After conducting countless interviews in his distinguished journalistic career, recent FD recruit John Waples is finding it strange to be answering, not asking, the questions. 'I've never been interviewed before,' he admits. 'But you can't tell your clients to be open and do interviews without doing it yourself.'
Despite being out of his comfort zone, Waples, 49, is in no mood for mincing his words and comes across as every inch the heavy-hitter brought in by FD from The Sunday Times, to much fanfare, in February.
Some senior media figures have found their stay in PR a disappointingly brief one, but Waples has no doubts that he has made the right career move. 'You get a sense in newspapers that you're working for an industry in decline,' he says. 'PR is a growth industry, so why spend the last ten to 15 years of your career managing decline when you could be managing growth?'
But that is not to say Waples' affection for his previous profession has faded. He says the moment he first walked into a newsroom he knew what he wanted to do and speaks with genuine enthusiasm about the 'phenomenal fun' he had in his 15-plus years on The Sunday Times.
It is soon apparent why Waples forged such a successful career on the nationals - extremely sharp and insightful, he is also witty and charming. He has not always been universally loved, though. With a dry, self-deprecating humour, he tells a story of Nils Pratley, then editor of the Sunday Business, excitedly emailing staff to tell them he had hired Waples, only to follow it up the next day after Waples changed his mind with an email reading: 'Just to let you know, we're not hiring John Waples. John Waples is a c***.'
Waples says the pair have no animosity now. Although clearly ambitious, he has climbed the ladder without stepping on too many fingers along the way and retains many mates on Fleet Street.
His move was perhaps not a shock of seismic proportions after being at the helm of The Sunday Times business desk for more than five years. But his departure was seen as further evidence of traditional media struggling to hold on to senior talent.
Waples is candid about one key reason: 'It is fundamentally wrong that there is now such a massive gulf in pay as a senior journalist, and what you get in this game,' he says.
But the appeal is wider than that. Waples has a voracious appetite for business - theatre played out at 'high-octane level' - and relishes the challenge of adding value from 'inside the tent', as he puts it. Dominic O'Connell, now business editor of The Sunday Times, says of Waples: 'He has the personality and intelligence to win over chief executives, many of whom he knows already from his time here, and he understands that success as a journalist is no guarantee of success in public relations.'
FD has long been one of London's leading City shops and bringing in Waples was widely seen as a sign that the agency wanted a respected and recognisable face to help it better compete with Finsbury's Roland Rudd and Brunswick's Alan Parker for top-level FTSE 100 firms. Waples talks of his 'immense respect' for those rival agency bosses, but says he only seriously held discussions with FD: 'I wanted to go to a firm where there was room to grow as an individual. FD is full of very good individuals but not dominated by one.'
Waples argues that the way to win business is much like getting stories - by going out, meeting people and making contacts. 'You've got to work bloody hard here, just as journalists do,' he notes.
But he equally appreciates having his weekends back for the first time in 16 years. 'I ran out of people to play golf with on Mondays,' he muses. He is relishing the chance to spend weekends with his teenage sons (although one is off travelling) and freelance journalist wife.
Nonetheless, there is also an obvious burning ambition to prove his worth in his new job, company and profession.
John Jay, business development partner at Brompton Asset Management and former managing editor of business news at The Sunday Times, says: 'John cares about the importance of long-term relationships and building real trust with key contacts, which adds up to him having great potential to be a valuable adviser to company chief executives and chairmen.'
Waples has already been instrumental in winning FD business with Virgin Money and Saga, but leaves little doubt over how he will be judged, and indeed judge himself. 'What this business is all about is execution,' he says. 'It's fine grandstanding and talking about what you're going to do, but the test is in a year's time to see how good the delivery was.'
JOHN WAPLES' TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
Being employed by Jeff Randall on The Sunday Times. I had a stinking cold and we met in the bar of the Howard Hotel. I knocked back a couple of Bloody Marys and Jeff was good enough to give me a go. Getting on to a national newspaper was the best thing that happened to me.
- Did you have a notable mentor?
I had no mentors, but Ivan Fallon, who was business editor, Jeff Randall, John Jay and Will Lewis were all at the top of their game and I learned so much from them.
- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Keep your head down, work hard and things usually happen around you. I stayed on local newspapers until I was 28 and did not leave trade press until I was 33, when loads of people in Fleet Street were finishing their careers. If you really want something, you can get it. Don't give up.
- What qualities do you prize in a new recruit?
Recruiting is difficult. It is a real lucky dip process, relying on recommendation and instinct - it can go right or wrong and is a real challenge for anybody.
2010: MD, FD
2005: Business editor, The Sunday Times
2000: Deputy business editor, The Sunday Times
1998: Deputy City editor, The Sunday Times
1994: Business reporter, The Sunday Times
1988: Reporter, Estates Times
1983: Reporter, Bishop's Stortford and Harlow Gazette