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.