business, general communication

Chris Moss gifts to Cardiff Business School

Moss has shone
Moss has shone

Yesterday evening Chris Moss of FAMOSS ideas consultancy became the latest to take the stage at Cardiff Business School’s Public Lecture Series. Moss spent 8 years as Marketing Director of Virgin Atlantic, developing the company from single aircraft to international brand. He founded the Orange brand as Marketing Director and as CEO of 118118, grew the business from 5 to 5000 employees, achieving a billion dollar valuation and an international roll-out.

Any sympathy extended for having a name that lends itself to terrible puns should be saved. It hasn’t held him back.

The latter CV point relating to 118118 seemed the most significant business achievement to me, but it was the least mentioned. Possibly because building a directory enquiry service is less glamorous than building a glossy airline. It was surprising too, given 118118’s long-established Cardiff base. There was also little talk of what he did now, FAMOSS ideas consultancy – presumably a backer of bright young things. Instead Moss initially majored on the many words people had used to describe him and on ideas around innovation, before leading into his achievements at Virgin Atlantic.

In a well-cut, dark green-checked blazer, purple shirt and jeans, he roamed with assurance around the lectern, unfazed by the event photographer’s violent flash, every inch the unflappable veteran marketer. His talk was quickly peppered with bantery mentions of “Branson” and “Richard”, before moving on to his core subject.

Moss asked: how does innovation happen? He launched into a powerful justification of having “insane ideas” and “thinking outside the box”, using those words more than once. I wanted more depth and was depressed that he sounded not too distant from Ricky Gervais creation David Brent. What I heard next was a list of his great ideas for Virgin Atlantic: cooked breakfast, switching ‘middle-class’ to premium economy (an undeniably great one), seatback TV, ice-cream, amenity kits. Here were examples which justified Moss’s free-thinking. How much had all this served to boost the bottom-line? Who knows? Put it down to the nebulous mysteries of brand equity. This wasn’t a quantitative presentation.

Cardiff University should invite successful businesspeople to share ideas and stories about their careers, but my concern is that a misrepresentation of industry and the workplace is being given to students. Could the majority of full-time employed workers at any stage of their career go into work the next day, have a hard think, then set about deploying new-found different thinking and insane ideas? Could their career be constructively led by Moss’s dictum: “No” is not an answer, just a request for more information?

It’s doubtful.

Of course the self-employed and creative start-ups might have a better chance: those in charge of smaller, nimbler organisations. But even then, they’re likely to be hamstrung by budget and general notions of what is, all things considered, sensible and professional. They are unlikely to spuriously wave however much cash at building a hot air balloon of a UFO (one Moss PR stunt at Virgin). That’s something only a very small minority can do and get away with.

To execute wackily creative or unorthodox ideas, and to occasionally fail as Moss conceded he had, there are usually dependencies. Authority and seniority within an unusual organisation, as well as a generous budget and a liberal boss: all of these are helpful. If you don’t have one of them, or any of them, you’re effectively straitjacketed. Furthermore, if you argue too hard for your third alternative way in a large private sector organisation, it’s as likely to prove a speedy route to a P45 as it is to megabucks.

This week a major survey of teenagers suggested a “massive mismatch” between young people’s career expectations and the reality of the jobs available. Confederation of British Industry president Sir Roger Carr said the report demonstrated how industry had to do more to show young people the “requirements and opportunities” of the world of work. I’m not sure if this talk did that. I’m not sure what I would have learned from the talk, even if I had still been a student attendee. Perhaps the necessity to have balls, to present confidence.

A casual browse of Twitter afterwards suggested I was alone in my views. Many messages from other audience members were positive. I often wonder at the common natural reflex towards the positive and upbeat in such messages, possibly because not many want to appear dowdy and sceptical and strangle the optimism. Perhaps this also reflects the lack of critical thinking which Moss so advocated. Nevertheless, the general consensus on the talk seemed to be favourable.

For me Moss wasn’t able to translate what he actually did well other than have ideas, albeit very good ideas, in enough detail. His CV clearly indicates than he does more than sit around, have ideas and argue them through to fulfilment. After all, he “spent the last 25 years shaking up businesses and building billion dollar brands” according to the programme. He had some great ideas, yes. But what else?  There had to be more.  Unsatisfyingly, this lecture left me unclear what it was.


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