Friday, December 3, 2010

You had to Be There

On Tuesday I tweeted my presence at the Ad Age ME Conference. I received a swift message back asking “Why are you there?” I looked around me and realized that, unlike most conferences that I attend, I didn’t know everyone there. The conference was packed with enthusiastic attendees but why weren’t my comrades in post, vfx and animation in attendance? And I didn’t spot a whole load of agencies or production companies there either, aside from one or two familiar faces.

My first reaction was that I must be at the wrong conference; swiftly followed by a feeling of excitement. I have spent many hundreds of dollars on conferences at which I see a familiar group speakers telling me how difficult it is to survive in the industry. I don’t want to spend any more money listening to this message. What I want to do is find out what our clients want and find ways in which we can be relevant to their needs.

And here I was.

With an agenda stuffed full of people who are responsible for the strategies and marketing of their brands, people who are making choices about where their brand is going to place their messages and how they were going to use existing and emerging technologies to do this. And where were these people from? GE, ESPN, Kraft, NY Times, Coca-Cola. Nick Brien, Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, McCann Worldgroup, was there to tell us how his agency needs to evolve to meet these needs.

I was thrilled to find myself exactly at the place I want to be and astonished that my competitors were not there as well.

I have been talking – and blogging – for a long time about how we are trying to evolve, how the traditional model has changed and how we need to collaborate. All of these messages kept coming back to me through the speakers; they were telling me how they had evolved their media strategy and where they were headed in the future. Of course, as George Bodenheimer, President of ESPN repeatedly said, they “don’t know” what the future holds. But none of them appeared to be afraid about the fact or about making mistakes in order to progress.

I’m not going to detail all of the talks, but you can find the highlights that were tweeted and retweeted by me and many others while we listened to the talks. One of the most popular was written by my friend and fellow blogger, Charles Day, who tweeted:

New York Times online audience 50 million. Physical circulation 900,000. Understands it’s purpose is news. Not paper.

That is a very astute summary of a company understanding what their business is and how that determines how they develop their business in the future. It was a point re-iterated by George Bodenheimer who claims that ESPN’s strategy is led by one thing: their mission to serve sports fans.

(Actually, Charles’ tweet had been copied and tweeted by someone else– and not credited to him – raising the issue of ownership of ideas and protocol of using new technolgies!)

What has become clear to me time and again is that there is no clarity. There is no longer a linear flow from client to agency to prod co, to post. The roles of agencies, production companies and post-production studios are shifting and workloads are being redistributed. VFX and animation studios are moving from vendor to collaborator and, as a result, we can no longer sit out of the conversation about the evolution of media. The brands that we want to work with, and who we can now work directly with instead of going through an agency, are becoming content creators. If we want to work with these content creating brands we need to become part of the media discussion.

The lines are everywhere and, as confusing as that could be, it also means that there are so many more opportunities for us to get involved and produce some exciting content.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Collaboration: The New Black

I must apologise to those who have been sat there waiting for my latest blog. One minute it was January and the next it's November. And not a blog to show for it. Unacceptable, I know. I will not let that happen again.
Anyway, what a week it's been! First the Titans of the Industry Blog - Rolfe, Solomon, Day - unleashed their words of innovation and inspiration on us. And then Fast Company proclaim the Future of Advertising. All that AND a Royal Engagement...

I have just celebrated 25 years in the industry and looking back I was reminded of being interviewed by Sharon Reed, then Managing Director of Framestore. The main thing that I remember was that the focus and energy of the company appeared to be dedicated to getting the best imagery onto the screen. Not about salaries or perks or bonuses or whatever else. Just the work. I remember leaving the interview feeling both very impressed but also a little sceptical that anyone can have the integrity to set the company up in a way which will treat every project with the same respect and strive to uphold Framestore's standards. But in my 15 years of working at Framestore the company’s commitment to it's core value has never waivered and I believe that that commitment has been the key to the success of our business model.

I tell you this story not as a way for us to publically pat ourselves on the back, but because with all the recent talk about collaboration in our industry, I think it is best to remind ourselves that collaboration only works when partners share the same goals and core values.

Personally, I am thrilled that collaboration is the next big thing. VFX studios have always needed to collaborate. But as a vendor. Which can be a precarious position to collaborate from. By which I mean that it often ends in a one way collaboration.
Actually, VFX studios have been trying to explain for many years that it's to everyone's ultimate benefit that we are included as a creative production partner as early as possible. It's only in the last ten to fifteen years that we have been allowed on sets. And only in the last five that we've been allowed to speak. And on the occasions on which anyone is listening literally hundreds of thousands of dollars could potentially be saved.

Of course, the irony is that in many cases - and precisely because there was 'no money' - people weren't overly concerned about 'saving' money in VFX because increasingly they weren't paying for the VFX. Just contributing towards them.

Clearly, this was not a sustainable model. And so here we are.

There is no doubt that we have reached this challenging point in our industry in part because of our previous distaste for collaboration and our previous love for claiming production dollars and staking portions of the pipeline territory. There was a time, not more than four years ago, where a lot of energy was spent guarding our relationships and hoarding our trade secrets. And, out of a fear of offending the hand that fed us, we made sure that we kept our skill set and the variety of our output small. We knew that we could direct VFX-heavy spots, but we didn’t want to offend our directors by offering those services to agencies or marketers. We knew that character-driven animation was being underutilized in branding, but we didn’t want to offend the agencies. But, as the size of the pie that we are sharing shrank, Framestore and all of our competitors in the VFX and animation space became a little more bold about saying to clients “we can do that for you,” even when it didn’t fall within the narrowly defined role we have previously agreed to play in the production world. We had been talking about the need for evolution and here was a chance to create change and increase our relevance to our clients.

Everybody has been forced to examine their own business model and to take a look at their resources in order to find other ways to bring in revenue and cut costs. This has caused us all to become more flexible and versatile about what we do and what we think is acceptable for our partners to be doing. Agencies with edit suites and finishing bays. Production Companies with in-house VFX. Editors doing their own Sound Design and finishing...and VFX. Maybe labeling ourselves collaborators really just means we are now all in the same boat.

And while I am excited by this new call to collaborate, I don’t want to collaborate with just anybody. I do not want to collaborate with people offering a lesser level of creative output than we are. Collaboration cannot take the place of creative expertise. And I do not want to collaborate with anybody who lacks the integrity to be honest enough to say to a client, “I cannot do this job with the budget you are offering me and still maintain our high creative standards.” The term collaboration should not be shorthand for cheap.

After years of trying to work with (and not 'for') people what I have learnt is that:

  • You can achieve more from less by collaborating.
  • This is not a 'relationship', this is all about the output. Do not partner with any partner for any reason other than that it will improve the quality of your work. If you are not partnering with like-minded businesses who also value creative output and integrity in their ways of working, a collaboration will do nothing more than degrade the quality of your creative output and chip away at your hard won respect in the industry.·
  • Do the right thing for your project, not for your individual businesses.·
  • Creative collaboration is a good thing. We cannot all be experts in everything. But we can learn. And you can learn from us.
  • Collaboration will only work if we examine why we are a good partner for the project and how we can best be utilized.
  • Collaboration will only be an improvement if we use it to add more value or improve our creative output. Or both.

The traditional linearity of Client>Agency>Prodco>Editors>VFX/Sound Design/Music is now only one line in a whole series of lines connecting us in all sorts of different ways. Yes, it's difficult to make sense of it but some clarity will come from understanding your own relevance and valuing your creative collaborators.

If you haven't already ready the aforementioned blogs from David Rolfe, Jerry Solomon and Charles Day and the Fast Company article, I would highly recommend that you do:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Building the Dream

I was fortunate to spend the Holiday period visiting relatives in Dubai and since I have returned the questions that people ask me once they hear of my holiday destination are either about the Burj Dubai (or, should I say, the Burj Khalifa?) or the economic collapse. There has certainly been enough press on these two topics in recent months to make even the most uninformed person know a little bit about this relatively mysterious country. And of course people are interested in the story because none of us want to suffer through this economic downturn by ourselves, it probably comforts us to know that even the mighty wallet of Dubai is feeling the pinch.

And the press likes to draw a line between the flashy mega-skyscraper and the decline in the Dubai economy. Plenty has been written about the correlation between countries building such edifices and their imminent financial nosedives. Maybe it is inevitable that such a manifestation of financial aggrandizement would presage it’s own end…?

But, despite all of the reports, Dubai didn’t look to me like a place that was on hold. True, construction may have slowed down, but at the speed that Dubai builds it is still in the middle of a burst of expansion. The city has only really existed for thirty years or so and the Dubai of even ten years ago would be unrecognizable to most current visitors. In fact, most places I visited I was either told “five years ago this was all sand…” or “three years ago this was all water…”. This rate of progress is unimaginable. To most of us, at least.

However, one man did imagine this.

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum had a vision for Dubai and set about creating the conditions that would allow this city to flourish.

My friend, Charles Day posted a blog yesterday about finally being convinced that anything is achievable:

(On a side note, it’s funny that the dealbreaker for Charles was a video of beautifully shot objects that, in fact, weren’t ‘shot’ at all. The whole piece was an exquisitely produced CG of inanimate objects. I say, funny because we have done a plethora of hyper-real CG objects that wouldn’t even be recognized as such…it’s only the talking creatures, etc, that get noticed. Although to be fair, if anyone had asked us to quote on how to achieve this piece we would have certainly told them to shoot it in camera! Anyway, I digress…)

Charles’ blog was a positive note on which to start the year and it made me think about Dubai. Frankly, to me Dubai lacks a certain romance, maybe because everything is so new and it lacks the sense of history, and there are many aspects of unsavoury working practices for the immigrant workforce that are hard to stomach. But the achievement is undeniably impressive. For someone to set out with a vision and then create a plan to bring the vision to life is impressive enough. But to witness the dream coming to life is absolutely inspiring. The Burj Khalifa may be seen as a statement of extravagant arrogance or it may be seen as a sign of mankind pushing the boundaries, of challenging what we know and daring to go further. Sheikh Rashid died in 1990 and the torch was handed to his son, Sheikh Mohammed, to complete the challenge of creating a global city. Of course the path for them to finish their dream was made a lot easier by the money that arrived with the discovery of oil in the late 60’s, but what is not easy is having a dream, a goal, an ambition, finding a plan that you think will get you there and then following that plan to fruition.

Construction may have slowed in Dubai but when I saw the news footage of the fireworks at the opening ceremony a few days after my return I couldn’t help feeling that the Burj Khalifa is another reminder that anything is possible.