Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson
Director General

BBC

Mark Thompson was appointed Director-General of the BBC in May 2004 and is responsible for the Corporation's services across television, radio and online and for a global workforce of 20,000 that provides over 400,000 hours of content each year.

Since his appointment Mark has re-shaped the BBC to meet the challenge of the digital age, ensuring it remains a leading innovator with the launch of services such as the domestic and global BBC iPlayer, while at the same time making the Corporation more efficient and offering greater value for money.

In the summer of 2009 Mark announced a review of the BBC's strategy, looking at how the organisation could best continue to serve audiences and deliver the highest quality content in the face of advances in technology and a rapidly changing media landscape.

In October 2010, he agreed a new licence fee settlement which will deliver stable funding until 2016/17. Following the agreement of this new settlement, Mark launched Delivering Quality First (DQF) to deliver 16 per cent savings and 4 per cent reinvestment over the four years to the end of the Charter Period in order to meet the Corporation's new obligations, as well as the editorial priorities which are at the heart of the BBC mission.

In August 2010 Mark delivered the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the MediaGuardian International Television Festival.

Throughout his tenure, Mark has been committed to spreading the benefits of the BBC across the whole of the UK to better reflect licence fee payers, overseeing the construction of a world class digital production centre in Pacific Quay, Glasgow, and spearheading the biggest ever initiative to support broadcasting outside London. The move to BBC North started in May 2011. The new, world-class base at MediaCityUK, Salford, will be the new home for the BBC in the North of England, and help foster a creative community together with other private and public organisations.

He has overseen the successful launch jointly with ITV of Freesat, as well as the BBC's involvement in YouView, a joint venture with ITV, Channel 4, Arqiva, TalkTalk, and Five that will offer subscription-free digital TV and the UK's leading video on-demand services.

Mark joined the BBC in 1979 as a production trainee. He helped launch Watchdog and Breakfast Time, was an output editor on Newsnight, and was appointed Editor of the Nine O'Clock News in 1988 and of Panorama in 1990.

As Controller of BBC Two from 1996 to 1998, he saw the channel win acclaim for strong programming such as Our Mutual Friend, The Royle Family and Storyville. He was the BBC's Director of National and Regional Broadcasting from 1999 to 2000. In 2000, he became the Director of Television.

Mark was Chief Executive of Channel 4 from 2002 to 2004.

Mark was educated at Stonyhurst College and Merton College, Oxford.

 

Quotes

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

I think the really important thing at the beginning of 2012 is that we can absolutely not rule out further major shocks this year. In fact, I think it’s the most dangerous year in terms of potential additional or incremental major shocks that I can remember and, moreover, shocks that could be interlocking. The danger of a really serious conflict in the Middle East is higher than it’s been for decades and the threat potentially to the world’s oil supply is greater than it’s been for decades.

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

The biggest single thing the government can do is to let us independently and objectively report what’s going on. More broadly, obviously we’re interested in support for new sources of growth in our economy and we believe that the creative industries sector, although not very large in the UK, is one where Britain has global competitive advantage. The UK government should support that in various ways and its announcement about a different approach to UK film industry is an example of that. I think they recognise that future economic growth in the UK could come from the sector we operate in.

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

A regionalised global strategy is very important to us. The impetus for change and the necessity for change for us is not the status of the global economy or the shift from established markets to emerging markets. The biggest single shift is the character of media and the way that is changing because of digital. And the migration from traditional linear broadcasting and traditional means of media to digital is the most profound change that’s happening.

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

In digital media mature markets are emerging markets to us.  We can address audiences where we couldn’t before.  ‘Emerging markets’ for us include the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and so on, but of course we’re also thinking about Brazil, Latin America, India and China though it’s a characteristic of media that these are difficult markets to crack.  We’ve grown our commercial arm over the last six or seven years from a turnover of about £500m to £1.1-£1.2bn.  Of that £1.2bn turnover I think £5m comes from the People’s Republic of China.  We’re finding it very, very hard to establish cash generated businesses in China because of the fact that you can’t do the kind of deals you can do elsewhere at the same prices.

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

We are progressively moving to an essentially region-based approach to our global businesses which recognises that the digital revolution is happening differently in different parts of the world. Cultural differences mean that you may often have to version your programmes for local markets and there may be some markets which are very difficult for the BBC to address.

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

We can still get a very big discount on key talent because we’re the BBC. The trouble is they don’t stay for that long. Everyone likes to say they’re working for the BBC for three or four years and they’re prepared to accept a rather modest salary for doing so. How long can you keep people if you pay a lot less than everyone else does?

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

There isn’t an innovation department because in a weird way that would be somehow implying that there were lots of departments which weren’t innovatory. Marketing and audience insight and the use of digital and social media to try and inform that is a part of it, but also it’s about finding unbelievably creative people.

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

Nowadays media products are neither quite software and hardware nor are they all about content: they’re integrated propositions and so trying to figure out innovation in a way which somehow pulls in engineering and science as well as traditional content skills, such as storytelling, journalism and so on, is our challenge at the moment.

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

If you want to look at what an industry is like where they find that very hard, look at the mobile phone industry: they’ve struggled to do that really. However, because the audience trusts in us, if we say the BBC says it’ll work, it’ll work. Of course, you have to make sure it does work.

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

Director General, BBC

I would say that affording talent in a very competitive market is an enormous challenge for us. We’re trying to match that by being as smart as we can about the combinations of people that we use and also trying to find and promote talented young people inside the organisation and give them the chance to shine.

 

Read interview transcript

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What is your outlook for the global economy?

I think there’s a very broad sense that the west is dealing with the aftermath of a very big shock; what happened in the financial services sector in 2007 and 2008 means that we’re dealing with a tricky and slightly depressing situation.  I think the really important thing at the beginning of 2012 is that we can absolutely not rule out further major shocks this year.  In fact, I think it’s the most dangerous year in terms of potential additional or incremental major shocks that I can remember and, moreover, shocks that could be interlocking.  The danger of a really serious conflict in the Middle East is higher than it’s been for decades and the threat potentially to the world’s oil supply is greater than it’s been for decades. And that’s, frankly, without even discussing Syria and Egypt but simply looking at pressure on Iran and its likely responses.  And meanwhile, to state the obvious, although most people think the prospect of a major shock coming out of the Eurozone crisis is less than 50%, some people say 10, some 20, some 30 - it’s still there.   So in a US election, policy makers, organisations and companies may be dealing not only with the aftermath of 2007/2008 but with major economic challenges on a very large scale.  So I think it’s an incredibly dangerous period for the economy, with the biggest pressures to be faced in the west, in Europe and the US.

Is your strategy geared up to work in a volatile environment?

Well we do have our commercial arm and last year we saw 8% growth.  We’ll grow again this year but the nature of what the BBC does mainly is to look incredibly acutely as a journalist at what’s happening in the Middle East and in Europe; I think we’re studying some of these things more closely than many other businesses probably are. It’s about probabilities.  There is still a major probability of a reasonable year for the world economy but the chance of really serious new shocks occurring is also very high. I suppose the biggest probability is of European or Eurozone economy which is mildly in recession; and modest continued recovery in the US. But if Iran closes or attempts to close the Strait of Hormuz, it’s a different story.  If Iran acts in any hostile way to American attempts to embargo its oil, it’s a different story.

What should government be doing to help economic recovery?

Around the world different governments are taking subtly different approaches both to fiscal questions on how quickly to attempt to get back into balance and also to monetary questions and to what extent to pump new money in to stimulate demand.

So in 2012 and 13 I think we’re going to see those different experiments playing out and we may or may not be able to judge whether one approach is more effective than another.  In the UK I think 2012 will be the first year when actual cuts to public services begin to bite: by then people may notice some changes to their public services and the realities of very large job losses in the public sector will become apparent.

So in that context what is the one thing that government can do to better support your organisation?

Well the best thing they can do is what we ask every British government to do which is to leave us alone to be independent public broadcasters: the most important thing of all is that government just keeps its distance from us.

Is that both from an editorial as well as from a commercial point of view?

The two are related.  In western Europe when governments want to attack public broadcasters they attack their sources of funding.  So we’re unusual.  The biggest single thing the government can do is to let us independently and objectively report what’s going on.  More broadly, obviously we’re interested in support for new sources of growth in our economy and we believe that the creative industries sector, although not very large in the UK, is one where Britain has global competitive advantage. The UK government should support that in various ways and its announcement about a different approach to UK film industry is an example of that.  I think they recognise that future economic growth in the UK could come from the sector we operate in. We think both the BBC and the UK government can do quite a lot to help that. 

What are your views on emerging markets as part of your growth strategy?  How local is your global strategy?

A regionalised global strategy is very important to us.   The impetus for change and the necessity for change for us is not the status of the global economy or the shift from established markets to emerging markets.  The biggest single shift is the character of media and the way that is changing because of digital.  And the migration from traditional linear broadcasting and traditional means of media to digital is the most profound change that’s happening. The enormous levels of change we have to contemplate in our organisation and in our strategy are principally keyed off that.  With the Olympic Games, it’s another very big year for digital.  London 2012 will be a showcase for what we can do in digital.  We often see leapfrogging of technology around these very big public events.  And we are developing global digital services as well as domestic ones: the BBC iPlayer going global is part of that.

So digital is the biggest single challenge we face.  But, as you say, we do think about global markets, and the character of digital means that traditional barriers to entry for BBC content to markets around the world are collapsing.  Traditionally our international sales business was a wholesale business to other broadcasters who would re-broadcast our programmes under their name.  Digital means that we can potentially get our content to consumers around the world and, although that transition will take time and will happen in varying degrees, it has the potential to happen everywhere.   Now what that means is that we can address mature markets like the United States with new branded services and new ways of getting our content to consumers.  Last year, for example, our programme Doctor Who was the most downloaded programme on US Itunes, in  a market where overall we’ve got a 0.1% share. We can’t do that via cable TV let alone network TV. In a funny way in digital media mature markets are emerging markets to us.  We can address audiences where we couldn’t before.  ‘Emerging markets’ for us include the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and so on, but of course we’re also thinking about Brazil, Latin America, India and China though it’s a characteristic of media that these are difficult markets to crack.  We’ve grown our commercial arm over the last six or seven years from a turnover of about £500m to £1.1-£1.2bn.  Of that £1.2bn turnover I think £5m comes from the People’s Republic of China.  We’re finding it very, very hard to establish cash generated businesses in China because of the fact that you can’t do the kind of deals you can do elsewhere at the same prices.  It’s not obvious that the viewers of Central Chinese Television want to watch Antiques Roadshow from Britain, for example.  The governmental and regulatory environment is also very difficult in China, in India and many other countries. So there are all sorts of reasons why it’s difficult.

To what extent are you tailoring your flagship programmes?

We are progressively moving to an essentially region-based approach to our global businesses which recognises that the digital revolution is happening differently in different parts of the world.  Cultural differences mean that you may often have to version your programmes for local markets and there may be some markets which are very difficult for the BBC to address. We tend to do well overall in terms of monetisable global content in countries where people speak English or in countries where there is some connection with Britain ‒ imperial, colonial or both.  We have international services still in 27 different languages on the radio, on the web.  We’ve got Arabic and Iranian TV channels and so forth but in terms of monetisable content there is a distinct bias.  There is a bit of the world which broadly fits with the old map of the British Empire where we tend to find people who want our content in ways they can pay for it.  BBC Afrique, our French language African service, is a fantastic thing to offer to francophone Africa but that’s something we do as a public service.  There aren’t big bucks in that.

Has your focus on emerging markets affected your talent needs?

A regional development strategy for a global media player is going to require either regional talent or talent which is very sympathetic to the needs of the region in question.  The guy who runs BBC America is an American, for example.  There are many areas across the entire value chain where talent is an acutely scarce resource in media.  The interesting thing that’s happening now, not really as a matter of top down policy or strategy but more because that’s how you get the best people, is that we are globalising in terms of our search for talent.

The head of our future media, Eric Huggers, is a Dutch guy who has worked in Belgium and in Italy.   We picked him when he was working for Microsoft on the west coast of America.  He’s been replaced by a guy called Ralph Rivera who’s a Puerto Rican New Yorker working for us here in Shepherds Bush in London.  So what’s interesting about the BBC is that it’s radically globalising, in terms of the people who work for us and who will ultimately lead the organisation.  We are the British Broadcasting Corporation and there is going to be quite a strong sense of I need to keep this organisation British as well, but we are in many ways a more global organisation than we’ve ever been in terms of talent.

We can still get a very big discount on key talent because we’re the BBC.  The trouble is they don’t stay for that long.  Everyone likes to say they’re working for the BBC for three or four years and they’re prepared to accept a rather modest salary for doing so.  How long can you keep people if you pay a lot less than everyone else does?

Clearly trust is at the top of your agenda, how are issues of public trust different in different markets? How do you address those concerns, where there are any?

I think they are essentially not different.   I think that the fundamentals of trust are the same everywhere and include truthfulness, accuracy, a willingness to correct mistakes and fair mindedness. These are qualities which absolutely work in the context of reporting the Arab Spring to the citizens of Cairo in the same way as they do on our regional news to the citizens of Manchester. In other words I think the fundamentals of trust are universal and we try very hard to make sure that whatever we do under the banner of the BBC meets those goals, those standards. What is true, of course, is that the expression of this can vary to some extent because of cultural differences around the world but I’m more struck by the commonality of that. Moreover, our credibility and our desire to be credible around the world means that we sometimes will not compete tactically on tone and style so that, for example, in a Middle Eastern context our style of journalism can feel very dry and dispassionate.   It’s very British even when we’re speaking Arabic and often of all the continuous news channels available in Arabic we’re the one who’s got the least animated, least emotional coverage.  And we know that.  Our hope is over time our reputation for objective, dispassionate, believable news sings out.  Even though on the face of it we look as if we’re not quite as interesting as the other channels. However, we are almost making that a virtue.   So sometimes you have to play against local variations in the hope that sooner or later people will value you.  An obvious point about media, of course, is that we expect to be used alongside lots of other media sources.  It’s not some game where we’re expecting everyone to turn everyone else off and come to us. We offer a flavour which is cold, dispassionate, hopefully objective and fair minded; and we think that the competitive advantage of being clear about that in the end will pay off in virtually every market in the world.

How important are building relationships and partnerships in your drive to succeed?

Big question.  It rather depends.  We’ve got 300 FM re-broadcast partners in Africa. Valued partners can range from two guys in a room to a very, very large global joint venture with Discovery.  So I think firstly there is no one size of partnership.  I don’t believe any media brand is big enough to go it alone.  I think this is going to be certainly a world of acute competition but also of very widespread collaboration.   And we’re part of that.

What role does reputation play when it comes to choosing a new partnership?

If there is any real reputational danger we won’t do the partnership. There are plenty of places where in the end we feel that even if the partner goes into it with the best intentions, sometimes partnerships are not appropriate because unforeseen events might jeopardise impartiality.  But that’s usually the exception rather than the rule.  We’re very jealous about editorial control of what we do.  Because again whatever we do goes straight back to the brand and we have to be able to turn it off or change it if it’s not right.  But we have more partnerships around the world than you could count and, broadly, I would say partnerships have helped us grow what we do internationally.

How has your approach around managing risk evolved over the years?

We take risk seriously: we run scenarios fairly formally several times a year which involve complete exercises around various disasters and crises.  Most years will also have one or two genuine crises which we have to deal with.  Because we’re a national broadcaster, we need to connect our plans with those of UK government and other agencies as well, so we are very much into this. In a way a big part of what we do is planning if we can for every eventuality. So, we do two things: we try to broaden our horizon in terms of possible risks, which includes some sessions where we simply try and brainstorm possible risks with a blank sheet of paper.  What is it that we haven’t thought of?  Any suggestions?  And kind of crazy ideas about risk just to see whether they’re worth thinking about. Secondly, we’ve become very interested in two things.  One is how you try to make sure you’re thinking about secondary inter-dependencies behind the risk.  This involves looking at different parts of the organisation, different requirements, and how you plan to manage in a disaster situation.   An obvious point about the BBC is we’re the national broadcaster and an international broadcaster; what happens if we are ourselves the subject of a terrorist attack?  We have to both handle the consequences of the attack and also report on ourselves.  How do you separate out the team who are going to be doing the reporting from the team who will be handling the consequences? So this is a matter that needs acute attention.

Do you have a chief risk officer?

We have that and we have a whole broadcast continuity and disaster recovery permanent team ready to swing into operation and declare a major incident in seconds.

To what extent has your approach to innovation changed?

Obviously, the BBC is a very big going concern in broadcasting.   We broadcast hundreds and hundreds of thousands of hours every year, much of which, of course, has to be invented.  So in a way the entire organisation, the core of the organisation is idea generation;  from the morning meeting on the Ten o’clock News to the people trying to think of jokes now to put out on the air tomorrow on The Now Show.  So … firstly innovation is genuinely right through the middle of the organisation.  It has to be.  And there isn’t an innovation department because in a weird way that would be somehow implying that there were lots of departments which weren’t innovatory.  Marketing and audience insight and the use of digital and social media to try and inform that is a part of it, but also it’s about finding unbelievably creative people.

Do you have an R&D department also? 

Very much so. The main strategy at the BBC last year was getting a very large number of people in the organisation, at least 200, centrally involved and then several thousands more involved in a conversation about its future, very much in a vertical slice of the organisation.   So you have people in their 20s involved in discussing the future of the company.  But the R&D point  also relates to the fact that one of the things we’re trying to recapture is the understanding that the BBC is not just potentially a fantastic kind of nuclear reactor of creative innovation, content innovation, but also of engineering and scientific innovation. This was Eric Schmidt of Google’s point at The MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival last autumn: the big prizes may go to organisations which can integrate culturally engineering and scientific innovation with content innovation.  You could argue the UK video games industry has done that. So we are trying to make sure that our R&D department focuses on that. Comedy, drama, news, sport are working with each other to create value.  Nowadays media products are neither quite software and hardware nor are they all about content: they’re integrated propositions and so trying to figure out innovation in a way which somehow pulls in engineering and science as well as traditional content skills, such as storytelling, journalism and so on, is our challenge at the moment.

Would you say your approach to innovation is unique in the industry?

Not many organisations have got both content investment and content innovation at the scale we’ve got.   We make a hell of a lot of new stuff every year.  We’re spending more than £2bn just on content every year.  Almost nobody does that.   It’s kind of nutty.  And we’ve also got a small but actually rather interesting research and development function and engineering function.  Very few organisations have got those two things in quite the way we’ve got them, including some basic research.

Do you think the radio player is a good example also of innovation? It might be a small unit but it’s spawning some pretty shifting technology.

It’s a simple application that you can download onto a digital device which enables you to listen to the radio and it can be the BBC or it could be commercial radio; we think it’s a very simple but powerful idea.  What’s fascinating is although it’s very boring at one level, the other part of this is standard setting. Can you make an intervention which sets a technical standard and an aspirational standard for an entire industry?  For example, the BBC got behind digital terrestrial television in this country and created the Freeview standard eight years ago.  There are 19 million units out there now in a country of 25 million households. Essentially, we managed to get everyone – or at least a large part of the industry – to back it.  And so we created a default digital standard.  Recognising the need for standards and drawing stakeholders together to create the standard and then delivering on that is ‒ in its own way ‒ a form of innovation too.  We need to do x; how are we going to do it?  If you want to look at what an industry is like where they find that very hard, look at the mobile phone industry: they’ve struggled to do that really. However, because the audience trusts in us, if we say the BBC says it’ll work, it’ll work.  Of course, you have to make sure it does work.

Do you see some sort of reverse innovation going on whereby products and services that have been developed to meet the needs of the emerging middle classes (in developing markets) are then being exported to the developed markets?

I’m always incredibly interested in what we see in emerging markets.  I can’t think of an example where that’s happened in our world.  Not least because in emerging markets in media arguably we’re still at an early stage in development.  In India the newspaper industry has probably got another decade of growth in it while television has a niche hold there.  Television is going to grow in India for many, many years to come.  Virtually nobody is on the web. 

Is talent a strategic issue for you?

The biggest single difficulty for a public broadcaster on limited funding is having the money to compete for the best talent. 

So what’s happening at the moment in the UK is that quite a few of our most favoured stars are going off to work for other broadcasters for more money.  The movie Money Ball illustrates this point. It’s about the Oakland baseball team and their problem is that they’ve got much less money than the Yankees and the Red Sox and their best players keep being pinched.  So how do you run a brilliant baseball team when you’ve got less money than everyone else?  That’s the exam question.

Actually, it’s about trying to build effective teams so in the end that is what the movie says. What you try and do is make sure that your portfolio of talent works.  And so it’s partly, of course, dependent on screen stars or metaphorical stars.  Brilliant leaders.   But quite often it’s about trying to make sure that you’ve got a group of people that are well aligned, who are well matched, who bring a set of skills to the table and can deliver exactly what you want.  So I would say that affording talent in a very competitive market is an enormous challenge for us.  We’re trying to match that by being as smart as we can about the combinations of people that we use and also trying to find and promote talented young people inside the organisation and give them the chance to shine. I’m rather proud of that.

How does the issue of talent vary in all the markets you operate in?

The landscape is very uneven. If you want to work in speech radio in this country we’re the only people who really do it, so you’ve got to work for us.  We’ve got the best radio in the world because of that and a great set of studios - television entertainment, television comedy.   Almost all the new media skills are the focus of ferocious competition now.  And it’s very difficult.  So in some areas we face acute competitive pressures and in others we don’t.

How do you make your organisation more attractive to talent?

That’s a very good question.  And it’s hard.  There are two things really: one is the creative promise of the BBC brand and the sense of its heritage and what it might stand for ‒ so if you feel you’ve got some form of creative talent which might be programme making but it might be as an engineer or an accountant, the BBC is an attractive place to come;  UK undergraduates, for example, usually rate the BBC at least in the top three and normally number one of places they would like to work. This is all undergraduates including the most able.  The second thing which we are quite good at though I think people often come and find that we’re not as good as they thought we would be and not as good as we should be, is the BBC does so many things that there is considerable potential for personal growth and development.  People come here because they feel they will be able to develop themselves, their talent, more successfully here than anywhere else.  We pay perfectly well but we’re not going to beat others on remuneration.  It’s to do with the satisfaction of getting the best out of yourself creatively and the hope that you might develop and learn here more quickly than elsewhere.

Would you say you’ve had to reconsider strategy objectives or initiatives because you were not able to find the right people?

Not yet. No not yet.  We can still sort of say you know we’re going to take hill 62 and we’re going to find the people to do it and send them into action.  We still can be very directive about strategy and it seems to work. Because remember in the public service bit of the BBC, which is most of it, we’re a spending organisation.  They’re not profit centres.  They can’t come back with more money.  You give them the money; they spend it.  That’s it.  That’s the model.

Can you give me some colour on what you do in relation to succession planning and leadership development?

Well I don’t think it’s particularly well developed in the BBC but I have regular meetings with senior colleagues to go through the issue of who the next generation of viewers are and the generation after that. One of the main reasons that we did our big strategy last year with that 200 people was to look in close up at the next generation of people who will be leading the organisation.  So it’s not just about process it’s also about getting to know, spending time with, and setting challenges for the next generation and beginning to give them a sense of ownership of the future ‒ because it’s their future ‒ even if that means moving them outside of the comfort zone from their own area to work on this big project. You’ve worked over here, spend the next six months thinking about this.

How has the allocation of your time changed over the last year between the different stakeholders, people, leadership, governments, and other stakeholders?

Well the last year for me has been focused mostly but not entirely on the inside of the organisation: its strategy; its future.   That has taken a slightly bigger portion of my time than it has in previous years.  I think 2012 will be the reverse.  I think my job now is to get out and look at what’s going on in the world. The other thing we haven’t talked about at all is that this year is by far the biggest year for broadcasting in our history.  We have a series of events: Torch relay; Queen’s Diamond Jubilee;  Euro 2012;  The Olympic Games in London.   This is the biggest sequence of broadcasting in the history of the BBC so, in a sense, audiences and the world coming to look at the UK is the big thing for this year.