Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Letting go

When I first became a “boss”, it used to irritate me that people who reported to me did things slower than I would have done them. And, worse than that, they did things differently.

It was one of the first lessons of leadership that I had to learn. That different people do things differently. And the way they learn to do stuff quickly is to practice, practice, practice.

So jumping in and “showing them how”, except maybe just the first time, is generally counter-productive.

I was discussing this syndrome with a client yesterday, who has a direct report who has never escaped from this trap, always taking over on the basis that if you want a job done well, you do it yourself.

The deeper problem is: if we don’t learn how to trust and delegate, to let go, we don’t grow ourselves. 

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Unsung hero

For at least twenty years I’ve had a battered book (bought for £1.25) of the complete performances at the Queen’s Hall in London of the 1898-99 season. The Queen’s Hall was the premier orchestral venue in the capital from its opening in 1893 to its destruction by an incendiary bomb in 1941.

Inside the front and back covers of the book is the bold and beautiful signature of its original owner, one Arthur W Payne. I thought nothing of it until yesterday evening. A regular concert-goer in the fin-de-siรจcle, I assumed?

But nothing of the sort. It seems that Mr Payne was leader (concert-master) of the orchestra there, Sir Henry Wood’s famous Queen’s Hall Orchestra, regularly taking over conducting duties when Sir Henry was “indisposed”. He’s mentioned on multiple occasions in Wood’s memoirs, always appreciatively. He performed at no less than 193 of Sir Henry’s pioneering Promenade Concerts, often as soloist.

In 1904 he became leader of the newly-formed London Symphony Orchestra, and he was violin professor at the Guildhall. Are there pupils of his still living?

Although we would not be aware of it, he must feature as leader of one or other of those great orchestras in a multitude of early recordings, including those conducted by Sir Edward Elgar.

Arthur W Payne. Just another unsung hero (and leader).

Above: Sir Henry Wood conducting the Queen’s Hall Orchestra by Cyrus Cuneo

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The lure of acronyms

“Alight here for ZSL,” said the disembodied voice on the Bakerloo line underground train.

(Alight? It’s one of those words you only ever hear on the underground. Do they teach it to foreign tourists, the main customers of the underground? Or do they have to work it out for themselves there and then?)

And ZSL? Who can say what that is?

In his seminal book Creative Advertising: For This You Went To Oxford? (1974), David Bernstein (my first creative director) mocked organisations that have the hubris to present themselves under meaningless acronyms, in the mistaken belief that it will add to their marketability and cred. “Either customers know what the initials mean or they don’t. If they do, you are no further forward,” wrote Bernstein.

Did RHM boost awareness, recognition or reputation for Rank Hovis McDougall?

Does being P&G help Procter & Gamble to grow any faster?

Except as shorthand, is JWT really an improvement on the long-established (and real human-being-based) J Walter Thompson, my first ad agency?

ZSL? That would be London Zoo, of course.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Can Apple turn the corner (again)?

Apple’s share price did well in the twelve months following the death of Steve Jobs in October 2011.

But since then it has been on the slide pretty continuously, some 28% down on the October 2012 peak. Analysts are still not recommending “buy”.

Of course, the innovation kings have been overtaken in the mobile phone market by fast-follower and improver, Samsung. Now they have added competition from the Chinese giant, Huawei. Orders for iPhone 5 parts have been cut on weak demand. Competitors are circling Apple’s leadership in the tablet market, including Google, Amazon and Microsoft.

The consequence is that Apple has missed Wall Street estimates in the last two quarters and its new product offerings seem less radical and are generating less enthusiastic response.

What’s to be done?

Friday, 18 January 2013

Impostor Syndrome

It’s that feeling that you’re going to get found out. That your inadequate skill/experience/knowledge, apparent to you, will shortly become apparent to others.

It can come when you’re promoted, or given a new assignment you haven’t tackled before. It can lead to not applying for a job that you’d be well suited for. It can lead to nervousness and a feeling of helplessness.

That’s Impostor Syndrome.

It seems to afflict all of us at one stage or another. I certainly had it when I became a CEO for the first time.

So what’s to be done?

Recognising that it’s happening is the necessary first step. Then, seeing that others around you have it, or had it, too. Girding yourself up to bluff your way through. That works for me.

Until the bluff finally goes away and turns into confident reality.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Being all fingers and thumbs

I was the boy who found it difficult to join together two pieces of Meccano.

When I was in my late teens, I attempted to plaster a wall. But, once completed, it slipped into late pregnancy.

Young men of my generation knew how to fix cars when they broke down (as they often did), whereas it seemed to me that, if the engine needed to be revealed, it was time to bring in a specialist (or buy a new car).

In my ‘A’ level zoology exam, I destroyed utterly the dead frog whose vascular system I was asked to reveal.

It became clear to me that, in adulthood, I should not even attempt these things. Either I would need to earn enough to pay for people with real and appropriate talents to do them, or they would not get done.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Trawling the trash

Thinking about Linds Redding’s Overnight Test, my own experience was always that creatives in ad agencies were very binary in their judgement of their own ideas. Usually working in writer/art director pairs, thoughts would tumble out one after another, to be consigned to the waste paper basket just as quickly.

Basically, there would be a simple test. They were (rarely) great. All the rest were crap.

It seemed to me that there was a third group that got no further: ideas that didn’t work in their current form, but had real potential.

So in my early years at Saatchi & Saatchi, I used to do something similar to Linds Redding’s Overnight Test. After the creative teams had gone home of an evening, I would trawl through their waste paper baskets, looking for stuff that deserved a second glance. And I’d rather gently suggest those to the team the following morning.

Some were outraged, while others were grateful. That’s life.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Overnight Test

I never met him, but I’d heard about Linds Redding, an art director in the advertising business in New Zealand.

He worked in London and Edinburgh before emigrating to New Zealand in the mid-nineties. There he worked for the finest creative agencies – Saatchi & Saatchi, DDB, Colenso and Campaign Palace – before setting up his own animation studio .

He wrote a fascinating blog. This is an extract from a piece he posted in March last year:

The Overnight Test… It worked like this: My creative partner Laurence and I would spend the day covering A2 sheets torn from layout pads with ideas for whatever project we were currently engaged upon – an ad for a new gas oven, tennis racket or whatever. Scribbled headlines. Bad puns. Stick-men drawings crudely rendered in fat black Magic Marker. It was a kind of brain dump I suppose. Everything that tumbled out of our heads and mouths was committed to paper. Anything completely ridiculous, irrelevant or otherwise unworkable was filtered out as we worked, and by beer ‘o’ clock there would be an impressive avalanche of screwed-up paper filling the corner of the room where our comically undersized waste-bin resided.

On a productive day, aside from the mountain of dead trees (recycling hadn’t been invented in 1982), stacked polystyrene coffee cups and an overflowing ash-tray, there would also be a satisfying thick sheaf of “concepts.” Some almost fully formed and self-contained ideas. Others misshapen and graceless fragments, but harbouring perhaps the glimmer of a smile or a grain of human truth which had won its temporary reprieve from the reject pile. Before trotting off to Clarks Bar to blow the froth of a pint of Eighty-Bob, our last task was to pin everything up on the walls of our office.

Hangovers notwithstanding, the next morning at the crack of ten o’clock we’d reconvene in our work-room and sit quietly surveying the fruits of our labour. Usually about a third of the ‘ideas’ came down straight away, before anyone else wandered past. It’s remarkable how something that seems either arse-breakingly funny, or cosmically profound in the white heat of its inception, can mean absolutely nothing in the cold light of morning. By mid-morning coffee, the creative department was coming back to life, and we participated in the daily ritual of wandering around the airy Georgian splendour of our Edinburgh offices and critiquing each teams crumpled creations.

It wasn’t brutal or destructive. Creative people are on the whole fragile beings, and letting each other down gently and quietly was the unwritten rule. Sometimes just a blank look or a scratched head was enough to see a candidate quietly pulled down and consigned to the bin. Something considered particularly “strong,” witty or clever would elicit cries of “Hey, come and see what the boys have come up with!” Our compadres would pile into our cramped room to offer praise or constructive criticism. That was always a good feeling.
This human powered bullshit filter was a handy and powerful tool. Inexpensive and practically foolproof. Not much slipped through the net. I’m quite sure architects, musicians, mathematicians and cake decorators all have an equivalent time-honed protocol.

Linds Redding died aged 52 in October 2012 from cancer. RIP.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Get up and get down to Portman Road

I've been chatting with the recently-appointed director of communications at Southampton football club, Julius Duncan. Their start this season in the Premiership after two successive promotions from lower divisions was not so easy, but they may well survive the drop after some good results more recently.

It brought back to mind the time many years ago when I got involved with Ipswich Town, a club of similar size. We were asked to come up with ways to grow spectator numbers – to fill the ground to capacity. Those were the heady days at Ipswich when Bobby Robson was manager.

We devised a programme of commercials on local radio, specifically targeted at occasionals, and deployed on Friday evenings and Saturday morning – “Get up and get down to Portman Road,” the jingle roared. It was extraordinarily successful, so much so that we won the radio marketing prize that year.

I imagined that clubs would be queuing up to emulate Ipswich’s initiative. Not so. Commercial success in football is generally imagined, then as now, to be exclusively the result of what happens on the pitch.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Down with homework

Have you noticed there is a backlash in play against excessive homework?

One example is in Finland.  Amongst the mixture of changes that Finland made to its educational system – changes that took it to top the league table internationally – many primary schools no longer have homework.

I wonder whether a severe reduction in secondary schools might also yield positive results. I hear somewhat scary stories about the amount of demanded at the secondary school my daughter will go to, all being well, next year.

In those distant times when I grappled with homework, unable to cope, I recall so clearly the time when a temporary Latin master announced that we were being given far too much to do. So he asked us to translate into English just five sentences. “Half the marks will be awarded for style,” he announced.

Deep joy. An assignment I relished.

Down with homework (except when it’s brief and marks are awarded for style).