Spring

The leaves are grown,
Green again.
And come the Autumn,
They will brown
And fly towards
The beckoning ground
While talking Summer
And learning Winter.

Steve Coxon, April 2010

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The Sales Argument

A couple of months ago, I registered our home phone number with the Telephone Preference Service. Basically, this means that companies who use cold-call telesales and telemarketing techniques are not allowed to call you. It’s simple and it works.

So, when telecoms company Talk Talk called me and wanted to speak to me about my telephone account, I pointed out that – as they should have known – my number is off-limits to them.

Their response: they were calling because there had been “a visit” to the (Talk Talk) website.

They weren’t calling to let me know about the “visit” because they were so excited about it. No, according to Talk Talk, I had gone to their website and filled in some type of request for them to phone me. 

Theirs must be a really special site. Because, to the very best of my recollection and knowledge, I have never ever visited the Talk Talk website. Never. Ever.

But, despite this, they tried to argue that I must have contacted them. Even though I hadn’t.

In fact, they argued with me that I was wrong and they were right. There had definitely been “a visit” to the website.

Of course, I wouldn’t possibly suggest that perhaps someone paid “a visit” to the Talk Talk website on my behalf and without my permission. I know that it wasn’t my fiancee. Melinda, like me, has also never, ever visited the Talk Talk website.

Whoever it was who came up with the dumb idea of circumventing the Telephone Preference Service by forcibly introducing me to Talk Talk via “a visit” to their website – and, naturally, I am assuming here that it couldn’t possibly be Talk Talk themselves – is going to be disappointed with the result.

If Talk Talk ever make another unsolicited sales call to me again, I’ll start by reporting Talk Talk to the Telephone Preference Service. In the meantime, I’ll tell everyone I know what I think about the company. Starting with you.

And what I think is this: any company that is so incredibly desperate to make a sale by starting their sales argument with an actual argument is probably best avoided. Talk Talk’s sales tactics stink and in my view, by association, so does the whole company.

“Advertising not rocket science” shock

I know next to bugger all about some American bloke called Bob Hoffman. Which is fine as he almost certainly knows absolutely nothing about me.

The little I do know is that he writes a blog called The Ad Contrarian.

Now, if you want to strip away all the rubbish that gets spewed in the ad business and find out what it’s really all about, you could do a lot worse than starting there.

Brilliant.

Choreography

When I went to London recently for a Friday business meeting, Melinda and I decided to extend the stay and make a weekend of it.

Our plans included a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms and walking a labyrinth.

The Cabinet War Rooms is an underground complex of reinforced basements and offices that acted as the nerve centre of the British Government during WW2. This remarkably small space  is a couple of flights of stairs below what in 1939 was the Office of Works and the Board of Trade – just off Whitehall. It is frugal, cheaply decorated, and purely functional. No expense was wasted on decoration or aesthetics. Everything and everyone that came into this space shared a single, specific purpose.

When Churchill first saw it, he recognised that purpose, saying: “This is the room from which I will lead the war.” And he did. Around him, were assembled typists, maps (bought off the shelf from general stationers, not created by military cartographers), telephones, offices and bedrooms for his chief advisers. A head office, in other words, from where the activities and fates of millions upon millions of people could be choreographed.

Map Room Officers at work in the Cabinet War Rooms. The Royal Air Force officer sitting at the end of the table has been identified as Wing Commander John Heagerty. Copyright: Imperial War Museum

It is an extraordinary and raw example of the power of organisation. I’d recommend a visit to anyone who wants to see at first hand the nuts and bolts of how any group of people can be led in a dance that has no set moves and no predictable end.

That afternoon, Melinda and I took a bus up to Hamspstead Heath to walk a labyrinth. Now, a labyrinth should not be confused with a maze. While a maze is designed to test your abilities to choose the correct path from among many options, a labyrinth has just one route in and out from its centre.

The labyrinth we were to walk is an exact copy of the famous one at Chartres Cathedral. This particular design was created during the time of the crusades, when it was difficult for Christian pilgrims to go to Jerusalem. Instead, walking the labyrinth was regarded as being akin to making the pilgrimage. The design, however, predates Christianity and is thought to have been used as an aid to meditation and prayer for thousands of years.

Our Hampstead labyrinth – although of the same dimensions and design as Chartres – was slightly less ancient and certainly less durable. It was printed onto canvas and spread across the floor of the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel.

Danielle Wilson

We were under the guidance of Danielle Wilson, who explains her personal ‘interfaith’ credo on her website: “I see interfaith as rising above all faiths and subscribing to none, all the while honouring the beauty and wisdom deriving from other faiths.”

Melinda had walked a labyrinth before. For me, it was a first experience and I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that I wanted to keep my mind and my soul as open as possible to the potential of this tool that had been used by spritual people for millennia.

You enter the labyrinth at a time you choose. You walk at a pace that is comfortable for you. And, while you walk, you let your mind focus on anything or nothing. The very act of following a path that winds and wanders, meandering towards the central core liberates your mind from having to think about the mundanity of choosing where to walk.

The Labyrinth

So how was it for me? I wasn’t prepared for the sheer physical power of the experience. I could feel my heart pounding and I became profoundly aware of each breath as I walked, my eyes focused on the path.

I was also very aware of other people who were following the same path, but in their own way and with their own thoughts. The path became our choreographer as it led us on a spiritual dance of our own making. Some people stayed in the centre to sit and meditate, but I didn’t. There were too many people there and too little space to breathe freely. So I carried on along the path. And all the time I was aware not only that I was part of the informal dance that was going on around me, but also that I was separate and individual.

On Monday morning it was time to return home. Before we left, Melinda wanted to buy a particular weight and texture of paper that she had spotted in an art supplies shop in SoHo. While she did that, I went to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. This is one of those cheesy tourist attractions that stinks of pageantry, history and tradition. It’s sneered at by many, adored by many more.

I’d never seen it, so I took my camera and joined the throngs around the railings of the palace. The changing of the guard is, quite simply, the point at which one set of sentries is replaced by another. In some ways, it is purely an administrative procedure – a bit of military housekeeping. But, in other ways, the choreography of the event is is much more powerful.

Changing the Guard

These guards are dressed in uniforms that go back a couple of centuries. Their high bearkskin hats, their greatcoats, their drill are all designed to make each soldier look much like the other. The message is simple: the faces and the bodies of the soldiers may change, but the guard is constant.

Arms are shouldered and presented. Ranks are formed and straightened. Officers and colour bearers march from side to side of the palace in a measured pace. The bands play.

In the meantime, thousands of cameras take pictures that will be smiled at across the world. Yet, these young men and women are not here just for show. These are faces you will see in desert camouflage, on your TV, in the dust of Afghanistan. These are real soldiers who, away from the tourist cameras, take part in much more deadly manoeuvres.

All of which brought me full circle back to the Cabinet War Rooms and the thought that all our lives are choregraphed in some way. But, ultimately, it is we who choose whether or not – and how – we take part in the dance.

Creativity in advertising

Cogent is an advertising agency that has been around since the 1930s. So they’ve seen recessions come and go. It was interesting, then, to see their current creative director Richard Payne’s take on what it takes to apply creativity successfully these days.

He talks a lot of sense and echoes my own views. Great ideas should be able to work across media and be independent of the size of the budget. Just as importantly, creatives should always remember what their role is: to use their creative skills to sell the client’s products and services. Awards and gongs are nice and glittery, but they’re not the aim of the job. If you want your creative genius to be recognised for itself, write a book, make a film, make a painting, carve a statue or create a play.

It will be interesting, in this context, to see what Manchester-based BJL do with their recently announced Art in Advertising exhibition, which is due to open at The Lowry gallery in Salford Quays on 25th January 2010.

Art in Advertising photo from The Lowry website

Trading Local pics

This set of pics uploaded by Exeter Northcott on flickr gives a flavour of the event.

Not All There

Here’s the piece I wrote recently for Trading Local – a series of monologues delivered by professional actors in shops in Exeter’s Sidwell Street. Actor Eli Thorne did a great job of interpreting my script in a way which was a little subtler than the voice I had in my head when I was writing it.

The Trading Local exercise was organised jointly by Exeter Northcott Theatre and Show of Strength of Bristol.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Each actor performed a number of monologues – reading from a script – in 15 different shops, with each monologue receiving up to three performances. A total of 47 performances on the day.

One of the questions I kept being asked was what I thought of the way the piece was presented; didn’t it worry me to simply hand it over to someone else with no power over how it would be interpreted?

The simple answer is that it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, part of the joy of creating something like this is the handing over. You give the words to someone else and they add their own perception to it. I saw my character as a little edgier and harder than the way Eli interpreted him. But, in truth, Eli’s take had much more depth and was more realistic than the voice I heard as I wrote the words. I love that process of discovery, of finding things that you never knew you had built in to something you have created.

Melinda and I managed to catch virtually all of the other monologues on the day, with three standing out for me. After Hours by Margaret Murphy was told from the point of view of a chair in a furniture shop and let us into the discussions that the various bits of furniture have with each other after the shop is closed. Quick as a Flash by Ben Cannon was a great insight into the life of a wedding photographer who lived vicariously,taking photos of the special moments in other peoples lives without having any of her own. And the superb The Philosopher Barber by Belinda Dixon followed a theme similar to my own. I don’t know how the other writers reacted to the way in which their pieces were interpreted, but I hope they enjoyed it.

Trading Local is a great idea which I know Show of Strength hope to expand into other communities in the future. If they do – and you get a chance to take part or to see it – it comes highly recommended.

A slightly shorter version (cut-down titles) is also available on YouTube.