The Enduring Interruption: How Do We Express Doubts in an Environment that Requires Confidence?

Vicky Kreips and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Photo - Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Vicky Kreips and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Photo - Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

'As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. And knowing this, you've prepared the asparagus with butter. Now, I can imagine in certain circumstances being able to pretend that I like it made this way. Right now, I'm just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you've prepared it.'

Reynolds Woodcock, ‘Phantom Thread’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film ‘Phantom Thread’ stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a society couturier in 1950s London, and Vicky Krieps as Alma, his model and muse.

The House of Woodcock is a place of elegance and deference, taste and restraint; a realm of black lace, silk organza and sheer sleeves; a world of silent seamstresses and secrets. Woodcock himself is intense and neurotic, fastidious and fragile; a man of repressed emotion and voracious appetite.

When we first encounter Alma, she is shy and awestruck. But gradually she is revealed to be just as strong-willed and obsessive as Reynolds.

Alma: ‘I don’t like the fabric.’
Woodcock: ‘Maybe one day you’ll change your taste.’
Alma: ‘Maybe I like my own taste.’
Woodcock: ‘Just enough to get you into trouble.’
Alma: ‘Perhaps I’m looking for trouble.’

At the centre of the film is a power struggle between the controlling Woodcock and the determined Alma. In one scene Woodcock chastises Alma for bringing him a pot of his favourite lapsang souchong – at an unaccustomed hour, while he is working. She retreats. He angrily complains:

‘The tea is going out. The interruption is staying right here with me.’

Reynolds is a loathsome character, the very worst example of a creative egotist. But in this particular interaction I had just a scintilla of sympathy.

Confidence can be frail. Concentration can be fragile. It doesn’t take much to derail a train of thought; to shatter an illusion.  It’s very easy to create an enduring interruption.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
WB Yeats

In the sphere of commercial communications, we go to great lengths to protect ourselves from interruptions and distractions. We resort to headphones and home-working, diary-blockers, off-sites and coffee shops. Who can forget the Yellow Team's adoption of the colour-coded traffic-light triangles? ('Can't you see I'm in Red mode right now?')

The creative review in particular has its own conventions and rituals. It is a place of unconfined imagination and extravagant fancies; a time to think the unthinkable; an environment for enthusiasm and encouragement, not cynicism and scepticism.

And yet I have often witnessed a mood of collective creative fervour shattered by an ill-considered observation or thoughtless remark; a dissenting voice or doubtful interjection. The conviction evaporates. The passion dissipates. The moment passes.

‘The opposite of creativity is cynicism.’
John Bartle

This can put Planners in a difficult position. We want to be positive and supportive. We want to encourage lateral leaps. But we have a responsibility to the brief; a duty to challenge and question. Sometimes we are cursed with a nagging apprehension, with a suspicion that the idea - however original, charming and fun - will simply not work as intended.

How do we express our doubts in an environment that requires our confidence?

In my experience it is critical to understand how and when to voice concerns. If you have an issue, don’t go too early; preface it with a positive; caveat it with a caution; frame it as a question; support it with some data; propose an alternative path; be prepared to back off and return later.

This may sound weak and mealy-mouthed. But persuasion is an art, not a science. And it therefore requires a certain amount of respect, discretion and sensitivity.

As Alma herself suggests at the outset of her relationship with Woodcock:

‘Whatever you do, do it carefully.’

No. 189

The Creative Diplomat: Should We Always Tell It Like It Is?

Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

‘A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe,’ a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no,' and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat.’

Charles M de Talleyrand, French Diplomat at the time of Napoleon

Some time in the late ‘90s, I was in Buenos Aires at one of those awkward international meetings where competitive Agencies share their work in front of their Clients and are obliged to make polite remarks about it. I found myself saying that the competitor’s ad was ‘very interesting.’ This prompted an angry response from my Argentine Client:

‘What is it with you British and the word ‘interesting’? I used to think it meant you were genuinely interested in what we were discussing. But now I understand it means nothing at all.’

Fair cop. I guess I had been trying to be a Creative Diplomat: neither encouraging, nor critical; neither flattering, nor rude. And ‘interesting’ is just one of those words that come in handy in such situations.

‘To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.’

Will Durant, American Writer

On another occasion I attended a global summit with some rather opinionated Regional Clients. I was perplexed when, in the meetings that followed over the next few days, my Regional Clients were uncharacteristically subdued and taciturn. As we sat in the airport departure lounge preparing for our respective flights home, the Regional Clients congratulated each other on an ineffectual and therefore, for them, entirely successful global meeting. They had escaped without making any firm commitments or agreements. They could now return to their market and get on with making their own decisions without interference.

‘When an official reports that talks were useful, it can be safely concluded that nothing was accomplished.’

JK Galbraith, Canadian Economist

I guess we all recognise the dark arts of diplomacy. We may dismiss them as political ploys and dishonest deceptions. But each one of us has probably engaged in them to some degree. Sometimes we need to be diplomatic in order to get the job done.

In the world of creative commerce we often nowadays celebrate authenticity, transparency and straight talking. This is the spirit of the age. ‘Our business is open and honest.’ We want to ‘keep it real’; to ‘tell it like it is.’ But these things are easier said than done. In my experience creative people are not entirely comfortable with unfiltered frankness – particularly when you’re discussing their ideas.

This is, of course, completely understandable. We’re all sensitive souls when it comes to our own efforts and outputs. We take things personally.

‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.’

 WB Yeats, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

In my early years in advertising I was taught that one’s first response to any idea should always be positive. Negativity, if appropriate, could follow once you’d demonstrated a certain amount of respect; and preferably in the form of a question, not a statement. This is good advice.

So Creative Diplomacy continues to be very much necessary in our industry. Progress must be negotiated; affection must be earned. The quiet word; the gentle suggestion; the knowing glance. The mediating message; the subtle adjustment; the thoughtful gesture. These are behaviours we should recognise and encourage. They are part and parcel of a human business that runs on relationships and emotions. They are integral to the art of persuasion.

‘Diplomacy is the art of letting the other party have things your way.’

Daniele Vare, Italian Diplomat

Of course, sometimes diplomacy comes with a pang of guilt. I was once briefing a very talented editor on a film that a Client needed for a forthcoming sales conference. The film had to be ‘breathtaking and awe-inspiring’ as is the nature of these things (as well as fast and cheap…). The editor nodded and showed me a few sample clips: Apollo rockets taking off, Vesuvian volcanoes erupting, that kind of thing. They were just what was required. The editor said, ‘Yes, I know what you’re after. You want it to be completely vitriolic.’ I could see that in his head ‘vitriolic ‘ was suggesting all the right things and so I chose not to correct him. ‘Yes, vitriolic. Exactly!’ And as we reviewed his work over the following week or so, we agreed that it was indeed brilliantly ‘vitriolic.’

Some months later the editor called to upbraid me. ‘That’s not what vitriolic means at all, is it?’ ‘Well it meant the right thing to you at the time.’

I always rather regretted that incident. Whilst diplomacy demands that we concentrate on outcomes, occasionally one’s conscience yearns to ‘tell it like it is.’

‘If you want something to play with
Go and find yourself a toy.
Baby, my time is too expensive
And I’m not a little boy.
Tell it like it is.
Don’t be ashamed to let your conscience be your guide.’

Aaron Neville, ‘Tell It Like It Is

No 126


Things Fall Apart

                                                                           WB Yeats

                                                                           WB Yeats

‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’

The Second Coming – WB Yeats

For as long as I can remember things have been falling apart. Fragmenting, segmenting, empowering. Devolving, diffusing, decoupling. Subdividing, subcontracting, subbranding. Ever more channels, audiences, tools and platforms. Ever more markets, stakeholders, structures and roles.

I feel that for the entirety of my career we have been seeking coherence in an ever more fragmented world. Endeavouring to establish order in the disorder, to shape the shapeless, to find patterns in the mayhem of modern marketing.

In my early days we were arguing for campaigns not executions, continuity not chaos. Fighting against ‘goldfish advertising’.

Then as channels disbursed, as tasks multiplied, as Clients centralised, we advocated The Big Idea: the conceptual glue that held the brand together, that gave it a collective purpose. In time I also became a convert to the unifying power of the aesthetic, to the harmonising force of visual identity.

Of course the quest for coherence sometimes felt like swimming against the tide. It came with a loss of spontaneity, at a cost to creative freedom, with the risk of regimentation. But I always felt that coherence was worth it. Because I believed in the active, authorial, unitary brand; in a brand that brought more to the table than a willingness to please; in a brand that meant something to everyone, not anything to anyone.

I have occasionally wondered whether we were wrong. Perhaps we should concede that ultimately the centre really cannot hold. Perhaps in the age of the social web we should let go of the tiller, move with the tide, submit the brand to the ebb and flow of consumer needs and desires, whims and passions; liberate it from its corporate shackles to find its own articulation in the mouths of the crowd.

But I think I’m quite a conservative bloke. I can’t relinquish my belief in the unitary brand, however fragmentary its experience. And curiously the social web, with all its wild diversity and anarchic soul, has also given hope to Coherents like me.

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan

‘Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.’

Marshall McLuhan – Introduction to Understanding Media (1964)

As a young Planner in the early ’90s I read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a book written the year I was born. I wanted to learn about the thinking behind such legendary phrases as ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’. I discovered a whole lot more. It was an ambitious, lyrical, imaginative work. It was brilliantly passionate, fantastical, psychedelic.

I was particularly struck by the image of man in the electronic age extending his central nervous system beyond the constraints of physical form to reach out across the world. Wow! It was pure science fiction, of course, but it was a beautiful thought. Some years later I realised McLuhan had been predicting the arrival of the Internet…

The image of a world wide central nervous system has remained attractive to a lifelong believer in brand coherence. Because it’s an image that can be applied as much to brands as to people and things. It suggests that brands can embrace a glue more powerful than any corporate structure, conceptual definition or visual identity. Modern brands are finally capable of creating their own neural networks, their own central nervous systems.

So of course we should be introducing connectivity to everything we do right now, right the way across the path to purchase. Of course we should all be designing brand ecosystems and ecologies with bold, bright enthusiasm. Because at last we can see the reality of neurally networked brands which are sensitive, responsive and feeling. Brands which learn, think and evolve. And above all brands which are coherent and whole.

Perhaps the centre can hold after all.

First published: BBH LABS 09/07/2013

No. 21