48 Hours of #PortasPilots drama: Why un-Reality TV is NOT the answer

It was about at about 9pm on Monday 11th June that I received a DM on twitter that included a link to the scanned contract that a very concerned Margate retailer had shared in an attempt to get some sanity around the demands that appeared to being imposed on Margate Town Centre businesses because of their “Portas Pilot Town” status.

The “Mary Queen of the High Street” TV production company agreement concerns

Within about 2 hours the debate evolved and what unravelled was that retailers in Margate had, and reasonably so, taken offence to the production company who were working with Mary Portas to create a show “Mary Queen of the High Street”. You can view it here: Optomen – Mary Portas Queen of the High Street agreement. The demands included FULL disclosure of all confidential business information, access to staff and a whole host of other onerous conditions.

Even the Town Team, who’d created the winning bid to become a “Portas Pilot”, decided to post their worries on facebook – see that here: http://www.facebook.com/MargateTownTeam – scroll through posts to their post on Monday that begins “Some of our thoughts on whether we at Margate Town Team should or even are able to participate in the planned Optomen TV documentary for Channel 4:…”

So during that evening I spent my time communicating with my source and the very helpful George McDonald, Editor of Retail Week. I also emailed the details to a senior representative of the Federation of Small Businesses, who I knew due to their support of Independent Retailer Month. This was what I said:

Title:  Can FSB do anything to help retailers who “WON” Portas Pilots and are now faced with reality TV nightmare

Email: This was passed to me by a contact who got it via a Margate retailer who is really very unhappy. £100K to the town, and a contract like this from a TV production company – https://anonfiles.com/cdn/1339361683584.pdf. Rumour has it that Mary Portas quit BBC to go to Channel 4 due to having been offered c £500K for a 6-show series… so she stands to do well, so do Channel 4 and Optomen, BUT the retailers have to expose everything, leave it 100% in the hands of a production company, and this is being presented as the Government supporting town centre businesses? It’ll be a nightmare! The only thing that makes good TV is mocking, shocking and outrage, NOT genuine economic regeneration issues being addressed… The demands on the businesses to hand over ALL confidential accounts, plans and provide access to all staff is disgusting and this is for a town who WON the Portas Pilot (many are probably sighing with deep relief that they did not…)

So, my question is, what, if anything, can the FSB machine do to address what seems to be a wholly inappropriate blurring of the boundaries between a genuine government led review of the high street and its issues, the awarding money for piloting innovation,   to participating in a reality TV series?

Retail Week Breaking News: Tuesday 12th June: Retail disquiet over Portas TV show grows as ‘gagging clause’ imposed

The first press coverage of the events were published in Retail Week (sorry, subscriber only content…) as follows: “Retail disquiet over Portas TV show grows as ‘gagging clause’ imposed” I was invited to contribute. My edited comments (I did ramble on) were included. My full comment was as follows:

When Grant Shapps announced the first 12 “Portas Pilot” towns would have an opportunity to feature on a reality TV show I had major concerns that this approach would make the serious matter of economic regeneration of our High Streets into light entertainment!

Reality TV rarely represents reality, focusing on the most extreme examples of the whole of the reality to make for interesting viewing. Towns were excited about the opportunity, perhaps confusing a reality show with credible publicity that they would have got from a well-structured news or documentary feature.

Having had sight of the contracts that the production company wish to impose on the retailers and towns participating, and having seen comments online from Margate Town Team voicing their concerns, I am certain that Shapps has got this very wrong. I am disappointed that my concerns were valid.

Businesses in our high streets are under enormous pressure, trading is tough; this is no secret to those in the industry. Business owners appreciate that there are always 1000s of things they can do better to be more profitable, more efficient or attract more customers, but they are battling with limited resource that is getting increasingly expensive and reducing profits thanks to lack of available credit, increased rates, reduced product margins, transportation and utilities costs… What they don’t need is their struggle to remain in business potentially mocked and then aired on national TV.

It has been no secret that I’ve found the whole response to the Portas Review incredible; and not in a positive way! It began with Shapps announcing a contest for a “Golden Ticket” share of £1million, positioning himself somewhere between Simon Cowell and Willy Wonka! It continued with the unexpected and ill administered allocation of £10million to 100 towns around the UK on the same day that towns competing for the Golden Ticket were due to submit their pitch. It peaked when winners were declared, and the prospect of the reality TV show was revealed. I am not alone in thinking that the Government’s response to the Portas Review has been inadequate, incongruent and inappropriate.

I sincerely hope towns don’t feel obliged to participate just because they’ve been allocated the “golden ticket” fund. The fact is those towns won that money in what we must assume was a fair contest – hopefully there were no “strings” attached. It seems the government is in a precarious position now, having blurred the lines between what was a serious focus on high street regeneration and what is becoming light entertainment.

With the support of press I thought it would all blow over, Margate would either get better terms agree or they’d make a bold statement and say NO to the TV… after all they won the  Pilot status without external help, they should have confidence to continue with or without Mary and the cameras.

Tuesday 12th June: Mary Portas attends the first public meeting for Margate Town Team

I wasn’t expecting this to spill into a 2nd night of twitter debate, but it did. News began to break that Mary had “threatened” the town that if they didn’t agree to the TV show then she’d get on the train and take her support elsewhere. In the heat of it all, and bearing in mind this was a public meeting, some people (who didn’t know the nuances of the process and didn’t understand the fine line between Government funds and Mary’s TV show) thought she meant that she’d take the money away! Obviously what was meant was that she would take her support and the TV “opportunity” away, but at that point emotions were running high and any basis for trust had probably been shattered.

One of the attendees of the meeting filmed it and created a full transcript – in the cold light of day it’s less “inflammatory” than perhaps it had seemed to those present, but in a heated debate it as certainly NOT the way to engender herself to the audience. The full account is presented on this blog: MARY PORTAS TALKS TO MARGATE

Note she says that she’s not yet Queen of the High Street. It seems that only as a result of the TV show can she wear that name with pride. Well if I was a Margate retailer I’d not be risking my business future with someone learning on the job and using my livelihood as a case-study!

To be honest I’ve never been too keen on the idea of making a serious matter of high street regeneration into light entertainment BUT I’ve adopted the policy of “if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all”. I’ve bitten my tongue so many times it hurt. Mary’s been hugely important in drawing the focus of the media, government and public to the issues on the high street. Her report drew together issues that had been identified by numerous different organisations in the past – ATCM, BIRA to name 2 – but nothing much had been done about it until she was involved. BUT… has her focus on her TV career now cast a shadow over the positive stuff she has done?

Wednesday 13th June: More coverage in The Times & Retail Week and a reply from FSB

At 10:15am I was emailed a scan of a feature in The Times about the story covered by Retail Week on Tuesday. This was sent to me by someone I know in Bedford, another “Portas Pilot” winner…

At about 10:30am I received an acknowledgement from my FSB contact to say they were looking into it.  By 12:45pm I had the following back:

We raised this directly with the relevant officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government this morning, to ask for their view and to try to be clearer on the position. We made clear that concerns were being raised. This is their response, for your info.

“Ministers selected a diverse range of towns to become the first Portas Pilots to ensure we fully understand how high streets can be improved in different settings. We want to kick start a renaissance of our town centres and are determined to ensure these pilot areas share their ideas and solutions to help struggling high streets across the country.

“We welcome any measures that Portas Pilots take to share the lessons they learn in reinvigorating their high streets, including through the media and television programmes. However, there is absolutely no requirement for any town or individual to take part in any TV programme in order to be a Portas Pilot.

“Any voluntary arrangements are entirely a matter for agreement between pilot areas and the television production company.”

This is the same response that was later published by Retail Week in a follow-up article that can be seen here: Portas acts on ‘gagging’ clause concerns and then later still, clearly concerned by all the furore, a further article was published where Mary has given comment to Retail Week here: Portas: ‘Pilot towns have my backing whether they feature in TV show or not’ (good job her own business is a PR agency…!)

What is the purpose of Portas Pilots? Why have they been given £100,000 of Government money? What are they supposed to achieve?

It dawned on me, as things do, that the TV show IS a bad idea and not only because of the risk of misrepresentation. I commented as follows on one of the Retail Week articles:

With or without restrictions in the contracts, the towns need to really consider if a reality TV show is appropriate. My take on this is that typically reality TV is far from “real”, highlighting the most extremes of the situation to create entertainment. They’d be better off with a quality news feature reporting on progress throughout the implementation and delivery OR with a more serious documentary. Of course that will have a far lower audience appeal, but WOULD be fair to the businesses whose survival could depend on the outcomes of this exercise.

The Portas Pilots are supposed to be taken seriously. They are intended to produce credible, sustainable and replicable examples of initiatives that could be adopted by towns throughout the UK. A TV show could discredit the towns by only highlighting the more “shocking” aspects (which let’s face it would make it more engaging viewing) OR their presence could over-inflate the success of the piloted initiatives due to the “media buzz”. That may be no bad thing for the town, but as these towns have been given government money to effectively pilot concepts that are intended to be replicable then the risk is that success of implementations in pilot towns could be overstated. In fact without the significant interest as a result of TV these initiatives could be adopted in other areas that would be destined to fail without the external influence of the media.

My personal view would be to allow the towns to implement the changes in as near-normal circumstances as possible in order to really be able to measure the impact and to determine if similar changes would be likely to create positive benefit elsewhere. The presence of TV muddies the water!

I was grateful to see the support of my view by Ian Middleton, a regular Retail Week columnist AND an Independent Retail business owner. Ian said:

Clare’s right. If the point of the pilots is to test ideas that could be applied to other towns, the involvement of a TV crew is going to be adding another variable that won’t be present in the future.

All these business make-over shows rely on the fact that they can garner support in the closing scenes by virtue of the fact that local residents and visitors will be drawn to an event by the presence of a TV crew and a minor celeb.

That’s not going to be replicable later on and so it’s an irrelevance at best and a catastrophic distraction at worst.

Either way the experience from these towns as pilots is going to be of questionable value going forward.

So, in summary, the towns have £100,000 each from our cash-strapped government who are making deep cuts in other areas. They need to have the right environment to demonstrate their vision for the future can lead to a step-change in the relationship between the consumer and the high street, and that should be in “typical” conditions. Let the pilots do their job without out further interference, let them prove their claims. THEN, and subject to success in the initial period, they can invite in the cameras, if that’s what they want.

In the meantime I’m hoping to create a nationwide high street revolution with only the funding of a handful of sponsors and with the support of a phenomenal and passionate network. It’s Independent Retailer Month throughout July… that’s FAR more interesting 🙂


About Clare Bailey

Clare Bailey, The Retail Champion (formerly Clare Rayner), is one of the most well-known and respected retail experts in the UK. With unrivalled knowledge in retail, high streets and consumer matters, she offers unbiased, independent content – whether engaged as a professional speaker, for broadcast media, or for a written feature. Clare is a business woman, entrepreneur and founder of several small businesses. Having been born into a family of successful business owners, it was inevitable that she’d eventually jump off the corporate treadmill and step out on her own! Today her brand portfolio includes The Retail Champion, The Retail Conference, the Future High Street Summit and the Support for Independent Retail campaign. In addition, she is co-founder of Mobaro Retail UK and a non-exec director of Beed Virtual Assistant Services. Having started her career as a fast-track store management trainee for McDonalds, she went on to work with leading retailers such as M&S, Dixons and Argos. She moved swiftly into management roles before being headhunted into senior consulting roles with global software giant SAP, and international management consulting brand, Accenture. Her corporate background in senior retail, consulting and technology roles, coupled with her experience of creating and running her own business, has enabled her to be equally capable whether consulting to global brands or micro businesses. This unique blend has not only positioned her as a leading expert in all things retail, but has enabled her to add meaningful commentary and insight to the debate around the future of the high street, and, how technology is driving fundamental change in the way consumers, and businesses, interact. Clare has become an influential voice in her field, which has resulted in her becoming a regular media contributor and sought-after conference speaker. Often seen on Good Morning Britain, BBC Breakfast, Sky News, and Chanel 5 (to name a few), Clare speaks on a myriad of retail, high street and consumer issues – but is particular adept when it comes to explaining the context behind retail trading results, newly released data, and government stats, in a palatable and informative manner. In addition to broadcast and conference speaking, Clare is the proud author of two best-selling business books published by Kogan Page - The Retail Champion: 10 Steps to Retail Success, published July 2012 and How to Sell to Retail: The Secrets of Getting Your Product to Market, published February 2013. She has provided contributions to various academic texts, including Retail Marketing Management (published by Pearson). With an engaging, conversational yet informative style, Clare writes for press and content agencies, providing features, articles, blogs and opinion pieces as well as contributions to white papers and reports. However, when the situation demands a more serious style, Clare can deliver - In 2016 she wrote an extensive report for a major insurance and risk law firm, as a retail expert witness, to support a public liability suit. She found that project particularly enjoyable as it played well to her strengths – assimilating large amounts of data and information, identifying the key points and articulating that in an understandable manner. When not on TV or speaking at conferences, Clare’s “day job” sees her supporting consumer-facing businesses through her consultancy services. When asked to describe what she most loves about retail consulting it is typically the opportunity to “dig deep”, getting “under the bonnet”, in order to leverage the business data to uncover the insights that lead to “lightbulb moments”. She also loves working on business change programmes that centre on improving the processes and systems to increase profitability by supporting more rapid, better informed decision making, improving the customer experience, or simply by become more efficient and streamlined. In this respect she considers herself a “business engineer” with a brain that works like a relational database! Due to her years of experience, her logical, objective approach, her quick, rational thinking, she is known for being able to cut through complexity, seeing right through to the crux of issues, finding creative solutions that others may have overlooked. As if all that wasn’t enough, Clare is a working mum, juggling a home life in rural Lincolnshire with her partner, their 5 kids, 4 cats, and geriatric Labrador! For all enquiries, contact Clare directly on 01727 238890 or email champion@retailchampion.co.uk.
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4 Responses to 48 Hours of #PortasPilots drama: Why un-Reality TV is NOT the answer

  1. I personally wish that projects like this were televised, but not in the way the present trend of “reality” business shows are.

    The Apprentice is the best example, it should be a programme that I love to watch, except it isn’t. Why? Because it’s just so cringe-worthy. Anyone who knows anything about business knows just how inept these contestants are and in my opinion should never have been selected to start with.

    And this is likely to be the same treatment the “Portas Pilot” retailers will get from the tv companies, they are unlikely to be seeking to highlight the amazing work and successes, but instead will seek to highlight the awful, the ridiculous, and throw in the parts where Mary herself is seen to “save the day”.

    You make a valid point, these aren’t exactly numbskulls, they won this opportunity, on their own merit. Giving the tv companies access to all staff and accounts etc will give them the opportunity to showcase the ugly parts. That’s what makes good telly!

    Good that some clarity has now been given, good that the general concept of sharing the knowledge of what makes a good retail business widely.

    But I suspect retailers would do better to get involved in Independent Retailer week, and especially the opening event on July 1st to gain access to experts that can also help them make a massive difference to their businesses.

    There is no down side to attending Independent Retailer week – it won’t expose them to national ridicule and mockery that’s for sure!

    • Clare Rayner says:

      Thanks Claire – I think you mean Independent Retailer Month 🙂

      I have been accused of having a personal vendetta against Mary – actually I have defended the benefit of her involvement in highlighting a number of key issues… but now the waters have been muddied and people have started to question what’s going on. It’s a shame. I think a considered documentary recording progress that was only shown AFTER the projects had completed and which showed genuine results would be hugely beneficial to other town teams – even if they were the only ones who watched the show!

      As you say, reality TV isn’t about the whole truth, it’s about the bits that make it fun for us to watch… as it goes day to day business activities aren’t ever going to make good TV, but they do make for robust businesses.

      • yes, definitely meant Independent Retailer MONTH, and I’m looking forward to going to the launch event on 1st July in sunny (I hope) Solihull! 🙂

        Well it’s difficult to appear objective when clearly you are in the same niche, providing quality expertise to retailers. But if you can’t provide your qualified opinion on the subject, who on earth can?

        It’s sad to say that tv isn’t really made for the likes of you and me, nor of a majority of most business owners/entrepreneurs- ask many of them and they’ll tell you quite frankly that they don’t even watch tv! Tv is made for ENTERTAINING the masses, and frankly what makes good retail business isn’t really what the masses will be entertained by. It’s a little bit of conflict of interest, any programme made for entertainment rather than business expertise is going to be flawed.

        How about letting the BBC do this, and have them as supporting modules on Open University courses? Maybe then there would be some objectivity…

      • Keith Slater says:

        I really have to agree with both Clare and Claire in relation to the involvement of TV in the Portas Pilots. A reality show is the last thing that is needed as the participants need to be in a position to properly experiment without being on show to the rest of the country and having to act accordingly.
        I think the idea of cameras following what is happening discretely is a good one and doing through the Open University is a good idea. 30 years ago i was a director of the Menswear sector of the Burton Group (a time when I think Mary Portas was involved in visual merchandising in another part of the Group) when we were in the process of launching Principles for Men. That process was followed by the Open University who produced an excellent programme on the process.
        The needs of major retail centres and that of independent retailers is quite different and, whilst getting advice and mentoring in running a small retail business is a necessary condition for sucess, it is not sufficient on its own. The whole economic structure is against the small retailer be it rent, rates or the cost of collectiong VAT for the govenment (commission oncredit card payments on the VAT element) and it is here that the Government could do most to help.
        Having run a small retail business and done research on them for SEEDA I know they need all the help and focus that they can get. In this area Government support for Independent Retailer Month would do more for small retail businesses than any number of Portas Pilots or television reality shows!

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