Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It's not who you know, it's who knows you

There's an old saying that states success is not about what you know, it's about who you know. This suggests accumulating wisdom is less useful than having friends in high places, that nepotism trumps knowledge - and there may be some truth there. When I was a commissioning editor, I tended to choose people I knew and trusted ahead of those with whom I'd never worked before.

That didn't mean I ran a closed shop on 2000AD or the Judge Dredd Megazine. Indeed, one of my proudest achievements was finding and nurturing new talents. But it tends to take more time and energy to help a newcomer through the creative process than a seasoned professional - that's just a fact. When deadlines loom, it's natural to employ people you can trust to deliver.

Now I'm on the other side of the desk, proving myself to producers and script editors in TV drama. It takes time to build up relationships, to earn the trust of those with the power to commission. They already have experienced writers at their disposal - why bother with people they don't know? The good news is emerging writers do have a few things in their favour.

Fact: new writers are cheaper. Under the terms of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain agreement, the BBC can offer a Fee of up to 20% less than the minimum rate to a writer who has had less than 2 hours transmitted. Back when I was editing comics, employing cheaper writers was a good way to save money when budgets were facing cutbacks [a nearly perpetual state, IIRC].

Fact: public service broadcasters have an obligation to find and nurture new talent. That's why the BBC runs initiatives like the Writers' Academy and the writersroom website, why a quarter of all Afternoon Plays on Radio 4 are by emerging writers. That's why Channel 4 keeps running the Coming Up scheme, to give new talent a chance - they're obliged to do so.

Fact: everybody likes to say they discovered a rising star. It gives you a sense of pride to see somebody you helped doing well. Back in the early 1990s I commissioned Scottish artist Frank Quitely for the Megazine. That work helped pay his bills, gave him professional experience and helped him along the path to being a star of US comics.

Now, I believe in the adage that cream rises when it comes to great creators. Frank would have succeeded anyway, he's too good not to have made it one way or another. But there are some great talents who haven't achieved the success they deserve because of not getting the right opportunity at the right time. Maybe they didn't hustle enough, or didn't want it enough.

In his book Making It As a Screenwriter, Adrian Mead offers a simple theory: talent x strategy x effort = success. I think he's right. You might possess a brilliant talent, but unless you keep trying when idiots turn you down, that talent won't be enough. You need to persist to succeed. You also need a strategy. Waiting to be noticed won't get you asked to the dance.

Other people will always know more people than you. We can't all live in London, hanging round private members' club in Soho. If you don't already know key people, have a strategy so they get to know you - your name and your work. Part of that is networking roadshows and festivals. Partly it's writing and submitting great scripts to contests and opportunities.

Two years ago I was a finalist in the Red Planet Prize. That got my script read by a significant person within the BBC. I happened to meet them at a Q&A session last year. They recalled my name and my script, suggested I talk to a particular producer. When I contacted that producer, they told me I was already on their radar. I didn't know them, but they already knew me.

Now, nothing's come of that - yet. But it was reassuring to know the combination of strategy and effort did pay off. There's another way of making a name for yourself, of increasing the number of people who know you, even if you don't know them. This is so simple and yet it's something that creative people don't always consider. Trust me, everyone should be doing this:

Make other people's job easier.

If you make someone's job easier, you make their day a little happier, their working life less stressful. Essentially, this is being professional, but it's also about looking at things from the other person's point of view. If you can deliver a day early [without compromising quality, natch] - do it. You'll make the other person's job easier.

If your commissioning editor calls to say this draft isn't working, don't take it personally. Don't be a prima donna. Just say these six simple words: how can we make it better? You're a team, a partnership, you're in this together. Nobody wants to crush or embarrass you. Everybody wants creative work to be the best it can within the available time and budget.

If you do good work, people will remember. Deliver good work ahead of time, and people will appreciate it. Treat notes as a chance to make the work better, and it won't go unnoticed. Everyone wants to work with professionals who make their lives easier. Word will spread. People will know you, even if you don't know them - yet. Onwards!


drettworlb said...

Thanks David. An inspirational post for those of us slogging it out.

helencaldwell said...

This is a very encouraging post, thanks!

And good tip about making other people's jobs easier. It makes sense.