Former ad man, CEO of both the Granada and Conran Groups and Chairman of Citigate, Roger Mavity is also a renowned author, artist and photographer.
In this conversation we explore the twin struggles of creativity and specifically of writing: the private struggle to articulate the idea, and the public struggle to broadcast it.
And if it’s true as Roger argues that ‘Virtually everything in the world that happens that’s any good happens because there’s one really bright person that lights the blue touch paper’, how does this Promethean vision of creativity play out in our organisations and collaborations?
A fascinating conversation with one of the world’s most colourful and creative business experts.
Roger’s site: http://rogermavity.com/
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Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. I’m delighted to be here today with Roger Mavity, who founded his own advertising agency, Mavity Gilmore Jaume in 1981. And 10 years later, he sold the business and became Chief Executive of Granada Group’s Leisure Division where he led the pitch for the takeover of the Forte Group, which is still the biggest hostile takeover bid in British commercial history. In 2002, he was made Chairman of Citigate, one of the UK’s most respected financial PR companies. And in 2006, he became Chief Executive of the Conran Group. He left the Conran Group in 2013 to concentrate on writing and has a successful career as a photographer.
In his first book, Life’s a Pitch, brilliant title, became an international best seller, has just been relaunched in an extended 10-year anniversary edition. And his second, The Rule-Breakers Book of Business came out in 2013. And he’s now also working on a book on creativity to be published by Penguin in 2018. So delighted to have you on the show, Roger. Welcome.
Roger Mavity: Thank you.
Alison Jones: Now that is quite a CV isn’t it. That’s one of the longer introductions I’ve done.
Roger Mavity: I haven’t really decided what I want to do when I grow up, but there’s plenty of time.
Alison Jones: There’s plenty of time. You don’t need to make any decisions in a rush. But looking back at where you’ve been, what are the highlights so far do you think?
Roger Mavity: I’m not really a looking-back kind of person. I’m much more interested in what I’m doing next. But that said, obviously starting my own business was a highlight and had brought with it plenty of lowlights as well, believe me.
Alison Jones: I can imagine.
Roger Mavity: It’s not all easy. Joining Grenada Group was a highlight because I jumped from running a business with about 100 people in one very specialised area, advertising, to being in charge of about nine businesses with a staff of about 13,000 people. And that was quite a kind of culture shock, but it was an exciting one. Clearly doing the Forte pitch was a highlight because there was a huge amount at stake. So those have been highlights. But as I said, I’m really more interested in what I’m doing next, rather than what I did last.
Alison Jones: That’s a brilliant attitude. I love that. But if you could just talk about writing for a minute. Because it’s interesting, you come from that world of advertising, you come from big business. And in a sense, writing a book is kind of the polar opposite of all of that. It’s polar opposite of creating an ad, writing a pitch, or those kind of really terse punchy forms of communication. You’re sitting in a room on your own doing it. It’s immersive, it’s asynchronous, it’s long form. So what did you discover about yourself as you wrote your books? And how did they fit with everything you’ve done before?
Roger Mavity: Well, in a way, pitching is a kind of public thing and it’s a dialogue. And writing a book is a private internalised process. So on the face of it, they seem rather opposed. But actually, I’m not sure there as different as you think. I always argue to people that when you write a pitch, you should try and make it a story. So in a sense, writing a book is a story and writing a pitch is a story. So they have that in common.
And secondly, when I write, I try and make it feel like I’m having a conversation with the reader rather than banging down a whole lot of information on the page. And when The Rule-Breakers book came out, somebody I was working with, who I rather admire, I gave him a copy. He said, “I loved your book. It sounded like you were talking to me.” And to me, that was the highest praise.
So I think that a pitch should feel like a story. And I think a book should feel like a conversation. So in a funny way, they’re not quite as far apart as you might think.
Alison Jones: I love that. It’s a great argument for not using a ghost writer as well, isn’t it?
Roger Mavity: God, I can’t … Having to write a book is bad enough. Having somebody else do it for you would be even worse.
Alison Jones: I think there are two schools of thought on this. But you’re right in the middle of Creativity at the moment, aren’t you? Is that the title?
Roger Mavity: No. It’s about creativity. The title is How to Steal Fire, which refers to Prometheus. He stole fire from the Gods, which was one of the definitive creative acts I would say.
Alison Jones: I don’t know why I thought the title was Creativity. Stealing Fire is much, much better. That’s brilliant. Obviously creativity is a very, very hot topic at the moment, so how did you find your way in given how many books there are on this topic out there at the moment?
Roger Mavity: Well, if you spent most of your life in creative businesses, which I have, you spent most of your life eyeball deep in bullshit and nonsense because there is so much rubbish talked about creativity and people talk about brainstorming and thinking outside the box and all of that stuff. So in a way, I started off feeling … I say “I.” I’ve done it with my colleague, Stephen Bailey. I should be saying “we.” We started off feeling quite a mixture of angry and amused at the kind of nonsense which surrounds creativity as a topic at the moment.
So a good chunk of the book is actually about really trying to expose the myths before we get onto explaining the truths. But there are a lot of myths about creativity. And brainstorming is a fantastically good example, the idea that sending nine businessmen off to a country house hotel for a day will produce any original thinking is completely daft.
Alison Jones: There’s a whole industry around this though, isn’t there?
Roger Mavity: No, there is, but it is nonsense. Creativity comes from one person, sometimes two, usually one really fighting with his inner soul to unlock a problem. And if you share it with other people, the adrenaline dies because subconsciously you’re thinking one of the other eight is going to do it for you. And the trouble is they’re all thinking that too.
There’s actually a technical term for it, that’s the Ringelmann effect. There’s a sociologist called Ringelmann who did this study, which demonstrated that the more people you put on a project, the less productive each one was individually.
Alison Jones: I call that diffusion of responsibility as well.
Roger Mavity: Well, fine. You can argue with Mr. Ringelmann about that.
Alison Jones: I won’t. Don’t worry.
Roger Mavity: Maybe it’s Professor Ringelmann, I can’t remember. But no, brainstorming is nonsense and talking about thinking outside the box. I don’t know what the box is. I don’t-
Alison Jones: It’s management bingo, isn’t it?
Roger Mavity: Creative people don’t recognise the existence of a box. Well in a way, a box is a kind of metaphor for constraint, isn’t it? And genuinely creative people, one of their most important characteristics is they’re rather constraint free. So no, the way we got into the book really was looking at the kind of discourse, which there is about creativity now and saying, “Do we agree with that?” Passionately, no we don’t. To kind of expose that and say, “Well, if we don’t think that’s the truth, what do we think is the truth?” So that was how we got into it.
Alison Jones: It’s really interesting because as you say, there is a huge industry and there’s a lot of management stuff being said about creativity. The way you framed it there, and also thinking back on your title as well, it’s leading into that introvert type thing, isn’t it? Where it’s a single, almost spiritual battle to carve something original out. How do you implement that in the organisation, if it is each person at their desk working alone?
Roger Mavity: Very good and difficult question. I think a creative solution generally does come from an individual fighting it through inside his own or her own head. But once you’ve got the answer, clearly you have to broadcast it. It depends what sort of creative person it is. If it’s Picasso, you have to hang the picture in the gallery. If you’re an ad man, you have to persuade other people to buy into the idea. So there is a stage of, if you like, negotiating an audience for your idea-
Alison Jones: The pitch.
Roger Mavity: But before that- Yeah in way, you’ve got to broadcast the message. But in order to do that, you have to have the message, and that’s a private struggle. Broadcasting it is a public struggle.
Alison Jones: I really that idea. Because you’re right, so much of what we talk about in creativity thinking at the moment is about a corporate activity. But there’s not that much written on that interplay between the personal, the private responsibility and that grappling with something yourself. And then how you do the necessarily negotiation to communicate an idea, to sell your idea, and so on. That’s really interesting. I guess there must be, I don’t know, do you cover in your book the leader’s responsibility in terms of creating the culture that can generate the ideas in the first place and then get the best ones adopted and implemented in the second?
Roger Mavity: Yeah, the truth of the matter is that large organisations are not innately particularly creative cultures because they tend to be rather risk-averse. Once you get to be very big, you don’t want to start being small again. So you get cautious. So large organisations are cautious. And caution is death to creativity. And large organisations generally end up being filled with left-brain people who are good at organising stuff and counting things and doing audits. But left-brain people aren’t good at having ideas. So in a way, the whole nature of creativity is rather contrary to the way large organisations work. And on the whole, I think as organisations grow, they become less creative.
It will be very interesting to see what happens to Apple because part of Steve Jobs genius was to be creative on an absolutely colossal scale. And now he’s gone and the organisation continues to grow. You wonder how it can sustain that energy and that ability to surprise.
Alison Jones: And I wonder how much of that was due to his personal charisma and creativity. Really interesting thought.
Roger Mavity: Virtually everything in the world that happens that’s any good happens because there’s one really bright person that lights the blue touch paper. Of course, you need teams to make things happen beyond that, but it usually begins with one strong personality.
Alison Jones: Tell me about where you’re adding the process of actually writing the book. I didn’t realise you were collaborating. That’s interesting. How’s that working?
Roger Mavity: Surprisingly well. Well, the idea of writing a book with somebody else is faintly ridiculous when you think about it because writing is such a personal thing. And we did it with Life’s a Pitch. Because I had the idea for the book and I was a bit lazy about doing anything. And I talked to Stephen, who’s a very good friend. He said, “I think it’s a brilliant idea. Why don’t we do it together?” And we agreed to do that. And we went away and I produced a book and Stephen was alarmingly silent. And then at the 11th hour, he produced a book.
And we looked at them and actually they were two quite different books. Mine was very much a pragmatic how-to book. And his was a much more theoretical discursive book about style. And we talked to the publishers, and we said, “We can’t possibly integrate these two. It’s like putting an anchovy in a glass of red wine. They might be nice separately, but they’d be horrible together.”
So in the end, we decided to publish the two books as book one and book two in the same cover. It’s a rather strange thing to have done. But nobody seemed to have complained.
Alison Jones: That’s hilarious.
Roger Mavity: The book has been quite successful, thank heavens. So what we decided this time was that we would take a number of topics and we would each write about them privately. Obviously we talked about them so that we knew what our views were. There needs to be some sort of commonality between our opinions obviously, at least for most of it. But we would then each go away and write a bit about that topic. So what you get is you come to a particular topic and you get a bit written by me and then you get a bit written by Stephen.
And his way of looking at things is very different from mine. Usually we agree, but we talk about it in a very different way. Sometimes we disagree, and I think that’s fine too because different opinions can be more provocative than merely echoing the other person. So the idea is that when you read the book, there will be two voices talking to you as sometimes a harmony, sometimes a discord. But I hope it will be provocative.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. So for the reader, it’s almost like listening in on your conversation.
Roger Mavity: In a way, yeah.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. I talked to a couple of pairs of collaborative writers and every single time it’s different. So Lyn and Donna, who have been on the show a little while back, literally sat together and wrote every word together. They did the whole thing completely together. And Edgar Papke and Thomas Lockwood, who did Innovation by Design, had a similar thing where they would meet up occasionally in coffee shops and use Post-its and then go separately. And then you were doing them almost separately and then bringing them back together. Really interesting. It shows there’s no one way of doing this.
Roger Mavity: I couldn’t imagine the idea of actually trying to produce the text with somebody else because I pretend to be open-minded and flexible and reasonable and nice to deal with, but actually I’m extraordinarily precious about my own writing and I work hard at it. And if I express something a particular way, it’s because I want to. And the idea of Stephen telling me that I could write it better would really cause an argument. I’m sure exactly the same is true the other way around. Although, he did accuse me of using one cliché. In the book, I refer to something as the $64,000 question. And he sent me a very polite email saying, “I don’t want to offend you, but I have a suspicion I’ve heard that phrase before.” So I did change it. But on the whole, I think to write well, you have to feel that it’s a very personal thing of yours.
Alison Jones: That would be my take on it as well. Honestly, I can’t imagine collaborating with somebody, I’m not quite sure what that says about me. But if I were to do it, I think it would probably be more your style. That’s really interesting. So tell me a little bit about what writing does look like for you. What’s your writing routine? Are you somebody who just sits and writes at the drop of a hat? Or do you have to turn around three times and have a mantra before you…
Roger Mavity: I’m a master of procrastination. In fact, that could be the thing with my next book is how to put off things that you ought to be doing today until tomorrow.
Alison Jones: You’ll never get it out, of course.
Roger Mavity: That’s true. Thank you. I wish I had said that. How do I do it? Well, people imagine that writing a book, you sit down and write and book. That isn’t the case at all. It comes in stages. The first stage is you have to have the idea, which is really nothing to with writing. It’s to do with a thought process in your head. You think, “I’m quite good at pitching. Lot’s of people aren’t. It’s an important thing. Why don’t I write a book about it?” So the first stage is to have the idea.
Alison Jones: That’s rather a necessary but not sufficient condition I think we can call that, can’t we?
Roger Mavity: It is the most necessary. The second stage is to write a synopsis, which tries to turn that idea into a shape and a structure and it defines what the chapters will be and who the book is aimed at and what the start of it will be. It’s the battle plan for the book. And the third stage is to persuade an agent and a publisher to back you and give you the money and the contract. And it’s only when you get to the fourth stage that you actually have to write it. And at that point, the writing is actually quite easy because the hard lifting is having the idea and working without the synopsis, which is the whole structure of the thing. Once you’ve got the synopsis done, you know what the book is about and what the chapter headings are roughly. All you have to do is do them.
But I’m not at all disciplined. I’m not one of those people that sits down at 9:00 for three hours. I put it off for a bit and go and do something else. And eventually, I think, “I’ve got to do this.” And I sit down … Once I actually sit down to do it, it happens really … I write quite fast. And I’m very focused and concentrated on it. But I can’t dictate when that’s going to be.
Alison Jones: I can imagine that actually collaborating with somebody is quite helpful from that point of view because it builds in mini delivery dates, doesn’t it? You’re accountable to somebody else.
Roger Mavity: Well, not with Stephen because Stephen ignores all deadlines, so it’s actually-
Alison Jones: Not so helpful.
Roger Mavity: I’m not only worrying about me hitting the deadline, I’m worried about him hitting the deadline too. So no, I can’t agree with you on that.
Alison Jones: That’s funny. Is it just a Word document that you email to each other? It’s that simple?
Roger Mavity: Yeah, I try not to show it to him in case he doesn’t like it. But you have to eventually. When I did The Rule-Breakers Book of Business, I got the synopsis agreed and the contract signed off in about April. And I’m a very, very keen sailor. From about April to October, every Saturday and every Sunday I like to race my boat. And it happened to be the most crap summer ever for sailing. It was either blasting down with rain or so windy you wouldn’t dare go out.
So every Saturday morning, I got up looking forward to a sail. I looked out of the window, saw the weather, and thought, “Oh well,” and put the kettle on and switched on my laptop and I’d do another chapter. But if the weather had been good that season, I’d probably never have finished the book.
Alison Jones: My next question is I’m about to ask you for your best tip for a first-time author listening to this. I’m almost scared to do this. Just pick a hobby that needs really bad weather? I don’t know. What would be your best tip?
Roger Mavity: If you really want to do it, you have to believe in it. The tip is perseverance really. It takes quite a lot of time and emotional energy to write a decent book. And there’s quite a lot of stuff with other people, of getting a publisher to buy into it, and putting up with people who criticise it. And you have to listen to those criticisms because actually they might be right sometimes. And you have to able to know which you should listen to and which you shouldn’t. It’s hard work and it’s difficult. And the book market is quite nervous at the moment. Publishers are a very cautious breed, surprisingly.
So if you’re going to make it happen, you’ve really got to persevere. So my tip to somebody who wants to do it is do it, but don’t give up because there will be a lot of pressure on you that makes you think, “God, I just don’t want to carry on with this.” And you’ve got to fight that.
Alison Jones: There’s equal parts procrastination and perseverance. Well not quite equal parts. 40/60.
Roger Mavity: Sure.
Alison Jones: That’s really interesting. Taking your publisher point, yeah, publishers are very risk-averse. In their defence, it’s partly because publishing is an incredibly low-margin, risky business. And it’s a dreadful business model if you think about it. You pay for these things up front and they might work or they might not. The bookshops can send them all back. It is a difficult industry. But it’s also that you don’t actually need a publisher anymore, which is always interesting I think.
Roger Mavity: Well, I don’t entirely buy that argument. The truth of the matter is there’s no point writing a book if you’re the only person that’s going to read it. The pleasure of writing a book is that your ideas actually get disseminated to other people who read it and enjoy it or don’t and thank you or argue with you or whatever. And ultimately, writing has to be a shared experience. You need to have an audience. And although it’s quite easy to get a book printed and published without a conventional publisher, it’s very hard to get it marketed and sold into book shops and displayed in Waterstones and all of that stuff without conventional publishing.
Alison Jones: I couldn’t agree more about marketing.
Roger Mavity: There’s a lot of self-published books. But whether there are any self-published successful books, I think the jury is out on that.
Alison Jones: Well, there are actually. There are quite a few that come on here. But I know what you mean, there’s a certain cachet still with the big publisher label, and the marketing machine is the real thing. That’s the really important thing. I’m going to ask you as well, which extraordinary business book would you most like to recommend to people listening and why?
Roger Mavity: I would, on the whole, recommend people … You probably don’t really want to hear this. I’d recommend people not to read too many business books because quite a lot of them are frightful. They’re either written by people that are good writers, but have never actually worked in business themselves, so it’s a bit like a four year old writing a book about what it’s like to have sex. How would they know? Or they’re written by somebody that’s been frightfully successful running General Motors, but is not a particularly articulate wordsmith. So in my opinion, you probably won’t thank me for saying this, the number of great business books is outnumbered quite significantly by the number of less great business books.
Alison Jones: To be fair, I think that’s true of pretty much every genre of book. But I know what you mean, just because you’re really good at your business, doesn’t mean you’re a good writer. It’s a real-
Roger Mavity: Sure. It probably is. The book that I think is absolutely fantastic is written 500 years ago, which is The Prince by Machiavelli. And actually, it might sound a bizarre recommendation. But Machiavelli, who was an extraordinarily clever man, I don’t think he was a particularly good writer in the sense of being a gifted wordsmith. But his ideas are absolutely fantastic. And he wrote a book, which was really a guide to a prince, which in mediaeval literally would be the then equivalent of a corporation today. Prince had to manage a court with people vying for his job and competitive pressures from the next prince along and all of that. So it was very analogous to running a business.
His book has got incredible insights since the kind of underline of psychology of how you manipulate people to do things. And although the term Machiavellian has come to have a slightly unsavoury overtone, the reality of it is that manipulating people is a very important part of business practise.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I’ve always though Machiavelli had a bad press. Machiavellian, as you say, it’s got this terribly sinister connotation. It’s just pretty pragmatic stuff, isn’t it?
Roger Mavity: I used to be a trustee of a particular art gallery. And I remember saying to the very bright woman who ran it that manipulating people is an important part of the job. And she was absolutely horrified, as if manipulating somebody was wrong. But actually, if you motivate them by thanking them for a job well done, or giving them a bonus, you’re manipulating them. You’re asking them to do more and better by making what they’ve already done seem valued.
Alison Jones: Manipulating is a very negative word. It’s really interesting. And actually, and everything… we’re coming back to your whole background, the pitching, advertising, influencing generally. And when you’re writing a book, effectively you’re putting your point forward. You’re trying to influence people. You’re manipulating. You might as well do it well.
Roger Mavity: And actually, people want to be manipulated in the sense that they want to be motivated, they want to be pointed in a direction, they want to be inspired. So I don’t think it’s a shameful word. And Machiavellian shouldn’t have shameful overtones. He was an absolute genius understanding people’s underlying motivation. And so if you want to be better at business, read The Prince by Machiavelli.
Alison Jones: Brilliant recommendation.
Roger Mavity: If you’ve got a hangup about a book 500 years old, one written more recently is called Up the Organisation by a guy called Robert Townsend, who was the guy that ran Avis in America during the years when they took on Hertz Car Hire with the line, “We’re only number two, we try harder.” And he’s an original and creative thinker. And in terms of recent business books, that’s one which is good.
Alison Jones: I don’t know that one at all. So thank you. And The Prince, I’ve not read for years. I’m going to go back and read that. Thank you. Now, Roger, if people want to find out more about you and more about your books, where should they go?
Roger Mavity: Well, I’ve got a website rogermavity.com. They can go on that. It’s got my email address on it. If they want to talk to me, they can send me an email with a phone number on it. I’m happy to email them or talk to them. You’d be surprised how often I get, particularly from Life’s a Pitch, people getting in touch. I had a long correspondence recently with a woman in Canada, who was publishing a book about cookery and looking after home and so forth. Subjects of which I know absolutely zilch. But I think she just wanted some bit of confidence. And we had a long exchange, which just came out of her coming on my website.
Alison Jones: That’s really lovely.
Roger Mavity: So if you want to get in touch with me, that’s how you do it. If you want to buy the books, I know retailers will be cross with me for saying this, go to Amazon is the easiest way of doing it.
Alison Jones: I will put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com. That’s brilliant. Really stimulating and interesting conversation, Roger. Thank you so much.
Roger Mavity: Not at all. Thank you.