Category Archives: tradition

Observational Stew

Prague is not the Czech Republic. This any seasoned ethnographer knows. However, it is a hard concept for students to grasp. Or perhaps they simply fell in love with Prague. This I understand.

BensovTo shake them loose I crafted an ethnographic experience outside of Prague. Dividing them in half my assistant, Alex, and I boarded two trains heading in different directions. Alex headed to Benešov (photo on the right), a former political meeting hub to the southwest. I set off for Beroun (two photos below), an old German merchant and garrison town east of Prague.

The goal, cook up observational stew. With four specific tasks they spent two hours exploring the town, collecting observations and cooking up insights to craft a town cultural code.

B FlowersOne, conduct detailed sensory observations. What does the town’s architecture look like? What do the streets feel like under your feet? What are the sounds of the town? What scents do you encounter? What does the food taste like?

Two, behaviorally document the people. What types of people are in town? How do they interacting with others or are they alone? What are they wearing? What is the cadence of their speech?

B StreetThree, interview the town’s people. Find out what it emotionally means to them. We wished them luck. It’s hard enough to get people in Prague to speak with you. Now imagine a town where few speak English! This task required tenacity and patience.

Four, photographically documenting the town and its inhabitants.

Once they collected their observations and cooked them into a stew of delicious observational insights they worked to define a town culture code. For Beroun, my students decided the cultural code was “library.” Learn why and check out more about the process on my class blog.



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Smart Thinking. Beautiful Work.

I recently visited Leagas Delaney while teaching in London. Smart thinking creates beautiful work is at the heart of their work.

We learned about luxury branding from Britain’s top independent advertising agency. Taking a deep dive into two cases, Patek Philippe and Glenfiddich, our presenters pealed back the layers from problem, to insight, to ideas, to results. And what amazing results there were.

A fifteen-year relationship with Patek Philippe speaks volumes about the power of agency/client relationships. Across time the Patek Philippe brand has stood for enduring values and campaign after campaign expresses these values with beautiful work.

Glenfiddich, a brand with a long history rooting in a pioneering spirit reflects the power of ideas. Leagas Delaney’s work reinvented the codes of the whiskey category, while sustaining the equity for the brand with smart thinking.

Smart and beautiful.


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Italian windows are purposeful. What they keep out is as important as what they let in.

Heat, light, air and people, too, all are closed out or welcomed in depending, in part, upon the season. Each window has multiple layers. From within one sees top to bottom curtains, long slim simple natural-colored panels of cotton with perhaps a hint of lace. Behind them are long paneless sheets of glass, which rattle in the wind. Beyond are rolled slats of wood or aluminum or folding wooden shutters creating a protective barrier against the outer world – light, heat, sound and people. If one lives on a lower level, between the long sheets of glass and the rolled slats lays gridded metal bars.

Open only occasionally, Italian windows keep the heat of the summer sun out and trap the fleeting winter heat within, no doubt, a functional visual expression of Mediterranean life. In summer the sun blazes casting long hot, sweaty shadows that invade interior spaces. In winter, if you live in a communal flat, heat visits only during the day and must be trapped within for nighttime warmth.

All the day they remain closed. Wondering down Italians streets, save for the multitude of voices that rise and fall (mostly rise) and the clatter of dishes long preparing lunch or dinner, it seems that no one resides within the flats that line the street. Blocks of windows with wooden slats rolled down or shuttered pulled closed.

All the night they remain closed. This time wondering down the street there is silence. Only later, long into the morning hours, can one finally say “bouna notte.” For in Italy dinners often do not end until well beyond ten and then still it is “bouna sera.”  In le notte, there is a visual silence that is strangely repetitive of the afternoon, windows rolled shut.

Day or night, a sort of visual silence permeates Italian streets, a longing for security. But, in brief moments the windows fly open – and then wide–open. A moment, perhaps a few hours, as if washing hot winds out and sweeping cool breezes in, or welcoming some light that they had not previously noticed. Then, again, they fly shut. The open windows appear like periods at the ends of long Italian sentences spoken with flying Italian arms.

Flatted frames of brown, like long sentences, repetitively dot exterior walls. By night they sing a silent lullaby. By day their voices echo emptiness. Yet the closed windows of Italy belie a deep cultural warmth – or perhaps they exemplify a cultural irony. For as warm as Italians may be it is a warmth felt, only, once on the other side of their cultural window.

All photographs copyright: Jean Grow

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Hip. White. Men. with iPhones.

It has been a week since Cannes. I needed time to think. This was my first visit to Cannes, but not my first to advertising awards shows. I’ve been in and around the ad industry for years. In the end, I think, awards shows are awards shows. They may get bigger and more expensive and express a global venue – but little changes. Hip. Casual chic was everywhere in the same timeless way advertising hip has been demonstrated for years – jeans and tee shirts with funky shoes. Of course, as it was Cannes and so the optional khaki shorts and sandals appeared. Youth, the iconic marker of hip, was also abundantly apparent and, as usual, encouraged by the excessive flow of alcohol. Hip translated smoothly from people to images and ideas. But, this too was not new. Youthful hip is a perennially postmodern phenomenon bred within and well articulated by advertising. White. For as global as our world has become the advertising images were inherently western, even if the agencies were from Singapore or San Paolo. In print small logos, resting quietly in the lower right corner, with minimal copy along side small headlines and dominant visuals predominated – just as they have for years. There were winners from Brazil and India, and China snagged its first gold lion, but most were from global multi-national agencies who have moved into emerging markets anxious to help spread global capitalism. Despite the diversity of winners almost everyone was a polished hip western, “white.” For a global marketplace it was discouraging to see such homogenous blending of constructed shades of white. Men. They were everywhere, just like in the agency world where they make-up virtually 80 percent of all creative departments. The judging panels continued to play out the 80/20 game – perpetuating a style and a way of working that is defined by masculinity and not by the people who make the lion’s share of consumption choices – women. The surprise, though it should not have been, was the “New Directors Showcase,” with 17 new directors – all men, if my memory serves me correctly. Here too history repeated itself with hyper-masculine imagery of boyhood remembered, violence, and sex, with a few rare exceptions. Of the 17 directors only five featured female characters and of that four were sophomoric and sexualized representations. The greatest differentiating factor was the dazzling technological executions. iPhones. Make that iEverything. This group of influencers is infatuated with all things Apple. This too, is not a surprise. Millward Brown, in its annual valuation of global brands, named Apple number one – by a mile. Apple’s change in value from 2010 to 2011 was 84, nearly 4 times greater than its nearest competitor (McDonalds). Its brand value was nearly 50 percent higher than the number-two brand (Google). Apple has become the iconic symbol of hip and the ultimate technological tool for social connection – embraced with gusto by advertisers as they chase after consumers driving social change through technology. This seems a story with a predetermined ending. Apple makes the products that enables creatives to make creative executions, while creatives embrace the products that Apple makes. Which takes me back to where I began. Hip, white men create advertising, which (ironically) speaks to hip white men – who award hip, white men  – who hire hip, white men – who…

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Fotografia Europea: an intimate meshing of antiquity & postmodernity

For the last six years Reggio Emilia has hosted Fotografia Europea, an international photography festival. This year, “Verde, bianco, rosso. Una fotografia dell’Italia” (Green, white, red. A photography of Italy), was featured in Italian Vogue. Last year the focus was female photographers. The exhibitions themselves blend the architectural grace of the city with the postmodern conceptions inherent in photography. Across the city dozens of cafes, shops and a multitude of pubic spaces host exhibitions. Most are free though a few are juried requiring an admission fee.

The exhibition spaces physically express the texture of the community across time, using historical monuments and everyday spaces to display postmodern artist expressions. A small café may exhibit a series of rural portraiture, while the newly restored historical monument, such as Chiostri di San Peatro, may host an exhibition of historical images of papal life. Both spaces offer communal gathering reflecting one of the hallmarks of Italian life, historical and contemporary life co-existing. The festivals iconic pink frame is infused into the fabric of Reggio’s physical spaces. Regardless of the season, the icon an be found stamped on the ground, pasted to a window or hanging from a ancient wall. It has become a symbol for “Reggio Emilia Città Creativa,” a city with an extremely vibrant creative life, which per capita has far more creative enterprises than many larger cities in Italy.

Just outside the cloisters of Chiostri di San Peatro were a series of photos commissioned to document everyday life, all on the same day, across all of Italy. The images were hung in succession in an open public space. They wrapped around an old pealing wall, tucking under lush vegetation, living next to a street vender and a huge rack of bicycles. The manner of the presentation, framed within a communal setting, literally engaged the viewer in a walk through a day in the life of Italy. In the process it exposed and expressed both interior and exterior Italian life, symbolically articulating the interweaving of public and private, of old and new.

The sense of interweaving, of wholeness is also implicit the fact that the exhibition spaces are open late into the night when people flow onto the streets. Thus, the exhibition spaces become embedded extensions of community. The juxtaposition of postmodern imagery juxtaposed to ancient and modern architectural spaces visually articulate a universality of Italian life. Further, citizens across a wide socio-economic strata engage with work, exemplifying the perennial marriage of art and culture with everyday Italian life.

From a methodological perspective, the use of historic spaces often lent themselves to artistic expressions that engages all the senses in a contrast of time and space. In one such exhibition the scent of dried roses wafted upwards as the sound of flowing water from a video of the photographic process filled the space. It was a stark juxtaposition of postmodern against ancient. There was, of course, the obvious visual dimension of the photographs, which were displayed against ancient wall around a circle of dried roses that rustled against my hand as I bend to examine them. Yet another juxtaposition of postmodern against ancient, of death against life.

Yet amidst this immerse of artists expression were brands – alive and well. As I left the final last exhibition, which featured photographers from five different countries exploring aspects of labor on three continues, I found the branded embodiment of labor and the issues that surround it – Nike. There sat two greeters, she an architect and he a soccer player. His Nike hat tossed to the side and atop a stack of exhibition brochures. His cell phone resting beside it as they sat playing Carte Piacentine a traditional Italian card game. The intimate meshing of local and global, artistic and commercial, traditional and postmodern perfectly expressed by the blazing green Nike tagline – “Just do it.”

All photographs copyright: Jean Grow

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In Italy, when it comes to food all things are sacred and nothing is wasted. In this respect, salume seems its own class of food. Ah, before I go any further, I must take a moment to introduce you to but one of the many intricacies of the Italian language – lest you think my fingers simply fumbled across the keyboard. Salume (class singular), salumi (class plural), salame (sausage singular), and salami (sausage plural) are all the ways one refers to this exquisite food. And, now onto the story that frames Italians wonderful ability to cherish all things edible.

A few nights ago I had dinner with some friends at il Contadino, Azienda Agrituristica, just outside of Reggio Emilia. Il Contadino was once a fully functioning farm. The proprietor, Guglielmo Punghellini, and his sons, who still raise pigs, opened a restaurant in half of the old farmhouse. The food –  è buonissimo – is prepared with only local slow food. It is no surprise that the slow food movement originated in Piedmont Italy in 1986. But I digress…

The jewel of il Contadino is the salame made from their pigs and which won a gold medal – suspended from Guglielmo’s neck. In the U.S. the same medal would, no doubt, be worn as a brand mark. Not so in Italy, where humility and pride seem to live side by side. Here the gold medal functions more like a wedding band worn by a man who married the most beautiful woman in the village.

The process of making salume is the ultimate in slow food – and of course very Italian. As they say, “Of the pig, nothing is wasted.” There are endless naturally cured varieties: salame, prosciutto, speck, culatello, coppa, pancetta, mortadella, ciccioli… The flavor and texture within each variety varies widely by region and even city. Most begin with locally raised pigs – very local in this case. The salume is cured at room temperature, preferably in darkness, air-drying to cause fermentation. When it is cured, the white powdery covering (mold or flour) becomes nearly airtight, preventing photo-oxidation. When it goes to market, and that too will most likely be local, the salume will be sold in shops specializing in multiple varieties. Of course, these shops that will never be open at midday when the very civilized Italians –shopkeepers included – are having lunch with family and/or friends.

Here’s the inside story. My friend’s father grew up in this house.  Guglielmo who was a friend of his father greeted us, took our order, and served us – and everyone else in the restaurant. He also gave us a tour of the curing rooms, while one of his sons prepared the food. But, of course, the father should give the tour. It would be no other way. Remember the symbolic association of the gold medal as a wedding band? Now think of us as the distant cousins coming to meet the beautiful bride. So up the back stairs we went for a tour of the old family home – now the curing rooms – one of which had been the bedroom of my friend’s aunt! Behold the scent of garlic, a hint of pepper and succulent ripening pork with a ceiling of dangling jewels all lit by a single bare bulb.

Recall my comment about a gold medal worn as a brand mark, in the U.S. Now, here’s an interesting branding twist. As the FDA regulates meat and most Italian salumi do not meet its standards, with few acceptations, most cannot be imported – such a pity. However, in San Francisco in the 1960s a group of Italian immigrants, each with a family history as salumi makers, trademarked the name “Italian Salami” for salame made in the U.S.

All photographs copyright: Jean Grow

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1000 MIGLIA – the tradition continues

Mille Miglia is a luxury branders dream partner with a tradition rich in Italian and racing history, a global following, and a website populated with Italy’s ultimate luxury brands.

Mille Miglia established by the Brescia Automobile Club in 1927 evolved out of a racing rivalry between Brescia and Milan. At the time, the club had significant political influence because of board members with ties to the ruling national Fascist Party. At its origin the race was elite, with only marginal benefits for the general population – improvement of roads.

Early organizers understood the need for publicity and turned to an influential sports writer for the Gazzette dello Sport. With his help, and in an effort to flatter the government in Rome, the race was designed to begin in Brescia and end in Rome. The symbolic seeds of luxury and prowess were well sown and their efforts were immensely successful. For thirty year, from 1927-1957, Mille Miglia was the ultimate auto race successfully competing with the French Grand Prix and building a worldwide following.

However, in 1957 a tragic accident in the village of Guidizzolo killed five spectators and signaled the end of competitive racing in the Mille Miglia. Then, in 1977 Mille Miglia was revived as a historic race with the addition of antique cars parading along the original roadways across three days. Since then the race has come to symbolize the rich history of Italian culture, calling citizens into the streets to celebrate.

Today the elite tradition lives on, though reaching far beyond those who drive the coveted luxury Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, and Porsche cars that pass by. In the finest of Italian tradition people fill the streets, sit in cafes to “take a coffee,” or pose as street performers. Above the streets fly old (horizontal stripes) and new (vertical stripes) Italian flags (the significance of which is the subject of a future post). And red remains the symbolic color of luxury and prowess – the most coveted color car a photographer can capture as it slides past on its way to Rome. Last Sunday, as I stood on Via Emilia, having just captured what I thought to be a wonderful photograph of a yellow car with its driver waving from the window, an Italian friend said to me, “Oh no, you must have a red one.”

Only one question remains – why is the distance measured with the, oh so American, mile? According to a charming story on official website one of the original Mille Miglia creators remarked that as the Romans measured distance in miles, they would simply follow Roman tradition.

Tradition is the essence of Italian life.

All photographs copyright: Jean Grow

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