Monitor Group and Libya: The Consultant Interview and Perspective (Part 3)

Please click here for the first and second installments in this series. 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. Drop Sheena a line for a free Spend Matters PRO trial:

Jason Busch: So were you guys wrong in taking on the assignment? Did your firm and Monitor have an ethical lapse in judgment here?

Jeremy: I can't speak about Monitor's case. But I'm confident my team and I were in the clear in choosing to pitch our nation branding advisory services to Libya. We had no intention of being pawns or PR flunkies. To show where our head was at the time, and what our intentions were, here are two passages from our proposal to the Libyan government, which I've just decided to "declassify" for the enjoyment and edification of Spend Matters readers. Sound good?

Jason Busch: Go for it.

Jeremy Hildreth: Here's one: "For Libya's positive messages to be accepted by the world, to be seen as the new reality of Libya, you need to do two things: to make [the messages] true, and to project that they are true. Only the combination of the substance and communication will create the authentic change which Libya's leadership now seeks; only the combination will see Libya able to cultivate its unique gifts and share them with the world. Therefore [our consortium] proposes not only to communicate a new reality but actually to help create that new reality."

Jason Busch: And the second passage? I'm almost convinced, but go ahead and clear your name completely.

Jeremy Hildreth: Here's the second: "[The top-line message we will help you craft and send] is simple: 'Think Libya, think again'. We [shall tell] people, in essence, your current perceptions of this country, if they were ever true, certainly are not true now; you must re-examine Libya, and you will be rewarded for it. And we must follow through on the promise: we must reward them for being willing to think again...[Toward that end] we will advise you on how various policies and political activity may impact on Libya's image, positively or negatively. We will suggest both things you can do and things you might refrain from doing in the interest of bolstering Libya's image... And we can help policymakers set image-related targets. For example, to push Libya ahead of China on the Wall Street Journal's Index of Economic Freedom. Attainments like this are the best because they are un-fakeable; you have earned these milestones or you haven't; you cannot reach them purely through talk, which is why the world will take them seriously."

This wasn't spin doctoring. This was change making, and I'd have been glad for the chance to go further with it. Maybe we could have staved off a revolution.

Jason Busch: Do you really think so?

Jeremy Hildreth: Who knows? Imagine if we had been able to inspire Kadafi to push Libya ahead of China in terms of economic freedom! We really thought we had a chance to make Libya a better place and a better force in the world. We certainly weren't alone in this believe, either, and I'm offended by people who "just know" that it's "just wrong," always and ever, ipso facto, to have any involvement with a dictatorship. That view ignores the massive grey areas, and is entirely conjectural regarding cause and effect. Take the London School of Economics, who got flak for enrolling Seif Kadafi. Tell me, would it be better to have him not there and not learning from the Western canon? Nobody can claim an authoritative answer to this.

Jason Busch: Tell me about Stockholm Syndrome and how that could have played a role. Wikipedia says "Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy, sympathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them ... Stockholm syndrome can [also] be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario."

Jeremy Hildreth: There is certainly a bit of Stockholm Syndrome that can happen with any consulting engagement once you cozy up to a client. It's not only a matter of being on the payroll. There's also a mentality that arises. As a consultant, you want to be supportive of your client, you want to be "upbeat," you want to say yes, you want to ingratiate. Even if you're very, very disciplined it can be awkward to remain distant and independent at every moment.

This holds even more truth in a situation like Libya's half a decade ago. Spending time there was surreal and disorienting, particularly if you don't speak Arabic. You got pulled into meetings and dinners and you weren't always sure who was who and quite what was going on. It was all very exotic, too. It put me in mind of P.J. O'Rourke's anecdote in "Holidays in Hell" about the Korean political rally he attended where he watched a kid bite off the tip of his finger and write the candidate's name in blood on his own ski parka. P.J. said: "I think that was the first time I ever really felt like a foreign correspondent. I mean, here was something really fucking foreign."

Libya was foreign and seductive and topsy-turvy in that way. I'll tell you a story about this. Like many countries where Islam is the prevalent religion, Libya is dry. But I was surprised to discover it was so thoroughly dry that the Becks beer in the hotel minibar was non-alcoholic. Remember, this was a hotel exclusively for foreigners. So I was mildly impressed: I thought, hey, these guys take their principles seriously. This was naïve, of course, for as soon as we went to someone's house – and even when Kadafi's representatives were present – the Filipino houseboys would parade out the bar trolley. And we'd all drink rum and whisky, right in front the Libyans, and they didn't bat an eye. They may have partaken as well; I can't actually recall.

Anyway, even for experienced professionals, it can be challenging to maintain your "frame," and to insist on your way of doing things, when submersed in such a foreign environment.

Jason Busch: Monitor would have faced the same pressures?

Jeremy Hildreth: Undoubtedly. Oh, and a funny thing about that alcohol incident... About a year before visiting Libya, I'd had a chance encounter with Christopher Hitchens at the bar at London's Royal Geographic Society. I spoke with him for about five minutes, and he was in what I assume to have been a typical Hitchens mental state in which he noticeably soused and preposterously lucid at the same time. He was seated, and at his feet was a 500ml bottle of Glenfiddich 12-year, three-quarters empty. I said, "I thought you drank Johnnie Walker black exclusively?" His reply was remarkable, something very close to: "Usually, yes, and do you know why? Because it's ubiquitous! I'm a creature of habit, and I can be certain that even in the most remote isle or extreme Islamic state, I can always get Johnnie Walker Black Label."

Jason Busch: That's hilarious. Win one for globalization, then. Any summary remarks?

Jeremy Hildreth: Yes. Libya was, and remains, a charming and dynamic emerging economy attractive to foreigners. And there was a window when sane people believed Libya's governance under Kadafi was on the verge of turning a corner. As it played out, Kadafi walked his nation right up to the precipice of being a respectable regime, but then pivoted and went back the other way. But people who say "I told you so!" either don't know what they're talking about, or are the type who lack the ambition or idealism to avail themselves of unconventional opportunities to get rich and/or make the world a better place.

Spend Matters would like to thank brand strategy and identity expert Jeremy Hildreth for sharing his thoughts on working with controversial clients and tackling the issues of country images and national turnarounds. More information on Jeremy and his work can be found here.

- Jason Busch

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