Bright people love meeting other clever people. It’s one of the main reasons university is such fun. A great dinner party, a good lunch, even a drink after work with an old friend can have the same effect. Dialogue between two or more intelligent men and women generally produces interesting ideas, exciting opportunities, and if there’s a need, answers to problems.

But did I say ‘or more’? How many more? How many clever people do we want in any one room before more becomes less, there is a fight to be heard, and the meeting becomes counter-productive?

Having studied the meeting phenomenon, and what can go wrong when there are too many people around the table, I would recommend starting with two, adding maybe one or two more, and stopping there – at least for the first session of what may turn into a series of several. Meetings are the way we have settled on working together. Meetings are not basically for talking, or listening, or even debating. The purpose of strategic and dynamic meetings is to get things done – to make a decision, to turbo-charge a project, to solve a big problem, or realise a juicy opportunity.

What is the key dynamic in a dynamic meeting? Working together – yes. But even more important, thinking together. I believe it is by thinking together that we maximise mutual brainpower. When we talk enthusiastically about two heads being better than one, thinking together is what we are talking about. Encouraging children to think together is one of the pillars of the education system, and yet we easily forget how powerful this joint activity can be, and lapse instead into wall to wall words. The lust for communicating in public has a lot to answer for.

The next time you call an important meeting – one where a goal has to be achieved, and a result is imperative – let me suggest this approach.

‘Can you, Rachel and I find time to meet this week. Ideally for 90 minutes, but an hour might do it. The Pure Ptarmigan campaign clearly isn’t working. I know it won us the pitch, and the Link results were extraordinary. But no one is buying the stuff, and it seems to be a disaster in the on-trade. ‘Pure Ptarmigan’ is a useless bar call, because the bloody bird starts with a ‘T’, not a ‘P’. Far from quaking on its moor, Famous Grouse is laughing at us. We need to get together and think together about what we should do. I absolutely don’t want to fill a conference room with a dozen people who will tell us they knew it wouldn’t work, although they said nothing at the time. Nor will we learn anything from a couple more focus groups and a bit of quant. It will just confirm it isn’t working – and that we already know. Please just bring your brains. We will huddle. We will share our thoughts. We will think our way through this’.

This is David’s June blog entry for the Marketing Society.

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Quite a lot, actually. Ever since I let slip that I have been writing a book about a better way – a radically better way – to do meetings, reactions have varied from what I can best describe as supportive excitement (‘Oh, please yes. I’ll definitely buy a copy’) to jaded scepticism (‘There’s nothing anyone can do’).

Here are ten reasons why I believe that meetings are simultaneously the most dysfunctional item in the calendar, and the business activity most capable of being done in an infinitely superior way.

The five biggest problems first:

  1. It is estimated that wasted time in meetings costs around £50bn every year in these islands alone. That’s more than the defence budget. It’s a scandal, and a really good reason to take the issue seriously. That time does not have to be wasted.
  2. Organisations, companies, businesses allow their best people to spend at least 50% of their time in meetings, instead of doing proper work. How can I put this really simply? This need not happen, because many meetings are bound to be unproductive, and most of them are attended by far too many people.
  3. But it’s not just the organisations at fault. Many of the problems in meetings stem from bad etiquette and inconsiderate behaviour. This behaviour can and should be improved.
  4. The bigger the meeting, generally speaking the worse the behaviour? Why? Elementary psychology (and maths) tell us that the more people in the room, the less the opportunity for individuals to speak and contribute. Result: frustration, aggression, selfishness and the rest.
  5. Why don’t we arrange a meeting and invite all the stakeholders? Wrong! This is a very common mistake. If you are looking to manage change, or make a big decision, or drive a vital project, the last thing you want is all the stakeholders. They (or at least some of them) are the very people who will resist change, slow down the decision-making process, and hamstring the project. Don’t confuse efficiency and democracy. Getting things done necessitates keeping people informed, but you don’t have to do the two things simultaneously!

Now for the five steps to solve the meeting crisis – or at least the one with strategic and dynamic meetings, that solve problems, create opportunities, and drive innovation and growth:

  1. Accept that strategic meetings are like buses, stores in a Mall, or security guards. You need several to get the job done. Managing change, making decisions, and leading a successful project will require a series of meetings, not just one.
  2. Organise and orchestrate these meetings, like you would an event, or a team performance in say sport or entertainment. Don’t leave things to chance, to individual will, or to the fates. Manage the meeting with a hand-picked two person team.
  3. Start each meeting small, and keep it small by only inviting additional participants sparingly, and letting them go once they have made their contribution.
  4. Mandate a spirit of co-operation and good behaviour by insisting that each participant accepts the injection of a large dose of empathy.
  5. Keep crazy-busyness at bay, and promote focus, by insisting that participants prepare for meetings, follow them up, and never accept the booking of back-to-back meetings in their diary.

MOTE: The Super Meeting is going to be published in May. Till then, I can only suggest taking the five problems seriously in your business (and your life), and looking at how you might be able to do things better along the lines of the five tips above. Yes, and saving an extremely modest sum to purchase ‘Mote’ when it comes out!

This is David’s blog for the Marketing Society in April 2015.

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As I recall the vast majority of Marketing Society members are clients, agency people and consultants of various sorts.

This is a plea to all of you:

  • To clients, not to become so caught up in your busy lives that you stop learning about the world outside your brands and your market place. You have a career to think about, and future employers and partners will be impressed by wide experience and wide knowledge, over and above what skills are transferable from what you were doing last
  • To agency folk, not to dedicate yourselves exclusively to knowing about the brands you are working on, and other people’s brands that you are pitching for
  • To consultants, not to risk running on empty. The consulting canvas that has served you well for the last few years probably needs refreshing, and if you have been successful as an adviser on a, b and c; who knows how well you could do in future, having expanded your remit to include e, f and g
  • To all of you, not to resent me pointing this out

Why do I say this?

There are two main reasons. First, there can never have been a time when the juxtaposition of academia and the practice of marketing has produced such a cornucopia of new scholarship, new insights, and new theories. I am a glutton for new papers and new books on a wealth of subjects from neuromarketing to how creativity impacts differently in social media as compared to conventional channels. The sheer profusion of new knowledge dazzles and bewilders like the breakfast buffet in a five star resort!

Secondly, I am staggered at the apparent lack of interest in all this from so many of the clever, well educated, high earning people I meet around our industry.

If you are one of the glorious minority, my entreaty is not aimed at you. But do me a favour, and take up the cause of campaigning to reactivate a learning culture. We used not to know too much about how marketing and communications really work. Now there’s no excuse. And the more we know, the more successful we will be.

Then there’s the fun of it all –  working in a quite fascinating business that embraces philosophy, psychology, neurology, technology, and lots more besides. The next time you are sitting in a meeting that is going nowhere, bored and frustrated, remember that there IS something you can do about it. Go Googling, and just see how many new things you can learn in a week!


This is David’s March blog for the Marketing Society

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This week I attended an excellent breakfast event at RKCR Y&R. The theme was ‘Identity and Austerity: two topics that will shape 2015’. The three speakers were Catherine Kehoe, Managing Director Group Brands & Marketing at Lloyds Banking Group, Alex Neil MSP, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, and our very own Stefano Hatfield, former Editor of Campaign and now Editor-in-Chief of High 50.

Kehoe covered austerity impressively, even if it made for depressing listening. She talked about youth unemployment, children being less well off than their parents and 40% of retirees not being able to fund their retirement. Neil gave a jaunty and upbeat spin on the pivotal role for the SNP in what he sees as the break-up of the GB political system. He scorned the idea of a Federal Britain, with England representing 88% of population. He feels that it is only the first independence referendum that has been lost (‘thanks to Gordon Brown’). He went on to say that Scotland are looking to sit at Europe’s top table ‘alongside Luxembourg!’

Hatfield reminded us what a talent he has as a commentator, with a passionate articulation of the significance of the 50+ segment population, both politically and in marketing terms. Already more than 30% of us are over 50, the 65+ segment will double in the next 17 years, and one in three children born this year should live to 100. He advised the ad industry against patronising older people and revealed that 97% of 50+ don’t think advertising (as a whole) is for them. 94% of people working in the business are under 50.

Three good speakers.

Three different subjects handled well in a way that made for a coherent story about the absolute inevitability of lasting change for Britain. It was a very warm and collegiate atmosphere in the room. It was so popular that there was standing room only. Ben Kay was an excellent host, and put on a really worthwhile event.

So why do I question the effectiveness of oratory in the light of a terrific morning at Greater London House? Four main reasons:

  1. The seminar took an hour and a half – more if you count getting there early for a coffee and bun (no bun for me, just three blackberries, which is two less than the handsets I have owned!). That’s quite a long time in receiving mode to listen to just three speakers, when we are used to TV and radio current affairs and news in 60 and 90 second gobbets.
  2. We are also used to hopping channels and websites, shouting at the TV, picking holes in everything we watch, interacting with the websites, and being as relentlessly mouthy and opinionated on social media as we are in the pub.
  3. I think most of us are deeply frustrated when we can’t join in. Having been researching meetings for nearly two years, you often see that frustration in the conference room, with aggression, interruptions, overtalking and generally bad behaviour.
  4. Listening to Alex Neil, good as he was, I was reminded of how fed up we get with politicians loading arguments and playing the ‘yah boo sucks to you’ game that will have driven us insane by the time 14th May comes.

I am certainly not saying oratory doesn’t work any more, but it’s a lot tougher nowadays for even the very best speakers. Unless the circumstances are exceptional, five minutes may be about the limit for one contributor. Experts tell us that most adults struggle to concentrate on any one thing for ten minutes, and in a seminar that probably has to include the speech, a couple of burning questions and the answers.

But that shouldn’t be too much of a worry for a profession that has mastered the art of making a brand famous in thirty seconds.


This is David’s contribution to the Marketing Society Blog in February. You can read it also here

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In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sang,
‘Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-B-C
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi’

But does that always make sense in our frenzied digital world? We are all pushed for time, and trying to pack so much into one mega-busy day after another. Maybe it would be sensible to start with the punch line.

Have we got the time and patience to wade through all the intermediate stages? We watch Match of the Day or record the game, and fast forward through to the last ten minutes. We record soaps on Sky Plus, skip the early stages and the ads, and zip through to the denouement.

At school I instinctively liked history and geography. If the conflict was called the Hundred Years War, you knew when it ended, and you could find out what happened, and why. Papua New Guinea may have mountains and valleys that are still unexplored, but we know exactly where the territory is, its capital, population, and so forth. No big mysteries. Finite subjects have that attraction.

When you think about it, we are brought up very iteratively. Every lesson and course at school, every book, every TV programme, every movie, every play, every set of instructions, every recipe, every game of football starts at the beginning and proceeds steadily through to the final act, the last page and ‘The End’.

Spending so much time turning meetings into Motes these days, I am very conscious of how old hat it is to invite 15 people to a 90 minute meeting when none of them know what the outcome is going to be. Why not plan the session and at least give them a hint of what you want to happen? Democracy is one thing and free speech is another. But time is money, and unexpected outcomes are the stuff of Poirot and Midsomer Murders, not the impatient business world.

I can completely understand why Sudoku and crossword addicts enjoy the challenge of solving a puzzle. When we have time for relaxation, the same is true of crime novels and movies. I am sure we could find a psychologist to explain that we have an inner need for ‘recreational ordering’.

And as for spoiling the joke by giving away the punch line, TV comedy has done pretty well out of repeating catch phrases week after week.

When it comes to meetings, doesn’t it make sense for the organiser(s) to plan the desired outcome, share that with the participants, and collaboratively work through the ‘whys’, ‘hows’ and ‘what do we do next’?

We can only handle so much suspense!


This is David’s Marketing Society blog from January 2015.

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The other day I was listening to Radio 5 live. Presenter Chris Warburton was doing a piece on putting newspapers on the top shelf to prevent children seeing disturbing headlines. He had recruited the standard two ‘experts’ – someone from a women’s group who supported the idea, and a bloke who thought it was ridiculous. Warburton issued the immortal challenge above, and predictably the two protagonists dug in behind their rehearsed (and firmly held) points of view, and gave not an inch.

Was it even remotely surprising that neither speaker changed their mind? No.

Did it make good radio? No.

Yet in business meeting after meeting everyone wastes their time while people who fundamentally disagree kick seven bells out of each other.

Faux democracy has much to answer for. Presumably that is the justification for giving up valuable work time for pointless debate. Confrontational and adversarial behaviour is all round us. Listen to hostile interviews on the Today Programme. Suffer every Thursday evening watching Question Time. Marvel at the selection of the cage fighters on The Apprentice. Observe how people behave at football matches and when driving.

Why do we allow so many meetings to deteriorate into an unregulated free for all?

Meetings are essentially the way we work together now. So it becomes the responsibility of companies and meeting organisers to lay down rules on behaviour and etiquette. I’m not against constructive debate. Nor do I expect everyone to turn the other cheek. But confrontational behaviour has two big downsides. Opponents seldom change their mind. And it all wastes even more valuable time.

Empathy is the miracle remedy. The next time you are gearing up for a frontal assault, just imagine yourself in the shoes of your intended target. Treat them as you would like to be treated yourself. That is the spirit of Mote – the super meeting.


This is David’s Marketing Society post for December

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Is there another activity that occupies so much of our time which gives us as much grief as the meeting?

Let’s try some adjectives: frustrating, time-consuming, unproductive.

Let’s look at the obvious weaknesses of so many of the meetings we attend: too many of them every day / every week, too many people around the table, too many items on the agenda, too adversarial, too inconclusive, too badly run.

Once you start struggling with back to back meetings, you know it’s time to do it differently. No-one works well when half their brain is spinning from the meeting before, and the other half is focusing on the one to follow. And when the arguing round the table outweighs the agreeing, you are right to question the wisdom of meeting the way we do.

So why don’t we, our colleagues or our companies do anything to make these meetings better? Largely, I believe, because individual meeting-goers feel powerless to change the system. And also because companies and meeting organisers don’t know how to innovate or reinvent the meeting.

That is exactly why having spent more than a quarter of a century in meetings with my AAI hat on, I have dedicated a great deal of the last six months to working on the Mote – the first revolution in meeting practice since the Levellers and the Putney Debates in 1647.

You see we want to meet. And we need to meet. People come together all the time. Some encounters are accidental, eg on a train, in a bus, on the tube, on a flight, shopping, in the street. Others are deliberate and planned, as when we socialise. Equally not all human encounters are meetings.

What can we learn from unstructured and chance encounters that will inform business meetings? For me the most significant truth is that we humans are particularly good at one-to-ones. The dynamic duo is the most potent and most effective combination. That’s why lunch works so well. Two people nearly always work well together because it is natural to deploy altruism, empathy and mutual interest.

We think before we speak.

We take the other’s point of view, sensibilities and capabilities into account. Meetings with just two people in the room can go faster and more energetically than a room full of the cleverest people in the building. That’s the principle of Mote.

Start lean. Add experts and specialists as you need them. Stand them down when you don’t. And finish lean with the decision in sight, and realisation of the project at hand.

A meeting conducted in the Mote style will work. It will be productive. It will be enjoyable. It will make meeting worthwhile.

Next year MOTE: The Super Meeting will be available to show you how. But meanwhile, break the stranglehold of big frustrating meetings. Dare to go for big decisions in small meetings. Let everyone enjoy the opportunity gain of less time in the meeting room, and more time to think and do proper work!

This is David’s November blog for the Marketing Society

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Are you busy?

After ‘how are you?’ it’s probably the commonest greeting these days. I guess we all want to be busy, and we want to be seen to be busy. So we encourage our business friends to tell us how busy they are too.

Being busy is obviously desirable economically (busy means money coming in), socially (no-one wants to be caught out watching daytime TV), and career-wise (difficult to move to a really busy job without a track record of being busy).

But let’s stop to think whether it is a really good idea to be busy. Or if being slightly busy or quite busy might not be better than very busy. Let’s look at what being very busy means:

  • Responsible job – hopefully salary or revenue to match
  • Doing well – promotion, or another company will want to hire you
  • Respect all round

So far all good. But are there downsides?

  • Work/life balance getting out of kilter
  • Difficult to prioritise at both work and home
  • Missing out on important aspects of life with family and friends – pressure on evenings, weekends, holiday times, relaxation, sleep
  • Possible threat to health
  • Not having time to think
  • Making mistakes through being rushed
  • Sitting in meeting after meeting

Now we are getting to something where we can take action. Meetings.

  • What percentage of our working week is spent in meetings?
  • Is that more than last year or three years ago?
  • How useful are the meetings I attend?
  • What would happen if I ruthlessly pruned my meeting schedule? How much time could I liberate – every day, week, and month? What would I be able to do with the time?
  • Work more?
  • Work better?
  • Think better and more?
  • Put more time into personal life and family/friends?

Sounding good, isn’t it? Maybe being very busy – for hundreds of thousands if not millions of people – is a reflection of the extent to which all our working lives are dominated by meetings. And that aspect of busyness is not rewarding (financially, socially or in terms of career). Nor is it likely to help the very organisation that presides over the meeting regime in which you are caught up – your company.

I am dedicated to helping to make meetings more effective and productive by publishing my book MOTE: The Super Meeting, which makes the case for a radical new approach. If we succeed in pruning the meeting tree, and giving it a giant haircut, I believe there will be many beneficiaries:

  • Companies whose directors, executives and managers will be freed up to do more actual work
  • Those same staff members who will be able to get their lives back in balance and work better and live more happily
  • Their families. The list goes on…

So what’s stopping us?

I’ll give you a couple of behavioural phenomena: Loss Aversion and Sunk Cost. Loss Aversion is the state of finding it difficult to give things up. Pundits call it FOMO (the fear of missing out). We are worried about what we might miss by not being at this meeting or that. Sunk Cost relates to the huge time investment we have made by attending hundreds of meetings. Does it make sense to stop now?

I give you another behavioural thought – taking control of your life. We know it would make sense to have the time to think better, work better and live better. If it’s only meetings standing in the way of freeing up that valuable time, let’s join the movement for fewer, better, more effective meetings with less people tied up in them. If time was as valuable as power sources – and it is – freeing up huge units of people’s time would be the equivalent of a massive conversion to sustainable and affordable energy.

We might agree that is an example not so much of behavioural economics as a well-attested theory among business academics – the capability of analogy to influence minds and inspire meaningful change.


This is David’s October blog for the Marketing Society

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It should all be about outputs and outcomes, says David Wethey

Old habits die hard. What time is the meeting? How long have we got? Can everyone stay till the end? Which room is it in? Who’s going to be there? Who can’t make it? Is the new guy on Wizzo able to come? Is Wayne dialling in? What time is it for him? Are we covering the problems on Fizzer and Snazzy as well as the catch-up on the rest of the portfolio?

But new ways fashion new habits. So many meeting invitations hit our inboxes that they are almost like junk mail. Meetings invariably have end times now, as well as start times.

We all know that meetings don’t work very well. There are too many of them. They occupy too much of our day. They usually fail to advance projects fast enough. They rarely seem to lead to a decision. Each meeting invitation looks like every other one. Our expectation for each meeting is low, because most meetings are humdrum and unexciting. To be honest, they seldom achieve much. They don’t change things. They are not transformatory.

A recent UK survey by Epson says that one in five senior managers and directors spend ten hours or more in meetings every week. More than 2 hours 39 minutes are wasted every week in meetings, and that it only takes eleven minutes for people’s attention to drift. These stats, and the estimate of £26bn being lost to the UK economy every year in wasted meeting time could be much higher. Dave Barry, the American author of Insane City says, ‘If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve its full potential, that word would be Meetings’.

Yet meetings are effectively the way most companies do business. Meetings are like the factory in a manufacturing company, flying in an airline, or growing food on a farm.

Top talent, and the next layer, and the ones waiting in the wings all effectively work in and through meetings. So if meetings are not particularly productive, that is disastrous. The system is in danger of being inefficient, as well as demotivating.

My passionate belief is that it’s time for a revolution in the way we do meetings. We need a much better meeting. We need a smarter way to get together in order to make decisions, plan for change, drive projects, identify opportunities and solve problems.

We obviously need meetings to inform, discuss and reach agreement. But all meetings don’t have to be the way they are. In my book Decide (published February 2013 by Kogan Page) I identified the ‘average’ one hour meeting as a barrier to progress, bordering on a waste of time.

Since then I have been working on a radical new meeting system, designed to liberate us all from the frustrations of inefficient, time-consuming sessions. We need meetings that are focused on goals and outcomes, not inputs and logistics. We need to focus single-mindedly on what comes out of the meeting, not who is entitled to be there. I believe the ‘Mote’ is that better way.

I have revived a word from Old English, where it meant the place where community meetings were held. To this day the words for meeting in Danish and Norwegian are close relatives of Mote.

Mote is a streamlined system and process for running more effective meetings. The process is driven by a two person team – the Leader (who is tasked with driving a project or a decision) and a Navigator (a meeting specialist responsible for facilitation, casting and logistics). Specialists and experts are added as needed, and stood down when they have made their contribution.

In future I hope that Mote will stand for progress, speed, change and efficiency. My new book Mote: The Super Meeting (to be published early next year) will explain how to get started, and why a revolutionary new meeting regime will have far wider benefits than just more efficient meetings.


This is David Wethey’s September blogpost for the Marketing Society

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This legendary campaign by SH Benson for Guinness first saw the light of day in the late 1920’s, with none other than Dorothy L Sayers as the copywriter.

‘Just think what Toucan do’ is my slogan for this month.

I have been researching widely for my new book on making meetings more productive and effective, and it has become quite clear to me that a dynamic duo is by far mankind’s most efficient grouping.

Better balanced than even the most outstanding individual (few old sayings are as true as ‘two heads are better than one’).

More agile and higher performing than conference rooms full of clever people. Faux democracy has much to answer for when meetings of all the ‘right people’ fail to deliver.

The moment you see lots of chairs around a table in a meeting room, take time to reflect that the meeting problem has already started. All those egos. All those agendas. The attraction of speaking over listening. The influence of the loudest. The marginalisation of the quieter ones.

Whereas a determined twosome can make dramatic progress – in moving a project forward, or towards a decision.

Of course we can always add experts – preferably one at a time in the style of the ‘Stepladder’ problem solving methodology.

But the additional team members can  – and should – leave the stage after they have been able to add value.

Leaving the two to conquer the world.


This is David’s July blog for the Marketing Society

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