Having grown up glued to black and white Hollywood masterpieces from the Golden Age every Sunday afternoon - at the time, it was that, football in the street, or homework - The Artist draws on references that are almost every one entirely familiar. And of course, like almost everyone, I love it.
It's funny - in a sneaky, better-than sort of way - to hear about the poor punters who demanded money back when they found the movie is - well, 99% of it - really silent. And all black and white.
Take a little Singin' In the Rain - well, OK, rather a lot of it - throw in the better Astaire and Rogers masterpieces and a generous sprinkle of the Pickfair silent dramas of pre-1929, when as we know The Jazz Singer blew silence away forever, and, aside from the genuinely glorious acting that features in every minute of The Artist (and how good to see the great Malcolm McDowell, in a tasty cameo role that surely he'll treasure more than much of his later work) you've got a good summary of the tone and structure of the movie.
There's been - if only prompted by the Academy Award nominations that the movie has earned - a certain amount of soul-searching Way Out West about THE MEANING of The Artist. At a time when the major studios are scrambling to differentiate their still-potent output from the millions of frat-party fart-lighting and cute kitten clips on offer to the less discerning audience via the usual sources, any film this quiet, this unswashbuckling, this unstarridden, and, well, this small, is going to get folks a-talkin'. And a-worryin'.
It strikes me - not that I know much - that THE POINT of this lovely film is to remind us that magic - and Hollywood was always about magic - only works hand-in-hand with severe restriction. An empowered, choice-spoilt audience with all the magic they'll ever need in the palm of their hand, will paradoxically find magic almost nowhere. (Magic is also about the things that you could never imagine yoursself doing. Not just special effects. It's more about writing, in the end, than CGI.)
But put them (well, me, and many thousands of others, anyway) in front of a black and white, silent film for 100 minutes on a cold, wet afternoon, and The Artist returns magic, along with romance, compassion, tragedy, comedy, pathos, cuteness, in spades.
I keep telling anyone who'll listen - for reasons I'll explain below - that in 1929, 95,000,000 Americans went to the movies every week. Of course, like my Sunday afternoons with Busby Berkeley and friends, they had nothing better to do. As the every-tiggerish Umair Haque pointed out some years ago, before moving on to larger econonomic matters, there was a time when attention was infinitely plentiful, and media - stuff to watch - was rare, to the point of being god-given.
And this - actually rather brief, in the grander scheme - Golden Age of the screen was very much built on the profoundly humble, often mundane, rarely privileged, and perhaps above all, physically grounded lives of its audience.
Which brings me to my conclusion.
Any nostalgia that I felt on seeing The Artist was, in the end, little to do with a hankering for the age of the silent movie - those Sunday afternoons weren't THAT much fun, believe me - and all to do with a pang of the loss of a simpler age in the much more recent past ...
One where our infinite connectedness, power to choose, limitless access to channels for self-expression, and our regal bestowing of attention on media objects on the merest whim (with disenfranchised consumer brands creeping around the edges of Facebook, Twitter and the rest, beckoning and gurning like the dancing dads at your 18th) had not yet made us like cranky, jaded children after far too many sweets, allowed to stay up far too late for our own good.
Is The Artist, therefore, one last longing look back, or a sneak peek forward, with perhaps a promise of happier times for moviemakers, beyond today's gruelling battle for the attention of these spoiled, rather unattractive children?
I'll say it's neither, not for me anyway. It's a glorious example - reminder in fact - of what occasionally happens when storytelling and acting talent is left alone to do what it does well, which is not merely to give us yet another expensive, instantly-forgettable chunk of content (I love blockbusters as well as the next bloke, by the way) but to touch our hearts deeply, with a far smaller, more daring, more caring slice of real magic.
Dedicated to the late Jonathan Cecil, who cared enough to dig out and bring me hard-to-find, connoisseur's books about the great silent movie stars when I was a silly South London boy, and who would have adored - and written far more insightfully and lovingly about - this film. R.I.P.
This is the first in a series of posts that will form a rolling white paper, examining and getting to grips with what I have come to think of as the remarkable challenge facing organisations of all kinds - and above all, businesses: the state of perpetual disruption.
In the two areas I work most in - media and marketing - and in particular at their points of overlap, where questions about, for example, the role and value of advertising, and the true impacts of social media, continue to proliferate without satisfactory resolution, there's a pining for one outcome above all.
When will things go back to some sort of "normal"?
Every year in recent memory has been "The Year Of Something", hasn't it? The last 5 years have each been The Year Of Mobile, for example.
And what happens? The devices come thicker and faster, consumers pick them up, run with them, co-create with both each other and the new technology giants - GAFA as I've heard them dubbed (Goggle, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) - myriad new forms of value. It all rushes forward.
But here's the thing. "The Year Of Mobile" never actually arrives. And no one gets more of a real grasp on things than we had last year or the year before.
And yes, it has indeed been "The Year Of Apple, Google (incl YouTube) Amazon and Facebook" ... for each year as long as we can clearly remember. But the GAFA giants are now almost ecosystem fixtures, the shiny utilities of some kind of new economy. They'll quite happily take the dollar bill in their respective business and revenue models, but really they have no more useable insights for us than British Gas or Thames Water.
Asking Google or Facebook what you should do, is rather like asking Lloyds of London where you should make your investments. They're generally nice enough people, but it's not their job to care. (And actually, they don't know either.)
We are, it seems, on our own now.
And there will be no returning to "normal" any more, in the sense of familiar, predictable models and markets for exploiting content, for building brands and above all, for developing and executing strategies.
I intend no melodrama, but it's really over.
If strategy is above all about the way we think, then an environment in which what we think - and what we think we see - are now invariably inadequate, always too slow, and often badly wrong, no longer lends itself to what we can call outbound strategy - where we plan for and then "do things" to our markets that create competitive advantage.
Strategies overall - and strategies for innovation are no exception - are only meaningful when their objects, and, just as crucially as we'll see - the contexts within which those objects exist, and within which value is identified, articulated, productised, communicated and eventually delivered, remain more or less fixed, relative to meaningful market coordinates.
Things need to sort of stay where - and indeed what! - they were yesterday, if you like, for new forms of value to be confidently developed and placed into the market.
This is no longer the case, and sets up a powerful cause of the perpetual disruption that, I am arguing, will plague businesses and their brands in the post-digital era.
We learned, at a fundamental level, to view change as occasional, disruption as rare - to be feared, exceptional - and innovation as something elusive but achievable, that businesses "do" to markets, to sustain and now and then refresh what has been, till recently, broadly visible, explicable and manageable positions for their various brands.
But Normal, from here on, is a state of perpetual - and accelerating - flux.
We are already, for practical purposes, passing through the so-called Information Age. Where are we now then?
On one hand, I'd feel comfortable calling this "The Age Of Disruption". But that - as well as leaving us despondent and rudderless - implies that there's a plausible end point to this new state of perpetual flux. No, we need something both a little less apocalyptic, and a little more realistic.
I've written periodically about The Age Of Meaning for the past 6 or 7 years, and while I wouldn't dream of claiming to have had the answer to our profound conundrum all along, I do feel that when we come to grips with perpetual disruption, it will be in part because we have finally - with backs against the wall - learned the fine art of the management of meaning.
I'll be returning to the management of meaning later in this process, but for now, I'm sticking to the exploration of the problem. To jump ahead too quickly, to rush a solution, will be to underestimate the problem and compromise any sort of useful insights and ways forward.
For now, we have a huge conundrum to deal with.
The trading context of customers, competition, culture and communications is constantly accelerating in both speed and scale, already far beyond a level at which business can usefully react with so-called innovations .
This context has become, in the end, irresistible. It consists, at its most basic, of billions of connected consumers, the technology giants that both enable and add value to their connectedness, and the second-by-second interaction between them, that feeds and fosters an especially concerning new kind of value. Benckler, in his contemporary economics masterpiece The Wealth of Networks, calls this "non-market value": an inauspicious term, no?
Our issue here is not merely the now-tiresome challenge of how to evaluate and thence monetise, for example, the big social networks. It's more far-reaching, and concerning.
The new post-digital trading context is more than just value-neutral ... It's "value-hostile", precisely because, unlike any other in history, it's no longer neutral ... passive ... waiting, if you like, for something to happen, for our decisions and actions to stir it up. We have, till recently, been able to take quite well-researched products or services (indeed, more recently, consumer experiences) and push them into the market, accompanied by a fairly cogent but above all confident program of communications.
This happy paradigm - whatever happened to paradigms, by the way? - has been supported and reinforced above all by a context that kindly agreed to stand still while we marketed to it. Channels - even early online channels played nice - were neutral; consumers were usefully bound by a combination of postcode and ponderous research programs; insights were valid and fresh for, well, sometimes years!
Oh, and data ... Well, there was so little of it, and it changed so rarely ... We were even able to sometimes make use of it, before the music and the dance started again.
I don't have to bang on, surely, about how little of this comfy value chain remains. Dismantled byinformation, wielded by immensely fluid tribes of flattered, entitled consumers, whose very empowerment and daily delight by the GAFA Crew, is paralleled by the disempowerment and daily dismay of the enterprises tasked with somehow delivering - let alone maintaining (let alone predicting!) - something called shareholder value.
There will be answers. But first we need to fully explore and grasp where the levers of power have moved to, and which of those we are entitled and able to get a grip on to begin navigating a cultural and commercial landscape that will no longer stand still.
Till next time. Thanks for reading.
The Kodak Brownie transformed personal human experience, in that it enabled people worldwide to capture, own, and share (note, not in the way we “share” today, but at a genuinely physical, intimate level) images of their own lives.
In a sense, Eastman Kodak was the Ford Motor Co. of modern personal identity. And the deep, sustainable and above all personal meaning that those gawky, prosaic, kiss-me-quick shots offered to consumers was nothing short of immense.
When Kodak eventually invested in some formal brand positioning work, they were able, without effort or loss of credibility, to take global ownership of one, fundamentally human idea.
Kodak decided to own “Memories”. Sounds easy, in a way.
But the key insight here is not that a brand agency then created a marketing and advertising manual, that then enabled all sorts of other agencies to create all sorts of brand communications that cemented their commercial monopoly over Memories.
What we need to grasp is the sheer human impact of the Kodak brand and its technology, but most of all, the cultural and personal weight that the process and the images that emerged represented …
… from lugging that bulky clunky item of luggage on holiday or to a wedding …
… through how to load a film without exposing and ruining it …
… then how to take the film out when you’d finished it, again without exposing it …
… to the simple joy of waiting for your prints to come back in the post or from the pharmacy …
… through to the – often awful, sometime happy, but always very meaningful – shared experience of “our holiday snaps”!
Did “Memories” suddenly lose their value? Did a Shawn Fanning sweep in with some illegal Napster or Grokster for photographs?
Well, we can obviously say that “digital happened”. And certainly Kodak was terribly slow off the mark when the digital image came to town.
One senses that the Kodak board saw digital – like so many other industries have … let’s make sure we’re not marching in that number – not as the global cultural earthquake it would shortly become, but more as a supply chain issue with minor implications at the consumer interface: digital cameras at one end, CD’s instead of prints at the other, and so on.
No, it was infinite copy and infinite sharing that did for Kodak.
Because, missing from that formerly unassailable position astride all the world’s “Memories”, was a simple fact that has great relevance for our current discussion. It was the context, not just the content, that created and sustained an awful lot of the Kodak value.
Until we were all joined up by networks, Kodak’s Memories (moments of profound personal and family meaning, if you like) were special, unique, one-of-a-kind, and could only be shared with a privileged few.
In other words, it was not just the images themselves (quality of photo, with a nod to the obvious exceptions, never per se made them intrinsically meaningful) but the severe technical limitations within which they were captured, processed and shared, that gave them their rarity, their exclusivity, and, in the end, their commercial value. It was hard to take them, hard to make them, and very hard indeed to share them.
But when Flickr, PhotoBucket (among countless others) and ultimately, that category killer of all category killers, Facebook, became the new platforms for worldwide photographic activity, meaning and value, that rich, snug, primitive context that gave Kodak’s snapshots their wonderful, now lost significance … disappeared.
And of course, the cameras built into mobile phones threw the iconic snapshot into the eye of the connectivity storm.
It’s universal access and shareability, not just “being digital”, that dilute to oblivion the traditional impact and power of the physical image.
When my photos, yours, Britney’s, Robbie’s and Justin’s, are just confetti in the hurricane of billions upon billions of deeply personal, but somehow now entirely anonymous, meaningless snapshots … what happens to the brands, products and the services that supported them?