The secrets of becoming a sector guru

John Graydon is a partner at top 20 UK accountancy firm Saffery Champness, where he’s a leading advisor to the TV and film sector. So much so, that in 2006 he won the UK Production Guild External Merit Award for outstanding contribution to the British film industry. John’s clients include Universal Studios, Lucas Film, 20th Century Fox, as well as many UK independent producers. And he has advised on hundreds of films and TV shows such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge and The King’s Speech.

How have you built a market-leading team?

There’s been a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Most of my clients are UK-based but a large number are in Los Angeles. The time difference means I tend to be busy in the morning; it tails off in the afternoon and kicks off again at 4pm when LA wakes up. It doesn’t stop till quite late sometimes. I was on the phone at midnight last night to LA about a show that I can’t mention. Throughout my career I’ve made myself available and ensured the time difference is irrelevant.

I’ve also made a point of getting out there, being visible and going on business development trips to places like Cannes, Berlin and LA. And crucially I’ve worked hard to sell the UK as a film destination because if clients aren’t coming to Britain then it’s unlikely they’ll use my firm.

It’s easy to see that you love the UK film industry. Where does that passion come from?

In 1997 while working for Godfrey Allan I did a piece of work for Hallmark. That’s when I first got a taste for the business. It was fascinating – full of great characters and challenges. I had to get out of my comfort zone and stay there for long periods and that stimulated me.

If you were to ask me what I’ll do at work tomorrow, I couldn’t tell you. That’s what I love about my job. No two days are the same. I know it’s unusual for an accountant to say that but I promise it’s true.

Your clients include big studios, independent producers and many fascinating characters who work in film and TV. How did you get in front of them?

People tell me I’m a natural salesman. I’m not sure about that, but I can sell something I believe in. If I don’t believe in it I can’t do it.

How does that belief manifest itself?

Confidence: being able to walk into a meeting and, whoever you meet, not feeling intimidated. It allows you to tailor your approach depending on whom you are meeting. Some people need you to get down and dirty with the detail. Others just want to know whether they should bring their film to the UK and need the big picture.

Empathy and the ability to listen are critical. Those two small words mean a tremendous amount. If you don’t listen, you don’t know what to advise. If you have no empathy, you don’t know how to advise.

Do you mean that professionals sometimes want to show off their knowledge to the detriment of free-flowing conversation?

That’s absolutely right. The ability to communicate information that clients need to hear – as opposed to details they don’t – is a key skill. Tell them what they need to know – just the headlines – unless it’s clear more is required.

One of the things I say a lot to clients is this: “My gut feel is we’ll do it like this, but let’s explore it over the next half hour…” It’s a bit like providing an executive summary. Often clients just want the answer as quickly as possible, so I give it as quickly as possible and then refine it. I find the conversation develops a lot better.

I imagine there’s an enormous amount of interaction in your sector and people form opinions quickly. Has that been a challenge?

Yes, there are many face-to-face meetings and phone calls. I don’t mind written reports at all, but if someone asks me an 18-page question over email, it’s usually more effective to call back so you get to the heart of what’s being asked. I like to provide advice as opposed to an overview of legislation. The word ‘advisor’ sometimes gets lost. I’m an advisor. I advise. That’s at the core of what I do.

So you think we harp on about that word – advisor – but we don’t live by what it means?

Yes. And ‘advising’ often reduces an email from 18 pages to three lines. I remember a call with a client two years ago. Some rules had changed and everything was up in the air, but the client needed to make a decision. My advice was to go ahead and do it. I remember saying: “Can I guarantee it? No. But if you’re asking me where I think it will end up going, you should do it.” I was clear to the client that I wasn’t certain. But I was 100% positive that it was a question they wanted answering quickly.

There must be a huge amount of information you need to be aware of. How do you stay on top of it all?

Two things. First, surround yourself with good people, develop them, keep them, and look after them. I have great colleagues in all the relevant areas. Second, work at a firm where you’re comfortable. Saffery has a wonderful collegiate approach and contains the right skill set to support what we do. Having a firm that’s supportive of what you do and complementary when it needs to be is a big deal.

Are the youngsters in your team encouraged to get out there and win work?

Anyone is capable of selling. We’ve just come back from Cannes – there were 19 of us in a small, low-key hotel five miles out of Cannes, two or three to a room. It was great to see the team enjoying the event. There’s no reason why we’d inhibit youngsters from winning work. We wouldn’t put an expectation on them, but being able to win work does make you stand out.

I believe as many team members as possible should go to relevant events, express themselves, talk to people, and start to build relationships.

I imagine you’re a prolific networker. Do you have any networking tips?

I don’t have a plan when I walk into a room. Whoever I end up talking to, I try to  listen, empathise and let them talk – particularly when I don’t know who they are!

My advice is to make that person want to spend more time with you. However you do that. Make it pleasant. If they’re a talker, let them talk. Then say it was lovely speaking to you.

It’s intuitive. This is only a guideline.

Are you big on social media?

I’m rubbish. Absolutely useless. Some of the team Tweet but I don’t have a Twitter account. When you’re in a specialist industry it’s a small world so word of mouth is critical and I’m not sure the best way to encourage good word of mouth is though Twitter. I’d rather meet face to face or chat on the phone.

What do you want to be famous for?

I don’t want to be famous so you’re asking the wrong person! My aims are to effectively balance my work and home life, to make a difference by helping the British film industry, and to be known for my integrity and honesty.