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Trends and Insight

Shapeshifting and Making Frenemies: Content Production In A Digital World

MediaMonks, .fount, Cobblestone and Gravel come together to talk production opportunities and obstacles in an exciting new digital era

Shapeshifting and Making Frenemies: Content Production In A Digital World

As digital content creation and channels continue to evolve at rapid pace, a group of Germany’s leading production agencies come together to discuss how they’re navigating new landscapes, the emergence of hybrid-talent and how “coopetition” can benefit us all.

In this interview, LBB joins Pascal Staud, MediaMonks MD and former MD at STAUD STUDIOS; Philipp Haeberlin-Collet, co-founder and producer at talent platform and consultancy .fount; Philipp Schmalriede, executive producer and managing partner at Cobblestone production company; and Nora Stenman, digital creative director and studio lead at Gravel, the digital content unit of Cobblestone.

LBB> The production landscape is dramatically changing with the rise of digital content. How have you dealt with this shift from linear TV advertising to online?

Philipp Schmalriede, Cobblestone> Generally speaking for us, this is or was more of a process than a shift. At the core, we’re still producing and creating content, but now we need to drastically rethink the channels of distribution, and be even more flexible and creative in our implementation. 

Nora Stenman, Gravel> When we founded Cobblestone’s digital unit Gravel, it was clear that squeezing a B Unit of video and photographers for social media in between TVC scenes was not enough anymore, if you want to create content that goes from passive entertainment to active entertainment, which is the fundamental requirement for engagement on digital platforms. 

Online content requires so many diverse narratives for diverse target groups, and the understanding of a myriad of platforms and their unique functions. The complexity is exponential. So we built principles around well-planned purposeful narratives instead of opportunistic snapshots. It was important for us to start thinking about the entire process and team setup differently. We can’t just set up a traditional production crew and then scale it down because of the smaller social media budgets. This was also why we wanted to create a separate unit for digital work, in order to be able to detach from the traditional way-of-working.

Philipp Haeberlin-Collet, .fount> We put all our effort in finding native, digital talents both on the concept and production side. We use more than ten years of experience in classical production and combine it with the agility of emerging digital talent - we call them digital creators. After all, we use technology and digital tools and infuse them into our production workflows.

Pascal Staud, MediaMonks> For us, with both MediaMonks and STAUD STUDIOS being digital first, we never had to deal with the shift from linear TV to online, as we never were a TV-only or one-purpose production. Very early we invested in digital production methods (CGI) and the integration of real shoots with digital components, so clients could benefit from our horizontal production approach: assets along the full customer journey. You could say, we actually benefited from that change.

LBB> What are the biggest challenges and hurdles your company currently faces in this new digital era? 

Philipp, .fount> To overcome an old way of thinking when it comes to production. We need to establish new workflows and trust on the client side to face the challenges associated with the production of digital content. Otherwise it will be almost impossible to deal with the increase in the amount and speed of content. But our positioning as a “facilitator for digital content“ is very unique, and agencies/brands are very open for new approaches and ways of thinking.
Pascal, MediaMonks> This new digital era is in our advantage. Our challenges come from other obstacles, such as staying on top of the newest technology and digital developments. We do that by investing in technology and partnerships with the likes of Epic Games or Adobe. The possibilities that unfold in new digital/technology partnerships are what separates the top from the rest. 
Another challenge lies in adapting a great amount of content to local market needs, integrating legal and market considerations, as well as maintaining the highest standards in quality in fit for format content.
Nora, Gravel> One story for various platforms is not cutting it anymore. You need to engage the range of your target audience by gathering insights and then customising your themes and values to approach them on their terms. This does not necessarily mean more production, but smarter production.
One of the biggest challenges is when we as the production partner are requested for maximum speed and agility, but the agency or brand partner is not working with a similar setup: most of the project time period is spent waiting for approvals or feedback. 
Generally, we also see a lot of potential in involving the strategic-creative digital production partner earlier in the process. But we still receive a lot of standalone scripts even for digital content, that lack in strategically maximising the content creation opportunities. By the time we are onboarded, it is often too late to change the story, the scope, or the budget. 
Philipp, Cobblestone> The hurdle yet to overcome is the shift and change of mindset that still needs to take place on the agency and client side. For this to actually work, they too need to adjust their working processes, decision-making routes, and expectations when it comes to creating fast and flexible content. 
We’re able to handle tighter deadlines and challenging budgets, but it needs trust from the agency/client side, and a level of matching the same characteristics that are demanded from us.

LBB> With ever-growing and ever-changing digital platforms, the need for multi-skilled digital talent is stronger than ever. Has the way you source / work with talent changed? 

Pascal, MediaMonks> Talent is the backbone of development in the industry and there are several pillars that we maintain while sourcing and working with diverse talent. With the global nature of our company, we have the ability to source talent from different regions that are experts in their fields. We’ve recently launched our Unreal studio in India for example, together with Epic Games.
Apart from that, we continuously offer our staff the ability to maintain and expand their knowledge on new technological developments to make sure we can service our clients the best way possible. 

Philipp, .fount> We also source talent from all over the world - there are no borders when it comes to production. Remote work has created unlimited possibilities to collaborate with people all over the globe, so finding new talent is a joy. This is something we really want to leverage with an open mindset and new workflows, supercharged by technology. 

Nora, Gravel> At Gravel, we are currently building our team to focus strongly on content strategists and creative planners, digital creatives and crew members who live and breathe the type of content that we make a name for ourselves with. 

As we are still a production company, and our digital team is small, it’s a real challenge to find the right talent on the edge of social media creativity and digital production. Every one of us needs to wear a variety of hats, which is very challenging to recruit for, but in the end is the key to building agile teams where people focus on vision instead of roles. 

LBB> The production industry saw a lot of decoupling over the years and many companies expanded to offer more of an end-to-end service - what impact has this had on your business?

Philipp, Cobblestone> We’ve had the idea of founding a digital content unit (Gravel) for about seven or eight years. But we always came back to the conclusion that we can offer everything we need with Cobblestone - and we definitely didn’t want to step into the “discount production” trap. 
But for some time now, client requests have actually changed, and it was more and more about creative input in terms of script development, taking ideas further to make them work on different platforms, and about actual digital expertise. Companies who are interested in our film know-how, and who see us as a partner on eye-level. So we started being more involved in format and platform thinking. This was the moment where it actually made sense for us to bundle this knowledge into a new unit and bring it to the next level. 
Pascal, MediaMonks> MediaMonks has developed a lot in the years to be able to offer our clients end-to-end solutions. This means that we work seamlessly together between departments and expertise. From a production perspective this means that we think in the planning phase about every asset along the journey and give that as input into creative and production. 
Within the productions, integrated shoots are key, combining demands of different channels. With these shoots we are able to produce fit for format content in the most efficient way possible. 
On another level, the teams work together to provide seamless handovers from ideation to production to adaptation. Experts can step in at every level to ensure the best possible result with the highest quality. This means that everyone has clear roles, close to their expertise. Adding data and strategy to the mix requires an even clearer process in handing over and that’s something we’re looking to continuously improve. 

LBB> With more companies offering full service, competition is higher than ever before. In some cases, agencies and production companies might be competitors, and in others, they work together. What do you think of this evolving “coopetition” (you cooperate and later you compete)?

Nora, Gravel> The evolution of agencies and production companies focusing on more holistic roles and partnerships with brands is the most interesting shift for us - to follow and to take part in. I believe that when agencies focus on roles based on waterfall-like steps, it leads to those scary agency gaps and lack of collaboration, against the benefit of the brand. 

Too often, especially in production, we were told to scrap our ideas for multi-narrative asset creation in a shoot by a lead agency because social media assets are not their job, and the social media agency was often not even informed of the content creation opportunity at the TVC shoot. This is not serving the best interest of the client. Producing in silos is more costly than necessary, and for myself coming from the social media agency side, that was always a huge let down for us because the budgets for social media creation were, of course, much smaller, and we planned the digital content plans in isolation. 
So I’m all for agencies and production companies specialising in topical or technological areas, and then finding the right partners to collaborate with in order to create something truly new, optimised for performance from the beginning. That itself is then a new challenge for brands: how to figure out who are the specialist companies you need on board? At Gravel we see this as a juicy opportunity to group up with specialist agencies to pitch ideas directly to brands. We’ll gladly promote each other while engaging in projects coming from mutual passions. There’s enough business for all of us. 

Pascal, MediaMonks> Frenemies, that is right. And a lot of people need to learn that. Collaboration is as important as competition. Sometimes you lead the project, sometimes you support the project. You can't always be the owner, especially when it comes to multi-purpose production. Traditional film production struggles with it, but this is less a question of business principle but of the character of the leaders of those companies.
Philipp, .fount> As a facilitator we are ready to cooperate with any kind of company that needs and/or produces digital content. We embrace coopetition because, in the end, it increases the value that talent can bring to projects. We operate talent-first and want to match them with diverse and exciting clients. The time has never been better for talent to leave their existing client bubbles.

LBB> What are the benefits of these pairings for both the competitors and the clients?

Philipp, .fount> Companies adapt, transform and leave their comfort zone. This will account for more flexibility, opportunity and creativity on both sides. Instead of defending a status quo, people have to come up with new and fresh ideas - over and over again. 

Pascal, MediaMonks> Staying in business is one. Best of breed is second. Clients are facing enormous challenges to cope with the complexity that modern marketing is asking from them. Therefore we built up our model on the four pillars - data, creative, production and tech. All of these components play together to deliver the right content against data points along the customer journey, especially in the context of production. This “connecting of the dots” on our side, instead of leaving this coordination effort in the hands of the client is our strongest benefit and shows that the demand from agencies and production are changing and the lines are getting blurry. 

Nora, Gravel> Holistic approaches that benefit the brands, and by far more strategic and converting value along the entire user journey, I’d dare to claim. Performance-optimised creativity, more original ideas, innovation, user-centric native initiatives that live and bloom on the platforms they’re designed for. When agencies work for the projects and not for their position, the benefits are reaped by the brand and the end customers. 
But there are still serious challenges. Having multiple end-to-end partners is like holding a big bunch of balloons by their strings: they can still get tangled into a mess. Whether horizontal or vertical project setup, it’s easy to fall into silos the same. There’s no easy way out for the brands to get rid of the massive responsibility to not just find the right specialist partners but also to keep all their communication projects in sight and strategically building on each other. But when the planning tables are more inclusive and agency partners more transparent, everyone at that table has a common responsibility. 


LBB> Finally, how do you see the production landscape evolving over the next five years?

Nora, Gravel> I expect to see more and more hybrid agencies and production companies come up but also evolve, while global budgets for linear entertainment decrease and digital and addressable content become the standard. I find it hard to imagine that production companies will continue to have competitive edge only by exclusivity of their director roster, while more and more innovative projects come from underdog hybrid competitors that don’t value static creative pools. 

I see increasing numbers or influencers creating content studios, as they monetise their audience and platform expertise. Especially with new platforms popping up - it’s a great opportunity for early adoption while the majority of bigger agencies and production houses adopt trends slower, such as what’s happening with TikTok.

Philipp, .fount> The value of independent creative producing / production consulting will increase dramatically. Complex briefs for digital campaigns demand diverse and agile teams when it comes to execution. It’s time for liquid setups with freelancers that come together for very unique projects steered by creative producers.

Pascal, MediaMonks> Digital agencies, digital production / CGI and gaming experts will join the party and make it even more difficult for traditional TV productions to survive if they don’t evolve. Knowledge, skills and partnerships with high-end technology providers will eliminate those who don’t do the investment. The same is true for those with weak or no partnerships in the end-to-end value chain like off-shoring.

Philipp, Cobblestone> I think the demand for content will continue to grow. Both for digital quick-and-easy content, as well as for high quality campaigns including content of various media for all platforms. The 30" will not die either. The most interesting thing will be to see how job profiles change. Will we soon have a lot of people who can do a little bit of everything, or will there be demand for different kinds of specialisation again? 

Also the distribution of actual productions will of course be a crucial question for us. How much are brands swapping to in-house production, and will there be an actual shift in the way they do things?

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