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Framestore CEO William Sargent reveals how to lead a creative business

Neil Bennett | May 26, 2014
It's always interesting when you hear heads of leading creative firms talk about their business purely in the terms of it being, well, a business.

"I have to be the one to ask the client, 'Can we get more money, or time?'," he says. And if the answer's no, "I have to phone the client and say 'We can't hit that deadline'."

Heads of creative businesses are often under pressure to make decisions quickly, but William says its better to wait and consider problems if its at all possible.

"There's a balance between being decisive and waiting three months for more information."

"Live a decision for a while," he says, by which he means that you should behave and think as if you'd made the decision in one direction for a few days, then repeat the experiment as if you'd made the opposite choice. The right decision should emerge.

Asking himself about his success rate on decision making, William is blunt about how well he's done.

"I've survived", he says. "Many of my peers haven't. And it's because [Framestore has] evolved. We've lost money on co-producing films, but overall we've stayed profitable."

To achieve this evolution, a creative leader has to engender a sense of entrepreneurship in many of its staff.

"Even when you're six to eight people, you can't be the only person who is entrepreneurial," says William, "You need to be surrounded by people who are entrepreneurial. If you don't have them, find them. If you do, encourage them."

William notes that many creatives don't believe they have the skills or drive to push the business forward, but given the right incentives, push and framing — for example seeing development as a creative challenge rather than a business one — they can make a real difference.

It's important to treat staff with respect, says William, as it creates a culture that gets the best from everyone: "Integrity is important to us. If you bully someone, you get fired. I've done it two or three times."

"I've also fired clients for bullying staff," he says, noting that you have to learn to live with the short term financial hit for the longer term success of a holistically satisfied team.

Growing Britain's businesses
As a 'red tape tsar' under the previous government, William also talked about the place of government in driving and developing the businesses in the UK. He doesn't think the government should invest in businesses, but instead just play a regulatory role.

"Governments can enable and facilitate but can't create wealth," he says.

William's notes that creative companies generally grow in areas that haven't seen a lot of regeneration, but by being there and being successful, they engender redevelopment.

"You have to have to awfully long term view of making things happen," he says. "We're in Soho, [which has creative roots" going back to the 60s when Soho was a deeply seedy place. This attracted filmmakers, which then attracted ad agencies — one type of creative industry following another.


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