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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

Degrees:

  • 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

Apprenticeships:

  • 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. www.dartdesignltd.co.uk

Metallic Elephant, 01206 251221. www.hotfoil.co.uk

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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.)

 

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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.

 

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If you want to save money this winter, fill your freezer with cardboard

It’s Energy Saving Week soon (21-25 October), and that’s roughly when I start wishing I’d taken care of all those draughty problems in my behemoth of a home during those long hot summer months. I really can do little to warm it up as it’s a listed building, which doesn’t mean it can’t be warm inside, it’s just that the walls are solid and  the heat goes straight out through them, and I haven’t got secondary glazing.  And, as it always costs me a fortune to stay only marginally warmer than cool, I’m back to state-of-the-art zonal heating; in other words I turn off all the heating and carry an electric fire from room to room.  I don’t think I’m alone in this practice either.

If I can’t feel warmer than chilly, I’d at least like to cut down on my energy bills as I’m clearly not getting the full benefit of all those thermal units my boiler’s generating.  And Blueflame, Colchester-based heating and renewable energy specialists, have come up with some novel ideas to help me do just that.

So if fist-bitingly high energy bills are the norm for you, and they are now for most of us, here are Blueflame’s top ten tips on keeping warm and saving money. You don’t need any DIY skills, just minimal effort and a willingness to make some small adjustments that could become a way of life.  It won’t cost you a penny but it could save you pounds   every single month.

See what you think, or give it a go:

 1. Take a six-and-a-half minute shower

Showers are the biggest consumer of water in the home, accounting for 25% of all usage. They are supposed to be more energy efficient than baths but as we’re all spending, on average, seven-and-a-half minutes in the shower, it’s only just.  We’re using around 62L of water versus 80L for a bath and a power shower uses even more.  If we all cut one minute off the time we spend taking a shower, British households would save a total of £215 million on energy bills each year.

2. Don’t overfill the kettle

On the subject of water, did you know that as a nation we waste £68 million a year in heating water we don’t need?  Only heat what you’re going to use and you could save around £8 a year from just using your kettle properly.  You can increase your savings to £40 a year by only using full loads in your dishwasher and washing machine, setting the washing machine to 30°C and avoiding the tumble dryer until it’s absolutely necessary.

3. Keep a lid on it

When cooking on the hob always keep the lid on the saucepan, use just the right amount of water on vegetables and cut up food into smaller pieces.  This way you’ll reach the cooking temperature faster and the cooking time needed will also be reduced. The size of saucepan’s important too; use a small pan on a large burner and you’ll be wasting energy heating the air instead of the food.  Heating a six-inch saucepan on an eight-inch burner wastes 40% of the energy used.

4. Keep the airing cupboard door open

If you have an airing cupboard, then instead of keeping the door shut, it should be left open or ajar.  There’s plenty of heat that the airing cupboard can supply to keep hallways warmer.  You can even put your airer in front of the doorway to dry your clothes and avoid using the tumble dryer.

5. Keep doors shut on rooms you don’t use

If you don’t use all your rooms all the time, if the kids are at Uni or you tend to stay in one room for example, don’t waste money heating them.  Turn the radiator valves right down to a frost setting and keep the doors shut.  That way you’re not wasting energy unnecessarily and keeping the heat where it’s needed.

6. Turn them off – at the plug

All electrical appliances, with the exception of satellite and digital TV recorders, should be turned off at the plug when they’re not in use.  Households spend on average over £50 a year on appliances left in standby mode or not in use.  Phone and laptop chargers are the worst; if not switched off at the plug they will use the same amount of energy as if they were actually charging.

7. Draw the curtains

Even if your home has double glazing, drawing the curtains will provide a greater degree of insulation by preventing warm air from leaving the room and cold air entering.  You’ll undo all the good work if the curtains cover the radiator because you’ll be blocking the heat from the room. If you have an older, draughtier house, complete with original sash windows, curtains are essential.

8. Control the heat you need

Everyone knows they should turn the thermostat down by one or two degrees to save money, but it could save around £65 a year on your energy bill.  You could increase those savings by paying more attention to the timer. The heating should come on before you get out of bed, but make sure it goes off an hour before you go to bed otherwise you’re wasting a lot of unnecessary energy heating your home while you’re sleeping. To save more money, you could trim the times so the heating comes on a little later and goes off a littler earlier.

9.  Keep your freezer full

The refrigerator and freezer are the most expensive kitchen appliances to run as they’re on 24/7.  If they’re not full, then the compressor has to work even harder to keep the food – and all that air – at the required temperature and that will add to your energy bill. If you can’t fill your fridge or freezer with food, or you’re going on holiday and have run stocks down, then fill it with empty cardboard boxes which are closed/taped up;  the fridge and/freezer will use less energy and you’ll see the difference in your bill.

10.  Wrap up 

It sounds old-fashioned, but just getting into the habit of wearing another layer of clothing when it gets colder will make you feel more comfortable and less likely to turn the thermostat up.

All energy saving statistics have been supplied by the Energy Saving Trust and can be viewed on its website: www.energysavingtrust.org.uk.  If you want to talk to Blueflame about energy saving and renewable energy systems, you can call the team on 01206 799994 or visit: www.blueflame.co.uk

Posted in Brand values, Don't lose reputation, Honest broker, Saving money and saving the planet | Tagged | Leave a comment

Why the UK should take tips from the German car industry

The UK car industry was once one of Germany’s biggest competitors; now it has become one of its biggest assets, says author Dominic Sandbrook. How did Germany accelerate away?

Forty years ago, Germany’s biggest carmakers were putting the finishing touches to a product that would change their image forever.

The Volkswagen Golf is one of the bestselling cars of all time. It made its debut in 1974, the year West Germany won the World Cup at home in Munich and the German band Kraftwerk released their ground-breaking album Autobahn. Ever since, the Golf has been shorthand for mass-market success. Last year VW sold more than 430,000 Golfs all over Europe – a staggering 125,000 ahead of its closest rival. This year they brought out a brand-new, seventh incarnation. And even if you don’t own one yourself, there’s undoubtedly one in a drive near you.

It is, of course, a very familiar story. German manufacturing is one of the great success stories of the post-war age. Little wonder, then, that 21st-Century Germany probably commands more raw economic and political clout than any time in its peacetime history. If you want to know why Angela Merkel calls the shots in Europe, Germany’s car factories are a pretty good place to start.

By contrast, Britain’s car industry is a shadow of its former self. We do still make almost one and a half million cars a year, which is good news for thousands of British engineers. But these days, we make them for other people. The iconic Mini plant at Cowley, for example, is celebrating its centenary this year. It was founded in 1913 by the entrepreneur William Morris as the home for his legendary Morris Oxford.

Today it still makes thousands of cars – but it makes them for BMW.

It’s a similar story at Crewe, the home of another great British icon, Bentley – which actually belongs to Volkswagen. Half a century ago, let alone when Morris was at his peak, this would have seemed unimaginable. But the sad truth is that Britain’s car firms only have themselves to blame.

Seventy years ago, at the end of World War II, Germany was on its knees. After the fall of Hitler’s empire, its car industry lay in ruins. In August 1945 the British Army sent a major called Ivan Hirst to take control of the giant Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, which had been built under the Nazis to produce ‘people’s cars’ for the German masses. Ignoring his sceptical superiors, Hirst could see the potential amid the shattered debris of the Wolfsburg factory.

Rebuilding Volkswagen, he thought, would be a step towards rehabilitating Germany as a prosperous, peaceful European ally. And of course he was right.

In the next few years, Hirst restarted production of a car we know today as the Beetle. And from then on, VW was flying. By the late 1950s, with production up and employment buoyant, West Germany was enjoying an economic miracle. The memories of Nazism were banished, and the Germans began to rebrand themselves as a forward-thinking, hard-working and supremely modern industrial nation.

In the meantime, Britain was coasting in the glow of the affluent society. For decades we had been one of the world’s great car-making nations. And yet, slowly but surely, the wheels were beginning to come off. The men who ran our car firms – men like William Morris, who became chairman of the newly merged British Motor Corporation (BMC) at the age of 74 – were elderly and autocratic. Instead of embracing new technology and tapping the expanding European markets, they shrank from Continental competition and preferred to sell cheap cars to Britain’s former colonies.

Even the most celebrated British car of all – the Mini, launched in 1959 – was a reflection of our industrial and imperial decline. With fuel prices rocketing after Britain’s disastrous bid to recapture the Suez Canal from Egypt in 1956, BMC’s designers had been told to produce a car that was smaller and required less petrol. And although the Mini was an enormous hit, there was a sting in the tail. BMC actually lost £30 for every car it sold.

Far from being a symbol of Sixties cool, therefore, the Mini was really a symbol of something rotten at the heart of Britain’s economy. It was a brilliantly designed metaphor for an industry crippled by complacent leadership, dreadful salesmanship and a fatal culture of self-satisfaction.

All the time, Germany’s car industry went from strength to strength. Crucially, it enjoyed excellent labour relations – a stark contrast with the pitched battles in many of Britain’s troubled car plants.

In Germany, management and unions worked closely together in the interests of the common good. Indeed, by law all major German firms are required to set up Works Councils, where the bosses and the unions must work together ‘in a spirit of mutual trust’.

In Britain, by contrast, car factories in the 1960s and 1970s became daily battlegrounds, where militant shop stewards and complacent managers fought out an overt class war.

One fact probably says it all about the difference between Britain and Germany in the post-war years. In 1978, for every day that German manufacturers lost to industrial action, we lost ten.

By the time Margaret Thatcher came to power a year later, the game was probably up for Britain’s car industry. Drivers were already switching to foreign motors – not least German models such as Mercedes, Porsche, Audi and, above all, BMW, which mastered the art of high-end branding.

In 1994 BMW bought the last remnant of British mass car production, the Rover Group. A year later, in the film Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond was even equipped with a BMW Z3, supposedly fitted with Stinger missiles. By now, cars had become the ultimate metaphor for Germany’s extraordinary industrial revival – and for the collapse of much of Britain’s manufacturing industry.

Today the results are all around us. Thanks in large part to the success of its manufacturers, Angela Merkel’s Germany is the biggest economy in Europe and the fourth biggest in the world, as well as the world’s second largest exporter.

It is little wonder, then, that while Britain ran a whopping £120bn budget deficit in 2012-13, the Germans managed to run a small surplus – as they have done so often in recent years. And it is little wonder, either, that amid the terrible turmoil in the capitals of the eurozone, the Germans have ended up calling the shots.

From Britain’s perspective, the tragedy is that we always had the skills. But we lacked the right management, the right unions, the right priorities, and, quite frankly, the right work ethic. And in the end, we paid a heavy price.

There is, of course, a bright side. We do still make more than a million cars a year, providing jobs for thousands of British workers. Even during the eurozone crisis, British car production has continued to grow, while German production actually fell last year.

But there’s no escaping the fact that the Germans still make more than four times as many cars as we do. And what happens to the profits from all those Minis and Bentleys of which we’re so proud? They end up in Wolfsburg and Munich.

Once our car industry was one of the Germans’ chief competitors. Now, it has becomes one of their biggest assets.

Half a century ago, they were on their knees. Yet through grit and dedication, they worked their way back. And now, from their car showrooms to their national finances, the Germans are the envy of the world. To be honest, I rather admire them for it.

Dominic Sandbrook is the author of several history books about Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, including White Heat, State Of Emergency and most recently, Seasons In The Sun.

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Thumbs up to Prince Charles, Highgrove and Primary Care UK, Clacton-on-Sea

It’s official, the UK population is now up to 63.7 million, due to the largest recorded births last year (since 1972), reported the Office for National Statistics yesterday. While this is not going to have an impact on employment levels for the next two decades, domiciliary care company Primary Care says it’s just another timely reminder that employers should start rehabilitating their attitudes to older employees by actively seeking to employ them.  Prince Charles is in agreement too, and has been banging on that particular drum since 1999 – yes for THAT long – through the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise (PRIME).

Since it was established, PRIME has supported over 25,000 people aged over 50 in the UK to get back into the labour market, by starting their own businesses. The charity supports over 50s through the delivery of training, mentoring, advice, development support and networking opportunities.

Although unemployment figures in Essex have improved slightly, paid employment for people in the 50-64 age group remains a concern.  46% of them have been out of work for a year or more and are concerned about their reduced prospects of ever finding a job.  They face a future plagued by worries and uncertainty, with many potentially finding themselves unable to keep up their mortgage payments or rent.

Commenting on these latest statistics, Natalie Emmerson, director, Primary Care, said:  “As employers we all have to respect and value ‘tomorrow’s pensioners’ today.  They have a lifetime of experience and skills that can be used in the workplace and they often have an innate understanding of how to handle situations with a level of diplomacy that would be hard to teach.  And they’re great team players too.”

Primary Care practises what it preaches. Of its 135 employees, 46% are over 50 years old and 16% over 60.  This mix of older and younger people has created an energetic and productive environment where everyone is keen to learn from each other.  Old school etiquette and new technology may appear to be odd bedfellows but what started as a happy accident is now an integral part of Primary Care’s recruitment strategy.  “Our customers like having people they can chat to about all kinds of subjects, and our older support workers are able to connect straight away with the older people we support and that’s important to us. The sooner we all start challenging the stereotypes and use the talent that’s in such plentiful supply, the better it will be for all businesses and the communities they serve,” added Emmerson.

We need more forward looking employers like Primary Care. We know you’re out there.

 

 

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