Monday, 28 January 2019


Try it. In conversation, when people  are bemoaning the uncertain world we live in, try the “not more uncertain than the Industrial Revolution” or “Ruskin would have had something about Brexit”. They’re conversation stoppers but go back nearly 2700 years and even my conversational capability grinds to a halt.

I went to the British Museum recently to see the exhibition “I am Ashurbanipal, King of the world, King of Assyria”. He ruled from 669 – 632 BC from his capital Nineveh. Nineveh was the largest city in Assyria and the world for 50 years and its location would have been where Mosul is now in Iraq on the Eastern Bank of the River Tigris.

It was apparently magnificent with 15 great gates and fascinating frescoes and sculptures. This is where the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were allegedly located. Ashurbanipal himself was not first in line as successor to the throne but was picked out as “the talent” and was trained as warrior, scholar and diplomat, shadowing his father and being made Assyrian spymaster which helped him develop an intimate knowledge of the vast Empire incorporating Cyprus, Judah, Egypt, Iraq, Syria.

He  was clearly unusually gifted and popular. Assyria became everything he boasted it was and he made Nineveh awe inspiring . What’s more he knew how to party.

“When I inaugurated the palace at Calah, I hosted for 10 days with food and drink….  altogether 69,574 invited guests…”

So what went wrong? We really don’t know. Records of him disappear… did he die of natural causes, was he assassinated? Whatever happened Assyria weakened, imploded and Nineveh by 612 BC was sacked and destroyed. (Imagine Paris being wiped off the map.) The exhibition showed work of heart-stopping  beauty and skill. It all seemed incomprehensible that this happened when Rome was still a muddy bunch of huts and London was over 600 years from being even started.

And then sometime around 610 BC with a huge plume of smoke, some screams and horrors it was gone. It was a memento mori moment. From King of the world to barely remembered.
Such exhibitions are like a rather strong medicine, purging us of our certainties and our  overweening attitude to our history.  We underestimate our perpetual conflicts with the Danes, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Germans and ourselves in the English Civil War in 1642 not to mention our repression of the Scots, Irish and Welsh.  Our history makes that of Ashurbanipal look almost sophisticated and civilised.

The Queen has asked us to pull our socks up and “come together”. Matthew Parris wishes she wouldn’t interfere in politics, my own problem is her plea is like asking Arsenal supporters to applaud a Tottenham goal. In the argot of today “that just aint going to  happen.” Just look at history.

The Assyrian adventure I had last week confirmed my view that Brexit will play out messily. But the historians will have such fun with it.

Monday, 21 January 2019


Wonderful word. It’s in ‘Paradise Lost’ and means “place of demons”.

Today it describes a situation where there’s a lot of noise and confusion because people are excited, angry or frightened.

And that’s where we are.

Three things happened in my week. The first when a American friend wrote to me supposing I knew what was going on: 

"I’m sure I’m over-simplifying but surely there’s only two courses of action now ? If we accept that the E.U. will NOT allow time for negotiation (despite Corbyn thinking he can finesse it) only for a second referendum. The steps are:

1. A second referendum or (which will drive some Leavers crazy) or
2. Exiting without a deal. 

Doesn’t that lead us to the sensible option of # 1 - rather than the suicidal option of # 2 ?"

My reply can’t have pleased him and it certainly didn’t please me but the unremitting contretemps led me to say:

"Sorry,  I hope you’re sitting down.

The trouble with a Second Referendum is it actually takes ages to arrange –probably 7 months. Too long for the current situation. And I doubt if it solves any of the deep problems.

Because there are no easy answers to this at all. May’s deal was actually fine because it was EU approved but it was badly sold and presented. Instead, since it cannot be easily presented again, we are into playing political games. But… 

There is no majority for anything.

Cross party agreements won’t easily work - look at the people involved!

The EU won’t give way.

The hard extremes of all parties are implacable and getting more implacable.

Sometimes you just have to tell the patient there is nothing you can do and that they are going to die.

No deal is not an option now. It’s the political reality."

The second thing happened a day later on Question Time in Derby. In the middle of a heated debate Fiona Bruce turned to Isabel Oakeshott (author, journalist and Brexiteer) and asked if she had a solution to the impasse. She replied:

“Well actually I do. Given where we are the only solution I can see is to walk away and have a no-deal exit.” 

The audience reaction was remarkable as they rose to their feet cheering. Jeremy Corbyn are you listening?  Two out of the three Derbyshire seats are held by Labour.

The third thing that happened was a friend wrote to me praising the courteous, good humoured and adept way the Speaker John Bercow had handled the debate. I replied saying I thought he had stepped outside his brief and had gone potty. When my friend deferred to me, mildly saying “I probably knew more than they did” I took stock.

I actually think they were a bit more in tune than me having been watching Parliament TV. Anyway the point wasn’t about who was right or wrong. It was about having a courteous debate.

Unlike Westminster where they’re embracing disruption leading to…


Monday, 14 January 2019


I don’t often quote from the Bible but I noticed this from Isaiah and it seemed to sum up the mood in Westminster last week.

For darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples

Not just darkness but irremediably stupid, impenetrable darkness - “thick darkness.”

So many angry faces, so many rageful eyes, so many brains switched to zero reception. Meanwhile we, the passive electorate for whom, notionally, these jokers work, we eat, sleep, yawn and lose interest in the debate which has stopped being about Brexit and has turned to kindergarten tribal warfare. Watch our MPs and the Tutsi, Hutu conflicts which were so difficult to comprehend begin to become clearer.

And then on Friday a soft, resonant voice spoke on the Today programme. It was a grown up at last.  Koji Tsuruoka is the Japanese Ambassador to the UK. As usual John Humphrys tried to elicit the Armageddon response from his opposite number

So if there’s no deal  that’ll be the end of our relationship with Japan?
No I don’t think so.

And the Ambassador patiently explained the relationship between the two countries had always been fruitful and Japan was still betting on the UK economy. He said that a no deal would need to be avoided because if the current deal on the table failed it would hurt the global economy as well as the Japanese and of course the British economy.

He explained the concept of Just-in-Time production (the idea of a minute by minute arrival of key components flabbergasted John)
Minute by minute!!!
No not minute by minute”…
No. More like second by second

He then proceeded to explain calmly that Japanese Industry was prepared for all contingencies and would adapt in an orderly way when the situation was clearer.

I loved the way he called Theresa, “Prime Minister May” reducing her to the same status as say Signalman Arkright. Someone doing a menial job. The dignity of Downing Street was then punctured by his calling it “Downing 10” a bit like “Cell Block H”. He was wonderful - so imperiously in command.

I recall when working with Panasonic years ago that they had a 250 year plan and that there was a patience about their marketing that we sometimes just didn’t get. We couldn’t understand their tentative launch into the battery market in the UK. We – all advertising short termists – wanted to create the “kill Duracell” advertising campaign. They waited. Today 20 years later they are in partnership with Tesla to produce next generation automotive batteries.

The Japanese economy has flatlined but it’s still the 3rd largest in the world  and the country is still one of the cleanest, most dignified, punctual and charming in the world.

I agree with film maker Roman Coppola.

Japan is the most intoxicating place for me. The culture fascinates me: the food, the dress, the manners and the traditions. It’s the travel experience that has moved me the most.

Monday, 7 January 2019


Brands have been a large part of my life, buying them, creating and building them as a marketeer and as an advertising executive. I spent my time persuading myself that Britain was a brand (it isn’t) and that I was a brand (I am certainly not). The definition has become too self-important. But here I am today in a chilly January mourning the passing of my favourite brands as though they were football stars who’ve hung up their boots.

The  thing about brands is they give you certainty. Wherever you are in the world that favourite brand will look the same, behave the same, taste the same and indeed be the same. Brands are consistent. Brands never let you down. Like Heinz Tomato Ketchup. Many have tried to emulate or even surpass it. All have failed. There is only one Tomato Ketchup

I thought the same was true of wine until there was a scandal around Chateau Giscours (above), one my favourite clarets, in 1995 when they were caught mixing milk, water, acid and cheaper, local red wine into the chateau's second vintage.

The power of the brand historically was demonstrated again by Heinz when they won in what was called the “Baked Bean War” of 1996. A torrent of cheap baked beans hit the selves of supermarkets selling for as little as 5p (or in one bizarre case they reduced the price to - 2p a tin).  Heinz stood firm and their price remained the same as did their brand share. Enough people believed there was no taste like Heinz. Is that true now of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise? Of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate? Of Heineken? Of Persil?

Does Ford have the brand salience they had when they produced the Ford Cortina or the eccentric Ford Capri which performed like a skittish stallion with a very long neck whose concept of braking was somewhat rudimentary? Is Ford a brand anymore? Is Vauxhall, Peugeot, Citroen? Do they mean more than Skoda or Seat?

In the certain world of the past we knew where we stood with the Tories, Socialists, Liberals and the Church of England. But the fact that there is no brand consistency or reliability may not in fact be such a bad thing. It allows us to recalibrate and regard the so-call contemporary super-brands as the transient things they are. Apple, Facebook, Google are like the Detroit brands of the past - flashes-in-the-pan of branding.

But there are brands that sustain and survive the odd misguided leader’s attempts at product sabotage and that’s football clubs. Manchester United have reverted to their brand values after José’s attempt to make them what they were not.

Arsenal, Liverpool and Brighton and Hove Albion are all true to a style of playing and set of values that are consistent.

Brands matter. They are the artefacts which persuade people that they’re better. Only one thing. Today you have to live up to that image rather than just rely on advertising magic.

Friday, 4 January 2019


The new optimists

Yes they do exist (fortunately). They represent over half the population. They are people who have to cope and increasingly are running our economy and those who believe the world is theirs and believe they’re invincible.

- Women – I’m blown away by the confidence and resilience of the women I’ve been talking to who are starting new businesses. They are in general better prepared, more thoughtful and more realistic than their male counterparts. Men still control the money and are often averse to releasing funds to women. Perhaps the rise in NatWest of both Alison Rose and Katie Murray to top jobs in a company recognised as one of 52 firms in the 2017 Bloomberg Financial Services Gender-Equality Index (BFGEI) will make a breakthrough difference.

Alison Rose. Tipped to be the next RBS CEO

- Millennials – Simon Sinek gave one of the most popular and entertaining talks on “Millennials”. He stereotyped the snowflake generation as being over-entitled and needy. “They want a job with purpose, they want to make a difference, they want free food and beanbags”…LAUGHTER. But that isn’t the generation I’ve been talking to. My millennials are smarter, kinder, more collaborative and more enterprising than we were. Up to 70% of graduates want to start their own business not to make loads of money but because it seems so much more relevant than working for a big corporation and building a career. When the new 18 – 35 year olds are in charge of our world I’ll feel a lot more confident and optimistic about our future.
“Thriving on chaos”

This extraordinary book by Tom Peters was written in 1991 and has in parts the freshness of insight that is relevant today. He gives good advice:

“Leaders trust their guts. "Intuition" is one of those good words that has gotten a bad rap. For some reason, intuition has become a "soft" notion. Garbage! Intuition is the new physics. It's an Einsteinian, seven-sense, practical way to make tough decisions. Bottom line, …. the crazier the times are, the more important it is for leaders to develop and to trust their intuition.” 

He also said “If you aren’t confused you aren’t paying attention.” 

Well I’m pretty confused but after a quarrelsome year I think virtually everything is looking up. Just hold your nerve and focus on what you can do to improve your world and the world around you.

Happy New Year. Have fun. Thrive on chaos and enjoy surfing the uncertainty of 2019.

Richard will continue to publish his observations usually on a Monday morning

Thursday, 3 January 2019


Small is going to win

I’m about to write a book together with entrepreneur Rachel Bell on entrepreneurship and start-ups. What I’ve learnt from the many interviews I’ve done is that small enterprising businesses are much more interesting than business behemoths. Well, you might say - we knew that, but what was less clear perhaps was the behemoths do brilliant process creation, impressive risk management, consistent production. We have never until recently had such efficiency. Cars that don’t break down. Do you remember how printers in offices were always failing? That’s history. We make things now that work time after time.

But out there in the sticks someone small is trying to create a better ice cream, an alcohol free beer with an alcohol, beery kick, an ad agency run by seasoned, empathetic professionals, a food company inventing in flight foods you’re going to enjoy and a lot of people with great apps and tech ideas to make our lives work better. Thousands of innovators making stuff that tastes disgusting until one day – oh rapture – their umpteenth recipe clicks and they create the best tasting vodka you’ve ever had.

I’ve seldom been more excited than I am now by a new generation of self-starters. 70% of university leavers want to start their own businesses now rather than join a graduate trainee scheme at Mars, IBM or Accenture. Freedom. Innovation. Disruption.

This is just one small step by man but (potentially) a giant leap for mankind. Suddenly now in 2019 enterprise and innovation are being unleashed.

Retail is dead; long live retail

Stand outside any outlet in the high street or shopping centre and ask yourself three questions:
- What’s it for?
- Who’s it for?
- Why is it performing like it is?

We are told there has been a dreadful downturn and that online trading is the reason why. A few years ago Justin King then MD of Sainsbury’s declared that out of town superstores were the answer; the high street is dead he said. Wrong Justin….think again. The cards are being dealt at random right now. Online is doing well, sure. But smaller, interesting stores are doing well too. Dull, drab and overpriced stores are (surprise, surprise) doing badly.

The quality/price axis has shifted and stores like Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Iceland and the Co-op are doing relatively well. Homebase, Carpetright and long gone Toys-R-us are/were horrid places to shop. Waterstones has rediscovered its mojo whilst HMV lost theirs. Jarrold’s of Norwich is exciting. Debenhams is dull. And so on.

Walking through the Brighton Lanes where so many of the shops are independent and quirky is fun and inspiring. They are, to use the marketing cliché, “sexy”.

Don’t listen to the industry cynics. Retail is reforming, transforming and the bright, light and interesting outlets are doing OK. Contrast M&S with Zara and the M&S problem is sharply exposed by Zara’s lightness and colour.

Gadgets, gimmicks and gimmicks
2018 was the year when we realised the monster tech companies were frail too. Will Facebook actually be around in 5 years? Will Google? Will Tesla? Will Apple? Facebook in particular is floundering and demonstrating the kind of moral incompetence an Enron or Carillion did in their day. Mark Zuckerberg is going through his own “memento mori” moment.

But the stream of inventiveness from the extremes of silly, funny and incredibly useful is growing not only in silicone valley but all over the world. Check out the Didi Chuxing Technology Co. In 2018 it became the second biggest start-up company in the world  having taken over Uber China and raised $4 billion in a round of funding. Its market capitalisation is currently $56 billion with over 100 investors. Didi is just six years old.

The good news is the US tech hegemony is beginning to fracture. Change is happening everywhere. Even to Amazon. “Alexa what sort of Christmas did Amazon have? Alexa. Alexa!” Alexa crashed over Christmas because its servers were overloaded.

I promised not to indulge in prophecies  but here’s one.  Category killer Toys R Us was global leader in toys and baby merchandise in the 1980s . Today it’s dead. Everything is cyclical. Watch this space.

The final part will follow around 10am gmt tomorrow...

Wednesday, 2 January 2019


Truths v Trends
We are all psephologists now – predicting political change and making much of the rise of the far right. The noise of  political commentary is distracting but worse than that it’s amplified by the constant bad press experts are getting.  Do not be an expert. It’s a fake skill. Experts get derided. Opinionated ignorance is the new target. We are all fascinated to the point of going insane in predicting what’s going to happen next. But it actually matters less what the trend is than what the truth is. (Truth like expertise gets short shrift too nowadays).

Alongside truth real values (those immutable values that make us human like faith, hope and charity) can get swamped by the desire to bet on the next winner. But life is not a horse race.

I asked my son-in-law, he’s Managing Director of a flourishing middle sized company, how he saw the future and he said briskly “the economy and our business will be fine plus or minus a few % points in our case plus points – that’s my job…we are resilient enough to withstand problems…anyway”…he spoke a bit more dreamily as he looked over at his children “with a wife, life, family and friendships like I have it’ll always be wonderful”.   Like Clarence the angel in “A Wonderful Life” he set me straight about what really mattered . Truth beats trends. Love beats money.

The dignity of politeness
We live in querulous times. People spend so much time being hateful, angry and rude. Donald Trump and Nigel Farage are prime examples of what, were they footballers, would earn them red cards. We are not a particularly polite society, as it happens, our predominant characteristic being “awkwardness”. It goes back to our driving out the nice Vikings and then in turn being cross-fertilised with Gallic bloody mindedness in 1066.

Currently good manners are exceptional rather than de rigeur. But amazingly when you smile at someone rather like a key being turned they smile back at you. We read constantly about our productivity problem in the UK. I think the manners problem is greater and would probably be the quickest way of improving productivity. Become as EM Forster suggested part of “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky.

Communities, tribes and self-support
Churches, cinemas, libraries, pubs are all declining  in terms of numbers, users and supporters. As more people move closer to towns in suburbia where there’s no focal gathering point the power and self-support systems we need start to weaken and disappear.

In Brighton being in the Football Premiership has transformed communal spirit. Anyone who’s been part of a church congregation regardless of the depth (or even existence) of their faith will have been impressed by the togetherness (and sometimes like all human institutions the factionalism) that such places create. When people gather in such groups they’re like plants grown under glass. Communities work.

We may like being at home with the door cosily shut but as Paulo Coelho said in ‘The Pilgrimage’:
The ship is safest when it’s in port, but that’s not what ships were built for.”  We are built to commune, to join, to work together. There were moments in 2018 like the Royal wedding  or the Ryder Cup or quite simply the sunshine of last summer when there was a coming together.

There was a film over Christmas which should be called “Marmite” – it’s “Love Actually” - where the song  “Love is all around” binds all our cast together in one big, festive hug (and that isn’t all it does). It’s quite wonderful. (Lead me away nurse I’m melting with too much niceness.)

Part 3 will follow around 10am gmt tomorrow...

Tuesday, 1 January 2019


Is the glass half full, half empty, completely empty or broken? As an irredeemable optimist who always looks on the bright side of life I really haven’t known where to look for the first time ever. Uncertainty is a malevolent state of being and right now I’m not even sure there is a glass. We should probably read Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ a brilliant satire on the flaws of optimism where he rousingly refutes Leibniz’s thesis that all is for the best in all possible worlds.

It isn’t and this is not the best of times. However all is not lost. So many good things have happened in 2018 and just focusing on the constipation and squalor of politics is short-sighted. Here’s my take on what 2019 might look like. These are not predictions so much as observations about change. So let’s lift our heads up and feel good.

The smell of war (or is it just fireworks?)

There’s a whiff of cordite in the air. It must have been like this in 1913 when the irritability built up and the lack of certainty made people yearn for something to clear the air. Rupert Brooke in his poem ‘Peace’ put it like this:
“With ….. clear eye, and sharpened power, 
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping, 
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary”

“Old and cold and weary” describes how many people feel right now. But there’s an increasing view that what’s been going on is just a political story “told by an idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing”.  (Shakespeare, Macbeth)

Grumpiness is in our DNA. In 1641 in Britain a Civil War started which we are beginning to realise never quite finished. When people stop debating and sharing ideas they usually start punching each other. This is when any sense of strategic intent or forward planning disappears. As ex-heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson put it:

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

But this awkward, argumentative country usually gets on with it and plays the cards its been dealt mostly in harmony even if it’s uncomfortable harmony.  What’s going on right now is a firework display not the battle of Ypres.

Only one cheer for democracy

EM Forster wrote a book called “Two Cheers for Democracy" in 1951 – that’s a long time ago but some ideas don’t change. In it he questions the hierarchy of power and says  - “I believe in aristocracy - not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky.” I sense that a democracy that brings us Donald Trump and Brexit may get only one cheer. We accept as an act of faith that democracy is the only good form of government. And here’s the good news - soon there’ll be a 46th President of the USA who will have been “in power” for either 4 or 8 years. Robert Mugabe was President of Zimbabwe for 40 years. That’s why democracy works. Half the world has been democratised and has the ability to oust its leaders. Maybe we’ll look back on this decade as one where the people voted irrationally just to prove they could.

Part 2 will follow around 10am gmt tomorrow...