Ex-RDF founder David Frank has big ambitions for his new company Dial Square 86. It’s going to be like ‘the Vice of content’, he tells Tim Dams

David Frank’s fledgling company Dial Square 86 is just a few months old, but one can quickly sense his drive to build something bigger. In fact, the business plan of the former RDF founder and Zodia Media boss sounds rather like that of RDF in the 2000s, which set the template for the consolidation trend in the indie sector.

Similarly, the aim for Dial Square is to grow a content business via deals with indie producers, digital outfits and rights specialists. Frank says he was “slightly pining for the more entrepreneurial experience” after Zodiak, which he admits he struggled to unify into a cohesive whole. “The most exciting days of the RDF period were when we were building the group – bringing new companies in, hiring new people. It genuinely felt like jumping onto a train that was on the move.”

Frank briefly mulled leaving the industry after Zodiak to become a writer, harking back to his early life as a journalist. It didn’t last long. “I thought it would be a bit lonely, that was the main deterrent. Working in this industry you have some crazy times, meet some weird people and it is fun. I love the interaction.”

And he started thinking of new ideas for a business. “The thing that struck me when I paused for thought was how dramatically the market had changed, certainly since I started RDF 20 years ago, but even in the last five years.” Most notably, programme prices have tumbled as audiences migrate to an increasing number of digital channels or online. Broadcasters, of course, still want the same quality – but at a far lower price. Says Frank: “The world does divide between those who have a response and those who don’t.”

He says many of the companies he looked after in Zodiak struggled to adapt to this new world.  “They would typically be companies whose margins were eroding and they were having to lay people off at HQ and/or cut their overhead. But there was no strategy for growth.” Other companies, however, would embrace the challenge – cutting the cost of their programmes, but also finding new ways to finance and produce shows. “It’s not that there is less stuff being made, it is just being made in a different way by different people.”

And it is these kind of people that Frank wants to work with. “I didn’t want to start a production company again. I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt. But I do like engaging with entrepreneurial individuals.” To date, Frank has assembled a team that includes Goldcrest Media founder Adam Kulik; Nigel Pickard, the former ITV programmes chief; his brother Matthew Frank, former CEO of Zodiak Rights; and Charlie Caminada, the former COO of HIT. They will offer operational and strategic support as well as financial backing to companies that join the group.

Dial Square has raised “a couple of million quid” of seed capital. The team has also been building a list of target prospects, and is now fundraising to bring in major investors. Frank stresses that Dial Square is not, as some have said, an investment vehicle. Rather, he says, the business is a trading company that will expand through the acquisition of established businesses and early stage start ups – with a plan to seek an exit via a stock market listing or sale in a “reasonable horizon.”

Frank says Dial Square is looking to invest in companies in three specific areas. Firstly, in what he calls pure creative businesses, which includes TV production companies. Frank points out that Dial Square is not – as has been reported – simply a digital play. Secondly, he wants to invest in content enhancement businesses, ones that broaden the viewer experience via social media or interaction. The third area is around content exploitation – distribution, licensing and merchandising areas.

Dial Square’s first deal last month was with Red Hare Digital, which manages a network of about 30 YouTube talents in the beauty and fashion area and strikes deals for them with brands including L’Oreal, Maybelline, Rimmel, Max Factor and Topshop. Frank says the talent could migrate onto standard platforms. “It’s a very interesting area for me – the creation of brands out of individual names,” he says, citing names like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.

Frank also says he admires Vice, which has carved out an impressive business in news, an area previously dominated by a few global TV news providers. He says he wants Dial Square to be “like the Vice of content.” He adds: “I think we will have succeeded in three years time if people ask, ‘What is Dial Square?’ And they’ll say, ‘They do quite a lot of telly, but masses online – they dominate the YouTube market for talent, they make low cost content for international broadcast that they pre-sell, nobody ever commissions them they just make it and sell it…They are pretty cool and everybody wants to work with them.’ That is the dream. I want it to feel a very sexy brand – because that’s a brilliant way to attract talent. “ He concludes: “What I’m trying to do here is to constantly think of ways to disrupt what is happening today – and if you do that you create a meaningful brand.”

– Frank began his career in investment banking in the early 80s.

– After five years in the City he swapped banking for financial journalism. In 1989 he joined the BBC, becoming an on-air reporter.

– Frank founded RDF Media in 1993 having raised financing from business angels.

– On the back of hits such as Wife Swap and Secret Millionaire, and a series of indie acquisitions RDF became a superindie valued at £150m when sold in 2010 to DeAgostini.

– In 2010, Frank became CEO of De Agostini’s Zodiak Media which has operations in 20 countries.

– In 2013, Frank stepped down from Zodiak to set up Dial Square 86.

This interview was taken from the November issue of Televisual

Tim Dams

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