The 2013 Golden Flannel awards for corporate guff
Original giants of jargon get recognition
Companies did a lot of firing last year and were more imaginative than ever in telling it like it is not. Most famously, HSBC “demised” its managers, Reuters caused staff to be “transitioned out of the company”, while other businesses “disestablished” or even “completed” roles.
Each January for the past eight years I have handed out prizes to the finest, freshest examples of corporate guff spoken or written in the preceding 12 months. Until now my methodology has been autocratic: all decisions have been taken by me. This year, as a nod to the sheer size and maturity of the bullshit market, I’ve toyed with democracy and enlisted colleagues to join me as judges.
Yet I find I’m not ready to give up absolute power just yet. I have humoured my fellow judges up to a point, but when they have made the wrong choices, I have overridden them, thus ensuring all winners of the 2013 Golden Flannel Awards are truly exceptional, utterly original, jargon giants.
The first category is “Best euphemism for firing people”. Companies did a lot of firing last year and were more imaginative than ever in telling it like it is not. Most famously, HSBC “demised” its managers, Reuters caused staff to be “transitioned out of the company”, while other businesses “disestablished” or even “completed” roles. By popular demand, I’m giving the prize to HSBC. In “demising”, it has done the impossible and invented a euphemism that is harsher than the real thing. It made it sound as if it were not merely sacking staff – it was exterminating them.
The next prize, the “Communications Cup”, is for the worst way of meeting/talking to/ emailing someone. “To reach out”, a previous winner, almost won again as the loathsome phrase has spread into “reaching down” (talking to underlings) and “reaching around” (talking to a group). Other contenders included “let’s connect” and “loop me in”, yet none is as deserving as “to inbox”. The genius of this new verb lies in its unintentional accuracy. To say “I’ll inbox you” implicitly acknowledges that though the message will arrive in your inbox, you will never actually read it.
“To inbox” is also a strong contender for the “Nerbs and vouns” prize – for nouns moonlighting as verbs and vice versa. “To solution” and “to road map” were both hot contenders but lost out to the voun seen attached to a sofa in a shop in London declaring it to be “a medium sit”. For me, “sit” is standout.
Sticking with nouns, the next category is for “Rebranded common object”, awarded to a household item with an extravagant new name. The judges could not decide between a bottle of water, recently described as an “affordable, portable lifestyle beverage” by an analyst, and a swimming cap, rebranded by Speedo as a “hair management system”. So I cast the deciding vote and award the prize to water. To call something free “affordable”, and something that is necessary for life itself a matter of “lifestyle”, represents the idiocy and verbosity the Flannel Awards were established to recognise.
By contrast there was no disagreement about this year’s “Chief obfuscation champion”, given to the chief executive who never opens his or her mouth without a blue streak of guff pouring out.
David and Goliath
The 2013 award represents a heartwarming David and Goliath story in which a little guy defeats such giants of guff as Howard Schultz, Angela Ahrendts or Irene Rosenfeld. He is Rob Stone, chief executive of Cornerstone, who wrote about his ad agency’s expansion: “As brands build out a world footprint, they look for the no-holds-barred global POV that’s always been part of our wheelhouse.” My own, no-holds-barred POV is that this man was gagging for his gong because he came up with a four-way mixed metaphor that managed to say nothing whatsoever.
He also managed to use the word “wheelhouse”, which was on the longlist for the “Guff word of 2013”. Other candidates included “sweetspot” and “experience”, both narrowly beaten by “curate” – referring not to a man in a dog collar, nor to something that happens in art galleries, but to the activity that every company, no matter how basic, claims to be doing. A vendor of T-shirts “curates iconic street culture”. But when even a cheese sold by a US delicatessen claims every yellow slab has been “curated” before it reaches your mouth, the prize is in the bag.
My final category is a new one. The “Flannel-free award” goes to a person who eschewed jargon for a few seconds to say something straight. I was ready to give this award to Tim Armstrong, chief executive of AOL, who departed from his usual guff-heavy patois on a conference call to utter the words “you’re fired”. But then I came across these words from Wan Long, founder of Shuanghui International and a global leader in the pork chop space: “What I do is kill pigs and sell meat.” With joy, I award him the prize.