Alumni interview: Jonathan Phillips (BSc 1994), Head of Consulting at Simply Communicate

 Jonathan graduated from Bristol with a degree in Geology and is now a digital strategy consultant, focusing on communication, collaboration and digital workplace technologies. With 25 years’ blue-chip experience, he is a regular keynote speaker, contributor to the digital community and a recognised global expert. He is also Chair of the Alumni Association Committee at the University of Bristol.

What initially made you want to attend the University of Bristol?
I actually had five offers from different universities and I chose Bristol because I just loved the city. I arrived for my open day on a cold, crisp, sunny October day. I remember looking up at the Wills Memorial Building and just thinking ‘Oh. My. Word.’ Coming from a comprehensive school in Hertfordshire I was overwhelmed by the building and the city. On the day, I met some very great, very kind academics. Despite wanting to study it at degree level I had no background in Geology and they took a real leap of faith in me, which I appreciated. My grandmother was born in Bristol in 1922 and left when she was 20, but she always spoke so fondly of the city, so I felt some sense of returning by coming to university here. It didn’t hurt either that the music scene in Bristol in the 90s was amazing.

What kind of student were you?
I would say that I was academically reasonably strong; intelligent but lazy. And I was suddenly surrounded by brilliant minds and sharp intellect. I realised it had been a bit effortless up to then. So I became much more hardworking. I started my second year determined to be more engaged with things. I got involved in writing for Epitome magazine at the Students’ Union, which was a guide to what was on in Bristol. I then got engaged with student politics and became a Communications Officer, and a year later, General Secretary of the Students’ Union, a sabbatical officer role. I was in charge of all communications, newsletters and so on, as well as all the commercial entities like the shops and cafés. It was a very big and challenging role for a 22-year-old. But I just thought you have to grab opportunities where you can, they’re not gifted to you.

What is your fondest memory from your time at Bristol?
I get quite nostalgic for a certain smell – the combination of the cleaning products at Churchill Hall and the fresh wind on a wet day over the Downs! But really, getting elected and serving as a sabb officer was a special highlight. I’m still friends with all the other five officers who were elected alongside me.

How did studying at the University help you in your career?
Well, you might indeed wonder what Geology has to do with working in Global Digital Communications! Running a consulting business helping organisations with digital workplace and digital communication challenges feels like a world away from my degree. But there are traces of the DNA in what I do. With Earth Sciences, it’s all about discovery: intelligently assembling the evidence to identify a rock history, and with my work now, we do the same – data-led research to help customers. Geology is a lot like detective work. You’re out there seeking bits of evidence to create a hypothesis. I still do this discovery, but these days it’s looking for evidence so I can assemble a story. I’m just dealing with different raw materials. So I think Bristol helped me professionally by giving me the tools for my work but it also helped me with so many wonderful opportunities, particularly at the Students’ Union. My time at Bristol gave me the chance to discover who I am, what I enjoy doing, and what I’m good at. It was an amazing experience.

What’s been the proudest moment of your career to date?
I had many highlights during my corporate career at Coca-Cola, including working on the Olympics, but my proudest moment was undoubtedly setting up my own business and getting my first metaphoric cheque. I love the flexibility, freedom and fear that comes with running your own company.

What is the best career advice that you have ever been given?
Choose a line manager, not a job. Those great people will coach you, teach you, champion you. If you’re a fresh graduate you can easily be beguiled by an offer – the job description, the salary, travel perhaps. But I would personally choose a good line manager over a good job. I would also say ‘never stop learning’. Even in a bad job or a bad situation you can read, watch webinars, update your skills, learn from your – or others’ – mistakes.

How did you make the move from Geology to Digital Communications?
I was actually sponsored by a geophysical company throughout university and I could have moved straight into industry. But for me the jobs in the geological profession didn’t really appeal. My year as a sabb officer taught me what I was more interested in. On leaving university I worked for Aldi for a couple of years on a graduate scheme. From there I went to work in sales for Coca-Cola. Learning how to sell professionally was invaluable, especially for communications skills. At Coca-Cola I figured out a way to efficiently print out all our sales leads, instead of the team having to read a screen and make notes on paper, and this got me noticed. I became known as someone who ‘knew digital’. From there I began to work in Digital Sales, and then on the Intranet. I much preferred Digital Communications and so that’s what I specialised in. I became Head of Digital Communication in Europe and eventually I started my own company.

Do you have a favourite rock?
I actually have two! One is a fossil with a whelk shell which I found in the back garden when I was only about three years’ old. The other is a piece of Iona marble, which is very rare and is only found on the island. But it’s close to Mull where my grandmother was from, so I feel it’s part of my heritage.

You chair Bristol’s Alumni Association. How did that come about?
I always remained very close to the University of Bristol. I’m so grateful for the opportunities it’s given me that I wanted to give back and it’s an honour to serve. I was Chair of the Students’ Union and a member of court for a decade, so I knew about the Alumni Association. I was very interested in the new position as Chair of the Alumni Association so I asked if the university would be supportive of my application. My nomination was put forward and I was subsequently elected. Luckily I didn’t have to sing a song or tell a joke, unlike when I was elected a sabb officer! The chair is a role that’s very close to my heart and a real opportunity to make a difference. We have over 160,000 alumni, the size of a small town. It’s fantastic to be able to work with these people and have them be proud members of our community.

What does being Chair involve and what do you and the Committee hope to achieve together?
This is a really important time for the Alumni Association. In the last few years, there has been substantial and vital change to the university governance including a re-imagining of the Alumni Association from what was, Convocation. So we have a dual challenge: how can the Alumni Association assist the University in meeting its challenges, including student recruitment and student employability and, flipside, how can the Committee and University better serve our 160,000 alumni, globally. That’s really exciting. This is a really important time for the Committee, with our change in governance. It’s time for a clean slate. We have an opportunity to retain our heritage and goodwill but also an opportunity to look at things afresh. We’re looking at how we can help the University with its objectives and how our alumni can assist in this. We’re also looking at how the Committee in turn can serve our alumni. We’re in the process of analysing just who our alumni are, where they live and what they do so that we can give alumni what they need and want. Our new committee is much more diverse and more representative of who our alumni are. We currently have a cohort of energetic, brilliant and international people on the committee, who are reflective of our alumni.

How has COVID-19 impacted the work of the Committee this year?
We have of course had to be imaginative given the pandemic. We have switched to all digital meetings and events, and because our committee and community is global, I think this has worked really well. We are continuing to engage with our alumni. We had our Alumni Forum planned, which was a core in-person event. While we reconfigured, we began to get involved in the new digital events programme, run by the Events Team in the Development and Alumni Relations Office, and this has been a brilliant success. We have seen a growth in reach and global attendee numbers continue to rise. Our committee members have been part of many of those events, whether speaking, hosting or attending. They have been a great opportunity for outreach and engagement.

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