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Where were you when worlds collided?

Bullets flew past our heads in a Gaza playground, we were attacked with a machete in a Glasgow street, lost our money running a vineyard and had a ‘Portillo moment’. It was strategy, but not as we had ever known it before.

On the afternoon of May 13th, Canon Giles Fraser, Karyn McCluskey, Sir John Hegarty and the Rt Hon Michael Portillo collided in the Purcell Room at the South Bank, debating ‘how to win against all the odds’. Malcolm White helped to prod, provoke and move the debate along.

Canon Giles began, defying expectations by taking us to the Middle East, rather than the Occupy protests outside St Paul’s Cathedral. When you are under a hail of bullets, how do you make decisions quickly? How do you know what to do? His study of ethics illustrated some of the answers: Should this be consequentialist ethics (where the focus is on the best outcome, no matter how you get there) or de-ontological ethics (where the focus is on following rules, rather than a focus on the outcome). As it turns out, neither works, as in the heat of battle, it’s almost impossible to predict the outcome of your actions, and it’s impossible to keep consulting the rule book when you’re trying to avoid being shot. Instead, virtue ethics prevail – the US Army make decisions on the battlefield with the maxim “Marines don’t do that”. ‘Marines’ defines a set of values that become a shortcut for decision making. You win against the odds by rehearsing to be the person you want to be.

Karyn McCluskey warned us that she was going to play some disturbing CCTV footage of violence. We needed to see it to understand what she was dealing with, but even those of us who thought we could take it were shocked and stunned by the casual murder that unfolded in a busy street on a Saturday night. It was a compelling example of the need, as she said, to change the norms in society around violence. We are all born violent, we need to be taught not to be violent. Her crusade against Glasgow gangs and the success she achieved was simply humbling, thankfully leavened with humour to sweeten the pill (“Alex Ferguson resigned – that’s just what we need, another unemployed angry Scotsman out on the streets”). Her approach was to borrow thinking from another discipline, acting on violence as you would stop a disease epidemic – interrupt transmission, change behaviour and change norms. It reminded us all to look beyond our worlds for the answers.

After a much needed break, John Hegarty had the tough gig of following Karyn, returning us to the world of advertising, and most specifically pitching. He advised us not to acquire a vineyard, to be a brand, to serve the best coffee, to create a difference, that opinion is cheap and truth is expensive, that you’re solving the clients’ problems, not yours, to change the rules, to learn from your successes, not your failures, to be unreasonable, to be wary of collaboration and consensus, to think about ‘reputation’ not ‘brand’ and to be absolutely completely obsessed with quality.

And then we all had our Portillo moment. Michael Portillo was, he said, the member of a very exclusive club – the former future Prime Ministers. He reflected on how we are all brands, and to an extent trapped in the stories that others create for us, as people build you up, knock you down and then cover your redemption and comeback. He wondered whether polarisation of views and extreme ideas can actually be good for society as it forces the right debates, as in the 80s’ “a period of history when ideas mattered”. Winning when the odds are against you is about having a clear direction, showing clear and consistent leadership, knowing what you think about things. Thatcher of course was the ultimate example of this – a government that knew where it was going and what it was doing, but balanced with vigorous debate about how to achieve those ends.

Four exhilarating points of view, from entirely different worlds, that then took flight in a Q&A that would be impossible to capture here (watch the video, it’s worth it), but ending with Canon Glies questioning the moral premise of advertising overall, and Karyn McCluskey leaping to John Hegarty’s defence of the role of advertising as an engine for aspiration. When Sir John takes up policing the mean streets of Glasgow, the circle will be complete.

What an afternoon.

Craig Mawdsley

APG Chair

APG Worlds Collide was proudly sponsored by ITV and the Guardian

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