Zeitgeist has found himself leading projects several times over the past year. The prospect can sometimes be a challenging one, and the received wisdom is that looking to the past can help shed light on the future. Looking at both recent and ancient history, however, says one thing more than anything else; leaders are a victim of circumstances. Any strategy must adapt to context.
As a 20-something Londoner with money to burn, Zeitgeist naturally found himself on Saturday night sitting at home, reading The New Yorker. The fascinating review by Dexter Filkins of recent biographies on David Petraeus, former CIA director and responsible for the execution of the ‘surge’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, painted an interesting portrait of what leadership is about. He recognised that the system in place in the early days of Iraq of rounding up countless civilians in order to ferret out insurgents was not an efficient one, nor was it especially effective. Rather, as Filkins points out, “I witnessed several such roundups, and could only conclude that whichever of these men did not support the uprising when the raids began would almost certainly support it by the time the raids were over”. Leadership, then, in this case, came in the ability to spot a deficiency, and then building on it by offering a better solution. Petraeus, who liked to say that “money is ammunition”, focused on the civilians they wanted to protect, rather than the enemy they wanted to kill. This was a drastically radical notion at the time in the military. True leadership narratives are often riddled with anecdotes of absolute maverick behaviour of this kind. The fallacy is that, and this is one of Taleb’s main points in his book on uncertainty, Black Swan, the stories of those whose maverick ideas did not work out rarely make for interesting books or films. Few songs will be written about those guys.
Just as Petraeus was able to leverage the time in which he happened to be serving in order to spot something that he could perceive to be at fault and have the opportunity to amend, there is then an element of luck involved too. “I have plenty of clever generals”, Napoleon once said, “Just give me a lucky one”. Petraeus’ luck began with being around at the right time in order to see how things could be different. It continued when he managed to shepherd his idea for the ‘surge’ to fruition. While at the time the idea of deploying an extra 25,000 soldiers to Iraq was greeted with some mixed reactions to the say the least, it can certainly be said to have paid off in large part. It was another example of a maverick move that panned out well. However, as Filkins points out, the timing of it all was what made it such a success. The Awakening, a phrase given to Sunni-orchestrated truces with US troops that began before the surge, was instrumental. Filkins writes, “Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Almost certainly not”. The Awakening most assuredly featured tactically in the execution of the surge, but you can be sure it was never part of the strategy. Perhaps it was the failure to notice this, and the attractiveness of the holistic narrative – another fallacy that Taleb notes in his book – that led to a surge being attempted, with far less success, in Afghanistan. What works in one place at one time, might not work again.
Zeitgeist is also currently wading through the Marie Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser. It is quite extraordinary to note how many times the autocratic aristocracy are a victim of circumstances, rather than being able to dictate their own fate through their own policies and leadership. In the long-term, though greeted with warmth at the start of her reign, Marie Antoinette was always treated with a modicum of suspicion by the people of France, hailing from Austria, a country of lukewarm political relations and which culturally left many an ordinary Frenchman cold. It was long-gestating prejudices such as these that helped blacken the Queen’s name. The phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ had been ascribed to various monarchs going back over a century before Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne. In the medium-term, the support France provided in the American war of independence was pivotal. The Treasury spent an enormous amount of money funding the war, which was seen as a proxy battle with England. This action alone nearly bankrupted the country. But, away from finances, there was the ideological lens to consider as well. Landed gentry like Lafayette, who left nobly at the King’s command to support the war, returned not only as lauded heroes, but as heroes who had been fighting with a group of people who yearned to be free of a suppressive, royalist regime. Such thinking proved infectious, and was not forgotten when men like Lafayette returned home. Finally, in the short-term, an absolutely ruinous stroke of weather stunted harvests, creating mass famine across the country in the lead-up to the revolution. All such things were manageable to an extent by the royalty, but truthfully the origins of such influences were out of their hands.
CEOs today are seen as less wizard-like than they were five or ten years ago, when moguls, particularly in the media industry, bestrode the globe, acquiring companies at their whim, creating ‘synergy’ where none really existed in the first place (think AOL Time Warner). The paradigm shift of course has been in the global recession that few – including many a lauded business leader – foresaw. Confidence in such people has been shaken. What these histories tells us about the ways to handle leadership then can be summarised in the following ways: 1. Know your environment. Externalities and trends are likely to influence your business, and not always in obvious ways. 2. Be mindful of context. What works somewhere might not work in the same way again elsewhere. 3. Appearance, rightly or wrongly, counts for a great deal. 4. When you choose to do something can sometimes be as important as the thing you are trying to do itself. 5. A small amount of luck can go a long way.
As we celebrate our first anniversary and approach our 150th post, please join us in celebrating our 30,000th hit.
We’ve written on the changing face of masculinity, and how men shop in the second decade of the 21st century. We examined why England lost it’s World Cup bid, and what the World Cup meant for the world as a whole, and the businesses that aim to profit from it.
We talked about the future of content; what it means to own something that only exists as a file on a computer, but you still have to pay for, as bookshops and videostores fade to dust and intellectual property rights evolve along an uncertain path.
We’ve ruminated on leadership, on how luxury justifies itself post-recession, and how antique brands like Louis Vuitton attempt to keep themselves fresh, as well as ultra-premium.
We’ve talked about how movie studios win by marketing their product, and how auction houses lost out to the pitfalls of behavioural economics.
We’ve debriefed you on our visit to the UK’s Google HQ, while waxing lyrical on Nintendo as it moves from taking on Sega to taking on Apple. We’ve asked what it means for the future of TV when everyone has Sky+ and a broadband connection. And we’ve looked at several examples of superb brand activation.
Stick around and have a browse, we’re not going anywhere.
How will the snow affect the UK retail landscape?
While the news at the time focused on stranded air passengers, a crippled transport network and the need for some inventive parenting to explain why Father Christmas was unable to deliver presents on time, the after-effects of December’s heavy snowfall are now being felt strongly on the UK high streets and shopping centres.
With the tinsel and fairy lights still in full view, it has been a far from Happy New Year for the number of retailers forced to announce that their sales were lower than expected with the consquences ranging from store closures and job losses to profits warnings. Many cited the unwelcome cold snap as compounding difficulties brought about by the economic crisis, changing consumer habits and threats appearing from non-traditional competitors.
First to register concern were HMV, who admitted in an unscheduled trading statement, that like-for-like sales across its UK and Ireland outlets had plunged by 13.6% in December. Having seen other music and entertainment retailers, including Zavvi, Our Price, Tower Records and even Woolworths bite the dust in recent years it isn’t surprising that the entertainment specialist is feeling the heat while the rest of us freeze.
Zeitgeist has already touched on how ‘In some industries, the concept of owning something tangibly has become redundant;‘, with music and film sitting high on that list. More worryingly for HMV as the owner of Waterstones bookshops is Amazon‘s online dominance of the category and the rise of devices like the Kindle and regular smartphones that are likely to eat into book sales in the coming years.
While the sub-zero temperatures may have kept shoppers out of their stores the weather can’t take all of the blame. This weekend, this half of Zeitgeist bought a CD as a friends birthday present. A quick look online showed the item retailing on HMV.com at £8.99, however in-store I was obliged to pay £17.99. The Sales Assistant helpfully told me that the difference was because online sales are shipped from Guernsey. I rather suspect that the lower price has more to do with the fact that other online stores such as Amazon.co.uk and Play.com are also selling the item for £8.99 than where the item is shipped from.
It’s not hard to see why the bricks-and-mortar stores are in so much trouble when they have to sell items for nearly double the online price to cover their overheads. In this instance the extra cost doubles as a ‘Failure to Plan‘ tax for me, but increasingly shoppers will go online for their entertainment needs rather than paying a premium for the convenience of getting it immediately on the high street. Alternatively they’ll simply download or stream it and do away with the need for any physical material purchase.
This final option shows how behaviour change can be brought about with the right motivations. For years now, we have been encouraged to reduce unnecessary waste and raw materials to help the environment. However, it is the convenience of having music, film, games and books stored digitally, rather on discs in plastic boxes or paper, that has proved more of a driver than any desire to save the planet.
For Clintons this is the second such warning in six months and time will tell whether ‘strategic intiatives‘ taken by the board will have the desired effect or whether as a nation, a new generation is growing up to wish ‘Happy Birthdays’ and ‘Merry Chistmases’ via text message or social media sites.
Encroachment on their traditional market by the major multiples hasn’t helped Mothercare and brokers Seymour Pierce have questioned quite how much of their problems are down to the snow.
With the Christmas period so crucial for many retailers there may be more similar statements being prepared in boardrooms up and down the land. The slightly milder weather in early January may help ‘The Sales’ boost some bottom lines, but with a number of retailers choosing to delay exposing shoppers to the increase in VAT the bargain hunters may not spend enough to make up the shortfall, particularly if they are saving for a more expensive 2011. If a handful of retailers do go under it begs the question, ‘Who will take over their retail space and what will the retail landscape look like in a couple of years from now?’.
In the meantime we’ll have to wait and see what legacy the snow is going to leave in other sectors such as insurance, utilities and travel. Either way, it might be an idea to start saving now for those premiums and gas bills.
When was the last time you visited Blockbuster video? Thought so. Zeitgeist remembers being very excited when he first saw ads akin to that of above; a magical destination for access to many, many films. Of course, the problem was that one had to drive to the store in hope that the film that had just come out that weekend had not already sold out. Then along came Netflix et al. (not to mention Torrents), and Blockbuster, like some listless Neanderthal, was far too slow in catching up. Today it is sagged with a $1b debt. Reuters have an interesting (though mostly anecdotal) article about the demise of the retail giant. Unfortunately, Blockbuster – once a destination space – failed to anticipate the digital revolution of both choice (the availability and range of films online exceeds that of a bricks and mortar store) and convenience (why leave home to rent a movie you can just as easily have mailed / streamed to you online?).
Another industry currently in the throes of potentially significant change is the book industry. The Economist recently featured a couple of excellent articles on what the iPad – and its inevitable successors and imitators – will mean for books and bookstores, for better or worse. When almost 1 in 5 books sold in North America come from Amazon.com, what does that mean for the independent book store? Zeitgeist believes that such shops, like the wonderful Heywood Hill in Mayfair, will have to rely increasingly on their provenance and their eccentrically niche position in the market, organising arcane events and readings to enhance this view.