The MT Interview: Matthew Freud

Spinmeister and major-league fixer, this scion of a famous family and son-in-law of Rupert Murdoch pulls strings that extend into the top ranks of business, politics and the arts. Once best-known as PR to the stars, he has moved into heavyweight corporate stuff, advising CEOs.

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013

Getting to interview Matthew Freud is a nightmare. He doesn't want to do it. Then he agrees. Then he worries that he's making himself the story - something he says a PR person should never do. Then he wants a pre-interview meeting to agree the terms of engagement. It'd be easier getting some face-time with the Queen.

Click here to see a portrait of Matthew Freud, in the style of uncle Lucien Freud

During the pre-interview encounter, at his agency Freud Communications' smart new premises off Oxford Street, London, he's on the phone. Someone has said something they shouldn't to a newspaper about Madonna's divorce from Guy Ritchie - they're friends of his - and Freud is smoothing over the row. He's pacing round his office, taking call after call.

Next, he's away at his Oxfordshire home. Then he has flu. Finally, it's Friday afternoon and perilously close to MT's deadline and, thank the lord, he answers the door at his house in Notting Hill. He's wearing a jumper, T-shirt, jeans and boots. He's all smiles but very edgy - he doesn't do on-the-record chats with the media.

Why? He's endured an almost universally hostile press in the past, and no matter what he does, he thinks it will bring opprobrium, so best not to say anything.

Few people excite opinion like Matthew Freud. In some quarters, especially those occupied by hacks, the mention of his name produces apoplexy. They say he's everything that's wrong with this celebrity-obsessed country of ours: an arch-spinner, a manipulator, a user, prone to histrionics, an arm-twister who will stop at nothing to get his client's story heard - or to get it pulled.

Michael Wolff's recent biography of his father-in-law Rupert Murdoch (The Man Who Owns the News - Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch, Broadway Books) described Freud as 'a man of unspeakable craftiness, lounge-lizard smoothness, deep connectedness, superb analytic abilities and possibly dynastic ambitions of his own', adding: 'Indeed, Murdoch initially was rather horrified by him.' Freud sounds as if he needs his own PR expert.

Then there are those closer to him. They're fond of him, but they will also raise their eyebrows and say affectionately, 'The trouble with Matthew is... ', before listing traits that may include some of the above but also take in his butterfly personality, low boredom threshold and relentless energy. Matthew, it seems, is... Matthew. He's the bad boy, the enfant terrible of PR; the Wunderkind who is no longer a kid - he's been doing it for 24 years but is still only 45.

'He's got this reputation for being erratic,' said a PR industry observer. 'But it's easy to forget that he has been doing it for so long. For over 20 years, he's been running a top-10 consumer PR agency and making money out of it.'

In that time, too, his agency has shifted. It has gone from entertainment to consumer and it's continuing to do those things but also now engaging in top-level strategic corporate advice.

It has changed hands, too. He sold the firm to ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers in 1994. Then, after AMV was acquired by Omnicom, he led a management buy-out and took it back again; he subsequently sold a 50% stake in it to the large French group, Publicis.

He may worry that he's making himself the story, but for much of his life he has been just that - in his private life and in his numerous business ventures, some disastrous, some successful.

His father is Sir Clement Freud, the former Liberal MP, his mother June Flewett, the inspiration for Lucy in CS Lewis's Narnia tales. His uncle is Lucian Freud, the painter, and his great-grandfather was, of course, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. On the arrival of Matthew and Elisabeth Murdoch's first child Charlotte in 2001, his wife's mother Anna wondered: 'What on earth is this baby going to be like, with the blood of Rupert Murdoch and Sigmund Freud running in its veins?'

Matthew Freud went to Westminster School, left in his third year and went to Pimlico, a state comprehensive. His first wife was Caroline, later to become the second wife of Earl Spencer, and she and Freud have two children; his second wife is Murdoch's second daughter and they have two children. Matthew and Elisabeth met when he was advising Sky on a rebranding campaign and she was working at the TV station and married to someone else.

Murdoch Snr is thought to have disapproved strongly of his daughter's choice of boyfriend. Elisabeth's older half-sister Prue warned him: 'If you hurt her, I'll kill you'. But, seven years after their nuptials, they ride high in the premiership of London's big-hitting power couples.

Last year, Elisabeth turned 40. She had two birthday parties, both of which hit the headlines. The first, held at Burford Priory, was a spectacular and glamorous A-lister affair, attended by Tony Blair, Bono and Rupert Murdoch. The second was in Corfu and provided the backdrop for the subsequent political row involving Peter Mandelson, George Osborne, Oleg Deripaska and Nat Rothschild. Both occasions were seen as evidence of Freud's consummate networking skills, of his place at the hub of a web that takes in the major strands of politics, business and the arts. He is a serious piece of work.

'Matthew's connections are unrivalled,' says another PR adviser. 'The only one who comes close is Alan Parker (chief of financial PR firm Brunswick), but he's a maverick, a total one-off.'

Freud is impossible to pigeonhole. Yes, he has been associated with some of the tackiest PR stunts ever, such as the pushing of pop star Geri Halliwell onto the front pages with a series of manufactured stories. But he heads an agency that turns over £25m and employs 200 people, listing Pepsi, Sony, Asda, Nike, KFC, Carphone Warehouse, Time Warner and London 2012 among its clients. Blair used to call on him for advice when he was PM, and Freud is still close to senior government and opposition figures.

He may be regarded by some as the exemplar of everything that's wrong with the age in which we live, but while other PR agencies struggle, Freuds goes from strength to strength. The only blot was the US, where he thought he'd make more of an impact, but, even so, the agency has flourishing offices in New York and LA.

At Freud's house, which - he lets slip - used to belong to Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, I'm led upstairs, past the original drum from the Sergeant Pepper album cover, hanging on a wall, a vast Gilbert and George painting, a couple of Damien Hirsts and a Warhol. There are black-and-white photographs of the family, including a doting Rupert Murdoch. A side-room has nothing in it but a vast, wall-length sofa and a giant flat screen TV. It's showing Sky News.

The house smacks of substantial affluence and influence - which you'd expect from a couple probably worth a quarter of a billion pounds - but it's not heavily formal. The mood is one of relaxation, of youth and rebelliousness, of closeness and family. He may run a large PR agency and she may have her own independent TV company, but the front door is being opened and shut by children returning home from school (Elisabeth, too, has two children by her first marriage, so there are six in total).

Freud throws himself into an easy chair, his back to a large picture window overlooking the garden. He looks casual but, later on, there is a whirring noise and an audible click - somewhere in the room a tape is recording our every word.

So, what has made him who he is? It all stems from his childhood, he says. 'I'm the second son. In fact, I'm the youngest son of the youngest son of the youngest son of the youngest son.' He laughs. 'I suppose that means we have to try harder and have to be more conventional. My elder brother had done very well at school and went to Oxbridge and into the City.' He pauses. 'It's more common for younger sons to go off at a tangent. I was the youngest of five children.'

He talks quickly and confidently. He occupies the same chair, but he's twitching and fiddling, crossing and uncrossing his legs, running his hands through his hair. There's an ever-present nervous energy. And he's skilled at ensuring that he talks about what he wants to talk about - he's a master of the deflected response.

Freud set up his first firm at 16, 'the first singing telegram company in Britain'. At 21, he had founded his own PR agency. Quite a feat, I say, since he'd had no teaching, no experience. He nods. 'The first 10 years were on-the-job training,' he says, wryly, 'at the clients' expense.'

But why PR? 'I'd a vague sense in the family that you couldn't do what someone else had done - so there wasn't anyone who was a psychoanalyst, there was nobody else in politics or nobody else in art. I wanted to do something interesting that nobody had done before.'

He then discovered that his great-uncle was Edward Bernays, often described as the creator of PR. Bernays, who practised in New York, used the techniques of Sigmund Freud to skew public opinion. In another uncanny echo of Freud today, Bernays had major corporate clients but he was also asked to advise President Coolidge on his image before the 1924 election.

Even so, how did Freud begin? Wasn't it daunting? His approach, he says, was very much 'I'm in PR, come and hire me'. PR then was different from today. 'It was very Ab Fab. It wasn't seen as a particularly interesting field. At the corporate level, the head of PR was the bloke who sorted management out with tickets for Twickenham. It was much more event- and schmooze-based than it is now.' The media, too, were less powerful, less influential. 'We hadn't been through the media revolution of the '90s.'

There weren't the outlets. Newspapers did news and that was pretty much it. 'There was very little features. The Sunday Times magazine was about the only place you could get a good-sized article, and once a week, on a Friday, the Sun ran an entertainment piece.'

His first client was Clannad, the Irish music group, followed by Derek Jarman, and the Comic Strip comedy team. The first serious customer ('the first defining client of the agency') came later with Hard Rock Cafe. After that, in 1992, came Planet Hollywood and the launch of the Hollywood-themed restaurant chain backed by movie stars. He grins his boyish grin. 'It was a cynical duplication of Hard Rock Cafe, but without 20 years of heritage and legacy.'

Planet Hollywood was important for Freud in another way - with Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and other stars holding equity in the brand, it vividly illustrated to him - really for the first time - the commercial power of celebrity.

Soon after, drinks giant Pepsi asked if Freud could help it. In rapid succession came first the Big Breakfast programme and then Four Weddings and a Funeral (Richard Curtis, the film's director, is Freud's brother-in-law). 'Getting these three very different clients in six months gave us stature,' says Freud.

If there is a thread to his business, he says, it was sewn then. 'We've worked for some of the biggest consumer brands in Britain - Unilever, Nestle, VW, Nike and Pepsi. We've been able to draw upon celebrity and the media's obsession with it. At the same time, we've had celebrities who want to become brands. So we've rolled with that whole media, brand, celebrity thing.'

From 1992 onwards, the agency grew rapidly. The principle of the firm, he explains, has always been to be 'a content-supplier to the media. If a PR company is not a content provider, I don't understand how it can have any sway or influence.' He determined that 'Freuds had both incoming and outgoing traffic', that its executives 'weren't just a nuisance to journalists'.

This cross-fertilisation frequently got Freud into hot water with the media and is what provoked much of the animosity to him. Whereas all PR agencies are reactive, his has tended towards being proactive. It will have a client - the Bafta film awards, say - and will supply favourable angles and stories in return for access to the event. If you don't play its game, you're barred.

He uses these prestigious properties to push other clients. He realised, ahead of anyone else, as he puts it, that 'film and TV work are a staple for the media' and that he could use their 'traction' to promote other aspects of his business.

A showpiece like the Baftas, he says, is about much more than ensuring 'old-style red carpet publicity', it's about 'using it as leverage to create partnerships'. But his ability to slant the press, he argues, is over-stated. His agency is 'good at creating relationships - at putting in place the architecture between clients and the media that is mutually rewarding for them both'.

He maintains that much of what he does doesn't involve the media. Such as? He tells how he was asked to advise AOL after it had effectively bought Time Warner in 2000. 'It was the most catastrophic merger in history. Jon Miller (the AOL chief) said: "We need help." It meant me spending a day and a half a week in America. I negotiated with my wife and I took Philip Gould (the Labour pollster and Freud's vice-chairman) with me.' He spent a lot of time with Gould, understanding how surveying and focus groups worked. He also learned how Boardroom America operated and thought.

His advice to AOL was radical. He suggested that it drop its name - that AOL Time Warner become Time Warner. His rationale was that AOL was narrow. Consumers knew what it did (it was the company that said 'you've got mail') - and they didn't need to see its name up there in lights on other things; whereas Time Warner was much broader and less easily defined. Putting them together was confusing.

The AOL brief was a step change for Freud. It was heavyweight corporate stuff and led to referrals from other US firms. It was also important, he says candidly, for another reason. 'I gained an understanding from Philip Gould of the value of research, of the political process. It was as close to an education as I've received. I'd never been to university and I was spending long plane journeys with him, listening, and then going to meet the senior executives at AOL Time Warner.'

Advising AOL led him into 'CEO counselling'. He had an office separate from the main agency for seeing chairmen and CEOs. He still has it - 'a small Gothic castle in Berkeley Square', he says, laughing - but now he works out of his company's new HQ in Fitzrovia's Newman Street. There, he has a large personal office with access to a roof terrace - perfect for making those calls that he doesn't want anyone to hear.

Increasingly, it is this high-level strategic aspect of his work that detains him. 'I get to talk to interesting people who have interesting problems. They may be CEOs, but they're surprisingly isolated. They're surrounded by people who work for them. They're also isolated by their sector.'

Freud's agency advises Carphone Warehouse. Freud himself works closely with Charles Dunstone, its boss. 'Being with Charlie is as much fun as it's possible to have. He's got an incredibly keen mind, he really understands the consumer. He believes he's got a role to play in shaking up the incumbent markets and creating a viable challenge to BT and rolling out broadband. So I discuss with Charlie what he's doing.'

Continues Freud: 'Along with Johnny Hornby (Carphone's external ad man), I hope we're very significant to him.' Freud's worth, he says, is about being able to have a view. 'If there's anything frustrating about what I do, it's that I'm never truly immersed in anything - but that is also my greatest advantage. I can have an objective view because I'm not surrounded by it; I can see how other people see it.'

He grins as he recalls how he once dared to tell the people at Pepsi: 'You know, nobody wakes up every morning asking: "Which is better, Pepsi or Coke?".' What his job does not entail, he maintains, is misleading the press. 'You can't lie to journalists if you intend to stay in this industry. You can't bore them, you can't bullshit them.'

One criticism levelled at Freuds is that after the man himself and a few senior people, the talent fades away. 'It's very top-heavy,' a PR source told me. 'A massive amount is Matthew.'

Freud disputes that. 'Even third- or fourth-level people who work for us have ambition and attitude. There are 23 people on the board, every single one of whom is a person you'd appreciate having in the room. The value of the company is not me. There are clients I work on, but the point of the agency is that there's thinking at the top and a huge depth of execution below.'

So 20 staff worked on the recent opening of Atlantis, The Palm, hotel in Dubai, while 30 are devoted to Asda. 'We're a hybrid. PR is an industry divided into silos - so there's fashion, consumer, and entertainment, external, internal and so on. We're all those. But we're also experts, so if you want a restaurant PR we can give you someone who knows restaurants. Likewise, it's no good if you're doing theatre and you don't know that Charles Spencer (the Daily Telegraph's theatre critic) likes to sit in seat P12 at the Shaftesbury Theatre or he gets really angry.'

In his own dealings with businesses and their leaders, Freud increasingly focuses on reputation and its importance. Advertising and communication are relatively easy; it's reputation that makes or breaks a brand or its boss, he believes. 'It's very easy to talk about reputation but difficult to deliver. As an industry, PR traditionally over-sells and under-delivers.'

Majoring on reputation, he maintains, applies just as much to him and the firm as it does to the companies it represents. 'You're only as good as your clients. It's impossible to sell something that is not fundamentally high-quality. It must have value, it must stand for values.'

In Michael Woolf's Murdoch biog, there's a telling exchange where the author despairs of getting anything introspective out of the tycoon. Ask Murdoch about 'being a change agent', Freud tells Woolf. Suddenly, to the consternation of his executives, Murdoch starts talking about News Corporation being 'change agents'.

Is this Freud's value to Murdoch (apart from being his son-in-law): dropping in telling phrases? Freud stresses that he doesn't represent the company - he has worked for parts of it (which is how he met Elisabeth), but he does not look after News International. 'The church and state separation is about right,' he says cheerfully.

But he does offer advice occasionally. 'If I'm of any value to the family professionally it's because I'm not inside - I'm able to bring the broadest view of as many different areas as possible.'

He plays down the Murdoch connection, just as he does his all-embracing networking. He resents the fact that some see it as sinister and gives me an example of his networking at work. When Sony Pictures, a client, was filming The Da Vinci Code, it needed to shoot inside the Louvre. Freud called Maurice Levy, the head of Publicis, his 50% shareholder. Levy had a word with the French interior minister, who spoke to the museum's curator, who let them in to film.

Journalists, he declares, get him wrong. 'I've got almost no influence in my own right. The people I represent are genuinely influential. But if I'm joining the dots, it's not for me or my benefit but for the mutual benefit of other people.'

What's not said, he adds, is that about 20% of his agency's workload is for good causes. 'I don't know any other company that gives away 20%. We do 50 pro bono campaigns a year.' He rattles off a list of charitable clients, from Comic Relief to Live Earth. 'The company is enhanced by it. Our beating heart is our cause-related work. Of course, there have been times in the last 24 years when we've been opportunistic on behalf of clients - but that's because we have to be.'

It's getting late. He's off to Oxfordshire with Elisabeth and the children. As we part, he reminds me quietly that he can fix up for me to meet somebody I've told him I'm keen to see. 'We'll do it, next week.'

He's the one in control. I'm left hanging on his goodwill. He's grinning. He can see my concern... He's utterly incorrigible, and there's no stopping him.

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING MATTHEW FREUD

1. To move deeper into reputational management, especially of FTSE chairmen and CEOs, taking business off big City agencies

2. To create strength in depth at his agency and bring on heavyweight staff

3. To continue to grow his business and try to create a global PR brand, like Goldman Sachs in banking or McKinsey in management consultancy

4. To get all sections of the press to like him, so they don't sneer whenever his name is mentioned

FREUD IN A MINUTE

1963: Born in London. Went to Westminster School. Left early, for Pimlico Comprehensive

1983: Set up own PR agency

1992: Oversees launch of Planet Hollywood, the first time celebrities had been so engaged in a product's success: they held equity stakes

1994: Sells firm to Abbott Mead Vickers. Later regains control in an MBO, and then sells 50% to French group Publicis

2001: Marries Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert Murdoch. They have two children

2008: Throws two parties for her 40th. The second, in Corfu, is where Peter Mandelson, George Osborne and Oleg Deripaska meet

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Upcoming Events

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today