Kenneth MacMillan: Building from the Highlights

Federico Bonelli and Francesca Hayward, Royal Ballet. Photo:  Johan Persson

Federico Bonelli and Francesca Hayward, Royal Ballet. Photo: Johan Persson

‘Sex and death. That’s what I do.’

I recently saw an excellent documentary about the choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan (BBC 4, ‘Ballet’s Dark Knight’).

Between 1953 and 1992 MacMillan created over sixty ballets for the Royal Ballet and other companies around the world: full-length repertoire classics like ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Manon’ and ‘Mayerling’; shorter gems like ‘The Invitation’, ‘Elite Syncopations’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Song of the Earth’. His work is characterised by big human themes, psychological insight and dramatic physicality; by high lifts, expressive gestures and raw emotion.

Born to working class parents in 1929, MacMillan grew up in Great Yarmouth. When he was evacuated to Retford in Nottinghamshire during the war, he was introduced to ballet by a local dance teacher. He took to it immediately, and at 15 joined the Sadler’s Wells School. He was subsequently enrolled in the company, but suffered stage fright, and when he was 23 he stopped dancing.

MacMillan turned to choreography.

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'I prefer to explore the human psyche. I try to make people sometimes feel uncomfortable in the theatre.’

He set about enlisting classical ballet technique to address contemporary themes. His work explored young love, identity crises, sexual abuse and suicide; corrupt courts, war damage, drugs and depression.

‘I am very interested in people, and I wanted to portray the dilemma of people living and working and being with each other. I wanted to show that kind of thing in ballet.’

Above all MacMillan sought emotional truth and authenticity. He was instinctively at odds with the ballet world of the time; with its glamour and romance, fairytales and fashion.

‘In choreography people were interested in the purely decorative side of ballet. And I was not. Somehow I want ballet to be in touch with reality.’

MacMillan achieved phenomenal career success. He was appointed artistic director of the Royal Ballet, and subsequently became its principal choreographer. In 1983 he was knighted. But he was always an outsider.

‘There is a class system here, an old boy network which I never belonged to. And I’ve always kicked against it and always will.’

Perhaps this outsider status spurred him on to keep challenging conventions and breaking new ground. His work demonstrated a profound sympathy with the desperate and downtrodden.

‘The situation I enjoyed working at best was the individual against society really – the outside figure that has a hard time.’

MacMillan’s story suggests a number of lessons for people working in marketing and communications.

He teaches us to treasure our outsider status - because difference creates difference; and to seek authenticity, even in an environment that is characterised by artifice and contrivance. Sometimes commercial creativity seems to inhabit a landscape of stereotypes, paradigms and puns. Yet, it is always possible to find real feeling, emotional truth and personal resonance - whatever the context.

I was particularly struck by MacMillan’s description of his method for constructing a ballet.

‘There have to be highlights in a ballet. All the highlights are the pas de deux. That’s part of my ethos. When I do a ballet I choreograph the pas de deux first. So I know at what height they are, and then underneath that I do everything else. So that they do become the highlights of the ballet.’

Often our Clients want us to build solutions that reach across fragmented media; that span diverse platforms and address disparate objectives. We can tie ourselves in knots accommodating every consideration and concern; building ecosystems, planning journeys, designing architectures. Or we can sit frozen - paralysed by the complexity - with absolutely no idea where to start.

Whether we are constructing a communication campaign, a user interface or a strategic presentation, MacMillan teaches that we should always start with the highlights: first crack the central theme; solve the biggest conundrum; create the centrepiece - and then design the rest of the solution around it.

This prescribes a core task for leadership: to identify the focal point; the critical priority; the heart of the matter. Leaders must show their teams how to solve problems in sequence.

Throughout his life MacMillan suffered from depression and loneliness. He became dependent on alcohol and tranquilisers, and had a weak heart. On 29 October 1992 he was backstage at the Royal Opera House watching a performance of his ballet, ‘Mayerling’. He collapsed and died. He was 62.

In the BBC documentary the dancer Alessandra Ferri observed:

‘Kenneth choreographed life. And real life. Not in a romantic way, not in a fairytale. Life has some amazing beautiful loves. Normally it has some tragic moments. And it has death. That is part of life. You can’t live life without death, it’s impossible.’


(The Royal Ballet will stage ‘Mayerling’ in October 2018, and English National Ballet will be touring with ‘Manon’ from October 2018 to January 2019.)

No. 190

The Enduring Interruption: How Do We Express Doubts in an Environment that Requires Confidence?

Vicky Kreips and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Photo - Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Vicky Kreips and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Photo - Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

'As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. And knowing this, you've prepared the asparagus with butter. Now, I can imagine in certain circumstances being able to pretend that I like it made this way. Right now, I'm just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you've prepared it.'

Reynolds Woodcock, ‘Phantom Thread’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film ‘Phantom Thread’ stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a society couturier in 1950s London, and Vicky Krieps as Alma, his model and muse.

The House of Woodcock is a place of elegance and deference, taste and restraint; a realm of black lace, silk organza and sheer sleeves; a world of silent seamstresses and secrets. Woodcock himself is intense and neurotic, fastidious and fragile; a man of repressed emotion and voracious appetite.

When we first encounter Alma, she is shy and awestruck. But gradually she is revealed to be just as strong-willed and obsessive as Reynolds.

Alma: ‘I don’t like the fabric.’
Woodcock: ‘Maybe one day you’ll change your taste.’
Alma: ‘Maybe I like my own taste.’
Woodcock: ‘Just enough to get you into trouble.’
Alma: ‘Perhaps I’m looking for trouble.’

At the centre of the film is a power struggle between the controlling Woodcock and the determined Alma. In one scene Woodcock chastises Alma for bringing him a pot of his favourite lapsang souchong – at an unaccustomed hour, while he is working. She retreats. He angrily complains:

‘The tea is going out. The interruption is staying right here with me.’

Reynolds is a loathsome character, the very worst example of a creative egotist. But in this particular interaction I had just a scintilla of sympathy.

Confidence can be frail. Concentration can be fragile. It doesn’t take much to derail a train of thought; to shatter an illusion.  It’s very easy to create an enduring interruption.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
WB Yeats

In the sphere of commercial communications, we go to great lengths to protect ourselves from interruptions and distractions. We resort to headphones and home-working, diary-blockers, off-sites and coffee shops. Who can forget the Yellow Team's adoption of the colour-coded traffic-light triangles? ('Can't you see I'm in Red mode right now?')

The creative review in particular has its own conventions and rituals. It is a place of unconfined imagination and extravagant fancies; a time to think the unthinkable; an environment for enthusiasm and encouragement, not cynicism and scepticism.

And yet I have often witnessed a mood of collective creative fervour shattered by an ill-considered observation or thoughtless remark; a dissenting voice or doubtful interjection. The conviction evaporates. The passion dissipates. The moment passes.

‘The opposite of creativity is cynicism.’
John Bartle

This can put Planners in a difficult position. We want to be positive and supportive. We want to encourage lateral leaps. But we have a responsibility to the brief; a duty to challenge and question. Sometimes we are cursed with a nagging apprehension, with a suspicion that the idea - however original, charming and fun - will simply not work as intended.

How do we express our doubts in an environment that requires our confidence?

In my experience it is critical to understand how and when to voice concerns. If you have an issue, don’t go too early; preface it with a positive; caveat it with a caution; frame it as a question; support it with some data; propose an alternative path; be prepared to back off and return later.

This may sound weak and mealy-mouthed. But persuasion is an art, not a science. And it therefore requires a certain amount of respect, discretion and sensitivity.

As Alma herself suggests at the outset of her relationship with Woodcock:

‘Whatever you do, do it carefully.’

No. 189

The Tilt of the Earth: Preserving Asymmetry in an All Too Logical World

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Geography was never really my subject at school. All that talk of arable farming and market gardening went straight over my head. And there seemed to be a tad too much time dedicated to U-shaped valleys, oxbow lakes, cirques, cwms and corries. What’s with all the glacial erosion?

Our elderly geography teacher, Den, wore a smart suit and tattered gown, and was particularly keen on ensuring we wrote ‘Auctore Deo’ at the top of every essay (‘The enterprise is of God’). Den expressed approval with an elongated ‘goood’, and dismay with a tug at the forelock and an admonishing ‘Don’t do it again!’ This latter expression became his catchphrase. Pupils delighted in shouting it whenever he was near - and disappearing round corners before he could take any action.

‘Don’t do it again!’

Den liked to pass the time testing our knowledge of the conventional signs that appear on Ordnance Survey Maps. Footpath, ferry, single-track railway; gravel pit, golf course, electricity transmission line…

When the concentration of the class was waning, Den would stop dramatically and demand: ‘What’s the tilt of the Earth?’

‘Twenty three and a half degrees,’ we cried in unison.

I was not quite sure at the time why it was so important that we should know the exact tilt of the Earth. But much later it struck me that it is a wonderful thing that the Earth does not sit bolt upright, to attention; that rather it is inclined, like a dandy’s top hat, at a jaunty angle.

The tilt of the Earth seemed to me to explain a good deal. Like many I was instinctively drawn to people, places and things that were a little askew, lop-sided, cock-eyed and crooked: the offbeat lyric and the oddball academic; the eccentric colleague and the curious TV show; the idiosyncratic pub and the irregular street-plan. And I was in equal measure consistently suspicious of the square jawed, level headed, regular looking, straight talking, frank and forthright.

'There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.’
English Nursery Rhyme

So it came as something of a disappointment when I read that, according to numerous scientific studies, human beings are broadly attracted to people with symmetrical faces. Apparently it’s something to do with our quest for good genes: we assume balanced facial features signify health and longevity.

I beg to differ. The symmetrical face lacks something. It’s too neat and tidy; too regular and even. It’s short on character, forgettable.

Indeed I have been reassured to learn that other academic studies, on perfectly mirrored facial features, suggest that, after all, most people do prefer a slightly asymmetrical countenance.

Alex John Beck - Project Both Sides Of

Alex John Beck - Project Both Sides Of

In his 2014 project, ‘Both Sides Of,‘ photographer Alex John Beck created mirror images of the left and right halves of sitters’ faces and set them side-by-side. There’s something eerie and uncomfortable about the results. The mirrored models look disarmingly alien.

Of course, in the field of commerce there is a strong predisposition to impose logic, order and good sense; to classify and categorise; to tidy up, set straight and smooth over.

But we should always embrace asymmetries – of personality, looks and behaviour. Because difference gets us noticed, suggests character, prompts conversation, lingers in the memory. Difference makes us human. And critically for the communication business, difference creates difference.

So if ever you’re tempted to play things safe, to follow the conventional path, the straight and narrow, remember Den’s instruction. The world tilts at twenty-three and a half degrees. It is skew-whiff. And life isn’t quite logical.

'When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, oh responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical.’

Supertramp, The Logical Song (Richard Davies / Roger Hodgson)

No. 188

The Red Buoy: Beware Being Repositioned by the Competition

JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden where his father was a barber and wig-maker. John Constable, born in Suffolk a year later, was the son of a wealthy corn merchant and miller.

Together these artists introduced a vibrant new way of depicting landscape. While their predecessors had set out to paint the natural world through mythical idealism or realistic accuracy, Turner and Constable sought to convey its true soul.

Turner painted shipwrecks, fires and fogs; violent seas and fierce storms; the smoke and steam of the industrial revolution. Constable was more gentle at heart. He painted picturesque waterways and working farms; elegant steeples, shimmering rainbows and gossamer clouds. 

Sadly the two artists never got on. Turner, who had been something of a child prodigy, regarded Constable as an upstart. Constable praised Turner in public, but in private described his work as ‘just steam and light’. In the Royal Academy exhibition of 1831 Constable had one of Turner's paintings moved from a prominent position and replaced with one of his own.

At the Royal Academy exhibition the following year Constable and Turner were assigned places alongside each other in one of the main galleries. Constable had been working on ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ for fifteen years. In the days before the exhibition, artists were allowed to apply a final coat to their paintings as they hung on the gallery walls. And so Constable painstakingly set about his finishing touches.

Turner was showing a sombre seascape, a picture of Dutch ships in a storm,‘Helvoetsluys’. Just before the exhibition opened, he realised his work suffered by comparison with Constable’s. And so he marched in and painted a small bright red buoy in the middle of his canvas. It drew the eye, creating a compelling contrast with the green sea around it. Turner left without saying a word.

Constable was incensed.

‘He has been here and fired a gun.’

The critics agreed that Turner’s simpler, more restrained work made ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ look complex, fussy and ostentatious. The exhibition was a disaster for Constable.

There’s a lesson for the marketing world here.

John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

You may be going merrily about your business, doing a decent job, progressing steadily along the tracks. Your brand may be well regarded by consumers. Everything may be OK.

But then out of left field the competition does something radical that rewrites the rules; that reframes the market; that changes the way you’re viewed. Suddenly you no longer seem quite so relevant. You appear a little off the pace, a little out of sorts. Suddenly you look like yesterday’s brand.

BA was solidly respectable, thoroughly dependable. And then irreverent Virgin arrived on the scene and made it somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned. Levi’s was cool and contemporary. And then dissident Diesel appeared and made it safe and conventional. Orange made Vodafone feel corporate. Apple made Microsoft appear square. Sipsmith made Gordon's look dreary. Fever-Tree made Schweppes taste sweet. Eat made Pret seem over-sauced. And so on and so forth.

We should watch out for the seemingly insignificant red buoy that appears out of left field; the subtle touch of the brush that at a stroke makes us seem less relevant. We should beware being repositioned by the competition.

When we play it safe, we leave space for others to shine. If we want to be a leadership brand, we have to lead.


'When least expected,
Fate stumbles in.
Bringing light to the darkness,
Oh, what a friend.
I needed someone to call my own.
Suddenly, out of left field
Out of left field, out of left field
Love came along.’

Percy Sledge, 'Out of Left Field' (Dan Penn / Spooner Oldham)

No. 187

The Jean Brodie School of Planning Leadership: Coaching is about Leading Out, Not Thrusting In

Lia Williams Photo: Manuel Harlan for Donmar Warehouse

Lia Williams Photo: Manuel Harlan for Donmar Warehouse

'I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life. You girls are my vocation. If I were to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, I would decline it. I am dedicated to you in my prime. And my summer in Italy has convinced me that I am truly in my prime.'

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’ Muriel Spark

I recently saw a fine theatrical adaptation of Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ at the Donmar Warehouse in London (until 28 July).

It is 1932 and we are introduced to Jean Brodie, a charismatic and subversive teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school. She inspires her dedicated pupils with stories of Italian holidays and Giotto; with advice on love and appropriate window closure.

The free-spirited, independent-minded Brodie is constantly questioning the more formal, disciplined teaching methods of the head of school, Miss Mackay.

'I am cashmere to Miss Mackay's granite.'

As the play progresses, we come to appreciate that Brodie is deeply flawed. The fierce loyalty she demands from her pupils creates a clique. And she has more than a passing fascination with continental fascism.

Despite this, I was quite taken with Brodie’s teaching philosophy.

‘The word ‘education’ comes from the root ‘e’ from ‘ex’, ‘out’, and ‘duco’, ‘I lead’. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education. I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix ‘in’, meaning ’in’ and the stem ‘trudo’, ‘I thrust’.’

Perhaps Brodie could suggest some leadership lessons for the commercial sector.

When you are appointed Head of Planning, you may find that your greatest strength becomes your greatest weakness. You were promoted because you’re sharp, smart and pretty good at strategy. And so your first instinct on being presented with a problem is to endeavour to solve it yourself. When, however, the problem comes to you in the shape of a young Planner with a few theories of his or her own, this instinct doesn’t help.  

If the primary task of leadership is to maximize the output, value and wellbeing of the human capital available to you, then a key challenge is to create high performing self-sufficiency in your Planners. You won’t achieve this by telling them to write up your answers.

As Broadie would have put it, coaching is about ‘leading out’, not ‘thrusting in.’

In my brief and not entirely successful tenure of the Head of Planning role at BBH, I set myself the task of enhancing my Planners’ ideas and hypotheses, rather than imposing my own. I was a pluralist who believed there were many right answers to any question. And in time I grew rather to enjoy the intellectual challenge inherent in this approach.

On taking the reins, you may also be inclined to promote a strong sense of departmental identity and esprit de corps; to rally the team round a unifying vision and sense of purpose. This is a natural path to take. But, as Brodie warned, it can be counterproductive.

'Phrases like 'the team spirit' are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties.' 

Be careful that coherence and consistency don’t translate into uniformity and homogeneity. A successful strategy department is characterized by diverse skills and personalities working in harmony. Make difference your friend.

The third lesson from the Brodie handbook is perhaps an obvious one.

Brodie set out from the start to instill confidence; to convince her pupils that she believed in them and that she was on their side. Brodie’s girls were ‘the crème de la crème’, and they were ‘in their prime’.

'One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.'

Confidence is a precious commodity in any organization. It prompts people to inspired leaps; motivates them to engage Clients with conviction; supports them through the hard times. A critical responsibility of leadership is to build and sustain self-confidence.

So, three lessons from the Jean Brodie School of Planning Leadership:

- coach by ‘leading out’, not ‘thrusting in’

- create harmonious teams of individuals, not uniform teams of carbon-copies

- build self-confidence: the sense that your Planners are ‘the crème de la crème, in their prime’

Perhaps we should give the last word to Miss Jean Brodie who, for all her flaws, leaves an indelible impression.

'I am a teacher! I am a teacher, first, last, always!... It is true I am a strong influence on my girls. I am proud of it. I influence them to be aware of all the possibilities of life... of beauty, honour, courage.' 


I was invited to write this piece by Ben Shaw, the new Head of Planning at BBH, London. It first appeared on BBH Labs, 2 July 2018.

No. 186

Hedy’s Hidden Talent: Considering Untapped Resources at Work


‘The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think.’
Hedy Lamarr

I recently saw a fine documentary plotting the extraordinary life and hidden talent of the film star Hedy Lamarr (‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’, 2017).

Hedwig Kiesler was born into a middle class family in Vienna in 1914. She dropped out of school to become an actor, and in 1930 made her first film. In 1932 she gained notoriety when she appeared nude in ‘Ecstasy’, a movie that was banned in the United States. That same year she married a wealthy munitions manufacturer. Her jealous husband put her career on hold, and she found herself playing the society hostess, often to fascist military figures.

Kiesler was bored. She resented being controlled, and, being of Jewish descent, she felt unsafe. In 1937 she escaped by spiking her attendant’s tea and donning a maid’s outfit that had her jewelry sewn into its lining.

Kiesler arrived in London just when film mogul Louis B Mayer happened to be in town talent spotting. He offered her a modest $125 a week. She turned him down, but followed him to America and negotiated a $500 a week contract on the transatlantic crossing.

Mayer changed Kiesler's name to Hedy Lamarr and she made her Hollywood film debut alongside Charles Boyer in ‘Algiers’ in 1938.

Boyer: ‘What did you do before the jewels?’

Lamarr: ‘I wanted them.’

With her full lips, dark hair and distinctive centre parting, Lamarr was a hit with the American public. Her looks inspired Disney’s Snow White and DC Comics’ Catwoman. However, she was generally type cast as a glamorous seductress in exotic adventure epics. And she was rarely given interesting lines.

'I am Tondelayo. I make tiffin for you?'

Lamarr grew bored of Hollywood.

‘Any girl can look glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.’

She had a curious mind. At the age of 5 she had taken a music box to pieces to see how it worked. Without any formal training, she liked to spend her spare time inventing at home or in her trailer on-set. She set about designing a traffic stop-light, a soluble cola tablet and aerodynamic plane wings.

‘I don’t have to work on ideas. They come naturally.’

In 1940, eager to help the war effort and concerned about her mother who was still in Europe, Lamarr was taken with a news report that suggested British torpedoes were being easily intercepted by the Germans.

‘I got the idea for my invention when I tried to think of some way to even the balance for the British… They shot the torpedoes in all directions and never hit the target. So I invented something that does.’

Lamarr teamed up with fellow amateur inventor, the composer George Antheil, and, inspired by early radio remote controls and the paper rolls used in player-pianos, together they developed the idea of a frequency-hopping system for remotely controlling torpedoes.

In 1942 the invention was patented, reviewed by the National Inventors Council and filed away in secret. It wasn’t taken up initially and Lamarr assumed it remained neglected. But the patent was revisited by the military after the war, and in the late '50s the concept was employed in the development of drones. Frequency hopping radio subsequently became the basis for today’s WiFi and Bluetooth technologies. 

Sadly, there was no happy ending to this particular movie. Due to the expiration of the patent and Lamarr's ignorance of the time limits for filing claims, she made no money from her invention. In her later years, addicted to pills and plastic surgery, she withdrew to Florida and cash-strapped seclusion. She died in 2000.


What can we learn from Lamarr’s story?

Well, first of all perhaps that when we are bored and restless, we should resolve to do something about it.

'I can excuse everything but boredom. Boring people don't have to stay that way.'

Lamarr demonstrated a phenomenal curiosity and appetite for adventure. She followed her passions.

‘All creative people want to do the unexpected.’

Throughout her life she also exhibited a determination to overcome the obstacles that came in her way.

‘When things don’t come easy, figure out why, and then do something about it…And if people walk over you, don’t let them.’

This determination was particularly required in Lamarr’s engagement with men. She was married six times and was generally frustrated in love.

'Perhaps my problem in marriage - and it is the problem of many women - was to want both intimacy and independence. It is a difficult line to walk, yet both needs are important to a marriage.’

So, Lamarr teaches us to use boredom as a prompt to action, to follow our passions, and to be resolute in their pursuit. But above all she compels us to reflect on hidden talents: on skills that are unappreciated, underutilised, unrealised.

In the commercial sector, where it is increasingly difficult to develop and sustain genuine product differentiation, talent is often all we have to set a business apart. And a primary role of leadership is realising the value of the human capital that is available to it.

But how well do we know our own talent? How well do we understand our colleagues’ private passions and undisclosed gifts? Do we audit their skills and abilities? Have we ever set out to realise them?

It is not uncommon for leaders nowadays to proclaim to their workforce that they want them to be the best that they can be. But these are hollow words if no effort is taken to discover what people are best at.

Historically it has been the imperative of business to channel talent against a particular task or output. In the digital age surely we must be seeking, not just to harness ability to predetermined goals, but to follow talent wherever it takes us.

And of course, this applies as much to individuals as it does to organisations. Fulfilment at work begins with self-awareness. What am I good at? What are my special skills? What do I enjoy? What gives me a particular thrill?

Like Lamarr, once we have answered these questions, we should embrace their consequences, and pursue the unknown with enthusiasm and determination.

What have we got to be scared of?

‘Hope and curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. The unknown was always so attractive to me... And still is.’

No. 185

‘The Landscape of Fact’: How Measurement and Language Can Become Vehicles of Control

Photo: Colin Morgan by David Stewart for The National Theatre

Photo: Colin Morgan by David Stewart for The National Theatre

‘Yes, it is a rich language… full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception — a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to … inevitabilities.’

There’s an excellent production of Brian Friel’s 1980 play ‘Translations’ running at the National Theatre in London (until 11 August).

The drama is set in 1833 amongst the Irish-speaking community of Baile Beag, Donegal. Bibulous Hugh, ‘a large man, with residual dignity’, teaches Latin and Greek literature to the local peasantry at his informal ‘hedge school.’ In a ramshackle old barn his students learn grammar and word derivations, and swap quotations from Homer, Tacitus and Virgil.

‘There was an ancient city which, ‘tis said, Juno loved above all the lands. And it was the goddess’s aim and cherished hope that here should be the capital of all nations – should the fates perchance allow that.’

English is rarely spoken in the area ‘and then usually for the purposes of commerce, a use to which [that] tongue seemed particularly suited.’

Meanwhile British troops are camped nearby charting a map of the area for the Ordnance Survey. This entails Anglicising the local place names. So Bun na hAbhann becomes Burnfoot; Druim Dubh becomes Dromduff; and Baile Beag becomes Ballybeg.

Hugh is no admirer of the English language.

‘English succeeds in making it sound…plebeian.’

And he explains to the British sappers that their culture is lost on the Irish.

‘Wordsworth? … No, I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.’

The British are also in the process of establishing a national education system in Ireland. This is one of the first state-run, standardised systems of primary education in the world. English will be the official language, and the new system will make the traditional Irish-speaking ‘hedge schools’ redundant.

The drama prompts us to think about control. The British claim that their measurements and mapping will lead to fairer, more accurate taxation. But there’s an underlying suspicion that darker motives are at play. On the face of it the new school system will be superior to the old, and some in the Irish community regard English as a gateway tongue to travel and better prospects. But Hugh is concerned that Ireland is losing its cultural identity.

‘Remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen — to use an image you’ll understand — it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of … fact.’ 

We may recognise some of these themes in the world of commerce. Periodically our leaders, our owners and our Clients seek to monitor our output and ways of working; to map the landscape and contours of the business. We embrace timesheets and targets; scales and scorecards; ratios and rotas. Of course, it’s all in the interests of efficiency and best practice. ‘What gets measured gets done’ and so forth.

But there’s often a misgiving that measurement is a means of re-ordering priorities, of setting a new agenda, of enacting control; and a concern that the measures can become an end in themselves. As Sir John Banham, the former President of the CBI once observed:

‘In business we value most highly that which we can measure most precisely… Consequently we often invest huge amounts in being precisely wrong rather than seeking to be approximately right.’

Similarly we may find that our leaders, owners and Clients seek to impose their own language upon us. We are taught catchphrases and buzzwords; axioms and aphorisms; jargon and generalisation. Listen and repeat. Listen and repeat. As we endeavour to wise up, we dumb down. As our ambition expands, our vocabulary shrinks.

In his recent documentary ‘On Jargon’ (BBC4, 27 May), the brilliant writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades contrasted jargon with slang.

‘Jargon is everything that slang is not. Centrifugal, evasive, drably euphemistic, unthreatening, conformist. ... Whilst slang belongs to the gutter, jargon belongs to the executive estate. It is the clumsy, graceless, inelegant, aesthetically bereft expression of houses with three garages; of business people who instinctively refer to their workmates as colleagues…It is delusional. It inflates pomposity, officiousness and self-importance rather than punctures them. Slang mocks. Jargon crawls on its belly - giving great feedback, hoping for promotion.’

Now I should concede that I have been no stranger to aphorisms. When I was in leadership positions, I was prone to headlining new agendas; to punching out big themes. And I have often referred to my workmates as colleagues.

Of course, it is the responsibility of leaders in modern businesses to achieve corporate clarity and coherence. But it is imperative in so doing, to avoid clichéd conventional wisdom; ‘newspeak’ and ‘doublethink.’ And it is critical that independent thought and freedom of expression are not victims of the process.

Sometimes, in seeking to control difference, we simply succeed in making everyone the same.

One of the last of the great Cavalier Clients was Geoffrey Probert, who ran the deodorant and oral categories at Unilever. He was mindful that Agencies were at great pains to fit in with their Clients; to conform to their language and way of working. He warned against it.

‘Agencies can spend too much time trying to be like their clients. We’ve got loads of people just like us. We need you to be different. That’s the point. Just concentrate on doing the things we can’t do.’

No. 184



‘The Child Must Banish the Father’: Mark Rothko and Intergenerational Strife

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

‘Movement is everything. Movement is life. The second we’re born we squall, we writhe, we squirm. To live is to move.’

There’s a splendid production of the 2009 play ‘Red’ by John Logan running at the Wyndham Theatre in London (until 28 July).

It is 1958-59. Mark Rothko has been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the glamorous Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. In his paint-splattered Bowery studio he creates his work surrounded by whisky bottles, canvases, turpentine and brushes; in low light; to the sounds of Schubert and Mozart.

Rothko strives to convey raw truth, real feeling and pure thought - in maroon, dark red and black. His luminous paintings pulse with introspection, intensity and intellectual energy. He approaches his craft with high seriousness.

‘People like me… My contemporaries, my colleagues…Those painters who came up with me. We all had one thing in common…We understood the importance of seriousness.’

Rothko explains to his young assistant that he and his fellow Abstract Expressionists achieved their dominance of the post-war art scene by sweeping aside the previous generation.

‘We destroyed Cubism, de Kooning and me and Pollock and Barnett Newman and all the others. We stomped it to death. Nobody can paint a cubist picture now…The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him.’

Rothko’s assistant, however, is a fan of the emergent Pop Art movement; of artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He challenges Rothko’s worldview.

‘Not everything needs to be so goddamn important all the time. Not every painting needs to rip your guts out and expose your soul. Not everyone wants art that actually hurts. Sometimes you just want a fucking still life or soup can or comic book!’

Rothko is unimpressed.

‘You know the problem with those painters? It’s exactly what you said: they are painting for this moment, right now. And that’s all. It’s nothing but zeitgeist art. Completely temporal, completely disposable, like Kleenex.’

Rothko’s frustration with Pop Art extends to the culture that has created and celebrated it. He rages against the triviality of modern life.

‘‘Pretty.’ ’Beautiful.’ ’Nice.’ ’Fine.’ That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine’. We put on the funny nose and glasses and slip on the banana peel and the TV makes everything happy and everyone’s laughing all the time, it’s all so goddamn funny. It’s our constitutional right to be amused all the time, isn’t it? We’re a smirking nation living under the tyranny of ‘fine’. How are you? Fine. How was your day? Fine. How did you like the painting? Fine. Want some dinner? Fine…Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine!...How are you?...How was your day? How are you feeling? Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine.’

The argument gets personal. Rothko’s assistant points out that the artist’s seriousness and self-importance don’t sit well with his latest commission.

‘The High Priest of Modern Art is painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption.’

For me these bitter exchanges resonate with the intergenerational strife that we often encounter today in work and broader society. Each age cohort seems eager to celebrate its own triumphs, but reluctant to recognize the virtues of the cohort beneath them.

My own generation, born in the ‘60s, rejoices in punk’s destruction of ‘70s lethargy and hippy self-indulgence. We lionize our mix-tapes, style tribes, GTIs and political engagement. We rejoice in our hedonistic teens and our industrious twenties.

Yet, we moan about Millennials and make sarcastic remarks about Snowflakes. We complain about young people’s technology addiction and attention deficit disorders; their narcissism, impatience and indifference; the artisanal gins and avocado on toast; no-platforming and eating on public transport.

The younger generation can quite rightly retort with ‘80s materialism, sexism and sartorial blunders; the environmental apathy and the plain good fortune of the property market. They can coin their own labels: Centrist Dads and Gammons and so forth.

This intergenerational squabbling gets us nowhere. It betrays an inability to see life through anything other than the prism of our own experience.

Surely each generation is equal but different. One generation dances with their feet; the other dances with their hands. One wears white socks at the gym; the other wears black. One watches TV together; the other watches phones together.

I have been in awe of modern youth’s ability to diminish the gap between thought and action; their entrepreneurial spirit and technical facility; their comfort with diversity and their capacity to keep life and work in balance. They’re just as political, but they care about different issues. They’re just as stylish, but in skinnier jeans.

OK. Their music is not as good…

In the field of commerce the businesses that thrive are those that truly trust and enable the younger generation; that integrate old and new skills; that recognise the imperative of change. Because if a company fails to embrace generational difference, then eventually 'the child will banish the father.’ And the mother too.

Towards the end of ‘Red’ Rothko has a change of heart. After a dispiriting trip to the Four Seasons restaurant, he backs out of the lucrative commission. And he dismisses his assistant with something approaching good grace.

‘Listen, kid, you don’t need to spend any more time with me. You need to find your contemporaries and make your own world, your own life…You need to get out there now, into the thick of it, shake your fist at them, talk their ear off… Make something new.’

No. 183


Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox? Considering the Monist and Pluralist Views of How Communication Works

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In his celebrated 1953 essay on Tolstoy, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox,’ philosopher Isaiah Berlin quotes a fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus:

‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’

This line has sometimes been taken to suggest that hedgehogs are superior to foxes, because their singular defensive skill trumps the many and various wiles of the fox. Foxes can run and dart and hide and pounce. A hedgehog just rolls itself up into a very effective spikey ball. Archilochus may, of course, be pointing out the distinction in skills without attributing superior worth. In any case, Berlin employs the analogy of the Hedgehog and the Fox to illuminate two fundamentally different types of thinking:

‘There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.’

 Berlin establishes two camps.

The Hedgehogs are monists, ever in search of overarching laws, panoramic principles, universal theories. Their enthusiasms and enquiries converge, centripetally, on singular visions. To their team he assigns the likes of Plato, Dante, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen.

The Foxes, by contrast, are pluralists. They enjoy exploring the infinite multiplicity of life. Their interests and opinions spin off, centrifugally, in all sorts of different, sometimes conflicting, directions. To them Berlin assigns Herodotus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Pushkin, Joyce and others.

Since the publication of Berlin’s essay, writers have enjoyed categorising novelists, philosophers, economists, musicians, and anyone else you’d care to mention, into singular Hedgehogs and pluralist Foxes.

In the field of business critics have observed that Hedgehog leaders value focus, best practice, order and specialism. By contrast Fox leaders cherish diverse skillsets, complexity, adaptability and speed. Some infer that it’s the Foxes that thrive in the new economy.

When in 2014 the statistician Nate Silver launched his data journalism organization, FiveThirtyEight, he incorporated a fox in the company logo. In a manifesto he explained: 

‘We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways.’

Categorising Hedgehogs and Foxes has become something of an academic parlour game. But the ubiquity of the analogy doesn’t undermine its interest. Inevitably one has to ask: in the field of communications, who are the Hedgehogs and who are the Foxes?

When I came into the advertising profession in the late 1980s I was inducted, by experience and case studies, into a singular model of effectiveness that combined rational and emotional persuasion. Advertising was a sugar-coated pill, an exercise in earned attention, focused messaging and subtle seduction. Our benchmarks were VW and Levi’s, Carling and Courage Best. I guess in those days, in Berlin’s terms, I was a Hedgehog. I believed that all roads led to the same model of persuasion.

But as my career progressed I kept encountering admirable campaigns that didn’t quite fit this model. Radion advertising was brutal and crude, but it clearly precipitated action. Gap commercials lacked a proposition, but their effortless style carried the day. Chanel’s Egoiste was empty, but effective. Cadbury’s Gorilla made little logical sense, but it didn’t seem to matter.

With every passing year and every new exception, my Hedgehog mentality was chipped away. I reflected fondly on the directness of the jingles, slogans and anthropomorphism with which I’d grown up. With the dawn of the social age, I admired the infinite variety of memes, the viral impact of stunts, the authentic transparency of verite, the smart psychology of nudges. Gradually I became an open-minded pluralist; a student of many schools of communication effectiveness. I became a Fox.

In his excellent book, ‘The Anatomy of Humbug’, Paul Feldwick reviews the numerous theories of how advertising works. He explores the various traditions of rational persuasion and unconscious communication, ‘salesmanship’ and ‘seduction’ as he terms them. He also considers the effectiveness of salience and fame, social connection and relationships, PR and showmanship. He concludes that all these approaches have genuine merit:

‘These are not to be understood as rival or mutually exclusive theories – they are all intended as different ways of thinking about the same thing, all of which may have their uses, and each of which alone has its limitations.’

Every generation brings a new theory of how communication works. Every cohort creates new tools and techniques, methods and models. Most of these have some value in illuminating their particular field and broadening our understanding of the art of persuasion. But I have remained sceptical of anyone that preaches a singular gospel; a definitive model; a theory of everything. It’s Fool’s Gold.

And I don’t listen to Hedgehogs any more.


No. 182 

Calculated Creativity: You Need Left-Brain as Well as Right-Brain Thinking to Make Commercial Communication


‘The music industry isn’t about healing pain and heartbreak and vulnerability. It’s about selling it.’

I recently saw ‘Mood Music’, an entertaining and thoughtful new play by Joe Penhall (at the Old Vic until 16 June). The piece revolves around a dispute between Bernard, a middle-aged music producer, and Cat, a young singer-songwriter. They have collaborated over a successful album, but their relationship unravels as Bernard claims sole authorship of its hit song.

‘Making other people feel better doesn’t really make me feel better.’

Our sympathies are with Cat. She is inexperienced, vulnerable and idealistic. We want to believe her romantic characterisation of the creative process.

‘When we’re making great music and it’s working, I’m free. Everything has clarity. Energy. Like a surge of life force. Something that’s uniquely mine pours out and connects. I can perform magical tricks. I can fly.’

Bernard, by contrast, is cynical, manipulative and misanthropic. He finds it hard to recognise the talent of others.

‘You see, singers tend to live in a world of their own. They have to completely empty their minds in order to sing, and then they just stay that way.’

‘The thing you need to understand about bass players is they’re not musical.’

‘Drummers can’t feel pain. They’re like fish.’

Bernard is undoubtedly the villain of the piece. And yet sometimes, in the midst of the bullying, bitterness and bile, his pronouncements about the craft of songwriting ring true.

‘A good song doesn’t have a ‘heart.’ It has a void. It’s a ‘black hole’. It sucks you inside it, and you fill it with yourself until there’s no escape.’

Bernard believes that creating music is not about freedom, passion and self-expression. For him it’s all a matter of detachment, compromise and control.

‘The key to emotion is nuance, and the key to nuance is precision. You have to be very mechanical to make it emotional. It’s a real dichotomy.’

Bernard goes on to muse on the character traits of successful creative people.

‘Well, you see, music is traditionally all about expressing yourself, and musicians are generally against repressing their feelings. But I think some people should be a bit more repressed.’ 

These themes may resonate for us in the commercial communication sector, where creativity is put to work; applied to a task; managed and manipulated to achieve a particular goal. We deal in calculated creativity.

Many veteran creatives have, like Bernard, a disarming air of cynicism about them. They wear their disappointments and past defeats as badges of pride. But often they also have the experience and expertise to adjust and adapt ideas; to revise and refine them so as to realise their full potential.

As an industry we spend a good deal of time paying our respects to the right-brain aspects of our work: to the anarchic free spirit; the magical spark of invention; the unfettered imagination. But the commercial creative requires logic, analysis and objectivity as much as intuition, thoughtfulness and subjectivity. Maybe we should spend more time celebrating the left-brain: the calculation and control that translate a raw idea into a compelling and effective piece of communication; the precise knowhow that guides concepts through the development process to execution; the craft of creativity.

Perhaps if we lauded calculated creativity more than maverick invention - if we gave due attention to craft skills, and taught them properly in our schools – we’d be better appreciated by our Clients, and better understood in the wider fields of commerce. And we’d be less inclined to indulge the unruly behaviour and wearying extravagance of the conventional creative stereotype.

In the course of ‘Mood Music’ both Bernard and Cat take to counselling to address their frustrations. Cat’s psychotherapist observes:

‘I’m just saying you find a lot of damaged people – sociopaths and psychopaths, for example – are drawn to the music industry because lack of empathy, raging narcissism and grandiose eccentricity is expected of them. It’s normal.’

It doesn’t have to be.

No. 182