Solve It In the Room: What I Learned from the Uncut Lawn

Henri Rousseau/ Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised)

Henri Rousseau/ Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised)

I was raised in a pebble-dashed, semi-detached house on the outskirts of Romford. We were flanked on either side by keen gardeners. To the left Mr Holland grew fruit and veg, bottled his own magnificent loganberry jam and wore rubber knee-pads. To the right Mr Dodgson cultivated elegant flowers and shrubs, delighted in telling us their Latin names (‘Cotoneaster’) and burst our footballs when they trespassed onto his side of the wooden fence. Both these elderly gentlemen sported flat caps before they were cool.

Sadly the Carroll Garden was unruly and unkempt, a source of some shame. The grass grew long, the weeds grew high and the lilac tree wilted from over-use as a climbing frame. At the far end was a rockery that my mother had installed to give the impression that our wild, overgrown grassland was somehow intentional.  But this fooled no one, least of all Messrs Holland and Dodgson.

With the arrival of Spring, mum would begin her pleas to my father to cut the lawn. He generally developed a throaty, fag-induced cough; a crippling, beer-induced hangover; a critical sporting event on the telly - anything in fact to excuse him from his duties. Dad was a man of inaction. Sometimes he would goad his children into taking on the task in his stead, but we had inherited his indolence.

So the rusty mower remained entangled in the chaotic clutter of the garden shed. And the grass grew, and the weeds flourished, and the lilac tree looked on in stoic silence.

Eventually, some weeks later, when the exasperation of mum and our neighbours had reached its limits, dad and the five kids would tramp disconsolately into the verdant jungle and apply ourselves to scything and mowing, clipping and collecting. It was a frenzy of resentful industry.

When I entered the world of work, I realised that procrastination is not unique to my family. In fact it is very much part of the human condition. We like to defer and delay, put off and postpone. We are innately inert. And for all our rhetoric about seizing the day, many of us are naturally given to letting the day slip through our fingers.

Sometimes we hide this procrastination behind process. There’s an established way of doing things. Everything needs to be done in good order, in due course. ‘We can’t do anything until you issue the Client Brief.’ ‘That was an excellent meeting. We’ll write it up in the next few days; and in another week or so we’ll send you a Creative Brief; and then a couple of weeks later we’ll possibly propose some ideas.’

I’m well aware that process protects quality: more haste, less speed and so forth. But there’s no denying that in the modern age velocity is a critical competitive advantage. We have all been obliged to accelerate. I recall some years ago a senior Client taking over a key account at the Agency. When I checked in to see how things were going, he said the team was impressive; the work was very good; but the overall ‘metabolism’ was sluggish. It seemed a fair criticism.

So how can we embrace speed without compromising quality? How can we accelerate our corporate metabolism?

I have one modest suggestion: solve it in the room.

When you have managed to get all the right people in one place; when you have the appropriate combination of talent and leadership staring at each other across a desk; when you’ve invested in coffee, croissants and an extensive selection of herbal teas - don’t walk away with just a loose understanding of the problem, a nodding assent about what needs to happen next. You should be in a position to solve the problem in the room. Of course, you can’t craft detail; you can’t write scripts and execution. But you can align around strategy and direction. You can illustrate and exemplify; sketch and draft.

It is often observed that the benefit of experience is wisdom. But experience of a wide variety of marketing and communication challenges also enables speed and agility of thought; it enables us to make connections, to reach conclusions at pace. These skills may be the veteran’s most valuable assets. The experienced practitioner is equipped to make decisions there and then, here and now. This is what we’re paid for.

So, a simple proposal perhaps: turn up to the critical meetings prepared to make decisions, and to make promises you can keep. ‘We’re going to solve it in the room, design it in a week, build it in a month.’ Make an active determination to replace lethargy with intensity; complacency with urgency. Don’t just learn about the problem; lean into the solution.

And whatever you do, don’t let the grass grow under your feet.

No 123

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

The Dog Under The Telly: Don't Distract Attention, Find The Centre Of It

When I was a child we had a Springer Spaniel called Dillon. Springer Spaniels are somewhat eccentric dogs with inexhaustible energy and passionate loyalty. Dillon’s coat was liver and white and he salivated liberally. He had long shaggy ears that required a special tall bowl to eat from so he didn’t get them caught in his food. In the long hot ‘70s summers I had many happy reflective moments sat with Dillon in the back garden watching birds. But for the most part he was rather a disruptive influence around the house: scratching paintwork, scavenging for unattended Garibaldi biscuits, barking at passers by on Heath Park Road from his elevated vantage point in Sarah’s bedroom. I always imagined Dillon was something of a class warrior as his absolute favourite activity was disturbing the peace at Haynes Park Bowling Club.

As it was the '70s, my family spent most evenings in the over-lit living room, sat on the three-piece suite, watching TV. To prolong its life the three-piece suite was covered in a loud orange-brown floral stretch-cover that Dad had bought from his mate Barry on Romford Market. There we were, five kids, Dad and my sainted Mother ranged in front of The Two Ronnies, The Likely Lads and Tommy Cooper. (I always imagined Dad had commissioned five children as he had not foreseen the advent of the TV remote control.) Dad would be smoking endless Embassy cigarettes; the rest of us consuming endless mugs of sweet tea and toasted Sunblest. ‘To be young was very heaven.’

Despite the general domestic reverie, Dillon was none too happy with this arrangement: he was being ignored. He had discovered that the traditional canine method for attracting attention precipitated a rather gruff response from Dad. In this particular environment he would have to be the dog that didn’t bark.

Eventually Dillon worked out that the best remedy was to position himself under the telly itself, looking out at the Carroll family. Thus he could at least imagine that it was him we were looking at. He could watch us, watching him. He had found proximity to the action. He was involved. And he was back where he belonged: the centre of attention.

Thinking back on Dillon’s idiosyncratic behaviour, I now understand that he was teaching us a fundamental lesson in strategy: don’t seek to distract attention; seek to be at the centre of it. Find your own way of participating in culture. Find relevance, join in, get involved, contribute.

Over the years working with Clients in many different sectors, I noticed that often there was a kind of melancholy amongst those who managed brands that were not in some way part of the zeitgeist. Their fellow Marketers were having so much fun working with mobile phones, tablets, craft beers and yogurty drinks. They could gleefully contribute to trend presentations on connectivity, the wisdom of crowds, artisanal craft and holistic health. They were being lauded at black tie functions in luxury hotels. Their brands were being shot in the Evening Standard with Cara, Rita, Taylor and Ellie. But what if you worked with a hot beverage or a biscuit, a bank or a breakfast cereal?  What if you were operating at the margins of culture? What if no one cared?

And yet we have seen in years gone by how gravy can be at the heart of the reconfigured British family, detergent can encourage child development and whisky can redefine aspiration and success. We’ve seen how soap and sanpro brands can speak out for gender equality, knitwear for diversity, yellow fats for the old folk. And I can easily imagine an instant coffee brand creating social networks, a tea brand inspiring mindfulness, a bank reviving local high streets and a shaving brand saving us from hipsters. Finding cultural relevance doesn't have to be difficult. 

I have come to conclude that it’s possible for almost any brand to have cultural currency. Any brand can find a way of participating in the broader social conversation of the day. Indeed I believe this is consistently the optimal positioning strategy: identify relevant cultural change and locate your brand within it. Contemporary brands need to contribute to contemporary life. They need to commentate on it, participate with it, shape it. Because if you can't make yourself relevant, you're irrelevant.

There are too many introverted businesses nowadays: talking to their own heavy users, about their own sector, on their own terms, within their own conventions. I’ve lost count of the number of Clients who consider themselves converts to the new religion of growth-through-penetration. But if we are to take the penetration arguments seriously, then we ought to be reaching out to new communities and new audiences, and locating ourselves around social and cultural change.

As John Bartle used to say, ‘you’ve got to decide whether you’re in the vanguard or in the guard’s van.’

When Dillon passed away, Dad buried him at the end of the back garden by the rockery. Mum wept for days. I always imagined that Dillon found his way to Dog Heaven. He’d had his day. He’d chased his tail. He’d howled at the moon. And he’d made his own very significant contribution to Carroll family culture. He’d found the centre of our attention.

No. 48