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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Guest blog: Adman and Eve.

They say prostitution is the oldest profession. They, as usual, are dead wrong.

It’s the second oldest.

Let’s go back to the very beginning, to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. His task was a tricky one: to persuade an unconvinced consumer to try a product they had good reason to avoid. His job was to sell the apple; to make it seem so appealing, so tantalising, that Eve would risk a fall from grace for a quick nibble.

But succeed he did and advertising was born.

I pause here, partly for effect, and partly to decide where I’m going with this. As an advertising copywriter by trade, I bump into many people I could place into one of two categories: first, those who believe advertising is the work of the devil, responsible for many of the evils of the world and made by manipulative morons. Second, those who have seen the TV series “Mad Men” and are disappointed I’m not taller and more charismatic.

Both groups are somewhat deluded.

It’s not that the industry is particularly altruistic – it isn’t. It’s simply an industry that reflects society’s wider needs. Here are a few things to consider:

• Despite claims to the contrary, you can’t make people buy something they don’t want; you can make people buy more of something or maybe switch to a competing product, but that’s about it. What about children? Well, what about them - yes, they are particularly vulnerable to suggestion, but there’s a time-tested safeguard against this – it’s called parenting.

• Yes, many “bad” things have been advertised (like cigarettes). But so have many “good” things (like charities and public awareness campaigns).

• Without advertising it would be tough to make informed consumer choices because you wouldn’t know what was available (catalogues can be useful huh?). Also, you would end up buying local products rather than the best products. Why? Because potentially better products from farther afield would have no opportunity to generate awareness in your local market.

• Without advertising revenue, many enjoyable and useful things wouldn’t exist – lots of TV and radio stations, as well as free websites like Facebook, Google and Twitter to name just a few – and all the jobs that go along with them.

What am I getting at? I suppose I'm saying our oldest profession isn't all bad. So, maybe next time you hear someone ranting about advertising, you might spare a few moments to argue the toss.

We’re not the devils people think we are.

(This is a guest blog written by Phil from

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Whenever something is wrong....something is too big." Leopold Kohr and the broken society.

Next year is the fifty fifth anniversary of the publication of a book which at the time was considered a joke. I am talking of Leopold Kohr's "The Breakdown of Nations". In 2011, it is an excellent explanation of our societal and economic ills. More importantly, he provides a solution.

His punch line? That “Wherever something is wrong….. something is too big”. This modest Austrian was writing at a time when "big was best" seemed logical. Witness the high rise flats in the ‘60s, built at the expense of community-focussed terraces. Relationships sacrificed on the altars of progress and development.

This was a prescient theory, which with the passage of time, seems to be gaining traction. He provided an analysis which the political parties should be discussing at their conferences.

Everything is big. Today we talk of globalisation and multinational organisations such as the EU. We know about banks in 2008 which became so big they could not be allowed to fail. We see the power of our supermarkets squeezing out local shops. We have multiplex cinemas limiting film choice. We see the growth of regional shopping centres killing off town centres. We see the centralisation of government in London suffocating local councils. We see parish councils with less to do. We have larger and larger bureaucratic organisations running hospitals, council services, police and education provision. We have takeovers and mergers in the name of agglomeration economies forgetting the longer term downsides.

In the name of efficiency and economies of scale, business and public sector organisations have become removed from the average Joe in the street. Communication technologies with their attendant frustrations and disembodied relationships just add to the cocktail.

There is a pattern here. Families and communities are under threat. Individuals feel they have less of a stake in society. They feel powerless, alienated and the broken society becomes common parlance. Witness the large call-centre providing virtual reality help and how customer-care comes second. We have less face-to-face contact, live in little boxes and adopt virtual reality communities – let’s call them television soaps.

Kohr observed that as organisations get larger, power gets concentrated. This can be abused by those who wield it and the rest of society switches off or engages in deviant behaviour. Declining membership of political parties and electoral turnout is the evidence.

Belgium is one of the smallest countries in Europe. They are getting through without a central government and yet growth rates compares favourably with the rest of the EU. Kohr might be smiling at this feat.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour logos are all in need of a makeover. Some enthusiasm and passion would help. Lessons from Educating Rita.

Willy Russell scripted a poignant scene in Educating Rita between Rita and her mother. They are in a pub for a family sing-song. Her mother observes: “There must be better songs than this…” A statement of resignation, sadness, predictability, frustration, lack of purpose and going nowhere.

Sums up the dilemma of the parties as they try to work out their analysis of our current condition and struggle for solutions.

In the business world, logos are fought over jealously. They provide instant recognition and identification with the product. See the lengths Coca Cola go to ensure their squiggly line is protected. Compare this to our political world.

We are now in the season of party conferences. Banner logos cascade from ceilings and walls. A backdrop to Newsnight reports, speeches and fringe meetings. Logos appear on every piece of corporate literature and repeatedly readers are influenced by the images before them.

The Liberty Bird, Red Rose and Scribbled Oak (£40000 fees paid) are the results of considered research and planning but they have the impact of magnolia paint. They are passive and do not exude enthusiasm and passion.

Part of the problem for our political branders is that in a state of fluid politics, the parties are finding it difficult to create a coherent analysis of their current condition. If your product is fuzzy what chance the branding? What chance the visual imagery?

Freedom, patriotism, liberty, tradition, choice, environment, strength, endurance, growth, renewal and individuality seem to have been some of the words party strategists sat down with as they brain-stormed for the images we have now.

Perhaps this is the time to get our some new words: enthusiasm, optimism, responsibility, energy, and assertiveness would be good for starters. Wonder what logos we can get out of them?

The digital version did not kill off the traditional watch. Lessons for the newspaper industry facing the e-book reader. The Guardian price increase.

The digital watch did not kill off the analogue timepiece, its traditional face and the circulating hand. A decade ago it was the done thing to have a digital face and a display which looked as if it should be in the airline cockpit. Machismo over-statement of technology worn on the wrist then. The analogue technology was history.

Not quite. We forgot that the analogue display is not only a timepiece but a jewellery item – a fashion statement. The traditional face allowed spatial judgements over how much time had elapsed and how much was to come. We forgot the ergonomics of watches and how we use them.

There are lessons from the timekeeping world which may resonate as newspapers adjust to the emerging competition from e-readers. Quality newspapers are losing readership at 10% a year and advertising revenue falling. Foreign coverage is expensive as are the campaigns to hold other parts of life to account ie expenses and hacking. A lose-lose for the 4th Estate. Not quiet.

We read papers in anarchic ways. We dip in and out as we choose. We want to see the daily fare before we select which articles to read and when. We want to scan our papers whilst multi-tasking over other things such as a conversation or coffee. We want reliability. We hate a screen going down or a glitch showing up. We don’t want to think plugs, batteries and security.

The candour from The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rushbridger, over the paper’s recent price rise may go down well with its readership. It can see the logic of the hike knowing you get what you pay for. Newspaper readership is tribal and by adding extra leaflets, posters and supplements the reader gets a total experience. These add-ons do not lend themselves to the e-reader. This readership values the diversity of input from columnists, whose output alongside editorials and incisive cartoons, creates a thought-provoking read. You don’t get that feel from a tablet.

Daily tabloid, evening and regional papers may be the ones most likely to be at risk from the new media. Shorter articles and a greater use of graphics and other visuals tend to lend themselves to the small screen.

We are likely to see quality newspaper circulation characterised by a narrow and loyal readership willing to pay an increasing premium for the product. A product which may morph into weekly magazines such as The Economist. “Guardian Reader” has been a short-hand swipe in the past to describe a liberal progressive politics. In the future, the term might be extended to describe how they take in their news in the first place

Thursday, September 22, 2011

All we want is government not to squander our money. It's not asking much.

We live in difficult times. The legacy of irresponsible bankers, their financial instruments and their bonuses stick in the throat. To balance things up, the average Joe willingly took advantage of give-away credit facilities and many overstretched households caught a cold.

Now, we are being asked to tighten our belts, stabilise the economy and reduce the deficit. All we ask is that when government gets its tax receipts, they are spent prudently. The reverse is the case and the evidence just keeps pouring in.

Witness today's announcement that the £12 billion NHS Computer Scheme is to be ditched. Add on Labour’s report recognising its incompetence over messed up defence procurement. Andrew Lansley’s PFI interview on this morning’s Today programme, completed the tale of woe of what happens when politicians get their hands on our money. The abortive reorganisation of the fire service was yesterday’s example of wasted monies. How much money has been spent winding up the so-called bonfire of quangos?

Once HMRC gets our money we have the right to expect government to use it with probity, value-for-money and tight scrutiny. Those are the imperatives when you run your own business. Somehow government, council and the public sector don’t apply the same principles in their own decision-making and we all lose. “We are all in it together” became a short-lived political strapline. The trouble is some of us are in it more than others.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Captain Mainwaring, the fictional bank manager at Dad's Army and our present bankers, are as far apart as ever.

Just when you thought it could not get any worse for the bankers, up pops another episode in this squalid serial. £1.3 billion going astray at the Swiss bank, UBS.

I started my career in The City. “My word is my bond”, was an expression one frequently came across. Reputation, trust and probity counted for much.

Bankers' bonuses and dodgy financial instruments had faded into the memory, only to be brought back to life this week, with the Vicker’s Independent Commission on Banking.

Bankers and government hope that separating retail and casino banking will be kicked into touch until after the next election. We are assured everything is in order, but along comes an employee at UBS Investment Bank, to remind us that allegedly rogue traders may still be around. Have we learned nothing since Nick Leeson at Barings in 1995?

Whatever the reality, the perception amongst Joe Public is that still there is something wrong with the ethics and activities of bankers. It may be one of our most important contributors to our economy and pragmatism dictates that we don’t kick it into touch.

The British public has an innate sense of fair play and banks remain on the wrong side of the fence in our perception of their worth and values. Captain Mainwaring may be out of place today, but his sense of values may be just what our society needs now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The fun starts now - the squabbles over the parliamentary seats. What's the point if fewer people turn up to vote?

Boundary reconfiguration has always raised the political temperature – the term Gerrymandering was not coined for nothing.

So what makes things different this time? Well the backcloth is a Coalition government charting uncertain waters to 2015, 50 seat reductions and a short consultation process to retrieve the Boundary Commissioners’ proposals. In Wolverhampton, one of three seats is history.

There are past lessons about the dangers of superimposing boundary changes on existing geographical boundaries. Witness the unstable legacy we created in our colonial scramble for Africa.

Politics is tribal and the colonial metaphor should not be stretched too far, but in seeking fewer seats and creating more equitably-sized constituencies, we might have created unwelcome and unpredictable outcomes for councillors and MPs.

The electorate has an uncanny knack of letting politicians down. Although wards can be moved across boundaries, it does not follow that the voters, in their new home, act as they have in the past.

Voters’ angst may be raised. Activists may see things through their own prisms and not be at ease with newly constituted committees and party structures. They may feel resentment at being divorced from old personalities and loyalties. How will the voter feel if told to move from a constituency with an affective MP to one where there is a dud?

The message is clear – take care for what you wish and don’t underestimate an electorate which may resent being electoral munitions moved around a battlefield.

Perhaps we are getting worked up over nothing. Have just returned from dropping a few leaflets off for tomorrow’s ward election. Met a guy in the street who observed he wanted nothing to do with politics, was not going to vote for anyone and next year had no intention of being on the roll. For him and many others, boundaries are meaningless. That is the really big issue for Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. No point playing with boundaries if fewer people vote.

Of course, there is a silver lining. In the next couple of years we are going to see sitting MPs nursing relations with their constituents to secure their futures, and this Parliament has hardly gone off the ground yet.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Should councils be encouraging us to take our eye off the road?

Should councils be encouraging us to take our eye of the road? I ask the question as it becomes obvious that we now have a troubling addition to our street furniture. I refer to the commercial adverts which now festoon many of our roundabouts. And usually those in the centre of town where traffic flows are at their greatest.

The roundabout has now been sponsored by such and such company. Placards are posted at regular intervals around the circuit. Of course a logo and suitable strapline add to our delights. “ Glasses from 20/20 vision to help your driving” would suit.

Roundabouts were invented to smooth traffic flow, but with increasing traffic densities they have achieved the reverse. They acquired an extra helper - traffic lights. These junctions are places with the potential for real grief. Indeed a location where the heartbeat may rise and wits have to be honed.

This is a place for due care and attention. There are enough traffic signs to absorb as you negotiate white tramlines disappearing under your bonnet.

So how come our councils have been able to square the circle over road safety and the need to nudge motorists into behaving properly? Well they haven’t and it is lolly that tops the list. Sponsoring a roundabout brings in the coins and helps subsidise the traffic department’s budgets. In an age of contingency, risk aversion and health and safety, it is amazing that this advertising genre has even been contemplated.

We can ask what other locations can be found for our cash-strapped councils? Will our public toilets, public seating and litter bins be finding sponsors next? More importantly, who might the sponsors be? Whoever they are, the exercise won't be compromising our safety.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A cameo scene from the West Wing should be required viewing for all of our politicians before the party conferences.

A pattern is emerging across our political parties. They seem to be having a problem remembering who they represent and what they stand for.

Tim Farron for the LibDems observes that his party has “suffered a loss of identity....and support”. Whilst Ivan Lewis at Labour suggests his party “looks like and speaks on behalf of an urban metropolitan elite". Complete the cycle with the Conservatives humbled from their retreat on forests and now succeeding in getting the National Trust to launch a petition over planning. It takes something to upset your natural supporters whatever the party. How has this detachment come about?

Revisiting the second episode ( Series Four ) from the iconic West Wing fictional drama, one is reminded of a scene where White House staffers, Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler, having lost the presidential motorcade, have a conversation with an ordinary Joe in an Indiana bar.

He is not a wastrel just someone caught out by events beyond his control. He wants a little help so that he can keep his head above water. In a slow drawl and gestulating slowly with his fingers, he indicates that he wants just an inch of government support. Ziegler listens uncomfortably and asks if they can talk. It is a humbling piece of drama. The cameo just highlights the insularity of the Washington bubble and ditto Westminster.

So what one might ask? Well, our political elites and the media circus will soon be at their party conferences. As they retire to their hotel bedrooms, perhaps they should put the DVD in the player, start the episode and reflect on what they are doing, why and for whom.