Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Apprentice's Sorcerer

Alan Sugar must be the celebrity version of Marmite. You either love him or hate him. Yes, he’s opinionated and yes, if you were his PR man you would probably be constantly walking on eggshells.

But the more I learn about the former Amstrad tycoon the more I empathise. I’m reading his autobiography What You See Is What You Get (at £10 for a 610 page hardback in Tesco, a bargain). It’s not especially well written and your maiden aunt might blanch at the liberal use of words like "w*nker and t*sspot" to describe some of the people who have crossed him over time, especially Daily Mail journalists.

But he tells a terrific tale of rising from poverty in London’s East End and it’s heartwarming how he is able to prick the pomposity of legions of alleged “professionals” who all thought they knew better at various stages of his life, even latterly when he dealt with top TV executives. Underneath that brash “You’re Fired” TV persona there seems to lurk a decent family man with values that, if everyone followed suit, would improve our society.

He grew up not far from me in Hackney (although he’s just a few years older)and in very similar conditions. He writes movingly of the shock of encountering racism (he’s Jewish, of course) for the first time at secondary school. But like me Lord Sugar has many fond memories of his childhood, despite practices that would probably nowadays warrant a visit from social services. I nearly lost the use of my right hand, for example, after falling on glass while "exploring" a bombed-out building.

My parents were Gentiles but my mother worked for a Jewish tailor whose clothes were sold in some of the West End’s top shops. Her claim to fame was that she made trousers for Frankie Vaughan, Morecambe and Wise and a trio of crooners called The King Brothers, the Take That of their day. I also had a Jewish friend Henry Zaltsman, with whom I played football. I recall we were going off to watch Spurs play one Saturday and my mother had made bacon sandwiches for us. Henry looked quizzically at the snack and asked whether he was allowed to eat bacon. My mother reassured him by saying: “I’m sure God won’t mind just one.” Good Cockney commonsense. Sugar himself says his parents broke most of the Jewish dietary rules.

I’m certain that for every Alan Sugar there are thousands of would-be entrepreneurs who never made it past the market stall. But what people should take from the book is not a formula by which to make a fortune but the realisation that trying to better yourself is far more rewarding in all kinds of ways than not bothering.

Like a lot of rich men Sugar (and he insists this is true) was never motivated by money. Even now he seems to take more pride in remembering how to assemble a bike from bits of old metal than how to build a corporation. He got a buzz out of setting himself a challenge and seeing how far he could go. That attribute should be on every young person’s CV.

Like Sugar, I was lucky, managing to get to Oxford University, where I told people my father was a man of letters. Well, he was a postman. By the way, I still have the immaculate black barathea dinner suit that my mother’s boss gave me (as a cast off) nearly 40 years ago. If only he was around to let the waist out a little.

Friday, 19 March 2010

David Vaughan RIP

If you remember the Sixties you weren't there. Or so the legend goes. Well David Vaughan certainly remembered those wild, wild days. And he WAS there, rubbing shoulders with Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Tony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon (or "Lord Snow-bum" as David called him.)

He was the archetypal rebel. An art student who came down to the Slade School of Art in London from Manchester, via Bradford, and let rip. The son of an engineer dad and welder mum, he got into fights, he womanised, he got drunk but he also painted, sometimes brilliantly, often feverishly.

He was described then as "a modern Goya". He was an integral part of the Swinging Sixties scene. He painted McCartney's piano in psychedelic patterns. They met through a mutual friend the Guinness heir Tara Browne, whose death partly inspired the lyrics to the Beatles' song A Day In The Life. He produced huge canvasses and murals. But the lifestyle took its toll. He freely admits to getting heavily into drink and drugs and at the end of the Sixties spent time in a mental hospital.

His 15 minutes of fame might have ended there. But he had a daughter, Sadie Frost. And when she became a celebrity and certainly when she married Jude Law, fame came knocking again. I met him at one of his exhibitions in Manchester in 2003. I didn't know then that he had only 10 months to live and would not see his 60th birthday. We chatted for an hour in a gallery and then went to a bar in Canal Street where we chatted for another three.

David's conversation was funny and hugely engaging, littered with four-letter words but also with diamond anecdotes and pieces of historical and cultural erudition. The tale that amused me the most concerned the time he was acting as an unpaid events manager at The Roundhouse, an iconic former railway terminus turned theatre and arts venue. David claimed he once paid Jimi Hendrix £50 to play there and someone in the audience stole the great man's guitar.

But that's not the story that tickled me. David had helped to stage an exhibition of avant garde art at the venue and was clearing up the day after the event when a rather sniffy man in a pinstripe suit arrived.

The officious visitor turned out to have been sent by a collector who had loaned one of the highly valuable pieces for the exhibition and mistook the rather unkempt David for some kind of janitor. He barked at David that he needed to collect a certain numbered exhibit and generally treated him very rudely.

David, never one to respect officialdom, quickly realised that Mr Suit had no idea exactly what the artwork was that he had been sent to collect. David told me: "So I went out the back and saw a huge skip filled with all kinds of rubbish. On the side of the skip was a yellow light used to warn traffic it was there. I took it off, dropped in on the floor and jumped on it several times until it was virtually flat. Then I wrapped it in paper put it in a cardboard box and carried it very carefully back into the venue and handed it to the man. He turned on his heels and left."

I would love to have seen the collector's face when he was reunited with his "treasure". David's last days were spent living in a caravan. But the man retained his charisma and much of the passion of his youth. I recorded a lot of our conversation and to give you a flavour of David I made a You Tube video from the tapes which can be seen here. His obituary can be seen here.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Come to my room

In the days when newspapers actually put on circulation one often effective way of increasing readership was to launch a competition.

Derek Jameson’s introduction of bingo in the early 1980s saw the Daily Star’s sale increase from around 1.2m to almost 1.8m.

But alongside that big money promotion the Star embarked on a far humbler but rather more bizarre sales booster : a contest to find the man or woman in the UK who could do the strangest thing Standing On One Leg Only. To plug the idea of SOOLO (pronounced like the Star Trek character first portrayed by George Takei) reporters were required, whenever they went to interview anyone famous, to ask the celebrity (after the story in hand had been covered, of course) whether they wouldn’t mind posing for a photograph …yes, you’ve guessed, Standing On One Leg Only.

A week or so into the project I was assigned to attend a book launch by Joan Collins, unveiling her autobiography Past Imperfect. In a top Manchester hotel, the Hollywood star dealt effortlessly with an array of questions from the Fourth Estate and then the assembled guests were all invited to a finger buffet. Seizing the moment I glided alongside the actress who was then starring in Dynasty and trying to make my ridiculous request sound as if it was an offer to play a potentially Oscar winning role I put my question. Joan smiled, put down her plate, which contained barely enough food to keep a gerbil going and said: “We’ll go to my room!”

Sadly it was more than 20 years into the future that reporters were able (indeed required) to take photographs as well as write stories so we were soon joined in her boudoir by one of Fleet Street’s finest snappers.

Like the trouper she is Joan struck a series of cumly poses which duly graced the pages of Victor Matthews’ brainchild tabloid. The political correspondent sent to interview Mrs Thatcher was not so lucky.

I know what you're thinking: who won the contest? Do you know it was that momentous I can't recall.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Hyper Local...in 1986

I have had an epiphany. I've finally grasped how to make money from the internet as a journalist. And do you know what? It was a business model I tried...in 1986. It seems to be working here. And good luck to local newspaper editor David Jackman who started hyper-local site Everything Epping Forest after being made redundant. He has now launched a second in neighbouring Harlow - called Everything Harlow.

The big difference for me between David and many millions of bloggers, is that he seems to be a real journalist. Solid stories, well written with attention to punctuation, spelling and grammar. (Some clown will, I'm sure, now visit the site and find a typo but you know what I mean).

My own venture into one man band publishing came after I took redundancy from a national newspaper. Partly inspired, I suppose, by Eddie Shah I bought an Apple Mac and tried to understand the Pagemaker programme. But keen to get started I actually convinced a local printer pal to produce copies of my brainchild The Stockport Sport and Leisure Guide.

The initial 12 page A-5 issue, on high quality, glossy paper, carried a testimonial from the then Mayor of Stockport Councillor John Howe. Inside was a lengthy interview with Stockport County chairman Dragan Lukic, a piece about hiking in the Lakes, a quiz, a news in brief section, a sporting events diary and three pages listing as many sports and leisure groups in the borough as I could find.

We printed 10,000 copies and distributed them around the borough in suitable venues, sports halls, gyms and so on. It was paid for, of course, by advertising. No business was too small to approach. A roofing contractor, a B&B, an accountant, pubs, hairdressers, all represented. The reaction was excellent, except for the Stockport Express. Its management was far from happy.

Advertisers got feedback and won new customers, so re-invested. They liked the way the magazine hung around in GPs' surgeries and dentists' waiting rooms, giving them extended exposure. The Express, however, began to target my advertisers and tried to undercut my already carefully chosen but, by Express standards, very modest rates.

I ran the thing for 10 issues and was still breaking even financially when I received a call from a Sunday Mirror executive asking me to come and work for it full time. Playing safe in this Brave New World of entrepreneurship I chose the reliable option and was back in tabloid journalism. Little did I know what Robert Maxwell was soon to do to the Mirror Group and indeed to journalism in general. Three lads who left the Sheffield Morning Telegraph (wisely, as it folded later) set up a similar venture across the Pennines, based around food and lifestyle and it proved a great success. After a lot of hard work, mind.

So I see now how hyper-local might work. The issue for me, however, was quite simple. Having worked on a national paper, having interviewed Joan Collins, Take That, Oliver Reed and so on, having exposed corruption at the highest levels of society, did I really want to go around collecting advertising revenues from hairdressers? No offence to the crimpers. The lure of what was then still Fleet Street was too great. The buzz was there, not working largely alone, detailing the triumphs of Stockport harriers and golfers.

Who knows what might have happened had I got my head around that Pagemaker programme? Eddie Shah sold out for £22m didn't he? I would have settled for a small fraction of that.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Being Media Savvy

Would you ask someone to build you a house who had never laid a brick? Of course not.

Yet in 1995 a company entered the financial services market for the first time with a personal equity plan and took £75m worth of investments from customers, the largest share in the industry.

That company was Virgin and people trusted Richard Branson with their money because they believed he was a winner, despite no financial track record.

Branson’s enviable brand loyalty owed much to his clever manipulation of the media and businesses of all sizes, even the smallest, can learn from his success.

Statistics that show the public has increasingly less faith in the media obscure a powerful truth. Visibility and recognition are the keys to marketing your product and service. And the beauty is that if you are media savvy and invest a little time you can achieve incredible results without spending a penny.

The trouble is most people, including businessmen and women, fear the media. They remember how one inappropriate joke cost Gerald Ratner £500m. They wince as Jeremy Paxman puts yet another MP through the Newsnight wringer. Yet every day, lower down the media food chain, legions of hard-pressed print and broadcast journalists struggle to fill acres of newsprint and miles of audio or video tape with material that will interest their own “customers”. They need stories, they need interviews and they need expert knowledge.

So one simple way of promoting your business is to become a perceived “thought leader” in your field of expertise. Note the word “perceived”. You don’t have to be the best or the biggest. You just need a story and you have to tell it simply and with passion. If you do, you will be invited back.

This was the way American Suze Orman catapulted herself from waitress to multi-millionairess. Born on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, in 1951 to poor Russian-Jewish immigrants, bad stock market investments later caused her to lose the 50,000 dollars a customer loaned her to start a restaurant. Angry and unable to repay the debt, she trained as a stockbroker and became a financial planner. What differentiated her from tens of thousands of similar advisors is she began to write books and articles. She was soon noticed by TV and radio producers and the exposure they gave her helped to quickly build a 32m dollar fortune.

The technological revolution means that there are now many more ways to reach your target customers than traditional routes of newspapers, radio and TV. But you can alert so called “mainstream” media to websites and blogs that contain good content, video or podcasts.

Exactly how you identify your story and then make it sing, maybe I’ll explain another day. For the moment remember that editorial is 10 times more powerful than advertorial. “You’ve got to be in it to win it” was the slogan used by The Sun years ago to launch a major competition. And so have you. Journalists feed off what they see and read in other media.

Look at what happened to Guy Goma (pictured), the out of work computer technician who went for a BBC job interview, blundered into the studio and was wrongly interviewed about an IT lawsuit. Watch here. He went on a media merry-go-round which included appearances on GMTV and CNN and talks about a Hollywood movie. And he didn’t even know what he was talking about!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


Like everyone else we have been adapting to the snow. It's beautiful but hugely impractical. Here's the morning view from our patio.