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

‘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

GettyImages-2637601_ARETHA_2000-920x584.jpg

'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

 Pablo Picasso, The Dream

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