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

Achievements, Assets, Advocacy: The AAA Approach to Career Progress

Ilya Repin, Volga Boatman

Ilya Repin, Volga Boatman

I didn’t really enjoy being Planning Department Head.

I’d call Planners’ Meetings to rally the troops and share experiences. A motley crew of the bashful, intense and sartorially challenged would file silently into the Indigo Room. They’d sit staring into their notes, unwilling to disclose their secrets, reluctant to make fools of themselves. I’d present my ‘Broad and Shallow Planning’ philosophy and they’d glare back at me as if I was a buffoon. I found it all a bit passive aggressive. And I longed for a few Account People to puncture the tension and jolly things along.

I walked out of those meetings speculating on the collective noun for Planners: a Confusion of Planners, an Awkwardness of Planners, a Circumspection?

And then there were those times when a member of my Department popped half an hour in the diary for a ‘catch-up.’ Blimey. I wonder what they could want? Please don’t let it be another resignation…Generally they were just unhappy; they didn’t feel valued; they wanted to know my long-term plan for their career. ‘Can I work on a more glamorous account? Can I have a pay rise? Can I have a new job title?’

The truth was I rarely had anything that could really be described as a long-term plan for any individual. I was mostly just trying to get people performing at their best within roles that served the commercial needs of the Agency. I was often too busy worrying about immediate job allocation to ponder enduring career development. And I rarely had spare accounts, budget, or titles to distribute. I felt a bit useless.

At length I realised that I could at least offer my colleagues some direction on how they could advance. I was conscious that the feedback you get from line managers is generally pretty nebulous. I wanted to give them something more consistent and tangible; something they could refer back to at appraisal time.

To my mind, if you are to progress as a Planner, you need to deliver on three fronts.

i) Achievements

However much we may applaud effort, enthusiasm, talent and good intentions, we’re none of us in the game of valiant defeat. If you want to get on in an Agency, you need to be associated with success - whether that be commercial, cultural or creative. You need to be part of a winning team: winning business; winning awards; winning plaudits and client approval; plotting a path to growth, demonstrating success.

Inevitably, you may say: ‘But I’m not able to achieve much in my current role. How can I win on a losing team?’ And that may be a fair complaint. But never assume that it’s easier to win on more celebrated accounts. Sometimes those accounts are crawling with senior management, such that it’s difficult for younger staff to make an impression. You may make a bigger impact where the expectations are smaller. Sometimes, on the tough pieces of business, just holding on is regarded as victory.

ii) Assets

Nowadays we talk a lot about ‘making, not managing.’ This principle should be applied to your career. Progressive Planners create assets that are tangible, visible, shareable. You should endeavour to create thought pieces, training programmes, cultural initiatives that have your name on them. Lead the Agency’s understanding of behavioural science; volunteer to write new business points of view; initiate an outreach programme for working class schools; organise a yoga class. Coin a phrase, write an article, invent a process, build a team. Make stuff.

Many years ago I put together a compendium of different approaches to strategic problems. I called it ‘Jim’s Planning Tool Kit.’ It was relatively well received, and my boss suggested that I invite my colleagues in the different BBH offices to contribute their own Planning tools, so as to make a more comprehensive ‘BBH Planning Tool Kit.’ I rather irritatingly demurred. I explained that, if I did that, the Toolkit wouldn’t be ‘Jim’s.’

iii) Advocacy

There’s a common assumption that job allocation is the unique preserve of the Department Head. But this is to misunderstand the subtleties of the process. The Planning Director may hold an individual in high esteem; may recommend him or her to a particular position. But if the relevant Business Director doesn’t share that view, or has some reservations, then it can be a very hard sell.

The truth is that job allocation is a marketplace. Every individual in the Department is a stock with value that rises or falls depending on the broader reputation that person has in the Agency. So you need your colleagues to believe in your worth, just as much as you do yourself. You need their advocacy - because individual success is very closely tied to team performance. Me needs we.

So this is my guide to AAA performance. If you can achieve things - commercially, culturally or creatively; if you can develop assets that are clearly associated with your name; if you can earn advocacy within the broader Agency community, then your career is bound to progress – with or without the help of your Department Head.

(You can read more career advice from a variety of authors in the 'How To Get On' series on the Guest Editor section of the APG website.)

Time for a festive break, I think.
Next post with be on Thursday 4 January.
Have a restful Christmas.
See you on the other side…

'It's coming on Christmas.
They're cutting down trees,
They're putting up reindeer,
And singing songs of joy and peace.
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on.'

 Joni Mitchell, River


No. 161


Garden and Woodland Special


Learning from Lilies: Strip Away the Context

I recently attended Painting the Modern Garden, an excellent exhibition examining the garden in art between the 1860s and 1920s. (It runs at the Royal Academy in London until 20 April.)

In the late nineteenth century there was a horticultural revolution. Bourgeois Europeans and middle class Americans had affluence and leisure time, and a yearning to preserve something natural against the march of industrialisation. Gardening became an obsession. They studied, imported, cultivated and collected. One contemporary writer proclaimed, ‘I love compost like one loves a woman.’

Artists seem to have been in the front ranks of this revolution. Gardens provided a subject to express their thoughts about nature, beauty, colour and light. Gardens could suggest interior as well as exterior truths. Pissaro, Renoir and Bonnard; Sargent, Van Gogh and Matisse. The great painters of the day repeatedly set their easels up outside, in the garden.

Painting the Modern Garden is an exhibition of intoxicating colour: radiant, ravishing yellows, pinks and purples; intense sensory explosions. One feels the heat and languor of a long Summer’s afternoon. White linen, lace and crinolines. Let’s play croquet on the lawn, take tea on the terrace, reel around the fountain. Sunflowers, dahlias, peonies and poppies. Come consider the chrysanthemums, tend the rhododendrons with me.

And then, of course, there was Monet and his wondrous water-lilies.

At Giverney Monet painted water-lilies over and over again. He studied them, scrutinized them, isolated them in their stillness, floating in the reflective water and changing light. He removed them from their context. They became abstract contemplations of colour, tone, atmosphere and silence.

One critic observed: ‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.’

I was struck by this comment and found myself thinking about the role of context in brand marketing and communication.

Context is central to good marketing. If we can understand a brand’s place in the world, we can promote its relevance more effectively. And the broader the cultural context considered, the deeper the understanding. But whilst context is critical to comprehension, effective communication requires compression, distillation and focus. So ultimately we must strip context away.

Too often we fail in this respect. We try to cram our messaging with visual, verbal and conceptual cues. Show the user, signal the occasion, reference the tradition, give the reason-to-believe, bash out the benefit. Communication becomes loud, cluttered, busy and bewildering. Context can be constricting.

Imagine if you could express your brand as an abstract truth, not an observed reality; an intense distillation, not an actual depiction. Imagine if you could strip away the context, narrow the frame, focus on the essence itself.

What would you say? What would we see? How would we feel?

Why We Go on Awaydays: A Reminder from Shakespeare

‘Good servant, tell this youth what ‘tis to love…
It is to be all made of sighs and tears.
It is to be all made of faith and service.
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty and observance.
All humbleness, all patience and impatience.
All purity, all trial, all observance.’

As You Like It, V, ii

Last week I saw a marvellous production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre in London (running until 29 February).

As the programme notes point out, As You Like It is a ‘green world’ comedy. Its characters escape the oppressive regime of the city for the Forest of Arden. They’re leaving behind convention, hierarchies and the pressure of the present. In the forest they can be more contemplative, philosophical, romantic. They can express themselves freely; they can imagine possibilities; they can explore new roles and identities. They undergo transformations, revelations.

In recent years we’ve perhaps become a little sceptical about Awaydays. The heart sinks at the awkwardness of seeing our senior staff in their weekend casuals. We shun the flip-charts and Post-Its, gummy bears and energiser drinks; the bumptious facilitator and the embarrassing ice-breakers. We balk at the expense in time and money. And so generally we end up just taking a couple of hours in a conference room over at the Media Agency. The future can wait…

But I’m inclined to say that genuine Awaydays justify the cost. Increasingly we have our heads down, dealing with today’s pressing challenges; we rarely look up to talk about tomorrow’s. Awaydays provide an opportunity to draw a line in the sand, to consider broader themes and more distant horizons, to dream new possibilities and imagine the unthought.

And Awaydays do indeed gain something from being away.

‘There’s no clock in the forest.’

Orlando, As You Like It

‘Let’s Play Crusaders’: The Price of Difference

Martin and I shared a bedroom overlooking the back gardens of Heath Park Road. In the summer you could see all the other kids in the street - the Richards, the Chergwins et al - playing Cowboys and Indians in their own little domains. 

‘Let’s play Crusaders,’ we determined. (The ‘70s were more innocent times, somewhat lacking a proper historical context…)

Mum made us white smocks from old sheets and we imprinted bold crimson crosses on their fronts. We completed the outfits with blue balaclava helmets and woollen tights borrowed from our younger sisters. 

And as we skipped around the garden, taking on Saladin and his scimitared hordes, it struck me that it’s not easy being different.

‘We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden’

Joni Mitchell/ Woodstock

No. 68