Thursday, 29 December 2011

Belated happy birthday, Mr Cooper

My intention had been to post this three days ago, but I’ve been away from wireless electronic media.

26 December 2011 was the eighty-third birthday of Martin Cooper.

Hurrah! Martin who?

Well, he led the R&D team at Motorola in the late 1960s and early 1970s that developed the mobile phone. The inspiration for the idea, Cooper has said, came from watching Captain Kirk communicate on Star Trek. “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Not so well-known, nor so well-off, I guess, as Steve Jobs.

But what a world-changing achievement!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Back to the Five Bells

After a trip last week to see my academic supervisor at Goldsmiths in New Cross, I walked down to the Old Kent Road ‒ to the Five Bells pub.

My brother David and I, together with a small gang of friends, used to go there to drink beer and to hear the live music. It was 1964ish, so you can imagine what kind of sounds they were.

The pub was always packed and the regular house band stoked up a storm. Mostly the feeling was of shared bonhomie. At least, that’s how I recall it. They made a big impression on me, and certainly had an influence on my own style of performing in subsequent years.

The Five Bells is much as it was nearly fifty years ago, but there doesn’t seem to be any live music there these days. The stage is still in its place (above), but no one plays on it any more.

It seemed such an adventure in the ′60s, to drive down to deepest New Cross in South-East London on a dark winter’s evening, across the river from Kensington, where we were living in genteel poverty at the time.

Little did I know then that I would spend so many years living just a short way up the hill in lovely Blackheath.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Sort of Christmas Card (2)

Last year it was TS Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”.

This year, something much closer to home by Thomas Hardy.

And it feels right for us, living as we do, surrounded by livestock on the edge of our village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire.

Written during the First World War, Hardy recalls a Wessex folk tradition that, at midnight on Christmas Eve, the cattle kneel.

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Faith, mingled with doubt, and the wish to cling to childhood certainties.

Happy Christmas, one and all.

(Portrait photograph of Thomas Hardy by H Walter Barnett, c1909.)

Sunday, 18 December 2011


My colleague from City University, Kristine Karlson/Pitt, has written recently about the need to unlearn some things, making room for the new.

And, when I was looking for the right place to do my doctorate studies, a distinguished professor suggested that I would have to unlearn everything I knew about the subject. Since I had been studying it for several decades, this sounded pretty daunting to me – and not a bit enticing.

The question is: how do we unlearn things? Is it possible?

Certainly the human brain does not have a delete function in the way that computers do. Of course, we seem very able to delete data efficiently with the onset of dementia, but in that situation the learn function seems to be impaired equally.

So presumably what we do in reality is overlay old learning with new learning. The problem being that the old stuff can be hooked in there more tenaciously.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Are ideas born in start-ups?

Where is it that new ideas are born? In large companies or small?

There seems to be a widespread assumption that creativity flourishes in small organisations – and that big new ideas emerge mainly in entrepreneurial start-ups.

It may well be true that new ideas see the light of day in start-up companies. The question is: were the ideas actually conceived there?

Some years ago I saw a presentation at a conference from Aston University, whose research showed that ideas were often conceived in large organisations, where they had been either suppressed, or rejected, or simply hidden, before being brought to market by breakaway staffers.

This is certainly a syndrome that I’ve observed frequently. What’s more – it has happened to me personally, a wonderful new business being born.

A very successful example is Innocent Drinks. They tell the story on their website.

The learnings?

Here are a couple of them. In large organisations, it behoves leaders to think twice before rejecting or suppressing the ideas of their more creative colleagues. And for governments, it might be good to re-think their assumptions concerning the sources of new ideas.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Christopher Logue RIP

I see that the English poet, Christopher Logue, has died (3 December, aged 85). I wrote about this brief verse of his in a previous blog (27/10/2009):

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew…

Usually it is attributed to the French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire. I could never understand why this is so. And then, one day, in a second-hand bookshop in York, I fell into conversation with the owner, who knew Logue.

This is what he told me. Logue had been commissioned to write the words for a poster for an exhibition of Apollinaire’s work. Being a literary magpie, in this case he took a stanza from a lengthy poem of his own (published in New Numbers in 1969) and used it on the poster.

So from thenceforth, it became part of Apollinaire’s public heritage, repeated constantly on the net. How ironic that is, given that Logue stole from all and sundry throughout his career.

Christopher Logue is perhaps best remembered now for his version for radio of Homer’s Iliad, which was published and broadcast over many years from its commission by the BBC’s Third Programme in 1959. This is a brief passage from Part One, War Music:

The battle swayed.
Half-naked men hacked slowly at each other
As the Greeks eased back the Trojans.
They stood close;
Closer; thigh in thigh; mask twisted over iron mask
Like kissing.

Dramatic stuff!

Monday, 12 December 2011

The teacher who changed my life

A few years ago I gave a talk in London on “100 Years of Macbeth Recordings”, Verdi that is.

The audience for the talk, mainly gents (and a few ladies) older than me, and very expert in the history of recordings and opera and singers, were not to be impressed by my knowledge of (and insights regarding) Verdi. But they understood pretty quickly that I had a good grasp of the play and of how Verdi had gone about reshaping and compressing it for the lyric stage.

It was only later that I realised that my love of Macbeth started much earlier, with GS Braddy’s production at Uppingham School in 1957. Not having any performing role in that, I studied the text privately, and knew it well by the time of the performances. I was thirteen.

Later I had the good luck to be in Gordon Braddy’s English literature class. We studied Bernard Shaw’s St Joan and Shakespeare’s Henry V. I can’t think that Braddy himself can have been very inspired by Saint Joan. (I certainly was left with no great love for Shaw’s wordy pontifications.) But Henry V stays with me, illuminated by that inspiring man. And Shakespeare since those days has been a constant presence in my life.

Many of his pupils have referred to Braddy’s treatment of boys as his equals. I feel sure that this was an illusion, but one which is at the heart of so much great teaching.

One day, under the spell of Kerouac’s On the Road in 1958 (was I the only one?), I wrote a pseudo-drug-filled pastiche which Braddy read out in full to the class in his best American-poetic voice. Although he had not himself read Kerouac, he sensed fundamentally what it was. I was overjoyed.

In due course I escaped from the cloistered, for me repressive, world of Uppingham. The piece I took with me was Gordon Braddy.

Does everyone have such an influence in their life?

(Above: Margherita Grandi as Lady Macbeth, photo by Angus McBean.)

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Listening and Creativity

At the start of innovation workshops, I ask the participants to come up with some groundrules for working together productively and creatively.

Usually second on the emerging shortlist is LISTENING.

Prompted, the person proposing it will often say how important it is to pay attention to what others are saying, both during any presentations and in the course of discussion.

It’s often comes as something of a shock when I add to this item that it’s important to listen to oneself. In fact, in sessions where the point is to tap into our creative selves, it’s more important, much more important, than listening to others.

In this situation, what others say is valuable primarily not as information, but as stimulus – to help us to trigger new thoughts, new perspectives, new ideas. Never more so than during a long, fact-filled presentation.

As usual, Mark Twain (above) caught this brilliantly: “Life does not consist mainly – or even largely – of facts and happenings,” he wrote. “It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.”

The challenge, of course is not only to listen closely to that storm of thoughts, but also to catch plenty of them on the wing. For me, that means making brief notes as they flash by. And then reviewing them consistently for further consideration and development.

Richard Branson once told me that he does this every day( see blogpost 03/11/2009). And so do I!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

La vie de bohème

Poking around my dissertation (which is on Australasian musicians, writers and artists who came to Europe in the fin-de siècle), I’ve recently read two seminal novels on the Bohemian movement – Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème and George du Maurier’s Trilby.

The former is set in 1840s Paris. The latter in Paris and London in the following decade. Both deal with artists living the Art for Art’s Sake ideal. But there the similarity ends.

Murger’s Bohemians are young, uninhibited, penniless and witty. Most of du Maurier’s are rich and high-born, merely pretending to be the real thing ‒ and there’s not a skerrick of wit between them. Murger’s prose bounds along joyfully, where du Maurier’s is lumpen.

Of course, La vie de bohème was written and published when the movement was young, whereas Trilby was composed in retrospect in the 1890s, fifty years later, embracing prudish late-Victorian values. Irritatingly, in Trilby du Maurier denounces “bourgeois” values and “philistines”, while managing to be consistently both of these.

My sense is that, although Trilby is still widely read, the lead character Svengali well-known, Murger’s Bohemia is only recognised these days as the book behind Puccini’s still very popular opera. Cordially recommended.

I know that there were diluted versions of Bohemia in London, Sydney and Melbourne. But how about New York, Vienna, Berlin, Milan and elsewhere?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Getting to grips with Art

Walking through the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris (with its fabulous collection of Monets (above), Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, Derains, Picassos etc) together with a friend some years ago, I was astonished when he completed his inspection in less than five minutes. “Oh, yes,” he announced. “Seen 'em all.”

Recent research confirms that visitors to art museums spend just a few seconds looking at each painting. Most people then take considerably longer reading the information labels. Not my friend.

I wonder why it is that people really don’t take the time to look at the works of art themselves.

The process that I use started when I began to teach myself something about art history some four decades ago. I was working at the time at Saatchi & Saatchi in Charlotte Street and could interrupt my twenty minute walk back to Charing Cross Station (on my way home) by dropping into the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. This I did most working days.

Each visit I would look at just three paintings: the one I had studied yesterday, the one which was to be the main focus for today, and the one that I would turn to tomorrow. So, over time, each painting presented three substantial opportunities for me to look (and to think) – about composition, colour, light, brushwork, subject, idea, intention, context and so on.

It gave me the possibility of beginning to understand, accompanied (it goes without saying) by one of the finest collections of Western art in the world. And it was the start of a lifetime of looking at paintings.

Not sure one can achieve that with just a glance.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

“Gradually, then suddenly”

I came across this phrase from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in Narelle Hanratty’s blog. And it occurs to me that so many discoveries and inventions happen this way - gradually, then suddenly.

A good example is the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in the early 1950s. I wrote about the way that they battled with this fundamental problem (20 December 2009), together with Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins and others, over a long period of time, and how quite suddenly one day the sun rose - and the answer was clear.

“The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race,” wrote Watson, describing the Eureka moment in his exciting book, The Double Helix.

Of course an analogy in animal life is the gestation of foetuses followed by the birth of the young.

Have you noticed examples of this in your innovation work and elsewhere?

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

When the going gets tough

Neville Wran was premier of New South Wales in Australia in the 1980s. A canny old bird. His newly-elected political opponent, the glamorous young Nick Greiner, was doing brilliantly in the polls.

“Let’s see how he does when the blowtorch is applied to the belly.” This was Wran’s acerbic assessment.

That’s the real test of leadership. By comparison, leading when you’re winning is so easy.

Why is it that, when the going gets tough, leaders so often abandon the supportive people-management strategies that served them so well in good times, reverting to fear and blame?

Deep down they must know that, even if it can get results in the short-term, over the long haul it just won’t work.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Maintaining a personal brand

In noting the novelist JG Ballard’s many defects – drunk, liar, humbug, plagiarist, bully, philistine, racist, misogynist – his current biographer, John Baxter, also berates him for being a self-publicist.

Doesn’t sound altogether nice, does he.

But which writers are not self-publicists? Only ones who don’t sell many books, I would guess. My sense is that Charles Dickens provides an excellent role-model in this particular field. Never knowingly undersold.

If we want success in this competitive world, we each have a personal brand to maintain, whatever we do.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

UnConferencing: Un for All and All for Un

While I’ve spoken at dozens of conventional conferences, I’ve always felt that the format – rows of chairs in old-fashioned classroom-style, with “teacher” or a panel of “experts” up front – is quite inadequate, rarely releasing the potential in the room.

So much more can be achieved by radical transformation. I first started experimenting with all this some twenty years ago. Since that time I’ve tried all sorts of different processes and formats, and have evolved a flexible approach that deals with many of the main issues involved in the trad format. Most recently I ran two UnConferences in Manila.

The first was a meeting of the top 350 managers at Nestlé Philippines (one of the largest and most successful companies in the country) and the second at a Brand Renovation masterclass for some 60 senior managers from diverse backgrounds (blogpost 14 November 2011).

A while ago, I wrote another post (31 August 2011) about the first Big City Brainstorm we ran at City University London to launch the Centre for Creativity.

And in January I’ll be running an UnConferencing session within the Association of British Orchestra’s annual conference.

There are a number of important principles involved:

• Communication ceases to be top-down and token Q and A.

• There’s a minimum of presentation and a maximum of dialogue.

• The dialogue (whether brainstorming, problem-solving, debating issues, visioning, planning or whatever) moves from the podium to the body of the room.

• The whole thing needs continuous and skilful facilitation.

• The room can be set up in various ways. I have come to prefer either small circles of chairs or round tables.

• Each circle needs a flip chart, so that ideas/thoughts can be captured immediately.

• It’s important to set up some groundrules for working together. These include the usual stuff – no judgements, anything goes, headline first, speak for yourself and so on.

• I like to work with the maximum of human contact and the minimum of technology, but with groups of 50 or more, the facilitator will need a throat-mike.

• Often, when getting reports back from the floor, I like to have the headlines come up on a big screen at the front – so a skilled “technographer” is needed for this.

Is your organisation still stuck with the teacher/class model? What’s your experience of UnConferencing?

Friday, 25 November 2011

GSK and Dragon’s Den

I’m astounded that the massive drug company GSK is planning to assess and fund innovation projects by using a “Dragon’s Den” style of selection process. There’s said to be £1.1 billion ($1.75 billion) at stake.

I can see that the programme makes for good television.

But is there any evidence at all that this kind of approach produces winners?

At best it strikes me as amateurish. It obviously has the potential to be damaging and demeaning to the R&D scientists involved. And it’s likely to have 100% success in missing any innovation with really major potential.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A year with Johann Sebastian Bach

This Sunday completes a full year of listening to Bach’s Cantatas.

I’ve been doing that week by week through the church year. I started at Advent Sunday 2010 and have worked my way through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and all those Trinity Sundays. We’re back to joyful Advent again on Sunday.

Each one tends to last more or less than twenty minutes, and usually consists of two or three arias linked by recitative. They often start with a complex choral movement and end with a simpler setting of a German chorale. So soloists, chorus and small orchestra are needed. Each was composed based on the designated Bible texts for that Sunday.

Bach wrote several cycles of church cantatas at different stages of his working life, the earliest in 1707 and the last in 1745. That’s some 180 separate compositions. (There are another 70 or so written mostly for secular occasions that I’ll listen to in coming weeks.)

It’s undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary, still mostly neglected, achievements in the history of Western music. Not that Bach was a great innovator. What he did was to explore the potentialities of the kind of music that existed in his lifetime. He was endlessly creative within those limits.

I have a heard a range of different performers, but mostly recordings directed by Pieter Jan Leusink, Philippe Herreweghe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt. It’s a collection that I’ve assembled over 35 years.

My pattern has been to listen to one cantata each day, first thing in the morning, before the rest of the house has stirred. And then to have breakfast.

It has been an amazing, life-enhancing journey.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Robert Louis Stevenson and Count Nerli and Ernest Mehew

I had always thought of myself as a writer. But in truth all I had ever done in practice was to write some articles on marketing communications and innovation.

So, when we visited Samoa in pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson in the mid-1990s, I was standing in the large main room of the house he built there, Vailima, when he appeared over my shoulder.

“This book you’ve been talking about,” he said, “how far have you got with it?”

“Well, to be honest,” I replied, “I haven’t started it”

“But you’ve been talking about it for a long time. Maybe you think it’s not worth doing?”

“No, I do think it’s worth doing.”

“Do you think someone else will write it?” he asked.

“No, if I don’t do it, I don’t think it will ever be done.”

“Well perhaps you’d better get started.”

At the height of his fame, author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and much else, Stevenson had died in that house in December 1894 aged just forty-four.

That evening, we retired to Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Apia. I got out a blank sheet of paper and started on the book which I’d been researching and thinking about over several years. It was published some eighteen months later as Robert Louis Stevenson and Count Nerli in Samoa: The Story of a Portrait.

I was cheeky enough to send an early draft to the leading Stevenson scholar in the world, Ernest Mehew. He thought it a worthwhile project and gave me several pages of handwritten notes containing suggestions of all kinds.

Dear Ernest died four weeks ago (on 24 October 2011) at the age of eighty-eight. RIP.

[Above, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by GP Nerli, painted in Samoa in 1892, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.]

Friday, 18 November 2011

Daydreaming and Creativity

It seems extraordinary that, when training people in creative thinking, I should need to spend such a large amount of time just getting them to listen to themselves.

For it is in our own thoughts and feelings that new thinking, new ideas, are born.

The problem usually stems from our educational pasts. At school it has always been consistently demanded that we pay attention to the teacher. There, “concentrating” means listening to him or her, not to oneself.

Yet so often what happens is that the teacher has said something interesting that stimulates us to go off on a fascinating internal journey, exploring the implications of what has been said. Yet, to the teacher, this can so easily be interpreted and censured as just not paying attention, “daydreaming”.

But how exciting and valuable daydreaming can be.

As the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, put it (in a famous letter to Paul Demeny in 1871): “I witness the flowering of my thought: I gaze at it, I listen to it: I set my bow moving: the symphony stirs into life in the depths, or comes leaping on to the stage.”

[J'assiste à l'éclosion de ma pensée : je la regarde, je l'écoute : je lance un coup d'archet : la symphonie fait son remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d'un bond sur la scène.]

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Mr Hotchkiss and the stapler

I asked a group of managers in Tokyo to name their personal favourite inventions. We got a diverse range of proposals from them. Then they asked me for mine.

The humble paper staple, together with its stapler, I said. Such a deceptively simple piece of engineering.

It overcame all the disadvantages of its celebrated predecessor, the paperclip. The great adman, David Ogilvy, exhorted us to abandon the paperclip in favour of the staple in his Confessions of an Advertising Man. I never travel without it.

But who invented it? I’d never known. Well, they told me in Tokyo, in Japan it’s called a Hotchkiss. Was Mr Hotchkiss by any chance the inventor?

Apparently not. He seems merely to have been the importer of the product to the land of the rising sun.

So who did invent it? This is not quite so simple a question as one might expect.

George W McGill patented an early version in the USA in 1866 and continued to develop his product through the 1880s. Meanwhile CH Gould, working in parallel with McGill, took out a patent in England in 1868. Rather like early mobile phones, these initial staplers were bulky and heavy.

The slim and elegant product that we know today was invented by another Englishman, John Munford. He sold it to his employer in the early twentieth century (at a low price) and never has been properly recognised for his work.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Can Manila do a Barcelona?

Last week I gave a masterclass on Brand Renovation for a group of senior managers from diverse backgrounds in Manila. And at the heart of it was a case study on the transformation of Barcelona in the years running up to the 1992 Olympic Games.

I was lucky enough to be consulting for the International Olympic Committee through several Games and later I was able to research the impact and heritage of Olympic cities for this masterclass. I interviewed a range of personalities who had been involved in various capacities, with Barcelona emerging clearly with the “Gold Medal”.

Historically, in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, that city had been substantially passed by – a sleepy, scruffy, post-industrial conurbation, full of traffic jams.

Under the leadership of its mayor, Pasqual Maragall, a comprehensive new strategy was developed which involved:

the cleaning up of the historic parts of the city, including the wonderful and unique boulevard, Las Ramblas;
the redevelopment of the port area;
the upgrading of the airport and the transformation of the city's main road system;
the building of new sports stadia of various sizes, with the main one earmarked as a major venue for gigs, and home for the city’s second football team, Deportiva Español;
the positioning of Barcelona as a centre for creativity and the arts, with the great architect, Gaudi as the figurehead, plus the artists Picasso and Miró;
a hub for design, fashion and the advertising industry.

At the heart of the strategy, the city competed for and won a whole series of major international events – sporting, entertainment, business, expo and so on. The cherry on the top of the cake was winning the Olympics and the city used that as the lever to get all the urban renewal done.

The consequence of this exciting project has been that Barcelona is no longer a place to be avoided. In fact, for many years now it has become the number one city in Europe for “quality of life”, in the Top 5 for “doing business”, and a Mecca for tourists and (especially) honeymooners.

In post-Olympics research, visitors have described the city as “enchanting”, “exciting”, “cosmopolitan”, “my favourite”, “vibrant” and “oozing style and culture”.

At the masterclass in Manila, we used the Barcelona story as stimulus for thinking creatively together about how their own capital might be similarly transformed – in its own particular way.

So fifty fine minds brainstormed a wide range of possibilities, from which they selected eight ideas as being of particular promise, developing each of them into draft parts of a new strategy for the city.

Hopefully, these will be presented some time soon to the newly-appointed Secretary for Tourism in the Philippines, Ramon Jimenez Jr. There are high hopes for this visionary appointment – unusually Mr Jimenez is regarded as something of a guru in creativity and marketing communications. He was with Saatchi and Saatchi before founding his own creative businesses.

Manila has such enormous potential – if it can be tapped!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Open Innovation and P&G

It has always puzzled me as to why Procter and Gamble has garnered such kudos from embracing Open Innovation.

For me, it has always gone without saying that openness to the outside world is critically important in the search for powerful new collaborations, new insights, new connections and new ideas. Most of the companies that I have worked with were engaged in Open Innovation long before P&G got themselves into that particular boat.

My assumption is that the concept became attached to them as a result of their then CEO, AG Lafley, and his very public pronouncements on the subject some ten years ago. These were aimed, I’ve always supposed, primarily at his own staff around the world, getting them to change radically their way of thinking and being.

For up to that point Procter and Gamble had always been one of the most introverted and secretive organisations imaginable. This had enormous benefits in the areas of strategic and operational focus, but had made breakthrough innovation doubly difficult for them.

The switch has certainly made a big difference for the company – but, in truth, it was not before time.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

40 Years On with Fox’s Glacier Mints

Everywhere I went in Manila I was astonished to encounter Fox’s Glacier Mints – made in Indonesia.

And, a while ago at home in England, I noticed a TV commercial on air for the brand. It caught my attention because the campaign is now one of the few survivors from my long and very happy career in the advertising business. One of the greatest aims in advertising is to come up with an idea that is “campaignable” – one that will be constantly adaptable and last for several years.

We were originally awarded the account by Rowntree’s following their acquisition of the brand, I think around 1971. So, rather extraordinarily, the campaign has now lasted, in a somewhat low-key way, across four full decades.

I recall so clearly the internal meeting when the idea first surfaced. Every creative team in the agency had been invited to come up with submissions, so the creative director’s office was packed with writers and art directors and their aspirant ideas.

In the midst of a stream of presentations, the youngest, newest copywriter mumbled his way through a five minute scenario: the bear on the mint (representing management) was verbally assaulted by the fox (an angry trade union leader), who simply could not understand why the bear was in what should be his own rightful place up top of that mint.

The creative director of the day told the young man, rather sarcastically, that five minutes was a ridiculous time-length. What was needed was a 30 second campaign. So we moved straight on to the next submission. It was beginning to look as though we had no real winners among them.

It struck me that the rivalry of the fox and bear could run and run – a really big, relevant, adaptable and simple idea. And I said so.

A bit reluctantly, it seemed to me, but because I pressed him hard, the CD asked the oldest, wisest, most experienced writer in his department to pick up the idea and try to turn it into something more practical. This he did. Went on to several important prizes for creativity. And soon got a better job in another agency.

But who was the brilliant young writer whose original idea it had been? I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember his name. Anyone know?

Monday, 7 November 2011

José Rizal: pioneer of non-violent revolution

Although I’ve gone to work in Manila on several occasions, it’s really only because I have connected on this current trip with some very interesting Filipinos that I’ve finally come to grips with José Rizal.

Rizal was a very early proponent of non-violent revolution. Born in 1861, he wrote and published two novels – Noli Me Tángere and its sequel El Filibusterismo – which attacked both the Spanish colonists and the grip over the people of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.

While his aim was freedom from oppression, he was clear that there could be bear-traps in the path once that had been achieved. "Why independence,” he asked, “if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?" And, of course, this pit was indeed fallen into by a later generation. His life and work were influential for both Gandhi and Nehru.

He was an extraordinary man – a polymath beyond the boundaries of possibility, it might seem, having expertise in anthropology, architecture, botany, business, cartography, drama, economics, education, engineering, essay-writing, entomology, ethnology, farming, folklore, geography, grammar, history, horticulture, journalism, lexicography, medicine, music, novel-writing, ophthalmology, painting, philosophy, poetry, political theory, psychology, publishing, satire, sculpture, sports, sociology and zoology. Having traveled the world, he amassed twenty-two languages.

Yesterday, amongst much else, I saw some of his sculpture. Very accomplished.

His final poem, written in Spanish shortly before his death, starts

Farewell, my adored Land, region of the sun caressed,
Pearl of the Orient Sea, our Eden lost…

And, celebrating his unwed Irish wife, Josephine Bracken, it ends

Farewell, sweet stranger, my friend, my joy;
Farewell, to all I love. To die is to rest.

Rizal was executed by firing squad in 1896, aged just thirty-five.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Steve Jobs. Saint?

Working this week in Manila with a wonderful group of young Filipino leader/managers, I’ve been asked several times why I have not written about Steve Jobs since his death one month ago.

I think the truth is that I have been wrestling internally with a couple of issues.

On the one hand, there’s no doubt that, particularly since his return second time around to the company he founded, Apple’s story has been one of continuous and spectacular success. And he has written and spoken inspiringly.

So what’s the problem?

Well, for one thing it’s clear that the great successes of the company were all built on the innovations of others – from the laptop to the iPad. And all the other blockbusters in between. Picking up other people’s inventions and improving them for the customer is good, but really doesn’t make Jobs comparable with, say, Thomas Edison, who was the founding father of so many of the world-changing innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

And then there’s the man who has been described as “Jobs the Tyrant”. Years ago I was told that it was not a good idea for an Apple staffer to get into an elevator with Steve. Apparently there was a good chance that you might emerge unemployed. I guess that story is more emblematic than literally true.

And yet, since then I have continuously heard and read about the tantrums and tirades, the disrespectful ways that colleagues could be treated.

No doubt the upside to all this was a sense within the organisation of what people call “creative tension” - tension which can drive performance. At least in the short run.

Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, said recently: “In the end, you have to judge him on the outcome.” Right now, the Apple juggernaut rolls on, apparently unstoppable.

Only time will tell what the outcome will be now that he is gone. Will enhancing the innovations of others be sufficient? And how will the climate change in Apple now that he no longer visits the building?

Maybe in future I should include Apple in Brand Renovation masterclasses that I give. For, in my mind, the company is a superb “renovator”, rather than being a real innovator.

By the way, are you coming along on Tuesday in Manila?

Manila Masterclass with Roger Neill, 8 November 2011

Thursday, 3 November 2011

On seeing and not seeing into the future

It’s always a risky business.

In the period before the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, I made several working trips to the various capital cities of Central and Eastern Europe.

Following a trip to Prague early in 1989, I came home and said to whomever would listen, “It’s going to be all over in months. They just need to push at the door”. And the Prague Spring, the Velvet Revolution, happened just a few months later.

A few weeks after Prague, I made my first trip to East Berlin. Through Checkpoint Charlie, for a meeting of the board of directors of the International Advertising Association. After dinner, I went out walking the city with my dear friend, the late Michel Reinarz, communications boss of Nestlé.

All I could see were the telltale signs of an autocratic and repressive regime – policemen with sub-machine guns and German Shepherd dogs, barbed wire, watchtowers, floodlighting, the Wall. The whole kit. And no signs of life evident at all in this great capital city in the late evening.

So I went home and announced to colleagues that, in my opinion, it would be a decade or more before any real change would be possible there, so strong did the grip of the communists appear.

How wrong I was. Thousands started to leave East Germany and demonstrations sprung up – all without the benefit of today’s social networking – most famously in Leipzig. This was led by the chief conductor of the city’s legendary Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur. Just like in Prague, it was all over so quickly. And by November the first sections of the wall were demolished.

We can’t always predict the future with any accuracy. But still we have to try – to do the best we can. A problem is that there’s no evidence that politicians, journalists and senior managers are any better at this than the rest of us.

I miss Michel. He was a life-enhancer.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Democracy in Libya?

Since writing about the influence of Gene Sharp’s book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, I’ve been thinking about Libya.

One of Dr Sharp’s core contentions is that it is almost never the best strategy to meet the force of dictators with force. He offers a wide range of non-violent alternatives, all of them proven to be successful.

What he says about the use of violence is twofold:

First that it rarely is successful because the dictator nearly always has much greater firepower at his command.

And second that experience shows that in this situation it is more likely for one dictatorship to be followed by another.

Time will show whether the use of military might in Libya will have led to freedom and democracy. Or whether this aspiration has been fatally compromised.

By the way, Dr Sharp encourages us to download his (shortish) book free.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Sources of the Arab Spring

Have you read Dr Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy?

Combined with the dramatic growth of social media, it’s certainly one of the most influential books of the early twentieth century. And his whole approach represents a major innovation in political life around the world.

Basically Sharp promotes the idea that change is much more likely to be brought about by the skilful use of non-violent strategies, some of them originally developed by Gandhi.

Perhaps the most recent examples of the practical application of his theories have been in what is called the Arab Spring, but before that his work was influential in Serbia, Ukraine, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Latin America, China, Tibet, Iran and elsewhere. In some cases this led to democracy replacing dictatorship, and in others the process has yet to lead to real change.

Gene Sharp himself is now in his eighties and lives in Boston. The documentary film made by the British TV journalist, Ruaridh Arrow, based on Sharp and his work, “How to Start a Revolution”, is wowing audiences at film festivals currently. Looking forward to seeing that.

In recent weeks, I have thinking about how his approach can be adapted and applied in dictatorial and autocratic regimes within corporations and in academia.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The chasm between intent and effect

How often in life we get the wrong end of the stick.

This can have disastrous, destructive consequences, not only in terms of our interpersonal relationships, but also in the area of creativity.

For example: Person A says to Person B, “That shirt is the wrong colour for you.”

What does B do in response?

They may choose to ignore it and move on.

Or B may take offence, taking A’s observation as an uncalled for intrusion, and make one of a range of responses:

“I don’t recall asking for your opinion.” Or

“What’s this to you?” Or

“You’re quite wrong. It’s just right for me.” Or

“Please mind your own business.”

These are just a few of samples of how A’s statement can be dealt with by B. The problem with all these is that, in turn, A may well take offence at the bluntness of B’s response – and consider how to follow up in kind.

You know where this is going. A sequence of traded insults, sometimes cloaked in apparent politeness, can easily happen. It can go on for minutes, hours or days, weeks, months or even years.

This is sometimes called a Discount Revenge Cycle. And it can have the effect of closing down communications, not just between A and B, but throughout the whole team. The resulting damage to creative productivity can be immense.

So how can this negative cycle be stopped and even changed to something more constructive?

The simple answer is for one or other (or both) of the participants to ASSUME POSITIVE INTENTION. Maybe to respond: “That’s interesting – tell me some more.”

It doesn’t always work, but it stands a much better chance of doing so than sending a heat-seeking missile back at the offender.

And it can set up the opposite of the Discount Revenge Cycle – what might be called a Positive Cooperation Cycle. That is so much more likely to create a climate of creative possibility.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Revisiting Tom Stoppard’s Travesties

I went on a double pilgrimage yesterday.

First to see Tom Stoppard’s play, Travesties. It’s thirty seven years since I first saw it in its first run in London. Although many of its allusions passed me by then, I already knew that it was to be one of the finest works of twentieth century theatre.

Set in First World War Zurich, multi-layered and filled with reference from other works and worlds – Oscar Wilde, Dadaism, Lenin and Marxism, Shakespeare and James Joyce among them – nevertheless it communicated so clearly. And with such constant wit.

It was so wonderful to see it again. A play of great genius. Fine production and playing – rightly focused on the words.

I’ve been lucky enough to catch three Stoppard plays in recent times – The Real Inspector Hound, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (both at Chichester) and now Travesties. Hopefully I’ll see more soon.

The second purpose of my pilgrimage was to visit, for the first time, the Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham. My father used to speak of it, and of its founding director Barry Jackson, with great warmth.

The theatre was built in 1913 and for several decades Jackson presented there pioneering, ground-breaking productions of plays old and new, building a worldwide reputation. Perfect for Travesties, it’s a small theatre, seating just 464. I suppose that was just one of reasons why the Birmingham Rep company abandoned it in the 1970s. But I never warmed to their new venue.

Perhaps they should consider going home.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Nellie Melba and The Star Spangled Banner

As we all know, a vital ability in life is to respond creatively to an unforeseen threat quickly and decisively.

The great Australian diva, Nellie Melba, was set to sing Rosina in The Barber of Seville in San Francisco in 1898. Nothing unusual about that. It was one of her regular and best roles.

The problem was that the opera is set in Spain and, at that moment, Spain was threatening to invade and lay claim to Cuba. War appeared imminent and anti-Spanish feeling in the USA was running high. At the performance, although Melba herself was treated courteously by the audience, the barber, Figaro, was roundly booed.

What to do?

It so happens that in Act 2 there is a singing lesson where the composer, Rossini, allows Rosina to perform a song of her own choosing “ad libitum”. In San Francisco, the piano was pushed on stage, and Melba, a fine pianist, accompanied herself singing one of America’s favourite songs of the day, Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”. And, when the applause had died down a little, she followed up immediately with “The Star Spangled Banner”.

A local reporter noted: “People rose in their seats and cheered themselves hoarse.” The audience wept – the diva with them. Problem solved.

Sadly there are no recordings by her of those songs, nor of The Barber of Seville, so here she is singing (dazzlingly) the Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust in 1905:

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Best language for brainstorming?

I have found over the years that brainstorming is best done in local language.

Quite simply, the freshest ideas seem to come into our heads most readily in whatever vernacular we learn in childhood. And they are most easily expressed verbally in that language too.

This is not so easy when, as is usually the case in workshops with multinational companies, the common tongue is second-language English.

My Lintas colleague, Eleanor Modesto, discovered this vividly when she went from Manila to be managing director of the agency in Indonesia. She quickly discovered that the language of business in Jakarta is Bahasa Indonesia, so she got down to learning it, becoming expert enough in the language to pass as a local.

Yet it remained clear to her that being able to speak a language is one thing, whereas thinking in it, having ideas in it, is another thing altogether.

“Sometimes, it’s better to think conceptually in Tagalog [the major Filipino language],” Eleanor has said. “I would ask them ‘Do you have an idiom like this?’” And instead of generating ideas from “Man of Steel,” she would throw Filipino idioms like “tibay ng loob” [loosely translated as strength of character] into the mix, enriching the whole process.

Of course, I’ve discovered over the years that the facilitation of workshops in local language(s) brings greater complexity and requires special skills…

To explore this and much more, come to my Brand Renovation Masterclass in Manila, 8 November:

Monday, 17 October 2011

Living life backwards

I’ve just signed on as a student.

I’m starting a doctoral course in music history at Goldsmiths College, which is part of London University, specialising in the arts and humanities.

My father groomed me to follow in his footsteps in medicine, but I don’t remember ever showing any real interest in that path. It seemed to me some fifty years ago that the only way to escape was to fail my ‘A’ levels and go to work. So that’s what I did.

Now, in my 60s, I may well fulfil my father’s wish and become a doctor – though not exactly in the field he anticipated for me.

It’s an exciting new chapter.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

To be or not to be – is it original?

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” The best known line in all literature?

And we all know where it comes from…

But is it original?

No, says Professor John Sutherland in a recent review in Literary Review magazine. In fact, Shakespeare would have known perfectly well that his contemporary Christopher Marlowe wrote in the opening soliloquy in his Doctor Faustus, “Bid Oncaymaeon farewell.”

The Greek Oncaymaeon translates, says Professor Sutherland, as “being and not being”.

He goes on to point out that Faustus himself is a professor of philosophy at Wittenburg University. “And where is Hamlet a student of philosophy?” he asks. “The University of ….”

So Hamlet (or rather Shakespeare) is in effect not thinking but quoting.

Does it matter? Not at all.

It just goes to show that, in one way or another, everything that is new grows out of what already exists – in science and technology as in the arts.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Tale of the Unknown Island

I was working in Porto and was surprised that the participants in my Innovation Masterclass, all Portuguese, were so convinced that they and their compatriots were not really innovative. I reminded them of the proud Portuguese history of discovery, but they were not convinced.

Perhaps they had not read the short story by their own novelist, José Saramago, “The Story of the Unknown Island”. It opens: "A man went to knock at the king's door and said, Give me a boat..."

Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

The story is in the form of a fable and covers so many of the critical issues in creativity and innovation in a hierarchical society – powerful bosses, having clarity of vision or destination, managing doubts, the value of persistence, and courage, paying attention to one’s dreams, breaking away from current wisdom, finding partners with complementary attitudes and skills, realising that we already have the answer within. And much else besides.

I picked it up at the suggestion of my friend, the composer and trombone-maestro, Simon Wills.

Do read it! And let me know what it says to you.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Thrilla in Manila

November 8 I’ll be doing a Masterclass focused on Brand Renovation in the Philippines.

Come along!

A case study I’ll be covering there will be on Olympic Cities – the ways in which they brought about improved image, tourism and urban renewal. Or not.

After all cities are, amongst other things, brands. In Manila we’ll be awarding gold, silver and bronze medals. And a wooden spoon.

I was lucky enough to have the International Olympic Committee as a client for several years, so I was able to observe all this at close quarters. And more recently I set about researching the whole business in some depth.

It brought to mind the “Thrilla in Manila”, the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier in 1975. All the world tuned in. And it was an astonishing event.

Trouble is: it was held in Manila at the suggestion of President Marcos, who wanted to distract attention from the social upheaval that the Philippines was experiencing. And it left no tangible legacy for Manila whatsoever.

I hope that one of the conversations that we’ll have there will be: how to mount another major sporting event that might have a more enduring transformative effect on that city.

Got any ideas?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Individuals or teams for breakthrough creativity?

For years I believed that the best ideas emerged collaboratively. As international managing partner of Synectics for many years, a leading proponent of team creativity, that’s what you’d expect.

I’m not so sure any more.

It’s gradually become clearer to me that real ground-breaking ideas are more often hatched in the brains of highly creative individuals. Think Galileo, Harrison, Einstein, Edison.

Certainly Edison’s biggest breakthrough ideas were conceived in solitude – but he was also superb in organising his innovation project teams to work systematically towards implementation once he’d made that initial imaginative leap.

In my experience team creativity is generally better for more day-to-day creativity, for problem-solving, for the creation of strategy and for getting the team fully on board.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Microphones changed the way we sing

One of the most important inventions of the early twentieth century was the microphone. It came into general use in the recording industry in the mid-1920s.

Of course, over time they became not only a means of transferring and enhancing sound, they also profoundly influenced the way in which singers sang.

No longer did performers need to project their voices to the back row of the gods, as opera and music-hall singers had always learned to do. In fact, they could sing very quietly and still be heard clearly.

An early example of this is Harry Plunket Greene’s recording of Schubert’s “The Hurdy Gurdy Man”. Born in 1865, the Irish baritone had necessarily learned the art of projecting his voice.

But by the time of the recording he was 69 years old and his voice was a pale shadow of what it had been in his prime. So he almost whispered into the microphone. The result is extraordinary.

Let me know what you think…

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

“We’ve got plenty of ideas”

In a recent Comment, Arun Prabhu of Arla wrote: “Where I work we are growing in ideas, every time someone runs an idea generation session of any sort, the same "brilliant" ideas come up. The credit deserves to go to the ones who push ideas through the system, into reality and make them succeed.”

So often I hear from clients that they have plenty of ideas, but have difficulty turning them into reality.

It’s a very real issue and for that reason I do more masterclasses on the subject of “Turning Ideas into Action” than any other.

And yet…

Do these organisations really have a surfeit of good ideas? Of ground-breaking new thinking? I’m not so sure.

And the unintended consequence of placing all the emphasis on implementation, as some do, can so easily be that over time the ideas themselves become atrophied, a pale shadow of what will make a real difference, and the flow can start to dry up.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Giving thanks for the life and work of Lord Harewood

On Friday I went to the Thanksgiving Service for the life of Lord Harewood at All Saints Church, Harewood. Several of our greatest singers performed for us, including Sarah Connolly, Mark Padmore and Sir John Tomlinson. Moving tributes were paid to him by the conductor, Sir Mark Elder, and the footballer, Jack Charlton.

What an extraordinary achievement his working career was. Born into a family not noted for its devotion to the arts, he was first cousin to the Queen and a grandson of King George V and Queen Mary. As a young man he fought in the Second World War and was a prisoner-of-war at Colditz in Germany.

After the war he joined the staff of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, going on to direct annual music festivals in Edinburgh, Leeds, Adelaide and Buxton. Later he joined the English National Opera first as managing director and then as chairman.

His time leading the ENO was the triumphant peak of his career, and I was lucky enough to be there for many of the finest productions of that era. He brought together a brilliant and innovative artistic team, with Charles Mackerras and then Mark Elder as musical directors, and a superb company of singers.

Was he the first member of the British royal family to have a full working life, aside, that is, from joining the military or running the family business?

Friday, 30 September 2011

CEOs and innovation training

A recent study by PwC/Accenture shows that globally 80% of CEOs believe that innovation will drive efficiencies and lead to competitive advantage.

Percentages very close to this come up in most surveys of top managers, time after time.

The problem of course remains that the majority of CEOs themselves have very limited training or hands-on experience in the field of innovation. Most of them attended business school and grew through the ranks at a time when specialised training was not widely available, and many have not actively worked in an innovation function.

It would perhaps be OK if several of them recognised this and went about fixing it. But in my experience that very rarely happens.

So classic problems remain within organisations as barriers to successful innovation – problems not only of climate and culture and inappropriate personal behaviour, but also the belief that having a standardised innovation process is the primary route to glory.

Many organisations would benefit from an honest, root and branch review of their innovation capabilities, coupled with the open-mindedness to deal with whatever issues emerge, starting with the CEOs themselves.

Throughout my time in innovation, I’ve found that CEOs think that innovation training is important, but only for THEM, not for ME.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The fallacy of fairness

We live in a world that appears to assume that there is some objective way of assessing fairness. In reality, fairness is always only in the eye of the beholder.

So it’s surprising and refreshing to find the CEO of a very successful multinational company - one whose appeal has always to bring outstanding value for money to consumers everywhere - come out so openly in contradiction.

Mikael Ohlsson, boss of IKEA, said recently: “What decides how much a lamp should cost? Only imagination sets the limits.”

At the end of the day (as our footballers put it), it’s always the market that decides.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Passing of Nellie Melba’s granddaughter

Sad to note the death in Australia at 92 of Pamela, Lady Vestey, at her home, Coombe Cottage at Coldstream in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.

She was the adored granddaughter of the great Australian diva, Dame Nellie Melba. Coombe Cottage had been built by Melba in 1910, and Lady Vestey lived there, guardian of Melba’s legacy, for the last four decades of her life.

I met her some ten years ago at a talk on Melba’s recordings at the Athenaeum Theatre in nearby Lilydale. I had been advised that she was quite deaf and would probably not hear much of it. But, of course, the difficulty in hearing among the elderly is at its most severe in social situations, where there is a lot of ambient noise. I noticed this chatting with her before the talk.

Then, when I started, the theatre fell silent and her face turned towards me. And when I played the first of the Melba recordings – the “Mad Scene” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor – she positively beamed with pleasure. Clearly she heard it well enough, the memory of her grandmother’s voice flooding back.

We have lost a gracious lady, one of the last links with that Golden Age.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Virgin birth for Egg?

I’ve been re-reading an article from 2008 in The Director magazine about Mike Harris. Apparently he’s the “creator of banking pioneers First Direct and Egg”.

Turns out neither of these innovations was actually Harris’s idea. And, what’s more, “Harris isn’t too concerned where the ideas came from”.

Aaaah. Virgin birth? Wonder how the actual originators of both ideas feel about that? Who were they?

More recently Harris has been part-time “chairman of innovation” at RBS. Think I’m getting a picture here.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Creativity and the Inner Child

He lived most of his adult life as a rather well-organised trader in, amongst other things, coffee and guns in the Middle East and Africa. He kept neat books.

Yet between the ages of fifteen (in 1870) and twenty, he had written a series of extraordinary poems that led him to be regarded by many as the founding father of modern poetry. And then no more.

He was Arthur Rimbaud.

His poems can still disturb, even shock. “Je est un autre,” he wrote. “I is someone else”.

In his later life he went so far as to describe his own poetic creations as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting”. Endeavouring to make sense of the change in Rimbaud, his former friend and lover, Paul Verlaine, said: “One big reason, perhaps obvious, is that the child in him died.”

His work has gripped so many – not least the composer, Benjamin Britten, who made an electrifying setting of parts of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. That opens:

J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.

I alone have the key to this savage show.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Myth of the Brand Life Cycle

Throughout my working life, there has been a concept, a marketing trope, a metaphor that has consistently been held as a “truth” – the brand/product life cycle. I won’t bore you with the theory. You know it.

It’s just that it has never seemed to me to have any validity, nor be of any use. Fundamentally it’s derived from the concept of animal life cycles, of course. These happen naturally, whereas brand/product life cycles occur through lack of imagination and lack of will.

Well and continuously marketed and innovated, there’s no reason why brands should not go on indefinitely.

Here are sixteen brands that I’ve personally worked on the marketing and innovation of that were launched well before I was born and will be here long after I’ve gone:

Louis Vuitton (born 1854)
Bacardi (1862)
London Underground (1863)
Nestlé (1866)
Campbell Soup (1869)
Toshiba (1875)
Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles (1881)
Marks & Spencer (1884)
Coca-Cola (1886)
Smirnoff (1886)
Philips (1891)
Fairy Soap (1898)
Persil (1903)
Evian (1908)
Johnnie Walker (1909)
Electrolux (1919)

The people working so hard on them today are, just as I have been over the years, custodians.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

My first presentation

At twenty-three I was entrusted with presenting the new ad campaign for Rowntree’s Jellies. I think that this was because it was the smallest of our Rowntree brands, with the smallest budget. So it was not deemed sufficiently important for anyone more senior to go up to their headquarters in York with it.

I’d never presented anything before. Ever.

I practiced on the train from King’s Cross, silently running through the strategy, the media plan (whole pages in women’s magazines), the creative variants we’d tried and the approach we finally adopted. Great big display boards with hand-drawn coloured layouts on them.

I was shown into the marketing director Ralph Kaner’s office. There he had a phalanx of Rowntree people from assistant brand manager upwards. They were all somewhat in awe of him.

I did the business. And then I fielded questions, starting with the most junior and working my way up to Ralph. It all seemed to be going quite well.

“I have just one question,” said Ralph. “Why does the headline have these nobbly bits on the letters?”

My mind went a complete blank. Why did it have those nobbly bits? I had no idea.

“Appetite appeal,” I blurted, hoping that it would sound less stupid to them than it did to me. And I smiled nervously.

“I like it,” said Ralph. Campaign sold.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Saying “Yes” and meaning “No”

Working with a multinational company in Tokyo, I was training a group of managers in creative thinking and problem-solving. It was a mixed group of Japanese and expat Europeans.

One of the Europeans, a Brit, got irritated with his Japanese colleagues and announced: “The trouble with you guys is that you don’t tell the truth.”

Shocked silence in the room.

I encouraged the Brit to say some more about what he was thinking. “Well, you guys endlessly say ‘Yes’ when you mean ‘No’,” he blundered on. “It’s very confusing.”

In the break that followed, I took him aside. “Like you, I notice that our Japanese colleagues have multiple ways of doing this,” I said to him. “But haven’t you noticed that we do too?”

“Like what?”

“Well, a regular standby for us is ‘In principle I agree with you’. We know it means “No”, but do you suppose that everyone else knows that?”

Do you have some good yeses that mean no?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Best way to murder an idea

Over the years I’ve noticed (and written about) a handful of highly effective ways in which ideas may be murdered.

A regular and particularly lethal one is to form a committee.

As Sir Barnett Cox (a former Clerk of the House of Commons) famously observed: “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured, then quietly strangled.”

Which are your favourite ways?

(By the way, I notice that several things that I wrote – including a piece called “Ways to murder an idea” – are included verbatim in various British government websites on creativity and innovation, completely uncredited. Should I be flattered or pissed off?)

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Best thing since…

How is it that sliced bread became the byword for step-change in innovation?

The key to it was the creation of a machine that would slice a loaf of bread evenly. This was invented by one Otto Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, who built his first prototype in 1912 – so next year is its centenary.

Unfortunately, in 1917 his prototypes were destroyed in a fire, together with the blueprints, and it was not until 1928 that he had a fully functional machine ready. What took him so long?

Were there insuperable obstacles? Certainly the early response of bakeries to the concept was not enthusiastic. Maybe he ran out of cash? Did it take him a long time to obtain a patent? Did he go away to war? Were there lots of other nifty inventions from him in the meantime?

And if sliced bread is such a significant thing, why don’t we all know about Mr Rohwedder?

Rohwedder’s loaf-slicer was first used by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Missouri – and was a success immediately. In 1930 sliced Wonder Bread became the first brand to market the product nationally. It was the coincidental invention of the pop-up toaster that gave massive added stimulus to the growth of sliced bread.

So what would be outstanding candidates for the role of “Best Thing Since Sliced Bread”?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Creating wealth: getting back to basics

Lunch yesterday with an old friend, the brilliant Australian winemaker, Julian Castagna (left).

He has always been uncompromising in his pursuit of excellence – that’s why his wines are so highly regarded. In recent years he has pioneered the introduction in upstate Victoria of traditional Italian grape varieties to Australia – a market still swamped by shiraz and chardonnay.

We reminisced about a campaign we worked on together (in previous lives) in the late 1970s for the Institute of Directors in London. We’d been hired by the then Director-General, Jan Hildreth, to communicate to the Great British Public that, in order to pay for public services – education, health, defence etc – the taxes that paid for them were only generated from continuously created wealth. And that the only way to create wealth was to sell goods and services profitably.

We didn’t pursue the project when Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party co-opted the thinking into the core of its 1979 campaign – the one that swept her into power – and then into all the changes that kick-started the British economy again through the 1980s.

I keep thinking that we might usefully resurrect it now. People do seem to have lost the plot again, not least our Conservative/Lib Dem government in Britain. They appear to know that getting the economy moving ahead is top priority.

But liberalising the planning laws as the main event? I don’t think so. The answers lie in substantially greater incentivisation and reduced bureaucracy for entrepreneurs and innovators.