‘The Divided Voice’: There Are Two Sides To Every Story

‘Nobody saves anyone’s life. Just postpones their death.’

I recently saw ‘Allelujah!’, Alan Bennett’s fine new play about the National Health Service. (The Bridge Theatre in London until 29 September.)

‘Allelujah!’ focuses on the Beth, an old fashioned, cradle-to-grave hospital that is at the heart of its local community.

‘Here at the Beth, cosy, friendly and above all local, we believe that yesterday is the new tomorrow.’

The Beth is threatened with closure by a Department of Health that favours efficiency drives, centres of excellence and specialist units.

‘What makes a good hospital is an available bed.’

In an effort to court favour with the Minister, the Beth’s management has renamed its wards: from Princess Margaret, Wordsworth and Mountbatten, to Shirley Bassey, Fatima Whitbread and Dusty Springfield. It has also mounted a campaign to fight for the Beth’s survival.

But a consultant close to the Minister reveals that their efforts to keep the hospital open will ultimately prove futile.

‘Small, badly run and in the red, it would undoubtedly close. Efficiently run and meeting its targets it should close too, because, if it is profitable, why is it not in the private sector?...The State should not be seen to work. If the State is seen to work, we shall never be rid of it.’

We know that Bennett’s sympathies are with the Left. But ‘Allelujah!’ is not a piece of straightforward agitprop. In the course of the work the playwright explores the various perspectives of patients, their families, staff, management and Government. He wants to tease out his own point of view by probing the healthcare dilemma from many angles.

‘You don’t put yourself into what you write. You find yourself there.’

In his Introduction to the play Bennett directly addresses the question of the authorial voice.

‘Writing a play I have never tried to hide the sound of my own voice. It hasn’t always been where an audience or critic has thought to find it and certainly not always in the mouth of the leading character. It’s often a divided voice or a dissenting one; two things (at least) are being said and I am not always sure which one I agree with.’

We live in an era of conviction. We celebrate single-mindedness, clarity and commitment. We like to secure ourselves in a social media cocoon of affirmation and endorsement. So it’s rare to encounter a ‘divided voice’: one that is undecided, open to debate, sensitive to nuance.

And yet, as the philosopher John Stuart Mill observed, an opinion that does not recognize opposing arguments is itself somewhat fragile. 

'He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.’

John Stuart Mill, ‘On Liberty’

I think we in the marketing and communications industry would do well to reflect on these words.

We like to encourage passion and positivity. But sometimes our enthusiasm and evangelism translate into dogmatism and obstinacy. Our unchallenged convictions are boldly expressed, but sustained by shallow roots.

Back in the day, when we presented draft strategies to our boss Nigel Bogle, he would respond with provocations that usually began: ‘I could easily construct an argument…’ He knew that recognizing alternative beliefs and courses of action served to test, evolve and support our own; and that through the melting pot of diverse opinion we could forge new ideas and fresh opportunities.

Agencies should learn to be comfortable with discussion and dissent. They should be environments that support different perspectives and points of view; that examine and challenge established assumptions; that celebrate the ‘divided voice.’

There is of course one caveat. Whilst encouraging a broad range of thoughts and theories, we should be ruthlessly disciplined around facts - now more than ever. As the former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked:

‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.’

 

‘There are always two sides
To every story.
But two wrongs can't make it right.
Oh, and two mistakes will only bring you heartache,
And you both will end up losing the fight.’

Etta James, 'Two Sides (To Every Story)’ (Bill Davis)

No. 191

‘The Landscape of Fact’: How Measurement and Language Can Become Vehicles of Control

Photo: Colin Morgan by David Stewart for The National Theatre

Photo: Colin Morgan by David Stewart for The National Theatre

‘Yes, it is a rich language… full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception — a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to … inevitabilities.’

There’s an excellent production of Brian Friel’s 1980 play ‘Translations’ running at the National Theatre in London (until 11 August).

The drama is set in 1833 amongst the Irish-speaking community of Baile Beag, Donegal. Bibulous Hugh, ‘a large man, with residual dignity’, teaches Latin and Greek literature to the local peasantry at his informal ‘hedge school.’ In a ramshackle old barn his students learn grammar and word derivations, and swap quotations from Homer, Tacitus and Virgil.

‘There was an ancient city which, ‘tis said, Juno loved above all the lands. And it was the goddess’s aim and cherished hope that here should be the capital of all nations – should the fates perchance allow that.’

English is rarely spoken in the area ‘and then usually for the purposes of commerce, a use to which [that] tongue seemed particularly suited.’

Meanwhile British troops are camped nearby charting a map of the area for the Ordnance Survey. This entails Anglicising the local place names. So Bun na hAbhann becomes Burnfoot; Druim Dubh becomes Dromduff; and Baile Beag becomes Ballybeg.

Hugh is no admirer of the English language.

‘English succeeds in making it sound…plebeian.’

And he explains to the British sappers that their culture is lost on the Irish.

‘Wordsworth? … No, I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.’

The British are also in the process of establishing a national education system in Ireland. This is one of the first state-run, standardised systems of primary education in the world. English will be the official language, and the new system will make the traditional Irish-speaking ‘hedge schools’ redundant.

The drama prompts us to think about control. The British claim that their measurements and mapping will lead to fairer, more accurate taxation. But there’s an underlying suspicion that darker motives are at play. On the face of it the new school system will be superior to the old, and some in the Irish community regard English as a gateway tongue to travel and better prospects. But Hugh is concerned that Ireland is losing its cultural identity.

‘Remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen — to use an image you’ll understand — it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of … fact.’ 

We may recognise some of these themes in the world of commerce. Periodically our leaders, our owners and our Clients seek to monitor our output and ways of working; to map the landscape and contours of the business. We embrace timesheets and targets; scales and scorecards; ratios and rotas. Of course, it’s all in the interests of efficiency and best practice. ‘What gets measured gets done’ and so forth.

But there’s often a misgiving that measurement is a means of re-ordering priorities, of setting a new agenda, of enacting control; and a concern that the measures can become an end in themselves. As Sir John Banham, the former President of the CBI once observed:

‘In business we value most highly that which we can measure most precisely… Consequently we often invest huge amounts in being precisely wrong rather than seeking to be approximately right.’

Similarly we may find that our leaders, owners and Clients seek to impose their own language upon us. We are taught catchphrases and buzzwords; axioms and aphorisms; jargon and generalisation. Listen and repeat. Listen and repeat. As we endeavour to wise up, we dumb down. As our ambition expands, our vocabulary shrinks.

In his recent documentary ‘On Jargon’ (BBC4, 27 May), the brilliant writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades contrasted jargon with slang.

‘Jargon is everything that slang is not. Centrifugal, evasive, drably euphemistic, unthreatening, conformist. ... Whilst slang belongs to the gutter, jargon belongs to the executive estate. It is the clumsy, graceless, inelegant, aesthetically bereft expression of houses with three garages; of business people who instinctively refer to their workmates as colleagues…It is delusional. It inflates pomposity, officiousness and self-importance rather than punctures them. Slang mocks. Jargon crawls on its belly - giving great feedback, hoping for promotion.’

Now I should concede that I have been no stranger to aphorisms. When I was in leadership positions, I was prone to headlining new agendas; to punching out big themes. And I have often referred to my workmates as colleagues.

Of course, it is the responsibility of leaders in modern businesses to achieve corporate clarity and coherence. But it is imperative in so doing, to avoid clichéd conventional wisdom; ‘newspeak’ and ‘doublethink.’ And it is critical that independent thought and freedom of expression are not victims of the process.

Sometimes, in seeking to control difference, we simply succeed in making everyone the same.

One of the last of the great Cavalier Clients was Geoffrey Probert, who ran the deodorant and oral categories at Unilever. He was mindful that Agencies were at great pains to fit in with their Clients; to conform to their language and way of working. He warned against it.

‘Agencies can spend too much time trying to be like their clients. We’ve got loads of people just like us. We need you to be different. That’s the point. Just concentrate on doing the things we can’t do.’

No. 184

 

 

Just Chasing Numbers: 'I'm as Mad as Hell, and I’m not Going to Take This Any More!’

Network.jpg

‘This story is about Howard Beale, who was the news anchorman on UBS TV. In his time, Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share. In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, began to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks.‘

I recently saw a very good stage adaptation of the 1976 movie masterpiece ‘Network’ (National Theatre until 24 March). Brilliantly scripted by Paul Chayevsky, ‘Network’ tells the story of Howard Beale, an ageing TV news anchorman whose ratings are in decline and who suffers a mental breakdown. One evening, at the end of a broadcast, Beale threatens to commit suicide on-air. This obviously startles the studio bosses, until they realize that audience figures have spiked. They give Beale more airtime, and he assumes the role of ‘an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.’

‘Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business!‘

‘Network’ concerns itself with news, truth, media ethics, populism and global capitalism. It’s particularly compelling because these are issues that so trouble us today, some forty years on. The only difference is that the film focuses on the malign power of television, whereas we worry about the web and social media. 

‘Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.’

For people in business I think ‘Network’ represents a warning of the perils of chasing numbers. The sharp-dressed, fast-talking studio executives are obsessed with ratings and share, audience figures and syndication costs. They have lost sight of quality, truth and public responsibility. For them news is a commodity, a form of entertainment, a means of attracting eyeballs. It’s just a numbers game.

140207125034fayedunaway1977terryoneillhorizontallargegallery_l.jpg

‘You're television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays.’

Of course, in commerce we all have to concern ourselves with the numbers: with page views, unique visitors and dwell time; with brand penetration, frequency and share; with managing costs down and income up; with delivering the bottom line. But it’s easy to lose perspective; to get things out of order and proportion. Sometimes we can be too busy chasing great numbers to deliver great product.

There’s an old business maxim that I understand they used to cite at BMP back in the day:
‘People, product, profit…in that order.

I’ve always liked the way this adage recognizes that all three of people, product and profit are vital to business success. But there’s a hierarchy of importance – and a causal link between them: great culture produces great outputs, which in turn creates happy Clients and attracts new ones - thereby delivering commercial success.

Of course, it’s easier to identify the malaise at the heart of modern business than to know what to do about it. Howard Beale doesn’t really have any answers. But he does at least understand people’s frustration. And perhaps that’s a start. In the most memorable scene in ‘Network,’ Beale invites his audience to vent their outrage at a system that seems to have betrayed the American Dream.

‘I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!’’

Maybe we should all give this a try.

 

No. 159

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 14

Garden and Woodland Special

 

Learning from Lilies: Strip Away the Context

I recently attended Painting the Modern Garden, an excellent exhibition examining the garden in art between the 1860s and 1920s. (It runs at the Royal Academy in London until 20 April.)

In the late nineteenth century there was a horticultural revolution. Bourgeois Europeans and middle class Americans had affluence and leisure time, and a yearning to preserve something natural against the march of industrialisation. Gardening became an obsession. They studied, imported, cultivated and collected. One contemporary writer proclaimed, ‘I love compost like one loves a woman.’

Artists seem to have been in the front ranks of this revolution. Gardens provided a subject to express their thoughts about nature, beauty, colour and light. Gardens could suggest interior as well as exterior truths. Pissaro, Renoir and Bonnard; Sargent, Van Gogh and Matisse. The great painters of the day repeatedly set their easels up outside, in the garden.

Painting the Modern Garden is an exhibition of intoxicating colour: radiant, ravishing yellows, pinks and purples; intense sensory explosions. One feels the heat and languor of a long Summer’s afternoon. White linen, lace and crinolines. Let’s play croquet on the lawn, take tea on the terrace, reel around the fountain. Sunflowers, dahlias, peonies and poppies. Come consider the chrysanthemums, tend the rhododendrons with me.

And then, of course, there was Monet and his wondrous water-lilies.

At Giverney Monet painted water-lilies over and over again. He studied them, scrutinized them, isolated them in their stillness, floating in the reflective water and changing light. He removed them from their context. They became abstract contemplations of colour, tone, atmosphere and silence.

One critic observed: ‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.’

I was struck by this comment and found myself thinking about the role of context in brand marketing and communication.

Context is central to good marketing. If we can understand a brand’s place in the world, we can promote its relevance more effectively. And the broader the cultural context considered, the deeper the understanding. But whilst context is critical to comprehension, effective communication requires compression, distillation and focus. So ultimately we must strip context away.

Too often we fail in this respect. We try to cram our messaging with visual, verbal and conceptual cues. Show the user, signal the occasion, reference the tradition, give the reason-to-believe, bash out the benefit. Communication becomes loud, cluttered, busy and bewildering. Context can be constricting.

Imagine if you could express your brand as an abstract truth, not an observed reality; an intense distillation, not an actual depiction. Imagine if you could strip away the context, narrow the frame, focus on the essence itself.

What would you say? What would we see? How would we feel?


Why We Go on Awaydays: A Reminder from Shakespeare

‘Good servant, tell this youth what ‘tis to love…
It is to be all made of sighs and tears.
It is to be all made of faith and service.
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty and observance.
All humbleness, all patience and impatience.
All purity, all trial, all observance.’

As You Like It, V, ii

Last week I saw a marvellous production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre in London (running until 29 February).

As the programme notes point out, As You Like It is a ‘green world’ comedy. Its characters escape the oppressive regime of the city for the Forest of Arden. They’re leaving behind convention, hierarchies and the pressure of the present. In the forest they can be more contemplative, philosophical, romantic. They can express themselves freely; they can imagine possibilities; they can explore new roles and identities. They undergo transformations, revelations.

In recent years we’ve perhaps become a little sceptical about Awaydays. The heart sinks at the awkwardness of seeing our senior staff in their weekend casuals. We shun the flip-charts and Post-Its, gummy bears and energiser drinks; the bumptious facilitator and the embarrassing ice-breakers. We balk at the expense in time and money. And so generally we end up just taking a couple of hours in a conference room over at the Media Agency. The future can wait…

But I’m inclined to say that genuine Awaydays justify the cost. Increasingly we have our heads down, dealing with today’s pressing challenges; we rarely look up to talk about tomorrow’s. Awaydays provide an opportunity to draw a line in the sand, to consider broader themes and more distant horizons, to dream new possibilities and imagine the unthought.

And Awaydays do indeed gain something from being away.

‘There’s no clock in the forest.’

Orlando, As You Like It


‘Let’s Play Crusaders’: The Price of Difference

Martin and I shared a bedroom overlooking the back gardens of Heath Park Road. In the summer you could see all the other kids in the street - the Richards, the Chergwins et al - playing Cowboys and Indians in their own little domains. 

‘Let’s play Crusaders,’ we determined. (The ‘70s were more innocent times, somewhat lacking a proper historical context…)

Mum made us white smocks from old sheets and we imprinted bold crimson crosses on their fronts. We completed the outfits with blue balaclava helmets and woollen tights borrowed from our younger sisters. 

And as we skipped around the garden, taking on Saladin and his scimitared hordes, it struck me that it’s not easy being different.

‘We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden’

Joni Mitchell/ Woodstock

No. 68

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 8

What Can Dancing Horses Teach Us About Management?

I was in Vienna last weekend and attended a performance by the Spanish Riding School.

In the stately setting of the eighteenth century Winter Riding School, teams of manicured but muscular Lipizzan stallions, guided by uniformed horsemen and women, execute a series of disciplined manoeuvers. To a musical accompaniment the horses walk, trot and canter in harmony. They leap, pirouette and stand proud on their hind legs. It’s an extraordinary sight and is justly described as ‘horse ballet.’

I subsequently watched a TV documentary (Lucy Worsley’s Reins of Power: The Art of Horse Dancing) that explained that horse ballet, or ‘manege’ as it was called, dates back to the sixteenth century. The elegant dance routines have a military origin. As warfare evolved from the heavy-armoured medieval battlefield, to the more fluid, firearms-dominated combat conditions of the seventeenth century, the cavalry had to become more agile. They had to move in and out of lines of infantry, to change direction at the drop of a hat.

Manege was a method for training horses in the physical and mental demands of this new form of fighting. In the first half of the seventeenth century manege became a hugely popular sport for aristocrats across Europe with the time and money to devote to it.

I was surprised to learn that the word ‘management’ has its origins in manege. I wonder, can we learn anything about modern management from the equine activity that inspired the term?

Well, first of all, manege combines agility with control; it has a sense of elegance and finesse, as well as power and determination; a lightness of touch as well as supreme discipline. These ingredients might make the recipe for a compelling management style.

Secondly, just as manege developed in response to the combat conditions of its day, so it passed out of fashion as military practice moved on. In the English Civil War the manege-trained Cavaliers were defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. Clearly management styles must evolve as the context in which they operate changes.

Do we fully acknowledge that the management approaches of the industrial age will be increasingly inappropriate to the age of technology?

Are we nurturing management talent that reflects the commercial and cultural challenges of the future?

Do we need a new type of management that responds to this modern era of partnership, purpose and organisational change?

 

You May Not Want To Run at the Future, But Don’t Run Away from It

I confess I’m partial to the art of Alfred Munnings. In the first half of the twentieth century Munnings painted East Anglian life in bold, bright colours: race meetings, horse fairs and hunting; farm hands, gentry and gypsies. Mostly he just painted horses, for whom he seemed to have a greater affection than he had for people. Munnings tellingly titled one painting ‘My Wife, My Horse and Myself’ and the horse takes centre stage.

Munnings’ work is not particularly challenging or thought provoking. But it is honest, open and true. It is rooted in the English countryside and English painting tradition. It is in its own way rather beautiful.

Sadly Munnings’ reputation in the art world is tarnished. He had a passionate dislike of modernism. In his late sixties he served as President of the Royal Academy of Art and, in a speech broadcast live on the BBC in 1949, he drunkenly accused his fellow painters of ‘shilly shallying in this so called modern art’; he suggested that Cezanne, Matisse and Henry Moore had corrupted art; and he joked that he’d like to join Churchill in kicking Picasso in the arse.

Speaking from experience, as you get older you can feel marginalised. The world seems to be reinventing itself around the needs and tastes of new generations. It’s easy to resent change; and conservatism creeps over you like a comfortable blanket. We all occasionally suffer Luddite leanings.

But I’m not sure it’s always wise to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ Or at least not in the reactionary way that Munnings did. The grumpy old man or woman is rarely attractive; and should probably avoid the sauce when speaking in public.

 

We’re Only Remembered for What We Have Done

The National Theatre’s production of War Horse has been in the West End for a couple of years now and it's just announced that the run will conclude in March 2016. It's a moving World War I story about the relationship between man and beast, and it has been brought to the stage with a magical deployment of puppetry.

War Horse also boasts an evocative folk sound track. One song, Only Remembered, is a contemporary arrangement of a nineteenth century Methodist hymn. In it the workers in the field consider whether future generations will remember them.

‘Shall we be missed though by others succeeded
Reaping the fields we in springtime have sown?
No. For the sowers may pass from the earth and its toiling.
We’re only remembered for what we have done.’

It’s a melancholy sentiment. In all likelihood the industry will forget each and every one of us as it moves on to address new challenges and opportunities. There’ll be no recollection of the artful salesmanship and articulate speeches; no memory of magnificent meetings, presentations and decks; no record of the hard luck stories and ‘also rans’, the brilliant idea that didn’t quite make it to production. All that endures is the work. The rest is noise. And ultimately our legacy is what we do, what we make, what we create.

‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’

No. 50