Last week at the 2019 SABRE Awards gala, I was struck about the similarities between brilliant PR programs and the best movies. But the lessons and inspiration that movies offer go far beyond fancy parties.

Game-changing ideas come from the edges, not from where you usually look. That’s why I like how the arts — and especially movies — let you free your mind to explore new ways of looking at familiar things.

With that in mind, here are five films that are great on their own merit, but also highlight the path to success in our work and in our client relationships.


Adam McKay’s brilliant follow-up to The Big Short is a tour de force about the broken social compact that has severely wobbled western democracies. In McKay’s view, everyday politics is just a brassy, empty show that distracts from the deadly maneuvering that takes place in the shadows, where the real game is fought. Vice has a jumpy staccato pace and some clever dramatic devices that are true craft. It’s huge fun.

Vice should remind us to beware of the blizzard of competing priorities and remember that focus is everything. Prioritize a few simple things, stay on them, get them done. And don’t waste time. Finding quiet time to renew your energy and get the real work done is what drives success.

The Romanoffs

I am in the minority here, but The Romanoffs is the most dazzling storytelling on screen this year – or any year. This series of eight short stories by Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) is about people who think their life is the center of the universe. Each protagonist stakes their claim to specialness based on some distant and unproven link to a diaspora of royal Russian blood. They are so self-absorbed that they blind themselves to the needs of everyone around them. Privilege leads to their self-destruction; kind of like it did one century ago to the Russian Czar.

There are many takeaways here. But for me, the biggest is that good relationships are about listening and giving. A happy life is about your impact on others, not their utility to you. In a good agency, the best talent makes everyone around them shine brighter. We don’t suck the energy out of each other, we empower one another. And when we do that, we empower our clients to create a virtuous circle.

The Favourite

This is a darkly beautiful film about powerful women engaged in a ruthless competition for favour in the dysfunctional court of Queen Anne. It is a zero-sum game with no winners. Ultimately, the player with the deepest ambition rises from lowly bedchamber woman to become the favourite bedchamber woman in the closing scene. Some reward! The lesson here: be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

The same is true in agency life when it comes to the scramble for new business. We should never pursue a new client because we like the thrill of the hunt or to burnish our egos. Chasing RFPs is a tough way to build a business given how flawed the agency selection process is. It’s always better to treat your current clients like royalty and grow your remit with them by finding new ways to contribute to their business success. Replace zero-sum with win-win.

Isle of Dogs

I have three dogs, so of course I love this movie. But that does not help me make sense of it. And like my dogs, there is a lot going on under the surface I don’t understand.

Wes Anderson has explored the bleakest corners of human nature in his last few films as a way to prove that the resilience of the better parts of our nature is our true saving grace. This dystopian view of the future (why is it set in Japan?) anchors unshakeable love in the loyal bond between boy and dog. They are friends; best friends, even. Adults are not to be trusted. Only children have the answers and the courage to act on their principles. This argument can be found in Anderson’s recent work like Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest Hotel. It makes me wonder why we surrendered our innocence in the first place.

The real bite in Isle of Dogs, however, is as a cautionary tale about the banality of evil. The bad guys are mostly bland and robotic, estranged from nature, pursuing our heroes as part of the Megasaki Municipal Task Force. George Orwell would admire the use of language in this movie to mask bad intent as public service. This is a deep movie that is must viewing for anyone who wants to better understand the devices we use to communicate. Not a lot of answers provided; but all the right questions are raised about how authority figures can frame a narrative and use fear to make the public complicit in its embrace until confronted with a more powerful emotional truth.

Tokyo Drifter

This film is not new and yet it is always new. Seijun Suzuki is the Quentin Tarantino of post-war Japanese cinema. Here he smashes together a classic gangster noir with the social upheaval of the swinging sixties to break all conventions. The plot is a familiar mob drama. A fading Yakuza godfather surrenders his empire to an upstart rival leaving his No. 1 enforcer suddenly without a job and without a future. Honour forces him to abandon his past and exile himself to the frozen hinterland, where he is hunted by killers eager to tie up loose ends until he realizes he has been double-crossed. Then he returns home to avenge.

It’s a predictable plot, except everyone acts against cast to create a stunning movie with bold contrasts. Think music videos circa 1966. Everything is exaggerated, from the bright colour palette to the spare soundstages that accentuate every move. It’s eccentric to the max. This movie punches way above its weight because it never stops punching. Especially on repeat viewing.

How does a 54-year-old movie relate to communications today? As Miles Davis once said, “if you are going to tell a story, come with some attitude.” In this time of industry disruption and transformation, we need to be bold. We can’t shrink our way to success. We can’t be the admiral so afraid of the risks at sea that the navy gets sunk in its port. Better to act. Even if we might get it wrong. Then, iterate together to find the right course.