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Downton Lessons

What business lessons can be learned from the huge success of Downton Abbey?

The return of Downton Abbey to UK TV screens has attracted millions of viewers. The series has succeeded worldwide, a great British export.  But what are the business lessons from Downton?

First, the star of the show is the home of the Crawley family. The magnificent Highclere Castle is viewed from every conceivable angle. Business lesson? Context is everything. The backdrop to your decisions has a huge impact on how the decisions are understood. The best business leaders spend a lot of time tuning into and understanding the context of the business.

The second interesting thing about the building being the star is that though companies proclaim that people are their greatest asset often this is not actually the case.  Companies might succeed because the have great software, fantastic processes, a unique business model. It takes people to make these things happen, but a preoccupation with people can actually blind companies to what truly differentiates them from the competition. Downton could bear it if one of the actors decided to leave, but it would be unlikely to survive if the Crawley family were relocated to a smaller ancestral pile – as the current plot line proves.

Another striking thing about Downton is that the plot is scarcely original. It is Brideshead Revisited meets Upstairs Downstairs, a soap opera with a gorgeous backdrop. What elevates Downton is the ensemble of actors — and we realize this contradicts the observation above, but bear with us. From Hugh Bonneville to Maggie Smith they are high class. The business lesson? Originality is often over rated. Delivering reheated ideas to a much higher quality is a powerful differentiator. Look at the number of successful businesses and products which have simply taken something which already exists, added a bright colour and then marketed it as something amazingly new and desirable.  Witness the bottled water industry.

The final lesson is probably the most elusive: timing. Part of the secret of Downton’s success is that its timing is impeccable. When the going gets tough, people want to escape. Downton is brilliant escapist drama, colourful, beautiful, and not too taxing.  The good man usually ends up with the good wife.  We suspect that Downton would not have been as popular if it had been produced at the height of the dot-com boom. It would have seemed like a costume drama from another era. Now, it taps into the escapist needs of its audiences.