Monday, 24 September 2012


Very simply it’s that they can go wrong or by going wrong actually go right.

It was at Swan Theatre at Stratford in 1992 when we saw Tamburlaine. Antony Sher played the title role. The battle between Tamburlaine and the Turks which ends Act 3 had the Turks and Scythians on stilts conducting highly stylised combat and, eventually, a heavily perspiring Sher leaping, holding a rope from the balcony where we were sitting felled the heavily armoured Bajazet signifying Turkish defeat.

What is supposed to happen next is Bajazet put into a cage is led around by Tamburlaine until eventually – good, gory stuff, he dashes his brains out against the bars.

The cage arose on to the stage. We realised something was amiss as a crowd  surrounded it, one of whom was in jeans.

Sher went front of the stage proclaiming:

“Yet am I all-powerful lord and king
But cannot open still this bloody cage?”

Bajazet said:
“Well I’m off to the pub then”

And as the guy in jeans with a hammer opened the cage Sher , back into part (almost) said:
“OK – no more Mr Nice Guy”.

This all happened 20 years ago. It was a moment of live delight and history and totally memorable.
Live performance is not about perfection – it’s about connection, chemistry and drama.

Richard Burton drunk (and looking remarkably like George Best) played the part of Faustus, another Marlowe play,  in 1965 as though it were a long lost acquaintance he barely recognised but felt he ought to know, yet got closer to the real meaning of the play than anyone has ever done. He knew what the feeling was, what the rhythm of the idea was and he managed to express the lust for the benefits and the regret for the consequences of selling his soul that torture Faustus.

He was word imperfect and exquisitely perfect in meaning and feeling.

Performing live is like juggling whilst a tiny bit tipsy – they are holding their breath and the applause will be wonderful but the consequences of losing that umbilical cord with the audience is the constant risk.
What makes it doubly frightening is you don’t know how it will play until you do it and the bits the audience find funniest may be those you’d considered editing.

It’s about danger and timing.

Do you feel lucky punk?

Well do you?

Monday, 17 September 2012


I suppose I could change him for someone less philosophical - my doctor that is - who came out with the slightly gloomy thought as he examined me during a routine investigation that all life strategies ended in one place.


Put it into an economic environment and this would mean all empires and business empires end up collapsing. Which if you take a long view of history is about right. Persia. Egypt. Greece. Rome.  And, probably in the near future, will include Western Civilisation.

However he then added something slightly more cheering which was the journey of life was what mattered anyway. Enjoy it, discover new things and try to make a difference. He was there to make sure, as best he could, that one had rather more time than otherwise on the journey enjoying the experience, but, nonetheless, on a train without brakes that would one day hit the buffers.

Business leaders talking about long term strategy as opposed to short term tactics, about exit plans or about sustaining themselves through a series of generations are deluding themselves. If there’s only one certain exit plan it’s death.

Jeremy Clarkson talked about trying to lose weight and giving up drinking. He concluded:

“Waking up feeling fresh is like dying with a clear conscience and a healthy bank balance.  It means you’ve wasted your life”.

We’ll look back on the South Sea Bubble, the traumas of the 1970s miners’ strike and the current recession as blips in a high speed journey through vivid landscape.

So when you sit down to write your business plan in today’s chaotic times think of the tactics of short term success - of how you can make technological, marketing or simply product breakthroughs sooner rather than later…there may not be a later. Think about doing great stuff not about creating a great company. As Herb Kelleher founder of South West Airlines in the USA put it:

“We have a strategic plan; it’s called doing things.”

Ben and Jerry may not quite match Watson and Crick; Walt Disney may not have been as significant as Alexander Fleming and Woody Allen may be a pale shadow of Shakespeare but each and every creative journey is a roller coaster like the legendary Kingda Ka in New Jersey - the world's tallest roller coaster, the world's second fastest roller coaster and voted the scariest roller coaster.  There’s nothing strategic here just a near-death experience.

Which brings me back to my doctor.

Monday, 10 September 2012


This week Max Bygraves died. 

He was a comedian, entertainer and impresario and was huge a few decades ago. Think Michael Parkinson + Michael McIntyre + Jonathan Ross and you’ll get the idea.  And this was his catchphrase. He was was always telling a story.

Now storytelling has invaded the business scene. We no longer have ‘business strategies’. We have ‘corporate narratives’ (although they look much the same and with a shudder I wonder what Lord of the Rings would look like written by McKinsey – ‘Frodo Objectives, SWOT analysis of the Hobbits etc.)

The real power of the story is shown in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs which teaches more about what really happened at Apple and why (ultimately) it worked.

  The story about Job’s passion for product and that belief that he was at the intersection of technology and art tells it all as does his love of design. Dewys Landon, a designer, expressed what Apple achieved beautifully when he said;

Our job is to give the client, on time and on cost, not what he wants, but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time."

And then there’s Madmen, the TV story of 60’s and 70’s advertising – was it really like that Don? Don Draper lit a Marlboro and thought wistfully for a while.

No. In Britain it was much better and much worse. Sex, drugs and rock’n roll. The skirts were short and the tempers shorter. Account Directors had races in their Porsches down Park Lane. Sexual harassment was the norm. People lost days of their life in an alcoholic haze and still did great ads. And that was the real point to the story. Great, brave, funny and new advertising that clients never dreamt they wanted and then realised they wanted all the time.

Poor boring madman Don. He should have settled on being an accountant.

The real story of breakthrough success is always accompanied by excess. The bankers at their peak, British advertising, Australian cricket at its pomp, Tracey Emin, Gordon Ramsay, and Christopher Hitchens. True genius seems to burn life’s candle at both ends (and in the middle.)

The story of success, endeavour and risk is usually exciting, fun and a journey of surprises.

I wanna tell you a story because stories look truth in the face.

Stories are about people and as the Gradgrind of advertising Martin Sorrell tells us:
“All business decisions are marketing decisions and all marketing decisions are about people”
And all people are into stories. Because that’s what life is – one big story and not a spreadsheet.

Monday, 3 September 2012


We are all bombarded by constant lumps of management jargon and – going forward (ow!)  I can’t see the toothpaste being pushed back in the tube… (ow!!!!!) And yet management at work seems to have got worse whilst it’s been non-existent in most daily lives. People get fatter, grumpier, less content with their lives and less competent at changing this. 

But I think things may be changing and this is my plan to help that change.

I want to talk about three things:-  managing talent; managing time; managing expectations. 

Kevin Pietersen, the test cricketer.

Would this kerfuffle be going on if he’d been a footballer or a golfer? After all, many of them behave much worse than he’s done. Would Shane Warne has been allowed to carry on playing for England had he been English? KP’s probably the best batsman to play for us since Len Hutton. The job (as I discovered managing genius talent in advertising) is to manage the unmanageable, calmly get the best out of them through charm, cunning, alcohol and inspiration. And relax. This must be done if you want to avoid being mediocre. Read the biography of Steve Jobs to understand  ‘A’  talent.

Now school’s back for Autumn…. An even better anthem.

Time. It’s September. Back to school. New curricula. New form. New challenges.

Time. There isn’t enough of it. So simplify. Do fewer things well. Focus on less.

Time. We need to spend less of it working. More than 55 hours a week for 45 weeks a year and it’s almost certain that the extra hours are not just counterproductive but are likely to be damaging.

Expectations. The legacy of the Olympics is summarised brilliantly by India Knight:  

“Britain has discovered its smiley face. Don’t let it slip away”. I’m increasingly convinced that politicians do more harm than good and are to be ignored. The “Big Society” is a concept which proves the adage “be careful what you wish for “because post Olympics I feel I’m in a big smiley society in which the bumbling and whingeing Miliband, Clegg and Cameron are out-of-touch”– why is it the real bumbler, Boris, is the only one who seems real?

Manage your talent, time and expectations and perceptions and you’ll be better and feel better.

Back to school then. But remember one thing. Life is not neat. Things seldom work out quite how you expected. But you can manage if you keep things simple. That’s what management is all about after all.