Life and Death on a Stage

February 10th, 1949 saw the first night of a new play directed by Elia Kazan. As the final curtain fell, the cast was greeted by a stunned silence that stretched into eternity.

Then the auditorium of Broadway’s Morosco Theatre exploded with cheers and applause.

After many curtain calls, the audience still refused to leave.

Some of them were in tears.

And no one was sobbing harder than the producer, Cheryl Crawford.

She had been offered the chance to produce Death of a Salesman—and turned it down.

So Kermit Bloomgarden took a chance, and now he had produced the hit of the season.

Death of a Salesman would win a bucketful of awards including both the Pulitzer and the Tony for best play.

It would make a star of actor Lee J. Cobb and cement the reputation of its author Art Miller.

And it would live among the contenders for best American play ever written.

When Crawford passed on the play, such acclaim seemed unlikely.

Death of a Salesman is a serious play.

The title is not in the least metaphorical, spoiler alert: the salesman dies!

The play chronicles the splintering of the American dream.

Critics have debated whether it’s a tragedy, or a play with tragic elements, but it is certainly a depressing play.

On top of this non-commercial story, the plot unfolds in layers of present time and flashbacks, a device borrowed from the movies.

Not everyone was convinced this could work on stage, or that audiences would understand when a scene was supposed to be taking place.

Investors had committed to the project, sight unseen, based on the reputations of those involved.

When they actually got to read the play their reaction was not altogether positive.

Some reduced their investment.

Others pulled out all together.

In terms of financing this was a hiccup, but the doubts, as doubts often do, became contagious.

Kazan decided Miller should rewrite the play in chronological order.

Reluctantly Miller agreed.

It took Bloomgarden to get the project back on track.

After reading the new draft he said succinctly, “This piece of shit I will not do.”

He arguably saved a masterpiece, but then it was his turn to have doubts.

The word “death” in the title was off-putting, and Bloomgarden wanted a new title.

This time it was Miller’s turn to stand his ground.

He pointed out a current flop called: A Smile of the World as proof that a happy title didn’t guarantee a hit.

These stutter-steps, doubts, half-doubts and reaffirmations will be familiar to anyone who works in a creative industry.

It’s not unlike the dynamic in many agencies.

Get the combination right and the campaign’s a hit.

Get it badly wrong and you’re looking for a job.

It takes strong stomachs.

The salesman died, but there was a birth to celebrate too.

As Garson Kanin observed, “At the time the play was in rehearsal he was only a playwright named Art Miller.

After it opened he became Arthur Miller.”





The Invisible Brief

In 1999 Harvard psychologists Christopher Chabris and Donald Simons conducted a famous experiment on selective attention. If you’d like to try the original experiment, you can find it here before I spoil it.

If you're not going to try it, here’s how it works.

Two teams simultaneously pass two basketballs.

Participants were asked to count how many times the team in white passes the ball.

While they are carrying out this task, a person in a gorilla suit walks across the screen.

Incredibly, the experiment shows that roughly 50% of participants fail to notice the gorilla even though it’s in plain view for 9 seconds.

Proving that when we are completely engrossed in a task, we are quite likely to miss what’s happening around us.

This metaphor applies very well to business.

Companies get so engrossed in day-to-day operations that they fail to spot important trends.

And get blinded sided by the obvious.

And few things are more obvious than the proverbial 900 pound gorilla.

Blockbuster’s gorilla was Netflix.

RIM’s gorilla was the iPhone.

Groupon’s gorilla is a lack of sustainable merchant benefit.

And this metaphor also applies to advertising on an almost daily basis.

Explaining why 90% of advertising is crap.

Because between the strategy documents, the PowerPoint presentations and media charts, the obvious has gone missing on Madison Avenue and along Shoreditch.

(Not that the condition is limited to London and New York.)

It occurs everywhere the industry is too busy complicating things to remember what a simple business advertising essentially is.

Everywhere agencies fail to recognize the invisible brief.

So here it is made fully visible:

Get noticed and remembered for being relevant.

It’s guaranteed to improve any brief.

And it’s often the only one you need.