What Can Dancing Horses Teach Us About Management?

I was in Vienna last weekend and attended a performance by the Spanish Riding School.

In the stately setting of the eighteenth century Winter Riding School, teams of manicured but muscular Lipizzan stallions, guided by uniformed horsemen and women, execute a series of disciplined manoeuvers. To a musical accompaniment the horses walk, trot and canter in harmony. They leap, pirouette and stand proud on their hind legs. It’s an extraordinary sight and is justly described as ‘horse ballet.’

I subsequently watched a TV documentary (Lucy Worsley’s Reins of Power: The Art of Horse Dancing) that explained that horse ballet, or ‘manege’ as it was called, dates back to the sixteenth century. The elegant dance routines have a military origin. As warfare evolved from the heavy-armoured medieval battlefield, to the more fluid, firearms-dominated combat conditions of the seventeenth century, the cavalry had to become more agile. They had to move in and out of lines of infantry, to change direction at the drop of a hat.

Manege was a method for training horses in the physical and mental demands of this new form of fighting. In the first half of the seventeenth century manege became a hugely popular sport for aristocrats across Europe with the time and money to devote to it.

I was surprised to learn that the word ‘management’ has its origins in manege. I wonder, can we learn anything about modern management from the equine activity that inspired the term?

Well, first of all, manege combines agility with control; it has a sense of elegance and finesse, as well as power and determination; a lightness of touch as well as supreme discipline. These ingredients might make the recipe for a compelling management style.

Secondly, just as manege developed in response to the combat conditions of its day, so it passed out of fashion as military practice moved on. In the English Civil War the manege-trained Cavaliers were defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. Clearly management styles must evolve as the context in which they operate changes.

Do we fully acknowledge that the management approaches of the industrial age will be increasingly inappropriate to the age of technology?

Are we nurturing management talent that reflects the commercial and cultural challenges of the future?

Do we need a new type of management that responds to this modern era of partnership, purpose and organisational change?


You May Not Want To Run at the Future, But Don’t Run Away from It

I confess I’m partial to the art of Alfred Munnings. In the first half of the twentieth century Munnings painted East Anglian life in bold, bright colours: race meetings, horse fairs and hunting; farm hands, gentry and gypsies. Mostly he just painted horses, for whom he seemed to have a greater affection than he had for people. Munnings tellingly titled one painting ‘My Wife, My Horse and Myself’ and the horse takes centre stage.

Munnings’ work is not particularly challenging or thought provoking. But it is honest, open and true. It is rooted in the English countryside and English painting tradition. It is in its own way rather beautiful.

Sadly Munnings’ reputation in the art world is tarnished. He had a passionate dislike of modernism. In his late sixties he served as President of the Royal Academy of Art and, in a speech broadcast live on the BBC in 1949, he drunkenly accused his fellow painters of ‘shilly shallying in this so called modern art’; he suggested that Cezanne, Matisse and Henry Moore had corrupted art; and he joked that he’d like to join Churchill in kicking Picasso in the arse.

Speaking from experience, as you get older you can feel marginalised. The world seems to be reinventing itself around the needs and tastes of new generations. It’s easy to resent change; and conservatism creeps over you like a comfortable blanket. We all occasionally suffer Luddite leanings.

But I’m not sure it’s always wise to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ Or at least not in the reactionary way that Munnings did. The grumpy old man or woman is rarely attractive; and should probably avoid the sauce when speaking in public.


We’re Only Remembered for What We Have Done

The National Theatre’s production of War Horse has been in the West End for a couple of years now and it's just announced that the run will conclude in March 2016. It's a moving World War I story about the relationship between man and beast, and it has been brought to the stage with a magical deployment of puppetry.

War Horse also boasts an evocative folk sound track. One song, Only Remembered, is a contemporary arrangement of a nineteenth century Methodist hymn. In it the workers in the field consider whether future generations will remember them.

‘Shall we be missed though by others succeeded
Reaping the fields we in springtime have sown?
No. For the sowers may pass from the earth and its toiling.
We’re only remembered for what we have done.’

It’s a melancholy sentiment. In all likelihood the industry will forget each and every one of us as it moves on to address new challenges and opportunities. There’ll be no recollection of the artful salesmanship and articulate speeches; no memory of magnificent meetings, presentations and decks; no record of the hard luck stories and ‘also rans’, the brilliant idea that didn’t quite make it to production. All that endures is the work. The rest is noise. And ultimately our legacy is what we do, what we make, what we create.

‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’

No. 50


Girlhood: What’s Your Youth Policy?

Girlhood is a tale of young female street gangs from the Parisian banlieue. It examines the drugs, deprivation, delinquency and diminished choices in the modern city environment. It features streetfights, shoplifting, bullying and prostitution.

Girlhood is certainly a challenging film. But the abiding impression one takes from it is the incandescent beauty of youth. Girlhood’s young stars are funny, graceful, resourceful and strong. Their charisma creates the poignancy that is at the heart of the movie. What a waste…

Many say that ours is a culture that loves youth too much. I don’t think we love it enough.

Of course there’s endless historic evidence of the potential of young people to remake the world around them. Alexander the Great conquered most of the known universe before he was 30; Descartes wrote ‘I think, therefore I am’ when he was 23; Orson Welles co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in Citizen Kane when he was 26. Youth properly directed can be the engine of change and innovation in any field of activity, within any community or business.

In the communications industry we tend to hire young people en masse. We train them as best we can. We give them bike racks, breakfast and Bacchic revels. And then we set them to work on long hours and short deadlines.

But do we properly appreciate our young colleagues’ empathy with other young consumers, with the challenges of urban living, with the changing landscape of technology?

Do we sufficiently value their particular ability to think anew about old problems? Do we trust them with the creative and strategic decisions that matter?

Can we afford to continue losing talent to technology businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises that don’t put an age limit on responsibility?

Does the communications industry need a strategy for youth?

(I should just say, by the way, that, while I am in awe of youth, my generation did have better music…)


Photograph 51: Do We Need More Proof-Obsessed Loners?

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler opened in the West End last week. It stars Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin, the British x-ray crystallographer whose 1952 image of a DNA molecule led to the revelation that DNA, ‘the building block of life’, has a double helix structure.

The credit for this breakthrough has largely gone to the Cambridge scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson, who built a model of DNA inspired by Franklin’s photo, and to Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Franklin at King’s College, London. These three were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin, who died from cancer in 1958 at the age of 37 and therefore did not qualify for the Prize, was written out of the story, in no small part because of sexism within the science community. (Thank goodness things have changed since then…)

The play considers the different working methods of the scientists involved. Franklin operated in isolation and was obsessed with original data and experimental proof. By contrast Crick and Watson were team players who dealt in intuition, hypothesis and models.

Photograph 51 implies that science progresses at pace when these two approaches interact: rigorous, data-driven research and bold, imaginative supposition. There’s a suggestion that science could do with a little more of Crick and Watson’s creativity and flair.

I suspect we in the communications industry would also do well to follow this hybrid approach, but that we suffer the opposite dilemma: we have a wealth of intuitive team players; however, we’re not over-supplied with proof-obsessed loners. Perhaps we could do with a few more Rosalind Franklins.


World Ballet Day: Where Athleticism Meets Art

1 October is World Ballet Day. Five of the world’s leading ballet companies will unite for a day of live-streamed rehearsals, interviews and insights. If you think ballet is just tutus, tiaras, Nutcrackers and nursery stories, I urge you to reconsider and log-on.

What fascinates me about ballet is that it brings together sporting precision and performance with creative innovation and style. The dancers are exceptional athletes, demonstrating discipline, teamwork and sheer hard graft. They train hard and learn fast, together. But they are also thoughtful, artistic people who co-create, interpret and inspire. They have their own individual aesthetic, personality and flair. It’s an intoxicating cocktail.

Business could learn a lot from ballet.


If Only Life and Business Had a Prompter

I attended a play in preview last week. An unfortunate actor had a number of long, elaborate speeches to deliver and, as it was so early in the run, on a handful of occasions he forgot his lines. He looked up severely at the prompter sitting with a text in the front row and said rather forcefully, ‘Yes, please’. Thus prompted, the prompter gave him the next line and the actor was back on track.

It struck me as something of a shame that we don’t have prompters on hand in life and business. I have often been in the middle of what I thought was a compelling exposition, only for words to fail me at the crucial moment. If only I could just look up there and then, turn to one side and intone ,‘Yes, please'…

No. 49

The Dog Under The Telly: Don't Distract Attention, Find The Centre Of It

When I was a child we had a Springer Spaniel called Dillon. Springer Spaniels are somewhat eccentric dogs with inexhaustible energy and passionate loyalty. Dillon’s coat was liver and white and he salivated liberally. He had long shaggy ears that required a special tall bowl to eat from so he didn’t get them caught in his food. In the long hot ‘70s summers I had many happy reflective moments sat with Dillon in the back garden watching birds. But for the most part he was rather a disruptive influence around the house: scratching paintwork, scavenging for unattended Garibaldi biscuits, barking at passers by on Heath Park Road from his elevated vantage point in Sarah’s bedroom. I always imagined Dillon was something of a class warrior as his absolute favourite activity was disturbing the peace at Haynes Park Bowling Club.

As it was the '70s, my family spent most evenings in the over-lit living room, sat on the three-piece suite, watching TV. To prolong its life the three-piece suite was covered in a loud orange-brown floral stretch-cover that Dad had bought from his mate Barry on Romford Market. There we were, five kids, Dad and my sainted Mother ranged in front of The Two Ronnies, The Likely Lads and Tommy Cooper. (I always imagined Dad had commissioned five children as he had not foreseen the advent of the TV remote control.) Dad would be smoking endless Embassy cigarettes; the rest of us consuming endless mugs of sweet tea and toasted Sunblest. ‘To be young was very heaven.’

Despite the general domestic reverie, Dillon was none too happy with this arrangement: he was being ignored. He had discovered that the traditional canine method for attracting attention precipitated a rather gruff response from Dad. In this particular environment he would have to be the dog that didn’t bark.

Eventually Dillon worked out that the best remedy was to position himself under the telly itself, looking out at the Carroll family. Thus he could at least imagine that it was him we were looking at. He could watch us, watching him. He had found proximity to the action. He was involved. And he was back where he belonged: the centre of attention.

Thinking back on Dillon’s idiosyncratic behaviour, I now understand that he was teaching us a fundamental lesson in strategy: don’t seek to distract attention; seek to be at the centre of it. Find your own way of participating in culture. Find relevance, join in, get involved, contribute.

Over the years working with Clients in many different sectors, I noticed that often there was a kind of melancholy amongst those who managed brands that were not in some way part of the zeitgeist. Their fellow Marketers were having so much fun working with mobile phones, tablets, craft beers and yogurty drinks. They could gleefully contribute to trend presentations on connectivity, the wisdom of crowds, artisanal craft and holistic health. They were being lauded at black tie functions in luxury hotels. Their brands were being shot in the Evening Standard with Cara, Rita, Taylor and Ellie. But what if you worked with a hot beverage or a biscuit, a bank or a breakfast cereal?  What if you were operating at the margins of culture? What if no one cared?

And yet we have seen in years gone by how gravy can be at the heart of the reconfigured British family, detergent can encourage child development and whisky can redefine aspiration and success. We’ve seen how soap and sanpro brands can speak out for gender equality, knitwear for diversity, yellow fats for the old folk. And I can easily imagine an instant coffee brand creating social networks, a tea brand inspiring mindfulness, a bank reviving local high streets and a shaving brand saving us from hipsters. Finding cultural relevance doesn't have to be difficult. 

I have come to conclude that it’s possible for almost any brand to have cultural currency. Any brand can find a way of participating in the broader social conversation of the day. Indeed I believe this is consistently the optimal positioning strategy: identify relevant cultural change and locate your brand within it. Contemporary brands need to contribute to contemporary life. They need to commentate on it, participate with it, shape it. Because if you can't make yourself relevant, you're irrelevant.

There are too many introverted businesses nowadays: talking to their own heavy users, about their own sector, on their own terms, within their own conventions. I’ve lost count of the number of Clients who consider themselves converts to the new religion of growth-through-penetration. But if we are to take the penetration arguments seriously, then we ought to be reaching out to new communities and new audiences, and locating ourselves around social and cultural change.

As John Bartle used to say, ‘you’ve got to decide whether you’re in the vanguard or in the guard’s van.’

When Dillon passed away, Dad buried him at the end of the back garden by the rockery. Mum wept for days. I always imagined that Dillon found his way to Dog Heaven. He’d had his day. He’d chased his tail. He’d howled at the moon. And he’d made his own very significant contribution to Carroll family culture. He’d found the centre of our attention.

No. 48

Unfinished Sympathy: Should Communication Lose its Gloss?

I own an unfinished painting. It’s a portrait of a young blond-haired man staring rather dreamily into the middle distance. The dealer suggested that the artist wasn’t of the highest order and, when he saw how well he’d done at this intermediate stage, he decided it was best to stop there. Perhaps this story ought to have put me off purchasing, but actually it charmed me.

I recently attended a small exhibition of ‘unfinished’ art. The show at the Courtauld Gallery in London (which runs until 20 September) features unfinished paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. Why were these works unfinished?

In a few instances the artist died before completing a piece. Sometimes the painter was simply not satisfied with how things had turned out. Monet revisited his Vase of Flowers repeatedly over forty years, and experts have detected areas where he has painted over dried paint.

Sometimes the moment has passed. Manet’s Au Bal seems to have caught a woman turning away to leave the room. And there’s a small Turner watercolour where drops of rainwater have been detected on the paper. He obviously had to make a run for it.

Unfinished artworks have been treasured by teaching academies over the years as they shed light on technique. But more than this. In the first century AD the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that incomplete work was particularly precious because it lets us see into the artist’s mind.

There’s certainly something beguiling about the unfinished. It has an immediacy, a freshness and transience that elude finished work. We feel closer to the artist; to the act of creation. Unfinished art seems somehow particularly fragile, physical and human. Perhaps because we are ourselves merely works in progress. We are all unfinished. In Perino del Vaga’s Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary is only present in outline. It is rather haunting as a result. It suggested to me the tragic inevitability of death within the family.

The Courtauld exhibition also highlights how sometimes we just don’t know whether a painting is finished or not.  Does a signature indicate completion? The Impressionists attracted a lot of criticism for displaying work that looked incomplete. Degas’ Woman at a Window seems unfinished in many respects, but Degas ‘signed it off.’ For the artist Sickert, who bought the painting, this was his finest work.

 ‘There is a great difference between a work that is complete and one that is finished. The complete work is one that conveys the vision of the artist, the finished one is often glossed.’
Charles Baudelaire

I wonder does too much of our output in the communications industry appear glossed? Does it lose some of its humanity in endless post-production? Are our images air-brushed out of all recognition?

What would happen if we stopped short of the impeccably polished? What if we adopted a looser, more informal style?

What if we exposed the process of creation, the workings in the margin?

There’s something stale and artificial about much modern brand communication. Endless hours of analysis and over-thought have wrung the intimacy and spontaneity out of ideas. They’ve created a distance, an absence, an insincerity.

We’re all enamoured of authenticity nowadays, but there’s nothing authentic about perfection.


No. 47

Advertising, A Trivial Career For Serious People?

I recently attended a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The play is a light-hearted classic that creaks a little in a modern context. It’s nonetheless crammed full of elegant wordplay and bulletproof bons mots. Wilde subtitled the work A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, and throughout he celebrates the seemingly superficial things in life: courtship rituals, social etiquette, when and how to eat muffins, that sort of thing.

I found myself thinking about the communications industry. We could hardly claim it’s the most important business in the world. Here we are, gently suggesting that the familiar and everyday might be bigger, better, faster and fresher. Lives do not depend on us; history is not written about us. We nonetheless pride ourselves on the clarity of our thought and we apply ourselves to our trade with vigour and seriousness. Ours is perhaps A Trivial Career for Serious People.

Of course, media folk sometimes imagine that we could have done something a little more worthwhile with our lives. In a parallel world we could perhaps have been painters, poets or politicians. We could have been contenders. Couldn’t we?

But we should not be too harsh on our chosen career.

In the programme notes to The Importance of Being Earnest the journalist Al Senter observes that the critics of Wilde’s day were dismissive of the frivolous comedies that were then fashionable in London. They yearned for theatre of Ibsen’s seriousness, plays that considered genuine social issues. Senter suggests that Wilde may have been making a very particular point with his subtitle. For Wilde the trivial and serious are intimately related:

“We should treat all trivial things of life very seriously and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.”

This tension between the trivial and the serious is what I’ve always liked about the communications industry.

I like the application of intelligence to the commonplace; the elevation of the inconsequential and incidental. Events of personal and public import are generally intertwined with the petty and insignificant; in the words of the old Reader’s Digest column: “Life’s like that.”

Of course, somewhere between the serious and the superficial you’ll also find great comedy. The communications industry has generally had an ambivalent relationship with humour. While advertising often seems to be laughing, comedy has generally been prescribed a very particular role. It earns engagement; it’s the sugar coating that attracts audience attention. But it can, in excess, divert attention from the core message and as the great adman David Ogilvy famously suggested: “People don’t buy from clowns.”

I think comedy is more valuable than this. The brand with a sense of humour demonstrates a shared understanding with ordinary people that life isn’t lived in straight lines. It indicates a certain amount of humility: that this brand has things in proportion; that it understands its place in the world.

Too many brands are puffed up with their own self-importance. They demand centre stage like a tragic Ibsen heroine. They talk of purpose and passion and values as if they’ve just discovered them. They presume we care.

The writer and broadcaster Clive James once wrote: “Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.” I’m inclined to agree.

First published: The Guardian Media & Tech Network, 4 September 2015

No. 46


Rehearsing and Editing Creativity

Next week the English National Ballet brings its award-winning programme of new ballets, Lest We Forget, to Sadler’s Wells. Three contemporary choreographers have created works reflecting in different ways on the First World War. I saw Lest We Forget last year at The Barbican and it’s a very moving experience. There are still some tickets available.

I attended a talk by Russell Maliphant who has created one of the pieces, Second Breath. Maliphant was classically trained, but has since used the learned vocabulary of classical ballet to create his own distinct choreographic language. He explores the interaction of movement and light with the eye of a film-maker. His dancers spin, twist and turn around each other. They redistribute each other’s weight, as if working with levers, pulleys and pistons. It’s a wonder to behold.

Maliphant explained that a lot of his creativity occurs when he’s working with his dancers in the studio, where he has the opportunity to respond to their different personalities and styles of movement. He also films his rehearsals and subsequently explores the possibilities available to him in the edit: rearranging the sequence of movement, deleting the unnecessary, reversing the action, slowing things down and speeding them up. This level of experimentation would not be possible, physically or financially, with live dancers in the studio.

In the communications business we often talk of work-shopping ideas; of giving creativity the room to breathe and develop in rehearsal; of exploring how technology can enrich (not just economise or speed up) the creative process. But it strikes me that hitherto this has been more rhetoric than common practice.

For the most part we’re still stuck in our linear, demarcated approach to idea development.  Concepts are formed in camera, refined through dialectic, pre-produced, produced. It’s a rhythm without fluidity or flexibility; without much space for creative collaboration or technical experimentation.

Couldn’t we do more to open the creative process up? Perhaps we need to take some dance lessons.


The Oresteia: Not A Window on the Ancient World, But a Mirror on Our Own

It’s Oresteia season in London as two productions of Aeschylus’ 458 BC tragedy open in theatres across town. Why do we feel the need to revisit this dark ancient story of murder and revenge? What relevance has it for us today?

In The Oresteia a father sacrifices his daughter to win over the gods; a wife kills her husband to atone for the murder of their daughter; a son kills his mother in vengeance for the death of his father; and the cycle of killings culminates in a court case. Blimey!

The Oresteia is a trilogy of plays about duty to one’s faith and community, to one’s family and to one’s self. There’s a sense that, once the series of revenge killings is in train, it will never stop. How could it? To some extent individuals are not masters of their own destiny. They are caught in a Fate-driven chain reaction of inevitable acts.

In these respects The Oresteia is as relevant today as when it was first performed. The modern world is gripped by wars whose origins can be traced back to tit-for-tat blood feuds; disputes that are justified by reference to duty and honour and revenge.

I wonder is this true of business too? Do we sometimes find ourselves caught in a cycle of action and reaction, unable to break out of competitive role-playing, incapable of seeing beyond the injustices of the past?

Sometimes inertia is the most powerful force in any organisation and it is also the most pernicious.


Like a Moth to a Flame

‘Like a moth to a flame
Burned by the fire
My love is blind
Can’t you see my desire?’

Janet Jackson/ That’s The Way Love Goes

Where music is concerned I have a sweet tooth.  I think it’s coming from Essex. I preferred gospel to blues, soul to funk, disco to house, acid jazz to techno. And I had a particular weakness for female soul vocals: for Gladys, Dionne and Diana; for Anita, Randy and Roberta. In my world Aretha was always the Queen, Donna defined disco and Mary J saved hip hop.

And then there was Janet Jackson.

Janet didn’t have the soul of Maxine, the heart of Chaka or the voice of Whitney. And many of her ‘80s recordings haven’t aged well, as they’re scaffolded in Jam and Lewis’ industrial production.

But give Janet a break. She was the tenth of ten children; her father was a tough old patriarch; she was Michael’s sister. Throughout her career she demonstrated admirable independence and an open mind.

And Janet gave us That’s The Way Love Goes, a definitive work for the sweet toothed soul fan. There’s the languorous rhythm, the melodious guitar pattern and Janet’s gentle, soothing serenade; not forgetting the warehouse-set video, where Janet’s hip mates sway diffidently to the beat from the ceiling-high speakers. Not unlike my own arrangement on a Saturday afternoon.

Of course, the central image of That’s The Way Love Goes is the tragic moth bewitched by a flame. I think I understand why people are attracted to doomed love. But I have always wondered: Why are moths attracted to flames? Surely they could evolve out of the suicidal self-immolation thing, given its endless repetition?

It transpires that the world of science is not entirely sure why moths are drawn to flame either. One theory suggests that they confuse fire with luminous female pheromones. Another suggests that it’s a primitive escape reflex gone wrong. But the dominant theory seems to be that the moths mistake artificial light sources for the moon, which is their primary navigational reference point.

It’s a rather sad thought: that your core point of reference, your North Star, is in fact leading you astray, to certain death.

It’s not entirely an alien concept for commerce. Many a business sets its controls for the heart of the profits, its navigation system almost entirely geared around financial returns. Only to find that, when you prioritise profit ahead of people and product, then your profits tend to suffer. It’s the commercial form of doomed love. Intense, sad, misguided, inevitable. ‘Like a moth to a flame, burned by the fire.’

No. 45


‘Words Without Thoughts Never To Heaven Go’

Bernardo: ‘Who’s there?’
Francisco: ‘Nay, answer me: stand and unfold yourself.’
Hamlet, I i.

Some have argued that the opening lines of Hamlet are entirely appropriate: this night-time exchange between two guards on the walls of the castle at Elsinore immediately establishes a sense of doubt about identity, a theme that sustains us through the play.

In a bold break with tradition, the director of the Hamlet currently being staged at The Barbican in London chose instead to start her production with the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. Too bold for some, and it was announced last week that the experiment would be discontinued.

Should one side with the purists and demand respect for genius and tradition? Or should one applaud brave endeavour, even when it doesn’t succeed?

I found that, the longer I was in business, the more I had to guard against instinctive conservatism. ‘We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work.’ Age and experience can at once enhance one’s judgement and diminish one’s appetite for change.

I saw the Barbican Hamlet in preview. Benedict Cumberbatch has a strong, charismatic take on the troubled Prince; the sets are magnificent; and the production has many good ideas.

When you revisit great works, different scenes leap out at you. This time I was struck by the passage in which Hamlet’s uncle, the villainous Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father and married his widow, tries to pray for forgiveness. At length Claudius concedes that, since he is still in possession of ‘my crown, mine own ambition and my queen,’ he cannot hope for absolution. His prayers are empty without genuine remorse.

‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’
Hamlet III, iii

Creative businesses are sadly cursed by hollow words and empty promises. We all too publicly worship at the altar of creativity without properly demonstrating our faith in day-to-day behaviour. Talk is cheap. And our belief is sorely tested when the god Mammon steps into the meeting room. Perhaps we should, like Claudius, appreciate that ‘words without thoughts never to heaven go.’


Scepticism Is Healthy for Business Too

Trouble in Paradise is a sophisticated screwball comedy from 1932, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A romance between two upmarket con artists is tested when one of them falls for a society heiress, their next intended victim.

The film is fast paced, knowing and wry. And so beautifully written. The society heiress, Madame Colet, rejects a suitor’s advances thus:

‘You see, Francois, marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together. But with you, Francois, it would be a mistake.’

It’s reassuring to discover that scepticism about advertising and business was alive and well in the ‘30s. Madame Colet has inherited a perfume business and her brand is advertised thus:

‘Remember, it doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter how you look. It’s how you smell.’

In another scene Giron, the Chairman of the Board of Colet et Cie, confronts our hero Gaston, now acting as Madame Colet’s advisor:
Giron:  ‘Speaking for the Board of Directors as well as for myself, if you insist in times like these in cutting the fees of the Board of Directors, then we resign.’
Gaston:  ‘Speaking for Madame Colet as well as for myself, resign.’
Giron:  'Very well…We’ll think it over...’

I understand that in this month’s Alphabet announcement there was a nod to the HBO comedy Silicon Valley (The Guardian, 11 Aug 2015). There’s a great tradition of comic writing about commercial culture. The Office reflected business life as it is, not as we would want it to be. Nathan Barley shone a light on Shoreditch lunacy, with extraordinary prescience and what now looks like understatement. And the recently departed comic genius, David Nobbs, gave us Reggie Perrin, the middle management mid-life crisis that is sadly all too familiar.

Scepticism is healthy. It calls business to account. It shows that the public is alert to our shortcomings.
Better to be mocked than to be ignored.


Can Commerce Integrate Art and Science?

The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon by JMW Turner shows ordinary folk dancing in a beautiful bucolic scene. A few years ago research was published indicating that Turner’s depiction of the sun in this painting was based on the latest scientific thinking of his day. (The Guardian, 13 November 2011)

It transpires that Turner, whilst studying art at the Royal Academy, also attended science debates at the Royal Society, which was housed in the same building. And in particular it is suggested that Turner attended the lectures of the astronomer William Herschel, who had been examining the surface of the sun.

As an artist Turner was comfortable with, and actively interested in, science. The scientist Michael Faraday was a good friend and he knew mathematicians, palaeontologists and chemists. Science inspired him. His commitment to observe nature first hand is captured in the myth that he lashed himself to a mast during a storm, just so that he could understand the conditions; an experience that supposedly prompted my favourite Turner painting, Snow Storm - Steam Boat Off A Harbour’s Mouth. 

I regret to say that, when I grew up, art and science were taught as polar opposites. We imagined that scientists had different shaped brains and we rarely socialised with them. This dualism extended even to our TV viewing: the scientists watched The Body in Question; we arts scholars watched Brideshead Revisited (the show that launched a thousand fops)…

It’s compelling to note that many of today’s more interesting movies, dance and theatre productions concern themselves with science. The Theory of Everything had us trying to keep up with Stephen Hawking; the great Wayne McGregor creates dance inspired by neuroscience; Nick Payne’s recent Royal Court hit, Constellations, looked at a human relationship in the context of quantum multiverse theory.

Though I’ve barely a scientific sinew in my body, I believe that the future of marketing and communications will occur at the intersection between art and science. It’s logical. It's inspiring.



No. 44


The Thrill of It All

Man with a Movie Camera has recently been re-released in cinemas. It’s a silent Russian film from 1929 directed by Dziga Vertov. In the opening sequences Vertov proclaims that he is seeking ‘a separation from the language of theatre and literature.’ He wants to create a new grammar particular to film.

Man with a Movie Camera bypasses conventional narrative structures and characterisation. Instead it sets out to document the life of a Soviet city over the course of a day. We see work and play, marriage and divorce, birth and death. We explore the mechanics of urban and industrial life: trams, trains, cars, bikes and buses; steelworks, mines, factories and offices. Vertov is fascinated by the interaction of man and machine and he delights in visual parallels. He cuts between people and pistons; between keyboards, cogs and spools; and ultimately between the human eye and the camera shutter.

Above all Vertov thrills at the possibilities of film. There are close ups and long shots, freeze-frames and split-screens; sequences are speeded up and slowed down. The movie celebrates the art of film making: we see the cameraman at work, film being edited, the film being watched at the cinema. In one memorable sequence the camera itself comes to life through stop frame animation.

Man with a Movie Camera is an exercise in passion. It conveys the pure joy of the pioneer.

I’m inclined to ask, what has happened to our belief in the possibilities of film? Where is the enthusiasm for film’s power: to surprise us, move us and make us think?

In the modern age are we too inclined to shrug at the constraints of time, cost and Clients? Because ‘it’s never as good as the first time’?

Should not new channels and new tasks present fresh opportunities to re-write the rules, to re-define the grammar?

The writer Will Self has described ours as a ‘jaded culture’. Our comfort, knowingness and cynicism deny us the ability to enthuse, the compulsion to revolt.

Sometimes it seems that the thrill is gone. Surely we should bring it back.

The Chaka Khan Conundrum

‘I’m every woman; it’s all in me.
I can read your thoughts right now,
Every one from A to Z.’

Chaka Khan/ ’I’m Every Woman’

I always loved Chaka: her strong, confident voice, her high kicking boots and big, bold hair. I love the sunny euphoria of ‘Do You Love What You Feel?’  I love the adrenaline rush when the synth coda of ‘Ain’t Nobody’ kicks in. I love the fact she was in a band called Rufus, but determined to stand aloof of its absurd name: it was ‘Rufus and Chaka Khan’. In the Pembroke bar we would mimic the scratch in the opening sequence of ‘I Feel for You’; in time, in unison, as one.

But I always wondered, what on earth was Chaka on about when she claimed to be ‘every woman’? How could this be possible? How could it all be in her?

It was only many years later, when I was established in my advertising career, that I understood that Chaka was, in fact, making a compelling point about consumer segmentation.

I dislike consumer segmentation. I never found it useful or helpful at work. Despite being a man from Essex, I was not entirely comfortable being classified as Essex Man. Despite occasionally visiting John Lewis, I wouldn’t say I’m part of ‘the John Lewis Community’. I dislike Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman, Letdown Lady, Pebbledash People. (I kid you not.) I dislike the spurious science and characterful classifications. I dislike the rigidity and ring binders. I even dislike the amusing alliteration…

I think that when Chaka sang that she was ‘every woman’, she was simply pointing out that she could choose to be all forms of womanhood if she wanted to. She was not one singular identity. She couldn’t be boxed off or boxed in.

And isn’t that true of us all? Is not each and every one of us a mess of conflicting drives, moods and identities? Isn’t that what makes us interesting; what makes us human?

Maybe you can segment a mood or a moment, an action or an attitude. But you can’t segment people.


When the Sum of the Parts is Greater than the Whole

At the National Gallery in London you can see the only surviving work by the Florentine painter Pesellino. The Trinity Altarpiece features God the Father supporting the crucified Christ. They are flanked by Saints Mamas and James on one side and Saints Zeno and Jerome on the other.

I went to a talk recently given by the outgoing Director of The National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny. He explained the altarpiece’s provenance. It was painted between 1455 and 1460 and hung in the church of the Confraternity of Priests in Pistoia. Around 1783 the Confraternity was suppressed and the altarpiece was sawn into five pieces: the central piece of God and Christ went to one private collector; the pairs of saints joined others; and the angels from the top corners went their own way too. Over subsequent years the pieces journeyed separately around various European galleries and collections. And they were only reunited at The National Gallery in 1929.

The dismembering of art seems barbaric to us now. But to previous generations it was entirely practical to isolate an element of a painting that one found particularly attractive; to trim an artwork to fit a wall. And dealers found that dismemberment could be financially rewarding.

I confess I have occasionally thought a painting could be dramatically improved by the removal of an inferior character or segment. And one of my favourite paintings, The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden, is, in fact, just a fragment of a larger altarpiece.

When we consider brands and organisations, we often assume that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that there are synergies and efficiencies between elements.

But this is not always the case. I’m sure that Alphabet is only the most recent in a long line of businesses seeking to calibrate the commercial pros and cons of closeness and distance.

Sometimes sub brands stand on each other’s toes; sometimes the propinquity of one brand to another within a holding company can reflect badly on both.

Sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

No. 43

Strange Town: Alexander McQueen and the Art of Subversion

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

‘Fashion should be a form of escapism, not a form of imprisonment.’
Alexander McQueen.

I recently attended the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’m no fashion expert, but I could admire the cut and craft, the elegance and imagination. Quite extraordinary.

It’s been well documented that McQueen was formally trained as a tailor on Savile Row and he worked for some time at the theatrical costumier’s, Berman’s and Nathan’s. His grounding in classical forms and historical styles is evident in his work.

With an exacting eye, McQueen explored period themes such as Regency England, Jacobite Scotland and Imperial Japan. But he also subverted those themes with curious twists and flamboyant turns; with studs, masks, lace and leather; with evocations of love and death. It produces a compelling effect. We are seduced by the elegance, the refinement, the classicism; but at the same time we feel a sense of doubt, darkness and danger. Our expectations are subverted. ‘The time is out of joint.’

McQueen seemed to understand the power of the past to create something entirely current; the potential of the unconscious to supply rich imaginative imagery; the capacity of disruption to manufacture memories. He regarded himself as a romantic, but clearly for him romance was mysterious, mystical and strange.

‘The new always carries with it the sense of violation, of sacrilege. What is dead is sacred; what is new, that is different, is evil, dangerous, or subversive.’
Henry Miller

We may sometimes imagine that we in the communication industry are engaged in subversion: we’re challenging convention, redefining language, re-writing code. But often our subversion is reduced to a bold casting decision, an unfamiliar colour-way, a surprising punch-line.  Surely if we were truly subversive, we’d be challenging at a deeper, more psychological, level.

We may also imagine that communication is the dream business: the alignment of brands with consumers’ dreams and fantasies; the suggestion that a brand might deliver new hopes and aspirations. But if we were serious about dreams, we would recognise that they are far more complex than the golden hayfields, scampering Labradors and smiling blonde children of advertising cliché. Our true fantasies are muddled, awkward and bizarre; our genuine reveries are strange and surreal; our real dreams are next to nightmares.

I have always liked the notion that dreams could, on the one hand, represent the manifestation of our deepest desires and anxieties; and, on the other hand, they could be the waste disposal system for the brain. Dreams are at once meaningful and meaningless. And the fact that we cannot distinguish one category of dream from the other is God’s joke.

I read a recent interview with the outgoing Director of the National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny. In it he debunked the widely held view that the public of previous centuries were experts in the religious and literary semiotics encoded in the art of their day.

‘It’s often said that in the old days people knew all the stories behind these pictures, that they knew the myths and the whole of Ovid. The more I think about that, the more I think it is completely untrue. They didn’t know. So it was all a little more remote. I don’t think familiarity has ever been a stimulus for museum visitors. Strangeness more often helps with the initial impulse.

This sense that strangeness commands special attention tallies with my own movie memories. The scenes, images and impressions that have endured are often just a little odd: the children with animals’ heads in The Wicker Man, the bandaged nose in Chinatown, the zither theme in The Third Man, the romantic cycle ride in Butch Cassidy, the distant figure in a red anorak in Don’t Look Now…

Some years ago, a piece of research established that the recalled elements of popular advertising were often the quite incidental characters from the margins of the plot: the swan in Boddingtons 'Face Cream', the frog in Sony 'Balls', the big bald bloke with the ball bearings in Dunlop 'Tested for the Unexpected'. These elements were not fundamental to the comprehension of the narrative or the communication of the message. But they struck a chord, left a mark; perhaps precisely because they were not serving any purpose; because they were strange.

I wonder are the worlds of brands and advertising a little too familiar; a little too sane and sensible?

In applying rigorous thought to the creative process, do we leave enough room for the anomaly and abnormality that create enduring memories?

In endeavouring to express the aspirations that drive our consumers, do we properly accommodate the strangeness of their dreams?

Maybe we’d all be better off if we found ourselves in a strange town.

No. 42


The Episodic Brand?

The best play I’ve seen this year, The Father by Florian Zeller, will be coming to the West End in the Autumn. Book early, as Fred Pontin would say…

In The Father we observe the impact of dementia on an elderly Parisian, his family and carers. ‘I feel as if I’m losing all of my leaves’, says the aged man. It’s very moving.

What is particularly compelling about The Father is that we are invited to consider dementia from the perspective of the sufferer. For him most of the episodes in his life are completely coherent within themselves; they just stop correlating with other episodes. Memory is not lost in a simple, gradual process; it is eroded asymmetrically through a loosening of the seams between events, identities and relationships. Dementia comes across as a loss of the narrative that holds identity together.

Some have argued that there are in fact two types of people in the world: Narratives and Episodics (Lee Siegel/The End of the Episode/WSJ 3/8/2009). Those with a Narrative personality believe that their life tells a meaningful story; those with an Episodic personality believe that life is lived episode by episode, without adding up to any overriding coherent narrative.

The marketing and communications industry has, I think, always subscribed to a Narrative view of brands: we are endeavouring to tell a single, coherent, unifying story about our brand’s past, its purpose and its performance.

But what if brands are messier than this? What if time and experience across geographies and markets have created a complexity of character that resists reduction?

Are not some brands diminished by our efforts to constrain them within one coherent narrative?
What if yours is an Episodic Brand?


Making Time

In Beware of Mr Baker, the compelling documentary about the legendary Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, our eponymous hero has few good words to say about anyone.

He is however an admirer of his former colleague in Cream, Eric Clapton. ‘Eric had time’, he says and this is perhaps the ultimate tribute a drummer could pay anyone. We often talk of gifted footballers having time: the ability to appear unhurried, to slow things down a little, to pause to think.

In modern business we are surrounded by people who seem to have no time at all. They’re so important that they consistently arrive late and then leave early. I have always admired senior executives who, despite undoubted pressures, seem the masters of time, not the victims of it.


We Did Our Best…

There’s a very fine portrait by Van Eyck in The National Gallery. It features a mature man staring out at us from under an extravagantly tied red head-dress. Some have suggested this is a self-portrait, given the directness of the gaze and the honesty of the facial flaws.

Above the portrait in the original frame Van Eyck has inscribed ‘Als ich kan’, which I understand translates loosely as ‘As well as I can.’ I did a little research. It transpires that ‘Als ich kan’ was something of a personal motto for Van Eyck as it appears on a number of his paintings. Some have suggested that he was prone to promote his personal reputation and that this was an early exercise in branding. (It could also be a play on words: ‘As well as Van Eyck can.’)

Given the extraordinary beauty of the painting, it’s easy to interpret ‘As well as I can’ as a proud boast. But I’m inclined to say Van Eyck was expressing a timeless creative sentiment: ‘I did my best. You may not like it. It may not be good enough for you. But, take it or leave it, this is it.’ This is a sentiment I have often felt in the wake of a mediocre meeting, a poor pitch, a critical Client…

I read this week that researchers have established that perfectionism is a corrosive force that leads to stress and burnout. (Huffington Post/4 August 2015) No surprise here perhaps. To my mind the quest for perfection, winning at all cost, ‘whatever it takes,’ can erode culture. These mindsets create a loss of proportion, a diminution of self worth. They’re corporate head-banging.

I’m with Van Eyck. I think that, whatever the prize, we should just endeavour to do our best. No more, no less.


Regrets, I’ve Had Quite a Lot Really…

Whilst, of course, Piaf’s ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ is a magnificent tune delivered with passion, it’s not a sentiment I share.  For me the song should have been titled ‘J’Ai Beaucoup de Regrets.’ I think regrets are healthy, humbling and an important part of self-knowledge. Here are a few I’d care to mention…

I wish I’d drunk less and danced more in my 20s; I wished I’d worked less and played more football in my 30s; I wish I’d eaten less and read more in my 40s. And more besides…

No. 41