New BBC Boss Tim Davie Has the Business Savvy to Save the Beeb, Say Insiders

Tim Davie

Tim Davie is the right person at the right time to take over as director general of the BBC.

That seems to be the U.K. industry’s general view on the day that former PepsiCo and Proctor & Gamble marketing executive and long-time BBC staffer Davie won what is considered the most prized job in British media. His appointment came despite some sentiments that the job ought to have gone to the other internal candidate, BBC director of content Charlotte Moore, who would have been the first female director general.

When current boss Tony Hall announced earlier this year he was leaving, many thought the BBC would break with years of tradition and look to appoint somebody other than a white, male, Oxford or Cambridge University-educated leader. (Davie went to Cambridge.)

However, Davie, who has run the BBC’s production and distribution arm BBC Studios since 2018, quickly emerged as the front-runner, beating off competition from a final shortlist that included Moore and Doug Gurr, the New Zealand-born head of Amazon’s U.K. and Ireland operations.

“If you were making a DG appointment in three years’ time or three years ago, you might have come to a different conclusion,” says Roger Mosey, former head of BBC Television News, director of the BBC’s London 2012 Olympic Games coverage and current Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. “But he is the man for now.”

ITN chief executive Anna Mallett previously worked with Davie at BBC Studios, where she used to be group COO and managing director of production. “I think he will bring bold leadership, commercial acumen and a passion for creative content to an organization he’s hugely committed to,” says Mallett.

Those who know him describe Davie as bright, approachable, well connected, hardworking and as someone who makes things happen. “He’s always on the case, and he always knows what’s going on,” says one insider.

In public, he can present as brusque and confident, and certainly he is combative and doesn’t shy away from an argument. But BBC insiders attest to a “nice guy” who is attentive to the needs of others and is well liked at the corporation.

Notably, Davie stabilized the BBC when he stepped into the breech as acting director general from November 2012 until April 2013 following the resignation of George Entwistle in the wake of revelations of serial sex crimes by the late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile.

It was a tough time for the BBC, but Davie remained calm and authoritative throughout. “He was a very, very good acting director general in 2012-13 at a most difficult time,” recalls Mosey. “Tony has stabilized the BBC in the long term, but Tim absolutely stabilized it in 2013. He was very, very effective.”

The BBC, of course, is currently facing enormous challenges right now, not least the coronavirus crisis, the loss of younger viewers to streamers, a financial squeeze, and a U.K. government under Boris Johnson that appears ideologically hostile to the publicly funded organization (although this has been tempered since COVID-19 struck and the BBC’s viewing numbers have soared).

These factors, thinks Mosey, have all played into Davie’s hand during the appointment process. “The BBC has come round to seeing itself as having an existential threat to it. They absolutely had to go with someone where they were taking no chances. And Tim is formidably intelligent and competent, and all those things at the heart of a battle.”

His point is echoed by Mathew Horsman, joint managing director of consultancy and research firm Mediatique, who says that a DG with Davie’s track record, focus and skillset puts the corporation in good stead as it confronts serious structural headwinds, and persistent question marks about the future for public service media, particularly in the post COVID-19 era. “It strikes me the BBC is in good hands. It is hard to argue against intimate knowledge, commercial nous, political acumen and proven leadership skills at a time of need.”

Moreover, Davie is cut from a different cloth to most BBC bosses. Although he was privately educated at Whitgift, he won a scholarship to the school, and was the first in his family to go to university. After Cambridge, he joined Proctor & Gamble as a marketing trainee in the early 1990s, later becoming U.K. marketing manager at PepsiCo. He joined the BBC as director of marketing, communications and audiences in 2005 at a time when jobs like these largely went to insiders.

He then ran the corporation’s Audio & Music network, with responsibility for the BBC’s national radio services including Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and its digital services. Afterwards he was appointed chief executive of sales arm BBC Worldwide, before taking over as CEO of the newly created commercial division BBC Studios, responsible for production and distribution.

As such, Davie has become a well-connected figure internationally, working with many of the major U.S. broadcasters and streamers such as HBO and Hulu to help fund BBC programming like “Normal People” and “His Dark Materials.” Unusually for a BBC director general, however, he does not come from a news background — with some expressing fears that he lacks the news judgement and skills required to be “editor-in-chief” of the BBC.

That said, he has proven himself editorially at BBC Studios, putting together major productions. “He’s a big loss to BBC Studios,” says one current colleague. “He’s up there with the best I have ever worked with.”