Jess McFadyen: “You can seek inspiration in so many different people and places”

Jess McFadyen first came to the attention of Formula One fans just three years ago as part of the online phenomenon, WTF1. After roles at Autosport and Car Throttle, she became a permanent member of the team as Head of WTF1. However, she has now taken the next step in her career, joining the Motorsport Network as Director of Digital Strategy, a position that didn’t exist before her arrival. I spoke to her about difficult decisions, her new role and finding inspiration.

“I know I’m not Mother Teresa, but I like giving back”

Jess was part of the small team who took WTF1 from a relatively known brand, to a media platform loved by fans and the motorsport industry alike. During her time there, she had many incredibly proud moments. “There’s a memory that really sticks out which is quite bizarre though,” Jess said. “We were at the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Mercedes afterparty surrounded by people like Toto Wolff and George Russell. I looked across the room and saw Simon Rennie who was Daniel Ricciardo’s race engineer, now working with Alex Albon, and he was wearing one of our t-shirts! I went over and said: ‘I’m really sorry, you don’t know who I am but you’re wearing my t-shirt’. It was a ‘Well Done Baku’ top, and he said: I’ve actually just bought this for Daniel (Ricciardo)’. I had a moment where I thought about the amazing year we’d had; I was at a party with F1 people and Daniel Ricciardo has our t-shirt. It was then that I knew we weren’t outsiders anyone.” Having become a known figure in the sport, she hopes to be able to use this to help others. “What I really love is feeling like I can help people. I know I’m not Mother Teresa, but I like giving back and especially when, dare I say it, people say they are inspired by me. It gives me courage to do things that I had been feeling self-aware or insecure about,” she said.

Having moved on from WTF1 to the Motorsport Network, Jess now has a new focus and although it is an exciting new step, it wasn’t an easy decision to leave her WTF1 family, with whom she had achieved so much. “Quite honestly, it was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. It was a challenge, both on the head and heart, but sometimes you just have to trust the process,” she told me. Jess has long believed in the importance of engaging on social media with her work previously at Autosport coming to an end after they showed a lack of interest in this area. “I made it very clear when I left that I was going to a company where social media was everything. When Motorsport Network acquired Autosport, they recognised that they needed to encourage better fan engagement and produce content that wasn’t quite as serious. It took 18 months of long conversations, but earlier this year, I felt it was the direction for me,” she explained.

“It’s an all-encompassing role, but it means I get to sink my teeth into lots of different things”

As Director of Digital Strategy, Jess’s role involves all things online, from social media to video output. “I look at how we can grow in these areas and how we can gain, not just a larger audience, but a larger engaged audience – that’s always been my philosophy. With social media figures it’s easy to look at follower numbers, but actually, those numbers don’t matter. What you can have is a highly engaged audience but not as many followers. I think the Motorsport Network was very used to hearing the big numbers, and I had to explain that our attention should be on authentic engagement with our fans. It’s an all-encompassing role, but it means I get to sink my teeth into lots of different things,” Jess told me. When it comes to a race weekend, no amount of planning can predict what will happen, and therefore what everyone will be talking about, though Jess and her team, including Alex Thomson, do have a rough brief to work from. “I brought Alex in so we’re finally working together which we’ve wanted to do for a long time. We have a baseline on how we will approach the weekend but we’re also in the moment, talking to each other about which post we’re going to use and what we are going to try and create. I also host Instagram Lives with our journalists. The fans dictate what we talk about which, of course, depends on what happens in the race,” she said.

Hosting and presenting, as she has done with Instagram Lives and podcasts, are things Jess never thought she would do. However, she is now even helping some of the more-experienced people in the industry adapt to a new digital world. “I guess I didn’t think people would want to listen to me! I think it’s also about having that different level of communication with the fans and I am a fan. We have many interesting, experienced journalists and so I’m working with those guys to be a little more forward facing in front of camera,” Jess explained. As well as this, her role involves a lot of organisation, something that she has done previously, though now on a much larger scale. “My job is strategic so I have to be thinking about not just my team, but how it affects the company as a whole. I also have to do a few more things that are operational. I love being organised, I love a spreadsheet and I love project managing which was part of my role at WTF1 and I am continuing here, but there is a lot more of it. We operate in 18 different languages so there are teams around the world that I’m having to coordinate, something I definitely didn’t have to do at WTF1,” she described.

“We wanted to introduce a two-way communication”

Since joining the Motorsport Network, Jess has also been a part of a brand-new podcast. ‘Is It Just Me?’ was launched in April, hosted by Jess and F1 journalist Luke Smith. “The Network needed something a bit more fun, and that was pretty much all I was doing at WTF1, creating fun content. We had a brainstorm, and with Twitter being full of controversial opinions, thought how we could make use of that. Luke and I loved the idea that people could write in with their opinions. We wanted to introduce a two-way communication so we could discuss where those opinions had come from and if we agreed. We have taken some time before this second season but now I’m really looking forward to finding more topics that we can have a good old debate about. I love debating and I think it’s really important that we question things, but also have fun,” she told me.

This communication between brands and their fans helps further engage people, and it is that that Jess hopes to put into place at the Motorsport Network. “One of the things I told the Network was that they talk at their audience. I was involved in the communications around having to pause the magazine during Lockdown. The Autosport brand has been around for 70 years, and means a lot to people, so I said we needed a heartfelt message from our editor and not just some corporate statement. When we decided to pause it, we wanted everyone to know we weren’t killing the magazine. To get that across, you have to be open and honest, otherwise fans will just see through it. We really can’t afford that, especially with the climate that we find so many media brands in,” the Director of Digital Strategy said.

With social media part of her remit, Jess knows how important this can be for both media outlets, and those in motorsport such as teams and drivers. “This is a generation of drivers that engage on social platforms with some having just as much of a following as the series itself,” she told me. “Lando Norris is probably the best example. He’s in his second season in F1 and already is one of the most well-known drivers because he’s built a brand and is authentic in the way he approaches his content. Whether it’s his hours of Twitch streaming or the way he conducts himself in interviews, it’s almost perfect branding for social media.” This is also affecting the way large media companies cover feeder series with junior drivers building their own brands. “A lot of our time is taken up by F1, but it would be completely amiss to not look at the feeder series, especially because some of these guys will be in F1 in the not too distant future, and they have huge fanbases already. Personally, I think it’s fab that these young drivers get more of a look-in, because it potentially makes them more attractive to F1 teams if they know they are going to bring a fanbase with them,” Jess explained.

Having already achieved an incredible amount, Jess is hugely proud of the journey she has been on so far, though sometimes can be her harshest critic, not recognising her successes. “It’s very easy to give advice, but it’s difficult to take it. I always say that it’s important to look back and give yourself a pat on the back for how far you’ve come. I’m very guilty of always looking for my next success, and then not sitting back to congratulate myself. It can be quite bad for your mental health because you need to say: ‘you know what, I achieved what I set out to’ and just take time to breathe,” she said, adding: “I am so proud of everything I achieved with WTF1, we took it from a known brand to a full media brand inside F1. Also, I was headhunted for this role, so I guess I was doing something right!”

“It’s important to make people feel empowered, regardless of who’s been there before”

With the sport full of inspiring talent, Jess has surrounded herself with such people, though values finding inspiration elsewhere too. “I think Tommy (Bellingham) is just incredible at what he does and is massively inspiring. WTF1 is his baby and I feel very lucky that I was able to be a part of it. I have many inspirational people in my life who have taught me things like work ethic, and looking after yourself and your mental health. I’m lucky to be inspired almost daily by different people, rather than one particular person. I think that’s important because a lot of people talk about why motorsport isn’t as diverse as it should be and that it’s because there aren’t those people to look up to, and I totally agree. However, I also think it’s important to make people feel empowered regardless of who’s been there before. We need trailblazers because they can then inspire others. You can seek inspiration in so many different people and places, and that is really powerful because it gives you a rounded sense of what you connect with. You don’t need others to justify your existence,” Jess described.

As someone who is inspiring to many, she is often asked for her advice. Speaking of what she would say to those who hope to work in the industry, Jess said: “It’s important to think about what you like doing, so if you want to present, then people are going to want to see evidence of that. Portfolios nowadays are way more important than a CV. When I am looking for someone for my team, I’m looking at who you are. What have you made that I can look at and will give me an indication of the quality of your work? Build a portfolio and show me that you can do what I potentially want you to do. Much of motorsport is based on recommendations, so start building a network. Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram are great for that, we have so much contact now that we’ve just never had before.”

All photo credits: Jess McFadyen