The Art of Adjacency: Don’t Just Look Up, Look Sideways

In the splendid film noir, In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart stars as Dix Steele, a troubled Hollywood scriptwriter who falls for Laurel, his next-door neighbour, played by Gloria Grahame. At one point Laurel compliments Dix on a romantic scene he has just written.

Laurel: ‘I love the love scene – it’s very good.’

Dix: ‘Well, that’s because they’re not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one: me mixing grapefruit, you sitting over there, dopey, half asleep. Anyone could tell we’re in love.’

Good advice. Perhaps sometimes in the world of commercial creativity we are too direct. If we want to suggest affection, we show an emotional embrace. If we want to communicate anger, we have people ranting and raving. If we want to convey disappointment, we cut to tears.

Dix Steele encourages us to look at adjacent events, ancillary actions. The empty seat on a bus leaving town, the expectant eyes of a faithful hound, the lipstick traces on a cigarette. These incidental asides can be more telling, more memorable, more poignant. Because in real life emotional truth is more often inferred than declared; it is more often implicit than explicit.

The art of adjacency does not just apply to creative execution. It’s also relevant to strategy. For some years now the first instinct of the strategist when invited to promote a brand has been to focus on its essence, to ladder up to some higher order benefit, to find some unifying social purpose. But occasionally it pays not to look up, but to look sideways.

Magners convinced people to engage with hitherto unfashionable cider, not by celebrating the brand’s provenance or product, but by encouraging the over-ice serve. Tate Modern attracted young people to hitherto inaccessible contemporary art, not through the art itself, but through the contemporary music its target enjoyed. Lurpak suggested that it’s not just the butter, but what you do with the butter, that counts.

Sometimes the answers to a brand’s problems reside at the margins, not at the core. Sometimes they can be found in the neighbouring category, in the incidental asides, in the associated interests. Marketing history is filled with case studies of businesses that didn’t just celebrate the essence of their brand, but sought imaginatively to reframe how that brand was perceived.

Betty Crocker decided that it was not about the cake mix, but the added egg. Gillette determined that it was not about the razor, but the blade. Esso proposed that it was not about the forecourt, but the toilets. Instagram resolved that it was not about the words, but the pictures. The V & A suggested it was not about the gallery, but the café.

So perhaps the answer for tyres resides, not in the their relationship with the road, but their relationship with the drive. Perhaps the answer for mattresses resides not in their impact when you’re asleep, but when you’re awake. Perhaps the answer for banking can be found not in money, but in time.  Maybe opera should be looking at ballet, tea at coffee.

I could go on…

The message is a simple one. Before we rush to distillation and elevation, we should consider strategic and creative adjacency. We should look sideways at what we could learn from neighbouring sectors, analogous brands, incidental behaviour. There we may find the catalysts and fresh perspectives that will enable us to reframe and rethink our own brand. The risk is that if we’re always looking at the sky, we may not see the roses.

 

No. 101

Deferred Dreams: Don't Let Youthful Aspirations Become Middle-Aged Regrets

‘People spend their whole lives building castles in the air, but then nothing ever comes of it. I wonder why that is… It takes courage. You know, everybody’s afraid to live.’

Tony, You Can’t Take It With You

You Can’t Take It With You is in many ways a typical Frank Capra movie. It combines social satire with madcap comedy. It’s charming, silly, sentimental and thought provoking. A young Jimmy Stewart plays Tony who works as a Vice President at his father’s bank. Tony falls in love with his stenographer, Alice (played by Jean Arthur), and, in a touching scene on a park bench, Tony recalls for Alice the dreams of his youth.

‘I remember in college another guy and I had an idea – we wanted to find out what made the grass grow green... Because there’s a tiny little engine in the green of the grass and on the green of the trees that has the mysterious gift of being able to take energy from the rays of the sun and store it up... Well, we thought if we could find the secret of all those millions of little engines in this green stuff, we could make big ones and then we could take all the power we could ever need right from the sun’s rays, you see?...We worked on it, worked on it day and night. We got so excited we forgot to sleep.’

I was quite taken aback to hear a character in a popular black and white comedy from 1938 speculate on the possibilities for solar power. But also saddened. Because the scene succinctly captures the melancholy of missed opportunity and wasted talent; the haunting reproach of deferred dreams. Tony explains to Alice what happened to their plans to develop a technique for producing renewable energy.

‘We left school. Now he’s selling automobiles and I’m in some strange thing called banking… He’s married, his wife just had a baby. Didn’t think it was fair to gamble with the future.’

I’m sure we all recognise Tony’s meditation on paradise postponed. Sometimes hopes, dreams and aspirations are interrupted by events. ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ But Alice goes further. She cites her grandfather’s theory that most of us live in a state of timidity.

‘He says most people nowadays are run by fear: fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money and they’re scared to spend it.’

I suspect fear does set a limit on our aspirations. Fear and responsibility. Most of us are paranoid about how we’re perceived, why we’re not doing better, what we could stand to lose.

I once chatted to a London cabbie about his exposure to violence out on the streets late at night. He said the most dangerous people were the ones who had nothing to lose.  I’m sure he was right. But people with nothing to lose don’t just represent danger. Their lack of fear and responsibility, their willingness to take risks, also equip them for opportunity.

Of course, this takes us back to young people. They generally have less to lose and more to gain; they have more years ahead of them than behind them; they have more invested in the future than the past. They are less afraid.

I wonder do we, in business and society, make sufficient use of youthful optimism, open mindedness and imagination? Could we do more to record the ideas that have not quite found their time; to rescue the concepts that are not properly thought through; to realise the schemes that are not fully funded? Could we set our young people the toughest tasks, not as training exercises, but as a means of opening up new hopes and horizons? Should our think tanks and innovation centres be staffed disproportionately by youth, in order to be proper laboratories of the future? If we fail to realise this potential, are we not gambling with all our tomorrows?

This is not to say that every youthful speculation is useful. I can’t claim to have spent my adolescence meditating on something as significant as solar energy. My entrepreneurial schemes were a little more modest. I had an idea for a restaurant that faithfully recreated on land the aeroplane dining experience. (Meal on a tray, back of seat movies, a kip after dinner…) I had a plan for a brand that was entirely focused on ‘sleep, the final frontier.’ (‘Everything you need for a good night’s sleep from A to ZZZZ.’) I had a book idea that combined Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness with Wittgenstein’s writing style. I had a concept for edible combs…

I guess that, whatever the worth of our ideas, we would all do well to ensure youthful dreams don’t become middle-aged regrets. Unfulfilled, unachieved, unrealised. Because in one respect dreams are just like material assets: you can’t take them with you.

‘I’m dreaming dreams,
I’m scheming schemes
I’m building castles high.
They’re born anew,
Their days are few,
Just like a sweet butterfly.

I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding.
I’ve looked everywhere.
I’m forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air.’

‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’,
John Kellette/Jaan Kenbrovin

Today is the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer

Today is the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer

 

No. 98

On The Outside Looking In: Difference Craves Difference; Difference Creates Difference

 

Different Work Requires Different People

In creative businesses we talk a good deal about the value of difference in delivering brand success. We seek to design different brand positionings, different strategies, different executions. We believe difference creates stand-out, preference and loyalty.

But what kind of people invent difference? Where do we find them?

I recently encountered reviews of the life and works of two great American artists, the actor Marlon Brando and the photographer Saul Leiter. Brando and Leiter were born in the early 1920s within a year of each other. One achieved quick and widespread fame; the other earned recognition slowly, and primarily within his own community. But, through the work they did in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they both helped rewrite our understanding of their respective professions.

I found that, though Brando and Leiter shared little in terms of personality and renown, their engagement with difference was similar.

Marlon Brando: The Wild One

‘I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin, so that when I wake up in there, six feet under the ground, I’m going to say: ’Do it differently.’’

Listen to Me Marlon is an excellent 2015 documentary film exploring Marlon Brando’s life and work through his privately recorded audio-tapes. In discussing his early career, there’s a clear sense that Brando from the outset was obsessed with doing things differently, with developing his own unique style.

‘Never let the audience know how it’s going to turn out. Get them on your terms. Hit ‘em. Knock ‘em over with an attitude, with a word, with a look. Be surprising. Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before. You want to stop that movement from the cardboard to the mouth. Get people to stop chewing. The truth will do that. Damn, damn, damn, damn. When it’s right, it’s right. You can feel it in your bones. Then you feel whole. You feel good.’

Although Brando comes across on film as a pillar of strength, a brooding, confident presence, his childhood was far from happy. Both his parents were alcoholics and he had an uneasy relationship with his father. The introverted Brando was sent to a military school in which he felt alone and isolated.

‘I was very shy. Sensitive, very sensitive…. I had a great feeling of inadequacy; that I didn’t know enough; that I didn’t have enough education. I felt dumb.’

Acting saved Brando. And in particular the acting coach Stella Adler saved him.  (Adler was herself a successful actor who, inspired by the Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavski, founded her own acting studio in New York. Brando was an early pupil.)

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. ’You have a right to be who you are, where you are and how you are. Everybody’s got a story to tell, something they’re hiding.’’

One can’t help inferring that Brando’s quest for difference was in some way driven by his own sense of marginalisation. Angst ridden, feeling out of the ordinary, he was at the same time fascinated by differences in others.

‘I was always somebody who had an unquenchable curiosity about people. I would walk down the street and look at faces. I used to go into the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street in a cigar store. I would watch people for three seconds as they went by and try to analyse their personalities by just that flick. The face can’t hide many things and people are always hiding things. I was always interested to guess the things that people did not know themselves. What they feel; what they think; why they feel. How is it we behave the way we do?’

What emerges is a picture of an exceptional man whose interior and exterior lives are inextricably linked. Brando’s self-reflection seems to have created his curiosity about others.

‘Unless we look inwards, we will not ever be able to clearly see outwards.’

 

Saul Leiter: The Quiet American

‘It is not where it is or what it is that matters. But how you see it.’

There’s an excellent exhibition of Saul Leiter’s work currently at The Photographers’ Gallery in London (until 3 April). If you’ve seen the splendid film, Carol, you’ll recognise the inspiration for the art direction.

Leiter was certainly different. He was the son of a famous Talmudic scholar and was studying to become a Rabbi when he upped sticks for New York, determined to become a painter. Leiter went on to pioneer colour street photography in an era when colour was not considered a serious medium. And although he was a great admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of the ‘decisive moment,’ Leiter had his own distinct perspective on the role of photography in our lives.

‘Photographs are often treated as important moments, but really they are fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world.’

So Leiter didn’t go out to capture the events and drama of the street. Rather he was drawn to the insignificant and fleeting; to bold colours and abstract shapes. Indeed he bought out-of-date film stock because it was cheap and he liked the distortions and unpredictability that came with it.

Leiter’s work is all hydrants and hats, fire escapes and steamed windows; a red brolly, a yellow headscarf; workers in the snow, commuters on the train; bold commercial type in modest surroundings; reflections in the rain, shadows in the bright sunlight. It’s a gentle set of impressions. Overseen, overlooked.

Leiter’s style may well have been determined by his personality. He was self-deprecating, understated, unassuming. He was a Quiet American.

‘I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.’

Saul Leiter: Taxi, ca. 1957

So again we see a creative person with a distinct perspective on his art born out of a very particular personality. And again we see an obsession with the observation of others.

‘If we look and look we begin to see and are still left with the pleasure of uncertainty.’


Difference Craves Difference; Difference Creates Difference

What can we conclude from these two leading practitioners in the art of difference?

Firstly they were themselves different. They were on the outside looking in. Their marginalisation gave them an enhanced ability to look and learn, to observe others. Outsiders look harder and see more. And because they are different themselves, they are better equipped to create difference.

The best creative businesses embrace outsiders. They welcome the unorthodox and unusual, the idiosyncratic and individual, the different and diverse. They respect the quiet voice, even when they are daily engaged in loud proclamation. The best creative businesses make outsiders feel like insiders.

And yet, as with any organisation, there are powerful forces of inertia at play. Recruiters fish in the same ponds; leaders appoint in their own image; and company life has a centrifugal force that drives conformity and convention. It abhors rough edges and irregular behaviours. Often we cherish originality, but balk at the eccentricities of original people.

I think the creative industry should more actively embrace the belief that different work requires different people. Diversity should not just be a social responsibility. It should be a strategic imperative.

 ‘I’m on the outside looking in
Gotta find a way, gotta find a way back to your heart dear, once again
Won’t you take me back again?
I’ll be waiting here ‘til then
On the outside looking in.’

Little Anthony & The Imperials/On the Outside (Looking In).
(Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein)

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 18.36.37.png

An abbreviated version of this piece was published in the Guardian Media and Tech on 16 February 2016

No. 71



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

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 4

The Thrill of It All

Man with a Movie Camera has recently been re-released in cinemas. It’s a silent Russian film from 1929 directed by Dziga Vertov. In the opening sequences Vertov proclaims that he is seeking ‘a separation from the language of theatre and literature.’ He wants to create a new grammar particular to film.

Man with a Movie Camera bypasses conventional narrative structures and characterisation. Instead it sets out to document the life of a Soviet city over the course of a day. We see work and play, marriage and divorce, birth and death. We explore the mechanics of urban and industrial life: trams, trains, cars, bikes and buses; steelworks, mines, factories and offices. Vertov is fascinated by the interaction of man and machine and he delights in visual parallels. He cuts between people and pistons; between keyboards, cogs and spools; and ultimately between the human eye and the camera shutter.

Above all Vertov thrills at the possibilities of film. There are close ups and long shots, freeze-frames and split-screens; sequences are speeded up and slowed down. The movie celebrates the art of film making: we see the cameraman at work, film being edited, the film being watched at the cinema. In one memorable sequence the camera itself comes to life through stop frame animation.

Man with a Movie Camera is an exercise in passion. It conveys the pure joy of the pioneer.

I’m inclined to ask, what has happened to our belief in the possibilities of film? Where is the enthusiasm for film’s power: to surprise us, move us and make us think?

In the modern age are we too inclined to shrug at the constraints of time, cost and Clients? Because ‘it’s never as good as the first time’?

Should not new channels and new tasks present fresh opportunities to re-write the rules, to re-define the grammar?

The writer Will Self has described ours as a ‘jaded culture’. Our comfort, knowingness and cynicism deny us the ability to enthuse, the compulsion to revolt.

Sometimes it seems that the thrill is gone. Surely we should bring it back.

The Chaka Khan Conundrum

‘I’m every woman; it’s all in me.
I can read your thoughts right now,
Every one from A to Z.’

Chaka Khan/ ’I’m Every Woman’

I always loved Chaka: her strong, confident voice, her high kicking boots and big, bold hair. I love the sunny euphoria of ‘Do You Love What You Feel?’  I love the adrenaline rush when the synth coda of ‘Ain’t Nobody’ kicks in. I love the fact she was in a band called Rufus, but determined to stand aloof of its absurd name: it was ‘Rufus and Chaka Khan’. In the Pembroke bar we would mimic the scratch in the opening sequence of ‘I Feel for You’; in time, in unison, as one.

But I always wondered, what on earth was Chaka on about when she claimed to be ‘every woman’? How could this be possible? How could it all be in her?

It was only many years later, when I was established in my advertising career, that I understood that Chaka was, in fact, making a compelling point about consumer segmentation.

I dislike consumer segmentation. I never found it useful or helpful at work. Despite being a man from Essex, I was not entirely comfortable being classified as Essex Man. Despite occasionally visiting John Lewis, I wouldn’t say I’m part of ‘the John Lewis Community’. I dislike Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman, Letdown Lady, Pebbledash People. (I kid you not.) I dislike the spurious science and characterful classifications. I dislike the rigidity and ring binders. I even dislike the amusing alliteration…

I think that when Chaka sang that she was ‘every woman’, she was simply pointing out that she could choose to be all forms of womanhood if she wanted to. She was not one singular identity. She couldn’t be boxed off or boxed in.

And isn’t that true of us all? Is not each and every one of us a mess of conflicting drives, moods and identities? Isn’t that what makes us interesting; what makes us human?

Maybe you can segment a mood or a moment, an action or an attitude. But you can’t segment people.

 

When the Sum of the Parts is Greater than the Whole

At the National Gallery in London you can see the only surviving work by the Florentine painter Pesellino. The Trinity Altarpiece features God the Father supporting the crucified Christ. They are flanked by Saints Mamas and James on one side and Saints Zeno and Jerome on the other.

I went to a talk recently given by the outgoing Director of The National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny. He explained the altarpiece’s provenance. It was painted between 1455 and 1460 and hung in the church of the Confraternity of Priests in Pistoia. Around 1783 the Confraternity was suppressed and the altarpiece was sawn into five pieces: the central piece of God and Christ went to one private collector; the pairs of saints joined others; and the angels from the top corners went their own way too. Over subsequent years the pieces journeyed separately around various European galleries and collections. And they were only reunited at The National Gallery in 1929.

The dismembering of art seems barbaric to us now. But to previous generations it was entirely practical to isolate an element of a painting that one found particularly attractive; to trim an artwork to fit a wall. And dealers found that dismemberment could be financially rewarding.

I confess I have occasionally thought a painting could be dramatically improved by the removal of an inferior character or segment. And one of my favourite paintings, The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden, is, in fact, just a fragment of a larger altarpiece.

When we consider brands and organisations, we often assume that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that there are synergies and efficiencies between elements.

But this is not always the case. I’m sure that Alphabet is only the most recent in a long line of businesses seeking to calibrate the commercial pros and cons of closeness and distance.

Sometimes sub brands stand on each other’s toes; sometimes the propinquity of one brand to another within a holding company can reflect badly on both.

Sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

No. 43

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 3

The Episodic Brand?

The best play I’ve seen this year, The Father by Florian Zeller, will be coming to the West End in the Autumn. Book early, as Fred Pontin would say…

In The Father we observe the impact of dementia on an elderly Parisian, his family and carers. ‘I feel as if I’m losing all of my leaves’, says the aged man. It’s very moving.

What is particularly compelling about The Father is that we are invited to consider dementia from the perspective of the sufferer. For him most of the episodes in his life are completely coherent within themselves; they just stop correlating with other episodes. Memory is not lost in a simple, gradual process; it is eroded asymmetrically through a loosening of the seams between events, identities and relationships. Dementia comes across as a loss of the narrative that holds identity together.

Some have argued that there are in fact two types of people in the world: Narratives and Episodics (Lee Siegel/The End of the Episode/WSJ 3/8/2009). Those with a Narrative personality believe that their life tells a meaningful story; those with an Episodic personality believe that life is lived episode by episode, without adding up to any overriding coherent narrative.

The marketing and communications industry has, I think, always subscribed to a Narrative view of brands: we are endeavouring to tell a single, coherent, unifying story about our brand’s past, its purpose and its performance.

But what if brands are messier than this? What if time and experience across geographies and markets have created a complexity of character that resists reduction?

Are not some brands diminished by our efforts to constrain them within one coherent narrative?
What if yours is an Episodic Brand?

 

Making Time

In Beware of Mr Baker, the compelling documentary about the legendary Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, our eponymous hero has few good words to say about anyone.

He is however an admirer of his former colleague in Cream, Eric Clapton. ‘Eric had time’, he says and this is perhaps the ultimate tribute a drummer could pay anyone. We often talk of gifted footballers having time: the ability to appear unhurried, to slow things down a little, to pause to think.

In modern business we are surrounded by people who seem to have no time at all. They’re so important that they consistently arrive late and then leave early. I have always admired senior executives who, despite undoubted pressures, seem the masters of time, not the victims of it.

 

We Did Our Best…

There’s a very fine portrait by Van Eyck in The National Gallery. It features a mature man staring out at us from under an extravagantly tied red head-dress. Some have suggested this is a self-portrait, given the directness of the gaze and the honesty of the facial flaws.

Above the portrait in the original frame Van Eyck has inscribed ‘Als ich kan’, which I understand translates loosely as ‘As well as I can.’ I did a little research. It transpires that ‘Als ich kan’ was something of a personal motto for Van Eyck as it appears on a number of his paintings. Some have suggested that he was prone to promote his personal reputation and that this was an early exercise in branding. (It could also be a play on words: ‘As well as Van Eyck can.’)

Given the extraordinary beauty of the painting, it’s easy to interpret ‘As well as I can’ as a proud boast. But I’m inclined to say Van Eyck was expressing a timeless creative sentiment: ‘I did my best. You may not like it. It may not be good enough for you. But, take it or leave it, this is it.’ This is a sentiment I have often felt in the wake of a mediocre meeting, a poor pitch, a critical Client…

I read this week that researchers have established that perfectionism is a corrosive force that leads to stress and burnout. (Huffington Post/4 August 2015) No surprise here perhaps. To my mind the quest for perfection, winning at all cost, ‘whatever it takes,’ can erode culture. These mindsets create a loss of proportion, a diminution of self worth. They’re corporate head-banging.

I’m with Van Eyck. I think that, whatever the prize, we should just endeavour to do our best. No more, no less.

 

Regrets, I’ve Had Quite a Lot Really…

Whilst, of course, Piaf’s ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ is a magnificent tune delivered with passion, it’s not a sentiment I share.  For me the song should have been titled ‘J’Ai Beaucoup de Regrets.’ I think regrets are healthy, humbling and an important part of self-knowledge. Here are a few I’d care to mention…

I wish I’d drunk less and danced more in my 20s; I wished I’d worked less and played more football in my 30s; I wish I’d eaten less and read more in my 40s. And more besides…

No. 41


NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 1

Damola suggested that I could supplement the blog with a regular newsletter.

I thought I might make some broad observations about business prompted by plays, films, art, articles and so forth.

So here are this week’s notes from the hinterland…

If We Rid Ourselves of Our Demons, We’ll Lose Our Angels Too

In a recent Desert Island Discs, Stephen Fry quoted Tennessee Williams: ‘If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels too.’

Creative businesses are often confronted with behaviour that is unreliable and unruly, eccentric and erratic. If we expect unconventional answers, we should not be surprised when they come from unconventional sources. Creative talent rarely arrives with a diploma for good behaviour.

And yet creative businesses also have staff that need protecting and values that need sustaining. So where should we draw the line?

Fair Play?

I saw the new Marber play, The Red Lion, at the National Theatre. It’s a compelling piece about life in lower league football. It boasts rich language, good observations on masculinity and some very funny moments.

In the programme notes the former England cricket captain Mike Brearley considers the ‘gang culture’ and ‘mutual humiliation’ at the heart of modern sport.

‘A young middle order batsman who murmured sycophantically to [the bowler} Fred Trueman on his way back to the Pavilion, ‘That was a fine delivery, Fred’ – received the reply ‘Aye, and it were wasted on thee.’

There is a fine line between such more or less legitimate discomfiting gestures and messages on the one hand, and behaviour that goes beyond the spirit of the game on the other…

Sport could not have arisen without individual competitiveness, ambition and Oedipal striving. But nor could it have arisen without love, cooperation and respect.’ 

As ever, sport poses questions that are just as relevant to business and life. What is the appropriate level of competitiveness and rivalry in the era of partnership and collaboration?

The Same But Different

I watched a very funny screwball comedy from 1937. In The Awful Truth Irene Dunne and Cary Grant spar with each other over their divorce.

Lucy: ‘Things are just the same as they always were, only you’re the same as you were too, so I guess things will never be the same again.’

Jerry: ‘You’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool and I’m not now. So long as I’m different, don’t you think that…well maybe things could be the same again…only a little different, huh?’

It struck me that this is an age-old yearning that applies as much to business as to love. We want to embrace change, but somehow to acknowledge timeless truths. The same but different…

Multi-tasking v Mono-tasking

The Beckett radio play All That Fall was recently performed at the Barbican for an audience sitting in deckchairs. Though it sounds suspiciously like physical theatre, I have to say it was an excellent experience. In the play Mr Rooney demands:

‘Once and for all, do not ask me to speak and move at the same time. I shall not say this in this life again.’

I’m with Mr Rooney. I have always been more a mono-tasker than a multi-tasker. I was encouraged by recent research that suggests the productivity associated with multi-tasking is a myth. Some have suggested it should be called ‘multi-switching’ rather than multi-tasking.

A Lawyer in Heaven

A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?) about 1450, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?)
about 1450, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

At a visit to the National Gallery yesterday I noticed this excellent painting of Saint Ivo by the Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. Ivo is celebrated as 'the patron saint of lawyers and an advocate of the poor'…

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 38