From creating the right culture to dancing, dinosaurs and drones

Headshot of Tom Fussell, CEO of BBC Studios

From creating the right culture to dancing, dinosaurs and drones

How Tom Fussell, CEO of BBC Studios, is delivering on his vision and strategy

3 minute read

BBC Studios has been on a roll. Demand for its content pushed revenue to a record £1.6 billion and profit to £226 million in the last financial year.

Tom Fussell, CEO of BBC Studios, says the plan now is to double those numbers within five years. Key to that ambition will be growing the work BBC Studios does around the world, from producing Dancing With The Stars for Disney+ to remaking hit BBC shows such as Ghosts and Luther for international audiences.

“We are already in Los Angeles, Mumbai, Paris, Sydney, Johannesburg and Cologne,” says Fussell. “We’ve gone from a £400 million business that only made programs for the BBC to a global business, where three quarters of the revenues from our production studio – that is, programme making and content sales - come from outside the BBC.”

But Fussell knows the fortunes of the media industry will be subject to the same economic pressures affecting every sector. While a cost of living crisis may see more people staying in to watch TV it brings fresh challenges for big buyers of BBC content, whether they are selling subscriptions or relying on advertising revenue.

As such, Fussell will focus on the areas he can influence: a long-term strategy focused on international expansion and maintaining the culture and talent to create quality content.

“We make content for all major studios and have really good relationships. Right now, we have the strongest long-term order book we’ve ever had and we know quality programming is always going to be in demand. There is no doubt we will have ups and downs in the short-term but I’m confident in our long-term ability to double the size of the business.”

However, none of those studio relationships mean Fussell has taken his eye off his organisation’s original customer or the advantages being a BBC company brings.

“We are a BBC company driven by the BBC’s mission and purpose. Knowing the mission and purpose are two things that help us attract and retain the best talent.” 

But in a competitive industry no advantage can be taken for granted. Retaining talent and maintaining the right culture takes effort, understanding and leadership, informed by solid data.

“Not all the data is where we want to be but we’re making very good progress. We have one of the highest disclosure rates of protected characteristics in the industry, because we’ve made sure our culture feels empowering and trusted. We’ve spent a lot of time as leaders showing our own vulnerability and authenticity to help others feel they can be themselves.”

Despite leading an organisation built upon the power of a good story, Fussell admits being incredibly moved and taken aback by the personal stories people have shared as part of an initiative to bring down barriers and increase understanding.

“We have an app used by staff around the world and there’s something called This Is Me, where everybody is sharing their own story. Those This Is Me videos have really helped people break down barriers and be their authentic selves. People have shared things they haven’t shared with family members before in very powerful ways.”

Fussell admits he was once somebody who would “put on a veneer at work” but now hopes his own commitment to being himself will help others as it has helped him.

“Since I’ve done that I’ve done the best work in my career,” he says.

Culture is a point Fussell returns to again when discussing BBC Studios’ acquisitions in the UK and overseas.

“When we acquire production companies we look at the culture first, make sure the cultural fit is there. And once there, we make sure they’re creatively brilliant. Then we grow them.”

When it comes to recruitment more generally, Fussell says BBC Studios is focusing on “behaviour-led recruitment” and candidates with a growth mindset, able to think creatively and innovatively to overcome challenges.

He provides one example where such qualities transformed a key part of the organisation.

Some of BBC Studios’ most successful content - critically and commercially - comes from its Natural History Unit, which produces shows such as Planet Earth and Frozen Planet. The amount of aerial photography in such shows once meant a reliance upon helicopters which were expensive and hardly conducive to filming wildlife.

“Helicopters made a hell of a racket,” says Fussell. And while the solution may seem obvious now - as smart innovations often do in hindsight - the suggestion to use drones and recruit skilled drone pilots was revolutionary at the time.

Unlocking the power of technology and combining it with human insight and experience is at the heart of content that is bringing the BBC brand to new platforms and audiences. Prehistoric Planet, created for Apple TV, blends the gravitas of Sir David Attenborough with the creativity of Jon Favreau and the Natural History Unit’s Mike Gunton, and the expanded CGI capabilities of BBC Studios to bring dinosaurs to life.

Fussell believes as long as BBC Studios recruits and retains the right talent to deliver on his vision and strategy, it will achieve its commercial goals.

“My job is to set the vision and the strategy and the culture and allow teams to go do their best work. And I don’t just love what I do every day. I also love what I do every night, watching our shows.”

But is he ever tempted to let his passion for the content spill over into sharing creative ideas or asking for a favourite series to be brought back?

“No,” he replies emphatically. “I’ll often send teams a text to say ‘thank you’ after a great show because those are two words that still go very far in this world. But any more than that is what I call UEI - unhelpful executive interference.”

“We have brilliant people who know what they’re doing and our whole mantra is to empower and trust them.”

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Marco Amitrano ACA MCMI ChMC

Marco Amitrano ACA MCMI ChMC

Managing Partner & Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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