What Matisse Didn’t Cut Out

The best work is not the first work, as Henri Matisse’s constant revision of his cut-outs demonstrates

The Snail, a cutout by Matisse
Matisse Cut Outs at The Tate

One of the many fascinating aspects of the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibtion, which is at the Tate Modern until 7 September is the insight into how he worked.

Matisse first used cut out shapes as a way of trying out different compositions until he found the one he would ultimately paint. Eventually they became art in themselves but the technique remained the same. Even when he was old and frail, he would direct his assistants to move and re-pin cut-outs until he was finally happy with the relationship of the shapes and colours.

On one canvas, featuring perhaps a dozen cut-outs, researchers counted over a thousand pin marks. The lesson for all of us is that you can’t expect to get it right the first time. All great authors revise their work. So don’t expect your copy or press release or website design to be right at the first attempt. Go back to it. Try writing it again without reference to the original. Read it out loud. Let someone else read it to you. The best work is not the first work.

The author of this blog is Paul Lewis, owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.


The Business Lessons Of Wolf Hall

Ben Miles in Wolf Hall at The Aldwych excels in what must be a career defining role as the tough but tender, honourable but ruthless fixer, Thomas Cromwell. Watching him, I couldn’t help thinking of the occasions I’ve been in Cromwell’s situation.

Photo of Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall
Ben Miles

The story of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII as told by Hilary Mantel in her Booker Prize winning books has lessons for anyone in politics or business. I saw Wolf Hall last week in a brilliant stage adaptation at The Aldwych and can’t wait to see the second part Bring Up The Bodies next month.

Ben Miles excels in what must be a career defining role as the tough but tender, honourable but ruthless fixer, at the King’s shoulder but always looking over his own shoulder, ingratiating himself with jokes and honest advice, bowing as low as etiquette requires but never bowing inside his head, scurrying from court to home ever at the King’s will.  Watching him, I couldn’t help thinking of the occasions I’ve been in Cromwell’s situation.

To survive in those times as a politician, you were entirely dependent on the King, just as employees are today on the autocratic bosses who run many of our companies. Cromwell succeeds by keeping close to the King and by offering good advice. The problem for him is that the King likes to blame his advisors for his poor decisions.

I remember once working for a boss to whom I became right-hand man. He liked me because I gave him solutions not problems, just as Cromwell finds King Henry a solution to his problem with his first wife. But, as time went on, I made the mistake of just getting on with the problem solving without involving him. This gave others the opportunity to get close to him and undermine my position.

It was then I found, as Cromwell will in the third book, that loyalty counts for a lot less than you might hope, in business as in politics. This particular chief exec always made great play of the company being like a family. This meant very little when he was faced with a choice between pursuing self interest or the interests of the business. It turned out that if the company was a family, it was more Borgias than Waltons.

My loyalty to him which had been unquestioning was repaid with a push through the door. It was a harsh lesson for me. I still believe that you won’t get loyalty in business unless you show it but I am also much more aware since then that most people will not put loyalty above survival. Still, at least I didn’t have my head chopped off.

A version of this blog originally appeared on the Daily Echo website. It was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.

How Do We Solve A Problem Like Amazon?

Amazon have announced their latest financial results and we‘ve decided to close our Winchester store and concentrate on our online shop. The two are not connected but it’s easy to see from the figures why some people point the finger at Amazon for the success of online retailing and the closure of shops.

In 2012 your Amazon book purchases, Kindle downloads and the rest contributed to a worldwide revenue of $61,090,000,000. That’s just over $61 billion, if you have trouble with all those noughts. Turnover has increased by something like 45% on the previous year’s $48.08 billion.

So is Amazon set to take over the world of retailing as Britain’s high street shuts up shop? Will someone or something yet defeat it? Or does Amazon, like the Roman and British Empires in the past, contain the seeds of its own destruction?

More than any other online retailer, Amazon established the internet as a trustworthy convenient way to shop. Even though the rise in online retailing has played a part in destroying the high street, it’s too easy to put all the blame on Amazon or even the internet. Online sales are still small (around 13% in the UK), albeit big enough in some sectors to kill profits. Speaking for my shop, I don’t think too many people were checking out our handmade designer products and then buying them online.

There are many other factors that have affected the high street and my own shop. Number one is the economic downturn- people just aren‘t spending like they used to. Out-of-town shopping and department store-like supermarkets were bogiemen long before Amazon. Expensive parking in towns has driven customers into their  arms. I believe that one of the reasons why Winchester High Street is doing relatively well is the lack of competition from a Meadowhall style centre.

Then there’s the abysmal failure of those responsible to respond to shops’ difficulties by offering better rates, rents and bank loans.

Let’s also remember it was iTunes and film streaming rather than Amazon that busted Blockbuster. Even bookshops, most often quoted as victims of Amazon, were already damaged by the abandonment of price fixing which allowed supermarkets to sell all the profitable popular books at knock down discounts.

Nevertheless the ease of purchasing online and the low prices have taken a significant chunk of business from certain kinds of retailing. And Amazon has been the champion in the use of both of these weapons.

Some high street shops may be suffering from Amazon’s power but trading in the shiny new online environment isn’t a lot better. It’s true overheads are a lot lower but so are margins, thanks to low prices. Your Life Your Style will be trading solely on the internet in future, apart from a pop-up shop at Christmas. Like all the other little fish selling online, we can’t ignore Amazon swimming around like a massive pike in a small pond.

I don’t blame Amazon for its encouragement of low- at times lossmaking- prices. It simply recognised that customers searching for the lowest price would drive the rise of online shopping. However low prices are a problem for online retailers, including Amazon itself, and you could argue it’s a problem of its own making.

It may be that Amazon will fail because of that very business model that has made it the giant it is today. Low prices meant that last year its operating profit (what was left after costs) on the $61 billion dollar sales was $676 million. After deductions of interest payments and tax (don‘t act so surprised, they do pay tax somewhere), the net loss- that’s right, loss- was $39 million. Even the operating profit they made in the Christmas quarter was only two cents for every dollar taken. Compare that with the profits Apple or John Lewis make and you can see why it’s not all plain sailing on the Amazon tanker.

So, is there a David out there that might exploit this Goliath‘s weaknesses and what we would lose if we didn‘t have Amazon?

Straightaway we need to remind ourselves that at least one online retailer has already grasped the concept of what is unique about the web better than Amazon. Step forward Apple iTunes, a brilliant idea for selling a product that has no physical substance and therefore no fulfilment costs. Amazon has come late to this game with their Kindle e-books.

National retailers like John Lewis or Sainsburys also have a potential edge with their marriage of shop and online. Customers can use the shop as showroom but buy online (rather than using Waterstones as a showroom then buying from Amazon) or utilise the excellent click and collect. There is still a huge percentage more shoppers visiting shops than buying online which means Amazon are limited by having no showrooms. You might wonder what will happen to Amazon book sales, apart from bestsellers, if Waterstones closes and we can’t check out the books before buying online.

Some retailers make a success of selling own brand products because they have a monopoly. Next, White Stuff and even Marks and Spencer (if only M&S had products people want to buy) are examples of retailers who can set their own prices. Again Amazon lose out because they only sell goods in competition with other retailers.

Independent shops like Your Life Your Style do not have the advantage of either a national chain of outlets or exclusive products, but as I said previously the online competition is not so great for niche products- overheads are the reason for us leaving the high street and taking our chances selling purely online.

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Amazon tore up the retailing rule book that said competing on price can only end in tears because you end up with no profit. The key to success in the pre-internet days was to compete on quality, service and marketing. The trouble was, back in the nineties, people were reluctant to change their buying habits to this new fangled internet. Offering low prices was probably the best way to get people to switch to buying online.

The Amazon website is a wonderful warehouse but the emphasis is always on the cheapest price. Service is excellent but the clinical photos and bullet point descriptions do little to put across the value of the products. This works when it comes to selling a light bulb or something the customer already knows he or she wants but is no help when you need an uncertain purchaser to make an emotional connection with a product. John Lewis or even our own website do a much better job at persuading someone to buy a product. Its the difference between a description of a teddy bear’s size, colour and materials and a story of a child getting a bear, cuddling it and it becoming her friend. Or a picture of a wine glass and a photo of a dinner party with people chatting and drinking from the glasses.

From the early days of e-commerce, Amazon’s tactics have been the same. The company announced from the start that they would lose money for years while they built up their online business. As a result, they led the way, first as a cut-price bookseller who caught all other booksellers unawares. Then it widened its range of products, before moving into e-books which offer a better profit margin. Its best idea has been to invite other merchants to sell on its site. The virtually cost-free commission it earns from these traders may prove Amazon’s salvation.

If Amazon were to go, I would most miss the company’s tremendous commitment to innovations that make online shopping easier and more attractive to the customer from One-click shopping to rating the products to e-books.

Not that I would bet against Amazon winning the battle for the wallets of online shoppers. Nor it seems would investors who sent Amazon shares up when the results were announced.

The Seven Elements of a Successful Plan

The only blogger I follow religiously is Seth Godin, guru of entrepreneurs and users of new media. Today he talked about the Acute Heptagram of Impact. The seven elements that lead to success or failure, says Seth, are Strategy, Tactics, Execution, Reputation, Persistence, Desire and Fear. The importance of Strategy and Tactics we can all understand. As a marketing consultant, I often provide companies with these. But Seth’s right- the company then has to have the skilled people to execute the strategy and tactics. It certainly helps if your organisation and people already have a reputation and that’s not built in day. Then there are the human traits. It’s easier to give up than keep at it. You have to want to achieve your goal. You have to overcome the fear of failure. Follow Seth Godin at this link http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog

Service Is Today’s Battlefield

Service is the battlefield for today’s shopkeepers. Customers now expect all us shopkeepers to be Bates to their Lord Grantham. New research by Market Force, reported by the Yorkshire Post,  shows how poor service affects shop sales. 9 out of 10 will leave a shop without buying if they don’t like the service. There’s good news for shopkeepers who fear online sales are going to take over completely: 79% prefer to go into a shop because they think face-to-face will mean better service. Another useful tip to take on board is that 8 out of 10 shoppers like to be taken to the product they have asked about.

I learn a lot about how to treat Your Life Your Style‘s customers from how I’m treated when I’m a customer. When Kwikfit quoted me £210 for new front brakes, I quickly moved on to another garage who quoted £70 less. But it was the offer of a home service that made me finally settle on the similarly priced Phill’s Auto Repairs.

When it comes to who you choose to fulfil your medical prescriptions, the price is fixed so it’s all about service. I decided to try one of my two local pharmacists’ services where they order, collect and fill your prescription. I based my choice purely on the fact that Boots gave me some points on my loyalty card.

Now you would think, since it’s all about service, pharmacists would go out of their way to get it right. Apparently not. Apart from the fact that my chosen one used an antiquated system of writing in a diary when they needed to order the prescriptions, there was no procedure for checking whether they had received them. This, I was told, was because they were too busy. Why take on a service you can’t properly deliver, you might ask?

Consequently three out of my last four monthly prescriptions were not there when I went to collect them. This is where service really comes into play. Businesses win or lose on how they handle a problem. So when the pharmacist on duty blamed me for it going wrong, it was not a good start. According to her, I hadn’t collected my previous month’s prescription.

I knew this couldn’t be true but, in the end, it doesn’t matter if the pharmacist was entirely blameless. Just as Bates thanks Lord Grantham for giving evidence that sent him to gaol, the retailer must treat the customer as right even when they’re wrong. As a customer, I didn’t need an argument, what I needed was my prescription, an apology and an assurance that they were working to improve their system. So they’ve lost my business. I’m changing to Lloyds who say they have a computerised system and have a member of staff check that prescriptions have arrived.

A version of this article appeared as a blog on the Southern Daily Echo website