The Spaces Between: Learning to Value the Intangible as Much as the Tangible

whiteread.jpg

‘When I was a little kid I used to enjoy hiding in my Mum and Dad’s wardrobe. I had two older sisters. We played hide and seek and stuff. But also I think I was bullied a bit. It was a little safe, cosy space that you could go... I could just remember the smell of the clothes and the furry blackness of the space. I wanted somehow to make that real.’

Rachel Whiteread

I recently visited an exhibition at Tate Britain reviewing the work of the splendid Essex-born sculptor Rachel Whiteread (until 21 January 2018).

For three decades Whiteread has made casts of everyday objects: of fireplaces, mattresses, staircases and rooms; of floors and baths, windows and doors, tables and chairs.

Her sculptures prompt us to reflect on the curious emotive power of ordinary things. Cast from plaster and concrete, rubber and resin, wax and recycled materials, the forms are at once strange and familiar. The inside of a hot water bottle looks like a human torso. An office interior resembles a prison cell. An arrangement of the undersides of chairs brings to mind a grand cosmic chess game.

‘I choose things because of their humbleness really. And they’re things that we all have some sort of relationship with. It’s making space real…giving space an authority that it’s never had.’

In 1993 Whiteread created ‘House’, a concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian terraced home in London’s Mile End. It stood for 80 days before it was demolished by the local council. Seeing the work in photographs and film, we can consider the personal stories that once animated the space; the ghosts that haunted it; the private histories that have now vanished into thin air. Life seems so transient, so fragile, even when expressed in reinforced concrete.

Untitled - clear torso

Untitled - clear torso

‘It’s all to do with that ghostly touch of things. The way things get worn down by human presence, and the essence of human is left on these things, whether its pages of books or staircases or doors or windows.’

In 2000 for Vienna’s ‘Holocaust Memorial’ Whiteread created an inverted library, again in concrete. We imagine books unwritten and unread, words unspoken and unheard, thoughts unthought.

Whiteread asks us to contemplate space: she turns space inside out; she examines the spaces beneath, beside, under and over; private, interior, secret spaces – the mystical spaces that are unseen and unexplored; and the spaces that surround and separate us – the spaces between us.

I suppose we tend to value material things precisely because they are visible, tangible, audible. Material objects can be weighed and measured; bought, owned and sold.

But our lives are lived in the spaces between material objects. Our thoughts and ideas, feelings and passions, memories and relationships are played out in the spaces between us. Surely we should learn to value the intangible as much as the tangible.

Perhaps as a society we are increasingly appreciating the immaterial. It’s reported that consumers are turning to experiences instead of things; that they are as comfortable renting as owning; that they crave happy memories more than just stuff. In business we talk nowadays about the intangible economy: wealth is less and less held in machinery, buildings and shops; it is located in software and services, databases and design, IT and IP. And consequently the nature of work itself is shifting, from manual to mental labour. Progressive governments are beginning to measure success by collective contentment and wellbeing, rather than just gross domestic product.

Of course, the transformation to an experience culture and an intangible economy poses its own challenges. Intangibles can be readily distributed, shared and scaled. But they can also be easily replicated, copied and stolen. Intangibles are difficult to measure, manage and protect. Some have argued that the intangible economy is responsible for growing social inequality.

Untitled - Stairs 2001

Untitled - Stairs 2001

Nonetheless, people working with brands should be more capable than others at navigating this intangible world. Because marketing and communication expertise is fundamentally concerned with creating intangible assets, directing emotional investment, establishing value for ideas. Marketers and agency people should also be masters of managing talent and inspiration; of measuring feelings and experiences.

I say ‘should’ because sometimes I think brand managers hesitate to recognise their core competence. They may be more at ease working within a narrower frame of reference: a world of products and promotions, campaigns and initiatives, platforms and distribution.

Perhaps marketers and agencies should be more self-confident, more expansive in their vision for their craft. Perhaps they should think of themselves as creating, managing and measuring intangible value in an increasingly intangible economy. Because nowadays we’re all living on solid air.

'You've been taking your time,
And you've been living on solid air.
You've been walking the line,
And you've been living on solid air.
Don't know what's going 'round inside,
And I can tell you that it's hard to hide,
When you're living on solid air.’

John Martyn, Solid Air

 

No. 163

‘Nice, But…’: Don’t Just Commentate, Advocate

I was 17 and we’d all been to a party in Ilford or Seven Kings or one of those places. It was the early hours of the morning and I was grateful to be squeezed into the back of the car – even though it was the boot of an estate. However uncomfortable the journey, I was at least on my way home, to my own bed.

As we drove through empty suburban streets, Romford-bound, everyone was happily reviewing the evening’s fashion and flirtations, characters and comedy. Suddenly through the chatter I heard the slow velvet tones of Debbie, our Essex femme fatale. Unaware that I was in the back of the car, she was about to offer her opinion on Jim. I was quite impressed that she knew who I was, but also fascinated to hear what she might say.

‘Ah, Jim…He’s nice, but…’

The packed vehicle broke into a chorus of laughter before she could finish the sentence. I was left pondering what might have been on Debbie’s mind. What personality problem, sartorial shortcoming or conversational quirk was she about to reveal? Her incomplete statement suggested to me that I was myself somewhat incomplete, lacking in some vital way. But I didn’t know how. For the following term at school I was periodically mocked as ‘Jim, he’s nice, but…’  

Some time later, in the early years of my advertising career, I found myself presenting a panoramic review of the big themes in contemporary culture to my Manchester-based motor insurance Client. I talked about grunge fashion, Gen X slackers and the critical significance of Wayne’s World and Super Nintendo; of the special resonance of Bart Simpson’s shorts and Gazza’s tears. And at the end of the session, my charming senior Client, June, paused for a while and pronounced: ‘That’s interesting, in’t it?’ We moved swiftly on.

I realised with the repetition of this phrase on subsequent occasions that June was happy to indulge my wide ranging cultural critiques, but that she struggled to see any particular relevance to the world of motor insurance. What had any of my social trends and media phenomena to do with comprehensive policies, no claims bonus and third party, fire and theft? I had not offered much by way of implied action and she wasn’t prepared to supply it. My observations were ‘nice, but….’

Over time I realised that I was demonstrating a common shortcoming of the brand strategist. It’s easier to describe change than to explain how to respond to it. It’s easier to step outside the category than to bring the outside world inside. It’s easier to commentate than to advocate.

And yet this is where the real value of our cultural expertise comes into play. Surely the most compelling and exhilarating challenge for a modern strategist is to help brands participate in, and shape, popular culture; to help them join in, not stand on the sidelines watching.

So don’t just tell your Clients that the world is going to be full of robots, 3-D printers and fridges that talk to each other. Help them understand how these and other developments will impact on their brand and their communication; and what they need to do about it.

If you just want to be interesting, become a trends forecaster, a cultural commentator. If you want to work in commercial creativity, you must turn interest into opportunity and action.

I’m conscious that in my short weekly essays I am myself often guilty of giving observations rather than directions; descriptions rather than recommendations. Maybe I’m enjoying being one stage removed from the responsibility of decision-making. Maybe Debbie was right all those years ago: ‘Nice, but…’

No. 119

Fresh Pants Every Day: The Galvanising Power of Positive Thinking

There used to be a small extension to a building society opposite Harold Wood Station. It was not perhaps a Stirling Prize winner, but it was the source of some pride for me, as I had a hand in creating it.

One summer when I was 19 I worked as a labourer. I learned how to dig holes, mix concrete, lean on a shovel and make tea. I learned that I wouldn’t survive on site if I came into work with The Guardian under my arm. And I learned a little about organizational culture.

We labourers sat on the lowest rung of a sophisticated hierarchical ladder. We looked up to the brickies, plasterers and plumbers; and in particular to the site aristocrats, the sparks. Everyone was aware of his position in the social order and everyone looked down on us.

And then there was the Management. We didn’t really know who they were or what they did; and they in turn didn’t endeavor to explain what we were doing, or to inspire us with wise words or visionary speeches. But every week or so, when we’d dug a significant trench or laid a bit of concrete (‘a nice drop of stuff’), a chap with a navy sports jacket and loosely knotted tie turned up. He didn’t say too much, just poked around with a stick, had a scratch and eventually said everything was fine to proceed. The blokes on site called him ‘The Man from Delmonte.’

You’d think that sitting at the bottom of a hierarchical organization with a distant management and a very limited understanding of our collective purpose, would lead to a disenchanted workforce. Far from it. We were happy in our work. We took pride in a hole well dug, a concrete well mixed, a job well done. And collectively we were boundlessly positive.

This was in no small part down to Mont, the chief labourer. Mont was tall and tan and young and muscly. He had Herculean strength and adamantine resolve. He spoke with a bright smile on his face and a rustic Essex burr that you’ll rarely hear today. One lunchtime, as we sat in our wooden hut, sipping sweet tea from tin mugs and eating Sunblest sandwiches from concrete-encrusted hands, he proudly revealed to me his secret: 'Do you know, Jim, there’s one thing I insist on in life. I wear fresh pants every day.’ 

You see, Mont was an eternal optimist. He had a phenomenal ability to put away yesterday’s troubles and to live life in the present. And his enthusiasm was infectious. Despite the medieval hierarchy, the lack of communication and vision, ours was a happy site, a functioning unit. It was a lesson I took with me into my advertising career.

The galvanizing force in any team, the animating energy, is enthusiasm; irresistible, intoxicating, inspiring enthusiasm. You can’t discover answers unless you’re eager to ask questions; you can’t create difference if you’re satisfied with the same; and you can’t anticipate the future unless you’re looking up towards the horizon. In my time at BBH we subscribed to the view that positive people have bigger, better ideas. I’m sure that’s true.

 It strikes me that one of the defining characteristics of our industry, alongside creativity, is enthusiasm. And it’s an increasingly precious commodity in a world beset by Brexit blues, abiding austerity, global terror and environmental decay. Perhaps we should make more of it.

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. In my experience Agencies are actually both fuelled by confidence and oiled by fear.  Every business needs a little paranoia to inoculate it against complacency. Every business needs a few people that are angry, awkward and discontent. But no business can sustain too many of them. And it’s a critical role of leadership to manage that mix.

Sadly I’m not sure if my Harold Wood construction is still a building society today. It’s probably a coffee shop or bookies, blow dry or nail bar, Pound Shop or Pound Land. But maybe I’m getting a little cynical. I need to put on some fresh pants.

This piece first appeared in Campaign on 17 August 2016.

No. 97

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