The Cereal Killer entrepreneurs and the Channel 4 drive-by shooting

I’m often asked why I went into PR rather than pursue my primary skill of journalism. For many PRs, the reason for moving to the “dark side” is due to money. The wages are assumed to be better, although that sometimes hides the fact opportunities for journalists can thin-out once over a certain age.

Yet that wasn’t my reason. I’m that rare creature in PR (at least according to the prejudices of many journalists). I’m someone committed to advocacy. What’s more, I’m committed to the advocacy of business – primarily because I think business needs defending from the sometimes-crass economic illiteracy of some (though by no means all) journalists.

Of course, as banks and multinationals roll from one scandal to another I can find myself questioning my core assumptions. Yet every now and again I witness the sort of journalism that reasserts my absolute belief that, fundamentally, business is a good thing, and needs defending. And that too few journalists realise this.

I prime example occurred on Channel 4 News this week. Usually a programme I admire, their reporter Symeon Brown retreated into the “all profit is evil” type of claptrap that has me shouting at the screen and feeling vindicated in my career choices. Brown was interviewing the owner of a hip new restaurant in London’s Brick Lane: world epicentre of hip new eating trends, as well as some struggling with changing tastes and demographics.

The restaurant in question is the Cereal Killer Café, owned and run by the Keery twins: two likely lads brought up in the wrong part of Belfast yet risking all to bring their venture to a spot where such ventures are appreciated for their novelty. In fact, the Cereal Killer Café is one of those remarkable businesses where you immediately exclaim: “why has no one thought of this before?” It’s so simple it’s brilliant. The twins – both sporting the improbable hipster beards that are de rigueur for the area – have brought together the world’s breakfast cereals in one café: charging £2.50 to £3.20 a time.

Genius! Yet that’s not how Symeon Brown saw it. He was sceptical – quite rightly, given that he’s a journalist. Yet, as a man branding himself a senior research and investigations reporter, his scepticism seemed somewhat skewed. Not for Brown penetrating questions on the Keery brothers’ business model. Here, there are questions aplenty. Is their extended supply chain (involving perishables sourced globally and sold in small portions for minimal amounts) not too stretched given the scale of operation? Also, is it not a novelty offering – meaning that the idea’s shelf-life could be limited to as short a fashionspan of those hipster beards? And what about scaling up? This is hardly a patentable idea, meaning that rivals could quickly roll-out versions in other hipster hangouts (Brixton, Brighton, Manchester etc).

All good questions – worthy of an interview. Instead, however, we were treated to this gem from Mr Brown: “Do you think that this [the £3.20 he failed to pay for his bowl of imported novelty cereal] is affordable for the area?”

Gary – the poor twin having to tackle this jaw-droppingly daft question – responded by saying he thought it was “cheap for the area”.

Brown went on to point out that the borough they were in (Tower Hamlets – a borough that includes Canary Wharf, note) was one of the most deprived in London, and that three pounds would be unaffordable to many “local” people. Gary then tries to engage in a normal conversation with Brown regarding the area’s demographics before quickly realising he was being led into a trap and deciding to stop the interview.

Brown then looks at the camera, somewhat shyly, though it’s clear he’s pleased. After all, he’d got what he wanted – the holy grail for television interviewers: the walkout. Indeed, Channel 4 News decided to make this interview a highlight of the programme – several times previewing it in a “coming up, the amazing moment when….” kind of way. They’ve since posted it as a “must see” moment on their website and they’ve uploaded it onto youtube, showing that – as far as the editors of Channel 4 News are concerned – the boy Brown done good.

So there it is: why – in a single one-minute video – I went into PR. Entrepreneurs such as the Keery twins need defending from journalists such as Symeon Brown.

I’ve known Brick Lane for 30 years and it’s never been such a vibrant, successful, happenin’ place as it is now. It is young, new, edgy, alive. Cereal Killer Café will be employing people, buying services and paying rates: all wonderful news for a deprived area. What’s more Brick Lane is part of the tangle of streets from Spitalfields to Hoxton that have been converted from desolate wastelands 20 years ago into one of the most productive parts of the UK economy – thanks in no small part to people like the Keery twins.

Once calmed, Keery was able to gather his thoughts and write an articulate and witty response to Brown on the café’s Facebook page. I hope it works. By that, not that it will “go viral” and increase footfall at the Cereal Killer Café. I’m sure it will. But that Symeon Brown and the good people of Channel 4 News reflect on the idiocy of their approach to a small business trying to make a go-of-it without the sanctimonious infrastructure of a state-funded TV channel, the backing of a major news corporation (ITN) or the gilded self-actualised moral-certainty of being able to pursue careers distanced from the economic realities most people have to face every day.

Brown was using a camera as a weapon for a drive-by shooting of something he found offensive: people using their graft and creativity to generate profit. It was an appalling abuse of power and he deserves censure. My guess, however, is that it’ll end up in his trophy cabinet, along with some of his more laudable work on excluded minorities in inner cities.

As for the question. Gary’s answer that it was “cheap for the area” was spot on. The “reporter” paid £3.20 (in fact he walked out without paying) for one of the more obscure items on the menu. Indeed, this is very reasonable. The cheap-n-cheerful Aladin Restaurant on the same street offers starters from £3.50, so the imported bowl of specialist cereal is well-priced compared to them. Bread at the nearby Fika (a Swedish hipster hangout) costs £3.50 a portion, with starters mostly £4-5. Most foodstalls on a Sunday (when Brick Lane is a market) sell street-food for £5 a portion. And the famous Brick Lane Beigel shop (not a smart hangout by any means) sells filled bagels from £3 upwards. Meanwhile, Pret a Manger (there are at least three branches nearby) offers porridge at £2.82 a pot (if eating in). It’s their most popular item (selling 3.2 million pots a year), which fits in nicely with the café’s £2.50 standard price for most bowls.

In fact, my guess is that margins are pretty tight for the Keery twins, as they often are for start-ups. Nonetheless, they’d clearly done their homework regarding where to pitch it price-wise, which is more than can be said for Symeon Brown.

Out in March: Outside Edge – How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World Made by Insider

Is Brand the “psycho” in claret and blue?

I’ve always been rather proud of West Ham’s higher-than-average celebrity following. All the more so because, unlike – say – Chelsea or Manchester United (or even Liverpool), West Ham isn’t a cup-winning club attracting famous supporters for that reason. Rather, it’s a local football club that happens to be located in an area generating lots of high-achievers. All those celebrity fans are not a reflection of the club, as such, but of East London’s traditions in music, drama, comedy and sport (all working class routes to notoriety). And that gives their support an air of authenticity, even if – as with Ray Winston, Danny Dyer, James Corden and even Keira Knightley – that authenticity might be a handy part of their public persona.

That said, I sincerely wish West Ham’s current most high-profile – and certainly most vocal – celebrity supporter would follow someone else, not least because he so poorly represents the area’s values. No, I don’t mean White Van Dan, the Rochester flag flyer that “amused” Islington MP and dinner party doyen Emily Thornberry. His aspirational patriotism somewhat typifies “estuary man” even if – secretly – we’re happy not to have him living directly next door. Yes, I mean Russell Brand – someone so noisy about the Hammers that his erstwhile wife paraded for the cameras in skimpy claret and blue underwear and who, more recently, broke into the post-match TV interview area to land manager Sam Allardyce a great big smacker after a particularly heartening victory.

Brand really is clinging to the claret and blue for authenticity. By that, I don’t mean he’s a fake fan (who am I to judge that?), or even a fake estuarial lad (the accent’s genuine enough). Just that I can’t help perceiving something disingenuous about the man himself – a hard-to-pinpoint deceit that’s well hidden behind a West Ham scarf, an estuarial accent and a comic persona. Certainly – given his upbringing among the highly-individualistic White Van Dans of Grays – there’s something not quite right about his “man of the people” act and chirpy revolutionary rhetoric, even if it fits well with his smart-set socialite inner circle.

In fact, in my view, Brand shows psychopathic tendencies – at least according to Robert D. Hare’s now famous shortlist for psychopathic traits. As professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Hare developed his inventory of 20 traits (known as the PCL-R checklist), although has since become concerned that the test can be over-applied, over-simplified or misread. Yet, even noting these caveats, it’s difficult to read the list with Brand in mind and not tick-off a good number of the traits.

Here are the full 20 traits:

  • Glib and superficial charm
  • Grandiosity/overblown self-worth
  • Need for stimulation
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning and manipulation
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Callousness/lack of empathy
  • Poor behavioural controls
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irresponsibility
  • Denial (of poor behaviour)
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Early behavioural problems
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • Many short-term marital-type relationships
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release
  • Criminal versatility.

See what I mean? Indeed, this goes well beyond labelling Brand a political fraud or a hypocrite, something he was charged with after slipping away from recent anti-capitalist protests to attend swanky celeb-parties. It also goes beyond the ridicule he receives for his trite cliché-ridden gobbledygook (the “Parklife” send-up being particularly apt as was his recent Plain English Foot-in-Mouth award for talking nonsense).

It says that, behind the nice-guy man-of-the-people mask, hides a potentially darker person. In fact, the mask slipped this week. He was being mildly ribbed for his expensive tastes in London property by reporter Paraic O’Brien on Channel 4 News, yet reacted with anger and insults. It was uncomfortable to watch, although it also triggered a memory that helped me reconcile Brand’s clearly troubled background with the potentially psychotic pursuit of his political agenda.

It dawned on me: Brand is like the original hooligan character in The Yob. In the very likely event you’ve forgotten The Yob, it was a 1980s Comic Strip yarn that parodied The Fly. Instead of a man transformed into an insect, however, the story focuses on a pretentious music video director Patrick Church (Keith Allen) who mistakes a matter-transportation pod for a port-a-loo at a UB-40 concert – resulting in him unknowingly swapping his brain patterns with that of the football hooligan in the next cubicle. Soon his urbane pretensions are replaced with violent urges, hate-filled racist abuse and the need for rough sex with his bemused (though initially somewhat excited) girlfriend.

Yet that’s not who I mean. The other half of the story follows the hooligan’s transformation. This coarse, talentless and poorly-educated building-site worker is altered even more radically by the swap. Soon he’s growing out his skinhead haircut and reading The Independent instead of The Sun while ignoring the ribbing from his workmates. In fact, he quickly becomes distanced from his cultural roots as he battles the confusion caused by his new thought patterns. Slowly he realises what must be happening: there’s only one possible explanation, he thinks, for his sudden mental elevation. He must be the messiah.

Yes, Brand’s well aware of this charge – even naming a recent tour the Messiah Complex. Very clever that eh Russell – adopting the insult before others can throw it at you (bit like his Parklife parody, in fact)? But that doesn’t disguise the fact Russell Brand is capable of displaying messianic, even psychotic, tendencies that I think are at least in part explained by the mental confusion of being lifted from his constrained – even deprived – circumstances and thrust into the limelight for no other reason than his own apparent and outrageous chutzpah.

Among over-confident and potentially psychotic revolutionary “leaders” he is, of course, in good company. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Napoleon: all were charismatic outsiders from humble beginnings. They all went on to hijack countries in turmoil – leading them to national disaster while killing millions in the process. Meanwhile, Brand’s hijacking of the radical left is well underway. And, who knows, we could well find ourselves in the kind of turmoil that proves so fertile for dynamic, compelling but unbalanced commanders of the people’s conscience. I just hope he takes off the West Ham scarf before the shooting starts.


The Apprentice: James a dickhead? Yes, but that doesn’t make Roisin an entrepreneur

I’ve been a bit stressed lately (it’s that time of year), which may explain why my wife and I had a mild disagreement over the outcome of The Apprentice on Wednesday night. In short – when it came to James Hill’s firing – I thought I spotted professional bullying. Meanwhile, my wife thought I was defending ”a bit of a dickhead”.

Of course, I was. But I saw something of myself in that “bit of a dickhead” and – contrarian that I am – thought he’d been unfairly treated by those knowing they could verbally outwit him.

For a start: since when did being a dickhead stop you being a successful entrepreneur? There are those that would cite dickheadery as a common attribute among entrepreneurs due to their inability to fit-in with standard workplace hierarchies and practices. Good for them. In fact, many become entrepreneurs because they lack the silver-tongued polish of the professional classes, which excludes them from lucrative mainstream careers – such as the law or accountancy. That said, such exclusion can be highly motivating when it comes to the cut-n-thrust environment of entrepreneurialism.

I guess this forms part of my on-going objection to the entire structure of The Apprentice, and the fact the process was intended to source an able leader for work within a big organisation: a long way from the attributes determining a successful entrepreneur. That’s why snakes do well – they’re good talkers and great back stabbers. While cheeky chappies such as James and Daniel Lassman are disliked (at least going on Twitter feedback), though are the more-likely entrepreneurs.

Think I’m being too hard on the ice-cool Roisin Hogan: she who wielded the knife on Wednesday’s show? Well, here’s her “quote” on the BBC website: “Manipulate, persuade, conquer. I would identify opponent’s weaknesses and pick them off one by one”. Sorry Roisin, but that sounds pretty snake-like to me. And how does that make you an entrepreneur, exactly – rather than someone adept at climbing the greasy-pole of corporate life?

So the youthful but enthusiastic James was put to the sword by the slick professional Roisin. His somewhat defensive clumsiness when dealing with others (a trait I can empathise with when feeling belittled) led him into a trap sprung by the better-educated professional. For the kill, she used her greatest weapon: articulation – leaving Lord Sugar with seemingly no choice but to “with regret” fire him.

Make no mistake: being inarticulate did for James. This is odd because I live in a part of London known for its entrepreneurialism (and was even where Sugar started out). Yet it’s an area jammed full of small businesses run by men and women with only the haziest grasp of English. Again, it’s their very exclusion from mainstream careers that made them such strong entrepreneurs. That said, many are being put out of business by the likes of Tesco, a multinational company run by articulate professional graduates that look, sound and act very much like Roisin and Mark Wright (the other candidate  that makes me want to add the epithet “snake”).

Finally, let’s deal with James’s seemingly fatal mistake of calling the hot-tub business owner by the wrong name. Yes, I agree, a mistake. But it’s a mistake that everyone, at some point, makes. Come on, be honest, have you never gotten someone’s name wrong? I have, on several occasions. I hate it and feel embarrassed. But, usually, I’m put right immediately and – with my humble apologies – we move on. The great Dale Carnegie would wince at the error, but would also surely note that – unless there was already a prejudice against you – it’s unlikely to kill a deal. Indeed, he’d even view offence at the error for what it was: vanity – even pomposity.

What such mistakes are, however, is a jolly good chance for an opponent to stick-in the knife. Given this, my feeling is that James didn’t tell his team because he didn’t want to give them that chance, which – given the nastiness fostered within all the candidates by the Apprentice process – is hardly surprising.

Ultimately, it was James’s rough edges that meant he lost out to the smooth-talking professionals. What he needed – as he pointed out in probably the most heartfelt and genuine speech of any Apprentice candidate ever – was guidance. He was crying out for a mentor. In firing him, Sugar not only showed that he was uninterested in mentoring (disavowing the show’s very name). But that, he too, fell for the age-old trick of the professional classes: of using all that training to verbally destroy less-articulate opponents.

Out in March – The Outside Edge: How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World Made By Insiders

Are entrepreneurs the grumpy gits of business?

Since becoming deputy chairman of the Centre for Entrepreneurs I’ve marveled at the ingenuity of those I’ve come across in this zone. Nearly always, successful entrepreneurs have thrived on innovation. Yet this isn’t always obvious: in many cases it’s what renowned entrepreneurial author Daniel Isenberg (in his book Worthless, Impossible and Stupid) calls minnovation: small changes to existing offerings or business models that are, nonetheless, incremental.

Yet there’s something else I’m starting to realize. That much of this innovation is negative. It’s based on dealing with things people don’t like – or have found annoying – rather than offering something they like. Sure, technology and food are two sectors bringing the world positive and novel sensations as a way of building market share: Mindcraft and Russian Fudge come to mind (at least while regarding the post-supper detritus on my kitchen table). But, just as often, innovation – especially in areas such as services and hospitality – comes from dealing with what we dislike or even hate: from what angers or irritates us. And it also comes from areas where we feel previously excluded.

In fact, I’d wager that the majority of minnovation (to adopt Isenberg’s term) comes from a cantankerous dislike of the existing offerings. From people irritated to the point of action by the old way or the big company offering. Certainly, this is true in my own case. Moorgate counts itself as an innovative public relations agency. Why? Because, at the outset, we looked upon the existing offerings in our space and found them wanting.

From my own experience as a banker and financial journalist I’d been annoyed by every agency I’d encountered: for knowing too little of the technicalities of the sector they were representing (something that became painfully apparent in the 2008-09 crash); for being unable to write good copy (something I considered vital for good PR); and for being, frankly, lazy and expensive (which made them dependent on churning rather than retaining clients).

I put this grumpiness to good use when creating my own agency: getting to the bottom of the financial instruments on offer, excelling in strong copy and in working hard and offering value. Of course, I had no experience of the PR sector. But that, I now realize, is another near-prerequisite for entrepreneurialism. The reason entrepreneurs have spotted the flaws is often due to them being outsiders, looking in. Those immersed in their trade may spot numerous new ways of increasing their margins: often by charging more for less. But they’re less adept at spotting the pitfalls – or even the gaping holes – in their industries.

Outsiders are also more able to break the rules – sometimes because we weren’t aware of them in the first place (though this could be willful ignorance). Meanwhile, insiders are acutely concerned by their status within their peer group – so are more attuned to their own fraternity, and are certainly unlikely to break any rules (including those of business etiquette). Most insiders see their advancement as something likely to occur within existing structures – usually via a smooth ascent of a greasy-pole. This makes them conformist and conservative. Those not invited to climb the pole, meanwhile, are more likely to be radicals – and love nothing more than applying a revving chainsaw to that greasy pole.

Good for them!

Yet the innate grumpiness of the entrepreneur has a downside: public irritability. Of course, TV programmes such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice tap into this to create tension-laden TV programmes that sacrifice “timewasters” or those not on top of the numbers like Christians at the Roman circus. Indeed, who doesn’t enjoy watching Alan Sugar, Peter Jones or Deborah Meaden dismantling some hapless candidate/pitch? It’s impressive stuff – even if hammed up for the cameras.

Just as often, however, the grumpiness is genuine and highly damaging. Anyone squirming along to Richard Branson’s recent Channel 4 News interview with Jon Snow (days after the Virgin Galactic crash) would have hardly warmed to Branson, a man that trades on his chirpy outsider popularity. That said, they may have felt better disposed towards Bob Geldof (very much an entrepreneur, however you look at him) after his SkyNews interview this week. He answered awkward questions with the simple phrase “bollocks” – to the point where the poor interviewer had to cut him off.

More concerning has been the public grumpiness of top executives at innovative/disruptive car-hire app Uber. One executive, Emil Michael, was reported to have told a private dinner that, such is Uber’s anger with its media coverage, it was considering spending a million dollars hiring private investigators to “probe the personal lives of critical journalists” (as reported in the FT).

This forced a denial from the “combative” CEO Travis Kalanick, calling the remarks “terrible” and a “departure from our values”. But the damage was done, just ahead of a new round of funding. In other words, one-more grumpy entrepreneur had said what he thinks rather than thought about what he said. My guess is he won’t be the last.


Out in March – The Outside Edge: How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World Made By Insiders


The seven [career] stages of man

I’ve been employing young people for well over a decade now, and have started noticing some patterns. In fact, I think I’ve spotted something of a career – or at least a job – lifecycle. It’s a path most (though not all) seem to take, although rarely consciously. And it seems to breed discontentment. So in the interests of worker enlightenment, here they are: the seven [career] stages of man/woman.


1) Enthusiasm. Wide-eyed but essentially useless, we’re overly eager to establish our credentials: staying late, undertaking grunt work with gusto, absorbing all the information we can from whomever. At this point we’re at our keenest and least cynical. Yet we’re also at our most vulnerable – making us potential recruits for what I call the “moaning canteen gang”. Yet we can usually navigate these ne’r do wells: not least because, with one foot on the ladder, we’re bursting with pride and energy,
2) Competence. Get enthusiasm right and, soon enough, we’re on top of the job. We’ve gained competence, yet remain hungry – perhaps for more interesting work. We’re useful but still impressionable: making those above us in the hierarchy at their most appreciative (partly because we’re not yet rivals), although colleagues that never managed the first base (enthusiasm) may already be regarding us disdainfully. It’s here where we also offer our strongest value for employers, because we can do the work while remaining inexpensive – though not for long….
3) Excellence. In terms of productivity, we’re now at our peak. We’ve mastered the work and can take complex demands in our stride. We’ve found what Daniel Goleman calls “flow”: a sweet-spot task efficiency that generates almost unthinking brilliance in execution. Knowing we’re worth it, we can also command high wages, as well become picky about the work we undertake. Indeed, if only we could stop here (and be properly rewarded for it), we’d probably stay happy. But, too quickly, we’re moved on – towards….
4) Authority. Our skills are recognized and valued. But there are youngsters to train and empires to build. So we become a manager: an entirely new skill in which we have zero experience and for which we (usually) have no training. Nonetheless, we have the satisfaction of commanding others, which is – perhaps perversely – also better paid. That said, already gaining traction is the nagging thought we were happier – and more valued – when executing at the Excellence stage,
5) Frustration. Sure as eggs is eggs, the joys of authority wanes. Office politics creeps in, which is time-consuming and mentally draining. Ideas are blocked for the wrong reasons (we think) and people promoted we dislike/disrespect/fear. We’re also constantly running around after our charges (who are too often ill or on holiday or in the throes of a crisis). Indeed, they seem to care less for their work than we did at their stage: either that, or they run us ragged with their demands. Whatever, we start thinking authority’s not what it’s cracked up to be – though we certainly like the company credit card and the (enforced) deference of the young (whatever refutations we employ). Yet disillusion is not a static state, meaning we’re heading for…
6) Contempt. Of course, the CEO’s going nowhere – despite being an idle idiot. So we’re up against a glass ceiling: stuck in “middle” management though convinced the upper echelons are (potentially corrupt) numpties. Also, we keep losing our best employees to bigger rivals, resulting in periodic panics and intolerable stress. Horror, we may even have to undertake some of the work ourselves, although we’re rusty and now inwardly doubt our execution skills. Soon, we’re sneaking off early rather than staying late, although fear (of rejection, of failure, of the mortgage – even of success) prevents us actively sourcing new employment. Whatever – we’re looking in the mirror and silently confessing admitting it: we hate our boss, our colleagues, the office, the commute, and – especially – the work. It’s just a matter of time before….
7) The Exit. The New Year, a big birthday, someone else leaving or promoted (or even fired): something shakes us from our stupor. It’s over. To hell with this crappy company. We’ve moved from passive aggressive to just aggressive – sometimes openly advertising the company’s faults to whomever will listen (which becomes fewer people as the months go by). If we’re sensible we’ll wait for the right opportunity, although – just as often – any opportunity will do, and sometimes we’ll jump just to get the hell out. Of course, this is usually an “out of the frying pan…” moment that puts us straight onto the next cycle (one rotating in ever decreasing circles).

Is there a way off this damaging carousel? Most certainly there is: proactivity. Despite appearances, each of the above stages is reactive. Our career is happening to us – almost as if it’s something beyond our control and even without our positive acquiescence. Let go of the handrail, and this is where we end up: somewhere we didn’t want to be in the first place. Worse, we’re now seduction fodder for the charms of the headhunters (keen as they are to keep those career cycles turning over).

So what does proactivity mean?
1. Decide where you want to be in 10 years,
2. Think deeply about the detail of this destination,
3. Work backwards towards your current spot,
4. Calculate achievable milestones (perhaps for year five, year two, year one etc.) that link then to now,
5. Generate some steps that take you to the next milestone (perhaps the one in six months),
6. Execute the steps: treating setbacks as lessons and accepting that some milestones may take longer to achieve than others (while some can be accelerated, though rarely jumped),
7. Realize that everything else is just noise.

That’s it! And, yes, it is that obvious: making it all the more astonishing there are so few proactive people when it comes to pursuing their own careers.