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The everything store: Augusto celebrates ten years of blurring lines and morphing media

Back in 2008 Leon Kirkbeck and Michelle Walshe decided to turn the back bedroom of their Te Atatu Peninsula home into Augusto. There, they plotted to bring together talent from TV production and ad agencies to make production more effective and establish a different, more multi-faceted, client-centric culture, and it's a move that's paying off. 10 years later Augusto has a 41-strong local team, a New York office and a desire to keep shaking things up. We check in with Kirkbeck and Walshe to hear how business is going, how new technology is extending its offer and what's in store overseas.

By Erin McKenzie | April 27, 2018 | news

Michelle Walshe, Leon Kirkbeck

Step into the Augusto’s City Works Depot home in the heart of Auckland’s CBD and it’s a hub of activity. It’s hard to imagine that six years ago when the team moved in (it was one of the first companies to take a lease in this now popular urban hub) there were just eight of them rattling around.

But growth was always part of the plan and as co-founder and CEO Michelle Walshe and co-founder and chief innovation officer Leon Kirkbeck blow out 10 candles, it appears they’ve stuck to the plan well.

There are 41 full-timers in the office and four in the US working on projects from TVCs to feature films and virtual reality rides – something Walshe says they could never have imagined in the early days.

And how could they? When Augusto was born, the iPhone was only a few months old, YouTube was celebrating its millionth video upload and Vimeo was only a fortnight old.

Now VR, AI and robots are all part of the conversation.

However, despite the advancements, their reasoning for starting the agency remains as relevant as ever.

Walshe says looking back, everything was really segmented. There were people who made corporate videos featuring talking heads, agencies creating brand TVCs and producers making TV for broadcast – and none of them ever mixed.

They also saw peaks and troughs in production companies, as they were at the whim of others using them for projects. They would crew up for a project and when complete, the crew would return to the freelance market.

“I thought it would be much better to have a model where we had enough business and work to keep that ‘A team’ employed the whole time,” says Kirkbeck.

So Augusto brought together talent from the television world and ad agency world to create an ad agency-video production hybrid, producing feature films, TVCs and pretty much everything in between.

​Walshe and Kirkbeck credit the team they have assembled around them for having an open mind to learn about how each other’s practice functions and figure out how they could work together. And having talent from all sides under one roof flattened the peaks and troughs of waiting for projects to come in, generating a regular income and also a different kind of culture – and cadence.

She says everyone is as equally invested in the work and there’s no time wasted having to instil that investment and brand knowledge onto an external team brought in for the project.

“It felt like there was a lot of time and money being wasted,” explains Walshe, “whereas if you keep the makers involved from the outset, by the time the editor got the footage in the suite, they already knew what it was, they’ve worked with the client before, the client knows they understood the values, and the process could just happen so much faster and cost-effectively.”

Augusto represents its content strategy and creation arm, Augusto Entertainment produces features films and television series such as Chasing Great and Everest Rescue, meanwhile Corner Store produces high volume, fast turnaround work. Tech & Innovation is its innovation hub, producing projects incorporating VR and other new technologies. 

However, in talking about the different areas of work, Kirkbeck and Walshe are careful not to strictly define their capabilities as they don’t want to limit the solutions they are able to create for clients. Looking at their client relationships, including six years with AIG and eight years with Adidas, largely centred around rugby, they’ve seen the work for each evolve over those years. 

“If we have to go out and say what we do, we are forced to say content strategy and creation – we can’t say we also, do this and this….,” says Walshe.

Over time, this has changed the way it is seen in the agency world. At first, it was a production partner. But as it continued to do more of what the agencies did and was seen as more of a threat, that agency tap has been turned off and it now largely works direct. 

Finding balance

With a variety of work under one roof, the team get a thrill out of working on quick turnaround client work alongside long-form pieces.

An example of just how fast the turnaround can be, Augusto pulled together a TVC for the Labour Party’s election campaign in less than two weeks.

The TVC announced the new tagline ‘Let’s do This’ and featured the new leader Jacinda Ardern, and is the result of two concept sessions with the final shots captured just 48 hours before the campaign went live.

On the other hand, feature films and TV series are months and years in the making – Chasing Great, the highest grossing documentary in New Zealand history, was two years start to finish.

Kirkbeck says from the pitching to the making and editing is a long process and jokes that they’re often well over it by the time the project is due to be released.

But while it will be a while before Kirkbeck and Walshe are ready to watch Chasing Great again, those storytelling skills that they master producing long-form work are being put to use in client work.

New technology

Included in that work is Mitre 10, and it’s an example of one of the biggest changes Walshe and Kirkbeck have seen in their time in the industry: brands have become broadcasters.

It’s worked with the retailer to build a content strategy and an on-demand channel for distribution. It’s home to original home improvement-themed content, some staring UK celebrity architect George Clarke.

The rationale behind it came from examining the audiences of Mitre 10’s existing YouTube content. A key realisation was that in order to inform, engage and inspire audiences to use Mitre 10 to improve their homes, lives and communities, it would require several layers of programming. It was then both Mitre 10 and August knew a channel had to be made.

The on-demand channel extends and deepens the digital experience offered by the existing Easy As YouTube content by allowing the audience to select products featured as they watch, and make use of Mitre 10’s ‘Click & Collect’ service or arrange delivery straight to their door.

Augusto’s’ belief that brands have become broadcasters was confirmed recently when Kirkbeck headed to the NAB Show, an annual trade show produced by the National Association of Broadcasters in LA.

He says it used to be about broadcast equipment – cameras, transmitters and the like – but it’s becoming more and more “prosumer”, with AI one of the big talking points and Google and Amazon, showing off their speech-to-text and text-to-speech technology.

Some of the technology that caught Kirkbeck’s eye was software that scans an entire library of footage using facial recognition to enable the user to find a particular clip. He gives the example asking it to find Graham Norton, to which it would respond by pulling out all the clips with Norton’s face.

Or, if it’s speech the user is after, the software can analyse speech to find the desired clip.

For agencies, it’s set to be a game changer.

“We have 10 years of footage, can you imagine how much we want it,” says Walshe.

And as well as benefits for production companies, the software also stands to benefit clients, particularly those who are producing content themselves. Walshe explains they will also be able to make the most of the search function and other software that works to create automatic highlight videos.

But where does that leave agencies that would typically produce this work?

For Walshe, it’s a case of adjusting to capabilities going in-house and offering content strategy to engage and entertain audiences.

She says agencies can’t ignore clients taking capabilities in-house, and says they need to work as a support mechanism, working with the internal resources to provide strategy right through to animating logos or bigger hero pieces.

And that’s not just for the external communications but for internal as well. Walshe says there’s huge pressure on internal communication departments to better engage with staff so Augusto is working on software to support communications distribution and analytics.

“A newsletter isn’t enough and they don’t have the budgets for agencies to help, so we help them with toolkits.”

Navigating the path forward

While it’s working with clients to improve their own capabilities with new technology, within Augusto’s own walls, technology is also stirring up its production.

A far cry from its starting days when the iPhone was new to the world, robots are cited as one of the changes.

More specifically, robotic camera operators and Kirkbeck gives the example of them being used to film sports. He says the technology can track the ball, and zoom in and out to capture the action – like a cameraman, minus the need to run frantically up and down the field.

And while a robot taking the job of cameramen may raise eyebrows, Kirkbeck points out that there are benefits, including provincial teams or niche sports being able to broadcast themselves where they haven’t previously been able to due to a lack of production crew in their area.

A robotic camera is just one of a number of advancements and developments happening in the industry, and for Walshe and Kirkbeck, they provide a temptation to go off on tangents. However, they've learnt to keep their eye on the prize and let that drive the technology they chose.

“There’s so much moving so fast, you can get carried away with ‘what about this or this’,” says Walshe. “The thing that helps is if you keep coming back to is ‘how can we help out clients connect with their customers’.”

And it’s a lesson that’s come from being distracted by new, shiny things in the past.

One of those was 360-degree video, which Augusto was quick to take up for an AIG campaign during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Called ‘Haka 360’, it took fans onto the field to experience the All Blacks performing the haka through an app and VR headset.

At the time, 360-degree video was a new kid on the block and the supporting technology was in beta versions so Augusto had to work to find the right software and build an app through which the audience could experience it.

By the time they were releasing the app during the World Cup, Facebook and YouTube had caught up and were supporting the playback of 360-videos. So while the campaign was a success, Augusto realised that investing in the development of technology is not a space for it to play in as it so quickly becomes readily available.

“We decided after ‘Haka 360’ we are in a much better place to partner with leading-edge technology and figure out how to use it to tell stories than develop it ourselves. It’s not a smart use of people we have in the building,” says Walshe.

Going global

It was late February last year when StopPress spoke to Augusto and received a weather update from New York. At the time, Angus McNab joined as a chief strategy and international officer to represent Augusto in the US.

It was a natural step as 30 percent of its existing work was coming from outside of New Zealand and, at the time, Walshe said it was time to “take the bull by the horns and see where it lands”.

Now, a year on, and an office has been set up for the four team members to call home alongside Kirkbeck. There, they are not only servicing US clients, they are working with New Zealand brands looking to put a footprint in the US market.

The team of strategists and contractors on the ground in the US understand the market, one of those being Kiwi Bridie Picot. Daughter of Pic Picot (founder of Pic’s Peanut Butter) and advertising strategist who most recently worked at Mother New York, she knows New York as well as Augusto’s values.

When asked if there are any lessons local brands or agencies can learn from those in the US, Kirkbeck says it’s quite the opposite as it’s more “dog eat dog” here. Those US brands could learn from this market. 

The bigger budgets at play in the US cushion the industry from the changes so disruption is happening more slowly. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the smaller budgets and markets provide little shelter.

And it’s not just the US its seeing as a place to compare to. Augusto has representatives in Hong Kong, is doing work in Australia for Adidas Australia and Adidas Singapore, as well as work in the UK.

But after 10 years of crafting capabilities locally, New Zealand will always be Augusto's engine, Kirkbeck and Walshe maintain. And while they're understandably proud of the work they've done for clients and the way they've grown the business, the thing they're most proud of it's that they're still married. 

Looking long-term, they see the team outgrowing the City Works Depot home and moving into another spot, where they will rattle about once again until the team grows again. Better save space for the robots.

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