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



Turn The Arc Lights On The Audience: A Modern Marketing Lesson from The Who

‘Music is not a prayer to god. It’s a prayer to the audience. It’s about you. It’s about you. I don’t write songs about me. I write songs about you. That’s why I’m successful.‘

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

Lambert and Stamp is a splendid documentary about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the managers of The Who that mentored the band from West London mods to global rock superstars.

The Who were a thrilling, combustible, mercurial stage act. They were cheeky, angry, dapper and aggressive. They were ‘meaty, beaty, big and bouncy.’ They were ‘maximum R&B.’ But, more than this, they were a band that gave expression to post-war British teenagers; to the disaffected working class; to stylish urban kids that wanted to get on. The Who spoke for their generation.

‘People try to put us d-down,
Just because we get around.

Things they do look awful c-c-cold.
I hope I die before I get old.
This is my generation,
This is my generation, baby.’

Pete Townshend/The Who, My Generation

In the documentary Chris Stamp relates how, during the band’s American tours, huge arc lights were stationed at the back of the stage. At the finale of each gig they would shine the arc lights’ powerful beams through the group so that the audience were illuminated. The crowd invariably stood up as one and became part of the experience.

This instinct to shine a light on the audience, on their tastes and style, their passions and pain, seems to have been right at the heart of The Who’s success.

Pete Townshend, The Who’s guitarist and lead songwriter, cuts a thoughtful and engaging presence in the film. He repeatedly returns to his conviction that The Who put their fans at the centre of their creative process.

‘Everyone thinks that it’s you that influenced [the audience], not the other way round… You become a mirror to the audience. [Lambert and Stamp] started to develop it as a way of harnessing the energy of the audience, which was to empower them; to make them realise how important they actually were.’

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp


I found Townshend’s argument compelling, not least because I come from a communication tradition that was uncomfortable with the thought of ‘holding a mirror up to consumers.’ We regarded our core task as persuasion and so we always put the brand and its point of view first. We sought to craft ‘emotional selling propositions’ that won consumers’ hearts, in the expectation that their minds (and wallets) would follow.

But Townshend argues that marketing should go further than this. As he succinctly puts it: ‘You don’t market to them; you market them.’

‘When you do marketing you’re always trying to find some way to get round the fact that the audience are a problem; the consumer is a problem. Well, the way that you stop the consumer being a problem is that you don’t give them what they want; you allow them to be. You affirm who they are. You don’t try to change them.’

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

I’m increasingly of the view that Townshend is right; that in the modern age of consumer empowerment, audiences don’t want to be targeted, tracked and interrupted; they want to be represented, supported and encouraged; they want their views articulated, their hopes expressed, their fears addressed. Audiences want advocacy, not advertising.

We should think of a brand as a community, a neighbourhood, a union; a collective that needs representation. A brand should be a club worth joining, a membership worth paying for.

Of course most marketers know that marketing is all about putting the consumer first. But whilst this is readily articulated, I’m not sure it is fully lived, certainly not in the way Townshend suggests.

We may understand our audiences, but do we truly empathise with them? Do we start every conversation with their tastes and preferences, hopes and aspirations? Do we really see our role as advocacy?

The evidence of rate fixing and rip-off pricing, dodgy diesels and data leaking, mis-selling and horsemeat suggests otherwise. If brands are to re-earn eroded trust they must fundamentally remodel their relationships with consumers: from marketing at them to marketing for them. In short, we need to turn the arc lights on the audience. Because this is a generation that won’t get fooled again.

 ‘I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday.
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again.’

Pete Townshend/The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again

No. 61

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 10

If Music Be the Food of Commerce…

Claire van Kampen’s magnificent play, Farinelli and the King, relates how, in the mid-eighteenth century, Philippe V of Spain hired the renowned castrato Farinelli to sing for him so as to sooth his frequent bouts of depression. The king and performer struck up a close relationship and the commission lasted until Philippe’s death almost ten years later.

Farinelli and the King is funny, sad and thought provoking all at the same time. It is graced by the peerless actor, Mark Rylance, and the celebrated counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. It runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until December 5.

As the play’s programme notes point out, ‘the therapeutic value of music has been recognised for centuries.’ Apollo was the Ancient Greek god of medicine as well as music. Music therapy was practised in Ancient Egyptian temples and Persian hospitals. Subsequently music treatments were adopted by medieval infirmaries and were used extensively in two World Wars. Today music therapy is a widely practised and respected medical science.

‘Music has been shown to significantly decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to improved mood and cognitive function. A study has also found that music can shift activity in the frontal lobe of the brain from the right to the left, a phenomenon associated with positive effect and mood.’
Dr Tim McInerny, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist, Bethlem Royal Hospital

For many of the same reasons that music has therapeutic effect, it also has commercial effect.

For most of the ‘90s I worked on the Levi’s advertising campaign and it created a compelling case for the commercial capacity of music: to engage audiences; to convey an emotional narrative; to create memorability and distinctiveness.

Of course, everyone nowadays claims to appreciate music’s persuasive power. But, I wonder, does everyone properly understand how to realise that power?

Some imagine that music selection is merely a matter of sourcing a cool, contemporary track. But young consumers don’t thank you for hijacking tunes they already love. In recent years some have followed John Lewis down the ‘modern acoustic version of familiar songs’ route. But, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.’ Some imagine there’s a spurious science to sourcing tracks. Some think it’s just about buying hits. Some will agree to music’s importance, but balk at its cost, thereby betraying their lack of faith. 

Fundamentally, I believe that music selection must be a creative decision, not a strategic one. It’s not about matching the music to the target audience; it’s about matching the music to the creative work: capturing the spirit and tone of the drama; allowing the narrative to unfold at the right pace and tempo; enabling consumers to feel the message, not just see it or hear it.

Music should amplify the communication, not stand in its way. If you get that right, then you’ll find an audience; and it will be an audience that is properly emotionally engaged.

‘Musick has charms to sooth a savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d
And, as with living souls, have been inform’d,
By magick numbers and persuasive sound.’

William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

Synthesized Success

Young songwriter Neil Sedaka was in a jam.

Though his mother hoped that he would become a classical pianist and he had a scholarship at the Juilliard, all he wanted was to write and perform pop songs. Sedaka had composed ‘Stupid Cupid’, which had been a hit for Connie Francis in 1958. That same year he’d signed to RCA Victor as a performer, and had a hit with ‘The Diary’, which sold 600,000 copies. But Sedaka’s two subsequent releases were failures and his record company was considering dropping him. He had one last chance.

‘Billboard had a page called Hits of the World. I bought the number one record in almost every country in the world and analysed it. I took the beat from this one; I took the drum from this one; I took the guitar licks from this one; I took the harmonic rhythm from this one. Like a designer would do.’
Neil Sedaka, King of Song/ BBC

The result was ‘Oh! Carol’, a melodic triumph of sweet-natured youthful yearning. It sold 3.5million copies.

‘Oh! Carol
I am but a fool
Darling, I love you
Though you treat me cruel.’

‘Oh! Carol’/Howard Greenfield & Neil Sedaka

Sedaka went on to secure huge pop hits in the ‘60s with the likes of ‘Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.’ And then he sustained the success in the ‘70s with the genius of ‘Solitaire’ and ‘Laughter in the Rain.’

Of course, we’re always seeking to be original. But sometimes commercial creativity requires us to be alert to the competitive context, to what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes, when we’re in a jam, we need to beg, borrow or steal.

Synthesizing one’s own success from the successes of others is a skill in its own right.

 

Creativity Can Even Survive Rate Card Pricing

On a recent visit to Chicago I encountered The Entombment by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri. Painted around 1656, it’s a sad, beautifully naturalistic depiction of death and despair.

The artist is more familiar to us as ‘Guercino’, or ‘The Squinter’, a nickname given to him because he was cross-eyed. Guercino kept relatively detailed account books and we know that The Entombment was his response to a commission that required ‘one full length, one bust length and three half figures.’

We can see that Guercino ably accommodated this rather prescriptive brief, whilst also delivering a very engaging image. This perhaps illustrates that creativity can survive even the crudest pricing policy.

No. 55

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 6

Rehearsing and Editing Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Like a Moth to a Flame

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

Janet Jackson/ That’s The Way Love Goes

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

And then there was Janet Jackson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 45

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 4

The Thrill of It All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chaka Khan Conundrum

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

Chaka Khan/ ’I’m Every Woman’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

When the Sum of the Parts is Greater than the Whole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 43

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 2

Thinking Inside the Box

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

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

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

What can we in the creative professions learn from Cornell?

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Dickinson/ It Might Be Lonelier
 

Carving, Not Casting; Making Not Managing

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

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

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

Wasted Talent

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

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

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

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

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

Advice to My 17 Year Old Self

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

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