Bohemian Like You: The Creative Industry Needs a Creative Community to Sustain It

Nicole Car as Mimì, © ROH 2017. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.

Nicole Car as Mimì, © ROH 2017. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.

‘Who am I? I am a poet.
What do I do? I write.
And how do I live? I live.
In my carefree poverty
I squander rhymes
and love songs like a lord.
When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire.’

‘Che Gelida Manina,’ Act I, ‘La Boheme’

I recently attended a performance of the Royal Opera’s excellent new production of ‘La Boheme.’ (Running until 10 October, with a live cinema screening on 3 October.) Giacomo Puccini set his 1896 opera among the artistic community of Paris’ Latin Quarter. It’s a world of poets and painters, composers and courtesans, seamstresses and scholars. They live in grim poverty, but socialise in gilded cafes and glamorous shopping arcades. They are fuelled by hopes, dreams and cheap red wine. They fall in love too easily, and out of love too painfully.

‘Bohemia, bordered on the North by hope, work and gaiety, on the South by necessity and courage; on the West and East by slander and the hospital.’

Henri Murger, ‘Scenes de la Vie de Boheme’ (1849)

Watching ‘La Boheme’ I was struck by a sense of recognition. These nineteenth century Bohemians bore some resemblance to the community that I spent my career working with, and that to this day sustains the creative industry: a diverse mix of unruly, unconventional, unpredictable types; a youthful cocktail of raw talent and ambition, partying in all the right places, living in all the wrong parts of town.

Our business depends on people like this. They are the latter day Bohemians.

I can recall over the years many of our Agency creatives socialised with musicians, dancers, artists, photographers and film-makers. We had creatives who, in their spare time, wrote screenplays, painted, performed in bands, and as stand-up comics. One of our young art directors had a priceless collection of BritArt he happened to have acquired from his mates while studying with them at art school.

Clearly our creative department had a network of talented friends with diverse skills. They may not have lived particularly comfortably in the earlier stages of their careers, but they inhabited a vibrant community of ideas and inspiration. And the Agency benefitted from that.

Of course Bohemian talent came arm-in-arm with Bohemian privations.

I recall a young team would pop down around noon every day to see us in our account area. We were at first flattered by the attention - until we realised they were only visiting for our Wotsits and Wheat Crunchies. The savoury snacks clients had provided an unlimited supply, and for our hard-up colleagues, this represented a free lunch.

On another occasion we discovered that one of our young designers was inviting his friends from the country to stay in London at the weekend. He offered them free accommodation at the Agency’s offices. Early one morning the Head of Office Services caught an urchin traipsing off to the showers wrapped in a towel.

Now this may not seem the stuff of grand opera, but I’m sure Puccini would have recognised it as somewhat Bohemian behaviour.

Sadly, as I sat back enjoying the soaring harmonies of the Act I love duet, ‘O Soave Fanciulla,’ I was also troubled.

‘Bohemia is always yesterday.’
Malcolm Cowley (American writer)

It has been observed that the Bohemian life depicted in Puccini’s opera was already something of a nostalgic myth by the time of its Turin premiere. The story was based on Henri Murger’s book ‘Scenes de la Vie de Boheme,’ written some 50 years earlier. In the intervening period Paris’ civic planners - visionary types like Georges Haussman - had swept aside the narrow, unruly streets and crumbling buildings of the medieval city, replacing them with wide, straight boulevards and bourgeois housing complexes. By the 1890s the Latin Quarter had become a tourist attraction, and, with rents rising, the artistic community had been forced to move on to Montmartre, and then out to Montparnasse.

This may sound familiar.

London is, of course, a global hub for the financial industry, a magnet for international investors. This wealth has produced the glass-box towers that line the river, the lightless squares in the West and the yuppie lofts in the East. For the young it has made buying houses unachievable and rents unaffordable. The financial constraints of the Bohemian life that in the past were mostly temporary have become a permanent prospect. Moreover, where the creative community has conferred cool on a local environment, that cool attracts the cash that in time forces them to leave. And so they move from Hoxton and Bermondsey, to Ilford and Peckham; then out to Croydon, Romford and beyond.

By the time I left the Agency world a few years ago, we had had our first resignations of people who wanted to stay in the industry, but simply couldn’t afford to live in London.

Sometimes it seems this vibrant cosmopolitan city is on a fast-track to becoming a twenty-first century Zurich: a place of elite restaurants and expensive shops, for the mature and moneyed classes.

This should be a concern to us all.

The creative industry needs a creative community to sustain it. If we can’t attract the talent to live here, we won’t have an industry at all.

No. 150

‘Nice, But…’: Don’t Just Commentate, Advocate

I was 17 and we’d all been to a party in Ilford or Seven Kings or one of those places. It was the early hours of the morning and I was grateful to be squeezed into the back of the car – even though it was the boot of an estate. However uncomfortable the journey, I was at least on my way home, to my own bed.

As we drove through empty suburban streets, Romford-bound, everyone was happily reviewing the evening’s fashion and flirtations, characters and comedy. Suddenly through the chatter I heard the slow velvet tones of Debbie, our Essex femme fatale. Unaware that I was in the back of the car, she was about to offer her opinion on Jim. I was quite impressed that she knew who I was, but also fascinated to hear what she might say.

‘Ah, Jim…He’s nice, but…’

The packed vehicle broke into a chorus of laughter before she could finish the sentence. I was left pondering what might have been on Debbie’s mind. What personality problem, sartorial shortcoming or conversational quirk was she about to reveal? Her incomplete statement suggested to me that I was myself somewhat incomplete, lacking in some vital way. But I didn’t know how. For the following term at school I was periodically mocked as ‘Jim, he’s nice, but…’  

Some time later, in the early years of my advertising career, I found myself presenting a panoramic review of the big themes in contemporary culture to my Manchester-based motor insurance Client. I talked about grunge fashion, Gen X slackers and the critical significance of Wayne’s World and Super Nintendo; of the special resonance of Bart Simpson’s shorts and Gazza’s tears. And at the end of the session, my charming senior Client, June, paused for a while and pronounced: ‘That’s interesting, in’t it?’ We moved swiftly on.

I realised with the repetition of this phrase on subsequent occasions that June was happy to indulge my wide ranging cultural critiques, but that she struggled to see any particular relevance to the world of motor insurance. What had any of my social trends and media phenomena to do with comprehensive policies, no claims bonus and third party, fire and theft? I had not offered much by way of implied action and she wasn’t prepared to supply it. My observations were ‘nice, but….’

Over time I realised that I was demonstrating a common shortcoming of the brand strategist. It’s easier to describe change than to explain how to respond to it. It’s easier to step outside the category than to bring the outside world inside. It’s easier to commentate than to advocate.

And yet this is where the real value of our cultural expertise comes into play. Surely the most compelling and exhilarating challenge for a modern strategist is to help brands participate in, and shape, popular culture; to help them join in, not stand on the sidelines watching.

So don’t just tell your Clients that the world is going to be full of robots, 3-D printers and fridges that talk to each other. Help them understand how these and other developments will impact on their brand and their communication; and what they need to do about it.

If you just want to be interesting, become a trends forecaster, a cultural commentator. If you want to work in commercial creativity, you must turn interest into opportunity and action.

I’m conscious that in my short weekly essays I am myself often guilty of giving observations rather than directions; descriptions rather than recommendations. Maybe I’m enjoying being one stage removed from the responsibility of decision-making. Maybe Debbie was right all those years ago: ‘Nice, but…’

No. 119

Not Doctors, But Psychoanalysts

Sigmund Freud (Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

Sigmund Freud (Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

It is a melancholy truth that the more expert I have become, the less my expertise is valued. I recognise that this may be because my dusty tales of Levi’s watchpockets, strategic chords and yin yangs lose a little of their lustre with every passing year. And I suspect I’m not pronouncing SXSW with convincing emphasis. But it may also be because Clients no longer come to me for expertise. Or at least not the expertise I imagined I had to offer.

I had always thought that we Planners were akin to strategic doctors. We assessed the patients’ symptoms, we prescribed treatment, we arrived at prognoses. I imagined that sitting in four reviews a day, year after year, gave us a special authority on the anatomy of communication. I’m sure there was a time when my Clients nodded gratefully as we offered sage counsel. The blinding insight, the lyrical proposition, the Damascene conversion…There was, wasn’t there?… But modern Clients are more strategically and creatively confident than ever before. They have their own strategy departments, they’re closer to their own data, they work across more channels than most of us.They go on creative role reversal courses…I’m really not sure they come to us primarily to listen to our opinion. And I have to say sometimes nowadays it’s difficult getting a word in edgeways.

It’s true, I have considered an alternative career as a bus conductor. And when the 25 year old Millward Brown consultant’s opinion carries more weight, I find myself yearning for a passing Routemaster. But advertising people are inherently positive. And so I reconsider…

I am increasingly of the view that Clients don’t come to us for medicine; they come to us for therapy. And I suspect that our value resides, not as strategic doctors, but as strategic psychoanalysts.

Often a successful modern Client engagement is not unlike a session of analysis. Clients begin with problems. They verbalise their thoughts, they make free associations, they express their fantasies and dreams. We listen, we interpret, we consider the unconscious conflicts that are causing their problems. We help them reach solutions through a process of self realisation.

Freud, in addressing the unconscious, talked about the need to ‘unearth buried cities’. This doesn’t sound too alien to brand planning.

I should at this point issue a health warning. I’m a Planner from Romford. Whilst I enjoyed Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method, I can’t claim any particular knowledge of psychoanalysis . For me it’s just an illuminating analogy. Besides, if we were too literal about this, we’d never look a Client in the eye. And I suspect that’s a sure fire way to lose business…

Let us nonetheless consider some of the basic principles that would derive from a psychoanalytic approach to Client engagement…

Set out on a quest for meaning, not cure. The answers to most problems reside in the minds of the Client. We are enabling self knowledge, helping them to create their own narratives.

Behave as a participant observer, not a detached expert. Analysis only works if we embark on it together, as willing equals.

Embrace free association. Often we are too quick to impose order on our Clients’ challenges. Bear in mind that fantasies and dreams can illuminate unconscious conflicts.

Remember, everything has meaning. Be attentive to behaviour, body language, choice of words and phrases.

Look for meaningful patterns. Consider consistencies, symmetries, repetition. Probe for the meaning within the pattern.

Our time is up..

I used to believe there was only one correct answer to every problem. Now I believe there are many correct answers. The challenge is to establish the correct answer that best suits the Client’s character and personality. Anais Nin famously once said: ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are’. I’m sure this maxim applies as much to strategy as it does to creative.

First published: BBH LABS 01/05/2013

No. 20

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