25 May 2019
Optimism Offers Opportunities
Worshipful Company of Marketors
The theme for his Master’s Year chosen by Andrew Cross, the current Master of the Worshipful Company of Marketors of which I am a Past Master, is “Optimism Offers Opportunities”. The Master’s guest speaker at this year’s Spring Lunch, Alderman Professor Michael Mainelli, addressed this theme in a fascinating way. He had just been clothed as an Honorary Liveryman of the Company.
Professor Mainelli was born in the USA but owing to a peripatetic father attended 18 educational establishments in four countries culminating with a liberal arts BA from Harvard University, fourth-year studies in mathematics, engineering and computer science at Trinity College, Dublin, and a PhD from the London School of Economics. He undertook scientific research, principally in aerospace and the then new field of geographic information systems. Working out of Switzerland from 1979-84, his biggest technical claim to fame might be the first commercial digital maps of the world in Mundocart and Geodat.
He entered the City of London in 1984 becoming an accountancy-firm partner in 1987 with BDO Binder Hamlyn, and in 1995 a Grade 3 Director of Ministry of Defence research. During a mergers & acquisitions spell in merchant banking with Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, he co-founded Z/Yen, the City of London’s leading think-tank where he works to promote societal advance through better finance and technology. Along the way he gained professional qualifications in accountancy, securities & investment, and computing. He is Emeritus Professor at Gresham College, founding home of the Royal Society.
Here is that speech:
“Master, fellow Liverymen, Ladies & Gentlemen, I was delighted to be invited this afternoon not just to join your august Company as an Honorary Liveryman, but moreover to have the honour of addressing you about some contemporary issues. Have any of you seen that optimistic reality TV show that’s on every night with people going round and round in circles achieving nothing? Apparently, it’s called ‘The News’. I can hardly wait to see what doesn’t happen next. And for pessimism, my eye doctor tells me life is a genetically transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate. Yet billions have been lifted out of poverty over the past three decades, we have smartphones we didn’t even know how to daydream about three decades ago, and we can check the sports scores while some blowhard talks after lunch. If the facts spoke for themselves, we wouldn’t need marketing.
So let’s take up our Master’s theme for his year. “Optimism offers opportunities”. What a superb, upbeat tone desperately needed in today’s morose times. We tend to contrast optimists and pessimists. One definition goes, “A pessimist is only an optimist with inside information”. Of course, when any of us are pouring cold water on an idea, we tend to refer to ourselves not as pessimists, but ‘realists’.
As I stand here looking out on a welcoming, charming, and intelligent audience – a sea of optimistic faces waiting for me to crush their enthusiasm – I realise that another definition of optimism is an audience who gives an Alderman a speaking platform.
Optimism versus pessimism is at the heart of reality itself, quantum physics. Physicist John Archibald Wheeler defines space and time as optimistic: “Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once”, and pessimistic: “Space is what prevents everything from happening to me.”
Optimistically I know Marketors want to go home from any lunch with a two by two matrix. One of my favourite marketing theories classifies people on their attitudes towards risk and reward - people who look at collective risk versus those who look to themselves – people who see a world where authority sets the rules or where people make the rules themselves.
Let’s have a bit of fun with stereotypes, Pooh, Owl, Piglet, and Eeyore.
Pooh - The Individualist is almost a parody of an 80’s yuppie. Nature is benign – it won’t hurt him or her. If they hit you with their German sports car, well, let them know how much they owe – see you later. “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”
Owl - The Hierarchist is a natural bureaucrat and loves decisions based on sound thinking, however irrational the result - “The customary procedure in such cases is as follows.”
Piglet - The Über-egalitarian is almost a parody of a 60’s or 70’s socially-conscious individual – Earth Day, the Good Life, sandals. Their battle cry is often “there ought to be a law…” yet they’re excitedly fretful about the future – “I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today.”
Eeyore - The Fatalist knows nature will come back and bite ‘em. Looks uninteresting – but it’s how most of us react to the vast majority of everyday problems, not contesting an invalid parking ticket or not changing our mortgage ’cause it’s always the same in the end. “The nicest thing about the rain is that it always stops. Eventually.”
You could combine Pooh and Eeyore to create a black hole of optimism sucking up everything in its path. Marketors have to think in all four modes. You may be Eeyore about comet disasters – it will land on me; Pooh about children’s education – why can’t I have school vouchers; Piglet about pollution – it’s a crime and shouldn’t happen; Owl about corporate rules – we need to enforce our expenses policy.
Your Master is asking you to spend more time as Pooh – looking at new communication technologies, embracing changing demographics, refreshing stale markets, and creating innovative ones. You need to be realists, but as John Lennon, not normally known as an optimist, remarked: “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”
Your Master is right; we need to spend much more time on optimism. Most of our favourite people are optimists, people who make us feel good, people who invent, people who make us laugh and see the bright side of life. Monty Python’s anthem is an aspirational national anthem.
Do I have a favourite optimist? Perhaps Willie Whitelaw on his first arrival in Northern Ireland as chief minister. Bombarded with questions involving complex matters of Irish history, of which he was entirely ignorant, he discovered a gloriously Irish answer. Looking ahead he said, “I always think that it is entirely wrong to prejudge the past.”
Still people do make fun of Voltaire’s famous optimist, Professor Pangloss and his ‘best of all possible worlds’. So, this lunchtime I’m optimistically going to mention the ‘B’ word. Brisket. A brisk Brexit – whatever the result, leave or remain, let’s get on with Big things that matter. I would say, “think global indices; and sell the sizzle”. Heck, we’re the people who sell life insurance in optimistically and pessimistically. The first sell is a bunch of happy great grandchildren laughing around our pensions; the second sell is a bunch of impoverished homeless folk crying around our coffins.
Politicians tell us that business people are pessimistic because we don’t have certainty. This is balderdash. Businesses thrive on uncertainty. If there was certainty, there would be no need for markets. All quantities and prices would be known. There would be no change and no opportunity to compete. Businesses realise that the rules of the game need to change and improve over time, or there will be no progress. No, businesses want certainty about how the rules of the game change or will change.
Voltaire again, “Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is absurd.”
Politicians do not shine on ‘certainty’. Certainty over how the rules will change requires a process that looks ahead, for example following a strict consultation, recommendation, drafting, revision, implementation timetable every so many years. Instead modern politicians react with more laws to most crises. Often these crises are media generated crises and the responses are designed to garner votes rather than solve a systemic problem.
As Marketors know too well, reality has a well-known pessimistic bias. We make fun of Pollyanna’s. Reality requires hard work.
We often say opportunity knocks. An apt aphorism explains “the reason some people don’t recognize opportunity is that it usually knocks wearing overalls and looking like hard work.” Equally, you need to move fast. “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”
So, is this talk half full or half empty? You can’t have a short talk on optimism and pessimism without a glass half full or half empty joke – from Emerson, Lake & Palmer – “The optimist laughed, and the pessimist cried, in his wine.” So …
The optimist says, “The glass is half full.”
The pessimist says, “The glass is half empty.”
The rationalist says, “This glass is twice as big as it needs to be.”
“Hey folks! While you guys were busy arguing about the glass of water, I drank it. Sincerely, the opportunist.”
Which matters most? Without optimism we wouldn’t even get out of bed in the morning. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, optimism is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. Realised opportunities are the triumph of hope over experience.
So, as Marketors, should you be optimistic or pessimistic? A number of nationalities walk into a bar and are asked, “are you optimistic or pessimistic?”
the Englishman says, “pessimistic, Brexit & Remain”;
the Scotsman says, “pessimistic, Brexit & Referendum”;
the Irishman says, “pessimistic, Brexit & Border”;
the American says, “pessimistic, Trump”;
the Italian says, “pessimistic, elections”;
the German says, “pessimistic, Euro”;
the Australian says, “pessimistic, North Korea”;
BUT the Marketor says, “optimistic, pessimism is for better times.”
Mark Twain may have said, “Fortune knocks at every man's door once in a life, but in a good many cases the man is in a neighboring saloon and does not hear her.” More emphatically he said, “never miss an opportunity to shut up”. Thus. “
Alderman Mainelli is supported by the Court of Aldermen to stand as a candidate for the ancient office of Sheriff of the City of London for 2019-2020. The election is at the Guildhall on 24 June. I will be there and will wave my white card for Alderman Mainelli and my red card for Erica Stary whom I got to know well through being Masters at the same time.
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