Monday, 16 May 2022

I REMEMBER SOMETHING JUST LIKE THIS HAPPENED BEFORE

Anthony Seldon recently said we need historians in important positions in government to categorise, interpret and help us learn from what happened in the past. 

Anthony Seldon: why I changed my mind about Toby Young | Times Higher  Education (THE)

An executive steeped in the pharmaceutical industry said something similar to me about the absence of “corporate memory.” 

In both politics and in business, incoming regimes want to demolish their predecessor’s work and innovations. We live in a time of brooms zealously sweeping clean but losing lessons from which we might otherwise learn.

When I was in advertising we worked with Heinz. Their Tomato Ketchup is still without a challenger. 

Heinz | Tomato Ketchup

They were impressively demanding but also courteous in their demands;  the ideal client. They were heavy users of market research. 

In theory no one should have known more but as people retired or left, their library of research gathered dust and they started to forget what they’d known. One weekend we assembled a team to scour part of the library, summarising what was in it and what its key conclusions and insights were. We unearthed a treasure trove of material. I realised that sustaining a corporate memory required hard work. Also that the more valuable insights lay in either understanding why something had gone right or wrong or what over time were the unchanging values and attitudes .

In this, the Queen’s Platinum Anniversary, some of those intrinsic values, memories and recipes will be recreated, Coronation Chicken, Brown Windsor Soup (although to survive this will have to be radically  new and improved,) Meat Loaf, Prawn Cocktail, Chicken Kiev and winner of the recent Mary Berry inspired cookery competition for the Platinum Pudding , Jemma Melvin’s Lemon Swiss roll and amaretti trifle (we hear this tastes utterly amazing although it takes 5 hours to create from scratch). 

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But we all need a party after the traumas of Covid and this year we’ll have ‘nostalgia-thon’ and a series of street parties celebrating home cooking and old fashioned neighbourly values.

Feast are fine but how do we retain those lost memories and build a better sense of our history? And remembering too that history is not just about dates and documents but also about feelings, beliefs and prejudices.

I had a conversation with a centenarian who speaks of the learning from the Treaty of Versailles which was more punitive, indeed was so overly restrictive on Germany that after the 1930’s economic crises, its consequences led to the Second World War. 

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This was followed by a half century of global economic growth, globalisation of trade and some significant skirmishes or worse in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and  across borders from time to time. Overall though “peace in our times” seemed to have been achieved. Until Thursday 24th of February this year when Russia invaded Ukraine. 

She sighed and said how many more times in our history shall we say “that’s it. No more wars.”

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall | Waterstones


If more people had read Tim Marshall 7 years ago when he wrote “Prisoners of Geography” they wouldn’t have been so surprised. “Putin has not finished with Ukraine yet” he said. And to understand Putin “this student of history” read this:

“..the map that Ivan the Terrible confronted is the same one Vladimir Putin is faced with today.”

Few expected Ukraine to be so courageously enterprising (like mounting an undercover attack on Quad Bikes) or Russia to be so ponderous and inept. But why not? Remember Vietnam, remember Afghanistan, remember David and Goliath.

Let’s hope we have politicians studying the Treaty of Versailles to understand what we must not re-enact after this “war” grinds to a halt.


Monday, 9 May 2022

I'M GETTING TECHED OFF

There was a review of the VW Taigo in the Sunday Times Magazine recently. It’s  a Brazilian model, basically a simplified, old fashioned Golf. No bad thing in a world where there’s a critical chip shortage leading to factory shutdowns and Toyota suffering a stalling of production. 

Volkswagen Taigo review | Car review | RAC Drive

 

Reviewer Nick Rufford rhapsodises: “it has a mechanical handbrake, a full sized gear shifter plus proper buttons you can operate by touch alone and which make a reassuring click.” He awards the car 5 stars saying it’s great to drive a car with no techno-fumbling; in short what originally made the Golf such a great car.

This isn’t going to be the rant of an old technophobe.  When Bill Gates said:

“The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don't really even notice it, so it's part of everyday life.”

Bill Gates: Elon Musk could make Twitter 'worse' on misinformation

I thought, that’s a nice idea Bill but we do notice it and actually whilst it’s mostly good it’s not always. Not when you’re working on your PC and a notice comes up saying Avast needs to do an update, or an advertisement for Mobility Scooters appears. It’s like being thoroughly engrossed in your office and having the door hammer open and a big, sweating Dennis crashing in saying “Let’s talk about the conference”. Being interrupted is always irritating. 

Let’s look at working from home. It’s reliant on technology. But a part of me is beginning to recognise its disadvantages in human terms. It’s excellent in small doses but it doesn’t begin to replace human contact, body language, laughter and gossip. 

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Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens suggests that Homo Sapiens overtook Neanderthal man, who on paper seemed more likely to succeed, because Homo Sapiens developed gossip. Quiet gossip keeps you up to date. (Gossip on social media is altogether different because it’s shouts rather than  whispers.) Zoom and Teams don’t hack it either although they’re still, occasionally quite useful.

We all need to simplify – or is it just me who wants reductio ad beatitudinem (reduction to happiness)? Do I want a computer in my hand when for day-to-day use I want a phone. Today we have an equivalent of an evolving technological tasting menu. Too much, too many.

Robochef is here with a taste of the future | News | The Times

Then I read about the Robochef that learns to 'taste' food at different stages of the chewing process to check whether it's salty enough. Why? I suppose to take human subjectivity out of the equation. But what a lot of nonsense. 

 

Me? I want hand-cooked food not techno-grub. I want to eat at old-fashioned Rules where they use egregious quantities of butter to make food taste amazing or at The Ritz with its  wonderful dining room. 

 

THE RITZ RESTAURANT, London - St. James's - Updated 2022 Restaurant  Reviews, Menu & Prices - Tripadvisor

 

Technology usually seems to make customer service worse. It shouldn’t but, frustratingly, it does. So technology shouldn’t be part of everyday life, Bill, unless it actually  makes everyday life better.

 

In my simple life I want a garden to wander around, a library so I can dip into books, and yes a big screen computer with a sensible IT guy (got both of those) occasional laughter-filled lunches, trips to the best of Europe’s cities whilst they’re still there and challenging projects from people I like who want my help. 

 

This makes me sound as though I’m old and fumbling when it comes to technology. Fair enough. But I can cope and choose what seems to matter. It’s just this urge to remove human contact that seems wrong.

 

We need to get back to simplicity in life and in work helped, not led, by technology. 

 

Bill, are you listening? 


Monday, 2 May 2022

FOLLOW MY LEADER

Leadership’s been a hot topic recently. From Boris Johnson to Joe Root. The Ukrainian leader, Zelensky, from being ignored by EU leaders has become a global hero. Mr Bean to Superman in under a month. In contrast Putin has seemed remote and callous.  But I’m not sure that’s how most Russians would see him. To many of them, I suspect he's a strong, ruthless, very Russian leader – as leaders should be as opposed to that “decadent Zelensky.”

We’re short of leadership skills here in the West. How bad? This bad. 

Watch: Did Donald Trump really walk out of explosive interview with Piers  Morgan? Here's the truth - World News

Donald Trump on Talk TV, the new Piers Morgan channel, seemed more in touch with the nasty world we really live in. But remembering the clever advertisement the Kennedy’s ran to discredit Nixon, we can apply the same question to Trump (and to Boris) “would you buy a used car from this man?”  It’s a brilliantly pointed question about trustworthiness.

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Rather than looking at today’s leaders I’ve reflected on leaders whom I’ve known in my working life. Some of them memorable for their sadistic or otherwise character flawed eccentricities. There was one who had a glove puppet who did his dirty work. “I’m terribly sorry but Sooty says you’re fired”. He was an insomniac who phoned his executives at midnight saying: “get over here now we need to talk”. Did it end badly for this fellow? No, I’m afraid he made tons of money and was hugely successful. Being nice isn’t always the answer then.

Another had a very short fuse. Following yet another row he left in such a rage that in a futile exit from the car-park he battered his car from wall to wall until it slumped clanking to the ground.

This Is The Aftermath Of The World's Most Expensive Car Crash | Nafterli's  Car World

Another had obviously read a book that said be aggressive and always interrupt and keep on prodding people until they give in. He liked holding court in ten hour meetings. Finally there was a genius who was also a megalomaniac who loved and loathed his people depending on whim. He ended up years later in prison having squandered his riches on addictions.

Many so-called leaders were in it just for themselves and let the idea of leadership go their heads enjoying the terror their presence struck in their employees.

But there were also great guys who said – when appropriate – “thank you.” People who cared about you and your family. People you liked.

Peter Mead leads tributes to David Abbott

Salute the guys who founded Britain’s most successful advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers. Peter Mead wrote a book “When in doubt be Nice” – it worked for him and his partners. It was their creative head, Abbott, though, who crafted the culture based on being nice and being kind.  But it was also demanding and did excellent work. They were winners.

The idea of Level Five Leaders was created by Jim Collins in his seminal book “From Good to Great”. He described them as leaders who displayed  a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. Good stuff…. but leaders must be winners to survive. Winning comes first. Doing so with courtesy and thoughtfulness is a wonderful bonus.   

Perhaps the era of strong, autocratic leaders like Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt have come to an end. But “Mr/Ms Nice Guy” can’t simply replace them. We still need tough decision makers, leaders who demand excellence and set strong examples about succeeding and growing too. We need civilized winners and better role models.

Ruth Davidson - Building a stronger future for Britain
From The Eyelashes To The Cagoule, Plus The Anti-Government Anger:  Suddenly, We All Fancy Andy Burnham | British Vogue

So, what if pragmatic, credible leaders like Andy Burnham and Ruth Davidson were running the two main parties in the UK?

Ultimately, we deserve better people like them as well as better leaders.


Monday, 25 April 2022

RELAX. HERE COMES THE SUN.

 Relax. Here comes the sun.

Last week having talked about age I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to receive, out of the blue, a letter from “Pure Cremation…the fuss-free alternative to the traditional funeral.” That’s probably preferable to and cheaper than the black-horse-drawn hearse that I saw recently.

Horse drawn hearse, horse drawn funeral

But enough about death (as Vladimir Putin certainly didn’t say.) It’s hard to remain in good spirits given those horrors in the Ukraine, the drip of mendacity and unpleasantness in the House of Commons and the rise in inflation leaving crumbling wrecks of businesses in its wake.

2022 isn’t looking like being a vintage year. But there must be some good news.

1. Gardens. 

The balmy spring weather has brought wonderful colours and smells. For smells try to beat Wallflowers.

How to grow ranunculus, or Persian buttercups - Saga


For colours the blaze and abundance of Ranunculi (I hadn’t realised it’s called Persian Buttercup) and for sheer cockiness wildflowers like Mallow and Campion. 

We have a wren building a discreet nest in an ivy hedge and the bad-boy magpies are cruising around – four of them together like a team of bikers – glaring and snarling “who you looking at loser? Back off.”  An avian orchestra of sound, an ice cold glass of Pinot Grigio, summer and sunshine to come. Bliss.

 2. Sounds to snooze to.

Smooth Chill - Lakes & Nature Background Wallpapers on Desktop Nexus (Image  1285838)

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The author Philip Pullman is suffering from the extended after-effects of Covid, needing to fall asleep, suffering arthritic pains all over.  That’s me without the Covid so far. And I’ve discovered a radio station called “Smooth Chill” that claims to play the world's most chilled, relaxing, trip-hop music. I turn it on and doze off to its rippling sound.

3. Cricket. (Not for everyone but think of sunshine and a picturesque ground). 

The world's best cricket grounds? Castles, cows and carpets - BBC Sport

There’s something about the smell of freshly mown, curated grass, the lazy elegance of a cover drive and the scorecards that capture the summer-to-be that I’ve always known. 

It has a timelessness and serenity that nothing else has. It’s a world of cucumber sandwiches, Pimm’s, Victoria sponge and beautiful equipment – the best Dukes cricket ball costs over £40; cricket bats over £500 like the Kookaburra Beast Pro that will, they claim, “strike terror into your opponents”. Modern cricketers, if they wear and use the best, are fully-clad spending well over £1000 for starters but no-one has just one bat or just one pair of gloves. Cricket has become more expensive than golf but it’s more graceful and more unpredictable.

4. Economising. 

We all need to do this in the current economy. I’m going through my monthly bank statements cancelling all those items I once thought were nice to have but either don’t use or need . Magazines, Apps, variants of Netflix I never watch, storage of items I’d forgotten I owned, hundreds of books I didn’t know I had and had I known wished I’d never bought. The sheer sense of virtue in clearing up and cleaning out is refreshing. 

5.  Fresh vegetables.

Fresh Vegetables Wallpapers - Top Free Fresh Vegetables Backgrounds -  WallpaperAccess

I used to believe a roast haunch of meat was what  I needed most – a haunch for lunch – heaven! Now I’m beginning to appreciate a melange of fresh vegetables but a word of caution about organic vegetables which need extensive washing and peeling according to research in Spain which showed 52 types of bacteria in samples tested over the past two years caused possibly by their using (presumably organic) sewage slurry. Cauliflower Cheese for lunch nonetheless.

So cheer up. We’re on the brink of Summer. Smell the flowers, snooze in the sun, listen to the sound of cricket and, for a while forget about parties, Covid, lies, overdrafts and bombs. 



Monday, 18 April 2022

THE POWER OF AGE

Recently there’s been a lot written about old age and what older people should be called.

Crinklies, Saga Louts, Oldies, Seniors, Golden-Agers, Boomers and so on.

Old Age Happiness: Here Places Where Old People Are Happy | Time

The world seems to be turning against the elderly. Against their assumed wealth, their old fashioned views, their belief that they are right, their increasing longevity, their bed blocking in hospitals, their politics - more likely to be Tory or if Russian, pro-Putin. 

Charlotte Dawson tries to gurn like her famous comic dad Les - Mirror Online


To some they seem somehow tarnished by having lived in an age of capital and corporal punishment, of misogyny, of racism and every other -ism you can think of, of casting couches and magazines like Playboy, of comedians like Les Dawson and Frankie Howard. 

So the charge sheet against crinklies is long and concerning. But, hold on, is this in any sense fair?

1960s Life Vs. Today: Numbers That Will Astound You

The period 1960 to the current day has seen us crinklies oversee and inspire the biggest changes to any society in so short a period of history ever. Quietly and radically our world has been transformed. The changes in the UK have been particularly startling.

As I watch my contemporaries I see an increasing ability to change minds, modify behaviour and be good role models to children and grandchildren. I’ll go with Golden-Ager rather than more derogatory descriptions as being the more apt because we’ve accelerated the pace of good change.

Society today is fairer, kinder, healthier and wealthier than it was in 1960. In 1960 life expectancy was on average 71. Today it’s 81 although the increase has slowed down. 

Top 10 Fittest Female Icons over 70

 In America research suggests that people start to feel “old” when they’re 47. That seems depressingly young. For me it started last Wednesday when I ricked my back and have ever since been pathetic. But the trouble is, as someone once said about age,  getting old is like being young but not feeling very well and that describes the difference between young and old quite neatly.

How can we conquer “ageism” and be of greatest use to the world in our remaining years? How can we stop being embarrassed that house prices have risen thereby inflating our notional wealth? How can we find a voice?

Well let’s stop saying sorry.

Sorry vector emoticon sign Stock Vector | Adobe Stock

And let’s start being stronger in calling out bad behaviour.

Boris has done us a huge favour. He’s exposed the shortcomings of our current politicians in vivid technicolour. Many of them are shameless. And it’s the responsibility of the elder citizens to sit them down and tell them it won’t do with one stern, concerted voice. 

It’s time to stop pretending we’ve retired and don’t want to get involved anymore. We’ve stopped working but that doesn’t mean we haven’t got a job to do  because there’s a lot still to be done. Not least in trying to cheer people up.

Byron Wien the 89 year old Vice Chair of the Investment company Blackstone was vocal about what older citizens should do.

1. Find a “big idea” and focus on that.

2. Network. Meet new people.

3. Look for the best in people.

4. Read avidly.

5.Sleep more. 9 hours a day including a one hour nap.

10 sleep tips for the assessment period | Students - UCL – University  College London

6. Be willing to change. 

7. Travel. (Covid scuppered that.)

8. Underplay your achievements.

9. Thank people for doing well. There isn’t enough gratitude in the world.

10. A handwritten note has much more impact than an e-mail.

I’m trying to do most of those. But I need to appreciate even more the best sides of the many friends I have. It’s our best sides that we need to develop and help others to develop theirs.

That’s enough.

Monday, 11 April 2022

I USED TO WORK IN ADVERTISING

Recently the Times produced a supplement “The Future of Advertising”. I barely understood a word. Here’s that last sentence of mine translated into Scottish Gaelic: Leugh mi e agus cha mhòr gun do thuig mi facal

Yes. It was about as incomprehensible as that.


It talked about data partnerships and connectivity. There wasn’t a word about creativity, empathy, shifting perceptions, image or feelings.

It was about mathematics in what had once been a world of poetry. No mention of storytelling or dazzling insights.

Today, however, I heard an eminent voice of correction. Sir John Hegarty, founder of the advertising agency BBH, said to advertisers:

“Stop stalking. Start inspiring."



Thank you John. Great marketing was about capturing attention, changing minds, and altering behaviour - not pestering and harassing people. You can try getting noticed with a digital chisel and algorithm or with a paintbrush and a pocketful of creative inspiration. You can try to reach the parts that data management cannot reach, or you can bore consumers into submission using a cudgel.

Alternatively you can seduce them.

Here’s what the legendary Bill Bernbach, co-founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach, said:

“However much we would like advertising to be a science -- because life would be simpler that way -- the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason, will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.”

However, this isn’t going be a nostalgic piece about the golden age of advertising.



It's more about people wanting to get back to their comfort zone when that cushion of comfort has long been punctured.

We may pretend or hope for it but “normal” has gone as recession approaches, as companies behave with increasing disregard for employees, as war looms on the horizon, as we squabble on social media over gender issues, and energy sources, as we work from home and we wait for the next government U-turn or cock-up. Normal has been dying for some time.



Normal died in Wuhan, China, in November 2019. Normal died in the first lockdown . Normal died with first missile strike in the Ukraine. Normal died with Boris. Normal died when the pandemic became just a mild cold. A victim I spoke to recently, whose energy tank has been emptied by Covid, doesn’t feel normal. Normal died when Priti Patel said we’d be checking immigrant credentials when we moved them to an immigration centre we’d be setting up in, of all places, Rwanda. It was then that normal became nausea.

We can’t change the world. The world is changing us. Nothing is as it was. Rather than lamenting the death of creative advertising, of freedom of movement and of good manners it’s time to be resolute in being as kind, thoughtful and sensible as possible. Be cheerful because all is not doom but, as the song goes, you can’t always get what you want. Like normal.

A poem by Louis MacNeice called “Bagpipe Music” came into my mind. Written in 1938, widespread horror at the darkening of the political sky then must have affected his thinking. Here are the last two lines about the irremediable decline in the barometer of life:

“The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather”.

Read the poem. It might make you think. But it might also make you laugh too.


Monday, 4 April 2022

HAVE WE FORGOTTEN EXCELLENCE?

Forty years ago Tom Peters, a renowned management consultant, writer and speaker, co-authored a book called “In Search of Excellence.” It caused something of a stir as Peters assumed the pioneer role of excellence-discoverer.

In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-run Companies | Robert  H Waterman Jr, Tom Peters | 9781861975942 | AwesomeBooks

The book suggested that excellent businesses had specific attributes: 

…”flat anti-hierarchical structures; innovation and entrepreneurship; small numbers of corporate and middle management; staff reward systems based on contribution rather than position or length of service; brain power rather than muscle”. 

It sold 4 million copies and was described as the best management book of all time. Sadly 40 years on we seem to have learnt nothing. We haven’t forgotten excellence we just never seem to have known precisely what it is or how to get it.

John Neil, the CEO of Unipart, the multinational logistics, supply chain, manufacturing and consultancy company, once said to me

“the trouble with British Industry is it doesn’t know what good is.”

Forget excellence, he seemed to suggest, being good would be a marked improvement.

Conversation Agent - Valeria Maltoni - The Trouble with "Good Enough"

Instead of excellence we learnt about being the “lowest cost producer”, of moving production to wherever to get goods made cheaply and cut labour costs. MBAs talked about “exits”(not physical ways out but monetary ways out) or, to be blunt, selling businesses for as much money as possible to regardless of whom they are. That’s why the most excellent of restaurants – the Wolseley Group – majority owned in Thailand by Minor Hotels having put it into administration have ousted that King of Customer Service. Jeremy King, its founder. 

It's Jeremy King v. Richard Caring at London's Famed Wolseley - Air Mail

No, I’m not xenophobic but it’s wasteful to build an excellent business and then sell it to corporations (mainly overseas) whose interests are purely about money, burnishing their image or whose cultural values are so strongly at variance with their acquisition. That’s why in-shoring has become a new vogue  (it means bringing production back home), that’s why Waterstones (currently Russian owned but left well alone by him) run by the excellent James Daunt of Daunt Books, does so well. Under the previous management, I was told they talked about skus (stock keeping units) not books, and it drove staff in the stores crazy.

When so many companies in the UK are parcelled off to foreign business or private equity, firms whose raison d’être is lots of money, it’s unsurprising that the focus has shifted from rock solid, immutable values about product excellence and customer service.

Julian Richer Archives - Retail Gazette

One place where this hasn’t happened in Richer Sounds. Founded in 1978 the business was 100% owned by Julian Richer, the founder and managing director of the company, who in 2019 sold 60% of its shares to an employee ownership trust. It’s feted for its customer service and standards of management.

Seeking to become just another big ‘cheese’ is also relatively absent in the food business where founders are obsessed with quality. The TV chef James Martin is particularly appealing in his appetite for excellence and singles out the French:

“What I love about Lyon is they don’t care what people think about what they do or if they even like it, they know, they just know themselves that it’s brilliant”

On a TV programme he wandered around Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse - Lyon Indoor Food  Market” talking to camera, ecstatic about the supreme excellence of the food there.


Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, Gourmet market, Lyon, Rhone Alps, France  Stock Photo - Alamy

The French care jealously about Comté cheese and the right Cassoulet recipe. The Italians are similarly fussy about Spaghetti Carbonara.

Their ROI is in heaven. Their being excellent matters more than being rich.

How ironic that Julian Richer in denial of his name, like so many chefs, could be much richer but instead leads an excellent UK business.