Thursday 29 July 2021

Triumph or tasteless?


The flooding in Germany has dominated the news for over a week now, along with efforts to help, financially and through volunteering. One of the more unusual approaches is a campaign called Flutwein, or “Flood Wine”. 

The Ahrweiler region is known for its wine production, and the idea behind this campaign is to to sell salvaged bottles to support the rebuilding of the region and to give those hit by the disaster financial support.

The publicity for the campaign shows “original” bottles, covered in mud and numbered 1 - 1000. Slogans include Unser Schlimmster Jahrgang (“Our worst vintage”) and Trauerburgunder (“Grief Burgundy” - a play on the name Grauerburgunder).

Behind the campaign is a collective of restaurants, wine growers and charity clubs from the region.

The campaign is being run on a crowdfunding site, where the numbered bottles have already sold out (example price: €500 for bottles numbered 100 - 150). Donations can also be made direct, or for unnumbered bottles (e.g. €60 for 3).

Is it tasteless to produce a slightly macabre campaign where many have lost their lives and livelihoods? 

Or do the results speak for themselves - heading towards €900K in donations when I last looked?

Friday 9 July 2021

The freedom of lancing


LinkedIn started up at almost exactly the time I started freelancing - founded in December 2002 and launched in May 2003. So maybe it’s no surprise that my experiences, highs, lows and progress in my occupation have been closely linked to the way that work-related networking has changed over the years.

When I started up (and at the time I had no idea of whether I’d brave the slings and arrows, or retreat back into classic employment) it was a time pre-social media. I had no office, and was working from an Aldi computer my husband had bought in the previously century. I had a toddler and a freenet email address. I’d written a business plan for the Arbeitsamt but knew that it was as much a fiction as the retro-style adventures I was to write. An exercise in box-ticking only (more of that later).

I knew intuitively that I was likely to get business from people who already knew me and what I was capable of, and their contacts. My working title was “Ideas for Sale” before I hit on Secret Agency. I still love the irony inherent in this name - I’d be a plug-in-and-plan type of freelancer, flexible and happy to fit in to clients’ ways of working, systems and culture. I’d have ideas and experience of methods and tools, but wouldn’t force any propriety straightjackets on anyone. I’d be content working in the background, but would make no secret of who I was or where I came from. I wouldn’t hide behind some corporate-style website using the Royal We, implying I had unlimited resources at my disposal.

By and large, I’ve been happy about how this has turned out. The upside is that being low profile allows me to pursue other interests - writing those books, for example.

But the downside is that there is no safety net when you operate under the radar (I know, a particularly clumsy mixed metaphor).

Over the time I’ve been doing my freelancing, there have been vast changes in the way the freelance world works. Most of these, on the surface at least, have not really improved my lot.

First of all, there has been a huge increase in compliance-type stuff from clients of all sorts - hoops to jump through that are time-wasting and irritating for a one-woman band. Box-ticking, forms to be filled in and signed, purchasing departments’ rules and regulations, certifications here there and everywhere. In summary, a lot of things not being taken on trust, as they were in the past. I understand, to some extent. But it is wearisome.

Then there’s the growth of what used to be called the gig economy. This stretches from the democratic/exploitative (depending on your viewpoint) crowd-sourcing such as Fiverr through to what is referred to as Open Talent. This is the elite end: curated networks of specialists and experts. I’m not sure about Open Talent yet. I have joined a couple of these, and was turned down by one - I suspect due to insufficient attention to Buzzword Bingo. My main concern is that they don’t know me and what I can do, and I’m damned if I’m going to start trying to explain it all.

And the latest development is a Covid-related one as companies re-examine ways of working post-pandemic. A new employment model from Unilever is U-Work, the idea being to have a pool of staff assigned to different roles on a project-by-project basis. This gives the staff in question the benefits of freelance/contract work plus the security of fixed employment as they are paid a monthly retainer. I note the benefit to the company is that this model “avoids the costs of finding freelance workers and getting them up to speed.” I expect a lot of other companies will follow suit.

If I was starting up now, I would do things differently. I’d be all over LinkedIn using the right buzzwords and hashtags, collecting certificates, making connections, speaking the Key Word, algorithm-friendly language about great leaders, amazingly empowering inspiring blah and following the advice about asking questions and writing engaging posts. 

Or would I?

A subversive part of me shudders when LinkedIn suggests phrases I might like to use. I read somewhere, in a discussion amongst creatives about today’s award-winning ads that someone said “I don’t want to be good at doing that kind of advertising.” In the same way, I’m not sure I want to be good at raising my profile.

I still get asked through my various acquaintances in the business - could you, or do you know someone who could ...? And I still believe that companies look for an outside view on strategy - a view from someone independent, free of company culture, processes, philosophies, who is nevertheless prepared to listen and understand, and work out something tailor-made that fits and works.

LinkedIn can become ChainedUp only too easily.


Friday 2 July 2021

RETROWURST: Time July 2003

With the longest day of 2021 behind us, it seems right that the next article from the pre-Extrawurst archive is one I wrote on the subject of Time, eighteen years ago, in July 2003. I’d been up to the Account Planning Group Germany conference and was fascinated by a talk given by Professor Karlheinz A. Geissler on the subject of the German relationship to speed and time. A prediction was made that “we will be ruled by the mobile phone/communications handset, not by the clock.”

Remember, this was a good few years before smart phones ...


I was up at the German Account Planning Group’s annual ‘Open Source’ event in Hamburg last week, where, sandwiched in between two talks - the entertaining-but-expected (an Army colonel talking about military strategy and what we commercial Planners can learn from it) and the expected – and mind-blowingly tedious (a Management Consultant doing an elongated sales pitch; see for the full horror) - was a fascinating talk from Professor Karlheinz A. Geissler on the subject of Time.


The professor spoke about our relationship with time over history, moving from the time when time and the weather were one and the same (the word for both remains similar in the Latin-based languages such as temps, tempo), to the age of the clock, to the industrial age where man’s speed was no longer limited by nature and through to our own age. He argued that, in our ‘post-modern’ world, the key is no longer speed but flexibility. That is, the people that will succeed in our times are those that have the flexibility to do several things at once, not those who can do one thing faster than anyone else. We will be ruled by the mobile phone/communications handset, not by the clock.


Interestingly, he raised the point that some people/cultures already have a head-start in this new world of flexibility, the US (generally) and working mothers being two examples he cited. Conversely, other cultures may well be handicapped in the adaptation process, especially those who have excelled in the last age. Professor Geissler was not slow in holding up the Germans as the key example here. Maybe the Swiss have a greater obsession with clocks and punctuality, but the Germans combine this with their love of the stopwatch and what it measures - speed, rather than time!


So, this is the country where Michael Schumacher is the most revered sports hero but where you’re not allowed to use your washing machine after 8pm; where 150mph on the Autobahn is totally acceptable if your car is built for it (and most German cars are) but where having a BBQ party that goes on after 10pm is not. Even in German advertising agencies, punctuality and efficiency rule the roost- in some of Jung von Matt’s conference rooms there are no chairs, encouraging meetings to begin and end on time - in fact, there is no English equivalent of the German word Stehtischwhich is literally, a table to stand at. Contrast that with the comfy sofas of UK advertising agencies!


This all brings me on to a topic of huge current interest here in the area of retailing- opening hours. When I first moved to Germany in 1996, the opening hours, even in the big cities, were like something out of 1950s Britain (minus the ration books!) It seemed that what you won on the pubs (most open until 1am), you lost on the supermarkets, which were only open until 1pm on Saturdays (typical German exception of one Saturday per month being ‘long Saturday’ but I was blowed if I could ever remember whether Langesamstag was the first in the month, the last or in the middle somewhere!). Imagine the scene, if you will, of the entire working population of Frankfurt all queuing up at the same three supermarket tills at 12.30pm on a Saturday. I was appalled by this: the grudging acceptance with which the local people regarded this, and the underlying implication that women aren’t meant to be working, except as a good Hausfrau, so they can jolly well do the shopping during the week. Things improved a little a year or two later, with supermarkets opening until 8pm most weekdays and until 4pm on Saturdays.


However, the latest change has met with disapproval from many sides. For the last month or so, the Supermarkets have stayed open until 8pm on Saturdays. The church is up in arms, so to speak, as they see this as the next (final?) step down the slippery slope to that abomination, Sunday opening. (NB. Finding a shop open on Sundays here in Germany- with the exception of petrol stations, airports, railway stations and the odd kiosk- is about as difficult as beating Michael Schumacher round the Nürburgring. Even the DIY and garden centres are geschlossen.) But the Church aside, what is perhaps surprising is the somewhat unenthusiastic attitude of the general population. Who in their right mind, they think, would want to go to a Supermarket at 7pm on Saturday evening, when they should be watching the Bundesliga, throwing half a pig onto the BBQ or baking a cake for Sunday’s Kaffee und Kuchen with the mother-in-law?


The point here is not that the German people don’t like change, but that this is a change that they don’t understand. It doesn’t fit into the unwritten rules of order and efficiency. If someone has to do their shopping on Saturday evening, they must be disorganised (not spontaneous). They clearly haven’t planned ahead. I haven’t been shopping myself yet on Saturday evening, but I’ll make an effort this weekend to tear myself away from the cake-baking, or the BBQ (Bundesliga is in the middle of the summer pause!). I suspect that the people I’ll see; far from being disorganised, will be the sort of spontaneous, flexible consumers who will have to represent Germany’s future as they move away from the age of speed and punctuality to the age of flexibility and multiple lives all lived simultaneously.


Pre-pandemic, Germany wasn’t quite on 24/7. Retail opening hours had stretched to 10pm or so, but Sunday remains sacred (except for online ordering, of which more later). 

It’s interesting how the pandemic has thrown time out of the window, along with freedom, while online shopping has devastated the city centre (although local independent shops of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker variety seem to be thriving). 

What intrigues me is that, over the eighteen years that have passed, I can still see Professor Geissler and his antiquated overhead slides before me, and I can recall many of his words of wisdom. 

I can’t remember a single thing the chap from the management consultancy (with his slick PowerPoint presentation) said.

I understand that Professor Geissler doesn’t have a driving licence and lives “watchless”.

Sounds like the norm amongst young people.