A Q&A session with Tom Berry, CEO of Chameleon PR.
Wisbech Grammar School challenges the status quo and encourages a bright and successful path for its pupils, says former pupil, Tom Berry, CEO of Chameleon PR. He shares his passion for his former school in this Q and A session with Alex Laybourne. Head of L6th Form.
1. What did you love about Wisbech Grammar School?
I remember clearly the Open Day when I asked my parents if I could come to Wisbech Grammar School. The Chemistry Department was conducting a simple experiment - burning magnesium ribbon in oxygen - but that intense light and the mystery of how metals can behave in ways I had never seen before made a lasting impression. That's when I really fell in love with learning. Of course, schools come with ups and downs, but part of a rounded education is to encourage kids to find themselves and make the odd mistake. Socially I learnt a lot about myself over those seven years, and I owe a lot to WGS for instilling the confidence into me that has been important throughout my career.
2. What subjects did you take in 6th Form?
In the 6th Form I studied a bit of a mixed bag: English, Chemistry, Biology and AS History of Art. I was also on the Editorial Committee of ‘Riverline’, the School’s annual digest of achievements, was actively involved in drama (yet truly terrible at it) and played the school orchestra.
Academically, I was probably better at sciences, but the arts subjects were a great balance and made me think differently. Honestly, I had very little idea of what I wanted to study at university when I selected my options, so I took those subjects that I really enjoyed. If we're counting, I got A’s in everything except English, which I had decided to read at University. I liked my English teacher and I liked the fact I wasn't very good at it. I also liked the fact that I could buy lots of books and drip around in a long coat with long hair being "arty". It's strange when you look back at the reasons you come to when making major life decisions. I didn't know what I wanted to be, so why not go with my weakest subject; I can only imagine what my parents thought!
I've continued to be involved and interested in every one of my A-level subjects. I still read New Scientist, I conduct chemistry experiments for my kids (burning magnesium ribbon and making non-Newtonian fluids is next up), we are Tate members and the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery is my favourite place in London (thanks to Mr Stump, Head of Art Department). The only thing I haven't really carried on is reading literature. Hey ho.
3. How did 6th Form help to shape your career choice?
That's a difficult question as your whole school experience makes you what you are, but I think I began to find my own voice most clearly in the 6th Form. I think I was also most comfortable in myself in those last two years. Having independence is very important; not being actively taught, but teaching yourself. I think the best testament to the power of the school experience is Tom Calow (former pupil and now Head of Upper Senior School) were in the same class and we were recently able to rattle through the names of everyone in our year at school - and many of us were still in touch. It's that sort of school.
4. What are you doing now?
I got my first job in journalism at Financial Times Business while I was studying for an MA in London. I won’t bore you with the story, but I moved from sales to the editorial department by making a nuisance of myself and convincing one of the department heads to give me a job. I went through a number of editorial and writing jobs over the next ten years, but moved into PR, marketing and communications in 2005.
I joined Chameleon as CEO in 2013 and bought the company this year.
Essentially, we specialise in working with technology companies to help them tell their stories, get better media coverage and market more effectively. Our clients are based all over the world, but many of them are the fast-growing tech businesses from the west coast of the US. We are growing pretty rapidly and our work has recently been nominated for several national and international awards. This success is all about having the right kind of people and the right attitude: we care less about qualifications than hiring inquisitive and brave people who are willing to learn. We also believe strongly in the fact that company culture trumps company strategy every single time. If you are going to spend more time in the office with your colleagues than you do at home with your family and friends, then work needs to feel like a home.
5. What general advice do you have for young people when choosing A-Levels if they want a career in PR/Communications?
I don’t think PR is one of those careers that children growing up desperate to do, so I would choose what feels right for you and see how it goes. PR and Communications is a great job, but it is not a vocation you can train for, so don’t try to second-guess A-level choices. You only really get the opportunity to study once, so do what you love. You can then transition into any communications role you like with a bit of tenacity and lots of energy.
6. What are your 'top tips' for making the most of 6th Form at Wisbech Grammar School?
It sounds very clichéd, but try to learn something every day - not just academically, but about yourself. You will make mistakes, you will make friendships for life, you will fall out with people, you will take the odd wrong turn, but you will also come out of school better prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the wider world.
7. What were your initial reactions when you came back to the School to run one of our enrichment sessions?
The most reassuring thing about coming back to WGS after more than 20 years was the brilliance and enthusiasm of the pupils. Wisbech Grammar, for me, has always about supporting and nurturing inquisitive and sparky approaches - people who see the world differently. The School challenges the status quo and encourages a bright and successful path for its pupils. It was an immense pleasure to talk to the Upper School and I really look forward to coming back again soon.
For more information about life in the 6th Form, we have an Open Event at which you would be most welcome, on Tuesday 17 October 18:00 – 20:00
If you’d like information about joining the 6th Form in September of this year, please contact us