The Business Lessons Of Wolf Hall

Ben Miles in Wolf Hall at The Aldwych excels in what must be a career defining role as the tough but tender, honourable but ruthless fixer, Thomas Cromwell. Watching him, I couldn’t help thinking of the occasions I’ve been in Cromwell’s situation.

Photo of Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall
Ben Miles

The story of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII as told by Hilary Mantel in her Booker Prize winning books has lessons for anyone in politics or business. I saw Wolf Hall last week in a brilliant stage adaptation at The Aldwych and can’t wait to see the second part Bring Up The Bodies next month.

Ben Miles excels in what must be a career defining role as the tough but tender, honourable but ruthless fixer, at the King’s shoulder but always looking over his own shoulder, ingratiating himself with jokes and honest advice, bowing as low as etiquette requires but never bowing inside his head, scurrying from court to home ever at the King’s will.  Watching him, I couldn’t help thinking of the occasions I’ve been in Cromwell’s situation.

To survive in those times as a politician, you were entirely dependent on the King, just as employees are today on the autocratic bosses who run many of our companies. Cromwell succeeds by keeping close to the King and by offering good advice. The problem for him is that the King likes to blame his advisors for his poor decisions.

I remember once working for a boss to whom I became right-hand man. He liked me because I gave him solutions not problems, just as Cromwell finds King Henry a solution to his problem with his first wife. But, as time went on, I made the mistake of just getting on with the problem solving without involving him. This gave others the opportunity to get close to him and undermine my position.

It was then I found, as Cromwell will in the third book, that loyalty counts for a lot less than you might hope, in business as in politics. This particular chief exec always made great play of the company being like a family. This meant very little when he was faced with a choice between pursuing self interest or the interests of the business. It turned out that if the company was a family, it was more Borgias than Waltons.

My loyalty to him which had been unquestioning was repaid with a push through the door. It was a harsh lesson for me. I still believe that you won’t get loyalty in business unless you show it but I am also much more aware since then that most people will not put loyalty above survival. Still, at least I didn’t have my head chopped off.

A version of this blog originally appeared on the Daily Echo website. It was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.

Research Makes Great Theatre (& Great Marketing)

I nearly always enjoy the experience but it’s very rare that I recapture the excitement I felt when I first sat in a theatre as a child and the lights went down and actors came on stage to tell a story. But it happened last week at the Young Vic in London.

I fell in love with theatre as a child and have been going now for over fifty years. I’ve seen hundreds of performances and I nearly always enjoy the experience but it’sScene from A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic very rare that I recapture the excitement I felt when I first sat in a theatre and the lights went down and actors came on stage to tell a story.

But it happened last week at the Young Vic in London. The play was Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, which is brilliantly written of course but this was all about the production and the acting.

Mark Strong, Nicola Walker and Phoebe Fox played the three central characters- a husband, wife and the wife’s teenage niece whom they had raised. The stage, with the audience on three sides, was completely bare. The actors were in bare feet. Everything in Ivo Van Hove’s production was was focused on the words and the acting. And what acting.

Having great dialogue helps but you still need to be able to speak it with conviction. This company’s deep understanding- of the words, the rhythms, the nuances, the silences, the looks- drew me into their world totally.

It isn’t always so. Only the night before I had been at the Nuffield Theatre to see three short plays by Noel Coward. Coward is no Arthur Miller but he did write terrific dialogue and told good stories. Yet the cast seemed to have no sense of the rhythm and brittle brilliance of his language. As a marketer and businessman, I know that to do anything effectively, you need to research. The Young Vic knew Miller’s Italian Americans in 1950s New York, the Nuffield didn’t know Coward’s Home Counties British in the 1930s. Vintage cocktails in the bar are no compensation. I’ve seen many excellent productions at The Nuffield so I genuinely hope they can step up their game.

At the Young Vic, I was completely absorbed in the underlying sexual tension between the husband and his surrogate daughter, the self deception and the looming inevitable tragedy. The only ‘prop’ was music, an emotional extension of the human voice, used to great effect.

If you are lucky enough to have tickets for this sold out production, stop reading here. When the end came, there was one coup de theatre that made my jaw drop. As all the characters drew into a huddle in the middle of which a fatal fight was taking place, what I first thought was water (like tears) began pouring on them from above. Then I realised it was red and soon the actors and the stage were soaked in blood.

It was a simple enough effect and may even sound over the top, but coming at the culmination of such a tense two hours, it was stunning. It was a moment when time stood still.  It was everything that is best in theatre and why I have had a love affair with the stage for over fifty years.

This blog was written by Paul Seven Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy Seven Experience and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can follow him on Twitter and connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.

Happy 50th Birthday, National Theatre, and Many Happy Subsidies

I wish the National Theatre a very happy 50th birthday. To me, it is what subsidy is all about. It could have been a staid presenter of the classics of the English stage. Instead it has encouraged new writing and the discovery of non-English work. It has been challenging and experimental.

Given the opportunity not to play safe, the National Theatre has produced many incredible productions that have become huge hits. Who could have predicted the success of a play starring life size puppet horses?  Or the recent stunning production of Frankenstein? It’s hard to believe its director Danny Boyle would ever have learnt the skills to put on that unforgettable opening of the London Olympics without a grounding in subsidised theatre.

It is of course a worry when you rely on a subsidy. I’m about to attend my first Board meeting as a trustee of the Theatre Royal in Winchester and I am already concerned about what would happen if our city council were to follow some other local authorities and cut grants to the arts.

It was the opposite case when I worked at The Mayflower. There, the lack of subsidy meant that the programme was inevitably full of known quantities that could be relied on to fill seats – great shows of course (quite a few subsidised in their original productions) but no thrill of discovery or pushing the boundaries.

To those who object to paying to subsidise something that offends them or they would never go to see, I can only say that for every subsidised play I’ve disliked, there is something else that I’ve loved that might never have seen the lights of the stage but for a grant. Les Miserables is one of them. War Horse is another.

Small scale work is important too and more under threat than the large scale endeavours. I still remember the stunning impact of Peta Lily’s Beg! 20 years later- and I loved her latest show when she performed it for the Winchester Theatre Royal. Blue Apple Theatre’s Hamlet last year changed lives both of the participants and the audience. As a trustee of that company, I know just how much we rely on grants.

It is sometimes suggested that independent shops should be subsidised, perhaps with reduced rates or rents. The idea has merit. The big chains would object to this interference in a free market just as the commercial theatres objected to the creation of the National Theatre fifty years ago. Now they would see that the National has enriched the West End with productions, actors and directors.

Small independents fill gaps. Some become large chains. Others provide a testing ground for new products. Think of the Body Shop for example. They also make a city more attractive to visitors and residents. Winchester is enhanced both by its subsidised Theatre Royal and its large number of independent shops.

This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy The Lewis Experience and online retailer Your Life Your Style, and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.

Theatre That Changes Lives

Blue Apple Theatre changes the lives of people with learning disabilities but also the audience that watches it

Tommy Jessop in Blue Apple Theatre's The Hotel
Tommy Jessop in Blue Apple Theatre’s The Hotel

There are two things I have always felt passionate about. I’ve always loved theatre. I’ve always hated discrimination. Therefore it was one of the proudest moments of my life last year to be invited to become a trustee of Blue Apple Theatre because it uses drama to help people with learning disabilities become more confident, skilled and respected.

One of the best theatrical experiences I have had was Blue Apple’s adapted version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which I saw last year at the Theatre Royal Winchester. The command and intensity with which Tommy Jessop played the Prince plus the consistently strong engagement of the rest of the actors in the momentous events both captured the audience and threw new light on the play, which is all I ask whenever I go to the theatre.

By literally putting people with a learning disability centre stage, Blue Apple encourages audiences to see beyond the disability and respect them as human beings. Blue Apple doesn’t patronise its participants, it challenges them to think about their performance and trains them to become effective actors. I’m expecting their latest production The Hotel, which is inspired by the classic French farces of Feydeau, to be as funny and moving as anything you could hope to see on stage.

Discrimination against people with a learning disability remains on the whole untackled and unremarked.  I think this is partly because it can be a hidden disability but also because someone with a learning disability is regarded as somehow mentally immature and therefore not due the rights of other adults.

It is expected- although still resented by some- that businesses will adjust their premises and working practices to accommodate someone with a physical disability, whether as an employee or customer. This happens far less commonly when someone needs extra time or attention because of a learning disability.

These days hate crime is something the police are trained to recognise when it involves a black or gay person. Blue Apple’s original theatre production Living With Fear describes a hate crime against someone with a learning disability. So successful has it been at educating police officers and others that the Home Office recently funded a film version, made with the help of Hampshire Police, called Paul’s Story.

Blue Apple make theatre that changes lives. Not only the lives of those taking part but those who see it.

The Hotel is performing at the Theatre Royal Winchester until Saturday 13 July.

The New Chichester Theatre Brochure Analysed

There’s a debate on LinkedIn about the value of printed brochures. The new Chichester Festival Theatre brochure which came through my letterbox this week shows exactly what a good brochure can do.

It’s not that the CFT doesn’t use other media. ‘Friends’ who pay for priority booking and others, like me, on the theatre’s email list have already received information and may have booked. There’s also been the now familiar activity on the social media. Having done all this, some theatres are clearly thinking, ‘Do we need a brochure? Why not save some money?’

I’m guessing CFT knows that people are 30 times more likely to buy from a brochure than an email. Of course, CFT may only have a postal address for them. Whatever the reason, sales are sure to follow since these are previous ticket buyers, especially when the customer receives a brochure as good as this. CFT’s marketing team obviously realise that there’s no point making a decision to do a mailing, then skimping on it.

Chichester Festival Theatre brochure cover Chichester Festival Theatre Brochure

As always, it’s oversize and on excellent quality paper. Other venues might decide that something smaller and lighter might be bettervalue but the advantage of the CFT brochure is that it conveys the quality of the theatre and it gives space for dramatic layouts and clear type. On this latter point, it never fails to astonish me that arts organisations allow designers to downgrade the importance of the copy by allocating it a tiny font size and using difficult to read colours, as if text is just another block on the design layout. They also make sure we read it by putting the text on the right and the images on the left, because they know we only look at the right unless something pulls our attention to the left.

Chichester acknowledges the importance of words and that most people, but particularly its older audience, appreciate clarity. With the occasional exception (Neville’s Island is white out of rippling waves) all their text is a readable size and has a good contrast. Many pages are actually black out of white- it’s the only fully comprehensible combination and yet one that seems to be an anathema to designers.

The brochure is also written in an engaging way, describing the drama of the play and the other selling points such as cast, author and director in an active way. The only improvement I would only suggest is it should address the reader more by the use of ‘you’.

As is always the case, the marketing people are hampered by lack of production shots but they make up for this with eye-catching images. One innovation is pages that fold out to produce big impact spreads. I would have hesitated to spend the extra on these for the likely return but there’s no denying they make you take notice.

I don’t think the CFT’s 2013 season brochure is perfect. The cover scores by having the theatre name and date right at the top but misses an opportunity to entice the less committed customers people inside because it doesn’t list the contents. And the back page- the second most important page in any brochure- is wasted by being devoted to a list of sponsors.

So, overall 9/10 for an excellent brochure from Chichester Festival Theatre. I’ve booked my tickets for The Pajama Game.

For more tips on how to produce a brochure that sells, click here. If you would like a freecritique of your brochure (no strings attached- I’m not touting for business- I simply like to support the arts), send a copy to Paul Lewis, The Lewis Experience, Southgate Chambers, 37 Southgate Street, Winchester SO23 9EH.