Random Usually Has Its Reasons: The Mystery of the Three Routes Home

Winslow Homer, Boys in a Pasture

Winslow Homer, Boys in a Pasture

I was delighted to have My-Mate-Andy as a friend.

At first glance you wouldn’t imagine we had a lot in common.

My-Mate-Andy was the coolest kid in school. He had a golden tan, artfully ripped jeans, and was a connoisseur of the immaculate white t-shirt. He experimented with Sun-In in his hair and only wore Fu Shoes on his feet. He’d painted a Coca-Cola can in art class and decorated his parka with a replica of The Beat logo. He had a way with words, a lust for life, an enthusiasm for Marks & Spencer prawn cocktail crisps and George Benson records.

I was a swotty kid who helped people with their Latin homework in order to earn affection. I was always carrying books and kit in random Sainsbury’s bags. I was generally awkward, introverted, poorly shod. And my hair was a mess.

One thing we certainly had in common was our walk home from school. Every afternoon we traipsed along the Southend Arterial, past the tatty allotments and through the suburban semis of Cecil Avenue. We’d chat about music, football, politics and telly; about Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, Boys from the Black Stuff, cold turkey, chips and beans. My-Mate-Andy would recite Jam lyrics and break into impromptu dance moves. He’d run through his impersonations of Ferg, Perc and Tony Papp. He’d tell me about the parties he’d attended, the girls he fancied and more besides. (I wasn’t very advanced in that department.)

My-Mate-Andy lived closer to the school, and so I would be left to walk the latter part of the journey home on my own. He had three slightly different, equidistant routes available to him, and each one required him to say farewell at a different point. With time I became quite fascinated by his choice of these three routes. He seemed to select a different option from one day to the next. But I couldn’t work out why.

Was his preference driven by meteorological conditions, his homework obligations, or what was on the telly? Was it related to road traffic, star signs, or what Jean had planned for dinner that night?

None of my hypotheses quite worked. There didn’t seem to be a particular pattern or logic. My-Mate-Andy’s route home was just completely random.

And then one day I cracked it. I realised that his decision on when to split was determined by the quality of our conversation. If words were flowing freely, and laughs were coming spontaneously, then he’d hang on ‘til the last possible exit. But if I was serving up rather dull discussion, mediocre fare, he’d take the first chance to break free.

This put the pressure on. I wondered: Could I make him select the farthest point of departure more often? Could I sustain his interest with the force of my witty repartee? Each afternoon I embarked on the walk home with a selection of perfectly polished conversational gambits to hand, in hope and expectation. But the harder I tried, the more likely he was to leave early.

I concluded that I ought be more natural with my friends.

But the real lesson was this: that cryptic or mysterious events often have a motive or explanation; that in the midst of seeming disorder there is sometimes shape and design; that random usually has its reasons.

And I think that is the challenge for a Strategist: find connections, causes, method and meaning in the everyday. Where others see chance and happenstance, we should seek rhyme and reason; where others see accident and the arbitrary, we should find patterns and plans.

Why is that sector behaving oddly? Why is the data different at that time of year? Why is that segment out of step with everyone else? Keep asking: Why? Why? Why? There’s usually a perfectly sensible explanation just over the horizon - if you have the instinct and appetite to look.

I’m still very good friends with My-Mate-Andy. We meet occasionally for a non-artisanal beer, and talk about music, football, politics and telly. He still has a healthy glow, and my hair’s still a mess. He denies that there was ever any logic to his route home - he was just ringing the changes. I maintain that he’s suffering from ‘unconscious bias.’

There’s no substitute for old friends. Old school is the best school. Or as George Benson once elegantly put it: ‘Never give up on a good thing.’

‘Never give up on a good thing.
Remember what makes you happy.
Never give up on a good thing.
If love is what you got, you got the lot.’

George Benson, Never Give Up on a Good Thing (Michael Garvin/Tom Shapiro)

No. 153


The Space Between Our Ears

At The Barbican recently I attended an extraordinary performance by Simon McBurney of the Complicite theatre company.

The Encounter considers issues of environmentalism, materialism, communication and time. In the play McBurney relates the story of Loren McIntyre, an American photographer who in 1969 was dropped into the Amazon rainforest on an assignment for National Geographic. McIntyre soon locates the nomadic Mayoruna tribe that he had been hoping to shoot, but soon loses the camera he had been hoping to shoot them with. Nonetheless, he follows the Mayoruna deep into the jungle, to the brink of starvation, tripping on their mystical herbs, joining them in their quest to find ‘the beginning.’ McIntyre is convinced that the tribe’s shaman is communicating with him telepathically. ‘Some of us are friends’, he seems, rather cryptically, to be suggesting, over and over again.

McBurney enacts this compelling story without costumes, or set, or other actors. In fact the stage resembles a radio-recording studio as McBurney, surrounded by props, circles a ‘binaural’ microphone that records in a kind of 3D.

We the audience listen through headphones. We hear voices, sounds, noises in the dark; we hear McBurney creating beautiful birdsong, the buzz of mosquitoes, the growl of airplane engines. He blows into the microphone and we feel the heat of his breath on our ears.

We are together in the theatre, but alone in our private soundscapes. We close our eyes and follow McIntyre into the heart of darkness.

Overall it’s a disarming experience. It made me think of the phenomenal power of sound, of storytelling and of the imagination. It took me back to the power cuts of 1974’s Three-Day Week, when we listened with mother in the candle light, to Radio 4 plays and Dr Finlay’s Casebook…

In the communications industry we spend so much time and money these days on location shoots, on CGI and special effects. We seek to recreate the past, to simulate the future, to bring distant lands to our doorsteps. But we leave little room for the imagination. It’s as if we’ve lost our faith in the phenomenal human capacity to dream, invent, envisage.

In his book Hegarty on Advertising Sir John Hegarty urges us to think beyond platforms, technologies, channels and media space. He encourages creatives to concentrate on ideas, and on communication’s ultimate destination, the mind.

‘The only space worth occupying is the space between someone’s ears.’

It’s a healthy reminder. Ideas engage the brain more effectively than any cunning creative device, canny media strategy or quirky technology. Ideas are comfortable unadorned, in the nude so to speak. And the best ideas have a life of their own. They are suggestive, seductive, conspiratorial. They linger.

As I left The Barbican that night, inspired but also confused somewhat by what I had experienced, I could not help hearing a voice whispering quietly at the back of my brain:

‘Some of us are friends.’

(The Encounter is on tour across the UK and the rest of Europe until 25 June)



‘I’ve weathered the storms. I’ve fallen down and I’ve gotten back up.’

The recently released documentary film Mavis! tells the story of Mavis Staples, singer with The Staple Singers throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and even on into the ‘90s. She has now been performing for 60 years and still sings her heart and soul out at the age of 76.

Mavis grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the neighbourhood that spawned soul legends Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler. Her father Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples organised his children into The Staple Singers, combining his own country blues heritage with a vibrant gospel sound. Pops sang with a sweet, thoughtful voice, young Mavis sang with raw, deep emotion.  As Bonnie Raitt observes in the documentary, she was ‘sensual without being salacious.’

Initially The Staple Singers’ material addressed purely gospel themes. Then one day, while on tour in the South, Pops took the family to see Dr Martin Luther King speak at a local church. He was deeply moved by the encounter.

‘I like this man’s message. If he can preach it, we can sing it.’

The group took to singing Freedom Songs in support of the civil rights movement. Songs such as ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’ and ‘Long Walk to DC’ had conviction, courage, clarity of purpose. They signed to Stax and had huge hits with ‘I’ll Take You There,' ‘Respect Yourself' and many more besides. They created anthems of authority, yearning and pride.

Mavis comes across as a luminous, forthright, humble soul who can laugh in the face of ageing:

‘That’s the best time I’ve had since I got my new knees.’

Her speech is intercut with the rich vocabulary of the church and the civil rights struggle.

‘I’m a living witness….I’ll stop singing when I’ve got nothing left to say.’

It’s this appetite that most impressed me. The appetite to ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ Appetite is an elusive quality. One minute you have it and the next it has completely deserted you. Mavis illustrates very powerfully that the key to sustaining appetite over the long term is a sense of purpose, a sense of mission.

In the marketing community we’ve been talking a good deal about Purpose over recent years. Purpose defines a brand’s broader social responsibility and contribution. It galvanises colleagues, partners and stakeholders around a higher order goal.  But critically Purpose ensures that appetite endures, that it is persistent, permanent; through thick and thin, good times and bad.

‘I’ve come too far to turn back now. I’m determined to go all the way.’
Mavis Staples, Mavis!



Speak Like a Child

‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’
Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso Le Coq

When I was younger I well recall being told that The Jam derived their sound from The Who and The Kinks; that Echo and the Bunnymen owed their sonic style to The Doors; that first generation Dexy’s were channelling Sam & Dave. I cared not a jot. These were our bands. They were our team. No sarcastic snipe or world-weary remark from the older generation could tarnish their integrity.

Now I’m the one that can hear every young band’s influences. I can’t ignore the shadow of a Beatles chord progression, the echo of Marvin’s rhythm section, the replication of Morrissey’s wordplay. And so I struggle to enthuse.

The Curse of Middle Age is familiarity, recognition, experience, discernment. Your palate, once refined, can become jaded; your enthusiasm qualified. You can’t see the originality.

And I suspect this Curse of Middle Age is at play in the workplace too.

One of the keys to sustaining interest and value in professional life, particularly in the creative industry, is to shed this corrosive cynicism; to dismiss the instinct to say ‘I’ve heard it, seen it, done it before’; to refrain from rose-tinted nostalgia; to retain a wide-eyed optimism; to be childlike, not childish; to learn to speak like a child.

‘I really like it when you speak like a child.
The way you hate the homely rank and file
The way you’re so proud to be oh so free and so wild.’

Paul Weller/The Style Council/Speak Like a Child

No. 70

I Guess Everyone Subscribes to Creative Destruction, But It’s the Destruction Bit I Worry About

On a recent visit to Edinburgh I came across Verrocchio’s The Virgin Adoring the Christ Child. It first struck me as a rather beautiful but conventional nativity scene. Then I noticed that the mother and child are located in a classical ruin rather than the accustomed stable. It transpires that this ruin represents the Roman Temple of Peace, which, according to myth, collapsed at Christ’s birth. It’s an early depiction of what we would call ‘creative destruction’: the demolition of the old order in order for the new to thrive.

The concept of creative destruction is familiar to us nowadays. It’s an acknowledged truth of business that progress demands disruption; and the idea seems entirely appropriate to our times of transformational change.

I want to suggest a more qualified evaluation of its merits.

When, as a teenager, I first encountered creative destruction, I was thrilled. In 1982 Paul Weller disbanded The Jam at the height of their critical and commercial success. We couldn’t believe it. They were the definition of youth, anger, romance and cool. It seemed an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice.

On a windswept Brighton peer a trench-coated Weller explained to a Nationwide reporter:

‘I think we’ve done all we can as the three of us and I think it’s a good time to finish it. I don’t want to drag it on and go on for the next twenty years doing it. And become nothing, mean nothing, end up like all the rest of the groups. I want this to count for something.’

Paul Weller, 11 December 1982

Weller made total sense. He had to destroy The Jam in order to pursue his new soul-inflected instincts; and, perhaps more importantly, in order to preserve that band’s iconic status.

At university I learned that the term ‘creative destruction’ derives from Marx and was popularised in the 1940s by the economist Joseph Schumpeter. It referred to systemic revolutions whereby old structures are endlessly replaced by the new. For example, the rise of the railway came hand-in-hand with the demise of canals.

In the course of my advertising career it was obvious that construction required deconstruction. We had to rip up rulebooks, rewrite processes, restructure departments, in order to create room for new ideas, platforms and perspectives.

However, while I was always excited about creativity, the charms of destruction eluded me. Why, I wondered, do we have to destroy in order to create? Isn’t destruction the very antithesis of creativity? Isn’t the whole concept somewhat macho?

I put my reservations down to my own emotional squeamishness, an unwillingness to take tough decisions. But there seemed a similar psychological shortcoming in others who attacked those same tough decisions with alacrity.

It was certainly easier to subscribe to creative destruction when its impacts were gradual and manageable; when its effects were conceptual and procedural.

However, increasingly, with the accelerating power of technology, as opportunities to create have become manifold and magnificent, so the destructive impacts of change have also grown more widespread, deep rooted and precipitous. Witness bookshops, music, taxis…

I’ve come to believe that my emotional squeamishness may have been a valuable constraint. The concept of creative destruction should not be a licence to take an indiscriminate wrecking ball to industries, communities and careers.

We need to think more seriously about the jobs that technology destroys, the livelihoods disrupted; the transferral of wealth and power from the many to the few; the compromised rights and unpaid taxes.

We need to take a broader, calibrated view of creative destruction; a proper weighing of its impacts. We need to ask whether the net value created exceeds the net value destroyed.

We also need to be more mindful of how decisions are made and how transitions are managed. Should the chief beneficiaries of change determine its value? Should consumers be both judge and jury? Isn’t the role of Government to manage the market rather than stand by and watch?

Fundamentally, we need to beware of ourselves. In Verrocchio’s painting the infant Christ sucks his finger as if he has drawn blood. It’s a premonition of his own demise.

First published in The Guardian Media & Tech Network Friday 16th October 2015

No. 54