The age of rhetoric

My good friend bob (not his real name) voted for Brexit. He says nobody can possibly know if the economy will be better or worse afterwards so the economic consequences wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) influence him.

He’s completely wrong of course.

Everybody with any knowledge of the UK economy knew that Brexit would have severe negative economic implications. If people tried to say otherwise they were – let’s be charitable – mistaken or self-interested.  Many of these ‘hidden’ or ‘unintended’ consequences came to light later on, but if it was your job to know these things, you would certainly have known them at the time.

And that’s one of the problems. Who do we believe when so many of our authority figures have shown themselves to be untrustworthy?

It rather suggests a broader shift in the source of authority.  Not just on issues like Brexit, but all around us.  It began with nature.  Then came religion.  Next was science and rationalism.  But it now appears we have gone beyond that and we’re entering an age of rhetoric. As Michael Gove famously said, “this country has had enough of experts”.  We have it seems replaced them with the uninformed blatherings of Z-list celebrities, snake-oil salesmen and PR companies.

Or should we call it ‘the age of total bollocks’.


Isn’t technology great? (we’re doomed)

Er no.
I started keeping a record.
My office uses a wizzy video conferencing suite called Zoom for a regular Monday morning process meeting. It works approximately two-thirds of the time. When it doesn’t, we resort to a smart phone on speaker or a land line.
On iPhone, Siri recognises my command and gives me a useful solution less than a quarter of the time.  It would be particularly helpful if it could give me directions when I’m driving (‘hey Siri, open Google Maps and get me directions to home‘).  This has never yet worked.
The wi-fi on South Western Railways will connect to my phone once in every eight attempts.
You know what this means?
It means I need some more interesting and important stuff to worry about.

Like David Wallace-Wells‘ new book on climate change.  He opens the story with the immortal opening lines “it’s worse, much worse than you think”.  if you’re me, that’s quite grim, because I already thought it was terrible.  My big corporate energy company client described me as ‘him with the doomsday scenario’.

Wallace-Wells is accused of Armaggeddonising– surely the best new verb to have been created in recent times.

Now that’s better.



A few weeks ago, WPP announced the merger of their ad agency J Walter Thompson and digital agency Wunderman.  It’s the latest in a sequence of similar mergers.  WPP themselves had earlier brought together its other agency networks Y&R and Ogilvy with their respective near-partners in recent years.

According to Wikipedia, J. Walter Thompson was incorporated in 1864 and is the world’s best known advertising agency.  I doubt that, but somehow, to admen of my, ahem, generation there’s something poignant about the passing (and, let’s face it, that is what it is) of the venerable old JWT.

At very least, it inspires me to a bit of quasi-nostalgia. In the 1980s, as a young aspiring advertising person, I hoped beyond hope to get a chance to work at the famous J. Walter Thompson.  They were, to my mind, the best agency in the land.  They had a wonderful (see what I did there) portfolio of the best, most thoughtful, most effective, most popular and most iconic campaigns in the industry.

There was The Oxo Family – a first for showing the ‘warts and all’ dis-harmony of real family life.  But executed with charm and a crucial ‘smile of recognition’.

There was The Andrex Puppy – Britain’s most popular campaign according to poll after poll in the trade and consumer press.  And winner of the IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix, for those of you who like that sort of thing.

There was Persil – the epitome of a brand that had understood and segmented its audience.  If you were analytical about the science of laundry products you identified with P&G’s Ariel but if you cared deeply about being a Mum, you were a Persil person. The advertising wasn’t about how a detergent worked, nor even about clean clothes.  It was about how it feels to care for your kids.


There were The Philadelphia Girls – a campaign featuring two up and coming comediennes, which spawned a sit-com for goodness sake.  Not a very good one, admittedly, but there you are.

Even the giant Kellogg’s business had its iconic elements, with kids’ properties like Tony the Tiger for Frosties, Snap, Crackle and Pop for Rice Krispies.  Even mainstream ‘staple’ like Corn Flakes and Bran Flakes had campaigns which you’d remember twenty later.

And I haven’t even mentioned Kit Kat.

Some of our best loved actors cut their teeth in JWT’s campaigns.  Lynda Bellingham, as Oxo Mum, Maureen Lipman as Beattie in the BT ads.  I even recall casting a young James Nesbitt in a Corn Flakes ad sometime around 1993.

Al of this was underpinned by a history which boasted the ‘co-inventor’ of Account Planning, Stephen King (not that one) and the avuncular Jeremy Bullmore (pictured above outside the iconic Berkeley Square offices), whose brilliant writing originally inspired me to want to work in the business in the first place.  His book Behind the Scenes in Advertising is still the best I have read on the subject.

Hence it’s no surprise to learn that Thompson’s was the biggest, most successful agency in the UK around the late 80s and through the 90s. They vied with Saatchi & Saatchi for top spot through those years.  The two agencies also represented diametrically opposing cultures.  JWT was ‘The University of Advertising’ which boasted a system and a rigor behind everything it did. ‘Grand Strategy’ was how King described its school of Planning (not to be confused with ‘ad-tweaking’ which was what other agencies did under that title). Saatchi on the other hand espoused the ‘Nothing is Impossible’ mantra, which perfectly summarized their pragmatic ‘make it up as you go along’ approach.  Saatchis also believed creativity came ahead of everything, whereas JWT put great store by the marketing and strategic integrity of their brands before creativity ever entered the equation.

The prevailing internal culture was unique too.  JWT, as recently as the 90s, was all pin stripe suits, Oxbridge and posh accents.  The impression created was of gents who owned large swathes of land accompanied by ladies who had graduated from the exclusive secretarial colleges and a Swiss finishing school. People referred to popular expressions drawn from the Thompson’s folklore such as “can you afford to send your daughter to JWT?”

So all in all, JWT was a big part of the history and a major driving force in the ad business over the late twentieth century.  And a significant contributor to British culture of the day.  I was lucky enough to work there for most of the 1990s. My time included stints on all of the brands described earlier, except Oxo.  I say ‘lucky’ because I earnestly believed I was part of the best team in the industry, but in truth, it was a horrible place to work, full of high-level office politics and backstabbing.  I was hired by one Head of Department and in the month it took to work my notice before joining, he had been replaced by a ‘new star’ imported from a trendier agency.  The new guy interviewed me all over again and happily I still had a job.  He rejoiced in the observation that JWT was an environment free from politics.  A year later he had been ousted in a battle for a senior role which he wanted but had been awarded to a more effective Machiavellian player. Nice place.

In recent years its reputation had been tarnished by a very public sexism scandal (L’Affaire Martinez) and some politically incorect staffing ratios.

On the other hand, the output was always top notch in those days.  This was what advertising should be – ideas to spawn campaigns that endured for decades.

Here are a few more favourites from the Golden Age, for good measure:




Where’s the bleeding Government gone?

While we watch the unfolding horror story we call Brexit, there’s one aspect of this nightmare which is shockingly – if understandably – underreported.  For nearly two years there has effectively been no government active in the UK.  Only bloody Brexit.  No real analysis or scrutiny.  Except on Brexit.  And no opposition for that matter, even on Brexit – the Labour Party should hang their heads in shame, but that’s another subject.  The point is large chunks of Government have been paralysed since Article 50 was triggered in March 2017. And it would seem nobody has really noticed.
Is this some devious Tory ploy? – they’ll suddenly announce that ‘Small Government’ was introduced and nobody complained. So a slimmed down State must be OK.  That’s perhaps another distraction.  Keep to the point please.
Because the news has principally followed the political story of the day – i.e. Brexit – there has been a void in the world of real news.  Meanwhile Universal Credit – the new combined benefits system which is uniformly slated by everyone who knows about these things – will be introduced with only a murmur of dissent.  And the tragic failure of the health system to  address the crisis in mental health evokes little more than a shrug of resignation.  Under different circumstances, these are things people would take to the streets to protest about.  But without journalistic flame-fanning, it’s all just a bit meh.
Meanwhile in the real world there is effectively no provision for young people with mental health problems.  Of more than 338,000 children and young people referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) last year, 31% were treated within a year. But 37% got no help at all and another 32% were still waiting for treatment to start at the end of the year.  And suicide is still the biggest cause of death in young and middle aged men in the UK.
Are we really ok with that?  Should we be? Should the Government be? Oh, I forgot, there isn’t any.

Life like in an advert

Sometimes things just turn out nice, said no-one ever, seemingly, in recent times.  Well I’ve come over all optimistic and positive this morning.  I’ve been fulfilling the role of an IEL. You don’t know what that is?  Shame on you.  IEL is an Itinerant Executive in London. Obvs.   Wandering around looking for a good spot to do bit of work before my impossibly inconvenient meeting.  The meeting is inevitably held somewhere that’s  nowhere near anywhere else.  At a time that makes it unlikely anything else can fit around it, so it pretty much consumes a whole day.

But here’s the good bit.  As I wondered how to fill the two hours before we begin, I remembered that one of my favourite restaurants is around the corner – Jamie’s fifteen.  I popped my head around the door.  The restaurant’s closed, doesn’t open until lunch time.  Shame.  But instead of telling me to bugger off, the nice people asked me in and offered me a table where I could do my stuff.  So far so implausibly excellent.

It gets better.  A restaurant, where the staff are doing lunch prep, turns out to be an excellent working environment.  There’s just the right level of background music (and frankly it’s better than what we play at my office – don’t tell Simon).  There’s a pleasant background buzz of people milling around being busy, but they’re not disturbing me.  And from time to time, someone wanders over to offer me a coffee (which is excellent).

The fact that everyone here is impossibly beautiful also helps.  Maybe I’m easily pleased.  Or generally in an unusually good mood.

If I were creating a scene in a TV commercial or a corporate video to show cool young people doing general, undefined ‘business’ stuff, this is what I’d look to recreate.

This really is just rambling nonsense isn’t it?



It’s really not a thing

J. Walter Thompson, Maureen Lipman and BT famously exclaimed “You’ve got an ‘ology; you’re a scientist”.

That’s got our ‘ologies sorted.  Now what about our ‘isms?

Racism is a bad thing, right? It means that black people (or whatever you choose to call people who aren’t white, this season) get a bad deal.  That often means they are under-represented in the most privileged places in society and their voice is not heard.  They don’t earn as much as white folks, their health outcomes are worse, they are more likely to be victims of crime, they stand the highest chance of dying in custody etc.etc.  You know the kind of thing.

Sexism is a bad thing right?  I could reel off a similar list of ways in which women are disadvantaged in society, by virtue only of the accident of birth that made them female.

There’s another dimension too – isms often overlap with ‘phobias‘ like the ‘hate’ issues – homophobia, islamophobia and so on.

Which brings me (by a questionable logical twist) to the issues facing the British Labour Party right now.  And anti-semitism.  According to The Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph, the prospect of a government led by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn would be “an existential threat to Jewish life in this country”. Various Labour figures are up in arms about Corbyn, and the British press has perpetuated a picture of his behaviour, his past and his associations as somehow anti-semitic.

Please can we be absolutely clear about one thing here:

Racism in the UK is a thing.  Sexism in the UK is a thing.  Homophobia is a thing.

Anti-semitism is not a thing.

Run down the earlier list of the ways in which non-white people are disadvantaged in the UK and try substituting the word Jewish for non-white (or black or whatever is your preference).

Under-represented in privileged positions in society?  Nope. Voice not heard?  Nope.  Earn less money?  Nope?  Worse health outcomes?  Nope?  Deaths in police custody?  Nope?  Is anti-semitism more like sexism then?  Are Jewish people subject to domestic abuse?  Nope.  Is there a kind of weird Jewish glass ceiling?  Nope.

It’s simply a cheap and spurious attack on this particular Labour leader.  I’m not a massive Corbyn fan either, but all this anti-semitism rhetoric is clearly nonsense.

Anti-semitism not a thing in the UK today.

Please stop talking as though it was.

Worse that that.  One of my favourite authors recently wrote that saying something is a thing’ is no longer a thing. So this post may look quite badly dated in the not-too-distant future.

Sorry about that.

And to my Jewish reader(s). No offence.