Thursday, 31 May 2012

Immigrants drive exports

A Danish friend has sent me a fascinating article from yesterday’s Politiken.DK.

What it reveals is that Danish exports to emerging markets have been hindered substantially by language and cultural barriers ‒ and that a major solution has been found in using second and third generation immigrants to Denmark as intermediaries.

Apparently the policy has been so successful that exports from Denmark to Asian, Middle Eastern and South American countries have lifted rather dramatically.

Now a database has been created so that appropriate people can be matched with relevant markets. Says Jonas Ghiyati, “For example, Morocco is difficult to penetrate with only English. A person with Moroccan roots can reverse the language, will have contacts at all levels, knows the culture and system – and how to dodge corruption.”

Wonder how many other countries with multicultural populations (and negative politics/media around immigrants) have tried this approach?

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Peace, commerce and honest friendship

I’ve been working around the world now for over forty years and have always had a strong feeling that doing business with, and getting to know, people from other cultures than mine, was a useful thing to do with one’s life.

So I’ve never been able to grasp the antipathy (sometimes bordering on hysteria) shown towards foreigners, globalisation and multinational companies. More than that, my belief is that growth in our own national economy is supported greatly by the presence of motivated immigrants.

Recently I met with the distinguished academic Sir Christopher Ball and, preparing for the meeting, I viewed on YouTube a lecture he gave at the University of Virginia on the university of the future. A theme through his talk was the words of Thomas Jefferson in his Inaugural Address on becoming President of the United States in 1801.

Jefferson committed himself (and the nation) to: “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations.”

That, for me, is the heart of the matter.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Hold the back page

In June 1957, in my last term at Stoneygate School in Leicester, aged just thirteen, I made my highest score in a cricket match: 110 not out.

What’s more, this was against my previous school in Coventry, whose best bowler (and bat) was Bryan Richardson, one of the finest schoolboy cricketers of his generation. I reached the century lofting him over his head for six.

This was the day that I discovered how news stories work. The Daily Express had sent along a reporter and a photographer to cover the match. The following day, the back page of the paper was covered in action photos of the game. But I was nowhere to be seen. The pictures and the story were all about Bryan.

How could this be?

Of course the Express had covered the game, not because of my prowess, but because young Bryan’s two older brothers, Peter and Dick Richardson, had just been selected to play for England against the West Indies, a first for siblings.

Ah. So that’s how it works.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Saying yes and meaning no

I was doing some creativity training in Tokyo with a mixed group of Japanese and European expats, when one of the British expats, agitated, said: “The problem with you Japanese is that you never tell the truth…”

Needless to say, this did not go down well. I encouraged him to say some more about what he was thinking.

“Well, you guys have a hundred ways of saying yes when you mean no,” he blundered on.

In the break I said to him: “But don’t you know that we do too?”

He was unconvinced.

Here are some of them:

“I agree with you in principle.”
“I hear what you say.”
“That’s very interesting.”
“Yes…” with slight note of doubt.
“Ho, ho, ho – that’s a good one.”
“That’s such a brave idea.”
“That would be excellent…”
“Let’s appoint a task force.”
“We definitely need to think some more about this.”
“Yes, but…”

By the way, it’s not only the Japanese and the British who do this…

Do you have some favourites?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Boom and bust syndrome

The flotation of Facebook and its fall in price the day after reminds me of a workshop I facilitated several years ago for Unilever in Rio de Janeiro (someone has to do it). I fell into conversation with a young American consultant there from Paris.

“My husband and I have invested steadily in so far loss-making companies from Silicon Valley and have made millions,” she boasted.

Probably out to prick her bubble, not having had such a joyous ride, I responded: “My own feeling is that the NASDAQ is going to tumble. Quite soon. 50% or maybe more.”

“No chance!” was her reply.

“But the losses? Not to mention the slowing of growth?”

“The rules have changed,” she responded.

"Don't think so."

And that’s exactly what happened – the following month.

I love the writer Somerset Maugham’s pithy summary in his The Facts of Life:

“How’s the market today,” he asked.

“Booming. Even the suckers are making money.”

Monday, 21 May 2012

From bouncing marbles to bouncing bombs

How did Barnes Wallis come up with the idea behind his famous bouncing bomb? Wallis was the scientist-inventor behind the Dam Busters raid on German dams in the Second World War.

Well, like many children, he had noticed that throwing stones flat on to water causes them to skip. So early in 1942 in his back garden in England he started practicing this effect using his young daughter’s marbles on tin bowls of water.

When he had firmed up his idea, he took it to the authorities (including the now infamous leader of the RAF, “Bomber” Harris), who, typically with breakthrough new ideas, were quite unconvinced. The concept was that a bomb would bounce over water, sinking next to the target – for example a battleship or perhaps a dam ‒ and exploding with great force.

But, convinced that he was on to a major innovation, Wallis pressed on, having to solve a host of consequent engineering and other problems on the way.

Even young people in Britain still seem to know how the dams of the Ruhr were destroyed on 16-17 May 1943 (69 years ago this last week), leading to the flooding and major disruption of the German industrial war machine.

Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book graphically captured the story, later turned into a memorable film ‒ dealing not only with the creative development of the bomb, but also with the courage and skill of the flyers of 617 Squadron.

Perhaps it could be required viewing for all young innovators, covering as it does so many of the issues that are faced by them today.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Elbow-room at King John

Sad, and unusual in my experience, to see a half empty (half full?) house at the Swan in Stratford for Shakespeare’s King John.

Sad because, although the play is rarely performed these days, it turned out to be a magical production, filled with insight and vigour, and played to perfection by an outstanding cast.

The director, Maria Abegg had made a number of strategic decisions, making both the Bastard, by far the best part (and brilliantly played by Pippa Nixon), and the Cardinal, into women. But she kept the stage simple and clear throughout, allowing the drama to speak for itself.

Although King John was regularly staged in the nineteenth century, it has a distinct lack of well-known Shakespearean phrases. “Bell, book and candle”, “cold comfort” and "elbow-room” were the only ones I caught – none of them originating with the Bard.

A terrific night at the theatre. Catch it if you can.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The arrival of wire-less

I found this interview with Guglielmo Marconi in Leslie Baily’s BBC Scrapbooks. It was conducted in 1896 shortly after Marconi had installed a transmitter on the roof of the GPO and a receiver in a building on the Thames Embankment, 500 yards away.

“Was the message quite clearly received?” asked the American reporter.
“Quite clearly.”
“And do these waves really pass through things?”
“I am forced to believe the waves will penetrate anything and everything.”
“Won’t fog prevent them?”
“No, sir, nothing prevents them.”
“Do you mean to say, Mr Marconi, that I could send my report of this interview from London to New York?”
“Please remember wireless is a new field. With regard to the future, so far as I can see it does not present any impossibilities to signal to New York.”

Wire-less communication. One of the most important inventions of the past 100+ years?

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


Frankfurter, Dachshund, abseil, Glockenspiel, Autobahn, Doppelgänger, ersatz, verboten, Wunderkind. Even Schadenfreude.

There are lots of useful German words that we regularly include in English.

But how about Verschlimmbesserung? An attempted improvement that makes things worse than they already were.

Is there a word in English that covers this very common situation?

And what would be your nominated “improvements”?

Of course, we need to be continuously trying out new things. Just that it’s not good to bet the bank on them before knowing the outcome.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Death of a London Salesman

When I visit the parish church in our next village in north Oxfordshire, Adderbury, I always take a moment with a handsome monument in the graveyard to Jonas Griffin, “London Salesman”, who died in 1850. Judging by the number of large houses in the village, Adderbury has always been relatively prosperous.

I’m intrigued by the monument because London in the early nineteenth century was at least two days ride from our part of the world. So what could Jonas have been selling?

And intrigued by the proud description of the man as a salesman. Of course, the word has changed the nuances of its meaning in the intervening century and a half. Very few nowadays would wish to be remembered by that handle. Even in my own lifetime, the word has come to be used less and less (along with “secretary”). Yet, though we may not like it, we are all salesmen or saleswomen to a greater or lesser extent.

So what did Jonas Griffin actually do?

Having googled him, I discover that he bought and sold cattle, and that he was associated with William Welch, who owned the cattle market at Southall in Middlesex (not quite London in those days). Would the cattle have been driven on their final journey from Southall to Smithfield Market in the City of London?

Then, rather shockingly, I find that he was imprisoned at Oxford Gaol by the Court of Insolvent Debtors in 1850, the year that he died. What can have gone so wrong? Did he catch typhoid or something like it in prison? And, given the circumstances, how could his family have afforded such a fine memorial to him?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Leading, directing, conducting?

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been advertising its recent concert series as “Look! No conductor”. I caught them at my favourite venue, St George’s in Bristol.

Now in itself doing without a conductor is not a new thing. Neville Marriner “directed” rather than “conducted” the Academy of St Martin in the Fields from the first desk in the early 1960s – and many have followed in his footsteps.

What was special about this OAE gig was that three different soloists directed the orchestra. First Stephen Isserlis (together with his cello) directed Haydn’s scintillating last symphony, No 104 (The London). Then the violinist Isabelle Faust directed and played (meltingly beautifully) Mozart’s third violin concerto. And finally, Isserlis and Faust were joined by the American fortepianist, Robert Levin, in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (for violin, cello, piano and orchestra).

Who knew that this could be such an exciting work? And who on earth was directing? Well, so far as I could tell, leadership switched constantly between the three soloists, with Levin perhaps doing most.

But when they started the second movement, none of the soloists moved a muscle. It was the OAE’s leader, Kati Debretzeni who discreetly beat them in. I suspect that there were other leaders at work around the orchestra that I didn’t spot.

That’s how orchestral music can be. Completely collaborative. Just like chamber music. And jazz, of course.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Madeleines and sense memory

A friend came to tea with her daughters, bringing a bowlful of cake-mix which was swiftly turned into madeleines.

In the first book, Swann’s Way, of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (as it’s now usually called in English), the narrator goes home to visit his mother, who:

“… seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing that I did not ordinarily take… She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’, which look as though they have been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing tomorrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin…”

Marcel explores within himself this new sensation:

“Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind… And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray… when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give to me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.”

Thus, the source of what is now known as “sense memory”.

(By the way, it’s really useful as an excursion technique in brainstorming.)

Monday, 7 May 2012

Is this the worst logo in the history of marketing?

Who created it?

What was the brief?

Who approved it?

How much did it cost us?

And how could they have wrecked possibly the finest logo of all, the Olympic rings?

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Chunking up Kit-Kat

A client friend, Kees Langerak, was appointed to be marketing director at Nestlé’s confectionery business in York.

After a couple of weeks, he called me: “This business seems scarcely to have innovated at all in years,” he said. “Fact is we are tremendously pushed for cash right now, so I really can’t afford to pay you. But would you do us a favour and advise me on what I might do about it?”

He knew that I had worked in the past extensively with what had been the Rowntree business and so knew the brands intimately. And he had always been an exemplary client!

“I’ll call you back in ten minutes,” I told him.

And this is what I advised: “Invite lots of people from around the business to come into one big room, and ask them to bring their favourite innovation idea that’s been rejected or ignored in recent years. Set the room up as a ‘street-market’ and enable everyone to display their nominations. And then pick out the biggest ideas that can be implemented quickly.”

Out of this simple exercise, in just a few months, came Chunky Kit-Kat. It doubled the size of that already massive brand.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

East is East

I went yesterday to the annual lunch of the Kipling Society in London and it brought to mind one of his most famous/infamous poems. If there’s one thing that Asians, especially Indians, of my acquaintance know by Rudyard Kipling, it’s

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

And many know the next line of this verse

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great judgement seat;

Clear evidence (if any were needed) of Kipling’s fundamental racism?

Yet very few seem to know the next two lines

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Puts a different complexion on it, doesn’t it? I think the most he might be accused of is sexism (a concept not articulated in 1889).

In effect, what Kipling is saying is: people think that major cultural differences are impossible to bridge, but in reality, when there is trust and respect, these differences are of no importance.

Of course, he was born in Bombay and Hindi was his initial language. One of my favourite books, regularly re-read, is Kim, a sort of love-letter to India and the Indians.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Getting started at the Globe

It’s widely known that Sam Wanamaker dedicated most of his adult life to re-building Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London – and sadly died before it was completed.

Perhaps it is less well known that he drew into the project
shoals of individuals who could help him in one way or another to realise his dream. This became completely clear to me at his memorial service at Southwark Cathedral early in 1994.

I looked around and recognised people that I knew, who, to the best of my knowledge, had had nothing to do with the project. But we all had contributed in one way or another.

Sam always knew where and when he needed help. And he had the great gift of being able to inspire us all.

I came in to beef up the marketing and communications for the project – at a time when fund-raising had virtually dried up. It was not easy. And in fact that situation did not change until, in direct contravention of the board’s express wish, Sam started building.

“Now we’ve started, the money will come,” he told the board. And he was right.