Monday, 29 October 2012

Transforming outrageous start-ideas

“Let’s offer a Masters in Terrorism.”

“Say some more about what you’re thinking,” I urged.

“Well, around this university we have all the skills you’d need to be a first-rate terrorist.”

I had encouraged the group to explore some absurd ideas, but perhaps this was not going to thrill the Powers That Be at City University London. By this stage we had several dozen other “start ideas” and when it came to the time to pick a few to work up towards practicality, there was a small group who thought there might be something in it. So off they went to cogitate.

Twenty minutes later, they came back looking rather pleased with themselves. “We’ll offer a Masters in Counter-Terrorism.”

Brilliant. So often what appear to be outrageously impossible ideas can be transformed into winners if they are given the chance. 

I think this may be the outcome, just launched some three years later – an MSc in “Information Security and Risk”.

Doesn’t sound quite so daringly innovative, does it? But hopefully it will do well.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Modern instances

Beethoven: a large cuddly dog
Caesar: a salad with croutons
Calvin: a comic strip boy
Chekhov: navigator of the Starship Enterprise
Churchill: an agreeable stuffed dog
Hamlet: a cigar
Hobbes: Calvin’s sardonic stuffed tiger
Homer: Bart’s Dad
Madonna: an ageing rock star
Melba: a dessert with peaches, raspberries and ice-cream

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Re-emerging from the doldrums

It’s always exciting when a long-established organisation with a fine heritage that has been in the doldrums re-emerges. Often it can be a harder trick than building a new one.

That is what has happened to the 54 year-old Academy of St Martin in the Fields since the brilliant American violinist Joshua Bell took over as Music Director of the orchestra.

My memory of them pre-Bell is that they played excellently, but at the same time with a sense of safety first.

Now, directed by Bell from the first desk, they perform with such verve, real edge of the seat playing. And the results are thrilling.

They were recently at Symphony Hall in Birmingham giving Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Romance in F, and two “Scottish” works, Bruch’s Fantasy for violin and orchestra and Mendelssohn’s third symphony.

A memorable occasion.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Customer service at its best

Overnight from Singapore, I arrived in Sydney on an early morning flight.

Checking in at the Regent – now the Four Seasons I was asked “When is your first meeting, Mr Neill?”

“At nine-thirty,” I responded.

“Well, would you like a suit pressed?”

Now that’s what I call customer service.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Cutting back on innovation

A new research study* shows rather shockingly that a quarter of British businesses have reduced their commitment to innovation in the current economic climate. And more intend to do the same in the coming year.

Do they imagine that battening down the hatches will help them to emerge from the current double-dip recession stronger?

It’s always been my experience that recession is a great time to outperform timid competitors with new creative ideas that have the potential to change the game. 

*Allianz Insurance, 500 CEOs in Britain, 2012

Monday, 15 October 2012

Welcome to our home

As regular readers will know, I am a devoted follower of Professor Hofstede and his researches into cultural difference as it impacts organisations.

One thing is clear. It is a more difficult and complex matter to provide effective leadership in situations where there is low “power distance”.

Where power distance is high, for example in India or Latin America, people by and large will do what they are told to do, and what’s more expect it to be so.

But where power distance is low, for example in Australia, how can a leader expect to get compliance?

When I lived in Sydney in the 1980s, the finest hotel in the city was the Regent. Not only did it have a magnificent position with sweeping views over the harbour. It also had immaculate service.

But Australia is a society that has joyfully escaped from the servant culture. “How do you get your people to be so terrific in dealing with guests?” I asked the General Manager, an American.

“It was a real problem to me for quite a while,” he responded. “But then I got it. It dawned on me that Aussies are both intensely house-proud and extraordinarily hospitable. So we re-positioned the hotel internally as ‘our home’ and the customers as our own guests.”

Simple and brilliant.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Just one…

One of the most popular and successful TV ad campaigns that I ever worked on was for Cornetto. And, in a rather degraded form, it was still running quite recently, thirty plus years later.

Early commercials in the series were all shot in Italy, and, of course, I had to be there. But the truth is that, if all the pre-production work has been done well, there’s nothing more for someone like me to contribute. I’d just be in the way.

So, after the first take had rolled, I would walk. That’s why I know, for example, Venice so intimately.

After one long and tiring day - walking the towpaths, crossing the bridges, visiting church after church - I fetched up in a square with an imposing building straight ahead. It was Venice’s legendary opera house, the Teatro La Fenice. I’d read about its fabulous rococo interior, but had never been inside. The front door was open, so in I went.

“This way,” I was instructed, probably in Italian. And this…. And this…

And I found myself walking into the first notes of the overture to Cosi fan tutte, then and now my favourite of Mozart’s great series of operas. It was the dress rehearsal. I was in heaven.

The commercials? They were great.  

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Advertising Alfa

I’m reminded of the time that I missed the flight to Milan. It’s not the only time that happened – in a long working life around the world I’ve missed a few.

It’s just that this particular flight was in order to pitch the Alfa Romeo business. And I was the one managing it. Quite luckily my boss and the creative director were both there already and we won.

I’d always put my miss down to sheer incompetence on my part. But thinking about it after such a long gap, I wonder whether a contributory factor was my disappointment with the creative work we were presenting?

In automotive advertising there’s a basic print ad design that (to this day) seems to be used by nearly every manufacturer in the mistaken belief that it will make their product appear different, better, special. I don’t think so.

You can still see it in magazines around the world. Shiny, but bland. And interchangeable between brands.  

What added insult to injury was that a couple of years later we were forced by another carmaker to resign the Alfa business – and I had to get on another flight to Milan to inform them.

Life in the fast lane.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Launching After Eight in France

I was given the task of persuading our French colleagues to launch After Eight mints in France and, what’s more, to adapt and adopt the British TV campaign.

You remember the scenario? Upper class British dinner party. Everyone in evening clothes (tuxedos, black ties, long frocks, tiaras etc). Silver candelabra on a groaning table. Plum-in-mouth accents. Horsey laughter. After Eights being passed.

JWT at their most posh.

The French thought this quite impossible.

First of all, chocolate and mint together? Absurd.

Then, all those ridiculous clothes. Nobody in France goes to dinner dressed like that.

“Nor do they in England,” I responded. “It’s a… joke.”

Long pause…

“Why would anyone want to go to dinner dressed as a waiter?” they enquired.

Game. set and match.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Drying the bitter tear

We had our celebration of William Lisle Bowles’s 250th birthday at the weekend. Sixteen readers of twenty four of his poems at his birthplace, King’s Sutton.

This is one of them - quite representative of the style that was so influential for Coleridge and others. The effect of time on grief:

Sonnet: July 18th 1787

O Time! who know'st a lenient hand to lay
Softest on sorrow's wound, and slowly thence
(Lulling to sad repose the weary sense)
The faint pang stealest unperceived away;
On thee I rest my only hope at last,
And think, when thou hast dried the bitter tear
That flows in vain o'er all my soul held dear,
I may look back on every sorrow past,
And meet life's peaceful evening with a smile—
As some lone bird, at day's departing hour,
Sings in the sunbeam, of the transient shower
Forgetful, though its wings are wet the while:—
Yet ah! how much must that poor heart endure,
Which hopes from thee, and thee alone, a cure!

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch included it in his edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse of 1919. 

Does it speak to you today?

Monday, 1 October 2012

My top 10 visitors

These are the top 10 visitor countries to my blog for the month of September 2012: UK, USA, Russia, Australia, Germany, Denmark, France, India, Italy, New Zealand.

But, if one recalculates in terms of per capita population, a quite different list emerges:
  1. Denmark
  2.  UK
  3. New Zealand
  4. Australia
  5. USA
  6. Russia
  7. Germany
  8. Italy
  9. France
  10. India
Wonder what that tells us if anything? Are Danes and Kiwis especially interested in innovation, creativity and leadership? And, if so, does that show up in their economic performance?