Fiona Thorne: Loving life at the coalface

The chief executive of Fishburn Hedges is never happier than when experiencing the adrenaline rush of pitching, finds John Owens.

Fiona Thorne: 'I still get butterflies before I pitch'
Fiona Thorne: 'I still get butterflies before I pitch'

There was a time when Fiona Thorne, who became Fishburn Hedges' chief executive in September, was only prevented from becoming a chalet girl through lack of qualifications.

A graduate fresh to the world of PR, she had changed job five times in two years, had seen colleagues made redundant and expected she would be joining their ranks.

'I remember at various times talking about what qualifications you needed to become a chalet girl in case I needed to occupy myself for a ski season, but I didn't have them,' she recalls.

However, the piste's loss has been Fishburn Hedges' gain - and sitting atop one of the UK's longest standing agencies is not a responsibility Thorne, 42, takes lightly.

'I'm thoroughly enjoying it, but it is a difficult environment out there. There's no room to get anything wrong. There's no margin for error,' she says.

Known as an agency that did well in the public sector, Fishburn felt the pain when swingeing government cuts led to the inevitable drop in clients during 2010.

Thorne, then managing director, asserts that government work accounted for 'less than half' of the agency's business at the time, but does not shy away from acknowledging fault.

'It was pretty tough. In retrospect, we didn't move quickly enough. We knew we needed to refocus on the private sector but we were not single-minded about doing that early enough,' she says.

Thorne combines the self-control and assurance of a senior PR professional with a warmth, honesty and frankness not always seen in those at the higher end of the industry.

Her apparent candour makes one more inclined to take her at her word when she says that another setback - the departure of managing partners James Gordon-MacIntosh, Jo Carr and Alan Twigg from Fishburn Hedges' consumer brand Seventy Seven PR last September - did not damage the agency as feared. 'If you'd said it was to happen, I would have thought "oh, crickey", but it has gone remarkably smoothly and having taken on James as a fresh-faced trainee, I'm actually quite proud of him,' she says.

While a teenager studying at Swansea University, Thorne wanted to get into the media world but felt she was not 'robust enough' to be a hard news journalist.

After sending dozens of applications for work experience in PR, it was during a stint at The Communication Group that she got hooked on 'the buzz' of the industry.

Having graduated and secured a job at an agency called Communications Solutions, she then went through two years of mergers and role changes that taught her little about PR but a lot about 'business survival', prompting her to consider a life on the slopes.

Eventually, the opportunity to head back to The Communication Group proved her making, including being part of a campaign involving a giant Sooty in a pink Cadillac outside Buckingham Palace.

Maureen Sutherland Smith, chairman of The Communication Group, recalls Thorne's time fondly, calling her 'one of the industry's lovely people'. She adds: 'Fiona was very bright and focused. She was a fast tracker and rose quickly, but she is also warm and combines that with a creative and engaging personality.'

After three-year stints at Communications Solutions and The Communication Group, Thorne moved to Fishburn Hedges.

She says the 'three-year itch' has stayed with her to this day, but that promotions and new challenges at Fishburn have so far soothed any desire to move on.

Her ambition and need to stand out may well come from being one of seven children. However, she adds that she 'tries to protect' weekends and holidays with her husband and has become a cooking connoisseur, as well as a voracious reader.

In her day job, Thorne deals with huge clients including Shell, and crisis comms situations such as Reader's Digest entering into administration.

Though enthusiastic when talking about strategy and solving problems, it becomes clear it is in high-pressure situations that she thrives most: 'I still get butterflies before I pitch, but I love the adrenaline rush, and that is why I'm an agency person through and through. The moment I'm in the room, I love it.'

Neil Hedges, co-founder and former chairman of Fishburn, says that she is 'in many ways more Fishburn Hedges than I am'. 'She is utterly client-focused but also cares hugely about the people in the company and helping to develop them. There are few people able to combine those two things,' he says.

Looking ahead, Thorne believes the process of working with a diverse array of stakeholders, which played an important part of the agency's public sector past, will play into the agency's hands for a future 'where boundaries are breaking down in the comms world'.

She dismisses the idea of setting up a 'digital specialist unit' as 'smacking of agencies setting up specialist dotcom units back in 1999 that had to disband'.

Instead, Thorne says she is working with the best team she has had at Fishburn, adding her focus is on 'combining intellectual rigour with cutting-edge thinking'.

As to her future? 'I am at the beginning of a three-year cycle and it doesn't get much better than this. I can't picture what is next but I suspect during the next three years I will come up with a cunning plan,' she says, laughing.

CV

2011 Chief executive, Fishburn Hedges
2006 Managing director, Fishburn Hedges
2001 Board director, Fishburn Hedges
1999 Associate director, Fishburn Hedges
1997 Consultant, Fishburn Hedges
1994 Account manager, rising to corporate divisional director, The Communication Group
1991 Account executive, rising to account manager, Communications Solutions

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Being hired by The Communication Group. It felt like my first 'real' PR job and it came about because of a combination of work experience and an ad in PRWeek.

Have you had a notable mentor?

There are two who stand out. Maureen Sutherland Smith, who demonstrated the perfect client service cocktail of empathy and charm, combined with steel and straight talking, and Sue Garrard, now global head of PR at Unilever. She taught me an approach to comms planning that is incisive and pragmatic at the same time.

What advice would you give to people moving up the career ladder?

Always be ambitious for yourself and the organisation you work for, but never at the expense of those around you.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Intellectual curiosity and a zest for our industry.

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