I don’t envy Mark Penn. As the architect of the Hilary Clinton’s formidable Democratic nomination campaign, he’s had a tough couple of weeks. Only last month he would have been looking at the polls and been pretty happy with the way things were going. Happy enough to bring out Bill the Rottweiler and suggest he might like to have a little public nibble at the ankles of one Mr Obama, perhaps. Smart move and, potentially, the knockout punch Hilary must have been wishing for.
But there’s a problem, see. Bill can’t nibble anything nowadays. Things don’t get done in the world if you only nibble. Go for the jugular instead and don’t let go until the thing stops moving. It is, by all accounts, the only way to affect real change. And when you’re trying to eradicate disease or empower the victims of the world or beat climate change, pussyfooting around ain’t going to get too much done. So nibbling is not really on the cards, is it?
Fortunately for Mrs Clinton, Mr Penn was able to bring Bill to heel before his chomping got the better of him and his wife’s aspirations. But it couldn’t have been an easy job.
“Er, Mr President, can I have a word?”
“Sure, Mark. But what’s this Mr President thing? Com’on Mark. Relax. Why the gloomy face? Com’on. Cooom’on. Hey Hey Hey ….”
“Well Mr …. err … Bill. It’s like this. We …”
“Aw Mark. You’re not going all gooey on me are you? What? What is it? A few press clippings giving you the wobblies. …… “
“Bill. We need to put you on the bench. You’re off the frontline. No more public attacks. Just waving. And smiling. And pointing out people in the crowd who you’re just too pleased to see. You’re great at that stunned but enthralled mullet thing, Bill. You’re the mullet-master. Bill? Bill? Er, Mr President?”
Bill Clinton is probably one of the most charismatic Presidents the US has known. He is also one of the most accomplished media managers in the public eye. Knowledgeable, authoritative and oozing self-confidence, Mr Clinton makes people sit up and listen. But he has one flaw, hidden beneath his highly polished public face. And it’s a killer. He is human.
And no matter how well prepared the likes of Bill is or how many systems are put in place to ensure his types never stumble, people make mistakes. Even Bill makes mistakes. The problem is he has the world’s media (and the entire Republican Party to boot) on standby waiting for the moment when he gets just a little bit too antsy.
Whether Mr Clinton’s comments could really be construed as racially motivated is a mute point. The fact is they were ill judged and ill placed and nothing in the über-orchestrated Clinton camp could stop him from speaking his mind. The system failed and Mr Penn’s team was reaching for its collective crisis management hat before you could say, “Bill Cosby for President”.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a rather more complex people management system was failing. Or at least that’s what Société Générale’s Chairman, Daniel Bouton, thought was failing. In fact it turned out to be a rather less sophisticated management tool that was in place and, give or take a few €100 million, it has lost his bank €6.3 billion. Oh.
The latest reports from Paris suggest that Jérôme Kerveil, a junior equity derivatives trader, was determined to prove himself able to out-perform the highly paid, elite traders elsewhere on the floor. He started making unauthorised, but successful, trading bets in 2005 and by the end of 2007 was sitting on a profit in excess of €1.4 billion. That’s a sum equivalent to nearly half the revenues of Société Générale’s entire equities division. The problem was, he didn’t know where to hide it so he declared about 2% of it as profit and kept trading the rest. It was a €30 billion trade on Germany’s DAX that set the alarm bells ringing. Yes. €30 billion. Pity they didn’t pick it up before, really.
Of course, everyone’s spending power is relative. €30 will get you a pretty decent main course and a couple of glasses of Burgundy in most of Paris’ arrondissements. Enough to make you feel content certainly and, perhaps, a little light on your feet too. But add 9 zeros to that and you’re going to feel a little more than intoxicated. Not surprisingly, the board of Société Générale have been dealing with what must seem like the mother of all hangovers since the news broke 3 weeks ago.
It’s easy to loose perspective of what happened at one of France’s most respected banks. But if this was a James Bond film, Jerome Kerveil has just pulled off the equivalent of walking into Fort Knox with little more than a false name and his best friends driving licence. He’s then coolly pocketed 25% of the United States bullion depository, had a pint and a Ploughmans at the Hand and Sceptre on the way home and then popped down to the local betting agency where he placed the lot on the 3-1 favourite at Sandown – which pulled up lame as they were under starters orders.
As my Grandmother used to remind me when I was a wee lamb, “There’s nothing more strange than folk”. Apart from contributing to my intense dislike of large crowds in small places (which is probably why I eventually left the UK), it’s an adage that has stuck with me through thick and thin.
The fact is, people do the strangest things at the oddest times and for the silliest of reasons. There’s nothing going to change that, be they has-been Presidents or wannabe Euro heros. And, in all honesty, we wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s what makes them interesting. It’s what makes them human. It’s what makes them compelling enough to want to sit up and take note. It’s also what makes Mark Penn’s job (and anyone else involved in the communications industry) one of the most intensely nerve-racking and exciting roles of all.