‘Truth In the Pleasant Disguise of Illusion’: Do We Properly Appreciate the Power of the Media at Our Disposal?

‘Time is the longest distance between two places.’

There’s a splendid production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie currently running at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London (until 29 April).

We’re in a Depression-era Saint Louis tenement. Amanda Wingfield, a former ‘southern belle,’ is struggling to pay the rent and worried what will become of her angst-ridden, artistic son, and her shy, solitary daughter.

‘The future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.’

Wingfield pleads with her son to bring a ‘gentleman caller’ back to the house – someone who might possibly represent a suitor for his sister. The fragile girl meanwhile seeks solace in a world of decorative figurines, the glass menagerie of the play’s title.

‘How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.’

The Glass Menagerie is a delicate, sensitive meditation on the challenges facing the awkward and the outside; the responsibilities, deceptions and regrets of family life; the yearning to break free.

In his production notes, Williams describes the work as ‘a memory play’ and at the beginning of Scene One the artistic son explains to the audience that what we are about to see is a distillation of his own recollection of events.

‘Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with I turn back time…’

Williams seems to be declaring that he is more than just a storyteller - he is a master of the theatrical medium, a manipulator of time, a truthful illusionist. This confident, context-setting sequence reminded me of the Prologue of Henry V, in which Shakespeare invites the audience to conjure up, on the simple stage before them, the muddy battlefields of France.

‘Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

I’m sure the most talented writers and artists are well aware of the imaginative leaps that their audience can bring to a creative encounter. And they’re conscious of the special powers of their chosen medium to ignite that imagination.

It has often been observed, for example, that the best directors treat film as a time machine – a means of compressing and extending time; of reordering and replaying it. Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey and how Kubrik takes us from the first man to the space age in one matchless match-cut; or consider the elegant synchronicity of the baptism scene in Coppola’s The Godfather. Film directors also consciously manipulate our understanding of space. With close-ups and long-shots, different points of view and perspectives, they expand and contract our perception of things. In the 1920s the women of the world fell in love with Rudolph Valentino because of the dramatic impact, in magnified close-up on the big screen, of those elegant lips, those sensitive eyes, that pomaded hair.

I wonder, do we in the field of marketing and communication too often treat media like an everyday commodity? Do we just think of it as a space to be filled, content to be generated, ratings to be registered? Do we properly appreciate the power of the tools at our disposal? Do we understand that the moving image can be a time machine; the fixed image can explore space and perspective; the printed and spoken text can conjure up hopes, dreams, recollections and regrets?

Shouldn’t we, like Williams, be seeking to deliver ‘truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion?’ For if we have no passion for the medium, how can we expect to inspire passion in our audience?

 No. 120

‘Nice, But…’: Don’t Just Commentate, Advocate

I was 17 and we’d all been to a party in Ilford or Seven Kings or one of those places. It was the early hours of the morning and I was grateful to be squeezed into the back of the car – even though it was the boot of an estate. However uncomfortable the journey, I was at least on my way home, to my own bed.

As we drove through empty suburban streets, Romford-bound, everyone was happily reviewing the evening’s fashion and flirtations, characters and comedy. Suddenly through the chatter I heard the slow velvet tones of Debbie, our Essex femme fatale. Unaware that I was in the back of the car, she was about to offer her opinion on Jim. I was quite impressed that she knew who I was, but also fascinated to hear what she might say.

‘Ah, Jim…He’s nice, but…’

The packed vehicle broke into a chorus of laughter before she could finish the sentence. I was left pondering what might have been on Debbie’s mind. What personality problem, sartorial shortcoming or conversational quirk was she about to reveal? Her incomplete statement suggested to me that I was myself somewhat incomplete, lacking in some vital way. But I didn’t know how. For the following term at school I was periodically mocked as ‘Jim, he’s nice, but…’  

Some time later, in the early years of my advertising career, I found myself presenting a panoramic review of the big themes in contemporary culture to my Manchester-based motor insurance Client. I talked about grunge fashion, Gen X slackers and the critical significance of Wayne’s World and Super Nintendo; of the special resonance of Bart Simpson’s shorts and Gazza’s tears. And at the end of the session, my charming senior Client, June, paused for a while and pronounced: ‘That’s interesting, in’t it?’ We moved swiftly on.

I realised with the repetition of this phrase on subsequent occasions that June was happy to indulge my wide ranging cultural critiques, but that she struggled to see any particular relevance to the world of motor insurance. What had any of my social trends and media phenomena to do with comprehensive policies, no claims bonus and third party, fire and theft? I had not offered much by way of implied action and she wasn’t prepared to supply it. My observations were ‘nice, but….’

Over time I realised that I was demonstrating a common shortcoming of the brand strategist. It’s easier to describe change than to explain how to respond to it. It’s easier to step outside the category than to bring the outside world inside. It’s easier to commentate than to advocate.

And yet this is where the real value of our cultural expertise comes into play. Surely the most compelling and exhilarating challenge for a modern strategist is to help brands participate in, and shape, popular culture; to help them join in, not stand on the sidelines watching.

So don’t just tell your Clients that the world is going to be full of robots, 3-D printers and fridges that talk to each other. Help them understand how these and other developments will impact on their brand and their communication; and what they need to do about it.

If you just want to be interesting, become a trends forecaster, a cultural commentator. If you want to work in commercial creativity, you must turn interest into opportunity and action.

I’m conscious that in my short weekly essays I am myself often guilty of giving observations rather than directions; descriptions rather than recommendations. Maybe I’m enjoying being one stage removed from the responsibility of decision-making. Maybe Debbie was right all those years ago: ‘Nice, but…’

No. 119

Beware the Banalities of La La Brands

‘Maybe it means something.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Yeah, I didn’t think so.’
 

It’s been observed that criticising La La Land is like criticising a fluffy kitten. And I’d be the first to applaud the romance, the effervescence, the sentiment; the twinkle toed dancing and the knowing nods to the musical’s Golden Age; the yellow dress, the violet night sky, the red firemist Buick Riviera. Of course, it’s a welcome antidote. Perhaps it’s a necessary sedative.

But there was a moment in that first 15 minutes - somewhere in amongst the euphoric traffic jam, the frivolous flatmates and the glamorous poolside party – that I thought: ‘Hold on a minute. I’ve seen this before.’ I’ve seen it in a thousand positioning statements, mood edits and concept boards. It’s the stuff of lifestyle marketing, contemporary commercials and branded content. It’s the stuff of the vignetted advertising so beloved by Globo-Corp. It’s the stuff of La La Brands.

‘It’s another day of sun.
Another day has just begun.’

La La Brands are what you get when you aggregate the emotions, smooth over the edges and round off the corners. They’re what you get when you seek to communicate grand universal truths and big unifying themes; when you’d like to teach the world to sing. They’re modern marketing’s all-pervading algorithmic answer.

La La Brands inhabit their own fanciful dreamworlds, removed from the reality around them. They are full of sunny optimism and simplistic motivations; of ersatz ambition and paper-thin purpose. They are rootless and soulless. But why worry when they have the wind in their hair, the sun on their backs and a soft sweet smile on their faces? They are the eternal sunshine of spotless minds.

La La Brands characterise their consumers as two-dimensional actors in a suburban soap opera; as extroverts not given to introspection. They depict their lives as light and airy, bright and breezy; they deny them psychological depth or emotional texture.

At La La Brands every passenger is a ‘customer’; every fragrance is ‘designer’; every stadium is ‘iconic’; and every meal starts with ‘Enjoy.’ For La La Brands personalisation is just a name on a coffee cup; customer care is just a voucher; diversity is just a superficial casting decision. And tax is something a yacht does. ‘I hope this email finds you well.’

‘They worship everything and they value nothing.’

We should beware the banalities of La La Brands. Because we will all at some time or another be seduced by their siren call. They sing to the tunes of Doris Day and Celine Dion. They’re aspirational and nice; sensible and smart. But they are also fundamentally boring, banal and bland. They’re ultimately unfulfilling.

Of course, the success of La La Land really derives from the fact that, having established the universal sunshine of California, the unifying fantasy of stardom, it follows a more authentic, more individual, more troubled narrative arc. It’s the story of foiled dreams and flawed romance that makes it work.

‘I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back – it’s a classic rope-a-dope.’

The greatest challenge facing anyone working in commercial creativity today is to protect their ideas from the unrelenting bombardment of didactic data and reductive research; from the inexorable pressure to moderate and mitigate; to pucker, pout and smile. The challenge is to roll with those punches, soak up those hard knocks; and, like Ali, emerge from the ropes restored - with a brilliantly eccentric, awkwardly human, irrational, irregular, inspirational, knockout idea.

So remember:

‘People love what other people are passionate about.’

No. 118

Me, Myself and I: What Kind of Self-Portrait Would We Paint for Our Brands?

 Cristofano Allori 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'

Cristofano Allori 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'

There’s a myth that the first person to draw was a shepherd who traced his own shadow in the dust with his staff.  It’s telling perhaps that man’s first picture was of himself, a selfie. We are social animals, but we are also enormously self-centred.

This myth of ‘the invention of the art of drawing’ is captured in an engraving at an excellent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London. ‘Portrait of the Artist’ embraces all manner of images of artists, both self-portraits and pictures by colleagues, pupils and friends. (It runs until 17 April.)

One cannot help but be fascinated by self-portraits. Here we get to observe what other people see in the mirror; to assess how they present themselves to the world; to see how they want to be seen.

There were practical reasons for artists to engage in self-portraiture. Drawing or painting oneself provided the opportunity to practice, experiment and explore; to consider different facial expressions, moods or pictorial styles. And the models came free.

But artists had other motivations. Sometimes they wanted to leave mementos of themselves for family and loved ones. Sometimes they sought to advertise their talent to potential clients. Sometimes they wanted to celebrate their status or success to a broader public. And sometimes they had a message to pass on.

 Edwin Landseer 'The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with Two Dogs'

Edwin Landseer 'The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with Two Dogs'

Artists’ choice of context and theme was often telling. Sebastiano Ricci painted himself attending to Christ teaching in the temple. Johan Zoffany recorded himself amongst his fellow Royal Academicians. Jan Steen depicted himself watching card-players in a pub. These artists were declaring their piety, their prestige, their lack of pretension. Edwin Landseer portrayed himself with his dogs looking over his shoulder admiring his draftsmanship. He seems to be suggesting that they at least properly appreciate his work.

Occasionally artists would adopt mythical roles in order to signal a coded theme. Artemesia Gentileschi presented herself as the female personification of painting itself, La Pittura, a conceit unavailable to her male colleagues. Cristofano Allori portrayed himself as Holofernes beheaded by Judith. He modelled the figure of Judith on his former lover, ’La Mazzafirra,’ and had her mother standing by as the murderer’s assistant.

Of course, often self-portraiture expressed intense self-reflection. Lucian Freud peers out from the midst of deep shadows, his eyes dark with world-weary experience. Maria Cosway stares at us with arms folded as if to indicate her disappointment or disdain. And then there is Rembrandt. He put on costume and fancy dress, but painted himself with unflinching honesty: scrutinising the decay of age, the regret and yearning within.

 Rembrandt  'Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap'

Rembrandt  'Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap'

One departs the exhibition with a strong sense of the complexity of the human psyche; of the layered self. When we look in the mirror we see many images of ourselves. We are self-centred and self-satisfied; self-doubting and self-deluding. We self-publish and self-promote. We are self-obsessed.

 Maria Cosway 'A Self-Portrait '

Maria Cosway 'A Self-Portrait '

You would think that in the field of marketing and communication we would be well versed in the contours and complexities of the layered self. But, whilst many of us in the business tend towards solipsism, how often do we subject our own brands to proper scrutiny? How often do we assess them from within rather from without?

What kind of self-portrait would we paint for our own brands? Would we be puffed up and proud, keen to promote our prestige and status? Would we, like a teenager taking a selfie, betray our own fickle airs and shallow affectations? Or would we, like Rembrandt, be honest, searching and direct?

Perhaps we too should occasionally take a long hard look in the mirror.

 

‘Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Tell me mirror what is wrong?
Can it be my De La clothes?
Or is it just my De La song?
It’s just me, myself and I.
It’s just me, myself and I.’

De La Soul, Me, Myself and I

 

No. 117

‘Today Is Their Creator’: Creative Lessons from Robert Rauschenberg

I recently attended a retrospective of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg. (Tate Modern until 2 April). Blimey. I can’t claim to have had an emotional connection with his work. So much cardboard, cartoons and cut-outs; so much repurposed refuse and random bits and bobs. I suspect my tastes are too conservative. But walking from room to room, through a chaptered narrative of the artist’s career, I could achieve some kind of rational connection. I found myself admiring him. And I certainly felt there was a great deal that commercial creatives could learn from this mercurial talent.

 

1. Be Restless

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 into a fundamentalist Christian household in Port Arthur, Texas. Having served in the Navy during World War II, he took advantage of the GI Bill to travel abroad and he briefly attended art school in Paris. He subsequently studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an institution that encouraged experimentation across a whole host of media. There he learned to do ‘exactly the reverse’ of what he was taught.

Rauschenberg was a restless spirit. The breadth of his output was breathtaking. In the course of his career he explored the possibilities of print making and paper making; photography and collage; pop art and abstraction. He painted in stark black and white monochrome, and in bright vivid colours. He designed costumes and stage sets; worked with found objects and images; experimented in kinetic and interactive art. He collaborated with other artists, with dancers, musicians, scientists and engineers. He choreographed performance pieces and co-created the first Happenings.

Rauschenberg never settled on any one style or form of expression. With his appetite for the untried and untested, he remained resolutely in the present.

‘It is completely irrelevant that I am making them - Today is their creator.’

Rauschenberg was blessed, and perhaps cursed, by what one critic called ‘a perceptual machine.’ He just kept seeing, feeling and thinking different things.

Rauschenberg’s impact on the broader creative culture of his day and on subsequent artistic movements was phenomenal. Most obviously to me the Britartists of the 1990s seemed to be in his debt: way back in the 1950s he created a piece out of his own bedding; he designed a work around a stuffed angora goat; he took a drawing by the established artist Willem de Kooning and erased it…

I guess all of us in the world of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: Are our own ‘perceptual machines’ functioning and well oiled? Can we sustain an appetite for the new as we grow old? Are we, like Rauschenberg, truly, relentlessly, restless spirits?

 

2. Explore ‘The Gap Between’

‘I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window rather than what’s inside my studio.’

In 1954 Rauschenberg began to integrate objects he’d found on local New York streets within his canvases. Wallpaper, windows, wheels and ‘one way’ signs; Coke bottles, brollies, light bulbs and stuffed birds. They all found their way into his Combines, as they were called. It was an approach that brought together painting and sculpture in a new and compelling way.

‘A picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.’

 Monogram

Monogram

Rauschenberg seemed fascinated in art that more intimately embraced reality; that broke out of the boundaries that had been set for it; that explored the liminal spaces, betwixt and between.

‘Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)’

I was struck by this idea of exploring ‘the gap between.’ So often in the commercial sector we impose our own constraints on creative expression, or we accept the constraints of convention. But in an ever-changing world there’s always interest to be had in the borderlands between collapsing categories; on the frontiers of technology; at the cusp of change.

In my own time at BBH some of our best work inhabited the threshold between different channels, practices and technologies: press ads that behaved like posters; posters that behaved like films; films that played backwards; shorter timelengths, longer timelengths; longer copy, no copy at all; reflective still images, special builds, interactive posters, POV camerawork; films that focused on real people, real events, real experiments; Chinese takeaway lids. So often the opportunities occurred at the margins of standard practice, on the edge of the frame.

Are we as alert as we should be to the creative potential in collaboration, combination, co-ordination? Do we remember sometimes to make the medium the message? Are we eager to explore the ‘gap in between?’

 Retroactive II

Retroactive II

 

3. Be Ruthless

‘I’m not interested in doing what I know or what I think I can do.’

By all reports Rauschenberg was charming, gregarious and fun. A smile was never far from his lips. But he was ruthless with ideas, both his own and those of others. He knew that you cannot progress if you still have your feet in the past.

When Rauschenberg arrived in New York as a young man in 1949 the dominant creative movement was Abstract Expressionism. But he was determined from the outset to make a clean break.

‘You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good Abstract Expressionist. And I think I always considered that a waste.’

In 1962, around the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with silkscreens. He reproduced and artfully arranged found images that were historic and contemporary; political and cultural; mundane and arresting. These silkscreens brought him substantial recognition and, in 1964, they won him a prize at the Venice Biennale. He immediately called home and instructed his assistant to destroy any silkscreens left in the studio. He was alert to the insidious seductions of success.

Are we in the commercial sector as willing to dismiss established practice and break for the new? Are we as decisive as Rauschenberg? Can we claim to be as ruthless with our own success?

 

4. Let’s Get Lost

As I was about to depart the exhibition, I returned to a piece called Mud Muse. In 1968 Rauschenberg filled a large metal tank with 1000 gallons of bentonite clay and collaborated with technicians to animate this clay with bubbles that responded to the sounds around it. The result was an art exhibit that gurgles, slurps and plops. I watched a party of young school kids consider it. They were at once amazed and amused. And they demonstrated the emotional connection that I had failed to make.

 Mud Muse

Mud Muse

‘I still have an innocent curiosity about how things go…All I’m trying to do is get everybody off the highway and, if anybody follows my lead, they’ll soon be lost too.’

Perhaps this is Rauschenberg’s best lesson. I’m sure sometimes we over-think our engagement with ideas. Sometimes we should let go and embrace a little innocent curiosity. Sometimes we should just take a turn off life’s highway. Come on, let’s get lost.

‘Let's get lost
Lost in each other's arms
Let's get lost
Let them send out alarms


And though they'll think us rather rude
Let's tell the world we're in that crazy mood.


Let's defrost in a romantic mist
Let's get crossed off everybody's list
To celebrate this night we've found each other
Mm, let's get lost.’

Chet Baker/ Let’s Get Lost: Frank Loesser, Jimmy Mchugh

No. 116

Are You a Cowboy or a Farmer? Managing the Tension Between the Pioneering Spirit and the Need to Cultivate The Land

 Frederic Remington 'A Cold Morning on the Range'

Frederic Remington 'A Cold Morning on the Range'

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! features a song called ‘The Farmer and the Cowman.’ This jaunty number explores the musical’s central tension between the farmers, who have an instinct to settle and cultivate the land, and the cowmen, who naturally want to move on and pioneer new territories. Brian Eno, the master musician, producer and artist, has observed that this tension, between cultivating and pioneering, is fundamental to our understanding of creativity.

‘I often think that art is divided between the farmer and the cowboy: the farmer is the guy who finds a piece of territory, stakes it up, digs it and cultivates it – grows the land. The cowboy is the one who goes out and finds new territories.’

It’s a thought provoking distinction. And perhaps all of us in the field of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: What kind of creative am I? Am I more adept at pioneering or cultivating? Am I a cowboy or a farmer?

I suspect most of us would like to imagine ourselves as cowboys or cowgirls; as experts in reframing, redefining, reinventing; as intrepid adventurers intent on discovering new frontiers. It’s the more romantic choice. Indeed this is Eno’s own understanding of himself.

‘I would rather think of myself as the cowboy, really, than the farmer. I like the thrill of being somewhere where I know no one else has been.’

But let’s not be too hasty.

Many of the world’s great artists could perhaps be described as more farmer than cowboy. Think Mondrian, Giacometti, Rothko or Pollock. They worked within a coherent conceptual space, repeatedly revisiting a relatively narrow terrain; making it their own through variety and depth of expression. They ‘grew the land.’

 Grant Wood 'American Gothic'

Grant Wood 'American Gothic'

Moreover, in the world of commercial creativity ongoing brand success requires high levels of consistency and coherence: campaigns that build a positioning; initiatives that sustain and evolve a theme; executions that nurture an idea with imagination and freshness.

My former boss Sir Nigel Bogle would often talk of a brand needing to ‘move it on without moving it off.’ This task can be just as critical and just as challenging as complete reinvention. It requires the calibrated embrace of context, a more nuanced understanding of past success, a respect for ideas that were not invented here. But do we properly appreciate, celebrate and reward the ability to evolve, nurture and cultivate? Do we really acknowledge the worth of the creative farmer? Or will we always prefer our creative cowboys and cowgirls and their mastery of the blank piece of paper?

Perhaps a little predictably, I’m inclined to say that a healthy creative business needs both cowboys and farmers. We need to be able to pioneer as well as to cultivate; to reinvent as well as to refine. And critically we need to know when to adopt each of these two modes; when to stick and when to twist.

As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it, ‘the farmer and the cowman should be friends.’

‘Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a
cow,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.’ 

The Farmer and the Cowman, Rodgers and Hammerstein

No.115

Small People in a Big World: The Liberating Power of Perspective

I recently saw Nice Fish, a fine play by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins (Harold Pinter Theatre until 11 February). It features two friends ice-fishing on a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota. They speculate on love and death; on petty officialdom and the aesthetics of baloney; on age and the environment; on the romantic yearnings of snowmen and the difference between wolves and dogs.

‘Some days are so sad nothing will help, when love has gone, when the sunshine and clear sky only tease and mock you. Those days you feel like running away, going where no one knows your name. Like slinging the old Gibson over your shoulder and travelling the narrow road to the north where the gray sky fits your mood and the cold wind blows a different kind of trouble… But somebody, someday soon, somebody will come and put up a bed and breakfast and a gourmet coffee shop. There is only one true wilderness left to explore, those vast empty spaces in your head.’

Some have complained that the play lacks any real drama or strong narrative. They have criticised it for whimsy. But there’s a fine line between whimsy and wisdom. I found many of the fishermen’s observations insightful and moving.

‘One day you cross an invisible line and everything is changed…It is as if you had crossed the international dateline, all at once it’s another day. Now, everything you looked forward to is suddenly behind.’

At the start of Nice Fish we see spruce trees and poplars in the distance; brightly painted fishing huts. We see a small figure with a fishing rod. A truck traverses the horizon. A train passes along the shoreline. All this is magically conveyed with puppets and miniatures. The stage design has the effect of placing our characters in the context of a grand panorama. And in many ways this is a play about scale: of ‘little’ people having big thoughts; of the intimacy of the trivial and the profound; of the beguiling mystery of the unknown and unknowable.

‘I’ve spent a great deal of my life fretting over things that most people wouldn’t waste their time on. Trying to explain something I haven’t a clue about.’

We are indeed small people in a big world. We are drops in life’s ocean, tiny stars in an infinite galaxy. On occasion I have felt this intensely: in a taxi late at night driving through Sao Paolo; flying over an unending Mongolian mountain range; walking into Canary Wharf on a Monday morning. It’s easy to be overwhelmed.

But perspective can be liberating as well as humbling; inspiring as well as chastening. Perspective supplies a sense of wonder. And keeping things in proportion is critical to our understanding of the world; to our empathy with other people; to our emotional wellbeing.

So much wrong in business, and indeed the wider world, derives from poor perspective: the excessive demand, the unreasonable request, the disproportionate response, the asymmetrical power balance. So much stress seems unwarranted; so much angst seems inappropriate. So many of our leaders, brands and businesses have an enhanced sense of self worth, but a diminished sense of reality.

Often we get too close, too involved, too exercised. Our passion turns to obsession, our determination to compulsion. We behave as if it’s a matter of life and death, when really it’s a matter of deodorant and fried chicken.

If we want to retain our relevance, to sustain our sanity, we would all do well to step back and abstract ourselves occasionally; to broaden the frame of reference; to take on different viewpoints. Context ‘has charms to soothe a savage breast.’ Let’s set aside the corporate hubris and embrace a little humility.

At the end of Nice Fish the two lead characters reach some kind of conclusion. They observe that old people leave life with the same befuddlement as if it were a movie:

‘”I didn’t get it.”…”It didn’t seem to have any plot”…”No, it seemed like things just kept coming at me. Most of the time I was confused…and there was too much sex and violence…Violence anyway”…”It was not much for character development either; most of the time people were either shouting or mumbling. Then just when someone started to make sense and I got interested, they died. Then a whole lot of new characters came along and I couldn’t tell who was who”… “The whole thing lacked subtlety”…”Some of the scenery was nice.”’

No. 114

The Naked Consumer: Do We Marketers Ever See People As They Really Are?

Last week saw the passing, aged 90, of the art critic and writer, John Berger. Berger was a charming man with a conventional middle-class manner but rather radical opinions. In his art criticism he encouraged us to strip away the assumptions and pretensions of traditional practice and to regard paintings with fresh eyes and from fresh perspectives.

My wife’s great aunt happened to appear in a Berger TV documentary in the ‘70s. As an experienced nurse, she was invited to comment on the portrayal of death in a number of famous paintings. She had seen death first hand many times and was therefore able to give an unvarnished and insightful response. In an age of reverence towards formal expertise, this kind of people’s perspective on art was revolutionary.

‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.’

First line of Ways of Seeing, John Berger

Berger was best known for his brief 1972 documentary series Ways of Seeing. It is a low budget affair, hosted by an earnest, sometimes smoking, Berger in shaggy locks and pattern-striped shirt. In the series he asks that we consider all imagery in its social and political context. Our understanding of art and mass media must be framed by our understanding of the power relationships between the artist, the subject, the commissioner, the owner and the viewer.

The most celebrated episode of Ways of Seeing considers the distinction between the naked and the nude. Berger points out that there was a tradition in European art of female subjects being painted without clothes by male artists, for wealthy male patrons and assumed male observers. He asserts that therefore the traditional female nude does not represent women as they were, but as all those male artists, owners and viewers wanted them to be.  The nude in art is an objectified vision of women.

‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude… Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.’

  Susanna and the Elders by   Tintoretto

Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto

It’s a compelling distinction. I found myself considering the baggage we carry with us when we in the marketing and communications professions engage with consumers. Can a marketer ever see consumers as they really are? Or, given our endless evaluations and expectations, can we only objectivise them like the nudes in European art?

We think of consumers as targets for communication, as sources of revenue. We see them as segments and sectors, demographics and data-points. We reduce them to trends and typologies, life-stages and life-styles. We rate them for their frequency of interaction with us, their loyalty to us, their value for us. We think of consumers first and foremost in terms of their relationship with ourselves. We fail to comprehend that people are at the centre of their own universes; not orbiting around us and our brands.

And of course the very fact that we call people ‘consumers’ betrays our perception of them: as vehicles for absorbing time and space, money and materials.

My first job after college was as a Qualitative Market Researcher. I recall on one occasion we were commissioned to interview regular readers of a woman’s weekly magazine. The Clients were repeatedly disappointed with our recruitment. They felt our respondents were insufficiently expert in the nuanced changes they had made to the publication. ‘Regular readers would know much more about us than these people.’ So we recruited again, and again, and again, never really locating the publishers’ paradigm consumer. It became increasingly evident that that paradigm only existed in the minds of the publisher; and that the genuine regular readers just didn’t live up to our Clients’ expectations of them.

Consumers are rarely who we want them to be. They’re just who they are. They can be infuriatingly emotional, absurdly unfaithful.  They can display low attention spans, poor memory and wilful misunderstanding. They can be irrational, illogical, inconsistent. They can be simultaneously care-worn, careless and carefree. And most of the time they simply don’t care about us.

We all believe that at its heart good marketing understands and addresses the changing needs and desires of consumers. But we can only understand consumers if we think of them as human beings.

Do we marketers ever see people as they really are? Do we ever see the naked consumer?

 

No. 113

‘All Progress Depends on the Unreasonable Man’: George Bernard Shaw’s Lessons on Change

George Bernard Shaw

Over the festive break I attended a very good production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (The Donmar Warehouse until 18 February). Shaw’s plays are rarely performed nowadays. They are considered rather wordy, worthy and long. And Shaw himself, with his extravagant beard, prolific pamphleteering and occasionally eccentric opinions, can come across to modern sensibilities as a curious figure.

However, this Donmar production gives us pause for thought. Shaw’s story of a fifteenth century French peasant woman who leads the fight to liberate her country, considers themes that chime with us today. With her wide-eyed patriotism and direct engagement with god, Joan rejects expertise and elites, authority and hierarchy. She’s a populist or demagogue, if you like. And, inevitably, her simple faith and unwavering self-belief present quite a threat to the established order. An English Nobleman sums up the problem thus:

’If this cant of serving their country once takes hold of them, goodbye to the authority of their feudal lords, and goodbye to the authority of the Church.’

This prompted me to wonder how we, in the commercial communications sector, should respond to the events that gripped the wider world in 2016. Should we, like Joan, commit to more direct embrace of the tasks in hand; to unmediated encounters with Clients and consumers; to bypassing the established methods and modes? Should we design our own positive take on populism?

Saint Joan’s vivid contemporary relevance derives from Shaw’s active engagement with the world around him. His was a ‘theatre of ideas’ that demanded audience attention. He had a restless mind, an opinion about everything and a commitment to political and social change.

‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

These words resonated with me because, I confess, I have always felt uncomfortable with conflict. I naturally tend towards compromise and consensus. So when ill feelings arise, I’m keen to build bridges, change the subject, leave the room. However, I have become increasingly aware that the moderate path bears modest fruit: change needs challenge; progress needs protest.

As we embark on a new year and consider our commercial resolutions, perhaps like Shaw we would do well to set aside our prudence. If we want to see transformational change in our business, we may need to stop making sense. We may need to be unreasonable.

 

‘Remould It Nearer To the Heart’s Desire’

In the Shaw Library at the London School of Economics you can see a stained glass window designed by George Bernard Shaw for the Fabian Society in 1910. Two men with hammers pound a globe that sits on an anvil.  At the top of the window are the words: ‘Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire.’

Over the years I interviewed a great many young Planners who were applying for positions in the Agency. As well as asking them about the advertising they worked on, the campaigns they admired, the brands that could do with some help, I would always invite them to consider the future of the industry: Where is the communications sector heading? How is Planning evolving? How can we remould our business ‘nearer to the heart’s desire’?

Some of the young candidates found discussion of such broad themes uncomfortable. They were daily employed in the execution of Agency and departmental strategies, not the setting of them. They didn’t have their hands on the corporate tiller, so how could they have an opinion on where the boat should sail?

I’m not sure I ever found this an acceptable excuse. We all find it easy to criticise and complain. But in the modern age we can only expect progress if we have a point of view on how to achieve it. With the new year upon us, whatever our place in the hierarchy, we should all ask ourselves: What would we do with a blank sheet of paper? How would we anticipate and enhance the evolving commercial landscape? How would we fashion the industry of the future?

 

‘What Do We Want? Gradual Change’

The Fabian Society, for whom Shaw designed his stained glass window, was a group of socialist intellectuals who believed in reform rather than revolution. Its commitment to gradualism and respect for the incumbent democratic processes may at first seem rather modest. It reminds me of the joke that circulated when I was at college about the Liberal Party on a protest march:

‘What do we want? Gradual change.
When do we want it? In due course.’

But delay can be decisive. The Fabian Society took its name from the Roman general Quintus Fabius who is often credited as the father of guerrilla warfare. His primary military tactic was the avoidance of direct confrontation with the enemy: he consistently delayed engaging Hannibal and his Carthaginian invasion force until the moment was right; and then he struck hard.

In the years since it was founded in 1884, the Fabian Society demonstrated that you can achieve a great deal through argument and influence; through patient pragmatism and change from within. The Fabians founded the London School of Economics in 1895 and they were a founding organisation of the Labour Party in 1900. Fabians were prominent in successive Labour Governments and Fabian thinking inspired much of the modern welfare state.

Perhaps the Fabian Society sets an example to the vast majority of people in the marketing and communications business that work within large, complex organisations. It often seems easier to imagine the industry of the future from scratch, rather than from existing structures. Being an enthusiast for change can be intimidating when you’re only a cog in the machine. 

The Fabians encouraged their members to ‘educate, agitate, organise.’ Everyone can contribute to change through debate and advocacy; through designing trials and tests; through setting an example. Transforming a large incumbent business takes time and patience, diplomacy and cunning. But the rewards for success can be thrilling.

Happy new year!

No. 112

Alessandra Ferri: Following Conviction, Not Convention

I recently attended a talk at the Royal Opera House given by the magnificent dancer, Alessandra Ferri. She has been in London rehearsing for the Wayne McGregor ballet, Woolf Works, an imaginative and inspiring response to the legacy of Virginia Woolf (Royal Opera House, 21 January to 14 February).

Ferri dances with fluidity, intensity, personality. Her body is strong and supple; her mind alert and acute. Her long dark locks flow freely down her back. She is composed, quietly spoken, modest. And she talks with complete clarity and conviction.

‘I was an introverted child who lived more in my imagination. At 10 I knew that the inner world is bigger than the outside world.’

Born in Milan in 1963, Ferri had no family connection with ballet, but she instinctively understood it was her calling. At 15 years of age she left Italy for the Royal Ballet School, and by 19 she was a Principal in the Royal Ballet.

‘I learned to dance, not as a ballerina, but as flesh and bone. When I dance I am not aware of the limitations of my body. I dance outside my body. I dance in space.’

Within two years of her promotion, Ferri was recruited by Mikhael Baryshnikov to American Ballet Theater in New York. Though much loved in London, she saw an opportunity to learn and grow.

‘Jerome Robins [the choreographer] taught me to play my body like music; not just as an exhibition of beauty, but as research of an inner life; not as a ballerina, but as a woman.’

In 2007, aged 44 and after 22 years with American Ballet Theater, Ferri determined that she wanted to spend more time with her two children. And so she retired, at the top of her game. Then, six years later, she changed her mind. Ferri came back to ballet. And she committed herself to the extraordinary regime of training and self-discipline that the decision entailed.

‘I didn’t miss being onstage or the applause. I missed feeling alive. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to be there.’

Consistently throughout her life Ferri has followed conviction, not convention. She has demonstrated a rare self-knowledge and freedom of thought. Next summer she returns to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York to perform as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. It’s a role she first danced in 1984 when she was 21. She’ll be 53.

‘It happened so fast I didn’t have time to doubt. I asked myself ‘What are you afraid of? Your own memory?’’

Alessandra Ferri teaches us not to set too much store by custom, practice or tradition. We are too often constrained by what others have done, what others might think, what others expect. She is an advert for spontaneity, instinct and intuition. What do I want? What do I think? What do I expect of myself? She decides for now, for the moment. And leaves the rest to fate.

‘If you say of anything that it’s just for now – then you never know, it might end up being for ever.’

We have all been gifted with instinct and intuition; with infinite imagination and internal lives. Do we set aside enough time to think and reflect, to fancy and dream? Or are our decisions determined by the job and the boss; by precedent and convention; by the irresistible force of inertia? Do we listen to the ‘still small voice’? Or are we endlessly calculating the smart choice, the sensible option? Are we supporting actors in someone else’s drama or are we stars in our own?

 

That’s it for 2016. We all deserve a break. 
Happy Christmas. 
The next piece will be published on Friday 6 January 2017. I’ll see you on the other side.

 

 

No. 111