The Farm’s founders and joint MDs have capped their ‘best ever year’ with WFTV’s Business Award - some achievement for a duo who started off at loggerheads. George Bevir reports

Fact File

Nicky Sargent

Guilty pleasure Private Eye and Vikki Dunn
Career highlight Watching Aidan, Nigel, Nick, Sonny and The Farm editor teams win their awards
Life outside work More now than 20 years ago
Tip At least $5 for valet parking in Hollywood
Watches Homeland, The X Factor, comedy
Lives London and Le Beausset, France

Vikki Dunn

Guilty pleasure Channel 4 Racing
Career highlight Meeting Nicky and setting up The Farm
Life outside work My farm in Wiltshire with racehorses Hywel, Alfie, Stan and Cheeky, Great Danes Freddy and Daisy and Fat Ginge the cat
Tip 2.30 at Kempton Park
Watches The Hour and The Morning Line
Lives Islington and Lambourn

“The worlds of TV and film have many great double acts, but Nicky and Vikki are up there with the best.” Nicky Sargent and Vikki Dunn capped what they say is their best-ever year with a rousing tribute to their running of post-production firm The Farm from Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of its backer, WPP.

Sorrell spoke as the pair picked up the Business Award at the Women in Film and TV Awards, but such collaborative success is a far cry from when Sargent and Dunn first met in 1991. They didn’t exactly see eye to eye: Dunn had been with facilities firm Visions for a few days when it was acquired by Molinare, where Sargent had been working for just under a year.

“We loathed each other on sight,” says Sargent. “We were forced to share an office and there was no explanation as to who was meant to be doing what.”

“It was like throwing two bears into a pit,” adds Dunn. “The lines were blurred and neither of us had a definitive role.”

Enemies to friends

After a few weeks of hostilities, they decided to try to settle their differences over a glass or two of wine. A few bottles later and they realised they had more in common than they first realised. After eight years and an almost annual change of ownership, the pair grew disillusioned with life at Molinare.

“Each time it changed, we felt the direction of the company wasn’t quite right,” says Sargent. So in early 1998 they left and, with WPP Group’s backing, set up The Farm.

“Martin Sorrell and [WPP chief operating officer] Andrew Scott have always made it clear they invested in us,” says Dunn. “We had a few offers of investment but it felt like WPP wanted to be involved in the business from the ground up,” says Dunn.

Now, Sargent says, the extent of WPP’s involvement is to phone once a month to say “thanks for the figures”. According to the last set of results filed with Companies House, they show a profit of £1.8m in 2011, up £300,000 from 2010. Turnover was £17.2m, a slight increase on the previous year.

More than a few times during the interview, Sargent returns to the firm’s profitability, which is understandable, given the perilous nature of the post industry and the preponderance of pre-pack administration deals. “Our aim has always been to ensure that everyone who works for us has their mortgage or rent paid; that we always run a profitable company in a moral and clean way.”

Those who aren’t able to run a “clean” business clearly rile her. “Some [post-production bosses] are complete shyster cowboys and some are extremely professional, but the price difference between the two is only 10%, and that is why the cowboys are still working,” she says.

In the face of stagnant budgets, spiralling rents, rising salaries and rivals undercutting each other, part of The Farm’s approach is to keep costs to a minimum.

That means no personal assistants, no receptionists who can’t work in other areas, and no PR or marketing teams. “We can be staggeringly mean,” says Sargent. “We’re also lucky we haven’t got any of the traditional Soho habits that have brought about the downfall of quite a few people.”

There have been four senior managers - Sargent, Dunn and former Molinare colleagues technical director David Klafkowski and director of production Ian Dodd. “We keep our central overhead and administration costs really small,” says Dunn. “We run a $30m business and we only have four people in accounts.”

Keeping hold of top talent is central to the success of any post business, and the pair name-check the likes of colourist Aidan Farrell and editor Steve Andrews as key creatives. They have both, along with editors Tim Ellison and Nigel Edwards, been with the company since the early days.

The company has bagged an Emmy, nine RTS Awards and five Bafta Craft Awards, and won Broadcast’s Best Post House Award four times. The list of credits ranges from Inside Claridge’s, Downton Abbey and Made In Chelsea to Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor. This year, the firm added live sport to that list, working with Locog and the BBC on London 2012.

Two years ago, when The Farm acquired US post outfit Editgods, it turned the facility into the first audio and picture-post house in LA. The list of credits is narrower than in the UK - it works on non-scripted shows, fast turnaround and light entertainment shows, and counts The X Factor US among its recent projects - but the aim is to replicate the UK approach and work across all genres, which they say is unheard of at the moment.

”We have to approach it slowly,” says Dunn. “You can’t go in as arrogant Brits and expect to change 100 years of Hollywood history.”

Bending to fit another culture is a theme of the company’s recent expansions. In April last year, The Farm won a three-year, £10m contract to provide post services for the BBC at MediaCityUK, supplying bookings management and operational and creative staff for the broadcaster’s sport, children’s, entertainment, religious and current affairs output.

Would The Farm ever set up its own fully functioning facility in Salford? “Never say never,” says Sargent.

“But what the BBC is trying to achieve is to give its teams a production environment where they don’t have to leave the building. From afar, it’s a big market but sadly, at the moment, Manchesterbased companies are laying people off rather than expanding.”

Growth potential

For the time being, further growth seems most likely in the capital, where the Farm has its Soho Square HQ and three other offices (Home, Uncle and The Shed, which is also in Bristol).

The potential need for space is demonstrated by the figures attached to some recent projects - the ninth series of The X Factor required 11 suites, which cut more than 8,000 hours of footage - and the fact that, over the past 12 months, the company has used an additional 20 Avid suites in two dry-hire facilities in Soho Square.

Sargent and Dunn won’t be drawn on expansion rumours, other than to say that 2013 will be “an exciting year”. But regardless of where the firm moves next, the double act will endure. January will kick off with Klafowski and Dodd replacing Sargent and Dunn as joint managing directors, with the founding pair assuming the role of joint chairman.

As if to underline just how far the two have come since their first encounter, Dunn adds: “Did we mention we own a house in France together? And that I am godmother to Nikki’s daughter?”

Sargent and Dunn on…

Dunn on Sargent
“She is more reckless than me. I tend to be more cautious.”

Dunn on setting up The Farm
“We were the first company to have as many audio studios as editing suites; we always put as much emphasis on how things sound as how they look.”

Sargent on Dunn
“Vikki is charming and extrovert, whereas I tend to get the dull backroom functions.”

Sargent on rivals’ opinions
“They’d say we were lucky and that everything is easy for us. Whether people like us or not, I hope we are seen as a good, clean business.”

Dunn on… TV sexism

Nicky Sargent and Vikki Dunn’s different characters are clearest on the subject of sexism in the broadcast industry. While Dunn says it is not something that has ever troubled her, Sargent uses some post-watershed language to describe the sales manager of a well-known manufacturer who sent them a bunch of flowers to apologise for a kit order being £500,000 more expensive than an initial quote. “He just wouldn’t have done that to a man, would he?” she says.