Monday, 22 August 2016

THINKING ABOUT BIG

I’m not against big businesses.  Not at all. They are full of smart and civilised people. They are important to our economy and our social stability.

I like Google and Apple (who doesn’t?)


I used to love the spirit Nike had in the period of their pre-21st-century glory. I love the confidence with which companies such as John Lewis, Heinz (now 3G) and BMW go about what they do. I enjoy seeing challengers like Deliveroo, Uber, Airbnb and especially Aldi, disrupt their markets and behave small (even when - like Aldi - they’re the 90th biggest company in the world, a lot bigger than Tesco with twice as many stores in 18 countries.)


But there’s something about big companies that’s beginning to worry me.

Mark Ritson in Marketing Week gets it spot-on when he castigates Apple for circumventing paying their tax:
Apple is by no means alone in its attempts to legally minimise its tax responsibilities. Despite what all the naïve morons that espouse CSR and brand purpose keep telling you, there are very few brands that don’t actively and massively avoid tax liabilities to a disgraceful degree. What makes Apple notable in this uniformly disgusting context is the manner in which Cook has continued to portray himself as a different kind of CEO, who takes his societal responsibilities very seriously.


What worries me is being big can make you a bully and prematurely deaf. Being big makes you think ‘There’s my way and then there’s my way.’ Most of all, being big makes you an enemy of marketing. The big decisions you make will be about money, cost and margins, about downsizing, consolidating and acquisitions. They should be about people and what they want and need. They should be about marketing but they won’t be. And if you get too big to focus on marketing, well…you’re going to die.


Small businesses are about the future. They are about risk and about change. They are where innovation thrives.  They are about learning. They are about being busy doing important things. They are more in love with their top-line (their sales) than their bottom-line (profit). And they keep on trying to get better not richer.
Small businesses are lucky. They don’t usually have shareholders or if they do they don’t have analysts poring over their numbers. They don’t have a lot of out-of-date plant and investment in property they just don’t need. They don’t have a huge workforce.

But what don’t they have?

They don’t have enough money to have much wriggle room. So they need to be very smart if they’re going to survive.   Lord Rutherford the scientist said:

“We have no money so we shall have to think.” (Those who know me well will have heard that many times before.)

We’ve got to stop bending the knee to big business. The real future lies with companies creating the future and not protecting the past. And if they won’t pay their tax, however big they are, they can get lost.

Monday, 15 August 2016

IS IT REAL?

Authenticity is something of a buzzword right now along with transparency, honesty and sharing. The need for plain English and the “truth” are constantly on people’s lips.

I have felt uneasy about the Olympics and about cricket because of the doping scandals of the former and the betting corruption of the latter to the extent of not watching them.

What’s the point when so many competitors have cheated blatantly?  These sports are simply inauthentic being literally played on an uneven playing field.  Yet I found myself being drawn towards the Olympics despite my reservations. Applause like laughter is infectious. There’s something about sport when it’s played well that gets you. So when Adam Peaty  smashed the world record time in the 100 metres breaststroke I, who loathe swimming, was fascinated. Adam seems to have disrupted breast stroke technique by swimming in an exhaustingly aggressive way. A dull stroke made thrilling.


In the midst of Polish Weightlifters, Bulgarian Steeplechasers and Chinese swimmers being sent home this week for doping offences there’s a kind of naïve brilliance we see in the way some athletes excel.

Here’s a different story about authenticity.  There’s an old report of a conspiracy to cheat on insurance through bogus whiplash and other injuries which were allegedly suffered by 26 passengers on a bus that normally carried about eight people. When the bus ran into a car causing a slight bump legitimate, law abiding passengers watched in bemusement as the conspirators flung themselves to the floor of the bus clutching their necks and screaming in apparent agony.

CCTV footage showed some of them giggling as they performed these antics. It was not authentic nor intelligent but quite funny at every level. It’s the idea of mass incompetent corruption that has a Monty Python feel to it. There was one other piece of idiocy - they all made claims against just one insurance company.

Judge Patricia Lynch was the most authentic voice last week when she swore back at John Hennigan whom she was jailing for breaching an Asbo order:


Henningan: You’re a bit of a c..t
Judge: You’re a bit of a c..t yourself.
Hennigan: Go f..k yourself
Judge: You too.

Hennigan did not cut a particularly attractive figure in his behaviour or in his physical appearance - no Olympic athlete he - but I doubt if Patricia’s authenticity which won her widespread support on social media will go down quite so well with the judiciary.

Whilst writers try to find their authentic voice - the true them - this is not generally true of politicians who spend most of their lives trying to be what they think voters want. Boris Johnson, for example, plays whatever he judges will work best: buffoon, man of the people, intellectual, small boy or repentant. Our Foreign Secretary seems to have gone to earth doubtless working on his next performance. To misquote Bacon in his famous quote about Pilate:


“What is real?” said jesting Johnson but would not stay for an answer.








Monday, 8 August 2016

TIME TO FILL THAT GLASS HALF FULL

I have a Blog Master who places and art directs my blog and bullies me if I haven’t done it. He is Scottish. That’s an observation not a criticism. But unlike Frazer in Dad’s Army, dourly and constantly observing “we’re doomed,” Ian, my Blog Master wondered in a post-Brexit hangover: “whether you should brighten up as you come from Brighton.”

So, starting today from Saturday 4th; it’s a real summer day. I’m awash with vitamin D. I’m invincibly cheerful. In Brighton it’s Gay Pride. As I walk along streets packed with people dressed in tutus, faces smothered in glitter and a gleam in their eye of impending-party-time a mother is addressed by her bemused 4 year old son:
“Mummy, why are we here?”
“To celebrate the day we can show we can love and marry whoever we want.”

Britain is a better place than it once was. 
And here’s more considered evidence.  A few weeks ago I talked to Harry Maitland, sixteen, co-founder of a group called The Basement Effect, voted the second favourite rock band in Liverpool. Harry is very bright (expect GCSE A*s), amazingly mature and poised. The last person I met with that much teenage charisma was Nick D’Aloisio.
Harry said that when they launched their band two years ago they resolved to set up a “Social Media” platform first, putting stuff there 24/7, announcing they were in existence and “inspiring and engaging people”. So when they began to build their fan base by busking they were already known. As their fans gave them money they rushed round giving their fans “business cards” - yes he called them that. Two years later they’ve done 150 live gigs - got 55,000 views of one of them - have been on BBC Radio 6. They are musically proficient and write their own stuff.
Who knows if they’ll make it … but Harry’s created a model approach to marketing today. It wasn’t just his modesty that I loved - it was his certainty that without awareness a brand/band hasn’t got a chance.
And here’s more. A few days ago I was taken to lunch by a very bright 26 year old. He’s  been doing brilliantly and was invited to go on the Board of his company. He said “no thanks, I haven’t quite decided what I want to do yet”. They offered to double his salary to say yes, instead he said: “no thanks, I haven’t quite decided what I want to do yet.”

He’ll start his own company when he’s ready. He’s already declared he’s not an average employee. He’s gone up in my estimation for being free from monetary persuasion.
Recently I have been developing a growing sense that aprés le deluge the post-Brexit-relaunch of Britain could actually work. Smart youth, cunning experience, a mission to clear out the complacently mediocre and drive an energetic agenda of innovation is what we need; this plus an utterly ruthless desire to win.

Monday, 1 August 2016

HELP THE RADAR'S DOWN

Bad news for bookies, pundits and psephologists - the old fashioned way of predicting through balancing talent, achievement and form has gone out of the window.

As they might say in Iceland:  “Við þandir Englandi. Svo mikið fyrir mannorð þeirra.“


Does anyone know what’s going to happen next? We got the prospects for Corbyn, Brexit, Leicester City and Trump wrong. We seem to have lost our touch. Just as “Big Data” arrived to allow us to forecast with greater sureness something weird has happened.

Unpredictability rules OK …or have we just lost the plot?


The late founder of Body Shop, Dame Anita Roddick, said:

“Running a company on market research is like driving while looking in the rear view mirror.”

But that’s what all the big institutions have been doing for a long time.  Headhunters select candidates on the basis of where they’ve been rather than what they might do. Hence their arrival into (and thereafter departure from) similar jobs to the ones they’ve had before, showing how efficiently we recycle senior executives. The biggest change in our world is that mass movements like epidemics-of-extreme-opinion happen faster than we could have imagined in older and slower times. Apathy is dead. The silent majority has started to shout.


Some of the things that we couldn’t have imagined - everyone uncomplainingly wearing seatbelts, smoking being banned in virtually all public spaces, adult smokers down from 46% in 1974 to 19% in just 40 years and plastic bag aversion…. what’s effectively a “fine” of 5p per plastic bag has produced an 80% decline in uptake in Tesco alone.

The thundering herd embraces games and fashion too - Pokémon-Go for instance where the groundswell of excitement may burn out but the appetite for the next PG will be waiting for more.  We’re told we need leadership. Well, look at the leaders. Are the Trumps, Le Pens, Wilders, Putins, Erdogans and others what we really need in a civilised world? Aren’t they all just part of a wave of militant nostalgia?

We are spending so much time focusing on the past,  looking in that rear view mirror, rather than exploring the future.

But what we aren’t doing is looking at and listening to what Martin Lindstrom calls “small data” (author of “Brandwashed - Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy”). His thesis is small changes and phenomena make the difference and anticipate the tidal wave that creates trends. Like people beginning to think that smoking looked unfashionable and unusual was what it took to prick the nicotine bubble.


Radar can help us predict the future but having a sense of conviction as to where we want to go and being determined to get there matters more.  A long time ago Sarah Lee had a great idea for promoting their cake mix. “Just add an egg” they said.

We need to find the egg that’s missing in our lives and then - well - just add it.

Monday, 25 July 2016

WALK ON BY

Dionne Warwick sung this in 1964. Bill Baccharat and Hal David wrote it.

Foolish pride…that's all that I have left….” Those lyrics floated round my head as I walked and walked and walked last week.

Walking isn’t anything new.  We used to walk vast distances across continents.


Dickens walked 25 miles through the night from London to Rochester creating plots and giving birth to characters. Bill Sykes was conceived on the A2. Wordsworth who trudged over fell and dale in the Lake District was reckoned by his substance-abusing friend Thomas de Quincey to have walked 180,000 miles during his lifetime. Oxford Dons used to walk alongside the River Cherwell talking, thinking and debating.

Ferris Jabr wrote a piece in the New Yorker in 2014 entitled “Why walking helps us think” in which he said:


“Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.”

We live trapped in front of PC screens in air conditioned offices thinking in an air conditioned way. Recycled ideas collide in our dulled, aching minds.


Last week a client-friend and I walked through London. We didn’t walk that far, just six miles give or take, but for a sedentary chap like me that seemed a long way. A long way in retrospect because at the time it seemed like a gentle stroll being constantly stimulated; an agenda-less conversation with intellectual diversions as they occurred. We even walked into a couple of churches - the Brompton Oratory and a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens. On our journey we needed peace which we found in both, as well as inspiration.

We wandered through Hyde, Green and St James’ Park. We admired Nile Geese in the latter, the Ove Arup exhibition in the V&A - “the Philosophy of Total Design”.  How wonderful to find an eccentric genius who made a fortune and made people laugh. His lyrics and doodles are funny and insightful.

So we discovered walking? No we rediscovered the joy of discovery. Here’s Jabr again:
“When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps.”


We made a series of mental footsteps in puzzling over a series of issues and stumbling over a set of possible resolutions. We wrote nothing down, although I was able afterwards to produce a pretty well word perfect version of the discussion just by recalling a place - Harrods - or a situation - the Black Swan or an incredible, buzzy, joy overflowing early supper in the Wolseley.

It felt like a particularly happy time.

Walking liberates thinking, creativity and peace - try it.

Monday, 18 July 2016

IT'S TIME TO BE DIFFERENT


I heard Linda Jackson Citroen’s CEO on Radio 4 last week. She was asked to reflect on this car maker’s resurgence in sales - up 16% year on year. She said she thought the brand had lost its soul, that it had tried to be like the others rather than trying to be different. But that had changed. She was (she said) leading Citroen back to the glorious eccentricities of the 2CV and the DS - Maigret’s car and the limousine used by French Presidents.

Citroen was style. Citroen was sexy. Citroen was - as David Cameron put it - the future once. It had the potential to be relevant, feminine and head turning and now it’s all of those - at last.

Over 20 years ago I held a senior position in London in a French advertising agency called Euro RSCG who had the Citroen account. From a distance I watched the business constantly on the verge of being lost and then in an unbelievable kiss-and make-up over a spectacular meal between the agency’s French CEO and the CEO of Citroen a new strategy would be hatched over Chateau Latour and more mediocre advertising for mediocre cars resulted.

Citroen had not only lost it soul it had lost its senses. But it seems Linda has helped change this. And well done here because we live in a same-old world when it comes to most design.


We’ll  decline complacently as we become more alike. To succeed we need to renovate, reinvent and be distinctive.

What’s a French Carmaker that’s a bit awkward, independently spirited and characterful got to do with Brand Britain?


Caitlin Moran who usually makes me laugh more than she makes me think made me start thinking quite hard on Saturday when she wrote in the Times:

“Ostensibly we’re leaving Europe but what we’re really leaving is the High Table. We’ve made all our history. We’ve done all our innovating. We want to be smaller. Let someone else do the heavy lifting ….. I think we’re done.”

That’s why the old and the young voted so differently. The older voters are knackered by the constant demands on trying to be GREAT Britain when just being Britain would be great enough.  We may, like it or not, have voted to be a bit smaller.  But more importantly although we don’t have a plan yet we have voted to be different, less institutional, less global corporate, more awkward and less co-operative.

Finding our soul, agreeing on our reinvention and doing a Citroen on ourselves is going to take longer than the negotiation of the Brexit terms with the EU and it’s a lot more important. If we get this right (or more properly if we come to a broad consensus on what we are trying to become) things could work out well.

David Cameron used to talk about the Big Society. This is the smaller society. More John Lewis than Tesco but actually different to either.

Are we up for it?

Monday, 11 July 2016

I'M GOING TO BECOME NASTY

Consider the respective benefits of managing with stick or carrot. Personally I’ve always had a pocketful of carrots in the unshakeable belief that the nicer we are to each other the better the results. But I’m not any longer sure that this is right.

We’ve exhausted our patience, our management skills and bank balance on our extensive house refurbishment. Seventeen different people have marched through our house, drunk our coffee, used our loos and exercised our respective people skills. When one of them said to me “you know you’re the nicest people I’ve worked for” I knew something was going horribly wrong. Now it’s a common refrain and we are left waiting (nicely) whilst the unreasonable bastards who scream and shout get instant attention from these characters.

My self-doubt increased on June 23rd when I realised that civilised debate with Brexit people was a waste of time.  Being nice was a mission too far when they told me that they didn’t want straight bananas, unelected bureaucrats (what? Like our own civil servants, police, judiciary), bad treatment of animals, Polish builders and so on and that they wanted a return to our “yeoman values”, control of our destiny and poverty (yes that’s really a price worth paying).

June 23rd was for about half the country our 9/11. That Thursday our world changed. And the EU-Leavers took our country away and they stole my sense of humour. Because where we are and where we’re going isn’t funny.

How bad is it?

A friend told me he rooted for Iceland in the European Cup - “I hate old England’s vulgar nationalism”.


To misquote Dr Johnson but probably more to the current point:
Patriotism is the last refuge of …”the ignorant.

The last time I felt this bereft was when my mother died. It’s created a real sense of permanent loss. And as the “I told you so’s” pile up I feel worse not vindicated. On Saturday, for instance, the pound overtook the Argentinian Peso as the weakest leading global currency.

The division between leavers and remainers is acute and I believe permanent. It appears nearly all the people I know think like me. The very few leavers I know have values and attitudes to capital punishment, homosexuality and life in general that are not what I can live with. (What would Roy Jenkins our most radical liberal 20th century spirit think of all this?)


I feel ashamed, belittled and angry. And I want to find my real home again. Fortunately Brighton was strongly pro-remain but my gut says I must find solace in London or Scotland. Richard French, a friend, believes there should be a new country called “Scot-Lon” and to hell with the rest.

But here’s a thought. By 2020 over 1½ million of those people who voted Brexit will have died to be replaced by a more pro-EU group aged 18+.

So we have to wait for this madness to pass and just be nastier in this post-nice world.