The Ghost In The Machine

‘By our spirits are we deified’
William Wordsworth/ Resolution and Independence

Over recent years the marketing and communications community has raced to build a ‘new marketing model’ for the digital age; a model that is more connected, more agile and less wasteful; a model that transforms the way we market brands to consumers. The industry has made real progress and the opportunities for efficiency and effectiveness seem limitless. But the model should not become an end in itself. Once we’ve built the perfect marketing machine, we’ll still need ideas to animate it; and ideas will remain largely intangible, irrational and irregular. We still need to plan for the Ghost in the Machine.

Fundamentally the age of technology affords us an opportunity to harness the vehicles of persuasion (advertising) more directly to the mechanics of consumption (purchase) and of relationship management (CRM). Modern brands will be built around data rich, adaptive digital platforms that take consumers on a seamless journey from seeing relevant content, to selling an experience, to securing a relationship.

Through enhanced customer knowledge and more accurate targeting, the new model promises the elimination of communication waste. In the twentieth century waste was presumed to be a necessary cost of marketing. (A belief best expressed by the familiar maxim attributed to various mythical magnates: ‘I know half of my advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.’)

The emergent paradigm is a marketing machine that is more targeted, more knowing and more efficient; something that learns, creates, adapts and distributes in real time.

It has been interesting to note that the pioneers of the new model have been service and retail brands: banks, airlines, supermarkets, telecoms and tech companies; businesses whose very existence depends on digital platforms. The FMCG brands that wrote the marketing textbooks of the twentieth century have lagged; perhaps because their businesses still revolve around physical products distributed through physical stores.

The new marketing model is also precipitating a consolidation of agency services. In recent years clients have developed new specialist agency partnerships for every emergent technology. But this fragmentation of suppliers has caused an escalation in cost and management stress. There’s now a drive to glue things back together.

Inevitably the new marketing model has required clients and agencies to hire engineers and technologists to build the connections, to design the interactions, to calculate the algorithms. Marketing and communications have become more scientific and we have all become increasingly concerned with agile processes, seamless user journeys and real time data.

Some have indeed argued that the brands of the future will be defined primarily by the fluency and intuitiveness of the interactions consumers have with them. I suspect this is only partially true. I’m concerned that mechanical models can be mimicked; rational experiences can be replicated; fluid user journeys can be followed.

To my mind success will revolve around our ability to design experiences that have personality as well as fluency; interactions that have spontaneity as well as utility; propositions that express sentiment as well as value. Above all we need to remember that great brands are fundamentally built on ideas. The new marketing machine needs imaginative, differentiating, ownable ideas to animate it.

This entails creating an alliance of art and science in the marketing mix. We need to protect the role of creativity in our culture, people and processes. We need to be as mindful of personality as of performance; of feelings as of functionality. Occasionally we need to stop making sense.

So the new marketing model represents a great leap forward for the industry. But however much we may mechanise our marketing, brands, relationships and experiences will retain an emotional dimension. We should respect The Ghost in the Machine.

First published in The Guardian - Media and Tech Network 5th August 2015

No. 40


Thinking Inside the Box

This week I visited the excellent Joseph Cornell exhibition at The Royal Academy. Cornell spent most of his life in New York State and never left America. But through his art he voyaged across continents and through time. In a week in which Pixar launches a film exploring the brain of an 11 year old child, the Cornell exhibition is a jouney into the mechanics of a creative mind.

Although Cornell didn’t travel, he read extensively and compiled dossiers on subjects that interested him, whether that be astronomy, ornithology, circuses, childhood games or nineteenth century France. Drawing on the contents of these dossiers and combining them in imaginative ways, Cornell painstakingly constructed collages, mechanicals and glass fronted ‘shadow boxes.’ His boxes contained fantasy hotels, tropical birds, celestial maps. He created fictional lives, shooting galleries, slot machines and an interactive Museum of Sound (including ‘the sound of silence’ which I guess belongs in a museum nowadays…).

It’s often been said that travel narrows the mind. Cornell demonstrated that a creative imagination can take us to exotic places without setting foot outside one’s home town.

What can we in the creative professions learn from Cornell?

Could we do more to capture and collate experiences and thoughts that would otherwise pass unexpressed and unremembered?

Are we misleading ourselves when we imagine that our exotic holidays are fuelling our imagination? Would we be better off just reading more?

In the age of consumer insight and user experience, do we give proper weight to the pure transformative power of dreams?

Cornell loved poetry and he dedicated his piece Toward the Blue Peninsula to the similarly private Emily Dickinson. The work refers to a Dickinson poem that considers the choice of an imagined, over an experienced, life.

‘It might be easier
To fail - with Land in Sight-
Than gain – my Blue Peninsula -
To perish - of Delight -’

Emily Dickinson/ It Might Be Lonelier

Carving, Not Casting; Making Not Managing

I also attended the splendid retrospective of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain. Beautiful contemplations in form and space, surface and light. Hollowed out solids, wires casting shadows. Polished and painted, curved and scooped. Lovely.

In her early career Hepworth participated in the ‘direct carving’ movement: artists carving directly into wood and stone, respecting the truth of the materials; rather than casting sculpture into a mould or employing skilled craftsmen to execute a model. Initially the direct carvers’ works were a little cruder, a little more rudimentary, than those produced by the incumbent methods, as the artists learned the craft skills themselves. But there was a compelling simplicity and honesty about the results.

I wonder what would a rededication to direct carving look like in the communication arts?
What if all our creatives shot their own film, designed their own posters, wrote their own code, built their own applications?
What if we rejected our fragmented, demarcated world and rededicated our selves to ‘making not managing’?

Wasted Talent

On Friday afternoon I sat on my own in a cinema weeping to the Amy Winehouse documentary. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. From the start you could see the ending, but there was nothing you could do to stop it.

There seem to have been many contributors to poor Amy’s demise; not least her determination to ‘sabotage her own life’. And I couldn’t escape a sense of complicity. I’d read those papers, consumed those news stories; I was watching the film.

But the abiding impression I took from Amy was of waste: wasted talent, wasted love, wasted life. In our disposable culture we imagine that talent, like everything else, is readily replaceable. But it isn’t.  And we’ll not see the like of Amy again in our lifetimes.

I wonder, are creative businesses wasting the very talent that sustains them?
Shouldn’t we be protecting talent as our most precious commodity?
Should our new-found commitment to sustainability extend to people, not just resources?

And, by the way, the film wasn’t entirely depressing. Tony Bennett emerged as a wise, gentle, luminous star. If only there were more like him…

Advice to My 17 Year Old Self

Work hard, but not at the expense of your cultural life.
Study hard, but not at the expense of your social life.
Play hard, but not at the expense of your health.

N0. 39


Damola suggested that I could supplement the blog with a regular newsletter.

I thought I might make some broad observations about business prompted by plays, films, art, articles and so forth.

So here are this week’s notes from the hinterland…

If We Rid Ourselves of Our Demons, We’ll Lose Our Angels Too

In a recent Desert Island Discs, Stephen Fry quoted Tennessee Williams: ‘If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels too.’

Creative businesses are often confronted with behaviour that is unreliable and unruly, eccentric and erratic. If we expect unconventional answers, we should not be surprised when they come from unconventional sources. Creative talent rarely arrives with a diploma for good behaviour.

And yet creative businesses also have staff that need protecting and values that need sustaining. So where should we draw the line?

Fair Play?

I saw the new Marber play, The Red Lion, at the National Theatre. It’s a compelling piece about life in lower league football. It boasts rich language, good observations on masculinity and some very funny moments.

In the programme notes the former England cricket captain Mike Brearley considers the ‘gang culture’ and ‘mutual humiliation’ at the heart of modern sport.

‘A young middle order batsman who murmured sycophantically to [the bowler} Fred Trueman on his way back to the Pavilion, ‘That was a fine delivery, Fred’ – received the reply ‘Aye, and it were wasted on thee.’

There is a fine line between such more or less legitimate discomfiting gestures and messages on the one hand, and behaviour that goes beyond the spirit of the game on the other…

Sport could not have arisen without individual competitiveness, ambition and Oedipal striving. But nor could it have arisen without love, cooperation and respect.’ 

As ever, sport poses questions that are just as relevant to business and life. What is the appropriate level of competitiveness and rivalry in the era of partnership and collaboration?

The Same But Different

I watched a very funny screwball comedy from 1937. In The Awful Truth Irene Dunne and Cary Grant spar with each other over their divorce.

Lucy: ‘Things are just the same as they always were, only you’re the same as you were too, so I guess things will never be the same again.’

Jerry: ‘You’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool and I’m not now. So long as I’m different, don’t you think that…well maybe things could be the same again…only a little different, huh?’

It struck me that this is an age-old yearning that applies as much to business as to love. We want to embrace change, but somehow to acknowledge timeless truths. The same but different…

Multi-tasking v Mono-tasking

The Beckett radio play All That Fall was recently performed at the Barbican for an audience sitting in deckchairs. Though it sounds suspiciously like physical theatre, I have to say it was an excellent experience. In the play Mr Rooney demands:

‘Once and for all, do not ask me to speak and move at the same time. I shall not say this in this life again.’

I’m with Mr Rooney. I have always been more a mono-tasker than a multi-tasker. I was encouraged by recent research that suggests the productivity associated with multi-tasking is a myth. Some have suggested it should be called ‘multi-switching’ rather than multi-tasking.

A Lawyer in Heaven

A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?) about 1450, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?)
about 1450, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

At a visit to the National Gallery yesterday I noticed this excellent painting of Saint Ivo by the Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. Ivo is celebrated as 'the patron saint of lawyers and an advocate of the poor'…







No. 38

Does Commercial Creativity Need A Rebrand?

Photograph of Virginia Woolf by Gisele Freund

Photograph of Virginia Woolf by Gisele Freund

An imagined conversation with an imaginary CEO…

How do you feel about change?

‘I love change. Change is at the heart of modern commerce. It’s our lifeblood.’

What about transformation?

‘Yes, our sector is unrecognisable compared to what it was ten, or even five, years ago. We’ve got to lead transformation in our own business and culture, so that we can be fit for the future.’

And disruption?

‘Well, you’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelette. It can be challenging, but we embrace disruptive technologies and processes wholeheartedly.’

How do you feel about innovation?

‘Obviously we’re passionate about innovation. We have budgets, departments and job titles dedicated to it. We’ve got innovation funnels, innovation hubs and innovation centres. Innovation drives our competitive performance. It’s the basis for our future growth.’

Tell me what you think about difference.

‘Well, we want to stand out from our competition. But we also want to recognise best practise and sector norms. Difference is a good thing. Within reason.‘

OK. What about creativity?

‘To tell the truth we’re ambivalent about creativity. There’s no doubt that outstanding creative ideas can help sell things. But creativity can also be self indulgent, self regarding, ephemeral and uncertain. And creative people are obsessed with giving themselves awards.’

So how do you feel about risk?

‘We try to minimise risk.’

And, finally, mistakes?

‘We fire people who make mistakes.’

This imagined conversation serves to illustrate a simple truth. We tend to have very different instinctive responses to words like ‘change’, ‘transformation’, ‘innovation’, ’difference’, ‘creativity’ and ‘risk’. But actually these words sleep together at night. They are conceptual bedfellows.

Creativity is a synonym for innovation, invention and transformation. Creativity is a means of managing difference, designing change; it’s a form of risk management. You can’t have change without disruption; you can’t have transformation without risk; and you can’t reinvent the future without making the occasional mistake!

We just feel better about some ‘change words’ than others, even when they’re semantically adjacent.

‘Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations – naturally. They’ve been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – they’re stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past.’

Virginia Woolf, On Craftsmanship, BBC 1937

So what’s going on here?

Firstly I think in the corporate world we freely use ‘positive words’ like ‘transformation’ and ‘innovation’ in order to indicate our progressive, modern leadership style. But we shy away from a proper engagement with ‘negative words’ like ‘risk’ and ‘mistakes’. We don’t like the suggestion that commercial success is a calculated risk, because we don’t like to accommodate the prospect of failure. It offends our faith in optimism and positive thinking. In this respect we do ourselves a disservice. It’s like talking about rights without recognising responsibilities.

We also feel more comfortable characterising business as a management and marketing science that can be measured, predicted, controlled. So we prefer ‘hard words’ to ‘soft words’. We don’t really like the notion that there might be an ‘art’ to business; that there is a creative, anarchic, unruly component to growth.

And we are particularly cautious around the word ‘creativity’. Creativity belongs in Pandora’s box, along with art and Bohemia and adolescent paintings of Coke cans; along with hirsute cyclists of dubious politics and personal hygiene; along with an excess of emotion and a scarcity of common sense. Creativity is all about soft sell and soft options, not hard data and hard facts.

I wonder if we in the creative businesses have chosen the wrong word. Would we fare better if we were called ‘change managers’ or ‘commercial disruptors’? Would our expertise be more highly regarded if we were ‘innovation scientists’? Would we sit at the mythical ‘high table’ if our chair said ‘transformation consultants’?

There’s an irony here. In the Age of Technology, when the imperative is constant change, there is a greater need than ever for creativity: to precipitate fresh behaviours and beliefs; to inspire reinvention, restructure and transformation. Creative thinking generates the new: new products and services, new routes to market, new audiences, new technologies, new categories, new experiences. Creativity creates value.

But will industry ever wholeheartedly embrace that word?

I doubt it.

It’s a shame. Because ‘creativity’ is our word. It’s the word that brought us into the business, the word we rally round, the word we’re proud of. Because the alternatives seem so unattractive.

Because words don’t come easy…

No. 37

Thinking Aloud At The Silent Disco: The Greatest Highs are the Highs We Share.

iDeath II by Michal Ozibko

iDeath II by Michal Ozibko

Oh no! What are they doing?

The party was going fine, wasn’t it? We were chatting, smirking, nibbling, nodding. We were sipping Prosecco, swapping bons mots, stealing glances. We were considering clothes , comparing canapés. It was all good.

But now they’re handing out the headphones. The enthusiasts are enthusing. The leaders are leading the charge to the floor.

Oh no! It’s a silent disco!

There they are with their bright smiles and nervous energy. They lock eyes and  lock arms. Their floral patterned party shirts flow with the music. Fingers point, hips sway, toes curl. They mouth the lyrics of some shared iconic tune of yesteryear. But to us the songs play unheard. Just the shuffle of shoes on the parquet and the occasional whoops of euphoric joy.

I’ll stand to one side, pretend it’s not happening. I’ll remain aloof, continue the conversation. I’ll resist invitations, defy provocations. I hate the silent disco!

‘This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco.

This ain’t no fooling around.

No time for dancing, or lovey dovey.

I ain’t got time for that now.’

Talking Heads/ ‘Life During Wartime’

Now I’m feeling awkward. We’re still here in our huddle, pretending not to notice, pretending not to care. We’re resistant to movement. But we know that the party has moved on. We are the periphery of attention. There’s a tug at my sleeve, a whisper in my ear.

Maybe I’ll just check what they’re playing right now. I reach for the headphones.

‘Come into my life, I got so much love to show you.

Come into my life, boy, I adore you.’

Joyce Sims/ ‘Come into My Life’

My heart melts. The neat piano coda, the insistent guitar patterns. Joyce’s effortless top note, sustained effortlessly. And all sitting above a bed of beloved ‘80s synthetic bass. What bliss…

Now I have succumbed…I’m lost in music, caught in a trap. There’s no turning back, no stopping us now. So we jump to the beat. Because everybody wants to be bourgie bourgie… Now I love the silent disco!


Still, out of the corner of my eye, I can see the non-committed, the uninvolved, the conscientious objectors. The cynics and sceptics are talking amongst themselves, ignorant of the adjacent ecstasy. What a fool believes…

And I know that soon, very soon, I’ll be rejoining them.

So what did I learn at the silent disco?

Well first I learned that we often hold equal and opposite opinions; that we often feel equal and opposite emotions; that our loyalties are fluid, our logic inconsistent. And I learned that we relish these contradictions

I wonder do brands properly appreciate their fickle followers? Perhaps the concepts of loyalty and relationships are unhelpful in a modern consumer age. Our yearning to belong is profound, but it is not exclusive or fixed or permanent.

Secondly I learned that, whilst we want to be together, we may not want to be all together. Sometimes we like to take sides, and our sense of belonging is enhanced by opposition.

Do brands truly understand the nature of togetherness? Do they recognise that insiders need outsiders, that allies need adversaries?

I feel that modern businesses often shy away from opposition, cringe from conflict. They want too much to be liked. They’re too needy of general approval. They crave universal popularity.

This yearning for approbation can lead brands to forsake intensity of emotion. They are drawn to the amiable, the affable, the agreeable. They talk freely of passion. But passion is no ordinary word.

There is a gravitational pull towards the mellow middle ground, the middle of the road. It’s a race to the middle rather than a race to the top. A race to a sun drenched mood edit of carefree eternal youth, driving along a coastal road with the wind in their long blond hair and tanned feet on the dashboard. I’m sorry to say, we’re creating, not brands, but ‘blands’.

It’s the curse of modernity. In seeking to be liked by everyone, brands risk being loved by no one. If businesses are increasingly looking to define what they stand for, should they not also be deciding what they stand against?

‘Tang tang boogie bang,

Let’s rock the house,

Let’s shock the house.’

Hamilton Bohannon/’Let’s Start the Dance’

A final word. I have read of the silent disco that when different tracks are played at the same time, dancers are unwittingly drawn to people listening to the same tune. I like this thought. We don’t just want to dance. We don’t just want to dance together. We want to dance together to the same song, on the same wavelength, inside the same rhythm. This is true emotional intensity, true passion: the greatest highs are the highs we share.

No. 36

The Haunted Brand: When The Past Is Ever Present

'Just when I think I'm winning

When I've broken every door

The ghosts of my life

Blow wilder than before.’

David Sylvian/Japan, Ghosts

Ghosts were very much part of my childhood. When the lights were out Martin and I told each other twisted tales of spirits and spooks. We speculated about poltergeists and exorcisms and bumps in the night. Anywhere old could be haunted, anyone strange could be possessed, anything innocuous could be animated… and come flying across the room with paranormal velocity.

Ghosts illuminated our darkness. They explained our fears, made sense of our doubts.

I’m not sure we tell ghost stories in quite the same way nowadays. The supernatural is a source of entertainment rather than of solace. Our technological age is more knowing and rational.

And yet I think many modern cultures, organisations and brands are haunted. Haunted by previous regimes and values, by the successes and failures of the past. Haunted by broken promises, missed chances, dashed hopes.

Often our new gold dreams are tarnished by the false dawns and sunset thinking of our predecessors. The benefit of the doubt is discounted by the memory of actual experience. Progress is constrained by change fatigue, culture is jaded by cynicism.

And as I have grown older I have realised that we as individuals are haunted too. By the values and preoccupations of our youth, the recollections of our prime, our salad days. We are haunted by our absences and disappointments. Haunted by our parents, by their beliefs, by their sentiments and stories.

We imagine we are living in the moment, that we are creatures of today, bold, positive, independent and optimistic. We set visions, missions and purposes. We look up and forward and beyond. We’re all aspirational now.

But our thoughts and values, the ways that we judge the world, were framed in a bygone era. We cannot escape all our yesterdays.

‘I am inclined to think we are all ghosts. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but there they are, dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them.’

Henrik Ibsen – Ghosts

It has also been observed that, whereas in days gone by we struggled to remember, in the era of the social web we struggle to forget. Nowadays our past is ever present. It is always available. At the touch of a button, within a click’s reach of curiosity. The past is not a foreign country. It is our own backyard.

So our ghosts are all around us. And a culture that cannot forget, will inevitably find it hard to forgive. In the corporate realm ‘sorry’ seems to be the easiest word. But an apology is rarely enough to erase the memories of promises broken and trust betrayed.

Is your business or brand haunted? Are there ghosts of a previous management’s mistakes and misdemeanours? Is your organisation haunted by ‘old dead beliefs’?  Are you yourself haunted by the ghost of Christmas past? Have you ‘been spending most of your life living in a pastime paradise’?

Exorcising The Haunted Brand is never easy. It may begin with self knowledge; with recognising that we are all products of our era, our environment, our gifts, gender and ethnicity. We see the world through the prism of our own experience. Exorcism requires public acknowledgement. But it also needs action: active and opposite strategies. It requires diversity of culture and leadership style. We need to surround ourselves with difference. We must have an appetite for change that is radical and genuine. And, if we are properly to rid ourselves of these corporate ghosts, we must set values at the centre, not at the side.

We talk a good deal nowadays about the growing imperative for businesses and brands to demonstrate values and purpose.

There are many good reasons for this. Growing consumer demands for transparency, growing colleague demands for engagement. The demise of Church and State. And the Planet. The triple bottom line…

But one of the primary reasons for the ethical imperative is this simple fact: we need to protect the brands of the future from the ghosts of our own past.

No. 35

Business Should Make Love, Not War

The March on Washington, 17 April 1965.     The Washington Post/Getty Images

The March on Washington, 17 April 1965.  The Washington Post/Getty Images


My boss, Sir John Hegarty, first drew it to my attention. Why, he asked, do so many business leaders and managers read Sun Tzu's The Art of War? Why is an ancient Chinese military textbook so often cited as one of the most influential primers for contemporary corporate strategy? Why are the languages of business and battle so similar?

Business is all about competition, campaigns and conflicts. We plan offensives, assaults and attacks. We're going into battle, girding our loins, putting boots on the ground. We're employing guerrilla tactics. We're identifying targets and taking aim. We're looking for quick wins, easy wins, win-wins. We're setting up war rooms, playing war games, going on the warpath. We've got to defend our turf. Let's blitz this. We've completed the reconnaissance. We've got the strategic howitzers out. We're addressing the troops. We're giving them their marching orders. We're launching the campaign with shock and awe. It's a full frontal assault, a heavy tonnage media bombardment starting in the Lake Tahoe area. We're going over the top...

We are drawn to analogies between commerce and combat with good reason. The word 'strategy' itself derives from the Greek for 'general'. Military metaphors suggest we can plan for success and that the business world can be ordered, structured and comprehensible. They create a sense of urgency, passion and purpose. They indicate discipline and reinforce hierarchy.

Nonetheless, I feel increasingly uncomfortable with all this martial language. Sun Tzu famously stated that 'all warfare is based on deception'. That may be so. But in the era of transparency is it helpful to characterize commerce as deceit? Surely army analogies are somewhat anachronistic in the age of fluid partnerships and constant collaborations; at a time when we are seeking to demonstrate the social value of business; in a culture that yearns for sustainability, that wants to leave the planet better than it found it.

I also suspect that the framing of business as war betrays a fundamentally masculine perspective. Dr Johnson remarked that 'every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier'. Are all these military metaphors acting as balm for bruised male egos?

Perhaps my greatest concern with the martial vocabulary is that it constrains our ability to attract, develop and retain the brightest and best young talent.

It's perfectly possible that previous generations embarked on their careers excited by the whiff of corporate cordite. They may have dreamed of workplace wars and boardroom battles. Indeed, when I began my first proper job in the '80s, there was quite an aggressive edge to business life. Suits were worn like armour, phones were carried like weapons, cars were displayed like trophies. We were driven, intense, focused. Careers were a serious business.

But I sense that the youth of today and the talent of tomorrow want different things from the world of work. They want balanced lives and a supportive culture, not obsessive commitment and unrelenting competition. They want fluidity and flexibility, not hierarchy and structure. They want to create, to inspire, to learn, to grow. They want to add value, not destroy it. They value values.

For this generation combat comparisons neither motivate nor inspire; military metaphors seem archaic, primitive, irrelevant.

I'm convinced that language is critically important. It frames the way we engage with life. It articulates how we feel about the world. If our understanding of business is evolving, then our business language should evolve too. If we think that commerce should create social as well as economic good, then we should be rewriting the corporate dictionary to reflect this.

Business needs a new vocabulary, one that talks of the positive power of commerce to change lives and enrich communities. Business needs a Lexicon of Love.

First published: Huffington Post 10/27/2014

This blog post is part of a series produced by Virgin UniteBBH London and the B Team to spark a conversation about language and the future of business. The topic, 'Does business need a new language of love?' was explored at the People Innovation Gathering on October 28, 2014 in New York. To see all posts in the series, visit here.

No. 34

Me. We


In 1975 Muhammad Ali was invited to talk to a group of Harvard students. Someone in the crowd shouted, 'Give us a poem, Muhammad'. He paused for a moment, looked up and said: 'Me. We'. This couplet competes for the title of the shortest poem ever written in the English language (with 'Fleas. Adam had 'em' and 'I - Why?').

I particularly like Ali's poem because it suggests two fundamental questions: Who am I? Who are we? Sometimes I suspect that these may be the two most important questions of all.

Inevitably one's career is a voyage of self discovery. What are my strengths and weaknesses, my values, my tastes and beliefs? How do I perform, with encouragement and under stress, on my own and in a team? 

But 'who am I?' may be the easier of the two questions to answer. We're nowadays all taught self awareness, self realisation, self expression. We've got 360 degree, two-way appraisals. We've got mindfulness and feedback sandwiches. We live in the Age of Me.

How often do we properly consider 'we'?

In the past 'we' was defined by notions of class, race, region and religion. But it's obviously more complex now. My own answer to 'who are we?' has changed with time and perspective.

We were the swotty kids, the musos. We were Essex and the NME. We were Catholic guilt and post modern irony. We were  suburban soul boys, Prosecco socialists. We were second hand clothes and third XI football. We were pubs with carpet, pies with mash, dancing with feet. We were London. We were the arts people, The Guardian, we were Radio 4.

And similarly my professional 'we' has evolved too. We were John, John and Nigel's team. We were restless spirited and serious minded. We were brand centric, forward facing, creative. We were Bass Weejuns, 501s, MA1. We were Soho, black and steel, MTV in Reception. We were broad and shallow planning. We were work that was funny, clever, beautiful. We were Gwyn & Jim. We were a singing Agency, an Agency that cared. We hung on, we rolled with the punches. We were positive, optimistic, collegiate. We laughed.

On reflection it seems that the happiest times for me were when I had an intense sense of 'we' ; when I felt part of a strong culture with a serious purpose. Peter Drucker reputedly said 'culture eats strategy for breakfast'. I'm sure he was right. Indeed for me culture is strategy.

Perhaps it is a question you should try asking  yourself. Not just 'who am I?', but 'who are we?' Who are my group, gang, team or cohort? Who are my generation? What do we believe in ? What defines us? As an Agency, as a discipline, as a team? What makes us different from previous generations, from everyone else? How will we make an impact? What will our legacy be?

I suspect it may be harder to cultivate 'we' in the modern era, in an age of individuality and empowerment, when our careers are flexible, our loyalties fluid. However, I think there is a point at which the individual and collective intersect. Increasingly any business's commercial and social success will be determined by its ability to realise the full potential of the individuals within it. Realising human capital, creating sustainability in human terms, these are the present priorities. Traditional top-down leadership styles are obviously less suited to this networked age. Modern businesses need to inspire a broad based, integrated culture of diverse leadership styles. Because a leadership culture creates a leadership brand.

Or as Ali would have put it, a little more succinctly, 'Me. We.'

First published in Campaign 02/04/2015

No. 33

The Man With The Child In His Eyes

Kate Bush


In the course of my career I've been dressed as a superhero and a metrosexual. I've reenacted Bohemian Rhapsody and Pharrell's video for Happy. I've rewritten the lyrics to The Twelve Days of Christmas around the global category objectives. I've built balsa bridges and done stretch exercises in my suit. I've told complete strangers curious secrets about myself. I've been thrown creme eggs at conferences. I've done energisers and ice breakers. I've worn hats.

I've done all these things in the name of team building, in the promotion of lateral thought. I've done all these things a little reluctantly, because my Client asked me to.

I confess it's not really my gig. I don't need a warm up exercise to be engaged. I don't need an energy drink to be animated. I don't need a crayon to express myself. I don't need a bean bag to have an idea. I don't have to take my clothes off to have a good time.

More than this, I'm concerned that it's all got a bit out of hand. In seeking to lose our inhibitions, do we sometimes lose our dignity? Can behaviours intended as a catalyst to creativity and collaboration become a constraint on our credibility? Are brands themselves, as a consequence of all this, beginning to speak like a child? 

In short, I'm concerned that modern marketing is being infantilized.

I first heard Kate performing The Man With the Child in His Eyes in the late '70s. I loved that song. Back then the thought of an adult retaining his childlike innocence was hugely attractive. Society was constrained, conventional, conservative. Masculinity was muscular, macho, two dimensional. But now Peter Pan is ever present. We live in an age of deferred maturity and kidulthood, of the eternal mid-life crisis and the oldest clubbers in town. We live in the era of Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy and Glasto Podpads. The childlike increasingly seems childish.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.'

1 Corinthians 13.11

I believe brand building and communication are serious enterprises. They require more than kindergarten architecture, a few beards and a bike rack. More than an ideation session with Post-It notes, a kooky illustrator and Gummy Bears. They require special combinations of expertise, analysis, deep thought and inspiration. They require method and process, heavy heavy discipline. I believe that grown up brands should engage consumers as grown ups. That talking in chatty tones, Californian patter, primary colours and VAG Rounded can sometimes diminish the integrity of the conversation. I believe that if we want to be taken seriously we should be a little more serious.

Perhaps now is the time for marketing to 'put away childish things'.

I confess that I didn't actually dress as a superhero at the category conference in LA. I hid in the toilets instead...

First published: September 2014 Marketing

No. 32

Murder On The Dance Floor

                        Photograph: Manchester Mirror/mirrorpix

                        Photograph: Manchester Mirror/mirrorpix

I was a bad DJ. I couldn't mix; I couldn't sample; I couldn't scratch. But above all, I couldn't make people dance - or at least, make them dance to my tunes.

The withering glances, the paralysing fear, the creeping self-doubt; it all comes flooding back. Staring out at an empty dancefloor, the only movement the geometric reflections from the mirror ball, the crowds clinging to the walls as if pushed by some centrifugal force.

I’d play one top track after another: D-Train, Fatback, Archie Bell & the Drells… Nothing.

‘It’s a shame,
Sometimes I feel like I’m going insane,
But still I want to stay’
Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King - Shame

Gradually the pressure built. They wanted to dance, but they didn’t want to dance to anything I was playing. The occasional Goth would approach, demanding Southern Death Cult.

Eventually I cracked and reached for The Jackson 5. No sooner had a few bars of ABC chimed out than the floor was filled with jiving students, a mass of ecstatic rhythm and moves.

But no time to enjoy my achievement. I faced another challenge. Once they were on their feet for The Jackson 5, I couldn’t very well give them Melba Moore. So I’d unsheath Earth, Wind & Fire. And then Shalamar. And Chic. ‘And the beat goes on...’

Yes, the floor was packed and pulsating now. A joyous Bacchanalian throng. But at the height of my seeming success, I was filled with self-loathing, because I had, in effect, created a Wedding Disco. I knew the revellers would not go home sated that night. They’d had a bop, but it was the same old stuff they’d always danced to. Nothing to be remembered, respected, revisited. Nothing original, authentic, inspired. Last night a DJ ruined my life…

So why am I telling you this?

Well, as a bad DJ I learned that it’s quite easy to generate a bit of fizz, a quick thrill or momentary buzz. But it’s much more difficult to get people dancing to your own tune, to be credited with it and thanked for it. And once you’ve got people dancing to a populist rhythm, it’s nigh-on impossible to get them off it. I learned that, if I ever wanted to be a good DJ, I’d need a thicker skin.

‘Here’s my chance to dance my way out of my constrictions,
(Feet don’t fail me now),
One nation under a groove, Gettin’ down just for the funk of it’
Funkadelic - One Nation under a Groove

I’d been to enough clubs to recognise a proper DJ. I’d seen them seamlessly blend the familiar with the exotic. I’d seen them coax their public onto the floor, change the tempo, manipulate the mood. I’d seen them insinuate a rhythm that took dancers deep into the heart of darkness. And I’d seen the joy unconfined of a real dancehall crowd moving as one.

I think marketers can learn from dance. Dance is about individual fulfilment found through collective action, private passions explored together – not unlike brands. Marketers could learn from DJs, too – the experts who create, catalyse and control the dancefloor, the magicians who manufacture social success. What advice would a good DJ give a brand manager? Well perhaps...

1. Read the crowd. Feel the mood of the masses. It’s about your own, instinctive judgement, not someone else’s.
2. Live in the moment. Be spontaneous, intuitive, impromptu. Don’t plan for a future you can’t predict.
3. Mix sugar and spice, the familiar with the unknown. It may be counterintuitive, but no one will thank you if you play only what they want, know or expect.
4. Surprise them with the arcane, the forgotten and absurd when they least expect it. Don’t let consistency become predictability.
5. Create one seamless journey, contoured with its own highs and lows. Take the whole dancefloor on that journey and don’t get lost in segmentation, tailoring and targeting.

Great brands set a rhythm that unites consumers, propels them onto the dancefloor of life and inspires them to express their truest feelings, together. In the age of the empowered, atomised consumer, we should never forget that, fundamentally, brands are shared beliefs. I have always believed in a brand that seeks to lead opinion rather than follow it. I guess I believe in the Brand as DJ.

Or as Soul II Soul might put it: ‘A happy face, a thumpin’ bass, for a lovin’ race’…

First published: Marketing 06/09/2013

No. 31