It’s hard to believe that Kelvin MacKenzie left his role as editor of The Sun more than two decades ago. So controversial was his time there that he’s come to represent the best and worse of tabloid journalism in the eyes of his allies and critics respectively. Most people are less familiar with his subsequent work in the business arena – MacKenzie has launched several companies including the leading sports radio station Talksport back in 2000.
More recently he had a hand in his son Ashley’s online video business, Base79, which was sold last year for around £50m and he's also just announced plans to launch a new sports radio station, the aptly titled Sports Radio, to compete with Talksport, which was sold to UTV in 2005.
One of MacKenzie’s latest schemes is A Spokesman Said, an online customer service platform. Consumers are encouraged to log their complaint about a business (everything from telcos to shops) and when they do, the clock starts ticking. All companies start with a score of 100 and the longer they take to reply, and the less satisfied they leave customers, the lower their score gets. So far there's been around 250 complaints logged on the site.
MacKenzie says the seeds of the idea lie all the way back in his time in the newspaper business. ‘What I discovered was that when I was the editor of The Sun, unbeknownst to me, if my landline went down at home there would be a queue about 8 miles long of BT engineers waiting to fix it,’ he tells MT. ‘I even got a call from the chairman’s office asking if everything was ok.’
‘But then when I set out on my own and I was chairman and chief executive of a public company and my landline went down at home, I’d get, ‘yeah it will be nine days mate’. I started to realise that there was a difference – though I didn’t recognise it – between being editor of the Sun and being the ordinary Joe in the street.
‘I just decided it would be nice, if it were possible – and we still don’t know if it’s possible, but the ambition anyway – is to give everybody the same power as the editor of The Sun. Publicity remains probably the most potent form of management change in the way things work.’
So far it’s signed up the likes of Vodafone, The Trainline, Legoland Windsor and George Foreman grills – an eclectic mix. The site’s had some decent success stories, including a case with driving school BSM, which a rather excited MacKenzie explains in this video:
He insists it’s not about giving business a hammering. ‘At the end of it, all I’m looking for is best practice,' he says. 'I’m not some kind of mad loon who wants to bring down the pillars of capitalism.’
Looking at the site at the moment, a large majority of complaints remain unanswered, but then it is early days. It will probably require a critical mass of consumers signing up before businesses start to sit up and listen. So how does MacKenzie plan to attract them?
‘I don’t intend to market it,’ he says. Why? ‘Because I think it’s one of those businesses or platforms where people have got to believe that you’re doing the right thing. I think just to have a big 96 sheets [billboard] saying "please complain" - that’s not really the point. The point really is that people think this little business is going to do its best for us – and on that basis I hope it will be successful.’
That's a bold move and MacKenzie concedes that building momentum will take time. The same mentality applies to the site’s business model – at the moment it has no clear revenue stream. ‘I’m not even going to try and commercialise this site for probably a couple of years, I’m going to carry on wanting to try and do the best for the consumer and then worry about what shape this business is going to look like,’ MacKenzie says. He's certainly not lost the knack of knowing how to say what people want to hear.
The no-revenue-for-now plan is all well and good, but with several investors including his former boss Rupert Murdoch on board, it’s hard to imagine MacKenzie doesn’t have something up his sleeve.