Wit and Wisdom


5 minute read


In the last 10 years, as well as having learned four big lessons, I have been the lucky recipient of wise words and witty insights from many people. Here are 10 of the best.

On using time well

1. “Don’t do today what you can put off till tomorrow – because by the time tomorrow comes, you may not have to do it anyway.”

This was one of the earliest pieces of advice I was given by a successful entrepreneur. Time is our biggest challenge. We all struggle with priorities. We’ve all got a list of things to do as long as our arms, each of which demands equal attention. And we’ve all had the ‘false deadline’ request; you rush to do something for someone only to discover it could have waited. We have to focus. Do less and do it better. So only do today what really needs to be done. Then relax.

2. “The world is full of very competent people who honestly intend to do things tomorrow or as soon as they can get around to it. Their accomplishments, however, seldom match those of the less talented who are blessed with a sense of the importance of GETTING STARTED NOW.”

These are the words of Joseph Cyril Bamford, the founder of JCB. When I interviewed his son, Sir Anthony Bamford, for our book BOLD, he told me the company still lived by them. It’s a companion piece to the first bit of advice. If you are going to do something, get started now. Be possessed of a sense of urgency. I often find a ‘sense of urgency’ a good litmus test for whether something needs to be done or not. If you aren’t motivated to get going now, then put it off till you are or strike it off your list of things to do.

On marketing

3. “Marketing is a tax you pay for being unremarkable.”

Robert Stephens, the founder of The Geek Squad, offered this observation in our book On Purpose. It sums up perfectly what I have learned over more than 25 years. What really builds a brand is doing something for your customers, your people or the world in general that makes a difference and gets you talked about. If you do that, the advertising should take care of itself.

4. “A brand is what someone says about you when you are not in the room.”

Jeff Bezos offers a similar take on the subject. Although we first interviewed him for our book Uncommon Practice in 2002, I didn’t hear this insight til many years later. Re-reading the 2002 interview recently, I was struck by its consistency with what the business has done ever since. Amazon’s commitment to exceptional customer experience has driven it to extraordinary success. Doing great things rather than talking about them gives you the best chance of ensuring that the conversation about you when you are not there is a positive one.

On culture

5. “Hire slow, fire fast.”

I can’t remember who told me this first because I’ve now heard it so many times from so many people. There are businesses that mistake the ability to hire quickly as the sign of an attractive culture. Often, it either is the exact opposite or leads to the direct opposite. Letting the ‘wrong ones in’ can ruin a culture and your customers’ experience of you. Similarly, tolerating people who do not represent what you value in your culture can hurt it. Businesses build strong cultures and become high performing companies when they take time to consider who and why they are hiring (looking for attitudinal fit, ‘DNA rather than MBA’ etc) and lose no time in ensuring people who don’t fit leave.

6. “Never stop recruiting.”

The risk in hiring slow is that you have a gap in your business which stops you from growing. That’s why I like this advice as the ‘flip side’ of ‘hire slow, fire fast’. Even when you don’t have a vacancy, keep talking to people whom you might want to hire in future. Organise events that showcase your business. Attend career fairs. If you’ve witnessed someone doing a great job and wish they worked for you, invite them for a coffee and a chat. Also, don’t lose touch with those people whom you interviewed but had to reject because there was only one job going. You never know when you’ll need someone.

On avoiding complacency

7. “You’re three phone calls from disaster.”

Nigel Bogle, one of the founders of the BBH advertising agency (famous for its work on Levi’s, Audi, Haagen-Dasz and many others), shared this piece of advice. There are various reasons why businesses fail, but often a common factor is complacency. “We’re too big to fail.” “People trust us.” “It’s too difficult to switch.” “We’ve just had our best year.” I’m sure you’ve all heard these or similar. No matter how well you are doing, remember that it can all go wrong – quickly.

8. “Work harder to embrace change.”

Nigel Bogle also told me that this would be the piece of advice he’d give to his younger self. It’s one by which I try to live. For anyone, it can be very hard advice to take – and it gets harder the older we get. In today’s world, however, it has never been more important to heed it.

On Success

9. “Fortune depends on the tone of your voice.”

This is a bit of a cheat as it’s a favourite lyric of mine by the gifted songwriter Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy. But it’s a piece of advice I now give to everyone I can. I use it in the Dark Angels Writing Courses I help run. It’s not what you say but the way you say it. It’s not what people understand but how they feel. Politicians understand this. Advertising agencies do too. And more and more businesses do. Make every communication you have with anyone less corporate and more human.

10. “Beware velleity”

Velleity is a wonderful word. Martin Lee of the research business Acacia Avenue introduced it to me. Velleity (pronounced vell-ey-ity) is the ‘weakest form of wish’. When someone says, “I wanna be a rock star”, but can’t be bothered to learn the guitar, or declares, “I’m going to climb Everest”, but won’t even walk up the nearest hill, they are expressing velleity. Life is full of it. Business is too. The start-ups who won’t really get going. The ‘ones to watch’ who aren’t the ones to work. The products that launch with no power and purpose. Your genuine desire to achieve something will be tested in the forge of real life experience. So don’t waste your time on something you don’t have the commitment to pursue.

These 10 insights are a very personal choice. I wouldn’t claim that they are the best 10 insights of all time. There are many others. But these are 10 thoughts that I return to frequently.

I am sure you must have your own favourite sayings, ‘words of wisdom’, tips or advice.

I’d love to hear them. If you’d like to, please share them with me below.


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Andy Milligan
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  1. Andy
    No 9. Do I detect some pop elitism here – surely the provenance of this philosophy is from the 80s pop sensations Fun Boy Three featuring Bananarama?

    1. You’re right to an extent Ali…but they were talking about actions not the tone of voice. So if they had sung “it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it”, then they could absolutely claim precedence. But though they sang of “the time that you do it”, “the place that you do it”, and of course “the way that you do it”, they did not specifically sing of the way that you “say it”. Thus Neil Hannon must receive the credit for originating this philosophy. Yours in pedantry, Andy

  2. My favourite in this increasingly black & white, polarised world is :

    ‘The truth is seldom pure and never simple’ Oscar Wilde

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