Friday, 24 October 2014

The Cambridge show worth making time for

A year or so on from writing about Ernest Dalton's last show with neuf, here goes on his latest, the pithily entitled Hierarcadia; Approximating Naivety, where he teams up with Alexandra Drysdale.

It's a 40 minute show well worth the free entry: highly experimental, full of sympathy and humour, well acted, often absurd, often profound. It's demanding and elusive but also lighter than previous work I've seen from Ernie, with more positive resolution in its outcome, greater in hope and lower in angst.

We're in an upstairs room in the Boathouse pub in Chesterton Road, and again transported into his trademark world, that intriguing cryptic space between reality and unreality. Like the court jester of old, who would use humour and absurdity to sail close to the wind in pointing out perhaps unpalatable truths, Ernie challenges our perceptions of reality - life, the world, relationships, constants - .by holding up the mirror of unreality. It provides an interesting reflection, forcing both .in- and extrospective consideration: are we who we think we are, how do we fit in with the apparent relentless patterns we see in the universe?  How can we be happy?Who runs who? A load of small questions like that.

The show centres around Poussin's picture Dance to the Music  of Time, a XV11th century depiction that shows the lot of Man - to dance to the music that has been preordained by the gods. We see this via the central vista that shows four individuals with backs turned to each other, hands joined, dancing in a circle. Each individual represents one particular human state ranging from poverty to wealth. They dance round in what is part Wheel of Fortune and part Musical Chairs, for who knows when the music will stop? Above them in the heavens the gods look down in their detachment, happy with the repetitive reel below that holds mankind prisoner in its rhythm. It is a beautiful quite cryptic picture. But also fatalistic,for while the artist may be pointing out the arbitrariness of life he suggests no escape from the prison lottery, nor even the (Christian) offer of posthumous salvation: it's just the way life is.

Against this backdrop - the picture is projected on the wall behind the action - the meat of the show materialises. Modern figurative "sculpture" is assembled on the stage in such a way that it overlays the Poussin and we are thus invited to consider two competing art forms, or world interpretations, simultaneously.

There are moments of humour as the sculpture - made of odds and ends, eggs, ping pong balls, leaves and paper bags ( well why not?) - is erected.The fact that it is exceptionally, perhaps absurdly, abstract helps force the point when juxtaposed with the classical.  Our interpretive powers, both reasoning and emotional, are forced into having to make some sort of decision about what we are witnessing, if anything. And, not for the first time when experiencing Ernie's productions, this member of the audience's  Emperor's New Clothes alert button came on at fairly regular intervals: Were we being sucked into a massive con?

My conclusion was that we were not.

In fact, the sculpture serves a key function beyond its juxtapositioning: in its construction we are taken, indeed gently jolted, out of ourselves. This allows us to be more receptive to any end message we might be about to receive. During its creation our natural cognitive defences are reduced. A sort of mental muscle relaxant is in play, enhanced significantly by the simple hypnotic tones of Su Lyn's original sound track. Even if you don't understand why you are on this journey or where you are after it, it's still an enjoyable trip.

The main action that follows is a well acted and often highly emotional interplay between Ernie and Alexandra, the one more Hamletian, the other more Free Spirit, as they consider the eternal questions of life and love and how both can be rewarding in the context of the relentless turning of the hurdygurdy of Time, with its habit of dashing hopes and harbouring regrets.

Emperor's New Clothes? I don't think so as the piece seemed to offer a solution.Deny Time.Don't look back, don't look forward, break the wheel. Screw the gods, now is now.


It may not be going too far to say that this is where art meets therapy.

And that this sort of absurd thinking could sort out a lot of lives.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

What is reality? Neuf: The Art of Experimental film in Cambridge

Neuf 3

I am no art critic, just a punter. My subject is Neuf, the experimental film group in Cambridge. It holds an annual showing of its work. Not in the formal setting of a gallery or cinema, but in people’s homes, projected on walls in bedrooms or kitchens. They are well attended events. This year’s, its third, was at Ernie’s.
You get a glass of wine. Negotiate your way round the house in semi-darkness. It’s deliberately haphazard and confusing, a process of physical and mental groping. Part drinks party, part murder in the dark. Bump into people, objects, ideas. In each room a short film is showing. Areas of chat and places of hush. The people watch in quiet reverence, their brains cranking almost audibly for explanation. The occasional tinkle of truth dropping into their cranial money boxes.
In the corridors between the show rooms, they smile knowingly but with a touch of nerves. What did the child say: “But the emperor has no clothes?”  What had they just witnessed? They had seen something, but what? A sip of wine. “Hello George, nice to see you again”.Relief. Re-enter reality. Brain back in autopilot. Move on.
It is impossible to take in everything in one tour - these films are fiercely experimental. They take time in their construction and are not always the quickest to give up their meanings, if meanings they have. Went round twice. Second time with the note book. Themes crystalise a little. Pleasantly enthused, bemused, confused, I promise next day to attempt an analysis, to try and place Neuf in context and see if I could decode its secrets…
So, here it is.
First – art – the context. My duffer’s history in 200 words.
Pre modern age: role was to reflect:
1.       copy and record  things  

2.       glorify - heroes, myths, gods

3.       empathise with the human condition, for good or for bad.
Progressed from crude cave paintings to the classical age. Emphasis on structure and the spiritual, natural and man-made order of things. A looking outwards.
Post modern age: role is to detect 
1.       probe, question, challenge  

2.       aid self-understanding   

3.       describe what things might mean, now - if anything.
Began with Turner and the Impressionists. Emphasis on disorder and instability, the abstract versus the “real”, on the inner, hidden and less palatable workings of the mind, on insecurity and lack of order and tangible truths. Experimental, subconscious emphasis and poetic.  A looking inwards.
Five events combined to stimulate the shift from the old to new: political revolution and the collapse of the old order; the waning of organised and enforced religion; Freud and psychoanalysis; the increasing use of mind-altering drugs ( to heighten the artist’s distance from “reality”); the invention of the camera ( who needed realistic presentation if the camera could provide it?)

In diagrammatic terms the first age could be seen as the tip of the iceberg and the second what lay beneath. 

Now Neuf.
In French it means 9 but it also means new, in the sense generally of brand new. Neuf is certainly that. It takes us forward a stage in the artistic journey.
Individual artists and film makers reveal aspects of their (our?) subconscious via experimental and sometimes (literally) revolutionary film techniques. We float on streams of consciousness.
Actually wrote consciousmess first – the Freud in my keyboard.
Mess! Well, perhaps fortuitously that is the word.
The mind is not neat is the message. Life does not flow along straight lines. Reality is more about what we don’t care to admit than what we do. The respectable tip of the iceberg, in all its organisation and convention, is not reality. Just a useful fa├žade for reality. It is the role of the artist to unearth this deeper reality even if at the end the message is that there’s nothing there.
This is Neuf in action.
To say it, Neuf shakes us out of convention. A process of disorientation. Confuses us, messes us about. Out of the confusion comes re-assessment, that’s the aim.
Two things are needed for this disorientation: an idea and the execution of the idea.
Content plus form.
The main content characteristically consists of dream or trip-like sequences. Illogical, free-flowing, past and present merging and flitting about like a needle jumping over an old record.
The main executional technique is that of filmic distortion – the manipulation of imagery, the collaging of separated thought, the mish-mashing of the apparently unconnected, the “wrong” framing of shots, the shaky camera. The camera is at the core of course. Just as the Impressionists actually used the advent of photographic realism as an opportunity to go the other way, away from realism, Neuf uses distortion of film - the exact opposite of its original purpose - to dig and reveal. In some ways the pervading style is like a pair of distressed jeans - carefully fucked up at the factory, gloss-free. For what is gloss but the tip of the iceberg?
To add to the alienation effect, Neuf adds an extra dimension – space. The films are screened in a domestic environment often on bare walls via unpredictable projectors. The screen may be flock wallpaper, a reflection off a mirror, a picture frame, someone’s face. Many of the films are shot in the house so the viewer is simultaneously in one while watching the other.
There are a number of constants. Most of the films are journeys, whether in time, space or mind. One of the “simplest” and most powerful is O Clock (or is it 0 Clock?) by Susanne Jasilek. It’s a jerky journey through an album of family memories  - elusive half glances of tatty photographs, an eye here, a smile there, growing up growing old - smoothed over by the moody Bill Callahan soundtrack and the refrain I really am a Lucky Man. It’s happy-sad. Poignant. The camera is shaky throughout, apart from one scene that shows a mother holding a new born child, full frame and rock steady. It talks of life as a series of fleeting and half-remembered images held clear in a book but stuttering in the mind, propelled forward by time, interspersed with occasional moments of clarity. And when you join them up what do you get? The clock still ticks even if you don’t: you may as well think yourself lucky.
Tricia McCrae’s Drive Over also featured a journey. This the most obviously aesthetic of the films, beautifully crafted. It was shown on a flat screen (albeit out  in the garden)  so the senses were less confused by the projection technique. Began with some pacey, psychedelic footage of a train journey through England accompanied by Elgar’s cello concerto. We knew we were going somewhere but not sure where. Perhaps France as there was a wrong-way-round Renault logo in some of the later footage. No matter. Music changes, before we get Elgar again. A series of American soundbites from a Beckett play. What looks like amoeba or plants playing, some sort of rebirth. The definitive words: “There I am .That’s all.”
The “trippiest” of the films, it would make a decent short in a cinema and could do well on Youtube. A poetic stream of consciousness overlaid with an evocative soundtrack.  Stimulating. Yes. Meaning? Perhaps the blur of a personal journey (physical and emotional) from the security of Elgar and England, to rebirth in a new country, all the time overlaid with the nihilism of Beckett. Is it better to travel than arrive?
Steve Russell’s “everyone reveals nocturnal indicators eventually” (note the acrostic) works via juxtaposition. A story of self-revelation presumably through a dream, it’s less tricksy technically than the previous ones as it relies on contrast not visual effect. The essence of the film is a side by side comparison. A group of Italian strictly-come- street-dancers… and Ernie.
The contrast is striking.
We see the dancers. They are shot in 50s black and white news film footage, clear and undistressed. Their moves are complicated and impeccable. Plenty of stylised “horizontal sex”. They live in a world of ritual, where it is the done thing to dance in the street, as the local vendors look on. Its point is that organisation and structure pervade these people’s lives and has probably done so for centuries. Order has been imposed, the moves are agreed and known. It takes practice but it feels natural, and it’s the way it is.
The music track more or less fits the rhythm of the dance but it is clearly not their music.It is bassy and plodding and closer to what’s going on in Ernie’s head on the neighbouring screen.
Here we see the leaden-footed Ernie. The footage is home movie. He is in a cavernous space, a warehouse say. It is industrial, depersonalised. There is a veil or sheet suspended between Ernie and us. He prods and pokes at it as if wanting to get out from behind it, making tentative gropes into an apparently empty, outside world. We see Ernie break partially free but the veil is now on his head and he shuffles around, half blind. Meanwhile, next to him, the dancers dance in their closed world, the world that Ernie has dreamed of. Envies?
But Ernie has now broken free and blown up a big balloon. In it is his breath, his words. The music of the dancers gives way as Ernie holds the balloon by the neck  to play out his own tune. A long blast on a farty bassoon. He will not be joining the dancers.
Some artists/people are doomed to bleat in the wilderness, perhaps against their will, while conventional life dances on. The outsider. Poor Ernie.
Parlour Game by Sally Todd had the most advanced presentational technique - the projector was mounted on a turntable and the film moved round the room. This was not only good for the neck muscles: it had the effect of demanding close attention, but it was difficult to watch. It suggested that life is itself fast, elusive and often difficult to grasp: like it or not you can’t stop the world when you want to get off. (That said, it was a challenge to watch and I would like to see it again, projected straight).
This is one of the films that interspersed objects in the room in the film itself, adding to its complexity, but binding the viewer firmly into the action. Again it was about time passing, and to an extent progress, or rather lack of it. The central story comes via a sequence of photo-animation. A hand draws a window on the “wall” Through it we see a peacock, a farmyard fowl, a carrier pigeon - the old world of nature? The real world. These are replaced by a tranquil harbour scene; from where we begin or end some sort of journey. But the window is ultimately rubbed out and superseded by a TV screen showing a moronic 50s US game show. Is this what we have come to in the complicated world of flux in which we live - the replacement of the real window onto  life and nature, however difficult that reality might be  -  with the box, with its ersatz reality and easy inanity? Is life most comfortable when we deny its reality and replace it with a parlour game? What does it say about us? Bruce Forsyth take note.
Jacobs Biscuits by Helen Judge was one of two exhibits that, while filmic, could be used as a picture replacement in any living room, and why not? It’s a little light show that reminded me of a child’s mobile, its centre piece being a tin of Jacobs Biscuits, I would guess from the 60s. The original tin features a gondolier on his gondola, and was adorned with red roses and raffia-clad Chianti bottles  that were all the rage back then and made attractive candlestick holders if you were that way inclined. In this case though the roses and bottles have detached themselves from the tin and are floating in apparent 3D around the gondolier, himself punting languorously. It was technically an interesting piece (shot with a revolving camera), a quiet statement on how tastes and marketing change. Aesthetically gently beguiling, but as for meaning, this one’s a struggle…the world goes round, you row your boat, you get drunk, someone sends you flowers, you make up over a snack of Jacobs crackers. Perhaps. But I think this technique might have commercial possibilities most of the others don’t.   
The Art of Devotion looks to me to be potentially the commercial winner in all this. Projected in a picture frame is a series of still works made up only of lines. Often of great intricacy, these images show webs, spirals, waves, circles and grids as the artist tries to make connections and create beauty and order out of confusion. In musical terms many of these are in a distinctly minor key but they are interspersed with the major key of hope.
Lunch at Ernie’s House by Helena Greene again mixed the viewer into the action by showing the inside of Ernie’s house (where we of course were). This, combined with familiar footage of the local station and neighbourhood, made it the closest to a fly-on- the-wall treatment in the show. It was the presentation technique that was novel. The film was projected widescreen into the corner of a wall, approximately two thirds to the left and the remaining third to the right of the angle. The effect was that the left hand part was out of focus and speeded everything up while the right hand part played normally. The execution is again shakyish camera, and overlaying of images, slightly muffled speech – the build-up, the arrival, the kitchen, little lapses into Ernie’s college days, his books, his objects, his work place. Oddly we don’t see the lunch itself, just the ingredients. Is this the point, that life often appears a prelude to something that doesn’t appear to happen? Whatever, this was a slice of life made interesting by the projection technique itself.
Finally, Ernie and Anna Thinking Aloud. This was the most intense and longest of the exhibits, needing  deep concentration for 12 minutes. The idea of the film was simple: two writers writing aloud. Their hands are shown on separate but similar writing pads, then combined on top of each other. Reminiscent of MC Escher’s artwork of him drawing his own hand.
The sound track was the spoken words of each, what they were writing, complete with coughs, clicks, sighs and wheezes. For one who struggles more than Gerald Ford to do two things at once this was not easy to digest, two soliloquies alternating in one speech. Quite masterfully recorded, it  showed the different paces and intensity of thought between the two, the one fast, at times urgent, eager to get the words down, the other slower and more reflective, less intense. To the mixed image was added mixed voice. It required a significant act of concentration to follow - in a way I would have liked to have had a transcript - but was often rewarding as the artist or writer’s thoughts, and their personal journeys and places in the world, emerged.
On the one hand you were left with an interesting conclusion of things being both in and out of tune, perhaps unified by “the unconscious connections between each other’s work”. On the other by the resounding question in this piece and the exhibition as a whole: “Have we all just become players to this technological customisation of reality?”
What is reality?
And then I stumbled down the corridor and into it, into the warm embrace of the night.
What had I seen and felt?
The nothingness of the Emperor’s new clothes?
Or a cold glimpse of the hidden part of the iceberg?
Both. Neither?
This is what Neuf is all about.


Hugh Kellett  Cambridge Nov 2013


Monday, 14 October 2013

When the Tribe gets going the Individual stands no chance


Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy?


I have recently taken a short break from all this “commentary on advertising” stuff, and have spread the net a little wider with a view to seeing how humans behave in the real world as opposed to their reactions to the relative puffery of marketing communications. By way of a start, I review below  a book that I have recently had the pleasure of reading about the life and times of Sir Edgar Speyer by Antony Lentin - Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy?

It mirrored many of the elements of the underlying psychological theory of communication that I explore in this blog and on my web site at , in that it shows the full power of the tribe over the individual, prejudice over consideration, emotion over reason, nature over civilisation. And it shows, too, how, particularly in times of acute stress, the mob can be readily induced to frenzy and reduced to primeval brutality.
As in any good book, Lentin holds up the mirror to the reader: one reflection that might be glimpsed is that we are all, whether we care to admit it or not, part of that mob and unwittingly shackled to such behaviour, even if in times of peace and prosperity we manage, at least superficially, to rise above it. 
Before developing this, a word of introduction.
If you have not heard of Speyer you are by no means alone, for his name has all but been erased from history.
He was born in 1862 in the USA of German Jewish decent and worked in Germany in the family banking business until moving to this country and becoming by choice a naturalised British citizen at the age of 30. He was both immensely wealthy and  industriously innovative, financing a wide range of major infrastructure projects critical to Britain at the turn of the century, most notably the development of, indeed the saving of, the London Underground.
By contrast, he was also a noted patron of the musical arts, aesthete and philanthropist, pouring very large sums of money into amongst other things the Proms – the cradle of Land of Hope and Glory - and numerous charities. The book suggests this was done with a high degree of modesty, even anonymity - Lentin portrays him as being both a private and proud man - and is in stark contrast to the showier displays of public giving that we are more familiar with today.
He counted royalty, Prime Ministers and a range of eminent composers, including Elgar, Debussy and  Richard Strauss (who dedicated Salome “to my friend, Sir Edgar Speyer”),  not to mention the explorer Scott of the Antarctic (whose expedition he financed) amongst his close friends. His outstanding commercial and industrial vision, financial risk-taking and demonstrable achievements were clearly recognised by Britain and he was rewarded not only with a baronetcy but with membership of the Privy Council for services to his (adopted) country. It is fair to say that you couldn’t climb much higher on the ladder than Sir Edgar Speyer, neither in finance nor the arts. Not that he would necessarily have quite seen it as a ladder.   
The situation changes, however, the Wendepunkt occurs, with the outbreak of war, when tribal hostilities surface and the opportunity to create and settle scores presents itself; for it is the lot of mankind that we are programmed to seek security in both gods and scapegoats, the one to be worshipped and the other to be blamed, a lot that finds most obvious intensity in times of unease.
The charges against him ranged from outright treachery to “trading with the enemy”, but the basis for such charges, notwithstanding ambiguities that emerge in the narrative, seemed often to owe more to imagination than reality.
The rest of the story is a relentless stripping of Edgar Speyer - as Privy Councillor, as citizen, as man. Much as his enemies desired, they couldn’t in fact strip him of his baronetcy -as the BBC says “for legal reasons”- but, as the privy Councillor most hell-bent on his destruction -Sir Almeric Fitzroy - consoled himself, at least Speyer  had no sons to inherit it. That Speyer did not always present himself in the best possible light is not contested and he allowed himself to play into his enemies hands on many occasions where his own pride and occasional indiscretion perhaps took his brinkmanship too far. But this was in the face of an appalling witch-hunt, whipped up by various politicians, the judiciary and elements of the press, and subsequently by the nation as a whole, who seized upon the rather convenient ambiguity of his name (pronounced Spy-er) and his origins - which was “worse” German? (openly reviled) or Jew ? (more secretly reviled) - and it is in many ways not surprising that he sometimes failed to dignify certain allegations hurled at him by the Establishment with a response.
The final denouement sees him in exile back in the land of his birth, his contribution to Britain denied, his reputation reviled, even his daughters stripped of British nationality, despite having been born and bred in England. A case of the “sins” of the father being visited on the children in another major miscarriage of justice.
It’s a pretty good story, full of ambiguity, pathos and fatal flaws.
I came away thinking that the ingredients constituted a scenario almost too perfect not to be considered material for a stage play or film - a psychological drama or modern tragedy in the Shakespearean mould. Indeed, it seemed a case of history virtually writing its own screenplay.
The dramatis personae as follows:
Sir Edgar Speyer: German, Jew, naturalised Brit - a fatal, paradoxical, combustible triangle combining accident of birth and free choice - the change of tribal nationality - that would explode  in the right (wrong?) circumstances.
David Suchet

Sir Edgar Speyer
Were I to be the casting director of such a drama I would select David Suchet to be my lead.

His supporters:
The King, George V ( who, famously referring to his own German origins, offered himself for internment ahead of Speyer). Timothy West.
Speyer’s wife, herself a concert violinist, Keira Knightley or Cate Blanchett.
An assemblage of politicians, leading composers, conductors, playwrights and patrons of the arts including Churchill,  Asquith, George Bernard Shaw, Elgar, Grieg, Debussy and  Richard Strauss.
His enemies:

Other high ranking members of the Establishment tribe including politicians and press barons, often openly anti-Semitic, perhaps more understandably anti-German, including Horatio Bottomley (who demanded that naturalised Germans be made to wear a badge of recognition), Lord Northcliffe, magnate of the tabloid press of the day,  Noel Pemberton Billing MP, and the aforementioned Sir Almeric Fitzroy.
Readers can play casting director themselves on this, but I imagine Robert Hardy, Richard Chamberlain and possibly Colin Firth would fit the bill as supporters and Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall would be worthy candidates for enemies.
Below all this, the mob, frightened, confused, easily  led, needing to be assuaged, baying for the fall-guy.
As we head towards the centenary of WW1 I believe such a production would lie somewhere between Elizabeth and The Kings Speech and exceed both in tension and drama. It would be an opportunity to restore, or at least re-examine, a reputation that few knew had ever been lost, and provide a counterpoint to the flood of trenches and gasmarks to which we are no doubt going to be subjected.
This may be wishful thinking and the BBC and Hollywood may have other plans. At a more pragmatic level, Lentin suggests in the book that Speyer’s home address in central London be marked with a blue plaque. I might go further: that he be commemorated fully in a prominent station of the London Underground or, perhaps more appropriately still, in the Royal Albert Hall.



Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Political Football

The recent local elections have coincided with the end of the football season. There are interesting parallels to be drawn, as success in one is similar to success in the other.
The formula is as follows:
·         Charismatic manager
·         Good players
·         Money
·         Clear strategy
·         Game plan
Taking the manager first, five things are critical:
Does he/she have sufficient charisma?                                     
DC: Yes. NC: Did. EM: No. NF: Yes
Is this sufficient to appeal to a wide base?
DC: Yes-ish. NC: No. EM: No. NF: No-ish
Can he/she control the dressing room?                                    
DC: Just. NC: Yes-ish. EM: Yes. NF: Yes
Is there a clear, attractive message?                
DC: No. NC: No. EM: Yes. NF: Yes
Can he/she be considered a potential Prime Minister?       
                DC: Yes. NC: No. EM: Poss. NF: No
Now to the question of players.         
Cons: some on form at the top but an ageing Southern based squad
Lib Dem: good in local leagues. Own goals a problem. No strength on the bench
Labour: some proven scorers but Northern based and lack style/bezazz
UKIP: unknown
Cons: well backed but lost key sponsor
Lib Dem: underfunded
Labour: well backed but currently over-reliant on Union United 
single source
UKIP: big backers could follow
What does all this show and how might this affect game plans?
Traditional strategies have been to assume that, because the goal is in the centre that is the place to be, with attacks often starting down one of the two wings. How is this currently being played out?
Cons: emphasis on indecisive right winger moving inside too
Lib Dem: a lot of dribbling, mainly in the centre of the park
Labour: emphasis on left winger moving inside too much, accompanied by traditional long heavy hoof upfield from the back. Lacking in panache ( cf TB and his Cool Britannia approach)
UKIP: decent wing play but haven’t yet found the net.
As can be seen, no side currently uses both wingers, making for an over-predictable game that is too easy to read, and bored ( younger) spectators.
Conclusions and recommendations:
No current side has the successful formula. Their tactics are either bogged down in the middle or are too predictable in terms of wing play. The aforementioned TB was the last to have the magic combination, possessing all the necessary managerial characteristics and playing successfully from both wings. If DC and his side are to survive another season he might do well to play a crowd pleasing combination of right and left wingers, but needs to be more careful in their selection. It is probable that he has left this too late as things stand, and a sell-out of Lib Dem Wanderers to Labour City looks almost certain.
The interesting one on the subs bench is obviously BJ, who has the egregious knack of being right and left simultaneously. He has all the essentials in place and may be the Special One. How long before the owners of Conservative United look to change their manager?

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Landrover scrubbing along but Dacia Duster should clean up


Let me start with an aside.

One of the things that I've noticed since starting this blog reviewing advertising is that good news ( ie when the review is favourable) whistles round the stakeholders' networks, whilst bad news is buried. Strange that.

Anyhow,a couple of car ads with  "cryptic" themes spotted last weekend. Landrover and Dacia.

First up Landrover.

Difficult for us Brits not to like this brand given its crucial role in our recent history.(Churchill's original is up for auction with a reserve of £60,000). 

So anyone working on this account has a built in advantage of the "benefit of the doubt" if the creative work gets slightly stuck in a rut.

This ad ran in the Telegraph magazine on 11 August.It is advertising a chance to "take the millionth Discovery 8000 miles to Beijing, across 13 countries and only 50 days to do it." In addition, we discover that the Red Cross and Red Crescent will benefit to the tune of £1m.
We are then referred to a web site to find out more.The ad is made up visually of a series of (evocative but rather dated 35 mm) film clips showing a Disco on various roads and conditions between here and the Orient, interspersed with road signs that spell out a cryptic message of "discovery" for those who get that far.

As a cryptic crossword fan I really, really wanted to commend this ad.
As a believer in Landrover,ditto.
But as a marketeer I can't. Because the ad is unlikely to work. (And there is a far simpler ad that will work far better, which will come later).
This is not because the ad is unattractive. It isn't. It's not over-original, but it is really rather beautiful. And quite clever. And arty.
It's because the ad has got caught up in someone's conceit, the result of which means we have a piece of indulgence rather than efficacy: art possibly, accountability no.
How it happens goes something like this.Someone, either the agency or the client comes up with what is essentially a promotional idea to plug the 1 millionth Discovery.
The agency creative team, who should actually knock out in 10 minutes a simple ad based on this premise, see an opportunity: (Their names have been changed to protect the guilty).
Gav: Ever been to Beijing Ed?
Ed: No I haven't Gav? Why you ask?
Gav:Fancy about six months out of the agency on a shoot for the new Discovery?
Ed: Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back?
The ad shown above slowly takes shape. The Landrover client is then shown the draft for the ad and brought into the plot to ensure it's actually made. ( Ed and Gav:"Why don't you come with us?" Client (who is paying): "Er...thanks don't mind if I do") and the caravan to the mystic Orient is ready to rock and roll.
The point of this is that the creative process involved is not only partly personal opportunism but often loses its way by becoming indulgently introspective and self serving. It does not take into account the way the punter actually receives advertising, how his brain is wired and how much work he is prepared to do to engage with an ad.

This ad looks inwards when it should be thrusting outwards. And for this reason it will be largely ignored.
More importantly, ads like this that deliberately attempt to conceal their message need to have such a major sense of satisfaction when the mystery is finally solved that the benefit of a smallish group of happy solvers outweighs the masses who never felt the urge to engage.The satisfaction in "solving" this ad is unlikely to reverberate around the dinner parties of Esher.
The ad lacks an entry point or hook that might conceivably have saved it.This entry point might for instance have been a (conventional) headline, based on The Challenge, that could somehow contextualise the visual element and encourage readers to solve the clue.
It would be hooking people in rather than "hoping" them in.
What we have in reality are the words in small print "Been anywhere interesting lately?" at the top right ( is this meant to be a headline or a slogan?) and the meat of the offer in even smaller print at the bottom. Both instantly missable.
Correctly conceived, the hooking would be based on some benefit to the punter that appealed to his status, his ambition, his wanderlust, whichever of the psychological drivers one cares to chose. But it has to be overt, visceral and instant or else the page is quickly turned. If the message is over- intellectual, over-subtle, it is easily ignored. ( In addition, although double page spreads look pretty and have undoubted impact potential in the right hands, they are also very easy for punters to turn over.)
Because of this, this ad is a William Morris: pretty, expensive wallpaper.
The ad they should have run would simply feature the car (biggish) and the promotional message (bigger), written in a way that appealed to a sense of urgency, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something that could change your life. It would be based on the idea of what the reader might lose by ignoring the ad as much as by what he would gain by reading it.
And then the ad will "work".

If interested, this and a general framework for deciding what will and what won't work is set out at
Next up it's Dacia on the grid.
The overall campaign for the Duster is strong, not just for its clarity and clean simplicity, but because it correctly judges the mood. It gently insists, via a low price focus, that folk interested in 4x4s would be missing out if they do not pay attention to this new entry. Here's an example of the campaign so far:

They do this in a smart and slightly low-keyed way, using the psychology of price (without any other obvious and potentially cliched imagery) and combine it with messages of efficiency, transparency and general 21st centuriness ( you can buy this car at a dealer or online, for instance).This means the brand comes across as smart not cheap.
This concentration on price and accessibility prevents any form of  distracting artifice being introduced into the brand and it comes across as authentic.
And, while the imagery appears modest - in that we only ever see the product - the overall effect is a result of Dacia understanding exactly the position of its product in the continuum of 4x4s: why me, why now?
( Compare this for instance with VW's Touareg, which has failed to create any traction, by failing to answer that question or understand that it exists.)

Dacia have delivered a proposition with a compellingly high degree of purity about it, with a lot of white space and none of the slightly breathless claustrophia that can creep into the visual expression of other more brashly art-directed car brands.
White space = absence. Absence = freedom, something the luxury brands of this world understand world to good advantage. Yet this is a price brand playing that game. Smart.
The campaign shows you don't need mud and mountains if the central emotional proposition is strongly conceived. And even though this campaign  won't trouble the Awards jury in the way the Landrover work might, I know which approach I'd be happier with, both as agency and client.
So much for the campaign as a whole. Then this happens...
This ad for the Duster appeared in the Telegraph on Saturday, right next to the cryptic crossword.

Its position there is important.It is meant to get crossword solvers involved. It's an old idea ( no harm in that) and we play along with the game a bit as we know what the answer to the clue is going to be, but...and here's the  quibble...Why is there no cryptic clue?
Just as Landrover were over-cryptic when they should have been clear, Dacia has been under-cryptic when they should have been covert.It is lazy writing.
It's not the end of the world. Just a small opportunity missed.
For future running of this ad, can I therefore suggest that a headline clue such as: A car studied, rebuilt, gives a no nonsense SUV ( 5,6) might be more what's required if Dacia wish to deliver an extra soupcon of relevance and engagement to their otherwise strong effort. 
Why not do a clue writing contest with a Dacia as prize?
The extra PR/viral interest achieved could be high.
You do the maths, as they say at Dacia.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

P&G. Will this gamble work?


Only a day to go. My penultimate pre Olympic post is about P&G's, Proud Sponsors of Mums campaign (or Moms in the original US). This is their global branding for the event.

Much of this is well conceived, in that it is emotionally based. So that's good.There is a  fundamental if axiomatic insight, that the competitors are all children of some mother. This is at the core of the campaign, a relationship that is of potentially enormous significance, not just at the time of winning, but also during the time of early awareness of the child's potential, its upbringing and through the dark days of constant training.(You famously see this relationship at first hand when you watch the tight lipped Mrs Murray at Wimbledon).So that's good too.

It is well shot series, perhaps over-sentimentalised even by American schmaltz standards: they find it difficult to move beyond Fame or the Spielberg style of direction, and never quite get the John Lewis factor, but this may be a quibble.
It is also good that they have tried to find a creatively consistent theme that builds beyond the reality of track and field and takes us into family and feelings.
Many other brands that I have written about, eg Omega watches, have created such obvious "Olympic" ads that they blend into each other and merge with the broadcasters' own material.Thus the branding is lost and the money goes down the gurgler.
The irony in these instances is that at the time of creating these wasteful commercials (say 6-9 months ago) they might have appeared exciting and uplifting to the companies creating them, and the research companies testing them. They might even have researched quite well. But they would have been researched in the pre-Olympic environment before people had been exposed to all the other identikit ads.So a good research result then will almost certainly result in a poor commercial result when it's all over. This might be borne in mind by marketeers when the next big bonanza comes their way - project yourself into what other people ( inc broadcsters) are likely to do and avoid it.

(It is understandable, possibly even slightly commendable, that the loopy spin-mistress Siobhan in Twenty Twelve tries to promote the women's football team by specifically not mentioning either women or football, because she is aware of the overload already built up).

So P&G have cleverly sidestepped the first trap and set their own agenda. The campaign is also a fairly major departure for a company who have generally made their money on before-and-after, or comparison style ads, that use reason as the key selling platform: we took this half of  a meerkat, washed it in X and then compared it with the other half washed in Z.

Finally, of course, Proud Sponsors of Mums, as a campaign, is a logistical challenge of mind boggling proportions as P&G weave a plethora of their global brands through the campaign, in most of the 100 countries they operate in.

Creatively, then, this is new territory.

Is it wise territory? Will the departure pay off?
Given what I suggest in about the positive effect of emotionally based advertising approaches, I cannot but endorse the overall intention of the P&G campaign even if the saccharin aftertaste is strong. This is not to say that  an emotionally based route is per se self-justifying. It will only work if the background strategy is based on a truth that fits the overall brand or corporate need going forward, resonates with the target, is well branded and has direction associated with leadership into the future.What it asks people to believe and do as a result is the bit that matters.
This allows a few queries,quibbles and observations to be ventured. No more than that.
The campaign marks the first step into a corporate branding approach for P&G: up until now, it has generally, quite rightly, kept its corporate credentials obscured from view, in favour of its individual brand names. It has kept its bog cleaners and batteries apart.
If you make Pampers as well as Max Factor, and Tampax as well as Oral B this is wise so that people don't confuse which goes where.

The imagery of each brand has hitherto been marketed in a discrete, not corporate, manner. Indeed, most consumers would not know which brands P&G make and might be rather miffed if they did, preferring to revel in the image of say Vidal Sassoon shampoo as a stand alone entity rather than knowing it came out of some factory in NW England courtesy of  a monolith that also churns out Silvikrin next door.
Corporate brands like L'Oreal can leverage their corporate strength to consumers because they only make one group of products, all of which have the same emotional flavour. And this is in the glamour rather than the bog cleaning department. By unifying their disparate brands under one flag, might P&G risk a revelation that may back fire on them? It's just a question.
The theme, and its wording, are also worthy of quibble.

Whatever else P&G are they are not sponsors of Mums.
The idea of sponsorship is that the sponsor pays the sponsee; but the reality in the day to day relationship, aka when you go shopping, is that Mums pay P&G. Supporters of Mums might be nearer the truth but then it would not have quite the Olympic ring desired. It's a quibble but quite an important one.

(It is true that P&G are doing something on the ground at the Olympics to provide free hospitality/shelter/water for the mothers (and fathers?) of competitors but this is not what their ads are about).
To sum up, my conjecture is that this has strong elements to like, but  that  Marketing might have over-ridden Sense in some areas on this one. And that in the interests of manageablity a certain line has been crossed that may turn out to be pointless.

That line is the difference between a brand and a company.
Someone at High Command Cincinnati in 2005 just could not resist committing to a 7 year programme that would "put the company on the global stage like never before" ( I can imagine hearing some such words from the Chief  Marketing  Officer). Nice 7 year job if you can get it.
By creating a campaign linking it all back to P&G the thing became manageable, but I am not convinced it meant it became commercial. Or, word of the moment, sustainable: are we increasingly to see more P&G branding of pack?

Will people be searching for the magic logo before buying their batteries?
Will Mums be the main target from now on in?
Will men be out of the running?

My guess on all four would be no.
And that the campaign was (just) a major tactical exercise, of no real lasting value consumer-wise.
Because, when it comes to it, P&G punters buy the individual brand not the company. Someone simply blinked when the sponsorship deals for 2012 came round this time round ( P&G did not get involved majorly in Bejing) and that set the fuse alight.
Where this campaign might work strongest is both at staff and at trade levels.Internal love-ins will have convinced P&G employees that they work for a great global philanthropist.
Further, if you're P&G you are constantly seeing your profits chipped away by supermarket and own label products. If you can reverse this by saying words to the effect of  "this family makes better stuff than any one, whether it's bog cleaners or batteries", you may be able to hold back the wall of own label at a trade level, where the corporate brand does have some sway.
But it is unlikely to be a great stimulant to the consumer.
Er, I mean Mums.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

UPS Good delivery


In the series of Olympic ad reviews, the global logistic and delivery company UPS is next on the blocks. Their role in the Games is to be officially in charge of Deliveries, and they will have paid a handsome sum for this, many times greater than the value of deliveries they will be making. Have they wasted their money?

If you haven't seen their ad here it is:

This whole sponsorship seems right and quietly relevant.
UPS have managed to continue their approach of making delivering packages ( aka logistics) seem glam and professional. And at the same time, subtly calling into question the credibility of the hordes of lesser brands and white van men who compete with them, and who, by implication, perform on a lesser stage.
This ad has got it right too.
It's got the balance between its sponsorship and its ad message right. This means that the service it is offering to the Games a) makes sense and b) fits well with the reality of its day to day business: it has not had to try too hard to get them to coalesce.( Many brands in my previous reviews have struggled to see how to make their sponsorship deal relevant or differentiated).
It's got the overall strategy right: to be simultaneously big and small, global and local, professional but personal.

It's also got the tone right : it feels service orientated, understanding, approachable, inclusive.
It's got the "sponsorship symbiosis" balance in its favour. What I mean by that is that UPS has a clear image advantage in its favour via its association with the Games: this is not always the case with larger or more "famous" global brands for whom the additional kudos is far less tangible than they had originally imagined.In this context, because it has executed it well, UPS gets loads of positive borrowed interest from the Olympics and makes this work for their brand. ( If interested see the BP and Omega blogs below for how to get this balance working against you).
Further, this ad has many of the right ingredients to work.It's been conceived and built properly.


Within the solidity of the overall approach, UPS has neatly chosen key ingredients that are likely to result in success (and are detailed as a working blueprint at if you're interested). Whether they have done this knowingly or by luck is a matter of conjecture, but this ad is well designed.

As an aside, readers may be familiar with the BBC's hilarious Twenty Twelve. Perhaps not so well known is the fact that this is pretty much how it is in reality: in particular, the ad agency/PR portrayal is not over fanciful - clients are daily fed questionable rubbish, cooked up without design, on a whim, by amateurs. What such organisations tend to lack is a rigorous results orientated process to create and judge their own work. A suggestion for such a framework, and the necessary ingredients, is set out at Cambridge Comms if you're interested.
Of the ingredients I look at in detail, the key one UPS have chosen is Strong tribal leader message.
At Cambridge Comms I suggest that much human behaviour is based on auto responses, quite primitive sub conscious promptings, many of which are the result of an involuntary desire to belong to a group ( a tribe). Ads that show a range of people reacting positively to something have a built in advantage from the start as the message of mutual security in the tribe, and trust in the tribal leader, comes across.
In a recent survey of brands, the "generic cheddar" Cathedral City came high at No 13 in the list of the nation's favourites , and many commentators were falling over themselves to be surprised by this.

But Cathedral City has always based its approach on national popularity, and, by pitching itself as the nation's favourite, and showing a semi-romantic view of  families and individuals across the country tucking in from dawn to dusk, by showing family relevance and nostalgia, it has successfully created a movement that inveigles people in via the inherent perception of popularity: if everyone is doing it I will too. This is how the Olympic torch phenomenon works too (see my previous blog post). Cathedral City also got a number of other key building blocks right including naming, the use of specific colours, and parchment wrapping, all of which helped provide substance and natural "continuum".

There will invariably be more people willing to follow this sort of Pied Piper message than those (arguably with "minds of their own") who prefer to pursue their own course, and  that's why this approach works in so many cases.
Halifax, with their singing choir, have over the last 10 years or so built their brand around this foundation. Ditto Coke and BA.                                

UPS's choice of a range of different enterprises from sport to theatre, from hi-tech to bespoke tailoring, not only shows the constituent parts of the tribe, but also allow UPS to bask in the reflected glory of those constituents: will UPS be seen as a higher tech or more creative company in the future? Will UPS be seen as a company that's creative and  plays fair? Yes, subtly, on all counts.
Presumably, too, the featured tribal members ( the customers shown) are also those companies who are targets for UPS, customer sectors where they are currently light. It's part of the design.
Note, none of the above refers to creative egregiousness in any way.This ad is not going to win any creative awards ( except possibly within the logistics industry itself), but this will not diminish its power to work in the real world.

Of course, a true creative breakthrough, combined with the design ingredients shown above, makes for an even better final product, but too many "creative breakthroughs" fail because they are not grounded in what will work. In such cases the creative world may win, but the commercial world ( the advertising client who is paying) loses.
There are rare exceptions, but these need to be entered into knowingly: and some ads are meant simply to be art and the ad replaces the product story completely.(Benneton in the 80s was a good and rare example).
To conclude.When the post mortem comes after the Games, and the winners and losers in the casino of sponsorship are decided, how will UPS fare?
In image and relevance terms I  believe it's on a certain win. Its advertising should talk to the FD as much as the despatch manager, and to big and small businesses alike. Its brand image is likely to be enhanced as much to current and future customers as to current and  future employees ( so it is actually a decent recruitment ad too).
So, as far as image is concerned, the only way is up.
Prove this on the ground UPS, via meticulous professionalism and punctuality, avoid a GS4 style cock up and try not to lose the Polish long jumpers's jock strap and you can expect a podium finish.