Monday, 22 December 2014


Yes, even now Christmas is being hijacked by people like me. And it’s this marketing exercise that especially fascinates me.

The marketing started in 300AD when in the Rome of the Emperor Constantine (recently converted to Christianity) the celebration of Christ’s birth was made to coincide with Saturnalia. The feel- good of a great blow-out got the Christian bandwagon rolling along nicely.

This coincidence of celebrating Christ’s birth and roll-out-the barrel party time continued happily until typically the mean old sod, Mr Austerity Cromwell banned Christmas. Back to normal and a lot more when Charles 11 returned to England.

Enter the four great apostles of Christmas early in the 19th century, first Washington Irving in America and his “Old Christmas” and the virtual invention of the Christmas that we know.

Then Clement Moore - a Theology Professor whose “The Night before Christmas” was written for his children, then was picked up by the New Yorker and has become a defining Christmas idea.
Dickens and Cruikshank, his illustrator, followed in 1836 and 1843 with Pickwick Papers and a Christmas Carol.

Around the same time Prince Albert, gluhwein king and Victoria’s husband brought us German Christmas - snow, sleigh bells, decorated trees and Victorian Christmas was born.

The bandwagon accelerated with Coca Cola’s Christmas advertising and the resounding “ho, ho, ho”s amplified as the toy business burgeoned and Christmas feel-good films filled our media.

Christmas became big business - lasting until January 6th in most of Eastern Europe and Russia but it’s the way marketers have shaped the event to such smiley and profitable effect that’s most striking. Washington Irving put it like this in his efforts to create a ‘marketing’ campaign (he wouldn’t have called it that) to quell social violence and appeal to everyone’s good nature:-

In the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence upon each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.

It has something else which enthrals me. It evokes and sustains such great stories and the felicitous layering of Christian, pagan, commercial and romantic stories and myths from  different geographies. Christmas stories are like Christmas cake, mixed and rich.

The pageantry and the atmosphere of this time never fail to astonish even hardened cynics and make those two words “bah! humbug” sound wonderfully festive too.

Happy Christmas.

Monday, 15 December 2014


Roger Scruton was talking about “kitsch” today - you know that kind of self-regarding sentimentality that happens every Christmas. Oscar Wilde clearly got (and despised) kitsch when he said:
A man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of little Nell.

Yet in the past week I experienced what could have been kitsch but really wasn’t.

David Abbott’s Memorial Service first. David was co-founder of Abbott Mead Vickers, Britain’s largest advertising agency. In his eulogies people said things like “we shall not see his like again.” And in truth we probably shan’t. One of his co-founders, Peter Mead, has written a book called “When in Doubt Be Nice”. And they were nice. They created a business with real values. The AMV brand, more than others, really understood branding and here’s how in a speech David himself made:

"You care about two things.  You care about quality – in everything you do. From the chairs in Reception, to the way you answer a phone, to a piece of Typography, to the ideas you have, to the research you put your name to, to the meetings you hold, to the way you hang a picture, to the way you crop a photograph or write a line.

Quality is always possible and always under threat, but if you don’t seek and defend it you won’t be satisfied and you won’t be happy. The second thing you must care about?  That’s easy.  It’s each other. Take care of each other and nearly everything else will take care of itself.  It’s pat, but it’s true."

And the second bit of kitsch (only it wasn’t either) was the Aldrington Primary School Carol Service - that’s where our grandsons go. I recall a guy whose credo was the need to tell the truth regardless of the consequences. He visited a Primary School, went into a room where all the recent art was pinned up and said “but this is, well this is just rubbish - all of it. Kitsch rubbish.” Well the concert by any standards wasn’t kitsch. It was great, lusty, joyful with a few astonishing “I can’t believe they’re only nine” moments.

Whilst all this was going on I was working on some stuff about winning, you know zero-sum-game, alpha male stuff, “let’s do it to them before they do it to us.” And I’ve been wondering if being nice and trying to be a good, kind person isn’t a better strategy. In the end the world in which we live is about people it’s not about stuff. It’s how we empathise with each other that matters.

I recall Rodney King - the guy who was brutally beaten up by the LA Police in 1991 with the event caught on incriminating camera. King was no saint but he said something quite saintly.
Please can we all get along…I mean we’re stuck here for a while…we can sort it out

This is a kitsch picture though! Sorry.

Monday, 8 December 2014


It was 8.30pm after a long day.

And I was live…crackle, hiss and splat!

Wade Danielson is based in Texas and has launched the Entrepreneur’s Library - so far there are 106 Podcasts by authors whose books might be of interest to entrepreneurs - he’s doing these interviews at the rate of five a week.

And he asked me to do one on my “paradigm shifting” book (there’s a big opportunity for you in marketing and flattery Wade).

So dip into this.

Apart from sounding as though I’ve been imprisoned in a wonky tumble drier and the fact that I’m talking too fast and in a rather unstructured and impassioned way - system one in my brain at full tilt - it’ll do. It’ll have to.  If nothing else I’ve learnt how to do it next time.

Ironic isn’t it that with every presentation you (or I) do it’s only when you’ve done it you actually realise how you should have done it.

Monday, 1 December 2014


What I most regret in my life is not going and seeing things for myself. Someone who worked for me once told me he was going to Germany for the rest of the week because something was “kicking off” there around the Berlin wall. That weekend it came down and I felt that I was a loser.

I‘m always amazed that many people seem happy enough just with reports rather than experience of the real thing. Focus groups can’t do it, although talking over a meal or getting out into the world might.

It’s too easy via Twitter, TV News and articles, well written as they may be, to absorb opinions and situations at third or fourth hand. Take Russia. What’s going on there - really going on? Well I met someone just back. “Boom times”, he said, “supermarkets full of goodies, everyone expressing themselves fearlessly. Putin? Hell - just he’s just another politician; they neither like nor dislike him but he should stop lying about there being no Russian boots on the ground in the Ukraine.”

Everyone I talk to says their sales are growing in Russia. The people there have one concern:  the prospect of being cut off from Europe alarms them. Hear that and you feel the need to visit, smell and understand what is increasingly being misreported.

I spent a night in Hochheim just outside Frankfurt last week. My hotel shut its doors and service at 8pm. You had a code to get in. I had a brilliant room - quiet, not a murmur, not a rustle - a rapturously serene sleep followed by a wonderful breakfast and a drive to work. Germany rests. It all feels very effective. But if you don’t go there in person you’ll only hear about BMW and economic stasis.

The same with Dublin recently where that reportedly restored Celtic tiger came alive when the smiling taxi driver said things were back on track. I watched ladies at lunch one day at Clondarf Castle and thought relaxed shoulders tell you more than any analysis of GDP can.

We read restaurant reviews and vicariously imagine we too have eaten the food. Film reviews are the same; yet sitting listening to two friends, one of whom had loathed the Turner film and the other of whom had loved it, made me know I had to see it myself because what they thought was theirs not mine.

Someone suggested I wouldn’t enjoy Anselm Kiefer at the RA. “Too brutal and depressing” they said. Well that and more. Burned paper, dead sunflowers and destruction but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.  It lies heavy on my memory but it was extraordinary.  Yet I might have read it up on Wikipedia, looked at some images and have caught a whiff of the man’s work.

Whiffs aren’t enough. You have to smell it first hand to understand, feed your senses and know what you really think and feel.