Manchester’s next generation of leaders

We had a Downtown Leaders Lunch today. It’s part of a series of lunches where we ask leaders from the city to speak - that’s why there’s no apostrophe, my grammar pedant friends.

The speaker was billed as Sir Howard Bernstein, the chief executive of the city council, but he was unwell. He sent Sara Tomkins instead. Once I’d got over the disappointment and concern over Howard, I must admit I was really quite pleased. Not that Howard was ill - but that we can expose another civic leader to the very people who are drawn to the magnetism of Howard.

I wish I had a pound for every time I get told that Manchester would be lost without Sir Howard and Sir Richard Leese, the council leader. The theory goes that there is a talent vacuum beyond the two knights, and that their eventual retirement will expose a chasm. In a sense they are a remarkable double act, but I have hopefully seen enough to recognise that there’s something else going on.

It’s actually one of the mightiest forces of their leadership that they lead from the front. But also that they lead and inspire the small army of policy creators, delivery teams and political campaigners.

Sara is one of those. As the assistant chief executive for communications, customer and IT, her brief covers some crucial aspects of the council’s work. She spoke about the leadership of the local authority today - how a municipal culture of hard pragmatic politics (and Politics) encourages younger executives and officers to take risks and be innovative.

She also didn’t shy away from issuing a few challenges - property developers and planners need to think much, much more about the kind of digital infrastructure their buildings need. She also faced up to some tough questions over broadband vouchers, disruption caused by the Second City Crossing and traffic congestion.

I think everyone at the Grill on New York Street this lunchtime will have enjoyed what she had to say - they will have also left a little more confident that there are a generation of articulate younger leaders around with the right levels of intelligence and pragmatism to lead the city in the future.

What is the point of the Manchester Evening News?

I’ve sat in meetings with regional media executives thinking I’ve missed a trick. Being fair minded I sat there listening patiently to bold new strategies, to taps on the nose about hidden revenue streams they had discovered and thought they must know something I don’t. Over the years these have involved going free, getting into TV and sticking bits behind a paywall.

They’ve all come and gone, and I have, occasionally, doubted my core view that the whole regional newspaper industry is sliding towards total oblivion.

The announcement this week that the Liverpool Daily Post is to close is just one more nail in the coffin of an industry in its death throes. These strategies are just dreams, whims and last gasps.

So let’s take this opportunity to take stock of the Manchester Evening News, also owned by Trinity Mirror and run by the same management team responsible for closing the Post. Now based in Oldham, the MEN reads and feels like a tabloid paper in a city region that does a decent job of reporting big crime stories, Metrolink problems and Premiership football. Beyond that, what else?

Really, go on, ask yourself if you can remember an MEN splash that wasn’t one of those stories?

Two days of the week it is handed out free (pic, above). Its very name is a triage of misnomers – it is neither Manchester, Evening, nor News. Such is the pace of which hard news is broken through web and social channels, not to mention through radio.

Circulation is heading downwards, as it is with all print titles.

Analysts of these trends tend to focus on the decline in the quality of the journalism and the supposed correlation with copy sales. Many will also evoke the take up of social media as evidence for public disengagement.

The real decline however is in advertising. That was the foundation upon which everything else was built. Advertising paid for the court reporters, the political editors, the punchy columnists and investigations. The layers of rock of newspaper advertising were jobs, homes, motors and classified. At each turn these have been cracked apart by more Internet disrupters – Monster, Right Move, AutoTrader and the all conquering eBay.

As I know very well, there is a small reservoir of business to business advertising, but it is barely enough for the MEN to sustain even its GM Business Week magazine, usually to be seen in unopened bundles in receptions in Spinningfields.

Any media property is at the core of a community. It provides a relevant platform for advertisers, attracted by an attentive set of readers. It also dominates the conversations people are having around that pivot. That has long gone in Manchester and in other cities around the world. What all regional papers are doing now is flailing around looking for a purpose. Good luck to them, but it looks like the game is up.


Should you check your email? This brilliant (and tragicomically true) illustrated flowchart by Wendy MacNaughton is now officially one of the best infographics of the year.


Should you check your email? This brilliant (and tragicomically true) illustrated flowchart by Wendy MacNaughton is now officially one of the best infographics of the year.

Manchester - time to stop bitching. Time to embrace REAL collaboration.

At our SmartCity event last week there were loads of great ideas to lift our city. Plenty of passion and a real burst of energy. This wasn’t just on the things you’d expect from a business network, but on subjects like food production, waste disposal, street lighting and money.

We also talked about London quite a lot. Manchester’s relationship with the capital is always a slightly thorny one. To be honest, I’m always happier not to. I’d rather talk about Manchester.

As the Tory magazine editor Fraser Nelson said in the Daily Telegraph last week – “Manchester does not behave like it wants to be Britain’s second city: it behaves like it wants to be the first.”

I like it that he says that and I like it because it’s at least partly true. But I actually wish it I wish it were really true.

Since June last year and my life changing visit to Silicon Valley in March, I have been determined to embrace the spirit of partnership and collaboration and help to join up the dots.

There is so much to co-operate on, so many opportunities in the city to do things for the betterment of the city. To simply focus on a narrow short term interest does no-one any favours. It just reinforces the image of the great cities of the North as parochial fiefdoms.

We have introduced businesses to new opportunities, opened the door to politicians of all colours and recommended companies to one another. It’s what we do and is all part of a wider mission to be a more grown-up city.

Yet I have been properly depressed at times to find myself on the other side of a fault line, drifting away from people I genuinely want to work with and share ideas with, but who have fallen back on supposed enmities and rivalries to the exclusion of, well, me. I genuinely thought I’d left that all behind in 1983 when I left school.

I’ve also been caught in the crossfire on some nasty personal battles that really should be beneath those involved.

We all have a duty to our businesses to succeed in a competitive environment. I get that. But what I don’t get is the nastiness. It’s just not necessary and it narrows your horizons.

So, here are the questions I’d like you to ponder.

Do the media do justice to the conversations that take place around the city – the initiatives that require backing, not just the ones they are media partners on?

Do the Universities really want to open their doors to the people of Manchester and share knowledge and expertise – and even to work with one another?

And is there a willingness amongst technology businesses of what they might require from an active financial and professional community, rather than just a slightly grumpy complaint they don’t understand the sector?

I’d like to think the answers to all of the above are “yes”. But I suspect, if we’re honest, they are “no”. I’d like to change all of that. Do you want to work with me?

Why Russell Brand is a little bit right about globalization and politics, but why he is still wrong about pretty much everything else


Florid, flirtatious and fun. But also angry. Russell Brand has this week been elevated to some kind of spokesman for a generation. He guest edited the left-wing current affairs magazine the New Statesman and contributed a long essay about the importance of changing the way we think.

His entertaining interview with a glum and not very serious Jeremy Paxman (above) showed this to more people, via YouTube, than had ever even heard of the New Statesman.

It’s easy to pick holes in his comfortable pontificating from his mansion in LA, and to pick up on everything stupid thing he ever did, as this guy does here. but he has a point. And he may have hit a nerve.

I’m with Simon Kelner in the Independent when he said this: “His call for revolution may be Spartist nonsense, but Brand definitely articulates a strain of thinking among a growing number of young people who feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.”

A session I went to at the University of Manchester this week saw four white men in suits presenting policy ideas from their respective think tanks. Yet it only really ignited when a member of the audience evoked the spirit of Rusty and asked if he was on to something or was insane. And this was in a room full of people who WANT to talk about policy and politics and all the things that are supposed to be so boring.

So what do we do? How do we engage and entertain and make relevant the things we seek to do?

The first is that we must seek out interesting people with creative solutions to difficult problems. How they talk, how they think and yes, how they look. People like Al Mackin, holder of our Tony Award, who has recently been to Tel Aviv and has a few things to say about what he found. People like Vincent Walsh who is rethinking our whole approach to food production in the city of the future.

Have I got your attention? Anyway, all this and more is on offer at our SmartCity event on the 13th of November.

You see, I don’t think we need a revolution in this country. I don’t think the system is fixed against everyone. I think there are plenty of revolutionary opportunities to make change and do things better and with more fun.

Working smarter, making our city smarter - come and see Emma Jones

Over dinner this week we debated five years of the new austerity. With us was John Young, the Bank of England’s man in the North West, who I’ve known for a decade. John’s job is to listen to businesses in the region, write reports, explain Bank policy and make recommendations about interest rates, money supply and bank regulation.

I can’t go into details because we run such occasions under Chatham House rules, but one guest made the plea that as we emerge out of recession and as businesses loosen he purse strings that old habits don’t creep back in. We hoped that the recession has forced us to work leaner and smarter and we are actually better off for it.

It’s a theme I keep returning too. And one of the consistently enjoyable and enthusiastic thought leaders of new business in this country is Emma Jones. She runs an organization called Enterprise Nation and will is still well known in Manchester from her time here a decade ago when she ran Techlocate after a spell at Arthur Andersen (way before that all went horribly wrong, I should add).

Among many other ideas, Emma first championed the agenda of the kitchen table entrepreneur. People would start a business from home, often working from 5 to 9 in the evening, before they quit their jobs and started a business on lean principles. Some of these businesses remain small, but many explode to be new enterprises employing staff and creating wealth. Helping them is Emma’s mission.

Now she’s also spearheading Start-Up Britain, a movement that supports new businesses and earned an MBE for her efforts.

What lies behind her success is the quiet entrepreneurial revolution that has gone on largely unnoticed. It’s a social trend that economists, journalists and politicians haven’t properly computed yet. The seismic changes in the economy have run in parallel to a massive shift in how people work and use technology.

Interested? Good, because, Emma’s joining us for our Smart City conference on the 13th of November at MOSI.  Also talking in the same session will be Futurologist Tom Cheesewright, who I’ve worked with recently on a conference for Daisy Group and is a brilliant speaker and thinker. You might have heard Tom on the BBC whenever there’s a new technology product, but that barely touches the surface of his insights.

Emma has also asked me to say she’ll also be at the O2 Business Show Live the day before, where people will have the chance to play with new devices, see 4G in action and use Office 365 to see how it will benefit their business.

There’s loads more at Smart City, ideas, practical plans to make our city work better and a terrific market place of products and services.

Vikas Shah – Renaissance Man

I presented the Chairman’s Award at the 2013 Mancoolian Awards. It went to Vikas Shah, someone who I’ve got to know over the course of the last year or two.

Vikas is one of those people in business in Manchester who makes things just that little bit more interesting. Though he works in his family business Swiscot, a textiles company, what makes him interesting is the range of different things he does.

He’s been involved in setting up the Greater Manchester Film Festival, has produced a couple of films, he supports a number of different entrepreneurs – many of them with the aim to pushing the agenda of Manchester and making it a great city to do business in.

One of the first things about him that caught my eye was his blog – Thought Economics. It will never win any wards for design but for content it is quite something. Over the course of the last few years Vikas has managed to interview some of the leading thinkers and influencers on the planet., including Nobel Prize winners, business leaders and people who are changing the world through incredible work in Africa and Asia. And then there’s Sir Richard Branson. We may disagree slightly on the bearded one, but Vikas still landed a good interview.

His work with a business school in Portugal and with Manchester Business School reminds us of the need to give in order to get. He has found new opportunities through working with entrepreneurs and start-ups that need that injection of energy, ides and inspiration.

What Vikas reminded me of was the whole essence of the Renaissance Man – the multi-faceted, intellectually curious and enigmatic risk taker. Sometimes people who don’t fit the profile of the straight laced corporate man attract suspicion, rather than admiration. As entrepreneur Luke Johnson says in his book Start It Up – “Centuries ago there were no sharp divisions between state and the private sector, between science and the art. Bring back that enlightened approach!”

To me it represents something important about Manchester as well. Successful Mancunians have always had that streak of curiosity and daring about them. It was therefore an absolute delight to present Vikas with that award and to mark his move into such exalted company.