‘We’re not leaving this bar until we’ve come up with such a great idea that I can’t sack you”

Tony Ageh at The Story Conference 2014

Tony Ageh at The Story 2014. Image Credit: Giles Turnbull

In the run up to this year’s The Story conference on Feb 19th, we’re publishing a few transcripts of our favourite talks from the last 7 years of the event. In 2014, Tony Ageh told us the story of his career ‘making lists’, and how the BBC iPlayer came about because of a drunken brainstorm.

The Story 2016 conference is on 19th February 2016, at Conway Hall in London. You can buy tickets now via Eventbrite.


This is an experiment, actually, on you, because I don’t have anything important to say at all, but Matt asked me to come and say something, so I’m just going to see what happens if I just talk away for twenty minutes. So I don’t really have much to say, and actually, that’s the point, really. I have had a fantastic career. I’ve really enjoyed myself. I’ve got no things to show you, but I’ve had a huge amount of luck doing things that I just wanted to do, and I’ve never actually realised how I’ve got away with that.

Obviously, I wanted to make the world a better place, just like lots of other people do. I also wanted a life in the media, because that just looked like a much better job than other jobs. It looked like a lot of fun.

I didn’t really know what the media was until my friend Matt actually told me. I asked him, ‘What is the media?’ and he said, ‘It’s the movement of thoughts and ideas through time and space,’ which I think is just amazing, and explains what storytellers have always done through all time. Thoughts and ideas through time and space.

The problem is, I don’t have any thoughts and ideas that I want to pass through time and space, but I want to be in the media. I’ve had a very successful career, and it’s because I’ve managed to do something that I actually hadn’t realised I was doing.

What I do is lists. I’ve always been interested in lists, and I can’t quite work out why I’m interested in lists. In fact, I didn’t even realise I was interested in lists until I looked at my entire career, all the way back, right back to my very first job, working for a guy called Richard Desmond. We used to call him Rick when he was very young. I was his copy chaser. I used to produce lists.

What can I say about lists? I like lists, because — I’ve decided to say this, it may not be true — they’re democratic. A proper list is democratic. It has no edge, it has no slant. There’s no journalistic nuance to it. They’re pretty neutral. A proper list would be neutral. A proper list would be useful. An un-useful list is — maybe we should make a list of all the un-useful lists?

I think they are empowering, as long as they’ve got three criteria. First is that they have to be comprehensive. You need to have all of the things that are true within the set or series. There’s no point having most or just some, because to me, that doesn’t do the job. Secondly, they have to be updated. You have to know what they were like ten years ago, and that they haven’t moved. Thirdly, there has to be sufficient variables within the list to make the order come out differently, depending on how you’ve looked at it. There’s no point just having a list of all the colours, because a list of all the colours will always stay in more or less the same order in relation to each other, unless you randomise them, of course.

The reason I would say those three things is because, to me, an important list or a useful list is one that contains information on which you can base a decision. When I say a decision, I mean when you can base a decision that would be different than the decision you would have made if you hadn’t applied that information for that list.

Now I’m going to tell you about some lists that I’ve worked on. These are lists broadly disguised as products. You may not recognise them immediately as lists.

These are the three most important lists — the lists that have had the most important impact on me throughout my life. The first are mortgages. When I was about 23, I became assistant publisher of a magazine called What Mortgage. In fact, we had a lot of titles called What, all these financial titles like What Investment, What Finance, What Pension, What Telephone, which isn’t odd, actually, today, but in 1982 or 1983, it was a bizarre idea. What Telephone? There was one phone. It was the one you had.

Anyway, mortgages. What was interesting about mortgages at that time was, of course, for most of us, our home is the biggest purchase you will ever make, or the biggest series of purchases. At that time, people tended to stay in the same house for about seven years, and then move no more than yards away from their house. Nobody ever moved very far. What happened at that time, as you know, is that the way that we perceived money and personal finance shifted, because of homes and the way that we leveraged the money that our homes was growing in value to buy other things that you now can’t afford. That sort of stuff.

The mortgages did that, and we published mortgage league tables or mortgage rate tables, because we knew that, if you calculated it, at that time, the difference between a good mortgage and a bad mortgage was about the value of the house. In other words, you’d either get a free house or you’d pay for two houses. I can’t work out which way it would be, but certainly, there was a substantial amount of difference between getting a good and a bad mortgage, at a time when most of us would have just taken any mortgage. If you walked into the bank and said, ‘Can I buy that house?’ and they said yes, you’d say, ‘Oh, goody,’ and you’d just continue to pay them. Many of you might not have been alive, but there was a point in the mid-80s when interest rates were at 12% or something. I can’t remember. Does anyone remember? 16% or 15%. I don’t know what they are now. About one and a half, aren’t they, or 2%. It was an unaffordable thing to own a house on that basis, and therefore, the mortgage information was important.

I say all that as a long intro to a point where my life changed as a result of this. We were publishing these mortgage magazines, and there was a particular article that came up about the government’s right to buy scheme. I hadn’t realised that I had any political nuance at that point in my life, other than I thought, there’s only one headline for this article, and it’s ‘Wrong To Buy’.

I was the assistant publisher, so I took the proofs to the publisher. We, at this time, were a PLC, so we were controlled by a board of those types of guys in grey suits. One of these guys looks over and he sees this headline that says wrong to buy, and he works out that I’m suggesting that buying council houses isn’t necessarily the right thing to do.

He says, ‘You can’t say that,’ and I say, ‘I’m the assistant publisher. You’re just a guy on the board. I can say anything.’ We have this particularly odd row in front of the publisher, where I’m saying, ‘That is the right headline, because we have to express the problems that you’re going to encounter through this.’ Anyway, he wins the arguments. He wins it because he completely floored me by the thing he says next, which is, ‘You think those magazines are about information, but they’re not. They’re simply vehicles to hang advertising from.’

Obviously, we know that to be true about a lot of media, but I had never even-, I couldn’t understand that. I didn’t say anything else. I just walked out and resigned. What it did give me was a lifelong suspicion of advertising, and media that are funded only by advertising. I’m also very concerned, as you would imagine, by Google, which is the ultimate list of information, which is, of course, leveraging your attention against advertising, and I would have to say, I’d have some concerns about anything that is funded only by advertising. I’m worried about the way that media is funded. I was saying to Matt the other night that advertising doesn’t scale anyway. Everybody with a business that depends on advertising will probably go bust, because there isn’t that much advertising.

There are some problems with advertising, and I won’t go on about it, but I’d say this. One, advertising is the least democratic way of funding the media. Our media, our culture. You don’t get to choose anything about it. It is compulsory. They take the money from your purchases, set aside a piece of it, and they give it to organisations you have no say over. You cannot decide how much money goes into the Guardian to the Daily Mail or to ITV or to Channel Four, whichever media organisation you may or may not like. They just decide that for you. You can’t say anything about the way that the money is spent. Even though you have bought a Ford, and you think it’s crap, the money from Ford goes off to say, ‘These people bought Ford, and they think it’s good,’ and so you are now reinforcing a series of behaviours that you yourself may not have said. That’s all.

I come from the BBC. I think the licence fee, which I’m going to get to at the end, is a very useful mechanism for funding media. I’ll try and explain why, but I would say this. When they say that you don’t have a choice about paying for the BBC, you do, because you can simply not pay your licence fee. Obviously, you should also not watch television as well, but those two things may not be related. When it comes to choosing to pay Paul Dacre’s salary, I don’t have a choice. Some of my money, every year, goes to pay the salary of somebody I know doesn’t particularly like what I do for a living, even though I can’t do anything about it. I’ll leave that thought hanging there.

The second most important list is entertainment. I’m very good at entertainment lists. I don’t know why I’m very good at entertainment lists, because I don’t actually read them. I do go out quite a lot now, but I used to not bother going to the cinema or the theatre at all. I somehow am very good at entertainment lists, I’ve realised, partly because my hero is a guy called Tony Elliott, who launched and runs the magazine called Time Out, which I still think is the best magazine ever. Maybe Colours magazine by Tibor Kalman is better, but it’s brilliant. He came up with a stroke of absolute genius, which is to tell people what’s going on, and then they’ll go and enjoy themselves a lot more. It was a great slogan that he had, I think, which said, ‘You can survive in London without Time Out, but can you live?’ which I thought was really good.

I’ve never worked on Time Out. I’ve spent most of my life trying to put Time Out out of business, which is really odd. I did actually get to meet my hero, Tony Elliott, a few years ago, and we get on quite well, despite the fact that I’ve done everything I can to put him out of business. I’ve worked on every other listings magazine there is. I’ve worked on Event magazine, which was launched by Richard Branson to try and destroy-, to try and capitalise, actually, on the war between Time Out and its staff. I then worked on City Limits, which was the workers’ co-operative, which was an experience. I would say this, I don’t recommend it.

I then got a call from the Guardian, and they said that they wanted to have an answer to the opportunity/concern about being able to publish a whole week’s television if they wanted to. It used to be the case that only the Radio Times and TV Times could publish a week’s television, but they changed the law when Sky came along, and everyone thought, ‘Actually, it’s probably better to let everybody else do this as well.’

Everyone could publish a week’s worth of television information. It was going to be expensive. It was going to be glossy. It was going to put the Guardian out of business. They didn’t quite like the idea of this, so they asked me, could I help? I said, ‘Yes, I reckon I could help.’

I’m trying to think of the best way to say this. I came up with a thing called The Guide. The Guide effectively costs nothing to produce. I know it looks like it might be more expensive than nothing, but it really didn’t cost anything. The way we did it was this. There wasn’t enough to say about television to justify a whole magazine, so therefore, you just spent a lot of energy and a lot of money just inventing things to say about telly, which telly should be able to say for itself.

However, the Guardian used to have, every single day, one whole page of something to do with the arts. Entertainment, it might be cinema, it might be theatre or books and so on. What I said to the Guardian was, simply, take that page as it is, with the piece of paper attached to it, put them all together, fold it up until it’s a nice little small thing and you’ve made a little book, and that little book will therefore carry all this extra telly. You don’t have to say very much about the telly. I could go into much more detail about it, but that’s more or less what the Guide is. It’s just all the pages of the Guardian folded up and put out on a Saturday.

The Guardian quite liked the idea of one aspect of that, but they didn’t like the whole thing. They didn’t like the little booklet. They produced a version of that, which was a tabloid, and they did that for a couple of years. It didn’t do anything much other than it achieved the objective, which was to tell people what was on telly for a week.

A newspaper price war then came along, and then the Guardian had a real problem, which is how do they reduce the price of the Guardian and stay in business? It was teetering on the edge. I came back and said, ‘You could do my little shiny glossy thing. That might be useful,’ which they did, which shows the value of the format. The Guide is the same as the original Guide, which was the tabloid thing, except it’s a nicer shape. It was very successful.

It did two things. First of all, it took the Saturday sale of the Guardian from about 250,000 to about 600,000 at its peak, and that was probably enough to keep the Guardian in business for a while. Secondly, get this, during the price war, we managed to put the price of the Guardian up. It had a very interesting impact. The moral of that story is that it’s actually the format, oddly, of the Guide that is the thing that makes it. It’s obvious that it looks like that now, but it wasn’t very obvious to the Guardian then.


The third list I’m going to tell you about very quickly is the BBC iPlayer, which of course is nothing more than a list, presented well. A list of telly programmes and radio programmes. I thought I’d tell you the story of how we came up with it in the very, very first place, before it was a list.

When I first joined the BBC, I had a very interesting job, I was head of search, listings and core websites. I also had, in my responsibility, two other parts of bbc.co.uk — BBC3 and BBC4’s websites. I didn’t have any control over them, I was just to blame if they went wrong.

BBC3’s website went wrong one day. We had a programme on about Jordan. That’s the glamour model, not the country. The editor of the BBC3 website put together a nice little micro-site, which had nice pictures of Jordan — that’s the model, not the country — in various states of undress. It was very embarrassing, and the Evening Standard phoned up and said, ‘Have you gone a bit soft porn, BBC?’ They phoned Jana Bennett, who was the Director of Television, and she got very angry, and I said that I would take the site down, so I took the site down, and then she said, ‘Great. I’m glad that’s all done. Can you sack the person responsible?’

So I take this guy out, and I say, ‘We have to go drinking tonight,’ and he says, ‘You’re going to sack me, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Not necessarily, but we are going to go drinking.’ We go down the stairs to the bar at Bush House, which stays open all night, because that’s where the World Service is, and I said, ‘We’re not leaving this bar until we’ve come up with such a great idea that I can’t sack you, because I’m going to have to tell her tomorrow that you can’t be sacked, because you’ve got the greatest idea the BBC has ever had.’

We sit there and we come up with some of the worst ideas the BBC has ever had. Some real stinkers. We should have written them down, because they would be worth-, anyway, around-, I can’t tell you what time of the morning it is, because it’s very late, and we are really, very, drunk.

We come up with this thing — ‘Suppose you can download’ — this is for BBC3, remember — ‘Three programmes and keep them and watch them whenever you want?’ What’s not to like? We even had a name for it, based on the TiVo. We called it the ThreeVo.

[laughter]

We roll out of the bar and we go down to Aldwych and I get in a taxi. I think, ‘I’m going to be sick. I’m never going to remember this in the morning.’ So I phone my good friend Bill Thompson, and I say, ‘Bill, you’ve got to write this down.’ I say to Bill, ‘Download the player, play to an Internet PVR thing.’

When I get up the next morning, there’s this note in my email from Bill. I think, ‘I wonder what Bill wants?’ I read it, and I think, ‘God, this is good.’ I phone him, and I say, ‘Bill, great idea, what’s this about?’ and he says, ‘Don’t you remember? You phoned me last night and you told me to write this down,’ and then I do remember, so I go into work and I say to that guy, ‘Right, this is the plan. I email you this, you rub out Bill’s name, you email it back to me, and then I email it to the Director of Telly and say that I can’t sack this guy, because he’s got the best idea I’ve ever seen,’ and so that’s exactly what we do.

She says, ‘Alright then’, so I don’t sack him. I then go back to him and I say, ‘It is the best idea I’ve ever seen,’ and he says, ‘Yeah, right, like they’d let you do that,’ and so he refuses to work on it. Actually, the story of the iPlayer is a succession of people who refused to work on it.

I remember a horse called Foinavon that won the Grand National. I can’t remember the year, but it’s between ’64 and ’68. It must be about then, because I just about remember it. It won the Grand National not because it was any good, but because everything else that was in front of it fell over. You must watch it on YouTube. In this race, all the horses fall down, and there’s this plod right at the back which doesn’t get knocked over simply because it’s so far back.

The iPlayer, in some respect, is a bit like that. The only reason it exists is because all of the things that could have happened to it didn’t happen. Nobody wanted to get involved in it, up to and including the moment that I became the Project Director of it. You don’t know me, but you wouldn’t make me the Project Director of anything.

The reason I was the Project Director of it was because all of the people who applied for the job didn’t get the job, because the BBC is such a political organisation that no directors could agree on any person to run this thing, because they knew once they got to a certain point, it would be an important thing. It was too important to let any divisional director have control. Therefore, everybody who’d applied for the job had come from a division, and they wouldn’t let anybody win.

At the very end, after three rounds of interviews, I was on the interviewing panel, and the Director General just said, ‘For God’s sake, get him to do it,’ and so that’s how I got to run the iPlayer.

One thing I would say about the iPlayer is this, and it’s a genuine appeal to you all. The iPlayer is flawed. It’s actually wrong. It’s a lovely thing, and I’m sure you all enjoy it. There is something wrong with it. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.

It’s only got BBC programmes on it. This is the first significant piece of technology the BBC has ever developed that only the BBC uses, and that’s not its job. The purpose of the licence fee, the reason why we’re funded in this way, is because we’re supposed to be of value to everybody in the whole industry. It’s mean to be a universally applicable tithe, fee, fund that you enjoy paying, because you know that everything is better as a result.

Therefore, the iPlayer should be unbundled. Imagine if there was a radio that only got BBC programmes. Bonkers, right? Televisions that only showed the BBC, it’d just be crazy. The idea that there’s a piece of technology that only shows BBC programmes is wrong. I would urge you all to campaign to say to the BBC, ‘Unbundle the iPlayer and let everybody else use it,’ because that’s what the licence fee is for. It’s for us to develop technologies that are universally applicable, that benefit everybody. I’d like to go on more, but I think my time’s up.