Monday, 12 April 2021

WE KNOW NOTHING

We know nothing. If the past fifteen months have taught us nothing else it’s this. But rather than feeling downcast I feel excited. We’ve learnt to fast track medical research in a way that has all the scientists I know aghast with admiration and bafflement. We’ve reinvented stuff. We’ve learnt to live without any of the normal social conventions that were believed to hold communities together. We’ve discovered ways of working without unnecessary meetings. And we’ve done all this despite the rule book our experience and the pundits had drawn up being torn up and shredded.

Yes folks,  this is Terra Incognita and I like it.

It gets better.

Last week in Chicago, physicists said they may have discovered a fifth new force of nature to help explain the universe. I’d thought we knew a lot already. It seems I was wrong and that what we know only explains 5% of the Universe.  A very clever scientist said to me “what we know and our theories are not really fit for purpose”. “Like economics?” I asked “no everything is better than our knowledge of economics” he replied.


The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) said the result "provides strong evidence for the existence of an undiscovered sub-atomic particle or new force".  

That’s great. If these physicists crack the fifth force like they cracked the Covid genome we’ll be flying to Mars by Christmas. But what I like better is that the mystery of life and the possibilities of religious belief or life changing love may be nearer the truth rather than theorems I never understood.

I’m a poet rather than a physicist. I think Keats knew more about forces of nature than John Tyndall a contemporary of his who was eloquent in his views on diamagnetism (yes, me neither). The Victorian romantics were all focused on forces of nature; today more prosaic thoughts seem to occupy our poets. That’s what happens when we think we know a lot. Back in the 8th century the author of Beowulf knew little and frightened people a lot. His epic poem is full of darkness and horror. A bit like Covid really.

We think we’re all learning more and more but there a magical return swing of the pendulum whenever we think we’ve cracked a problem. Diseases that occupied me until recently but are now mostly solved  were measles, scarlet fever, polio, diphtheria: and overseas – yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, sars, swine fever. It’s as if we’ve done GCSE diseases and are now moving on to ‘A’ level. 

We know nothing. But is that so bad? It means we have lots to discover. The idea of space travel takes on a new, less self-indulgent meaning than we’ve heard from our trillionaire friends Musk and Bezos. The importance of learning new things and reducing the nothingness we know has never been greater.

Last week on BBC Radio 4 I heard someone describing the joy of finding a truly dark and light-free place from which to look at the sky at night from which they’d seen a bright star. They asked how far away it was to be told 1.5 thousand light years. “When would the light I’m watching here now have started?” they asked. “Oh I guess” came the answer “when the Romans were in Britain.”

The speed of the vaccine development has changed the possibilities for everything. Science has suddenly got sexy. Enthusiastic scientists like Brian Cox have sharpened our hunger for discovery. Perhaps we’ll soon know more than ever we imagined. 

Perhaps the 2020s will become a new “Age of Enlightenment.”

Eureka!

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

WHY WAS THE THIRD MAN SO FETED?

 Recently I watched The Third Man. I ‘d been looking forward to this great oldie (just like me I chuckled.) An hour and a half later I was disappointed and grumpy. It’s a rather slow and dreary film. Trevor Howard, one of its stars, in that clipped tone of his were he alive today, would have pronounced it “absolutely ghastly.” Yet in 1999, the British Film Institute voted The Third Man the greatest British film of all time.

Is my memory so bad? Have standards changed? Is it as great as I remembered but in the meantime have I completely lost it? Alternatively, is my critical mind now clearer and less forgiving? There’s one great line when Harry Lime (Orson Wells) justifying not being the nice guy and instead profiteering on the black-market killing hundreds with diluted penicillin:

“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

A brilliant and memorable joke but the rest is mostly slow.



 

It seems slow because we understand things much quicker now. We are smarter. We are more demanding. But equally we get fixed in our views more firmly and are also more gullible.

Most of my working life was spent in marketing and advertising exploiting such gullibility. In truth a lot of marketing was nonsense. Marketeers behaved like Bishops protecting their fiefdoms and advertising men were quasi-Jesuits preserving myths like the weight of advertising was directly proportionate to sales. Spend more. Sell more.

Not true. The king had no clothes. Marketeers were often shysters like Kevin Roberts the one-time CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi who wrote a book called “Lovemarks” in which he claimed brands were running out of juice and could only be revived by his magic potion. This included the injection of intimacy, commitment, empathy and passion. Pass me the sick bag Doris; this is toxic tosh.

I suspect the banks might have read his book. Marketeers in banking played with intimacy whilst the money men were closing branches and playing with derivatives.

I was once invited to a discussion group of marketeers where I was mugged by a woman who said surely everyone now knew marketing budgets should be invested in good causes and a social media guru who laughingly said soup sales were correlated to illness and that since sick people consumed more soup he was advising Heinz to track flu epidemics and invest accordingly.

Marketing and advertising require rigour, common sense and a sense of humour. Looking back I remember laughing a lot. There’s not much laughter now.   

But this is not meant to be a lecture on marketing so much as a warning on the dangers of mythology. Just as Orson Wells once wove a magical web around his films so marketers (of which he was of course a master) created myths about their work.

Sadly most advertising is dull, intrusive, tone deaf and seldom funny. Similarly with films. Those the critics love are seldom those the punters go for. Like the Third Man, La-La Land was a wow with the critics. It was also pretty ghastly. 

It’s clear that in our frenetic world common sense, lightness of touch and creativity are in short supply. Mark Ritson (Marketing Week) consistently lacks ‘lightness of touch’ but I love how he debunks pretentiousness. 

Read his “The Greatest Marketing Bullshit Of All Time.” It’s a brilliant demolition of marketing mythology. In his rant he uses the term “brandwank”

“Brandwank”! I wish I’d created that. It’s utterly priceless.

Monday, 29 March 2021

WHAT ARE THE ODDS?

Have you noticed that bookies have invaded virtually everywhere we live. There are hundreds of them. Baylor University Professor Earl Grinols estimates that addicted gamblers cost the U.S. alone between $32.4 billion and $53.8 billion a year. Gambling is going to be a much greater problem in the future … I bet you.

But risk, although fundamental to gambling, is a much larger issue the understanding of which will shape all our lives. Government policy hinges on risk analysis. Personally, we daily make decisions based on our judgement of the likelihood of them turning out well.

The person we marry, the job we take, the house we buy, the holiday we take and more. Covid has sharpened all our views on risk. We have two extremes: the people who are so cautious they double mask, avoid all human contact, leave 30 feet between themselves and another in the street, wash their hands every 20 minutes and put their letters into the oven and cook them until they are charred and germ free. 

Whilst Rishi Sunak is now imploring us to go out and have fun and save the economy just like we saved the NHS,  the ultra-cautious are quaking in anticipation of the fourth wave with a mutant virus that will kill us. 

And in the blue corner (the dark blue Tory corner) we have the handshaking, hugging, rugby-scrumming, beer-swigging proponents of largesse , bonhomie and a casual attitude to life – “for tomorrow we die”. Rebels against caution and safety first:  skydivers, mountaineers, black run skiers. They believe in the right of everyone to make their own choices in life regardless of the probable consequences to themselves or others.

It seems to me both get it wrong, Mr Reckless and Ms Lifeless. The reality is we have to manage risk. We cannot eliminate it and if we tried we wouldn’t drive, fly, go on trains, cycle, go to restaurants, cinemas or meet people (or ‘germ-carriers’ as some see them.)

Robert Benchley, the American writer, satirised the cautious lifeless:

“Sometimes I’m so worried that I stay in bed. There I worry about falling out and breaking something.”  

The 21st century is not a place for tidy minds. It’s messy and it’s full of hazards. The better things get, the more risks emerge. Disease travels. Sophisticated communication systems fail. We are living on the edge of apocalyptic events (recently a storm cloud in the Western Pacific reached a temperature of -100C;  a record, but one that will soon be broken) and we need to plan for what we’ll do if, no when, these destructive events happen.

One thing we have to be more realistic about is death. I recently said I would die in the relatively near future…realistic not morbid. This provoked an emotional “don’t say that”. But I must. In 1950 the annual death rate was 1% of population. By 2019 it  had fallen to around O.7%. In 2020 thanks  to Covid there were 70,000 more deaths than forecast. Yet in reality whilst tragic that’s not cataclysmic. Despite the headlines we are living longer and better.

So let’s cheer up. 2020 has been a year of massive epidemiological advance and of understanding how to manage extreme risks. We have learnt about the fragility of the experts’ opinions and the penalties of caution. Everything that went wrong has been due to caution and indecision. The next decades will be full of “Black Swan” events. We just need to be prepared for them, learn from mistakes and enjoy life. 

!f we don’t enjoy it, what is life for?


Monday, 22 March 2021

WHY ARE OUR SUPPLY CHAINS QUITE SO COMPLEX?

For years guided by MBAs and McKinsey we’ve been persuaded to “think global,” construct complex supply chains, offshore production and cut cost. Our world we believed was driven by price and the need to be lowest cost producer. Which was fine when globalisation was the thing and Asia was to the place to get things made.


Covid has changed a lot of things not least the increasing belief driven by the vaccine contretemps with the EU and post Brexit complications that domestic production is the safest strategy for many industries.
Currently my underpants come from Bangladesh, my jacket and my socks from China, my sweater from Cambodia and my T-shirt from America. Over 50% of what I eat and drink comes from outside the UK – from Holland, France, Peru and Spain.

This is not the ranting of a xenophobe. If we’ve learnt nothing else over the past 14 months its been that the old rules don’t apply. The rebellion started with “America First” and then the bizarre decision to exit the EU. No more frictionless travel. No more working across the EU using the business lingua franca – English – to do business. Two years ago I visited seven different EU countries in as many weeks in co-ordinating a project. That won’t happen again. 


Now perhaps for the first time I’ve begun to wonder about whether I’d want to remain in the EU after the shabby performance of Ursula Van Der Leyen over the EU’s failed procurement of vaccine. I’ve been shocked that the EU, rule maker and follower of rules is now a rulebreaker, with member countries off doing their own thing. The irony of their demanding more Astra Zeneca vaccine even as they withdrew permission for its use was eye-wateringly comic.


In a crisis we retreat to localism. The Covid crisis will change many things but the most significant thing will be the pressure to grow and make our own. Small businesses will be created doing what previously bankrupted businesses did until globalisation became the hot, new thing. 

Except there‘ll be a difference. These new businesses will be better run, with electric speed delivery, concern for climate change and with brilliant customer service. We bought a new car recently . The whole process took less than a week. It used to take forever. Thanks to Amazon and the growth of online our expectations have been transformed. Old fashioned standards are dead. Our world is a better place in which (blame it on the ‘elf and safety woke-culture’ in fact) workplace deaths and injuries have plummeted in the past few years.


Our ability to transform our economy  will be driven by the astonishingly interventionalist strategies of the least conservative government we’ve ever had. Once they realised that people must be paid when, through no fault of their own, they can’t work, then the realisation that inspiring and incentivising new businesses that usefully employ people makes economic sense, can’t be far behind.

But the small is beautiful argument always seemed weird to me especially when small as in pubs, shops and roads often meant rotten and inefficient. Equally the argument for scale falls on stony ground. The NHS we’ve been proudly told is globally the biggest employer after the Indian Rail Service and the Chinese Army. Why is that good?


If we want to stop just being a “nation of shopkeepers” as Napoleon scornfully described us we need to start being producers as well. We’re actually rather good at it. Films, gaming, pharmaceuticals, software, cars and shoes – yes, my shoes are all made in Britain.
  

Monday, 15 March 2021

YOU CAN DO ANYTHING BUT NEVER GO AGAINST THE FAMILY (THE GODFATHER)

This week has been all about families, led of course, by that Meghan/Harry interview. Becoming part of a family from the outside has never been easy. Families have their rules, black sheep and in-jokes. But when it comes to the Monarchy it gets a whole lot harder especially when the Institution is heralded as the “Greatest Show on Earth” and as a newcomer you don’t have a proper part.

I felt sorry for Meghan; it must have been a shock. She’s a decent actress – watch “Suits” and you’ll see -  and like many actresses full of herself. For her it must have been like finding herself on stage and realising she didn’t know her part. Of course she felt suicidal. Isn’t this dilemma one of the biggest nightmares anyone can have?

Add to this the problem of the other family – the courtiers and Royal Household long known for their hostility to outsiders, change and any failure of protocol (did she curtsey deeply enough?) – and she was scuppered. 

Harry, unsurprisingly, is a lost soul doing his best to support her and stamping on everyone’s toes.  It was a poisonous cocktail.

But what a pity they did that interview. Better by far to have faded into the glorious Californian sunset. 

Rule One with family:  Never go against it. Go public with your grumbles and that’ll unite them against you, binding them like superglue. Oprah Winfrey may have done more to close the ranks of Windsor than anything else could have done. Families are united by love, loyalty and self-protection even when they hate each other.

In “Suits” the series about a New York law firm in which Meghan appeared, the lead figure (Harvey Specter – a great name for a lawyer reputed to one of the best in Manhattan) at some point says of the firm Pearson Specter Litt:

“We are not colleagues. We are not friends. We are family.”   

The best companies to work for are those that create the ambiance of a family full of empathy, practical jokes, the desire to celebrate success and hunker down when things go wrong. I’ve heard this described as “teamwork”. It just isn’t. It’s “family” which is teamwork at a completely different level.

The current trouble is Zoom meetings are counter family, functional affairs that eventually wear down all feelings. No wonder then that the CEO of Goldman Sachs recently described them and working from home as an aberration that he was going to stamp out as soon as possible. There’s no doubt that working from home for many is efficient and time-saving but it’s a bit like eating a roast without gravy. The essential constituent of face-to-face interaction and creativity is missing.

This may not concern some whose only mission in life is efficiency and productivity. The Times had a survey last week on “The Future of Advertising”. In it the consensus was that the key, number one ingredient of advertising was “creativity”. Surprise. Surprise. Well yes. Because marketers today score it number eight behind stuff like social media strategy. Absurd.

Family and creativity come from the same emotional stable. It’s unlikely that Saatchi and Saatchi or Collett Dickinson Pearce would have been the forces they were if they’d worked from home. Home for many in my day was the office where the real family lived, played, fought and created.

The Monarchy may be flawed but its ability to turn on pageantry and strike awe into hearts is amazing. The family from hell but what a story. Just don’t go against them.




Monday, 8 March 2021

THE NOT SO SUBTLE ART OF LYING

Having spent a considerable part of my life in advertising it would be fair to say some of it’s been in the company of the Lord of Mendacity. Richard French a doyen of the ad business, was asked at a party what he did and said: “Me? I’m a professional liar”. He did it to get a laugh which he got.

Over the past few years I’ve watched aghast at the example politicians and others are setting to a generation of young people to believe it’s perfectly OK to tell whoppers. No longer “the dog ate my homework.”  Instead “we were burgled last night; they wrecked everything. It was terrible… and my gran got whacked above her left eye and is badly bruised poor thing. They got away with TV, Cocker-Poodle and worst of all our Lenovo with my homework” (well done, specifics help add veracity). 

Strangely the more punctiliously regulated world of advertising is virtually devoid of lies now. 

I recall hearing a golden moment on a terrible night for the Tories in 1992 as their share of vote collapsed to Tony Blair. Tory spokespeople tried to eke out comfort by analysing swings so as to try and gild that crock of disaster. Chris Patten, Party Chairman, was interviewed and asked whether he’d admit this had been a bad night for the Conservatives. 

He retorted crossly that it had not been bad; instead it’d been an absolutely ghastly night. And he added when asked why it had gone wrong that the voters had said they didn’t like the Tories and they would have to change. Patten demonstrated the power of truth in putting down journalists wearing earpieces being instructed on the questions they should ask and failing to hear that word “ghastly.” 

Older generations were made to believe telling the truth was important. Getting away with it is the new cool way of behaving. Find a £20 note on the ground and say “nice one” not “whose is it?”. There was the doubtless apocryphal story of the traffic cop saying  as he pulled over a young man for exceeding the speed limit “I’ve spent all day waiting for someone speeding” to which the culprit said “I got here as fast as I could.” And, of course he got off.

Our biggest conundrum in politics is Boris who, despite the Brexit falsehoods about Turkey entering the EU and those slogans on that campaign bus, has earned a certain respect from the electorate for his barefaced bravado. I remember once seeing him interviewed about his exotic private life. He harrumphed and described himself in the third person as a scoundrel whose behaviour was execrable. The conservatives are currently 13% points ahead of Labour much as Trump is far ahead of his Republican rivals despite his extraordinary untruthfulness.

But it’s getting worse. Actor Miles Fisher described as a deep-fake viral creator has impersonated Tom Cruise so well on Tik Tok we are inevitably heading to a world of visual lying.

There comes a time when we need to say “enough”. Lying, like shoplifting, like driving whilst drunk, like bullying needs to be decried. If the post-Covid “build back better” campaign is to have any credibility telling the truth needs to be applauded and its ugly brother, lying, needs to be shown up and shamed.

Final point. Journalists need to be less aggressive. Their contemptuous behaviour has added fuel to the Liar’s party. Telling fibs to a sneering ogre of an interviewer seems almost acceptable.

Almost. But not quite.  Time for us all to be more sceptical.


Monday, 1 March 2021

IS THIS REAL LIFE OR IS THIS JUST FANTASY?

I’ve been staring at a blank page for half an hour or so with that Queen song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ drifting in and out of my mind. I don’t know the answer. We’re living in limbo and it’s very strange.

Will I ever wear a tie again? Will I ever wear a suit again or will I, in rebellion against dress-down-coronavirus, start to dress like a dandy – velvet suits, jazzy waistcoats and cravat? Perhaps a monocle. And certainly a cigarette holder? Dare I take up smoking again? Balkan Sobranie, naturally, if I do. Somehow or another I feel the rustling desire to make a dramatic, rebellious statement.


Watching television has been depressing. Terrestrial TV has run out of ideas. Has run out of ideas. Repeat that. And again. My splendid 98 year old mother in law laments the omnipresent Poirot and his blasted little grey cells and Midsomer murders…”I saw them all the first time and I didn’t much like them then.”

But it’s the tragic low budget, low-idea ads that are the worst of all. I spent twenty, happy years in advertising alongside or in competition with legends who created glorious advertising like that for Sainsburys, the Economist, Heineken, Carling, Araldite, Nike and Heinz. 

There is so little I like now. Back then clever people wrote great jokes or sumptuous ideas and film makers like Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and others then turned them into magic.

There was an exception recently for Brut. It’s amazing that this strong smelling lotion is still around. It was something we, at our agency, once advertised. The male perfume – “the great smell of Brut” – was launched with advertising featuring Henry Cooper. So we proposed creating new advertising to bridge the gap since it had been on TV with the theme: “Henry’s back with the great smell of Brut” featuring Lenny Henry. The client abruptly rejected it. Only now do I think it was because Lenny is black. 

That was 30 years ago. Brut is back on TV with hard man Vinnie Jones saying with a scowl in effect “stop poncing around with this glitzy ad you idiots it just smells good”. At this point a voice says “here’s the horse” and on walks a white horse to Vinnie’s disgust. There are advertising men through the ages who’ve wanted to get an irrelevant horse into a TV commercial and in lockdown it’s happened.

What will the high street look like when the shackles are removed? Well, expect an instant horror show of Poundland’s and Charity Shops but then a reinvention, balancing functional online with theatre and romance. In the rather tragic story of Mr Selfridge we saw a retail magician at work. What we shall need are magicians, impresarios and jugglers who create appetite appeal to seduce people who then buy online. Mere boring online will lose out as Apple brilliantly showed in their sexy Apple stores.

The hunger for fantasy and excitement is pent up and huge. The opportunity is for showmanship and pzaz. Curiously the desire to go out and shop “using real money” is acute. Restaurants that manage to charm and create that “let’s have another drink" ambiance will thrive.  Hurry back Corbyn & King. 

Real life we have learnt is rather dull. We are mostly sensible and rule abiding but at the back of our minds is the urge from time to time to be a bit naughty, to do something impulsive and delicious. Deliveroo and Amazon are the least naughty, geekiest operations I know.

Time soon to let our hair down.

Tequila!