Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

14.5.18

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign/Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind ...

It was the kind of agency that was pompous enough and sanctimonious enough to have inspirational quotes – written by other people, of course – all over its walls. I worked there for a while.

You walked in on Monday morning and SMACK, a huge sign behind the reception desk hit you in the eye.

It read: The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible. The MD thought it would intrigue clients so much, they wouldn't notice how long they'd been sitting in reception. I didn't know what it meant either. It was written by Arthur C. Clarke. Science fiction headlining an advertising agency? Perfect.

Then you took the long march to the creative department. Along the corridor, they had quotes angled out from the wall on swivel frames so you couldn't miss them. Some underling swivelled them the other way in the afternoon so you would see them on the way out. One of them read: The future depends on what we do in the present. That pearl of truism impressed no-one except the cleaner, who wisecracked that it meant he should go home and sleep now, otherwise he'd be too tired to clean up our shit tomorrow. Cleaners are the straight-shooters of the business world. Everyone else talks bullshit.

There was a really deep quote in the men's room: You cannot plough a field by turning it over in your mind. That would have been good advice, except the creative director had the habit of calling two-hour brain-storming meetings late on Friday afternoons. Lots of mind-turning, no ploughing. Hypocrite.

The quotation in the kitchen, hand-picked by the CEO, read: The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen. I wanted to change it to Believe that and you'll believe anything, because it meant exactly the same thing in a neatly subverted way, and was a lot more succinct. Architects are so long-winded.

The boardroom quote was meant to be the best of all: Seek the lofty by reading, hearing and seeing great work at some moment every day. I wondered how many clients were feeling lofty when they were being shown their latest campaign.

One day, after staring at the wall in Steve the creative director's office, I finally heeded the quote resplendent behind his carved desk: Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. I resigned.

A few years later, I returned to the agency as creative director after Steve had retired to some pathless trail in South America.

The first thing I did was to get rid of the insincere, duplicitous quotes and replace them with my own selections. No big deal really: usually new CDs sack the entire creative department and bring in their own people. I just changed the signs.

I started in reception, and put up a huge sign behind Ariel, the power-dressing receptionist with the cute smile and the sexy phone voice. The sign read: Imagination is more important than knowledge. Sometimes clients asked me if I really believed that quote and I told them airily, with a dismissive wave of my hand, 'Oh, Albert Einstein wrote that. He wasn't the brightest star in the universe, was he, so you can take it or leave it.' That shut them up. They never knew when I was being sarcastic and when I wasn't; which is no wonder, because I don't either.

Then I proceeded along to the media department. Here, a bunch of mental giants decide whether to put our work in Women's Weekly, Family Circle or Who's Who on Reality TV, based on how many copies of each were picked up by brain-dead housewives at the checkouts in outer suburban supermarkets last month. Along the wall went John Wanamaker's famous Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, I just don't know which half. This was to remind the box-checking automatons what an inexact science media buying is. A darts player could do it. And for that they get cases of Scotch at Christmas? Everyone thinks Harold Mitchell is an 'adman'. He's never made an ad in his life. He buys media, on behalf of agencies, for their clients. He grew fat on commissions.

Now the kitchen: that was easy. So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright. I like obscure references and allusions. (No-one got it for a whole year. Then a new graphic designer, who had previously studied architecture, saw a photo of the kitchen with its earlier quote and nodded. At last. An intelligent graphic designer. That was a first.)

Finally, the boardroom. Raymond Chandler: Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency. It worked a treat: clients couldn't work out whether we were being self-deprecatory or boastful. They stared at it, scratched their heads, shifted their gaze to the glass chess board on the sideboard with a game set in the Blumenfeld gambit, and thought about it.

While they did that we slipped the previous month's inflated job costings past them on power point, before they noticed.

*

Hubris in business (especially in bureaucratic organisations) is always worth pricking.
Now, someone has written the book. They beat me to it.

James Adonis, which surely has to be a pen-name, reveals the idiocies, the lies and the chicanery that sits at the heart of the 'motivational' quote in his book The Motivation Hoax. Steve Waterson reviews the book in The Deal – Reinventing Business (Issue 102, April 2018). Waterson writes:
... business mantras ... (are) everywhere, adopted by unoriginal thinkers and shouting from desk calendars and office walls: "A quitter never wins, winner never quits." ... "If you can dream it, you can do it." ... Business writer James Adonis has produced a short, witty but thoroughly researched book ... unstringing these supposed pearls of wisdom. ... Adonis first selects a few of the most irritating – sorry, classic – motivational quotes, examines their veracity by analysing relevant academic studies business articles and published research, then proposes an amended quote that more nearly approximates the real world.
No-one ever need feel bullied by a motivational quote again. Waterson continues:
Along the way, (Adonis) pricks many of the inflated ideas many of us suspected were nonsense ... If you feel brainstorming sessions were a waste of time, or that ad hoc teams are a waste of humanity, you're ... right.
Motivational quotes set in stone like ersatz commandments are one thing. Then there are the "platitudes (that) tumble from the lips of our 'leaders'." (Leaders get quote marks because everyone is a leader, so no-one is.)

Further, the concept of 'employee engagement' means every worker is arm-wrestled into obligatory cheerfulness, every joy-filled second of every working day, in the open-planned circus ring of the modern-day 'safe workplace'.

No wonder, in this neo-Chairman Mao-inspired compulsorian view of modern life where everything you do and think is prescribed, things go wrong. The courts are of full of the offended claiming every grievance known to man and a few yet to be invented.

Waterson sums up:
Adonis's book will ... liberate you from the glib dictums of our supposed superiors ... The Motivation Hoax helps clear the air of cant* ... .
Indeed. And in finishing this very long post, always remember one thing: Magic Happens.

*

The Motivation Hoax: A Smart Person's Guide to inspirational nonsense, by James Adonis, Black Inc, $24.99

*Even my stupid computer does not know this word, so let's give it a lesson from The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

Cant noun3 4 The special phraseology of a class, sect, profession, etc.; jargon, slang. 5 A set form of words repeated mechanically; esp. a stock phrase or word temporarily in fashion. 6 Ephemeral catchwords; affected or insincere phraseology; esp. language (or occas. action) implying piety which does not exist; hypocrisy.

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