From our ‘Fun and Games in Central America’ Department

Delighted to see an example of real leadership in action.  Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela announced overnight, on twitter, that there would be a National Holiday, following the country’s unexpected qualification for the 2018 World Cup.

I suspect he may have been drunk.  Which makes it even better.

VarelaCan you imagine one of the stuffed shirts that pass for leaders in Britain doing that?


Be careful what you wish for

I am irrationally irritated by the expression: ‘what gets measured gets managed.’  Not because it’s untrue, rather because it opens a can of worms which demands a less banal label.  A more apt form of words might be something like ‘what gets measured will become a bizarre new religion trumping everything else, however important’.  Or maybe ‘what gets set as a goal will send you off down the garden path’.

When businesses set objectives, it acts as a signal for what matters most.  So, in my business, if our goal is to win creative awards, we’ll prioritise the best creative opportunities.  It has implications for which projects we spend most time on, how boldly we present ideas, how we judge those ideas and so on.  That’s right, because it gives us the best chance of achieving what we set out to do.  So far so good.

This being the case, we need to be sure that the goals we set are expressed in a way that does actually bring about the outcome we want.  We talk about objectives being SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound).  This is important because most aren’t; they’re woolly, vague and a bit meaningless.

I had a colleague in a Government Department who expressed the perfect SMART objectives as : “On Fridays, I always aim to leave the office by 5PM.” Nice.

The bit that’s often underplayed is the ‘relevant’ part.  Because that’s where it can all go horribly wrong.  Let me give a couple of examples.

The NHS wanted to offer better health care and one of the biggest problems they faced was that waiting lists were growing alarmingly for routine operations.  So they set explicit goals for Hospitals to reduce waiting lists.  There was no extra resource – no more beds, no more nurses, Doctors or wards.  So it was a mystery as to how the lists could be reduced when an increasing number of people (ageing population, you see) were in need of more and more operations from the same facilities.  The only way to achieve the goal was to be ‘creative’.  So the hospital administrators prevented sick people from joining the waiting lists.  Genius.  So the well-meaning objective manages to provide a worse health service.  Some people call that ‘The law of unintended consequences’.  I call it not thinking through the objective.  The stated goal wasn’t the real goal.  It failed the ‘relevance’ test.

It happened again recently.  Schools in England are judged on league tables based on exam results.  This is how parents are instructed to choose their children’ school, so it is a major influence on the school’s income.  Schools have to compete for the brightest students who will achieve the highest exam scores.  But they are not allowed to be selective in their intake.  So how can they improve their standing in the league tables?  Here’s how:


It turns out Sixth forms all over the country – not just St Olaf’s, the school featured in the news story – were habitually weeding out weaker pupils half way through their course to maximise the school’s exam results.  Great plan.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, for many years, nothing.  except for the poor students, ditched half way through their studies, with no school and no chance of joining a new course.  Their only option was to go back and start again, losing a year of studies.  These weren’t the ‘no-hopers’ you might be imagining.  These were most of the students who didn’t achieve a Grade B in their end of year exams.

The politicians who created the framework of incentives and league tables might perhaps ask the question: Is this a system which promotes the best outcomes for students?  I recently came across a fifteen year old student who was made to do an extra five GCSE exams, on top of the normal ten, because his results (being predicted as better than average) would boost the school’s average results.  Great for the school.  Terrible for the student.  Unintended consequences indeed.  He significantly under-achieved as a result.

These are public sector examples, so the results are clear to see and news-worthy enough to make headlines.  In the private sector this sort of thing is happening all the time; we just don’t see it.  Like businesses that set quarterly revenue targets which everyone strives to achieve – at the expense of delivering a profit.  Or on a bigger scale, any kind of short-term deliverables delivered at the expense of longer term sustainability.

What gets measured does, indeed get managed, whether it’s relevant or not.  So we better make sure it’s the right thing.

……Ooh ooh, stop press, PS, extra extra:

I just discovered there’s a name for this (thanks to Dave Trott and his blog).  It’s called Goodhart’s Law:

As Trott says: Goodhart’s law should be pinned up in our offices:

“When a measurement becomes a target it ceases to be a good measurement.”


Fake news and evidence-based policy

Two much-used buzz words of our age.

If you ever wondered whether the ‘fake news’ phenomenon was just hype, today’s newspapers should reassure you that you have every reason to be concerned.

It’s in every news outlet (which, needless to say, doesn’t guarantee it’s true) – the UK Government has been exposed, using dodgy figures to bolster its position on immigration.  The Home Office previously estimated there were 100,000 foreign students a year staying on in Britain illegally – but new data from the Office of National Statistics says there were only 4,600 last year.

“We spent five years trying to persuade the Home Office that the figures they were using as evidence were bogus,” said the Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, who was part of the coalition under David Cameron. “But they persisted nonetheless on the basis of these phoney numbers.”

We know how this happened.  The government was under pressure from UKIP and felt they needed to be tougher on immigration.  So pluck a figure from the air and ‘hey presto’ we’re as tough as they are.  You have to laugh.  The evidence is the servant of the policy, not the other way around.  It’s like the police searching single-mindedly for the evidence to convict the guy they’ve already decided is guilty.  Evidence-based policy.

So now we know they just make shit up on this subject, how confident are we about the evidence base for other policies?

‘£350 million extra for the NHS’ anyone?

Be very afraid.

The purpose of ‘purpose’

There’s an endless debate going on about ‘Brands with Purpose’ and I can’t help adding to it, even though a lot of the coverage is profoundly annoying.  A rare voice of sense on the subject is Nigel Hollis’s blog for research company Millward Brown.  In a recent post he addresses the seemingly gratuitous nature of many recent award-winning case studies.  This year’s Cannes Festival was awash with celebrated campaigns which are very beautiful and which address crucial social problems but appear to have nothing to do with marketing, or indeed business.  These include the Grand Prix winner ‘Fearless Girl‘, a statue created by McCann for State Street Global Advisors (who?) designed to help inspire more women to leadership positions.


The problem (or one of many problems) with this is that nobody knows who the brand is responsible for this work so it can’t yield the brand any benefit.  That’s fine if it’s an act of philanthropy, but it’s not – or if it is then why is it entered into awards for excellence in marketing communications?

Hollis says purpose-led campaigns can deliver a good ROI provided they follow three basic principles:

  1. Identify how the campaign will help the brand make more money.
  2. Address a tension or issue meaningful to the target audience.
  3. Ensure the purpose fits what the brand can/does stand for and offers opportunity to differentiate.

This seems enormously sensible to me.  What’s more, it gives me an irresistible desire to recount the story of an early, largely unsung precursor to these campaigns.

In the early 90s, Texaco was struggling to compete with the more established brands, particularly BP and Shell, who were part of the British way of life, whereas Texaco had the image of ‘A visiting American’.  The new Chairman dismissed the proposed retail campaign and demanded the agency create something that put Texaco on the map.  Desperate to impress, the two sister agencies DMB&B and IMP created a wonderful campaign ‘Children Should be Seen and Not Hurt’.

The company gave away, free reflective and fluorescent stickers from their forecourts.

Hollis’s principles could hardly be more apposite:

It made money because it attracted people to the retail site and a proportion inevitably took the opportunity to make a purchase.  For some it even sparked the habit of using that forecourt regularly.  It also addressed Texaco’s corporate reputation issue in that it presented them as ‘part of the fabric of society’ as the Chairman had prescribed.

It addressed a meaningful issue – road casualties among children was (and is) a hot topic and enormously emotive.  Research by the road safety laboratories showed that improving conspicuity (visibility) was the best way to reduce the number of accidents, which was in turn the best way to reduce casualties.

It was relevant to the brand because – as research indicated – people saw fuel retailers as ‘part of the problem’ along with car manufacturers and road administrators.

Research also showed how, even all those years ago, there was a very grown up response to this kind of initiative.  It was clearly ‘marketing’ because it invited you to go to a forecourt.  But it was also clearly ‘doing good’ because it was giving away free materials which might save a life.  The net effect on the brand was positive because on balance, even to the cynics, it was a n initiative that you wanted to succeed.  That’s the bit that seems to be missing in much of the more gratuitous, modern award-winning ‘purpose’ work.

We didn’t call it ‘purpose’ in those days, we called it marketing.  So next time you tell your friends what a good idea Volvo’s ‘Life Paint’ is, remember, Texaco did it first.

It’s a real Brahma mate

There’s a theory emerging that we’re beginning to see a backlash against the tech that’s coming to dominate our lives.  There are a few ads floating around that poke fun at our obsession with gadgets or with streaming.  Not sure I agree, after all, any kind of excessive behaviour is up for a bit of debunking, and there’s plenty of tech-driven madness to pick from.  However, I do like this ad for Ozzie beer brand Brahma.

I believe the expression “a real Brahma” means something like “The Daddy” or “The dog’s b**ll**cks”. Not entirely inappropriate.

Another great green smokescreen

Lat week the British government, love them, announced they would ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040.  On the face of it, that could be the most important headline around the environment in decades.  And so it is.  A very important headline.

I’ll just make two observations:

First – it’s obviously total bollocks. It’s hard to imagine a more cynical measure intended to deflect the public’s attention from the authorities’ abandonment of every green promise they have ever made.

For starters, the announcement was made in the same week the UK government failed, once again to meet its EU targets on pollution.  Funny; no headlines about that.

And it comes a week after the same government cancelled the electrification of three rail lines – so the trains in large parts of Wales, the Midlands and the Lake District will be running not on electricity but, taste the irony, on diesel.

But for the real story of our green government you have to look at pricing.  That’s where – through duty and tax – government has the biggest direct influence.  Over recent years  people have been priced out of public transport and back into their cars.

According to Caroline Lucas (Green Party) writing in The Guardian: To get a real sense of the transport priorities of recent governments it’s worth considering how the cost of getting around has changed. While the real price of travelling by car has plummeted by 16% since 1997, train fares are up 23%, and coaches and buses up 33%. Shockingly, the real cost of domestic flights dropped 16% between 2010 and 2015 too.

So far, so predictably short-term and manipulative.It’s entirely predictable.

Second – it’s an interesting example of what behavioural economists talk about as the immediacy effect or temporal discounting. When the argument for greener energy was focused on climate change – an idea so ‘long-term’ in nature most of us will be dead before it’s really important – the policy response was negligible.  There are no votes in a policy that will be hugely important a hundred years from now.  But now we’re talking about pollution today, here and now in our cities, that’s a different matter.  There could be votes in clean air today where there were none in saving the planet next century.

So we may get some more telling headlines.  Who knows, one day we may even get some policies.  But we’re still doomed.

Brilliant or complete coincidence?

This is the new advertisement for the VW hybrid (yes, well done, but that’s something Toyota have been doing for twenty years, so let’s not get over-excited about the news value here).

We all love a good villain, but the question is this: are VW acknowledging that, after the emissions scandal, they are (or were) Public Enemy no.1 and playing a delightfully mischievous game around that?  Or is it just a coincidence?  I like to think it’s a wonderful piece of self-deprecation.  And if that’s the case, I’ll forgive them for being so close to the idea Jaguar used recently.