Paving the way to free TV

Freesat creator, Emma Scott, talks to about Greg Dyke, the BBC and adapting to the culture of UK media

All photos credit to Guy Southam

All photos credit to Guy Southam

The way that television is consumed within the UK has evolved over the years, with increasingly popular video-on-demand services driving companies like Blockbuster to extinction. Television companies face the task of adapting and embracing these changes to provide their customers with the viewing experience that they crave.

Freesat, a free-to-air digital platform born out of an alliance between the BBC and ITV, is one such company taking on the challenge. Its new service, Freetime, allows viewers to watch programmes from up to a week in the past at the single press of a button.

Its fresh approach to free TV is paying dividends, as they are currently ranked fourth in the Champions League of TV service providers in the UK. With 24,000 new homes signing up in the first half of 2014 alone, Freesat have become a threatening competitor to market frontrunner Sky, who signed up fewer homes in the same period, on a much greater budget.

Directing the Freesat ship is Emma Scott. A Hull University graduate from London, Emma worked in parliament before beginning an illustrious career in media and television. I was lucky enough to sit down with her to find out more about her path to success.

“After working in Parliament I went travelling, and ended up with a job by accident which set me up for my career in media in Australia – I ended up working for the equivalent of Virgin Media over there. It was very Australian, so it was work hard, play hard. That changed my attitude towards work there in, and I put that down to the people I worked with there.”

The Australian experience was crucial in the next step of her career at the BBC. “I came back to the UK in 1997 and soon after applied for a job at the BBC. I was lucky enough to go and work for Ed Richards who’s now the CEO of OFCOM. I didn’t have a consultancy background which was the norm in the corporate strategy team, but I had very relevant experience in industry from setting up the cable TV company in Australia and knew a lot about dotcom and the internet.”

“We reckon we would be a brand new mini. Great engine, great design: small, but perfectly formed”

Having helped set up a new firm in Australia, Emma had experience that far belied her age. By her late twenties she found herself working for the Director General of the BBC at the time, John Birt.

Despite ascending to the summit of the BBC, things were not entirely positive. Giving me a wry smile, Emma spoke about her experience of the working environment at the corporation.

“You know what, I learnt an awful lot working there. It was very strict, you had set hours and you certainly wouldn’t mess around or turn up with a hangover or anything like that. It was very serious and your work was critiqued to such a high standard that it made you learn quickly.

Emma emphasised the extremes of survival within the company: “You either sank or swam. You were out within six months if you didn’t step up to their standards. I think that that’s taught me a lot about valuing quality over quantity of work. I’ve found that every strategist who has worked with me since has also learnt that the hard way.”

As John Birt neared the end of his term, Emma soon found herself awaiting work with the incoming Director General, Greg Dyke, a prospect she found very unappealing: “I was actually applying for other jobs, I was trying to leave at that stage, I wanted to try something else.

“However, John Birt very kindly gave me work as an analyst for Greg Dyke, the incoming Director.”

Emma explained the uncertainty of her position in this ‘in limbo’ period between jobs: “I think Greg and I had mutual reservations about our working together; he essentially thought that I was going to be a some sort of spy during the six month handover period.”

Emma’s tone changes as she describes to me the crucial turning point in her and Greg’s relationship that acted as the catalyst to the positive correspondence they share to this day. “Following many failed attempts to contact him, I had a harrumph, which I really shouldn’t have done, and said ‘well if you don’t want to work with me then bloody well just tell me.’ He then decided that I was alright. We eventually just hit it off. He’s the Chancellor of the University of York, something that he’s obviously very proud of. He loved his time at the university, and reminisced about it a lot whilst I worked for him.”

james corden 2

Emma soon found herself as one of Dyke’s closest lieutenants at the BBC. She cites the launch of Freeview, the move to Salford, and the restructuring of the BBC as but a few of her achievements whilst working for him. Greg is a huge believer in people. I would say that my style of leadership was really strongly influenced by Greg.

“I had a fantastic time working for him, until it all went wrong with the Hutton crisis, something I would never want repeated in my career. Watching the impact of Greg’s departure on the 26,000 staff who had grown very fond of him was really tough. The confidence that he gave me to move forward and do my own thing meant that when the Freesat opportunity came up, I had a real feeling of, ‘if I’ve done it once, I can do it again’.”

The two remain in contact. It would seem that having been mutually wary of each other before working together, Emma and Greg now have an easygoing relationship: “When Greg turns up here every now and again I get him to talk to the team. I still ring him if I need to bounce ideas off him or need general advice, and he’ll ring me if he needs a free Freesat box or two… He’s an amazing mentor, and he likes to take credit for everything good that’s happened in my career.”

The working environment at Freesat couldn’t be further from the strict formal operation that Emma told me existed at the BBC in the late nineties. The offices have trendy names like, ‘The Engine Room’, and there isn’t a single area of the building you can pass through without seeing a television.

Was establishing this type of working environment the direct result of a rejection of the way that the BBC operated earlier in Emma’s career? “Leaders always define the cultures of organisations, so yes, in a way it’s part of me, but also part of the management team. I think it was predominantly a response to the Australian experience though, people spoke their mind but they were fair, and if you made mistakes, it was okay. It’s harder to define a working culture at bigger organisations, but luckily Freesat is small and eclectic. Your harshest critics are always the ones who sit next to you. That criticism may come from over or under the radar, but picking up on those nuances is important. What is and isn’t acceptable in a business is always a difficult thing to pick up as a graduate.

“When I was at the BBC it was a very intellectual environment. I look back now and I was actually doing exceptionally well, and was well regarded, but I didn’t have an Oxbridge background, nor did I have a consulting background and so I felt quite intimidated by it.”

“It never looks good to see an employee of any company boasting about how much ketamine they’ve taken in a weekend”

One thing that Emma confided in me is that she has never seen herself as a leader figure, despite the number of senior positions she has held over the years. Working in the offices of two Director Generals meant that it was inevitable that an opportunity to lead was always going to come along eventually.

The role isn’t without challenges. “The biggest challenge is staying one step ahead of everybody else. Remaining clear about what the business is trying to do and what my leadership is trying to deliver is the most important. There are always blind alleys that you can go down.

“When you are the leader you just have to embrace the fact that sometimes projects are not going to work and that there are going to be mistakes. You have to have clarity of vision. You can never communicate enough with your team and your owners.”

And the good points of being the boss? Having been invited along to the Freesat Sports Day earlier that week, and taking part in some light-hearted competition in Regents Park, I’m not surprised when Emma tells me that the best thing is the team. “They are the best people I’ve ever worked with. They’re such good fun.”

I decided to ask Emma a few off-piste questions. The first: if Freesat as a company was a type of car, what would it be and why?

Laughing, Emma tells me “I was interviewed by the Sunday Times recently and they asked what car I drove. When I said I drove a Honda Jazz even the interviewer stopped and said “It’s not normally the Maserati response I get from CEOs and industry leaders…”

She’s not getting off that easily. After a bit more pressing, Emma tells me that “we reckoned that we would be a brand new Mini. Great engine, great design: small, but perfectly formed.” An impressive sound bite indeed (she would later tell me that as a company they had actually discussed this very same concept.).

As the Managing Director of a media company, I wondered what her thoughts are when it comes to social media and recruitment, and whether she has any tips for students.

“The problem with Twitter and Facebook is that you sometimes think that nobody is actually looking at your profiles. Keep your LinkedIn site professional and up to date, it really does put doubts in a recruiter’s mind if there are typos and different information online from what is on your printed CV.

“For students in particular, even if it’s just to intern, your online platforms will get looked at, even if it’s just to see how silly or daft they are! No one’s going to want a party animal coming in to work. It’s the same with Twitter, it’s really, really easy to track people down on Twitter.

“The media industry is a double edged sword because you want people to have a voice and a personality.”

But does it go both ways? Surely you’d look just as unimpressive in the media industry if your online presence was particularly bland? “In general, businesses are still trying to work out their relationship with social media.

freesat launch 2

“Lots of people who work here have said they’ve toned down what they say online now. Whether you state that opinions are your own or not, it never looks good to see an employee of any company boasting about how much ketamine they’ve taken in a weekend.”

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