h a r r i e t m a y

Category: Marketing

Marketing lessons from Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan at Guardian Book ClubHave you read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan? It was one of those books that when it came out it felt like everyone was reading it. It moves across time, linking characters not necessarily directly or chronologically but in some tenuous way. Almost like a reminder that the marginal characters in your life are the heroes in theirs; roles that are interchangeable in every moment. The power lies not in the characters but the moment, which Egan denotes as the goon: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”

I went with Sam to see Jennifer Egan interviewed as part of Guardian Book Club, where she spoke mostly about A Visit from the Goon Squad (the idea behind the event series is that an author will have a new book out, but they’ll be asked to talk about an older work. That way no one has to apologise for accidental spoilers).

Jennifer Egan is so clearly brilliant and so effortlessly warm. Even when talking about the way she works; at one point she stopped herself to apologise for speaking as if her writing appears fully formed on the page. It doesn’t. She writes entirely long-hand, and her latest novel Manhattan Beach eventually ended up as 14,000 handwritten pages where some characters had different names throughout just because she’d lost track. But as I listened to her I couldn’t help thinking that the lessons she’d learned as an author made really good marketing advice:

There are many ways to tell a story, but make sure the medium fits
If you have read Goon Squad then you’ll know that the penultimate chapter, Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake, is told as a PowerPoint presentation. Egan had never used PowerPoint before writing this chapter (to get a primer she had asked her sister, a consultant at Bain, to send her one, telling her it was research into the corporate world. When she received the file she couldn’t even open it, as she didn’t even have ), but had the feeling that the setting, a desert, might just work with PowerPoint atmospherically.

But it’s a radical form, and the only way she felt she could access the character of Alison Blake. “I wouldn’t have used it if there was another way to tell that story,” she said. “Hopefully I got some emotion through without over-sentimentality.”

Act fast
The last two chapters of Goon Squad are set in the future– a future that’s now our present and that was dreamt up before everyone had an iPhone. Egan didn’t shy away from how outdated these chapters already are: “All these ideas were vaguely ahead [in 2010] and now they’re behind.”

The speed of technology and innovation is still increasing. If you want to be ahead, you’ll have to be quick.

Define what you do
When Goon Squad was published the New York Times called it “uncategorizable”. Is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? Jennifer Egan wouldn’t let her publisher put ‘A Novel’ on the cover of the hardback edition. And I mean, I get it. It’s easy to think that by leaving something open, you let your audience think for themselves. You let them decide, to participate.

But that isn’t what actually happens. What happens is that your audience, not knowing what you’re offering them or why they should care, move on. Good Squad sold poorly when it was first released.

Define what you do so people can decide whether they’re interested in it or not.

Sometimes it’s luck
The movement through the stories of Goon Squad works a lot like you would move across the Internet, jumping through hypertext to related but separate material. Did that effect contribute to the success of Goon Squad (it won the Pulitzer in 2011), making it timely and narratively appealing?

If you get an idea, try it. Sometimes you do things and they’re relevant. Dream it up and see where it goes.


With more tech comes more responsibility

00003XTR_00003_BURST20170408100147-01“Do you think I could be an actor?” I cut a glance at Sam in such a way to ensure that he knows this is a test. It’s a game we play, usually when we’re at the theatre, like we are now. I am old enough to know how much work goes into becoming an actor, how highly skilled they are, but young enough to still think I could do anything, and why not this? I also think people who assume they can do anything are perhaps also the sort who don’t need endless reassurance, but I do. Sam is an actor, so I trust his opinion on this one, and also my fiancé, so I rely on him to always see the potential in me that I hope is really there.

“Well, you’d need to learn to project, for one,” he says, matter-of-factly, “and you’d need to overcome your mannerisms.” I pull back in mock-horror. My mannerisms! Sam proceeds to mime, bending his arms at the elbows and sharply punctuating the air with his hands, in which I find a nuanced sense of both beauty and humour, but not myself. “I do not do that!,” I object, and quickly cover myself: “And even if I did, that would mean I couldn’t be an actor?” I would hate to think my obstacles are things I cannot even see.

“No, you would just have to learn these things about yourself, and then how not to do them.” His response is reasonable, and after all, I am interested in finding out how swaths of people behave, and why. I should at the very least be able to do this for myself. And from what I can see, actors possess all the speaking, performance, communication, empathetic and analytical skills that are becoming increasingly necessary in the age of digital connection and virtual reality.

We have just installed Google Home, and now I can demand the lights go on and off, the temperature go up and down, media begin and end, on a whim like a spoiled child, and without moving a muscle. It’s a funny thing to grow up with a parent who remembers having to walk to the TV to change the channel, and now I don’t even have to hunt through the sofa cushions to find a remote. I think, this will help me learn to project.

Google Home is a smart assistant, but what I really need is a smart coach. There is economic value is outsourcing or automating mundane tasks– the reason why robots are replacing jobs at alarming rates— but what about personal value? The people who are losing jobs to machines do not have better lives because of it. They are being removed from the workplace altogether, so as we become more accepting of robots we have a responsibility to understand how that will effect the world around us.

So I understand that Google Home could quite possibly pick up on my mannerisms too. And when it does, will it use that knowledge just to sell me better things, removing the need for companies other than Google? My hope for technology is that it doesn’t just make my life more convenient, but that it can also help me become a better version of myself. My hope is that technology offers me more opportunities rather than just taking some away.

On greed

IMG_20170312_121600We’re young and urban and busy, so not much about our lives is about ritual, and when it is, it’s the ritual of morning coffee from Pret or of cramming ourselves into a Victoria line train before someone with greater mass pushes us back out (“Pull in your bags and jackets from the closing doors!” the train drivers bellow across the PA and then a beat later, predictably dismayed, “Somebody didn’t listen!”). We were raised with various half-hearted religions, or none at all, and whatever spirituality our parents hoped we’d gain has now been replaced with YouTube videos. “I think running is your spirituality,” Sam tells me, when I declare I’m not at all spiritual. “It occupies a lot of your mind and your time.” Does this mind-space and time-taken equate to spirituality, or distract from it? “It’s spiritual,” Sam assures me, “the way you use running to focus, to connect with yourself.” I’m not certain. All I know is I’m glad I have no obligation at all to pretend I believe in anything beyond stardust and electricity and sure even dark matter.

We meet Amy at a workers caff for eggs and toast before making our way over to Conway Hall, a beautiful art deco building that houses the oldest freethought organisation in the world. On the surface it’s church-like, but rather than bible verses the walls remind its congregation TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE. It’s the kind of place where I can forget I’m hungover, rather than be made more aware of it. We are here for Sunday Sermon, another reminder of what we owe to those who normalised weekly meetings around the world to share ideas which is not, by itself, a terrible idea. The theme is greed and the first order of the day is to belt out the hymn, ABBA’s ‘Money Money Money’, before Jack Monroe, fresh from legal victory, takes the stage. I’m a little greedy, for success, for Karen Millen dresses, certainly for sourdough bread. I’m also a marketer whose work is based somewhat on manipulating the greed of others. I need this.

“I apologise for the general state of me,” she says, smirking beneath a flash of orange hair. Even suffering from a cold and not, like me, the consequences of the previous night, Jack is vibrant and rebellious and it’s easy to see how she has made a career out of appealing to the public, pushing back against modern pressures to be anything other than herself. The pressures to be aspirational, as she says. We can be successful without taking up all the space, all the resources, we can want things without damaging ourselves and our communities and each other. And this is the difference, as she tells it: following on from the success of her first book, A Girl Called Jack, her publisher had plans to grow Jack from “the face of modern poverty” into an aspirational success story, with a high-gloss, hardback book retailing for £26.99, more than double the £10 maximum selling price she had demanded for her first book. “The only way you can take every one of my readers on this journey with me,” she recalls saying, “is to give every one of them a book deal. Can you do that?” Yet at the time, Jack was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, in a flat with five other people, a stark contrast to the space the publisher had arranged in which to take the highly stylised photography for the book. And in the end it didn’t become Jack’s book, it was something else entirely, not made for Jack’s audience but in spite of them: “and it flopped.”

Jack doesn’t manipulate greed but questions it. I resolve to question my greed, turn it into creativity and curiosity–focus is called for, and connection, and suddenly spirituality doesn’t seem so outlandish– and maybe then it’s even ok to want more.

Brand Hackney


“Should we go somewhere else?” Sam asks, eyeing up each full table, one by one. It’s 10am on a Saturday morning, and we’d forgotten to eat dinner the night before after getting wrapped up in the after-party for the London premiere of Lady Macbeth. (“And how was your first industry event?” Sam, actor and screenwriter, had asked me afterwards.) So on our way to Broadway Market for a mooch we’ve beelined to E5 Bakehouse and I am only currently thinking in carbs.

It is a pillar in Hackney– in a borough built on artisan bakeries and market stalls, cafes boast about serving E5 Bakehouse bread, and it’s not uncommon to see the E5 Bakehouse cargo bike making morning deliveries. Started by a guy with no previous baking experience, just a love of great bread and the desire to pass that on, E5 Bakehouse now has a brand as tangible as the brick walls and curved metal roof in accordion folds of their headquarters, nestled in a railway arch by London Fields.

Sam and I often describe things as “so Hackney”, things like minimalist interiors shops next door to corner shops where patrons often appear not in pajamas but underwear, or dining out at 9pm on a weeknight at a local place that serves eel broth and bone marrow dumplings only to find ourselves next to the designated kids’ table of a larger group. E5 Bakehouse not only fits into this juxtaposition of effete and authentic, but knows its place there; it’s that self-assurance we are eager to bask in.

Usually when breakfasting at E5 Bakehouse, we order a simple round of coffee and toast, which we then slather with lashings of jam or peanut butter from jars that float from table to table. After all, the bread is the thing. We don’t mind first squeezing in then shimmying up to the bar that runs along the far side of the arch. Everyone who is in E5 Bakehouse becomes intrinsically a part of it. But today the only spare seats are out front. Although not intolerably cold, it is October in England– not the ideal time or place to be seated outdoors, and we’re not sure we fancy braving it. Sam shrugs, and we leave. I try not to be disappointed.

Just next door is Finch Cafe, a perfectly sound little spot, I think, but when we peer through the glass door it’s empty. “Let’s go here?” Sam asks while I gaze skeptically at lonely chairs. But the menu looks hearty, so we order scrambled eggs with tahini and halloumi. There has been an attempt at a granny-chic interior, books piled up and oversized picture frames that overstate the art, but it doesn’t quite jibe with the cuisine, and leaves the alienating feeling of being in the outdated, untouched childhood bedroom of someone you’ve only known grown up. When the eggs arrive they’re good, distinctly middle eastern (Palestinian, I discover later), although the accompanying flatbread lacks the ideal chew and swollen softness. Nothing is bad though, especially on an empty stomach, and we devour it all.

It’s not clear from the name or the decor or the menu what this place is about, and if they don’t know, I don’t know either. But it takes time to build who you are– nothing appears in the world fully formed. So there’s time for Finch, and I hope they grow into themselves. E5 Bakehouse is one (great) thing, and Finch Cafe could be something new entirely.