Mixed Metaphors: Sport Inspires Us To Perform; Art Inspires Us To Transform

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

So, we’re planning a conference and we want to invite an external speaker to address us and our colleagues - someone inspirational from a completely different world; who will get us all thinking outside the category, outside the box; someone who can convince us to raise our sights, raise our game.

Who are we going to call?

Maybe an Olympic oarsman, a downhill skier, a medal-winning sportswoman? Or perhaps a choreographer, a composer, a world-renowned film director?

Well, yes, any one of these could, I’m sure, be compelling and interesting. But perhaps we should first give a little thought to our selection criteria. Let’s examine the lessons we’re seeking to learn.

A first class sports person will prompt our colleagues to consider competition, goals and incremental improvement; team building, training and total honesty. They’ll teach us about the hard yards and the extra mile; to step up to the plate, to play the ball not the man, to want it more. There’s no ‘I’ in team. They’ll teach us all these things because fundamentally sport inspires people to perform.

We may, on the other hand, be keen to accelerate transformational change within our business. In which case sports people may not be so suited to the task. Setting aside the occasional formation adjustment and Fosbury Flop, for the most part athletes play the same game, on the same pitch, with the same rules. They’re seeking to be better, not different.

So if we’re looking to learn about change, we may prefer to talk to the cultural community. People from the arts world are daily engaged in innovation and invention, pioneering new paths and new perspectives. Art is an expression and catalyst of difference.

I think my most memorable marketing conference was one organised by Unilever in Dublin many years ago. A selection of actors and authors, poets and playwrights addressed the management teams of various global brands. They spoke to us about their sources of invention, the craft of creativity, the ‘habit of art’. You may well say that these themes were a million miles away from deodorant, detergent, blue bleach and yellow fats. But they seemed entirely relevant. Because they were all concerned with change.

I was interested therefore to see that Central Saint Martins, the London-based art and design school, and Birkbeck, the university that specialises in business education for working people, have recently combined to offer an MBA course. The course will bring together 'creative thinking with a rigorous business and economics base.' The shape of things to come perhaps.

“In an ever changing and ever more complex world, business leaders and entrepreneurs are going to need new ways of thinking and doing.”

Prof Jeremy Till, Dean of Central Saint Martins

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

It’s clear that, before we pick up the phone to book our inspirational speaker, we should choose our metaphors wisely; tailor the talk to the task. We should remember that sport inspires us to perform, art inspires us to transform; sport makes us better, art makes us different.

Of course, in the long run, most modern businesses need both high performance and transformational change. My former boss, Nigel Bogle, consistently encouraged BBH to be better and different. So when it comes to inspiration at least, we may well need to mix our metaphors.

No. 110

The Age of Pub-Lishing: Can Brands Rebuild Trust Through Truth?

Peder Severin Kroyer - Interior of a Tavern (1886)

Peder Severin Kroyer - Interior of a Tavern (1886)

There has been a good deal of soul searching of late around echo chambers and ‘filter bubbles’, the demise of expertise and the death of truth. The Facebook algorithm makes our social media presence a Hall of Mirrors, endlessly reflecting back to us our own sentiments and sensibilities. Our information comes from a broader variety of sources, but expresses a narrower range of views. We’re only reading the news we want to read; seeing the perspectives we want to see. Reports go unchallenged; opinions go unsubstantiated; statistics are used selectively; data is interpreted liberally; experts are no longer trusted; facts are no longer checked. Provocation, understanding and truth lie before us on the floor bleeding.

It’s an era when opinions voiced with the directness, candour and bias of a pub conversation are given the breadth of distribution and authority of traditional publishing. It’s the Age of Pub-Lishing, when we have blurred the distinction between pub-talk and publishing; between private and public. And therein lies a societal challenge. On the one hand, we want to sustain free speech and the rights of individuals to express themselves; on the other hand, we want published material to be factually accurate, decent and respectful of privacy.

So how should the world of brands and marketing respond to this new environment?

Well this ought to be an area where brands can help. Because they’ve been here before. In their earliest days brands operated in commercial contexts cursed by charlatans, sharks and snake oil salesmen. Indeed back then brands built their reputations and success on consistency, reliability and responsibility. ‘It’s the same as the one I bought last time.’ ‘I can depend on what it says about itself.’ ‘I have legal recourse if anything goes wrong.’ From the outset brands were sources of trust.

I once visited the archives of one of our oldest high street banks and was struck by the dusty, leather-bound ledger books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On page after page of elegant script, bank officials had certified that ‘Mr or Mrs Smith is good for £x of credit’; and Mr or Mrs Smith had signed their name, or in some instances made their mark, to indicate assent. The ledgers were testament to the fact that banking specifically, and business in general, is fundamentally an act of trust. Indeed the word ‘credit’ derives from the Latin ‘credo’: ‘I believe; I trust.’

In the modern era we may have taken for granted this primary role of brands as ‘trustmarks’. Increasingly we have asked brands to do more interesting things: to suggest and symbolise attitudes and associations; to represent and reflect lifestyles and values. And to achieve these ends, brands have often dealt in artifice and aspiration, dreams and desires. They have on occasion been cavalier with the truth.

Meanwhile we have watched our long-term brand trust scores deteriorate and wondered how we can ever reverse the decline.

Of course, we spend a good deal of time nowadays seeking to define the Purpose of our brands. What might be the broader societal value of our commercial enterprise? Why are we here? Often we come up with quite high-minded expressions of our reason for existence. We want to give people the power to share, to enhance global happiness, to nurture the human spirit. We want to save the babies… Perhaps we should consider more modest, and yet more pertinent, articulations of our brands’ public roles and responsibilities.

Nowadays trust, expertise, knowledge, fact and insight are rare commodities, precious cargo. Commentators talk freely about the world being ’post truth.’ Surely in this environment brands would be doing a considerable social good if they were just consistently honest, decent and true; if they brought simplicity to the complex, confidence to the uncertain; if they delivered insight and intelligence to the intimidating and new. In short, in an era of fear, uncertainty and doubt, brands can re-earn trust through truth.

So if you’re really committed to your brand having a higher social Purpose, why not begin with the fundamentals? Don’t aim at mystification; aim at illumination. Don’t seek to add value; seek to reveal it. Don’t shout about lifestyle; amplify truth.

And when you’ve done that, then maybe your brand can start delivering some of the provocation and challenge that our self-selecting social media diets no longer provide. That would be doing us all a service.

No. 109

Caravaggio’s Flashbulb Memories: Have We Forgotten How to Create Intense, Enduring Impressions?

The Taking of Christ

I recently attended an exhibition, at The National Gallery in London, of works by Caravaggio and the artists that followed immediately after him. (Beyond Caravaggio runs until 15 January.)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Milan around 1571. He moved to Rome when he was about 20 and it was here that he made his name. Caravaggio painted heavenly themes with low-life models; he told spiritual stories with earthy naturalism. We are drawn to the moral ambiguity, the proximity of the sacred and the profane. His characters are pensive, uncertain, intensely human. We see the brooding adolescent in the wilderness, the saint coming to terms with his calling, the artist complicit in the crime. Sometimes the subjects reach out and beckon us in. We are present, engaged, involved.

Caravaggio’s paintings also seem to be in suspended animation. He arrests time at the precise moment when the boy is bitten by a lizard; when the cardsharp considers his hand; when the deceiver realises her guilt. We witness the painful fall, the sudden recognition, the treacherous kiss.

These vivid effects are achieved in large part by lighting. The actors in Caravaggio’s dramas loom out at us from the darkness. They are spot-lit from above. It’s as if critical events have been illuminated by a flashbulb. Freeze-framed, they fix themselves in our consciousness.

“He invented a black world that had not existed before, certainly not in Florence or Rome. Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.”
David Hockney

In 1977 the psychologists Brown and Kulik posited the theory of Flashbulb Memory: that at certain moments of surprise or significance the brain captures vivid, detailed memories; and that these memories are more enduring, more consistent and more easily recalled than our usual, everyday recollections. We are prompted to record Flashbulb Memories at highly emotional or traumatic events. Like witnessing the death of JFK or participating in a car crash. Some have suggested that at these moments of crisis the brain records every last possible piece of stimulus because the smallest detail may be essential to survival.

You might imagine that in the world of marketing and communication, where we are engaged in the business of creating vivid and enduring recollections, we would be students of this kind of suspended animation, proponents of Flashbulb Memories. But our brand experiences are seldom heightened, our brand expressions rarely intense.

In the Content Era we seem more concerned with quantity than quality of engagement; more interested in frequency than depth of impression. Our brands are chatty, conversational, casual. We suffer from verbal prolixity and conceptual poverty. Our communication is always on, but our selectivity is often off. Why concentrate on a single moment when a hundred will do? Why focus on a single image when a thousand will do?

Perhaps we are not aware that in sacrificing selection, we may also be forfeiting intensity, and potentially therefore memorability. We do not realise that fewer, more precise, more emotionally acute images, can create deeper, more enduring, more personally meaningful recollections. Editing, selection and curation should be primary skills in the modern brand’s armory. But they seem woefully undervalued.

Saint John The Baptist in the Wilderness

‘Made some bad choices, then worse choices, then ran out of choices.’
Anna Nicole

Poor Caravaggio. His character was quarrelsome and cantankerous; his life was violent and turbulent. He drank too much, brawled too often and thought too little. He was a prototype of the impetuous artist, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’

In 1606 he killed a man after an argument over a tennis match and he had to flee Rome. He settled briefly in Naples, then Malta and Sicily, and then Naples again, all the time communicating with Rome in the quest for a pardon. When he painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, he put his own head on the platter. It was a plea for forgiveness. Or a portent of death.

In 1610 Caravaggio set out for Rome in anticipation of his long sought pardon. But he died on the journey, possibly from a fever. Some say he was, in fact, murdered by one of his many enemies; or poisoned from the lead that was commonly used in the paint of the time. Death by art, perhaps.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had a luminous talent and his life was intensely lived. And perhaps that’s one reason why his fame has spread so wide and his reputation will endure so long. Caravaggio’s was a flashbulb life.

No. 108




The Last Days of Disco: When It’s Time To Rediscover Relevance

Paradise Garage Dance Floor

‘I can remember planning,
Building my whole world around you.
And I can remember hoping,
That you and I could make it through.
But something went wrong.
We loved each other,
We just couldn’t get along.
Take a good look at me.
I’m in misery, can’t you see?
The love I lost
Was a sweet love.
The love I lost
Was complete love.
The love I lost.
I will never, no no never,
Love again.’ 

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The Love I Lost (Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff)


Sometimes it feels like the last days of disco.

Disco was an imaginative, inspirational movement that sprung up in the early 1970s from the mean streets of Philadelphia and New York. Disco was soulful strings, sensuous rhythms and seamless transitions. It was smooth, slick and street-smart; hedonism and hi-hats. Disco was black, Latino, female and gay. It was progress and togetherness. It was unadulterated joy. Our young hearts ran free. We walked in rhythm. We were family.

And then, within the course of a few short years at the end of the decade, disco was dead. It had been exploited from within and assaulted from without.

The insiders had succumbed to commerce and cocaine. Disco became all platforms and perms, mirror balls and Bee Gees. It was an elitist door policy, a dodgy hairdo, a lazy remix. ‘Da ya think I’m sexy?’

Disco was also much disliked by outsiders. Throughout its brief life it was beset by bigotry and homophobia, resented by reactionary rock fans, who felt that ‘disco sucks.’ On 12 July 1979 a radio shock jock organised a Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, Chicago. Over 50,000 people were invited to bring their unwanted disco records along to a White Sox baseball game to see them blown to smithereens in the middle of the arena. A riot followed. And the death knell tolled for disco.

‘Was that all it was?
A way to pass some time,
A momentary thing,
Not worth the memory in the morning.’

Jean Carn, Was That All It Was? (J Butler/ J Usry Jnr/ L Conlon)

Sometimes, in the twilight of my advertising career, I felt like I was living through the last days of disco. As the digital revolution took off around me, I found I couldn’t keep up. I was no longer in the vanguard of knowledge and practice. I wasn’t articulate in the new language. My skills seemed redundant; my expertise irrelevant. The trade that had been so good to me was under attack. The values I held so dear seemed anachronistic. I was walking with dinosaurs, swimming with sharks. I was a man out of time. Advertising was dead.

Instinctively I wanted to go underground. I confess I became sarcastic and sceptical, carping and critical. Like Canute I demanded that the incoming tide should halt.

Gradually I realised that resistance was fruitless, resentment pointless. In fact, when I applied myself to the broader themes and impacts of change, I found that the fundamental principles of brands and communication endured. Though I could never aspire to hands-on expertise, I could understand, and indeed bring some sense to, the brave new world around me. I could add value. And so I rediscovered a certain relevance.

If I learned anything from my period of self-doubt, it’s that the responsibility of leadership is to engage positively with change. Leaders can’t bury their heads in the sand. It’s not enough to ensure that your business performs. You must also equip it to transform. You need a point of view on how your industry needs to change; on how your company must change; and, perhaps most importantly, on how you yourself should change.

Disco never really recovered from that evening in Comiskey Park. But its spirit lived on. Its sentiments were re-articulated in house, garage, electronica, nu-disco and beyond. And eventually America fell back in love with dance music through the insistent charms of EDM.

Yes, sometimes it feels like the last days of disco. But let’s not spend too long resenting and regretting change. Let’s stay true to our principles and reapply them to a new landscape. Let’s start to dance again.


‘Your smile,
Just keeps on changing.

Baby, I feel it.
I feel your love changing.
Your love keeps changin’ on me.’

Ms Sharon Ridley, Changin’ (Peters/Mack/McClelland)


In memory of David Mancuso, pioneering New York DJ and founder of the legendary club night, The Loft. He passed away this week aged 72.

‘Love Saves the Day'

No. 107

‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’: Do Your Troops Know What They’re Here For?

Gassed by John Singer Sargent, Collection of the Imperial War Museum

Gassed by John Singer Sargent, Collection of the Imperial War Museum

Over the last few years there have been many publications, documentaries, exhibitions and events to mark the centenary of the First World War. For me the most touching discovery was a scratchy twenty-second recording of unfamiliar lyrics sung to a familiar tune.

Born to Irish parents in Fulham in 1895, Edward Dwyer joined the East Surrey Regiment at the age of 16. When war broke out he served in the Retreat from Mons, the first battle fought by the British Army against the Germans. After his heroic grenade defence of a trench on Hill 60 just outside Ypres in April 1915, he became (at the time) the youngest person to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The following year, recuperating from injuries back in England, Dwyer made a sound recording on the Regal label. It is thought to be the only such recording of a serving British soldier during World War I. In less than six minutes he talks about life at the front, pay and rations and so forth. He observes that, to keep their spirits up, the troops sang songs with their own rewritten lyrics. To the tune of Auld Lang Syne he croons:

‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.

We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.’


Dwyer’s jaunty voice reaches out to us across a hundred years with eerie immediacy. It’s a tragic thought, that the soldiers on the front line had no real sense of why they were on a particular mission or manoeuvre. They got on with the job without knowing what the job was. And laughed about it.

This seems to me quite an indictment of leadership. You can’t expect the rank and file to have detailed knowledge of strategy. But surely they should be able broadly to articulate why they’re there.

In the world of commerce we spend a lot of time articulating corporate vision and values. We invest in colleague engagement exercises, cascade meetings and internal communications. We introduce staff to the latest thought pieces, catchy acronyms and mots du jour. We talk a great deal about the need to define the Purpose of our brands and businesses.

But are these efforts convincing or confusing? Are our Purposes genuinely for the benefit of the workforce? Or are they exercises in corporate vanity? Can we really be confident that, at a fundamental level, our staff know what they’re about? Or are they here because they’re here because they’re here?

Later the same year that Dwyer made that haunting recording, he was back on active service. On 3 September 1916 at Guillemont, in one of the many battles of the Somme, Corporal Edward Dwyer VC was killed in action. He was just a couple of months short of his twenty first birthday.


I wrote this piece to mark Armistice Day 2016.

’At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.’

Poppy Appeal

Poppy Appeal

No. 106

The Lady And The Unicorn: Does Your Brand Have a Sixth Sense?



On a recent trip to Paris I visited the Musée de Cluny, an excellent gallery dedicated to the art of the Middle Ages. The star exhibit is a series of six tapestries featuring a beautiful noblewoman accompanied by a lion, a unicorn and a maidservant. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries date from around 1500 and are elegantly woven in wool and silk. The fair-haired woman inhabits a red field of wild flowers, exotic shrubs and small mammals. She is dressed in aristocratic finery and accompanied by colourful flags and courtly possessions. The serene white unicorn looks on attentively.

On close inspection we realise that each of the first five tapestries is dedicated to one of the human senses. The lady strokes the unicorn’s horn (touch), takes sweets from a dish (taste), makes a wreath from carnations (smell), plays a pipe organ (hearing), and consults a looking glass (sight).

A mon seul desir

A mon seul desir

But the sixth, slightly larger, tapestry is something of a mystery. It is the only one with writing. In the background a tent carries the inscription, ‘À mon seul désir,’ which could variously be translated as ‘My only desire,’ ‘My desire alone,’ or ‘By my will alone.’ In the foreground the now smiling noblewoman has her hand on a necklace in a casket. It’s the same necklace that she wears in the other tapestries.

What might be the meaning of this sixth tapestry? What is the noblewoman up to? What is her ‘seul désir’?

At first I mournfully imagined that our heroine was taking the necklace from the casket because her one overriding passion was material wealth. But scholars have suggested that the woman is in fact replacing the necklace in the casket, thereby renouncing earthly attractions. She is, they say, demonstrating that free will controls the senses and that the human heart governs our desires. Others have gone further to contend that this image represents the triumph of understanding and the power of love, our unique sixth sense.

Back at my desk in London, I was struck by the thought that most modern brands inhabit the realms of the senses. They offer some combination of perceptible rewards: visual or tactile; auditory, olfactory or gustatory. But how many brands have a sixth sense, something that rises above and beyond basic passions; something more soulful and spiritual? Does your brand have free will? Does it have a heart governing its desires? Does it have extrasensory perception, an instinct to see the unseen; to comprehend the causes behind events?

These questions may sound a little abstruse. But we live in an age of commodification; of cold calculation and cost comparisons; of machine learning and automated inference. The relentless forces of procurement are all powerful and ever present. If brands are to survive and prosper in this unforgiving environment, they must create more space for the intangible, irrational, immaterial. Like the mysterious lady in the Musée de Cluny tapestries, they must rise above the merely sensorial. It’s the only way to establish credible difference; to justify premium; to earn enduring loyalty.



Of course, whilst this may be true, we should beware of over-thinking things. Some have noted that to medieval eyes the unicorn was quite obviously just a symbol of male sexuality. The interpretation of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries may not be as nuanced as scholars would have us believe.

No. 104

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.’


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

Georgia On My Mind: Six Lessons for Creative Professionals from a True American Artist

Oriental Poppies , 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Oriental Poppies, 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

‘I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.’ 
Georgia O’Keeffe

Over the summer I attended the fine Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern in London (showing until 30 October).

In her ninety-eight years on the planet O’Keeffe (1897–1986) was a pioneer, an independent voice, a radical artist. She expressed herself through cityscapes and landscapes; through bold curvaceous shapes abstracted from nature; through rippling cliffs, alien skulls and puffy cloud formations. She painted orange poppies, black irises and white jimson weed, intimate and up-close; she painted pink earth, turquoise lakes and indigo mountain ranges, at an admiring distance. She conveyed the soul of America, ancient and modern.

O’Keeffe was born to dairy farming parents under big Wisconsin skies. She was intelligent, self-reliant, determined and dedicated. By the age of 10 she had decided she wanted to become a painter and by the age of 30 she had helped define American Modernism. There’s a good deal that creative professionals in the twenty-first century could learn from this innovative artist of the twentieth.


1. Turn Injustice into Incentive

‘Men put me down as the best woman painter…I think I’m one of the best painters.’

It was never easy for O’Keeffe, making her way as a talented and ambitious young woman within a conservative, patriarchal society. Conventions were constraining; opportunities were limited. Aged 20 she moved to New York to study at the Art Students League. An older pupil, Eugene Speicher, set her straight on what she could expect from life:

‘It doesn’t matter what you do. I’m going to be a great painter and you will probably end up teaching painting in some girls’ school.’

Who’s laughing now?

Perhaps experiences like this made O’Keeffe all the more committed to an independent path. Today’s young people working in creative commerce would do well to emulate her talent for turning everyday injustice into enduring incentive.

‘I can't live where I want to, I can't go where I want to go, I can't do what I want to, I can't even say what I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to.’


2. No One Can Teach You How To Be Yourself

Abstraction White Rose , 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Abstraction White Rose, 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Education was clearly a challenge for O’Keeffe. She realised that teaching can only take you so far. You can learn historical context, craft and technique, but you can’t be taught how to be yourself.

‘I thought someone could tell me how to paint a landscape. But I never found that person. I just had to settle down and try...They could tell you how they painted their landscape, but they couldn’t tell me how to paint mine.’


3. Make Your Unknown Known

From the outset O’Keeffe spoke with her own voice: a distinctive language of arcs, waves and spirals; of sensuous curves and luminous colours.

‘I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn't say any other way... things I had no words for.’

In 1917 the gallerist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz gave O’Keeffe her first solo exhibition at his 291 gallery in New York. But Stieglitz, who later became her partner, was principal among those who imposed Freudian interpretations on her work, regarding it as fundamentally feminine and expressive of erotic feelings. O’Keeffe resented being reduced and categorised in this way. What’s the point in developing a new private language if others translate it back into their own?

‘They were talking about themselves, not about me.’

O’Keeffe realised that the key to a truly differentiated and personal creativity was the unarticulated self. We shouldn’t be afraid to give expression to our internal thoughts and feelings, even though they may not conform to any conventional taste or practice.

‘Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing - and keeping the unknown always beyond you.’


4. Linger, Look Closer, Magnify

Stieglitz was an early champion of photography as an art form, and O’Keeffe must have absorbed a great deal from his camera expertise. In her flower paintings, in particular, she seems to have applied the photographer’s capacity to observe close-up, to abstract forms and to experiment with scale.

‘Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small it takes time - we haven't time - and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time…So I said to myself - I’ll paint what I see - what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.’

5. Select, Eliminate, Emphasise

Some of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings seem flat, crisp and clear, as if she were more interested in the pattern or design she was creating than the actual object itself. She teaches us to go beyond realism, to edit and eliminate the unnecessary. In any creative endeavour we should ask, not just ‘what are we going to put in?’ but also ‘what are we going to take out?’

‘Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination and by emphasis that we get to the real meaning of things.’

New York Street with Moon , 1925 - Georgia O'Keeffe

New York Street with Moon, 1925 - Georgia O'Keeffe


6. Don’t Be Happy, Be Interesting

This last lesson is a hard one. O’Keeffe made sacrifices in order to achieve. In her early career she had to take stints as a commercial illustrator and indeed an art teacher. Her relationship with Stieglitz, though intimate and inspiring, was often long distance and occasionally frustrating. Restlessly she moved from Wisconsin to Chicago, from New York to Texas, and on to Upstate New York. Ultimately she only found true contentment in New Mexico, a land of isolated desert ranches, ochre adobe houses and mountain plateaux.

In an age when we are encouraged to value all things according to how happy they make us, O’Keeffe suggests that happiness may be a false idol. We should seek not to be happy, but to be interesting and interested.

‘I think it's so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary - you're happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.’ 

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 , 1932 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932 - Georgia O'Keeffe

No. 102


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could go on…

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


No. 101