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Sat 4 Nov 2006 08:00 PM

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The Max factor

The world-famous spin doctor Max Clifford is coming to Dubai. He tells Anil Bhoyrul why the region could use some of his public relations skills.

Something is missing from Max Clifford’s office. Everywhere you look, there are empty spaces. The filing cabinets still have dust on them, and there is no sign of an accounts department. No finance director. No lengthy terms and conditions manual.

Bizarrely, for a company worth upwards of US$200m, Max Clifford Associates has never had a single contract signed with a client in forty years.

“It’s all been done on a handshake and trust. Every single piece of business I’ve ever done has been like that. I say I’ll deliver, and they pay me – everyone from Muhammad Ali to Frank Sinatra has worked with me in that way,” says Clifford himself.

The self-styled king of public relations has good reason to be gleaming in his plush Bond Street offices in London. Not only is business rolling in virtually on an hourly basis, but Clifford has never once in his career ever had to “pitch” for work.

Now, having conquered the West, he has his eye on the Middle East, and later this month will make his first ever visit to the region – as guest speaker at the first Campaign Middle East Conference in Dubai.

“Excited? You bet. Everything I have heard about the Middle East sounds fascinating. I think there is so much that could be done there,” he says.

Whatever the challenges (if he takes any on), Clifford is likely to take them on with ease. Since launching his company in 1971, he has represented several of the world’s most famous (and often most notorious) men and women, including Ali, Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, O.J. Simpson, David Copperfield and Marlon Brando.

As the Western’s media's thirst for celebrity news and gossip grew, an increasing number of newspapers began approaching Clifford for access to his A-list clients, while other top name celebrities began queuing up outside his office, desperate for him to look after them. Over three decades, he gradually became – and is now without doubt – the world’s best known, and probably richest, public relations man.

“I never planned it this way you know,” he says, looking almost embarrassed at his success. “It was just a bit of fun. I started my career in the sixties when I responded to a newspaper advertisement from the record company EMI. They needed some help in the press office. I got the job, and they asked me to help them publicize a new band called The Beatles.”

It was the first of many remarkable breaks. His connections with The Beatles led him to America, where he soon became acquainted with the likes of Sinatra and Brando. By the end of the sixties, he decided to branch out on his own as a one-man PR band.

“I just thought I would rather work for myself and not anyone else. And soon some of the people who I had worked with started getting in touch, asking for representation. Muhammad Ali’s lawyer rang me and said would I look after him. We never signed anything, we just agreed a fee, shook hands and that was it. He was an incredible person, a genuine legend. I carried on working with him for several years,” Clifford says.

Clifford’s own reputation grew, but as the decade passed, it was the British public’s desire for “kiss and tell” stories - information about celebrities behaving badly - that thrust him into the limelight.

In 1986, The Sun newspaper claimed that comedian Freddie Starr had “eaten his pet hamster” - a story that grabbed worldwide headlines, though was later revealed to be a stunt set up by Clifford.

Newspaper editors soon began paying Clifford thousands of dollars for stories about celebrities, while many ordinary people seeking to profit from their own acquaintances with the stars went running to Clifford.

“In the early days it was all about promotion, but these days, most of what I do is protection. Some of the very successful and famous people I look after don’t actually want to be on the front page of newspapers. They don’t want their private lives to become public. So they come to me, and I help them stay out of the limelight rather than in the centre of it,” he says.

Clifford says he now turns down far more business than he takes on. Away from the more glamorous clients, his staff of ten do a fair chunk of “bread and butter” public relations work for corporate clients, in the health, beauty, property and finance sectors.

“I’m lucky enough not to have to work, so I am quite choosy who I work with. The government of Nigeria approached me and asked me if I could help with their image abroad, They were going to pay me US$2m, but I refused because I didn’t think they could open up their media the right way, and give me the right access that I would need. If I can’t do the job properly, I won’t do it. I was also asked to take on Michael Jackson after he was cleared of the child abuse allegations, but again I refused. That would be harder than doing Saddam Hussein’s PR,” he insists with a smile.

It is thought that Clifford has turned down around US$50m of work from clients he didn't “approve of" during his career, and admits that he gets around twenty new offers of business each week. “You have to stick by your principles and not only do what you think is right, but also do what you enjoy," he says.

For several years, Clifford also represented Egyptian tycoon Mohammed Al Fayed. He no longer does, but insists the two are still great friends. “We have a lot of mutual respect for each other. Our working relationship was like the tropics. Sometimes hot and sunny, sometimes violent and stormy,” he says.

As he prepares to visit the Middle East, for his Dubai conference speech, Clifford is also aware of the role that public relations can play in the current political climate. He explains: “If you look at what is happening in Britain today, there is a lot of negative coverage towards Muslims, and this only adds to problems."

“I think that what is needed in the West to help change attitudes is for high profile, celebrity Muslims, to act as spokespeople – showing and explaining all the great things about Islam, and letting people see some of the excellent things done in the community by Muslims. I really think this is a PR issue, and one that can quickly be turned around.”

So the big question for Clifford is what next? Four years ago he was offered US$100m to sell his company, and not surprisingly refused. Last year the offer went up to US$200m, plus a guaranteed US$4m a year salary in return for working as a “consultant.” Again, he turned the offer down.

“There is no way I would sell out. I like working for myself, I have built this company up on my own and I wouldn’t want someone else telling me what to do,” he says.

But is he not tempted by the vast sums of money on offer? “Well money is important and so is the quality of life. To say that it doesn’t matter is ridiculous. I have a great house, I can fly around the world in a private jet, I can do all those kind of things. But happiness is what matters most,” Clifford says.

Right now, as it happens, the ‘sultan of spin’ is both very rich, and very happy.

*Max Clifford will be speaking at the Campaign Middle East Conference 2006, which will be held at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre, starting with registration at 12.30pm on November 27. Delegate fee is US$1,392 for the two days (US$675 for Mepra and GCCAA members) and bookings can be made online at www.campaignme.com/conference.

"Ali’s lawyer rang me. We never signed anything, we just agreed a fee, shook hands and that was it"

"They don’t want their private lives to become public so they come to me. I help them"