Interview: Julia Hobsbawm

She's the fixer who gave up her top-flight PR career to create a unique way for professional people to communicate


By Lynne Franks, February 9, 2012
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Julia Hobsbawm: "I fell in love with PR"

Julia Hobsbawm: "I fell in love with PR"

Lynne Franks: Tell me about your background.
Julia Hobsbawm: My mother was a refugee from Vienna and came to the UK just after the Anschluss in 1938, to Manchester, and spent the first three years here trying to get as many relatives out as possible. My father [the historian Eric Hobsbawm] was originally from Berlin. He was a lot older - he is 94 now - and he was already in the UK.

LF: Your parents chose to bring you up in a secular way, didn't they?

JH: There are some Jews who go for assimilation as an unconscious form of survival, and perhaps there are others who go for a more deliberate form of keeping the faith. I think every family that came from that generation and that part of the world has reacted in a way which is to do with survival. My family's way was to effectively put it behind them.

LF: But they were not in denial about being Jewish?

JH: No, never in denial. My father always says that his mother always said to him: "Never deny that you are Jewish". My husband Alaric and I feel that the politics of Israel have stood in the way of us being more outwardly observant as Jews. But now we have reached a point where we feel compelled to sort of own our view of Jewishness more. Maybe it is an age thing - I am 47. It feels suddenly very important to me to do a lot of the social practices of being Jewish, to have the Shabbat supper, to prioritise my family above all else, all that sort of stuff which I never really related to.

LF: Part of that is having a role in the community.

JH: Yes, I do identify now with the community. I was a founder trustee of the Jewish Community Centre for London. Julia Neuberger asked me to do that. I came off it because I felt embarrassed that I didn't know one end of a menorah from another. But I went to the stone-laying for the JCC's new building a couple of months ago at Finchley Road and saw Trevor Chinn and people like that who had been so involved, and marvellous Vivian Duffield, and I felt moved and proud. I think it is going to be a really special place.

Snapshot

Born: 1964. Parents: Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and music teacher Marlene Schwarz, a refugee from the Nazis.
Career: Worked extensively in PR and in TV before founding "ethical PR" agency Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications with Sarah Brown. Now runs her own media networking company, Editorial Intelligence. She is honorary visiting professor in networking at the Cass Business School.
Family: Married to antiquarian bookseller Alaric, with whom she has three children, Wolfie, Anoushka and Roman.

LF: So this is what you call the "Jewishly" part of your life?

JH: I think living Jewishly is to be reasonably intense. I don't know many Jews who aren't full on and intense intellectually or emotionally or creatively or entrepreneurially.

I think it is almost a matter of taste. You like strong tastes and I have begun to accept that and almost enjoy that about myself. I think the stuff that I am doing with my networking business is actually quite Jewish. It is about giving people a welcoming, familiar place that nevertheless takes itself quite seriously. We are not afraid to discuss big ideas. We are not afraid to have arguments. We are not afraid to have disagreements.

It is not a light thing. I suppose I am influenced by having grown up in a very rich Jewish intellectual environment. I do want to share that.

LF: Tell me about your early life. Where did you go to school?

JH: I went to Camden School for Girls where I wasn't very happy. I find all-female environments can be pretty competitive. It's great to celebrate women's solidarity but not when women are not showing solidarity to each other. Camden is like a finishing school for the chattering classes, always was, always will be. I never really felt comfortable there.

LF: Did you go to university?

JH: Actually, I dropped right out which is quite funny now I have got these kind of academic roles. I think my father's abilities cast a set of expectations on me that I never was going to deliver and a lot of my teachers were very evidently disappointed. I remember my history teacher practically weeping with relief when I managed to get a B in my O Level so she could face my dad.

LF: So you dropped out at 16?

JH: No. I did do A Levels but I only ended up with two because I did appallingly. I had wanted to go to Sussex University to read English but I didn't get the grades, so I went to the Polytechnic of Central London which in those days was very sniffed at. It is now the University of Westminster. I think it made my parents pretty anxious actually that I had just not succeeded. But I knew that I didn't really want to be there - I wanted to start working.

LF: So what did you do?

JH: I answered an advert in the Ham & High before I graduated, and got a job as a secretary in a publishing firm. Practically the week I started the must-have thing was a Filofax. About a month later, the fax came in. That was the technology. I always say my career has spanned telex to Twitter. Ruth and Martin Dunnett, who are observant Jews, ran the firm - it was called Martin Dunnett Publishers. They were medical publishers and they did a lot of consumer books at that time, too. They had an office in Camden High Street and one day I overheard Ruth on the phone to the women's editor of the Daily Express pitching a book. It was like falling in love. My spine tingled. I just thought that was really riveting to me. That began probably a 15-year love affair with publicity.

LF: Is the love affair still going on?

JH: No. It stopped when I started to get an inkling of the networking and ideas business that I now run. But, for a good 15 years, the workings of the media, getting things into the media, forming relationships with journalists, understanding what worked was my oxygen. I just loved it. So I ended up doing publicity for this firm and then I got offered a job at Penguin. I remember I used to have an expense account to take authors out to posh restaurants like La Familia. I was 22. It was great. Then I was headhunted to go to Virago to head up their PR department. I looked after Maya Angelou and went on tour with her - and hung out with her and Oprah Winfrey. It was the most wonderful experience of my life. But I always felt publicity was quite finite. In book publicity in those days, you were always the publicity girl, never a publicity woman. So I moved on into television. I became a researcher on a programme called Books by my Bedside which the late, great Josephine Hart presented. It was made famous because we did the last TV programme with Salman Rushdie the day before the fatwa. I then went to work as a researcher for Terry Wogan, who I got on well with.

LF: You have worked with very successful and prominent people throughout your career.

JH: Yes, and you take inspiration where you find it and, if you happen to find it every day, lucky you. The last job I did in television was working for BSkyB just when Rupert Murdoch acquired it. I booked Ken Follett, the author, for a programme. He was passionate about the Labour Party. In those days, I found the whole "Red Rose" thing very alluring and was still caught up in the leftie politics I had absorbed from my parents. I was far too young to think my own politics through, so I was pretty obviously an unthinkingly Labour supporter. I am not sure today if I really ever have been Labour.

LF: Would you ever have been a Conservative?

JH: I don't know. I think people are so politically plural, which is why I think the Coalition actually works. There are bits of me that are politically Tory but there are still bits that are fantastically leftie and liberal. It is very unmodern to have to put a single cross in a single box on a single day. I think political leadership would be much more admired if a new model were developed.

Anyway, Ken Follett suggested I became involved with the Labour Party. I said that I would help and he got me together with the late Mo Mowlam and her late husband John Norton. Between us, we ran this fundraising thing called The Thousand Club, and then I involved my old business partner, Sarah Brown, who was running a design firm which created absolutely stunning marketing for the club's gala dinners. At the time it became clear that… I am a matchmaker and she and Gordon were clearly, shall we say, compatible.

LF: Did you put them together?

JH: I certainly played a role. I encouraged. So, through Ken Follett, I became involved with the Labour Party which in the early '90s was full of real hope and optimism. And as you know, fate always plays a role and I then met the party's adviser, the late Philip Gould. He was talking all about the American Democrats and at the time I had an American boyfriend and I was going over to New York and I said: "Will you introduce me to the Democratic fundraising people so that I can bring this back to the Labour Party?" Philip opened his address book, so that gave me the wherewithal to construct the fundraising gala dinners. It wasn't really a new idea but I think I am a fixer by nature and you learn in business that it is about delivery. I thought: "I am going to make this happen". So Ken Follett underwrote the dinners. The American fundraisers gave me the model for them. Sarah's company did exquisite design which made the invitations look appetising enough for people to want to spend £500, which was incredibly important. The combination of the committee and the chutzpah of doing it… we did them at the Park Lane Hotel, for God's sake.

LF: I remember them well, and went to the one when John Smith gave his big speech, the night before he died.

JH: Putting on these big fundraisers gave me my first taste for events and for putting lists of contacts together, because I basically hand-compiled a database over six months by going and making a nuisance of myself in the offices and the homes of the Labour hierarchy in saying "I want you to download your contacts now".

I would stay up until one in the morning putting them on an old Amstrad in my flat. A lot of people said that kind of fundraising couldn't be done, and I remember thinking, well, if you are squeamish about money it can't be done. But I have never been squeamish about money. I love business. I love selling. If people believe in something enough and it has enough quality, they will pay for it, and they did.

So the bottom line of it is, after those gala dinners, after John Smith's death, we were by then running our own little PR agency.

LF: And you worked for Vanity Fair magazine, too?

JH: Yes. We did Vanity Fair and other projects. We became famous for doing the very sexy and the very worthy. We launched Wallpaper magazine, Prospect magazine… It was a very enjoyable time, but when I look back on it I realise there was an incompatibility in a PR agency that got too closely involved in politics. You know, business is not politics. Politics is not business. So I think it was inevitable that that business was not going to last.

LF: And at about the same time you started having children as well.

JH: In 1997, the week of the election, I got back together with Alaric who was sort of my big love. We had broken up for 10 years and then we got back together again. He had two small children so I became a stepmother first, which was wonderful. They were four and seven. Then I had our first child in 1998. Being a publicist on call all the time was not compatible with wanting to be a good mother and a good stepmother. Then I had this idea, this sort of mad idea to set up a networking business. So in the early 2000s I began piloting Editorial Intelligence.

LF: I remember getting the first pamphlet and not quite understanding what it was.

JH: I made my mistakes. I didn't know what it was really. I had an idea and it was very unformed, but it was an idea around putting people such as journalists together and putting ideas together. I felt traditional journalism was ending. Journalists were turning into writers. They were turning into chairers of events. They were turning into experts. It was an idea to give them a bit of a platform, as well as people in all sorts of other industries. We were a bit ahead of our time and I massively bungled our own PR. It took about three or four years to get a business model that worked. But I didn't want to give it up and in fact I became very ill. A few years in, I got pneumonia and septicaemia one summer. It is that old adage about what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I came out of that illness thinking I have a choice - I can give all this up or I can go on with it. I am obviously really glad that I persevered.

LF: And how would you describe it now, because it is doing very well?

JH: Basically, we are a membership and a sponsorship business. Brands come to us because they need to be actively involved in a conversation with people who support them and people who are anti them. So, for example, we run the UK Comment Awards and Barclays and Vodafone, Jaguar and Land Rover are sponsors. But our business is also for individuals, and our market is the professional urban worker who understands that the information age is making them very isolated and very vulnerable.

They can't keep up with information and there is a loneliness now about the world in which social media is not as intimate as eye-contact. And there is a market for intimacy, for intimate, "curated" connections. I have always said that we are retailing information but all good retailers are actually very intimate. The way you have a relationship with any product that you consume is because you feel the retailer knows you.

LF: So, it is like a club?

JH: Yes, we call it a club. We do these standalone events, like the Names Not Numbers symposium, with guests like Tracey Emin, Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust, and Jon Snow. It is a pretty eclectic mix of people. Harvey Goldsmith has joined us. We have piloted the club in India and America. The idea is that, if you are a professional in really any industry, office-based, and you are starting to travel for your business, we will be able to matchmake you with connections and ideas in those countries - that is basically what Editorial Intelligence is.

LF: The only similar idea that comes to mind, although not the same business model, is the Huffington Post which has been a huge success in the US. Do you see yourself as the UK answer to Arianna Huffington in the way that she brings powerful people and information together?

JH: I think content is absolutely integral to what we do. I have taken with me elements of my publishing days, because we publish reports. We do a lot of hard copy. Elements of my TV days - because we have a channel called EITV and we interview people. Also elements, if you like, of my political days because we do a lot of contemporary crunchie issues. So from that point of view, content is everywhere.

I suppose what people like is content, contact and connection. Networking is no longer something seen as vulgar or unnecessary - it is central and essential. But people are very inhibited, particularly British people. Once we understood that there is a common issue of shyness in networking, we began to tailor the way we run our services to appreciate that even the most accomplished people feel intimidated unless you put them at their ease and create an environment in which they can be themselves. Then, if you get them to exchange ideas and information, like at the Names Not Numbers experience, something really wonderful happens.

LF: How do you see this business progressing?

JH: I feel that we have been on a long enough learning curve at Editorial Intelligence to be very "in the moment" now. We are the face-to-face future in a Facebook world. Obviously I am excited about the future for the business. But I am also minded about my future as a mother. I have still got young children. I am very interested in that whole question about work/life balance. So, networking, work/life balance, family - that's what it's all about.

Details of Editorial Intelligence's networking club and programme are at www.editorialintelligence.com. Julia Hobsbawm is appearing at Jewish Book Week on February 26 (www.jewishbookweek.com). Information on Lynne Franks's empowerment workshops for women is at www.lynnefranks.com/www.seednetwork.com

Last updated: 11:33am, February 9 2012