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Remember when acid rain was the poster child of environmental damage? Along with the hole in the ozone layer it seems almost quaint now in the context of climate change.

Time does that. Time is less of a healer and more of a tough-loving mother who gives you something to cry about if she feels you are sniveling over trivia.

Remember when the F-Plan diet was the darling of the slimming community? Remember, for that matter, when slimmers and slimming were the weight-watching nouns du jour? Who calls themselves a slimmer these days?

In the 80’s, the obsession with dietary fibre became such a cliché that Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones made a sketch about it. Sprinkle a  “li’l bit of bran” on any nutritional nightmare and suddenly it would be ok again. (The bran section starts at about 1:25.)

 

 

“You can eat what you like but you’ve got to have some bran on it.”

 

Workshops are a bit like that. They have become the F-Plan diet of business. People use them like a magic sponge.

You name it, a workshop will sort it. Such is the almighty nature of the humble workshop that we have witnessed workshop ascension, from noun to verb.

Strategic impasse? Let’s workshop it.

Tricky creative brief? Let’s workshop it.

Can’t be arsed doing the brand plan ourselves? Let’s get the agencies in and workshop it.

Need something in a hurry that takes time to do well? Workshop it.

Content calendar? Workshop.

The next action’s workshop, now what’s the objective?

If two heads are better than one, eight heads must be awesome right? Wrong. Workshops are unfit for certain purposes and many hands can make expensive, mediocre work.

You’ve got a knotty problem and you think you can workshop (v.) the shit out of that baby. The trouble is that, as often as not, you workshop the shit in rather than out. Because they get used for everything, workshops get used for the wrong things a lot of the time.

Workshops are a good environment for a new team to get to know each other, as long as the task at hand is appropriate to the format. Workshops are fine for defining a problem, prioritising issues and achieving consensus. Workshops are fine for doing high volume, low concept work quickly; thrashing your way through an extensive list of user stories for instance.

But workshops are poor at delivering high concept solutions requiring creative thinking. Solutionising and ideation are the feeble progeny of inbred workshop thinking. Unfortunately it is precisely because this kind of work is difficult that it becomes the objective too many workshops.

As with the F-Plan diet it is human nature to seek easy, low-effort solutions to difficult problems. We want to believe that losing weight is as easy as sprinkling a bit of bran onto everything. We want to believe that making progress is as easy as sprinkling some workshops into the project plan. Sadly it isn’t if making progress involves heavy lifting like strategy, vision, original thought, or creativity.

Because they do have their uses workshops don’t deserve the same ignominy that seems to attach to brainstorming these days. But they should be used more sparingly and with a greater degree of consideration.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 21.26.49

A li’l bit of bran.

 

 

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The C-Suite Shudder

I don’t have a problem with C-words in job titles, even though there are too many Chiefs these days. You can be the Chief of pretty much anything it seems.

CEO, CFO, CIO, CMO, COO, CRO, CSO, CTO, C3PO.

But I shudder inside when I hear the C-phrase. I get that C-Suite shudder.

The C-Suite Shudder sounds like the Wall Street Shuffle‘s poor relation. In some ways it is. They share the same have and have-not vibe. The same repugnant, loftier than thou sense of entitlement.

(Dow Jones ain’t got time for the bums.)

My C-Suite Shudder is the physical manifestation of a visceral aversion; an indelible, subconscious reflex reaction stemming from a bad formative experience.

When I was a baby at BBH we pitched for Hoover. It might even have been my first pitch. Those were the days when white goods were blue chip in the eyes of the ad industry. The Hoover brand will have been diminished by Zanussi and its Appliance Of Science. It will have been the hapless victim of non-consensual repositioning at the hands of an aggressive challenger.

We lost the pitch. I have no recollection of what we said.

My abiding memory is of the trip.

We pitched at Hoover’s offices, above Hoover’s factory, in Merthyr Tydfil.

I have no recollection of the journey from London to Wales.

I do recall the trip.

We walked through a soul-sapping, open-plan, 1970’s time capsule, full of downtrodden middle management pen-pushers, to get to the room in which we would be presenting. The room was on the top floor, the executive offices, and I tripped on the thick pile of the carpet as we crossed the threshold from one world to another. Yes, I tripped on the carpet. The top floor was as plush as the layer below was spartan. The Hoover senior management literally did live in a suite.

I remember a strong sense of wrong at the pronounced separation, so pronounced as to be a deliberate us-and-them statement. Hoover didn’t have a corporate ladder, it had a caste system.

I’m pretty sure I remember John Bartle getting quite angry about the brazen, I’m-alright-Jack obliviousness on the way back. The Hoover business wasn’t in great shape and there were factory lay-offs not long after the pitch.

Ever since that layer-cake of a visit – factory floor, open-plan misery, luxurious management offices – the C-Suite phrase makes me think of penthouse style executive accommodation. It calls to mind a kind of corporate apartheid that is a sure sign of cultural bankruptcy.

So by all means be a Chief. But remember that respect goes to the person rather than the title.

And don’t house yourself in an ivory tower. Don’t join that Experian-style management segment of C-Suite Smuggers.

Shudder!

 

Hoover C-Suite, Class of '48.

Hoover C-Suite, Class of ’48.

 

 

 

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Pete Townshend stole his trademark arm swing from Keith Richards. And Andrew Oldham cut the Rolling Stones from six members to five, not for an musical reasons, but to improve their aesthetic and their memorability.

Here are three extraordinary passages from an extraordinary book; Stoned by Andrew Loog Oldham.

Firstly Pete Townshend:

 

Keith went out swinging his arm to limber up as he went on and I thought it was his trademark, so I just stole it. I was such a fan I stole it. We played with them again about two weeks later in Forest Gate and he didn’t do it. I went up to him and I said, ‘What happened to the arm swinging?’ He said, ‘What arm swinging?’ I said, ‘The arm swinging!’ He said, ‘I don’t swing me arm!’ – so I had it , but it came from him.

 

townshend_arm_swing

Genius steals. The Who’s Pete Townshend stole “his” arm swing from The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards.

 

And here is Andrew Oldham, the book’s author and the brash, brazen, nineteen year old upstart who managed and, to a certain extent, made The Rolling Stones:

 

I told Brian and Mick that it was okay for Ian Stewart to appear on records and do live radio, but their ivory thumper could not be seen in photos or on TV. I compounded the cruelty, adding that he was ugly and spoiled the ‘look’ of the group. Plus I was convinced that six members in a group was at least one too many. The public would not be able to remember, much less care, who the individual members of a six-piece band were. For me, six was not synonymous with success or stardom. Five was pushing it, six was impossible. People worked nine to five, and they couldn’t be expected to remember more than four faces. ‘This is entertainment, not a memory test,’ I concluded.

Andrew Loog Oldham with Mick Jagger.

Andrew Loog Oldham with Mick Jagger.

 

You can’t fault him for attention to detail. Here he is again talking about why he insisted on changing the band’s name from The Rollin’ to The Rolling Stones:

 

I met with Mick and Brian and told them that from now on, they were “the Rolling Stones”. I’d informed Decca that Rollin’ was gone: they were not an abbreviation, they were not slang. I said, ‘How can you expect people to take you seriously when you can’t even be bothered to spell your name properly? You’ve taken away the authority of the group.’

One of my favourite books on branding is The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. It is a short, plain speaking, practical read. You can pretty much read the whole thing on a flight between London and Edinburgh.

He talks about the hallmarks of Charismatic Brands, brands for which people perceive there is no substitute. One of these characteristics is “a dedication to aesthetics”:

 

Why aesthetics? Because it’s the language of feeling and, in a society that’s information rich and time poor, people value feeling more than information.

Some people need to get this from a book. Some people, evidently, just get it.

 

 

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My career in advertising was mainly spent erecting credible facades on behalf of my clients.

That sounds like a disparaging comment from a jaded ad-hack. But there is no disparaging intent behind the statement. It is what the industry mostly does.

We search for compelling truths about brands and bring them to life through commercial creativity.

Compelling truths lend credibility to brands and to our work. They provide a solid foundation for the creative facades we then construct.

I use the word facade advisedly.

Although the best advertising tells the truth, it does not tell the whole truth. Like make-up it is used to emphasise the most attractive aspects of a brand and to draw attention away from the blemishes. Most often it is a facade, albeit a credible one.

Most often but not always.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions when the campaigns I have worked on have told the whole truth, or something very close to it. I’m talking about those rare occasions where a public-facing brand is a genuine reflection of the corporate culture that lies behind it; where the tone of voice of the advertising is a very close approximation to the tone in which business is conducted with the people who pay for it.

For example, none of the Honda advertising I worked on, all under the banner of The Power Of Dreams, was a facade. Honda is a company of dreamers.

When you work with brands like that you realise, first hand, the truth behind the statement that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

Honda et al are the wonderful exceptions.

Credible facades are the rule. And, as a rule, there is nothing wrong with that. It is a noble, professional matter of fact.

If only people in the business weren’t so concerned and obsessed with erecting facades of credibility.

There is nothing noble about a facade of credibility.

There is nothing noble about pretending to be more talented, more knowledgeable or better connected than you actually are.

But my perception is that this kind of behaviour, by which the perpetrators only end up cheating themselves (I sound like my mum), is on the rise.

There are linguistic facades. People who should know better hiding behind pseudo-professional claptrap like “solutionising”, “ideation”, “engagement” and “ecosystem”.

And there are technology-driven social facades like paying to boost follower numbers or gaming (and thereby devaluing) the recommend/endorse features on LinkedIn.

It’s all so brazen and unsubtle, but somehow all-pervasive nonetheless.

I hope that the flipside of this trend to shallowness is that emotional intelligence and depth of character will start to command a premium.

Candour and vulnerability will eat facades of credibility for breakfast.

Here, by way of shining example, is Kobe Bryant talking about his moment of epiphany when he realised the importance of compassion and empathy to great leadership.

kobe_bryant

I was talking to Heather LeFevre the other day about the traits required for a fruitful mentor/mentee relationship. She cited the courage to be vulnerable, in a world where we increasingly live behind facades of credibility, strength, happiness, success, as the most important of these.

Amen.

 

 

 

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Clap traps

Claptrap is another word for nonsense.

It is derived, not surprisingly, from the words clap and trap. It is a trap set to draw you into applause when none is warranted.

A clap trap lures you into being impressed when you really shouldn’t be.

A clap trap is an ideological smoke and mirrors trick. Lots of oohs and aahs, but no real magic.

According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, claptrap’s use in common parlance peaked in 1938 before declining steadily to the end of the 20th Century. It held steady from 2000 to 2008, which is as recent as the data gets.

 

Use of "claptrap".

Use of “claptrap” from 1800 to 2008.

 

Whilst the use of the word “claptrap” has declined, it feels like the use of clap traps is on the rise.

The use of language which is meant to sound impressive, but which really isn’t, is on the rise.

Ideation is a clap trap.

“We held a series of ideation sessions,” is meant to sound more impressive than, “We talked about it and thought about it for a while.”

It isn’t.

Architecting is a clap trap.

“We architected a solution,” is meant to sound more impressive than, “We came up with an idea.”

It isn’t.

These phrases are a used as a cloak shield, masking an inferiority complex, in an attempt to mean business. But they have no business meaning at all.

Solutionising is a clap trap.

Engagement is a clap trap.

Growth hacking is a clap trap.

Brand ecosystem is a clap trap.

The world of marketing has gone clap trap crazy.

We set them and we fall into them with equal abandon. We effortlessly switch roles from happy trappers to happy clappers and back again. Clap trapping happens in the round.

 

The people outside looked from trapper to clapper, and from clapper to trapper, and from trapper to clapper again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

(Apologies to George Orwell.)

There is a clap trap conspiracy in which we are all, to varying degrees, complicit.

Clap traps are seductive. Everyone is using them, so using them is how you get taken seriously, right?

Clap traps are contagious. They are truly viral and they would be a marketing industry success in that respect, were it not for the fact that the marketing industry has only succeeded in infecting itself.

Witness this claptrap from Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy. It is a masterclass in clap trap obfuscation.

Here and there he makes some valid observations and shares some interesting ideas. But he undermines his own credibility with speech writing which is the clap trap equivalent of carpet bombing.

As Gareth Kay said, it was this kind of nonsense, this kind of claptrap, that made him leave the ad industry.

It is sad and it is ridiculous.

 

 

Comments are disabled for this video.

 

 

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You learn a thing or two as the managing director of an advertising agency.

Like what makes a good agency tick.

Like what motivates good people.

Like how it feels when the agency’s heart is in the right place.

I was fortunate enough to be given temporary stewardship of such an agency for six years of my career.

The agency in question was a bona fide challenger shop. It was based in Edinburgh but regularly won pitches against London and international agencies. And its client list was choc full of challenger brands in markets such as beer, cars, banks, soft drinks, media, whisky, you name it.

I must have taken about a hundred staff meetings during that time, covering all sorts of topics, sharing both good news and bad.

In effect, and with hindsight, those staff meetings were a series of all-agency focus groups.

I prepared a discussion guide for each one.

And I observed collective and individual reactions to a range of stimuli and messages.

Here is my debrief of that research.

Here, in reverse order of importance, are the four things that matter most to the staff of a healthy agency.

 

 

agency_hierarchy

 

4. Good news about money

Glad tidings about the financial performance of the agency, glad tidings about pay rises, or glad tidings about bonuses tended to receive a lukewarm reaction. That does not indicate a lack of gratitude or a lack of concern. Rather it is the lukewarm reaction one gets when people’s minimum expectations have been met.

Everyone here is talented.

Everyone works hard.

The output is good.

We’ve done our job. And if management has done its job, why wouldn’t the agency be profitable?

Why wouldn’t we all share in the spoils?

Financial good news is a hygiene factor in a good agency and is treated as such.

 

3. Good news about new business.

The agency always responded well to pitch wins.

It responded to what we had won, and it responded to whom we had beaten to win it.

Looking forward, what kind of opportunities would this new client afford? (What’s in it for me/us as employees?)

And looking back, against whom had we been weighed, measured and not found wanting? (Affirmation of the calibre of my employer.)

 

2. Personal recognition and progression.

Loud, heartfelt cheers, always, when individuals were called out for great contributions and when promotions were announced.

It’s a decent acid test of culture, I think, how people react to colleagues and peers doing well.

Of course there will be an element of professional jealousy and that is no bad thing if it is constructively channeled.

But it speaks volumes when the overriding emotion is one of vicarious pleasure. Confident, secure people draw comfort and inspiration when they see evidence that they are working in an environment in which progression is possible or probable, even if it is not their turn this time.

 

1. Showcasing new work.

By a mile, by a country mile, the best, the warmest, the loudest and the longest lasting reactions were reserved for new work.

(It goes without saying that we only showed work of which we were proud at staff meetings.)

“We did this.” (spoken.)

“And every other agency in the UK is going to be as jealous as hell.” (not spoken but understood and appreciated by everyone in the room.)

The work mattered more than all the other types of good news put together.

The work was our Why as well as our What.

Everything else was about How.

And that is the way it should be if an agency has its purpose, it’s priorities and its people right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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There is an implicit disclosure in the title of this post.

Here is the explicit version: I am the subject of Chapter 5 of Heather LeFevre‘s book called Brain Surfing. I have a small reputational (not financial) vested interest in this book doing well.

But there are much more important, non-vested reasons to buy this book. Many of them relate to the content. One of my favourite blogs, Futility Closet, describes itself as “an idler’s miscellany of compendious amusements”. Well, Brain Surfing is a compendium of miscellaneous advertising strategy tricks of the trade AND an amusingly candid travelogue.

From my perspective, however, the most compelling reason to buy the book is not what is in it but who wrote it.

This is an author review rather than a book review.

Whilst Heather stayed with me in Scotland, whilst she surfed my brain, she agreed to give a talk to the Scottish branch of the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising).

She spoke about her career, about the global Planners (Strategists) Survey which she founded, and about this (at that point un-named) nomadic book project.

I sat a few rows back, in amongst the bright young things of the Scottish advertising scene.

Heather was interesting, arcticulate, charismatic and candid. As well as talking about the great campaigns in which she’d had a hand Heather also talked about the failures in her love life. As well as sharing success stories she also shared regrets. As she mentions in her chapter about Rob Campbell, a man whom I’ve never met but would dearly like to, vulnerability is not a weakness.

I overheard a twenty-something girl behind me whisper to her companion, “I want to be like her.”

At the end Heather was mildly mobbed, mainly by other twenty-something girls, all of whom had been inspired by what they had just seen and heard.

Only then did the penny drop that an important female role model had been staying at my house.

Heather has “done well” at some top class agencies, including CP+B in Miami and Strawberry Frog in Amsterdam. And she is definitely a “strong woman”. But her strength is of a distinctly feminine variety. She does not conform to that horrible cliché of women acting like men in order to get on. I think that is what her audience were responding to, a role model whose success can be aspired to not just in and of itself but also because of the uncompromised, feminine means by which it was achieved.

At the end of the chapter about her stay with Suzanne Powers, Heather laments the fact that Suzanne was the only woman to take part in the Brain Surfing project, and she speculates as to why this might be. It is an interesting perspective on an issue that continues to hold the advertising industry back.

Buy this book if you want to support a female role model in the advertising industry.

Some time later Heather and I meet for drinks on a February night in London. After the small talk I share some things that are on my mind, which are not related to work. She listens well and counsels well. The counsel involves her opening up in an intimate way about some very personal episodes in her past life, which allow me to view my current situation in a different light.

As was often the case when she stayed at our house, the intended roles are reversed. The mentor becomes the mentored.

At first glance, Heather is super confident, super poised, super strong. But she is also a great listener. She has deep reservoirs of empathy. And she is prone to the same insecurities as the rest of us. I am very glad to have met her. I am lucky to call her a friend.

Buy this book safe in the knowledge that you are supporting a very nice person.

It is a cliché that everyone in the advertising industry has a book or a film script or, these days, a technology start-up in them. The day job is just a way of making ends meet and biding time until the big idea lands.

For some people that big idea never seems to arrive.

For others the idea comes but the gumption to do something about it doesn’t.

Heather had the idea and the gumption to make the Strategist Survey happen.

And she had the idea and the gumption to jack her job in and go Brain Surfing.

She is the bona fide maker that we all want to be.

Buy this book if you have “maker” aspirations. It is almost a moral obligation to support someone who has turned a great idea into brilliant action.

brain_surfing

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The conditions for a worthwhile panel discussion are seldom met.

Therefore panel discussions are usually disappointing.

From personal experience I struggle to recall a single exception to prove this rule. I can think of several great speeches. I could rattle off a long list of great talks and presentations. But great is not a descriptor that is often applied to panel discussions, other than in ridiculously hyperbolic tweets from SXSW.

There’s a reason why panel discussions don’t feature on TED.

This is realism rather than cynicism.

The conditions for a worthwhile panel are as follows. And, unfortunately for worthwhile panels, at least five out of six of these conditions have to be met.

  • A topic that is of value to the audience.
  • Charismatic panelists.
  • Research and preparation to inform points of view.
  • A preparedness to be outspoken or controversial or revelatory.
  • A skillful moderator (aka fire-starter).
  • Non-inane, provocative questions from the audience.

These conditions are rarely satisfied because panels are an inherently lazy event format.

Panels are easier than talks. You can get away with going through the motions as both panel organiser and panel participant. And that’s what most panel organisers and participants do. They take the path of least resistance.

Why put time and effort into preparation when I have lots of other work to do and there are three other panelists to hide behind and I sort of know the subject and I can wing it?

Why rock the boat with a controversial point of view? The long term risks far outweigh the short-lived reward.

Why choose a subject or panelists that might offend and deter sponsors?

Why share some valuable, original thinking in an environment where minimum credit will accrue?

The preparation (lack of) issue is perhaps the least forgivable, even if it is understandable. It shows a lack of respect for the audience.

At Festival Number 6, actor and comedian Steve Coogan gave an interview in front of a jam packed central piazza in the village of Portmeirion. It was effectively a single-panelist panel discussion.

It was disappointing. With hindsight it couldn’t have been anything other than disappointing.

The highly talented Mr Coogan and his no-doubt clever biographer-cum-interviewer went through the motions of talking about his talent and his creative output, when what we all wanted was for him to show his talent and perform some of his creative output.

High expectations plus lazy format equals let-down.

Disappointing.

But also revealing.

At one point an audience member shouted out something along the lines of “be funny”.

Coogan’s response laid bare the harsh reality of the interview/panel format.

You have to pay real money for that.

In other words, if you want me to write original material, if you want me to rewrite and edit and rewrite again to make it really good, and if you want me to prepare and rehearse to deliver a great performance, then you have to pay real money. Not the kind of money you pay for a quick, bit-part interview on a lesser stage at a star-studded, three day festival.

Ten out of ten for transparency.

Ironically this moment of outspoken candour was one of the high points of the session. It’s not enough to be charismatic. You have to be provocative too.

 

"You have to pay proper money for that."

“You have to pay proper money for that.”

 

The other high point was generated by a non-inane, provocative question from an audience member.

As an Alan Partridge fan, Steve, I’m interested to know whether you live in a hard water area or a soft water area.

The question itself got a big laugh from a knowledgeable audience. It was very Alan Partridge. We all knew it.

And Coogan knew it too.

He couldn’t help himself. He laughed and acknowledged that this was exactly the kind of issue that would interest Alan. But then, guard down, he went on to explain that the reason Alan Partridge would find it interesting was that he, Steve Coogan, had a nerdy interest in this sort of thing too. He then basically ad-libbed a pretty funny routine about soft water in Manchester, where he was brought up, and hard water and descaling kettles in Brighton, where he currently lives. We got a telling insight into just how much of Steve Coogan went into Alan Partridge, without having to pay proper money for it. Sucker!

For two brief moments the panelist and the audience combined to satisfy enough conditions to make the format work. But, sadly, the session was not inherently satisfying throughout.

By contrast, Howard Marks, aka Mr Nice, the infamous drug baron and famous author was an intensely gratifying panel of one interviewee.

When I first tried LSD at Oxford in 1964 I asked the guy what it was like. He said, "It's like a weekend in Paris."

When I first tried LSD at Oxford in 1964 I asked the guy what it was like. He said, “It’s like a weekend in Paris.”

Interesting subject matter?

Try drug smuggling. Try the sixties. The Manchester music scene. Youth culture. Doing hard time in a United States penitentiary.

Charismatic panelist?

Even suffering from terminal cancer he had a twinkle in his eye and easily enthralled his audience.

Research and preparation?

It is probably trite to say that his whole life has prepared him to talk like he did. But he has also written a new book, called Mr Smiley: My Last Pill And Testament, in which he apparently spills all sorts of beans.

Prepared to be outspoken and controversial?

Are you kidding?

Skillful moderator?

He was interviewed by his friend Greg Wilson and he obviously felt totally at ease as a result.

Audience provocation?

Well, aside from some very good questions (candidly answered) the audience also provided him with a spliff that was apparently strong even by his standards.

Six out of six conditions satisfied.

It was a great panel (of one).

It was that elusive exception that proves the rule.

But, as a rule, panel discussions still suck.

 

 

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lego_manhattan_650

 

My name is Sheila Doherty and my friends say that I am loquacious to a fault.

They mean that I talk too much. And I guess they have a point. I can be overly forthcoming at times.

They would have been impressed by my entry to the United States. It was perfunctory and prosaic. There was no embellishment on my part.

Everyone is loquacious in New York. But no one there seems to find fault in that. In that respect at least, I felt normal.

Nonetheless, I figured that the wrong side of passport control was neither the time nor the place to start making myself at home.

When asked I stated simply that the purpose of my visit was tourism, which was the truth but not the whole truth, and I resisted the urge to elaborate. I stepped onto American soil without let or hindrance. Her Britannic Majesty would have been pleased.

I considered myself a dark tourist of sorts. And it pained me not share this with the mirthless Border Protection Officer. But I exercised restraint. One person’s morbid fascination is another person’s moral turpitude and to be refused entry would have been a disaster.

Dark tourism is also known as grief tourism or black-spot tourism. Sites of special sinister interest like Auschwitz or Alcatraz are the new holiday hot spots. There should be a Loathsome Planet guidebook.

But death, grief, and tragedy are not my bag. I was a different kind of dark tourist. I wasn’t interested in places where bad things have happened to other people. I was interested in places where bad things might happen to me. To be precise I went to New York because I was interested in places where I was convinced that bad things would happen to me.

I have spent most of my life as an acrophobic you see. I’m afraid of heights. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I do know that it got worse over time. It went from being a thing, to an issue, to a problem. It started out as apprehensiveness. But it became a destructive paranoid obsession.

Heights didn’t have to be high to be fearsome. Changing a light bulb was a challenge. Mounting a stepladder could trigger dizziness, nausea or even a full-blown panic attack. I would plan my journeys to avoid driving over bridges. It even took the fun out of holiday planning. I would get all anxious if I thought I might be allocated a room with a balcony on a high floor of a hotel.

It got to the point where I couldn’t hide it. My friends were sympathetic for a while. But their patience ran out when it became obvious that I lacked the gumption to do anything about it. They stopped making allowances. And, because there are no grey areas when it comes to a phobia, we more fell apart than drifted.

Then fate intervened. I had an epiphany. An epiphany from a bible no less. Not any old bible, mind you. Not the bible. The Good Book may be an obvious source of epiphany for some, but it is an unlikely source for me. The bible in question was given to me by my Godfather and the epiphany happened by chance.

One day, on a whim, I picked the bible off the bookshelf to thumb nostalgically through a few delicate pages. It fell open at a picture of a serene looking Jesus surrounded by children. The legend underneath was a quote from Matthew, Chapter 19, verse 14.

“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

I was struck by the incongruity of the word suffer. Why would Jesus want children to suffer?

I took down a dictionary and discovered to my surprise that the archaic definition of suffer is to tolerate or allow. Allow little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.

To suffer is to tolerate or allow! I had allowed this fear of heights to define me. I had tolerated its debilitating effects. And in that moment I resolved, in the biblical sense, to suffer no more. Hark at me!

My trip to New York would be a form of self-administered exposure therapy. Skyscrapers would be my medicine, one a day for three days before meals, and I was determined to complete the course.

Determined is an easy thing to say, but it’s a less easy thing to be. Could I walk the walk?

Well, on my first day, the walk to be walked was seven blocks of 5th Avenue from 42nd Street to The Rockefeller Centre – “The Rock”.

Most people soon forget to look up in Manhattan. Even a tourist is quick to take for granted just how blessedly high and mighty and vertical and vertiginous everything is. Not me.

It was a beautiful day. The sky was clear and cloudless. It should have lifted my spirits, but all I perceived was an ominous expanse of 9/11 blue. I had walked two blocks with my neck craned and my throat constricting. At close quarters the scale was bewildering. It was staggering. I was staggering. The buildings appeared to sway and I felt myself swaying with them. My legs were giving way and so was my resolve.

I forced myself to look down in an effort to regain my balance.

In that same moment a woman screamed and kicked a rat into the road.

It was mesmerising. A crowd quickly gathered, full of morbid curiosity. We had effectively ruled out retreat to the sidewalk, but I figured that a New York rat would be an apex survivor, in the top percentile for street wisdom and cunning. I expected it to improvise an escape across four lanes of unyielding traffic.

But it didn’t.

It froze.

In its terror it hunkered down, made itself as small as it could and hoped for the best, or maybe just accepted the worst. Rodent fatalism!

It was a most un-American tableau. Loser vermin. The sewer rat that choked.

My heart went out to the rat. It was a metaphor for the old me, the old Sheila that had spent too much of her life paralysed by fear. I ran a mental checklist of relevant phobias. I couldn’t help myself.

Musophobia – a fear of mice or rats.

Agoraphobia – a fear of open spaces.

Agyrophobia – a fear of crossing the road.

The air was thick with fears. It was a visceral sensation. So thick you could cut it with a knife.

Aichmophobia – the morbid fear of sharp things, including knives.

I could feel my anxiety beginning to run away with itself. I was heading for meltdown. So I recited my New York, New York exposure therapy mantra.

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you new Sheila.”

It was pretty thin as coping strategies go but panickers can’t be choosers, and that last line doesn’t scan. The two syllables of my name mess with the melody. Normally that would mess with my obsessively precise head. But just then it gave Sheila the pedant the ammunition she needed to distract Sheila the phobic.

After several repetitions I felt the vertigo retreat and my resolve return.

I picked my way to the back of the crowd and slipped sideways along marble and glass to a point where I could move freely once more.

I didn’t look back. I couldn’t bear to see it. But I couldn’t help hearing it. Pop went the weasel-like rodent, followed by a mix of excited cheers and disgusted groans from the mob. Ugh!

At least my panic had subsided, but I was shaken and fragile and there were still five blocks between this hard place and The Rock.

I improvised a distraction, a variation on my mantra. I walked to the catchy refrain of New York, New York – ba ba bah ba-da, ba ba bah ba-da. I matched my steps to the beat, two normal, one long, two short. And I negotiated the remaining five blocks of 5th Avenue five syncopated steps at a time.

The next time I looked up it was to contemplate The Rockefeller Centre, although it was more a case of it confronting me than me contemplating it. Seventy floors is a lot to contemplate for someone who struggles with seven steps on a ladder. Could I really make it here?

I thought about the rat. It had suffered in the very sense that I had resolved not to. Was that my fate too?

No! The rat had given its life so that I might be saved, so that I might have a life again.

I chided myself for this mildly blasphemous train of thought, but this second epiphany was suddenly more powerful and more spiritual than the first.

New Sheila stepped into the lobby.

And, one escape-velocity elevator ride later, New Sheila stepped out onto the viewing platform at The Top Of The Rock and took in the breathtaking view of downtown Manhattan.

Ba ba bah ba-da!

I had made it there. And, if I could make it there…

I stepped up to the thick glass barrier and looked down onto 5th Avenue. The people looked like ants.

Or maybe rats.

 

 

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I was insanely privileged to be invited to speak at Google Firestarters 16, as one of the Magnificent Seven CSO’s and Planning Directors curated by Neil Perkin.

We each had ten minutes to talk about “The most useful thing you have learned in your career to date”, and to do so in a provocative manner.

It was great fun. And the talks were varied in content and style but all (self excluded) were uniformly brilliant in terms of delivery.

Neil’s write up of the seven presentations is very thorough.

He also put together a Storify post of the comments and images from the evening.

Meanwhile I have embedded a copy of my slides with speaker notes below. The notes are most legible when viewed at full screen size.

 

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