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‘It was some big award evening for Ad Men and Women. Sharp boys in black tie and tux, hard girls in sexy svelty gowns drinking moneyed cocktails in the bar of the top-notch Park Lane Hotel on London’s Piccadilly like Yahoo carnivore penguins on red meat. Not the place you’d expect to find the Dr Who of the advertising world, an out of sync Time Lord straddling with Wildean wit and good-natured easefulness the twin worlds of hard-nosed business marketing flak and the gently dissenting fun-house of ‘The Idler’ magazine zone. I knew I was going to like him when he bought me a large whisky and let me eat all his crisps. He offered me part of his sandwich too. This was my kind of guy! The new edition of ‘The Idler’ had just come out – ‘The Hell Edition’ and he hadn’t seen it yet. He’d written an essay on crisp eating in a volume that Tom Hodgkinson, writing in his introductory letter, included, amongst others, ‘…Jeremy Ratter, otherwise known as Penny Rimbaud… one of the co-founders of the enormously influential punk collective ‘Crass’ in the seventies…’ plus ‘…Tony White reporting back from a literary festival in Belgrade, Rowan Pelling on bulimia, the lazy girl’s dieting technique, Victor Headly with a letter from Africa, not to mention the one and only Michael Moorcock, who writes to us with an impassioned attack on Bush, Bin Laden and the whole bloody lot of them.’ (Editor’s Letter, Winter 2001-2002). But we didn’t start talking about that stuff but turned to his other line of work.’

Richard Marshall interviews Greg Rowland


3AM: Tell us a little about your company Greg Rowland Ltd. Semiotics for Brands.

GR: Well, I basically sell semiotics cultural theory to advertising agencies and big brands , big corporations and there aren’t many of us out there doing this. It’s actually something that is really useful for people involved in the advertising of brands to know a little bit about how communication works, how symbolism works, and we sort of combine that with trying to keep an eye on changes in the world of reading popular culture – being immersed in that because the way that advertising and brands work is that there are lots of people out there doing focus groups, lots of people out there doing number crunching, there are some of these big branch consultancies who promise you the earth and charge you a million pounds for it - but they’re often lacking in genuine insights so it’s a good little niche really. We are giving the companies something different, we’re going into the symbolic potentials of the brand, digging underneath how it works, how it’s worked in the past, you know. We’ll look back over forty years for a brand, look at its history, and try and uncover what the strengths and weaknesses are and what some of the possibilities are as well. So it’s half semiotics and half good creative thinking.

3AM: So which brands have you worked on?

GR: I’ve done stuff with ‘Lynx’ deodorant, exploring issues around representations of masculinity. Also we’ve worked for ‘Impulse’ doing the same thing but obviously for girls. I’ve done stuff for tea brands, sauces in jars, you know, you name it – and it doesn’t have to be groovy, funky kind of products. In fact some of the most interesting ones are the more prosaic ones – they’re more fun. There’s more to dig, more to find out about. And I do it from home. It’s just an office. I get in people as and when I need to for different projects, especially if it’s an international project.

3AM:How did you start?

GR: Well, I started at a little agency called, believe it or not, ‘Semiotics Solutions’, in 1992 and I was there 18 months and then I thought, slightly arrogantly, that I could go freelance. At the time – and I guess that’s where my work with The Idler connects in, that was a real support structure to me in the sense that it helped me think I could try the portfolio career thing which was just an emerging idea at the time. So I just thought – let’s go for it – because at the time I was doing a lot of music with bands and also had the writing so the Semiotics was like a job in that sort of Generation X style. But it ended up being quite a nice living. And even then, in ‘94, ‘95, I wasn’t earning loads but I was earning as much as I would have been had I been working at some low grade office job, so it all seemed to make a lot of sense. It’s very hard to sell though. You really have to go on word of mouth otherwise you’re going into this marketing guy saying, ‘Here’s this thing that you’ve never heard of that you need.’ And that’s always a tricky thing to do. A tricky selling proposition. Once they get it they can see that it’s useful. Because the trouble with semiotics in the abstract, especially to businessmen, well, a world of postmodernity and cultural theory can sound very scary in the abstract – and a load of rubbish – after all, there are a lot of people out there selling strange methodologies - which end up being little more than Tarot cards for brands. So you’ve got to differentiate yourself from all that hardcore bullshit if you’re going to succeed.

3AM: What’s your background then?

GR: Well, the degree was English at Oxford under Terry Eagleton who, as you know, is a leading Marxist cultural theorist. And there’s no small degree of irony here with me using all these theories that have been part of the Left in a commercial context.

3AM: Does he know you’re doing this?

GR: Yes he does. I’ve only run into him a couple of times informally. I think he thinks it’s a bit of a giggle. He’s too clever to have a binary opposition between ‘selling’ and ‘selling out’ I think. He’s way beyond that. It is funny using someone’s theories. I think the funniest thing was using someone’s Marxist ideological analysis techniques to talk about consumer differentiation through social class and actually debriefing this to a contingent of international marketers including some from Russia. So I was actually selling Marxism back to a post-Marxist Russia. The Russians didn’t actually buy it ! But others did! I’m not too upset about that! That was fine. I did try after college. I got a good degree and everything and did actually want to do post graduate studies and sent off my outline of the thesis. It was going to be about modernity and post-modernity with a big emphasis on ‘Star Trek’. I think this is where it fell down! Back in the late eighties, early nineties. In a nutshell it was going to be about how in ‘Star Trek’ you find a new site for post-modernity. It was going to be about how ‘Star Trek’ addresses a lot of the issues around identity, history and existence that the modernists, the Eliots and the Becketts, raised. ‘Star Trek’ kind of solves them in kind of pat, easy ways which of course opens up other problematics as it goes along. Also there’s the political dimension – Star Trek tries to be simultaneously Liberal and hard core Republican at the same time. Trying to merge those two ideas in to each other. Star Trek always seeks to unify oppositions but actually raises new oppositions.

3AM: ‘New Generation’ or Kirk?

GR: Well, I love ‘New Generation’, I think there are parts of that where they are conceptually wrestling with those other issues, you know, politics, identity and so on. Picard – who is my hero, the first bald hero of science fiction – which for the record I am bald so this is really important to me – but the fact that he’s French, coming out of an Enlightenment , very eighteenth century, definitely something of the Voltaire about him – where liberty is very important to him, and some of the extremes to which he pushes this idea of Liberty are really interesting. And also I like space battles with aliens. That’s good as well. I think it’s a bit less self-conscious in the first series – well, some of the politics is very self-conscious but some of the unconscious politics in the original series are really interesting. The relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the different elements of epistemology that they announce are really interesting. There’s also a very interesting Jewish angle – Kirk and Spock are two sides of Jewish assimilated American culture – Kirk, very assimilated in many ways but at moments of high tension he becomes a Jewish mother – the anger and the guilt – whereas Spock is far more Rabbinical, considered, interested in the world. And of course McCoy is the ultimate non Jew. Redneck, Southern, well, not redneck but very maternal as well. Now in the ‘Next Generation’ the Borg were interesting. They opposed individualism and American culture, and by doing so the whole of Western thought in that way, but to British viewers we’d been there before with the Daleks and the Cybermen, so we’d already had that totalitarian collective, and of course Star Trek couldn’t leave it alone, they had to make the Borg more individual. The ideological forces to make the Borg more individual were so strong and you see that creeping through it. It’s another one of those great unconscious processes that go on.

3AM: Now, you take a pretty subversive view of the commercial world, spinning it in a strange way. And I guess your work with The Idler Magazine complements this in some way.

GR: Well, we do have a lazy wing of The Idler, we’re a broad church. And we’re about colliding the arty-farty with the commercial side. I’m not sure everyone’s equipped to do this though. I’m not sure that the education system allows this – I mean to do semiotics you need to be a couch potato watching telly for thirty years , listening to pop music and reading comic books as well as having the swotty academic ability. Too early on in our culture these two things are made to diverge. People assume that people who are indulging in mass culture are not of the same value as the other lot. But I don’t want to get into a Keats/Dylan/ Beatles thing here anyway. But I think that it is true in that there are definitely some clients who enjoy the feeling that semiotics gives them. Business people especially in terms of marketing. A lot of them would have studied Arts and if I’m talking to a dozen clients one of them will be very well versed in cultural theory – one I was talking to the other day had done a PHD in French Literary theory and could probably outgun me at ten paces.

3AM: And there can’t be a client of a certain age who hasn’t been watching Star Trek for twenty years and more.

GR: Absolutely. Including the aliens themselves. Which is why if they’ve any sense they’ll come here as Vulcans. There is a cult that believes that of Gene Roddenberry – that is the mission. Star Trek will have gone thirty light years out by now won’t it? Thirty four light years.

3AM: The Avengers will have gone further.

GR: And Hancock. There’s some complex decoding going on in some Alien civilisation out there.

3AM: So what is your work with The Idler?

GR: I’ve been with The Idler since Issue One, I’m really proud to say. I used to write the column at the back when we were bi-monthly . Then I did stuff on tv which is a big love of mine. At that time I was doing bits and pieces with the Observer newspaper – on Soaps and stuff – and now I’m a contributing editor which basically means I come up with ideas that are rejected by Tom. I’m also the only person at the Idler willing to do early morning radio so I occasionally get to do big wind -ups on Radio 4. The Today Programme. That’s the ultimate back of the bus stuff. Just the very idea that there might be someone like Gordon Brown listening to you bullshitting your head off at 8.30 in the morning is a genuine pleasure to me actually. So, yes, I come up with ideas. Like the art crazy golf thing, and writing features now and again and some of the bits at the front, some of the funny bits with Matthew. I’m not in the office all that much.

3AM: Are you on your own doing this stuff?

GR: Yes. I do bring in people to help out so if I’m doing something on food I’ll get a food critic or if its girlie stuff someone who reads all the girlie magazines. I get the raw data and the ideas from wherever seems appropriate.

3AM: You love comics. You wrote a piece about the ‘X Men’ in the last but one edition.

GR: I’m a big Stan Lee fan. I really love the polyphony of tone that you get in Stanley’s books. You can have anything from the Shakespearean Norse Gods stuff down to the Yonkers 1940’s street slang of ‘The Thing’. I’d have them all merged together in one story. The Silver Surfer is amazing. Jesus on a surf board. That’s the perfect metaphor for Stan Lee I think. These comics had everything, they reached up for the big things and had the eloquence of failure in them too. They were kind of great failures. There’s something really moving about them. And also they had that Liberal New York Jewish angst as well. Which is also something I find very moving. The Silver Surfer is a great failure, more magnificent than anything that I’ve read anywhere else. Stanley’s world is very special in this respect. I very rarely read these mature readers books because they often don’t have that essence around them. Alan Moore is God.

3AM: If you had to choose, is it a DC world or a Marvel world?

GR: It’s definitely a Marvel world.

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