Aurora MD Lawrence Duffy talks to SVG Europe
Aurora founder and Managing Director Lawrence Duffy sat down with Heather McLean, SVG Europe to discuss how a pioneering spirit of adventure influences everything we do today at Aurora.
Authored by Heather McLean, this article was first published as a feature on SVG Europe, June 2023.
Aurora Media Worldwide is a production and host broadcasting company with a taste for travel and adventure, sporting thrill-seeking, innovative and new sports clients such as Extreme E, SailGP, Formula E and brand new electric speedboat series, E1, as well as solid stalwarts including FIFA and the Olympic Channel. It has enjoyed a lot of success since it was launched by founder and managing director, Lawrence Duffy, just over 10 years ago.
Duffy says what he loves about working in sports broadcasting is, “the sense of ordering chaos”. He notes: “I quite like the sense of innovation and progression, and not really knowing what’s over the hill. I like the fact you’re maybe not going to get it right all the time, but you’ll learn.”
He says that the early vision behind Aurora Media Worldwide, was based on his experiences at other businesses: “Aurora was really a combination of formatting that I saw at Endemol, rights-holding and commerciality that I saw at IMG, and editorial and production rigour that I saw at the BBC.
“I’ve had an interesting career. I wrote my graduate dissertation, if you can believe this, in 1990, and it was called The Changing Face of Sport on British Television. It’s a brilliant industry, and it is endlessly changing and moving.”
You grow, you learn things, you get better and you work hard.
Pioneering spirit of adventure
Aurora began life in 2012 after Duffy left Endemol, where he had been a producer for three years. He struck off on his own to create a production company that would be focused on adventure. “I called the company Aurora because I love the outdoors, and I wanted this kind of pioneering spirit of adventure,” he says. “Because I’ve travelled so much – I’ve worked in 60 or 70 countries – action and adventure were really what I wanted to do. They’re the sort of international shows I wanted to make. And 10 years on, they’re exactly the shows we are making.
“I think the types of clients we work with are of that kind of maverick, “let’s just go and do it and see how we get on,” ones,” he says.
“I had a great time at Endemol. I left with a really nice handshake; they kindly allowed me to take a couple of clients with me. I was approached by a guy that I knew in the business, Jeff Chapman, an Australian entrepreneur who ran a private philanthropic fund out of Australia. He’d been in the sports business, and he said, “Lawrence, can you come and help me with this business?”. I said, ” mmm…yes and no, but I’m going to do my own thing”. So we eventually decided to combine and set up Aurora in 2012 with Jeff backing me, basically.”
In 2018 Aurora was sold to All3Media and Chapman exited the business, while Duffy thought, “what else am I going to do? I liked it too much!”. He continued his journey as the founder of Aurora.
He comments on what it was like to start his own company: “I think for every business owner, at the beginning when you’re a start-up, as anybody will tell you, you’re doing everything. You are chief commercial officer, you are chief creative officer, you are producer, you are making your own tea. And that’s great, but in our industry, you’re selling what’s in your head a lot of the time. You’re not selling product. And you have to grow your relationships.
“What I learned at the beginning quite quickly was, it didn’t really matter what the spinning badge above your head said – I was worried that I wasn’t with IMG or Endemol – actually people were kind and said, “look, that’s a really good idea,” or, “have you got an idea for this?” or, “you’re a good producer”. So we ended up continuing to work with Goodwood, and Tracey Greaves was one of the people that put a hand in the air and said, “Lawrence, we’ll keep working with you [after he left Endemol]”. Then I made a number of big shows for Guinness with some football formats in Africa.”
From there in the first couple of years of the business, Duffy went on to produce Saudi football with an international crew. At around the same time he received a phone call from Ali Russell – now managing director at Extreme E – who said a tender was about to launch for a new electric motorsport series, Formula E, of which he was a co-founder.
Duffy recalls the competition was stiff for the new racing series, but says, “we bid and we won”. He goes on: “From there we were able to take on some more people, and the company grew. And subsequently I think we have five or sometimes more concurrent international host broadcast series going on.”
He continues: “Formula E has been and continues to be brilliant, and honestly, we’ve had so much fun there over the years. It’s also been a leading example of a modern rights holder taking every opportunity to progress in the modern world. We’ve learned so much with Formula E, and we’ve put some of those practices into place with other rights holders we work with, in terms of how we produce live, what we do in original and shoulder programming, and how we work with brands. So in a way, Formula E has been at the forefront of how modern media works, I think, for rights holders.”
Embracing originality and cutting edge content
Today Aurora is embracing its place as a production company and host broadcaster that believes in originality and cutting-edge content. Duffy says: “Where we’ve landed as a business, and what we’re probably known for most of all is, I would say, original, innovative host broadcasting. So that space of Formula E, Extreme E, SailGP, then Super League Triathlon, which is another super interesting, innovative league, and we’re entering our second season as host broadcaster for Nitrocross, which is a really cool all-American motorsport. That’s been great fun. We’ve also done a lot of work with FIFA, and we’re extending that around the Women’s World Cup, and also the Olympic Channel.
“I think international host broadcasting is always going to be a position we’d like to occupy, where people would come to us because they think we’re going to give them something unique and very progressive. That is at the centre of what we do, along with modernising their output to make it as attractive as possible for today’s and tomorrow’s market.”
He adds: “Sustainability is important to us as well, and making sure we do things as lightly as we can. Any time anybody says, “can we do remote production?” we are like, “yes, we’d love to,” and vice versa.
What I’m still amazed by is that you can make a show like Extreme E, and Formula E or SailGP, or some of the other things that we do, in London remotely, which has almost become the norm quite quickly for us. That I think is just witchcraft. As a producer I still look at that and think, 'wow, how far we’ve come.'
In January 2024 Aurora is continuing its advance into all that is new and cutting edge with the E1 Series, a brand new foiling style speedboat World Championship. E1 is the first electric race boat championship sanctioned by the Union Internationale Motonautique (UIM), the world governing body of powerboating. The championship was established to create a new, competitive on-water racing proposition based on clean technologies to protect waters and coastal areas. In the E1 World Championship, the pilots will fly above the water’s surface behind the wheel of the RaceBird using innovative hydrofoil technology.
Comments Duffy: “If you look at the E1 World Championship, it’s an international series of electric speedboats. The RaceBird is this elegant foiling boat which will be central to this World Championship, with celebrity owners, in a knockout format, in some of the most stunning waterside locations in the world. And again, it uses very sustainable brand new technology, it’s concentrated on marine ecology, a lot of that sort of hybrid storytelling which is in Extreme E as well; it’s not all about the racing. It launches in Jeddah in January of next year.
“We are now in the development phase with all of the most progressive types of tech and graphic suites that we can use,” continues Duffy. “Onboard cameras, agile cameras, drones, data from the boat, Unreal AR, and we’re really looking forward to that. It’s going to be ace.”
Where does the breakthrough happen?
However, to get to the present day there have been many challenges along the way for Aurora, Duffy notes. “At the beginning, in years two and three sometimes I often said I just couldn’t do it. Sometimes I thought it’s just too hard. Where does the breakthrough happen?
“And actually looking back, there’s not one flash of light. It’s not like one day you are a normal production company, and the next day you are perceived to be successful. That doesn’t happen. What happens is that incrementally you grow and you learn things, and you get better, and you work hard. And if you’re creative and you’ve got some talent and you surround yourself with good people, and they buy into what you’re trying to do, you’ll get there.”
However, he adds, referring to the sports broadcasting industry itself: “I think it’s a tough business. You’ve got to show up every day. I’ve been in the industry a long time now, and I’ve loved it. And I recognise as I get older, it’s not for everybody. Running a business in the industry is hard work, and you’ve got to take the wins and celebrate them, and then you’ve got to be prepared to not win as well. Because that’s the nature of it; it’s very competitive, which is also its appeal. And I feel a responsibility to bring the next generation on, as others did, with me.
“I think the learnings of all that is you’ve got to be resilient, and you’ve got to take a few risks as well,” he states. “You’ve got to be prepared to step in, when maybe others don’t want to step in for whatever reason. And being away from home – and I’ve been away from home a lot over 20 years – there are a lot of sacrifices made in that space, and I have to pay a lot of thanks to my family and friends for being so understanding. Fortunately, my wife Tricia is a successful TV exec! So it’s the sense that once you’ve got something going, you can’t really ever step back from it. You just need to keep pushing forward.”
On those risks taken over the years, Duffy says taking on Extreme E, which launched in 2021, was one. “When we took on Extreme E, that was a risk, because we planned it through the pandemic. We went to Saudi Arabia [for the first Extreme E race] having not tested very much because we couldn’t; if you recall, nobody was allowed to get together. So we did all the planning and even made a show online. When we got to Saudi, we hadn’t really tested very much technically, because we weren’t able to. Fortunately, NEP were a great partner.”
Then when the team were finally on the ground in Saudi ready to go live with this first epic race for Extreme E, disaster struck. Everyone on the ground was working in an isolated ‘hub’, but Duffy was told two days out from going live to 80 broadcasters that 20 of his crew – half of those on location – had COVID.
He recalls: “I was thinking can I call the Formula 1 teams in Jeddah, can I use the local guys? What am I going to do to keep the show going? And could I be an engineer? Could I direct, could I be a cameraman? Could the PM be a sound recordist? The director and producer were out, they were told they had COVID.
“Anyway, it turned out to be an administrative error that none of the 20 were COVID, and we went on to make the show, and it went from there. But I think doing all the things we did during the pandemic and getting those shows on air was really challenging.”
That’s the bit that makes a difference I think – which is what we concentrate on – is the originality and the innovation. We aren’t a supermarket for sport production. We don’t want to be; we would rather concentrate on fewer properties where we can add real value
Technological advancements and witchcraft
As to what technologies have helped take Aurora forwards over recent years, the ability to distribute a production workflow is primary for Duffy. He says: “The number one vogue over the last few years is what we’d call distributed production. What I’m still amazed by is that you can make a show like Extreme E, and Formula E or SailGP, or some of the other things that we do, in London remotely, which has almost become the norm quite quickly for us.
“That I think is just witchcraft,” he continues. “As a producer, I still look at that and think, “wow, how far we’ve come”. That has obviously been accelerated by the pandemic, but it’s also been accelerated by technology, and cloud-based technology particularly. That is fantastic.”
The other technology advancement that has a real impact on the way Aurora works with its clients, and that will help take the company forwards, is data. He explains: “What we do from a creative point of view, I would call the unpacking of a broadcast. So to give this broadcast signature that we try and create. You could look at The Hundred or you could look at Extreme E or you could look at SailGP, if you look at some of those really progressive rights when they hit the air, these new sports, they’ve got this identity and the identity is generally wrapped up in the data.
“We’re able to use augmented reality, or take advantage of Unreal Engine for example, which has just revolutionised what we are able to do as a producer on graphics. We’re using state-of-the-art cameras, tech, graphics, and then we’re also using our abilities as directors and producers, all of which combined creates this broadcast layering, which I think is the most modern way of doing things. And good fun, by the way, as well.”
These new sports that are emerging need the cutting edge in thinking, creativity and technology, adds Duffy: “In a way, the major football events or tennis events – and I’m a fan of those as well – but they’ve got so much partisan culture and legacy. I’m happy to watch Man United versus Liverpool with four cameras; you don’t need to do so much because you’re so vested. But for the newer sports we’ve taken advantage of the new technologies to generate this impact on air, which I think is required for where we are now.”
Data has a lot more potential for sports broadcasting in the form of real-time biometrics, adds Duffy: “We’re doing a lot in data tracking, and tracking of athletes and players for a couple of the right holders we work with. I think that overlay is coming. Sometimes I wish it could be faster, because we can see in our minds’ eye that if you can overlay that [athlete data] in a live environment, as opposed to an analysis environment, that is going to be breakthrough. So a player scores a goal, and then in a replay you want to see the data of how he scored, what angles he’s turned. HawkEye has been fantastic for cricket and tennis, and I’d like to see those principles rolled out in some other sports.
“I just think as a producer I’d like to pick that technology off the shelf as if I’m picking up high mo cameras or drones, and then plugging it straight in,” he continues. “But we need to give it a beat, I think, before that happens. But I think data overlay – biometrics – that’s all at a tipping point now. It’s so nearly there.”
Not a supermarket for sport production
Duffy explains his thought process when working with new clients, in light of Aurora’s strategy: “I think now for our clients, we say, okay, what are you trying to achieve, who are you trying to reach? Then after what can we do in live and what does that look like, and why is it different? And is it on point with your brand position? What are we doing in the original space? What shoulder content are we making? And then what digital content are we making? What are you doing in social?
“So the inventory, I think over the time I’ve been doing this, has got far wider. We recognise that fans are not all found in one place. They are in these different places, and you need different products to attract different fans at different times, when they want to consume it.
“That’s the bit that makes a difference I think – which is what we concentrate on – is the originality and the innovation. We aren’t a supermarket for sport production. We don’t want to be; we would rather concentrate on fewer properties where we can add real value.
“That’s the nature of this industry. If you work with like-minded people – and we have plenty of them! – you’re going to try and do some things differently, and you’re going to break some plates doing it, but ultimately enjoy it, embrace it. All the tech is there, and the creativity is in everything. Long may it continue.”