Some People Don’t Bounce: The Price We Pay for the Choices We Make

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

'What is the key word today? Disposable. The more you can throw it away the more it’s beautiful. The car, the furniture, the wife, the children—everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is—shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself—he’d go to church, start a revolution—something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.'

Solomon, ‘The Price’

I recently saw an excellent production of Arthur Miller’s 1968 play, ‘The Price’ (Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 27 April).

Two brothers meet for the first time in sixteen years to sell their family furniture, which has been stored in the attic of a New York brownstone. Back in the 1920s their parents had been wealthy, but they were impoverished by the Great Depression. Victor, the younger brother, missed out on his education to care for his father. He became a New York cop and is now nearing cash-strapped retirement. Walter, the older of the two, broke free from the family and embarked on a career as a successful surgeon. 

‘The Price’ is a play about the corrosive effect of financial strife on family relationships; about a family at war with itself.

It draws on Miller’s own experiences of the Depression, which at its height saw one quarter of Americans out of work. Before the 1929 Crash his father owned a women’s clothing factory employing 400 people. He was wiped out and left traumatised, withdrawing into silent introspection. 

In the play Victor observes of the brothers’ father:

‘Well, some men don’t bounce, you know.’

Running through the drama is a conversation with an elderly furniture dealer, Solomon, who is carrying out a valuation of the attic’s contents. We gradually realise that the whole play is in fact a valuation: of choices made, paths taken, compromises reached.

In an interview in 1969 Miller explained:

'The play is about people who make decisions in life and the price they pay for those decisions. In this case, the price of being a socially responsible individual and the price of being a successful one.'

Walter has sacrificed his family relationships in the pursuit of career and status. He endeavours to make recompense now with financial and employment offers to Victor. But he comes to appreciate that forgiveness cannot be bought.

Victor, in his turn, has sacrificed his education and career for his father. But he has also deceived himself in the narrative he tells about the past. He and his father were, in fact, complicit in their co-dependency.

‘We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know.’

I left ‘The Price’ reflecting on the fact that all the choices we make in life come with a price attached. When in business we opt for one course of action, we leave another unrealised. For every decisive action, there is a road not taken, an opportunity not fulfilled. We promote one candidate, we disappoint someone else. We prioritise one function, we relegate another. We invest in one initiative, we disinvest in others. Decisions carry costs.

This suggests some questions.

Do we consistently face up to the price we must pay for the choices we make? Do we truly own the consequences of our actions? Or do we, like the brothers, deceive ourselves, avoiding ‘the truths we know but dare not face’?

Sadly it’s never easy to revisit missed opportunities after the fact, to remedy past mistakes, to make up for lost time. As Victor’s wife Esther observes:

‘All these years we’ve been saying, once we get the pension we’re going to start to live… It’s like pushing against a door for twenty-five years and suddenly it opens… and we stand there.’

 
'When love breaks down,
The things you do
To stop the truth from hurting you.
When love breaks down,
The lies we tell
They only serve to fool ourselves.’

Prefab Sprout, 'When Love Breaks Down' (P McAloon)

No. 222

Coming Apart at the Seams: What Are the Repressed Truths Holding Your Business Back?

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'There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another...

The fear of poverty
The fear of criticism
The fear of ill health
The fear of loss of love of someone
The fear of old age
The fear of death.'

Self-help guru Napoleon Hill, ‘Think and Grow Rich' (1937), quoted in the introduction to ‘The Humans’ by Stephen Karam

I recently attended Stephen Karam’s fine play ‘The Humans’ (at the Hampstead Theatre), which considers the plight of a modern middle class American family struggling to keep their heads above water.

‘Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?’

The Blakes are in many ways a typical family, bound by deep bonds of shared experience, rituals and affection; by in-jokes, teasing and bickering. Their conversation weaves effortlessly in and out of the facile and profound.

‘Well you’ve still got the will to eat superfoods – if you’re so miserable why are you trying to live forever?’

And they have the usual intergenerational disagreements around such things as religion, lifestyle, ambition and work.

‘Are you so spoiled you can’t see you’re crying over something hard work can fix?’

But the Blakes are under attack. They are assaulted from without by unaffordable housing, lack of career opportunities, unstable employment, poor pension provision, debt and unfaithful lovers.

And they are also assaulted from within. Grandmother Momo has dementia. Dad Erik is haunted by nightmares and memories of 9/11. Daughter Aimee has a chronic illness. And there are family secrets that can no longer be suppressed.

The Blake parents steadfastly cling to the belief that the American family is inherently equipped to survive; that they can get through this; that they will endure.

‘The Blakes bounce back. That’s what we do.’

But the context of contemporary life, with its very particular anxieties and inequalities, makes this confidence less convincing. It’s hard to survive in America today. And the sense of a family imploding under numerous and constant pressures is enhanced by the faltering lighting in the apartment building, and by the eerie thudding noises that emanate from the flat above. The Blakes are falling apart at the seams.

In the programme notes Karam sheds light on the theme he is exploring by quoting Sigmund Freud’s essay on the ‘uncanny’:

‘The ‘uncanny’ (unheimlich) is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, something once very familiar…Something uncanny in real experience can generally be traced back without exception to something familiar that has been repressed.’

Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919)

I found myself considering how modern businesses similarly have to cope with escalating pressures from within and without; how they also suffer tensions that derive from repressed truths dating back to the origins of the company - an enduring blind spot, a perennial vulnerability perhaps; an imbalance of talent and contribution; an asymmetry of credit and recognition; personal resentments and regrets, petty feuds and rivalries; the lack of an apology, the absence of forgiveness.

Often these tensions are suppressed, papered over, for the good of the business, for the profile of the company, for esprit de corps. But veterans and insiders know: the fault lines that were there at the outset can be seen and felt. They are familiar, not far beneath the surface. They continue to tug and tease at the corporate psyche. They play out in its ongoing challenges and disappointments.

Ask yourself this: What are our company’s repressed problems, our unarticulated tensions, the truths that dare not speak their names? What are the stresses and strains that derive from our past, but remain ever-present, uncertain and unsettled?

Often the greatest challenge any enterprise faces is to look in the mirror and see itself – clearly and honestly, without gloss or self-deception. If you at least ask the questions, you may find you’re half way to answering them.

'The changing of sunlight to moonlight,
Reflections of my life,
Oh, how they fill my eyes.
The greetings of people in trouble,
Reflections of my life,
Oh, how they fill my eyes.
Oh, my sorrows,
Sad tomorrows,
Take me back to my own home.'

The Marmalade, 'Reflections Of My Life’  (William Campbell Jnr / Thomas McAleese)

No. 201

Dressing for Yesterday: Seek Out the Social and Economic Jet Stream

Group Captain   James Stagg

Group Captain James Stagg


‘Have you ever been to the beaches of Hastings, or Brighton, or Portsmouth? Ten o’clock in the morning it’s baking hot, the beach is packed. By midday, there’s a howling wind and the Punch and Judy man has packed up for the day. By two o’clock, the rain is horizontal, but by four o’clock the sun is beating down again and it’s eighty degrees. Nothing is predictable about British weather, that’s why we love to talk about it.’

Group Captain James Stagg, ‘Pressure’

I have an uncomfortable relationship with the weather. For some reason forecasts pass me by. Through the fog of getting up in the morning I rarely register what the bulletins are saying. They talk over and through me. And so my sartorial choices are driven by yesterday’s conditions. I assume a meteorological continuity that the British climate doesn’t warrant. And I find myself venturing into the searing heat in a tweed suit; into a cold snap with just a cotton smock; into the pouring rain without an umbrella. I always dress for yesterday.

Earlier this year I attended a fine play dedicated to the vicissitudes of the British climate. ‘Pressure’ by David Haig relates the story of Group Captain James Stagg, the Chief Meteorological Officer for the Allied Forces, who in June 1944 was responsible for forecasting the weather on D-Day.

The fleet is assembled along the South Coast. The tides, times and phases of the moon are appropriately aligned on only a few days each month, and General Eisenhower has allocated the 5th of June for the largest amphibious invasion in history. As the big day approaches, Stagg and his American counterpart, Colonel Irving Krick, are required to give a definitive meteorological assessment. 350,000 lives depend on them making the right call.

Krick employs the conventional method of forecasting: he revisits the charts from previous years where conditions were similar, and establishes analogues. He is confident that the weather will be fine.

‘The proof is in the past. I anticipate calm seas and clear skies on Monday – perfect conditions for the Normandy landings.’

Stagg disagrees. Sensitive to the temperamental British climate, he urges Krick to think beyond historical analogues; to take into account other factors; to think ‘three dimensionally’. He is a meteorological pioneer and he has recently discovered the jet stream. He predicts severe weather.

‘My forecast is not only based on weather at the surface. I’ve considered upper air-currents within the troposphere, at the tropopause, and in the lower stratosphere…The most powerful of these currents, measured two hours ago at twenty-eight thousand feet, is three hundred miles wide and three miles deep. I’ll refer to it as the jet stream.’

Stagg explains that the jet stream is prompting storms to move more rapidly than the surface charts would imply, and so severe conditions can be expected in the Channel on 5th June.

Ultimately Stagg persuades Eisenhower to delay the invasion by a day. He is right. There are high winds, heavy seas and low cloud on 5th June; but there is sufficient good weather on the 6th to make the Normandy landings a success.

It struck me watching the play that much of modern strategy is driven by the type of historical analogues on which Krick depended. We love case studies, precedents and best demonstrated practice. We cling to models and algorithms that anticipate tomorrow on the basis of yesterday; that predict the future on the basis of the past. Ten years on from the global financial crash, this remains the case.

Stagg teaches us to lift our eyes from the rear view mirror and think three dimensionally. The best strategists have foresight, an instinct for change, a curiosity about the evolving factors that might precipitate events. They seek the social and economic jet streams that are driving outcomes from high up in the stratosphere.

They don’t dress for yesterday. They dress for today.

‘Look out, kid.
Don't matter what you did.
Walk on your tip toes,
Don't tie no bows.
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose.
Keep a clean nose,
Watch the plainclothes.
You don't need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.’

Bob Dylan, 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'

 

In memory of Charlie Robertson, my first Planning Head at BBH. Funny, sharp, considerate and inspiring, he was everything you’d want from a strategist and leader. And he didn’t need a weather man to know which way the wind was blowing.

RIP Charlie Robertson (1954 – 2018)

No. 200

The Jean Brodie School of Planning Leadership: Coaching is about Leading Out, Not Thrusting In

Lia Williams Photo: Manuel Harlan for Donmar Warehouse

Lia Williams Photo: Manuel Harlan for Donmar Warehouse

'I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life. You girls are my vocation. If I were to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, I would decline it. I am dedicated to you in my prime. And my summer in Italy has convinced me that I am truly in my prime.'

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’ Muriel Spark

I recently saw a fine theatrical adaptation of Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ at the Donmar Warehouse in London (until 28 July).

It is 1932 and we are introduced to Jean Brodie, a charismatic and subversive teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school. She inspires her dedicated pupils with stories of Italian holidays and Giotto; with advice on love and appropriate window closure.

The free-spirited, independent-minded Brodie is constantly questioning the more formal, disciplined teaching methods of the head of school, Miss Mackay.

'I am cashmere to Miss Mackay's granite.'

As the play progresses, we come to appreciate that Brodie is deeply flawed. The fierce loyalty she demands from her pupils creates a clique. And she has more than a passing fascination with continental fascism.

Despite this, I was quite taken with Brodie’s teaching philosophy.

‘The word ‘education’ comes from the root ‘e’ from ‘ex’, ‘out’, and ‘duco’, ‘I lead’. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education. I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix ‘in’, meaning ’in’ and the stem ‘trudo’, ‘I thrust’.’

Perhaps Brodie could suggest some leadership lessons for the commercial sector.

When you are appointed Head of Planning, you may find that your greatest strength becomes your greatest weakness. You were promoted because you’re sharp, smart and pretty good at strategy. And so your first instinct on being presented with a problem is to endeavour to solve it yourself. When, however, the problem comes to you in the shape of a young Planner with a few theories of his or her own, this instinct doesn’t help.  

If the primary task of leadership is to maximize the output, value and wellbeing of the human capital available to you, then a key challenge is to create high performing self-sufficiency in your Planners. You won’t achieve this by telling them to write up your answers.

As Broadie would have put it, coaching is about ‘leading out’, not ‘thrusting in.’

In my brief and not entirely successful tenure of the Head of Planning role at BBH, I set myself the task of enhancing my Planners’ ideas and hypotheses, rather than imposing my own. I was a pluralist who believed there were many right answers to any question. And in time I grew rather to enjoy the intellectual challenge inherent in this approach.

On taking the reins, you may also be inclined to promote a strong sense of departmental identity and esprit de corps; to rally the team round a unifying vision and sense of purpose. This is a natural path to take. But, as Brodie warned, it can be counterproductive.

'Phrases like 'the team spirit' are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties.' 

Be careful that coherence and consistency don’t translate into uniformity and homogeneity. A successful strategy department is characterized by diverse skills and personalities working in harmony. Make difference your friend.

The third lesson from the Brodie handbook is perhaps an obvious one.

Brodie set out from the start to instill confidence; to convince her pupils that she believed in them and that she was on their side. Brodie’s girls were ‘the crème de la crème’, and they were ‘in their prime’.

'One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.'

Confidence is a precious commodity in any organization. It prompts people to inspired leaps; motivates them to engage Clients with conviction; supports them through the hard times. A critical responsibility of leadership is to build and sustain self-confidence.

So, three lessons from the Jean Brodie School of Planning Leadership:

- coach by ‘leading out’, not ‘thrusting in’

- create harmonious teams of individuals, not uniform teams of carbon-copies

- build self-confidence: the sense that your Planners are ‘the crème de la crème, in their prime’

Perhaps we should give the last word to Miss Jean Brodie who, for all her flaws, leaves an indelible impression.

'I am a teacher! I am a teacher, first, last, always!... It is true I am a strong influence on my girls. I am proud of it. I influence them to be aware of all the possibilities of life... of beauty, honour, courage.' 

 

I was invited to write this piece by Ben Shaw, the new Head of Planning at BBH, London. It first appeared on BBH Labs, 2 July 2018.

No. 186

‘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

 

 

‘There Are No Ends…Only Means:’ Should We Be Concentrating Less on Goals and More on Behaviours?

BEST-MAN---MAIN2050.jpg

'You're so busy trying to win, you never stop to figure out what it is you're winning.'

I recently attended a performance of Gore Vidal’s excellent 1960 play ‘The Best Man.’ (The Playhouse Theatre until 12 May, or you can watch the 1964 film version, starring the splendid Henry Fonda.)

‘The Best Man’ concerns itself with the mechanics of politics and the corrosive effects of ambition; with compromise, horse-trading and smears; with power, corruption and lies. Fundamentally it’s a play about means and ends. And it has many contemporary resonances.

The action is set in a Philadelphia hotel at convention time, as two candidates seek their party’s nomination for President. Bill Russell, the front-runner, is a northern intellectual, a man of principle with an Achilles’ heel. Joe Cantwell is a self-educated southerner, a political street fighter with a ruthless streak. Both candidates want the endorsement of ailing former President Art Hockstader.

Initially our sympathies are with Russell. A reporter asks him whether people mistrust intellectuals in politics. Russell replies:

‘Intellectual? You mean I wrote a book? Well, as Bertrand Russell said, 'people in a democracy tend to think they have less to fear from a stupid man than an intelligent one.' Actually, it's the other way around.’

Hockstader, however, is concerned that Russell’s intellect constrains him from getting anything done:

'You got such a good mind that sometimes you're so busy thinkin' how complex everything is, important problems don't get solved.'

Hockstader is equally worried about Cantwell’s qualifications for the job. The ex-President berates the southern Governor for acting as if the ends always justify the means:

'Well, son, I got news for you about both politics and life. And may I say the two are exactly the same? There are no ends, Joe, only means…  All I'm saying is that what matters in our profession . . . which is really life ... is how you do things and how you treat people and what you really feel about 'em, not some ideal goal for society, or for yourself.' 

I was quite struck by this last thought – that there are no ends, only means.

In the world of commerce we obsess about aims, ambitions and aspirations. We are preoccupied with objectives, visions and missions. We are endlessly planning for the future, defining our purpose, setting our targets. In our highly competitive, fast-paced environment, we tend to be more focused on ends than means. And generally we’ll do whatever it takes to achieve our goals. Indeed ‘whatever it takes’ can be a prevailing principle.

One has to suspect that this concentration on ends over means lies behind the succession of scandals that have dogged the corporate world in recent years: the corners cut, values compromised and responsibilities shirked; the cheated tests, accelerated obsolescence and falsified information; the unpaid taxes and unequal pay; the data breaches, sexual harassment and abusive relationships; the passengers dragged off overbooked flights and the customers arrested in coffee shops. I could go on.

Perhaps we should take Hockstader’s advice. If we focus more on good behaviours and productive relationships; on doing the right thing rather than chasing the right objective; on how we behave rather than why – if we focus more on means than ends - we might find over the longer term that our colleagues are more motivated; our Clients are more trusting; and our consumers are more loyal.

It’s a tough ask, I know.

In one of the key exchanges in the play, Russell endeavours to sustain a principled position in the face of Hockstader’s practicality:

'And so, one by one these compromises, these small corruptions, destroy character.’

Hockstader replies wearily:

‘To want power is corruption already.' 

No. 178

‘Stan, Don’t Let Them Tell You What To Do’: Protecting the Self from the Social

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Harold Pinter’s early career was spent as a jobbing actor playing minor roles in popular comedies and crime dramas. Whilst touring in Eastbourne in 1954, he met a man in a pub who recommended the boarding house he was staying in. On visiting the establishment, Pinter found that it was filthy; that his new acquaintance was the only guest; and that he was being patronised by the landlady in a curiously over-familiar way. When Pinter asked the lodger why he tolerated this, he said:

‘There’s nowhere else to go.’

This experience partly inspired Pinter’s first full-length play, ‘The Birthday Party,’ a fine production of which is currently running at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London (until 14 April).

‘The Birthday Party’ considers the plight of Stanley, an out-of-work pianist and the only guest in a dingy seaside boarding house. Stanley lives a life of indolence; of mollycoddled mornings, corn flakes and fried bread. But his quietly anonymous existence is disturbed by the arrival of two sinister besuited men, who seem to bring with them the threat of violence.

As the play unfolds, Stanley is given a birthday party he doesn’t want; presented with a child’s toy drum; and induced to play blind man’s buff. The mystery men interrogate him; break his glasses; make threats and accusations.

‘You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead. You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odour.’

‘The Birthday Party’ is a somewhat surreal and enigmatic work that refuses to explain itself. It has been described as a ‘comedy of menace.’

Many critics have seen in Stanley an individual pitted against the establishment. He simply can’t escape the pressure to conform, to fit in, to play the game; the compulsion to be ‘normal.’

Of course, we imagine that our modern lives are a million miles away from the small-minded conservatism of 1950s Britain. We consider ourselves free-thinking and open-minded; self-reliant and self-sufficient. We live in the age of empowerment; the era of the individual. But perhaps we should not be so confident.

The pressure to toe in line is timeless and universal. An invisible hand lightly touches us on the shoulder. A soft voice gently whispers in our ear: ‘Go with the flow, follow the crowd, run with the pack.’ It affects us through our families, friends, communities and colleagues. It affects us through customs, codes and conventions; through language, style and gesture. And as the writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough has pointed out, it even affects us through our recollection of events:

‘Memory is anything but a solo activity. Even an innocuous ‘Do you remember?’ is an invitation to negotiate a shared account of the past with someone who lived through the same events. Getting the story straight can be a key part of making relationships work, and disputes about memory can easily float to the surface when partnerships break down.’

Of course, we now face an additional pressure to comply, one just as insidious as anything Pinter had in mind. Social media are not just the glue that binds us together; they’re also the glue that prevents us from getting away. At the same time as enabling exchange of ideas and freedom of expression, they invite consensus in our behaviour and actions; conformity in our thoughts and attitudes. Just as they celebrate diversity and individuality, they reinforce prejudice and confirm bias. Social media create a gravitational pull towards ‘normal.’

Inevitably this ever-increasing inducement to integrate and fall in line poses particular challenges to the marketing and communications industry, where our core competence is challenging convention and designing difference; where we need independent spirits and original thinkers to sustain us.

So what are we to do?

How do we insure ourselves against ‘groupthink’? How do we preserve autonomous thought? How do we protect the self from the social?

Or should we like Pinter’s Eastbourne lodger simply acquiesce : ‘There’s nowhere else to go.’

At the close of ‘The Birthday Party’, as the two sinister visitors take Stanley away - we know not where - the landlord calls after him:

‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.’

No. 167

‘I Want To Be An Active Verb’: Striving To Be a Cause, Not an Effect

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Blanchisseuse

‘They’re all old here, except you and me…They never do anything: they only discuss whether what other people do is right. Come and give them something to discuss.’

Hypatia, ‘Misalliance’

Just before Christmas I saw ‘Misalliance’, a rarely performed play by George Bernard Shaw (at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond).

This light comedy from 1910 asks us to consider the constraints of class, convention, gender and the generational divide. It features Hypatia Tarleton, the daughter of a successful businessman, who is bored, restless and resentful. She repeatedly voices her frustration with the straitjacket of Edwardian society’s customs and codes:

'Men like conventions because men made them. I didn’t make them: I don’t like them. I won’t keep them.'

At one point Hypatia expresses her annoyance thus:

’I don't want to be good; and I don't want to be bad: I just don't want to be bothered about either good or bad: I want to be an active verb.’

A compelling choice of words. Clearly it’s not enough for Hypatia passively to be seen, admired, desired, chosen, judged. She yearns actively to decide for herself; to experiment and experience; to seek and find; to achieve and sometimes to fail. She wants to be the subject of a verb, not its object; to be a cause, not an effect; to do, not just to be.

We may recognize Hypatia’s frustration from the world of work. Sometimes, particularly when we are young and less powerful within an organization, our objectives, tasks and schedules seem entirely to be determined by others: by the demands of our Clients, the whims of our bosses, the personal passions of our CEO. We may work in an agency, but we have very little agency.

Maybe like Hypatia we should, as far as possible, strive to set the agenda rather than have it set for us; to seize the day rather than let the day seize us; to be an ‘active verb’ in our own careers. Easier said than done perhaps. But you’d be surprised how positively leaders respond to colleagues that have a clear sense of personal mission. And the best businesses thrive by integrating individual and collective goals. So what, I wonder, would you choose as your own active verb?

Brands too would do well to reflect on Hypatia’s theme. Dan Weiden, the co-founder of Weiden+Kennedy, once observed:

'The best brands are verbs. Nike exhorts. IBM solves. Sony dreams.'

I’m sure he was right. Mediocre brands merely exist within a category, in a sector, on a shelf. They respond to events rather than precipitate them; react rather than act. Great brands, by contrast, animate the category, rewrite the rules, make the market.

We should all therefore ask: ‘What fundamentally does our brand do?’ ‘How does it impact on its consumers’ lives?’ ‘What is it seeking to change?’

‘What is our brand’s verb?’

I suspect this would be a more valuable discussion than the hours spent defining brand personality; the earnest debates crafting lists of nuanced traits, tones and characteristics: ‘passionate, warm, witty, friendly, helpful, caring.’ I could go on…

Yes, the best brands are indeed verbs. But Weiden might well have added: ‘The worst brands are adjectives.’

No. 166

‘Truth In the Pleasant Disguise of Illusion’: Do We Properly Appreciate the Power of the Media at Our Disposal?

‘Time is the longest distance between two places.’

There’s a splendid production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie currently running at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London (until 29 April).

We’re in a Depression-era Saint Louis tenement. Amanda Wingfield, a former ‘southern belle,’ is struggling to pay the rent and worried what will become of her angst-ridden, artistic son, and her shy, solitary daughter.

‘The future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.’

Wingfield pleads with her son to bring a ‘gentleman caller’ back to the house – someone who might possibly represent a suitor for his sister. The fragile girl meanwhile seeks solace in a world of decorative figurines, the glass menagerie of the play’s title.

‘How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.’

The Glass Menagerie is a delicate, sensitive meditation on the challenges facing the awkward and the outside; the responsibilities, deceptions and regrets of family life; the yearning to break free.

In his production notes, Williams describes the work as ‘a memory play’ and at the beginning of Scene One the artistic son explains to the audience that what we are about to see is a distillation of his own recollection of events.

‘Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with I turn back time…’

Williams seems to be declaring that he is more than just a storyteller - he is a master of the theatrical medium, a manipulator of time, a truthful illusionist. This confident, context-setting sequence reminded me of the Prologue of Henry V, in which Shakespeare invites the audience to conjure up, on the simple stage before them, the muddy battlefields of France.

‘Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

I’m sure the most talented writers and artists are well aware of the imaginative leaps that their audience can bring to a creative encounter. And they’re conscious of the special powers of their chosen medium to ignite that imagination.

It has often been observed, for example, that the best directors treat film as a time machine – a means of compressing and extending time; of reordering and replaying it. Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey and how Kubrik takes us from the first man to the space age in one matchless match-cut; or consider the elegant synchronicity of the baptism scene in Coppola’s The Godfather. Film directors also consciously manipulate our understanding of space. With close-ups and long-shots, different points of view and perspectives, they expand and contract our perception of things. In the 1920s the women of the world fell in love with Rudolph Valentino because of the dramatic impact, in magnified close-up on the big screen, of those elegant lips, those sensitive eyes, that pomaded hair.

I wonder, do we in the field of marketing and communication too often treat media like an everyday commodity? Do we just think of it as a space to be filled, content to be generated, ratings to be registered? Do we properly appreciate the power of the tools at our disposal? Do we understand that the moving image can be a time machine; the fixed image can explore space and perspective; the printed and spoken text can conjure up hopes, dreams, recollections and regrets?

Shouldn’t we, like Williams, be seeking to deliver ‘truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion?’ For if we have no passion for the medium, how can we expect to inspire passion in our audience?

 No. 120

Small People in a Big World: The Liberating Power of Perspective

I recently saw Nice Fish, a fine play by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins (Harold Pinter Theatre until 11 February). It features two friends ice-fishing on a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota. They speculate on love and death; on petty officialdom and the aesthetics of baloney; on age and the environment; on the romantic yearnings of snowmen and the difference between wolves and dogs.

‘Some days are so sad nothing will help, when love has gone, when the sunshine and clear sky only tease and mock you. Those days you feel like running away, going where no one knows your name. Like slinging the old Gibson over your shoulder and travelling the narrow road to the north where the gray sky fits your mood and the cold wind blows a different kind of trouble… But somebody, someday soon, somebody will come and put up a bed and breakfast and a gourmet coffee shop. There is only one true wilderness left to explore, those vast empty spaces in your head.’

Some have complained that the play lacks any real drama or strong narrative. They have criticised it for whimsy. But there’s a fine line between whimsy and wisdom. I found many of the fishermen’s observations insightful and moving.

‘One day you cross an invisible line and everything is changed…It is as if you had crossed the international dateline, all at once it’s another day. Now, everything you looked forward to is suddenly behind.’

At the start of Nice Fish we see spruce trees and poplars in the distance; brightly painted fishing huts. We see a small figure with a fishing rod. A truck traverses the horizon. A train passes along the shoreline. All this is magically conveyed with puppets and miniatures. The stage design has the effect of placing our characters in the context of a grand panorama. And in many ways this is a play about scale: of ‘little’ people having big thoughts; of the intimacy of the trivial and the profound; of the beguiling mystery of the unknown and unknowable.

‘I’ve spent a great deal of my life fretting over things that most people wouldn’t waste their time on. Trying to explain something I haven’t a clue about.’

We are indeed small people in a big world. We are drops in life’s ocean, tiny stars in an infinite galaxy. On occasion I have felt this intensely: in a taxi late at night driving through Sao Paolo; flying over an unending Mongolian mountain range; walking into Canary Wharf on a Monday morning. It’s easy to be overwhelmed.

But perspective can be liberating as well as humbling; inspiring as well as chastening. Perspective supplies a sense of wonder. And keeping things in proportion is critical to our understanding of the world; to our empathy with other people; to our emotional wellbeing.

So much wrong in business, and indeed the wider world, derives from poor perspective: the excessive demand, the unreasonable request, the disproportionate response, the asymmetrical power balance. So much stress seems unwarranted; so much angst seems inappropriate. So many of our leaders, brands and businesses have an enhanced sense of self worth, but a diminished sense of reality.

Often we get too close, too involved, too exercised. Our passion turns to obsession, our determination to compulsion. We behave as if it’s a matter of life and death, when really it’s a matter of deodorant and fried chicken.

If we want to retain our relevance, to sustain our sanity, we would all do well to step back and abstract ourselves occasionally; to broaden the frame of reference; to take on different viewpoints. Context ‘has charms to soothe a savage breast.’ Let’s set aside the corporate hubris and embrace a little humility.

At the end of Nice Fish the two lead characters reach some kind of conclusion. They observe that old people leave life with the same befuddlement as if it were a movie:

‘”I didn’t get it.”…”It didn’t seem to have any plot”…”No, it seemed like things just kept coming at me. Most of the time I was confused…and there was too much sex and violence…Violence anyway”…”It was not much for character development either; most of the time people were either shouting or mumbling. Then just when someone started to make sense and I got interested, they died. Then a whole lot of new characters came along and I couldn’t tell who was who”… “The whole thing lacked subtlety”…”Some of the scenery was nice.”’

No. 114