'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

‘Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There’: In Praise of Inaction

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In 217 BC Quintus Fabius Maximus found himself defending Rome against the superior forces of the great Carthaginian general Hannibal. Hannibal was an outstanding strategist, and he had already defeated two Roman armies on Italian soil.

Quintus was no fool. Naturally cautious, he knew better than to risk his regiments in another pitched battle. And so he targeted the enemy's supply lines. He harassed and frustrated, delayed and exhausted the Carthaginian troops. And gradually he ground them down. Rome survived to fight another day, and a grateful public named Quintus ‘Cunctator’, ‘the Delayer’. He was subsequently credited as the originator of guerrilla warfare

'One man, by delaying, restored the state to us.’
Ennius

Through the centuries many military leaders have been inspired by ‘The Delayer’. The Roman Emperor Augustus was wont to advise his commanders ‘festina lente’, which means ‘make haste slowly’ (or ’more haste, less speed’). And at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 Napoleon declared:

‘Never interfere with an enemy while he is in the process of destroying himself.’

The strategy of inaction has been deployed in other fields too. John Wayne summarised his acting style as: ‘Don’t act. React.’ And in 1945 the theatrical producer Martin Grabel is reported to have given this stage direction to an overly expressive actor:

‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’

Grabel’s play-on-words was subsequently enlisted to the field of politics by President Dwight Eisenhower. He used it to mock his industrious Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In July 2016 The Economist observed that German commentators had coined a new verb:

‘“To merkel” means to delay decisions while time diminishes problems to a manageable size, and opponents make valuable mistakes.’ 

Clearly on occasion there is a real and tangible advantage to be gained by delaying; doing nothing; postponing; kicking the can down the road. Problems blow over, solutions reveal themselves, competitors expose their weaknesses.

One has to ask: Do we in the marketing and communications industry make proper use of the strategy of inaction?

Well, we like to think of ourselves as fast and flexible, agile and responsive. We’re proactive, always on, constantly improving. We seek first mover advantage. Delay is not generally something we advocate or celebrate, particularly in the digital age.

But, I wonder, in our day-to-day engagements do we occasionally jump too quickly to conclusions? Are we sometimes too ready with our responses; too free with our opinions; too prompt with our decisions? Do we leap before we look?

It seems to me our energy and sense of urgency on short-term issues mask our passivity and paralysis with regard to more serious long-term corporate challenges.

What happened to that new remuneration model? Where have we got to on the radical efficiency drive? How’s that plan to create our own brands? And what about that initiative to introduce more diversity to our ranks? Et cetera. Et cetera.

I fear we’re a sector of short-term vigour and long-term inertia. We rush in where angels fear to tread, and hesitate where angels hope for solutions. We merely create the illusion of industry.

There is one adman I’ve heard expound the strategy of inaction. The sage planner and entrepreneur Charles Vallance is fond of the dictum:

‘If you ignore a problem long enough, it will go away by itself.’

He might well add: ‘Leaving more time and space to focus on the serious issues.’

Vallance thereby aligns himself with Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Emperor Augustus, Napoleon, John Wayne, Eisenhower and Angela Merkel. They would make an entertaining dinner party.

'Ooh, little girl
Please don't wait for me.
Wait patiently for love
Someday will surely come.
And I'm still waiting.’

 Diana Ross, 'I’m Still Waiting’ (Hal Davis & Deke Richards)

 

 

No. 195

Anatomy of a Rumour: How Do We Protect Truth in an Environment that Favours Falsehood?

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‘A lie can be halfway round the world while truth is putting on its shoes.’
Attributed to Mark Twain and Winston Churchill among others…

In the splendid 1959 courtroom drama ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ James Stewart plays a lawyer defending an army lieutenant charged with murder. When cross-examining a medical expert, Stewart asks a question that impugns the integrity of the prosecuting officers. He knows this is improper, admits it and withdraws the remark.

The lieutenant is confused, and asks Stewart: ‘How can a jury disregard what it's already heard?’

Stewart shakes his head and replies: ‘They can't, lieutenant. They can’t.’

This is a relatively benign use of a tactic that is not uncommon in the fields of law, journalism and politics: alluding to something that may not be relevant, provable or even true, and trusting that people will remember.

In his 1972 magazine series, ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’, Hunter S Thompson related a sinister tale of Lyndon Johnson canvassing in Texas:

'The race was close and Johnson was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumour campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows.

‘Christ, we can’t get away with calling him a pig-f****r,’ the campaign manager protested. ‘Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.’

‘I know,’ Johnson replied. ‘But let’s make the sonofab****h deny it.’'

We can all recall stories, gossip and rumours that attach themselves to modern politicians and celebrities. Hearsay and innuendo, suggestions of scandal, tend to endure, despite their being unsubstantiated and unproven. We can’t un-hear what we have heard; un-see what we have seen; un-think what we have thought.

Of course, this is nothing new. We’re familiar with the cancerous effect of Iago’s lies in Shakespeare’s Othello.

‘I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear.’

In 1710 the essayist Jonathan Swift wrote:

‘If a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.’

The problem is that the more scurrilous, extraordinary and unlikely a story is, the more it lends itself to re-telling; the more we want to share it, regardless of whether we know it to be true. A lie is generally more compelling than the truth. It disperses by chain reaction, with incredible velocity. Indeed, as Vladimir Lenin said:
‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth.'

Sadly the social media age seems to have amplified and accelerated this phenomenon. The dice are increasingly loaded in favour of half-truths and misrepresentation. Lies are faster, more nimble, more addictive than ever before. And we are all complicit. We like to gossip, to spread the news, to pass on a story. We freely re-tweet, share and endorse. We may occasionally pause to question sources, or reflect on impacts. But we often unwittingly participate in the distribution of falsehood.

‘I can prove it’s rumour. I can’t prove it’s fact.’
Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York and now President Donald Trump’s lawyer

And so inevitably we arrive at the era of fake news, alternative facts and ‘would’ meaning ‘wouldn’t’. And our heads are endlessly spinning because, as Rudy Giuliani recently observed, ‘Truth isn’t truth.’

The Ancient Cretan philosopher Epimenides once stated that all Cretans are liars. Was he lying or telling the truth? This is the Liar’s Paradox, and it feels sometimes that we all now inhabit one gigantic, all-consuming Liar’s Paradox. We’re trying to navigate a maze of untruth. Fiction and fabrication tie us in knots, confuse and confound us. They sow doubt and erode trust. They gnaw away at the ties that bind us. We become suspicious, paranoid. We don’t know who to believe.

'I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.'
Friedrich Nietzsche

So what can we do?

'Trust, but verify’
President Ronald Reagan

Of course, we need Governments and the digital titans to play their part and embrace this challenge of our times. We need a New Deal for Publishing, something that recognizes the realities of contemporary platforms and behaviours.

Brands too have a part to play. They need to rekindle their age-old association with trust and reliability; become once again a source of credible claims and dependable commitments.

But perhaps more broadly we need a new ethical code more suited to the modern age. We need to adapt our behaviour at work and in life: to place a greater premium on facts; to demand verification and substantiation; to support institutions and publications that stand up for truth. We should be subscribing to reputable news platforms. (Maybe we could even buy a newspaper!)

We should also consider moderating our natural propensity to spread rumours; curtailing our inclination to share and pass on. We can no longer excuse slander and defamation as idle chat or locker room banter. We can no longer defend falsehood in the name free speech. Gossip must become less socially acceptable.

Ultimately we may need to take a stand. As George Orwell is reputed to have said:

'In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’

No. 194

The Definition of Empathy: Aretha, The Queen of My Soul

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'The moment I wake up,
Before I put on my makeup,
I say a little pray for you.
While combing my hair now,
And wondering what dress to wear now,
I say a little prayer for you.'

 Aretha Franklin, ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ (Burt Bacharach / Hal David)

Once when I was at school I read an interview in the NME with Kevin Rowland (of Dexy’s Midnight Runners) in which he declared that he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without listening to Aretha Franklin singing ‘I Say a Little Prayer.’

I knew what he meant. The gently swaying piano intro, Aretha’s confident gospel tones, the tight backing vocals punctuating her thoughts, the mounting intensity at the chorus - and then that point of clarity:

'My darling, believe me.
For me there is no one but you.
Please love me too.'

Aretha seemed to reach out to me across an ocean, across a great divide of experience, ethnicity, gender and age. The soaring vocals, the spirituality cut right through me. Her voice demolished the distance between us. It was immediate, urgent, gentle and kind.

'Sometimes, what you’re looking for is already there.’

Aretha Franklin

Born in Memphis in 1942, raised in Detroit, the daughter of a famous preacher, Aretha learned to sing and play the piano in church. But her recording career was initially only moderately successful. Then she teamed up with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, and in 1967 they went down to record at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. There followed a cascade of luminous soul classics: ‘I Never Loved a Man,’ ‘Respect’, ‘Natural Woman’, ‘Chain of Fools,’ ‘Think’ – variously expressing ardent affection, enduring love, self-righteous anger and bitter regret. She was hugely successful, universally acclaimed, justly lauded as ‘The Queen of Soul’.

Yet things were never easy for Aretha. She had a tough childhood and a challenging youth. She was unlucky in love and struggled with health issues. In her rare interviews she seemed shy, wary and a little awkward. She wasn’t a natural celebrity and, as she had a fear of flying, she seldom traveled abroad in later life.

Aretha’s warm mezzo-soprano articulated the breadth of these experiences, embracing all the joy, heartache and pain. She could be weak sometimes, and at other times compellingly strong. She always communicated an intense humanity.

'All I'm askin'
Is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit).'

Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’ (Otis Redding)

Of course, for the most part Aretha didn’t sing her own words. She was channelling the thoughts of the lyricist, inhabiting the character of the song. But she had a special talent for expressing real feeling, true emotion. When I listen to ‘Don’t Play That Song’, ’Aint No Way’,’ Until You Come Back To Me’, I feel what Aretha feels. I second that emotion.

We talk a good deal about empathy in business nowadays. We define it as the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. But what does this really mean?

Aretha teaches that empathy is not a rational condition. It’s not a cold calculation of other people’s circumstances. It is a profoundly emotional state. It’s the ability to identify shared human truths; to really feel for someone; to share their sentiments; to inhabit their triumphs, challenges and disappointments - despite differences of background and experience, regardless of race, colour or creed.

'Baby, will you call me the moment you get there?
Baby, will you do that, will you do that for me now?
Oh, call me, call me the hour, call me the minute, the second that you get there.
Oh, call me, call me, call me, call me, call me, call me, baby.'

Aretha Franklin, 'Call Me'

One of my favourite Aretha performances was on her own composition, ‘Call Me’. In the song she pleads with her departing partner to phone her the moment he arrives at his destination. (It was inspired by an overheard conversation on Park Avenue, New York.) She also seems to me to be expressing a lover’s patience: the willingness to wait until the object of her affection reaches the same level of understanding – until he finally gets there. I have always found this deeply moving.

I was never quite sure Aretha understood how much she meant to others - to people with very different personal narratives. If she were here now, I’d want to replay to her the words she sang so tenderly on ‘Call Me’:

'My dearest, my dearest of all darlings,
I know we've got to part.
It really doesn't hurt me that bad,
Because you are taking me with you,
And I'm keeping you right here in my arms.'

 Aretha Franklin, 'Call Me'
 

(Aretha Louise Franklin, 1942 - 2018, RIP)

No. 193

‘The Same, But Grey’: Pablo Picasso on How To Handle a Mid-Life Crisis

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Pablo Picasso, The Dream

A few years back, as I was approaching 50, I visited the Post Office to renew my driving licence. I handed my expired licence, along with the new form and fresh photos, to the polite Sikh man behind the counter. He compared the new photo with the old, laughed and said:
‘The same, but grey.’

This in many ways captured how I felt about being middle-aged.

I knew deep down I was the same person as the awkward freckled teenager who slapped coconut oil in his hair and wore white towelling socks with Romford cut-downs. I knew I was the same as the twenty-something who ate off paper plates, made soul mix-tapes and worshipped at the altar of conversation; the same as the industrious thirty-year-old, the pedestrian centre back who learned to love Bach, Beckett and ballet.

But I knew too that I was grey. My knees creaked. My back was playing up. I couldn’t read restaurant menus or hear discussions in crowded bars. I was increasingly sentimental, nostalgic and stubborn. What’s more, I was inclined to talk about bin strategy, travel routes and parking permits at any opportunity.

When we reach 50 we have to come to terms with the fact that we have more years behind us than ahead of us; that we’re not quite as in touch as we once were; that our cohort is no longer the cultural centre of gravity; that we are the same, but grey.

So how should we deal with it?

'Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.'
Pablo Picasso

 Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

I recently attended an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s work from the year 1932, when he had just turned 50 (Tate Modern, until 9 September).

By 1932 Picasso was successful, famous and wealthy. He lived a life of bourgeois respectability with his wife and son in his grand Paris apartment. He wore tailored suits and had a chauffeur-driven car. He was planning the first major retrospective of his work.

But Picasso was not entirely comfortable with his lot. He didn’t appreciate that the critics and art establishment were looking elsewhere for innovation and new ideas. His marriage was strained, and over the last five years he had been in a secret relationship with a much younger woman, Marie-Therese Walter. Moreover, being proud of his humble roots, he struggled to make sense of his wealth:

'I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money.'

Picasso was middle-aged. His life was characterised by responsibility, conformity and comfort; by nostalgia, self-justification and pining for lost youth. And he was curiously dissatisfied with it all.

So far, so conventional.

But Picasso had an outlet for his frustrations and anxieties: his art. He established a new studio above his Paris apartment, and he bought a mansion house in Normandy where he could experiment with sculpture. He set about an extraordinary period of industry and creativity.

'Everything you can imagine is real.’

Picasso painted Walter sitting, sleeping and swimming; surrounded by plants, busts and bowls of fruit; in shadows and reflections; bright, colourful images in purple, blue and gold; vibrant two-dimensional portraits like playing cards. He deconstructed and reassembled her; abstracted, distorted and fragmented the female form. There were curved limbs, breasts, hips and hands; a heart-shaped head. Mouths became slits; faces buttons. Walter melted into a squid.

Incredibly prolific, Picasso switched seamlessly between painting, drawing and sculpture, producing new ideas every day, creating work in series: surrealist studies; goddesses attended by Grecian fauns; crucifixions; geometric human forms; a village in the rain; and, at the end of the year, the rescue of a drowning woman.

Picasso observed: ‘The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary.’

But this was no ordinary diary. It was a precise catalogue of a man’s passions, fears and fantasies. Sometimes his work was sensuous, erotic. Sometimes it was disturbing, unsettling. His penis never seemed too far away. Indeed in September of that year, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, on seeing an exhibition of Picasso’s work, described it as almost schizophrenic in its variety of styles. He declared that the artist’s 'psychic problems … are in every respect analogous to that of my patients.’

One can’t help concluding that Picasso’s inner turmoil in 1932 fuelled his phenomenal creative output; and indeed that his phenomenal creative output helped calm his inner turmoil.

Of course by no means did 1932 entirely solve Picasso’s problems. A couple of years later, his marriage disintegrated after Walter bore him a child. And he became increasingly troubled by the deteriorating political and economic situation in Europe and in his native Spain.

Nonetheless 1932 did produce a body of work that put Picasso right back in the vanguard of contemporary art – which is where he needed to be. He was moving forwards, not back. And critics subsequently dubbed this his ‘year of wonders.’

Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all here.

If we are faced with our own mid-life crisis - with the threat of increasing comfort and diminishing relevance - we should not go looking for new relationships, buying embarrassing cars, wearing inappropriate fashion. Rather we should keep our nose to the grindstone. We should actively engage with life and culture - by designing, composing and inventing; by writing, making and building; by creating something useful, beautiful, interesting, memorable.

As Picasso observed: 'Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.’

'Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

 Dylan Thomas, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night'

No. 192

‘The Divided Voice’: There Are Two Sides To Every Story

‘Nobody saves anyone’s life. Just postpones their death.’

I recently saw ‘Allelujah!’, Alan Bennett’s fine new play about the National Health Service. (The Bridge Theatre in London until 29 September.)

‘Allelujah!’ focuses on the Beth, an old fashioned, cradle-to-grave hospital that is at the heart of its local community.

‘Here at the Beth, cosy, friendly and above all local, we believe that yesterday is the new tomorrow.’

The Beth is threatened with closure by a Department of Health that favours efficiency drives, centres of excellence and specialist units.

‘What makes a good hospital is an available bed.’

In an effort to court favour with the Minister, the Beth’s management has renamed its wards: from Princess Margaret, Wordsworth and Mountbatten, to Shirley Bassey, Fatima Whitbread and Dusty Springfield. It has also mounted a campaign to fight for the Beth’s survival.

But a consultant close to the Minister reveals that their efforts to keep the hospital open will ultimately prove futile.

‘Small, badly run and in the red, it would undoubtedly close. Efficiently run and meeting its targets it should close too, because, if it is profitable, why is it not in the private sector?...The State should not be seen to work. If the State is seen to work, we shall never be rid of it.’

We know that Bennett’s sympathies are with the Left. But ‘Allelujah!’ is not a piece of straightforward agitprop. In the course of the work the playwright explores the various perspectives of patients, their families, staff, management and Government. He wants to tease out his own point of view by probing the healthcare dilemma from many angles.

‘You don’t put yourself into what you write. You find yourself there.’

In his Introduction to the play Bennett directly addresses the question of the authorial voice.

‘Writing a play I have never tried to hide the sound of my own voice. It hasn’t always been where an audience or critic has thought to find it and certainly not always in the mouth of the leading character. It’s often a divided voice or a dissenting one; two things (at least) are being said and I am not always sure which one I agree with.’

We live in an era of conviction. We celebrate single-mindedness, clarity and commitment. We like to secure ourselves in a social media cocoon of affirmation and endorsement. So it’s rare to encounter a ‘divided voice’: one that is undecided, open to debate, sensitive to nuance.

And yet, as the philosopher John Stuart Mill observed, an opinion that does not recognize opposing arguments is itself somewhat fragile. 

'He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.’

John Stuart Mill, ‘On Liberty’

I think we in the marketing and communications industry would do well to reflect on these words.

We like to encourage passion and positivity. But sometimes our enthusiasm and evangelism translate into dogmatism and obstinacy. Our unchallenged convictions are boldly expressed, but sustained by shallow roots.

Back in the day, when we presented draft strategies to our boss Nigel Bogle, he would respond with provocations that usually began: ‘I could easily construct an argument…’ He knew that recognizing alternative beliefs and courses of action served to test, evolve and support our own; and that through the melting pot of diverse opinion we could forge new ideas and fresh opportunities.

Agencies should learn to be comfortable with discussion and dissent. They should be environments that support different perspectives and points of view; that examine and challenge established assumptions; that celebrate the ‘divided voice.’

There is of course one caveat. Whilst encouraging a broad range of thoughts and theories, we should be ruthlessly disciplined around facts - now more than ever. As the former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked:

‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.’

 

‘There are always two sides
To every story.
But two wrongs can't make it right.
Oh, and two mistakes will only bring you heartache,
And you both will end up losing the fight.’

Etta James, 'Two Sides (To Every Story)’ (Bill Davis)

No. 191

Kenneth MacMillan: Building from the Highlights

 Federico Bonelli and Francesca Hayward, Royal Ballet. Photo:  Johan Persson

Federico Bonelli and Francesca Hayward, Royal Ballet. Photo: Johan Persson

‘Sex and death. That’s what I do.’

I recently saw an excellent documentary about the choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan (BBC 4, ‘Ballet’s Dark Knight’).

Between 1953 and 1992 MacMillan created over sixty ballets for the Royal Ballet and other companies around the world: full-length repertoire classics like ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Manon’ and ‘Mayerling’; shorter gems like ‘The Invitation’, ‘Elite Syncopations’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Song of the Earth’. His work is characterised by big human themes, psychological insight and dramatic physicality; by high lifts, expressive gestures and raw emotion.

Born to working class parents in 1929, MacMillan grew up in Great Yarmouth. When he was evacuated to Retford in Nottinghamshire during the war, he was introduced to ballet by a local dance teacher. He took to it immediately, and at 15 joined the Sadler’s Wells School. He was subsequently enrolled in the company, but suffered stage fright, and when he was 23 he stopped dancing.

MacMillan turned to choreography.

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'I prefer to explore the human psyche. I try to make people sometimes feel uncomfortable in the theatre.’

He set about enlisting classical ballet technique to address contemporary themes. His work explored young love, identity crises, sexual abuse and suicide; corrupt courts, war damage, drugs and depression.

‘I am very interested in people, and I wanted to portray the dilemma of people living and working and being with each other. I wanted to show that kind of thing in ballet.’

Above all MacMillan sought emotional truth and authenticity. He was instinctively at odds with the ballet world of the time; with its glamour and romance, fairytales and fashion.

‘In choreography people were interested in the purely decorative side of ballet. And I was not. Somehow I want ballet to be in touch with reality.’

MacMillan achieved phenomenal career success. He was appointed artistic director of the Royal Ballet, and subsequently became its principal choreographer. In 1983 he was knighted. But he was always an outsider.

‘There is a class system here, an old boy network which I never belonged to. And I’ve always kicked against it and always will.’

Perhaps this outsider status spurred him on to keep challenging conventions and breaking new ground. His work demonstrated a profound sympathy with the desperate and downtrodden.

‘The situation I enjoyed working at best was the individual against society really – the outside figure that has a hard time.’

MacMillan’s story suggests a number of lessons for people working in marketing and communications.

He teaches us to treasure our outsider status - because difference creates difference; and to seek authenticity, even in an environment that is characterised by artifice and contrivance. Sometimes commercial creativity seems to inhabit a landscape of stereotypes, paradigms and puns. Yet, it is always possible to find real feeling, emotional truth and personal resonance - whatever the context.

I was particularly struck by MacMillan’s description of his method for constructing a ballet.

‘There have to be highlights in a ballet. All the highlights are the pas de deux. That’s part of my ethos. When I do a ballet I choreograph the pas de deux first. So I know at what height they are, and then underneath that I do everything else. So that they do become the highlights of the ballet.’

Often our Clients want us to build solutions that reach across fragmented media; that span diverse platforms and address disparate objectives. We can tie ourselves in knots accommodating every consideration and concern; building ecosystems, planning journeys, designing architectures. Or we can sit frozen - paralysed by the complexity - with absolutely no idea where to start.

Whether we are constructing a communication campaign, a user interface or a strategic presentation, MacMillan teaches that we should always start with the highlights: first crack the central theme; solve the biggest conundrum; create the centrepiece - and then design the rest of the solution around it.

This prescribes a core task for leadership: to identify the focal point; the critical priority; the heart of the matter. Leaders must show their teams how to solve problems in sequence.

Throughout his life MacMillan suffered from depression and loneliness. He became dependent on alcohol and tranquilisers, and had a weak heart. On 29 October 1992 he was backstage at the Royal Opera House watching a performance of his ballet, ‘Mayerling’. He collapsed and died. He was 62.

In the BBC documentary the dancer Alessandra Ferri observed:

‘Kenneth choreographed life. And real life. Not in a romantic way, not in a fairytale. Life has some amazing beautiful loves. Normally it has some tragic moments. And it has death. That is part of life. You can’t live life without death, it’s impossible.’

 

(The Royal Ballet will stage ‘Mayerling’ in October 2018, and English National Ballet will be touring with ‘Manon’ from October 2018 to January 2019.)

No. 190

The Enduring Interruption: How Do We Express Doubts in an Environment that Requires Confidence?

 Vicky Kreips and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Photo - Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Vicky Kreips and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Photo - Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

'As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. And knowing this, you've prepared the asparagus with butter. Now, I can imagine in certain circumstances being able to pretend that I like it made this way. Right now, I'm just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you've prepared it.'

Reynolds Woodcock, ‘Phantom Thread’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film ‘Phantom Thread’ stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a society couturier in 1950s London, and Vicky Krieps as Alma, his model and muse.

The House of Woodcock is a place of elegance and deference, taste and restraint; a realm of black lace, silk organza and sheer sleeves; a world of silent seamstresses and secrets. Woodcock himself is intense and neurotic, fastidious and fragile; a man of repressed emotion and voracious appetite.

When we first encounter Alma, she is shy and awestruck. But gradually she is revealed to be just as strong-willed and obsessive as Reynolds.

Alma: ‘I don’t like the fabric.’
Woodcock: ‘Maybe one day you’ll change your taste.’
Alma: ‘Maybe I like my own taste.’
Woodcock: ‘Just enough to get you into trouble.’
Alma: ‘Perhaps I’m looking for trouble.’

At the centre of the film is a power struggle between the controlling Woodcock and the determined Alma. In one scene Woodcock chastises Alma for bringing him a pot of his favourite lapsang souchong – at an unaccustomed hour, while he is working. She retreats. He angrily complains:

‘The tea is going out. The interruption is staying right here with me.’

Reynolds is a loathsome character, the very worst example of a creative egotist. But in this particular interaction I had just a scintilla of sympathy.

Confidence can be frail. Concentration can be fragile. It doesn’t take much to derail a train of thought; to shatter an illusion.  It’s very easy to create an enduring interruption.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
WB Yeats

In the sphere of commercial communications, we go to great lengths to protect ourselves from interruptions and distractions. We resort to headphones and home-working, diary-blockers, off-sites and coffee shops. Who can forget the Yellow Team's adoption of the colour-coded traffic-light triangles? ('Can't you see I'm in Red mode right now?')

The creative review in particular has its own conventions and rituals. It is a place of unconfined imagination and extravagant fancies; a time to think the unthinkable; an environment for enthusiasm and encouragement, not cynicism and scepticism.

And yet I have often witnessed a mood of collective creative fervour shattered by an ill-considered observation or thoughtless remark; a dissenting voice or doubtful interjection. The conviction evaporates. The passion dissipates. The moment passes.

‘The opposite of creativity is cynicism.’
John Bartle

This can put Planners in a difficult position. We want to be positive and supportive. We want to encourage lateral leaps. But we have a responsibility to the brief; a duty to challenge and question. Sometimes we are cursed with a nagging apprehension, with a suspicion that the idea - however original, charming and fun - will simply not work as intended.

How do we express our doubts in an environment that requires our confidence?

In my experience it is critical to understand how and when to voice concerns. If you have an issue, don’t go too early; preface it with a positive; caveat it with a caution; frame it as a question; support it with some data; propose an alternative path; be prepared to back off and return later.

This may sound weak and mealy-mouthed. But persuasion is an art, not a science. And it therefore requires a certain amount of respect, discretion and sensitivity.

As Alma herself suggests at the outset of her relationship with Woodcock:

‘Whatever you do, do it carefully.’

No. 189

The Tilt of the Earth: Preserving Asymmetry in an All Too Logical World

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Geography was never really my subject at school. All that talk of arable farming and market gardening went straight over my head. And there seemed to be a tad too much time dedicated to U-shaped valleys, oxbow lakes, cirques, cwms and corries. What’s with all the glacial erosion?

Our elderly geography teacher, Den, wore a smart suit and tattered gown, and was particularly keen on ensuring we wrote ‘Auctore Deo’ at the top of every essay (‘The enterprise is of God’). Den expressed approval with an elongated ‘goood’, and dismay with a tug at the forelock and an admonishing ‘Don’t do it again!’ This latter expression became his catchphrase. Pupils delighted in shouting it whenever he was near - and disappearing round corners before he could take any action.

‘Don’t do it again!’

Den liked to pass the time testing our knowledge of the conventional signs that appear on Ordnance Survey Maps. Footpath, ferry, single-track railway; gravel pit, golf course, electricity transmission line…

When the concentration of the class was waning, Den would stop dramatically and demand: ‘What’s the tilt of the Earth?’

‘Twenty three and a half degrees,’ we cried in unison.

I was not quite sure at the time why it was so important that we should know the exact tilt of the Earth. But much later it struck me that it is a wonderful thing that the Earth does not sit bolt upright, to attention; that rather it is inclined, like a dandy’s top hat, at a jaunty angle.

The tilt of the Earth seemed to me to explain a good deal. Like many I was instinctively drawn to people, places and things that were a little askew, lop-sided, cock-eyed and crooked: the offbeat lyric and the oddball academic; the eccentric colleague and the curious TV show; the idiosyncratic pub and the irregular street-plan. And I was in equal measure consistently suspicious of the square jawed, level headed, regular looking, straight talking, frank and forthright.

'There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.’
English Nursery Rhyme

So it came as something of a disappointment when I read that, according to numerous scientific studies, human beings are broadly attracted to people with symmetrical faces. Apparently it’s something to do with our quest for good genes: we assume balanced facial features signify health and longevity.

I beg to differ. The symmetrical face lacks something. It’s too neat and tidy; too regular and even. It’s short on character, forgettable.

Indeed I have been reassured to learn that other academic studies, on perfectly mirrored facial features, suggest that, after all, most people do prefer a slightly asymmetrical countenance.

 Alex John Beck - Project Both Sides Of

Alex John Beck - Project Both Sides Of

In his 2014 project, ‘Both Sides Of,‘ photographer Alex John Beck created mirror images of the left and right halves of sitters’ faces and set them side-by-side. There’s something eerie and uncomfortable about the results. The mirrored models look disarmingly alien.

Of course, in the field of commerce there is a strong predisposition to impose logic, order and good sense; to classify and categorise; to tidy up, set straight and smooth over.

But we should always embrace asymmetries – of personality, looks and behaviour. Because difference gets us noticed, suggests character, prompts conversation, lingers in the memory. Difference makes us human. And critically for the communication business, difference creates difference.

So if ever you’re tempted to play things safe, to follow the conventional path, the straight and narrow, remember Den’s instruction. The world tilts at twenty-three and a half degrees. It is skew-whiff. And life isn’t quite logical.

'When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, oh responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical.’

Supertramp, The Logical Song (Richard Davies / Roger Hodgson)

No. 188