Love and Ambition: You Can Only Excel at Work If You Love What You Do

I recently watched a couple of excellent documentaries about two troubled musical geniuses, Janis Joplin and Michael Jackson. Focusing less on the demons that haunted these artists in their personal lives, the films shed light on the character traits that drove them to achieve so much creatively.

I was struck by the fact that both Joplin and Jackson were decidedly ambitious, but that for them ambition was not about material or reputational success; it was about love.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

Janis Lyn Joplin, born in 1943, grew up in a conservative household in Port Arthur, Texas. From the start she was independent minded and rebellious. At an early age she fell in love with the rich blues sound of the likes of Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton. It was a love that sustained her through a tough time at school, where she was bullied for her liberal views, her unconventional looks and her refusal to conform to notions of Southern femininity. Often such lonely souls find solace at college. But at the University of Texas Joplin was similarly an outsider. A fraternity house voted her ‘the ugliest man on campus.’ It’s a wretched, heart-rending moment in the film.

‘And each time I tell myself that I think I’ve had enough.
But I’m gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.
I want you to come on, come on, come on, come on and take it.
Take it!
Take another little piece of my heart now, baby.’

Big Brother and the Holding Company, Piece of My Heart (Bert Berns/ Jerry Ragovoy)


Joplin escaped to the burgeoning hippy scene of San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury. There, for the first time, she felt accepted and at home, and she found the confidence and kindred spirits to perform the music she cared for. She had a raw, powerful blues voice that was at once uninhibited and vulnerable.

Sadly the psychedelic community that saved Joplin, also encouraged the addictions that killed her. In 1970, aged just 27, she died of a heroin overdose. She left behind essential recordings like ‘Cry Baby’, ‘Ball ‘n’ Chain’, 'Little Girl Blue' and ‘Piece of My Heart’; timeless anthems to struggle and pride, devotion and loss.

‘I know you’re unhappy. Baby, I know just how you feel.’

 Janis Joplin, Little Girl Blue (Richard Rodgers/ Lorenz Hart)

Janis Joplin was certainly rebellious and uncompromising. But in her letters home she revealed a thoughtful, tender side to her personality.

‘I’ve been looking round and I’ve noticed something. After you’ve reached a certain level of talent, and quite a few have that talent, the deciding factor is ambition, or, as I see it, how much you really need, need to be loved and need to be proud of yourself. And I guess that’s what ambition is. It’s not all a depraved quest for position or money. Maybe it’s for love.’

Janis Joplin, in a letter to her mother, Janis: Little Girl Blue

Joplin’s insight poses questions for everyone working in the field of commercial creativity. How many of us are driven to perform by the desire for status or material success? How many can genuinely claim to do it for love? And can that love sustain us through the hard times and human frailties that life and career have in store for us?

Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

Michael Jackson in In New York City in 1977 Tom Keller - Getty Images

Michael Jackson in In New York City in 1977 Tom Keller - Getty Images

I grew up in Essex, the home of the British soul boy. We sported floppy wedge haircuts, white socks and cut down loafers; we wore pastel shaded shirts and sleeveless sweaters. We loved to dance. For us Michael Jackson wasn’t about ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ and the ‘King of Pop’. He wasn’t about ‘Dirty Diana’ or ‘Earth Song’. This crossover music was anathema to us.

No. Michael Jackson was the child genius at the heart of the Jackson 5, the exuberant force of nature who belted out ‘ABC’, ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘The Love You Save’; he was the adolescent yearning of ‘Ben’; the dance floor dynamism of The Jacksons and ‘Blame It on the Boogie’. He was the irrepressible insistence of ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’; the sublime sophistication of ‘Rock With You’. Above all, in 1979 he was the author of ‘Off the Wall’, the definitive document of aspiration and optimism, hedonism and longing; of what it was to be young.

Spike Lee’s excellent documentary, ‘Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall’, puts the focus back on the best parts of Jackson’s life; on the soul genius, the dance divinity; on Jackson before the Fall.

In the documentary we see a letter Jackson wrote when he was twenty, setting out his ambition to put his past triumphs behind him and to write a new chapter in entertainment history.

‘MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang ‘ABC,’ ‘I Want You Back.’ I should be a new incredible actor, singer, dancer, that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a master. I will be better than every great actor roped in one. I must have the most incredible training system. To dig and dig and dig until I find. I will study and look back at the whole world of entertainment and perfect it. Take it steps further from where the greatest left off.’

Michael Jackson, 16 November 1979

There are a number of compelling things about Jackson’s ambition. Firstly, one is struck by its breadth: his aspiration is unconstrained by traditional career categories. Also he believes he can only progress if he frees himself from his own past successes. Ambition must look forward, not back. And yet, at the same time, he commits to being a diligent student of the past successes of others. ‘We often invent the future with fragments from the past.’ (Erwin Panofsky)

We are drawn to the conclusions that Janis Joplin herself made: that creative success is founded on talent, hard work and ambition; and that ultimately you have to love what you do.

Verdine White, the bassist in the phenomenal Earth, Wind and Fire, sums up Jackson’s success thus:

‘You got to put the work in, man. You got to put the time in. And really, man, it’s love that you’re putting in. You know, because people that do this kind of thing, man, we love what we do.’

Verdine White, Earth, Wind and Fire

Love and Ambition at Work

I suppose this all leaves us asking questions about our own ambition.

Do we have the determination to put the hours in? Is our ambition constrained by conventional job definitions and expectations? Do we have the vision and appetite to put our previous successes behind us? Do we at the same time have the dedication to study the successes of others, the history of our craft?

And on a fundamental level, do we love what we do?

I find I personally have a mixed response to these questions. I certainly put the hours in. But I suspect that sometimes I was too nostalgic about past victories; too fond of rose tinted recollection. Yes, I wanted to know more about my craft. But then the pressures of the immediate often prompted me to set aside that key text; to save it for a day that never came.

Did I love my job? Well certainly not all of it. But most of it, yes. I loved learning the art of persuasion and the idiosyncrasies of popular culture; the discipline of distillation and the freedom of the lateral leap; I loved the theatre, the thrill of the chase; tackling the commercial conundrum and being part of a diverse company culture; I loved the optimism of my younger colleagues and the scepticism of my elders. I guess I may not always have loved work, but I did love the work.

And perhaps this is the most important lesson. It would be hard to expect anyone to love everything about their job. So we must find the aspects of work that we do genuinely love and focus our energies on these.

The conclusion is perhaps inevitable. We can only excel at work if we love what we do. And the easiest way to love what we do is to do what we love.

‘So tonight gotta leave that nine-to-five upon the shelf,
And just enjoy yourself.
C’mon and groove, and let the madness in the music get to you.
Life ain’t so bad at all,
If you live it off the wall.’

Michael Jackson, Off the Wall (Rod Temperton)

No. 83

Democratising Glamour: Is Marketing Due a Return to Aspiration?


Last Sunday I attended a gig by the luminous ‘80s pop band, ABC. They performed their essential 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, in its entirety. Martin Fry’s literate pop skipped effortlessly along to chopped guitar patterns, sensuous saxophone and opulent orchestration. Bliss.

For my generation The Lexicon of Love was a defining work. We would play it end-to-end at college parties. We danced dramatically to its pop-soul rhythms, playfully enacting the lovelorn lyrics. We shot ‘poison arrows’ across crowded rooms; we aimed ‘looks of love’ at imagined sweethearts; we remonstrated with each other that ‘tears are not enough.’

‘Well I hope and I pray that maybe someday
You’ll walk in the room with my heart.
Add and subtract, but as a matter of fact,
Now that you’re gone, I still want you back.’

 Martin Fry/ABC, All of My Heart

Punk had taught us to be angry – at society, at convention, at our diminished opportunities. Post Punk had taught us to think – beyond the confines of our education and the narrow horizons of our modest suburban lives.

The Lexicon of Love taught us to dream.

It suggested that somewhere, behind a red velvet curtain, there was a world of style, intrigue and romance just waiting for us. It was a glamorous dreamland of gold lame jackets, of loss and loneliness; of meaningful glances and withering bons mots; of unconfessed and unrequited love. It was film noir re-imagined in a Technicolor age. And all available for the price of a Long Island Iced Tea.

There’s a tendency to dismiss the aspiration of the ‘80s as somewhat shallow and materialist. But at the time this aspiration seemed incredibly democratic. We had grown up assuming that some things were only available to the gilded elite; that ours was a more modest lot - of sausage rolls and Sandwich Spread on the sofa; of straight-glassed light & lager down The Drill; of chart-topping disco at the Ilford Palais. But ABC suggested that a heady, intoxicating glamour was immediately accessible to us if we had the youth, wit and imagination to conjure it up.

We trooped down to Sweet Charity and invested in second hand silk ties and ‘50s suits with a shimmering sheen. We cultivated Country Born quiffs, sturdy brogues and moody expressions. We covered our bedroom walls in Cartier-Bresson.

‘The sweetest melody
Is an unheard refrain.
So lower your sights
But raise your aim,
Raise your aim.’

Martin Fry/ABC, Poison Arrow

In the marketing world of the late ‘80s we talked a lot about ‘aspiration’. There were aspirational lifestyles, aspirational experiences and aspirational adverts. We imagined that, with a nod and a glance, certain brands could convey access, acceptance and allure.

It all seems faintly absurd now. And, of course, the genre of aspirational advertising fell victim to over-promise and under-delivery. It drowned in an excess of lip-gloss, Elnett, high heels and shoulder pads; too much black and chrome; too many moody businessmen peering through blinds and striding purposefully around industrial apartments.

Nonetheless, I would suggest there was something worthwhile in all this. For all its faults, ‘80s advertising was seeking to democratise glamour; to bring hitherto exclusive worlds within reach of ordinary people; to make the aspirational accessible and affordable.

I like brands with a democratic purpose. I like it when Ikea talks of ‘democratizing design.’ I like Sam Walton's original intent to ‘give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.’ These are admirable ambitions.

Culture is dynamic. It’s on the move and people want to move with it. Surely one of the primary roles of brands is to introduce the many to the tastes of the few; to encourage social mobility. ‘Aspiration’ is not a dirty word.

‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

WB Yeats/ The Cloths of Heaven

Now, of course, we live in an age of authenticity, utility and transparency. But we should beware. If we strip away all the artifice and confection from brands, we'll also strip away the fantasy and romance. We’ll be left with the earnestly artisanal and the sincerely sensible. Someone you’d want to avoid at parties.

I notice that, since the last UK election, people have started talking seriously about aspiration again. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging. When everyone else is beating the drum for ‘keeping it real’, now may be the moment to revisit the dreamlike charms of glamour and escape.

Perhaps it’s time to dust off those spats and don that gold lame jacket. Because you wouldn’t want to be left with Martin in the land of regret and missed opportunity…

‘If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed,
And I got dancing lessons for the lips I should have kissed,
I’d be a millionaire, I’d be a Fred Astaire.’

Martin Fry/ABC, Valentine’s Day


Murder On The Dance Floor

                        Photograph: Manchester Mirror/mirrorpix

                        Photograph: Manchester Mirror/mirrorpix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why am I telling you this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published: Marketing 06/09/2013

No. 31

Swimming In The Shallow End

Portrait of an artist, by David Hockney

Portrait of an artist, by David Hockney

My father worked for a time at a gasket factory in Romford. One Christmas he presented me with a corporate diary he had been given by an industrial felt supplier. Inside they’d printed their slogan: ‘You need the felt. We felt the need.’ I loved that line. I thought it was so funny, clever and beautiful at the same time.

I was at school studying for my A Levels: Latin, Greek, Ancient History. It was a robustly academic diet. I found that, having immersed myself in Homer, Horace and Herodotus, I was increasingly distracted by Essex fashion and soul music, pub banter and puns. I was drawn to the facile, frivolous and foolish. I guess it was a kind of mental displacement.

In the early ’80s, pop was revered anew in the UK. In the wake of the ponderous rock and precocious punk of the ’70s, we embraced ABC, Haircut 100 and Dollar with gusto. We believed in the beauty of the three minute pop song: shiny lyrics, shallow sentiments, shimmering production. We believed that there was an integrity in pop that raised it above the pretentious posturing of the indie crowd; that there was a kind of perfection in its brevity and wit. We believed that love itself was fragile, funny and transient.

Around about that time I determined that I’d one day like to work in advertising.

‘And all my friends just might ask me.
They say,”Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love.”
I say,”Maybe. There must be a solution
To the one thing, the one thing, we can’t find”’

The Look of Love, ABC

In my 20s I noticed my social circle was narrowing and deepening. I was spending more and more time with a tight knit bunch of close friends. Although I greatly enjoyed their company, I became concerned that my conversation was increasingly predictable, that I was reinforcing my own prejudices and opinions. And so I set myself the task of developing a broad but shallow social set. I endeavoured to ensure that I saw a lot of friends infrequently. (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this particular game plan. It was frankly rather exhausting).

Nigel Bogle once complained that Planning had a nack of digging down to Australia to discover the meaning of a paper clip. In my brief, and I have to say less than successful, tenure as Head of Planning at BBH, I endeavoured to address this. I transposed my ‘broad and shallow’ strategy to Planning: I encouraged the department to experience more things less profoundly; to work on more projects less intensively. Broad and Shallow Planning was to be my legacy to the strategic community. Strangely it was never widely adopted…

I guess I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the elevated status we afford brands nowadays. We talk of trust and love and ideals. Loyalty, passion, faith. Visions, missions, purposes. It sometimes strikes me as faintly bombastic. Brands as Wagnerian heroes. The Emerson, Lake and Palmers of consumption. The high concept action movies of marketing. Roll the credits. Lighters in the air. Cue the helicopters. Cue the smoke machines. Cue Coldplay. Cue Ghandi…

Surely not all soft drinks can save the babies, not all toothpastes can launch a thousand ships. Surely many brands have more modest roles to play in people’s lives. The fleeting glance, the quiet companion, the casual acquaintance. Shouldn’t we of all people be celebrating the inconsequential, the insignificant, the incidental? For these foolish things are truly the stuff of life.

‘A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places.
A tinkling piano in the next apartment,
Those stumbling words that told me what your heart meant.
These foolish things remind me of you’

These Foolish Things, Eric Maschwitz & Jack Strachey



The fall of Icarus, Baglione

The fall of Icarus, Baglione

Finally, a word of caution. We have all learned to ladder up to higher order concepts and social goods. Ordinary, everyday brands get to leave behind base functionality, to sup with sages and kings. And often it serves a brand well to give it a higher purpose and social resonance. But beware the Icarus Effect. You may be playing with the Pomp Rock of Planning. In a Creds meeting once, I told a High Street optical retailer that his brand gave consumers the gift of sight. He excused himself and said he was due back on Planet Earth.

So don’t get me wrong. I love a big, ambitious, high ground, universal idea as much as the next man. I love brands with vision, confidence and courage. I’ve even nodded along to Coldplay occasionally.

But, just for once, let’s raise a glass to the little guys, to the not-so-crazy ones. Here’s to the inconsequential, the incidental and frivolous. Here’s to the modest, the momentary and fleeting. Here’s to swimming in the shallow end.

First published: BBH Labs 25/09


I Will Not Follow


In 1983 Celtic troubadours The Waterboys released a song called “I Will Not Follow”. I’m pretty sure it was a response to U2′s anthemic “I Will Follow”. Answer songs have a rather mixed history (though I’m grateful to the category for providing us with Roxanne Shante and Althea & Donna…), and I suspect “I Will Not Follow” was not The Waterboys’ finest moment  Nonetheless, I admired their courage in taking on the emerging Titans of Rock. And I loved the sentiment. The determination not to go with the flow, not to follow the masses, not to get lost in the crowd. A passionate rejection of passivity. A celebration of the power of negative thinking.

When I was in my last year at College, thoughts turned to possible careers. It was the late ’80s and , in the wake of the Big Bang, there was a magnetic pull towards the Big Job in The City. It was natural, obvious, exciting. The dark satanic thrills .. I recall my decision not to apply for a City role felt more significant to me than any subsequent active career choice.

I used to interview young graduates looking for a job. I found that their CVs were curiously similar. When asked what they’d achieved in life, they’d say they’d travelled to Asia, captained the hockey team, and they liked skiing and reading. But when one asked what the candidate had chosen not to do, more singular answers were forthcoming.

Some of our most important decisions are the paths we choose not to take,the roads we refuse to travel. Our lives can often be best understood by mapping the things we didn’t do, the words we didn’t say. Perhaps we should more often consider a brand’s unspoken truth, quiet regret. Because in its silence and inaction may reside its strength and identity.

‘If you gave me a pound for all the moments I’ve missed,
And I took dancing lessons for all the girls I should’ve kissed.
I’d be a millionaire, I’d be Fred Astaire’
ABC – “Valentine’s Day”

My first job after College was as a Qualitative Researcher. ‘Brand elasticity’ projects were very much in vogue. Could this everyday family margarine perhaps be a cheese, or a biscuit, or a ready meal or a jam? With a sip of Chardonnay and a nod of assent, my respondents would consistently give the green light to a whole host of reckless innovations and insane brand extensions. And over the years the song has remained the same, even if the lyrics have changed. Could my brand be an experience, a portal, a membership club? Could it be a hotel, a hub, a content provider? Could it release a clothing line with rugged check shirts, boxer shorts and rain resistant outerwear? Isn’t my brand more a lifestyle choice than a yellow fat?

Curiously perhaps, research respondents find it easy to endorse our grandest aspirations. But then it’s not their money and maybe they’re just being polite. Sometimes it seems we need to be better at defining the limits of our ambition, at identifying the red line, the point beyond which we will not go. Sometimes we need to demonstrate more restraint, more discipline, more negativity.

Many Clients are instinctively suspicious of the negative perspective. Surely it betrays a lack of confidence, enthusiasm, ambition? In order to sustain consistency they develop processes and platforms, models and matrices, funnels and formats. But best demonstrated practice is often worst demonstrated imagination. Over the years negative thinking has inspired truly exceptional communication by the likes of Dunlop, Audi, Marmite, Volvo, Stella and Guinness. What would a world be like without this brand? Who are its enemies? What is its weakness? Whenever one is confronted by the bland, boring or undifferentiated, it’s always helpful to reach for a liberating ‘not’.

Of course in the age of the social web possibilities seem infinite. We want campaigns to be all embracing, 360º, holistic. We want to tick off platforms like

some bizarre game of I Spy. We want all the colours in all the sizes. Yet I wonder if the democratisation of knowledge and opinion creates a kind of accelerated conformity: the Consensus of Crowds. Surely brand behaviour on the web would benefit from a little more negative thinking? Perhaps more discipline and self denial? Maybe we need to see more of the brand that likes to say ‘no’, the brand that will not follow…

Every morning I face the horrors of commuting as I change Tube at Kings Cross. Crowded, crushed, compressed. Downbeat, dour, depressed. In order to get onto my teeming southbound train into the centre of town, I walk along the less cluttered northbound platform. Periodically empty northbound trains stop and then recommence their journey out to the quiet leafy suburbs. I’ve always promised myself that one day I’ll jump on one of those empty northbound trains, make my way to the end of the line, find a caff and settle down to The Guardian, bacon, eggs, tea and toast. One day…

No. 3