My interview with Parag Khanna

At the Moscow Urban Forum, Parag Khanna and I look tilt-shift miniature sitting in the “backyard” of a developer’s demo house. It was the quietest place I could find to record our conversation.

Listen in iTunes / Apple Podcasts:

iTunes podcast:  Parag Khanna and Jeremy Hildreth in conversation

Listen on SoundCloud:


A year after Parag Khanna became the most hated man in Mongolia for making a disparaging (yet accurate!) remark about their geopolitical prospects, he accepted the president of Mongolia’s invitation to visit the country.

But instead of flying like a normal person, Parag drove 13,000km from London to Ulaanbaatar (as part of the Mongol Rally) in a decommissioned British Army Land Rover field ambulance, which he then donated to Mongolia’s medical services.

This is what I admire most about my friend Parag: if and when he doesn’t have actual skin in the game, he has the next best thing: his feet on the ground.

Parag Khanna, who turns 40 this month, is a scholar and a traveller (not always in that order) and a wise and well-informed man, characterised as a visionary by none other than THE BLACK SWAN’s Nassim Taleb.

In this conversation, which took place backstage at the Moscow Urban Forum a few minutes after I’d interviewed him on-stage for the Forum itself, we get into Parag’s views on:

* What it means to fuse the reality between “what you read” and “what you see”
* The paradox of how the future success of globalisation depends on increased tribalism (and why he supports secessionist movements)
* Why it’s probably your own goddamn government’s fault if you’re unhappy that your job went overseas
* How most people misuse the term globalisation in pathetically self-serving ways
* Why it’s sound judgment to “trust the traveller.”
* Why Berlin, London, Singapore, New York are awesome
* Why Dubai (Dubai??) is REALLY awesome, too


Full transcript:

Read it in full below, or, if you prefer, on  Medium.

This is Jeremy Hildreth, and my guest today is Parag Khanna, who is kind of a buddy of mine I guess you’d say. We’ve known each other a long time, and we’re about the same age. He’s a couple of years younger, and we don’t see very much of each other. He lives in Singapore. I live in London. We’re both American, but it’s always in some random place like down an alley in Shanghai. I remember once having a drink with him down some hutong. I think we’ve never hung out in the same place twice, actually, so it’s no surprise whatsoever that the last place I saw him was in Moscow, Russia at the Moscow Urban Forum, where I interviewed him up on stage about his new book called Connectography.

The point of my podcast, this podcast, generally speaking, is to have conversations with remarkable people who’ve lived interesting lives so far, and Parag meets that description to a tee. He’s a traveler, a thinker. He’s an integrator, which is something very important to me, something I look for in people, something that’s a very rare talent, skill, knack of combining things, putting things together, seeing the big picture, and how it connects to the details. I love this. I love this about him.

His book Connectography will enlighten you. It will help you use the right maps to see and understand the modern world, and direction, or directions, that we’re moving in. It’s not an easy read, particularly, but it is a nutritious one, and if you like what you hear in the interview, regard that as a kind of a sampler, and go get his book.

I’ll give you a couple of examples from the blurbs. “Connectography is as compelling and richly expressive as the ancient maps from which it draws its inspiration.” I like that one. “Reading Connectography is a real adventure.” I certainly concur. “A provocative remapping of contemporary capitalism based on planetary mega infrastructures, intercontinental corridors of connectivity, and transnational supply chains.” Hahaha. Anyway, you get the idea, and I promise you it’s a hell of a book.

So let’s go now to the audiotape….

For the benefit of the audience, Parag and I are sitting outside of a makeshift patio on a developer’s demo house.

How do you like this AstroTurf?

Yeah, with AstroTurf beneath our feet. There’s a gigantic — how big is that thing?

That’s quite a mural… photo.

There’s a gigantic photographic mural, or very detailed painting, of Moscow. It’s as though we were on the roof of a very expensive apartment.

Yes, this would be a multi-million dollar apartment’s terrace that we would have been on, were we not actually indoors in a giant hangar.

If this view were real —

If this view were real.

— there would be three people in the world who could afford it.

Yes, and all three of them would be Russian billionaires, that is true.

Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan guy, coined this term fairly recently “Intellectual-Yet-Idiot” IYI, which has caught on.

I’ve never heard that, that’s awesome.

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My interview with Neil French

This is Neil French. Advertising copywriter extraordinaire (retired) and former worldwide creative director at Ogilvy and WPP. He granted me a 2-hour interview at his home in Spain that ended up lasting two days. Fingers crossed, I'll soon publish recordings and/or transcripts of our conversations. #whataguy #neilfrench #livinglegend and oh yeah #buyhisbook called "Sorry for the Lobsters," a true-life Mad Men memoir (though Neil claims not to have have seen the show #madmen). It's as elucidating as any book by David #ogilvy and a helluva lot more risqué.

This is Neil French, advertising copywriter extraordinaire (retired) and former worldwide creative director at Ogilvy and WPP. He granted me an interview at his home in Spain.

Listen in iTunes / Apple Podcasts:

iTunes podcast:  Neil French & Jeremy Hildreth in conversation

Listen on SoundCloud:


Now in his seventies, Neil French is a Hemingway-esque figure. Neil’s checkered past includes a stint as Judas Priest’s band manager and a foray into Soho’s pornographic underworld that lasted until the Maltese mafia threatened his life.

It was Neil’s stratospheric success in advertising that made him rich and famous, yet for reasons left unexplained, he can’t stomach being compared to Don Draper of MAD MEN.

In 2005, he finished his career with Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP with the exalted title “worldwide creative director,” then went into the business of being a dad full time.

This podcast presents a single hour of coherent conversation (distilled from several hours of discursive dialogue).

In this recording, we get into random & fascinating topics like:

• How to know when to give up bullfighting
• David Ogilvy: from boardroom to bedroom
• Why you should try to write the way you talk
• Ozzy Osbourne’s incredible ear for accents
• The mindsets and practices that create and sell-in effective advertisements
• Banging heads with the chairman of Mitsubishi, and how that can be avoided by using a 4-foot “cultural exclusion zone”
• The generous spirit of Thai women
• Which airline serves the best curry
• The genius of Jimmy Buffett and the poetry of country music
• How to get the best out of your clients while helping them get the best out of you
• Being likeable versus ingratiating
• Living without regrets

Full transcript:

Read it in full below, or, if you prefer, on Medium.

So, this is Jeremy Hildreth, and who am I talking to?! 

I’m talking to Neil French, who’s one of the most straight-shooting, strong-willed, self-revealing and self-determined men that I have ever had the pleasure to discourse with. I would characterize Neil as an amalgam of Roger Sterling, Ernest Hemingway and Errol Flynn, but you can draw your own conclusions about that.

This podcast is brought to you by… nobody. I made it myself very much in a, “Look, Ma, no hands!” kind of way. You can probably look forward to better audio quality in future broadcasts. But this one is still pretty listenable, and you do get the ambiance of Neil’s villa high up on the hillside of the village of Deia in Majorca, Spain where the following conversation was recorded.

Music: [music: Judas Priest, “Victim of Changes”]

So… thank you for agreeing to be on my first podcast, which might be my last podcast too.

Certainly, in which case, it will be the best.

Yes. Or it could be the beginning of something. I’ve been told many times I have a great face for radio.

Yeah, you do have a terrific face for radio.

And you have a great voice for radio. So, between the two of us….

Well, I earned a living at this for awhile….

For the audience’s benefit, I’ll say that I first heard of you, Neil French, after I did my MBA at Oxford, and I got my first job at a branding and design agency in London. And I was a strategist teamed up with designers. And in the little library that the agency next to the kitchen they had a book called The Copy Book, which had I think 47 or 48 different copywriters.

32. I always thought that was a bizarre number. Why 32?

’Cause out of 50, that’s how many responded.

Oh, is that right?

No, I just made that up.

You made that up as well? You’re very good.

I’m learning from you how to sound authoritative when you make something up.

I’m so impressed.

So, that chapter in The Copy Book had a big influence on me. And now, changing the subject slightly, I tease people that I have a variegated history, not to be confused with a checkered past. I’ve had several careers up till now, but, sir, you take the cake in terms of a career history, which may, if I could put it politely, verge on a checkered past.

Well, it wouldn’t verge! I worked at it being a checkered past! Christ!

That was by design? Okay.

How much more checkered do you want it?!

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Wicked problems: when place branding doesn’t make a splash

This a actually a footnote masquerading as a post. The article in which it’s referenced is on Clare Dewhirst’s very excellent City Nation Place conference web site:


“When place branding doesn’t make a splash: 4 failure factors”

Excerpted from “Place branding: a view at arm’s length” by Jeremy Hildreth in the Journal of Place Branding (2010).


It must be clear to anyone who has studied the field that place branding is easier said than done, and that there are dozens of complicating factors. There is, as has often been pointed out (Anholt, 2007), the exceedingly common error of using the word ‘brand’ to mean multiple distinct things, namely, of confusing the ‘brand’ that is a visual representation of an entity (‘brand identity’) with the ‘brand’ that is the collective perceptions of that entity in people’s minds (‘brand image’). Consultants need to be crystal clear in their usage of this word because too often one senses, from the way clients and others use their words, that they think by ‘working on’ their brand identity they’re necessarily having a direct effect on their brand image. This is, of course, far removed from the truth.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is the nature of the place-branding problem itself. Place branding is what is known in social planning as a ‘wicked problem’. This concept was first named by Horst W.J. Rittel at the University of California, Berkeley in (Rittel et al, 1973), and brought to the author’s attention by Michael Dila, a consultant at Torch Partnership in Toronto.

Some of the attributes of a wicked problem are as follows:

1. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

2. The problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution begins.

3. A wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways; the choice of explanation in turn determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.

4. Wicked problems are often ‘solved’ (as well as they can be) through group efforts, with members of the group having different frames of reference and different value systems.

5. Every implemented solution to a wicked problem has consequences, and may cause additional problems, all of which the planner will be held responsible for.

6. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but instead better, worse or good enough.

7. Wicked problems require inventive solutions; nothing off the peg or ‘tried and true’ is likely to work.

8. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustive set of potential solutions, and there is no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem (so you never know if you’ve found the best answer).

If one tries to solve a wicked problem in the linear way one would solve a tame problem (for example, a mathematical problem, which has a definite answer) – by defining the problem, articulating a solution and then implementing that solution – it doesn’t work. However, this is how most place-branding tenders and proposals and briefs are written, with project stages matching those activity areas and unfolding in an apparently irreversible sequence.

Indeed, the failure to identify place-branding problems as wicked is one of the chief barriers to development of this field, and perhaps the reason why there have been so few real successes.

To read the entire article – maybe one of my best – ping me an email at and I’ll send you the PDF. If when you write, you kindly identify yourself and your interest in the subject, then I can possibly include comments or additional lagniappes in my reply.

A JH&Co. exclusive: Augmented Virtual Reality

AVR pirate ship by JH&Co.Presenting the world’s first “augmented virtual reality” app for smartphones.

I often come up with damned decent ideas, but every once in awhile I come up with a truly brilliant one.

That’s what has just happened: collaborating with some specialist 3-D photographers, I came up with a smash-bang idea that’s ideal for place branding.

And now we’re shopping it around.

It’s there for the taking.

First come, first served.

My team is ready.

VR is going to be hot… for a little while… and a destination that gets in on this will have the cache of having been somewhere between “ahead of its time” and “right on trend.” Hence, it’s a good symbolic action. Maybe not right for everyone, but perfect for someone… somewhere….

Write me for the 8-page PDF proposal, telling me who you are, how you ran across this, and what your interest may be.

Not to spoil the mystery, but the way the app will work is it will render several of the destination’s best scenes in VR (“virtual reality”), using a standard smartphone and cardboard (or plastic) VR “headsets.” And then the user will be able to juxtapose interesting, unusual large objects into the scenes — the like pirate ship into the town square, or a 747 into a main street, or… well, we have many ideas. Our imaginations have run pretty wild.

Fully portable.


Instant worldwide distribution.

Useful for investment and tourism promotion.

Comes complete with a stakeholder engagement plan.

As I say, if you’re curious, write me for the 8-page PDF proposal, telling me who you are, how you ran across this, and what your interest may be.


Of yaks and dinosaurs

Meeting in a ger

Doing business in the Gobi, August 2013. Left to right: Diej (of Naadam Cashmere), an old man (on the bed), Bodio, Ishee, and (if memory serves) Dash’s daughter.

They say never work with children or animals.

But once I know the rules, I can’t help myself: I like to break them.

Back in 2011, I began work on a national export strategy for Mongolia’s exotic fibre sector.

This encompassed cashmere, of course, and also camel wool (from the two-humped type, the bactrian), and the hair that quickly became my favourite: yak, which is superior to cashmere in almost every way.

But there’s one big problem with yak: in most countries where it’s sourced, like Tibet, it comes only in brown, indeed in one or two shades of dark brown. Monotonous, and virtually un-dyeable, except maybe to black,

But Mongolia has a yak colour, which before I came to town, they used to call “grey.” For me, discovering this shade was like spotting Lana Turner perched on a stool at the soda fountain: I knew right away I had something special on my hands, something with star power.

First, I ran the numbers, and gleaned that 100 times as much cashmere fibre is collected each year in Mongolia as grey yak fibre. Never mind that figure merely represents a low demand for yak and a high demand for cashmere — I knew I could, as it were, spin a yarn around it.

Next, I coaxed the cooperation of one or two knitwear manufacturers in Ulaanbaatar who bought into my ideas.

We changed the name from “grey yak hair,” and fashioned a new pitch: “Mongolian platinum yak down: a hundred times rarer than cashmere.” Immediately, they put the price up 30%.

I thought — and still think — they should have, and could have, doubled or trebled the price. Just add some theatre, I told them: you know, keep the platinum garments under lock and key, a la Peruvian vicuña, in a glass case in a separate section of the store.

Treat it like the most exalted, precious material in the universe.

Initiate a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Today, my engagement with Mongolia and its exotic animals continues in fits and starts. Nothing is easy in Mongolia. Nothing is straightforward.

Case in point: the dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus bataar, which got up and walked out of the Gobi a few years ago; up and moved to Florida, of all places. Decided to become an illegal immigrant and a mysterious skeletal snowbird after spending X million years in the frozen steppe.

I loved the tale, and though it was widely covered, I didn’t think anyone in the mainstream press had the right angle on it. So I felt I had to do the job myself. My editor at The Wall Street Journal paid me to write the story, but then spiked it — he’d hoped for more emphasis on how they were going to install the dinosaur in the former Lenin museum, but as far as I could work out, that was just a typical Mongol-style rumour; Mongolian officials say all kinds of things to the media.

As I said, nothing to do with Mongolia ever quite goes to plan.

Meanwhile, here’s my article, as commissioned in late 2013 by The Wall Street Journal.

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A weapons-grade model of persuasion

Probably just promoting their band's upcoming gig.

Probably just promoting their band’s upcoming gig.

Being a branding expert in an age when everybody thinks they have a branding issue (and are usually right, at least in some respect) leads to some interesting conversations. And not just on airplanes.

By a lucky accident, a fortnight ago I was pulled into a meeting with a high-ranking British military officer who has been given the following task (I paraphrase): “To create a comprehensive organisation within the armed forces which can integrate and deliver the non-lethal and non-military effects necessary to change or maintain behaviours in foreign territories.”

In other words, a military department of persuasion: part psy-ops (black, grey and white), part media affairs, part reconstruction. (Of course these functions have long existed within the military, but in Britain as in many countries, I gather, they’re now being reorganised.)

I was introduced at the outset by the meeting’s organiser as a “brand strategist and creative strategist.” In the course of the discussion, I offered some suggestions regarding how to go about building a certain kind of organisational culture — one that borrows as much from creative agencies as from normal military divisions.

Overall, though, I did a lot more listening than talking, and I took away some useful concepts, including one in particular that I intend to field test in my own consulting operations.

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Any idea you have is 85 phone calls

Van Halen recording 'Tattoo' music video at the Roxy. October 26th, 2011

Are you prepared to bring an idea to the finish?

Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth is the archetypal rock ‘n’ roll frontman. Super-bright and high-energy, he also happens to be extremely articulate about the creative process, and famously ass-kicking in his ability to get stuff done.

In this interview from last year, he gets to the heart of the distinction between creativity and execution. It resonated with me, and I wanted to share it:

We start way, way, way in advance, ’cause we are eminently art-centric, which is a really fancy way of saying we really do generate all the artwork, the graphics, etc.

We don’t hire out and have somebody design a bunch of album covers for us and then choose…. We start from scratch ourselves. Same thing with the merchandise — if you buy a T-shirt, that was designed, literally, in my living room. On and on… stage design, lighting rig, putting the show together — it takes about a year and a half, 18 months.

Because any idea that you have is 85 phone calls.

Anybody can go, ‘I got an idea, it’s a stage that’s shaped like, uh, like a square on top of a circle.’ Great, my question never was, ‘were you able to dream up a stage design,’ my question is, ‘are you prepared to do the 87 phone calls that are about to follow now, to make sure it came out the way we decided.’

And then there’s another 80 phone calls that are gonna follow that because we have to figure out how to take the fuckin’ thing apart and put it in the trucks and buses. And, and, and.

So if you really want to generate the ideas from scratch and bring them all the way to the finish, you’re gonna have to learn a few other languages, and you’re gonna have to speak those over a lot of extra phone calls. And that’s usually the break point for most artists.”

Coda, on the need to keep your creative capabilities sharp: “I write lyrics routinely. It’s a perishable skill.” Full article here, but it’s mostly about a (supposedly) forthcoming Van Halen album.

“Thought leadership” R Us

Books I've written, contributed to, or helped with.

Books I’ve written, contributed to, or helped with.

I’ve always been a writer, but it wasn’t until the mid ’90s that I acquired the taste for being published.

Most writers will confirm, I suspect, that there’s a unique satisfaction to seeing your words in print. There’s no comparable experience in the digital realm.

A half a career ago, when I was economist in Connecticut, I wrote for lots of newspapers. This was in the day when physical cuttings of the articles would be supplied by “clipping services” like Burrell’s, and in a file folder I still have all the pieces I wrote for National Review, The Washington Times, the New York Post, the Boston Herald, the Hartford Courant, Investors Business Daily, USA Today and of course The Wall Street Journal, to whom I’ve been contributing semi-regularly since 2001. Circa Y2K, I even wrote a weekly column for an entire year — 52 straight Thursday morning deadlines met — for a now-defunct investment website called

My unstated compact with my readers is this: if you read an article by me in the morning, and you go to a cocktail party that night, and a subject comes up related to my piece, you’ll have something interesting to contribute to the conversation, thanks to having read my piece.

Have I delivered on this consistently? Probably not, but I still think it’s a worthy objective.

NB: I’ll spare you my Greenspan-era harangues about monetary policy, etc. These articles listed below are some of my “greatest hits” from the last few years, exempting the few pieces I’ve had in Monocle, which although they’re sweet and have won me clients, are awfully short.

Some of these are behind pay walls or require you to buy a book. Email me and I’ll try to sort you out.

Branding articles and book chapters

“The city as a brand” — a chapter in The Brand Challenge (2014); email me or click here to buy the book
“The joys and sorrows of logos and slogans in place branding” — in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy (2013); click here for PDF, here for HTML
“The measurement challenge” — chapter in Destination Brands, 3rd edition (2011); email me
“Nation branding: yesterday, today and tomorrow” — chapter co-authored with Wally Olins in Destination Brands, 3rd edition (2011); email me
“Place branding: A view at arm’s length” — in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy (2010); This one’s kind of a classic, judging by how many requests I’ve gotten for it over the years, and it has inspired people like JT Singh, with whom I later formed the production company Thrilling Cities; email me

Branding and business books

Brand America 2nd edition (2010) — co-authored with Simon Anholt; email me or click here to buy
“Just Do It: An Open Letter to President Obama on Rejuvenating Brand America” — co-authored with Simon Anholt; Chapter 8 of Brand America 2nd edition (2010)  — email me
Velocity: The Seven New Laws for a World Gone Digital by Ajaz Ahmed and Stefan Olander — I was an adviser and editor on this, not the author; click here to buy
AKQA Ideas Volume 1 — I was the copywriter; click her to buy, though I warn you: I’ve seen it listed for as much as £1,000 (who knows if it actually traded for that much).

“Despite the fact that this book is published by an agency, the writers have succeeded in making it celebratory , without making it self-congratulatory. What makes it enjoyable to read is that at times it is witty and self-deprecating in equal measure. And while the content is interesting, insightful and original, the real beauty is in the design – it is striking and fresh, raising the stakes to another level. A merger of authoritative content and style, where new media melds with old.”

Art, design, culture, history, and anthropology articles for The Wall Street Journal

Sam Maloof
James Bond
Russian Gulag
Pitt Rivers
Easter Island
Ian Fleming
Museum of Brands
Churchill Museum
Mandalay, Burma — email me
John Lennon in Cuba — email me

Twittering or frittering?

Me, stealing Wi-Fi (and power) from a closed shop in Great Exuma.

Me, stealing Wi-Fi (and power) from a closed shop in Great Exuma, Bahamas.

Often, Twitter makes me feel like I’m frittering away my energies 140 characters at a time. I’d rather devote myself to my work and concentrate on the people I’m in the room with.

But I do Tweet. And I try to keep a high average for the content of my feed.

Follow me on Twitter.

Update (December 2014): I’m tweeting more these days. Also got on the Instagram train:

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Ten years ago today I became a branding consulting.

Fittingly enough, given how much gallivanting this career has involved, on my first day on the job I went directly to Heathrow airport.

Branding pioneer and guru Wally Olins, my mentor at Oxford and the man who’d hired me as the first full time consultant in Saffron’s London office, was there ahead of me. I can picture the scene in the departure lounge as vividly as if it were yesterday. “Your shoes aren’t shined,” he glowered teasingly, apropos of nothing. I looked at my feet; they looked all right to me. “Might be,” I shrugged as coolly as I could, “but this suit I’m wearing is impeccably pressed.”

That sort of banter carried on for the next five years as Wally and I worked side by side and hand in glove – and very rarely  at cross purposes – for clients ranging from Lloyd’s of London to Rolls Royce.

Looking back on my decade in the branding business (which began after the conclusion of my first career, which had been, roughly speaking, on Wall Street), the thought that overwhelms my brain is how much I’ve learned from others.

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