The dance of death

One of my favourite advertising stories is the pitch made by Allen Brady Marsh for the British Rail account back in the 1970s.

It was BR’s first major foray into advertising and their senior management team was visiting a shortlist of agencies. They knew their account was valuable and prestigious, so they’d become used to a fairly high level of sucking-up from the agencies they visited.

When they got to ABM, however, they found the reception dirty and unwelcoming. The furniture was worn and coffee-stained, the air was thick with smoke and the floor was covered with discarded crisp packets. The receptionist was filing her nails and chatting to a friend on the phone.

‘We’re from British Rail,’ the chief executive announced. The receptionist glanced up, waved airily at the threadbare seats and carried on talking.

Ten minutes later, they were still waiting in reception. No one had come to see them. When coffee eventually arrived, it was served lukewarm and in cracked china. They were livid: enough was enough. They got up to leave.

At that moment, Peter Marsh, ABM’s colourful Chairman, strode purposefully through the connecting doors, his arms outstretched and a warm smile on his face.

‘Gentlemen,’ he beamed. ‘You’ve just experienced what it feels like to be a British Rail passenger. Now let’s see what we can do to put that right.’

It was a jolt of theatrical brilliance, which won the account, by forcing British Rail’s senior team to confront (perhaps for the first time) the reality of their service problems.

It’s what advertising people call the ‘dance of death’: the process of prompting your clients to face up to sometimes unpalatable truths about their brands.

When I talk about this to people who work in small businesses, they find it very strange. Why would you willingly ignore a problem which is obvious to your customers – and which, if left unresolved, will pose a clear risk to the future of your business? It makes no sense.

Yet there’s something about walking through the sliding glass doors of a large publicly-listed corporation that seems to have a strangely lobotomising effect on most people. We hear meaningless, made-up words and, instead of challenging them, we start using them ourselves. We parrot earnest value statements, when we know they don’t have any connection to the reality of our daily working lives. And we accept bad ideas because they come wrapped in a veneer of fashionable buzzwords or backed up with obtuse data.

But customers don’t bother with any of that. If what we’re saying or doing doesn’t make sense, they just go and shop somewhere else.

That’s why we could all use a little dance with death every now and then.

 

Loose-tight

For a period of around 20 years, from the early 70s to mid 90s, the UK was the undisputed world power in advertising. One of the great figureheads of that dominance was Steve Henry, whose London-based agency HHCL produced some of the most iconic campaigns of the time. If you lived in the UK then, you’ll remember the work they did for Britvic (You know when you’ve been Tango’d), the AA (The fourth emergency service) and Ronseal (Does exactly what it says on the tin).

One of the things that made HHCL so successful was the way they worked. As Henry explained in one of his excellent blogs: ‘You need a structure. At HHCL, we had very tight processes, because we believed in the concept of ‘loose-tight’. Tight processes meant we could explore loose – i.e. unstructured – thinking.’

The crucial point was that HHCL’s processes were designed to help produce outstanding work, rather than improve their margins by operating more efficiently.  They were all about creativity, not money.

This is in stark contrast to the model of large advertising groups, such as WPP, Omnicom and Publicis, which have grown rapidly by acquiring agencies and introducing efficiency measures – making them more profitable but, in Henry’s view, less creative and, hence, less valuable in the long term: ‘We’ve seen the ad industry become a lot more efficient – but at what cost? Nowadays, it can turn out bland, invisible work faster than at any time in history.’

It’s a familiar refrain. As advertising becomes safer, it becomes easier to ignore – and, consequently, less valuable to the brand owners who want to stand out and get people’s attention.

The underlying motivator is a fear of failure: if you have to do work twice, your profits will be damaged and your shareholders will be unhappy. Which is why nearly all advertisers and agencies now rely on focus groups to pre-test their ideas.

There are two big problems with this. The first problem is that your competitors are also testing their ideas through focus groups and getting exactly the same kind of feedback. Which means there’s a pretty good chance they’ll come up with the same ideas and solutions you do.

The second problem is that focus groups tend to be unfavourable to original thinking. It’s a truism that people feel more comfortable with things they know and understand than they do with things that are new and unfamiliar.

That same instinct for safety – the desire to avoid risk and only back dead certainties – is why most businesses are not very creative places. When looking at a problem, their first instinct is to apply a solution that worked somewhere else. Once they’ve got a solution they think won’t fail, they stop thinking and turn it into a process.

Whereas, if they carried on thinking, they might come up with a better solution.

 

The power of the press

Archaeologists in Greece have just unearthed a clay tablet containing the oldest known extract of Homer’s Odyssey.

Although it dates back thousands of years, the tablet is nowhere near as old as the Odyssey itself, which is thought to date back to the 8th century BC.

In those days, of course, most stories were never written down, because very few people knew how to write. The only reason the Odyssey survived is because it was such a good story that people would learn it, word for word, and recite it around flickering campfires.

All that changed in 1439, when Johanes Gutenberg invented the mechanical printing press. For the first time, it became possible for written information to be shared beyond a tiny elite. It was a hugely significant moment in the emergence of the modern world: it democratised learning and led directly to the renaissance, the enlightenment and the revolutions (both political and industrial) of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It also transformed the way we tell stories. Thanks to Gutenberg and those who followed him, we have the luxury of being able to forget things, because we know that forgetting them no longer means they are lost forever.

Which, in some ways, is a bit of a shame.

Like the ancient world to Homer’s Greek audience, modern businesses are complex and confusing things. The people who work in them, or buy from them, are busy and often distracted. And, like those ancient Greeks, they’re searching for meaning to help them make sense of it.

But the stories we tell have become much more complex, too. We don’t have to keep them simple any more because, thanks to Gutenberg and his successors (such as Microsoft and Google), we can write down and share as much detail as we like. We can weave in lots of different narratives and ideas. We can use film and graphics and satellite technology to add richness and detail and immediacy.

This can make our stories more engaging. But it can also make them less clear, harder to remember and, somehow, a bit less real.

When was the last time you heard someone in your business (or any business) give a compelling speech or presentation straight off the cuff, with no props?

When was the last time you read a company’s mission statement or values and thought ‘wow – I’d love to work for them’?

Is it time we stopped being so clever and got back to telling better stories?

Try this test on your own business:

Choose five people at random and tell them to imagine you’re someone they’ve just met at a party. Ask them to explain, in one sentence, what the business does.

Then ask them to explain, also in one sentence, what they do and what difference it makes to their customers.

That should give you a pretty good sense of (a) whether the people in your business actually have a shared sense of purpose and (b) whether they can articulate it in terms that are meaningful to anybody else.

If the answer to either of those is ‘no’, you’ve got some work to do.

 

Stop talking about innovation

A hundred years ago, it was a big deal when an aeroplane flew across the English Channel. Who would have believed then that we would be watching a live camera feed from the surface of Mars – and picking up data from a man-made satellite as it left our solar system?

Thirty years ago, who would have believed you could take a picture without film? Or make a phone call from the top of a mountain?

Even today, how many of us really believe you can manufacture objects in your own home with a 3D printer?

Yet it’s happening.

The pace of technological change is so fast nowadays that even visionaries like Bill Gates struggle to keep up (although he now denies making the regularly-quoted assertion that ‘640k of memory ought to be enough for anybody’). Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s fact. And the corporate graveyards are littered with the corpses of big companies that didn’t adapt in time.

In 2009, Nokia was the world’s fifth-largest brand, worth $35bn. Two years later, it was a Microsoft footnote, swept aside by a smartphone Tsunami that it hadn’t seen coming.

In January 2008, Woolworths was one of the UK’s oldest and best-known retail names, with a swaggering Christmas advertising campaign and stores in every high street in the country. By January 2009, it had vanished.

That’s how fast fortunes turn.

An Innosight report suggests that more than 75% of the companies on today’s S&P 500 index will not be on the list 15 years from now. In most cases, this is because they will be overtaken or acquired by fleeter-footed rivals.

So it’s hardly surprising that innovation – in products, in services, in behaviour, in ways of working – is something almost every CEO regards as a priority. But recognising innovation as a priority and creating an innovative business are two very different things.

If you look around your own business (and be absolutely honest with yourself here), how much do you see that’s genuinely new?

There’s probably plenty of superficial innovation going on: an extra blade on your razor, a new flavour in your ice cream range, a one-hour delivery option.

But doesn’t it all feel a bit safe? A bit like what everyone else is doing? Where are the game-changers? Where’s the disruptive behaviour? Why do the big ideas always seem to come from somewhere else – from younger, hungrier rivals?

The depressing truth is that most companies are so scared of failure that they won’t do anything that isn’t guaranteed to succeed.

And that reluctance to make mistakes, as the Innosight research shows, is exactly why most of them won’t be here in 15 years.

 

The uncomfortable truth about fake news

You hear a lot about ‘fake news’ these days. Politicians use it as a label for stories they don’t want you to believe. Pundits use it to explain results they didn’t see coming. And most of us, if we’re honest, have a nagging worry about the truth being hijacked by unscrupulous rogue states and alt-right conspiracy theorists.

Are we right to be worried?

A few months ago, researchers at MIT published a study in the journal Science about how news spreads on social media.

They analysed 126,000 stories posted on Twitter between 2006 and 2017 and found that false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted than true ones.

They also found that the true stories took six times longer, on average, to reach an audience of 1,500 people.

In both cases, a massive discrepancy. And perhaps the most interesting finding from the research was that automated bots played no part in it.

As the authors of the study concluded:

‘False news spreads more than the truth, because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it… False news is more novel and people are more likely to share novel information’.

In other words, the reason fake news spreads faster and further than real news isn’t because the people who spread it are malicious or gullible or especially tech-savvy.

It’s because the fake news is more interesting – and we’d rather listen to an interesting lie than a dull truth.

That’s a lesson most organisations could learn from.

Most organisations go out of their way to present information in a formulaic and predictable way when they’re communicating with their workforce.

They use language that’s been carefully approved by committee (words that sound positive, but vague enough to be deniable if things don’t turn out as planned).

They repeat certain key phrases with mantra-like insistence, to ensure their messaging is ‘consistent’.

They strike a relentlessly upbeat tone, even when they’re talking about something everyone knows was a mess.

And then they wonder why the people in their organisation are far more interested in hearing about last night’s Love Island or rumours of a possible takeover.

The first rule of communication is that you can’t talk to people who aren’t listening.

If you want people to pay attention to what you’ve got to say, start by making sure it’s not dull.

Leading the change

I spent last Saturday at The Big Yak, the self-styled ‘unconference’ for internal comms folk. (If you haven’t been, make sure you wangle a ticket for the next one – by some way the best event in the comms calendar).

In amongst the questions, ideas, debates and free beer (thanks, Facebook), there were two big themes that kept cropping up: culture and leadership.

Specifically, how do we make our business feel more authentic? And how do we persuade our leaders to communicate in a more structured and engaging way?

It was sobering to realise how many leaders of large, public organisations still don’t think communication is a priority. Especially in a week when Theresa May finally acknowledged that her response to the Grenfell disaster (not talking to anyone about it) had been a huge mistake. If even Theresa May has figured this out, there’s no excuse for the rest of us.

It was even more sobering to realise how many senior business leaders still think ‘culture’ is something you can buy by the yard from a branding consultancy. Especially in a week when House of Fraser and New Look joined the ranks of former high street titans who are unravelling faster than they can explain their relevance to a generation that knows it has plenty of choice.

All over this country, there are great big organisations that are kidding themselves they can blag their way to a sustainable future with a swanky logo refresh and a ‘tone of voice’ manual.

They’re wrong.

The only way they can engage people (customers or employees) is by creating an environment where people feel good about their organisation: happy to work for it, happy to buy from it.

And the only way to do that is if the senior leaders of the organisation behave in an honest, open and human way (rather than just talking about it and then fudging the figures to keep the shareholders happy).

The good news is that, when they do finally figure it out, they’ve got an army of great communicators to help them do it.

Productivity is about quality, not quantity

Taichi Ono was the godfather of ‘lean’ systems. He revolutionised Toyota by introducing new ways of working.

A lot of his ideas were quite controversial at the time – none more so than a process known as ‘Stop the Line’.

The basic idea was very simple: if you identify a problem as soon as it occurs, you have a much better chance of understanding what caused it and how to prevent it happening again.

The best way to do this was by getting every employee involved. If they spotted a defect or noticed a problem – even something as simple as dropping a screw – they were all instructed to pull a cord that would stop the production line until the problem could be resolved.

For managers trained to believe that efficient manufacturing meant making as many things as possible as quickly as possible, ‘stop the line’ seemed like a dangerous heresy. Many of Toyota’s managers simply chose to ignore Ono’s recommendation.

Those who did implement it saw their worst misgivings confirmed. Productivity fell sharply: they were suddenly spending all their time fixing problems rather than making things. It looked like Ono’s idea was dead in the water.

But, gradually, the balance began to shift. The managers who had implemented ‘stop the line’ noticed that the stoppages became less frequent, because they had taken the time to identify and fix the underlying defects. They got more things right first time – and that was having a hugely beneficial effect on productivity. They were producing their goods faster, cheaper and more reliably than the managers who hadn’t implemented the scheme.

Slowly, but surely, everyone understood that Taichi Ono’s instincts were right.

‘Stop the line’ worked because it shifted the emphasis from quantity to quality and because it sent a powerfully motivating message to the people on the assembly line. Their job wasn’t just to make cars: it was to make cars better than anyone else – and every single person on the line was responsible for maintaining those standards.

If you look at the most successful organisations around the world, in any sector, you’re likely to find a similar approach. Sometimes it’s called ‘no-blame culture’, sometimes ‘black box thinking’, sometimes ‘empowerment’.

It doesn’t really matter what you call it.

What matters is that, if you want to improve your performance, you need to start by giving people the confidence to talk about what’s not working.

Until you do that, you’re just polishing a broken engine.

 

Rule of thumb

A long time ago, when I worked in advertising, I had a Creative Director with an annoying habit.

He’d wait until you were right up to deadline on a job, then he’d start picking over the ad you and your Art Director had lovingly crafted. Every now and then, he’d cover up a word or phrase with his thumb and raise a quizzical eyebrow.

(The point being, of course, that the ad still worked just fine without that word or phrase – so why was it in there?)

After a few passive-aggressive conversations with my Art Director partner (who had to stay late re-working the layouts), I became wise in the way of the thumb. I also came to understand that it wasn’t about aesthetics or nit-picking: it was just common sense. The more things you give someone to think about, the harder it is for them to make a decision.

It’s a lesson worth bearing in mind when you consider the sheer volume of information that assaults an average office worker every day: phone calls, emails, meetings, presentations, Facebook updates. How much of that information would pass the thumb test – and how much of it is just getting in the way?

Most businesses are not very good at requiring their employees to be concise. Which is a shame, because it’s a hugely important discipline – and it doesn’t come naturally, so you have to make people work at it.

This is because, when you know a lot about a subject, it can be hard to edit that knowledge. ‘It’s all important,’ you think. ‘I can’t leave any of it out.’

There’s a tendency to get so bogged down in what we know that we assume everyone else needs to have the same level of detail we have in order to make good decisions.

In fact, the opposite is true.

The more you give people to think about, the harder it is for them to know what to do. Your job is to make it easier. You do that by taking away the distractions and giving them clear priorities.

In other words, get your thumb out.

Why nobody thinks long term

‘Rotten corporate culture’. ‘A relentless dash for cash’. ‘Recklessness, hubris and greed’.

Just three of the phrases (and by no means the most scathing) used by the Parliamentary Business Committee in their report about the demise of Carillion, the UK construction and facilities giant that went into liquidation in January.

There’s no doubt who the MPs regard as the villains of the piece. Carillion’s former directors make an easy target: unlikeable, unrepentant – and relatively unscathed by the catastrophic collapse that cost thousands of employees and suppliers their jobs and livelihoods.

But let’s pause for a moment and imagine that they weren’t such pantomime villains.

Let’s imagine they were trying to run a complex public business in a difficult market, with pressure from investors to deliver growth, at the same time their margins were being relentlessly squeezed.

That is, after all, what happens in most PLC boardrooms every day (especially in tricky markets like construction and retail). Senior executives under pressure have to make difficult decisions.

Very often, those decisions boil down to a choice between ‘what’s best for the business in the long term’ and ‘what will help us hit our targets for the quarter’.

Given that there’s likely to be a lot more scrutiny of their short-term results (and that most of their bonus is likely to be pegged to them), should we really be surprised that the balance doesn’t very often come down in favour of what’s best for the business in the long term?

In my experience, this is invariably what’s at the heart of a ‘rotten culture’.

Carillion’s collapse is not a story of a few bad executives making rogue decisions in their own best interests. It’s a story of what’s wrong with a depressingly large number of public corporations.

They’re so busy focusing on the six to twelve months in front of them that they never lift their heads up to look further ahead.

Which means they never see the cliff edge they’re about to fall off.

During the several years that Carillion was building up the £7bn in liabilities that eventually pushed it over that cliff, it never once stopped paying out handsome dividends to its investors.

The board could have used those dividend payments to reduce the debt, or streamline the business, or balance the pension fund. But they probably would have been fired for doing that. Instead, they did what the investors wanted them to do and they got a big, fat bonus for it.

Which leaves me wondering who the real villains are here.

The executives who prioritise short-term targets over long-term sustainability?

Or the investors who reward them for doing it?