Talking point

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Following Jonathan Meades’ exploration of brutalism which began on BBC4 last night, I thought I’d post this interview with Wilem Frischmann, the engineer who built Centre Point in London.

I spoke to him in 2011 as part of a project (with hat-trick design) exploring the history of Centre Point, a building whose hypnotic honeycomb façade and decorative patterns belie the ‘brutalist’ label that is often attached to it.

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Wilem Frischmann is now a grand old man of engineering, a partner in global firm Pell Frischmann and father of Justine, lead singer of Elastica. But when Centre Point was being built in the early 1960s, he was just starting out and keen to make a name for himself.

The whole thing was an amazing piece of engineering, built in record time using a single crane and no scaffolding. At the time, planning details weren’t available to view so readily, so Londoners played a continuing guessing game wondering how tall the tower would get.

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I was struck by how hands-on the project was for Wilem Frischmann, to the point where he personally ventured into a 100-foot narrow bore-hole beneath Tottenham Court Road to check the strength of the foundations – and nearly didn’t make it out again.

The interview is on the Centre Point blog and is in three parts:

Part one
Part two
Part three 

An interview with hat-trick

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Having just posted an interview with myself, here’s one with me doing the interviewing.

I’ve been fortunate to work with hat-trick a lot in recent years, on projects including Victoria hoardings, Centre Point, Ebbsfleet Valley and Help Musicians UK. They also collaborated with us on Disappointments Diary 2013.

Now they’re the subject of a book by Chois Publishing (part of its We Love Graphic series), for which I’ve written the introduction, an extended case study about their work with Imperial War Museums, and an interview with two of the company’s founders, Jim Sutherland and Gareth Howat.

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The interview has been re-published on the Creative Review blog and you can read it here

The book is called 240pp of thoughts and you can order a copy from the hat-trick shop.

Storytelling – an interview

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I was recently invited to answer some questions on storytelling by Martin Lee of Acacia Avenue, an agency that has specialised in writing and storytelling for many years. He’s kindly allowed me to reproduce the interview here. It’s inspired in part by the tongue-in-cheek brand stories I wrote last year, including The Brand Story of the Three Little Pigs, pictured above. 

ML: Why do you think storytelling has become such a source of fascination in business?

NA: Stories have always been there in advertising and branding, but have only recently been given a label. I think the reason it caught on was because it played into a wider trend to seek out ‘authenticity’. Compared to the old terminology of marketing – full of military terms like ‘targets’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘campaigns’ – the idea of ‘storytelling’ feels very down-at-home and uncommercial.

You could also relate it to the trend for ‘infantilisation’ in recent years – that habit brands have of talking to customers as a parent would to a small child. When a brand says it’s going to tell us a ‘story’, it’s subliminally tapping into that childlike, uncritical part of our brains, which is prone to suspending disbelief and accepting the narrative on its own terms.

ML: What are the mistakes brands make when they try to harness storytelling?

NA: The main mistake is to gesture towards storytelling without having the courage or creativity to do it properly. True to their marketing instincts, many practitioners are simply taking old approaches and rebranding them as ‘stories’ in order to fit with the trend. So we get the surreal sight of things being called ‘stories’ that possess no discernable narrative or any of the accepted characteristics of a story.

This isn’t about policing what stories are and are not – there are no rules dictating what storytellers can or can’t do. But if we’re convincing clients of the archetypal power of storytelling, it’s strange to ignore all the elements that give it that power.

ML: What should they be doing?

NA: Politicians talk about ‘framing the narrative’ and I think it’s a useful idea for brands. For example, it helps for a company like Apple to remember its overarching narrative about being a plucky adventurer exploring new frontiers. If that narrative is locked in people’s minds, then any bad news becomes a setback on that bigger mission, rather than a sign of terminal decline. By framing the narrative, you change the way people see events unfolding – I think Apple has lost sight of that lately.

That said, I think brands get hung up on having one ‘brand story’, when sometimes it’s useful to have many. Taking Apple as an example, I’d think about developing a bank of stories, ‘tagged’ with different themes. So if someone wanted to demonstrate values like ‘pride’ or ‘innovation’ they could look up all the stories that bring those values to life. Under ‘pride’ you might tell the story of how Apple engineers used to etch their own names onto circuit boards as a hidden ‘signature’ that would only ever be seen by other engineers. A bank of stories like that is an endlessly useful resource.

I’d also get a professional on the case. Every organisation has great stories inside it, but it takes a storyteller to spot them and frame them effectively. I’d pay a writer to immerse themselves in the company and become a roving story-gatherer and archivist. Tell them to go and find 50 more stories like the circuit board one.

ML: Who is doing it well?

NA: One brand that has been doing it consistently is Jack Daniels. Their whole approach is based on brand lore and legend and they were doing it long before the storytelling trend started.

A typical ad tells a micro-story about the product – the barrels it comes in, the water they use – and relates it back to the bigger brand. In some ways it’s classic old-school advertising – take a feature and turn it into a benefit by spinning a nice yarn – but it’s done with such charm and consistency that it always works. And they carry it through to the rest of the brand. I remember them getting a lot of praise on Twitter for sending a brilliantly laid-back and respectful cease-and-desist letter to someone who had infringed their trademark.

But different factions will fight over this – brand strategists could claim Jack Daniels as a strategic insight; storytellers would claim it as a triumph of storytelling; advertisers would say it’s just good old- fashioned salesmanship. There’s lots of commercial territory at stake in all these arguments.

ML: What is the prize – if a brand gets it right, what do they stand to gain?

NA: A few years ago, I took part in a US-based project called Significant Objects, where the idea was to take a near-worthless junk store object and write a story about it. The object and its story were then posted on eBay. Once the objects had a story attached, they multiplied in value – one object bought for $3 ended up selling for $193. It was a playful project, but it makes a good point about the way we value things for the stories attached to them.

This is really what branding is about – taking a non-descript product or service and investing it with a bigger narrative. There are huge benefits in a storytelling approach to branding and it’s something writers in particular should welcome. In some ways, the proliferation of pseudo-stories and bandwagon- jumpers is an inevitable by-product of a successful movement. But the good thing about stories is they will always be more than a trend – they were around long before this period in the commercial spotlight and they’ll no doubt survive long afterwards.

Links:

Acacia Avenue

Jack Daniels cease-and-desist letter

Significant Objects

The brand story of Little Red Riding Hood

The brand story of Peter Rabbit

The brand story of the Three Little Pigs

Toy Brand Story

The brand story of Chicken Licken

Creatively reviewed

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It’s a great honour to have been profiled in the September edition of Creative Review. You can read the article by Mark Sinclair on the Creative Review site (subscribers only) or order a copy of the magazine here.

I received the invitation to do it a couple of months ago, met up and talked for about three hours, but had no idea how it would turn out – a disorienting experience as I’m usually the one doing the writing. 

Fortunately, I was in the hands of a magazine I’ve admired for a long time and they’re good at making people sound good. The one bit that may be open to legal challenge is the billing at the front as ‘the design industry’s favourite writer’ – I can think of many writers and even more design companies who would dispute that.

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For anyone entering the competition at the back, I wish you the best of luck from my home near Macclesfield, which is technically in the county of Cheshire although I think of it more as the edge of the Peak District, but the answer is Cheshire. (Enter here, or just buy your own damn stuff.)

In case the article has led anyone here for the first time, you can find out more about the projects featured through the links below. 

1,000-words poster (The Chase)

The World Without (SB Studio)

Paul Dalling website (Wheatcroft&Co)

Alas! Smith & Milton (book design by Grade Design)

Centre Point book (Hat-trick Design)

and personal projects:

Mr Blog

Disappointments Diary (with Hat-trick Design)

Corpoetics

Pentone Boxset

plus #clienttweaks, the Apple long copy article and Cloudy Language.

There’s also a passing mention of Fishages, which is now reaching a critical level of brand awareness that I urgently need to work out how to monetise. 

Q&A&A

Rawtype

Just been interviewed by the good people at the Raw Type blog. You can read the whole thing here.

As well as a mention for Corpoetics, Pentone and Mr Blog, the interview features a subtle plug for fishages, a new food concept that Asbury & Asbury hopes to pioneer in the near future.