Under the Radar with Robert Ffitch

Laura Rutkowski

Hearst UK's Chief Strategy Officer discusses why more businesses should adopt this role and how he made the transition from working in a media agency to working for a media publisher. Also, his devout love of cardigans (as sported below)...

Robert Ffitch

What made you want to work in the magazine industry?

I was looking for a new challenge, having previously worked in an agency for 30-odd years, and then after that, The Telegraph for 14 months. It was a question of where else in the media industry I would like to get involved. I was open-minded. When talking to James [Wildman, CEO of Hearst UK], he came up with a very interesting role that was very attractive as Chief Strategy Officer. That got the head going and the heart going.

My dad was an ex-journalist, my wife used to work at IPC Media [now Time Inc. UK], my daughter works for a publisher, so there's a sort of emotional connection as well to why it felt like a natural place for me to go.

Can you chart your journey from when you started out to your current position?

I started out as a planner buyer graduate at a media agency called Chris Ingram Associates. It was a fantastically interesting, very sociable, dynamic, fast-moving business.

I left there after five years to set up a media agency called Manning Gottlieb Media with the two owners. They then left the business and I took over running the agency in 2005. The agency grew and became very successful. I did that for 12 years and then I got to the point of, "Do I want to do this for the rest of my life?" Answer? No. I then explored the opportunity of crossing over to the other side and working for media owners, media brands and publishers, which I did when I went to The Telegraph

I enjoyed quite a lot of it – other bits I didn't enjoy as much, largely the culture and environment of the organisation, which didn't quite connect with me. I thought it would be very similar to working at an agency, but it actually is very different and takes quite a while to adapt. I didn't adapt quickly enough and I didn't connect to the business as much as I would have liked and hoped.

I'm really glad I made this change from media agency over to the other side so I could get a different view through a different lens of our industry, meet new people and get a different perspective on things, which is really important. I'm absolutely loving it at Hearst. It's fantastic. 

Do you have a go-to work outfit?

A cardigan. I'm not wearing one today, but I have about 20 cardigans. There are some that are quite similar, but they are all different styles and colours. For some reason, I like cardigans – I can't explain it.

I never wear jeans, but I decided when I came into Hearst that I would try and smarten up, so I normally wear a suit and sometimes a tie. I don't like too casual at work. I think that sends out the wrong signal, that you don't quite switch into purpose and productivity.

What do you turn to when you’re on deadline – tea/coffee/snacks?

I find music a great accompaniment at work. It's quite nice being in an office here now, because I can play some music and I find that really does help me. I went to a Michael Kiwanuka concert with my eldest daughter. I'd never heard of him until recently and he's really soulful. I'm really into him right now, but I also love AC/DC. I don't play AC/DC when I'm working – it doesn't really help.

In terms of releasing stress, I find that going to football matches and drinking alcohol is a massive supporter of that. I am a big fan of going out and just destressing and not bottling it up. I really like people who cycle to work and back. I used to do that years ago – you’re exercising, it's free of charge and by the time you get home in the evening, you have totally gotten rid of all your angst and issues connected to work.  

What’s the most unusual situation you’ve found yourself in because of your job?

Let's just say that working with a brand like Cosmopolitan has opened my eyes.

What would people be surprised to know about your job?

There are very few people who have a job like mine in media. Chief Strategy Officer can mean anything and will mean different things to different people, but ultimately the biggest part of my job is to help the business develop commercially and look for new opportunities to drive new revenue and profitable growth.

There's a whole spread of commercial development and opportunity that already exists in the business. Part of my job is to help bring that all together, make sense of it and take it to market and try to maximise all the different levels and opportunities commercially.

You have your classic CEO who sets the vision, the MD who runs the operations, you have your finance and commercial and editorial, but you don't necessarily have someone who's there to look at the broad commercial suite.  That's why the role is really exciting. It’s a role more media businesses should adopt, because I hope it will prove to be really important.  

Walk me through your typical day.

My job is so broad that there is no such thing as a typical day. The only typical part of the day is getting up at a certain time, working my butt off, dealing with lovely people and then going home. I'm pretty much in a variety of different meetings all the time, which keeps it really stimulating.

If you didn’t have to sleep, how would you use the remaining hours in the day? 

I don't sleep a lot anyway. I have one of those devices that tracks it, but that's all a load of rubbish. I'd say on average I go to bed at about midnight and get up at about 6.

If I'm not going out – we go out a lot in our business – I like to go home and put my slippers on and watch the telly. I find the television really does calm me down and I can find myself flicking the channels when all the family has gone to bed and landing on a film, like Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino. I've seen it about six times and yet I watched it all over again and I find that very therapeutic. I love films and I love music.

If I was presented with six or seven hours in the day, then a lot more exercise, a lot more cycling, a lot more golf. I'd love to learn to play the guitar. I've got five guitars at home and I can't play them. 

What is the last photo you took on your phone (at time of interview)?

Robert Ffitch Instagram

That would have been when we [Robert’s family] went out for a dinner and we sent the photo to my kid sister who's at university. I love photography. I take a lot of photos and I do a video every year, which summarises the year we had, to play on Christmas Day. I've done that for 10 years. I spend months doing it and supplying all the right footage to the right music, which is good fun. 

What’s your guilty pleasure?

The Walking Dead. It's absolutely fantastic. It's about human survival ultimately – it's not about zombies. It's about communities being built and their relationships. It's good humans versus bad humans and who wins out and the battles and conflicts that they have. There are probably six or seven famous English actors in it and they all play baddies pretty much. Chelsea Football Club is my biggest pleasure, but I don't feel guilty about it. 

Whose phone number do you wish you had?

Angus Young, the guitarist of AC/DC. I'd just like to meet him. He's the most amazing guitarist and I would love to talk to him about how he feels when he's doing all that stuff and what motivates him and if he could then teach me to be a guitarist.

What's the worst piece of advice you've ever been given?

I haven't ever been given any bad personal advice and I certainly can't think of any bad professional advice that I’ve been given. Some people said don't go to The Telegraph, but it wouldn't have been bad advice, because I'm glad I did it. 

The best piece of advice I was given was how you show up at work is really important, and not my cardigan-wearing physical side of things, but body language and personality if you're a leader of a business is really important – how you show up literally in the office, how you present yourself and your mood and mode of operation. 

What/where is your happy place?

Going to Chelsea Football Club, which I've been going to for 48 years, is a very happy place for me. It's a routine I have every other weekend. 

I don't always feel happy when I'm there, but it makes me feel very content. Also, just being with the family of five, sitting around the table. They're all older now, so eating and drinking, and just going, "This is cool." 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I have sung opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

What would be in your Room 101?

I hate wasps with a passion, so bees, wasps, any buzzing things. I don't like heights. I go skiing every year, which is more of an ordeal than a great experience. I hate bad manners. Being polite and having good manners is very important, and sadly in the UK – a society that used to be known for having very good manners – people aren't respectful enough of one another. 

Introvert or extrovert?

Introvert.

Optimist or pessimist?

Neither.

Film or television?

Film. My favourite is Gladiator

Sweet or savoury?

Probably sweet. I have real issues with chocolate, milk chocolate primarily. I've got some on my desk now.

Morning person or night owl?

Both.

Tea or coffee?

Coffee.

Emojis – cool or cringey? Which emoji do you use the most/is your favourite?  

Cool – I'm about to get my first Snapchat Bitmoji that my daughter's trying to do and download for me, so I think that will become my favourite. 

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