‘Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.’ Vincent Van Gogh

A pilgrimage to a great Artful Strategist….

David Bernstein: Creative Businessman

IMG_0520

 Paul Christopher Walton remembers working with one Adland’s Greats

 

I am proud to have been David Bernstein’s straight man.

I had joined The Creative Business in 1980 to set up a planning department and I was soon immersed in David’s unique credentials patter. Introducing our line up to senior clients in the Neal St boardroom, David would say “I’m Creative” and pointing to Laurence, his partner, “He’s Business” and then looking at me, “And oh, he’s Limited”. It always got a laugh and set the tone for some memorable new business meetings.

Working for David was never limited in any sense, but rather a wonderful mix of marketing and stand-up comedy; of smart management consultancy and improv; of high culture and low music hall.

David was the presenter’s presenter and his opening stich remains as fresh today as when I heard it for the first time:

“Hello, my name is David Bernstein, MA FRSA – that’s a funny way of spelling Bernstein. It gives me great pleasure [Pause] and no money to be with you this evening….”

But David was much more than a drole minister of pun. David knew everyone, including Ronnie Kirkwood who popped up in his anecdotes like a long-lost friend.

As one of Adland’s great Creative Directors (McCann, Ogilvy) he won all the glittering prizes and wrote some famous lines (The Esso sign means happy motoring) He was also one of the Outdoor industry’s biggest advocates, making a series of well-respected films and masterminding a notable conference in Nice.

As an entrepreneur, he was one of the great challengers of the industry and founded The Creative Business, whose media neutral philosophy was years ahead of its time. He was very proud of the Agency’s core belief that an understanding of the problem should dictate its solution.

But above all, David was a great writer who wrote with an elegance and wit that was always delivered with a fine command of rhythm and timing. Creative Advertising (Longman, 1974) remains one of the most readable texts on the art of business persuasion. Later in his career, David developed a fascination with corporate reputation and his book Corporate Image and Reality (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984) became the essential primer of corporate communications. As usual, David had a great way with rhetorical hairpins:

“Product brands take minimum differences and set out to magnify them. It’s a shame that corporate brands too often take large differences and end up minifying them.”

As I can attest, David was a marvellous teacher and had a knack for making even the most difficult subjects accessible and fun. He loved mnemonics. In evaluating creative work, David said there were four things to look for:

  • Visibility
  • Identity
  • Promise
  • Simplicity

He called this his VIPS model, which he explained gave you SPIV when spelt backwards.

David Bernstein is one of the giants of British advertising and was awarded the Mackintosh medal in 1982. He last great service was as a tireless supporter and Trustee of the History of Advertising Trust.

The boy from Croydon who was as old as Mickey Mouse inspired a whole generation of business people to be more creative, and I’m so proud to be one of them.

His was and is a highly distinctive brand – which reminds me of one other classic Bernstein routine:

Looking at a rough ad, David would ask with just a hint of a wicked glint: “Is brand evident?”, and while the team were formulating a response, smiling, he would add: “Which is, as I’m sure you have worked out, an anagram of David Bernstein. Boom! Boom!”

 

Paul Christopher Walton

The Value Engineers

 

Planning Director and Straight Man

The Creative Business

1980-1986

 

Good strategy needs the white stuff

The Artful Strategist discovers white space with the help of Irving Berlin and Robert Frost.

You must have noticed the amount of colour imagery that makes its way into our calendars as we head towards the Winter Solstice. It starts in November with Black Friday, the official kick-off of the post-Thanksgiving season of shopping and good-deals-to-all men, and followed six weeks later by Blue Monday when our flagging spirits are devastated by the arrival of prolific credit card bills and the prospect of living on skint rations. But in the middle of this shop-to-stop cycle is the enticing promise of a warmly opaque holiday pause that thanks to Irving Berlin we all know as a White Christmas.

Berlin’s song White Christmas is not just the biggest holiday song, it is also one of the greatest songs of all time. Holding the presumably un-beatable Guinness Record for being the biggest selling single disc, White Christmas is the definitive festive anthem that touches our emotions and transports us back to the re-assuring warmth of Christmases Past. But when Berlin first wrote the song, it had an intro that never made it into the recordings we recognise today.

This is the ‘lost intro’ of White Christmas:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,

The orange and palm trees sway.

There’s never been such a day

in Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the twenty-fourth,

And I am longing to be up North.

 

Somehow a lush and balmy Southern California just provided the wrong frame of reference for the initial launch of the song. Shortly afterwards in 1942, with the United States at war, Bing Crosby’s intimate crooning about jingling sleigh bells and glistening treetops in Norman Rockwellian white spaces proved to be a brilliant morale building way in which soldiers on active service could re-connect with home.

White space of course is a very fashionable concept today and much sought after by wannabe disrupters and new model entrepreneurs of all kinds, who like to use the phrase as a shortcut for areas of uncontested opportunity in the lands of the unknown Unknown. With flat market places and margins zapped by competitors from all directions, today’s scramble for white space appears both urgent and haphazard.

Back in the 1940s, at roughly the same time that Bing was hogging the holiday airwaves, white space was a phrase that was just beginning to gain acceptance in the niche world of printing. Printers define white space as those parts of a page left unmarked: margins, gutters, and the space between columns, graphics or objects drawn or depicted. The idea of white space is universally considered to be a good thing as too much type crammed into too little space will result in poor reader experience. Advertising art directors like plenty of space because it can give their layouts a premium and elegant appearance. But white space is not just about aesthetics, it’s also an important means of creating emphasis and revealing the meaning of a text; in this way, blank areas should not be thought as inert but rather an active part of the story.

Which is why poets love the idea white of space.

Consider the following text and if you can do so without causing a stir, try and read it aloud:

The way a crow shook down on me the dust of snow from a hemlock tree has given my heart a change of mood and saved some part of a day I had rued.

This text is in fact a wonderfully compact poem consisting of one sentence of thirty-four words called Dust of Snow written by Robert Frost and published in 1923 in his collection New Hampshire.

Here is the actual layout Frost used in the published version and please look out for how the poet uses a combination of hard line breaks and a hinterland of white to set a rhythm and reveal his purpose:

Dust of Snow

 

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

Frost loved featuring wintry themes in his poetry, much of which was inspired by the same New England landscapes that feature in Berlin’s holiday songs. But while Dust of Snow is darker than White Christmas – after all there are no sleigh bells and children playing in Frost’s poem, only the menace of a crow in a hemlock tree – the crow did actually work his magic on the poet, just as much as Bing’s crooning did on the GIs away from home. Both show – albeit in very different ways- the functional and emotional effects of finding white space and the well-being benefits it can confer.

My trusty thesaurus tells me that white space belongs in the same Club as allowance, gap, headroom, and margin which are all relevant concepts today. In these turbulent times those who are faced with tough choices and scarce resources will find a keen appreciation of white space is mindfully bang on the money.

So after all your alarums and excursions of the year, God rest ye, gentle reader, shake off that dust of snow, and may your days be merry and bright, and may your Christmas space be white.

 

 

Who can name the three most important rules of strategy?

The Artful Strategist visits MIT, gets Haxed, but lives to tell the tale.

The Power of Three (TP3) is one of the most popular rhetorical devices in use by public speakers today. Psychologists tell us there is something magical in the rhythm of three connected strands that helps audience understand and recall the core message. Somehow I came, I saw, I conquered has a better narrative ring than I came, I saw, I conquered, I put it up for sale.

Revolutionaries have always known that TP3 is a brilliant way of summarising a complex manifesto. Visit France and note just how many times you will see Liberté, Egalité, Fratenité carved into the fabric of every town and village.

Admen love copywriting TP3 inspired slogans: how many of us were brought up knowing that a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play? Or can you taste the difference in snap, crackle and pop? I’m lovin’ it.

And above all leaders who want to sell us their vision can’t resist punctuating their speeches with TP3 sound-bite triplets like blood, sweat and tears or yes, we can!

Perhaps this is why one of my favourite strategy teachers deployed TP3 extensively against the business big shots he regularly came up against.

In the mid 1990s, I was a bit part player in a Unilever epic about new sources of growth and upgrading the strategic planning skills of its senior team was identified as one key enabler. Already working with a variety of Unilever’s operating companies on brand and innovation projects, I suddenly found myself being drawn like an asteroid into the powerful orbit of Arnaldo Hax , the Sloan Professor of Management at MIT, in Cambridge MA.

Arnaldo Hax is a charming Chilean with a razor sharp mind and an irresistible wit to match, and was the perfect choice for the job of building a framework and set of tools for improving strategic thinking in Unilever. At that point, Unilever was trying to modernise fast and was on the lookout for more joined-up sources of competitive advantage it liked to refer to as Unileverage.

Arnaldo’s shtick was perfect because it involved the combination of hard-core process discipline (mission, opportunities, competencies, principles, thrusts, actions and so on) with generous amounts of hilarious observational stand-up.

‘You have some very interesting work cut out for you now’, he said to one group who had failed to impress him with their homework. To another poor performing syndicate who said they had just finished brainstorming their response, he replied ‘In my experience, brainstorming usually involves a lot of storm, and very little brain.’

There was one group I remember in particular which consisted of extremely strident business unit leaders whose time in the breakout session had been spent largely in positioning and posturing rather than actually doing any work who were told in the plenary session: ‘I am sure you have more intelligence in your group than you have written on your charts.’

Arnaldo was an adept at understanding the psychology of his audience and knew how to sell a rigorous soup to nuts process with just the right amount of playful banter to keep the grumpy VIPs attentive and on-board.

But beyond the lecture room sizzle, there was plenty of content sausage to appreciate. His approach always put the customer at the centre of the strategic universe: ‘The essence of competitive positioning’ he told us, ‘is to attract, satisfy and retain customers’. He also recognised the increasingly important challenge of solving protecting differential advantages. Here, he preached the doctrine of system lock–in which he explained involved identifying strong functional as well as emotional mechanisms to control and maintain customer fidelity. Today, we would recognise the Apple brandworld as a defining manifestation of this principle.

Arnaldo was also a power user of TP3. On one occasion, he teased the Unilever strategic élite with a question: ‘What do you think are the three most important rules of strategy?’ Not surprisingly, this provoked all manner of answers, some predictable and many pretentious, the latter to be categorised as the latest thoughts of the Senior Vice President of Mumbo Jumbo.

But for Arnaldo, the arch exponent of focus and specificity, the three most important concepts of strategy were in fact: segmentation, segmentation, segmentation.

According to him, the paramount task for any business was to decide where exactly it would choose to compete. So segment, segment, segment became the first, and arguably most important of all what became known as Arnaldo’s Haxioms.

In the fading orange glow of those Fall days at MIT, there was plenty to harvest from my masterclass with Arnaldo. Of course, there were those who said there was too much process in Hax and too many templates to fill in (and there was a torrent of templates), but for those who listened attentively to the top notes of his score, there was also a stirring right brain theme that has certainly stayed with me:

‘Planning without measurement is just poetry.

But planning without poetry is just measurement.

Cha-Cha-Cha!’

Strategic breakthroughs and the art of beating time

The Artful Strategist has a lesson from the Maestro.

In June 2011, after thirty years of monthly profit and loss, I left the boardroom for the final time and facing a long year in the cold storage of a non-compete, decided to go back to college. It was time to learn how to write.

Not you understand that I had spent the previous thirty years of my career in branding being completely incapable of wielding a pen, but apart from the occasional short story and the random urge to add to the EU poetry mountain, I hadn’t yet written anything over two thousand words. So I decided to find out if I could write long – Amazon.com long, in a year of learning to write dangerously.

They say that we all have a novel inside of us, and I decided it was time to discover where mine was located and whether it could be extracted without too much pain to me or my nearest and dearest.

So off I went, back to University for a whacky year in the utterly misnamed faculty of creative writing. Here I met a fascinating gallery of characters that included smug dysfunctional poets, sociopathic novelists and semi-sozzled journalists, but at least my fellow students turned out to be always generous, often clever and sometimes very, very funny.

This was to be the year of contending with the Big Deadline. Not the usual daily deadline of which I was the past-master, that is winging-it in the world of advertising, but squaring up to the mother of all big, fat hairy monsters of a deadline that was terrifying both quantitatively (the word-count) but also qualitatively (spelling, grammar, punctuation and layout).

To make matters worse, I was also required to submit a critical commentary with my novella that was the equivalent of making public a journey into the disturbing privacy of the authorial mind. James, my tutor, told me he had every confidence in my ability to deal with this challenge, but I remained anxiously unconvinced.

My first, and so far unfinished novel, if you’ll forgive the Schubertian parallel, is called Historyland and it is a dark comedy set in a distant and dystopian future. As a structuralist par excellence, I had prepared a detailed synopsis and plot outline that I enjoyed reviewing and editing with pride and affection. To my opinion, it had an engaging protagonist, great set pieces, a wonderful narrative arc, in fact everything, apart from the 30,000 words I now needed to write.

I drew up a week-by-week action plan – over the summer I would need to write a Conrad a day. A Conrad is the standard unit of creative writing inspired by Joseph Conrad that consists of a daily target of 750 words. It was, however, depressing to learn from visiting writers whose job it was to inspire us that these 750 have to be a good 750 words. Some of the biggest names in the business went on to depress me even more by telling us that they considered it was a good day if they were able to add a net 250 words to their magnum opus. All good writers we were told must learn to love the Delete Key.

My plan had also not taken into account the summer heat. The sun followed me back from the South of France to a South-facing Oxfordshire writing room that made long distance writing difficult. There were also a gazillion reasons I became adept at finding to procrastinate. Before long, I was dozing at my keyboard or found myself typing on autopilot. As the September deadline approached, my anxiety increased and little ripples of self-doubt even began to raise concerns about the first few thousand words I had committed to the Dropbox

But then something wonderful happened. As the countdown entered the final days, all sorts of collisions and creative leaps started to happen and disrupt my story for the good.

As I ate, wrote and slept Historyland, my subconscious explorations became richer and the outcomes more interesting. As vignettes from my life randomly resurfaced into the narrative, I was, as they say, now totally in the flow and qualitative and quantitative milestones seemed to be within my reach. What I realised was that whilst it’s great to have a plan – a Germanically disciplined and logically structured outline of a plan – it’s even better to have the pressure that comes from Time’s winged charioteer hurtling towards you at full pelt.

Leonard Bernstein, the maestro and great champion of Artful Learning knew all about this phenomenon. “If you want achieve great things,” he observed, “you have to have a plan, and not quite enough time.

Precept: Do not luxuriate either in the preparation or execution your plan. A fast ticking clock is a wonderful instrument for triggering a strategic breakthrough.

How Wellington fought the battle of Waterloo before Napoleon had even left Elba

The Artful Strategist has a lesson in the geography of anticipation.

Exactly two hundred years ago this week, a score of British infantry battalions, formed up in squares and scattered across a ridge south of Brussels, were under relentless attack from ten thousand French Cavalry who were hurling themselves and their mounts against the battered rows of red jackets and steel bayonets. This was the afternoon of June 18th, and one of the most famous battles in history had reached its most precarious moment when individual bravery counted far more than grand strategy.

Just one hundred days before, Napoleon gave his captors the slip from Elba and landed at Golfe Juan with a handful of his personal troops. Soon the Emperor was marching over the Alps on his way back towards Paris and the alarums of another European war.

Napoleon was Europe’s favourite bogeyman and its other crowned heads were anxiously mustering armies intent on ending once and for all his pursuit of la gloire. In what today we might recognise as a classic challenger brand manoeuvre, Napoleon decided that his best strategy was to defeat in quick succession the two still separated British and Prussian armies gathering on his borders in the north so that he could broker a truce and/or turn his attention to the three other armies forming more tardily in the east.

Napoleon moved quickly and his army crossed the frontier at dawn on the 15th June 1815. Word soon reached the commander of the Anglo-Dutch army, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who with an appropriate sense of a good story was just preparing to go to a dance and famously quipped that Napoleon had ‘humbugged’ him.

Nonetheless Wellington determined that in what was to be their first (and indeed, last) battlefield encounter, he would now return the compliment in his own strategic terms.

He would achieve this by choosing where he was going to give battle, somewhere he had studied and already knew well: It was a place the Duke had discovered while Napoleon was still contemplating an escape from Elba.

Throughout history, the ability to choose good ground has been one of the most important attributes of successful generals. Knowing the right battlefield geography was key to the success of Hannibal at Cannae, Robert Bruce at Bannockburn and the Union cavalry commander Buford, who though massively outnumbered, was able to hold the high ground at Gettysburg against General Lee’s Virginians till the Iron Brigade came to his relief and probably saved the Union.

As a general, Wellington had a marvellously instinctive sense of terrain and collected potential battlefields like some painters collect landscapes. In the summer of 1814, when Europe had been restored to peace, he was travelling on diplomatic duties through what was then the Kingdom of Netherlands when he saw a number of places which he noted were ‘good positions for an army’.

One of these was a wide valley between two ridges situated on the main road from France to Brussels. So if war were to break out again, this would be a possible invasion route. The location went into his commonplace book.

A year later, with panic breaking out in the streets of Brussels but with the British officer class nonchalantly getting togged-up for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, Wellington was able to show his staff exactly where he was going to stop the Napoleonic double whammy.

It was on the northern ridge known as Mont St Jean. We know it today as Waterloo.

Precept: It’s good to maintain a state of healthy paranoia and to develop a heightened appreciation of what may be good ground to compete on. As the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu puts it: ‘In time of peace, prepare for war; in time of war, prepare for peace.’

‘Time for some new strategic clichés?’

The Artful Strategist goes to the movies.

Those like me who are addicted to combing through the sound-bite flotsam and jetsam of the famous, hold a special place for Samuel Goldwyn, the Hollywood producer who seems to have come straight from Central Casting.

So prolific was his cannonade of quips, epigrams and one-liners that compilers had to invent a term to describe them: they became Goldwynisms. They might have been called something else, but the young Warsaw run-a-way had already displayed instinctive marketing flair by changing his name from Szmuel Gelbfisz. In show business, he knew branding mattered.

Contracts mattered too, and today many of the most famous Goldwynisms shine a spotlight on the legal rough and tumble of the early years of the movie business as these examples show:

“Include me – out.’’

“I’ll give you a definite maybe.”

Of course, there were many who just assumed that Sam was a poorly educated immigrant with a limited understanding of language and the rules of grammar. But those who gave him the label Mister Malaprop massively underestimated his intelligence, business judgement and natural flair for a particular kind of rhetorical device, the oxymoron.

An oxymoron is a phrase constructed to produce a seemingly self-contradictory effect like Juliet explaining to Romeo that ‘parting is such sweet sorrow.’ Tricky both to formulate and to deliver, an oxymoron can be challenging, especially when it’s being improvised on the hoof. But then Sam Goldwyn was a master of oxymora:

“Our comedies are not to be laughed at.”

 

“We’re overpaying him, but he’s worth it.”

 

“I read part of it all the way through.”

Oxymoron comes from the attractively ugly combination of two words from Ancient Greek: oxys (sharp) and moros (dull); and so suggesting a somewhat curious state of sharp foolishness, the word itself is fascinatingly paradoxical.

But sharp foolishness is probably the perfect mind-set for a strategist when embarking upon the fundamental reappraisal of a business, brand or institution. Cutely naïve questioning is a very good technique for uncovering compelling truths. Fresh eyes can cure marketing myopia.

Goldwynisms can also be deployed as effective and inspiring challenges. Reading some dialogue in what he thought was a poor script, Sam said, “Let’s have some new clichés”.

As a serial entrepreneur, Goldwyn knew well the audience pleasing power of safe–adventure in a product that offered the punter simultaneously something mainstream, commonplace and easily understood but yet was fresh and original in its form and impact. In his call for some new clichés, Goldwyn is goading us to delete the tired old stuff and inspiring us to find the al dente twist on the familiar. He knew this was the secret of great Box Office, and the best way of making big stars even bigger.

Precept: As an alternative to intelligently predictable standard methods, try a little Goldwyn sharp foolishness to pep up your planning and get yourself out and about discovering the freshest from the market new season clichés.