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5 Minutes with... Steve Davies

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Chief Executive of the UK's Advertising Producers Association

5 Minutes with... Steve Davies


Why does Mike Tyson's lawyer join the UK's APA (Advertising Producers Association) as Chief Executive and swap the law of the land for the beautifully chaotic world of production? A new challenge?  Perhaps the yearly trips to Cannes? The truth...  A chance to not only create an above-and-beyond offering for the industry, but to build a personal reputation that exceeds outside of the UK and crosses cultural borders. LBB's Laura Swinton meets the APA's Steve Davies to find out what really makes this incredibly well respected, intellegent, and honest man tick and why the British production industry is fortunate to have him... 


LBB> How did you get involved with the APA and the production community?


SD> I wanted a new challenge and the APA wanted a lawyer to be their new Chief Executive. I saw that the association could be much more effective through building better, and more positive relationships, and that there was scope in their offering. As such, I wanted to deliver what I thought  members deserved - absolute maximum value for their membership fee. 


LBB> We heard a rumour that in the time before you were with the APA you were Mike Tyson’s lawyer… is that true?? 


SD> Yes, I was a partner in a law firm in Fleet Street and worked within sport and TV. I was involved in sports and TV rights contracts with broadcasters like Sky and HBO. Mike Tyson wanted to come to the UK to take part in a boxing match but was denied entry. I represented him at a hearing before the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and fortunately was able to persuade him that Mike Tyson wasn’t a risk to the public and should be allowed into the country.


The first time I met Mike Tyson and said ‘hello’ he accused me of spitting at him, which was a bit odd. I think he was testing me out in some way and after that, he was always pleasant to deal with.


LBB> And has your experience in law helped you with your work at the APA? 


SD> Yes, because there are contractual issues, claims, and copyright issues which benefit from legal analysis and advice. Not to mention confidentiality agreements, which seem to be proliferating at the moment. Ironically, by developing other areas of the APA (for example, helping the members market themselves, understand the potential of new markets, training) the direction of the our new services has dramatically expanded. But the legal and production advice is still at our core.


LBB> The APA isn’t afraid to take on big issues and stand its ground – most recently there’s been the Red Bee issue. Why was this an important principle to defend and how do you see the scenario playing out?


SD> The Red Bee issue is a long running battle, but we are here for the long run. As ever, we are not fighting for special favours for our members - they are a battle hardened bunch, developing successful and internationally renowned businesses with none of the subsidies or help that film companies receive. All we're looking for is the opportunity to win work on the open market. That is our message to the BBC: let the market do its job! There is an over-supply of great production companies and directors, vfx companies and editors; so use the competition between them to get the best talent at the best price. There can’t be a better system for buying than a competitive market, as evidenced by the fact that that is how advertisers buy the services they need. Why not the BBC?


We have a good record for fighting these issues, which is built on the determination and principles of our member companies and our strategies.


LBB> I’m interested to pick your brains about the growth of organisations like WAM and Hogarth – do you see them as a threat to the production and post communities? And with more clients willing to by-pass agencies completely on certain projects and work directly with a post house or studio, how do they fit into that model anyway…


SD> New models and ways of doing things are welcome but we are back to the open market argument. Would clients be better served by they or their agencies seeking to buy vfx and editing work for each project on the open market, using competition to get the best talent, at the best price? We think so, and that argument is strengthened by the fact that the best vfx and editing talent is within independent vfx and editing companies.


Clients should ask themselves, when told about “synergies”, cost savings and being advised to use a post house (for example, which is part of the same holding company), whether their best interests are really being served?!


LBB> Since you’ve been with the APA, what have been the biggest changes you’ve seen within the production community?


SD> When I started it was all about TV advertising. Now it's about content for all screens. For a time,  some soothsayers saw digital as the end of TV advertising. That has past. There was never any evidence for that, and the British publics love affair with TV shows no sign of abating. Making advertising content for new (if we can still call them that) platforms is the opportunity, but making that pay is the challenge.


Competition has become more and more fierce too and with the economic downturn, APA members have had to show great ingenuity in evolving their businesses to survive and, to have a chance of prospering in the future.


LBB> There’s quite a high degree of solidarity among the London/UK production companies, particularly when compared with other countries. Why do you think that is?


SD> This is my favourite subject! The business here has a much better structure than anywhere else. This is achieved via the standard contracts and processes that provide a framework for all productions and the quality of advice and ethics that are worked and lived by. There has been some erosion in the pitching and payment process, for example, but we are still miles ahead of most countries in the way that we work. I believe these are the fundamental foundationsfor the great work that the UK advertising industry is famous for. It allows the agency and production company to spend their time on creating a great commercial, rather than sorting out contracts and business affair issues.

Important factors in the real sense of 'community' within the UK -  as we know, it is a very London, and still very Soho-centric business. Also the APA is fortunate to have the active involvement and support of its members. That goes for the Council, who I meet with every month to discuss key issues and the members, who come to meetings and are willing to fight for the principles they believe in.


We are also fortunate to have the counsel of the two APA Chairmen, Lewis More O’Ferrall and John Hackney, who have been within their roles for something like 15 years, and whose wisdom and love for the industry has been critical in enabling us to take on issues as effectively as possible.


LBB> You guys headed over to Silicon Valley this year - how do you think production companies are going to have to adapt, in coming years, to keeping up with tech and media developments?


SD> Probably like advertising agencies and everyone else, the potential provided by new technology is exciting and overwhelming. APA Members are keen to understand the potential of new technologies for communicating advertisers messages to consumers and in leading that, but they have to learn about it, while fighting to get the next production in, and produing the ones they are working on now, as well as they possible. 


That doesn’t allow much time for contemplating the future. Our events like 'The Future of Advertising…In One Afternoon' at BAFTA, are designed to bring them key understandings about the potential new ways of reaching consumers in inspiring bite sized chunks.


'Creative London Comes To Silicon Valley' was part of that. The members enthusiasm for learning was demonstrated by the fact that representatives of 27 companies joined us for the trip. We went to You Tube/Google, Netflix, Twitter, AT&T Foundry, Orange Labs and a host of others. You can download the report here. What we found particularly fascinating was that the companies we met were incredibly open about their business plans and that they rolled out the red carpet for APA members - they want to develop themselves as content providers and were genuinely keen to meet the creators of top quality content.


LBB> I believe that the next delegation will be to South America. Obviously it’s a growing market and with the Olympics and World Cup just around the corner there are some real opportunities there – but I wonder if you had any thoughts about the challenges that UK production companies might face in the region?


SD> We have taken delegations and created events in Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing and Mumbai, as well as Silicon Valley and are consulting with members about which markets they would like us to help them explore next.


I have always been slightly inhibited from targeting Brazil because it sounds like a holiday but we have looked at it - with its huge growth and the two biggest sporting events in the world happening there, it is obviously interesting to members. However, our research into its potential showed that it might not be as an attractive proposition as it should be -  Brazil has trade barriers in commercials, in the form of a tax called Condecine, which means that any commercial to go on-air in Brazil must be made in Brazil by a production company registered, and operating in Brazil for the past five years. I think that is wrong because the British Government and Olympic Committee have helped Rio with advice but we are not allowed to participate in the benefits. It does reduce the potential of the market and APA members feedback has focussed instead on an interest in South By South West in Austin... So we will research that and see if we can work with the Government to get a subsidy for APA members to attend.


LBB> The APA show is just around the corner – what can we look forward to this year?


SD> The aim is to showcase the best work and then have the best party. We created it as an antidote to traditional awards - buying tables, long presentations, lengthy speeches and the industry has responded. Everyone  tells me it's their favourite night and they can’t all be being nice...


I just went through the entries and I can promise a great APA Collection this year. Sitting down and watching it on the big screen, with all the people who have made the commercials, that is always a treat.


The APA Show  is a cure to the mindset that things' aren’t what they used to be'. Every year, I think it says “actually we have made some bloody good ads this year” and I think this 2013 is particularly strong.


We are back at One Marylebone, with a new layout and some exciting tweaks. Tickets are on sale now!

LBB> is there an interest from other countries in setting up something like the APA?


SD> They're all very keen, and we certainly try and help countries and share information. We tried to help Ireland recently. You have to be practical. One of the big advantages that the US and UK have is that there is a sufficiently big industry to be able to support full time staff. Clearly what you have in a small market with ten or so companies, they can’t afford that, so they have to try and do it on a voluntary basis. And what happens, and what you have to guard against, is that you get a lot of people together, very enthusiastic, they meet, but they’re all too busy to do anything. By the next meeting nothing really has happened. To make it work in a small market you need people to realise these challenges and be extra enthusiastic in order to overcome these challenges.


LBB> Not asking you to play favourites, but over the last year which pieces of work have you seen from the UK have made you particularly proud?


SD> We looked at the judging of the APA collection yesterday. It’s the nature of the industry that people are feeling a bit battered and saying that there’s not as many good scripts out there as there used to be. However, when you sit down and watch the work, you realise that, actually, there’s some bloody good stuff out there. It’s one of the nice things about it I think. There have been a couple of years – say two years ago – when I’ve thought entries had become a bit thin. But looking at this year’s selection, there’s such a variety of really good work that I think it’ll be a great collection -  not just to watch on the night, but to take overseas. To take stuff overseas, it’s not just about the big glossy ads like Virgin and John Lewis, which of course are fantastic. It’s also about having some quirky and small budget work that shows imagination and creativity or is just plain funny. I always think you have to look at sectors as well – when someone makes a good bank commercial, you’ve got to appreciate that more than a good ad from the third (charity) sector – there are always great ads from the third sector but it’s somewhat easier, there’s more freedom and a bank ad has less freedom and has a very staid image. 


LBB> Speaking to people in the production and agency sides of the industry over the last month or so, it seems that a lot of people are unseasonally busy and, perhaps, busier than they have been in recent years. From your perspective, do you think there’s an upswing and recovery underway, or is it a blip?


SD> What I’ve noticed for a while is that there’s no real pattern anymore. The first four months of this year were the worst period ever. We always look at surveys and forecasts about the economy and adspend; we listen to what Martin Sorrell has to say, but I’ve noticed that there’s very little correlation between what’s happening on the ground and all those forecasts. They could all be saying that everything’s looking up and everyone’s quiet or they could be saying that the outlook’s quite grim but everyone’s busy. You almost have to give up. People in production tend to take the view that you can’t guess, you’ve just got to plough on and make the most of it.


People ring us about all sorts of production issues all the time – first of all, that’s what we’re here for, and secondly, I’d rather they did that than – as one person did – email saying ‘we haven’t got any work at all, has anyone else’. It’s a much worse call to deal with. We can help with contractual and legal issues, we can help in a broader sense with marketing and opening up new markets, but we can’t get them a script in that day. It’s frustrating.


LBB> In terms of the rest of the year, what’s planned?


SD> We try to have as manay events as possible and spread them out for resource reasons. We’ve just had the Young Director Award screening at Rushes and we’re holding Beak Street Bugle film screenings once a month. We did one this week with a film from 2AM about the Olympic final when Ben Johnston was disqualified. They actually brought Ben Johnston over from Canada to do a Q&A, which was amazing. There are little presentations at Framestore and things like the future of advertising in March. It’s a variety of events from big to adhoc small. 

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