Should Marketing and Media Consider a Little Protectionism?

Mother and Child (detail from The Three Ages of Woman), c.1905 by Gustav Klimt

Mother and Child (detail from The Three Ages of Woman), c.1905 by Gustav Klimt

Protectionism is not a concept we would commonly employ in the world of media, marketing and communication. But it’s an increasingly resonant theme in the broader world of politics and economics. So, I wonder, where would protectionism take us?

Good government seeks to manage the tension between enabling and protecting: enabling individual, collective and commercial freedoms; protecting the vulnerable, the disadvantaged and the things we hold dear.

For the world of business, in the era of globalization, enabling has been the order of the day. There’s been a centrist consensus around the social and economic benefits of free trade, free movement and free markets. But, across the political spectrum, people have been asking questions about globalization: from Trump and Sanders, to Corbyn and Piketty, to assorted protest movements around the world.

What about the increasing inequality, the personal and corporate tax avoidance, the imbalanced housing market, the warped financial sector? What about the exported jobs, failed industries, mass migration and environmental damage? Are these not in some part the unintended consequences of globalization? There’s a renewed interest in protectionism in its broadest sense: protecting local hospitals, housing and high streets; jobs, services and small businesses; libraries, pubs and the planet.

Now it would be easy to dismiss all this as economic naivety, parochial radicalism, or the inevitable response to the challenges of austerity. But I think the interesting thing about protectionism is that it forces us to ask some simple questions: What do we want to protect? Which communities, activities and institutions are so precious to us that they merit particular support? Maybe protectionism also prompts us to reorder our priorities. Let’s start by indentifying the things we hold dear and then build an economic policy around them.

So what could protectionism mean for the media, marketing and communications industries? What are the things we would fight to preserve?

I’d imagine many of us would begin by saying that we believe in protecting the value of ideas and creativity, and in protecting the individuals and institutions that generate them.

And yet creative businesses haven’t got a great record of defending creativity. We’ve been powerless to prevent the devaluation of the music industry and the erosion of the publishing sector. We’ve looked on as writing has been commoditized; as photographers’ fees have fallen; as creativity has been re-categorized as ‘content.’

We’ve aligned ourselves with the themes of the new economy: empowerment, freedom and sharing, but failed properly to address the challenges these themes pose for our own industries. Sometimes consumer empowerment has come hand-in-hand with the disempowerment of creative professions and individuals; sometimes customer freedom has entailed giving creativity away for free; sometimes the sharing economy has compromised intellectual property.

I think a more confident creative industry would be more bullish about the value of its output; and more assertive about realizing that value. A more confident industry would be looking to secure a fair value exchange. Consumers should be expected to pay for great music, literature, entertainment, opinion and knowledge. Or they should at least be prepared to receive the advertising that subsidizes those services.

So I guess I’m a protectionist where these things are concerned. We should do everything we can to protect the value of our creativity and to protect our journalists, writers, art directors, photographers, film-makers and musicians. We should support pay-walls, memberships and micro payments; tariffs, taxes and trademarks. And we should block the ad-blockers.

And what if our new protectionism didn’t stop there? What if we were more assertive in using our creative and communication talents to protect the things that matter to us in the broader community? What role should media and marketing play in protecting our health, our privacy, our towns, our environment? In the age of Purpose all brands have been exploring how they will leave the world a better place. In defining Purpose the modern brand manager should more specifically ask: What are we going to protect?

This piece was first published in the Guardian Media and Tech on 18 April 2016

No. 79


Stress Test: Should the Creative Professions Lead the Way in Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace?

While in Vienna last week I visited the art gallery housed in the baroque palace of The Belvedere.  In amongst the extraordinary collection of Klimts, Schieles and Austrian masters, one passes a room dedicated to the work of the eighteenth century Bavarian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

Messerschmidt’s Character Heads depict the extremes of human emotion. They are twisted in laughter, disgust and despair. They grimace, gurn and gasp for breath. Initially one can’t help admiring their modernity. The heads seem to be declaring a horror at the world around them, at the absurdity and unfairness of life itself. They reminded me of Bacon.

However, the busts really are very disturbing. Most of them portray the shaven headed artist himself. He created the sculptures by pulling faces in front of a mirror.

Messerschmidt was a troubled man. His early work had observed the baroque conventions of the day. But he suffered illness and career setbacks. He developed paranoia, hallucinations and ‘confusions in the head.’ He left Vienna to live in isolation and he told one of his rare visitors that he had to sculpt extreme emotions in order to keep ‘malign spirits’ at bay. Today we would say that Messerschmidt was suffering from some form of mental illness.

'If I cannot move the higher powers, I will move the infernal regions.'

Virgil, The Aeneid, quoted by Freud

Over a hundred years after Messerschmidt’s death, as the twentieth century dawned, Vienna became the birthplace of psychoanalysis and a centre for the study of mental health. One might expect this of a thriving, progressive, modern city that claimed Sigmund Freud as a native. But Vienna was also in the grip of political upheavals and ethnic unrest. Urban life - fast paced, impersonal and endlessly changing - brought with it stress, anxiety and fears for the future. In art the confident, optimistic iconoclasm of Klimt was giving way to the neurotic angst of Schiele. There was a growing realisation that, whilst the modern age enabled huge advances in personal freedoms and material wellbeing, it was also exacting a heavy mental price.

Fast-forward another hundred years or so to modern Britain. As we rejoice in a new revolutionary age of technology and transformation, news stories about stress at work and mental health in our schools and universities seem to be on the increase.

It’s not difficult to see why.

We’re putting more pressure on our young people to perform; we’re challenging our colleagues to change. We’re endlessly measuring and setting targets. We demand speed, agility, value and competition. Now. We set our standards by celebrity; we set our goals by prosperity. Our youth suffers social media stress and cyber bullying. Our colleagues face reduced access to housing and increased inequalities of income. They work harder and longer with diminishing job security and the office has become an unwelcome insurgent into the home. Our privacy is compromised; our security is jeopardized. And meanwhile the earth dies screaming.

For the creative professions these pressures are, if anything, enhanced. Creative people can sometimes be more sensitive, more paranoid, more ill-at-ease. It’s easy to discount these tendencies as the price you pay for original ideas. But if we value independence, unconventional spirit, eccentricity and the ability to ‘think outside the box’, we should also protect the people that embody these characteristics. We should be well aware that creativity can come at a price to mental health.

No one ever got fired for asking creative teams to work over the weekend. But maybe they should. I suspect that our industry continues to over-engineer solutions; to over-promise; and therefore to feel obliged to over-deliver. Our paranoia about losing business means that we run the risk of losing people.

I worry that the culture of ‘whatever it takes’ may not be fit for the modern age. I’m concerned that sometimes leadership piles on the pressure, when it should be taking it off.

Shouldn’t we be celebrating the leaders that deliver results without delivering collateral damage?

Isn’t the role of leadership to direct talent towards the optimal answers with the least possible waste?

Shouldn’t we think about sustainability in human, not just environmental, terms?

Creative businesses have a good record in pioneering office environments, diversity of employment, professional medical support and social responsibility. Shouldn’t we, the most exposed industry, be leading the way in providing world-class mental health care in the workplace?

Saturday 10th October is World Mental Health Day #WMHD

No. 51