School days, school days, end of the golden rule days

As of this lunchtime I no longer have a child in school. After 15 years of book bags and reading practice and PE kit and lunch money and parents’ evenings and INSET days and school reports and grumbling about the price of uniforms, suddenly it’s all over.  One is off to university this autumn, the other will be heading for sixth form college, unburdened by the need to put his hands on his school tie  ever again.

They’ve changed a lot, of course, in the past 15 years.  Possibly not as much as the school system has. Beneficiaries of New Labour’s “education, education, education” largesse  they went to an excellent local primary school, and have kept one step ahead of the  reformers ever since.

The youngest enjoyed all the sports the local primary sports coordinator introduced him to –  shortly before the school sports partnerships which made it possible were abolished.  They went to an outstanding secondary school which was in the very last group of schools to be refurbished under the generous old Building Schools for the Future programme.  The oldest completed her AS levels in the year before AS’s were changed.  The youngest has just done the last year of old-style GCSEs before syllabuses, course work and the grading system itself are all reformed. They leave the school system while uncertainties about possible forced Academisation swirl around.  I have occasionally pictured their ride through the school system like a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark:  we are, collectively playing the part of  Indiana Jones running just ahead of the granite ball representing the Department for Education – or maybe we’re  Bart, they’re Homer:

They’ve done fine, of course, thanks to a series of hard-working, professional,  and downright wonderful teachers  who cajoled, inspired, and enlightened them all the way and who genuinely seemed to care about what happened to them. And not everything has changed since my day.  I asked my son how he felt about leaving.  “Now it’s over I can look back on it and say it was great” he said (remember, he left school about two hours ago) “But at the time, when you’re there and you’re a teenager and you hate everything, it makes you feel like banging your head on the desk.”  I doubt there’s anyone who went to any school, anywhere, who doesn’t know exactly how that feels.

The EU referendum – a rancid political debate

I’ve been trying and failing to write about the EU referendum campaign from a comms perspective; hoping to make sense of the messages we’re getting, the choices on offer, the strategy and tactics each side are deploying. I’ve given up. There is no logical sense to this campaign which seems to be based on an abandonment of respect for the truth, a descent into scare-mongering and deceit on all sides and racist dog-whistles as blatant as air-raid sirens.

We seem to be in a place where logical argument, respect for the facts, a willingness to listen to another person’s point of view and engage with it seriously no longer play any part. We’re an awfully long way from the last time our membership of Europe was debated:

television broadcasts were used by both campaigns, like party political broadcasts during general elections…. The “Yes” campaign advertisements were thought to be much more effective, showing their speakers listening to and answering people’s concerns

I dug that out the last time we’re were facing  a referendum choice Nick Clegg’s ill-fated attempt to reform the voting system.  I said then I felt insulted by the low level of debate on offer.  Now it feels like the age of Demosthenes (who, the internet tells me, provided the perfect summary of this campaign)

A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true

No-one’s mind can have been changed by this debate. Those who hated Europe at the outset have had their prejudices confirmed, so have those of us who see a better future for the UK inside the EU.  I’m with Robert Harris:

I  don’t think I have ever felt more depressed about the future of the country.


The lure of the hairdresser and the politics of grey

I started dyeing my hair in 1980. I finished last week.

You always remember the first time. For me it was a trip to the hairdresser designed to make me feel grown up.  It ended with aubergine-coloured hair, definitely frowned on by school, which I tried and failed to convince my friends was deliberate. After that I stained my mother’s towels orange with foul-smelling henna for years before turning platinum blonde in about 1989 with a dye job done by a Swiss hairdresser friend of my flatmate’s, who burned my scalp with bleach.

I carried on dyeing my hair long after teen rebellion had ended, and well before the grey set in – copper, blonde, mahogany, russet streaks; strands of hair pulled painfully through the holes in a rubber cap with a crochet hook before the merciful discovery of wrapping hair in twists of foil. The hairdresser’s chair was one place I felt that I could play around with my appearance in a way which didn’t involve the miseries of clothes shopping (I am not a standard shop-size: shorter than average, broader of back, larger of chest. Things are slightly better now, but trips to buy clothes always seemed to end in accepting the things I could fit into rather than anything I might actually want to wear and a consolation trip to a bookshop to cheer myself up. At least your hair always fits).

During the child-care years, the hairdresser represented a couple of hours’ peace and quiet, a link back to my pre-motherhood life where I could read a magazine without interruption and someone else made the coffee. More recently it’s become a chore. As the grey advances it feels like a necessity not a pleasure; maintaining the pretence that I’m not getting older, out of a fear that older means past it.

It’s a jolly expensive pretence though. I have my hair cut every couple of months. At London salon prices, a cut and colour six times a year runs into many hundreds of pounds, which frankly at the moment I can’t afford, and which has become one more damn thing to worry about.

marge-with-gray-hairAnd it’s not just the cost I care about. I’ve been quite strident about the evils of ageism, so what does it say about me that I can’t bear to display a public sign that I’m not 35 any more? The cut is important, I think, to show that it’s a considered choice not just a grand abandonment of caring. The cut I have now isn’t right, so I’ll be heading back to the hairdressers soon to get it shorter, sharper, chic-er. But I won’t be asking them about the colour. By the end of the summer I’ll be grey.  I can put the money I save towards some new clothes (or maybe some books…)

Talking Heads or Tea Dances? Shaking a leg when you’re over-50

over 55s

The local paper is covering this year’s annual over-55s tea dance with a flourish. When I saw the front page I went into a bit of a decline.

I’m over 50 – admittedly not yet 55, perhaps a great change will come over me in the next few years. At the moment, however, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to behave at a tea dance, even if I had time to go to one in the middle of the afternoon. Here’s the description of last year’s event:

…  a merry and magical afternoon of old-time dancing…. live music by The Sunshine Kings, one of London’s top jazz and swing bands along with seasonal refreshments and mince pies. Dance leader, Tony Lane, will be demonstrating stylish steps on the dance floor including Waltz, Ballroom, and Latin.

Sounds like something my parents might have enjoyed. It doesn’t appeal to me. Like everybody else of my age, I started getting into pop music in the 1970s. I hit the dance-floor as disco was wheezing its last, to be replaced by punk and 2-Tone. The first proper gig I ever went to was Roxy Music (Birmingham Odeon, 1980, lashings of eye-liner). I wouldn’t recognise a waltz if it tripped me up on the way to the bar.

Bear with me, this is not (just) the rant of a women feeling she’s been labelled old before her time. So:

  1. If 50 is the new 40, and 60 is the new 50, what do you call the cohort of people who – I suspect – this event is really aimed at? Has “pensioners” become such a loaded term that we can’t use it any more?  Elders? Senior citizens? The intergenerational foundation says it’s OK to use OAP but that feels somehow rude. Does the fact that I don’t know the acceptable word imply that it is now demeaning to use any phrase which suggests age?
  2. If “over-55s” has become the generic phrase for describing people who are, well, old, what does that mean for people who are actually in their 50s and fighting to be seen as productive, creative, engaged members of the community and maintaining a hold in the workplace? (Do I mean me? I certainly do) Does the charming lady in the picture really represent the brand of the over-50s?

I know I’ve been going on about this a lot recently, and I don’t mean to whine – but pretty much everywhere I turn there are reminders that age and ageing is becoming one of the bigger hurdles in professional life. From today’s Telegraph, for example:

Never mind the menopause, why women in the workplace are finished at 50

which links through to another article from earlier in the year:

Congratulations women, your career officially ends at 45



Riding the diversity tsunami – why a diverse workforce make business sense.

It’s always nice to feel you’re on the side of the angels.

It felt pretty good to hear that we were at the beginnings of a “diversity tsunami” at yesterday’s launch of the CIPR‘s report into diversity in the PR industry. If this piece on the public’s response to the UK advertising landscape is to be believed it may even be true – after all, something’s got to change:

almost two-thirds of people in the UK feel the ad industry does not represent them, and almost two-fifths say advertising characters and messages fail to reflect British society as a whole…. one in six say they are prepared to avoid buying products from companies that fail to take diversity seriously.

It seems, that the public are ahead of the PR and marketing industries on this one.

The CIPR report is sobering reading, highlighting a slow rate of progress in closing the gender pay-gap, welcoming employees with disabilities and – my personal bugbear – focussing so much on the “young and dynamic” that it forgets the insight that experienced (and dynamic) older professionals offer.

Looking for a magic bullet

Many of the speakers yesterday repeated the mantra that “there is no magic bullet” for resolving the unconscious biases which dog recruitment – not just in PR but pretty much everywhere. But there were some great case studies showing how diversity helps business.  I liked the story of the owner of a small PR agency who grew her business by recruiting an ethnically diverse team – confessing with admirable honesty that it was mainly because of the financial support Creative Access offered her to do so. She soon found that her small business was out-competing larger agencies, winning international contracts because they had staff members who could – literally – speak their clients’ language.

My example – told here before – of the agency which couldn’t find a way to talk to an audience of over-50s fits that narrative exactly.  Putting it bluntly, if you don’t understand the UK’s ageing population and you don’t know how to talk to older people, you can’t sell them stuff (and like it or not, we’re the bit of the population that’s still got a disposable income…) Having a workforce that looks like the people it’s trying to communicate with – in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the representation of people with disabilities – isn’t just a nice thing to do, it makes sound commercial sense.

When the audience takes the lead

There was agreement yesterday that the greatest chance for achieving change will come from pressure on companies from their supply chains; which is why that one in six who might change their purchasing behaviour if companies don’t take diversity seriously are so important.

Only two flies in the ointment of the Marketing Week report.  The first is this:

a third of marketers polled in separate research by Marketing Week … believe that a lack of multiculturalism in advertising has no impact on what people buy

As an industry we need to catch up with our customers.

The second is the welcome it gives to the John Lewis ad as an example of older people in advertising.  Readers will know how I feel about this Christmas campaign.  I much prefer the Aldi’s spoof where, instead of a set of binoculars, the man on the moon receives a companion, delivered by balloon to brighten his Christmas.  (The gender politics of describing her as a “special buy” might be slightly problematic, I suppose, but I choose to believe that she willingly strapped herself to the chair – and I wish them both a happy Christmas)

Advertising, age and the #maninthemoon

Man on the moonYou may as well try to hold back the tide as ignore the cultural message-making that surrounds the Man In The Moon John Lewis ad.  It’s still all over twitter like a cheap suit, the marketeers have plastered LinkedIn with comments pro- and anti- and newspapers with space to fill are commissioning pieces about what it says about loneliness.  So I’m sacrificing the high ground, and joining in.  Here are just some of the things I hate about the advert – as though it matters – with inspiration from the ghost of semiotician Roland Barthes, born 100 years ago this very week:

  1. The stereotypical portrayal of older people. The old man is lonely, sad and needs rescuing by a child. Undoubtedly many older people are extremely lonely, but many are not.  We could do with some positive images in adverts as well as the helpless and isolated.  Why couldn’t he have been befriended by the child’s granny?  She could be a happy, smiley woman who’s central to her own extended family. She could help the child make sense of the old man’s plight – and suggest how to help.
  2. It’s a non-solution solution to loneliness.  The present sent to the old man allows him to look in through the window of the child’s house. He’s clearly not invited to join the family for tea. This probably makes the givers (us) feel a whole lot better than the receiver who is, after all, still left out in the cold. Maybe a very long slide from the John Lewis toy department could have been extended to his lonely eerie by smiley Granny and they could have slid back to the Christmas party together in a daring whoosh of jollity, fun, and a flash of support stockings. But would bringing him into the house have raised too many awkward issues about how far we are actually prepared to go to alleviate loneliness at Christmas?
  3. Marketing trumps social conscience. I strongly suspect that, however well Age UK will do out of the ad, John Lewis will do a whole lot better. Age UK doesn’t get a name check anywhere on the advert. It will benefit from a ‘text £5’ fundraising campaign and from 25% of the sales of a mug with the campaign logo on it. There’s a range of other stuff available which is linked to the campaign, but it looks like Age UK only get a cut of the profits on the mug and a card. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with John Lewis wanting to make money at Christmas.  I just feel a bit queasy about the holier than thou tone it takes while it’s doing it.
  4. Worthiness trumps fun.  There’s not a hint of wit or laughter or real warmth in the whole 2 minutes.  Nothing to make me crack a smile never mind make me feel well disposed to the notion of Christmas shopping. Next year, John Lewis, your challenge is not to alleviate suffering or bring world peace, it’s to make me smile. Go on. I dare you.
  5. As previously stated. It’s an advert. For a shop. Designed to make us buy stuff at Christmas.  I hate it for dragging me into its self-satisfied orbit.  It needs to get over itself.

If you want to make a donation directly to Age UK, by the way, you can do it here.

Bah humbug to the man on the moon

The Essex Chronicle is getting in early with its speculation about what 2016’s John Lewis advert will look like – or possibly they’re in a such a tizz about this year’s that they couldn’t focus on proofing the headline.

Everyone else is mad for it, too.  In the time between starting to write this and finishing it the tweet count for #manonthemoon has gone from 45.6k to 47.3k – and this hasn’t taken me long to write.

The Christmas ad campaign is a brilliant piece of marketing for John Lewis (the ad itself is a piece of cynically manipulative tosh).  I doff my cap to their comms department.  But it’s just an advert.  For a shop.  Designed to make us buy stuff at Christmas.  The fact that it seems to have become a  major cultural moment fills me with despair.