How would you pronounce Ki? When Meg Davis left MBA in 2011, after 25 years, to start her own agency, she was casting about for a company name that would work well on social media and that tripped off the tongue. She says: “I didn’t want to call it Meg Davis and Associates because I thought naming it after yourself was a bit old-fashioned; I wanted something modern. Ki is Japanese for tree, which I thought was auspicious and everyone would be able to pronounce it. Turns out I was dead wrong about that: often people don’t say ‘key’ but ‘kai’ or ‘chee’ or ‘the K I Agency’... I’m still overthinking the name.”
Branding troubles aside, it has been a successful decade for the agency. Actually, scratch that, a successful eight years: “Just before launching, I read a lot of scary articles about how most businesses go under in their first two years. And when you start an agency, even when you are able to bring established clients over, the contracts they have signed remain with the old agency. So there’s a bit of a cashflow problem. I did spend a lot of those first two years lying awake in the middle of the night thinking things like, ‘OK, 10th July: that’s the day I go bankrupt.’ Then some money would come in and I would say, ‘Great, I’m OK until 31st July.’ Those first two years were really tough, a lot of it waiting for clients to fulfil existing contracts.”
But never fear, the money started rolling, led by some superstar clients—including crime legend Anne Perry, The Girl with all the Gifts creator M R Carey and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August author Claire North. And it is not just books, for Davis has also represented scriptwriters since the very beginning of her career. Her stable includes playwright Emma Adams, who is currently developing a series for Channel 4, and writer/director A D Cooper.
Davis has expanded the business along the way, buying the books, theatre and film/TV agency Burkeman & Clarke in 2015 after founder Brie Burkeman decided to leave the business. Former film publicist and Scottish TV exec Roz Kidd joined a couple of years later as a drama and comedy writer agent (“I thought, great, if I’m run over by a bus at least the script side is safe”), and last year Davis was able to “tempt over to the dark side” the former Hodder and Simon & Schuster editor Anne C Perry—not to be confused with Davis’ client—who is building her list across fiction and non-fiction, having signed the likes of graphic novelist John Allison, fascist ideology specialist Matthew Feldman and journalist Ahmed Baba.
Davis wanting to have a modern name for her agency was astute thinking, as with feet in books, film/TV and theatre, Ki probably does more cross-media deals, pound for pound, than any agency in town. She is thus in one of the hottest areas in dealmaking these days. Ki recently inked a two-book TV development deal for one of its own clients, the estate of astronomer Fred Hoyle, but also with “its little sideline” of repping other agencies, sold film/ TV rights for Rian Hughes’ graphic novel XX (on behalf of Watson Little), Raynor Wynn’s The Salt Path (Christie Graham Maw) and Ida Cook’s We Followed Our Stars (Rupert Crew).
Make no mistake, Davis says, the streaming services have made this a very good time for book adaptations and her screenwriters. “Oh, it’s an absolute bonanza. All the studios in the UK are full [with productions] and they’re having to build more. That’s not all UK content, as the Americans are shooting a lot here, but it’s a boom time. That said, it’s all being driven at the moment by the hunger for subscribers, and exclusive content. People like Netflix say, ‘We have to make a splash, attract a million more subscribers—don’t come to us if your project doesn’t help us with that.’ So it’s easy to sell the big stuff, but not easy to move other stuff forward.
“But it is interesting that because everybody has been shamed by the lack of diversity, there is an appetite for material that even a few years ago would have been seen as niche. Which is really good. Also, that means there is more openness for new scriptwriters than I have never seen; producers will have a punt on a brand-new script writer with a good idea.”
So, is the core of selling to publishers and producers the same? “No, it’s a completely different thing. On the book side you are selling an author’s work and most of the time you are trying to sell more than one property for that author. With scriptwriting, you are selling matchmaking. The writer and the producer will probably come up with a project that they want, or the writer will take something. But it’s a much more collaborative process. There is much more money at stake and it’s much more short-term, as well. So you tend to look for a repertoire of producers that a writer would work with, that they get and that they enjoy working with.”
Coming to Britain
Davis was born and raised in Montreal and her father worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She says: “I guess I grew up knowing how TV executives think. But my father loathed them; he would be horrified to think what I was doing with my life.” She was “clueless” about what she wanted her job to be, so after studying Russian at university, worked in the theatre and “had a glittering career as a waitress”. “Dumb luck” had her moving to Britain to work in a bookshop and a customer came in one day saying they had just got an agent. She says: “I had no idea what that was, and when they told me the heavens just opened. I knew what I wanted to do.”
She applied to every agency in London alphabetically, stopping at M when MBA gave her a job. She says: “I loved it. It was so fantastic that for the first few years people used to ask me if I was in love, because I was just glowing. In many ways, agenting is a terrible job. And you have to have such a weird skill-set that it can make you into a kind of social pariah. I thought everybody would like agents because we’re on the side of the individual. But no, everybody hates agents. I’ve been shunned at parties. And I only know about stuff if my clients are writing about it; my main source of news is Variety. So it’s made me into a very, very weird person. But I still love it.”