About Time


'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

The Art of Adjacency: Don’t Just Look Up, Look Sideways

In the splendid film noir, In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart stars as Dix Steele, a troubled Hollywood scriptwriter who falls for Laurel, his next-door neighbour, played by Gloria Grahame. At one point Laurel compliments Dix on a romantic scene he has just written.

Laurel: ‘I love the love scene – it’s very good.’

Dix: ‘Well, that’s because they’re not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one: me mixing grapefruit, you sitting over there, dopey, half asleep. Anyone could tell we’re in love.’

Good advice. Perhaps sometimes in the world of commercial creativity we are too direct. If we want to suggest affection, we show an emotional embrace. If we want to communicate anger, we have people ranting and raving. If we want to convey disappointment, we cut to tears.

Dix Steele encourages us to look at adjacent events, ancillary actions. The empty seat on a bus leaving town, the expectant eyes of a faithful hound, the lipstick traces on a cigarette. These incidental asides can be more telling, more memorable, more poignant. Because in real life emotional truth is more often inferred than declared; it is more often implicit than explicit.

The art of adjacency does not just apply to creative execution. It’s also relevant to strategy. For some years now the first instinct of the strategist when invited to promote a brand has been to focus on its essence, to ladder up to some higher order benefit, to find some unifying social purpose. But occasionally it pays not to look up, but to look sideways.

Magners convinced people to engage with hitherto unfashionable cider, not by celebrating the brand’s provenance or product, but by encouraging the over-ice serve. Tate Modern attracted young people to hitherto inaccessible contemporary art, not through the art itself, but through the contemporary music its target enjoyed. Lurpak suggested that it’s not just the butter, but what you do with the butter, that counts.

Sometimes the answers to a brand’s problems reside at the margins, not at the core. Sometimes they can be found in the neighbouring category, in the incidental asides, in the associated interests. Marketing history is filled with case studies of businesses that didn’t just celebrate the essence of their brand, but sought imaginatively to reframe how that brand was perceived.

Betty Crocker decided that it was not about the cake mix, but the added egg. Gillette determined that it was not about the razor, but the blade. Esso proposed that it was not about the forecourt, but the toilets. Instagram resolved that it was not about the words, but the pictures. The V & A suggested it was not about the gallery, but the café.

So perhaps the answer for tyres resides, not in the their relationship with the road, but their relationship with the drive. Perhaps the answer for mattresses resides not in their impact when you’re asleep, but when you’re awake. Perhaps the answer for banking can be found not in money, but in time.  Maybe opera should be looking at ballet, tea at coffee.

I could go on…

The message is a simple one. Before we rush to distillation and elevation, we should consider strategic and creative adjacency. We should look sideways at what we could learn from neighbouring sectors, analogous brands, incidental behaviour. There we may find the catalysts and fresh perspectives that will enable us to reframe and rethink our own brand. The risk is that if we’re always looking at the sky, we may not see the roses.


No. 101