Wednesday, 29 January 2014


Sir Peter Bazalgette put the boot into the art world last week when he said:-
Sometimes if you walk into an exhibition and you read the notes you would feel as though you are reading a foreign language

And I guess most of us agreed. Not a lot to disagree with is there? It’s like teenage drinking, drug taking and pregnancy - a disgrace that has to be cracked down on.  But here’s the funny thing - because it has been. In the instance of teenage drinking, drug taking and pregnancy all have declined rapidly with drinking by 16 – 25 year olds reducing more sharply than amongst any other sector of the community. Teenage pregnancies are now the lowest since the 1960s.  And in the galleries I visit the quality of curating and simple English has reached new levels of clarity. Peter will say no doubt: “the word I used , you will notice, is ‘sometimes’. I was not saying it was prevalent

Well if not prevalent or a serious problem why raise it and I have to say in the video of you explaining the Daily Telegraph article which trailed this alleged communication crisis, you did look rather anguished about this so-called issue.

In his book “Breakfast at Sotheby’s: the A-Z of the Art World” Philip Hook fingers some of those troublesome “foreign-sounding” words: “Accessible, challenging, decorative, difficult, important, interesting, monumental

Crikey – they are hard ones aren’t they?

But this is yesterday’s fight. Overall the world of arts and culture has never been more astutely aware of the need for audiences and simplicity. Post-Apple, cleanliness and brevity of communication is the thing. The V&A gets this, the Ashmolean gets it….hell they all get it. Wherever you go the way in which art is talked about, the odd Brian Sewell apart, in words of one syllable.

On Sunday’s “Broadcasting House” on Radio 4 Paddy O’Connell interviewed people in the street about the side by side “Van Gogh “Sunflowers” at the National. It was a lightweight but refreshing piece demonstrating that the Chairman of the Arts Council’s concern lest anything impede art being for everyone is really pretty groundless.

So don’t be blue, Peter. The arts world is in better shape than you fear and the language with which it’s described is a) English and b) generally clear and simply informative.  My concern is the opposite of yours. Do you ever worry we aren’t being careful enough to get to the root of things and embrace complexity when it is there?  Brian Sewell is a fine example of someone unafraid to say either something is really difficult or, in entertainingly extravagant language, that a given work is ghastly.

The good thing about Sir Peter’s outburst, and perhaps this was his motive all along, is he hit the headlines and this blog.

Written by Richard Hall and first published on

Monday, 27 January 2014


That’s what Charles Orvis said - he who founded the legendary high-end fishing, hunting and outdoor retail and mail order business. Most of us have taken this pretty well for granted as the byword in customer service. Marketers worldwide have sought to meet what they think theirs customers want. If Fawlty Towers is the paradigm of how not to do it then Orvis is the complete opposite.

But then along came Steve Jobs to turn all the arguments on their heads with his refusal to do consumer research and with a fixed view on the need to create consumer needs rather than just fulfil them.

The trick is surely to give the customer what they hadn’t imagined they’d wanted but when they get it they realise it’s exactly what they wanted all along.

It’s the Heston Blumenthal trick.

Which brings me to NatWest. I bank with them and I like them. Their refurbished branch in Brighton is well run, smart and with bright and charming staff. (Yes boys and girls this is a a bank not a fairy story although being Brighton there are eccentrics around.)

Well they get a bit busy in there so they introduced a ticketing system whereby rather like in the delicatessen area of Waitrose you’d get say ticket 345 and seeing that there were 20 people ahead of you you’d go for a coffee, do some shopping and then come back and lo and behold you were now five away from the head of the queue. Great idea? Well they’ve canned it. The staff in the bank are disappointed because it made their life easier and more ordered and I am as mad as hell. Why did it go? “Customer survey,” I’m told “they did a survey and our customers didn’t like it”.

So Nat West has gone back to a system we all like – queuing in hope and ignorance in a long line.
Either the research methodology was wrong or they asked the wrong customers or they are lying and merely want us to give up and bank online.

I’d have asked the staff not the customer- day by day they feel the pulse of their customers. If the staff preferred the system that’s been abandoned maybe it was because they understood the effect it had on customer behaviour whilst the research only asked about customer attitude. Customer attitudes would, incidentally have shown that most people have been conditioned by the media, politicians and the economic crash to hate bankers. That’s their attitude towards them. This does not mean they want them to shut up shop and commit suicide.

In Room 101 recently Joan Bakewell said how she loathed customer surveys especially the kind that ask “were we good, very good or excellent?”

Agreed. But I’d go further. Most customer research perversely tells you the wrong things because (would you believe) customers don’t actually know what they want any more than patients in hospitals do.

Except to be made better and that’s our job.

Be nice to your customers, listen to them but be firm about giving them what they need (really, really need) not what they say they think they want.

Monday, 13 January 2014


I’ve been reading Iain Martin’s book called “Making things happen” which is about the collapse of the RBS Banking Group. It’s a bleak read because it interprets what happened with step by step superciliousness.

I’m sure Iain is a very nice man. I think he’s a clever one too. But his huge antipathy towards Fred Goodwin makes the book bloodless. Surely Goodwin was just more interesting and complex than this. In contrast read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs to see how a bully can be described.

“It aint over till the fat lady sings” was a line originated by Ralph Carpenter of the Dallas Morning News in 1976. Carpenter (possibly a Wagner lover thinking of Brunhilde) was writing about an American Football match.

In his book Martin has an elephant in the room in every chapter whom no one seems to notice. It’s that fat lady clearing her throat and opening her sheaf of music. And yikes, she’s about to sing.  I’m a bit surprised that the cast of bankers, regulators and politicians hadn’t been deafened by the sound of preparatory humming she was making.

But in most situations we face in business we seldom encounter such perfect storms that the banks faced in 2008. We just face a demoralising prospect of decline, desperation and demise. Yet the solution is to get in there before the fat lady puts on her glitzy dress and mount a planned and sustained sales drive. Cost cutting alone never does enough. You have to do something systematic about the weakening top line. Fat ladies can’t sing when you’re hitting your sales budget.

And talking a bit more about fat ladies there’s a recent novel piece of demonization. Sugar. In the 1960s Professor John Yudkin wrote a book called “Pure, white and deadly” which put the root cause of fat ladies down to their eating too much sugar. He lost that argument and fat instead became the enemy. But the devil sugar is now back under the microscope.

And I hear that fruit is bad for you, it’s full of sugar - crammed with the wretched stuff, and fruit juice is worse than Capstan Full Strength. As for five a day, forget it.  And chocolate? The “c” word is no longer crack cocaine – it’s Cadbury.

What I love most about human beings is our ability to change our minds and turn heroes into zeros and vice versa. If I were Fred Goodwin I’d launch a confectionery brand – what’s to lose?

Most of all I love our ability to re-group, prove our resilience and face down fat ladies with songs in their hearts and tell them that they will not be required, thank you.


I am a criminal. I am beset with remorse and shame. Yes, after 45 pointless years of driving I’ve been done for speeding. I am going down and in my troubled dreams the judge is reaching for his black cap.

But I’m offered an alternative. Attendance at a “Speed Awareness Course” plus a small fee for the privilege. Twenty of us attend it, ironically held at Brighton Race Course. When, as we waited, someone noted there weren’t many young people there another grimly suggested the young drove much too fast to be picked up on the cameras we’d fallen foul of, all of us driving at 36mph.

The thesis the course instructors pursued was changing attitudes changed behaviour and the 4 hours or so that followed was at times subtle but mostly a crude and where necessary (in their judgement) a brutal assault on “I’m a good driver and the law is an ass” mentality. Overall it was a powerful experience. Every driver should go on one - every driver. After all when did you last read the Highway Code?

The attendees had their usual cynics – “I’d rather go to prison than do this” – (you wouldn’t, you really wouldn’t). Or the guys who were in denial of science – “it’s all very well telling me how long it takes a professional driver to stop but I know my car and my ability to react”. This person reminded me of a passenger on the London Underground on being told a delay had been caused by “someone being under a train at Arnos Grove” saying “that’s all very well but…”

What happened to most of us was we gradually absorbed the grim reality that we’d taken driving for granted for a blameless and long time, that were probably lucky not to have killed someone before now, that we probably would if we drove at more than 29mph (where there were street lights) and then we’d go to prison for a 5-14 year stretch losing our jobs, wife, family, friends, reputation and hope.

Britain’s the safest country in the world when it comes to road safety but we still kill 1,700 of each other a year. And speed is the major attributable reason for this - driving faster than our ability to stop in time. Quite simply drive at 20 mph and it will take at least 40 feet to stop if someone walks out in front of you…at 30mph that rises to 75 feet. That is fact and none of your “that’s all very well buts.”

But I want to go back to the attitude/behaviour thesis because I think it’s the other way round. If mass-behaviour changes then it’s attitudes that change. Hence recent smoking, alcohol and drug use declines. We need a behavioural tipping point.  And courses like this do just that by cramming us with a new sense of reality; by educating us, shocking us with some facts and shaming us about our ignorance of them. That’s what changes the way we do things like driving.  Because this is something most of us have simply stopped thinking about.

Monday, 6 January 2014


We seem to spend our lives alternately being nostalgic about our past or being in love with “life-transforming” inventions like Twitter which, if you were to pay attention to some people, makes the invention of Gutenberg in the 15th century of just marginal account.

I was reflecting on how retro so many things had become with the resurgence of artefacts and things from previous times which we now think are very contemporary. Things like:-
  • Bicycles, windmills, satchels, teashops, cup-cakes, baking,  porridge, cocktails, hard back books (making a big resurgence), knitting, community singing, cash, colourful ties (Tie Rack’s ties were not, by the way)
All of these are things that, in some way or other, slow things down rather than speed them up and have the smack of authenticity (and the porridge I’m talking about is the real Scott’s Old Fashioned Porage Oats not  Ready Brek.)

And I was pondering further on the story we keep on hearing about how 21st century technology is transforming our lives in quite unprecedented ways.  But our social media, video games devices, robots, iPods and new plastics (made from pig urine) don’t seem quite as life transforming perhaps as the inventive tsunami of the early 20th century which ran up to the outbreak of the First World War.

Here are just a few of those inventions during those thirteen years:-
  • Manned flight, Bakelite,  radio receivers, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, crayons, cornflakes, windscreen wipers, colour photography, safety razors, cellophane, instant coffee, crossword puzzles, bras, zip fasteners, the isolation of Radium, the model T Ford and the theory of relativity.

We speak in awe of Dyson’s bladeless fans today but they don’t quite match the bra do they?  Indeed I think it might be fair to say that the work inventors did in the early 1900s helped define and change modern civilisation in a way that Xbox and Skype simply don’t come close to.

More importantly, perhaps, it wasn’t until I checked up on what had been actually going on in that period that I realised how extraordinarily fertile it had been.

And then on BBC Radio 4’s on Saturday I heard a further piece that was eye opening. At the beginning of the 20th century the global centre for piano production was in Camden Town where there were over 100 factories. (These disappeared after the First World War because most of the skilled piano craftsmen had been killed in France.)

And how did this inventiveness happen?

In part it was through the sheer exuberance of economic success in the USA, Germany, Russia and Britain and the increase in wealth.  In Europe real wages had risen by nearly 50% between 1870 and 1912. But there was something else. Just as a half century earlier had seen a vivid explosion in artistic achievement in all its forms so this narrow decade and a half saw something really special happening – an epidemic of commercial inventiveness.

But how many “eurekas” died in the mud of the battlefields?