New NEP Group chief executive Brian Sullivan talks strength in a crisis and building for the future
NEP Group chief executive Brian Sullivan is only a little more than one month into his role. He comes to NEP with more than 30 years of broadcast industry experience, including as president and COO of Fox Networks Group, CEO of Sky Deutschland, and 13 years at BSkyB.
The Philadelphia native (he lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children,) sat down with SVG to discuss his new role at NEP, his vision, management philosophy, and more.
I wanted to start by discussing your background because you have wide-ranging experience, geographically speaking. What drives you to move from one place to another and take on new challenges?
I think it is pure curiosity and a desire to learn. For example, during my time in the UK with Sky, I had nine different jobs over 15 years. And then, when I was named CEO of Sky Deutschland, which was actually a separate company at the time, I had never considered being a CEO before.
Even when I was asked to come to Fox, there was another new challenge; helping take a giant media company and pivoting it to where the industry was shifting, which was streaming. We accomplished this pretty quickly, but it turns out we also pivoted ourselves right into a sale to Disney.
So it has always been about curiosity and learning, getting exposure to new things and new people, and being constantly challenged.
After I left Fox, I moved into a consultancy role with McKinsey and was enjoying working with colleagues and clients all around the world. When I was approached about the NEP role, I’ll be honest, I initially wasn’t sure it was right for me. I told the team at Carlyle [Group], let me see if I can help you find the right person. So we kept talking.
As I got to know the team at Carlyle and NEP, I got a better idea of how well the company was positioned, even with the challenges we’re all going through these days. It became clear this could be a real opportunity to do something great and to learn a lot again.
It was also an opportunity to stay within the industry that I love and feel I know well. I thought it would be super exciting, particularly in such a big moment of change. I love big moments of change; I think that they are where innovation truly gets superheated and thrives.
SVG Europe has some tight bonds with your previous employers, especially Sky Deutschland, where SVG Europe chairman, Alessandro Reitano works.
Alessandro is such a good man. When I first got to Sky Deutschland, it was a pretty damaged company. It had been around for about two decades as premiere and had never really turned a profit. The challenge was to modernise the company and make it properly customer-focused, which unfortunately it hadn’t been.
Amongst a number of things, we wanted to fully cement our leadership in sport, and Alessandro was at the center of one of our first big initiatives when we decided to set up Sky Sports News HD. We were lucky in that we did it at a time when the technology available allowed us to be really modern, innovative, and flexible. I would personally stand that channel up against any in the world. And Alessandro was a huge part of that.
NEP has a massive customer base, and everyone is facing a massive challenge given what is going on right now. What do you see as the challenge ahead? What’s your sense of the opportunities?
The challenges are real, they are big, and you can never dismiss them. But we are fortunate in a number of ways. First, we already moved to expand our global footprint over the past few years, and that expansion is pretty much complete. We might find an opportunity or two in markets we’re not yet in, but, for the most part, the company is geographically well positioned.
That said, we’re still very interested in expansion, but, going forward, it will be more about expanding our offerings and capabilities to help serve our clients changing needs and to lead the industry into the future.
I think that syncs well with an industry that’s going through big change, including consolidation. If we work with a client in one country, the fact that they are going into another is an advantage for us and for our clients, as we are already there.
Second, we’re also lucky to be backed by The Carlyle Group, which is clearly one of the best – if not the best — private-equity firms. We’re held as part of their long fund, so we don’t have as many of the short term pressures that others might be facing.
Essentially, we’re in a really good place, even as we face the same market pressures as everyone else. Financially, we’re very solid and are looking to invest in our business to match the way our clients are going or we think they will be going over the next few years. That means a pretty strong focus on innovation, building on our core broadcast and live events businesses, and adding capabilities across the board.
To me, that’s exciting, from expanding on our lead in centralized production, delivering more integrated and remote services, and really leaning into artificial intelligence (AI)-based software solutions. Even in these unique times, we’re learning a ton alongside our clients in places like the NBA and the NHL bubbles, helping deliver this year’s Emmys, or some cool virtual solutions for US Open tennis and others. All of this will help shape the future of our company and the industry.
Do you think what is happening now is the ‘new normal’?
I do think there are changes happening now that will become a permanent part of our future as we move beyond the challenges of the pandemic. But that can be a good thing. Disruption and change can be a really positive force if embraced properly. It gives us an opportunity to prove that the things we always thought could work actually do.
I’ve gone through big innovation waves before, during my time at Sky in the UK and Germany and then here in the US with the streaming revolution. I know that change can be scary for people as it often gives you less confidence about what the future holds. But this company is — even more than I realized when I signed on — perfectly positioned to help lead that change through the industry.
For example, the new trucks we are building are now all fully IP-based. They are not only able to do way more than you would have been able to do in the past but are also fully compatible with a centralised-production, hub-and-spoke world. Coming out of this, we’re going to have a bigger variety of events with sometimes very different requirements, and clients that have different needs. There’s no doubt that the transition is moving faster. I think we’re in a great place to help solve this for clients, to contribute to the solution.
We have these incredible people that are able not just to provide solutions for a particular event but also to create solutions that are actually much more dynamic and forward-looking, delivering an even better experience for our clients. We’re investing our time and resources in a way that is going to not only maintain the business we have but, hopefully, give us an opportunity to be a bigger part of the future. Personally, I’d like to double the size of the company over time.
What’s your philosophy for managing a global business with all the cultures, etc?
When I moved from the UK to Germany, I made the decision that the only way I could be a productive contributor to the organisation was to, first and foremost, trust the people in the organisation to do their jobs well. And the reason was actually quite selfish; I didn’t know the country, the language, the culture, or even the media environment. If I was going to go in there and suddenly start dictating to everyone what to do, I would be wrong 90% of the time.
My job is to craft the longer-term vision and help give the team the best opportunity to deliver on that vision and deliver for our clients. Personally, I don’t think there’s anybody who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I don’t want to do a good job today’. I think everybody wants to do a good job, but sometimes circumstances get in the way. My job is to make sure they’re set up for success — clear direction, the necessary tools, capabilities, flexibility and empowerment to do just that — and then get out of the way. And that means they can serve our clients to the best of their abilities.
What’s your general message to your customer base?
Number one is that we understand and appreciate what everybody’s going through. We know that the first priority for everybody is their people and their families. These are unprecedented times, and we all have to support each other. And we will absolutely play our part in that.
The second is to take this time and embrace it. It has been a long time since we’ve gone through such a big disruption, and my personal advice is to think of this as an opportunity to change in ways that will serve your company for the next five, 10, or even 20 years, not just the next six to 12 or 18 months.
We can get through this better as an industry than we can as individual organisations. And, if we do embrace this, we will come out so much stronger than we were before.