Should Philanthrocapitalism Begin at Home?

In 1967 Paul McCartney admitted to a national newspaper that he had taken LSD. Soon after, an ITN reporter asked McCartney if this was a matter he ‘should have kept private.’ In his response McCartney elegantly articulated a dilemma at the heart of modern media.

McCartney: ‘You’re spreading this now at this moment. This is going into all the homes in Britain. And I’d rather it didn’t. You’re asking me the question. You want me to be honest. I’ll be honest.’

Reporter: ‘As a public figure, surely you’ve got a responsibility…’

McCartney: ‘No, you’ve got the responsibility not to spread this now. I’m quite prepared to keep it as a very personal thing if you will too. If you’ll shut up about it, I will.’

What are the ethical responsibilities of media channels? Do the media have an obligation to seek the truth and share it, whatever that truth and wherever it may be found? Or should respect for privacy (and concern for security) act as a constraint?

In the past media outlets prided themselves on their ability to ‘speak truth to power.’ But such is the capacity of modern broadcasters and journalists to spread information, to shape opinion, to provoke a response, that the media represent a considerable power in their own right. And with that power surely comes responsibility.

McCartney’s argument for media responsibility seems as pertinent today as it did in 1967, and we may perhaps broaden its application beyond traditional media brands.

Technology has created a social, political and economic revolution. But it has also ushered in new societal challenges. Our world is increasingly cursed by cyber bullying and salacious sidebars; witch-hunts and lynch mobs; hacking and trolling; shaming and blaming. The same technology that spreads knowledge and understanding can also intensify hate and bigotry. The very platforms that liberate the wisdom of crowds also facilitate the cruelty of the mob.

Hitherto tech brands have for the most part clung to a kind of ethical neutrality. They are the medium, not the message. They cannot be held accountable for the content they carry. But is this not a denial of responsibility? If Silicon Valley won’t tackle the social ills of social networks, who will?

Mark Zuckerburg and Priscilla Chan recently announced that they will gradually give away 99% of his stake in Facebook to fund the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative.

Nowadays such endeavours are rarely termed ‘charity’. They are described as philanthropy, or social investment, or ‘philanthrocapitalism’. Whatever we call it and whatever the reservations around tax and the democratic deficit, I think we should nonetheless applaud this extraordinary act. But where should the money be spent?

In Zuckerberg’s post he states that ‘we have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.’ The mission of the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative is ‘advancing human potential and promoting equality.’ Such a mission could embrace all manner of activities. From alleviating poverty to eradicating disease; from promoting social justice to enabling sustainable development; from providing access to technology, to education, to microfinance. So where to start?

It used to be said that ‘charity begins at home.’ Perhaps philanthrocapitalism should begin at home too.

I suspect the most appropriate and effective means of this new initiative ‘advancing human potential and promoting equality’ would be to address the darkness on the edge of town: the web-pests, trolls and haters; the bullying, blackmail and bribery; the manipulators, exploiters and electronic thieves. Surely the phenomenal technical expertise available to the architects of the social web should be directed at the phenomenal societal challenges posed by the social web.

Silicon Valley has given today’s generation knowledge, connection and freedom of expression. What greater gift could it give the next generation than security, privacy and protection from harm?

No. 60

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 12

‘Still Learning’: Goya and the Key To a Long Career

I recently attended the splendid exhibition of Goya portraits at The National Gallery in London.

I had previously considered Francisco de Goya y Lucientes a painter of martial horrors and grim nightmares. He was clearly deeply moved by the cruelty on all sides in the Peninsular War. And, following an illness in his mid-40s, for much of his life he was profoundly deaf, a condition which no doubt precipitated dark thoughts.

But Goya’s portraits are light, fresh and vivacious. He characterises Spanish nobles and royalty as warm and approachable; academics, soldiers and clergy as thoughtful and affable. Their humanity reaches out to us across the centuries. Some scholars attribute the vibrancy of Goya’s work to the fact that he added the final highlights to his pictures at night. In his Self Portrait before an Easel you can see how he had adapted his hat to carry candles.

Goya may not have been quite the tortured artist of my imagination. He died at the ripe old age of 82 in an era when the average life expectancy in Spain was 40. And he was painting right up until the end. What was the key to his long, productive career?

Goya Dona Teresa Sureda c. 1805

Well, firstly Goya must have been graced with supreme skills in client management. He survived turbulent times as the Spanish court underwent one regime change after another: from the Inquisition to the Enlightenment to the return of reactionary conservatism; from Spanish Kings to English generals to Napoleon’s puppet rulers. After the departure from Madrid of the imposed French monarch, a number of Goya’s paintings were denounced as ‘obscene’ by the reinstated Inquisition and the artist was obliged to go through a ‘purification’ process to clear him of collaboration. But somehow Goya clung on his position at court. It made me think of the summersaults an Agency undertakes to retain business through the merry-go-round of CEOs and Marketing Directors.

Goya’s recipe for career longevity certainly includes perseverance and principle. A few years before his death, the artist’s finances were in a terrible mess. Yet he stubbornly refused to reissue his most successful series, Caprichos, in order to generate funds. He wrote to a Spanish friend, ’I’ve no more sight. No hand, no pen, nor inkwell. I lack everything – all I’ve got left is will.’

However, perhaps the critical determinant of Goya’s long and successful career was his appetite for new skills and new forms of expression.

Goya only started painting portraits at the age of 37. Before then he had been making a successful living as a religious artist and tapestry designer. He was a master of etching, but late in his career he embarked afresh on a series of miniatures in ivory and he taught himself the new techniques of lithography (drawing directly onto limestone).

Towards the end of his life Goya created a rather moving black crayon etching of an old man with a long grey beard hobbling along on two walking sticks. It carries the inscription ‘I am still learning’ (‘Aun aprendo’).

It was around this time that a friend wrote of Goya, ‘He is deaf, old, awkward and weak…But so happy and anxious to see the world.’

 

If We Want To Raise the Bar, Do We Have To Lower the Tone?

‘There is an inherent conflict between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating.’

William F Buckley

I commend to you the recent documentary film Best of Enemies. It tells the story of the 1968 televised political debates between two ‘public intellectuals’ at the height of their powers, William F Buckley and Gore Vidal. Buckley was the hero of modern conservatism; Vidal was a leading novelist and liberal critic.

The ABC television network, coming a distant third in the ratings war behind NBC and CBS and working with a constrained budget, commissioned the debates to liven up its coverage of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. (‘The Unconventional Convention Coverage.’) Buckley and Vidal were invited to consider the issues raised by the day in conference and the broader political context. ABC got more than they bargained for. Intellectual blows were landed, insults flew and ratings soared.

The debates demonstrated that the public had an appetite for intelligent discourse, but only if it was delivered with the added sauce of confrontation and conflict. The coverage ushered in the combative approach to politics that has cursed American television news discussion ever since.

 ‘Argument is sugar and the rest of us are flies.’

Richard Wald, Former ABC News Senior VP

It would be easy to concede that the public have always had a taste for strife. But we should beware of confusing long-held convention with timeless truths.

I suspect the American audience of the late ‘60s was responding to an era of polite media consensus. They wanted change. Is not the reverse true in the modern world? Are we not fatigued with artificial altercations and bar room bickering?

Could there possibly be a growing appetite for serious, intelligent debate without the staged spats and squabbles?


Beauty Beyond Reach

‘We’re not ugly people.’
Carol

The magnificent movie Carol conjures up romance in the New York of 1952.

It’s a beautiful world of bulbous cars, wide shouldered overcoats and streamlined dresses; of fur coats, clutch bags and cat eye sunglasses; of bright reds, coral and taupe; of dry martinis in the Oak Room and endless cigarettes.

It is a world of inordinate beauty, but one where the ultimate beauty, true love, is elusive. It is seen through car windscreens, obscured by crowded rooms; it is just out of reach, observed from a distance; it is mediated by convention and bigotry.

In marketing we’re endlessly endeavouring to make our brands more accessible and attainable. But there’s a special romance, a special beauty, about that which we can’t attain; that which is just out of reach.

‘Too far away from you and all your charms.
Just out of reach of my two empty arms.’

 Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)/ V Stewart/Performed by Solomon Burke

 

 

No. 59

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 11

What Price Genius?

Steve Wozniak: ‘What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail...’
Steve Jobs: ‘Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.’

Steve Jobs

The film Steve Jobs is more than a conventional biopic. It boasts the taut dialogue of Aaron Sorkin, the assured direction of Danny Boyle and an acting tour de force from Michael Fassbender. It also has a distinctive theatrical three-act structure, concentrating the action on three pivotal product launches.

The movie uses the behind-the-scenes drama before these launches to explore the psychology of the man at their centre: his relationships with his colleagues, his ex-girlfriend and his daughter; and his own sense of self. Jobs was clearly a genius, but he was also troubled and had flawed relationships. In the film he says of himself, rather poignantly: ‘I’m poorly made.’

For anyone in the corporate world it’s hard to watch the Jobs movie without asking questions about the nature of leadership and commercial success. So many of Apple’s phenomenal accomplishments were directly attributable to Jobs’ extraordinary vision; but clearly they were also precipitated by his drive, his obsession for detail and his exacting standards.

What is an acceptable price to pay for success? What level of collateral damage, to colleagues and culture, should we accommodate in the quest for greatness? When does the end not justify the means?

Steve Wozniak: ‘It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.’

Steve Jobs

 

How Do We Accommodate Corporate Autism?

The same weekend that I saw Steve Jobs, I also read about an award-winning book concerning autism, Neurotribes by Steve Silberman. (Reviewed by James McConnachie, The Sunday Times, 22/11/15)

Autism is a condition characterised by inability to relate, self-isolation and obsession with sameness. In the 1930s the Viennese paediatrician Hans Asperger thought that autism was a relatively common trait, ‘an extreme variant of male intelligence.’ He also observed a link between autism and genius: ‘For success in science and art a dash of autism is essential.’

In the 1940s the view became established that autism was a rare and extreme condition. The book relates how it was only in the 1980s that the psychiatrist Lorna Wing identified autism as a broad continuum. Nowadays we expect 1 in 68 children to be ‘on the spectrum’, whereas in the past only 1 in 2000 was thought to have the condition.

Given that so much of a company’s personality and values is tied up in the personality and values of its leadership, we should perhaps give more thought to the psychology of our leaders. Should we be surprised if entrepreneurs and industry visionaries are often somewhat isolated, obsessed and have a reduced ability to relate to others? To some extent these have been the characteristics that qualified them for a leadership role. Or, ‘passionate, goal oriented and independent,’ as the leader’s job spec would have it.

We need to better understand the science behind this corporate autism and to give our leaders more support. It’s no longer appropriate to shrug and say that genius has its price.

Silberman’s own conviction is that autism should be accommodated within a broad conception of ‘neurodiversity’; that we should think not of disorders, but of different ‘human operating systems.’ We can start, he suggests, by embracing different perspectives on ‘normality’.

‘By autistic standards the normal brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail and routine.’

Ultimately we need to broaden our expectations of leaders, embracing more psychological types and more neurodiversity. We need a new class of 'leadership operating system' fit for an age of partnership, empowerment and change. Because you can't change your behaviour if you don't change your mind.

Are You Nostalgic for the Future?

I confess the Steve Jobs film prompted a certain amount of nostalgia in me: nostalgia for a time when advertising played a central role in the grand corporate narrative (there are quite a few references to Lee Clow and Chiat Day); and also nostalgia for the future.

The movie begins with a compelling piece of archive film. We see the science and science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke interviewed in 1974 by an Australian journalist. Asked what kind of future he envisages for the journalist’s son, Clarke sketches a world of in-home computing, global connectivity, online shopping and flexible working. In short he predicts the internet age.

One is reminded how exciting the future used to be. I grew up with the space race, NASA, Apollo landings and The Clangers. We dreamed of astronauts, aliens, asteroids and tin foil. I made a lunar landscape out of papier mache.

More recently we’ve witnessed the most dramatic technological transformation since the Industrial Revolution. We’ve seen extraordinary levels of personal, political and commercial upheaval. It’s been a thrilling, inspiring, challenging ride.

But has the future lost some of its lustre? We have become aware that the same technology that spreads knowledge and understanding can also intensify hate and bigotry; that progress brings new challenges in the areas of privacy, security, inequality and corporate oligarchy; that the freedoms of empowerment also carry the responsibilities of self control.

Whereas we used to look forward with wide-eyed anticipation, we are now engaged with the practical challenges of realising tomorrow today. Inevitably we can suffer change fatigue. A certain amount of circumspection is natural.

Nonetheless I’m a firm believer that hope and optimism are the first steps to progress. We should perhaps rededicate ourselves to imagining a future beyond our present, however complex and challenging that present may be. We should not deny ourselves the chance to dream.

‘Space is the place.
Space is the place.
There is no limit to the things that you can do.’

Sun Ra/Space Is The Place

No. 58

A Man Having Trouble With An Umbrella: Recognising the Power of Repetition

My grandfather was a retired policeman with a warm heart and authoritative manner. At weekends he would drive Martin and me along the A13 to his old haunts in Barking, Poplar and Limehouse. Hard to believe now, but ‘going for a drive’ was a popular leisure activity in the ‘70s. At traffic lights and junctions, Grandpa would playfully greet other drivers with a ‘Hello, Mary’ or ‘Yes, of course, Dave, you go first.’ He didn’t actually know Mary or Dave, but he was aware it amused us. And every time we went past a triangular sign indicating road works (by means of the silhouette of a labourer planting his shovel in a pile of earth), Grandpa would exclaim: 'There's a man having trouble with an umbrella!'

We loved that joke. To a young boy it was deeply silly, slightly surreal, somehow subversive. And it improved with repetition. As we rolled around in fits of laughter at the back of the Rover, the gag didn't seem trivial at all to us. It seemed important. And I'm pretty sure it was.

Repetition reassures. It creates a sense of familiarity, intimacy, common currency. Consider catchphrases and slogans; jingles, chants and incantations; aphorisms and end lines. These may be regarded as lower forms of expression, but they have an insidious potency. We assume that familiarity breeds contempt. But often the reverse is true: familiarity breeds contentment.

I recently came across a review of The Song Machine, a new book that considers the methods of the modern music industry and today’s high-tech record producers. It’s a calculating world of ‘writer camps’, ‘melodic math’ and the quest for elusive ‘bliss points.’ The author reaches an interesting conclusion about the science of hits:

‘For all the painstaking craft involved… the crucial factor in our emotional engagement with music is familiarity; in other words, if you were repeatedly to hear a song you didn’t like, that proximity would eventually breed affection.’

Mark Ellen/ The Sunday Times, reviewing The Song Machine by John Seabrook

That explains a lot...

Familiarity also resides at the heart of brand value. The first brands were founded on the reassurance of consistency: this product is the same as the last product you bought; it’s made from the same ingredients and it’ll perform in the same way.

I wonder, do we in modern marketing properly appreciate the power of repetition? Of course, we endeavour to be disciplined about visual identity; and, in a media context, we take account of frequency, dwell-time and wear-out. But this is a quantified, rational view of repetition. Do we really understand the qualitative, emotional value of repeated experience?

Earlier this year I attended a production of Aeschylus’ Ancient Greek tragedy, Oresteia. I was particularly struck by this exchange:

‘What’s the difference between a habit and a tradition?’
‘A tradition means something.’

At their best brands are not just mindless habits. Through repeatedly exploring territories and ideas that are relevant to people, the best brands establish their own meaning, their own traditions. In this age of nudge theory and behavioural economics, we spend quite a lot of time seeking to change habits. What would happen if we sought occasionally to establish traditions?

Certainly our creative instincts are all the time working against iteration. They urge us to embrace change, innovation and reinvention at every turn. Every campaign is a fresh challenge; every new brief is a blank sheet of paper. And these instincts are intensified in the modern age. There are infinite platforms to be filled with unique content; there are ever-increasing consumer appetites to be sated. We live in dynamic times of difference and diversity.

In our obsession with reinvention the commercial communication sector is at odds with other creative professions. In the film, gaming and TV industries the occurrence of a hit is a cue to explore sequels, series, formats and box-sets. Why are we so nervous of repeating success?

Of course, none of us needs a return to the dark days when advertising drilled the same messages into the crania of hapless, captive audiences; over and over again. In the interactive age we need communication coherence more than rigid consistency. We need theme and variation, call and response. We need campaigns that evolve and amplify.

It’s sometimes helpful to think of modern brands as ‘meaningful patterns.’ Brands reassure through rhythm and repetition. With infinite variety they examine, echo and expand ideas.

Some years ago I attended a talk by the esteemed fashion designer, Paul Smith. He explained that, when it came to window displays, he believed in ‘the power of the repeated image.’ Accompanying a pale blue cotton shirt with a royal blue version of the same shirt; and then navy and deep indigo; next to a twill or a denim execution of the same design; adding a polka dot pattern, a striped print or floral detail. It was theme and variation played by an orchestra of blue shirts. And it created a very compelling, harmonious effect. At once both thrilling and reassuring.

Perhaps the power of repetition in the digital age is best expressed through the concept of memes. For many marketers memes are merely a form of iterative campaign, something involving white type and cat videos. However, insofar as a meme is ‘an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means’ (OED), then surely brands are memes. Brands exist not in factories or spreadsheets or shop shelves. They exist in people’s minds and in their behaviours. For what is a brand, if not a shared set of behaviours and beliefs? We always sought to create content for brands that was 'talkable'; nowadays we aim to create the imitable, adaptable, copyable and repeatable.

Of course, brand management is fundamentally a  balancing act between consistency and change. Some brands are too conservative; others are too capricious. Working out whether to 'stick or twist' is a critical marketing skill. All I'm saying here is that, occasionally, in times of transformation, the argument for holding a steady course gets shouted down.

Perhaps when we’re being seduced by the siren call for radical reinvention, we should also have the tender words of Billy Joel singing in our ears. Repeatedly.

‘Don’t go changing, to try and please me.
You never let me down before.

Don’t imagine you’re too familiar,
And I don’t see you anymore.
I would not leave you in times of trouble
We never could have gone this far
I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times
I’ll take you just the way you are.’

Billy Joel/ Just The Way You Are

 

No.57

Democratising Glamour: Is Marketing Due a Return to Aspiration?

 

Last Sunday I attended a gig by the luminous ‘80s pop band, ABC. They performed their essential 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, in its entirety. Martin Fry’s literate pop skipped effortlessly along to chopped guitar patterns, sensuous saxophone and opulent orchestration. Bliss.

For my generation The Lexicon of Love was a defining work. We would play it end-to-end at college parties. We danced dramatically to its pop-soul rhythms, playfully enacting the lovelorn lyrics. We shot ‘poison arrows’ across crowded rooms; we aimed ‘looks of love’ at imagined sweethearts; we remonstrated with each other that ‘tears are not enough.’

‘Well I hope and I pray that maybe someday
You’ll walk in the room with my heart.
Add and subtract, but as a matter of fact,
Now that you’re gone, I still want you back.’

 Martin Fry/ABC, All of My Heart

Punk had taught us to be angry – at society, at convention, at our diminished opportunities. Post Punk had taught us to think – beyond the confines of our education and the narrow horizons of our modest suburban lives.

The Lexicon of Love taught us to dream.

It suggested that somewhere, behind a red velvet curtain, there was a world of style, intrigue and romance just waiting for us. It was a glamorous dreamland of gold lame jackets, of loss and loneliness; of meaningful glances and withering bons mots; of unconfessed and unrequited love. It was film noir re-imagined in a Technicolor age. And all available for the price of a Long Island Iced Tea.

There’s a tendency to dismiss the aspiration of the ‘80s as somewhat shallow and materialist. But at the time this aspiration seemed incredibly democratic. We had grown up assuming that some things were only available to the gilded elite; that ours was a more modest lot - of sausage rolls and Sandwich Spread on the sofa; of straight-glassed light & lager down The Drill; of chart-topping disco at the Ilford Palais. But ABC suggested that a heady, intoxicating glamour was immediately accessible to us if we had the youth, wit and imagination to conjure it up.

We trooped down to Sweet Charity and invested in second hand silk ties and ‘50s suits with a shimmering sheen. We cultivated Country Born quiffs, sturdy brogues and moody expressions. We covered our bedroom walls in Cartier-Bresson.

‘The sweetest melody
Is an unheard refrain.
So lower your sights
But raise your aim,
Raise your aim.’

Martin Fry/ABC, Poison Arrow

In the marketing world of the late ‘80s we talked a lot about ‘aspiration’. There were aspirational lifestyles, aspirational experiences and aspirational adverts. We imagined that, with a nod and a glance, certain brands could convey access, acceptance and allure.

It all seems faintly absurd now. And, of course, the genre of aspirational advertising fell victim to over-promise and under-delivery. It drowned in an excess of lip-gloss, Elnett, high heels and shoulder pads; too much black and chrome; too many moody businessmen peering through blinds and striding purposefully around industrial apartments.

Nonetheless, I would suggest there was something worthwhile in all this. For all its faults, ‘80s advertising was seeking to democratise glamour; to bring hitherto exclusive worlds within reach of ordinary people; to make the aspirational accessible and affordable.

I like brands with a democratic purpose. I like it when Ikea talks of ‘democratizing design.’ I like Sam Walton's original intent to ‘give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.’ These are admirable ambitions.

Culture is dynamic. It’s on the move and people want to move with it. Surely one of the primary roles of brands is to introduce the many to the tastes of the few; to encourage social mobility. ‘Aspiration’ is not a dirty word.

‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

WB Yeats/ The Cloths of Heaven

Now, of course, we live in an age of authenticity, utility and transparency. But we should beware. If we strip away all the artifice and confection from brands, we'll also strip away the fantasy and romance. We’ll be left with the earnestly artisanal and the sincerely sensible. Someone you’d want to avoid at parties.

I notice that, since the last UK election, people have started talking seriously about aspiration again. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging. When everyone else is beating the drum for ‘keeping it real’, now may be the moment to revisit the dreamlike charms of glamour and escape.

Perhaps it’s time to dust off those spats and don that gold lame jacket. Because you wouldn’t want to be left with Martin in the land of regret and missed opportunity…

‘If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed,
And I got dancing lessons for the lips I should have kissed,
I’d be a millionaire, I’d be a Fred Astaire.’

Martin Fry/ABC, Valentine’s Day

No.56

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 10

If Music Be the Food of Commerce…

Claire van Kampen’s magnificent play, Farinelli and the King, relates how, in the mid-eighteenth century, Philippe V of Spain hired the renowned castrato Farinelli to sing for him so as to sooth his frequent bouts of depression. The king and performer struck up a close relationship and the commission lasted until Philippe’s death almost ten years later.

Farinelli and the King is funny, sad and thought provoking all at the same time. It is graced by the peerless actor, Mark Rylance, and the celebrated counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. It runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until December 5.

As the play’s programme notes point out, ‘the therapeutic value of music has been recognised for centuries.’ Apollo was the Ancient Greek god of medicine as well as music. Music therapy was practised in Ancient Egyptian temples and Persian hospitals. Subsequently music treatments were adopted by medieval infirmaries and were used extensively in two World Wars. Today music therapy is a widely practised and respected medical science.

‘Music has been shown to significantly decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to improved mood and cognitive function. A study has also found that music can shift activity in the frontal lobe of the brain from the right to the left, a phenomenon associated with positive effect and mood.’
Dr Tim McInerny, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist, Bethlem Royal Hospital

For many of the same reasons that music has therapeutic effect, it also has commercial effect.

For most of the ‘90s I worked on the Levi’s advertising campaign and it created a compelling case for the commercial capacity of music: to engage audiences; to convey an emotional narrative; to create memorability and distinctiveness.

Of course, everyone nowadays claims to appreciate music’s persuasive power. But, I wonder, does everyone properly understand how to realise that power?

Some imagine that music selection is merely a matter of sourcing a cool, contemporary track. But young consumers don’t thank you for hijacking tunes they already love. In recent years some have followed John Lewis down the ‘modern acoustic version of familiar songs’ route. But, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.’ Some imagine there’s a spurious science to sourcing tracks. Some think it’s just about buying hits. Some will agree to music’s importance, but balk at its cost, thereby betraying their lack of faith. 

Fundamentally, I believe that music selection must be a creative decision, not a strategic one. It’s not about matching the music to the target audience; it’s about matching the music to the creative work: capturing the spirit and tone of the drama; allowing the narrative to unfold at the right pace and tempo; enabling consumers to feel the message, not just see it or hear it.

Music should amplify the communication, not stand in its way. If you get that right, then you’ll find an audience; and it will be an audience that is properly emotionally engaged.

‘Musick has charms to sooth a savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d
And, as with living souls, have been inform’d,
By magick numbers and persuasive sound.’

William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

Synthesized Success

Young songwriter Neil Sedaka was in a jam.

Though his mother hoped that he would become a classical pianist and he had a scholarship at the Juilliard, all he wanted was to write and perform pop songs. Sedaka had composed ‘Stupid Cupid’, which had been a hit for Connie Francis in 1958. That same year he’d signed to RCA Victor as a performer, and had a hit with ‘The Diary’, which sold 600,000 copies. But Sedaka’s two subsequent releases were failures and his record company was considering dropping him. He had one last chance.

‘Billboard had a page called Hits of the World. I bought the number one record in almost every country in the world and analysed it. I took the beat from this one; I took the drum from this one; I took the guitar licks from this one; I took the harmonic rhythm from this one. Like a designer would do.’
Neil Sedaka, King of Song/ BBC

The result was ‘Oh! Carol’, a melodic triumph of sweet-natured youthful yearning. It sold 3.5million copies.

‘Oh! Carol
I am but a fool
Darling, I love you
Though you treat me cruel.’

‘Oh! Carol’/Howard Greenfield & Neil Sedaka

Sedaka went on to secure huge pop hits in the ‘60s with the likes of ‘Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.’ And then he sustained the success in the ‘70s with the genius of ‘Solitaire’ and ‘Laughter in the Rain.’

Of course, we’re always seeking to be original. But sometimes commercial creativity requires us to be alert to the competitive context, to what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes, when we’re in a jam, we need to beg, borrow or steal.

Synthesizing one’s own success from the successes of others is a skill in its own right.

 

Creativity Can Even Survive Rate Card Pricing

On a recent visit to Chicago I encountered The Entombment by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri. Painted around 1656, it’s a sad, beautifully naturalistic depiction of death and despair.

The artist is more familiar to us as ‘Guercino’, or ‘The Squinter’, a nickname given to him because he was cross-eyed. Guercino kept relatively detailed account books and we know that The Entombment was his response to a commission that required ‘one full length, one bust length and three half figures.’

We can see that Guercino ably accommodated this rather prescriptive brief, whilst also delivering a very engaging image. This perhaps illustrates that creativity can survive even the crudest pricing policy.

No. 55

I Guess Everyone Subscribes to Creative Destruction, But It’s the Destruction Bit I Worry About

On a recent visit to Edinburgh I came across Verrocchio’s The Virgin Adoring the Christ Child. It first struck me as a rather beautiful but conventional nativity scene. Then I noticed that the mother and child are located in a classical ruin rather than the accustomed stable. It transpires that this ruin represents the Roman Temple of Peace, which, according to myth, collapsed at Christ’s birth. It’s an early depiction of what we would call ‘creative destruction’: the demolition of the old order in order for the new to thrive.

The concept of creative destruction is familiar to us nowadays. It’s an acknowledged truth of business that progress demands disruption; and the idea seems entirely appropriate to our times of transformational change.

I want to suggest a more qualified evaluation of its merits.

When, as a teenager, I first encountered creative destruction, I was thrilled. In 1982 Paul Weller disbanded The Jam at the height of their critical and commercial success. We couldn’t believe it. They were the definition of youth, anger, romance and cool. It seemed an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice.

On a windswept Brighton peer a trench-coated Weller explained to a Nationwide reporter:

‘I think we’ve done all we can as the three of us and I think it’s a good time to finish it. I don’t want to drag it on and go on for the next twenty years doing it. And become nothing, mean nothing, end up like all the rest of the groups. I want this to count for something.’

Paul Weller, 11 December 1982

Weller made total sense. He had to destroy The Jam in order to pursue his new soul-inflected instincts; and, perhaps more importantly, in order to preserve that band’s iconic status.

At university I learned that the term ‘creative destruction’ derives from Marx and was popularised in the 1940s by the economist Joseph Schumpeter. It referred to systemic revolutions whereby old structures are endlessly replaced by the new. For example, the rise of the railway came hand-in-hand with the demise of canals.

In the course of my advertising career it was obvious that construction required deconstruction. We had to rip up rulebooks, rewrite processes, restructure departments, in order to create room for new ideas, platforms and perspectives.

However, while I was always excited about creativity, the charms of destruction eluded me. Why, I wondered, do we have to destroy in order to create? Isn’t destruction the very antithesis of creativity? Isn’t the whole concept somewhat macho?

I put my reservations down to my own emotional squeamishness, an unwillingness to take tough decisions. But there seemed a similar psychological shortcoming in others who attacked those same tough decisions with alacrity.

It was certainly easier to subscribe to creative destruction when its impacts were gradual and manageable; when its effects were conceptual and procedural.

However, increasingly, with the accelerating power of technology, as opportunities to create have become manifold and magnificent, so the destructive impacts of change have also grown more widespread, deep rooted and precipitous. Witness bookshops, music, taxis…

I’ve come to believe that my emotional squeamishness may have been a valuable constraint. The concept of creative destruction should not be a licence to take an indiscriminate wrecking ball to industries, communities and careers.

We need to think more seriously about the jobs that technology destroys, the livelihoods disrupted; the transferral of wealth and power from the many to the few; the compromised rights and unpaid taxes.

We need to take a broader, calibrated view of creative destruction; a proper weighing of its impacts. We need to ask whether the net value created exceeds the net value destroyed.

We also need to be more mindful of how decisions are made and how transitions are managed. Should the chief beneficiaries of change determine its value? Should consumers be both judge and jury? Isn’t the role of Government to manage the market rather than stand by and watch?

Fundamentally, we need to beware of ourselves. In Verrocchio’s painting the infant Christ sucks his finger as if he has drawn blood. It’s a premonition of his own demise.
 

First published in The Guardian Media & Tech Network Friday 16th October 2015

No. 54

Is Beauty Good?

Is there a moral responsibility to make products, experiences and communications beautiful?

Earlier this year I attended an exhibition of Ancient Greek sculpture at The British Museum. (Defining Beauty)

Graceful young men with muscled torsos and tousled locks; pensive women with tastefully coiffed hair, gossamer veils and elusive smiles. The sculptures were at once naturalistic and idealised. Elegant exercises in posture and poise, expertly carved from creamy white marble. It was an inspiring show.

The Ancient Greeks were the original humanists. They subscribed to the philosopher Protagoras’ view that ‘man is the measure of all things,’ and they attached a particular value to the human body. Their gods readily adopted human form. And whilst other cultures had associated nakedness with vulnerability, the Greeks considered nudity to be heroic. They practised nude in their gymnasia and competed nude at their games.

The Greeks also theorised about beauty. Aristotle wrote that ‘the chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation.’ Polykleitos’ Spear Bearer was designed according to mathematically determined ratios of the perfect human body. Myron’s Discus Thrower was an exercise in order and balance. One arm grips the discus, the other hangs loose; one leg bears the body’s weight, the other is relaxed.

Given this fascination with physical form, it is perhaps no surprise that the Greeks often spoke of the virtuous man being ‘beautiful and good’ (‘kalos k’ agathos’). For the Greeks there was an ethical dimension to beauty.

One can’t help thinking that our own culture’s obsession with the body beautiful began here. We attach an incredible importance to beautiful people, to how they live and what they say. We’re obsessed with appearance and attitude, self-image and selfies, pouts and poses, diets and disorders. We want to walk like a supermodel; talk like a film star; look like an It Girl. It sometimes seems so out of control. Like the Greeks, we assume that beautiful people are better people.

We should, of course, beware Greeks dispensing wisdom. They were wrong to associate physical attractiveness with moral superiority. They were wrong to suppose that they could be arbiters of beauty, or that it could be reduced to a mathematical calculation. But I wonder were they also half right? Is there nonetheless an ethical dimension to beauty?

Many years ago my old Ad Agency boss, the maverick Planning genius John Madell, told me that, if we intrude upon people’s lives, we have a responsibility not to pollute those lives with the asinine and the ugly.

I’m sure he was right. I well recall there was a vogue in mid ‘90s brand communication for the rough and ready, the low-fi and the under-produced. I hated that period. Amateurism celebrated in the name of authenticity and ‘keeping it real.’

Art direction matters. So does quality in type and design, casting and wardrobe, illustration, photography and film. So does craft in music and sound engineering, reproduction, retail space and product design. So does expertise in editing, identity and user experience, consumer interface and the customer journey. These elements create the architecture of brand aesthetics. And I believe good brand aesthetics are a moral imperative in the modern age.

Advertising and marketing occupy so much space, time and attention in people’s lives. Shouldn’t brands acknowledge that there is an ethical responsibility: to make the world a little more interesting, a little more thoughtful, a little more beautiful?

For some time now brand leaders have recognised that we have a social responsibility to leave the world better than we found it. Is there not also a social responsibility to leave the world more beautiful than we found it?

Because beauty is good.

No. 53

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 9

A Creative Business Is No Place for a Recluse

Charles-Valentin Alkan standing.jpg

I’ve been listening to the piano works of Charles-Valentin Alkan. Romantic and intense, thoughtful and complex, sensitive and slightly troubling.

Alkan was a friend of Chopin who lived, composed and performed in Paris in the nineteenth century. He was clearly something of an eccentric. His works included The Song of the Mad Woman on the Sea Shore and Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot.

Alkan had been a child prodigy and was a popular concert pianist.  But, after the age of 35, he became progressively reclusive. There are only two photographs of him and in one of them he has turned his back on the camera. Alkan died in 1888 at the age of 74, reputedly when a bookshelf fell on top of him. One obituary rather cruelly observed: ‘Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die so that we could be sure of his existence.’

I think most people that have worked in the creative industries have at some point yearned to give it all up and get away. Creativity is all about self-expression and purity of intent. But business is all about listening, adapting, negotiating. There’s an inherent tension here, a source of daily frustration.

However, whilst the reclusive life is available to the fine artist, the commercial creative needs to engage with the world, to be in tune and in touch with culture. The best commercial creatives in my experience watch film, play music, visit galleries, read books, carve spoons. They have interests outside work. They have a hinterland.

 

Denis Healey RIP (1917-2015)

‘I have always been as interested in music, painting and poetry as in politics.’
Denis Healey, The Time of My Life

I should mark the passing of Denis Healey.

Healey was a towering political figure in my youth. He was Defence Secretary in the '60s as Britain adjusted to life after Empire; and he was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979 when the economy was fragile and politics were turbulent.

Healey was fit for this combative environment as he had seen active service during the Second World War. He’d been beach master during the allied invasion at Anzio. Fiercely intelligent, eloquent and argumentative, Healey didn’t suffer fools and didn’t go out of his way to make friends. This may explain why he never quite made Prime Minister. He was a rarity in British politics: a robust moderate.

Healey also popularised the use of the term ‘hinterland’ to indicate depth of experience, interests and character. He argued that the absence of culture compromised politicians’ judgement.

I’m sure this could be said of business people too.

 

Celts: An Aesthetic for the Networked Age?

I recently attended Celts, an exhibition of art, armour and decorative craft at The British Museum.

It transpires that the idea of a unified Celtic identity is rather misleading. The word ‘Celt’ was used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans to describe various neighbouring European tribes. It was only in the eighteenth century that antiquarians applied the term to the early inhabitants of Britain and to the modern peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The curator suggests that the one consistent theme across all uses of ‘Celt’ was a sense of ‘otherness.’

Certainly you get a sense that the Celtic aesthetic was completely at odds with the classical beauty of the Greeks and the hard, straight lines of the Romans.

There are copper cauldrons embossed with curling, curving coils; there are knotted, twisting, turning tendrils; decorated armlets, anklets, war horns and neck rings. There are shields etched with spiralling serpents and sinuous snakes; bronze boars and birds, basket weave broaches. There are richly wrought Christian croziers and carved stone crosses.

I couldn’t help thinking that this beguiling, looping, patterned aesthetic is appropriate to the networked age. It suggests that within our maddeningly complex, connected world there can be beauty, order, design.

I wonder should we consider Celtic PowerPoint?

No. 52

Stress Test: Should the Creative Professions Lead the Way in Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace?

While in Vienna last week I visited the art gallery housed in the baroque palace of The Belvedere.  In amongst the extraordinary collection of Klimts, Schieles and Austrian masters, one passes a room dedicated to the work of the eighteenth century Bavarian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

Messerschmidt’s Character Heads depict the extremes of human emotion. They are twisted in laughter, disgust and despair. They grimace, gurn and gasp for breath. Initially one can’t help admiring their modernity. The heads seem to be declaring a horror at the world around them, at the absurdity and unfairness of life itself. They reminded me of Bacon.

However, the busts really are very disturbing. Most of them portray the shaven headed artist himself. He created the sculptures by pulling faces in front of a mirror.

Messerschmidt was a troubled man. His early work had observed the baroque conventions of the day. But he suffered illness and career setbacks. He developed paranoia, hallucinations and ‘confusions in the head.’ He left Vienna to live in isolation and he told one of his rare visitors that he had to sculpt extreme emotions in order to keep ‘malign spirits’ at bay. Today we would say that Messerschmidt was suffering from some form of mental illness.

'If I cannot move the higher powers, I will move the infernal regions.'

Virgil, The Aeneid, quoted by Freud

Over a hundred years after Messerschmidt’s death, as the twentieth century dawned, Vienna became the birthplace of psychoanalysis and a centre for the study of mental health. One might expect this of a thriving, progressive, modern city that claimed Sigmund Freud as a native. But Vienna was also in the grip of political upheavals and ethnic unrest. Urban life - fast paced, impersonal and endlessly changing - brought with it stress, anxiety and fears for the future. In art the confident, optimistic iconoclasm of Klimt was giving way to the neurotic angst of Schiele. There was a growing realisation that, whilst the modern age enabled huge advances in personal freedoms and material wellbeing, it was also exacting a heavy mental price.

Fast-forward another hundred years or so to modern Britain. As we rejoice in a new revolutionary age of technology and transformation, news stories about stress at work and mental health in our schools and universities seem to be on the increase.

It’s not difficult to see why.

We’re putting more pressure on our young people to perform; we’re challenging our colleagues to change. We’re endlessly measuring and setting targets. We demand speed, agility, value and competition. Now. We set our standards by celebrity; we set our goals by prosperity. Our youth suffers social media stress and cyber bullying. Our colleagues face reduced access to housing and increased inequalities of income. They work harder and longer with diminishing job security and the office has become an unwelcome insurgent into the home. Our privacy is compromised; our security is jeopardized. And meanwhile the earth dies screaming.

For the creative professions these pressures are, if anything, enhanced. Creative people can sometimes be more sensitive, more paranoid, more ill-at-ease. It’s easy to discount these tendencies as the price you pay for original ideas. But if we value independence, unconventional spirit, eccentricity and the ability to ‘think outside the box’, we should also protect the people that embody these characteristics. We should be well aware that creativity can come at a price to mental health.

No one ever got fired for asking creative teams to work over the weekend. But maybe they should. I suspect that our industry continues to over-engineer solutions; to over-promise; and therefore to feel obliged to over-deliver. Our paranoia about losing business means that we run the risk of losing people.

I worry that the culture of ‘whatever it takes’ may not be fit for the modern age. I’m concerned that sometimes leadership piles on the pressure, when it should be taking it off.

Shouldn’t we be celebrating the leaders that deliver results without delivering collateral damage?

Isn’t the role of leadership to direct talent towards the optimal answers with the least possible waste?

Shouldn’t we think about sustainability in human, not just environmental, terms?

Creative businesses have a good record in pioneering office environments, diversity of employment, professional medical support and social responsibility. Shouldn’t we, the most exposed industry, be leading the way in providing world-class mental health care in the workplace?
 

Saturday 10th October is World Mental Health Day #WMHD

No. 51