Tuesday, 29 March 2011

In praise of idleness

Engaging article in Lapham’s Quarterly by Sven Birkerts on the pleasures of idleness - http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/essays/the-mother-of-possibility.php .

One of the benefits he teases out in his essay is that idleness is the place where new thoughts, new ideas, new connections are born. Over perhaps a quarter of a century I have asked hundreds (maybe thousands) of people when and where they are at their most creative. After a pause to consider, they most often come up with a situation adjacent to being idle – walking, falling asleep, in the shower, driving their car, daydreaming and so on. A couple of weeks ago, someone came up with “riding my motor-bike”.

There is definitely a connection between being distant from a problem one has been grappling with, in a situation where one’s brain is freewheeling, and having a solution pop up, apparently uninvited. Rarely do people mention watching TV, or working at the computer, or using their mobile devices as places where creativity happens. Perhaps there’s just not enough white space available.

Of course, the nexus between daydreaming and creativity is territory explored by Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, JM Barrie and many others.

How does being personally creative intersect with the pressurised contemporary life at work? Not easily.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Connecting with metaphor

If you catch a cold when things go badly, you’re using metaphor.

If you reach for low hanging fruit when you want immediate success, you’re using metaphor. If you decide to get focussed, deploy new tactics, develop a strategy, attack the competition at their weakest point, launch a new product – you’re using metaphor.

If your sales spike, or peak, or plummet, or plateau, or even are smokin’. Or maybe you’re pushing water uphill. You’re using metaphor.

If you’re going all the way, or the extra mile, or the full nine yards. If you build castles in the air, or on rocky ground. If you’re feeling fragile, or bubbly, or the shadow of your usual self. If you saw it coming, or are in a mental cul-de-sac.

If you have a heart of stone, or, better, of a lion. If you are the light in my life. My North, my South, my East, my West. If you had better pull your socks up. If you’re drowning in work, or jumping for joy. If you’re the apple of my eye. If it’s raining cats and dogs. If you can charm the birds out of the trees. If you’re cold to someone, or coarse, or hard, or flexible, or polished, or soft, or sparky, or seedy. You’re using metaphor.

The theatre and opera director, Jonathan Miller, once wrote: “Since finding out what something is, is largely a matter of discovering what it is like, the most impressive contribution to the growth of intelligibility has been made by the application of suggestive metaphors.”

And since so many of our best new ideas spring from the use of metaphor in making new connections, often quite accidentally, it’s probably best to get good at using it as a more systematic tool in creativity.

As PG Wodehouse put it: “I pressed down on the mental accelerator. The old lemon throbbed fiercely. I got an idea.”

Now that’s the spirit…

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

First you win it. Then you lose it.

A common theme in business is this: the initial innovator becomes leader in their field and then in time becomes change-resistant, believing that the things that made them great will keep them up there for ever.

Of course, in time they get overtaken by a new pretender who arrives with new breakthroughs that trump the original competitive advantage.

A great example is the piano manufacturer, Broadwood. Their founder, the Scottish cabinet-maker, John Broadwood, came down to London in 1761 aged 33, learned the relatively new skills of piano-making there, and made a number of important discoveries that enabled his pianos to produce a stronger, more resonant sound and to retain their tuning better.

The consequence was that Broadwood had a clear competitive edge, both for concert performance and for playing at home, becoming dominant market leader worldwide. His pianos were used by all the great players – Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt among them.

Then, in the late nineteenth century, along came the iron frame (pianos up to that time had been wooden framed), and this, combined with innovations in the keyboard action of their pianos, enabled the German-American firm, Steinway, to emerge and overhaul Broadwood. A leadership position they hold up to this day.

Nevertheless, the massive sound that a modern instrument can generate is not the sound that those composers would ever have heard. So the fact that the church in our local village has a fine, well-restored Broadwood grand of 1872 means that we can still hear their music on the sort of instrument that the composers themselves wrote for and played.

And we’ll be doing just that at our village music festival at King’s Sutton in June – played by a swag of world-class pianists, some of them re-discovering these sounds for the first time.

King's Sutton Music Weekends are on 17-19 and 25-26 June. Performers will include: Alissa Firsova, Kenneth Hamilton, Bela Hartmann, Christopher Windass, Viv McLean, Sally Wilson and Mark Kruger.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

M&A – respect and contempt

Why are some mergers and acquisitions brilliantly successful, while most under-perform miserably?

In my experience, it has nothing to do with the numbers – critical mass, cost-savings etc.

It’s something to do with mutual fit. But it’s much more to do with mutual respect.

When Saatchi & Saatchi merged with Garland-Compton - the hottest creative ad agency in the world (but with a somewhat iffy reputation for strategic thinking) went to bed with an excellent strategic agency, who served Procter & Gamble and Rowntree, two of the most demanding and professional clients. So certainly there was a good fit, but, more than that, the people inside the merged business respected and valued each other for their complementary skills and talents from day one.

The result was an inexorable rise to number one, first in the UK, then worldwide.

More recently, when the Interpublic holding company merged two of its global networks, Lowe and Lintas, there were apparently the same ingredients. A leading creative agency with a strong strategic one. But there the comparison ends. Contempt, “sharper than a serpent’s tooth” (as King Lear puts it), was the order of the day. Particularly on the side of the dominant partner, Lowe.

The result? Two plus two equals one. Mass exodus of clients and staff, and a slump in all key markets around the world. (The agency I had chaired in Sydney went from Top 5 to bottom of the Top 50 inside two years.)

It’s never struck me that M&A marriage brokers know this, focused as they are on the numbers (and in particular their own bonuses).

Friday, 18 March 2011

Pitching Schweppes

We were pitching the Schweppes business against JWT and Ogilvy. The bluest of blue-chip accounts at the time. (Where are they now?)

It was the first really important new business opportunity after the merger of Saatchi & Saatchi with Garland-Compton. I was leading a mixed team from both agencies - another first.

We had some terrific creative work – and an excellent presentation. So now to get down to rehearsal.

“No,” said managing director, Tim Bell (above, now Lord Bell), he wouldn’t be able to rehearse with us. Just too busy. And he didn’t.

So on the morning of the pitch, the clients settled in the meeting room (led by the redoubtable Keith Holloway), I went to pick up Tim from his office.

“Tell me about it,” he said. I briefed him in about forty-five seconds, the time it took to walk to the meeting room. And we walked in.

The presentation went like clockwork – and Tim blew them away with his deep grasp of the strategy, his understanding of the power of the creative concepts, his empathy and his insights. We won by a country mile.

Rehearsals? Not for Tim.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Quoting Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson’s life is as fascinating as his books. Born in Edinburgh in 1850. Died in Samoa in 1894. Author of Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped and much besides.

I wrote a book about some portraits of him fifteen years ago. (Above, RLS painted by GP Nerli in Samoa in 1892, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.)

And he’s vividly quotable. Here are a few examples:

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

“Man is not truly one, but truly two.”

“If your morals make you dreary, depend on it, they are wrong.”

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”

“Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant. “

“There are no foreign lands. It is only the traveller who is foreign.”

“An aim in life is the only fortune worth finding.”

“Wealth is only useful for two things: a yacht and a string quartette.”

“You cannot run away from a weakness; you must sometimes fight it out or perish. And if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?”

“Every one lives by selling something, whatever be his right to it.”
“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”

Do you have a particular favourite?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Innovation in India

The dramatic growth in the Indian economy, and with it the reduction of poverty and the emergence of millions into the “middle class”, is extraordinarily heartening.

My work in India and with Indians over many years has shown that entrepreneurship is right at the heart of the culture. In America, Indians are expected to be extremely rich. According to my friend Alyque Padamsee’s experience in Houston, on learning that he was Indian, a taxi driver asked Alyque (above), “Are you a billionaire?”

Of course, the cost base is still relatively low and educational levels high. Plus there’s so much energy deployed, physical and intellectual. So will growth continue unrestricted into the foreseeable future?

A factor that I envision becoming more and more of a barrier is the extremely hierarchical social structure, which operates within companies as elsewhere. In an article in Market Leader magazine (Summer 2008), Jitender Dabas wrote: “[Indians] either look up or down at other people; there cannot be a third way.”

I notice that in meetings Indians are reluctant to speak until they know the boss’s point of view on the topic at hand. And even then they are reluctant to contradict, even a little.

If change does not come about, this aspect of the culture will become a major block to innovation. And the ability to innovate will become more and more important, as people costs rise.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

On the shoulders of giants?

One of the most frequently quoted remarks of the great English scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, in 1676: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Such generosity and warmth and humility. And this from the creator of the most important laws in physics until the discoveries of Einstein more than two centuries later.

No doubt Newton had in mind Galileo, Descartes, Kepler and others.

But is it always true? Surely much more frequently significant scientific progress is made when a known problem is creatively solved, or when an inadequate existing hypothesis is superseded. That’s essentially what the Wright brothers did.

What would that be? Standing on the shoulders of dwarfs?

The picture, by the way, is “Newton” by William Blake.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Best company to work for

This is the highest accolade in my book. Not just fastest growing or most profitable, though the winner usually is both of those. The Sunday Times researches the scene – 1,000 companies entered in 2011 - and publishes a “top 100” each year. In all this year 275,000 employees were surveyed.

So BRAVO to Brand Learning, third last year, but number one in the new list.

The company was started ten years ago by two Unilever executives, Andy Bird and Mhairi McEwan. Both of them were clients of mine in that previous existence. So I’ve always been aware of the special talents and values of the leadership team.

Brand Learning specialises in helping organisations build their marketing capabilities. Since the beginning, the company has had an average annual growth rate of 25%. Now they are looking for further expansion through international growth.

Watch this space.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Work hard and be nice to people

After a meeting in Fitzrovia, I dropped in to see my friend, Rebecca Hossack, at her Art Gallery in Charlotte Street.

She was in a meeting, said a cheery hello, and encouraged me to go to see the Alasdair Wallace exhibition at her other gallery in Conway Street, right by the Post Office Tower.

Rebecca came to an innovation masterclass I ran a while back – and was full of excitement then about her new venue. It certainly is the perfect gallery space, with good proportions and excellent natural light. And with a really positive climate. Ideal for Mr Wallace’s fine paintings.

Being an inquisitive soul, I took a look in the back office. Above the heads of two gallery staffers was this sign, in Rebecca’s handwriting, in large blue neon: WORK HARD AND BE NICE TO PEOPLE.

Well, it’s not a vision or mission statement. And it’s not really a statement of values or beliefs. So what is it?

In a way, it’s a mantra. A way of life. And it so reflects Rebecca and her galleries.

The line existed previously in Anthony Burrell’s wonderful woodblock poster (above). Was it he who originally coined the phrase?

I think it can be at the heart of all organisations that have customers and suppliers and colleagues. So that would be all organisations.

Easy to say. Harder to do. Please don’t adopt it unless you can live by it…

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Microsoft and their search for breakthrough innovation

There’s been much discussion over recent years as to why Microsoft has had such a low to non-existent strike rate in developing breakthrough innovations.

Certainly it’s not for want of trying, nor for want of resource. In fact, it’s twenty years since Bill Gates first decided to pour megabucks into R&D. Currently that budget is running at $9 billion a year. But two decades on, aside from a stream of incremental innovations, there’s little to show for all that investment.

Currently the company has high hopes for its Kinect system. But was that really what Gates had in mind when he started on this great creative Odyssey – a games controller?

The fact that Apple has been so successful in creating and introducing one blockbuster after another, has led inexorably to their overtaking Microsoft in market value last year.

Lack of breakthroughs – disruptive innovations – is certainly not confined to Microsoft. My experience is that many large, established corporations have the same problem. And they usually know it and take steps aimed at remedying the situation.

Nearly always they assume that they understand what needs to be fixed – and get on with fixing it. Without noticeable effect.

In reality, there are many possible blockages and barriers, some of them behavioural, often attitudinal, occasionally at organisational, strategic, skills and process levels. And it’s critically important that the right issues are diagnosed and the right treatment prescribed.

“Stunningly arrogant,” as Microsoft has been described, may or may not be the source of their problem. They need to know which it is before spending more time and effort trying to fix it.

In major companies that I know well, the wrong diagnosis, coupled with the wrong treatment, has led to the problem being redoubled.