Friday, May 19, 2017

Putting Life Onstage, but Bigger

Broadway is a blast. From the frothy tour de force of Bette Midler in "Hello Dolly" to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop historical “Hamilton” to the wrenching heartache of Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” Broadway stretches the heart and head in every direction. Broadway is a feast for the ears and the eyes. There is an instructive interview in Backstage by Casey Mink with Tony-nominated scenic designer David Korins (“Hamilton”) about visual storytelling. Korins has currently conjured the glamorous world of makeup mavens Helena Rubenstein and Elizbeth Arden in Broadway’s “War Paint,” starring stage legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Here are insights into the creative world of the set designer:

Putting life onstage—but bigger
“Set design is a master class in humanity and in psychology. Some advice [for getting into set design] is see as many pieces of theater as you can, read as many books as you can, see as many movies, and watch as many television shows as you can. Immerse yourself in culture in general. What we do is put life onstage, but bigger. To become a designer is to become a consummate and professional storyteller. I think the people who tell the stories best are the ones who listen to stories the best.”

Scenic designers are credited with everything but the actors

“If you ripped the ceiling off of the theater and dumped the building upside down, everything that falls out that isn’t an actor is the work that I make. I create the environment for a show or an experience and I sort of conjure up the entire world.”

Collaboration with actors is give and take

“I welcome collaboration with performers. It’s such an interesting conversation to have when someone says, ‘I know why you chose this lamp, but here’s why it throws me off.’ I might push back, [but] that give and take is where the magic of theatricality happens. There might be a tiny detail on the back of a phone or something only the actor sees, but that detail does inform their performance, and the audience feels it.”

Actors get to know the set better than the designer
“Inevitably, I throw a dart at the dartboard a year before we build this thing, and then on the first day of rehearsal I say to [the actors], ‘Here’s what I did,’ and they have to bend their performances around the physical space I’ve created. The nuances and the ‘eyelashes,’ as opposed to the ‘jawbones,’ are things they’re in control of. I’m happy to have them be in control, because by the end of the experience, they will know so much more about the physical space than I ever will…. Probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten in this business is someone saying to me, ‘When I walk onto your stage, I don’t need to do any character development work because I know exactly who I am and who I’m playing.’ ”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Brief Book, Big Message

ROI – Return on Investment – is one of the epic idea-killers in the corporate playbook. Initiatives to engage in pure research, and creativity for the sake of it, usually get quashed at the starting gate by the ‘Abominable No Man.’ In my early years of leading Saatchi & Saatchi I asked a searching question “What comes after brands?” I didn’t ask for a business plan, a delivery timetable, or an implementation matrix. I just wrote a check, and another one, and another…the result was Lovemarks and it was a sustaining idea for the company for several years.

“The Usefulness of Useful Knowledge” is a small book with a big message by Robbert Dijkgraaf, a mathematical physicist who specializes on string theory. He is Director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, established in 1930 with Albert Einstein as one of its first professors. The first half of the book comprises an essay by Dikjgraaf, followed by the 1939 essay “The Usefulness of Useful Knowledge” by the IAS’s founding director Abraham Flexner. Both essays are passionate and powerful advocacies for the unobstructed search for “answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for application.” Such a source “often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary breakthroughs. In short, no quantum mechanics, no computer chips.” Some choice quotes from Dikjgraff’s essay:

“In the early twentieth century study of the atom and the development of quantum mechanics were seen as a theoretical playground for a handful of often remarkably young physicists with little immediate consequences. The birth of quantum physics was long and painful. However, without quantum theory, we wouldn’t understand the nature of any material, including its color, texture, and chemical and nuclear properties. These days, in a world totally dependent on microprocessors, lasers and nanotechnology, it has been estimated that 30 percent of the U.S. gross national product is based on inventions made possible by quantum mechanics.”

“The life sciences provide perhaps the richest source of powerful practical implications of fundamental discoveries. One of the least known success stories in human history is how over the past two and a half centuries advances in medicine and hygiene have tripled life expectancy in the West…We should never forget that these groundbreaking discoveries, with their immense consequences for health and diseases, were products of addressing deep basic questions about living systems, without any thoughts of immediate applications.”

“There is a famous, but most likely apocryphal, anecdote that when William Gladstone, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, visited the laboratory of Faraday in the 1850s and inquired what practical good his experiments in electricity would bring the nation, Faraday answered, “One day, Sir, you may tax it.” The equations were never patented, but it is hard to think of any human endeavor that doesn’t make use of electricity or wireless communication. Over a century and a half, almost all aspects of our lives have literally been electrified.”

“The Usefulness of Useful Knowledge” is a call for courage: for leaders, investors, financiers, government ministers and policy-makes…to just write the check.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

American Gods Shines, Sparks

Is this the edgiest show on television? From the award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman of the same title, American Gods follows the story of a war brewing between old and new Gods: the traditional gods of mythological roots from around the world, steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs. Its protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr. Wednesday, a conman but in reality one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.

American Gods is produced by FreemantleMedia, the global creative content network with operations in 31 countries, producing over 11,000 hours of programming a year, rolling out more than 60 formats and airing more than 420 programmes a year worldwide. I’ve been working with FreemantleMedia on their inspirational leadership, high level purposing, and peak performance.

Two weeks ago American Gods premiered on Starz and Amazon Prime Video. The reactions and reviews from fans and critics alike have been absolutely incredible. But Gods hasn’t just been a massive critical hit. “Audacious,” wrote The New York Times. “Beneath the extraordinary imagery is a story about the power and evolution of faith, and of immigrants who helped to build and define American culture, only to see said culture turn against them.” The LA Times: “The result is a wonderfully eclectic mix of gory bloodlust and fairy whimsy, ethereal beauty and tenement apartment realism…In a media landscape littered with real-life villains and fictional superheroes, everyone could use a little godly intervention.”

Over five million multiplatform viewers to-date have tuned in to watch the show on Starz in the US, making it their highest-rated launch show of the season. At the same time, viewers in over 200 territories have been enjoying the show on Amazon. Starz has moved swiftly to order a second season.

Talk about peak performance. FremantleMedia just had a remarkable week. A weekend ago five of their shows dominated ITV’s ratings in the UK. And they have just announced the return of American Idol. (Bravo Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO and Expert Ninja)

I’ve written before on KRConnect about how television is the most compelling and engaging medium in the content landscape. It’s an intensely collaborative genre and every element of the ensemble cast, production crew, executives and presenting networks need to be working on the same dream, the same script, and same language. Neil Gaiman and Gods writers and showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have imbued the FreemantleMedia platform with an epic theme of the worlds and wars of gods, and in doing so have evolved the art form of television narratively, structurally and graphically.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Winning Attitudes at Lancaster MBA

For several years I have been coaching MBA students at the Lancaster University Management School, ranked in the UK's top ten and among the world's top 50 business schools.

This year, I’ve hosted three leadership coaching sessions at the school, working with MBA students to share my experience and prepare them for the unpredictable. Robert Klecha, writer for Business Because (the network for the B-school world), interviewed me this week on the coaching series. His fine article appears here, my interview responses are below.


1. What is the goal of your lecture series?

To help Lancaster’s MBA cohort become Inspirational Leaders, equipped to win in our crazy world.

2. Why did you decide on Lancaster for your series?

I was born in Lancaster. I am a Lancastrian. I believe LUMS has an excellent programme and Peter Lenney’s Mindful Manager Focus provides the perfect context for my Inspirational Leadership programme.

3. As a successful CEO without an MBA, how valuable do you think the MBA skill set is for those looking to take a leading role today?

The LUMS MBA provides candidates with the knowledge and skills they need to be competitive. To this, we hope to add a cultural toolbox that will help develop a Winning Attitude.

4. Given the fast changing business world today, what are your thoughts on the importance of creativity for leaders?

We live in the Age of the Idea. Ideas are the currency of today. Winning Companies will create cultures of Creativity and Innovation. Or whither on the vine.

5. Do you think creativity is something that can be taught? And are some people more creative than others?

Creativity is an art, grounded in science. We were all born creative – look at any three year old at play/learning! – and then it was systematically squeezed and drained out of us. We can rediscover it, and enhance it through learning, practice and confidence.

6. A lot of students have commented on how dynamic and engaging your lectures are, contrasting their expectations of how a CEO acts. How important is it to challenge conventional management methods?

We live in a VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. A world of disruption. To lead – and win – in this environment we need new techniques, skills and a hunger to grow, attack and change. We must embrace ‘Fail Fast, Learn Fast, and Fix Fast’ – and relish it!!

7. If you could give one piece of advice to current MBA students, what would it be?

Make Happy Choices.

8. How do you enjoy giving the lectures and working with the MBA students?


Love it (or I wouldn’t be doing it – see No. 7!!!). I love their diversity, hunger, ambition, wit and approach to life.

9. What is the highlight of your experience at Lancaster so far?

Watching the students start to figure out how good they could really be.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Winning Hearts and Minds in Blackpool

Museums are an essential part in bringing art, culture and history to people. Unfortunately visitor numbers have been declining over the last few years – some of London’s most well-known museums have recorded dramatic drops in visitor numbers, up to 20% over the past five years. What’s the problem here? Guardian art writer Jonathan Jones has a good turn of phrase here: “There is nothing more aspirational than visiting a museum or art gallery. It is an expression of hope and self-esteem. Just as lying in bed all day binge-watching TV and eating crisps is probably a mark of melancholy. Going out to an exhibition or taking your kids to the Natural History Museum is surely a symbol of belief in your family and the future.” Jones’ diagnosis is that it’s not the internet and social media or mindless television. It is the economic squeeze on people. On top of the cost of admission, there is car parking, the family meal before or after…it’s an expensive family outing for populations with declining discretionary income.

Up north on the seaside however, museums are having a resurgence, with a number of major museums and cultural developments underway in resort towns including Blackpool, Southend, Great Yarmouth and Plymouth due to open in the next five years. A report in the Museums Journal (UK) discusses how museums are regenerating towns by capitalizing on their seaside heritage. A growing trend in visitor habits such as staycations and nostalgia tourism has seen seaside tourism regain its position as England's largest holiday sector, and was now worth £8 billion to the economy. “The belief in the sea as a powerful panacea goes back a long way...planting the early seeds of a tourist industry that was to grow into a vibrant and distinctive culture.”

I’m in love with the Blackpool Museum Project. When I wrote about this in July last year I recalled how, when growing up in Lancaster, “Blackpool was our summer Mecca, Disneyland and Nice.” The seaside resort was the birthplace of British light entertainment – music hall, dancing, comedy and circus. Rather than simply presenting visitors displays the proposed Blackpool Museum will be fun, interactive and based on the tastes of ordinary people. The “serious museum with a funny side” will be centered on eight nationally significant themes including the story of how Blackpool became symbolic of the British seaside holiday, the Blackpool Tower story and the great British talent show. It will be fun!

In March this year the £26 million development, spearheaded by the Blackpool City Council, has gotten one step closer to its planned completion in 2020 with a second round of application having been submitted, which includes the final plans and costings for the delivery of the Museum. It is projected to create 40 full-time equivalent jobs, and attract 210,000 visitors each year, including 22,000 new staying visitors with an economic benefit of £12.3m to the region.

Go to http://blackpoolmuseum.com/ to find out more.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Emoji Face Heart and Hand

Did you know that there’s a new school of academic and corporate research dedicated to studying emoji and their use in human interaction?

That’s right. Emoji cannot only be sent, but also studied. We’re talking esteemed institutions like the University of Toronto and the University of Minnesota. What's more, the small symbols have traveled it into the corporate world. The use of emoji in marketing has increased over the last two years, several brands have fully incorporated them into their strategies and some brands are creating their own – think Coca-Cola, Star Wars, Dove and Toyota.

While some emoji seem to have universal meaning that transcends language barriers, not all symbols mean the same around the world. In Japan, for instance, the “surfer” emoji can imply the sender wants to break up and “surf out of a relationship”.

In a previous blog post in 2014 I wrote about the top ten used emoji on Twitter. Back then the heart came in on number one, followed by the “tears of joy” emoji. Not much has changed in the top 10 since then except the tears of joy” emoji takes the top spot today. 

What does that say about us? We like to share our happiness and joy with others. Also an interesting point: Some researchers suggest that the fact that we’re using affirmative emoji more than other types is due to our desire to be seen as positive people and to brand ourselves as fun individuals. An outlet for radical optimism.

It also makes sense that the most popular emoji in general are the ones that fall into the categories of face, heart and hand. We like to connect with people and we want to know how others are feeling – these emoji can help us do that.