Monday, 27 July 2020

DRIVING TASTE

Drivers of taste… 

What is it that creates a craze? When I was in the toy trade I watched the overwhelming impact of licensed merchandise with agents selling the rights for Bond and Marvel and so on. Ordinary toys went to the back of the toy cupboard. 

In the late-1950s Connie Francis was no.1 pop singer with “Stupid Cupid” but by the mid-60s, a turmoil of change, the demise of Tory government and a sense of  rebirth, regionally- accented groups strutted the stage; the advent of pirate radio stations promoted rebellious music further. 

Old Pop was demolished as smart middle-men marketed new groups and  UK music became entrepreneurial and global, defining the booming spirit of the times. We still talk about this golden era. 

Live performance needs stages. Thus as wealth grew and tastes refined opera thrived as Garsington, the Grange, Glyndebourne plus a myriad of outdoor venues emerged. And then theatre in pubs, in gardens, in hotels. Actors and singers were busy. We thought that trend could never end. How wrong. How ironic.

Cars had their day too with E-types and Minis exciting people  with unique style. For a while cars became stars. Remember the “Italian Job.” How cars looked said a lot about their owners.  But as some petrol-head gloomily said “now all cars are being designed by a computer and look alike.”

In the turmoil-ridden 1970s (strikes, 3 day weeks, 27% inflation) the staid US advertising agencies that dominated the post-war years were usurped by bands of brothers (like the Saatchis) and a cluster of bright young creative minds fleeing to London from the unemployed provinces. Smooth public-school ad men were usurped by school failures who suddenly came to life and wrote funny ads. that people loved. 

What’s in common here is the collective exuberance that inventors, salesmen and rebels, discovered , developed and produced and sold a lot of, all trying to outdo each other.  

And why? In virtually every case three things coincided –  social upheaval,  shifts in technology and groups of middle-men who were great salesman. Dealers, agents, fixers. Almost nothing happens without these “wily” agents. People like Ray Croc who took the McDonald brothers’ product and concept and created a worldwide phenomenon. Would the Beatles have been as big without their manager Brian Epstein? Would Saatchi have been successful without Tim Bell – wheeler-dealer supreme? All of them could smell money in creating new excitement and selling unusual ways of looking at things.

And, it seems, it was ever thus.

I’ve been reading  “The Taste Makers” which describes the scale and the genesis of the craze for Louis X1V furniture in the late 18th and early 19th century. The French Revolution  followed by the tumultuous rise and fall of Napoleon created turmoil, uncertainty and change. Times like those when dealers and entrepreneurs saw opportunities to define taste to their advantage resemble times like ours when normality has been overturned. 

Uncharted territory. Turmoil. Technological innovation. Young talent. Desire for change. A rebel spirit. Salesmanship.

Game on.

   


Monday, 20 July 2020

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?

Sam Goldwyn said “it’s hard to predict especially when it comes to the future.” Forecasters are currently either catastrophists or Panglossian. On Friday one-time Father of the House, ex-MP and possibly the best Prime Minister we never had, Ken Clarke, said on the BBC Today programme we should probably expect the worst in terms of unemployment and company failures, that the exceptional economic downturn will destroy many small and medium sized businesses that aren’t quite good enough or needed enough and many nice-to-have, but not essential, jobs will disappear. 


On Wednesday I went up to London, the first time in sixteen weeks. The train from Brighton was almost empty, Victoria Station was quiet as was Central London. It was like a Sunday. John Lewis in Oxford Street was closed. The few people hurried past wearing masks. Return to normal? Definitely not. It’s difficult to see when and how the momentum will return. Difficult certainly for the taxi driver almost in tears who said to me that there was no business and that things were hopeless. Boris’ upbeat words and braggadocio will not be enough to shift that taxi-driver’s despair.


It’s all exacerbated by the lack of human contact. A big feature of my life has always been lunch. I was better at lunch than most. I almost lived in Odin’s, now gone (and what a tragedy that was.) Before anyone had heard of the term Odin’s tables were “socially distanced” from each other. I learnt more over lunch than I did at University. Lunch was when people went off script and told the truth, lunch was when trust was earned or lost. In its smaller and less satisfying way it was the coffee machine or water cooler where office politics happened. People are social beings not distanced.


Zoom, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and the rest can’t replace spontaneous face-to-face conversation. Whilst it’s probably true that working from home can be more productive, teams will become harder to co-ordinate and motivate and leaders will have to find a new way of behaving. 

“What sort of leaders shall we need or get post Covid?” 


That’s what I was asked last week. 

Two things. Firstly when is post-Covid? Next year? Just when will the masks come off and the conversation turn from health? Secondly the models of leadership globally are not promising. In business Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk and others like them are setting the pace. In politics, Xi, Putin, Trump, Erdogan are leading voices right now. The trend is towards egotistical authoritarianism.

In 1920 when Baseball star, Joe Jackson, admitted he cheated in the 1919 World Series, reporter Charley Owens wrote “Say it ain’t so Joe”. That’s how any lover of people would respond to the trend towards dictatorships.

Leaders we should hope would be less greedy, more modestly paid, better listeners, better teachers, more visionary, much more inspirational and much smarter.

If that happens we’ve a chance of getting out of the tunnel. But if not…..


Monday, 13 July 2020

WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?

In the midst of this quirky summer the answer is they’re in our garden. What started as a way of consoling ourselves in lockdown became a thing of overplanting just to see what happened.  The mallow, campion, scabious, cosmos, salvia, lavender and penstemon are all jostling for position in our flower beds and getting taller and taller. It’s rather exciting.


Where have all the bees gone? Well we saw few last year but now our garden is crammed with swarms of humming, happy bees. They are accompanied by butterflies – and I’d nearly forgotten what they’d looked like. 

Like many people I’ve tended to take bees for granted. I’d heard of course of their dramatically declining numbers. This year it’s different. The bee crisis got celebrity publicity through Morgan Freeman and Jeremy Clarkson both becoming bee keepers buying millions of them Clarkson calls them the ”corner stone of everything… the keystone species.”


But bees are quite complex. There are over 270 different bee species in the UK – there were over 300. The females work incredibly hard collecting pollen and making honey. The males lounge about with their friends in the hive – if there was such a thing as a Bee Bar they’d be leaning forward with a glass of nectar and saying “I sure fancy that queen.”

What I realised the other day were not just the economics of bees and the benefits of honey but that the buzzing of bees and their sheer business – rushing from petal to petal – reminded me of being a small boy again. Back then bees, butterflies and cricket were what summer was all about.


But the economics of bees is not irrelevant. As I watch them at work I am blown away by the unremitting industry they show. The average hive produces 24 jars in a season and the value of their pollination of farm crops and trees is valued at around £ ¾ billion a year. 

So as Chaucer coined it, time to get “busy as a bee”. After nearly four months of slightly aimless inertia it’s hard to get the motor firing up again – we have all become hermits retreated into our furloughed sanctuaries. It’s not so much a question of “distancing” ourselves from each other as excluding ourselves from social contact. Greta Garbo was alleged to have said “I want to be alone” – I know how she felt because I’ve started to feel like that myself.

As I read the paper each day I see a mixed world right now. Anger. Solitude. Protests. Division. I don’t see too much joy except, thank God, in nature.

Happy bees are  the best news of all.  Time to reflect. Me? I’m reviewing my life options right now. Our house is gleaming with fresh paint. It’s up to all of us to make the best of life just like those bees. Let’s make this a better (not an angrier, adversarial or dirtier) place. Let’s just enjoy a wonderful summertime.



Monday, 6 July 2020

NUDGE, NUDGE.....

 “Nudge Theory” popularised by Thalers, Sunstein and Halpern in 2008  became very popular. David Cameron, Barack Obama, the World Bank, UN and the EU were supporters. It showed how suggestions rather than instructions and positive reinforcement could change behaviour more effectively than more doctrinaire methods. In behavioural economics it was the go-to philosophy.


I liked it. In my mentoring establishing a positive platform of optimism focusing on good things rather than trying to implement a programme of radical behavioural surgery has always seemed the better way forward and upwards.

Change is funny stuff. We may proclaim ourselves as advocates of change and of wanting to be ahead of the curve but most of us are more timorous and want to inhabit the known world rather than shooting off to Mars.


It’s the little things in life that make the biggest effect. When we embarked on a programme of post-coronavirus home improvements by hiring a genius called Darren, the swathes of  fresh white paint in a lightwell and renovated and repainted doors earned approval. However it was the tidying up and concealing of unsightly electrical leads in our library and the mending of a dripping garden tap that got bigger smiles, applause and delight. Fixing minor irritations is a key to happiness.

Similarly small successes in customer service are what we remember more than the predictable reliability of Amazon. I ordered a case of wine last week from a local wine merchant, Butlers of Brighton. They promise next day delivery but on this occasion they delivered it an hour later. Amazing.


I emailed the nursery at Leonardslee to see if they had delphiniums to replace the lupins which has done their turn. I got an email from Maxine their deputy head gardener, explaining how to cut back the lupins so as to get a second flowering and a tutorial on perennials. Amazing.

Little things, all of these, but they stick in one’s mind and restore faith in humanity. They are like the skilled adjustments a great driver achieves. We live currently in a world of handbrake turns or, as Matthew Syed put it in the Sunday Times, people trying to drive a tanker without a steering wheel. No nudging towards improvement. No attempt to learn from failures.

Our system , we’re told is broken, useless, needs destroying and rebuilding. I see the Germans call our Prime Minister ‘das GroƟmaul‘ – big mouth. Others I know call him other things but this isn’t another Bash-Boris piece. Just this…do we really believe that in the midst of the pandemic, a tottering economy and a battered and upset electorate the right course of action is revolution?  Surely what we need is quiet, systematic competence. We need some BMW engineering not eccentrically different concept like the disastrous Delorean.


If there’s nothing else the past few months have taught us it’s to make decisions carefully, see them through and then critically execute them effectively. Nudge to success. Not just bound hopefully to infinity and beyond.