‘Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.’ Vincent Van Gogh

A pilgrimage to a great Artful Strategist….

David Bernstein: Creative Businessman

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 Paul Christopher Walton remembers working with one Adland’s Greats

 

I am proud to have been David Bernstein’s straight man.

I had joined The Creative Business in 1980 to set up a planning department and I was soon immersed in David’s unique credentials patter. Introducing our line up to senior clients in the Neal St boardroom, David would say “I’m Creative” and pointing to Laurence, his partner, “He’s Business” and then looking at me, “And oh, he’s Limited”. It always got a laugh and set the tone for some memorable new business meetings.

Working for David was never limited in any sense, but rather a wonderful mix of marketing and stand-up comedy; of smart management consultancy and improv; of high culture and low music hall.

David was the presenter’s presenter and his opening stich remains as fresh today as when I heard it for the first time:

“Hello, my name is David Bernstein, MA FRSA – that’s a funny way of spelling Bernstein. It gives me great pleasure [Pause] and no money to be with you this evening….”

But David was much more than a drole minister of pun. David knew everyone, including Ronnie Kirkwood who popped up in his anecdotes like a long-lost friend.

As one of Adland’s great Creative Directors (McCann, Ogilvy) he won all the glittering prizes and wrote some famous lines (The Esso sign means happy motoring) He was also one of the Outdoor industry’s biggest advocates, making a series of well-respected films and masterminding a notable conference in Nice.

As an entrepreneur, he was one of the great challengers of the industry and founded The Creative Business, whose media neutral philosophy was years ahead of its time. He was very proud of the Agency’s core belief that an understanding of the problem should dictate its solution.

But above all, David was a great writer who wrote with an elegance and wit that was always delivered with a fine command of rhythm and timing. Creative Advertising (Longman, 1974) remains one of the most readable texts on the art of business persuasion. Later in his career, David developed a fascination with corporate reputation and his book Corporate Image and Reality (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984) became the essential primer of corporate communications. As usual, David had a great way with rhetorical hairpins:

“Product brands take minimum differences and set out to magnify them. It’s a shame that corporate brands too often take large differences and end up minifying them.”

As I can attest, David was a marvellous teacher and had a knack for making even the most difficult subjects accessible and fun. He loved mnemonics. In evaluating creative work, David said there were four things to look for:

  • Visibility
  • Identity
  • Promise
  • Simplicity

He called this his VIPS model, which he explained gave you SPIV when spelt backwards.

David Bernstein is one of the giants of British advertising and was awarded the Mackintosh medal in 1982. He last great service was as a tireless supporter and Trustee of the History of Advertising Trust.

The boy from Croydon who was as old as Mickey Mouse inspired a whole generation of business people to be more creative, and I’m so proud to be one of them.

His was and is a highly distinctive brand – which reminds me of one other classic Bernstein routine:

Looking at a rough ad, David would ask with just a hint of a wicked glint: “Is brand evident?”, and while the team were formulating a response, smiling, he would add: “Which is, as I’m sure you have worked out, an anagram of David Bernstein. Boom! Boom!”

 

Paul Christopher Walton

The Value Engineers

 

Planning Director and Straight Man

The Creative Business

1980-1986

 

Marketing of the beat and track #1

Learn the Art of Positioning from British History

Brands are notoriously difficult to summarise, but are dead royals any easier to data- reduce and distill? Thanks to Penguin Monarchs, a new series of books from Allen Lane, you can now learn about positioning whilst you’re studying our kings and queens. Breezily written by some of our best historians, this ever-growing series of slim volumes with characterful book jackets all sport a catchy proposition.

William IV was in more senses than one A King at Sea. We should really understand the significance of the reign of Henry VIII with all those failed relationships as The Quest for Fame. Henry V journeying From Playboy to Warrior King seems to be a great example of successful brand visioning. Sadly for the kingdom, his saintly boy, Henry VI was A good, simple and innocent man whose weakness precipitated the Wars of the Roses. But what exactly were the qualities that made Charles II The Star King? And is The Red King the best that William Rufus can offer us? Or is he just the King of Bland?Marketing IMG_4407

Marians on The Mawddach

An English school’s love affair with a beautiful estuary in Wales

In one eventful weekend in November  1963, the President of the United States was assassinated, The Beatles launched their second album, Dr Who exited his Police Box to confront the Daleks for the first time and a convoy of Walsall grammar school boys arrived on the Mawddach to spend their first weekend at Farchynys. This was Queen Mary’s newly acquired adventure centre, an old coach house on the Mawddach estuary lying in the shadow of Cadair Idris, just 4 miles from Barmouth and its iconic railway bridge.

Every week for the following fifty years, successive generations of QM folk have made the hundred mile journey to the coast and have promptly fallen in love with this special place, discovering that estuaries can be wonderfully productive eco-systems for personal growth. Marians on the Mawddach tells the stories of pupils and their teachers and also of the people they meet as they explore this highly contrasting landscape to their home in Walsall.

Marians on the Mawddach 

A Social History of Farchynys, The Welsh Centre of Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall

Conceived and compiled by Paul Christopher Walton

See more at http://mariansonthemaddach.com

Published, May 2017 by Strategol Publishing @Strategolpub     #MariansontheMawddachbeautifulestuary

Good strategy needs the white stuff

The Artful Strategist discovers white space with the help of Irving Berlin and Robert Frost.

You must have noticed the amount of colour imagery that makes its way into our calendars as we head towards the Winter Solstice. It starts in November with Black Friday, the official kick-off of the post-Thanksgiving season of shopping and good-deals-to-all men, and followed six weeks later by Blue Monday when our flagging spirits are devastated by the arrival of prolific credit card bills and the prospect of living on skint rations. But in the middle of this shop-to-stop cycle is the enticing promise of a warmly opaque holiday pause that thanks to Irving Berlin we all know as a White Christmas.

Berlin’s song White Christmas is not just the biggest holiday song, it is also one of the greatest songs of all time. Holding the presumably un-beatable Guinness Record for being the biggest selling single disc, White Christmas is the definitive festive anthem that touches our emotions and transports us back to the re-assuring warmth of Christmases Past. But when Berlin first wrote the song, it had an intro that never made it into the recordings we recognise today.

This is the ‘lost intro’ of White Christmas:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,

The orange and palm trees sway.

There’s never been such a day

in Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the twenty-fourth,

And I am longing to be up North.

 

Somehow a lush and balmy Southern California just provided the wrong frame of reference for the initial launch of the song. Shortly afterwards in 1942, with the United States at war, Bing Crosby’s intimate crooning about jingling sleigh bells and glistening treetops in Norman Rockwellian white spaces proved to be a brilliant morale building way in which soldiers on active service could re-connect with home.

White space of course is a very fashionable concept today and much sought after by wannabe disrupters and new model entrepreneurs of all kinds, who like to use the phrase as a shortcut for areas of uncontested opportunity in the lands of the unknown Unknown. With flat market places and margins zapped by competitors from all directions, today’s scramble for white space appears both urgent and haphazard.

Back in the 1940s, at roughly the same time that Bing was hogging the holiday airwaves, white space was a phrase that was just beginning to gain acceptance in the niche world of printing. Printers define white space as those parts of a page left unmarked: margins, gutters, and the space between columns, graphics or objects drawn or depicted. The idea of white space is universally considered to be a good thing as too much type crammed into too little space will result in poor reader experience. Advertising art directors like plenty of space because it can give their layouts a premium and elegant appearance. But white space is not just about aesthetics, it’s also an important means of creating emphasis and revealing the meaning of a text; in this way, blank areas should not be thought as inert but rather an active part of the story.

Which is why poets love the idea white of space.

Consider the following text and if you can do so without causing a stir, try and read it aloud:

The way a crow shook down on me the dust of snow from a hemlock tree has given my heart a change of mood and saved some part of a day I had rued.

This text is in fact a wonderfully compact poem consisting of one sentence of thirty-four words called Dust of Snow written by Robert Frost and published in 1923 in his collection New Hampshire.

Here is the actual layout Frost used in the published version and please look out for how the poet uses a combination of hard line breaks and a hinterland of white to set a rhythm and reveal his purpose:

Dust of Snow

 

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

Frost loved featuring wintry themes in his poetry, much of which was inspired by the same New England landscapes that feature in Berlin’s holiday songs. But while Dust of Snow is darker than White Christmas – after all there are no sleigh bells and children playing in Frost’s poem, only the menace of a crow in a hemlock tree – the crow did actually work his magic on the poet, just as much as Bing’s crooning did on the GIs away from home. Both show – albeit in very different ways- the functional and emotional effects of finding white space and the well-being benefits it can confer.

My trusty thesaurus tells me that white space belongs in the same Club as allowance, gap, headroom, and margin which are all relevant concepts today. In these turbulent times those who are faced with tough choices and scarce resources will find a keen appreciation of white space is mindfully bang on the money.

So after all your alarums and excursions of the year, God rest ye, gentle reader, shake off that dust of snow, and may your days be merry and bright, and may your Christmas space be white.

 

 

Who can name the three most important rules of strategy?

The Artful Strategist visits MIT, gets Haxed, but lives to tell the tale.

The Power of Three (TP3) is one of the most popular rhetorical devices in use by public speakers today. Psychologists tell us there is something magical in the rhythm of three connected strands that helps audience understand and recall the core message. Somehow I came, I saw, I conquered has a better narrative ring than I came, I saw, I conquered, I put it up for sale.

Revolutionaries have always known that TP3 is a brilliant way of summarising a complex manifesto. Visit France and note just how many times you will see Liberté, Egalité, Fratenité carved into the fabric of every town and village.

Admen love copywriting TP3 inspired slogans: how many of us were brought up knowing that a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play? Or can you taste the difference in snap, crackle and pop? I’m lovin’ it.

And above all leaders who want to sell us their vision can’t resist punctuating their speeches with TP3 sound-bite triplets like blood, sweat and tears or yes, we can!

Perhaps this is why one of my favourite strategy teachers deployed TP3 extensively against the business big shots he regularly came up against.

In the mid 1990s, I was a bit part player in a Unilever epic about new sources of growth and upgrading the strategic planning skills of its senior team was identified as one key enabler. Already working with a variety of Unilever’s operating companies on brand and innovation projects, I suddenly found myself being drawn like an asteroid into the powerful orbit of Arnaldo Hax , the Sloan Professor of Management at MIT, in Cambridge MA.

Arnaldo Hax is a charming Chilean with a razor sharp mind and an irresistible wit to match, and was the perfect choice for the job of building a framework and set of tools for improving strategic thinking in Unilever. At that point, Unilever was trying to modernise fast and was on the lookout for more joined-up sources of competitive advantage it liked to refer to as Unileverage.

Arnaldo’s shtick was perfect because it involved the combination of hard-core process discipline (mission, opportunities, competencies, principles, thrusts, actions and so on) with generous amounts of hilarious observational stand-up.

‘You have some very interesting work cut out for you now’, he said to one group who had failed to impress him with their homework. To another poor performing syndicate who said they had just finished brainstorming their response, he replied ‘In my experience, brainstorming usually involves a lot of storm, and very little brain.’

There was one group I remember in particular which consisted of extremely strident business unit leaders whose time in the breakout session had been spent largely in positioning and posturing rather than actually doing any work who were told in the plenary session: ‘I am sure you have more intelligence in your group than you have written on your charts.’

Arnaldo was an adept at understanding the psychology of his audience and knew how to sell a rigorous soup to nuts process with just the right amount of playful banter to keep the grumpy VIPs attentive and on-board.

But beyond the lecture room sizzle, there was plenty of content sausage to appreciate. His approach always put the customer at the centre of the strategic universe: ‘The essence of competitive positioning’ he told us, ‘is to attract, satisfy and retain customers’. He also recognised the increasingly important challenge of solving protecting differential advantages. Here, he preached the doctrine of system lock–in which he explained involved identifying strong functional as well as emotional mechanisms to control and maintain customer fidelity. Today, we would recognise the Apple brandworld as a defining manifestation of this principle.

Arnaldo was also a power user of TP3. On one occasion, he teased the Unilever strategic élite with a question: ‘What do you think are the three most important rules of strategy?’ Not surprisingly, this provoked all manner of answers, some predictable and many pretentious, the latter to be categorised as the latest thoughts of the Senior Vice President of Mumbo Jumbo.

But for Arnaldo, the arch exponent of focus and specificity, the three most important concepts of strategy were in fact: segmentation, segmentation, segmentation.

According to him, the paramount task for any business was to decide where exactly it would choose to compete. So segment, segment, segment became the first, and arguably most important of all what became known as Arnaldo’s Haxioms.

In the fading orange glow of those Fall days at MIT, there was plenty to harvest from my masterclass with Arnaldo. Of course, there were those who said there was too much process in Hax and too many templates to fill in (and there was a torrent of templates), but for those who listened attentively to the top notes of his score, there was also a stirring right brain theme that has certainly stayed with me:

‘Planning without measurement is just poetry.

But planning without poetry is just measurement.

Cha-Cha-Cha!’

Cider with Nietzsche

 The Artful Strategist learns the hard way that there are no facts about the future

My mind has been under the influence of cider today.

Now just to be clear, cider won’t supplant Shotover Trinity in my long drink affections, nor threaten the hegemony of rosé in my everyday drinking repertoire – just as well given the number of cases of the pink stuff we recently shipped from the Var to our cave in Cannes – but cider more than any other product is the one which helped make my name, and especially on mellow Autumn mornings when our apple tree seems magically be-decked with red fairy lights, my attention shifts to the world of cider and an important business lesson which I learned there.

You never forget your first client, and in 1978, as a strutting young adman I found myself stuck behind tractors at harvest time on narrow country lanes on the borders of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. I was on my way to an important client meeting. The client in question was Bulmer’s cider, and the tractors were transporting loads of Ladies Fingers and Kingston Blacks to the Cider Mills in Plough Lane, Hereford.

Bulmer’s, more than any other client, has been the big red thread of my marketing career, and I always found it a rather civilised and bucolic English family business.

My first job on the account was to work on the launch of a new upmarket cider called Bulmer’s Special Reserve. The launch campaign had a TV ad with Babs Windsor extolling its virtues and proposing in her best cockney that Special Reserve was Posher than y’er average cider. To be frank, this was also the moment that I discovered that creating brands far more interesting than making very average ads.

Six years later, I went on to launch my own brand. With Elaine and Graham, we created The Value Engineers, and Bulmer’s was one of our four founder clients. But these were challenging times for the cider business: after a glorious run of Hereford Lightning summers which saw cider sales boom and the company go public, a combination of awful weather and an aggressive tax hike put the market into sharp reverse, and Bulmer’s just recently the darlings of the London Stock Exchange, saw its share price collapse and was making people redundant.

Laying people off is never easy, but it was especially hard for a paternalistic culture like Bulmer’s, a big employer in a small city.

The Value Engineers had been appointed to find ways of kick-starting market growth and to create a portfolio of exciting product ideas that would bring vitality to the whole category. We began -predictably- with a detailed forensic analysis of the business and the marketplace. This immediately highlighted far more problems than opportunities. We discovered serious demographic challenges, product palatability issues, un-motivating brand imagery and menacing low-price competitors taking share and feeding on the company’s margin. The case to invest in marketing seemed at best problematic, and to make matters worse research showed that a whole battery of new product concepts had failed to excite the consumer.

Asked to provide a 3-5 year forecast for the board, I put on the gloomiest face I could find, and intoned that that given the precipitant nature of market decline and the prevailing competitive pressure on margins, marketing based growth would be unlikely. After a fantastic run over the previous five years, I ventured that the cider market would be unlikely to exceed 3.5m hectolitres ever again.

This turned out to be an appallingly bad forecast, and is probably the biggest single marketing goof I can admit to. (For the purposes of my own morale, I should point out that I belong to a distinguished society of lousy forecasters that includes as members Thomas Edison, Thomas Watson and Bill Gates)

Not only was the UK cider market growing again within two years, but by 1995, the market had doubled to 6m and by 2010 had trebled in size to over 10m hectolitres. Today the UK cider market is a £3bn business that accounts for 9% of all alcohol drunk, and is one of few alcoholic drink categories in the world that seems to be in rude health.

In mitigation, I did learn an important lesson from this fiasco.

The problem with our forecast – so obvious with hindsight- was that I had made one massive and erroneous assumption: that the cider market would continue pretty much as it always had, and that cider would look and taste like it had always looked and tasted. What we had not considered were the possibility and potential for new liquids and/or new marketing concepts to disrupt the world of cider as we understood it, and which would give new consumers, new reasons to drink it on new occasions.

As the white cider rocket-juice sector pioneered by Diamond White took off rapidly alongside more traditional amber ciders, the whole market dynamic changed, and the episodic long-term upward trend resumed. A few years later Magners’ were able to create a similar growth effect with another simple innovation that drinkers loved: serving cider in long glasses over ice.

In 1986, we had come to believe that the category was in a box: the cider box.  But it was a box of our own making, and we had put ourselves into it as a result of our own deterministic analysis that was long on detail but short on marketing imagination which after all, is the real rocket fuel of growth.

Forty years later and back in my garden today, my glass of cider seems a little cloudy. Is that because it’s off or could cloudy cider be the new big thing?

Precept: When faced with the challenge of looking into the future to find growth, consider all the assumptions you are making very carefully.

If in doubt, artful strategists follow my mentor David Bernstein’s rule: Never assume!