We use cookies to improve your experience on this website. Read More Allow Cookies
David Puttnam

Shark Awards

A Speech by Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, C.B.E.
Shark Awards

Kinsale

Saturday, September 14, 2013

 

 

It’s a genuine pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon.

 

Over the next 25 minutes or so I’d like to take a crack at the subject of ‘change in the digital world’ by attempting to sell you Puttnam’s Five Laws of Creative Leadership; building on what I’ve learned from my own experience in a variety of business's - cultural and creative.

But I thought I'd start with a personal story concerning the pace and nature of 'change'.
In the Spring of 1961 I’d recently joined an Advertising Agency named Greenly’s (you've got to be as old as me to have ever heard of it, but it was part of the then rather grandly named
‘Lonsdale Hands Group of Companies) I was a very 'wet behind the ears' but embarrassingly enthusiastic Assistant Account Executive - the lowest form of Advertising life, working on - among other things - the John Collier account –
the 'Window to Watch' as our ads proudly claimed!


To find out a little more about what was happening behind
'The Window to Watch' – and hopefully to impress my new bosses – I started spending the odd Saturday morning at any branch of John Collier that was within a bus ride of where I lived in North London.

The principal appeal of this chain of Menswear shops was that you could buy a suit for £9.19 shillings and 6 pence, which was all but indistinguishable from its slightly up-market equivalent at Burton's the Tailors - which sold for a couple of quid more.

I quickly discovered that my client's secret was twofold – to have an attractive female assistant available whose sole task was to make approving noises whenever the customer looked at his reflection in the mirror; and a ‘tailor’ (and I’ve placed entirely appropriate quotation marks around that description!) whose skill lay in reassuringly touching the small of the customer’s back, whilst simultaneously grabbing a handful of superfluous fabric, in order to enhance the ‘fit’ of the jacket when viewed from the front!
At which point the attractive assistant let out another appreciative squeal and, as often as not, ten pounds changed hands pretty quickly!
Not only did the whole exercise become increasingly dispiriting in itself, but it entirely failed to impress my superiors, who found my 'out-of-hours enthusiasm' for my new job entirely eccentric!
One task entrusted to me was that of collecting the suits that had been especially prepared for ‘photography’, from Kilgour, French and Stanbury in Savile Row, and taking them to the studio.
Yes, you heard me right.
The suits that appeared in our £9.19 shillings and sixpenny ads were actually made at what was, at the time, one of the most famously expensive tailors in London!  
The photographs (if you could call them that, because they were so heavily retouched by the time they appeared in the press they might just as well have been drawings!) were taken in a Chelsea Studio by an elderly but elegant figure, whose principal claim to fame was that, as a young man, he had won the Diamond Skulls at Henley.  
He was also able to 'magic up' tickets for International Rugby matches at Twickenham, which made him a far more important figure than me in the eyes of my immediate bosses!
However by then I'd started buying a new magazine entitled ‘Town’, published by Michael Heseltine, and featuring men’s fashion photography by someone named Terence Donovan.  
His men actually appeared able to move in their clothes, and inhabit real lives - I was impressed, to the degree that I dared to suggest we attempt something similar.
Simply suggesting the possibility of losing those prized Twickenham tickets marked the beginning of the end of my short career at Greenly’s; but it was precisely the stimulus I needed to locate, and eventually join a brand new ad agency, Collett, Dickenson Pearce and Partners, as their very first Assistant Account Executive.
By 1963, that's just two years later, Christine Keeler had effectively turned British society upside down, and not only had I found myself in the right place at the right time, but Greenly’s – in fact the entire Lonsdale Hands Organisation, were well on their way to the 'knackers yard'.
Like the vast majority of my contemporaries, I’d left school at sixteen and never gone to university; but before joining Collett’s I’d spent three years at what was then termed, ‘night school’. 

However CDP served brilliantly as my University, because I found myself working with a number of quite extraordinary people, most of whom were in the 'creative department'. 
The most significant of these was the Creative Director, a rather tyrannical taskmaster named Colin Millward.   
But it was he who taught me more than anyone I ever met;  and he did it in a most unusual way.
I’d take a piece of work into his office for approval and he’d sit and nibble at his nails for a bit and then, in his thick Yorkshire accent say, ‘It’s not very good, is it?’ and I’d say ‘Isn’t it?’ and he’d say ‘No, it’s not very good at all.’ 
And I’d ask ‘What don’t you like about it?’
‘You work it out son.  
Take it away and do it again.  
Bring it back tomorrow.’

I’d leave his office and go back and just stare at the bloody ad.  
Then I’d calm down a bit and talk it over with a copywriter, or one of the art directors, and we’d sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, roundly cursing the source of our pain at the other end of the corridor.   
Unfortunately, 99 times out of 100 Colin Millward was right;  and we would end up producing something significantly better the following day.
A few years later I said to him, ‘You know, you were a real bastard to work for,  I don’t remember you ever giving us much in the way of direction, let alone encouragement.’
‘No’, he said, ‘I did something a bloody sight more valuable;  I taught you to become self-critical, and to work things out for yourself’. 
And it was true, he had. 
And in doing so he’d taught all of us an early and very important lesson - and 'Puttnam's First Law: 
“That which is merely competent, or even good, is only a point of departure; it is seldom, if ever, a point of arrival”.

 
In my last couple of years at CDP, as a so-called Group Head, I was lucky to be assigned a new copywriter, in the shape of a 22 year old named Charles Saatchi, and a few months later the even younger Alan Parker, together with Ridley Scott put in their appearance – and I found myself trying to manage the hottest, youngest and far and away the most fractious team in town!

A great deal has been written about it, and it’s largely true, the mid-sixties was an amazing period, typified by the fact that everything and anything seemed possible;  there was never a sense that any problem could be allowed to defeat us.
That’s a lot less true today, in fact if these past twenty years in  politics has taught me any one thing it's that the stultifying grip of the 'status quo' is ever present, being primarily driven by fear, and that you have to punch very hard to achieve the type of traction you need to effect real and lasting change.
Eventually, and I guess inevitably, I decided to leave the agency and go out on my own. 

My real passion lay in the cinema, and having achieved a reasonable degree of success at the Agency I’d developed sufficient self-confidence to believe I could make a career out of it. 
In hindsight, most of that confidence was based on a quite spellbinding level of ignorance.    
But that potentially lethal combination of confidence and ignorance wasn’t all that unusual in the 1960s!
(Here is Alan Parker talking about our first brush with the media world!)

As Alan and I quickly discovered, the film industry is, in just about every respect, ‘highly creative’, and like all genuinely creative businesses it somehow refuses to conform to any ‘conventional’ business model. 
To illustrate this, let me offer an anecdote from the world of cinema I joined in the late sixties, when the UK’s leading Film Company was still the Rank Organisation - although its image even then was very much set in the early ‘50s!   
It was run by men – and I do mean men, there were no women – and these men habitually dressed in blue blazers which made them look as if they had just sauntered off the eighteenth green at Wentworth golf club. 
In fact, all too often they probably had – something which became ever more apparent as the company’s share price drifted downwards year on year despite the huge injections of cash thrown off by their half-stake in a fairly successful photocopying operation by the name of Xerox! 
Over the years Rank had acquired a host of different elements of the film business – including Pinewood Studios – but now the management wanted to rationalise the way they made movies.   
Surely, they reasoned, they could squeeze far greater efficiencies out of what they still saw as their core business? 

So their late and thoroughly unlamented chairman, Sir John Davis, commissioned a report from McKinsey’s on how the company could make its films in a more effective and less risky fashion. 
After a few weeks pouring over film budgets, shooting scripts, interviews with key personnel and a great deal of head-scratching, the consultancy gurus delivered their answer:  quite simply they said, producing a movie was impossible, and no sane organisation would even dream of accepting the level of risk involved!

Exit McKinsey’s, their pockets filled with gold!

The ‘blue blazers’ ambled off to the nineteenth in search of a stiff gin and tonic, and started plotting Rank’s withdrawal from the business – at exactly the moment their smaller U.S. counterparts, Warner Brothers, Paramount and Universal, got their act together and started to grow - exponentially! 

In fairness, the consultants at McKinsey’s could well have been on to something.   By the standards of any rational business ‘audit’, it may indeed seem impossible to produce a movie.

But it does get done, and sometimes – admittedly not all that often – but from time to time those who produce movies make very decent profits for themselves, as well as for the companies who back them.

I tell this story because it neatly illustrates Puttnam’s Second Law: 
In any creative or innovative enterprise you cannot simply measure yourself against traditional concepts of ‘accountability’. 

Everything moves too quickly, there are just too many crucial decisions to make in too short a period of time.   
So any serious leader or ‘entrepreneur’ will quickly find themselves working principally on the basis of trust - not accountability. 
It’s certainly my experience that an obsession with ‘accountability’ strangles the will to live, let alone the will to adapt and change!   
It also invariably strangles imagination and, with it, genuine creativity – which for me is typified by originality, and flair.



Which quickly leads us to Puttnam’s Third Law:
Networking (like this) among one’s peers early in your career, and then continuing to find other ways to maintain those relationships, is incredibly important – it enables you to start building a genuine 'web of trust'.  
It allows you to figure out which people you can genuinely learn from, and even seek advice and support from in a crisis, whilst all the time remaining true to yourself and the things you continue to believe in.
After my father died I found a quotation from the play ‘Man and Superman’ by George Bernard Shaw, pinned to the underside of his desk:
It said:
'Be true to the dreams of your youth'
My Dad always was.   
And as a result, I’ve certainly always tried to be.
However, there are occasions when it is important to take opportunities as and when they arrive.



By instinct I am somewhat 'opportunistic'.  
I tend to ‘cruise the territory’, and when I spot an opportunity to get something accomplished, I move very quickly -
and I avidly follow-up every lead I get.

I'm not sure how attractive it is, but I’d argue that a lack of tenacity of that sort is a huge inhibitor to achieving your goals.
If I had a pound for every 'wannabe' filmmaker I’ve bumped into in a Soho coffee shop who’s told me that he or she is just waiting for their ‘big break’ – I’d be a fairly wealthy man.
As I'm sure most of you have by now realised – it simply doesn’t happen that way!

However, as Europeans, I’m not sure we’re anything like as ‘tenacious’ as we once were.

I'm concerned that we've fallen into a culture of 'entitlement' that all but encourages people, should things not quite work out as they might have wished, to simply shrug and move on.
Which moves me neatly towards my ‘Fourth Law’.
Something strangely ‘counter-intuitive’ has been happening over the past few years, because even the most successful employers I talk appear oddly reluctant to go out of their way to develop the talents and confidence of the next generation, most particularly through responsible programmes of delegation.   
And yet, as I hope I’ve indicated, everything I’ve learned tells me that commitment, delegation and trust lie at the heart of any successful enterprise – creative or otherwise.
I’ve always believed that absorbing responsibility should, in turn, carry with it an obligation to share one's learning, through teaching or simply networking, so that people starting out, in the middle or even at the end of their careers, have the opportunity to make the very most of their own talents. 
It's about letting them find out what they are capable of, in an environment (rather like the one I enjoyed at CDP) within which you are actively encouraged to be fearless.
 
And that’s increasingly true in environments in which 'change' can easily outstrip the ambitions of those who are foolish enough to believe they constantly have their finger on the pulse. 
In fact it’s my belief that we’ve reached what I’ll call a ‘Radio Caroline’ moment.
That’s to say a political and societal shift in which ‘mainstream’ attitudes have fallen badly behind what is probably best described as, ‘the cultural zeitgeist’.
I’m old enough to have lived through at least two of these ‘revolutions’.   
The first occurred between 1962 and ’64 in that advertising world I was referring to earlier.

Believe it or not in early ’62 most advertising executives still came to work in pin stripe suits - carrying furled umbrellas that made them look remarkably like investment bankers - and their clients liked it that way.

By the end of 1964, such sartorial splendour would probably have lost them both their clients and their job.   

The world had changed and advertising had been forced to change with it.  

Similarly, when I first went to Hollywood in 1969 it was run by half a dozen men, all in their seventies and called Sol, who were married to each other’s sister, chewed large cigars and played poker together at the weekend.
For a decade they had been driving their studios into bankruptcy, chasing their tails in churning out 'mega-buck musicals' - each one worse than the last - chasing the box-office rainbow effect of 'The Sound of Music'.

By the late sixties the ‘Easy Riders’ had successfully driven the last of the Sol’s out of town, and Messrs Scorsese, Coppola and Lucas ruled the roost!

Both those early sixties Ad (or Mad) Men, and their Movie Mogul counterparts had been caught ‘asleep at the wheel’!
Whether we care to admit it or not, as human beings we are, and always have been, sadly but intuitively ‘change resistant’.

 

This was brought home to me in January this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where I shared a panel with Larry Summers, the former US Treasury Secretary, who made the point that:
"Change takes far longer than you expect, but when it does occur, it happens faster than you ever believed possible".
That pace of change is precisely what we're all having to navigate right now, and it's far trickier than most people seem prepared to acknowledge.

So my Fifth law is this:  
Be prepared to share your learning, your experiences and your mistakes at every possible opportunity.
As I hope by now you’ll have realised, it’s the very best way to ensure that you yourself remain equipped to deal with a rapidly changing social environment.

 


I’d like to close with a rather different thought.
It's not really applicable to any of my earlier laws, but certainly something I would urge everyone in this room to think about in relationship to their own lives.
I apologise if it comes across as somewhat 'anglo-centric', but I think the core point I'm trying to make is something that resonates right across the so-called 'developed world'.

As the U.K.'s 'Leveson inquiry into the ethics of the Press' so graphically illustrated, in recent years, the UK as a country, and we as a society, were unquestionably being led down a road that - far from benefitting the 'many not the few' (as politicians of all parties are fond of claiming) - was principally designed to line the pockets and enhance the political clout of the 'already entitled'; at the expense of a far more deserving majority!
At the heart of the problem was a section of the National Press that had unquestionably ‘gone rogue’.

But the really interesting thing that's emerged over the past year or so is that this element of the media had not only been misrepresenting and manipulating the rest of us - but they'd been doing it in a manner that was every bit as damaging as it was profoundly inaccurate!
Now, on what do I base that fairly broad assertion?
  
Well very largely on the experience of watching and visiting last year's amazingly inclusive Olympic and Paralympic Games.

From the moment the Olympic flame touched down, with extraordinary and - let us admit it - quite unexpected levels of enthusiasm, it became impossible to even brush up against those thousands of Olympic volunteers without being struck by the innate politeness, efficiency and effectiveness of literally swathes of considerate men and women.
It begged the question, could this possibly be the same nation that had, for so long, been reflected or refracted, day in and day out, in a sensation-seeking, voyeuristic, celebrity-obsessed media, a media that, as the columnist Simon Jenkins put it, " appeared to have gone collectively tabloid"?
When I was young, there were the daily and the Sunday newspapers, and then there were weekly 'entertainments' such as Reveille and Tit-Bits.  
Nobody could possibly confuse the two, and the editor of Reveille was very unlikely to be offered the editorship of a genuine 'newspaper'.
Sadly, in some cases, they have now become all but indistinguishable.  
In effect, we have Tit-Bits opining on Europe, and Reveille telling us how to get the economy back on track!

And if you step back for one single moment, you begin to see how absolutely daft we've all allowed ourselves to become.

This is a world in which words get distorted and mangled to a point at which they lose all meaning - words like ‘fair’, ‘respect’, ‘kindness’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘value’.

This is a world in which, once serious money is involved, shame and embarrassment appear to have ceased to be any kind of brake on appalling behaviour.
Against that, did the performance of a single Olympian or Para-Olympian in any way shame or embarrass anybody?    I'd be very surprised if that were the case.

In fact for anyone of my age who had begun to believe that the best of the qualities to which I've previously referred had all but died out with our parents' generation, last summer’s Olympics were nothing short of a revelation.

Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Games, famously said that, for him, the Olympics was all about taking part, and doing the best you possibly can in fair competition with other athletes from across the world.

It's been my dream to take that notion one stage further, and to make it even more real.

I’ve long believed that there should be a 'fourth plinth' at every victory ceremony, reserved for the athlete who, in each discipline, has exceeded their 'personal best' by the greatest margin.
Life doesn't offer any of us the opportunity to do more than our best, and I can think of no better way of driving that point home than by celebrating those who have achieved exactly that.

I believe they are entitled to their own medal, which might in turn, prove an intelligent way to begin to unhook ourselves from our present, somewhat juvenile, conception of success.

The great Irish-American philosopher and mythologist, Joseph Campbell, in his seminal work ‘The Hero’s Journey’, refers to what he calls the Hero/Servant – a person who has given his or her life to something bigger than themselves.

It’s Campbell’s belief that there's an element of this in all of us, but that it takes courage, and the right environment, at the right moment, to bring that instinct out in us.

This figure, the Hero/Servant, turns up in the myths, stories and legends of just about every civilisation since the beginning of recorded time.

For me, Eric Liddell, the figure around whom Chariots of Fire was built, represents the very epitome of that Hero/Servant concept.
But I wonder how he would have felt about the culture we now appear to have embraced, and the manner in which it sits with that very aspirational notion.

Because another growing concern is my belief that the 'motto' borrowed by De Coubertin to express his ideal; that's to say Faster, Higher, Stronger - may no longer be 'fit for purpose' in the 21st Century - at least, not without the imaginative addition of a commitment to 'Better'.

And 'better' should not be confused with 'bigger or grander', although you could be forgiven in believing that these two concepts had somehow morphed into one.
The truth is, De Coubertin founded a movement into which he injected a set of ideals which we as human beings have aspired to for at least two thousand five hundred years. 
The world has changed a great deal since the Baron first visited Much Wenlock in Shropshire and conceived the Modern Olympics; but some things have changed very little, if at all.
One way and another we know we still have to find the key to what best constitutes the 'flowering of our humanity' in this new and increasingly difficult century; and to fulfil that purpose we have to utilise every scrap of talent and imagination we can possibly bring to bear.

So here’s my final thought – a Final Law if you like, because it’s certainly something I believe we all desperately need to think about.
As recent global events only serve to demonstrate, should we fail to produce a generation of remarkable leaders - leaders  of  character, vision, integrity and understanding - then we could all too easily find ourselves facing another of those ‘crisis of civilisation’ that have bedevilled societies down through the ages.
Many of you are engaged in the pursuit of making things look good - or at least better than they really are - like my John Collier suits!
Some times that doesn't much matter; but at other times it matters a great deal.
But in an era of ‘Presidential style’ politics we would do well to remember that there is all the difference in the world between looking good, and being good – our need is for genuine leaders, not those who simply respond to the latest opinion poll, or seek to spot the most recent trend; but those who have sufficient wisdom and courage to spell out exactly what they believe lies ahead – the difficulties as well as the opportunities – and are prepared to help us navigate our way through them.

Leaders who will stop pretending they have all, or even most of the answers;  but in whom we can develop a sufficient level of trust to encourage us to take our own share of responsibility for meeting and defeating the challenges, both known and unknown, of the next twenty to thirty years.
I'd like to believe we can - in fact I'm sure we can if we'll only apply our minds to it.

Thank you very much for listening to me.

 

BACK TO TOP