Anyone visiting Manchester in recent years will testify as to how the once-tired industrial city has undergone a massive facelift. The streets are alive with energy thanks to the bars, restaurants, designer shops and hotels that have sprung up all over its centre.
One man who has been a driving force behind the reinvention of the city’s image is PR guru Andy Spinoza, whose company, SKV Communications, represents almost any new landmark on the skyline, including the achingly hip Urbis museum and five-star Lowry Hotel. Yet Spinoza is hardly a local boy, hailing not from Salford or Stretford, but from Southgate, north London.
His contact with the city began when he embarked on an English and American studies course at Manchester University. Thirty years on, he is showing no signs of leaving.
Sitting on one of the squashy couches in his office near the centre of the city, the 48-year-old father of three explains how the love affair started. “I was into Victorian social history, punk rock, politics, the cradle of ideas. So, for me, there was only one place to go to university. I didn’t know a single person in the city — no auntie to go off to for Friday-night dinner. But I didn’t mind. I found the place fascinating. It was in a chaotic state then, in the early ’80s — grim, concrete, like Beirut.”
Having always wanted to be a journalist, after leaving university he fused career ambition with his love of the Manchester music scene by setting up City Life, a magazine he describes as a cross between Private Eye and Time Out. Living on starvation wages and sheer chutzpah he bagged interviews with celebrities such as Tony Wilson and Ben Elton.
It's a wonderful combination of big city and small community
By the late 1980s, he had turned freelance journalist, just in time to be writing about wannabee groups such as Happy Mondays and Oasis who were emerging as part of the “Madchester” scene. Little wonder he was soon being paid to party as diary editor at the Manchester Evening News. “I loved it,” he says. “I’d be out at all sorts of social events and have to be in the office at 8am ready for when the paper hit the street at midday. I was involved with all the big names that were just bubbling up such as Steve Coogan. Manchester was a real kaleidoscope. I felt I was telling the city about itself.”
And his favourite story? “The legendary punch up between Caroline ‘Mrs Merton’ Ahern’s boyfriend and her ex-husband at the celebrity opening of Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers restaurant in Manchester. I was there watching it happen. It hit the front page of the MEN before making all the tabloids,” he recalls with still palpable satisfaction.
Six years later, and ready for a new challenge, he decided to plough his understanding of Manchester’s cultural and social life into a new enterprise and in 1998 his PR firm, Spin Media, opened for business. Again his timing was faultless. Manchester was just beginning to rise from the ashes of the 1996 IRA bomb. As the agency continued to grow and win awards, Spinoza teamed up with an organisation called Marketing Manchester to create a campaign to see his adoptive home become Britain’s second city.
Meanwhile, his CV has come full circle, with the Manchester University graduate now chairman of its 225,000 strong alumni association. “It’s a role I feel honoured to play,” he says. “The university is such a part of the city. We’re working hard to attract the right people so that it has a great name across the world.”
Last year Spin Media rebranded itself as SKV Communications, with 16 staff and offices in Liverpool and London. Not that Spinoza has any plans to move his HQ — he is as passionate about his adopted city as he was 30 years ago.
“I love Manchester and the people here because they are so straight,” he says. “There’s no pretension — what you see is what you get. If they like you, you know it, if they don’t, well, you know that as well. There’s a refreshing directness that doesn’t allow people to get above themselves or behave in an affected way. I find that so appealing.
“The humour is so dry, and there is a sense that people have real values. Perhaps it’s because there is less money around, although the city is prospering. It sounds a cliché, but the people have so much character, and soul.
“As for the city itself, what is remarkable about Manchester is that it is this great big place, this huge city that is growing rapidly. And yet there is a village feel. You can still bump into people you know when you’re out and about. It’s a wonderful combination of the excitement of a big city and the charm of a small community. It’s not impersonal like London.”
Despite acknowledging that he is not observant, he is proud of a distant connection to a famous Jewish figure — the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. “The proudest moment as a journalist was when I met novelist Anthony Burgess,” he says. “When I told him my name he said: ‘Ah Spinoza, drunk with god’ [the philosopher was famously described this way by the 18th-century poet Novalis]. That really made an impact on me. I’d never known we were actually related until we went on a family holiday to Holland a few years ago and came across Spinoza’s house. My paternal great-grandfather came from Holland, and standing there was like a flash-bulb moment.”
Fame by association is what he is most comfortable with, happy to handle the profile of others while keeping his own just under the radar.
“Some of my family and friends are still a little curious at what I actually do. I tell them I’m paid by people either to get them in the papers or keep them out of them. That’s enough for me.”