Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London
“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.”
I recently saw the Bob Marley documentary that came out last year. Insightful, inspirational, touching stuff.
I was quite struck by a story relating to The Wailers’ early career in Kingston. Their manager would take them to rehearse late at night in the local cemetery. He believed that if they could conquer their fear of ‘duppies’ (spirits), they could also conquer any stage fright.
We often talk of advertising as a business fuelled by confidence. And it’s true. Confidence gives you the courage to be honest, to be different, to challenge conventions. Confidence is the foundation of sustained success.
But I have also found that the reverse is true: agencies run on fear.
Fear of corporate change, competitive threat and Client whim. Fear of forgetting, of fluffing one’s lines. Fear of fashion, of falling behind and falling apart. Fear of failure. Fear that the latest success may be the last. Fear of complacency, of hubris. Fear of lost relevance. Fear of irrelevance. Fear of redundancy. Not just losing your job, but losing your utility. Fear that your best years are behind you. And your worst meeting is in front of you.
As Nigel Bogle has been wont to warn, even in the good years, ‘We’re three phone calls away from disaster’.
I still go into every presentation with an awkward feeling in the pit of my stomach. And under sustained pressure I develop painfully itchy shins. Hardly the romance of a saint’s stigmata. Faintly ridiculous really. But nonetheless a physical manifestation of stress, anxiety, doubt.
John Hegarty once bumped into our Levi’s Client in Reception. The Client said he was worried because the proposed print route was a bit risky. Rather than reassure him that it wasn’t at all dangerous, John said, ‘You’re right. It is risky. I’m worried it might even be a mistake, possibly a disaster.’ And then he marched briskly on to his next meeting.
I think a successful business should be fuelled by confidence, but oiled by fear. The one delivers ambition, the other insures against complacency. I’m drawn to the same qualities in people too: I like enthusiasm, appetite ,optimism; tempered by a little self doubt, angst and humility. (‘Once a Catholic…’, I guess…)
“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
But whilst fear in moderation may be useful, attractive even, fear in excess is paralysing, corrosive. You see it in the eyes of the team whose competence has been questioned, whose business has been put up for pitch, whose job is on the line.
So I suspect we could still do with a little singing in the cemetery. We still need a means to confront our darkest paranoias, to defeat our deepest doubts. Of course in a modern, sanitised age we don’t have ‘duppies’, ghosts and ghouls. Maybe, post Freud, just articulating our misgivings is healthy. Maybe we ought to give more time to sharing our angst, anxieties, apprehensions.
Maybe I’m just singing in the cemetery right now…