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Iain Pelling is Managing Director and co-founder of Arrow International Media. Iain’s commercial vision and leadership have played an integral role in establishing Arrow as one of the most admired factual producers in the UK, building the company’s ability to deliver world-class factual content which appeals to audiences across the world.
Iain, thanks so much for joining us.
Matthew: Iain, you’ve got a great presence in the production industry, with much success at your previous companies and now again at Arrow Media. So for us to get a feel for what it’s like to be you, how would you describe what your role and your responsibilities look like right now?
Iain: They’re ever changing at the moment. The last couple of years have been interesting, to say the least, but we’ve been on a growth path for 10 years now, so what I do day-to-day it just changes all the time in response to our new work, our new people and our new ways of working. So I suppose at a top level, it’s working with my two creative directors who run the labels for Arrow Media and Arrow Pictures. We’re the board, so we make the decisions. They look after the programmes and I try and make sure everything else works properly, but that has changed from looking after our first hire, where we had to hire an office, to running pretty much an international business in the time of covid.
“What we’ve got to do as a growing business is try and anticipate trends in our broadcasters and our customers, increasingly in the different broadcast platforms.”
Matthew: It is a nice office there, it’s in a great location as well actually and it’s amazing how many staff you’ve got there now.
Iain: Yeah, we’ve made a conscious decision as part of our business to go for volumes in terms of programming, working with American clients who tend only to commission in big numbers for their series’. So, it does mean that we have people coming and going all the time and working where we are in Fitzrovia here, it is great, but we’re now starting to film again all around the world, so core staff that we’re building up in London do have that global presence as well as just thinking about how to get from Oxford Circus tube station.
Matthew: So, your role very much sounds like it’s all about strategy, it’s all about driving the business forward, decision making, so what would other people who work with you say was your best quality when you do that role to its best?
Iain: What we’ve got to do as a growing business is try and anticipate trends in our broadcasters and our customers, increasingly in the different broadcast platforms. Now, I work very closely with our two creative directors who are thinking about that constantly, about Netflix, about Amazon, about how we talk to them, about the way Discovery is changing, working with Disney and Nat Geo, thinking about how the programmes migrate onto different platforms. We’re now just delivering our first podcast series for ID which is again the same type of story but on a different platform. What that does mean is that I’ve got to try and think far enough ahead to be able to deliver all that, but be pragmatic about what will work and what won’t work. So, I’d love in an ideal world to really go hell-for-leather for some of the stuff that really interests me about the way we can change, and the way we can make programmes differently, the way we can use global communications to do that. But on the other hand, we have to deal with our very focused American customers who really want delivery on schedule and on budget. So there’s two minds about it: one is to make sure that we’re actually working really, really well on the ground and the second one is to try and think ahead, quite far.
“So there’s two minds about it: one is to make sure that we’re actually working really, really well on the ground and the second one is to try and think ahead, quite far.”
The last couple of years have just been all about pragmatism, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve delivered all our shows on schedule and on budget, and we’ve actually grown the company a little bit. I think the great thing about now is that we’ve learned so much – everyone’s talked about that technology acceleration (I was trying to put Teams in for 2 years and it took 2 days) – so we’ve been able to move that on but now how fast can we go now, how can we drive the willingness for people to be open to new things, how can we really push that, and that’s something that I’m trying to think about now for ‘22, ‘23, ‘24.
Matthew: That leads really wonderfully into my next question actually! So, obviously technology is fundamental in your job role now and we’ve seen it at Creative over the years, how much more savvy Directors have to be about technology, it’s not just about the numbers anymore. So what big changes are on the horizon in the industry and how do you anticipate that you’ll address them with technology?
Iain: So, first of all, the big platform changes – we’ve got to work out how to deliver effectively and efficiently for all the streamers, for podcast, for the way the broadcasters are thinking about their schedules. The second one is the actual technology we use in order to make the programmes, so new cameras, we’ll talk a little bit about AI and machine learning and how we’re integrating that, and the third way is to make sure that we take advantage of the things that are developing in themselves so that we can stay a little bit ahead of our competitors in terms of the way we work, so we can deliver better programmes, but also so we can drive the prices down whilst keeping the quality up.
Matthew: So, what frustrates you about the sort of technology in the industry at the moment, and those frustrations, how much are they based on the fault of the tech suppliers not delivering the tech, or how much is it the users not embracing the tech?
Iain: I’m old enough that when I graduated, one of the professors bought in a personal computer from America and we all stood there and looked at it and no one quite knew what to do with it. And then we worked for a PLC with a very large logistics bit and these things called spreadsheets which nobody was allowed to go near in case they pressed the wrong button, and here we are now. So it’s always been complicated, it’s always been difficult. The big change now is that it’s getting much more user friendly, I think, and one of the things that I’m trying to do very much, and I perhaps should have mentioned before, is the amazing attitude of our staff and our workers to actually adopt new things and being quite enthusiastic about it. So, what we’ve been able to do is bring in those new ways of working and for them to be enthusiastic about it. They get frustrated when it goes wrong, when the user interfaces go wrong and that’s terrible because if you’re trying to roll something out, it’s difficult. At the more cutting edge, the difficult bits are, well, there’s a thing called Hofstadter’s law – everything takes much longer than you think, even taking into account Hofstadter’s law. So it’s always going to be a pain in the arse putting anything new in. The really difficult bit, the bit that is tricky for us at the moment, is in the workflow, in that there are fantastic systems right the way through from development, around talking to the customers, around CRM, to actually play out of programmes. But getting the integration between them is a nightmare and particularly around video where we’re trying to put together four or five camera systems, edit systems and delivery systems around workflows that integrate with each other, and we spend a lot of money and a lot of time doing that.
We were very early in the Cloud. We set the company up to be a cloud-based company and only using cloud-based systems, and we stuck to that. In theory everything should talk to each other, but in practice it really doesn’t, and you’re not in control of it. You’re always working with a partner who has different development priorities. So we’ve tried to look at, on the post-production side, partners who have very open systems so that we can begin to link them all together. We’re not going to do it ourselves, we’re going to work with them about how they link it together and, you know, guide them in some cases and listen to them in other cases, but try and build, to use the language of restaurateurs, a ‘nose-to-tail’ system.
“So we’ve tried to look at, on the post-production side, partners who have very open systems so that we can begin to link them all together.”
There’s a very good example that I use around data where there will be a professor that we might want to interview for our programme, and the researcher will type his name into often a Word document or an Excel doc, and at the end this professor is appearing on screen and has to have lots of paperwork, release forms and documentation for the broadcasters, and we’ve got to check that what they’re saying is correct and it’s got to integrate into the rest of programme. But if you think about it, the metadata around the professor, where the researcher is collecting is embedded in the metadata that we’re giving to the broadcasters, so why can’t I use that right the way through the programme and right the way through the production process? And it sounds wonderful – trying to do it is a little bit more complicated.
Matthew: It’s interesting as well, and when you talk about technology, one of the things that I think is often missed, I don’t think it probably is by the sound of it at Arrow, is a genuine change management process. So your organisation’s embracing digital transformation, but how much of that has involved a sort of genuine change management process within the people?
Iain: Well there’s two things. One is the way they work and having remote access and we now do remote filming, so a camera will turn up at a contributor’s door in Louisiana, and they’d set it up and we’d film them and direct them with our directors from the UK. So there’s a physical process around that, that is doing it. By and large, everyone wants to make better programmes faster so they’re absolutely up for it.
I think it’s very important in a creative industry that you allow people’s vision of what they want
to be expressed. And if the technology cuts across that, then you have problems. If it supports that, then they’ll absolutely go for it. So sometimes it’s trying to work out the balance of what they really want as to what they think that you’re trying to do – we’re not trying to cut costs, we’re trying to give you more time to make a better programme.
Matthew: And what one insight of your whole technology journey would you share with your peers?
Iain: I wish I’d moved faster, in everything. We pretty much got things right, luckily, and we’ve been pragmatic when things have gone wrong, but I wish we’d have been here, where we are now, in half the time, and that’s the bit that I was probably a bit too patient about. And if I could push now, that’s what I’ll go for, and I think what everybody should be doing.
“I wish I’d moved faster, in everything… I wish we’d have been here, where we are now, in half the time.”
Matthew: Do you think that is down to you or do you think that’s a case that the whole industry was thinking like that and waiting, and the reason I asked that is because it is no coincidence that, as a technology supplier, people have seen what’s happened over the last eighteen months and realized the limitations of it and have now jumped on that scenario of “let’s make the small changes that we needed to do, let’s make them happen now because we’ve realized how vital they are”, you know.
Iain: Oh no I’m thinking much, much bigger on this one, for example, we work with Gray Meta, about looking at AI and machine learning. We have thousands of hours of film. Whenever anyone goes off to America to film some interviews or some locations they massively over-film, it’s great, but that comes back and it just might have a camera card number, or when we do our space programmes, we bring in the archive and it just sits there. What we’ve been doing is working with machine learning and running all that through, so it’ll pick up that it’s a Walmart in Kentucky, it’ll pick up that it’s a Chicago police car. And then we can make it even better with our own machine learning. So we’ve done it with our crime series and now we’re looking to do it for some space work that we’re doing. We kind of knew that that would be interesting about five or six years ago and I’d love to have had it fully operational now. So anyone who’s thinking about that, just go for it.