‘Truth In the Pleasant Disguise of Illusion’: Do We Properly Appreciate the Power of the Media at Our Disposal?

‘Time is the longest distance between two places.’

There’s a splendid production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie currently running at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London (until 29 April).

We’re in a Depression-era Saint Louis tenement. Amanda Wingfield, a former ‘southern belle,’ is struggling to pay the rent and worried what will become of her angst-ridden, artistic son, and her shy, solitary daughter.

‘The future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.’

Wingfield pleads with her son to bring a ‘gentleman caller’ back to the house – someone who might possibly represent a suitor for his sister. The fragile girl meanwhile seeks solace in a world of decorative figurines, the glass menagerie of the play’s title.

‘How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.’

The Glass Menagerie is a delicate, sensitive meditation on the challenges facing the awkward and the outside; the responsibilities, deceptions and regrets of family life; the yearning to break free.

In his production notes, Williams describes the work as ‘a memory play’ and at the beginning of Scene One the artistic son explains to the audience that what we are about to see is a distillation of his own recollection of events.

‘Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with I turn back time…’

Williams seems to be declaring that he is more than just a storyteller - he is a master of the theatrical medium, a manipulator of time, a truthful illusionist. This confident, context-setting sequence reminded me of the Prologue of Henry V, in which Shakespeare invites the audience to conjure up, on the simple stage before them, the muddy battlefields of France.

‘Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

I’m sure the most talented writers and artists are well aware of the imaginative leaps that their audience can bring to a creative encounter. And they’re conscious of the special powers of their chosen medium to ignite that imagination.

It has often been observed, for example, that the best directors treat film as a time machine – a means of compressing and extending time; of reordering and replaying it. Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey and how Kubrik takes us from the first man to the space age in one matchless match-cut; or consider the elegant synchronicity of the baptism scene in Coppola’s The Godfather. Film directors also consciously manipulate our understanding of space. With close-ups and long-shots, different points of view and perspectives, they expand and contract our perception of things. In the 1920s the women of the world fell in love with Rudolph Valentino because of the dramatic impact, in magnified close-up on the big screen, of those elegant lips, those sensitive eyes, that pomaded hair.

I wonder, do we in the field of marketing and communication too often treat media like an everyday commodity? Do we just think of it as a space to be filled, content to be generated, ratings to be registered? Do we properly appreciate the power of the tools at our disposal? Do we understand that the moving image can be a time machine; the fixed image can explore space and perspective; the printed and spoken text can conjure up hopes, dreams, recollections and regrets?

Shouldn’t we, like Williams, be seeking to deliver ‘truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion?’ For if we have no passion for the medium, how can we expect to inspire passion in our audience?

 No. 120

Small People in a Big World: The Liberating Power of Perspective

I recently saw Nice Fish, a fine play by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins (Harold Pinter Theatre until 11 February). It features two friends ice-fishing on a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota. They speculate on love and death; on petty officialdom and the aesthetics of baloney; on age and the environment; on the romantic yearnings of snowmen and the difference between wolves and dogs.

‘Some days are so sad nothing will help, when love has gone, when the sunshine and clear sky only tease and mock you. Those days you feel like running away, going where no one knows your name. Like slinging the old Gibson over your shoulder and travelling the narrow road to the north where the gray sky fits your mood and the cold wind blows a different kind of trouble… But somebody, someday soon, somebody will come and put up a bed and breakfast and a gourmet coffee shop. There is only one true wilderness left to explore, those vast empty spaces in your head.’

Some have complained that the play lacks any real drama or strong narrative. They have criticised it for whimsy. But there’s a fine line between whimsy and wisdom. I found many of the fishermen’s observations insightful and moving.

‘One day you cross an invisible line and everything is changed…It is as if you had crossed the international dateline, all at once it’s another day. Now, everything you looked forward to is suddenly behind.’

At the start of Nice Fish we see spruce trees and poplars in the distance; brightly painted fishing huts. We see a small figure with a fishing rod. A truck traverses the horizon. A train passes along the shoreline. All this is magically conveyed with puppets and miniatures. The stage design has the effect of placing our characters in the context of a grand panorama. And in many ways this is a play about scale: of ‘little’ people having big thoughts; of the intimacy of the trivial and the profound; of the beguiling mystery of the unknown and unknowable.

‘I’ve spent a great deal of my life fretting over things that most people wouldn’t waste their time on. Trying to explain something I haven’t a clue about.’

We are indeed small people in a big world. We are drops in life’s ocean, tiny stars in an infinite galaxy. On occasion I have felt this intensely: in a taxi late at night driving through Sao Paolo; flying over an unending Mongolian mountain range; walking into Canary Wharf on a Monday morning. It’s easy to be overwhelmed.

But perspective can be liberating as well as humbling; inspiring as well as chastening. Perspective supplies a sense of wonder. And keeping things in proportion is critical to our understanding of the world; to our empathy with other people; to our emotional wellbeing.

So much wrong in business, and indeed the wider world, derives from poor perspective: the excessive demand, the unreasonable request, the disproportionate response, the asymmetrical power balance. So much stress seems unwarranted; so much angst seems inappropriate. So many of our leaders, brands and businesses have an enhanced sense of self worth, but a diminished sense of reality.

Often we get too close, too involved, too exercised. Our passion turns to obsession, our determination to compulsion. We behave as if it’s a matter of life and death, when really it’s a matter of deodorant and fried chicken.

If we want to retain our relevance, to sustain our sanity, we would all do well to step back and abstract ourselves occasionally; to broaden the frame of reference; to take on different viewpoints. Context ‘has charms to soothe a savage breast.’ Let’s set aside the corporate hubris and embrace a little humility.

At the end of Nice Fish the two lead characters reach some kind of conclusion. They observe that old people leave life with the same befuddlement as if it were a movie:

‘”I didn’t get it.”…”It didn’t seem to have any plot”…”No, it seemed like things just kept coming at me. Most of the time I was confused…and there was too much sex and violence…Violence anyway”…”It was not much for character development either; most of the time people were either shouting or mumbling. Then just when someone started to make sense and I got interested, they died. Then a whole lot of new characters came along and I couldn’t tell who was who”… “The whole thing lacked subtlety”…”Some of the scenery was nice.”’

No. 114

Don’t Get Lost on Bolsover Street: Delight in Complexity, But Then Rejoice in Simplicity

There’s a distinguished production of Harold Pinter’s 1975 play, No Man’s Land, currently running at Wyndham’s Theatre in London (until 17 December).

Hirst, a successful literary figure, has invited Spooner, a struggling poet, back from the pub to his grand Hampstead home. Here they engage in heavy drinking and circuitous conversation, attended by Hirst’s two mysterious man servants. The play is famously difficult to decode. Is it all about writer’s block, or unreliable memory, or the descent into alcoholism? Is Spooner Hirst’s alter ego? Is he a character pitching to feature in Hirst’s next play? Is he a harbinger of death?

Pinter refuses to resolve these questions for us. Indeed he seems to revel in our uncertainty. He’s happy to leave us, like the key protagonists, in No Man’s Land.

At the start of Act 2 one of the servants, Briggs, explains that he first met his colleague, Foster, when Foster stopped his car to ask him the way to Bolsover Street.

‘I told him Bolsover Street was in the middle of an intricate one-way system. It was a one-way system easy enough to get into. The only trouble was that, once in, you couldn't get out. I told him his best bet, if he really wanted to get to Bolsover Street was to take the first left, first right, second right, third on the left, keep his eye open for a hardware shop, go right round the square, keeping to the inside lane, take the second Mews on the right and then stop. He will find himself facing a very tall office block, with a crescent courtyard. He can take advantage of this office block. He can go round the crescent come out the other way, follow the arrows, go past two sets of traffic lights and take the next left indicated by the first green filter he comes across. He's got the Post Office Tower in his vision the whole time. All he's got to do is to reverse into the underground car park, change gear, go straight on, and he'll find himself in Bolsover Street with no trouble at all.’

Exactly.

I think it’s important that strategists are comfortable with complexity. Most people, most lives and relationships, are contoured and convoluted, tangled and tortuous. They are driven by motivations that are often arcane, nuanced and irrational. In the same way, businesses and brands, media channels and environments, user journeys and experiences tend to be confused beasts too. We should delight in this intricacy, recognise its essential truth and doubt anyone that denies it.

‘Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.’
Woody Allen

But sometimes we strategists become not masters, but victims, of complexity. We can be cursed by an intelligence that sees sophistication and subtlety at every turn. Our brand onions look like eye tests; our engagement strategies like cat’s cradles; our ecosystems like distant galaxies. We get lost on a business problem that won’t resolve itself; on a deck that doesn’t get any shorter; on a customer journey that’s got no destination.

This malaise can extend into the rest of our professional lives. We soon find ourselves becalmed on an account that’s unrewarding; in a role that’s unsuited; in a career that’s not progressing. In no time at all we’re lost on Bolsover Street.

‘I did warn him, though, that he'll still be faced with the problem, having found Bolsover Street, of losing it. I told him I knew one or two people who'd been wandering up and down Bolsover Street for years. They'd wasted their bloody youth there. The people who live there, their faces are grey, they're in a state of despair, but nobody pays any attention, you see.’

So, whilst acknowledging the essential intricacies of life, business, consumers and media, we should also recognise that the core strategist’s skill is to bring simplicity to the complex, to reduce and refine, condense and concentrate; and that it’s only through the ability to distil, both the problem and the solution, that we can avoid being cast adrift on a Sargasso Sea of unworkable strategies and unfulfilling careers.

‘Why is it the French revolution was able to sum up its beliefs in three words –Liberté,  Égalité, Fraternité – and yet we need twenty six to sell a tin of cat food?’
Sir John Hegarty

I’m conscious that I’m encouraging the cultivation of equal and opposite talents; that I’m suggesting the best strategists can be both complex and concise; that they are at ease with antithesis. But ours is a trade that has contradiction at its heart: between the rational and emotional; between behaviour and belief; between compression and expansion.

So let’s embrace this contradiction. Let’s delight in life’s complications; and then reduce them to simple truths and decisive acts. Let’s not get lost on Bolsover Street.

 

Simplify Me When I’m Dead

Remember me when I am dead 
and simplify me when I'm dead. 

As the processes of earth 
strip off the colour of the skin: 
take the brown hair and blue eye 

and leave me simpler than at birth, 
when hairless I came howling in 
as the moon entered the cold sky. 

Of my skeleton perhaps, 
so stripped, a learned man will say 
"He was of such a type and intelligence," no more. 

Thus when in a year collapse 
particular memories, you may 
deduce, from the long pain I bore 

the opinions I held, who was my foe 
and what I left, even my appearance 
but incidents will be no guide. 

Time's wrong-way telescope will show 
a minute man ten years hence 
and by distance simplified. 

Through that lens see if I seem 
substance or nothing: of the world 
deserving mention or charitable oblivion, 

not by momentary spleen 
or love into decision hurled, 
leisurely arrive at an opinion. 

Remember me when I am dead 
and simplify me when I'm dead.

 

Keith Douglas (an English poet who fought in North Africa during World War II and was killed in 1944 during the invasion of Normandy.)

No. 103

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

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 10

If Music Be the Food of Commerce…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

Synthesized Success

Young songwriter Neil Sedaka was in a jam.

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

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

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

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

‘Oh! Carol’/Howard Greenfield & Neil Sedaka

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

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

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

 

Creativity Can Even Survive Rate Card Pricing

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

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

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

No. 55

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

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