December 1, 2015

The bold business risk that paid dividends

Taking the risk to pitch an Australian segment for Sesame Street has opened doors globally for Wayne Denning, founder of Carbon Media.

Taking the risk to pitch an Australian segment for Sesame Street has opened doors globally for Wayne Denning, founder of Carbon Media.

Pitching to the world’s leading children’s entertainment network, Sesame Workshop, producer of the beloved and long-running Sesame Street, takes a lot of confidence – and an appetite for risk. Wayne Denning, founder and Managing Director of Brisbane-based multimedia production company Carbon Media, has both in spades. Early in 2013 he headed to the US to make his unsolicited pitch.

“I tried to convince the American producers to look at Australia for the first time in their history, and convince them that this country on the other end of the planet would like to hear our own voices,” he says.

“The show had been in Australia for 44 years but never actually had Australian content.” It was a case of going there and trying to establish a business calling card. We wanted to be an international player; we wanted to make Australians proud of their indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.”

Against all odds, Denning’s pitch succeeded, and the segment, “5 Kangaroos”, was produced by Carbon Media and first aired in the US in late 2013 (then in 2014 in Australia). Featuring indigenous Australian singer Jessica Mauboy, five dancing Aboriginal children and indigenous themed art and design, it’s an ebullient ode to Australia.

But it’s about much more than adorable kids and kangaroos, says Denning. “It was also a strategy to enter us as a company into global children’s entertainment. It was a very deliberate strategy – it was about putting up a flare. It was a risk, but it paid off.”

 Open Sesame

Denning is adamant about the importance of taking risks. “Risk goes hand in hand with business – particularly from an entrepreneurial sense. It’s what you do. It’s how you manage it. If I were risk-averse, I’d be working for someone else. Risk drives innovation; it drives success.”

Since “5 Kangaroos”, Carbon Media has gone on to make another six segments for Sesame Street. Even more impressive is the doors that have opened off the back of that original pitch. “I’m able to get meetings in Los Angeles with Disney now, with the BBC in London, or with Cartoon Network domestically,” says Denning. “We’ve opened it up for other Australians to pitch to Sesame too.”

Creating segments for Sesame Street seems a long way from Denning’s earlier career, working in indigenous affairs for the government in Canberra, but there is a logic to this trajectory. After a decade working on policy in Canberra, he felt he’d have more impact working in media and technology.

Leaving the public service, he returned to Brisbane to do an MBA in entrepreneurship strategy and corporate governance. During his MBA studies he came up with the idea of creating video content for mobile phones – “probably about 10 years ahead of our time at that point”, he notes drily – and that spark led to the creation of Carbon Media in 2006.

The freedom to create

It’s clear that Denning loves being an entrepreneur, especially one who combines his sense of social responsibility with creativity.

“I work in a creative industry. I’m able to express myself and be innovative; I’m able to keep on top of trends,” he says. “I’m always scouring the planet for ideas that we can apply. The excitement of success, the adrenalin of failure – they go hand in hand. Being a leader, striving to make a difference to the planet, applying commercial attributes to that excites me. I’m passionate about that, and inspired by taking a team of people with me.”

Making a difference is something Denning comes back to often. Carbon Media cites social responsibility as part of its ethos, but Denning admits that combining social change with a commercial business proposition isn’t always easy. The challenges are less about creating commercial success in a responsible way and more about dealing with expectations.

“You can be stereotyped and pigeonholed,” he says. We have social responsibilities and we’re about social change, but from a commercial context. It’s about being thought leaders and managing preconceptions – you want to stay true to your values, but it’s not all you do. People like to put people into boxes, and we don’t fit into any one particular box because we’ve got a wide range of skills.”

That range of skills is taking Carbon Media in exciting new directions. Along with several major national social change campaigns, the company is currently developing a teenage drama series, The Timeshifters (with independent production company Essential Media and Entertainment); an animation series called Cheeky Dogs; and a live sports entertainment show called League Nation Live out of Brisbane. It has made indigenous-themed commercial work, documentaries and children’s shows for the ABC, SBS and the National Indigenous Television Channel, as well as for corporations and government.

Even the name of the company has a story. It was inspired by the fact that carbon is a core element. “You can’t have life without carbon, so it’s something that connects every living thing on the planet,” says Denning. “We played on that idea.”

It’s obvious that with the success of Carbon Media, Denning is in his element.

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Summer 2015). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our app, NAB Think.

More from NAB: