Talking about us?
Steve McKevitt’s books have poked fun at modern business. But, he tells Peter Baber, no one’s offended and it’s only a sideline of his anyway.
“When you are the head of communications, and you find yourself fantasising about where you are going to hide the chief executive’s body – that’s when you realise it is probably time to leave.” Not perhaps the most diplomatic of comments you might expect from a business interviewee over lunch.
But such wickedly funny asides, I discover, are very much the bread and butter of Steve McKevitt, especially when he is describing why he chose to leave one of a number of communications, marketing and PR jobs he has held over the last two decades.
But this is no lax performer.
In his time, McKevitt has been head of communications across Europe for some of the biggest names in computer gaming (although to avoid offending any chief executives out there, we will avoid mentioning them).
He has also managed to keep hold of such a career while always being based in the one city he has come to call home – Sheffield.
Although he was born in Liverpool and brought up in north Lancashire, he has been based in the city since 1985 when he came to Sheffield University to study politics – naturally.
While he has an affection for the place, and still lives there despite basing his latest venture, design agency Golden, in Leeds, he says there has been no want of trying to move somewhere else.
With one European communications job he was told he could base himself more or less anywhere in Europe, in particular places like Geneva, Lyon or Madrid.
With a totally deadpan face, he tells me how he went to relay this particular piece of information to his wife, who is Sheffield born and bred.
“’Great,’ she said. ‘That means we can stay here.’ To be fair, we had just had a baby, and she wanted to be near her mum,” he says. Nonetheless, his commitment to staying in Sheffield on that occasion led to him having to make virtual daily commutes from the city to Lyon. He is something of an opinion former too, first in Sheffield and even now in Leeds.
He was involved in both Creative Sheffield, the marketing and inward investment agency the city set up when city regions were first all the rage, and now, despite being in Leeds for only three years, he already has a seat on the employment and skills sub-committee of the Leeds local enterprise partnership (LEP).
Clearly his opinions are listened to. You expect that, of course, in a consummate PR professional. One of the reasons why he chose Create, the social enterprise restaurant in Leeds, as the venue for our interview, was that he knows Create’s national executive chef, Richard Walton-Allen, from the days when he was executive chef at Harvey Nichols and McKevitt’s firm, McKevitt & Kenwood, was given the task of promoting the restaurant in Harvey Nichols Leeds.
But there are good reasons why more and more people might soon be tuning in to what Steve McKevitt has to say, as over the past few years he has started writing books – two books to date, with another two on the way.
Of course, there are many people who yearn to write books, who either never succeed, or end up pretending to have done so when in fact the publisher they opt for is a vanity publisher.
McKevitt has succeeded without any of that, although he admits that he only started writing non-fiction books because he thought that would be an easier way to get in to write fiction.
“But you get pigeonholed into being a non-fiction writer,” he says. (A novel he is writing still remains unfinished.) While he says it’s a hard slog, pitching a book isn’t necessarily any different from any other kind of pitching you would do in the normal course of your business life.
“The way you get a book published is you have an idea, and you get an agent interested, then you write a proposal. I have always pitched the idea, got an agent interested and tried to get a publisher, rather than present the completed book at the start. It is, after all, very difficult to get an agent interested unless you are Katie Price.”
McKevitt’s agent, the Marsh Agency, we should point out, also represents the likes of Booker prize winner Ben Okri and current hot young talent China Mieville.
McKevitt’s first book, City Slackers, which came out in 2006, had this interviewer literally aching with laughter, so near to the bone did much of his caricaturing of modern business life seem to be.
“I am always amazed at the amount of people I have seen having successful careers who you couldn’t find anybody to say a good word about - or even an equivocal word about,” he says.
The book’s central explosive tenet was that there are legions of people out there, in all walks of life, who take on high profile jobs knowing even before they start that whatever they are supposed to be achieving will be a failure. Failure, the books suggests, is a given.
“There was no way you could ever say in a business meeting that the new project everyone is raving about simply won’t work. Such talk would get you fired, or at the very least you would have the technical director coming down on you, saying things like: “Don’t you f*****g talk like that and demoralise my team,” and the chief executive quietly saying that you had reached your opinion too early. But privately if you spoke to these people everybody would know the project was a turkey.
It’s a culture of failure no one talks about.” He puts such blindness down to people’s innate optimism, and cites as evidence a research project he read about where people were put through an MRI scanner and asked what they thought their chances of dying from cancer were.
They were then told what the chances actually were – almost invariably higher than they thought.
Yet when they were put through the scan again, and asked the same question again, the only people who revised their chances upwards were people who were naturally pessimistic to start with – something he insists he isn’t.
“I suppose when people are bombarded with 3,000 messages a day,” he says, “they are selective and like to listen to the good news.”
McKevitt’s next book, Why the World is Full of Useless Things, he thinks was a bit of self-indulgence brought out in the wake of the relative success of his first.
But he is much more excited about his new book, Everything Now, due out in June this year.
He says it follows on from some of the issues raised in City Slackers – how people are “shown the answer and they ignore the evidence”.
If the book is exploring territory that has been trodden over before – why it is that people in consumer society today are less happy than they should be - it is pointedly aimed at those in his own profession of marketing in giving its answers.
“Over 30 years there has been a drive to provide people with more choice,” he says, “but in order for that to be sustained people need to be kept in a permanent state of dissatisfaction. Only by selling you dissatisfaction with your current PC can I sell you the newer upgrade. We are not actually concerned with needs at all as all our needs have been assuaged. We live in a want-based society, and wants are being enacted.”
The problem with such a culture is that is unsustainable. We’ve all heard that one before, but McKevitt takes it further by suggesting that it also deadens innovation – something all marketers should be concerned about.
“Innovation is still making place,” he says, “but we are making baby steps, not the giant steps we used to make in the past.” This came home to him most forcefully when he was watching Back to the Future with his children at home.
“The kids were really surprised to find that the film had been made in 1985 because they thought it had been made a couple of years ago,” he says.
“When it came to the part where he goes back to 1955, they could see that was a different world. But 1985 looked very similar to theirs. Michael J Fox has got a Walkman, he’s got jeans, a computer, and he is watching TV. They don’t know that the Walkman he is wearing plays cassettes. Innovation is taking place under the bonnet. A car looks much like a car did 30 years ago. What we have been doing in the past few decades has been incrementally trying to improve things that don’t necessarily need improving.”
This is important, he says, because real innovators should be facing up to much bigger challenges.
“This world is going to have 9 billion people in 20 years. Yet oil production will never be higher than 89 billion barrels a year. We need to find alternatives to that. The irony is that the technological solutions to all those problems exist today.
“There is no R&D needed. What is lacking is the will to change things.” There are many people who would disagree with him on that last point, particularly on his insistence that there is currently an alternative to petrol in the form of photosynthesising algae.
Many scientists say that the prospect of producing sufficient energy from such organisms is many decades away – if it is there at all. Yet he does have powerful people on his side.
He is already writing another book, Shine, in collaboration with Tony Ryan, Pro Vice Chancellor for Pure Science at the University of Sheffield.
This, he says, will cover “major issues such as how we solve population control, climate change, food shortages and energy supply. Tony likes the books I have written”.
He says he now probably would be able to make a living from the books he has written, “but it wouldn’t be a very good one”.
“You would have to write one successful book a year to make a good living,” he says, “and that is very difficult.
I don’t actually know how many books I have sold.” Yet he must still be relatively comfortable from having sold his equity in Zoo Digital, a Sheffield-based technology and media company that floated on the stock market some years ago and at one stage had a market capitalisation of £48m, despite having never made a profit. McKevitt has largely severed his ties with the company now.
He says he likes the book writing because it “fits in” with his work being chairman of his new agency, Golden.
He founded the agency with Rob Brearley, a former winner of the Designer of the Year award at the Roses Design Awards, and they are already winning pitches to the likes of Nike and Umbro.
It is a design agency, he says, but very different from Designers Republic, the now largely defunct Sheffield-based design studio he was asked to come and manage for a few years which had something of a worldwide reputation, largely from having designed many of Pulp’s album covers.
McKevitt says he learned a lot from the relatively short time he spent working with “DR”, as he calls it, but not all of it was good.
“DR had a global capability to get clients all over the world,” he says.
“Whether they could keep them was another matter. I think the problem was that they were artists. They would say to a client: ‘This is your answer.’ And if the client said: ‘I don’t like that,’ they would say: ‘You are wrong.’ They didn’t really have any account management. The ideal client was a client who would come and let DR do what it wanted to do.” Golden, he says, is different from that.
“Our designer’s attitude is: ‘It could be any of these solutions. Which one works for you? None of them? What about that?’ We are solutions-based, and working to a brief. It’s not enough to give somebody something brilliant, the experience of getting something brilliant has got to be sufficient as well.”
He says he based the agency in Leeds primarily to try and attract more people who might be willing to move north, and to get more business – although ironically Golden hasn’t had a single client in Leeds since it started.
But is he not finally running away from Sheffield? After all, surely he must have annoyed quite a few people in his time? There are many people referred to in City Slickers, for example, whose identity, if you really worked hard enough, should not be that difficult to establish.
McKevitt says no – he has never had any adverse reaction to his books. But that doesn’t surprise him.
He likes the tale John Cleese told of being approached by a man at an airport who said he loved the sketch Monty Python had done mocking accountants.
When Cleese asked the man what his job was, the man said he was himself an accountant.
But when Cleese subsequently wondered how he could find such a sketch funny, the man said he was a chartered accountant, and Cleese had been making fun of lesser brethren.
“People won’t know you are making a joke about them unless you put their postcode at the bottom of the joke,” he says.
“I have been told by people who are actually in the book that they like the book.” I wonder if such people are reading this? I hope not.