Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Upstairs on the buses

A mailboy at J Walter Thompson in the mid-1960s, the biggest and poshest of advertising agents at that time, I was told about the occasion the chairman walked out of our Berkeley Square offices with a client. No taxis in sight.

“Perhaps we should walk up to Oxford Street and catch a bus,” said the Great Man. And they did. “Let’s go upstairs,” he suggested.

“Will that cost more?” enquired Nervous Client.

This was an era long before our current obsession with Consumer Insight.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Artists as Talkers

I didn’t make time to listen to any of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4 this year – but they were well regarded by many as being witty and wise. And I’ve seen enough of him to know that he is both those things, aside from being an interesting artist.

In general, artists are not known as good talkers. Many seem almost totally inarticulate about both their lives and their work.

The great exception, of course, was James McNeill Whistler. “I wish I’d said that,” said Oscar Wilde admiringly to him at a salon in Paris after the artist had been holding forth.

“You will, Oscar, you will,” responded Whistler.

Above: Whistler by William Merritt Chase, 1885

Sunday, 22 December 2013

In search of Mrs Shakespeare

It's said with rather boring regularity that little is known about Shakespeare the man. It is this that has fed the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare movement. And yet, in reality there’s so much that has been turned up on him, much of it ill-fitting our Romantic view of The Artist.

That’s aside from all those quartos and folios of his work.

Recently I’ve been grappling with a biography of his wife, Ann Hathaway, by Germaine Greer. At one level, it’s an extraordinary achievement – to write 350 pages, tightly packed with relevant information, on a woman about whom next to nothing is known (aside from his leaving her the second best bed).

On the other hand, I’m not at all sure that I will stay the course. One can only take a certain number of might-have-beens, could-haves, we-can-only-imagines, possiblies and supposes.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

A Sort of Christmas Card: Mr Pepys’s Christmas Day

Diary, 25 December 1662

Up pretty early, leaving my wife not well in bed. And with my boy walked, it being a most brave cold and dry frosty morning, and had a pleasant walk to Whitehall… By and by down to the Chapell again, where Bishop Morley* preached upon the Song of the Angels – “Glory to God on high, on earth peace, and good will towards men.” Methought he made but a poor sermon, but long and reprehending the mistaken jollity of the Court for the true joy that shall and ought to be on these days… He did much press us to joy in these publick days of joy, and to hospitality. But one that stood by whispered in my ear that the Bishop do not spend one groat to the poor himself. The sermon done a good anthem followed by vialls, and the King** came down to receive the sacrament… I walked home again with great pleasure, and there dined by my wife’s bed-side with great content, having a mess of brave plum-porridge and a roasted pullet for dinner, and I sent for a mince-pie abroad, my wife not being well to make any herself yet. After dinner sat talking a good while with her, her [pain] being become less, and then to see Sir W Penn*** a little, and so to my office, practising arithmetique alone with great content, till 11 at night; and so to supper and to bed.

Wishing you a very happy Christmas.

*Bishop of Winchester, then in 1663 also Dean of the Chapel Royal
**Charles II
***Admiral William Penn, a close friend of Pepys. Father of the founder of Pennsylvania

Monday, 16 December 2013

Mandela and the move to violence

In all the adulatory coverage following the death of Nelson Mandela, I’ve yet to see the view expressed that the switch of the ANC from non-violent opposition to armed insurrection, following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, might well have served to stiffen the resolve of the white supremacist regime in defence of apartheid, caused many more deaths and extended the period of time before change came about.

Just as the bombing campaign against Germany, aimed at bringing an end to hostilities, served only to prolong the Second World War…

Mandela and his colleagues must have been fully aware of Gandhi’s strategy.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Folking awful

For a while I sang in folk clubs. It was the pseudo-folk revival of the mid-1960s.

“What did you think of it?” I asked one club manager – a world-class cynic at the best of times perhaps a trifle too eagerly.

“Folking awful,” he responded.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Vitality the vision

Some years ago, I helped Unilever to develop a new “corporate mission”. In the end it all came down to one word – VITALITY.

Clarity about vitality as a way of being could create real new momentum for the multinational giant as the focus of all R&D and marketing efforts; on whom to promote and whom to recruit (and whom not); on which brands to acquire and which to sell.
I was so excited by the word and its obvious relevance and potential that I lobbied as many members of senior management as I knew and in due course it was adopted.

A little later I was disappointed to learn that it had not been taken up by the HR people in the company in any meaningful way. And the company went on owning the profitable but not very obviously vital Pot Noodle brand.

Now I see on the internet that the strategy has been reduced to a standard formula. This is it (above). Useful, no doubt, but unlikely to unleash much in the way of vitality. 

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Conquering Cleo

Ahead of the première of Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford, Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph pointed out that he had “never seen this play fulfilled on stage or witnessed two actors adequate to its leading roles.”

I know what he means. The last time I risked it was a couple of decades ago a dreary production with a schoolmarmish Cleo at the Birmingham Rep.

Well, the new production at the Swan, a joint effort of two American companies (the Public in New York and GableStage in Miami) together with the RSC, scores a creditable one out of two.

The Mark Antony, the well-established British actor Jonathan Cake, really looks as though he has wandered in from a remake of Carry On Cleo.

But the Cleopatra, Joaquina Kalukango, virtually fresh from the Juilliard School in New York, is absolutely magnificent. What a pity she didn’t bring her own leading man.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Finding a niche in the eating out market

Our lovely village on the borders of Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, King’s Sutton, offers so much... Three pubs, three shops, two churches, a fine village hall, a multitude of clubs and activities, including regular live music. But no good restaurant food. Until quite recently, that is.

When we first came to live in the village some twenty years ago, the White Horse pub was an ancient, dingy drinkers’ den, not really to be entered unless one was an insider. Then someone saw its potential and converted it into an attractive but rather basic gastro-pub. The aged drinkers abandoned ship.

Somehow or other that change never worked commercially. Managements came and went, each one tweaking the offer, but none able to make the property make a dollar.

Recently arrived a new young couple, Julie Groves and Hendrik Dutson – she the landlady and he the chef – and the food they are producing (and the welcome) is of a quite different order from what has gone before.

Sophie and I have now sampled both lunch and dinner there – with great pleasure. So we hope that, this time around, the White Horse, Julie and Hendrik are here to stay.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Copyright in the real world

Although there has been virtually no coverage of the event, I’m assured that in July the UK government ratified an EU directive which, from November just past, increased the period of time when sound recordings are subject to copyright from 50 years to 70.

This is a case of expanding the barn after the horses have all bolted. Completely absurd.

What’s needed is a complete rethink of intellectual property law in the real world we live in now.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Big Steel Bird flies in

I was asked recently when was the last time I played in public. Well, I think it was in 1984 or 1985.

An office band at Lintas Sydney was formed for a party and I was asked to sit in on bass guitar. Since I was the Chairman/CEO at the time and my past as a rock musician was not generally known, I asked that my participation was kept secret until the performance. In the event, it was not that I played well that surprised (I didn’t), but that I played at all.

Sad to say, I don’t remember who all the band-members were. I think creative director Al Crew was there. And Tracey Harbutt (now Tilda Bostwick) sang with great élan. But at the heart of it all was a bright young copywriter, Dugald McDonald.

Now, nearly three decades later, Doogie’s new CD has lobbed in from Africa: Big Steel Bird. It’s a total delight. He wrote all the songs, plays guitar and sings.

Here’s a nice commercial he made in 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpYBhUYJcqY

But here’s where you can find that Big Steel Bird: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/dugaldmcdonald

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Taking the moral high ground

I’m going this week to work with a multinational company in the Netherlands and a major part of what we’ll be doing is to work collaboratively to develop a set of shared corporate values and behaviours.

The current meltdown at the Cooperative Bank in Britain, culminating in the resigned chairman apparently involved in sex, drugs and expenses scandals, reminds us that ethical behaviour starts and ends with the individual. We can’t simply transfer it wishfully to institutions.

Taking the moral high ground being holier than thou is not an easy position to sustain.

“The cooperative bank: good with money”. Apparently not (in either meaning).

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Remembering Bryce Courtenay

Bryce was a rock for me before he became Australia’s best-selling author of all time. He as partner and creative director at his own agency in Sydney, me as chairman of Lintas there. We lunched together regularly. While in public he could roar, in private he was a source of great kindness, calm and wisdom.

When I was coming back to live and work in London, he gently mocked my attempts to express my love of Australia at my leaving party. I only saw him once after that. And by then he had become the famous writer of his first best-seller, The Power of One. He told me that he had sold the film rights in New York for “a million dollars”.

I asked him how he had got started as a real writer (as opposed to a copywriter), and he told me that he had been out with some mates one evening and mentioned the novel he’d been thinking about. “Bryce, I’m sick to death of hearing about this book,” responded one of his friends. “Just shut up and write it.”

“So what did you do?” I asked him.

“I went home, got out a sheet of paper, and started.”

It’s one of the most simple and vibrant openings in literature: “This is what happened... ”

Bryce Courtenay died on 22nd November 2012.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Heartland of Innovation

Where would be the most important source for innovation in the world? London, Paris, New York? Birmingham, Cambridge, Los Angeles? Silicon Valley?

Well, historically, none of the above. The answer is New Jersey. Surprising?

Not if one considers the extraordinary stream of life-changing inventions that have flowed from that state.

From Thomas Edison and his teams at Menlo Park came not only the two-way telegraph, the phonograph, electric lighting (not just the light bulb, but all the rest of the necessary paraphernalia), the movie camera, the microphone, batteries for electrically-driven vehicles, but also the first innovation teams, the systematic notion that Big Ideas had to be followed up with rigorous development work, the ability to fund and market breakthrough products successfully and the establishment of celebrity status for inventors.

Also based in New Jersey (after his move from Washington DC) was the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, and his successors at Bell Laboratories, who between them are credited with the invention of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser and several programming languages and operating systems. Together they have won seven Nobel prizes.

Then there’s the Italian inventor of wireless telegraphy and the radio, Guglielmo Marconi, who established one of his pioneering radio stations at New Brunswick NJ.

But perhaps the earliest important innovator to work in the state was Alfred Vail, who, with Samuel Morse, is credited with the development and commercialisation of the telegraph in the late 1830s.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Running through the Winter’s Journey

Over the last century good Australian tenors have been something like hen’s teeth. So first to hear Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes, and then just a couple of weeks later Dominic Walsh in Schubert’s great song cycle, Winterreise, has been a double treat.

I was lucky enough to catch the young Mr Walsh in a private run-through at the Peckham home of his accompanist, the fine Schubertian pianist (and another Australian), Geoffrey Saba. Dominic Walsh was an Australian Music Foundation award-winner in 2012 and Geoffrey Saba has been mentoring him. We the privileged audience numbered just five.

Walsh and Saba are taking this saddest of sad works of lost love to Australia, with Saba then going on to Indonesia, so if you want to catch it, this is where they will be:

Melbourne: November 23, 24
Stanley Park, near Newcastle: November 30
Sydney: December 1 (Saba solo)
Medan, Indonesia: December 6 (Saba solo)
Surabaya, Indonesia: December 10, 11 (Saba solo)

Monday, 11 November 2013

Pretending to be

When I was at school in the 1950s and early 1960s, it seemed to be generally accepted that Sir Laurence Olivier was, alongside Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud, the greatest of a great generation of “classical” actors.

Problem was, even at thirteen or so, he seemed to me to be a tremendous ham. On film both his Henry V and his Richard III appeared over the top (but just about tolerable), and his Hamlet reduced me to uncontrollable fits of giggles, so inflated was his assumption of the role.

He seemed to spend his time in so many roles gurning, unable to speak without addressing the throng in stentorian tones, both loud and soft.

Now, over fifty years later, his work remains for me completely unwatchable. Thank goodness for the Method, which has enabled actors to be (and not to be), rather than just pretending to be.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Smokers and lepers

In a somewhat hidden space at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, a video is playing called Bann. It is the work of German artist Nina Könnemann and it features workers in the City of London smoking.

Elegantly dressed, they skulk in shadows and alleyways at the foot of the shiny high-rise office blocks they actually work in.

Watching the video brought to mind a comment I once heard in a focus group in Sydney: “We smokers… we are treated worse than lepers.”

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

National Theatre at 50

Reflecting on the 50th anniversary celebrations of the National Theatre in London, it's not hard for me to find the reason that I've been in the audience so rarely.

It's a brutalist barn. Completely lacking a sense of intimacy. Even at the finest productions of the greatest plays, we might just as well be in a conference centre.

So much better at the Old Vic, its temporary home in the 1960s before the barn was built. What wonderful memories I have of plays there. Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins, Geraldine McEwan… But perhaps most of all John Stride and Edward Petherbridge in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. What a company.

And how brilliant of Kevin Spacey to realise this and go some way to re-creating those halcyon days there.

Saturday, 2 November 2013


Academics do get their knickers in a twist over the existence or otherwise of genius. And innovation managers like to assume that we don’t need it - it can all be done collaboratively.

But that doesn’t need to worry us.

Here’s a personal starter list of ten. Sorry - nearly all DWMs. What would yours include?


Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Divas and urban myths

It’s over twenty years since I started researching and writing about the life and work of the great Australian diva, Dame Nellie Melba. Throughout that time, when I asked professional singers and other musicians about her, they would smile knowingly, and there would be a pause…

“Don’t you know that she was into oral sex?… In the intervals of operas… in her dressing room… said it was good for her vocal cords.”

I must have heard it dozens of times. And yet, of course, there seems to be no real evidence, beyond the fact that it’s an urban myth.

So I was quite surprised to read in Rupert Christiansen’s column in the Daily Telegraph recently that she would “haul stage hands into her dressing room…” Someone had told him that it was true – and Christiansen’s story at least has the embellishment of the stage hands.

How can one possibly know the truth at this distance in time? And only recently I was told that the original story was not about Melba at all, but about her great competitor, the Italian soprano Luisa Tetrazzini.

Of course, there’s no actual evidence for that either, unless, of course, someone in the know told you…

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Music and success

How often we read an article which propounds an appealing notion, apparently with supporting evidence. A recent one is Joanne Lipman’s piece in the New York Times, “Is music the key to success?” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/opinion/sunday/is-music-the-key-to-success.html?src=me&ref=general&_r=2&  

In it the author ties together training in music with outstanding achievement in some other field. She opens: “Condoleezza Rice trained to be a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a professional clarinet and saxophone player…”

The project certainly enabled her to have interesting chats with several of the great and good. And, as I say, it’s a notion one would like to believe in. Better focus and discipline, new ways of thinking and communicating, improved listening and problem-solving, able to push beyond what currently exists, making multiple connections in multiple spheres, an enriched life, collaboration, creativity, the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas… What’s not to like?

Problem is: Lipman could just as easily have found a cohort of trained musicians who were unsuccessful in other walks of life. Or, indeed, another cohort of high achievers who had no training in music whatsoever.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Mosque or synagogue?

That rampant racism is an ever-present factor in Ukraine is well-known to followers of football. Only last month FIFA ordered Ukraine to play their next World Cup qualifier (against Poland) behind closed doors following racist behaviour by their fans – monkey noises, gestures, Nazi salutes and so on in the match against San Marino.

And this is just the latest in a long line of shameful incidents.

So it really comes as no great surprise that the admitted murderer of an 82 tear old grandfather in Birmingham, a Muslim, Mohammed Saleem, would be a student extremist from Ukraine. The attack took place just five days after Pavlo Lapshyn arrived in Britain, and was followed by the planting of bombs at three mosques in the West Midlands.

What really struck me was the interview conducted by ITV News with Lapshyn’s father back home, in which it was denied that his son was a murderer, nor that he was a fascist.

“But then, why did he blow up a mosque, not a synagogue?” enquired father, apparently unaware that this disclosed his own profoundly racist attitudes.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Improving and outflanking

I’m very clear with clients that if they haven’t got what it takes to be breakthrough innovators, they should concentrate on studying competitors products and services, existing and new, and outflank them by making improvements in key areas. And moving fast.

After all, that’s substantially what has taken Apple to their current dominant position. And Samsung after Apple.

The power of this strategy first struck me in the years that I worked on new product development with the Rowntree company in York (now owned by Nestlé). It was frustrating that the senior managers would initially be positive about new ideas, but over time it became clear that nothing would actually happen.

Then, one day, one of them took me aside and explained to me the source of their success. “So many of our biggest and most profitable brands were developed as improvements on existing products made by other companies, usually abroad,” he told me.

All this came back to me in recent days, as the Rowntree chocolatier, Brian Sollitt, who died recently, has been feted in the British media as the “genius” behind many of Rowntree’s new products – Lion Bar, Yorkie, Drifter, Matchmakers and, most famously, After Eight.

But while Mr Sollitt undoubtedly was a skilled improver of products, he was not really an innovator. For example, the idea for the wafer thin chocolate mint, After Eight, came from an existing local product in Sweden.

Friday, 18 October 2013

"Jesus, there is but one art: to omit"

There are lots of quotations that swim around web, endlessly repeated, often incorrectly attributed, frequently without source of any kind and usually growing textual amendments to suit the new context. One such is this:

 The only art is to omit.

It has been used most recently (and negatively) by a reviewer of Eleanor Catton's lengthy Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries.

To be fair, it is nearly always given as by Robert Louis Stevenson, which is right. But where on earth is it from? I couldn't locate it, so eventually I asked my friend Roger Swearingen in California. He's one of, if not the leading RLS expert in the world. He, of course, knew immediately. "RLS to his cousin Bob, ?30 June 1883," he emailed, appending the plaintive personal note: "I only wish I could learn that art."

And so say all of us.

The correct version of the aphorism comes at the end of a paragraph in the letter, in which RLS, the great stylist, deals with the inadequacies of Balzac as a writer:

He was a man who never found his method. An inarticulate Shakespeare, smothered under forcible-feeble detail. It is astounding, to the riper mind, how bad he is, how feeble, how untrue, how tedious; and, of course, when he surrendered to his temperament, how good and powerful. And yet never plain nor clear. He could not consent to be dull, and thus became so. He would leave nothing undeveloped, and thus drowned out of sight of land amid the multitude of crying and incongruous details. Jesus, there is but one art: to omit! O if I knew how to omit, I would ask no other knowledge.
Cousin Bob, by the way, was the pioneering (and still valuable) art critic, RAM Stevenson, author of a seminal book on Velasquez.

Above: RLS photographed by H Walter Barnett in Sydney, 1893

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Patiently waiting for the reviews

I went last Wednesday to the English Chamber Orchestra’s concert at Cadogan Hall in London. The orchestra was in tremendous form.

It was an extraordinary programme, featuring the world première of a new work by a Brilliant Young Composer ("Serenade for Strings"); a mature piano concerto by Mozart (No 23 in A, K488), directed and played by the same BYC; Tchaikovsky’s "Rococo Variations" for Cello and Orchestra, scintillatingly played by Michael Petrov and conducted by our BYC; and the fourth symphony of one of our best and best-established British composers a follower of Benjamin Britten David Matthews, and conducted by the BYC.

Hmmm… Britten. Didn’t he famously undertake all three roles - conducting, composing and playing concertos at concerts with the same ECO - half a century ago?

Surely our London music critics will all have been there last Wednesday? After all, it was a pretty rare occasion. What’s more, there was nothing else in the classical music line at the other leading concert venues in London that evening.

Really, I’ve been waiting, quite patiently, for the reviews. Thus far, there’s been not a word. And we’ll not need to hold our collective breaths any longer. Perhaps they all needed an evening off.

The Brilliant Young Composer, conductor and concerto pianist was, of course, the amazing talent that is Alissa Firsova.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Being of “insufficient artistic merit”

A few years ago I proposed to English Heritage that they put up a Blue Plaque in Montague Square, London, to the artist, John Glover.

Born in Leicestershire in 1767, Glover was to become a successful contemporary and rival of Constable in England, noted for his romantic landscapes, before emigrating to Australia, living in Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then called). Extraordinarily, he was already 64 years old.

In Tasmania, he painted a great series of landscapes, one of the earliest European immigrants to tackle the bush, the “remarkable peculiarity of the trees” as he described it, and include aborigines and aboriginal life in his work.

I’ve always thought his work very special. But English Heritage did not agree, knocking back my proposal (after due consideration by their panel of “experts”) on the basis that Glover was of “insufficient artistic merit”.

I thought of this again a couple of weeks ago, seeing several of his finest canvases at the current Australia exhibition at the RA, including the magnificent “A Corroboree of Natives in Mills Plain” of 1832. In the current BBC series on Australian art, Edmund Capon announced that Glover could not have seen a corroboree as the Aboriginal population had effectively been ethnically cleansed by the settlers. Really he could not have executed this painting and others without studying the native population quite closely, and, as Ian McLean has demonstrated, he seems to have had opportunities to do this before the clearances were completed.

This sighting was followed a few days later by the sale of Glover's “Ben Lomond from Mr Talbot’s property – Four Men Catching Opossums” at Christie’s for £1.7 million.

I do hope the acquirer of that work knows that Mr Glover’s work is not worthy, at least so far as English Heritage is concerned.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

All the world before you

I seem to be in the midst of an intensive Australian phase here in England currently. The exhibition at the RA I’ve written about, but in parallel with that I’ve been doing some judging of young Aussie musicians, applicants for scholarships from the Australian Music Foundation.

What an amazing array of talent is out there. We started this year with fifty-eight, whittling them down to ten for the finals at the Wigmore Hall. We were looking not only for talent and capability, but also for potential – something much harder to assess.

Young Australian musicians still come in droves to study and launch their careers in Europe and America, as they have for over a century. If Nellie Melba thought they had potential, she sent them off to study with her own teacher in Paris, Madame Marchesi. Percy Grainger sent them to New York, to the Juilliard School, to study with the then dean of the school, fellow-Aussie composer-pianist, Ernest Hutcheson.

The winners this year were an extraordinary recorder player who specialises in contemporary composers, Rhia Parker; two brilliant violinists, Suyeon Kang and Sally Law; and a big-voiced tenor, Gerard Schneider. Past and present scholarship winners then gave a brilliant recital at Christie’s (heralding their auction of Australian art).

Although there has been a steady stream of Australian sopranos, contraltos and basses from Melba to Sutherland and beyond good Aussie tenors have always been a rare breed, so it was good to be able to help one in the early stages of his career.

Having said that, what a fine tenor Stuart Skelton is – brilliant as Britten’s Peter Grimes (above) under Vladimir Jurowski in Birmingham and London, and at the same time singing the taxing role of Florestan in Fidelio for ENO at the Coliseum.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Getting a gong from the IAA

Last week, at a fun dinner in London (to celebrate their 75th anniversary), along with several other worthies, I was given a gong for the contribution I had made to the International Advertising Association two decades ago.

I was elected world president of the IAA at a rather critical moment. First, the Soviet Empire was crumbling, and a whole new range of countries was emerging as market economies. And second, advertising was under attack, seemingly throughout the western world, with governments threatening to legislate for ad bans on all sorts of products that were legally sold.

At that time, in 1989/90, the IAA was the only organisation that could address these threats on a global basis, representing, as it did (and does) the three parts of the business the manufacturers, the media and the advertising agencies.

And yet, the organisation was clearly completely ill-equipped to create and implement the programmes necessary to defend freedom of commercial speech. The whole ethos of the IAA was not connected with advocacy, but rather was a global club, where the primary reason for belonging was to network.

So I embarked very early on a re-structuring of the governance of the organisation, reducing the executive committee from around twenty-five to just a handful of key players. Of course, this was much resented by all those who were being jettisoned.

And, together with the paid executives, director-general Norman Vale and his number two Richard Corner, we deployed three initiatives: first, to be alert to threats as they emerged, sharing best practice in dealing with each; then to create a roadshow that would travel through the emerging post-Soviet markets Russia, Czechoslovakia (as it was), Hungary, Poland and, importantly, China setting out the case for advertising, and inaugurating IAA chapters in each; and, perhaps most important, we launched a global “Campaign for Advertising” (together with tracking research), proclaiming the economic and social case the media space and time all donated.

I wonder how well the IAA would cope today, faced with similar opportunities and threats?

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Dame Kiri as Dame Nellie in Downton Abbey

My friend Robert Reitano was not happy from the start. “Undeserving” was how he described Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (actually that was the least offensive word he used), when it was announced that that she would be appearing as Dame Nellie Melba in Downton Abbey.

Certainly Kiri has a quite different sort of voice from Nellie, but aside from that mere detail, they do appear to have several things in common. In the 1920s, when the current series is set, Melba was in the evening of her career – as Kiri is now. They were both major operatic stars and household names. And both conquered Europe and America, having grown up in Australasia.

However, now it’s clear that Kiri will be singing “O mio babbino caro” (O my beloved father) from Puccini’s comic opera Gianni Schicchi, Robert is positively outraged.

“Have you seen the trailer?” he asks.  “Gianni Schicchi was only premièred at the Met in December 1918 and the aria was virtually unknown outside of the opera until Joan Hammond’s famous recording in English in 1941. Surely Melba would have sung ‘Home, Sweet Home’, or ‘Comin’ thru the rye’ or ‘Annie Laurie’ or something by Hahn or Bemberg or Tosti. An operatic aria is unlikely on such an occasion in such a venue. Yet another Downton solecism, surely.”

What’s right about the re-enactment is that Melba did indeed sing at evening soirées in aristocratic houses, as did many of the opera stars of her era. The difference was that they all arrived by the tradesmen’s entrance, sang behind a velvet rope, did not mingle with the guests and left by the same door.

Melba, on the other hand, entered and departed through the front door, cleared away the velvet rope and chatted freely with the guests, many of whom were close personal friends. Her charge for such an occasion was £500, equivalent to around £40,000 in today’s money. And for this consideration she would sing perhaps three songs.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

No junk mail

Distributing leaflets door-to-door is time-consuming but necessary if we want to attract an audience for a concert in our village.

It’s a task I undertake on a pretty regular basis, and I’m always rather shocked by the hostile notices that people put on their doors in an effort to fend off “junk mail”.

After all, whether the “junk” is coming from an impoverished local charity (as with our concerts), or from a major supermarket promoting its special offers, or from a local trader, it’s always distributed on a targeted basis and, compared with TV or press ads, is expensive on a per capita basis, both in terms of time and money.

So why is it that home-delivered mail arouses such hostility? In some way, it seems to me that people feel violated by it, but not by all the other ads that come into their lives and homes more indiscriminately on a continuous basis.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

The lure of the dredger

When I was in the advertising business, travelling around the world a lot, I used to get irritated by the fact that everyone on aeroplanes seems to have opinions on the morality and otherwise of the business, mostly very similar. (Are people still so allergic to adverts arriving through their mail boxes?)

So in an endeavour to stem the flow, when asked on flights “What do you do?”, I tried to come up with an answer that would put a dead stop to the conversation.

For a while I was in marine insurance. This did quite well. Then, mid-way between Brisbane and Sydney one day, I was asked the usual question by a bloke and came up with the winning formula. I was in dredging.

A long look of puzzlement followed. But words failed him.


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

At loggerheads in Manila

I was lead facilitator of a big Unilever workshop in Manila - and the going got tough.

Participating were 50 managers from all over South East Asia, the fastest growing region in the company at the time, and so filled with self-confidence.

The problem was that the Thais and the Indonesians were totally at loggerheads with each other about the way forward. I did what I could to bring about some kind of consensus. No joy.

Eventually my very experienced American colleague, Ned Preble, stepped forward. "Shall I see what I can do?" he asked me. "Be my guest, Ned!" I responded gratefully.

"OK, would everyone who intends to find a solution to this problem step up please," he announced. "You should know, however, that if you choose not to participate, you're agreeing to the solution. Agreed?"

So over the next 30 minutes or so, Ned facilitated a heated, chaotic-seeming scrum of competing voices around a flip-chart. Eventually, the hubbub subsided.

They had the answer.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Patronising Poms

I suppose that it was too much to expect.

While there have been some very positive notices about the Australia exhibition at the RA in the British press (notably in the Daily Telegraph and FT Weekend), many have struck the usual note of patronising dismissal.

For example, Adrian “I am certainly no expert on Australian art” Searle in The Guardian tells us that it’s: “… a wobbly ride through the past and into the present”, the Aboriginal paintings “extremely difficult to read”, the silverware “ghastly”, the flowering of the late nineteenth century dismissed as the work of “Barbizon-school émigrés, mediocre European impressionists and would-be symbolists”. And from then on, according to Searle, it gets “much more problematic”.  

When I went to live and work in Sydney in the 1980s, I knew all about the Aussie dislike of “whinging poms”.

But, after a while, it became clear to me that whinging isn’t the only, or even the major, source of complaint. That is the sense that Australians have of being patronised by us. Sometimes this springs from the particular style of English humour, but so often it is just naked condescension.

It had never occurred to me that this lay at the heart of Australian-English relations for generations. That is, until I picked up a book, Recollections, by the English-born writer David Christie Murray, published in 1908. Murray had lived in Melbourne in the 1890s.

“I have never in my life known anything more offensively insolent than the patronising tolerance which I have seen the travelling Cockney extend to men of the colonies, who were worth a thousand of him,” wrote Murray. “I have seen an Englishman unintentionally insult a host at his own table, and set everybody on tenterhooks by his blundering assumption that the colonists are necessarily inferior to the home-bred people. Nobody likes this sort of thing.”

You’d think we might have learned by now.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Australia at the RA

To the Royal Academy for their latest show, Australia. What a joy it is – filled both with old friends and new acquaintances. And a real credit to its curators Ron Radford and Anne Gray from the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and Kathleen Soriano of the RA  in London.

The last major exhibition of Australian art in Britain took place at the Tate Gallery in 1962 over half a century ago. Although, as the catalogue shows, it had plenty of fine paintings, it was treated in a patronising fashion by the London art establishment, only “rather better than the more woeful prophets might have predicted,” according to The Times.

That kind of condescension has a long track-record. The critic RAM Stevenson (Robert Louis’s cousin) recalled the first substantial showing of Australian work in London in 1886, which included four paintings by Tom Roberts (including “Coming South”), as “still English, or, to speak more correctly, showed us fashions of painting that were founded upon the English trade picture… mechanical drawings and geological, botanical or topographical diagrams.”

By 1898, on the occasion of the second major Australian exhibition (at the Grafton Gallery), Stevenson was more enthusiastic: “The cleverest, the most brilliant, the highest toned work in the show is Mr Streeton’s square canvas, ‘Early Summer’.”*

The current exhibition, focused on landscape, is filled with major works, many of which have travelled around the world for the first time. Let’s see whether it unleashes a wave of patronising comment reminiscent of 1886. 

*Was this painting “Early Summer – Gorse in Bloom”, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Australia in Adelaide?

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Oxfordshire’s Best Churches

I have a couple of dozen tomes by Nikolaus Pevsner, each one detailing every building of note in the counties of England, but the book that has been at the heart of my ecclesiastical tourism around England has always been John Betjeman’s Pocket Guide to English Parish Churches. Published in 1958 it covers some 2,000 examples.  

In that I’ve recorded every visit I’ve made to an Anglican church since the mid-1960s, so I’ll be coming up to half a century quite soon. The most visited counties over that time are Kent (97 churches) and Oxfordshire (52). I used to live near the former, and am now adjacent to the latter.

So it’s a pleasure to be able to recommend a new book, Oxfordshire’s Best Churches by Richard Wheeler. It is well-researched and beautifully written, dealing in detail with the architecture, sculpture and stained glass of fifty buildings covering a thousand years of creativity and change. Shamefully, I’ve only been inside eleven of them. And there are shorter entries on a further sixty-five, together with superb photography (taken by the author) and nice typography throughout.

Altogether a joy to have. Enthused by it, we visited one of the most charming and atmospheric in the county, North Stoke.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

At the court of Queen Nefertiti

I went to a two day conference on forgiveness at Findhorn in Scotland. It was a tremendous experience and I learned lots, although it always remains a challenge, both forgiving and being forgiven.

Towards the end, a woman who works with victims of torture made a presentation in down-to-earth ways about how they can be helped to rehabilitate. From the audience, another woman put up her hand.

“I’ve been a torturer,” she announced.

Hushed silence.

“Tell us some more about that,” the presenter responded.

“Well, in a session we ran here that enabled us to go back many generations, I discovered that I had tortured people in the court of Queen Nefertiti.”

More silence.

“I’m only concerned with the living,” said the presenter, somewhat irritated.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Power of Paraphrase

Over the years I have had the pleasure of partnering with (and learning from) some wonderful facilitators. And, amongst them all, a few particular moments remain in the memory.

One such was in Amsterdam. I was working with my colleague Emma Luten, helping one of the top ad agencies there, JWT, to create a new vision and strategy.

From quite early on, it was clear that the local management team was unhappy. Overwhelmingly Dutch, they clearly did not like each other, scoring points off one other at will, and resentful of working in the meeting in the international language, English.

So, after about twenty minutes, one of them told Emma to put away the marker pen, to sit down and be quiet.

“We need to talk to each other,” he said. “In Dutch.”

They went at it, hammer and tongs, many speaking at once, voices raised in anger and frustration, nobody listening to anyone else. Emma and I sat silently.

After half an hour or so, they paused to draw breath. Emma said: “Do you mind if I say something?”


“Well, it seems to me that there are three main issues here.”

“And they would be...?”

Emma calmly laid them out before them. The team was stunned and reluctantly agreed.

“My suggestion would be that we use these issues as task headlines and work together on each of them in the remainder of this meeting,” said Emma.

So that’s what we did.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

All’s Well That Ends Well

I seem to be in another Shakespeare immersion phase again – the fourth time in my life, I think. This time around I’m especially interested in the plays that I’ve failed to connect with well previously King John was something of a revelation last year.

Now it’s the turn of All’s Well That Ends Well, a wonderful production in the main house at Stratford. This is truly how I experience Shakespeare best: an uncluttered stage; real belief in the plot, the characters and the words; a modern staging, but without supermarket trolleys (Nancy Meckler the director); and great acting from a cast which was also a completely interdependent ensemble.

Especially noteworthy were Joanna Horton’s Helena, Alex Waldmann’s feckless Bertram, Jonathan Slinger’s brilliant Parolles, Greg Hicks’s King of France, and the fabulous Charlotte Cornwell’s Countess of Roussillion.

Together they made this often underrated “problem comedy” seem like genuine premier-league Shakespeare.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Blocking breakthrough innovation

The announcement of Steve Ballmer’s retirement as CEO of Microsoft has been accompanied by the recital of a sad list of major innovations created by that company, but rejected by the management during his term of office and exploited successfully by competitors – notably by Apple.

The list includes the iPhone and the iPad. And they are probably just the tip of the iceberg. What’s more, the company did launch a stream of new products that failed.

Poor Ballmer [?] is by no means alone. He’s just more famous than the other CEOs who routinely block breakthrough ideas.

The central problem in innovation isn’t coming up with ideas, nor with implementing them. It’s with recognising and supporting them. After all, the more disruptive the idea, the less likely it is that consumer research will pick it out as a winner, and the more likely it is that it will contravene an existing mindset.   

Distressingly there’s no evidence that senior managers are any better at picking breakthrough winners than my mum.

Monday, 2 September 2013

So farewell, Steve Ballmer

I had looked forward to seeing Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft (who has recently announced that he is stepping down). He was guest speaker at a major Coca-Cola conference in the mid-90s that I was co-facilitating with Bill Boggs. At the time Microsoft was the hottest company on the planet.

In the event… I just thought he was preachy, screechy and dull.

I’m not really surprised that the company has performed so poorly over the past two decades. So poorly that Microsoft’s stock surged when he said he was off.  

Friday, 30 August 2013

Cutting bureaucracy at the BBC

I notice that BBC director general Tony Hall has committed to cutting bureaucracy.

Top of the agenda, apparently, is to tackle the BBC’s meeting culture – halving the number of boards and steering groups. “We spend far too long agonising over decisions that other organisations have learned to make much more efficiently,” says Hall.

Sounds like a good start.

A useful follow-up would be to light a bushfire under the forest of processes and procedures, rules and regulations, that were set up, one by one, on the basis that they would increase control, reduce risk and facilitate progress, but actually just get in the way.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A midsummer murder

To be honest, it didn’t sound very promising. Would we like to go to see a murder mystery about bee-keeping beside the Oxford Canal - Beyond the Veil: Hives... Honey... Homicide? What’s more it looked like rain. Our friend Kate had heard about it from a friend.

In the event it turned out to be a really joyful evening. The company, Mikron, had arrived (by narrowboat, of course), and moored at The Pig Place. So we ate sausage baps drowned in fried onions and ketchup – quite delicious – and settled down on straw bales.

The writing was crisp and witty. The four actors, each with several roles requiring instant changes, bright and funny. Each seemed to be able to play multiple instruments and sing well, individually and in harmony. The rain held off. And we learned not only whodunit, but also lots of fascinating stuff about beekeeping and the plight of the bee population.

Mikron has been touring now for forty years, always based on the boat, a different venue, nearly always under the stars, each evening.

Quite a discovery.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Lifelong learning at Glyndebourne

With the final performance (today) of the 2013 festival, Vladimir Jurowski has now completed his last season as musical director at Glyndebourne, the wonderful country house opera in the Sussex downs.  

His thirteen seasons there started when he was in his early 30s, and he has personally conducted eighteen different operas over that period, introducing two major Wagner works to their repertoire (Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), two of the Verdi/Shakespeare operas (Macbeth and Falstaff), operetta (Die Fledermaus), two Russians (Prokofiev’s Betrothal in the Monastery and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin), and a world première in the form of Eötvös’s Love and Other Demons.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to him seven or eight years ago and, discovering a mutual interest in original performing styles, I offered to send him from time to time some of the earliest recordings of great singers performing arias from operas which he was to conduct. He took me up on this, and so for several seasons I would send him a bespoke CD – Wagner, Verdi and Tchaikovsky are the ones I most recall. And, perhaps from other sources, he was also listening to the earliest recordings of orchestral works.

I was thrilled. My previous experience of conductors (and singers) is that they rely principally on the score, on their own judgement, and on their training at conservatoire as to how music should be performed, not bothering with ancient, sometimes murky recordings.

Jurowski, however, is quite different. He is a true lifelong learner, endlessly trying to understand how it was done then in order to help him appreciate how to do it now. In an interview in 2008 he talked about how he had known Tchaikovsky’s music intimately since he was a small child, watching his father rehearse and conduct at the Bolshoi in Moscow.

And yet, he wrote: “In the last year, I started listening with different ears and much more attention to detail to the very old recordings of Tchaikovsky’s music.” He concluded that “… they sounded less flashy and less showy, but there was something else in the performance of the music. There was this fragility which is missing in almost all of the performances today.” 

In the meantime, the massive growth of YouTube, and the fact that so many of the finest early performers who recorded are now much more easily accessed, means that this experience is available to all musicians and singers. I wonder how many of them take up that opportunity in an open-minded way?

So, listen to Lilli Lehmann (born in 1848, she was in the first performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876) singing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde in 1907 from the only surviving test pressing.

Monday, 19 August 2013

As You Don’t Like It

In the years leading up to the building of Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside in London, the great motor force behind the project, Sam Wanamaker, used regularly to declare that actors would have to learn again how to act in this new space.

With no sound amplification and no roof, the challenge at the Globe would be how to project to such a substantial amphitheatre without loss of naturalness and relationship.

In reflection, I think it’s a clue as to why I was disappointed in the recent production of As You Like It in the enclosed main house at Stratford. Although they were in close proximity to each other, so many of the actors simply shouted. 

I thought we’d left all that behind us.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Postcards from the chaos

Discussing blogs with a fellow-blogger, he naturally felt slighted when I told him that, for me, most blogposts are far too long, the product of unrestrained verbal incontinence. For indeed his posts are anything but short.

“But yours are worthy of the New Yorker,” I responded (quite truthfully). “Whereas mine are just… just postcards.”

I do try to keep them as brief as possible. One issue at a time. Out of the somewhat chaotic life I lead.

But I don’t tweet…

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Not a word to be used to Princes

It’s good to be reminded (by David Nice in a piece on artsdesk) of Queen Elizabeth’s response in 1603 to her leading minister, Robert Cecil:

Must is not a word to be used to Princes.

Cecil had been encouraging the old queen to go to bed during her final illness. Bess was not amused. But her response was the natural one to unsolicited imperatives, and not just because she was a “prince”.

“Must” so often stimulates a negative feeling, whatever one’s station in life. As do “should” and “ought”.

Encouraging Russian musicians to oppose the anti-gay laws in that country, David Nice headlines his article “When artists could speak out.” http://www.theartsdesk.com/classical-music/opinion-when-artists-could-speak-out

“Could.” So much more likely to gain assent than “must”.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

When I think, I must speak

To Stratford for their current As You Like It.

A feminist production that seemed to be the offspring of 1960s Hair (I was there then), including the smoking of dope.

It was ironic that the biggest laugh came when Rosalind declared: “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”

Not very PC, Will. But a magical play.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Does Putin have a Fool?

So often leaders, especially strong leaders, surround themselves with yes-men (and yes-women). This can seem helpful to teamwork and a sense of direction.

But it can be extraordinarily valuable for the strong leader to include in the court a Fool. Someone who regularly sees things from completely different perspectives, without illusion, and who is empowered to speak up, saying the unsayable.

Shakespeare has Fools in so many of his plays – Feste in Twelfth Night, Touchstone in As You Like It, Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream among them. But the best model for our modern leader is the Fool in King Lear.

The Fool uses song as well as speech to give the king feedback. He is the only one permitted to challenge head on, to say to the aging Lear that he’s deluded and stupid. And yet Lear treats him as his friend.

There’s a long traditional of Fools in Russian literature, not least in Pushkin’s Boris Godunov.

I wonder if Vladimir Putin has a Fool? Not that he’d last long, one senses.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Feeding the many

Walking in the sun through the ripening fields of wheat, beans and rape here on the Northamptonshire/Oxfordshire border. Closing on harvest-time. Heaven on earth.

It had me thinking about the miracle of food production that has taken place over the past century.

Although we hear continuously about food shortages in various parts of the world, and the supposedly calamitous effect of population growth, nevertheless billions more mouths are fed now compared with a hundred years ago – the result of continuous innovation in all aspects of farming.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Writing: one-two-three

In conversation with my old English teacher from school, Gordon Braddy, we agreed that there are usually three distinct steps in the process of writing:

1.      Getting the idea.

2.      Doing a first draft.

3.      Polishing.

Of course, the first of these usually happens in an instant. For me it’s important to make a note of the idea at that time. Otherwise I sometimes have to wait weeks or even months for it to surface again.

The second is the hardest, the most daunting. Is the idea any good? What shape will it take?

The third is the one that occupies the most time. Endlessly improving communication and style. In fact, it can be a never-ending process, so at some stage it’s important to call a truce.