The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

Is quiet Brit becoming the most influential person on Earth?

There’s a captivating, almost-magical web site where you can feel the passion and share the big ideas of brilliant and insightful people including many of the world’s leading thinkers and doers. The site is free and open to everyone. It’s called TED and, although that originally was an acronym for ‘Technology, Entertainment and Design’, the mission is no less than to make the world a smarter and better place. It is a glorious home of inspiration, great ideas and clear thoughts. If you have not yet visited, you might not be able to believe what you find. You will love it.

It is the web extension of the TED conference, started as a one-off 27 years ago in Monterey and dedicated to “Ideas Worth Sharing”. It has been an annual event since 1990. Today, TED is effectively a global movement  “committed to the spread of great ideas and their positive outcome”. Each year, an amazing and so-diverse cast of speakers (which has included Bill Gates, Bono, Jamie Oliver, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, Bill Clinton, Isobel Allende, Al Gore, Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Branson, Stephen Hawking, Jeff Bezos, Desmond Tutu, and Julian Assange) give the “talk of their lives” for exactly 18 minutes to an audience in Long Beach, California.

Many more of the speakers you will never have heard of. But all are united by a commitment to share their ideas for improving the planet. Their outpourings are posted on the web soon after each conference. Today, there more than 1,000 TEDtalks on the site, which mark the transformation of a niche conference to a free global education service, now with a total audience of some 100 million and perhaps 20 million regular users. And growing fast.

The “curator” of TED is Chris Anderson, a quietly spoken Brit who made (and all but lost) a magazine publishing fortune before he was 45. He says: “At a time of deep worry, economic failure, national and global doubt, alienation, cynicism, and fear, here are people doing something as simple as meeting, listening, learning and letting the power of ideas work their magic. The philosopher Dan Dennett says that the secret of happiness is finding an idea bigger than you are, and devoting your life to it. There’s a deep truth in that, and you can look at these faces at TED and can feel it.”

For Anderson, TED seems like his third life. Born in a remote village in Pakistan, he spent his early years in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan where his father worked as a missionary eye surgeon. He attended boarding school in in the English south western city of Bath and graduated in PPE from Oxford. He turned to journalism where he became passionate about the emerging 1980s craze for computer games and technology.

Within a few years, he had launched his first magazine Amstrad Action from his kitchen table. By 1985, he had founded Future Publishing with a £15,000 bank loan. For the next seven years, the fledgling company doubled its turnover, profit and number of employees every single year. It was a wild , exciting ride for the business that graduated from the kitchen to a converted country barn and then to a string of converted houses dotted round the centre of picturesque Bath. These were boom times for magazines and for computer games. But Anderson neatly made his magazines interactive in pre-internet days: most had cover-mounted CDs and disks to help readers develop their skills, try-out computer games and play music they had read about. Future described itself as a publisher for “readers with a passion”.

In 1993, less than 10 years after the launch of Future Publishing, along came the mighty Pearson (publisher of the Financial Times and much else) to buy the company for a cool £52.5m. Anderson banked the cheque, moved west and set about creating a similar business in San Francisco. There, his Lennon-inspired Imagine Media brand was a clue to the spiritual leanings of the man who then took the US magazine market by storm.

A few years on,  Pearson lost its passion for Future and sold it on to private equity firm APAX – and Chris Anderson, who again became chairman.

The US and UK companies were brought together and floated excitedly on the London Stock Exchange in 1999, just as media stocks were limbering up for the first dotcom boom. The quietly-spoken Anderson was an unlikely international media tycoon but demonstrated a sure touch by launching Business 2.0, a business magazine for the ‘new economy’. It was a shooting star and – briefly – one of the fastest growing magazines in the US, notching up  2,000 pages of advertising in its first year. Future Network Plc, as it became known, was on fire and was worth £1bn within 12 months of its IPO. Subsidiaries were opened in France, Germany, Poland, and Italy as Anderson prepared for Business 2.0 magazine’s conquest of Europe.

Stockmarket analysts were euphoric about Future, a media company which seemed to symbolise the technologies and innovation of the new milennium. They applauded the buzzing production line of sparky, new premium-priced computer games and tech magazines, and web sites. They stamped their feet at the international expansion. And they loudly cheered the ‘reinvested’ profits (ie losses) of the snowballing growth. The company peaked at more than 100 tech-driven magazines in six countries selling 5m copies every month, with some 2,000 employees. Turnover hit £250m as the Playstation generation made Future and Chris Anderson rich and celebrated. But it was all too good to be true. At the height of the boom, Anderson’s private equity partner escaped with its ramped-up winnings – and left him to face the bust.

No sooner had stockmarket  investors absorbed the humiliating lessons and unquestioned nonsense of the ‘millennium bug’, than they turned on the ‘millennium’ companies they had also once worshipped.  Future was really a reasonably traditional magazine publisher, albeit an especially ambitious one led by an internet visionary. But, along, with hundreds of ‘new economy’ businesses, it suddenly faced demands for short-term profits instead of promised longterm growth. Its share price collapsed, along with magazine sales, investor confidence, and bank covenants. Only debt was rising. The company whose value had scaled the heights of £1bn now struggled to reach £25m.

Anderson, as the largest private shareholder, was rocked by the mayhem. But many things were more important to him than money: he was the pained chairman of a company that had to make hundreds of employees redundant merely to survive. It was a bloody 2001 as Anderson was left to rue the day he had befriended private equity and the stock market. The company that had built a reputation on launching new magazines by young enthusiasts for young enthusiasts, was forced to spend a year laying them off. Few expected Future to survive. But somehow it did.

The cavalry that came to the rescue of Anderson’s stumbling company was the cash-rich Time Warner which paid a life-saving $68m for the now-lossmaking US edition of Business 2.0 (where it limped along for a few years more as part of eCompany Now). Anderson’s rescue act complete, he left Future armed with the International Games Network (later sold to News Corp) and an idiosyncratic California conference called TED which the departing chairman’s chastened Board colleagues were relieved to offload to him. Anderson acquired TED through his non-profit Sapling Foundation, which he had founded in 1996 loftily  “to find new ways of tackling tough global issues by leveraging media, technology, entrepreneurship and ideas.”

The Future founder flew back to California, having come to believe (ahead of his peers) that the best days of magazines were over and that the internet would transform media and entertainment. It would be a full 7 years before most magazine people could quite see that. But that was how it was with Chris Anderson: the power of his ideas was seemingly under-cut by his quiet calm.

The missionary’s son moved on to develop his clear vision for  the TED conference in a changing, churning world. And the transformation has been breathtaking, in pursuit of Anderson’s mission statement:

“We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearing-house that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.”

TED is truly a phenomenon. Other conferences like the “World Economic Forum” in Davos and “D:AllThingsDigital” in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, have sort-of similar rosters of elite speakers. And Britain’s 250-year-old Royal Society of Arts has a similar and long-standing commitment to new ideas and innovation. But TED is the only forum that, as FastCompany magazine says, “fully exploits the power of…the human network. It has grown beyond a mere conference. By combining the principles of ‘radical openness’ and ‘leveraging the power of ideas to change the world’, TED is in the process of creating something brand new…it’s creating a new Harvard – the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years”.

TED does not, of course, have any educational buildings and it doesn’t even grant degrees. And that is the point. It has a 21st century approach to educational thinking, gathering the best minds from around the world and from every discipline, to give talks that emphasise the new and original – and then multiplies their influence through a worldwide network. Many of the hallowed educational centres built by our fathers and grandfathers are quite private places. But TED is finding that the more open it is, the more it is becoming the global education brand of the 21st century.

Anderson is calm, good humoured and, of course, an especially good listener. And he is driven:” I completely rethought what TED was, from a conference to a platform for ‘ideas worth spreading’.” It is a short phrase that has spelled transformation for TED and become the cause of life-changing ideas right across the world.  TED’s ‘Open Translation Project’ has, during the past two years, made the TED videos accessible to a global audience: 3,000 volunteers have translated them into more than 77 languages. But he has been more radical still and has done something that few universities would ever contemplate: he has started licensing the TED name and content to anyone who wants them – for free. The result is thousands of independent conferences called TEDx,  which the former magazine publisher describes as “A global classroom.”

So it is that last year Bill Gates told the TED conference that, beyond all else, his primary wish for the world in the next 50 years was an “energy miracle” new technology that produced energy at half the price of coal with no CO2 emissions. It was a captivating talk shared by millions of people, which began only with the 1,500 sell-out audience in California who had paid their $6,000 subscription to be there.

Another TEDtalk features the less well-known John Francis, who witnessed two oil tankers colliding near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. This shocked him so deeply that he went 17 years without either speaking or using motorised transport. Francis earned his PhD in  environmental science and taught packed-out discussion classes entirely through sign language. He began writing about US oil spills when no one else was. After the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, he drafted the regulations on oil spills – and now speaks to share his amazing story.

The annual TEDprize, awarded to a person with “One Wish to Change the World” , last year went to Jamie Oliver. The $100,000 prize will help the UK ‘people’s chef’ to establish “a popular movement in the US that will inspire people to change the way they eat…and challenge corporate America to support meaningful programs that will change the culture of junk food.”

Today, TED is one California conference (simultaneously in Long Beach and Palm Springs), TED Global in a different international location each year (last year it was Oxford), and the growing legions of TEDx events worldwide which focus on single topics like health or education or local issues. The main conferences are said to generate a surplus of some $2m which is then used to spread the TED wordsand ideas worldwide.

Nothing about Chris Anderson’s demeanour tells you he is fast becoming the most influential person on Planet Earth or anything like it. But how else would you describe the man who is leading the worldwide chorus of so many of the world’s most original thinkers, and has a global following that may soon dwarf the biggest media networks?

As you prepare your ‘playlist’ of illuminating, entertaining and inspiring talks on (just try!), you may believe that this “United Nations of Ideas” is a bright shining light in a dark world. And that, when it comes to the challenges of our global future, we have not yet seen the limit of Chris Anderson’s capacity to make a real difference.