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…….

Depression is not a dog

I can’t think of a less helpful analogy. Dogs, are loyal and friendly. Even big looming ones with a sense of foreboding, like ‘The Grim’ in folk lore and Harry Potter.

Every person’s experience of depression is different, but I would certainly not characterize Joe’s as a canine. His was more like a cat. Cats are cunning and capricious. Have you ever watched a cat playing with its prey? That’s how Joe’s depression was.

What’s more, it’s like a cat who knows ju jitsu. Depression has an ability to actively undermine you. Like a martial arts expert knows pressure points, it knows your coping strategies and it knows how to beat them. It knows more about you than you know about yourself. The hidden triggers that make no sense but inexplicably send you into a tailspin. There’s nothing so happy that depression can’t turn it into a source of pain.

Joe’s better now.

But it’s definitely not a dog.

Crunchy nut corn flakes: why you shouldn’t blame the food giants for trying to kill you

The trouble is they taste too good:

This campaign for Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes is one of the greats, from the golden age of British advertising. My agency, J. Walter Thompson, was rightly proud of it. It was much loved and hugely successful.

It also tells us everything about the working of the food business. And why that’s likely to be the thing that kills you.

Here’s how the food industry works:

Evolution over millions of years gave humans a brilliant system for regulating their eating. When their bodies needed energy, it made them feel hungry so they would eat. When they had eaten enough, it made them feel full, so they would stop. It’s brilliant. Physiologists talk about the stomach as ‘the second brain’ because this hunger – satiety mechanism is a self-regulating intelligence which ties in to all the body’s other functions – emotional and physical – to maintain its healthy working.

Over time, food scientists discovered that certain fatty, sugary, salty foods would undermine this physiology by making us crave food even when we’re not hungry and want more, even when we are full.

In a modern, capitalist market economy, these businesses are driven by an imperative to sell more food at a premium, in order to generate ever greater revenue and so to return shareholder value. So making us eat more is very much their business.

The result is an obesity epidemic which now extends even to second and third world economies. Globally, obesity now contributes to more preventable deaths annually than anything except smoking. That’s 2.8 million deaths (source: world health organisation).

In Britain, more than 30,000 deaths each year are attributed directly or indirectly to obesity.

But there’s no point blaming the food giants for this.

Businesses are driven by the need to return shareholder value. That means profit and growth. You can do that by (1) selling more stuff at higher prices (check), (2) by buying up your competitors – the concentration of businesses in this sector is incredible; pretty much everything is now owned by ten huge global organisations or (3) by extending into new territories (check).

If I’m a boss at one of these food giants, what options do I have?

If I don’t sell foods that trick my consumers’ physiology into wanting more – i.e. foods where, to replay Kellogg’s ad campaign, the trouble is they taste too good – then my competitor will create something more yummy, steal my sales and profits, my sales will suffer and I will rapidly be out of a job.

If the guy who replaces me continues to lose out to competitors’ too-good-to-resist food offers, then my company’s share price will suffer. Consequently we will be bought by a competitor, who is better at playing the trouble-is-they-taste-too-good game.

There really is no way out for the poor lambs.

But it’s not all bad news.

How to make things better? What all this tells us is that we can’t rely on consumers making better choices – you can’t fight the biology. We already know broadly what we ought to eat and what we ought to avoid. It just makes bugger all difference to most of us, when our bodies are telling us to eat that cake. And we clearly can’t expect food manufacturers to take it on themselves. Shareholder value may be a terrible way to incentivise corporate behaviour, but sadly it’s the one we’re stuck with.

In June of this year, having been commissioned by DEFRA, Henry Dimbleby, founder of Leon and the Sustainable Restaurant Federation masterminded the new UK Food Strategy. It very sensibly focuses on interventions that don’t rely on anyone making ‘the right choices’. It’s all about supply side solutions, penalties, interventions and regulation. Very dry. Lots of stuff about how food is produced. Ethical standards in agriculture. Sustainability. All those tedious bits that get in the way of filling people tummies with gunk.

So refreshing to hear about a solution that isn’t essentially either the whole nation going on a crash diet or every food business deciding to forego making a profit.

Those who complain about Nanny State will hate it, but it’s the only way forward.

Rugby’s not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport – dancing is a contact sport

To paraphrase legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi – he was saying this about football, but it still holds, I think you’ll agree.

Rugby is getting quite anxious about the impact of these collisions – quite understandably.

Former England hooker and world cup winner, Steve Thompson has made a documentary for the BBC about how the early onset dementia which ended his career has impacted on his life. It’s pretty harrowing stuff.

Researchers are finding ever-more-worrying evidence of the link between rugby impacts and long term brain damage. The largest study to date of former rugby players quantifies the link between neurodegenerative disease and repeated traumatic head injuries. The study was led by Dr Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist. It compared former Scottish international players with the general population and found players were twice as likely to get dementia and more than three times as likely to get Parkinson’s disease. There was also a dramatic 15-fold increase in risk of motor neurone disease. Current players train harder and compete more than those studied, which suggests these numbers will get worse.

In a separate study in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Canterbury found rugby players suffer levels of trauma, during a game, similar to that experienced in a car crash.

This is all pretty terrifying and the authorities are all over it, as they should be. Though not as much as some commentators would like.

It does raise one very stark and obvious question for me. Call it the herd of elephants in the room if you like. While we’re quite rightly becoming anxious about the dangers in rugby, how can it be that we still have another sport, commanding huge audiences and prize money all over the world, which consists of big men whacking each other in the head. This isn’t just incidental to the game, like rugby. It is the game.

The dangers of boxing could hardly be more obvious. The recent Benn-Eubank fight in the UK was called off due to a doping issue, but the fight’s back-story should make us stop and think.

As Tortoise Media reported the story:

“Boxing is stalked by the ghosts and tragedies of the past. The chaos of this week in British boxing cannot shut out the distressing memories that still haunt the Eubank and Benn families. Michael Watson ended up in a coma for months, and his life has never been the same, after he and Chris Eubank Sr met in the ring in 1991. Nigel Benn showed such ferocity four years later that his opponent, Gerald McClellan, went blind and suffered terrible brain damage. Chris Eubank Jr’s fists sent Nick Blackwell tumbling into a coma in 2016. Both families have been scarred by the damage done in the ring.”

And that’s just one story of many.

I fully admit that the spectacle of a fight between powerful athletes is something to behold. I have enjoyed watching boxing in the past. It’s exciting and there’s a certain instinctive human appeal in the physical contest. I’ve even had boxing lessons, for goodness sake.

But looked at next to the current furore in the rugby world, it just looks like a crazy anomaly.

Note that boxing is taught to kids aged 7 and above. My local club starts at age 8.

Is that a good idea?

Is that sport?

22nd June 2016: the day the UK last had a functioning government

I know the UK Conservative Party has an ideological belief in minimal government, but that’s not the same as simply going AWOL.

Up to June 2016, the UK had already spent most of the months leading up to the Brexit referendum on increasingly bitter and dirty campaigning. Not much governing got done in this period.

With the poll result, Article 50 was triggered and a date was set for Brexit in 2019. Negotiations began and pretty much completely consumed public debate and government activity for the next 3 years. The original leaving date of March 2019 was moved back to June and then to October because agreement could not be reached. Brexit was finally formally enacted the following January, but as events have showed, it was only a cosmetic agreement and the actual terms are still, as I write in October 2022 being disputed.

In the meantime, whole new government departments were created (The Department for Brexit Opportunities) thousands of civil servants were recruited or redeployed and the workings of Westminster on anything other than Brexit became paralysed.

In January 2020, just as we were emerging blinking into the post-Brexit daylight, COVID 19 arrived. For the next two years, the Pandemic quite reasonably consumed all our news, all our leaders’ attention and much of our attention and focus.

In 2022, thankfully, COVID appears to have run its course, at least as a threat to life on a massive scale. Here was the opportunity for our leaders to get back to addressing some of our pressing crises. Instead we had a series of scandals involving Ministers and others, which took up most of our politicians’ time and attention, over the Spring and Summer, and led to a Conservative leadership election. This created another two month period of limbo, in which there was effectively no government.

Finally, just as Liz Truss was sworn in as the new PM, the Queen died and the entire nation stopped for a fortnight to watch old footage of the Royals.

So there you have it. A full six years living in the UK with no government at all.

The Tories have long believed that we should have minimal government, which only intervenes when it is absolutely unavoidable. The markets will take care of everything else. That, they say, is the beauty of Capitalism – it pretty much looks after itself.

The last six years have been a real-world test of this doctrine and I’m afraid I’m not convinced it has proved their point. Rather the opposite.

Fallacies of economics

I haven’t tried it, but I reckon if I applied for permission to build a house extension made of balsa wood and sellotape it would be rejected by the planning authorities. The laws of physics and materials are understood well enough and there’s enough agreement on the fundamentals, that it would be a quick and unanimous decision. There wouldn’t be a weird cult-type body jumping in to claim that balsa is actually a hugely robust and waterproof building material maligned by decades of misinformation which has convinced us, unfairly, of its unsuitability.
And if I ignored them and tried to build this extension, I’m pretty sure it would fail.

Science is like that.

Economics on the other hand……

Any old crazy nonsense seems to be fair game, if you say it loud enough and repeat it frequently enough.

This week the UK government set out a mini-budget (they call it a fiscal event or something similarly vague) based on economics which most experts reckon would fail at ‘A’ level exam standard. At a time of high inflation (even the government is calling it a cost of living crisis) and rising interest rates, they have cut taxes, mostly for wealthy people, leading to a massive fall in the value of the currency and panic in the financial markets. The global financial bodies like the IMF have poured scorn on it, lenders have retracted many of their mortgage products due to increasing uncertainty around interest rates and the central bank has had to make one of those interventions which defy explanation, to sustain some facet of the market which none of us really understands. Maybe that’s also part of the problem.

So what should we conclude about economics and governments?

Is it that economics is so disrespected as a body of knowledge that the authorities can freely ignore it? Or is this a government that’s simply economically illiterate? Or is there a conspiracy behind the whole episode? Maybe it’s a cunning plan to undermine the Bank of England leading to a restoration of political control.

Or maybe it really is what it appears to be – blind free market ideology trumping common sense.

US President Joe Biden’s commerce chief last night told CNN “simply cutting taxes, reducing government and deregulating” was a “failed economic theory,” and argued the chaos in the U.K. right now was a “cautionary tale.” Ouch.

In the alternative reality of finance and economics, this sort of thing happens all the time.

Just one recent example. I’m fascinated by this extract from Sam Ashworth-Hayes in The Spectator:

They’re reacting to the earlier news that UK’s new PM is proposing to cap energy prices. The goal is to protect the public from price increases, which threaten to put almost half the population into fuel poverty.

SAH is explaining why she thinks a price cap is misguided.

… a price freeze removes all incentives for households and businesses to reduce their energy bills – so we’ll crank up the heating, “safe in the knowledge that the Treasury is covering the tab”. Eventually demand will outstrip supply, and that’s when we’ll get blackouts. 
It would be much better to let everyone pay the full cost of their energy use, while doling out “massive quantities of cash” to those who genuinely can’t afford to stay warm. This would incentivise everyone to use less energy – a reduction in demand that would push prices back down – while also making sure people don’t freeze to death. 

The fact this is nonsense seems clear to me. But not, it seems to others. Including people who claim to know their DPOs from their derivatives.

I’m really intrigued that someone covering current affairs really believes markets , especially those unreal artificial markets constructed for utilities, would work in this Adam-Smith-utopia-utility-maximising fashion.

Have we learned nothing from history?  We have shortages of food on supermarket shelves because there aren’t enough drivers. Why haven’t wages increased to attract new entrants and fill the shortfall? Why have there literally hundreds of thousands of unfilled vacancies in nursing and midwifery for decades?

Did the massive hike in the price of petrol lead to a reduction in miles driven (spoiler alert, no it didn’t). Did massive taxes on cigarettes and alcohol reduce consumption? (Ditto). 

Why is my High Street full of shops who close half of the week because they can’t attract staff, when seemingly we have rising unemployment?

It’s one of our most compelling fallacies – that market forces work to equalise supply and demand in these constrained markets. They just don’t. 

Our current financial bedlam has been created by the madness of free-market ideology taking priority over actual policy goals.

But that doesn’t mean economics makes a whole lot of sense either.

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government

Monty Python famously demonstrated that Arthurian legend does not provide a sustainable model for electing a leader.

But the UK’s current system may actually be worse.

A few minutes ago, Liz Truss was announced as the winner of the race to become the UK’s new Prime Minister. She was elected by members of the Conservative Party. This process has been criticised as unrepresentative, undemocratic and unreliable. It is tempting to characterise these 160.000 odd people as the classic aged, wealthy, white, out of touch golf club types from Tory central casting. I suspect the true nature of things may be even grimmer. I should know. I’m one of them.

There’s little data on the profile of Tory members, even from the party themselves, and the electoral commission raised some serious doubts around the security of the party’s election mechanics. Just to spice it up a bit, Tortoise Media managed to register family pets, underage relatives and foreign nationals as members of the party. Should these people (and animals), they asked, be responsible for choosing the UK’s leader?

For me, this whole debacle has shown another wrinkle in our creaking political system too.

A little while ago, during the respective scandals enveloping the two main parties, ‘Partygate’ and ‘Beergate’, it looked as though both Labour and/or Conservatives might be electing a new leader very soon.  The natural thing to do therefore was, it seems to me, to join both parties ASAP to be eligible to vote in the likely forthcoming leadership polls.  I’m really not sure why more people haven’t done this.  It costs about twenty five quid and we’re forever hearing about how hopelessly unrepresentative it is.  It’s hardly an original idea.  Isn’t that what led to Jeremy Corbyn’s win and the near-death of the Labour Party which ensued?

So I went online, and joining the Tories was the definition of simplicity.  It took about ten minutes from start to finish, they took my money and within a day or so I was receiving invitations to events, updates on campaigns and explanations of policy.  Quite impressive, I thought, a little grudgingly.

My Labour Party application was more problematic.  I tried to join online but the site wouldn’t accept my card payment, so I sent an email explaining my situation.  About a fortnight later, I received a response telling me I could join online (as I had tried to do) or on the phone or by post.  I picked up the phone and spoke to someone at Labour HQ who explained that they couldn’t currently sign me up on the phone, but they would send me the forms by email to sign up by post.  Nothing arrived.  I left it another fortnight and called again.  same response.  I waited.  After another few weeks I called again but the whole team was in training and there isn’t even anyone to answer the phone (they claim to be available between 11 AM and 3 PM though this hasn’t been my experience.  I tried again a week later and got the same response – no-one here to answer the phone as we’re all in training. And on it goes. Eventually i received a postal form which i sent off about a month ago. No news since then.

Fast forward a few months and I got to vote for the next PM through the Tory Party.  But my Labour membership application is still not confirmed.  Labour HQ gives every impression of being staffed by a volunteer in his garage with an answering machine and no access to a computer.

And sadly, my friends, that is one more reason why we won’t be seeing a Labour government again in my lifetime.  Because if they can’t get this right, then what hope is there for them?  Or indeed for any of us?

Patriotism, hmmmm

As I write, there’s a war in Europe and people are literally dying for their flag.  Sometime soon (sorry Ma’am), we’ll be crowning a new monarch in the UK and the debate about the role of a hereditary monarchy will return.   England recently won the women’s’ European football championship, giving rise to something resembling a national celebration.

The American right, under the banner of MAGA – Make America Great Again – is threatening to return to power at the next elections, both congressional and , subsequently, Presidential.

Patriotism is in the air.

In his twenties, my father had to decide between three jobs – one in America, one in Switzerland and one in Britain.  He chose Britain because he really fancied the job on offer.  That is how I came to be British.  It is literally an accident of birth.

So when people tell me they are proud of Britain or that they are proud to be British, I scratch my head.  At a logical and meaningful level, it makes no sense at all.  They might just as easily be saying they are proud of their brown eyes or their ginger hair and freckles.  If they had happened to be born Chilean, would they be proud of that?  Or Russian?  Identifying with ‘people like me’ may be natural, but is that ‘pride’?  To me it’s more like being a football fan.  It’s about taking sides, recognizing the natural order of ‘us and them’.  Doesn’t really matter what makes us us or them them.

I also find I’m inevitably drawn to the stereotypes which make patriotism hateful.  The England football fans, fighting in the streets, singing about the war.  The American far right with their religious fundamentalist hypocrisy and shameless racism.  So I struggle to treat it with the same dispassionate curiosity as other isms.

Fundamentally, I do believe we have a need to believe in something. It’s almost irrelevant what that something is.  It gives us a community – people like us.  It’s the people we need, and the belonging more than the cause itself.

And the country we were born in is in some ways a natural thing to ‘believe in’ – whatever that means.  It does have a story – literally a history, which makes it rich and complex.  In school, we tend to learn to positive side of that history, ignoring the more shameful or embarrassing parts.

The adult world is such a disappointment

I’m a great admirer of the British political campaign group Led by Donkeys. For a start, they use wit very effectively to expose the hypocrisy of the current British government.  That must be a good thing. Second, they have the best name of any campaign group ever.  It comes from the expression Lions led by donkeys – describing the belief that British soldiers in the First world war (the heroic lions) were sent to their deaths in the thousands by Generals (the donkeys) who were incompetent and indifferent to the slaughter that resulted from their decision.  The analogy with our current political leaders seems excellent.  I have never had such a strong sense that the people in power in Britain are disconnected to and uninterested in ordinary people.

When I was at University, there were a number of notorious drinking and dining societies, largely populated by the privileged few.  Prominent among them was the Bullingdon Club, whose members would famously go out for an evening to the best restaurants in Oxford, get riotously drunk and trash the place, leaving a large pile of cash to pay for the damage.  Depending on how you feel about these things, it’s good harmless fun or the unacceptable face of the class system – or even something in between.  One thing really never occurred to me – that, thirty years later these would be the people running the country. 

Perhaps Lions led by jackasses would be more apt.

But it’s not just the government that has disappointed me.  The sentiment expressed in Led by Donkeys could describe a great deal of my experience of growing up.

When I was growing up, I learned in school how institutions worked, how economics worked and broadly how society was organized.  It was presented as a world that was ordered, sensible.  It was run by competent and knowledgeable people who were trained and experienced and who had the greater good foremost among their goals.  They learned from experience and things improved over time, as our knowledge and understanding progressed.

Then I went to University, travelled a bit, had a career and so on.  The world I experienced was very little like this.  Some of it was a bit like I had imagined – there were clever people in high positions in big businesses.  I had always imagined you had to be smart and also at least reasonably well intentioned to succeed.  But an alarming number of the businesses I worked with were led by charlatans and bullshitters.  And they seemed no less successful than the good guys.  Maybe I was impossibly naive to imagine any different.

I worked in Government for a time and was staggered at what a dirty, backstabbing business it was.  I’m sure people go into politics with good intentions, but what I saw was just cynical and grasping.  We talked a good game about ‘evidence-based government’, but this was the opposite of what actually happened.  It would more accurately be described as getting-back-into-power-at-any-cost-and-shafting-the-other-bugger-based-government.

How else could we have had something as patently wrong as Brexit?

So, over the years, my faith in the people influencing our lives diminished.

And this week it reached a new low. Or should that be a new high?

This is the crowning glory of stupidity in high places.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is a former client of mine.  We worked together on renewable energy policy when it was called the DTI (Department for Trade and Industry).  It was a sensible, grown-up thing.  There were adults who worked there. They wore suits and everything.

At least I thought they were adults.

BEIS has recently announced its plan to bring back the use of imperial measurements. For those of you who live in the post 1980s world, I should explain, that means pounds and ounces, stones etc.

I checked. Nope, it’s not April 1st.

Business Minister, Paul Scully said “While we think of fruit and veg by the pound, the legacy of EU rules means we legally have to sell them by the kilo”.  “Our consultation today will help shops to serve customers in the way their customers want.”

I’d love to know who these customers are. To have been taught about pounds and ounces in school, you’d certainly need to be over the UK state retirement age.

During the 2019 election campaign Boris Johnson (ex-Bullingdon Club) pledged to bring back imperial units, claiming this was restoring an “ancient liberty”

I am still awaiting the imminent announcements on reinstating longbow practise on the village greens of England and removing votes for women and those who do not own property.

Back on Planet Earth, Tory peer and boss of supermarket chain Asda, Lord Rose, talking to Times Radio, said “returning to imperial weights and measures was “complete and utter nonsense”. “I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life. I mean we have got serious problems in the world and we’re saying ‘let’s go backwards'”. “Does anybody in the country under the age of 40 even know how many ounces there are in a pound?”

I do think he’s being unreasonably generous.

Lions led by twats?

The demise of Advertising

In the 70s and 80s, London’s advertising business enjoyed a golden age and was the envy of the world.​  Most people over 40 can remember dozens of famous campaigns that became part of the culture and social history of the time.  We still unthinkingly quote and refer back to old campaigns for Guinness, Carling, Heineken, Yellow Pages, oxo, Persil, VW, Coke, Pepsi, B&H and so on.

In the intervening decades a few things changed – driven by new technology, legislative oversight and competition.

Legislation and regulation addressed some of the financial anomalies. For example the 1987 Pliatsky Report which uncovered malpractices like over-charging for production, to claw back money sacrificed to win competitive pitches with low rates.

There was a massive growth in global competition – first from the US but later from everywhere.

Business culture evolved, with less appetite for risk and greater focus on efficiency and economy.  Less pain, less gain but more certainty. The industry became global and corporate. Boutique shops became the exception as the industry was dominated by massive global players like WPP and Omnicom.

Above all, technology leapt forward, shifting the emphasis from the unreliable world of creativity and ideas to the seemingly more dependable world of targeting and efficiency.  The creative industry became a media targeting industry.

We stopped making memorable campaigns and we started measuring click-through-rates.  For a proper commentary on how digital advertising and marketing has led us to take our eye off the ball, read Mark Ritson on what he calls ‘technoporn‘.

Ironically, advertising is significantly less effective now than it was before the technological revolution. For the evidence of this, read the analyses by Peter Field and Les Binet for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

Advertising is no longer an attractive place for  the most creative people to build a career.  We no longer attract the top talent.  

We no longer lead the world.

We no longer contribute to the culture.

The business imperative and the march of technology took us one step forward and eight steps back.

Dog? Baby? Dog? Baby?…………Dog

In the first year of Covid (are we going to give this year a name like AD or BC?) the number of births recorded in the UK fell by 4% to a record low. The fertility rate stood at 1.58 births per woman. The natural population replacement rate would be 2.1; that’s the figure required to maintain the same population excluding net immigration. So that’s a whopping decline in fertility, with some major implications for the UK’s age profile.

In that same year, the number of UK households owning a dog jumped (down boy) from 23% to 33%.


There is a theory, gaining in popularity, that the world has turned so ugly that that more and more people are simply choosing not to bring children into it. Or, as John Elledge wrote in the New Statesman:

The mystery isn’t why the birth rate is falling – it’s why anyone has kids at all

He notes that that this is also the first time a majority of women remained childless by their 30th birthday. According to Elledge, we’re not having kids because that requires economic security, and we haven’t had that for a generation. Instead the economy has lurched from crisis to crisis.

Having a child requires both money and stability, and for more than a decade now the entire world seems to have been conspiring to deny the under-40s either. Since 2007 this country and its economy has rolled from crisis to crisis: the crash, the recession, austerity, the next recession brought about by austerity, Brexit, the pandemic, another recession (a really big one this time), and now if we’re very lucky maybe we won’t have war in Europe but quite possibly we will. Anyone under 35 has never known the good times.

Others point to climate change and the failure of humankind to create a sustainable ecology for future generations. If our grandchildren are going to inherit a dying planet, maybe we’re irresponsible to have children at all.

Then again I’ve heard commentators citing the way the western world has turned away from the prevailing liberal tradition, electing a succession of despots, fanatics and bigots as our leaders. Corruption, nepotism, cronyism and extreme inequality look set to become the norm. It’s only a matter of time, they say, until we’re back to the law of the jungle. Do you want that for your kids?

You can see why playing happy families may not be top of the agenda for lots of folks right now.

Instead, it appears, they are getting a dog.

Of course, I’m just messing with you. This is one of those classic statistical quirks, that we love to over-analyse and turn into a spurious conclusion.

In truth, fertility rates have been declining steadily for decades. The UK rate fell in all of the last 5 years and has declined by 16% since 2012.

Incidentally that’s also why immigration is so essential to maintain a sustainable dependancy ratio, but le’s not go into that right now.

The jump in dog ownership is a short term spike. Between 2012 and 2019, dog ownership was pretty steady around 9 million. In 2019 it leapt to 12.5 million. It seems reasonable to conclude this is a Covid effect.

This doesn’t mean the world isn’t a terrible place, or that bringing babies into it isn’t foolhardy.

Or that getting a dog isn’t the answer.

We’ll just have to work that out for ourselves.