Welcome to my new one-man Harry Must Go movement

Everyone loves Harry Redknapp. Everyone except me, that is. Personally, I’m crushingly disappointed by how far, and how fast, we’ve gone backwards from this time last year. In the Premier League, we’ve picked up a hatful fewer points, and scored a hatful fewer goals. And, over the season, we’ve lost at home to Wigan and drawn at home with West Ham, West Brom, Blackpool and Sunderland, and conceded four not only to Real Madrid and Inter Milan but also to Arsenal, Fulham and Bolton.

As a result, we’ll finish sixth this season compared to fourth last season, and we won’t qualify for either of the European competitions. And all this despite the fact that on paper our squad is a) stronger than last year’s, and b) arguably both bigger and better than almost all the teams finishing above us.

But none of that explains why I don’t love Harry Redknapp.

The reason I don’t love Harry Redknapp is that he doesn’t seem to have noticed any of this. In countless end-of-season TV interviews, he professes himself absolutely delighted with the way the season has gone. It’s been a great season, he says, in which we’ve played great football and been a pleasure to watch.

Not from Block E, row 13, seat 117 we haven’t. It’s been frustrating and infuriating beyond all measure watching the talent and creativity of our brilliant midfield undermined time and again by our preposterous goalkeeper, our slow and square defence and our universally goal-shy strike-force. And if there’s one thing even more infuriating and frustrating than all that, it’s hearing the manager say that he’s delighted with it all.

To succeed at the very highest level, I now feel sure that Harry has exactly the same failing as another good Spurs manager, Martin Jol, just three years ago: he’s too nice, too easily satisfied, not hungry enough, not bothered enough. Both of these eminently decent blokes build teams in their own image: likeable, entertaining, talented and always bound to lose out to teams that want it more.

There’s no single formula to instil that hunger. Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Roberto Mancini and the rest of them make demands on their teams in different ways. But none of them would ever say they were even remotely delighted with a season in which their teams went backwards as rapidly as we’ve done this season, and that’s why I’m founding my Harry-must-go movement.

And finally, of course, there’s an analogy between football and real life, as there always is. Why do I feel quite so strongly about this? Why does it bother me quite so much? Well, we’re talking about a team that I’ve been following for a few days over 50 years now, of course. But also, in one of the gloomier corners of my mind, I suppose it’s true to say that I can’t help thinking of a certain individual not unadjacent to myself as the Harry Redknapp of financial marketing.

Mr Angry found inside Pandora’s Box

Not my most accessible-ever headline.  What on earth do I mean?

Travel with me first to Regent’s Park on a dark evening a week or two ago.  Driving home, I narrowly miss a cyclist, dressed in black and showing no lights, riding absolutely invisibly in the middle of the road.  A little further on he stops alongside me at a traffic light, and I wind down my window and suggest entirely aimiably that he’d give me a sporting chance of missing him if he fitted some lights.  He launches a tirade of hysterical abuse and makes to get off his bike and reach in to assault me.  Fortunately, at this point the traffic light changes.

Now let’s go on – painful though it is for me – to Wembley Stadium yesterday.  It’s my beloved Spurs vs Portsmouth in the FA Cup semi-final.  We’re some way short of our best, but we’re absolutely all over them – having, according to the BBC, 31 attempts on goal compared to their 12, and winning 20 corners to their 7.  It’s one of those days when the ball just will not go into the net (and when it does, the ref quite wrongly disallows it).  You might imagine that the 40,000 Spurs fans present would be roaring their team on, providing every ounce of available encouragement to turn domination into victory.

But you’d imagine wrong. Where I was sitting – and, I strongly suspect wherever you were sitting among the Spurs fans – what you’d have heard would have been foul, vituperative abuse.  The fans around me hated our team, and especially certain players in it, with an absolute passion.  They missed no opportunity to scream filthy insults at them.  They detested our team far more than they detested our opponents – and far, far more than our opponents’ fans detested Spurs.  Sitting among these people was a miserable experience, almost more miserable than losing 2-0.

What do I conclude from these two experiences?  That there are an awful lot of Travis Bickles out there, maintaining the semblance of a normal daily life but permanently on the brink of an outbreak of psychotic rage.  I don’t know how many – sometimes it seems like it’s almost everyone – but it’s definitely a lot.

It’s a deeply depressing thought.  But if you’re one of the many marketing evangelists who’s keen to invite consumers into ever-more-active roles in owning, building and projecting your brand, it’s also a deeply scary one.  Nestle rightly picked up flak recently for their clumsy attempts to prevent the interactive part of their website from being hijacked by anti-corporate saboteurs.  But although their response was silly and counterproductive, the issue they faced was a real and difficult one which more and more organisations offering open access to anyone who fancies it are sure to encounter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Spurs website doesn’t provide anything much by way of chatrooms or discussion boards.  It’s a pity – a lot of 21st century marketing, comms and CRM people would say it’s a major missed opportunity to engage with the fans and build a truly customer-focused, 21st-century style brand.  But those people should keep quiet until they’ve had the experience I had at Wembley yesterday.  You really wouldn’t want any of those psychos anywhere near your website.

Not flattered, just cross

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but flattered is not what I’m feeling.

Here’s the story.  For several years, we’ve been running brilliant, multiple-award-winning, highly-successful ads for the children’s savings scheme Jump, based on the Witan investment trust.  Here’s a link to some of the work:  http://www.tangible-financial.co.uk/work/client/4.  (Click on the left and right arrows to see it.)

Over the same period, Witan’s much bigger rival, F&C, has been running a wide variety of different, but universally horrible, ads for its equivalent product.  Very recently, they’ve launched a new and characteristically horrible campaign – but the funny thing is, it’s unmistakeably a wonderfully incompetent and fourth-rate rip-off of our Jump work.  To prove the point I’ve had to take a crash course in uploading images, and hopefully I’m about to insert them here.

 First F&C ad

F&C ad 2

 I mean, honestly, they’re exactly what you’d get if you asked people who can’t write or design and who’ve never actually met any children to imitate our campaign.

You may be surprised that such extraordinarily blatant plagiarism goes on.  But the truth is, there’s no law against it – the only real reasons not to copy other people’s campaigns are boring old things like professional pride and decency.  And as far as those kinds of qualities are concerned, my expectations from F&C are not high.  Their marketing director, as I think I’ve told you before, is the chap I introduced to F&C, which was then a client, when he was out of work:  when they offered him the job, my reward for making the introduction was to find ourselves facing an immediate repitch for the business, which we promptly lost to the agency he had worked with at his previous firm before he had been made redundant.  Several years later, I still think of this as the shabbiest behaviour I’ve personally experienced in 30 years in this business, although I appreciate that may simply mean I’ve led a sheltered life.

Anyway, thanks to my particular leisure interests, I’ve just enjoyed a largish measure of revenge for all this.  F&C are the shirt sponsors for the Birmingham City football team.  Last week they came to White Hart Lane, home of the mighty Spurs, and we won, 2-1, with the winner coming with the last kick of the match in the fifth minute of stoppage time.  They really hurt, those last-minute defeats.

Don’t bother with this one, non-football fans

Or do I mean “football non-fans”?  Anyway, the thing is, a couple of weeks into the new football season, which team is it that’s bestriding the lofty pinnacle of the Premiership (sounds painful) like the proverbial Colossus?  Answer:  the mighty Spurs.

It’s been a very long time indeed since we did much bestriding, so I must say that casting one’s eye over the league table looking for our name, and finding it not towards the bottom….or even in the middle…or indeed the upper middle…or the higher reaches….but right up there in the nosebleed zone, at the very, very top, makes an extremely welcome change.

Will it last?  Well, all my experience as a Spurs supporter says that more than anything else, my beloved team is infinitely creative and resourceful in its ability to deliver unpleasant surprises.  There are, of course, plenty of examples of teams hitting the heights at these early stages and then plunging like weighted sacks from the autumn right through to the end of the season the following spring.  And anyway, these days no-one – least of all anyone who works in financial services marketing - goes in for any kind of long-term, or even medium-term, forecasting. 

All I will say is that it’s great while it lasts.  And perhaps I’m feeling just about bold enough to add that since we’re playing lowly Birmingham at home at the weekend, I’m inclined to think that it’ll go on being great while it lasts for one more week, at least.  But knowing the mighty Spurs as well as I do, I’m feeling even as I write this paragraph that I’ve probably stuck my neck out further than I should. 

That’s it.  End of entry.  If you were a non-football fan hoping that this tedious and rather muted gloating was going to lead to some sort of pithy analogy with, or insight into, the world of financial services marketing, I can only apologise:  it isn’t. 


Bad spring for West Bromwich

First the Baggies were relegated, even though they played some really good football and proved to be by far the most attractive of the promoted sides last season, and now the building society has gone bust.

Well, actually I don’t think it has gone bust because a rescue package has been agreed, but it has imprudently mis-lent its way into a position where it would have been bust without a bail-out.

In this, it’s certainly not alone.  At the BSA conference in Harrogate a couple of weeks ago, I detected a pallor in the faces of a remarkably large number of the delegates which, I decided, meant that they weren’t expecting to be at the conference next year.  (It’s possible, of course, that the pallor simply indicated that their provincial home towns hadn’t seen much sun yet this spring.)

It hadn’t occurred to me before that there might be a correlation between the performance of towns’ financial institutions and their football teams.  If there is, it doesn’t seem to work in Scotland, because Dunfermline had rather a good season this year.   And I don’t think it can apply in Middlesborough, where the team has been relegated but I don’t believe there is much in the way of a financial services sector.  But as well as West Brom, it certainly applies to Newcastle, home to Britain’s previously-worst-run mortgage bank and currently-worst-run football team;  and things certainly haven’t been going well for Derby County or for that region’s now-rescued building society, or for the equivalent institutions of Scarborough. 

And then of course there is the enigma that is Norwich and Peterborough – Norwich relegated from the Championship, Peterborough promoted from League 1.   What are the implications for the building society?  Looks like it can expect some ups and downs.

Did I ever mention that I’m a bit of a Spurs fan?

Yes, I know, just the odd 10,000 times.  So I have to say something about my team’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful performance in the League Cup final at Wembley yesterday.

A year ago we played in the same fixture, and memorably beat Chelsea 2-1.  Yesterday, we drew 0-0 with Manchester United, and lost in the penalty shoot-out.  You might imagine that the departing fans would have been pretty down in the mouth, but in fact our mouths were horizontal at worst and even slightly upturned at best.

The thing is, if there’s one cliche much used in the world of marketing and communications that really does express a great truth about life, the universe and everything, it is that the secret of success is to exceed expectations.   We thought we were going to get stuffed by Man U yesterday:  in fact, we matched them, and probably marginally outplayed them, right up till the penalties at the end.  And the fact that we were hopeless in the shoot-out is no disgrace – having appeared in so few major finals, we’ve had incredibly much less practice. 

Of course there is a surge of adrenaline-fuelled pleasure in winning that you don’t get from anything else.  Man U’s fans, even though they expected to win, were still delighted (and, if they’re honest, a little relieved) when the decisive penalty went in.  But we cheered our losing team off with genuine enthusiasm.

As always with football, there are exportable lessons here.  If you intend to go in for this expectation-beating business – and I strongly think you should – it’s clear that the process consists, in short, firstly of understanding what those expectations actually are, then if necessary adjusting them (i.e. downwards) and then beating them.

If you can do this, then your achievements can be positively perceived even if they’re not objectively all that brilliant. HSBC’s financial results, for example, have been greeted with wild cries of enthusiasm this morning even though they’re down something like 70% on last year’s, simply because they’re a) better than their peer group’s, and b) a bit better than we were expecting.

If you can’t, then your achievements are likely to be negatively perceived even if they’re objectively quite good.  As I’ve said before, as a fund manager you may be second quartile, but if you’ve lost half the value of my pension fund in the last year I’m still some distance from delighted. 

This may seem a bit unfair.  To some extent, our enthusiasm in the face of a positive expectation gap rewards people, organisations or indeed football teams of which we have low expectations.  You could even argue that an organisation looking for the biggest possible boost in market perception would deliberately lower expectations to rock-bottom, just so that it could benefit from the surge in positive reactions when it started doing things half-decently again.

In fact, hang on, come to think about it, maybe….well, maybe that’s what the banks have been doing for the last year or two, encouraging us to think of them with a mixture of hatred, contempt and hopelessness so that when they suddenly reveal that actually they’re quite competent, sensible and nice they benefit from the greatest positive expectation gap in history!

You don’t think so?  You think we view them with hatred, contempt and hopelessness because, on the whole, they’re hateful, contemptible and hopeless?  Well, OK – unlike my brave, battling and surprisingly well-organised football team, I’m afraid you’re probably right.

I’m starting to wonder if the media may not be entirely trustworthy.

Actually, rather more than “starting,” but it’s a better headline.

You know the way that when TV or the newspapers cover anything that you really know about, you find yourself shouting at the screen or the article that the’ve got it all wrong and it isn’t really like that at all?  There’s a particularly extreme example of this in the press coverage of football matches which you’ve actually been to, where it’s almost always the case a) that somehow all journalists on all papers all have exactly the same view of what happened in the match, and b) that their collective storyline is very different from your own.

Without wanting to bore non-football-fans (or football-non-fans?) too much, I was at the Spurs/Liverpool game on Saturday.  The media version of events is that we (Spurs, of course) were a goal down at half time, but the manager made a couple of shrewd substitutions at the start of the second half and we were able to fight back and win with two goals, the second in the last minute.

In fact what happened was that the half-time changes were absolutely disastrous.  We lost our shape so completely that no-one will ever understand how Liverpool failed to score a second goal in the first twenty minutes of the half.  Our defence was such a shambles that all around me all I could see was fans covering their eyes with their hands, not wanting to see the second goal when it went in.  Then, somehow, we managed to hold the ball for six or seven seconds and win a corner, and astoundingly their centre back Jamie Carragher scored an own goal, and after that some semblance of equilibrium was regained until we scored a lucky winner at the death.

But none of the papers saw it that way – all they saw was a lucky win with a couple of substitutions doing just enough to make the difference.

Of course this doesn’t matter in the slightest.  But it is a little disconcerting to find that even when reports of an event are completely clear and consistent across half a dozen newspapers, they can still be largely or wholly misleading.

It’s back to the future again in N17.

Wake me up next August.  My beloved Spurs’ season is only two games old, but already it looks over, at least as far as the Premiership is concerned:  our next game is away to Chelsea, and assuming we lose that one too we’ll have no points from three games and find ourselves nine points behind the leading group.

And all this despite the relatively recent appointment of a highly-regarded manager, and a spending spree this year – both in the January transfer window and in the summer – that has brought seven or eight expensive and high-quality new players into the first team.  What on earth has gone wrong?

It may be the case that the high regard for our recently-appointed new manager is misplaced.  Behind the hype, there’s a fairly mediocre 13-year track record in Spain’s lower leagues, crowned with a couple of excellent cup wins in the last year or two.  Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger he isn’t.

It’s probably the case that with so many changes in the first team, they’re bound to take a while to settle.  At the moment they’re playing like a bunch of complete strangers, and the truth is that’s exactly what they are.  (Although it’s just a tad disturbing to note that the two teams who’ve played us off the park have made similar numbers of changes and seem to be playing together like lifetime friends.)

But it’s definitely the case – and here comes the business analogy – that one way or another, the balance of the team is totally and utterly wrong at the moment. 

The most obvious problem is that somehow we’ve managed to leave ourselves with only one striker in our squad, and even the one we have is the goal-shy and anxiety-crippled Darren Bent.  But in addition, somehow, after a three-month break, we found ourselves playing our first game with only one fit first-choice defender, playing alongside a midfielder hopelessly out of position at right back, a reserve left back playing his first game after a year out with injury and a reserve centre-back.  And craziest of all, in midfield, where we do actually have dozens of talented, fit and available players, the manager has been picking a powder-puff line-up of slight, slim, lightweight ballplayers (including the smallest and lightest man in the Premiership, Aaron Lennon) without a single player capable of offering the slightest resistance to the advances of our opponents.

In the right position, and in the right formation, all the players we’ve been fielding could do well.  In the wrong positions and/or formation, they’ve become the first Spurs team for centuries to lose at home to Sunderland and away to Middlesbrough.

Here in the agency, we’re trying to maintain a team with a complex balance of skills.  There are many aspects to this challenge, but the most obvious is that we need people who can perform at the highest level in advertising, in direct marketing, in brand identity and design, and in digital communications:  and whereas we have to be able to do all of these things, most (though not all) of our competitors specialise in just one, or at the most two.  Maintaining the balance is just as important , and just as difficult, for us as it is for Juande Ramos and the chaps at Tottenham – possibly more difficult, since the balance of our workload has a habit of changing, sometimes quite dramatically, in a way that doesn’t really happen at football clubs. 

I certainly wouldn’t say that that we always get it right:  we often have to play people out of position too, and it’s not unusual for us to have to bring in specialist freelancers on a short-term basis to fill in the gaps.  But it’s pleasing to think that for all our failings, just at the moment we’re about a thousand times better at it than the infinitely more highly-paid and better-resourced team at White Hart Lane.

One of my better investment decisions. (But sadly unlikely to be my best.)

Three weeks or so ago, I put some money on the Spanish to win Euro 2008.  Following last night’s hugely-impressive demolition of Russia, they’re through to the final.  Fourteen teams have fallen aside:  I’m very pleased with myself for selecting one of the two remaining.

Trouble is, of course, that the other team remaining is Germany.  With the result that – in complete ignorance, and entirely by accident – I’ve broken the number one rule of gambling on football:  never, ever, ever bet against the Germans.

Oh well.  We’ll see.  They don’t always win finals, do they? 

Sorry about that, Birmingham. Not.

Did you see the entry a couple of weeks ago about the Curse of Tangible Financial?  If so you’ll be interested to know that Derby and Birmingham, both of whose shirt sponsors we’ve had one or two little issues with, have indeed been relegated, while Fulham, whose shirt sponsor is entirely blameless as far as we’re concerned, have stayed up.

The shirt sponsor of the third club to go down, Reading, is the office equipment manufacturer Kyocera, and I’d love to be able to tell you that they’re the makers of one or both of our criminally unreliable colour printers. Unfortunately, though, I’ve checked and they aren’t. 

Oh well.  It seems that the curse isn’t absolutely in full working order.  But two out of three ain’t bad.