Acting means doing, not performing

On brands, body language and Black History Month

A newsletter about finding clarity in chaos, across marketing, culture and ourselves.

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The price you pay for rhythm

“I ignored the ridiculous plots of those movies: the opera-like comings and goings, the reversals of fortune, the outrageous meet cutes and coincidences, the minstrels, maids and butlers. To me they were only roads leading to the dance. The story was the price you paid for the rhythm.” Zadie Smith

It’s weird to lose the rhythm of things.

This is especially true with writing, which thrives on momentum.

For the last decade of my life, that was the operating word.

“Momentum.”

Keep moving, keep going, and things happen.

To some extent, this is true – although I was lucky along the way.

And to a great extent, this newsletter was always about that.

Frequency over perfection.

Keep it going, let it guide you, and quantity will lead to quality.

And sometimes it did; there are things in here I’m very proud of.

But some things started to feel off.

It started to feel like I was going through the motions with it.

The practise became an obligation, and the contents repetitive.

Now, if you’re new here, the newsletter might feel fresh(er) for you.

But for a few hundred long-time readers, this feels a bit different.

And for this long-time writer, it does too.

There’s always a cut-off point where substance gives way to style.

The reason you’re doing something is because you have to keep doing it.

And the perception of it existing trumps the purpose of it existing.

We’ll get back to this later – but for now let’s stick with that other word.

Perception.

Because it says a lot about our culture, both good and bad.

The problem with perception

The classic marketing book Positioning is full of aphorisms like this one:

“Don't fight perceptions with facts. Perceptions will always win.”

To a great extent, I agree with this.

It’s true in political discourse.

It’s true in cultural narratives.

It’s true in corporate meetings.

It’s true in marketing communications.

And it’s true in our lives.

I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s a true thing.

And like many other things, it’s a tool.

It can be used for good, and for bad.

I’ve made a career out of helping manage perception, in some way.

At first through social media and community management.

More lately through advertising and communications campaigns.

Most of this time working in agencies, which thrive on perception too.

Yes, do the right thing, but make sure you’re seen doing it by the client.

The thing we do vs the thing we’re seen doing.

This is the great problem with perception.

Doing the thing is not enough, you have to have an audience for it.

The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius once said:

“Good fortunes are a well-tuned soul, good impulses and good actions.”

Funny how there’s no mention of good fortune being about what’s seen.

It’s only about what’s done.

And yet, how much of our lives rely on things that need seeing?

To be clear, I’m not here to tell a moral tale about how to live your life.

I am pointing out that perception, for all its blessings…

… can also become a curse of the culture we live in.

John Berger had a fantastic observation about the nature of publicity:

“Publicity is the life of this culture – in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive – and at the same time publicity is its dream.”

Publicity – or, in this case, perception – is the life of our culture.

Without which capitalism cannot survive.

And like most organisms or systems, its goal is self-perpetuation.

Animals reproduce to ensure they can continue reproducing.

Organisations grow so they can keep growing.

Culture evolves so it can keep evolving.

Individuals learn so they can keep learning.

Of course, what happens between point A and B is where the richness is.

But this need for self-perpetuation can create problems for the game of perception.

Because it’s very easy for perception to become the goal – what is seen.

Instead of it becoming a tool to help achieve the goal – what is done.

The ethics of “everything is PR”

Of course, you could argue this is the nature of the beast.

We live in an age of perception, so perception is the game.

And in some sense, perception is safer because you can control it.

“Control the narrative”, as they say.

Another often quoted idea?

“Everything is PR.”

Back to the very first thought, that perception beats facts.

That much we know to be true.

And yet, there’s a difference between perception beating facts…

… and perception relying on lies, omissions or half-truths.

Perception creates the illusion of control, but it’s that – an illusion.

In reality, our decisions to act are full of insecurities and risk.

But that’s a feature of how we are, not a bug.

Humanistic philosopher and sociologist Erich Fromm once said:

“Man, lacking the instinctual equipment of the animal, is not as well equipped for flight or for attack as animals are. He does not “know” infallibly, as the salmon knows where to return to the river in order to spawn its young and as many birds know where to go south in the winter and where to return in the summer. His decisions are not made for him by instinct. He has to make them. He is faced with alternatives and there is a risk of failure in every decision he makes. The price that man pays for consciousness is insecurity.”

Of course, replace “man” for “people”.

(Older quotes can be cringey to read.)

But there’s an interesting idea there.

We can’t make all our decisions by instinct, we have more choices than that.

But the price we pay for being aware of those choices is insecurity.

Saving face – doing the perception – is a very instinctual thing.

Making a choice – doing the action – is a more conscious thing.

Or, as I start to see it, there’s two ways of going about it as an individual or, indeed, a brand:

  1. You can act in sympathy at crucial times (perception)

  2. Or you can act on it at all times (action)

Acting (as in, performing) is the classic marketing communications approach.

Let’s show this, that and the other, and that’s our campaign.

We can do this through storytelling, from TV to a big PR thing.

Of course, the cultural discourse these days is changing things.

I’m not a believer in brand purpose as a marketing tool.

But I do believe that it’s a tremendous business tool.

Because yes, companies have a responsibility towards society.

But it doesn’t count for much if they’re performing, instead of taking action.

Now, I appreciate this is harder if you’re operating a legacy structure.

And large boats, as we all know, take longer to turn around.

But we know it’s possible, and so it should be the new standard.

Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, Lush and many others are good examples.

I’m not saying purpose necessarily makes them more profitable.

(There are studies out there, but I have some questions on their methodology.)

I’m saying purpose is part of how businesses should get run, full stop.

Not because it’s more profitable, but because it’s right by everyone.

It’s not a question of pure return on investment, it’s a question of respect.

(ICYMI, on top of systemic inequities across race, gender, economic background and cognitive diversity, the planet’s fucked and over-consumption is a big factor, so yes all companies are responsible to an extent. Purpose is not a marketing opportunity, it’s a cost of doing business.)

This is why I enjoy websites like Thingtesting.

They give me a lens into the philosophy of brand new companies.

Yes, most startups fail, etc, I know the statistics (well, kind of).

But the pattern is there: younger companies have purpose baked in.

This can mean a variety of things, but the operating mantra is simple.

It means doing the purpose thing as a standard, not as a stunt.

Yes, many of them offer that as part of their USP.

But the action is there – it’s closer to a net positive result.

In other words, doing well also means doing good.

Does it create a whole new range of insecurities?

Of course.

It forces companies to get political, and to alienate some people.

But if it is true that everything is PR, then the foundation needs work.

We can’t fight against an age of perception, I don’t think.

But we can base those perceptions on something meaningful and sustained.

Instead of something opportunistic, done once a month.

Either option carries insecurities, but that’s the real game.

Do you choose the insecurity of doing with the possibility of fucking up?

(It will happen, learn from it, go at it again.)

Or the insecurity of only performing with the possibility of getting caught?

(90% of brand purpose, based on some very un-scientific estimates.)

Ethics isn’t easy, but this much I know.

Doing is more powerful than performing.

And that might mean doing the action, without being seen doing it for a while.

Or as Ubuntu philosophy reminds us:

“Respect must begin from within.”

Fuck compassion, create everyday action

I’ve become a big fan of gal-dem.

I first saw Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, their head of editorial, speak last year.

But I’ve since started following their work, and always learn something new.

Back in September, they explored an interesting question.

“Is mid-pandemic travel creating a resurgence of the white saviour complex?”

At first, I was a bit puzzled: what does one thing have to do with the other?

But reading on, it became clear what the issue was.

Celebrities travelling during a pandemic.

To raise awareness of certain causes.

Often in more deprived countries.

There’s two things here.

First, the travelling during a pandemic.

Yes, you could argue causes are important regardless of pandemics.

But also, uh, read the global room?

Second, the raising awareness part.

Yes, raising awareness is important, but this did make me wonder.

How much time and resources do people spend raising awareness…

… and how much of it translates into actual action?

Of course, this is not a pure celebrity question.

Celebrities are brands, so - you guessed it - it’s also a brand question.

How many brands have raised awareness around Black History Month…

… and yet most of their leadership teams are white?

… or most of their Black staff feel disrespected, one way or another?

Yes, you could argue they still raised awareness, showed compassion.

But, uh, how ethical is that, when your own house isn’t in order?

According to Susan Sontag, compassion alone is not enough:

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”

If compassion doesn’t get translated to action, it withers.

This means the template for responding to Black History Month needs to be different.

(And Black Lives Matter as a whole.)

It can’t be “we stand by you, so we’re doing this to raise awareness”.

It has to be “we stand by you, so we’re acting in this way from now on”.

How many of those symbolic gestures will be around in November? January?

How many of them would happen if not unprompted by the culture?

In pure philosophical terms, if you did something but the general public doesn’t know, did it actually happen?

“Black History Month is happening, so we need to do something.”

We’ve all had a version of this conversation over the last few weeks.

Doing a symbolic gesture for Black History Month is about perception.

Doing something during the other 11 months of the year is about action.

Strategic compassion makes for a stylish PR headline.

But action brings far more substance to the real people that matter.

The people who work for you, and who buy from you, all year round.

As David Hieatt says:

"Culture is not found in a brand book, but in everyday actions."

Fuck compassion, create everyday action.

Which companies inspire you through their actions? I’d love to see your reply.

Take care,

Rob

PS: If you’ve read this far, thank you. In the spirit of Linkit.Black, you should check out Word on the Curb (research agency focused on youth culture), Strategy Trybe (prolific strategy community in Nigeria) and TM Candle Co (travel inspired candles, founded by a friend). And thank you to Heleana for the editing help.


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