Brand masters - Michael Grade - Mr Entertainment - Been there, done that. Michael Grade on developing British media brands

Michael Grade’s CV reads like a recent history of the British entertainment industry. There’s the Daily Mirror, where his career began at the tender age of 17, while the 1970s were spent at LWT. Then there’s the more famous role as controller of BBC1 and his controversial tenure as Channel 4’s chief executive. Now he spends three days a week as chairman of Pinewood Studios.

Michael Grade’s CV reads like a recent history of the British

entertainment industry. There’s the Daily Mirror, where his career began

at the tender age of 17, while the 1970s were spent at LWT. Then there’s

the more famous role as controller of BBC1 and his controversial tenure

as Channel 4’s chief executive. Now he spends three days a week as

chairman of Pinewood Studios.

You could say he was born into the business. His family ties with the

entertainment industry are well documented: Lord Grade and Lord Delfont

are his uncles, and his father, Leslie, was a theatrical agent.

’I had an insight into the entertainment world from a very young age,’

he says. ’I wasn’t getting myself into something I knew nothing about,

which was a huge advantage. I knew the vocabulary. I didn’t shake like a

jelly if I met a star. I was doing it since I was a year old.’

Grade’s personality seems so utterly in keeping with the entertainment

world it’s hard to imagine how he would have fared in anything else.

But he has gained none of the negative traits one so often associates

with powerful people. When I meet him at Pinewood Studios, he is

charming and welcoming. Indeed, he almost lives up to his caricature:

his office is big, his socks are red and throughout the interview, he

puffs his way through about half a large cigar. The only thing missing,

much to the chagrin of our photographer, are the trademark braces.

But while Grade seems easy to interview, it is hard to get a sense of

the man behind the mask. At 57, he has maintained a youthful enthusiasm

for the industry he has worked in for 40 odd years and is a raconteur of

the first order, talking freely while peppering his conversation with a

mix of anecdote and self-publicity.

Much of his enthusiasm comes from his voracious consumption of the media

in a personal, as well as professional, capacity. Grade lives and

breathes entertainment.

’You don’t get jaded. If you see something good - some of the

productions at the National Theatre, say - you’d be a heathen if you

didn’t respond.

I’m always going to be a consumer of entertainment. If you don’t enjoy

consuming it, you can’t work in it. If you don’t like drinking Coke,

don’t work for Coca-Cola. I enjoy working with creative people. One of

the reasons I moved from Channel 4 was that I was so far away from the

creative process it became dull. I became dull.’

Creativity is Grade’s favourite word. For a man who has spent the vast

majority of his life around creative people, he doesn’t seem bitter at

his own limitations in that department. ’I don’t think I’m creative. I

think I can recognise creativity. Somebody once said ’what you do,

Michael, is you pick good people and you leave them alone’, and I’d be

very happy with that description.’ This is the role he is most

comfortable being cast in: the talent-spotter, the eagle eye that plucks

genius out of obscurity and allows it to blossom.

But with creativity often comes controversy, and Grade’s no stranger to

that either. One of his most testing times when the Daily Mail launched

a campaign against Channel 4’s content and dubbed him ’Britain’s

Pornographer in Chief’. But he stuck to the job, and defended the

channel’s output.

The Mail has now resurrected its campaign, only this time the target is

Channel 5’s chief executive, David Elstein.

As I’m interviewing Grade as a Brand Master, I ask him if there is a

Michael Grade brand? ’I like to think there is. I think my style at the

BBC, at Channel 4, in Hollywood, and at First Leisure has been very


While all these are entertainment companies, organisationally they are

very different, so imposing a brand upon them has required a separate

approach each time. ’You have to take the best of what’s there. When I

went to Channel 4 I took a long time to assess the people there. Once

I’d decided who could move the business forward, I decided on the

structure that would best fit those people.

’My management style is about creating an environment where you get the

best out of people. Delegate everything you can - decisions,

responsibility - and get the best out of people. If you make all the

decisions yourself and try to second guess everybody, how do you know if

anybody working for you is any good?’

With all his experience working in the old media, Grade is in as good a

position as anyone to predict how the entertainment industry will


Suffice to say, he is not convinced that the arrival of new technology

instantly means the end of old.

’I think there are two areas that won’t change,’ he says. ’One is the

cinema experience. Despite the fact that you get video on demand and

DVD, seeing a movie on a bloody great screen with 1000 people is ten

times better than anything you can do on your own at home.

’Then there’s the theatre - it’s been around since the Greek empire -

you can’t recreate that, you can’t have a virtual reality Hamlet. Yes,

tastes change from Oklahoma to (David) Hare to Miss Saigon, to

whatever’s next. But it’s still conventional theatre with a few thousand

people suspending credibility.

’As far as TV is concerned, the conventional terrestrial channels will

continue to be the most powerful media for the foreseeable future, ten

to 20 years, no question. But their ability to sustain that position

will be in direct proportion to their willingness to take risks.

Competition has come very late to British broadcasting - not that long

ago there were only the four channels. But we’ve suddenly got this mass

of competition that’s predominantly technology-driven. The tendency of

the established broadcasters in that competitive situation, with the

shareholder pressures and so on, is to become risk averse - that is what

will kill them.’

So what would Grade do to ensure their success? ’Stop telling the

creative community what they want and ask them what it is they want to

make. Shakespeare didn’t walk up and down the queue at the Globe and ask

’what do you fancy?

I’ve got a Danish Prince, I’ve got Henry V Part I, or I can give you

Part II.’ He just wrote what he felt like. All the great work comes from

people’s obsession and imagination, not from focus groups. Nobody said

to Paul Smith (managing director of Celador, which created Who Wants to

be a Millionaire), ’what we’re looking for is a show where you win a

million pounds, go away and find it’. He had the idea. The producer had

the intelligence and passion to make the show. It took him two or three

years to get it on the air. It wasn’t what they were looking for, but

now everyone wants another Who Wants to be a Millionaire.’

When I suggest the fear is that with ever more channels the quality of

the programming will suffer, he is dismissive. ’Is there enough

creativity to go round? No, but there never has been. There never has

been in the theatre, in any media at any time. Why should that be

different on new technologies?’

But Grade is not one of the old boys who always think their time was the

best - he is excited by the opportunities offered by digital and thinks

consumers will be too. Indeed, one of his ever-expanding portfolio of

jobs is as non-executive director of digitaloctopus, an interactive

programme provider.

’Consumers want what interactive has to offer. Everyone keeps talking

about digital replacing the old style TV, but it won’t. It’s an


We’re still at the lower slopes of this excitement and at the moment,

people are dazzled by the technological advances and possibilities. But

you have to use the technology to enhance people’s enjoyment of things

they are familiar with.

’That’s what we’re doing at digitaloctopus - we’re working with familiar

brands such as Hugh Johnson’s World of Wine and Philip’s maps. People

know these things, they buy them in hard copy form, so there are brand

values there. Now they’re going to expect us to move with the times. The

trick is not simply repeating it online - you have to find ways in which

people can use the brands in new, more exciting ways. Brands are going

to be more and more important, not less. People value them and have a

relationship with them.’

For a non-marketer, Grade is pretty brand-savvy. He claims that in his

Channel 4 days, he and his team were very conscious of its brand and

brand values. This went as far as turning down Men Behaving Badly when

ITV cancelled it.

’I’d seen the show and admired it enormously and would have loved to

have had a go with it, but I wouldn’t take a show off ITV and put it on

Channel 4. It would have confused people. If the show had come to me in

a virgin state, I like to think I would have spotted it and grabbed


But we were very protective of the brand,’ he says.

For all Grade’s charm and charisma, he is not a man you’d want to get on

the wrong side of. He won’t let me interrupt his answers, making sure he

gets his say. And when we touch on a subject that rankles him, he leaves

you in little doubt as to how all that energy and enthusiasm would feel

unleashed against you. In this case, it is the Dome, or rather the

attitude of the national press to the Dome. As a director of the New

Millennium Experience Company he has a vested interest in its


’The attraction itself achieves reasonably high audience satisfaction

rating. In all the exit polls done, no one has come up with less than

75% to 80% total satisfaction with the attraction. But that is at

complete odds with what’s being written.

’I don’t think any attraction of any kind could not be damaged by the

negative press we’ve sustained for five months. Normally you open a

show, do the previews, get the reviews the next day, maybe a follow-up,

and then the public makes up its mind and go or don’t based on word of


’But the public has been told consistently by every newspaper in the

country for the past five months that the Dome is a flop. What are you

to think? I’m amazed anyone is going at all in the face of such

sustained hostility. What’s driving that hostility is the interesting


I think it’s political. I think it’s a way the newspapers feel they can

get at this government. It has absolutely nothing to do with the

attraction, because 52% of visitors say they will come back. There’s

some discrepancy here.

’We just got caught up in some political machinations that I don’t begin

to understand. I don’t think any attraction in the world could not have

been damaged by such hostile public scrutiny. It’s out of all


But get him on the subjects closer to his heart: creativity, his plans

for Pinewood Studios, Charlton Athletic, his baby, and the twinkle in

the eye soon returns.

Michael Grade epitomises the industry he works in. He’s interesting,

exciting, more showbiz than intellectual. But he claims his line of work

isn’t glamorous - ’the glamour for me is not the artists or the

performers, it’s the buzz of helping create something that excites

people’ - and the only two people he’ll admit to being slightly in awe

of when he met them are Elvis Presley, who he met in Las Vegas in the

late-60s when he was working with Tom Jones, and Moshe Dayan, the

Israeli military commander.

As he heads out of the door for his photo, refusing to light another

cigar for the shoot - ’there’s thousands of pictures of me looking like

that’ - he notices the photographer’s unusual camera.He’s immediately in

there, asking questions and wanting a closer look.

This is Michael Grade: always looking for something new, something to be

curious about and to be interested in. That, as he would say, is what

makes life entertaining.


Born: March 8, 1943

Education: Stowe and St Dunstan’s College

Career: Starting out as a sports journalist on the Daily Mirror in 1960,

he moved on to be joint managing director of talent agency London

Management from 1966 to 1973. He then took over as head of entertainment

and director of programmes, LWT, before moving to Embassy Television in

the US, where he was president from 1982 to 1984. He then moved to the

BBC, where he started as controller of BBC1 before taking on the roles

of director of programmes, television and ultimately managing director

designate, BBC, by 1988. From there, he went to Channel 4 as chief

executive, where he stayed until 1997, when he was made executive

chairman of First Leisure. In 1998, he became chief executive.

Current jobs: include chairman of Pinewood Studios, chairman of Octopus

Publishing, sits on Camelot Group board, chairman of Royal National

Theatre Development Council and director of the New Millennium

Experience Company.

Hobbies: Sailing, opera and theatre.


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