The Memory Machine

It’s almost a year since Gwyn and I left BBH. This is a piece I wrote soon after our departure, reflecting on my time at the Agency and the broader theme of memory.

It was first published in the Winter 2016 edition of You Can Now magazine.

'I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn.’

I Remember, I Remember/Thomas Hood

When I was a child my mother often read this piece to me from The Golden Treasury of Poetry. I could tell that nostalgia was a powerful thing, even when I’d not lived long enough to experience it.

Now that I am of robust middle age, memory and remembrance of things past are powerfully present. I’m increasingly drawn to reflect on my history in order to make sense of my future. And increasingly I have to guard against the corrosive force of sentimentality. (As Lou Reid said, 'I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.’)

I have recently left the advertising industry after twenty five years’ happy service. It’s interesting to consider what I can and can’t remember.

I have forgotten endless meetings in poorly lit conference rooms at home and abroad. I’ve forgotten the compromises, the arguments, the politics. The indignity of labour. I’ve forgotten the decks and documents, the Power Point and power plays. I’ve forgotten many of the Pitches that we won and lost. I’ve forgotten entire strategies and campaigns. Clients that were good, bad and ugly, often at the same time.

People, events and things that once seemed terribly important are diminished by time, their memory fading to grey. All forgotten.

So what do I remember?

I remember Dav on the harmonica, Reddy on the ukulele, Kev on the penny whistle. I remember Kidney conducting, Kendall coaching, Pollard swearing, Wardy giggling, Stacey smoking, Charlie punching the palm of his hand. I remember Ben’s acrostics, Nigel’s aphorisms and JB’s acid wit.  I remember Bish on the table, Fernanda on the dance floor, Dylan on the football pitch. I remember Joe having fun, Blatch having disasters, Pepp having a quiet word. I remember John Hegarty singing Fairytale of New York. And more besides...

It seems that I can recall with vivid clarity faces, phrases, places, gestures, and moments. It’s a kaleidoscope of trivial detail. Why are these the dominant memories of my employment?

Virginia Woolf once said, ‘I am writing to a rhythm, not to a plot’. I think perhaps that’s how my career recollections have played out. I have lost the plot, so to speak. The grand narrative of success and disappointment, trophies and triumphs, has slipped quietly into the night. I’m left with this curious soup of the incidental and the inconsequential. I guess it’s the rhythm of the Agency’s culture that I’m recalling; the rhythm of a great Agency working in harmony, marching as one to the beat of a creative drum. I’m inclined to say that my memories are predominantly of people and personalities because culture matters; because culture is the critical determinant of career success and fulfilment. I do believe this.

But I’m also conscious that we can’t entirely trust the evidence of our memories. We are unreliable narrators of our own lives.

I have read that, according to the science of memory, we generally do not recall actual events. For the most part we call to mind the memories of those events; and sometimes the memories of the memories. And so our recollections of the past can adjust and evolve with retelling and remembering. Memory has been compared to a palimpsest, a parchment on which the original script has been erased and overwritten. In other words, memory is a ‘multi-layered record’. It is flexible and plastic. It is creative, reconstructive and autobiographical.

That’s why so many people swear that they saw Bugs Bunny in Disneyland and the Sex Pistols in Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. Some call it False Memory Syndrome; others call it wishful thinking.

Some time ago I attended a performance of Harold Pinter’s Old Times in which Pinter considered the malleability of truth. As the character Anna put it:

‘There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things that I remember which may never have happened, but as I recall them so they take place.’

Harold Pinter/ Old Times

The play’s programme notes helpfully explained the psychology of memory.

‘Two forces go head-to-head in memory. The force of correspondence acts to make our memories true to the way things were, while the force of coherence acts to tell a story that suits the self. We know that autobiographical memory is a reconstructive process, drawing together different sources of information and putting them together in ways that can differ subtly from telling to telling. These dynamic reshapings often serve to make memories as true to how we want the past to be as to how it actually was.’

Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, quoting Psychologist Martin Conway

So my recollections of my time at work are both a reflection of the truth and of my own sense of self. I make my memories and my memories make me.

It strikes me that the communications industry has long put the creative, autobiographical nature of memory to good use. It has supplied contexts for experiences, ways of remembering; reconfigurations of events, so that we feel more positively disposed to repeat them.

That beer was more refreshing, that holiday was more rewarding, that car was more thrilling, that conversation was more entertaining.  It was the real thing, the ultimate drive. It was the happiest place on earth, the best a man could get. It got you back to you. You loved it.

Advertising is more than a promise for the future. It is a reconstruction of the past.

Of course the past and future are inextricably linked. I recently read an interview with Sir Nicholas Penny, the outgoing Director of the National Gallery, in which he made the case for respecting our heritage: ‘Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those that have a genuine feeling for the past’. I’m sure he’s right. By giving a brand historical context, we give it a narrative that makes sense of its promises for the future.

Critically, memories can sustain consumers through a brand’s absence.  Memories excuse marketers from the expense of ‘always on’, ever-present media strategies; and consumers from the waking nightmare that these strategies represent. Because memories endure when we’re not around. At its most powerful advertising supplies the recollective material for enduring experiences and relationships. Advertising is a Memory Machine.

I wonder do we properly appreciate this? Are we so concerned with momentary messages that we ignore more meaningful memories? Do we ever ask what memories we are seeking to inspire for our brand, lest perhaps it is forgotten in our absence? Are we so eager to create a vision of the future that we disregard our vision of the past?

To conclude where we began. In another verse from The Golden Treasury of Poetry, Christina Rosetti made a plea that resonates through time and particularly rings true for a middle aged ad man looking for a new frontier: remember me.

‘Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell of our future to be planned:
Only remember me.’

Remember/Christina Rosetti

No. 69