The outsider

Richard Williams talks to Michael Peters about design, business and the rocky road to success

Buddy Holly once said of Elvis that “none of us would have made it if it wasn’t for him”.

I feel that way about Michael Peters. He burst the doors open for brand identity groups like Design Bridge to flourish and allowed people like me to have a decent career. Fortunately, unlike The King, Peters is still well and truly with us and has his mind set firmly on the future.

Four years ago he founded Identica, a business which he describes as “an identity and innovation consultancy, not a design company. I love talking about design and I still lecture on it, but I don’t consider myself a designer anymore. Clients view us as a creative resource to help them develop their business.”

He is animated when talking about the levels of technology at Identica, about multimedia design and the company’s leadership of National Power’s print work, where Identica’s design software is being used by other companies to produce design work. But to me, the most intriguing development is the link to Generics, a Cambridge-based group of scientists who work to develop products from the inside out alongside Identica’s creative resource. Sometimes it is the product which determines the strategy, sometimes the reverse. Nobody has ever done it before.

“When clients have a very difficult problem to solve”, says Peters, “and they want a different point of view, they might come and talk to us. At one meeting they’ll be faced with an environmental scientist, a strategist in telephone communications and a designer who has been working on a frozen food pack. When I left the old Michael Peters Group I knew I did not want to create just another design group, I wanted to set up something much more forward-thinking.”

With Peters at its helm, using his legendary selling skills and huge network of contacts, the business has grown to 30 staff with a turnover of 3m. His client list looks like a Who’s Who of marketing and, of course, he can still lure the Geoff Halpins of this world to join him; putting great teams together and getting the best out of people has always been his forte.

Former employee Mike Branson, now MD of Pearlfisher, says of Peters that he is “capable of making people believe in themselves and reaching their greatest professional highs. He can inspire tremendous loyalty in people who will work for him through thick and thin”.

In the process of making Identica a success, he has cast himself adrift from the traditional design industry. He explains: “Designers are falling so far behind in business because they don’t appreciate and admire themselves as people. They feel guilty about what they do. The reason I wanted to start the Design Business Association was to say to people ‘If we get everyone swimming, rowing and running together we are going to be a very strong force. The moment that clients can trade us off one against another, it falls down flat’. That’s why there is so much free-pitching going on, because clients know they can manipulate the business. The industry has lost its nerve.”

He believes that loss of nerve relates directly back to the failure of the big, quoted companies. They were great symbols of the business and when they fell many people thought that they had stretched themselves beyond their abilities and that design had become too self-important. Peters sees it from a slightly different angle: “Certain people in the industry clapped when the big ones went down and it was the worst thing they could have done, because clients heard about it and it destroyed their attitude towards the strong industry that we had built.”

We have now reverted to a business where low fees are generally the order of the day. There is no doubt that Peters was instrumental in raising design fees. Glenn Tutssel tells a great story of how, on his first day working with the maestro, Peters trained him to say 100 000 without blinking in a taxi on the way to a pitch. Needless to say, they got the job and the fees! Can anyone imagine that kind of bravery today?

Without doubt, Peters is a controversial man who has attracted admiration and antagonism from competitors and commentators alike. Looking back on his past he concedes that perhaps some of it was self-inflicted: “I think as far as journalists were concerned, I probably got my just desserts. I was tough with people in the press but some of them were outrageous. You’ll notice that today we have very little publicity”.

There was considerable press coverage about the freelances and businesses who ended up seriously out of pocket after the MPG crash. He counters this: “I did get some stick, but there were a lot of people who made big money out of MPG for many years, who all of a sudden copped it. We all sometimes have clients who don’t pay their bills or go into receivership. If you’re going to be in business, that’s part of the risk you take. However, I did make a promise, which I have been able to keep. And it was that if those who were close to me in MPG days would help me through, then they would be favoured suppliers at Identica. And they are”.

The business had been doing well, and it was highly profitable when “we made a very unwise acquisition – Hambrecht Terrell. I don’t want to go into it, but we were under pressure from the City to make a big purchase in the US. I learned a lot. It is never going to happen again and those people in the City who turned their backs on me after taking so much money from the company deserve two fingers. Today I have offers from merchant banks to go and talk to them about refloating this company and I don’t return their calls. I’m just not interested”.

This mixture of fear, antagonism and jealousy that Peters inspired in his colleagues in the industry, and I believe he can still conjure up, meant that when he left Michael Peters Ltd he was feeling lonely. “David Hillman from Pentagram, an old mate from college days, called immediately and said ‘I don’t care what you’re doing, we’re going out tonight to get pissed’. But most of all, I really did miss some of the big names in the business – people I admired, putting their arms around me or calling me up for a chat.

“It was the worst time of my life, a form of commercial rape by the receivers. I remember walking home – my car had been taken away from me – and feeling closer than ever to suicide, and my wonderful mother-in-law putting her arms around me and saying ‘You are a great man and you will be great again’. It was incredible,” he recalls.

Looking into the future, he sees a time when new supergroups will emerge: “These things are cyclical. In the days of MPG, our businesses spanned from annual reports, product development, interior design and brand packaging through to corporate identity, and probably 50 per cent of its clients used at least three or more of the disciplines. I think groups will bind together in some way, and I think they will become mighty powers.” To the question of whether those groups will go public he hesitates: “It depends on my mood. On a bad day I think they won’t, but on a good they might.”

It is quite difficult to work out if Peters would allow himself to take his business public again. On the one hand, I sense he would like to because he is a natural showman, and the City is a big stage for him to display his chutzpah, but he clearly hates the business attitudes of those who brought him down. Certainly Identica does not look set to become a 700-person business, like MPG in its heyday, but Peters has so much drive and so many ideas that, in my opinion, he could easily be tempted.

Peters’ anecdotes are numerous and hilarious. He is deeply sensitive and very tough, is terribly proud of his OBE and yet he remains something of an outsider in the business. Behind all the stories of his “luvviness” and the tendency to huge exaggeration, he is a brilliant visionary and a man I respect enormously. I’m glad he is back at the top.

Peters’ Past

1970 Michael Peters & Partners established as a packaging design consultancy.

1981 Michael Peters Group formed as holding company for MP&P and subsidiaries.

1983 MPG is floated on the Unlisted Securities Market.

1985 Exhibition group Cockade acquired. Michael Peters Retail set up.

1986 PA Design acquired. MPG profits dip.

1988 MPG opens European and Canadian offices and buys US retail design group Hambrecht Terrell International, UK conference group Spectrum Communications and Communiqué in Canada.

1989 HTI problems hit MPG profits. US graphics group Duffy Design acquired.

1990 Spectrum, HTI and Cockade sold. On 22 August MPG shares suspended; the next day Arthur Andersen & Co is called in as administrative receiver. Michael Peters Retail completes management buyout and creates XMPR. Craton Lodge & Knight buys MPG and creates Michael Peters Ltd, with Michael Peters as chairman. Clarke Hooper buys several of the former MPG’s US interests.

1992 Peters resigns as MPL chairman in April, setting up The Office of Michael Peters in June. This is superceded by Identica in July, set up with Cambridge science group Generics.

1995 Identica is renamed The Identica Partnership.

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