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Fame, fortune and Freud

If celebrity is a commodity, then Matthew Freud's PR empire has cornered the market.
ON SUNDAY afternoon, eagle-eyed viewers of Sky TV's Breaking News story on the departure of Geri Halliwell from the Spice Girls could see the name Freud Communications on the press releases being handed out to journalists.

The recruitment of Ginger Spice to PR man Matthew Freud's stable should have come as no surprise. From Chris Evans to Damien Hirst, from New Labour to Planet Hollywood, the 34-year-old great-grandson of the founder of psychoanalysis is at one with the zeitgeist.

For in a time when B-list models and TV presenters can make a living from getting out of a taxi in a short skirt, the spirit of our age is celebrity. And celebrities are Matthew Freud's business.

He represents a string of corporate clients, such as BT, Pepsi, BSkyB and Kentucky Fried Chicken, but more importantly, he handles the PR for celebrities ranging from Steve Coogan to Arnold Schwarzenegger and events from the Young Labour Party conference to the Bafta awards.

The best way to comprehend the rise and rise of Matthew Freud is to understand that when he started his company in 1985 - in his Gloucester Place flat with Uri Geller and the British Precision Flying Team as clients, two staff and a cat called Spot - there was only one showbusiness gossip column in British newspapers. It was called Ad Lib and ran in the London Evening Standard. Shortly afterwards however, the Sun started its Bizarre column and soon all the tabloids had their own versions crying out for celebrity tit-bits, puffs and gossip.

"This has all progressed to the point where now six or seven pages of a tabloid can be devoted to a showbusiness story," says a close friend of Freud's. "This makes Matthew's business much, much easier."

It is not only easier, it is essential. If Matthew Freud did not exist, the tabloid press would need to invent him - someone who could be a central clearing house for the personality-driven stories that represent so much of their coverage.

Indeed, so important is Freud's stable to the tabloids that they call him - traditionally PR phone traffic is all the other way.

Showbusiness reporters would hate to admit it, but he is the story conduit too often to be ignored. And even although some newspapers are closer to him than others, there are times when everyone needs to deal with him. On Monday, thanks to the Geri Halliwell story and Chris Evans' intervention in the Paul Gascoigne saga, his office logged 400 calls to him personally.

The secret of Freud's success was the early realisation that celebrity is a commodity. Across his client list, from Pizza Hut to Pepsi, celebrity endorsement is at the heart of the marketing and PR strategy.

And his ubiquity means that he has moved beyond simple PR to putting together packages that make him money all the way down the line. A typical Freud event works like this: a party will be held at Planet Hollywood, (a client); it is held to promote a movie such as Titanic (a client); to get coverage, celebrities (mainly his clients) will appear; it will then be covered by Virgin Radio (a client), or Sky News (also a client).

He has managed in the fame factory to take on a kind of vertical integration - just like the way a brewery buys a pub chain.

Freud himself sees his agency as in the same mould as Michael Ovitz's Hollywood agency CAA. In the Eighties, Ovitz pioneered the movie "package" of star, script and director. Freud too can now put together a star, a broadcaster, a TV production company and a commercial sponsor - all from his books - to create a new TV show that he would, of course, promote.

It is this business acumen that most former and current employees are happy to talk about. They are universally flattering about his talents, his charisma and his loyalty. He wins new business, they say, with a combination of connections and ideas.

The only worries that emerge are about what happens when the initial Freud enthusiasm for an account wanes. He has been criticised for working staff hard and paying them poorly, but this is no novelty in the PR industry. Furthermore, those who have worked for him and thrived don't seem to mind.

"Sure, I was young, and paid very little, and worked really hard," says former Freud employee Cath Taylor, who recently set up her own PR company. "But you get the very best experience, the very best contacts - and doors open for you when you leave because of your training."

Colleagues are less keen to talk about his private life. Freud understands celebrity well enough that he tries to stay out of the headlines himself. As the son of former Liberal MP Clement, brother of TV presenter Emma Freud, and a member of that family, celebrity attracts to him. They are close - Matthew used to get his staff in the early days to help canvass for his dad.

His fear of fame is probably justified. There are rumours circulating about problems with his marriage to former employee Caroline Hutton and he has already been given a thorough going-over by a former girlfriend in Punch magazine - which described him having sex while making business calls. Diary columns have taken to dropping hints about his friendship with BSkyB's general manager, Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert.

But lying low is not easy. He is a partner in the trendy London restaurants Quo Vadis and Pharmacy - the latter with Damien Hirst. He sits on the board of the Millennium Dome and is well-connected within the Labour Party, of which he is a member. He has no personal political ambitions himself - a drugs conviction when he was 17 has probably seen to that anyway - but his parties at Labour conferences and his friendship with Peter Mandelson mean that he has access, and more importantly, contacts in all the places where it counts.

He also has money. He sold his company to advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers for pounds 2m, although he remains chairman and could make as much as pounds 8m over five years in performance bonuses.

Everything about him screams celebrity spin-doctor, and yet there are anomalies. He travels to India once a year to visit an ashram and in interviews he claims to enjoy carpentry more than being out on the town. And most unusually in an industry notorious for its bitchiness, most people are very nice about him.

Yet Matthew Freud's finger is in too many pies for him to retain his anonymity for much longer. No matter what power he might yield over the press, like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell before him: the PR man is becoming the story.