Our latest Industry Insider has had an illustrious career in motorsport to say the least!
We sat down with Matt Bishop, Chief Communications of Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team…
Tell us about yourself, what is your current role, and what roles have you done previously? What do you do in your current role?
Hello, I’m Matt Bishop. I am the Chief Communications Officer of Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team, which means I have overall responsibility for what is broadcast and written about the team and all who sail in her, on TV and radio, and in newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, vlogs, podcasts et al. Some of that appears organically – Formula One is a big deal and it is reported far and wide as a matter of course – and some of it requires assiduous placing. My job is to make it all as good as it can be. Doing both jobs well – maximising the organic coverage as well as optimising the editorial quality and positive impact of the placed pieces – involves knowing what makes journalists tick.
My role requires travel to every Formula One Grand Prix, which is a huge March-through-December itinerary encompassing almost all corners of the Earth, and working very closely with our two race drivers, Seb Vettel and Lance Stroll, as well as our senior management, Lawrence Stroll, Martin Whitmarsh and Otmar Szafnauer. I run a small, busy and productive comms department assisted by three great deputies: Will Hings, Steve Cooper and Joanne Revill. But in addition to conventional comms, all companies these days must be publishers, in a sense, and Formula One teams are no different. So we produce a lot of rich content for our own website and social media platforms – video, photography and written pieces – and I work closely with our digital and social media colleagues to make sure that that output is both brilliant and on-message.
I did the same job, more or less, for the McLaren Formula One team, from 2008 to 2017. Between my spell at McLaren and joining Aston Martin I was one of the founding senior management team of W Series, the racing championship for female drivers, and I am proud of that and remain an enthusiastic advocate for it. And before McLaren, from 1991 to 2008, I was a journalist – first a motor car journalist then a motor sport journalist, working for the great majority of that time in Formula One. So I have interviewed almost all the greats from that era – Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill, Mika Hakkinen, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Seb Vettel et al – and since then I have worked with quite a few of them at McLaren and Aston Martin, too. Oh and I absolutely love the history of the sport. I ghost-wrote the autobiography of the 1972 and 1974 Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi, Emmo: a Racer’s Soul, which was a great pleasure because he is a wonderful man.
“Normal” isn’t a thing in sport so what does an “average” week look like for you?
There is nothing normal or average about Formula One, and working in Formula One is therefore far from average or normal. First of all, it is a 24-seven gig. I need to be across everything that is being broadcast and written about Aston Martin’s Formula One team at all times, whether it be an episode of the Netflix Formula One series Drive to Survive, an article in the New York Times, a blog on a Polish website, or anything in between.
I spend a lot of time in the air. By the end of the year I will have attended 22 Formula One Grands Prix, starting with Bahrain in March and ending with Abu Dhabi in December, and they are all different. As a comms guy, you never know what is going to be thrown at you. Sometimes we do well, as in Azerbaijan where Seb Vettel finished a brilliant second; sometimes we do well but encounter unexpected glitches, as in Hungary where Seb Vettel finished a brilliant second but was disqualified for a small technical infringement that delivered no performance advantage; and sometimes we simply have a bad race. It happens. But we win as a team and we lose as a team.
The drivers are the stars, of course they are, but when you are on the inside you feel a powerful team spirit, a real esprit de corps. I am reminded of the janitor whom President Kennedy allegedly asked on an evening tour of the NASA headquarters, “Why are you working so late?” The janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the Moon, Mr President, sir.” And that is what Formula One teams are like. Our cleaners and cooks, our mechanics and marketers, our aerodynamicists and accountants, all of us are helping putting a driver in a car, his aim being to win a motor race.
How did you end up where you are right now? When did you know you wanted to work in sport?
When Lawrence Stroll bought the Racing Point Formula One team, then rechristened it Aston Martin this year, he was keen to hire the best people in every department. While I would never claim to be the best at Formula One comms, I am probably among the very most experienced. Anyway, he offered me the job, and I quickly accepted it. Aston Martin is one of the greatest brands in the world – of any kind, not just automotive – so, for a petrolhead comms man like me, being part of the senior team tasked with bringing Aston Martin back into Formula One, after an absence of 61 years, was always going to be a mouth-watering opportunity.
I have always been a sports junkie. As a youngster I played football [soccer] very keenly. I was a central midfielder, and I usually captained the teams I played for. That all came to an end when I was 19, thanks to a crunching studs-up tackle by a clumsy defender that ripped a cruciate ligament in my right knee, which still gives me trouble. After that I tried badminton – because it is a non-contact sport – but my right knee was not up to the twisting and turning required. I now do quite a lot of weight training and play a bit of snooker – far more pedestrian.
Professional sport is full of back-room boys and girls like me – people who would love to have been able to play sport professionally but ended up having to do ancillary roles in it instead. Would I like to have been a professional racing driver? Of course, but early on I knew that I was not going to be quick enough. I am not complaining though. I love my job and I am very lucky to have been able to spend my working life in and around cars, motorsport and Formula One.
What is your number one focus when it comes to your work?
I think I have answered that in previous replies. However, I will add one thing. People often think that comms and PR are about ‘spin’, about ‘doctoring’ media narratives to pervert the truth. Nothing could be further from that truth. A lie is the worst possible comms/PR strategy. Lying is not only a bad thing to do, but also it does not work. You must always tell journalists the truth, but of course you can always tell that truth in a way that emphasises the messaging that you want to get across. Comms/PR is an art, therefore, as much as a science. You have to be articulate; you have to enjoy the cut and thrust of debate; and, above all, you have to be able to think strategically, which is a rarer attribute than many people realise.
Race drivers worry about what is written and broadcast about them on all media platforms, old and new. So another part of a good Formula One comms person’s craft is to put their race drivers’ minds at rest. Why so? Because a worried race driver is a distracted race driver; a distracted race driver is a confused race driver; and a confused race driver is a slow race driver. So good comms/PR is worth real lap-time.
Can you tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it?
When I was Chief Communications Officer at McLaren, we embarked on an engine supply partnership with Honda, commencing in 2015. It followed a very successful engine supply partnership between McLaren and Mercedes-Benz, which had lasted 20-odd years. In 2015 neither the McLaren car nor the Honda engine was competitive. In such circumstances feelings often run high.
Initially, I was able to keep tempers under control, and prevent our dirty laundry being washed in public. But, by two-thirds of the way through the 2015 season, there was a lot of disappointment felt by all of us, both parties were angry, the media were understandably keen to cover the developing row, and the result was that it became an uncontrollable narrative. I sometimes catch myself wondering whether I could have controlled it better. Perhaps I could; perhaps I could not.
Ultimately, the lesson is that frustrated senior executives should have their arguments behind closed doors. But McLaren and Honda are both winning in Formula One now, albeit no longer together, so I guess all’s well that ends well!
What are you excited about in your industry at the moment?
Formula One has recently inaugurated a movement called #WeRaceAsOne. It exists to further the interests of minorities in our sport, and to help make Formula One a global force for good. I regard that as a fantastic ambition, and I am delighted that all stakeholders within Formula One are getting behind it.
At Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team, we have partnered with Racing Pride, of which I am a founder ambassador. I am a gay man, and Racing Pride was founded in 2019 in association with the excellent LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall to promote LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the motorsport industry and among its technical and commercial partners. It is doing just that.
We at Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team are now rolling out internal seminars, workshops, lectures and so on, in an effort to make our company culture an accepting and embracing one for people of all colours, creeds, ages, genders and sexual orientations. It is only relatively recently that companies, businesses and indeed sports have realised that failure to support such agendas constitutes a serious and indeed perilous business failure, and I am delighted to be centrally involved in Formula One’s #WeRaceAsOne campaign, and to help transform it from being a catchy hashtag into being a powerful force for societal change.
If you could change one thing about your Industry, what would you change?
Formula One is very white, very male and very heterosexual. It always has been. Some of my best friends are white male heterosexuals, but I would be very much happier if the Formula One of the future were to be peopled by more people of colour, more women, and more LGBTQ+ individuals. There has only ever been one black Formula One driver, Lewis Hamilton, and he is one of the greatest Formula One drivers there has ever been.
There have only ever been two female Formula One drivers to have raced in World Championship Grands Prix, Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi, the former in 1958 and the latter in 1975-76; that is a very long time ago. And there have only ever been three openly LGBTQ+ Formula One drivers to have raced in World Championship Grands Prix, Nicha Cabral (a bisexual man who finally came out at the age of 76), Mike Beuttler (a gay man) and the aforementioned Lella Lombardi (a lesbian).
I would love to see more Formula One representation in all three groups, in the race cars, in the garages, and in every department of Formula One. Oh and if another black Formula One driver, or another female Formula One driver, or another LGBTQ+ Formula One driver were to emerge, race and win, well, I think he, she or they would become one of the biggest megastars in the world. Bring it on!
Sport is a hectic industry, what do you do to switch off?
I work very hard in Formula One. I do not have a lot of down time. I play a bit of snooker and I enjoy socialising with my husband Angel Bautista and our many friends. In the autumn and winter of 2017-18 I took a bit of time off to write a novel, The Boy Made the Difference. It has nothing whatsoever to do with cars, motorsport or Formula One. I guess it had begun to bother me that, over the previous 10 or 15 years, very few new novels had been set against the narrative backdrop of the HIV/AIDS crisis of 30-odd years ago, a literary oeuvre that had been both important and popular in the early 1990s especially. Specifically, having worked 30-odd years ago as a home support volunteer, or ‘buddy’, for London Lighthouse, at that time the world’s largest HIV/AIDS centre, and having helped too many young men cope with the ravages of their destructive and disfiguring disease, often breathing their last breaths in the Broderip Ward of the Middlesex Hospital, London, now closed, I wanted to read a celebration of their magnificent courage, woven into a moving, gripping, entertaining and sometimes rollicking story of everyday familial stoicism. Eventually, I decided to try to write one myself. The Boy Made the Difference is my attempt. The dedication is simply ‘To the braves of the Lighthouse and the Broderip’.
HIV/AIDS exists in our midst still, especially in the developing world, but it is rarely now a rapidly terminal disease in the developed world, thanks to the invention of anti-retroviral meds in the mid 1990s, and that is surely why HIV/AIDS features in so few modern novels. So that is actually a good thing. But Angel, my husband, is quite a bit younger than I am – he is 32 and I am 58 – and, as I got to know him and love him, and meet and grow fond of his many friends, I realised that none of them knew very much about what HIV/AIDS had been like before the invention of anti-retroviral meds. Well, it was terrible. I lost many friends – young, beautiful, kind, loving, clever, brave friends – and I wanted to honour their memory with a novel that would also serve to show today’s millennials what life for gay men had been like not so long ago.
I come from a literary family. My mother, Bernardine Bishop, was a novelist, as was her mother, Barbara Lucas. My grandmother’s grandmother, Alice Meynell, was a poet – and a suffragist, too. Her husband, Wilfrid Meynell, was a journalist and editor. I was brought up to revere writers and writing, and to read voraciously. I was a journalist for many years. I have written hundreds of magazine and website pieces about Formula One, and crafting the words has always been a joy to me. So, combining my literary upbringing with my journalistic experience by writing a novel was an idea that I had had in the back of my mind for years. But there was and is a charitable motive, too. When my mother died of cancer in 2013, in her memory I set up the Bernardine Bishop Appeal, to fundraise for CLIC Sargent, now renamed Young Lives Vs Cancer, a wonderful charity that helps children, young people and their families who are suffering the effects of cancer. My husband Angel and I do not plan to adopt kids. So the Bernardine Bishop Appeal is doubly important to me, because not only does it honour my dear and much missed mum, but it is also my way of doing something for children, who otherwise play little or no part in my life. I am donating all proceeds from sales of The Boy Made the Difference, whether in book form or in Kindle form, to the Bernardine Bishop Appeal.
You can buy it via this Amazon link.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to work in the sports industry?
Live and let live; if in doubt, say yes.
How to follow Matt Bishop on social media…
I am an energetic tweeter. You can check me out on Twitter at @TheBishF1.
Thanks for reading our Industry Insider with Matt Bishop! If you want to read more from the series, you can do so by clicking here.