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: