Discovering Japan: Reflections On Craft and Creativity

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

I recently returned from a holiday in Japan.

Greeted with a gong, welcomed with a bow. And the sweet smell of tatami mats. Shoes off, slippers on. Folding screens and sliding doors, chairless rooms and legless chairs. Matcha tea. Hard low beds and pillows filled with beans.

Taxi doors swing open automatically. Toilets stand to attention when you enter the room. Hai! Look out of the carriage when you’re crammed in on the subway train. Queue here. Be quiet. ‘Do not touch the geisha’.

A polite smile, then a gentle gesture. Sushi, yakitori, teppanyaki? Tempura, sashimi, miso soup. Gingko nuts. Choose your sake glass. Arigato. Kampai!

After dinner, neon lights and karaoke. ‘More than this, you know there’s nothing.’ Revolut! Maybe I’ll have the Western-style breakfast this time.

Bento boxes on bullet trains. Reversible seats. Out of the window we can see Mount Fuji peeping through the clouds. There are high peaks, open plains, deep valleys and crystal lakes. There are small trucks, compact cities, factories that still make stuff.

We visit tranquil gardens and bustling fish markets, austere merchants’ houses and colourful shrines. Chimes in the afternoon. We read tales of ninja, samurai and shoguns. We see whisky-drinking salarymen in the dimly lit bar of the Imperial Hotel. We watch sailor-suited school kids on a class outing, young women getting their photos taken in rented kimonos, beardless hipsters with magnificent hair. The infinite possibilities of vending machines. The limitless permutations of workwear. Neat, neat, neat.

To the Western tourist Japan is curious, challenging and delightful all at the same time. It’s strange but familiar; the same but different; futuristic but traditional.

Japan is also a country of quite extraordinary ingenuity and invention. The technology, engineering and logistics hugely impress. Perhaps there is something ingrained in the culture. The Grand Shrine of Ise is torn down and rebuilt every twenty years to reflect Shinto concerns about impermanence, death, rebirth and renewal. Creative destruction?

But Japan is also a country obsessed with quality: consideration of materials, care of manufacture, craft of execution. You see it in the food and the fashion, the interior design and the service culture.

You see it at the Japanese Galleries of the Tokyo National Museum - in the glazed ceramic vases and polished lacquer trays; the courtly calligraphy and narrative picture scrolls; the steel samurai swords and decorative sutra boxes; the ornate kettles and tea caddies; the finely embroidered kabuki costumes.

Many of these precious objects had no named artist or creator. Most of them were following an established tradition, path or process. All of them were precise and refined, elegant and just so. Craft is as important as creativity here.

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

Wandering through these galleries I found myself asking whether we in the communications sector spend enough time reflecting on craft. Do we celebrate excellence of execution as much as we do originality of thought? Do we allocate time appropriately between strategy, creative and production? Do we properly respect our talent in design and art direction, film-making, photography and web-build? Do we suitably invest in craft skills and training?

I’m not so sure. Sometimes, whilst wasting time and money on the front end, we squeeze production resource and budgets at the back end. Sometimes we display a cavalier attitude to expertise. Sometimes in the expansive realms of content development and dynamic creativity, we operate a culture of ‘good enough’.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck. Occasionally John Hegarty would observe, somewhat cryptically:

‘If creativity is 80% idea, it’s also 80% execution.’

Clearly a great Agency in any era must excel at both creativity and craft.

At the start of one year Nigel Bogle addressed the Agency with a simple chart. It had ‘Better’ on the x-axis and ‘Different’ on the y-axis. The objective this year, he said, is to position ourselves at the top right-hand corner of this graph: we must be both better and more different – than the sector norms, than our competitors, than we have ever been before.

Hai! 

And a happy new year to you all.

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'Her heart is nearly breaking, the earth is nearly quaking.
The Tokyo taxi's braking, it's screaming to a halt.
And there's nothing to hold on to when gravity betrays you,
And every kiss enslaves you.
Discovering Japan.
Discovering Japan.’

Graham Parker, 'Discovering Japan'

No. 210

Grand Hotel: Why Not Put All Your Eggs in One Basket?

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'Grand Hotel... always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.’

Dr. Otternschlag, ‘Grand Hotel’

The 1932 movie ‘Grand Hotel’ is set in Berlin between the wars. It begins with an overhead shot of switchboard operators busily connecting calls. We cut to a series of hotel staff and guests on the phone: a Head Porter is worried about his wife who is giving birth at a local clinic; an industrialist plans a merger which he needs to go through to keep his business afloat; a maid announces that her Prima Ballerina mistress will not dance today as she is tired and overwrought; an aristocrat short of money is plotting; an ordinary fellow has only a few weeks to live.

And so we are introduced with elegant brevity to a range of personal stories that will intertwine and evolve as the plot unfolds.

It had been the convention for Hollywood studios to release films that featured just one or two stars. They wanted to prompt audiences to pay separate admission to see their favourite actors appearing across a range of titles.

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With ‘Grand Hotel’ MGM chief Irving Thalberg determined to feature five A-list stars in one movie: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, the brothers John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery.

Inevitably the production attracted a great deal of publicity. MGM promoted it as ‘the greatest cast ever assembled’ and gave it a spectacular Hollywood premiere.

With its phenomenal line-up, lavish setting and romantic narrative, ‘Grand Hotel’ resonated with audiences that were reeling from the onset of the Depression. The movie gained notoriety for featuring Greta Garbo’s melancholy line,‘I want to be alone.’ And it quickly attracted parodies. It became one of the highest grossing films in studio history.

‘Grand Hotel’ was the first all-star movie vehicle. And it established a model for gilt-edged ensemble casting that was followed right up to the modern era by the likes of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Oceans Eleven’.

In business we are accustomed to the principle of spreading risk; of distributing exposure across a range of categories and markets. But sometimes it pays to consolidate our efforts.

 

The nineteenth century tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt initially acquired his wealth in steamboats. But when he saw the rise of the train, he divested from shipping and bet his whole fortune on the railroad. He became the richest man in America. John Rockefeller built Standard Oil by processing petroleum for kerosene used in lamps. When electricity began to eclipse kerosene in the domestic lighting sector, he could have diversified into the new technology. Instead Rockefeller concentrated his efforts on refining oil for gasoline in the emergent car market.

Sometimes the opportunity is such that it merits focus and weight, our full and undivided attention. 

Many years ago we were pitching for the US region of a business that we serviced in the rest of the world. Our competitors had been whispering in the Clients’ ears that awarding the whole global account to BBH would compromise them. Better, it was suggested, to keep an Agency roster and play suppliers off against one another. ‘You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.’

Nigel Bogle began the pitch by recognizing that the ‘eggs in one basket’ concern had been playing on the Clients’ minds. He addressed the issue head-on: 

‘I’ve reflected on this, and I can’t think of anyone that doesn’t keep all their eggs in one basket.’

Sometimes it pays to consolidate and concentrate; to focus on the biggest opportunity; to put all your best eggs in the one most promising basket.

By the end of ‘Grand Hotel’ Otto Kringelein, the ordinary fellow with a terminal illness, has had a fine old time drinking, gambling and carousing in its opulent halls. He concludes with a toast:

'To life! To the magnificent, dangerous, brief, brief, wonderful life...and the courage to live it!  Baron, I've only lived since last night, but that little while seems longer than all the time that's gone before.'

No 196

‘Baby, I Don’t Care’: Don’t Let a Service Business Become Servile

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‘You know you can’t act. And if you hadn’t been good looking, you would never have gotten a picture.’

Katharine Hepburn to Robert Mitchum

Many were rather dismissive of Robert Mitchum’s acting talent. They found him passive, wooden, flat. He often seemed to lack emotional engagement and occasionally he gave the impression that he wished he was somewhere else. Of one performance a journalist wrote that ‘he moved as if on casters.’ He never won an Oscar.

Mitchum himself wasn’t inclined to disagree. He dismissed his own acting ability with cheery indifference.

‘I got three expressions: looking left, looking right and looking straight ahead.’

Throughout his career Mitchum would take on parts he knew were poorly written and undemanding.

‘Movies bore me, especially my own.’

Asked what he looked for in a script before accepting a role, he said: ’Days off.’

Some have observed that Mitchum found it hard to take acting too seriously because his childhood had been so challenging. A year or so after his birth (in 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut) his rail-worker father was crushed to death in an accident at the yard. Frequently expelled from school, the young Mitchum found himself riding railroad cars, picking up odd jobs where he could. When he was 14 he was arrested for vagrancy and put to work on a chain gang.

So maybe Mitchum had good reason to make light of his craft.

And yet, in amongst all the uninspiring westerns and production-line romances, Mitchum starred in some of the finest films of the 1940s and ‘50s. Classic noirs like ‘Crossfire’ and ‘The Big Steal’; sinister thrillers like ‘The Night of the Hunter’ and ‘Cape Fear.’

Over the years critics reassessed Mitchum.

‘People can’t make up their minds whether I’m the greatest actor in the world – or the worst. Matter of fact, neither can I.’

In his best work Mitchum had a quiet charisma, a cool naturalism. With his heavy-lidded look and minimal movement - often wearing the same worn-out trench coat - he displayed an air of bitter experience and careless nonchalance. He could suggest both vulnerability and menace. Beside him other actors seemed to try too hard, to over-emote; and thereby to lose something of their authenticity.  Commentators began to recognise in him someone for whom less was more. They celebrated him for ‘being, not acting.’

In the 1947 masterpiece ‘Out of the Past’ Mitchum plays Jeff, an ex-private detective who can’t escape his past and the charms of Kathie, his faithless former lover. In one scene Kathie, played by Jane Greer, begs to be believed one last time:

‘I didn't take anything. I didn't, Jeff. Don't you believe me?’

Mitchum gives Greer a weary look and a knowing embrace, and says: ‘Baby, I don't care.’

I wonder whether the communications industry could learn something from Mitchum, the movie star who won out through under-acting; through dialing it down; through seeming not to care too much.

Ours is a culture whose currency is passion and positivity. We have no red lines, only green. Show us an extra mile and we’ll run it. Show us a hoop and we’ll jump through it.

But sometimes our enthusiasm diminishes our seriousness; our readiness to offer alternatives smacks of a lack of commitment; our willingness to move on compromises the integrity of our recommendations; our eagerness to go again betrays a disregard for the personal lives of our colleagues. 

Back in the day Nigel Bogle would warn of the perils of a service business becoming servile: ‘The answer’s ‘’yes.’’ What’s the question?’

So what do you think?

Are we too eager to please, too desperate to win? Does our commitment to do ‘whatever it takes’ devalue our output, overload our staff, constrain our finances, compromise our values? Are we just too keen?

Surely we should commit, not to ‘whatever it takes’, but to ‘whatever is right’ - for the task, for the brand, for the time, for the fee. And be prepared - just occasionally - to walk away.

Easier said than done, I know, in an oversupplied, highly competitive, cost-constrained market; in a world of tied relationships and trigger-happy Clients. But, as the mystery slips, as margins slide and motivation sags, the industry will have to take a stand one day.

Perhaps we should heed Robert Mitchum’s advice:

‘There just isn't any pleasing some people. The trick is to stop trying.’

No. 170

  

Mixed Metaphors: Sport Inspires Us To Perform; Art Inspires Us To Transform

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

So, we’re planning a conference and we want to invite an external speaker to address us and our colleagues - someone inspirational from a completely different world; who will get us all thinking outside the category, outside the box; someone who can convince us to raise our sights, raise our game.

Who are we going to call?

Maybe an Olympic oarsman, a downhill skier, a medal-winning sportswoman? Or perhaps a choreographer, a composer, a world-renowned film director?

Well, yes, any one of these could, I’m sure, be compelling and interesting. But perhaps we should first give a little thought to our selection criteria. Let’s examine the lessons we’re seeking to learn.

A first class sports person will prompt our colleagues to consider competition, goals and incremental improvement; team building, training and total honesty. They’ll teach us about the hard yards and the extra mile; to step up to the plate, to play the ball not the man, to want it more. There’s no ‘I’ in team. They’ll teach us all these things because fundamentally sport inspires people to perform.

We may, on the other hand, be keen to accelerate transformational change within our business. In which case sports people may not be so suited to the task. Setting aside the occasional formation adjustment and Fosbury Flop, for the most part athletes play the same game, on the same pitch, with the same rules. They’re seeking to be better, not different.

So if we’re looking to learn about change, we may prefer to talk to the cultural community. People from the arts world are daily engaged in innovation and invention, pioneering new paths and new perspectives. Art is an expression and catalyst of difference.

I think my most memorable marketing conference was one organised by Unilever in Dublin many years ago. A selection of actors and authors, poets and playwrights addressed the management teams of various global brands. They spoke to us about their sources of invention, the craft of creativity, the ‘habit of art’. You may well say that these themes were a million miles away from deodorant, detergent, blue bleach and yellow fats. But they seemed entirely relevant. Because they were all concerned with change.

I was interested therefore to see that Central Saint Martins, the London-based art and design school, and Birkbeck, the university that specialises in business education for working people, have recently combined to offer an MBA course. The course will bring together 'creative thinking with a rigorous business and economics base.' The shape of things to come perhaps.

“In an ever changing and ever more complex world, business leaders and entrepreneurs are going to need new ways of thinking and doing.”

Prof Jeremy Till, Dean of Central Saint Martins

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

It’s clear that, before we pick up the phone to book our inspirational speaker, we should choose our metaphors wisely; tailor the talk to the task. We should remember that sport inspires us to perform, art inspires us to transform; sport makes us better, art makes us different.

Of course, in the long run, most modern businesses need both high performance and transformational change. My former boss, Nigel Bogle, consistently encouraged BBH to be better and different. So when it comes to inspiration at least, we may well need to mix our metaphors.

No. 110

Not Hearing, But Listening

'Fossil Shell Lit From Right' By Helen Oh

'Fossil Shell Lit From Right' By Helen Oh

My mother cupped the conch shell to my infant ear. ‘Listen, Jimmy. Listen to the sound of the sea.’ And there it was: a summer breeze blowing from afar; waves crashing onto a distant shore; sunshine, sand and sweet repose. A thing of wonder.

Some years later I came across the scientific explanation of this phenomenon. Sadly shells do not mystically retain the resonance of home. Rather their hard, curved inner surfaces amplify ambient noise to create a sound that one fancies to be the ocean.

In a sense the science didn’t really matter. Through my listening with mother, I’d  learned an invaluable lesson: that when we listen, we interpret, we imagine.  Hearing is passive. It is merely the perception of sound. Listening, by contrast, is an active, conscious choice. It involves processing sound, establishing meaning. Listening is a creative act.

But listening isn’t easy. It requires concentration, focus, effort and attention. It’s a skill to be learned, a craft to be mastered. Listening can be hard work, especially when you’re tired, stressed and have your own predispositions and opinions. And surely it’s harder still in this Age of Distraction.

In business nowadays we’re all told we need to listen more: we need to listen to our Clients, our colleagues, our consumers; we need to listen more in meetings; we’re encouraged to embrace listening initiatives, ‘active listening’.

But how do we become better listeners? How can we learn to listen?

I’m well aware that any number of textbooks, tomes and business books have been written about this topic. But I thought nonetheless I’d offer a few simple observations, from my own experience, on the art of listening at work.

 

1. Good Listening Begins with Good Questions

Good listeners ask questions rather than give answers.  They enjoy the process of interviewing, the craft of conversation. The quest for truth, insight and original thought can be absorbing, challenging, thrilling.

Ask questions that reveal the interviewee’s point of view rather than your own. Ask both the simple questions and the profound; the big and the small; the straightforward and the lateral. Ask the questions people want answered and the questions no one thought to ask.

Because you’ll only get good answers if you ask good questions.

 2. It’s Not Just About the Questions. It’s About Your Response to the Answers

It’s often been observed that listening doesn’t come naturally to men. We like to project, profess and proclaim our own opinions rather than submit to the opinions of others. More enlightened males have learned the importance of asking questions, but we often stop there.  We confuse asking questions with listening.

Have you ever observed what makes a poor interview in the media? The interviewer poses a series of prepared questions, one after the other. But they’re just processing through a script. There’s no following up of answers, picking up of themes; no pursuing for clarification, connecting of thoughts.

A good listener creates a conversation: a revealing, seamless flow of insights and ideas. It’s not just about the questions you ask; it’s about your response to the answers.

3. Show That You Care

I’ve noticed that in more combative business environments audiences sit poker-faced, projecting an air of scepticism. They are listening, but they’re doing so with passive aggression.

I take the opposite approach. I like to nod in a business meeting. It’s my way of saying: ‘I’m not checking my email or planning my next meeting. I’m here. I’m following you. I’m totally engaged.’

Sometimes I suspect my nodding suggests weakness, compliance, unwitting assent or simple-mindedness. But I don’t really mind. I just like to nod.

4. Distil, Interpret, Project

When I was a child I’d watch a lunchtime politics show with my father. On Weekend World the host Brian Walden had a way of periodically summarising what he’d heard. It demonstrated that he had a grasp of what the politician had been saying, and provided a source of provocation, a springboard for further debate. Sometimes the summaries could be more compelling than the politicians’ own words. They were certainly more concise.

Good interviewers distil and interpret, connect and explore what they’re hearing. They project implications and consequences of what the interviewee is saying. Good listening should create meaning and understanding.

5. Write It Down!

My former boss, Nigel Bogle, spoke in meetings with unrivalled fluency, unparalleled structure. His conversation sparkled with appropriate aphorism and worldly wisdom. And yet I’d occasionally pass his office and see young Strategists sitting comfortably, chatting amiably, enjoying the high-level debate. What a waste! What could they recall beyond a general theme, direction or impression? What can you learn if you don’t write things down?

I like to write what people say. Spoken language contains hidden codes. The choice of words, the particular phrasing, the sentence construction, the logic flow, they all say so much. There are shapes and patterns, themes and narratives. Direct speech always rewards further study.

I’ve written elsewhere that modern Strategists should see themselves more as psychoanalysts than doctors (Not Doctors, But Psychoanalysts). Nowadays in business intuition and emotional intelligence trump command and control; marketing is more about revealing truth than adding value; and brand communication is more about expressing authenticity than creating image. In this context listening is becoming a primary commercial expertise, a differentiating leadership skill.

So don’t just hear. Listen.

No. 85

 

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

Swimming In The Shallow End

Portrait of an artist, by David Hockney

Portrait of an artist, by David Hockney

My father worked for a time at a gasket factory in Romford. One Christmas he presented me with a corporate diary he had been given by an industrial felt supplier. Inside they’d printed their slogan: ‘You need the felt. We felt the need.’ I loved that line. I thought it was so funny, clever and beautiful at the same time.

I was at school studying for my A Levels: Latin, Greek, Ancient History. It was a robustly academic diet. I found that, having immersed myself in Homer, Horace and Herodotus, I was increasingly distracted by Essex fashion and soul music, pub banter and puns. I was drawn to the facile, frivolous and foolish. I guess it was a kind of mental displacement.

In the early ’80s, pop was revered anew in the UK. In the wake of the ponderous rock and precocious punk of the ’70s, we embraced ABC, Haircut 100 and Dollar with gusto. We believed in the beauty of the three minute pop song: shiny lyrics, shallow sentiments, shimmering production. We believed that there was an integrity in pop that raised it above the pretentious posturing of the indie crowd; that there was a kind of perfection in its brevity and wit. We believed that love itself was fragile, funny and transient.

Around about that time I determined that I’d one day like to work in advertising.

‘And all my friends just might ask me.
They say,”Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love.”
I say,”Maybe. There must be a solution
To the one thing, the one thing, we can’t find”’

The Look of Love, ABC

In my 20s I noticed my social circle was narrowing and deepening. I was spending more and more time with a tight knit bunch of close friends. Although I greatly enjoyed their company, I became concerned that my conversation was increasingly predictable, that I was reinforcing my own prejudices and opinions. And so I set myself the task of developing a broad but shallow social set. I endeavoured to ensure that I saw a lot of friends infrequently. (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this particular game plan. It was frankly rather exhausting).

Nigel Bogle once complained that Planning had a nack of digging down to Australia to discover the meaning of a paper clip. In my brief, and I have to say less than successful, tenure as Head of Planning at BBH, I endeavoured to address this. I transposed my ‘broad and shallow’ strategy to Planning: I encouraged the department to experience more things less profoundly; to work on more projects less intensively. Broad and Shallow Planning was to be my legacy to the strategic community. Strangely it was never widely adopted…

I guess I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the elevated status we afford brands nowadays. We talk of trust and love and ideals. Loyalty, passion, faith. Visions, missions, purposes. It sometimes strikes me as faintly bombastic. Brands as Wagnerian heroes. The Emerson, Lake and Palmers of consumption. The high concept action movies of marketing. Roll the credits. Lighters in the air. Cue the helicopters. Cue the smoke machines. Cue Coldplay. Cue Ghandi…

Surely not all soft drinks can save the babies, not all toothpastes can launch a thousand ships. Surely many brands have more modest roles to play in people’s lives. The fleeting glance, the quiet companion, the casual acquaintance. Shouldn’t we of all people be celebrating the inconsequential, the insignificant, the incidental? For these foolish things are truly the stuff of life.

‘A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places.
A tinkling piano in the next apartment,
Those stumbling words that told me what your heart meant.
These foolish things remind me of you’

These Foolish Things, Eric Maschwitz & Jack Strachey

 

 

The fall of Icarus, Baglione

The fall of Icarus, Baglione

Finally, a word of caution. We have all learned to ladder up to higher order concepts and social goods. Ordinary, everyday brands get to leave behind base functionality, to sup with sages and kings. And often it serves a brand well to give it a higher purpose and social resonance. But beware the Icarus Effect. You may be playing with the Pomp Rock of Planning. In a Creds meeting once, I told a High Street optical retailer that his brand gave consumers the gift of sight. He excused himself and said he was due back on Planet Earth.

So don’t get me wrong. I love a big, ambitious, high ground, universal idea as much as the next man. I love brands with vision, confidence and courage. I’ve even nodded along to Coldplay occasionally.

But, just for once, let’s raise a glass to the little guys, to the not-so-crazy ones. Here’s to the inconsequential, the incidental and frivolous. Here’s to the modest, the momentary and fleeting. Here’s to swimming in the shallow end.

First published: BBH Labs 25/09

No.16