The 5 ways to develop must-have projects
When I was building my company, I could never understand why my prospective new clients were buying average shows from the same old suppliers, instead of exciting new projects from me.
I would deliver fantastic pitches that went down really well. I'd leave the room buzzing with excitement.
Then I'd find out later that the buyer had chosen a worse idea from an existing supplier.
It baffled me - why the hell were they knowingly choosing an inferior opportunity?
Why wouldn't they work with us?
If I was rejected in person, I'd skulk away after the meeting, tail between my legs, and feel sorry for myself for the whole weekend.
Then, back in the office, we'd develop cheaper, safer projects that looked similar to those of our competitors. These were designed to reduce the difference between working with me, and working with the incumbents.
Going back to pitch again a few weeks later, this invariably went down even more badly.
"This is iterative... It doesn't move the needle... I get pitched this all the time", said countless buyers.
"Come back with something exciting, something you're nervous to pitch", was the request.
Defeated again, I would sob my way to the underground station and daydream about chucking the whole thing in.
The clients just disliked me, I thought. They didn't respect me. I wasn't in their gang.
Everyone else was getting easy wins worth millions, and they wouldn't even throw me a bone.
Well, turns out I was wrong on all counts.
Over the coming years, I slowly realised that buyers are paid to avoid risk. They will usually rather work with the devil they know, rather than take an unnecessary chance on an unproven supplier who may well let them down.
Nobody ever got fired for buying from trusted partners. And buyers for big companies are generally focused on survival first, adventure second.
So, if that's the case, why would a buyer ever try working with someone new?
Well, each buyer knows they will be defined by a handful of their best (or worst) work, their hits or flops. And good buyers know they will have to take some big risks at certain points to give themselves a chance of a standout hit.
They need huge, adventurous ideas that are likely to break through the overwhelm of noise and content.
And if one comes along, they will want to snap it up, even if it means taking a big risk on a new supplier.
The mistake we producers often make is to create things that are too similar to what already exists.
The misconception is often that these projects are easy to buy. Why wouldn't a buyer go for something safe, cheap-ish, that won't rock the boat?
That's not a bad plan for established suppliers who already have the trust and reputation for delivery.
But, boring projects from risky suppliers are of no use at all to buyers. These shows are all shades of grey, one blending into another.
Buyers want new suppliers to offer them something that is high risk enough to also be high reward.
Once I figured this out, I managed to get work with new customers time and again by offering them content that wasn't available via anybody else which also had breakthrough hit potential.
This meant that if the client wanted it - they had no choice but to buy it from me.
I consistently leveraged our must-have, exclusive content to drive new business.
Here are some of our best breakthrough projects sold using exclusive access as our USP:
SKY NEWS: In 2010 we were desperate to license our footage to global news networks. But they already had established relationships with huge providers like APTN and Reuters. We worked with Jonathan Trappe who became the first person to fly across the English Channel on a chair tied to a bunch of helium balloons, like in the movie Up. We placed this opportunity with Sky News, who covered Jonathan's world-first record attempt live on the very first morning of their Sky News HD service. This story captured the front pages of many national newspapers and was a wonderful way to inspire Sky's audiences.
CHANNEL 5: We had just started our television production company when we heard the shocking news that Amy Winehouse had died. We had previously conducted exclusive interviews with her husband. This must-have content was key in securing our first full commission to make a documentary with Channel 5 - deliverable in just seven days. With a lot of help from commissioner Michelle Chappell and the wider team at the channel, we just about managed to finish the film on time. The documentary was a hit with audiences and was nominated by Channel 5 as their entry for Documentary of the Year at the Broadcast Awards. This led to a long term relationship with the broadcaster who became our top client for some years afterwards.
BBC TWO: I have always been fascinated by history and science. And so when I stumbled across a small news story about an expedition to discover how the dinosaurs were wiped out, I asked Amy Maher to investigate. To Amy's immense credit, she worked for months to secure exclusive access to the expedition. We pitched The Day The Dinosaurs Died to the BBC, where Martin Davidson bravely commissioned it, despite the fact we had never made a film for them before. The story was so good that it was worth the risk of working with a new supplier. The film ended up being co-produced with other broadcasters around the world and became our biggest budget single episode of all time. It established our company as a serious factual producer of note, and enabled us to reveal an amazing new scientific discovery to global audiences.
I'm really proud of the people who worked so hard to make these breakthrough shows. And I am so pleased the execs at the networks took a risk on working with us.
Looking back, we would only have built these relationships and our strong reputation by pitching must-have projects.
So, the lessons are clear:
A breakthrough project must offer the buyer the potential of a win so big that it is worth accepting the risk of working with an untested supplier
To win new clients producers have to offer breakthrough projects
Here are the five ways to win big through breakthrough projects:
- Think big, not small - when developing new projects, shoot for the stars. Buyers won't take on the combined risk of working with untested partners on low-reward projects. However, if you bring them something that looks exciting and potentially career-defining, they will be much more likely to buy it, whoever you are.
- Fewer and better - many producers make the mistake of pitching as many potential projects as possible to new clients. Buyers actually want you to pitch the one big thing that will work for them, rather than try a lucky dip approach. Be bold, listen for as long as possible to what they want, and pitch them the best possible version of your one big idea right at the end of your meeting.
- Leverage you - people buy from people. And buyers will want to buy your most accomplished work. If you specialise in live music, don't try to start a new relationship by pitching a history documentary. Always play your strongest hand. And you can offer to hire in additional external experience to help plug any holes in your resume too.
- Sell the outcome, not the content - If you're offering the one big breakthrough project in the hope of landing a new client, you must sell the hit potential and the audience impact of the project. That way you are offering the buyer the best potential outcome of taking a risk on working with someone new.
- Just go for it! - If you're struggling to work out how to supersize your project, think about adding a huge, scary twist, or attaching a Hollywood A-lister to host, or presenting the show live around the world. You'll find that the bolder the idea, the more interested people will be in it. And if you want that big star attached - just ask. Most people don't bother as they think they will have no chance, meaning there is more room for collaboration than you might expect.
If you're an entrepreneur, the hardest wins are usually the first ones. If you succeed in selling a project to a new client, if you deliver it well, and if the project is moderately successful, you're likely to win more work from them, far more easily. You'll have joined the gang.
You can't whistle up a hit, but you can build from your biggest strengths. And if you package yourself up well, you will impress your potential clients.
As entrepreneurs, we must accept people love working with those they already trust. It's our job to carefully build our own, new trust by solving the problems of prospective clients.
We should try not to feel hard done by if they don't immediately buy from us.
So - go and create something that feels scary, exciting, and must-have, which plays to your proven strengths, and that would not look out of place on a huge billboard in Times Square.
That's worth taking a risk on in anyone's book.
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