The MT Interview: Michael Grade

Management Today, March 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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The MT Interview: Michael Grade


He's not shy, he's not retiring and he's definitely not agitated. But our home-grown media mogul will need all his heavy-duty management experience in broadcasting to revive an ailing ITV. And with Murdoch to the right and Web 2.0 to the left, does the old stager have new ideas?

It's not often a personality gets profiled twice in MT. Michael Grade is, however, an exception. In UK business, serious, three-dimensional characters with a sparklingly varied CV, reels of Technicolor back-story and yards of fruity anecdote require dedicated hunting down. And those that possess these attributes are often silenced by the anxious, dead hand of the corporate PR machine.

How many business folk do you know who arrived at their first job at the Daily Mirror, aged 17, in their father's chauffeur-driven Bentley? Or who welcomed Eric Morecambe, Arthur Askey and Jimmy Tarbuck to their first wedding? And few have risen to the heights of being named the UK's 'Pornographer-in-Chief' by the Daily Mail. Nor were many deserted, aged 15 months, by their mother, refusing to speak to her again. You could write a book about Grade. Indeed he did so himself - an autobiography entitled It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time (Macmillan 1999), a proper-page turner.

We first put our tape-recorder under his nose back in November 2000. The then 57-year-old Grade was behind a desk at Pinewood studios, his glory years as boss of Channel 4 and director of programmes at the BBC behind him. He was, our interviewer found, 'a changed man. After years of therapy he has mellowed, become less agitated. He has started a new family and, by day, spreads himself across a wide portfolio of non-executive roles.' This situation mystified MT slightly and we naturally asked if he wasn't tempted by another full-time job. He shook his head. 'I love this peripatetic life,' he replied and took another drag on his cigar.

So here he is, eight years later, executive chairman of a plc, in his big glass office in Norman Foster's ITV building on Gray's Inn Road, central London, with one of the biggest and hardest full-time jobs in UK media to hold down. And a tough gig it has proved, too.

So how agitated is he now? 'Agitated? I've never been agitated! I never have been agitated. I'm passionate - that's a different thing entirely, passionate about what I do, the people who work for me, the talent who work with us. I'm completely passionate - I've never been agitated!'

OK, alright, you've never been agitated. He is half-joshing, semi-feigning indignation, but he's not finished - this epithet has needled him. 'I've never been agitated. Anyone who's observed me over the years ... I can't understand where that word comes from.' OK, OK - he's a Buddhist in the agitation league. But why did he do it - why get back into the maelstrom?

'Well, your life changes. I've never planned my career. I've always worked on the basis that you do whatever job you do and you do it to the best of your ability. New opportunities open up ... ' He tails off for a brief repose. 'My world turned upside-down really with the move to the BBC. (He was brought in as chairman in 2004 to steady the ship during the post-Hutton hurricane, and then departed again in dramatic circumstances.) That was kind of coming back to the media, which I never expected to do. It was a huge change for me, and that was kind of a seminal moment. And, having got to the BBC, done what I had to do there, I realised how much I missed the media, and I realised also that I had a backlog of experience that was available to people, and it's frustrating not to be taking part. It got my juices going again.'

His departure from the BBC left many inside the corporation fuming at such a 'betrayal', just when negotiations with the Government over the corporation's new charter were at a crucial point. Grade won't have any of this. 'The majority of staff at the BBC can't believe anyone would want to leave - it's like renouncing the faith and I've done it twice.

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