Broadcasting's business end
This month’s in-house interviewee brings an IT as well as legal background to his senior role with BBC Worldwide, the organisation’s commercial arm
Where do you come from, and why choose to study law?
To be honest I stumbled into law. My main interest at high school was computing, and I managed to get a couple of summer jobs working in IT support. Before applying for university, I asked my boss what courses he would recommend if I wanted a future in programming. His only suggestion was to avoid doing a straight computer science degree – study computing alongside another subject.
I took his advice and went to Strathclyde University, studying computing science with law. At some point during my first year, I decided that I preferred the law classes to the computing classes and started to think about law as a career.
After graduating I went back to complete my law degree. At that time there was a precedent set that anyone graduating from the Computing Science with Law course could return to complete a postgraduate LLB in just one year – the rationale being that we had already completed most of the classes as part of the first degree. It also made it a bit cheaper, so I was quite happy to stay at university for the extra year, get my law degree and play a bit more pool in the union.
Did you ever think about alternatives to law?
Yes, definitely. Once I went back to complete my degree I still wasn’t 100% sure if I should pursue a career in law or technology. After completing my traineeship in 2009 I hadn’t been able to secure an NQ job, so again was considering going into a tech role. Even after I started my first post-qualification role – as legal counsel for a group of Glasgow-based software companies – I was still being asked if I fancied trying my hand at development and deployment of their software in addition to my legal role.
I’m pretty settled in my legal career now and I don’t see a future where I move back to a purely technology role. That being said, my current position still allows me to keep close to developments in technology and how they are embraced by the media industry, so a role within the media sector and working with emerging technologies could still be in my future…
Describe your route from trainee solicitor to exploring the BBC as a career?
I completed my training at Dundas & Wilson with seats in commercial property, banking and IP/IT. I also did a six-month seat in-house at Standard Life Bank. There weren’t really any jobs offered at D&W post-qualification that I was interested in, so after a short break, I started working at the Sword Group in Glasgow.
Sword was an umbrella company that owned a number of small software companies, and I worked there for six months as a general in-house lawyer. It was a very small legal team (just me and the head of legal), so I ended up doing an interesting mix of work – mostly software licensing but it could be pretty much anything – including trying to resolve a dispute with the other tenants of our building over the number of allotted car parking spaces we were using!
After my contract came to an end at Sword I became a technology lawyer at Tesco Bank. This gave me experience of software licensing from the other side of the coin, as I was there to procure the back-end systems to run a Tesco current account. My initial contract was extended from six months to a year and I really enjoyed my time working there. I was then offered a permanent role, but at the same time I was offered my position at BBC Worldwide. At the time my girlfriend (now wife) was working in London, so I turned down the job at Tesco and moved south.
How did you then progress to your current position?
I started at BBC Worldwide as a junior technology lawyer, working on IT procurement and outsourcing contracts. It was an area I had experience of before I joined, so I felt quite comfortable doing the work, but I also wanted to get experience in some other areas. At that time, the team I worked in also looked after BBC Games/Apps and Publishing (including the BBC Good Food and Top Gear websites), so I started to do some work in those areas as well.
In 2014 I was selected to take part in BBC Worldwide’s Emerging Leaders programme. This was an accelerated development programme targeted with identifying high-performing individuals across the business and providing them with additional training and experience to assist with their career progression. The programme ran for about 18 months and involved three residential training courses, group assignments and professional coaching. It was a really great experience and gave me exposure to other areas of the business and people that my current role hadn’t allowed. It also gave me the confidence to pursue a more senior role within the company.
The following year I became senior lawyer for Digital Publishing & Entertainment. This meant I was responsible for the Top Gear and Good Food websites and all our apps and games. It was an area I had a little experience of, but it was still a big step up and my first experience of managing a team.
In 2016 I moved to my current job – another senior role, but this time looking after BBC Motion Gallery, BBC Worldwide Learning and BBC Store. Motion Gallery and Learning are B2B clip licensing businesses, and BBC Store was our consumer-facing digital service that we closed in 2017. I took on this role as I wanted to gain more experience with a consumer-facing business, and although that business had to close, it really gave me a crash course in consumer rights and having to deal directly with members of the public.
Describe your role at the BBC and how you fit in to the wider organisation?
BBC Worldwide is the commercial arm of the BBC Group. I think everyone is familiar with the public service of the BBC that is responsible for the TV, radio, website and iPlayer, but most people don’t know a great deal about BBC Worldwide – for example, it’s not the same as the World Service radio station or the World News TV channel.
BBC Worldwide’s role is to exploit BBC programmes and formats commercially around the world. This is done in a number of ways, including running our own branded TV and online services (e.g. BBC America); licensing content to local broadcasters or businesses; licensing television formats for local productions (e.g. Dancing with the Stars or Top Gear USA); producing consumer products including DVDs, books, T-shirts, toys, etc; and the business areas that I’m working with now, the licensing of clips from BBC programmes into new productions.
The money generated by these activities is then returned to the BBC Group in the form of a dividend payment and also as direct investments in upcoming BBC programmes. This is why I get a little defensive when people suggest to me that they pay my salary by paying their TV licence. The work we do supplements the licence fee revenue so the BBC can continue to make great programming and provide a huge range of services across the UK.
What are your thoughts on building relationships outside the legal function at your job?
I think this is the best part about working in-house. Although we do have quite a large legal team within the company, I spend most of my time working with other people across the business and, dare I say it, a lot of these people are far more creative and lead much more exciting lives than a lot of the lawyers I know!
What are the challenges of your job?
All lawyers like to think they are quite commercial in their approach, but until you’ve worked in-house you don’t realise how much more commercial your advice needs to be. The business isn’t looking for a lengthy explanation of the law or even the risks involved: they expect you to know all that and be able to explain it, but they really want your recommendation on what they should do about it.
They also rely on you to be another calm head to talk through ideas – not always with a specific legal issue in mind, just to be a sounding board.
Both of these take a bit of getting used to at first, but it makes the job more enjoyable and makes you feel much more involved with the decisions that are taken.
I think that working with the BBC brand also makes my role a bit more challenging. Obviously it’s an internationally recognised brand and we need to ensure we don’t damage our good reputation. That means that we need to be careful when selecting partners to work with and ensure the products we are working on meet our editorial standards.
What motivates you to go to work?
I’m really proud of the programmes and services the BBC provides. In general I believe we do offer balance and try to provide something for everyone.
In the last couple of years we’ve created some of the best TV moments anywhere in the world – the natural history content we produce is first-class and The Hunt, Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II were all phenomenal. I’m also lucky enough to get to see some of these programmes/excerpts from the programmes during production and before transmission. I even got to watch the first episode of Planet Earth II at the cinema before broadcast – those racer snakes were even more terrifying on the big screen!
What is a typical working day or week like?
That’s a tough one – I’ll let you know when I have one…
Do you have any health or fitness routines that help you stay sharp for work?
None at all, I’m afraid… I have an 18-month- old daughter who keeps me active, but I don’t go to the gym or do any exercise if I’m honest.
What is your advice for any law students who would consider following a similar path?
My career progression has not been the most straightforward, but my technology background has certainly helped. The convergence between the media and technology sectors is set to continue, so having an interest in and knowledge of both is important.
Do you see yourself working in Scotland again?
Probably not in the immediate future – I have a young family and we’re quite settled down here, so probably no plans to move back north for at least another five or 10 years. After that, who knows?!
What do you do for fun?
Due to our daughter, hobbies have taken a bit of a back seat recently, but I do try to get away to do some scuba diving as much as I can. I’m a member of a club that dives in Dorset so I try to get down there as much as possible, but I’m probably only going to manage about one trip per month this year, compared to the three per month I used to do. I’m also an assistant instructor so I run some of the training sessions for our new members – they take place in London so it’s a bit easier for me to manage that.
And your scariest day as a lawyer?
I don’t think I’ve ever been scared as a lawyer, but it can get pretty stressful. I think some of the most stressful projects I work on are the ones that have a significant impact on our customers and employees, or the projects that we know are going to pick up any major press attention. For example, where we need to bring a business venture or partnership to an end, I need to make sure I get the legal advice correct but also keep in mind the real life impact that our decisions are going to have.
Describe an opinion you have on any topic that could be characterised as unorthodox?
Another tough one.
Maybe my views on how people currently vote in elections. It’s really one of my pet hates when I hear someone say that they are voting for a particular candidate (or more likely, a political party) purely on the basis that they “always vote for them”! Or, even more frustratingly, they say that their family has always voted that way. I would prefer that voting is carried out with a questionnaire on policy issues and people have to respond on each issue, with their vote then being automatically cast for the candidate that most closely aligns with their response. That way, if you want to ensure that you vote for a specific candidate, you have to at least go to the effort of finding out what their policies are so you can answer the questionnaire accordingly.
Andrew Florence, Senior lawyer, BBC Worldwide. Questions put by James Honan, former member of the In-house Lawyers’ Committee.