It’s not often a global firm can be linked to witchcraft and wizardry. But with Merlin Entertainments – parent company of Thorpe Park, Alton Towers and Madame Tussauds – among its clientele, it’s fair to say Picsolve is in the business of magic. Further conjuring capabilities can be witnessed through ties to Warner Bros, the home of boy wizard Harry Potter. Offering a slightly more muggle-like account of the company though, Picsolve CEO David Hockley describes it as a “digitally-enabled entertainment company.”
But what does that mean? And why isn’t Picsolve as well known as the businesses it serves? Well, it hasn’t been hiding in a Voldemort-esque fashion, that’s for sure. It’s simply that clients come first – the Picsolve brand needn’t be in the spotlight. “We seek to entertain the guests of our partners, like Merlin, Warner Bros through to [others in] America,” Hockley details. “So if we integrate with an app or a company like Warner, we would do it via their application.” Essentially, when you jump on a roller-coaster and have your pant-soiling expression snapped or pose in front of a green screen at an attraction that transports you to another world, Picsolve may well be responsible. “Our core sectors are theme parks, large attractions, small attractions,” he adds. “With the selfie being omnipresent and the quality of pictures coming out, we have to entertain [guests] with the imaging that they can’t take themselves.”
This scene is a world away from where Hockley started. By trade he’s a finance man, having begun his career at professional services firm PwC even though that wasn’t where his interests lay. “I love media – that’s really my passion,” reveals Hockley. The attraction in his view is the puzzle of developing content to cater to consumer needs. “The real thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is coming into a business that’s creative, innovative and working with real customers,” he says. “I find that a lot more intriguing than perhaps working in something like financial services.”
And he’d know what that’s like. Following PwC, banking group ING and learning company Pearson were his early employers. Hockley finally had the chance to pursue his passion in the role of CFO at Channel 5 back in 1999, where he stayed for the best part of 12 years. “It was a lot of fun and we had to take risks,” he remembers. “Channel 5 was very much a challenger brand to the larger TV companies. Digital TV was on the increase. We had to be very clever in terms of providing content that perhaps was alternative to mainstream stations.” He was able to refine his number-crunching abilities to perfection in the post because, while looking to disrupt the scene and stand out from the crowd, there was a need to be “commercially viable.”
An online platform, digital channels and packages for films and sport to run alongside the original analogue station were all among the tools to sculpt differentiation. “I loved being part of an SME business, having come from Pearson and PwC which are very large,” says Hockley. For him, the benefit of being smaller was having 360-degree vision. “The ability as CFO of being able to look across the business both internally and externally was superb,” he emphasises. The commercial viability sought by Hockley was ultimately achieved as the final stages of his time at Channel 5 saw him manage the £104m sale of the company to media mogul Richard Desmond. “That was an exciting journey to be on,” adds Hockley.
Being able to chalk that experience down as mission accomplished, his options were open. “To be honest I went away from Channel 5 eager to have a break – I’d worked continuously for a number of years,” says Hockley. After some time out and deliberation over his next move, he started to provide independent consulting support. Racking up interim CFO roles with Travel Channel and Scripps Network Interactive, the former of which was sold to the latter with his help – only for both to be consumed by Discovery Communications in a $14.6bn deal in 2018 – Hockley would seem to have the Midas touch.
He went on to clock up time at online video specialist Simplestream, Men’s Health and Cosmopolitan publisher Hearst Magazines and further afield in Romania, again in the TV world, to then eventually enter Picsolve. “It was early 2016 when I came in as interim CFO to a business that had grown reasonably significantly,” Hockley recalls. But Picsolve found itself at a crossroads and that’s where his navigation was needed. “I think the business was at a position where it had to decide where and how it was going to grow.”
Having been founded a quarter of a century ago, with its 25th birthday this year, Picsolve has clearly been doing something right. Blackpool Pleasure Beach was the first venue to snap up the company’s offering and the partnership remains intact today. “We’ve got a great relationship, we provide a great service, we launch new products on new rides and that’s a truly wonderful site,” says Hockley. “It’s got one of those wonderful old wooden roller-coasters.” At the time of Picsolve’s inception, the goal was to give guests moments they can hold onto. “I think the mission [then] was probably not that far removed from where it is today,” he adds. But in the same way the northern theme park evolved from wooden roller-coasters with more modern contraptions, there was room for improvement at Picsolve.
Putting his stamp on the company meant analysing existing operations, truly understanding the different qualities and needs of clients and “where and how we could make sure we operated at an optimal manner for our partners and our guests” without rocketing costs. Investing in a new website that offered an improved experience but understanding the return from it was one of the necessary steps, albeit with an effort to “minimise the amount of cost you’re expending” – a lesson Hockley gleaned from his time in the TV space.
Another issue Picsolve was facing when he joined was customer fear following a roller-coaster disaster. “There’d just been the very unfortunate incident at Alton Towers with Smiler, which was obviously awful news [and it] impacted Picsolve as the image provider to Merlin at Alton Towers,” recalls Hockley. The crash between carriages on the Smiler ride resulted in two of the riders needing partial leg amputations and understandably made the public hesitant to visit theme parks. “The immediate impact was a lower number of people coming into [theme parks] and a lower number of people actually going on rides,” he says. Fewer visits meant fewer opportunities to capture guest moments, which resulted in lower revenue for Picsolve. “The incident was in June 2015 but it took about a year for that to be sorted out; for people to feel more comfortable about going on some of the rides again,” adds Hockley.
As confidence in theme parks rose again, Hockley was able to begin implementing his own processes. He realised that while there was a digital content strategy in place at Picsolve, a lot of it meant building everything in-house, which “was probably overly slow.” “To get ahead of the competition the business needed to think differently,” he reasons. “It became a cultural change that had to be brought about to make it more of a commercial business.” Hockley notes operating in a “more focused financial fashion” was a primary aim for him when he joined as CFO, which would be brought about with new infrastructure.
Having impressed as master of coin, he secured the top job of CEO at the beginning of 2018 and confesses it’s been quite a transition. “Being CEO is a very different role to being a CFO,” Hockley states. “You’ve got to be able to stand up and communicate both internally and externally to your partners exactly what your strategy is and be accountable for the decisions you take.” Jumping into the role with two feet, last year alone he visited over 50 locations that Picsolve operates at across the US, Asia, the Middle East and Europe and his globetrotting agenda looks no different in 2019. “I think that’s very important for employees to be able to meet me and me to meet them to ask what’s going well and what’s going badly,” says Hockley.
With the team in mind, to get the job done well and have fun doing it – a necessity based on the sector – he’s been eager to embrace the youthful workforce culture and empower staff. “The vast majority of our workforce are probably in their early 20s and therefore the culture needs to be energetic and engaging,” Hockley says. And one of the qualities he tries to foster is an element of entrepreneurial flair to stand out from rivals. “I want people to be accountable and coming forward with new ideas,” he offers. “We won’t grow our business unless we have an appetite for being bold and bringing innovation into the market. I try to instil that within everyone who works in Picsolve.”
Connecting with customers is also crucial and he sees clients regularly as a result. “I meet with Merlin at different levels very frequently and I was with Warner Bros a couple of weeks ago,” Hockley details. But upon entering as CEO he came to recognise that innovation was a real area of strategy the business needed to focus on. “The advancement into digital and rollout of new tech was absolutely critical for us to make our partners’ guests have a much more seamless interaction with image capture and a much more innovative product,” he says. There are two ways this has been achieved – collaboration and acquisition.
In terms of new unions to make technological leaps, one such partnership was forged with Brussels-based selfie specialist Panora.me. “They provide images which we refer to as the Super Selfie, which is basically a short video image of you and your family perhaps in the foreground added to a background which may be of the London Eye with the Houses of Parliament,” explains Hockley.
On the acquisition front, Picsolve made a major play for new developments by swallowing American rival Freeze Frame in September 2017. He points to its Experience Wall as a product that was subsequently introduced to the company’s armoury. It’s an evolution of the green screen, which leverages a series of HD screens for enhanced interactivity. “[For example] at Madame Tussauds, I believe providing image capture which is over and beyond just having a picture with a waxwork is really important,” opines Hockley.
The Freeze Frame deal not only bolstered product offerings, it also supercharged Picsolve’s presence across America. With both parties operating in around 25 locations each at the time, the UK firm expanded its reach. “Their geographic was probably more orientated towards New York whereas we were a bit more orientated towards Florida and the theme parks down there,” says Hockley. “So there was a diversification in growth of our footprint.” The senior team at Freeze Frame were embedded within Picsolve’s US efforts while additional hires have also been made. The win of new sites such as San Diego Zoo has also helped. “I’m very pleased,” he adds. “Our growth is probably around 20% to 30% in terms of revenue in the US on the back of the acquisition, so that’s a really good level of growth for that size of business.”
The Asian market is another area ripe for expansion, accounting for just 9% of global revenue with the Middle East currently. China in particular is of key interest, though Hockley also points to Korea and Japan as markets with potential. “Within China there’s some wonderful technology,” he says. “If we can integrate that with some of the image capture we’ve got coming out of our strategic partner Panara.me, we’ve got something very powerful to be able to meet local operator and consumer needs.”
Affirming his commitment to global growth, Hockley hopes to spread the moneymaking capabilities of the company on a regional basis. “I’d like to have our revenue base split [evenly] between Europe, the US and Asia within the next two to three years,” he reveals. “I think that’s very possible given the amount of growth going on in Asia and the amount of investment we’re putting into that region.”
With such grand plans to scale, it should be noted that absolutely nothing is left to chance with the moves that Picsolve makes, whether at home or abroad. “In terms of innovation and the product, it’s a two-way conversation [with clients],” says Hockley. He points to a recent meeting during which he and his team presented a handful of ideas they felt would work well on the client’s estate. “We basically took their counsel as to whether they thought it was applicable for that particular ride or location,” Hockley continues. “So it’s a joint approach but I believe we need to bring the creativity and the ideas to our partners for them to buy into it because we’re the image capture professionals – but it has to fit into their strategy for their guests.” If everyone’s happy, it’s then a matter of deciding how to market the product, package it and price it on launch.
Seemingly there’s no shortage of ideas from the business. Picsolve continues to achieve new deals, having secured a five-year image capture contract for additional Merlin sites in the Big Smoke including Shrek’s Adventure! London and SEA LIFE London Aquarium to build on the existing work it was doing at Madame Tussauds, London Eye and The London Dungeon. But there’s more to come though as he points to opportunities within “significant sectors around the world” the firm doesn’t focus on presently. “I think over the next couple of years we’ll move into sectors we’ve not previously provided image capture in – water parks, the cruise industry, sports stadiums and ski resorts are something we’ve looked at,” he adds. “We’ve got some assets we can deploy commercially if we can identify the right partners and utilise the key elements of our technology.”
With the refreshed Merlin deal in Picsolve’s grip among others, Hockley is hopeful further announcements with other partners will be revealed in the coming months. “It’s really exciting,” he says. “For me, it demonstrates that we’ve got the right strategy, we’ve got the right technology that we’re deploying into partners.” The confidence is based on prospective clients getting in touch to explain they’ve heard about the “great things” Picsolve is doing. “I feel we’ve got more momentum there then we’ve ever had before, demonstrated by those new wins but also demonstrated by having a very good quality pipeline of wonderful brands to work with,” he concludes. “When you get the opportunity to work with great IP, it makes the image capture and the memory just so much more wonderful.”