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Sticks and stones

Whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” didn’t really understand how the world works. I’ll never condone violence, but today, thanks to the ease with which anyone can post an unkind remark or wage an unrelenting bullying campaign, thousands of people can behave in the most appallingly violent way. And get away with it. Just by using words. Would these people ever say to someone’s face what they say from a very safe distance? Doubtful.

I write for a living and words are the tools of my trade. I harness these words, whether written or spoken, to create ideas, impart information and develop understanding. Often I need to project a very specific image for a product, service or brand, and encourage people to get interested and get involved. I am always positive but, occasionally, I come across the odd crisis where I must avoid attracting attention.

I really wish I’d been a fly on the wall when Al Gore was running for Vice Presidency in Bill Clinton’s administration, as his crisis was handled with, … and there’s only one, rather old-fashioned word for it…, aplomb!

His wife, Tipper Gore, found out that her husband’s great-great uncle, Gunther Gore, was hanged in 1889 in Tennessee. He was a horse thief and a train robber. He was sent to prison, escaped and robbed one train six times before being caught by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The only photograph that existed of Gunther was on the gallows moments before he was hung. This was not the kind of publicity a Vice President needed.

 Al Gore’s PR people were briefed, the photograph edited to an enlarged head shot and was accompanied by this text:

 “Gunther Gore was a famous rancher in early Tennessee history. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Tennessee railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Gunther passed away during an important civic function held in his honour when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

 Words, whether they are used to destroy or to inspire, can shape history. I have a great respect for their power.


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Students have designs on diversity

If you’re not 6’ tall, can’t fit into a size six dress, don’t have upper arms like Cara Delevingne’s and you’re over 50, you might be convinced that today’s fashion, well even yesterday’s, isn’t really for you. Well, thanks to the pioneering work of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, an initiative that challenges the fashion industry’s promotion of unrealistic body ideals, and Val Jacobs, Course Leader BA Hons Fashion and Textiles, at Colchester Institute, that’s about to change. Two weeks ago 14 men and women, all in their 50s and 60s, put on their couture clothes and struck a pose. This photographic shoot represented the culmination of the Silver Fox project, the brainchild of Jacobs, where she tasked her second year design students to create a capsule wardrobe for people old enough to remember where they were when JFK died.

Explaining the background to the project, Jacobs said: “Students tend to design for their own age group but I want the designers of tomorrow to be more empathetic to the needs of real people. By pairing each of them with a mature muse, they were able to develop their understanding of the connection between body image, confidence, fashion and diversity and how design practices can both influence and be influenced by these issues. Silver Fox was a way of making them step out of their comfort zone.”

But it wasn’t just the students who stepped out of their comfort zone, many of their muses – including me – decided that they wanted to give it a go too! Here’s what some of the muses and designers had to say:

Sharon Morrison, PR consultant (that’s me!)

“Unless I’m on summer holiday, my legs never see daylight and vice versa. It’s not that I don’t like my legs, I do, but it’s really convenient to wear trousers, jeggings and jeans in both the office and home. I just don’t get the opportunity to show my legs off and I’d quite like to now and then. I can’t say the same about my arms though. I HATE them. There’s no tone and they wobble long after I’ve finished waving and I wouldn’t risk a sleeveless dress unless I had a matching shrug. I thank heaven for shrugs. I jog four or five times a week and I thought that might be enough to give my arms definition, but it hasn’t happened. I told Jade, my designer, that I wanted to try something new; be braver about displaying my limbs after decades of covering them up. This dress manages to combine demure and daring and I feel completely at ease in it.”

Jade Spindler, undergraduate, designing for me

“Sharon’s a confident person, but not when it comes to her body. As she’s very active I wanted to explore a sporting theme for her; she feels comfortable in sportswear so I felt she could take more risks. The sport luxe trend is huge, global, but there’s little for women in their 50s. I wanted to try and fill this gap in the market by taking a simple A-line shape, giving it a sophisticated high neck and inset yoke and embellishing it with zips that reflect the stitching on sports balls. The length of the dress and the shape of the sleeves were measured and cut precisely to accentuate Sharon’s positives.”

Lin Malyon, volunteer in Fashion and Textiles at Colchester Institute

“I always wanted to go to art school but never had the opportunity. Then, in 2011, at the age of 66, I graduated with a degree in Fashion and Textiles from Colchester Institute. And I’m still there, four years on, mentoring undergraduates. It’s strange that I work with so much colour yet always wear black. I feel happy in black; black will take you anywhere, it’s a blank canvas. I don’t like fitted clothes either because I don’t want to feel exposed. I rarely wear dresses, but I loved this design -even the colour! It’s good to be in a dress again.”

Chandni Patel, undergraduate, from Felixstowe, designing for Lin

“I knew that Lin found it hard to find a dress to flatter her shape, but I also felt she was hiding in black. She has such a bubbly personality I wanted to celebrate it. This design is very much ‘East meets West’. I used Japanese cutting techniques to create fluidity with the fabric and bought the tassels and handmade headband when I was in India this Christmas to accessorise the garment. I chose a vibrant pink to complement Lin’s complexion. It was Lin who wanted wild hair, and it was the right decision. This has been a great learning experience; in my first year I didn’t think about designing for an actual person and Silver Fox made me think again.”     

Sue Bailey, Career Adviser

“I’m happy in my own skin and have a strong sense of what works for me. In truth I always make an effort not to stand out – I like to blend, so earthy tones with a dash of colour work for me. I told my designer that I’m interested in nature and she used this as her inspiration for the design which really impressed me. Working with Christina gave me an insight into the depth of research and the degree of professionalism that goes into one design. I found the developmental side of things fascinating and I trusted my designer completely. At the end of it all I believe that fashion can make you be whatever you want to be.”

Christina Welsh, undergraduate, designing for Sue

“Sue likes to feel safe in clothing and doesn’t like to experiment with colour or print, but she wishes she had the confidence to be more adventurous. When she told me she liked wildlife I decided to use exotic birds as the theme for her garment. My research into this area helped to inform my design in terms of shape and structure. Sue’s conscious of her pear shape so I used the panels to create a strong, lengthening effect. As far as colour is concerned, the vibrancy of the coral suited her beautifully and she really rocked this look.”

Biddy Stanford, vintage clothes dealer

“I grew up watching Hollywood musicals and deep down I always wanted to be a starlet. I love the glamour of it all. My favourite eras are the 40s and 50s. Because I am so rigid about my look I bombarded my designer with lots of visual references. I must confess that I was a little frightened by the outfit at first, but then I saw the cartoon humour in the clothes and I loved the bright colours. It reminded me of utility chic, the look from the WWII era where fabric was in short supply so skirts weren’t so full and panels were added to effect a repair.”

Sophie McGlade, undergraduate, designing for Biddy

“When I first met Biddy I was a little worried. She’s got a very distinct style based on her love of vintage fashion. If she’s not wearing vintage, she wears what she makes herself. And she won’t go near dark colours – which was a relief really. How was I going to take her out of her comfort zone? From our discussions I knew that she liked novelty print and that gave me the idea to explore British seaside cues from the 1950s. My research opened up a world of colour, fun fairs and carousel horses. Using appliqué and embroidery on the skirt, I brought the story to life and made Biddy feel confident in the design.”

Fashion and Textiles staff will now select three designs which will be entered into the national All Walks Beyond the Catwalk Diversity NOW!2015 competition. The winners and finalists will be announced during Graduate Fashion Week (30 May – 2 June 2015) which is held at The Old Truman Brewery in East London.


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Sainsbury’s Christmas ad – friend or foe? Friend.

There was a major breakout of baa humbugs and “who do they think they ares?” when the Sainsbury’s christmas television commercial aired during The X Factor. My daughter, a researcher in the advertising industry was, like the vast majority of us, completely blown away – I mean that in the most positive way – by a fabulous piece of film, that had both heart and  soul. Flummoxed by the bruhaha, she penned a response which I’d like to share with you.

I’d also like to wish you a happy, fun-filled Christmas filled with doing all things you like doing – even if it’s only for a couple of days. Enjoy:

The majority of us have now seen, or at least heard, about the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad for this year that beautifully depicts English and German soldiers during a truce on Christmas day in 1914. The ad tells a tale of an unlikely and brief friendship between opposing soldiers Jim and Otto.

There has been quite a lot of backlash surrounding this ad with some feeling that any company making a profit from such a catastrophic and tragic war is disrespectful and heartless.  If we are to obey this rule, then any film that tells a story set during the war, or any play that features soldiers must also be brought under this same scrutiny. Production companies, actors, directors among many others that have any input when making a film all benefit, are all paid, all make profit from telling stories about the war.

Did you all enjoy the ceramic poppies at Tower Bridge? Did you also know that, while a portion of the proceeds goes to charity partners, a larger portion is being used to cover “costs”. Alongside this a number of investors have refused to deny they are also profiting from the art installation.  That being said, it is a wonderful attraction and a creative way to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of WW1.

The Sainsbury’s ad is, in my opinion, also a piece of art. So, why can’t an advert that encompasses this same beauty and emotion be seen as such?

Yes, Sainsbury’s has raised its brand profile and is likely to benefit from the “feel good factor” but weren’t DreamWorks doing the same? Weren’t they trying to build their brand and encourage people to buy their films when they went ahead and made War Horse? Are the products featured in some of these films not a direct influence for people to buy that particular product from a particular brand? The difference here is that Sainsbury’s is actually trying to help the Royal British Legion (RBL).  The company has been working with the RBL for many years now, has allowed them to fundraise in their stores, so why can’t Sainsbury’s raise the RBL’s profile and help their fundraising in this way? The vintage chocolate bars, which have been made to look as authentic as possible, will be sold in stores with all proceeds going to the RBL.

I think Sainsbury’s has tugged on a lot of heartstrings and, despite those who believe that this is “cashing in” on the war, its most important role is to raise money for the RBL and remind everyone of the sacrifices that were made and the humanity that even the greatest of enemies once showed.

Merlyn Morrison


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Great Expectations

I’ve had the privilege of working with Colchester Institute for the past few months and, during that time, I’ve got to know the new Principal and Chief Executive Alison Andreas… and it’s been an education. She’s a one-woman powerhouse and force for good.

If you were to ask Alison what she likes best about her work, she’ll smile and tell you it’s all about the people. And, when you walk around the three campuses at Colchester, Clacton and Braintree, you realise she means it. The staff know her and greet her with affection, as do many of the students, and they’re all on first name terms. Not bad when you consider that, since her appointment in April this year, Alison is managing 800 staff and 12,000 students and she’s still smiling.

Ever since she eschewed using her French degree from Oxford University in favour of a graduate traineeship at United Biscuits, it’s always been about the people, their abilities, their aspirations and how to help them realise their potential. Her focus hasn’t changed, she just has a lot more territory to cover. Was a role in education her destiny; her mother had been a teacher after all? No, it was love, in the shape of Costa, her future husband, and also a United Biscuits employee. They met at a management development conference but Costa was living in Colchester while Alison had moved to Broxburn in Scotland to recruit and train office staff at a brand new factory. The scale of her remit was vast but her commitment total and, after six months, the office was running as efficiently as the production line. She was also commuting at weekends to Colchester to see Costa and, when they got engaged, she decided to find work that didn’t involve a 950-mile round trip. In 1991, she became the Training Officer at a factory in Haughley Park, Suffolk, which made recipe dishes for M&S. She also married Costa. To ensure she was delivering the very best training to staff Alison enrolled on a teacher training course at Suffolk College. But she didn’t stop there, for the next four years she carried on gaining more qualifications in teaching and HR management, alongside her day job. Juggling clearly wasn’t an issue for Alison. In fact you get the very strong sense that she’s a bit of a trouper, but when you know that she also had breast cancer in 1993 and still carried on working and studying, “trouper” seems a rather lame description.

So how did Alison come to work for Colchester Institute in the first place? It’s thanks to Costa again, as Alison explains: “He’d taken voluntary redundancy from United Biscuits and decided to retrain as a fitness instructor, which he did at the Colchester campus. As I got to know more about the College, the concept of “changing lives” really excited me; when the vacancy for its very first Training and HR Manager was announced, I had to go for it.”  It was 1997, she’d just had her first child, daughter Anna, and she got the job.

Moving from the private to the public sector was a bit of a culture shock. The cut and thrust of business was replaced by what Alison can only describe as the Debating Society. “Things moved very slowly and you didn’t always feel that everyone was pulling in the same direction. Still, I was the new girl, and thought that perhaps this is how it works in education.” She wasn’t a new girl for long and, over the next 16 years, she worked with every single department at the college, only having five months’ maternity leave when she had her son Marcus, and taking on greater responsibilities whenever she could. In 2008, after a series of promotions, she became Director of Quality and Operations East and a member of the Senior Management Team. This should have been a good year for Alison but, like the physicists at Cern who were looking forward to creating the Higgs boson particle that year, nothing went according to plan. Colchester Institute, built in 1952, was in much need of extension and refurbishment and, when it was successful in bidding for an £83 million fund from the now-defunct Learning and Skills Council’s Building Colleges for the Future programme, everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.  “The diggers rolled in, new buildings went up and others were demolished. Then we got a phone-call telling us to stop all the work because the funding was cancelled. We’d already spent £40 million. We could only recoup £12.5 million from the Government, which left us with a massive debt of over £27 million and a campus that looked like a building site.”

When the going gets tough, the tough get going and that’s just what Alison and the Senior Team did. Thanks to financial acuity and general belt tightening the College was able to meet the challenge of over £7.5 million of debt servicing costs in four years. But what about the buildings, some of which were no longer fit for purpose? Good news was finally on its way, although it took five years. The College secured a total of £10 million in Government grants, contributing a further £3 million of its own funds, to allow completion of the first stages of a new capital development plan and giving Colchester Institute the £13 million facelift it deserves. During 2014/15 students will have a brand new reception area and eight new classrooms; by September 2015 a new four-storey teaching block will be ready.

At the same time as funds were being released Alison became Acting Principal and Chief Executive and was appointed to the post in March this year. She’s taken advantage of this position to create a smaller management team and, with a more nimble and focused group, decision-making is faster and everyone is pulling in the same direction.

“Running a vocational college has never been such a financial challenge as it is today. But for me the real challenge is helping 12,000 students be the best they can be. I love the knowledge that through our work we have the potential – and the privilege – to be able to change lives for the better.” Alison believes it’s all too easy  to forget just how much is achieved, so she’s become the “good news girl” and sends out a fortnightly bulletin to remind staff and governors alike just how amazing they and their students are. But then so is Alison. Her working day starts at 7.00 am and generally finishes around 7.00 pm. In the past month alone she’s attended five student awards presentations, given 16 presentations to parents and prospective students and still had time to serve at two staff barbecues. While this schedule might sound arduous to many of us, you can’t help feeling that Alison is enjoying every minute of it; that she’s found her true vocation. But away from work, it’s strictly family time and the two-week summer holiday is when she can really switch off and relax. So what does she do? She buys a travel guide and goes exploring. “I want to be prepared, I want to know everything so that I don’t miss an opportunity; the world is such an interesting place.” Speaking of books, she studied Great Expectations at A-level and it’s remained a firm favourite. Unlike Pip, the young gentleman with great expectations, she hasn’t waited for good fortune to be bestowed on her, she’s gone out and made it happen through an enquiring mind and a belief that everyone can learn given the right encouragement. She’s bringing her years of experience to bear on the future of thousands of students who all have, thanks to Alison and her very straightforward management style, great expectations too.

Colchester Institute fact file


  • 55 full and part-time degrees
  • 63% of degree students achieved a First or 2:1 in 2013
  • Lower tuition fees (£7,950 a year, most charge £9,000)
  • Places available on some undergraduate courses starting this September


  • 1,000 apprentices on 40 different courses
  • Earn while you learn

Further Education:

  • 300 further education courses
  • Wide range of vocational subjects

Courses at all levels from pre-GCSE to Post-Graduate



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Brand news!

For many years I’ve had the privilege of working with the amazing brand identity consultant and designer, Louise Dyer, founder of Dart Design in Colchester. Today our relationship become a little more formal, as I have now joined the team!  I’m still going to continue working in PR-led marketing communications as Sharon Morrison Communications but, as the need for branding, or a brand refresh, has affected every single piece of work I’ve been involved in for the past four years, it seemed only logical to become a brand consultant at Dart too.

We’re not joined at the hip, but we have jointly written this piece on our take on building brand that last.

Many decades ago a brand was considered to be the embodiment of all the values and positive attributes of an organisation, including its products or services. To others it was just a logo. Today a brand is still considered to be the embodiment of all the values and positive attributes of an organisation and to others it’s still just a logo. The big difference between these kinds of companies, whether they’re as old and traditional as the Bank of England or as new and unpredictable as Google, is that one kind has an innate understanding of their brand, what it is, what it should feel like, how it should be presented to the outside world. They invest time in developing their culture, starting with their staff, then taking steps to ensure customers, suppliers and opinion formers all ‘get them’.  Their message, the one key element that they want us to remember about them, is being reinforced constantly and via every conceivable communications channel, from stationery, literature and the website, to how the phone is answered. This creates likeability, understanding, familiarity and loyalty, all vital components in building a strong brand. Brands like this can weather the storm of bad publicity, acts of God and poor share performance. The companies that believe a new logo will make their business look good and help build sales but fail to invest in creating that relationship with their target audience, will have a look but no substance. Their brands have no foundations and can’t stand the test of time; the appeal is transitory. Perhaps the best way to sum up their approach to branding is this: “if you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there”.

You can create a brand in a number of different ways, but the one sure way to start is by caring about it. This might sound a little corny, but it’s what every major brand – young and old – around the world does. It’s hard to argue with success.

Metallic Elephant – a Dart Design case study

Ros and Karl French started their hot foil stamping business in 2007. If you’re new to the world of hot foil stamping, here’s what you need to know: it all started in the 1800s where hot stamping was used in book publishing to apply gold tooling or embossing to leather and paper. It was applied using heat and pressure to get the look. In 2014 this method is still used to create amazing effects on paper and leather as well as plastic, fabric, hat bands, saddles, handbags and shoes. Based in the pretty Essex village of Frating, Metallic Elephant has grown from strength to strength and is now the only company in the country which builds hot foil machines by hand and to order.

One of the key components of their success is the fact that they produce an exceptional product and really care about delivering great customer service. To grow the business this is important, but first your prospects need to know you exist and, if you haven’t got a massive marketing budget, and most SMEs don’t, the Internet becomes a vital part of promoting the company. Ros, who takes care of the marketing, has always understood the importance and cost-effectiveness of the Internet and spends all her spare time using social media and search engine optimisation to reach out to prospects. She realised that being found, although a significant step forward, was also a problem as the current website didn’t reflect the Metallic Elephant brand. It did, in some ways, work against the business, and she decided that a new website needed to be designed to accurately reflect the brand.

Louise Dyer and Sharon Morrison, directors of Dart Design, based in Colchester, were asked to create it. The starting point was developing Ros and Karl’s beliefs into one cohesive message. The Metallic Elephant brand is all about precision, skill, creativity and respect for the art of hot foil printing; the team is also very approachable and easy to work with. Visitors won’t stay long on a website unless they’re held, so Dart wanted to find a way of making each page “sticky”, so that visitors would want to read on. They believed the marriage of playful headlines with vibrant colour and intricate images would epitomise their client’s brand values, while also being engaging and fun! The site needed to stand apart from the competition, so competitor sites were assessed before committing any thoughts to the screen. The end result is a beautifully crafted website, full of facts and practical information. Hopefully it’s sticky too.

Ros French, Director and Co-founder, Metallic Elephant, speaking about the new site said:

 “The Internet is one of the best ways to market your product, but it’s also instant. Your website is therefore a crucial marketing tool in attracting and informing customers and prospects. We believe our site does exactly what we wanted it to.”

Dart Design Ltd, 01206 854527.

Metallic Elephant, 01206 251221.

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Torture figures and they’ll tell you anything.

When Essex University PhD student, Feifei Bu, recently disclosed the findings of her research study, we were led to believe that high achieving women tend to be the first born. Statistically these ‘first born women’ are more ambitious and well-qualified than their siblings

Do you believe that’s the case? As the second born of four I found the research more puzzling than informative.  My own experience really doesn’t reflect these findings in any way, shape or form. My parents lavished love and guidance on us all equally; no one seemed singled out for special treatment. Of course they wanted us to do well in life, have the advantages that they didn’t, so they instilled in us the importance of a good education. My eldest sister and I went to grammar school and received a fantastic, very classical education, my two younger sisters went to the local comprehensive and didn’t. They felt let down by the system, but that didn’t hold them back; quite the opposite. My kid sister, post-fashion and textiles degree, went on to design for the Conran Design Group, before setting up two very successful boutiques in London; she’s now a personal stylist. My other sister left school at 16, travelled the world, before working her way up in financial services and is now a board director of a specialist tax, trust and wealth management company in Gibraltar; she also speaks German and Spanish fluently. As for us two grammar school girls well, I write for a living, something I always dreamed of doing, so that might make me a high achiever, but I won’t be buying my Prada handbag or stepping into my Aston Martin any time soon. My eldest sister, who could read newspapers at four, hold whole rooms of adults spell-bound with her comic recitations and was an amazing sportswoman, fell in love at 18, got married and started a family, so never got her foot on the career ladder.

I’m not really sure if this research is truly “groundbreaking” as was reported in the media. Is “high achievement” the preserve of the first born? Marie Curie was the youngest of five children, Fred Astaire was the youngest of two, William Shakespeare was the third of eight, then there was Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I. Still, you know what they say about statistics don’t you? Torture figures and they’ll tell you anything.

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Think differently – visit Schiphol Airport!

Lorsque vous apprenez que vous êtes atteint d’un cancer, il est très difficile de réaliser complètement ce qui vous arrive. Que vous soyez jeune ou vieux, marié ou célibataire, les réactions sont les mêmes partout dans le monde: incrédulité, peur, refus… Votre cerveau refuse de comprendre et ne veut pas assimiler la majeure partie des informations données. C’est comme si vous écoutiez une langue étrangère: vous comprenez quelques mots, mais le reste est incompréhensible.

I’m going to hazard a guess that around 99% of you understood some of what I’ve just said. The odd word, phrase, sentence perhaps, but not everything. Well, that’s what it’s like when someone breaks the news that you’ve got cancer. Your brain doesn’t quite engage, and you miss huge amounts of information. It really is like someone is talking to you in a foreign language; you understand a small amount, but the rest is indecipherable.

By the time you’ve gathered your thoughts you’re in the system… havingconsultations, blood tests, an operation, getting dates in the diary for treatment, receiving handouts GALORE about side effects of the different drugs, more blood tests, meeting your breast care nurse, having treatment. But it’s good to be in the in the system, it’s there to help save your life, but you can easily feel overwhelmed, that you’ve lost control and cancer’s in control of you.

Not many of us have the ‘opportunity’ to experience cancer care both privately and on the NHS, but I did. I’ve had breast cancer twice in the last six years, so comparing and contrasting has been interesting and informative.
Initially, it doesn’t really matter if you’re on the NHS or private, when you hear the words: “it’s cancer”, you think you’re going to die and that’s it, your world’s over. Not long after that, you realise you’re not going to die and then CONTROL becomes a very important commodity.

I’d like to tell you a little story about control. My recent holiday experience in Mallorca with Ryanair in fact.
The family had had a brilliant time, and the last day was spent sightseeing in Palma before going to the airport. As soon as our flight was called, we made our way to the departure lounge and queued behind the priority boarding sign. The queue got longer, then the staff decided to change the queue for priority boarding. We all raced to the new location – this is Ryanair after all – and renewed the queuing. Then one of the staff told, not asked, told the first man in the queue to put his hand luggage in the little measuring cage. It went in after a little pushing, but that wasn’t good enough, he had to remove his laptop from the case. We all knew what was coming next: “you have two pieces of luggage, 40 Euro!” and she marched him off. We actually thought she was going to fingerprint him, but she just wanted to humiliate him, which she did, because she could. The priority queue changed again, but now most of us were locked together like a Rubik’s cube, so we all shuffled over, and when two Ryanair ground staff shouted at us to get into single file, we couldn’t. Then some of the children started to cry because the shouting frightened them and they thought their mums were going to be arrested for having oversized hand luggage. The delay in boarding, caused entirely by the staff, meant we lost our slot and had to wait in the plane for another hour and a half.

What did this teach me? That Ryanair had complete CONTROL but also that this kind of travel is an amazing masterpiece of logistics. Millions of passengers are processed and sent all round the world, very safely, 24/7. But a masterpiece of logistics leaves very little room for customer care or a bespoke service, yet we’re the paying customers.

In many ways hospitals are a little like airlines. They have to meet targets; they have to come in on budget; they have to keep the beds filled; they can’t let you ask too many questions in a consultation or the queues will be even longer than they already are; it’s a fast moving business. The problem here is that cancer’s not a business, cancer’s personal.

In 2004, when I was first diagnosed with cancer, I received chemotherapy at home. I was delighted by this, even though I didn’t know what chemotherapy was, I was on my own turf. The routine was as painless as it was simple:

• I met my oncologist who told me about my drugs and my treatment plan
• Everything was explained to me clearly and unhurriedly
• The dates and times for treatment were agreed with my chemo nurse
• I had the same nurse for virtually every treatment
• She was always on time
• The whole treatment was over within 2-3 hours max

I handled the treatment really well. I worked throughout it, only taking two days off for chemo. I had a great relationship with my chemo nurse Elaine – I could ask her anything and I’m still in touch with her seven years on. Most importantly, I’d timed the chemo to coincide with when my children came home from school. Even though I was plumbed in, we all had afternoon tea together. They could see that chemo wasn’t scary at all, and it took a load off them and off me too. I felt in control of so many aspects of my treatment and very confident about my future.

In 2009, at my five-year check-up, I found out that I had breast cancer again, another new primary. I no longer had private medical cover, but I asked my oncologist, the same one, if I could have chemotherapy at home. I received a very swift and definite ‘no’. I put forward the argument for home treatment, but it didn’t wash. So this was my new NHS routine:

• I met my oncologist who told me about my drugs and my treatment plan
• Everything was explained to me clearly and unhurriedly
• There was no choice of date or time, I had to fit in with them
• Then I had to queue…
o The first queue was for the car park (I usually ended up in an NCP)
o The second queue was in the outpatients waiting room
o The third queue was in the oncology corridor, where everyone was also weighed in public view
o The fourth queue was in the chemotherapy waiting room
o Finally, I got to have chemotherapy, sitting alongside ten people, each accompanied by a friend
o The whole process usually took five hours, but one day because of staff shortages, I was there for seven hours

And, as I rarely had the same chemo nurse, I couldn’t build a relationship as I had previously.

I still continued to work during treatment, in fact I had set up my own company, but if anyone asked me how I felt on the third day after chemo, I’d start crying, but I had no idea why. Generally I just didn’t fare as well second time around; I didn’t feel as “good”. Was it because I knew what was coming? Was it because I was five years older? Was it because I had no input? While I cannot fault the medical treatment I received, I used to hate the days I had to go to hospital for chemo.

I believe it had more to do with the lack of CONTROL, the impersonality of it all and the utter frustration of hours just spent queuing. Whether you have private health cover or not, no one should have to queue for chemo.

I’ve been very explicit about my home care and hospital care experience, but perhaps you’d like to hear how we all might be ablehelp to improve the patient experience still further? When I first had cancer the sheer amount of stuff I received was formidable. But it was also very cold and often didn’t even scratch the surface of what was for me intensely important. For example, why didn’t anyone tell me how to prepare for the possibility that I might get diarrhoea at work? Because I did. Why didn’t anyone tell me I could lose my fingernails and toenails? Because I did. Why didn’t anyone tell me that I might get cording and how to deal with it? Because I did. Why didn’t anyone tell me running would alleviate my joint pain brought on by chemo? Because it did. Why didn’t anyone tell me that I could still enjoy a drink at the end of the day, as long as it was sweet? Because I did.

I want information that I can assimilate easily; it should be delivered in a way that enables and empowers, that inspires and builds confidence; it’s about being creative with what you’ve got – just changing little things can make a big difference.

A great example of doing something very small but creative, which has improved the customer experience (and saved money too) is at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Has anyone here used the men’s urinals there? There’s a small black fly embossed in each urinal. It was put there to help improve the user’s aim and it worked. It reduced cleaning times, and therefore costs, and made visiting that loo a pleasure not a pain. It’s a practice that is being adopted all over the world.

I’m sure, with a little more creative thinking, plain old information about cancer can be delivered in a far more relevant manner, more interactive, more encouraging, tailored to people’s lifestyles today, NOT the lowest common denominator. I don’t want to be told what I can’t do; I want to feel informed about what I can achieve.

(Excerpt from a speech I made at the  National Clinical Homecare Association’s first annual conference.)

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Oscar winners and losers

We all know it’s the winning that counts not the taking part, so I can understand the disappointment that some actors must be feeling right now. Worthy winners don’t usually win, but this year I think there must be few people who could argue that any bad decisions have been made – apart from the nominees who didn’t win. My commiserations go to Leonardo di Caprio who was amazing in The Wolf of Wall Street… one day Leo.

In fact Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres presented Bradley Cooper, who lost out to Jay Leto for Best Supporting Actor, with a handful of lottery scratch cards as consolation prize. It probably helped at the time.

The show enjoyed an early lift thanks to Pharrell Williams who performed his fabulously happy hit Happy. It brought the audience to its feet and got the party started. He looked great on stage and down among the audience too; he was in his element – I wasn’t so sure about his red carpet attire though, but I don’t think a designer dinner jacket teamed with designer shorts will ever be a winning combination, or I’m just plain boring? Yep, I’m just plain boring and it’s people like Pharrell who make life far less boring.

For me the real winner was the British film industry with Gravity, 12 Years a Slave (and thanks Brad Pitt for making it possible for Steve McQueen to get started in the first place) and the Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life showed the world what we do best. (Can we claim Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress Oscar too? She’s Australian, so kind of British.)


Posted in Brand values, Don't lose reputation, General, Honest broker | Leave a comment

The culture of a company: it can make or break you

The news of Rod McKenzie’s departure from the BBC isn’t so much a surprise as a shock. The shock is that action was finally taken. That so many people felt under such threat for so long, complained and absolutely nothing was done about it, speaks volumes about the culture still well-entrenched at this bastion of British broadcasting. You would think, on top of all the allegations made about former BBC personalities, ranging from indecent assault to sexual assault, and that’s without even mentioning JS’s name, the BBC would be the safest of safe havens; somewhere where you can do your work free from intimidation. But it’s not; not yet.

Then there’s the case of Lord Rennard and the complaints that went unheeded until other reputations might be impugned. (Too late there I fear.)  And what about all the hospitals where staff were too frightened to complain in case they lost their jobs, or had to falsify data or risk further bullying? And let’s not get started on care homes… All of it’s a disgrace; at the very least lives have been made a misery, at worst lives have been lost. And for what? To look good? To have an easier life? To enjoy other people’s torment. This culture thing is pretty powerful stuff.

The culture of a company is like a stick of Blackpool rock, it runs all the way through it; unlike the rock, culture can be diluted and mean different things to different people at different times unless it is constantly reinforced by good examples. And those good examples have to be set by the people at the top. There are lots of excellent companies where their culture is so engrained you just feel it. You know it’s right. And it’s contagious.

It might pay broadcasting grandees, politicians and directors to take a good hard look at John Lewis, a company where its respect for its staff and therefore its customers, is beyond doubt. If we were to judge all these people who have been in the news recently, we’d have to eventually reach the conclusion that their behaviour, by being ignored, was condoned by their bosses. And, in doing that, these grand fromages demonstrated their total self-interest and their complete lack of respect for all of us. Culture is a top-down thing and when it goes wrong that’s down to those at the top.

Decades ago the BBC produced one of its most brilliant serialisations, I Claudius, about the eponymous Roman emperor. We all liked Claudius because, among all the duplicity and depravity, he was the one with a conscience. The only one in that powder keg of power. And he was bright too. When he said: “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out…” he could almost have been commenting on today.

(And I haven’t even mentioned the banks!)


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Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open

As we’re entering the season of good will everyone is swiftly becoming overtaken by Christmas ads, Christmas card lists, presents lists, shopping lists, and just more lists really.  And, if you’ve got children, the race to reach the bottom of those lists becomes that little bit more frenzied. The next three weeks will be full on and, somewhere in between all this preparation will be work. Work for many of us now takes a back seat to planning for the 24th, 25th and 26th, yet I’ve always found this time to be the most rewarding in terms of getting some real thinking done.  Yes, all the budgets and planning for the next year would have been completed a few months or weeks earlier, but there’s nothing like taking some time out, when everyone else is at party pitch, and concentrating on what you’re really doing with your business and with your client’s. This may sound rather boring, but here’s a short story to get you thinking…

Decades ago, as a very junior account executive at Ogilvy & Mather, I was working with the team who created the Naughty but Nice campaign.  All the research pointed to going along a completely different creative route, but the team was convinced taking a more revolutionary approach would get more attention, make a bigger impact and, ultimately, sell more milk for the Milk Marketing Board. The campaign did just that.  It wasn’t dumb luck, it was the combination of intelligence, forward thinking and an innate understanding that the British consumer is anarchic and wants to be entertained not bombarded with ‘bland’.  The client was prepared to take the risk too. The rest is history, and yet it’s not.  These days, irrespective of whether you’re running a campaign on the Internet, on billboards or tattooed on the forehead of Sean Bean, it’s all about originality.  You can’t just look like a breath of fresh air, you need to actually be one. And it doesn’t just happen… someone, somewhere has thought long and hard about the best way to upset the apple cart and they need compliance.  In our case, at O&M we had a wonderful client who was brave enough and open-minded enough to give a totally outlandish campaign the ‘go-ahead’.  The agency won many awards, but if it wasn’t for our client…

Years ago I experienced the converse.  I went to work for a small company where the response to an issue, any issue, was always a new advertisement or a new piece of literature.  This was not an example of strategic thinking, it was not an example any thinking really, but a new ad meant a media budget and new literature meant a print budget, so more money not to mention mark up for the company. Thankfully most of us operate in a more transparent (or honest) fashion these day, bankers aside naturally, and we know that by being creative with both the budgets and our thinking is the only true way of demonstrating our skill and our commitment to our clients.  Of course you’ve got to get results too; the best strategy in the world is no substitute for poor sales. When you’re super busy or distracted by other issues you can sometimes forget exactly why you were appointed by your client in the first place and now’s really great time to take stock.  Don’t waste this time, use it and start January in great anarchic form.


Posted in Brand values, Crisis management, Don't lose reputation, Honest broker | Leave a comment
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We are all born originals - why is it so many of us die copies?
Edward Young