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The new super groups: Argonon

Swan lake in 3DIn the first of a two-part feature on emerging production super groups, Stewart Clarke talks with James Burstall, CEO of UK-based Argonon, which today acquired Transparent Television.

When James Burstall formed Argonon through the creation of indies Leopard and Remedy in 2011 he said it would be a £100 million (US$153 million) turnover business within five years. He says that the group has grown profits by 50% since launch and that it is on track to hit its earlier stated target.

Argonon’s content spans the high brow, such as Swan Lake in 3D, to the lower brow, such as the highly successful property format House Hunters International. It has also moved into branded content, working on a project with the Bombay Sapphire gin brand, has two features in the works, including a Danny La Rue biopic, and a kids series for the BBC.

What differentiates Argonon and other production and distribution groups is, Burstall says, its funding model.

“What sets us apart is that we do not have a bank or investors behind us – there is no finance body sitting at the board telling us what to do,” he says. “A lot of others have hefty financing commitments and have to hit certain numbers and that can be detrimental to the creative process. We’re self-funding from the product we have and from exploiting those rights. We have the support of Barclays, but it is not an investor.”

The company’s wage bill, meanwhile, is increasing with a number of new faces having been recruited. Tom Blakeson, the former Endemol executive who was behind Money Drop, joined late last year as chief creative officer of Remedy Productions with a brief to get UK and international formats away.

Then in February Argonon hired former Shed Media exec Laura Bessell-Martin as its first-ever COO. She will help execute its acquisition strategy and develop IP across the group.

“Laura is very skilled in M&A, she had seven years at Shed and did the Twenty Twenty, Wall2Wall and Outright deals and was there during the sale to Warner Bros. We wanted that expertise in the operation,” Burstall says.

Having been linked with moves for a couple of indies in the UK that did not come off, the company today unveiled the acquisition of London-based popular factual producer Transparent Television for an undisclosed amount. Transparent is behind programmes such as Channel 4’s My Daughter Amy and Channel 5’s Extraordinary People: The Baby with a New Face, and is currently working on a pair of new C5 series, namely Great Northern Cookbook and Botched Up Bodies.

Burstall says the acquisition “demonstrates our strategic ambition for the group; to build a world class centre of excellence where the industry finest talents are given a platform to fulfill their creative ambitions”.

The firm is in “advanced due diligence” with another company, Burstall says, and is in talks with another unnamed firm that an Australian connection, which would mark Argonon’s first move Down Under.

“We’re still very much in the investment phase. We always said the first three-and-a-half years would be an investment period, so we anticipate further acquisitions, joint ventures and talent partnerships,” he adds.

Content sales are a key revenue driver. Pre-Argonon, Leopard had set up a distribution arm soon after the Terms of Trade were introduced in the UK, allowing producers to exploit their rights. As well as contributing to the bottom line, Argonon International’s role is to provide the rest of the group with feedback from the world of TV, Burstall says.

On the digital front a website based on Leopard’s antiques-hunting format Cash in the Attic launched this month with transactional and community elements currently being tested. Argonon is using the Accelerate consultancy set up by former AOL chief executive Kate Burns to advise it on digital media.

As well as hiring top executives and looking at acquisitions, Argonon wants to forge partnerships with key talent. Britespark, a joint venture factual production company headed by former Cineflix and Wag TV head of documentaries Nick Godwin, was announced in January.

Looking ahead Burstall says: “In twelve months time, in the UK we will have brought new talent to the table. In the US there will be more branded content and we will push into bigger cable and we will have at least one major commission in Canada.”