The secrets of a negotiator: Peter Bennett-Jones was destined to be a barrister but, sweetly sidetracked, found himself representing Rowan Atkinson and then a handful of major TV talents. He is such a natural that he follows the rules of the game intuitiv

The secrets of a negotiator: Peter Bennett-Jones was destined to be a barrister but, sweetly sidetracked, found himself representing Rowan Atkinson and then a handful of major TV talents. He is such a natural that he follows the rules of the game intuitiv

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Make him an offer he can't refuse. Don Vito Corleone used the traditional Mafiosi techniques of negotiation - threats, blackmail, a judiciously placed horse's head - and he often came out with what he wanted. Such methods are not open to most of us. When negotiating in the 21st century such old-fashioned ways of making others see your point of view are frowned upon. Confrontation and aggression are definitely out. When the chief union negotiator went in to see Ford in February for crisis talks about the uncertain fate of its Dagenham plant the words to the press as he went through the doors were: 'My aim is to listen and understand the problem.'

You can't always get what you want, and nobody knows that better than the UK car industry unions, which are in a far weaker negotiating position than they were during the 1950s and '60s. You cannot understand negotiation unless you understand power, and most negotiations occur because the parties involved have little choice but to do otherwise. However, the obvious wielding of power that leads to the 'quick kill' is now held to be completely counterproductive. The emotionally intelligent negotiator sits down before a meeting and thinks: 'How can I help the other side to give me what I want?'

Much can be learnt about the skills required to be a good negotiator but there is an art to it as well. MT has spoken to one of today's pre-eminent negotiators. Peter Bennett-Jones is one of the UK's most successful theatrical agents and is regarded by many in the business as a natural. Bennett-Jones is not just any Broadway Danny Rose, struggling to find work for deadbeat balloon-bending acts. As agents go he is quite special. The roster of his clients includes many of this country's top comedy writers and performers: Rowan Atkinson, Harry Enfield, Eddie Izzard, Lenny Henry, Barry Humphries, Reeves and Mortimer.

His businesses, PBJ Management and the related Tiger Aspect Productions, which makes television programmes, operate from the Soho Square showbiz hub and are highly successful. The boss, a big, imposing man, lives very comfortably in Oxfordshire. But the 45-year-old Wykehamist who read law at Oxford intending to become a barrister fell into agenting almost by accident. His friend Rowan Atkinson was represented by Noel Gay and Bennett-Jones offered to step in to be his 'homme d'affaires - that's how I like to think of it, it's slightly less grubby,' Bennett-Jones says.

When actually asked to sit down and analyse his negotiation technique, Bennett-Jones finds it hard to explain his methods. One gets the feeling that he was born to it. 'It's what I do,' he says. 'I am very conscientious, friends say I pay a great deal of attention to detail. I care about what I do. And I like the world I work in. I've always rather liked working with complex, talented individuals. It takes a certain patient temperament to deal with that. I'm happy to take a subsidiary, much more private role. I see myself as a civil servant.'

His job is made easier because the number of names who can launch a TV programme or film in Britain is small. Headline talent is thin on the ground and the TV companies need PBJ's people badly, which makes him a powerful individual. 'It's all about who you represent,' observes Bennett-Jones. 'If you've got the whos, you get to find out the hows (to negotiate) because the talent base is thin. There are lots of talented actors. But Eddie Izzards and Rowan Atkinsons don't grow on trees. If you represent these people the broadcasters can't afford not to take you seriously. There are a lot more people offering programmes than people who appear on them. You combine that knowledge with the way you operate.'

A good insight into the famous PBJ method comes from Jon Plowman, the BBC's head of comedy, who has dealt with Bennett-Jones for years from the opposite side of the table. 'He does what so few agents do. He makes you feel on the same level, not the enemy. He'll ring up and say: 'Look, I can't go back (to the talent) and say they'll only pay you this amount.' And you try and work something out. After all, he delivers the talent. I think it means he ends up with good deals. We have a whole artists booking department at the BBC. So he rings up people like me when there is an impasse. I don't think I have ever seen him lose his temper. But I have seen him get hard, he's got a tough business head.'

It is not an industry in which civility abounds. 'On the whole, purchasers/broadcasters in the UK treat their suppliers like dirt,' says Bennett-Jones. 'But their dominant position will not go on for much longer. In five years, with the advent of new technology, we'll be able to go to viewers on our own and bypass them.'

In the past couple of years there have been high-profile spats about money and what have been seen as outrageous demands by performers. Agent John Thoday went too far in demanding pounds 20 million from the BBC for Frank Skinner, and was shown the door. That kind of machismo is getting common, according to a rival agent. 'Many performers love to hear that their agent is hated by channel controllers. They think he must be screwing them for really fat fees on their behalf.'

Bennett-Jones disapproves of this kind of high-stakes showdown. 'There's a new generation of talent in their twenties coming in now who are much more wired up about money,' he says. 'They're greedier, short-sighted and opportunistic and they want to cash in very quickly. My view is that broadcasting has always been a shop window for talent. There are many other areas to exploit once you have your reputation - advertising, publishing and personal appearances. My advice is: you have to speculate to accumulate.'

The pool of talent in this country may be tiny, but so are the number of outlets for it. Bennett-Jones operates in a relatively restricted market. Despite the explosion of digital channels, he is geared towards the BBC, ITV, to a lesser extent Channel 4 and, since this year, Sky. 'In broadcasting there are an awful lot of people who can say no and only a very few who can say yes,' he says, admitting that there are no more than six buyers who really matter in his game.

For Bennett-Jones keeping this half-dozen individuals happy that he can deliver something successful is the key to his style of bargaining. 'Negotiation for me is largely a reassurance exercise. I'm telling them that with my experience I've got a better idea of what will work than they have - because it's all I do. But this remains a hard job because their approach is still too cautious and they refuse to take any real risks because they are so fearful of flops. Things are getting worse in that respect.'

Ultimately he is fortunate and in a strong position because he believes in his wares. Not all of us are so fortunate. 'What makes me lucky is that I can have such confidence in the ability of my clients,' he admits. 'That gives one a huge position of strength. I'm not selling any pups here. I'd be hopeless at selling used cars.'

He probably undersells himself. Put him in a sheepskin on a forecourt and he'd shift a Granada with four bald tyres a lot faster than Swiss Tony.

HOW MR BEAN KEPT CONTROL OF HIS OWN DESTINY

The biggest deal that Bennett-Jones ever negotiated was for Mr Bean. Bennett-Jones was the first UK agent to cotton on to the value of video sales to his shows. When he first took Mr Bean to the broadcasters, the BBC thought it would suit late-night BBC2, in 10-minute segments. But Thames Television took the plunge and ordered a prime-time show.

'The key thing in the deal was to do it on a licence-fee basis (to ITV) with ownership and control retained,' Bennett-Jones says. Rowan Atkinson (right) and Tiger Aspect waived their fees to retain what they wanted, lucrative rights, reclaiming only the production cost shared between ITV and Home Box Office. Atkinson is now recognised on the street from Shanghai to Scunthorpe.

Mr Bean was an instant hit and has sold to 254 territories. Thirteen television episodes were filmed, but the big money initially flowed from video sales, totalling 13 million. In 1995/96 Bean - the Movie was negotiated and grossed dollars 250 million. And Mr Bean may return as a cartoon character. It's a long-running business: this year ITV's five-year licence on the Bean programmes expires. Bennett-Jones is looking forward to the renegotiation session.

DOWN TO BUSINESS: SIX RULES OF NEGOTIATION

1. BE PREPARED - Says Peter Bennett-Jones: 'I go into a negotiation pretty certain about what I want to come out with and knowing exactly what the other half wants, because successful negotiating is not going to come out of confusion.'

2. STRAIGHT AND OPEN DEALINGS. DON'T PLAY GAMES OR BANG THE TABLE - 'Maybe if you ask for things in a very polite way people are slightly bamboozled. But I don't think I'm deceptive and I believe bluffing should be kept for poker. I hate aggression - it gets you nowhere. A deal works when both parties think they have got a good deal. I have never walked out of a meeting, although I have got cross a couple of times. If people think they have to scream and shout and get angry it's gone wrong, it's broken down. A deal should be logical for both sides.'

3. BUILD UP A GOOD RELATIONSHIP - 'I actually really like all the people I negotiate with on a regular basis. I may not be so keen on the dark forces behind them but I enjoy their company, which is why face-to-face always beats the phone. Going in for the jugular from the word go is a waste of time. Some agents do conduct things like that but the loss of goodwill that such a move involves outweighs the benefit. You can hold them to ransom for more on one occasion, but if next time you want something more complex it makes life harder.'

4. DETAIL IS ALL - 'I'm a great believer in pen and paper. Putting things down in writing is important to me, but you'll never get an American agent to agree to that. Their attitude is normally: 'Oh let the lawyers attend to all that.' That suggests an attempt to avoid the awkward issues that will come back and bite you later.'

5. IT ISN'T JUST PRICE THAT MATTERS - 'Price is one element of the equation, not the key thing. If you make price the dominant factor you are likely to slip up elsewhere. Get a long-term commitment on a deal if possible and remember the importance of piggy-backing other concessions to achieve what you want. That way you can plan properly. Never do anything in a hurry - which is the obverse of the way the City works - short term, turning a buck. In show business it is absolutely the other way round. Think long-term. People like John Cleese and Ronnie Barker have 40 years in them.'

6. IF ALL ELSE FAILS BE PREPARED TO WALK AWAY - A television executive who deals with Bennett-Jones confirms that this is a possibility: 'He will walk away. He knows what the threat of having a star on the open market could mean to you (ie, the star could end up on the rival's screen). He never appears pushy as he takes your wallet. That's very clever. But if he doesn't get what he wants, he just says: 'No.''

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