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12 December 2015

Go Beyond

Tag(s): Future, Marketing
I was recently invited to attend the Marketing Society Annual Conference by its Chief Executive Hugh Burkitt as his personal guest. I used to go every year but have not attended for a number of years and was afraid I might drown in a sea of social media and big data. I was pleasantly surprised as the theme “Beyond” was very much along lines I enjoy as regular readers of these blogs will know and the standard of speaker was very high. I first attended the conference in 1978 when the star was Jan Carlson, the famous CEO of SAS who turned his company upside down to deliver outstanding customer service. In 1990 I was one of the speakers when I was asked to give a Japanese lesson, i.e. speak on the subject of Sony which I then ran in the UK. I doubt whether many attendees at this year’s conference were at either of those. One person who was was my friend Tom Rodwell, Hugh’s other guest. Tom and I worked together on a charity which he chaired, the London Community Cricket Association which we renamed Cricket for Change (see my blog Third Man in Havana 11th August 2012 )

Tom understood the dress code better than me as he was not wearing a tie. Nor was anyone else except me. Much has indeed changed. But what about the content? Usually at such conferences I write copious notes which then help me write these blogs. However, this conference took place in the BFI theatre with the lights turned down as if we were in the movies. So this is mainly from memory.

First up was Meabh Quoirin, Managing Director The Future Foundation. It makes sense to introduce a Conference seeking to look ‘Beyond’ with a Futurist but I never know how we are supposed to assess such people. Unless they’ve been around a long time and we can see that predictions they made decades ago have come true it’s rather difficult. People have had a lot of fun recently as the date the time travellers go to in the film Back to the Future II, 21st October 2015 actually arrived. The Director Robert Zemeckis, who made the film in 1989, knew the pitfalls of prediction. He has now been criticised for not seeing the ubiquity of smart phones, slightly surprising as cell phones were already on sale at that time, but he did get all the following: ubiquitous cameras; unmanned drones; flat panel TVs; video chat systems; hands-free video game systems; talking hologram billboards; wearable technology; finger-print scanning; fuel generated from food wastes; 3-D film; and head-mounted displays.

Dan Ariely, Psychology Professor and Anne Marie Farrell, Head of Behavioural Economics at Google came next. Dan told the story of the locksmith. As an apprentice he was asked to fix a broken lock. He struggled and eventually after half an hour or so had mended the lock. His customer had no problem in paying his fee as he had witnessed the hard work that went into it. Years later, faced with the same challenge he now had the technique to mend the lock almost instantly. Now his customers struggled to see why they should pay such a high fee because it took almost no effort. By the same token Dan thinks the reason why IKEA is so successful is that customers struggle to assemble the flat packed furniture. By the time they have completed the task they have invested much of their own efforts in the finished article. It’s not just an object they acquired, but one they helped to make. The more difficult the process is, the more people feel attached to it.

Elif Shafak, a Turkish author talked about the power of storytelling. Strangely she did this while only telling one story herself, and that not particularly memorable. However, one of her lines did make me think: “I have nothing to learn from someone who looks like me and someone who sounds like me.” I’m not sure if it’s true, but I guess the converse makes us more likely to listen.

Anthony Thomson is the founder of Metro Bank, one of the most interesting challenger banks to have arrived recently on the high street. He remains a shareholder but has now gone on to found a new challenger bank that may be even more disruptive as it won’t arrive on the high street but just on your mobile phone. Anthony has recognised the huge transfer of activity to mobile and founded Atom bank to exploit this. He is explicitly scathing about the traditional established banks which he believes are doomed to fail as they cannot respond quickly enough to these new trends. They are captives of their physical estate, their antiquated legacy IT systems and the rest of their archaic infrastructure and modus operandi.  His best quote was “Kultur spiser strategier til Morgenmad,” a Swedish saying that means, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Sherry Coutu, CBE, is a Canadian entrepreneur and author who in this country has become a Government adviser. She has a frighteningly successful CV having started her own business twice one of which became a unicorn, i.e. valued at more than $1 billion. Therefore she was well-qualified to talk about scale-ups and the prospect of unicorns in the UK, the area on which she advises the Government on its policies to encourage such economic development.

Alain de Botton, the well-known philosopher, spoke how we can live our life better. He was sarcastic about some of the marketing profession’s contributions to general well-being as ridiculous claims have been made for the happiness caused by trivial products. In fact 50% of happiness depends on the quality of relationships, and yet no major businesses target psychological needs.

Jeremy Darroch, the outstandingly successful CEO of Sky and Sir Dave Brailsford CBE, the even more outstandingly successful coach to the British Olympic and Sky cycling teams came next. Sir Dave has never won a cycle race himself but has developed the people who have in Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Frome, Victoria Pendleton and all the rest. What is important is to create an environment where people can get better in little steps. The idea of perfection is hard for human beings. Small changes stick for a long time. He does not set ludicrous, pie-in-the-sky targets but incremental targets that people can easily buy into. Over time these stretch way beyond what was originally envisaged.  When asked about conflict in teams, Sir Dave thought it is good. You need harmony around goals but you don’t need harmony in teams.

Luke Johnson, Sunday Times Business Correspondent and serial entrepreneur gave a timely rallying call as to what is required to start and run successful businesses in an economic environment that should be enabling.

Professor Nick Bostrom, the Founder/Director of the Future Humanity Insitute gave some challenging insights into the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). He said the ambition of AI is to create a machine with the equivalent planning, learning and reasoning behaviour that makes us human. At this level the machine is not just a tool, it’s the last invention humans will ever make.

Amanda Mackenzie, CMO at Aviva has been seconded for a time to Project-Everyone, the charity set up by Richard Curtis to promote the Global Goals set by the United Nations. This is such an important subject I intend to return to it in a blog in the New Year but just to say that in its first year of operation efforts by Project-Everyone have helped build awareness of the Global Goals to over 3 billion people including classes taught to 500 million school children.

The final speaker was Ron Dennis, Chairman of McLaren interviewed by the TV presenter Emily Maitlis. McLaren has not enjoyed great success recently on the Formula One race track but its business success has been exemplary. During the racing season McLaren designs and manufactures a new part every twenty minutes so its time to market is unrivalled. It has taken such practices to many other businesses through a highly successful consulting arm. GSK is still a manufacturer of toothpaste as Beecham was part of SmithKleinBeecham (SKB). Consumers want their toothpaste in a vast range of sizes and variants which had led its Stoke plant into inefficient changeover practices. McLaren used the knowledge it had acquired in countless pit stop wheel changes to hugely reduce GSK’s lost time in production.

This was a thoroughly absorbing conference. The trick, as always, is to apply the new knowledge gained.

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