Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The sort of job I could do standing on my head

Interview at a PR agency in Covent Garden. I got to Covent Garden early and walked around, looking up at the sky warily every few minutes as I didn’t want to be caught in a sudden shower (it has rained every day so far). There were so many tourists about that just walking around was uncomfortable.

I went into one of the open air cafés in the Piazza - although you sat outside there were awnings overhead, so if the rain came down it wouldn’t matter. Immediately in front of me was the open Piazza where a Danish youth choir (above) was singing songs from popular musicals (Grease, Fame, Footloose), energetically dancing and leaping around the cobbled area, their middle-aged teacher / leader / conductor joining in at some of the more ebullient moments. In a break some of the dancers came round offering for sale CDs of their performances at £10 a time.

Twelve noon arrived and it was time to go into the interview. The agency was located on the top floor of one of the Chambers that line the edges of the Piazza. I rang a bell, spoke my name into a grill, and when the door clicked open I went into the hall and up the stairs.

When I got to the top floor I was immediately met by the manager who was interviewing me. She looked astonishingly familiar, so that I was convinced I must know her (only later did I realise she appears in a commercial currently running on television). We went into an office and sat down on low chairs at a coffee table.

She asked me to talk her through my CV, which I did. She then went over the requirements of the job (not very taxing - it was the sort of job I could do standing on my head). Then the manager went out and in came the person who was leaving, so I could get some insight into how the job is currently being done. I asked what the best part of the job was and the girl told me it was the people in the agency, who were very nice. I asked her what the worst part of the job was, and the girl said that sometimes there wasn’t enough to do. The girl went out and the manager came back in again.

We discussed salary and I asked for 5k more than my last job. We discussed notice period (I can start immediately). We then went into a general discussion about the agency. As well as PR they do a lot of ancillary communications work (brochures, consumer magazines, celebrity endorsement). She said if I was appointed she would want me to do most of the copywriting for the agency. The meeting ended with a discussion on Facebook and how it might be used for PR (very subtly was my advice to her) and she said she would visit my Facebook site (obviously a test to see whether I was actually an active member).

Above: In the interview we discussed celebrities and how they can be used in a PR context (specifically brand endorsement). I said as far as iconic young women go, Britney Spears was still the most influential, even with all her recent troubles (her life has a mesmerising Marylyn Monroe quality - a combination of talent, beauty and tragedy). It must have been the right answer as the manager nodded vigorously all the way through.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Summer night's dream

The annual general meeting of the county architectural trust. This was held at a village in the far west of the county and was meant to begin at eight o’clock with a garden party at the Manor. Unfortunately torrential rain began to fall at about ten past eight so everyone took their glasses of wine and went through the connecting gate from the manor house garden into the churchyard and into the church where the talk was to be held.

Above: the Manor from the drive. Pevsner says the eighteenth-century front is a façade with the original sixteenth-century house behind. As you can see, there are two storeys to the house - a low ground floor, which was originally the service apartments, and a grander first floor which was where the family entertained. There were no bedrooms as this house was just built for daytime use (the family used to have other houses in the area where they lived - this building was just for showing-off). For such an out of the way little corner of England, the house has a surprising number of Palladian features which indicate a desire to be fashionable when the façade was put on (more showing-off). The gardens featured lots of lavender which released a sort of cloying smell into the air when the rain began to fall.

Above: looking through the north porch into the church where the Reception had decamped once the rain began to fall. If you click on the photo to enlarge it you can see some of the trust members inside. About a hundred people were at the meeting. As last year, I was the youngest person at the AGM.

While the old folks were nattering away I walked around the church, which Pevsner called “the cathedral of the vale” (sorry to keep dropping Pevsner into the narrative, I know a lot of people object to his bullying style but he does know his stuff). The most remarkable feature was the medieval rood loft (a wooden gantry or walkway that was used in medieval times for priests to light candles and intone prayers in a sort of son et lumiere theatrical production). This example was remarkable not only for its survival (most rood lofts were torn out at the Reformation) but that it went right across the width of the church - across the south aisle, over the chancel and out across the north aisle.

The Reception came to an end and everyone sat down. The pews in the nave had long padded runners on them which must have been very comfortable to sit on. Being on my own I took one of the pews in the south aisle which had narrow hard benches (“this is obviously the penitential aisle” a woman in the next seat said).

The speaker was from the Ancient Monuments Society. He talked about efforts to save notable buildings at risk in Wales and the recent acquisition of a chapel formerly belonging to the Strict And Particular Baptists. Then one of the local churchwardens gave a talk about the history of the church we were in, and the various historical and architectural features. In the fifteenth century the Manor next door had been owned by a Judge who went up to London and challenged the power of one of the Yorkist kings (defending the Lord Mayor of London against a regal fiat). The king had conceded the judgement, but got his revenge by exiling the Judge to his home village where he had to remain for the rest of his life. The Judge had returned to the village and lived in the south chapel of the church which he converted into a sort of house (not sure whether this was part of the exile or whether he had become a holy anchorite).

Above: standing in the south chapel (where the Judge lived in a medieval wooden pre-fab, built inside the lofty stone chamber) looking through the arcade into the chancel. Gigantic niches, which would have held life-size sacred images in pre-Reformation times, had been stuck up in every corner (you can see one of them in the photo). Pevsner called this appliquéd sculptural design “barbaric”.

Above: icon-image in the south chapel. It still had an atmosphere of dramatic sanctity, as if great passions had been loosened in that space. On the south wall of the chapel was a relief portrait of the Judge’s daughter.

Above: as I left the AGM I took this photograph of the floodlit church. The time was about ten thirty, but it was still quite light. Walking through the village back to my car there was a surreal sense of the Scandinavian summer night's dream, with birds calling and people out in their gardens despite the late hour.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The grey-haired men

The recruitment director said to me: “No pressure, just go along and see if you like it. The session will go on most of the morning. If you think it’s for you we’ll arrange a formal interview.”

And so, with only the haziest notion of what a hedge fund was, I found myself in the conference room of a country hotel. Actually I was in the vestibule to the conference room, waiting with about eighty fund managers, financial advisors and associated financial marketing personnel. The cherry cookies were delicious, but there was no tea, and the coffee had just run out.

“Go on into the seminar” one of the organisers said, “and we’ll bring the coffee to you in your seat.”

The ten of us who had arrived late sat in the back row, and in due course cups of coffee were brought to us with lots of whispered enquiries as to milk and sugar. More noise as several of the back row stirred their coffee. Yet more noise as the coffee was finished and the clinking cups and saucers were put down on the floor (with subsidiary clatter whenever someone’s foot accidentally kicked the discarded china).

This muted racket wouldn’t normally have mattered, except that the darkened conference room contained an atmosphere of intense concentration. The other seminar attendees didn’t exactly turn round and shush us, but there were a few sharp looks in our direction. It was as if the back row had a frivolous attitude to a subject that the rest of the room regarded with acute seriousness.

Unlike other financial seminars I have attended, the audience was not the usual barrow boys hungry for success (new suits, gelled hair, incapable of keeping quiet). This gathering was older, leaner and uniformly grey-haired. Only two women were present (apart from Claudia, the business development manager on the presentation team).

The subject was hedge funds.

A bald, dome-headed, man from the presentation team talked us through a Power Point show about hedge funds:

Above: hedge funds are one of the key attributes of the economy, and they influence all our lives in various ways, yet very few people understand them (and still less can control them).

“The big sea change in recent years is the growing acceptability of hedge funds - after leverage there is about two trillion of private equity money that is the wall that keeps the London market buoyant. Hedge funds will NOT outperform equities but they will keep pace with them, and are much less volatile. There are approximately ten thousand hedge funds in the world today, and they are attracting the best people in the financial markets…”

Often he used betting terminology (which seemed appropriate considering the walls were hung with prints of race horses). Some of the slides were incomprehensible. We went through the presentation at a fast pace, no consideration given for those who couldn’t keep up.

“Shorting is a useful tool to have in your armoury” the dome-headed man said. There must have been some puzzled expressions as he added (looking as if he were particularly addressing us dim-wits in the back row) “Short means a short-term killing, in other words not a long-term investment. Short selling enables hedge fund managers to make money in falling markets. The manager borrows securities on collateral, immediately selling them in the market with the intention of buying them back later at a lower price. By taking both long and short positions in similar sectors the manager is able to protect the fund against losses. That way you can make money from a stock that you think is going to fall in value.”

Above: some of the slides were as clear as mud!

“Hedge funds use prime brokers such as Merrill Lynch in three ways - to act as their banker, to buy and sell shares, and also to act as a custodian. Very few institutions can offer this range of versatility. Hedge funds rely upon liquidity, so usually they focus on the top one hundred FTSE. All hedge funds utilise the concept of stop loss so if shares rise by three to five per cent it triggers an automatic sell. You have to be very careful hedge funds don’t migrate into other areas. You have to watch they do not change their strategy bit by bit…”

Above: looking from our table back into the restaurant - it was early so we had the place to ourselves for a while. Apparently all the staff in this restaurant are female (from owners down to kitchen hands). It doesn't advertise or do any overt marketing but relies solely on word of mouth recommendation.

After the seminar I found my contact in the presentation team and introduced myself. Everyone was very kind, considering I was a complete outsider looking for a job. I was asked to join them for dinner, the party also including a bona fide hedge fund manager. We went to an attractive restaurant, where we had a table in a big conservatory extension overlooking the terrace and the water garden (fountains, Victoria water lilies, hundreds of ducks). Rain from a summer tempest thundered down on the conservatory roof, making the purple bougainvillea tremble above us. Seven or eight peacocks, mournful from the rain, walked up and down the terrace outside the French windows watching us eat.

Above: the torrential rain falling on the conservatory roof gently shook the bourgainvillea.

It was obvious that the hedge fund manager was the guest of honour, the rest of the party hanging onto his every word. Aged about forty, the hedge fund manager was the very antithesis of a celebrity - dreary demeanour, very expensive black plastic glasses (that ironic look where expensive things look cheap), BIG shirt cuffs with oval gold cuff links. For someone so wealthy and successful, he appeared to have no ego problems, and was modest and polite to everyone.

“This guy is the Mycroft Holmes of hedge funds” said the dome-headed man admiringly. “It’s difficult to get information out of him, but when you do it’s all pure gold. Stick around and you can’t help but make money.”

The hedge fund manager talked about his frequent visits to Medallion, a secretive hedge fund based on Long Island (where they have campus-style headquarters complete with nuclear-proof bunkers):

“They trade about three hundred thousand times a day. Represents a massive proportion of the New York markets. It’s all due to quantitative people who write the models which generate signals to trade. It’s all automated. It’s all model driven - these are not individuals making decisions. They only trade their own money.”

“If it’s all their own money, how can anyone else invest through Medallion?” I asked.

“You can latch onto Medallion via Renaissance” said the dome-headed man knowingly. “They have the same strategy.” There was something about the way he said this that made me think I had asked a really stupid question.

Later there was a discussion about Gordon Brown’s stewardship of the economy.

“It’s not the success people think” said one of the grey-haired men. “We have coasted for ten years on the hard decisions taken by Norman Lamont, who is in fact one of the unsung heroes of the British economy. He’s the one who established the Exchequer’s reputation for being tough on inflation.”

“Well, you’ve a vested interest in saying that” said Claudia teasingly.

“On the contrary, I’ve no interest in talking-down the British economy” said the grey-haired man. “I just think Brown’s not all he’s cracked up to be. Take the independence of the Bank of England. There are persistent rumours that it was part of a botched attempt to take us into the Euro. That’s why the gold reserves were sold off at the same time. Far from being an inspired and courageous decision, it was actually a segment of a policy that failed - the fact that Bank independence worked is entirely co-incidental.”

“What’s your evidence for saying that?” said the dome-headed man.

“Well I’ll tell you my evidence. Just read The State We’re In by Will Hutton. That is the manifesto Brown has been covertly following since ninety-seven. When Blair would let him that is. It’s all in Hutton - Bank of England independence, stripping out the powers of the Royal Prerogative, all the stakeholder business. It’s all there if you look.”

A few days later I went to the library and requested a copy of The State We’re In.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Alistair Campbell interviewed by Kirsty Wark

Newsnight Review last night included Alistair Campbell interviewed by Kirsty Wark. He was discussing the publication of his (heavily self-censored) diaries covering the period when he was Director of Communications and Strategy for Tony Blair 1997 to 2003. After the interview there was a panel discussion about the merits of the diaries.

Such is Alistair Campbell’s reputation as an evil genius that I switched on expecting to see a latter-day equivalent of the Reichs Minister for Propaganda in a 1945-style gotterdammerung denunciation and hectoring of his enemies before departing to the fantasy-Valhalla prepared for the denizens of the outgoing regime (from which they will sneer at and undermine the efforts of Gordon Brown).

Instead the discourse resembled one of those sad little exit interviews when one of the more mediocre members of the Big Brother house is voted out for being too boring, and sits before Davina McCall trying to big-up his one shot at fame knowing it will be downhill from that moment on (sorry to refer to Big Brother, but we have to use the argot and imagery of our time).

Kirsty Wark was very clever in the way she got him to reveal his true nature. At one stage she even got him to admit he was obsessive and intolerant, and later on that he was a bully. The weasel words he came out with over the death of Dr John Kelly were vile in the casual way he dismissed the tragedy (no regret, no apology, just an acceptance that the man would be destroyed).

Throughout the interview Alistair Campbell seemed immensely pleased with himself, with a snaffling sort of laugh (upper teeth very prominent, blowing air downwards from his nose and mouth, a technique no doubt perfected over a lifetime of sniggering in the background). He described the Daily Mail as “absolute poison”, which made me think: it takes one to know one. He told us he was an atheist - a statement that is not strictly true since he clearly worships himself.

“Strategic communication is my thing” he told us. But Marshall McLuhan pointed out years ago that the medium is the message. If Alistair Campbell is the medium, what is the message we are getting through these diaries about the New Labour project?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

If Gordon Brown was an antique statue...

And as if by magic we have a new Prime Minister, emerging out of the background noise of my redundancy, so that I wasn't really paying attention to how the "emerging" bit happened. Gordon Brown is new and yet not new (he’s been around for years and years). I read in The Independent about a new theory about Easter Island, and inspired by this I went to the British Museum to look at their Easter Island statue.

Looking up at the monolith (above) I was suddenly reminded of Gordon Brown (brooding, mysterious, all head).

Marketing people have a sort of game where they liken products to other products. Sometimes this can be useful, sometimes it is just silly. Mostly it relates to cars, since so much research has been done about customer profiles of car buyers (ie if Tescos was a car it would be a Vauxhall Astra, if Sainsburys was a car it would be a Citroen Xsara Picasso, if Waitrose was a car it would be a Volvo Estate etc etc).

You’re supposed to say what comes into your head, without thinking about it too deeply.

So, if Gordon Brown was a car what would he be? If Gordon Brown was a cocktail in the Savoy bartender’s book what would he be? If Gordon Brown was a TV news channel what would he be?

If Gordon Brown was an antique statue he would definitely be one of those heads on Easter Island. If David Cameron was an antique statue he would be the Belvedere Apollo (honestly, that’s the image that came to mind). If Nick Griffin was an antique statue he would be one of the gargoyles on the exterior of Notre Dame.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How could you have been so stupid

The next few days passed very quickly. Occasionally my two colleagues would gather by my desk and we would discuss the likely timescale of the office closure and our consequent redundancy. Having been in this position before, I advised them to get together everything they wanted to take with them (for their portfolios), since the whole building was likely to be suddenly shut up.

We saw very little of the boss. He would come in about eleven, go through to his office at the end of the corridor, and shut the door. We would see his phone extension light up, and he would make calls until about three in the afternoon when he would go home again.

One of the more comical aspects of the redundancy process was the number of departmental secrets that had to be explained to Head Office. They were all projects that our boss had failed to get authorisation for, but which he had wanted to do anyway. None of these projects were illegal, but they were certainly contrary to corporate policies (there were gasps of disbelief as each new outrage was revealed).

For instance, since the freeze on recruitment we had had two “consultants” working for us incognito (this led to a debate about whether they were entitled to redundancy payments since they were de facto employed by the company). There was also a TV campaign that had been booked and paid-for, and which no-one at Head Office wanted to know about (mainly because they suspected, rightly, that it was a can of worms and poisoned chalice rolled into one). There was also a private website (run by yet another full-time “consultant”) that had been set-up using an unauthorised brand name and generating customers that didn’t appear on any of the official media codes.

I became used to various panjandrums in Croydon ringing up and tentatively digging for information about these illicit schemes. The fact that no-one asked our boss was a measure of the extent to which relations had broken down between him and his fellow directors. No attempt was being made to carry out a formal hand-over, so that once the office was closed the customers would inevitably be left floundering (until they eventually traced the trail back to Croydon and started complaining).

As the days passed everyone became less and less bothered about time-keeping - turning up late, taking several hours for lunch, routinely going early. There was no formal work to do (the marketing campaigns had simply stopped), so a lot of the time I applied for jobs via the internet. My female colleague kept herself busy on various pointless assignments (pointless because they were about to come to an abrupt end) so that I wondered whether she was in denial about being made redundant.

There was a moment of agitation when one of the Head Office managers took away my authority to raise Purchase Orders. This meant that suppliers I had given verbal orders to over the past few weeks would not get paid (or if they did, it would only be after a great deal of difficulty). I didn’t bother remonstrating with the manager but sent an e-mail directly to the CEO, copied to all directors, complaining about the way suppliers were being treated - within an hour my authority had been restored.

This e-mail to the CEO also seemed to galvanize Human Resources and the new boss who was to take over the remnant of our activities (officially the units were being merged, unofficially we were being junked). Conference calls followed, and then (on the Wednesday) they arrived, larger-than-life, calling us all into the big downstairs room for an announcement. The announcement was a non-announcement: the office was closing and we would all be made redundant that day.

I went back upstairs and cleared my desk of all the projects I had been working on, throwing most of them in the bin. I went through my e-mails deleting hundreds of them. Incredibly my female colleague still continued working, as if even at that late hour she would be reprieved.

One by one we were called in to see the Human Resources Director. We were all given effectively three months salary, which was a pleasant surprise (my service with the company being less than two years they didn’t have to give me anything). I went back to my desk and sent goodbye e-mails to everyone I knew in the call-centre in India (lots of anguished and shocked replies pinged back to me - predictably no-one had briefed the call-centre that our office was closing).

Midday arrived, and the Human Resources Director said she would like to take us all to lunch. In two cars we drove out into the country, to the Dog and Doublet pub. In a back room (a sort of dining room) over-looking the river we had beers and a simple meal. The sun was shining and the heat was nearly eighty degrees. Conversation was dominated by the new boss who laughed at all his own jokes and told us about his exploits on a recent liaison visit to India. Towards the end of the meal I felt my connection with the company had slipped away - nothing dramatic, I just felt these people were nothing to do with me anymore.

And so back we all went to the office and I sat at my desk for the final time. There was no reason for me to linger, except I didn’t want to be the first to rush off. I waited until one of my marketing colleagues had left, then got up myself and went round saying goodbye to everyone.

Within three months we had gone from a vibrant multi-million pound enterprise to ignominious failure and collapse. I didn’t feel bitter about it, but I was concerned at the speed with which an otherwise successful company (for we were basically a stand-alone company within the plc) could nose-dive and crash. I looked at the desk of my former colleague who had made the fatal error and I thought:

Howard, how could you have been so stupid.

Friday, July 06, 2007

God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb

Above: sheep on the edge of the tidal pastures earlier in the year - they had just been shorn of their coats.

My first day back at work after the Paris trip. I parked my car in my usual space in the little square, went in through the door and up the stairs to my desk. The first person I saw was the female colleague with whom I share an office. She immediately told me: “We’re on thirty days consultation”. She said this even before saying hello or letting me sit down. This news didn’t really surprise me - since the data debacle it was obvious that sales were not going to recover.

I opened up my PC, looked at the hundreds of e-mails that had accumulated while I had been away, then closed it down again (one of the compensations of being made redundant is that you don’t have to worry whether things get done or not). Apart from myself and the woman who shared my office, only one other person (also on the Marketing team) was in the building. We could hear him next door in the Marketing Director’s former office (which he appropriated when the Director was given the push a few weeks ago - an early casualty of the data debacle). He was ringing up agencies and arranging interviews. His voice was clearly audible through the thin partition as he assured people his CV would be with them within half an hour. He was clearly devoting himself full-time to finding a new job, not waiting for the outcome of the “consultation”.

“You should be getting your CV together” I told my female colleague.

“How am I going to find another job?” she said in a tone of cynical resignation. “He’ll be alright” (nodding towards the partition) “but I’m over fifty. No-one is going to want me.”

In a sense she was probably right to be apprehensive, since her job was quite specialised and probably didn’t exist in any other organisation. She had also been with the company for over twelve years, and so looking for somewhere new would be harder than for the rest of us. I told her she needed to break her skills down and identify them one by one, illustrating them with examples. I told her that not all companies wanted young people and many employers found young people a nuisance since their qualifications are so poor (interns with A-level English who couldn't spell properly or form coherent sentences, despite all the denials about dumbing down). Above all I told her not to worry since there were plenty of jobs around and these things usually turned out for the best (I was on the point of saying to her: God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, but I didn’t in case she thought I was “religious”).