Eggleston: The Poetry of Normal

William Eggleston,   Untitled   (Girl with Red Hair, Biloxi, Mississippi), 1974

William Eggleston, Untitled (Girl with Red Hair, Biloxi, Mississippi), 1974

‘The idea of the suffering artist has never appealed to me. Being here is suffering enough.’
William Eggleston

There’s a fine exhibition of photographic portraits by William Eggleston running at the National Portrait Gallery in London (until 23 October).

Born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in a well-to-do household in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston was shy and laconic, guarded and private. Self-taught and self-sufficient, he developed an affinity for free spirits, local bourbon and antique guns. He dressed like a Southern gentleman and caroused like a rock musician.

Eggleston took up photography at university. From the mid ‘60s he experimented with colour, and in 1973 he embraced a dye transfer printing technique, which hitherto had been the realm of commercial magazines and advertising. As a result his colours are rich, vibrant, intoxicating. We are seduced by the vivid yellows and pinks, the deep reds and blues; the bold tones of manmade fibres, floral prints, formica and leatherette. They sing out above the flat umbers and olive greens of the enduring rural South.


Untitled, .1974 by William Eggleston

Untitled, .1974 by William Eggleston

‘I photograph democratically…I don't have any favourites. Every picture is equal but different.'

Eggleston’s style seems informal, casual even. By 1976 he was abandoning his viewfinder and shot as if firing a gun. He photographed ordinary people in the bar, at the diner, in the parking lot; regular folk at the counter, at the phone kiosk, on the travelator; waiting in the car, striding along the sidewalk, seated by the kerb. There’s a young woman with a Heineken, a businessman with a burger, a singer with a cigarette. We see the elderly lady on her garden chair, the office worker in his lunch hour, teenagers on a date. We see a lone old man sitting on the edge of a bed, with a drink, with a revolver.

Eggleston’s subjects look straight at us, through us and past us. They stand and stare; they sit and watch; they turn to one side. They seem lost in thought, alone, even though they’re with us.

It seems a world of doubt, regret, indecision and detachment. But maybe it’s nothing of the kind. We want to know the stories that attend the images; the befores and afters. But Eggleston denies us this narrative. He leaves his subjects untitled, unidentified, unknown.

'A picture is what it is, and I've never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn't make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them…I mean, they're right there, whatever they are.’

Untitled, c.1970 (Devoe Money in Jackson, Mississippi) by William Eggleston

Untitled, c.1970 (Devoe Money in Jackson, Mississippi) by William Eggleston

Although by no means the first serious photographer to shoot in colour, Eggleston’s exhibition at New York’s MOMA in 1976 is widely recognised as a watershed moment for the genre. At the time there was fierce criticism of his work from a photographic establishment that was looking for meaning and message. The New York Times described it as ‘the worst show of the year.’ His choice of everyday subjects was felt to be banal, boring and bland. His informal, spontaneous style was labelled ‘snapshot chic.’

But these are the very factors that make Eggleston’s work compelling. There is a mystery in the mundane, a simplicity in the spontaneous, a beauty in the bland.


Untitled, c.1970 (Marcia Hare in Memphis, Tennessee) by William Eggleston

Untitled, c.1970 (Marcia Hare in Memphis, Tennessee) by William Eggleston

‘I am at war with the obvious.’

In the field of commercial creativity we should feel affinity for the ordinary and everyday. Ours is a world of small choices and regular habits. Eggleston teaches us that, if we look close enough, we will see, and if we think hard enough we will feel; that we should seek merely to amplify the truth, to intensify it with considered gaze and vibrant colour; that there’s no need to resort to excess and exaggeration, superheroes and superstars.

As for myself, I’ll take the bland and banal every time. Give me small and inconsequential rather than grand and meaningful. Give me repetition and routine rather than fireworks and fun. It’s the poetry of normal.

Last week I gave a little money to a woman outside Waitrose. With her cropped hair and harem pants, she seemed earnest and a little concerned. ‘Would you like a book about the structure of the universe?’ she asked. ‘No, thank you. I need a new packet of Tuc biscuits.’

No. 100

Going to Bed with Gilda: The Corrosive Effect of Artifice in Professional Relationships

‘You’re out of practice, aren’t you? Dancing, I mean. I can help you get in practice again, Johnny. Dancing, I mean.’
Rita Hayworth as Gilda, talking to her former lover, Johnny

Poor Rita Hayworth. World famous film star and the GIs’ favourite pin-up in the ‘40s, she struggled throughout her life to be understood as the person she really was.

Born Margarita Cansino, Columbia Studios determined to suppress her Spanish heritage. They dyed her hair red, raised her hairline by electrolysis, changed her name, overdubbed her singing voice and locked her into a restrictive contract.

As Rita Hayworth she made some truly marvellous movies. Only Angels Have Wings, The Strawberry Blonde and The Lady from Shanghai are all certified classics. She is best remembered for her role as the eponymous femme fatale in Gilda.

Gilda, married to a casino owner in Buenos Aires, is endlessly sparring with her erstwhile partner, Johnny, who now works for her husband. They seem at the same time to love and loathe each other. Theirs is the very definition of an unhappy, dysfunctional relationship:

‘Hate is a very exciting emotion. Haven’t you noticed? Very exciting. I hate you too, Johnny. I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it.’
Rita Hayworth as Gilda

The defining moment in Gilda is Hayworth’s seductive performance of the song ‘Put the Blame on Mame.’ Swaggering across the stage in a tight silk dress, ruffling her long red locks, Gilda removes a black opera glove and all over the world jaws drop.

After Gilda, Hayworth was marketed as a sex symbol and dubbed the ‘Love Goddess.’  The problem was that in private Hayworth was quiet, introvert and shy. She resented the merchandising, the marketing, the falsehood. She resented having her image painted onto an atomic bomb. But it was too late. What’s more she was also unlucky in love. Married and divorced five times, she consistently attracted the wrong type of man.

‘Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.’

Poor Rita. From the mid ‘50s the studio turned to less troublesome stars, TV was in the ascendant and the parts gradually dried up. She struggled with alcohol and Alzheimer’s disease until her death in 1987, aged 68.

There’s a lesson to be learned from Rita Hayworth. Most businesses inevitably endeavor to mould people to their own purpose. Companies shape employees to fit established precedents, to fill certain roles. Welcome to the machine.

And when young hopefuls join a business, they want to fit in; they want to succeed. They are often happy to model themselves on pre-existing archetypes. They’re prepared to forego their true selves for success; to sacrifice means for ends. But however successful a personality change or character compromise in the short term, artifice never pays off in the long term. The price of pretence is sorrow.

Inevitably, there’s always been a good deal of contrivance and artifice around creative businesses. Affectation and the ersatz have walked hand-in-hand with salesmanship and persuasion. We’ve sold aspiration and dreams to our colleagues and clients, as well as to our consumers. But we should be mindful that artifice can corrode our relationships and undermine our company culture. Because living a lie is contagious.

‘And hearts that we broke long ago
Have long been breaking others.’
WH Auden, Song of the Master and Boatswain

Sadly over the course of my career I observed our industry turn some good people bad, some nice people nasty. Weaker personalities seemed particularly susceptible. And there were a good number of clients who, having been seduced by a pitch process to ‘go to bed with Gilda,’ weren’t too happy with the partner they woke up with in the morning.

Of course, authenticity has become an imperative for modern brands. Consumers are looking for transparency, unfiltered truth, the real deal. Similarly authenticity should characterize our relationships with colleagues and clients; it should be a defining trait of our leaders. Progressive businesses must set aside the plastic smiles of yesteryear; the wooden handshakes and steely looks that for so long dominated our offices and conference rooms.

This is particularly necessary in creative commerce, where difference is the chief justification of premium; where competitive advantage is primarily determined by human capital; where diversity of output can only be achieved by diversity of input. Because similarity begets similarity; difference begets difference.

At the very end of Gilda, after no end of drama, the warring couple is reunited. They determine to set aside the bickering and role-playing, the artifice and self-destruction. Gilda looks mournfully towards her partner and says: ‘Johnny, let’s go. Let’s go home.’

This piece first appeared in Campaign on 2 September 2016

No. 99

Deferred Dreams: Don't Let Youthful Aspirations Become Middle-Aged Regrets

‘People spend their whole lives building castles in the air, but then nothing ever comes of it. I wonder why that is… It takes courage. You know, everybody’s afraid to live.’

Tony, You Can’t Take It With You

You Can’t Take It With You is in many ways a typical Frank Capra movie. It combines social satire with madcap comedy. It’s charming, silly, sentimental and thought provoking. A young Jimmy Stewart plays Tony who works as a Vice President at his father’s bank. Tony falls in love with his stenographer, Alice (played by Jean Arthur), and, in a touching scene on a park bench, Tony recalls for Alice the dreams of his youth.

‘I remember in college another guy and I had an idea – we wanted to find out what made the grass grow green... Because there’s a tiny little engine in the green of the grass and on the green of the trees that has the mysterious gift of being able to take energy from the rays of the sun and store it up... Well, we thought if we could find the secret of all those millions of little engines in this green stuff, we could make big ones and then we could take all the power we could ever need right from the sun’s rays, you see?...We worked on it, worked on it day and night. We got so excited we forgot to sleep.’

I was quite taken aback to hear a character in a popular black and white comedy from 1938 speculate on the possibilities for solar power. But also saddened. Because the scene succinctly captures the melancholy of missed opportunity and wasted talent; the haunting reproach of deferred dreams. Tony explains to Alice what happened to their plans to develop a technique for producing renewable energy.

‘We left school. Now he’s selling automobiles and I’m in some strange thing called banking… He’s married, his wife just had a baby. Didn’t think it was fair to gamble with the future.’

I’m sure we all recognise Tony’s meditation on paradise postponed. Sometimes hopes, dreams and aspirations are interrupted by events. ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ But Alice goes further. She cites her grandfather’s theory that most of us live in a state of timidity.

‘He says most people nowadays are run by fear: fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money and they’re scared to spend it.’

I suspect fear does set a limit on our aspirations. Fear and responsibility. Most of us are paranoid about how we’re perceived, why we’re not doing better, what we could stand to lose.

I once chatted to a London cabbie about his exposure to violence out on the streets late at night. He said the most dangerous people were the ones who had nothing to lose.  I’m sure he was right. But people with nothing to lose don’t just represent danger. Their lack of fear and responsibility, their willingness to take risks, also equip them for opportunity.

Of course, this takes us back to young people. They generally have less to lose and more to gain; they have more years ahead of them than behind them; they have more invested in the future than the past. They are less afraid.

I wonder do we, in business and society, make sufficient use of youthful optimism, open mindedness and imagination? Could we do more to record the ideas that have not quite found their time; to rescue the concepts that are not properly thought through; to realise the schemes that are not fully funded? Could we set our young people the toughest tasks, not as training exercises, but as a means of opening up new hopes and horizons? Should our think tanks and innovation centres be staffed disproportionately by youth, in order to be proper laboratories of the future? If we fail to realise this potential, are we not gambling with all our tomorrows?

This is not to say that every youthful speculation is useful. I can’t claim to have spent my adolescence meditating on something as significant as solar energy. My entrepreneurial schemes were a little more modest. I had an idea for a restaurant that faithfully recreated on land the aeroplane dining experience. (Meal on a tray, back of seat movies, a kip after dinner…) I had a plan for a brand that was entirely focused on ‘sleep, the final frontier.’ (‘Everything you need for a good night’s sleep from A to ZZZZ.’) I had a book idea that combined Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness with Wittgenstein’s writing style. I had a concept for edible combs…

I guess that, whatever the worth of our ideas, we would all do well to ensure youthful dreams don’t become middle-aged regrets. Unfulfilled, unachieved, unrealised. Because in one respect dreams are just like material assets: you can’t take them with you.

‘I’m dreaming dreams,
I’m scheming schemes
I’m building castles high.
They’re born anew,
Their days are few,
Just like a sweet butterfly.

I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding.
I’ve looked everywhere.
I’m forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air.’

‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’,
John Kellette/Jaan Kenbrovin

Today is the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer

Today is the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer


No. 98

Fresh Pants Every Day: The Galvanising Power of Positive Thinking

There used to be a small extension to a building society opposite Harold Wood Station. It was not perhaps a Stirling Prize winner, but it was the source of some pride for me, as I had a hand in creating it.

One summer when I was 19 I worked as a labourer. I learned how to dig holes, mix concrete, lean on a shovel and make tea. I learned that I wouldn’t survive on site if I came into work with The Guardian under my arm. And I learned a little about organizational culture.

We labourers sat on the lowest rung of a sophisticated hierarchical ladder. We looked up to the brickies, plasterers and plumbers; and in particular to the site aristocrats, the sparks. Everyone was aware of his position in the social order and everyone looked down on us.

And then there was the Management. We didn’t really know who they were or what they did; and they in turn didn’t endeavor to explain what we were doing, or to inspire us with wise words or visionary speeches. But every week or so, when we’d dug a significant trench or laid a bit of concrete (‘a nice drop of stuff’), a chap with a navy sports jacket and loosely knotted tie turned up. He didn’t say too much, just poked around with a stick, had a scratch and eventually said everything was fine to proceed. The blokes on site called him ‘The Man from Delmonte.’

You’d think that sitting at the bottom of a hierarchical organization with a distant management and a very limited understanding of our collective purpose, would lead to a disenchanted workforce. Far from it. We were happy in our work. We took pride in a hole well dug, a concrete well mixed, a job well done. And collectively we were boundlessly positive.

This was in no small part down to Mont, the chief labourer. Mont was tall and tan and young and muscly. He had Herculean strength and adamantine resolve. He spoke with a bright smile on his face and a rustic Essex burr that you’ll rarely hear today. One lunchtime, as we sat in our wooden hut, sipping sweet tea from tin mugs and eating Sunblest sandwiches from concrete-encrusted hands, he proudly revealed to me his secret: 'Do you know, Jim, there’s one thing I insist on in life. I wear fresh pants every day.’ 

You see, Mont was an eternal optimist. He had a phenomenal ability to put away yesterday’s troubles and to live life in the present. And his enthusiasm was infectious. Despite the medieval hierarchy, the lack of communication and vision, ours was a happy site, a functioning unit. It was a lesson I took with me into my advertising career.

The galvanizing force in any team, the animating energy, is enthusiasm; irresistible, intoxicating, inspiring enthusiasm. You can’t discover answers unless you’re eager to ask questions; you can’t create difference if you’re satisfied with the same; and you can’t anticipate the future unless you’re looking up towards the horizon. In my time at BBH we subscribed to the view that positive people have bigger, better ideas. I’m sure that’s true.

 It strikes me that one of the defining characteristics of our industry, alongside creativity, is enthusiasm. And it’s an increasingly precious commodity in a world beset by Brexit blues, abiding austerity, global terror and environmental decay. Perhaps we should make more of it.

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. In my experience Agencies are actually both fuelled by confidence and oiled by fear.  Every business needs a little paranoia to inoculate it against complacency. Every business needs a few people that are angry, awkward and discontent. But no business can sustain too many of them. And it’s a critical role of leadership to manage that mix.

Sadly I’m not sure if my Harold Wood construction is still a building society today. It’s probably a coffee shop or bookies, blow dry or nail bar, Pound Shop or Pound Land. But maybe I’m getting a little cynical. I need to put on some fresh pants.

This piece first appeared in Campaign on 17 August 2016.

No. 97

Punk Entrepreneurism: ‘Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself.’

It’s October 1977. Some young punks are being interviewed about the closure of the Electric Circus nightclub in Manchester. We see a gaggle of teenagers wearing cheap plastic sunglasses and safety pins in their ears; girls with thick black eyeliner; one lad with a bike chain round his neck. They explain their commitment to the cause:

‘I wanted to do something for me. Look at me now. I’m nothing.’
‘That’s what punk is.’

That was indeed the essence of punk. It was a short-lived musical movement that punctured the pomposity at the heart of the ‘70s British rock scene. It demolished the distance between performers and their audience. It gave music back to ordinary young people. Punk was speed, anger and urgency. It was Joe Strummer’s revolutionary zeal, Siouxsie’s swagger and John Lydon’s sneer. It was New Rose, Germfree Adolescent, Alternative Ulster. It was ‘a voice crying in the wilderness.’

I was only 12 when punk arrived, unannounced and unkempt, and shocked Britain out of its concrete slumber. And within a few short years ‘the filth and the fury’ was gone. But the movement cast a long shadow over British youth culture. It re-set the clock, and 1976 became a kind of Year Zero after which everything would be different.

I recently attended a small exhibition at the British Library celebrating forty years since the birth of punk in Britain. (Some have observed that you can’t get anything less punk than an exhibition at the British Library, but it was interesting nonetheless. It runs until 2 October.) The exhibition begins by highlighting the intellectual roots of the movement. Punk emerged from a rich brew of rebellious street fashion, avant-garde American rock and art school anarchism. A modish punk t-shirt of the time quoted a French Situationist slogan:

‘Be reasonable, demand the impossible.’

But punk also had its own more populist libertarian spirit. Punk musicians taught themselves to play, wrote their own songs, performed on their own terms; they worked with independent record companies, producers and managers, designed their own artwork. Punk is often represented as an entirely destructive force, but it was also constructive, empowering and enabling.  It was about doing it yourself; doing it for yourself.

I was thrilled to find at the exhibition an original copy of a call-to-arms that appeared in a small London fanzine, Sideburns, in 1977. Over the years I’d seen many reproductions of this graphic, but had not come across an original.

‘This is a chord (A). This is another (E). This is a third (G). Now form a band.’

I remember at the time thinking what an exciting exhortation this was. Hitherto we’d imagined rock’n’roll as an arcane pursuit for the gifted elite; for those with a head start and a healthy bank balance. Music was an industry, rock was a career, an album was a concept. But punk reduced pop to its fundamentals, demystified it and encouraged everyone to have a go.

From Sideburns, January 1977

There was some debate at the time as to whether punk’s spirit of self-sufficiency and enterprise was in some respects Thatcherite. But this rebellious libertarian instinct was part of a long tradition amongst the oppressed and the disadvantaged, the bored and the unfulfilled.  In 1969 James Brown sang:

‘I don’t want nobody
To give me nothing.
Open up the door,
I’ll get it myself.’

Of course in business we may recognise this as the entrepreneurial urge: the instinct to cast off corporate shackles and company conventions; to break off, break out and break away; to make one’s own mark on the world.  The entrepreneurial spirit is rare, bold and admirable. We should treasure, protect and encourage it.

Moreover, in the Age of Technology it seems more possible than ever to ‘open up the door and get it yourself.’ As the world becomes more connected, there are infinite opportunities for both fusion and fission; for corporate aggregation and, at the same time, independent disengagement. So there’s never been a better time to go your own way. Have code - will travel. It’s exhilarating. It's punk entrepreneurism.

I should say that, whilst I have always admired the entrepreneurial spirit in others, I’m not sure I ever had it myself. I didn’t call up my mates in the late ‘70s to start a band. And I didn’t email my colleagues in the late ‘90s to start an agency. I was a company guy, a ‘salaryman.’ And there’s no shame in that. Leaders need followers. Entrepreneurs need executors.

Perhaps, ultimately, that’s what punk taught us: everyone can, but not everyone does.

‘When you look in the mirror do you see yourself?
Do you see yourself
On the TV screen?
Do you see yourself
In the magazine?
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream?
Identity is the crisis.
Can’t you see?
Identity, Identity.’

X-Ray Spex- Identity

No. 96

‘The More One Talks, The Less the Words Mean’: Do We Need to Refresh Our Vocabulary?

Jean-Luc Godard

‘All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.’

Jean-Luc Godard (also attributed to DW Griffith)

Jean-Luc Godard was a cinematic revolutionary. A leading figure of the French Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, his films were fast-paced and cool-headed, semi-scripted and free-flowing. He shot in natural light, with hand-held cameras and no makeup. He mixed high and low culture, dramatic and documentary forms.

‘A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.’

Godard sought to redefine film structure and style. He ignored the ‘fourth wall’ and his characters made asides to the camera. He was completely comfortable with discontinuity and digression.

For Godard necessity was the mother of invention: his famous ‘jump cut’ technique was initially developed to speed the action along; he used a wheelchair for tracking shots because he couldn’t afford a dolly; and he sometimes employed inexperienced actors because he liked their awkward charm.

However, despite the apparent looseness of Godard’s style, he always had a plan:

‘There is no point in having sharp images when you have fuzzy ideas.’

Throughout his movies Godard repeatedly returned to the theme of miscommunication. In his breakthrough film, A Bout de Souffle, Michel, a small time gangster played by an always smoking Jean-Paul Belmondo, sums up a flawed relationship thus:

‘When we talked, I talked about me and you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.’

Similarly in Pierrot le Fou the ill-starred lovers consider whether they are really suited to each other:

Ferdinand: ‘Why do you look so sad?’
Marianne: ‘Because you talk to me in words and I look at you with feelings.’

In Godard’s 1962 film, Vivre Sa Vie, the luminous Anna Karina plays Nana, a young woman struggling to survive alone in the big city. Nana initiates a conversation with a philosopher in a café.

‘Suddenly I don’t know what to say. It happens to me a lot. I think first about whether they’re the right words. But when the moment comes to speak, I can’t say it. Why must one always talk? I think one should often just keep quiet, live in silence. The more one talks, the less the words mean.’

I’m sure we can all, on occasion, sympathise with this sentiment: that we cannot properly express how we feel; that people talk too much; that words have lost their meaning.

Yet we may also find ourselves agreeing with the philosopher’s reply:

‘An instant of thought can only be grasped through words. We must think, and for thought we need words. One cannot distinguish the thought from the words that express it.’

This exchange seems to me relevant to the world of marketing and communications. On the one hand, words are critical to our shared understanding of brands. We need to define, articulate and communicate what our brands believe and stand for. But, on the other hand, our industry language seems to be mired in the clichéd and commonplace, in banality and buzzphrases.

Our platform is burning, our fruit is low hanging, our expectations are managed, our diligence is due. Our approach is customer-centric, our strategy is synergistic, our brand is iconic, our tone is authentic. Our essence is passion, our benefit is ease, our mission is freedom, our purpose is to make a difference. Let’s seize the day.

Language should liberate us, but so often it constrains us.

 ‘A few minutes of silence can last a long time…a whole eternity.’

Franz, Bande a Part

When I played Scrabble as I child I rather liked the idea that you could miss a go and change all your letters. It seemed to suggest that we can always make a fresh start in life, if we are prepared, briefly, to step outside the rat race. I wonder, should some of our brands miss a go and change all their words?

It would be easy to imagine that Jean-Luc Godard’s films are pretentious and worthy. But actually they are thought provoking, life enhancing. As much as they engage in philosophy and morality, they are also joyous, cool and funny. And Godard’s characters are not afraid to dance.

Towards the end of Pierrot Le Fou, Ferdinand, a fugitive from bourgeois society, sums it all up rather nicely:

‘Ten minutes ago I saw death everywhere. Now it’s just the opposite. Look at the sea, the waves, the sky. Life may be sad, but it’s always beautiful!’

No. 95

Circus Maximus: Learning the Lessons of the Greatest Show on Earth

I recently watched an excellent documentary exploring the golden age of circus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (The Golden Age of Circus, BBC4). Set to the music of Sigur Ros, the flickering vintage film was wistful, haunting, melancholy. Here we could consider what passed for popular entertainment before the transistor and the cathode ray tube, before broadcast and broadband.

An escapologist is masked, bound and buried; another is hung by his teeth from a chain. The daredevil leaps through fire, swallows swords. The human canon ball squeezes himself down the barrel of a gun.

The audience is agog, aghast, amused, amazed.

Bring on the jugglers, tumblers, hoofers. Let’s see exotic dancers shimmy, do the hula hula. On the high wire the acrobats balance precariously, spin gyroscopically. The knife thrower takes aim.

There’s a darkness on the edge of town, an ancient cruelty not far from the surface. Fear and laughter seem so adjacent.

Here are elephants bathing, walking in circles, rolling logs lugubriously. Here are polar bears sliding, kangaroos boxing, broncos bucking. Assorted animals wear clothes, walk on hind legs, jump through hoops. Then monkeys on horseback, bears on bikes, pandas at a tea party, chimps in a jazz band. Tigers are caged, lions are tamed, snakes are charmed. Attendants goad and taunt with whips and chairs.

The crowd looks on, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

And now the saddest sight of all: when they send in the clowns. Big feet, big smiles, big pants. They hit, holler, twist and tumble. They crash cars, squirt water, lob bags of soot and flour. Don’t look now. There’s an egg on that seat…

And the off-duty clown takes a swig of his beer, looks through us and walks off, alone.

An air of tragedy hangs over the Big Top. But in circuses we also see some of the timeless themes of entertainment: we want to be amazed, amused, afraid; we want to observe seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things; we want to watch animals doing human things; we want to witness heroes cheating death; to see failures fail.

In his excellent book, The Anatomy of Humbug, Paul Feldwick reviews the numerous theories of how advertising works. He reminds us of the primal power of showmanship and, in this context, quotes the great impresario PT Barnum:

‘First attract the public by din and tinsel, by brilliant sky-rockets and Bengola lights, then give them as much as possible for their money.’

It’s a lesson not lost on advertisers. Consider PG Tips Chimps, Cadbury’s Gorilla, Honda Cog, Volvo Trucks, Red Bull Space Jump…

But so much modern commercial communication is, by contrast, subtle, nuanced, oblique. We sometimes forget the impact of entertainment in its raw form; we forget the thrill of spectacle and show, pageant and performance. The public loves breathtaking feats, spine tingling stunts, jaw-dropping acts of derring-do. It loves anthropomorphism.

Audio Only

So roll up, roll up for all the fun of the fair. What magic can we conjure in this brief precious moment together? What spell can we weave for you, right here, right now? Because as Tavares memorably observed:

‘It only takes a minute to fall in love.’ 


No. 94

Brian Friel, the Creative Fool and the Poetry of Place Names

‘And even though they told themselves they were here because of the remote possibility of a cure, they knew in their hearts they had come not to be cured but for confirmation that they were incurable; not in hope but for the elimination of hope; for the removal of that final impossible chance – that’s why they came - to seal their anguish, for the content of a finality.’

Frank, Faith Healer (by Brian Friel)

Brian Friel, the dramatist and short story writer who died last year, was often called ‘the Irish Chekhov.’ In magnificent works like Translations, Aristocrats and Dancing at Lughnasa he wrote of rural communities haunted by history and the scars of colonisation, by lost language and abandoned hope. His plays are nostalgic, funny, humane and intelligent.

I recently saw an excellent production of Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse (running until 20 August). The play considers issues of truth and memory through what was at the time an innovative monologue structure where three characters give three very different accounts of the same events. Faith Healer prompted a number of thoughts about the craft of creativity.


The Creative Fool?

‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition.’
Brian Friel

In Part 3 of Faith Healer, Teddy, the Cockney talent manager takes to the stage. He is a showman and raconteur, perky and perceptive. Having had years of working with creative performers, he offers his own thoughts on the keys to success.

‘Did you ever look back at all the great artists – Old Freddy [Astaire] here, Lillie Langtry, Sir Laurence Olivier, Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields – and did you ever ask yourself what makes them all top-liners, what have they all got in common? Okay, I’ll tell you. Three things. Number one: they’ve got ambition this size. Okay? Number two they’ve got a talent that is sensational and unique – there’s only one Sir Laurence – right? Number three: not one of them has two brains to rub together.’

Teddy’s judgement is of course harsh and flawed. The great creative talents I have worked with were far from stupid. However, I think there may be something in what he’s saying. Often creative people are more emotionally intelligent than conventionally academic. Orthodox brains deal in history, hard facts and hard data; they like science and certainty. Creative minds on the other hand are more intuitive, instinctive, inquisitive. They are comfortable in uncharted territory, at ease with the unexplained and unresolved.

As the musician Nick Cave said in the excellent 2014 documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth:
‘I’m not interested in that which I fully understand.’

Sometimes I suspect we have a systemic, societal problem on our hands. Institutional and corporate cultures have a way of marginalising open and inquiring minds. They prefer obedience to rebellion, discipline to dreaming. They often denounce the creative spirit as vague, fanciful and naïve. ( It's a theme Sir Ken pursues with great eloquence. ) In another of Friel’s plays, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, he suggests that our schools iron out our emotional selves.

‘They were good times…before we were educated out of our emotions.’

Nonetheless, we should reassure ourselves that emotional intelligence is at least better understood by the general public. Time Out recently reported a remark overheard on the Tube:

‘I’m not stupid. I’m dumb. It’s different.’

The Poetry of Place Names

‘Aberarder, Aberayron,
Llangranog, Llangurig,
Abergorlech, Abergynolwyn,
Llandefeilog, Llanerchymedd,
Aberhosan, Aberporth…’

At the beginning of Faith Healer, Frank, the itinerant faith healer of the title seems to be speaking a foreign language. Is it Gaelic? Is it a mystical chant relating to his profession? We then realise he is incanting a list of Welsh villages that he has visited over the course of his career.

There’s a rhythm and poetry in place names, a romance and resonance about them. Each town name suggests its own unique history and community, myths and untold stories. Places we’ll never visit or never know; lives we’ll never learn about or understand.

Consider how the potency of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is enhanced by his repeated reference to particular locations from across the United States, each with its own imagined associations.

‘Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.’

The world of popular song has also long been familiar with the poetry of place names. Early in his career as a songwriter, Jimmy Webb penned a huge hit for Glen Campbell.  ‘By the Time I Get To Phoenix’ tugged at the heartstrings as it related the thoughts of a disappointed lover driving through Phoenix, Arizona, across New Mexico to Albuquerque and then onto Oklahoma. It's a song that paints pictures as it progresses.

Campbell seemed alert to the fact that in part the lyric’s resonance derived from its locations. He called Webb to ask for more of the same.

‘Can you write me a song about a town?’ 

When the songwriter hesitated, Campbell pressed him.

Well. Just something geographical.’

Webb went on to write the glorious Wichita Lineman.

Inevitably one has to ask whether we in the world of marketing and communications properly capitalise on this theme. Actually, I think over the years a good deal of compelling creative work has demonstrated the poetry of place names.

In my youth kids were told that if they didn’t drink milk, they’d only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley. Many will recall how the snack brand Phileas Fogg made light of its prosaic origins in Medomsley Road, Consett. More recently our food, supermarket and restaurant brands have suggested that specificity of origin justifies premium.

And then, of course, there’s my favourite: the ‘70s ad for Campari, featuring the proudly proletarian Lorraine Chase.

‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’
‘Nah, Luton Airport.’


Finding the Universal in the Particular

‘In the particular is contained the universal.’
James Joyce

Perhaps there is a broader lesson we should learn here. James Joyce said that he wrote about Dublin because it was the world he knew best and because he believed that universal truths were revealed in the particular. 

Given that in marketing we seek to express unifying truths, do we subscribe to Joyce’s wisdom?

I’m inclined to say that nowadays we too often leap directly to the universal, skipping the particular along the way. We are nervous of specificity, naturally inclined towards archetypes and stereotypes. We are predisposed to grand sweeping statements and generalisations. And this is especially the case with bigger brands, operating across wider geographies, with broader concepts.

Maybe we should just occasionally think small to act big. 



The Barber, The Bald Patch and the Crew Cut : The Outsiders Who Want to Belong

As a child I loved going to the barber’s.

Martin and I would stay over at Gran’s house on Northdown Road. In the morning she’d furnish us with a substantial cooked breakfast, laid out on a red gingham table cloth and washed down with sweet tea. Then she would send us on our way with a coin popped in our pockets and a sprinkle of holy water. We’d gallop down the road, all enthusiasm and expectation, to Leon’s, the small barber’s shop next to Hornchurch Bus Depot.

As we sat waiting in the queue, I soaked up the aroma of Brut, Old Spice and scented talc; the perky sound of Saturday morning Radio 1; the chat about politics, park football and factory life. Many of the clientele worked, as our grandfather had done, at the Ford plant in Dagenham. It was a robustly masculine environment and I felt a strong urge to belong.

Pete, the apprentice cutter, sported purple-tinted specs, generous flairs and a jaunty manner. Eventually he would reach for a wooden plank and place it across the arms of his barber’s chair. The plank served to raise youngsters to a manageable height and it was the signal that I was up next.

I was under strict instructions from Mum to request a crew cut. I’d been curling my hair and I was developing a bald patch. A severe cut would deprive my nervous hands of the material for play. And, to be fair, having observed the monkish tonsure of Michael McGinty, a fellow hair curler and pupil at Saint Mary’s, I was prepared to embrace the remedy. Martin didn’t share my weakness and he was allowed a ‘short-back-and–sides.’

Yet it was the early seventies, the era of Marc Bolan, glam rock and lustrous locks. And here was I ordering a crew cut. I was well aware that, with my shorn mane, I could kiss goodbye to classroom cool. I would be awkward and alone; outside and other.

Little did I know that my experience at the barber’s was equipping me for a career in commercial creativity. In creative businesses we need both the yearning to belong and the failure to do so. We need empathy and individuality in equal measure – empathy, to align our work with the true needs and tastes of our audiences; individuality, to catalyse invention and to set our ideas apart from our competitors.’

Finding a good balance between these two elusive qualities can prove taxing. Some strategists are perhaps too sensitive to the whims of consumers; some account managers listen too attentively to their clients; and some creatives are just too idiosyncratic. But therein lies the challenge. If you want to succeed in creative business, I’d suggest you need them both: empathy and individuality.

My mother’s ploy proved successful. Over a period of time my bald patch was re-thatched. Sadly, it was too late for me to join the in-crowd at Saint Mary’s. And I suspect I was scarred by the experience. In my adulthood, I have preferred hairdressers to barbers, and, whatever the fashion of the day, I have always let my hair grow long. 

No. 92

I Saw the Moon in the Morning: Beware the Effects of Institutional Ageing

Image courtesy:

Image courtesy:

‘The moon is up, and yet it is not night,
The sun as yet divides the day with her.’

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Once as a child I saw the moon in the morning. It was early. I was on my way to school and there in the silence and soft light, low above the suburban rooftops, hovered a beautiful full moon. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The mysterious sight troubled me all day and, when I returned home, I asked my mother about it. ‘Mum, how can the sun and moon be out at the same time?’ She put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. ’Jimmy, the world is full of wonderful things.’

When we’re young the world is indeed brimming with the strange and surprising, curious and confusing. When we’re young ‘firsts’ come at us apace: first step, first kiss, first job, first love. We are constantly challenged to rethink our understanding of the universe; to guess and hypothesize; envisage and imagine. This is possibly why many of us are most creative in our youth.

As the years pass, we learn and understand. Things make sense. The frequency of firsts dwindles to a trickle. With middle age we are reduced to surveying ludicrous bucket lists for new thrills. And we begin to experience ‘lasts’: my last night of sweaty clubbing; my last ponderous performance on the football pitch; my last egg-and-chips at the New Piccadilly Café; my last conversation with my mother. In mid-life we can lose our sense of wonder.

Inevitably organisations experience their own equivalent of this: Institutional Ageing. As businesses mature, they become more complex, sophisticated, sensible. They are more absorbed by process and management. They take on more support and technical staff. Their vision and values are anchored in a time that recedes into the distance. They become more engaged with titles and structure than teams and culture; more worried about relationships than ideas; more concerned with conserving what they have than gaining what they have not. They are more conservative.

Inevitably with time companies become corporate.

Yet creative businesses in particular must sustain an appetite for innovation and invention; an aptitude for possibility and opportunity. This is what our clients pay for. Creative businesses must retain their youthfulness.

I worked for the communications agency BBH for 24 years. When John Bartle, sage strategist and company founder, left the business in 1999, he encouraged us to ‘immature with age.’ But how do we do this?

In part it’s about employing and empowering young people; sustaining a flow of new perspectives and ideas into the heart of the corporate consciousness. However, there’s also a need to resist the gravitational pull of Institutional Ageing. Bartle warned that ‘the opposite of creativity is cynicism;’ that we must combat corrosive scepticism, caustic sarcasm. I’m sure he was right.

As I’ve grown older I’ve noticed an impulse to dismiss the new and original as familiar and derivative. With age and experience we are cursed with the memory of past disappointments, flawed precedents. We’ve seen it, done it, tried it before. We are denied the blind enthusiasms and full-blooded convictions of our adolescence.

But it must be possible to inoculate ourselves against this cynicism. Consider two creative professionals who retained their youthful spirit into old age: Diana Vreeland and Bill Cunningham.


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Diana Vreeland: The Dreamer

‘There’s only one good life and that’s the life that you know you want and you make it yourself.’

The excellent 2011 documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, recounts the life and work of the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.

Born in Belle Epoque Paris, coming of age in New York in the Roaring Twenties, Vreeland brought vision, imagination and invention to her magazines.

‘I believe in dreams. I think we only live through our dreams and our imagination. That’s the only reality we really ever know.’

Vreeland cherished bikinis and Lauren Bacall, dance and David Bailey, velvet mittens and Veruschka. She valued style over fashion, artifice over nature, fantasy over reality.

‘Red is the great clarifier – bright, cleansing, revealing. It makes all colors beautiful. I can’t imagine being bored with it.’

Reclining in her scarlet-decorated living room, her ‘garden in hell,’ cheeks brushed generously with rouge, Vreeland dispensed aphorisms with carefree abandon. (‘The best thing about London is Paris.’ ‘I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity.’) Fascinated by difference, she was always drawn to distinct human features and looks: Barbra Streisand’s extravagant nose, Penelope Tree’s angular cheekbones, Twiggy’s skinny body shape.

‘Make an asset of your faults. If you’re tall, be taller; wear high heel shoes. If you have a long nose, hold it up and make it your trademark.’

Throughout her life Vreeland was restless, demanding, intensely romantic. She was contradictory, infuriating, passionate. She stayed forever young.

‘I will die young. I may be 70 or 80 or 90, but I will be very young.’

Bill Cunningham: The Quest for Beauty

‘Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty is the most expensive.’

Bill Cunningham, the New York fashion and street photographer, also died young, at 87 in June of this year. Cunningham was wide-eyed and enthusiastic, humble and gentle. His very particular character is captured in the splendid documentary film Bill Cunningham New York (2011).

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Boston-born, Cunningham dropped out of Harvard and became a milliner. He subsequently took up street photography, gaining a role at the New York Times in 1978 after he took a rare shot of the reclusive Greta Garbo.

‘The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been and always will be.’

Kitted out in his royal blue Parisian street sweepers’ jacket, Cunningham cycled round Manhattan looking for looks. Always smiling, he charmed everyday people, fashionistas and socialites to perform for the camera. And yet he lived frugally and alone, in a small artist’s apartment in the Carnegie Hall building, surrounded by filing cabinets filled with his photographs. He valued his independence, declining gifts from Clients and never consuming the free food and drink at parties.

‘I’m really only doing this for myself. I’m stealing people’s shadows, so I don’t feel as guilty when I don’t sell them.’

Cunningham seemed an intensely private individual, happy to be engaged in the profession he loved, unencumbered by commitments, relationships or material assets. Working to the end of his long life, this was a free man with a simple passion for beauty.

‘He who seeks beauty will find it.’


Eternal Youth in Business

So what are we to conclude?

For me the secret of eternal youth for business cannot be mindless carousing in inappropriate party shirts; unseemly expeditions on Harley-Davidsons. It’s more than this. It’s retaining an open mind and an eager eye, despite the disappointments of the passing years and the wearying effects of experience. Individually and collectively, we must sustain our sense of wonder.

Just occasionally I still see the moon in the morning and I still marvel at it. Mum was right. ‘The world is full of wonderful things.’ As we grow older we just have to try harder to see them.

‘May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift.
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung.
May you stay forever young.’

Bob Dylan, Forever Young


A shorter version of this piece first appeared on Guardian Media and Tech Network on 5 July 2016

No. 91