Under the Radar with Steve Fearn
The cycling enthusiast who manages brands such as BikeRadar and Mountain Biking UK talks the importance of keeping moving, secret Malaysian hideaways and line-managing the Honey Monster...
Ellie Austin scored a job at Immediate Media as a Features Writer for Radio Times after graduating from the Magazine Journalism MA course at City University. Here she talks about working in the fast-paced world of a major weekly magazine and the power of a good coffee.
What made you want to work in the magazine industry?
Well I used to be in the food industry, weirdly, I was working in FMCG on Ginsters pasties and then Sugar Puffs, of all places, and I've always been interested by content and media. I was a big cyclist recreationally beforehand and I kind of saw the opportunity to get involved in content and in cycling specifically, even though I only had marketing qualifications. It was a chance for me to work within two of my major passions. So, I came to it quite late, I've only been in the industry for two and a half years and I knew a bit about it beforehand but it was really the subject matter specifically that attracted me with the cycling side of it.
Can you chart your journey from when you started out to your current position?
I grew up in Cornwall and went to university in Wales, in Cardiff. I went to what was called UWIC at the time [now Cardiff Met] and then returned to Cornwall, did a year's traveling and eventually had to go and find some work. I was actually working in a warehouse, palletising pasties for a living and I was applying for a forklift driver job and hanging out at the Elliot building at the end of the interview, and I use the interview word very lightly, the guy said, "Oh by the way, have you got any qualifications?" and I said, "Yeah I've got a marketing degree."
He said, "Oh, there's a marketing assistant job just come up, I'll put you forward for it if you'd like, send me your CV by the end of the day." I said, "Okay, fine, I'll do that."
So, I became a Marketing Assistant and then Brand Activation Manager and then Brand Engagement Manager and I was there four years. I literally went from doing admin work for the team up to meeting with Tesco before I left, and then took that experience to become the Brand Marketing Manager of Halo Foods, or Honey Monster Foods.
My little claim to fame is that I line-managed the Honey Monster himself, because three days a week he moonlit as a Marketing Assistant himself. That was a good one for the CV!
I was there for two years, working out of Southall and Newport and Swindon. I was also working on The Dormen Nuts brand as well, which you might have seen in First Class on trains and in cereal bars.
I had all of the brand marketing responsibility for three or four different brands there and the company was moving up country, I didn't want to move with it and I'd had my fill of working with ... supermarkets are great and it’s good experience and so on but it can be quite a tough environment to try and negotiate. It was tricky, and I was falling out of love with the food industry somewhat and wanted to get into something which I felt was a more healthy topic in a number of ways, and cycling definitely fit that bill for me. We're based in Bristol and I love Bristol. I'm a big, big fan of the city and I’ve been here ever since. My role now is Marketing Manager for the sports team here.
Do you have a go-to work outfit?
Now, people who know me, know that I am…whatever the opposite of a fashionista is, that is what I am. So, I would say some sort of attempting to be cool extreme sports brand T-shirt. Right now, I'm sat in a Patagonia T-shirt, having never rock-climbed in my entire life. Black jeans are a staple and then trainers that are far too white for good. Also, flip-flops between May and September.
What do you turn to when you’re on deadline – tea/coffee/snacks?
I would say it's probably, because of my food industry background, I'd probably say I'd go down to the Traditional Cornish Bakehouse, and I would have the giant traditional pasty. That'd be my go-to to get through. It's a good source of your daily calories in one pastry parcel. I don't think I've ever ordered anything other than the giant. If you're going to go for it, you’ve got to go for it.
What’s the most unusual situation you’ve found yourself in because of your job?
I would say, because I work on partnerships and things, one of our partnerships is with Bike Park Wales and we go down there once a year for a sponsor’s day as part of it. I'm not mountain biker, I'm a good road cyclist, but I'm no mountain biker and because I work across MBUK and a few other brands as well, BikeRadar and so on, off-road is a part of the role and so I've had to pick up, with no experience, how to ride a pushbike off-road. This is normally alongside the likes of GoPro and Trek and people who are actually very good it. I found myself trying to keep pace with one of the chaps from GoPro and I think it was the moment that I was flying through the air without a bike below me that was once below me, heading off a jump on a red run that was far too big, towards the trees, that it dawned on me that I was perhaps, somewhat out of my comfort zone. I was longing for the boardroom of one of the supermarkets at that moment. I was okay, cut and bruised and pride damaged and bike damaged but, it's something I never thought I'd get paid to do and was thoroughly enjoying myself up until that moment, but I've been back since.
What would people be surprised to know about your job?
I don't know if it's particularly interesting, but I'd say just the sheer number of partnerships and of various sponsorships, not only that we get asked to do but also the amount we actually do. There's two of us in this team, myself and Miguel, a Brand Marketing Exec and between the two of us, we manage a phenomenal number of reciprocal partnerships. Historically, it's something when I’d worked in FMCG, we don't do. You pay for your advertising and it's all done on a monetary, transactional basis, whereas here, a lot of it is collective and reciprocal and contra-based stuff. I've never experienced it and it was totally unique to this industry as far as my experience goes, but it's a very collaborative industry, where people try and work together for the good of the sport I suppose. I don't think people would realise the amount of interconnectivity between everybody in the industry.
Again, I don't even know if it's unique to cycling, I've been chatting to some of the guys around the department, but I think it is something that's carried out across departments. In media, it seems to be a very caring, sharing, and let's grow the businesses together and work and use each other's respective sizes and audiences for the benefit of both of us. That's something that I don't think people would realise.
Walk me through your typical day.
I have to drive 30 miles down to Bristol, from where I live in Stroud. Because it's £35.00 a day to park where I work or outside in one of the main car parks, I park on the outskirts of Bristol, and I ride my bike in through the Bristol traffic.
I'll normally have, first thing, a big pot of water [to recover] from the cycle, and get changed, and normally put the things in the drying cupboard if it's rained on the way into work.
Then I'll open up my weekly report thing, which I do for myself. I'm quite an organised guy so I've got a planner, which I build out as I go throughout the week, and see what's the order for the day. I’ll clear any emails that come in overnight. I'm one of those zero inbox guys. I don't like to have any emails in my inbox at all. Everything's filed away quite neatly. I start myself with a clean slate, if you like, for the day and I'll have a very quick 10 minute catch up with the Brand Marketing Executive, about any pieces of information, because she works from home every afternoon, so we catch up in the morning about how the previous afternoon has gone, just very quickly.
Then it's a case of, it will often be brand planning meetings, it might be event planning sessions, it will be responding to day-to-day stuff; so it might be setting up various competition pages, maybe a more structured one-to-one to catch up with the MD, he works in London, so, if it's a mid-week day, then we'll have a catch up of where things are, and where we are against our strategy.
Then I'll always go out for lunch. I like to get fresh air for at least an hour a day, and just get some sunlight. We work in a big tower in the middle of Bristol, so it's necessary for me to go out. We've got a really good Kurdish wrap place around the corner, which I go to far too often. Then I’ll have a little walk around the park, perhaps even a cycle. I might go out for an hour cycle, just to check out the city, and get myself moving, and get myself all good for the wellness stuff. Then in the afternoon, it will normally be working through any emails that have come in, any immediate responses that need doing.
Then cycle back to the car, drive home, and spend time with my new-born son, Oscar, who was born last month. It's all hands on deck when we get home, and going through the changing, feeding, sleeping cycle that new-born parents know all too well.
How has being a member of the PPA helped you/added value to your brand?
Yeah, I think it has. Certainly the awards process that we go through, that's fantastic for exposure. When you're in this industry, it's highly competitive, as I'm sure you guys know. Having an award from the PPA gives a brand massive kudos. I think it's also really useful for us when we're networking. So, again at the awards ceremonies and that sort of thing, there's an opportunity to meet with the industry.
I think it's an industry which has a lot of lifers in it; people find this industry, love it and stick with it. It's almost a bit like a Friends Reunited. At some of the awards ceremonies sometimes, people have known each other for decades and it's been nice to get inducted into that world over the last couple of years. It's a great forum for sharing best practice. It really reflects the caring/sharing industry I think that we operate in. The PPA definitely helps facilitate that.
If you didn’t have to sleep, how would you use the remaining hours in the day?
I'm going to be very sad and say riding my bike. I'm a proper bike nerd. I did Land's End to John o’ Groats in September, which put strain on me in a number of ways. My son was obviously coming. I finished the ride two weeks before he was born, so my wife was cursing me. It meant doing 25 to 30 hours training a week for that on the bike, so eight/nine hours at a time perhaps. I just fell in love with it. And that's how I spend my time, when I can. Right now, obviously, it's an hour a week or two hours a week maximum, but I really love just getting out, and losing my head in the road. It's fantastic compartmentalisation time.
What is the last photo you took on your phone (at time of interview)? Why?
About two weeks ago, my mum came up from Cornwall. My wife had a caesarean section, so she's been incapacitated for the last six weeks. We had our first day out together at Westonbirt Arboretum. I'm not sure if you've heard of that, but it's up near me. It's a massive Arboretum, really famous. We took Oscar out in the pram, and it was our first family day out, as a family, literally. So there's some really nice photos of us walking around the autumn trees.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I'm quite a big gamer. I'm known for sitting up until very late at night, getting into some form of game. I've got a PlayStation 4, which my wife still calls me a child for owning. I'm a big, big car fan, so I'll often be up very late at night racing, what is probably an eight-year-old on the other end of the internet. I love sports games, and I love racing games, and I like Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo. I've not really ventured much beyond on that, I'm not like a shoot them up guy or anything like that. I played a little bit of Fortnite, because everyone has, right? That thing is just far too addictive for somebody like me. I think I got it, and I spent about 16 hours on it the first time I played it. I actually just put that away. Normally racing games and that sort of stuff, I'd say are probably my main vice.
Whose phone number do you wish you had?
I'd probably phone [Scottish Comedian and Writer] Frankie Boyle, I think. I'm quite a cynical person in many ways, so I quite like watching satirical programs. I feel like when I want to exercise my cynicism, I can't sum up the words that I want to use to effectively cut down whatever it is that I'm reading or viewing. I think if I was to ring him, he would have probably the perfect sentiment to describe my feelings, because we are quite aligned on the way we think about things. He's the world's greatest cynical poet that exists, in my opinion.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I had a boss years ago, and there was a lady [at work] who had just had a baby, and this guy was an absolute task master. He was just nose to the ground as standard and expected everyone else to be. He once said to me, "Make sure when you have kids, that you choose your work over your kids," and it's never left me, that sentiment. I actually finished working for him three months later. Not just solely because of that comment, but certainly that was a part of the character of who that person was and that was a terrible piece of advice. I think nothing trumps family. You work to feed your family, not the other way around. It should come first, your family, so it's definitely something I ignored wholeheartedly.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I was working at, as I said, Ginsters, and I'd only been there two weeks. I was working in the dispatch office and there was a guy who'd been there 15 years and he was a proper, broad, promethean kind of character who just was really, really straight down the line. We had ice and snow and stuff on the road, and there were lorries that weren't able to make deliveries. I was really panicking that we were falling behind schedule and stuff wasn't going to get delivered, and I'd only just started.
This guy came over and put his massive pasty hands, if you like, on my shoulder, and he said, "I'll give you one piece of advice, we're delivering pasties, not hearts." That's all he said. He didn't contextualise it or anything, and I didn't really get it at the time. I was just wanting him to go away. But whenever I've got stressed at work since, I've always thought of that line. No matter how important you may think it is in the moment, you're delivering pasties, not hearts. I've said it to people who've worked for me and it helps you remain grounded and helps you prevent having stress in your career.
I think he'd laugh if he knew I was telling you that, but 10 years ago, that meant so much to me, it's just what he thought, and it was a very clean way of describing how to manage stress and I've always loved it.
What/where is your happy place?
We [my wife and I] went to Malaysia. I've been to Malaysia three times and we went to this place, the Perhentian Islands. They're kind of North-East Malaysia and we went there for our honeymoon last year. It's a very, very quiet place. There are two islands. We went on the quieter of the two, and then there's this beach that you have to properly track through the jungle for an hour to get to. My wife was just cursing me like, "What are we doing?" We saw a snake. We hadn't slept for the last three nights. We were properly out of our comfort zone. I kept saying, "Look, it's going to be worth it. It's going to be worth it. I've looked on Google Earth. I know what I'm doing." And after an hour, we got to this place, and it was, in every way you can imagine, perfect. A kind of crescent moon shaped beach. Amazing, bright coral, around about 300 meters, in an arch. White sand. Palm trees. No boats. The view of just sea, and then obviously this kind of turquoise, midsummer 30°C kind of conditions. It was incredible, absolutely unbelievable. It hasn't even got a name, It's one of those places that you can see from Google Earth, but it's got no name so no-one really knows about it. Believe me, with the trek that you have to do to get there, it's worth it, but most people wouldn't necessarily think so. They wouldn't make that journey.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Surprised to know about me? I'm quite a big guy, so I'm like 110-odd kilos, something like that. Maybe 105 kilos. I don't think people would really think I would be doing Lands End to John o' Groats, for example, or that I used to swim for Team GB, as well. I don't look particularly like I have any athletic heritage, so that probably would be quite surprising. That's one that you'd have to see me to appreciate. I was young. I was only about 13, but it's not something you'd look at me and think, "Oh, he's definitely an athletic swimmer." You wouldn't at all.
I'm also very straight down the line. A little bit heart on my sleeve.
What would be in your Room 101?
Bad drivers, people who do not pay any attention on the road when they're driving two tons of metal down the road very fast.
Introvert or extrovert?
Optimist or pessimist?
Film or television? What are you binge-watching at the moment?
Yes. House of Cards has picked back up, so I'm back on that now.
Sweet or savoury?
Morning person or night owl?
Tea or coffee?
Emojis – cool or cringey? Which emoji do you use the most?
The aubergine. I tell you a fun little game. If you go to a friend's phone and look at their recently used emojis, it tells you so much about them.