Insight

Interview with UKTV CEO, Darren Childs

By David Lawrence |

A few weeks back I got the chance to sit down with the CEO of UKTV, Darren Childs. Darren and his amazing staff have guided UKTV to become one of the most successful UK broadcast companies with nearly 10% of the British commercial TV market and revenues in excess of £300 million.

David Lawrence:                    Welcome to another edition of the Vine Resources Podcast Show. I'm absolutely delighted today to have with me Darren Childs, the CEO of UKTV. Darren, thank you so much for joining me today.

Darren Childs:                 It's a pleasure to be here.

David Lawrence:                    We got so much to talk about. It's such a fast paced and fast moving industry. For our viewers who don't know much about yourself and UKTV, perhaps you could just give us a quick introduction if that's okay?

Darren Childs:                 Sure. I'll start with the company, first of all. UKTV is a business that's about 18 years old now. We are probably more famous for our channel brands. We've got some big TV brands in the market, Dave being probably one of the most well-known because it was so innovative in its time in terms of channel branding and very different to what anyone else was doing in the market. And we got nine other channels, as well as Dave, that vary from archive comedy to lifestyle, to entertainment. And the business has been growing quite a lot over the last five or six years, and we're roughly around about 10% of all commercial television viewing now in the UK, so it's become quite a sizeable business.

In terms of my own background, I've been here as chief exec for just coming up to seven years now. And I've seen the business transition and change dramatically during that period of time as we've had to respond to all the changes that are going on outside in the market. Which has actually made it an incredibly interesting place to be. And I think it's best characterised as ... We're in the middle of that disruption curve as an industry. We're not at the beginning, we're not at the end. It kind of feels like we're somewhere in the middle of that disruption curve. And so, everything that we do as a business is pretty much changing on a day to day basis. So, yeah. That's kind of what ... That's the company and kind of what we're trying to do.

David Lawrence:                    I'm interested in talking about perhaps the changes of moving away from some of the older packaged programming. The Only Fools and Horses of this day, those kinds of programmes, more to that original content and how that ... How are you seeing that change in the market and how that's changing for UKTV?

Darren Childs:                 Yeah, I think the big change, if you go back ... And actually, not a significantly long period of time. We have 2010 when Steve Jobs launch the iPad. Little did anyone realise back then what an impact that would have on our industry in terms of how people could start to consume content in a much more portable and kind of non-linear way. So that ability to call content that you wanted to watch, when you wanted to watch it and literally not be tied into watching it while sitting in a living room around a television set has changed ... probably in the biggest change in our industry.

And again, that's what's actually made our business fascinating and challenging, is that we've had to adapt ourselves to all of that. All of that change, and it's happening incredibly quickly. So, what we're seeing right now is a big growth in people wanting to watch content in what we call a non-linear way. So away from a television schedule. Particularly with younger audiences who are a little bit more time poor. They've got a lot of interesting things going on in their life. They're much more mobile. They're not necessarily tied to a domestic kind of household setting.

David Lawrence:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Darren Childs:                 They're much more interested in still watching a lot television content, but they want to watch it in a slightly different way. With the older demographics, we're still seeing actually a lot of the traditional viewership patterns, they're still the same. And there's definitely a life stage component to how people are watching television, and we're seeing it. So, younger mobile people are much more on demand, much more mobile, much more on devices. When people start settling down and having kids and families, much more back around the television set, much more family viewing. But also, now, we're starting to see even with that kind of older cohort, an interest in watching large series in one go.

Interviewer:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Darren Childs:                 So I think what's happened to the television industry is similar to what happened to the music industry from when you could actually start picking individual songs rather than having to buy the entire albums. People can now start picking the best content out of a linear schedule and watching all of that as and when they want.

David Lawrence:                    We touched earlier on Facebook launching their OTT offering this year. I think even Snapchat are launching a TV channel this year, as well. What do you see is the ... Perhaps the challenges in the industry over the next couple of years?

Darren Childs:                 Yeah. We ... All of those businesses you just mentioned, and UKTV, and all the other TV businesses ... Whilst we're in television, actually what we talk about internally is we're in this attention economy. So, people have got certain things that they have to do with their lives. They have to eat, they have to sleep, they have to work. And there's a big battle for what they do when all that stuff's done. So what they do with their downtime, what they do with their leisure time. And again, going back 10 years before gaming became a significant part of a lot of peoples leisure activity as well, we're not unaccustomed to new entrants coming in trying to get peoples attention from us.

                                          The promising thing is, actually, when you look at the amount of time people are still spending watching television and you go back 10 years, it was about 345 minutes a day is what people were spending watching television. That number's only dropped by one minute over the last 10 years. And so, what's encouraging with that is that actually people really genuinely love television content, they just want to watch it in a different way. And as long as we can measure it and capture it and monetize, then that's absolutely fine by us. So, fundamentally, TV as a product is in really good health and is doing incredibly well. It's just becoming more fragmented in terms of how it gets distributed.

David Lawrence:                    And you've ... As you've said earlier, you've been leading the company for the last seven years now?

Darren Childs:                 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Lawrence:                    The company probably looks very different from when you walked in on that first day ...

Darren Childs:                 Yeah.

David Lawrence:                    Can you give us some examples and just share with us some of the key changes that you've perhaps implemented or your team has implemented and what you've seen as the benefit to that for the organisation and for your customers?

David Lawrence:                 Yeah, sure. So many things have changed, actually. It's almost unrecognisable from seven years ago. Just physically, it's unrecognisable. We're in our third office in seven years. As the business has grown, we've had to constantly keep moving and growing the office space that we need in order to do it. So even just physically, we've changed location three times. So that's the easy one. In terms of what it feels to be here, I think that's where we've made the biggest change. It was a very conscious effort on my part and the part of the leadership team and the organisation that the biggest threat to us wasn't necessarily digital. It was actually losing talented people to digital.

                                          And we needed to make sure that UKTV as a workplace felt different and attractive to a younger, more mobile, more short-term cohort of staff. And that's where the biggest change has been. So we did some ... We did some quite innovative stuff in terms of how we get people into the business, how we nurture and grow them, develop them and train them. As well as actually it physically feels like to be in this environment. It doesn't feel like a television company. And for a company that's generating £360 million worth of revenue every year, we're quite a small group of people. You can only do that if you've got incredibly high levels of engagement within the work place.

                                          So that's where we spend a lot of time. We spend a lot of time on culture, we spend a lot of time on development of people. And the thing that drives it. How I measure my own success as CEO here is, are genuinely people here doing their best work? So, there's very much a kind of sort of ... Something in the back of my mind that in 10, 15 years time when I'm retired and someone else is running the company, if bumping into people that have worked here and said, "You know what? When we worked with UKTV with you, that's when we did our best work." So my job is about enabling people to do outstandingly brilliant work and which it all makes it an incredibly rewarding job to do.

                                          But it also makes it a really smart business because people are doing phenomenal work all the time, and that means it's driving our performance. So, again, our growth trajectory's been huge financially, and across all of our KPI. Share growth, viewership growth, digital download growth. All those kind of major metrics. And I attribute all that success to the people that work here.

David Lawrence:                    That's fantastic. And talking about that, I was interested to know about your hot desk environment. I've seen in some organisations, they've implemented a hot desk environment, but people would then just drop in and stay within their own little areas. And it's almost as if, why are you coming over here today to take my area? How have you overcome that here?

Darren Childs:                 Well, it's interesting, actually. So, prior to coming here, I'd always run global organisations where we'd have 24 offices or 52 offices around the world. And I always kind of accepted that silos existed and put geography down as the kind of main reason. I never expected the Mexico office to talk to the office in Sydney. And so you kind of expect these silos to build. And actually when I came here, I was quite surprised that actually silos existed even in a UK focus business with half the people we've got right now. And it was really important that where we had centres of excellence that they were actually bringing everyone else up with them. And that actually wasn't happening because they were ... The top performing channels were very much sitting as a group on their own, they became quite tribal in their behaviour.

                                          So it was a conscious effort to try and see one, how we could bring up other people by giving them exposure to the best talent in the business. Two, it was to kind of break down those silos. And even in a small organisation, the third point we were trying to tackle is that people hadn't met each other and they'd been working here for four or five years. So, every three months, we do a complete restack of the building. It takes us no longer than 15 minutes to do. It usually starts with loud music blaring on a Friday evening. We put new seating plans online, and people literally pick up their laptops and they move to a different part of the building. And the message it sends is that ... And it happens to everyone, so it's not I move, my system moves, all the leadership team move. Is that this is our building, there aren't parts of it kind of hived off for seniority and other bits and pieces. So everyone is treated identically, doesn't matter what their level within the organisation is.

                                          And you get to sit and meet people in the business that you wouldn't know. And the fundamental driver behind it is around innovation, and I'm a very firm believer that real innovation comes ... If you study innovation, you really kind of drill into kind of where all those ... Where did all those big breakthrough ideas come from? You tend to find it's usually two quite good ideas coming together and making one outstanding idea. And then so as the CEO, for me, I wanted to make sure that if we have two great ideas, how we could bring them together to make something that was outstanding and then would actually break through and change the business for the better. So actually, we deliberately force that interaction with people in the office environment.

                                          How they work, how they congregate, the way we bring them together in the morning around certain parts of the building, it's all designed to force people to bounce off each other because we want them to be sharing ideas with each other. Because from that serendipitous conversation, the next big breakthrough in our business could happen. So my job is to try and facilitate that the office desk move is part of the ... There's also another whole bunch of other things that we do with the office environment to make it happen, and it's been hugely successful for us.

David Lawrence:                    Where do you see the industry going in the next two to three years? And where do you believe UKTV will be in that?

Darren Childs:                 Where's the industry going to go? I think fundamentally, and this is a question we ask ourselves pretty much every day. Is there something fundamentally wrong with the product that we create as a business? We don't make cars or washing machines. We make television programmes. And everything that we see is saying to us that people still love it. People have not fallen out of love with television. The big challenge for us is that the distribution of that television has changed. And so that's an important part of where I see the change over the next two to three years. And again, my job as a chief exec is ... Someone told me this very early on in my career, it's kind of like the higher up you get in an organisation, the further out your horizon has to be.

                                          So, my focus is very much on 2022. That's ... I'm running the business now for what we're going to be like in 2022. And when I look at the challenges that we're facing, it's going to be around targeted advertising. It's going to be around data analytics. It's going to be about understanding the end consumer to a degree that we've never done as a broadcast medium or had to.

David Lawrence:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Darren Childs:                 The reason it's called broadcast, there's a couple of aerials around the country that broadcast to everybody. I think that's going to change. I think it's going to be around about the distribution technology and the monetization technology that sits behind the content in order for us to keep making content.

David Lawrence:                    Absolutely. And what ... We've got quite a wide viewership listening to our podcast. Some of the younger generation will probably wonder, what does a CEO do all day? So, I wonder if you could just share just a bit of insight in what does a normal day look like for you?

Darren Childs:                 Look, I would say first thing is, never the same thing. Again, it's always a privilege to ... When you eventually get the CEO title, it's always a real privilege because part of your job is to be across pretty much everything. So you become very generalist very quickly. So, in terms of a normal day, for me, it kind of normally starts around about 8:00 in the morning. Probably not dissimilar to anyone else, which is trying to kind of gather any insight and information that's come in overnight from around the world. I've become very good at batch processing information, so I don't sit in front of a computer all day. I will do emails and then that's done until the end of the day, and then I'll come back and do them. I've seen too many people in my career just sitting in front of a PC waiting for an email to arrive so they can respond to it. And it's not great productivity. And it's certainly not a great way of producing great creative output. So I tend to kind of batch process kind of emails early in the morning.

                                          And then I try and keep as much of my focus as I can outside of the building. I'm a very big believer that the business is happening outside of the building. And in order for us to be responsive to it, we need to be out. So they'll be meetings in the city with the financial community, with the advertising community, with the producers that we're trying to sort of bring on board in order to kind of bring great content into the business. I tend to only have two standing meetings a week and I've been very focused in trying to limit the number of meetings in the schedule. And again, that's due to the fact that my ... I'm a firm believer that if I can pick up one something that's exciting and interesting in the business or great ideas that are starting to percolate, I've got the time to actually pick that up and actually make it happen and enable it. So I act as an enabler for other people in the organisation, rather than being too busy and stuck in routine meetings with people.

                                          So, again, every day tends to be different. Every month tends to be a little bit different. The business has changed so much and it's grown so much that the things I was focused on five or six years ago are not the things I'm focused on right now. But again, my only advice to anyone would be to really focus on the things that ... It's very easy to be very busy managing the drift in an organisation. And a CEO's job is not to manage drift, it's to spend their time on the things that actually are going to be transformational for an organisation. And that takes quite a lot of discipline if people have worked up through the ranks and managed them. But it's just something to kind of bare in mind is ... I know that if I went under a bus tomorrow, this organisation would continue to do incredibly well without me. So, that's managing drift.

                                          So the bit where I can really add value is the things that everyone else is either too busy to think about or are too foreword facing. So, again, it's just about keeping your eyes up, keeping your horizons out, and focusing on the things that are going to be truly transformational rather than spending a bunch of time micromanaging or second guessing your executives.

David Lawrence:                    Absolutely. And, to share with our audience, I'd love to ask you, what was your biggest failure do you think in your business career? And what did you learn from that?

Darren Childs:                 God. Biggest failure. I'm going to challenge you on it and say it's the wrong question. Okay? 'Cause, again, failure and innovation are two bed partners that basically are sharing the same bed. And there's still a bit of connotation that it's really bad to fail, and it actually isn't really bad to fail. It's actually really good to fail 'cause it actually means you're trying something that no one's ever done before. So, there's a list of things that haven't worked out that we've done here and I've done in previous careers, but I wouldn't say ... I wouldn't characterise them as failures. I'd characterise them as learning opportunities. And as long as you ... As long as you keep focused on what are the takeaways from that failure? It's fine. It's fine. And shouldn't be things ...

                                          I see so many organisations where the fear of failure stops them from innovating and trying new things. And you know that they're going to be out of business in 10 years because the people that work there are just fearful of making a mistake. And so what happens is everything defaults to the lowest common denominator, and those breakthrough ideas never surface. And that entrepreneurial spirit gets killed. So we actively encourage people to fail fast here, because we see it as part of their learning and development. And we see it as a real badge of honour because it means you're actually ... You are trying something that someone hasn't potentially done before. So many failures, but I would say ... I would re-characterize them as many learnings.

David Lawrence:                    And you're dead right, and I'm going to change that question going forward, and if I think to a number of times that I've failed at things, but as long as I learn from it and quickly try not to make those mistakes again. But ...

Darren Childs:                 Yeah.

David Lawrence:                    For every failure, of course hopefully, there's a success there.

Darren Childs:                 Yeah, it's fair to say that most people in the work place, for the majority of the time are making it up as they go along.

David Lawrence:                    Yeah.

Darren Childs:                 And you don't realise it at the time, but when you enter the workplace ... The guy ... The 50 year old guy that's running the business, or 50 year old girl that's running the business, they're still learning and making stuff up as they go along. No one's got all the answers. And if anyone comes in and tells you they've got all the answers, then you're in the wrong organisation. Because no one's got all the answers to anything anymore. The world is changing so quickly ...

David Lawrence:                    Yeah.

Darren Childs:                 Everyone in the company has to be engaged in innovation and breakthrough thinking, otherwise you're going to be redundant.

David Lawrence:                    Yeah.

Darren Childs:                 In a very short period of time. It's impossible for one person to keep on top of everything that's happening. So you have to ... You have to enable the whole team to make those decisions and move the business forward at speed.

David Lawrence:                    And what's the best piece of business advice that you've ever been given?

Darren Childs:                 Oh, gosh. I've been very lucky actually. Because I had exposure to some pretty senior people very early on in the career. I would say that the best advice is to find someone that is willing to mentor you, I think.

David Lawrence:                    Yep.

Darren Childs:                 Because you can learn so much. It's interesting, it doesn't happen so much here, but in Germany, it's much more formalised where chief execs will bring in graduates as apprenticeships for that first year to get them fast tracked through the organisation. Because it gives them exposure to things that maybe they wouldn't get for 20 years if they were working their way up. It doesn't happen here in the UK a lot. In fact, we're trialling that right now here and see kind of how that works. But I think ... You're the kind of the sum of the five people. You're the average of the five people that you spend most of your time with. And I think that it's really important that you pick who you work with and where you work really importantly. And make sure that you ... When you pitch your ladder up, it's with an organisation that you feel that you want to stay with and that you can develop with and is going to develop you. And have fun along the way, 'cause you're spending a lot of time in the office.

David Lawrence:                    Absolutely.

Darren Childs:                 Yeah.

David Lawrence:                    Now, look, there's lot of industries that people can work in. What do you see is the main differences or the things that are attractive to working in the broadcasting industry? Perhaps compared even with the banking industry or the farm industry. What do you think are the things that would be of interest to people?

Darren Childs:                 I think it's ... It's the variety of things I think which make this business interesting. So, people who work here, we've got HTML5 coders, show producers, accountants, script writers, there's a whole ... engineers, editors, sound mixers, there's just a whole bunch of super talented people all working to make TV happen. And then the great thing about television it's a real team sport. It's not great if you're a kind of a bit of a loner. It's much better if you enjoy being in teams and working closely with people. It's physically impossible for one person to make a television programme. It needs a team of people in order to do it. So, I think people should look at television from not just from an "I love television, I want to make television" career. They should look at it from, do they want to come and help us build apps and websites and VOD players. There's a big technology stack that supports the building.

                                          Engineering's a big part of what we do. When we're doing live OB's of boxing matches or whatever. Just the technical expertise that's required to backhaul the signal across London and off to a satellite is fascinating. My background's actually technology, and the technology components of this industry are just staggering. So, again, I think there's all different kinds of jobs within television and if you enjoy working with passionate, smart people, it's a great place to build a career and it's a huge amount of fun.

David Lawrence:                    Look, we didn't mention it at the start and I'll mention it now because you kindly invited us to your Hammersmith HQ. We're actually inside your screening room here. It's an absolutely fantastic room and a wonderful location for people. My final question for you is about employee engagement.

Darren Childs:                 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Lawrence:                    I'm just curious, how ... how do you keep your employees engaged? And that can be a challenge for a lot of organisations and I'm just curious how you see that?

Darren Childs:                 Yeah, it is the single most important thing that I do, quite frankly, is keep people engaged. And again, it stems from a very principle of when I first joined here, at the time we were half the size in terms of people, but I remember thinking very clearly if I can get 180 people at the time, to give a damn, basically, about the success of the business in the way that I did, then I should ... Results could be transformational. And people call it engagement, again, I call it giving a damn and really caring. The absolute reason why UKTV is so successful right now is because we have one of the most engaged work forces in media. And we spend a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of resource, a lot of thinking making sure that we have that engaged work force.

                                          There are a thousand things that make that happen. Literally a thousand things. Literally from what the environment feels like to how you compensate them to how you train them and develop them to the responsibilities they're giving to how accountable they are to how they're led. And all those things all matter. There's not one single component to driving engagement. It is a whole body of work that ... But when it works, it can be transformational. And, again, I think the winners, the winning organisations will be the ones that are paying attention to engagement. If you lose your work force, you lose the battle. And I'm a strong believer in the old command and control structure, which was built for the industrial revolution. It's totally defunked for the digital age.

                                          And unfortunately, a lot of senior executives will have grown up through that command and control structure, and they think that's the way to do it. Because that's how they've been trained and most people learn from their bosses how to do it. And so they replicate what's happened before. And so, one of the things we do here is we talk about actively relearning everything we've learned over the last 10, 15, 20 years to make sure all of our management leadership engagement practices are fresh and fit for purpose. And the results for us have been staggering. So, there's a couple of tools that we use. We do a lot of surveys within the organisation. There is nowhere anyone can hide including me. We do independent surveys where my leadership skills are quantified sort of anonymously across the whole organisation. Our ability ... The clarity over the strategy that we're trying to pursue. How they're being managed and led, how they're being treated. All of that stuff is measured, and measured, and measured again.

                                          And we do it in a way which then allows us to deep dive into different parts of the organisation and fix problems very quickly before they become a disengaged work force. And we literally took us, I'd say, the best part of two or three years to get that component of the organisation right. Now, it pretty much self-disciplines itself, but it is what's contributing to all of our phenomenal results is ... I know that as we're sitting here talking in our basement, there are 300 people that are passionately working towards making UKTV more successful.

David Lawrence:                    That's amazing. And, look, Darren, thank you so much for joining me on the show. It's been amazing having your insight and I wish you all the best in for the business.

Darren Childs:                 Thank you very much, great time.

If you want to listen to the podcast and hear from other leaders in the industry, you can check them out and subscribe for free on iTunes.


David Lawrence

Written by David Lawrence

David is the founder of Vine Resources.