Tuesday, 30 August 2011


I blame the accountants.

When they discovered that brands were worth lots of money we were all told to join the brand game. If it earns money it’s a brand now. And brands are valuable. Madonna is a brand but so is John Humphrys – the Today programme inquisitor. Be a brand.

Put it this way, as the CEO of Nestle did when asked what would the consequences of each of the following occurred. Imagine the following horrors:

  • Your top team assassinated
  • Your key manufacturing plants blown up
  • Your top brands confiscated
He was remarkably sanguine about the first two – a bit of time, a lot of money but back to normal soon because no-one and nothing is indispensable apart from brands…. If the brands go we are in big trouble….it will take vast cost and risk in trying to recreate them.

Brands are hard to create, expensive to develop and hard to control…like works of art or orchids or Pit Bull Terriers.

Brands used to be staid and safe. Benton and Bowles (imagine what Messrs Benton and Bowles were like) were said to have been the architect of the three ‘b”s – “big, bland and boring” or if you add the eponymous founders the “five b’s”.

And this was especially so in the field of professional services where the names of the founders were used to define the business – thus J Walter Thompson or Doyle Dane Bernbach were all we needed to know. But now we live in different times.

Here are just a few names flying around in the marketing game right now. Marketing men have stopped behaving like bankers (and the mind still boggles as to what Saatchi & Saatchi would have done to Midland Bank if their attempt to buy it in the 1980s had come off – maybe the face of the high street bank would have changed forever.)

Some names, names just within the professional advisor sector: Mother, Strawberry Frog, Adam & Eve, Karmarama, Elvis, The Red Brick Road, Pretzel, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, 3 Monkeys ….

And why not…why not find a name that grabs the imagination and tells a story?

These are brands now not just firms of advisors.

And as such you could argue life is more colourful.

The days of egocentricity have been surplanted by a desire to make your company name sing and I think I prefer it.

Monday, 22 August 2011


A really bright creative called Scott Leonard said to me last week – “let’s not talk about social media let’s talk about how unsocial old media used to be”.

To be sure letters to the Times and Any Answers were about as interactive as it used to be and I recall sitting irritably in a Greek Harbour waiting for the ferry to arrive with the Sunday Times. I’d have killed to have got the last copy. To read it, by myself, like a news addict.

Although now Mr Murdoch seems have finally proved how anti-social old media could be.
But why can’t I get more worked up by Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin?

I think it’s to do with their content.

Most of the stuff on them barely raises itself above the level of “OMG don’t you hate Sundays. Groan!”

And imagining you can sell stuff on Facebook seems na├»ve. It’s a place to chat not to do transactions and having big brother brands next you pretending to be cool is absurd.

But as the riots and the Arab Spring have shown, social media is an efficient way of managing the expectations and movements of crowds.

When it comes to ideas, though, something else is needed – Dave Trott provides that in his blogs with  genuine “I hadn’t thought about it – whatever it is – quite like that” insights. Ken Robinson and Matt Ridley do it on TED.

And TED and its mission to spread interesting ideas that seems to change our world.

It’s when you can pick away at and disagree with someone that something interesting happens.
What is happening, I imagine to the distaste of most politicians, is a lot more people are starting to think and the old fashioned art of conversation has started to be revived.

I like neither the word “social” nor the word “media” very much – if only we could describe the phenomenon as “community conversations” I might be less grumpy.

Because that is really interesting – the idea of groups of people spreading ideas and thinking about stuff that really matters.

The megaphone is redundant. Welcome back the village pump and the oral tradition. Welcome back storytelling.

Welcome back discussion.

Monday, 15 August 2011


Am I the only person over 25 viewing these riots in a slightly different way? To sound in control ministers are talking like Harold MacMillan in tones of horror and vote-for-me outrage.

I’m not saying the looting, violence and riots are to be treated lightly.  But nor can they be just brushed under that “criminality” carpet.

The Arab Spring must  have felt like this from the other side and Dave Cameron is probably feeling like Al-Gadaffi … outraged, confused, cheated (in Dave’s case of his Tuscan holiday) and very cross.

There are a few things to note.

This turned from a local protest to a series of “flash-mobs” to a wave of orchestrated gang and passer-by looting to chaos. Shopping-with-violence someone called it.

And it was a mix of very young, middle aged, of black and white but few Asians – except as vigilante protectors of property. It became infectious because the big broken society was ready for such a social explosion.

The real issue is not the criminality but the disadvantaged young whom we don’t understand. Judges (on their own planet) seemed appalled that parents weren’t accompanying their 14 year olds to court. But nearly half those over 14 are no longer under parental control. Parents-in-charge are a thing of the past; gangs as group to belong to aren’t. But the middle class doesn’t get this. I expected to hear a judge ask “were these young people on properly signed exeats?”

So we’ll send them to prison to join the other 11,000 young prisoners. We’ve had a 66% increase of young prisoners in the past 5 years. Nowhere else in the world can boast a prisoner growth of youth as high as that.
And we’ll slag off the police as soft and although they were slow and are out of touch with change, the way the senior politicians treated them was  a disgrace. Good to see a fight back from Deputy Commissioner Orde.

We’ll demand social networking is curtailed (how?)

And we’ll lament the passing of happier times.

But the opportunities this shock has created are exciting. We have a chance to sort out security; a chance to recognise parental and school authority breakdown – and do something about it; a chance to begin to dismantle those gangs; a chance to upgrade police intelligence; a chance to educate our Prime Minister and peers and a chance to invest in the future (education) as opposed to the past (the NHS).

It could be worse.  And taking those chances since the zeitgeist feels just right are worth more than an AAA rating and a focus on money. It sometimes takes a storm to blow away apathy and ignorance.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


I was walking the streets of London recently staring up at skyscrapers full of people and wondering what they all did. As I sit on the train from Brighton looking at them tapping on their PCs or talking on their mobiles with blithe unconcern about revealing internal confidences I always think “is what you do actually worth doing? Does it make a real difference?”

When we hear about the “dreaded cuts” we all know that a refocus on business – stopping doing the many irrelevant things that get done merely because there are people enough to do them – would result in massive downsizing, improved profitability and better business. We’d stop doing all those surveys no one reads. We’d stop having meetings where nothing happens. We’d get rid of departments with nice people whom we didn’t really need.

We have a vast unwieldy civil service spread all over the place. The Civil Service has some great people at the top but some time-servers and lazybones too. Too many people doing stuff very slowly and not very well that makes no difference. I read the Department of Education in Britain is 100 times the size of that in Sweden.
And yet in neither the private sector nor public sector do we address the key issue of what really needs to be done and how to get it down most cost effectively.

Wouldn’t it be great to hear a Minister say “I don’t know the answer to that nor shall I bother to find out as the cost of so doing would in my judgement vastly exceed the benefit the knowledge might bring.”

Recently I met someone from Fire Brigade who described the most thorough, exacting and expensive recruitment exercise I’d ever come across. Something like 3000 applications going through 6+ levels of sifting resulting in 12 appointments. I may have these numbers wrong but the principle is valid. We just have to be better, faster, smarter and cheaper at what we do. The incentive to question the need of the action rather than recruiting the staff to fulfil it is missing.

One of the key questions today needs to be asked and asked and asked.

“Yes, but what do they all do?”

And unless convincingly answered some very tough decisions need to be made which I doubt if this government or any other would make themselves or really want to see made under their administration.

Monday, 8 August 2011


“For the first time the consumer is boss, which is fascinatingly, frightening, scary and terrifying because everything we used to do, everything we used to know, will no longer work.”That was what Kevin Roberts of Saatchi said.

And then there’s the story of investors in the early days of the web demanding to be told who the CEO of the internet was – “there must be a CEO. Who is it? Why’s he hiding?”

If someone isn’t in charge we get worried.

As children it’s our parents and our teachers who are in charge and those incorruptible authorities…”I’ll call the police and they’ll take you away.” My grandsons think the police are quite wonderful…they’ll learn.
Journalists used to call the Prime Minister “Sir” – he was seen to be in charge. And he wouldn’t have dreamed of going to Tuscany for a holiday – why do they do that?

And now?

This dilemma certainly distressed pundits on the Today Programme recently as they demanded to know who was in charge of the EU.

The answer is everyone and no one.

The accepted wisdom is “let the markets decide.”

And yet we know a thought becomes a  rumour becomes gossip becomes an urban myth becomes fact now in a blink. The marketplace rather than the market decides sitting round the metaphorical well in the town square on the web.

No amount of leadership beats that crowd.

We live today in a state of perpetual intellectual riot.

Decisions are made by focus groups “they don’t like your voice Ed…fix it”; “they don’t like immigrants Dave get them outta here” or they aren’t made at all until enough money, opinion or noise makes something happen because…”the public is expressing outrage.”

Liberal democracy is a wonderful thing but it has a downside. Loonies like the Tea Party and the Norwegian Breivik get to express themselves and begin to think they can actually be in charge.

The world it seems is managed by market-confidence yet politicians would clearly not even pass GCSE in psychology (were it an optional subject) if they believe you can preach “austerity” and expect your voters to rush out shopping, simultaneously.

In the end Kevin Roberts is right but as we know in marketing, consumers don’t really know what they want until they get it.

Everyone’s waiting for someone else to make a move.

Anyone who’d like to be in charge this week, just call.  Otherwise leave it the experts (again).

Monday, 1 August 2011


On Saturday a charity that I chair, responsible for raising funds to restore the oldest building in Brighton held its AGM. Professor Bruce Brown, pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Brighton spoke engagingly about the things that made Brighton special and its being a Super City of the future, according to an HSBC study, owing to its independence of spirit, an  ideal qualification for a thriving SME community.

But I was riveted by what Bruce said about the distant past, when few read and books were unusual, when buildings themselves were like “textbooks” – where pictures, sculptures and decorations all held great meaning and how old buildings, well restored and archived were “memory palaces”.  Google has its own value, of course. The internet allows us to find out how to make a bomb or deworm a cat but a memory palace it is not.

I am not nostalgic but the practical value of having people in a business who know where the bodies are buried and who know how to deal effectively with a crisis be it pandemic, flood or earthquake is immense. I’m not talking about spectators who, seeing a building collapse, are fondly reminded of Fred Dibnah – the TV steeplejack star and demolition expert of the 1990s. Practical memory means having an intuition so finely honed that it and not your brain instinctively helps you do the right thing when there’s no time to stop and think.

And we are placing perhaps too little value on memories and instincts seemingly wired  into an organisation which often determine how it behaves. It’s the expression “it’s in the woodwork” that determines how a Google, News International, BA or even political party behaves. Better to delve into the collective memory to understand it rather than try and brainwash it and hope it will change. Cultures don’t change that easily because of the collective memories that permeate them.

Having recently had a birthday and gloomily counting them forgive me if I reflect on the value of grey hairs. In Japan they give the wise, older executives “a seat by the window” so they can read their newspapers more easily but also because they are a constant resource of memories for others to use.

The current propensity to say in an age of change that the past is like an unwelcome anchor is wrong. We all need access to the past to avoid making the same mistakes and reinventing that same old wheel  which may be diverting to watch but is wasteful.

Memories matter. They inform the future. Ask someone older next time.