Lunch with the FT

October 7, 2011 5:40 pm

Lunch with the FT: Waheed Alli

The peer talks about his journey from 16-year-old school leaver to multimillionaire and why he has sympathy for looters

Waheed Alli has done his Lunch with the FT homework. “I read some of the pieces and thought the most difficult decision’s going to be what to eat,” he says as he picks up the menu at Bond 45, a lively Italian restaurant with a large neon sign just off Times Square in New York.

Baron Alli of Norbury in the London borough of Croydon, to give him his full title, is nothing if not media-savvy. He and his partner Charlie Parsons founded Planet 24 with Bob Geldof more than two decades ago, turning it into the hippest independent television production company of the 1990s with edgy British shows such as The Word and internationally successful formats such as Survivor, one of the first big hits of the reality TV era.

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Lunch with the FT

Planet 24 made Alli’s first fortune; along the way he has worked with David Cameron, during the prime minister’s days as PR man for Carlton Communications; invested with Elisabeth Murdoch in Shine, the production company that the News Corp heiress sold to her father’s media empire this year; and, as chairman of the entertainment rights company Chorion since 2003, put characters from Mr Funny to Miss Marple on screens and bookshelves from Stockholm to Sydney.

TV also turned someone who started life an outsider into the consummate insider. Born in an unfashionable part of south London to a father from Guyana and a mother from Trinidad, Alli is one of the few gay Muslims in British public life. When his father moved out of the family home, he left school at 16 to support his mother and two brothers. Yet at 33, he was in the House of Lords as its youngest member and the first openly gay peer.

Now 46, he is sitting in a booth in the furthest corner of the crowded restaurant, his back to the room. His tie is impeccably knotted, silver cufflinks shine in a crisp white shirt and another glint comes from the diamond stud in one earlobe. The menu advertises buffalo mozzarella, “softball size”, and Alli orders his with aubergine caponata. He toys with the spaghetti carbonara but opts for the “signature thin crust pizza” with pepperoni, asking for the rocket to be left off. I go for the burrata, described as a “house-made, cream-filled mozzarella” with sliced tomatoes, followed by a lobster Cobb salad. We reject wine in favour of a bottle of sparkling water.

Alli, who divides his time between homes in London, Kent, New York and Guyana, has an office around the corner and comes to Bond 45 quite often. “Everything looks much better than it really is,” he says: “It’s like American vegetables, they look adorable but no taste. Just assume everything will look really fantastic but actually ...” he trails off as a waiter brings a vast basket of bread and Alli picks out a piece of focaccia.

While best known for his media activities, he juggles these with his chairmanship of Asos, the UK online fashion retailer he joined 10 years ago, whose shares have risen more than 60-fold since 2001, and a nascent project in Guyana, where he has been talking to potential investors and the president Bharrat Jagdeo about socially responsible ways of developing its gold, oil and gas reserves.

What do you know about mining, I ask, surprised by this new venture. “As much as I knew about television when I started; as much as I knew about fashion when I started; as much as I knew about politics when I started,” he answers. “The beauty of having worked in the media is that you’re an instant expert.”

Soon after our lunch, however, one leg of Alli’s three-legged career stool appears to snap. On August 25, he quit Chorion after failing to persuade lenders to refinance a debt load that has become unsustainable since the financial crisis. His equity, probably a sizable share of the £7.4m that his management team put into 3i’s £111m private equity buy-out in 2006, was wiped out.

Alli went quiet for a few weeks. When he re-emerged last month, he had sketched out the script of what he hopes will be a comeback with the acquisition of two Chorion children’s properties: Beatrix Potter’s venerable tales of bunnies and nursery gardens, and the new British TV hit about adventurous undersea creatures, The Octonauts. To fund this new venture, named Silvergate Media, he sold half his Asos stock, worth almost £15m.

When I ask how he feels about the lost millions, he is sanguine, seeing it as a function of having bought Chorion at the top of the market. “Whatever you do in business, if you buy at 14 times [earnings] and sell at seven times, you’re never going to make money,” he says. Yet he is “supremely confident” that the reinvestment will yield “huge upside”. Chorion’s lenders would not risk waiting to find out whether that is the case, he says, “but I sat and thought, ‘You are wrong and I am right.’”

The dismantling of Chorion spelled the end of his involvement with the Agatha Christie rights it held, a sad blow for a man whose favourite novel is 4.50 from Paddington. “I’d love to work with the Agatha Christie estate again but that’s a hobby. I don’t want to confuse the two,” he says, though he does betray a sentimental attachment to his reacquired brands. “There is something very lovely about the world of Beatrix Potter because we’re slowly losing that battle against modernity. Kids are growing up too fast, and this is a bit of the fightback,” he says. But the TV adaptation he is bankrolling will be modernised. “It can’t be in a 1950s format. It can’t be about going to steal a radish; there has to be more excitement and adventure.”

Our food has arrived. “The eggplant caponata’s brilliant,” Alli enthuses, offering me a taste. My burrata is rich and sweet but the tomato fits his description of American vegetables. Another bread basket arrives and I try a warm prosciutto muffin.

He recounts how he found his first job, in the research department of Planned Savings magazine, via a King’s Cross job centre. He spent three years there compiling performance tables before a research executive at financial services group Save & Prosper, one of the companies he covered, called him in for a job as head of UK research. He went to the interview sporting an earring, a cheap white flannel suit and an orange streak in his hair but got the job, aged 19. That was the only time he was asked to remove his earring until he was going into the Lords. On both occasions, he refused.

He enjoyed working in the City, learning that it was “about the psychology of money” and the importance of business narratives. “I understood that if I didn’t actually tell people what we were doing, then why would they invest in our stock?” At the age of 26, “something extraordinary happened”, Alli says. For years, he had handed 80 per cent of his take-home pay to his family. But with his brothers independent and his mother set up in a new house, “suddenly my salary literally landed in my bank account untouched. It was such a lot of money at the time, I remember thinking, ‘How do you spend all of this?’”

His answer was to travel around Europe for a year. When, in the late 1980s, Parsons, his TV producer partner, began talking about starting his own company, Alli was available to help set it up, taking care of the business side of the creative enterprise. Planet 24 enjoyed “extraordinary” success in the early 1990s, through The Word’s deliberately outrageous late-night bid for a youth audience and the weekday morning chaos of The Big Breakfast show with Chris Evans, but Alli says he and Parsons were too busy to enjoy it much. “People were very suspicious of us. There’s always that bit about, ‘They’re making a lot of money’ ... There is that bit of the British media establishment which slightly resents it,” he recalls. But their success caught the eye of Michael Green at Carlton Communications, the ITV franchisee, which in 1999 bought Planet 24 for a reported £15m, split three ways. Alli and Parsons kept the lucrative rights to Survivor and Alli left Carlton in 2000 to focus on politics.

I ask about his former Carlton colleague David Cameron, and he replies carefully, with a smile. “He’s a very nice man. I think he genuinely is a decent, honourable individual and I have a huge amount of time for him. He’s not in my party ... it’s an area that I’d love to talk to you about but I’m not going to because he’s the prime minister now.”

Our main courses arrive. Mine is a springy heap of leaves and pink lobster, and Alli’s a generous, crispy disc of pizza. A keen fashion shopper, he suddenly gets distracted by my cufflinks, which feature an exposed watch mechanism. Asking where I got them, he jokes that I may see a cheaper version of them on Asos soon.

As he picks up a slice of pizza, Alli recounts how he got involved in politics as a teenager, making Labour party connections in the British Youth Council and helping the party battle its Militant wing in the 1980s. “My politics have always been the politics of sexuality, or equality,” he says, recalling battles with the far left and with racist groups in London’s East End.

He worked on Tony Blair’s campaign to become party leader but when Blair won the 1997 general election, Alli was one of the few in New Labour’s inner circle not to find a place in government. “I was starting to be characterised as a friend of Tony and I thought, ‘Actually, do you know what, he’s not my friend, I don’t go to dinner there ... I’ve been in the Labour party a long time, this is a political mission for me.’” When Downing Street suggested a seat in the Lords in 1998, he had no hesitation. “The institution didn’t absolutely get to me until I actually walked through the door and then it was a complete shock,” he says, biting noisily into a crust. He was, he recalls, half the age of the average peer and “they weren’t ready for the likes of me”.

His first big contribution to a Lords debate, in April 1999, was about lowering the age of consent for gay relationships from 18 to 16. He remembers sitting down after making “a brilliant speech”, convinced that he had changed his opponents’ minds, then realising he had lost the vote. “I remember feeling absolutely sick to my stomach,” he says, until Blair ensured the bill made it to the statute book. “It was electric, just electric,” he recalls.

After Blair left office Alli decided to focus more on Chorion and Asos. “If you say to somebody, ‘I’m sorry I can’t make that meeting because I’m going to the House of Lords’, what they’re hearing is, ‘I can’t make that meeting because I’m going yachting.’ If you’re running a business you can’t do that.”

Alli sits at the very intersection of media, business and politics that has become such a sensitive issue in Britain since a scandalous summer of revelations about phone hacking at the News of the World. He admits that the closeness between unscrupulous tabloid newspapers, their owners and the political elite is unhealthy. “I think we [in New Labour] started it, and we got it wrong,” he says. “In that rush to feed the 24/7 media, we just forgot to regulate it, and it forgot to regulate itself.” Politicians have let journalists intimidate them in the same “shameful” way Militant once intimidated Labour, he says, adding that he has spoken to party colleagues about his idea of instituting a new offence of “corporate intimidation”.

“When companies or newspapers use their power to intimidate individuals or politicians, it is no more acceptable than when the Mafia does it to a shopkeeper,” he says animatedly: “It is blackmail.” Alli would change media ownership laws so that no company could own three or more newspapers, “because it just upsets me” but he stops short of singling out the erstwhile proprietor of the News of the World for criticism. “The thing about Rupert Murdoch that’s so brilliant is, before he walks in the door people are trying to work out what to give him,” he notes.

I ask about the riots that engulfed England’s biggest cities in August. Alli, who grew up in Croydon, close to the scene of some of the violence, berates politicians and police officers for a lack of leadership. “It felt like the political class and the people that protect us just took a holiday, and they shouldn’t do that,” he says.

Yet he has some sympathy for the looters. “When you’re at the bottom of the heap and you see people can bankrupt your economy and still take huge bonuses; when MPs can help themselves to expenses which they think they’re entitled to but are probably not right; when [journalists] who are the checks and balances on that political power are breaking the law with such abandon; when you look up and see everybody on the take – everybody – and you can get a free pair of trainers, tell me what the difference is between a free pair of trainers and a banker’s bonus, or a TV set in a second home that isn’t in your constituency or [hacking] Milly Dowler’s phone to get £1,000 from the editor of some tabloid?”

Barely pausing for breath, he answers his own question. “The difference is it’s four years in jail for the person with the trainers and nobody else.”

Bond 45 is empty as Alli pours a sachet of sweetener into a cup of English breakfast tea that must have gone cold. I ask whether, after years of supporting his family, he finds it strange to be rich. “I pay myself a salary and I don’t really know where the rest of it is. I live my life on my salary because if I thought about the rest of it I think it would probably drive me mad,” he says with a shrug.

When we speak again after the changes at Chorion, he adds: “There’s something very nice about being master of your own fate. It’s one of the things being wealthy brings you. I don’t care because I’m backing myself. The question of whether I’m right only matters to me.”

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor

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Getting real: How reality TV transformed the industry’s business model

Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell in the US 'X Factor'

Brand: Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell in the US 'X Factor'

Reality television, which really took off in 2000 when Survivor hit US screens and Big Brother went beyond its Dutch home market to be sold around the world, started a revolution in TV business models.

In the past decade, TV talent shows have evolved into elaborate, multiplatform profit engines, different from anything the industry had previously seen. Chris Hackley, a professor of marketing at University of London, says Simon Cowell’s The X Factor offers “a marketing masterclass in leveraging publicity, branding media content and monetising consumer engagement”.

This year, more than 20 countries will produce versions of Cowell’s format. In the UK, the most recent X Factor final was watched by two-thirds of all British households whose TVs were turned on that night. The show, a co-production between Cowell’s company, Syco, News Corp’s Fox broadcast network and RTL’s Fremantle production arm, is alluring for brands: not only will massive audiences catch your 30-second messages in the ad breaks but, says Keith Hindle, Fremantle Media Enterprise’s chief executive for the Americas, there is “an entire suite” of marketing opportunities on air and off.

Taking lessons from sports broadcasters, X Factor uses gladiatorial on-air competition and encourages a running commentary on social media sites to build the live audiences advertisers find increasingly hard to reach elsewhere.

Pepsi, General Motors and Verizon take centre stage as sponsors on the US X Factor, echoing the prominence of Coca-Cola, Ford and AT&T on the rival American Idol. Product integration goes way beyond a Coke glass on the judges’ desks but Hindle says audiences have yet to object. On American Idol, “we did a lot of testing, and we had expected a slightly negative reaction. What absolutely shocked us was that not only was it never raised as an issue but, when we specifically asked, there was no negative response and it was regarded as ‘smart business,’” he says.

Beyond advertising, revenues come from iTunes downloads and CD sales. X Factor artists have sold more than 100m records with tours generating more earnings. American Idol also makes money from video games and an American Idol Experience at Disney World.

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Bond 45

143 West 45th Street, New York

Burrata & tomato $18.00

Buffalo mozzarella $12.00

Aubergine caponata $10.00

Lobster Cobb salad $28.00

Small pepperoni pizza $22.00

Tea $4.00

Total (including tax and service) $122.34

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