Monday, 18 February 2019


Am I alone in thinking we have a moral vacuum in which views about what’s right and wrong float in helpless confusion? The absence of instinctive certainties is one of today’s biggest problems. The BBC Radio 4 programme “The Moral Maze” exists solely because of this.

The recent debate about Shamima Begum, the 19 year old British girl who fled to Syria aged 15, joined Isis , got married to a Dutch terrorist, lost two babies and now, pregnant again, is claiming her rights to come “home”, have and look after her baby in peace … is a classic example of an issue filling the Times (their “scoop” ) polarising views, with politicians calculating what plays but …. no one knows what to do. When the modern world was created there was no set of instructions and no rulebook issued.

It’s unbelievable but in 2019 we seem to be making it up as we go along. And I see this happening in companies, charities and community projects where reference to constitutions (if such things exist) is often seen as pettifogging bureaucracy.

The problem that all this creates is demonstrated in a series of remarkable events last week.

The first was the protest movement of some 10,000 school children walking out of their schools on Friday at 11 am and demanding more radical action by government to arrest climate change and save the planet. There were some great slogans “I’m studying for a future that’s being destroyed,” “I’ve seen better Cabinets in Ikea” and so on.  I wonder if this isn’t the beginning of a long painful wedge for government. Youth had its say, in interviews spoke well and may have got a taste for it.

Secondly  the President of the Disunited States. I spend most of my time speechless when I see Mr Trump. However I totally agree with his action last week. He was right to call a State of Emergency. But it’s not the wall – a preposterous notion - it’s Donald Trump being President who’s the emergency. Can’t someone get the schools in the USA to walk out? He might listen to that. If being completely confused, grumpy and disoriented is less bad than being swaggeringly certain and plain wrong Britain unbelievably is in better shape than America right now.

Example 1. Save 50% by skiplagging

Finally finding loopholes in pricing structures. A bit like tax avoidance which is OK whilst tax evasion is not so it is with “skiplagging” (no me neither until the other day). It’s when Airlines charge less for multileg flights than straight trips and some resourceful passengers are buying these and missing off a leg.

Example 2 : Lufthansa from Seattle to Oslo via Frankfurt £556. Seattle to Berlin over £2000. So get off the Oslo flight at Frankfurt and buy a cheap ticket to Berlin. Smart? Well no.  A passenger who did this has been sued; Lufthansa lost but has appealed saying airlines have to make a profit.

Again I’m speechless.

Monday, 11 February 2019


A friend of mine is very clever but he also has the irritating habit of describing complex issues as “incredibly simple” or even “insanely simple”. In fact nearly everything we have created nowadays is distinctly not simple at all. The idea of ‘just in time’ as a supply chain concept couldn’t be simpler but in fact it requires Rolex precision processes to work. It’s complexity is such that any tinkering with it will break it.  ‘Almost in time most of the time’ is not a viable concept; it’s like a watch without a minute hand.

What has shocked me most over the past months is the pitiful ignorance of many politicians in failing to understand how complex businesses with sophisticated supply chains work. I suspect they imagine that Tesco is like a larger version of a corner shop or what we used to called “Mama & Pappa Shops” or more interestingly “Cat in the Window” shops.

Our world, like it or not, comprises Smart Phones which are ludicrously over powered pieces of technology worth thousands of pounds but through volume production driven down to cost just pence. The warehouses that supply us with books and clothes and food are increasingly driven by robots so when the Ocado Warehouse in Andover caught fire last week the fire brigade couldn’t get in as it was totally robot controlled. Eventually they hacked holes in the roof but too late. The warehouse was completely destroyed.

The big things we create like the NHS with bigger and better hospitals, new MOD toys like leading edge aircraft carriers and fighter planes so technologically advanced that understanding just why a glitch occurs and how much it will cost to fix is not simple -  it’s very complicated.

There was an old world that an 85 year-old dreamily described as “when we made Spitfires”  (during World War 11 we made 22,000.Morgan currently makes 1.3 k cars a year – fewer but that’s Spitfire country.)  That old world was duller, slower, dirtier (who remembers smog?), and much less efficient in every way but it was simpler and we collectively are beginning to feel it’s simplicity that’s been stolen from us.

How many people really understand the algorithms that drive the Facebook Empire. When  the late Molly Russell’s parents tried to have their daughter’s social media data retrieved – her suicide possibly encouraged by online imagery -  they couldn’t get it done because we’ve become victims of complexity.

I used to play the game “what would you do if the internet permanently collapsed?”  The Millennials burst into tears whilst older people rubbed their hands, got out their Airfix catalogues and Parker pens.

The reality is our sophisticated, incredibly clever systems can’t be done by hand. If the internet collapsed it would be chaos. Banks, retailers, hospitals, transport systems, schools and government would grind to a halt.  Our world is too complex to go back.

And that’s why none of this is simple however much we wish it was.

Monday, 4 February 2019


A friend of mine with a big job in a multinational company told me about his appraisal. It was glowing, all the KPIs were “smashed out of the park”. But there was just one thing - almost an afterthought. He was told he needed to do something about his “executive presence”. As it was just after Christmas I assumed he was being criticised for the quality of the gifts he’d given his colleagues at Christmas. No he said “executive presence” not “executive presents”.

And he thought it was a problem. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. About why people judge others primarily by their noisiness, by the way they laugh or the way they dress. Years ago another friend – a senior civil servant who’d successfully  led a tricky  project that required great diplomatic skills, intelligence and courage got a review that focused on his clothes -  “this man should get a new tailor”. Save the nation? Pah! Creases in his trousers not sharp enough.

The solution to this, of course, is to learn how to play the game. And there are four immediate things to do.

1. Speak much louder. Clare Foges, the Times columnist and one time No. 10 speechwriter noticed the public school boys around David Cameron all had very loud voices and loud laughs. Apparently you could hear Dave from two rooms away. Clare herself upped her vocal decibels.

2. Not just a  firm handshake - a challenging vice like grip whilst staring into your victims eyes and getting close to them. Behave as though there is no one else in the room, that they’re important like you.

3. Think tall. Straighten your back imagine you’re a foot taller than you are and don’t walk confidently. No. Swagger.

4. Always look as though you have a lot of time and that what you’re doing is easy, almost beneath you and deeply amusing.  Nothing but nothing can ruffle you. Rich Hall (my extremely funny American comedian/musician namesake when asked if he ever got nervous said “no because I don’t care what they think”… that’s executive presence.)

Years ago Jim Collins wrote a book called “From Good to Great”. In it he celebrates low-key CEOs who coach their people and take an avuncular back seat. More Clement Attlee than Winston Churchill. His thesis is the rock star leaders like Jack Welch was belong to a different more combative era.
If, as it seems, business and politics has become a game then it isn’t that hard to be coached to look and behave a bit more like Gwyneth Paltrow than the late Victoria Wood or George Clooney than Mark Rylance. Polish and make up are cheap. Talent and integrity less so.

We could do with a bit less flash look-at-me and a bit more thinking. A bit less Mourinho a bit more Solskjær. It’s time to place our bets on intelligence not alpha male or female braggadocio.


Monday, 28 January 2019


Try it. In conversation, when people  are bemoaning the uncertain world we live in, try the “not more uncertain than the Industrial Revolution” or “Ruskin would have had something about Brexit”. They’re conversation stoppers but go back nearly 2700 years and even my conversational capability grinds to a halt.

I went to the British Museum recently to see the exhibition “I am Ashurbanipal, King of the world, King of Assyria”. He ruled from 669 – 632 BC from his capital Nineveh. Nineveh was the largest city in Assyria and the world for 50 years and its location would have been where Mosul is now in Iraq on the Eastern Bank of the River Tigris.

It was apparently magnificent with 15 great gates and fascinating frescoes and sculptures. This is where the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were allegedly located. Ashurbanipal himself was not first in line as successor to the throne but was picked out as “the talent” and was trained as warrior, scholar and diplomat, shadowing his father and being made Assyrian spymaster which helped him develop an intimate knowledge of the vast Empire incorporating Cyprus, Judah, Egypt, Iraq, Syria.

He  was clearly unusually gifted and popular. Assyria became everything he boasted it was and he made Nineveh awe inspiring . What’s more he knew how to party.

“When I inaugurated the palace at Calah, I hosted for 10 days with food and drink….  altogether 69,574 invited guests…”

So what went wrong? We really don’t know. Records of him disappear… did he die of natural causes, was he assassinated? Whatever happened Assyria weakened, imploded and Nineveh by 612 BC was sacked and destroyed. (Imagine Paris being wiped off the map.) The exhibition showed work of heart-stopping  beauty and skill. It all seemed incomprehensible that this happened when Rome was still a muddy bunch of huts and London was over 600 years from being even started.

And then sometime around 610 BC with a huge plume of smoke, some screams and horrors it was gone. It was a memento mori moment. From King of the world to barely remembered.
Such exhibitions are like a rather strong medicine, purging us of our certainties and our  overweening attitude to our history.  We underestimate our perpetual conflicts with the Danes, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Germans and ourselves in the English Civil War in 1642 not to mention our repression of the Scots, Irish and Welsh.  Our history makes that of Ashurbanipal look almost sophisticated and civilised.

The Queen has asked us to pull our socks up and “come together”. Matthew Parris wishes she wouldn’t interfere in politics, my own problem is her plea is like asking Arsenal supporters to applaud a Tottenham goal. In the argot of today “that just aint going to  happen.” Just look at history.

The Assyrian adventure I had last week confirmed my view that Brexit will play out messily. But the historians will have such fun with it.

Monday, 21 January 2019


Wonderful word. It’s in ‘Paradise Lost’ and means “place of demons”.

Today it describes a situation where there’s a lot of noise and confusion because people are excited, angry or frightened.

And that’s where we are.

Three things happened in my week. The first when a American friend wrote to me supposing I knew what was going on: 

"I’m sure I’m over-simplifying but surely there’s only two courses of action now ? If we accept that the E.U. will NOT allow time for negotiation (despite Corbyn thinking he can finesse it) only for a second referendum. The steps are:

1. A second referendum or (which will drive some Leavers crazy) or
2. Exiting without a deal. 

Doesn’t that lead us to the sensible option of # 1 - rather than the suicidal option of # 2 ?"

My reply can’t have pleased him and it certainly didn’t please me but the unremitting contretemps led me to say:

"Sorry,  I hope you’re sitting down.

The trouble with a Second Referendum is it actually takes ages to arrange –probably 7 months. Too long for the current situation. And I doubt if it solves any of the deep problems.

Because there are no easy answers to this at all. May’s deal was actually fine because it was EU approved but it was badly sold and presented. Instead, since it cannot be easily presented again, we are into playing political games. But… 

There is no majority for anything.

Cross party agreements won’t easily work - look at the people involved!

The EU won’t give way.

The hard extremes of all parties are implacable and getting more implacable.

Sometimes you just have to tell the patient there is nothing you can do and that they are going to die.

No deal is not an option now. It’s the political reality."

The second thing happened a day later on Question Time in Derby. In the middle of a heated debate Fiona Bruce turned to Isabel Oakeshott (author, journalist and Brexiteer) and asked if she had a solution to the impasse. She replied:

“Well actually I do. Given where we are the only solution I can see is to walk away and have a no-deal exit.” 

The audience reaction was remarkable as they rose to their feet cheering. Jeremy Corbyn are you listening?  Two out of the three Derbyshire seats are held by Labour.

The third thing that happened was a friend wrote to me praising the courteous, good humoured and adept way the Speaker John Bercow had handled the debate. I replied saying I thought he had stepped outside his brief and had gone potty. When my friend deferred to me, mildly saying “I probably knew more than they did” I took stock.

I actually think they were a bit more in tune than me having been watching Parliament TV. Anyway the point wasn’t about who was right or wrong. It was about having a courteous debate.

Unlike Westminster where they’re embracing disruption leading to…


Monday, 14 January 2019


I don’t often quote from the Bible but I noticed this from Isaiah and it seemed to sum up the mood in Westminster last week.

For darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples

Not just darkness but irremediably stupid, impenetrable darkness - “thick darkness.”

So many angry faces, so many rageful eyes, so many brains switched to zero reception. Meanwhile we, the passive electorate for whom, notionally, these jokers work, we eat, sleep, yawn and lose interest in the debate which has stopped being about Brexit and has turned to kindergarten tribal warfare. Watch our MPs and the Tutsi, Hutu conflicts which were so difficult to comprehend begin to become clearer.

And then on Friday a soft, resonant voice spoke on the Today programme. It was a grown up at last.  Koji Tsuruoka is the Japanese Ambassador to the UK. As usual John Humphrys tried to elicit the Armageddon response from his opposite number

So if there’s no deal  that’ll be the end of our relationship with Japan?
No I don’t think so.

And the Ambassador patiently explained the relationship between the two countries had always been fruitful and Japan was still betting on the UK economy. He said that a no deal would need to be avoided because if the current deal on the table failed it would hurt the global economy as well as the Japanese and of course the British economy.

He explained the concept of Just-in-Time production (the idea of a minute by minute arrival of key components flabbergasted John)
Minute by minute!!!
No not minute by minute”…
No. More like second by second

He then proceeded to explain calmly that Japanese Industry was prepared for all contingencies and would adapt in an orderly way when the situation was clearer.

I loved the way he called Theresa, “Prime Minister May” reducing her to the same status as say Signalman Arkright. Someone doing a menial job. The dignity of Downing Street was then punctured by his calling it “Downing 10” a bit like “Cell Block H”. He was wonderful - so imperiously in command.

I recall when working with Panasonic years ago that they had a 250 year plan and that there was a patience about their marketing that we sometimes just didn’t get. We couldn’t understand their tentative launch into the battery market in the UK. We – all advertising short termists – wanted to create the “kill Duracell” advertising campaign. They waited. Today 20 years later they are in partnership with Tesla to produce next generation automotive batteries.

The Japanese economy has flatlined but it’s still the 3rd largest in the world  and the country is still one of the cleanest, most dignified, punctual and charming in the world.

I agree with film maker Roman Coppola.

Japan is the most intoxicating place for me. The culture fascinates me: the food, the dress, the manners and the traditions. It’s the travel experience that has moved me the most.

Monday, 7 January 2019


Brands have been a large part of my life, buying them, creating and building them as a marketeer and as an advertising executive. I spent my time persuading myself that Britain was a brand (it isn’t) and that I was a brand (I am certainly not). The definition has become too self-important. But here I am today in a chilly January mourning the passing of my favourite brands as though they were football stars who’ve hung up their boots.

The  thing about brands is they give you certainty. Wherever you are in the world that favourite brand will look the same, behave the same, taste the same and indeed be the same. Brands are consistent. Brands never let you down. Like Heinz Tomato Ketchup. Many have tried to emulate or even surpass it. All have failed. There is only one Tomato Ketchup

I thought the same was true of wine until there was a scandal around Chateau Giscours (above), one my favourite clarets, in 1995 when they were caught mixing milk, water, acid and cheaper, local red wine into the chateau's second vintage.

The power of the brand historically was demonstrated again by Heinz when they won in what was called the “Baked Bean War” of 1996. A torrent of cheap baked beans hit the selves of supermarkets selling for as little as 5p (or in one bizarre case they reduced the price to - 2p a tin).  Heinz stood firm and their price remained the same as did their brand share. Enough people believed there was no taste like Heinz. Is that true now of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise? Of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate? Of Heineken? Of Persil?

Does Ford have the brand salience they had when they produced the Ford Cortina or the eccentric Ford Capri which performed like a skittish stallion with a very long neck whose concept of braking was somewhat rudimentary? Is Ford a brand anymore? Is Vauxhall, Peugeot, Citroen? Do they mean more than Skoda or Seat?

In the certain world of the past we knew where we stood with the Tories, Socialists, Liberals and the Church of England. But the fact that there is no brand consistency or reliability may not in fact be such a bad thing. It allows us to recalibrate and regard the so-call contemporary super-brands as the transient things they are. Apple, Facebook, Google are like the Detroit brands of the past - flashes-in-the-pan of branding.

But there are brands that sustain and survive the odd misguided leader’s attempts at product sabotage and that’s football clubs. Manchester United have reverted to their brand values after José’s attempt to make them what they were not.

Arsenal, Liverpool and Brighton and Hove Albion are all true to a style of playing and set of values that are consistent.

Brands matter. They are the artefacts which persuade people that they’re better. Only one thing. Today you have to live up to that image rather than just rely on advertising magic.