Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Change or Die

This is a slightly tweaked version of a speech I gave to members of the production industry at the November 2010 SPADA conference. It isn’t definitive about the philosophies of the Gibson Group but may perhaps provide an insight into some of the underlying thoughts we have.

The other speaker in the session was Bruce Everett, the new CEO at Oktober who spoke about how he saw Oktober when he arrived and the changes he had set out to implement.

Most of it is still in a speech note form rather than than a written style.

Dave Gibson.

Using the recession to examine your business.

I’m going to talk about re-evaluating goals and diversifying within a flat structure company.

What we both know is that this is a risky session for Bruce and me to do.

Because we may come across as somehow satisfied and smug and behave as if we know it all.

Believe me that is not the case.

The mere fact that we are prepared to talk about this topic is probably the most important thing for you to take out of this session.

It doesn’t matter if you think what we are talking about is wrong or stupid… if it makes you think about what you are doing, then that’s great.

Anyway here goes… me first. What’s the reasoning behind this session at this point in time?

A recession is an opportunity.


Because the market around us changes… e.g. free to air TV stations have less commissioning money.

It creates an environment where we are all more receptive to changing the ways that we do things.

So firstly let’s assume you have or had existing goals. Every company or person working in business has these.

Re-evaluate your goals.

Your personal goals and your company or group goals.

Set new and different expectations of yourself and others around you.

Keep core business parts that are successful and keep your core values (e.g. quality of work…. At GG one of our day to day goals is… is it the best it can be?).

BUT add something new and different. Or push a goal much harder.

Keep the environment fun.  Too much doom and gloom is debilitating. A goal of cutting costs and making more money isn’t really that much fun for anyone. And there are some people in this industry that have fallen into this trap.

I’m going to expand on a few things that we have done at GG.

First of all what business are we in? We used to say the story business. Stories for audiences.

Now we don’t always do story.

Some of our stuff is just pure fun or pure audience interaction.

And we are in the relationship business rather than the audience business in the old pure sense.

A writer who worked on Skitz (a successful 7.30pm sketch comedy show that I produced 4 seasons of for TV3 in the 1990s), told me that he had given a lecture to some film school students and they had asked him who the target demographic for his writing was.

His reply… “my target audience is a grey haired, 40 year old guy”. In other words the producer of the show who decided if his sketches were shot etc etc… you get the point.

So in the strict sense we are in the relationship business.

Everyone at GG has key relationships.

Internally, with the creative community, with freelancer crews and actors and with clients.

Which brings me to the idea of teams. For a number of years now we have been trying to build a flat group structure at GG…

With a bit of a twist

…I subscribe to a secret society called “collaborative individualism”. You can look it up on the net, for example

I always thought the old fashioned idea of teams in business books didn’t really make any sense because I felt we had more ego and individualism involved in our industry.

There’s a quote that I like… “in our obsession with team work we have failed to recognise that individuals are the only source of ideas and energy.”

So I like words like proactive…. initiative… creative… autonomy… empower and so on.

BUT I also like people who work collaboratively at certain times, and know they are in an organisation that gives them just enough support and structure to make things happen for them (kind of like the way a production office puts things in place for a director).

We’ve tried to combine this theory of collaborative individualism with (in my opinion) the antidote to another identified industry weakness;
I think that many of our production competitors are driving their businesses off one key business owner or manager.

One person gets the work and the other people do it.

I wanted a flatter structure where more people had autonomy and their own key client and income relationships.

And I wanted us to have very different types of people doing this, not clones of each other.

What are examples of this?

Examples being such a good way to explain.

Our whole museum/visitor attraction business.
Started out as allied to our core business of telling stories.

It began because I had one producer (Allan Smith) who spoke French and was interested in this type of business.

Examples of earlier ones such as Paleosite and Oyster city in France:

It has evolved into more technology aspects and interactivity e.g. Te Papa wall and now the Vaeggan project in Copenhagen.

You can watch a video about the Vaeggan wall (bear in mind this video is made for people who work in the museum sector).

Now this technology that you have seen is very unique.

It’s multi user, multi touch on each screen and it works outside during daylight and in a wide range of temperatures.

But also it’s not just about archeology and social history.

It’s also about fun / visceral aspects that are starting to happen in a lot of our work… not just story telling.

At the Vaeggan Wall one of the most popular aspects is people sending electronic postcards of themselves to friends and relatives.

And it’s great to watch the fun that younger people have on the ride films and the video wand wall at Te Papa.

When we began this business area it seemed to be very specialist and we had just Allan running it.

As it has progressed, we’ve managed to involve myself, Gary Scott, Eric Zhang, Stephen Richardson and Victoria Spackman in some of the client contact especially recently when Allan has been away in Copenhagen.

No one has been stressed about sharing and everyone has been happy to collaborate.

I want to also talk about the importance of offshore money

Approximately half our income now comes from offshore. A number of years ago we did a SWOT analysis on our business and we were very concerned at the large percentage of NZ network / NZ On Air reliance we had.

We wanted to keep that work, because we love doing it and its good business BUT we wanted it to be a lower percentage of our company income.

So, to raise our overseas income within our philosophy we wanted lots of our people to become involved. In the last six months, six of us have undertaken between one and four major overseas trips.

We have grown our work through a web of personal contacts and relationships… people that we know and get on with and have relationships with. Again, trying to make the GG people that have the relationships a big group.

We are now concentrating very hard on China. This began as often happens through a combination of studying the market and relationships.

We might not have gone in without a strong relationship, which has now widened to several relationships with production companies, networks and even a wine company.

And we now have a Chinese born producer Eric Zhang working with us.

Branded Content

A new area for us. It began just before the recession (in one way not the best timing). But on the other hand it puts us in a good position now as we are coming out of the recession.

We see this as continuing to widen our client and funding base.

Eruption off the back of Aftershock in drama
Ben and Jeremy’s Big Road Trip … comedy bromance.

Examples in China…
We are now planning to extend those wine relationships to food, tourism, and even drama with sponsorship.

So the areas of change that I’ve talked about here are
     Visitor Attractions/Museum
     Offshore money including China
     Branded Content.

But please note that we didn’t do all these things at once.

We started branded entertainment right at the start of the recession. Crazy in one way, but as I said we are in a very strong position now.  China as a place for us to business is a slow burn from say 2 or 3 years ago… and requiring the building of relationships as mentioned before.

And all this time we have still been concentrating on…

The Knitting

We still spend a lot of time developing, pitching and making TV shows. But we are very conscious that so do a lot of other companies. And we don’t want to give up ground to them just because we are diversifying.

As we have always done, we work across a number of genres; kids, comedy, drama, docos, factual. (see our showreel on our home page

We think we are still good at coming up with ideas and we recently reworked our development process to work in a different, more coordinated way.

We are in the front row in terms of being able to bring other money to the table from overseas or branded sources.

But we are aware that being based in Wellington, we don’t have easy access for example to the same number of drama scriptwriters as say our Auckland competitors.

Fishing analogy… we are doing some fishing in the same stretch of water where other people are fishing… but we are also fishing in new stretches of water where there appears to be less fishermen and the fish are perhaps richer.


Change is good.

If you don’t change you die.

Ian Taylor (a producer in Dunedin) will admit he nearly went bust a couple of years ago and last year he was the North and South New Zealander of the year.

Because now he has a very different business model.

But change has to be driven by leadership and passion.

It has to enable people to do their thing in a positive environment.

And there has to be some fun.

The best management book I ever read was called “If you’re not in business for fun or profit, what the hell are you doing there?”

Thank you.

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