‘Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There’: In Praise of Inaction

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In 217 BC Quintus Fabius Maximus found himself defending Rome against the superior forces of the great Carthaginian general Hannibal. Hannibal was an outstanding strategist, and he had already defeated two Roman armies on Italian soil.

Quintus was no fool. Naturally cautious, he knew better than to risk his regiments in another pitched battle. And so he targeted the enemy's supply lines. He harassed and frustrated, delayed and exhausted the Carthaginian troops. And gradually he ground them down. Rome survived to fight another day, and a grateful public named Quintus ‘Cunctator’, ‘the Delayer’. He was subsequently credited as the originator of guerrilla warfare

'One man, by delaying, restored the state to us.’

Through the centuries many military leaders have been inspired by ‘The Delayer’. The Roman Emperor Augustus was wont to advise his commanders ‘festina lente’, which means ‘make haste slowly’ (or ’more haste, less speed’). And at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 Napoleon declared:

‘Never interfere with an enemy while he is in the process of destroying himself.’

The strategy of inaction has been deployed in other fields too. John Wayne summarised his acting style as: ‘Don’t act. React.’ And in 1945 the theatrical producer Martin Grabel is reported to have given this stage direction to an overly expressive actor:

‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’

Grabel’s play-on-words was subsequently enlisted to the field of politics by President Dwight Eisenhower. He used it to mock his industrious Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In July 2016 The Economist observed that German commentators had coined a new verb:

‘“To merkel” means to delay decisions while time diminishes problems to a manageable size, and opponents make valuable mistakes.’ 

Clearly on occasion there is a real and tangible advantage to be gained by delaying; doing nothing; postponing; kicking the can down the road. Problems blow over, solutions reveal themselves, competitors expose their weaknesses.

One has to ask: Do we in the marketing and communications industry make proper use of the strategy of inaction?

Well, we like to think of ourselves as fast and flexible, agile and responsive. We’re proactive, always on, constantly improving. We seek first mover advantage. Delay is not generally something we advocate or celebrate, particularly in the digital age.

But, I wonder, in our day-to-day engagements do we occasionally jump too quickly to conclusions? Are we sometimes too ready with our responses; too free with our opinions; too prompt with our decisions? Do we leap before we look?

It seems to me our energy and sense of urgency on short-term issues mask our passivity and paralysis with regard to more serious long-term corporate challenges.

What happened to that new remuneration model? Where have we got to on the radical efficiency drive? How’s that plan to create our own brands? And what about that initiative to introduce more diversity to our ranks? Et cetera. Et cetera.

I fear we’re a sector of short-term vigour and long-term inertia. We rush in where angels fear to tread, and hesitate where angels hope for solutions. We merely create the illusion of industry.

There is one adman I’ve heard expound the strategy of inaction. The sage planner and entrepreneur Charles Vallance is fond of the dictum:

‘If you ignore a problem long enough, it will go away by itself.’

He might well add: ‘Leaving more time and space to focus on the serious issues.’

Vallance thereby aligns himself with Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Emperor Augustus, Napoleon, John Wayne, Eisenhower and Angela Merkel. They would make an entertaining dinner party.

'Ooh, little girl
Please don't wait for me.
Wait patiently for love
Someday will surely come.
And I'm still waiting.’

 Diana Ross, 'I’m Still Waiting’ (Hal Davis & Deke Richards)



No. 195

Dreams of Leaving: 'It is Easy to See the Beginnings of Things, and Harder to See the Ends’

Joan Didion in the 1970's

Joan Didion in the 1970's

'I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.’
Joan Didion, 'In the Islands’

I recently watched an excellent documentary about Joan Didion, the essayist and novelist who has described the fragmented American experience from the end of the 1960s to the present day (‘Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold’).

Didion’s elegant hands sketch patterns in space as she speaks. She chooses her words carefully and isn’t afraid of silence. Her birdlike frame seems fragile, but her eyes are penetrating and alert. She is 83.

'People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character… Character- the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life- is the source from which self-respect springs.’
'On Self-Respect'

Each morning Didion would fetch a Coca-Cola from the fridge and settle down to read - with salted almonds, cigarettes and sunglasses. In silence. And then to work.

She wrote with a clear, concise style, making acute observations, revealing melancholy truths. She wrote about all manner of things: about the Californian counter-culture; about Joni Mitchell, the Doors, John Wayne and the Reagans; about power, corruption and lies; grief, self-respect and keeping a notebook; about the special relationship between a mother and her daughter.

‘We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.’
‘On Going Home’

I was particularly taken with an essay first published in 1967, on falling in and out of love with New York, ‘Goodbye to All That’.

'It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.'
‘Goodbye to All That’

These words rang true for me - of work, of relationships, of life in general. Beginnings tend to be clean, precise, definite. They can be thrilling, anxious, exciting. The first day at school, the first hello, the first kiss. A new town, new friends, a new job. The sudden realization that summer is here.

But ends seem to creep up on us. The weary nods, the knowing looks, the nagging frustrations. The doubt and dithering, blame and bickering. The fog of uncertainty. The sense of familiarity.

'Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen.'
‘Goodbye to All That’

We should be mindful of this when we consider the world of work. We all dream of leaving. It’s just the human condition. But this isn’t necessarily a reason to go. Or at least not right now.

It’s much smarter to focus on beginnings: on reasons to start rather than reasons to stop; on why we should embark on a new venture, rather than why we should depart from our current one; on hope rather than depair.

Choose to join a business, not to leave one.

No. 166

The Bin or the Bottom Drawer? Learning When to Dispose of an Idea and When to Save it for a Rainy Day

In 1953 John Wayne went to see director Dick Powell. Wayne was due to fulfil the last of a three-picture deal with Howard Hughes’ RKO studio and was keen to discuss candidate films. Powell popped out of his office for a moment and, when he returned, Wayne had dug a script out of the bin and was enthusing about it. This was the movie he wanted to make.

The script was for ‘The Conqueror.’ Originally written with Marlon Brando in mind, it told the story of the twelfth century Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan. Brando had turned the project down, citing contractual obligations elsewhere, and Powell thought the script was absurd. Yet Wayne sensed that this heroic warrior emperor was right up his street, and rookie director Powell didn’t feel he could say no to The Duke in his prime. ‘The Conqueror’ went into production in 1954 and was released in 1956. It is widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made.

‘It was just like a Western, only with different costumes.’
John Wayne

‘The Conqueror’ was epic exoticism. It was all nomadic chieftains, rampaging tribesmen, theatrical battles and abusive relationships. There were fireside feasts, dubious moustaches, mobile yurts and a treacherous shaman. There were galloping horses, occasional camels, a dancing bear and an incongruous black panther. Utah’s Escalante Valley substituted for the Mongolian steppes. Only two people of Asian descent were cast and only one of them got to speak. The dialogue was particularly grating, having been written in a kind of Hollywood Homeric that none of the actors, least of all Wayne, looked comfortable with.

‘I grieve that I cannot salute you as I would…I am bereft of spit!’

‘The Conqueror’ was justifiably panned by the critics, and at the box office it failed to recoup the substantial six million dollars it had cost to produce. It was responsible for the demise of RKO and was the last film Howard Hughes was involved with. Worst of all, the movie had been shot close to a US nuclear test site and, tragically, many of the cast and crew, including Wayne, were subsequently diagnosed with cancer.

In the years that followed Hughes spent twice the original production budget buying back all the prints, and he wouldn’t allow ‘The Conqueror’ on TV. In 1976, in the last few months of his life, the now reclusive billionaire, unwashed and unkempt, watched the film repeatedly, alone in the penthouse suite of a Bahamian hotel.

It’s never easy to put ideas in the bin. And it’s harder still to leave them there.

Ideas can hang around like insensitive guests at a party, lingering long after they’re welcome. However much we recognise that a concept is flawed - that it doesn’t quite address the brief, that it has not been properly realised in execution - we rarely forget our initial enthusiasm. We cling to the hope that some subtle adjustment or radical rewrite will solve everything and will realise the true potential of our original thought.

I’ve often seen fundamentally sound pitch decks bloated by insightful but irrelevant observations that the planners can’t bring themselves to edit out. I’ve seen historic hypotheses cling to the core argument like barnacles to a ship’s hull, weighing it down, slowing its progress.

I’ve seen old scripts pop up in creative reviews, rebooted and refreshed for a different sector and brand. I’ve seen concepts rekindled, headlines refashioned, images repurposed. Sadly, for the most part these ideas tend to be as underwhelming as they were the first time. But now they’re ill-suited to the brief as well.

The learning is clear: if in doubt, cut it out. Consign the banal to the bin. And leave it there.

And yet sometimes - just sometimes - I’ve been surprised by a concept which, when dusted down and tidied up, looks surprisingly spick and span. I particularly recall the previously unloved Levi’s scripts that returned triumphant when the time was right, when the context was different, when the appetite had changed.

Occasionally it is worth putting an idea in the bottom drawer and saving it for a rainy day.

Around the same time that filming began on ‘The Conqueror,’ the great American dramatist Tennessee Williams picked up a short play called ‘A Place of Stone.’ He had drafted it the previous year and, frustrated with how it was progressing, had put it away unfinished. Looking at the work afresh, Williams found new inspiration and impetus. By the summer of 1954, after a good deal of thought and application, he had re-crafted it into ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’

The key is to know when to reach for the bottom drawer and when to aim for the bin.

No. 145