Let’s Make Things Difficult for Ourselves: Finding the Sweet Spot Between the Obvious and the Obscure

Albrecht Durer, Head of a Woman

Albrecht Durer, Head of a Woman

I recently attended an excellent exhibition at the National Gallery in London dedicated to painting in black and white (Monochrome, until 18 February). The show reviews how artists have over the centuries deliberately chosen to eschew colour in their work.

The motivations for monochrome were rich and varied.

In the Middle Ages there was a view that colourless imagery encouraged sombre contemplation. And so churches occasionally adopted grey, subdued tones in their paintings, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts. At the exhibition you can see a splendid sixteenth century monochrome indigo canvas that was hung over more colourful Genoese chapel walls during Holy Week.

With time artists found that, by excluding colour from their work, they could explore forms, contours, space and relationships in a more focused way. The constraint helped them concentrate. During the Renaissance there was competition between painters and sculptors as to whose was the higher art form. In ‘Portrait of a Lady’ Titian depicted his subject holding a white marble relief of herself – demonstrating that, whereas a sculptor couldn’t sculpt painting, a painter could paint sculpture.

Sometimes artists painted sculptural effects just because imitation was cheaper than authenticity. Sometimes they enjoyed creating the illusion of  ‘trompe l’oeil.’ With the dawn of photography painters vied with the medium in its realism, and occasionally they employed black and white to suggest the urgency of news. In 1929 Kazimir Malevich painted a plain black square within a white frame and declared it the dawn of abstract art.

I confess I approached the monochrome exhibition expecting it to be a rather serious, austere affair. I walked away inspired by the contemplation of looking and seeing; reflecting on the fact that blinkers can provide focus, restraint can set you free. Sometimes it pays to make things more difficult.

Titian, Portrait of a Lady

Titian, Portrait of a Lady

Of course, in business, we’re always looking to make things easier - for ourselves, our Clients and our consumers. The ever-increasing pressures on time and money demand it. But we should pause for thought: often the most obvious option gives the blandest outcome; sometimes the right path is not the easiest one.

I recall that, back in the day, our Levi’s Client commissioned a research study of their hugely successful TV campaign. They were particularly keen to learn about the media performance of their various commercials. The researchers concluded that those executions that had fast wear-in with viewers also had fast wear-out; and similarly slow wear-in resulted in slow wear-out.

Often in creative reviews at that time we’d find ourselves saying: ‘This is a great idea, but what if we strip the copy right back? What if we don’t explain everything as we go along? What if the viewer has to think a little?’

If you want a memorable idea – an idea that endures - you need consumers to invest in it. You need them to pay you some attention. In the modern age attention is actively given, not passively conceded. Attention must be earned, not bought.

So if you’re embarking on a communication task, consider making things more difficult for yourself. Set yourself a challenge: What if we tell this story backwards? What if we see the whole thing from the hero’s point of view? What if we don’t see the product until the end? What if we just watch people’s reaction to it? What if every shot is a close-up? What if we set this in a different era, in a different place, on a different planet? What if we shoot it in black and white?

There’s a sweet spot between the obvious and obscure: the point when the viewer positively engages, leans in to understand. That’s what you should be aiming for. Intrigue them, charm them, make them curious. Earn their attention.

I was confused when I entered the last room of the ‘Monochrome’ exhibition. I found myself alone in a large empty space illuminated with sodium-yellow lights. I didn’t see what was so special. I wandered back to the text by the room’s entrance, which explained that the contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson had employed single frequency monochromatic bulbs in order to suppress all other colours in the spectrum. At this point an old lady walked into the room. She appeared to me completely in black and white, like an old photo; and her rather grey skin suggested she might be off to a Halloween party. We both laughed at each other. I realised I must look the same.

And so I fled back to the world of colour, glad to have lived for an hour in a black and white world; liberated by the limitations.

Etienne Moulinneuf after Chardin, La Pourvoyeuse

Etienne Moulinneuf after Chardin, La Pourvoyeuse

'She told me once, and she told me twice.
I never listened to her advice.
Now I'm payin' a heavy price.
Maybe I'm wrong and maybe she's right.
I see things in shades of blue,
She sees things in black and white.'

Edwyn Collins, ‘50 Shades of Blue’

No. 160


Just Chasing Numbers: 'I'm as Mad as Hell, and I’m not Going to Take This Any More!’


‘This story is about Howard Beale, who was the news anchorman on UBS TV. In his time, Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share. In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, began to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks.‘

I recently saw a very good stage adaptation of the 1976 movie masterpiece ‘Network’ (National Theatre until 24 March). Brilliantly scripted by Paul Chayevsky, ‘Network’ tells the story of Howard Beale, an ageing TV news anchorman whose ratings are in decline and who suffers a mental breakdown. One evening, at the end of a broadcast, Beale threatens to commit suicide on-air. This obviously startles the studio bosses, until they realize that audience figures have spiked. They give Beale more airtime, and he assumes the role of ‘an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.’

‘Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business!‘

‘Network’ concerns itself with news, truth, media ethics, populism and global capitalism. It’s particularly compelling because these are issues that so trouble us today, some forty years on. The only difference is that the film focuses on the malign power of television, whereas we worry about the web and social media. 

‘Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.’

For people in business I think ‘Network’ represents a warning of the perils of chasing numbers. The sharp-dressed, fast-talking studio executives are obsessed with ratings and share, audience figures and syndication costs. They have lost sight of quality, truth and public responsibility. For them news is a commodity, a form of entertainment, a means of attracting eyeballs. It’s just a numbers game.


‘You're television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays.’

Of course, in commerce we all have to concern ourselves with the numbers: with page views, unique visitors and dwell time; with brand penetration, frequency and share; with managing costs down and income up; with delivering the bottom line. But it’s easy to lose perspective; to get things out of order and proportion. Sometimes we can be too busy chasing great numbers to deliver great product.

There’s an old business maxim that I understand they used to cite at BMP back in the day:
‘People, product, profit…in that order.

I’ve always liked the way this adage recognizes that all three of people, product and profit are vital to business success. But there’s a hierarchy of importance – and a causal link between them: great culture produces great outputs, which in turn creates happy Clients and attracts new ones - thereby delivering commercial success.

Of course, it’s easier to identify the malaise at the heart of modern business than to know what to do about it. Howard Beale doesn’t really have any answers. But he does at least understand people’s frustration. And perhaps that’s a start. In the most memorable scene in ‘Network,’ Beale invites his audience to vent their outrage at a system that seems to have betrayed the American Dream.

‘I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!’’

Maybe we should all give this a try.


No. 159

The Unchanging Appraisal: Learning to Accentuate the Positives and Disregard the Negatives


Do you have the same appraisal every year? I did.

Do you get the same set of gently positive observations about your core strengths, skills and achievements; the same slightly irritating list of shortcomings, flaws and failings; the same sense of disappointment that another year has passed and seemingly little or no progress has been made? I did.

Do you mainly pass over the positives and obsess about the negatives? Do you resent the criticism, take it as a personal slight, endeavour to establish who exactly made those comments?... I did.

In the first ten years of my career I emerged from my annual appraisal worrying about my unchanging defects and deficiencies: a sluggishness with spreadsheets and Harvard Graphics, a lack of commercial rigour in my arguments, a failure to make eye contact in meetings. Like a diligent student, over the months that followed I would concentrate on addressing these weaknesses. I’d enlist on IT training courses, read dusty textbooks about data and behavioural science, make a special effort to be effervescent and outgoing.

But, however hard I tried, with every passing year my appraisal changed very little. And I never did win that IPA Effectiveness Award.

One day I decided that I would completely ignore the negative feedback; that it was a waste of my time and energy. I was stuck with who I was, for better for worse, for richer for poorer. I’d be better off trying to enhance my core talents.

It was a liberating decision.

I think there comes a point in everyone’s career when we give up addressing the faults we cannot correct, the blemishes we cannot wipe clean. The point in one’s career when one focuses on building on strengths and virtues, accentuating the positives rather than eliminating the negatives. And I think that’s the point that one’s career really takes off.

Wise employers do not seek staff who are broadly average on all areas of performance. They look for people who can deliver the exceptional on just a few dimensions. And then they build a team of diverse, complementary skills around them: a confederacy of excellence. 

So next time you walk out of your appraisal feeling downhearted and depressed about your long list of faults and frailties, don't worry. Just ignore them. Don’t spend your time trying to reinvent yourself. Few of us can fundamentally change who we are. Focus on doing what you do well even better.

As Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters almost sang:

You’ve gotta accentuate the positive,
Disregard the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative.
Don’t mess with Mister In-between.’

Based on ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’ by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer

(You can read more career advice from a variety of authors in the 'How To Get On' series on the Guest Editor section of the APG website.)

No. 158




The Bionic Brand: Delivering a Service that is Both High Tech and High Touch

Screen Shot 2017-11-15 at 21.32.17.png

‘You are my creator, but I am your master; Obey!’

Mary Shelley, ‘Frankenstein’

Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein first gave life to his Creature in the early nineteenth century, we have been fascinated by science’s ability to replicate and enhance human beings’ physical and mental capabilities. And we have wondered whether these machines could acquire human feelings and emotions. Could a robot have a soul?

‘I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.’

Mary Shelley, ’Frankenstein’

In 1968 Philip K. Dick famously asked ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ And his novel spawned the 1982 movie ‘Blade Runner.’ It concerned itself with the possibility that synthetic humans, ‘replicants,’ might develop memories and emotions; that they might even acquire a capacity for love. The recent sequel, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ speculates on the possibility of humans and replicants cross-breeding; of a replicant that is ‘born, not made.’

There are countless books and films about robots, androids and humanoids. They seem to return again and again to the possibility that in the future machines might not just act and think like humans; that perhaps they might feel like us too.

‘Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ’More human than human’ is our motto.’

Eldon Tyrell, ‘Blade Runner’

Of course, in recent years we have seen science fiction evolve into science fact. And the discourse seems to be following the same path. Industry has already automated basic physical tasks, and is progressing onto the not-so-basic. With the onward march of AI, businesses are automating the mental functions too. Increasingly leaders are asking how many of the everyday exercises of commerce can be taken over by machines. And inevitably they are wondering whether artificial intelligence can feel as well as think. Will there be a time when we can entirely replace humans in the workforce?

‘In our bank we have people doing work like robots. Tomorrow we will have robots behaving like people.’

John Cryan, CEO of Deutche Bank, The Guardian 6 Sep 2017

I think we may be getting ahead of ourselves.

I’ve no doubt that some sectors and services will in time succumb entirely to automation. But I suspect that there are other services that are so central to our lives that they will retain a requirement for essentially human qualities: for emotion and empathy, sense and sensibility; for care, craft and creativity.

Robots can act and think, but they can’t feel – or at least they can’t yet feel as well as human beings can.

To my mind we talk too much about robots and AI substituting or replacing people. It would be more helpful to consider automation augmenting or enhancing human skills and talents. Many businesses will continue to need ‘humans in the loop.’ Perhaps their future will be less about robots and more about cyborgs: ‘organisms whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.’

‘Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive…Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.’

In the 1970s TV adventure series ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ NASA astronaut Colonel Steve Austin is injured in a horrendous crash. Doctors manage to put him back together with the aid of bionic implants in his right arm, both his legs and one eye. When Austin recovers, he is fitter, faster and stronger than any normal human being, and so is put to use by the US Government fighting crime and foreign agents.

When I was a kid I wanted to be a Bionic Man. I’d sprint in mock slow motion across the fields that backed onto our back garden, intent on intercepting enemy spies. With my infra-red vision, I’d spot hazards in the dark. With my robotic-enhanced strength, I’d throw cars out of my way. And all accompanied by the ‘dit, dit, dit’ sound effect of my bionics in action.

The appeal of the Bionic Man was that he had superhuman talents, but he remained fundamentally human in nature. He could run at 60mph; he had the strength of a bulldozer; he had a zoom lens in his eye. But he could also be brave, truculent, considerate, romantic. Critically he could feel.

Imagine the Bionic Brand: a service organisation that integrates the advantages of automation with profoundly human qualities; combining technical efficacy with human empathy; functionality with feeling; calculation with creativity. An organisation where the machines supply the corporate IQ and colleagues supply the EQ; an organisation that is both high tech and high touch.

As Steve Austin’s boss, Oscar Goldman, might have said:

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we can rebuild it. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic brand. Ours will be that brand. Better than it was before. Better…stronger…faster.’

No. 157





Living Life in the Wrong Order: Jack Cardiff and the Integrated Narrative


‘In my mind this light is the light in which cinema was invented.’
Martin Scorsese, on Jack Cardiff

I recently watched a documentary (‘Cameraman,’ 2010) and a play (Terry Johnson’s ‘Prism’) about the legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff (1914-2009).

Cardiff began his life in film as a clapper boy in the silent era. He went on to become a master of the Technicolor age. He shot the likes of Dietrich, Niven, Bogart, Hepburn, Gardner, Monroe and Loren. In the latter part of his career he was an accomplished director, and in his seventies he applied his expertise to the world of digital.

‘For his inventions, imagination and sheer audacity, there has never been another colour cameraman like Jack Cardiff.’
Michael Powell


Cardiff’s greatest work was with the film-making duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Together they created the icons of British cinema, ‘A Matter of Life and Death,’ ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘The Red Shoes.’ These are films of bold ambition, rich invention and touching romance.

Cardiff was an avid student of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Turner, and he regarded the cameraman as ‘the man who paints the movie.’ He gave us lush green forests, blood-orange sunsets and ominous dark shadows; he produced iridescent purples, vibrant pinks and luminous turquoises; he conjured up disarming flashes of passionate crimson lips, intimate close-ups on smouldering brown eyes.

‘He gave me half of my performance with the lighting.’
Kathleen Byron, Actor, Black Narcissus

I was quite taken with one particular observation Cardiff made in his autobiography, ‘Magic Hour.’ Looking back on his career, he reflected on the disordered structure of most of our lives.

‘It would be far more conducive growing old gracefully if our lives were lived in a rewarding and heartening sequence. Submit your life to any decent script editor and they’d reject it on structure alone.’

This theme is taken up in Johnson’s excellent play.

 ‘A real life does not boast a satisfying story arc. We are doomed to live the events of our lives in the wrong damn order; it’s like shooting a film, not watching one…The time of our lives is not the finished masterpiece; it’s just whatever we got in the can today.’

It’s true that our lives are often messy, complex and chaotic. We behave erratically and inconsistently. We are overtaken by events, by relationships, and circumstances beyond our control. We tend to live our lives in the wrong order.

I understand that in the world of psychotherapy patients are encouraged to create an ‘integrated narrative’: a single story that accommodates diverse experiences and relationships; that makes sense of the past and present, both logically and intuitively; that gives some direction for the future; that is recognisable as one’s own. An integrated narrative provides a certain amount of meaning, identity and purpose to one’s life.

I suspect that brands and businesses could do with integrated narratives too. So often a brand acquires associations and characteristics that are somewhat contradictory and at odds. So often a business is led by groups of people with very different points of view. So often decisions are made and affairs are played out in the wrong order. In such circumstances all would benefit from a coherent story that accommodates these multiple events and perspectives; that binds the disparate threads together into one fabric.

I’m well aware that many are sceptical of talk of storytelling. It sometimes seems too easy, flip and commonplace. But I have found that narrative continues to be a valuable tool in life and business. Stories are universal and timeless precisely because they make sense when we are confused; they unite us when we are divided; they provide direction when we are lost.

In Johnson’s play Cardiff quotes the director John Huston with whom he shot the Bogart-Hepburn classic ‘The African Queen’:

‘We’ve all got a strip of celluloid running though us. It’s got a thousand images on it and it’s a fragile thing. But if you are an artist you are going to cut and colour and grade and project that celluloid back at the world, because our past is all we’ve got to give.’ 

No. 156

The Invisible Brand: The Perils of the Fluid and Frictionless Journey


‘An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come. Nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and rape, and kill!’

The excellent 1933 movie ‘The Invisible Man’ dramatises HG Wells’ late nineteenth century story of the same name. A scientist has developed a formula for making himself invisible, and plans to exploit the power that this will inevitably give him. However, the Invisible Man has not worked out how to make himself visible again. And there is a side-effect to the formula: it is driving him mad.

Boris Karloff turned down the lead role in the film when he realised that he wouldn’t be seen on-screen until the very final moments. The part went instead to Claude Rains, a stage actor who had previously done little cinema work. Wrapped in bandages and wearing sinister dark glasses, Rains put in a compelling, authoritative performance that set him on the road to stardom.

The Invisible Man is a heartless villain, but there is a sense of tragedy in his story. It is suggested that he may have been a decent enough chap before his experiments. He had considerate colleagues and a loving girlfriend. Yet he ran headlong into his quest for invisibility without properly considering the risks.

A couple of years ago I was talking to some Clients at a financial brand. They had observed that, in a low interest sector such as theirs, customers were mainly frustrated by hassle and fuss, choice and complexity; they yearned for a service that was fluid and frictionless. My Clients were excited because the digital revolution made this aspiration a realistic possibility. With proper application over the next few years, their customer journey would become ever more simple and seamless, easy and effortless. This was, they felt confident, the primary route to brand success.

I couldn’t disagree with any of this. But I did raise a concern: that, as the service became increasingly instinctive and intuitive, the brand’s role in customers’ lives would inevitably recede and diminish. Brand interaction would be fleeting and inconspicuous; brand experience would be instantaneous and imperceptible. We would be creating the Invisible Brand.

We all recognise the vocabulary here from so many marketing meetings in recent times. ‘The customer interface must be fluid and frictionless; instinctive and intuitive; simple and seamless; easy and effortless.’ There seems to be a consensus around the direction we want our UX to take.

I’m sure that some brands will inevitably deliver against this agenda so convincingly that they will leave the competition floundering in their wake. No sooner said than done; no sooner imagined than realised. Their simple, easy service will earn them leadership status. They will become the natural choice in their category.

But other brands will find that the single-minded pursuit of fluid and frictionless will be challenging. It’s difficult to feel loyal to something you spend very little time with. It’s difficult to have a relationship with something you can’t see. What’s more, if we’re all aiming at the same destination, we shouldn’t be surprised if we all arrive at the same place. Our race to automate the category may commoditise it at the same time. We may be ‘running at a low margin future.’

A fluid and frictionless user interface is certainly necessary for success in the modern environment. But it may not be sufficient.

When I was younger the wisdom was that great brands didn’t just seek to cut costs, but to add value; that great businesses didn’t just satisfy customers, they sought to delight them. They could ‘walk and chew gum at the same time.’

I suspect that the challenge for many service brands is not just to diminish friction. It is to enhance experience; to make every interface, however fleeting, a rewarding one; to make every interaction feel better in every way.

My old boss, Nigel Bogle, used to talk about the new brand imperative being the creation of ‘heightened experiences:’ interactions that deliver over and above expectations; that give superior value for time; that enchant the customer. I’m sure he was right.

So when you are designing the user journey for your brand, don’t ask one question, ask two:

How can I make this interface more fluid and frictionless? - more instinctive and intuitive; simple and seamless; easy and effortless?

How can I make this experience more useful and enjoyable? - more delightful, surprising, rewarding and inspiring?

Of course, the Invisible Brands may still go on to rule the world. But some will go mad in the process. And some will be left yearning for the days when they had true relationships; when they could be seen for who they really were.

‘There must be a way back!’
The Invisible Man

No. 155

White Light/ White Heat: Don’t Sacrifice Chemistry for Control

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‘One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.’
Lou Reed

When my older brother Martin was at university, he would return in the holidays with exotic records that hadn’t made much of an impact in Essex. Through Martin I encountered the early Magazine, Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes albums. He brought back roots and dub reggae, for which I was eternally grateful; and obscure Australian indie music, which I was happy to leave to him.

I particularly recall Martin introducing me to the 1967 debut by the Velvet Underground and Nico. I’d seen its distinctive banana cover in the racks at Downtown Records, but had been too mystified, and perhaps intimidated, to pick it up.

This was an album of anxious paranoia and melancholy sadness; of curious rhythms, deadpan vocals, relentless feedback and a sinister guitar drone. ‘Heroin’ examined the motivations behind addiction; ‘Venus in Furs’ addressed S&M; ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ painted the darker side of New York nightlife. It sounded so far from the hippy vibe of peace and love that was emanating from the West Coast in the late ‘60s. It was like nothing I‘d heard before, and yet explained so much of what came after. It was exhilarating.

‘I use the cracks on the sidewalk to walk down the street. I’d always walk on the lines. I never take anything but a calculated risk, and do it because it gives me a sense of identity. Fear is a man’s best friend.’
John Cale

The Velvet Underground was for a time managed by Andy Warhol, and it was he that had designed the banana cover. They performed in sunglasses to protect their eyes from the stroboscopic light effects of their avant-garde stage show. Lou Reed had a rock’n’roll swagger; Sterling Morrison strummed his guitar with a blues inflection; ‘Moe’ Tucker hammered the drums standing up and avoided using cymbals; John Cale played the viola. Blimey! This was the archetype of intelligent, art house, experimental, nihilistic rock music.

‘Things always seem to end before they start.’
Lou Reed

Sadly the classic Velvets line-up only made two albums together. Their second outing, ‘White Light/White Heat’, was even more intimidating than their first, and commercial success eluded them.

Tensions grew between Reed and Cale. It’s said that Cale, the classically trained multi-instrumentalist Welshman, was more experimental, and wanted to record the next album underwater. Some suggested that Reed just didn’t like having a rival. In 1968 Reed fired Cale. With Cale gone, Reed was the unassailable leader of the band.

The Velvets went on to release a couple of albums that were somewhat mellower and a little less radical. These records certainly had their merits, but something had been lost. And in 1970 Reed too went his own way.

It has been observed that, in forcing out Cale, Reed was committing a cardinal sin for a creative enterprise: he was sacrificing chemistry for control.

We all understand the desire to be in total control. Compromise, concession and conciliation can be tedious and exhausting. We yearn for freedom and independence, to have our hands on the corporate tiller. We pine to sail into the sunset alone, masters of our own destiny. We want to take back control.

But of course we live in an interconnected world, where progress is built on partnership; where creation is achieved through collaboration. There’s really no such thing as a free market in a modern economy. There’s no such thing as a free agent in a business driven by relationships.

In the creative industry particularly, we should understand that success is based on the confluence of different skill-sets; the chemistry between different disciplines. We need alchemists, not tyrants at the head of our companies.

‘I am tired, I am weary.
I could sleep for a thousand years.
A thousand dreams that would awake me,
Different colors made of tears.’

The Velvet Underground and Nico, Venus in Furs (Lou Reed)

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground

Many years after the Velvet Underground had dissolved, when a good deal of water had flowed under the bridge, Reed and Cale patched up their differences. In 1990 they recorded a tribute to Andy Warhol, and in 1993 they toured with the original band line-up.

There’s a sense that at the end they both appreciated the value of their unique, combustible chemistry. They understood that this tense, fractious relationship was at the heart of a very special creativity. When Reed passed away in 2013, Cale posted this message:

‘The news I feared the most, pales in comparison to the lump in my throat and the hollow in my stomach. Two kids have a chance meeting and 47 years later we fight and love the same way – losing either one is incomprehensible. No replacement value, no digital or virtual fill…broken now, for all time. Unlike so many with similar stories – we have the best of our fury laid out on vinyl, for the world to catch a glimpse. The laughs we shared just a few weeks ago, will forever remind me of all that was good between us.’

John Cale

No. 154

Random Usually Has Its Reasons: The Mystery of the Three Routes Home

Winslow Homer, Boys in a Pasture

Winslow Homer, Boys in a Pasture

I was delighted to have My-Mate-Andy as a friend.

At first glance you wouldn’t imagine we had a lot in common.

My-Mate-Andy was the coolest kid in school. He had a golden tan, artfully ripped jeans, and was a connoisseur of the immaculate white t-shirt. He experimented with Sun-In in his hair and only wore Fu Shoes on his feet. He’d painted a Coca-Cola can in art class and decorated his parka with a replica of The Beat logo. He had a way with words, a lust for life, an enthusiasm for Marks & Spencer prawn cocktail crisps and George Benson records.

I was a swotty kid who helped people with their Latin homework in order to earn affection. I was always carrying books and kit in random Sainsbury’s bags. I was generally awkward, introverted, poorly shod. And my hair was a mess.

One thing we certainly had in common was our walk home from school. Every afternoon we traipsed along the Southend Arterial, past the tatty allotments and through the suburban semis of Cecil Avenue. We’d chat about music, football, politics and telly; about Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, Boys from the Black Stuff, cold turkey, chips and beans. My-Mate-Andy would recite Jam lyrics and break into impromptu dance moves. He’d run through his impersonations of Ferg, Perc and Tony Papp. He’d tell me about the parties he’d attended, the girls he fancied and more besides. (I wasn’t very advanced in that department.)

My-Mate-Andy lived closer to the school, and so I would be left to walk the latter part of the journey home on my own. He had three slightly different, equidistant routes available to him, and each one required him to say farewell at a different point. With time I became quite fascinated by his choice of these three routes. He seemed to select a different option from one day to the next. But I couldn’t work out why.

Was his preference driven by meteorological conditions, his homework obligations, or what was on the telly? Was it related to road traffic, star signs, or what Jean had planned for dinner that night?

None of my hypotheses quite worked. There didn’t seem to be a particular pattern or logic. My-Mate-Andy’s route home was just completely random.

And then one day I cracked it. I realised that his decision on when to split was determined by the quality of our conversation. If words were flowing freely, and laughs were coming spontaneously, then he’d hang on ‘til the last possible exit. But if I was serving up rather dull discussion, mediocre fare, he’d take the first chance to break free.

This put the pressure on. I wondered: Could I make him select the farthest point of departure more often? Could I sustain his interest with the force of my witty repartee? Each afternoon I embarked on the walk home with a selection of perfectly polished conversational gambits to hand, in hope and expectation. But the harder I tried, the more likely he was to leave early.

I concluded that I ought be more natural with my friends.

But the real lesson was this: that cryptic or mysterious events often have a motive or explanation; that in the midst of seeming disorder there is sometimes shape and design; that random usually has its reasons.

And I think that is the challenge for a Strategist: find connections, causes, method and meaning in the everyday. Where others see chance and happenstance, we should seek rhyme and reason; where others see accident and the arbitrary, we should find patterns and plans.

Why is that sector behaving oddly? Why is the data different at that time of year? Why is that segment out of step with everyone else? Keep asking: Why? Why? Why? There’s usually a perfectly sensible explanation just over the horizon - if you have the instinct and appetite to look.

I’m still very good friends with My-Mate-Andy. We meet occasionally for a non-artisanal beer, and talk about music, football, politics and telly. He still has a healthy glow, and my hair’s still a mess. He denies that there was ever any logic to his route home - he was just ringing the changes. I maintain that he’s suffering from ‘unconscious bias.’

There’s no substitute for old friends. Old school is the best school. Or as George Benson once elegantly put it: ‘Never give up on a good thing.’

‘Never give up on a good thing.
Remember what makes you happy.
Never give up on a good thing.
If love is what you got, you got the lot.’

George Benson, Never Give Up on a Good Thing (Michael Garvin/Tom Shapiro)

No. 153

A Walk Through the Memory Palace: How Are Your Brand Optics?

MC Escher, Relativity

MC Escher, Relativity

Simonides of Ceos was a Greek poet of the sixth and fifth centuries BC who specialised in commemorative odes. He is best remembered for his epitaph to the three hundred Spartan warriors who died fighting the Persians at Thermopylae:

‘Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.’

Though few of Simonides’ verses survive today, his work was much admired by the ancients. In a colourful career he invented several Greek letters and a new note for the lyre. He was reputed to be incredibly astute, but also something of a skinflint. On one occasion, when asked whether it was better to be wealthy or wise, he replied: ‘Wealthy. For I see the wise spending their days at the doors of the wealthy.’

According to legend, Simonides once narrowly escaped the collapse of a building in which he had just been attending a banquet. Afterwards the authorities were struggling to identify the bodies of the crushed victims. But Simonides determined exactly who was who by recollecting their location at the table before he had left the feast. Subsequently he used this experience to develop a mnemonic method sometimes known as ‘the Memory Palace.’

One walks through the rooms of a palace in one’s imagination. In each room one fixes the image of an item that one wishes to remember. One can then retrieve these items at will at any later date by walking back through the palace in one’s imagination, finding the appropriate room and reactivating the memory. The technique is still taught today.

What is striking to me about Simonides’ Memory Palace is that it suggests recollection is powerfully visual. This seems intuitively to be true.

I close my eyes and I can see Mum pinning up clothes on the washing line at 125, Martin at the wheel of a bright red toy car, Sarah and Anne on the pebble beach at Walton-on-the-Naze. I can see Mary-Claire in the sitting room watching daytime TV, Dad down the Drill regarding his pint of Ind Coope. There's  Dillon in the garden looking longingly at the sparrows and My-Mate-Andy walking along a wall in the rain singing Jam songs.

Our memory seems populated not by abstract concepts, but by specific images that have been secured in our consciousness long, long ago.

Consider similarly our recollection of movies. I can see Bergman and Bogart at the airport, Johnson and Howard at the train-station, Colbert and Gable thumbing a ride. Here’s Veronica Lake at the diner, John Mills ordering a beer, Anna Karina dancing to the juke box. I see Brando in a torn white tee shirt, Mitchum in a tired trenchcoat, Hepburn in cat-eye shades.

We tend to recall films, not as themes or narratives, but as scenes and moments, frames, fragments and fashions.

I wonder do brand managers properly appreciate the power of visual memory?

We seem to spend a great deal of time nowadays discussing brand essence as expressions, statements and phrases. When we consider brand image, we articulate it verbally, not visually. When we think about brand personality, we reach for the thesaurus. Yes, we construct temples for our brands. But we populate them with words, not pictures.

Of course, we do give great import to what we call Visual Identity. But the conversation is so often reduced to one of logos, guidelines, pantones and fonts; to consistency across platforms and discipline against tasks.

This all seems curious in the visual age, in the era of Instagram and emoticons, Pinterest and selfies. In other fields of activity there is an understanding that optics are everything.

How much do we really consider our brands’ visual language? What are the images and iconic moments with which we want to be associated? What do we want consumers to envisage when they remember us? What are our brand optics?

It’s often suggested that, if we want to achieve something, we should picture ourselves scoring the goal, crossing the finish line, winning the pitch. If we pictured success for our brands, what would we see?

But then again, perhaps in seeking to manage our recollections and those of our consumers, we’re fighting a losing battle. When Themistocles, the great Athenian general and hero of the Persian Wars, heard about Simonides’ Memory Palace, he was sceptical:

’I would rather a technique for forgetting. For I remember what I would rather not remember, and cannot forget what I would rather forget.’


No. 152

‘Damn the Torpedoes!’ Sometimes a Situation Calls for Reckless Bravery


Towards the end of the American Civil War, Confederate forces were defying a Union blockade by running ships from Mobile in Alabama to Havana and other Caribbean ports. In 1864 Rear Admiral David Farragut was assigned by the Union high command to deal with the situation.

Mobile Bay was defended by a small Confederate naval squadron, three forts and a minefield.  Farragut commanded a superior force on the water and had ground troops in support. But it still represented a tough challenge.

At dawn Farragut signalled for the assault to begin. As his fleet advanced and his ships came under fire, the air filled with gun smoke. He demanded that he be lashed to the mast of his flagship, Hartford, in order to get a decent view of events.


Things did not start well. His lead ironclad warship sailed into a minefield, struck a torpedo (the term at the time for a mine) and within two or three minutes it had sunk.

The Union ships hesitated. Should they proceed or withdraw?

According to legend, Farragut shouted: ‘Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.’

Hartford led the Union squadron through the minefield. Remarkably they emerged unscathed. Farragut may have judged that most of the torpedoes had been submerged too long to be effective. In any case, his fleet proceeded to overpower the Confederate ships, and subsequently the forts guarding the mouth of the bay were taken too. The Battle of Mobile Bay was won.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to take a seemingly rash course of action. Some situations call for reckless bravery. Sometimes it’s worth the risk.

Many years ago we were pitching for the Milk Marketing Board. Despite having a credible nutrition story and years of admirable advertising, milk consumption in the UK was in decline.

We observed that consumers had become complacent about milk. They’d drunk it since childhood and knew that it was broadly healthy. But they didn’t see it as particularly relevant to the modern world.

Arresting the downturn would require radical action.

We speculated that if milk were a new product, consumers would probably find it hugely exciting: it contains high-quality protein, potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and more besides; it supports healthy teeth and bones; it has a distinctive pure white colour; and it’s completely natural. 

The creative department asked: What if we actually launched milk as a new brand under a new name? What if we confronted people with their complacency? What if we called milk ‘Kiml’?

We developed a campaign for Kiml, the new wonder drink, and set up sampling stations in shopping centres across the country. Consumers in the test were hugely impressed. Kiml looked and tasted good; it had a great nutritional story; and it had a cool name. Fabulous!

We filmed the public’s appreciation of this new drink, and their shock on hearing that it was, in fact, plain, ordinary, everyday milk.

Surely such a provocation could prompt a re-evaluation?

There was considerable debate in the Agency as to whether we should really pitch this radical idea to what we assumed was a quite conservative Client. We suspected that we were not favourites to win; that we had only been put on the pitch list as leftfield candidates. Ultimately we concluded we had nothing to lose.

‘Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.’

On the appointed day we proposed the idea of Kiml to the Milk Marketing Board. They greeted it with furrowed brows and quizzical expressions. They absolutely hated it. We lost the pitch.

You may imagine that this is a cautionary tale. But it’s not.

The truth is that the Milk Marketing Board was not the biggest account in the world. The Kiml pitch, though unsuccessful, precipitated a huge amount of engagement and pride within the Agency. It signalled to all concerned that we had a radical heart. We emerged from the Pitch as an Agency with a strong sense of self. And we went on a winning streak.

On reflection we often lost our best pitches. They’re imprinted on my memory: Dreamcast, ‘The greatest highs are the highs we share’; Baileys, ‘Love Plus One’; Levi’s US, when we redesigned the 501... At our best we were not afraid of failure. Failure could be a badge of pride. It set a standard. It stretched us. It demanded that we be different.

So, go on, give it a try. When the odds are stacked against you, just occasionally cry out the instruction: ‘Damn the torpedoes!’ Because, as Tom Petty memorably sang, ‘even the losers get lucky sometimes.’

‘Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes.
Even the losers keep a little pride.
They get lucky sometimes.’

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Even the Losers’ (from the ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ album)


This piece was written in memory of Tom Petty who passed away this week. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1979 album ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ illuminated my adolescence.

No. 151