Space Is the Place: Nostalgia for the Future

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'Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.' 

I know exactly where I was just before 4-00AM on the morning of July 21, 1969. I was in the sitting room of 125 Heath Park Road watching TV. My parents had got Martin and me out of bed to see Neil Armstrong become the first person to set foot on the moon. I was 5 years old.

To be honest I’m not sure I recall the experience. Perhaps I just remember being told that I was there. But certainly rockets, space exploration and moon landings played an important part in my childhood. Back then we dreamed of astronauts, aliens and asteroids. We watched Star Trek, the Clangers and Thunderbirds on TV. We created space suits out of boxes and Bacofoil. And one summer Sister Mary Stephen helped me make a lunar landscape out of papier mache.

Armstrong: 'The surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots.’

Over the last few weeks there have been numerous documentaries and dramas commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing. I was particularly struck by the film ‘Apollo 11’, which edited together original footage from NASA and the National Archives. 

The crowd at Cape Canaveral wait expectantly in sun visors and straw trilbies. The women sport cat-eye shades. Families in striped summer shirts camp out on the parking lot at JC Penney’s. Wide-angled lenses are trained and at the ready. At Mission Control Center in Houston banks of clean-cut men in headsets attend to their monitors. They wear white short-sleeved shirts, thin ties and have pens in pocket protectors. Their desks are cluttered with coffee cups and ashtrays. After a steak-and-egg breakfast, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins complete their final checks and wave goodbye. Then the unbearable tension of the countdown...

‘12, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence start.’ 

Time slows to a crawl…

‘6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero, all engines running.’ 

The thunderous roar, the fearsome commotion, as the Saturn V rocket escapes its umbilical tower, and takes off… 

‘Liftoff! We have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour. Liftoff on Apollo 11.'

It’s a familiar drama now, but it still sends a chill down my spine.

Collins: 'Well, I promise to let you know if I stop breathing.’

As the adventure continues, I can’t help being struck by the dry, understated humour of these brave, intelligent men. I fell in love with the United States in 1969, with this casual heroism, this easygoing informality.

Aldrin: 'Now I want to back up and partially close the hatch... Making sure not to lock it on my way out.’

For me as a child the space program was entirely optimistic, inspiring, euphoric. It was a compelling tale of vision, ambition, ingenuity and courage. The stainless steel plaque attached to the ladders of the lunar module stated: ‘We came in peace for all mankind.' And President Nixon, speaking on the phone to Armstrong and Aldrin while they were on the moon surface, intoned in his rich, gravelly voice:

'For one priceless moment in the whole history of man all the people on this Earth are truly one.'

There seemed something noble and uplifting about the whole endeavour.

Of course, looking at the flickering footage now, one can’t help noticing the shadow that the Eagle module cast over the moon’s surface. And there was a shadow over the space program too. 

There were protests about the US Government’s priorities at a time when the country was facing incredible poverty and inequality. At its peak in 1966, NASA accounted for roughly 4.4% of the federal budget. The resonance of Nixon’s words now seems tarnished by Vietnam and Watergate, and there’s a suspicion that we were simply witnessing another chapter of the Cold War. We also feel uncomfortable about the low representation of female and black faces at Mission Control; and the debris left on the lunar surface.

Armstrong: 'Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.'
Aldrin: 'Magnificent desolation.’ 

Nowadays the future has lost some of its lustre. Although we’ve witnessed the most dramatic transformation since the Industrial Revolution, we have become concerned that the same technology that spreads knowledge and understanding can also intensify hate and bigotry; that a new corporate oligarchy threatens our privacy and security; that the freedoms of empowerment also carry the responsibilities of self-control. Inevitably we’re suffering change fatigue. 

Aldrin: 'We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.'

Despite the reservations, the Apollo 11 story prompts nostalgia for the future. It suggests that hope and optimism are the first steps to progress. It reminds us of the power of wide-eyed anticipation. We should not deny ourselves the chance to dream.

'I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.'
President Kennedy, May 25, 1961

The US space program remains the definitive example of the motivational power of a clear and ambitious goal. It indicates that we can achieve great things if we channel talent and resource towards a unitary mission, if we commit to the principles of focus and weight.

Imagine reconvening those dudes in their thin ties and short-sleeved shirts. What if we could create the contemporary equivalent of Mission Control? What if we summoned a more diverse cross-section of the finest minds in the world, allocated proper investment, and set them a singular task? What if we asked them to save this planet rather than to visit some other celestial body?

Aldrin: 'There it is, it’s coming up!'
Collins: ‘What?'
Aldrin: 'The earth. See it?'
Collins: 'Yes. Beautiful.’


'Space is the place where I will go when I'm all alone 
Space is the place, 
Space is the place.’

Sun Ra, ’Space is the Place' 

No. 240

The Barber, The Bald Patch and the Crew Cut : The Outsiders Who Want to Belong

As a child I loved going to the barber’s.

Martin and I would stay over at Gran’s house on Northdown Road. In the morning she’d furnish us with a substantial cooked breakfast, laid out on a red gingham table cloth and washed down with sweet tea. Then she would send us on our way with a coin popped in our pockets and a sprinkle of holy water. We’d gallop down the road, all enthusiasm and expectation, to Leon’s, the small barber’s shop next to Hornchurch Bus Depot.

As we sat waiting in the queue, I soaked up the aroma of Brut, Old Spice and scented talc; the perky sound of Saturday morning Radio 1; the chat about politics, park football and factory life. Many of the clientele worked, as our grandfather had done, at the Ford plant in Dagenham. It was a robustly masculine environment and I felt a strong urge to belong.

Pete, the apprentice cutter, sported purple-tinted specs, generous flairs and a jaunty manner. Eventually he would reach for a wooden plank and place it across the arms of his barber’s chair. The plank served to raise youngsters to a manageable height and it was the signal that I was up next.

I was under strict instructions from Mum to request a crew cut. I’d been curling my hair and I was developing a bald patch. A severe cut would deprive my nervous hands of the material for play. And, to be fair, having observed the monkish tonsure of Michael McGinty, a fellow hair curler and pupil at Saint Mary’s, I was prepared to embrace the remedy. Martin didn’t share my weakness and he was allowed a ‘short-back-and–sides.’

Yet it was the early seventies, the era of Marc Bolan, glam rock and lustrous locks. And here was I ordering a crew cut. I was well aware that, with my shorn mane, I could kiss goodbye to classroom cool. I would be awkward and alone; outside and other.

Little did I know that my experience at the barber’s was equipping me for a career in commercial creativity. In creative businesses we need both the yearning to belong and the failure to do so. We need empathy and individuality in equal measure – empathy, to align our work with the true needs and tastes of our audiences; individuality, to catalyse invention and to set our ideas apart from our competitors.’

Finding a good balance between these two elusive qualities can prove taxing. Some strategists are perhaps too sensitive to the whims of consumers; some account managers listen too attentively to their clients; and some creatives are just too idiosyncratic. But therein lies the challenge. If you want to succeed in creative business, I’d suggest you need them both: empathy and individuality.

My mother’s ploy proved successful. Over a period of time my bald patch was re-thatched. Sadly, it was too late for me to join the in-crowd at Saint Mary’s. And I suspect I was scarred by the experience. In my adulthood, I have preferred hairdressers to barbers, and, whatever the fashion of the day, I have always let my hair grow long. 

No. 92

A Man Having Trouble With An Umbrella: Recognising the Power of Repetition

My grandfather was a retired policeman with a warm heart and authoritative manner. At weekends he would drive Martin and me along the A13 to his old haunts in Barking, Poplar and Limehouse. Hard to believe now, but ‘going for a drive’ was a popular leisure activity in the ‘70s. At traffic lights and junctions, Grandpa would playfully greet other drivers with a ‘Hello, Mary’ or ‘Yes, of course, Dave, you go first.’ He didn’t actually know Mary or Dave, but he was aware it amused us. And every time we went past a triangular sign indicating road works (by means of the silhouette of a labourer planting his shovel in a pile of earth), Grandpa would exclaim: 'There's a man having trouble with an umbrella!'

We loved that joke. To a young boy it was deeply silly, slightly surreal, somehow subversive. And it improved with repetition. As we rolled around in fits of laughter at the back of the Rover, the gag didn't seem trivial at all to us. It seemed important. And I'm pretty sure it was.

Repetition reassures. It creates a sense of familiarity, intimacy, common currency. Consider catchphrases and slogans; jingles, chants and incantations; aphorisms and end lines. These may be regarded as lower forms of expression, but they have an insidious potency. We assume that familiarity breeds contempt. But often the reverse is true: familiarity breeds contentment.

I recently came across a review of The Song Machine, a new book that considers the methods of the modern music industry and today’s high-tech record producers. It’s a calculating world of ‘writer camps’, ‘melodic math’ and the quest for elusive ‘bliss points.’ The author reaches an interesting conclusion about the science of hits:

‘For all the painstaking craft involved… the crucial factor in our emotional engagement with music is familiarity; in other words, if you were repeatedly to hear a song you didn’t like, that proximity would eventually breed affection.’

Mark Ellen/ The Sunday Times, reviewing The Song Machine by John Seabrook

That explains a lot...

Familiarity also resides at the heart of brand value. The first brands were founded on the reassurance of consistency: this product is the same as the last product you bought; it’s made from the same ingredients and it’ll perform in the same way.

I wonder, do we in modern marketing properly appreciate the power of repetition? Of course, we endeavour to be disciplined about visual identity; and, in a media context, we take account of frequency, dwell-time and wear-out. But this is a quantified, rational view of repetition. Do we really understand the qualitative, emotional value of repeated experience?

Earlier this year I attended a production of Aeschylus’ Ancient Greek tragedy, Oresteia. I was particularly struck by this exchange:

‘What’s the difference between a habit and a tradition?’
‘A tradition means something.’

At their best brands are not just mindless habits. Through repeatedly exploring territories and ideas that are relevant to people, the best brands establish their own meaning, their own traditions. In this age of nudge theory and behavioural economics, we spend quite a lot of time seeking to change habits. What would happen if we sought occasionally to establish traditions?

Certainly our creative instincts are all the time working against iteration. They urge us to embrace change, innovation and reinvention at every turn. Every campaign is a fresh challenge; every new brief is a blank sheet of paper. And these instincts are intensified in the modern age. There are infinite platforms to be filled with unique content; there are ever-increasing consumer appetites to be sated. We live in dynamic times of difference and diversity.

In our obsession with reinvention the commercial communication sector is at odds with other creative professions. In the film, gaming and TV industries the occurrence of a hit is a cue to explore sequels, series, formats and box-sets. Why are we so nervous of repeating success?

Of course, none of us needs a return to the dark days when advertising drilled the same messages into the crania of hapless, captive audiences; over and over again. In the interactive age we need communication coherence more than rigid consistency. We need theme and variation, call and response. We need campaigns that evolve and amplify.

It’s sometimes helpful to think of modern brands as ‘meaningful patterns.’ Brands reassure through rhythm and repetition. With infinite variety they examine, echo and expand ideas.

Some years ago I attended a talk by the esteemed fashion designer, Paul Smith. He explained that, when it came to window displays, he believed in ‘the power of the repeated image.’ Accompanying a pale blue cotton shirt with a royal blue version of the same shirt; and then navy and deep indigo; next to a twill or a denim execution of the same design; adding a polka dot pattern, a striped print or floral detail. It was theme and variation played by an orchestra of blue shirts. And it created a very compelling, harmonious effect. At once both thrilling and reassuring.

Perhaps the power of repetition in the digital age is best expressed through the concept of memes. For many marketers memes are merely a form of iterative campaign, something involving white type and cat videos. However, insofar as a meme is ‘an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means’ (OED), then surely brands are memes. Brands exist not in factories or spreadsheets or shop shelves. They exist in people’s minds and in their behaviours. For what is a brand, if not a shared set of behaviours and beliefs? We always sought to create content for brands that was 'talkable'; nowadays we aim to create the imitable, adaptable, copyable and repeatable.

Of course, brand management is fundamentally a  balancing act between consistency and change. Some brands are too conservative; others are too capricious. Working out whether to 'stick or twist' is a critical marketing skill. All I'm saying here is that, occasionally, in times of transformation, the argument for holding a steady course gets shouted down.

Perhaps when we’re being seduced by the siren call for radical reinvention, we should also have the tender words of Billy Joel singing in our ears. Repeatedly.

‘Don’t go changing, to try and please me.
You never let me down before.

Don’t imagine you’re too familiar,
And I don’t see you anymore.
I would not leave you in times of trouble
We never could have gone this far
I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times
I’ll take you just the way you are.’

Billy Joel/ Just The Way You Are

 

No.57

Chips & The Barking Creek Crisis

 

It was a long, long time ago. My brother Martin and I would accompany our ageing grandfather and his tortoise-shell bull terrier Chips, for walks by Barking Creek. This was a windswept, desolate place. We could play freely in the derelict gun emplacements, throw sticks for Chips to fetch, and cast messages-in-bottles out into the brackish water.

Chips was our widowed grandfather's soulmate. They went everywhere together.

Boy Running

One day by the Creek, Chips began scampering off into the distance and we chased after him. He kept running and we kept following. Soon our grandfather was left far behind, unable to keep up, and Chips kept running, and we kept following.

It seemed that Chips was on a break for freedom. Our grandfather would soon be bereft of his fondest companion. Martin and I began to panic.

I turned around and shouted to grandfather, now way back in the distance. "Grandpa, Chips is running away. What do we do?" ''Stop running," he cried. And we did. And Chips stopped too.

I guess the Barking Creek Crisis taught my brother and me a lesson about cause and effect. We thought Chips' running was the cause of our running. In fact the reverse was true.

It was a useful lesson. In life we often unwittingly confuse cause and effect. When we look at the world around us, we rage against what we imagine to be the causes of our problems, but frequently they are just the effects of them. And when we look at ourselves, we imagine we are at the centre of our own universes, influencing events, determining our futures. We tend to see ourselves as causes, when in fact we are effects. Because for most of us, most of the time, our behaviours, and even our beliefs, are the effects of other people's habits, tastes and preferences, of extraneous events, of conditioning, custom and convention.

It's a melancholy truth, but perhaps inertia is the driving force in much of our personal and work lives: the endless repetition of patterns that were laid down by others years before; theme and variation played out with infinite variety.

Working in a creative business we may think we are different; that we are the ultimate paradigms of free expression, that we are causing change on a daily basis. It's in the job title. But often much of a creative agency's activity entails translating, transplanting, adopting and adapting. Responding to events, to competitive action, to the predispositions of clients and customers, to the conventions established by our seniors and forebears. Executing the strategy, extending the campaign, evolving the idea. Much of the time we're just keeping the train on the tracks.

You might imagine our clients would wish for more than this. But often their primary focus is the management of consistent delivery and performance across time, geography, platform and outlet. They don't want to change the world. They're not looking for a New England. They’re just looking for another year of steady, incremental growth.

Now you may find these observations a little depressing. But I don't. For me they serve to illuminate the fact that genuine, original, creative thought is a rare and precious thing. Pure creativity, the kind that rewrites rules, reinvents language, changes minds and precipitates new behaviours, is not called into play very often, even in a creative industry. But when it is, there are few people and few businesses that can deliver it. Creativity's value is enhanced, not diminished, by its rarity.

Indeed, although much of commercial life is driven by conformity and consistency, systems and processes, creativity is becoming more, not less, important. Because, in a more confident economy, CEOs and shareholders are less and less satisfied with modest, incremental growth rates. They are setting more ambitious plans for the future. They are asking for step change innovation. Inevitably the strategies and behaviours that deliver steady, incremental growth are not fit for dramatic step change. And the people who are suited to keeping a train on the tracks are rarely capable of laying new lines.

As one of our founders, Nigel Bogle, has expressed it, 'growth needs space'. And to discover new space you need a pioneering spirit, a very particular combination of original thought, persuasive skill and mental stamina. Pure creativity is not just the best answer; it is the only answer.

If you're pursuing a creative career, you may be intimidated by the scale and congestion of the creative industry. But fear not. If you genuinely have the ability to ignore convention, to set aside case studies and best demonstrated practice; if you can find a way of changing the behaviour and belief of individuals, and thereby communities and cultures, you'll go far. Because there aren't many people like you around: People who dare to be different; to be a cause, not just an effect.

First Published: YCN Magazine 10/07/2014

No. 29