Posted by Dom
I’ll be watching tonight’s Celebrity Apprentice on BBC1 with interest, and not just because I wrote last year’s MSN Apprentice blog.
Joining the Boys Team tonight, alongside Phil Tufnell, Lembit Opik, Hardeep Singh Kohli and Nick Hancock, will be the infamous tabloid legend Kelvin MacKenzie.
Kelvin’s reign as editor of The Sun is a topic for another blog, as is his infamous front cover that he ran on the Hillsborough disaster (I’ve been a Liverpool fan all my life; sales of the paper on Merseyside have never recovered after its highly controversial reporting on ‘the truth’ of the day’s tragedy).
No, my humble personal interest dates back to my time as a magazine editor back in Bournemouth. I’d started at the company formerly known as Paragon Publishing in 1999; Paragon ultimately became such a major player in the magazine industry that by 2003 it had attracted some serious interest from its rivals. Highbury House Communications ultimately stepped in to buy us in a deal worth around £32m.
Then the problems really started. To cut a very long and complicated story short, by 2005 the future of the whole company was looking extremely bleak. Mounting debt and a volatile magazine market were conspiring to leave Highbury in an extremely perilous financial position. In September, as a last throw of the dice, Kelvin MacKenzie came in as executive chairman (and some sort of uber trouble-shooter).
At the time, I was plugging away as editor on a magazine that started life riding the internet boom as a beginner’s publication entitled Internet Made Easy. By 2005, it had evolved into the snappily titled (not) eBuyer and Online Seller – a monthly guide to the ever-growing world of eBay.
The fact that I was slightly unsure whether such a guide needed to be published in the first place was perhaps reflected in the underwhelming sales figures, which peaked around the 15,000 mark and generally floated somewhere around 10K.
Nevertheless, the magazine had a little niche carved out, and I had a fairly comfortable life, knocking out a 116-page monthly magazine with a very small team of writers and designers.
The comfort that I and many other editors were wallowing in didn’t last long after Kelvin started, however. Unsurprisingly, given his controversial tabloid reputation, the man quickly inspired a mixture of fear, admiration and loathing in his staff. After less than a week of his stewardship, a whole series of probably apocryphal tales about his fearsome editorial floor walkabouts had already sprung up.
Soon it became my turn to be granted an audience with the man, at one of our monthly publishers’ meetings where strategies for the various magazines would be outlined and debated.
In the space of a highly charged half hour in an executive boardroom, where he constantly called me ‘sonny’ (easier than remembering people’s names, I guess), he outlined his plans for my magazine. For some reason, in a company that still boasted highly popular PlayStation, Nintendo, Xbox and movie titles, he’d decided that my little mag was to be one of the flagship publications of the new, brave risen-from-the-Ashes Highbury. If not *the* flagship.
Page count was to go up from 116 to around 180 or so (every three-and-a-half weeks or so, on a shoestring budget and with, ooh, two other members of permanent staff on the team), and my title was going to be *the* guide to EVERYTHING on eBay. My vague concerns about how on a monthly title we could accurately discuss eBay listings, which by the time we hit the magazine shelves would be out of date or over, were batted away. The new eBuyer and Online Seller was going to be EXCITING and VIBRANT and appeal to a whole new YOUNG AUDIENCE of magazine buyers and internet users.
The plans were mad, ridiculously challenging and unrealistic, and I walked out of that meeting in a daze – yet still excited that I might finally get to be in charge of a magazine with some serious clout behind it.
A week or so later, the magazine was closed down.
The company’s turmoil had made me learn not to be surprised by anything in the world of magazine publishing, but even I found the contrast between Kelvin’s battle-cry and the ‘oh by the way we’ve closed it down’ statement I received pretty shocking.
By late December, Kelvin had quit. And as we trooped to work in early January 2006, we were greeted with a serious-looking note pinned on the front door of the building where we worked. Highbury was officially dead, and a whole load of us were to lose our jobs (me included, although at least I had the chance to take Voluntary Redundancy).
It’ll be interesting to see if Mr MacKenzie brings his ‘individual’ approach to man-management to whatever challenges tonight’s Apprentice brings… one thing’s for sure, he’s unlikely to sit in the background and be a shrinking violet. Kelvin v Sir Alan is one battle I’d pay good money to see.