About Time

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'Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus.' 
(Meanwhile time flies; it flies never to return.)
Virgil, Georgics 

I recently visited Christian Marclay’s splendid installation at the Tate Modern in London: ‘The Clock 2010’ (until 20 January).

Marclay and his team of researchers spent several years collecting excerpts from famous and lesser-known films that feature clocks, watches and other timepieces. He then edited these clips together so that they show the actual time. The final artwork, viewed in a cinema setting, is 24-hours long and contains around 12,000 different movie moments.

At about 10-40 AM Hugh Grant is woken by multiple alarms; Gary Cooper looks apprehensively at a wall clock; Humphrey Bogart rouses a sleeping Gloria Grahame; Adam Sandler suggests there’s still time for a McDonald's Breakfast. We skip seamlessly through time references in ‘Clockwise’, ‘Columbo’ and ‘Catch Me If You Can’; ‘The Talented Mister Ripley’, ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Three Colours: Blue.’ We see church clocks, railway clocks, grandfather clocks; wrist watches and pocket watches; sundials, hourglasses and microwave LEDs. We hear chimes, peals, beeps and ticks. We observe conversations about time; dramas around deadlines.

We find ourselves enthralled, spotting the film references, amused by the editor’s choices. We want to follow particular sequences longer. But we can’t. Time and the edit march on.

Collage courtesy: https://journalofseeing.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/high-noon-clocks/

Collage courtesy: https://journalofseeing.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/high-noon-clocks/

At around 5-00 PM Jack Nicholson leaves work for the very last time; Robert Redford hits a home run and the ball shatters the stadium clock; Clint Eastwood observes a gunfight between Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonte.

Since the source material of ‘The Clock’ comes from the world of cinema, there’s a heightened sense of drama: an urgency as heists are planned, trains are delayed, deadlines loom. We arrive early for an appointment, late for a conference. Time is elastic. It slows down as the meeting drags on, as the boredom sets in; and then speeds up as the alarm goes off, the gun is fired.

At this precise moment, somewhere in the world babies are being born, promises are being made, crimes are being committed, hearts are being broken. We are struck by the sense that our complex, fragmentary existence is unified by the ticking clock. Time is the ever-present adhesive that holds it all together, the harness that keeps us in step. Time is sometimes a silent witness. Sometimes it is a catalyst, an actor in events. It can be relentless, oppressive, unforgiving.

‘The Clock is very much about death in a way. It is a memento mori.’
Christian Marclay

The creative industry has often had an uncomfortable relationship with time. We feel constrained by schedules, intimidated by deadlines. We balk at timetables and Gantt charts. We hesitate and delay, postpone and prevaricate. We always want more time.

'Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.’
William Penn

It doesn’t have to be this way.

BBH was famous for the creativity of its output, but many were surprised at its passion for process. We loved schedules, progress reports and status meetings; reviews and timing plans; project and traffic management. Indeed one of the Agency’s core beliefs was ‘processes that liberate creativity’.

I have always liked this phrase. It suggests that if we embrace the discipline of planning and preparation, if we properly plot the priority and sequence of tasks, time can become an ally to ideas, not an enemy. We shouldn’t be working all hours; we should be making all hours work for us. With proper forethought, it’s possible to make time, not waste it.

'The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: “I did not have time."'
Franklin Field

'Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth.
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette.
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget.
Oh oh, you're a rock 'n' roll suicide.’

 David Bowie, ‘Rock 'n' Roll Suicide'

No. 211

501! Contemporary Lessons from a Vintage Case Study

Levis Ad - BBH

Levis Ad - BBH

During my twenty-five years in advertising, I worked on all manner of client businesses. From banks and beers, to fried chicken and phone networks. Without doubt the experiences that left the deepest impression, and had the biggest impact on my career, were those that I gained on the Levi’s jeans account in the 1990s.

Between 1985 and 1998 Levi’s campaign for its 501 jeans, developed by its agency BBH, was one of the most awarded and admired in the advertising world. It created a mythical America of enigmatic, unspeaking heroes; of youthful adventure on the open road; of effortless style and heart-rending tunes. And it sold a great many pairs of jeans.

Let’s take a step back in time to see if this vintage case study suggests any lessons that might still be relevant today.

‘Be Yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’
Oscar Wilde

At the heart of the Levi’s 501 story was the determination that it should be true to itself.

Levi’s 501 was the original denim jean. It was designed in 1873 for miners in the California Gold Rush. Its riveted construction, button fly and XX stitching sustained it through tough manual tasks. Its rudimentary ‘anti-fit’ cut was appropriate to its modest origins. It was the jean that was adopted in the ‘50s by the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Eddie Cochrane, and thereby became a badge of youth rebellion. It had a unique heritage to be proud of.

However, when in 1985 Levi’s struggling UK organisation submitted the 501 to consumer testing with a view to a possible re-launch, the results were not encouraging. Modern British consumers were more accustomed to zip flies and figure-hugging fits. The Levi’s brand was perceived as middle-aged and middle-of-the-road. What’s more, Levi’s was quintessentially American at a time when UK youth culture was not looking across the pond for inspiration.

The sensible decision might have been to back away. Or at least to launch a style more in keeping with contemporary tastes.

But Levi’s and BBH were determined. This was the original and definitive jean, the blueprint for everything that followed. It was a design classic. It deserved a hearing.

Fanning the Flames of Discovery

There was a glimmer of encouragement. A small group of cognoscenti in the fashion, music and film industries had already fallen for the 501’s authenticity and unique design. There was a growing interest in retro ‘50s culture, and a thriving second-hand market in 501s from the States. Perhaps, by reflecting what these enthusiasts loved so much about the product, there was an opportunity to fan the flames of discovery.

A Simple Story Stylishly Told

A young man walks into a laundrette to the sound of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’ He removes his jeans and t-shirt and puts them in the washer with some stones. He sits down to read a magazine in his boxer shorts and socks, as others look on in amazement.

With a 1985 TV commercial conveying this modest narrative, Levi’s 501 jeans were introduced to the mass British public. Despite its seeming simplicity, ‘Laundrette’ was an immediate cultural and commercial hit. It was discussed in national media. The music entered the charts. Nick Kamen, the actor playing the central character, became an overnight celebrity. Boxer shorts were suddenly fashionable, with two million pairs being bought in 1986 alone. And 501 jeans sold so quickly that demand outstripped supply.

There followed a series of similarly iconic commercials, all depicting youthful heroes in pursuit of their own American dream, equipped with little more than their 501s, a white t-shirt and an innate resourcefulness. Within three years of the re-launch, 501 sales had increased twenty-fold - at a premium price of between £27 and £30, in a market where the norm was sub-£20.

Levi’s succeeded because it didn’t follow the convention of the time and hold a mirror up to consumer tastes and preferences. Rather it shone a light on the brand and its unique story. It sought to persuade consumers of its merits, with a simple story stylishly told.

‘What the heart knows today, the head will understand tomorrow.’
James Stephens

Although Levi’s campaign was inspired by its heritage, it was not an exercise in dry historical narrative. First and foremost the advertising addressed the emotions. It suggested charismatic youth, heroic nonchalance and potent sexual chemistry. It promised freedom, escape, romance and rebellion.

Stripped of spoken words, the ads conveyed all this through compelling storytelling, impactful imagery and emotive music. As John Hegarty, the creative director behind it all, pointed out, ‘words are a barrier to communication.’

Emotional Product Demonstration

Despite the fact that the initial persuasive power of the campaign was emotional, it was also clear that consumers wanted rational reasons to justify their beliefs - to others and to themselves.

So amidst the stylish settings, slim heroes and sensuous music, the commercials always demonstrated the jeans’ functional attributes: their strength, durability and wear characteristics. 501s personalised with age and improved with wear. And the more you washed them, the better they got.

Creative teams found that such stories were excellent springboards for lateral ideas.  And Hegarty dubbed this advertising approach ‘emotional product demonstration.’

Mass Marketing a Cult

From the outset there was some concern that, in broadening the appeal of a product originally beloved by a small group of cognoscenti, the brand would lose that critical group’s support. What if our opinion leaders sought exclusivity elsewhere? Wouldn’t this undermine the whole endeavour?

BBH determined that it was critical to sustain a relationship with opinion leaders. It developed print advertising that directly addressed them in their own discrete magazine titles (publications like The Face, iD and Dazed & Confused). It sponsored cutting edge bands and grass roots music events. And it offered Shrink-to-Fit and limited editions of the core product - something the cognoscenti could call their own.

The lesson was clear: never forget the people that first loved you.

‘Creek’ 1994 - BBH

‘Creek’ 1994 - BBH

United in Dreams, Divided by Realities

Levi’s soon looked to export the UK’s successful marketing to other European markets. This ought to have been challenging: back in the 1980s few campaigns crossed borders because local cultural differences were thought to be too great.

But BBH found that, though young people might be divided by the realities of their everyday circumstances, they were united in their dreams. The 501 campaign worked wherever the local youth aspired to independence and individuality; to original expression and the open road.

By the mid-1990s Levi’s was selling 50 million units per annum across Europe – and always at a premium price.

‘Move it on without moving it off.’
Nigel Bogle

With every new execution in the campaign, the pressure grew to sustain freshness and interest. How do you avoid predictability and familiarity? How do you avoid losing the baby with the bathwater?

The advertising struck a balance. It retained its chassis: the narrative structure; the aspirational hero; the dramatisation of product functionality. And at the same time it underwent constant restyling in its bodywork: the setting; the historical period; the tone; the filmic style; the particular product story.

Over the years 501 commercials were set in pool halls, drug stores and gas stations; in swimming pools, creeks and under the sea; in black & white, colour and animation; in the nineteenth century, the Depression and in outer space.

As BBH co-founder Nigel Bogle summarised: ‘We need to move it on without moving it off.’

Perhaps inevitably, the Levi’s 501 campaign did eventually run out of road. There was only so long that one brand could sustain mass loyalty to a single product in the fickle fashion category; only so long that the brand’s innovation could be primarily supplied by its marketing rather than by its product; and only so long that that brand could continue to grow volume and premium at the same time. Eventually the centre could not hold, and the market fragmented.

But it had been a pretty good run.

Levi’s print ad - Richard Avedon for BBH

Levi’s print ad - Richard Avedon for BBH

So what did I learn from working on this great, but now long-gone, advertising campaign? I picked up a number of lessons about the fundamentals of persuasion that served me well for the rest of my career:

1. Don’t seek to add value, seek to reveal it.
2. Harness the support that you already have: fan the flames of discovery.
3. Embrace the power of narrative: simple stories stylishly told.
4. Lead with emotion: what the heart feels today, the head thinks tomorrow.
5. However much beliefs may be founded on emotion, give people rational justifications for those beliefs.
6. Never forget the people that first loved you.
7. Find the aspirations that unify people, rather than the realities that divide them.
8. Keep moving it on without moving it off.

Of course, today we live in an ever more complex, interconnected, fast-paced world. The landscape of marketing and communication is unrecognisable from the more innocent times of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. But I think many of these themes still resonate. And perhaps like 501s themselves, they improve with age.

 

(This piece first appeared in The Pembrokian, July 2018)

No. 198

Articulate Anger: Why Slogans Matter

2017 Washington Women’s March

2017 Washington Women’s March

I recently attended an exhibition reviewing the relationship between graphics and politics over the last ten years.

‘Hope to Nope’ (The Design Museum, London, until 12 August) considers various political and protest movements in the decade since Shepard Fairey’s famous 2008 ‘Hope’ poster in support of Barack Obama’s Presidential bid. It displays banners, posters and memes; stunts, symbols and slogans; from Occupy and Deepwater Horizon, to Taksim Square and Charlie Hebdo; from Brexit and the 2016 US election, to women’s marches and Black Lives Matter… and more besides.

We live in turbulent times.

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You can’t help but be impressed by the lucidity, wit and invention of many of the pieces. You can see earnest Soviet posters subverted to include rainbow Pride colours; playful Jeremy Corbyn emojis; sinister Guy Fawkes masks; an ominous Trump fortune teller. In Hong Kong in 2014 protestors collectively adopted umbrellas, initially to shield themselves from the sun, and subsequently from tear gas. In Sao Paolo in 2015/16 marchers against tax rises and government corruption rallied to the theme of ‘I will not pay the duck.’ ‘Pay the duck’ means take the blame for something that is not your fault.

Often the material harnesses serious political messages to popular culture. After the Trump election victory, a Star Wars Rogue One poster became Rogue Won. And my former Agency BBH collaborated with the community action group Justice4Grenfell in a piece that referenced the movie ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri’:  ‘71 Dead…And still no arrests…How come?’

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The exhibition also offers a compelling selection of funny, smart and eloquent political slogans. Consider the following from various anti-Trump rallies:

‘Love trumps hate.’
‘Make love not walls.’
‘This pussy grabs back.’
‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.’
‘A woman’s place is in the White House.’
‘Sexism is not sexy.’
And my personal favourite:
‘We shall overcomb.’

Of course, the language of protest has been familiar to us for many years. But in the digital age the impact of traditional approaches has been amplified by social media, memes and hashtags. Campaigns are easier than ever to initiate, endorse, adapt, share and spoof.

It’s therefore become more difficult than ever to cut through. Shepard Fairey expresses the challenge thus:

‘People have a lot of visual noise in their lives, so my work needs to be instant and memorable, easy to replicate and, even in an analogue world, potentially viral. Digital tools and social media mean that more people are empowered, but there are also white noise and mediocre graphics and memes bouncing around. I utilise the same principles that I always have when I transmit my work digitally: I want to be instantly memorable, evocative, and graphically and emotionally potent.’

As I wandered around the museum, I found myself wondering why the best rallying cries seem so compelling; why it is helpful to condense complex issues into catchy rhymes and phrases. Why do slogans matter?

Many years ago a girlfriend left me. I became depressed, inert, isolated. But more particularly I found I was completely inarticulate about how I felt. I couldn’t explain what had happened, why she’d gone, what I’d done to deserve this.

I took to going running round a local park. And as I ran I gradually pieced together in my head a narrative about what had gone wrong. I composed the speech I would deliver if I ever saw her again. And with every passing day and every exhausting circuit, the oration grew in clarity, brevity and articulacy.

Then, at last, my speech was perfect, crisp and concise. And I realised at that moment that I didn’t need to make it. I had moved on. I wouldn’t have to run round that muddy park again either.

‘The more acute the experience, the less articulate its expression.’

Harold Pinter

Some experiences are so intense, emotional, complex and confusing that we feel only unfocused anger, foggy regret, dim despair. We become powerless, helpless, listless.

It’s only when we can distil our feelings into words and phrases – when we can articulate our anger - that we can begin to recover and become capable of action.

Like any well-crafted copy, the best political slogans define how we feel about an issue; compress it into something clear, precise and strong; find fellow feeling with others; and motivate us to get out and do something about it.

But there are limits to what graphics and slogans can achieve. After an hour at the exhibition, having walked through an aggregation of witty words, angry sentiments and cool design, I began to worry that mass protest is becoming almost effortless in the social era. It’s just a little too easy to like and retweet; to post and hashtag; to endorse, sign up and send on.

In 2017 the artists’ street project flyingleaps published the following statement on UK poster sites:

‘Slogans in nice typefaces won’t save the human races.’

It’s a valid caveat: a political slogan is only as good as its power to prompt action. This is a sentiment that the Suffragettes had elegantly expressed over a century before:

‘Deeds not words.’

 

(This piece first appeared on BBH Labs on 23 April 2018.)

 

No. 179

 

The Hall of Mirrors: Should Advertising Offer Consumers Reflections of Themselves?

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‘When I start out to make a fool of myself, there's very little can stop me. If I'd known where it would end, I'd never let anything start.’

Orson Welles, ’The Lady from Shanghai’

The 1947 movie classic ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ features an Irish Orson Welles caught up in a web of deceit woven by wealthy lawyer Everett Sloane and his wife, a curiously blonde Rita Hayworth.

The climax of the film takes place in a deserted amusement park, The Crazy House. ‘Stand up or give up,’ the arcade posters proclaim. In the Hall of Mirrors the three lead characters confront each other and a multiplicity of their own images and impressions. Neither they nor the audience can discern the real people from their reflections. Truth and falsehood are intertwined. It’s a cinematic tour de force.

When I first joined BBH in the early 1990s I was warned against ‘holding a mirror up to consumers.’ It was suggested that this is a lazy approach for any advertiser to take. ‘Holding a mirror up’ assumes that people enjoy seeing their own behaviours, attitudes, tastes and styles reflected back at them in brand communication; that they like to look at approximations of themselves in advertising; that brands are rewarded for acute observation of people’s musical preferences, fashion choices and figures of speech.

But who wants to encounter counterfeit copies of themselves? Who wants to be regarded as a type or category; to see their private codes and language broadcast for all to share?

So we took a different path. We preferred to shine a light on the brand; to let it present its best self to the world. We liked to let the brand speak.

Looking back on this position in the midst of the social media age, I can’t help wondering whether we were wrong all along. As is widely observed, nowadays we all inhabit echo chambers of our opinions, prejudices and world-views. We live in a Hall of Mirrors of our own making, endlessly self-publishing; craving affirmation and approval; seeking endorsement of how we look, what we do, what we feel, what we think; freely surrendering our personal data in our relentless quest for recognition and validation.

And consequently much of modern advertising pursues the ‘hold the mirror up to consumers’ approach. Our screens are filled with elegantly aspirational metropolitan executives, charmingly chaotic suburban families, fun-loving bobble-hatted youths.

I nonetheless find it difficult to recant. I remain convinced that brands have a responsibility to stand for something; that there is more integrity in selling than there is in pretending to share values, hopes and dreams; that rather than just reflecting consumers’ attitudes, we should seek to change them.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I doubt people will be seduced by this Hall of Mirrors for too long. Ultimately Narcissus’s infatuation with his own image destroyed him.

Back in the Crazy House, Sloane wearily directs his pistol at Hayward.

‘Of course, killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of both of us.’

In the shootout that follows, chaos and confusion reign. The mirrors shatter. The glass cascades in crystals all around.

No. 173

‘Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word’: We Need Nice People for Nasty Times

Passersby by Lantian D

Passersby by Lantian D

At the gym the bloke with the next locker silently moves his kit out of my way without looking up at me. At the shop a woman talks on her mobile as she pays. Down the pub a guy checks his phone as he pisses. A man on a bike shouts at me as he turns a corner. Someone’s eating a bacon sandwich on the tube. He’s sat next to a ‘manspreader.’ There are kids cursing on the top deck of the bus. There’s pizza packaging on the pavement. Queueing seems to be the hardest concept. And sorry seems to be the hardest word.

‘What do I do to make you want me?
What have I got to do to be heard?
What do I do when it’s all over,
And sorry seems to be the hardest word?

It’s sad, so sad.
It’s a sad, sad situation.
And it’s getting more and more absurd.

‘Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word,’ Elton John (Elton John & Bernie Taupin)

Of course, I’m just a grumpy old man. And I live in London. But it seems sometimes that we’ve lost our sense of civic pride; of community; of togetherness. We’re all sharp elbows and hard stares; hoodies and headphones. We’ve become anti-social media addicts, selfie narcissists, smartphone lemmings. Oh, for the cordial and considerate, the kind and courteous. Oh, for the gentle smile, the nod of recognition, the quiet word. If only we could remember that shyness is nice; politeness is precious; and ‘manners maketh man.’

It seems to me we need nice people for nasty times.

To get a job at my former Agency, BBH, it was stipulated that you had to be ‘good and nice.’ This was an elegantly simple recruitment policy. And critically it recognized that an employee’s impact on culture is as important as his or her impact on clients - because culture builds companies; and the foundations of culture are day-to-day civility, mutual respect and thoughtfulness.

I particularly like the use of the word ‘nice’ in this context. It sounds soft. It suggests the candidate must be gentle and genial, amiable and agreeable. ‘Nice’ seems alien to the hard-nosed, cut-throat world of commerce. Surely ‘nice guys finish last.’ But, on the contrary, today’s networked age is all about team, partnership, collaboration and cooperation. Empathy, emotional intelligence and listening skills are commercially critical. We need to get along if we want to get on. Nowadays nice guys finish first.

Perhaps marketers too should be mindful of ‘nice.’ So many modern brands celebrate their high-minded Purpose. They’re ‘passionate’ about people and the planet; ‘in love’ with customers and the category. They’re ‘fanatical’ about good service. But maybe they should calm down a bit. I don’t want my brands to be passionate or fanatical; I’d rather they were polite and well mannered. I don’t want my brands to love me; I just want them to be nice.

I was once given a signed copy of Harry Redknapp‘s autobiography. The erstwhile West Ham player and manager was a wily tactician and loveable rogue. He had signed the book with a simple message for me: ‘Nice one!’

Exactly.

‘What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give,
Or are we meant to be kind?’

Alfie, Dionne Warwick (Burt Bacharach, Hal David)

No. 133

Exquisite Corpse: If You Want To Change the Product, Try Changing the Process

'Nude Cadavre Exquis' Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (1926-27)

'Nude Cadavre Exquis' Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (1926-27)

‘There’s a method to my madness; and a madness to my method.’
Salvador Dali

At a gallery recently I came across an Exquisite Corpse.

Exquisite Corpse was a creative technique that Surrealist artists adapted from the traditional parlour game of Consequences. Typically four people took turns to draw a different bodypart on a folded piece of paper: first the head, then the torso, then the hips and finally the legs. Each participant was unaware of what the previous contributors had drawn. The image that resulted was often comic, disturbing, absurd.

Exquisite Corpse at first struck me as a curiously playful distraction for serious artists. Just a bit of fun perhaps before they got back to proper work. But the Surrealists were serious about the technique. For them it illuminated the creative process: it was a way of exploring the impact on their art of multiple authorship, sequencing, chance and the unconscious.

For Surrealists process didn’t have to be a constraint on creativity; it could be a catalyst to it.

'La Clairvoyance'Rene Magritte

'La Clairvoyance'Rene Magritte

‘All my life my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.’
Andre Breton

The writers and artists of the Surrealist movement gathered in Paris in the 1920s around their leader, Andre Breton. In the wake of the horrors of the First World War, they determined to suppress reason, reality and ‘bourgeois aestheticism.’ Like Freud they were interested in dreams and the workings of the unconscious mind; in juxtapositions and coincidences; in everyday strangeness.

In particular the Surrealists experimented with the process of creation, disrupting traditional practice at every opportunity. They adopted techniques like ‘automatism’: writing and drawing at random without rational or conscious control. They set up the Bureau of Surrealist Research to record the dreams of the general public. They created collages that integrated found material, text from popular novels, images from magazines and encyclopaedia. They untethered objects from their names and practical functions. They experimented with photography as an art form.

For the Surrealists new techniques provided a springboard to new acts of creation. Process inspired product.  

‘I’ve never been able to finish a detective story because I don’t give a hang who was the murderer… It doesn’t interest me at all. It’s the mental processes that interest me.’
Man Ray

'Object' Meret Oppenheim

'Object' Meret Oppenheim

In the world of commercial creativity we tend to regard process with ambivalence. It’s boring but important; a necessary evil. We often characterise it as something to be avoided or reduced as far as possible; as an enemy of creativity.

Working at BBH for many years, I was quite taken with its distinctive belief in ‘processes that liberate creativity.’ This seemed a more mature position. I learned that process protects time, prevents misunderstanding and wasted effort. It generates alignment within a team, harnesses creativity to a commercial agenda and optimises the chances of great outcomes. I learned to be respectful of roles and responsibilities, of sign-offs and the sequencing of actions. I learned that process can be the creatives’ friend.

But the idea of ‘processes that liberate creativity’ goes beyond commercial efficiency. As the Surrealists suggested, new processes can inspire new ideas. They can be a fuel for the imagination. They can provoke change.

So processes should not be engraved in granite. They should be constantly questioned and evaluated, rewritten and reformulated.

How can we accelerate and stimulate innovation? Why not change the brief, change the team, change the time, change the meeting? Let’s investigate new combinations and partnerships. Let’s crash the procedure and crunch the schedule. Let’s test and trial, experiment and explore.

At times of transformation we should all be looking to disrupt incumbent ways of doing things; to invent new models, modes and techniques. Not just so that we can cut costs or increase speed; but so that we can create fresh routes to original ideas; novel sources of imaginative thought.

If you want to change the product, try changing the process.

‘Freedom is not given to you – you have to take it.’
Meret Oppenheim

No. 131

Mixed Metaphors: Sport Inspires Us To Perform; Art Inspires Us To Transform

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

So, we’re planning a conference and we want to invite an external speaker to address us and our colleagues - someone inspirational from a completely different world; who will get us all thinking outside the category, outside the box; someone who can convince us to raise our sights, raise our game.

Who are we going to call?

Maybe an Olympic oarsman, a downhill skier, a medal-winning sportswoman? Or perhaps a choreographer, a composer, a world-renowned film director?

Well, yes, any one of these could, I’m sure, be compelling and interesting. But perhaps we should first give a little thought to our selection criteria. Let’s examine the lessons we’re seeking to learn.

A first class sports person will prompt our colleagues to consider competition, goals and incremental improvement; team building, training and total honesty. They’ll teach us about the hard yards and the extra mile; to step up to the plate, to play the ball not the man, to want it more. There’s no ‘I’ in team. They’ll teach us all these things because fundamentally sport inspires people to perform.

We may, on the other hand, be keen to accelerate transformational change within our business. In which case sports people may not be so suited to the task. Setting aside the occasional formation adjustment and Fosbury Flop, for the most part athletes play the same game, on the same pitch, with the same rules. They’re seeking to be better, not different.

So if we’re looking to learn about change, we may prefer to talk to the cultural community. People from the arts world are daily engaged in innovation and invention, pioneering new paths and new perspectives. Art is an expression and catalyst of difference.

I think my most memorable marketing conference was one organised by Unilever in Dublin many years ago. A selection of actors and authors, poets and playwrights addressed the management teams of various global brands. They spoke to us about their sources of invention, the craft of creativity, the ‘habit of art’. You may well say that these themes were a million miles away from deodorant, detergent, blue bleach and yellow fats. But they seemed entirely relevant. Because they were all concerned with change.

I was interested therefore to see that Central Saint Martins, the London-based art and design school, and Birkbeck, the university that specialises in business education for working people, have recently combined to offer an MBA course. The course will bring together 'creative thinking with a rigorous business and economics base.' The shape of things to come perhaps.

“In an ever changing and ever more complex world, business leaders and entrepreneurs are going to need new ways of thinking and doing.”

Prof Jeremy Till, Dean of Central Saint Martins

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

It’s clear that, before we pick up the phone to book our inspirational speaker, we should choose our metaphors wisely; tailor the talk to the task. We should remember that sport inspires us to perform, art inspires us to transform; sport makes us better, art makes us different.

Of course, in the long run, most modern businesses need both high performance and transformational change. My former boss, Nigel Bogle, consistently encouraged BBH to be better and different. So when it comes to inspiration at least, we may well need to mix our metaphors.

No. 110

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

Image courtesy: http://motodometer.blogspot.co.uk/

Image courtesy: http://motodometer.blogspot.co.uk/

‘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

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

No.16

To Sleep, To Dream

Girl Sleeping, by Tamara de Lempicka

Girl Sleeping, by Tamara de Lempicka

‘O sleep,why dost thou leave me?
Why thy visionary joys remove?
O sleep again deceive me,
To my arms restore my wand’ring love’

I recently attended a concert in which these words of Congreve were sung in a beautiful Handel aria. I’m sure we can all relate to the sentiment: sleep is a place of joyful deceptions and re-found loves; it’s a place for escaping, forgetting, recovering, refocusing. However harsh the work environment, however stressful the unrelenting day, I have always been sustained by the promise of sleep, its welcoming embrace, its warm repose. In fact I have a singular talent for napping at will and I have inherited from my mother the habit of the Sunday afternoon kip. I like to drift off on the sofa, newspaper on my lap, to the sound of children’s chatter and roller bags from the pavement outside.

I have long felt that sleep is an area of untapped opportunity for brands. We spend a third of our lives sleeping, but we’re increasingly concerned by our ability to get enough of it, at the right quality. One can’t help but be underwhelmed by the plethora of scented candles, quack remedies and orthopaedic pillows that currently constitute the ‘sleep sector’. Can’t we do better than this? Surely space is not the final frontier; it’s sleep.

When, many years ago, BBH first embarked on our efforts to develop brand ideas that could cross borders, we had to overcome the argument that cultural difference abhorred generalisation. We observed that, whilst all markets are indeed diverse and varied, there are often strong consistencies around aspiration, belief and hope: we are united in dreams, but divided by reality. It’s a creative tension that I continue to find useful.

This is not to say that my relationship with sleep and dreams has always been positive. As a child I was cursed by a recurrent nightmare : my father, padded up, in cricket whites, being chased down the stairs by a crocodile. Not pleasant perhaps, but at least it was interesting.

When I was a young researcher there were guys who put respondents to sleep, hypnotised them in order to probe the deeper, darker unspoken truths of brands. I confess I felt at the time that this was all somewhat daft. Nonetheless I can’t help but admire the intent.

I sometimes wonder if the ‘always on’ digital age is depriving brands of the opportunity to pause and ponder, recover and refocus. I’m concerned that nowadays we fail to find the time and space for our brands to sleep and dream. As we reduce everything to rational reckoners, KPIs and capabilities, are we cultivating brands without conflict or contradiction, brands without personality or human frailty? Are we creating an Age of the Anodyne? Pity the insomniac brand, cursed to roam the earth in the endless waking sunshine of unforgiving rationality.

It seems reasonable to suggest that, whilst brands today should naturally seek to deliver immediacy and reciprocity, utility and individuality, they should also find room to rest, relax and restore; to dream the illogical and impossible; to yearn for lost loves and found hopes.

‘Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I’m tired and I
I want to go to bed…’

Asleep, Steven Morrissey and Johnny Marr

First published: BBH Labs: 02/08/2011

No. 9