As the drama surrounding the failure of Camilla Batmanghelidjh’s Kids Company rumbles on, I’ve been thinking about what characterised both the success and failure of this organisation as a brand, and the leadership model it represents. What happens when a much needed disruptor brand fails in integrity as it seems Kids Company may have done? Why was this challenger brand so successful initially in a world comprised of very sincere, staid, hard-working charities that toe the line and get a lot less funding?
A Clever Brand Construct
It was a clever construct. A charitable organisation run largely for the benefit of ‘disturbed and damaged’ (a common prevailing view in certain circles?) black urban children by a wholly white middle class board, headed by a highly visible, cartoon-like eccentric character of the kind so beloved of the British establishment. There’s a British eccentric who’s adopted the cultural image of the developing world in every good pukka family, isn’t there? We love them.
Kids Company probably attracted more funding than almost any other similar organisation for these very simple reasons:-
- It was taking on a very real problem of urban child neglect for which the government had failed to formulate a joined-up strategy and for which they were desperate for a ‘pretty’ electorally attractive solution
- It was headed by a colourful character that played into the still latent sense of noblesse oblige which is sadly still prevalent in British hierarchy, in that it spoke to the beliefs of that hierarchy — that black communities cannot manage themselves and need help
- That character assumed the form of heroic leader and saviour which is a leadership model we are very familiar with and respond to almost automatically
- It attracted celebrity supporters like Coldplay for the very same reason — it was a colourful, attractive, spoke the psychotherapeutic language of the day, easy for another brand to be associated with
Can Brand Values be The Wrong Values?
We talk a lot about lived brand values in brand alignment. About making sure that the values we espouse are consistently and coherently experienced by our customers at every touchpoint. Who can say that Camilla’s weren’t? They just don’t see to have been values shared by investors — in hindsight.
The explosively colourful nature of Kids Company properties and Camilla herself were designed to instil hope and positivity in contrast to the drab and dull surroundings of bare and barren estates, but also quite simply to make her the go-to spokesperson for child neglect. How much better to have the exotic Camilla on the tv sofa than a dull suit? Did her image play into the psychology of fame and glory best represented by The X Factor rather than in the very serious arena of child neglect? Maybe, but as representative of her brand, Camilla was almost perfect. Bright, bold, irreverent, outspoken, challenging, loud, but also a big bold comforting mama to her ‘children’. The hare not the tortoise. It made her a must-support person and charity.
The painted success of Kids Company with a leader who was clearly combative, prepared to manipulate the dialogue, and ‘PR’ her way to success was always going to show up as an organisation that bent the rules internally in the same way as it did externally. So in one sense, Kids Company was true to its own brand values. At the barricades, prepared to do whatever was necessary for its cause. Colourful characters are just that — colourful. Rule benders. Taboo breakers. Why did anyone expect anything different?
How do enterprises manage charismatic leaders?
The figurehead leadership model is one we understand well. As always in these discussions, I’m compelled to cite other colourful characters who are leaders like Richard Branson, Sir Alan Sugar, the late Steve Jobs. Rule breakers one and all. We know and respond to the hero’s journey, the change-maker who stands up against the evil villain and waves a flag for right on behalf of the people. Perhaps the difference between these leaders and Camilla is that even though they are in control of their organisations, they all have the sense to put in place checks and balances in the form of financial controls that ensure their organisations perform or are chopped pretty pronto when they fail. Or that they are measured by the very real commercial success or failure of their organisations where emotions and heart-strings are rarely tugged.
How can we ensure that charismatic leaders who, in the personal brand world we live in, inevitably get the media exposure and achieve the fund-raising success required to effect change, are ‘managed’ in such a way that they can’t damage the future of the brand to which they are inextricably linked?
Perhaps that’s why the Patron and supporter model has stood the test of time in charitable and social enterprise circles. You can wheel in the colour and wheel it out again, whilst the business is in the hands of an experienced and capable ex civil servant who won’t rock the boat.
At the moment much of the ‘blame’ game is centred on Camilla herself. Is that fair? To pillory one person who has been so supported by government organisations seems just a distraction technique to avoid facing up to the fact that a clever brand construct got the support it wanted by using the very manipulative PR spin tactics the same government uses itself! Mirror, mirror on the wall comes to mind.
You can get away with it if you’re Steve Jobs managing commercial money. And even he was fired once. Unfortunately when you’re taking public money, you can’t. Not for ever.
I hope we see other Camillas in the future. Splendidly colourful characters who shine a spotlight on contentious and difficult issues. I also hope that behind the colourful brand facade there will be financial rigour and better systems and deep values entrenched and lived throughout the brand. Because the real losers in all the bruhaha are still the children who do suffer neglect and harm. There’s still no solution in place for them.