Monitor Group and Libya: The Consultant Interview and Perspective (Part 1)

It's been a fascinating few days of coverage and analysis regarding Monitor Group's bankruptcy and Deloitte subsequently coming in and announcing they were purchasing the assets (i.e., consultants and brands, including Doblin and GBN, of the organization). We've covered the news 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.

Like former Cambridge consultant Arthur D. Little, which had also gone bankrupt, Monitor no doubt overstretched itself in practice areas and expansion without the right planning and controls (although in Monitor's case, an overt focus on deal activity -- acquisitions, divestitures, etc. -- instead of basic balance sheet health and core P&L growth likely played an even greater role in its ultimate decline). Yet one curious element underlying Monitor's bankruptcy seems unique and stands completely apart – the firm's image had been tarnished based on disclosures that it had provided consulting services to Libyan strongman and terrorist sponsor/harborer Momar Kadafi.

Of all the consultants I know, few would be engaged in providing branding and strategic state-level advice to North African strongmen. But as coincidence may have it, when I read this news, I recalled that one of my best friends from university had also gone to Libya as part of a similar brand strategy initiative for the country a number of years ago, around the same time as Monitor did. This colleague and long-time friend, Jeremy Hildreth, is probably the world authority on country branding, and is a challenging gentleman to connect with. He currently has 16 flights still to take, through six countries, "before Christmas," in his words.

Jeremy's bio notes that he is one of the pioneers of the discipline of place branding, helping cities and countries attract investment and tourism through imaginative tactics and thoughtful strategies. Unsurprisingly, he's a man constantly in the air -- and on the ground in far away locales. Yet it's occasionally possible to connect with Jeremy at his base of operations in London. And we were fortunately on Facebook at the same time earlier in the week and started a chat which enabled us to set aside some time later in the day to talk about his experience consulting to Libya as well as the broader question itself as to whether Monitor should have done similar work in the first place.

As further background, Jeremy's private sector work concentrates on "brands from places" and teaching companies the art of leveraging provenance (i.e., where they're from) for commercial advantage. He co-authored the book Brand America: The Mother of All Brands. During the last decade, Hildreth has advised the governments of numerous countries on image-related issues, including Mongolia, Northern Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, East Timor, Ghana, Monaco and Mauritius, as well as cities (notably London and Rio de Janeiro) and regions (including Swedish Lapland and Latin America).

Jeremy and I go back a long way. While at university together, we collectively faced the wrath of a number of organizations that did not like our non-politically correct humor that we shared in a now defunct print publication. It was not a time, after all, to debate the merits of whether or not the Haitian student alliance was worth funding to support cultural awareness in the name of voodoo worship. Or, for that matter, to write and shoot a photojournalism essay comparing the University of Pennsylvania's high rise apartments to the as attractive (and less expensive) housing projects just a few blocks away, not to mention providing step-by-step instruction on how to qualify for public housing as a student.

Jeremy and I parted ways after graduation, but never lost touch. I went into consulting and Jeremy went to Wall Street to become Lawrence Kudlow's economic analyst, following a spell as a fiscal policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. After taking his MBA at Oxford in 2003, he moved to London and fell in love with travel, writing and place branding as a career. It was after this move that I caught up with him when he had gotten back from Libya in 2008 after a quick engagement with the Kadafi administration. From the time, I remembered his vivid impressions of the place and the fact, in his words, "it was just so foreign, on so many levels."

In the world of place branding and corporate strategy (and advising third-world dictatorships on how to become a little bit less dictatorial), Jeremy has a point of view, which you'll see as we kick off our interview with him below. While not an apologist for Monitor, Jeremy will help put you in their shoes and the mindset for taking on consulting work for Libya in the first place.

Jason Busch: Could you tell Spend Matters readers a bit about your background working with Libya?

Jeremy Hildreth: I went to Libya in January 2008, which I think was towards the end of Monitor's involvement, or maybe right in the middle of it. I remember hearing at the time that Libya had been working with Monitor but our activity was separate, as I'll explain. I was based in London working for a brand strategy company at the time and I was head of their place branding practice. We were approached by the Middle East and North African division of Grey, the global advertising agency, who'd had some contact with one Kadafi's son Seif (NB: I believe the same one that Monitor was advising on how to run a state, with weekly tutorials on leadership, world affairs and such. - Jason). Grey believed their offer regarding communications and advertising would be bolstered by our experience with nation brand strategy. And so they brought us along on a fact-finding tour. I was the only one from my company who went, and I spent an extraordinary week there. Libya is a mesmerizing place.

Jason Busch: Did you or you or the consulting practice you worked for at the time have any misgivings?

Jeremy Hildreth: Yes, of course. We thought about the situation and what our role would be, and we debated it internally. My view was there was no harm in proceeding, based on the fact that Kadafi and his regime were notorious, and that very notoriety would make any cosmetic attempt to improve their image utterly useless. The only way this country and its government could improve its image was the old-fashioned way: earning it. There was simply no way to put lipstick on such a well-known pig. Libya was being watched like hawks, and everyone in the world was skeptical about them.

Nevertheless, at that moment in history, very briefly, it really looked like Libya might actually be on the verge of rejoining the brotherhood of nations. Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, actually went there, as I recall, and Kadafi came to Europe once or twice, with his Amazon women in tow. The U.S., too, made substantive as well as symbolic overtures.

So my sincere thought was: hey, maybe by getting involved, we can incentivize Libya to shape up faster and better than they otherwise would, and help them do it. Let's give it a shot, or at least look into it. There was a genuine idealism in our intent.

To be continued...

- Jason Busch

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