Saturday, 30 July 2011

Hiring people better than yourself

Among the many important things that the legendary adman David Ogilvy wrote, this is one of the best:

“Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it. Look for people who will aim for the remarkable, who will not settle for the routine.”*

I’ve always endeavoured to do this, not always successfully, of course. (Indeed one or two of you may even read this.)

It does seem important enough to take on board at a personal level. Of course, this takes a certain amount of courage and self-belief. But then if we lack those qualities, we’re in trouble anyway, sooner or later.

And then it’s good to talk to HR about it. We know from research that they are usually on a quite different page. It’s of particular importance if you need innovation and creativity living within your organization.

Now I notice that it’s also the mantra within Google. They are currently worth tons more than the business that Ogilvy started. It’s the centenary of David Ogilvy’s birth this year. Let’s see if Google lasts as long.

*From his Confessions of an Advertising Man of 1963. Aside from its now unacceptable (though unconscious) sexism, it’s still worth reading, carefully.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

In Memoriam Bill Boggs: Managing Mavericks

All my working life, I’ve worked with and managed mavericks – highly creative individuals who don’t fit well into the corporate mould.

For many years this was in ad agencies. They rarely produce outstanding work if they don’t have some mavericks on staff. And they won’t join unless there are signals that it’s OK to be different. It’s the same for all organisations that are committed to creating breakthrough of one kind or another.

When I joined the innovation consultancy, Synectics, one of my American colleagues, another recent joiner, was Dr Bill Boggs. And it didn’t take long to discover two things.

One was that most of my colleagues did not appreciate Bill’s ways. He was difficult, self-obsessed, driven, irreverent and disruptive. There’s no doubt that he thought that corporate rules, even ones he personally participated in shaping, applied to others, not to Bill.

The other thing that I discovered was that Bill was uniquely brilliant, creating completely new ways of working and producing far, far more business for our firm in the USA than anyone else – in effect bringing the revenue that paid many colleagues’ salaries. And he was on his day the finest facilitator of creativity I ever saw.

All this seemed to make no difference to colleagues’ attitudes to him and many thought he should be fired – and said so frequently.

Somehow or other we held on to him for several years, but in the end he went. What he discovered then was that in reality he needed the relatively secure home that we provided. He was nowhere near so effective without us.

But then we were so much less without him.

Put bluntly, the issue for organisations is: how to recruit and retain the mavericks who can and will drive their future – and have colleagues appreciate their value. It’s not easy, but it may be vitally important.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Helena Rubinstein and the Sheep of Australia

I have recently been discussing with Facebook friends the apparent shortage of women innovators. Among the many contributory factors, one is that so many of the trained engineers and scientists in the western world have always been men.

But innovation comes in many forms and one woman that I find fascinating is the legendary Helena Rubinstein.

Born in 1870 in Krakow, Poland, she moved to Australia in 1902. She had very little English and no money. But she did have family there – her uncle was a shopkeeper in Coleraine, a small town some 350 kilometres west of Melbourne. This was Big Sheep country and there was an unending supply of lanolin, the grease secreted by the sheep to keep their woolly coats in good condition. Rubinstein used the lanolin as the basis of her own skin creams, disguising its unpleasant odour with lavender and other fragrances.

Later she moved to set up business in Collins Street, still the smartest place for shopping in Melbourne, then Sydney, then London, Paris and New York. She was a brilliant marketer of her products, creating the whole concept of “problem skin” and discovering that, if sales were flagging, raising prices was a good way to get things moving again. Her pushy mantra was: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

She was to become the first self-made female millionaire.

(I see that there’s a new book out by Ruth Brandon about Rubinstein and the founder of L’Oréal, Eugène Schueller, which I’ve not yet seen.)

Friday, 22 July 2011

Making plans

I used to be a great believer in making plans. I would sit at my desk working out strategy and tactics, exactly who would do what and when. What would be the outcomes. All that with tons of supporting data.

Gradually I came to realise that other people in my team simply didn’t have the commitment to the plan that I did. And, at the same time, the situation kept changing at a dizzying pace – sometimes in ways that I’d predicted in the original plan, but more often than not in ways that were completely unpredictable.

So it was a revelation some twenty years ago to discover not only that co-created plans have a much greater chance of being realised, with everyone in the team equally invested in them, but also that planning itself is a very overrated activity.

What’s most important, I’ve found, is that everyone has a grasp on the goal and on the direction of travel. Then, if you have the right people, in the right climate, they will take care of the rest, behaving as far as possible like entrepreneurs, open to possibility each day.

As John Lennon put it in his song, “Beautiful Boy”:

“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of… America?

Not that I go as much as I used to, but I don’t ever recall a spontaneous standing ovation at a straight play in a British theatre before. This is what happened at the Old Vic in London last Friday for Kevin Spacey’s Richard III.

I say Spacey’s because it was very much his show. Stanislavsky said, “There are no small roles, only small actors,” but in this case, the rest of the cast were seriously in the shadow of Spacey’s masterly performance. By contrast, Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film was a Who’s Who of outstanding British actors of that time.

One factor that will have led inexorably up to the ovation was his extraordinary declamation, close to the end of the play, of “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Dramatic magic.

Does the ovation happen after every performance? I guess so. Does it betoken a change in the usually somewhat restrained response of audiences in Britain? Was the audience packed with Americans (who do this sort of thing rather as a matter of politeness)? Or is it simply the result of Shakespeare's genius and Spacey’s great acting skill?

One last question. Before Maestro Spacey, when was the last time a great American actor came to live and work in Britain, making such a tremendous contribution?

Saturday, 16 July 2011

From living room to den to phone to…

In an interview in Rolling Stone in 1994, Steve Jobs spoke joyfully and perceptively about the shift of focus from the living room, the “set-top box”, where convergence had been headed up to that point, to the “den”.

“I love it,” he said. “I think the den is far more interesting than the living room… I’m very excited about having the internet in my den.”

And so it came about.

But now, as my friend, Jackie Bradley, points out, it’s no longer the den – it’s the phone through which it all converges. And my business partner, Alison Duffy, is a total convert. Jobs got that one right too.

Not for me. I like it in the den. And I can’t bear the idea that I’m connected to everything, everywhere I go, every minute of the day, no matter what I’m doing. I still want a life of my own, with broad expanses of thinking and being time.

Or is that just not going to be possible?

And where to next? Better ask Steve.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Bought your Nespresso machine yet?

I’m often asked how large, established corporations can organise to create breakthrough innovations which really succeed in the marketplace. To be honest, there isn’t one easy solution. So many of them invest vast sums of money in innovation and R&D, and all that happens in reality is that they give birth to a steady stream of more minor, incremental offerings.

If Microsoft can spend some nine billion dollars a year on it (see “Microsoft and their search for breakthrough innovation”, 2 March 2011) and have such limited success, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Well, one strategy that worked extremely well for Nestlé was embodied in the way that they went about developing their Nespresso brand. The company realised quite early that, given their worldwide dominance of the instant coffee market, if they were to enter the ground coffee market with a bang, they needed to have a completely new approach that would rewrite the rules of the game.

To do this, they set up a stand-alone business, geographically and organisationally separate from the “corporate machine”, Nestlé headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland.

And the concept itself is radically different. It is a superpremium product for a much more sophisticated consumer. The relationship with Nespresso starts with the purchase of a coffeemaker/espresso machine. Those things are bought once every eight or so years - and the purchase involves 100+ euros.

Then, having a consumer who has bought a machine, it is about home-delivery of coffee – and a one-on-one communication program including accessories, services and rewards. This required a totally different mindset, different marketing capabilities and completely different structural solutions.

Certainly wouldn’t be without it myself. And it’s a massive success around the world.

Would that have been possible if they had remained part of the mother-ship? I doubt it.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Video killed the radio star?

At a recent interview in Hampstead, writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg (above) was asked what he thought was the future for printed books in the age of the ebook.

“There is this strange idea that when something new comes along it knocks everything else on the head,” he responded. “When film came it was supposed to kill theatre; it didn’t. When television came it was supposed to kill film; well, it didn’t. Television was supposed to kill radio; it didn’t.”

How that intriguing list could be extended: aircraft vs ships, the promised paperless office…

The worldwide CEO OF Saatchi & Saatchi, Kevin Roberts, recently wrote: “I am amazed at the resilience of television. For fifteen years the cool kids have been trying to kill it. But TV thrives in a world of choices.”

Of course, there are genuine casualties of innovation. For example, who now uses the fax machine?

Did video really kill the radio star?

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Harold Monro, poet

For whatever reason, I’ve only recently connected with the early twentieth century Anglo-Scottish poet, Harold Monro. He seems to have slipped off the radar screen, but, among others, TS Eliot admired his work greatly.

Like so much good poetry, Monro’s could be downbeat. But it always has, like Eliot’s, a profoundly musical quality.

In “Living”, in a rather rare glimpse of life as possibility, after a “Slow bleak awakening from the morning dream”, he writes

But suddenly, as if without reason,
Heart, Brain, and Body, and Imagination
All gather in tumultuous joy together,
Running like children down the path of morning
To fields where they can play without a quarrel:
A country I’d forgotten, but remember,
And welcome with a cry.

I don’t think you have to be a poet to recognise that exhilarating creative cocktail. (But you do need to be one to capture it so eloquently.)

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Tell it to Edison

Firing a budding entrepreneur from The Apprentice, Lord Sugar explained his decision by telling the contestant: "I've never known an engineer turn his hand to business."

Maybe he should tell that to James Dyson. Or even to Thomas Edison.

Such wisdom…

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Sixty-seven better than one?

While I was living and working in Sydney, I took the worldwide boss of Lintas to visit our office in Auckland. I don’t think such a thing had ever happened before.

He was impressed with the people and their work. Flying back together to Australia, he was in reflective mood.

“You know, Rog,” he said, “these people in Auckland. They handle the same number of clients that we handle in New York. And same number of brands. And they do all the things we do in New York. They plan strategy. They plan and buy media. They write and produce ads in all media. They create sales promotions and help clients to innovate. And I reckon their work overall is just as good as ours in New York.”

“Just one thing,” he went on. “In New York we have six hundred people, but in Auckland they have nine. That’s… sixty-seven to one”

So when people nowadays say that it’s totally impossible to cut staff numbers any more, or to be substantially more productive, I always think of Auckland.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Switzerland in top spot for innovation. Really?

I see that a new study puts Switzerland in top spot out of 125 countries for innovation.

Can this really be so? Or is it another example of garbage-in-garbage-out?

Anyway, the "Global Innovation Index" is the work of INSEAD in partnership with Alcatel-Lucent, Booz and Co and others, computed as an “average of scores across input pillars”, and also “how economies leverage their enabling environments to stimulate innovation results”. Ah.

Reading about it, my mind went immediately to Orson Welles’s brief speech in The Third Man:

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.

“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”