The Interfering Boss

The Second Mrs De Winter: ‘I want you to get rid of all these things.’
Mrs Danvers: ‘But these are Mrs de Winter’s things.’
The Second Mrs De Winter: ‘I am Mrs de Winter now!’

The 1940 film Rebecca is a haunting tale of doomed love, corrosive guilt and the ever-present past. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s first movie in Hollywood and his only work to win a Best Picture Oscar.

Hitchcock had been hired for the job by the producer David O Selznick. From the outset it was an uneasy relationship. There were disagreements about casting, performances and scheduling. Selznick liked to review different cuts of the same set-up after the shoot. But Hitchcock’s practice was to work out his shots in advance and cut in the camera.

Selznick took to prescribing executional ideas. He suggested that it would make a dramatic and resonant climax to the film if the smoke from the burning country house, Manderley, mysteriously formed a huge letter R for Rebecca in the sky. Hitchcock naturally felt this rather crude, and, while Selznick was preoccupied with producing Gone with the Wind, he shot a sequence of Rebecca’s burning negligee case, monogrammed with the letter R. Undoubtedly a more elegant solution.

Mrs Danvers: ‘Why don’t you go? Why don’t you leave Manderley? He doesn’t need you…He’s got his memories. He doesn’t love you. He wants to be alone again with her. You’ve nothing to stay for. You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?’

We have all worked with the Interfering Boss. What starts with broad direction and encouragement, evolves into helpful suggestions and ideas, and culminates in executional orders and instruction. As the pressure mounts and the relationship deteriorates, hands-off empowerment transitions into hands-on leadership.

This transition is often accompanied by protestations of special circumstances. The Interfering Boss asserts that he or she has a particular understanding of what the Client wants or the problem needs. This issue is, they say, relationship compromising, account threatening. This one’s too important to take a risk on. And then comes the promise of more creative freedom in ‘Year 2’ of the campaign. Year 2, of course, is a mythical place that few have visited.

I confess I have myself on occasion been that Interfering Boss. In the absence of a strong creative voice, I would sometimes step in with my own strong creative opinions. Leadership abhors a vacuum. I knew even at the time that this wasn’t healthy. Perhaps I was insufficiently trusting of the creative directors. Perhaps I was over-confident in my own abilities. Perhaps I was under pressure.

Thankfully, for the most part, my creative suggestions were rebuffed: the well-meaning ‘thought-starters’; the half-baked script ideas; the painful puns (‘ISA-tonic’ or ‘YouK’ anyone?); the helpful loan of my Parapluies de Cherbourg DVD (I’m sure I was onto something there); the frequent requests for a Luther Vandross soundtrack…. Looking back, my personal creative legacy may in fact be limited to the legendary laundry endline: ‘Smell the Clean.‘

So how should you deal with the Interfering Boss?

Well, you could try to ignore them, in the hope and expectation that they’ll always have their own Gone with the Wind to occupy their time. You could nod enthusiastically and then wilfully misunderstand what you’ve been asked to do. You could perhaps take on the Interfering Boss, and make a career-limiting speech about roles and responsibilities. In the long term, I’m not sure any of these approaches is sustainable.

‘We can never go back to Manderley again. That much is certain.’

I’d suggest that the smart option is to think properly about what the Interfering Boss is trying to get at with his or her awkward illustrations and sketchy scripts. If you can isolate what at root they’re looking for, the problem they’re trying to resolve, you can probably come up with a better, more satisfying solution. This is, after all, how Hitchcock dealt with Selznick’s ‘smokey R’ proposal.

Sir John Hegarty would always say, to Clients and account people alike: ‘Describe the problem, don’t prescribe the solution.’ In other words, tell me we have a branding issue; don’t demand that I put the brand in the first 5 seconds. Wise counsel. I’m sure we always progress further, faster, when well-briefed creatives are allowed to do the creating.

Of course, the ultimate way of dealing with the Interfering Boss is to do exactly what they ask you to do – to the letter. They’ll inevitably be confronted with their own creative shortcomings; with the linear logic of their inelegant ideas; with the merely moderate and quietly conventional. That’ll really wind them up. 

No. 121

Don’t Get Lost on Bolsover Street: Delight in Complexity, But Then Rejoice in Simplicity

There’s a distinguished production of Harold Pinter’s 1975 play, No Man’s Land, currently running at Wyndham’s Theatre in London (until 17 December).

Hirst, a successful literary figure, has invited Spooner, a struggling poet, back from the pub to his grand Hampstead home. Here they engage in heavy drinking and circuitous conversation, attended by Hirst’s two mysterious man servants. The play is famously difficult to decode. Is it all about writer’s block, or unreliable memory, or the descent into alcoholism? Is Spooner Hirst’s alter ego? Is he a character pitching to feature in Hirst’s next play? Is he a harbinger of death?

Pinter refuses to resolve these questions for us. Indeed he seems to revel in our uncertainty. He’s happy to leave us, like the key protagonists, in No Man’s Land.

At the start of Act 2 one of the servants, Briggs, explains that he first met his colleague, Foster, when Foster stopped his car to ask him the way to Bolsover Street.

‘I told him Bolsover Street was in the middle of an intricate one-way system. It was a one-way system easy enough to get into. The only trouble was that, once in, you couldn't get out. I told him his best bet, if he really wanted to get to Bolsover Street was to take the first left, first right, second right, third on the left, keep his eye open for a hardware shop, go right round the square, keeping to the inside lane, take the second Mews on the right and then stop. He will find himself facing a very tall office block, with a crescent courtyard. He can take advantage of this office block. He can go round the crescent come out the other way, follow the arrows, go past two sets of traffic lights and take the next left indicated by the first green filter he comes across. He's got the Post Office Tower in his vision the whole time. All he's got to do is to reverse into the underground car park, change gear, go straight on, and he'll find himself in Bolsover Street with no trouble at all.’

Exactly.

I think it’s important that strategists are comfortable with complexity. Most people, most lives and relationships, are contoured and convoluted, tangled and tortuous. They are driven by motivations that are often arcane, nuanced and irrational. In the same way, businesses and brands, media channels and environments, user journeys and experiences tend to be confused beasts too. We should delight in this intricacy, recognise its essential truth and doubt anyone that denies it.

‘Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.’
Woody Allen

But sometimes we strategists become not masters, but victims, of complexity. We can be cursed by an intelligence that sees sophistication and subtlety at every turn. Our brand onions look like eye tests; our engagement strategies like cat’s cradles; our ecosystems like distant galaxies. We get lost on a business problem that won’t resolve itself; on a deck that doesn’t get any shorter; on a customer journey that’s got no destination.

This malaise can extend into the rest of our professional lives. We soon find ourselves becalmed on an account that’s unrewarding; in a role that’s unsuited; in a career that’s not progressing. In no time at all we’re lost on Bolsover Street.

‘I did warn him, though, that he'll still be faced with the problem, having found Bolsover Street, of losing it. I told him I knew one or two people who'd been wandering up and down Bolsover Street for years. They'd wasted their bloody youth there. The people who live there, their faces are grey, they're in a state of despair, but nobody pays any attention, you see.’

So, whilst acknowledging the essential intricacies of life, business, consumers and media, we should also recognise that the core strategist’s skill is to bring simplicity to the complex, to reduce and refine, condense and concentrate; and that it’s only through the ability to distil, both the problem and the solution, that we can avoid being cast adrift on a Sargasso Sea of unworkable strategies and unfulfilling careers.

‘Why is it the French revolution was able to sum up its beliefs in three words –Liberté,  Égalité, Fraternité – and yet we need twenty six to sell a tin of cat food?’
Sir John Hegarty

I’m conscious that I’m encouraging the cultivation of equal and opposite talents; that I’m suggesting the best strategists can be both complex and concise; that they are at ease with antithesis. But ours is a trade that has contradiction at its heart: between the rational and emotional; between behaviour and belief; between compression and expansion.

So let’s embrace this contradiction. Let’s delight in life’s complications; and then reduce them to simple truths and decisive acts. Let’s not get lost on Bolsover Street.

 

Simplify Me When I’m Dead

Remember me when I am dead 
and simplify me when I'm dead. 

As the processes of earth 
strip off the colour of the skin: 
take the brown hair and blue eye 

and leave me simpler than at birth, 
when hairless I came howling in 
as the moon entered the cold sky. 

Of my skeleton perhaps, 
so stripped, a learned man will say 
"He was of such a type and intelligence," no more. 

Thus when in a year collapse 
particular memories, you may 
deduce, from the long pain I bore 

the opinions I held, who was my foe 
and what I left, even my appearance 
but incidents will be no guide. 

Time's wrong-way telescope will show 
a minute man ten years hence 
and by distance simplified. 

Through that lens see if I seem 
substance or nothing: of the world 
deserving mention or charitable oblivion, 

not by momentary spleen 
or love into decision hurled, 
leisurely arrive at an opinion. 

Remember me when I am dead 
and simplify me when I'm dead.

 

Keith Douglas (an English poet who fought in North Africa during World War II and was killed in 1944 during the invasion of Normandy.)

No. 103

Are You a Good Loser?

I recently attended the Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain (which runs until 10 April). It boasts portraits of British aristocrats in unfamiliar local garb; maps and mementos; etchings of exotic wildlife; and, inevitably, partisan paintings of triumphs and treaties.

I was struck by the fact that there were also a good many images recording defeat: heroic deaths, military martyrdoms, hasty retreats. You can see the demise of General Gordon at Khartoum; the last stand of Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani; and, in a rather portentous painting, an only known survivor making his way into Jellalabad, Afghanistan. Creating a positive narrative around disaster seems to have been a Victorian speciality. I imagine the intention of these tragic images was to convey a sense of nobility; a reinforcement of values; a commitment to persevere.

The exhibition prompted me to consider how we engage with failure in commerce. How good are we at dealing with defeat?

‘Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.’
Vince Lombardi, Coach, Green Bay Packers

Whether we like it or not, defeat is an everyday reality for even the most successful modern business. Brand owners have to recognise that their customers are endlessly fickle; their competition will occasionally outflank them; often their new product launches will founder. Agencies have to concede that they will generally lose more pitches than they win; most of their output will go unrewarded; and, like political careers, all accounts end in failure.

Of course, we are taught that mistakes are essential to entrepreneurship. Loss is a source of lessons and learning. We want to ‘treat every failure as an opportunity.’ We endeavour to ‘fail forwards.’ We love ‘burning platforms.’ We ‘mustn’t waste a good crisis.’

This doesn’t mean we book a ticker-tape parade every time someone cocks up. In truth, despite the management wisdom, we tend to be superstitious about loss. It punctures momentum. It lingers like a bad odour. You don’t want to get too close.

From my time in the Agency world, I recall that one’s initial response to defeat was often to cry foul, to blame failure on the foolishness of the Clients, the perversity of the process. Personally I would immediately seek comedy in defeat. I found it had a short-term restorative effect.

The first question after an intensive six-week pitch for a luxury brand came from the laconic representative of China, the most important growth market: ‘Where is the luxury in this?’ We knew immediately the game was up…

'To the Memory of Brave Men' by Allan Stewart

In time we commission reviews, post mortems and ‘wash-ups.’ We ask for Client feedback. We pose the difficult questions. We scrutinise procedures and personnel.

However, excessive self-reflection can be counterproductive. We find ourselves seeking scapegoats, ‘reaching for the blame gun.’ So the audits and introspection start to damage morale. I well recall being reprimanded by a younger colleague who felt that the Agency leadership’s painful honesty was undermining collective confidence. And we thought we were being fashionably transparent.

My former boss, Sir John Hegarty, didn’t subscribe at all to the conventional view of defeat.

‘Many people talk about failures as opportunities to learn. Saying this seems to make people feel wise and worldly. Well I say bollocks to failure. Don’t dwell on it. Move on. Forget it.’

Sir John Hegarty, BBH, Hegarty on Creativity

John’s contention resonates well with creative people. They have to insulate themselves against damaging negativity; they must look forward to opportunity, not back at disappointment. Maybe we could all benefit from a little indifference to defeat.

In my opinion we are generally too emotional in the immediate aftermath of failure and too rational when the dust has settled.

I wonder, should we adopt some of the Victorians’ myth making? Perhaps, rather than embarking on earnest self-examination, we ought to seek the emotion in error, find heroism in loss, defiance in disaster. We should use missed opportunities as a means of reinforcing belief, commitment and values. Setbacks don’t just illuminate the way forward; they galvanize the collective spirit.

And I’d still maintain that, just occasionally, it helps to laugh in the face of failure.

‘If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.’
WC Fields

Previously published in the Guardian Media & Tech Network

 No. 66