One of the fastest-growing indies in Televisual’s 2017 Production 100 survey, Plimsoll has scaled up rapidly since launching four years ago.
The Bristol-based outfit, run by former RDF managing director Grant Mansfield, now has around 240 people on its payroll and reported a turnover of £14.5m over the past year. Focused on non-scripted programming, Plimsoll has produced over 40 series for UK and international networks, including Nat Geo’s Earth Live!, ITV’s Life at the Extreme and C4’s Rescue Dog to Superdog (which has been remade for Animal Planet in the US).
Speaking from Plimsoll’s Los Angeles office, Mansfield says that right from start he wanted to build a proper TV indie rather than a lifestyle business. “I always wanted to build a company of longevity,” he explains. He also wanted to do it outside London, in Bristol, where he began his career at the BBC.
Mansfield says he traded in a minority stake in Plimsoll to an investor to raise money to get started. This allowed him to make exec producer and development hires immediately, with Plimsoll adopting a build it and the commissions will come approach. “It meant that from day one I had collaborators…that money bought us time, but it also bought me expertise.”
Plimsoll’s team now comprises a who’s who of well known producers, from former BBC NHU boss Andrew Jackson through to the series producer of blockbuster Planet Earth II, Tom Hugh-Jones. “We hired producers with fantastic track records. The production talent is as important as the idea.”
The indie has also ploughed money into development. “You have to speculate to accumulate. And in TV production that means spending big on development – spending smart as well as spending big.” For example, the indie has three full time sizzle reel producers. “They can turn a tape around so quickly that we quite often use them to work out if an idea is strong enough to pitch.”
Plimsoll’s first commission was a single film for ITV, and then a big natural history order Predators, for Discovery. “Those two commissions were significant, because they pointed to the direction we were going – to be a multi-genre, non-scripted company.”
Despite all the talk about the drama boom, Mansfield believes the non-scripted market is primed for growth. “I genuinely detect a renaissance for non-scripted in the international market. The market is strong. There are lots more clients now,” he says, citing Netflix, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Hulu.
He points to demand for big landmark shows run by big name show-runners, citing Plimsoll’s Earth Live! for Nat Geo. “In the multi-channel world, there is so much white noise out there that a live event can become emblematic of a channel’s ambition.”
Plimsoll now focuses on all non-scripted sub-genres, working across factual entertainment, specialist factual, natural history, live and daytime. The growth of Plimsoll’s natural history output has been ‘a pleasant surprise’, admits Mansfield, who is best known for fact ent shows like Ladette to Lady, Dickinson’s Real Deal and Driving School. Head of natural history Martha Holmes, a former BBC NHU producer, was one of the first Plimsoll execs. “It seemed daft to be in Bristol and not be making natural history. I thought we will do a bit on the side and we have become one of the biggest producers of natural history programming in the world in terms of hours.”
Mansfield says another key moment in the company’s development was its decision not to strike a deal with a big distribution company but to take a stake instead in start-up distributor Magnify Media, run by Andrea Jackson. “I wanted to keep control of our IP,” he explains.
Most of Plimsoll’s staff are based in Bristol, working out of a building it shares with post house Films@59. Another 16 are based in LA, while a new Cardiff office is staffing up. Mansfield claims Plimsoll is now the biggest TV indie in Bristol. “The thing that I am proudest of is the work that Plimsoll has brought to the city. We have grown the Bristol market by all the shows we have had commissioned.”
Citing companies such as Icon and Aardman, he says there are now over 150 media companies in Bristol. “I am sure Manchester might dispute this claim, but I think outside London that Bristol is now the main media city in the UK. It is a hugely creative place.”
Should Channel 4 move any of its departments out of London, he believes that Bristol should be the place they move to. But he thinks that where Channel 4 spends its commissioning money is more important than where the channel is located. “Personally, I think the best place for Channel 4 is London. But if it is not in London, it should be in Bristol.”
Grant Mansfield is the CEO and founder of Plimsoll Productions, which he launched in September 2013. Before that he was CEO of Zodiak USA. Previously, as md of RDF in London, his credits included Ladette to Lady, Holiday Showdown and Dickinson’s Real Deal. Before that, he was head of programmes at Granada TV. He began his TV career at the BBC, first as a TV news reporter and latterly as creator and producer of documentary series such as Driving School and Vets in Practice.
(Plimsoll leadership team, top, pictured left to right Rachel Morgan, head of specialist factual; Jonathan Jackson, financial director; Martha Holmes, head of natural history; Grant Mansfield, CEO and founder; Christine Owen, chief operating officer; James Smith, head of Plimsoll Wales; Karen Plumb, head of factual entertainment; Andrew Jackson, president of international production, Kate Beetham, head of development)