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


‘Still Learning’: Goya and the Key To a Long Career

I recently attended the splendid exhibition of Goya portraits at The National Gallery in London.

I had previously considered Francisco de Goya y Lucientes a painter of martial horrors and grim nightmares. He was clearly deeply moved by the cruelty on all sides in the Peninsular War. And, following an illness in his mid-40s, for much of his life he was profoundly deaf, a condition which no doubt precipitated dark thoughts.

But Goya’s portraits are light, fresh and vivacious. He characterises Spanish nobles and royalty as warm and approachable; academics, soldiers and clergy as thoughtful and affable. Their humanity reaches out to us across the centuries. Some scholars attribute the vibrancy of Goya’s work to the fact that he added the final highlights to his pictures at night. In his Self Portrait before an Easel you can see how he had adapted his hat to carry candles.

Goya may not have been quite the tortured artist of my imagination. He died at the ripe old age of 82 in an era when the average life expectancy in Spain was 40. And he was painting right up until the end. What was the key to his long, productive career?

Goya Dona Teresa Sureda c. 1805

Well, firstly Goya must have been graced with supreme skills in client management. He survived turbulent times as the Spanish court underwent one regime change after another: from the Inquisition to the Enlightenment to the return of reactionary conservatism; from Spanish Kings to English generals to Napoleon’s puppet rulers. After the departure from Madrid of the imposed French monarch, a number of Goya’s paintings were denounced as ‘obscene’ by the reinstated Inquisition and the artist was obliged to go through a ‘purification’ process to clear him of collaboration. But somehow Goya clung on his position at court. It made me think of the summersaults an Agency undertakes to retain business through the merry-go-round of CEOs and Marketing Directors.

Goya’s recipe for career longevity certainly includes perseverance and principle. A few years before his death, the artist’s finances were in a terrible mess. Yet he stubbornly refused to reissue his most successful series, Caprichos, in order to generate funds. He wrote to a Spanish friend, ’I’ve no more sight. No hand, no pen, nor inkwell. I lack everything – all I’ve got left is will.’

However, perhaps the critical determinant of Goya’s long and successful career was his appetite for new skills and new forms of expression.

Goya only started painting portraits at the age of 37. Before then he had been making a successful living as a religious artist and tapestry designer. He was a master of etching, but late in his career he embarked afresh on a series of miniatures in ivory and he taught himself the new techniques of lithography (drawing directly onto limestone).

Towards the end of his life Goya created a rather moving black crayon etching of an old man with a long grey beard hobbling along on two walking sticks. It carries the inscription ‘I am still learning’ (‘Aun aprendo’).

It was around this time that a friend wrote of Goya, ‘He is deaf, old, awkward and weak…But so happy and anxious to see the world.’


If We Want To Raise the Bar, Do We Have To Lower the Tone?

‘There is an inherent conflict between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating.’

William F Buckley

I commend to you the recent documentary film Best of Enemies. It tells the story of the 1968 televised political debates between two ‘public intellectuals’ at the height of their powers, William F Buckley and Gore Vidal. Buckley was the hero of modern conservatism; Vidal was a leading novelist and liberal critic.

The ABC television network, coming a distant third in the ratings war behind NBC and CBS and working with a constrained budget, commissioned the debates to liven up its coverage of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. (‘The Unconventional Convention Coverage.’) Buckley and Vidal were invited to consider the issues raised by the day in conference and the broader political context. ABC got more than they bargained for. Intellectual blows were landed, insults flew and ratings soared.

The debates demonstrated that the public had an appetite for intelligent discourse, but only if it was delivered with the added sauce of confrontation and conflict. The coverage ushered in the combative approach to politics that has cursed American television news discussion ever since.

 ‘Argument is sugar and the rest of us are flies.’

Richard Wald, Former ABC News Senior VP

It would be easy to concede that the public have always had a taste for strife. But we should beware of confusing long-held convention with timeless truths.

I suspect the American audience of the late ‘60s was responding to an era of polite media consensus. They wanted change. Is not the reverse true in the modern world? Are we not fatigued with artificial altercations and bar room bickering?

Could there possibly be a growing appetite for serious, intelligent debate without the staged spats and squabbles?

Beauty Beyond Reach

‘We’re not ugly people.’

The magnificent movie Carol conjures up romance in the New York of 1952.

It’s a beautiful world of bulbous cars, wide shouldered overcoats and streamlined dresses; of fur coats, clutch bags and cat eye sunglasses; of bright reds, coral and taupe; of dry martinis in the Oak Room and endless cigarettes.

It is a world of inordinate beauty, but one where the ultimate beauty, true love, is elusive. It is seen through car windscreens, obscured by crowded rooms; it is just out of reach, observed from a distance; it is mediated by convention and bigotry.

In marketing we’re endlessly endeavouring to make our brands more accessible and attainable. But there’s a special romance, a special beauty, about that which we can’t attain; that which is just out of reach.

‘Too far away from you and all your charms.
Just out of reach of my two empty arms.’

 Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)/ V Stewart/Performed by Solomon Burke



No. 59