BBC stars pay revelations - a licence to bill?

Kathleen Saxton, The Lighthouse Company

How would you feel if your salary details from your annual P60 hit the headlines of the national press? This was the situation faced this week by 96 individuals who make up the BBC’s top-paid performing talent – those earning £150,000 or more – as a result of the publication of the corporation’s annual report. While feeding our nation’s celebrity-driven curiosity, the revelations have inadvertently but understandably stoked the fire around the gender and ethnic pay-gap within the BBC’s upper echelons.

Before we enter the specifics of the BBC debate – and from a position of industry talent management – the Lighthouse absolutely believe in complete fairness within the workplace and that naturally extends to how employees are remunerated. What this means is when there are a number of very similar level roles, with very similar people requirements, then the pay and benefits for those in these positions should be broadly equitable irrespective of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability.

The very fact that two-thirds of the BBC’s leading on-screen talent is male reignites the inequality debate within the corporation – and quite rightly so. While every organisation has a duty to eradicate unfairness, there is a sense that what the BBC is dealing with today is the systemic, legacy impact of the organisation’s past, which they may struggle to correct at speed.

In the cold light of day, the figures continue to make for highly uncomfortable reading and I'm sure leaders within the corporation will right now be sharing my fears of a female talent exodus, prompting almost the opposite effect such disclosure was meant to deliver. With publicly stated targets, the BBC has already set 2020 as a deadline for gender pay parity and calls are already in place for the closure of the gap to be accelerated. While not every organisation faces the same public scrutiny as the Beeb, we can only hope the lessons learnt will reverberate beyond the corridors of Broadcasting House. For the marketing and advertising industry, this is a stark reminder that the sterling campaigning and agenda-setting efforts of organisations like WACL and The 3% Conference remains critical to creating a fairer workplace for all.

NOT ALL TALENT IS EQUAL

However, what concerns me most is the headline figures appear to ignore the other pressures the BBC, like every other organisation employing, nurturing and creating market-leading talent, will be facing.

Firstly, and arguably the most subjective point, is what price do we place on creative talent? Can it genuinely be benchmarked? For many broadcasting decisions it is the ‘casting’ of the lead talent that will be the fundamental driver of success. Bad behaviour aside, one only needs to look at the impact of the departure of Clarkson et al on the overall strength of the Top Gear franchise. It can often feel impossible to place a comparative price on extraordinary talent… after all, looking closer to home, there is only one Sir Martin Sorrell.

Secondly, we must consider the competitive forces at play in the broadcasting market driving talent remuneration. Rewind ten years and the BBC would have been looking to the likes of ITV and Channel 4 as the potential poachers of their talent. Today, we have organisations like Amazon and Netflix commissioning and creating their own original programming and dangling a feast of carrots to attract talent. While in the past the BBC brand would have garnered a high degree of loyalty - like Mary Berry’s refusal to take her Bake Off skills to Channel 4 due to the corporation’s support - the sheer scale of incentive offered by the global broadcasting disruptors cannot be underestimated.

Finally, the BBC would be slammed as foolish if it didn’t consider the ROI delivered by, and the opportunity cost of losing, its talent. It is incredibly difficult to judge on-screen talent on a like-for-like basis. The skills, personality, familiarity and overall appeal of an individual will impact hugely on ratings and the opportunity to build a wider brand franchise. Similarly, one cannot underestimate paying the talent their market value, as the opportunity cost of potential deflection to another channel could have a wider impact on the organisation’s results.

DISCLOSURE PROVIDES CONTEXT

All this said, we truly believe that in the long term the corporation’s salary disclosure will be beneficial to the broadcasting sector and its talent. The BBC is a phenomenal organisation and as a public service broadcaster should and does lead the way in many societal issues. Accountability and transparency is paramount for every business today and it feels absolutely right that such disclosures come first from our public bodies.

In a week when the BBC announced the first casting of a female Doctor Who, these comparative figures should allow talent from any background to feel more comfortable, accomplished and skilled at negotiating their own worth. Every individual, no matter the role, must have a realistic perspective of their own unique value.

On countless occasions the BBC has been slammed for being ‘too politically correct’ yet today’s headlines appear to run counter to those allegations. It is only by drawing awareness to the hard quantifiable facts that both the organisation and its talent can take the steps necessary to address the disparities.

Ultimately, any form of disclosure will have both advantages and drawbacks. The gender and ethnicity discontent the BBC may face from its talent today should help the corporation to be fairer and more representative in the future. What the BBC can’t afford to lose sight of is the fact each of its leading talents remains a rare and exceptional asset.

Kathleen Saxton, founder of executive search firm The Lighthouse Company

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