March 2008 Archives
Regular readers of this blog (OK - I admit I am deluding myself here, but I've wanted to write a line like that for ages) will have noticed that my last piece (on the redevelopment of the Library) elicited a forthright response from Claude - for which, many thanks.
Claude is not a fan of what he sees as the massive disruption which redeveloping Paradise Circus will cause. He draws a comparison with the developments currently taking place at Five Ways and raises some strong (and strongly-put) arguments - some of the buildings being knocked down are architecturally excellent (and deserve to be maintained) whereas the replacements will be anodyne, unnecessary and expensive mixed-use schemes. To make matters worse in Claude's eyes, all of the redevelopments are motivated by the lure of filthy lucre.
Whilst I disagree about the architectural merits (or lack of them) of the 60s buildings which are up for demolition, it's that last point that got me thinking. The suggestion is that making money out of property development is somehow a bad thing. Why?
First, I must declare an interest. Doing my day job, I act for property developers. I act for lots of other people as well, but helping property developers achieve a successful (and profitable) outcome does help to pay the mortgage. I don't think that disqualifies me from commenting, but I thought I'd best be open about the issue.
Having got that out of the way, I must admit that I'm a bit flummoxed by where to start. Leaving aside perhaps the most obvious point - businesses have to make money otherwise they fail - I would go so far as to argue that you end up with better buildings if you allow there to be profit than if you don't.
Developers take on a lot of risk. To take the most extreme (but still common) example, they borrow money to acquire the land, which they then develop into the sort of project they hope will attract tenants or homeowners to occupy the buildings and (assuming the buildings and tenants are right) which might be sufficiently attractive to persuade someone like a pension fund to buy the investment. That's an incredibly difficult trick to pull off - and lots of people don't manage it.
But the key point is that the buildings have to be attractive to potential users and occupiers. If they're not, then the developer is going to take a serious bath. I'm not an architect - and what I'm about to say may go against the architectural grain - but I think that, in order to be successful, buildings don't just have to look great. The key for me is that they have to work as spaces which attract people to them (and I would suggest that the old Edgbaston Shopping Centre and Paradise Circus fail that test). The built environment is our built environment. It is the spaces in which we live, work and play. I want those spaces to be as attractive, fun and enjoyable as possible. Allowing property developers the opportunity to make some profit out of their developments is the best way I've come across of making that happen.
We all love free stuff. It doesn't matter if it's a free t-shirt that we will only ever wear to decorate in or the buy one get one free offer on rollmops at your local supermarket (just how much pickled herring does one actually need?), it's not so much what you get free, more the feeling that getting something for free gives you.
I'm going to keep this post short(ish) because a lot of what I was going to say has already been said better, and in more detail, by Dan Ariely his book Predictably Irrational (you can read an extract here).
How often are our decisions influenced by the opportunity to get something for free? Given the choice would you choose a 2 for 1 offer on a product you weren't going to choose over what you were planning to buy? Have you ever bought something extra on Amazon to 'save' on postage costs?
It looks like my prediction that the Government would fail to spend millions of pounds allocated to green energy generation may turn out to be wrong. And I'm glad.
Energy Minister Malcom Wicks is about to announce changes to the Low Carbon Buildings Programme according to a forecast in The Times today. That follows my blog posting on how the Government's lack of generosity had meant homeowners abandoning the scheme.
OK, so one followed the other - but it may not be cause and effect yet (even though the Birmingham Post does get read in high places). More credit is probably due to Birmingham MP Lynne Jones and her grilling of the Secretary of State earlier this year.
If the Times is right, there could be ÃÂ£12m up for grabs to install solar panels and the like. If only someone could install a small-scale hydro generator before they open the floodgates that would save a few tonnes of carbon.
Even in the days when the distant view of Didcot cooling towers signified I had arrived home in Oxfordshire I don't think I ever described a power station as a beautiful sight.
But I love windmills.
Their modern, clean, sculptural form a top a mountain is capable of actually enhancing the landscape.
On our frequent family visits to Wales the kids' excitement at being the first to spy the windmills (announcing our arrival in Ceredigion) almost surpasses the challenge of being "first to see the sea".
Wind turbines though, like power stations, are not built for their beauty. They have an increasingly important job to do.
This week, on our return from a school holiday break, we stopped off at the Centre for Alternative Technology outside Machynlleth. Judging by the appearance of most visitors, the place is preaching to the already at least half converted - but it's still packed full of ideas of how to reduce your family carbon footprint even further.
We arrived by car - which was a bad start - but were at least able to feel smug about some of the ways we have adjusted our own home and lifestyle.
"I wish we could afford to install solar panels" was an uppermost thought yet again, just as it has been since my favourite skiing glaciers started to melt. Our friends, who live on a nearby hill, had also looked at the economics of installing their own turbine.
So imagine my frustration when I returned home to catch up on my MP Lynne Jones' campaign to unlock grants for green homeowners. My email in tray showed a Parliamentary question she tabled had only generated more hot air from the Government that is supposed to be helping us tackle climate change.
There is a scheme to provide grants for homeowners; it's called the Low Carbon Buildings Programme. The problem is that successive raising of hurdles and lowering of grants has meant hundreds of people dropping out of the scheme. You can only get 50% of the cost up to a maximum of ÃÂ£2,500 per building - even if you install solar panels, a wind turbine and a watermill in the local stream.
People have been put off to such an extent that of the ÃÂ£18.7m allocated only ÃÂ£6.7m has so far been spent. This leaves ÃÂ£12m still to pay out - and the scheme is due to end in June this year.
No wonder, as Lynne Jones points out, when it comes to renewable energy only Belgium, Cyprus and Malta in the EU are doing worse than us. Germany, with less wind than the UK, produces ten times as much energy from turbines.
Since I first posted this item about how I love windmills, I came across this video of high winds in Denmark. Just shows there's so much power to harness...
This week I've been deliberating on the subject of 'free pitching' in order to win contracts. As an agency, 383 Project are 'invited' on a pretty regular basis to pitch or tender for work. More often than not the potential client is after some development or concept work to be submitted as part of our 'pitch' and more often than not we find ourselves going through the same deliberations as to whether or not to meet the clients request. Now, before I go any further it's worth stating that this isn't a free pitch 'rant' per say as some of our biggest projects, and best clients, have been won through pitches. But, and it's a big but, just because free pitches can work, it doesn't mean it's necessarily the best route forward for both agency and client. As well as having several downsides for the client, there's also massive business implications for the 'losing' agencies involved as well - a side of the fence we've been on before too.
Sometimes the longer you spend in a creative job, the harder it becomes to actually keep on innovating. Over time, you find that your ideas are just becoming rehashed versions of things that have been done before or that you've become so entrenched in your day-to-day routines that you just can't remember how to think outside the box any more.
What's more, because everyone in your industry is most likely reading the same magazines as you, browsing the same Sunday papers, watching the same TV shows, and exploring the same websites, chances are that even when something does spark off an original idea, a dozen other people have just seen the same thing and are now beavering away on projects pretty damn near identical to yours.
So what the hell do you do about it? Jack it all in and work in a factory? Cryogenically freeze yourself until a time when your hackneyed ideas suddenly seem ironically retro? Bury your head in the sand and try to ignore the whimpered cries of your inner muse as it slowly shrivels up and dies?
No. Just get yourself lost.
There are 120,700 businesses in the UK's Creative Industries and the largest 200 of them account for half the total turnover. In Television and Radio the largest four firms make up a whopping 64% of the turnover and there's a similar figure for the publishing industry (four firms contributing 58% turnover). Should these figures worry us? How many of these big hitters have we got in Birmingham and should we be pumping our resources into getting more of them?
Of course the key point is that like much of the rest of the country our Creative Economy sits in the long tail. If the top 200 are making 50% of the turnover that doesn't mean the remaining 120,500 are unimportant; in fact they're crucial. In some sectors the balance is such that the 'tail' makes up the bulk of the growth. Take the music industry. There you have the top four firms contributing just 4% to turnover and as a whole small firms contributed 69% to the sector. The figures are similar in Film and Photography.
No, not the title of the next Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Graham Norton musical talent show for Saturday nights, but rather the question of the day in today's Post.
The problem of the future of the Central Library - shall we demolish the carbuncle or list the brutalist architectural marvel for future generations to enjoy? - takes up most of the front page and merits an editorial.
And the debate is pretty much along these extreme lines. There are two camps. One - which includes Mike Whitby, Clive Dutton, the Post and Prince Charles amongst others - thinks that the current building looks like a "place where books are incinerated, not kept". On the other, you have the original (and distinguished) architect, John Madin, the Twentieth Century Society and a campaign group, the Friends of the Central Library, who mount a spirited defence.
A teachers' union this week has been discussing how the cult of celebrity is damaging children's education and there are not enough 'ordinary' positive role models.
Is it really any worse than it has ever been? Or is it simply that with the opportunities for publicity offered my a multitude of global media we now turn our ordinary heroes or villains into celebrities much quicker?
When I was first being schooled in journalism I was told about the 'five Ps' to help decide on news values: princes, people, pay, power, policies. When I was being interviewed for a job in the museum many years ago I once added a sixth: princes, people, pay, power, policies, paintings.
Our job in PR is often to take stories clients give us that clearly fit in the fourth, fifth (or sixth) category and try to win news coverage by moving them up the interest ladder. That's why we look for a human-interest angle or sometimes even pay for a celebrity to cut the ribbon.
So to today's newspaper front pages.
While the world's financial markets are see-sawing between Armageddon and "Asian bounce back" and a couple of papers use the fifth anniversary to try and revive interest in the Iraq war, the popular press devote their front pages to celebrity stories.
They are dominated by Heather Mills, now the target for popular hatred, with the McCanns and Shannon Matthews' family also featuring strongly.
The comparison between the parents of Madeleine McCann and Shannon Matthews is an interesting one.
The Independent notes how the rewards offered at the same time in the hunt were ÃÂ£20,000 for Shannon compared to a celebrity-endorsed ÃÂ£2.6m for Maddie.
"Has class influenced the rewards offered and publicity given to two campaigns to find missing children?", it asks. It certainly took a lot longer before the media started to turn against the McCann family.
So the front of today's Daily Star is worth filing away for study by future PR and media students.
Top right is an amazing apology: "Kate and Gerry McCann: Sorry"
Middle banner: "Amazing fantasy world of warped Mucca - pages 4,5 & 6"
Main picture: Someone from Coronation Street
Splash headline: "Shannon mum is quizzed again"
Not, I'll admit, the headline I had envisaged when I said that I would do a report on what happened at MIPIM, but this is a remarkably gossip-free follow up to my previous blog.
Instead, here's a genuine statistic for you. We are apparently the 55th most liveable city in the world. And don't just take my word for it. Mercer Human Resource Consulting (who appear to specialise in placing international executives in the city of their dreams) have done the research.
So, and taking some names from the list which meet the (admittedly arbitrary) test of "places where the Pembles might like to go on holiday", Brum is already a better place to live than LA, Rome, Miami, Hong Kong, Prague, Budapest (which managed to survive Mrs P's hen weekend last summer, so is clearly made of stern stuff), Dubai, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
Now, if I am honest, and despite being a huge fan of Brum, I think that's already a pretty remarkable list. But, my surprise notwithstanding, the independent experts at Mercer reckon our overall quality of life is better than that in some pretty fantastic cities.
And here's the ambitious bit. At MIPIM, Councillor Mike Whitby announced Brum's plan to hit number 25 on the list. Assuming everyone else stays in the same place in the table, this would mean that rich executives are going to turn down their postings in Dublin, Honolulu, San Francisco, Adelaide, Brisbane, Paris and New York (as well as that large conurbation on the banks of the River Thames) in favour of Broad Street, Brindleyplace and the Balti Triangle. To support this goal, there are plans to invest a further ÃÂ£17 billion in our city, including ÃÂ£193 million on the new library alone, and all of the investments are to have a "distinctive Brummie feel" (whatever that is).
So, and with apologies for ending with a question, what do we all think? Is it a realisable goal or pure pie in the sky? Speaking personally, I would love it to be the former.