Damien Hirst divides the art world. No one thinks him a good artist, of course. But there are those who despise him for his commercialism, and those who recognise the ingenuity of the man and his innate sense of self-promotion and salesmanship. The apotheosis of this was undoubtedly Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the infamous Sotheby’s auction held on the eve of the global recession. The diamond skull that was the centrepiece of the auction was described as a “vulgar publicity stunt” by The Economist. In the auction’s aftermath, the market for his works “bottomed out”; sales performed poorly versus the contemporary art market as a whole (see chart below). Despite such schadenfreunde, it was satisfying to read a positive review for the artist’s new retrospective, “Relics”, which opened last month in Doha. The exhibition is part of a major push by Qatar to make itself culturally relevant abroad. Indeed, the physical context in which the pieces are set do apparently allow the viewer to judge them anew, without all the tabloid baggage the artist’s works usually bring with them. But concessions have had to be made too:
“In a country where Muslim clerics hold sway, the titles of these works, many of which feature the word “God”, have not been translated into Arabic. Mr Hirst sees the sense in this, admitting that he wants his art to be “provocative in the right way”. Nudes are also virtually banned from public view.”
In an increasingly homogenised culture – by which we simply mean one where content from one nation is easily accessible and ultimately transferable to another – what does being “provocative in the right way” mean?
In New York, such questions were similarly asked in recent months, in particular at the city’s two opera houses. One, the New York City Opera, recently filed for bankruptcy. The house has long been suffering from financial difficulties, and despite a last-minute Kickstarter campaign that raised $300,000+ in a short space of time, the curtain will fall on this institution. Its strategy seemed sound – to not be, rather than to beat, the competition, in this case the Metropolitan Opera. In pursuing this end, they often used American singers and often produced avant-garde works, the most recent and famous of which was undoubtedly Anna Nicole, about a Playboy model who captured the hearts of America’s flyover states before meeting her tragic end. Such courage should be commended, and in a just world, rewarded, but sadly it was not to be. Indeed, the City Opera lost its biggest donor entirely because of this production.
The other of New York’s opera houses, The Metropolitan Opera, a stalwart of tradition, is battling with political ramifications that are happening thousands of miles away. In June this year, in another blow to any sense of fledgling democracy in Russia, President Putin signed into law an act that restricted discussion or promotion of homosexual acts, labelling such things “propaganda”. The New York Times cites one Anton Krasovsky, “a television anchor who was immediately fired from his job at the government-controlled KontrTV network in January after he announced during a live broadcast that he is gay, saying he was fed up with lying about his life and offended by the legislation”. Such news quickly became internationally relevant when mixed messages came from the Kremlin as to whether openly gay athletes would be welcomed at the Sochi Olympic Games next year. Boycotts are being considered. Just as there are openly gay people in sports, so in the arts. The controversy settled on the Metropolitan Opera as it prepared to launch its new season with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The new law, the almost universally acknowledged fact that the composer was homosexual, as well as the presence of talent (soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev) that were known Putin sympathisers, served to create a perfect storm. It was not long before opera fans were pleading with the Met to dedicate its opening night performance in support of homosexuals. Gergiev, an indisputably great conductor, as well as being a “close Putin ally”, according to the Financial Times, has long been dogged by rumours of political favours from the President, and protesters are becoming increasingly vocal. His claim on his Facebook page that the law targeted pedophiles, not homosexuals, pleased few. The stubbornness was mirrored by the Met. Writing an article for Bloomberg, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, attempted to clarify why the house wouldn’t “bow to protest”. Gelb conceded he personally deplored the new law, as much as he deplored the 76 countries that go even further than Russia currently by completely outlawing homosexuality. He went on,
“But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.”
Clearly, Gelb is declaring that such a mention before the performance would not have been – to return to Hirst’s words – “provocative in the right way”. But just as we have called it a perfect storm of political and cultural affiliations, was this not also the perfect opportunity for such a tremendously important institution to take a stand for those people who do not have such a prominent pulpit? Gelb asserts that the house has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause. Progressive thinking and innovation rarely develops from such thinking. Moreover, the Met has stood up for the rights of the marginalised in the past when it refused to play in front of black/white segregated audiences. So a precedent exists, which arguably is not being lived up to.
It would be naive to avoid acknowledging the pitfalls in the knee-jerk use of the arts to constantly promote change and stand against discrimination. In some cases, such calls to action can fall on deaf ears, or worse, provoke outrage that costs the institution and earns it an unfortunate reputation. Such damage to a reputation can be financially devastating (the New York City Opera is to an extent an example of this), which apart from anything else rules out any future opportunities to make such important statements. These organisations are, whether for profit or no, ultimately businesses that cannot afford to support every cause, no matter how relevant. Arts organisations have the rare distinction of often being at the intersection of culture, politics and money (which can often make for a murky combination). Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new fundraising model. Monied interests will usually be conservative in their tastes (why would someone want to change the status quo that allowed them to get where they are?). Increased use of crowdfunding, such as the City Opera briefly used with Kickstarter, will surely play a far greater role in the years to come. Such efforts could go some way to negating the worry of avoiding a few vested interests. What an organisation should or should not publicly speak out on must always rest with the individual situation, as well as how any statement is phrased, which does not necessarily need to condemn a party. As Andrew Rudin, the composer who started the petition to ask the Met to make a statement, implored, “I’m not asking them to be against anybody. I’m asking them to be for somebody”.
This past week, Zeitgeist had the pleasure of enjoying a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”. This adaptation was not performed at the theatre but at the cinema. It was not directed by Kenneth Branagh or any other luminary of the legitimate stage, but rather by the quiet, modest, nerdy Joss Whedon, who until a few years ago was best known to millions as the brains behind the cult TV series phenomenon “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (full disclosure: Zeitgeist worked on the show in his days of youth). Whedon was picked to direct a film released last year that can, without much difficulty, be seen as the apotheosis of the Hollywood film industry; “The Avengers”. A mise-en-abyme of a concept, involving disparate characters, some of whom already have their own fully-fledged franchises, coming together to form another vehicle for future iterations. “The Avengers” became the third-highest grossing film of all time, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Moreover, to go from directing on such a broad canvas to shooting a film mostly with friends in one’s own home – as with “Much Ado…” – displays an impressive range of creative ingenuity.
Sadly for shareholders and studio executives’ career aspirations, not every film is as sure-fire a hit as “The Avengers”, try though as they might (and do) to replicate the same mercurial ingredients that lead to success. Marvel, which originally conceived of the myriad characters surrounding The Avengers mythology, was bought in 2009 by Disney for $4bn. Disney for all intents and purposes have a steady strategic head on their shareholders. They parted ways with the quixotic Weinstein brothers while welcoming Pixar back into the fold. They were one of the first to concede the inevitability of closed platforms release windows – something Zeitgeist has written about in the past – they are debuting a game-changing platform, Infinity, which might revolutionise the way children interact with the plethora of memorable characters the studio have dreamt up over the years. However, such sound business strategy could not save them from the uber-flop that was 2012’s “John Carter”, which lost the studio $200m. This summer, the rationale for their biggest release has been built on what appears to be sound logic; taking the on- and off-screen talent behind their massively successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, and bringing them together again for another reboot in the form of “The Lone Ranger”. The New York Times said the film “descends into nerve-racking incoherence”; it has severely underperformed at the box office, after a budget of $250m. Sony’s “After Earth” similarly underperformed, suddenly throwing Will Smith’s bullet-proof reputation for producing hits into jeopardy.
These summer films – “tentpoles” to use the terminology bandied about in Los Angeles – are where the money is made (or not) for studios. As an industry over the past ten years, Zeitgeist has watched as these tentpoles have become more concentrated, more risk-averse and therefore less original, more expensive and more likely either to produce either stratospheric results or spectacular failures. Paramount is an interesting example of a studio that has made itself leaner recently, releasing far fewer films, and relying on franchises to keep the ship afloat. Edtorial Director of Variety Peter Bart seems to think there’s a point when avoiding risk leads to courting entropy. It’s an evolution that has escaped few, yet is was still notable when, last month, famed directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke out publicly against the way the industry seemed to be headed. Indeed, the atmosphere at studios in Hollywood seems to mimic that of a pre-2008 financial sector; leveraging ever more collateral against assets with significant – and unsustainable – levels of risk. The financial sector uses arcane algorithms and has a large number of Wharton grads whose aim should be to preserve stability and profit. Yet even with all this analysis, they failed to see the gigantic readjustment that was imminent. In the film industry, Relativity Media’s reputation for rigorous predictive models on what will make a film successful is rare enough to have earned it a feature in Vanity Fair. So what hope is there the film industry will change its tune before it is too late? Spielberg pontificates,
“There’s eventually going to be a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”
Instead of correcting course as failures at the box office failed to abate, studios have dug in harder. Said Lucas,
“They’re going for gold, but that isn’t going to work forever. And as a result they’re getting narrower and narrower in their focus. People are going to get tired of it. They’re not going to know how to do anything else.”
Such artistic ennui in audiences is admittedly sclerotic in its visibility at the moment. “Man of Steel”, another attempt at rebooting a franchise – coming only seven years after the last attempt – is performing admirably, with a position still firmly in the top ten at the US box office after four weeks of release, with over $275m taken domestically. It’s interesting to note that audiences have been happy to embrace the new version so quickly after the last franchise launch failed; though actor James Franco finds it contentious, the same has been true with the “Spider-Man” franchise relaunch.
Part of the problem in the industry, some say, is to do with those at the top running the various film studios. In “Curse of the Mogul”, written by lecturers at Columbia University, the authors contend that since 2005 the industry as a whole has underperformed versus the S&P stock index, yet such stocks are still eminently attractive to investors. The reason, the authors say, is that those running the businesses frame the notion of success differently. They argue that it takes a very special type of person (i.e. them) to be able to manage not only different media and the different audiences they reach and the different trends that come out of that, but more importantly (in their eyes) to be able to manage the talent. They asked to be judged on Academy Awards rather than bottom lines. The most striking thing in the book – which Zeitgeist is still reading – is the continual pursuit by said mogul of strategic synergies. This M&A activity excites shareholders but has historically led to minimal returns (think Vivendi or AOL Time Warner), often because what was presented as operational or content-based synergy is actually nothing of the sort. It’s a point Richard Rumelt makes in his excellent book, “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy”. Some companies are beginning to get the idea. Viacom seemed an outlier in 2006 when it divested CBS. Lately, News Corporation has followed a similar tack, albeit under duress after suffering from scandalous revelations about hacking in its news division. A recent article in The Economist states,
“Most shareholders now see that television networks, newspapers, film studios, music labels and other sundry assets add little value by sharing a parent. Their proximity can even hinder performance by distracting management… they have become more assertive and less likely to believe the moguls’ flannel about ‘synergies’.”
So in some ways it was of little surprise that Sony came under the microscope recently as well, part of this larger trend of scrutiny. The company has experienced dark times of late, with shares having plunged 85% over the past 13 years. The departure of Howard Stringer in 2012 coincided with an annual loss of some $6.4bn. Now headed up by Kazuo Hirai, the company has undoubtedly become more focused, with much more being made of their mobile division. Losses have been stemmed, but the company is still floundering, with an annual loss reported in May of $4.6bn. It was only a couple of weeks later that hedge-fun billionaire Dan Loeb – instrumental in getting Marissa Meyer to lead Yahoo – upped his ownership stake in Sony, calling on it to divest its entertainment division in a letter to CEO Hirai. Part of the issue with Sony is a cultural one, where Japan’s ways of working differ strongly from the West’s. This is covered in some detail in a profile with Stringer featured in The New Yorker. In a speech he gave last year, Stringer said, “Japan is a harmonious society which cherishes its social values, including full employment. That leads to conflicts in a world where shareholder value calls for ever greater efficiency”. But Sony’s film division – which includes the James Bond franchise – is performing well; in the year to March 2013 Sony’s film and music businesses produced $905m of operating income, compared with combined losses of $1.9 billion in mobile phones, according to The Economist. It ended 2012 first place among the other film studios in market share. Sony is the last studio to consistently deliver hits across genres, reports The New York Times in an excellent article. The article quotes an anonymous Sony exeuctive, “We may not look like the rest of Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a painstakingly thought-through strategy and a profitable one”. Sadly the strategy behind films like ‘After Earth’ begin to look flimsy when one glances at the box office results. While Hirai and the Sony board concede that have met to discuss the possibility of honouring Mr. Loeb’s suggestion – offering 15-20% of it as an IPO rather than selling it off in full – Mr. Hirai also commented in an interview with CNBC, “We definitely want to make sure we can continue a successful business in the entertainment space. That is for me, first and foremost, the top priority”. In mid-June Loeb sent a second letter, advocating the IPO proposal and saying “Our research has confirmed media reports depicting Entertainment as lacking the discipline an accountability that exist at many of its competitors”. The question is whether selling off its entertainment assets would remove any synergies with other divisions, thus making the divisions left over less profitable, or whether such synergies even existed in the first place. For Loeb, the “most valuable untapped synergies” are still in the studio and music divisions yet after decades as one company they still remain untapped. That point won’t make for pleasant reading at Sony HQ.
Another problem is the changing nature of media consumption habits. Not only are we watching films in different ways over different platforms, we are also doing much else besides, from playing video games, which have successfully transitioned beyond the nerdy clique of yesteryear, to general mobile use and second screening. This transition – and with it a realisation that competition is not likely to come from across regional boarders but from startup platforms – is largely being ignored by the French as they insist on trade talks with the US that centre on the preservation of l’exception culturelle. Such trends are evident in business dealings. The Financial Times this weekend detailed Google’s significant foray into developing content, setting up YouTube Space LA. The project gives free soundstage space to artists who are likely to guarantee eyeballs on YouTube, and lead to advertising revenue for the platform. From the stellar success of the first season of “House of Cards”, to DreamWorks Animation’s original content partnership announced last month, Netflix has become the bête noire for traditional content producers as it shakes up traditional models. We have written before about the IHS Screen Digest data from earlier this year, showing worrying trends for the industry; as predicted, audiences are beginning to favour access over ownership, preferring to rent rather than own, which means less profit for the studio. As much due to a decline in revenue from other platforms as growth in of itself, cinemas are expected to be the major area of profit going forward to 2016 (see above chart). We’ve written before about the power cinema still has. Spielberg and Lucas pick up on this;
“You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It’ll be an expensive thing… [Films] will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the ‘movie’ business.”
In a conversation over Twitter, (excerpts of which are featured above), Cameron Saunders, MD of 20th Century Fox UK told Zeitgeist that “major changes were afoot”. Such potential disruption is by no means unique to the film industry, and should come as a surprise to one. Zeitgeist recently went to see Columbia faculty member Rita McGrath speak at a Harvard Business Review event. In her latest book, “The End of Competitive Advantage”, McGrath discounts the old management consultant attempts at providing sustainable competitive advantages to business. Her assertion is that any advantage is transient, that incumbency and success often lead to entropy, unless there is constant innovation to build on that success. Such a verdict of entropy could well be applied to the film industry. The model has worked well for decades, despite predictions of doom at the advent of television, the VCR, the DVD, et cetera ad nauseum. But fundamental behavioural shifts are now at play, and the way we devise strategies for what content people want to see and how they wish to see it need to be readdressed, quickly. Otherwise all this deliberation will eventually become much ado about nothing.
UPDATE (15/4/13): Of course, context is everything. The New York Times published an interesting article today saying investing in Hollywood is less risky than investing in Silicon Valley, though the returns in the latter are likely to be greater. Neither are seen as reliable.
This issue isn’t going away. We write again about it, here.
The latest issue of Foreign Affairs features the cover article “The Rise of Big Data” by Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenburger, which mostly details some of the incredible ways companies like UPS, Google and Apple have come to rely on vast arrays of numbers in order to run their businesses better. But data has always provided a problem in that it gives a substantive assurance of certainty that has a propensity to foster overconfidence in those relying on it. The article attempts to address this:
“[K]nowing the causes behind things is desirable. The problem is that causes are often extremely hard to figure out… Behavioural economics has shown that humans are conditioned to see causes even where none exist. So we need to be particularly on guard to prevent our cognitive biases from deluding us; sometimes, we just have to let the data speak.”
The sentiment here is admirable, and the context perceptive. But the final part of the quotation (my emphasis) assumes wrongly that data can speak objectively, that there is a fundamental ‘truth’ in a number. All too often though the wrong things are measured, or not all variables are measured. What data does not record, or worse, cannot record, can often be overlooked. While ostensibly data is there to provide assistance with building models and predicting future trends and movements, it sometimes leads to a very narrow view of one particular future, and fails to account for possibilities, that, though while unlikely, could potentially be devastating. This is what Nicholas Taleb writes about in his by turns unreadable but seminal work, Black Swan. The fictional, paranoid loner Fox Mulder of the hit series The X-Files had it right fifteen years ago when he lamented “in a universe of infinite possibilities, we may find ourselves at the mercy of anyone or anything that cannot be programmed, categorised or easily referenced”. The financial system before 2008 was a victim of such narrow thinking.
Hendrik Hertzberg, in his Talk of the Town column “Preventive Measures” in this week’s The New Yorker, made the adroit analogy with the 2002 film Minority Report in our quest to categorise and predict acts of crime. Hertzberg points out that in reality this “turns out to be a good deal more difficult than investigating such an act once it occurs”. Indeed, such prediction methods are being implemented, just with somewhat less efficacy than in the Tom Cruise movie. The stop-and-frisk procedure currently employed by the New York Police Department points to a sustained effort to engage in preventative measures to reduce crime, effectively what Cruise and his myrmidons were doing, albeit without the help of psychic imagery as in the film. While the psychic “Pre-Cogs” turned out to occasionally disagree, the success rate with stop-and-frisk is even less attractive. “In the final months of 2012″, writes the New York Times, only 4% of stops resulted in an arrest. But what is this low figure telling us…?
Hertzberg also alludes to the dilemma of mountains of data, produced without concern for oversight or management; producing more just because it’s possible to produce it, rather than thinking about the implications:
“This fall, the National Security Agency, the largest and most opaque component of the counter-terrorism behemoth, will [open] a billion-dollar facility [analysing] intercepted telecommunications… each of the Utah Data Center’s two hundred (at most) professionals will be responsible for reviewing five hundred billion terabytes of information each year, the equivalent of twenty-three million years’ worth of Blu-ray DVDs… that’s a lot of overtime.”
The other problem this data poses – and increasingly this goes for many industries that are jumping on the Big Data bandwagon – is that intelligence departments and businesses alike are now technically able to put quantifiable targets and figures to what they want to achieve, without considering whether such targets are actually applicable. Police claim the low stop-to-arrest ratio implies that they are preventing crimes by stopping someone before they act. There is nothing to argue otherwise. The New York Times article alludes to the debate over what ratio or percentage the Supreme Court would be comfortable with under the tenet of “reasonable suspicion”. This leads down a dangerous path where we treat data as an answer to a question, rather than as supporting evidence to an answer.
A great ad featured during a commercial break in the Academy Awards broadcast tonight on ABC. There’s no shortage of data out there pointing to the decimation of the retail sector, and we have written on the subject before. Stores cannot be promoted from a practical viewpoint any more; the internet has put paid to that. The irrational, emotional connection is what companies like JCP – after enduring troubles with another rebrand – are counting will bring customers into store. It’s a nice ad that feels genuine.
UPDATE (28/2): Great advertising sadly can’t always save a company from poor financial performance. The stock dipped today by over 20% as the company backtracked on a previous strategy, deciding to hold daily sales after completely swearing them off a year ago. Walter Loeb, a retail consultant and former senior retail analyst at Morgan Stanley, proclaims the company “lost its core customer during the transformation”. Oops.
UPDATE (25/3): James Surowiecki, writing in The New Yorker, has a good piece on jcp’s trials and tribulations, here.
Zeitgeist has found himself leading projects several times over the past year. The prospect can sometimes be a challenging one, and the received wisdom is that looking to the past can help shed light on the future. Looking at both recent and ancient history, however, says one thing more than anything else; leaders are a victim of circumstances. Any strategy must adapt to context.
As a 20-something Londoner with money to burn, Zeitgeist naturally found himself on Saturday night sitting at home, reading The New Yorker. The fascinating review by Dexter Filkins of recent biographies on David Petraeus, former CIA director and responsible for the execution of the ‘surge’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, painted an interesting portrait of what leadership is about. He recognised that the system in place in the early days of Iraq of rounding up countless civilians in order to ferret out insurgents was not an efficient one, nor was it especially effective. Rather, as Filkins points out, “I witnessed several such roundups, and could only conclude that whichever of these men did not support the uprising when the raids began would almost certainly support it by the time the raids were over”. Leadership, then, in this case, came in the ability to spot a deficiency, and then building on it by offering a better solution. Petraeus, who liked to say that “money is ammunition”, focused on the civilians they wanted to protect, rather than the enemy they wanted to kill. This was a drastically radical notion at the time in the military. True leadership narratives are often riddled with anecdotes of absolute maverick behaviour of this kind. The fallacy is that, and this is one of Taleb’s main points in his book on uncertainty, Black Swan, the stories of those whose maverick ideas did not work out rarely make for interesting books or films. Few songs will be written about those guys.
Just as Petraeus was able to leverage the time in which he happened to be serving in order to spot something that he could perceive to be at fault and have the opportunity to amend, there is then an element of luck involved too. “I have plenty of clever generals”, Napoleon once said, “Just give me a lucky one”. Petraeus’ luck began with being around at the right time in order to see how things could be different. It continued when he managed to shepherd his idea for the ‘surge’ to fruition. While at the time the idea of deploying an extra 25,000 soldiers to Iraq was greeted with some mixed reactions to the say the least, it can certainly be said to have paid off in large part. It was another example of a maverick move that panned out well. However, as Filkins points out, the timing of it all was what made it such a success. The Awakening, a phrase given to Sunni-orchestrated truces with US troops that began before the surge, was instrumental. Filkins writes, “Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Almost certainly not”. The Awakening most assuredly featured tactically in the execution of the surge, but you can be sure it was never part of the strategy. Perhaps it was the failure to notice this, and the attractiveness of the holistic narrative – another fallacy that Taleb notes in his book – that led to a surge being attempted, with far less success, in Afghanistan. What works in one place at one time, might not work again.
Zeitgeist is also currently wading through the Marie Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser. It is quite extraordinary to note how many times the autocratic aristocracy are a victim of circumstances, rather than being able to dictate their own fate through their own policies and leadership. In the long-term, though greeted with warmth at the start of her reign, Marie Antoinette was always treated with a modicum of suspicion by the people of France, hailing from Austria, a country of lukewarm political relations and which culturally left many an ordinary Frenchman cold. It was long-gestating prejudices such as these that helped blacken the Queen’s name. The phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ had been ascribed to various monarchs going back over a century before Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne. In the medium-term, the support France provided in the American war of independence was pivotal. The Treasury spent an enormous amount of money funding the war, which was seen as a proxy battle with England. This action alone nearly bankrupted with country. But, away from finances, there was the ideological lens to consider as well. Landed gentry like Lafayette, who left nobly at the King’s command to support the war, returned not only as lauded heroes, but as heroes who had been fighting with a group of people who yearned to be free of a suppressive, royalist regime. Such thinking proved infectious, and was not forgotten when men like Lafayette returned home. Finally, in the short-term, an absolutely ruinous stroke of weather stunted harvests, creating mass famine across the country in the lead-up to the revolution. All such things were manageable to an extent by the royalty, but truthfully the origins of such influences were out of there hands.
CEOs today are seen as less wizard-like than they were five or ten years ago, when moguls, particularly in the media industry, bestrode the globe, acquiring companies at their whim, creating ‘synergy’ where none really existed in the first place (think AOL Time Warner). The paradigm shift of course has been in the global recession that few – including many a lauded business leader – foresaw. Confidence in such people has been shaken. What history tells us about the ways to handle leadership then can be summarised as the following: 1. Know your environment. Externalities and trends are likely to influence your business, and not always in obvious ways. 2. Be mindful of context. What works somewhere might not work in the same way again. 3. Appearance, rightly or wrongly, counts for a great deal. 4. When you choose to do something can sometimes be as important as the thing you are trying to do itself. 5. A small amount of luck can go a long way.
“Everything has become more experiential”
- Dante D’Angelo, brand and consumer development director at Valentino
It is an odd state of affairs indeed for the retail sector at the moment. On the one hand, consumers are flocking to digital devices like never before, particularly for their shopping. Conversely, this means that the physical experience of shopping becomes rarer, creating more opportunities for specialism. An article in the Financial Times a few weeks ago read as if a commercial plague had swept through the UK high street over the past few years. With 4,000 stores affected, 2012 was, according to data from the Centre for Retail Research, the “worst year since the start of the credit crisis in 2008″. Names of erstwhile stalwarts like Woolworth’s, Jessop’s, Peacocks and Clinton Cards have all fallen under the knife. As we wrote at the beginning of last month, what little salvation there is lies in embracing digital technologies.
The luxury sector however has its own special, gilt-edged cards to play. In St. Tropez, the Christian Dior boutique’s ample courtyard has recently been made use of with an all-day restaurant. Louis Vuitton have a cinema screening classic Italian films in their Rome boutique. It’s no wonder such brands have also branched into the hospitality sector, the former working with the St. Regis to develop branded rooms, the latter into full-scale hotel management. Ferragamo have been involved in the hotel sector for years. Two recent examples show how companies can extend the experience for visitors, and help drive revenue at the same time.
The auction house Sotheby’s will tomorrow auction a rather large collection of surrealist art. One of the few things that definitively puts it ahead of Christie’s is that it has its own cafe, which, last week and this week, is pushing the surrealism theme into its catering (see above menu). It’s a simple, creative idea that creates a cohesive brand, celebrates a big event, and ultimately hopes to drive revenue from peripheral streams around the auction. The RA’s current Manet exhibition is taking a leaf from this tactic, opening later but charging double the usual rates for a special experience, including a drink and a guide. The other interesting news of note was a new tactic being employed by the fashion company Valentino. Not content merely with having a major exhibition at London’s Somerset House, the label is also tinkering in an innovative way with its event structure. As detailed last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, Valentino is opening a new boutique in New York later this year, during which the typical glitterati will be in attendance. However, the new idea comes in the form of the company inviting prized customers to the opening for the chance to rub shoulders with said VIPs, for a steep price. Similarly, Gucci is offering its non-VIP customers tours of its Florence workshops for the first time.
Something that Zeitgeist has been noticing for a couple of years now, recently echoed by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) senior partner Jean-Marc Bellaiche, is the importance, particularly for those in their 20s – like Zeitgeist – that people place in defining themselves by what they’ve done rather than what they own: “In an era of over-consumption, people are realizing that there is more than just buying products… Buying experiences provides more pleasure and satisfaction”. On a macro level there is significant bifurcation in the retail market; not everyone will be able to afford in creating extraordinary experiences for their customers. A recent BCG report helps illustrate this, noting that while the apparel sector as a whole saw shareholder returns fall by 1.3% for the period 2007-2011, the top ten players produced a weighted average annual total shareholder return of 19%. Expect then for retailers – those that can – to increasingly provide exclusive experiences to their customers, beyond the celebrity, whether it be early product releases, tours, or events. Just don’t expect it to come without a pricetag.
“If all signs are autonomous and refer only to one another, it must seem to follow that no image is truer or deeper than the next, and that the artist is absolved from his or her struggle for authenticity.”- Robert Hughes, 1989
Tom Wolfe, one of America’s greatest living writers, recently had his latest work, Back to Blood, excerpted in Vanity Fair. In it, the author excoriates the miasma of power, money, influence and ignorance that surrounds the contemporary art market. Wolfe describes the billionaires descending on Art Basel Miami as a “raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots”. What has become of art, its pursuit and its collection?
The pursuit of excellence can sometimes can be a quixotic quest, all the more so when dealing with something as ephemeral as art, and particularly with the contemporary art market today. But how does excellence, or authenticity, in art cope with a nexus of questionable experts and highly liquid but bifurcating market, in a world where promotion is all?
Part of this problem resides in the question of expertise, its influence and its value. If one thinks of artists in the period of the Italian Renaissance, the quality of the fresco or sculpture is mostly self-evident in the verisimilitude of the work. Moreover, the media worked with often necessarily involved painstaking, long-term commitment and toil. What artists like Marcel Duchamp began and Andy Warhol perfected was the thought that works of art should be valued by their conceptualism. In other words, not necessarily how much time or effort was put into making an object, or whether it was any “good”, aesthetically speaking, but with more emphasis on the power of the underlying idea – representation – behind the work. “Art can be expressed purely as a thought or action”, wrote the FT recently. This postmodern concept has not evolved since the time of Warhol. Without being able to critique the amount of expertise in the manufacturing of an object, it becomes harder to address the worth of an object, unless you are in the presence of a designated ‘expert’. The situation risks creating an echo chamber of unedifying art that speaks to no-one and is so self-reflexive it loses all meaning. It also allows for an artificial inflation of prices, creating a false market that shuts out all but the ultra-rich, whose tiny but influential numbers can significantly skew the market. One need only look at how much the Chinese taste for wine is influencing global production to see such an instance in action.
Such points were neatly summed up recently by the prestigious art critic and lecturer Dave Hickey, when he announced he was leaving the art world:
Writers, dealers, curators, advisers have become “a courtier class – intellectual headwaiters to very rich people”. For this 0.01%, “art is cheaper than it’s ever been” but “nobody cares if it’s any good, and everybody hates it when something’s really great”
The ‘experts’ who assign value to contemporary art objects have come full circle. Rightly recognising that there is art worth shouting about beyond an arbitrary, Westernised canon, it has now gone too far in the other direction. As a brilliant FT article on the subject recently pointed out, “The market loves theory because it spares the need for discrimination.” Making matters worse, the article quotes gallerist David Zwirner lamenting, “connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down upon”. All of which leads to a highly fragile concentration of expertise and financial capital sitting with a select few. If we look again at the wine industry, American wine critic Robert Parker was at one time so influential that growers in France began changing their product purely to suit his taste so as to earn a higher rating on his guide. Zeitgeist asked art critic Brian Sewell at a debate earlier this year whether influential patrons such as Charles Saatchi and Francois-Henri Pinault were playing a similar role in the contemporary art world; shifting value perceptions of art and artists according to their personal whim. It helps little when major collectors like Frank Cohen admit publicly that they have “bought a load of bullshit”. The quotation may sound flippant, but it underscores the massive influence the bullshit they have bought has on the broader prices in the art market.
Art adviser Lisa Schiff spoke openly about this recently to Forbes magazine, saying she was “worried that there are a lot of young artists that could really take a nosedive”.This influence is being felt keenly right now with small but highly influential – and influenced – groups of buyers in Russia, Brazil and China. But as the BRIC regions continue to stall, what will happen to arbitrarily in-demand art and artists if these markets suffer further losses or even a sudden shock? Such problems are further compounded by the massive rise and fear of litigation, as previous, bona fide experts able to certify works as being genuine are being scared away by the threat of legal action.
So there’s an expertise fallacy here, one which is not restricted to the world of art. Elsewhere, marketing, something that admittedly has always been part of the selling of art to an extent, is becoming increasingly essential for a successful artist or studio. The Montoya exhibition currently on at The Halcyon Gallery in London represents the epitome of this new trend. Full-page ads in The Economist and 30-second spots on CNBC (see beginning of article) are being taken out for the exhibition, placed seemingly without irony at the feet of the very audience the art seems to be mocking, or at least parodying. It is the increasing lack of ironic awareness that creates an emptiness in the purchase and reputation of some of today’s bigger artists, including Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami. Interestingly, the latter two have both seen stratospheric success that goes beyond the confines of the art world, helped in part by collaborations with luxury goods company Louis Vuitton.
The marketing of art is at its most visible at contemporary art fairs – of which there are now more than 200 annually around the world – mentioned earlier as a subject of Tom Wolfe’s new work. Frieze, which takes place annually in London, is one of the most well-known. It was intriguing to see that this year saw the debut of Frieze Masters, which some saw as an attempt to breathe new life into an event that had begun to lose its ability to surprise. It was also seen as a deliberate attempt to focus attention on more established names in order to avoid some of the volatility the market has seen with newer, less-known artists. So the market isn’t so insular that it doesn’t recognise the need for significant change.
Collecting art is something that few of us can turn into a committed past-time. Moreover, the vagaries of art over the past ten years-plus have been such that only a select few would be able to decipher the worth of a current artist’s produce. The value of their art has been dulled by demographic shifts and concentrations, by overly-excessive marketing tactics and by a reduction and muddling of the nature of what it means to be an expert. Regulation of the sector seems overdue, as conflicts of interest and an oligopolistic marketplace seem to cry out for legal oversight. Some of these problems are not restricted to the art world and it will be interesting to see if a paradigm shift sits on the horizon. The Internet is providing some antidote to this. Recent online-only auctions by Christies – one of ArtInfo’s top ten stories that moved the art market in 2012 – have made the process of bidding for items extremely popular, and small art-sellers like Exhibition A are illustrating there is room for innovation in the industry. Is the art market in an aesthetic and financial bubble, and will it burst? Time will tell.