Being acquired

As some will know, I had an Agency for nearly 20 years: for 9 of these years (1993-2002) we were independent, while for the other 10 (2003-2012) we lived as part of a big American Group who had acquired us.

There are lessons I learned from the acquisition process itself, but they are a bit too close personally to share openly, so if you want to learn what they are you will have to email me. The question I received today, however, is different:

“Which life was better?”

To try to answer, I will dissect the word “better” into some of its many meanings.

 

Better = make more money for myself

This essentially depends on timing (and therefore on some luck): selling when you are at the top of your game will advantage you financially, because for all their experience in negotiation, your counterpart are as dependent on the business cycle as you are. I thought that having weathered the ebbs and flows of the tide so many times they would have the fix, but they don’t.

The general rule is therefore that they will pay you a little less than the cash your business will generate, unless you catch an overhang coming from a few exceptionally good years across the acquisition date, followed by a string of bad ones. This is a rather unique combination which I hit upon by sheer luck: my mistake was that I should have perhaps severed the remaining link a couple of years earlier than I did – so think carefully about your ultimate exit strategy.

Better = make more money for the firm

This is almost NEVER the case: the weight of compliance and policies will erode your profit margins, especially if you live in a peripheral country like Italy: as always in history, vassals pay for the Prince’s silverware.

Better = win more business

Of course, living under the umbrella of a big, respected international brand means you get invited to bigger pitches by bigger clients; this is very true for the “main” countries like the U.S., U.K. or Germany. Much less so for Italy, always an afterthought and never the target of big budgets. Smart individuals can however have the chance to work at international level to fully exploit their capabilities, and a big global firm is the best stage for someone willing to excel.

Better = work on more exciting clients/projects

Mind the general rule: sexy work in big American firms is done in New York (or, much less, in London). Nowhere else.

So yes, you could get on sexy work if you’re smart, but you must doggedly pursue a job in those central hubs: you must work the organisation, get hooked up in NYC, play the Corporate game, purposefully and ruthlessly.

Better = easier to recruit/motivate good people

Being a grunt for a big services Brand (advertising, consultancy, PR) is like being drafted for military service: you do it because you must, but you hate every second of it. As an independent, people joined my firm because they wanted to work with me, after the acquisition they joined because they wanted to get our Big Brand on their resume.

So this will work out even, trading the attractiveness of the firm’s leader for the attractiveness of its brand, but the sense of loyalty will be much watered down; I tried to walk a middle ground of treating people fairly also when in a Big Brand, but of course with the added corporate costs you can only do this for as long as business is exceptionally good. I am sure there is plenty of ex-employees who think I was every inch the corporate selfish bastard.

Better = more sophisticate internationally

Definitely so: if you’re willing to do it, a big Global Agency is where you can forge relationships, learn from other cultures: this is where your ability to function in a culture other than your native one is forged and where you learn to live in a constant state of imbalance.

Better = more innovative service offering

Big organisations are risk-averse: they thrive not in innovation, but in perfecting the tried and tested, making it into a process that requires less and less skilled workers because it’s so ingrained into the organisation.

New ideas are received with intellectual curiosity but rarely pursued also because they would entail change and remember, no organisation ever wants to change. As a result, innovation departments is where you put brilliant fellows whose impact on the organisation is next to nothing.

Better = more rigorous planning and management

Services businesses are bitches to model, and without models, it’s hard to develop measurement breakpoints to understand what’s going on.

So you would be justified in expecting that a conglomerate made up of hundreds of very similar businesses would have developed some good quality models for you to adopt: well, if that was the case, such models never made it to me: the things I learned (and there are many) were invariably the intuition of more insightful or more experienced peers, rather than the distillation of collective knowledge burned into a crystal-ball Excel.

Better = more skilled as a manager / professional

As I already said the acquisition leveraged my ability to work in international contexts, but it did not fix any of my own shortcomings (I am a good leader but a crap manager, I lose interest easily and I am not so fond of details, much preferring the Big Picture), nor did instill in me any love for the human side of organisations. In fact, my tendency to analyze/model and then use the information system to support organisational change stems probably from the desire of managing the model rather than the people making it up in real life.

I have no idea whether the people in the model (my employees) found themselves objectified: one thing I remember well is that I kept everybody at a distance for fear of attaching myself to someone I may have to fire later on, also because I insisted on dealing with every dismissal directly myself, perhaps as a way never to forget how painful they are.

Better = improved my relationship wth money

Despite not being wealthy, I am not motivated much by money: my own greed was always short-term and tactical (“Hey, I made a bundle this year, let’s go buy a new car/house/toy !”) ; as a result, I had a hard time accepting and supporting faceless corporate greed, which is an end in itself.

Emptying the fish tank (2)

About six months ago, I offered an historical perspective on how Italy fought (and won) its own battle against terrorism.

It was a less ferocious strand of that virus, but it spawned massacres like the Piazza Fontana bomb or the one on the Italicus train or in the Bologna railway station.

My post concluded with a plea for islamic clergy to clearly define terrorists like Da’esh as heretics.

In six months the situation has gotten worse, and although westerners tend to get emotional over the carnage on the Promenade des Anglais, much worse has happened in Turkey, Pakistan and Iraq. It is clear that the target of the bearded crazies, now under intense military pressure,  is no more a fuzzily defined West, but the Rest of he World.

So I feel compelled to offer another history lesson (just to prove the point that whatever mistakes Islam may be making, Christianity has made them before and in spades).

Christianity lived through a profound schism (called the Western Schism) for most of the XIV century: initiated with the transfer of the Pope from Rome to Avignon in 1307, the Schism itself appeared with the return of the Papal Siege to Rome decided by Pope Gregory XI in 1377: upon his death, the french faction and the roman faction both elected a Pope, and Europe found itself divided in “french obedience” (France, Spain, southern Italy, Scotland) and “roman obedience” (Eastern and Northern Europe, northern Italy, England, Ireland) with the German Empire and Portugal flip-flopping between the two depending on political convenience.

Grande_scisma_1378.JPG

In 1409, an attempt to resolve the problem made it worse by adding a third Pope to the existing two.

It took until 1417, when the Ecumenical Council of Constanze, having sorted out in three years of discussion the doctrinal differences (which in reality masked political necessities of the various factions), deposed all three Popes and elected a new one, Martin V.

The Ecumenical Council was not a “new” instrument: in the history of the Church it had been called sixteen other times (but only five since) to address doctrinal issues such as heresies. The 1414 one was the first time it was used to decide which Pope was the legit one, a thorny issue which potentially clashed with the dogma of the papal infallibility.

What is the lesson?

The Western Schism could not have been composed without stretching the mandate of the Ecumenical Council, something that was only possible because all parties recognized the explosive potential of the Schism to precipitate Europe into another endless war.

This is probably what is needed by Islam today: an extraordinary measure to sanction that the perversion of the words of the Quran to justify terrorism is an unacceptable heresy, and preachers of such hate doctrine should be publicly thrown out of Islam, for all faithful to see and stay away from.

كافر

#ka’fer

Understanding gun nuts

dirty harry.jpg

If there is one thing nearly no-one in Europe understands, is the attachment (a lot of) Americans have for firearms.

Mountains of evidence showing that the sky-high mortality rate of American citizens is scientifically linked to the ease with which any psycho, even when proven dangerous, can legally purchase an assault rifle in most U.S. states have no effect, and notice how I used the extreme example of an assault rifle, because no-one on their right minds could ever propose a ban on handguns, (not even on Dirty Harry’s S&W .44 Magnum cannon).

So we Europeans come to the quick conclusion that those Americans are just weak-minded.

Except that among my friends I have a few Republicans who do not support gun-control measures, support mr. Trump but are still, as far as I can tell, good and intelligent people, definitely NOT weak-minded.

So, instead of trying to understand my friends, I have been thinking if there isn’t something where we Europeans behave at least as foolishly as our U.S. counterparts. And this morning, when the below car zipped by me on the highway, that something just popped in my mind.lambo.jpgNowhere in Europe (except limited stretches of clogged highways in Germany) cars can travel faster than 130 km/h, yet the catalogs of car vendors is rife with models that can go TWICE as fast, when not more; most brands DO NOT HAVE MODELS that are not capable of breaking the maximum highway-only speed limit.

There are lots of similarities, starting with the consequences: 10.6 gun-related deaths per 100k people in the U.S., 9.3 car-related deaths per 100k people in Europe; both cars and guns have legit uses, most of the deaths are accidental, yada-yada-yada…

The question is why do we keep selling cars that are so potentially lethal? Why not simply limit electronically the speed of ANY car sold in a given country to the maximum legal limit in that country? Why even bother building and selling fast cars?

Maybe because there are other similarities: powerful economic forces fan the fire of our passions, making us buy powerful big cars (a.k.a. dick extensions – another similarity) we never use (check your historical overall average speed on your dash computer: if it is above 40km/h, I’ll buy you a beer) but are tantamount to AK-47s when we are drunk or tired.

So I came to the conclusion that the reason some of my American friends cannot be separated from their Glocks must be the same reason we Europeans buy a 500HP BMW M3: irrational, expensive but – probably – not completely genuine.

I have spent 20 years in professional communications and I know a lot of firms that would never work for arms manufacturers or tobacco companies (including my last employer): I don’t know A SINGLE ONE that would not work for a big car company.

Sometimes, keeping a little perspective before you start lecturing others is useful.

 

My energy efficiency project

Some friends know that I have been devoting an inordinate amount of time to bring the energy efficiency of my house under control and asked me whether I had any results to post, so here they come:

Screenshot 2016-07-08 11.12.09.png

I am conscious this is a bit of an eye test, so I will try to guide the reader through they key figures (all costs include all taxes and tariffs):

  • (line 32) the total energy cost of the house went from nearly €8,400 (2013) down to a little more €4,200 and is projected to further decrease to €3,700 this year. True, 2012 and 2013 were much colder years than these last two, but still the improvement is visible: from around 32 KWh per degree-day (line 35) down to 27.

[NOTE: Degree-days are  a common measurement for external climate, defining 20 °C as the external temperature requiring no heating: a day where the average temperature is 18 °C contributes 2 DD to the year’s total.]

  • It’s always hard to do backwards historical what-ifs, but the 2012-2013 costs were based on energy costs lower than today’s. More importantly, while furious negotiations with suppliers made sure I took advantage of recent energy cost decreases in gas, I essentially eliminated the source of uncertainty linked to electricity costs: while the market price went from €0,16 in 2012 to €0,34 in 2015 to retrace down to €0,26 this year (line 7), thanks to my own photovoltaic production offsetting most of the consumption, my effective price went from said €0,16 down to €0,04 and projected to go to €0,02 this year (line 19). In fact, my net electricity cost decreased over 90% to essentially zero (line 18)
  • My next question mark is whether I should upgrade my heating furnace: the current system is not very efficient (I estimate its yield – line 26 – to no more than 70% while a new one would easily attain 98%). Running the numbers, the new furnace should achieve a further €849 in savings, but would cost around €8,000; even accounting for tax credits, it would take 40 months (line 41) to recoup the investment. Ditto for Hot Water production, which could be replaced by a €6,000 Heat Pump system I would amortize over 42 months. This return period is a little longer than my target (around 24 months) and so I am hesitant to take the plunge: it’s true the last long-term bet I made on energy (the €50,000 photovoltaic system) paid itself back ahead of time (5 years instead of 8), but price volatility is scary so I am thinking hard…
  • as a last curiosity, column K looks at the numbers for a hypothetical wood-fired furnace to replace my gas-fired system: the numbers are very attractive, with a payback period of only 22 months, but the idea of having to refill the furnace twice a day by hand and the fact that wood furnaces apparently pollute more than their gas counterparts made me discard that option.

 

Do turnout numbers add up?

[EDITED for a calculation mistake – sorry!]

SkyData released this turnout by age group table for which I could not find background or research supporting it.

Screenshot 2016-06-27 11.44.52.png

If these numbers were true, this would be the voter structure (weighted by the UK’ population structure – as of Wikipedia):

Screenshot 2016-06-27 12.47.58.png

This indicates that there were THREE TIMES the number of old geezers compared to kids at the polling booths; when you combine this voter structure with the known Remain percentage and add it all up, you get a Remain total of 49.2%,

Screenshot 2016-06-27 12.30.16.png

which is wrong, but not by much. Given the other numbers are rather well researched, my conclusion is that the turnout by age is slightly off but credible.

This therefore means that the problem of the Remain camp was NOT that old people “stole the future” from their kids: had each age group contributed at the same rate of the oldest group, Remain would have won with nearly 60% of vote.

Does anyone have a better source for turnout by age group?

Ooops!

After the shocking Brexit, Nigel Farage released an interview widely circulated on Social Media, stating that, actually, the £350 million the UK contributes weekly to the EU cannot be spent on the British health system as the Leave propaganda bombastically promised.

The interviewer asked the same question time and again, as in dusbelief he was reneging Leave’s key pledge HOURS after the outcome.

That had me thinking: why would you do that when the money won’t materialise until negotiations are over, i.e. at least TWO years? Why in such a public occasion (instead of a customarily quiet backpedaling at 2019 budget time)?

And why the backpedaling in the first place? At the end of the day, the money IS there, so why simply not make good on your promise?

The only possible justification is if you actually WANT a second vote to narrowly call for Remain.

The desirable outcome for UKIP IMHO was not a narrow win, but a narrow lose: a win means they must come up a plan they don’t really have for one of the most complex political and economic manoeuvers in postwar Europe.

Compare this win a narrow lose where Nigel can continue to appear on TV talk show accusing the system of being rigged against him without having to actually do anything.

So my conclusion is that there will be a second vote, which the UKIP will appear to oppose (but secretly wants as much as Labour or the Lib-Dem want).

And this vote will go as I had predicted all along….

Briton Rescue

I have set up a new business: it’s called

Briton Rescue

most Britons are in fact very decent folks. They are good-natured and ready to return any love you give them.

ukeu

It’s just that they have been exposed since childhood to ugly weather and lousy food, developing a generally grumpy attitude. But this grumpiness should not be mistaken for aggressiveness, quite the opposite: give them a little tea and edible food and they will love you forever. Some will even learn how to properly use a bidet.

The service I created works in a way similar to dog rescue organizations: I maintain a list of Britons ready for adoption (adding yourself is very simple, just leave a comment below) while in parallel, my Scrutinizer team will evaluate families making themselves available to adopt a stray Briton: you will be able to specify age, gender, color or profession of your preference: move quickly to make sure your requirements are satisfied, even though with nearly 25 million disowned unhappy people, we do not anticipate problems with your requests.

Fancy a black Oxford University professor or a female London Banker to join your household? We got you covered! Need an Asian LSE graduate to help you with your Tax Return or a Certified Chef… Um, sorry, bar that!

In the meanwhile, to self-assess if you are a potential  adopting family, you can answer these questions:

#adoptaBrit: together, we can!

 

 

 

Storytelling gives me the creeps…

Some of my best friends specialise in Storytelling and, as you see below, are quick to respond whenever the discussion veers towards the importance of Content:

Screenshot 2016-06-01 12.02.52

In the course of this discussion I stated that I have contradictory feelings about the word “storytelling” and since I have been asked to expand, let me try to dissect these contradictions.

I associate the word STORYTELLING with an inward-focused posture: take your key messages and articulate them in a well-thought out sequence which drives engagement through narration.

Of course, I fully recognize the power of narration: narration offers context, color and background. It stirs emotion, makes you dream. No question a good narration turns a message into a story.

But here is the itch I need to scrape: the story remains YOUR story, and I don’t think this is what it is needed in today’s world, because however well-written/told/visualized the story still originates from YOU: it is designed to make YOU look better, sort of the same way a CSR program whitewashes (some) of your sins.

Storytelling, in blunter words, does NOT CHANGE you. And profound change is what is needed. CHANGE as in a shift of focus from YOU to THEM, that is to say the recognition (and acceptance) that the play is not anymore about

your brand featuring your users

but

your users featuring your brand

Nowhere this distinction is more evident than in the communications jargon of car manufacturers: humans are almost invariably represented driving the car, getting in or out, experiencing the beauty of nature cocooned in a controlled, artificial, branded atmosphere. It’s almost as if the car Brand cannot survive without its product without which it becomes totally irrelevant. Car manufacturers brand extensions are the most abject of failures, bar perhaps the lone exception of Ferrari.

Modern Brands instead managed to achieve a much more daunting objective: they have become personalities, capable of abstraction from actual products.

Apple, Disney, Nike or Armani have transcended their products and have become synonymous of values which they carry along and confer on any product they emblazon.

This distillation can only happen if you drop every pretense of telling a story and instead focus on living your story, tearing down the walls of your organisation for others to see exactly what is inside.

The story is not told by well-groomed expert storyteller, but demonstrated as a living thing by each one of your employees, partners and clients. The preparation shift from packaging and delivery to understanding the conversation that’s already going on and making sure your story fits.

The old value proposition:

“This is the role I have reserved for you in my world”

is replaced by a newfangled one:

“Let us talk about which role I would like to play in your world”.

Permission has to be obtained, and honesty is the admission ticket. The brand story is not told, but lived. The key skill is not engagement, but comprehension.

Things that will look ridiculous in 20 years

anni 80Some things are so funny in retrospect: people think

“Did we really dress LIKE THAT?”

“Did people really wear their hair THAT WAY?”

Yet, at the time most of us would not notice this gentleman here, like we do not notice the myriad hipsters who infest our city centres.

I don’t think my own head was ever that funny, even though I must confess that not so long ago I toyed with a japanese-style ponytail and hippie curly hair, a double sin for someone who was then hitting fifty.GFC 2006 a

So today I started thinking of other things that will sound inconceivable twenty years from now; I am sure the list should be much longer, so contributions are welcome.

  1. Using devices other than our own. BYOD started as an exception, but I think our children will not accept someone telling them which computer or smartphone to use – sure, your employer may negotiate a corporate contract for all its employees, but we’d never allow them to tell us which shoes to wear, or which pen to use, would we?
  2. Non-personal email addresses. We already consider our social media profiles as part of our Digital Self, so why not email? The predicament of having to take your contacts from one mailbox to another when you leave a job is totally unnecessary.
  3. Company email. Is there anything more absurd than having a company manage email when there are so many organisations who do this as their core business?
  4. Owning cars in cities. I saw this trend start in London 5 years ago, now it’s spreading faster than thought possible. The math is simple: the average urban dweller drives 15,000km/year and keeps the car for 6/7 years. This use case is now CHEAPER on short-term rentals than on owned cars, and plunging fast.
  5. Operating a mobile device through anything but voice. Language recognition is here and makes so much sense for small devices.
  6. Metered wireless broadband. Wireless broadband will go truly unlimited, much earlier than 20 years from now.
  7. Human-driven cars on highways. I think for highways it’s really a no-brainer, and would save thousands of lives, as well as make high-traffic arteries much faster. Urban driving will stay human for much longer, albeit perhaps coupled with a vehicle-enforced maximum speed and alertness control.
  8. Augmented vs. Virtual. In twenty years I think we will ridicule those who today think these are synonymous: “augmented” will explode, while “virtual” will be forever a niche.

There is a few other trends however which I resisted putting in the list, because I think it will take longer than twenty years:

  1. Endothermic cars. Although electric is the way to go for urban areas, they will be not for extra-urban travel until the charging infrastructure and battery technology will have made big strides, and I don’t know anyone who solely uses their car for urban travel.
  2. Using a PC. Definitely a generational thing, but I do not see keyboards and big screens being replaced anytime soon.
  3. Paper books. I am a staunch supporter of ebooks, but even I admit they are still so much worse than their paper counterparts; the technology has been around for years, but it has not been embraced by publishers and no new players have come forward to wipe them away.
  4. Humanlike AI. Simply NOT happening, ever.