Leaders of The Big only ever have old ideas
Comment threader Sandysview alerted me to an article in Autocar this month. It was about advertising, and authored by Jeremy Clarkson. Reading autocar for me is like John Prescott reading a guide to toilet seats: you know you need one, but it’s not front of mind. More back of but no, let’s not go there.
The older Clarkson gets, the more he reveals himself as a prize tit who never made it out of short trousers. But he can write with huge insight and laugh-out-loud humour. The Autocar piece was bemoaning the appalling state of UK car advertising, considering its wonderful heritage, in the 1970s and 1980s, of great ads for Fiat, BMW and Audi, and briefly Austin Rover. Towards the end of the column (and here, he’d obviously done some thorough research) he nailed the problem to perfection: weak-kneed clients who’d rather not offend anyone, multi-national campaigns appealing to the lowest common denominator, and increasingly nannyish rules from pc quangos about what one can and can’t say in ad campaigns.
But being Clarkbum, he missed the most important factor of all: with one or two huge exceptions, the cars themselves are about as distinctive and interesting as two wheel-nuts. That’s what car manufacturers produce these days: lots of coloured wheelnuts. The Corsa looks like the Renault looks like the Ford, and all of them are trying to look like the Merc, the BMW, or the Audi. One company produces headlights with wiggly dots in them, so wiggly dots are the new headlights. Peugeot starts to drop bonnets and straight-back its Estates, and soon every ‘Station Wagon’ (another bit of retro) looks like the Peugeot. (Clarksonny-Jim hates Peugeots, but like I said, he sports short trousers, and a little purple man who just won’t stay inside them).
There is a very big point here: multinational design, marketing and advertising breeds Xerox-copier thinking, not innovation and creativity. It leads to the dull, rather than the desirable. And the same is true of anything that has grown too big to have a focused, inventive culture – be that the EU, the US, Pepsico, the political class, Microsoft or contemporary television.
In any large working environment – where the folks at the top are more concerned about their bonuses and titles than why the company does what it does – the daily challenge very quickly becomes the daily grind. There are always ‘keenies’ in precocious middle-management positions, running about and sounding like a badly-written textbook; but the reality is the employees put in a sufficiency of effort, because there is no goal to inspire anything better. Then – when market share and margins fall because the company’s deeply average products fail to ignite the public – the management demands for longer hours, obsessive dedication (and the mobile switched on 24/7) become increasingly shrill. Quite quickly, all those who are any good leave. Those who stay watch as the company is devoured by a bigger shark. Then they get fired.
Tight focus in a culture produces sharp clarity of thinking. In multinational business (aside from the unbelievably trite and warped manuals in companies like McDonalds or Newscorp) that clarity is almost entirely absent. The systems favour process and fast ROI over great ideas and risk, 25% to the bottom line this year rather than product design aimed at 2017, and arse-tunnelling over outspoken frankness.
And the result is the car business.
That would be bad enough; but the result is also Cool Britannia, the EU, the Federal Reserve and a hundred other States and institutions around the globe. It explains more than anything why we have no answers at all to the current econ-fiscal and cultural crisis. When the stakes get leveraged and then derived a million times, banks get too big to fail. When the same thing happens in business, companies and political groups get too big to even think about changing course. And if the profits and results aren’t there in at most 12 months, the voters, shareholders or fans all get too big for their boots.
Quite quickly, those in key positions forget the goal, and focus instead on ‘the interest groups’ as they were called in my day…or the stakeholders, as the McKinseys of this world call them today.
The process began among manufacturers selling to retail in the 1970s: “Whatever we do, we mustn’t piss Tesco off”. Tony Blair’s version was “whatever we do, we mustn’t frighten the rich and the City”. David Cameron’s became “whatever we do, we must give Rupert Murdoch and Bob Diamond anything they want”. Twelve years ago, the German version was “we mustn’t upset the French”. Today in the EU, the mantra has become “we mustn’t freak out the markets”. If you look at accounts both here and in the States of Obama’s reelection campaign, you’ll notice that it operates on only four levels: who can I blame for my own lack of balls (no shortage of candidates there); who are the groups I need to promise stuff to (say anything to get them); who must I not offend (compromise any principle to do that); and what dirty internet tricks can I play to get the kids (and shut up the dissidents). Does anyone know what Obama has set as the goal for his second term? I think he just wants to get it. Then get through it with the US in one piece. Then retire and watch the money pour in.
No public official personifies this approach more than US Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. You get the feeling just watching the guy that, if he had an idea, the shock might kill him. For him, a ‘new’ idea is adding some liquidity a few yards upstream from where he poured the last bucketful. Every press conference, rationale or announcement he makes is a turgid list of considerations, and why he isn’t doing anything more imaginative or inspiring. Despite the failure of everything in his toolbag, he still totes around the same bag with the same contents. Ben Bernanke is a man whose demeanour could create a catatonic slump. But as to getting out of one, nothing he says inspires any sense of purpose or solution. He tells us about the speed of this in Asia, and the contraction of that in Europe. He records the value of suburban housing and the size of the money supply and fluctuations in currency exchange numbers. It’s like listening to a travel writer driving a hearse.
Leaders of today in general, in fact, are looking at the scenery on the way to Ohio, as opposed to saying, “F**k Ohio, it sucks….let’s go to San Bernadino!”
What I’m highlighting here is just one negatively causal dimension of contemporary Elite/Establishment thinking. There are two main reasons for so doing at this point in The Slog’s history. First, to point out that this mode of thought is all process and no ideas: it is never going to create anything of worth except what we have now. So at the cultural crossroads we face now, it is useless.
And second – a key factor this one – no amount of engaging with those elites on their terms is going to change their blinkered minds. They will say they’re listening, they will say they understand, they will change a gismo here and a clause there, but they will largely carry on making the same mistakes….while drawing on the 1979 manual for inspiration.
I have an idea in the works that addresses these central problems – so often expressed by commenters here…and so often obvious to the observer of any major cockup or crisis in the world outside. Without trying to be patronising, I’m releasing it in bite-sized chunks – of which this brief essay is the rationale and introduction. In between any significant news developments, the other bits will follow in the coming days. Following which, there may be a lot of work to do.
I apologise to those folks who live in Ohio. But I bet you’d rather be in San Bernadino.