‘You Got to Have Vision to See’: Tennessee Williams and The Fugitive Kind

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‘This country used to be wild, the men and women were wild and there was a wild sort of sweetness in their hearts, for each other. But now it’s sick with neon, it’s broken out sick with neon, like most other places.’
Carol Cutrere, ‘Orpheus Descending’

I recently saw a fine production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Orpheus Descending’ (The Menier Chocolate Factory, London). This 1957 play meant a good deal to Williams. It was a re-write of his 1940 piece, ‘Battle of Angels,’ which was his first work to be given a professional production. He also adapted it into the 1959 movie ‘The Fugitive Kind’, starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. (Brando’s performance earned him the first million-dollar contract for a single film.)

‘Orpheus Descending’ is a hot Southern stew of ‘memories and the loneliness of them’; of isolated strangers yearning for intimacy in a world of prejudice and bigotry. 

’Nobody ever gets to know no body! We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!’

Lady Torrance runs a small-town dry goods store and she busies herself attending to her narrow-minded, gossiping customers. Her tyrannical husband lies upstairs, unloved and dying. The local free-spirit, Carol Cutrere, who ‘has an odd, fugitive beauty,’ arrives to ruffle some feathers.

‘I’m an exhibitionist! I want to be noticed, seen, heard, felt! I want them to know I’m alive!’

Carol takes a shine to Val Xavier, a drifter who has recently arrived in town with little more than a snakeskin jacket and a guitar to his name.

‘I’d love to hold something the way you hold your guitar, that’s how I’d love to hold something, with such - tender protection!’

But Val has other things on his mind. Vowing to put the troubadour life behind him, he pitches for a job as Lady’s store clerk. Lady is initially sceptical.

Val: ‘I got nowhere to go.’
Lady: ‘Well, everyone’s got a problem and that’s yours.’

Gradually, however, Val charms Lady into giving him a chance. He’s a talkative, sensitive, self-assured young man, with a philosophical nature.

‘You know they’s a kind of bird that don’t have legs so it can’t light on nothing, but has to stay all its life on its wings in the sky?... They sleep on the wind and never light on this earth but one time when they die… I’d like to be one of those birds; they’s lots of people would like to be one of those birds and never be – corrupted!’

‘Orpheus Descending’ is a celebration of birds that can’t settle, that stay on the wing, cherishing their freedom; a celebration of misfits and malcontents, oddballs and outsiders; of artists and activists, musicians and immigrants; of ‘the ‘fugitive kind’.

In one scene, eccentric local artist, Vee Talbott, a woman of a nervous disposition, endeavors to explain to Val her impressionistic style of painting.

‘I paint a thing how I feel it instead of always the way it actually is. Appearances are misleading, nothing is what it looks like to the eyes. You got to have – vision – to see!’

This thought resonated with me. 

Professionally I was raised to follow the discipline of Vision, Strategy and Tactics: we should always set out with a clear, compelling Vision; Vision drives Strategy; Strategy drives Tactics; and everything else is just a distraction.

However, there’s something about the contemporary discourse that works against this approach. Whether one considers the field of politics or commerce, one cannot help noticing the absence of guiding Visions. Of course, a Vision Statement may exist on a website somewhere, in a Manifesto or Company Report perhaps, or in an arcane deck of charts. But rarely nowadays do you see clear evidence of Vision driving everyday behaviour and beliefs. 

We spend most of our time reacting to events and responding to circumstance. We duck and dive, nip and tuck. We get caught up in the petty and prosaic, the incidental and insignificant. The competitive storm, the relentless media scrutiny, the headlong tilt towards change; the urgency of now, the pressing need for immediate opinion and instant action – they all combine to drag the debate ineluctably down into Tactics. 

We may feel as though we’re actively engaged and urgently busy, as we expertly navigate our daily trials and tribulations. But as Vee Talbott knew, if we have no Vision, we just can’t see.

In the course of ‘Orpheus Descending’ the forces of small-town conservatism close in on Val. Inevitable really. And at the end of the play a mournful Carol is left in possession of his snakeskin jacket.

‘Wild things leave skins behind them, they leave clean skins and teeth and white bones behind them, and these are the tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can always follow their kind.’


'But what I'd like to know
Is could a place like this exist so beautiful,
Or do we have to find our wings and fly away
To the vision in our mind?’

Stevie Wonder, ‘Visions’ (M Graves / L J Fiagbe)

 

No. 244

501! Contemporary Lessons from a Vintage Case Study

Levis Ad - BBH

Levis Ad - BBH

During my twenty-five years in advertising, I worked on all manner of client businesses. From banks and beers, to fried chicken and phone networks. Without doubt the experiences that left the deepest impression, and had the biggest impact on my career, were those that I gained on the Levi’s jeans account in the 1990s.

Between 1985 and 1998 Levi’s campaign for its 501 jeans, developed by its agency BBH, was one of the most awarded and admired in the advertising world. It created a mythical America of enigmatic, unspeaking heroes; of youthful adventure on the open road; of effortless style and heart-rending tunes. And it sold a great many pairs of jeans.

Let’s take a step back in time to see if this vintage case study suggests any lessons that might still be relevant today.

‘Be Yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’
Oscar Wilde

At the heart of the Levi’s 501 story was the determination that it should be true to itself.

Levi’s 501 was the original denim jean. It was designed in 1873 for miners in the California Gold Rush. Its riveted construction, button fly and XX stitching sustained it through tough manual tasks. Its rudimentary ‘anti-fit’ cut was appropriate to its modest origins. It was the jean that was adopted in the ‘50s by the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Eddie Cochrane, and thereby became a badge of youth rebellion. It had a unique heritage to be proud of.

However, when in 1985 Levi’s struggling UK organisation submitted the 501 to consumer testing with a view to a possible re-launch, the results were not encouraging. Modern British consumers were more accustomed to zip flies and figure-hugging fits. The Levi’s brand was perceived as middle-aged and middle-of-the-road. What’s more, Levi’s was quintessentially American at a time when UK youth culture was not looking across the pond for inspiration.

The sensible decision might have been to back away. Or at least to launch a style more in keeping with contemporary tastes.

But Levi’s and BBH were determined. This was the original and definitive jean, the blueprint for everything that followed. It was a design classic. It deserved a hearing.

Fanning the Flames of Discovery

There was a glimmer of encouragement. A small group of cognoscenti in the fashion, music and film industries had already fallen for the 501’s authenticity and unique design. There was a growing interest in retro ‘50s culture, and a thriving second-hand market in 501s from the States. Perhaps, by reflecting what these enthusiasts loved so much about the product, there was an opportunity to fan the flames of discovery.

A Simple Story Stylishly Told

A young man walks into a laundrette to the sound of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’ He removes his jeans and t-shirt and puts them in the washer with some stones. He sits down to read a magazine in his boxer shorts and socks, as others look on in amazement.

With a 1985 TV commercial conveying this modest narrative, Levi’s 501 jeans were introduced to the mass British public. Despite its seeming simplicity, ‘Laundrette’ was an immediate cultural and commercial hit. It was discussed in national media. The music entered the charts. Nick Kamen, the actor playing the central character, became an overnight celebrity. Boxer shorts were suddenly fashionable, with two million pairs being bought in 1986 alone. And 501 jeans sold so quickly that demand outstripped supply.

There followed a series of similarly iconic commercials, all depicting youthful heroes in pursuit of their own American dream, equipped with little more than their 501s, a white t-shirt and an innate resourcefulness. Within three years of the re-launch, 501 sales had increased twenty-fold - at a premium price of between £27 and £30, in a market where the norm was sub-£20.

Levi’s succeeded because it didn’t follow the convention of the time and hold a mirror up to consumer tastes and preferences. Rather it shone a light on the brand and its unique story. It sought to persuade consumers of its merits, with a simple story stylishly told.

‘What the heart knows today, the head will understand tomorrow.’
James Stephens

Although Levi’s campaign was inspired by its heritage, it was not an exercise in dry historical narrative. First and foremost the advertising addressed the emotions. It suggested charismatic youth, heroic nonchalance and potent sexual chemistry. It promised freedom, escape, romance and rebellion.

Stripped of spoken words, the ads conveyed all this through compelling storytelling, impactful imagery and emotive music. As John Hegarty, the creative director behind it all, pointed out, ‘words are a barrier to communication.’

Emotional Product Demonstration

Despite the fact that the initial persuasive power of the campaign was emotional, it was also clear that consumers wanted rational reasons to justify their beliefs - to others and to themselves.

So amidst the stylish settings, slim heroes and sensuous music, the commercials always demonstrated the jeans’ functional attributes: their strength, durability and wear characteristics. 501s personalised with age and improved with wear. And the more you washed them, the better they got.

Creative teams found that such stories were excellent springboards for lateral ideas.  And Hegarty dubbed this advertising approach ‘emotional product demonstration.’

Mass Marketing a Cult

From the outset there was some concern that, in broadening the appeal of a product originally beloved by a small group of cognoscenti, the brand would lose that critical group’s support. What if our opinion leaders sought exclusivity elsewhere? Wouldn’t this undermine the whole endeavour?

BBH determined that it was critical to sustain a relationship with opinion leaders. It developed print advertising that directly addressed them in their own discrete magazine titles (publications like The Face, iD and Dazed & Confused). It sponsored cutting edge bands and grass roots music events. And it offered Shrink-to-Fit and limited editions of the core product - something the cognoscenti could call their own.

The lesson was clear: never forget the people that first loved you.

‘Creek’ 1994 - BBH

‘Creek’ 1994 - BBH

United in Dreams, Divided by Realities

Levi’s soon looked to export the UK’s successful marketing to other European markets. This ought to have been challenging: back in the 1980s few campaigns crossed borders because local cultural differences were thought to be too great.

But BBH found that, though young people might be divided by the realities of their everyday circumstances, they were united in their dreams. The 501 campaign worked wherever the local youth aspired to independence and individuality; to original expression and the open road.

By the mid-1990s Levi’s was selling 50 million units per annum across Europe – and always at a premium price.

‘Move it on without moving it off.’
Nigel Bogle

With every new execution in the campaign, the pressure grew to sustain freshness and interest. How do you avoid predictability and familiarity? How do you avoid losing the baby with the bathwater?

The advertising struck a balance. It retained its chassis: the narrative structure; the aspirational hero; the dramatisation of product functionality. And at the same time it underwent constant restyling in its bodywork: the setting; the historical period; the tone; the filmic style; the particular product story.

Over the years 501 commercials were set in pool halls, drug stores and gas stations; in swimming pools, creeks and under the sea; in black & white, colour and animation; in the nineteenth century, the Depression and in outer space.

As BBH co-founder Nigel Bogle summarised: ‘We need to move it on without moving it off.’

Perhaps inevitably, the Levi’s 501 campaign did eventually run out of road. There was only so long that one brand could sustain mass loyalty to a single product in the fickle fashion category; only so long that the brand’s innovation could be primarily supplied by its marketing rather than by its product; and only so long that that brand could continue to grow volume and premium at the same time. Eventually the centre could not hold, and the market fragmented.

But it had been a pretty good run.

Levi’s print ad - Richard Avedon for BBH

Levi’s print ad - Richard Avedon for BBH

So what did I learn from working on this great, but now long-gone, advertising campaign? I picked up a number of lessons about the fundamentals of persuasion that served me well for the rest of my career:

1. Don’t seek to add value, seek to reveal it.
2. Harness the support that you already have: fan the flames of discovery.
3. Embrace the power of narrative: simple stories stylishly told.
4. Lead with emotion: what the heart feels today, the head thinks tomorrow.
5. However much beliefs may be founded on emotion, give people rational justifications for those beliefs.
6. Never forget the people that first loved you.
7. Find the aspirations that unify people, rather than the realities that divide them.
8. Keep moving it on without moving it off.

Of course, today we live in an ever more complex, interconnected, fast-paced world. The landscape of marketing and communication is unrecognisable from the more innocent times of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. But I think many of these themes still resonate. And perhaps like 501s themselves, they improve with age.

 

(This piece first appeared in The Pembrokian, July 2018)

No. 198

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

On The Outside Looking In: Difference Craves Difference; Difference Creates Difference

 

Different Work Requires Different People

In creative businesses we talk a good deal about the value of difference in delivering brand success. We seek to design different brand positionings, different strategies, different executions. We believe difference creates stand-out, preference and loyalty.

But what kind of people invent difference? Where do we find them?

I recently encountered reviews of the life and works of two great American artists, the actor Marlon Brando and the photographer Saul Leiter. Brando and Leiter were born in the early 1920s within a year of each other. One achieved quick and widespread fame; the other earned recognition slowly, and primarily within his own community. But, through the work they did in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they both helped rewrite our understanding of their respective professions.

I found that, though Brando and Leiter shared little in terms of personality and renown, their engagement with difference was similar.

Marlon Brando: The Wild One

‘I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin, so that when I wake up in there, six feet under the ground, I’m going to say: ’Do it differently.’’

Listen to Me Marlon is an excellent 2015 documentary film exploring Marlon Brando’s life and work through his privately recorded audio-tapes. In discussing his early career, there’s a clear sense that Brando from the outset was obsessed with doing things differently, with developing his own unique style.

‘Never let the audience know how it’s going to turn out. Get them on your terms. Hit ‘em. Knock ‘em over with an attitude, with a word, with a look. Be surprising. Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before. You want to stop that movement from the cardboard to the mouth. Get people to stop chewing. The truth will do that. Damn, damn, damn, damn. When it’s right, it’s right. You can feel it in your bones. Then you feel whole. You feel good.’

Although Brando comes across on film as a pillar of strength, a brooding, confident presence, his childhood was far from happy. Both his parents were alcoholics and he had an uneasy relationship with his father. The introverted Brando was sent to a military school in which he felt alone and isolated.

‘I was very shy. Sensitive, very sensitive…. I had a great feeling of inadequacy; that I didn’t know enough; that I didn’t have enough education. I felt dumb.’

Acting saved Brando. And in particular the acting coach Stella Adler saved him.  (Adler was herself a successful actor who, inspired by the Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavski, founded her own acting studio in New York. Brando was an early pupil.)

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. ’You have a right to be who you are, where you are and how you are. Everybody’s got a story to tell, something they’re hiding.’’

One can’t help inferring that Brando’s quest for difference was in some way driven by his own sense of marginalisation. Angst ridden, feeling out of the ordinary, he was at the same time fascinated by differences in others.

‘I was always somebody who had an unquenchable curiosity about people. I would walk down the street and look at faces. I used to go into the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street in a cigar store. I would watch people for three seconds as they went by and try to analyse their personalities by just that flick. The face can’t hide many things and people are always hiding things. I was always interested to guess the things that people did not know themselves. What they feel; what they think; why they feel. How is it we behave the way we do?’

What emerges is a picture of an exceptional man whose interior and exterior lives are inextricably linked. Brando’s self-reflection seems to have created his curiosity about others.

‘Unless we look inwards, we will not ever be able to clearly see outwards.’

 

Saul Leiter: The Quiet American

‘It is not where it is or what it is that matters. But how you see it.’

There’s an excellent exhibition of Saul Leiter’s work currently at The Photographers’ Gallery in London (until 3 April). If you’ve seen the splendid film, Carol, you’ll recognise the inspiration for the art direction.

Leiter was certainly different. He was the son of a famous Talmudic scholar and was studying to become a Rabbi when he upped sticks for New York, determined to become a painter. Leiter went on to pioneer colour street photography in an era when colour was not considered a serious medium. And although he was a great admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of the ‘decisive moment,’ Leiter had his own distinct perspective on the role of photography in our lives.

‘Photographs are often treated as important moments, but really they are fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world.’

So Leiter didn’t go out to capture the events and drama of the street. Rather he was drawn to the insignificant and fleeting; to bold colours and abstract shapes. Indeed he bought out-of-date film stock because it was cheap and he liked the distortions and unpredictability that came with it.

Leiter’s work is all hydrants and hats, fire escapes and steamed windows; a red brolly, a yellow headscarf; workers in the snow, commuters on the train; bold commercial type in modest surroundings; reflections in the rain, shadows in the bright sunlight. It’s a gentle set of impressions. Overseen, overlooked.

Leiter’s style may well have been determined by his personality. He was self-deprecating, understated, unassuming. He was a Quiet American.

‘I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.’

Saul Leiter: Taxi, ca. 1957

So again we see a creative person with a distinct perspective on his art born out of a very particular personality. And again we see an obsession with the observation of others.

‘If we look and look we begin to see and are still left with the pleasure of uncertainty.’


Difference Craves Difference; Difference Creates Difference

What can we conclude from these two leading practitioners in the art of difference?

Firstly they were themselves different. They were on the outside looking in. Their marginalisation gave them an enhanced ability to look and learn, to observe others. Outsiders look harder and see more. And because they are different themselves, they are better equipped to create difference.

The best creative businesses embrace outsiders. They welcome the unorthodox and unusual, the idiosyncratic and individual, the different and diverse. They respect the quiet voice, even when they are daily engaged in loud proclamation. The best creative businesses make outsiders feel like insiders.

And yet, as with any organisation, there are powerful forces of inertia at play. Recruiters fish in the same ponds; leaders appoint in their own image; and company life has a centrifugal force that drives conformity and convention. It abhors rough edges and irregular behaviours. Often we cherish originality, but balk at the eccentricities of original people.

I think the creative industry should more actively embrace the belief that different work requires different people. Diversity should not just be a social responsibility. It should be a strategic imperative.

 ‘I’m on the outside looking in
Gotta find a way, gotta find a way back to your heart dear, once again
Won’t you take me back again?
I’ll be waiting here ‘til then
On the outside looking in.’

Little Anthony & The Imperials/On the Outside (Looking In).
(Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein)

 

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An abbreviated version of this piece was published in the Guardian Media and Tech on 16 February 2016

No. 71