Just over a decade ago, I worked for a media company that had been built from nothing by a single-minded, not to say singular, lady. I was hired specifically to improve its profitability – indeed revive it from just having lost a significant amount in its most recent set of accounts – and hopefully take it forward towards some sort of float (e.g. on the AIMs market).
In preparing myself for this task, I decided to seek advice from two people I respected.
The first was my father. He offered wisdom from the viewpoint of having been a significant player in the world of chartered accountancy. His first adage was ‘Whenever you are presented with a budget or business plan, as a rough guide, you cannot go wrong if you double the costs and halve the projected profits’.
His second was ‘Never let a salesman run a business – they don’t understand the concept of profit, they only understand turnover’.
As it happened, the lady chairman referred to above was a serial originator of wildly over-optimistic business plans and also the company’s chief salesman (or should I say ‘salesperson’?).
My second confidant/adviser was a marketing and brand specialist. He came in to walk around our offices, meet the staff and spend an hour with the lady chairman, in order to get a feel for the organisation.
Later, we met over lunch so that he could ‘sing for his supper’ by giving me whatever advice he could on how – to use a retailing analogy – we might grow from being a corner shop into a chain of supermarkets.
To all intents and purposes, his opening remarks virtually ended our discussion.
He said that, whenever he was asked to advise on how a ‘sole trader’ minnow business might expand into a much bigger one, his first suggestion was always “Shoot the owner!”
In his experience, almost without exception, the one thing that either held back and/or catastrophically hindered the implementation of the degree of structure, delegation and sense of team mission that a rapidly-expanding organisation required was the continued involvement of an owner who was best (or indeed only good) at running a one-man band corner shop.
Looking back, it now seems obvious to me that the seeds of what later occurred were brilliantly forewarned in the advice I was given.
Although in my time I have seen several episodes of Downton Abbey, conceived and written by Julian Fellowes, I would not class myself as a fan of what has become perhaps ITV’s greatest-ever global success.
Nevertheless, I was reminded of my above tale this week when I read the news that Fellowes was hinting that the next – fourth? fifth? – series of Downton might be its last. He had just committed to conceive and write what would amount to similar American series for US television next year (2015) and felt he could not possibly do both.
He is quite wrong, of course. Not perhaps in sensing – in terms of time and scheduling – that he could not physically write both himself, but in thinking that only he can/could write episodes of Downton.
Fellowes is a decent cove and a perfectly competent screenwriter, but he is certainly not a great one.
Accordingly, there is absolutely no reason why – if ITV should wish it, as I expect they will – Downton could not continue for umpteen more series, with one or even a succession of new writers brought in to knock off the upstairs-downstairs ‘parlour tosh’ dialogues and plots required. By this route, Downton might even improve and indeed gain a new lease of life.
All that needs to occur is an arm wrestle between ITV and Fellowes and/or his agent and any others who represent him.
I suspect additional credits as Executive Producer and Script Director, plus a cash royalty of say £20,000 per episode upfront, plus a 20% share of worldwide net profits on all Downton series for the full period of copyright, should just about do it.
Put it this way, Julian – it would for me.