Category Archives: Human resources

Building Brand Britain

Over that last week or so, prompted by the UK riots, we Brits have listened to endless analyses and proclamations by local community members, civil servants and politicians centred on fixing our “broken society”.  As always with these situations, there has been plenty of scepticism heaped on the potential any new initiative has for success.  However, there is only one real obstacle to all the remedial plans announced by David Cameron and others and that’s motivation.

I believe that Dave is a good motivator and getting better, he talks sense, even though his opponent Ed Miliband, seems intent on trying to neutralise that with mindless and responsible political point-scoring.  (If I were him I’d shut up before people started to realise that it’s the left-wing, crap that his party has expounded for decades that has given certain sectors of society the idea that they have rights they haven’t earned and therefore created this disaffection).

The marketers among us will recognise the task facing us as brand-building and as anybody reading this blog over the last few years will know building Brand Britain is one of my pet subjects. The problem is that we have singularly failed to respond to the obvious need to develop Brand Britain and we still don’t have the right people in harness to tackle the job.  Forget the political masseurs, data-analysis’s and bean-counters, where are the marketers in the team?  Without them we won’t get past first base because the people who are currently in the driving seat simply don’t get it.

Over the past few years I have approached politicians, government departments, local councils and private enterprises with initiatives designed to help build Brand Britain.  In many cases, because I have always believed that unemployment and local business initiatives are both inextricably linked and critical to the cause, these initiatives have addressed local unemployment, been designed to strengthen communities and help the mid-sized local businesses who are the key to the future of our nation, shift up a gear and take on the world.

The responses I have received from the public sector jobs-worths in particular, though unsurprising have been nonetheless frustrating.  Unimaginative Job Centre Plus employees civil servants and local councillors have simply disregarded projects and initiatives as representing just another unwelcome task.  There’s no point and very little scope for public sector workers like these to adopt an initiative that’s not dictated letter by letter from Whitehall because their world isn’t a meritocracy.  Why should they take on something they aren’t compelled to?  There’s nothing in it for them.  Besides, these people aren’t employed for their creativity and they are entombed in a culture that actively discourages any kind of creative thinking, so expecting them to appreciate any concept is always an ask too far.

Life skills that should have been taught throughout a person’s school life, if not at the cradle, are belatedly outsourced by Job Centre Plus to HR and recruitment companies.  I’ve spoken to a few of these contractors.  They view these projects with the glee of a paedophile assigned to changing room duty at kids swimming gala and submit proposals that represent minimal input and maximum income for them with the balls-out cheek that comes from knowing the people assigning these projects don’t have the first idea what they are doing and are just relieved to have a tick in the “assigned” box.  When I have gone to these organisations to volunteer help and advice, the response has been eerily uniform and something to the effect that “…we‘ve managed to blag the approval of the JCP people for this half-baked programme, so there’s nothing in it for us if we actually do the job properly”.

These are the kinds of issues that will threaten any British brand development programme and unless someone wakes up pretty quickly and recognises that we ARE building a brand and therefore need to follow the appropriate process, we are destined to failure once again.  That means someone (Dave will do) having a clear picture of what Brand Britain looks like and starting with the mother of all internal marketing campaigns that will bring the public sector and government puppet masters into line behind the concept.  The public are motivated, the players are listening and we’re unlikely to find ourselves with a better promise of success for a brand building venture than now this side of World War Three.


The dumbing down of marketing

There’s no doubt its tough on the streets.  The post-recession marketplace differs in so many ways to what went before, yet organisations the world around are still approaching business in the same way and wondering why they aren’t getting results. 

Their slowness in adapting is often due to their habitual reliance on processes and infrastructure, which in some ways explains the success of those few start-ups with a clean sheet of paper and the understanding to get it right, but it takes real skills and experience to change a business on the move, so its ironic that just when you need the best brains on the job so many businesses are dumbing down.

Organisations world-wide are recognising that until the recession changed the rules businesses that were “average” could still earn a living and realising that efficiency is the difference between success and failure.  Now its game on, of course.  Average doesn’t cut-it anymore, we are talking fine degrees of excellence separating the movers and shakers from the has-beens.

Sadly, a lot of misguided managers are confusing efficiency with cost-cutting and employing managers with little or no experience and limited skill on the cheap.  It doesn’t work of course, because to succeed in business these days requires the best and the smartest and the cracks are very much in evidence.  I recently encountered a major global concern where the senior management were frustrated that they weren’t getting, what they considered a reasonable return on their marketing investment.  It was easy to see why.  The wastage was apocalyptic – they talked about integration (the only way any business is going to achieve the necessary efficiency) but didn’t understand it, nor implement even the basics and they had a department called “Propositions” whose brief it was to come up with a continuous stream of short-term tactical promotions that were so short they never had a chance to get up a head of steam and were just confusing their prospects.  To make matters worse, the focus on proliferation of ideas inevitably meant standards were sacrificed.  All they needed was one “Big Idea” and what they were doing was throwing half-arsed ideas around like confetti.

Behaviour like this can only be a product of inexperience and limited skills, but the business I mentioned are by no means alone, this is a worrying trend.  The businesses that I see succeeding right now have limited numbers of really smart people with the skills and experience to contribute across the business.  Structures involve everyone having clearly defined responsibilities, while appropriate culture and practices empower capable managers and employees to contribute in areas of the business beyond their remit.  This way you make the most of your resources and the gaps in the skills and experience can be covered by bringing in consultants as and when they’re needed.

Of course, while small businesses have the luxury of starting with a clean sheet, larger concerns will struggle to adapt existing structures and practices, but that’s not an excuse to do nothing and it’s certainly not going to be resolved by anything other than the best, most experienced and highly skilled marketers.  The decision to dumb-down by recruiting on the cheap is a false economy and the sooner businesses that are going this way recognise this and reverse the process the more likely they are to survive the next few years.

Vuvuzela, diversity and what it could mean to your business

I have heard a lot of bellowing this week about the vuvuzela and while I can’t help wondering if people would have noticed it at all if the England team were performing better, these objections do carry a whiff of xenophobia.  These instruments originated as the horns of wild animals and their tin successors have been a feature of South African celebration for years before the mass produced plastic version we have seen (and heard) this week came on the scene. Why can’t folks just celebrate the richness of diverse cultures?  Until we do, I can’t help thinking that we may be missing out on a few business opportunities.

The world is shrinking.  The Internet, transport and popular media have seen to that and if any of us are going to be able to afford to fly anywhere in the coming years, it is ultimately destined to become one big melting pot.  For years I have been building project teams, virtual and real, comprising all kinds of people with all kinds of insights and attitudes from all around the world.  There’s no doubt about it that Western experts have contributed disproportionately to the work I have done in the Middle East and the developing markets of Central and Eastern Europe, but that doesn’t mean the traffic has been all one-way.  I’ve found the contributions of locals to be invaluable.  In countries where budgets are tight and social conditions are such that people habitually fix rather than replace things I discovered unmatched determination to deliver complex solutions with the most basic materials and equipment and people who will learn new technical skills on-the-job, sitting up all night with text books when students in the UK would be falling in and out of pubs.

I’ve also learned more about sustainability that I thought possible from people like my Central European wife who was brought up in an education and social system that lived in far-closer harmony with the land that few Westerners of my generation have.  I have a son of thirty, who, brought up entirely in the West, lives in a disposable world, and a daughter of eight, most of whose life has been spent in Prague and to me the contrasts are stark.  My daughter takes my son walking in the forest, explains the medicinal properties of wild flowers and shows him where the wild edible mushrooms, strawberries and garlic hide, just like her mother and grandmother.  She’s keen to teach him to ski too, the expensive Western pastime that is cheap and accessible to Central Europeans and at which she’s been expert since she was three years old.  In return, he’s introduced her to all the cool things on the internet and contributed greatly to her fearlessness of technology.  Oh, and he’s taught her a few rude words that have horrified her teachers and fascinated the chums in her school English class in Prague (Did you know there are no really rude words in the Czech language)!  So much for cultural exchange!

Together they have achieved a synergy and a balance that has benefited them both.  Businesses in these developing markets have been in no position to resist the infiltration of skills and concepts and they have undoubtedly all benefitted as a result.  I can’t help wondering if a few of the Western organisations I have come across over the years wouldn’t be much better off now had they chosen to embrace and learn from other cultures rather than look for opportunities to oppress them or belittle their differences.

I was talking to a recruiter last week who told me that because there are so many candidates for jobs these days, hirers are increasingly selecting only their look-alikes for interview.  Now we all know that every business is only as good as its next big idea, that innovation is a product of diversity in every area and at every level of the organisation and that with all the rules of business having dramatically changed in the last few months, innovation is more critical than ever to the survival of any business.  So, as recession lifts and hiring starts again, maybe we are in danger of rebuilding our businesses to a model that excludes the very thing our survival depends on?

So while the South African people are largely welcoming their visitors from around the world and benefitting in no small measure from what the influx is bringing, you might like to give a thought to your own reaction to the vuvuzela.  If your knee-jerk reaction is to jump on the ban the vuvuzela bandwagon you should ask yourself if you take this attitude to work with you and if so whether its working against the success of your business.  It’s not just a matter of embracing other ethnic types and different cultures, but appreciating different perspectives and being open to the alternatives that these can offer you both at work and at home.

Internal Marketing may be the key to post recession survival, but its tougher for ex-public sector organisations.

First it was the Post Office, then British Airways and now it appears that British Gas front-line employees are in revolt.  When your customer-facing staff are slagging of the organisation and/or it’s management you are well and truly buggered, but when is the penny going to drop here?  This isn’t about the evil hand of capitalism trying to squeeze the life out of dwindling customer base or white-knight customer service operatives standing ground on behalf of their customers.  Its  about one thing, pure and simple.  The failure of management to get employees behind the brand.  Brand Building is the fundamental of business today and it all starts with internal marketing – that’s where all of these organisations are failing.

I don’t want to make light of this.  For these organisations, each of which have among the worst industrial relations records in Britain, it’s a tough challenge.  Why these three in particular?  Well, there’s a clear common denominator here – they are all old public companies.  People who joined public sector organisations in the past and probably to some extent today, are motivated differently from those in the commercial sector.  They rarely think so, but it’s true however you cut it.  Order, rules that protect them from having to do absolutely anything that isn’t in their buttoned-down contracts of employment, endless holiday entitlement and decent money that turns up every month, regardless of how hard they work and how much they care – this is the world of the public sector employee.  Unless employees have a sense of belonging, commitment and shared responsibility, these organisations will never transform themselves into the lean commercial machines they simply have to be to survive, yet the employees who are at the centre of these rows are those with contracts that date from the pre-privatisation era and the self-interest that goes with them.

The reality is that while the world has moved on these organisations struggle to keep pace with a millstone around their necks.  That millstone being employees who are determined to stay right where they are.  It’s no coincidence that this is exactly what is happening in the former Communist countries.  Twenty years on from the Velvet Revolution it’s still a challenge to motivate Czech workers who spent fifty years just going through the motions while collecting the same money every month and commentators are now coming to the conclusion that it will take a few more generations before Czechs are attuned to commercial reality.

Once an organisation knows the scope of its resources, has a strategy and has defined their brand and its “promise”, the task is to get every stakeholder (and this isn’t just employees) fully committed to playing their part in the delivery of that promise.  That means telling them what that promise is, explaining why it has to be that way and helping every one of them understand what they can uniquely do on a day-by-day basis to help ensure the promise is delivered and, just as importantly, helping them fill the gaps in their skills base so that they can do it even better.  If you get this right there’s no argument and it will happen.  In the rare cases where a minority feel that they have some right to override the strategy that everyone else has signed up to, they’ll be neutralised by the commitment of the majority.  Apart from anything else, that’s one of the principles of change management.

It’s not surprising that businesses are only now waking up to what internal marketing is really about.  For years a remit of HR managers, internal marketing has only recently been handed to the people equipped to do the job – marketers – and we still have a lot of catching up to do.  One group who need to catch up most are marketing services organisations but this awakening could be the salvation of many, who, as we all know, are desperate for new ways to bond with clients and new sources of revenue.

A modern internal marketing campaign demands high levels of skills in all areas of communication.  I devised an internal marketing initiative for a retailer that involved teams of employees from each store competing in a national product and process knowledge quiz with regional heats, national finals and a grand finale in the capital.  Among other things, it involved event production, logistics, building a supporting web site and streaming videos of the contests, so we needed multimedia production skills and it also required that we bussed supporters to each event.  That’s what modern internal marketing looks like and if you want to get your employees on-side you need to start thinking about initiatives like this.

It may come as a surprise to the folks at the Post Office, BA and British Gas, but there are workforces in Britain and elsewhere who are taking wage cuts, accepting shorter working weeks, introducing new work practices and taking on extra responsibility because of their commitment to the brand community.  Internal marketing has always been the key to success.  In the new economy its the key to survival.

Britain’s unemployed managers – the solution to SMEs’ problems

I’m back in the UK for a while and, inspired by the tales of the many struggling businesses in my local area, I’m trying to do my thing for SMEs .  I say “trying”, because, as my Granny used to say “You can’t help folks who won’t be helped”.

Most “small businesses” are small because they haven’t got what it takes to be big.  The deficiencies come in many forms and span all areas of business from lack of key skills like financial, operational management and marketing, to just being plain crap at what you do.  In a normal buoyant market there may be hope for even the least capable, but as conditions are now, if you aren’t sharp you won’t get to play.  As I have said before, this is a good thing.  Its the process of natural selection and we should come out of this experience, as a business community, smarter and better equipped.  However, I have my concerns.

Its no disgrace for an SME to lack a few key management skills.  If you are small, you are bound to be wanting in one area or another, its just a matter of where your strengths lie and what you do about your weaknesses that determines your destiny – that’s marketing.  My worries are two-fold.  Firstly, the natural instinct of far too many organisations in recent months has prompted an alarming HR trend and secondly, the support system for SMEs in the UK is failing miserably – and I’m not talking about the banks who seem hell-bent on some wild agenda to bring down the UK SME sector.

The HR trend I refer to is for firms to off-load senior people in pursuit of short-term payroll savings.  Its may seem an obvious quick-fix, but as I thought we all knew already, it brings only very short term benefit and beyond that its nothing more than the beginning of the end.   It affects organisations large and small in the same way, but simply because small businesses are less robust the effect it has on them is more often terminal.  Taking away managers (provided they are worthy of the title) from any organisation is like removing the rudder and the end result is invariably crash and burn.

In a similar way, organisations that think they are being smart by taking the Arsenal FC approach to business – hiring young inexperienced players and attempting to turn them into key strikers – are on a hiding to nothing too.  Inexperienced staff suck up key management time, involving them in micro-management that leaves them unavailable to perform their main leadership and innovation role.  It is also a customer satisfaction and operational efficiency nightmare that in times like these you just can’t afford.

To make matters worse, there’s nowhere for a UK SME that is short of management know-how, to go for help.  Years ago, a UK government initiative saw the foundation of an organisation called Business Link.  Basically, this was a joint-venture between the public and private sectors that was supposed to bring management skills to SMEs through a network of local consultancies.  Now, I have to put my hands up here and say that if I had my way they’d all be closed down and I bet nobody would even notice – apart from the exchequer who would immediately have a shed-load of cash to do something useful with.  Without exception, every SME that I have encountered, that has had any dealing with this bunch have nothing but disdain for them.  From what I have seen and experienced over the years they fail absolutely to operate as a network, they have no understanding of the realities of business and their methods are both outmoded and inflexible.  If ever there was a depository for no-hope graduates, with lots of meaningless qualifications and absolutely no grasp of reality, its Business Link – a typical public sector organisation in fact.  Anyway, rant aside, expecting Business Link to lead your SME out of recession is on a par with expecting Gordon Brown to win a personality contest – It ain’t going to happen!

Against this background I have been trying to get local politicians, government departments and business groups to consider ways of addressing some of these problems.  For example, most of the smart senior managers who have been victims of business cut-backs in recent months are still on the dole.  The managers with the very skills and experience that SMEs need right now are being paid (albeit a pitiful amount) to watch daytime TV and most of them are resigned to this reality for the rest of their lives.  That’s a fact supported by today’s unemployment figures and under-lined by a live phone-in on the BBC’s Radio Five Live this morning.    I approached one of the organisations employed by the Department of Work and Pensions to deliver Back to Work programmes for unemployed managers with the idea of devising a programme that would bring the need and the resource together and taking it to the DWP to seek funding.  It was like trying to raise the dead!  Rather than apply their minds to making something happen their every effort went into thinking of reasons why it wouldn’t work.  Just the kind of positive thinking we need to get us out of this mess!

I asked my local Tory candidate to help me get something going with the DWP and JobCentres, but got no reply.  I even offered free advice to a local trading group and received no reply to that either.  I approached the local paper and an independent employment agency with the idea of running a seminar for local managers of SMEs and neither were interested.

My mailing to a sample one-hundred local businesses offering them a free consultation that could get them thinking in the right direction had no takers and my follow-up calls revealed that they had mostly been approached by Business Link who failed them miserably and once bitten were put off the idea of consultants forever.

Its sad that our SMEs – our commercial future – are stuck like rabbits in a car’s headlights, while Theresa May the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and the Employment Minister Jim Knight, who together have solutions to some of these problems in their gift, bitch about minutia and argue out party politics on national radio.  The inability to run a piss-up in a brewery is endemic in our society and clearly, it goes right to the top!  Maybe we should recruit our next government from the ranks of our unemployed managers?  Now there’s a thought!

The future is definitely grey.

I had an interesting meeting in London last week, with a few people from one of our bigger and better-known global organisations, who, like everybody else right now are looking for ways to stretch their budgets.

I have been saying for years, the difference between successful companies and unsuccessful ones is efficiency – nothing more or less.  Its a matter of what you can do with the resources at your disposal. What’s happened in the last few months to make this issues more critical is, of course, the recession.  Now the race is really hotting up and even the most successful organisations are racing to find ways to maintain or even increase pressure on their competitors while reducing their investment .  In other words everyone is desperate to increase efficiency in every area of their organisation and that puts Full Effect Marketing bang on target.

The people I was talking to were by anybody’s standard successful and their efficiency is probably about as good as it can get using contemporary practices, philosophies and models, but as more and more organisations have discovered recently this just isn’t good enough.  They cited three issues that they are struggling with right now, all of which boiled down to the same thing.

  • Too many short-lived propositions – or as I would express it, campaigns with no legs – so they were wasting time, effort and money setting up and running a continuous stream of short tactical propositions that are going nowhere.
  • Missed opportunities brought about by failing to recognise and plan to exploit all their options ahead of time.  This sometimes means that they have had to hold up launches while forgotten elements were nailed on (with the kind of compromises that you have to expect when this happens), occasionally they effectively plan-out potential that they have missed, so that to reinstate it later means cumbersome and inefficient delivery and also, from time to time they just miss opportunities altogether.
  • Inefficient execution or just failing to engage all the expertise within the organisation early enough to ensure that campaigns are delivered on time with all the Is dotted and Ts crossed.

As they said, no longer can they afford to invest in promotions and propositions that don’t milk investment for all its worth.  If only a few more organisations recognised that.  Their problem is that they were viewing these problems as training deficiencies, when the truth was far more fundamental.

Its a fact that executives in most organisations, like policemen, are much younger than they used to be.  This has its advantages, such as high energy levels and enthusiasm (although I sometimes wonder about this), plus, of course younger managers are usually cheaper to employ and hungry for success, which enables employers to apply the carrot principle with greater success.  However its not all pluses.  There are disadvantages too and the biggest and most significant, as far as the scenario we are talking about here is concerned, is a lack of experience.  While business is becoming more complicated with a full-hand comprising more and far more diverse disciplines, executives, because they are younger, have experienced fewer (simply because they just haven’t had time to acquire more) and as careers develop, the focus seems to be on depth rather than breadth of experience.  This limits both their understanding and their management capability and adds to the reliance many larger organisations (and this one was a case in point) have on processes, the only purpose of which is to overcome experience deficiencies, but, which, in the process, limit scope for free-thought.

The thing about establishing the perspective that allows us to see all the implications and opportunities of an initiative is that its pretty well impossible, to processise.  The vision that enables an executive to see all the opportunities and identify all the departments, specialists and skills that need to be engaged in efficient delivery is simply a product of experience.  So, if you can’t processise this stuff the only option left is to employ people with the experience.  I’m not saying that youth has no place in the modern recruitment strategy, but there’s no getting away from it, if you want to up your game to the kind of level that we all need going forward from today, you need experience too and that means creating a blend of young and older executives and creating a culture in which they can work together, combining everyone’s skills to deliver the solutions a modern business needs.

What’s HR to do with marketing?

OK, I know I rattle on a lot about the various vested interests within organisations that prevent real cohesion or an integrated approach, but that’s because I keep bumping into ivory tower-builders and political dead-heads who undermine organisations’ success.

For instance, those of you who know me will know that I have always promoted the idea of HR as a marketing function.  After all, the definition of marketing is to leverage an organisation’s resources in order to deliver something that people want or need in the most efficient way and the biggest resource any organisation has are its people. So, as long as HR is about managing the employee resource it has to be a marketing function.

The problem is that HR people so rarely see it this way. There’s something so separatist about the way that HR is set up in most organisations that I come across, you would think that their role had nothing at all to do with the business.

I came across a national retail organisation the other day that was having great difficulty recruiting good store managers. This same organisation however, had recruited a manager in waiting and put her “on ice” as a deputy manager at one of its stores . This manager made an real impact and was very highly thought of so when the incumbent manager went on extended leave she stepped into the manager’s role and immediately produced better figures and team spirit.

The regular manager walked back into her job after six months or so and the stand-in was stepped down again. Odd enough in itself, but for some months the organisation continued to pay her a manager’s salary, so she lived with it. Then came the whammy, because the organisation’s HR people discovered some months down the line that they had been paying her as a manager when she had been acting as a deputy and demanded the incremental salary back from her. They were at pains to point out to me that they were legally entitled to do so, but, of course, that’s hardly the point.  It takes a very special level of stupidity for any organisation to do this route let alone one that was having problems finding good people.

The HR position was that “rules are rules” and the woman wasn’t entitled to a manager’s salary if she wasn’t doing a manager’s job. It quite escaped them that it was their fault that she wasn’t doing the job and as for the small matter of pissing-off a valuable employee, they didn’t see it as their problem. Their job was to enforce the rules, it was the job of operations to field that one! Frankly, I hope they go broke (and it seems they might), but even then I’m sure they won’t get it.

A couple of weeks back I was chatting with the global HR Director of one of our most respected marketing services groups who was explaining to me why the marcoms sector had a really primitive approach to HR (Tell me about it!) However, I’m not sure they are as alone in this as he seems to think. There are so many things wrong with the HR set-up in most organisations that its hard to know where to start, but there are two critical issues:

A) Although they are dealing with people most HR departments appear to be hide-bound by bureaucracy – and we all know where that leads.

B) So few HR people understand how crucial their role is to the delivery of the brand promise and certainly don’t visualise themselves as marketers.

Brands are communities and that means they are the sum of the attitudes, standards and opinions of their members. I work with organisations to drive business growth by developing their brands, not, by means of the papering-over-the-cracks-and-making-empty-promises approach that appears to be the default position adopted by most organisations, but by actually delivering a promise that people respond to. Delivery has a lot to do with having the right employees, so recruitment (under general HR) plays a critical role. My agency friend waxed lyrical about the deficiencies of recruitment consultants and their numbers-driven approach and plans to solve this one by removing outsourced recruitment entirely and replacing it with an in-house department that serves the organisation’s global needs. More power to his elbow I say!

Success is also about getting all of your people behind the brand and pushing in the same direction, which is what internal marketing is all about.  This is also very much a job for HR under the general management of their marketing colleagues yet I frequently have to argue with clients for the inclusion of HR people in the brand discovery workshops I run, which to me is a key indicator of old-fashioned, unenlightened, inefficient, or just plain shoddy management.

Of course, HR people are often the authors of their own destiny in this respect.  While it all seems pretty logical to me, I often feel myself slipping into Columbus’s shoes as he received the reaction to his suggestion that the world wasn’t flat! Then again, identifying the chicken and the egg in this cycle is something of a challenge.  Maybe  HR people have just been trained into this viewpoint by generations of sadly-lacking general management.

In the final analysis though, the argument is redundant, because as soon as you start identifying the things that drive success, you inevitably home in on the brand and when you dig into this you can’t help but realise how critical the HR function is to your brand development.  It all comes back to the need for an organised approach like my Brand Discovery programme, which I know isn’t the only programme in this area, but you’ll excuse me if I stick to the view that its the best – unless you know different that is?