‘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.

Why keeping it real can be a big strategic mistake.  

The Artful Strategist has a painting lesson.

One of my most profound realisations about strategic planning came courtesy of my art teacher, Keiran who had cheerfully picked up the challenge of showing me, an enthusiastic but quite hopeless would-be water-colourist, some of the basic techniques of painting landscapes.

“Bring me some of your paintings and photographs of scenes you would like to paint,” he told me on the ‘phone when I made the appointment for my first lesson.

A week later, we were sitting hugger-muger in his studio at his paint-splattered trestle table in blue aprons drinking mugs of tea, looking at some of my untutored first attempts.

“Hmm,” he said, unpromisingly, “it seems to me you’re trying too hard to paint exactly what you see.” I nodded in agreement nervously. “But it’s resulting in bland pictures that lack drama.” I was still nodding, though now a little less enthusiastically.

“What you have to understand is that a painting is not and should not try to be, a photograph. It’s your painting and it’s a selective expression of what you’ve chosen to see. So one of the most important decisions you have to make as a painter is how to compose your picture.”

At this point, he took my chosen photographic subject, a moody coastal mountain scene, and using a 4” x 6″ mount as a framing tool showed me a series of the possible paintings that could be executed from this single photograph. Each he explained had a different point of focus, but all he showed me had the capacity to catch the viewer’s eye.

Keiran’s lesson is directly transferable to the business of strategic planning where a common error is for the team to put enormous descriptive effort into attempting to replicate the world in complex high-resolution. So often this leads to the kind of highly detailed picture that fails to engage, inspire or persuade.

On the other hand, planners will find more inspiration by experimenting with qualitatively different perspectives. This might involve emphasising one key trend or observed phenomenon in the marketplace. For example a mainstream food brand or Quick Service Restaurant might gain much from foregrounding consumer interest in street food, especially the locations where hawkers and mobile restauranteurs are concentrated such as Maltby Street in South London and Smörgasburg in Brooklyn. Alternatively, a planner’s eye could choose to zoom-in on an important target group or explore an influential belief that is shaping consumer choice. A cleverly chosen point of view can illuminate the status quo in a powerful way and also reveal what may be just beyond the horizon.

Grayson Perry’s marvellous collection of vignettes called The Vanity of Small Differences is a marvellous example to enjoy, both as a work of art and a superbly observed satirical summary audit of the 2010s.


Strategists can learn much from painters both in learning to be selective in their points of view, and by experimenting with composition with the aim of creating strategic drama.

Precept: As you summarise all the work that has gone into your situational analysis, experiment with multiple points of focus and look for the possibilities for drama that can unleash creative thinking. Do not fret about discarding the detail that is probably irrelevant to your future.