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James Freemantle (REDgum Communications)

In a busy, fast-growing business sometimes you can lose sight of the big picture. Former television presenter and actor James Freemantle founded his media and communications coaching business in 2008. Despite the inauspicious timing (it was at the height of the global financial crisis) word of mouth spread quickly and, two years later he found himself running a very successful practice that didn’t have a professional presence online.

What does REDgum Communications do?

REDgum Communications offers training and coaching in personal brand, public speaking and dealing with the media and also in resilience and mindful practice. We work mostly with senior executives and teams throughout corporates across a range of sectors – finance, agriculture, government – it’s a universal need.

What were doing before you founded REDgum?

I had a career in television. I was working as a television presenter on travel shows for 10 years – things like Postcards and Coxy’s Big Break, Talk To The Animals and a small business show called Bread, which was a ripper. And then through a series of strange coincidences, I ended up as a newsreader in Moscow on Russia Today, which is an international English-language television network set up by the Kremlin.

Where do you live and work?

I live in Middle Park, my business is in South Melbourne. It takes me seven minutes to get here by car and about 40 by pushbike because I still don't know the way properly. It’s perfectly located. This morning I walked into the city for a meeting, I walked back to work again…I walk into Docklands for meetings and I walk back here – it's great.

Who or what inspires you?

I've got a few inspirations. One’s my dad. He's been an inspiration to me all my life, really. He lost his leg when he was 23 in a car crash and he was smashed up a fair bit as well so he's had lots of physical problems but he's never considered himself to be disabled and neither do we, his family, consider him to be disabled. He's fought through a lot of challenges and never stopped smiling, never stopped being positive, never stopped looking for the best in people. And then I suppose – I hesitate to say because it sounds like a cliché – but Nelson Mandela. Every time I think of his story and the resilience that he had and the optimism that he had particularly considering the transformation from the angry young man who went into prison to the incredibly constructive and positive person who came out 27 years later. I think he was extraordinary. Another one is Maya Angelou, who was an African American novelist who died last year. She's inspired a lot of what REDgum does. One of the quotes we use from Maya is ‘…people will forget what you did, people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ And to me that's the key to effective communications. If you can identify how you want people to feel and then create that emotive response to what you're saying and what you have to deliver, then you’re building engagement and you are more than likely to have your message land and to have people wanting to work with you.

Best business advice you’ve been given?

Try and get above the detail of the business and keep your eye on the big picture, which is hard to do when you're in a small practice and you need to have your head around a whole lot of different areas, different roles.

What advice would you give to yourself if you could time travel?

Stick to your passion. And don't believe what everybody says. My advice to myself would be just go with your gut on what's right and stick with that. Don't listen to all the other noise.

What did THF help you with?

The Hope Factory have designed my websites and done a lot of work in optimisation, SEO, so that people are seeing our sites. They take the headaches out of the technical aspects of email and our web presence and give great advice on what's going to work, what's not going to work; and enabling us to get more eyes on our website and then more conversions from those people looking. It's been four years since The Hope Factory has been involved with REDgum and it’s certainly made a difference. They've helped to clarify the messages that we put up about our organisation, about our business, about what we do and that’s helped clarify that for our clients and potential clients but it's also helped us as a business to know what we stand for and what we offer.

What’s the best marketing decision you’ve made?

I think it's the process we're going through at the moment, which is to re-design our website, make it clearer, more specific and more focused on conversion.

What’s your next big business challenge?

We’ve just launched a professional development program for people, which incorporates three workshops and coaching over a 12-month period. The challenge is marketing it and making people aware of it.

Where did you get the name REDgum Communications?

It comes from my upbringing in western Victoria and my love of timber and of Redgums in particular. The River Redgum is such a statuesque and beautiful tree, it's a feature of the landscape and it has a root system that binds the earth and it provides shelter for stock and habitat for wildlife; it's been used for thousands of years for warmth and cooking and in the last couple of hundred years for fences and settlements. As a woodworker, it's challenging and unpredictable timber and it's all over the place – it warps, it gives you hell but the rewards are amazing when you polish it up and look right into the grain and it goes all the way from a plum black right through to a salmon pink. It's an amazing timber.

What makes REDgum different from your competitors?

One is that we come from the perspective of how do you want to be experienced? And how do you go about creating that experience, which leads to the ability to influence others, to achieve your goals. The other part is that with my media background I love to use camera and camera crews and help people to understand how they coming across to other people by showing themselves recorded. That, for a lot of people, makes them feel vulnerable. But we pride ourselves on being very good at helping people feel as comfortable as possible in that situation.

What other qualifications do you have? Did you go to university?

I have an Arts degree in English and history. And then I did a dip Ed and taught for a couple of years; then I just took off around the world, gathered as many experiences as I could. When I came back to Australia I studied acting, did a bit of work with the usual round of Australian shows – I think it was Neighbours and Stingers and Janus, a few of those shows (I’m really ageing myself now!) – but I found that a very difficult way to make a living. That whole time I was doing a lot of woodwork; making furniture from recycled timber, and that strangely got me into television, that's where the TV career started. I was working on a project called Timber Trek Australia - sourcing recyclable timber from derelict buildings, jetties, wharves, shipwrecks even – and using the timber on-site in those places to build beautiful furniture. Towards the end of that, I got a video camera and made a kind of lifestyle show segment about making a cabinet out of an old dairy in Port Fairy. I had it edited by a friend of a friend who worked at Channel 9, she showed it to the producer of this new show called Postcards and he got me in for an audition. And that was the start of a TV career that went for 10 years.

Favourite film?

The best film I've seen for a long time is the Grand Budapest Hotel. I really loved that film partly because it's incredibly well-shot, partly because it uses humour beautifully…it's also delightfully blunt.

If you could take anyone out to lunch who would it be and what would you ask them?

Kofi Annan is someone I'd like to talk to. [He’s] someone who has spent much of his life and career trying to bring peace to the world. [I’d ask him] what can we do from now? And how can we get the messages out there and have an impact in an action sense? The world is so overloaded with information and messages – how do you get one out there that actually says we have to stop, we've got to rethink, I think we need to make the distribution of wealth more equitable without snuffing out entrepreneurial creativity. Less people have a greater and greater percentage of the world’s wealth. The inequity is eventually going to lead to revolution of some kind, which to me is a fairly destructive way to be going.

Favourite tools or apps?

My favourite tool is the video camera because the camera sees everything and it enables people to see themselves with fresh eyes. I think it's a wonderful coaching and training tool. I'm still something of a Luddite and one of my greatest joys is being able to pass off all my online and IT headaches to The Hope Factory who sort that all out for me and take care of it.

What’s the most valuable metric used in your business?

Word-of-mouth is still probably our best way of getting business and we’ve been able to grow substantially with that and a good website, where people can come once they've heard about us: that then takes them to the next level of engagement. The fact that the phone rings a lot and we get a lot of emails from people wanting to work with us, that's a great measure of success.

How are you different from your competitors?

Our point of difference, I think, is the fact that we focus initially on identifying what’s the way that you, as an organisation of individuals want to be experienced by your clients, your competitors or the marketplace. Then, working out how to go about creating that experience. And with individuals that comes down to the visual, verbal and vocal messaging but it also comes down to aligning themselves with a strong values base so they’re really genuine in what they say and how they say it.

What should I have asked you that I didn't?

You should have asked me how much I love The Hope Factory! Look, I do like The Hope Factory because they're helpful, they’re proactive, they bend over backwards to help you get your website right and to get your online technology right. They don't get frustrated when I don't understand exactly what they're talking about. They keep an eye on what your financial and end-goals are and what your clients’ goals are so you don't get stuck. They say, ‘okay, this is what we want to achieve: bang, bang, bang. This is how we are going to achieve it.’ And to me, that’s a great business. They’re also pretty creative in the way that they work and, yeah, accessible.