What about Robert?


What about Robert?

Robert Zimmerman arrived in New York on Tuesday 24 January 1961.

As he stepped out of a 1957 Chevrolet Impala, having got a lift, the temperature was 13 degrees lower than usual.

The weather up and down the eastern seaboard had been severe.

So bad, in fact, that it had almost caused the cancellation of JFK’s inauguration the Friday before.

In the chilly air was a feeling, as JFK put in his speech, that “the torch has been passed to a new generation”.

Whether Robert had heard this or not, he certainly saw things the same way.

He was playing a gig that night at the Cafe Wha?

Which was where he started to spin fanciful stories about who he was and where

he came from.

About his days riding the rails.

Of singing with the great troubadours.

How, for a time, he’d travelled with a circus.

When he’d played in Bobby Vee’s band.

And that his name was Bob Dylan.

The Jewish, middle-class, storekeeper’s son from Minnesota was not yet 20.

But he quickly established an identity as a rambling hobo and teen runaway.

This act started long before he got on stage, or to New York.

Back in Minnesota – his hometown – he was acting when merely walking down the street.

As the frontman of his rockabilly/blues garage band, the Golden Chords, he was the typical James-Dean-style, posing rocker.

He affected a new way of talking that was designed to make him seem deep, in a cool and unschooled sort of way.

It was around this time that he confided to his high-school sweetheart that he planned to devote his life to music.

And change his name.

“I know what I’m going to call myself. I’ve got this great name: Bob Dillon.”

A name he had borrowed from the sheriff in TV’s Gunsmoke.

By the time he reached New York in 1961, he’d already changed the spelling to Dylan.

Because he knew it looked better on the chalkboards outside music venues.

Bob Dylan’s drive to be someone was like that of Elvis before him.

The idea of ordinary life was intolerable.

Breaking his journey from Minnesota to New York in Madison, Wisconsin, he even told a perfect stranger:

“I’m going to be bigger than Elvis.”

Within a few months of arriving in New York, he’d managed to connect with everyone worth knowing in Greenwich Village.

He spent his spare time reading the likes of Faulkner, Graves and Machiavelli.

Kerouac, Burroughs and Dylan Thomas.

Just the type of stuff a college dropout might wish to read.

Along with the poetry of Pound, Eliot, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg.

Casting himself as a Blakean visionary and romantic.

Heir to an earlier visionary generation.

He divided opinion in the Village.

The older folk singers couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

Which probably signalled that they knew his torch shone brightly.

Dylan attracted the patronage of Albert Grossman, who ran a club called the Gate of Horn in Chicago.

Grossman knew there was money to be made in the folk boom.

And he took Dylan on as a client and removed some of the uncertainty from the star-making process, buying Dylan onto the bill at Gerde’s Folk City on 25 September 1961.

And he made sure that his tame journalist, Robert Shelton, was there.

Shelton was a staffer at the New York Times who had been writing about folk music for several years.

Not just a commentator, but a talent spotter.

Dylan was second on the bill, but the publicity announced him as “the sensational”.

Shelton’s article, in that Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, put Bob Dylan on the map.

Selling almost one and a half million copies.

The headline and picture announced:

“Bob Dylan: a distinctive folk-song stylist.”

And there was no picture of the headliners to boot.

The 20-year-old, who hadn’t even been in the city for a whole year, had arrived.

By 1963, Dylan appeared to be playing perfectly in tune with society and the mood of the American people.

And the heated atmosphere of the fight for equal rights and the fear of possible nuclear war.

He was the voice of a generation:

“I’m on the pavement

Thinking about the government.”

It felt like it had come out of nowhere.

And if all you’d been listening to was Frank Sinatra, then it probably did.

With his unique voice and poetic lyrics, he wasn’t for everyone.

But often that’s the trick.

Trying to get your brand to appeal to everyone is often a big mistake.

Dylan’s audience may be smaller than many, but he has a loyal, hardcore band of enthusiasts who stick with him through thick and thin.

He remains true to what he’s always been about, American roots music.

But he regularly shakes things up, routinely altering his old songs, imbuing them with a new feeling.

Folk’s given a reggae treatment; rock gets a country vibe.

Refresh your brand by experimenting with new ways to talk to your audience.

It keeps your brand alive and invigorated.

It helps you to decide what works and what doesn’t.

The key is to align it behind a core idea or vision.

Then play.

Dylan knew from way back that it was all about image, a word often viewed as superficial.

But exchange image for identity, personality or distinctiveness and you get the point.

He knew that by casting himself as poet-visionary, he needed a swagger and a name to go with it.

As Fast Company said:

“A bad, boring, or sound-alike name dramatically dilutes the brand equity and potency.”

Often, a name is a signal conveying how an organisation thinks and behaves, in a nutshell.

At its best, it’s a boiling-down of an organisation’s position or purpose, alluding to or setting expectations.

The right name provides an edge.

It sets the business on the road to prosperity.

Or is that Highway 61?

— DB

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I have a dream


I have a dream

On 28 August 1963, a quarter of a million people gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC.

Before them, Martin Luther King declared:
“I have a dream.”

These were the passionate utterances of a man driven by a belief in his grand fight against racism.

His clarity of purpose provided him with the strength and energy required to fuel this fight against the odds.

This wasn’t about simply changing legislation,
but changing a country.

And to do that he needed others like him.

He needed to stir their souls and rally them
behind a cause.

To call them to live together in love.

He wasn’t alone in his beliefs, but what King could do was put it into words.

With his links to the pulpit, he knew a thing or two about connecting with a congregation.

But more than that, his speech drew on those
of the great orators who went before him.

Shaped by the themes and structures of great speeches of the past.

King used the poetic and symbolic language
of the Book of Amos.

With similarities to Pericles’ funeral oration – delivered to honour those who had fallen in the first fight against the Spartans.

His speech drew on folk memory and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“Five score years ago…”

Barack Obama – another great orator – consciously appropriated the language of both Lincoln and King himself.

King’s linguistic turn and figures of speech made his language dance.

The lyricism of his prose through his use of metaphors and alliterations illuminated his dialogue:

“Rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the summit path of racial justice.”

The tricolons – groups of three – that made his sentence ring emphasised the pattern, making
it more memorable.

And in doing so, it made King’s story
more memorable.

The rhetorical questions through which he challenged his audience shaped an imaginary dialogue.

Through his use of conduplicatio – repeating a word or phrase over and over again – he gathered an irresistible rhythm.

His frequent use of short sentences drummed ideas into their minds.

As did the frequent repetition of key theme words throughout his speech:

Freedom, twenty times.

Our, seventeen times.

We, thirty times.

Dream, eleven times.

Antithesis – the use of contrasts in colour and content – dramatised his use of skin and character, putting them side by side:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged
by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

He knew that the secret of connecting
with his audience is the basic movement of
any effective speech.

What Aristotle – the first Western authority on rhetoric – called ethos.

Transforming the “me” of the speaker and the “you” of the audience into “we”.

His speech wasn’t just about what he believed.

If it wasn’t already, it became what they believed.

Ethos is established by, quite literally, speaking the audience’s language: sharing jokes, common reference points and recognisable situations.

Not forgetting arguments grounded in specifics.

His numerous geographic references.

Mississippi mentioned four times: a place evocative of the strongest emotions and images for his audience.

His use of references to the United States’ Declaration of Independence:

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Martin Luther King’s speech was forceful in its argument, resonant in its references and memorable in style.

He touched them.

He was able to paint a rich picture of how
a different world would look.

And what the journey might be.

His persuasive powers made possible through his use of language, tonality, order, image, attitude
and gestures.

A brave idea and position made identifiable through personality.

As Simon Sinek has pointed out:
“[King] gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the
‘I have a plan’ speech.”

Getting people to come with you takes a passionate belief and a shared language through which to connect.

Whether that’s a social change or a business change, taking up a strong position is critical.

But perhaps it is how it’s expressed that
really matters.

People will often forget much of what you said,
but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.

That’s how you turn dreams into reality.

— DB

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The Questions We Asked: JW Lees


The Questions We Asked: JW Lees

This journal series goes behind our work and gives an insight into the issues or opportunities our clients were grappling with that led to our work together. In this edition of The Questions We Asked, we speak to William Lees-Jones, Managing Director at JW Lees.

The brewer and pub company JW Lees is nearly 200 years old, yet William – the sixth generation of his family to lead the business – maintains a restless spirit to keep moving forward. William explains: “This is one of my favourite cartoons. This is a typical family-business board meeting. You’ve got Dad at the end of the table and the kids along the side, and he’s saying: ‘Instead of risking anything new, let’s play it safe by continuing our slow decline into obsolescence’.”

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“My inspiration as the leader of our family business is really just to build a great business that is a source of pride for us all: colleagues working in the business now, those that came before us, and those that are coming next,” says William. This is an attitude that can be traced right back to the founder of the business.

JW Lees was founded in 1828. “John Lees, who was our founder, had a vision. He’d been in textiles and he bought a row of cottages in Middleton Junction and started brewing beer. This was the 19th century equivalent of buying a vineyard in the south of France and retiring.” At this time, customers would go to breweries with a jug and buy their beer. Due to the prevalence of cholera, drinking beer was actually safer than drinking water. This started to change around 1900, when public houses emerged, alongside coaching inns and hotels. As William explains, “The British pub started with the end-of-terrace house and a gregarious person selling beer. These people weren’t actually very good at the business side of things because they were much better at selling beer, so they ended up owing money to breweries. To get paid, the breweries repossessed the pubs, and then accidentally became the owners of these pubs.”

After university William worked in advertising, so when he decided to join the family business at the age of 29, he was tasked with setting up JW Lees’ first marketing department. At that time, JW Lees were still presenting themselves in a very traditional manner.

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He recalls the situation in Manchester at the time. “Boddingtons were the monster; they were the enemy. Boddingtons was the beer of Manchester. Everybody drank it. The thing that kept me awake at night was that if we were going to build JW Lees as a brand that would be anything other than ‘not quite Boddingtons’, then we needed to be really aware of the fact that they had the firepower of one of the biggest international breweries behind them. They were established 50 years before us. They had this great big chimney that you’d drive past every time you went into Manchester.”

One of William’s first initiatives to address this was to create an advertising campaign. While the approach would be seen as very politically incorrect now, it was less so then and they had to do something that was provocative to get people to view the brand as acceptable. “Although people loved the heritage of JW Lees, they saw it as an old man’s drink. We had to position the brand way over on the other side of the spectrum to give young people permission to drink our beer.”

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The advertising helped move JW Lees forward, but it was a phase that William describes as their “adolescence”. By the noughties there were major changes taking place in the beer industry, with an array of mergers and acquisitions. Many of the independent family brewers that had been the backbone of the industry ceased to exist during this time.

“There was a revolution happening in British brewing that nobody was really aware of. We were seeing the beginning of the craft beer revolution, where customers were saying: ‘We want different, individual beers.’ At this point, we sat there with our glass of ale and thought: ‘Is it half-full or half-empty?’ We decided that we needed to become much more specific in terms of how we were reinventing our business for the current generation of beer drinkers.”

Part of the process William initiated was to start thinking about the vision. Every year, JW Lees hold a company conference in central Manchester. Their first attempt to work on the vision was to develop it collaboratively during one such conference three or four years ago. This led to the vision: “Going further together to brew great times”.


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Looking back now, William describes their approach as “one of those worthy, management-consultancy-style ‘we’re listening to you’ type processes”. And 12 months later, no one could remember it: it wasn’t working. There was also confusion between the vision statement and the brand’s strapline (“Be Yourself”) that had been developed a few years previously. While the sentiment of individuality was important, since JW Lees are defiantly not a chain-pub company, it was causing problems. “It was giving colleagues the opportunity to do whatever they felt like. You’d say to people: ‘Why did you do that?’ And they’d say: ‘I was just being myself’.”

Rather than being tied to the past, William maintains a strong desire to keep improving. “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got. No matter how much we try and fight it, things are never going to be how they used to be, because everything will continue to change.” So with the previous vision not working, William had a strong desire to find something that would.

“It was at this point that a mailshot from Squad arrived. It was a really impressive piece, and having worked in marketing I appreciate when people do good work. There are lots of sharks out there. And there are lots of really terrible consultants who want to come into your business and create problems that you didn’t even know existed. But what appealed to me was that these guys aren’t like that.”

Nearly three years later, JW Lees will report an increase in turnover this year of £8m to £78m and net profits are up 41%. Manchester Craft Lager, which didn’t exist three years ago, is now the brand’s fourth best selling beer. As William says, “this has given us the confidence to launch a beer at a premium price in the market whereas previously we always focused on being good value. But probably most importantly, we measure our staff engagement every six months, which is currently at the highest level it’s ever been.”

To read more about our work with JW Lees that took them to this point, please see our case study here.


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POV*: Plugging the boardroom into the frontline
POV*: Plugging the boardroom into the frontline


Plugging the boardroom into the frontline

It’s easy to think that cracking a bold vision for an organisation or brand will lead to success. We’ve frequently experienced the euphoria among a leadership team that follows the agreement of such things – often at the end of an awayday following months of deliberations. The problem is that a vision, as the word suggests, is only a concept for the future. The hard part is turning it into reality. This can be overlooked and is often more challenging than agreeing the vision. For the last ten years, Squad has worked with clients to turn boardroom strategy into frontline creativity. This, our fourth POV piece, seeks to distil some of our learnings.

The history of Starbucks illustrates the importance of both vision and execution. Starbucks has achieved global success, but the company’s history can be traced back to 1983 when Howard Schultz visited an espresso bar in Milan. At that time in America most people drank cheap, poor-quality coffee. In Italy, Schultz observed the high prices being charged for a top-quality product. He noticed the rapid turnover of customers. He observed the experience and ambience of the bars. But most of all, he noted that this was not a niche but a mass market. He returned home with a vision to recreate the Italian espresso bar experience in America.

In Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt explains how Schultz’s first coffee shop was a direct copy of what he’d seen in Milan. It had a stand-up bar. The shots of espresso were served in small porcelain cups. There were waiters in bow ties and opera music played in the background. It was even called Il Giornale. Once the business was trading, Schultz started to observe the behaviour of his customers. Based on these insights he made changes. Italian was taken off the menu, opera music was dropped, uniforms became more informal and seating areas were introduced. The product too evolved. Takeaway cups were introduced and non-fat milk was offered. And the name was changed to Starbucks. The vision – to bring a high-quality coffee shop experience to America – remained the same, but the execution evolved.

One of the challenges for many organisations is that they’re significantly larger than Starbucks was at that time. Therefore, the leaders are not the ones making the implementation decisions. Vision and execution are separated, often by multiple layers of management. The truth is you need alignment of the two. A vision is important so that the whole organisation is moving in the same direction. But incorporating feedback from the frontline, from the people getting first-hand customer responses, is also vital. Giving them the freedom to make the right implementation decisions, while ensuring they do so in a manner consistent with the vision, is the key to success.

Faced with such challenges, it’s easy for organisations to lose faith in the role of a vision. Sometimes this can lead to organisations neglecting its importance and focusing just on execution. Yet a vision is crucial. Jim Collins, in his study of companies, Good to Great, observed: “That extra dimension [of great companies] is a guiding philosophy or a ‘core ideology’.” The answer is not to neglect vision, but to adopt a process that connects vision with execution. The process of strategy is as important, if not more important, than the strategy itself. In our experience, there are three crucial principles for turning strategy into action.

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Guide, don’t prescribe
Mark Williams, then of Brunel University, conducted a study of Premier League and academy football coaches. He found that more time was spent on drilling than on game-related activities, and that coaches continuously barked commands. Williams explained: “Traditionally, coaches have tended to provide copious amounts of feedback in the belief that more is better.”Pep Guardiola is one of the top coaches in the world. He takes an entirely different approach. He says: “Once the referee has blown the whistle, I stand there and wave my hands, but it is always down to the players. When Raz [Raheem Sterling] gets the ball, do you think my info is in his head? No, because he only has a split second to decide what to do and a million possibilities. I am here to help, but football belongs to the players.”1

The key to understanding Guardiola’s success is recognising what he does give to his players. He came through the Barcelona academy before breaking into the first team. Through every level of Barcelona football club runs a strong philosophy with regard to how the game should be played. Their teams are encouraged to play out from the back and press hard when not in possession. Players are taught to find space, make unpredictable runs and improvise. It is this philosophy that he has instilled in his Manchester City team. Setting strategy is inherently about making choices between available options. It’s the art of sacrifice. But this does not necessitate being prescriptive about how a direction is pursued. Guardiola gives his players enough of a framework to ensure he has compatible players playing in a coherent way, but he gives them sufficient space to make the right decisions on the pitch.

One of the common pitfalls with defining the direction is mistaking goals for strategy. It is common to hear organisations talk about “increasing profit margins by X%” or “growing turnover to £Xm” as if these are strategies. These are outcomes. There are numerous ways in which an organisation could achieve these goals. The crux of effective strategy is defining the way in which the organisation will achieve the goals. If specific goals are set – after all, targets are not necessarily a bad thing – then it’s important to be conscious of them not undermining the strategy, as happened in the NHS. The government had set targets that patients must be treated within four hours of them being admitted. Their desire was to speed up treatment for patients. But the impact of this was thousands of 999 patients being left to wait in ambulances in car parks and holding bays, or in hospital corridors. Hospitals were deliberately delaying admitting patients in order to meet their targets, which ironically made the situation worse.2

Mobilise people
In our third POV piece, we referenced the example of Enron. In their reception area, the company had these values displayed: Integrity, Communication, Respect, Excellence. Enron went bankrupt due to fraud and its executives were imprisoned. As Pfeffer and Sutton say in The Knowing-Doing Gap: “The problem is that there are too many organisations where having a mission or values statement written down somewhere is confused with implementing those values. These firms act as if going through the process of developing a statement, perhaps publishing it on little cards that everyone carries or on plaques or posters on the walls, is enough to help the company perform better.”

Turning strategy into action starts with the behaviour of the leadership team. The strategic process often involves multiple stakeholders, each with different views and priorities. But strategy is about sacrifice. A collective way forward needs to be found, which often involves compromises. Yet too often people aren’t committed to these compromises. They agree to something in the boardroom, but tweak the implementation to suit themselves. Or worse, they push for a form of words that gives them wriggle room, but with the result that the strategy doesn’t provide others in the organisation with sufficient clarity. As David Maister says in Strategy and the Fat Smoker: “For an organisation, strategy cannot be what ‘most of us, most of the time’ do. If a number of top people have plainly not signed up for the journey or are clearly not true believers, no number of systems or amount of inspired speechmaking will transport the organisation there.” It is essential that all members of the leadership team commit to getting on the bus.

The strategic process is as much about building this commitment as it is about making decisions. Consultation processes can be mistaken for navel-gazing. And awaydays can be dismissed as jollies. But, done well, these parts of the process are essential tools for building consensus. People will have to make tough choices and sacrifices – if they don’t, then the strategy is likely to be insufficiently clear or focused. Moving people to a place where they are ready to make these choices is crucial, which means people must feel like they have been heard and listened to. Most will be ready to accept not getting their own way, provided that their opinion has been considered. Ultimately, if the process reaches a point where people can’t agree, then it may be necessary for some to get off the bus.

Once there’s commitment among the leadership team, this then needs to be communicated in a way that drives action throughout the rest of the organisation. It’s important here to keep the communication clear and understandable. It sounds obvious, but the nature of the strategic process means it’s easily forgotten. Excessive jargon is a common pitfall. Another problem is the use of models or frameworks that may have formed part of the strategic development process, but which are not easily understood by the wider organisation. The communication of a strategy is no different to any other form of communication where an audience needs to be mobilised. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Using language that inspires and motivates action is important. Another crucial component is consistency and repetition. Media companies talk about reach and frequency when planning advertising campaigns. There is an accepted wisdom that audiences need to be exposed to a message a certain number of times. Similarly, studies of habits have found that on average it takes two months for a new behaviour to become automatic.3 We’ve often witnessed CEOs in turnaround contexts repeating their strategy endlessly in every meeting. People may get bored by it, but at least they know what they should be doing.

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Make strategy continuous
The problem with many strategy processes is that they stop just when they should be starting. Once the desired transformation has been agreed and communicated, people view the process as complete. There’s a tendency to mentally tick the box and then return to the day job. But the strategy can still evolve and be refined as learnings emerge about the challenges faced during frontline implementation. In fact, this is crucial to success.

Kaizen is a continuous-improvement philosophy that emerged from Japanese businesses after the second world war. It was popularised most notably as part of The Toyota Way. A similar example is the marginal gains approach used with great success by Team Sky. The principle is that if you aggregate a large number of very small improvements, they add up to a winning advantage. This led Team Sky to making changes such as replacing mattresses in the riders’ hotels so they could sleep in the same position every night. They once considered shaving 10mm from a rider’s collarbone to make him more aerodynamic, although it was overruled by the team doctor.4 A similar philosophy has been adopted by tech businesses. Popularised in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, this approach is about testing a vision continuously and then adapting and adjusting it along the way.

All of these examples illustrate the importance of refinement. The learnings that come out of the implementation process are crucial. Feedback loops must be incorporated. The team setting the direction must be plugged into the team implementing it and both must be open to modifications along the way. An important part of this is having an accurate interpretation of reality. There’s an old story we often tell about a famous toiletries brand. They commissioned a new agency to create a television advertising campaign. To test it, they ran it in one half of the country first. The results were disappointing. They sacked the agency and started work on another campaign. In the meantime, they decided to run a coupon campaign to maintain some brand presence in the market. This time they ran it nationally. In the half of the country that the advertising had run, the coupon campaign performed significantly better. What transpired was that the original advertising had created a lot of interest, but people needed a little incentive to trial the product. This is why feedback loops are so important. A doctor can only prescribe the correct treatment if they have first diagnosed the right ailment. The original strategic direction will be based on a diagnosis. But the reaction that comes back helps to build a clearer picture, which may suggest a change in the diagnosis and a shift in the direction.

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The answer
The question of how to connect boardroom strategy with frontline creativity goes to the heart of why Squad exists. The structure and culture of our business is built entirely around helping clients to connect these two worlds. It’s why we describe ourselves as a business consultancy meets creative agency. We felt it would be an appropriate complement to this POV piece to lift the lid on the unique culture within our business that allows us to connect strategy and creativity. This is why we’ve published five stories that define our philosophy as a business. Hopefully, they demonstrate what inspires and motivates us, and paint a picture of how we work in partnership with leaders to help them solve their most significant questions by plugging the boardroom into the frontline.

— RG

References and reading

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