Gursky and the ‘Democratic Perspective’: Learning to Look Before We Leap

Tokyo Stock Exchange

Tokyo Stock Exchange

‘I am interested in the ideal typical approximation of everyday phenomena – in creating the essence of reality.’

I recently attended an excellent exhibition reviewing the work of Andreas Gursky (The Hayward Gallery, London, until 22 April).

Since the early 1980s Gursky has been creating photographic images that prompt us to consider humanity’s relationship with nature, our impact on the world and each other.

'I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment.'

Gursky has shown us people dwarfed by the vast natural world around them; the complex interaction between man and machines; the elaborate infrastructure of our industrialised landscape; the curious beauty that sometimes occurs when humanity imposes itself on the world; and the wholesale damage we have done to our planet and environment.

His monumental images present us with the swarming energy of the Tokyo Stock Exchange; the complex choreography of an F1 pit-stop; the dehumanising effect of a Vietnamese furniture factory; the tribal abandon of a gigantic Dortmund dancehall. He gives equal weight to the Tour de France and Toys R Us; to supermarkets and skyscrapers; to autobahn, airport and Amazon warehouse.

Salerno I

Salerno I

Gursky reflects on the world with a cool detachment. He seems withdrawn, rational, objective. Perhaps he is asking us to think rather than feel; to properly consider the systems, patterns and relationships that rule our lives and shape our world.

'I stand at a distance, like a person who comes from another world.' 

Gursky’s work often employs advanced digital and post-production techniques. He uses cranes, sophisticated software and satellite cameras. His images are carefully orchestrated and arranged.

‘Reality can only be shown by constructing it… Montage and manipulation bring us closer to the truth.’

This inclination to convey constructed rather than documentary reality resonates with us in the commercial world. We are generally comfortable with artifice and abstraction, distillation and editing, if they serve to communicate a brand essence or human truth.

We could nonetheless learn something from what Gursky calls his ‘democratic perspective.’ He consciously creates images that are uniformly sharp and clear. There is none of the foreshortening or depth of field to which we are accustomed from conventional photography or image making. Everything is high-def, hyper-real. Everything is in focus.

‘Figuratively speaking, what I create is a world without hierarchy, in which all the pictorial elements are as important as each other.’

As a result when we regard a Gursky image, and get past the initial sense of wonder, our eyes roam freely, exploring every detail, examining every corner.

By contrast, when we in the field of marketing and communications consider a sector, we tend pretty quickly to apply instinct and intuition to the data that presents itself to us. We hastily seek narrative, purpose and direction. We rush to find a focal point.

Sometimes perhaps we leap too soon.

Over the years I sat in a good many creative reviews with John Hegarty and I was struck by his tendency in the early stages of the process to be open-minded about different routes and possibilities. He’d let teams run with a variety of thoughts, exploring diverse avenues and approaches. He seemed reluctant to close things down too quickly. At the outset he had a ‘democratic perspective.’ Only later in creative development did he settle on a particular theme and idea. Only then did he demand singular focus.



I’m sure strategy works the same way. When we embark on a task we would do well to allow ourselves time to consider all the options; to explore and experiment; to review the whole picture, the panorama of perspectives; to look before we leap.

But, having said all this, we should never be slave to the method. We should always listen to our instincts.

In 2017 Gursky created a work inspired by an image taken on an iPhone through the window of a moving car. ‘Utah’ depicts homes, sheds and caravans at the freeway’s edge, speeding past us as we proceed on our way. They are largely out of focus. They are all a blur.

No. 171



‘Baby, I Don’t Care’: Don’t Let a Service Business Become Servile


‘You know you can’t act. And if you hadn’t been good looking, you would never have gotten a picture.’

Katharine Hepburn to Robert Mitchum

Many were rather dismissive of Robert Mitchum’s acting talent. They found him passive, wooden, flat. He often seemed to lack emotional engagement and occasionally he gave the impression that he wished he was somewhere else. Of one performance a journalist wrote that ‘he moved as if on casters.’ He never won an Oscar.

Mitchum himself wasn’t inclined to disagree. He dismissed his own acting ability with cheery indifference.

‘I got three expressions: looking left, looking right and looking straight ahead.’

Throughout his career Mitchum would take on parts he knew were poorly written and undemanding.

‘Movies bore me, especially my own.’

Asked what he looked for in a script before accepting a role, he said: ’Days off.’

Some have observed that Mitchum found it hard to take acting too seriously because his childhood had been so challenging. A year or so after his birth (in 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut) his rail-worker father was crushed to death in an accident at the yard. Frequently expelled from school, the young Mitchum found himself riding railroad cars, picking up odd jobs where he could. When he was 14 he was arrested for vagrancy and put to work on a chain gang.

So maybe Mitchum had good reason to make light of his craft.

And yet, in amongst all the uninspiring westerns and production-line romances, Mitchum starred in some of the finest films of the 1940s and ‘50s. Classic noirs like ‘Crossfire’ and ‘The Big Steal’; sinister thrillers like ‘The Night of the Hunter’ and ‘Cape Fear.’

Over the years critics reassessed Mitchum.

‘People can’t make up their minds whether I’m the greatest actor in the world – or the worst. Matter of fact, neither can I.’

In his best work Mitchum had a quiet charisma, a cool naturalism. With his heavy-lidded look and minimal movement - often wearing the same worn-out trench coat - he displayed an air of bitter experience and careless nonchalance. He could suggest both vulnerability and menace. Beside him other actors seemed to try too hard, to over-emote; and thereby to lose something of their authenticity.  Commentators began to recognise in him someone for whom less was more. They celebrated him for ‘being, not acting.’

In the 1947 masterpiece ‘Out of the Past’ Mitchum plays Jeff, an ex-private detective who can’t escape his past and the charms of Kathie, his faithless former lover. In one scene Kathie, played by Jane Greer, begs to be believed one last time:

‘I didn't take anything. I didn't, Jeff. Don't you believe me?’

Mitchum gives Greer a weary look and a knowing embrace, and says: ‘Baby, I don't care.’

I wonder whether the communications industry could learn something from Mitchum, the movie star who won out through under-acting; through dialing it down; through seeming not to care too much.

Ours is a culture whose currency is passion and positivity. We have no red lines, only green. Show us an extra mile and we’ll run it. Show us a hoop and we’ll jump through it.

But sometimes our enthusiasm diminishes our seriousness; our readiness to offer alternatives smacks of a lack of commitment; our willingness to move on compromises the integrity of our recommendations; our eagerness to go again betrays a disregard for the personal lives of our colleagues. 

Back in the day Nigel Bogle would warn of the perils of a service business becoming servile: ‘The answer’s ‘’yes.’’ What’s the question?’

So what do you think?

Are we too eager to please, too desperate to win? Does our commitment to do ‘whatever it takes’ devalue our output, overload our staff, constrain our finances, compromise our values? Are we just too keen?

Surely we should commit, not to ‘whatever it takes’, but to ‘whatever is right’ - for the task, for the brand, for the time, for the fee. And be prepared - just occasionally - to walk away.

Easier said than done, I know, in an oversupplied, highly competitive, cost-constrained market; in a world of tied relationships and trigger-happy Clients. But, as the mystery slips, as margins slide and motivation sags, the industry will have to take a stand one day.

Perhaps we should heed Robert Mitchum’s advice:

‘There just isn't any pleasing some people. The trick is to stop trying.’

No. 170


Cagney in Drag: Recruiting for Appetite and Empathy

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 00.42.26.png

James Cagney had a tough childhood. He was born, in 1899, into a poor Irish-American family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was the second of eleven kids, two of whom died within a few months of birth, and he was himself quite a sickly child. His father was an alcoholic who went from job to job. Cagney grew up fighting in street brawls and dropped out of college when his dad died in the 1918 flu pandemic.

‘My childhood was surrounded by trouble, illness, and my dad’s alcoholism…We just didn’t have the time to be impressed by all those misfortunes.’

Cagney had a talent for performance and got involved in amateur dramatics at an early age. Despite his subsequent reputation as the definitive screen tough guy, his first paid theatre role was as a chorus girl in the all-male 1919 revue, ‘Every Sailor.’ In the publicity photo for the show we see a bare-shouldered and bewigged Cagney in full make-up, looking approximately female. He had no qualms about the role. He just wanted to get a foot on the ladder.

‘I had fun doing it. Mother didn’t approve though.’

Clearly Cagney had appetite, a desire to progress, whatever it took.

‘With me a career was the simple matter of putting groceries on the table.’

He eventually found his way to Hollywood and the gangster roles for which he is best known. In the 1930s and ‘40s he starred in certified classics like ‘The Public Enemy’, ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ and ‘White Heat.’

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 00.42.07.png

In these films Cagney revolutionised the portrayal of bad guys. Hitherto cinema villains had been irredeemably dark figures. But Cagney, drawing on his own experiences on the wrong side of the tracks, tended to play characters whose descent into evil was at least comprehensible. There’s a moral ambiguity about these movies. In Depression-hit America audiences understood that tough times create tough choices. And Cagney understood too. He had empathy.

Obviously Cagney had extraordinary talent. But his success also derived from his appetite for experience, and his empathy for ordinary people. People with nothing to lose have everything to gain. Appetite drives experience; experience creates empathy; and these qualities together lead to expertise.

Such lessons were not lost on the advertising profession of yore. The sector traditionally picked up ambitious, talented misfits from all walks of life. Many of the best practitioners started at the bottom and made their way up. Stories are legion of advertising greats who began as PAs and runners, as YTS trainees, in traffic and the post room. It was a profession that understood people, a career for outsiders who wanted to belong.

Nowadays I wonder if we properly appreciate appetite and empathy. It seems that our professionalization of recruitment has squeezed out the very qualities that precipitate success. We like to think of ourselves competing with the financial and tech sectors for the academic high fliers; for the crème de la crème of the university system.

Perhaps we should be fishing in different ponds: seeking unconventional excellence; candidates who have an understanding of ordinary people rather than patrician curiosity; people who want the job rather than expect it.

Sometimes it seems our expectations of talent are more complicated than they need to be. We would do well to learn from Cagney who retained an elegantly rudimentary recipe for success:

‘Learn your lines…plant your feet…look the other actor in the eye…say the words…mean them.’

(This piece was first published in Campaign on 9 October 2017.)

No. 168

‘Stan, Don’t Let Them Tell You What To Do’: Protecting the Self from the Social

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Harold Pinter’s early career was spent as a jobbing actor playing minor roles in popular comedies and crime dramas. Whilst touring in Eastbourne in 1954, he met a man in a pub who recommended the boarding house he was staying in. On visiting the establishment, Pinter found that it was filthy; that his new acquaintance was the only guest; and that he was being patronised by the landlady in a curiously over-familiar way. When Pinter asked the lodger why he tolerated this, he said:

‘There’s nowhere else to go.’

This experience partly inspired Pinter’s first full-length play, ‘The Birthday Party,’ a fine production of which is currently running at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London (until 14 April).

‘The Birthday Party’ considers the plight of Stanley, an out-of-work pianist and the only guest in a dingy seaside boarding house. Stanley lives a life of indolence; of mollycoddled mornings, corn flakes and fried bread. But his quietly anonymous existence is disturbed by the arrival of two sinister besuited men, who seem to bring with them the threat of violence.

As the play unfolds, Stanley is given a birthday party he doesn’t want; presented with a child’s toy drum; and induced to play blind man’s buff. The mystery men interrogate him; break his glasses; make threats and accusations.

‘You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead. You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odour.’

‘The Birthday Party’ is a somewhat surreal and enigmatic work that refuses to explain itself. It has been described as a ‘comedy of menace.’

Many critics have seen in Stanley an individual pitted against the establishment. He simply can’t escape the pressure to conform, to fit in, to play the game; the compulsion to be ‘normal.’

Of course, we imagine that our modern lives are a million miles away from the small-minded conservatism of 1950s Britain. We consider ourselves free-thinking and open-minded; self-reliant and self-sufficient. We live in the age of empowerment; the era of the individual. But perhaps we should not be so confident.

The pressure to toe in line is timeless and universal. An invisible hand lightly touches us on the shoulder. A soft voice gently whispers in our ear: ‘Go with the flow, follow the crowd, run with the pack.’ It affects us through our families, friends, communities and colleagues. It affects us through customs, codes and conventions; through language, style and gesture. And as the writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough has pointed out, it even affects us through our recollection of events:

‘Memory is anything but a solo activity. Even an innocuous ‘Do you remember?’ is an invitation to negotiate a shared account of the past with someone who lived through the same events. Getting the story straight can be a key part of making relationships work, and disputes about memory can easily float to the surface when partnerships break down.’

Of course, we now face an additional pressure to comply, one just as insidious as anything Pinter had in mind. Social media are not just the glue that binds us together; they’re also the glue that prevents us from getting away. At the same time as enabling exchange of ideas and freedom of expression, they invite consensus in our behaviour and actions; conformity in our thoughts and attitudes. Just as they celebrate diversity and individuality, they reinforce prejudice and confirm bias. Social media create a gravitational pull towards ‘normal.’

Inevitably this ever-increasing inducement to integrate and fall in line poses particular challenges to the marketing and communications industry, where our core competence is challenging convention and designing difference; where we need independent spirits and original thinkers to sustain us.

So what are we to do?

How do we insure ourselves against ‘groupthink’? How do we preserve autonomous thought? How do we protect the self from the social?

Or should we like Pinter’s Eastbourne lodger simply acquiesce : ‘There’s nowhere else to go.’

At the close of ‘The Birthday Party’, as the two sinister visitors take Stanley away - we know not where - the landlord calls after him:

‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.’

No. 167

‘I Want To Be An Active Verb’: Striving To Be a Cause, Not an Effect

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

‘They’re all old here, except you and me…They never do anything: they only discuss whether what other people do is right. Come and give them something to discuss.’

Hypatia, ‘Misalliance’

Just before Christmas I saw ‘Misalliance’, a rarely performed play by George Bernard Shaw (at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond).

This light comedy from 1910 asks us to consider the constraints of class, convention, gender and the generational divide. It features Hypatia Tarleton, the daughter of a successful businessman, who is bored, restless and resentful. She repeatedly voices her frustration with the straitjacket of Edwardian society’s customs and codes:

'Men like conventions because men made them. I didn’t make them: I don’t like them. I won’t keep them.'

At one point Hypatia expresses her annoyance thus:

’I don't want to be good; and I don't want to be bad: I just don't want to be bothered about either good or bad: I want to be an active verb.’

A compelling choice of words. Clearly it’s not enough for Hypatia passively to be seen, admired, desired, chosen, judged. She yearns actively to decide for herself; to experiment and experience; to seek and find; to achieve and sometimes to fail. She wants to be the subject of a verb, not its object; to be a cause, not an effect; to do, not just to be.

We may recognize Hypatia’s frustration from the world of work. Sometimes, particularly when we are young and less powerful within an organization, our objectives, tasks and schedules seem entirely to be determined by others: by the demands of our Clients, the whims of our bosses, the personal passions of our CEO. We may work in an agency, but we have very little agency.

Maybe like Hypatia we should, as far as possible, strive to set the agenda rather than have it set for us; to seize the day rather than let the day seize us; to be an ‘active verb’ in our own careers. Easier said than done perhaps. But you’d be surprised how positively leaders respond to colleagues that have a clear sense of personal mission. And the best businesses thrive by integrating individual and collective goals. So what, I wonder, would you choose as your own active verb?

Brands too would do well to reflect on Hypatia’s theme. Dan Weiden, the co-founder of Weiden+Kennedy, once observed:

'The best brands are verbs. Nike exhorts. IBM solves. Sony dreams.'

I’m sure he was right. Mediocre brands merely exist within a category, in a sector, on a shelf. They respond to events rather than precipitate them; react rather than act. Great brands, by contrast, animate the category, rewrite the rules, make the market.

We should all therefore ask: ‘What fundamentally does our brand do?’ ‘How does it impact on its consumers’ lives?’ ‘What is it seeking to change?’

‘What is our brand’s verb?’

I suspect this would be a more valuable discussion than the hours spent defining brand personality; the earnest debates crafting lists of nuanced traits, tones and characteristics: ‘passionate, warm, witty, friendly, helpful, caring.’ I could go on…

Yes, the best brands are indeed verbs. But Weiden might well have added: ‘The worst brands are adjectives.’

No. 166

‘The Invention of Fogs’: Learning Not Just to Look, But to See

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

‘There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we know nothing about them. They did not exist until art had invented them.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I recently attended the ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition at Tate Britain (until 7 May). The show brings together works by French artists who escaped to the British capital in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the strife that subsequently gripped Paris.

It’s compelling to see how fresh eyes regarded London’s crowded shopping arcades and the quiet streets of its suburbs; how they perceived England’s social stratification, eccentric fashions and enthusiasm for sport. The emigres were, for example, quite taken with the spacious green parks they found here, and the fact that people were allowed to walk on the grass.

They were also drawn to the Thames: to its disordered shipping, dubious community and atmospheric effects. The exhibition climaxes with a marvellous collection of paintings by Claude Monet of the Houses of Parliament shrouded in fog.

‘What I like most of all in London is the fog. How could English painters of the nineteenth century have painted its houses brick by brick? Those fellows painted bricks they didn’t see, bricks they could not see. It’s the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth.’
Claude Monet

This fascination with London’s fog was shared by another expatriate painter, the American James Whistler. And it was Whistler that Oscar Wilde credited with ‘the invention of fogs.’

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of art. At present people see fogs, not because they are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I was particularly taken with this thought: that Londoners had not really paid much attention to the fog that enveloped them; that when they looked about them, they observed the same streets that had always been there. They could not see the fog for the buildings; the wood for the trees. I like the idea that it took outsiders to see the obvious; that without their vision fog didn’t really exist; that sometimes only people with a particular gift of perception can recognize the truth.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

Social change is all around us, hiding in plain sight. It’s in the behaviour of the outliers, the beliefs of eccentrics, the attitudes of the young. It’s in nuance and gesture; language and slang. It’s in unforeseen consequences and unrealised dreams.

Often social change lacks a name or a description. It’s there nonetheless for all to see. For the most part we look past it and through it at the structures and conventions of the past. We look, but don’t see.

So don’t wait to read about behavioural trends and cultural transformation in an industry publication, conference or blog. Don’t just adopt the tired labels and classifications of others. Don’t follow the crowd into clichéd observations about content-curating cryptocurrencies and machine-learning millennials; about authentic algorithms and scalable safe spaces.

Don’t just look at the world around you. See it.

No. 165

Dreams of Leaving: 'It is Easy to See the Beginnings of Things, and Harder to See the Ends’

Joan Didion in the 1970's

Joan Didion in the 1970's

'I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.’
Joan Didion, 'In the Islands’

I recently watched an excellent documentary about Joan Didion, the essayist and novelist who has described the fragmented American experience from the end of the 1960s to the present day (‘Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold’).

Didion’s elegant hands sketch patterns in space as she speaks. She chooses her words carefully and isn’t afraid of silence. Her birdlike frame seems fragile, but her eyes are penetrating and alert. She is 83.

'People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character… Character- the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life- is the source from which self-respect springs.’
'On Self-Respect'

Each morning Didion would fetch a Coca-Cola from the fridge and settle down to read - with salted almonds, cigarettes and sunglasses. In silence. And then to work.

She wrote with a clear, concise style, making acute observations, revealing melancholy truths. She wrote about all manner of things: about the Californian counter-culture; about Joni Mitchell, the Doors, John Wayne and the Reagans; about power, corruption and lies; grief, self-respect and keeping a notebook; about the special relationship between a mother and her daughter.

‘We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.’
‘On Going Home’

I was particularly taken with an essay first published in 1967, on falling in and out of love with New York, ‘Goodbye to All That’.

'It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.'
‘Goodbye to All That’

These words rang true for me - of work, of relationships, of life in general. Beginnings tend to be clean, precise, definite. They can be thrilling, anxious, exciting. The first day at school, the first hello, the first kiss. A new town, new friends, a new job. The sudden realization that summer is here.

But ends seem to creep up on us. The weary nods, the knowing looks, the nagging frustrations. The doubt and dithering, blame and bickering. The fog of uncertainty. The sense of familiarity.

'Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen.'
‘Goodbye to All That’

We should be mindful of this when we consider the world of work. We all dream of leaving. It’s just the human condition. But this isn’t necessarily a reason to go. Or at least not right now.

It’s much smarter to focus on beginnings: on reasons to start rather than reasons to stop; on why we should embark on a new venture, rather than why we should depart from our current one; on hope rather than depair.

Choose to join a business, not to leave one.

No. 166

Basquiat Watching Telly: You Need Input If You’re Going To Create Output

The artist in 1983 at his studio on Crosby Street.Roland Hagenberg

The artist in 1983 at his studio on Crosby Street.Roland Hagenberg

‘I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life.’
Jean-Michel Basquiat

In 1967 a seven-year-old Brooklyn kid was playing stickball in the street when he was hit by a car. Confined to hospital to recover from his injuries, his mother gave him a copy of the textbook ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ to amuse him.

Years later when Jean-Michel Basquiat was an artist, the imagery that he had absorbed from that book repeatedly made its way onto his canvases - as skulls, spines and skeletons; as cross-sections, labels and anatomical diagrams. Basquiat had a special skill for translating his personal experiences into his work.

‘I never went to an art school. I failed at the art courses I did take at school. I just looked at a lot of things, and that’s where I think I learned about art.’

Basquiat, whose parents were Haitian and Puerto Rican, grew up with an instinctive love of art. As a child his mother took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as a teenager he regularly visited galleries with his mates.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982

After leaving school at 17, Basquiat joined the vibrant post-punk creative scene that congregated around the run-down streets of lower Manhattan. With a friend he began spraying surreal, witty, provocative graffiti-poetry, under the SAMO© tag, all over SoHo and the Lower East Side. With another friend he created collage-based post cards and sold them on the street for a dollar or two. (His customers included his hero Andy Warhol.) He formed a band named Gray after the book that had made such an impression on him as a kid. He DJed at clubs and parties; acted in an art-house movie; hung out with members of the burgeoning hip-hop scene. And when eventually he turned to painting, he sold his first picture to the musician Debbie Harry.

Basquiat was an artistic autodidact. He saw no boundaries between media and he thrived within a networked creative community.

Basquiat was also a sponge for knowledge, inspiration and stimulus. His paintings are filled with references to his love of music (from bebop to hip hop); to his passion for sport (Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis); to the art history books he read (Da Vinci, Titian, Manet, Picasso, Duchamp); to his interest in the African American experience. All these elements are mixed in with the planes, automobiles and skyscrapers of his native city; with birds, masks and demons; with crowns, hats and halos; with icons of popular culture; with the enigmatic political poetry that he had first expressed in his graffiti.

‘I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off.’

There’s some fascinating film footage of Basquiat in 1985 sketching and making notes in front of the telly. He was clearly processing the material from one medium directly onto another; allowing himself to respond freely and intuitively, loosely and spontaneously. Across his work there are references to the cartoons, sci-fi shows and movies he had been watching – to Popeye and Felix the Cat; to ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’

‘It’s sort of on automatic most of the time.’

Untitled 1982

Untitled 1982

Basquiat was special. He synthesized low and high culture; words, images and symbols; personal memories and public knowledge; the present and the past. He orchestrated his responses to the world, channeled and filtered them into one compelling, magical brew. And he seems to have captured something about what it is to live in these super-fast, over-choiced, hyper-connected, ethically-conflicted times.

Sadly in 1988 Basquiat died from a heroin overdose. He was 27.

So often the marketing and communications business is insular, introverted, isolated. For inspiration we consider adjacent markets, sectors, campaigns and brands; we examine our competitors and Cannes winners, popular ads and award books. But we rarely look beyond our own orbit.

Basquiat teaches us some simple lessons: that true creativity knows no boundaries; that it thrives within a Bohemian culture; that it needs constant stimulus, provocation and experience to sustain it; that if we want to make interesting work, we should seek catalysts from beyond our immediate environment.

You need input if you’re going to create output.


Basquiat: Boom for Real’ is at the Barbican in London until 28 January 2018.

No. 164



The Spaces Between: Learning to Value the Intangible as Much as the Tangible


‘When I was a little kid I used to enjoy hiding in my Mum and Dad’s wardrobe. I had two older sisters. We played hide and seek and stuff. But also I think I was bullied a bit. It was a little safe, cosy space that you could go... I could just remember the smell of the clothes and the furry blackness of the space. I wanted somehow to make that real.’

Rachel Whiteread

I recently visited an exhibition at Tate Britain reviewing the work of the splendid Essex-born sculptor Rachel Whiteread (until 21 January 2018).

For three decades Whiteread has made casts of everyday objects: of fireplaces, mattresses, staircases and rooms; of floors and baths, windows and doors, tables and chairs.

Her sculptures prompt us to reflect on the curious emotive power of ordinary things. Cast from plaster and concrete, rubber and resin, wax and recycled materials, the forms are at once strange and familiar. The inside of a hot water bottle looks like a human torso. An office interior resembles a prison cell. An arrangement of the undersides of chairs brings to mind a grand cosmic chess game.

‘I choose things because of their humbleness really. And they’re things that we all have some sort of relationship with. It’s making space real…giving space an authority that it’s never had.’

In 1993 Whiteread created ‘House’, a concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian terraced home in London’s Mile End. It stood for 80 days before it was demolished by the local council. Seeing the work in photographs and film, we can consider the personal stories that once animated the space; the ghosts that haunted it; the private histories that have now vanished into thin air. Life seems so transient, so fragile, even when expressed in reinforced concrete.

Untitled - clear torso

Untitled - clear torso

‘It’s all to do with that ghostly touch of things. The way things get worn down by human presence, and the essence of human is left on these things, whether its pages of books or staircases or doors or windows.’

In 2000 for Vienna’s ‘Holocaust Memorial’ Whiteread created an inverted library, again in concrete. We imagine books unwritten and unread, words unspoken and unheard, thoughts unthought.

Whiteread asks us to contemplate space: she turns space inside out; she examines the spaces beneath, beside, under and over; private, interior, secret spaces – the mystical spaces that are unseen and unexplored; and the spaces that surround and separate us – the spaces between us.

I suppose we tend to value material things precisely because they are visible, tangible, audible. Material objects can be weighed and measured; bought, owned and sold.

But our lives are lived in the spaces between material objects. Our thoughts and ideas, feelings and passions, memories and relationships are played out in the spaces between us. Surely we should learn to value the intangible as much as the tangible.

Perhaps as a society we are increasingly appreciating the immaterial. It’s reported that consumers are turning to experiences instead of things; that they are as comfortable renting as owning; that they crave happy memories more than just stuff. In business we talk nowadays about the intangible economy: wealth is less and less held in machinery, buildings and shops; it is located in software and services, databases and design, IT and IP. And consequently the nature of work itself is shifting, from manual to mental labour. Progressive governments are beginning to measure success by collective contentment and wellbeing, rather than just gross domestic product.

Of course, the transformation to an experience culture and an intangible economy poses its own challenges. Intangibles can be readily distributed, shared and scaled. But they can also be easily replicated, copied and stolen. Intangibles are difficult to measure, manage and protect. Some have argued that the intangible economy is responsible for growing social inequality.

Untitled - Stairs 2001

Untitled - Stairs 2001

Nonetheless, people working with brands should be more capable than others at navigating this intangible world. Because marketing and communication expertise is fundamentally concerned with creating intangible assets, directing emotional investment, establishing value for ideas. Marketers and agency people should also be masters of managing talent and inspiration; of measuring feelings and experiences.

I say ‘should’ because sometimes I think brand managers hesitate to recognise their core competence. They may be more at ease working within a narrower frame of reference: a world of products and promotions, campaigns and initiatives, platforms and distribution.

Perhaps marketers and agencies should be more self-confident, more expansive in their vision for their craft. Perhaps they should think of themselves as creating, managing and measuring intangible value in an increasingly intangible economy. Because nowadays we’re all living on solid air.

'You've been taking your time,
And you've been living on solid air.
You've been walking the line,
And you've been living on solid air.
Don't know what's going 'round inside,
And I can tell you that it's hard to hide,
When you're living on solid air.’

John Martyn, Solid Air


No. 163

Do We Know Too Much and Understand Too Little? What Einstein Might Have Told Us about the Quest for Truth


‘It’s like riding on the subway. I know where I get on and where I get off. While I’m travelling I don’t know where the hell I am.’

I recently attended a production of ‘Insignificance,’ an excellent 1982 play written by Terry Johnson (which in 1985 was turned into an equally splendid film by director Nicolas Roeg).

Set in 1954 New York, ‘Insignificance’ imagines a series of encounters between Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joe McCarthy. It’s a funny, intelligent, disturbing work that asks the audience to think about fame, identity, misogyny, time and nuclear war.

‘Do you ever get the feeling it might be later than you think?’

Running through the play is a debate about knowledge and understanding. Monroe is in awe of Einstein because he knows so much. But Einstein is at pains to point out that knowledge is over-rated – understanding should be the objective.

‘Knowledge is not truth. It’s just mindless agreement. You agree with me. I agree with someone else - we all have knowledge... You can never understand anything by agreeing, by making definitions. Only by turning over the possibilities. That’s called thinking. If I say ‘I know,’ I stop thinking. As long as I keep thinking I come to understand. That way, I might approach some truth.’

Einstein goes on gently to chide Monroe:

‘You know too much and understand too little.’

I couldn’t help thinking of our own modern malaise. In the internet age infinite knowledge is accessible at the touch of a keyboard. And yet we seem in an endless quest for the latest news, the killer fact, the inside story. What we seek to know seems so temporary and transient. Have you heard? Have you read? Have you seen?

In business we similarly pride ourselves on using the most fashionable phrases, the coolest case studies, the most notable names. We congregate around the same theories, flock to the same theses, patronise the same platforms.

How often do we pause properly to understand what we’re talking about? How often do we question our own assumptions? How much do we ‘turn over the alternative possibilities in our minds’?

You have to wonder if this is knowledge at all. Or is it just conventional wisdom, complacent consensus, ‘mindless agreement’?

It’s said that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who died in 1834, was the last person to read every book ever published. After that it became an impossible endeavour. But perhaps the quest for total knowledge was always somewhat futile.

In ‘Insignificance’ Einstein is parted from his only copy of the calculus that he has been working on for some years. Monroe is concerned. But Einstein seems pretty relaxed. He explains that in his working method, the process of writing the calculus internalises it. He doesn’t need the copy. Through thinking he understands, and through understanding he approaches truth.

‘I have finished my work four times. Each time I have destroyed the calculus and started over.’

This year I have resolved to spend less time seeking to know, and more time seeking to understand.

Happy New Year!

No. 162