Monday, November 21, 2011

Philip Gould - a little person's eulogy

It's taken me a while to get round to this (Philip Gould died on the 6th November 2011) mainly because I've toyed with whether or not I was qualified to write a eulogy to the man.  After all, I'm not an ex-prime-minister, eminent spin doctor, relative, or good friend.  I merely worked with him a few times in the nineties when I was employed by Express Newspapers to organise research and strategic development around the titles following their acquisition by Labour peer, Lord Hollick.  Philip Gould's consultancy resided in the same building and I would appoint him to conduct focus groups amongst mid market readers as the titles revamped, reformatted, dumped old and launched new sections, as every attempt was made to counter the growing dominance and influence of the Daily Mail.

You go through life, contemplating junctions, taking different paths and meeting various people along the way.  Some fade from memory while others, however fleeting the encounter, stick.  Philip Gould was one of these.  So, on reading the numerous tributes to the man written by the great and the famous, I felt compelled to add my own.  After all, the thing about Philip Gould, what made him universally liked, was the importance he placed on everyone's opinion.  He was always curious, a great listener, incredibly easy to talk too, and simply interested in what you thought, irrespective of who you were.

He was also a terrible name dropper.  I'd go to brief him on a forthcoming research project - eg. new supplement, popularity of columnists etc.  He'd nod, absorb this in a matter of seconds then go on to mention 'Alastair', 'Tony', the various political strategy meetings he needed to attend/hold, the need to pop back and forth to Millbank, back and forth to number 10.  His office walls were lined with numerous black and white framed photos, showing him with Blair, him with Cherie and Blair, him with Clinton, him in discussion with the A-team in one of Downing Street's opulent drawing rooms.  He was not modest about his contacts and influence within the upper echelons of government and at the time it was hard not to sigh and look to the heavens at what seemed like exaggerated bluster.  Except of course it wasn't - he had the photographic evidence to prove it - plus there was something refreshing and intrinsically honest about his unfettered pride in his achievements.  Here was this man, shambolic, frenetic, accessible and devoid of the loftiness that often pervaded senior editorial teams (even at the Express) and senior management, who was more influential than any of them - he really did have the ear of the Prime Minister.

He was, in effect, the personification of the incoming Labour government he advised - leadership that was no longer aloof but on your level.  And it made you feel valued.  A briefing meeting with Philip would typically go like this, 'OK, yep yep got that, thanks Imogen, but tell me, what is it that frightens you most about society today?'

Flummoxed at being put on the spot about something totally unrelated to the purpose of our meeting I'd come back with, 'Erm, guns..? On the streets?'

'No, no, we've done that,' he'd reply, massaging his chin, spinning a little in his chair, 'Banned handguns.  What else?'  I'd flail around while he would listen, prompt and take whatever I would say on board, looking genuinely like my blather was useful.  And of course I would bounce out of his office all enthused thinking I'd just influenced government policy, then once back at my desk become somewhat concerned that that might really be the case.

As has been well documented he lived and breathed politics.  I can vouch for that.  His consultancy's commercial clients were bread and butter, while his true purpose, the Gould raison d'ĂȘtre was to assist and direct the Labour Party.  The Express had devised a new, glossy and costly Saturday supplement and prior to its launch, wanted to present a mock-up to readers, current and potential, to ensure it had maximum appeal.  Invariably, Philip would warm his commercial focus groups up with the same question, 'So, what do you think of the state of the nation?' and I would watch bemused from behind the viewing facility's two way mirror, checking my watch and discussion guide (which of course mentioned nothing about state of our nation), until a good half an hour into the session (groups were usually an hour and a half long) when he'd finally get on to the job in hand, the supplement - clearly a far less interesting juncture for both the group and him.  But the brief would be always be met - mine and his, plus this was Philip Gould, so who was I to complain?

From a casual observer's perspective, as I was, Philip Gould was the ultimate mad professor, brain exploding, hair exploding, consumed by his cause, to the detriment of any order and organisation his fraught team would attempt to effect.  He was frequently flustered, dishevelled and distracted - tie wonky, shirt half-tucked -  hurrying from meeting to meeting, rushing to write something important down, grappling for dictaphone to dictate a soundbite/slogan he'd devised, get debrief notes typed up by panicking assistants - and frequently leaving chaos and items of some significance in his wake.  

On one occasion, we had a drinks do at a local drinking hole to mark some milestone or another, to which Philip was invited.  He would come, have a couple of drinks, enjoy the attention from the myriad journalists and marketeers that would gather to hang on his every word, then after a couple of hours, head off.  The next day I got a call from his PA, 'Oh, hi Imogen, don't suppose anyone's mentioned a briefcase left in the bar last night, have they?  Philip thinks he may have left it there.'  They hadn't, and I never did find out if he found it.  Mind boggled as to what was in it.  From then on, when policy documents were discovered on a train or HM Gov laptops left on black cab seats, I'd think of Philip.

And then it was all change at The Express, editorial overhauls placed less emphasis on research, Philip did less for the newspaper group, I moved on, Hollick sold the titles to Richard Desmond and that exciting new Labour new dawn was over.

Why, years later, did news of his cancer and subsequent death affect me?  I've pondered this and I think it comes down to the following: Because you knew he was hugely influential and always in a rush yet he was interested in you and prepared to have a good natter.  He was one of the few people who would ask you how you were, and in a kind of therapist's way that made you want to hop on the couch and spill your life story knowing he'd have the answers.  Possibly because he was acutely perceptive, wise and kind, and treated you like a friend despite having just been introduced (which of course was what made him such a great focus group moderator).  Mainly because he was a true character, funny (both strange, and ha ha) and fun, and someone who infected and exhausted everyone with his energy and ebullience.  But ultimately, amid all the posturing circles that he moved in and the spin that he advocated, he was glaringly human, and for that, stood out.

I bumped into Philip Gould a couple more times, nearly went to work for him, then didn't, then nothing for years until I saw him in a coffee shop in Notting Hill.  Our conversation was brief.  He was on his way to a meeting, as always a little unkempt, somewhat distracted, and true to character, honest in his smalltalk.  He mentioned he'd just come from the doctor, to which I think I probably said, 'Nothing serious, I hope,' and that was the last I saw of him.





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