Frazzle’s big break

Exactly 30 years ago, in January 1988, I landed my first media job. It may not have been the most glamorous of magazine roles, but I was delighted. Based in central London, I was to be a trainee reporter on Convenience Store, ‘the fortnightly for neighbourhood retailers’.

Different times of course. Never mind email and the internet, we didn't even have computers then. I learnt how to trim galley copy, size up pics and comprehend the exotic dialect of Basildon-based typesetters. But most of my time was spent quizzing grocers on the phone or tip-tapping away on a manual typewriter. When each story was finished, I’d slam a carbon copy down on the sharp metal spike mounted on my desk. Health and safety hadn't really caught on then.

But if that sounds rather backwards, it didn’t feel like that at the time. The magazine publishing industry was far more confident and wealthy then – and my employers, William Reed Business Media, looked after this fresh-faced young tyro exceptionally well. As soon as I started, they paid for me to attend a foundation course at the London College of Printing. And after six months they gave me a company car and a Shell card, with the understanding that I could use the car for personal expeditions. Which I did. Anyone for Scotland this weekend?

Pints of Brakspear

Then there was press day, which came around every second Friday. With the job usually done by noon, the Editor Tony Hurren would take us to The George on Borough High Street and buy us congratulatory drinks. A wonderful manager, he would then return to the office to ‘man the fort’ while the rest of us would spend the afternoon scooping pints of Brakspear and having a thoroughly hilarious time, usually at my (well-deserved) expense.

Nicknamed ‘Frazzle’, I was very much the junior member of the team, fondly lampooned for my clumsy performances for the company football team (see above) and my doe-eyed infatuation with Karine, a punk-haired French barmaid with a haughty manner and a magnificently shaped nose, who worked in the nearby Southwark Tavern. My knees still quiver at her memory.

But besides all this frivolity, what really stuck in my head was the way the team nurtured me as a journalist. Tony, Deputy Editor Jac Roper and Production Manager Pat Morgan were incredibly patient and encouraging. Rapidly, they turned me from a helpless fop spouting university essay-style features into a capable writer who could be entrusted with interviewing some big names in the retail sector – Spar annual conference in Majorca here I come, oh yeah!

Will Self & Karine’s Nose

It was a warm, supportive and laughter-filled environment. The author Will Self worked in the room next door and allowed our bonhomie to crack his curmudgeonly facade from time to time. He even kindly bought a cassette of me singing and playing songs on my guitar. The self-penned collection was entitled ’Oops, My Leg Has Just Fallen Off’ (publicity shot featured above) and the stand-out track was called ‘Karine’s Nose’. It was pretty much as bad as you would expect.

My only regret from those days was that I didn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was to be there. I naively assumed that all magazines were run the same way. It was a delusion that would swiftly be crushed when, after a fantastic stint working as a journalist in Istanbul, I returned to London to join the now defunct Morgan-Grampian in Woolwich – a different kettle of fish. I missed the environment at William Reed, I missed the people and I felt bad about the way I had rushed off to Turkey a little ungratefully.

Conversation and laughter

As a result, the memories of Tony, Jac and Pat stuck with me when, 13 years later, I set up White Light with my business partner Alan Lennon. We both wanted to run White Light in the same kind of spirit. We wanted to encourage our staff, and build a positive environment that enabled talent to blossom and voices to be heard. We wanted them to create great work, not work crazy hours. Unlike some agencies I know, I also wanted conversation and laughter to punctuate the day, rather than a culture of ‘noses to the grindstone’. And most of all, I wanted to provide opportunities for young stars to develop their talent in the way that I had been able to at William Reed - even including whitewater rafting (see above).

Our first appointment was a design graduate called Scott Sharp. He turned up on his first day with a black eye and a tall story about walking into a door, but he was a really good guy, a great talent and he played a big part in the early years of our growth.

As we grew, we began providing students and graduates with internships - not of the ‘make the coffee and do some filing’ variety but proper, live work guided by one of the team. We’ve been doing it ever since and it hasn’t just been about altruism. We’ve found that having a steady stream of enthusiastic interns in the office is good for the atmosphere – and creates a valuable pipeline for discovering talent.

Stars of the future

Several interns proved so capable that I gave them full-time jobs. Nicola Sinclair worked for us for many years before taking a senior role with Channel 4; Espen Brunborg did the same and now owns the digital agency Primate, a frequent collaborator with White Light. And of the current team, Senior Editor Christina McPherson first came to us as an Edinburgh Napier student, and Editor Malcolm Triggs has gone from intern to Young Journalist of the Year (Scottish Magazine Awards 2017) in less than two years. There are many more White Light interns who have gone on to great things, and with whom we remain in touch.

As a result of all this, I get a little agitated when people in the industry who should know better fail to give media industry hopefuls a chance. 2018 may be the Year of Young People in Scotland but there has never been a more challenging time for school and college leavers (particularly from less privileged backgrounds) to get into a media industry rattled by economic pressures, transformations in technology, the curse of fake news and a flaky political environment from Moscow to Washington.

If I ever start to feel jaded, I just think back to 30 years ago. Karine and her nose might have got my head in my spin but it was nothing to the warm glow I experienced when Tony Hurren would stride out of his office with my copy in his hand shouting “Brilliant, Frazzle, brilliant.” We hope to keep giving people chances like that – for the Year of Young People and far beyond.