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Coffee austerity in Uganda.

Morning commute in the Rwenzori Mountains of Western Uganda.

 

You are a coffee farmer in Uganda. You till the soil on your patch of mountain with your spouse. You have three children and a dependent grandparent to support. You have a roof over your head and, to all intents and purposes, you are self-sufficient for food. You are poor but you are not malnourished. How much money do you need to live off the land in this way? What is the price of minimum viable coffee farming in Uganda?

According to Great Lakes Coffee, a Ugandan coffee trading company that works with and buys from thousands of smallholder farmers, it is $758.

Seven hundred and fifty eight US Dollars.

Per annum.

This is the annual cost of life’s essentials; cooking oil, fuel for heating (paraffin or equivalent), salt, sugar and secondary education for your three children. In Uganda, primary education is provided free by the state but secondary education costs $150 per child each year.

Three fifths of the breadline total is spent on schooling. Education is the single biggest outlay for these farmers but it is the last thing they would sacrifice.

The rest is all low tier Maslow’s hierarchy stuff. No frills. No luxuries.

No retail therapy. No first Thursday of the month date night dinners for two. No ketchup. Just African style austerity.

It is the economics of harsh reality. It is bean counting at its most basic. If you earn $758 from your coffee harvest you break even. If you don’t you find yourself in the kind of poverty trap that threatens to undermine many fragile food supply chains. Poverty at origin is at least as big a threat to sustainability as climate change. It acts like gravity to drag farmers down. In Uganda, $758 is the financial equivalent of escape velocity.

Sadly, this figure is more of a challenge than it might appear to developed world eyes. There is ample cause for pessimism.

Coffee country. Mount Elgon, Eastern Uganda.

A more optimistic view is that, with the poverty bar set so low, there is scope to significantly enhance farmer livelihoods with the right kind of constructive intervention from further up the supply chain. A higher yield of better quality coffee, with fewer defects, from the same amount of land, has a double multiplier effect on earning potential.

But these constructive interventions must also be sustainable pursuits. Dipping in is dangerous. Too many aid organisation infrastructure projects ignore the subsequent running costs that they impose. The long term price of these well intentioned but badly deployed projects is ongoing costs that commit farmers to debt funding which they are unable to service. A new coffee washing station won’t maintain itself.

Project has become a dirty word. In Ugandan coffee farming circles it means “fuck things up and take pretty pictures”.

It takes sustained effort to establish sustainable conditions. And these efforts need to be appropriately directed. Rather than remotely triggered events whose aim is to alleviate poverty, the focus needs to be on indigenous initiatives designed to create lasting prosperity.

And it takes local knowledge to direct and deploy these efforts effectively. There is no substitute for operating on the ground at origin.

I tagged along with Konrad Brits, CEO of Falcon Coffees, on an origin trip to Uganda. Falcon trades green (unroasted) coffee. It buys at origin and sells to roasters, such as Starbucks, across the globe. For these roaster brands, Falcon and its origin partners pretty much are the supply chain.

Great Lakes Coffee is Falcon’s origin partner in Uganda and both organisations are committed to the endeavour of sustainability. They are working with thousands of smallholder coffee farmers to unlock the latent potential of their land to mutual benefit.

Uganda’s Arabica beans are the cheapest in the world, and yet most of the coffee is grown in ideal conditions, at altitudes of up to 2000 metres, in volcanic soil, in an equatorial climate. There is therefore significant potential to increase farmer income through training and support in good agricultural practices; soil management, water management, pest control, tree surgery and such like.

Such well-directed support can pay handsome dividends. It creates better farmers who are also better business people.

Farmers who partner with the Great Lakes Coffee team of agronomists are hoping to repeat the success that Falcon has enjoyed with its trading partner in Rwanda, where a similar collaborative approach has seen yields increase by up to 211% and the level of defects reduced to levels that satisfy Premium Grade criteria.

Higher grade coffee that commands higher grade prices is good for everyone in the supply chain. But sustainability efforts at origin need to go beyond better agricultural practices. Governance and effective oversight are difficult to impose in remote areas, but they are essential to maintaining the transparency and traceability that are vital to instilling confidence in buyers.

Rain Forest Alliance certification is rightly coveted but it creates incentives for “dubious practices on the mountain”.

It takes vigilance, good processes and adequate resource to spot when an agent brings more “certified” coffee down from the mountain than should theoretically be possible in an attempt to secure a better price, which may or may not be passed on to the uncertified farmers he claims to represent.

Konrad Brits of Falcon Coffees and Norman Mukuru of Great Lakes Coffee discuss the nuts and bolts of quality control and sustainability in a Mbale warehouse.

Traceability and quality are essential for sustainable coffee farming. But so is price transparency.

A huge proportion of the value created in the coffee supply chain accrues to the roasters. The Free On Board (FOB) price paid to traders such as Falcon is roughly 3% of the final price of your Americano. And a typical Ugandan farmer might expect to see 72% of that 3%. In other words roughly 2% of the price charged by a roaster for a cup of Ugandan coffee goes to the family unit described at the head of this post.

Price transparency could have a transformative effect on farmer prosperity at origin. A more equitable distribution of value along the supply chain would be a boon to sustainability.

But this would require all stakeholders to be culturally invested in such an outcome. Sadly this is not the case. The attitude of many large roasters to their supply chains is based solely on commercial responses to market forces rather than a sense of duty or stewardship. Traders such as Falcon carry much of the risk associated with sourcing, processing and transporting a perishable commodity for a fraction of the value created. These imbalances serve to make a mockery of corporate social responsibility.

Don’t be fooled by the touching photograph of grateful farmers in your local coffee shop. As likely as not it is a thin veneer which cynically masks underlying supply chain venality.

People, both commercial people and consumer people, need to care more about these issues. What applies to coffee applies to the global provision of all foodstuffs.

Consumer education is part of the solution, but consumers can only be educated if the barriers to price transparency can be overcome as described in this post on the subject by Denmark’s Coffee Collective.

These barriers are cultural and commercial. “Sustainable” coffee commands a price premium in San Francisco in the same way that “certified” coffee commands premium on the mountain in Uganda. This creates incentives for “dubious games” all the way to the top of the supply chain. The sustainability trade secrets of smaller companies like Falcon are liable to be copied by larger competitors who are not as philosophically invested but who have greater resources. This conflict of interest is a serious dilemma and a major impediment to an open source solution to an urgent global problem.

Being able to take for granted where your food comes from and how it gets to you is destined to be a short-lived luxury.

Food chain sustainability is right up there with conflict resolution, renewable energy and over-population at the top of humanity’s to-do list.

An annual income of $758 translates to roughly $15 per week. The poverty line for a Ugandan coffee farmer is the same as the price of your daily coffee before work. It is everyone’s interests that everyone knows and everyone cares about how the price of that cup of coffee is justified and distributed.

First published on Medium.

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At the sharp end of coffee farming in the Mount Elgon range in eastern Uganda.

You won’t find any climate change deniers on the mountains of Uganda. Thirsty coffee trees don’t do fake news.

Nor does broccoli. When the rain fell too heavily on the plains of Spain in December 2016, washing away entire crops, broccoli and other vegetables disappeared from British supermarket shelves. Prices soared and bulk purchase limits were imposed.

It should have been a wake-up call. Food doesn’t appear in our shops by magic. We can’t take our greens for granted. Sadly the inconvenience of this inconvenient truth will be short-lived. We will hit a collective snooze button until the next alarm, which will be more urgent and more persistent.

Uganda’s coffee farmers don’t have the luxury of that kind of procrastination. Climate change is a clear and present danger at the point of origin.

In the Rwenzori Mountains, which form the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the west, leaf rust is affecting coffee trees at greater altitudes every year. This insidious progression doesn’t make for dramatic time-lapse images like a receding glacier but it is every bit as real, and its implications are every bit as profound.

As recently as 2012, in the Mount Elgon Range, which forms the border with Kenya in the east, it rained at 3pm for an hour and a half every day for eleven months of the year. In tropical east Africa, Mother Nature was the speaking clock. (At the third drop it will be three o’clock precisely.)

By contrast the torrential rains of February 2017 marked the end of three months of drought which, despite the best efforts of the region’s farmers, had left coffee trees looking withered and stressed. To add insult to injury the rain washed away vulnerable, dry topsoil. The environment is getting worse for coffee and better for coffee diseases. Yields and quality will be adversely affected.

Konrad Brits, CEO of Falcon Coffees, speculated to me that the blankets of coffee covering the mountains will quickly dwindle to a few, high-altitude islands. He foresees a not too distant future in which high quality coffee is the preserve of billionaire oligarchs. There was irony in that statement, given that many of those same oligarchs have vested financial or political interests in climate change denial, but there was barely a trace of hyperbole.

Wake up and smell the coffee while you can.

I tagged along with Konrad on a week long visit to Uganda. He was working. I was a coffee tourist. It was an eye-opener. Climate change and poverty at origin are the main enemies of sustainable food production.

Also tagging along, but anything but a tourist, was Dr Tim Shilling. Tim is CEO of World Coffee Research, a not for profit organisation working to ensure the future of coffee and coffee farmers. We were all the guests of Great Lakes Coffee, a third generation family company that sources and mills green (not roasted) coffee from Ugandan farmers.

Dr Tim Shilling working with field agronomists from Great Lakes Coffee in a pop-up warehouse workshop in Kasese.

Falcon, Great Lakes Coffee and World Coffee Research have a shared agenda to protect and improve the livelihoods of small-hold farmers. And, to that end, Tim was in Uganda to work with farmers and agronomists to establish a programme of in-situ experiments with potentially disease-resistant coffee varieties. These new varieties are the product of natural, hybrid breeding rather than genetic modification. Hopefully the initiative will buy some time to address apparently inexorable climate deterioration at a more fundamental level.

It is too easy and too convenient to view climate change as tomorrow’s problem. It is real, it is important, but it is not as urgent as the more immediate and pressing concerns of daily life. Not when there is coffee in our cups and broccoli on our plates. This is its own form of denial.

Broccoli rationing is a sure sign that we need to reboot our relationship with food. Our geographic remove from the the point of origin and the people who produce is no excuse to be intellectually or emotionally remote.

For a start the language is all wrong. Coffee is not a commodity. It is a precious and fragile gift. And these are not abstract supply chains. They are circles of human life and international trade that connect us to very important but ridiculously undervalued people in fragile high places.

These people and the fruits of their labours need to be better appreciated, conspicuously celebrated and fiercely protected.

Supply chains should not be abstract and anonymous. The warm, eloquent, hard working human being who grows your coffee. (Mount Elgon, eastern Uganda)

First published on Medium.

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JWT25 is stupidly ageist.

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JWT25, the deliberately youthful and deludedly agile content production start-up from JWT Singapore, is stupidly ageist in my relatively senile opinion.

Here is the agency’s pitch according to The Drum.

JWT has launched a new service called JWT25 which uses young content creators to focus on short content made quickly. The average age of the teams will be 25 and the content will be made in under 25 days, which led to the name of the division.

In how many ways is this idea misguided?

  • It has a perverse, in fact reverse, perception of how content agility relates to age. At 50 I am exactly twice the average age of this new venture’s employees. And admittedly I might not be as physically supple as the average 25 year old. In a toe touching competition JWT25 would beat me hands down. Literally. But I’d bet my house that when it comes to content creation I am much more intellectually agile. I have been doing this idea-based content thing (i.e. advertising) for 28 years compared to the 3 or 4 years of these JWT greenhorns. I understand brands better, I deal with clients better, I arrive at solutions quicker and I recognise and mercy-kill crap ideas quicker. This is not arrogance. It is a statement of the obvious.

 

  • “Short content made quickly.” What about good content? What about content that actually serves a valuable commercial purpose? What about content that captures the imagination of its intended audience in such a way as to stimulate the desirable behaviours? And why the assumption that quick equals good? Quick is usually the enemy of good. At best quick is a necessary compromise if topicality is a tactical imperative. It is a compromise nonetheless. Most, in fact that vast majority, of content produced for marketing purposes is crap. Content marketing is to the internet what cosmetic micro beads are to the world’s oceans. An agile process is merely destined to produce more crap at higher speed.

 

  • Maybe, when they say agile, they mean lean. There is a market for more efficient content production that cuts out the fat and the baggage that makes conventional commercials production so expensive. Good content made more cost-efficiently is a compelling proposition. Reducing cost is a better idea than increasing speed. But even this idea would be made worse by a gimmicky age restriction on its staff.

 

  • Is 25 days actually “quick” anyway? This is a rhetorical question.

 

  • In the context of making quick (and cheap?) content am I wrong to feel disquiet at the phrase “uses young content creators”? Admittedly these are the Drum’s words* rather than JWT’s, but I’m uneasy at the hint of exploitation.

Good luck boys and girls.

(In the spirit of agility I bashed this out in 25 minutes. Not bad for an old timer.)

 

*At the time of writing I can find no direct link to a JWT25 website.

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Technology vs Machinery.

Russell Davies talked about the “machinery of government”.

Steve Hilton talked about the “machinery of political funding” in the States.

They were talking at the APG’s brilliant Strategy vs Robots conference at the Royal Institution. But they weren’t talking about technology.

They were talking about how things get done. Machinery is a catch-all term for issues like organisational structure, process, governance, leadership, culture and communication.

Sometimes, seldom it seems, the machinery is compatible with new technology.

More often than not the machinery reacts to technology like a cat with a hairball in its throat. The machinery rejects digital transformation like a poorly tissue-typed donor organ.

I’ve worked on a few  digital transformation projects recently. By which I mean the kind of project where the scale and scope and significance of the change wrought by new technology truly justifies the “transformation” label.

And what these projects had in common is that, out of the discovery phase, technology was the last thing we had to sort out. In all cases we had to sort the machinery before we could prescribe and implement the technology.

Talking to stakeholders from senior management (the people who would be paying for the technology) and from various operational functions (the people who would be using the technology) invariably raised issues of strategy, governance and internal communication that rendered redundant any discussion about CRM or CMS platforms.

The old(ish) Forrester POST methodology has never rung more true.

People. Objectives. Strategy. Technology.

In. That. Order.

You might find that everyone is talking in similar terms about the importance of CRM technology. But probe a little deeper and it becomes evident that no two stakeholders define CRM in the same way. Some stakeholders are adamant that there is a CRM strategy, others are blissfully ignorant of this “fact”.

You’ll probably find that what the left hand of the business thinks the right hand needs from technology is wildly at odds with the right hand’s self-assessment.

You shouldn’t be surprised if no two members of the senior management team share the same understanding of business strategy. Seriously.

I had a chat with Neil Perkin during coffee and he mentioned that he had been working more frequently with senior management teams on recent consultancy projects. And he observed how apparent it quickly becomes in stakeholder workshops just how little time these business leaders spend with each other. In fact it is questionable whether the word “team” actually applies to the senior management of many large organisations.

The machinery is broken, or at best dysfunctional, and technology won’t fix it. The digital transformation of a badly oiled machine will only make matters worse. It is doomed to be a very expensive mistake.

Done properly digital transformation is, first and foremost, an exercise in management consultancy. No surprise then that management consultancies are the organisations with which we most often compete to secure these digital transformation projects.

Russell talking about technology and machinery.

Russell talking about technology and machinery.

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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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