What’s been going on: Episode 5

From the position of wage slave in a sweat shop in West London in 1986, I’d been hopping from rung to run on the ladder. Euromonitor took me on to set up the research consultancy, which was full of pioneering energy and personalities, then United Newspapers wrested the UK music charts from the record companies and hired me to run the aptly named company CIN which tried to balance the egos of record execs with record retailers and the media. Three years in and I’d had enough of the whole lot of them, and of corporate life at UN, which was unbelievably hierarchical. All I wanted was to own my own ideas and to work for myself. And that’s how Market Tracking International came about, with the help of Don and John, both of whom were freelancers. We started out in a small dungeon, sharing a cell together, and quickly added staff. The first year’s Christmas party was for the three of us, the second for eight and the third for 33.

By November 1996, North London was abuzz with the sale of the company to The Daily Mail. We really thought we were going to be millionaires. Just three years into the childhood of our only son, he was growing too fast, almost uncontrollably. The monthly salary bill had reached about £75K, and as MD, all I could think about was where the hell it would come from each month. That, and how to mend PCs or toilets, or who to hire and fire.

‘The Interactive Future’ was our report of the year, in co-venture with Management Today, it sold over 250 copies at £500, because the world was completely panic stricken by what the internet meant for their businesses. Its contents list would read like a history book on technology now, but then it was like a sci-fi novel – What was MP3 and how did a JPEG work? DVD was the future of mass storage, and DVDR just a twinkle in the eye of developers at Phillips and we looked forward to when internet access speeds would increase from 14.4kbps modem speeds to 56kbps. The phone still made that iconic hissing noise as the modem dialled up, and visual images crept down the pc screen. The report even talked about the possibility of cable models which would carry up to 0.5mbps, within a few years.

We might have been in the forefront of publishing on such technical topics, but our own 50,000 pages of analysis was still sitting in Word and on paper. Time to bring in a tech nerd who could upload it to a website called MarketFile, in simple pdf format, and include a search engine. We added a nice home page and wheeled it in to our main client, The Daily Mail’s business journals division, which published such popular titles as ‘Oils and Fats International’ and ‘World Tobacco’, with which we had very profitable co-ventures.

So with our P/E at 10 and DMGT’s at 20, it was a no-brainer for them to buy us. They could double the company’s value overnight, if we succeeded, or take a healthy tax credit if they had to write us off as a failure. Since Lord Rothermere was sitting on £200M profit each year, he could do with a few losses. We took the downpayment, which we split three ways and paid off our credit cards, and we chewed on the mouthwatering earn-out payments we forecast for the next five years. Then we three lambs were ready for the slaughter. But hold fast, there’s the slow bleeding that any good sacrifice demands. So let’s employ expensive lawyers to tie the whole deal in knots that will take six months to unravel, while we scrabbled for cash to pay those salaries, and the generous guys in Kensington advanced us money every month on the deal. They called a meeting to tell us that the downpayment was halved – take it or leave it. We took it, since we were already in hock for working capital. The half-sized downpayment arrived and DMGT generously agreed to pay the legal fees (which were, incidentally, larger than the downpayment) and then we were ready to become another line in their P&L. Once that was over, I could get back to consulting.

Karlheinz Koegel, owner of the German music charts company and Baden Baden Airport which he later sold to Ryanair, wanted me in Germany to help him build MediaControl’s radio tracking business in order to sell it to Viacom, owners of MTV.  Sally Whittaker wanted me in Bloomsbury to help build Book Track, the book industry charts, and David Kusin, a retired banker and art lover from Dallas, wanted me to find out how the European Art Market worked. Everyone wanted me to make things happen and it felt like my hour upon the stage.

All this was against a backdrop of grunge in Holloway Road, in our industrial office-block, shared with Ian Dury’s recording studio, with our sweatshop of linguists, slaving over government statistics and copies of the FT.

We were all strutting and fretting, and it signified nothing.

What else was happening? I was ignoring everything else. Ignoring the needs and pleasures of my family, failing to see the world, barely touching art, hearing but not listening to music. John Major had a weak grip on the country. Scargill was leaving the Labour party, the Maxwell brothers survived their father’s fraud and Charles divorced Diana. This last upset stopped me getting him to attend the Deutsche MedienPreis, so instead, Karlheinz got his friend Helmut Kohl to persuade Boris Yeltsin to attend. Not much of a follow-on from 1995, when we got Arafat and Rabin (though Rabin was assassinated two weeks before the event). Boris and his entourage drank themselves into a singsong in Baden Baden, and probably slept it off on the flight home. I see that Hilary Clinton won the preis in 2004, given to her by Angela Merckel, Bono in 2005 and the Dalai Lama in 2008. Then it was downhill with Richard Branson in 2010 and George Clooney in 2014 …. after my time.

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