The man behind countless TV hits, James Burstall, reveals how the production sector responded to Covid
James Burstall, CEO of independent global TV production company Argonon, thought he was about to lose everything when Covid-19 shut the sector down. But with a strong team, financial nous and a tested strategy, the business emerged stronger than ever. Lysanne Currie hears how
Do you know how many staplers your business has? James Burstall does. It was one of the things he looked at when, in March 2020, the TV production sector closed down overnight. He had to, as he now says, take a scalpel to his business, its revenues and costs, even down to the stationery.
“We were challenged,” he recalls. “We had to do open heart surgery on the business and in the last two weeks of March 2020 we did that. We literally went through every single line of every single budget, and we had to make decisions. Can we afford to continue with this? Can we keep our people but maybe reduce the hours or reduce the time spent on difficult conversations. Some things we couldn’t continue. I had to lead from the front so I took a salary cut. That was critical for my own conscience – and it sent the right message.”
Argonon today is thriving – revenue from its nine production companies was £55.6m in 2021 – and its shows, which range from The Masked Singer to Dispatches, from Worzel Gummidge to The Billionaires Who Shaped Our World, have won some 130 awards. But the business, which had been listed in the London Stock Exchange 1000 Companies to Inspire Britain 2016 report, did come very close to collapsing altogether. James puts its resilience down to the strength of his people (“I was so amazed at how our team pulled together”) and to a strategic approach to a crisis which he has now shared in his book, The Flexible Method. It features 16 lessons on how to look after a company’s finances and people and “emerge from disasters stronger and fitter”.
“Our methodology had begun in the credit crunch in 2008, but we fine-tuned it in the pandemic as we used it on a daily basis,” he says. The Flexible Method does significantly more than just draw from Argonon’s own pandemic experience. James interviewed CEOs and leaders from a range of sectors, from politics to estate agents. “Everybody is affected in different ways by these different crises and has come up with very innovative ways of reimagining their business plan,” he says. “We all have our war wounds – these experiences are painful and difficult – but if you are brave, I’m convinced your business can come out fitter and stronger.”
James remembers the impact of spring 2020. “It was really brutal, our whole industry was shut down,” he recalls. “Argonon’s nine production companies make 400 hours of content a year and we were told there would be no production whatsoever. If we don’t produce, there is no money and you can’t keep the doors open. Not producing TV programmes was not an option.”
The first thing James and the team did (after making sure all crews returned home safely) was to create Covid protocols so they could get back out to work. “It was a massive logistics task headed up by our head of legal and HR,” he says. “It took weeks – we looked at everything we needed to do to make sure, first and foremost, that our people were safe.
“Every detail was covered – over 1,000. For example, if you’re going to be on set, you’ll have to take all the handles off every toilet door. If we were filming a scene with two people, they obviously couldn’t be two metres apart. We had to think about how to create bubbles and then concentric bubbles. We obviously had to feed people on set, but how could we get the food in and out again? What to do if we were using a car? If a number of people touch it then it is obviously ‘contaminated’ and has to be completely sanitised before a second take. There were hundreds of things to think about and all had to be worked through in fine detail.”
The process took many weeks. Argonon shared its thoughts and solutions with the Producers’ Alliance industry body. “And then other companies started coming up with their own protocols, which they shared with us,” he says. “There was a real sense of camaraderie in the industry – we’re all in this together. We came up with these very clearly defined, draconian systems and then told our clients – BBC, Netflix, ITV – that we could get back to work in 2020 and keep our people safe, and produce programmes within budget and on deadline and schedule. They were cautious but they looked at our protocols and trusted us.”
Creating the protocol handbook was just the beginning of the type of creative thinking that, James says, carried Argonon through the crisis and has now fundamentally changed the way the company operates. He gives the example of House Hunters International, a US property show that features Americans moving abroad, for which the production crew would typically travel to the families’ new home countries.
But no longer. “On day one of lockdown, flights were grounded,” James recalls. “There’s no way anyone was going to do any travelling. We had to think how to work around this. One of the team pointed out that, for example, South Korea had just opened up or that New Zealand was looking positive. We then thought what would have been unthinkable before – hiring and training up local crews to be directed remotely”.
The idea was met with some scepticism but it was the only option: filming was done by drone, Facebook, WhatsApp, “whatever the director could use – and the finished work had the same high production quality as pre-pandemic.”
Argonon hasn’t gone back to its old time-honoured methods – the company now has 100 crews across the world. “Our teams are now no longer battling constant jetlag and – crucially – this new way of working is much, much better for the planet,” says James.
Even the most brilliant innovation can’t save a company if there is no cash in the bank, however. As James says in his book: “Cashflow may not be sexy, but where would creatives be without it? If creativity is at the heart of a business, money is its sinews or lifeblood.”
Argonon’s finance department, already part of the leadership team, came even more to the fore during the pandemic. “We put a number of new systems in place, including a ‘Cobra’ team which included both Group Director of Finance, Matt Richardson, and the COO, Laura Bessell, who is also a chartered accountant. That team made the big decisions about the organisation during the crisis.”
He also implemented a new strategic board for the nine production companies under the Argonon umbrella and the five key divisions: finance, HR, PR, legal and IT: “The board meets every month. This was an opportunity for each of those departments to bring to the table any concerns they might have, anything that needs to be nipped in the bud. Obviously, that work was happening previously but it was just being filtered through different departments. Bringing us together as one collective body of knowledge makes sure that the business is running in a smoother and more agile way.”
Prioritising profit became an overnight imperative: “We had to prioritise cashflow and did that by focusing on services that generated the most profit – and letting go of the least profitable areas that may be costing too much money.”
Cost control was key: the team went through the cash and the liabilities, working out different scenarios. They worked closely with the production units to identify any under-usage and, crucially, got the bank on board early “to make sure they were confident and supportive of [the board’s] re-forecast”. They started to contract new suppliers in different ways, staggering payments and building in get-out clauses. The board looked inward, scrutinising every area of expenditure, but also seeing if they had any other ways of capitalising or repurposing the company’s assets.
James did exactly this with one of Argonon’s old shows, Cash in the Attic. The programme had run for hundreds of episodes on BBC One from 2002 to 2012, and had been sold all over the world. “It occurred to me that the show might just work again,” he recalls. “Everybody was stuck at home and struggling for cash. Could the time be right to revive it?”
James rewrote the show with colleagues in LA – “I needed their fresh eyes” – and sold it to HGTV, Discovery and Channel 5. “We are now going to turn it into a gaming app as well – it was an opportunity that emerged from the crisis.”
James believes in always looking for opportunity, even when the outlook seems gloomy, and he urges leaders to be ready to move fast. “We have to stay very well informed,” he says. “And you need your team to be well informed because things do change, and they change regularly. There will always be change, and there will always be crises.”
He outlines the challenges: the squeeze on talent (the predicted 20,000 shortfall of technical staff by 2025), the impact of Brexit and economic volatility. But James is, for all the crisis planning, still very optimistic about the creative sector in the UK. He cites the stats: pre-pandemic, the sector contributed some £116bn and employed two million people.
“Historically, and recently, the creative sector has been regarded as a bit of a nice add-on, but we are a major driver of the economy,” he says. “We are bigger than aeronautics and automotive combined, and bigger than life sciences. I’m really comforted by the fact that both Lucy Frazer [the Culture Secretary] and Keir Starmer and his team have all been reaching out to us, and they see the creative sector as one of the top five growth industries of the future, which is exactly how we should be.
“We are brilliant at attracting the world’s talent to this country. So much of the world’s most accoladed content comes out of the UK, and we export to the world. It demonstrates what brilliant people we have in this country and how we do attract the best, we nurture them, and then we can export that expertise to the rest of the world. Yes we have gone through crises but we have survived and thrived. I feel very confident about the sector – and the future.”
Argonon's most successful shows:
- House Hunters International
- The Masked Singer
- The Masked Dancer
- Abandoned Engineering
- Lost Treasures of Egypt
- Massive Engineering Mistakes
- Cash in the Attic
- Europe from Above
- Wicked Wild West
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