My Biggest Mistake: Playing the game

James Strachan, 31, read English at Oxford, then taught English in Japan. He worked for Waterstones, publishing house Macmillan and Philips Media, then as a Havas Interactive consultant. He became managing director of Encyclopaedia Britannica in December.

THE BIGGEST mistake of my career also created the biggest opportunity. My mistake was to get involved in the entertainment industry, something to which I am temperamentally unsuited.

I joined Philips Media in marketing: they produced video games, films and music videos. But making and marketing video games is something only some people can do. My brother is one of the godfathers - he founded Eidos - and he has the knack of making puzzle, fighting or racing games interesting and exciting. I couldn't do it.

I was marketing a game called FX-Fighter, and made a good fist of it. We had a lot of money to spend, and the game was great. But I never felt I cracked the message or the reason why people should buy it, the reason being wish-fulfilment, and wanting to beat the crap out of some aliens. I got much too scientific about it, getting into marketing theories. One lesson I learned was that unless you are well-trained, it's very dangerous to start trying to do things you know you are not good at. The thing is to trust people who can do it.

I joined Philips because I discovered I could do exactly the same job I'd been doing in the book trade, for 50 per cent more money. It was the wrong place to be: Philips didn't understand entertainment. They were trying to market their own CD-platform and blinded themselves to the Internet.I left with nowhere to go. If I had done research, I would have found they are extremely good at making razors and televisions, but not at entertainment.

The experience galvanised me out of a slow-moving industry - the book trade - which I absolutely adored, but which had a nasty habit of paying people far less than they were worth and rewarding them with ridiculously pumped-up job titles. It woke me to the Internet, and I realised there was an exciting career to be had.

I thought Britannica was a bunch of people selling by knocking on doors. But just over a year ago, they let go all their sales force, to build up the electronic business. It brought me to a place I felt I should have been in all along.

The trick is that if you make a mistake, you use it to your advantage, admitting it and asking yourself: "What am I going to do?"

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