Monday, 30 September 2013


It’s the sort of question that a grandson might ask having listened – having nothing better to do – to Ed Miliband’ s speech at the Brighton Labour Conference.  There the small and unsuccessful were lauded but the bigger and makers of more “p….”

(hiss the word quietly my dear for it’s a word that cannot be said) more “profit” …. were to a man – mostly men – because there are very few women at the top of business – rotters.

John Cleese put it like this:
I find it easy to portray businessmen. Being bland, rather cruel and incompetent comes naturally to me.

Businessmen have been typified by Messrs Goodwin, Diamond, Sugar, Green and a yo-ho-heave-ho of Russian pirates…all, were we to imagine them as alumni of Hogwarts, members of Slytherin – rather sleazy and slick and sarcastic.

But isn’t that a little disingenuous and unfair?

The media just don’t like business although they are discovering, to their liberal chagrin, that Generations Y and Z do. Research by You Guv shows “they take more pride in British business than the Welfare State and give Google, Apple and O2 credit for improving their lives”. (The Times 18/9/13)

Applications from them to advertising agencies are flourishing. The likelihood of these young people going on an anti-capitalist march is low. Enterprise and entrepreneurship are actually sexier than they’ve been for some time.  It’s the word “businessman” that, in its old fashioned way, summons up images of pinstripe, furled umbrellas and middle class white men. Think ideas, think dirty hands, think midnight oil, think trial and error, think global excellence …that’s the new world of business.

Bland?  Certainly not.
Cruel? No more than competition ever is.
Incompetent? Just try doing it yourself, John. You’ll find it isn’t that funny when the alarm rings at 4.00am, your flight leaves at 6.30 and you have a day’s work to do on top of pitching an idea to a German who is likely to say “no”.

Business is seldom about chatting over lunch in the Savile Club for Generation Y. It’s a Starbucks in a paper cup and a bagel.

Lunch? Lunch is for wimps.

But what some may find antipathetic is that business now works to global rules.
And this applies to ethics too. (Incidentally I heard one of the church commissioners talking about their 10% stake in the new “Ethical Bank” that’s being constructed out of RBS. The history of the church has not exactly been brimming over with ethical concerns itself and isn’t the concept of an ethical bank a little like that of a compassionate abattoir?)

Overall you can’t regulate innovation. Business has to find its own level and  markets have to be allowed to work.

We should stop trying to herd cats and we should avoid business clichés.

The more I see of young people in business the better I feel about the new tougher breed of competitor.
As many of them are women as men and nearly all of them deft and hard-working.


Now you should see the politicians. Kevin Spacey in House of Cards is nothing….

Friday, 27 September 2013


I suppose why my heart sinks a bit at the prospect of the Biennale – the 55th International Art Exhibition in Venice – is because it reminds me so much of old fashioned sales conferences – large budgets, the need to impress and a big venue.
In the Ca’ Pesaro there’s a work by John Baldessari, a canvas blank but for these words:
“Everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work”.
In the Biennale it’s just the reverse…all ideas but I’m not sure about the art.

Thus the Spanish stand has as its entry just a huge heap of rubble – yes - a metaphor for their economy.

The United States has sculptures made from rubbish, old bags of cement and assorted debris with officious girls saying - “don’t get near, stand behind the line”. Finland has trees and a tribute to photosynthesis. Korea’s included a dark room in which there was no light and no sound for sixty seconds. In there I had an overbearing desire to say “will you take your hand off my bottom?” to see what happened, but I resisted the urge.

The Dutch stand with human faces crushed in printers’ presses, the Japanese reliving crises like their tsunami in a series of sections entitled “precarious tasks” and the British stand were all  successes amongst others.

Jeremy Deller, the installation artist, had done Britain proud in recognising the stand had to be engaging and vivid. The exhibit of portraits by prisoners (mostly ex-soldiers) of significant people involved in the Iraq war was amazing.  Elsewhere he declares ‘war on wealth’, as the Guardian eagerly described it. The counterpoint of William Morris and the rouble-drenched Abramovitch was good and angry as was section all about the Prince Harry who allegedly once shot a harrier hen at Sandringham.

They were even serving mugs of tea on the stand.

The scale of the event overall is theme-park vast and tiring which meant when I belatedly reached the British Tino Seghal performance art piece which was the gold award winner of the whole show my mind was so battered that it seemed incomprehensibly weird. But Alva Noé from Cosmos and Culture said - and this made sense as I reflected on the sheer presence of the piece:
“this work doesn't play the "attention" game that is so basic to the performing arts. It doesn't try to capture your attention, or direct it, or organize it. The work is just there, like a picture on the wall, and the actors might as well be battery-operated machines.”

In my head I hear a chorus of voices muttering “philistine” in my not lavishing more praise on the Biennale but this is a show and about as far from the Guggenheim, Academia or Pesaro as you can get. Until as you limp away from the Giardini you reach the biggest art show in the history of mankind which is in the Arsenale. By now the chorus of voices in my head are whimpering “enough, enough!”

Bur first an old friend – no surely that isn’t the right word – a display entitled “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things” by Mark Leckey last seen by me at Bexhill on Sea at the De La Warre Pavilion. It seems out of place rather like seeing a London cab in the streets of Venice.
But then briefly two extraordinary moments for art anaesthetised eyes – the Peruvian exhibition of spices which touched the senses strongly and looked great and Pawel Althamer’s “Venetians” – a mass of skeletal sculptures of people with skinless bodies. Extraordinarily he’s produced these in association with his father’s plastics factory using extruded strips to form the surreal bodies. He says it’s to show “bodies are just vehicles for the soul”. It makes you stop, look and think. I thought it marvellous.

The Biennale is a huge success. It’s a hotch pot of “wow”, “yuk” and “what the hell is that?” Creativity, pretension and political raging co-exist but what it feels like is a big, important and inventive event.

If only the literature and marketing of the event were as good and clear as the best of the work is. At least Jeremy Deller shows the way how to do it in his brilliantly communicative work. Let’s see if they heed my words in 2015…it would make my life so much less tiring.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


Having just spent two weeks in Venice – a small place with an indigenous population of around 60,000 I couldn’t help reflecting on the old Latin maxim “memento mori”. Broadly this means “remember death” or (more colloquially)”watch it cock this won’t last”.

Well it didn’t last that long for Venice.

In the late 14th century they had 180,000 living there - three times the size of London, it was the most powerful city in Europe, with 36,000 sailors, over 3,000 ships, (and en passant 20,000 courtesans), it was the centre for printing presses (so the silicon valley of the world then), trade nexus of the world, was populated by polyglots, renaissance men and women, was a true republic and  about to become the artistic and cultural capital of the world.

It was the Apple, Google and Amazon combined of their day…and then some. You didn’t get bigger than Venice.

Michael Geogehan, one time briefly CEO of HSBC (“memento mori Mike”) wryly observed it had been the banking centre of the world and was now just a water attraction.

I remember thinking that when, as it will, HSBC fades away no one will think it worth more than a footnote. Venice, on the other hand, has left, in its very presence, a wonderful legacy that allows us to see “memento mori”, as it were, made flesh.

Most of all Venice is proof that big is not beautiful but that unreasonably good is.

Last week I watched the topplingly-high Costa ships easing in to berth at Venice and thought “your time is over buddy”. The Costa Concordia crash and the economy has dented Carnival’s profits and they all looked rather empty.

Big is not beautiful.

The advertising equivalent of overlarge cruise ships, Costa Publicom - the merger of Omnicom and Publicis - seems similarly pointless and with a built in “wallow”.  Because the word to attach to the bigness mania is “wallowing”.

On Newsnight recently we had confirmation of one guru’s view of the subject. Harvard Professor Clay Christensen on tech firms failing to innovate: "Nokia is essentially gone, BlackBerry is essentially gone and now Apple is next".

Apple is wallowing.

He described the fact that innovation was slowing down as companies were sitting on outdated technology or capital investment.  Apple’s closed architecture will kill it, he said, using elaborate hand movements.

Meanwhile Tesco and the rest of the retailers are sitting on dinosaur out-of-town hypermarkets, the big accountancy firms are like cruise liners looking for negligence-malpractice icebergs.

I wonder - haven’t we learnt from the big car company fiascos?  Big is not beautiful.

Returning to Venice…it still retains its power but in a different way.

Its power is over our souls.

Being engaged by timeless worth is beautiful and inspiring and Venice has it. Water attraction indeed….only a banker could get something quite so wrong.

Monday, 16 September 2013


We all know that concession to democratic management of our households when we grandly proclaim “you decide”. It could be about anything….where to go for lunch, what to do at the weekend or what garment to buy.

This conversation we’ve started is about more than it seems. It’s as much about a slippery avoidance of making the decision ourselves as an act of generous delegation.

Because actually making decisions is hard.

And it’s getting harder because so many interests now need to be included.   It’s no longer a case of making the logically correct choice. The difficulty of being a leader is in creating the illusion of decisiveness without irritating those around you who’ll immediately tweet their irritation if they are irritated and then sullenly go slow.

What do you decide to do about the following if the buck stopped with you?
  • Syria
  • Fracking
  • HS2
And “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer.
Sometimes decision making is so hard because what we really believe ourselves is not what most of the group who are described as stakeholders quite believe…life is full of shade of grey.  So the skill that is being adopted now in making decisions is not decision making but enrolling votes of support or, worse, avoiding a row.

And if the proposition changes from a simple binary choice to a complex “maybe” so be it, so long as everyone is happy or rather not unhappy or more probably that the majority view is not one of strong dissent.

I recently heard the Prime Minister was asking advisors to “examine all options” on Syria. Isn’t that what we do in considering decisions? But I smell the whiff of “let’s parade the sheer complexity of the issues to obfuscate our difficulty in making an acceptable decision”.

In this world the clamour for strong leadership is based on the myth that Thatcherism is the answer…a little like suggesting bleach is such a great germ killer and cleaner we should all wash our hands in it.
It isn’t always that simple…as she discovered when deciding on the poll tax

In the end decision making is very hard.

We need to think – that hardest of activities – using the most sensitive of weighing machines - the human mind. Just watch a judge at work, analysing, pondering, reflecting and deciding.
So next time you say “you decide” remember it’s like saying “you do the calculus”.

Monday, 9 September 2013


Only in France where there is still violent antipathy for universal computer language thus in the land of claret and frogs “software” = “logiciel”;  “spread sheet” = “tableur”; “byte” = “octet”. No one of course takes any notice but rules are rules – sorry - Les règles sont les règles.

Meanwhile, our own language is changing fast and interesting new words like  ‘selfie’ are appearing in the new Oxford English Dictionary. A ‘selfie’, by the way, is a photograph of yourself shot by you – sounds rather masturbatory to me.

Some other words which make it now include ‘FOMO’ which means  fear of missing out - the very worst neurosis of 2013 and a great one for someone who was in advertising,  ‘buzzworthy’ which speaks for itself.
In fact, the new world is awash with words like ‘squee’ which means the sound a ‘fangirl’ makes when squealing ‘omg’ and ‘twerking’ which is what Miley Cyrus did on MTV. The OED definition is "to dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance." What elegant language the OED uses - twerking sounds fun too.

There have always been linguistic oddities like a teenage daughter unfamiliar with the word ‘pedestal’ who conjured up the feasome concept of a ‘pedal-stool’. One envisages Margaret Thatcher in her pomp being put upon a three legged stool with wheels and pedals, her legs pumping away like crazy in front of an astonished Cabinet crying out -  ‘watch out….here she comes’.
In the end pedal-stooling might actually beat skate boarding as a craze.

Then there was one I saw recently - ’scape goat’ which  is a word with biblical orgins , a goat that was sacrificed, bearing the sins of others. But someone, unfamilar with the word ‘scape’ called them ‘escape goats’ – only, of course, they didn’t escape. They got killed.

Mary Anderson invented the windscreen wiper I heard on QI but our daughter, when young, called them ‘wipe screamers’ which is, of course, a perfect description of a worn-out windscreen wiper that makes that odious squeal (or squee) as it moves across the glass.

There are three new words for the business lexicon :-
Tactics when done against a very exacting timescale are ‘tictics’.
Strategy when created in an adversial and ill humoured meeting is called ‘scrategy’
And negative-thinking, disuptors of meetings  make ‘unputs’ to the content in meetings.

The next time I’m asked what I’ll be doing on holiday I’ll have a ready response :- 
Eating, drinking, walking and having fun and doing just a bit of ‘twerking’.

Monday, 2 September 2013