Marketing and communications executives are obsessed with “message consistency.” We want our audiences to form the same impressions of our brands whether they’re reading magazine advertisements carefully designed by our creative team, exploring our company Facebook page, or discussing our organization with our employees at a trade show. But sometimes our interest in consistency and polish makes us blind to a great idea that doesn’t obviously conform to our agreed-upon way of doing things.
I was reminded of this lesson recently from two unlikely sources: a book about the Beatles and a great Steve McQueen movie.
Here, There and Everywhere
In his book Here, There and Everywhere, Geoff Emerick recounts his experiences as principal sound engineer on landmark Beatles albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Through his partnership with the Beatles and producer Sir George Martin, Emerick had developed a strong intuition for the Beatles sound. He knew what the Beatles wanted, and he knew how to translate the group’s talents into ground-breaking music.
But oftentimes, the creative drive of the Beatles pushed Emerick beyond his comfort zone. He recalls the time that he was mixing the sound for “I Want You,” the angst-ridden John Lennon masterpiece from Abbey Road. Although most of the song had been mixed, no one could decide how “I Want You” should end. Emerick writes, “When they recorded the backing track, the Beatles had just played on and on, with no definitive conclusion, so I assumed I would be doing a fadeout. John had other ideas, though. He let the tape play until just twenty seconds or so before the take broke down, and then all of a sudden he barked out an order: ‘Cut the tape here.’
‘Cut the tape?” I asked, astonished. We had never ended a song that way, and an abrupt ending like that didn’t make any sense unless the track was going to run directly into another one. But that wasn’t the case here, because it had already been decided that ‘I Want You’ was to close side one of the album. My protestations had no impact on John: his decision was absolute . . . so I got out the scissors and sliced the tape at precisely the point John indicated . . . At the time I thought he was out of his mind, but due to the shock factor it ended up being incredibly effective, a Lennon concept that really worked.”
Emerick’s anecdote is instructive to marketing, communications, and PR pros. We believe we’re good at what we do because we understand our clients, our employees, and our audiences. But how do you react when your client pushes you beyond your comfort zone? How willing are you to embrace the new?
Recently I revisited the famous Steve McQueen movie Bullitt on DVD, and on this particular occasion I listened to the commentary track by director Peter Yates.
Yates’s commentary offers a fascinating insight into the tensions of trying to create art while succeeding commercially. Bullitt is famously remembered for one of the most exciting car chases in film history as well as an effective use of the city of San Francisco almost as a character of its own. And yet, as Yates recalls, the now-famous car chase came about for the most seemingly prosaic reason: Yates and Steve McQueen were just so in love with cars that they found an excuse to shoot a car case.
Yates also describes many other moments where his personal fascination with cars informed the way he filmed the movie, such as choosing many scenes to be shot near freeways. As the Yates remembers, freeways are like veins pumping blood into the city.
Think about that for a moment: today such an experience would be carefully controlled and choreographed by a studio and producer, and unless you’re Steven Spielberg, the movie is going to get made in spite of, not because of, something as whimsical as the director’s personal love for cars and freeways. Yet, look at the outcome: Bullitt gives me an experience far superior that what today’s big-budget, overproduced Hollywood product can give me.
Marketers are often the ones acting as producer to a project manager’s direction. How do we accommodate an inspired personal vision in our work? How have you done so? I’d love to know.