Monday 17 December 2018

The country is being run by 'experts' full of guff

Marketing is a noble art in the right hands. But it's no way to run a country, says Brendan O'Connor

We got this: Why would Health Minister Simon Harris and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar call the new National Children’s Hospital the National Children’s Hospital when they could come up with some buzzy name for it?
We got this: Why would Health Minister Simon Harris and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar call the new National Children’s Hospital the National Children’s Hospital when they could come up with some buzzy name for it?

The only conclusion you can draw at this stage is that the country is being run by marketing people. The country is being run as a going concern, a brand, a commercial entity, and the marketing department is in charge.

This is literally true, in that John Concannon, a marketing guru, now seems to be one of the most powerful people in Government. But it is also more generally true. The clues are all around us.

Where else but a country that was run by the marketing department, could we decide to call the new children's hospital Phoenix Health? It has all the hallmarks of a decision signed off by a committee of marketing people.

Marketing people can't leave anything alone. Why would you call the new National Children's Hospital the National Children's Hospital when you could come up with some buzzy name for it.

You can just see the marketing types now throwing around names. "The Wellness Place?" Too alternative health-y. "The Healing Zone?" Not child-y enough. "Childzone?" Too like Boyzone, and could be mistaken for a play area. "The Bettering Hub?" Too close to battering.

And then someone mentions "Phoenix". "It's like, totally Harry Potter. And it suggests all these sick kids right? And they're like, rising from the ashes of unwellness. And unicorns are totally going to be over by next year."

And then, as is usual in these things, suddenly everyone ends up going along with a rubbish name. Still, we should probably just be glad they didn't sell the naming rights to McDonald's or Coca-Cola.

And then there was the tracker mortgage scandal. While the banks were busy lawyering up and going over contracts with a fine-tooth comb, the Central Bank was making noises about moral suasion, and then Paschal, not to be outdone on the buzzwords, came up with Targeted Activist Activities. No one could get a straight answer as to what any of it meant.

That's the thing with marketing people. They can jargon you to death and when you keep trying to ask what they mean in English they will just keep saying it in different forms of jargon.

Then Paschal did the ultimate marketing man thing. He asked the Central Bank to do a report on the culture of the banks. Because that's what we need right now. Rather than get in and solve the problem, let's look at the bigger picture, the story of why.

Culture is a big issue with the marketing and corporate bullshit crowd these days. Any problem that seems too big to solve, they blame the culture and they conduct an audit of it and then institute a programme of cultural change across the organisation.

Often it will be organisation wide, root and branch, top down or bottom up. Culture would be defined in marketing terms as the glue that holds an organisation together. It is regarded as being notoriously hard to change because it is engrained in the DNA of the organisation and bred and socialised into everyone there, and people are very resistant to change.

This means there is a great industry of consultant types who go around promising to change your culture. They will come up with new jargon, new symbols (symbols are important) and they will often come up with a new mission statement, which will be general to the point of meaninglessness. It's all about allowing people to achieve their potential and making the world a better place and doing no evil, and inventing the future and whatnot.

In layman's terms you could say that culture is basically the habits of an organisation. And you could say that the best way to change them is not with the carrot of what marketing people might call a "Transformational process".

You could in fact say that the best way to change bad habits somewhere like the banks is to make a credible threat of sanctions that would hit not just the organisation, but the people with bad habits. The "stick approach" as it is known.

You will often find when the stick is brought into play that even though people are resistant to change, they will change pretty quickly when they have to.

It seems that to the shock of everyone the banking culture in this country has not been one of putting the customer first. So we can do an audit of that and hang around 20 years to see if human nature changes, or you can have the kind of effective regulation that forces banks to put the customers first. Marketing types prefer the transformational audit approach. Which one would you go for?

I actually have nothing against marketing. It was my original area of expertise and the core principle of it is sound. It is indeed supposed to be about being led by your customer. You identify a need, you fulfil that need in a way that not only satisfies the customer but maybe even actually delights them, and then you communicate clearly to customers and potential customers about your product or service.

But like so many ideas before it, from religion to capitalism, marketing got corrupted by human nature. Alan Shatter is frustrated by how the marketing people are running the country, too. In Hot Press last week he gave out about how Leo's main focus in politics is self-promotion. He took a pop at Leo's action man poses too, saying: "I went jogging for many years - but never felt the need to alert media photographers and bring them with me. I suppose that was my mistake."

And indeed it was Alan's mistake. He thought that just doing your job was enough. Of course, the marketing people would have told him that it's not about doing your job. It's about your brand, and about pushing a modern-focussed, health-conscious brand across to all platforms to key demographics.

The divide between marketing people and mere politicians was summed up in one small thing last week that you might not have noticed. David McCullough, himself a man who the marketing people would love to get their hands on and sell as an Irish George Clooney, but who insists instead on being a serious person who writes heavy historical biographies and conducts serious interviews, launched his biography of Dev last week.

The two leaders of the main political parties were both party to the launch of the book in very different ways. Micheal Martin wrote a densely-argued and fascinating review of the book in The Irish Times. It was full of historic allusions and references, and showed a detailed and nuanced understanding of the past and the overall shape of Irish politics since the foundation of the State.

The review will have been well read among certain demographics - but probably not across all the key demographics that Martin needs to hit. If his numbers are down a bit among younger millennials, this review will perhaps not have helped.

Indeed, a marketing person will have viewed Martin's time spent reading the book as time wasted. And they would worry that him writing it, even if he got help with it, might remind people that Martin was a school teacher. Because marketing people know that punters out there can have bad memories of teachers, and also of swotty types who read big books about, like, dead guys.

And what did Leo do? Leo launched the book, kind of made it about Leo a bit in the speech by reflecting subtly on the similarities between him and Dev, and then came out and did a pic with McCullough that got in all the papers. And get this - the two lads were wearing matching light grey suits.

So as far as the marketing guys are concerned? Leo and Irish Clooney, suit buddies, landed in all papers. Score dudes!

The shame of all this is that Leo Varadkar actually seems to be a person of substance. But that's never enough for the marketing people.

Sunday Independent

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