Why I have not blogged about IWD this year. (It isn’t because of Covid19)

March 31st, 2020

Group of different ethnicities people standing for equal rights and justice.

International Women’s Day is a very important milestone in the year.  And this year the executive director of the United Nations Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has said that this is a massive year for gender equality.

On the days around the official date I am reminded of the issues that women face worldwide.  That for many women in the world problems about equality in business are very low on the scale of their worries.  Millions of girls worldwide do not have the equal right to education.  Many women do not have the right to work outside the home.  And violence against women and girls is one of the slowest of the UN’s Millennial goals in terms of progress.  It affects one in three women worldwide.

Violence against women and girls of course is also a problem in the so called first world, in the “WEIRD” nations (Western, Educated, Internet enabled, Rich and Democratic), everywhere in the UK, possibly affecting someone you work with.

When we talk about gender inequality at work, we usually don’t mean violence.  And that is good, but the unrelenting prevalence of violence outside the workplace highlights how much there still is to do for women and girls to feel safe.

According to government statistics in the UK, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse and 1 in 5 sexual assault during her lifetime.

The Crime Survey of England and Wales estimates 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, equivalent to an estimated 3.4 million female victims and 631,000 male victims.  An estimated 3.1% of women (510,000) and 0.8% of men (138,000) aged 16-59 experienced sexual assault in the last year.

So the first reason that I am not writing about equality for women in the workplace this IWD is because I think it is important to highlight that we should be thinking beyond the inequalities of the workplace.

The second reason is inclusiveness.

Much of the publicity that is generated at this time of year is focused on what men are still getting wrong at work.  There’s new, and undoubtedly valuable research into what men and women find acceptable at work from King’s College London.  Headlines include the finding that one in ten men think that it is OK to display material of a sexual nature at work.   Hideous.  These headlines will make many good men shudder with the association and indeed feel either guilty on behalf of men they haven’t even met or condemned by their gender.

For my next book I (and my co-authors) have been interviewing lots of them.  They refer frequently to feeling as though there’s a “witch hunt” or that being a straight white man is being part of an endangered species.  (It’s worth pointing out that there isn’t and it isn’t of course.  The victims of the actual witch hunts were those who didn’t fit contemporary gender norms and often were middle aged women who wouldn’t conform).

Whilst some of you might not have much sympathy for those who can be characterised as “male, pale and stale”, or a “diversity disaster zone” (as the awesome Richard Huntingdon puts it), there are many men in the workplace who might look like they’re riding high but in fact are not.

There are many who feel displaced or who don’t fit or don’t approve of patriarchal masculine norms.  The under 25s, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, BAME, GBTQ+, with disabilities, with neurodiversity, with mental health issues.  Feminists of every gender.

The final reason for not blogging on IWD is that there were a multitude of great points of view including this one from Shelly Zalis on the role men can play in driving equality in the workplace.

his is not a time for more divisions, for finger pointing.  It is a time for inclusiveness.

IWD’s theme this year is each for equal.  It should, and must go both ways, indeed every, way.



Transformation: don’t expect a prince every time

March 17th, 2020

We’re all enormously influenced by the stories we heard as children, even as adults. Psychological theory states that we are, perhaps, more influenced by the stories that we have forgotten, than the ones that we remember; more in thrall to our unconscious, the stories from our very earliest years, than from the myths and tales that we can remember and perhaps discount.

In 2010 there was an increase in girls under the age of 10 being taken to hospital for salmonella after the release of the film The Princess and The Frog led to children kissing frogs in the USA.
(Not only did the children get ill from this incident, there were absolutely no princes reported.)

The old story tells of the transformation of a frog into a prince as the kiss of the princess undoes the curse of a wicked witch. The children who became sick would have learnt a lesson about transformation that will useful in later life. There are no guarantees, there is little certainty. Your best efforts might deliver a prince. Probably they may only deliver a slightly moist frog.

Every business is undergoing disruption. Even the disruptors from the last two decades now fear disruption. It is crucial to have a transformation programme that gets ahead of the consequences of change – change in consumers, tech and competition.

Consumers’ expectations keep growing, so it isn’t possible to stick with traditional practices. Jeff Bezos famously says that Amazon’s role is to serve the beautifully dissatisfied customer. Everyone’s expectation of customer service is now as high as their best ever customer service experience. Even if it is in a different sector. Can your business transform and give the customer more than they currently expect before someone else does?

Business models that have relied on heritage revenue that has been in decline need to embrace trying new models of growing their income. Relying on cuts to protect the bottom line is short term. Every business needs a transformation workstream that looks for and commits to innovation for growth.

Media habits are continuing to change quickly, and the norms for the under 25s are vastly different to their elders as the new IPA Touchpoints survey illustrates. It is not enough to hope that change will stabilize. Media planning must protect the brand’s saliency amongst this cohort for the future.

With transformation comes some uncertainty. More than some people want to have to deal with. It means trying out new things before you know the outcomes. Being agile and flexible in the business plan. This can be hard, especially for those who don’t like change.

One way to deal with this discomfort is to understand that some of the desire for a certain happy ending comes from our childhood influences. Everyone is influenced by the stories that they heard as children. In “The Loudest Duck, moving beyond diversity while embracing differences” Laura Liswood explains that many of our deepest beliefs come from early years, and from our families. She suggests that a time comes however when we all need to “tell grandmother to go home”.

We all take our unconscious selves to the workplace, bringing beliefs, perceptions, understandings, misunderstandings and importantly archetypes, or indeed stereotypes, of other people, based often on very deep rooted, even ancient, understandings picked up from our parents and grandparents. So there remains an expectation that if we kiss the frog it will transform into a prince. That a bloke on a white horse will ride up and slay the dragon. That whatever the difficulties, it will all end happily ever after. That the superhero will win the day and make right what is wrong.

Transformation isn’t this simple. Change is necessary. It can be clear what we need to change from. The specific outcomes that you will get are sometimes less clear. If you’re waiting to press go on transformation until you have the from/to nailed then you will probably be waiting while your competition over takes you and a disrupter takes your business model from under you. Life isn’t like fairy tales and childhood myths.


Grit: more essential now than ever.

March 2nd, 2020

swimIt’s the essential ingredient for success in the 2020s.  Grit is, for me, what makes watching top sports professionals so fascinating.  Often, they will have had very similar training and coaching programmes.  The technology that they use is mandated to be similar.  (There are sometimes exceptions when the rules of the sport are challenged by new tech.  Remember in 2008 when new swimsuits made from polyurethane led to over 200 world records being broken in months.  In 2010 the suits were banned.)  If the rules aren’t changed as in this example then anyway the benefit of the new tech soon becomes equalized as all major players get equivalent technology.  So the real excitement is seeing two equally balanced players or teams facing off at the top of their game.  The win comes from passion, talent, training and above all from Grit.

Grit is perseverance in the face of whatever life, your opponent and the business world throws at you.  Grit means resilience against adversity and an endless drive to improve.

As tech is equalized across our industry in the 20s in media owners and agencies with resource and scale then Grit will become the differentiator in terms of success.

Grit and talent don’t necessarily grow together.  Both can and must be nurtured.

First of all, Grit needs to be demonstrated from the top of the company.  Good leadership is a gritty business.  Single-minded focus on what needs to be achieved and a clear understanding of how to get there are crucial.  If any leader flip flops about decisions, or seems to flinch in tough times then this doesn’t help. Grit doesn’t mean getting there at all costs.  It means finding how to get there and still take everyone with you.  Leaving no-one behind and bringing out the best throughout the team.  And in turn with their own passion for a good outcome leaders with Grit will inspire everyone to fulfil their best potential.

Having said this, it is a good idea to hire people with Grit into your team in the first place.  It isn’t necessarily obvious in a job interview how gritty the candidate is.  Their cv will talk about their triumphs, not their grit.  So asking questions about sticking with situations that are difficult rather than quitting and encouraging stories about overcoming crisis can demonstrate people’s bounce back-ability.

A growth mindset is crucial too.  Setbacks provide the best opportunity to acquire Grit.  Does the head of your team ever tell you what mistakes they’ve made?  Clearly no-one wants someone who constantly gets things wrong in charge of the business, but creating a culture where people admit that they aren’t perfect and acknowledge the learning process is important.

Burying mistakes means no-one learns from them.  Sharing what went wrong, owning the error and the lessons learnt, helps everyone progress.

When  Alex Ferguson considered which players he’d introduce from the more junior teams into the top team he would play the candidate a video of their own role in a match, of something going wrong – possession lost or a goal scored by the opposing team – and ask them to talk through it.  There were two kinds of responses.  Those players who explained at length how everyone else was at fault: hadn’t been there to have the ball passed to them, had failed to defend properly.  And those who took responsibility for the error, and explained what they had learned from it, and embraced the loss to motivate future gains.  These second contingent were Ferguson’s future stars.  They showed Grit.

Make sure whatever else you introduce in 2020 you ensure a good amount of Grit.



They’re coming and they’re alive!

February 18th, 2020

WALL-E. SADNESS“The cuteness of robots may make us lower our guard and forget questions of privacy and security”.

This warning comes from Cherie Lacey, writing in Cosmo back in 2017.  Your day to day interactions with robots may be different to mine, but I wouldn’t characterise them as super cute.

In fact, individuals, who are leading how tech is transforming our industry, seem frequently to have a recurring question about the balance between the speed and efficiency that tech promises and the workload that it creates now to put it in place.

This is in big contrast with the machine robot revolution that liberated millions of women from their household chores last century.  Whilst the current gen of robots are seemingly making more work for individuals or shifting the balance of who does the work (after all phone banking means that you do the work instead of a bank teller), the introduction of the vacuum cleaner and washing machine meant significant time saved at home which allowed huge change in women’s lives.

In 1900, the average household spent 58 hours a week on housework, including meal preparation, laundry, and cleaning—a figure that dropped to 18 hours in 1975.  A US housewife, Mrs Verrett, reported to one survey that her washing took her 4 hours to wash by hand. With her new washing machine this transformed to 41 minutes.  Without the machine she walked 3,181 feet to do the washing versus 332 feet with the machine.  In 1920, an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal entitled “Making Housekeeping Automatic” claimed that appliances could save a four-person family 18.5 hours a week in housework.

This machine revolution freed up women to take jobs outside the home and boosted the economy, with more leisure time and more disposable income to spend on it.

One question this poses is: When the robot revolution frees up media people what will they spend their time on?

Planning for this is an essential part of any business in our sector’s transformation agenda.  This isn’t just about getting the robots working.  It is about how to leverage the benefits across the whole agency.

The second issue that Lacey’s comment raises is privacy and confidentiality.  Security of data is the business of media agencies, and managing this is our trade.  In life outside the walls of agencies though robots are getting smaller and cleverer, and yes they are coming alive.

To date, despite huge differences between the robots of science fiction and the robots in our offices, there has been one firm similarity as The Economist pointed out in January.  They are mechanical, built from metal and plastic and stuffed with electronics.

This won’t be the case in future.  A team at the University of Vermont and Tufts University have designed organic robots from biological cells.  Just a millimetre in size these xenobots can move and perform simple tasks.  They are capable of behaving autonomously and might be capable of reproducing themselves.  Currently they have short lives, a couple of weeks at most, and they can’t nourish themselves, but all of this is open to experimentation, and may need regulation, as it raises the possibility of “escapees establishing themselves in the wild”.

Super cute robots sound joyful in comparison to this.




How to be happy

February 4th, 2020

happy dancersAdvertising makes people unhappy.

This news comes from Professor Oswald of the University of Warwick who asserts that the higher ad spend is the more miserable people become.

He says this is because ads make us want what we don’t or can’t have and comments: “The idea is a very old one: Before I can decide how happy I am, I have to look over my shoulder, consciously or subconsciously, and see how other people are doing”.  So status anxiety is to blame, status anxiety which we know is an innate human drive.

Oswald and his team compared life satisfaction data of over 900k European citizens in 27 countries with ad spend  from 1980 to  2011 and found an inverse connection ie as ad spend grew, satisfaction declined.

Is this another condemnation of our industry?

Does this make the ad industry the enemy?

Or is there something more profound to read into this survey’s results?

Ad spend follows consumption.  Arguably as citizens of a country have an increase in disposable income their problem list changes – it moves from worrying about whether they are safe on the street, and violence, to worrying about who has the best phone, car, shoes, watch.

The problems ascend Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

On the one hand then, maybe if you’re unhappy about whether you have all the things you see advertised, it’s a lot better than being unhappy about your physical safety or whether you have enough to eat or a whether what you say will get you arrested.

Happiness is an elusive emotion.  You’ll be happy if you do not want what you do not have, as Sinead O’Connor once sang, but ensuring psychological calm is not the role of advertising, however angsty agency people might get around purpose.  (Seekers instead must refer to art, music, literature, religion, self help and spirituality.)

This survey then, which features in the thought leading HBR, should not be a trigger of more outrage about our profession.  It’s a description what happens when human nature gets to develop in comfort, rather than in conditions of stress.  Just as any contented sibling soon learns to want exactly the toy that their sibling is playing with, or only to want to sit in the buggy if it is already occupied by another child, the yearning that can be stimulated by advertising is simply unavoidable.

We cannot take responsibility for the happiness of nations, but we can take responsibility to ensure that our advertising appeals to the better side of human nature.  We can combine purpose with commerce as many best practice case studies have revealed.  When Skittles removed the rainbow from their packaging, they sold more product and raised awareness of Pride.  When Lloyds created a programme about better communications in the family unit about money they solved a painful dilemma as well as improving saliency.

Media strategy is our responsibility too, we must ensure that chasing audience numbers is not done through bombardment or from appealing to the worst of human instincts.

And if we want to be happy in 2020, then we need to focus on what is most important.