NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 7

Girlhood: What’s Your Youth Policy?

Girlhood is a tale of young female street gangs from the Parisian banlieue. It examines the drugs, deprivation, delinquency and diminished choices in the modern city environment. It features streetfights, shoplifting, bullying and prostitution.

Girlhood is certainly a challenging film. But the abiding impression one takes from it is the incandescent beauty of youth. Girlhood’s young stars are funny, graceful, resourceful and strong. Their charisma creates the poignancy that is at the heart of the movie. What a waste…

Many say that ours is a culture that loves youth too much. I don’t think we love it enough.

Of course there’s endless historic evidence of the potential of young people to remake the world around them. Alexander the Great conquered most of the known universe before he was 30; Descartes wrote ‘I think, therefore I am’ when he was 23; Orson Welles co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in Citizen Kane when he was 26. Youth properly directed can be the engine of change and innovation in any field of activity, within any community or business.

In the communications industry we tend to hire young people en masse. We train them as best we can. We give them bike racks, breakfast and Bacchic revels. And then we set them to work on long hours and short deadlines.

But do we properly appreciate our young colleagues’ empathy with other young consumers, with the challenges of urban living, with the changing landscape of technology?

Do we sufficiently value their particular ability to think anew about old problems? Do we trust them with the creative and strategic decisions that matter?

Can we afford to continue losing talent to technology businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises that don’t put an age limit on responsibility?

Does the communications industry need a strategy for youth?

(I should just say, by the way, that, while I am in awe of youth, my generation did have better music…)

 

Photograph 51: Do We Need More Proof-Obsessed Loners?

https://askabiologist.asu.edu

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler opened in the West End last week. It stars Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin, the British x-ray crystallographer whose 1952 image of a DNA molecule led to the revelation that DNA, ‘the building block of life’, has a double helix structure.

The credit for this breakthrough has largely gone to the Cambridge scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson, who built a model of DNA inspired by Franklin’s photo, and to Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Franklin at King’s College, London. These three were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin, who died from cancer in 1958 at the age of 37 and therefore did not qualify for the Prize, was written out of the story, in no small part because of sexism within the science community. (Thank goodness things have changed since then…)

The play considers the different working methods of the scientists involved. Franklin operated in isolation and was obsessed with original data and experimental proof. By contrast Crick and Watson were team players who dealt in intuition, hypothesis and models.

Photograph 51 implies that science progresses at pace when these two approaches interact: rigorous, data-driven research and bold, imaginative supposition. There’s a suggestion that science could do with a little more of Crick and Watson’s creativity and flair.

I suspect we in the communications industry would also do well to follow this hybrid approach, but that we suffer the opposite dilemma: we have a wealth of intuitive team players; however, we’re not over-supplied with proof-obsessed loners. Perhaps we could do with a few more Rosalind Franklins.

 

World Ballet Day: Where Athleticism Meets Art

1 October is World Ballet Day. Five of the world’s leading ballet companies will unite for a day of live-streamed rehearsals, interviews and insights. If you think ballet is just tutus, tiaras, Nutcrackers and nursery stories, I urge you to reconsider and log-on.

What fascinates me about ballet is that it brings together sporting precision and performance with creative innovation and style. The dancers are exceptional athletes, demonstrating discipline, teamwork and sheer hard graft. They train hard and learn fast, together. But they are also thoughtful, artistic people who co-create, interpret and inspire. They have their own individual aesthetic, personality and flair. It’s an intoxicating cocktail.

Business could learn a lot from ballet.

 

If Only Life and Business Had a Prompter

I attended a play in preview last week. An unfortunate actor had a number of long, elaborate speeches to deliver and, as it was so early in the run, on a handful of occasions he forgot his lines. He looked up severely at the prompter sitting with a text in the front row and said rather forcefully, ‘Yes, please’. Thus prompted, the prompter gave him the next line and the actor was back on track.

It struck me as something of a shame that we don’t have prompters on hand in life and business. I have often been in the middle of what I thought was a compelling exposition, only for words to fail me at the crucial moment. If only I could just look up there and then, turn to one side and intone ,‘Yes, please'…

No. 49

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 6

Rehearsing and Editing Creativity

Next week the English National Ballet brings its award-winning programme of new ballets, Lest We Forget, to Sadler’s Wells. Three contemporary choreographers have created works reflecting in different ways on the First World War. I saw Lest We Forget last year at The Barbican and it’s a very moving experience. There are still some tickets available.

I attended a talk by Russell Maliphant who has created one of the pieces, Second Breath. Maliphant was classically trained, but has since used the learned vocabulary of classical ballet to create his own distinct choreographic language. He explores the interaction of movement and light with the eye of a film-maker. His dancers spin, twist and turn around each other. They redistribute each other’s weight, as if working with levers, pulleys and pistons. It’s a wonder to behold.

Maliphant explained that a lot of his creativity occurs when he’s working with his dancers in the studio, where he has the opportunity to respond to their different personalities and styles of movement. He also films his rehearsals and subsequently explores the possibilities available to him in the edit: rearranging the sequence of movement, deleting the unnecessary, reversing the action, slowing things down and speeding them up. This level of experimentation would not be possible, physically or financially, with live dancers in the studio.

In the communications business we often talk of work-shopping ideas; of giving creativity the room to breathe and develop in rehearsal; of exploring how technology can enrich (not just economise or speed up) the creative process. But it strikes me that hitherto this has been more rhetoric than common practice.

For the most part we’re still stuck in our linear, demarcated approach to idea development.  Concepts are formed in camera, refined through dialectic, pre-produced, produced. It’s a rhythm without fluidity or flexibility; without much space for creative collaboration or technical experimentation.

Couldn’t we do more to open the creative process up? Perhaps we need to take some dance lessons.

 

The Oresteia: Not A Window on the Ancient World, But a Mirror on Our Own

It’s Oresteia season in London as two productions of Aeschylus’ 458 BC tragedy open in theatres across town. Why do we feel the need to revisit this dark ancient story of murder and revenge? What relevance has it for us today?

In The Oresteia a father sacrifices his daughter to win over the gods; a wife kills her husband to atone for the murder of their daughter; a son kills his mother in vengeance for the death of his father; and the cycle of killings culminates in a court case. Blimey!

The Oresteia is a trilogy of plays about duty to one’s faith and community, to one’s family and to one’s self. There’s a sense that, once the series of revenge killings is in train, it will never stop. How could it? To some extent individuals are not masters of their own destiny. They are caught in a Fate-driven chain reaction of inevitable acts.

In these respects The Oresteia is as relevant today as when it was first performed. The modern world is gripped by wars whose origins can be traced back to tit-for-tat blood feuds; disputes that are justified by reference to duty and honour and revenge.

I wonder is this true of business too? Do we sometimes find ourselves caught in a cycle of action and reaction, unable to break out of competitive role-playing, incapable of seeing beyond the injustices of the past?

Sometimes inertia is the most powerful force in any organisation and it is also the most pernicious.

 

Like a Moth to a Flame

‘Like a moth to a flame
Burned by the fire
My love is blind
Can’t you see my desire?’

Janet Jackson/ That’s The Way Love Goes

Where music is concerned I have a sweet tooth.  I think it’s coming from Essex. I preferred gospel to blues, soul to funk, disco to house, acid jazz to techno. And I had a particular weakness for female soul vocals: for Gladys, Dionne and Diana; for Anita, Randy and Roberta. In my world Aretha was always the Queen, Donna defined disco and Mary J saved hip hop.

And then there was Janet Jackson.

Janet didn’t have the soul of Maxine, the heart of Chaka or the voice of Whitney. And many of her ‘80s recordings haven’t aged well, as they’re scaffolded in Jam and Lewis’ industrial production.

But give Janet a break. She was the tenth of ten children; her father was a tough old patriarch; she was Michael’s sister. Throughout her career she demonstrated admirable independence and an open mind.

And Janet gave us That’s The Way Love Goes, a definitive work for the sweet toothed soul fan. There’s the languorous rhythm, the melodious guitar pattern and Janet’s gentle, soothing serenade; not forgetting the warehouse-set video, where Janet’s hip mates sway diffidently to the beat from the ceiling-high speakers. Not unlike my own arrangement on a Saturday afternoon.

Of course, the central image of That’s The Way Love Goes is the tragic moth bewitched by a flame. I think I understand why people are attracted to doomed love. But I have always wondered: Why are moths attracted to flames? Surely they could evolve out of the suicidal self-immolation thing, given its endless repetition?

It transpires that the world of science is not entirely sure why moths are drawn to flame either. One theory suggests that they confuse fire with luminous female pheromones. Another suggests that it’s a primitive escape reflex gone wrong. But the dominant theory seems to be that the moths mistake artificial light sources for the moon, which is their primary navigational reference point.

It’s a rather sad thought: that your core point of reference, your North Star, is in fact leading you astray, to certain death.

It’s not entirely an alien concept for commerce. Many a business sets its controls for the heart of the profits, its navigation system almost entirely geared around financial returns. Only to find that, when you prioritise profit ahead of people and product, then your profits tend to suffer. It’s the commercial form of doomed love. Intense, sad, misguided, inevitable. ‘Like a moth to a flame, burned by the fire.’

No. 45

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 5

‘Words Without Thoughts Never To Heaven Go’

Bernardo: ‘Who’s there?’
Francisco: ‘Nay, answer me: stand and unfold yourself.’
Hamlet, I i.

Some have argued that the opening lines of Hamlet are entirely appropriate: this night-time exchange between two guards on the walls of the castle at Elsinore immediately establishes a sense of doubt about identity, a theme that sustains us through the play.

In a bold break with tradition, the director of the Hamlet currently being staged at The Barbican in London chose instead to start her production with the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. Too bold for some, and it was announced last week that the experiment would be discontinued.

Should one side with the purists and demand respect for genius and tradition? Or should one applaud brave endeavour, even when it doesn’t succeed?

I found that, the longer I was in business, the more I had to guard against instinctive conservatism. ‘We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work.’ Age and experience can at once enhance one’s judgement and diminish one’s appetite for change.

I saw the Barbican Hamlet in preview. Benedict Cumberbatch has a strong, charismatic take on the troubled Prince; the sets are magnificent; and the production has many good ideas.

When you revisit great works, different scenes leap out at you. This time I was struck by the passage in which Hamlet’s uncle, the villainous Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father and married his widow, tries to pray for forgiveness. At length Claudius concedes that, since he is still in possession of ‘my crown, mine own ambition and my queen,’ he cannot hope for absolution. His prayers are empty without genuine remorse.

‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’
Hamlet III, iii

Creative businesses are sadly cursed by hollow words and empty promises. We all too publicly worship at the altar of creativity without properly demonstrating our faith in day-to-day behaviour. Talk is cheap. And our belief is sorely tested when the god Mammon steps into the meeting room. Perhaps we should, like Claudius, appreciate that ‘words without thoughts never to heaven go.’

 

Scepticism Is Healthy for Business Too

Trouble in Paradise is a sophisticated screwball comedy from 1932, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A romance between two upmarket con artists is tested when one of them falls for a society heiress, their next intended victim.

The film is fast paced, knowing and wry. And so beautifully written. The society heiress, Madame Colet, rejects a suitor’s advances thus:

‘You see, Francois, marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together. But with you, Francois, it would be a mistake.’

It’s reassuring to discover that scepticism about advertising and business was alive and well in the ‘30s. Madame Colet has inherited a perfume business and her brand is advertised thus:

‘Remember, it doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter how you look. It’s how you smell.’

In another scene Giron, the Chairman of the Board of Colet et Cie, confronts our hero Gaston, now acting as Madame Colet’s advisor:
Giron:  ‘Speaking for the Board of Directors as well as for myself, if you insist in times like these in cutting the fees of the Board of Directors, then we resign.’
Gaston:  ‘Speaking for Madame Colet as well as for myself, resign.’
Giron:  'Very well…We’ll think it over...’

I understand that in this month’s Alphabet announcement there was a nod to the HBO comedy Silicon Valley (The Guardian, 11 Aug 2015). There’s a great tradition of comic writing about commercial culture. The Office reflected business life as it is, not as we would want it to be. Nathan Barley shone a light on Shoreditch lunacy, with extraordinary prescience and what now looks like understatement. And the recently departed comic genius, David Nobbs, gave us Reggie Perrin, the middle management mid-life crisis that is sadly all too familiar.

Scepticism is healthy. It calls business to account. It shows that the public is alert to our shortcomings.
Better to be mocked than to be ignored.

 

Can Commerce Integrate Art and Science?

The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon by JMW Turner shows ordinary folk dancing in a beautiful bucolic scene. A few years ago research was published indicating that Turner’s depiction of the sun in this painting was based on the latest scientific thinking of his day. (The Guardian, 13 November 2011)

It transpires that Turner, whilst studying art at the Royal Academy, also attended science debates at the Royal Society, which was housed in the same building. And in particular it is suggested that Turner attended the lectures of the astronomer William Herschel, who had been examining the surface of the sun.

As an artist Turner was comfortable with, and actively interested in, science. The scientist Michael Faraday was a good friend and he knew mathematicians, palaeontologists and chemists. Science inspired him. His commitment to observe nature first hand is captured in the myth that he lashed himself to a mast during a storm, just so that he could understand the conditions; an experience that supposedly prompted my favourite Turner painting, Snow Storm - Steam Boat Off A Harbour’s Mouth. 

I regret to say that, when I grew up, art and science were taught as polar opposites. We imagined that scientists had different shaped brains and we rarely socialised with them. This dualism extended even to our TV viewing: the scientists watched The Body in Question; we arts scholars watched Brideshead Revisited (the show that launched a thousand fops)…

It’s compelling to note that many of today’s more interesting movies, dance and theatre productions concern themselves with science. The Theory of Everything had us trying to keep up with Stephen Hawking; the great Wayne McGregor creates dance inspired by neuroscience; Nick Payne’s recent Royal Court hit, Constellations, looked at a human relationship in the context of quantum multiverse theory.

Though I’ve barely a scientific sinew in my body, I believe that the future of marketing and communications will occur at the intersection between art and science. It’s logical. It's inspiring.

 

 

No. 44