Solutions and other problems

Solutionism, a term popularized by Evgeny Morozov to describe “an intellectual pathology” that defines problems on the basis of one’s capacity for solving them. Morozov argued that Silicon Valley’s software engineers recast “all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized — if only the right algorithms are in place!” For Morozov, solutionist thinking has displaced a central category of social concerns, like public health and education, which may have problematic facets, but which are not fundamentally definable as problems.

This article, over at the ever-excellent Places, addresses solutionism from an urban design point of view, leading into a discussion of (urban) planners’ desire to ‘tame’ the landscape and solve geographic challenges.

The peculiar mindset of solutionism extends to other areas as well. For (communications) planning, the metaphor is no less complex. Our landscape - consumers, citizens, culture, society - may be less tangible, but it is no less intricate. How much can be solved with the power of words alone?

On one hand, there’s a Bernaysian theosophy that communications can (and should) change consumer behaviour. Don’t adapt your campaigns, adapt the consumer to them. From here, there’s a clear golden thread that extends all the way through the modern occultism of nudges and norms. It is, to be fair, inspiring. When I talk about communications planning, I often use the language of magic and of wizardry: it is our job to find and unlock the combination of words of power that can reshape reality into the result that is required. Ladies and gentleman, by speaking these arcane syllables, I can get people to pick up their dirty towels! Marvel of marvels! This seems silly, but it is, indeed dark magic. And like all magic, can be used for good or ill. (See also: Harry Potter.)

On the other hand, let’s not be ridiculous. Solutionism is being ‘brutally simple’ to its ‘brutally ridiculous’ conclusion. Very few challenges ever reduce to a single factor. Ipsos MORI’s Colin Strong writes in a similar vein about the ‘sparkling’ appeal of nudges: we are enamoured by the possibility of cheap, simple and impactful solutions. But they are merely one tool in the shed, and not always the right one. Humans are tidy creatures, and we like tidy solutions, if they’re shiny and new, that’s all the better. Sadly, chucking a ring into a volcano won’t actually solve all the world’s problems. Making the journey to the volcano longer and adding more obstacles adds a sort of dramatic verisimilitude. It further convinces us that the ring-chucking ought to solve everything. But, ultimately, life doesn’t work that way. There’s no one ring; no dark lord. Building a better sidewalk or laying out a sexy poster? These things help, but they don’t solve.

Is solutionism actually that peculiar? No one wants to stand in front of their boss and say, There is zero fucking change this poster will solve world hunger. I’m sorry mate, but have you even seen what’s going on out there? Yeah, we’ve got Rankin, but c’mon. We need to believe we can make a difference. So we parse and pare and make assumptions and bury caveats, and, at the end, we can put together an equation that draws a direct formula between ‘number of YouTube pre-rolls bought’ and ‘bars of soap sold’. We contribute, so therefore we claim the whole. Twas ever thus. (See also: CV writing.) This sounds cynical, but agency is important: we need the reassurance that our role is significant, else, well… why play it?

With that in mind, solutionism does have (some) merit. It is certainly insidious when it leads us to laziness or irresponsibility. We don’t need to worry about climate change because eventually a hobbit will toss some jewellery into Mount Doom! But solutionism is also how we trick ourselves ourselves into helping - it convinces us that we’re more significant than we actually are. We recycle, we diet, we pay taxes, and we wear masks, because we want to believe our actions are the answer. And they are, kinda, but only in infinitesimal, incremental bits. By making our actions feel significant, we deceive ourselves into contributions that would otherwise seem completely irrational. We’re not the solution, but we’re a tiny, virtually-inconsequential fragment of it. By overplaying our part, we keep going in the face of probabilistic lunacy. We motivate ourselves by creating a tiny rings of power, every single day, and finding volcanos at which to throw them.


Egad, it has been a while since one of these. Some other bits, elsewhere:

I contributed the ‘agency response’ to this report from the Market Research Society. I have to admit, being asked by the ‘Delphi Group’ to give a response to ‘the multiverse’ is the closest I’ll ever come to being tapped for the Global Frequency. It was a lot of fun. (Don’t get your hopes up: it is about responsibility and perspective in data research. It was still fun though.)

There are book(/s)-related update(/s) to come, in time. One sad note though: The Best of British Fantasy is, sadly, bested. Two volumes isn’t a bad run, and the publisher was very supportive, but numbers and numbers, and they’ve made the right call. In its two years, BOBF gave 50 deserving writers a moment of celebration and recognition, which makes me happy. The books remain on sale (although the hardback copies have, rightfully, dwindled). It may return someday, but not, I’m afraid, right now.


  • Virtual fashion is fascinating. I did a presentation on this a billionty-twelve years ago (it was about World of Warcraft avatars as identity, back when WoW was at peak THING, so that’ll age it). It makes sense to me in a way that NFTs don’t, which is, I suppose, hypocritical, but I can live with that.

  • Some Millennials are grandparents now. I think we can probably stop blaming them for being flighty with their careers and not buying homes and start worrying that we have a lost generation that wasn’t allowed the chance for stable careers and/or home ownership.


I really like Stuart Brand’s depiction of change over time. Being far-sighted, and investing in the long-term, feels increasingly difficult. A good example of the layers in practice, as noted by Dr Cynthia Miller-Idriss. Post Capitol attacks, we’re spending £2 billion on Capitol security (infrastructure), but only £20m on prevention education (policy). And, as far as I can tell, virtually nothing to shift the poisonous extremism (culture) that led to the riots in the first place?



Culinary dead ends.

Friends and noses

The future is senseless

The long-term impact of Covid - on our friends and our noses. Plus, recapping recent cameo appearances on misinformation, Amazon, and branding.

What has Covid done to our friendships?

This article describes the surprisingly difficult process of making friends as an adult. It boils down into optimism and perseverance. Keep showing up, stop assuming the worst, and say hi. There are also some practical tips on opening conversations. If this feels a little twee, well, it might be - but there’s some grim context behind it:

meta-analysis by researchers in Germany published in 2013 combined data from 177,635 participants across 277 studies, concluding that friendship networks had been shrinking for the preceding 35 years. For example, in studies conducted between 1980 and 1985, participants reportedly had four more friends on average, compared with the participants who’d taken part in studies between 2000 and 2005.

The article goes on to cite various studies that link social connectedness with general happiness. And, similarly, we know social connectedness is a massive part of resilience as well. Friends are a boost, but they’re also a safety net.

I’d like to see more research on how this past year has affected friendships. A quick scroll through social media (or visit to r/relationships) shows the incredible strain that a year of anxiety has put on people’s connections with other people. For some, it’s the close quarters. For others, it’s the distance. Pick your poison.

This isn’t idle curiosity. I am concerned about the long-term impact of this socio-cultural ‘gap year’. Without the ability to ‘show up’ or to ‘say hi’, have people been able to make new friendships?

Communities and events have both gone the extra mile in ensuring that things still happen - virtually, at least - but even the best-run virtual event still removes the randomness and the proximity that are necessary for introduction. The combination of shared space, shared interest, a bit of privacy, and the time to puzzle it out.

The imminent re-opening of society has been a theme to a lot of conversations I’ve had this week. During the obligatory lockdown status report, one old friend put it, “I’d just love to see someone I don’t already know.”

You can start to understand why activities such as gaming have been so incredibly important during lockdown. It puts people together with that combination of interest, shared purpose, and time-commitment.

This is senseless violence.

Another long-term repercussion of Covid - we’ve now got a vast swathe of the population that can’t smell. Why does this matter?

First, there are a surprising amount of everyday cues that are, uh, olfactory. I can’t tell when my child has pooped. Which is pretty funny, but also… not great. Diapers have visible signalling built into the product (color changes, etc) when kids pee, but they rely on the (normally) overpowering stench to let you know when your kid is wandering around with a sackful of turds. Ditto: cats. Ditto ditto: things like smoke. I’m now neurotic about candles.

Second, there are a lot of scent-related luxuries. My taste for wine is totally gone. It all tastes like garbage now. My taste in coffee and whisky is still there (thank god), but very different, which has led to some strange ‘re-’discovery. Anne has a fascinating collection of perfumes, and we’ve been doing some sniff-testing: they have to be really strong for me to notice, and what I do pick up is very different from their actual ‘notes’.

Third, a general scrambling of my behaviour. My spice tolerance is higher, which is good, as my food needs much more flavour now - whether that’s heat, salt, or sugar. I’ve been taking walks every day during lockdown (when permitted), and it is a little disconcerting not to smell the same things about the places I go. I still BBQ regularly - it is a core part of who I am! - but it is a different process now. I can’t smell the smoke, or even the cooking meat. So I have to keep a closer eye on it throughout.

According to some studies, loss of smell occurs in average of 41% of Covid cases. Interestingly, it is more prevalent in younger people. It comes back for many - hopefully all of us? - but the long-term impacts are still out there. There have been over 4m Covid cases in the UK, almost 30m in the US, 120m globally. That’s a mass of people with changed senses, shifting behaviours, and new needs. I’m curious to see how some of these markets and products adapt.

Misinformation, branding, and the dog that didn’t bark

I’ve been in advertising almost twenty years, and finally made The Drum! Twice in one week, no less! The all-seeing eye of the trade magazine turned, briefly, to misinformation, and I got to chime in - briefly, and then, alongside some peers, at length. At this rate I’ll make Campaign by the time I retire.

If I sound a bit wary, well, I am. I am elated about the near-universal recognition that misinformation is, in some part, a communications challenges, and communications experts should be consulted. However, misinformation stems from an erosion in trust, and mistrust is a wicked problem. We’ve already seen misguided, if well-intended, communications efforts in this space that have exacerbated this (and other) problems. A genuine need for communications support should not be mistaken for the next agency gold rush.

Meanwhile: my two most recent columns in The Bookseller are on a theme. The first was a thought exercise, exploring one of last year’s most interesting rumours. Why didn’t Amazon buy Simon & Schuster?

My intent was - spoilers! - to get publishers thinking about the intangible value they provide beyond ‘putting books out there’ - something Amazon is perfectly capable of doing without them. Amazon’s historic acquisition strategy is about finding new data, expanding their audience contact points, and accumulating existing brand equity. What does it say about Big Publishing if Amazon isn’t seeing any of those? HMMM.

The second column looks at the last, but not least, of those intangibles: the brand. What is a publishing brand, and what value does it add? Should publishers be paying more (any?) attention to that formless, intangible, incalculable, and (largely) undernourished asset. HMMM INDEED.

…and don’t put the cartridge before the horse

The artist and author Jeffrey Alan Love now has a newsletter, and it is off with a bang. He’s speaking about a fancy pen:

What I found, the more that I drew with it, is that I became seduced by the line and stopped seeing what was in front of me. I let the line dictate the drawing instead of seeing what was truly in front of me. I was blinded by a beautiful line. So now I’m drawing in my sketchbook with a normal ballpoint pen, learning to see again, because that has become more important to me now than that oh so seductive calligraphic line.

But the metaphor is, of course, brilliant. Sometimes we get so seduced by our tools - be it a fancy pen or a new social analytics platform - that we have a tendency to adapt the solution to the process, and not the other way around. Going back to basics is, as Love concludes, the best way to get a clear view.


I love this ad.

Johari exercise for publishing brands

The Johari window is a psychological technique first developed in the 1950s. As devised, it is a useful workshop tool to help increase interpersonal awareness. (Here’s an online version.)

The individual describes themself by selecting adjectives from a list. These selections are then compared and contrasted with selections made by others. By analysing the gaps, the individual learns how they are perceived.

This workshop has has also been frequently adapted for corporate use, as a way of understanding - and improving - a business’ culture and environment.

It can also adapted for brand workshops, to help organisations understand how they perceive themselves, and how other audiences (customers, stakeholders, partners) see them.

Using these adjectives will prompt a discussion, as they encourage feedback - internally and externally - on every aspect of the brand: marketing and communications, products, company behaviours, corporate practices, relationships with suppliers, and more - the intangibles as well as the tangibles. That’s an extensive review of one’s brand, and a potentially quite free-wheeling discussion.

The results shows where the brand is cutting through (Open), where there are gaps or failures in communication (Hidden), and where there may be opportunities (Blind). It also helps the brand become more selective by showing what elements may be unimportant, and do not need further investment (Unknown).

How it works

  • Find a list of Johari adjectives (hint, scroll down).

  • Begin with a workshop of senior stakeholders: those people who are directly responsible for setting your company’s brand or vision. Ask participants to choose, individually, the five adjectives that they believe best represent their brand.

  • Compare the results. Where do they agree? Disagree? If it is a small group with a clear, shared vision, there won’t be much variance. But if the company lacks a defined vision, or shared priorities, you may find some unexpected answers.

  • Next up - extend the exercise. Production, sales, art, rights, legal, marketing, finance; everyone in the ‘building’. All the people that bring the publisher (or imprint) to life through their behaviour, actions, and daily labour. Which five adjectives do they each choose?

  • Now you will be seeing much more variety in your responses. But, again, start with the points of agreement - where does everyone agree? Now look at the differences. Compare your original group to the wider company - are the senior stakeholders saying one thing, but no one else is hearing it? Why isn’t the brand clear? What’s missing? Use the mapping table above to identify gaps and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses.

  • Try to have an open discussion as a result. Why are people making the choices they are? Explore these differences: if everyone within the publisher doesn’t have the same understanding of your brand, you’re going to struggle to communicate it externally. Is there a shared vision for what the publisher is - or could be? If there isn’t a vision, what could it be? Who is responsible for it? How should it be communicated?

  • If you’re feeling particularly brave - send the list outside of the building. Ask some bookseller friends. Printers. Reviewers. Agents. Bloggers. Trade press. Be bold: ask another publisher! (I suggest keeping ‘just plain ol’ readers’ out of it, as so few of them recognise what publishers are in the first place - which, of course, is part of the problem...)

A variant list of Johari adjectives, derived for publishing brands:

  • artistic

  • bold

  • brave

  • broad

  • calm

  • classic

  • commercial

  • complex

  • confident

  • contemporary

  • cult

  • democratic

  • dependable

  • dignified

  • diverse

  • elitist

  • energetic

  • entertaining

  • entrepreneurial

  • friendly

  • fun

  • idealistic

  • inclusive

  • independent

  • intelligent

  • joyous

  • kind

  • knowledgeable

  • logical

  • mainstream

  • mature

  • modest

  • niche

  • observant

  • old-fashioned

  • opportunistic

  • pioneering

  • popular

  • prestigious

  • progressive

  • proud

  • provocative

  • quiet

  • recessive

  • sensible

  • sentimental

  • silly

  • smart

  • traditional

  • trustworthy

  • warm

  • wise

  • youthful

If you need help running the exercise, please do get in touch with any questions.

The ecology of the mallrat

Like many others of my generation and geography, I spent a lot of time as a kid hanging around in shopping malls.

It was a ‘safe space’. Literally: it was pretty safe. My parents could drop me off, knowing that I’d be in a public, vaguely-guarded space, with a limited amount of criminal damage I could cause or be caused.

The mall was just the right size for me. Fundamentally, 85% of a mall was blah. Clothing stores for middle aged women. Sunglasses Hut. Thomas Kinkade. But amidst the blah would be enough Ginger: the arcade, the cinema, Waldenbooks, Software Etc., the food court. Enough to keep me entertained, but not overstimulated. Different places for different hobbies (or moods), but not so many options that I couldn’t find my friends.

If I got bored of those staples, there was always a dollar store to explore, or a Sharper Image. Those were fun for about five minutes of remote control cars before the sales staff chuck you out for disrespecting the rotating tie racks. Adult spaces: good for a bit of window shopping, but you wouldn’t want to be stuck in one.

There’s obviously a certain amount of generational nostalgia at play here, exacerbated by the two hundredth month of lockdown. But… it was pretty fun.

Mallratting, at its worst, means petty crime (pocketing Penthouse, sneaking into cinema marathons), equally petty experimentation (cigarettes in the parking lot), and the perpetual waste of one’s allowance (the arcade). But these banal dangers are also part of the appeal of malls: you can test your boundaries in an environment where there are safety nets in place.

Malls are also the perfect environment for positive social mixing; contact theory done right. The mall, as a space, provides a cross-cutting social identity, allowing contact between people based on shared interests. Simply by being there, you have something in common. Hey, where’d you get the Orange Julius? and Are you seriously challenging me with E. Honda? As a pre-teen or young teenager - your world is small: you have social circles from school, organised extracurriculars, and maybe something like Sunday School or a sports team. Especially in a big Midwestern city with no public transport: your entire physical world is limited to where your mom drops you off.

A context like the mall provides the opportunity to interact with people from outside of those circles, but from a great starting point: a safe environment, common goals, shared interests. Malls expand and challenge your social horizons, but just enough.


Mall owners - and retailers - loathe the presence of teens and pre-teens. They’re a blight: the mosquitos attracted to your porch lights; the ants at your picnic. I have some empathy for this position. I’ve been a mallrat, of course. But I’ve also been mall staff. Teens hang out for hours. They have no money. They make you feel self-conscious about your uniform, they speak in a secret code, and they occasionally steal stuff.

But I have a hard time blaming the kids.

Malls are designed to attract - and keep - people. Windows and exits are hidden. One-way systems keep you boxed in. There are no windows, and a soft bath of forgettable music keeps you blissfully unaware of the passage of time. Food - and bathrooms - are provided and convenient. There’s entertainment and distraction on-demand. When it comes to architecture intended to keep you captive, shopping malls are behind only casinos and prisons. Ants are annoying at picnics, but if you spread sugar on your lawn, you can’t blame the bugs for showing up.

Nor do I blame parents.

Where else can kids go?

Even back in my mall-ratting hey-day, there weren’t that many options for places that were a) safe, b) social, c) free (or simply affordable), and d) entertaining. Malls are good for both me and my parents. Dropping me off at a mall meant I would be out of trouble and mingling with other human beings. It didn’t need to be scheduled in advance: it was a place I could go, and that I wanted to go.

Malls gave me space to be me (without breaking anything), and they gave my parents space without me. Which, as parents know, is incredibly, genuinely valuable. There aren’t a lot of spaces with this on offer, and Covid-19 has decimated most of them.

Decades later and an ocean away, my neighbourhood features:

Where do I see young teenagers hanging out?

Covid isn’t to blame (well, it is - fuck Covid), in this case, it has only accelerated an existing trend. Public, or communal, spaces for teens and pre-teens have been under-funded and de-prioritised for years.

People are working to correct this. Again, anecdotal evidence: this week I chucked some money at two different local, community-run fund-raising activities. One for an arts programme, one for a football team. There are also grants programmes intended to keep kids safe and occupied, coming from various Government departments and charitable bodies.

The problem is, the programmes that get support - either from crowd-funding or grants - are directed. They are sports teams or arts classes, tutoring or mentoring, MMA or online skills training, whatever - they’re specific projects with specific purposes, designed by adults to fit the specific objectives of their own programme.

That’s the nature of the beast, and it is far better than nothing. But it also doesn’t solve the underlying problem: kids need an environment to just be. I’ve written in the past about the privatisation (and therefore privilege) of quiet spaces. This is a parallel challenge: we’ve privatised our spaces for noise - environments for the self-directed, social activities that allow kids to be kids.

We’ve spent a generation shunting this responsibility on to the private sector. Malls and retail parks have been encouraged to provide these environments as their community obligation. If you want to sell me a rotating tie-rack, you need to take my kids on Saturday afternoons. Malls aren’t babysitting as a public service, they’re doing it because they turned the park into a parking lot, and this makes us all feel a little less culpable for agreeing to that exchange.

So what happens when malls close down?

I’m just talking about the UK now, but as bad as things are for bricks and mortar retail, they’re even worse for the high street. And that’s looking very bad indeed. All over. The economic consequences are very well detailed, as well as the tragic loss of jobs. The vacancy rate for retail is at 13% and expected to rise (and twice as high in shopping centres as is retail parks).

Comparing October 2020 with 2019, footfall was down 40%. Throughout the prime shopping season of November, that was closer to a 60% decline. The Centre for Retail Research grimly tallies over 20,000 stores closing in 2020 alone.

It is hard to feel bad for shopping malls, and it is hard to argue that shopping malls are the ‘best’ space for young people. But we’ve spent years out-sourcing a key aspect of our children’s social development, and now the chickens are coming home to roost (to sulk their bedrooms and watch YouTube for 16 hours/day).


More on the topic:

More off the topic:

Vision and generosity

Brand strategy in the style of Saladin

It took me a while, but I’ve finally wrapped up The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin, the (rather spectacular) new biography by Jonathan Phillips.

As well as being an excellent, and often very entertaining, examination of what Saladin accomplished (a lot), Phillips also tries to get under the skin of how Saladin succeeded. What combination of aptitude, context, and plain ol’ luck led to Saladin’s unprecedented success?

Phillips’ approach makes Sultan Saladin an excellent companion volume to John Gaddis’ On Grand Strategy. In the latter, Gaddis examines the decision-making of great leaders as they pursue their ambitions. Successful strategy, he posits, is about matching capacity to ambition; having a clear objective, while maintaining the flexibility for opportunism. Although Saladin is not one of Gaddis’ case studies, Sultan Saladin more than makes up for his absence.

Saladin, as Phillips demonstrates, is pursuing a ‘grand strategy’ for the entirety of his life and career: he is out to retake Jerusalem from the crusader kingdoms who had been occupying it, much to the Muslim world’s chagrin, for generations. Retaking Jerusalem is not ‘simply’ a military objective - it is a political, social, and cultural challenge of the highest order. To achieve it, Saladin needs to muster incredible resources, achieve political backing (from multiple, equally ambitious factions), and defeat a powerful, entrenched army that’s backed by the combined (if fractious) forces of the entire European continent.

It ain’t easy.

Gaddis would approve of Saladin’s methodical approach. The sultan’s entire career is built on a meticulous, step-by-step plan, carefully ensuring he has everything he needs to retake Jerusalem. His strategy not only involves mustering the financial and military resource, but also ensuring he has his social and religious ducks in a row. For what is, ostensibly, a military objective, there’s a lot of stakeholder management involved. Given the unstable nature of the 12th century landscape, Saladin can’t progress his ambitions without creating stability: warfare is lengthy and expensive. Saladin worked to make sure he had the secure base of power he needed before committing to the recapture of Jerusalem. At the same time, although Saladin had a fixed goal - a grand strategy - he also had the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities as they arose. He was dedicated to his vision, but not rigid in how he achieved it.

This is brutal paraphrasing, but Phillips boils Saladin’s success down to two key attributes: his vision and his generosity.

His vision, as noted above, was always clear. From his first campaigns, Saladin positioned himself - openly - as the champion of Islam, and the man that would retake Jerusalem. This was, in a sense, Saladin’s ‘brand’, and it shaped every aspect of his life. Saladin carefully chose how he dressed, how he behaved; how he conducted himself at all times. The language he used, the poetry he read, the public works he commissioned: everything he did (or didn’t do), as well as the public-facing justifications for his action (or inaction). Notably, and like all strong brands, Saladin’s vision was also limiting, it dictated what he couldn’t do as much as what he could. Saladin’s positioning as the ‘inevitable liberator of Jerusalem’ meant, for example, he had limited ability to campaign against other Muslim rulers in the region - as much as he might want to shore up his support, he couldn’t be both the saviour of Islam and someone marching to face fellow Muslims on the battlefield.

Saladin’s clarity and transparency of vision gave him a justification for everything he did; a ‘why’, if you will. It also created - in contemporary terms - an overarching ‘social purpose’. It allowed Saladin to pave over traditional hostilities and resentments, to create allies out of enemies, and to spread a persuasive, overarching narrative for his actions. Organisationally, it meant he could attract the best talent. As a brand, it kept the masses onside, attracted soldiers to his banner, and kept his many stakeholders appeased. Saladin’s objectives encapsulated their own - other regional or Muslim powers could trust him, because his interests were on display, and they aligned with their own. Which explains why his ‘brand’ was so important: it showed commitment to the cause, and that he could be trusted.

Generosity, Phillips explains, was a pervasive element of Saladin’s contemporary culture. Exchanges of gifts and lavish rewards were the diplomatic language of the time, establishing and maintaining relationships between rivals, subordinates, and even enemies. But Saladin took it to new heights. He was immensely generous, dealing out land and titles to his followers, and even positions of honour to his rivals. Phillips digs up deliciously extravagant details about the gifts - robes, jewels, horses, hawks - that pass between Saladin and his rivals, subordinates, and even enemies. Saladin’s generosity extended to the people as well: he reduced taxes, invested heavily in public services (mosques, schools and hospitals), and provided opulent feasts and celebrations. He was lavish with the bread and the circuses, even co-opting local festivals and celebrations to make them larger and more extravagant. At the same time, Saladin himself lived in respectable, but not opulent, comfort - as befitting his brand as Islam’s champion.

In many ways, the debts that arose from Saladin’s generosity only lengthened the execution of his grand strategy. By distributing his wealth so generously, Saladin was forced on additional, ‘incidental’ campaigns to gather more wealth, therefore adding more time and risk before he could retake Jerusalem. But Saladin’s generosity was a necessary part of building his capability. It helped him avoid many unnecessary (and brand-destroying) conflicts with other regional powers, it gave him a ‘competitive advantage’ over his rivals when wooing third parties, and it helped him retain his power base (to an unprecedented level, especially given the era). Saladin’s generosity made being on his side appealing.


Let’s go back to thinking about ‘brand Saladin’. In 2020 terms (not 1180 ones), Saladin has the ideal combination of purpose and benefit:

  • There’s an long-term purpose - a clear, motivating vision

  • There’s a short-term benefit - a personal, immediate reward

By having a purpose, a company attracts passionate individuals, fosters a sense of unity, and distinguishes itself from the competition. I chose this particular water bottle because it benefits orphaned pandas.

The benefit is equally as important, especially as retention becomes a factor. Rome wasn’t built in a day; Jerusalem certainly wasn’t liberated in one. You join Saladin because you share his cause; you stay because he pays his bills on time. Just as you can’t plan a revolution on an empty stomach, you can’t retake Jerusalem if your checks keep bouncing. It doesn’t matter if the pandas are happy if my water bottle has a hole in the bottom.

We see this tension now more than ever. Consumers (and staff, and shareholders) increasingly demand that companies have purpose - a moral vision that goes above and beyond providing their day to day function. But, at the same time, consumers (and staff and shareholders) still want their water bottles to hold water. Also, paychecks. Be good, but hit the quarterly numbers.

What can we learn from Saladin?

The first lesson is that Saladin didn’t treat this as a ‘balance’ - he refused to compromise on the quality of his benefits or the scale of his ambition. His soldiers or allies never got ‘less’ by signing on with him. Even if it meant a delay in achieving his ultimate ambition, Saladin understood the importance of providing a tangible, practical benefit. He designed a long-term strategy that focused on achieving the vision without insisting that stakeholders sacrifice: it took more time and more effort, but he got there in the end.

The second lesson is that Saladin made his vision tangible through his behaviour. He was not retrofitting a mission statement, or bolting on ‘brand values’ midway through his campaign. His ambition - his purpose - was transparent, clear from the outset, and woven into every act he took. Even when Saladin wasn’t taking direct steps towards Jerusalem, he was acting like he was. His behaviours, his attitudes, his values - he made his vision into something visible and trustworthy, a way of life that everyone could witness and respect.

The difficulty, of course, is that most brands are already in motion - whether that’s to save the world or provide water bottles. The opportunity to design a long-term strategy, with both short- and long-term objectives in mind, from scratch, is surprisingly rare. Especially when, as noted above, you need to hit those quarterly numbers.


More to ponder:


I normally ring in New Year’s with a newsletter that celebrates failure, but that seems unnecessary this year. I can’t even be flippant about ‘making it to 2021’, as so many did not. Please take care of yourself and those around you.

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