Phillip Luff is currently a Founding Associate at VoCL and is the Founder and Managing Director of Phillip Luff Associates. He came to St Andrew’s as a fresher in 1980 and was involved in a multitude of activities and eventually became Senior Student in 1984. After university, he started his career as an Associate to His Honour Justice Smart of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, then went on to work in senior leadership roles for US-based media companies including Liberty Global (Fox Sports and AUSTAR) WaterBear Network, Marquee TV and WarnerBros.Discovery. He has worked in various countries and cultures. In this interview, he gave us insights into his career path and experiences living and working in different countries.
Please tell us a bit about yourself – where are you originally from and where did you grow up?
I grew up on my family’s farm in Gobarralong, near Gundagai, NSW. We grazed Hereford cattle and Merino sheep, and I learned to class wool, ride thoroughbred horses, crack a whip and muster stock, very different skills to those later required by my career. The Luff family has lived in the Gobarralong area since around 1840. My great-great grandparents William and Catherine Luff, who had married in St Mary’s Church in Sydney, settled on land alongside the Murrumbidgee River.
Why did you choose to reside at St Andrew’s College?
I was very fortunate to have been accepted by the three colleges to which I applied. Despite having been raised by my parents as Catholic, my time with Principal Cairns made St Andrew’s College an easy choice as he showed great interest, empathy and kindness, even walking me to the bus after the interview with an umbrella, as it was raining heavily. I was also impressed by the College building itself, especially its solid position on the hill and its wonderful ramparts and clock tower.
What parts of College life were you involved in?
As a fresher in 1980, I was a little older than most of my year’s group as I had spent a scholarship year in the USA after high school so my friends became a mix of people from different years and different colleges. I had grown up quite remotely and had attended schools with only a small number of pupils. I threw myself into lots of college activities: swimming, diving, athletics, DramSoc, all the social events including an informal ball at Drew’s where a new band called INXS performed, managed the cellar, was an active member of the House Committee, including as Senior Student in 1984. I was fortunate to receive scholarships and bursaries during my six years at College but I also worked part-time as a lifeguard at North Sydney Olympic Pool, which helped with expenses and expanded my social circle as well. I am still in regular contact with several of my college friends and, as Deputy Chair of the University of Sydney UK Alumni Association, I help organise events in the UK and across Europe to keep alumni connected with each other and the University.
After you graduated you started your career as a lawyer at Colin Biggers & Paisley, and today, some years later you are now a Founding Associate at vocL. Could you tell us about this transition from law into film and media? How or why did it come about?
I graduated from the University of Sydney with a BA in Psychology and an LLB. I really struggled to imagine where my career would or should take me, but through College, I had the benefit of Dr Robert Stein’s tutoring as well as his professional connections which led to my first full-time job, as Associate to His Honour Justice Smart of the Supreme Court of NSW, Construction and Engineering Division. Consequently, that role led to me being offered a job as an Associate Lawyer at Colin Biggers & Paisley, which specialised in that line of work. Some years later I joined Gilbert + Tobin Lawyers where I enjoyed the firm’s progressive culture and a more diverse range of work, including providing intellectual property advice to the music, film and television industries. Some of the highlights during that time included winning a complicated and multi-party lawsuit involving corporate fraud, getting to meet the delightful Olivia Newtown-John and attending a premiere screening of Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom.
Could you tell us a bit about what VocL does and what you do in your current role?
VoCL is a UK-based organisation established to help create a more positive society and sustainable future. VoCL does that by nurturing, connecting and championing new voices of responsible business leadership. We provide learning and development through an intensive leadership programme, individual and group mentoring via a network of experienced mentors and coaches, and 24-7 access to an interactive online hub. As one of the Founding Associates, my role is to mentor and coach several individuals and groups, and to partner with businesses that we believe can make a positive difference to our society. One of my current workstreams is focused on “A Fair, Just and Sustainable Energy Transition for Everyone” and as part of that, I am mentoring a young executive at Cadent Gas, who is leading the company’s transition towards more sustainable forms of energy such as helium.
You are also the Founder and Managing Director of Phillip Luff Associates, could you tell us a bit more about this and how you manage the law and film/media aspects in your professional life?
After almost 16 years working in senior leadership roles for US-based media companies including Liberty Global (Fox Sports and AUSTAR) and WarnerBros, Discovery, I established my own independent media consultancy in 2019. I identified a gap in the market between the large global consulting firms and the more specialist consulting firms. My focus is on helping content owners such as production companies, broadcasters and streaming services to develop clear business strategies and execute those strategies to achieve their goals. Most of my clients have financial goals but some are purpose-driven so each client’s strategy needs to deliver on their own stated purpose. Having both a legal background and a career in business, as well as having developed over many years an extensive network within the television, film and streaming sectors has certainly helped.
Throughout your career, you have worked all over the world. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences working in different countries?
Having grown up in a relatively remote part of rural NSW, I was fortunate to have dedicated teachers who helped open my eyes to a much bigger world. Outside of school hours, I watched a lot of television, which helped stimulate my imagination and make me more aware of different lifestyles and cultures. This ultimately pulled me towards a career in television and later to work in various countries and cultures, including Japan, the UK, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, the UAE, Turkey and South Africa. I particularly enjoyed my two years living and working in Tokyo as previously I had very little knowledge of Japan. In contrast, my two years in Moscow and regular business trips to the Middle East made me realise that there are still countries where diversity and inclusion are not priorities, being gay or lesbian is still a criminal offence, and true equality is not universal.
You have worked in various TV and film companies from start-ups at Fox Sports, WaterBear Network and Marquee TV to large-scale publicly listed companies such as Liberty Global, Discovery, Scripps and UKTV. How did these experiences help your career progression and lead to you ultimately becoming the Founding Associate of voCL?
I believe that diversity helps create better decision-making as having a diverse range of voices, experiences and cultures brings better and more interesting results. Having worked in such a broad range of companies has certainly helped my understanding of how different types of businesses operate and what drives their decision-making. Each experience has been a separate chapter with its own set of challenges and opportunities but in hindsight, each was also a stepping stone to where I am today because of the experiences and people that I met along the way. I have come to realise that luck has a lot to do with success but also that we can do quite a lot to increase our “own luck” by not being afraid to ask for help, making the most of opportunities that come our way and being more flexible and courageous to take on those opportunities wherever that might take us.
What did you study at university? What were your motivations for studying for this degree? Are the skills you learned in your degree still relevant in your current role?
As a fresher, I initially studied Dentistry but after only a few weeks I realised I had absolutely no interest in it and I felt I didn’t belong. It was a very difficult decision to make as I had no Plan B, but I enjoyed being at University and College so much that I managed to convert to an Arts degree. After my first year’s results, I considered studying for a Masters in Psychology but as part of my final year in Arts I studied a law subject, Legal Institutions, achieved a strong result and was encouraged to take on a post-graduate Law degree, and so consequently I became a lawyer. I find that my knowledge of psychology enables me to appreciate alternative viewpoints, consider different perspectives and approach problems with an open mind, whereas my experience as a lawyer has helped me think logically, communicate clearly and also to find the best solution to any problem, all of which helps me in my current work as an advisor, coach and mentor.
What do you like to do outside of your work?
My husband Stuart and I currently live in a rural village in West Sussex, on the edge of the South Downs and about 90 minutes from central London. We have found a real sense of community, something that is often lacking in large cities. The local pub, which is dog-friendly and Grade II listed, is a real hive of activity. We both enjoy entertaining friends, gardening, and walking our Tibetan terrier through the ancient woodlands nearby. We both enjoy watching television and films, especially political thriller/espionage stories. Several of our friends are writers and one of my friends, fellow Aussie Richard Kerbaj, is a security and intelligence expert so there are always interesting stories to hand.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you’d been given when you started out your career?
Have the courage to be flexible and adaptable until you find what makes you happy and fulfilled. And when you find that happy place, understand and appreciate the value that you add as well as what’s in it for you.