The Truth Will Come Out
Public and private sector award winner
Wild Geese: Sir William Sargent, founder and CEO of Framestore, London
Fri, Sep 26, 2014, 01:00
Sir William Sargent: “The Irish are unbelievably well-regarded overseas for our work ethic, our integrity, our drive, our good nature . . . there is tremendous goodwill towards anyone who is Irish.”
On a shelf in Framestore’s London office stand two golden statues – Oscars awarded for the company’s work on Hollywood blockbusters The Golden Compass and Gravity. However, it is the shelf full of awards won at the Kinsale Sharks advertising festival that Framestore’s founder, Dublin-born William Sargent, is more interested in talking about. The awards are “wonderful” shark’s head paperweights. When Jaws director Steven Spielberg visited the office, he was struck by their appearance and asked how he could get his hands on one. Sargent joked that Spielberg would have to do some advertising first.
By his own admission, Sargent is extremely uncomfortable receiving awards that he believes were earned by the hard work and late nights put in by other people. So much so that, in 2008, when he found out he was to be knighted for his work on behalf of the British government, which included a stint at the top of the civil service as a permanent secretary, he didn’t tell anyone. “I felt unbelievably awkward about it, not because of the idea of it, but because what I did there in the cabinet office – as was the case with Framestore [and the Oscars] – was down to thousands of people.” However, he got so many touching letters of congratulations that he managed to make peace with his title.
“It was ironic because my grandfather was one of the men buried alongside Michael Collins, but my mother said her father would have been unbelievably proud.”
Sargent’s Irish heritage remains very important to him, though his upbringing was more peripatetic than most.
Born in Dublin, he moved to Brazil as a toddler where his father oversaw the building of a shipyard outside Rio de Janeiro. He grew up bilingual, speaking English and Portuguese, and was schooled by American nuns.
However, his parents realised that while he knew all about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, he didn’t know who De Valera was.
It was decided that boarding at Clongowes was the solution. He vividly remembers going from 40-degree heat at his family’s home in Copacabana overlooking the beach to Kildare and “this concept of snow and cold and big eiderdowns and being freezing”.
Nonetheless, he enjoyed his time at secondary school and says the Jesuits were an “amazing bunch of people” who taught him to think.
He went on to study business at Trinity during the Seventies, which was “fabulous”. He earned his crust by lugging sound systems to gigs for bands including Thin Lizzy and the Boomtown Rats, and doing a slot on Dublin’s first pirate radio station, Radio Dublin.
However, when he graduated in 1978, there were no jobs. “Virtually everyone in my class had to go overseas, except those who got a job in a family business.”
He moved to England and found work with a sound equipment manufacturing company in Cambridge, but it wasn’t until 1986 that his eureka moment came at a dinner party with friends.
“It was a typical Sunday night – a bunch of people sitting around moaning about their jobs. I said: ‘Guys, let’s do something about it’.”
They put together a business plan, raised funds and, 17 weeks later, Framestore was launched. They began applying computer technology to the making of TV images for music videos and commercials.
“If you really knew how hard it was going to be, you’d never start,” Sargent says, but the hard work has paid off.
Twenty-eight years later, Framestore is now a world-renowned special effects house, providing visual effects and computer animation services to the advertising, entertainment and film industry.
Projects in recent years have included Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Avatar and War Horse.
Somehow, while running his Oscar-winning company, Sargent has also managed to fit in extensive high-level public sector work. How did that come about?
“Like everything, it was just evolution,” he says.
In 2000, he was asked to chair Britain’s Small Business Council. “Being Irish, I was very good at telling everyone else how to run their business. I’ve no shortage of opinions.”
He went on to head up the British government’s Better Regulation Executive and was appointed a board director of the Treasury.
Although he was asked to stay on, he is now focusing all his energies on Framestore once more. He believes there are very exciting times ahead.
He says too that there are great opportunities in his industry for the current generation of Irish people facing emigration.
“The Irish are unbelievably well-regarded overseas for our work ethic, our integrity, our drive, our good nature . . . there is tremendous goodwill towards anyone who is Irish.”
Framestore itself, which employs more than 900 people across its offices in London, New York, Montreal and Los Angeles, is expanding rapidly, and currently has more than 75 new positions available.
The company hires a lot of animators and computer scientists on the technology side, but on the production side, graduates can learn the craft on the job.
One of the big advantages of this industry is that it can take you anywhere. “Once you’ve cracked it, then actually you’re very valuable to people around the world, not just in England.”