This part is strictly optional! It’s here not because I want to tell my life story, but because I think my background has a bearing on my current capabilities.
I read Engineering at Cambridge. Though I’ve never made direct use of my degree, I’ve never regretted studying engineering. It has left me with a grasp of technical matters that has been invaluable ever since. It has helped with clients that sell high-tech products; but more significantly, I work every day with pretty advanced technologies which it’s essential to understand to get the best out of them.
I was photo editor on the university newspaper (Jeremy Paxman was the editor), and I earned pocket money through photography (somewhere out there are some LP record sleeves with my photos on) and running a mini advertising agency with a bunch of friends in Trinity. I was the one-man creative team – the rest were all account men.
Which is ironic, since my first career after graduating was in advertising – and I was an account man! I think because I had done the creative thing as a bit of fun, I didn’t see it then as a real job. One of my earlier life lessons. After five years of account handling, and working my way up to account director, I was ready to move back to the creative side of the business. I had decided that television production (making commercials in the advertising context) was the way to go, and had a job lined up as producer at one of the UK’s top agencies. But I never took it.
Instead an old school friend on a flying visit to London persuaded me over dinner to join him in Singapore, to become responsible for regional marketing for Wella, the international hair cosmetics company (now owned by Procter & Gamble). It was too good an opportunity to miss, to live and work abroad for a while. And good opportunity it proved. After a couple of years doing the marketing job for South-East Asia, a managerial emergency (viz. the production manager discovered taking kick-backs from suppliers) I became stand-in production manager at the factory in Singapore.
As a result of that, head office in Germany, impressed that I seemed to understand both marketing and production, offered me the position of managing director of their subsidiary in Indonesia. I was their youngest MD, and one of only two non-Germans in that position in the world. Indonesia, though chaotic, was hugely exciting, with spectacular sales growth, and a work force to whom nothing was too much trouble. But though I was very happy where I was, I wasn’t planning to spend my life in Asia, and when another opportunity presented itself I felt I had to take it. I was offered the position of Retail Division Director in one of Wella’s key markets, Italy.
And I hated it. Loved the country. Weekends were great! But my job had gone from one where I could make anything happen, where my sleeves were permanently rolled up, both metaphorically and literally, to one where I spent my days, suited and tied, sitting in board meetings, or having lunch with key account customers. I had a staff of over a hundred, including a new sales director who knew his market better than I could ever hope to, and a very experienced marketing manager. And I couldn’t even give someone a promotion, because the personnel director, thanks to Italian employment laws, was able to veto my decisions, which he did constantly from fear of the unions.
It was time to regroup and think seriously about what I had wanted to do before embarking on my overseas adventure. I resigned from Wella, much to my colleagues’ shock and amazement, and set about getting into the production business.
I became a production manager in Italy, catering specifically for overseas production companies who wanted to film in Italy. One of my jobs was the coverage of the World Athletics Championships in Rome for a documentary about British decathlete Daley Thompson. After this the director, Malcolm Brinkworth, who had just started his own production company, Touch Productions, invited me to become his producer in London. I worked with him on factual programmes, and also produced for Justin Cartwright, now an established novelist, then a commercials director.
I joined Spafax, a company that provides inflight entertainment to airlines, as their head of production, and while working for them began to write and direct. I went freelance in 1994, around the time that editing was becoming computerized. I started to do a lot of my own cutting; and when video cameras went digital, and shrank in cost and size, I began to do some of my own filming too, taking me back to my university roots. I have continued to write, produce, and direct television documentaries, but in recent years I have focused on making corporate programmes.
With the ‘digital explosion’, programmes today often mean more than straightforward video – though video remains the cornerstone of most visual communication. Now they might employ interactivity, and get delivered on different platforms, such as mobile devices and the Internet. I haven’t developed the very specific technical skills – many of them more akin to computer programming than visual design – that are needed to best exploit these new opportunities. But what I do have is the combination of technical and creative understanding to be able to get the best out of the people that do have those skills.