Monday, 15 December 2014


Roger Scruton was talking about “kitsch” today - you know that kind of self-regarding sentimentality that happens every Christmas. Oscar Wilde clearly got (and despised) kitsch when he said:
A man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of little Nell.

Yet in the past week I experienced what could have been kitsch but really wasn’t.

David Abbott’s Memorial Service first. David was co-founder of Abbott Mead Vickers, Britain’s largest advertising agency. In his eulogies people said things like “we shall not see his like again.” And in truth we probably shan’t. One of his co-founders, Peter Mead, has written a book called “When in Doubt Be Nice”. And they were nice. They created a business with real values. The AMV brand, more than others, really understood branding and here’s how in a speech David himself made:

"You care about two things.  You care about quality – in everything you do. From the chairs in Reception, to the way you answer a phone, to a piece of Typography, to the ideas you have, to the research you put your name to, to the meetings you hold, to the way you hang a picture, to the way you crop a photograph or write a line.

Quality is always possible and always under threat, but if you don’t seek and defend it you won’t be satisfied and you won’t be happy. The second thing you must care about?  That’s easy.  It’s each other. Take care of each other and nearly everything else will take care of itself.  It’s pat, but it’s true."

And the second bit of kitsch (only it wasn’t either) was the Aldrington Primary School Carol Service - that’s where our grandsons go. I recall a guy whose credo was the need to tell the truth regardless of the consequences. He visited a Primary School, went into a room where all the recent art was pinned up and said “but this is, well this is just rubbish - all of it. Kitsch rubbish.” Well the concert by any standards wasn’t kitsch. It was great, lusty, joyful with a few astonishing “I can’t believe they’re only nine” moments.

Whilst all this was going on I was working on some stuff about winning, you know zero-sum-game, alpha male stuff, “let’s do it to them before they do it to us.” And I’ve been wondering if being nice and trying to be a good, kind person isn’t a better strategy. In the end the world in which we live is about people it’s not about stuff. It’s how we empathise with each other that matters.

I recall Rodney King - the guy who was brutally beaten up by the LA Police in 1991 with the event caught on incriminating camera. King was no saint but he said something quite saintly.
Please can we all get along…I mean we’re stuck here for a while…we can sort it out

This is a kitsch picture though! Sorry.

Monday, 8 December 2014


It was 8.30pm after a long day.

And I was live…crackle, hiss and splat!

Wade Danielson is based in Texas and has launched the Entrepreneur’s Library - so far there are 106 Podcasts by authors whose books might be of interest to entrepreneurs - he’s doing these interviews at the rate of five a week.

And he asked me to do one on my “paradigm shifting” book (there’s a big opportunity for you in marketing and flattery Wade).

So dip into this.

Apart from sounding as though I’ve been imprisoned in a wonky tumble drier and the fact that I’m talking too fast and in a rather unstructured and impassioned way - system one in my brain at full tilt - it’ll do. It’ll have to.  If nothing else I’ve learnt how to do it next time.

Ironic isn’t it that with every presentation you (or I) do it’s only when you’ve done it you actually realise how you should have done it.

Monday, 1 December 2014


What I most regret in my life is not going and seeing things for myself. Someone who worked for me once told me he was going to Germany for the rest of the week because something was “kicking off” there around the Berlin wall. That weekend it came down and I felt that I was a loser.

I‘m always amazed that many people seem happy enough just with reports rather than experience of the real thing. Focus groups can’t do it, although talking over a meal or getting out into the world might.

It’s too easy via Twitter, TV News and articles, well written as they may be, to absorb opinions and situations at third or fourth hand. Take Russia. What’s going on there - really going on? Well I met someone just back. “Boom times”, he said, “supermarkets full of goodies, everyone expressing themselves fearlessly. Putin? Hell - just he’s just another politician; they neither like nor dislike him but he should stop lying about there being no Russian boots on the ground in the Ukraine.”

Everyone I talk to says their sales are growing in Russia. The people there have one concern:  the prospect of being cut off from Europe alarms them. Hear that and you feel the need to visit, smell and understand what is increasingly being misreported.

I spent a night in Hochheim just outside Frankfurt last week. My hotel shut its doors and service at 8pm. You had a code to get in. I had a brilliant room - quiet, not a murmur, not a rustle - a rapturously serene sleep followed by a wonderful breakfast and a drive to work. Germany rests. It all feels very effective. But if you don’t go there in person you’ll only hear about BMW and economic stasis.

The same with Dublin recently where that reportedly restored Celtic tiger came alive when the smiling taxi driver said things were back on track. I watched ladies at lunch one day at Clondarf Castle and thought relaxed shoulders tell you more than any analysis of GDP can.

We read restaurant reviews and vicariously imagine we too have eaten the food. Film reviews are the same; yet sitting listening to two friends, one of whom had loathed the Turner film and the other of whom had loved it, made me know I had to see it myself because what they thought was theirs not mine.

Someone suggested I wouldn’t enjoy Anselm Kiefer at the RA. “Too brutal and depressing” they said. Well that and more. Burned paper, dead sunflowers and destruction but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.  It lies heavy on my memory but it was extraordinary.  Yet I might have read it up on Wikipedia, looked at some images and have caught a whiff of the man’s work.

Whiffs aren’t enough. You have to smell it first hand to understand, feed your senses and know what you really think and feel.

Monday, 24 November 2014


Globally the battle is between the past and the future.

In the Middle East and Asia, some Islamic values are at loggerheads with modernity. By the same token some traditional Anglicans find the idea of a female bishop bizarre. Someone said apparently:

You might as well ordain a pork pie as ordain a woman bishop

I rather like pork pies. But they are a little old fashioned and reminiscent of summers past.
As is the UKIP argument that the EU is sucking us dry, that immigrants are a drain on the economy and that fings aint wot they used to be.

Yet UKIP is doing well and we need to understand what their problem really is (not as some do hope it’ll go away). All traditionalists of whatever persuasion are saying in slightly different tones of voice “can’t we go back to things as they were?”

The trouble is that “the way things were” wasn’t really as good as it is today. Nonetheless stick with that nostalgic urge and try to empathise with it.

Jerusalem, green and pleasant lands, steam trains, pipe smoking, bosses and workers, Nottingham Forest, flat caps, Bill Hailey, Hancock, ‘O’ levels, Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses, Max Bygraves,  capital punishment, Watney’s Red, Jensen Interceptors, Woolworth, corner shops…..

The struggle between past and future is playing out in the marketing arena too. This is not just Farage v the Westminster Bubble. This is the High Street fighting back against the monolith out-of-town warehouses. Small shops trumping Tesco; big companies being attacked vociferously for being bad citizens; Jamie Oliver’s “Comfort Food” suggesting a retro-trend in diet (like the resurgence of pies); the revival of the fountain pen; an old fashioned, Midnight Mass, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen-type Christmas; the return of the epic story….has anyone reflected on the resemblance the long form TV series has to Victorian novels (which were also serialised, cliff hangers and all). This is Brave New World v Nostalgia.

There is nothing new with retro-marketing but there’s an increasing groundswell of opposition to new-fangled technology and, of course, Indian Call Centres and the “press 1 for accounts, 2 for complaints, 3 for other services” style of customer service. We increasingly call for personable, well- brought-up human beings not remote call centres.

Just as the UKIP, Tea Party, and Golden Dawn factions of this world tend to be vociferous minorities so too the retro-entrepreneurs are unlikely to usurp the Goliaths of the retail, energy, financial or fmcg communities. But they’ll bite their ankles very nastily and make them take notice.

This is a world where the entrance price for a troublemaking new brand is low. A website, a storytelling champion, a bit of news, a cacophony of tweets does it.  And one of the marketing strategies working well right now is based on authenticity and nostalgia.

So yes, the past, it seems, is alive and surprisingly well.

Technology moves on but traditionalism has a powerful voice too.

Saturday, 22 November 2014


Here’s how Alexander Solzhenitsyn described empathy:

If you want to change the world who do you begin with - yourself or others? I believe if we begin with ourselves and do the things we need to do and become the best person we can be we must have a better chance of changing the world for the better.”

The more we study this subject of people and their behaviour and ourselves and our own behaviour, the more we realise we aren’t irrational we’re just rather inconsistent. For instance we might speculate quite dramatically about how someone potentially might behave towards us and we might get cross about their hypothetical potential unreasonableness and end up having a fight in our minds with them.

I’ll never speak to him again. Bastard!!

But hang on….you’ve just made this all up. Get back to reality. Step into his shoes. Assume good nature might prevail…what then?

Sam Richards is a brilliant speaker and academic. His “radical experiment in empathy” on TED asks his American audience to imagine how they’d feel if the Chinese invaded the USA on a “peacekeeping mission” but with the generally understood motive of protecting their coal interests. And then switches to making the audience empathise with the Iraqis - yes even the terrorists. It’s compelling. It also shows empathy isn’t always comfortable. Sam asks us to “swap one tiny world for another tiny world” and quotes Dostoyevsky…“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evil doer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him”. If this doesn’t help you want to learn how to empathise then nothing will.

Unlike other psychological areas like creativity, empathy is an area of psychology that is being widely and excitingly explored. An example is the remarkable BrenĂ© Brown who’s an academic exploring how people connect with each other. She suggests we’re neurobiologically programmed for human connection and identifies that in this quest for authentic connection people really learn to empathise. Essential to it, though, is an acceptance that life is a bit messy (she confesses, as someone who likes order, she herself finds this disconcerting) and that admitting to and accepting our own vulnerability is essential to good

If you think about that it flies in the face of years of alpha males practising “don’t show fear” and Harvard Business School and others teaching the necessity of displaying confidence. BrenĂ© says that in her studies what matters most is not people asking “what’s in it for me?” but the increasing cohort asking a much more important question -  “what’s in it for us?” If she’s right, and I think she is, the implication of this for management is significant.

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.

Michael Jordan

Given more people are asking “what’s in it for people like us?” not “what’s in it for me?” this means we’ve got to think more about groups not individuals. Because it’s the group not the individual who’s winning the climb up that greasy pole now.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson

Friday, 21 November 2014


When it comes to creative thinking most of us get blocked by inner voices asking “what if?” or posing the question “just suppose x happens...” The fear of rejection looms larger than the anticipation of success and so long as it does we are driving our creativity with the handbrake on.

And here’s the hardest question of all that I once saw – “if whatever you decide to do next could not fail what would that be?”  The terrifying thing is you have things like “create world peace” and “end of all disease” to beat and then you wonder whether either of those might have an explosive impact on  population growth so terrible that the expression “be careful what you wish for” would come home to roost rather smugly. Creativity needs a bit of grit in the oyster to achieve really great results. Human beings handle perfection uneasily.

In fact most people are lacking in confidence when it comes to creative thinking. They think they are reasonably intelligent but weak at creativity. In self-assessment tests respondents scored themselves at 7/10 for intelligence but only at 4.5/10 for creativity. In removing the most obvious blocks we have to realise that our brain has a habit of lying to us. Yes inside our heads is a congenital fibber.

In research tests where people are asked to solve a problem involving moving a weight from position A to position B and the answer is to swing the weight on a rope pendulum (an obvious solution once seen) they will deny having had any help to get there despite the questioner brushing the rope and giving strong hints.

Yes, I’m sorry to say the creative muscle in our head tells great whoppers. It’s also a brilliant film editor cutting and editing our memory so our “honest” recollection of history is (how shall I put it?) especially favourable to us. We are heroes in our own memories. We are tolerant, kind and liberal. By the way if you want to find out what you really are deep down try the “Implicit Association Test” (‎). You may be a little surprised.

Creativity is massively impeded if we meet a cynic. There are a variety of terrible expressions cynics have mastered which act like a right hook on our ability to think lucidly, imaginatively and come up with ideas:

 “Well, anyway…”, “in the meantime…”, “mind you…”, “let me think about it”… (that means “no” in plain English), “suppose for the sake of argument…”, “with the greatest respect”…, “that’s all very well but…

Assumptions stifle creativity; assumptions that our ideas won’t meet approval, that the audience won’t laugh or assumptions that the worst will happen.  This also happens in institutionalised bureaucracies where the assumption exists that creativity is a bit flippant and “not for us.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson

Thursday, 20 November 2014


We know how important our emotions are - that our instincts are the powerful engine of our thinking. We think we are coldly rational whilst it’s our intuition in charge.  This makes for a more interesting but less predictable life. Decisions are reached by our working hard trying to get emotions and logic aligned. But here’s what’s really going on.

Our sub-conscious is making the decision that is fed to our conscious and there’s a time lag of ½ second between the two (Benjamin Libet started this work at the University of California over 50 years ago). This suggests that when this happens the decision we are seeking arrives in our mind (unannounced as it were). So we’d do well to think “let’s question again whether this is the right or the only decision.” In other words rigorously question ourselves.

A key to good thinking is always going to be to strengthen our resistance to taking our own feelings for granted. Trust your gut but then say: “hang on…can I find a better solution…is this necessarily the best and only decision?” Never dismiss first impressions but park them as a useful start and then re-examine all the data you can. Life needn’t be a lottery if you’re smart (but don’t tell Camelot that).

When we’ve decided what we need to do we still have to carry others with us. Marketing our decisions is the really hard bit, much, much harder than making the decision itself.

Because a decision isn’t going to be a real decision until it gets buy-in.

Emotion drives decisions. Emotion conditions receiving decisions. This is why presentation matters. How you wrap up a present says how much you care. How you deliver a message is critical to how it’s heard.

if a surgeon tells you either that a given procedure gives you a 10% chance of dying or tells you that it gives you a 90% chance of surviving (and rationally you know that these are exactly the same thing) the chancGeorge Bush, es are you’ll see the latter option as being much superior. (And, unsurprising, in research the comparative approval scores are respectively 50% and 84%.)

Not everyone thinks making decisions is that hard. Here’s what George Bush said: “I don’t spend a lot of time taking polls around the world to tell me what I think is the right way to act. I’ve just got to know how I feel.

I hope, if nothing else, that remark underlines just how important rigorous thinking really is when making decisions. Emotion is fine. Trust your gut. Yeah but shucks there must be more to the most important job in the world than that.
Richard Hall's book "How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions"

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson