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Today’s interview is with Laura Bessell, the CEO of the Argonon group. Headquartered in London, and with offices in Liverpool and Glasgow in the UK, and New York and LA in the USA, Argonon is a multi-award-winning hype-converged super indie. The Argonon group brings together exceptional creative and business talent from around the world and is committed to fostering a true spirit of independence and diversity, both on and off-screen.
Laura Bessell is a qualified chartered accountant with excellent experience in finance, operations, mergers, and acquisitions in the international television industry.
She has a keen eye for detail and her role at Argonon is to marshal the group’s operations, advise on strategic growth and make things happen. Laura, thank you so much for joining us.
Matthew: So first question, really, and I know that you work in a pretty exciting industry to a lot of people, but obviously exciting can sometimes be turbulent. So what aspects of your role really give you the most headaches?
Laura: I think the nature of the industry makes it difficult. It’s difficult to plan resources and it’s difficult to forecast at times because we don’t have massive certainty over what’s coming down the pipeline next year, and when things get commissioned, they can happen very, very quickly. Like for example, when we filmed The Masked Dancer in May this year, we had about six weeks to prepare; that was six weeks to get the financing in place, six weeks to find production accountants, six weeks to work out what was going on, six weeks for the production teams to crew up.
So, big things can happen very, very quickly. Obviously it makes the nature of the business exciting, but from an operational and finance point of view, it can often make it difficult to plan. We’re also seeing undue pressures on production staff at the moment across the board and that is obviously putting a lot of pressure on us when we have to kind of suddenly crew up and find resource very, very quickly.
So that’s, I guess that’s one of the biggest challenges.
Matthew: That’s pretty seat of the pants stuff, isn’t it.
Matthew: So, doing your role for a sizeable organisation, obviously, sometimes that can mean that you’re making lots of decisions, you know, over the course of a year. So what’s your approach to decision-making and are you good at it? ‘Cause not everyone is!
Laura: I think experience in the industry is absolutely critical, and in our business, it’s a people business, which means you do have to handle people very sensitively. You don’t want to sort of be annoying people, ‘cause you need their buy-in. You know, obviously, I make lots of decisions, very quickly, small decisions, but I think big decisions you really need to take your time, talk it through. I’ll often spend days sort of ruminating it, thinking about it, sleeping on it – being open to changing your mind if people come back at you and think that you’re not making the right decision. Yes, I would say I’m good at it!
Matthew: So, technology we know is sort of fundamental now in your sort of financial and operational role. What big changes on the horizon are going on in your industry and how do you anticipate that you’re going to address those changes with technology?
Laura: I think obviously the pandemic has been a, you know, fundamental shift. We saw in March last year, we all had to shift to remote working very, very quickly.
One of the biggest challenges was obviously all our editing. We had 50 edit suites running as we went into lockdown and they all had to go remotely, and that has been a big shift. And obviously we all started working remotely, using Teams, which again was a big change for us. Our IT managers said it took a pandemic to finally get us all onto Teams but we all now are using it and working in different ways.
Obviously the finance department had to shift massively into doing that, so I think there has been a huge step change. I think it’s interesting to see what will happen in the next 12 months. We are seeing a shift in editors not wanting to come back to edit suites. Obviously that’s challenging in terms of connectivity, you know, more working in the Cloud, trying to streamline all those processes.
I suppose it’s slightly easier on, kind of, the finance side, but on the editing side, you’re talking about huge amounts of data. So shifting that and working efficiently I guess is one of the big challenges. But I think technology is shifting at such a fast pace and adapting very quickly to what we need, and that is actually exciting, and working in different ways is exciting. I mean, in terms of where we can recruit people now, do jobs, we can look anywhere, and that presents a real opportunity.
Matthew: It’s interesting because the point you raised there, funnily enough about people wanting to work from home, you know, we’re talking very much to companies about a sort of hybrid environment, but actually when you look at people’s ability of strength of internet connection at home and things like that, it’s not quite the same as it is necessarily for sort of bandwidth-wise as a company would have, you know. So although they might think that they want to work from home, there are, you know, operational difficulties with that, aren’t there?
Laura: Yeah, I mean I think it’s probably less so day to day. I think the edit suites is a bigger challenge. We obviously have people dialling into our suites and using our big gig lines with their, you know, internet connection and yes, it’s not always working perfectly. So, as a business, we do have to address that and decide that balance between people remote working and working efficiently as well. I think that’s absolutely critical.
Matthew: What frustrates you, Laura, about the sort of technology in the industry at the moment and how much of that is the fault of the tech companies not delivering the tech or maybe the users not embracing the tech?
Laura: I think on the finance system side, it’s really hard to find a solution, like for our business, that you can literally buy off the shelf and it’s ready to go at a good price point. You know, we often sort of cobble together non-ideal setups because the thought of the cost of a system, implementing a system, you know, the time it would take the team to implement, the disruption to the business, as well as the price, I think creates a barrier to entry – to having an optimum system. I think other areas of technology, like – especially you see in post-production – are much more off the shelf. We can get a much more seamless system, people, you know, they use the same systems and it’s easy to upgrade or make changes. Whereas I think on the finance systems side, you know, we end up using Excel spreadsheets and we end up sort of using a lot of Excel, when there would be better systems out there. But I think, you know, the thought of investing in a system, but in six months trying to implement it, the disruption to the business, was always something that kind of puts you off.
So I suppose, on the finance systems side, it might be better to have non kind of perfect systems that are more attuned to your business in the same way that you can buy off the box packages like, you know, Sage or Zero, etc.
Matthew: These types of projects, these technology projects, they’re not taken on lightly. And that actually leads me on to the next question, because I mean, obviously your organisation is trying to embrace the digital transformation as much as possible, but obviously when introducing technology within your organisation, how much of that process has involved a genuine sort of change management process?
Laura: I think it’s interesting in finance. Our hand has been forced by the pandemic, but we are now completely paperless, which we’re not going to go back to because obviously we now feel, you know, a lot greener. Our board pack used to be a very dense document that we printed every month, you know, we’d print all the management accounts, we’d look at all the management accounts on paper, and now we’ve gone completely paperless. I think it is a challenge in the office. I’m just trying to get some sort of, video conference rooms set up better because the challenges of looking at data on screen, having a hybrid model where people are dialling into a meeting room where people are in the meeting room, where you’re trying to analyse financial data, is definitely more challenging in the office at the moment than it is just doing it everyone remotely on teams and sharing a screen. But obviously we want to get people back into the office. We want people to interact with each other. We want to be having those management meetings in person.
So we’re working really hard to improve how we’re able to hold those meetings, ‘cause we’re absolutely adamant that we don’t want to go back to using a paper system. You know, we’re very, obviously like everybody, very concerned about climate change.
And now we’ve got to this point of having a seamless process without paper, we want to stick with it. So it is, it is basically, you know, there is a lot of change going on. You know, I used to spend my life signing invoices, signing legal documents, and now 95% of that is now digitally. I sign invoices digitally, everything’s processed digitally, so it has made a massive step change for the better, and obviously also saved on printing costs which is always a bonus when you’re running a business!
Matthew: And actually as much as everyone else in your organisation wants to have a hybrid approach to their work environment, I guess you do too sometimes, and if you can do all of this stuff remotely and digitally, that’s brilliant.
The last question, really, Laura. What one insight of your finance technology journey would you want to share with your peers?
Laura: I think planning is absolutely critical. You know, don’t take implementing a new system lightly. You can obviously get huge benefits from implementing new systems and processes, and I think it’s really important that you plan and you really understand the software, you do a lot of diligence into what that software can and can’t do, that you, you know, it’s always very, very critical to get the setup correct. That’s the absolute optimal thing. So it’s working with any supplier, to, you know, work on, is that needs of your business, how it’s structured, thinking outside the box in terms of whether that structure is the right way, thinking about your reporting and taking a fresh approach as well. Maybe what you’re doing isn’t perfect. Perhaps talking to other people that have been through the same system implementation as you, understanding some of the issues or some of the challenges that they had. And I think before you sort of venture into any major kind of implementation project, you just really need to carefully plan.