Sunday, 27 February 2011


The British are not alone in having a hundred ways of saying “Yes” when we mean “No”.

One of the most effective (and irritating) is the “Yes, but…” formulation, especially when it’s used in response to hearing a new idea for the first time. It has the trappings of positive response, with the sting in the tail. It can sound open-minded without being.

In 1934 the Czech writer, Karel Capek, wrote a piece entitled “About But-people”:

“If you tell them that two twos are four, they will promptly reply with a certain superiority ‘Yes, but, my friend, two threes are six’,” wrote Capek. “Whereupon they leave you feeling satisfied they didn’t yield a point.”

But-people, he concludes, “are by nature poor conductors, so the passing of communication disappears in them.”

“Yes, and…” can be so much more useful - often leading to productive problem-solving.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Music downloads and piracy

Pirates are stealing 19 out of 20 music downloads, according to current research.

There are a number of negative consequences, both for artists and companies, large and small - amongst these that global sales of debut albums have fallen by over 75% since 2003. So it’s not just Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga and EMI and Warner who are suffering.

Of course, there have been similar situations in the past. For example, when public libraries grew in popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the publishing industry had to come up with a radical new way of protecting revenues and remunerating authors, resulting in the adoption of the Public Lending Right programme after the second world war.

The music industry needs to stop whinging about the current situation - and get down to inventing and implementing a new solution which fits with the world as it is now. Bleating won’t solve the problem.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Nothing to do with me, mate

My friend Peter Quantrill was a bit shocked by the inept response of the chairman of Australia’s cricket selectors, Andrew Hilditch, following his team’s drubbing at the hands of England in the Ashes series in Sydney.

“I think we’ve done a very good job as a selection panel,” said Hilditch, unable to shoulder any responsibility for the rout.

“I figure someone in his position would have undertaken a modicum of media training,” Peter wrote to me.

And yesterday we had MI5’s chief of staff, giving evidence at the inquest into the 7/7 bombings in London, saying that it would be “nonsensical and offensive” to suggest that the security service bore any responsibility for the 52 deaths. (Silly me. I’d thought it was their job to detect and forestall such things.)

It all puts me in mind of the recent BP fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact, although I occasionally coach people in media relations, I'm rather ambivalent about the value of media training. For example, if BP CEO Tony Hayward (above) had been better coached, he might not have veered wildly between the inappropriate and the obstructive, and could well still be top dog there.

In the end, I’d rather leaders were just themselves in response to media interrogation. Better for everyone in the long run.

And always better to assume responsibility.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

On not being Eric Clapton

Playing with the Idle Hands in the mid-1960s was an exciting and joyful experience. We had plenty of work. Much was around our north London base (Hampstead, Highgate, Golders Green…), where we played well-paid birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs and so on for the offspring of wealthy parents. Quite frequently, it seemed, the police would show up in the early hours of the morning following complaints from neighbours about the noise level. Not surprising, I guess, given that we often played in a marquee in daddy’s garden.

The rest consisted of regular (but miserably compensated) club gigs – mostly the Witches Cauldron of blessed memory in Belsize Park, and the wonderful Marquee in Wardour Street, Soho. Alongside the slave-labour wages in those clubs, there was always the chance that we might get spotted and be given fabulous recording contracts.

One evening, after our set at the Marquee, I settled down with a beer to listen to the headline act – John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. As usual, good, I thought. But not especially so. The Idle Hands was a pretty good band too.

Then, in the middle of their set, on slouched a young guy with longer hair, shoulders hunched, back to the audience. He plugged in, twiddled a bit, turned round, and took off.

It was Clapton. Eric. Slowhand. God.

This was a kind of virtuosity so far out of my league that it persuaded me that I should no longer be dedicating my life to becoming a career rock-musician.

Maybe there was some other way in which I might excel. But what?

Friday, 18 February 2011

Galileo and university silos

A genius with the widest of interests, Galileo Galilei was so much more than an astronomer.

Musician, philosopher, inventor, artist, engineer, mathematician, physicist, designer and superb writer. The ultimate polymath. Einstein described him as the father of modern science. A total “renaissance man” (as they say nowadays).

The question is: what might Galileo have studied in today’s siloed university system, where narrow specialisation is the norm? A handful of universities, including City in London, now offer some exciting interdisciplinary courses, but it’s mostly the students who get the benefit of these, not really the teaching staff. There seems to be minimal communication - even between disciplines that appear to be adjacent to each other, like music and musicology.

Would he have been accepted in the first place? And if he had been, and had gone on to pursue a postgraduate path, would he have produced a quarter of what he eventually achieved?

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Giving thanks for Dame Joan

Went yesterday to the Thankgiving Service at Westminster Abbey for the great Australian soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland. Packed house. Wonderful occasion.

She had a career spanning half a century, singing in all the great opera houses of the world, but her artistic home was always the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. I was lucky enough to see and hear her often, both there and later at Sydney Opera House. Unassuming and full of fun, she was the most undivaish of divas.

After hearing the Abbey choir sing Byrd and we had mumbled a hymn, suddenly, there she was - recorded early in her career, singing Handel’s “Let the Bright Seraphim”. Dazzling technique. Incredible flexibility. Gorgeous creamy voice. Fabulous breath control.

Coached throughout her career by her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge, she had brought a new dimension to the singing of 18th and early 19th century music.

It occurred to me, listening to that stream of notes, that she and Bonynge had not only re-introduced the opera world to a hatful of forgotten masterpieces, particularly the so-called bel canto operas of Donizetti and Bellini, but also that together they had re-created the substantially forgotten art of vocal ornamentation – the kind of thing that pop stars like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera aim to do, by comparison rather crudely, nowadays.

Re-discovery can be just as powerful as discovery in innovation.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Filling the world with fools

Until quite recently I’d always assumed that the phrase “survival of the fittest” was Darwin’s own and came from his On the Origin of Species.

But not at all. In fact it was first coined in a letter in 1866 by the economist and philosopher, Herbert Spencer. He had recently read Darwin’s book and noticed the powerful connections between the biologist’s theory of natural selection and his own ideas about how economies work.

Does everyone know this apart from me?

The thinking of both men has stood the test of time. Fitness for purpose in a changing environment is the best, maybe the only, way to survive.

The only major difference is that, in the biological world, most change comes naturally. Whereas in the economic world, the drive to innovate is primarily the result of our own ideas and wills.

Of course, a major exception occurs when governments intervene to distort the market, as they did following the banking crisis. It remains to be seen whether or not the consequence will have been to improve or reduce the fitness for purpose of all those now publicly-owned organisations.

As Spencer put it: “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”

Friday, 11 February 2011

Dynamic Duo: Dyson and Who?

All the world knows about the brilliance and business success of the British engineer, James Dyson. Widely celebrated as the creative genius behind, amongst others, the bagless vacuum cleaner that showed Hoover the door. Charismatic and articulate front-man. He who talks with prime ministers and presidents.

But, hey, what is it that accounts for the dramatic rise in the company’s business since 1996. The company has grown since that time from £50 million to a staggering £770 million, a fifteenfold increase. At the same time, the company has diversified into 50 countries and is number one in the USA, Japan, much of continental Europe and the company’s home market, Britain.

It was in 1996 that Martin McCourt joined Dyson as a senior manager, becoming CEO in 2001. Clearly Dyson and McCourt make an absolutely outstanding team. What are the ingredients?

“I’m an engineer,” says Dyson, “and I need to know what people might want and where the market might go.” So that’s clear enough. Technical expertise, customer insight and imagination.

But what does McCourt bring to the party? He has described himself as “driven, approachable and questioning.” Three great qualities. But qualities shared with many other top managers.

So what does he look for in new hires? “Come with ideas and have the guts to push for them,” he says. “I like problem-solvers and people with high levels of inquisitiveness.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Especially as recent research tells us that less than one third of British companies have anything to do with ideas, or problem-solving, or inquisitiveness in their recruitment processes.

I wonder what else there is in their particular mutual chemistry?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Avocation and Vocation

Quite often when I’m coaching someone it becomes apparent that they have come to detest their job, yet they still have intense interests within their personal life, which seem to be quite disconnected from what they do at work.

So is it surprising that the creativity stops flowing so freely in the hours for which they are paid? Yet they can remain highly innovative away from their work desk.

This was the situation for me for many years, even though in my case the two worlds are not so far apart. I would bring my best endeavours to my day job, but reserve the passion for research and writing about music and art and literature.

The American poet, Robert Frost, captured the issue neatly in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”. These are the final lines:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

How close are your vocation and your avocation? Would you benefit from drawing them closer together?

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The miracle of aircon

In the midst of a heatwave in midsummer Sydney, temperature at 45.5 degrees Celsius, my friend and colleague Jacki Fortune writes: “Spare a grateful thought for Willis Carrier, inventor of air conditioning.”

Certainly his creation can make life so much easier in sub-tropical Australia, where the temperature soars for a while, and often with it the humidity. But in real tropical climates, where temperature and humidity are constantly high, aircon is not so much a convenience as a necessity. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and a dozen other countries, it creates conditions in which WORK and THINKING can take place. It’s not surprising that, before its arrival, these economies were based only on fishing and farming.

I would even say that the economic miracle of recent decades in South-East Asia simply could not have occurred without air conditioning.

Willis Carrier? He was an American engineer, born in 1876. And his breakthrough drawings were made in 1902. He was granted a patent four years later and continuously improved his “Apparatus” in the following years. Carrier and six colleagues formed a company in New York in 1915. For the first two decades of air conditioning, it was used to cool machines, not people. He died in 1950 with eighty patents to his name.

Not so famous as Thomas Edison. But what a legacy.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Persil washes whiter – and what?

One of JWT’s biggest clients was and is Unilever. And when I was working in the mailroom of the agency forty plus years ago, there seemed to be a major kerfuffle over developing a new tag-line for Persil washing powder. “Persil washes whiter” had done duty, it seemed, for ever, but the company was demanding something new, something better.

All the front-line creative teams had had a go at it, but the client continuously knocked back every submission as inadequate. What to do next?

Well, there was always Bernard. Bernard Gutteridge was by quite a way the oldest copywriter at the agency. You can still find his poems in anthologies of 1930s verse, alongside WH Auden and Cecil Day Lewis and Stephen Spender. That’s how old he was.

The only problem was that, from opening time on, Bernard was to be found in the hostelry over the road in Hill Street Mayfair, the Coach and Horses. And he could be quite cantankerous when interrupted: "Not just the whole face mutinous," as he put it in his poem, "Private".

“B-B-Bernard…” the delegated young account executive opened.


“W-W-Well, you’ll have heard that we’re looking for a new tag-line for Persil, and we wondered if you had some ideas?”


“Persil washes whiter – AND IT SHOWS! Now piss off.”

It ran and ran.

I sense that this little story has several messages for us…