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Pioneering Spirit

"new, big ideas charting a course for us into the future tend also to be the ones that take us by surprise."

You have two spheres of life. In the first you get on with your day and people chat to you normally about your weekend, work and that thing you’re going to see tonight. In the other sphere, people chat to you about your weekend, work, that thing you’re going to see tonight, then suddenly – and there’s no other way of describing it – they BARK at you an instruction for living life.”It always seems impossible until it’s done”. “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” “Don’t worry about failure, you only have to be right once.” “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

The first sphere is physical life, and the second sphere is your life online – mainly through social media – and it’s an odd culture that has arisen. The relentlessly #inspiring. Everyone pushing everyone else to be bolder. Be more of a #pioneer. Braver. #followyourownpath. Each quote or image getting a stack of Likes and Shares. It’s clear the idea of being a brave and bold pioneer is something pretty much everyone agrees with. And why wouldn’t we? We know that it’s the pioneers who change things and shape our world, and we all believe that there’s an untouched, unspoiled bit of our essence that remains eternally maverick. So we Like and Share the wonderfully inspiring quotes.

Except that if this conversation happened in the physical world, let’s say in your office on Monday morning, then we know things would be different. There’s a very slim chance Janice from accounts suddenly shouts, “I’m not going where the path may lead. I’m going instead where there is no path and I’m going to leave a trail,” before announcing a new way to handle expense claims. And then everyone high-fives her.

It doesn’t happen because while supporting the notion of being a pioneer on LinkedIn is easy, being an actual pioneer in real life is hard. It’s not only hard, it’s also a right hassle. If you work in a large corporation you know very well that, whatever merit her idea has, Janice’s plan will need to go through layers of corporate procedures, managers, meetings and dispiriting faceless knock-backs. No wonder she just makes a coffee Monday morning and gets her head down.

In 1913 composer Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was performed in Paris for the first time. Stravinsky was young. The music was groundbreaking at the time, with experiments in rhythm and tone. When the piece’s conductor heard it for the first time he had to leave the room and find a quiet corner. Fifty years on he was still telling people he detested the work. During rehearsals the musicians kept stopping when they thought they’d found mistakes (they hadn’t). At the premiere there was a riot. Critics called the music “the work of a madman” and “a laborious and puerile barbarity”.

“The Rite of Spring” is now one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire and was a huge influence on many 20th-century composers.

We probably all have our favourite examples of art or inventions or ideas that caused consternation at the time but which went on to be celebrated and admired. Richard Branson launching his own airline in the 1980s? Picasso’s cubist portraits? Britain thinking it could do the Olympics well? The Sinclair C5? (Okay, not the Sinclair C5). Consider punk. The epitome of filth, degradation and Queen-threatening anarchy at the time, with associated Daily Mail headlines. In 2016 London is celebrating 40 years of punk across many of the city’s cultural institutions.

We understand our history enough to get that the new, big ideas charting a course for us into the future tend also to be the ones that take us by surprise.

I run a creative agency, The Beautiful Meme, and so I get to see lots of organisations when they are looking for a shift, the jolt new ideas can give. Working with Greenwich Peninsula over the past couple of months on, among other things, their new ad campaign, has been guided by the notion of the “pioneering spirit”. Both in the way we and the Peninsula team work together, but also in the belief that the people moving here are genuine pioneers.

As an aside, my own guiding pioneer spirit is Andy Warhol. Warhol doesn’t have any powerful quotes about #inspiration or #beingthebestyou, but did believe “being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art”. And so he blurred the boundaries between art and design and business through the output of his “Factory”. The Beautiful Meme’s output is a mix of artistic statements that double up as networking events, and commercial campaigns that seek to throw in something a little deeper than just “buy this”.

And the awareness that pioneers, such as gallery owner Steve Lazarides, and the founder of Craft, Stevie Parle, are drawn to Greenwich Peninsula is key to much that happens and much that will happen here. These are the type of people who relish the opportunity to create their own community in a completely new part of London. The kind of people who like an inspiring quote on social media not because it’s an easy thing to do but because it resonates with how they live and because they don’t mind the effort it takes to build something. The type of people who would have attended “The Rite of Spring” and not rioted. Not necessarily have immediately embraced the music – there’s an exhilaration in being challenged after all – but would have understood it was doing something different and relished it for it.

Of course, the next question is who is out there at the moment pioneering business, art and culture? Who is out there making things that genuinely challenge? Who is out there?

Who are The Beautiful Meme?

Our vision is to be the world’s most exciting creative studio. We aren’t that yet.

What do you do?

We make up words and pictures and moments to help businesses sell stuff. We also have the sneaky side-goal of creating bits of culture. All clients understand the first bit, only a handful the second. The second lot are the ones we produce our best work for.

What are you working on?

As well as Greenwich Peninsula, we’re currently doing a project with a geopolitical bit of Google in New York. We’ve just been invited by the new D&AD President to do all the creative for their next festival. We’re working with Innovate UK, the government’s innovation agency. We’re also building our own robots and trying to raise funding for a short film.

In what ways do you have a pioneering spirit?

We rarely look at other design and advertising agencies for clues about how to do it all. We look at William Morris & Co in the mid-19th century. We believe their position as commercial artists, with the emphasis on both ‘commercial’ and ‘artist’, is the future of our industry.

What do you believe?

We believe the secret to good creative is something called Tricksterism. We have a manifesto. Anyone can email [email protected] with their address and we’ll post a copy to them.