From Game of Thrones to The Borgias, everyone knows Sky Atlantic's programmes. But what goes on behind the scenes to launch a spectacular new channel? To find out, we talked to two of the key people on the team, Deputy Head of Strategy Nick Herm and Finance Director Rob Kingston - who both began their careers at Sky as graduate recruits
Believe it or not, Sky Atlantic went from being an idea to a broadcasting TV channel in just eleven months. Says Nick: "It was incredibly quick. It was one of those things that happens at Sky quite regularly, and it's enormously exciting. One day you're having discussions with two or three people, and suddenly you're signing a multimillion pound deal, and then hundreds of people across the business are working on creating something that started out as an idea a few of you knocked around in a meeting room. Finally, you turn on your telly and it's there!"
To rewind a little, Nick and Rob have been at Sky for their entire careers to date and both joined Sky as graduates on the company's Finance Programme. As with any business, finance is a hugely significant part of Sky's operations, so we ask Rob to explain what the team here does: "We do some accounting and we process transactions, but I see our primary role as financial management and supporting business decisions. That means understanding and forecasting business performance, and evaluating new ideas and ventures."
Rob has chosen to remain in finance roles, while Nick took advantage of the career flexibility Sky offers and decided, after a secondment there, to switch into the strategy team. Nick explains that the strategy team at Sky is "like an in-house management consultancy firm, but we have a much deeper relationship with Sky's business areas than consultants have with their clients, and much longer term involvement on what we work on". As part of their work shaping the business's direction, the strategy team undertake a huge variety of projects, from deciding how Sky should approach the Premier League rights auction process, to working out the best packages to put together for customers, to thinking about what kind of applications Sky should be offering for tablet computers. Even though he's stayed in finance, Rob also feels he's done many different kinds of work, having taken on roles working with people right across the company, from Sky Sports to HR. He stresses that the kind of flexibility he and Nick have enjoyed as they've progressed is still very much on offer to graduates joining Sky today: "We like people to move around fairly regularly to make sure they develop."
As well as the range of opportunities on offer, the buzz they get out of working with Sky's products has also kept Nick and Rob at the company. As Rob points out: "Every day, we all talk to our friends and family about what we watched on TV last night", while Nick adds: "If you're in the pub and your mates are asking what you're working on, they're pretty interested if you say you're creating a new TV channel!"
Rob also loves Sky's entrepreneurial culture: "When I came for an interview, I was immediately drawn in by the belief of the people here that we should always try to provide better products for our customers, which I think runs in our DNA. Before Sky came along, there was no 24 hour news channel. We were restricted to something like ten live Football League matches a year. We had to watch movies on a Saturday night at 8pm, which got interrupted by the news. There were no integrated recording devices like Sky+, so we had to get down on bended knee with a VHS tape and programme our video recorders. And no content was available to you on the move."
How to Make It in America
Sky Atlantic, launched in October 2010, is one of the great ways that Sky is bringing innovation to its customers. The channel aims to screen what Nick calls "high-end, epic TV", a large part of which, but not all, is content from highly-regarded American network HBO. Where does the idea for a new project like this one come from? At Sky, the strategy team plays a big part in thinking about initiatives which will take the business in new directions. Nick explains what the thought processes were that gave birth to the new channel: "One of Sky's strategic imperatives is to invest more in high-quality content, because we think that if we put things on screen that customers really value and love, it'll drive our business forward. But getting great programming isn't like going to the supermarket and buying cans of baked beans. You've got to go out and find it, and seize the right opportunities." So when HBO approached Sky, the strategy team immediately recognised the potential benefits of a partnership: "They're similar to Sky in that they're a subscription business that aims to produce TV that their customers absolutely love. So we felt that our businesses and interests were aligned."
Once the idea had been proposed, the next step was thinking in detail about how the new channel would operate. Nick worked with the programming team, the branding team, and particularly with the finance department at this stage: "The finance team were closely involved in pulling together the business plan for the channel. It was a pretty significant investment, so we needed to know we were going to make a return from it." Rob gives some examples of the kinds of questions that the strategy and finance teams had to consider together to move the project forward: "How much revenue do we expect the channel to generate? What costs could be involved, in terms of programming, and also in terms of other resources such as people, or technical infrastructure. What's our plan for the channel's future?"
The finance and the strategy teams also worked together on the negotiations with HBO, which involved several trips to New York and were a part of the process that Rob particularly enjoyed. However, they posed some challenges: "We're a complex business, so we have to make sure we're happy with all the different elements of a proposal - in these negotiations for example, we had to ensure that we got the correct rights over the HBO programmes so that people could watch them on their phones as well as on TV at home. And we always have to do so at a fast pace, because in this industry technology is changing all the time and you have to move quickly to take advantage of the opportunities that come up."
We also asked Nick about what he enjoyed about his role on the project: "Launching Sky Atlantic was a cross-functional effort. I enjoy the fact that - and this applies to the finance team as well - we're so closely integrated with the business and you don't get put in a box. It's not like we're told that we're strategy people and therefore can only do strategy stuff. People recognise that the best outcomes will result from multiple inputs from people with different skills." While the involvement of Nick and the strategy team on the launch lessened once a strategic plan of action had been put in place, Rob was closely involved with Sky Atlantic until its launch, which he picks out as a further highlight of the project for him: "It's exciting to see 11 months' hard work coming to life on screen for customers, knowing that they're absolutely going to love it."
Before we end, we can't resist asking both Nick and Rob what their favourite Sky Atlantic shows are. While Rob rates highly acclaimed Boardwalk Empire and old favourite The Sopranos, Nick chooses quirky comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm and therapy drama In Treatment. Both love the wildly popular Mad Men but, while they might be crazy about Sky Atlantic, we think both have made some sound career choices.
Can you introduce yourself and your role at Sky?
I graduated from the LSE in summer 2010 with a degree in business, maths and statistics. I then went travelling for a while, came back, and thought it was time to apply for graduate schemes. And I've been at Sky on the Finance Programme since this February.
Why did you choose to start a career in finance at Sky?
I wanted to pursue a career in finance because it was a great match for my skills. I applied to Sky because I wanted to work for the company. We've always had Sky at home, and when I applied there was so much going on here. Sky's 3D channel had just launched, and they'd recently announced that they'd reached 10 million customers. I thought: why not work at a company where I'm really interested in what they do, and the products they offer?
How is the Finance Programme structured?
It's a three-year programme, during which you do three year-long rotations. These typically tend to be one year in corporate finance looking at the company's overall financial position, one year working in our customer group where you'll support the teams providing services like broadband, and one year in another area, which could mean working with Sky Sports or Sky Movies, or in Sky Media, where I am, which sells TV advertising. At the end of the three years, you can be promoted in the role or rotate into an analyst role in a different area.
On the programme here you'll get all the support you need to gain the CIMA management accounting qualification (including payment of all your course fees and time off work to revise for exams) - CIMA named Sky as their Large Employer of the Year in 2010. The programme is also great from a networking perspective because you get to spend time with different people all across the business.
What are you working on at the moment? What have you been up to today?
I work in connection with our media partners, channels owned by third parties that we represent for the purposes of advertising sales. We maintain models which calculate how much revenue we're going to pass back to them every month. At the moment, we're adding new channels to our portfolio and looking at deals for next year, setting up the terms of the contracts and analysing how these will affect the revenue. It's complicated but very commercial, and I'm learning a lot about Sky's business.
This morning, I've been working on a presentation about our media partners that we're going to give to our team's head of finance. At Sky you really do get face time with senior managers and your hard work is recognised by people at all levels.
What have you learnt in your first six months?
On day one, I had no experience of finance. But that wasn't a problem - Sky takes people on from all degree backgrounds, though you generally need a 2:1 or better. When you first start, you spend a week at college to learn the basics.
I've picked up financial skills and knowledge quickly. Six months ago, I'd never heard of a balance sheet. But now at the end of every month I'm able to complete month end processes for my area, make decisions about how things are treated, and most importantly I understand what the numbers are and where they're coming from.
I've also picked up general business skills like presentation giving, teamwork, and even my timekeeping skills have improved. Finance is fast-paced and there's always a deadline to meet, so you learn to do work quickly and to a high standard straight away. There's also commercial awareness. You start to think about the things that you do not only on a finance level, but also in terms of how they'll affect the business as a whole.
Any final thoughts for students?
If you want to work in finance, you don't have to go to a bank or an accounting firm - you can come here, study for the same qualifications, and work at the centre of a lively and exciting company.
Strategy Group Programme
What's strategy at Sky all about?
Sky's strategy team is like an in-house management consultancy, but one which has a closer relationship with Sky's business teams than external consultants have with their clients. The strategy department works closely with senior people across the company to keep Sky on track to achieve its goals, and to shape its future direction. They make sure that Sky is up to speed with the rapid changes in the media industry, and that it keeps hold of its industry leading position.
Who's suited to this programme?
For this programme, Sky are looking for those with a 2:1 or above in their first degree, preferably one which included some maths or economics. A strong interest in business, in particular a passion for all things Sky, is important and you'll also need strong communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills.
What might I work on?
On the scheme you'll start off by working in the strategy group. You'll then do a rotation to a key business unit within Sky which matches your interests and career aims to learn more about Sky and gain some valuable skills. You'll then return to the strategy team to get involved in a major piece of work.
The strategy team works on a very wide range of projects, which might include assessing Sky's long-term growth options, or working on the pricing structures for Sky's products. Recently the team have worked on the launch of Sky Atlantic (see the case study opposite for more details).
What will I learn?
You'll have plenty of training from day one, which will help you to develop core strategy consulting skills, such as structured analysis, research, financial modelling, and report and presentation writing.
What else is on offer for graduates at Sky?
Sky IQ Business Programme
What's Sky IQ all about?
Sky IQ helps other business units at Sky and external clients engage better with their customers. The team provides a range of consultancy services which help clients measure, target and maximise their marketing spend through insightful thinking and the use of powerful data tools.
What kind of graduates are suited to this programme?
Sky is looking for graduates with a 2:1 in any subject, plus some relevant experience. You'll also need to be creative, with an interest in customer intelligence, and good commercial instincts.
What could I get out of this programme?
You'll first get to work across four key areas of Sky IQ's business, learning about finance, client service, sales and marketing, and more. You'll then have the knowledge and skills to start getting involved in specialist projects.
Betting & Gaming Sports Trader Programme
What's Sky Betting & Gaming all about?
Sky Betting & Gaming is Sky's in-house betting company, and is one of the fastest growing online betting companies around. 350,000 customers placed a sports bet with them last year, and the trading team played a key role in each one.
What kind of graduates are suited to this programme?
Sky is looking for graduates with a 2:1 or above who are creative thinkers with strong mathematical abilities. You'll have a can-do attitude, plenty of determination, and will be able to give examples of where you've exceeded expectations.
What could I get out of this programme?
Here you could be using your maths and trading skills to calculate odds offered to customers, or to manage Sky Betting & Gaming's risk positions. You could also play a role in structuring new products, or analysing profitability. Whatever you do, you'll be helping to shape a business in its formative stages which is developing all the time.