Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Digital Sherpa

Q: Introduce us to yourself and your company.
My name is Simon Conlin. I'm a Brit living and working in Canada as a Strategist / Producer. Essentially, I like to find solutions for unique problems. I came to Canada in 2001 as a Digital Strategist, possibly the first of my kind much to the confusion of many a HR director. Now that everyone knows what a strategist does, I have changed my title and role to Digital Sherpa to differentiate myself (and to confuse HR directors).

Q: Interactive Producers come from all walks of life, they are a hybrid of talents, tell us about your background and how you got interested in digital production?
It all started, once upon a time, with playing the Atari 2600, and then I became exposed to playing (& trying to build) games in BASIC using my brother's ZX80 and ZX81 over the years. Starting of with 1k ram & 4k rom was like a gateway drug and was not long before I progressed to harder stuff like Dragon 32, Spectrum 48, Commodore 64 spectrum 128 so on and so on. I was keeping bad company by hanging out with a few of my older brother's friends who were making serious pocket money on the side by making music for games.

The second stage of the evolution of my digital addiction started when I was studying Music technology and learning midi, the history of synthesizers and sampling. I was sequencing with cubase v.1 on an Apple || which became my first exposure to a timeline. I had always enjoyed art and music and was excited about the future of the Internet when the thoughts drifted to visions of how art and music on the Internet could meld as a media. I thought about the future and realized I should investigate to see if this could be a possible career. I had young, foolish plans to set up my own Internet company at a time when a .jpg was rare, a .gif was a luxury (this was long before any rich media, music or video).

The only real serious money being made on the Internet was either building unstable applications or simply buying and selling & .com top level domains (which I thought was kinda sleazy and exploitative, nothing really to do with creativity or art). Shortly after this time, around the tail end of Future Splash, I joined a web design company (around the same time Macromedia set up an office in Berkshire, UK) and was lucky enough to see a demo of Flash and it was love at first sight. What appealed to me was that Macromedia had alliances with everyone, while everyone else were feuding. I started telling companies about how flash was going to change the face of the web as we know it. The year was 1997.

The Internet has changed a lot since then and has become everything I had imagined it to be and more. The title of "interactive producer" was never globally recognized until recently (thanks to this blog), so needless to say, I had to wear a lot of hats before becoming a producer / strategist. Some companies struggled to understand how to fully utilize me to the best of my abilities. The role of "Project Manager" to me always felt similar to asking a chef to take someone's food order.

Q: How do you stay on top of emerging technologies and keep your team informed and motivated?

For the most part, I stay on top by playing an active part in the community, quintessentially I surround myself with very talented people and I enjoy cross-pollinating energy and information between groups. I like to energize groups of people and in turn I get energized. It's something I have done since I was a kid while I watched my brother's friends make music for video games. Back then, I was a valuable part of the team despite not having the dominant skill-set.

I live by being on-line and constantly "plugged into the matrix". Today's news travels so fast with blogs and twitter and video that we've all become information junkies. I like to keep a close eye on developing areas and also attend conferences to network with old friends and to make new connections. It's hard to describe the joy of watching (from a distance) the growth of something like Flash Lite, Flex, Processing, Aviary, PV3D or the adoption rate of FLVs or a bizarre viral adoption of something like Twitter.

I find that keeping myself and my team passionate and motivated comes naturally to me, however, I have encountered many business owners who have misunderstood just how vitally important this is in our industry.

Q: What does your ideal client/project look like?
In an ideal world, the initial boardroom briefing would go something like this:

CLIENT: "So here is our is our desired goal... let us know if you need any existing assets such as video or text... please tell us how long it could take to build... here is the budget with a buffer... now go do your thing because we trust your vision and direction will get us to where we need to be ...and remember any awards that are won are to be shared with all the teams involved".

An ideal project would include working for a respected brand, or worthwhile human cause, or better still, a combination of the aforementioned. A brand with a cause / charity is most appealing to me, i.e. something that makes a small, positive change to the world we live in. Ideation and conceptualization would be given as much importance as the promotion. Production techniques would include many of the Adobe suite of tools and most likely have some special ingredients thrown in.
Ideally, a project would include some advanced CGI/motion/video assets, a social media campaign and some live event promotional elements. Thought would also be given to the end or continuation of a campaign, i.e. the "after care" or the "follow up".

Q: How do you educate your clients and set realistic expectations for a project?

At the very start of the discovery phase, I try to learn if any of the stakeholders are creative or strategic thinkers. If so, I like to include them in my thought process when it comes to overall strategy (long before the execution). If they are not creative thinkers, then alcohol and dinner helps to extract the information you need to make them feel involved with the vision. I find that trust in your expertise (if gained at the start) will carry you a long way, but also I find that passion should be shared by the stakeholders.

If a client can feel that you:

a) have a basic understanding of their business model and their needs
b) care about their product / brand / service etc.
c) have become part of their team (and on occasion vice-versa)

then chance at success and overall client satisfaction has a much higher percentage.

Each party might have a different yard stick, i.e. the VP of Marketing might think number of unique visits is success (even if those people only stay a few seconds); the Director of Digital Media might think an FWA site of the day is the most important; the CFO might be looking for a spike in revenue for that quarter, etc. So, knowing how the client is measuring and gauging success is important in setting expectations.

Education also involves showing clients current statistics and past case studies (not just my own work, but the work of their competitors). I also conduct strategic sessions, deep brainstorming and creative sessions and work with the clients to understand the legal issues or ramifications of taking a certain approach with a brand. Nothing is worse than spending weeks in production only to have the legal department shelf your project at the last minute.
Pre-planning discussions are key to overall success.

Q: What was the best project you have ever worked on?

In terms of revenue, one of the first sites I built back in 2001 eventually sold for 5M GBP back in the UK.

In terms of personal pride, building Flash in the Can (FITC) from scratch back in 2002 is the event I'm still well known for in the industry. My goal was to make it a sold-out event and to make the award show known worldwide. I achieved both of those things in my first year as the Executive Director.

As a recent, small client project, my solo production work with The National Ballet of Canada was very rewarding as it allowed me to meld traditional, classical and digital art while allowing me access to some great talent. As part of a viral video contest / campaign, I was allowed to shoot (on HD) ballerinas dancing in public places at a handful of famous Toronto landmarks and then to set the footage to Tchaikovsky music, I can safely say I have never heard of that being done before. It wasn't the largest production I have worked on, however, having full strategic, creative and production control made it the most enjoyable. The project was five times more successful than original target goal.

Q: How many projects are you comfortable producing at one given time?

Three. If I work on more than three, I find that I become flustered and rushed and this leaves clients feeling under-valued and under-appreciated.
I see projects like children and if you have too many of them, none of them get the individual attention they deserve.
I once tried to take on too many projects and felt like the man at the circus who spins the plates on wobbly sticks.That approach is a disaster waiting to happen as you can only keep the plates spinning for an amount of time before your energy or attentions wears thin.

Q: What does your dream production team look like?

My full dream team would look something like the speaker line up for Flashonthebeach mixed in with SoDA.

My business model is essentially creating teams of people for any given specific project no matter the size. I've spent my career being a talent spotter.
Ideally, I look for team players who possess all-round skills and who have plenty of industry experience. It's also important that they have a great attitude, stay cool under pressure and most importantly, contribute great ideas, passion and input to every project. All of the team members have skills in many areas and specialize in something unique.

I like to borrow a lot of analogies and transposed principals from the music entertainment and food trades when building my teams. For instance, in a band, let's say the Beatles (with the exception of Ringo), each member knows who is playing what, why, when, where and also how. The same is true in any kitchen at a top restaurant. The executive chef knows exactly when, where, how, why and what each other chef is doing when preparing the whole meal for a table of customers.

Q: How do you ensure that your client's best interests are met?
I gain a deep understanding of the client's business, customers, desired target market, etc. and also keep on top of the current climate of the industry in order to offer the client a solution based on the classical tri-dynamic equation of what is possible based on time versus money versus quality. Once I am retained, I'm available for clients around the clock, and as many producers can attest, we go to bed thinking about a project and awake pretty much the same way. Some may argue that it's not healthy to submerge yourself into your work in that manner, but as an artist, it's a natural "Altered State" (movie reference for those who get it), and for those who don't, think of something close to Jeff Goldblum in "The Fly".

However, that's just one side of business and passion and dedication can only take things so far. I try to research as much as possible beforehand and some examples might include monitoring current climate, conducting competitive intelligence and swot analysis. Another side is also to act as the custodian of the client's interactive budget, so I will also broker deals in terms of support and give advice on areas I am not involved in such as media buy or placement, SEO, SEM, etc., basically, all of those areas where a client can get gouged.

The clients interests become my interests. The project becomes an obsession to succeed because after all, it's not only time and budget at stake, but also reputation.
I think 99% of people who are in the Flash side of the business are there based on passion for the most part. I have never really encountered such loyalty to a software tool. Since working with Flash can be as equally frustrating as it is ultimately rewarding, many designers / developers would never want to see a project fail.

Q: What is your vision of what the next phase of our industry is going to look like?
Only the foolhardy could try to predict our industry. Quad- and Octo-processors are released. Wacom, M$soft surface, touch technologies suddenly see the potential in allowing digital media designers to design without a mouse or pen. Social media will continue to steadily grow, obviously, as more and more people join the surge. Mobile will eventually make it to the tip of the CEO and CMO tongues. Mass expansion in user-generated content via mobile, circa 2011; Twitter is just the tip of the iceberg (I think Facebook will attempt to buy Twitter this year, outbidding M$oft and many others while Google will set up their own version of Twitter). Flash lite will enable better mobile experiences and finally, the flood gates will open. The public will eventually demand that the carriers stop holding back on the technology. Adobe and Apple will make headway on "iFlash" as batteries become less of an issue with the final solution being a combination of mutli-interchangeable batteries (think batman utility belt), but also public places, bars, restaurants, coffee houses, etc. will allow patrons to charge as they shop. Should I be making these revelations? Sure, of course! It's not top secret, it's logical. As a consumer, you should be able to make these demands TODAY. Perhaps consumers won't have to wait too long to make these demands because once M-commerce kicks in and consumers are shopping with their phone instead of their credit cards, eventually some young bright spark at one of the major telco carriers will realize that an uncharged phone is potentially lost revenue for shopping.

Can you imagine: "this recharge is brought to you by Visa"? :)

Q: Please share a snippet of wisdom that you would like to impart on our readers.
I have nothing wise to say that won't be soon outdated. Although, I would offer, keep an eye on the past, your mind in the future, and your heart in the here and now.

I also really want to share this quote:

"Art, the end result of perception, wisdom, intelligence, discipline, hard work, passion, luck, accident, and coincidence."
(Source Unknown)

thanks for reading.

Simon is available for questions, comments, payments, sexual advances or general hate mail [at]

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