Ita Buttrose is chief executive of Ita Buttrose Ltd, a public relations, marketing and specialist publishing company in Sydney. She was founding editor of Cleo magazine, editor of Australian Women’s Weekly and creator of Ita, the magazine that bore her name. She was a principal spokeswoman for the Federal Government’s AIDS educational campaign. She is working on her novel What is Love? and a second version of her autobiography A Passionate Life. She is a Fellow of AIM.
AIM: When did you start your career in management?
Buttrose: My first management role was at 23, when I became woman’s editor for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. It was a bit of a shock really, I was very young. I didn’t realise what a lonely job management is.
AIM: How did you get the job so young?
Buttrose: First of all, I asked for it. One thing people often forget is that you have to put your hand up so people know you are interested. We often think that, if we work hard, it will happen; but you have to let people know you want to take the responsibility.
AIM: How did you find it?
Buttrose: I discovered that I liked management. I didn’t mind the responsibility, and I liked training people.
AIM: What was next?
Buttrose: I went to England as a sub-editor with a magazine called Woman’s Own, which had a readership of 3.5 million. That was like a finishing school for me. I learnt a lot about marketing and promotion, and why you put it together in the way you do. Then I came back to Australia and the Packers offered me my old job. I wanted to start a Sunday magazine, and (journalist) David McNicoll said I should do a dummy. Sir Frank Packer liked it. It was a black and white forerunner of the Sunday magazines the newspapers have now got.
AIM: How did Cleo come about?
Buttrose: I came back to Australian Consolidated Press. There might have been eight of us in a building that had housed hundreds. No one wanted to know us; it showed you how fickle the journalism business is. You realise how unimportant you really are in the scheme of things. We wanted to bring a magazine out before Cosmopolitan. We got the research back from J. Walter Thompson saying: Don’t do this, it will fail. Kerry said: Take this [the research] and hide it. Don’t tell anyone, and definitely not the old man. That was an important management lesson. I don’t think Sir Frank would have been pleased. Anyway, Cleo got started, and sold out in two days.
AIM: What came next?
Buttrose: In 1975 I went to Women’s Weekly. Circulation was declining, the cost of paper was high, and I had to reduce it to tabloid size. It was like tampering with the Bible, because Women’s Weekly was part of the social fabric. One thing I learnt is that each state is different. I would put a baby on the cover in New South Wales, and cats in Victoria, and you could see that cats would sell well in Victoria. You have to understand the differences.
AIM: Media is really two businesses: selling content and selling advertising. How do you think about it?
Buttrose: It is a retail product but, unlike most retail products, it has a short life. It is complex marketing and selling the media, there are a lot of variables. Advertisers can get upset over things that don’t even seem to concern them.
AIM: How do you deal with that complexity?
Buttrose: At the end of the day, you put the reader first. You are presenting this package for the reader and, if people don’t want to pick up the product, you have failed. Once they have picked it up, you want them to keep turning the pages without them even knowing why they are doing it.
AIM: There is high staff turnover in the media? What do you think of that?
Buttrose: I wonder if high turnover deters people from coming into the media. We all know that we now work in many jobs before we retire, but it is nice to stay in the same area.
AIM: What do you think of the internet media models?
Buttrose: I think television advertising will ultimately be threatened because there are so many ways to find out the news. It gets back to the market catching up with what is going on.
AIM: You seem to have lost no enthusiasm.
Buttrose: If you lose enthusiasm, you might as well be dead. I think there are so many things to do and so many things to learn. I’m not of the school that says you should only work; I have to play. I think it is bad management to breed workers that don’t have lives and can’t form relationships. It is wrong: I don’t care how tough the competition is.