It has taken him a decade, but legendary British agent Duncan Heath has finally found the heavyweight strategic investor he has sought ever since leading a buyout of ICM’s U.K. arm in 2002.
The deal for Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa Companies to invest in Independent Talent Group is the latest quickstep in a career of fancy footwork by Heath.
He has already built ITG into Europe’s largest talent and literary agency, but he’s hoping that Burkle’s backing will turbocharge its growth. There are ambitious plans to raise a film production fund, build its branding business and expand further into comedy and sports.
“Burkle has paid some money upfront, and provided a war chest for expansion,” Heath says. “The relationship will enable us to be opportunistic. English agents are traditionally just agents; they don’t have the ability to put things together, because agencies here can’t afford to hire full-time guys who raise money for projects. It costs money to have that expertise, so now our ability to put things together will be greater.”
ITG managing director Lyndsey Posner notes, “We’ve done a lot without external funding, and now this new investment will allow us to expand exponentially. The American agencies have expanded dramatically, and there’s no reason for us to get left behind.”
Production is one area where British agencies have a clear advantage over their American cousins. In Hollywood, agents are legally blocked from acting as producers, but no such bar exists in Blighty.
Heath sees Burkle as a potential ally in his longstanding ambition to raise a film fund. “Burkle won’t necessarily invest in a production fund, but his contacts and expertise can only help our efforts to raise one,” Heath says.
ITG already has its own development company, Brilliant Films. The first feature project cooked up by Brilliant is finally poised to shoot later this year — Neil LaBute’s Agatha Christie adaptation “Crooked House,” scripted by Julian Fellowes and starring Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson and Olivia Wilde.
Mike Newell’s longstanding kids’ project “A Box of Delights” is also advancing.
“As an agent in the U.K., we discover the talent, but when they break through into the U.S., the American agents tend to take over,” Heath explains. “They are more aggressive about putting finance together, but we need to be equally entrepreneurial. We want to stay involved right through the U.S. careers of our clients.”
Heath is a charismatic and extroverted figure who has always inspired great loyalty from his clients and his fellow agents, many of whom have been with him since the start of their careers.
He founded Duncan Heath Associates in 1973, sold out to Hollywood giant ICM in 1985, merged with ICM’s London office in 1991, then led a management buyout of the combined operation nine years later. The company was renamed as ITG in 2007. It has 32 agents including veterans Greg Hunt, Sally Long-Innes and Paul Lyon-Maris alongside up-and-comers such as Jane Brand, Cathy King and Jack Thomas.
The agency represents more than 1,500 clients, including Danny Boyle, Newell, Sam Mendes, Fellowes, Daniel Craig, Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine.
Since the buyout from ICM, and particularly since the rebranding as ITG, the company has already diversified significantly from its core business of repping actors, directors and writers.
It set up Independent Talent Brands, a joint venture with the Saturday Group that brokers relationships between talent and brands, and includes licensing arm ITB 360, commercials company Black Label Prods. and fashion agency Hall London, which reps designers and photographers.
ITG has started to push into the comedy business with a growing list of comedians, including Steve Coogan, Johnny Vegas, Simon Bird and Irish mock-rock combo Dead Cat Bounce; it is planning a significant drive into sports such as tennis and golf.
“We’ve already done a lot of the things we said we would when we became ITG,” Heath says “But now we will be able to do much more.”