Luke Johnson: The Talk of the Town

The serial entrepreneur on his trip to the Oxford Union with Peter Stringfellow and why he has no attachment to email.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 21 Oct 2011

All sorts of media organisations are trying to break into the live performance business - from record labels, to book publishers, to newspapers. Some are already in the conference and exhibition game - now they want to go the whole hog. The digital revolu-tion is undermining traditional sources of revenue, so the beleaguered media firms are attempting what might be called lateral diversification.

One of the most ingenious operations they must covet is Intelligence Squared, run by John Gordon, with my old friend from Topps Tiles, Stuart Williams, as a major backer. It has reinvented the debate for the 21st century as a fashionable new social activity - and as a commercial undertaking. IQ2, as it's known, has ambitious plans to compete head-on with the likes of TED, the Californian non-profit which hosts 15-minute talks across a three-day event and online. Another fledgling offering is 5x15, frightfully popular among Notting Hill cognoscenti, and hosted by associates of IQ2.

Meanwhile, the festival industry in its various forms goes from strength to strength, from music at Glastonbury to books at Hay-on-Wye. These amusements are, to all intents and purposes, the new social season for the artistic intelligentsia. I've been involved with the Edinburgh fringe, the world's biggest comedy and drama get-together, for many years, and I love the atmosphere of creative mayhem that prevails in that wonderful Scottish city every August. But it is at heart a cultural gathering, not a capitalist endeavour: whereas most music festivals around the country are designed to make money. Overall, the live music industry is valued at around £1.5bn - more than the recorded music segment.

But I suspect the giant print and entertainment players will not unearth a great bonanza in the concert and talk industry. Wily promoters dominate the field and earnings are volatile. Moreover, as is normal in show business, so-called talent tends to seize most of the economic prizes.

This month I made my debut in that venerable debating chamber the Oxford Union to argue about the merits of entrepreneurship. While I was an undergraduate I never even went inside, associating the place with toffs, bores and a stagnant status quo. Then I preferred the idea of starting my own business and doing something original. Perhaps by accepting an invitation now I have finally waved farewell to my last rebellious instincts.

On our team we had the legendary nightclub impresario Peter Stringfellow, and the brilliant Levi Roots of Reggae Reggae Sauce fame. I thought we put up a pretty good show, but we were soundly defeated by the impressive trio of style pundit Peter York, lawyer Christopher Saul and PR man Alex Deane. Perhaps our brightest students don't actually want to be entrepreneurs. I have always worried that our great seats of learning naturally nudge students towards established institutions such as banks, law firms, the BBC and so forth.

The marketplace, on the other hand, doesn't give a damn about posh qualifications from elite universities. It is the ultimate testing ground - all reality, no theory: either you generate cash and pay your bills, or you go bust. Give me that discipline and rigour over academia any day.

I am beginning to think that email is not a positive advance in communication between people, especially in a business context. Unquestionably I use it a lot, especially for work. It functions marvellously for the transmission of documents and suchlike. All day long I send and receive messages on my pc and BlackBerry. For me it has replaced many face-to-face meetings and eliminated the need for endless phone calls. In theory, it enables me to be far more productive.

All this correspondence might appear more efficient, but is it better quality?

Email has darker aspects. All emails are permanent: everything ever sent can be retrieved. Intemperate words, indiscretions, mistakes - all manner of ill-judged dialogues are now there for lawyers and enemies to use against you. In the old days verbal arguments faded, records were faulty - but not any more. The incriminating evidence is there buried in servers.

Moreover, email somehow encourages relatively benign people to become foul. From time to time I receive incredibly abusive feedback about my articles - the sort of stuff no one would ever say in a letter, phone call or conversation. It is as if email unleashes the id, Freud's 'cauldron full of seething excitations', where usual standards of civilized behaviour do not apply.

Email empowers antisocial characters who type away furiously at 3am in their garrets, posting bile anonymously on message boards and in forums. They libel and undermine those in the real world with lies and rants. Cowards become aggressive, racist - rather like certain weirdos scribble pornographic graffiti on toilet walls.

I have seen relentless email tit-for-tats escalate into full-blown rows and destroy boardroom relationships. I do not believe those disagreements would have happened if the individuals had been in a room together, just talking. Tone, subtleties, visual signals are all lost in cold, silent killer emails, which are so easily misinterpreted.

Devious office politicians use tricks like 'caching' all and sundry to win pointless battles.

I constantly promise myself that I will phone more and email less. The human touch is important: email conversations don't really work - they are too robotic. For the rote transfer of plain information, they are fine - but for engagement, persuasion, discussion, real connection - then it must be the spoken word.

- Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners

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