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Welcome to Spotlight podcast. In our interviews, we feature insightful people in at the deep end of TV and film production and distribution. And we extend a special welcome to today’s guest, Julian Freeston. Julian has over 20 years experience in the media industry. He was Deputy Group Finance Director at all3media for five years, between 2004 and 2009. Before joining the Zodiac Group as the UK CFO, remaining there for seven years, holding a number of senior financial roles before heading off for two years as the CFO of Science Ltd., a group of companies owned by the artist Damien Hirst.
Julian now works as a portfolio CFO with small, fast growing businesses in the media and tech space, and he is a member of the ICAEW and a qualified chartered accountant.
Matthew Ash: Your role as a CFO these days means that you probably have to be as tech savvy as you are knowledgeable about finance. What else about you would other people say was your key strength?
Julian Freeston: I think what a lot of people would say, that’s definitely one of my key strengths, and what suits me to working in the environment I do, is my ability to relate to non-financial individuals and entrepreneurs.
It’s absolutely key in small, fast growing businesses that you are able to sort of take financial information and translate it into a format that’s digestible and understandable and helps those entrepreneurs and CEOs to make quick decisions that are absolutely key in a small, fluid business where things are changing all the time. And that’s an area that I focus significantly on in all the companies that I work for in order to help them try and be more successful.
MA: Good answer. I like that. I try to do that with technology, actually, because I think if you talk to people on a non-technical level, you get a better response, don’t you? So I get that completely.
Anyone who knows anything about the TV and film industry, will have known that your Chairman, David Frank, sadly passed away late last year, and technology was clearly so important to David.
How visionary, in your opinion, was David?
JF: Hugely. He proved it many years ago, you know, when him and Matthew started RDF in order to take advantage of the changes of the terms of trade in the industry where, you know, the power switched back to the producer and in-house distributors from the broadcasters where there have been previously, and as a consequence was hugely successful. He was ahead of the game and everyone knows the history of RDF.
He also, you know, after leaving Zodiac Group, he of course, set up the rights exchange, which again was a piece of technology that no other business had introduced at that time. You know, that technology was building a distribution platform for a number of smaller independent distributors as well as some of the bigger studios for them to sort of almost, well, it was an online marketplace. A very, very clever piece of technology that no one else had done.
And then again, with his sort of next entrepreneurial project of rocket rights and rights booster, he could see the potential of digital rights and digital rights exploitation over the years, and was therefore sort of keen to try and exploit that as best he could. It was just very sad that he won’t be around to see the fruits of his vision.
“It’s absolutely key in small, fast growing businesses that you are able to sort of take financial information and translate it into a format that’s digestible and understandable and helps those entrepreneurs and CEOs to make quick decisions that are absolutely key in a small, fluid business where things are changing all the time.”
MA: I guess that’s down to you guys now to ensure that that happens, though, isn’t it? And you’re never gone while people continue your journey, are you?
MA: So, the TV and film industry landscape, as you know, is forever changing. What big changes are on the horizon in the industry and how do you anticipate that you’re going to address those changes with technology?
JF: I think, you know, at the moment there’s a lot of positioning. As we all know, the landscape for distribution especially has changed significantly. The DVD market, which was extremely lucrative for many years, has all but disappeared, and it’s been replaced by, of course, the advent of streaming and online platforms.
Now, at the moment we have a number of platforms all competing for what is primarily market share. So I really feel that there will be a consolidation of those streaming platforms over the coming years, because ultimately in all industries, it will become mature and we will see the bigger platforms subsuming some of the smaller ones that are out there.
From our perspective, we are having to use technology in order to drive our revenues. You know, we need to work with these streamers. We need to work with these platforms. Something’s got to replace the revenue streams that the DVD market had. Unfortunately, the quantum is not the same, shall we say, in terms of revenue. But of course, there are now more customers out there for your product.
From a more sort of internal perspective, I really think that technology is key because there is so much data out there as to what makes a successful project, what is successful, what hasn’t been successful. And I personally don’t think that the data is maybe used as efficiently and as well as possible in order to inform decisions for what you’re going to make and what you’re going to distribute going forward. I think there’s a significant opportunity out there to make the most of these pools of data that exist in slight silos, and that really will help to drive the TV and the film business into making more informed decisions, certainly when you’re looking to maximise the commerciality of a project.
MA: That’s a really interesting observation because it’s no coincidence that Microsoft and Facebook, for example, have both released in the last sort of six months what Microsoft call the Dataverse and Facebook call the Metaverse. And that’s absolutely no coincidence that all these organisations, these tech organisations are doing that.They recognise that data is, you know, they call it data is the new oil.
I mean data is just invaluable, and how you utilise it and how other companies utilise it going forward is going to be really, really interesting.
JF: I think so. I agree and I think on the flip side of that though, you have to be careful that the data that you decide to use is clean and as accurate as possible, because the other thing we all know is there’s a lot of data out there that is incorrect.
“I personally don’t think that the data is maybe used as efficiently and as well as possible in order to inform decisions for what you’re going to make and what you’re going to distribute going forward. I think there’s a significant opportunity out there to make the most of these pools of data that exist in slight silos, and that really will help to drive the TV and the film business into making more informed decisions, certainly when you’re looking to maximise the commerciality of a project.”
MA: Oh yes.
JF: So, you know, that’s a challenge. That is absolutely a challenge. But in that instance again, I think it’s a case of where technology can help in actually trying to cleanse and weed out the data that could ultimately misinform a decision.
MA: Oh, absolutely. As interesting. And what frustrates you, Julian, about the technology in the industry at the moment? And how much of that is the fault of the tech suppliers not delivering the tech or users not embracing the tech?
JF: It’s interesting. It’s a good question. Going back to sort of the more traditional, I suppose, you know, and more of a finance side, shall we say. I think there’s historically always been a real lack of specific production and distribution software targeted purely at the film and TV industries, you know, certainly there’s not enough that’s tailored. And what is, is often cost prohibitive, certainly for the smaller producers or distributors.
Even alongside that, actually, there are not enough of these sort of off the shelf products that you can plug and play. Having known from my own experiences of implementing, certainly production and distribution software, it’s a long process and a very complicated process. You know, distribution accounting has its foibles and its nuances, shall we say. And there’s nothing out there, particularly, that’s really ever got to grips with that, I don’t believe.
From that perspective, I think it’s not entirely the fault of tech suppliers at all. I think there is also significant inertia within the business from finance and non-finance individuals to using new software. You know, people have got used to using Excel and Google Sheets, and it’s very difficult in some respects, especially with people who have busy lives. You know, you only have to look at the production companies now, people aren’t sitting around, people are flat out and they just don’t have the time or the inclination to learn something new where in their eyes what they’ve used historically has been sufficient.
And that’s where you will often get the clash between certainly a finance department that wants to try and improve its processes and a production team that are happy doing what they currently do. So, you know, somehow making any product that comes to solve this as user-friendly as possible is absolutely key.
MA: It’s interesting because that is Microsoft, funnily enough, that’s one of the things that we’ve seen them concentrate on. They call it onboarding, you know, so how quickly can we on board someone to the sort of software that we have so that they are reaping the benefits of moving to that as quickly as possible.
It’s a very interesting observation for someone who doesn’t work for a tech company, well you sort of do, but we don’t recognise here, necessarily, that people see that and clearly you have done.
Your organisation obviously is embracing digital transformation, but when introducing technology internally within your organisation, or any that you’ve worked for, how much of that process has involved a genuine change management process?
JF: Well, I’d say there’s always change management involved to some degree and whatever you want to do. Just as an example, you know, the last two years have been a classic example of having to change the way you work, you know, the move to Zoom, remote working. Some people have embraced it hugely and other people, you know, it’s been very difficult for them.
So from my perspective, you need to highlight very much the benefits of what a sort of technology change and implementation will bring to people’s daily lives. Just telling people that we’re implementing this system and this is what you’re going to need to do is hopeless. You’ll hit resistance from day one.
JF: Massively old school, and it just doesn’t work. Whereas if you can sit down with someone and actually explain that, you know, if they just put a bit of time and effort into learning, this will be beneficial to their life. It opens doors for you, it really does.
So it’s very much about sort of communication, keeping people informed and making them feel involved in that process as well. And it varies depending on, of course, the scale of what you’re trying to introduce.
“You know, salespeople are inherently positive, always sell, you know, the benefits, but every piece of finance software is different and some things do certain tasks better than others. So really it’s just research, research, research, talk to people who’ve used it, ask for references, make sure you’ve really got under the skin of the product before you sign on that dotted line.”