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Interview—Robyn Holt
Written by Max Olijnyk — 12th November 2015
RobynHolt

Robyn at The Good Copy, flicking through a copy of Filmme Fatales issue 6, no less. Photo by Max.

Robyn Holt is amazing. A quick rundown: She lived in Russia for 10 years and launched a bunch of magazines for the worldwide media juggernaut Condé Nast, including Vogue Russia, which became the top magazine in the country. She helped start the global media brand Monocle, of which she became the CEO, and she was editor-in-chief for Vogue Living Australia. She wrote a children’s book, she’s on the board for all kinds of impressive things and she’s a prolific business management guru at Megan Morton’s The School in Sydney.

It was in this latter guise that we met, when Robyn spent a day at The Good Copy holding a hype-up session for small businesses. I was the AV guy, humbly clicking through slides and such, but I got swept up in the whole thing and ended up joining in on the group exercises and making a presentation of what I would like to do with my life. Robyn was great—so funny and sure of herself. After the session she came up to me and looked into my soul. ‘You have to get your shit together,’ she said, and I nearly started crying.

‘She’s like your Oprah,’ said Sinead, when I recounted my experience. ‘She is!’ I said. Recently, she was nice enough to talk to me on the phone for a while. Have a read of it.

Did you enjoy your trip to Melbourne?
Of course I did, I loved it. I loved discovering that particular area of Collingwood that you’re in.

Do you do these flying visits a lot?
I’m in Melbourne every couple of months, and I regularly visit Brisbane, sometimes Adelaide and Perth. There are always lots of new restaurants and pop-up bars, all this new stuff happening. It keeps me in tune with all the differences and sameness between cities.

Is it important for you to be on top of what’s happening in all these cities?
Brands are global nowadays—they start in your laptop, but what’s particularly interesting to me is someone saying, ‘In Collingwood, this is happening,’ and then you can look at a similar thing happening in other cities, and then it’s a trend. It helps me as a mentor to colour the picture a bit wider, brighter and further for the person who’s contemplating what they’re doing.

You put things in focus for people, don’t you?
It’s all about clarity. It always is, no matter if it’s a product or a service, or your own personal focus on what you’re doing. Either way, you need to step back from it. The classes are three hours out of your life to sit down and think about your idea and think about if it’s worth developing, or is it a hobby and a sheer distraction? The five principles I talk about are so easy; they can be used for anything in life. Is it different enough? Have I collaborated? Does it have enough innovation around it? Can I bring the customer in on what I’m offering, and how do I keep it going? How do I feed it?

It’s very powerful stuff. I don’t know if you remember my personal presentation.
I do.

I just think I’ve had hobbies for my whole life, and I’ve waited for them to take root and become successful businesses. I can see it’s a matter of stepping back, but it’s so hard to step back because I’m so involved.
That’s what the three hours are about: stepping away from the desk and looking back or listening to what someone else says is happening at your desk.

I’m pretty sure that it helped.
I’m sure it did, simply because you got up and shared it with us. That in itself will help clarify what you’re doing and where you’re going.

Yes, well, I feel like a lot of my output is just expressing confusion in a charming way.
Maybe that’s your niche: a plaiting of confusion.

What do you get the most satisfaction from in your life?
I think I’m at an age and stage of my life where I get satisfaction out of most things that I do. Having spent nearly 20 years being a CEO, where there are days when you don’t get satisfaction from what you do, now I have a choice. I teach for Megan at The School, which I absolutely love. I work very closely with Cameron Kimber, which I absolutely love. I’m on the board at the University of New South Wales working in their Art and Design area, which I absolutely love. There’s different stimulus and I feel I’m adding value through every process.

Do you think what you enjoy doing and what you can contribute to have changed over the years?
Oh, absolutely. The digital world has consumed us over the past 20 or so years. Everything has changed dramatically; therefore what you can add to becomes slightly different. But nothing beats having done things, whatever it is. Things are cyclical; I remember when this and that happened, and I remember what the shortfalls were and they’re always going to be the same. There have been a lot of crises, and you can reflect on what happened when we came out with a certain mentality. We all go into shock, we start to think the world’s coming to an end, and then slowly we come out of it. Now we’ve gone into this thing where we’re so exposed via digital that we crave privacy, we crave our sanctuary to go back to. We’ve seen it a lot, from the mining boom collapses through to the Asian crisis through to currency crisis, through to the global financial crisis. Even though the circumstances are very different, my past experiences give me foresight.

Do you think the media is at a particularly interesting stage in how it interacts with people?
I think it’s undergone a massive revolution. When I belonged to the print media world it was at its height, and now people are still not sure how it’s been replaced. I heard a statistic that most major corporations are 80 per cent pulling out of print media, so that’s a lot of revenue to lose for the publications that are hanging in there. And what has replaced it is so vast and spread out that no one’s quite sure what traction that’s going to have for the future. It feels like everything’s in a constant flux, which can be when the best things happen. We digest things differently now; we have our phone, we have our laptop, everything is done via apps. The acceleration is really interesting, but I’m more interested in what happens to people’s lives around that, because they’re on 24/7. So what happens when someone hits 40, 50 or 60? Are they absolutely on their knees with exhaustion and do not want to pick up any form of communication whatsoever? I don’t know. I find how we deal with it fascinating.

It seems that now more than ever, the loudest and most confident voices are the ones that are heeded, because no one knows what to do. So when someone says, ‘This is what you do!’ very clearly, we all think, ‘Thank god someone’s solved this puzzle.’
Well, they’ll go and have a look at what that person says, stick their toe in the water. Louis Vuitton or Chanel, those brands that are really trying to talk to their customers, they used to only be in print media but now it’s changed completely. We’ve got videos detailing creation of ranges, anybody can access their runway shows from their phones. So what makes them exclusive, what makes you pay a premium for their product? They’re the questions I find very interesting.

That perceived distance that was there has been lessened.
On my phone, I can feel like I’m sitting in the front row and being an exclusive customer, without actually purchasing anything.

Which is quite powerful, but potentially disastrous.
Exactly; the two sides of the coin.

One thing I noticed about you when you visited us: we were setting up and I asked if you needed some time to get ‘in the zone’, and you gave me a look and I realised you are always in the zone.
I don’t have to get in the zone because it’s not an act. I’ve replaced fear with curiosity; that’s my currency. I’m curious about people, places, what they do, how they do it, and I’m consumed by that.

Right. I need more curiosity.
You don’t need it. You are curious!

Am I? I just want you to solve all my problems and fix my life, basically. I guess you get that a lot.
I do, but I can only give you the tools to do it yourself, because it’ll always be broken if someone else tells you what to do. You have to work it out. I can give you tools and some extra encouragement, but basically if you don’t do it yourself, you’ll never grow or learn.

No shortcuts.
Nope, sorry. Hahaha!

Dammit. Thanks, Robyn.