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In our latest podcast, Ray Cao spoke with Phil Thomas, CEO of Ascential Events, parent company of the Cannes Lions. Prior to his current role, Thomas helped run both Empire Magazine and FHM.

Here are our top three favorite highlights:

On finding your career path.

“[W]hen you look at young people leaving college, so few of them really know what they want to do, and it always takes a bit of experimentation and working around things and trying new things and jumping and changing before you really find your path. And as it happens, photography wasn’t quite right for me. The thing about photography is you’ve got to be exceptionally talented. It’s very, very, very competitive and you’ve got to be exceptionally talented. And I was reasonably talented, I wasn’t exceptionally talented. So, I kind of worked out quite quick that photography was not gonna be quite right for me.”

“[When] I started writing those articles and I realized actually I seem to be better at writing than I am at photography. I mean, I think one of the things when people are trying to find their ways, you’ve got to be honest about what you’re good at. You’ve got to be clear not only what you enjoy but actually what you are good at as well, and I compared my photos to my writing and I realized, you know, I’m much better at writing.”

On the power of in-person events.

“[The] strength of events is the face to face human need, and the interaction, face to face, and the serendipity of bumping into people, talking to strangers, getting to know people, human beings being with human beings in a physical way is very hard to replicate, it’s very, very hard to digitize around that. And a lot of people have tried it. It’s amazing in this day and age where you can have videoconferencing and there are all sorts of tools for people staying where they are and not being together, that despite that, airplanes pull every single day of the week with people flying to meet each other and to be in the same room as each other. So, I think the need for human beings to be together is very, very fundamental and primal need.”

On his best advice.

“I try and get as much sleep as I can. I know there’s a big thing at the moment with this fight between macho people who think you only need four hours sleep and all this scientific evidence that seems to be pointing to the fact that you need as much sleep as possible. I happen to believe you need as much sleep as possible. I’m with Arianna Huffington on that one, so I try and get good quality sleep as much as I possibly can. And then the other great piece of advice I was given once was worry in segments, worry in sequence, because if you worry about everything all at the same time, your head will explode. You’ve got a load of problems to worry about, loads of things to think about, just do it one at a time and plow through it one at a time, which I find very, very useful as well.”

You’ll find the full interview and transcript below.

Daniel: [00:00:00] Today, on Connections.

[00:00:00]
Phil: …all the beaches were dark. It was like you’re walking on your own in Indonesia or in the middle of nowhere, you know, like you’re on a desert island somewhere. There was nothing happening. The number of delegates fell by 70% that year, it was just incredible. And I suppose, looking back on it, it’s hard to think you’ll ever get out of it at that stage I didn’t know whether we’re ever gonna bounce back. It was absolutely cataclysmic. That was the moment when I thought, “I wonder if this has broken our business.”

[00:00:48]
My name is Daniel Rodic and I’m your host at Connecting the Dots. On this show we help you connect with some of the most admired leaders and legends in the marketing, media and advertising industry. Many of the people who we all look up to all started somewhere and this podcast aim to help connect the dots that got them to where they are today. Before we get started, I want to share with you a word from our sponsors. This week’s podcast is brought to you by Exact Media, which is definitely a company you want to check out if you work in e-commerce or marketing. Their concept is pretty simple.

[00:01:25]
Exact Media uses the excess space in e-commerce parcels to let brands market to consumers in their homes. For example, if someone were to buy swim trunks online, you probably could guess they’re going to the beach soon, so you could include a sample of sunscreen in the same e-commerce order. Exact Media measures every campaign, letting you evaluate the ROI of your sampling or coupon spending. Brands owned by companies like Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal have all used Exact Media’s platform, with some campaign showing clean conversion rates over 25%.

[00:02:06]
You might be saying, “Daniel, aren’t you a co-founder of Exact Media?” Yes, that’s true, and as an avid podcast listener myself, I could not pass up the opportunity to bring together such amazing leaders to share their stories. My hope is that by listening to our podcast, you will learn something new that will help you accelerate your career. Exact Media is the only reason why we’re able to do this show. To learn more and subscribe to future episodes, visit us at www.exactmedia.io and check out the podcast section. That’s www.exactmedia.io.

[00:02:50]
Today’s guest is Phil Thomas, CEO of the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. Phil’s story is quite interesting. He’s worked around the world, first getting started as a photographer in Africa before realizing that writing was his calling. He helped run both Empire Magazine and FHM before eventually taking over the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. He tells some pretty interesting stories in this interview, my favorite one being how a photo of a man, a chicken, and a boulder helped launched FHM into mainstream conversation.

[00:03:24]
My biggest takeaways from this interview are points around creative constraints and how the more restrictions you have, the more creative you tend to be. Here’s Exact Media’s CEO, Ray Cao interviewing Phil Thomas.

[00:03:40]
Ray: Phil, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate you taking the time.

[00:03:45]
Phil: You’re very welcome, it’s good to talk.

[00:03:45]
Ray: So, we’ll jump right into it. So, I know for the last 10 years or so, you’ve been running Cannes Lions, but I think you have a new role recently, don’t you?

[00:03:58]
Phil: Yes, that’s right. I’ve just taken the responsibility for some more events, and now we have about 30 different events including a big one in Las Vegas called Money 20/20, some retail events that we run in the U.K. and some education events. So, it was Cannes Lions, now, I’m running all of those businesses.

[00:04:19]
Ray: I’m gonna jump back to sort of the start of not just your career but your life because I mean so much of what we know you by is the work that you do with Cannes Lions and, you know, that the whole creativity festival. So your story though, what was your childhood like? Where did you grew up? What do you remember of your childhood?

[00:04:44]
Phil: Well, I grew up in Yorkshire which is on Northern England, in a little place called Hull which is on the coast in England. And it was a very safe, enjoyable environment to grow up in. My dad was an academic, and I had a fairly straightforward childhood, I suppose. What was interesting, I think, about my education was that looking back on it, I realized that the education system is designed for a certain kind of person and I was not particularly successful at school, which was a little bit of a shock to my dad especially because he was a very successful academic and he’s got numerous degrees from all sorts of universities all over the world, including Oxford and various places like that.

[00:05:41]
So my academic career was not particularly stellar, and looking back on it, it was partly because I was a little bit lazy. I liked sport a lot and I had some very close friends and we had a lot of fun. But actually, I think more importantly there are just certain people that don’t get the best out of the way that the education system is structured. And all my reports at school used to say, you know, he seems quite bright, but if only he’d work harder or concentrate or…all those things, yeah. And I just didn’t know what they meant. I was trying my very hardest. Looking back at my reports, which I did recently, I was trying my hardest, but there was just something about the way the education system is structured that really doesn’t play to certain people’s strength. It didn’t play to mine.

[00:06:38]
Ray: Was your dad perplexed as to why you weren’t thriving in school, and did he run experiments on you to try to figure it out?

[00:06:47]
Phil: Well, I mean funnily enough he’s an educator, he’s a specialist in education so…but no, he was very, very, very supportive. I mean, I remember the day that I told him that I didn’t actually want to go to university. You know, bearing in mind he came from a very poor background. His parents, his father died when he was very, very young. His mom was effectively in poverty in the 1940s during the war. And he worked his way out and got out of his poverty-stricken life and got to university in Oxford. And so I suppose when I said to him, “I’m actually not going to go to university,” you would expect that that would have really caused him a lot of difficulty. But he was very, very supportive and he said, “You must do what you want to do.” And my mom was supportive as well.

[00:07:35]
And amazingly, they didn’t bounce me into it, because I’m sure I wouldn’t have done particularly well at university either. So, instead of going to university, I actually went to ART College. I went to do photography at ART College and I spent three years learning how to be a photographer, and that was really the beginning of my movement towards what was kind of a creative life for the first part of my career really. I did photography at college and then I became a photographer for a while and worked in that environment for a number of years before moving into journalism.

[00:08:14]
So, I think that creative streak is not one, certainly in my school, was not one that was encouraged, and there wasn’t any encouragement for creative endeavor at all, to be honest, and that was clearly the route that I want to go.

[00:08:31]
Ray: Were you the only child or do you have siblings?

[00:08:35]
Phil: No, I’ve got a brother and he’s…he did well. He went to university, the Japanese university, and went to live in Japan and became very successful in Japan for a number of years. And now he’s a high level attorney for a pharmaceutical company. So, yeah, he went on a different journey but, yeah, we’re quite different people. I just enjoy the creative process really. I enjoy making things and creating things out of nothing. And that’s really what gets me out of bed in the morning.

[00:09:14]
Ray: What do you remember after going through college and studying art and then eventually going off to your first job? What was that first year like? What were the first few roles like, thinking back on those memories?

[00:09:30]
Phil: I think when people leave college, I think it’s a total shock in a number of ways. I think the first is suddenly you actually go to work everyday, you’ve got to get up in the morning. I remember my very first week, I’ve got a job out of college working for a fashion photographer as the assistant. And in the very first week, I had to work, we were working in the studio until around about midnight, and I remember I went back to my girlfriend’s house. And in the morning she was getting ready for her work and she said, you know, “What are you doing still in bed? Why… I mean, you got work today.”

[00:10:03]
And I said, “I worked until midnight last night, you know, I didn’t know where I’m going, you know, first thing in the morning. Are you crazy?” And I kind of rocked in to the studio the next morning around 10 a.m. and my boss turned to me and he said, “If you are ever late like this again, you are fired.” And that was such a moment, because for so many years you go through college, you don’t really know what hard work is, and then you enter the workforce and suddenly everything changes. So, I think that’s one of the big shock.

[00:10:36]
And then the other thing is when you look at young people leaving college, so few of them really know what they want to do, and it always takes a bit of experimentation and working around things and trying new things and jumping and changing before you really find your path. And as it happens, photography wasn’t quite right for me. The thing about photography is you’ve got to be exceptionally talented. It’s very, very, very competitive and you’ve got to be exceptionally talented. And I was reasonably talented, I wasn’t exceptionally talented. So, I kind of worked out quite quick that photography was not gonna be quite right for me.

[00:11:20]
So, I was actually working, I left that photographer and I worked for aid agencies and charities in Africa. I went to Africa for a year taking pictures for them. And while I was in Africa, I not only study taking pictures but for my own interest I started writing articles about the things I was seeing. I was traveling in East Africa, in Tanzania, which at that time was a very communist state, and in Kenya and Uganda, Mozambique, and I got very interested in the kind of politics of it and the development world and I started writing articles as well as taking pictures.

[00:11:58]
And when I started writing those articles and I realized actually I seem to be better at writing than I am at photography. I mean I think one of the things when people are trying to find their ways, you’ve got to be honest about what you’re good at. You’ve got to be clear not only what you enjoy but actually what you are good at as well, and I compared my photos to my writing and I realized, you know, I’m much better at writing.

[00:12:26]
So, when I returned to the U. K. after that year in Africa, I looked for job as a writer and I managed to get a job in a photography magazine because that was one of the few things I knew about, and that was the beginning of my writing career, and I spent the next kind of 10 years writing and editing because that’s what I found I was good at.
[00:12:48]
Ray: Was, in the photography to writing phase, was it an easy transition, I mean going from…in two different worlds?

[00:13:00]
Phil: It was really. I mean it’s about expressing yourself. I think with photography, there’s a certain technical element to it. With writing, you just need yourself and a computer, or actually at that time a typewriter. There was very little technology involved. I think you’ve got to be technologically quite adept to be a good photographer. And I think removing that friction, removing the friction of that technological know-how, so it’s just you and a piece of paper, you’ve got to remove any barriers between myself and what I wanted to say in the world. And that’s what I think appealed to me more than anything.

[00:13:46]
You know, writing’s a very…it’s quite a disciplined, especially if you’re a professional, if you’re writing professionally, you’ve got to write to certain a style, you’ve got to write to a certain length, there’s very little room, you know, it’s not writing for fun. You’re actually writing in a professional capacity. So there’s all the rigor and that actually, I think, helps creativity. The more constriction you have, I actually think the easier it is to be creative. So, I like writing, being told you’ve got to express yourself in 200 words or you’ve got to express yourself in 1,000 words, that constriction, I think, it’s a little bit like Twitter. You know, I think one of the reasons Twitter works is the constriction of only using 140 characters. Not only is there anything wrong in having barriers and constraints when it comes to creativity, I think it actually helps you.

[00:14:46]
So the joy of kind of creating something, trying to express yourself, trying to get somebody to read to the end of an article, I mean that’s the skill of professional writing, not realizing you’re not writing for yourself, because if you were, you could just write a diary. But actually you’re writing for somebody else, and you’ve got an idea you want to get across, there’s some information you’ve got to get across, and the number one job is to get them to read to the end of the article. And that is actually with time being so limited to people, quite difficult, so, I thoroughly enjoy that.

[00:15:24]
Ray: And so you eventually became editor of Empire Magazine which I believe was focused on film, correct?

[00:15:33]
Phil: Yes, that’s right, yeah. I worked for lots of different magazines. When I left the photography magazines I worked for some newspapers, I worked in music magazines, fashion magazines, various people, I was freelancing for a while. And then the…it was kind of the golden error of magazines in a sense, and certainly in the U.K. there was a lot of innovation, a lot of launching going on. And there was an idea to launch a kind of sassy, smart, intelligent, humorous movie magazine. Movie writing up until that point had been very po-faced and very academic, and the idea here was actually movies are fun. Why don’t we just have some fun with this? Why don’t we admit that actually Hollywood blockbusters are fun. You know, we don’t hate Hollywood blockbusters, we don’t. It’s not only about arthouse movies.

[00:16:20]
So this magazine was launched, the Empire Magazine, and I joined it right at the very beginning. I was quite a junior and worked my way up. And during the course of that period, we had a lot of success. It grew very much and eventually I became the editor, which was a very enjoyable job. In fact, I’m thinking about it the other day, it was so enjoyable that I used to go to bed in the early days of me editing the magazine, and I used to wish I could be asleep because then the next moment I was aware of anything, it would be time to go to work. How much love for a job is that? Can you imagine loving your job so much? But yes, that was great times. And putting an issue of a magazine together every month is a very creative act as well. You know, you’ve got to choose the cover and you’ve got to make sure the content is balanced and get the tone right. Theatrical magazine is a challenging but very enjoyable.

[00:17:19]
Ray: Did the role give you special access to a lot of producers and actors and actresses in the day?

[00:17:28]
Phil: Yeah, I met a huge number of very famous people. When you’re the editor, in fact you, of course, you got the great opportunity to just choose the interesting people to speak. And I learned a couple of things. The first is that mostly actors are not very interesting. They haven’t got a lot to say. Some of the most disappointing interviews I’ve ever done were with my heroes. I think Robert De Niro, for instance, was a massive disappointment and I was looking forward to interviewing him so much and that didn’t…he’s not got a lot to say, frankly.

[00:18:07]
The most interesting people are the writers and directors. So, after a while I started concentrating on the writers and directors. Some of the real standouts are people like Tim Burton. One of the best interviews, most interesting people I ever met was Woody Allen. And I also learned about what charisma is because when you meet somebody like Woody Allen, you realize what charisma is. And people like Johnny Depp, for instance, has got genuine charisma, and a couple of other individuals that I met has got genuine charisma, and that charisma is really based around kind of an unaffected, genuine interest in the other person.

[00:18:53]
I mean when you meet Johnny Depp, it is literally as if he has been waiting to meet you his entire life. And when you meet Woody Allen, your kind of conversation that you have with him, he is genuinely interested in what you’ve got to say. And it’s not an act because you can always tell when it’s an act. And so Woody Allen would create this environment that, you know, you can just have the deepest, most interesting conversations.

[00:19:22]
So, I had a lot of very, very fascinating deep conversations with some very smart people and then I had some really difficult ones. I mean, Woody Harrelson was a…he just said to me, “Are you one of these guys that just annoys everybody all the time?” when I was interviewing him. And Sean Connery was grumpy, Mel Gibson was a little, you know…Sean Penn was an absolute nightmare to interview. So, yeah, I met lots of very, very interesting people, and it was actually at the period before the modern…the modern celebrity culture is different now. Access to the movie stars and even Hollywood directors is so, so difficult now. You get very little time, almost certainly never one-on-one with them, it’s always roundtables. It’s very, very hard. That’s why celebrity journalism now is so vacuous.

[00:19:22]
But back in the days when we were doing it in the early 1990s, you know, you could actually spend half of the Sean Connery, you could spend, you know could interview Woody Allen over a number of different conversations and it was a slightly different worlds so you could get a deeper understanding of them.

[00:20:38]
Ray: What do you remember as the most difficult/awkward interviews that you had to do at the time?

[00:20:47]
Phil: I think it was either Sean Penn who I interviewed in Cannes shortly after he split up from Madonna. And he was clearly not remotely interested in the celebrity life. He just directed his first movie and he wanted to publicize that. And that’s why he sort of gave in and decided he was gonna do an interview but he was incredibly, incredibly difficult. And as I say Woody Harrelson, we used to have an article in the magazine called How Much is a Pint of Milk, which is a bit of a U.K. thing, but it was about trying to get to the heart of do these celebrities live in the real world. So, we would ask, you know, questions like when did you last go shopping? Do you know how much a pint of milk is? You know, we ask them all these questions. And that was when Woody Harrelson just said, you know, “You just seem this kind of guy who just annoys people all the time.” And ultimately he walked out of the interview.

[00:21:59]
But mostly they get the game, you know, they get that they’re there for a reason. They’re not there to make friends with you, they’re there to get their movie publicized and that it’s a mutual thing, everybody understands why they’re there. But it was an interesting time. They do have a wonderful, privileged life, that’s the one thing you do see. When you peep behind the curtain of their life, they really have quite an extraordinary life that they lead.

[00:22:32]
Dennis Hopper was fantastic. I went to his house in Venice Beach. And again it’s a time when you would go to Dennis Hopper’s house. I mean now, these days, I’m talking about, bless his soul, he’s not with us anymore, but you just would never get that opportunity. And I went to his house and he had this amazing place in Venice Beach. And he walked into the kitchen, and in the kitchen was his car, and the whole side of his house was raised and lower so that he could drive his car in and out because he had his car in his kitchen. That was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. So, yeah, there’s lots and lots of good, fun experiences.

[00:23:17]
Ray: So how do you go from it sounds like a dream job, to tapping that, because eventually you went off to, was it Emap or it was Top Right Group I think that that time, right?

[00:23:29]
Phil: Yeah, it was actually called Emap at that time, so I ran a men’s magazine called FHM for a while, which is Maxim in the U.S. is a very similar kind of magazine. So we…

[00:23:39]
Ray: How did you, I don’t know if you’re married at that time, but what did your wife or girlfriend think about you joining and running FHM?

[00:23:47]
Phil: Yeah, I don’t think that was particularly keen, to be honest, and actually looking back on it, it was a, yeah, it had, it did have certain connotations, but it was an extremely successful magazine. And what that taught me was…because we internationalized the magazine, we took it to about 35 countries in the end. That was a U.K-based product, very, very successful, at one time the biggest selling magazine in the whole of Europe. And we took it all over the world. And that taught me a lot about culture because the magazine had very clear brand values, and this is something I’ve learned to bring to other businesses that I’ve run, and it had a very, very clear idea of what it stood for. And effectively it stood for…everything in the magazine had to be funny, useful or sexy.

[00:24:40]
And so we had a kind of template that we would take to partners around the world. And it didn’t matter whether it was Turkey or Singapore, Australia or Brazil, we said to these people, “If you run it on this template, it will succeed.” And what would normally happen is the local partner would say, “Yeah, but we need to change it slightly for this market.” And we would have parameters whereby we would allow certain adjustments to be made, but if it went too far, then we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t do the deal. So, if you take Singapore, Singapore is a good example. Singapore, very, very strict on the nakedness or otherwise of the cover stuff, so, in Singapore they said, you know, “We’d just got to cover up the covers otherwise we’re gonna get taken off the shelves, we’re not gonna get to the shelves.” So, “Yeah, okay, fair enough, we understand that.”

[00:25:38]
The most challenging one was in Paris. We went to Paris. We said, “This magazine works all over the world, here’s the formula.” And I’ll never forget, they said, “There’s a page every month that you insist we put in the magazine about cooking.” And we said, “That’s right because young men often don’t know how to cook and they want to cook for their girlfriends, so we have a page on cooking.” And they said, “Young men in France do not need to be taught how to cook.” So I said, “Okay,” that’s difficult. And then they said, “We notice every month you have an article about how to make love to a woman.” And we said, “Yes, because every young man is worried about whether he’s any good at making love to a woman, and he wants to learn the better way, and he wants to learn from other men, and he wants to learn from women that that is life.” And they said, “French men do not need to understand or learn about how to make love to a woman.”

[00:26:37]
So, the French edition was actually the most difficult one, and that’s quite interesting because France and the U.K. are only 19 miles away from each other. We had much, it was much easier to get the Argentinean version off the ground, or the Colombian version off the ground, or the Indian one off the ground than it was to get the French one. So, that taught me about brand, it taught me about clarity, it taught me about internationalization, and that’s what has most importantly taught me that young men are the same more or less all over the world.

[00:27:10]
Ray: I imagine that Singapore and Paris were run by different people. They kind of probably sounded like more different than their culture.

[00:27:20]
Phil: Yeah. That’s right, very different. I think the other thing it taught me actually was that when you run a business, the cost of the business expand to fill the gap that they are allowed to fill. So, just to put that in some kind of context, I remember when I was running FHM, in the U.K. we had to run about 25 editorial staff, in the U.S. they had about 60. In Singapore they had 3, and in Australia they had about 12. And broadly speaking they were creating a very similar amount of editorial content and that just showed me the cost expand to what the market can afford rather than what the actual product needs. And I think that’s a lesson for all businesses as they grow and become more successful. You know, cost can increase but they don’t necessarily have to if you’re careful about what you’re really trying to produce.

[00:28:28]
Ray: In the role at FHM, it sounds like you were moving more and more away from, say, content creation, you know, then you moved at Empire now more to running a business, what was that adjustment like? Did it come natural to or was it quite a bit of a steep learning curve?

[00:28:49]
Phil: Well, at first it was a really, really steep learning curve. At first I didn’t like it very much at all. Moving from content creation into business, I didn’t like it very much at all. I think what I thought though was by the time I moved into publishing and running these magazines, I’d written a hell of a lot. I mean I had written literally millions of words that had been published. I’ve published a book, I was writing long articles, writing reviews for films and music and I’d really, really written a lot. And I suppose I got to the stage where I thought do I want to carry on writing for the rest of my career, which many people do, of course, or do I want a different kind of challenge? And I decided I want a different challenge and it took a little while to bed it in and settle in. But as my career progressed, I actually found as much satisfaction from creating businesses as I did from creating anything else.

[00:30:02]
Ray: Did you have any mentors along the way? Did you seek any mentorship, the people who helped you get good at the craft of leading and building?

[00:30:13]
Phil: Yes. I mean I was blessed because Emap at that time was absolutely, it was a talent powerhouse. It was sucking in talent from everywhere. It was a very, very successful business. It was by far the most innovative magazine publisher probably, one of them in the world, actually, and certainly in Europe, and it kind of sucked talent in. And the Emap culture of leadership was to first of all keep the teams as small and as focused as possible to pick the right people and to give them freedom to do what they need to do, to interfere as little as possible, to back creative teams. I mean that was actually one of the written cultural values of Emap at that time that we back creative teams.

[00:31:09]
And so they had an amazing leadership culture that was very close to the products. it was very unpretentious. I mean I remember the chairman, I remember the CEO, Chairman of Emap when I was running Emap in Australia, came out to see me. And you’ve got to bear in mind, this is a guy that’s running an international, global business probably valued around about $5 billion at that time, maybe 4000, 5000, 6000 employees all over the world. And he came out to Australia and he flew coach all the way to Australia, and that’s a little bit obsessive, but he was making a point, which is we’re not a bloated corporation. You know, we look up to the pennies and we run it as if it’s a cottage industry. And that’s something that I’ve always really appreciated learning. That ability to allow people to do that thing and not to get too bloated and too head office obsessed.

[00:32:16]
And I think the leaders that I worked with throughout my career at Emap continually did that. In fact, there was an article in Campaign Magazine only a couple of months ago listing the people who had come up through Emap who are now effectively running the media industry in the U.K. And it is quite amazing, you know, one of the most senior people at Twitter, the guy that runs Timing in London, myself running Cannes Lions, there’s a huge list of…the woman that runs HERS Magazines in London, we all came up through this kind of academy at Emap and I think the leadership values that they taught us stood us in good stead.

[00:33:05]
Ray: It’s almost like the, I guess like the PayPal Mafia but of Europe’s that produced the Emap mafia of talent.

[00:33:12]
Phil: Yes, yeah, exactly.

[00:33:16]
Ray: Going to FHM, it sounded like Empire was as good as it could get. What was it like running FHM? I mean, was it similar in terms of excitements or is it completely different as a business?

[00:33:32]
Phil: It was very exciting actually because it was going through a preposterous growth curve, something that you don’t experience very often in your career. I mean we just couldn’t print enough copies of it. The circulation guys would come to me every month and say, you know, “We think we should print another 200,000, maybe it should be 300,000. What do you think, how many should we print?” And we would sell out every single copy. So, that made it very exciting, it was culturally quite an important magazine. The PR we were getting was actually huge. And then to internationalize it as well was also very, very, exciting.

[00:34:14]
So, it was a fantastically exciting time to be on the magazine. What happened to it subsequently, I think, is very interesting because it’s effectively died a death all over the world. I mean it closed in the U.S., never made a penny in the U.S. It closed in just about every country in the world, closed in the U.K. as well. And if you go back to the brand values, the brand values was funny, sexy, and useful, and if you were trying to think of a description of the internet, that would be about the best description of the internet you could possibly come up with. Everything on the internet is either funny, sexy, or useful.

[00:34:56]
And I looked back to my time, so I took over FHM in 1997, and there was a moment that really turned the success of the magazine, and it was just before I joined the magazine, but the then-editor went to the then-publisher with a photograph, forgive me this is a little bit crude but it’s a good story, I think an interesting story, went to the publisher with a photograph. And the photograph was of a man who had been hit by a huge boulder that killed him. But the twist on the picture was that he was actually having sexual relations with a chicken at that time. So this guy had his trousers around his ankle, having sexual congress with a chicken, and a boulder had fallen on him and killed him. Now, it’s an awful story but you can see the funny side.

[00:35:50]
So, the editor came to the publisher at that time, he said, “Look, look at this photo. Do you think we can publish it? Is it the sort of thing that we can go with?” And they made the choice between that, “Yeah, we’re gonna publish this picture.” And the guy was Spanish and he became known as the Spanish chicken picture. And that publication of that picture really set FHM on its root because FHM then became something that young men show to each other and discuss. And they said to each other, “Look at this photograph,” you know, in the pubs, in the clubs of England they said, “Just look at that incredible photograph, isn’t that amazing?”

[00:36:27]
So, if you look back, that’s 1996, 1997. We were in a world where the internet had already started, but we’re still in a world where a monthly magazine could take a decision to publish a photograph like that. If you think about the world now, that photo would be around in everybody’s inbox, on everybody’s Facebook feed, in their own Twitter within hours, and it will be forgotten by lunchtime. And that is an incredible, I think, incredible story of how our media world has changed, that it’s really not that long ago that a monthly magazine could set the agenda. It’s hard to believe that.

[00:37:10]
Ray: Right. Phil, you and I when we first met, I remember you saying that there was a period of time where you actually started a business that had dabbled in sampling and such, and that’s one of our early connections. When did that happen in your career? Was it later on or did it happen before FHM?

[00:37:31]
Phil: Yeah. No, it was later on. After FHM, I was invited to go and run the Emap businesses in Sydney in Australia, and we had the business in Singapore and in Kuala Lumpur as well. And in Kuala Lumpur and in Sydney, we had magazines and events, but we also had, because of the way that the acquisitions were constructed, we also strangely had a sampling business which is called the Bounty sampling business, which you’ll know, right? I don’t know whether the listeners will know.

[00:38:04]
And just a really amazing model, an incredible model, very simple. Nice people would go to the hospital, they can see the newborn babies and the new mothers with a bag, with a Bounty bag of samples, and Procter & Gamble would put the Pampers in and, you know, the various…J&J would put the baby oil in. And so all the brands would give these samples, in fact, pay to give the samples into the bag. And everybody’s happy, because the mom is happy because she’s got a bag for the samples, the brand is happy because they get in the list of samples, we would make money on it.

[00:38:44]
And literally, the only issue we had was the distribution model because the hospitals were the ones that were least keen on it. You have to have an army of very well connected sales people who could connect it so that the hospitals will allow these people to go into the wards, because the hospital’s point of view was, “I’m busy, I’m trying to deliver babies here. Could you please leave us alone?” So, you have to have those great relationships, so the distribution model was interesting and quite analog, in looking back on it. But the sampling element of it was really a fantastic moment.

[00:39:26]
Ray: So did you…were you involved in helping to run it while you were part of Emap or did you have…

[00:39:34]
Phil: Yeah, it was one of our businesses. It was, as I say, we had it in, strangely, we had it in Kuala Lumpur, we didn’t have it in Singapore. We had it in New Zealand as well actually, but also all throughout Australia. And it has nothing to do with publishing. It was just a completely different model but it’s just a very, very nice, simple idea, and I know not completely different from one of your businesses either, right?

[00:40:01]
Ray: Right. So how did you go from publishing to Cannes Lions because that was the next big leap, right?

[00:40:12]
Phil: Yes. I suppose what I thought, what I could see happening was that magazine publishing in particular was very, very challenged. I couldn’t really see a way forward for it. I think there are two kinds of magazines that will probably survive, I think which is very, very high end magazines, your Vogue, Vogue Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. I think they will survive because the luxury advertisers will continue to support them and the fashion advertisers will continue to support them, they like magazines.

[00:40:46]
I think they will continue and I think perhaps very specialist, niche magazines may continue as well. But I think there’s a huge section, particularly general interest magazines, that are very challenged, so, I could see around about 10 years ago, I could see that the industry that had given me such an amazing career so far, I couldn’t really see it giving me an amazing career going forward. So, I feel, well, what am I gonna do then because, you know, I’m not sure what skills I’ve got and not sure what opportunities there will be. And I looked around and I looked at events, and then what I thought about events was…because I see events as media, they are a media, just like any other media. And what I thought about events was that actually disruption of events is very, very hard. It’s not easy like disrupting newspapers is relatively easy.

[00:41:44]
Disrupting events is very difficult and I think there are a number of reasons why they’re so robust. I think events are robust because human beings are very, very tribal. Now we’ll see the tribal nature of human beings often has a very ugly side. It leads to war and it leads to discrimination and all those sort of nasty things. But the tribal element of human beings from an event perspective is a very positive thing because when people go to events, they feel a part of the tribe. So, if you are going to Cannes Lions, you’re in a tribe that goes to Cannes Lions. So, I think that tribal element is very strong.

[00:42:23]
But the other strength of events is the face to face human need, and the interaction, face to face, and the serendipity of bumping into people, talking to strangers, getting to know people, human beings being with human beings in a physical way is very hard to replicate, it’s very, very hard to digitize around that. And a lot of people have tried it. I mean it’s amazing in this day and age where you can have videoconferencing and there are all sorts of tools for people staying where they are and not being together, that despite that, airplanes pull every single day of the week with people flying to meet each other and to be in the same room as each other.
[00:43:07]
So, I think the need for human beings to be together is very, very fundamental and primal need, so I thought events probably had quite a bright future. And so as it happened, Emap had moved into events and we’ve purchased Cannes Lions just the year before I joined it. And I heard on the grapevine that they were looking for CEO, so I put my hand up for it and I was fortunate enough to get the job.

[00:43:39]
Ray: What was Cannes Lions like almost 10 years ago, I guess, when you started and how is it different from what it is today?

[00:43:49]
Phil: It was much smaller, so it appealed really only to advertising agencies. There were a few times that weren’t, but really not very many. I mean the team was smaller at 17 of us when I joined. And the event in terms of its turnover, etc., was quite a lot smaller. And I think what’s happened in the interim period is Cannes Lions has enjoyed growth because of the change in the media landscape and particularly advertising landscape. So, now it attracts all sorts of different people who never came before and I love that. It’s actually driven by the changes in the world. So, the first big group to come were the global digital platforms. You know, Microsoft was the first, but they were joined by AOL and Yahoo, and then as Google came through, Facebook, Twitter, and now most of the platforms, so there’s Snapchat and Tinder and Spotify and all of these guys are here.

[00:44:49]
And I think that played to our positioning because we’re a global event and they are global platforms so they could see the real opportunity to come. Clients got more and more interested. And then as the ecosystem kind of fragmented, more and more people got interested, whether it was startups, whether it was entertainment companies, whether it was music companies. So, as marketing has changed and morphed, I think we’ve been able to just adjust our course slightly, you know, steering towards where the growth would come from. And I think the growth of Cannes…I think when I joined we had about 3,000 people, then last year we had about 16,000, and on the award side thing, when we started I think we had about 15,000, 16,000 entries and last year we had 43,000 entries.

[00:45:46]
So it’s grown quite considerably but that’s…I take credit for that as a board member asks me, but the law of the honest truth is that what we’ve done is managed to steer a course alongside the change and the growth within the marketing communications industry.

[00:46:08]
Ray: I mean you’ve come across a ton of challenge and really some of the most creative people in the world. Have you seen any patterns amongst the winners year after year, and maybe it’s changed over the past 10 years but, you know, what seems to be consistent in terms of the characteristics of the people who end up wining year after year?

[00:46:29]
Phil: Well, I mean it has changed. I mean when I started the winners of Cannes tend to be advertising campaigns but now a huge number of the winners are products, effectively products. They might be apps, or they might be actual physical products. The way that solutions are presented to clients is completely different now from how it was before. I mean we still do have simple, basic 30-second commercials and basic newspaper ads that win the Lions, but the complexity and the technology involved in some of the winners is just, I mean, unrecognizable from when it was before. But one of the big changes, another big change that we’ve seen over time is the kind of democratization of creativity.

[00:47:22]
If you look at the winners from, say, 10 years ago there are so many countries that they didn’t include, and in the last 10 years many, many, many new countries have kind of joined the winners at Cannes, places like Ecuador, Central America and South America is very interesting, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, those places are winning lines, they never did before. The Middle East is a huge increase, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, places like Sri Lanka and Vietnam. So I think creativity is no longer the preserve of big companies in the U.S. and the U.K. and Western Europe. It’s now democratized all over the world. So we see that big change.

[00:48:13]
And we also see a change in the type of companies that are winning. So whereas previously it had been many advertising agencies, now we have clients winning themselves, the clients entering work, there are music companies winning Lions. We have, I mean last year one of the big Grand Prius was won by the New York Times. Their app won at Lions. Google won a huge Lions this year. So a big change in the kind of people who are winning the Lions as well. So I’ve seen more changes than similarities, I think. Over the years, there’s been a big, big change.
[00:48:51]
Ray: You know, you’ve got an incredibly successful career. I’m just curious, I mean in the 10 or so years, was there a year where you just had this, “Oh, shit, this could be the end of Cannes Lions” because of the, you know, some sort of a mistake or, you know, a near-death moment? Do any of the last Cannes Lions, could you sort of jog up a memory of when things almost felt like they could have come to an end?

[00:49:19]
Phil: Yes. So, I think I’ve been working here about 2 or 3 years when the global financial crisis hit, and I remember I went to the 2009 event. Now, you’ve got to bear in mind we’re at the end of the value chain. So, the value chain starts with the clients, they’re the ones with the money, and when there’s a crisis, often marketing spend is cut. So the next people to find paying are obviously the agencies. So the market is the same for the agencies, “We’re cutting our budgets.” The agencies that are there are under huge pressure. And we’re at the end of that chain. So the agencies are saying, “I don’t know if I can enter, I don’t know if I can send as many people, maybe I won’t send any people.” And the financial crisis was such a global event, and our revenues fell that year by 60%, 60%. And I think the agencies thought they were having a bad time. I don’t think they had any idea what it was like across at the end of that value chain.

[00:50:21]
And I remember I went…I mean you have been, Ray, you’ve been to the festival more recently so it would be hard to believe, but I remember I was walking down the Croisette on a Thursday night, which was the big party night. Now, if you walk down the Croisette last year on a Thursday night, it’s like Las Vegas, you know, there’s music pumping out, there’s lights everywhere, the place is packed, the road is closed by the police and people are walking down the road, it’s just crazy.

[00:50:50]
That year I remember looking towards the sea and just seeing darkness, all the beaches were dark. It was like you were walking on your own in Indonesia or in the middle of nowhere, you know, like you’re on a desert island somewhere. There was nothing happening, the number of delegates fell by 70% that year, it was just incredible. And I suppose, looking back on it, it’s hard to think as we get out of it, of that stage, I didn’t know whether we were ever gonna bounce back. It was absolutely cataclysmic. That was the moment when I thought I wonder if this is broken, our business. But fortunately, it did bounce back, it bounced back quite quickly actually in the end, but I didn’t know that at that time.

[00:51:41]
Ray: At that time did you have to go through restructuring to handle the fact that it was 60% dropping in turnover and all that?

[00:51:51]
Phil: Yeah. It’s a very good question because we, especially at that time, we were very lean, a very, very lean team and very lean cost. And the revenues were falling through the floor and obviously we have to look at our cost. And when I started that process, I was pretty sure there was no way to go on cost. But I just thought, you know, I don’t see where we can go because we’re not exactly a fat organization. But what that did teach me is there is always somewhere you can go on cost without necessarily damaging the product either, and I’ll just give you one example.

[00:52:30]
We used to rebuild the award sets. So we have an awards more or less every night during the week, and we used to rebuild it, and it used to be fresh every time. So, we said to our awards guys, “Listen, we can’t afford to do that this year but we still want them to be different and exciting. What can you do?” So they just applied their creativity and they used light and they used different ways of making it look different and exciting and we saved a huge amount of money doing that. So there are always ways you can look at it. And I didn’t expect that to happen, but yes we did have to go through a big restructure, it was very painful.

[00:53:10]
Ray: I’m just going to change up the subject and go into a bit of rapid fire questions, just around personal tactics. I mean you’re now running not just Cannes Lions but a ton more events, that you travel a great deal, your life is only getting busier. I know you’ve got family and kids and all of that. What sort of rituals or routines do you stick with to keep yourself sane?

[00:53:37]
Phil: I’ve got into meditation lately. I do breathing exercises. I find that incredibly invigorating. So, when you’re very, very tired, I actually use color a lot. So if I’m breathing, I breathe a deep red color up into my body. I know it sounds crazy, or if I’m feeling stressed, if I need energy, I breathe a red color into my body. If I’m feeling stressed out, I kind of flip myself in a blue, calming blue color. And if I need kind of strength and if I’m feeling a little bit kind of weak, I feel I need strength, I imagine a golden color in the solar plexus. So it’s a routine that I’ve been practicing over time and it’s quite amazing what an impact it has. And you really don’t have to spend very long at it, you can just spend literally a minute. And it infuses you with energy, so I find that incredibly useful.

[00:54:48]
I try and get as much sleep as I can. I know there’s a big thing at the moment with this fight between macho people who think you only need four hours sleep and all this scientific evidence that seems to be pointing to the fact that you need as much sleep as possible. I happen to believe you need as much sleep as possible. I’m with Arianna Huffington on that one, so I try and get good quality sleep as much as I possibly can. And then the other great piece of advice I was given once was worry in segments, worry in sequence, because if you worry about everything all at the same time, your head will explode. You’ve got a load of problems to worry about, loads of things to think about, just do it one at a time and plow through it one at a time, which I find very, very useful as well. So that’s some of the things that I use.

[00:55:40]
Ray: Do you have any rules for when you shut off throughout the week, or are you pretty much on the run and on the go everyday for the seven days?

[00:55:51]
Phil: It’s pretty relentless really. I try and have a rule where I try not to work too much on the weekends, if at all, if I can possibly avoid it. I think you need the weekends to recharge, you also need the weekends to realize what’s important in life and spend time with people that you love and people that you like. So I try not to do that, if I possibly can. And, you know, the truth is, most emails can wait, you know, very few emails are that urgent and that desperate. And if it is that desperate they’ll phone you, they’ll call you anyway. So I try to be disciplined about that as I possibly can. It means the week can be extremely busy. And I try to avoid meetings as much as I can, particularly internal meetings, but that is difficult when you’re a part of a big organization, I must admit.

[00:56:46]
Ray: Yeah. What advice would you give yourself to your 25, 30-year-old self, if you were having a conversation with younger Phil?

[00:56:59]
Phil: I’d say, you know, all things pass, everything is gonna end. And that means good things and bad things. And I think if you can get your head around that properly, it allows you to do two things. It allows you to really enjoy the good times because they’re gonna end. I mean ultimately we’re all gonna die, right? So it’s going to end sometime. And it allows you to appreciate the good times, but it also allows you to get through the bad times because all the bad times are gonna end as well. I mean one of the great pieces of advice that I was given once is everything works out in the end, and if it hasn’t worked out, that just means it’s not the end yet. I thought that was a great, great advice because everything does work out in the end if you give it enough time, and you let it and you just go with the flow. So that’s what I’d say to my 25-year-old self who was a bit uptight and a bit worrying about too many things, and worrying about the future and all that kind of stuff, that’s put me in good stead.

[00:58:09]
Ray: I know with your new role there’s just absolutely a lot to do, but what’s still left for you to accomplish? What’s left on that bucket list of yours?

[00:58:19]
Phil: I think what I want to do is I’ve been given a role here to create something for the events business within our broader business. I’ve got to bring some teams together and create a culture and I’ve got to build that business out. So that’s a great challenge for the next few years. I think what I’d like to do at the back is…rather I want to do two things. One is I am on the board of a couple of charities and I try and do as much as I can to give back. I know that sounds kind of highfalutin but I think I’ve been very fortunate, and I’d like to use my skills to try to just do something a bit more helpful for people. So that’s one part of it.

[00:59:02]
And then the other thing is quite, you’re right, back down to the beginning and start something new again. And I’m quite inspired by the entrepreneurs that I meet, guys like you, Ray, and many of the people I meet, especially in the States I meet a lot of entrepreneurs. I’m very inspired by them in the way that they look at the world and I think one day I’d like to try and join that group, you know, have an idea and build it out myself and start from scratch again.

[00:59:34]
Ray: Awesome. Phil, I know you’re incredibly busy, so I really, really appreciate the time and thank you so much for doing this interview.

[00:59:43]
Phil: Well, I really appreciate you asking me. Thank you very much, Ray.

[00:59:57]
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[01:00:48]
You might be saying, “Daniel, aren’t you a co-founder of Exact Media?” Yes, that’s true and as an avid podcast listener myself, I could not pass up the opportunity to bring together such amazing leaders to share their stories. My hope is that by listening to our podcast, you will learn something new that will help you accelerate your career. Exact Media is the only reason why we’re able to do this show. To learn more and subscribe to future episodes, visit us at www.exactmedia.io and check out the podcast section. That’s www.exactmedia.io.