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:

But here’s where you can find that Big Steel Bird:

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?