Monday, 20 September 2021

WHAT ARE WE ACTUALLY SEEING AND FEELING?

When I first went into marketing I was fascinated by Ernest Dichter, the American psychologist, described as the “father of motivational research”. His analyses of why people did what they did and his books like “The Strategy of Desire” seemed more interesting than the quantitative beasts like Gallup and Nielsen, research firms that just counted stuff and produced voluminous documents.

He described his process as:

"I observe hidden clues; I listen with the third ear; I interpret. I see where others are too blind because they are too close to the trees. I find the solution….. I have acted as a discoverer, as a general on the battlefield of free enterprise."

A general on the battlefield, “yes” I said to myself, “that’s what I want to be.”

Now we live in more numerate times when the data is supposedly what drives our decision making. Over the past two years the media has contained a lot of data. Covid’s been defined by numbers…. (I hope you hear a “but” coming.) 

We in Brighton get a lot of Covid data - weekly rates of infection, hospital admissions, deaths and so on BUT I’m not sure what this means. Not really. My own experience is revealing. In the last year’s first wave of Covid I only knew few people who caught it. Currently I know at least 16 people who’ve caught it or are suffering from it. They are not hospital cases but are very unwell.

And at this point Government data contradicts my feeling that something is very much amiss. In just the same way, however loudly the Bank of England explains the absence of inflation, my own wallet says otherwise. And my own wallet is beginning to seem more reliable than the unflappable Governor of the Bank, Andrew Bailey. 

Here’s what the Office of National statistics said of the August inflation numbers:

“The increase ….is the largest increase ever recorded in the CPIH National Statistic 12-month inflation rate series, which began in January 2006; however, this is likely to be a temporary change.”


“Is likely to be?” We shall see. September is already looking like +3% with +4% on the cards.

In these transparent times great masses of data serve the same purpose as lying. They can contradict and confuse. Politicians and commentators have become skilled at choosing whatever data best serves to support their argument.

As things stand I sense (how I like that word: it’s a Dichter word) I sense like an animal smells something about to happen that the Covid spread is about to intensify through schools and universities and to us. Our mask-free, back-to-normal-society is in for a rude shock in its health and – if I’m right about inflation – its wealth. 

Meanwhile in the past week in politics the pantomime continues. “Behind you Gavin!” Commentators have described this reshuffle as a “strategic political distraction.” But the way ministers are moved around to positions they know nothing about has always baffled me. Imagine my alarm if, as I’d forged (or tried to forge) my way to being a Marketing General in the business battlefield, I’d been told: “Congratulations you’re the Finance Director now.”  

I loved this from James Poniewozik, the New York Times journalist:

“Politics has always been a mud fight – better that citizens jump in the trough than lose interest.”

No chance of that. Most people love mud fights and I sense this is going to a long winter of mud fights. Me? I'm putting on my uniform, polishing my medals and I’m off to the battlefield to join in.

Monday, 13 September 2021

COMMON SENSE AND THE UNEXPECTED

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “common sense” is blessedly to the point:

“the ability to think about things in a practical way and make sensible decisions.”

Recently I read something that Tony Blair said. He’s 68 and a somewhat discredited blast-from-the-past. His think-tank (The Institute for Global Change) claims that consistent,  widespread, but relatively small changes in human behaviour – flying rather less, driving a little less, eating less red meat - would achieve surprisingly major improvements in carbon emissions. The excessive radicalism of Extinction Rebellion will, he believes, achieve less,  fostered, as it is, by a desire to demolish capitalism rather than just expressing concern for the planet.

The idea that violent revolution is less effective than radical change seems utterly sensible doesn’t it? Apart from anything else, brutal change is, for most of us, hard to stomach. We can see that being played out in the various approaches to managing Covid. Well, would you like to be an Australian right now?

In politics we constantly see ambitious Ministers trying to achieve the impossible. Sadly their problem is the 5 year span for governments whereby ministers try to create attention-getting legacies rather than solid ones. They live in their own bubble of “creative destruction”. Fine when thought through as Schumpeter does. He was the Austrian economist who became a Harvard Professor. His attitude towards the evolution of transport is clearly practical. 

In contrast, not a lot of common sense, practicality and sensible planning seems to have gone into the recent MOD £3.5 billion fiasco of vastly overbudget and ineffective Ajax tanks. These put soldiers in them at risk of tinnitus and swollen joints if driven at speeds above 20mph and they’re unable to reverse over objects higher than 20cm.

Yet it’s easy to revile politicians. Too much time is spent doing that, but they tend to be their own worst enemies and be neither calm nor particularly sensible. They seek the glamour of fame but less often seem simply to focus on getting the job done sensibly and in a practical way.

In another life many of us would like fame…apparently a worrying large number of young people asked what they’d like to when they grow up reply “famous”. But fame is hard won and more easily lost without constant application. When it really excites us is when it’s unexpected.

Emma Raducanu’s extraordinary performance in winning the US Tennis Open last Saturday is, based on experience, form and world ranking, nonsensical. Pundits were reduced to spluttering disbelief as she coasted through ten matches without conceding a single set. It’s the stuff of journalistic cliché to be sure but more importantly it shows how sport can transform lives and attitudes when they confound expectation. Defying the logic and common sense of the form book when you are a smart, smiling, 18 year old is thrilling.  

Does Emma pass the commonsense test? Does she demonstrate “the ability to think about things in a practical way and make sensible decisions”? Obviously yes. Her victory was a brilliant display of ruthlessly efficient shot making. She kept her calm and her rhythm. It was the emergence, pretty well without trace, that was so mind-blowing. It reminded me of Tiger Woods who won his first golf major, the Masters, in 1997 in record-breaking fashion and became the tournament's youngest winner when he was 21. 

 Common sense isn’t boring. Think about what it really means and it’s what we all look for but the added spice is the drama of winning against the odds. And that isn’t just fame. It’s stardom.

Monday, 6 September 2021

DO WE REALLY KNOW BETTER?

As technology hurtles us along a path of unending knowledge advancement something odd is going on. We seem to know less and less and we’re making more mistakes. Big ones. Whoppers.

I’m so enthralled by this I’m taking a week off to let my mind empty of assumptions. I shall be eating, drinking, listening to fine music and walking a lot.

Back in the black old days when we knew we knew nothing walking was the thing.

We shall see. In the meantime, the sound of a rushing river fills the air.

I’ll write a proper blog next week.