Wayne Denning stepped into the lift on a bleak New York day and rode the two floors to the headquarters of the Sesame Street children’s television program.
“There’s snow and ice everywhere and it’s pretty dangerous for someone from Brisbane,” he recalls of his visit nearly two years ago. “Going up the floors, it’s a bit magical. There’s giant numbers and the walls are covered in Sesame characters and there are visual installations where you are welcomed by Grover and Elmo.”
There are few Australians whose lives haven’t been touched by the 45-year-old show. Perhaps we learned to say “zee” instead of “zed” when learning the alphabet in our own childhood, or still remember the words to Kermit’s Bein’ Green to sing along with our own children and grandchildren.
Every now and then over the generations, Australia would be referenced but the show has always primarily been an introduction to American culture and its values.
Denning, as he made his way to see the Sesame Workshop’s senior producer Kim Wright, was aiming to make inroads into that. He had come to make his pitch to produce a segment that would not only feature Australia, but showcase Aboriginal voices, faces and culture.
The founder and managing director of media production company Carbon Media, Denning knew that if his pitch were accepted, it would end up costing him money but could lead to much bigger things for his small Brisbane-based business.
International viewers numbering 780 million
The meeting with Wright went well and she seemed impressed with the package Carbon’s general manager and creative executive, Amber Moran, had put together. One month later, Sesame Workshop emailed for a “re-pitch” and Carbon Media won the job to produce a segment on the number five.
This segment – featuring singer Jessica Mauboy, a team of indigenous children and animated kangaroos – screened in 2013 and has been watched by an estimated 780 million viewers in 140 countries.
There was a subsequent tour with the Cookie Monster and Mauboy: “We got about $3.5 million worth of local media exposure,” Denning says. “[The segment] was a not-for-profit, to be honest. We look at it as a loss leader to get what we wanted and as a marketing strategy. We took all the risk out of it [for Sesame Workshop]; we invested in it and it became our business calling card.”
The segment, which picked up a number of awards, has led to several more projects with Sesame Workshop (the non-profit owner of the television program) and has provided an introduction for pitches to the BBC, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros and Disney.
“It was probably the spark to show that we could do things on an international level; it meant that we were able to be taken seriously as players,” Denning says.
Following it up with other segments wascrucial. Denning says the subsequent Sesame Street segments are being produced “at cost” to keep the relationship going.
A grant of $500,000 from Screen Australia in 2013 probably also flowed through the work the eight-year-old company has been doing with Sesame Workshop, he says.
Denning is making his mark in the entertainment industry, running a business with an annual turnover of “a couple of million dollars a year” and a social change agenda – but it was not his first choice of a career.
Growing up in coalmining town Blackwater, he got a degree in political science and sociology in the hope of getting a job in Canberra assisting with Land Rights.
Disillusioned by politics
The son of an English railway worker father and an Aboriginal (Birri Gubba) mother from “along the railway line” at Woorabinda, he did spend around 12 years working in that policy area, but became disillusioned by the politics and some of the decisions being made in the early 2000s that worked against self-determination.
Denning had always been interested in technology and media and in 2004, at 34, enrolled in an MBA at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), focusing on entrepreneurship, strategy and corporate governance. “It was a quantum shift; it was a reprogramming of my brain to actually operate in this environment,” he says.
Becoming an entrepreneur required learning to take calculated risks and to be more dynamic. “It required a new way of thinking. Being the boss of your own destiny and in charge of your own ship is a a big difference – so much so that I could never work for anyone else or ever work in government again. I’m very much about materialising ideas and making them reality and I prefer them to be the ideas that I want to do.” However, he says he was able to take some things of value from his first career: “sound decision-making and the ethical standards we expect in a working environment.”
The first iteration of Carbon Media came from a business plan prepared for his degree, aimed at making video content for the emerging smartphone market.
QUT offered Carbon Media a place in its Creative Enterprise Australia’s incubator – which offered a peppercorn rent and an office. Denning stayed there for four years and built the company up to nearly 30 staff, doing (often) indigenous-themed commercial work, documentaries and children’s shows for the National Indigenous Television Channel, ABC and SBS, corporations and government.
Denning did not really take a salary for three or four years and kept the money coming in with some consulting and training work.
Part of the growing maturity of the business was getting the staff numbers right and, as contracts for work got bigger, Denning scaled down to a 10-person higher-quality team, hiring in expertise when required.
Future plans There are nine or 10 projects on the slate, including Cheeky Dogs, an animation series with Tennant Creek Aboriginal artist Dion Beasley, a “tween” drama, Camp Crazy, set up in Cape York in partnership with Essential Media and Entertainment in Sydney. The business is also delivering apps for television shows, developing websites and working on corporate social change.
Equity Denning may look for outside investment: “I’m sure it is an issue I will have to confront in the near future. You do get a lot of support and other things by taking on investors.”
Joys of private enterprise “It is exceptionally rewarding to see something that has been created by myself or my team turned into something. It is quite magical, especially when it was from something inside someone’s head.”
Indigenous network Carbon Media is certified by the Supply Nation organisation as being majority indigenous-owned, controlled and managed.
Supply Nation connects corporate and government customers with indigenous businesses and suppliers.
Giving back Denning is on the board of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the Brisbane Writers’ Festival and the indigenous advisory committee of the Brisbane festival.
Published 10 January 2015 - The Business Review Weekly http://www.brw.com.au/p/entrepreneurs/screens_sesame_street_became_wayne_pXTKAytVfLqpk3kcO6iP0O