Monday, 29 February 2016


This week I went to the incredibly popular Royal Academy show “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse”. It had been described by the Guardian as

a ravishing joy from start to finish”.

Yet - oh dear. Am I a philistine? I was a bit bored. Monet is in the money as an artist - one of his many lilies “The Water Lily Pond” sold for $54 million at New York in May last year but there was a dreary sameness of colourful blobs throughout the exhibition. I found myself growling that flowers are precise and mathematical in design not random slobs. My mind was annoyed and my heart unmoved.

Until I came to the less well known Alfred Parsons (no me neither). Born in 1847 he died in 1920. He lived in Broadway where artists of the late 19th century congregated.   He was an artist, illustrator and a garden designer. As it happens I know one of the gardens he designed. It’s wonderful.

Here is the picture that really caught my wife’s eye and mine. It has movement and invites you in. It is one of the pictures in the RA that actually smelt of flowers. These rude orange lilies reek of summer and there’s a back story behind that gate…a couple embracing or a cat sunning itself. The painting is alive. It’s also valuable but more like $20,000 than $20 million.

I’ve decided to listen to my heart more and less to what I’m told to think. And let that terrible expression of the second rate businessman “the devil lies in the detail” be forever sent into exile. That’ll be good news for Boris Johnson whom, as far as I know is not keen on gardening, painting or detail.  If he had a song here’s how it would go:-

You put your right arm in
your right arm out
In, out, in, out,
You shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around
That's what it's all about...

But I digress….

After recent weeks of working on presentations and reading business books I’d had enough. They maybe full of quotable stuff from chaps like Peter Drucker positioning culture as the key to success:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast” he said; right on Peter.

Because yes, it’s good (but like Monet is it worth the money?) So I decided to refresh my mind with some John Le CarrĂ©.

My wife had bought me “The Night Manager” which is also currently on TV - it’s BBC drama at its swaggering best. The book’s astonishing, dense and beautifully written; it speaks to my mind and to my heart.

He’s such a fine craftsman and his definition of what a story is, is  unsurpassable:
“‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story.
‘The cat sat on another cat’s mat’ is a story.”

He also wrote a book called “The Constant Gardener” which brings me back to Monet……
Painting the Mo Garden: Monet to Matisse

Monday, 22 February 2016


When “Management by Objectives” was in vogue, a colleague suggested that “Management by Lethargy” might serve us better. He argued that while we rushed around like busy fools, in the long run nothing changed.

Phil Angelides, who was Chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in America, has argued strongly that guilty bankers be charged. But ironically, he notes, we seem to have witnessed “Immaculate corruption” whereby no human being can be held accountable. The Banking Crisis was an act of God.
What is the point of doing anything if events turn out as they must do by some force of destiny? “Que sera sera”, sang Doris Day in the film “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Increasingly, however, most men know far too little.

Economists, forecasters, politicians and journalists all seem stumped and, despite occasional displays of great certainty, experts keep on dropping the ball. Bobby Rao, one time Strategy Director at Vodafone and now a founding partner at Hermes Growth Partners, said presciently a few years back “no one knows where the ball is now.”

This is not a time for useless energy except insofar as being alert so when that ball pops into sight we can thwack it. So has life been reduced to Whac-A-Mole?

Maybe for some it has. Stephen Leacock the Canadian writer and economist wrote this in 1911 in “Gertrude the Governess” one of his nonsense novels: “Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.

He could have been writing about the Brexit crowd. On Friday at Westminster Hall they announced to tumultuous applause that they had a new, important recruit….  George Galloway.  Ah yes, that Churchillian figure….

Yet what makes democracy so special is it reflects the will (or the idiosyncrasy) of the people - hence the Trump, Sanders, Bloomberg (if he stands) story; hence the Corbyn story: hence Le Pen and all the rest.
But what I find strange about the burning desire to “do something …anything about Europe” is what the alternative might be including, maybe, destroying the EU? Most in the democratic west disliked Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi yet what’s succeeded them is almost certainly worse.

After a month or so trekking around meetings in Europe with intelligent businessmen I found none to whom the dead hand of the EU was seen as a reality let alone a problem. As part of Europe we are “torchbearers of the age of reason” in an unstable world - thank you Matthew Parris that was nicely put.

So not management by lethargy but how about management by reason, thought and a feeling for what we should be leaving our grandchildren?  The good things Europe offers not the Euro-myth of straight bananas.

Things like European Football; cheap, easy travel; being an important part of the world’s largest market and of a congress of civilisation.

I remember pre-EU. Our world is a better one now.

Monday, 15 February 2016


Yes. It’s Conference Time again…or Leadership Summit or Kick-Off. Our loved ones expect us to come back reeking of cigarettes, cheap perfume and a four-day-hangover…”but Richard you don’t even like whisky”.  

What I don’t like at these do’s are elephants in rooms (like a forthcoming redundancy programme no-one mentions), inspirational speakers (who having climbed Everest singlehanded talk about teamwork…as if they knew), mind games and sports exercises which bring the worst out of anyone halfway intelligent. I hate the phoney nature of skill-set transfer - cook tapas or play the drums and learn to lead. But it’s those £15,000 speakers who really drive me crazy. I heard one last year whom the CEO dryly observed seemed to be “something of an over achiever.” He’d saved countless companies, engineered innumerable start-ups, played international sport, walked to the North and South Poles several times and was utterly loathsome. (Not Ranulph below who’s lovely but barking.)

Asked for his comments about this meeting of a huge, mature, leading brand name company in a declining sector he responded:-

I can’t understand the lack of ambition here - you’ve said 3% growth is ambitious. It’s not. It’s pathetic. You should be looking for 40% growth or 400% …settling for less is weak.

I also cringe at the acronyms like TEAM (Together everyone achieves more).

But occasionally like a really good party these things just come off. The magic ingredients seem to be to treat everyone like grown-ups, create a pleasing ambiance, have good food and drink and conversation and be entertained by the professionalism of your own people.

I’ve just been at one like that.

It was inspiring, informative and full of debate; there was good bonding and it was highly enjoyable and never silly.

I thought the amassed salaries in the room of say £15 million might have been inspired to throw in 10% extra aligned effort as a result of their highly focused experience - worth at least £1.5 million - which made it a great investment.

Lucy Kellaway, lead writer on the Financial Times who is the chief naysayer of corporate jamborees and alpha males on the rampage would have approved.

She would have liked these nice people talking about their work and how to do it better. She’d have liked the absence of bullshit (and sport). She’d have approved that the central topic of conversation was selling more or coaching better not trying to discover the parallel between people’s day-job and potholing…
”the deeper you go the more you learn, but you need your team around you because it’s dark as hell down there and if you slip you die…. just as it is in this Toilet Tissue market we’re in right now.”

It’s all about being grown up, focused and talking about what really matters. Harry Potter is all very well but please keep him out of the boardroom.

Let’s talk about business instead. It’s more important. And it’s more fun.

Monday, 8 February 2016


I’ve had a strong sense of scepticism about the wonders of technology for some time like many from the pre-digital generation. And yet I love what’s happening too….

This week I started to read “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Eryk is the Director of the MIT initiative on the digital economy. You too should read the book which is well and freshly written.
No, it won’t change your minds; but it’ll focus you on the historical realty that nothing changed for thousands of years when humanity was on a “very gradual upward trajectory” until, wallop, the Industrial Revolution. James Watt’s brilliant tinkering enabled the steam revolution to initiate the biggest transformation in the history of the world.

They talk, by the way, extensively throughout the book about the brilliance of “tinkering” as opposed to first generation breakthroughs. Tinkering or recombinant thinking - recombining, fiddling about with what you have to produce something extraordinary - is what creative people do best and always have.

But it’s the digital world where tinkering has really come into its own. The authors trace the exponential growth of the sector citing Moore’s Law whereby he stated that the growth in computing power would double every year (which for the past four decades it has). The implications of that are astounding. On a trivial level the ASCI Red and the world’s fastest supercomputer reached 1.8 teraflops in 1997 and cost $55 million to develop. Just nine years later the Sony PlayStation 3 reached 1.8 teraflops and cost $500 to buy.

These guys are incredibly optimistic in answering the “so what?” question.

The second machine age will be characterised by countless examples of machine intelligence and billions of interconnected brains working together to better understand and improve our world. It will make mockery out of all that came before.” 

They make a mockery of Gross Domestic Product as a measure of economic growth when so much of the new economy is free-to-use. More music is being heard, more news read, more use of Google, Skype and so on is transforming our lives (at the fringes but nonetheless usefully.) Go back half a century and one of the brightest but unfulfilled minds got it right.
The Gross National Product does not include the beauty of our poetry or the intelligence of our public debate. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion. It measures everything, in short, except 
that which makes life worthwhile.” 

That was Robert Kennedy.

The unbridled enthusiasm of this book is wonderful. We live in an increasingly interconnected world where hitherto untapped sources of creativity are becoming available to everyone.

Thanks Eryk and Andrew. What makes our lives really worthwhile may be closer to hand than we’d thought if we just have to courage to reach for it.

I was a bit of a sceptic because I found the subject hard. Now I’m a believer.

Monday, 1 February 2016


Branding used to be so simple. When Bass created their Red Triangle beer in 1875 (the UK's first registered trademark) they did it so those who couldn’t read would point out the beer they wanted. It was also a mark of reliability. Forget brand values, a brand was basically the same wherever and whenever you bought it.

This matters with food and drink. When it comes to cars it’s a little different with the idea of what we call a Friday car or in Germany a Monday car. Monday why? Because all the car workers are wasted after a weekend’s drinking…boom, boom. I heard that last week from a German Taxi driver in Nuremberg.
Like vicars we marketers can have doubts about our religion. I am struggling to believe in the power of branding as it used to be in the second half of the 20th century when we had Double Diamond, Mother’s Pride, Gold Blend, Silk Cut and Malibu.  

When we had a plethora of ‘brands’ like Screaming Yellow Zonkers, Slime and Sunny Delight (remember that? From sales of £160 million in the UK it disappeared as the beta-carotene colourant in the product was found to turn skin orange if too much SD was drunk). In these good old days when an ad man said “people drink the advertising” Heineken, Carling Black Label in beer and in soft drinks Tango, funnier and more extraordinary advertising kept us glued to our TVs. Brands had become entertainers.

Stable brands like Mars, Heinz, Persil and Coca- Cola carried on plying their remorseless trade but I began to have serious doubts. Like the Reverend Johnson in Blazing Saddles who said in prayer:-  
“O Lord, do we have the strength to carry off this mighty task in one night? Or are we just jerking off?”

There was Coca-Cola’s cynical and disastrous water brand Dasani and the sense that business had gone mad.

In China I drank their now global ‘brand’ Great Wall wine. No two glasses were the same. What the hell was going on in this world of branding?

People called themselves brands. Countries became brands. The ultimate brand of course was Planet Earth. 
I became a deep sceptic about the religion of branding except when someone creates great product, because they want to, and signs it with their own name.

I believe in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, I believe in Ted Baker, I believe in Dr Oetker the German family food company and I believe in Jimmy’s.

Jimmy’s is an Iced Coffee business in Christchurch, Dorset founded by Jim Cregan 5 years ago because he craved the iced coffee he’d drunk in Australia but couldn’t find here.

Like Patagonia (Yvon Chouinard’s creation) Adidas and Whole Food Market a person had an idea and drove it forwards with purpose and a simplicity of vision.

Great brands are real, living things created around an idea and just a touch of madness.

They are never made by a Marketing Committee.