Psychopaths I have known: Robert Maxwell, the Donald Trump of Headington Hall

I came across Donald Trump many years ago. Only in those days his name was Robert Maxwell and he lived in London.

Maxwell, born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin in what was then Czechoslovakia, settled in the UK after WWII where he built a vast publishing business for himself, including ownership of one the UK’s biggest papers, The Daily Mirror.

My brush with Maxwell came in the nineties, soon after he had launched a continent-wide newspaper called The European. The European was a lofty idea: a paper that would be sold in all European capitals, printed in different languages, but carrying more or less the same content to allow the European community to take their news as one. It’s hard enough to get Europeans to agree on what time it is, let alone what newspaper they should buy, so not surprisingly The European was not the runaway success its proprietor had confidently predicted.

Media bookers had been sceptical about The European from the start and Maxwell decided that a trade advertising campaign would help them see the error of their ways. Which is how I came to play a bit part in this tragedy.

I was a junior copywriter, fresh out of ad school working at Y&R in London and Maxwell’s Mirror Group was one of our clients. The task of doing Maxwell’s trade ad had proved so popular in the department that it had somehow dribbled down to myself and my art director, the only creatives in the agency who were too junior to say no. We were asked to do a press ad (remember them?) along the lines of ‘Don’t miss out on booking space in the hugely successful new newspaper, The European’.

We had a day to put the ad together, and set to work with the gusto of youth. At college we’d been taught to interrogate the problem as thoroughly as we could, so we started with a little snooping. We didn’t have Google, but we did have an old technology you may remember called ‘telephones’. Our enquiries soon revealed that The European, far from being the juggernaut success that its owner claimed was, in fact, selling poorly and actually being pulped in several cities across Europe.

This caused a problem, as while the job of an agency is always to show the client in the best light, I really don’t like lying. The main reason being that I’m not very good at it. ‘Tell the truth and you don’t have to remember what you said’ has proved a useful maxim over the years.

Anyway, to get around the personal desire of sticking to the truth, while being pressed to do otherwise by a major client, we devised a headline that came from the recent fall of the Berlin Wall: ‘The European: Spreading through Europe faster than democracy’. I felt this was positive enough to give a good impression, while vague enough not to be challenged on any inconvenient facts. To go along with this headline we sourced a Getty press shot of drunken Germans gleefully dancing on the remains of the Berlin Wall.

Not our finest work, perhaps, but at the time it seemed like a reasonable compromise between the brief, and the truth, which was that thousands of unsold copies were being used to feed pigs, made into milkshakes, or whatever else they did with pulped newspapers in those days.

We summoned the account man back from lunch and proudly showed him our handiwork. He grunted in appreciation then ambled off in a haze of chardonnay towards Maxwell’s lair to show his hard work to the great man.

A couple of hours later the account man returned looking very pleased with himself. ‘Good news’, he said, ‘Maxwell loved the ad.’ Our chests puffed up. Of course, he loved the ad. As a successful businessman, it made sense that he was smart enough to know a good ad when he saw one. Obviously, our view of him as a psychopathic media baron had been wrong all along.

‘He just asked for a small tweak to the headline’, continued the suit.

There was a pause. Even this early in my career I had noticed that the words ‘a small tweak’ rarely indicated anything of the sort. The champagne went very flat, very fast as I politely enquired exactly what this ‘small tweak’ might entail.

‘Oh, it’s very minor’, said the account man,  ‘Mr. Maxwell loves the visual. Really loves it. He just wants to a slight change to the headline. He wants it to read: ‘The European: Smash sellout throughout Europe.

‘But that’s bollocks,’ I blustered, ‘they can’t give it away!’

The account man took a drag of his cigarette and eyed me.

‘I know that. You know that. Are you going to tell him? Because I’m not.’

So that was that. I was now living up to the cynics’ definition of advertising as ‘Telling lies for money’. The more worldly among you might be more surprised at my naivety than Maxwell’s bullshit, but if someone were prepared to lie about something so blatantly untrue, what wouldn’t he be prepared to lie about? As it turns out, not very much.

Less than a year later, Robert Maxwell MC, fleer of the holocaust, co-writer of advertising headlines and former war hero, was found naked and dead floating in the sea off the coast of Tenerife, having somehow been separated from the deck of his yacht. The British press, eager to feed on one of their own, reported that despite living a life of unbridled luxury Maxwell’s publishing empire was completely bankrupt and, furthermore, that to prop it up Maxwell had stolen 460 million pounds from his own workers’ pension fund. 

Suicide or a heart attack were mooted as possible causes of death with the conspiracy theorists believing that he had been murdered by agents of Mossad, the Israeli secret service.  It was thought that Maxwell’s attempts to blackmail the Israeli government to try and get out of his financial hole had backfired rather badly.

Next to this farrago the act of lying to the media industry about his failing newspaper seems rather trivial, but for me I felt vindicated that it was it was a clear sign of moral turpitude.  

Maxwell and Trump share several similarities. Both families came from middle Europe and moved to the West where they became wildly rich. Both individuals were narcissistic, bombastic and megalomaniacal. Both ran successfully for political office, Maxwell as an MP, Trump as POTUS. Both liked to appear on television, Trump on The Apprentice, Maxwell would front the TV ads for his paper. Both had chips on their shoulder about their exclusion from the establishment, and though widely criticised for their boorish behaviour both could, at times, appear charming. Both enthusiastically declared their support for the common man while at the same time doing what they could to enrich themselves at his expense. And both lied constantly.

So if Maxwell’s demise is any indicator, America should brace itself. It really doesn’t look like this is going to end well.

  • Paul Catmur is the chief executive of Barnes Catmur & Friends Dentsu.
  • This is the first story in an occasional series on the psychopaths Catmur has encountered.   

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