Monday, November 14, 2011

The application of Original Modern

I had the pleasure of interviewing the archly fashionable Nick Johnson from Urban Splash last week. He's also the chairman of Marketing Manchester, the tourist board in old money. He told a good tale of how he took the themes of his university dissertation - urban living - and explained how that then inspired him to work with Jim Ramsbottom on Castlefield, and then with Tom Bloxham at Urban Splash.

In the aftermath of the IRA bomb in 1996 the city's marketing response was deemed pretty crap - "we're up and going" - to which the reaction was "you cannot be serious". Out of that reaction came a stroppy group that met at Johnson's bar - Atlas - and said "enough". They called themselves the McEnroe Group and have since gone on to form part of the ruling class in the city: Colin Sinclair, Bloxham, Johnson, Andy Spinoza, Eliot Rashman, the late Tony Wilson was around them too. Their adoption of the ideas of urban geographer Richard Florida - who's work, The Rise of the Creative Class - inspired the decision to hire Peter Saville as the City's first creative director.

So, we covered all of that. Nick also revealed that Saville was cheaper than the others but was hired because he was prepared to challenge established wisdom. And he still does, to be fair. It was Saville's initial articulation of the "brand values" of "original modern" that Johnson described as an "economic development strategy".

Anyway, Nigel Sarbutts, who was in the audience for the interview, says he wasn't happy that the city adequately applies or articulates the aspiration. Well, maybe he didn't say exactly that. What he did say is here. "Ultimately Original Modern is an idea in search of substance. It is a hollow slogan and the truth of its weakness is that it was overshadowed overnight in August by a thousand flyers in shop windows, reproducing a logo copied from New York circa 1975."

I feel slightly glum reading that. Not because he's wrong, but because that last bit about the August response, as I said here, is so true. It doesn't detract however from how a big idea like original modern has been reduced to what it was never intended to be. There has always been a danger that Manchester gets carried away - but for me, there is much of modernity and originality abounding. It's time to proclaim it.

There are also plenty of forums where new ideas and new explorations of what the city has and what more can be discovered about Manchester are taking place. There is a thirst for knowledge and ideas beyond our narrow immediate concerns. I picked this up at the recent Science Festival, at the Cockford Rutherford Lecture and through some of the awesome offerings at Manchester's own Literature Festival and this weekend at the Salford University "Believe" day. And then there are the things I haven't had time to see - like Dave Haslam's interviews and conversations.

Someone like Nick Johnson can't have all the answers all the time. He's got a day job as well as a brief to keep the tourist board lively, motivated and on top of the city's assets to tell great stories. But it was a stimulating experience and hopefully useful for those that gave up their lunch hour to attend.


Rob said...

Loved both Michael and Nigel's posts. As a young(ish) native who likes to think he knows his onions, I have massive respect for the members of the McEnroe Group whose legend persists.

Ultimately, they were the people whose 'do or die' mentality dragged the city out of being a battered, unloved museum piece into a polished, prosperous museum piece, (with some other, new, shiny stuff added on) and allowed us to emerge from the last decade as the UK's assumed, 2nd city.

As with most dictatorships however, complacency ultimately sets in. Your posts raise suspicion that a laissez-faire attitude has well and truly crept in. That this would apply to our creative leaders is understandable, given that our politicians and town planners are showing similar signs of indiscipline.

It might be indicative of the national identity crisis (What is it exactly that we're good at these days? What next?), but the city needs something more substantial and longer term than 'I Love Manchester' and 'Manchester Day' to establish a new identity. It's meaningless.

Surely the McEnroe Group members will remember, as former young upstarts with drive and ambition themselves, that their generation acheived what they did (the Factory/Hacienda era onwards - Urban Splash, Bench/Hooch, City Life, Love Saves The Day etc) in spite of out of touch, local bureaucrats. Historians may wish to correct me, but that period of time saw the city's creatives abandoned (a great driver for change) or opposed (likewise) by authority.

Now that they're in the position of power, they'd do well to think of the past and consider being more helpful guardians of the city by dictating less and giving the next generation some meaningful tools in which to get things moving (predictably we're talking funding, training, mentoring, lobbying for improved start up conditions etc.)and then do the right thing: get out of the way and let a genuine, new, original/modern identity develop.

Michael Taylor said...

I think it's only fair to take this conversation and place it in its proper context.

Mike Perls, chairman of the MPA, had this to say on a comment underneath a story on a media industry site that took Nigel's blog out of context.

"I find a few things depressing about all of this.

"The foremost one is that Nick Johnson didn't say that Saville was hired because he was the cheapest and desperate for work. This fact negates the credibility of Nigel's blog, this story in The Drum and the comment threads that follow. He did say that Peter was the cheapest (as an amusing aside in the context of the other world branding experts that were considered and that Peter rightfully takes his place amongst) and he did say that Peter was, at that time desperate for work (again as an aside) but he was extremely clear that the reason Peter got the job was because of his insight and challenge.

"Maybe it's just because I get the Original Modern philosophy but I feel Peter delivered and then some. I love the context, challenge and provocation that Original Modern offers us all as the benchmark for our vision and business objectives. Maybe it's because some just want a strap line for the city - (let's call them the "Up and Going" crowd) that there is so many myths being perpetuated. I'm not the only one who feels this way (check out Michael Taylor's blog for a journalist's view of the event and philosophy).

"This event was part of the MPA World Class series. The aim is to raise people's vision and to appreciate that we can compete globally. We have had some incredible events in this series (helped immensely by our partners, Deloitte and Insider) including Andy Baker at MoFilm, Photolink, McKinnon and Saunders) but this event was totally inspiring. To hear Nick talk about his achievements, visions, hopes and fears achieved everything that this World Class series was all about and the feedback from the majority who attended has been heartwarming. People went away fired up and motivated to activate the Original Modern philosophy in their workspaces. This was a world class event with a world class thinker.

"I'm all for debate but to see such a fine event with such a fine output turned into a 'cheap' story because of a quote taken entirely out of context saddens me. Knowing as well the respect that Peter and Nick hold for each other makes anybody who knows both aware of how ludicrous the quote is.

"The one thing that doesn't depress me is knowing that the MPA is still delivering on it's promise to raise the level of debate in the creative industries. This event is typical of what you can expect. To gain the proper context of what our world class speakers are actually saying next time, don't take it from a blog or a story based on a blog but come and witness it yourself and make your own mind up. ("

Michael Taylor said...

Rob, I think the establishment tag may have been harsh. Marketing Manchester are unbelievably open to fresh ideas and input. Following the riots and the campaign that followed there was a wide open session that encouraged ideas.

There is nothing complacent about Manchester's civic leadership. I'm sorry if you drew that conclusion.

Michael Taylor said...

The definition of original modern is here: