Are the government about to make a dumb choice?

Here’s is a true scenario. What would you do ?

You own a highly trusted, famous, global brand

In a world full of disinformation, trust is highly prized and increasingly rare

During a national crisis this brand has been an essential source of reliable information that people have turned to.

There will be more national crises.

The brand has a brilliant, motivated workforce

Within the wider society there is diverse, deep and highly creative talent you can commission to be a part of your brand.

You have a track record of innovation, using digital to develop highly valued new services

You have over 50 years of intellectual property

Big American competition is arriving. ( which is also consolidating). They are all looking to sign your customers and charge them fees.

Yet in this increasingly competitive context you represent value for money. You provide more high quality than these competitors at a lower price. Cash strapped customers will not be able to afford all these competitor services.

Your service is delivered in the global lingua franca (English)

The winners will likely be those that provide high quality for a reasonable price. The brand that you own is well placed to be one of the winners.

All of the above is a reasonably objective description of the BBC. You don’t have to be part of any political tribe to find it credible.

If you were (say) the Chinese, French or German governments and you owned this brand you would think all your Christmas’s had come at once. You would support it and help it to keep innovating so that it could remain a strong brand, attract new fans and develop global revenue.

Now a government committee is meeting in secret – and we don’t know what their ideas are.

The lack of transparency excites suspicion.

The government is capable of self – confidence and innovation. Look at the approach to developing vaccines

The government’s objections to the BBC- that it is a left leaning, metropolitan, remainer organisation – are shallow and self – interested. Even if they are partly true ( and bear in mind that governments of all stripes think the BBC is against them) they can be remedied.

But when it comes to the BBC the government seems to lack self-confidence. Before the pandemic government ministers refused to go on The Today program. This is was behaviour of a petulant toddler.

A self-confident business person would think that the attitude of the Government is a narrow minded failure to spot opportunity.

Which is a pity because the idea of Brexit was for a more independent minded, self-confident, global Britain. Isn’t that the idea?

What can Snow White teach us?

Disney made people feel good during The Great Depression- it was the start of a great brand.

This is my fourth recession. I don’t think Rishi Sunak can prevent an even darker employment picture after the end of the furlough schemes. And there is a pattern. So, perhaps you will give me a hearing.

Some things have radically changed this time round. Covid has produced different winners and losers. The dynamic of digital media drives the restructuring of agencies and the trend towards in house agencies. This year, just before lockdown, I was working with Amazon – their marketing department is really an integrated media and creative agency as well. They buy in services from small creative shops and consultants like me. It’s natural to follow the lead of successful companies – so no doubt this trend will continue.

If you are running an agency all this is very challenging – business is both down and big clients are spending less on fees. Inevitably agency CEOs will therefore spend a lot of time worrying about numbers and structures. It was ever thus. I speak from the experience of losing 50% of my agency revenue during the tech crash of 2002 when I was CEO of a WPP creative agency called red cell. I spent the next 6 months laying off staff and restructuring the agency. My energy and thinking turned inwards.

Don’t turn inwards

It’s a bad idea- because you lose sight what really matters. Agencies and their clients achieve little when they are pre-occupied with restructuring. People get worried about their role (have they got a job or not?) rather than looking outwards, analysing external trends and scanning the horizon for opportunity.

(A brief note to agency CEOs. You may have to make staff redundant to survive as a business. It is painful. But you would be wise to do this quickly and then gather your new team around you and inspire them to focus on the bigger prize. Building back confidence after lay-offs can take a while. It’s a kind of psychic scar that takes a while to heal. This was a useful piece of advice I received from Sir Martin Sorrel, my boss in 2002.)

The bigger prize has not changed, however. Clients always need trusted advisers and new ideas – whose energy and imagination are focussed on how to strengthen their brands.

Think like a challenger

So, here is my old-fashioned advice. Do regular planning. Plans may not survive contact with reality. As Mike Tyson once said – “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Planning, however, is invaluable. It helps you to explore different scenarios and develop ideas to cope and or profit from them. Successful planning generates solutions and ideas. My tip is this- think like a challenger (even if you are the incumbent brand leader). Here are good planning questions to ask: –  

Who is succeeding in the changing landscape and why?

Analyse the strategies of dynamic challengers in all categories (not just your immediate competitors) because they have latched onto a vector of change – such as an underserved audience, an unmet need, a new way to communicate and/or deliver service, or a radically different pricing model. Remember that true challengers are not just smaller, paler versions of the brand leader- but rather they have found a way to disrupt market norms. They are worth watching like a hawk.

There is likely to be turbulence ahead.

Youthful populations, who were born into the digital revolution, recession and now COVID are a potent and explosive cocktail. Under-employed, but highly educated populations, spell big trouble for governments and anyone else who is complacent. It will also produce opportunity to do things differently and satisfy new needs. Which leads logically to my next key question

What really matters to my customers now?

Here are good themes to explore in your planning sessions. (It’s not a comprehensive list)

How can we make things easier?

Ease reduces stress and strain, especially appealing at a time when people are anxious and fractious. In fact, ease is always something we want. As Daniel Kahneman explained in Thinking Fast and Slow, ease feels good and feels true. The brands that have become powerhouses over the past decade, like Amazon and Google, work hard at making their ‘user experience” as easy and intuitive as possible. Right now, they are conducting many A/B tests to make their customers’ experience as frictionless as possible.

How can we be generous?

Generosity breeds reciprocation- the sense of a debt to be paid. Flexible terms (like payment holidays) or reduced prices for those who are hard up are going to be welcome. But generosity does not just mean giving money. Companies have many resources they can share. For example, a new whole generation are worried about employment and employability. How can you help with learning and work experience?  

What is our positive contribution to society?

The next generation are much more activist than their parents- and are likely to be ever more so as the issue of climate change has moved centre stage. They therefore favour companies with high ethical standards. Commitment to, for example, sustainability and sharing the fruits of success with staff are baked into the DNA of a number of successful challengers. The contribution must be real. Yet it can be transformative –inspiring commitment from both staff and customer in a virtuous circle.

Can we radically re-examine our pricing?

There is no two ways about it – things are going to be very tight. Government furlough schemes will not last for ever, incomes will be lower and unemployment will rise. There will be huge demand for the lowest cost options- sold online or sold singly or made in a different way with different ingredients. This will certainly be a successful challenger strategy in many markets – and incumbents with legacy systems and sourcing will struggle with it.  

How can we bring some joy and pleasure?

Human beings can’t stand being confronted with too much reality. Hence the rise of comfort TV (in the form of documentaries about nature and rural idylls) and the simple pleasures of walking the dog. Interesting fact-the cost of buying a puppy has doubled during the pandemic in the UK. The hunger for escapism is palpable, be it through a screen or out into the open spaces. How can you support it? For most brands this is going to mean a partnership.

The UK is coming out of the second peak in the pandemic. It feels like the pressure has come out of an already deflated tire- a loss of energy and dynamism is in the air. When others are quiet, those with new ideas get even more attention because people are hungry for good news and things that make them feel good. This much is evidenced by all previous economic crises and recessions. Remember that Disney first emerged as cultural and economic force by cheering up Americans during the great depression. It is the perfect time for challenger thinking.  

( This article was first published in Aurora on 12 Jan 2020)

Book Review: The System.

At a recent workshop, I asked students to explain how online ads were planned and sold.

Puzzled faces stared back at me. The word ‘programmatic’ was mentioned.

“Okay, how does that work?”

I asked.

One student said that advertisers send a profile of the kinds of people they want to reach to a Demand Side Platform (DSP) and publishers send a request to a Supply Side Platform (SSP).

“And what happens in the middle?” I asked.

No answers.

James Ball’s new book provides the answers – and is therefore essential reading for anyone in advertising or marketing

My full review is published now in Aurora here

Two new training courses for MAAG

We are all Zoomers now. I have been working with MAAG to design new, shorter courses for ” the new normal”

Here they are- Book now at MAAGs website

These are short, interactive, with inspiring examples and deliver jargon free planning and idea generation methods.

You can use these methods by yourself or with colleagues on Zoom or face to face

Will the facebook ad ban make a difference ?

Will a pressure group in the USA be enough to change Facebook?

No question, “stop hate for profit” has put Facebook’s practices in focus. But will it effect a fundamental change? Aurora asked me for an opinion: view . ( see link)

I am not optimistic. I hope I am wrong. A wider understanding of Facebook internationally (and how surveillance capitalism works) indicates that its real vulnerability lies with powerful politicians, not popular revolt, however well intentioned.

If Facebook get the 2020 Presidential election wrong – by enabling bad actors as it did in 2016-then things may turn out differently. Then it will face emboldened enemies in Washington

What is “Surveillance Capitalism ?

Professor Shoshana Zuboff has published a key text of our time

To understand what is really going with “big tech”, Professor Shoshana Zuboff is the best guide with her seminal book ” The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” . It’s a fat book and , in places, a heavy read. But worth getting. Definitely read chapter 18 (“A coup from above”) which sums up the key arguments.

The big issue of our times is what economists call “extreme asymmetries of knowledge” Put simply, big tech knows all about us and we know little about how them. And it is deliberate. Example- do you know what the Google algorithm is ? Me neither. It’s a trade secret that has a big impact on how many businesses trade. Zuboff has many more examples.

Zuboff explains her ideas well in person and has also made some good programmes such as this one

(ironically, hosted on YouTube, which is owned by that uber “surveillance capitalist” – Google)

We have all gone Zoomtastic

Back in February, European marketers, creatives and strategists from Amazon joined me in London for a new training course called Insights Inspiration. I had co-designed it with Laura Downey and Alexa Caldecott across several enjoyable and animated meetings in small rooms at Amazon HQ near Liverpool Street. The commissioner of the project was Mark Willock of ISBA

It was day long with 20 of us in the same room, sitting hugger mugger around small tables. The windows were closed- it was a cold day. All this seems a lifetime ago- and I doubt it will happen again any time soon.

So, like everyone else, I have had to adapt to online and learn to run sessions effectively in a different way. Since lockdown I have run 10 Zoom training sessions.

All my training is now available as Zoom.

This is what i have learnt:-

  • Sessions should be shorter – no more that 2 hours
  • If running a session of more than 1 hour, you need to use the breakouts function
  • Breakout groups should be no more that 3 or 4 people
  • You can have up to 20 in a training session, but few will interact in plenary “whole group” discussions. To get everyone talking, you need to run breakouts groups.
  • As ever with training, presentations should be short, mainly visual and packed with examples.

The good news

There is though a pleasant surprise from going to Zoom. Training can be more international than before. At a recent Essentials course on Zoom for APG, (that I co-ran with Phil Barden, author of Decoded), we had participants from Latvia, Holland and USA as well as UK. APG already had an international reputation for excellence in publishing and training. Now people, who would never travel to UK (money and time not permitting), can take part in their courses

So, there is a silver lining

Should Sir Kier Starmer have called for the sacking of Dominic Cummings ?

It must have felt “strong” and “decisive” and a thoroughly good thing in the bear pit of Westminister- but I am not so sure it was “a good look” when it comes to the general public.

Before I say why, let’s be guided by the science – this is compulsory in all briefings these days, of course.

Daniel Kahneman’s great book – Thinking fast and slow-  starts with a picture of a human face. He explains that we are quickly and instinctively drawn to faces (for primitive reasons of survival) and have a highly developed ability to decode all the complex meanings of faces. We have an innate sense of whether someone is comfortable in their own skin or anxious, sincere or mendacious, depressed or energized and so on.

Faces can be your fortune and they can also be your downfall

The BBC’s current high levels of approval is partly attributed to a cast of homely and familiar faces of people that we instinctively warm to – like Hugh Edwards, Sofie Rayworth , George Alagiah and Clive Myrie. The BBC do not have to guess at our feelings towards its talent as they use audience research and can shuffle their cast accordingly, bringing forward the characters we like and moving others into the background. Toughs are allowed – like Andrew Niel and Emily Maitlis- but they are parked in low ratings slots like Newsnight. You would not have them fronting up the big rating shows like News at Six.

Politicians have to cope with over-exposure

We are going to be seeing a lot more of Boris Johston (whether he or we like it or not). We cannot but help develop instincts, from his demeanour, for what he is really like (which is the key lesson from Daniel Kahneman). His easy-going like-ability will be daily exposed by the rigours of government – which is complex, unpredictable and very hard work. How long before we intuit that he is not really in his natural domain?  It took us a while to work out Tony Blair – but in the end his boundless vanity was exposed by wanting to look like the global player alongside George Bush. With Boris Johnston it will be quicker is my guess. The point here is that Sir Kier does not need to spell this out. He just needs to ask the right questions

Helpful notes for Sir Kier ?

“I would have sacked Dominic Cummings” he said, several times. But, for most of us, this is a very ugly statement. Many people who hear it will have been on the receiving end of job loss- a horrible feeling.  Much better to call on common humanity and suggest that an honourable man would have done the decent thing by now rather expose his boss to reputational damage. We can work out the rest.

Besides Sir Kier does not need  be in the business of calling for sackings ( or very rarely) – others will do it for him. Spend just a few minutes scanning through twitter and you will find a host of would be executioners – some of them putatively from Cummings own party. The twitterati feed on the general media, who feed on the twitterati and soon you have a media storm baying for blood. This, too, is humanity at its most ungenerous.

No Sir Kier should distance himself from the Twitter/Media/Westminister bear pit. This is difficult if you are caught up in the middle of it. But remember, most of us are not obsessively scanning twitter to see what the likes of  Piers Morgan or Alistair Campbell have to say. We intuitively see through the neediness of these characters, whose self esteem seems to derive from being important and listened to.

Strangely, Sir Kier should take a leaf of  the book of ” Early Corbyn” , who used to read out questions asked by the general public in The House of Commons. He dropped this technique- but the sentiment was right.

In my experience of running research groups, the general public are quite balanced, unlike the more deranged twitterati, and accept human frailty as the norm. Cummings has made a mistake, we all make mistakes- he did not start a war. Some people are still angry but most of us are bored of it (and of the people who are trying to keep the story going, mainly for political reasons, with industrial quantities righteous indignation).

If Sir Kier is struggling to stay connected to the mood of the general public-which can happen to the most grounded folk when in the Westminister bubble- then he could take a leaf out of the book of Early Blair. It was much sneered back then, but his strategists made regular use of focus groups to stay in touch with general public’s mood. He won three elections.




In praise of retro marketing: it’s thoroughly modern

I saw these packs in M&S yesterday.

Boy, do the Brits like to hark back to their ” finest hour ” (c. W. Churchill) , when a crisis hits. The Queen was at it in her broadcast to the nation.  Has there ever been as better brand name than “Spitfire” ? I don’t think so. Patients coming out of intensive care have even likened the nurses and doctors to Spitfire pilots in the battle of Britain. So this post is un-ashamedly retro – yet proven to be effective by modern behaviour science and the stuff we love looking at on the Internet.  It turns out that retro marketing is also thoroughly modern marketing. Here are my four retro marketing tips.

Write copy that rhymes

Like – A Mars a day helps you work rest and play

BS proof   – Rhymes are are thought to be more truthful ( and are certainly more memorable)

Create a brand symbol 

Like pretty much any brand in the insurance market (Meercats/Churchill/Opera singer).

BS proof – Symbols make brands instantly recognisable so that we don’t have to think hard about choice because Brands are really energy saving shortcuts in decision making

Use an instantly recognisable face

Like – L’Oreal, who have been doing it for years: it a fast and instinctive way to update and refresh a brand

BS proof – we are instantly draw to faces ( see page 1 of Thinking fast and slow for an explanation) and have innate ability to decode their subtle meanings. It’s a survival mechanism- we need sort friend from foe in all situations and the mental processing happens much much faster that you can say ” digital marketing”

Get cute 

Proof- Cats of Instagram-enough said. Just type “Cute” into Google and you can spend hours looking at cats, all types of animals and babies  or as David Ogilvy once said If you want people to look at your ads put a baby in it” Or  Daniel Kahneman  “When adults see infant faces it stimulates nurturing behaviour”. None of this of course will come as a surprise to Disney, whose Mickey Mouse adventures cheered up Americans during the Great Depression