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Felix Dennis, 1947-2014 - Fri, 27th Jun 2014 18:25 [-hide]

I didn’t know Felix Dennis well. I did spend one diverting evening in his company in New York in the middle of his years of excess, even though this occasion was more comical than debauched. I was flattered when his office rang every so often to check my contact details, and I’m glad I attended the final performance of his last ‘Did I mention the free wine?’ poetry tour at the end of last year. (Typically he turned his excellent taste and large appetite for wine, at least until his final cancer, into a flourishing direct sales sideline on the internet). I read and reviewed his brash and entertaining autobiography in The Observer.

Dennis enjoyed being outrageous, and in some respects he was. But part of his outrageousness was that in comparison the rest of the world seemed so dull. That was particularly true in business. I’m convinced that, like Steve Jobs, Dennis was a brilliant businessman because he was primarily something else. Both came out of the counterculture, and it’s hard to overestimate the advantage that gave them over conventionally educated businesspeople whose training had drummed all instinct and imagination out of them. Dennis and Jobs didn’t know what they couldn’t do; for rivals, they were simply and maddeningly unpredictable.

As his autobiography makes clear, Dennis certainly enjoyed and wanted money for the things it afforded him – industrial-strength sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to begin with, mellowing into poetry and trees (notably the ‘Forest of Dennis’ planted on his Warwickshire estate) later on. But it would be wrong to think of him just as a money-minded chancer. He was deeply read on all kinds of subjects (for the journey back from New York he lent me a book about a shadowy organisation called the NSA, many years before most people, including me, had ever heard of it).

He adored the media, knew it inside out, and could – and did – discuss every aspect of it for hours on end. His eye for what worked came from that deep domain knowledge, unconstrained by conventional interpretations of caution. One early fortune came from MacUser magazine – the first Mac magazine and another link with Jobs; another from the lad’s mag Maxim; and against a chorus of dire predictions he launched The Week in the US convinced of his insight that this early example of aggregation was the start of something big. He was right. The Week became his greatest money-spinner.

Dennis also shared with Jobs a laser-like eye for what wouldn’t work. At one stage I was working on a project for a European equivalent of Harvard Business Review, and we approached Dennis for an investment. He turned us down without hesitation. In respect, there was no way he would have sympathised with it ('Who bloody cares about management?’), and in commercial terms he was right too. Now if I had suggested a Viz for business…

******

I 've been away this week – back after the weekend

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