Fergie - the ideal figure for the new world economy

She's the perfect late Nineties brand: she's a woman, a celebrity and she speaks English

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How many people in this country, facing bankruptcy, could go out and earn between pounds 4m and pounds 5m in just a few months to help pay off their debts?

Well, there is one and her name is Sarah Ferguson. We have become so accustomed to joking about the Duchess of York or rushing to judgement about her antics that we miss something much more important. This is the astonishing scale of her achievement, and more particularly what it says about the changing nature of the global economy.

She demonstrates five important changing features of the world economy: the growth in demand for celebrities and the complex nature of that form of human capital; the need for global branding; the fact that increasingly men and women will compete on a level economic playing field; the need for entrepreneurship; and the importance of the English language.

The pounds 4-5m is an estimate but will be not too far out and is quite stunning: more than pounds 2m from an autobiography; pounds 1m from Weight Watchers; pounds 500,000 from advertising cranberry juice in the US; interviews, advances on children's books and Hello! deals, another pounds 600,000; pounds 100,000 from an Austrian construction mogul; plus various odds and ends, mostly product promotions.

The starting point here is the trend towards celebritisation of the world economy. They are everywhere. Turn on the TV and there will be some sportsperson endorsing a pizza; a chat-show hostess saying some (actually very boring) car is wonderful. By why? What is the need for these people to be paid to say these words? The answer is that in a world of infinite information the obvious way for a company to get across a commercial message is to employ a well-known human being to say it. Sometimes the ad people think of something new and clever; but it is a sight easier to hire a celeb.

Fergie is a brilliant celeb for two reasons: royalty and frailty. She is - or at least has been - a royal and the UK royal family is currently at the top of the global celeb food chain. But that alone would not be enough; it would not sell much cranberry juice in the US to have, say, Prince Edward, doing the ad. Human frailty is attractive; look at the way Hugh Grant's fees shot up after his indiscretion on Sunset Boulevard, or how Bill Clinton's trouser-zip problem may even have enhanced his appeal among women. The counterpoint between Sarah Ferguson's human failings and her openness on the one hand, and the stuffy traditional image of the UK royals on the other, happens to make her very valuable.

And valuable not so much in the UK, which is not in world terms a very important market; she is that rare thing, a recognisable global celebrity. If it is hard to build up a national brand, think how much harder it is to build an international one. The only British brand that is really making much headway globally at the moment is Virgin, and look at the things Richard Branson has to do to get publicity. Achieving global brand recognition is particularly important in things like films and books. Anyone who has published a book in global markets will know that total world sales can be 10 times UK sales. Fergie's autobiography (her biggest single deal) should sell well in all markets simply because, like Branson, she is a global brand.

She is also a woman. In most forms of economic activity men still get paid more than women doing the same job. But there are signs that at the top of the skill range - top sportspeople, celeb authors, pop stars - the differences are becoming narrower. If the quality that determines success is office politics, men will probably win. If it is ability to generate publicity, the playing field is more even, as the Spice Girls are now proving in America. If they do hit Number One in the charts with Wannabe, which now looks likely, they will have done something that neither Blur nor Oasis have yet managed. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that it would have been impossible, had the positions been reversed, for the Duke of York to have earned money as fast as his former wife. His gender would have been against him.

Next, there is the English language. Fergie is an Anglo-American product. She is an Anglo but behaves like an American. That not only gains access to the much bigger market, but also is a springboard for exports to the rest of the world. The world buys American popular culture (and to a much lesser extent, British culture) in a way that America and Britain do not buy,say, French, German or Japanese culture. Some of us may have seen the odd French or Italian film in the last year or maybe read the odd non-English book in translation. But with the occasional exception the sales are tiny. English-language culture is a one-way street.

Had Fergie been Japanese or Norwegian, she would not have been able to export her skills so readily. The English-language base is absolutely crucial to her success.

Finally, Fergie is a fascinating example of the importance of entrepreneurship. She hasn't made this money by working in a multinational or qualifying as a lawyer. Nobody has employed her. It is pure entrepreneurship: seeing an opportunity to sell a service and developing the service to fit the market. Go back 20 years and it would have been unthinkable. Nobody told her to do it. We seem again to have become a nation of go-getters. So the whirlwind pounds 5m, or whatever it turns out to be, tells us something remarkable about Fergie, but it also says something remarkable about the way money is increasingly earned in the world.

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