New Coracle Website

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Bucks Fizz … success for Bucks New Uni

Bucks New University is the highest climber in the annual Times Higher website league tables published last weekend (22nd Feb 2014).

The site rose an astonishing 247 places to reach 86th place. I’m delighted to have been able to help shape that turnaround in fortunes and a significant step-change. In March 2013 I carried out an evaluation of the previous website through Stamp Consulting Ltd. I benchmarked the functionality and content of the site against a competitor set and carried out first-hand evaluations with 17 year olds in a local college. I made a series of recommendations which the University then asked me to implement by working with their online team.

I was based at Bucks for two days a week for much of the summer and into the autumn. I canvassed the opinions of key staff and stakeholders and pitched for a design company to help refresh and overhaul the site. The site had plenty of rich and interesting content yet key messages were buried and an experimental approach to navigation had fallen wide of the mark.

Clever Little Design based near Maidenhead were successful in winning the business and I worked closely with them and Bucks’ small internal team to introduce and implement a fresh new-look.

I also developed a draft template for the University’s research units which the Marketing department will roll-out across the site.

As well as benefitting from a fresh and bold redesign, the site has improved in terms of functionality.

See the Times Higher site for the full report and results.

Need help with web development? Give Coracle a call.

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‘Hey, it’s that Gecko Guy!’

‘Did you ever see a woman, coming out of New York city with a frog in her hand?’

geico geckoSo sang Marc Bolan. Well, I may not have seen that, but I have seen a bloke walking through downtown Manhattan dressed as a gecko. Unsurprisingly, even for New York in the run up to Christmas (‘Happy Holidays!’) he seemed to attract a lot of attention.

He also seemed to be held in considerable affection. ‘Hey!’ said one guy excitedly to his small daughter, ‘It’s that Gecko Guy!’

I later found out that it was the GEICO Gecko, mascot of a major US insurance company noted for its quirky and popular TV ads (commercials if you’re Stateside).

American friends told me that the animated gecko was popular on account of his ‘posh British accent.’ When I tracked the ads down on You Tube I was amused to find that he sounded more like Del Boy than Little Lord Fontleroy. Would you buy a used car from a guy who sounded like that? So the idea of a slightly disreputable Cockney-barrow-boy (almost) accent being used to promote motor insurance made me chuckle.

Here he is:

Apparently, the GEICO Gecko originally had a posh accent but it evolved over time – rather like the Queen’s – and became more demotic. I wouldn’t say he had a ‘Gor Blimey, guvnor’ accent, but he certainly no longer sounds posh. Nor authentically Cockney come to that. More like a sanitised transatlantic version.

Whatever the case, the ads have been hugely popular and effective for GEICO. It’s all about tone of voice. He’s supposed to sound reassuring – although he certainly doesn’t sound that way to British ears …

‘But a gecko – he can be trusted …’

It’s long been established that Scottish, Geordie and Yorkshire accents work well in call-centres and in sales. People find them more convincing than brash, Cockney ones. It’s all about connotations and associations. Companies like Plusnet the internet and telephone service provider trade on their Yorkshire roots and location. I like ringing them, I must admit. They do a good deal, offer a good service and you always get a cool northerner to speak to on the other end of the line.

I’m not on commission by the way.

These things often play out differently according to location. For instance, whilst Plusnet’s flat Yorkshire vowels appeal further afield, you won’t often hear Yorkshire accents on radio adverts within Yorkshire itself. Or at least, you didn’t when I lived there. People were slightly embarrassed by their own accents and thought that Yorkshire accents ‘on’t telly’ or radio sounded ‘common’. Or thick. ‘Yorkshire born, Yorkshire bred, strong in t’ arm, thick in t’ead.’

That didn’t squash a sense of local pride though. Far from it. Yorkshire folk don’t suffer from the collective inferiority complex that seems to blight other former heavy-industrial areas I could mention.

‘We’ll do you proud.’

Sounding reassuring is one thing. Delivering on promises is another. Yorkshire people pride themselves on their plain speaking. What you see is what you get. It’s a cliché, but I generally found that to be the case when I lived there.

It’s not all about talk. It’s about delivering on promises. It’s all in the offer after all.

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Simons says: ‘Her People’ for 1st Prize

Phil & SimonThis isn’t a business post, but I’m well chuffed and you’ll understand why I feel the need to share it.

To my surprise, I won 1st Prize in the Nantwich Words & Music Festival poetry competition.

I was even more chuffed that I won with Simon Armitage as the judge. It’s not everyday that I get a poem selected for a prize by one of the UK’s leading poets.

Unlike my good friend Roger Elkin, I don’t have a track record on poetry prizes. Roger wins them all the time. I was a runner up in the first Stafford Poetry Competition in 2009 judged by Michael Hulse and have twice been among the winners of the regular competitions in Poetry News. But this was a first for me – getting the first prize. Simon kindly signed the poem and drew a 1st Prize rosette on it – which was a nice touch.

I always enjoy hearing Simon read. I’ve heard him about four times now and I once even saw his band, The Scaremongers, perform in a Huddersfield pub. I’ve chatted to him a few times about bands and my native South Wales, about book-signings and about his harrowingly moving Radio 4 piece Black Roses about the killing of the Goth teenager,Sophie Lancaster. On that occasion he modestly gave the credit for the impact to Sophie’s mum for her incredibly brave and moving account. I doubt if Simon remembers those conversations, he must have thousands along similar lines. I only hope he doesn’t think he’s got some wierd little Welshman stalking him around gigs in the North of England …

So here’s the winning poem, Her People. It’s about my Grandad’s family on my mother’s side and begins and ends with my Great Aunt Lil’ sat at the piano. The title comes from the name of a classic memoir by Kathleen DayusHer People: Memoirs of an Edwardian Childhood. It won an autobiographical award in 1982 and became something of a classic sociological text. Dayus died a few days short of her 100th birthday, the age Great Aunt Lil’ reached, ‘the first and last of twelve.’

Dayus’s book was all about her childhood in Hockley, Birmingham, the same area where my Grandad, one of those 12, grew up. He was born in 1912 so the period covered by the poem is slightly later than the Edwardian Birmingham depicted in Dayus’s book, but the conditions were the same.

It was the only book he ever read. “Our Else gave it to me,” he told us, “‘Here, our Jack, read this.’ You know I’m not one for books and reading but because it was our Else, I gave it a go. I could not put it down.” He handed it to us as if it were a sacred text. “Here, read it. Every word in that book is true …”

He’s the Jack I’ve mentioned in the poem. It covers the period from after the First World War to the 1960s when we used to visit our Birmingham relatives as kids. His father was living in a high-rise then, all the surrounding streets had been bulldozed, with just the pubs remaining at the gable ends. He peered at us and prised two tanners (sixpences) out of a tin box. I remember my Grandad telling me how he’d filched the coppers and tanners that his eldest sister Lil had been saving for piano lessons and spent them down the pub. She used to play for coppers and everyone said she’d have been quite accomplished if she’d ever been trained.

Johnny (‘Jack’) Tonks, my Grandad, was a strict tee-totaller. Not for religious reasons but because he’d seen the effect of booze on the family’s meagre income. They lived in a two-up/two-down with an outside loo and a tiny yard where his father nurtured rhubarb with the pee he fermented in a tin pail.

I never knew my Great Grandmother, but she was a saint by all accounts. She had to be, the life she had. Some of her 12 children died fairly young and two had severe disabilities. I’ll never forget my Great Aunt Nell. She was said to have the most severe case of cerebral palsy in the Midlands. When I knew her she was couch-bound and corkscrewed around so that her head was facing over her back. She’d have a towel to catch the spittle the constantly dribbled down her cheek. She’d literally squeal with delight when we visited and press tanners into our palms. Poor Nelly. Bright as a button with a dry sense of humour – they all had that – and a thing for Bing Crosby. The Prayer Book she gave us when we emigrated to Australia as £10 Poms remains one of my treasured possessions.

I didn’t get to her funeral but my Mum still fills up talking about it now. It was the 1980s and the surviving Tonks ‘girls’ gathered around the graveside to pray – she’d been buried alongside my Great-Gran. My Mum says it was like a collective electric charge of faith mingled with grief. There was love there so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Sometimes, I’m not sure about this poem. But if it conveys that much, it’ll be worth more than any prize.


She practices her scales, feels the promise
beneath her hollow palms, how it rises
from within the shuttered case –
Ragtime, Rachmaninov, Clair de Lune.

As the bar fills with hubbub, boots and smoke
she rolls out the barrel, follows the van,
clings to an old rugged cross till closing time.

She stores their tossed coins in a jar,
the way her father stands his stale
and frothy piss in a bucket in the yard.

When the factory whistle melts the men
into side-alleys, back-to-backs,
he sends their Jack to fetch his snap
to him in the snug, only brings his slow
unsteady stomp homeward after dark.

When the coppers rise and reach the neck
he turns their silver promise into a bucketful
of froth, pours it on the rhubarb out the back.

Each week they help their mother
fold their Nelly into a leather chair,
wheel her where nurses pummel
her fixed limbs, hoist her into harness
to stretch and tune her straight.

We want redemption. And if it’s found
in suffering it’s not just Nell but Elsie,
abandoned by her husband in the war,
or Min’s own Dicky Dale forked on crutches
since a football kick connected with his spine,
Olive lost to kidneys at the age of thirty-eight,
Stanley taken from them at sixteen.

If time’s the healer, hear how the old man prised
two tanners for us from a tin box, how the nurses
left Nell to nature with nothing but love to tend her.

Listen to her laughter as they fill kettles for her bath –
Dot’ and Hilda, Harry, Beat’. See the vicar bring her Jesus
once a week. And if faith, let’s end this litany where it began,
with Lil’, the first and last of twelve, closing the lid gently
on her own century, its sounds and faces, their names.

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The Last Resort?

ATOB928T0654Before last weekend, I’d only been to Alton Towers once. It was for a CIM Branch Meeting. I wasn’t there for the rides. This was a few years ago and remember an interesting presentation by the Alton Towers staff and some searching questions about discount structures, overheads and levels of through-put. It was also the first time I’d seen those therapeutic, toe-nibbling fish. Not that they nibbled mine but they did graze across my fingers picking off some loose skin.

I remember being struck by how Alton Towers complied with requirements to keep its rides below the level of the tree-line – if you’ve not been, the theme park is in a remarkably scenic area. They’d shown great invention, digging into the ground, bending rails and tracks to lie below the skyline. We heard about their policy of introducing a new and more extreme ride every few years and how they were branding themselves as a ‘resort’ – an all-in destination. We are more than a theme park, more than a day-trip destination, they insisted, we are a ‘resort’.

Well, not given to heights, to hanging upside down and to spooky stately home ruins taken completely out of their historical context, I concluded that Alton Towers would be the ‘last resort.’ I love the Staffordshire Moorlands and the Churnet Valley. But Alton Towers …? Sorry.

I’d always felt guilty that I’d never taken my kids over, but consoled myself that there would always be school trips. So when a young cousin from Australia approached us asking if he could stay and fulfil his long-held ambition of visiting Alton Towers, I readily agreed. I have a young aunt who had children later in life, so two of my cousins aren’t a great deal older than my own kids.

So, over we went, armed with vouchers and money-off tokens (there’s the discount structure) and up and over and inside out we all went.

My cousin insisted we went on The Smiler first, the latest fiendish device and, quite frankly, just one step up from something out of Guantanamo Bay. I half expected them to compel us to wear yellow boiler-suits. We were herded through metal cages, bombarded with disconcerting imagery (think Michael Caine in The Ipcress File) and played a repetitive sound-track that mixed heavy-metal grind with diabolical childish laughter and a gloating nur-nah-nah-na-nar chant.

It was almost a relief when we were finally strapped into the carriage. After a second’s respite we were hurtled through 14 revolutions and supposedly ‘processed’ and ‘marmalised’. I’m not sure that the vaguely 1984-ish brainwashing theme was detectable during the fast – and mercifully short – ride itself. All I was conscious of were grey tracks hurtling ahead and a loss of any sense of what was up and what was down. The ride broke down when we were just 10 yards from the end and we had to sit there while they fixed it. I enjoyed that, a chance for some peace and stability.

Peter HainNot wishing to wuss-out I joined my cousin and daughters in the queue for Oblivion, a sadistically ingenious ride where they suspend you for a second or two over a yawning abyss. The descent also turns you into a Peter Hain look-a-like – as you can see from the photo they ingeniously snap as you drop into the void.

Alton Towers 3Once we were out of the pit and up the other side, I quite enjoyed Oblivion. I enjoyed Air too. They fly you frontwards like Superman.  Nemesis was too much for me, though and I left the kids to it after that.

Conclusions? This is a marketing blog after all. Is Alton Towers still the last resort? Well, I came away with a lot of respect for the staff – they do their jobs courteously and with conviction – and a grudging respect for the warped minds that devised the rides. My cousin, of course, loved every minute. He knows his theme-parks – he’s been to loads in the US – and it exceeded his expectations. You can’t say fairer than that.

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A Room with a View

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAIf you love Florence, have a few hundred Euros to spare and don’t mind climbing steps, I can certainly recommend the wonderful holiday flat in Torre Corso Donati.

The views are simply astounding.

From the living-room are at the top of the tower there are views on all three sides over the pan-tiled and spired Florentine roofscape to the Tuscan hills beyond. You name it, you can see it, the Duomo and Giotto’s Campanile, the Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce, San Miniato al Monte …

DSCF4374As the bells tolled across the rooftops or the moon slid slowly between the towers and spires I often picked my jaw off the floor and observed to my wife and kids, ‘We don’t even need to go out!’

It was worth every Euro for the view alone.

Of course, we did go out. We queued for the art galleries, climbed the steps to the top of the great Dome, explored the street markets and the piazzas. We even found some quieter corners away from the August heat and hordes. Our accommodation gave us the best of both worlds, a central location close to all the sites and sights and the ability to withdraw to an eyrie above the clamour and crowds.

I often think that consultancy work is like that. It gives you a vantage point. You can spot things from a distance which the client may not have noticed themselves as they are too embroiled with the action on the ground. I recently elicited an astonished gasp from someone on the client-side when I pointed out a particular structural/departmental issue. They were astounded at what they took to be an almost uncanny level of insight. Perhaps I should have laid claim to such a thing, but I explained that it was simply a matter of having a vantage point and the luxury of being able to take the broader view.

Like hindsight, insight from a distance is a wonderful thing. I may have enjoyed the views of Florence from our lofty tower, but we wouldn’t have had the full experience if we hadn’t queued and jostled and got up close and personal. I was both very touched and highly delighted recently when a client observed that unlike other consultants he’d worked with, I was prepared to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in. I’d like to think that’s something of a USP. It’s a combination of eagle-eyed insight with the willingness and ability to get involved and make a difference on the ground.

Such a combination is rare, from what I hear. And like the view and central location of the Torre Corso Donati, it’s worth paying for …

I don’t charge over the odds and like to think I offer value for money. Insight from outside, action on the ground. I’m also independent and operate ‘above’ the politics. I’m not a robber baron like Corso Donati – who is mentioned in Dante it turns out – pulling up the ladder and disappearing into my snug safe tower each evening. I keep the doors and shutters open. I have the vantage point, but I also like to get involved.

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Skype, hype and being true to type

I’ve recently done things I’ve never done before. Or at least done or used them in a new way. I’ve used Skype very fuzzily in the past but during March I used it to conduct market research calls all over the world. It was crystal-clear. It was amazing to see and talk to people in Ouagadougou, Lima or Manila as though they were sitting in the next room. What a terrific resource.

In the course of this, I began to rethink my approach and attitudes towards social media. I’ve often thought that some of the claims made for it are over-egged and over-blown. Talking to people in Sub-Saharan Africa helped me revise my opinion. These people aren’t using Facebook to ‘poke’ their mates or share silly jokes (as much as there’s a place for that) but using it to share information about irrigation, pest-control and developments in cereal crops or cattle-breeding. Twitter and Facebook are helping small and subsistence farmers in ways we haven’t begun to imagine.

Technology is one thing but it only comes into its own when there’s imagination behind it and the will to make things work. As part of this research project I was intrigued to hear from agriculturalists working in the Andes how a culture of collective, mutual support helped even the poorest farmers to survive. They felt that the Latin American emphasis on collective action could help farmers in Africa and the Far East.

It’s all about making the most of what you’ve got. This came home to me very forcefully when I led a workshop for the ‘Anglia’ region of POWERtalk, an organisation that helps people develop speech-making and presentation skills. They wanted something different at their AGM and so I ran a variation of a creative-writing workshop I’ve used in other contexts. It was something different for me too – and I learned an enormous amount – even if it felt that my every move was being evaluated!

I was impressed by the POWERtalk people. They were a diverse and interesting group. Housewives, students, sales-people … What struck me was how evident it became how the skills they were learning were helping them not only in making speeches and presentations but with all aspects of life. They were gaining confidence, learning evaluation and assessment skills, making friends, finding out about all kinds of fascinating subjects. They were interesting and engaging people in their own right. The skills they were learning were highlighting aspects that were already there.

I thought about the POWERtalk folk when I was sifting through some material for a project I’m involved with for a prestigious college of arts and crafts. The Principal there emphases a holistic approach in which the creative enterprise focuses on the intrinsic properties of the ‘aesthetic object’. It all sounds very philosophical but I think I can see what he means. ‘No ideas but in things,’ as the poet William Carlos Williams put it. In marketing terms, any product or service only has value if its intrinsic function is fit for purpose. In ‘people terms’ it’s our intrinsic value as human beings that counts. All the presentation skills and rhetorical devices in the world wouldn’t make any difference whatsoever to the POWERtalk folk, unless they first had something to say.

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