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Sir Richard Branson tosses a Virgin Mobile toque to the crowd during an event at Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Sir Richard Branson tosses a Virgin Mobile toque to the crowd during an event at Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Adhocracy

Sir Richard: Eternal marketing machine Add to ...

It's not even 8 o'clock in the morning, and already Richard Branson is fending off a paternity challenge.

Here he is, perched in front of a microphone in the cramped studios of the Toronto outpost of Virgin Radio, trying to do double promotional duty, chatting up a local homeless charity at the same time as a Virgin Mobile event occurring in a few hours' time, and he's suddenly at a loss for words. He was already stammering a little, likely from lack of sleep after jetting into town around 2 o'clock in the morning. But now the radio personality Billie Holiday, has presented Mr. Branson with what she says is a photo of her nine-month-old baby boy. Someone has superimposed an image of the Virgin Group chairman's face atop the infant's body.

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"I was here about a year ago, and I remember we had a really drunken night, and I don't remember anything else," says Mr. Branson, playing along, as laughter echoes through the studio. "But I'm sure I would have remembered that."

He is an unlikely man to be a perpetual marketing machine. During interviews, Mr. Branson looks off to the side, evincing a kind of modesty. He has a jaunty charisma, but he does not speak in slick phrases designed to cajole. His hair is a nest of various shades of blonde and grey. If you met him on the street, he would seem like just another 59-year-old trying too hard to remain 29.

And yet, people can't get enough of him. This interview at Virgin is already his third of the day; a few minutes ago, he was in a studio down the hall belonging to Virgin's sister station, EZ Rock, and before that it was a quick hit a little further down the hall at Newstalk 1010. At each spot, he has hit his mark and his talking points too, giving equal time to the charity Raise the Roof and Virgin Mobile's National Fearless Day promotion, which will see six twenty-somethings compete at a downtown nightclub in a series of Fear Factor -style challenges for $5,000.

Still, there is always time for tea, and the radio station staff has arranged a visit by a lady from the Windsor Arms Hotel to deliver a special tray of English cakes and a pot of Earl Grey. But while most people treat Mr. Branson with the deference of royalty, and take pleasure in calling him Sir Richard (he was knighted in 1999 for his contributions to entrepreneurship), he seems more comfortable playing court jester than king.

Over the next seven hours, like a new chamber quartet with a limited repertoire, he will repeatedly play out a handful of variations on a classically roguish businessman's theme, blending charity, capitalism, casual sexism and mildly outrageous behaviour. He will kiss and cuddle with the female rank-and-file at the Virgin Mobile offices, grab a rep from J.D. Power and Associates by the neck and unravel the poor fellow's tie, speak passionately about youth homelessness, joke with reporters about his love of sleeping with snakes, and devilishly throw handfuls of sawdust and maggots at a crowd of fans at the Virgin Mobile event. Through it all, he will seem like nothing so much as a kid who has never had to grow up.

When you're the face of a globe-straddling brand built on youth appeal, this is your life.

"Right from the beginning, when we didn't have any money and we were building the Virgin brand, I learned that using oneself to get out there and promote the brand is a lot more effective than full-page ads," he says. "And that's, to an extent, why I'm still at it."

He adds that the Telegraph recently published a study on last names, "and they came up with the fact that, some centuries ago, I was the Son of Brand - 'Brand Son' - on the basis that my family used to be cattle ranchers. I don't know if it's true. Brand is literally stamped into my, whatever it is - psyche."

It is drizzling when the former Son of Brand and his entourage of half a dozen leave the radio station offices by the back door and pile quickly into a matching pair of Chevy Suburbans. An assistant passes a cellphone to Mr. Branson, who proceeds to have a sotto voce discussion about an issue having to do with his Virgin Atlantic airline and the U.S. Department of Transportation. When he is finished, the chief marketing officer of Virgin Mobile Canada briefs Mr. Branson on his next appearance, a brief chat with Steve Anthony on CP24 Breakfast Television. "They're a light, entertaining show," the marketing man says, as he explains the station's street-level aesthetic. "They're not going to get into the machinations of the specific policies on homelessness the government should bring in."

Fifteen minutes later, they're on their way again, this time heading for the Hard Rock Cafe, next to Yonge-Dundas Square, where they are slated to hold an outdoor press conference on homelessness. As they drive, the rain picks up, and Mr. Branson's entourage, all of them natural marketers, look for the positive spin of holding a presser in a downpour. One notes the weather will drive home the point of how hard it must be for those living on the streets. No one in the car really seems convinced.

The press conference will kick off the annual fundraising drive for Raise the Roof, one of many charities Mr. Branson has used his high profile to assist. Most of his time now is spent on administering Virgin Unite, his charitable foundation, which is funded in part by his billion-plus net worth.

"There's a lot of good fortune that goes with being a successful business person, and the extreme wealth that comes with being a successful entrepreneur is far more than the individual deserves from the effort put in," he says at the Hard Rock. "So most of that wealth should be spent in either creating new jobs or tackling social problems, rather than being wasted in a personal bank account, rather than buying the wife more diamonds, or whatever."

Mr. Branson is introduced to the Canadian actor Cory Monteith, who will, by virtue of the sudden stardom visited upon him by his role in the Fox Network hit Glee, serve as the closing speaker at the press conference. Mr. Branson seems relieved to be sharing the spotlight. Later, introducing the actor, Mr. Branson will tease the crowd with, "Girls, are you ready?" One former sex symbol passing the torch to the next generation.

And he admits it is getting to be time he abdicated part of the kingdom. Yes, he tells the stories of daring from his early years - the hot air balloon, bungee jumping and airplane escapades - but he does so without an apparent sense of joy, like a popular actor too well paid to refuse the same role over and over. Mr. Branson is asked whether there might be something unseemly about a fellow approaching 60 still being the face of a youthful brand. "I think you're right," he replies. "I think it would be quite nice to have Sam and Holly [his son and daughter]do some of the zany things in the future."

After the Virgin Mobile promotion, he does half a dozen more brief interviews before a handler calls him away. He's got half an hour left in his schedule for a private business meeting, after which he is whisked away to the airport for a private flight down to New York. There, the pleasure of his company is requested at the Victoria's Secret runway show.

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

 

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