Several years back, my wife and I were on were on holiday in Venice.
We’d taken my Chinese mother-in-law.
We walked everywhere, fascinated by the incredible wealth of art.
Some of the finest painters of the Renaissance.
And, because there was so much of it, we were able to get closer than we would at art galleries at home.
Which meant we could study the intricate brushwork.
We studied picture after picture trying to work out how the artists got certain effects.
The highlights, the contoured shading.
Trying to work out what we could use to get those effects ourselves.
We stood back and observed from a distance.
Then we stood close and studied the detail.
What looked realistic from a distance looked very different close up.
My wife and I were engrossed, discussing it, making notes.
Then my mother-in-law stopped looking at the paintings.
She went and sat down on a bench away from the pictures.
I went over and asked her if she was okay.
She said “I don’t think I can look at any more pictures of the Madonna and Child.”
For a minute I didn’t know what she meant.
I didn’t get it.
Then gradually it occurred to me.
To her it was all one picture.
Madonna And Child, after Madonna And Child.
Just a lot of paintings of a mother with a halo, and a baby on her lap.
And she was bored with looking at the same thing all day long.
Over, and over, and over again.
But my wife and I hadn’t even noticed that.
We weren’t looking at the subject matter, we were looking at painting styles.
All we were seeing was technique.
So every painting looked different to us.
It didn’t even occur to me that the subject matter was always the same, because I wasn’t looking at it.
I get this a lot.
I’m talking about style and everyone else is talking about content.
I recommended Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy to a woman I know, who reads a lot.
I said it was some of the finest writing I’d ever read.
I couldn’t put it down.
A few weeks later I asked her how she’d liked it.
She said it was just silly male fantasy.
Knife fights, gunfights, revenge, killings, the good guy beats the bad guy.
She found it trivial and pointless.
Again, I didn’t get it at first.
None of that was what I remembered from the book.
I remembered the description of the desert at night.
The loneliness, the cold, the hopelessness, the helplessness.
I could almost feel the bitter wind, smell the wood fires, hear the distant noises.
All I remembered was the writing, the style, not the content.
But all she saw was the content.
Not being able to distinguish the difference between style and content can sometimes be expensive.
Tom Wolfe’s ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’ is a great book.
But it’s great because of the writing.
Not because of the content, not because of the story.
The Hollywood producers, Peter Guber and Jon Peters, couldn’t see the difference.
Simple equation for them.
It’s a great book, it must make a great movie.
So, twenty years ago, they paid Tom Wolfe half a million dollars for the rights (the equivalent of about $5 million today).
Then they spent nearly $100 million making it.
They got Brian de Palma to direct it, they got Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis to star in it.
The biggest book of the day, with the biggest director and the biggest stars of the day.
It was a no-brainer.
Well it did turn out to be a no-brainer, but not quite in the way they meant.
The movie was one of the worst cinema disasters of all time.
Not only did it not make a cent.
It lost millions upon millions of dollars.
In fact, it lost so much it all but bankrupted the studio, 20th Century Fox.
And all because Peters and Guber couldn’t see that a book is not a film.
That style is not content.
Which is why we really need to know the difference.
It’s the same with ideas and execution.
It’s the same with copywriters and art directors.
Sometimes what you do is more important.
Sometimes how you do it is more important.
Sometimes content is more important.
Sometimes style is more important.
But you have to be able to appreciate the difference between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.