Monday, 29 July 2013


The elephant of course is the EU which, having been heavily exercised in the Spring, now appears to have bored politicians, The Tories have sprinted off on their holidays in fine spirits after seeing DC beat up Ed Miliband in the Commons and then being fed burgers at No. 10. Quite simply elephants have stopped being important.

Yet an “in-out” referendum will determine our grandchildren’s lives. And the debate, in so far as there has been one or ever is one in the political forum, is neither particularly rational or thoughtful.

It’s clouded with prejudice, short termism and narrow self-interest. Too much bluster, not enough calculation.

Even Matthew Parrish, not unknown for saying what he thinks, confesses he just doesn’t know what to think when it comes to Europe.

We start from the fact that many of us simply don’t seem to like foreigners at all. It’s in our DNA. And the Europeans are the most convenient to dislike.  And then we seem short of the skills which we used to have and which inspired that board game “Diplomacy”. I’ve been watching the “White Queen” on BBC TV and listening to Philippa Gregory and others on the Wars of the Roses and the purposeful way the major players of that time worked out how to secure advantage.

Give Margaret Beauford, Elizabeth Woodville or, a few years later, Thomas Cromwell the situation we face and they’d come up with a somewhat more creative solution than one involving taking your bat and just leaving the game. (Machiavelli from about the same era would have loved it too.)

All our competitors have been seriously weakened by recent events, particularly France, but also Spain and Italy and even Germany. Meanwhile Britain stands in reasonable stead with  an economy on the upturn and  reputational kudos through a good Olympics, recent great sporting successes, London being acknowledged the capital city of the world as is our status as the global arts centre.

Weak competitors mean it’s time to advance not to retreat.

If we choose we can be a real lead player inside Europe helping Germany re-construct it. Our 15th and 16th century strategy role models would unblinkingly have seen the opportunity of advancing Britain by such a powerful alliance.

When it comes to being rational I have to imagine that the vast majority of businessmen who want us firmly in the centre of the EU represent left brain thinking. Why would they say this if they couldn’t see how important it was?

(Incidentally I thought a potent downside of separatism was well expressed by a top Scot who confided that wealth and talent would flood out of Scotland if independence were to be voted in there.)  And it’s not just the world of business. Ask America or Japan (and probably China and India too) and they’re mystified why we aren’t striding up to the Board Table as the player to replace the role the waning and woeful France once had.

Britain at 1% of global population isn’t a great world power any more but it’s a great European power.

That’s where we can exert real influence and where we’re needed.

Those who disagree probably take a similar view of social media…they don’t like it, understand it or even want it. They say they’ll ignore it and that it’s not that important. Yet 93% of business use it in their marketing and, like it or not, Facebook, were it a country, would in terms of population be the third largest in the world.

The elephant can’t be ignored.

The debate may be tough and nasty.

But a bit of a thoughtful punch up is better than potentially acceding to a generation or so of isolation and decline, isn’t it?

Monday, 22 July 2013


This week I got really angry a few times. So, you might say, you’re at the sort of age when anger goes with those grey hairs; chill out; it isn’t fatal.

Only starvation is fatal.

I watched a BBC programme incredulously – “The Great British Budget Menu”. I was incredulous because it ran through midnight which is not exactly prime time.  And incredulous because it painted a picture of Britain I thankfully don’t recognise but have suspected is there lurking just below politics and whiffle of middle class crossness.

Essentially we have a nutrition crisis.

Forget obesity. Forget Five-a-Day. Through massive food price inflation we are facing a crisis in which a lot of people just don’t have enough to eat, in which well over ½ million people are forced to use Food Banks , the use of which has increased by 200% over the past three months alone.

The only apparently affordable way of eating is the worst way – cans and instant if you’re on a draconian budget.

The programme showed three top chefs Hartnett, Corrigan and Martin struggling to create a decent nutritious meal for £1. The best bits were James Martin asking a butcher to cut a chicken leg in half, Richard Corrigan’s face when a mum told him she had just 20p to last till payday (she was what George our chancellor would call an “honest, hardworking mum”) and Angela Hartnett whooping with joy when she found a chicken for £2.70. No animal husbandry here, no organic squeamishness. Cheap protein….yes!
With all the caveats of knowing a TV producer is squeezing out maximum anguish and empty plates are being filmed by well-fed cameramen this programme humbled and shocked me. I hope David, Nick, Ed and company all felt the same.

And then there was the Sunday Times article about advertising. It said “mad men are being replaced by maths men as ad agencies bid for eyeballs in fractions of a second.” Apart from being glad for anything nasty that happens to the odious and talentless Don Draper and his colleagues I was again enraged. What used to be called the “persuasion industry” has allegedly become the computerised subliminal impact industry. Any industry that becomes a process next becomes a commodity and then dies.

So goodbye to the ads that lay behind some of the greatest film talents as they matured…Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and others. Goodbye to storytelling. Goodbye to creativity. Really?

Clearly insane.

We’re too rich as a nation to allow a large community to be hungry and we’re too smart as a country to believe Chinese water torture is superior to the magic of creativity and brilliant advertising ideas.

Or am I being an optimist?

Wednesday, 17 July 2013


We’ve been going to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show for over fifteen years. It’s a season-defining thing, July, usually sunny and a day of unalloyed pleasure. When it started it was precocious little sister of Chelsea, a bit more burger than Bulgari. 

But now it’s three times the size and massively bigger in the last year alone. It’s changed a lot. From flower show to the biggest outdoor living show imaginable. It’s packed with UKIP voters, members of the National Trust and the sort of people you meet on cruises – charming, educated and a little bit deaf.

What was that? Yes, me too to the last of those.

But the biggest change was a strange one. It was a failure of creativity over common sense. One of the highlights (after the floral Marquee) has always been the show gardens. I recall dozens of brilliant ideas in the past. Often a real sense of delicious green and original solitude.  This year was full of brilliant planting, lots of meadow flowers but then there was something irrelevant as the focal point.

You know – a man in a gas mask, a leather recliner with a broken glass and a bottle of Bollinger, a rusting piece of sculpture, a plastic table with a teddy bear astride a watering can. It was all most odd.  There were screens of orange, blocks of wood and piles of old fridges. One called Ashes to Ashes with lots of burnt ash trees and RIP tombstones in memory of ash dieback seemed refreshingly normal.

So what the heck was going on?

It was the stands selling stuff that won most of the attention – the next Farrow and Ball called Little Greene, Estribos selling brilliant hats made from wild Argentinian hare pelts (nothing PC about the Country Living stand) and a new sausage brand to replace Debbie and Andrews – the brand bought by private equity and gone legit. Welcome, instead, Heck the North Yorkshire brand created by the Keeble family whose motto is, allegedly, “what the heck!” Everyone in the family’s on the board and it says on their website:
Making damn good sausages is in our blood and we have been doing it for years. ….working together on the family farm to bring you sausages packed to the skin with quality, flavour and inspiration. We use fresh herbs instead of dried, processed ones. We do small-batch production instead of mass-production……

It was good to see someone doing their best to do what they do well better.

It’s time for the gardeners to get back to gardening.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Me, I'm sated mate

I think we’re all just a bit worn out by an excess of excitement and sheer brilliance. We’ve just had a brilliant British Lions Rugby series in Australia, an emotionally powered Wimbledon culminating in an almost tearful Prime Minister saying that no one deserves a knighthood more than Andy Murray…What! He’s only 26 and, yes, he’s very good….. but a knighthood – for heaven’s sake. And now it’s cricket and the Ashes. So far it’s felt like we’re witnessing a story written by a drug crazed soap opera script writer who wants to get things over very quickly….”and then everyone died…hideously. Done. Dusted. The end.

But it’s not just sport that feels like a calorie crammed feast which leads to indigestion.
I live in Brighton and in May we are battered by the Festival – not one but four festivals – the Festival proper, the Fringe, the Charleston Festival (a major literary event – sort of Hay on Wye on sea) and the Great Escape (300 rock bands hosted in 30 venues over 3 days).

No wonder everyone here looks so knackered in early June.  One red eyed Festival aficionado, more incurable addict than aficionado, glumly told me “I’ve been to over 40 events in less than three weeks ….I can’t even think anymore.”

It’s not about grabbing it so much as avoiding being mugged by it.

There are over 200 proper arts festivals in the UK now from Glastonbury (now a national TV treasure) to Manchester to Lichfield (both on now) to Edinburgh to….it makes the brain hurt just thinking about them.
And it’s spread to all media. This summer Hollywood has produced more blockbuster films – something like 15 - than ever before. The need to outdo the competition is making $100 million films a norm and will surely be unsustainable. The benchmark lies in special effects and scale drama and owes rather less to storytelling. “The King’s Speech” and “the Artist” already feel distinctly aberrational. Decimation and World War Z seem the norm.

I doubt if any man or woman is capable of enduring for long this much spectating and exposure to the deadly rays of extreme entertainment.

And I wonder if, in the long run, “going out” will be seen as wonderful as it once seemed. Michael Douglas, whose film“Behind the Candelabra” has created such a storm (by the way it’s not a real film…no, no…they’ve decided it’s only a TV film….because HBO and not a real, Hollywood studio made it) predicted somewhat gleefully the demise of Hollywood blockbusters. He observed that as TV’s get bigger, better and cheaper the ability to get that “film-fix or, indeed, whatever fix you want – opera, theatre, classical or rock music will be brilliantly provided where people want to be most…at home.”

My analysis suggests that, firstly, whilst in the current climate big events still attract big audiences there’s an underlying problem.  With so much choice there’s a creeping reticence to commit. Many make last minute choices and if they miss out well that’s OK. People are starting to ration pleasure in a new way. The world has been so sated by quality and thrills and there’s only so much adrenalin we can take. And secondly in the comfort of your own home is a new reality.

If I’m right this represents a new threat to the arts sector which maybe brilliant marketing can help, in part, solve but reliance on product excellence alone will not.

As someone said to me recently watching a primary school sports day “have you noticed how good, how keen they are, how much they do and how competitive they’ve all become nowadays?”
When everyone’s so brilliant and the audience have seen it all before something may have to give.
Like the very will to watch.

Written by Richard Hall and first published on

July 10th 2013

Monday, 8 July 2013


Years spent in advertising somewhat blunt one’s ability to be humble. No. Uriah Heep would never have made it in Covent Garden – perhaps in Social Media? No, not even there.

There’s something about the thrill of the chase and the kill in capitalism which makes for great dinner parties but I’m not so sure it’s always all for the good of society.

Reading that back it’s hopelessly squeamish isn’t it? Sharp elbowed winning and the naked,  competitive urge make for a lot of misery for those who can’t catch up.

But it needn’t be like that need it?

I met Elisicia Moore five years ago when invited to write about a charity new to me by a pro bono marketing site called “Pimp My Cause”. I chose Petite Miracles. Elisicia who started it and runs it is an astonishing, vibrant source of energy and self-belief.

Here’s how she describes the PM mission on their website:

“Our aim is to encourage participants to explore and understand the process of interior design, develop their own DIY skills and use upcycling as a vehicle to improve their living environment, to build confidence, to reduce social exclusion and provide opportunities for further training and employment.  

We aim to reduce homelessness by providing Interior Design consultation to newly housed people.” 

Which is, Elisicia, you -  the tornado of optimism, a bit underwhelming as a positioning statement, compared with meeting you and hearing who you are and what you do.

Try this…..

Petit Miracles teaches, inspires and enables people in hardship to make beauty out of ugliness. For instance: take a battered old chair destined for landfill, repair it, make it beautiful (more beautiful than it’s ever been), sit in it and say “Yes! Yes! I did this” then sell it for quite a lot of money and become an entrepreneur. This organisation really is creating fairy stories in a cynical world.

A bizarre, classist mind-set led councils and retailers to suppose the poor had no taste nor could be educated to appreciate beauty. Petit Miracles hits this old shibboleth firmly on its nasty head.
What Elisicia has managed to do in a magical good-news cocktail is combine style, aspiration, inspiration as well as leading a crusade against waste. So when I went to their party and met a bunch of excited people and saw some of their work which was adventurous, classy and fun I felt just a little humble.
There aren’t many people around trying to lead people to a better life by creating style out of strife or beauty out of beastliness.

No. I didn’t just feel a little humble….I felt a bit in awe.
Tell your friends … it’s a good news story for the summer.

Monday, 1 July 2013


It was my wife who said this to me after a particularly large shopping trip at Waitrose where we’d divided the list into two halves. Needless to say I finished first, in a frenzy of item-snatching that brought back to memory those “a much as you can get in your trolley in two minutes” competitions supermarkets used to run.

She, meanwhile, was thoughtfully assessing the ripeness of avocadoes and the quality of the plaice fillets  in fact she’d struck up a real rapport with the fishmonger with whom my relationship had not advanced beyond those “two of those now please”) . It was the smell of my victory plus years of working in fast moving consumer goods marketing that made me so assertive and objectionable I guess.

I thought nothing much of it until I started watching husbands shopping with their wives, the men resembling either failed summer puddings, soft and oozing with self-contempt and self-pity (“Ooh I wish I wasn’t here…what on earth do I have to do for sex and supper?”) or trying to be super productive “try this – no that one makes you look very fat – not white nor any colour in that shape – turn round – blimey! No nothing but ‘there she blows’ – sorry, sorry! -  – how about a hat? – oh, come on, you’ve got enough shoes – I put my foot down on shoes… foot down on shoes… heh! heh!”

Yet the boards of retailers are full of men playing boy’s games and re-enacting the Third Reich. A girl I heard about who was reputedly a tough nut, joined Tesco and after two weeks of sexism and extreme alpha male behaviour resigned and joined, as she put it, somewhere sane like the Royal Bank of Scotland.
I reflected on this when I heard about t Tesco’s AGM  last week at which Sir Terry Leahy’s predecessor, Lord MacLaurin, filleted, fried and despatched the erstwhile businessman of the year Sir Terry:-

When you judge the performance of a Chief Executive you must not only judge the performance of the day-to-day business but also his legacy.  I think we are all very sad in this hall to see the legacy Terry Leahy left …. I think he lost the plot.

RIP Tel ….join the other ex-heroes of the boardroom John Browne, Fred Goodwin and James Crosbie … all of them dictators who had things their own way.

It’s not that power corrupts it’s that their familiarity with the problems and mechanics of a business and the heady smell of success make virtually all leaders want to go out on a high on their terms.

For my part I’ve decided to be a more collegiate and empowering shopper in future – I’m staying at home… and sticking to the plot. My wife knows best when it comes to shopping.