Tuesday, 27 May 2014


Andreas Moelzer, until recently leader of the right wing Austrian Freedom party, said the EU was in danger of becoming a “conglomerate of negroes”. His party did pretty well in the MEP elections as did the French equivalent of the NLP, Marie Le Pen’s Front National Party. In a world that we’d hoped was becoming a little more liberal in attitude and caring, all this is a little sad. But the very PCness of the EU had much of this coming to them. Nigel Farage isn’t my idea of a thinking politician but José Manuel Barosso doesn’t inspire me either. The EU is a mess but electing a squad of lunatics to clear it up is insane.

In case you missed it I enclose an insight from the Huffington Post.

And the point it makes is the values attached to Ukip are brutishly out of date. They belong to a world of smoking, halitosis, turn ups and Butlins; a world of unblinking certainty and a lingering sense that slavery was not all bad. They are egged on by nonsense like this though, the recent decision for the BBC to edit out the word “girl” from a programme called the “Queen’s Baton Relay”. In it a TV presenter thrown to the floor by a teenage judo star says “I’m not sure I can live that down - being beaten by a 19-year-old girl” in case “using the word “girl” caused offence”.

That’s not liberal that’s lunatic.

Beauty was lost somewhere else last week. Anyone who worked in adverising will know that David Abbott, the co-founder of Britain’s largest advertising agency, Abbott Mead Vickers died a week ago.

His work as a writer on campaigns like Volvo, Sainsbury’s and the Economist were examples of clear thinking and intelligence. When David wrote, advertising really mattered as opposed to being sensationalist for its own attention seeking ends. It was that attitude that made him dislike the vulgarity of FCUK so much.

David ‘s writing had a calm and contented but never a complacent tone. He represented the best of the writer’s craft. Here are just three examples of his work which lift advertising to the plane of a serious business and one I was prould to have once been part of not least as a one-time colleague of David’s.

The Economist idea, which was David’s, ran and ran. It had witty headlines and was incredibly noticeable.

After David’s advertising finished, Sainsbury’s never seemed the same. He positioned the brand where consumers want to be, not quite where they are right now.  But my favourite piece of writing was in this ad for Chivas Regal. You’ll need a glass after reading this. It can serve as David’s epitaph too.

(if you can't easily read this, here's a bigger version)

I don’t think he and Nigel would be best friends somehow. And he’d be disappointed by, and even angry at, how bad and clumsy all political writing has recently become.

Finally then, to intelligent thinking, beautiful writing and to David Abbott.

Monday, 19 May 2014


I’ve been thinking about three things this week. The legitimacy (or otherwise) of consultants, Twitter and why branding works.

Let’s start with the proposition that we are a parsnip. As such life would be dull. Being an Essential or an Aldi parsnip would be a horrid fate. But imagine you were a Pershore Purple  and better still an Organic Pershore Purple Parsnip (notice the capital letter in “parsnip”) and all would be so much better.

Because language matters,especially when it comes to branding.

But it’s my inability to cope with just 40 characters and the new language of today which is crazy sparse and not easy for someone of my age to ship with. Twitter and I know each other, of course, but we exchange just curt nods

Until this week when the absurd Omnicom/Publicis ad agency merger collapsed in a crash of what I hear is over £60 million of advisor fees.  Here are just three of the tweets I saw:

Damn. Omnipube was best name ever.” 

“Omnicom rolls over, blinks, stares perplexedly into the sleeping face of Publicis, thinks: My head! Where am I? I remember Champagne...”

This whole failed Publicis Omnicom merger was like two magnets with the same polarity trying to attract each other.

And here are those very magnets.

So now I get it. Brevity is the soul of wit and this blog already much too long.

Finally consultants or “people who are unemployed” as my mother used to describe them. I saw this quote from the splendid Erica Jong and felt myself nodding:

 “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn't.

I believe in advice, I believe in asking others for help but the Job Centre for the unemployed is not necessarily the best place to go to find it. So back to branding.

I decided to create my own mega-merger of three consulting companies I set up in my head called McFinsey, Paine and Company and the Hoxton Consulting Group thus, at a stroke, in my lurid imagination creating the biggest consulting group who are proficient in - wait for it - strategy, leadership and change management. That should do it.

As the week rolled on I had two conversations - one about HR. 

Aren’t we delegating management to this dubious department? You have a tricky people issue…call in HR (not)” and the second was about marketing. Someone said they had a large marketing department and I heard a voice saying:

Why? Why would you do that - tie up all that fixed and probably mediocre cost when you could go out and shop for talent?

It was my voice. Me, who’d spent a third of my life in marketing in a big companies. Yet marketing is an expensive investment when the brand (that very Pershore Purple of a thing) should be owned by the CEO and the board. 

Call in consultants with talent but just make sure they have a capital letter and brand name attached. And remember this - consultancy is a “thing” now.

Monday, 12 May 2014


It’s the phrase itself.

Because it makes customers sound like clapped-out cars going in for a service or a cow being serviced by a bull (remember that next time you feel shafted by a retailer).

Now it’s become a discipline in its own right so we actually have “Customer Service Managers”.

Now isn’t that what everyone in a company should be doing - looking after the customer? But maybe we’re coaching customers to have unreasonable expectations and, in so doing, educating a bunch of hooligans who’ll treat those people selling them stuff unreasonably and rudely.

It leads to mediocrity when a young brand manager, about whom I recently heard, bullied a designer to do a solid week’s work in two days having taken several weeks to write the brief. The design company capitulated because the client company was so important.

Charles Orvis opened a Fishing Tackle shop in Manchester, Vermont in America in 1856. Today, internationally, it has around 1,500 employees. Charles (or one of his successors) said this:
The customers right even when they’re God-dammed wrong”.
For years I used this with people working for me. But I’m beginning to question it. The subservient role of brand owner this implies is liable to coach a breed of employee who doesn’t think or suggest to their customer that there might be a better way. Worse, it encourages customers to be spoilt brats. Anyone who’s travelled at the front of the plane sees the most outrageous behaviour from the rich and indulged customers, people who behave in a “do you know who I am?” way.

This is all about manners and relationships. We always get the best from each other when we trust each other.

Let’s imagine having an adult relationship with our customers so they don’t feel patronised, short changed or deceived and we actually learn how to do a better job so they get a better deal and we run a better operation. Great customer service - sorry let’s call it “looking after customers properly” - comes from listening, understanding and responding in a grown-up way. This week I read that Waitrose is supporting dementia organisations and is offering personalised shoppers to people with memory problems. That’s grown-up.

But here’s the clincher. Steve Jobs (yes I know - over-quoted and maladjusted when it came to human relationships) said:
people don't know what they want until you show it to them.

Customers are not stupid. But we can make them stupid by never saying “no” and explaining why brilliance takes time and being unprepared to have a grown up conversation with them. Servants don’t answer back but brand owners who behave like servants won’t learn much or last long.

That’s why the wrong, subservient and bland kind of customer service does such a disservice to marketing.

Saturday, 10 May 2014


There are words that get into the management lexicon like empowerment, disruption and magic. Magic has migrated from football commentary. It has a connotation of achieving the impossible. The old mantra of the Saatchi Brothers “nothing is impossible” has been reborn.

Now I’m gravely suspicious of magicians and confidence tricksters. I don’t believe the impossible becomes possible by sleight of hand or deception.

But I love stories of the quirky and learning things I didn’t know. The first this week is about powdered alcohol. It’s called Palcohol and is said (ho, ho) to give new meaning to “Dry Martini”. You can spike up food, drink surreptitiously at an alcohol-free event or quickly get blind drunk by snorting it (best used probably when listening to your chairman).

The second I learned on Friday. It’s how to do brilliant research if you’re a pick pocket. Erect a sign which says “Pick pockets operate in this area” and just watch everyone who, as they pass, will furtively touch the pocket in which they keep their wallet letting you know which pocket to pick.
This was at a TEDx conference in London put on by the London Business School. This story was told by Paul Craven who’s a behavioural economist. Paul is also a magician and worked at Goldman Sachs.  Sorry it’s the same thing.

The conference theme was “magic” although most of the speakers only loosely referred to it. One made me laugh when talking about corporate transparency she said that “if we’re going to be naked we’d better look good.” Not magic but funny and true.

My concern about magic in business is that the practice of magic focuses on our gullibility and how easily our senses are led astray. Our eyes are juddering, low resolution cameras creating low grade film. Our short term memories are frail. We are vulnerable to shysters.

So when another speaker spoke enthusiastically in praise of the magic of brands overruling facts she left us wondering if branded snake oil was worth more than unbranded snake oil because of marketing skill or consumer credulity or simply because at least we know it’s always going to be reliable snake oil.

We may be vulnerable but there’s more to it. Human beings enjoy fun, like surprises, like nice presentation, like good news but we are not stupid. We can sniff out a phoney and a magician.
There is one thing that we want and that’s “authenticity”. We like brands and tend to trust them because we know where they come from and we know the owners have skin in the game. Magical (the adjective) is fine but leave magic (the act) for the stage. It doesn’t fit with the new transparent world where Warren Buffett predicting the comeuppance of crooks in finance said: “you only know who’s bathing naked when the tide goes out.”

Let’s hope whoever it is at least they look good because we like nice people and nice presentation.

Monday, 5 May 2014


I’ve been listening to the arguments all week. It’s become increasingly clear that size matters. That’s why China is now tipped by the Economist to overtake the USA as the world’s biggest economy by the end of this year.

It’s why the Astra Zeneca takeover by Pfizer makes so much sense….. but I’ve got a bit confused by this. Apparently the most significant recent breakthroughs by pharmaceutical companies have actually been achieved by midsized companies.  The fact is too many big mergers have been disasters for us to assume this one will work.

The Huffington Post notes that 70 to 90 percent  of mergers fail . Here are a series that we can all recall - AOL and Time Warner - disaster; EBay and Skype - disaster; Quaker buying Snapple for $3.6 billion and then selling just 27 months later for $300million and worse, Daimler Benz buying Chrysler for $36 billion and then paying Cerberus Capital $650 million to sever the ties a few years later.

My biggest concern is this Pfizer/Astra Zeneca story is about innovation and learning. No wonder that tiny little academic institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard with student populations of just 22,000, 18,000 and 21,000 respectively are struggling when there are mighty organisations like the Indira Ghandi University (3.5 million and number one in the world); The Payane Noor University, Tehran (800,000 and number 8) and even the lowly Modern University for the Humanities in Moscow at 48th in the league table has 100,000 students.

So innovation and excellence go with size.

I’ll say that again so you can fully appreciate how absurd the equation of scale with excellence is.
Innovation and excellence go with size. Unless you mean “go” in the “disappear, are absent from and destroyed by” sense of the word because the reality is, as we should by now have learned, scale fails. Creativity is killed by size.

John Lewis Christmas 2013 created by a little agency - Adam and Eve

Any of you who are thinking of setting up Goliath Advertising Inc. forget it.  The hot agencies in the UK right now are I’m told Adam and Eve, Weiden Kennedy, Droga5 and Corner. None are big and although Adam and Eve was bought by Omnicom it is still aggressively independent. More start-ups like the Counter are happening whereas Abbott Mead,with as many as 400 staff as the London number one agency, is described by some as a “behemoth”.

This mad merger will probably happen but I doubt, no,  I do more than doubt, I’ll be confounded and astounded if there’s any addition of value, innovation or human  advancement as a result of such folly. Ian Read the Pfizer CEO will get rich plus a few others but breakthroughs, achievements and success - forget it. Big isn’t beautiful it’s just barmy and the mid-sized and small businesses are where the big brains will go. Oh and to Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard too.