Sunday, 30 December 2012

My first new product

Our adorable ten year old daughter seems to relish more than ever the unwrapping of Christmas presents, but, surprisingly, it was the Jellytots that seemed to create the most immediate joy. So I thought I’d re-publish my blogpost about their launch. It was the first that I published – on 27 October 2009 and doubtless had a microscopic readership then:

When I left JWT, where I’d had a very menial series of jobs starting with the mail room, I was lucky enough to land my first real break in “adland”, as Assistant Account Executive on what was then the UK’s largest single TV advertiser, Rowntree’s. I was twenty-three.

It shows the subservient role that innovation had then, that while the experienced folk were managing the main established brands, I was immediately assigned to the two new ones in the pipeline, a carbonated soft drink brand called POP (that sank without trace), and a small round fruity sweetie in a bag aimed at young children and their concerned mums.

That one, Jellytots, passed its fortieth birthday two years ago. Tightly targeted, it was never going to be a major player, but the fact that it still holds the stage is testament to the clarity of thinking and creative expression, in both company and agency, that went into the brand’s initial strategy, product, packaging and advertising.

Rather extraordinarily, Jellytots was the favourite of my now seven year-old when she was around four.

There is no doubt that I learned massive amounts about what works and what doesn’t in innovation from that seminal experience long ago.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Gandhi, Mandela, McLeod...

McLeod? Well, I never had the opportunity to meet the first two, only George McLeod.

In the summer of 1965, not far short of fifty years ago, I hitchhiked with a friend from London to Iona, a small, somewhat featureless Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland. It had been the place in the seventh century that the Irish monk, Columba, had brought Christianity to Scotland. In the graveyard are Macbeth, Duncan and several other Scottish kings.  

The monastery that had stood there for centuries had fallen into disuse and ruin by the late 1930s, when George McLeod decided to set up an ecumenical centre there, rebuilding the abbey church, and establishing a new sense of Christian mission coupled with social justice. “The great sin, the sin compared with which adultery is a bagatelle,” he said, “is failure to forgive.”

It was an extraordinary experience to be there, to meet him, and to have the opportunity of participating, albeit briefly, in the life of the community. As a man, McLeod was an apparently paradoxical mixture – patrician and socialist, decorated First World War soldier (Ypres and Passchendaele) and pacifist, spiritual but practical, modest yet charismatic. His vivid presence lives with me to this day.

During lunch in the refectory on Sunday, we guests were invited to stand up and speak. On any subject we chose. For two minutes maximum. When that time had passed, McLeod rang a handbell and we were on to the next brief oration. I was too nervous to speak myself, marvelling at the sequence of articulate, passionate offerings that followed one after another.

I realised, among many other things, that, if I was to make any mark in the world at all, I should need to develop some competence in public speaking.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A Sort of Christmas Card: Winter Night

Winter Night
Boris Pasternak

It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

As during summer midges swarm
To beat their wings against a flame
Outside the snowflakes swarmed
To beat against the window pane

The blizzard sculptured on the glass
Arrows and whorls.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

Upon the lighted ceiling
Distorted shadows fell
Of crossed arms, crossed legs-
Of crossed destiny.

Two little shoes fell to the floor
With a thud.
A candle on a nightlight shed wax tears
On a dress.

All things were lost within
The snowy murk - white, hoary.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

A corner gust fluttered the flame
And the white fever of temptation
Uplifted its angel wings that cast
A cross-like shadow

It snowed hard through the month
Of February, and from time to time
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.
Alissa Firsova set this and two other poems from Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago for voice and piano (for my 65th birthday). Zhivago Songs op 20.

A Happy Christmas to One and All.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Metaphor and the barcode

Here’s another game-changing innovation imagined sitting on the beach. Not perhaps as inspiring in its way as the cochlea implant, but tremendously important just the same.

Joseph Woodland, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute of Technology, noticed that the institute had been asked by a local chain of grocery retailers to figure out a way to encode product data, so that the checkout process could be automated. This was 1948.

One day, sitting on the beach, “I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason – I don’t know – I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines,” he told Smithsonian magazine many years later.

And, thinking of the Morse code he had learned in Boy Scouts, Woodland realised that lines of varying widths could be turned into a code. He worked with a colleague, Bernard Silver, to develop a bullseye solution, but it didn’t catch on. So they sold the patent.

Over the next two decades, manufacturers and retailers developed a range of systems, and in the early 1970s a standardised approach emerged. It’s now estimated that barcodes are scanned some five billion times a day, saving trillions of dollars/pounds etc.

Joseph Woodland died ten days ago, on 9 December 2012, aged 91.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The heavy hand of HQ

When multinational companies have rebuilt or refurbished their corporate headquarters at vast expense, I always find the opportunity to suggest that they might think about an alternative strategy: closing them down.

In every case I’ve been met with a stare of incomprehension. Is this guy all there? Is he joking?

But there are a number of ways that HQs are highly unproductive:

They send a clear signal of where power is concentrated, when decentralisation is nearly always better for promoting creativity and innovation - and growth.

HQs can and do slow down decision-making and agility in responding to new opportunities and threats.

They can turn folk in the front-line into mere implementers of standardised programmes.

They have continuously low occupancy, the corporate managers spending most of their time on the road (and in the air).  

They cost lots to run, adding little or no economic value to shareholders.

If a corporate space is needed at all, this is a corporate formula that works so much better (and costs so much less): plenty of meeting space; some work stations; good coffee; no offices.  

I’ve been working recently with one of the most exciting, fast-growing companies in the world – and this is their way. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

How to Win an Election

This is one of my Books of the Year, for sure. 

Here are some excerpts from Quintus Tullius Cicero’s advice to his brother Marcus, fighting an election in 64BC:

Avoid any specific discussion of public policy at public meetings… Since you are such an excellent communicator and your reputation has been built on this fact, you should approach every speaking engagement as if your entire future depended on it.

Make good use of the young people who admire you and want to learn from you, in addition to all the faithful friends who are daily at your side… Now is the time to call in all favours.

Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity: securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public… For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company.

You should work with diligence to secure supporters from a wide variety of backgrounds… If men are sufficiently grateful to you, as I’m sure they are, everything will fall into place.

There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favours, hope, and personal attachment… As for those who you have inspired with hope – a zealous and devoted group – you must make them to believe that you will always be there to help them.

Recognising the difference between the useful and the useless men in any organisation will save you from investing your time and resources with people who will be of little help to you… Seek out men everywhere who will represent you as if they themselves were running for office.

I think now is the time to sound a note of caution. Politics is full of deceit, treachery, and betrayal… Nothing impresses an average voter more than having a candidate remember him, so work every day to recall names and faces.

Don’t leave Rome!... There is no time for vacations during a campaign.

If a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep, he wouldn’t have many friends… Be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the colour and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds.  

Useful, practical stuff. Not only cynical. And not only for politicians.

How To Win An Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians by Quintus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman (Princeton University Press, 2012)


Monday, 10 December 2012

Metaphor and the Seashell

New inventions can take years from the start of the process to realisation. Sometimes decades. With lots of creative problem-solving necessary along the way.

But occasionally there’s a key barrier that appears insuperable and the people involved just can’t imagine that there could be a solution at all, let alone what that solution might look like.

That was the case for Sydney doctor, Graeme Clark, and his team, who were working on ways to bring back hearing to people with deafness problems by tapping into the cochlea part of the ear. The basic idea was to introduce electrodes into it.

The problem was: how to squeeze twenty wires into a curling tube within the ear, where the available gap was no wider than a needle.

Then, one day, Clark was on the beach and looking at a Turban shell. Picking up some blades of grass, he discovered that they had exactly the right combination of flexibility and stiffness to enable him to push them into the shell, curling around until they reached the centre.


This was exactly the mechanical principle used for electrodes in the cochlea implant – an invention that became known as the bionic ear – giving back hearing to thousands.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Cutting the c**p

So many presentations run over their allocated time. It’s so unnecessary.

And so boring.

Usually the most valuable part is after the formal bit has finished and the conversation can begin.

So my policy is this: take the allocated time and divide it in two. Create a presentation that uses 50% of the time for presenting, protecting the remaining 50% for questions, thoughts arising, exploration of the theme.

You know, illuminating chat.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Wise leadership

I started managing the Pickford’s Removals client because the account director was leaving. He and his team had done an outstanding job, but it was clear from day one that the client just didn’t take to me.

And within a month we were involved in re-pitching the business. Over lunch, I told the agency chairman, Dick Desborough, the situation.

“Have you ever been fired by a client?” he asked me.

“Well, no. Not yet, anyway,” I responded. I was young!

“I think we’ll leave you on the business – it’ll be good experience for you.”

On the day of the re-pitches, each agency was allotted an hour. But when it came to our turn, everything was running very late. It looked as though we’d only have five minutes or so on stage.

In fact this was a blessing in disguise as we had a five minute presentation. Two minutes to show the existing campaign. Two minutes to show how strongly it had built both sales and share for Pickford’s. And one minute to propose to the client that they continue with it. And with us.

We won, of course. The client’s boss, the managing director, was there and couldn’t really understand why this was all happening.

I came off the business the following week. What a wise man, my chairman.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Who are you, Alexandra K Trenfor?

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don't tell you what to see.”

I came across this wonderful quote recently, posted by a Facebook friend. Isn’t it perfect?

It’s by Alexandra K Trenfor. And I discover it’s all over the internet, always attributed to her.

But who on earth is she? And if she said (or wrote) this one, how come there aren’t lots more wise thoughts where that one came from?

Declare yourself, Alexandra!