Frank Lloyd Wright: When the Personal Inspires the Professional

Frank Lloyd Wright Studio Library

Frank Lloyd Wright Studio Library

On a trip to Chicago last year I visited the home and studio of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Hard to believe that this visionary modern building was designed in the late nineteenth century. It’s a commonplace criticism of modern architects that they wouldn’t live in the houses they design. But Wright was the exception to this rule. His home and studio were a living laboratory for his hypotheses and new approaches to living space. In his home he introduced fluid connecting rooms, built-in benches, windows located high on the wall so as to avoid prying eyes. In his studio he specified magnesite floors for comfort and sound absorption; he conducted stand-up meetings with Clients who were kept away from the working architects. Wright valued privacy, natural light, simple, organic structures. He enclosed a tree in a passageway and a baby grand piano in a wall. He believed that buildings should be designed in harmony with people and the environment. And he lived his work.

In the marketing and communications industry, what would be our equivalent of this committed approach to life and work? What would happen if we let the personal inspire the professional? How can we truly live our work?

Of course, we could begin by consuming more of the work we produce: watching, not skipping, the ads on commercial TV and YouTube; doing the weekly shop; examining the packaging; walking the High Street; listening to conversations on the bus. If brands are shared behaviours and beliefs, it’s critical that marketing and communication experts participate in shared popular culture.

I would suggest that the best and most successful creative professionals experience life in its infinite variety and infuse their work with their acquired knowledge and insight. A film or football match, a good read or bad play, a walk in the park, a dance in the dark, a word in the ear, a feast for the eyes. A life fully lived provides the material for creative thought. Random, extraneous, unrelated experiences inspire lateral leaps and imaginative connections. The personal stimulates the professional.

I once hired a young Planner whom I’d interviewed in the pub. But the new joiner wasn’t a great success. In the pub he had been a charming raconteur, a thoughtful observer. But in the office he became a conventional thinker, a Steady Eddie. I tried to persuade this Planner to bring something of the bloke I’d met down the pub into the office, but it wasn’t a transition he seemed capable of. For him the worlds of work and leisure were fundamentally separate and distinct.

Of course, for the most part the modern work-life relationship is out of balance in work’s favour. It’s normal nowadays to answer office emails at home, to catch up after the kids have gone to bed, to work at the weekend, to conference-call on Californian time.

Over-work poses problems on two fronts. On a basic level it drains the employee of energy and initiative. But it also starves colleagues of the experiences and insights that enable them to perform at their best. If you cancel that trip to the cinema, club, theatre or gallery, you deny yourself the opportunity to think, feel and see. And you deny your business your ability to imagine, leap and dream.

In my industrious youth I was often tempted to cancel social engagements because I had too much to do at the office. But I must have been rather stubborn back then and I refused to let this happen. I cut down on my sleep instead. In time fatigue forced me to be more efficient at work. It’s not an approach I’d necessarily recommend…

I believe the over-worked under-perform because they are under-stimulated. Blurring the lines between the personal and professional should not mean letting the professional dominate everything. It should mean letting one’s rich home, family, cultural and social life inform and inspire one’s work. And this should enhance both sides of the work-life equation.

 

‘Oh, I’m out here trying to make it,
Baby, can’t you see?
It takes a lot of money to make it,
Let’s talk truthfully.
So keep your love light burnin,’
Oh, you gotta have a little faith.
You might as well get used to me
Coming home a little late.
Oh, I can’t wait to get home to you,
I got so much work to do.’

The Isley Brothers, Work To Do

No. 80

Should Marketing and Media Consider a Little Protectionism?

Mother and Child (detail from The Three Ages of Woman), c.1905 by Gustav Klimt

Mother and Child (detail from The Three Ages of Woman), c.1905 by Gustav Klimt

Protectionism is not a concept we would commonly employ in the world of media, marketing and communication. But it’s an increasingly resonant theme in the broader world of politics and economics. So, I wonder, where would protectionism take us?

Good government seeks to manage the tension between enabling and protecting: enabling individual, collective and commercial freedoms; protecting the vulnerable, the disadvantaged and the things we hold dear.

For the world of business, in the era of globalization, enabling has been the order of the day. There’s been a centrist consensus around the social and economic benefits of free trade, free movement and free markets. But, across the political spectrum, people have been asking questions about globalization: from Trump and Sanders, to Corbyn and Piketty, to assorted protest movements around the world.

What about the increasing inequality, the personal and corporate tax avoidance, the imbalanced housing market, the warped financial sector? What about the exported jobs, failed industries, mass migration and environmental damage? Are these not in some part the unintended consequences of globalization? There’s a renewed interest in protectionism in its broadest sense: protecting local hospitals, housing and high streets; jobs, services and small businesses; libraries, pubs and the planet.

Now it would be easy to dismiss all this as economic naivety, parochial radicalism, or the inevitable response to the challenges of austerity. But I think the interesting thing about protectionism is that it forces us to ask some simple questions: What do we want to protect? Which communities, activities and institutions are so precious to us that they merit particular support? Maybe protectionism also prompts us to reorder our priorities. Let’s start by indentifying the things we hold dear and then build an economic policy around them.

So what could protectionism mean for the media, marketing and communications industries? What are the things we would fight to preserve?

I’d imagine many of us would begin by saying that we believe in protecting the value of ideas and creativity, and in protecting the individuals and institutions that generate them.

And yet creative businesses haven’t got a great record of defending creativity. We’ve been powerless to prevent the devaluation of the music industry and the erosion of the publishing sector. We’ve looked on as writing has been commoditized; as photographers’ fees have fallen; as creativity has been re-categorized as ‘content.’

We’ve aligned ourselves with the themes of the new economy: empowerment, freedom and sharing, but failed properly to address the challenges these themes pose for our own industries. Sometimes consumer empowerment has come hand-in-hand with the disempowerment of creative professions and individuals; sometimes customer freedom has entailed giving creativity away for free; sometimes the sharing economy has compromised intellectual property.

I think a more confident creative industry would be more bullish about the value of its output; and more assertive about realizing that value. A more confident industry would be looking to secure a fair value exchange. Consumers should be expected to pay for great music, literature, entertainment, opinion and knowledge. Or they should at least be prepared to receive the advertising that subsidizes those services.

So I guess I’m a protectionist where these things are concerned. We should do everything we can to protect the value of our creativity and to protect our journalists, writers, art directors, photographers, film-makers and musicians. We should support pay-walls, memberships and micro payments; tariffs, taxes and trademarks. And we should block the ad-blockers.

And what if our new protectionism didn’t stop there? What if we were more assertive in using our creative and communication talents to protect the things that matter to us in the broader community? What role should media and marketing play in protecting our health, our privacy, our towns, our environment? In the age of Purpose all brands have been exploring how they will leave the world a better place. In defining Purpose the modern brand manager should more specifically ask: What are we going to protect?

This piece was first published in the Guardian Media and Tech on 18 April 2016

No. 79

 

A Marriage In Six Breakfasts: Orson Welles and The Art of Compression

Emily: ‘What do you do at a newspaper until the middle of the night?’
Kane: ‘Emily, my dear, your only co-respondent is the Inquirer.’
Emily: ‘Sometimes I think I’d prefer a rival of flesh and blood.’
Citizen Kane

In Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane we see the decline of Charles Foster Kane’s marriage to Emily Norton over six breakfasts. In the first breakfast Charles and Emily are amorous and warm. They sit close to each other and their faces are all smiles and suggestion. With each subsequent breakfast the couple are progressively more formal and cold, more distant in tone and space. Their conversation turns to squabbling about their family and Kane’s work. In the final scene the couple don’t speak at all and bury their heads in their newspapers. She is reading the Chronicle, the rival title to Kane’s Inquirer.

In six breakfasts and just over two minutes Welles conveys everything we need to know about this unhappy relationship. It’s so elegantly succinct. It’s an exercise in economy, distillation, compression.

Charles Kane was a newspaperman, but I imagine he’d have made a fine adman too. And he certainly could teach us a few lessons.

Kane (to his Editor): ‘Mr Carter, here’s a three column headline in the Chronicle. Why hasn’t The Inquirer a three column headline?’

Carter: ‘The news wasn’t big enough.’
Kane: ‘Mr Carter, if the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.’
Citizen Kane

In the communication world we all recognise the art of compression. Advertising‘s necessary brevity has made distillation a critical skill. At its best commercial communication can reduce a hugely complex brand to a minute-long film, a single image, a compelling headline. Advertising can be understood as condensed thought.

In my time at BBH I often witnessed John Hegarty encouraging his teams to focus on the essence of the story, the ‘decisive moment’; to edit out unnecessary complexity, executional detail and verbiage. Sometimes he made press ads that looked like posters. Sometimes he would strip away the copy from TV scripts entirely and replace it with music.

Fred and Farid’s 2002 Xbox commercial is perhaps the ultimate example of advertising as condensed thought. It takes us from birth to burial in just one minute. It’s a flight of fantasy that resonates with truth. It finishes with the compelling invitation to ‘Play More.’

Mr Bernstein: ‘Old age. It’s the only disease that you don’t look forward to being cured of.’
Citizen Kane

Compression has many virtues. It forces focus and prioritisation; it enhances understanding; it is economical with people’s time and attention.

As Welles himself states when discussing the theatre, communication that is pared back can also leave room for the audience to fill in the gaps. It is cooperative, suggestive.

‘I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won't contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That's what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act.’
Orson Welles

The art of compression is of course also critical in the sphere of strategy. Some strategists hide behind the protective cloak of the intricate and arcane. But the best strategists can reduce, refine, distil. They bring simplicity to the sophisticated; comprehension to the complex.

‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.’
Orson Welles

However, the art of compression may be under threat in the world of modern marketing. This era is more long-form and content-driven; more conversational and cross platform; more networked and nuanced.

We should beware: of presuming too much on consumers’ time and attention; of compromising our ability to suggest and co-create; of drowning in our own complexity.

Over recent years it’s become fashionable to predict that advertising may become a redundant form altogether (though ironically the digital economy seems unhealthily dependent on ads). I have always contended that, even if advertising disappeared from the planet, we’d still want to sustain its discipline: the distillation, reduction, compression. We might even produce ads and throw them away, just for the learning we derive from the process…

‘If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’
Orson Welles

Finally, there’s a more fundamental lesson that brands could learn from Citizen Kane. And it’s not about compression at all. Despite all his professional and material success, Charles Foster Kane was an unhappy man. He was unloved. He didn’t understand that you should not expect people to love you if you can’t love them back.

Jedediah Leland: ‘That’s all he ever wanted out of life…was love. That’s the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.’
Citizen Kane

No. 78

To See Ourselves As Others See Us

Cartier Bresson/Waiting in Trafalgar Square

Cartier Bresson/Waiting in Trafalgar Square

‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us! 
It wad frae mony a blunder free us, 
An' foolish notion: 
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us, 
An' ev'n devotion!’

Robert Burns/ To a Louse

We are all engaged in observing the world around us. But how good are we at reflecting on ourselves? Do we ever truly see ourselves as others see us?

Strange and Familiar

Strange and Familiar, an exhibition currently running at the Barbican in London (until 19 June), showcases the ways that foreign photographers have regarded Britain from the 1930s to the present day.

Initially these non-British perspectives on Britain seem almost stereotypical. There are Bobbies, bowler hats and boozers; cafes, corner shops and carnivals. We come across queues in the rain, deckchairs on the beach, commuters in the fog. We find milk bottles, uniforms and lollipop ladies. The decades process past us to the familiar tune of fashion trends, political upheavals and State occasions. We canter through the Coronation celebrations, the Swinging Sixties, the Jubilee Street Parties, the Troubles. It’s a reminder that cliché is often founded on some truth.

But, on closer inspection, these outsiders make Britain look quite curious. The pageantry seems alien and exotic; the dirt and decay seem primitive. One is struck by the post-war weariness, the arcane folk rituals, the enduring class divide.

Seeing ourselves as others see us is, as the exhibition title suggests, a ‘strange and familiar’ experience. We recognize the reflection looking back at us from the mirror. But, with scrutiny, we also notice wrinkles, scars and blemishes that would generally elude us.

‘People think that they present themselves one way, but they cannot help but show something else as well. It’s impossible to have everything under control.’
Rineke Dijkstra, Photographer

This kind of introspection is bracing, refreshing, thought provoking. We get to see what the American photographer Diane Arbus called ‘the gap between intention and effect.’ So it’s perhaps something we should all do more of. However, I’m not sure it’s natural to welcome the outsider’s perspective.

When I was in advertising, we would always decline the opportunity to be filmed at work. It wasn’t that we were afraid of ‘letting daylight in upon magic.’ It was that we knew we would look like fools. We were well aware that the language and process, the acronyms and enthusiasms, all seem rather daft when you’re not in the midst of them. And sometimes the truth hurts.

Of course, in the broader marketing and comms world we do regularly canvas the opinion of consumers and colleagues, in focus groups and 360 degree appraisals. But how often do we embrace the perspectives of true outsiders on our brands, on our businesses, on ourselves? How often do we properly examine the distinctions between our own intentions and effects

Would we be shocked or reassured by what they saw and said? Or would we listen without hearing, look without seeing?

Candida Hofer 'Boy with a Badge'

 

The Same, But Different

‘I wanted to make the series almost as a mirror in which to see myself.’
Hans Eijkelboom

In the last room of the Barbican exhibition we encounter a film composed of photographs by the Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom (The Street and Modern Life). In 2014 Eijkelboom shot people out and about in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre. He then reassembled the images in accordance with certain aspects of their appearance.

Eijkelboom  'The Street and Modern Life'

We see life played out in repetition and replication, a symphony of theme and variation.

There are sequences of floral designs, ripped jeans and crop tops; checks, stripes and polka dots; tattoos, beards and body piercing. There are Superdry sweats and Hollister hoodies. Headscarves. Women carrying Costa cups, handbags at their elbows, faces down to their phones; men in denim jackets, quilted jackets, sleeveless jackets. We see skull prints and Union Jacks; butterflies and Micky Mice. Adidas, Adidas, Adidas. Everlast.

It’s the rhythm of street style, the pattern of popular culture. There’s a compelling sense that, for all our individuality, we conform; for all our independence, we are interdependent; for all our difference, we are the same.

It’s a healthy reminder for the marketer. Ours has been an age of individuality and empowerment; of personalisation and customisation; of laser targeting and one-to-one. But we should never forget that fundamentally brands are shared behaviours and beliefs; that people like to copy, to swap, to emulate; to come and go and stay together; to think, and act, and be, together.

No. 77

Leonardo’s Pitch: Shouldn’t Creativity Trump Capability?

In the early 1480s Leonardo Da Vinci applied for a job at the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan. He wrote Ludovico a letter listing his core skills in ten points. He was, he claimed, a master at building portable bridges and scaling ladders; he could create cannon, catapults and covered vehicles; he could design tunnels, mines and mortars.

As an afterthought, Leonardo mentioned that he could also sculpt and paint.

Now it may be that Leonardo’s pitch was a canny exercise in audience management. He knew that Ludovico was far more interested in militaria than art. But Leonardo may also have been demonstrating a disappointing lack of confidence in his own extraordinary creative skills.

Do we in the world of marketing and communications recognise something in Leonardo’s job application? Have our own pitches for work become long lists of capabilities and specialisms?

If you examine a variety of Agency websites, you’ll see that many read like a Yellow Pages of skills, crafts, expertise and aptitudes.

’We deliver in data, social media, mobile and build; we excel at SEO, UX and ECRM; we can do e-commerce, coding and content curation…’

Isn’t there a risk that this is all a little undifferentiated? Perhaps a little boring?

Of course, the modern world is one of fragmented platforms, disciplines and skill-sets. Clients are looking for partners who can help them navigate this complexity and they want to be reassured that Agencies have appropriate competencies and delivery mechanics.

But at what stage does the Client say: ‘OK. I know you can do a good job at everything. But are you great at anything?’

Have we, like Leonardo, lost confidence in the power of our creativity? Why don’t we lead with our ideas, prioritize our originality? First and foremost, shouldn’t we be selling our imagination, innovation, invention? Shouldn’t creativity trump capability?

I could, of course, be wrong… In the event Leonardo’s skill-based pitch was successful. Ludovico hired the great artist and, ten years later, commissioned him to paint The Last Supper. 

No. 76

A Word From The Management: Five Lessons for Creative Businesses from the World of Music Management

Brian Epstein by David Bailey

Brian Epstein by David Bailey

Inevitably creative businesses spend a good deal of time celebrating creative talent and achievements. And rightly so.  But how often do we acknowledge the people that put the ‘commercial’ into commercial creativity? Do we properly recognise the negotiation, relationship and executional skills that are the lifeblood of any creative enterprise? Perhaps we should pause occasionally and give a little appreciation to The Management.

I recently watched a compelling BBC documentary about management in the music business (Music Moguls: Masters of Pop, The Money Makers). The programme featured interviews with some of the titans of pop and rock management over the past fifty years.  They suggested a number of lessons that I’m sure apply to the broader creative industry.

‘To me what management is about is:  you take the art, if that’s what it is, and you turn it into commerce.’

Ed Bicknell, Manager, Dire Straits

1. Embrace the tension between creativity and commerce

Of course, creativity and commerce are not natural bedfellows. But they can be complimentary, rather than contradictory, disciplines. It takes a special kind of person to be equally comfortable with rock musicians and accountants.

‘My belief is that, when god gives you something special – a talent – he takes a little bit away from somewhere else. If you look at any artist, they’ve all got something missing. And I’m the guy that replaces it.’
Bill Curbishley, Manager, The Who

Creatives should cherish account management precisely because they ‘love the jobs you hate.’  We should embrace the inherent dissonance between commerce and creativity as a healthy tension in a business that thrives on diversity.

2. Believe in the value of creativity

It’s clear that the best music industry managers believe passionately in the value of creativity. And they are robust negotiators who do everything in their power to realise that value.

‘We were determined from the outset that, if we were going to be good at the music, we were going to be good at the business. And not get taken.’
Paul McGuinness, Manager, U2

In the broader creative sector we should do more to demonstrate our own belief in creativity: that it has a value; that that value is worth protecting; that without proper commercial advocacy that value will be diluted, commoditised, exploited.
 

3. Recognise the special talent of empathy

Scooter Braun is one of a new generation of talent management. He took Justin Bieber from YouTube star to global brand. He suggests that management can bring to the table a common touch; an understanding of how popular tastes are changing and how the public will respond to new ideas.

‘I think the way I hear music is the way most people hear music. If I have a reaction, why shouldn’t they? I’m not special. So what my talent is is literally not being special. I deal with special people. I manage special people. And the way I help them most is translating to them how not special people might react to them.’
Scooter Braun, Manager, Justin Bieber

The best managers, whilst not creating work themselves, are brilliantly empathetic: they recognise ideas that will resonate with ordinary people and they can therefore gently steer a concept towards its most effective execution.

4. Celebrate the commercial skills that realise creative value

Inevitably the music industry supplies numerous stories of commercial heroism.

When CBS offered Elvis Presley an unprecedented $50,000 to appear on the Ed Sullivan TV Show, his manager Colonel Tom Parker replied:

‘Well that sounds pretty good to me. But what about my boy?’

Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant took on the all-powerful US promoters and negotiated an unparalleled increase in gate money, from 70% to 90%.

Paul McGuinness helped U2 gain copyright on their own material; renegotiate contracts; pioneer the stadium rock market; win higher royalties; develop U2-branded iPods.

Clearly a creative business should celebrate commercial as well as creative success. It should lionise the people that arbitrate on its behalf; that pioneer new sources of revenue; that realise creative value.

5. Seize the opportunity inherent in change

The best commercial brains see opportunity rather than threat in changing market conditions. Even amidst the turmoil that is the modern music industry.

‘We’re in the wild, wild west. There are no rules. That’s really exciting for an entrepreneur and it’s really exciting for a musician. Because there are no lines. You can write the rules every single day you get up.’
Scooter Braun, Manager, Justin Bieber

One of the curiosities of creative businesses is that they are often quite conservative. They get set in their ways, wedded to the processes and practices that delivered success in the past. We need more commercial optimists addressing the opportunities inherent in change; more business minds focused on re-engineering the model; re-inventing the fundamentals of how we work.

Of course, one wouldn’t want to embrace every aspect of rock and pop management. Sometimes in the music industry, commerce got the better of creativity. Larry Parnes managed many of the first British rock acts in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.  Notoriously controlling, he was nicknamed ‘Mr Parnes Shillings and Pence.’ Don Arden, who looked after the Small Faces, ELO and Black Sabbath, had a negotiation style that could extend to the edge violence.

‘If I’ve ever exploited anybody, it’s only because they wanted to be exploited.’
Don Arden, Manager, Small Faces, ELO, Black Sabbath

But, for the most part, the colourful stories serve to illustrate the extraordinary demands of working across commerce and creativity.

You’ll sometimes hear people in creative businesses diminish the contribution of ‘the suits.’ Colleagues make cheap jibes about these smooth operators, their suspicious spreadsheets and silver tongues. But in my experience the creatives who belittled account management were often the ones who were themselves not very creative at all. 

I was a strategist at a creative communications agency and I was fortunate to work with some of the best account management and finance people in the industry. I grew properly to appreciate their talents. I valued their fortitude, vigour and dynamism; their relationship skills and commercial nous.  I appreciated them all the more because these were precisely the areas in which I was weak. Above all I valued the fact that they got things done.

And that’s why I will always respect The Management.

 

A version of this piece was published by the Guardian Media and Tech on 21 March 2016

No. 75

Forgotten Revolutions: When the Radical Becomes Routine

 

Delacroix Self Portrait 1837

Sometimes a revolution can be so successful that its principles and values become a new mainstream. Ironically the force of the original revolutionary impulse can be lost with the passing of the years, because, viewed from the perspective of history and hindsight, it all seems rather obvious. What was once incendiary and anarchic quickly becomes unthreatening and conventional.

Forgotten revolutions are worth revisiting because we may also be forgetting insights and perspectives that could be useful and relevant to the modern day. In remembering what sparked the revolutions of the past, we can challenge our own assumptions about the future.

Consider three great French revolutionary artists of the nineteenth century: Delacroix and the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis.

Delacroix’s Sentimental Revolution

There’s currently an exhibition dedicated to Eugene Delacroix at the National Gallery in London. (Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art runs until 22 May)

Delacroix certainly looks revolutionary. In his self-portraits he sports lustrous dark locks and he stares out at us with poise and a knowing confidence. He was greatly admired by many of the titans of modern art that followed him: Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh and Matisse. They copied his work, wrote about his influence, painted bizarre tributes to him.

‘We all use Delacroix’s language now.’
Paul Cezanne

But to today’s eyes Delacroix comes across as rather classical and traditional. He painted landscapes, lion hunts and harems; triumphant heroism from history and sensual scenes from the Bible.

So what was it about Delacroix’s art that his successors so admired? In what sense was he a revolutionary modernist?

We need to understand the context in which Delacroix was working in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was reacting against the stiffness and formality of conventional French Academic painting. He shunned its cold intellectualism, its rigorous adherence to the rules of composition. He abhorred its ‘slavish imitation’ of reality.

‘The first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye.’
Eugene Delacroix

Delacroix’s work is vibrant, colourful, sensual. It is energetic, always on the move. He painted at speed, with freedom, vigour and distortion. The artist Odilon Redon said that his was ‘a triumph of sentiment over form.’

Delacroix - Christ on the Sea of Galilee

Having had it drawn to my attention, I found myself admiring Delacroix’s commitment to sentiment and spontaneity. He is conventionally said to represent the end of romanticism. But now I understood why the exhibition positions him at the beginning of modernism.

Have we in the marketing world, I wonder, slipped back into the easy conservatism of the bourgeois Academy, the slavish commitment to structure, form, accuracy and reality? Would we not benefit from some of Delacroix’s instinct, emotion, energy and immediacy?

And, more importantly perhaps, are we writing a final chapter or a first? Do we represent the culmination of a way of thinking about brands and communication, or the commencement of something new? Are we an end or a beginning?
 

The Lumieres’ Train and the Suspension of Belief

The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station is a modest film. It’s only 50 seconds long, black and white, and silent. It shows a steam train approaching a station; the train stops; men with moustaches and hats jump off and jump on; a husband and wife cross the screen, she in shawl, long skirt and hat, he with his hands in his pockets; guards busy themselves; a dapper young chap with a flat cap and bow tie looks awkward and leaps to get out of the way. That’s all, folks.

And yet, in its own way, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station is also completely sensational. It was created by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere and was originally presented to an audience in Paris in January 1896. It was one of the world’s first films.

Not having seen a movie before, the audience was stunned, particularly by the sight of a steam train, heading straight towards them. Hitherto theatre audiences had learned to ‘suspend disbelief’ when they attended a show. Now they had to suspend belief. They had to correct the compelling notion that the train was indeed there in the stalls, speeding directly towards them.

Legend has it that many fled to the back of the auditorium, so convinced were they that the oncoming engine was about to crash in upon them.

Of course, over time we have learned to live with the wonders of film, and today The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station seems rather ordinary. It’s often the case that we are startled, shocked and frightened by the new. But we have a phenomenal ability to come to terms with change; to accommodate it; to see its advantages and opportunities.

How do we recreate an equivalent sense of wonder today? What new technologies can surprise and delight in the way that the Lumieres’ train did one hundred and twenty years ago? Perhaps robots, AI, 3D printing and Oculus Rift can shake us from our scepticism; stimulate our jaded senses; challenge us once again to suspend our belief in what is real and unreal.

Whatever the technology, you have to side with the optimists. You have to imagine that there were a few Parisians glued to their seats at the first showing of the Lumiere brothers’ new film. They may have been a little scared, unsure of what they were witnessing. But they were also thrilled by the possibility of change and the wonders of a revolutionary modern age.

No. 74

Why Doesn’t the Spinning Ballerina Get Dizzy?... A Leadership Lesson from the World of Dance

 

Tamara Rojo as Odile

Tamara Rojo as Odile

In Act III of Swan Lake, Odile, the Black Swan, dances thirty-two consecutive fouette turns en pointe. It’s an extraordinary thing to behold. Like an elegant spinning top, a human gyroscope. Your jaw drops. Surely the ballerina must get progressively dizzy. Why doesn’t she fall over and collapse to the ground in a heap of black tulle?

Of course, there is a technique.

From an early age a ballet dancer learns to ‘spot’: whilst rotating her body at a constant speed, she fixes her gaze on some distant point in the theatre or rehearsal room, and then whips her head round to refocus on the same point again. Spotting diminishes the amount that the head is spinning and so in turn diminishes the risk of dizziness.

Perhaps there’s something that business can learn here.

As the commercial world spins faster, one way or another we’re all engaged in change, whether managing it or making it happen. Sometimes it can be quite dizzying.

The rhetoric increases in volume. We’re on a burning platform. We’re going to re-invent, re-engineer, re-model. We need to be faster, more flexible, more agile. We’re seeking transformational change. We have change managers, change programmes, change champions. The only constant is change. It’s going to be 78 revolutions per minute.


In my own time in advertising I found that change could be inspiring, exciting, exhilarating. But the pressure for constant change could also be bewildering, destabilising and confusing for the broader staff base. As you launched another vision, introduced another expertise, proposed another process, your colleagues sometimes stared back at you with blank looks and empty smiles. What, you wondered, were they really thinking? 

We learned periodically to remind people that in the midst of change the objective remained the same: fundamentally we’re in the business of producing great ideas that shape beliefs, behaviours and culture; it’s the same as it’s always been; it’s all about the work.

Companies can suffer change fatigue. Too many empty promises, unrealistic projections, apocalyptic predictions; too many buzz phrases and brave new worlds; a revolving door of senior managers and singular ideas.

When all around is changing, we all yearn for a North Star to guide us, an anchor to secure us. Like a ballerina pirouetting on stage, when we’re in a spin, we need a fixed point to steady us.

What can that fixed point be?

It can be the reassuring consistency of a leadership team. It can be a reminder of unchanging cultural truths. It can be the clear statement of Vision, Mission and Values. It can be a well-articulated Purpose.

Whatever it is, it’s worth repeating. Over and over again.

In recent years scientists have suggested that there’s more to the ballet dancer’s stability than spotting; that in fact a ballerina’s brain learns over time to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear which would otherwise make them fall over.

Perhaps a business too can, with repetition, internalise a sense of security in the midst of accelerating change; learn to sustain perfect poise and balance at the heart of the revolution. Just like a ballerina.

‘You know I saw the writing on the wall
When you came up to me.
Child, you were heading for a fall.
But if it gets to you,
And you feel like you just can't go on,
All you gotta do
Is ring a bell,
Step right up, and step right up,
And step right up.
Just like a ballerina,
Stepping lightly.’


Van Morrison/Ballerina

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No. 73


On The Outside Looking In: Difference Craves Difference; Difference Creates Difference

 

Different Work Requires Different People

In creative businesses we talk a good deal about the value of difference in delivering brand success. We seek to design different brand positionings, different strategies, different executions. We believe difference creates stand-out, preference and loyalty.

But what kind of people invent difference? Where do we find them?

I recently encountered reviews of the life and works of two great American artists, the actor Marlon Brando and the photographer Saul Leiter. Brando and Leiter were born in the early 1920s within a year of each other. One achieved quick and widespread fame; the other earned recognition slowly, and primarily within his own community. But, through the work they did in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they both helped rewrite our understanding of their respective professions.

I found that, though Brando and Leiter shared little in terms of personality and renown, their engagement with difference was similar.

Marlon Brando: The Wild One

‘I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin, so that when I wake up in there, six feet under the ground, I’m going to say: ’Do it differently.’’

Listen to Me Marlon is an excellent 2015 documentary film exploring Marlon Brando’s life and work through his privately recorded audio-tapes. In discussing his early career, there’s a clear sense that Brando from the outset was obsessed with doing things differently, with developing his own unique style.

‘Never let the audience know how it’s going to turn out. Get them on your terms. Hit ‘em. Knock ‘em over with an attitude, with a word, with a look. Be surprising. Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before. You want to stop that movement from the cardboard to the mouth. Get people to stop chewing. The truth will do that. Damn, damn, damn, damn. When it’s right, it’s right. You can feel it in your bones. Then you feel whole. You feel good.’

Although Brando comes across on film as a pillar of strength, a brooding, confident presence, his childhood was far from happy. Both his parents were alcoholics and he had an uneasy relationship with his father. The introverted Brando was sent to a military school in which he felt alone and isolated.

‘I was very shy. Sensitive, very sensitive…. I had a great feeling of inadequacy; that I didn’t know enough; that I didn’t have enough education. I felt dumb.’

Acting saved Brando. And in particular the acting coach Stella Adler saved him.  (Adler was herself a successful actor who, inspired by the Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavski, founded her own acting studio in New York. Brando was an early pupil.)

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. ’You have a right to be who you are, where you are and how you are. Everybody’s got a story to tell, something they’re hiding.’’

One can’t help inferring that Brando’s quest for difference was in some way driven by his own sense of marginalisation. Angst ridden, feeling out of the ordinary, he was at the same time fascinated by differences in others.

‘I was always somebody who had an unquenchable curiosity about people. I would walk down the street and look at faces. I used to go into the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street in a cigar store. I would watch people for three seconds as they went by and try to analyse their personalities by just that flick. The face can’t hide many things and people are always hiding things. I was always interested to guess the things that people did not know themselves. What they feel; what they think; why they feel. How is it we behave the way we do?’

What emerges is a picture of an exceptional man whose interior and exterior lives are inextricably linked. Brando’s self-reflection seems to have created his curiosity about others.

‘Unless we look inwards, we will not ever be able to clearly see outwards.’

 

Saul Leiter: The Quiet American

‘It is not where it is or what it is that matters. But how you see it.’

There’s an excellent exhibition of Saul Leiter’s work currently at The Photographers’ Gallery in London (until 3 April). If you’ve seen the splendid film, Carol, you’ll recognise the inspiration for the art direction.

Leiter was certainly different. He was the son of a famous Talmudic scholar and was studying to become a Rabbi when he upped sticks for New York, determined to become a painter. Leiter went on to pioneer colour street photography in an era when colour was not considered a serious medium. And although he was a great admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of the ‘decisive moment,’ Leiter had his own distinct perspective on the role of photography in our lives.

‘Photographs are often treated as important moments, but really they are fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world.’

So Leiter didn’t go out to capture the events and drama of the street. Rather he was drawn to the insignificant and fleeting; to bold colours and abstract shapes. Indeed he bought out-of-date film stock because it was cheap and he liked the distortions and unpredictability that came with it.

Leiter’s work is all hydrants and hats, fire escapes and steamed windows; a red brolly, a yellow headscarf; workers in the snow, commuters on the train; bold commercial type in modest surroundings; reflections in the rain, shadows in the bright sunlight. It’s a gentle set of impressions. Overseen, overlooked.

Leiter’s style may well have been determined by his personality. He was self-deprecating, understated, unassuming. He was a Quiet American.

‘I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.’

Saul Leiter: Taxi, ca. 1957

So again we see a creative person with a distinct perspective on his art born out of a very particular personality. And again we see an obsession with the observation of others.

‘If we look and look we begin to see and are still left with the pleasure of uncertainty.’


Difference Craves Difference; Difference Creates Difference

What can we conclude from these two leading practitioners in the art of difference?

Firstly they were themselves different. They were on the outside looking in. Their marginalisation gave them an enhanced ability to look and learn, to observe others. Outsiders look harder and see more. And because they are different themselves, they are better equipped to create difference.

The best creative businesses embrace outsiders. They welcome the unorthodox and unusual, the idiosyncratic and individual, the different and diverse. They respect the quiet voice, even when they are daily engaged in loud proclamation. The best creative businesses make outsiders feel like insiders.

And yet, as with any organisation, there are powerful forces of inertia at play. Recruiters fish in the same ponds; leaders appoint in their own image; and company life has a centrifugal force that drives conformity and convention. It abhors rough edges and irregular behaviours. Often we cherish originality, but balk at the eccentricities of original people.

I think the creative industry should more actively embrace the belief that different work requires different people. Diversity should not just be a social responsibility. It should be a strategic imperative.

 ‘I’m on the outside looking in
Gotta find a way, gotta find a way back to your heart dear, once again
Won’t you take me back again?
I’ll be waiting here ‘til then
On the outside looking in.’

Little Anthony & The Imperials/On the Outside (Looking In).
(Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein)

 

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An abbreviated version of this piece was published in the Guardian Media and Tech on 16 February 2016

No. 71