Interview with Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips

Wednesday 22nd May 2019. An interview with Peter Phillips, President of the Publishers Association and Chief Executive of Cambridge University Press.

What do you hope to achieve as President?

In talking to a wide range of publishers about the Publishers Association before I took up my post, three priorities emerged consistently. People wanted us to emphasise: the scale of publishing’s contribution to the UK’s international trade (whatever happens with Brexit); the centrality of strong intellectual property rights to safeguard investment in great content; and the importance of publishing to learning in its broadest sense. My aim over the next year is to help the industry make progress on those three areas.

What was your route into publishing?

I came to publishing after spending the biggest single part of my career at the BBC, where I was involved in the launch of new digital services. When I was approached about working at Cambridge University Press, the thought of two Cambridge books I’d read excited me about the opportunity: G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology which I read avidly in the sixth form and encouraged me to study mathematics at university; and the wonderful Letters of Samuel Beckett which I was reading at the time I was contacted about the job.

What is your favourite piece of management/leadership advice?

Lots of people have given this advice in various ways but the oldest version is Aesop’s fable about the North Wind and the Sun: people are more likely to do things if it’s a positive choice of their own.

What accomplishments at CUP are you most proud of?

What’s happened at the Press over the last few years is far from a personal accomplishment—it’s been down to a lot of people, but I’m proud of how we’ve increased digital revenues from 15% to 43%; and how we’ve increased the impact of what we do without diluting our commitment to excellence; I’m proud of books like James Williams’ important Stand Out of Our Light; and most of all, I’m proud of how we’re achieving more for the University of Cambridge by linking things up more effectively across the Press, Cambridge Assessment and the teaching and research departments.

Which publishing company other than your own do you most admire?

As my wife’s publishers, I should probably say Thames & Hudson and Yale! But I’ll plump for Faber, who have published so much that’s extraordinary over the last 90 years, from the edition of T.S. Eliot’s poems I was given at school to Kazuo Ishiguro.

What’s the one thing you think everyone should know about your sector?

That it underpins so much of the UK’s world-class creative, educational and research activity.

What do you enjoy most about working in publishing?

It has to be the wonderful and talented people in our organisations, and the authors, readers, researchers, teachers and students we serve.

Who was your first mentor and how did they help you progress in your career?

My first boss was Nick Prettejohn, who—before he went on to grander things—helped me enormously with a judicious blend of encouragement, directness and a wicked sense of humour.

What do you predict for the future of the industry?

People will always want stories, facts and data, and ideas, and serving those essential human needs is at the core of what publishers do. I suspect what we’ll see is a continuing evolution of how we deliver that mission—so long as a robust enough framework for intellectual property remains in place for authors and publishers to invest their time and energy in generating great content.

What would your three desert island books be?

This is such a difficult question. I love the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, which is wonderful, long and handily published in a single volume. Sadly no one I know has published Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion in a single volume, so I’d toss a coin to decide which to take. Finally, I’d take an anthology of poetry, perhaps my somewhat beaten up copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. I hope like Radio 4’s castaways I’d get the Bible and Shakespeare too!

About Peter Phillips

Peter studied Mathematics at Merton College Oxford. After graduating with first-class honours, Peter joined the consulting firm Bain & Company, where he spent seven years advising companies on business strategy, before moving on to corporate finance at the leading investment bank SG Warburg. In 1993, Peter joined the British Broadcasting Corporation as Head of Corporate Planning. He became Finance Director of BBC News in 1997, before being appointed Chief Operating Officer of that division in 2001.

In 2005, he became the BBC’s Director of Business Development and was responsible for the sale of BBC Broadcast which became Red Bee Media. In 2006, Peter moved to Ofcom, the UK’s media and communications regulator, where he was a member of the Board. He was responsible for its approach to reshaping regulation in the light of digital developments and led its work on the future of public service broadcasting, high-speed broadband, and illegal internet file sharing. In 2010, Peter moved to Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest media organisation with a global reputation in its academic and educational fields, as Chief Operating Officer. In 2012 he was appointed as the Press’s Chief Executive.

Peter is also a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge and a Trustee of Cambridge Commonwealth, European & International Trust. He has also been a trustee of the Nuffield Trust, the Crafts Council, Article 19 and the John Schofield Trust, an adviser to the Royal College of Physicians, Chairman of the Sabre Trust and a director of Parliamentary Broadcasting Limited.