‘I Want To Be An Active Verb’: Striving To Be a Cause, Not an Effect

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

‘They’re all old here, except you and me…They never do anything: they only discuss whether what other people do is right. Come and give them something to discuss.’

Hypatia, ‘Misalliance’

Just before Christmas I saw ‘Misalliance’, a rarely performed play by George Bernard Shaw (at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond).

This light comedy from 1910 asks us to consider the constraints of class, convention, gender and the generational divide. It features Hypatia Tarleton, the daughter of a successful businessman, who is bored, restless and resentful. She repeatedly voices her frustration with the straitjacket of Edwardian society’s customs and codes:

'Men like conventions because men made them. I didn’t make them: I don’t like them. I won’t keep them.'

At one point Hypatia expresses her annoyance thus:

’I don't want to be good; and I don't want to be bad: I just don't want to be bothered about either good or bad: I want to be an active verb.’

A compelling choice of words. Clearly it’s not enough for Hypatia passively to be seen, admired, desired, chosen, judged. She yearns actively to decide for herself; to experiment and experience; to seek and find; to achieve and sometimes to fail. She wants to be the subject of a verb, not its object; to be a cause, not an effect; to do, not just to be.

We may recognize Hypatia’s frustration from the world of work. Sometimes, particularly when we are young and less powerful within an organization, our objectives, tasks and schedules seem entirely to be determined by others: by the demands of our Clients, the whims of our bosses, the personal passions of our CEO. We may work in an agency, but we have very little agency.

Maybe like Hypatia we should, as far as possible, strive to set the agenda rather than have it set for us; to seize the day rather than let the day seize us; to be an ‘active verb’ in our own careers. Easier said than done perhaps. But you’d be surprised how positively leaders respond to colleagues that have a clear sense of personal mission. And the best businesses thrive by integrating individual and collective goals. So what, I wonder, would you choose as your own active verb?

Brands too would do well to reflect on Hypatia’s theme. Dan Weiden, the co-founder of Weiden+Kennedy, once observed:

'The best brands are verbs. Nike exhorts. IBM solves. Sony dreams.'

I’m sure he was right. Mediocre brands merely exist within a category, in a sector, on a shelf. They respond to events rather than precipitate them; react rather than act. Great brands, by contrast, animate the category, rewrite the rules, make the market.

We should all therefore ask: ‘What fundamentally does our brand do?’ ‘How does it impact on its consumers’ lives?’ ‘What is it seeking to change?’

‘What is our brand’s verb?’

I suspect this would be a more valuable discussion than the hours spent defining brand personality; the earnest debates crafting lists of nuanced traits, tones and characteristics: ‘passionate, warm, witty, friendly, helpful, caring.’ I could go on…

Yes, the best brands are indeed verbs. But Weiden might well have added: ‘The worst brands are adjectives.’

No. 166

‘All Progress Depends on the Unreasonable Man’: George Bernard Shaw’s Lessons on Change

George Bernard Shaw

Over the festive break I attended a very good production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (The Donmar Warehouse until 18 February). Shaw’s plays are rarely performed nowadays. They are considered rather wordy, worthy and long. And Shaw himself, with his extravagant beard, prolific pamphleteering and occasionally eccentric opinions, can come across to modern sensibilities as a curious figure.

However, this Donmar production gives us pause for thought. Shaw’s story of a fifteenth century French peasant woman who leads the fight to liberate her country, considers themes that chime with us today. With her wide-eyed patriotism and direct engagement with god, Joan rejects expertise and elites, authority and hierarchy. She’s a populist or demagogue, if you like. And, inevitably, her simple faith and unwavering self-belief present quite a threat to the established order. An English Nobleman sums up the problem thus:

’If this cant of serving their country once takes hold of them, goodbye to the authority of their feudal lords, and goodbye to the authority of the Church.’

This prompted me to wonder how we, in the commercial communications sector, should respond to the events that gripped the wider world in 2016. Should we, like Joan, commit to more direct embrace of the tasks in hand; to unmediated encounters with Clients and consumers; to bypassing the established methods and modes? Should we design our own positive take on populism?

Saint Joan’s vivid contemporary relevance derives from Shaw’s active engagement with the world around him. His was a ‘theatre of ideas’ that demanded audience attention. He had a restless mind, an opinion about everything and a commitment to political and social change.

‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

These words resonated with me because, I confess, I have always felt uncomfortable with conflict. I naturally tend towards compromise and consensus. So when ill feelings arise, I’m keen to build bridges, change the subject, leave the room. However, I have become increasingly aware that the moderate path bears modest fruit: change needs challenge; progress needs protest.

As we embark on a new year and consider our commercial resolutions, perhaps like Shaw we would do well to set aside our prudence. If we want to see transformational change in our business, we may need to stop making sense. We may need to be unreasonable.


‘Remould It Nearer To the Heart’s Desire’

In the Shaw Library at the London School of Economics you can see a stained glass window designed by George Bernard Shaw for the Fabian Society in 1910. Two men with hammers pound a globe that sits on an anvil.  At the top of the window are the words: ‘Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire.’

Over the years I interviewed a great many young Planners who were applying for positions in the Agency. As well as asking them about the advertising they worked on, the campaigns they admired, the brands that could do with some help, I would always invite them to consider the future of the industry: Where is the communications sector heading? How is Planning evolving? How can we remould our business ‘nearer to the heart’s desire’?

Some of the young candidates found discussion of such broad themes uncomfortable. They were daily employed in the execution of Agency and departmental strategies, not the setting of them. They didn’t have their hands on the corporate tiller, so how could they have an opinion on where the boat should sail?

I’m not sure I ever found this an acceptable excuse. We all find it easy to criticise and complain. But in the modern age we can only expect progress if we have a point of view on how to achieve it. With the new year upon us, whatever our place in the hierarchy, we should all ask ourselves: What would we do with a blank sheet of paper? How would we anticipate and enhance the evolving commercial landscape? How would we fashion the industry of the future?


‘What Do We Want? Gradual Change’

The Fabian Society, for whom Shaw designed his stained glass window, was a group of socialist intellectuals who believed in reform rather than revolution. Its commitment to gradualism and respect for the incumbent democratic processes may at first seem rather modest. It reminds me of the joke that circulated when I was at college about the Liberal Party on a protest march:

‘What do we want? Gradual change.
When do we want it? In due course.’

But delay can be decisive. The Fabian Society took its name from the Roman general Quintus Fabius who is often credited as the father of guerrilla warfare. His primary military tactic was the avoidance of direct confrontation with the enemy: he consistently delayed engaging Hannibal and his Carthaginian invasion force until the moment was right; and then he struck hard.

In the years since it was founded in 1884, the Fabian Society demonstrated that you can achieve a great deal through argument and influence; through patient pragmatism and change from within. The Fabians founded the London School of Economics in 1895 and they were a founding organisation of the Labour Party in 1900. Fabians were prominent in successive Labour Governments and Fabian thinking inspired much of the modern welfare state.

Perhaps the Fabian Society sets an example to the vast majority of people in the marketing and communications business that work within large, complex organisations. It often seems easier to imagine the industry of the future from scratch, rather than from existing structures. Being an enthusiast for change can be intimidating when you’re only a cog in the machine. 

The Fabians encouraged their members to ‘educate, agitate, organise.’ Everyone can contribute to change through debate and advocacy; through designing trials and tests; through setting an example. Transforming a large incumbent business takes time and patience, diplomacy and cunning. But the rewards for success can be thrilling.

Happy new year!

No. 112

(Don’t) Turn Your Back On Me

Edvard Munch

I attended an Edvard Munch show at the Tate Modern. Dark, melancholy, awkward stuff. Angst, loneliness, jealousy. A difficult relationship with society in general and women in particular.

It was striking that he painted quite a lot of pictures of women with their backs to the viewer. A powerful expression of exclusion, loneliness, unrequited love.

I spent my youth being turned away from London’s elite nightspots. Perhaps it was the sleeveless plaid shirt, the white towelling socks, the caked on Country Born hair gel. But the bitter sense of disappointment hasn’t left me. I can taste it now. And I learned more about clubbing from Spandau Ballet videos than actual experience…

‘He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’

Handel, Messiah

As a young executive I was invited to apply for an Amex card. I applied and was duly rejected. Naturally I was confused and disappointed and I never spoke to them again. I’m sure consumers often feel a similar sense of exclusion from brands. Refusal and denial are shaming, embarrassing. The fear of rejection is almost as powerful as rejection itself. And then there are the coded gestures, the arcane language, the gender and cultural specific semiotics. The feeling that you don’t belong, that you’re not welcome here. It’s a private conversation, you wouldn’t understand.

I guess that’s why strategists so often recommend that brands are more open, inviting, transparent. We want brands to look us in the eye, to reach out from the canvas with a knowing glance and a welcoming smile. Easier said than done, of course.


Vilhelm Hammershoi

Yet the turned back does not have to be all bad.

The Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi often painted a solitary woman with her back to the viewer. She goes about her daily routine in a quiet middle class home, lost in private thought. Hammershoi’s subjects seem more loved than feared. This distinctive reverse view gains its power in part from being so unusual. But also from the sense of intrusion on private time. The sense of seeing, but not being seen. It’s a little awkward, but also intriguing. Am I encountering her truest self, her identity freed of relationships, social constraints and concerns about appearance?

It reminds me of the oft’ cited quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘Ethics is what you do when no one is looking.’ (I’ve uncovered versions of this quote from many sources. Henry Ford said ‘quality means doing it right when no one’s looking’. And of course, most recently Bob Diamond suggested ‘culture is how we behave when no one’s watching.’)

So how do brands behave when no one is looking? What would the brand encountered in a quiet room be up to? Would we find it dutifully engaged in customer-centric endeavours? Would its jaunty personality be sustained when there’s no one to impress? Would we discover an honest engagement with issues of citizenship and responsibility?

I’m worried that we’d most likely find the brand plotting a marketing and PR plan. I’m worried that in business as in politics too much thought nowadays is given to how things will play, how they will be perceived and reported. I suspect that too often the brand’s instinctive ethical and commercial compass has been replaced by recourse to brand image tracking and favourability ratings.

I appreciate this may be a curious thing for an adman to say. I should perhaps celebrate the triumph of modern marketing, the inevitable victory of perception in the All Seeing Age. Perhaps like a modern celebrity the smile must always be on, the guard must always be up. But it still makes me a little melancholy…

And what of Agencies? How do we behave when no one’s looking?

We are often perceived as conventions of feckless youth and superannuated yuppies. And I confess I was a little uncomfortable when Clients first started plugging in laptops, decanting lattes and working at our offices. I worried that they’d disapprove of our timekeeping, that they’d be offended by our cussing.

But as more Clients have made the Agency their mid-week home, I think the Agency has benefitted. The Embedded Client often sees passion, industry, talent and integrity. They get to see our truest self. And it’s not as bad as they, or we, may have expected.

In the words of the great Brit Soul luminary, David Grant…‘I’ve been watching you watching me. I’ve been liking you, Baby, liking me…’

First published BBH Labs: 10/09/

No. 15