Monday, 31 January 2011

Shakespeare won the Battle of Midway

One of my rather constant mantras is that “success comes out of failure”. A rather extreme (and unintentional) example centres on one William Friedman (left).

Friedman was a young geneticist teaching at Cornell University when he was hired to work at a commercial laboratory.

This lab was also working on ciphers. The owner, Colonel Fabyan, was a supporter of Elizabeth Wells Gallup, the high priestess of “Shakespeare was written not by Shakespeare but by Sir Francis Bacon”. She believed that Bacon had embedded ciphers within the plays which revealed his true identity.

At the labs, Friedman started work on the Bacon project (which eventually was abandoned without any supportable outcome), and became in due course a leading expert in cipherology, recruiting and training a cadre of bright young things, who formed the backbone of cryptanalysis in World War One.

Later, in the Second World War, Friedman and his team cracked the Japanese machine cipher, believed at the time to be unbreakable. This effectively helped to shorten the war in the Pacific, amongst other things including the winning of the decisive naval battle of Midway.

I discovered all this in James Shapiro’s recent book “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare”, in which he happily concludes that the plays and sonnets were indeed written by the glove-maker’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Someone I never met

Although it’s in an extraordinarily beautiful part of England, Uppingham School in the late 1950s and early 1960s was mostly a stultifying experience for me.

With the aim (for him) of following my father as a General Practitioner, I was coerced into studying sciences at school, whereas all my own interests were in the arts, history and languages. In many ways I’m grateful now that I have some understanding of science and scientific method. For example, it has enabled me to spend a working life up to my armpits in the analysis of data. And to facilitate innovation meetings on leading edge subjects such as nanotechnology.

I’ve also been able to pursue my own preferred path consistently since leaving school at eighteen.

One thing that was an enormous help to me was to identify, while I was at Uppingham, a former pupil who went on to forge a brilliant career in the arts – in his case as a film director and opera producer – John Schlesinger. While I was still at school, he directed a wonderfully vital documentary about Waterloo Station, later going on to make many of the best movies on his generation – A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Darling, Far from the Madding Crowd, Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Marathon Man and many more.

His example was with me both at school and thereafter. I followed everything he did. And on Wednesday, on the hundredth anniversary of the premi√®re of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, I took time out to watch (on DVD) his timeless production of the opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This is the final trio with Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne Howells and Barbara Bonney:

He’s gone now, but I owe him a great deal.

Do you have someone you never met who unknowingly helped to shape your creative life?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Artists in the workplace

When I was working at the ad agency Lintas in London, I stumbled upon the fact that in an earlier generation (in the 1930s and 40s), long before the arrival of TV advertising, there had been a coterie of outstanding young artists employed there. Lintas was originally set up as the house agency for the consumer goods giant, Unilever.

Perhaps the most significant of them was the painter, Keith Vaughan (above, “Landscape with figure”, 1959). A good Vaughan will go for upwards of £150,000 in today’s market. Others included the Australian, John Passmore, much of whose work is now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, the New Zealand-born painter of English country houses, Felix Kelly, and the brilliant trompe l’oeil artist, Roy Hobdell. Having discovered their existence, I was lucky enough to commission an exhibition of their work at Agnew’s in Old Bond Street some fifty years later in 1988.

How was it that they all congregated at Lintas? Certainly it was not by accident. In fact, the dynamic boss of the business at that time, Ivor Cooper, understood that if the agency was to shine creatively, it had to have the most talented people – and for him that meant hiring the finest young artists. Of course, this was not the tokenistic artist-in-residence that some contemporary organisations employ. It was artists at the heart of the company's creative product.

But hiring the artists was just a start. An artist himself, Cooper encouraged them to develop their talents, giving them time off for study and even allowing them to do their own work at the office when time permitted. And the respect that the boss was held in meant that this freedom was not abused.

While not every business needs outstanding artists, all organisations need some highly creative people in their ranks. Yet research shows that currently less than one third have any reference to creativity or innovativeness in their recruitment or appraisal processes.

How is it where you are?

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Transforming concerts with The Night Shift

Even in today’s fast-changing world, there are sectors that seem to innovate slowly and rather reluctantly. One of these is the classical concert.

It may be the fear of “dumbing down” that gets in the way of change, but, in its essentials the experience of going to a regular concert now seems very little different from the way it was half a century ago.

So it’s exciting when something new is tried – and when it works.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, probably the best-regarded band of its kind in the world, started thinking about exploring new formats for new audiences some ten years ago. I was asked to facilitate a visioning day for them – and what emerged was a very clear sense of direction, sufficient for the desire to go into their strategic plan.

In the event, it took a further five years for a clear insight to emerge, coupled with a definite idea for how to tackle the opportunity.

A small team of like-minded people in the orchestra management – CEO Marshall Marcus (now head of music at London’s South Bank Centre), orchestra manager Steve Thomas and marketing manager William Norris – came to the conclusion that there was a potential new audience in young professionals and students, but that they were put off by the notion that concerts were stuffy and formulaic, long and boring. In short, not for us.

So The Night Shift was born. Starting later (usually at 9pm), and going on till late, it’s a full “evening out”, with an open bar, presenter, DJ, an atmosphere of youthful informality - people can come and go as they please (and, shock-horror, they can take drinks into the auditorium) - and for students the first drink is free. The concert at the heart of it is a shorter version of the regular, more formal gig.

It has been a tremendous success for the orchestra, regularly selling-out and genuinely attracting a new audience with a quite different profile. And importantly the players have grown to love it too.

Is it the way of the future for live classical music? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Giving it a Go

I’d been living and working in Sydney for a few months when a young journalist from the Financial Times in London showed up. She was to write a feature article on my experience there, particularly comparing British and Australian management styles.

“Well,” I began, “in England we’ll discuss some new project for eighteen months or so, and there will be a really good reason when we decide not to go ahead with it. Now in Australia we’ll discuss it for about twenty minutes and decide to ‘give it a go’.”

I got into trouble with my boss in London over the article when it ran. “Unpatriotic,” he called it. It was certainly somewhat overstated, but the impulse behind it was, and remains, fundamentally true. “Give it a go” is an essential Australian expression, without an exact equivalent in English English.

The upside to a lengthy gestation period can be to reduce risk, aiming to get towards perfection. But the downside is that there’s often no chance in the meantime to see what will happen in real life – then to learn and adapt.

The advantage of the Aussie version is that things are tried out in practice with customers. And the problem can be that risks are not managed adequately.

Where am I on all this? In innovation, as in so many things, the perfect is the enemy of the good – and is often unachievable. So my advice is usually to give it a go.

Which culture do you live and work in?

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Poker and the Creatives

At the same time as my day job in the mail-room of JWT at 40 Berkeley Square in the mid-1960s, and playing rock music with the Idle Hands, my main source of income came from poker. Four hours a day, five days a week. I did two shifts – over lunchtime and early evening.

Initially I played with the school in the media department. They were far too good for me. Cautious. Analytical. Poker-faced. And in my youthful, impoverished state, I certainly could not afford to lose. What I gained, though, was a good working knowledge of both strategy and tactics.

Luckily, one day I was invited to sit in with the creative department school. This was the life. Not great at the game, all of them earned substantially more than me, and I could walk away from the table with winnings regularly.

As a bonus, they were such a joy to be with. Open, talented, witty. I don’t remember all their names forty-five years later. Two that vividly remain with me are the outstanding Australian artist and designer, Ken Done (above), and the delightful young writer Llewellyn Thomas, son of Dylan Thomas.

It’s not that I learned much about poker from that school. What I did begin to appreciate was something much more important - the way that highly creative people are, how they function.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Arts in the classroom

School students who are exposed to the arts – dance, drama, media arts, music, visual arts etc - get better academic results, stay at school longer, are more motivated in class and have higher self-esteem.

So says University of Sydney academic, Professor Robyn Ewing, in a paper that draws together research findings from around the world.

“If we don’t empower kids to think creatively and to be imaginative and also to see things from different perspectives, which is what the arts do,” she says, “we’re selling them short.”

“Policymakers need to change the way they think about the arts,” she concludes, “and treat it as a priority.”

Not really a surprise, but certainly food for thought.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Jerry Della Femina, a Pulse and a Five Dollar Bill

As deputy chairman of the advertising agency, WCRS Worldwide, I called a meeting of the bosses from around the network to discuss business development strategy.

We were at that time already the fastest-growing business of our kind in the world with a reputation for outstanding creativity. But, if we were to maintain momentum, we’d need to move to the next level in terms in terms of client acquisition.

My own intention in the meeting was to focus in on the major multinational corporations РUnilever, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Diageo and so on - companies that clearly needed better creative work, but were currently locked into the established, generally rather dull, global agencies.

The boss of our New York agency, the legendary Jerry Della Femina, began to look uncomfortable, sensing that we were getting ahead of ourselves.

“I like it if they have a pulse and a five dollar bill,” he announced.

Collapse of stout party.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Fear and Loathing in the Meltdown

So many books and articles have been written about the global financial meltdown, propounding seemingly dozens of different theories as to the causes. Yet one aspect seems to be at the back of so many of them. Fear.

Fear of important individuals whose role was to provide leadership.

Perhaps the one most fully explored of these has been the boss of AIG Financial Products, Joe Cassano. Cassano (above) is at the centre of writer Michael Lewis’s recent research, and this is how he is described by Lewis and Cassano’s own ex-colleagues:

“A guy with a crude feel for financial risk, but a real talent for bullying people who doubted him…”
“He’d humiliate them and then try to make it up to them by giving them huge amounts of money…”
“The fear factor was so high that, when we had those morning meetings, you presented what you did not to upset him…”
“If you were critical of the organisation, all hell would break loose…”
“Under Joe debate and discussion ceased…”
“The way you dealt with Joe was to start everything by saying, ‘You’re right, Joe’…”
“Cassano was one of those people whose insecurities manifested themselves in a need for obedience and total control…”

I guess we’ve all had to deal with bullying bosses to a greater or lesser extent. Without doubt there were (and doubtless are) many Joe Cassanos in leadership positions, and not only across the financial sector. It spells death to innovation and creativity – all our energy having to go into self-protection.

But the other side of the story is that it’s our responsibility to stand up to them.

Cassano’s gutless direct reports were, in my view, just as culpable for the meltdown of AIGFP and the banking system it served. It takes courage, but it has to be done – for the team, for the organisation, for the customers and shareholders. But most of all for ourselves.

Have you had to stand up for yourself with a boss at some stage in the face of bullying?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Invictus and personal responsibility

It’s at this time that many of us make new commitments and plans for the coming year. I’ve no doubt that WE Henley’s poem, “Invictus”, helped me to retrieve and take responsibility for my own life and work in the late 1980s.

Up to that time, it seemed to me that I was owned lock, stock and barrel by whichever advertising agency employed me. Everything seemed so urgent and important at work that I sacrificed many other important aspects of life, not least family. And I didn’t realise then that the advertising business has a memory lasting something less than a nanosecond.

Henley (above, bust by Rodin) had a difficult, extremely painful childhood. He caught tuberculosis of the bone as a twelve year-old and his life was saved by the pioneering surgeon, Joseph Lister, at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh with the amputation of his leg at twenty-six in 1875. There he wrote the poem, convalescing in that hospital and also meeting Robert Louis Stevenson for the first time. (Henley was the inspiration behind the character Long John Silver in Stevenson’s Treasure Island.)

A century later, imprisoned on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela read the poem aloud to other inmates.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I wonder if it speaks to you?

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Denis Dutton RIP

If you are going to be any use to organisations and individuals in a multitude of different fields, you need to know something concerning just about everything.

So for many years I’ve started my day with the Arts & Letters Daily website – Each day I read several of the articles, essays and reviews they have selected from a multitude of newspapers and journals from around the world on every subject under the sun. And once a morning I print off one item for closer scrutiny.

I have never known who was behind it, but the death last week of Professor Denis Dutton, and the swag of obituaries on every continent, has revealed all.

Denis Dutton was born in Los Angeles in 1944. He took a bachelor of arts degree from the University of California Santa Barbara in 1966, joined the Peace Corps and went to India, where he learned to play the sitar. After taking his PhD back in California, he lectured in American universities and started a journal, “Philosophy and Literature”.

In 1984 he moved with his family to New Zealand, where he taught at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, and it was from there that he launched Arts & Letters Daily on the internet in 1998. It now has some 3.7 million page views per month.

“A few years ago,” he told an interviewer, “Bill Gates was boasting that we'll soon have sensors which will turn on the music that we like or show on the walls the paintings we like when we walk into a room. How boring! The hell with our preexisting likes. Let's expand ourselves intellectually.”

Dutton was renowned as a continuous fountain of ideas. Another of them was the “Bad Writing Award” for academic works. Perhaps this might be revived.

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