The Roaring Twenties?

Interesting piece in the Telegraph this week from their highly distinguished economics journalist, Jeremy Warner, in which he speculates that the aftermath of this pandemic might be an economic boom as was the case after the 1918/19 Spanish Flu outbreak. The period that followed the post 1st WW pandemic was known as ‘The Roaring Twenties’. Might we be on the verge of a ‘New Roaring Twenties’ 100 years on?

JW quite rightly warns of the danger of historic comparisons. The Spanish Flu was far worse than Covid 19 (10 million people across the world died) so the scale of the disruption was more than comparable but the situation was different. It’s hard to separate the bounce back from Spanish Flu and the bounce back from the Great War. His point, nonetheless, is that economies can reinvent themselves after, or even because of, catastrophic events as resources flow into new and emerging industries. A lot of people hope that one driver of our economic recovery this time will be Green Energy – a booming industry that addresses a global challenge – but it will need to be more than that, more perhaps than we are capable of imagining. A century ago the industrial landscape was made up of coal and steel, railroads and ships. That was displaced by oil and plastics, cars and planes. There was leisure and entertainment but no-on thought of them as sectors capable of driving an economy. There was data in our parents’ generation but no-one envisaged it as an industry, the new oil.

So what awaits us? Clean energy we hope but also Fintech, Biotech, Robotics, AI we think (so maybe we won’t need to) . There’s no sign of population growth slowing, only shifting geographically. Economic growth is fundamentally fuelled by population growth. As social apes distinguished by three things – our ability to produce more offspring than we can feed, our ability to exist in larger groups and our ability to copy quickly – we have had to develop and been able to disseminate technology to support our growing numbers. From the wheel & fire to electricity & computers, as our numbers have swelled our technology has transformed and our economies have grown. In 1820 the world population was one billion, by 1920 it was 2 billion, in 2020 it is heading towards 8 billion and our global economy has grown by even more than that. In 1820 China accounted for nearly 40% of a global economy of roughly half a $ Billion. By 1920 the global GDP was more than half a $Trillion and USA had overtaken China. In 2020, before Covid hit, the global economy was worth $142 Trillion.

It’s not all about money. Creative expression has also evolved enriching us culturally but also economically. The creative industry is estimated to be close to 10% of the global economy. Charlie Chaplin didn’t see that coming.

Our predecessors in the early 1920’s could not begin to see the explosion in innovation and birth of new industries coming down the track. They would not even recognise most of the job titles that exist today – data scientist, influencer, epidemiologist (the science of epidemiology emerged as a result of Spanish Flu)

The notion that there could more than just an economic recovery from Covid 19, there could actually be an economic boom based on sectors and jobs we cannot even imagine, is perhaps not so daft. I would however make two important caveats. Firstly the dislocation from where we were to where we might be heading will be very painful for some, sadly the poorest and most disadvantaged in society. The medium term might be exciting but the short term could be social carnage, and we know the dangers of that. As a result of social depravation and the rise of populism, the world was at war again less than two decades after the end of the Great War and the subsequent outbreak of Spanish Flu  .

Secondly, as I write about in my paper Neo-naked Economics, the actual economic model has to evolve to meet new challenges, as it has always needed to over the centuries. The new economic model for a new global economy needs to get back to having a social purpose, something we’d lost sight of in business and something we need to rediscover to avoid history repeating itself in the wrong way.

Existential Threat vs Existential Opportunity (with a bit of Hedonism thrown in)

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For some reason I can’t explain I have a keen ear for trends in vocabulary. I notice when certain words or phrases enter the ‘Narrative’ (that’s one by the way) and quickly get over-used to the point of cliche. Here are some other examples:-

Curation – a few years ago it burst on the scene and suddenly everything was curated.

Agency – in the sense of achieving control over events.

Trope – I think it means emerging themes or plot-lines

So…. – at some point, for no apparent reason, every reply to a question now started thus.

(Don’t even get me started on ‘Like’ or the Aussie inflection that turns every statement into a search for approval.)

Modern speak aside I’m just interested in words generally and words that enter our modern lexicon in particular. I’m actually quite nerdy about it, because when a word or phrase catches my attention I research them. I need to know what they really mean or more often their range of meaning which can be rich and unexpected. It’s been a rewarding hobby because every now and again I find enlightenment. It happened again this week.

I had for some time been interested in the word ‘existential’ and how every issue or threat or problem had now become existential. Not pressing or serious or concerning – existential.

I vaguely understood what existential meant – something that relates to existence. So in essence (a very important word we’ll come back to shortly) an existential threat is one so pressing, serious, concerning it risks our very existence.

On the other hand I also vaguely remembered that existentialism was a branch of philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre and all that stuff about angst rooted in the absurdity of life.

I decided to dig around and I was right. There are two meanings to existential. One meaning does indeed relate to existence. So an existential threat would be a threat that affects existence. That is mostly how it is used today but with an added twist of ‘clear and present danger’. An existential crisis is something really serious we have to deal with NOW or life as we know it is over.

Listening to the narrative (aka stories in news and social media) we face a number of existential threats around racism, gender fluidity/equality, climate, water, population, the growing gap between haves and have-nots, Artificial Intelligence, China and Chinese hegemony (great word, look it up, it’s all about domination and a power grab) to name just a few.

I’m not being flip when I say it’s all very angst-inducing. All the more so as we are in the midst of an existential Covid-19 crisis soon to be an existential economic crisis and some unknown ‘new normal’ (there’s another trendy phrase). And don’t forget on top of all this there are the ever present existential challenges we all have as individuals – we have our own problems to deal with as regards our careers, health, family & friends.

I don’t think I’m alone in my angst, I think this will ‘resonate’ with a lot of people – not just matter or be relatable or even strike a chord, resonate.

The enlightenment for me came from exploring the ideas behind existentialism. The essence of existentialism is that life is what we as individuals make it. Prior to the existentialists philosophers like Aristotle or Aquinas believed that essence comes before existence, that there was a natural order of things, a meaning to life that determines our best actions and therefore the meaning of our existence. Existentialists believe the opposite. Existence precedes essence. The natural order is absurdity and only by the actions of individuals do we bring meaning and purpose. From good old Wiki, not my only but my most used research tool (please donate to them) I share this:-

Sartre argued that a central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit (“essence”). The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their “true essence” instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them. 

Let’s pause there and think about that.  This might seem a bit heavy but actually it is very simple and very powerful. As Ghandi said, we can be the change we want to see. Each of us as individuals can bring meaning and purpose to life by our actions. There is no “Well, that’s just the way it is” it can be what we choose to make it. The existential threats are over-whelming, the world does feel absurd, it can cause depression and angst. The way to fight this is to change what we do not what we think or say or tweet. We can consciously fight our prejudices, we can behave more responsibly, we can behave less decadently and more morally.

Of course we can also do this collectively and through our institutions and we are right to push for this to happen but it starts with us. As former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book on Morality we behave as if it’s never our fault. We seem to have abdicated our moral responsibility to others, the government, big business, the left, the right, Them.

I think I want to be a good existentialist. I want to mean what I do and own what I do (I will make mistakes of course but I can try). If we all do that, if we start with our own purposeful actions, it can create a better existence. We are capable of more than our labels or various identities would have others believe.

I now see the growing movement towards purpose-driven businesses, if it is authentic, for what it really is. I now see it in existentialist terms. These are businesses no longer prepared to accept life as it is. They have a purpose to make life what it could be starting with their own business.

All sounds a bit worthy does it not? Well, let me sugar the pill. After researching it long ago I converted to hedonism which favours pleasure over pain. This does not mean what most people think, which is the more Epicurean version of excess and indulgence. We all have choices in how we do things. I live in Cape Town most of the time and I have two ways I can drive to the centre of town. One is a bit quicker but the other takes me past some of the most beautiful ocean views in the world. As a hedonist I take that route most often – and yes I sometimes cycle it. Buying fewer things but items of much higher quality is the action of a true hedonist. Doing right by others, embracing diversity, making a positive difference where you’re able, these can all bring more pleasure than trouble to an ethical hedonist.

Hedonistic existentialism – do you think it might catch on? I hope so because it’s an existential opportunity to deal with the existential threats and derive some pleasure. What do I want? So, I want it to be a new trope in the narrative, we can like assume our individual agency and like curate our actions? Hedonistic Existentialism – like doing it and liking doing it?

Lock-down will prove behaviour shapes attitudes

In the eBook section of this site there is truly excellent contribution from the Herdmeister, Mark Earls on strategy and people. In it he reminds us that behaviour determines attitudes more often than attitudes drive behaviour. This is a crucial point and explains why a great deal of strategy, change management and marketing fails to deliver. Because most of us think that in order to get people to change what they do you have to appeal to their hearts and minds, you have to use persuasion. But however persuasive you are it is enormously difficult to get people to change what they do. The most reliable way is to make it impossible for them to do what they normally do. To replace one system with a new system. It took folks older than me a long time to use emails, it’s taken me a long time to convert to whatsapp. I’ve only done so because I was finding I just couldn’t get some people to respond if I didn’t. Now I love it (although I still love emails and even the occasional letter.) Let’s move it to the ‘workplace’. It was a revolution in Business Change Management when they ditched their old process:-

Communicate the need for change

Ask people to change what they do

Reinforce this with new processes and systems

100% the wrong way round. Introduce a new process or system so people have to change what they do. This changes their attitudes, then you explain why.

Now think about a whole bunch of things that some people knew all about, things they knew made sense, but even so were reluctant to convert. Unwilling to change their behaviour. “Oh, yes I know I should but….”

Video conference more and travel less

Cook more food, eat less processed food

Shop more on-line

Exercise more

This is a cliched list and I’m not arguing their merits nor denying that many people were way ahead of this before lockdown. But many will see the merits in some or all of these and will admit that prior to lock down they’d been luddites. Lock down forced the change, using the new platforms or systems reinforced the behaviour and has changed attitudes. Like Nike told us – we just did it.

If you have not read Mark Earls eBook do so, it might change what you think and do.

“I’m back, I’m back, as a matter of fact, I’m back”

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Slightly off to quote Gary Glitter lyrics but I couldn’t resist it. “Did you miss me while I was away, did you hang my picture on your wall?” I guess the answer to both questions is No. Don’t blame you.

Well I’m excited to be back using my web site again after 5 years. I’ve posted some new articles and eBooks and if you can be bothered to read them you will see what I’ve been working on, a new vision of marketing as purposeful value creation in an omni-connected, post digital world.

My last post was on the 2015 General election that David Cameron won with an unexpected majority. The polls had got it wrong again and I try to explain why.

Not much has happened between then and now:-

  • Britain voted to leave the EU and Cameron resigned.
  • Theresa May replaced him, called another election in which she lost her majority and eventually her job.
  • Boris took over, couldn’t get Brexit done so called another election which he won with a big majority on a ‘Get Brexit Done’ mandate. We’ve left but no deal yet.
  • Donald Trump won the 2016 USA Presidential election and made friends with Kim Jong Un (and enemies with just about everyone else)
  • A global pandemic hit the world and everyone blames China
  • We’re heading for a Global Depression that will make 1928 look like a bump in the road

I think the future is what we want to make it and we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make it better. Never waste a crisis. I set out my thoughts on this in my article ‘New-Naked Economics: the New Laws of the Jungle’. I’d love to know what you think.

More posts will follow when I’ve got something to say and I usually do.

More Tea Vicar?

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I’ve always thought of a curate as the Vicar’s assistant, in fact I am pretty sure that is exactly what a curate is. A curator on the other hand is someone who works in a museum or art gallery who, to use the precise dictionary definition, “is in charge of arranging, selecting and presenting material to the general public”. Art galleries and museums always have far more stuff than they have space to exhibit so someone has to decide what stays in the basement and what goes on the walls and in the cabinets.

Worthy professions both, the clergyman or museum administrator. Which is why the digital people and now the marketers have nicked the word. Am I alone in noticing that everything these days seems to involve curation? Web sites, content and now brands are not merely managed, they are curated in much the same way that fine goods are not sold, they are purveyed.

This is not the first time that marketing has latched on to some lofty term to add an air of professionalism to what we do. Many moons ago the notion of Brand Stewardship was added to our lexicon (by one of the ad agencies I think, or purveyors of fine communications as I probably should say). Also some while back, people introduced the term “brand equity” although with various explanations of what equity actually meant now that it meant more than the ordinary shares held in a company. Some used it to refer to the unique gizmos and logos and ‘ownable properties’ a distinctive brand possesses. Others used it to mean the sum total of all the brand’s reputation and associations. Others used it in strictly financial terms to mean the value of the brand (with various ways of calculating this). Whichever way you take your brand equity, to be the person managing it sounded cool. Indeed there seemed to be a lot of people who really cared about brand equity. Any time something unpopular or commercial was suggested, the accusation that it would ‘undermine our brand equity’ was enough to put the kibosh on it.

There grew to be a non- uniformed army of Brand Guardians, whose soldiers were to be found in design agencies and ad agencies, especially the planning departments. Their mission was to protect the brand equity against the foolish short-term decisions of the owners of the brand and their appointed managers. I remember as a client finding this an amusing concept, the idea that the bloke in the design agency cared more about my brand than I did.

The introduction of some new terms like stewardship and brand equity is not a bad thing when the motive is to make one think differently and more deeply about brands. They are valuable, they are also complex, it is a long game, it requires thoughtful management and planned development. The idea of curation is quite a good one I think – there is always more that you could say about a brand or do with it than there is budget, so the idea that brand management is about “arranging, selecting and presenting of material to the general public” seems very apt. I doubt it will be long before it goes out of fashion and some new term gets nicked from some other walk of life, but let it have its day.

We don’t sell, we purvey, we don’t grow brands, we build the brand equity, we don’t make consistent choices (or deliberately inconsistent ones), we curate.

What does come across as lame is the underlying desire to make marketing seem more professional by dressing up what we do in posh sounding terms borrowed from the real professions or other occupations that are more socially acceptable.

Marketing is not a profession – I am not saying it is not important or beastly hard, just that it is not a profession. We are not curators in the British Museum, we are paid exaggerators, purveyors of hyperbole in an effort to make more people pay more money, more often for our brands. We have a Society but we do not have a Professional Body with clearly defined rules to ensure we discharge our duties with integrity, nor is there a Professional Qualification that gives some reassurance that this is done with minimum standards of competence. However poorly we behave or perform we cannot be struck off.

We are not a profession and frankly we ain’t that noble. No amount of terms like stewardship, guardianship, equity building or curation can hide the fact that our prime purpose is to make money for shareholders. It is not ignoble to make money for shareholders but it is not public service nor a calling from God.

Increasingly we talk about CSR, sustainability, triple bottom lines and that cannot be a bad thing. I know that some senior marketers and business leaders are quite sincere about this but let’s be honest, in todays peer reviewed, transparent, global world it is just good business.

What we do is fun, it creates wealth and employment, it drives research and progress (of a sort) but lets not get ahead of ourselves. We’re not vicars and we don’t display art.