‘Mek Us Laugh’: Comedy Creates Culture


Hugh R Riviere, ‘In the Golden Days'

Hugh R Riviere, ‘In the Golden Days'

'The most wasted day of all is that on which we have not laughed.’
Nicolas Chamfort, French C18th Writer

At the end of Oxford’s Trinity term we would adjourn to the river to drink Pimms and watch rowing in the warm Spring sunshine. Rowing may not be the most thrilling spectator sport, but back then there seemed to be something inherently sophisticated and carefree about just being there.

A mate took along her Northern Boyfriend who was in town for the weekend, and we determined to position ourselves at the start of the race.

The competing eights were aligned along the bank in tense concentration. Young muscular men sat expectantly in their boats, wearing college colours and fixed grimaces. A senior gentleman with a military moustache and brightly tailored blazer stood over a small starting cannon at the river’s edge.

All was seriousness and silence. All was anticipation.

Suddenly the Northern Boyfriend shouted at the top of his voice:

‘Come on then. Mek us laugh!’

The mood was punctured, the concentration shattered. Some fell about chuckling, others were unimpressed. We adjourned to another vantage point.

Sometimes we imagine ourselves to be engaged in something really rather important; we take ourselves a little too seriously; we adopt airs and graces. Sometimes we deserve to be taken down a peg or two.

'A good laugh is the best pesticide.'
Vladimir Nabokov

The workplace in particular can become a breeding ground for pomposity and pretension, affectation and arrogance; a realm for desktop despots and new age Napoleons. A well-timed anecdote or cutting quip can act as a corrective. Humour punctures pretence, puts things in perspective. Humour speaks truth to power.

'Jesters do oft prove prophets.'
Regan, ‘King Lear’

Over the years I found that wit and wisecracks were not just a valuable antidote to office arrogance. They were also essential ingredients in a thriving company culture. I would often sustain myself through a boring meeting by noting down the absurdities of business-speak. My erstwhile colleague Ben would amuse participants in lengthy management awaydays by compiling a Top 10 list of bons mots and malapropisms. Sarah would turn the air blue with imaginative profanity. Gwyn would draw on his armory of pitch-perfect impersonations. Nick would relate shaggy dog stories of domestic disaster.

Comedy binds teams together, expresses shared values and helps us recover from disappointment.

'There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ (1941)

Of course we need to beware of the ‘banter’ that excludes or marginalizes; that forces conformity and suppresses authenticity. We must recognize that some people aren’t natural storytellers.

'You have a wonderful sense of humor. I wish I had a sense of humor, but I can never think of the right thing to say until everybody's gone home.’
Irene (Carole Lombard), 'My Man Godfrey' (1936)

That qualification aside, I’d still maintain that a well articulated joke can express a company’s character and values better than any po-faced promise or purpose. Comedy can be a cohesive force, a statement of fellow feeling. Comedy creates culture.

Indeed I’m inclined to concur with WH Auden:

'Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.'

'Oh, I hear laughter in the rain,
Walking hand in hand with the one I love.
Oh, how I love the rainy days and the happy way I feel inside.’

Neil Sedaka, ‘Laughter in the Rain’ (Neil Sedaka/ Phil Cody)

No. 214

‘I Made It All Up’: Bruce Springsteen and the Art of Invention

‘We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children's lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior.'

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

I recently watched ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ (Netflix), the film record of Bruce Springsteen’s 2017-18 residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York.

I’ve always been an admirer of Springsteen. As a youngster I fell for the romantic picture he painted of blue collar America. He sang about his family and friends, home and hometown; about cars and girls, escape and the open road; about dancing in the dark and racing in the streets; about broken promises, burnt out Chevrolets and the land of hope and dreams. He was a sentimental storyteller, a soulful troubadour. He was the future of rock’n’roll.

‘Springsteen on Broadway’ is not a conventional gig. The singer weaves stripped down versions of some of his more famous numbers around a spoken narrative about his life and career. For the most part he stands alone on stage, in dark jeans and t-shirt. Lean and tanned, face chiseled, eyes beaming, a smile never far from his lips, he commands our attention.

He explains what his hometown, Freehold, New Jersey, meant to him when he was growing up.

‘There was a place here. You could hear it, you could smell it. A place where people made lives, and where they worked and where they danced, and where they enjoyed small pleasures and played baseball, and suffered pain; where they had their hearts broken and where they made love, had kids; where they died and drank themselves drunk on spring nights; and where they did their very best, the best they could to hold off the demons outside and inside that sought to destroy them and their homes and their families and their town.' 

Springsteen speaks with a preacher’s zeal, testifying to the ties that bind. He prompts us to recall why we loved the United States in the first place; reaffirms the fundamental dignity of the working class; reminds us that masculinity doesn’t have to be toxic; restores our faith in the transformative power of rock’n’roll music.

‘The joyful, life-affirming, hip-shaking, ass-quaking, guitar-playing, mind and heart-changing, race-challenging, soul-lifting bliss of a freer existence… All you had to do to get a taste of it was to risk being your true self.’

Springsteen’s emotive themes resonate particularly in a contemporary setting, when there’s so much doubt about America and its place in the world – when there’s a darkness on the edge of town.

‘These days some reminding of who we are and who we can be isn’t such a bad thing.’

There’s a compelling moment early in the show when Springsteen comes clean about the source of his classic blue collar narratives.

'I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud. So am I … I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life. I've never done any hard labor. I've never worked nine to five… I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.'

Though Springsteen had little first hand experience of working class struggle, it becomes clear, nonetheless, that his storytelling gift was rooted in observation of the community he grew up in, awareness of its strengths and passions, sensitivity to its trials and tribulations. Moreover, many of his songs were inspired by his father - ‘my hero and my greatest foe’ - a complex man of Dutch Irish descent, who was haunted by depression and drink and struggled to find work.

‘Now those whose love we wanted but didn’t get, we emulate them. It’s the only way we have in our power to get the closeness and the love that we needed and desired.’

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It is conventional to characterize composers and storytellers as lonely, isolated souls, as outsiders struggling to articulate their unique personal vision and experience. Springsteen’s narrative, by contrast, expresses an intense sense of belonging - to family, community and country – harnessed to acute observational skills. He has profound empathy and emotional intelligence. He feels for other people. And this equips him to tell their stories.

Springsteen should prompt all of us working in creative industries to interrogate our own roots, background and community: How have my history and culture made me? How have I been influenced by my parents and siblings? How am I a product of my hometown?

When confronted by a taxing brief or a blank sheet of paper, when struggling for a creative spark, the inspiration may be close to home.

 

'I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from LA.
I blew that Camaro off my back and drove that little girl away.
But now there's wrinkles around my baby's eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night.
When I come home the house is dark,
She sighs "Baby did you make it all right."

Tonight, tonight the highway's bright,
Out of our way mister you best keep.
'Cause summer's here and the time is right
For racing in the street.'

Bruce Springsteen,’Racing in the Streets

No. 213

Gainsborough’s Daughters: Even Hard Nosed Business People Can Have Soft Centres

Thomas Gainsborough - The Painter's Daughters with a Cat. Circa 1760-1.  Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Thomas Gainsborough - The Painter's Daughters with a Cat. Circa 1760-1. Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

I confess I’ve not been the greatest fan of Thomas Gainsborough. All those flattering portraits of lords, ladies and the landed gentry; of stout colonels, fashionable celebrities and bewigged countesses. All those haughty looks, formidable stares, self-satisfied glances. Gainsborough was clearly a gifted artist. With his fast, light-handed brushstrokes, he elegantly captured the confident swagger of eighteenth century English society. But to me his pictures displayed little warmth or psychological insight.

I may have misjudged him.

I recently attended an exhibition of Gainsborough’s family portraits. (‘Gainsborough’s Family Album’, the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 3 February.)

Gainsborough was the first British artist regularly to paint himself and his family members. Although he claimed to prefer landscape painting to the portraiture that made his name and paid his keep, these intimate works were a labour of love. Many were unfinished. Perhaps he liked to tinker away at them in his spare time. Perhaps he just preferred them that way.

With her rosy cheeks and black mantilla, Gainsborough’s wife Margaret looks somewhat long-suffering and resigned. In her white lace bow and bonnet, older sister Sarah, a milliner, suggests intelligence and determination. Artist nephew Gainsborough Dupont appears in a blue silk jacket, all handsome and romantic. Clerical brother Humphrey seems sincere and devout. Older brother John, unshaven with unruly hair, comes across as something of a rogue. Nicknamed ‘Scheming Jack’, John was endlessly pursuing ill-fated money-making projects. The picture is inscribed ‘Gainsborow’.

Thomas Gainsborough -The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly. Circa 1756.  Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Thomas Gainsborough -The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly. Circa 1756. Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Gainsborough portrays his family as ordinary middle-class folk with characterful faces and stories to tell; interesting people in everyday attire, with varied preoccupations and concerns.

I was particularly struck by a sequence of paintings, created over many years, of Gainsborough’s two daughters. Margaret, aged 5, reaches for a butterfly, and 6-year-old Mary grasps her hand to protect her from an unseen thistle bush. A few years later Mary puts a comforting arm around her sister’s shoulder as she cradles a cat. Then Mary adjusts Margaret’s hair as she stares out at us, slightly annoyed perhaps. The two teenage sisters earnestly contemplate their art studies. The two society ladies in their twenties rejoice in their silk finery, attended by a faithful hound.

Seen through the paintings he made of his daughters, Gainsborough comes across, not as a sycophantic lover of celebrity elites, but rather as a protective, thoughtful and affectionate father. He wants the best for his girls. He believes in them.

I found myself rather liking this Gainsborough.

In the world of business we are sometimes quick to dismiss colleagues, competitors and clients as villains and fools. We leap to assumptions, jump to conclusions. We readily characterize people as simple-minded, selfish and soulless.

But we may simply have approached from the wrong angle, got off on the wrong foot. Often hard-nosed commercial people have soft centres; sometimes cool, calculating exteriors conceal tender, warm-hearted interior lives.

You just need to ask the right questions.

Thomas Gainsborough  Portrait of the Artist's Daughters , about 1763-64. Courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

Thomas Gainsborough Portrait of the Artist's Daughters, about 1763-64. Courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

As so often in life, things didn’t quite turn out for Gainsborough’s daughters as he or they had hoped. The young women didn’t pursue an artistic career. Aged 30 Mary married a musician, but it didn’t work out and she returned home two years later. Her mental health deteriorated, and Margaret, who never married, took care of her in seclusion in Acton. When Margaret passed away, Mary was committed to an asylum where she stayed for the rest of her life. 

Thomas Gainsborough himself died from cancer in 1788 at the age of 61. In his last letter he wrote, somewhat wistfully:

‘’Tis odd how all the childish passions hang about one in sickness. I am so childish that I could make a kite, catch gold finches, or build little ships.'

No. 212

About Time

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'Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus.' 
(Meanwhile time flies; it flies never to return.)
Virgil, Georgics 

I recently visited Christian Marclay’s splendid installation at the Tate Modern in London: ‘The Clock 2010’ (until 20 January).

Marclay and his team of researchers spent several years collecting excerpts from famous and lesser-known films that feature clocks, watches and other timepieces. He then edited these clips together so that they show the actual time. The final artwork, viewed in a cinema setting, is 24-hours long and contains around 12,000 different movie moments.

At about 10-40 AM Hugh Grant is woken by multiple alarms; Gary Cooper looks apprehensively at a wall clock; Humphrey Bogart rouses a sleeping Gloria Grahame; Adam Sandler suggests there’s still time for a McDonald's Breakfast. We skip seamlessly through time references in ‘Clockwise’, ‘Columbo’ and ‘Catch Me If You Can’; ‘The Talented Mister Ripley’, ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Three Colours: Blue.’ We see church clocks, railway clocks, grandfather clocks; wrist watches and pocket watches; sundials, hourglasses and microwave LEDs. We hear chimes, peals, beeps and ticks. We observe conversations about time; dramas around deadlines.

We find ourselves enthralled, spotting the film references, amused by the editor’s choices. We want to follow particular sequences longer. But we can’t. Time and the edit march on.

Collage courtesy: https://journalofseeing.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/high-noon-clocks/

Collage courtesy: https://journalofseeing.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/high-noon-clocks/

At around 5-00 PM Jack Nicholson leaves work for the very last time; Robert Redford hits a home run and the ball shatters the stadium clock; Clint Eastwood observes a gunfight between Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonte.

Since the source material of ‘The Clock’ comes from the world of cinema, there’s a heightened sense of drama: an urgency as heists are planned, trains are delayed, deadlines loom. We arrive early for an appointment, late for a conference. Time is elastic. It slows down as the meeting drags on, as the boredom sets in; and then speeds up as the alarm goes off, the gun is fired.

At this precise moment, somewhere in the world babies are being born, promises are being made, crimes are being committed, hearts are being broken. We are struck by the sense that our complex, fragmentary existence is unified by the ticking clock. Time is the ever-present adhesive that holds it all together, the harness that keeps us in step. Time is sometimes a silent witness. Sometimes it is a catalyst, an actor in events. It can be relentless, oppressive, unforgiving.

‘The Clock is very much about death in a way. It is a memento mori.’
Christian Marclay

The creative industry has often had an uncomfortable relationship with time. We feel constrained by schedules, intimidated by deadlines. We balk at timetables and Gantt charts. We hesitate and delay, postpone and prevaricate. We always want more time.

'Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.’
William Penn

It doesn’t have to be this way.

BBH was famous for the creativity of its output, but many were surprised at its passion for process. We loved schedules, progress reports and status meetings; reviews and timing plans; project and traffic management. Indeed one of the Agency’s core beliefs was ‘processes that liberate creativity’.

I have always liked this phrase. It suggests that if we embrace the discipline of planning and preparation, if we properly plot the priority and sequence of tasks, time can become an ally to ideas, not an enemy. We shouldn’t be working all hours; we should be making all hours work for us. With proper forethought, it’s possible to make time, not waste it.

'The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: “I did not have time."'
Franklin Field

'Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth.
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette.
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget.
Oh oh, you're a rock 'n' roll suicide.’

 David Bowie, ‘Rock 'n' Roll Suicide'

No. 211

Discovering Japan: Reflections On Craft and Creativity

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

I recently returned from a holiday in Japan.

Greeted with a gong, welcomed with a bow. And the sweet smell of tatami mats. Shoes off, slippers on. Folding screens and sliding doors, chairless rooms and legless chairs. Matcha tea. Hard low beds and pillows filled with beans.

Taxi doors swing open automatically. Toilets stand to attention when you enter the room. Hai! Look out of the carriage when you’re crammed in on the subway train. Queue here. Be quiet. ‘Do not touch the geisha’.

A polite smile, then a gentle gesture. Sushi, yakitori, teppanyaki? Tempura, sashimi, miso soup. Gingko nuts. Choose your sake glass. Arigato. Kampai!

After dinner, neon lights and karaoke. ‘More than this, you know there’s nothing.’ Revolut! Maybe I’ll have the Western-style breakfast this time.

Bento boxes on bullet trains. Reversible seats. Out of the window we can see Mount Fuji peeping through the clouds. There are high peaks, open plains, deep valleys and crystal lakes. There are small trucks, compact cities, factories that still make stuff.

We visit tranquil gardens and bustling fish markets, austere merchants’ houses and colourful shrines. Chimes in the afternoon. We read tales of ninja, samurai and shoguns. We see whisky-drinking salarymen in the dimly lit bar of the Imperial Hotel. We watch sailor-suited school kids on a class outing, young women getting their photos taken in rented kimonos, beardless hipsters with magnificent hair. The infinite possibilities of vending machines. The limitless permutations of workwear. Neat, neat, neat.

To the Western tourist Japan is curious, challenging and delightful all at the same time. It’s strange but familiar; the same but different; futuristic but traditional.

Japan is also a country of quite extraordinary ingenuity and invention. The technology, engineering and logistics hugely impress. Perhaps there is something ingrained in the culture. The Grand Shrine of Ise is torn down and rebuilt every twenty years to reflect Shinto concerns about impermanence, death, rebirth and renewal. Creative destruction?

But Japan is also a country obsessed with quality: consideration of materials, care of manufacture, craft of execution. You see it in the food and the fashion, the interior design and the service culture.

You see it at the Japanese Galleries of the Tokyo National Museum - in the glazed ceramic vases and polished lacquer trays; the courtly calligraphy and narrative picture scrolls; the steel samurai swords and decorative sutra boxes; the ornate kettles and tea caddies; the finely embroidered kabuki costumes.

Many of these precious objects had no named artist or creator. Most of them were following an established tradition, path or process. All of them were precise and refined, elegant and just so. Craft is as important as creativity here.

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

Wandering through these galleries I found myself asking whether we in the communications sector spend enough time reflecting on craft. Do we celebrate excellence of execution as much as we do originality of thought? Do we allocate time appropriately between strategy, creative and production? Do we properly respect our talent in design and art direction, film-making, photography and web-build? Do we suitably invest in craft skills and training?

I’m not so sure. Sometimes, whilst wasting time and money on the front end, we squeeze production resource and budgets at the back end. Sometimes we display a cavalier attitude to expertise. Sometimes in the expansive realms of content development and dynamic creativity, we operate a culture of ‘good enough’.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck. Occasionally John Hegarty would observe, somewhat cryptically:

‘If creativity is 80% idea, it’s also 80% execution.’

Clearly a great Agency in any era must excel at both creativity and craft.

At the start of one year Nigel Bogle addressed the Agency with a simple chart. It had ‘Better’ on the x-axis and ‘Different’ on the y-axis. The objective this year, he said, is to position ourselves at the top right-hand corner of this graph: we must be both better and more different – than the sector norms, than our competitors, than we have ever been before.

Hai! 

And a happy new year to you all.

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'Her heart is nearly breaking, the earth is nearly quaking.
The Tokyo taxi's braking, it's screaming to a halt.
And there's nothing to hold on to when gravity betrays you,
And every kiss enslaves you.
Discovering Japan.
Discovering Japan.’

Graham Parker, 'Discovering Japan'

No. 210

PsychoBarn: A Lesson in Disorientation


I came up from Green Park tube, walked along Piccadilly, past the Ritz, the Wolseley and the Caffè Concerto, and turned into the Royal Academy.

There, in the neo-classical courtyard of this august building, sat a red family house with slatted wooden walls, gothic ornamentation, a tatty white porch and a steep mansard roof.

It stopped me in my tracks.

'Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)’ is a piece by the British artist, Cornelia Parker (at the Royal Academy until March 2019). It was first shown on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016.  It was built using materials reclaimed from a typical American red barn. They have been carefully dismantled, then re-assembled in the form of the Bates family mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film ‘Psycho’. This in turn was itself a studio interpretation of an Edward Hopper painting, ‘House by the Railroad’ (1925). ‘PsychoBarn’ is smaller in scale than a normal house (just over 30 feet). And it is incomplete. At its rear it is supported by scaffolding, just like a stage-set.

The piece suggests a kind of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ romanticism, at the same time as concealed threat and inarticulate menace. Parker talks about confronting the 'polarities of good and evil'. It is a house built from a barn. It is not whole. It deceives. Its scale confuses. In an urban context its architecture disorientates. And being modeled on a film, which in turn was inspired by a painting, it carries layered meaning.

Parker borrowed the term 'transitional object' from developmental psychology. It was coined in 1951 by the analyst DW Winnicott to describe an item used to provide psychological comfort as a substitute for reality - typically a child’s comfort blanket or teddy bear.

 

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‘PsychoBarn’ is like a comfort blanket in that it is real and unreal. It is initially attractive, simple, reassuring. But on closer inspection it is deceitful, ambiguous, complex.

‘I like the idea that you take things that perhaps seem clichéd. But they’re clichéd for a reason. They resonate with a huge amount of people…The inverse of the cliché is the most unknown place.’

Cornelia Parker

There’s a simple lesson that we could all learn here.

So often modern communication reflects and confirms the world as it is, or as we would want it to be. Our ideas are two-dimensional, flat and transparent. We pedal clichés rather than subverting them; reinforce stereotypes rather than challenging them. Consumption becomes easy, passive and comfortable. And at the same time bland, safe and forgettable.

If we really want to be remembered, we should endeavour to disorientate our viewers; to disarm and disturb them. We should consider changing the context, adjusting the scale, reconfiguring the materials, juxtaposing the incongruous, layering the meaning, subverting the message.

In the midst of the comforting and familiar, we should seek out ‘the most unknown place.’

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Time for a festive break.
Next post will be on Thursday 3 January.
Have a restful Christmas.
See you on the other side, I hope.

'Christmas is here.
I know what I want this year.
Presents and toys are fine.
But I got bigger things in mind.
Santa can you swing more love? More peace?
Because that’s what everybody needs.’

Macy Gray, ’All I Want for Christmas'

No. 209

Shot by Both Sides: Protecting the Right to Change One’s Mind

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Now I’m not sure I’d recommend the 1948 movie ‘A Southern Yankee’ to you. It’s a moderate comedy set during the American Civil War that was often on TV when I was a kid.

I remember being particularly amused by one scene, which it transpires was masterminded by the great Buster Keaton. Red Skelton plays a soldier who finds himself serving with both armies in the conflict. At one point, by a stroke of bad luck, he has to make his way between the Northern and Southern forces in the midst of a furious battle. He realises he must select a side, but the moment he does so he’ll be mincemeat.

Red resolves to stitch two uniforms and two flags together, so that he can be Union from one perspective and Confederate from the other. Initially the plan works. When he marches between the opposing battalions, each army cheers as they see him sporting their own uniform and flag.

However, the wind changes, and Red’s ensign reverses. Some soldiers grow suspicious. In the confusion he turns round. Now both armies see him wearing the opposition’s colours. Disaster! Red ends up being shot by both sides.

'Shot by both sides,
On the run to the outside of everything.
Shot by both sides,
They must have come to a secret understanding.’

'Shot By Both Sides', Magazine (Howard Devoto)

Generally speaking, we are sceptical of people who equivocate. They are weak and hesitant, tentative and unreliable. We accuse them of fudging and hedging, sitting on the fence, standing on the sidelines.

Rather we applaud conviction, confidence and consistency. We like people who are single-minded and strong-willed; who hold the line and stay the course.

In creative businesses we have a particular aversion to circumspection. We belittle the cautious and careful as indecisive and irresolute. The legendary art director and designer George Lois, for instance, complained about what he called ‘The Abominable No Man’:

‘Tell the devil’s advocate in the room to go to hell.’

But sometimes new information reframes the dilemma; new data suggest a different direction; new circumstances demand a change of course. There is a point where self-assurance becomes intransigence; where determination to see things through becomes refusal to see things any other way.

It’s never easy to admit we may have been wrong. It can be awkward, humiliating and embarrassing, particularly when we’re confronting serious issues and big decisions. And so we’ll do anything we can to resist it. As the economist JK Galbraith observed:

'Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.'

Great leaders have the ability to see the merit of opposing perspectives and points of view; to weigh up different sides of an argument and take decisive action accordingly. They pursue their chosen course with conviction. But they also have the courage, humility and good sense to adjust their opinions in line with new evidence and information; to evolve their strategy to accommodate new knowledge and understanding. Great leaders know how to change their minds.

As the nineteenth century American philosopher and psychologist, William James wrote:
'If you can change your mind, you can change your life.'

'Aww, she didn't bat an eye
As I packed my bags to leave.
I thought she would start to cry
Or sit around my room and grieve.
But y'all, the girl, she fooled me this time.
She acted like I was the last thing on her mind.
I would like to start all over again.
Baby, can I change my mind,
I just want to change my mind.’

Tyrone Davis, ’Can I Change My Mind’ (Barry George Despenza / Carl Wolfolk)

No. 208

‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’: Learning to Deal with Departures

Velazquez, 'An Old Woman Cooking Eggs'

Velazquez, 'An Old Woman Cooking Eggs'

Granny Turley lived alone in a terraced house on Northdown Road, just up from Hornchurch Bus Garage. Granny was a short, hazel-eyed Irish woman with a big heart and a joyous laugh. Smartly turned out in tweed woollen skirt and cotton blouse, her grey hair in a neat bun, she would serve Martin and me ham, egg and chips on a red gingham tablecloth, and supply us with endless cups of sweet tea in china cups. On the living room wall hung a black and white photo of Granny’s large family - including Mum - sitting around that same table; and a rather spooky painting, illuminated by an electric candle, of Jesus exposing his Sacred Heart to the world.

As young children Martin and I would stay with Granny Turley for a few days. We would pass our time playing under the damson tree in the back garden or hammering away tunelessly at the upright piano in the front room. When it was time to leave, Granny would reach into the secret stash of money she kept under a mat, and send us off with a few shillings in our pockets and a sprinkle of holy water from the small font by the front door.

We tend to assume that our elderly relatives have far less eventful lives than our own. But, like so many of her generation, Granny Turley had a story to tell.

Born in 1902 in Dromore, County Down, Sarah Dempster worked as a seamstress, and at the age of 26 she travelled to America on the SS Antonia to join her sweetheart, James Turley. He had made the crossing a few years earlier and got himself a job as a fitter in the coke ovens at Ford’s River Rouge plant in Michigan. They married on the Canadian border, set up home in Michigan and started a family. Subsequently they found themselves crossing the Atlantic again. James took a job at Ford’s in Dagenham and they settled with their young family in Hornchurch. Just in time for the Second World War.

When I was a kid Northdown Road still had traces of the Turleys’ sojourn in the States: Grandad’s banjo sat in a case upstairs; Granny occasionally used an American word - ‘diaper’, for instance; and there was a joint portrait of JFK and the Holy Father above the fireplace.

For some reason I particularly recall Granny bathing me in the big Belfast sink in the kitchen. I was young enough for this to be physically possible and old enough to think it was not entirely normal. As she scrubbed vigorously away at me, she would sing the same refrain, over and over again.

'My Bonnie lies over the ocean, 
My Bonnie lies over the sea. 
My Bonnie lies over the ocean. 
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me.'

I’m not sure why she sang this exactly. It’s a traditional Scottish folk song, and Bonnie is thought to refer to the Jacobite hero Bonnie Prince Charlie. I wonder whether she’d crooned it in Ireland to console herself before joining her sweetheart in the States. Or was it something she’d picked up from the wireless when she was over there? I’ll never know.

In any case, through repetition and its association with a golden time, ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’ stuck with me. I guess it was an early introduction to the melancholy themes of distance, loss, longing and regret - themes that play out in all our lives as we grow older.

'Bring back, bring back, 
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me. 
Bring back, bring back, 
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me. '

Of course, for the most part we associate loss and separation with our personal lives. But they can haunt our work lives too.

Many’s the time I sat in my office listening to a young person I admired relate their countless disappointments with the Agency and the numerous attractions of their next employer. It could be frustrating and depressing. And it was hard not to take it personally.

Our best talent frequently deserts us for bigger jobs, better opportunities, sunnier climes. Our leaders take off to pursue fresh challenges. We can be left high and dry, isolated, rudderless. We hasten to find replacements while at the same time reminiscing about the good times, wondering what we could have done to keep the team together. We are beset by regrets.

I have learned two things.

Firstly, good people are so precious we should do everything we can to keep them as long as possible. Too often complacency, false economies, short-termism and an infatuation with the new lead us to undervalue our best employees. Sometimes we are responsible for our own losses. We should invest as much time retaining talent as recruiting it.

Secondly, we should recognise that we all have to leave some time. It’s a question of when, not if. And what’s more, we all swim in the same pond, and grudges and grievances can taint future relationships and opportunities. So don’t make departures tortuous and unpleasant, painful and personal. We should always separate gracefully.

Granny Turley passed away when I was still young. I never got to ask her to fill in the gaps in her story; to relate her own adventures on the other side of the world; to explain the special resonance of that tune. And I’m not sure what happened to the Sacred Heart painting, the Turley family photo and the image of JFK with the Pope. All that was left was an absence of love.

'Grandma's hands
Clapped in church on Sunday morning.
Grandma's hands
Played a tambourine so well.
Grandma's hands
Used to issue out a warning.
She'd say, "Billy don't you run so fast.
Might fall on a piece of glass"
"Might be snakes there in that grass."
Grandma's hands.’

 Bill Withers, 'Grandma’s Hands'

No. 207

‘The Best for the Most for the Least’: The Eames Office and the Democratic Impulse

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'Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects…the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.’
Charles Eames

I recently watched a fascinating documentary about the creative studio run by American designers Ray and Charles Eames (‘Eames: The Architect and the Painter’).

Charles Eames was born in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1907, studied architecture in Saint Louis and Michigan, and became a practicing architect. In 1940 with friend Eero Saarinen he entered a MOMA competition for 'Organic Design in Home Furnishings'. They were interested in the properties of plywood – how, with the application of heat and pressure, you could fashion the material in different directions and into smooth curves. They set out to design a chair that would mould to the body, that wouldn’t need costly upholstery and could be mass-produced.

Although they won the competition, they didn’t achieve their objectives. The glues were inferior, the chair split and they had to employ upholstery to cover the cracks. The project was shelved.

In 1941 Charles married the Sacramento-born painter Ray Kaiser. They moved to Los Angeles and started working together. Charles brought an architect’s logic and vision; Ray brought an artist’s confidence with colour and juxtaposition. They shared a youthful playfulness, curiosity and invention.

The Eameses’ first success came when they designed a new splint to help the war effort. The conventional metal models in service at the time vibrated, caused pain and aggravated wounds. Ray and Charles created a plywood splint that curved to reflect the shape of a human leg and had holes to remove tension.

‘The people we wanted to serve were various, and to begin with we studied the shape and posture of many types, averages and extremes.’

After the war, with the lessons learned from the splints, the Eameses revisited the plywood chair. Following an extensive period of testing, trial and error, the Eames Lounge Chair Wood (LCW) was born. It was elegant, light and comfortable, it needed no upholstery and it lent itself to industrial production - everything Charles had originally envisaged back in Michigan.

'Choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely and to the best of your ability, and that way you might change the world.’

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Patent Drawing for LCW chair 1947

Patent Drawing for LCW chair 1947

In 1946, along with a family of plywood chairs, tables and folding screens, the Eames LCW was manufactured and sold by the Herman Miller Company. The range was an immediate success, resonating with a new educated suburban middle class that, after the privations of war, was looking for a fresh, accessible modern aesthetic.

'We don’t do ‘art’ – we solve problems. How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?'

The Eameses worked from a studio at 901 Washington Boulevard, Venice Beach. They designed the space to be flexible and informal. It could repeatedly shift shape to accommodate models, graphics, photography, filming and screening. And they hired young, open-minded, lateral thinking designers to work there.

‘Many of us understood very well that we were very poorly suited for employment in certain kinds of jobs. We were very suited to be there.’
Jeannine Oppewall, Designer

The Eames Office encouraged a vibrant creative culture. It avoided structure, routine and meetings. It was a living workshop of stimulus, ideas and experiments - and it organised field trips to the circus to provide inspiration and food for thought.

‘Take your pleasure seriously.’

The Eameses believed fundamentally in ‘learning by doing.’ They would build prototypes, test, adapt, reject and rethink. This exploratory process gave them a deeper, more intimate comprehension of the problem and took them closer to solving it.

‘Never delegate understanding.’

The working method was also rooted in rigorous study of end users – their physical form, their movement, habits and predispositions.

'The role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests.’

The Eames Office continued to design furniture for the Herman Miller Company. It pioneered the use in furniture of technologies such as fiberglass, plastic resin and wire mesh. Its output included numerous classics: the chrome-based DSR (1948), the Eames Lounge Chair (1956), the Eames Aluminum Group (1958).

Charles and Ray Eames with the 1956 Lounge Chair

Charles and Ray Eames with the 1956 Lounge Chair

At the same time the Office took briefs from all manner of sectors. It was unconstrained by formal category definitions, technical expertise or experience. It worked on architecture projects. The Eames House at Pacific Palisades is regarded as a landmark of 20th century design. It curated exhibitions. It was commissioned by the Government to create a film representing the spirit of the United States to communist Russia; and by IBM to communicate the human value of the computer. Its short corporate videos were consistently charming and inventive. They took delight in explaining the complex in simple terms. Through the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s the Office’s Clients extended to include American titans like Westinghouse, Boeing, Polaroid and Alcoa. And yet Charles Eames always dealt directly with the CEOs, often without a written contract.

‘If you sell your expertise you have a limited repertoire. If you sell your ignorance it’s an unlimited repertoire. He [Charles] was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject. And the journey of him not knowing to knowing was his work.’
Richard Saul Wurman, TED Founder

Today’s marketing and communication industry is rightly seeking to break away from an excess of process, mediation and convention. We’re striving to re-orientate our working cultures around ‘making, not managing’.  So there’s clearly a great deal we could learn from the Eames Office, the very paradigm of a contemporary creative studio.

1. Create an inspiring environment
2. Populate it with misfits and mavericks.
3. Seek to solve problems rather than to create art.
4. Take briefs from the top.
5. Never delegate understanding: focus relentlessly on the end user.
6. Learn by doing: prototype and model, test and learn.
7. Sell the boundless curiosity of your mind, not the narrow confines of your expertise. 
8. Take your pleasure seriously: have fun!

I was particularly struck by the philosophy at the heart of the Eames Office: ‘We want to make the best for the most for the least.’

We may recognise in this simple democratic ideal the kind of admirable ambition articulated over the years by brands like Harrods, Wal-Mart, IKEA, and Google.

‘Omnia, omnibus, ubique.’ (‘Everything for everyone everywhere.’)
Harrods Motto

‘To give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.’
Wal-Mart Mission

'At IKEA our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people.’

'To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.'
Google Mission

As Andy Warhol memorably observed, there is something very compelling about a truly democratic brand.

'You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.’

Working in the communication industry I found that it was always easier to develop interesting creative work for small, niche, prestige products and services. You are dealing with brands that are already inherently desirable, and with consumers that are already actively engaged. It is generally more challenging, and therefore more rewarding, to make work for big brands in ordinary, everyday sectors; to create content that has mass appeal, that talks to the mainstream, that impacts culture. And, what’s more, you may be performing a social good.

Charles Eames died in 1978 and the Eames Office was closed shortly after. Ray Eames passed away in 1988, ten years to the day after Charles. They are widely regarded as among America’s most important designers. They gave modernism a playful soul and a democratic intent. And the Eames LCW was selected by Time magazine as the greatest design of the twentieth century.

No. 206 

Garbo’s Hat: Recognising People’s Right to Be Wrong

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Greta Garbo was a Hollywood star of the silent era, adored for her luminous on-screen presence, her sophisticated beauty, her worldly-wise personality. With the advent of ‘talkies’ MGM became nervous. What would audiences make of her heavy Swedish accent? They delayed as long as they could. Then in 1930 Garbo played the eponymous heroine of ‘Anna Christie’. She walked into a bar, collapsed into a chair and demanded:

'Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby.’

The studio publicised the movie with posters proclaiming: ‘Garbo talks!’ The public were delighted, and ‘Anna Christie’ was the highest grossing film of the year.

Garbo subsequently performed in a succession of classics, including ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘Queen Christina’, ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Camille’. She consistently played melancholic and melodramatic heroines. She was compellingly serious, earnest, pensive. But gradually her popularity began to wane, and in 1939 the studio decided to change tack, casting her in an Ernst Lubitsch comedy, ‘Ninotchka’.

Buljanoff: 'How are things in Moscow?'
Ninotchka: 'Very Good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.' 

Garbo plays Ninotchka, a Soviet special envoy sent to Paris to organise a sale of royal Russian jewellery. She is sober, stern, judgemental; unimpressed by bourgeois capitalism.

Ninotchka: 'Why should you carry other people's bags?'
Porter: 'Well, that's my business, Madame.'
Ninotchka: 'That's no business. That's social injustice.'
Porter: 'That depends on the tip.'

Wherever Ninotchka goes in Paris, she is taken aback by its indulgent Western ways. All about her seems shallow and superfluous, petty and pointless. She spots a couture hat in a shop window. It looks rather like a lampshade.

Ninotchka: 'What's that?'
Comrade Kopalski: 'It's a hat, Comrade. A woman's hat.'
Ninotchka: 'How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads. It won't be long now, Comrades.'

 Ninotchka also encounters the debonair Frenchman, Count Leon (played by Melvyn Douglas). She recognizes that he is rather charismatic, but dismisses him as entirely frivolous.

 'Now, don't misunderstand me. I do not hold your frivolity against you. As basic material, you may not be bad; but you are the unfortunate product of a doomed culture. I feel very sorry for you.'

Gradually, however, Ninotchka is seduced by the charms of Paris and the Count. And soon she cannot resist the hat she recently found so contemptible.

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‘Ninotchka’ is a magnificent comedy, bristling with elegant witticisms and sharp social satire. It reminded me that, growing up in the midst of the Cold War, we were often prompted to consider the differences between Soviet and Capitalist societies. 

To teenagers like me Communism certainly had its appeal: the avowed commitment to equality, the intolerance of plutocrats, the celebration of the workers, the military caps with retractable ear-flaps. But we were also, of course, aware of the suppression of individual freedoms, of Stalin’s dark secrets. And there was a nagging sense that Communism was somehow dull, dreary and joyless; that it didn’t accommodate human foibles and foolishness - the insignificance of pop, the frippery of fashion, the triviality of brands and advertising. In short Communism didn’t seem to afford people the right to be wrong. And this seemed somehow very important to me.

If you work in the field of marketing or advertising and were fortunate enough to grow up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s still perhaps worth reflecting on the differences between Capitalism and Communism. You may conclude like me that ordinary people are capricious, fickle and flighty. They oscillate between profound passions and shallow affections; between passionate commitments and superficial attachments. They can be both serious and silly; consistent and erratic. They can comfortably hold two mutually opposing ideas in their heads at the same time. And that’s what makes us human.

In the critical scene of ‘Ninotchka’ our heroine sits down in a restaurant and orders raw beets and carrots. The owner is unimpressed:

'Madame, this is a restaurant, not a meadow.'

Count Leon does everything he can to entertain her over lunch - all to no avail. Finally he resorts to a joke.

 'A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table. He says, "Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream." Five minutes later the waiter comes back and says, "I'm sorry sir, we have no cream, can it be without milk?"'

Ninotchka is still not amused, but when the Count accidentally tumbles from his chair, she breaks into cascades of joyous laughter. Ninotchka’s defences have been breached by a ludicrous pratfall. And Garbo shows a hitherto concealed gift for comedy.

This time round the promotional posters were headlined: ‘Garbo laughs!’

'By the look in your eye I can tell you're gonna cry. 
Is it over me?
If it is, save your tears for I'm not worth it, you see.
For I'm the kind of guy who is always on the roam,
Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home.’

Marvin Gaye, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) (Barrett Strong/ Marvin Gaye/ Norman Whitfield)

No. 205