It was a pleasure to be entertained by Felix Dennis this morning. Felix was in conversation with Bruce Daisley as part of AdWeek Europe. For me it was a celebration of the power of the maverick to make a difference. It was also a continuation of my discovery about the importance of one of the core practices of improvisation (and leadership), “get out of the way and make your partner look good”.
Having read Felix’s biography, I was scared for Bruce. Whilst Bruce is one of the strongest debaters and wittiest men in media, Felix has a reputation for balking against anyone trying to ‘chair’ him. While my improv teachers may have been skeptical of Bruces preparation, they would have been proud of his attention and lack of ego. There was none of the clash I feared. Instead the man famous for having spent £200 million on girls and drugs (in case Bruce’s partner Helen is reading, I’m referring to Felix), was allowed to shine and demonstrate his wisdom, courage and clarity of thought.
During this breakfast session at Ronnie Scots, three things stuck me:
First was Felix’s Leadership lessons: hire great people, back them all the way (“right up till you fire them”), and get out of their way. Being a man of extremes, he took this to extremes, disappearing without trace with his friends and strangers for trips on his barge. As he never embraced mobile phones or email, this meant his team learnt to prosper without him. If they didn’t, they were replaced with those that could. I’m sure if more leaders got out of their team’s way, success would follow. Even when you are witnessing a train crash, he said, you need to allow the derailment to enable learning and growth.
The second great story was Felix turning up unannounced at the door of Mohammed Ali to declare he was there to write his biography. His charm and persistence got him through the door and into a remarkable 3 month’s shacked-up with the legend, and witnessing the ‘rumble in the jungle’. He demonstrated that ‘just doing it’ is sometimes more important that careful planning and preparation. Whilst he never claimed to invent the concept of the ‘lads mag’, he explained it was his willingness to exploit it and transfer Maxim internationally within months of the concept launch, that made him one of this country’s most successful ever publishers. Hesitation belies no man.
Finally, Dennis juxtaposed the above two qualities by illustrating his humility and personal quest to learn from others. He shared his biggest regret “forgetting to have children”, and told us that while refusing to own a mobile phone, he still personally learns the functions for each new handset so he understands the world his business inhabits. His understanding of the power of gaming, showed that while he may write 4 hours of poetry a day, he still commands a grasp of what is on the money in today’s world of media and business.
The event left me proud for a world where mavericks can still make a massive difference. Bringing AdWeek to Europe was a monumental act of bravery by Kathleen Saxton and her team at TLC. The willingness of the industry to work together to celebrate innovation and success was a shift from the rather partisan set piece industry events I tend to leave early. This reminded me of a new generation (or a reinvention of the old generation) who understand that collaboration, even amongst competitors, is the future for much of our industry.
This was one highlights of a great week for the advertising world. One that showed that the UK remains positive, collaborative and innovative……. and leads the way.