The Good Master

Posted by on Mar 16, 2014 in Making, thinking, work | 4 Comments
The Good Master

I’ve had a wee thing sitting in my head for a while; it’s a section from Sennett’s The Craftsman (a book I’ve drawn endless inspiration from since starting Smithery), about the way medieval Goldsmiths worked when it came to staffing.

I’ve never really known what to do about writing it up, until I read this piece from John Winsor on how agencies are becoming a closed, shrinking creative system.

In the piece, Winsor points out why the generation running agencies are puzzled about the lack of desire amongst coming generations of creatively-minded youngsters to get into (or stay in) the agencies they’ve inherited to run:

“…it’s hard for many of the long timers in the Agency Industrial Complex (AIC) to understand. The long held and established career path with its rewards and perks seduces them…”

That idea of career path, the in-house progression touted throughout companies as a model for success, as  is what took me back to the Goldsmiths.

In short, it worked like this.  There were three levels; masters, journeymen, and apprentices.  As a young apprentice, you’d go and take your place in the workshop, and spend seven years just copying.  Seeing what the people around and above you were doing, then trying to do it yourself.  Once you’d spent around seven years doing that, you’d make a presentation to the guild, showing you understood how to use the material well.

If you passed, you became a journeyman.  You’d leave your workshop where you’d trained, and spend time in different workshops, either in the same city, or further afield (as Sennett puts it, ‘the passive stay home‘).  You’d spend your working life responding to opportunities that arose in different places, and in different contexts.  It was this variety that allowed the journeyman to grow as craftsman.

Then, once the journeyman felt he was ready, he would present to the guild in whichever city he wanted to set up shop in as a master.  The guild would not be judging the journeyman on  ability to use the materials, but on judgement about how and when to use them, and how that moral compass would be reflected through their workshop.

It’s that middle layer, the journeymen, that fascinates me most about the structure of the goldsmiths, and the dissimilarity with the current model for many businesses.  Whereas for the conventional company now, keeping people from apprenticeship all the way through to master-status is seen as a desirable thing.  It saves money, basically.  There might be benefits from consistency of work.  Organisational memory gets longer.

But the journeymen model, that fluid, transient middle layer, was more beneficial in many ways.  Not least, in Sennett’s account, was the observation made by Khaldun in medieval Andalusia of the different between the local, static goldsmiths, and the itinerant travelling ones.  Whilst the latter’s work was ‘made strong by travel and mobility’, the former appeared to be ‘inert and corrupt’.

In essence, they’d stayed in the same place so long that they knew exactly what the game was, and how they could play the system accordingly.  No new ideas, no variance in approach, the same method banged out with a depressing, half-hearted familiarity for an unsuspecting client.

Khaldun summed it up as so; “The good master presides over a travelling house“.

Now think back to John Winsor’s agencies as a closed, shrinking creative system.

The apprentices aren’t even turning up at the door any more.  Interestingly, I saw in passing on twitter recently the MD of a very well-respected ad agency being a little irked that he’d turned up give a talk at a London University to some creatively inclined students, and only two had turned up.  Then again, would you?  Why bother learning how to daub new hieroglyphs on the tombs of brand gods that nobody worships any more?  If you were going to serve an apprenticeship nowadays, where would you start?

The journeymen are off solving problems and using knowledge in different places, with different contexts.  The world has cracked in a thousand different ways, and journeymen have the ability to slip through into new spaces and respond to opportunities there.  And who are the masters in this world now?  Who’s left running the agencies, and what’s their role in this world?  Increasingly, for most, it’s to deliver the short-term growth so beloved of agency holding groups.  And you probably can’t run a ‘travelling house’ and do that in the financial year.

“You don’t become conservative until you have something to conserve” says John.  I wonder how long there will be something to conserve for a lot of these agencies, as everyone from management consultancies to IDEO comes calling at the industry door.