A Man Having Trouble With An Umbrella: Recognising the Power of Repetition

My grandfather was a retired policeman with a warm heart and authoritative manner. At weekends he would drive Martin and me along the A13 to his old haunts in Barking, Poplar and Limehouse. Hard to believe now, but ‘going for a drive’ was a popular leisure activity in the ‘70s. At traffic lights and junctions, Grandpa would playfully greet other drivers with a ‘Hello, Mary’ or ‘Yes, of course, Dave, you go first.’ He didn’t actually know Mary or Dave, but he was aware it amused us. And every time we went past a triangular sign indicating road works (by means of the silhouette of a labourer planting his shovel in a pile of earth), Grandpa would exclaim: 'There's a man having trouble with an umbrella!'

We loved that joke. To a young boy it was deeply silly, slightly surreal, somehow subversive. And it improved with repetition. As we rolled around in fits of laughter at the back of the Rover, the gag didn't seem trivial at all to us. It seemed important. And I'm pretty sure it was.

Repetition reassures. It creates a sense of familiarity, intimacy, common currency. Consider catchphrases and slogans; jingles, chants and incantations; aphorisms and end lines. These may be regarded as lower forms of expression, but they have an insidious potency. We assume that familiarity breeds contempt. But often the reverse is true: familiarity breeds contentment.

I recently came across a review of The Song Machine, a new book that considers the methods of the modern music industry and today’s high-tech record producers. It’s a calculating world of ‘writer camps’, ‘melodic math’ and the quest for elusive ‘bliss points.’ The author reaches an interesting conclusion about the science of hits:

‘For all the painstaking craft involved… the crucial factor in our emotional engagement with music is familiarity; in other words, if you were repeatedly to hear a song you didn’t like, that proximity would eventually breed affection.’

Mark Ellen/ The Sunday Times, reviewing The Song Machine by John Seabrook

That explains a lot...

Familiarity also resides at the heart of brand value. The first brands were founded on the reassurance of consistency: this product is the same as the last product you bought; it’s made from the same ingredients and it’ll perform in the same way.

I wonder, do we in modern marketing properly appreciate the power of repetition? Of course, we endeavour to be disciplined about visual identity; and, in a media context, we take account of frequency, dwell-time and wear-out. But this is a quantified, rational view of repetition. Do we really understand the qualitative, emotional value of repeated experience?

Earlier this year I attended a production of Aeschylus’ Ancient Greek tragedy, Oresteia. I was particularly struck by this exchange:

‘What’s the difference between a habit and a tradition?’
‘A tradition means something.’

At their best brands are not just mindless habits. Through repeatedly exploring territories and ideas that are relevant to people, the best brands establish their own meaning, their own traditions. In this age of nudge theory and behavioural economics, we spend quite a lot of time seeking to change habits. What would happen if we sought occasionally to establish traditions?

Certainly our creative instincts are all the time working against iteration. They urge us to embrace change, innovation and reinvention at every turn. Every campaign is a fresh challenge; every new brief is a blank sheet of paper. And these instincts are intensified in the modern age. There are infinite platforms to be filled with unique content; there are ever-increasing consumer appetites to be sated. We live in dynamic times of difference and diversity.

In our obsession with reinvention the commercial communication sector is at odds with other creative professions. In the film, gaming and TV industries the occurrence of a hit is a cue to explore sequels, series, formats and box-sets. Why are we so nervous of repeating success?

Of course, none of us needs a return to the dark days when advertising drilled the same messages into the crania of hapless, captive audiences; over and over again. In the interactive age we need communication coherence more than rigid consistency. We need theme and variation, call and response. We need campaigns that evolve and amplify.

It’s sometimes helpful to think of modern brands as ‘meaningful patterns.’ Brands reassure through rhythm and repetition. With infinite variety they examine, echo and expand ideas.

Some years ago I attended a talk by the esteemed fashion designer, Paul Smith. He explained that, when it came to window displays, he believed in ‘the power of the repeated image.’ Accompanying a pale blue cotton shirt with a royal blue version of the same shirt; and then navy and deep indigo; next to a twill or a denim execution of the same design; adding a polka dot pattern, a striped print or floral detail. It was theme and variation played by an orchestra of blue shirts. And it created a very compelling, harmonious effect. At once both thrilling and reassuring.

Perhaps the power of repetition in the digital age is best expressed through the concept of memes. For many marketers memes are merely a form of iterative campaign, something involving white type and cat videos. However, insofar as a meme is ‘an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means’ (OED), then surely brands are memes. Brands exist not in factories or spreadsheets or shop shelves. They exist in people’s minds and in their behaviours. For what is a brand, if not a shared set of behaviours and beliefs? We always sought to create content for brands that was 'talkable'; nowadays we aim to create the imitable, adaptable, copyable and repeatable.

Of course, brand management is fundamentally a  balancing act between consistency and change. Some brands are too conservative; others are too capricious. Working out whether to 'stick or twist' is a critical marketing skill. All I'm saying here is that, occasionally, in times of transformation, the argument for holding a steady course gets shouted down.

Perhaps when we’re being seduced by the siren call for radical reinvention, we should also have the tender words of Billy Joel singing in our ears. Repeatedly.

‘Don’t go changing, to try and please me.
You never let me down before.

Don’t imagine you’re too familiar,
And I don’t see you anymore.
I would not leave you in times of trouble
We never could have gone this far
I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times
I’ll take you just the way you are.’

Billy Joel/ Just The Way You Are




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