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Paddle against the flow.

Podcast: Finding the Right Story, with Simon Baker, TCO's MD

Simon Baker, Managing Director of TCO, talks about the importance of finding the right story for each brand and create content around that, how they use commissioned talent to find and create the heart of that story and his experience of creating Gold Cannes Lions winning campaigns. Read/Listen:


Full Interview:

Hello and welcome to Movidiam podcast. Today we have Simon Baker who is the Managing Director of TCO London. Simon, welcome.

Thank you.

Simon, you've described in the past very interesting job title changes as the industry's changed. Tell us a bit about the beginning of your journey and where it all started for you.

Yes, it's funny, that. My route through the industry seems to have coincided with different changes in how people termed production and the phrasing they used. I actually started out with ITN to set up their corporate video production unit about six or seven years ago. Before that, I was at a small digital agency. At ITN I progressed from that into working across corporate and advertising, and we worked on TV commercials. And then the last few years, I've essentially been the Head of Branded Content, which is kind of the gap between corporate and advertising that we weren't really filling at the time, which is much more around YouTube strategy, online video strategy, and always-on channels. My current role is managing director at TCO. It keeps me quite close to that editorial/journalism aspect that I had at ITN, but within a niche publisher. TCO is the publisher of Little White Lies magazine and also Huck, which is a youth culture magazine that follows counterculture narratives and subcultures globally.

Very interesting. And some of the big themes that you've seen change in those roles. What are the sort of macro themes that are going on? You know, you've got camera equipment getting smaller and higher quality, but what are the other things that are going on there?

I think that the idea that it's not all about ... Definitely at TCO, it's not all about just producing content. It's about finding the right story and then deciding how best to create content around it. So for example, we don't necessarily produce all of the work we do. We're very interested in co-creation, commissioning, co-production, as well as production. And what that does is it means you can get a lot closer to the stories that you tell. We've got on-the-ground journalists and we want to get creatives who are the closest they can be to the stories to tell those stories, because it just comes across as much more credible and authentic. So it's really about having that network in place to be able to tap into. If you have that, then really, if you're close to the story, you should be able to get a more authentic, a more emotive response to what you're trying to do. That is the heart of what, I think, journalism and editorial does, a bit of marketing. It tells the story in a way that's closer to what the audience would actually want to see.

That makes a lot of sense. How big is your network at TCO?

Well, TCO is an independent publisher. Huck has been around for about 12 years, the same as Little White Lies. Over that time, just through commissioning work, they do about 10 stories a day on the website. It's just organically grown to have journalists around the world who pitch in work. It has a large repertoire of photography as well and some video content, but ultimately there's this kind of organic network that's built up. We don't really have numbers on it, it's just a loose group of people around the world who've tapped into subcultures or movements that are happening across anything from extreme sports to activism and style and food. Really, what we try and do is identify those stories that, from my perspective, can work for brands and can be told — still in an authentic way — but have a bit of a brand purpose to them as well.

Sure. And what are some examples you have of that?

A good example probably is in the last month we've had maybe four stories come through around female motorbike clubs that have been set up around the world. So, just in terms of the agency editorial team, we've looked at that and tried to explore whether there's a theme behind that.  And just working with the people who are close to these stories. It seems there's a bit of a thing around women reclaiming male past times and pursuits. We've then gone on to look at that a bit more closely; are there actually other sports, like women's rugby? There's roller derby, that we've covered — other sports that kind of are in that space. And then, we would take that as a bit of insight and learning, but with access to underground stories that we may have told within Huck — or may not have done — to our agency or brand partners to say, depending on the campaigns they're running, this might be appropriate for someone to do something around. Yeah, so that's kind of how we work proactively.

Very interesting. In terms of what you might consider cutting edge publishing, really, and the sort of clients that you work alongside and have done in the past. They're sort of top tier, FTSE 250/Fortune 500 companies, and they're aligning their content alongside yours.

Yeah, so, with the brand work, I think a natural fit for us is that we work with the Nike's and Levi's of this world, but also the ability to tell real stories in a credible way is something that is a natural fit for a publisher. Then we have brands like Microsoft and Google. More recently we're working with Destination Canada on lots of content in the UK and Germany and France. It really is less about using our platforms or our distribution, and more about using the editorial tone and the aesthetic we have producing content — whether that's video or photography or design — to really up their game in terms of content, but also to create content in a way that is more appropriate for an audience that is quite difficult to reach. So although we have our own distribution to this kind of a slightly younger creative audience, if we produce content that's right for them, we've found that it actually works on a mass market level as well; to attract a similar audience. So, some of the brands that we might work with would have... they might have an aging demographic. Essentially their consumers are getting older and they need to get fresh audience and they need a way to attract new people to the brand, and that's something where we kind of come in to help.

And I've seen the use of multiple Gold Cannes Lion winner for branded content. Tell us about those particular projects that were so heavily awarded.

I was quite lucky actually in that we were able to work on some ground breaking projects. ITN has a lot of capabilities around live advertising, which is because of the news infrastructure that they have there. But the most awarded piece of work I did was the Lego ad break, which was essentially recreating TV commercials shot for shot, frame for frame in Lego animation, in stop motion. The challenge of that wasn't necessarily just the animation. It was actually the idea that you could get that many agencies and brands to work together. It was a whole ad break, four different commercials, and we had to essentially vet which commercials were possible to make in stop motion within, I think we had three or four weeks to turn the production around, and at one point there were 16 agencies and brands involved. So it was a kind of a bit of a feat in itself. It was one of those projects that was a bit of a passion project at the time. We didn't necessarily think it was going to blow up, but it just really captured a lot of interest and it really became a bit of a ... People did call it content marketing at the time because it was essentially an advert that people would want to watch again, and the YouTube had well over a million views within a week. That's where Lego now, you know, it was about launching The Lego Movie. Lego is seen as one of those branded content success stories, where actually you're watching an hour and a half long Lego commercial when you go and see one of their films, and that was really the start of that process. So it was quite interesting to be a part of their story, their breakthrough.

Really interesting. What's coming up? What do you feel are the technologies that are going to come into your sphere of influence, sort of gazing at your crystal ball a little bit?

Yeah, I mean, I often get asked about VR, which I should probably mention. I'm not an advocate of VR particularly. When I think of VR I just think of a PR opportunity and it's not something that ... It's something that I've worked on, but I'm not quite there yet in terms of the value it brings to the brand. What I think is the opportunity is there's this movement at the moment between functional marketing and culture marketing, and what I'm seeing is a pressure for data-led cultural marketing, which is almost a contradiction. And I think the opportunity there is for this idea that... you know journalists don't go to use data to inform the story that they're going to tell to their audience. They already know what their audience wants and what the audience will engage with and what they'll get excited about, and that's why they do what they do. So I think when it comes to specific audiences, working with people from an editorial perspective, they almost can create that content that is influenced by culture, it might even play a part in culture, but they can take more control and more responsibility for getting it right.

I think it's quite an interesting point that if a client buys in to branded content as people call it, they should open themselves up to a very different way of working. So you may have a similar team involved but the editorial direction of that content should be made by people who are trusted by that audience. So for example there's a project we are just launching with JD Sports footwear chain, called Size, for high end limited edition shoes and that sort of thing. We're creating a website, a podcast, we're doing video content and we're also creating a quarterly magazine around subcultures and how they influence style. So global subcultures and their influence on style in the UK. Now, within that process, we're being trusted to decide which stories to tell and when, in terms of editorially but also within video content. It's almost like back to front. We decide the story list. The client can then select which ones they think are most on brand at that point and time. But when it comes to actually creating the content, the trust is with the editorial team, the agency editorial team, to make that content in a way that's best for the audience... And the brand really plays second step to the editorial team at that point, because any involvement that they have may water that down. That's where you get into this place where you're creating content which is masquerading as advertising — which is something that we're trying to avoid.

 All very, very interesting. I think this idea that you're community is curating... That it's sort of coming from the community, is very interesting.

Yeah, exactly. There's a film that we've worked on, pitched by one of the director's we had worked with, to emphasize the issues around teenagers up in New Castle who are racing whippets, and it's not something ... It's basically the opposite of desktop research. If you look on the Huck website where you get the magazine, you wouldn't ever really google any of the stories there because you wouldn't know what to google. With the way digital is, you've got too many options in front of you. What I love about Huck and why I'm working here as well as Little White Lies is that sort of curated content that opens your eyes to new things and people who are paddling against the flow and doing their own thing, and doing interesting things, but doing things you would never consider googling yourself or you wouldn't find elsewhere that easily. I think if brands tap into that they can actually create original content that is quite different. It has its own tone of voice to it. So that's why it's exciting, really, for me.

I agree. So we're talking about this sort of niche network, isn't it? It's a very focused thing. It's much like Movidiam actually, as a platform. We're specifically there for filmmakers to find opportunities and to have businesses such as yours discover them, because they are the right person to tell the story.

Exactly, and if they're on the ground and they're close to the story, they could have access to something that's happening that if you walked up with your own crew or an agency crew, you would never... A, you might not get the people-

You're not going to catch it.

Yeah, exactly, and it goes the same when we're doing a project and we're recording from editorial team, we're able to get access to talent. We're working with Timothy Crowley and some other big names that aren't necessarily getting involved because it's a brand deal. They're getting involved because it's something to do with Huck. It's an editorial process, and the fact that size is supporting us, and that other brands work with us is just a benefit. Because potentially, they're editorial budgets versus brand budgets; they're different. And the quality of the work does go up when we can attach, like you say, people from Movidiam — maybe directors who wouldn't necessarily be able to work just on editorial budgets, but who might have great stories to tell.

I agree. Well look, Simon, it's been a very insightful 20 minutes just chatting to you about your work at TCO London and how you see the future landscape working for brands really being effectively communicating insight for your niche communities. Thanks ever so much for your time on the Movidiam podcast today.