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Emulating Simon Cowell - it takes more than just a mouth

Winner of the Founders award Simon Cowell poses in the press room during the 38th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton and Towers on November 22, 2010 in New York City.

Ryan Bedder/Getty Images/Ryan Bedder/Getty Images

The Unauthorized Guide to Doing Business the Simon Cowell Way

By Trevor Clawson

(Capstone, 209 pages, $18.95)

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I don't mean to be rude, but Simon Cowell seems an unlikely candidate for a business book – a sharp-tongued, if not loudmouthed, television bully. But in The Unauthorized Guide to Doing Business the Simon Cowell Way, British business journalist Trevor Clawson argues that Mr. Cowell is a remarkably shrewd and successful businessman from whom we can learn some lessons. So let's try.

The first lesson is to know your industry. Mr. Cowell has paid his dues, working in the trenches of the music industry, starting in the mail room and then, after quitting, returning as an artist and repertoire man, charged with finding songs from EMI Group's U.S. catalogue that would be suitable for British artists to perform. Although he is a confident, assertive individual, he apprenticed himself to one of the best in the industry, Peter Waterman, to learn what makes hit records.

Mr. Cowell has no musical talent himself – should he appear on one of his televised talent shows, somebody might well use his trademark line in evaluating the performance, "I don't want to be rude, Mr. Cowell, but… ." Still, he knows music and what it takes to have a hit. "It's an advantage not knowing much about music because it means I follow my own instincts," he has said. Early in his career, he took an unsuccessful teenage singer named Sinitta, and turned her into a breakaway star in Britain.

But finding the right singer and song can be a game of chance. He learned he could improve his odds by using television to help him find his singers and build an audience for them. It started with a duo named Robson and Jerome, actors on the popular British TV series Soldier Soldier in the 1990s; on one show, they sang the Righteous Brothers song Unchained Melody, sparking a mammoth response from viewers. Mr. Cowell signed them, and they had a series of hit singles, starting with that song for which there was a ready-made audience. Early in his career, Mr. Cowell put out an album of songs featuring World Wrestling Federation stars, knowing their fans bought memorabilia and would latch on to this effort, whatever the musical quality.

Now he uses various talent shows, which he produces or on which he appears, to let the audience tell him who they like, and then packages that singer for the audience to buy the CDs. That's the second lesson Mr. Clawson identifies: know your audience.

"Pop music is famous for its tribal groupings – record buyers who focus on particular genres such as indie rock, adult oriented rock, metal, hip hop, R&B or dance," the author writes. "Fans of these genres can be reached through specialist magazines, websites, and radio shows. Cowell is very aware of music's tribe but increasingly he is focused on a mass audience of consumers who perhaps buy three or four records a year. His skill is in identifying ways and means to mobilize this audience to buying his products."

It's a neat trick. Mr. Cowell made money by appearing on American Idol or producing other talent shows, such as X Factor and Britain's Got Talent. He makes money licensing networks in various countries to duplicate those offerings in their market. (Lesson: Develop international formats.)

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The audience chooses the winner. And the winner and other talent unearthed, as a consequence of the contract they signed to get on the show, are obligated to Mr. Cowell for their first production if he wants them. (Lesson: Keep the contracts tight.)

In an era of personal branding, he stands out for his edgy, pugnacious approach – a reminder that candour can lead to success. He's a maverick, but interestingly he has spent all his life working within large corporate structures. Sometimes he has been an employee, and sometimes he has been owner of his company but controlled by a larger corporate entity in the industry, giving him a large percentage of the proceeds from his hits. The lesson, stressed again, is to find the right industry to apply your skills and expertise.

"Cowell chose his industry well. The record business, unlike say accountancy or the chemicals industry, is celebrated for its mavericks. People who work within or alongside a corporate structure while cutting their own paths through the world. Put simply, it's a world where talent earns you a lot of slack," Mr. Clawson observes.

You knew these lessons already, of course. But the book is still an engaging read, dissecting Mr. Cowell's success from a business perspective. Even if much of it may not be applicable to your own situation, it helps to hone your own sense of business.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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