NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 15

The Space Between Our Ears

At The Barbican recently I attended an extraordinary performance by Simon McBurney of the Complicite theatre company.

The Encounter considers issues of environmentalism, materialism, communication and time. In the play McBurney relates the story of Loren McIntyre, an American photographer who in 1969 was dropped into the Amazon rainforest on an assignment for National Geographic. McIntyre soon locates the nomadic Mayoruna tribe that he had been hoping to shoot, but soon loses the camera he had been hoping to shoot them with. Nonetheless, he follows the Mayoruna deep into the jungle, to the brink of starvation, tripping on their mystical herbs, joining them in their quest to find ‘the beginning.’ McIntyre is convinced that the tribe’s shaman is communicating with him telepathically. ‘Some of us are friends’, he seems, rather cryptically, to be suggesting, over and over again.

McBurney enacts this compelling story without costumes, or set, or other actors. In fact the stage resembles a radio-recording studio as McBurney, surrounded by props, circles a ‘binaural’ microphone that records in a kind of 3D.

We the audience listen through headphones. We hear voices, sounds, noises in the dark; we hear McBurney creating beautiful birdsong, the buzz of mosquitoes, the growl of airplane engines. He blows into the microphone and we feel the heat of his breath on our ears.

We are together in the theatre, but alone in our private soundscapes. We close our eyes and follow McIntyre into the heart of darkness.

Overall it’s a disarming experience. It made me think of the phenomenal power of sound, of storytelling and of the imagination. It took me back to the power cuts of 1974’s Three-Day Week, when we listened with mother in the candle light, to Radio 4 plays and Dr Finlay’s Casebook…

In the communications industry we spend so much time and money these days on location shoots, on CGI and special effects. We seek to recreate the past, to simulate the future, to bring distant lands to our doorsteps. But we leave little room for the imagination. It’s as if we’ve lost our faith in the phenomenal human capacity to dream, invent, envisage.

In his book Hegarty on Advertising Sir John Hegarty urges us to think beyond platforms, technologies, channels and media space. He encourages creatives to concentrate on ideas, and on communication’s ultimate destination, the mind.

‘The only space worth occupying is the space between someone’s ears.’

It’s a healthy reminder. Ideas engage the brain more effectively than any cunning creative device, canny media strategy or quirky technology. Ideas are comfortable unadorned, in the nude so to speak. And the best ideas have a life of their own. They are suggestive, seductive, conspiratorial. They linger.

As I left The Barbican that night, inspired but also confused somewhat by what I had experienced, I could not help hearing a voice whispering quietly at the back of my brain:

‘Some of us are friends.’

(The Encounter is on tour across the UK and the rest of Europe until 25 June)

 

Appetite

‘I’ve weathered the storms. I’ve fallen down and I’ve gotten back up.’

The recently released documentary film Mavis! tells the story of Mavis Staples, singer with The Staple Singers throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and even on into the ‘90s. She has now been performing for 60 years and still sings her heart and soul out at the age of 76.

Mavis grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the neighbourhood that spawned soul legends Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler. Her father Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples organised his children into The Staple Singers, combining his own country blues heritage with a vibrant gospel sound. Pops sang with a sweet, thoughtful voice, young Mavis sang with raw, deep emotion.  As Bonnie Raitt observes in the documentary, she was ‘sensual without being salacious.’

Initially The Staple Singers’ material addressed purely gospel themes. Then one day, while on tour in the South, Pops took the family to see Dr Martin Luther King speak at a local church. He was deeply moved by the encounter.

‘I like this man’s message. If he can preach it, we can sing it.’

The group took to singing Freedom Songs in support of the civil rights movement. Songs such as ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’ and ‘Long Walk to DC’ had conviction, courage, clarity of purpose. They signed to Stax and had huge hits with ‘I’ll Take You There,' ‘Respect Yourself' and many more besides. They created anthems of authority, yearning and pride.

Mavis comes across as a luminous, forthright, humble soul who can laugh in the face of ageing:

‘That’s the best time I’ve had since I got my new knees.’

Her speech is intercut with the rich vocabulary of the church and the civil rights struggle.

‘I’m a living witness….I’ll stop singing when I’ve got nothing left to say.’

It’s this appetite that most impressed me. The appetite to ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ Appetite is an elusive quality. One minute you have it and the next it has completely deserted you. Mavis illustrates very powerfully that the key to sustaining appetite over the long term is a sense of purpose, a sense of mission.

In the marketing community we’ve been talking a good deal about Purpose over recent years. Purpose defines a brand’s broader social responsibility and contribution. It galvanises colleagues, partners and stakeholders around a higher order goal.  But critically Purpose ensures that appetite endures, that it is persistent, permanent; through thick and thin, good times and bad.

‘I’ve come too far to turn back now. I’m determined to go all the way.’
Mavis Staples, Mavis!

 

 

Speak Like a Child

‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’
Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso Le Coq

When I was younger I well recall being told that The Jam derived their sound from The Who and The Kinks; that Echo and the Bunnymen owed their sonic style to The Doors; that first generation Dexy’s were channelling Sam & Dave. I cared not a jot. These were our bands. They were our team. No sarcastic snipe or world-weary remark from the older generation could tarnish their integrity.

Now I’m the one that can hear every young band’s influences. I can’t ignore the shadow of a Beatles chord progression, the echo of Marvin’s rhythm section, the replication of Morrissey’s wordplay. And so I struggle to enthuse.

The Curse of Middle Age is familiarity, recognition, experience, discernment. Your palate, once refined, can become jaded; your enthusiasm qualified. You can’t see the originality.

And I suspect this Curse of Middle Age is at play in the workplace too.

One of the keys to sustaining interest and value in professional life, particularly in the creative industry, is to shed this corrosive cynicism; to dismiss the instinct to say ‘I’ve heard it, seen it, done it before’; to refrain from rose-tinted nostalgia; to retain a wide-eyed optimism; to be childlike, not childish; to learn to speak like a child.

‘I really like it when you speak like a child.
The way you hate the homely rank and file
The way you’re so proud to be oh so free and so wild.’
 

Paul Weller/The Style Council/Speak Like a Child

No. 70

The Memory Machine

It’s almost a year since Gwyn and I left BBH. This is a piece I wrote soon after our departure, reflecting on my time at the Agency and the broader theme of memory.

It was first published in the Winter 2016 edition of You Can Now magazine.

'I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn.’

I Remember, I Remember/Thomas Hood

When I was a child my mother often read this piece to me from The Golden Treasury of Poetry. I could tell that nostalgia was a powerful thing, even when I’d not lived long enough to experience it.

Now that I am of robust middle age, memory and remembrance of things past are powerfully present. I’m increasingly drawn to reflect on my history in order to make sense of my future. And increasingly I have to guard against the corrosive force of sentimentality. (As Lou Reid said, 'I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.’)

I have recently left the advertising industry after twenty five years’ happy service. It’s interesting to consider what I can and can’t remember.

I have forgotten endless meetings in poorly lit conference rooms at home and abroad. I’ve forgotten the compromises, the arguments, the politics. The indignity of labour. I’ve forgotten the decks and documents, the Power Point and power plays. I’ve forgotten many of the Pitches that we won and lost. I’ve forgotten entire strategies and campaigns. Clients that were good, bad and ugly, often at the same time.

People, events and things that once seemed terribly important are diminished by time, their memory fading to grey. All forgotten.

So what do I remember?

I remember Dav on the harmonica, Reddy on the ukulele, Kev on the penny whistle. I remember Kidney conducting, Kendall coaching, Pollard swearing, Wardy giggling, Stacey smoking, Charlie punching the palm of his hand. I remember Ben’s acrostics, Nigel’s aphorisms and JB’s acid wit.  I remember Bish on the table, Fernanda on the dance floor, Dylan on the football pitch. I remember Joe having fun, Blatch having disasters, Pepp having a quiet word. I remember John Hegarty singing Fairytale of New York. And more besides...

It seems that I can recall with vivid clarity faces, phrases, places, gestures, and moments. It’s a kaleidoscope of trivial detail. Why are these the dominant memories of my employment?

Virginia Woolf once said, ‘I am writing to a rhythm, not to a plot’. I think perhaps that’s how my career recollections have played out. I have lost the plot, so to speak. The grand narrative of success and disappointment, trophies and triumphs, has slipped quietly into the night. I’m left with this curious soup of the incidental and the inconsequential. I guess it’s the rhythm of the Agency’s culture that I’m recalling; the rhythm of a great Agency working in harmony, marching as one to the beat of a creative drum. I’m inclined to say that my memories are predominantly of people and personalities because culture matters; because culture is the critical determinant of career success and fulfilment. I do believe this.

But I’m also conscious that we can’t entirely trust the evidence of our memories. We are unreliable narrators of our own lives.

I have read that, according to the science of memory, we generally do not recall actual events. For the most part we call to mind the memories of those events; and sometimes the memories of the memories. And so our recollections of the past can adjust and evolve with retelling and remembering. Memory has been compared to a palimpsest, a parchment on which the original script has been erased and overwritten. In other words, memory is a ‘multi-layered record’. It is flexible and plastic. It is creative, reconstructive and autobiographical.

That’s why so many people swear that they saw Bugs Bunny in Disneyland and the Sex Pistols in Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. Some call it False Memory Syndrome; others call it wishful thinking.

Some time ago I attended a performance of Harold Pinter’s Old Times in which Pinter considered the malleability of truth. As the character Anna put it:

‘There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things that I remember which may never have happened, but as I recall them so they take place.’

Harold Pinter/ Old Times

The play’s programme notes helpfully explained the psychology of memory.

‘Two forces go head-to-head in memory. The force of correspondence acts to make our memories true to the way things were, while the force of coherence acts to tell a story that suits the self. We know that autobiographical memory is a reconstructive process, drawing together different sources of information and putting them together in ways that can differ subtly from telling to telling. These dynamic reshapings often serve to make memories as true to how we want the past to be as to how it actually was.’

Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, quoting Psychologist Martin Conway

So my recollections of my time at work are both a reflection of the truth and of my own sense of self. I make my memories and my memories make me.

It strikes me that the communications industry has long put the creative, autobiographical nature of memory to good use. It has supplied contexts for experiences, ways of remembering; reconfigurations of events, so that we feel more positively disposed to repeat them.

That beer was more refreshing, that holiday was more rewarding, that car was more thrilling, that conversation was more entertaining.  It was the real thing, the ultimate drive. It was the happiest place on earth, the best a man could get. It got you back to you. You loved it.

Advertising is more than a promise for the future. It is a reconstruction of the past.

Of course the past and future are inextricably linked. I recently read an interview with Sir Nicholas Penny, the outgoing Director of the National Gallery, in which he made the case for respecting our heritage: ‘Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those that have a genuine feeling for the past’. I’m sure he’s right. By giving a brand historical context, we give it a narrative that makes sense of its promises for the future.

Critically, memories can sustain consumers through a brand’s absence.  Memories excuse marketers from the expense of ‘always on’, ever-present media strategies; and consumers from the waking nightmare that these strategies represent. Because memories endure when we’re not around. At its most powerful advertising supplies the recollective material for enduring experiences and relationships. Advertising is a Memory Machine.

I wonder do we properly appreciate this? Are we so concerned with momentary messages that we ignore more meaningful memories? Do we ever ask what memories we are seeking to inspire for our brand, lest perhaps it is forgotten in our absence? Are we so eager to create a vision of the future that we disregard our vision of the past?

To conclude where we began. In another verse from The Golden Treasury of Poetry, Christina Rosetti made a plea that resonates through time and particularly rings true for a middle aged ad man looking for a new frontier: remember me.

‘Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell of our future to be planned:
Only remember me.’

Remember/Christina Rosetti

No. 69

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 14

Garden and Woodland Special

 

Learning from Lilies: Strip Away the Context

I recently attended Painting the Modern Garden, an excellent exhibition examining the garden in art between the 1860s and 1920s. (It runs at the Royal Academy in London until 20 April.)

In the late nineteenth century there was a horticultural revolution. Bourgeois Europeans and middle class Americans had affluence and leisure time, and a yearning to preserve something natural against the march of industrialisation. Gardening became an obsession. They studied, imported, cultivated and collected. One contemporary writer proclaimed, ‘I love compost like one loves a woman.’

Artists seem to have been in the front ranks of this revolution. Gardens provided a subject to express their thoughts about nature, beauty, colour and light. Gardens could suggest interior as well as exterior truths. Pissaro, Renoir and Bonnard; Sargent, Van Gogh and Matisse. The great painters of the day repeatedly set their easels up outside, in the garden.

Painting the Modern Garden is an exhibition of intoxicating colour: radiant, ravishing yellows, pinks and purples; intense sensory explosions. One feels the heat and languor of a long Summer’s afternoon. White linen, lace and crinolines. Let’s play croquet on the lawn, take tea on the terrace, reel around the fountain. Sunflowers, dahlias, peonies and poppies. Come consider the chrysanthemums, tend the rhododendrons with me.

And then, of course, there was Monet and his wondrous water-lilies.

At Giverney Monet painted water-lilies over and over again. He studied them, scrutinized them, isolated them in their stillness, floating in the reflective water and changing light. He removed them from their context. They became abstract contemplations of colour, tone, atmosphere and silence.

One critic observed: ‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.’

I was struck by this comment and found myself thinking about the role of context in brand marketing and communication.

Context is central to good marketing. If we can understand a brand’s place in the world, we can promote its relevance more effectively. And the broader the cultural context considered, the deeper the understanding. But whilst context is critical to comprehension, effective communication requires compression, distillation and focus. So ultimately we must strip context away.

Too often we fail in this respect. We try to cram our messaging with visual, verbal and conceptual cues. Show the user, signal the occasion, reference the tradition, give the reason-to-believe, bash out the benefit. Communication becomes loud, cluttered, busy and bewildering. Context can be constricting.

Imagine if you could express your brand as an abstract truth, not an observed reality; an intense distillation, not an actual depiction. Imagine if you could strip away the context, narrow the frame, focus on the essence itself.

What would you say? What would we see? How would we feel?


Why We Go on Awaydays: A Reminder from Shakespeare

‘Good servant, tell this youth what ‘tis to love…
It is to be all made of sighs and tears.
It is to be all made of faith and service.
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty and observance.
All humbleness, all patience and impatience.
All purity, all trial, all observance.’

As You Like It, V, ii

Last week I saw a marvellous production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre in London (running until 29 February).

As the programme notes point out, As You Like It is a ‘green world’ comedy. Its characters escape the oppressive regime of the city for the Forest of Arden. They’re leaving behind convention, hierarchies and the pressure of the present. In the forest they can be more contemplative, philosophical, romantic. They can express themselves freely; they can imagine possibilities; they can explore new roles and identities. They undergo transformations, revelations.

In recent years we’ve perhaps become a little sceptical about Awaydays. The heart sinks at the awkwardness of seeing our senior staff in their weekend casuals. We shun the flip-charts and Post-Its, gummy bears and energiser drinks; the bumptious facilitator and the embarrassing ice-breakers. We balk at the expense in time and money. And so generally we end up just taking a couple of hours in a conference room over at the Media Agency. The future can wait…

But I’m inclined to say that genuine Awaydays justify the cost. Increasingly we have our heads down, dealing with today’s pressing challenges; we rarely look up to talk about tomorrow’s. Awaydays provide an opportunity to draw a line in the sand, to consider broader themes and more distant horizons, to dream new possibilities and imagine the unthought.

And Awaydays do indeed gain something from being away.

‘There’s no clock in the forest.’

Orlando, As You Like It


‘Let’s Play Crusaders’: The Price of Difference

Martin and I shared a bedroom overlooking the back gardens of Heath Park Road. In the summer you could see all the other kids in the street - the Richards, the Chergwins et al - playing Cowboys and Indians in their own little domains. 

‘Let’s play Crusaders,’ we determined. (The ‘70s were more innocent times, somewhat lacking a proper historical context…)

Mum made us white smocks from old sheets and we imprinted bold crimson crosses on their fronts. We completed the outfits with blue balaclava helmets and woollen tights borrowed from our younger sisters. 

And as we skipped around the garden, taking on Saladin and his scimitared hordes, it struck me that it’s not easy being different.

‘We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden’

Joni Mitchell/ Woodstock

No. 68

Take Off Those Ego-Tinted Spectacles

Artist: Unknown

As we all know, youth is a quest for identity and belonging. When I was at school I had a strong sense of my own identity, but wasn’t too sure where I belonged.

There were the Sports Boys who talked press-ups and poly-gym, fixtures and fights. They were jokers and gamblers, and full of derring-do. There were the Cool Kids who conversed about mousse, gel and Jam lyrics. They wore Never Mind the Bollocks badges on their blazer lapels and had their ears pierced at Debenhams in Romford. And then there were the Swots. Socially awkward, clinically shy, they debated the Napoleonic Wars, Virginia Woolf and wildlife documentaries. They were quietly competitive around arcane knowledge and academic grades.

I guess most of my peers would have put me down as one of the Swots, though I have had a lifelong aversion to David Attenborough’s oeuvre. Nonetheless I liked to move discreetly between the various groups. And I achieved this by offering free Latin translations every morning on the low wall by the Tuck Shop.

For the most part each student group inhabited their own self-contained world. There was very little interaction between the clusters. But occasionally they would look up and make cutting observations on outsiders. It was a way of reinforcing belonging. I was struck by the fact that the Sports Boys thought all the other boys were spineless, weedy wimps. The Cool Kids laughed at the other kids’ sartorial blunders, their poor haircuts and oafish musical choices. The Swots just thought everyone else was stupid.

Fundamentally all my young friends saw the world through the prism of their own particular tastes and competencies. They wore Ego-Tinted Spectacles.

It was only after I had been in the work environment for some time that I realised we were still wearing our Ego-Tinted Spectacles. Our world order and sense of priority were primarily determined by our own qualities, strengths and achievements.

This phenomenon could sometimes extend to company leaders who set objectives in line with their personal goals; surrounded themselves with people with a similar set of skills; and appointed like-minded acolytes to senior positions. The trouble is that a tendency to monoculture can make a business inflexible, impermanent and vulnerable to external threat. And of course the curse of great leaders is often to anoint successors who are merely pale imitations of themselves. (Consider Alex Ferguson…)

I’m a firm believer that leaders demonstrate an ability to magnify their own particular strengths. Leadership for me is The Amplified Self. But the very best leaders must also have an equally strong sense of their own shortcomings. They address those shortcomings by co-opting colleagues whose virtues are equal and opposite. They recognise and reward the very qualities they lack themselves. And they understand that long-term business success is achieved through diversity of working method, culture and style.

So, if you want to get on, if you fancy yourself as a leader, try seeing the world from other people’s perspectives. Take off those Ego-Tinted Spectacles. And ‘put yourself in my place.’

‘Put yourself in my place,
If only for a day.
See if you can stand
The awful hurt I feel inside.’

Put Yourself in My Place/The Elgins/ Holland-Dozier-Holland

No. 67

Are You a Good Loser?

I recently attended the Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain (which runs until 10 April). It boasts portraits of British aristocrats in unfamiliar local garb; maps and mementos; etchings of exotic wildlife; and, inevitably, partisan paintings of triumphs and treaties.

I was struck by the fact that there were also a good many images recording defeat: heroic deaths, military martyrdoms, hasty retreats. You can see the demise of General Gordon at Khartoum; the last stand of Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani; and, in a rather portentous painting, an only known survivor making his way into Jellalabad, Afghanistan. Creating a positive narrative around disaster seems to have been a Victorian speciality. I imagine the intention of these tragic images was to convey a sense of nobility; a reinforcement of values; a commitment to persevere.

The exhibition prompted me to consider how we engage with failure in commerce. How good are we at dealing with defeat?

‘Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.’
Vince Lombardi, Coach, Green Bay Packers

Whether we like it or not, defeat is an everyday reality for even the most successful modern business. Brand owners have to recognise that their customers are endlessly fickle; their competition will occasionally outflank them; often their new product launches will founder. Agencies have to concede that they will generally lose more pitches than they win; most of their output will go unrewarded; and, like political careers, all accounts end in failure.

Of course, we are taught that mistakes are essential to entrepreneurship. Loss is a source of lessons and learning. We want to ‘treat every failure as an opportunity.’ We endeavour to ‘fail forwards.’ We love ‘burning platforms.’ We ‘mustn’t waste a good crisis.’

This doesn’t mean we book a ticker-tape parade every time someone cocks up. In truth, despite the management wisdom, we tend to be superstitious about loss. It punctures momentum. It lingers like a bad odour. You don’t want to get too close.

From my time in the Agency world, I recall that one’s initial response to defeat was often to cry foul, to blame failure on the foolishness of the Clients, the perversity of the process. Personally I would immediately seek comedy in defeat. I found it had a short-term restorative effect.

The first question after an intensive six-week pitch for a luxury brand came from the laconic representative of China, the most important growth market: ‘Where is the luxury in this?’ We knew immediately the game was up…

'To the Memory of Brave Men' by Allan Stewart

In time we commission reviews, post mortems and ‘wash-ups.’ We ask for Client feedback. We pose the difficult questions. We scrutinise procedures and personnel.

However, excessive self-reflection can be counterproductive. We find ourselves seeking scapegoats, ‘reaching for the blame gun.’ So the audits and introspection start to damage morale. I well recall being reprimanded by a younger colleague who felt that the Agency leadership’s painful honesty was undermining collective confidence. And we thought we were being fashionably transparent.

My former boss, Sir John Hegarty, didn’t subscribe at all to the conventional view of defeat.

‘Many people talk about failures as opportunities to learn. Saying this seems to make people feel wise and worldly. Well I say bollocks to failure. Don’t dwell on it. Move on. Forget it.’

Sir John Hegarty, BBH, Hegarty on Creativity

John’s contention resonates well with creative people. They have to insulate themselves against damaging negativity; they must look forward to opportunity, not back at disappointment. Maybe we could all benefit from a little indifference to defeat.

In my opinion we are generally too emotional in the immediate aftermath of failure and too rational when the dust has settled.

I wonder, should we adopt some of the Victorians’ myth making? Perhaps, rather than embarking on earnest self-examination, we ought to seek the emotion in error, find heroism in loss, defiance in disaster. We should use missed opportunities as a means of reinforcing belief, commitment and values. Setbacks don’t just illuminate the way forward; they galvanize the collective spirit.

And I’d still maintain that, just occasionally, it helps to laugh in the face of failure.

‘If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.’
WC Fields

Previously published in the Guardian Media & Tech Network

 No. 66

Sometimes Truth Is Out-Of-Focus

'What is focus - and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?'
Julia Margaret Cameron

It’s two hundred years since the birth of the experimental photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and there are two exhibitions in London celebrating her work. (The V&A until 21 February; The Science Museum until 31 March)

Although Cameron came to photography late in life (she first took up a camera at the age of 48), she was a pioneer in the understanding of photography as an art form. Most of the early enthusiasts regarded photography as a science that should concern itself with accuracy and precision. Cameron aimed to ‘record the greatness of the inner as well as the outer man.’

Certainly many of Cameron’s portraits have an intimacy that still resonates today. She shot in profile or face-on, making astute use of lighting and shadow. Her sitters have a stillness, a seriousness, that suggest the private, individual, interior life. It’s as if she’s caught them on their own in a room looking in the mirror.

Cameron came in for a good deal of criticism from the Victorian photographic establishment for the perceived ‘mistakes’ in her work. There were blotches and swirls resulting from the uneven application of chemicals and smearing when the plates were wet. And many of Cameron’s images were slightly out-of-focus.

Mrs Herbert Duckworth

‘What in the name of all the nitrate of silver that ever turned white into black have these pictures in common with good photography? Smudged, torn, dirty, undefined and in some cases almost unreadable, there is hardly one of them that ought not to have been washed off the plate as soon as its image had appeared.’
The Photographic News

Cameron believed that her technically flawed images conveyed greater emotion, truth and impact. And some of the more enlightened critics of the time agreed.

‘Mrs Cameron was the first person who had the wit to see her mistakes were her successes and henceforward to make her portraits systematically out-of-focus.’
Macmillan Magazine

The state of being in-focus is of course a technical matter. But it is also something that is socially determined; something that is felt.

In a fabulous scene from Woody Allen’s 1997 movie, Deconstructing Harry, a camera crew is having problems shooting the actor Mel, played by Robin Williams. After inspecting their lenses, they conclude that there’s nothing wrong with their equipment. It’s Mel that is out-of-focus.

‘Mel, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re soft. You’re out-of-focus…I want you to go home; and want you to get some rest. See if you can just sharpen up.

I have a lot of sympathy for Mel. Sometimes we just don’t seem to be in tune with everyone else. We’re out of step, misaligned. Sometimes we feel out-of-focus.

Could the communications and marketing industries learn from Julia Margaret Cameron? Would we ever willingly seek to be out-of-focus?

We are for the most part cursed by an obsession with polish and perfection. But this very finesse may diminish our ability to communicate authenticity, integrity and emotion. Conveying truth is not the same as conveying fact. Facts are hard, precise, unyielding. Truth is a matter for intuition, interpretation and imagination.

We could also learn from Julia a singularity of purpose, a determination in the face of critical pressure.

My mother was a keen amateur painter. She worked in oils using a palette knife, a method taught by the TV artist Nancy Kominsky (Paint Along with Nancy was a big deal in the UK in the 1970s). I once came across her painting a series of seagulls on a rock. There were four or five of them all in a line, pointing in the same direction. It looked to me as if they were queueing for a bus. I told mum that this wouldn’t happen in nature; that things are less regimented in real life. She told me she didn’t care. This was the picture she wanted to paint.

No. 65

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 13

Truth Amplified: Is Now the Time for Verismo Advertising?


‘Now then you will see men love
As in real life they love, and you will see
True hatred and its bitter fruit. And you will hear
Shouts both of rage, and cynical laughter.’

Tonio, Prologue, Pagliacci

In December I attended a magnificent performance of Ruggero Leoncavello’s Pagliacci at the Royal Opera House.

Pagliacci was first performed in 1892 and it is regarded as one of the definitive verismo operas. The term ‘verismo’ derives from the Italian word ‘vero,’ meaning ‘true’. In verismo composers sought to break with the operatic tradition demanding stories of deities and mythical figures, nobles and royalty. Verismo concerned itself with the lives and relationships of ordinary folk.

Over its brief seventy-five minute running time Pagliacci tells the tale of a touring theatre company beset by plots and rivalries. Among the company is Canio, the clown, who rails against a life in which he must play the fool while his heart is breaking (‘Vesti la giubba’). It is one of the most moving arias in opera.

Pagliacci is not a mere everyday soap opera. It deals in extremes of passion and emotion. It is a tale of lust and jealousy, of intrigue and infidelity. It conveys a heightened reality. It is truth amplified.

I think the world of brand marketing could learn something from verismo. Firstly, of course, the most effective communication tends to feature regular everyday people, rather than the wooden marionettes of advertising cliché. But, secondly, the best work often puts those average people in exceptional circumstances.

Because of its brevity advertising must always distil; but, in order to create impact, it must also intensify. It amplifies truth.

Moreover, Pagliacci illustrates how to manage a dramatic ending. The story culminates in two tragic stage deaths. At the last the actor, Tonio, addresses the audience: ‘La commedia e finita!’ (‘The play is over!’) Perfect.

‘The Most Difficult Thing To Do Is What’s Most Familiar’ (A Giacometti)

I recently visited an exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s portraiture at The National Portrait Gallery.
Giacometti grew up in a small Swiss village and his early paintings of his family are colourful, sunny and seemingly effortless.

Photograph: Tate London 2015

However, over time, and as his unique personal style developed, his portraits became more intense. He subjects his sitters to scrutiny. He locates them in the centre of the canvas, facing straight out at us, almost confrontational. He labours to capture their essence in the stillness; to distil the truth of their identity. He repeatedly scratches and scrapes at the paint until he is satisfied. The works are often small-headed and hollow-eyed. The sitters seem alone and remote. Staring out at us in grey, black and brown, they haunt the space.

Reflecting on Giacometti’s relentless pursuit of his subjects’ vital presence, the exhibition notes quote Samuel Beckett:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

In the world of brands and marketing we deal in the everyday and familiar. But this doesn’t make our jobs easier. If anything it makes them harder. Stripping away the clichéd, extraneous and redundant; isolating the human essence, the genuine insight, the cultural nuance. These are genuine challenges. Only the truly great practitioners can make the ordinary proclaim its vital truth.

The Benefit of the Doubt

1965 looms large on the London stage at the moment. The Trafalgar Studios are hosting an excellent production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (until 13 February). This great play was first performed in 1965. Meanwhile the Wyndham Theatre is staging Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic Hangmen (until 5 March), a work largely set in 1965.

In 1965 the Beatles played Shea Stadium, Bob Dylan went electric, Ali beat Sonny Liston and West Ham won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. But these two plays consider more sinister themes.

The Homecoming tells the story of a long-lost son returning with his wife to his robustly working class North London family home. It’s a place of masculine threat and inarticulate regret. The past haunts; violence is just around the corner. Speeches are coded, veiled, misleading. There seems to be so much left unsaid.

“The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear… One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.” 
Harold Pinter

McDonagh’s work considers the plight of Britain’s last hangman at the time when capital punishment was abolished. He doesn’t let us settle. Is he condemning hanging and the culture that accompanied it? Or is he criticising the sixties liberalism that swept it away? His characters are difficult to pin down. Again there is menace, mistrust, misgiving. Sometimes the audience laughs when it should be disturbed. Perhaps comedy and fear are more adjacent sentiments than we might imagine.

One walks away from both plays with a sense of unease and uncertainty; with more questions asked than answered. It’s actually quite a satisfying sensation because, of course, life itself is marked by doubt, mystery, ambiguity.

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” 
Harold Pinter

For the most part we consider modern commerce a field for certainty. We strive to deliver openness and transparency. We earnestly endeavour to make brands comprehensible and credible. We convey approachability, accessibility, familiarity. We explain ourselves.

But I wonder would some brands not benefit from embracing a little more mystique, an aura of expertise, a suggestion of secrecy? Imagine a brand that asks more questions than it answers; a brand with hidden depths, not manifest shallows.

Should we not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt?

No. 64

Shallow Grave: Do We All Suffer This Modern Malaise?

‘I think I’m sick and I don’t know if my ailment has a name. It’s just me sitting and staring at the internet or the television for long periods of time, interspersed by long periods of trying not to do that and then lying about what I’ve been doing. And then I’ll get so excited about something that the excitement overwhelms me and I can’t sleep or do anything and I am just in love with everything, but can’t figure out how to make myself work in the world.’

Brooke, Mistress America

Over Christmas I saw last year’s magnificent movie, Mistress America. It’s a New York comedy directed by Noah Baumbach, and co-written by Baumbach with one of its stars, Greta Gerwig.

Gerwig plays Brooke, a charismatic 30 year old who juggles jobs as a spin instructor, an interior decorator and a maths coach. She’s endlessly contemplating new ideas for fame and success. Her t-shirt concept was stolen, but she now has in mind to open a Williamsburg restaurant where you can also cut hair.

Brooke is all cosmopolitan cool and shallow affections; her enthusiasms are sudden and spontaneous, her attention is deficient and unfocused. She embodies a modern malaise: a yearning to achieve without a willingness to strive; a wealth of ideas, but a poverty of application. She seems at once impressively aware and yet incredibly naïve.

‘She could see the world with painful accuracy, but she couldn’t see herself or her fate.’

Tracy, Mistress America

This condition of disparate passions and rootless enthusiasms is often characterised as something that afflicts the young. But I’m inclined to say we all suffer it to varying degrees in the internet age. I certainly do.

Some years ago I had a colleague we dubbed Future Girl. She was entirely cool and spoke in a kind of text language that avoided vowels and prepositions. Future Girl was culturally alert, but never watched films because they lasted too long. Are we all becoming Future Girls now?

‘Right now it’s only a notion, but I think I can get money to make it into a concept, and later turn it into an idea.’

Producer, Annie Hall

In particular, Mistress America prompted me to query my own reverence for ideas. We cling to the belief that ideas are rare and precious; that ideas people need to be protected, nurtured and encouraged. But sometimes ideas seem ubiquitous and cheap. Everyone nowadays has a killer app and a craft-based retail concept. And every new idea earns a nod of recognition. We’ve already seen it, heard it, tried it, done it. The web has made us blasé, cynical, jaded. We have become all-seeing and all-knowing; but we are nonetheless far from all-action.

‘Discipline is what the world needs today, baby.
Heavy, heavy discipline.’

 Prince Far I/Under Heavy Manners

Sometimes it seems that modern culture sorely lacks application and execution: the resourcefulness to carry out the research, to find the partner, to smooth out the rough edges, to do the math; the commitment to see a task through, to do the dirty work, to travel the hard yards. We celebrate ‘T’ shaped people, but most of the people I meet are ‘__’ shaped.

It’s easy to blame the internet, but I think the coffee has a lot to answer for too. We’re increasingly stressed and paranoid; we suffer attention deficit disorder on a mass scale and now there’s ‘phantom vibration syndrome’ to worry about too.  Our smart phones are making us stupid. We upgrade our devices and downgrade our time. We say we’re multi-tasking when really we’re multi-dabbling. And as we juggle our roles, we’re endlessly dropping balls. Are we all accelerating towards a shallow grave?

As we embark on another year, I’m going in search of some psychological blinkers. And I don’t mean mindfulness classes.

No. 63

Let's Turn That River Round: A Lesson in Creative Thinking from the City of Chicago

 

Sometimes the conventional tourist trail can be rewarding. In Chicago last October I joined the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s River Cruise. A charming guide (an unpaid volunteer docent) gave us a potted history of the Windy City’s magnificent skyscrapers.

We glided past the Tribune Tower of 1925, a neo gothic triumph of flying buttresses and spires. We marvelled at 1929’s Carbide and Carbon Building, all art deco elegance in black granite, green terra cotta and gold leaf. Its design was reputedly inspired by a champagne bottle. We paused to admire Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Building of 1973, a single-minded symphony in black anodized aluminium and grey tinted glass. We swooned at the rippling façade of Jeanne Gang’s eighty four-story Aqua Tower, completed in 2009.

  Mies van der Rohe - IBM Building next to the circular Marina Towers by  Bertrand Goldberg

 Mies van der Rohe - IBM Building next to the circular Marina Towers by Bertrand Goldberg

Chicago’s architecture is not just impressive, beautiful and richly diverse in style and tone. It also tells a story of bold entrepreneurism and creative problem solving.

The forty-story Jewelers’ Building of 1927 was once the highest building in the world outside New York. In a crime-challenged city the Jewelers’ Building boasted a car lift to ensure the safe transfer of diamond merchants direct to their offices.

Montgomery Ward is the oldest mail order firm in America. The beautiful Catalog House of 1908 provided two million square feet of storage and office space over its eight stories. ‘Pickers’ were issued with roller skates to traverse the vast concrete floors.

Wherever you look around Chicago you see ingenuity at work. There are skyscrapers built over railway lines and on eccentric shaped plots that posed huge engineering challenges. And urban invention continues to this day. Since 2001 the city transport authorities have been constructing a pedestrian Riverwalk along the south bank of the Chicago River. It aims to open up the riverside to the public, with floating gardens, lawns, cafes, boating lakes and fishing piers.

                                        Section of the Chicago Riverwalk

                                       Section of the Chicago Riverwalk

Inevitably, not all of Chicago’s architectural innovations were successful. For instance, the onion-domed Medinah Athletic Club Building of 1929 (now the InterContinental Hotel) has a blimp mooring station on its roof.

 Jeanne Gang - Aqua Tower

Jeanne Gang - Aqua Tower

Nonetheless, ingenuity, creativity and bold ambition seem to have driven Chicago forward from one decade to another. I was particularly impressed by the city’s endeavours to deal with its poor drainage.

Since its early years Chicago had suffered sewage and sanitation problems. In the 1850s and 1860s whole buildings and streets were raised on hydraulic jacks to accommodate new drains. And yet the still rapidly growing Chicago continued to suffer deaths from typhoid and other waterborne diseases. The city responded by building the 28 mile Sanitary and Ship Canal. The canal connected the Chicago River to the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers. And it thereby reversed the flow of the Chicago River! Whereas previously it had discharged into Lake Michigan; now it flowed away from it.

I couldn’t help thinking that these tall tales, impressive statistics and leaps of lateral thought put modern London to shame. We don’t seem able to build an airport, a runway, a concert hall, a bridge with herbaceous borders. Our roads are congested, our streets polluted, our cyclists are always at risk. And our Government wants to sell our social housing rather than create it. All we seem capable of is stacking empty glass boxes one on top of the other, as far as the eye can see.

We often characterise such urban challenges as failings of the planning process or the political system. But, at a more fundamental level, they betray a lack of confidence and imagination. The transformational impact of creativity should not be limited to the interiors of our homes, shops and galleries. It should extend right the way across our cities: to our public buildings, our recreational space, our offices, our domestic architecture, our transport infrastructure.

Just think what we could achieve if we had the determination to turn our river round.

No. 62

Turn The Arc Lights On The Audience: A Modern Marketing Lesson from The Who

‘Music is not a prayer to god. It’s a prayer to the audience. It’s about you. It’s about you. I don’t write songs about me. I write songs about you. That’s why I’m successful.‘

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

Lambert and Stamp is a splendid documentary about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the managers of The Who that mentored the band from West London mods to global rock superstars.

The Who were a thrilling, combustible, mercurial stage act. They were cheeky, angry, dapper and aggressive. They were ‘meaty, beaty, big and bouncy.’ They were ‘maximum R&B.’ But, more than this, they were a band that gave expression to post-war British teenagers; to the disaffected working class; to stylish urban kids that wanted to get on. The Who spoke for their generation.

‘People try to put us d-down,
Just because we get around.

Things they do look awful c-c-cold.
I hope I die before I get old.
This is my generation,
This is my generation, baby.’

Pete Townshend/The Who, My Generation

In the documentary Chris Stamp relates how, during the band’s American tours, huge arc lights were stationed at the back of the stage. At the finale of each gig they would shine the arc lights’ powerful beams through the group so that the audience were illuminated. The crowd invariably stood up as one and became part of the experience.

This instinct to shine a light on the audience, on their tastes and style, their passions and pain, seems to have been right at the heart of The Who’s success.

Pete Townshend, The Who’s guitarist and lead songwriter, cuts a thoughtful and engaging presence in the film. He repeatedly returns to his conviction that The Who put their fans at the centre of their creative process.

‘Everyone thinks that it’s you that influenced [the audience], not the other way round… You become a mirror to the audience. [Lambert and Stamp] started to develop it as a way of harnessing the energy of the audience, which was to empower them; to make them realise how important they actually were.’

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp


I found Townshend’s argument compelling, not least because I come from a communication tradition that was uncomfortable with the thought of ‘holding a mirror up to consumers.’ We regarded our core task as persuasion and so we always put the brand and its point of view first. We sought to craft ‘emotional selling propositions’ that won consumers’ hearts, in the expectation that their minds (and wallets) would follow.

But Townshend argues that marketing should go further than this. As he succinctly puts it: ‘You don’t market to them; you market them.’

‘When you do marketing you’re always trying to find some way to get round the fact that the audience are a problem; the consumer is a problem. Well, the way that you stop the consumer being a problem is that you don’t give them what they want; you allow them to be. You affirm who they are. You don’t try to change them.’

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

I’m increasingly of the view that Townshend is right; that in the modern age of consumer empowerment, audiences don’t want to be targeted, tracked and interrupted; they want to be represented, supported and encouraged; they want their views articulated, their hopes expressed, their fears addressed. Audiences want advocacy, not advertising.

We should think of a brand as a community, a neighbourhood, a union; a collective that needs representation. A brand should be a club worth joining, a membership worth paying for.

Of course most marketers know that marketing is all about putting the consumer first. But whilst this is readily articulated, I’m not sure it is fully lived, certainly not in the way Townshend suggests.

We may understand our audiences, but do we truly empathise with them? Do we start every conversation with their tastes and preferences, hopes and aspirations? Do we really see our role as advocacy?

The evidence of rate fixing and rip-off pricing, dodgy diesels and data leaking, mis-selling and horsemeat suggests otherwise. If brands are to re-earn eroded trust they must fundamentally remodel their relationships with consumers: from marketing at them to marketing for them. In short, we need to turn the arc lights on the audience. Because this is a generation that won’t get fooled again.

 ‘I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday.
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again.’

Pete Townshend/The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again

No. 61