Put any misgivings about Jade Goody’s Barnumesque three-ring Circus sideshow to one side for moment. Instead, focus on the silver fox who has been the undisputed ringmaster of recent events in her life; Max Clifford.
He may not be attired in a garish ring suit, but Max Clifford is clearly visible as the man, centre stage, pulling the financial strings. This is not written as a genuflection to the cult of Clifford, more as an explanation of the reality; he is doing something more than a mere job – he is reacting to the peccadilloes of the age.
Clearly it is necessary for him to either not care about Jade or refuse to be paid to do that job; to carry it off, he has to place himself into a zone devoid of any emotion. Max remains calm, confident and never flustered despite the slings and arrows aimed at him. His style of delivery has been criticized but it is deliberate, matter of fact. Max is a spokesman; he is doing a job that few can deliver. Reminiscent of a river pilot steering his charge through dangerous and congested waters, Max vigilantly avoids all the sandbanks that might scupper the good ship of any celebrity brand he is steering. Max has always functioned in the wasteland between public merit and clandestine vice, creating content for the curtain-twitching masses–none of whom will ever admit to their trivia addiction.
This weekend was a high water mark in the celebrity-obsessed world we have allowed to prosper. The enduring picture we have taken away from Jade Goody’s wedding, however, was not the pitiful Goody forcing a smile through the pain; it was Max, surrounded by a sea of microphones and flanked by camera lenses. Like an effortless high wire act juggling nine clubs, he kept the media audience outside and inside the big top entertained in a style that few understand, measuring each sound bite for maximum effect.
Waspish bourgeois media dinner parties, I am sure, have a curt point of view regarding Clifford’s modus operandi. But they fail to comprehend his skill. Yes, he has enemies but he knows the power of collateral. For decades he has not compromised his style; he knows what works and the power of his personal business relationships. He’s happier to operate openly, on the phone and in the flesh. His skill can’t be replicated by a miracle app. Max has not bowed to the digital age and his instinct, shaped by decades of experience, is impossible to learn without years in the foxhole. Despite operating in the age of time compression, Max confounds the 24-7 swirl. His telltale grey hair is an insignia, a livery, which indicates his membership of a unique Guild that few have the skill or stamina to join.
I have often observed his methods of dealing with each media ruck and marvelled at his deft hand-off passes, reminiscent of the Welsh wizard Gareth Edwards in full flow. He is an adept distracter who knows how to deliver up a sound byte in an utterly disarming fashion whilst keeping the uber-media paymaster happy. He’s more than aware that one false move, one slip, could lead to a chain reaction that could negate the final payment of the big check.
When the cameras stop rolling and Jade becomes a sad footnote in Celebrity-ville, Max will pop up again and again; he is a brand and he occupies a unique place in the media landscape. If you’re in the public eye and you need to exploit your 15 months of fame quickly, he is accessible. Max has his finger on the pulse.
It seems to me that his type of PR has been genetically engineered in the last 15 years to suit the times. But, despite this engineering, I do not see any Clifford clones or heirs to his throne coming up through the ranks. Is this because of the way PR is retrenching, underscoring the inability of the new breed to come to terms with the ever-shifting churn of media from both side of the fence? Or will the next few years create a world where celebrity will not be able to command the fees that a new Max can make a meaningful profit from?
There are a number of PR people out there who need to take a clear look at Max Clifford. These are the people who decry his tactics and lampoon his deadpan manner with the press, the people who are rushing headlong into the digital media age without any grounding in the skills that have made him such a success; most notably the 360 degree vision that allows him to spot incoming missiles before they hit, be they aimed at him or his clients. Regardless of what anyone thinks of him, there is much that can be learned from him.
To some, Max Clifford will be an apotheosis of the media and to others the rationale for moral intervention, but he is first and foremost a creation of the media and of his clients. His success in finding a continually crashing wave of “sordid human interest” stories for the tabloid press has been unparalleled over the last 20 years, a new age that has seen the boundaries of morality and taste shifting significantly.
He is a prime example of the squalor of the universal global media. Without modern media poverty, he could never have been successful. The future for Max is to help people amortize the moral morass because the morality compass was demagnetized decades ago and he is one of the few people still making it twitch.
Make no mistake, the floorboards of his office will creak under the weight of many more scandals for years yet.