Alert Alert !!!

My eyes are peeled. I’m scanning the horizon.  I check behind.  And to the sides.   Everyone I see will be scrutinised from head to foot, until I am satisfied they offer no threat.  Every vehicle will be checked.  Every house I pass will be noted and its details recoded.  Nothing goes unnoticed.  I am a coiled spring.

I am alert. So alert.  I am positively tingling with alertness.  Alert is my new middle name.  Beyond alert.  I’m more alert than Alert Ali McAlert, winner of last year’s ‘Mr. Alert’ competition.

I must be safe from the COVID-19 virus right?

Stay alert

If you didn’t know (because either you’ve been living in a cave, or somewhere outside Britain) this is the British Government’s campaign to keep the public safe from corona virus.

Stay Alert (what?) Control the Virus (er, how?) Save lives (but, who, where, how, che?)

My main question is this:  Is this the worst piece of public policy communication in history?

Seems like a no-brainer to me.  It’s the biggest stinker ever.

Why do I say that? (I don’t hear you ask)

Well for a start it makes no sense.  Staying alert will make no difference whatsoever to anything relating to the virus.  Or anything else, except I’ll be exhausted rather quickly.  Is alertness somehow relevant?  Am I at more at risk while sleeping than I am when fully ‘on my guard’?  I think not.

Controlling the virus is not something I know how to do, nor something it’s in my power to do so instructing me to do it leaves me floundering.

And saving lives, while undoubtedly a good thing, is not really in my remit – I don’t think I’m being asked to find someone in danger and rescue them, so what exactly is it I’m being urged to do?

Alice Bennett, a senior lecturer in contemporary literature, put it better than me, on Twitter:

“It’s a fantasy that we can ‘control the virus’, but we can’t actually control our attention either. ‘Stay Alert’ is the ‘Never Forget’ of public safety messaging: actionless, objectless, infinitely expansive”

Inevitably the authors of the campaign have felt compelled to defend it:

“The truth is that people really understand the message, people understand what ‘Stay Alert’ means,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program .

In fact, polling by YouGov, on the Monday following its launch, suggested only 30 percent of people knew what “Stay Alert” means — and even Tory MPs privately expressed dismay at the botched messaging before the key document was finally published at lunchtime on Monday.

Apparently, the original intention was that the five letters making up ALERT would form an acronym for five actions people could take to prevent the spread of the disease.  But according to Politico, the graphics for the new campaign were leaked to the Sunday Telegraph, the weekend before, leading to what is known in the trade as a ‘botched launch’.  And no acronym was forthcoming.

No wonder the campaign has been met with a mixture of derision and confusion.

I couldn’t help take a quick peek at what some experts in Government communications thought about it.  A couple of senior staffers at the Central Office of Information (The Government’s centre of excellence for public communications, until it was broken up a few years ago) summarised their thoughts as follows (no names, no pack-drill):

“I wonder what was the thought process that went into the new slogan: BE ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES.  This slogan is meaningless and confusing.”

“It’s a box-ticking exercise that clearly doesn’t give a shit about whether it actually changes behaviour or helps people.”

So far so utterly damning.  But there’s another side to this.  Because, if there’s one area where the current British Government is generally sure-footed, it’s mass communications made simple.  The Brexit campaign was a triumph of persuasion, where the case to be made was logically er flimsy at best.  And the last general election saw the Conservative Party wipe the floor with their opponents, despite a fairly iffy record in government.  All of this was achieved with a single-minded approach to communications based on a religious adherence to polling and feedback from focus groups.  It has been a thoroughly professional job.  They gave every impression of knowing what they were doing.  Until now.

So what went wrong?

Stay alert for further bulletins…….

The mystery of the booming stock market

It had been bugging me for a while. How can it be that, at the peak (so far) of the Corona virus pandemic, as we go into a deep recession, stock markets are in rude health?

There’s no doubting the seriousness of the recession. Any data you like will confirm that this will be the deepest economic downturn any of us has seen, dwarfing the 2008 slowdown, which was itself the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This chart shows data for the UK, but it’s the same elsewhere:

Makes you want to scribble ‘biff’, ‘kerpow’ or ‘whammo’ at Q1 2020.

And yet, after a short term blip, early in the pandemic, stock markets rapidly recovered to previous levels and, in some cases even posted record highs. I’m no economist, but surely, this is the opposite of what should be happening.

This is the weekly Dow Jones industrial average index performance from January to October 2020 (I know I’m mixing up US and UK data here, but the trends are the same):

Turns out I’m not the only person to have noticed. In October, McKinsey published a think piece entitled ‘Wall Street versus Main street: Why the Disconnect?’ dealing with exactly this inconsistency.

As they expressed it:

“In the middle of the deepest recession in memory, stock markets are reaching new highs. Why the disconnect?”

McKinsey’s analysis finds three points of explanation:

1.Investors are taking a long term view, so where there’s an underlying healthy business, they see that the investment prospects are still good once the recovery comes.

2. Stock markets, especially in the US disproportionately represent stocks like the tech giants, who are largely insulated against the worst effects of the pandemic.

3. Stock markets mostly represent big business, whereas it is smaller, unlisted companies who will be worst hit in the recession.

Hence they conclude, it is not to surprising that stock markets can do well while aggregate indicators like employment and GDP are severely depressed.

Sounds sensible, especially when we hear rumours of the massive financial gains made by a few billionaires during the pandemic.

On the other hand, I’m a little disturbed to observe quite how far the markets over-represent a few sectors – namely tech, finance and pharma. These three categories, according to McKinsey/Standard &Poor, make up 18% of the US economy, but nearly 60% of the market capitalisation of corporate America. As McKinsey summarises it, the market value of listed US companies, does not reflect the dynamics of the real economy.

Should it? Is it a problem if it doesn’t?

Either way, it helps explain why markets have a life of their own, seemingly independent of the real world of business.

Forbes Magazine goes even further, in a piece entitled This is why the stock market is rallying, while the economy tanks, concluding that stock markets are surprisingly healthy because they are simply predicting the recovery.

In their words, when the recovery comes, “the economy could grow very strongly ….. it could result in one of the fastest growth periods in US history”.

Are these commentators deluded?

Or are they simply optimists? (Nothing wrong with that.)

It does make you revisit the fundamental question – what is the stock market for?

When I studied economics, it was a marketplace, intended to raise money for businesses to grow, and in doing so, to extend ownership of those businesses to a wider group. Through supply and demand, the value of stocks would reflect the health of the businesses quoted and so, in aggregate, the health of the economy more broadly. But that was before the nature of the markets changed to focus on abstract investments like derivatives, futures and the opaque mysteries we now call ‘financial instruments’ with the resulting trend to speculative investments. Stock markets became casinos.

My instinct is to think more like The Guardian, where Larry Elliott explains the disconnect between the real and financial worlds thus:

The reason for that is simple. Financial markets were once seen primarily as places where businesses and governments could raise capital for productive investment. Over the years, the centre of gravity of western economies – and the US and the UK in particular – shifted from production to speculative finance, most of it debt-fuelled.

Should we be worried?

The reliance of pension funds, in particular, on the markets makes them one of those institution which has become worryingly ‘too big to fail’ ensuring they will be protected. Arguably, this in turn encourages reckless speculation, like that which created our previous worst ever recession in 2008.

So, yes, I’m worried. But the optimists are probably happier than me, so maybe I should be more like them.

Keep your communications single-minded please

I loved this opinion piece penned by Imogen West-Nights in the Guardian a little while ago:

Go to the pub, but don’t come into contact with other people. Only meet in groups of six, but also sit in a restaurant with 30 other diners. Go to your office, but don’t go by public transport. Listen to the scientists, except when we’re ignoring them. Relax. Under no circumstances should you relax.

It is sometimes difficult, in the face of such mixed messages from the government, to resist the urge to crescendo directly into a full-throated scream on getting out of bed in the morning.

The government has an unenviable job in dealing with coronavirus, as the situation changes from day to day, but other governments have undoubtedly done it better. According to a June YouGov poll of 27 countries, Britons had the second lowest level of confidence in their government’s handling of the pandemic.

First because it embodies the most basic but crucial rule of mass-communicating, namely ‘thou shalt be single minded’. In advertising agencies, the common analogy was to talk about catching tennis balls: if I throw six balls to you at once, you won’t catch any, but if I throw one, you stand a good chance of catching it.


Unfortunately, as succinctly demonstrated, Corona virus public-facing communications have been anything but single-minded.

I know my former colleagues in Government communications despair at the flakiness of current offerings. Analogies tend to be more often made with human body parts, especially those below the waist, hanging in a sack.

Secondly, and even more gratifyingly, because it represents the only occasion I have ever known where someone correctly used the term crescendo as a verb. Crescendo is not the peak you reach (that’s a forte or fortissimo) but the ascent to get there.

Crescendo | Definition of Crescendo by Merriam-Webster

For that, I will be eternally grateful to Ms West-Nights.

Is this ad moving or is it an outrage?

Take a look at this ad, created by the McCann for Unfinished Votes – a quirky but highly emotive project brought to us by the anti-gun lobby. It was brought to my attention by the researcher Graham Booth, a marketing commentators I respect highly.

Now, I looked at this ad and immediately thought a couple of things:

Great use of AI – among the best I’ve seen of its kind.

Great cause – I am the kind of liberal lefty type who supports gun control.

Great to see the people I support matching their more cynical and malevolent opponents in using smart and progressive techniques to get their message across. I often despair that it often seems the more decent and principled the cause, the more lumbering and naive the communications (I’m particularly thinking of Brexit here).

What I didn’t expect to see was a response ‘below the line’ full of vitriol from those rejecting the message, the cause and the technique.

A few examples from YouTube:

Beyond disgusting. Shame on these parents

This is messed up and you guys are deranged

This is disgusting and hits uncanny valley lows unlike anything I’ve ever seen before

One of, if not the, most disturbing, creepy and horrible videos i have ever seen

And so it goes on; there are pages of condemnation. And it doesn’t, on the face of it, appear to be written by the reactionary, pro-gun militants but by regular people, genuinely disturbed.

I usually reckon I can predict when there’s going to be a backlash to advertising, but this took me by surprise.

Years ago, we used to tell clients they should aim to achieve controversy – it was a good thing disguised as a bad thing – a catalyst to spark a conversation.

Is that what we have here?

Or is it genuinely creepy and ill-judged?

I’m in two minds about it now I’ve seen the outrage. Makes you think, as we used to say.

It’s my committee and I’ll cry if I want to

Government in Britain is cloaked in secrecy.  They do that on purpose.  Always have.  As we get to understand more about what’s behind the facade, it’s almost always worse than we feared.

Almost always.


The early pioneer of the hipster movement, Walter Bagehot, writing in the 19th century explained how government in Britain works.  (And what a beard, eh?)

In ‘The English Constitution’ he distinguished between the efficient and the dignified parts of government. The efficient parts are those which do the governing – i.e. decisions are made and plans enacted.  The dignified parts are a cosmetic artifice which sell the whole thing to the deluded public.  That’s us.  Oh.

In Bagehot’s day, the efficient part constituted the cabinet, while the dignified part was made up of the Monarchy and the House of Lords.  The status of the Commons is subject to interpretation.

In the century or more since he wrote, power and influence have become more tightly focused in the Prime Minister and a narrow cabal of close advisers and influencers.  In the Thatcher years, we talked of an ‘Inner Cabinet’ of trusted advisers – maybe four or five key players.  Nowadays, it’s more likely to be made up of one or two key unelected Special Advisers (SpAds).  In the current set up, top SpAd Dominic Cummings is often described as the ‘Power behind No.10’.

A typical first week essay for British politics undergraduate might be to write a comparison of the respective power of the British prime Minister and the US President.  Contrary to the instinctive response, the PM enjoys much greater authority than his or her American counterpart.  This is partly because the PM commands the patronage of every official in a government position (basically everyone’s job is in their gift) and partly because the US President is subject to deliberate constitutional checks and balances, embodied in the separation of powers between the Executive (The White House) the Legislature (Congress) and the Judiciary (the legal system, in particular the Supreme Court).

This is all a bit depressing.  We thought democracy was alive and well and living in Westminster, when all it really means is that we get to choose between one all-powerful party leader and another.

It’s also clear that the 2020 Conservative government is moving towards ever greater centralisation of power, by removing those checks and balances that do exist in the British system.  The removal of Sir Mark Sedwill, Head of the Civil Service, by pressure from the Prime Minister’s office, is a clear statement of intent, as is the widespread talk of ‘Whitehall Reform’ (translation – the emasculation of the Civil Service, so they are more obedient to the Minister in charge of their Department).

But just occasionally, there’s a glimmer of hope.

Select Committees are an important part of the system of Government.  This is where bills being debated are examined by experts, and amended or revised.  The membership of these committees is generally cross-party and, contrary to the public-facing rough-and-tumble of The House, they are quite grown-up bodies with some capacity to make policy better rather than just to make it saleable.  This is good and important, and the Chairmanship of a committee is rightly a prestigious appointment, made by election from its members.  Not – importantly – appointed by The Man.

The Intelligence and Security Committee is not a Select Committee as such, but the same rules apply.  Only more so – being all about National Security, it’s even more important that this group has an objective, long-term focus and is not just a political lap dog.

So it was with great rejoicing that I saw the news today that Boris Johnson’s attempt to ‘shoe-in’ his political friend, Chris Grayling, had unexpectedly come unstuck.  Contrary to all the predictions (and pre-announcement press briefings – maybe a lesson in there) the committee elected Conservative MP and longstanding member of the committee, Julian Lewis instead.


It’s refreshing chink of light, where you might have thought there was none.  Remarkably, Mr. Lewis is a defence expert, strongly endorsed by previous committee chairmen.  Mr. Grayling isn’t.

No offence to my former constituency MP, Mr. Grayling, whom I have met and rather liked, despite his reputation for bringing calamity, wherever he goes.  But this is surely a victory for good sense, and a minor act of resistance against the forces concentrating power into No 10.

The PM’s office naturally responded by having a hissy fit and throwing Lewis out of the party.  A senior government source told the BBC that Mr Lewis “has been told by the chief whip that it is because he worked with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage“.  Hmmm.  Definitely not because it frustrated a power-grab then.

It’s a good job there are some checks and balances left.  So, three cheers for the Committee system.  And, forgive me for getting all sensible for a moment, but if the Defence and Security Committee does what the name implies, then that’s really rather important to our future safety.

Having looked like becoming just another dignified part of government, there are still a few bastions of the efficient after all.  For now.



Marketing bollocks of the highest order

I do love a bit of strategy humbly bumbly.

Within limits.

Newy Brothwell, the wily old Creative Director at DDB, used to have one wall of his office dedicated to examples of ‘marketing bollocks’.  He’d have key quotes and strategy slides pinned up there, stating meaningless, confusing tosh in deluded language.  My favourites were the overblown, hyperbolic assertions masquerading as some kind of ‘brand promise’.  They were all absolutely real, trawled from his years spent working with people like me, who talked utter bollocks for a living.

I could sit for ages in there, just soaking it in and chortling from time to time.


I was reminded of this recently, when some colleagues* asked me to contribute to a (admittedly rather hastily assembled) new brand strategy.

The document wasn’t excessively long. It was intended to be presented in a one-hour call, including time for Q&A.  Let’s say 45 slides worth.

In those 45 slides, I noted, we talked about all of the following (and not in a ‘we won’t be wasting time with one of these’ kind of way):

Brand essence

Brand personality

Brand positioning

Brand promise

Brand territory

Brand values

Brand identity

Brand vision

Brand mission

Brand architecture

Brand opportunity

Brand landscape

Brand spirit

Product promise

Meaningful Brand Idea


CPP (I forget – something product promise?)

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to suspect a certain lack of clarity here.

The fabulous irony here was that the launch in question was arguably not even a ‘brand’ at all.  But that’s getting off the point, and tempting me into the kind of esoteric detail I’m here to decry.

In these things, I tend to refer back to my favourite marketing professor, Mark Ritson.  As I recall, he reckons you should ignore all this tosh and settle on a single quality or association that distinguishes your brand from its competitors.  Some people call it the vision, some call it a promise, I tend to describe it as the positioning – and so does Ritson, so that’s what it is.  Everything else is pretty much affectation.

More specifically, on clarity and simplicity, he says:

“The greatest initial test for brand positioning is whether your brand manager can remember it unaided. Then ask your chief executive. Then ask the porter from downstairs who meets more customers than your chief executive and brand manager combined. If all three come up with the same basic concept, you are in the 1% of companies who are in with a chance of brand-building.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Try this as a test on your favourite brands. If you’re a brand manager or if you advise them, try it on your own brands.  Most fail.  Even the big, successful household names.

This exposes the whole world of brand malarkey as a hotbed of bullshit and smoke & mirrors.  (Stating the obvious alert – sorry about that)

At this point it would be traditional to blame the consultants, who are trying to justify a big fee.  I don’t though.  I blame the de-skilling of marketing to the point where we’re so ignorant as a profession that we don’t see what matters.

I would like to make that my own personal point of difference.


(*Apologies to those – you know who you are – who actually felt the same way.)


Culture, Relativism and Black Lives Matter


“Fire burns in Hellas and Persia, but men’s ideas of right and wrong vary from place to place”

This is Aristotle’s assertion in his Nicomachean Ethics.  I reckon it’s the best description you’ll get of moral relativism.  Simple, clear and true.

If you can get your head around moral relativism, then much of the madness of our current moral dilemmas begins to melt away.

What am I on about?  OK, rewind a bit.

In the wake of the horrible police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the western world has been engaged in a period of re-evaluation and reflection, fanned by the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement.  This has led us to some heated disputes, and violent scenes on the streets.

The first thing to say about this is that racism is a massive problem.  The disadvantage experienced by non-white people in western society is a grim reminder that we’re not as civilised as we think we are.  When it reaches the point of suspects dying in custody – not once but regularly – then it’s genuinely shocking.  Being outraged is reasonable.  The explosion of protest inspired in the US, the UK and beyond, is natural and right.  But not necessarily always constructive.  And the backlash provoked from white supremacists (how can that even be a thing in a civilised world?) has been truly scary.

The protests have evolved in a morally interesting direction.  Retrospectively.  At the heart of this is the way in which we deal with historical figures who engaged in activities, normal at the time, but now unacceptable.   Owning slaves is the most obvious, and this has been a focus.  Statues of a host of prominent figures from the past, who were slave owners, have been targeted.

It’s very tempting to judge people in previous eras by today’s standards, but I believe it’s wrong, even if we passionately disapprove of what they did.

Firstly this is because it quickly leads to a raft of ridiculous anomalies.

In Ben Elton’s novel ‘Identity Crisis’ one of the protagonists is seeking to retrospectively prosecute the 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, because, in his writing, he describes touching up a servant girl.  It’s just one of a swathe of posthumous legal actions against  public figures whose conduct wouldn’t meet today’s standards.

This kind of madness is good fodder for satire, but it’s not so different from tipping statues of slave-owning philanthropists and statesmen (Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes etc.) into the sea.


This is one level absurdity.  In another, the musical ‘Hamilton’ (now sadly also a Disney movie) has been criticised because its characters include slave owners (including George Washington).  The hero, Hamilton, actively denounces slavery in the play, but, according to some commentators, he doesn’t go far enough.  On Twitter, commentators complain it is “a play about slave-holders that is not about slavery”.

What’s more, the play’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda (himself of Puerto Rican descent) seems to agree, when he says the criticisms are valid.

This is truly barking mad, since Hamilton was rightly hailed as a leap forward in inclusivity – it is the first big, successful, hip-hop musical – remarkable for giving every major role to a person of colour.  The good is suddenly now, inexplicably bad.

But this kind of nonsense is almost inevitable if we try to apply one era’s values to another.

For a start, where does it end?  You only have to go back a very short time to find examples of unacceptable practices embedded in culture.  Going back further, there is virtually nothing about feudal society or the behaviour of its major players that would escape our wrath.  The same is true for virtually every era that’s not our own.

For a start, the Founding Fathers of the United States and every British monarch you can think of would need to be disowned.

Aristotle said, moral norms vary across countries and they vary over time.  We’re rightly sniffy about slavery.  Though it is still alarmingly present in Britain today.  ‘We’ think it’s wrong to cut people’s hands off as punishment.  Others disagree.  We’ think it’s ok to hit children as punishment.  Some don’t.

Perhaps more importantly, just to flip the perspective onto the present day, how do we think future generations will judge us?  Morality is essentially tied to culture.  How might future generations feel about some of the things we see as normal?

Many everyday practices we see as ok are pretty morally questionable if you step outside our culture.  We may not see it because we’re part of that culture.  I’d point to church-sponsored child abuse, circumcision, killing animals for sport and some of the more barbaric practices in the food industry as examples.  Toleration of white supremacists, the maintenance of extreme privilege and inequality, payment for political influence – these all strike me as things which future generations will ridicule, but there are plenty more.

Moral relativism demands we recognise that our current moral norms are arbitrary, not objective.  But when we talk about morality, when we ascribe something as right or wrong, we don’t mean ‘right or wrong from my perspective, in today’s framework.  We mean it’s absolutely right or wrong.  Moral language is part of the problem.

If judgements only really make sense in the context of their culture, then going back and re-evaluating figures from the past will only tie us in knots.  Culture frames how we see and experience the world.

I cite Aristotle as the originator of this wisdom, which is ironic, because, in his Politics, he sees the existence of slavery as a perfectly natural thing, and expresses no disapproval at all.  Probably made perfect sense at the time.



Blimey, Captain’s Log, Stardate COVID-19 Lockdown week 6

Well this is blimmin’ weird isn’t it?

Living out the screenplay of some dystopian sci fi vision thing, observing a countrywide Lockdown – words I bet you never thought you’d be saying. Me neither. 

All things considered, I feel we’ve taken to it astonishingly well.  Of course there have been outraged cries that other people aren’t observing the rules, expressed by other people who are themselves not following the rules but want to have the place to themselves.

There have been some interesting discussions emerging around what, if anything might be the enduring legacy of this massive ruction in our cultures and economies. Economically, of course it’s a calamity.  But some people have dared to voice optimistic perspectives. Maybe, they speculate, when all this is over, we will emerge as less materialistic folks, less stressed and less committed to the treadmill that has been making us miserable for as long as we can remember.

I’d like to think so. I’ve been struck by the rediscovery of simple pleasures. Smiling at people and nodding a greeting, even as you cross the road to avoid them in case they infect you with the deadly virus. There have been some heroic acts of kindness. Not the grand gestures, like the people raising gazillions of pounds for the NHS, but the small favours like helping out a neighbour with a delivery or going shopping for an older person. I’ve seen a lot of that.


More than anything, I’ve been struck by people – myself included – rediscovering nature.  When there’s not much leisure activity on offer, walking in the countryside is about as good as it gets.  And it’s really very good.  I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful part of South East England and I have hugely enjoyed exploring on foot, by bike or occasionally in the car.

Home cooking.  Talking to people.  Playing games. Recognising that health workers are more important than financiers or politicos.  Things we sort of knew but didn’t have time for, because there was a meeting to prepare for first thing tomorrow morning.

Simple pleasures – it’s a powerful theme.  It reminded me of something I was told by the famous advertising creative Tony Brignull.  He recalled some research  into the meaning of luxury, which uncovered the way simple things can be massively desirable.  

“The ultimate luxury would be to use a new blade every time I shave.”

In her book ‘My shit therapist’ the comedienne Michelle Thomas says:

“If I was a billionaire diva babe, I’d never wear the same pair of socks twice”.

Simple things eh?  Not too clever.  Not so sophisticated. Birdsong, woodlands, fresh air. Nice fluffy socks. Insert your own simple pleasure of choice here.

Whatever the new normal looks like, if and when it does finally arrive, I hope we’ll remember some of the simple human pleasures we rediscovered.  It would be a terrible shame if we learn nothing from this and just go back to the way things were.


Great advertising not dead after all

Reports of the death of good advertising (largely by me) have been greatly exaggerated.

Get your laughing gear round this:


After all that bollocks in the Superbowl, and most of the tosh we’ve seen in the last few years, I was beginning to despair.

But Coke is a brand that stands for a ‘glass half full’ approach to life, and we’ve never needed that as much as we do now.

The ads that is, not the drink.  Never touch the stuff myself.  The devil’s work.

This takes me back to the great Coke ads of the past – in particular the one lampooning Grand Theft Auto.  Maybe there’s a lesson in this – great ads can come out of opposites and, in the current world of purpose-led marketing, standing against something can be even better than standing for something.