In our new series on start-up production companies, we meet the triumvirate behind MADAM.
Starting is always the hardest part. That’s true whether you’re writing a book, sculpting a statue or building a brand new production company. In a market where dozens of companies compete fiercely for clients’ favour, getting the first steps right is vital.
In this series – Baby Steps – we’ll be taking the pulse of production companies at different junctures in their formative years, delving into what it means to start your own production company and how to do it well.
Our first featured company are MADAM – probably the newest production company in London. Founded by Pippa Bhatt, Michelle Stapleton and Carly Stone, who all met working at Crossroads Films, the company is about as fresh as they come. When we meet them they can hardly contain their excitement as they talk about their new venture.
The idea of a brand new company had been cropping up for a while between Pippa and Carly while working together, but when Michelle came into the picture, these dreams began to show real promise and the seeds for MADAM were sewn. “I think we’d realised that we’d reached a ceiling with where we could take Crossroads,” says Pippa. The three of them decided to create something of their own and in the early part of 2013 they made it happen.
One important decision early on will be familiar to everyone – what would they call it? The name would feed their whole identity, so it was a big decision.
As three women in partnership, they wanted to make the most of their feminine identity, while avoiding undermining their credibility with outdated stereotypes. “We wanted it to reflect that we are three strong businesswomen,” says Carly.
As a name, MADAM does this and more. Pippa explains how the concept relates to their new company’s personality. “At the time, I’d seen a couple of TV programmes with madams in,” she recounts. “I just thought, over history, really successful madams have been really savvy businesswomen who understand their clients as well as their products and create an environment – a trusted space – where that marriage can really work. It resonated with me!”
They aren’t literally pimping their directors out to clients (as far as we can tell), but it’s certainly a concept rich with raw materials that will help in building their brand. They are currently anxiously awaiting the visual side of this – their artwork and website – but with such a saucy name they shouldn’t have trouble standing out.
Creating an Identity
In an industry where companies too often rely solely on the names of directors, the madams are thinking a lot about their image. “If you want to attract creative people it’s important to have an identity that’s exciting, interesting and showcases the personality of the company,” says Pippa. If you create compelling video content, you’re missing a trick if you look like an accountancy firm.
Of course the idea behind MADAM’s name is a great metaphor for one quality they want play up - the level of care they give clients. Creating film can be an arduous process and the trio recognise the importance of making the relationships with clients and agencies as smooth as possible. “Your clients are going through a working experience with you,” says Carly. “And it’s how they come out feeling [that matters]. They may well love the film but if they had the most awful experience are they going to go back to you? Probably not.”
One way they plan to foster these good relationships is by not being too ruthless in business. Michelle isn’t averse to doing things that offer up rewards other than financial ones for the company. “I really hope clients will come to us even if there’s a project that’s not obviously suitable for us,” she says. “It’s a case of being able to work with them and make suggestions, building up this trust factor so it’s not sell sell sell all the time.”
Pat Holden, one of the directors on their new roster, knows the founders well and has seen first hand how well they care for their partners. “Their clients are going to be very well served,” he says. “They’ve had relationships in the industry for donkeys’ years and they’ve maintained them. There’s a reason for that. It can be quite a fickle, fast-moving business and to be able to keep clients and keep those relationships strong is a skill and a talent.”
Pat would say that of course. He’s a big fan of his bosses. “They’re charming, lovely to work with, very loyal,” he gushes. “I’m very fond of them all. It’s not just business. They’re a lot of fun – a laugh.” With such a shining reference it’s easy to see why people would want to work with them.
That’s half of the story, but directors are pretty important to production companies too. You can’t be a madam without whores (so to speak), so getting the right talent on board was crucial. It was also one of the most exciting parts for the trio.
“The beauty of having started our own company,” says Carly, “is that we can make the choices ourselves. Being the ultimate decision makers on a roster we can design for our market is a powerful place to be and one that we take great pride in.”
Approaching directors that they thought were right, MADAM quickly assembled a roster of six that they were happy with, plucked from the many people they’d worked with in the course of their careers. “We’ve got a good working relationship with them,” says Michelle of their directors. “We know how they work and vice versa, which obviously helps when you’re talking about your directors. It gives what you’re saying that much more gravitas.”
Conscious of not expanding too quickly, six felt like the right size roster to start with. As one member of the new roster, Pat is confident that they’ve picked the right strategy. When they approached him asking if he’d like to be a part of MADAM he had no reservations. “It took me about five seconds to say yes,” he says. “It was a bit of a no-brainer for me.” He’s also happy to be part of a focused roster of only six. “They’ve got a select bunch of people they’ve invited on board. Obviously you get that huge buzz from a new start-up. I think everyone’s going to get a great push.”
Having previously worked in business development, Pippa was excited to finally choose the directors she thought she could get work for. She knows what agencies are looking for, not just the kind of talent a production company likes to have. “To be able to have a hand in who I think is absolutely right for the market is really great,” she enthuses.
Understanding the Landscape
They’re well armed, but starting a production company today is never going to be an easy battle. MADAM are aware of the challenges they face – the ever-shrinking budgets, globalised projects and overly cautious clients that the whole industry is concerned about. “Advertising has changed,” asserts Carly. “It’s a very competitive industry and there’s a lot of work sometimes for not much reward. We just need to focus on keeping our overheads low.”
Being aware of these changes means MADAM can build something that fits the new landscape from day one. Scale of work is different now – the 30-second TVC is just one product amongst many that production companies need to provide. “We’re very aware of wanting to develop outside of the commercial industry,” says Pippa, “but our core is commercials. This is where we’ve all been for years and we love this industry. But we know we’d be crazy to consider that as our only lifeblood.”
MADAM are undaunted by this shifting landscape. “It can be seen as a concern,” says Michelle, “but it can also be seen as something interesting – an opportunity to be creative, imaginative, adaptable and flexible. We’re aware of it and we’re able to explore that avenue because we’re starting afresh and developing that company to fit in this marketplace as it is at this moment.”
Working from home, without an office or even a completed website, they’ve already managed to win and shoot their first two productions and have more lined up. Listening to the three of them confidently staking their claim, it’s easy to see how they’ve made such a strong start.
Michelle relishes the challenges they inevitably face. “This is about focusing and going forward,” she says. “Belief in ourselves; belief in our product; knowing that we can do it because we’ve been doing this for a very long time and there’s a good success rate between the three of us. To be doing this as a partnership for ourselves reconfirms all of that. It’s a good feeling.”
The trio are visibly thrilled to be embarking on this venture. Sitting in a bustling Soho café they can’t stop grinning as they interrupt one another about their ideas and ambitions. “I feel like I’m bursting inside,” says Pippa. “I’m so happy about it, just saying the name. And I love working with these girls. The partnership is fantastic and I think we’re going to be unstoppable.” She laughs at how carried away they’re all getting. “That’s the aim, anyway.”
Check out MADAM's directors on their temporary website.
If you were setting up a production company today, how would you do it? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.