The celebrity-guru

Steven Smalley's on your telly, on your bookshelf ... and the brand is growing.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What it is to be Steven Smalley. Here he is holding forth on Channel 4 news (last week it was the BBC, the week before Sky); he has the ear of the PM (and the Chancellor!); he hobnobs with Deepak Chopra - and Bono; he's the multi-millionaire owner of his own consultancy; a top business school fellow ... How did it all happen? Sometimes Smalley wonders this himself.

In the management terminology, he has manoeuvred himself into a self-reinforcing position: he has created a virtuous circle with plenty of positive feedback; he is now a 'snowball' that shows no sign of disintegrating.

In more everyday language, he's onto a nice little earner and what happened to him could only have happened in the closing years of the last century.

Looking at Smalley in his celebrity-guru eyrie (£18,000 for an after-dinner speech!), you might think he has managed his career as carefully as he advises others to manage theirs. There's a grain of 'truthiness' in this, but it is also true that he had a singular stroke of good fortune and exploited it for all it was worth. For here is a man who has left no spin-off unexploited, no synergy unleveraged.

Smalley studied business and economics at Warwick University, was a consultant for five years, flirted briefly with his own business and then drifted back into academia. He started on a postgraduate programme at Lancaster University Business School and stumbled on the idea that you should treat yourself as a company and market yourself like a brand.

With a snappy title and a few contacts in publishing, he soon had a book deal. Almost everyone he knew, his professors included, expected a bone-dry, businesslike tome. But his prose managed to pull off the clever double con of dumbing down while making readers feel clever about themselves.

Investing in Me Plc was a business and mainstream bestseller, and suddenly Smalley 'owned' a concept that had been in the public domain for a decade or more. Better yet, Smalley was acceptably telegenic and gave good soundbite.

Soon he was in every reporter's Psion and in every producer's Filofax.

And was he media-friendly! As the joke runs, 'If you want to speak to him, put your head out of a window and shout: "There's a journalist here who wants to talk to Steven Smalley." He'll call you back within half an hour.'

In the decade since he first burst onto the scene, dozens have followed.

But Smalley had first-mover advantage and worked hard to consolidate his position, dispel negative rumours and manage his brand. Has he succeeded?

The house in Hampstead and the pop-star lifestyle would argue so. But, lately, things have taken an unexpected turn. Having long been dismissed as a lightweight by 'serious' academics, Smalley was suddenly invited by CRAS business school to join its management faculty. Members of the faculty were aghast. The aggressively cerebral Richard Novak saw it as dumbing down of the worst kind; he penned a paper, 'The Rewards of Enstupidation', and challenged Smalley to a debate.

Our guru rose to the challenge - and even acquitted himself well. The debate was a draw, the consensus that Novak won on points, Smalley on style. More surprisingly, the pair are now collaborating on a book, EconoME, which Channel 4 has already optioned. As Smalley said recently: 'Working together, we hope to rebrand me as a serious thinker and him as a populist.' An already made-over Novak added: 'What Steven did was convince me of the academic value of celebrity as a vehicle for diffusing ideas. Why should I fight it? If he can get me on Richard and Judy, he really is a genius.'

SMALLEY IN A SOUNDBITE

1957: Born 12 February, Pinner, Middlesex. Educated: Pinner Grammar School, Warwick University

1979: Consultant, Poloz-Draper

1987: Freelance consultant, fundraising

1991: Project work, IBM Consulting

1994: MBA, Lancaster University, incomplete

1995: Publishes Investing in Me Plc

1998: Publishes Re-engineering Me Plc

1999: Founds MeWorks Consulting 2005: Fellow, CRAS Business School.

- Any resemblance to a real person is coincidental and unintended.

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