Monday, 27 August 2018


The “F” word has been in the headlines ever since Trump coined it. It shuts off all debate. When something indisputable is dismissed scornfully it’s hard to be rational in response. As someone who spent much of their life in advertising I wasn’t immune to fake claims many of which were just funny - a joke shared with a more than willing public.  Of course Heineken didn’t refresh the parts that other beers couldn’t reach. It’s a fake claim. But an entertaining thought.

In the UK we’re living through a less entertaining playground fight over Brexit. The claim we are paying £350 million a week to the EU which even Nigel Farage admitted was a “mistake” still lingers, fake as it is. The remainers’ claim that the result was so close you really need a replay is just as bogus. England (excluding Northern Ireland and Scotland) voted 53% to 47% to leave. If you exclude London which somehow feels above and outside the argument then the shires and counties voted 56% to 44% to leave. Not a landslide but a decisive rejection of EU membership.

And I have a genuine not a fake emotion about all this. Whilst I’m an ardent Europhile and hence an ardent remainer, I cannot and will not ignore a democratic poll even if flawed. It’s patronising to say you voted wrongly let’s do it again. Sadly I believe most of the English would vote the same way second time round. What about the lies? Well every election contains lies - always has and always will.

In the news last week. Exams. Apparently they are causing a lot of stress and are really difficult now. Worse than that boys do better at exams and girls are really sad about this. As I remember if you were clever and well prepared exams were a great opportunity to show off. And if you weren’t an even better opportunity to fake your intelligence. Exams were about concealing your ignorance. But in my day they weren’t taken overly seriously. Much more important things were how we thought not how much we remembered. Much the most stressful exam I ever did was my driving test. No faking there.

Which brings me to gin. There are hundreds of gins on the market. A new exotic brand appears every week. Chilli Gin, Soy Gin, Chanel Gin – no those are all fakes or as Kellyanne Conway, Counsellor to the President and Trump’s most vociferous apologist would put it “alternative gins”. But it’s about alternative gins I want to talk - Seedlip and Ceder’s. No alcohol gins. After a summer of pasta, prosecco,  Campari spritz and pie I need to diet.  Most diets are fake. The best diet is to reduce calorie intake. Booze is high in calories so booze is out. Seedlip and Ceder’s with a slice of lime, Fever Tree Slimline Tonic and lots of ice musically clinking do very well as an adult gin taste-alike. Sometimes faking it is the only way.

Monday, 20 August 2018


I have always believed in the power of humour, whether satire or farce.  The sharpest of knives is comedy in debunking, clarifying and fumigating.  Which leads me to Ireland and to the “troubles” which always sounded more like a tummy bug than the carnage which saw 3,500 people slaughtered in the latter part of the 20th century. At the time I was running a salesforce. One of my salesman in Northern Ireland said conversationally to me:

“I was Just about to make a call on the House of Frazer when there was a great whoomph sound and the windows blew out, glass and blood everywhere”

“My God” I said, “that’s terrible. What did you do?”

“I strolled down the road and went to call on Woolworth instead.”

My sense of the troubles from this was that people got on with it however terrible things were. More recently  I visited Belfast which felt like going to Berlin, modern architecture, trendy bars and restaurants. The reality a decade before had been tragic – or farcical - depending on how you see things.

Last week we saw “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” by Martin McDonagh.  It first appeared in the West End in 2001 and Broadway in 2006. Back then it must have touched some raw nerves – the Good Friday agreement had only been signed in 1998. Martin has a rip roaring reputation for black comedy and drama. His most recent triumph is writing and directing the award winning film “T.”

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is set in 1993 as IRA violence was revving up. In a nutshell the play is a non-stop farce culminating with a stage covered by four corpses, three of whom are partially dismembered and two dead cats. It includes some gruesome onstage torture – the pulling out of toenails and planning the next outrage “which is your favourite nipple? I’ll be kind - tell me and I’ll only cut the other one off.”

Its roller-coaster hilarity springs from the behaviour of Mad Padraig whose behaviour is too violent for the IRA and subsequently too much for its offshoot the INLA. He makes even Iago look civilised. Knowing there’s nothing he wouldn’t do, his dewy eyed sentimentality about Wee Willy his pet cat creates the contrast and unpredictability between brutality and tenderness that makes for such uneasy laughter. In a situation where three men being blinded by an airgun-carrying teenage girl brought the house down, you have to admit that’s a cool theatrical trick being flaunted. And you also have to admit the overreaction, beastliness and clumsy inanity of everyone in the cast indelibly suggests the absurdity of conflict and violence especially when the cause of it all is a misunderstanding. Desdemona’s
hanky is Padraig’s black cat. And cats are funny in the way hankies aren’t.

It’s reframes our understanding of those troubles and like all great plays has us always on tenterhooks. It’s a masterpiece. It’s also very, very funny.

Monday, 13 August 2018


As I look back on my life I realise how lucky I’ve been. I’ve a lot of nice, clever and kind friends. My wife keeps a sharp eye on my best interests and is a constant joy. I even get to write a bit which I like especially having discovered that as you get older you may lose some mental agility and memory but one faculty improves and that’s the linguistic one of putting words together.

Recently, when in the course of researching a new book, I’ve been interviewing a lot of young entrepreneurs. They are all so hopeful, energetic and smart. At their age I was; a director of an advertising agency modelling myself on John Thaw’s role as Jack Regan in “The Sweeney” swigging whisky and saying “shut it! You’re nicked.”  It was great fun but I was just an employee.

Now I suddenly have this restless urge to start a new company – not for heaven’s sake an advertising agency which seem hell-hole, data driven places – no, a disruptive, ideas-driven business selling something better, cheaper and faster and tearing apart sleepy, traditional market sectors trapped in traditional supply chains. Think of Harry, Purple Bricks, Casper the mattress people and dozens of others. What they call “Digitally Native Vertical Brands” - brands which start on line and are maniacally focused on consumer values.

I keep on coming across new brands like Ugly Drinks, the Sussex Peasant, Sandow’s cold brew coffee and the Grown up Chocolate company, all bustling pioneers of joie de vivre and a fascination with shifting mindsets. Their owners are typically people around 30 who are not being anchored down by mortgages but are driven by an appetite for life’s possibilities.

Two such – rather older now -  Charles Rolls and Tim Warillow – founded Fevertree 13 years ago  promising the “end of dismal mixers” and have so far trousered over £300 million from share sales. They understandably look pretty happy to have re-imagined a market dominated drearily by ‘Schh…you know who’ for so long.

Money is not the key motive to wanting independence. The constant desire is “I want to make a difference”. Human beings want to look back on a legacy perhaps rather more exciting than a Jack Regan impersonation.

Talking to start-up counterparts in the USA their ambitions are larger, the stakes are higher and the focus is clearer but so too is the sense of reality. “It’s a good idea, we’ve done great work on the product and the brand so it really should work. But it might not. There are factors beyond our control. So if it doesn’t work we’ll do something else.” Like Henry Heinz who went bust and struggled along at first. Persistence and good humour pay off ultimately.

We live in times unlike those that have gone before where entrepreneurialism and innovation are inspiring more and are accessible to more and more people. Back in the day it was harder, slower and seemed more dangerous.

Monday, 6 August 2018


Ask a young person how they are and chances are they’ll say ‘good’ which means ‘fine’ or ‘OK’. It doesn’t mean terrific. Generally good means something more rounded than ‘winning’ or the overused ‘brilliant’.  Years ago I was talking to the CEO of Unipart, John Egan, about the success of his company and the generally poor state of British Industry. ’Why was this?’ I asked. John’s reply was instructive.

“Too few people know what good is” he said and that has got me thinking ever since. To be good at anything the performance has to be seen in the context of other good things; you have to be measured against global competitors. That’s why the Olympics and World Cup are so important. It’s no longer sufficient to be good enough just for Bolton or Brighton.

At this point I’d like to introduce you to Simon Anholt who’s worked, he says, with numerous Heads of State and Heads of Government, helping their countries to engage more productively and imaginatively with the international community. It’s what he says about good that I like. Using a huge database he researches globally what becomes a kind of ethical-performance league table called “The Good Country Index.” His thesis is the more you’re respected the better you’ll do. The more you give the more you get. Good may be measured by the extent to which people say “the world would be a worse place without X”…. or “X makes our world a better place” or “X is a role model to the rest of us.”

In 2014 Ireland came first on the back of economic revival when mere survival had seemed unlikely and en route, unlike Iceland who unilaterally wrote off their debt, paid theirs off.

Last year the top countries were:

  • Netherlands
  • Switzerland
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • Sweden
  • Ireland
  • UK

USA came 25th and is daily getting worse I imagine given its current attitude to collaboration and selflessness.  Here’s Simon’s analysis of what’s wrong with the world.

“Things seem to be getting worse all the time: climate change, terrorism, pandemics, migration, economic chaos… the list goes on. All these problems have grown too big and too complex for any individual nation to solve. But instead of collaborating, nations spend all their energy and resources competing against each other. This has to change if we want to make the world work. This is why the Good Country Index exists.”

It’s curious that everything he sensibly prescribes like union, sharing and looking outwards for inspiration are what all good companies are doing nowadays and what nearly all nation states eschew.

America in particular is a strange case right now. What was once the leader of the world and role model to anyone with ambition is now behaving like a rogue state. American films featuring Gregory Peck and John Wayne – both good guys – have changed to Tarantino horrors instead. Pity. We need a good America.