavalryman, Captain Nathan Brittles. On the eve of retirement he takes out a last patrol to stop an impending attack from Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. 

Brittles’ chief scout is Sergeant Tyree (played by Ben Johnson), formerly a Captain in the Confederate cavalry. Tyree is a no-nonsense professional whom Brittles trusts to carry out dangerous duties and give sound advice.

Brittles: ‘Were you ever scared, Tyree?’
Tyree: ‘Yes, sir. Up to and includin' now.’

But Tyree knows the limits of his expertise. He is not given to hopeful speculation or empty conjecture.

'My mother didn't raise any sons to be makin' guesses in front of Yankee captains.'

So when asked by Brittles his opinion on broader strategic matters, Tyree consistently replies:
'That ain't my department, sir.’

I have some sympathy with Tyree. In my twenty-five years as a Planner in an Advertising Agency I never once attended a shoot - neither a big commercial production on a warm Trinidadian beach, nor a humble print affair in a cold studio in West Acton. I didn’t feel it was my department.

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'Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness.’
Captain Brittles

Now I’m well aware that I may have been missing out – on the glamour, the travel, the esprit de corps and the generous catering. I’m conscious that I should probably have witnessed a shoot in the spirit of understanding the process and sharing responsibility for the outcome.


And yet I have no regrets. You see the thing is, as a strategist I wanted to concentrate on what I knew best. I could attend research groups, read reports, write briefs, create decks, present arguments, measure success. And more besides. But I had little to add to the production process. And I had too much respect for my colleagues in the Creative, Management and Production functions to bore them with my half-baked opinions on wardrobe, casting and camera angles. 'That ain't my department, sir.’

Of course, we live in an age of team-working, generalism and multidisciplinary consensus. And yet for the most part, there seem to be too many people, in too many meetings, offering too many points of view, on areas where they have little or no expertise. This way of working slows things down, muddies the argument and adds to cost. It’s inefficient and indecisive. We should respect specialism and knowhow; recognize roles and responsibilities. We should be comfortable missing out when we have little to offer; learn to stay silent when we have nothing to say.  

Inevitably, my observation may seem less relevant now that I am semi-detached from the Agency world. But veterans still have their uses. In ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ Captain Brittles meets the aged Chief Pony That Walks and urges him to persuade his younger tribesmen to put down their arms.

'Yes, we are too old for war. But old men should stop wars.’

No. 197

Grand Hotel: Why Not Put All Your Eggs in One Basket?

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'Grand Hotel... always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.’

Dr. Otternschlag, ‘Grand Hotel’

The 1932 movie ‘Grand Hotel’ is set in Berlin between the wars. It begins with an overhead shot of switchboard operators busily connecting calls. We cut to a series of hotel staff and guests on the phone: a Head Porter is worried about his wife who is giving birth at a local clinic; an industrialist plans a merger which he needs to go through to keep his business afloat; a maid announces that her Prima Ballerina mistress will not dance today as she is tired and overwrought; an aristocrat short of money is plotting; an ordinary fellow has only a few weeks to live.

And so we are introduced with elegant brevity to a range of personal stories that will intertwine and evolve as the plot unfolds.

It had been the convention for Hollywood studios to release films that featured just one or two stars. They wanted to prompt audiences to pay separate admission to see their favourite actors appearing across a range of titles.

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With ‘Grand Hotel’ MGM chief Irving Thalberg determined to feature five A-list stars in one movie: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, the brothers John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery.

Inevitably the production attracted a great deal of publicity. MGM promoted it as ‘the greatest cast ever assembled’ and gave it a spectacular Hollywood premiere.

With its phenomenal line-up, lavish setting and romantic narrative, ‘Grand Hotel’ resonated with audiences that were reeling from the onset of the Depression. The movie gained notoriety for featuring Greta Garbo’s melancholy line,‘I want to be alone.’ And it quickly attracted parodies. It became one of the highest grossing films in studio history.

‘Grand Hotel’ was the first all-star movie vehicle. And it established a model for gilt-edged ensemble casting that was followed right up to the modern era by the likes of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Oceans Eleven’.

In business we are accustomed to the principle of spreading risk; of distributing exposure across a range of categories and markets. But sometimes it pays to consolidate our efforts.

 

The nineteenth century tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt initially acquired his wealth in steamboats. But when he saw the rise of the train, he divested from shipping and bet his whole fortune on the railroad. He became the richest man in America. John Rockefeller built Standard Oil by processing petroleum for kerosene used in lamps. When electricity began to eclipse kerosene in the domestic lighting sector, he could have diversified into the new technology. Instead Rockefeller concentrated his efforts on refining oil for gasoline in the emergent car market.

Sometimes the opportunity is such that it merits focus and weight, our full and undivided attention. 

Many years ago we were pitching for the US region of a business that we serviced in the rest of the world. Our competitors had been whispering in the Clients’ ears that awarding the whole global account to BBH would compromise them. Better, it was suggested, to keep an Agency roster and play suppliers off against one another. ‘You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.’

Nigel Bogle began the pitch by recognizing that the ‘eggs in one basket’ concern had been playing on the Clients’ minds. He addressed the issue head-on: 

‘I’ve reflected on this, and I can’t think of anyone that doesn’t keep all their eggs in one basket.’

Sometimes it pays to consolidate and concentrate; to focus on the biggest opportunity; to put all your best eggs in the one most promising basket.

By the end of ‘Grand Hotel’ Otto Kringelein, the ordinary fellow with a terminal illness, has had a fine old time drinking, gambling and carousing in its opulent halls. He concludes with a toast:

'To life! To the magnificent, dangerous, brief, brief, wonderful life...and the courage to live it!  Baron, I've only lived since last night, but that little while seems longer than all the time that's gone before.'

No 196