Please click here for the first installment of our interview with Jeremy Hildreth. We've also covered the news of Monitor's bankruptcy extensively on our public site (here, here, and here) as well as on our subscription site, Spend Matters PRO, from an instructive supply risk and services procurement vantage point: Monitor Group Goes Bankrupt: Why Services Procurement and Risk Management Best Practices Matter.
Jason Busch: What were you guys and Monitor hired to do, precisely?
Jeremy Hildreth: Metaphorically, the idea was that we'd give the Libyans elocution lessons and teach them to "dress for the ball," as the head of Grey advertising agency put it at the time. We knew that if they behaved boorishly at the ball, our work would be for naught. And we took comfort in this, because we didn't want to help them if they weren't really reforming.
Photo: Jeremy Hildreth in Libya
Jason Busch: What was the debate like in your firm about taking on Libya as a client?
Jeremy Hildreth: There were certainly some misgivings in the office. My view was that branding is as much about substance as spin. Libya was highly visible. Anything purely cosmetic would have been seen through instantly. Place branding is about doing good things and then projecting them. I saw our work as projecting and amplifying the positive substantive changes that were meant to be taking place.
As I said, unlike some of my colleagues, I was not worried about doing a pariah turnaround. Imagine you had a friend who went to prison, got out, and asked you to buy him a suit so he could go to job interview. And so in good faith you bought him the suit, but then he went and robbed a bank. Are you to blame? Well, the suit was a disguise, maybe. But if the guy already is a famous bank robber whose "wanted" photo is plastered up all over the place, then the suit wouldn't have helped him.
Jason Busch: Was your firm or Monitor misled?
Jeremy Hildreth: Well, we didn't end up getting beyond the initial fact-finding mission. For whatever reason, Grey, the lead agency, just didn't get the job. But I can imagine that Monitor may have been seduced further than they intended to be. That's pure speculation on my part. But having been on the ground there, I can tell you, it's essentially a really nice country: organized, peaceful and full of color and character. And the people, the "Libyan everyman," were charming.
Libya, despite experiments by Kadafi in banning private property back in '70s or '80s, had become a half-way functional place (unlike, say, Cuba, whose structures and economy have been a basket case for years) yet the people remained poor. So, first of all, it would be easy to convince yourself, if you're in Monitor's position, that you're helping the people.
And secondly, there's that "Stockholm syndrome," or inadvertent capture that often happens with professional services; as independent as you hope to be when you're an adviser, you never know what meetings you'll be dragged into and what questions you'll be asked to give an opinion on; and it can be awkward to avoid these entanglements. I'm not saying this happened with Monitor. But it may have.
Jason Busch: Did Monitor technically do anything wrong providing council to Libya (aside from not registering with the right authorities)?
Jeremy Hildreth: Well, the idea, the reflexive, faux-appalled "How could they be stupid?" sort of response to this is definitely out of line, plain ignorant. As I've said, getting involved in Libya made significant sense at the time, or appeared to. Monitor were far from the only ones. A lot of Western companies were getting their foot in the door, anticipating access to a soon-to-rapidly-emerging nation. (In fact, history's borne this out: Libya's economic growth is off the charts at the moment.)
I don't know the full stories, but as long as firms like Monitor were giving well-intentioned and ethical advice, the nature of the recipient of the advice – well, it's not fair to come down on Monitor without knowing more. Yes, as it turned out, Libya under Kadafi did not turn a corner, which is why Monitor now admits it made a mistake. But if Libya under its former management was to be reformed, it was only going to happen based on the advice from trusted advisors.
The other important, really important, fact people need to understand is that Libya was, and remains, a country with a lot of work to be done. If it were a house, it's a real fixer upper, but a gorgeous one that'll be a worth a lot of money in a good state of a repair. Even forgetting about the oil opportunities, it's a country of 6.5 million that's a gateway to Africa. There's just a lot that needs to be done, and it hasn't got anything to do with who's in power.
Libyan Shoe Craftsman – Photo Credit: Jeremy Hildreth
When I was in Tripoli, I had breakfast at the hotel buffet with a Canadian pilot. He was out there as part of a deal in which CRJ had sold passenger jets to Libya's domestic carrier, and he was training local pilots to fly them safely. From my branding angle, I was particularly interested in tourism promotion. Libya's Mediterranean coast has extraordinary Roman ruins – some of the best anywhere, absolutely stunning. And there's a ton of Arabic artefacts and sites there, too, of course, including the majestic Ghadames, a historic caravan town at the edge of the Sahara desert. I wrote a dispatch from there, which is posted on my blog.
But look, I don't want to sound like an apologist for a despotic regime, nor do I want to come off as gullible. There were some of meetings in Tripoli, some people we met, some situations I was exposed to, that set my Spidey sense tingling a bit about the prospects for reform in Libya. There were some pretty surreal moments.
To be continued...