Monday, 21 December 2015


It’s hard for us not to smile when hearing this carol. The line “most highly favoured lady” from the Basque carol “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came” which on the lips of many choristers becomes “most highly flavoured gravy” has the same effect.  Christmas is a time of amusement, excess and fun. The pagans stuffed themselves in the hope that this would help get them through the vile chill of January. And looking at the old Brueghel paintings of typical Dutch weather one can see that need. Yet today in Amsterdam it’s 13C.

In this fast moving world, Christmas is a time for nostalgia, for remembering Christmases past. I recall three evocative smells from my own childhood Christmas: tangerines, the shiny pages of the Eagle Annual and the rich aroma of Macanudo Cigars. It was the only time of the year I recall seeing my father slightly pissed and being the comedian we never normally saw. I remember a brief sense of plenty and unlikely confections like Green Chartreuse. It was when people let their hair down and the Queen’s speech was a must-listen-to event.

As our doorbell rang today at 7am - Parcel Force with more Amazon parcels, I realised the brutal Christmas crushes in the shops were things of the past. Last week was like any other week in London thanks to e-commerce.  Meanwhile the Christmas Turkey has been getting a bad press. Johnny Ray of the Spectator described it as a” dire bird.”  Well ours is hand reared in Kent and was probably called Gwendolen. We’ll meet her in her glossy coffin - a neat box - on Wednesday. She had better not be dire.

Ours will be a family affair aged from 93 to 1 ½; it will be Christmas as it’s been for over 150 years. But what has changed, and it’s ironic in what I’ve already called this “fast moving world”, is that Christmas now lasts from December 18th to January 4th.  And we don’t really regard this as holiday so much as a time of “no one else is going to be in anyway.”

But are we this year just a little more imbued with Christmas bonhomie than in the recent past as a friend of mine tentatively suggested? I think we are. We are living in (for now) a reasonably stable country. London rocks, the Northern Powerhouse is more of a reality than ever - Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and the others are doing brilliantly. Ghastly events are happening elsewhere but for better or worse Britain has become a cosier place than I recall in the recent past.

Here’s Dickens on Christmas:

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.

I love that idea of Christmas as a “noble adjustment of things.” Drink deeply, eat well and laugh a lot and Happy Christmas.

Monday, 14 December 2015


This was a book by Edward de Bono. Now that book has come grimly to life.

I had always realised of course that my parents were rather right wing. They approved of Franco (for heaven’s sake) but they’d lived for 15 years in Barcelona and my mother who, in retrospect, reminds me of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey had a clear view about sorting things out:

If I had my way I’d line them up against a wall and shoot them
Tell them to go bowl a hoop

I adored my parents and took their right wing views with a pinch of salt and a smile. Their brand of thinking was prevalent a long time ago and we didn’t take it that seriously because neither did they.  It’s only now as we see the extraordinary wave of extreme right wing political success in Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Hungary, Finland, Austria, Greece, Spain and now the Pegida Movement in Germany that the red light is flashing.

It’s not just a wave. It’s becoming a tidal wave.

And I’m no longer smiling. What was maybe OK in the 1950s when many adults would have regarded Nigel Farage as a limp wristed liberal is distinctly not OK today.

In France the fog horn voiced Marine Le Pen is bludgeoning her way towards power. I have friends in France who think she’s OK but prefer her niece 26 year old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen who’s even more right wing. Marine says having Muslims in France is “like the Nazi occupation” and she isn’t that keen on the EU.

The EU is deeply harmful, it is an anti-democratic monster.”

And then there’s Donald in the USA. He’s a bit like Jim Davidson going for leadership of the Conservative Party - laughable until the opinion polls come in. But the Guardian says don’t worry, frontrunners never win nominations. Yes he has got a 20% + lead but….

“A look at polls from the past three presidential elections offers little to excite the businessman: none of those leading in the polls this far ahead of the election ended up winning their party’s nomination”

So that’s all right.

Only of course it isn’t because the flavour of international politics is beginning to resemble that of the 1930s. The voices of the far right and the far left are beginning to be heard more and more loudly and more and more nastily.

The world we thought we were creating which was more comfortable, fairer, more ethical and more liberal is being assaulted by the Boots Boys in Norway,  the Veneto Fronte Skinheads in Italy and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Let me tell you about Geert. He’s facing trial in Holland in 2016 for:
“inciting "discrimination and hatred" against Moroccans living in the Netherlands”

It’s time to start saying “You are Right and You are Wrong” if we want to create the kind of kinder world most of us want.

Monday, 7 December 2015


The American executive was talking fast and earnestly “zee-bee-bee is the only way” she intoned “only way to go”. As she went on about the rational positives of this initiative I recalled the child’s response to an unfair telling-off, acknowledging whilst there may have been a tinge of blame but at the same time pleading “can’t you catch a bit of slack?” That one word response is “yebbut.” And my own response to “zee-bee-bee” is “yebbut”.

The problem with zero-based-budgeting (geddit?) is it comes from a dreary, barren place called “failure”. Tom Peters the management pundit whom I’d assumed had disappeared in a gust of his own oratory said once: “You can’t shrink into greatness”. He also said something very spot-on about the world in which we live “if you aren’t confused you aren’t paying attention”.

I once tried zee-bee-bee at home. Christmas was approaching and I went through the items that could be zee-bee-beed. The Christmas tree; Christmas cards; flowers on the table - who needs them? Bowls of sweets; Christmas dinner…just a modest roast chicken would do; and presents….At this point my wife turned quite nasty and reflected that I was a Scrooge and a zero and could be finding myself redundant to requirements if I carried on like this.

The issue is zee-bee-bee has a corrosively negative effect on everyone and whilst it might work on a spreadsheet it imposes a drying up of whatever innovative and entrepreneurial spirit exists within an organisation. Businesses exist to do things, invent things and grow. When, as happens, they lose their way and falter the answer is seldom a let’s-reduce-to nothing approach. The cry that there are no sacred cars (no that isn’t a misprint) is seldom true. The guys at the top are protected from most of the mean spiritedness of the zee-bee-bee approach.

I’m not advocating a blind blunder into bankruptcy but if you reach the need to zee-bee-bee you probably need to do some more radical and exciting things like exiting marginal businesses and investing heavily in those with some promise. In some businesses I know cost has been cut, jobs have been slashed but the survivors have been given carte blanche to grow and thrive. In my own experience survival strategies that only comprise cost cutting hardly ever or probably never work.

I hear that one of the major grocers is investigating a major overhaul of their supply chain by turning their much smaller outlets into high street sites where there is only one of every item on the shelf and you walk briskly round clicking your easy-order-gismo and your groceries are delivered to your home just three hours later.

Genius” I thought “I wonder if the turnip head who thought of that ever visited Dean and Delucca in New York.

The trouble with cost reducers is that they are, to a person, destroyers of joy. Little by little they poison and they lay waste.

Better the savage prune than the snip-snip of mean-minded scissors.

Monday, 30 November 2015


The questioner here is trying to establish the authenticity or otherwise of whatever “it” is. When I was younger (so much younger than today) and in advertising, earnest executives used to say “people don’t drink the beer they drink the advertising.”  So a piece of advertising could change a sow’s ear into a silk purse. As if. Even then a few of us knew this was nonsense.
Now in the post-credulous world of 2015 the search for authenticity is intense. The worst you can say of someone or a product is that they, or it, are ersatz.

Last week Ian Duke, with whom I used to work, took me to Daquise. It’s a Polish restaurant in South Kensington which is wonderfully real (or so it seemed). Here’s what it says on its website:
During the height of the Profumo affair, we played host to Christine Keeler and Yevgeni Ivanov, the naval attaché of the Soviet Embassy and KGB spy. Roman Polanski regularly stopped by for dumplings and goulash

Dishes included “Pieczen cieleca w sosie smietanowym” (Roast Veal in a cream sauce) and the atmosphere was good humoured and warm. Like La Bitta in Venice,  my favourite restaurant because of its family feel and uncomplicated food.

And for books try Daunts or for meat try Archers the Butcher in Brighton. Authentic, all of them, true to their beliefs.

Advertising has a lot of good but some bad to answer for. Richard French, one time star of the business, asked what he did once said “I’m a professional liar” which in a dazzlingly ironic way was completely authentic. Rather like a spy saying “I’m a spy”. But I loved what an entrepreneur in a small start-up said recently. On being asked about her advertising she laughed uproariously “But I am the advertising.” She might have said “I am authentic”.

Comedians Jack Dee and Miles Jupp because they’re authentic reach truths that others wouldn’t dare tackle. They make the utterly mundane interesting. As does Mark Rylance of whom a friend of his said “he is a quite extraordinary ordinary man.” The greatest actor of his generation is completely real and true to his feelings.

In the week of the ISIS crisis the true test of authenticity surrounds the increasingly isolated Jeremy Corbyn. He’s beginning to resemble Richard II acting out the truth that “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Yet his popularity seems to grow out there with labour voters - up another 7% points whilst most of his MPs are becoming increasingly speechless about this “chaos” (or as some call it “new normal.”)  Corbyn clearly
believes bombing Syria is wrong and to his own surprise Tory Matthew Parris agrees.

We are lucky to be watching alleged authenticity in conflict with power politics.

Interesting that for some being what we are and true to our own  beliefs seems so hard. It’s especially so in politics where arguing for the unarguable is still seen as the real skill.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015


What happened in Paris has put a lot of things into a sharper perspective like work/life balance.  It’s a subject on a lot of agendas right now. The debate includes Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, insisting her workforce comes to the office rather than working from home and Lucy Kellaway, the sparking FT writer, advocating the return to the 9-5 working week as a way of increasing productivity, innovation and morale.

In the Harvard Business Review researchers discovered the tipping point of competence was a 56 hour week. After that they remarked darkly not only was the work done no good, it almost certainly had to be redone or reversed. Or worse; it created problems that doing nothing at all would have avoided.

According to the Times on Saturday the number of men working part time is now topping    1 million, up three times since 1992. Quite successful and greasy-pole-climbing men are abandoning their hundreds of thousands of pounds, the Michelin stars and the 70 hour weeks for occasional consultancy, school runs, helping with homework and DIY. Work has for some become a paid hobby. The other side of this equation is that wives can get to work too and fulfil their own ambitions.

Indeed working for yourself as opposed to a big corporate allows you to work when you feel like it. Lunches, shopping when it’s less crowded, reading a book or going to an art gallery begin to be part of a broader education programme rather than being seen as goofing off. Maybe what justifies all this is the brain doesn’t stop thinking when our body isn’t stuck behind an office desk.

But there is a cost and Lucy Kellaway is eloquent on observing that having a real job in a real office allows you to build a much more interesting time between nine and five than working on the kitchen table can ever do.

In the end it comes down to this. Is what you do worthwhile, interesting and inspiring? The best advice on this comes from Netflix that extraordinary, newish company with a market capitalisation of over $40 billion. Only ever hire and work with stunning people they say.

Is this foolishly idealistic? Perhaps but the best memories I have ever had of work has involved brushing up against and interacting with great talent.

Because the conversation about how hard we work is the wrong one; it should be about how good the work we do is.

Quality not quantity always wins.


I suppose I should be flattered that someone thought I should write a blog about how to do business in what they called a growing climate of fear. Flattered that they thought I might have anything useful to contribute to the vast amount of analysis, handwringing and horror.

I have just two things to say before migrating to less well trodden ground.

  1. I wish we’d regard this less like a football match in which every “kill” on our side is described joyously in “back of the net” terms. Wouldn’t it be better just to take out the “bad guys” quietly and say nothing?
  2. We mustn’t be frightened. Those of us who lived through the IRA outrages without changing our shopping habits know that a certain sang froid is the answer.

 A salesman who worked for me back then and  who covered Northern Ireland described how the front was blown out of Debenhams as he was about to call there. When I asked him what he did, apart from brushing off the glass, he said “Oh I called on S.D. Kells instead.”

We need to avoid the knee jerk reaction of “kill them all” which some ill-advisedly describe as being Churchillian.  Guerrilla fighters are so hard to defeat because they don’t play by any of the rules that we know. They behave like the triumphant David to our Goliath.  We’ll only beat them by understanding them better and then by out-thinking them and not just by bombing where we think they are.
Have we learnt nothing from Vietnam and Afghanistan?

But then I listened to our Secretary of State for Defence on the Today programme and I rather gloomily realised we hadn’t.

Monday, 16 November 2015


Ninety five years ago “Shoeless” Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox was allegedly approached by a young fan with the words “say it aint so Joe.”  The reference was to the fact the White Sox had thrown the 1919 World Series, losing to underdogs the Cincinatti Reds. Eight White Sox players including Joe Jackson were banned for life and the baseball establishment was rocked.

Today sport is very big business - global sponsorship is worth $58 billion - up 27% in the past five years. Yet sport is troubled and I suspect I’m not alone in feeling a weary cynicism towards it. Nearly all sports are run by a hegemony of people like Ecclestone, Blatter, Diack, Srinivasan (respectively, Formula One, Football, Athletics and Cricket) and  resemble recent dictatorships in the Middle East. But unravel their rule and does worse follow?

Whenever there’s a strange result in sport nowadays I wonder, I just wonder if something fishy is going on. Why is everyone getting so upset about Russia’s doping programme? They and East Germany have, we all assumed, been at it for years and blind eyes had been turned. What is sad is to see Seb “Mr Clean” Coe being turned over in the midst of allegations which he surely must have known about and simply ignored or worse… “say it aint so Coe”.

Without anyone seeming to worry too much Cricket has been taken over by India where the match fixing scandals are endemic. Just this summer two of the top sides in the Indian Premier League, the Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, were suspended for two years having been found guilty in an illegal betting and match-fixing probe. The owners of both sides were suspended from all cricket-related activities for life. The respective captains of these sides are MS Dhoni (the Indian captain) and Steve Smith (the Australian captain). Worried? You should be. Meanwhile Chris Cairns, ex New Zealand cricket star, still on trial at Southwark Crown Court for match fixing, was compared to Lance Armstrong for the damage he’s done to his sport.

But does it really matter? Sport seems to me to have become increasingly boring and trivial. I found the recent Rugby World Cup mostly dull, Football is nearly always wretched, Athletics is a catwalk sport owned by Nike, Adidas and the others and cricket has become a wham bam of a spectacle, the equivalent of willow wielding penalty shoot-outs rife with corruption.

A friend suggested to me life would be simpler if only we allowed athletes to take whatever drugs they wanted because that’s going to be the only level playing field you’ll get. Most of my life I’ve believed in my heroes, the Seb Coes, Rod Lavers, Bobby Moores and Chris Cairns yet when the veil of romanticism is lifted there’s nothing there but a lot of money, some sweat and a lot of pretence.

Sorry but  it really is so.

Money in Sport A Conference this year in Australia

Monday, 9 November 2015


Several years ago I ran a programme on marketing for the Brighton Chamber of Commerce. One of my definitions of marketing was:

persuading people to do something they otherwise wouldn’t do

I referenced the story of Heinz Baked beans. In blind test most brands of baked beams do better than the Daddy brand. Yet when people know what the brands are, Heinz is the massively preferred brand. It’s to do with the perceived brand values of Heinz or, in other words, its marketing.
In the tea break I was approached by some earnest looking people saying I’d offended them because my definition of marketing was an explicit definition of torture. I recall saying sorry if I’ve offended anyone and my apology calmed a storm but made me feel slightly sick. In fact in some sense (ironically) I felt as if I’d been tortured. To this day I regret not having exploded and had a damn good row driving these preposterous woodenheads from my sight and saying if anyone else felt the same they should leave now. What had made the incident even worse for me was they all seemed to believe that small was beautiful (yes, OK) but that big was, by definition, obscene, ghastly and diabolical. Nike, Heinz, P&G, Sony and others like them were all Nazi corporations.

So this is about freedom of speech - my freedom and your freedom.

If in doubt go the American Constitution which says “no” to things like “obscenity, slander, false claims in advertising, child pornography and so on.” All these ‘no’s are what we need to create a civilised society. But it’s pushing back the boundary of these from time to time which allows us to create an intelligent civilisation not just a safe one. In the 1960s ‘That Was the Week that Was’ shook up a stuffy and complacent establishment. Satire became the weapon of intellectual choice. And it was born and nurtured in the Universities. In my lifetime we’ve seen Christopher and Peter Hitchens, brothers with extreme polarity of opinion, knocking the stuffing out of respectively  the establishment and the liberal left and using brilliant language to do so.

But it seems that satire and debate have been exorcised from the world of learning now. At Cardiff University Germaine Greer may be banned for having “upsetting” views on the transgender community. Indeed the government has told Universities to draw up a blacklist of banned speakers. Leading pundits like Roger Scruton denounce this squeamishness:

Free speech can make for uncomfortable listening but it needs to be defended even when it gives offence….free discussion is being everywhere shut down, so that we will never know who is right - the heretics, or those who try to silence them.

This repression of free speech is stopping the youngest and brightest debating, learning about and supporting or opposing issues….it’s stopping them from thinking. Being offended is no reason to ban something. Banning things in general is just plain wrong.

Monday, 2 November 2015


I was surprised to see so little follow-up after reports last week in the New York Times about recent Russian naval activity around underwater internet cables. It said  “American military officials are concerned that Russia might be preparing to sever the communications lines in case of a conflict".

These fibre optic cables account for more than 95% of daily communications and financial transactions worth more than $10 trillion. In a world increasingly dependent on high-tech communications shouldn’t we be worried? Wasn’t the TalkTalk debacle a shot across the internet bows - even if the shot may have been fired from the pop gun of a 15 year old Irish hacker?  It seems the internet might be more vulnerable even than we’d thought. According to the magazine “Signal” a TechNet magazine which describes itself as “more than a magazine”, the main vulnerability is in the switchers and routers which can be overloaded in a cyber-attack. What would ensue would be the tech equivalent of “goodnight Vienna”.

The older you get, this Black Swan activity that Nassim Taleb describes becomes decreasingly surprising. The internet is a young entity cobbled together with no one in charge of it. In the early days of its existence French investors asked an American techie “who’s CEO of the internet?” Now, just 24 years after the Word Wide Web went live, the same question resonates even more strongly.

It’s the Wild West out there and something’s going to go wrong. A Russian, North Korean, Isis inspired or a freelance disruptive force will bring the infrastructure down. Think tech tsunami.  Now the reality of all this (which is culturally, technically and intellectually way beyond me) is that human resourcefulness, being what it is, this outage would be a serious but just a temporary blip not a long term catastrophe.

Nonetheless imagine the psychological damage first-generation- internet-dependents would suffer. This weekend Twitter suffered a series of outages over a twenty four hour period and   the woe that ensued from that was enormous.

Beyond these blips Twitter is discovering new problems. Its market capitalisation is around $20 billion yet its very existence is beginning to be questioned. Here’s what Caitlin Moran said - she’s the “columnist of the year.”

Twitter promised access to a new global consciousness where we would have the dizzying thrill of hearing voices we’d never heard before. The reality is that it has ended up sounding like everywhere else. Except …nastier

She called Twitter the global Town Square. Yes we used to have those where people like my Grand Dad might have said something apparently true….

If the trees be in leaf on November the 1st
The winter that follows will be one of the worst

Now just because it sounds plausible (or it appears online) don’t lazily believe it….question it. And don’t delegate your entire life and mind to an infrastructure so vulnerable to collapse. Imagine a world without the tyranny of technology.

I regard this (like Signal) as “more than a blog” but with more of a smile.

Monday, 26 October 2015


Recently someone at a conference about the future got cross. The complacency of speaker after speaker enraged him so had a virtually irrepressible urge to punch one futurologist in the face and ask mildly:

Well did you see that coming?

We are living in an age of intellectual aloofness where an exclusive bunch of people seem to think they’re in charge. Take the Kids Company debacle. As an ex-Chairman of a children’s charity I know a little of the sector. Around twenty years ago local authorities started cutting funding and being reluctant to foot the bills for residential care despite impressive results achieved in Care Homes for the most disadvantaged children. Our residential practice quickly reduced to zero.

But what happened to the children?” asked my wife.

They were abandoned and picked up by Kid’s Company that’s what. Camila Batmanghelidjh, their founder and CEO had a reputation for being a bit chaotic and domineering but no one questioned her good intentions about young people. When I’d suggested a possibility of a partnership my CEO said politely “no…that’s a very bad idea.” We were much too professional for all that love I guess.

The vendetta against her by the media and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee chaired by Bernard Jenkin has irritated me. Camila may be an oddity when it comes to dress sense and a little fond of her own voice but one of the committee members’ comments were disgraceful: “I drowned in technicolour blancmange, oozing psychobabble, emotional blackmail & verbal ectoplasm". (Paul Flynn, Labour MP).

Camila has been pilloried as an incompetent weirdo and her Chair, Yentob as a snivelling loser.

Well thank you Mr Yentob for those fifteen years doing an impossibly difficult job (the BBC job is a breeze in comparison) and for giving the charity £250,000 of your own money. And thanks Camila for the nineteen years, having founded it, that you ran Kid’s Company. Independent reports consistently said your organisation made a big difference to young people. But Chairman Bernard Jenkin simply recorded you as a failure because “you went bust”.

The select committee got very cross with Camila whenever she mentioned children …”yes we know”. Watch it if you can on You Tube. It’s enough to make you vote for Jezza.

The support for Mr Corbyn got an unexpected shot in the arm from the terribly clever Martin Amis last week who noted he was third rate or worse and has only got two ‘E’s at ‘A’ level. Some of the Labour Party apparently went to Hull University or worse.

I’m afraid very clever people’s contempt for the rest of society will get them into big trouble. The tone of voice of those who could never do what Kid’s Company did or other organisations like Microsoft founded by people who flunked University, is irritating a not-so-clever majority into getting politically active.

Beware.  And think of all those people working hard with difficult people and being ill paid for it.

Monday, 19 October 2015


Pete Shuttleworth, the founder of a new and very successful Film Production Country, Hoi Polloi, leaned over the table of Café Coho near Brighton Station and asked me if “bastards always won”.

Outside the sun was shining and people trudged along the pavement. In Brighton there’s a curious “sod you,” lumbering walking style which I put down to a shortage of hunger. In London everyone sprints.

Being a bastard works best if you’re a rich genius like Jobs, Bezos or Zuckerberg. It worked for Stalin and Attila too. Bezos comes up with great put-downs like:

Are you lazy or just incompetent?

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tried not to be a bastard. He sent an internal memo out last Tuesday announcing that 336 employees were leaving the company. He wanted to avoid corporate speak, messed up by talking about “roadmaps” and “streamlining” but, to be fair, it was a reasonable try. The corporate bastard took over in the hands of HR (aka the Grim Reapers) closing down Twitter and e-mail accounts of the unfortunate 336 with the cryptic words  “you have been removed”. 

Anyone who hasn’t seen the opening of “Margin Call” should. In a major downsizing exercise, HR assassins in the film swoop into the New York offices of a New York Investment Bank slaughtering as they go,.

But the fictional CEO (Jeremy Irons) and Dorsey aren’t bastards, they are just doing what CEOs do when under critical profit pressure, they cut cost.

The really nasty people are the prevaricators and those who stop talent being as good as it should be. These are the death-eaters of management who suck the energy and creativity from people who work with them. I worked for one of these. There are a lot of them around. And one of their characteristics is they interview well and they’re brilliant presenters. But deep down they are evil. They feed greedily on the talent of others and they are devoid of any generosity of spirit.

Back to those lumberers outside the café in Brighton - well at least they were all smiling - and Pete who got it spot on in saying the key to the business who knew best - advertising - was to be “smart and hard.” 

You also have to strive to work with the best people. As Bezos (again) said:

“Life's too short to hang out with people who aren't resourceful”

At Netflix they say what makes a great business is not perks but “stunning colleagues” who are smart, hard and driven to do great work. When you work alongside really great people, as they also discovered at Pixar, great stuff happens.

But this is a competitive world and to win you have to remember this - the words of George C. Scott in the film “Patton":

Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his county. He won it by making the other poor bastard die for his country.

Monday, 12 October 2015


A friend of mine is over from China where he works in the business I once tormented (advertising - yeah, you probably noticed the resemblance between me and Don Draper.)  He said something I’ve heard a lot recently.

The industry’s in crisis
Yes” I said, “it always was.

It was in crisis when the young Turks with ideas took over, it was in crisis when the Brits took over the US agencies, it was in crisis when the media men like Kraken awoke and plundered the business and it is in crisis now digital is the story. Someone asked recently what a client’s social media strategy was. That’s rather like asking for a conversing-with-friends strategy.

As the lovely lady exclaimed in Smiths today - “bollocks” as for the second time her purchase of some magazine was double-counted by the DIY self-service till. She said “sorry” but I explained consolingly this was the word I’d been seeking to describe “a social media strategy”.

(By the way what a dreary, ill lit and drab place WHS is. And Kate Swann, their ex CEO, left with £13million for the job she did for them?  Astonishing.)

Recently I met someone with whom I was at Oxford. I haven’t seen much of him over the many intervening years but discovered he was so positive, so different from the many Meldrew “just-typical” figures of our generation, so inspiringly hopeful that we were not in crisis but that in fact we’ve, to quote a Prime Minister of my youth - Harold MacMillan, “never had it so good.”

The fact is markets change because technology changes but human beings don’t. I’m struck by how similar marketing ideas and advertising strategies are to those used a century or half a century ago. Our passions for strange football teams remain solid. (And what a great observation that those stunning crowds that Jezza Corbyn drew in his campaign were smaller than 2nd Division Accrington Stanley gets.) We love, we live, we row, we laugh, jokes we laugh at live forever - and we want the same things - safety, comfort and companionship.I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.  - Thomas Jefferson

And one other thing - a bit of rebellion - Thomas Jefferson one-time US President and a genius said a “little rebellion now and then is no bad thing”. The Corbanista and Trumpeters have brought a sparkle back into politics, some real arguments and besides anything else, how lovely to see the looks of confusion on the faces of the establishment.

So the industry is in crisis. Martin Sorrell is, I hear, intent on “horizontalising” (means “integrate”) the marketing services business. If I’d offered to “horizontalise” that young lady in WH Smith they’d have arrested me.

Sorrell wants to re-invent the one stop shop. It was always a lovely idea but it doesn’t work that well. Stick to your knitting and be the best at what your great at.

Because there is no crisis except in our heads and that’ll never go away.

Monday, 5 October 2015


What interests me is how we feel; where our true north is. Where we live, live in our head as opposed to where we physically sleep or where we work are different things. I know people who think nothing of commuting a thousand miles a week, or who camp near their place of work before driving home.

After the wall came down in East Germany someone hailed a cab to go home. He said to the Taxi Diver:-
Can you take me to …
No need to ask,” replied the Cabbie “I know where you live.

Apparently most of the Stasi became taxi drivers when their security role ended. But where they lived had changed in their heads.

I was talking about football to my grandson when he said there was a boy at his school who was exceptionally gifted at it.  In talking about this success he said that this boy came from a different country.

Oh where does he come from?” I asked. To which he replied without missing a beat.

Yes, Manchester a different country,  all on its own, full of great footballers - nothing to do with the rest of us.

It was Christopher Marlowe in the Jew of Malta who said “The past is another country”.  And you realise the truth of this in listening to UKIP. This other country is one of nostalgia, when summers were always sunny, when steam engines drove our trains, when cricketers wore white flannel, when business lunches were fuelled with claret and cigar smoke.

I simply don’t do nostalgia. I think the future is a different country and, if we choose to make it so, a better one.

I am currently doing work across Europe. Sweden, Poland Germany, Greece, Italy, France, Britain, Ireland are all terrific, bright, different but united (in the English language and in in an attitude to doing business). These people are not defined by where they come from but by where they live in their heads.

Unashamedly I’m pro EU albeit anti-Euro bureaucracy. My philosophy of life is the same as one-time US President Lyndon Johnson’s (cynical as it may sound). He was talking about an obstreperous colleague who was thinking of resigning:

It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.

That’s how I feel about Europe - the biggest economy and most civilised in the world. The more I work in Europe the more I think of it as one country.

The most changed country is America whose view of the world swung eight years ago. They gave up on old Europe and swung their attention west to the Asian powerhouse. I don’t blame America - that’s probably right for them.

But it leaves an opportunity for us. We can and should be the key portal for the rest of the world into Europe…it’s something we do really well - because it’s where most of us working really live and do business intellectually.

Colourful Thinkers

Monday, 28 September 2015


When I stopped laughing I realised a senior executive at the big global Corporation I was talking to this week had defined what lay at the root of the VW fiasco. We were talking about the sclerosis that was infecting his business.

We’re great at diagnosing problems but hopeless at fixing the problems.
“Why?” I asked                                                                                                                                           “Because we have action points like this: Action: Fix the problem.

I was laughing so much because it simplifies our journey towards a perfect world by issuing such clear instructions.  Action: cure cancer; Action: stop wars; Action: reverse climate change; Action: be happy.
I recalled the quote from Michael Jordan.

If you're trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I've had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.

To which I always wanted to ask

Does that include cheating as a solution?

The command and control mentality that pervades so many companies leads to a mind set of “Don’t care how you do it just do it….action: solve the problem - don’t care how.”

Do we suppose that the guys at VW sat there and said what a very effective advertising executive, now sadly dead, once said to his assembled team:

This is a crisis. We have only one fool-proof strategy at this point. We shall have to lie.

I suspect a creeping sense of dismay at failing to crack the US market fast enough and realising changing minds about diesel emissions was seen as key to this led to a mission of collective mistranslation and Nike do-it behaviour plus a feeling of everyone-else-does-it/could-do-it/will-do-it so we’ll do it - schoolboy stuff. Having said this is not to excuse what happened nor to excuse what I suspect will be the consequences of what VW contrived to do in working around the problems they saw.

In a world of emotional branding where decades has been invested in clothes of “trust me with your life, your family’s life, your new born baby’s life”; where the brand VW becomes part of the family, betrayal of trust has terrible penalties. VW has been caught having an affair with the Devil - there are scorch marks on its collar.

Two VW executives said telling things:
We’ve completely screwed up
We must win back trust

No. Both statements are those that a serial adulterer might make not a repentant supplier…you earn trust not win it. This is not ultimately a game.

The lessons from VW, RBS, BP and Enron are always the same although the circumstances each faced and the wickedness is different for each.

If you are determined in a come-what-may sort of way to be the biggest you will always, in the end, cut corners, fall short of being properly diligent and revert to cheating.

Strenuous competition is OK but never forget what you really, really  stand for.

Monday, 21 September 2015


As you get older your memory seems to worsen but it’s more complicated than the just the onset of senior moments. Quite simply you have much more to remember than someone younger who’s been to fewer places, met fewer people and done less. The attic of your mind or, if you prefer, your “Mind Palace” is crammed to the rafters and finding that name or that reference is hard as it’s lying behind all those memories, thoughts and experiences.

The mind is also good at being a therapist. Forgetting things can often be very helpful. If we could vividly recall as though it were yesterday each  root canal procedure we’d had, every embarrassing faux pas and every crisis and tragedy we’d soon become a gibbering wreck. Our mind filters this stuff and sometimes deletes the names of people we actually didn’t like but had felt we ought to have because they were important. Our mental search engine is on our side and it even rewrites history casting us in a better light than we deserved.

Remember that horrible confrontation with a mugger who was about to hit you when you cried:  “don’t - please don’t”, and at that moment a passer-by intervened and drove him off.  In the recut version of the play you smite the beastly ruffian with one blow of your fist and it is he who cries in a quavering voice “don’t please don’t, please don’t hit me again” and you laugh and send him on his way. Yes!

Daniel Kahneman in his epic “Thinking fast and slow” describes the distorting power of memory and how we can decide, if we choose, that a favourable reconstruction of history makes us happier people. If we can only remember things as they were as vividly as if they’d happened today we should never forgive. The Irish Peace Agreement, the cordial relationships we have with Germany and Japan and so on would be impossible. Forgetfulness and shading of memory enables forgiveness.

It’s in a court of law where two people of good character, with no incentive to tell anything other than the truth, very often claim honestly to see things from a completely contrary point of view. It’s why our legal system is so robust and effective. It understands that people unblinkingly and unwittingly lie and it seeks to unravel this.

Less importance is attached to memory than ever…why try to remember when Google can do it for you? But memory matters. Nearly all speakers at conferences feel they speak without notes (that’s memory); making creative connections is done by … memory; avoiding plagiarism is done by good memory (plagiarism is done by simple memory);  good human relationships depend on memory (remembering birthdays and anniversaries).

The mind is kind. It responds to our needs and our desires. You can train your memory, you can focus on what you need to remember but you can also filter out bad stuff. Remember, your mind is on your side.