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MY BUSINESS LIFE

Sophie Turner Laing

Interview: Chris Maxwell
As she prepares to speak at the IoD Women As Leaders conference next month, Sophie Turner Laing – managing director, entertainment and news for BSkyB – looks back over her career to date and discusses the strategy for keeping Sky ahead in the broadcasting business

  • There was an early clue that I would work in media. My sisters and I would put on plays for our parents at weekends, charging them entry and for refreshments. It was my first initiative combining entertainment and business.

    We weren't allowed to watch much TV. My mother was a voracious reader, and felt TV was bad for us. Of course, whenever she left the house we spent an inordinate amount of time watching and being terrified witless by the Daleks.

  • I didn't go to university. But I went to boarding school, where you learn to fend for yourself and the importance of collaboration. From then on, I felt my future career would involve interaction with people.

    After completing a secretarial course I was employed as an events secretary with the Variety Club of Great Britain. Working with larger than life public figures, who gave up their time to help underprivileged children, left a lasting impression on me.

    I took a two-year 'university of life' trip, working in Australia. The "can do, no problems mate" attitude of Australians is still something I very much admire and still live to a certain extent.

    In 1982 I came home to work at Henson International Television. I rose through the ranks from secretary to sales director, selling Jim Henson's programmes around the world. It was invaluable experience.

    The best piece of advice I've ever been given was from Peter Orton, my boss at Henson. He said: "Never say never, and never accept 'no' for an answer – there is always a way around every challenge."

    Peter and I founded our own business, HIT Entertainment, in 1989. It was terrifying. I'd never done a business plan let alone considered things like capital investment. It taught me the importance of investing in great advice from professionals.

    When I moved to Flextech Television in 1995 I went from being a seller of content, to a buyer of content and running channels. I worked on the deal that is now UKTV, before joining the BBC [as controller of programme acquisitions] in 1998.

    I thought, 'how am I ever going to cope in the labyrinth?' But I was fortunate because I knew [former] BBC director general Greg Dyke from my Henson days. I learnt that to get the best out of working for a large organisation, you have to move quickly and speak to the right people. The strong networking skills that come from my selling days really made a difference.

    At heart, I'm a very commercial person. I admire the BBC for some of their output – it can be tough being a public service broadcaster, serving both the audience and the politicians – but what I love about Sky, which I joined in 2003, is that anything is possible. We have an enormous appetite for risk and a very strong DNA for doing things differently.

    The big challenge has been in entertainment. Because Sky is incredibly well known for its sport, news and movies services – and [chief executive] Jeremy Darroch described entertainment
    as the "fourth leg of the horse", it was limping a bit. We wanted to ensure it has as much energy, impetus and influence as our other three big services – so that's what I've been focused on for the past four years. It takes time for the content you've invested in to come to screen but we've really started to see those green shoots. Particularly Stuart Murphy and Lucy Lumsden have done a fantastic job bringing comedy to Sky.

    I'm very proud of Sky Atlantic. To launch a new channel was a big achievement that required not only the relationships I already had with HBO, but how we encapsulated the vision for the channel. We're still at the start of the journey, but things are bubbling along nicely with projects across all the genres.

    The key to the future is not necessarily each channel – though Sky Arts, Sky Living, Sky1 all have their own targets to hit – it's finding those unique pieces of content that nobody has ever done before. We're in a very competitive business, and talent is scarce. But it's a challenge we relish, and one that means that every day in the office is always exciting and different.

  • Sophie Turner Laing will be speaking at the IoD Women As Leaders conference at the Lancaster London hotel on Thursday 8 November. For more information and to book your place visit www.iod.com/womenasleaders