Profile: Simon Matthews, CEO, Fishburn Hedges

Technology, says Simon Matthews, is a tremendous help in retaining a healthy work/life balance. Despite being promoted from MD last week, Fishburn Hedges' CEO says he still makes an effort to be home in time to put his four-year-old son to bed twice a week, something only possible in the mobile comms age.

But doesn't an electronic umbilical cord to one's desk undermine attempts to escape work? ‘Not if you know where the "off" button is,' he grins.

The 40-year-old Bristolian is polite and friendly. He answers questions carefully, sticking to the point, and occasionally takes a sip of water to collect his thoughts (the glass he drinks from is engraved ‘77', the Kingsway address of FH HQ and the name of its fledgling consumer arm).

Matthews is self-effacing, preferring to talk about the people around him and the agency he has worked for since its inception 15 years ago. When pressed, it emerges that when he took a graduate trainee position with Valin Pollen in 1988 (his degree is in European business administration from business schools in Reims and Middlesex), he was ‘not entirely clear what PR was'. Three years later, when colleagues Neil Hedges and Dale Fishburn decided to set up a PR agency, Matthews went with them.

From being FH's first consultant, he rose through the ranks to become assistant MD in 1999, and MD four years later (anticipating questions about his career, he whips out a meticulously handwritten crib sheet of job titles and dates). Now he is charged with running the 125-strong agency. FH is, Matthews admits, ‘difficult to pigeon-hole', but he is keen for it to continue competing against full-service agencies and specialists – ‘facing the market in many ways', as he puts it. ‘We must ask "How do we evolve the brand as the market evolves? What will clients be demanding in the future?".'

One of those demands is integrated marcoms. FH is owned by UK advertising outfit Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO – itself part of Omnicom – and Matthews says clients are increasingly looking for genuinely integrated working rather than ‘just PR with bolt-ons. This is becoming mandatory for some clients, and will increase over the next two to three years', he predicts.

Will all this leave him any time for client work, something he clearly loves? All the senior practitioners at FH spend around 60 per cent of their time on client work, he asserts, and that is not going to change. ‘We're all practitioners and lose that at our peril,' he says firmly, confirming Neil Hedges' description of Matthews as a ‘great exemplar of the way we work'. ‘He keeps a careful balance between management and servicing clients. There aren't many people at his level who can claim that,' says Hedges.

Indeed, it turns out that ‘protecting what is special about FH' is also one of Matthews' priorities. ‘From the beginning, the emphasis has been on treating clients well, and staff like adults,' he says.

You would expect someone who had spent 15 years at one agency to extol the virtues of the way it treats staff,
but FH is renowned throughout the industry for employee retention. Matthews repeats a statistic he rolled out to the latest batch of hopefuls on FH's graduate scheme: 25 per cent of the agency's fee-earners come from that very programme.

Ex-Seventy Seven MD Matt Wood describes Matthews as a ‘good operator', adding: ‘He never seems stressed and is a calming influence.'

‘Perception is everything,' Matthews says wryly when Wood's view is put to him, but it is evident he is pleased with this assessment, if too modest to admit it. His modesty is betrayed again in a later revelation by Hedges. Matthews describes his interest in sport as ‘strictly spectator', yet only last week we discover he scored the winning goal against BT for the FH football team.

Later this summer, there will be a staff away-day. Matthews says it will provide an opportunity to gather everyone together and elicit their views. For now, though, it is a busy afternoon and Matthews suddenly has an agency to run.

 

CV

2006 Chief executive, FH

2003 Managing director, FH1988 Graduate trainee, Valin Pollen

1999 Assistant MD and head of client services, FH

1991 Joins Fishburn Hedges as its first account executive

1988 Graduate trainee, Valin Pollen

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