James Hewes: My media life
FIPP President and CEO James Hewes spent 11 years at the BBC before joining FIPP in 2017. Here, he talks about the thrill of launching magazines, managing in a time of corona, and how working in the media really is the best job in the world.
Hearing a magazine drop through a letterbox is an immense thrill. Growing up in Portugal, I’d wait many weeks for my favourite British magazines. Whenever the Beano or Your Spectrum (hey, it was the 1980s) arrived, it felt like my connection to the world had, too.
Given my lack of experience at the time, I probably shouldn’t have got my first media job. In 2001, I was working at Barclays Bank. Yet, I saw an advert for a marketing job at Radio Times and applied. I don’t think that would necessarily happen today.
Launching olive magazine for the BBC was a real learning curve. I was in my twenties and asked to take responsibility for getting a new magazine out of the door against a tight deadline. It was an electrifying experience.
Marketing magazines is exciting but tricky. If you work in, say, fast-moving goods, the tin and beans are always the same. In media, the tin is always different and the beans are, too. Every single piece of content you put out is unique.
I’ve lingered around WHSmith before to watch people in the magazine section. Seeing somebody hand over cash for something you worked on is an undeniable thrill.
I was lucky enough to work with several influential people at the BBC. Chris Kerwin (Group MD at Immediate Media) is still my go-to sounding board, while the legendary Nick Brett (ex-Radio Times editor) has more knowledge locked up in his head than the most of us will generate in our lifetimes.
Launching Songs of Praise magazine was a dismal idea. It hit newsstands when the BBC was on a spree of launching magazines connected to TV shows. We lasted about three issues!
Selling BBC magazines to private equity in 2011 is my legendary media moment. I was only one member of a very large project team, but it was something I’ll never forget because it was an extended piece of work involving friends, colleagues and the fates of their careers.
Another career highlight was launching the first Arabic language magazine for Gulf News. My three years in Dubai were crucial: they taught me how to run businesses with people from different countries and cultures, and with different ways of working.
Being made redundant can mould your career. It can get you out of a rut, plus give you opportunities to do something else. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t been made redundant at least once in my career.
Publishing a good magazine isn’t enough to thrive in today’s media environment. You also need to understand how digital media works, be conversant with video/audio publishing and grasp media economics, too. Today, only 10-15 per cent of what we do at FIPP is print.
Diversification is essential for any business. Today, you’ve got to have four or five different ways to make money. If your business relies on newsstand or advertising, you’re going to be in trouble.
Social media needs to be regulated. Google’s monopoly of digital advertising isn’t sustainable, while the unwillingness of Facebook to moderate its content means that it’s becoming a negative force. Mark Zuckerberg has got a complete blind spot when it comes to understanding the impact that his product has on society. The current ad boycott of Facebook shows that brands are starting to feel that way too.
Businesses will need to be flexible and more trusting in the months ahead. Leaders should be prepared to let go and allow their people to run the business, because we’re going to be working like this, remotely, for a long time. Organisations with rigid, command-and-control structures will struggle.
If the coronavirus pandemic has a silver lining, it’s that it’s forced companies to make decisions they should have taken years ago. If you want to survive, you’ve got to adapt your business and remove any sentimentality that stops you from doing so.
Best advice I’ve been given? Have empathy in the way that you manage people. This is something a previous boss told me. It’s hard to do, but try to think about what a person’s motivations are, what they’re trying to achieve and how you can help them accomplish that. If you can do that, then pretty much everything else will be okay.
Determine the one thing that you can be best in the world at. It’s a core part of [business expert] Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept and is something we’re constantly talking about at FIPP.
Whenever I start a new business, I always read Scaling Up by Verne Harnish. There’s a lot of good stuff in there about setting quarterly goals, managing cash, and the nuts-and-bolts of business strategy.
Whisper it quietly, but I secretly admire Jeff Bezos. In Amazon, he has built the world’s most customer-centric company.
The success of Disney has lessons for everybody in media. A few years ago, the company wasn’t in a great place. Now, you only need to look at Disney+ or the breadth of their intellectual property to realise that they really know how to deliver content, as well as an ‘experience’ to their audience.
Working in the media is the most fun you’ll have in a career. You’re operating in a world that is essentially the entertainment industry, and that is fun. It’s better to be happy and poor (which is the media dynamic) than miserable and rich. Every time I look at one of my accountant friends living in a million-pound house with a swimming pool and Porsche on the drive, I wonder if they’re happy. Ha ha. I always say to media students, ‘Most people would kill to have your jobs.’ Never forget that.
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