Things fall apart



W B Yeats
W B Yeats

‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’

The Second Coming – WB Yeats

For as long as I can remember things have been falling apart. Fragmenting, segmenting, empowering. Devolving, diffusing, decoupling. Subdividing, subcontracting, subbranding. Ever more channels, audiences, tools and platforms. Ever more markets, stakeholders, structures and roles.

I feel that for the entirety of my career we have been seeking coherence in an ever more fragmented world. Endeavouring to establish order in the disorder, to shape the sometimes shapeless, to find patterns in the mayhem of modern marketing.

In my early days we were arguing for campaigns not executions, continuity not chaos. Fighting against ‘goldfish advertising’.

Then as channels disbursed, as tasks multiplied, as Clients centralised, we advocated The Big Idea: the conceptual glue that held the brand together, that gave it a collective purpose. In time I also became a convert to the unifying power of the aesthetic, to the harmonising force of visual identity.

Of course the quest for coherence sometimes felt like swimming against the tide. It came with a loss of spontaneity, at a cost to creative freedom, with the risk of regimentation. But I always felt that coherence was worth it. Because I believed in the active, authorial, unitary brand; in a brand that brought more to the table than a willingness to please; in a brand that meant something to everyone, not anything to anyone.

I have occasionally wondered whether we were wrong. Perhaps we should concede that ultimately the centre really cannot hold. Perhaps in the age of the social web we should let go of the tiller, move with the tide, submit the brand to the ebb and flow of consumer needs and desires, whims and passions; liberate it from its corporate shackles to find its own articulation in the mouths of the crowd.

But I think I’m quite a conservative bloke. I can’t relinquish my belief in the unitary brand, however fragmentary its experience. And curiously the social web, with all its wild diversity and anarchic soul, has also given hope to Coherents like me.

Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan

‘Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.’

Marshall McLuhan – Introduction to Understanding Media (1964)

As a young Planner in the early ’90s I read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a book written the year I was born. I wanted to learn about the thinking behind such legendary phrases as ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’. I discovered a whole lot more. It was an ambitious, lyrical, imaginative work. It was brilliantly passionate, fantastical, psychedelic.

I was particularly struck by the image of man in the electronic age extending his central nervous system beyond the constraints of physical form to reach out across the world. Wow! It was pure science fiction, of course, but it was a beautiful thought. Some years later I realised McLuhan had been predicting the arrival of the Internet…

The image of a world wide central nervous system has remained attractive to a lifelong believer in brand coherence. Because it’s an image that can be applied as much to brands as to people and things. It suggests that brands can embrace a glue more powerful than any corporate structure, conceptual definition or visual identity. Modern brands are finally capable of creating their own neural networks, their own central nervous systems.

So of course we should be introducing connectivity to everything we do right now, right the way across the path to purchase. Of course we should all be designing brand ecosystems and ecologies with bold, bright enthusiasm. Because at last we can see the reality of neurally networked brands which are sensitive, responsive and feeling. Brands which learn, think and evolve. And above all brands which are coherent and whole.

Perhaps the centre can hold after all.


10 Responses

  1. Jim I really like this idea of brands as living, breathing nervous systems which adapt and respond. I’m also ‘a coherent’ & it strikes me that the ‘big ideas’ that best help these systems thrive are rooted in a clear, authentic purpose rather than a message. I think this is a big reason why brands like IBM and Nike have succeeded so well in creating what you describe above when so many are struggling.

    • Hi Neil, Good to hear from you. Hope everything’s going well out there. Yes,I agree. Successful brands deliver coherence through a combination of factors: networked connectedness,a toplist ekle link ekle toplist strong aesthetic and a unifying purpose. I saw Jim Stengel,ex of P&G,talk a little while ago.Very authoritative and charismatic. All his research into the critical success factors of high performing brands points to the power of unifying values and purpose.

  2. Hi Jim! We haven’t met but I am a CD working in the LA office with Pelle and the gang. I wanted to tell you how much I relate to your post, but coming from a different angle. Before joining up with Pelle in the LA office, I worked as a creative director/director primarily in music. More recently I’ve worked a lot with a pop artist named Robyn, and the strategy we developed for her creative direction was very much on the central nervous system metaphor. We looked our creative approach as creating a web that we’d catch fans in a certain, but diverse points of contact– a press image, cover art, a music video, a tweet, an interactive video. But wherever the point of contact, that experience would speak to a central set of ideas about what the brand – in this case, she – was about. We speak a lot about creating this “web” (and maybe now the central nervous system) for the brands and bands we work with at BBH LA, and great to share the point of view!!

    • Hi Mary,Very kind of you to comment.(I’m a great admirer of everything to do with the LA office.One day I’d love to visit. ) I’m sure you’re right and indeed other sectors could learn about networked behaviour from the world of music: faster,more intuitive,more naturally connected.

  3. While it’s true that things are always falling apart, they are somehow also simultaneously coming together. It feels like a paradox. For while there is increasing fragmentation of channels and segments, there is also convergence of media types, of creativity and technology, of paid and earned and especially, of digital and physical. The nervous system is an interesting metaphor, but perhaps we need something that encapsulates both the fragmentary, singular elements and the unitary purpose, a purpose that might emerge from collective behavior rather than be the driving force behind it.

    • Hi Mark,Thanks for your observation. I suspect,as you suggest,that while metaphors can be illuminating,they are all flawed in one way or another…I’m currently considering the metaphor of the market as dance floor :the collective pursuit of individual passions…

  4. Hey Jim,
    A great read. I’m at the daily epicenter of brands that are neaurological networks, and your thoughts really resonate. I’ve spent the last seven years forming some frameworks that create coherence based on patterns. It’s all coming together quite well, but I’d love to chat some more. I miss those days when I could ask you rediculous questions all day long. My best, Marc

    • Hi Marc,What a pleasure to hear from you. Such happy memories. And the ridiculous questions always led to serious answers…Where are you now? Would love to hear what you’re up to.

      • Hey Jim,
        I’m in San Francisco working as a principal at Method an experience design company. Would love to catch up.

        I’ll drop you a line at BBH.

        I wrote this a while back now, based on pattern thinking, hope you like it.

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