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From marketing sage to BBC boss: can Tim Davie future-proof the embattled corporation?


By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

June 8, 2020 | 8 min read

Marketing veteran Tim Davie has been crowned successor to BBC director general Tony Hall. With the former BBC Studios, PepsiCo and P&G man in place to shape the Beeb as it approaches its 100th birthday, what will be the biggest hurdles in future-proofing the public service broadcaster?

Tim Davie

New BBC director general Tim Davie

Tim Davie’s previous senior marketing roles at PepsiCo and P&G will make him hyper-aware of the corporation's voice on the world stage. As the former head of BBC Studios, the commercial challenges and the broader appeal of its content will be front of mind – particularly how it punches against tough competition.

BBC media editor Amol Rajan says Davie has “landed one of the most privileged jobs in Britain and global media, leading thousands of creative people at a remarkable moment in history.” He quickly pulls the rug from under this distinguished description, however, adding: “It’s hell!”

Hell, perhaps, but sweetened with a £525,000 annual salary (though this is actually £75,000 less than he was getting as head of BBC Studios). Upon being announced in the lucrative role, Davie issued a pledge to “accelerate change” – the sort of platitude routinely offered by industry leaders these days. But while his exact plans remain fuzzy, the message is clear – it won't be business as usual at the Beeb.

The Challenges

Lucy Kueng, a strategic media consultant and commentator, says that Davie is “going to have a fight on his hands“. Three fights actually.

Number one is how the BBC holds up in the entertainment space against streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and in the audio space against the likes of Spotify.

“The BBC is a mid-sized player,“ explains Kueng. “It has huge creative power, but nothing like the resources – in terms of engineering and content budgets – of the streaming giants. It has a really strong brand and an amazing track record, but it is at a strategic disadvantage.“

The perception of the BBC’s utility is being eroded as more and more media becomes available to consumers. Its entertainment, content, news and resources in text, audio and the visual mediums are often unfairly compared to the narrow, largely unscrutinised output of streaming giants who don’t answer to the British public.

Davie's next fight is a news war. “What is its role in the world news ecology?“ asks Kueng, explaining that it needs to find its next audience in digital pockets like YouTube, WhatsApp groups, Instagram, TikTok and more.

“This is existential for the BBC because so much of the brand is about its news presence. It is very hard to hold your own in those distribution platforms. Across the board, legacy brands are having a tough time cutting through there, but that’s where the mass audiences are to be found.“

Its news presence has also turned the BBC into a political hot potato. Its output and impartiality (or lack thereof, in some critics' eyes) have caused regular flare-ups in the UK and while BBC executives have told The Drum that the political attacks have died down in light of the pandemic, these issues are connected and lead into the third fight: funding.

“Everyone knows that licence fee was built for a different era,“ says Kueng. “It’s not something that can hold up in a fragmented distributed world of the future, but all the alternatives have flaws.“

In general, she thinks the media giant needs to reduce its “inordinate complexity“ not entirely suited to the coming battles.

Measure of the man

Is Davie the man for that job?

Kate Bulkley, an independent media commentator, notes his vital role in merging the BBC’s commercial arm – BBC Worldwide – with its production capabilities to create BBC Studios, and says he was the “right choice“ as an internal hire. However, she says, many saw director of content Charlotte Moore in the race and thought it high time the BBC chose a female for the top job.

“In this new world of global competitors for talent and resources, the next director general has to understand not only how to fight for the continuation of the BBC licence fee, but also how to leverage the particular USP of the BBC to its best advantage.“

Davie’s grip on BBC Worldwide and Studios has taught him that taking care of talent is paramount. But he will need to make quick decisions and seal beneficial partnerships to help it pack a global punch. Bulkley recalls a conversation she had with him in 2018 on the subject: “He believed in the new world of competition for talent, that the best strategy was ‘creative deal-making at pace’. He is passionate about content and about the BBC, and he will bring a much-needed energy and big picture appreciation to what is arguably the best and the most difficult job in the UK media.”

Mihir Haria-Shah, who is the head of broadcast at media agency Total Media, says Davie takes over during the most “challenging time in the BBC’s history“ with the swelling of quality content available beyond the confines of traditional broadcasters.

He explains: “Many viewers have moved away from the BBC. This has significantly impacted its reach with younger audiences, who have potentially permanently turned their attention away from traditional TV to streaming services and other video platforms like YouTube.“

But Davie has been instrumental in a lot of the positive steps the BBC has taken. As well as his shaping of Studios, he was instrumental in the UKTV deal and the rollout of Britbox in Australia and the USA.

“He understands that content and distribution are key to attracting and retaining audiences,“ explains Haria-Shah. “In the coming weeks and months, Davie needs to build upon the work the BBC has already implemented to attract these viewers, such as extending the length of time catch-up content remains on BBC iPlayer – and possibly even re-launching BBC3 on TV.“

This is likely what Davie refers to when he talks about “accelerating change”.

The marketer mindset

The BBC walks a fine line – a tightrope that requires a steady footing to navigate media competition, political pressure and other flare-ups. And there are big shoes to fill. But while Tony Hall’s experience lay in running the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, Davie may have a better grasp on the global trends and comms needs of the modern public service broadcasters.

Kevin Chesters, a partner and chief strategy officer of The Harbour Collective and columnist for The Drum, summed up his impression of Davie from the talks and presentations he has seen at events. “He seems quiet and thoughtful. He’s more of a thinker and doer than he is a showman or performer. He seems smart and considered and someone who knows his own mind. A ‘last to speak but best thing said’ kind of person.“

Chesters is happy to see a top marketer in the top job: “The more we can have people who know about consumers and understand how to brand/market/communicate at the top of organisations, the less crap they’ll be. And they’ll produce better work.” And for him, this is a good signal for the BBC’s future.

“The BBC is one of the best and most decent things about the UK. You can tell what a great service the BBC provides by the type of person who wants to have it eradicated. The worse the human, the less they want a public service scrutineer like the BBC around.”

Throughout this piece, the battles, problems and issues Davie faces appear to be in the marketing realm. Whether it is messaging, comms, distribution or purpose, every little step on the tightrope will need a wealth of strategic thought behind it.

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