67: "The Explosion Expert" - David Abraham

DA Headshot [1].jpeg

"The Explosion Expert"

This is my conversation with David Abraham of Wonderhood Studios. Wonderhood is a startup - a modern media company built around a content and programming studio and a full-strength creative agency for major brands.  David’s experience comes first from the London creative agency world of CDP and Chiat / Day. And most recently from seven years running Channel Four in the UK.


Three Takeaways

  • Context - why is this the goal?

  • Casting - have clarity in choosing your team

  • Consequences - what is the end goal?


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 67: "The Explosion Expert" - David Abraham

I’m Charles Day and this is Fearless!!

This is my conversation with David Abraham of Wonderhood Studios, which we recorded earlier this summer in London.

Wonderhood is a startup - a modern media company built around three areas of specialty. A content and programming studio that’s developed across multiple genres for broadcasters and platforms. A full-strength creative agency for major brands. And a third specialism in media data insight and the development of future digital networks that will supported both studios.

David’s experience comes first from the London creative agency world ofCDP and Chiat / Day. And most recently from seven years running Channel Four in the UK.

The mission of Channel Four is to take creative risks, to challenge audiences and to stimulate the creative industries of the UK. The success of that mission is measured by the government regulator and by Parliament.

Art meet government. In that environment, the balance between risk taking and delivery is a battle to be fought every day.

“The notion that creativity in the world of media can be reckless and cool is one that I definitely wouldn't subscribe to. I describe a lot of what I've been involved with over the years as controlled explosions. You want to have impact with your audience. You want to do things differently, but you definitely need to predetermine the various bear traps that you'll be walking very close to as you try to get those reactions.”

There are a a lot of people who see creativity as an either or. Either be careful or be creative. They act as though creativity can not exist in a disciplined environment.

I believe the opposite. I believe creativity can thrive in tightly controlled conditions, provided the goal is clear and the obvious obstacles have been removed. Or at least signposted.

Creativity is unleashed in direct proportion to the amount of intention you put into defining the why and the what. Why do we need to solve this problem. What are the problems that might get in the way.

Creativity provides the how. The magical genius that allows us to take leaps of faith and imagination.

That’s when the controlled explosions that David describes vibrate outwards, across the cultural landscape rather than blowing up in your face.

Here’s David Abraham.

Charles:

David, welcome to Fearless. Thank you for being here.

David Abraham:

Thank you for inviting me.

Charles:

I should say I thank you for having me in your office in London. When did creativity first show up in your life? What's your first memory of something appearing as creative to you?

David Abraham:

My father sitting in the corner of the living room sketching buildings for he's an architect. And I could tell as a young child, as a young boy, that he would problem solve with a pencil and a bit of paper. And after dinner and I would be chatting to him but I'd be watching him very intently thinking through a design problem. And that is a very vivid early memory at the same time all of his brothers and the other parts of my family are Jewish entrepreneurs. So I sort of experienced a different kind of creativity with them which was to do with business and to do with brands and ideas and selling. And I think those two strains of sort of pure creativity and commercial creativity sort of were in my bloodstream very, very early on.

Charles:

Did you see him sketching frantically every night or was he prolific in terms of-

David Abraham:

Yeah. He was. Actually I think he was a very talented draftsman as young boy and a young man and then as a professional architect throughout my childhood. He would problem solve. And you know I remember the drawing board being in the study. Actually he very touchingly showed me a few years ago a design that was on the drawing board on the day I was born. I was born at home and he wrote down my name and the precise time I was born on a drawing that he was working on which he then kept.

Charles:

How fantastic. You where it is now?

David Abraham:

Yeah, it's in ... he's got a drawing chest in his study at home where I grew up and when he retired he took to painting very, very seriously. And has produced hundreds of works of art as a retired creative person.

Charles:

So it's just part of who he is.

David Abraham:

Absolutely.

Charles:

Where you a risk taker as a kid?

David Abraham:

I think not an extreme risk taker. But I think I was ... I had a lust for life as a young boy. I grew up in the countryside. We were very free. I remember roaming around on building sites and in quarries and woods, you know in a very kind of uncontrolled way and I have fond memories of the freedom that I had as childhood growing up outside London.

Charles:

So you said that you were inspired by both creativity through sort of an artistic architectural lens and also business. How did those play a role? How did they inform you as you went through your educational process?

David Abraham:

I think that you know to be brought up by an architect is to be aware of formal training from a professional training, long years of study. I think becoming an architect is as long as being a doctor. Lots of engineering, lots of math, lots of discipline. And buildings should not fall down. I remember my father explaining this to me. Rule number one. And that synthesis of those different disciplines applied to creating architecture.

I suppose sort of it did influence my commitment towards study. I wasn't a particularly gifted student as a young boy and actually failed what was called the 11-plus which was the basic selective exam that every child took at that time to decide which level of education they went into. I was state educated and I failed that exam and went to a local comprehensive school but then as a slightly older student in my teens, I was fortunate that my history teacher identified me as someone who has some potential. And to both my surprise and my family's surprise put me forward to go to apply to Oxford to read history and I was fortunate to get a place. Then suddenly that was a big sort of stretch for me and something that I seized and wanted to succeed in.

And I suppose that experience of being less gifted and then more able that evolution as a young child was quite an important experience for me too, that I understood the difference between not accepting your limitations and working towards improving your potential. That was an important lesson, life lesson for me.

Charles:

For the people listening who don't know, that's an extraordinarily rare transition, to go from a comprehensive school in the UK into Oxford or Cambridge. It doesn't happen very often. Why do you think you failed your 11-plus because clearly it's not intellectual issue here?

David Abraham:

I think I was probably a just late developer. And I think that perhaps, the state education I was receiving in the early part of my childhood, was not of a particularly high quality. My parents and I don't remember them being particularly pushy. I was spending a lot time running in the fields but having said that, I was aware 'cause both of my parents immigrated to the UK after the war, that I had a kind of hinterland that was different to my friends that I grew up with. Both my parents are Jewish and you know the war did loom large in their lives and our relatives sort of lived in different parts of the world and we saw them occasionally.

And so again, that was another component of the sorts of diversity that I sort of grew up with. But yeah, I was very fortunate. I would think I was I first person in my school to go to Oxford. So and obviously you look back as a much older adult on the significance and good fortune of that.

Charles:

Did you have to change your self perception?

David Abraham:

I think the thing about arriving in Oxford in the early 1980s as a state school kid, was to be aware that people who have more privilege can also be incredibly bright and very hard working. And it levels the playing field completely to know that someone might be better read than you at that age, who may have traveled further and had more experiences, could nevertheless be a good friend and someone from who you could learn a lot. And I think the thing about the Oxford I remember is as a center of excellence for a generation of people, some of whom came from more privileged backgrounds than others. But I don't also remember it being universally privileged either.

Charles:

You got into the media world straight out of university, right?

David Abraham:

I did. I actually was aiming to get into film and TV as many people ... I mean I sort of knew that there was certain fields that wasn't going to be attracted to was probably law, banking, to sort of call traditional professions. And I was looking for areas which could blend some creativity and business and film and TV obviously hugely attractive. I was a very closed shop at that time and I applied for a postgraduate course at Middlesex Poly to study TV production. There were four places that I needed a grant and I was rejected. As a source of some amusement I kept the rejection letter when I became a chief executive of Channel Four.

But again, I know that sort of life lesson I suppose of, okay, I can't go down that route, and funny enough a girlfriend of mine had just got a job as receptionist in this thing called ad agencies. And she said, "Well, they create interesting content. They come up with ideas. Come and have a look at who this works." And suddenly I realized, "Oh, that is really interesting and exciting." I plunged into the world of being an account manager and being trained in a good agency and then moving through the gears of different creative companies in the 80s and 90s.

Charles:

What drew you to content specifically?

David Abraham:

I think like every young person in my generation, we grew up with television. It had a huge impact on our lives. Going to the cinema was an amazing magically transporting experience. My father did listen to a lot of classical music. I was obviously like every young kid into the bands and the music of my era. So for me the options to actually earn a living anywhere near any of that was a dream come true. And I was you know a really enthusiastic young executive who ... and I enjoyed every part of it. I enjoyed the business side. I enjoyed the interacting with creators and learning the difference between a good idea and one that's lazy.

And that really came home to roost when I joined Collett Dickenson Pearce & Partners which was still at that sort of towards the tail end but nevertheless it still was palpable, they're passionate, commitment to creative excellence.  And the produced famous campaigns for Hamlet and Heineken, Benson and Hedges, and products of course that would make people's toes curl now but the advertising was extraordinary and the character were extraordinary.

And there were agencies full of people from the east end and from sort of very posh parts of society working together to produce entertainment that would build brands. And everything was still done on celluloid and there was still typography and people were still getting their hands dirty and Fleet Street still existed. There was no Internet. There was no mobile. It was a physical process of distribution and creation which I absolutely loved.

Charles:

Was it a welcoming industry?

David Abraham:

Yes. I think if people could tell that you enjoyed what you were doing, I would say, yes. And it was also an industry where your wits and your ability to sell and engage with your colleagues, you know made a difference and you got the feeling that you could be successful if you were good at those things.

Charles:

And the rules were more defining back then, right? I mean it was a clearly sense of what to do and what not to do.

David Abraham:

Yeah. Look, I was a young account person who was essentially trying to champion good work with clients and clients were certainly more at removed from the creative process as the manufacturers of products. I remember I used to get on the train and go to the Shredded Wheat factory every week and look at the sales charts and then but also then get out the TV script and start talking about what campaigns we build the brand. And it was a brilliant combination of manufacturing and sales and creativity where the ad agency was the repository of a lot of their marketing wisdom and certainly the provider of the creativity that could bring the brand alive.

And yet, what I experienced at CDP was a failing model as time went on because it was too stressful for the clients to be delivered their creativity in that way, and they're kind of, it's got to be this way or the highway. And for creative people to be treated quite as sort of in such an ivory tower as they were. And I got to hear about Jay Chiat's experiments in California with more collaborative forms of creating ideas that were informed by good planning input as well which he had welcomed into his process from Britain. And I thought, "That's a smarter way. So don't compromise on your standards but make it more collaborative in how you work with clients."

And this balancing collaboration and standards is a fascinating one. You can never quite get it entirely right but I learnt a lot from that transition from CDP to Chiat/Day where I had five very happy years.

Charles:

How much do you think that was the difference between the English advertising culture and the American advertising culture?

David Abraham:

It probably ... as a good observation I hadn't thought of it like that. I think certainly, suddenly opening up to how creativity was evolving in the US, particularly that time where brands like Apple were beginning to express themselves in new ways, was very refreshing. And of course, it coincided with the arrival of computing power into the workplace. And I remember very vividly as I was invited by MT Rainey to join her new Chiat/Day office that she was launching in London.

She showed me an Apple Macintosh computer on everyone's desk because it wasn't connected to this thing called the Internet at that time. That came a bit later. But you know this mandate from Jay Chiat that we should all use these machines and no longer have a typing pool was a huge moment as were his subsequent experiments with the thing that he called the idea, the Virtual Office, which of course he took to a very extreme level of experimentation around the world. But it was an amazing thing to be part of.

And I vividly remember being on an off-site with many of the alumni of that company in California and seeing my first email ever in my life being sent from a hotel room in Santa Monica to an office in Santa Monica, it was something of that ilk. And people starting to talk about this thing called the Internet and all of those vivid memories of that middle period of my advertising career.

Charles:

How quickly did you realize the change that was going to create?

David Abraham:

I think it was one of those facet cases it sort of ... it felt like a big moment but in a sense it unfolded quite slowly because you know the dial up Internet was just savagely slow and inefficient. And so of course, all of these revolutions have sort of eventually accumulated but in the beginning they felt more like CB Radio. It felt like a very kind of remote thing that was going on initially.

Charles:

Yeah and the early browsers were so primitive weren't they?

David Abraham:

They were. And it was-

Charles:

Dial up speed was [crosstalk].

David Abraham:

I mean email was the thing I think that affected the workplace fundamentally and this whole notion that Jay said, "You will no longer have an assistant typing for you. You will do this for yourself." And then of course, the mobile phone emerged alongside that and it changed how we did our jobs.

Charles:

Interesting that 25 years later, email is still the most reliable, dependable form of Internet communication, for all the other stuff that's going on, we all I think still come back to email as reliable way to connect to each other.

David Abraham:

Yeah.

Charles:

You started your own agency.

David Abraham:

We did. It was a deliberate accident in a sense that Jay announced quite suddenly and sadly for us, 'cause he's spent a lot of time in London cultivating the agency and encouraging it and we were doing some quite nice business but he decided he was going to retire. He wanted to sell his network to Omnicom who were going to merge it with TBWA offices around the world, creating agency that we now know.

But in London, completely, kind of just the way the cards fell. There were lots of client conflicts and we sat there with TBWA's London client list and ours and we sort of thought, "This is going to be quite awkward." We have a bank. They have a bank. We have a computer. They have, you know. So we literally, in a course of a matter of days, rang our clients and said, "Look, what's the best the thing for you?" And these clients had selected us that we weren't really global network as such. We won these clients locally. And they said, "Look, if there's a way in which you can continue serving us in an independent fashion, we would support that."

So we got on a plane. I was 32 years old and Quinn Adalaw who was a little older than me and we just walk into Omnicom in New York and explained the situation and said, "Look, would you consider a management buyout?" And they were creative in their response and I had to work quite quickly 'cause they were trying to close the global merger and we were probably a bit of an irritant into that point of slowing things down. And I remember we agreed in the morning, the principle of a buyout and then we went for lunch. And then we sort of realized in a very childish way that where were we going to find the money in an afternoon to pay the price that we had agreed. So we went back and said as really awkward again, "But do you think we could do this on some kind of earn out model so we don't have to go and raise capital externally and we'll just agree a price and we'll pay it back to you within a fixed period of time."

And again, it was I think showing foresight on Omnicom's part that they said, "Okay. We'll give that a go." And we got back on the plane to London, and on the plane after couple glasses of Champagne we said, "Well, okay who now owns this company?" And it wasn't it at all clear to us whether it was the two of us or just on this deal or the 30 people who were in the company at that point.

And by the time we got back to London, we came up with this idea, "What about creating the world's first employee ad agency? Because we've been in the fortunate position of taking over this asset but we don't have to have external shareholders." So we literally walked back in the office, told everyone what was going on and then we started researching this thing called Employee Share Ownership Trusts. And over the course of that-

David Abraham:

... in this thing called employee share ownership trusts. Over the course of the next few weeks and months, we decided actually this could be quite a powerful model to drive individual performance and also to drive the alignment of client interests because they will see that it will be a powerful way of making commitments between the staff and the client's objectives. And so it proved to be. This was an extraordinarily successful company for a full five years. It became agency of the year. It was awarded not just for its creativity but also as a company. I think Harvard Business Review wrote about it and Fast Company. And then it became an amazing lesson in the limits of youthful idealism because as it became bigger, it inevitably needed some kind of reform and reset as we were contemplating offices in other countries and servicing much bigger global clients and in truth, we didn't quite have the knowledge and maturity at that point in our lives to know how to reset it because we'd become quite ideologically aligned with the idea of this entity not selling out in the traditional sense.

One of the concepts I had been exploring was that we had built up some cash reserves in the business such that we could begin to diversify our model and start to diversify into other areas of creativity. At that time, the independent production sector in the UK was about to take off because there had been changes in regulation around rights in the UK amongst the companies that were providing programs to the public service broadcasters. The government, there was a lobby that was encouraging a new regime whereby if the BBC or Channel 4 or ITV commissioned a program that those rights could be retained by the independent producers to encourage that sector to grow, and it was a very successful intervention, which to this day creates a lot of value in the production sector in the creative industries in the UK. My aspiration at the time as I started to meet people in the sector was oh maybe we could mix these two things together. I started to float this into my work as counsel at St. Luke's. We had a philosophical conversation about the reserves of the company being there for job security rather than for diversification, at which point I realized we'd sort of created a model that was perhaps too orientated at that point around the interests of the staff at the expense of the interests of the business, which have to obviously be aligned and balanced carefully.

So it was a huge lesson for me, and I obviously began to become quite frustrated with how to govern this company that had nevertheless been very successful. I just out of the blue got a call from a headhunter coming back off the new year break. Would I like to come and run The Discovery Channel in the UK? Because I'd been thinking about content in a new way, that offer, suddenly it was one that gave me a new direction, literally at the halfway point in my career. I was very fortunate then to get the opportunity to go you and run a TV network.

Charles:

Did that feel like a risk making that jump?

David Abraham:

It was. It was a steep learning curve because broadcasting is a more capitalized business. You're taking big risks on content. You're taking risks on the engineering and distribution aspects of getting your signals up into satellite and uplink and editing your material, etc., live programming, acquired programming. So it was something that was a much bigger business where I suddenly had P&L responsibility because I was general manager of the network in the UK. I became a general manager of TLC in the U.S., and that was a few years later, but I sort of got thrust into sort of the expansion of multichannel television in the UK, in the U.S. and Europe, which was an extraordinary experience in its own right because it was when analog to digital switchover was occurring in the main medium in the living room.

Charles:

Did you hesitate in making that decision? Did anything give you real pause or was the opportunity just so compelling you felt I've got to do this?

David Abraham:

It was definitely compelling, but it was definitely scary because when you're commissioning programming, you're taking quite a big capital decisions and you are concerned to know that audiences will come. It is an editorial job. You can spend months and months developing, building, marketing a show and then if it doesn't rate, that's effectively a write-off on your P&L. So you get used to the feeling of taking real risks. In advertising, it felt the risks were somewhat more precarious because clearly you wanted to get your work to help your clients' brands grow, but at the same time, your position in that was to some extent secondary in economic terms because you had a service relationship with a client, whereas if you can't monetize your audiences, you feel it immediately at 9:36 a.m. when the ratings come in, and then the ad buys call you up and shout at you because you've mispriced the spots or under-delivered. It's a very immediate and quite brutal form of trading.

Charles:

How did you push yourself through the concern or the anxiety?

David Abraham:

By learning quickly and by understanding that these adjacent parts of the creative industries all have their own language and value systems and priorities and making sure that when one felt less secure about one's footing, one went away and thought very carefully about what one was doing. I definitely stumbled into some furniture quite early on, realizing that television was a different business and ultimately probably a slightly more serious business. It's an industry. I was responsible for very large amounts of money with dozens and dozens if not hundreds of suppliers, and their livelihoods were relied upon my decision making. Then those responsibilities became international because I was procuring and commissioning content from L.A., from New York, from London and from around the world in multiple genres of wildlife, natural history, police programming and a certain amount of investigative journalism. Suddenly, I was exposed more and more and more to the mainframe of how media operates.

Charles:

You're clearly thoughtful, and I'm struck by the comment you just made that you would just take time to go and think about it. But I also know that's not an easy thing to do, that leaders have a really difficult time just extracting themselves from the pressure of the day to day to actually think about what they're trying to do. How did you give yourself, acquire the discipline, how did you actually carve the time out to do that?

David Abraham:

I suppose my brain is working 24/7. You're aware of your effectual process even when you're sleeping because you're processing and problem solving in different ways, sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious. But also have a very significant bias toward selecting colleagues and peers and surrounding myself with people who genuinely are smarter than me in a whole range of things, whether it's finance or aspects of creativity that I had less experience in or the science of and the engineering of distributing digital content. I'm hungry to be with the best people in each of those walks of life. I got exposed to some of the most talented people within the BBC, which is one of the biggest studios in the world of creativity, of journalism, of storytelling. When I'm learning from those people, I'm in high state [00:26:30] of flow. I'm not really aware of myself at all. I'm just aware of being part of a conversation, which is driving a project or a business forward.

Charles:

When you're looking for those kinds of people, what kind of attributes are you looking for? Finding people who are the best in class at being able to bring creativity to life in the business environment is a tough thing to find.

David Abraham:

It is, and true talent is rare, and I'm not afraid to work with people with rough edges or even behavioral norms, which would not be comfortable in a more traditional business environment. If I sense that, the talent and the integrity of what they're trying to do is uppermost in their thoughts and in their behaviors. I don't shy away from difficult people. I'd like to think that over the years, people know that I'm a champion of good creativity and risk taking, and certainly, fast forwarding to my responsibilities at Channel 4, I think ultimately as the leader of Channel 4, that is your job. The remit of the channel is to take creative risks, to challenge audiences and also to stimulate their creative industries of the UK to take those creative risks. It's almost in government legislation that you should do that. It's kind of written out. And you're measured upon it by the regulator and by Parliament. It's a pretty extraordinary job in managed creative risk taking in multiple genres of feature filmmaking and documentaries and broadcast journalism, which requires you therefore to think very carefully about surrounding yourself with the best of the best of each of those different areas.

So I've had the privilege of seeing these different tribes of creativity working within their areas but also working constantly at ways of choreographing those tribes alongside each other, such that a channel such as Channel 4 becomes more than the sum of its parts and the audience perceives there to be a sense of personality and character that comes through all of those editorial decisions and all those marketing decisions and all of those decisions of tone of voice and the reason why you take the risks that you take. For me, during my tenure at Channel 4, the Superhumans campaign for the London Paralympic Games was a pivotal moment in bringing and orchestrating all of that to a very high level of concentration that delivered something that was very transformational for the country at that moment, which was to introduce paralympic sport into national consciousness and by doing that, change perceptions around disability.

Charles:

To a point, extraordinarily talented people don't sit, don't follow behavioral norms. Two questions: One, where do you draw the line? What are they allowed to do and what are they not allowed to do? Let me start with that and then I have a follow-up for you.

David Abraham:

I've definitely worked with talented people who are thoughtless in how they interact with other people to the point that it becomes disruptive, and I have learned that it is preferable to work with equally talented creative people who are more thoughtful in their behavior. I think over time, I have reduced the number of occasions where I've worked with the former or chosen to work the former by accident. Because for me, there's a difference between someone who I think has the decency of say a Steven Spielberg as someone to work with and someone who is extremely difficult to work with but is producing good work. The bit that sits in the middle is I think this emerging area of kind of I suppose mental health and mental stability where someone is not seeking to be difficult, but they have their own demons, which are closely associated with their creativity. Again, I think the leader of these different tribes of talented people I've come to understand the role of disciplines like coaching and support to help people to sort of optimize their performance whilst not exposing themselves to some of the risks involved in high performance in a competitive environment.

Charles:

Are there absolute nos from your perspective?

David Abraham:

Yes, I think that whether it's bullying or sexism or racism in the workplace, that has to be a zero tolerance kind of response. I think we as leaders who have now been involved in doing this over multiple decades, we've come to understand that things that were acceptable in the '80s and '90s clearly are no longer acceptable. Younger generations are properly demanding different norms. At the same time, one doesn't want to have bland environments in which energy and electricity and debate and constructive criticism are regarded as insulting. I think there's again a generational debate to be had around safe spaces versus high creativity.

Charles:

How do you create an environment that encourages, gives permission to that kind of vibrancy, that kind of diversity of opinion and perspective and passion in many cases?

David Abraham:

I think that again, it's selection of teams and values and the culture that one leads by and the fact that I always aim to make it very clear in any meeting I've ever been in that the youngest and perhaps least experienced or confident person in the room can say something that can be game changing through encouragement whilst at the same time taking big creative risks in film and TV and journalism requires backup and judgment and some experience as well. So you try to mix these things together, keep it fresh [00:33:00] but deliver things that can land. My experiences at Channel 4 in particular with investigative journalism taught me that preparation is everything when you're taking journalistic risks. The further out you're pushing things, the more considered and careful and legally prepared you need to be. The notion that creativity in the world of media can be reckless and cool is one that I definitely wouldn't subscribe to. I describe a lot of what I've been involved with over the years as controlled explosions. You want to have impact with your audience. You want to do things differently, but you definitely need to predetermine the various bear traps that you'll be walking very close to as you try to get those reactions.

Charles:

You're essentially creating a map.

David Abraham:

As best as you can. And surrounding yourself with the writers of things to ask all of those what if questions.

Charles:

On a day to day basis, given as you said casting is critical, but on a day to day basis, how do you encourage people to lean further into the risk side of that kind of work?

David Abraham:

Definitely by leading clearly when things fail. In television and film in particular, there is a high failure rate. It's easy, therefore, to attempt to do something a bit more predictable to reduce the failure rate, but that in itself becomes a recipe for future failure. So quite often, I would make a point that if a commissioning editor had placed a big bet, swinging for the fences with a big budget and a big marketing plan and the show had flopped, I'd walk through the flaw, visibly stand by their desk at 9:37 when the ratings come through and said that was a really good attempt to do something different. It looks like it hasn't worked, but you're not losing your job this morning. We have to pick ourselves up, learn from it and move forward. Now again, the counterbalance to that is if someone does that repeatedly, maybe they're in the wrong job. But certainly, some of the most successful creative people I've ever worked with have pushed things some of the time toward failure and the relationship with failure as I think your entire set of interviews that you've delivered is that's at the very heart of it, living very consciously in the knowledge that fear of failure is something to be lived with consciously, whether it's a business failure or a creative failure or a decision about how a team should be built. It's just impossible to get breakthroughs without risking that.

When the team that looked at the Paralympic Games in Rio were preparing for that ..

David Abraham:

... our Olympic Games in Rio. We're preparing for that event. They knew that the Superhumans in 2012 was one of the most feted campaigns, in Cannes for example, of four years previous. And they must have been full of fear as they then attempted to do the second Superhumans campaign, but that fear was probably channeled ina very constructive way towards being something equally, if not even more, extraordinary.

Charles:

There's such a fine line between fear and excitement, isn't there?

David Abraham:

Yes, I suppose they're almost adjacent in those parts of the brain, and certainly doing a startup involves sort of living with quite a lot of fear.

Charles:

Did you budget for fear? Do you budget for fear? I'm sorry, do you budget for failure?

When you were running Channel Four, were you, given as you said, there's enough content that's not going to work the way you're hoping.

David Abraham:

Yeah, you do to the extent that a TV schedule is an exercise in cross-subsidy. So, things which are reliable and commercially effective help to subsidize the level of risk that you can take elsewhere in a schedule. And, in the case of Channel Four, deliver the remit, which requires you to do some things which are not commercial, and take commercial risks with new directors and new writers and parts of the schedule which are clearly less mass market, but important for society and for plurality of voices and views.

So, the answer is you do sort of live in a world where you're balancing, making those trade offs constantly, based on your experience. And then you do, occasionally, write things off, literally, and development budgets are about experimenting in a controlled way and having lots of ideas to select from. And building television shows and films and formats involves that kind of experimentation, which sometimes is jettisoned, but might lead to learning which will then get you to go again into a slightly [00:38:00] different angle. It's definitely been the case that some of the biggest hit TV shows that I've had the good fortune to have on channels that I've run, have been the product of people repeatedly trying to re-answer questions in slightly different ways, because, I had an instinct that you could break through into a bigger idea in a certain area. And certainly, examples like Gogglebox on Channel Four that was an important, and is an important show for the channel.

Or going back to previous eras, programs like Big Brother, that were very important for very long periods of time, they came from quite unexpected places, where often the hybrid of different genres working together in different ways was the thing that was, that process was the thing that created the idea that was different. And that blending of, overlaps between these different specialisms, is, for me, where the most interesting things often happen.

Charles:

When you hire the right people, do you think, is the struggle to slow them down, because they're so engaged in pushing the envelope? Or is the struggle to actually get them to go as far as you need them to go to do extraordinary work?

David Abraham:

I would answer that in part on the basis of age. I think young creative people, who are getting going and have got fantastic energy will tend to hurl themselves into it, into things, in a different way than more experienced people. And, again, the inter-relationship between mentors and sort of, I suppose, learners and students in the culture of creative organizations, whether it's ad agencies or production companies, is terribly important. Because, you know, clearly older generations don't know how new generations see the world. But the new generations have less experience to execute things well, and you want that interplay.

I think as people get older, they probably do get more cautious, but the most exceptional people, whether it's Danny Boyle or ... They will keep pushing themselves into new genres and new opportunities. I've seen that repeatedly, that there is a rare breed of creative person who constantly does reinvent.

Charles:

How do you lead?

David Abraham:

Through building on the various experiences that I've had over decades of things that have worked and not worked, and always focusing on a balance between picking people carefully, giving them a space to express themselves, clearly avoiding micromanaging, but at the same time being very present when it's needed. Both for support and for control and responsibility. Ultimately, to run Channel Four is to be its editor in chief and to be legally responsible for its output. Therefore, you feel very directly the inter-relationship you have between those people taking many editorial decisions on your behalf, and the buck stopping with you if things go wrong.

Every year, I had to go in front of Parliament and be asked questions about those decisions. It feels like a very real delegation of responsibility, but at the same time, when things go wrong editorially, you're the person with whom the buck is stopping. And your responsibility to the Board, legally, is to be the person taking responsibility. That's a very real, human thing, because then your relationship with the people you're delegating those paths to editorially, becomes incredibly human and important. It's almost like being in an army on a battlefield.

Charles:

What's that like? Standing up in front of Parliament and explaining what you've done and why it worked or why it didn't? Was that a process that filled you with ... How did you feel going into those moments?

David Abraham:

In 2010, when I took the job for the first time, it was definitely an experience that raised one's heart rate and blood pressure. Not least that I had a program on the channel in that first year made by a comedian named Frankie Boyle, who had made very edgy jokes about a person in the public sphere, who had a disabled child. I got embroiled in this debate around the boundaries of humor and comedy and appropriateness, and yet, at the same time, respect. It was a very difficult debate to navigate through, and clearly MPs had very strong views about it at the time.

Over the years, I suppose I just got more used to explaining how creative risk taking in the public realm is important and can lead to society understanding itself in new ways, if you're prepared to take those, allow those voices to say things which are unsayable, to go into taboo areas, or to express things in new ways, is in itself an application of creativity toward social good and towards progress. But it's never an easy line to tread, and every great movie that hits you between the eyes, in a provocative way, and moves society forward, is also potentially a movie that will upset a lot of people and disturb people, as well. That's both part of being in a free and open society, but also part of the responsibility of being a creative person.

Charles:

Yeah, that's really well put. Tell us about the new business. We're sitting here in-

David Abraham:

We're sitting here in and empty, slightly echoey office. This is a business that is literally being born as we're speaking. I'm beginning to assemble a team of talented creators of long form content, working alongside some people who are joining me who I regard as some of the most interesting and talented folk from the world of brand creativity. We're being joined by strategic people and people who can bring insight to data. We're embarking upon a journey to discover how much better our ideas could be in various different markets, if we work in new ways together.

It's obviously the culmination of three decades of experience, of finding, whether it's at St. Luke's or CDP or Discovery, that, you know, fresh structures and cultures and good people can improve their performance. It's an observation that I've had as I've looked back into, for example, the creative agency world. These silos that have built up have certainly not been broken down since I was last in the market, and my oversight of the full creative team and the marketing team at Channel Four, which lead to great success on a number of fronts, is an interesting model for how adjacency between different forms of creativity could operate.

That's the vision. We can put that to one side, because what we no need to do is build some practice and develop some client relationships and build some shows that we can sell to channels and to platforms around the world, which is going to be a very interesting journey.

Charles:

Did this emerge to you over time? Or was this something you sat down one day and said there's a problem I want to solve?

David Abraham:

It definitely was a combination of the two, because I felt that there was a general sense that the creative output of the creative agency world was felt to be room for improvement. And I saw structural changes around short form and long form content convergence and different ways of distributing branded messages in an always on world, requiring new ways of working. And then I've observed in the much more recent past, this huge debate about how these big conglomerations of different creative activities do or don't get joined up in the interests of clients. Although it's a startup and it's initially quite small, it has a big idea behind it. Who knows? Maybe we might nudge the shape of the industry of the future in some way.

Charles:

What did it feel like walking out of a huge job, a huge public profile job and deciding, "I'm going to start a smaller, nascent, somewhat revolutionary concept"?

David Abraham:

Bracing, exciting, and a roller coaster because I had to go and raise some money, which I'd actually not done before. Then I had to begin to find people who had the appetite to take some risks with me, but also had the creative ambition that I think our company will deliver to, based on a combination of youthful talent and a blend of more experienced talent, as well. It's quite instinctive, definitely doing a startup, being an entrepreneur. Every day brings a different challenge and it seems, certainly in the early phase, that every question you answer is existential. You know, "Is this business actually going to get launched? Will it actually be able to build some revenue? What's the relationship between that and its funding?"

These are the kinds of questions that you think about when you see a child being born. You care a lot about, "Is it breathing? And am I feeding it?" It feels very similar.

Charles:

And do you look at the future with hope or anxiety?

David Abraham:

Much more hope than anxiety, because I think that these industries continue to evolve in super exciting ways and there is these global markets are still, they're changing, but there's a huge amount of opportunity. I think if one is recentering one's activities around the creative side, acknowledging that digital si terribly central to everything, but that there is an increasing monopoly over control of data, amongst four or five incredibly large and powerful companies against whom no agency network or any brand can actually complete directly. Even though Channel Four was extremely effective and innovative in its own data, first party data strategy, which helped to evolve its model of online consumption and monetization.

Nevertheless, we're now in an era of much greater consolidation of that data power, such that it's the data inside which will matter far more, not the data control and how that data inside is applied to creative decision making and brand development. Those are the three skill sets that we're bringing together in this company, and I think aligning those things effectively can lead to some extraordinary results. This is a business that has to deliver results for its partners, whether it's ratings or whether it's brand growth, and we're very, very focused on that.

Charles:

What are you afraid of?

David Abraham:

What am I afraid of? I think what every entrepreneur would be afraid of, which is the amount of runway that you have to prove your idea. The fiercely competitive environment for talent and the fact that a startup can't pay what an established company can pay. Therefore, you're paying people not always only with money but with a vision of the future and maybe delayed gratification that comes with being part of something that hopefully can grow. London is, in my view, still one of the most concentrated environments for creative competition and talent in the world. Whilst I might, for now, have something that is fresh and distinctive, it won't stay like that for very long. It's always healthy to remain sort of sufficiently paranoid without being crippled by that thought.

Charles:

This conversation could go on for a long time and I know for time reasons we can't. Let me give you three themes that I've heard to wrap this up. One is that you very clearly provide context for yourself and the people around you about why you're doing something. And I think context is one of those, what I would describe as weapons of creative leadership that is not very often used very effectively and left on the table too often. That, to me, is very present with you.

The second that you've talked quite a lot about is the power of casting. You clearly have a very clear point of view about how to put really talented people, who don't often follow social norms, into the rooms with different kinds of talent in ways that are valuable and meaningful and safe for both. I think that's an incredibly important skill in running a creative business.

And the third, just to keep the seed theme going, you seem to be very clear about the consequences. That you seem clear about what you want to have happen, so that you have a way to judge something when you get to the end of it. Again, I think a lot of leaders just plunge in without really understanding what are we trying to do here and how will we know whether we're succeeding or not? Clearly, to some extent, you've lived in a world where things like ratings give you evidence, but I think more generally than that, you seem to be clear about the consequences you want to have and so you can adjust based on the information that you're getting back as a result. Do those resonate?

David Abraham:

It's great to have that sort of completely clear and objective feedback from what I've been saying over the last half an hour or so, and I would agree with those things. Although, it's sort of helpful for me to actually have them codified and set out so clearly. Ultimately, I think what attracts me and all the people I surround myself with is a passion for the work. I've been so fortunate to be, to witness people that we work with winning Oscars, as well as BAFTAs, as well as Cannes Lions. And, ultimately, it's a great privilege to be in the creative industries. It's full of wonderful people and, ultimately that passion, if it can be converted into a good way to earn a living, is about the most amazing place I think anyone can find themselves. As long as myself and my colleagues can keep doing that, we'll be very happy.

Charles:

That's a great wrap. David, thanks for joining me today.

David Abraham:

Thank you.