Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Economics 16/09/2009: IDA's latest news... breaking

I will blog on Nama latest figures tomorrow afternoon, so stay tuned, but for now - a piece of better news:

IDA will be launching a new campaign promoting Ireland as investment destination in the USofA. The campaign was prelaunched tonight for bloggers in advance of the official launch. It is impressive in scope (all top notch business media on top of the reliables – Airport ads etc – plus a bit more serious effort to build online presence) and relatively mild in message (more below). So mild, it seems to be slightly underwhelming.

Fair play to Barry O’Leary (Chief IDAologist) and his crew and campaign designers (McConnells) for actually braving the small crowd of usually unruly and unpredictable, often cranky and always suspicious bloggers. Trevor Holmes – IDA’s chief communicatologist, aka PR man – was actually very good in answering pointed stuff and taking a bit of a role of really giving us (the bloggers) some of our own medicine.

So the launch itself was a brave change of heart from the usually rather closed organization like IDA.

Let’s get to the substance.

Corporate brand advertising that is people-centric can be corny. Country brand advertising based on ‘Invest not in dollars, but people’ stuff is a bit corny and old. IDA used to do the same back in the 1970s and 80s, so what’s the BIG IDEA this time around?

Ok, on their web banners they have Facebook chieftain talking about what the company found in Ireland. Guess what – it is European workforce (same is the 1980s ads) and it is not Irish (novelty factor on the 1980s), but the one speaking 48 languages with native skill. You might as well be in London for that.

Microsoft’s Head is talking about how IDA is number one conduit for companies into Irish Government. I though that sort of ‘facilitation’ – important as it is to the companies – is not exactly something we want to highlight as a major selling point, at least not publicly in the airports. Children might conjure the imagery of Bertie Ahearne ‘facilitation’ at a football game somewhere in the UK, or our regulatory authorities engaging in banking sector ‘facilitations’ signing off on intra-banks deposits flows of slightly unusual variety. All fresh in the media minds internationally.

Funnily, when I asked the guys if they can ‘facilitate’ a financial funds management company with speeding up regulatory clearance to trade in Ireland, they immediately stressed that Ireland is not that sort of a country… Innocent me, I couldn’t see much wrong with helping companies to file papers at the FR office, especially when the same FR office got so facilitative of the banks in the recent past… Oh, but IDA can help with preparing documents and reasoning to be brought to the FR “to make the case for…” Hmmmm. Ok.

“Talents, scope and depth, languages spoken, diversity… and foremost Irishness…” are the themes. Judge for yourselves if this really confuses Ireland with a D2 - D4 (Googleland, language schools and TCD/UCD) cluster.

‘Natural creativity and curiosity of Irish’ themes. I know, it sounds bad. But do trust me, the ads are well designed and speak modern, clear and crisp language as are online materials - McConnells delivered again. IDA opened up their closed doors a bit here too with online campaign aiming to be more interactive with target audiences. Cuddos to McConnells Digital on that one - hard client to get to smile, but smiling is what IDA are doing with some parts of the campaign and it is good to see the Big Boys of Ireland Inc getting a little of confidence back. On the net, a good balance of simple messages, simple imagery and compelling arguments.

But there are few things that troubled me and some other bloggers.
  1. Are these ads truthful: IDA referred in presentation to IMI research that allegedly proves these directly. I am not sure – would have to see this piece of research to believe it. But the campaign itself does not mention any research. So you are invited to find out for yourself and herein opens a world of our low achievement in the areas of science, relatively average achievements in education and an abysmal record on early and continued education.
  2. The ads mention Ireland’s promise in Green energy (not as a distant future, but as current reality). In a country with ESB plants belching smokestacks and heavy reliance on oil to generate one of the most expensive power supplies in Europe, this sounds slightly funny. To be truthful, we had Airtricity – an international success story, but it barely had any significant investments in Ireland proper, preferring to do business in… you’ve guessed it – UsofA. And UK. So who’s ‘greener’?
  3. On the same day of the IDA blogger launch, I was speaking to the National Advisory Science Council about my view as to why our R&D and science policies (core innovation inputs) might be in trouble. Innovation Ireland, my eye.
  4. Funnily, me recalls seeing in Fortune and Forbes ads for Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan as places where you too can invest not in dollars but in people and innovation... not exactly in same words, but the same message.
While I am on the topic of press, IDA will follow up these adverts with a full frontal media assault taking ‘articles’ in the likes of WSJ and other business media and getting Brian Lenihan (who can do some good) and Barry O’Leary (who really does know his stuff). But also Mary Coughlan (I know, don’t start, please... oh, the hell - as Donald Rumsfeld remarked once "As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have") on the international media ‘telling the Irish side of the story’. I am not sure what it will look like? Advertorials, interviews, hired hacks, ads, talking sale pitches from politicos… It makes me feel like being made a small tangential part of some PR blitzkrieg. Trust, me I am not!

One question I did ask Barry O’Leary was “IDA campaign is going to court Human Capital-intensive businesses for whom the costs of skilled labour and key talent are the main line of spending. Our Government officials will be talking about how we are doing the necessary things to restore economic growth and confidence. Are you concerned that this is the same Government that raised taxes on labour income impacting ‘knowledge’ economy’s future returns to human capital here?” The response I got suggested that yes, the IDA are concerned about the erosion of competitiveness (I presume that does include erosion of our competitiveness in ability to attract highly paid talent). So “tax increases are a concern, but [not too much as IDA prefer for the] …focus to remain on total offering and proposition of Ireland across different value chain segments”.

Is then IDA feeling boxed by the Government perverse policies and are searching to offset the cost of income tax and payroll costs with other concessions? Most likely.

Barry didn't mention if the ‘competitiveness’ concern also covers corporate tax. After all, given the hole Mr Cowen got this country into fiscally, and given that our households are already struggling under the massive burden of Nama and public sector wage bills and welfare rolls, what can be done next to ‘improve’ our fiscal situation other than start dipping into corporate Ireland’s pockets. Indirect taxes will rise for businesses and, quite possibly, there will be a push for higher corporate tax rate too.

A birdie told me that the Government has already discussed (at not a full Cabinet level, though, and I stress that is a tip-off that I am yet to fully confirm) a chance of raising a special corporate tax surcharge on domestic firms, but that they were told that this won’t fly with EU. Don’t worry – most likely, they’ll try again.

Barry was talking some good facts, though, and made a serious pitch as to why we need to get Ireland Inc back into raising the FDI game – something that has been hard to get (although IDA did achieve good progress this year against all odds) in the first 6-8 months of this year. I agree with him fully – and I must add that IDA and EI are about the only two agencies in town that are still doing their jobs (I am sure improvements can be made in both, but hey, in the age of FAS, Forfas, HSE, and the rest of public sector, at least IDA and EI give us some return for money).

When it comes to target businesses, again, there was no BIG NEW THEME – IDA is going after reliable favorites: life sciences (pharma, biopharma and medical devices), ICT&IT, global services (SCM, technical support, financial & shared services). Not a hell of a lot of ‘innovation’ stuff? True, but they are looking at the “Innovation sector: IT&ICT primarily, Hewlet Packard, Intel, IBM, etc; life sciences area (pharma, biopharm, medical devices), international financial services, globally traded business services – digital media, etc and old engineering portfolio.”

So everything flies. A true picture of diversity? I’ve asked the guys: “Loads of smaller companies would probably like to enter European markets through Ireland. What are you doing for them?” It is a loaded question and Trevor Holmes was good answering it – to the point: “can help with limited pilot, test beds”. Better than nothing, but, honestly, not much. The mandate, you see, is still about bringing Big Sharks in, not the smaller Barracudas.

There was a hint of something yet to come – Trevor mentioned that the IDA are working on several new ideas as to how they can facilitate incubation of smaller promising start ups willing to settle in Ireland. That’s the stuff I would love to find out more about. Some years ago I mentioned the idea of incubator for Ireland-bound startups in financial services in a conversation to Barry O’Leary. May be finally the idea has sunk in? Alas, no details were given.

Per Barry O’Leary: “Competition globally for FDI – OECD says it is down globally 30% in 2009, and more competitors in the market – margin squeeze on both ends.” Fair point and the timing of this campaign is spot on too – the US market is about to go into new investment cycle, and we should be ahead of the curve (although the IDA team failed to actually identify this as an opportunity explicitly when they were probed by the bloggers). “We are competitive in combined development and manufacturing, but not in manufacturing alone”. Another good point, and backed by the evidence on what IDA has been bringing into the country over the last year.

Final point – per Barry O’Leary – is that “Strategic review of IDA is 6-8 weeks before conclusion looking at changes and adaptations to such new product offerings in Ireland as smaller digital media companies…”

Looking forward to hearing more on that one.
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