Roll out the Rolodexes, power up the palmtops and bring on the business cards. It's time for another Netorious salon or soirée or gathering, or whatever they style their get-togethers. It promises to be a 'chance to make valuable contacts', an 'occasion to learn from the best in the business', a time to have some fun, but above all else, it's 'an opportunity to NETWORK'. For as Netorious's slogan vapidly asserts, you are your network.
Your facilitator for the evening is Netorious's very own Ms Francesca Semple. Francesca's career has definitely been of the portfolio variety – or as she puts it: 'I've worn a lot of different hats'. She has been a broadcaster, worked in advertising, run her own PR firm; she's a consultant, and soon she'll be a published author (Not Working – Networking, Random House, £8.99, 20 August). Even her critics – who hold that a portfolio as big as a filing cabinet attests to dilletantism and a lack of staying power – can't deny Francesca her one career-defining attribute: a contacts book that bulges like Ron Jeremy's shorts. When her PR business suffered a 'cashflow breakdown' in 2001, becoming a professional networker was the obvious step.
Francesca is the product of hundreds of these shindigs, frequently mentioned in newspapers, stalwart of radio phone-ins and daytime soft-news shows. But behind the New Labour smile, the sincerely false-sounding laugh and the unnerving ability to recall your name even if you've met only once, who exactly is she? Well, surprise surprise, the public persona bears tolerable comparison to the truth. She really has done all these jobs. Where reality and her CV part company is over her performance – she was dead average in all of them. Burrow beneath the surface of her plausibly glittering career and there's precious little evidence of greatness ahead.
But Francesca had ambition – she wasn't going to let mere mediocrity hold her back. She never forgot a face and had a knack for making people feel important.
So she advanced using those time-honoured substitutes for ability, an agreeable manner and great references. Former colleagues hint that those terrific testimonials may simply have been the easiest way of dumping someone whom everyone liked, but who didn't live up to the reputation that got them the job in the first place.
So what exactly do Netorious's members get for their £500 a year? Well, invites to all these functions to see people speak, drink a couple of glasses of low-rent fizz and feel like they're in the middle of something important, even though 95% of attendees are just like them. Are the events useful? Well, you certainly feel like you're doing something that 'adds value to Me Plc'. And yet... do you really want to network with someone who came only for the networking?
Indeed, one former member recalls a rare event: the invited speaker stayed for a drink afterwards. Francesca buttonholed this businessman and asked him if networking had helped in his career. He looked a bit awkward. Well, he supposed everyone did it informally, but these were natural relationships, grown organically over years. Did he do it like this? 'Just between you and me, no. It all seems a bit grasping, a bit... American.'
Your member's card also entitles you to lots of 'newsflashes' from email@example.com. Enough, in fact, to suggest that she doesn't really have a clue what her members actually do for a living. There's nothing she comes across, no matter how trifling, that doesn't warrant a high-priority e-mail blast to the Netorious list. 'It's like opt-in spam,' moans one recipient. 'It's only a matter of time before she starts sending round messages about lost kittens.'
And the sender of all these e-mails, the facilitator of all these salons, what does she get out of it? A full-time job and the profile she feels she deserves – the business equivalent of being a C-list celebrity. But where does it all lead? It can't be the money: when you add up the members' dues, the profit on the events and so on, it's not a huge amount. As for the book advance: well, as the joke goes, it was halfway to eight figures – it was four.
The question keeps Francesca awake at night. So you know a lot of people? So what? In the small hours, she can't help but fear that somewhere along the way, the means has become the end. And that the centre of a network can be a very lonely – and rather pointless – place to be.
1967 Born Boston, Lincs. Educated Boston Girls' Grammar, St Andrew's University
1989 Trainee, BBC Radio Lincolnshire
1991 Producer, BBC Radio London
1993 Media director, Blyte & Simpson Advertising
1996 Partner, Blyte, Simpson & Semple Advertising (BSS)
1997 BSS goes bust. Consultant, Brandalism Corporate Image
1998 MD & founder, Semple PR
2001 Semple PR folds. Porfolio worker (consultancy, journalism, broadcasting, etc)
2002 Founds Netorious