My Biggest Mistake

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The Independent Online
The chief executive of Wickens Tutt Southgate has written 'Total Branding by Design', to be published on 13 October (Kogan Page, 25 pounds). His five-year-old consultancy is already well known for redesigning Tango and putting Gales Honey in beehive jars.

MY BIG mistake was trying to write a book - or, rather, the mistake was in being arrogant enough to think I could do this without first having given up my day job.

It seemed like a good idea, back in June 1992, to write a book on brand design (the substance of said day job) - and when Kogan Page agreed, I airily promised delivery of the manuscript by Christmas that year. This, of course, was a mistake.

It wasn't as though I had time on my hands. I had a fast-growing, but still very young, design consultancy to run. Putting Wickens Tutt Southgate on the map during a recession was not exactly a part-time job. We had just redesigned Tango, and projects were pouring in.

So my initial confidence that I could get the book written in six months of evenings and weekends turned out to be rather misplaced. By that first deadline, I had completed the introduction. By the next, the following Christmas, I had still not reached halfway, despite devoting what felt like every spare minute and most of my holiday.

The book - or, rather, those chunks of it I had not yet written - had become a dark cloud that followed me everywhere in silent rebuke. The publisher, to be fair, was extremely patient, as was my wife Natalie when I was still scribbling on the plane to Sydney for our wedding last May. It was finally completed, and the cloud lifted, two nights before the wedding.

Why had I put myself through it? (The book, not the wedding - the wedding was magical). The original idea was to fill a gap in the market. Business bookshelves groan under the weight of 'how-to' books on advertising, direct mail, sales promotion. But on packaging design? Nothing since The Silent Salesman, written in 1962, went out of print.

Of course, mine was to be more than just a 'how-to' guide for brand managers. It would be nothing less than a manifesto, a map that would define a radical new approach to using packaging design to build brands.

In this, there were echoes of my other biggest mistake to date. When we started WTS, Mark Wickens and I were determined to be pioneers in our field. We felt there was a better way, and we alone had the secret. Unfortunately, my frequent inability to distinguish confidence from arrogance resulted in too many pronouncements whose purpose was to say, 'We know what we're doing' - carrying the all too audible subtext, 'and none of our competitors are doing it right'. I might have got away with this were it not for the further inference that 'You clients aren't so bright either.'

More recently, I have come to learn that it is not good business practice to suggest that prospective clients are stupid, and what's more, that most of them are not. I've even acquired a grudging respect for some competitors.

Bursts of the old arrogance are still to be found in the finished book. But fewer, I hope, than might once have been the case.

These days I'm trying to follow the advice of Alban Lloyd, the former chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi International, who is now our non-executive director. Ever the diplomat, what he actually said was: 'Paul, you need to attenuate your fundamentalism.' But the all too audible subtext was clear.

(Photograph omitted)

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