A short and pithy piece this month, from starting your day early to setting a delivery delay on your emails.

  1. Start really early
    Forget all that larks and owls stuff. Face it that larks rule the world and owls just try to keep up.
  2. Don’t immediately say ‘no’
    Make ‘I’ll think about it’ your default setting.
  3. Get into the habit of looking things up and checking facts
    The internet is a treasure house of information, facts and figures. Your brain is overloaded. Being right is a good habit, and it’s quite easily achieved.
  4. Set achievable goals for every single day
    Or one goal. Doesn’t matter. Write it down. Go for it.
  5. Plan a bit further ahead
    Always have your sights on something ambitious and exciting, and keep stoking the fire.
  6. Don’t go to meetings that produce no results and no decisions
    We all know that six clever people in a conference room is no guarantee of a successful outcome.
  7. If you want to get something done, start small
    The most efficient meeting is just two people.
  8. Delay sending your emails
    Go to the tools menu on MS Outlook. You can set a ‘Rule’ to defer delivery by up to 2 hours. No more embarrassing mistakes or hot headed notes.
  9. Try not sending an email at all
    Remember the old days. Nothing wrong with meeting someone or calling them.
  10. Reconnect with one old friend a day
    Doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just let them know you’re still around and interested in them.

This is David Wethey’s Marketing Society blog for this month. You can also read it here

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The greatest challenge for business leaders? Profitability? No. Productivity? No. Sustainability? No. Communications? No. Diversity? No. Red tape? No.
I’m talking about The Meeting – the dysfunctional and villainous consumer of people and time. It should be the pathway to decision making, the engine of progress, and the multiplier that translates individual talent into collective excellence.
Instead meetings in most companies achieve little, demotivate participants, and waste time and money – £26bn was the estimate of the cost to the UK economy of time squandered in meetings in 2011 alone.
I have spent a quarter of a century helping clients make a very important decision for them – which agency to appoint to transform the fortunes of their brand. Each pitch process has involved scores of meetings, which I have sat through and observed. There were also years of studying decision science, and researching and writing my book DECIDE, which I wrote because of my conviction that decision making is the single most important skill in life – not just for business. You can’t make business decisions or implement them without meetings. All this has given me a personal perspective on the meeting, and the frustrations it brings.
But I have also researched widely, and meetings seem to be the bane of most people’s life – here and around the world. Here are my Top Ten most obvious meeting mistakes:
1. Poor leadership
2. Ineffective follow up and implementation
3. Failure to set a goal for the meeting
4. Too many items on the agenda
5. Too many attendees. Did you know that at least 32 ministers now attend cabinet meetings? In a 90 minute cabinet meeting that gives each minister less than three minutes airtime!
6. Not enough time spent on preparation
7. No effort to profile participants, so as to get a balanced team. (Team – so the meeting is supposed to have a team dynamic?)
8. Loud voices allowed to dominate
9. People getting away with overtalking and interrupting
10. Too much confrontational behaviour and tone (the technique favoured on radio programmes like the Today Programme and Question Time).
And those are just features of the old fashioned face-to-face meeting, with everyone in one room. If they seem to work increasingly less efficiently, what price the ubiquitous conference call and telephone meeting? Nightmares for the most part. Dominant and persistent voices rule. Conference calls for the most part are all output, with everyone queuing up to speak. Any listening is passive and grudging. I feel that conference calls don’t work well even as status updates. As a forum for decision making they are quite simply hopeless. Video conferencing and Skype work better, but usually seem to suffer from many of the defects of ‘live’ meetings.
People’s preference for social media and one-to-one communications has also made traditional meetings unpopular. Think of all those personal brands sitting around the table!
Is there anything that can be done? I think that it’s not enough simply to do a ‘taking the car in for a service’ job every time a company realises it has a problem with the way it uses meetings. We need to be much more ambitious.

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It’s exactly a week since Boris’s nightmare interview with Eddie Mair on the Andrew Marr Show.

“You’re a nasty piece of work” was Mair’s now famous put down. This piece is not to endorse that view. Nor is it to echo Boris’s father Stanley or his friend Darius Guppy in mounting a staunch defence of the Mayor of London.

My worry is that we have developed a new bad habit – universal adversarialism. Or to put it less politely, it’s open season for everyone slagging off everyone else. We have an adversarial parliamentary system – which is unlike, for instance, the USA. They seem to have survived without it for nearly 240 years and governed themselves adequately. We have an adversarial legal system. Policing is largely adversarial. Sport is almost entirely adversarial.

As to the ‘Fourth Estate’, both broadcast and print media are increasingly confrontational. Not that that is anything new. Even before he was sent to jail, Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, ‘In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.’

Slagging off on TV and radio is of course not confined to editorial pieces. Audience participation shows like Question Time and Any Questions actively encourage members of the public to join in and attack their tribunes and prominent citizens in general. Plays, soaps and movies are packed full of aggression and verbal abuse – echoing no doubt what is happening behind closed doors in hundreds of thousands of households.
I am commenting on a social trend, not advocating censorship. In all relatively free societies from the days of the Greek agora and the Roman Forum down to Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year, there has been a tradition of popular protest. Even under totalitarian regimes brave souls have risked their lives by criticising those in power.

Nor is it wrong to argue and debate. I strongly recommend a book by Susan Scott, an American consultant – Fierce Conversations (Berkeley Trade, 2004) – in which she urges the reader not to shirk difficult debates with everyone in their lives, where necessary, including oneself.

I worry about the way adversarialism is delivered. My concern is that from children upwards we are all starting to see confrontation as the default setting, rudeness as a stock in trade, and aggression as a natural way to debate. You see it in road rage. You even see it on pavements and in the Tube. Watch a junior football, rugby or cricket match. I am not sure what is worse – the language and demeanour of the kids, or that of their parents on the touchline or boundary.

I am dedicated to helping everyone make better decisions. That is why I wrote my book Decide, and why I am now hard at work on its successor. The crucial cauldron for decision making by teams and organisations is the endless series of meetings they all rely on. Meetings are at the same time the most frustrating part of decision making (because they seldom produce any decision whatsoever), and the best hope, because decision making is precisely what the meeting was designed to achieve.

But check out your friendly local meeting. Is the atmosphere collegiate? Is the language calm and urbane? You must be joking. Inevitably confrontation now dogs the meeting as it threatens to poison the rest of our life. And because confrontation is unconstructive, it impedes debate and reduces the chance of arriving at a decision.

I say it is time to blow a whistle, to sound a warning, to call a halt to the slagging off. If we can achieve any progress in this direction, we will start to see that we can make far more progress by debating and discussing in what we used to call a civilised fashion.

And then, Mr Mair, calling someone a “nasty piece of work” will say more (and not in a nice way) about the slagger, and less about the slagged.

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Putting things off is a bad habit and also widespread. A survey of 2000 UK adults published in The Times on 19th February showed that 75% were serial procrastinators.
Apparently we all choose to tackle low priority tasks ahead of more important ones, and tend to do more enjoyable things first. Nor is it that we don’t know that it’s a bad idea. Psychologists tell us that we know that we are going to be worse off if we choose to delay important projects.
It seems to be a deep-seated characteristic rather than just errant behaviour. In that respect it is like being an owl rather than a lark, a pessimist rather than an optimist, or a blamer as opposed to a pacifier. We have neuroplasticity to account for this. We learn how and when to do things (or not). We develop habits. The subconscious takes over, and we become hard-wired to exhibit habitual behaviour, which often turns out to be negative.
Nor is this just down to laziness. It also seems to relate to anxiety and lack of self-confidence – and extreme caution.
As a bit of an obsessive on the subject of decision making, I worry about procrastination, and have been looking at possible cures – lest the 75% of people who put things off all become poor deciders.
Here’s my short list of possible remedies:
1. Put pen to paper. Don’t just agonise. Make some notes. Plot the task – the goal, the sticking points, the options ahead of you, with upsides and downsides
2. Use your imagination to envisage having made the decision or completed the task. How does that feel? Does it give you some clues about getting around the obstacles
3. At least make a start. Start thinking in earnest. Give the document a name and start typing. It is so much easier completing a task than starting from scratch
4. If you can see a series of problems, look really hard for an equal and opposite opportunity. Identifying and realising an opportunity beats the hell out of mere problem-solving
5. But sometimes we do have to wrestle with particularly intransigent problems. My advice to you if you are faced by one such at the moment: choose a lesser problem and solve that. It will warm up your brain for dealing with the big one
6. Finally remember that the whole point of decision making is to make a decision! It doesn’t have to be the final, ultimate, defining decision. Just embarking on lap one of the decision making journey will do for now. Don’t put it off. Make the right decision – at least for now. And then manage it through by making it as right as possible.

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Advertising people are notorious for staying in their comfort zone. In some respects adland is like showbiz and sport, womblike worlds where it is so much easier to spend your time with those who understand you and speak the same language.

So deciding to write a book encouraging strangers from the dangerous outside world to take a major life skill seriously, and get better at it was a bit of a departure. What on earth made me do it?

Years of first-hand experience of the choosing/selection process at AAI had given me some unique insights into what works with marketing and management teams, and what is most unlikely to. For an even longer period – going back to my experiences at AC Nielsen and Pritchard Wood & Partners (my first agency, where account planning was invented) in the 1960s – I had been involved in the implications of predicting and understanding the way consumers make decisions about this brand and that.

But I was keen to understand more about decision making on a wider front. We all juggle our lives, so decision-making is a crucial skill in everything from choosing a career to choosing a partner, from deciding on a house to deciding on a holiday. I recognised that my personal track record as a decider was distinctly average. So I started reading voraciously to make sure I understood where the established experts – academics, the consultants and the behavioural economics populists – were coming from.

Then I blogged about decision making. Relentlessly. Before delivering the manuscript of Decide, I had blogged no less than 75,000 words on in a year. I wrote about decision making per se, but also about decisions in all the fields that interest me from politics to marketing, from sport to the media. I wrote about brilliant decisions and bad decisions. I wrote about things that made me laugh, and things that made me cry with frustration.

The blogging gave me a platform, but the interviews with ‘great deciders’ gave me priceless inputs. My debt to this inspiring group of individuals is immense. I learned so much from these people – not least how generous they were prepared to be in sharing experiences and ideas, as well as giving me their time.

As I in turn share the anecdotes, examples and learnings with you in the course of the book, you will spot inevitable differences between how famous achievers choose and decide. But I am confident you will also see the similarities and common factors. For many of the people I interviewed, dreams and ambitions arrived at a very early age – often before the tenth birthday. They were able to explain to me how important these influences had been. Several of the ‘great deciders’ have also had – later in life – the courage to make radical life changes, often for far more hours, and far less money. My interviewees all could identify the particular opportunity, challenge or problem that prompted a really big decision. Almost all gave gut feel as their main driver in making decisions, having gone through looking at options and assessing risks. The interviews gave me a profound respect for their determination. One can’t fail to be impressed not just by their decisions, but by the way they made those decisions.

Let me summarise the key learnings that came out of my research, the interviews, and the soul-searching and analysis that followed:

• Decision making isn’t easy, but it’s possible – and important – to get better at it
• Logic and rationality is a good place to start, but gut feel, emotion, instinct are indispensable drivers
• It is highly instructive to understand the common threads that conspire to make decisions fail, but knowing what won’t work is no guarantee that you can get it right yourself
• To do that, it’s vital to take on board three key factors:
1. The time available for making the decision
2. The personality profiles of the people involved and the implications of that on teamwork
3. The fact that identifying and realising opportunities is a far higher order skill than mere problem-solving
• Making a decision is one thing. Communicating it in the best way is crucial
• Implementation is in the end what determines how good the decision was.

I am a great believer in the third journey of life. That’s the privileged time when having learned all you can (Journey #1), and having been hired and paid for what you know (Journey #2), you are in a position to share knowledge and help others. In the end I wrote Decide to encourage others to become better deciders.

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Last summer I made one of the toughest decisions of my life: that my company AAI would turn its back on the conventional way of conducting agency pitches. I believe it was a great decision. But it was not an easy one.

Because making difficult decisions is one of the crucial tests for any decision taker, I thought it might be helpful to share the story.

By July 2012 AAI had been advising clients on finding new agencies as a specialist consultant for exactly 24 years. AAI had an established reputation across many countries as a state of the art facilitator of agency pitches. Running pitches was roughly 75% of our revenue stream, and our methodology was well known and accepted by advertisers and agencies alike as the default setting. Rival consulting practices and numerous advertisers across the globe had followed our lead.

Yet we made the announcement that we were no longer prepared to handle pitch assignments if it involved agencies giving away creative work for free. Why make that change, when we had been closely involved in organising such contests for many years?

First, and importantly, I emphasise in my book Decide (to be published by Kogan Page in February) how vital it is to make formal choices by establishing robust criteria, and sticking to them. At the outset of a pitch, all our clients work with us on deciding which boxes the agency of their dreams needs to tick (the criteria and sub-criteria). No client in our experience has ever been brazen enough to stipulate that their agency choice should be based largely on which agency provides the most plausible free campaign in the shortest number of days!

Secondly, we recognised that there had been a significant and continuous slippage from what was the custom 30/40 years ago – agencies offering just an indication of a possible solution – to effectively providing complete free campaigns.

We were also influenced by four salient facts:

1. The first is the research carried out by the ISBA/IPA steering group (of which I was a member) on the Good Pitch initiative: only one in five of the campaign ideas that win pitches ever runs for real. That means four out of five fall through clients changing their minds, or at the research hurdle. And that’s just the winning agency’s idea. If six agencies make speculative creative presentations, five of those ideas are destined for oblivion anyway.
2. Academic evidence is clear that picking a winner from exceptional candidates is a demanding and specialist skill, which requires both strict criteria setting and a healthy dose of gut feel. The AAI casebook – over 24 years – shows no correlation between the ability to create instant magic and forging productive long-term relationships. Some agencies are particularly successful at winning pitches. Others have an enviable record at long term stewardship. We can find no evidence of a link.
3. We researched a wide spectrum of other professionals (including lawyers, accountants, management consultants, architects, surgeons and consultants), also service providers as diverse as defence contractors, caterers, and kitchen designers. No one gives away IP, or offers for free what they should be selling
4. We believe that the movement to raise ethical standards in public life (politicians, media owners, company chiefs, bankers) is unstoppable. We have spoken to several senior marketers who would prefer a less lavish, more practical and more effective way of finding new agencies.
There is a strong case for marketers, procurement professionals and agencies to try something different: a pitch process that is:
• Faster (target 5/6 weeks maximum), much less expensive for everyone, with fewer agencies involved
• Dependent not upon final presentations of speculative creative work, but creative work done for the agencies’ clients (with results), reputation, track record, people, fit and strategic alignment

We called our new process Mutual Decision™. The name reflects the fact that there are two decisions at the end of every pitch: the client’s to appoint a new agency, and the agency’s to take on a new client.

Mutual Decision™ is designed to be a far more effective way of forming a productive long term partnership, because it is based on mutually relevant criteria, not one side putting the other through a creative beauty parade, largely to the exclusion of more important considerations. It also provides for two other vital elements of any professional partnership – a proper induction period, and ongoing – and two-way – evaluation of the quality of the relationship, and the productivity engendered.

It was a difficult decision to change our business model so fundamentally. But for me, having just written a book on making better decisions in a better way, it would have been even more challenging to carry on recommending an agency selection system that is not only costly and time-consuming, but also relatively ineffective and ethically questionable.

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Season tickets were always going to go up this month – and commuters have known for three months by how much. Yet newspapers and radio phone-ins have been buzzing with righteous indignation, swiftly followed by demands that the railways should be nationalised. For people interested in decision science, it’s a classic case, and one worth dwelling on briefly.

But let’s knock one urban myth on the head from the outset: the one about the railways being under the control of private companies. It’s certainly true that the train operating companies (TOCs) own assets like rolling stock and the power units that move them around the rail network, publish timetables, charge customers and pay wages. But control? Forget it. The UK rail industry is very firmly regulated, and is effectively controlled by the Government. None of the TOCs can run even one service without Network Rail. And Network Rail is a statutory corporation, with no shareholders. The Government has the right to make any changes to the company, including taking it into state ownership.

The Government also manages the whole industry through the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR). ORR is responsible for economic and safety management, through a Board, which reports to the Secretary of State for Transport. ORR has the final say in fare structure. Also they negotiate with the Treasury on what proportion of investment is paid for by the Government, and what by the rail traveller. The UK rail industry has significantly less subsidy than in other countries.

Sorry about the lesson – but this is an interesting case, and the background is important. Let’s do the rest by numbers:
1. There appears to be a paradox – ten years of increased prices, and still passenger numbers are rising. What does that tell us? The demand side for rail travel in general and commuting in particular continues to be strong. Surprising? Not really. The rail service in the UK has improved steadily in both reliability and comfort – apart from peak rush hour services, and more people than ever rely on trains to get them to work
2. There are numerous other examples of goods and services where – even in an economic downturn – demand is strong despite increased prices
3. Does this mean that price elasticity doesn’t apply to rail fares? Can the TOCs increase prices for ever with no fall off in demand? Almost certainly not – but we are not there yet
4. What about the TOCs investing in much needed improvements to rolling stock and the stations they own? Do they need to increase prices to achieve future customer satisfaction? Yes, they do, given Government regulation, and subsidy at less than 40%. It absolutely makes sense to do it while negative price elasticity still applies
5. So why were the 24 TOCs and their joint body ATOC so apologetic and defensive when they announced the average increase in season tickets of 4.2%? Heaven knows. No commuter relishes paying more, but in the current climate of cuts it is obvious that increasing the level of rail subsidy is not an option for the Government
6. Wouldn’t it have been possible to explain the reasons for investing in the future, with the Government sharing the pain with the travelling public. Of course it would. This piece has done it in less than 600 words
7. HS2? Now you’re talking dirty!

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The procurement function gets a lot of stick.

Organisations that supply services to big client companies (especially agencies) frequently complain about that they see as mean procurement departments. ‘They beat us up on price’. ‘They make us jump through all sorts of hoops’. ‘They impose tough payment terms on us’.

I’ve been known to say the same sort of thing myself!

But there’s a big truth out there: procurement’s job is to buy raw materials, goods and services for their company, and to do it selfishly. That’s because we all buy selfishly. We want things on our terms, at the lowest possible price, provided the quality is OK. The language is littered with sayings and aphorisms to underline this point.

“They are so desperate for the business, they’ll drop the price in the end”
“Never pay more than you have to”.

But the buyer can be sceptical too.

“No such a thing as a free lunch”.
“Pay peanuts, get monkeys”.

It is unrealistic to expect your commercial equation to defy the laws of gravity – whether you are an agency seeking a higher fee, or if you are trying to sell your house in a depressed market. Buyers will be buyers. But the other side of the coin is rather less obvious. If you want to be a success in sales, you can’t sell selfishly. If you sell what you want to sell, at the price you want to get, on the terms you insist on, you are likely to have very limited success.

That’s because we have to sell generously. We need to work out what people want to buy. We have to allow people to choose. We must get the pricing right. We are obliged to offer terms the buyer will accept.

Yet so often, we come across ungenerous sellers:
• The take it or leave it mentality
• Agencies that tell the client there’s only one creative solution, only one photographer, only one director
• Inflexible media deals, that aren’t deals, precisely because they are inflexible
• The used car that’s too pricey, or the house seller that won’t drop their price

Selfish buying demands generous selling. Hard-nosed buying makes sense. Hard-nosed selling makes none. Unless you are very tough – or very, very good.

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You don’t have to look very far to find casualties of the downturn across
the Northern Hemisphere. Countries, regions, cities, industries, businesses,
families, individuals have all suffered from the consequences of economic reverse.
A developed, prosperous world has turned sour. Older people have no comfortable
retirement to look forward to. Those who should be in the prime of their working
life are either out of work or struggling. A generation of young have no
workplace in which to use their hard-earned education. So problems have become
the staple diet – for supra-national bodies, for countries, for the business
and public sectors, in homes……everywhere.

Consultants and advisers are queuing up offering to solve the problems
that management and internal teams are wrestling with. Before long there will
be more hot desks at Regus than work stations in company offices.
Communications agencies seem to be multiplying as production levels of
problem-solving ideas soar.

Is it the destiny of the developed world to identify problems, and solve

I hope not. And really believe it is not the way to go. Problem solving
is plumbing by another name. The higher order activity is to spot opportunities
and realise them.

Opportunities are the gateway to innovation and growth. When I
interviewed high achievers for my forthcoming book Decide (to be published by Kogan Page in February), they all told me about the opportunities that helped to change their lives. Many about the opportunity they saw to change the lives of others. A solved problem, unless it gives rise
to an equal and opposite opportunity is a closed box or a finished crossword. A
realised opportunity is a launch pad.

As we all look for a better 2013, let’s change focus. The priority is not
to fight to be allowed to tackle problems which, in the majority of cases, have
been defined by others. The challenge is to look for opportunities which we can
capitalise upon ourselves, or help others to bring to fruition.

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Bernie Ecclestone said this in an interview last November: ‘I think Europe is finished. It will be a good place for tourism but little else. Europe is a thing of the past.’

The back story was about Ecclestone’s determination to change the shape of F1 by holding fewer GPs in Europe, and more elsewhere. But his words grated with a lot of people on a far broader front. People who believe Europe is absolutely not finished. Struggling maybe. Certainly not in great shape.

But still the cradle of our civilisation. Still rich in culture and invention. Unbelievably diverse. Impossibly beautiful. Incredibly, spectacularly wonderful. And a great place to grow up, live, love, work and prosper.

Luckily advertising folk read what Bernie wrote and decided to fight back. The way the ad world does. With insights, ideas, ingenuity and professionalism. The EACA (European Association of Communications Agencies) is the body that embraces all the national advertising communities of Europe.

Today in Brussels, as the continent’s creative cream gather to celebrate the Euro Effies (effectiveness awards to you and me) EACA President Moray MacLennan, Worldwide CEO of M&C Saatchi, announced an initiative called “This is my future”. He also unveiled an initial TV commercial idea.

The official statement from EACA says, ‘The initiative is designed to inspire 500,000 new start-up businesses over the next three years. Based on the average value-added per micro-business, this would deliver a gross added value of €33 million and nearly two million employed positions to the EU. The campaign will be supported by a budget of €2.2 million to be funded by private enterprise, venture capital and contributions in kind from partners’.

So Ecclestone made a highly negative pronouncement, which caused much consternation and a considerable problem for what had started to look something of a beleaguered region. Europe’s ad community saw not so much the problem. More the opportunity. Their response: the whole ambitious “This is my future” programme.

It all goes to prove one of my favourite beliefs: opportunities are far more important than problems.

With a problem, you are left with sorting out the plumbing. Even if you manage to solve it, you are often no better off than before the problem emerged.

Opportunities are infinitely more powerful. There are two higher order tasks: identifying them, and realising them.

Go for it, EACA! You’ve spotted the opportunity. Now it’s up to us all to help you turn it into reality.

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