Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Mea Culpa

This post is over a year late but reading Scamp's blog has prompted me to get on and do the right thing. You may remember (if there’s any of you left) that I was doing some groups around the UK last summer in 2007 that I wrote about here. It was on my birthday and I remember it well, not because it was 'my day' which matters little to me given how much I’ve just generally celebrated life, but because a few of you called me in Edinburgh to wish me happy birthday and I realised that my blogging friends were just as important if not more important than the ones I’d met in a different order of media. We certainly stay in touch much more frequently. Maybe email decimated the urge to keep contact and blogging added some context to communication. That's another post. A good one too.

In any case many of you asked what work I was doing and who for. I don’t mind sharing because it’s time to wind the clock back a little and go over what for me ended up being a kind of conflict of interest. Tell the client the truth or just the agency and let the agency handle it. The former is always more costly both personally and professional, and is yet the right thing to do.

My first recommendation when seeing the brief was that NCH (formerly National Children’s Homes) were blowing a lot of money on a name change that would not be a return on investment - and that’s what I told the agency I was employed by. But it’s a little more complex than that as I discovered more each day. Unlike Barnardos who have a much higher profile, NCH are a fantastically interesting charity that work very closely with government to provide more than just homes to children; opportunities to reenter education, learn skills they need to find work as well as all the other headline grabbing work that childrens charities do, including fostering. NCH felt that the 'Homes' in their abbreviation was misleading as that was not what they really did and this prompted the name change. When dealing with government funds it’s important that the bureaucrats have a clear idea what the millions upon millions of pounds are for but that was a technical issue which I gave some recommendations on.

The difficulty of the problem was that when I turned up to present my findings to the charity I tried to convey to them that the research methodology was inappropriate for young delinquents. I was working from a discussion guide and stimulus material that was not of my own making but as I was passed the baton only the night before flying to Glasgow I had little choice but to run with it and frankly I was also presenting pro bono because I had missed one of the flights to Scotland and felt guilty about losing charity money.

In any case the findings were still fascinating and I really loved discovering the complexity of charitable issues when collaborating with government as well as learning that practically all the cool ‘head down’ get on with it people were strongly anti brand. They felt that consumerism drove a lot of the dissatisfaction that the neglected kids and their families felt with their lives.

However they all loved taking the kids to McDonalds which is a real treat for deprived children in Scotland. So there’s the context for contradiction. There’s always a context. Everything is contextual.

So I made the mistake of being blunt about my findings. One of the groups was with tagged offenders in the rougher parts of Glasgow where opportunities are slim and role models few and far between. I remember doing the group so well because the young lads were some of the trickiest people I’ve had to coax some meaning out of. They were sullen and moody but really this masked their insecurity at having some fella from London tip up and embrace their world much more quickly than they could mine. In difficult situations I like to invite the respondents to ask me any questions they like, so that I can dispel any fears they may have of looking silly when replying or just to make them more comfortable. Try as hard as I could, I couldn’t get anything out of the lads apart from one who as the leader, seemed obliged to say something. The truth was that they were emotionally immature and intellectually starved so asking them about the brand dimensions of car or financial services brands that advertised on the telly was a waste of time. I got the good stuff out of them on McDonalds and Nike and Carling Beer or Football clubs as brands but nothing that really contributed to NCH’s needs.

When presenting to the Board of NCH I made the fatal mistake of describing the boys in the Glasgow group as ‘not the sharpest tools in the box’. What I was trying to say was that it was pointless asking them for their opinions (based on similar findings from a group of girls in the hills of former coal mining communities in Wales). I was suggesting they pay attention to what and how they researched. In short how not to waste valuable money.

The committee went nuts on me and as I was there trying to tell them the work was not necessarily right, the methodology wasn’t right and that there was a huge potential to attach so much narrative and meaning around NCH (They drip with history and intersting complexity) that positioned the charity appropriately - in my view.

In any case I took offense that one overly politically correct member of the committee was losing sight of the wood for the trees and I wrapped up my presentation promptly and left it to the agency to take over the the disappointing findings I had conveyed.

I gave it a lot of thought over the next months. I thought to myself “what an idiot” that guy was for losing sight of what it was all about, over the use of what I thought was politically correct language. I think he wanted me to use ‘intellectually deprived” or something instead of the unsharp tool metaphor.

However it suddenly occurred to me one day that my own sister had taught me the power of unkind words. My sister has walking difficulties from birth, and not so long back, she called to tell me that her condition was Celebral Palsy. I had always grown up with my sister and swhat I thought was some strange condition that disabled her from walking properly, which we always thought was just some variant of spastic disability; which is a general word for a problem between the brain and muscle control. However, listening to my sister I realised that there was a proper name for it. But why did she want to give it a name now, so much later in life, surely it didn’t change anything, it sounded like there was no way it would have ever helped giving it a different name?

Well I was wrong wasn’t I. Because when she called me up all those years later, and explained to me the condition that she had, I realised all those years of with her condition referred to as spastic had been deeply painful and the name change of The Spastic Society to SCOPE (something I argued had lost it resonance) was in fact very appropriate. Sometimes hard hitting can be a little too hard hitting.

To deprived people and actually people in general, words can be very hurtful, so in a flash it dawned on me that the whole politically correct movement, while sometimes tedious, is based on the power of words. Particularly how hurtful they can be and I although I have already apologised fully to that lovely little agency in Soho called Baby Creative, particularly Lawrence Sassoon, who is a really top bloke, I want to do it publicly and draw attention to their client who now go by the name of Action For Children, which is a much more appropriate name for a children’s charity that does huge amounts with a less advertising budget than the Barnardo’s. I believe Barnardo's fund raising model is to spend more to raise more.

I should also apologise to my sister for being so thick.