The announcement that Chris Evans has been signed to headline the new Top Gear is a rare good news story for the BBC. Following the furore over Jeremy Clarkson’s suspension and subsequent non-renewal of contract after punching a producer there was a real danger that one of its prized assets could be under permanent threat.
This was a big issue for two reasons. Not only does Top Gear make a lot of money for the BBC in terms of overseas sales, but it is also one of the most popular programmes on TV, particularly (but not exclusively) with middle-aged men such as myself. At a time when charter renewal is looming, showing that the BBC provides something for everyone is crucial to successful negotiations, especially as many see it as a bastion of a left-leaning metropolitan elite, rather than an organisation that is in touch with the rest of the UK. Not a viewpoint I personally subscribe to, but one that can be seen regularly in newspaper coverage of the corporation.
So setting out a plan for the future of Top Gear was about more than simply replacing a presenter. And the whole negotiations with both Evans and the outgoing presenting duo of James May and Richard Hammond seem to have been handled confidentially, respectfully and without any of the noted HR cock-ups that the BBC has made in the past. With Evans on board, the BBC has recruited a noted car nut who is a familiar face to the UK audience, with a wide appeal and a similar sense of humour to the old Top Gear team. He’s also been through the public wringer in the past, rising to stardom with The Big Breakfast and the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, before becoming a staple story in the tabloids for his drinking and bad behaviour. He’s obviously learnt from his mistakes – and what drove him to them – something that Clarkson never really seemed to do.
So, now there is a one host in place for Top Gear, the rumour mill is in full swing about who else will present it with him. Rather than follow the bookmakers favourites (the likes of Jodie Kidd and Guy Martin), here are some other potentials:
1. Ed Miliband
Currently at a bit of a loose end, he’d be perfect as the earnest one to replace James May. Rather than endlessly explaining about internal combustion engines he could bore the audience with his views on the redistribution of wealth, and why Labour’s electoral defeat was not to do with carving promises into pieces of stone. Counting against him is what seems to be a complete lack of interest in cars, but I’d tune in to see him attempt to lap the track while eating a bacon sandwich.
2. Prince Philip
A direct replacement for Clarkson with his views on foreigners, and a chance to increase viewers in the pensioner category. Well known for owning a London taxi that he drives around the city, so has an interest in cars, alongside carriage racing. Possibly not up for driving long distances in Top Gear specials, but presumably could get a chauffeur to do this for him.
3. Alexis Tsipras
Another Greek, and one who may be looking for a new role depending on how well current negotiations with his country’s creditors go. Unlike his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who is a noted biker, his transport preferences are unknown. However as someone that has driven in Athens (and survived), I know that all residents of the Greek capital have nerves of steel on the road, coupled with a wanton disregard for indicators, making him a perfect role model on the track.
4. Mary Berry
There have been rumours of Great British Bake Off host Sue Perkins joining the team, prompting death threats from assorted morons on Twitter, but why not go for the real star – the fragrant Mary Berry. She’d not take any nonsense from anyone and, I suspect, would be a demon behind the wheel. I’d like to see her challenge the other presenters to make fairy cakes while lapping the Nurburgring in under 7 minutes.
5. Bradley Wiggins
Another coming to the end of his first sporting career, and potentially looking for a new challenge post-Rio 2016. While not as much of a car nut as his fellow Olympian Chris Hoy, he’d bring plenty of irreverence to the programme if he swapped two wheels for four. Main stumbling block could be the previous hostility between Top Gear presenters and cyclists, but the perfect opportunity for the show to bring the two groups together and benefit from the rise of the MAMIL.
Money and football have not been far from the news over the past two weeks, with FIFA’s long-rumoured corruption finally exposed. For most people, football fans or not, it is heartening to see the crooks who lined their pockets hopefully being brought to book. The scale and audacity of the bribery is astonishing. Just take the millions supposedly sent to support football in Trinidad and Tobago that allegedly ended up in the pockets of former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner. Added together it could probably have funded multiple stadiums the size of Wembley, for a country with a similar population to Glasgow.
However, the tangled web of corruption, ongoing investigations, and the fact that current FIFA president Sepp Blatter will not officially step down until a new election is organised (taking at least four months), shows that the scandal will not be over anytime soon. And the scale of the problem is shown by Blatter allegedly receiving a standing ovation from FIFA staff after he returned to work following his resignation.
FIFA needs to rebuild its reputation, but this is not going to be easy – after all, the next two World Cups have already been awarded to Russia and Qatar making it difficult for the organisation to simply draw a line in the sand and begin the bidding process again, without upsetting the potential hosts.
So from a PR perspective, what can FIFA do to change its reputation? I’d say there are five things it needs to look at:
1. Accelerate the election
The first step is to remove Blatter from the building – and that means holding the election as quickly as possible. Until then the organisation is in limbo and cannot move forward. The election itself has to be open, transparent and clear – country football federations need to vote publically so that they can be held to account by their own media and public.
2. Bring in independent experts
The public perception is that FIFA needs root and branch reform – and that existing senior management are not the right people to do this. It needs to bring in a team of independent experts who understand governance and compliance to create a completely new structure for the organisation and everything it does. This can then be voted on by delegates at the conference, but should follow external best practice, rather than simply tweaking existing ways of doing business.
3. All senior remuneration to be transparent
MPs have to publically declare all of their outside financial interests and have a fixed salary. The same should be true of senior FIFA officials, allowing them to be scrutinised by the media and any wrongdoing brought to light. After all, the fact that ex-FIFA vice president Chuck Blazer spent nearly £4,000 per month renting a flat for his cats should have led to questions about exactly how much he was earning. Additionally, money needs to be shared more equitably – particularly with countries actually hosting the World Cup – so that it doesn’t cost them billions for little reward.
4. Bring in new blood
Footballers are idolised around the world – yet FIFA is seen as broadly being run by stuffy bureaucrats. More current and recently retired footballers need to be involved in FIFA, particularly in its initiatives to spread grassroots football around the world. In the same way that the UN uses celebrities as goodwill ambassadors, so should FIFA. This would both provide a stronger link to the game itself and highlight positive initiatives.
5. Move HQ
Switzerland is the home of many international sporting governing bodies, from cycling to the Olympic movement. But in many people’s minds it is also a country known for secretive private banks, allegedly happy to help with tax evasion. If FIFA is serious about improving global football it should move its HQ from Switzerland to somewhere more in keeping with a new, open culture. It could follow the lead of the UN and open up in New York or be more daring and move to Africa or Asia. That would have the added advantage of helping with a fresh start, with new staff, a new office and new ways of working. Yes, it would be expensive, but FIFA has the money and it would send a strong signal to the world.
Rebuilding FIFA’s reputation will take years, but as the International Olympic Committee has shown, strong leadership, transparency and a desire for change eventually translates into major improvements. The public relations task starts now – and is going to last for a lot longer than 90 minutes.
In a previous blog I wondered whether the rise of technology would mean the end of interesting, creative ads, to be replaced by a combination of content-based marketing and basic, fast, algorithmic ads powered by our online behaviour.
I still believe that the ability for us to zone out ads on digital media (whether TV or the internet) means that brands are going to have to try harder to engage our attention on these channels. One area I didn’t talk about was print advertising in newspapers and magazines. After all most commentators have been saying for a while that the internet has pretty much killed off physical publications, with old media facing falling circulations and rising costs. But recently listening to Sir Martin Sorrell, the boss of advertising giant WPP, has made me think again. As a man who spends millions of client money on online and offline ads, he obviously knows what he is talking about, and he believes that while digital advertising may be getting the eyeballs, traditional media is getting the engagement.
He points out that having tens of thousands of Facebook Likes, mentions on Twitter or prominent online campaigns is meaningless if it is merely transitory and consumers simply skip onto the next big thing, without lingering over your message. Additionally, it is quite possible for online ad campaigns to be subject to clever frauds where views are artificially inflated to justify increased spend.
In contrast, offline readers spend more time reading a newspaper or magazine, including viewing the adverts, driving a deeper engagement that means both PR and advertising messages are more likely to be remembered. Obviously it still means the story or advert has to be memorable, interesting and targeted, but if it meets those criteria, it could do more for your brand than ten times as many online ads or mentions.
The other advantage of print is that, battered by digital, advertising prices have come down considerably over the past few years. This makes print more cost-effective than it was previously, adding another reason to invest in the channel.
The disadvantage of print is it is that much more difficult to measure who has seen your article or advert and how it has moved engagement forward. Clearly every reader does not read a paper cover to cover, including the ads, but there’s no set way of working out its impact. It is no coincidence that WPP has recently invested heavily in measurement technology as this will be key to really demonstrating engagement – both on and offline. In the past print measurement, particularly for PR, was incredibly vague. For many years the standard way of demonstrating PR ‘value’ for a particular piece of coverage was to take the equivalent cost of the same size advert and multiply it by three as editorial was deemed much more believable by readers. Thankfully those days have gone, but it does leave a gap. By contrast you can measure everything online – but sheer numbers don’t tell you everything, particularly about engagement.
What is needed is a new approach that can link the two – but in a way that isn’t intrusive, respects user privacy, and doesn’t involve in extra work for the publication, brand or reader. Google Glass would have met some of these needs, but certainly didn’t tick the privacy box. So, the search goes on – but until then, marketers should bear in mind that eyeballs don’t equal engagement and choose their media channels accordingly.
Mankind has always had a fascination for mythical beasts, and none more so than the unicorn. Despite allegedly dying out in the flood after failing to board Noah’s Ark in time, they are still all around us in popular culture, from Harry Potter to children’s toys. I even found an exhibit in a Vienna museum labelled matter of factly as a “unicorn horn” – it was actually from a narwhal.
The horned horses are back in the news, in the world of tech at least, with any startup valued at over $1 billion by venture capitalists now dubbed a unicorn. However with more than 100 companies now achieving unicorn status there’s a growing worry that startups are trading short term valuations for longer term success. True, unicorn status helps attract skilled staff, but down the line it requires either a trade buyer that is willing to pay big money or an IPO to translate mythical (paper) valuations into hard cash. There have also been a raft of stories on how investors have structured their unicorn funding in ways that protect their cash (rather than the shares of others, such as founding teams) if the company should lose its value.
A focus on unicorns also favours certain sectors and types of company. A browse through Fortune’s latest unicorn list reveals a large number of consumer electronics (Xiaomi, Jawbone), retail (FlipKart, Snapdeal) and sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb) companies. In many ways this is what you expect – company valuations are based on what the addressable market is, so the biggest investment goes into those startups that can make most money.
However, it does potentially limit where investors put their money. There are lots of startups that will never be a Facebook or an Uber, but have the potential to be extremely successful niche players that could well grow into billion dollar valued companies. Look at ARM – when it began as a spin-off from Acorn Computers with a completely new business model, very few would have predicted its current success.
There’s also a definite geographic bias where unicorn investors are putting their money – Silicon Valley, China and India. Out of the latest Fortune list just three are in Europe, one in Australia and one in Israel. This doesn’t reflect the energy, ideas and potential in any of these places, particularly in emerging sectors. The danger is that if investors spend their time chasing unicorns they’ll miss out on the startups that could do with their help to build long term businesses that can make a difference to many markets.
So I think we need to add another category alongside unicorns. Keeping the mythical theme I’d go for centaurs. Sturdier than a unicorn, probably better in a fight and with a bit more intelligence (and opposable thumbs). They may not have the beauty or the (frankly over the top) horn of their flashier cousins but they are built for the long term, rather than mythical valuations that don’t necessarily deliver. Given the potential returns they can produce, it is time for investors to move away from the fascination with unicorns to more realistic startups that may be uglier, but have just as much potential.
There’s been a number of recent pieces about the rise of self-learning technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks that would previously have been too complex for a machine. From stock trading to automated translations and even playing Frogger, computers will increasingly take on roles that used to rely on people’s skills.
Netflix used an algorithm to analyse the most watched content on its service, and found that it included three key ingredients – Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and BBC political dramas. So when it commissioned original content, it began with House of Cards, a remake of a BBC drama, starring Spacey and directed by (you’ve guessed it) Fincher.
This rise of artificial intelligence is worrying a lot of people – and not just Luddites. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all described it as a threat to the existence of humanity. They worry that we’ll see the development of autonomous machines with brains many thousands of times larger than our own, and whose interests (and logic) may not square with our own. Essentially the concern is that we’re building a future generation of Terminators without realising it.
They are right to be wary, but a couple of recent stories made me think that human beings actually have several big advantages – we’re not logical, we don’t follow the facts and we don’t give up. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for uncovering the fact that the human mind is made up of two systems, one intuitive and one rational. The emotional, intuitive brain is the default for decision making – without people realising it. So in many ways AI-powered computers do the things we don’t want to do, leaving us free to be more creative (or lazy, dependent on your point of view).
Going back to the advantages that humans have over systems, the first example I’d pick is the UK general election. All the polls predicted a close contest, and an inevitable hung parliament – but voters didn’t behave logically or according to the research and the Tories trounced the opposition. While you might disagree with the result, it shows that you can’t predict the future with the clarity that some expect.
Humans also have an in-built ability to try and game a system and find ways round it, often with unintended consequences. This has been dubbed the Cobra effect after events in colonial India. Alarmed by the number of cobras on the loose, the authorities in Delhi offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in. People began to play the system, breeding snakes specifically to kill and claim their reward. When the authorities cottoned on and abandoned the programme, the breeders released the now worthless snakes, dramatically increasing the wild cobra population. You can see the same attempt to rig the system in the case of Navinder Singh Sarao, the day trader who is accused of causing the 2010 ‘flash crash’ by spoofing – sending sell orders that he intended to cancel but that tricked trading computers into thinking the market was moving downwards. Despite their intelligence, trading systems cannot spot this sort of behaviour – until it is obviously too late.
The final example is when humans simply ignore the odds and upset the form book. Take Leicester City. Rock bottom of the English Premiership, the Foxes looked odds-on to be relegated. Yet the players believed otherwise, kept confident and continued to plug away. The tide now looks as if it has turned, and the team is just a couple of points away from safety. A robot would have long since given up……..
So artificial intelligence isn’t everything. Giving computers the ability to learn and process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second does threaten the jobs of workers in the knowledge economy. However it also frees up humans to do what they do best – be bloody minded and subversive, think their way around problems, and use their intuition rather than the rational side of their brain. And of course, computers still do have an off switch………….
I’ve just moved house and am still recovering from the experience. Having last moved 11 years ago I expected that technology would have changed things in the interim, but it seems that the process is still paper-based, slow and (as far as I can see) incredibly inefficient. If you ever wondered who still uses a fax machine, look no further than solicitors………
It starts so well. The front-end of house buying is now pretty much web-based. So there’s no more peering through the windows of estate agents as you can set your criteria and instantly bring up potential properties that you are interested in. In fact there could be too much information available – we took the virtual tour of our house off our details as we worried that people could be making up their minds based on that, rather than coming for a viewing. The technology used to gather these details is also pretty high tech – with drone cameras taking aerial photos for example.
However once you’ve had your offer accepted, the back office processes revert to paper – based on my experiences, here are five areas that seem ripe for digitisation:
1 Paper-based forms
Some documents, such as Land Registry files and searches, are now all online, making it much quicker to access them. But a lot more aren’t – the fixtures and fittings form is still paper-based for example, meaning it has to be posted and scanned at the other end. By mandating that all communication is electronic, the whole process could be much quicker, more environmentally friendly and less stressful.
2 Real-time communications
We wondered why we always got emails sent on behalf of our solicitor just after 4pm. Then we realised – he’d dictated them to his PA in time to get them in the post, but rather than appearing as a letter it had just been turned into an email. While this saves some time it doesn’t deliver real-time answers that people demand (and which could dramatically speed up the process).
3 Getting a mortgage
Criteria for mortgage applications have been tightened following the easy lending that preceded the banking crash. That’s understandable, but there’s no common sense in the process now. It took weeks to get a telephone appointment with our bank to go through our personal details and outgoings – and then when the mortgage rate changed we had to do the whole thing again in order to get a better deal. And we had to talk to the same advisor (who was on holiday), adding more time to the process. Being able to re-use answers you’ve already provided, within a reasonable timeframe, would be more efficient for the bank as well as avoiding customer frustration.
4 Money transfer
On completion day, it takes forever for the purchases to take place. The money from the purchaser at the bottom of the chain goes to the solicitor for the house they are buying, who then pays the next person and so on. This is all logical but is incredibly slow – in an era of online banking where you can transfer money instantly, this is another area that needs addressing as it is inefficient and time-consuming. Our buyer’s removal van was waiting outside our (old) house for the money to go through – it then took another hour to complete on our purchase.
5 Changing address
After you’ve moved you then need to update your details with everyone from your bank to HMRC. What amazes me is how difficult some people make this. In an online world you’d imagine it would be straightforward to change the address a magazine subscription is delivered to – but in many cases I’ve had to email to get details changed rather than just amending my address online. A central portal to change all your official details might sound a bit Big Brother to some people but I would prefer it to having to wade through hundreds of sites, remembering seldom-used passwords in order to tell companies I’ve moved.
As you can probably tell, the whole moving process has left me frustrated at the missed opportunities to speed things up and make it more efficient for everyone. I don’t think it is on any party manifesto, but reforming house buying would surely be a vote winner given the stresses and traumas it creates. And having moved into our lovely new house, I won’t be leaving in a hurry…………..
50 years ago, engineer Gordon Moore wrote an article that has become the bedrock of computing. Moore’s Law, as first described in the article, states that the number of elements that could be fitted onto the same size piece of silicon doubles every year. It was then revised to every two years, and elements changed to transistors, but has basically held true for five decades. Essentially it means that computing power doubles every two years – and consequently gets considerably cheaper over time.
What is interesting is to look back over the last 50 years and see how completely different the IT landscape is today. Pretty much all companies that were active in the market when Moore’s Law was penned have disappeared (with IBM being a notable exception and HP staggering on). Even Intel, the company Moore co-founded, didn’t get started until after he’d written the original article. At the same time IT has moved from a centralised mainframe world, with users interacting through dumb terminals to a more distributed model of a powerful PC on every desk. Arguably, it is now is heading back to an environment where the Cloud provides the processing power and we use PCs, tablets or phones that, while powerful, cannot come close to the speed of Cloud-based servers. This centralised model works well when you have fast connectivity but doesn’t function at all when your internet connection is down, leaving you twiddling your thumbs.
Looking around and comparing a 1960’s mainframe and today’s smartphone you can see Moore’s Law in action, but how long will it continue to work for? The law’s demise has been predicted for some time, and as chips become ever smaller the processes and fabs needed to make them become more complex and therefore more expensive. This means that the costs have to be passed on somehow – at the moment high end smartphone users are happy to pay a premium for the latest, fastest model, but it is difficult to see this lasting for ever, particularly as the whizzier the processor the quicker batteries drain. The Internet of Things (IoT) will require chips with everything, but size and power constraints, and the fact that the majority of IoT sensors will not need huge processing power means that Moore’s Law isn’t necessary to build the smart environments of the future.
Desktop and laptop PCs used to be the biggest users of chips, and the largest beneficiaries of Moore’s Law, becoming increasingly powerful without the form factor having to be changed. But sales are slowing, as people turn to a combination of tablets/phones and the processing power of the Cloud. Devices such as Google Chromebooks can use lower spec chips as it uses the Cloud for the heavy lifting, thus making it cheaper. At the same time, the servers within the datacentres that are running these Cloud services aren’t as space constrained, so miniaturisation is less of a priority.
Taken together these factors probably mean that while Moore’s Law could theoretically carry on for a long time, the economics of a changing IT landscape could finish it off within the next 10 years. However, its death has been predicted many times before, so it would take a brave person to write its epitaph just yet.