Monday, 20 September 2021

WHAT ARE WE ACTUALLY SEEING AND FEELING?

When I first went into marketing I was fascinated by Ernest Dichter, the American psychologist, described as the “father of motivational research”. His analyses of why people did what they did and his books like “The Strategy of Desire” seemed more interesting than the quantitative beasts like Gallup and Nielsen, research firms that just counted stuff and produced voluminous documents.

He described his process as:

"I observe hidden clues; I listen with the third ear; I interpret. I see where others are too blind because they are too close to the trees. I find the solution….. I have acted as a discoverer, as a general on the battlefield of free enterprise."

A general on the battlefield, “yes” I said to myself, “that’s what I want to be.”

Now we live in more numerate times when the data is supposedly what drives our decision making. Over the past two years the media has contained a lot of data. Covid’s been defined by numbers…. (I hope you hear a “but” coming.) 

We in Brighton get a lot of Covid data - weekly rates of infection, hospital admissions, deaths and so on BUT I’m not sure what this means. Not really. My own experience is revealing. In the last year’s first wave of Covid I only knew few people who caught it. Currently I know at least 16 people who’ve caught it or are suffering from it. They are not hospital cases but are very unwell.

And at this point Government data contradicts my feeling that something is very much amiss. In just the same way, however loudly the Bank of England explains the absence of inflation, my own wallet says otherwise. And my own wallet is beginning to seem more reliable than the unflappable Governor of the Bank, Andrew Bailey. 

Here’s what the Office of National statistics said of the August inflation numbers:

“The increase ….is the largest increase ever recorded in the CPIH National Statistic 12-month inflation rate series, which began in January 2006; however, this is likely to be a temporary change.”


“Is likely to be?” We shall see. September is already looking like +3% with +4% on the cards.

In these transparent times great masses of data serve the same purpose as lying. They can contradict and confuse. Politicians and commentators have become skilled at choosing whatever data best serves to support their argument.

As things stand I sense (how I like that word: it’s a Dichter word) I sense like an animal smells something about to happen that the Covid spread is about to intensify through schools and universities and to us. Our mask-free, back-to-normal-society is in for a rude shock in its health and – if I’m right about inflation – its wealth. 

Meanwhile in the past week in politics the pantomime continues. “Behind you Gavin!” Commentators have described this reshuffle as a “strategic political distraction.” But the way ministers are moved around to positions they know nothing about has always baffled me. Imagine my alarm if, as I’d forged (or tried to forge) my way to being a Marketing General in the business battlefield, I’d been told: “Congratulations you’re the Finance Director now.”  

I loved this from James Poniewozik, the New York Times journalist:

“Politics has always been a mud fight – better that citizens jump in the trough than lose interest.”

No chance of that. Most people love mud fights and I sense this is going to a long winter of mud fights. Me? I'm putting on my uniform, polishing my medals and I’m off to the battlefield to join in.

Monday, 13 September 2021

COMMON SENSE AND THE UNEXPECTED

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “common sense” is blessedly to the point:

“the ability to think about things in a practical way and make sensible decisions.”

Recently I read something that Tony Blair said. He’s 68 and a somewhat discredited blast-from-the-past. His think-tank (The Institute for Global Change) claims that consistent,  widespread, but relatively small changes in human behaviour – flying rather less, driving a little less, eating less red meat - would achieve surprisingly major improvements in carbon emissions. The excessive radicalism of Extinction Rebellion will, he believes, achieve less,  fostered, as it is, by a desire to demolish capitalism rather than just expressing concern for the planet.

The idea that violent revolution is less effective than radical change seems utterly sensible doesn’t it? Apart from anything else, brutal change is, for most of us, hard to stomach. We can see that being played out in the various approaches to managing Covid. Well, would you like to be an Australian right now?

In politics we constantly see ambitious Ministers trying to achieve the impossible. Sadly their problem is the 5 year span for governments whereby ministers try to create attention-getting legacies rather than solid ones. They live in their own bubble of “creative destruction”. Fine when thought through as Schumpeter does. He was the Austrian economist who became a Harvard Professor. His attitude towards the evolution of transport is clearly practical. 

In contrast, not a lot of common sense, practicality and sensible planning seems to have gone into the recent MOD £3.5 billion fiasco of vastly overbudget and ineffective Ajax tanks. These put soldiers in them at risk of tinnitus and swollen joints if driven at speeds above 20mph and they’re unable to reverse over objects higher than 20cm.

Yet it’s easy to revile politicians. Too much time is spent doing that, but they tend to be their own worst enemies and be neither calm nor particularly sensible. They seek the glamour of fame but less often seem simply to focus on getting the job done sensibly and in a practical way.

In another life many of us would like fame…apparently a worrying large number of young people asked what they’d like to when they grow up reply “famous”. But fame is hard won and more easily lost without constant application. When it really excites us is when it’s unexpected.

Emma Raducanu’s extraordinary performance in winning the US Tennis Open last Saturday is, based on experience, form and world ranking, nonsensical. Pundits were reduced to spluttering disbelief as she coasted through ten matches without conceding a single set. It’s the stuff of journalistic cliché to be sure but more importantly it shows how sport can transform lives and attitudes when they confound expectation. Defying the logic and common sense of the form book when you are a smart, smiling, 18 year old is thrilling.  

Does Emma pass the commonsense test? Does she demonstrate “the ability to think about things in a practical way and make sensible decisions”? Obviously yes. Her victory was a brilliant display of ruthlessly efficient shot making. She kept her calm and her rhythm. It was the emergence, pretty well without trace, that was so mind-blowing. It reminded me of Tiger Woods who won his first golf major, the Masters, in 1997 in record-breaking fashion and became the tournament's youngest winner when he was 21. 

 Common sense isn’t boring. Think about what it really means and it’s what we all look for but the added spice is the drama of winning against the odds. And that isn’t just fame. It’s stardom.

Monday, 6 September 2021

DO WE REALLY KNOW BETTER?

As technology hurtles us along a path of unending knowledge advancement something odd is going on. We seem to know less and less and we’re making more mistakes. Big ones. Whoppers.

I’m so enthralled by this I’m taking a week off to let my mind empty of assumptions. I shall be eating, drinking, listening to fine music and walking a lot.

Back in the black old days when we knew we knew nothing walking was the thing.

We shall see. In the meantime, the sound of a rushing river fills the air.

I’ll write a proper blog next week.

Monday, 30 August 2021

HARD WORK NEVER KILLED A MAN

Advertising legend David Ogilvy said: “Men die of boredom, psychological conflict, and disease. They do not die of hard work.”

For much of my career I was an apostle of Ogilvy, a believer in the 24/7/365 school of martinets. I even designed a 24 hour training programme to see how people performed under that sort of pressure. Bill Gates says he never took a single day off in his ‘20s. (So that’s how he got so rich.) 

But I’ve changed my mind.

I’ve watched in mystification as people at work waste time. Most meetings last far too long and have no objective. I liked the story of the executive who held up a board at the start of each meeting which asked: “what is the point of this meeting?” Many meetings ended right there and then.

The pandemic and all those lockdowns have changed a lot. First we have learnt how to meet online – sometimes to good effect although the technical qualities of Zoom in particular leave much to be desired. Secondly we have, most of us, learnt how to work effectively from home.  Although is working from home all its cracked up to be? Divorce rates during the lockdowns rocked everywhere especially amongst newly-weds.  Domestic violence and narcissistic abuse also increased.

But it was Alice Thompson’s article in last week’s Times that interested me most. The re-examination of work patterns has led to strong support for the idea of a “Four Day Week” – you’d have been stoned to death for mentioning that in the 1970s. But in the 1970s we all had secretaries, there were no computers and the office was a low productivity club. Recent research shows that in a four day week more work actually gets done than in five days. Spain are examining it (although a four day week in Spain sounds suspiciously like an increase in working time), Iceland has trialled it (successfully), and in New Zealand Unilever are experimenting with it. 

But this is only the beginning. Why are we so hide-bound by old fashioned regimens? Increasingly with good wi-fi the idea of an extended “workation” is gaining support whereby executives decamp to the country through the summer to work and to relax beside a lake, the sea or up a mountain. In such a situation work becomes more like a hobby.

But what sort of “work” are we talking about? Most of this speculation relates to senior executives; not much point in an HGV driver sitting beside a lake thinking.  

We are talking about are the people who are currently suffering burnout (43% of all sick-days are currently due to stress and burnout). At Goldman Sachs working weeks of 105 hours are allegedly not uncommon. In corporate law firms an 80 hour week is a let-off.

The topic of work: life balance is contentious. A female tech executive once said she’d cracked this dilemma “it should be work; work; work”. On the other hand researchers from Cambridge University recently found the real aim for many was to work only one day a week.

Our issue is we have to make work more interesting, more rewarding and seeming to have more purpose. Old fashioned HQs more like cathedrals than offices belong to the past. Bosses who demand more for less the whole time need removing. 

If we can’t make work enjoyable we’re failing. And if we’ve learnt nothing from Covid other  than the need to be more civilised and more in touch with ourselves that’s OK. But a four day week would be a good next step.

Monday, 23 August 2021

NOTHING MUCH TO LAUGH ABOUT

I was unsurprised to hear a joke that must have been around for ages during the Olympics.

A man walking through the Olympic village sees a tall guy carrying a long aluminium tube. He sidles up to him and says:

“Are you a pole-vaulter?”

“Nein” says the man “I’m a German … but how did you know my name was Walter?”

As the late comedian Frank Carson said “It’s the way you tell them”. 

He also asked “What’s the difference between a Rottweiler peeing on your leg and a cocker spaniel peeing on your leg? Answer … you let the Rottweiler finish.” 

I went to a celebration of the life of Richard Attenborough a while back which was full of actors like Maggie Smith, Charles Dance and Judy Dench. A drunk Frank Carson interrupted the praise of “dearest Dickie” with a stream of filthy jokes. The funniest thing was the expressions on the luvvie actors’ faces. But it was hard to laugh.

And it’s been hard to laugh this week. The Kabul catastrophe has been chilling;  a reminder of a new world and the disappearing hegemony of the USA and the NATO Alliance.

On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians and leaders have been characteristically shifty, squirming, prevaricating and shameful.  I recalled the refrain “say it ain’t so Joe” relating to the baseball legend Joe Jackson who cheated in the 1919 World Cup. Another Joe – the US President - seeming not to care about the marooned thousands deserves the same reproach. And then … the Donald was back. Just when it couldn’t get worse he gloated:

"What Joe Biden has done with Afghanistan is legendary. It will go down as one of the greatest defeats in American history!"

No, Donald, that was Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.

There is absolutely nothing we can do about what’s happening across the world. But  I note all the embassies seem to be closing down in Kabul apart from Russia’s, Iran’s and China’s which are working hard, ablaze with lights. 

What is horrifying to most of us is the inhumanity and mediaeval attitudes of the Talban (or rather the Taliban as was - maybe Taliban 21 will be better.) Being horrified but helpless is not a good situation. So what can we can we do?

Nothing apart from cleaning up our own act. Power and might are no longer ours. Maybe we have to accept more refugees many of whom are going to be very bright and make themselves and us much richer. Maybe we should become a better example of good citizenship and kindness. Maybe we should strengthen our security and foreign policy ties with the EU. They need us as much as we need them.

But most of all we need to start laughing more. If we lose our legendary sense of humour we’re sunk. And we must beware of the extreme woke attitudes that we’re seeing here which contain traces of Taliban puritanism. 

The great comedies of our time – Monty Python, Blackadder, Fleabag and anything Robin Williams did …we need more of those. We need satire and as Charlie Chaplin said:

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up but a comedy in a long-shot”

No comedy about Afghanistan, not now, but certainly about politicians and crackpot ideas. 

As I look around me at nice, broadminded people I wonder how we are in a situation where this happened:

“Popular Afghanistan comedian Nazar Mohammad, was murdered in Kandahar province last week. He was kidnapped and his throat was slit.”

I’m speechless. Laughter was his trade. RIP Nazar.

Monday, 16 August 2021

IT'S THE SILLY SEASON AGAIN (AND WORSE)

They used to call August the silly season. 

Well, like Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels, it’s back. After months of competitive Covid with us out-vaccinating the EU (especially France) only to discover their infection levels are still below ours because of their more stringent controls - we’re now all talking about other things.

Anger however remains especially the rage of the anti-vaxxers who’ve convinced themselves that Covid is a conspiracy by global governments. In Brighton they attacked a vaccination centre forcing it to close. But here’s a nice story (for a change) from Russia. A 70 year old hermit whose 20 year life of isolation was induced by his dislike of society,  has come down from his cave to be vaccinated saying it seemed the sensible thing to do.

But anger has its place. Anyone who isn’t angry about the allied forces intemperate evacuation of Afghanistan and the potential harm this is bringing especially to its women is insensitive. It’s cruel that we’ve abandoned so much good work and hope.

We hear many more  children than usual have done well in their recent exams and that this grade inflation at A level and GCSE has enraged many. That’s ridiculous. Unlike Afghanistan this isn’t about life and death. So well done guys. And there’s more good news (unless, of course as a parent,  you’ve shelled out getting on for £ ½ million on your child’s private education to give them an edge in life). This is that the percentage of State Educated children getting into Oxbridge has gone up. So for you young Etonians with your A*s this must seem a silly season! This is diversity Britain and you can’t buy success easily anymore.

And talking of Etonians and buying success what a continuing dismal (and actually tragic) story is that of deluded David Cameron. He’s reputedly worth £40 million and has earned around £10 million from his Greensill Capital directorship, £800,000 for his book and £120,000 for each speech he makes. It seems his energy is focused on making money and now it’s coming home to plague him. In the silly season his pecuniary exploits (book or business), at neither of which he’s particularly excelled, will I suspect increasingly be in the spotlight. He’s always seemed to be effortlessly able until now. As Warren Buffett said:

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.” 

My mood lightened recently when driving through Ditchling a Sussex village, the traffic in which suddenly becomes single-lane. In a moment of PG Wodehouse inventiveness, I exploited what I’ve called “the pre-emptive gratitude”. Quite simply on seeing a gap whizz into and through it smiling and thanking the previously oncoming traffic effusively. They will respond to your beaming thanks in kind. Silly but it works – maybe only in August . We’ll see.

Meanwhile the “say no to H20” brigade in America are at it. Here’s a comment in the magazine the Atlantic:

“12,167 hours of washing our bodies. That’s how much life you use, if you spend 20 minutes per day washing and moisturizing your skin and hair (and you live to be 100, as we all surely will).That adds up to nearly two entire years of washing.”

Apparently a lot of Americans agree and are avoiding washing.

‘I don’t smell!’ Meet the people who have stopped washing

Silly season? It’s the first time for ages when the media is crammed with strange stories. Is this normality? No just seasonal silliness I suspect.

Monday, 9 August 2021

STAYING ALIVE

What I’ve missed most over the past eighteen months has been live performance. Quite how much I realised the Sunday before last at Glyndebourne. The first test was whether my one-time sylph like form now enlarged by lunching and lounging about at home would fit into my dinner jacket and trousers. “Only just” was the answer as my trousers were tourniquet tight. We were to see Luisa Miller a Verdi opera little known and seldom performed created a few years before Rigoletto and La Traviata. It was the first night. The soprano was an Armenian who was making her Glyndebourne debut. She was described as Armenia’s best singer.

Our breath was held, our mood skittish – this was a new experience…going out, eating, drinking, watching and listening. Throughout the auditorium  there were corpulent afficionados conversing in voices like Brian Sewell. 

Conversation quietened to a hum, the conductor arrived in the orchestra pit flamboyantly; he waved his baton and the curtain went up. It was like being transported back to the mid-1960s, to a Rita Tushingham film called “The Knack …and how to get it” which had a house painted inside entirely in white. It’s stark and strange. I confess I was not blown away – I heard whispered comments “it’s all about triangles”…”virginity”… “they ran out of money”

After dinner, which incidentally was brilliant and colourful, in the second act something extraordinary happened that can only happen in live performance. It was like falling in love or being hit by a bolt of lightning. The star-crossed lovers and the turmoil around them became the only thing on my mind. It was much more than a suspension of disbelief. It was a heightened sense of being, like flying in a balloon or the feel of Mediterranean sun on your face as you get off the plane on holiday. I was transported.

The singing was magnificent, the feelings tragic, hopeless and gut wrenching. Mane Galoyan, the debutante, extraordinary, moving and joyous. Joyous? How odd to see a tragedy, a car crash of a relationship and feel happy. That again is what live performance can do. 

The many reviews unanimously lauding the opera, the performance of everyone and describing Mane as a “revelation” were the best I’ve seen for anything ever.

I was lucky. It was like winning the lottery. Unknown opera. Unknown lead singer. Tightly trousered I basked in the glow of a triumph and felt I somehow owned a bit of it.

What I love about live performances is the frisson that the risk of doing it brings. My wife when asked to sing that solo first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” said solemnly “If I muck it up I’ll ruin everyone’s Christmas”. She didn’t. Christmas survived. But the point was a poignant one.

As I ease back into being sociable again I realise how tiresomely functional life became in the lockdown. There was no smell to anything, no surprises, no spontaneity, no discovery, like Mane the Armenian soprano’s, that one could fly.

Last week I met an old friend and we started to talk about companies or business or political leaders we admired and trusted.

We struggled for a few minutes and then we began to discover we were, in fact, impressed by a lot of companies, mostly quite small, many run by women.

It’s only when you can see body language as opposed to being on a Zoom call that magic can happen. Human beings are meant to mingle and share. They are meant to perform. 

Live performance can transform you. Without it life is dead dull.