Senior execs face up to the problem of managing creative talent, says Chris Curtis

Senior indie executives don’t speak to one another as often as you might think – but there was no wariness when Broadcast gathered half a dozen of them at MediaCityUK recently. Instead there was friendly banter and a growing recognition of common ground, both in terms of the problems they are wrestling with and the solutions they are devising.

Digital was one of the dominant themes, and it is clear that the UK’s super-indies are spending time digging around, trying to find a long predicted but still elusive goldmine.

It’s also clear that they’ve still barely scratched the surface. There is now genuine money to be made selling content to VoD platforms but that’s more about those services gaining scale than any revolution on the part of producers.

Sales to Netflix or Lovefilm are taking the place of traditional DVD or secondary rights sales, but don’t represent a significant strategic shift.

Instead the super-indies are faced with a dilemma: how much to invest chasing a digital breakthrough when there are the no guarantees of success, and when margins for their traditional business are increasingly challenged?

The execs at the roundtable accepted they didn’t necessarily have the answers, and many are looking to talent from outside TV to fill in the gaps. That could be approaching on-screen YouTube talent or taking staff from digital companies with skills in curating content, interactivity and social media. Look out for many new job titles emerging in the TV sector.

As well as hiring new talent, super-indies are now grappling with how to hang on to the talent they’ve got – and which they’ve often paid a premium for the privilege of ‘owning’.

The emergence of second-generation indies is one of the reasons the big groups are looking at growing their portfolios without buying production companies outright.

Nick Curwin and Magnus Temple are pulling up trees after leaving Shine Group to found The Garden and super-experienced producers such as John Smithson, Clive Tulloh, George Faber and Charles Pattinson are striking out again after long careers with Darlow Smithson, Tiger Aspect and Company Pictures respectively. Faced with such a high-calibre brain drain, the natural reaction might be for consolidators to insist on longer earn-outs. But rather than locking in producers more aggressively, superindies seem to be moving towards looser ties.

The idea of umbrella networks is about avoiding paying a premium up front and finding a new way of dealing with the age old problem of managing creative talent within a business.

That’s not to say there won’t be takers for indies that are up for sale at the moment – the likes of Twofour and Firecracker Films are both strong companies with broad output and a wide customer base – but there might not be quite as many UK customers looking for a traditional multiple-of-earnings deal as a few years ago.

Expect to see plenty to more indies sheltering under an umbrella soon.