The majority of students at a place like Oxford who have been filtered through a competitive school system, achieved all their As and attended all those extra revision sessions would argue that academic success is the key to prosperous careers. And on the whole, they would be right. Sara Geater however, CEO of the illustrious Fremantle Media producing programmes like Britain’s Got Talent, QI and the IT Crowd, starts our interview explaining that she is ‘the kind of person that screwed up their A-levels’ and went on to be ‘chucked out of accountancy school after the first year’. The delicious complacency that it is possible to feel at somewhere like Oxford, with the biggest companies in the world sending representatives to seduce you into working for them, confirming what your grandparents have told you that ‘you’ve made it now’, seems to diminish and fade. When I ask whether she thinks anyone can make it without a degree, the response is instant; ‘oh god yeah’. Certainly, Geater is not the only one in her field to have had a rather surprising route to the top. She references Adam Crozier, for example, now CEO of ITV but formally the CEO of the Football Association, graduating from Edinburgh’s Heroit-Watt University.
Sara doesn’t deny however that things were easier after she got her Law degree and passed the Bar. Not because she was suddenly more capable of producing successful TV programmes but simply because it ‘changed everybody’s view of [her]’. This brings someone like me, doing a degree whose content will almost certainly never be relevant to my future career plans, to question the reason employers are so keen for their employees to have a degree. It is reasonable for hospitals to demand that their doctors have a medical degree but for a large majority of jobs what subject degree someone did is irrelevant. A surprising number of bankers, for example, have done arts degrees. And the only job I can think of where my knowledge of Old English could come in handy is to be a Professor of Old English (not my childhood dream). It seems then that having a degree is mostly there to help employers make the difficult choices between one hopeful applicant and another. And it is true that to get a good degree requires a certain amount of dedication, hard work and intelligence that is attractive in a potential employee. On the other hand, however, there are people like Sara that clearly had these qualities before she had a degree to show for it. Instead she has the 150 programmes she produced while working at Channel 4, the current Codes of Practice between the BBC and the independent sector which she negotiated, various CEO positions, a pilot’s licence and much more to show for it. Clearly a degree from Oxbridge or the like is not the only road to success.
One thing Sara pointed out our generation have in our favour, for example, is aptitude with technology. With more and more jobs being created around social media the younger generation, growing up alongside the likes of Youtube, facebook and twitter have a big advantage over those of the older generation. We are now in the kind of environment where the ‘Jamal Edwards’s effect’ can take hold. Popular films can be produced incredibly cheaply and easily. ‘Broadcasters’, Sara explains, ‘are freaked out about Youtube because they think it’ll take all their audiences away’. Sara’s solution to this is to ‘make content for every platform, everywhere’. This attitude appears to pay off; Fremantle Media are the leading non-business content maker for Youtube. Keeping up with the constant developments of digital media is an exciting challenge for everyone involved in the business of media.
Towards the end of the interview Sara comes out with the surprising statement that ‘I should have been a doctor, it was all I ever really wanted to do’. Her school career didn’t leave her this opportunity. When I ask her if she thinks she could have made it as a doctor she replies with ‘yeah, I probably could have done that. The trick is to work hard at whatever you do and you’ll probably do alright’. Wise words to end on.