Artist’s ‘playful riff’ on Charles Saatchi

July 31, 2013

Charles Saatchi – NotCharles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson have just been granted a decree nisi in the  High Court, near finalising their divorce.  We thought to mark the occasion with an item that puts former adman Charlieboy in his rightful context: as a celebrated patron of controversial Art.

A young British artist (who for entirely understandable reasons prefers to remain anonymous) has created a life-size model of Saatchi with a hand outstretched ready to choke anyone who interacts with the piece. The work is entitled ‘Playful Tiff’ – the words Charles used to describe the incident where he lovingly placed his hand around his wife Nigella Lawson’s neck at Scott’s restaurant in London. Viewers of ‘Playful Tiff’ are invited to place their neck in Saatchi’s hand and capture the historic moment with a photo on their mobile phone.
For good measure, and in line with the impish persona Saatchi has used to promote his book, ‘Be The Worst You Can Be’, the model is bright red and comes with a set of horns.
The artwork is on display at the Jealous Gallery at Crouch End in north London.

We suspect this particular exhibit will soon be occupying pride of place in the Saatchi Gallery.

Just choking.

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Cannes awards spat masks war to the needle between de Nardis and Sorrell

July 4, 2013

Mainardo de NardisWPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell has rightly been basking in the reflected glory of the Cannes sunshine. Three successive years, three successive triumphs as holding company of the year at the International Festival of Creativity. It’s the pinnacle moment for a strategy – his own as it happens, but one for which worldwide creative director John O’Keeffe has done all the hard implementation – designed to kick into touch that old myth about Omnicom’s creative supremacy.

Martin, they used to say, has Asia (meaning he’s a shrewd strategist) but John (Wren, Omnicom CEO) has all the brands. Not any more. In the eternal battle for Cannes “statues”, WPP notched up a convincing lead of 2067 points over Omnicom, in number two position with 1552. Publicis Groupe trailed in third place with 989.5 (where did that half-point come from? No idea). Just to rub the triumph in, a leading WPP agency, Ogilvy & Mather, became the first network ever to win more than 100 lions and its Sao Paulo shop was named agency of the year. So now Martin can boast about having the brands, as well as Asia. Which is more than Alexander the Great could ever do.

But when it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. A few days after the festival ended, news that Omnicom was crying foul over the final Lions tally left Sir Martin spluttering into his breakfast of fresh strawberries at Connaught’s. His temper will not have improved on learning the identity of the trouble-fête behind all this mischief: none other than Mainardo de Nardis, CEO of Omnicom’s principal media planning and buying network, OMD Worldwide. Mainardo (pictured) and Sir Martin go back a long way…

More of that in a moment, though. First, let’s get down and dirty with some relatively boring Cannes festival award technicalities. The substance of de Nardis’ complaint is that WPP media company GroupM has massively over-claimed in putting out a statement – last Wednesday – saying it had won 45 awards, more than any other media agency holding company. Not nearly so, according to Omnicom. Thirty of the Lions (i.e., awards) claimed by GroupM are not verified on the Cannes Lions winners’ website.

Doh? Well, a majority of GroupM’s wins should be disqualified because its subsidiary agencies were not specified in the original competition entry. WPP may well have won something, on the creative side, but for whatever reason, failed to catalogue the media achievement. After the wins were announced, according to Omnicom, GroupM assiduously went back to each entrant agency and requested they be listed as the media shop for the work.

“Gaming the system,” says de Nardis, and a clear violation of the Festival’s rules in spirit if not in the letter (Cannes does make allowance for a few genuine oversights, but not wholesale ones). “Rubbish,” responds GroupM: just a few inadvertent errors and when the Cannes deadline for amended entries is published tomorrow (July 5th), all will be vindicated.

OMD, by the way, won 19 awards, which are seemingly confirmed on the Cannes website. So, if we subtract 30 from GroupM’s claimed 45, we can see that OMD has everything to play for.

All this might seem a storm in a teacup to most readers. But fuelling Sorrell’s irritation is some history. Mainardo de Nardis was once a senior WPP executive and the relationship with Sorrell did not end pleasantly.

Specifically, de Nardis headed WPP’s CIA.mediaedge, these days called MEC, before leaving for Aegis in 2006. Ironically, in view of what has come later, it was WPP which accused de Nardis of not abiding by the rules. Indeed, it became so convinced that de Nardis was playing a double game – working for a rival while still on WPP gardening leave – that it issued legal proceedings against him. Interestingly (from a revelatory point of view), the matter went to trial and quite a lot of Machiavellian shenanigans tumbled out concerning de Nardis’ relationship with Marco Benatti, another former WPP executive who was at that time country manager of CIA in Italy. Although they have managed to fall out from time to time, de Nardis and Benatti were (and probably still are) closely tied by family and business interests – for example, they once ran Medianetwork Italia. Benatti was himself the subject of WPP court proceedings, for alleged breach of fiduciary duty in failing to disclose a major holding in an Italian company, Media Club, which he had helped to acquire on WPP’s behalf in 2002. The trial lumbered on until 2008. Anyone interested in the minutiae of these (apparently) dusty events might look here and here.

So, nothing personal in this statues kerfuffle, eh? One other thing guaranteed to pour salt into old wounds is the prestigious Chanel account, recently up for repitch. Incumbent media agency? MEC. Prospective winner (according to the gossip at Cannes, possibly generated by de Nardis himself): OMD. Actual winner, declared yesterday: WPP, in the guise of a new bespoke agency, Plus – which harbours elements of MEC and Mindshare in its media-buying element.


Why Aberdeen Asset Management wants to be the Intel of financial services

May 7, 2013

Piers Currie - Aberdeen Asset ManagementWhat’s the biggest, most successful, company you’ve never heard of? Impossible to say, of course. But a good candidate would be Aberdeen Asset Management.

It’s in the FTSE-100; it’s genuinely global. And it’s very profitable indeed, judging from its latest interim figures. Just to make the point: profit before tax increased 37% to £223m; earnings were up 43%, while the dividend increased 36%. And it manages financial assets of £212bn.

Yes Siree, the people at the top of this company are heading for deferred bonus payments that will make Sir Martin Sorrell’s look like a storm in a teacup. And, do you know what? There won’t be a squeak of dissent from shareholders.

Anonymity – outside the global capital markets – has served Aberdeen well these past 30 years. It has had little need to trumpet its wares through the megaphone of mass-media publicity, since what it does – trade in equities, fixed income instruments, properties and multi-asset portfolios – is mainly aimed at the wholesale financial market (other people sell the product on), and has little resonance with the punter on the street – unless that punter happens to be reasonably wealthy in the first place. True, Aberdeen has spent some trifling amount on a corporate ID (it looks a bit like a mountainous ‘A’) and does dispose of a £20m annual global marketing budget (peanuts for any equivalently-ranged consumer products company). But most of that money goes on getting a word in the right, expert, ear – via the rapier of PR and that trusty old ambush-marketing technique, the roadshow, rather than the blunderbuss of advertising.

Not any longer, however. This week Aberdeen is launching a global corporate branding campaign – its first since 1983. “Simply asset management”, the strap line, may not sound like rocket-science but, in fact, it is shrewdly timed. And for that, presumably, we must thank Aberdeen’s long-serving head of marketing (now group head of brand), Piers Currie (pictured above).

At a time when interest rates on deposit accounts are near zero (after inflation is factored in, you effectively pay the bank, not the other way round), investors are finding it increasingly difficult to gain a reasonably safe return on their financial investment. They must therefore turn to more risky asset classes – fixed income instruments and, more fashionably, shares. Who to trust in this treacherous financial world, however? Certainly not the universal banks – discredited bancassurance conglomerates that were yesteryear’s financial toast – who have comprehensively fleeced us of our savings, through rank incompetence, downright fraud or a combination of both.

Aberdeen’s modest proposition is that it is a narrow specialist; but within a field where it has gained great expertise and evidence-based returns. Stuff that isn’t going to be lost in the miasma of a bank’s balance sheet, and is there for all to see – should you wish to. There’s been an element of luck here, but also a good deal of judgement. When chief executive Martin Gilbert set up Aberdeen (it was a management buyout from an investment trust, which owed its name to its physical location in Aberdeen), he deliberately targeted emerging markets, and in particular the Far East, as the company’s area of fund management expertise. At the time, ’emerging markets’ were the financial equivalent of  the Wild West. Today, they’re mainstream. Anyone without a decent chunk of his or her portfolio in China, Brazil, India, Hong Kong or Singapore is probably suffering from asset imbalance.

Aberdeen’s sweet-spot won’t, of course, last forever. But while it does, it has – on the evidence so far – a reasonable claim to being regarded as the Intel of financial services.

Which is what this corporate makeover seems to be about.


Supermarkets should remember the consequences of the Perrier scandal

February 18, 2013

Malcolm WalkerDuring the early part of 1990, health officials in North Carolina, USA, made an alarming discovery. Some Perrier bottled mineral water, whose purity was so legendary they had used it to benchmark other water supplies, was found to be contaminated with minute traces of benzene.

Benzene is a natural component of crude oil. Ingested in sufficient quantities, it can cause cancer in humans. Of course, there was no question of that happening in North Carolina. As a Federal Food and Drug Administration official drily observed at the time: “At these levels there is no immediate hazard. Over many years, if you consumed about 16 fluid ounces a day, your lifetime risk of cancer might increase by one in a million, which we consider a negligible risk.”

But no one was listening to the FDA’s voice of reason. Panic broke out all over the USA – and not just there. Perrier, at that time world leader in the mineral water category, was obliged to withdraw its entire global inventory of 160 million bottles. Brand integrity was further compromised by the discovery that the “natural” bubbles in the bottled potion were actually added back later. Perrier never fully recovered: it lost its leadership and became just another branded mineral water, albeit still a famous French one. Commercially, the crisis was if anything even more disastrous. The independent Perrier bottled water company was, within two years, sold to Nestlé.

I think you know where I’m leading with this. Fast-forward 23 years, to a full-page ad that appeared in yesterday’s national newspapers. It was inserted by Malcolm Walker, founder and chief executive of  leading UK food retailer Iceland. Its purpose was to divert responsibility for the horse meat scandal now engulfing our supermarkets by pointing the finger of blame at cheapskate procurement in local government, the National Health Service – and its equally unscrupulous counterpart in the catering industry – which has connived at bringing down processed food costs to their lowest possible denominator. Doubtless, judging from the ensuing squawks of indignation, the Iceland boss has a point – though how exactly his tirade exonerates the supermarkets from their own ruthless manipulation of supplier lines is not entirely clear. However, Walker does not stop there. Having scored some points on behalf of his sector, he then goes on to trash it by adopting a “holier than thou” approach:

“Iceland does not sell cheap food. We sell high-quality own label frozen food that is good value. We do not sell – and never sold – ‘white pack’ economy products.” Unlike, he carefully does not add, Tesco and Asda. And, just to ram the point home, he goes on to claim that “no horse meat has ever been found in an Iceland product”.

Well, almost none. At the bottom of the ad there is a mealy-mouthed admission that 0.1% of equine DNA was indeed found in two Iceland Quarter Pound burgers. But these don’t count, because the test, carried out by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, was not an “accredited” one, and the discovered traces of horse were “well below the current accepted threshold level” of 1%. So, yaboo sucks to any critics.

Nice one, Malcolm. You’ve managed to spread, or at least smear, the blame far and wide, and thrown into the processor just a hint of xenophobia. Ireland, Romania, France – these horse-eating monkeys, they’re not like us – not to be trusted, whatever their professions of rigorously adhering to EU-wide standards. But, leaving aside the lowly populism of his message, Walker, in waxing eloquent about the infinitesimal amount of contamination in his own burgers, has committed a revealing tactical blunder.

Perrier logoThe current food scandal is not about parts per billion contaminants found in horse meat; it’s about trust in the brand. Just like the benzene found in Perrier all those years ago, consumers would have to ingest an awful lot of horse burger infected with “bute” equine painkiller (over 500 250 gram ones, to be precise) before experiencing any appreciable side effect. But that won’t prevent them passing summary judgement on those august brands – at the head of the supply chain – that have allowed this scandal to happen: namely the UK grocery multiples.

Possibly with devastating consequences for future sales.

One interesting aspect of this scandal is that its ramifications have now moved on from cheap lines of processed meat – in short, “poor people” – to ready-made meals. In the other words, the sort of thing consumed by affluent and articulate members of the middle-class. That’s bad news even for elite purveyors, such as Waitrose and M&S.

In all probability there’s nothing to worry about. But that’s not the point, is it? My local butcher tells me business has gone gang-busters over the past couple of weeks. And for good reason. In the past, there was a perception (false, as it happens, in many cases) that local businesses could not match supermarket fresh meat prices. Now, understandably, people seem a lot more concerned about local provenance. If you must have lasagne, it’s as well to see the meat being minced while you wait, rather than trusting the word of some supermarket about the integrity of its supply line.


Ryanair’s two-fingered salute to social media

February 2, 2013

Michael O'LearyI was amused to read that the incoming head of comms at Ryanair (forgive the oxymoron) has “deliberately” ruled out a social media strategy.

New boy Robin Kiely tells us – apparently without irony –  that such an initiative “would not be helpful” to Ryanair as “we would have so many people looking for a response.” A dedicated Facebook account, for instance, would probably mean “hiring two more people to sit on Facebook all day.”

Just two, Robin? Surely a legion would not be enough to handle the sycophantic email that would inundate your site.

As an after-thought, Kiely mentions that customers of Ryanair are, in any case, handsomely provided for by the budget airline’s “customer care line”. Has anyone ever managed to find a living being on the other end of this, without being connected to the ether for half an hour beforehand? Just checking.

Social media is, as you can imagine, heavily populated with accounts trading on the Ryanair brand, few of them complimentary. A quick trawl revealed an official PR Twitter account which has been dormant since August. By contrast, one altogether busier account, on Facebook, is that of the RyanairPilotGroup. It’s replete with commentary on Ryanair’s alleged infractions of European working regulations; tax evasion; and imminent strike action.

A bit worrying really, if these people really are Ryanair pilots…

You know what they say, Robin: journalists, like Nature, abhor a vacuum. If you’re not there, you’re not a player.


Horse meat scandal puts grocers through the mincer

January 17, 2013

TescoUntil a couple of days ago, few outside the food retail and logistics business would ever have heard of Silvercrest. Now it has achieved household notoriety as the weak-link in the food chain that has served illegal horse meat up on British tables, in the guise of own-label supermarket beef burgers.

The reputational damage has, rightly, been severe for all those involved. Tesco – which fessed up to at least one line of its apparently legit beef burgers being contaminated with 29% horse meat – has seen £300m wiped from its stock market valuation overnight and has now taken out full-page ads in most national newspapers, grovelling abjectly. The timing could not have been worse, from a corporate point of view. Just days ago, a halfway decent set of financials had seemed to indicate that Tesco was on the ramp of recovery.

Luckily for Tesco, it is no longer alone. A host of other high street names – Aldi, Lidl, Sainsbury, Asda, the Co-Op, Morrisons, Burger King among them – have now opted to clear their shelves of the offensive products. In some cases because they use the same supplier, ABP/Silvercrest, in others merely as a “precaution” lest the same fate might befall their own supply chain. Only McDonald’s and Marks & Spencer have been able to stand aside, smugly waving a clean bill of health.

Their smugness is unwarranted. This disaster could so easily – in only slightly modified circumstances – have happened to them.

Some might argue that the horse-meat scandal is little more than a storm in a tea-cup, got up by the media. After all, no one died and no one is likely to: horse meat is eagerly consumed all over the globe, from Kazakstan to Argentina, as a tasty substitute for the tougher, stringier beef that can be bought for about the same price. Indeed, there’s not a little hypocrisy in this country about the cultural taboo surrounding horse meat. Until about 100 years ago, the Brits themselves were avid consumers of the stuff. Only more recently have we developed the refinement of conscience that prohibits national consumption, while allowing us to send up to 10,000 nags a year to specialist abattoirs, there to be despatched for the perverted pleasure of less civilised foreigners.

Alas, the ramifications of this affair go somewhat deeper. Imagine, for a moment, that instead of horse meat (and elements of pork), those eagle-eyed  inspectors at the Irish Food Standards Agency (FSAI) had found the minutest traces of human DNA. The uncontainable revulsion – far from affecting a few animal lovers, Muslims and Jews – would be universal. An official inquiry would, there and then, be instituted into how these three wise monkeys – the suppliers, the retailers and the regulator – had, through cavalier negligence and the unobstructed pursuit of greed, been allowed to corrupt the integrity of the food chain. Because, make no mistake, this little cock-up is all about money. The burgers most tainted were those from so-called “value” products where the cost of ingredients is at all times under pressure. Retailers want to satisfy their customers with the lowest possible prices consistent with food safety regulations. The suppliers – browbeaten by the retailers – seek low-cost substitutes (in this case from the less  punctilious Netherlands and Spain, where the consumption of horse meat is legal). And the UK regulator takes a passive, compliant attitude to anything that is outside its immediate remit (no conceivable threat to health, so why bother with DNA tests?), suggesting a “lite-touch” relationship that is too cosy with the industry it is supposed to govern.

It makes you wonder why the FSAI could be bothered with such tests, but the UK’s FSA could not. Or indeed, why the retailers didn’t carry out such DNA tests themselves. After all, it’s their brand reputation which is going through the mincer because they have not.


Wonga scores own goal with social media subterfuge

November 21, 2012

Sally Bercow and Alan Davies  – who you may recall were a little too keen to blacken the name of Lord McAlpine – are not the only prominent twitterati caught abusing social media recently.

Wonga, the so-called payday loans company (that’s “usurer” to you and me, readers), has found itself at the wrong end of a Guardian exposé after systematically attempting to undermine the reputation of its chief  gadfly, anti-payday loans campaigner and Labour MP Stella Creasy. It did so by using a bogus Twitter account to suggest she was “mental”, “nuts” and a “self-serving egomaniac”.

The Twitter account in question was operated by one “Daniel Sargant” – an alias for what Wonga management, when put on the spot, characterised as a “junior employee” – evidently with the idea of suggesting that he or she was an unauthorised maverick. Bearing in mind the likely educational attainments of most junior employees at Wonga, this is a remarkably sophisticated one whose talents are obviously being wasted in the lower ranks of a payday loans company. A more compelling theory – voiced in The Guardian – is that “Daniel Sargant” is none other than Luke Manning, editor of Open Wonga, a website dedicated to educating consumers about the brand. Its inference is based on the fact that at least one of “Daniel’s” blog comments has the same internet protocol (IP) address as a computer used by Manning when, quite separately, he made a comment on another blog. (Manning, by the way, has denied any suggestion that “Daniel” is his alter ego.)

While it is entirely understandable that Wonga should wish to bury its best-known brand attribute of  “4,214% APR”, manipulating phoney Twitter accounts is probably not the way to do it. Not least because this kind of conduct cuts directly across the company’s credo of “Straight Talking Money.”

As does fiddling its Wikipedia entry to polish the corporate facts. And yet maybe, in a perverse sort of way, we should be grateful to Wonga for its underhand, if hamfisted, tactics. Had it not been for a determined attempt to erase any reference to its recent and controversial £25m (they say) sponsorship deal with Newcastle United, I would never have known that a survey of 1,000 fans had uncovered serious concerns about the deal, and the people behind it:

“… fans are disappointed that the club has not attracted a sponsor that enhances Newcastle United’s profile and is not the type of premium brand previously associated with the club.”

Not, admittedly, the sort of thing you want trumpeted about your brand.


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